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   Chapter 19 No.19

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 16103

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Of the Capturing of the Raven Banner

Now, away went Wulnoth and his companions, of whom but twenty now remained, but of that twenty not one but was a warrior indeed, proved in many a fight.

Fully armed were they, and in the best of spirits, since the Wanderer had told them that he was going to seek adventure and glory, and the man's game; and they were weary of hiding amidst the marshes, like herons in pools.

After leaving Athelney, they crossed into a dense forest; and here, in one of the glades, they came across a party of Danes, who evidently were searching for the King.

The Black Strangers were resting, and their horses grazed near by; but when they saw Wulnoth and his men they sprang up, seizing their weapons, and bidding the comrades stand and declare their business.

"Ye are nameless men it seems," the leader said sternly, "and therefore we have no desire to do ye any harm. But say, have ye heard aught of the hiding-place of this Saxon King, Alfred, for him do we search for."

"I think," began Wulnoth, then he stopped; and the leader demanded what it was that he thought.

"Well, I think that we are weary, having to walk while ye have horses," the Wanderer made reply. "Moreover, I think 't is a shame that Saxons should walk, while Danish thieves ride, especially when they ride Saxon horses which they have stolen."

"How, knave!" roared the viking leader. And Wulnoth laughed-

"I think, moreover," he went on, "that we will have those horses; and as the land will be well quit of such pirates, we will slay you, ere we go on our way. To the game, Danes! to the game! for there are blows to be dealt."

Then his own men drew their weapons, and the Danes, nothing loath, made ready also; and the leader said to Wulnoth-

"Since thou hast talked so much, I will speak a word to thee, and it shall be thy message to the storm-land."

"Speak then," laughed Wulnoth, and he raised his axe, and smote a mighty stroke, and the Dane fell stricken, as an ox falls before the flesher's blow.

And then did the fight commence, but it was not long; for Wulnoth was as a berserker now, and he smote such blows as none could withstand, so that soon the Danes were in flight, and the band had horses and casting-spears, and were speeding on their way again.

"By Thor! 't is more pleasant to ride than to walk," laughed Wulnoth, "and when it is riding on a good Saxon nag taken from a Danish thief, why, then 't is doubly enjoyable." And at that the others laughed gleefully, as they cantered on.

Green and fresh were the woods, and fair to look upon; but the eyes flashed and the brows frowned, when the band left the woods and rode across the country, and saw homestead after homestead burnt and ruined, and the bodies of the murdered ones left there for the birds and the wolves to feed upon.

It has been laid to Alfred's charge that he showed no mercy to his prisoners when he captured the crews of two warships that had been driven ashore; but in truth there was little call, or room, for mercy, for the Danes had made sure of their work, and left only revenge in the hearts of men.

And as the companions rode on in something of gloomy silence, feeling as though these sights of desolation fell iron-heavy on their hearts, suddenly from afar came the shrill shriek of a woman in pain or fear, and the sounds of strife; and Wulnoth placed a finger to his lips in warning, and galloped quietly forward in the direction of the sound, followed by his companions; and each man loosened his sword, or grasped his spear, while there came into their eyes a look, like the hungry light in the eyes of the starving wolf when he smells blood from afar.

And there they saw a cottage, with some dozen Black Strangers before it; with an old man lying dead, and his old wife panting her life away, while three of the cruel ones were placing a noose around a young man's neck, and some of the others were tying a fair maiden to a tree, to use her for a target.

The Danes halted as they heard the horses dashing forward, but little time had they to think, little time even to defend themselves.

With a shrill Saxon shout the companions were upon them, and the murderers were smitten down, not one getting away to tell the tale; and then Wulnoth sprang from his horse and lifted the poor old woman's head, while the others speedily unfastened the girl and set the youth free.

"How is this?" they asked. "What had you done to offend them?" And the young man laughed bitterly.

"What had I done?" he cried. "Know you so little of the Danes, as to think that one need do anything, for them to make excuse for murdering? Our cottage chanced to be in their way as they passed, that was enough. They needed some sport, and what better sport than burning and murdering?"

"Well, comrade, they have got sport of another kind now," laughed Wulnoth, "though I fear they have done mischief enough here; for this poor old dame is surely dying."

"Poor mother," the young man said with a sob, while the girl in silence bent over the dying woman. "Yet 't is best for her to follow father; for since these Danes have come, 't has been naught but hunger, and fear, and suffering; and now she will be at peace."

"Do you fight the Danes?"

The question was asked with terrible intensity, and the men looked at the girl as, supporting the dying woman, she glanced up-

"Ay, maiden, that is our business in life; and we hope to do a little more of it, ere long."

