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   Chapter 22 No.22

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 16315

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The Battle of Ethandune

Fast and hard did Wulnoth and Osric ride on the King's bidding; and as they went, they sent other trusty messengers on in different directions; and ere long the people began to come, every man with his weapons, and most of them warriors hardened in many a hard-fought battle; and all hailed the King with joy, and looked forward eagerly to meeting their foes on the field of slaughter once more.

And there came Abbot Hugoline-for Bishop Eadred had gone north to seek to bring the men of Mercia and those of Northumbria to combine with Wessex.

And each day did they in the King's camp gather, and unite in praying to God for victory; while the King proclaimed that only those who were good men and true, and faithful to the Church, should remain; for he said that 't were better to fight with a few upon whom they might look for God's blessing, than with many who could only expect His anger.

And the first care of the King was to make entrenchments great and strong around his old camping ground at Athelney; for to this spot he saw he would have to retreat did the fortune of war go against him; and this time it would have to be with all his force, since if once the army disbanded, it would be gathered no more.

Here, too, he gathered great store of food and weapons, and gave the command to one of his thanes and to a small body of hardened warriors. "This stronghold must be kept at all costs," he said, "for not only will it be our retreat in case of need, but while it is held, the Danes will fear to move far. They know not how many or how few are here. If they come against it, then will I and the army fall upon them from their rear; and if they abide and await us, then can those here sally out and help us when we meet them in the field."

Longer did it take the King than he had thought, to complete this work; yet, as if to aid him, the Danes still remained in their camp, for they were uncertain, and their counsels were divided.

Then, Athelney being strengthened, King Alfred, with whom now were all the men of Somerset, marched northward and encamped at Egbert's Stone, which was on the borders of Selwood Forest, which they of Wales called coit mawr, or the great forest. And here with great rejoicing, and with prayer, the King's banner was once more unfurled; and once more he found himself at the head of a force which was equal to that of their cruel foe; while each day more men came hastening to join him; and all over the Westland the tidings flew, and men threw aside their work, and seized their war gear, and refeathered their arrows, and set out to go to the King's aid.

And all old quarrels were forgotten; and they who had been foes became friends, and each stood for all, and all for each, as Englishmen should; and the King saw that the cause which had weakened the English in the past was now removed, and his heart beat high with hope and joy.

Then, when all the forces were collected, for two days did the King tarry at Egbert's Stone, and made preparation for the march and the fight; and hither came the Queen and Osburga; and with them Edgiva the Beautiful, so that for a brief space Wulnoth was with his love again.

And he took her little hands in his strong palms, and he gazed into her beautiful face, and told her how he also had found the White Christ, and how he understood Wyborga's thorn-crowned cross at last.

"Not yet has the Abbot baptized me," he said, "but when this fight is over, that will be done; and then, my Princess, the King having his crown secure, must I set forth on my wanderings once more, and seek for thy noble brother, my friend and Prince."

And to that Edgiva answered gently-

"The Lord guide thee, my Wulnoth, as He has guided thee to the light, and when thy task is over, then be sure that be thou thrall or be thou thane, Edgiva will give thee thy reward, and be joyful in the doing of it."

Little time was there for love speaking now, for all was hurry; and the royal ladies having retired with their train, the King gave orders on the morning of the third day, and the army marched eastward, and encamped that night on a lofty hill, from the slopes of which they could see afar the camp of the Danes.

For Guthrun and Hungwar, alarmed at the tidings they received of how the King of the West Saxons was advancing against them with a host, had hastily broken their old camp and advanced to meet him, travelling swiftly so that they might be beyond the reach of those left at Athelney; and now they were encamped in a strong place, with earthworks thrown up, to which they might retire if the fight went against them, and there hold out till more came to rescue them.

So the night through, the forces remained; and in the Danish camp was heard the sound of wild revelry, but in the Saxon army the voice of prayer; and in the morning the King advanced to a place called Ethandune, and there the Danes came to meet him, now, alas! with no raven banner floating over them.

Woe, woe, for the Danes! Woe for the daughters of Regner Lodbrok who had woven that banner in a single night! Woe to the sons of the Northland, for great was to be the slaughter that day.

And the King drew up his army in battle array, and he sat his steed, and spoke to them, and urged them to be of good courage and each one play a man's part.

"My dear subjects and fellow countrymen," he said, "this day is a day big with fate, and England calls to each of her sons to be a hero. Yonder are the Black Strangers who would trample out the church of the Lord, and put the priests and the holy maidens to shame and death. Yonder are the murderers of little children and gray-heads, yonder the spoilers of your homes. Is it not said that they who slay with the sword shall by the sword be slain? Ye are as the arm of the Lord this day. Up and smite them, and may His blessing be on our fair England, on this day of battle."

