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   Chapter 21 No.21

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 14571

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Of the Gleeman who visited the Danish Camp

Now, when the King left the neatherd's cottage he went back with Osric and Wulnoth to his old hiding-place at Athelney, for this was safe now, seeing that the Danes, having searched there, and having burnt the huts, were not likely to visit it again.

And here the three tarried, and talked of all that had happened, and received messages from one thane and another, telling of the number of men which he could bring.

And urgent were the prayers sent to Alfred that he would at once put himself at the head of the forces and give battle to the foe. But to these prayers the King replied that they must remain patient a little longer.

"O King, why dost thou delay?" cried Osric in wonder. "Did I not know thy hero soul, I should think 't was because thou wast afraid." And at that saying the King smiled, and made reply.

"And didst thou say so, O Osric, thou wouldst be telling but the simple truth," he said. And Osric stared and said-

"Read me thy rede, O King, for of a truth I cannot understand thy meaning; only this I know, that fear and Alfred were ever strangers."

"Yet I fear, my friend," the King answered, "for of a truth this cast has all our fortunes thrown with it; and if we fail now, we fail for good; therefore I fear to make the attempt before being certain of how best to succeed."

"A quick blow and a bold one, is ever my way," said Wulnoth. And the King shook his head.

"A good way, Wanderer, provided that thou knowest where to hit; otherwise thou mayest but smite the air, and be smitten thyself in turn, ere thou canst draw back for defence."

"What is thy counsel, O King?" asked Osric, "for what thou dost rede, that is certain to have wisdom in it."

"Now, Osric," answered the King, "but now thou didst say that didst thou not know me, thou wouldst have thought me a nithing; I say that did I not know thee, I should deem thee but a flatterer. Yet so far as my wisdom goes, thou shalt have it. These Danes have tarried here long, but here they will not surely stop, seeing that it is but a barren spot and they think that I have left it. Now, 't is my wish to find out, if possible, whither they intend to journey, or whether they will still remain nigh the place; then shall we know best where to collect our forces, and when to strike the hardest and the surest."

"But how can this information be obtained, O King? Dost thou know any of their number whom thou canst buy?"

"Nay," answered King Alfred, "I know none, and if I did, I would not make the attempt to bargain with them; for I hold it a disgraceful thing to try to make a man turn traitor; or to have dealings with one vile enough to be one. Moreover, to deal with such a one is dangerous; for the man who will betray his chief may well be expected to betray those who trust him."

"A wise word, King; but still, if we deal not with a traitor, I see no way of obtaining the knowledge which we desire."

"I have a way, O my friend, if it may be put into practice; and methinks it can. Rest but a short time, and I will put it to the test."

So spake the King, and with that the two warriors were contented, for they knew that Alfred never used vain or empty words; and so they waited patiently, until it should please him to take them into his confidence.

Now as they sat at the fire talking, they heard the sound of a harp; and looking up, they beheld a wandering gleeman standing before them with a poor and broken harp; and he struck the chords and sang, and his voice was faint and weak; yet he sang a good song of England in the days when the Danes had not come to it, and he sang of the good days that should come, when once again the land should be free; and Osric said when the song was done-

"A good song, friend, and well sung; yet methinks thou must be foolish to come and sing to us who are here, when we cannot reward you with even a meal such as a man might not be ashamed to offer to another."

"I sing to those whom I sing to," said the gleeman. "Shall I sing you another song?" and Wulnoth nodded-

"Ay, for even a song may drive away gloom, friend," he said. "Sing, if thou wilt sing without hope of reward."

"Nay, then I cannot sing, for I look for great reward," was the answer he received. "But I know that I shall obtain that reward, so now listen to my song."

Then he struck the harp again, and he sang, and Wulnoth opened his mouth in surprise, for the song was of him, and his love for Edgiva, and his finding of the Lord; and the Wanderer started up when the music ceased, and he cried-

"By that Lord Whom thou hast said that I serve, thou knowest far too much, my friend; for there are but two who knew of this, and one is by my side."