"Then, Garth, go you with them. Go," and the girl turned to the young man. "There is nothing for you to do here. I and others will bury these poor bodies; you, a man, need not tarry for that. Go, and let each day see a Dane slain in memory of this work. Revenge is sacred now. Go, brother."

"But you!" cried the young man to his sister. "Besides, these warriors may not care for a youth to be of their number."

"By Thor, that is wrong, lad. We will take all the strong arms we can secure, and then we could do with more. And if this maiden can care for herself for the time, then we will take you. 'T is the work every honest Saxon should be doing now."

"I can take care of myself; go you, Garth," and she looked at the lad again.

Then did the young man come near to Wulnoth, and he said in low tones-

"Stranger, who hast helped us, and slain our foes, and who art going to fight the Danes, I also have made up my mind to do that, and there are others of like mind, only we lack leaders. Now, what would you say to a hundred youths who can each shoot, and hit the clout four times out of five?"

"What would I say!" cried Wulnoth heartily, "I would say that they were worth their weight in gold at this time. Boy, there is a King who needs to have his crown placed firmly upon his head once more, and thy hundred youths with their bows, might have much to do with settling it there."

"I care less for the King than I do for revenge," was the fierce answer. "Ah! I know our good priest would have told me that was wrong. Well, they have killed him, and killed my love, and I want revenge. The hundred shall be thine, if thou wilt tarry a few hours."

"We will wait," answered Wulnoth, "and while we tarry we will aid the maiden to bury the dead. She speaks like a redesman. That is her part. Thine it is to strike blows."

The young man turned and disappeared amidst the trees; and the companions in their rude yet kindly way performed the solemn offices for the murdered man and his wife, the poor old soul having breathed her last; and then back came the lad Garth, and with him groups of stout young fellows, sturdy carls who had fled from the foe, and who, having no work now, thought but of one thing-that one thing which all Saxons throughout the land desired-revenge.

So that evening Wulnoth set forward again, with a hundred of archers in his train, and they marched till they came to a masterless band, and the leader put his men in array and prepared for battle.

But Wulnoth halted his force, and rode

alone, and gave the robber greeting, and spake to him and his men of the wrong in the land, and the need that was, and showed how his comrades were part of just such another band; and the Saxon outlaws talked together, and then threw in their lot with the Wanderer, so that now he had a hundred archers, and sixty horsemen at his back.

And into Devonshire they came; and there the stout old Ealdorman Borric came out with his men, and demanded who they were, and whither they journeyed, and Wulnoth told him that they journeyed to the coast, to watch for the coming of the foe, and oppose their landing. And at that Borric laughed grimly, and looked with bright eyes from beneath his shaggy brows.

"So thou wouldst oppose the Danes with thy handful!" he cried. "Hast any idea of how many these foes are?"

"I ought to have," answered Wulnoth coolly, "since I came over with them, serving under Hungwar." And at that the Ealdorman stared harder, and said grimly-

"That word needs explaining, my friend."

So Wulnoth told him part of his story, and how he had left the King, though he told not where the King was. And Borric smote his hands together, and he cried-

"Now thou dost shame us, Wanderer, since that is what thou callest thyself. All too slack have we been in this matter. We have sat still and let the foes come. Now I will send messengers throughout the land, and we will see what force we can gather, and we will make one fight, a good fight, and a true fight; and if we die we die, and if we drive these vile pirates off, then we will thank God for it."

"Now," thought Wulnoth, "this is strange! I set out with a score, and not knowing where another would come from; and here I am like to have an army ere long. Truly there is something in Wyborga's rede to me."

So Wulnoth and his force, and some more who joined them, pushed forward towards the coast; and the people, as they went, joined them, for they were all weary of the slaughter, and determined to make another try to shake off the Danish yoke from the neck of beautiful England.

And for days they waited, and each day brought more and more strength, and each day Wulnoth, like a wise leader, made his men exercise and keep watch; and he placed beacons all along the coast, to give warning if the foe came by night; and then, one day, as the sun rose and scattered the white sea mist, they saw coming down towards them, the long row of stately long ships; and, as Wyborga had prophesied, there floated the raven banner of Regner Lodbrok.

And at that some grew afraid, for they looked upon the banner as being of magic powers; but Wulnoth laughed and told them how he had seen it fleeing from the field, and how it was foretold that it would be captured in that very fight.