Then did the battle begin; and the Saxon archers stood forward, and shot thick and fast, and their bows were like the bow of Einar Tamberskelver who fought with King Olaf in his last fight, and their arrows like the bite of serpents, so that the Danes fell fast, and cried to their leaders to hasten forward, that they might get at the Saxons with sword and axe.

And then, as the Danes began to charge, the archers stepped back, and the spears of the champions were hurled, and the Danes were smitten again, for the Saxons could cast as well as they could shoot, and there were men of the Britons with the King also, who could cast right hand or left.

Thus it was that ere the Black Strangers reached the King's lines, the death-song had been sung for many a viking warrior; for there were thoughts of wrongs received, and vengeance desired, which made the Saxon arm strong, and sent the spears like the lightning stroke, piercing armor and shields.

And then the war game and the man's game began in good earnest, and the King cried to his army to go forward down the slope on which they stood, and meet the charge; and the war-horns sounded, and the English war-cry rolled to the air, affrighting even the eagles who came to the slaughter; and rank met rank, and the thirsty land drank deep its fill of red blood.

Now Guthrun had taken the old Danish plan of forming his men wedge-shaped, and seeking to drive them into the heart of the Saxon ranks, and to cast them into disorder. But Wulnoth knew of that plan, for he had so fought himself in the old days; and he had spoken to the King of a way to thwart it, and turn it to account-and thus did he and Osric, one on either side.

Each had a chosen band, and each formed his men into the wedge, and at the point of either wedge was Osric and Wulnoth, one at each. They stood back hidden by the host, until Guthrun's warriors made their attack, and then they thundered out one on either side, and they smote the Danish wedge, and pierced it through and through, and broke the ranks and scattered the warriors, and gave them as prey to the sword and the axe; and there was no mercy asked, and no mercy given, for Dane and Saxon were alike minded to

make an end of the matter.

Woe for the Danes that day, for many of their mightiest leaders were slain, and sore Guthrun longed for the strong Hubba and the wise Ironbeard, and for Halfdane the Fierce, who had gone northward.

Yet heroes were the holdas, and valiant deeds did they do; and many a good Saxon fell, and his bones are still far beneath the green fields which now grow o'er that field of slaughter.

Here raged Hungwar like a berserker, and ever towards him did Wulnoth strive, and ever did it seem as if some invisible power kept them sundered.

And there fought Guthrun, his eyes flashing, his teeth gnashing, wielding his man-feller, a great iron mace fully twenty pounds' weight, beneath whose blows the stoutest helm cracked like a nutshell, and the strongest fell as the ox falls in the shambles.

And there, too, was a young holda, Hastings by name, who in after years spread fire and sword through the land; and grim old Harold Blackfang, and Forkbeard the One-eyed, and many a mighty one who played the man's game with fierce joy, and piled the slain high along his path.

But the Saxons were mighty also, and the King was where the battle was thickest, and with him Osric, and Ethelred, and Borric, and Abbot Hugoline clad in war gear and doing his part like a man and hero; and with them many a noble thane, and many a sethcundman; and each did mighty deeds that day, and made the sword sing a good song, and drove the vikings before them like sheep.

For the Danes had grown over-confident, and had given their time to the wine horn, and had neglected their war tools in peace time; and now, instead of shrieking women and fleeing churls, they had men burning with the memories of many wrongs endured, and determined to wipe the stain of the invader from English ground.

Backward and forward did the fight sway, and none would yield; and the leaders called to encourage their men, and plunged into the peril heedlessly; and so, for two long hours did the war game go, and then, sullenly but surely, the Danes were driven back, and the Saxons pressed on with shouts of victory, while thousands lay there gasping their life away, or still in the death-sleep.

And now again did Wulnoth rage like a lion; and he shouted to Hungwar to stay and meet him face to face; but Hungwar only glared at him, and slew those near, showing his teeth like an old she-bear when she stands over her cub.

"Press on, press on," cried the King. "The victory is ours. One more good stroke, a strong stroke, and they flee. Press on, my men, for our dear Lord, and for England."

Then, led by the King himself, and by Hugoline, the Saxons charged, and the Danes broke and fled, though Guthrun cried aloud and beat his breast in his grief; and though Hungwar smote down his own men, when they turned their backs to the foe.

