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   Chapter 20 No.20

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 14563

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

Of the Hunting of the Ring

Now, after that Wulnoth and his companions had set forth on their journey into Devonshire, the Danes, who were led by Guthrun and Hungwar, began to press on, spreading over the whole face of the country, searching for King Alfred, whom they were determined to capture and put to death.

At first, hidden away amidst the marshes of Athelney, he was fairly safe; but bit by bit the forces drew nearer and surrounded the whole place; and they who tarried with the King knew not what to do, for they liked not to leave their monarch and seek their own safety, and yet they saw that did they tarry long, so large a band would be certain to draw the attention of their foe to their retreat.

More than that, it became increasingly difficult for them to obtain supplies of food without being discovered, and so their hearts sank within them, and they felt that the battle was lost, and that the cause of their Lord would fall and the pagan worship of the Norse gods be established.

And Alfred the King pondered over this, for he also saw these things, and he knew that his few were trusty and loyal, and would sooner perish with him than desert him in his hour of need.

So he called a council of his most wise and devoted thanes, and to that council came also Osburga his mother; and there, in the dreary and deserted marshland, they sat round their fire and talked of what should best be done.

"The Danes are as the leaves," they said, "and for one killed many come. Who can deliver us from them?"

Then said Abbot Hugoline, and he spoke in calm tones, as a man who had faith in that which he said-

"O thanes, and you our royal Alfred, let us not be downcast; for if no earthly power can aid us, still God is able to deliver us from the Danes, as he delivered his servant Daniel from the lions, and the three Hebrew children from the raging fiery furnace."

"Thou art right, Abbot," answered the King, "and while we have him to look to, we will not despair. Now this is my rede-Here together we cannot tarry, since our numbers will betray us, and our foe is too powerful for us to stand against. We must separate-"

"Nay, now nay, O King," they cried. "We will not leave you."

"Now hear me," answered the King. "If I never more might have need of you, I might say tarry here and let us make an end of our misfortunes and die as men should. But I do need you-I shall need you to fight with me for this our country and for our faith. For a little while the clouds darken our sky, but presently the time will come, and we shall need all the aid we can obtain."

"The Wanderer and his men have deserted us," murmured some; but the King answered that Wulnoth had done what he wished all to do; he had gone to gather men, and prepare for the time when they might take the field again.

"This is what ye must all do," he said, "disperse, and go each his own way; and to all true men give greeting, and bid them prepare weapons and hide them away, and be ready to hasten to our standard when the summons shall come."

"Now the King's word is a wise word," said old Osburga, and all there listened with reverence to her words, not only because she was the King's mother, but because she was wise. "Let his commands be obeyed, and let us part one from another."

"But, noble lady, what of you and the Queen and the noble maidens who have shared our trials and wanderings?" asked Osric. And the King said-

"Of that I have thought. My mother and my wife, and the ladies with them, must journey with the Abbot here to a retreat of which he knows, where they will be safe. 'T is not far hence; and if need be I can communicate with them."

So, though it grieved the hearts of them all, and seemed like the giving up of their defence, the Saxons said that the King's word must be obeyed; and in stern sorrow they prepared to depart, each with his few followers going his own way; all save Osric, who tarried with the King as his companion.

"Now shall we be safer," said the King, "two can live securely where a score would be in peril. Farewell, dear friends, and lose not heart nor faith."

So the King embraced his wife, and received his mother's blessing, and clasped hands with his friends; and then, when the mists of the evening stole over the land, they all departed, each taking his own way through the marshlands, and leaving the King and Osric alone.

And that the King's word was a wise word was proved; for the next day came bands of Danes, and the King and Osric were hidden in the marsh, lying in the mud and covered with the rushes; and they watched the foe come to the place where they had tarried, and make search, and give the huts to the fire, and then go away angry and disappointed; for they had no thought that the King had taken warning and fled.