"And the other stands before thee, Wanderer," came the voice of the King. And at that the two started up bewildered-

"Alfred!" they cried. And the gleeman answered-

"Even so, my friends. Now, you two tarry here, for I am content. If ye, who know me well, fail to recognize me, there is little fear that my foes will do so."

"But where goest thou, O King?" they asked. And he answered that he was going to the camp of the Danes. But at that the two looked grave, for of a truth the danger was great, and did the King fail in deceiving the foe, there would be no more mercy for him than there had been for Edmund of East Anglia.

But the King laughed away their fears, and made them promise to abide where they were.

"If messengers come," he said, "receive the messages, and bid them go back and prepare, and within two weeks shall word come to them. Then, when once the word comes, they must hasten. They must move so swiftly that the grass bends not beneath their feet; for then will it be that we must strike a swift blow at the very heart of our foe."

"You feel that you must do this thing, O King?" asked Osric, and the King made answer that it must be done.

"By now will they have heard of the destruction of their fleet," he said, "and that of itself must needs make them come to some speedy decision; and what the decision is, I must find out."

So they had no more words to say, feeling that much was at stake; and Alfred, taking his harp, went away and set face boldly towards the camp of the Danes.

And when he got nigh, he struck his harp and began to sing, and he sang the song of the bear jarl, whose son was Beorn, and the vikings gathered round him, for they loved the gleeman's songs.

And Alfred noticed all that could be seen, and how the camp was far more badly kept than it should have been; for these Danes were so confident now, that they forgot their caution; and he sang again and again, and presently a messenger came from Guthrun, asking who it was that made music in the camp.

Then when the chief was told, he commanded that the gleeman be brought before him, and made to sing against his singers; and Alfred was taken to the hall where the holdas sat.

There was Guthrun, as hearty as ever, and there was Hungwar, and he looked fiercer and wilder than of yore; and Guthrun cried to the disguised King.

"How now, Saxon, dost value thy life so little, that thou dost come hither?"

Then Alfred answered, speaking in the tones of an old man-

"Now, chief, that is a

poor saying; for of a truth a gleeman knows no country or race, but sings of the brave wherever he finds them. Moreover, it is but natural that I should come."

"And wherefore?" demanded the chief.

"First, because I have heard of thy Danish gleemen, and I wish to hear their cunning playing; and secondly, because, Saxon or Dane, men must eat; and since thou hast left us little, to whom but thee can we come for food?"

Then did the Danes laugh loud and long, for it pleased them to hear this of their doings, seeing that if there was no food in the land, the people must soon be starved into submission, and Alfred would not be able to muster any more men; and so they bade the henchmen give the harper food, and after that they set him to play against their own men.

But Alfred was cunning; and though he was a musician far beyond the best of the Danes, he let them play the best, lest he make them envious and so be dismissed.

And that also pleased the holdas; and presently Hungwar bent forward to him, and cried fiercely-

"Little canst thou play, old man. Thou art not fit to be called a gleeman beside the singers of Denmark. Now see if thou canst sing a song of Regner Lodbrok; and if thou canst not, then by Thor thou shalt sing thine own death-song."

"That is a hard saying to hearten a man for his work, chief," answered the gleeman, "yet I will try my best."

Then he struck his harp afresh, and he sang the song of Regner Lodbrok and his slaying of the dragon; and he sang so well that all applauded him, and some pulled their massive bracelets off and cast them to him for his reward; and Hungwar himself said that the gleeman might stay in the camp and sing to the soldiers, seeing that they had little to occupy their time while they were waiting for news from the laggards who had sailed with the fleet.

Now that told Alfred that the tidings of the defeat had not yet arrived, and he was the more anxious to stay there; for he desired to learn what the chiefs would do when they heard the news.

And into the camp he went with the vikings; and not one there even dreamed that beneath the ragged clothes and feeble form the King of Wessex was hidden. And Alfred saw the whole camp, and heard the talk of the vikings; and sometimes he sat in the lower part of the hall while the soldiers feasted, and he heard the chiefs talking of their plans.