But there was no staying them, for their hearts were gone, and they said that now the Raven Banner was gone, Odin fought for them no more; and so, pursued by the victorious Saxons, they, who had never fled, now ran like the flock before the sheep-dogs; and the leaders and the holdas were borne along with them, grief torturing their hearts, and shame on their faces; and thus they were chased even to their very camp; and then King Alfred gave the signal and ordered the pursuit to cease, for he saw that there was danger, and that the soldiers might fall into a trap did they go on.

And outside the camp Wulnoth stood, his axe on his shoulder, all jagged and notched, and covered with a dreadful hue; and he cried aloud to the fleeing Danes, and said-

"Ho! sons of Odin, why flee ye so swiftly? Tell ye that one desires to speak with the son of Regner. Long this day have I sought him, yet with no avail; and now I would meet him and give him greeting, and send him on that journey on which I have sent his brother, Hubba."

So he shouted, and the vikings hung their heads, and muttered that it was shame that the son of Regner did not go out and meet this champion; but Hungwar heeded not, and only said that he could wound Wulnoth more surely in another way.

And on the steep mounds he stood, and answered, and called Wulnoth the shameless son of a thrall.

"See, thou Wanderer, what a dainty prize I have here!" he cried. "I sold the brother into slavery; and the sister shall be my maiden now." And then, to Wulnoth's dismayed eyes, there appeared Edgiva, held by two rude vikings.

He uttered a loud cry of dismay and rage, and would have started forward; but Edgiva held out her hands and called to him, and said-

"Fear nothing, Wulnoth, my love. The Lord Who has given victory to the King, will preserve me. Go back now and tell the King that the Queen and the noble Osburga are safe, and Wyborga is unharmed. Only I was taken, for I was hastening to the field of slaughter, to see if I might be of service in tending the wounded; and I fell in with a band of the enemy, who seized me and brought me hither. Yet Guthrun will not let this man slay me."

"How will Guthrun prevent me?" roared Hungwar fiercely. And to that Guthrun himself answered-

"I will prevent thee with my life; for of a truth this is but a nithing thing to do. There shall no harm come to the lady." Then he added in low tones, "Thou fool, seest thou not that if we do this wrong, nothing can save our lives? and if I must die, it shall not be with this nithing thing against my name!"

And then Wulnoth spoke again and he said-

"Hearken to me, Guthrun, you who once called me a true man; and you, all ye vikings and holdas of Denmark. 'T is true I am a thrall, in so far as my father was called thrall by the false son of noble Cerdic. But of Cerdic's blood am I also; and that is as high as the blood of Regner Lodbrok. Now, this is my word. Alfred the King of Wessex has told me how Hungwar boasted that he wished he could meet me face to face, we two alone; for Alfred was that Saxon gleeman, O Guthrun."

"By my beard, 't is good for him we knew it not, or he would not have beaten us to-day, Wanderer," replied Guthrun. "But go on, say thou what thou hast to say."

"This I say then," Wulnoth continued. "Hungwar desired to see me; and, moreover, he has many debts to pay to me. That scar on his face I put there, I a boy, and with only a broken sword, when he was clad in war-gear and fully armed. Ay, and I had surely made an end of him then, had not the viking Wahrmund struck me down. I have taken his father's banner, I have slain his brother Hubba, surely he owes me a debt-"

"He does, indeed," cried the vikings who listened.

"And I will give him chance of paying me in full," Wulnoth said. "To-morrow I will come and meet him, he and I alone; and some from your camp and some from ours shall abide, to witness the fight. If he make an end of me, well-then must Edgiva mourn; but if I make an end of him, then my word is, let the maid be delivered up to me as my prize, for mine she is, and none but a nithing would have stolen her."

"Now," cried Guthrun, "this must be, Hungwar. Thou hast heard his speech, and if thou dost refuse, not a warrior but will call thee nithing, and thy own people will cast thee out. Surely the thing must be, Hungwar."

"The thing must be!" cried the vikings, and Hungwar glared and laughed. "I ask nothing better," he said. "To-morrow, boaster, I will slay thee."

"To-morrow we will see who has been boasting," answered Wulnoth. "Guthrun, thou art noble of heart, though thou art our foe. To thee I trust Edgiva my beloved."

"She shall suffer no harm while I live," answered Guthrun; and Wulnoth waved his hand and departed, and went back to tell the King how Edgiva was held prisoner. And Guthrun took Edgiva and gave her into charge of his wife, and set a guard at the door of her tent, and so kept he his word to Wulnoth.

Now, this is how the host of the Danes were defeated at Ethandune, and how the field of slaughter was left to the Saxons, and this is how Edgiva was seen by Wulnoth in the Danish camp, and how Wulnoth challenged Hungwar to holmgang with him, and Guthrun promised to protect Edgiva the Beautiful.

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