And Hungwar and Guthrun were told; and loud did they curse in their fury, and they ordered that bands should go in every direction, and search night and day, giving orders to all the Saxon churls that remained that if they saw the King they were to seize him and deliver him up, else otherwise they should be put to the torture, and their wives and children sold into slavery, and their roofs given to the flames.

Little did Guthrun and his companion know the stout hearts of the West Saxons; for those very threats only made the churls sullenly defiant, and determined that in no case would they betray their King, did they chance to meet with him.

Moreover, the Saxons learnt that the retreat at Athelney had been betrayed by a knave; and him they caught and hanged on a tree, and thus did they pay him for taking Danish gold and betraying Alfred the King.

Now, for many days did Alfred and Osric wander; and the King was hunted hither and thither like a beast of the forest, and often compelled to flee; and his illness pressed sore upon him, yet his courage was undaunted, and his faith clear; and often when he lay alone with Osric in the fens, he would discourse with him concerning the fleet he was determined to build when the Danes were conquered and England free again.

"Thou art sure that England shall be free again, O King?" Osric said. And the King replied, "As certain as I am that the sun will rise to-morrow."

And thus did the King fare all the days that Wulnoth was away; and only twice did he manage to see his wife and mother for a short space; but he heard by faithful messengers how his companions prospered in their work, and how all over the land the Saxons were saying that if the King would only come forth from his hiding and lead them, they would risk striking another blow at the foe beneath whose cruel rule the land groaned.

But the King still tarried for a little, for he wanted his friends to gather all they could; and he desired that the Danes should grow over-confident, thinking that all opposition was gone, and thus relax their vigilance.

And it chanced that one day Alfred the King came to a rude hut hidden away in a desolate place, where dwelt a poor neatherd, alas now with but few cattle to attend, and those he had to hide away in the middle of the marshland, else they had surely been stolen by the enemy.

"Now, Osric, my friend," said Alfred, "I must to-day receive tidings from Hugol

ine. Go thou and glean them, and I will abide here. I will seek shelter with these good people, and tarry for your return."

"Will they not betray you?" asked Osric, for he knew of the Danes' words to the peasants. But the King smiled and answered-

"Who would know in this poor way-worn wanderer the King of Wessex? My very misery makes me safe, friend. Go, and rest satisfied that I may tarry here in security."

So Osric went; and Alfred approached the cottage and knocked with his staff, and then, waiting, he heard sounds of strife within, and a woman railing at some one, and he said to himself-

"We have a shrewish tongue here, a weapon that the bravest man may well fear."

Then the door opened, and a man looking somewhat flurried, appeared, and asked what he might want.

"I beg for a shelter and a little food," said the King. And then a woman appeared, and cried shrilly that they had little enough for themselves, and that they had no wish to bestow that on thriftless wanderers who were doubtless too lazy to work for their living.

"Turn him away, goodman," she said to her husband. "Turn him away, and let him taste thy cudgel."

Now the man looked as though he would have liked to admit the King; and as Alfred was turning to go, he touched him slyly, and, thrusting his tongue into his cheek, he said aloud-

"Yes, indeed, get you gone, rogue. Dost think that we will harbor such as thou art? Most like thou hast been serving with the King; and the Danes have ordered us to give no aid to any such."

And then he received a sounding smack on his cheek; and his wife, her eyes flashing with anger, cried-

"Now out on thee for a nithing! Shall we indeed be ordered about by the Danes? I would I had them here, I would trounce them with my besom handle. Art thou going to turn one of our own countrymen from the door because the Danes ordered it, forsooth? Thou hadst better do as a true man should, and hasten to find the King, and offer him thy service. There, get to thy work; tending cattle is all thou art fit for; and as for thee, stranger, come in and tarry; and not all the Danes in the land shall direct what I am to do."

"'T was the only way to get over her," whispered the man, with a grin. "Nay, never mind for the clout I received, I am pretty used to her hand. Well, thou hast got to stay with her to-day, and not I, and her temper is waspish-the Lord save thee from her tongue, and grant she may be better tempered when I return this evening."