And the fourth day while he thus sat, there came a horseman, all spent with his journey and covered with dust; and when he entered the hall, he cried aloud, without even giving greeting-

"Evil tidings, chiefs, are mine to tell. Evil and black tidings. The fleet is destroyed, and the warriors are slain, and the banner of Regner Lodbrok is taken."

Then a great hush fell on all there; and men looked from one to another in dismay; for worse to them than the loss of the fleet, was the loss of the banner, which they supposed had been blest by the gods, and which always led them to victory.

And then did Hungwar start up and cry aloud-

"Now evil was it that I suffered the banner to go with Hubba my brother; and if he recover it not again, then we twain will have a word to say and a deed to do together when we meet."

"Speak no evil of Hubba," answered the messenger. "For him the death-song has been sung; and he died as a hero should die; and also Biorn Ironside has gone to the storm-land with him."

"Hubba dead and Biorn dead," said Guthrun. "Now truly thy tidings are heavy."

"Think not of them. Not of the dead, but of the banner, must we think," cried Hungwar fiercely. "Blood, and much blood, must flow for this. Who led the foe, man? Not this King of Wessex, whom we have hunted for, and who has disappeared as though the earth had swallowed him?"

"Two jarls led the foe," the man answered, "and mighty warriors both. One Borric, an Ealdorman of the south-"

"Borric shall die," cried Hungwar. "Who the other?"

"A mighty man whom men call the Wanderer. He who once was in thy service. He struck down thy brother, and he took the banner away."

Then did Hungwar turn pale for the moment, for he thought that this was the work of the evil spirits helping Wulnoth; and he cried madly, gnashing his teeth, and clenching his fists-

"Evil, evil, upon him, and evil the day when I saw him before me and suffered him to live. Guthrun, we must march. We must pursue this man, and take the banner back. Not a girl in Denmark but would scorn us for nithings, did we return without it, and without having avenged the slight done to it."

"In that I am with thee, Hungwar," replied Guthrun. "But march whither? We must know where the man is before we can pursue him."

"I will burn down every dwelling, I will slay every living soul, till I find him," answered Hungwar; "and for this Wanderer, no jarl he, but a thrall; and when I catch him, he shall die the most terrible death that I can think of."

"Now, not so," said Guthrun firmly. "Thou art angry, Hungwar, and no wonder, and for that reason thou speakest thus. Be the man jarl or thrall, he is a hero and a warrior, and must be treated as such. A hero, be he of the foe even, deserves a hero's death."

"Wait thou and see," answered Hungwar fiercely. "Oh! I would that I might have him face to face alone! I would repay all then."

"We must send messengers and recall all the bands," Guthrun said. "We must foray, and secure plenty of provisions. For a week or a fortnight we must tarry here, and make preparations; and then we will advance, and put the matter to the test, and everywhere proclaim that until the banner of Regner is delivered to us again, we will harry the country far and wide."

At this all the vikings shouted; and drawing their swords waved them in the air. Yet the spirits of the Danes were cast down, and they were as men bewildered; and Guthrun himself, when he was alone, sat with clouded brow, and pondered, and his thoughts were strange thoughts-

For Guthrun had heard the story of the White Christ; and now he wondered, seeing that Odin's Raven was captured, and Odin had not smitten the men who had carried it away, whether, after all, the Saxon God was not stronger than the gods of the Northland.

Guthrun had not forgotten the slaying of Edmund the King, and the thoughts which that brought to him often troubled him. Presently Guthrun was to do as Wulnoth had done, and acknowledge that the Lord was of all lords the chief.

And that night the Saxon gleeman was missing from the camp of the Danes; and when none could find him, the rumor went abroad that he had been no gleeman, but a spy amongst them; and that did but trouble them the more.

And not long afterwards Alfred the King was back with Wulnoth and Osric, and to them he said-

"Now has the time come, my friends, and the foe are dismayed by reason of the loss of their ships! Hasten, both, and send others on; and through the land let the summons go that all who love me, and would strike for freedom, shall hasten hither without delay. Hasten, for all now depends upon our being ready to smite our enemy ere they have time to decide what they will do."

Now, this is how King Alfred spied out the Danish camp, and how he sent Wulnoth and Osric to summon his forces to his aid.

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