And now, in towards the shore the ships came, and the Danish leaders stood and laughed right scornfully, as they saw the Saxons drawn up to receive them; and they cried-

"Tarry there, O Saxons. Tarry till we come, for our swords are thirsty, and we lack foes to satisfy them!" And then Wulnoth answered-

"Be sure that we will tarry, son of Regner. Be sure of it, for we have journeyed long to reach here in time; and also I have a word for thee which shall be as my word to Wiglaf thy boxer, Hubba, thou nithing."

Then Hubba knew that it was the Wanderer who spoke, and he turned to Biorn Ironbeard-him who before had tried to cut the iron mace handle-and he said, grimly-

"By Odin's twelve companions, Ironbeard, yonder is that Wanderer of whom we have heard before. There will be rough play where he stands." And Ironbeard laughed with glee, and gave the word to lower the sails.

Down came the sails, and round came the ships; and from their sides rained the arrows and the casting-spears; but from the shore came others in reply, and wherever the arrow of Garth sped, there a Dane went to the storm-land on its point.

Then into the sea foam the warriors sprang, and rushed forward with shields upraised and swords bare, and the man's game began, and the wounded fell on both sides. And there strode Biorn Ironbeard clearing him a pathway with his wide-sweeping sword; and to him went Borric the Ealdorman, and Borric took a mighty mace, and he smote once, and Ironbeard staggered; and he smote twice, and Ironbeard fell on his knees; and he smote yet again, and Ironbeard fell dead.

Then did the Saxons cry in triumph, and Wulnoth shouted to the Ealdorman,-"Thou hast had thy prize, O friend, may I also have mine!"

"And that thou shalt have, if I am thy prize," shouted Hubba, and he came striding on, his banner behind him; and all the forces of the Danes, and the people of the land met, and surged around, and for the time drove them apart.

But then Wulnoth whirling an axe in either hand, as he had been taught of old by Osth the giant, dashed against the Danes, and they shrank back; for to them he looked like a wild berserker, he raged so; and he reached the place where the banner of Regner waved, and with one blow he cut down the banner bearer, and with another he smote back his champion watcher, and then he hurled one axe away, and waved the banner aloft, and cleaved himself a road through the Danes with his weapon.

And then the vikings cried to Hubba that his banner was stolen; and the son of Regner came, raging like a bear, towards Wulnoth; and so at last these two met, and Wulnoth laughed right joyously-

"Oh! greeting, greeting, Hubba. Long have I sought thee. Now, greeting!" But Hubba spake not, but he aimed a mighty blow at Wulnoth's head, and cut clean through the wing of his helm.

"A good blow, Hubba, a mighty blow," laughed Wulnoth. "Yet methinks this is better. Dost remember the mace which belonged to thy brother, and how I cut its handle in twain? Look now, Hubba, and say is this blow as good?"

Now while he spoke, three blows, mighty blows did Wulnoth turn with his shield; and then he smote, and men said that never was there such a blow, for neither shield nor mail could turn it, but the axe sped through all as if 't were but thin bark; and it fell on Hubba's side where the shoulder fits the neck, and it cut through bone and muscle, and the arm fell, and the axe went on and bit deep into the side; and Hubba fell as the oak falls before the lightning, fell at the feet of Wulnoth the Wanderer, while all the Danes cried out in dismay at what had been done.

But the people of Wessex, they pressed on cheering, for their hearts were encouraged, and they felt that the Danes were being defeated; and the fight rolled this way, and that, now towards the sea, now towards the land, and great deeds were done, and many a warrior fell.

But the Danes gave way slowly and stubbornly, and at last they were beaten, and they turned and fled back to their ships-beaten as they had never been beaten before, save at the field of Ashdune.

And they took the body of Hubba the son of Regner Lodbrok, and they sang many a death-song for him, and made lamentations, as for one of the mightiest. And they buried him in a warrior's grave, with honor, and with all his weapons; and they raised over him a heap, and set stones about, and called it after the dead Chieftain-Hubblestanes-by which name the place is still known to men.

And the people of Wessex drove the Danes from the shore, and took much plunder, and returned to their homes rejoicing. And Borric the Ealdorman went back to his stronghold, and he said to Wulnoth-

"Ye are going back to the King, O Wanderer. Now tell him that this must not stand as it has done before. Victory must be added to victory; and I will send word through all the kingdom, and gather men everywhere; and when the King is ready, we will march to meet him, and may God be for us again."

Then Wulnoth parted from Borric; and with his own company, and the archers, and the band of masterless men, he set forward to rejoin the King at Athelney.

Now, this is how Wulnoth slew Hubba, and carried the banner of Regner Lodbrok away to King Alfred.

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