So Alfred went in, and the woman snapped out, as if half repenting of her kindness, that he must make himself useful and bring her in kindlings.

This Alfred did right willingly; and the woman having mended her fire, set her rude loaves to bake before the embers.

"Now you can tarry and watch that they burn not," she said, "and turn them as they need it; for I have my work to think of."

"You may trust them to me, good dame," the King said. "'T is meet that he who eats of the bread should aid in its preparing."

Then the woman went out, and the King sat there, and for a while he thought of the bread; but presently he began to think of his unhappy kingdom, and of how the Danes were crushing it, and to ponder upon the best way to vanquish the foe.

He thought of all the places where battle might be most advantageously given, and he began, in thought, to fight his battles, until a strange smell assailed his nostrils; and he started up to see that the loaves, which he had so solemnly promised to watch, were all scorched and blackened.

And then the dame, also smelling the burnt bread, came running in; and if ever a woman scolded, that woman did, calling the King lazy, and idle, and good for nothing, and saying that all men were alike; for whether they be Saxon or Dane, of old time or of new, when goodwives are angry, they scold and call men good for nothing.

And the King took it meekly, for indeed he was sorry that he had broken his word, and yet he could not tell her how it chanced. Indeed he felt that even if he could have done that, it would have been no excuse; for having given his word, he ought to have kept it, and not have suffered his thoughts to wander.

And the woman in her anger seized her stick and struck the King; and just at that moment the door opened, and in came Wulnoth and Osric; for Osric had met Wulnoth as he returned, and the Wanderer was searching for the King; and together they had come on.

And Wulnoth gave a cry of surprise, and grabbed hold of the woman, who turned her anger on him, crying out that she knew they were all robbers, but that some of them should have broken heads ere they robbed her.

"Tush, woman, no robbers we," said Wulnoth, as he grabbed her hands, for she had scratched his face with her nails. "Come, dame, what woman art thou to strike thy King?"

"The King!" cried the woman in dismay; and then she fell on her knees and cried for pardon; ending by saying that, King or not, he had no right to let her bread burn when he had promised to mind it.

"That for the bread," began Wulnoth, but the King stopped him-

"Nay, nay, Wanderer, 't is I who am to blame, and I deserved all the scolding which I have received. Dame, I crave your pardon; rise and look not so dismayed; and if ever the sun shines in this poor land again, thou shalt not be sorry for having let the King sit by thy hearth, even if he has spoilt thy loaves."

Then did the King turn to Wulnoth and ask him where he had been, and what had been his fortune, and what it was he carried. And Wulnoth laughed and answered-

"A present for thee, O King. Say how thou dost like it," and he unrolled the great raven banner which he had captured, and told the King of how the Danes were routed, and how Borric was busy gathering all the men of Devon to come to his aid.

And Osric had good tidings also, that they of Somerset and Dorset and Hampshire (that is how we call the places now-of course in those days the names were different) were all ready to come when he summoned them; and all were eager to have another cast at their foe, and to strike for freedom and the Lord's faith.

And then did Alfred the King kneel down and the tears ran down his cheeks, and he thanked God for His goodness and mercy, and offered praise to Him for His greatness and majesty.

And Wulnoth looked and listened; and then a great feeling came to him that the King's God was the true God, and that the Lord Christ was the real Lord, and that he was a sinner who needed the pardon of which he had heard; and he knelt down, he who had knelt to no God before, and he said-

"O King, I seem to see dimly, as one who looks at the sun. I have found the mightiest and greatest, and he is the White Christ, and Him will I love and serve, and be his man."

And the King looked up and smiled, and he said-

"Now truly do I rejoice, Wanderer. I have found hope anew, and courage; and shall perchance find my crown and kingdom; but thou hast found a better thing-a crown and a kingdom that shall forever endure."

Now, this is how the King wandered as an outcast, and this is how the loaves were burnt, and this is how Wulnoth brought the banner to the King, and how he found the mightiest and the bravest of all.

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