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   Chapter 23 No.23

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 14011

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

How Hungwar was slain, and the Danes became Christians

Now, on the morning following the battle, Wulnoth rose and donned his war gear, and took his shield and his axe; and he girded on the great sword which he had found amongst the ashes in ruined Lethra, and set forth for the Danish camp; and with him went the King, and many a thane, and a great following of the soldiers.

And to meet them came Guthrun and his holdas, and the Danish vikings; and a truce was proclaimed, and death pronounced upon any man of either camp who drew sword or made brawl that day.

And with Guthrun was brought Edgiva the Beautiful, guarded by the vikings, and as the prisoner of Hungwar the son of Regner Lodbrok.

And Guthrun greeted the King as one brave soldier should greet another, and he said-

"O King, thou who wast brave enough to come alone to my camp, had I found thee then, surely I had slain thee; but if thou come to-day, thou shalt be my guest, and with my own life will I defend thee."

And Alfred answered him with courteous words, and said that could they only be at peace, they might be good friends, and feast together often.

Then did Osric stand forward, and make proclamation, and say that Wulnoth the Wanderer declared Hungwar the son of Regner Lodbrok to be nithing and coward, and slayer of bound men, and torturer of women and children, and that he challenged him to battle alone, with none to help either. And this was to be the condition of the fight-that if Hungwar conquered Wulnoth, then he should have his life to keep or to take as he chose, and he should receive again the Raven Banner, and Edgiva should be his to sell or to keep. But if Wulnoth conquered, then Edgiva should be given back to freedom to do as she list, and Hungwar's life should belong to Wulnoth.

And the Danes and Saxons said ay to this, and swore to observe the conditions; and then all men drew back, and looked on breathlessly, and the two champions in their armor, and holding shield and axe, advanced and stood alone. And Wulnoth said-

"At last, Hungwar! At last we meet, and I have lived for this, these many years."

"And thou wilt rue it forever after," was the grim answer. "With this axe will I slay thee."

"Seest thou this sword, Hungwar?" laughed Wulnoth. "I picked it from the ruins of Lethra, and I have kept it for this day. It has wearied waiting for a song to sing, and thou canst guess what song that will be, and whose it will be. So now let us make an end of the matter, for speech is for women, and deeds are for men."

So they drew near, and all there wondered how this fight would go. For though Hungwar was older than Wulnoth, he had the strength of ten; and his great muscles stood up in masses upon his arms, and with his grizzled hair and flowing beard and moustache, he looked like Thor himself in his might.

And from his parted lips his teeth showed yellow and black, like fangs; and his bloodshot eyes rolled angrily; yet deep in his heart was there a black fear, for he dreaded Wulnoth more than a score of champions.

And the Wanderer looked strong and mighty, and his face was full of joy light; for was he not fighting for the freedom of his Princess, and now avenging the wrongs done to her brother, and her father, and his own father and mother?

"Art ready, Hungwar?" he asked, and Hungwar growled, "I am weary of waiting," and smote at him a mighty blow, that seemed as if nought could turn it aside.

But Wulnoth caught it on his shield; and then he struck in turn, and Hungwar caught his blow and was unharmed.

Then like circles of light did the axes swing and play, and the blows fell fast, and the shields groaned and shivered; and at last Hungwar's split in twain, though it was of stoutest oak, and lined with triple leather, and studded with massive bosses.

And when Wulnoth saw that, he swung his axe upwards with all his might, and cut clean through the handle of Hungwar's weapon, as he had cut through the handle of his mace in the long past; and then he cast aside his own axe and shield, and drew the great sword with the blue-veined steel blade; and he laughed aloud, though his breath came in deep gasps, so hard had he labored.

"Now, Hungwar, now we have finished this child's play with shield and axe; now draw thy sword and let us have a good song."

But Hungwar never answered; only he looked into Wulnoth's face with eyes of hate, which were yet eyes of fear; for he who had never feared death, now feared, not the dying, but the man by whom death was to come.

"The maiden will be freed," said the vikings to each other. "There is a shadow on the spirit of Hungwar, and the Valkyres tarry for him."

And Hungwar drew his sword and advanced, and now it was a man's game, indeed; for Hungwar's shield was broken, and Wulnoth had cast his aside, and the great blades must be sword and shield alike.

They clashed together, and the sparks flew as from a smith's anvil; and each champion strove, his eye fixed on his foe; and each knew that death was near.

"By Thor!" growled Guthrun, "'t is a mighty fight, and one that it does a man good to see. They are champions both." And to that a holda said-

"Ay, for Hungwar is fighting for life, and Wulnoth is fighting for love; and methinks that love will win."

And presently Hungwar's sword was smitten from his hand, and all looked for Wulnoth to make an end. But he cast aside his own sword, and with his bare hands he gripped his foe; and they two strained and swayed in their efforts; and Hungwar grinned in rage to think that Wulnoth was putting him to shame by thus refusing to take advantage of him; and in their struggling the berserker rage came upon him, and he bent forward and gashed Wulnoth's cheek with his fangs, crying-

"A mark for a mark, Wanderer."

"And a dog's death for a mad dog who bites," cried Wulnoth angrily; and he put out all his strength,-the strength which Osth the giant had taught him-and he squeezed and squeezed, and Hungwar gasped, and smote blindly with his fists, and his lips parted, and the foam came from them, and it was tinged with blood.

And Wulnoth squeezed yet harder, and the muscles gave, and the great bones yielded, and the ribs snapped; and Hungwar gave a gasp and became limp, so that Wulnoth cast him helpless to the earth, and knelt beside him.

"There, son of Regner!" he cried. "I have beaten thee with but my bare hands. Now dost thou yield to me and sue for life?"

"Thus do I yield," answered Hungwar; and he raised himself and he plucked a knife from his girdle where he had hidden it, though they had agreed that they would wear no daggers, and he struck a bitter blow at Wulnoth.

The Wanderer sprang back only just in time, and even so the knife left a crimson trail on his brown arm; and he seized his sword from where he had flung it down.

"I swore to slay thee with this," he cried; "and yet but now I thought to spare thee, seeing that I have shamed thee who hast bitten

like a dog and stabbed in secret like a nithing. It is thy fate, and thou shalt have it. Die, Hungwar, and go to thy brother. This is for my father and mother, and for Edgiva and Guthred, and for their father, the King of Lethra. Thus is the debt paid and the story ended." And with that he smote, and Hungwar the mighty viking lord fell back slain.

Then did Alfred speak with Guthrun and ask him whether he would yield; and Guthrun said nay, but that he would go back to his camp and make the best stand that he might.

And Edgiva the Beautiful was set free; and she thanked Guthrun for his kindness, and went back with Wulnoth and the King; while the vikings took up the body of Hungwar and buried it nigh that place, and raised a mound over it, and sang his death-song with dark and gloomy hearts.

Now, back in his camp, Guthrun thought dark thoughts, for his heart was heavy, and he saw not what to do. And the Saxon King placed men all round, so that none might come in and none might go out; and so for a fortnight did things stand, and there was no food amongst the Danes, and they tasted of the hunger which they had so often made others endure.

Each day did the Saxon King send and ask them whether they would yield to him, and each day they sent back an answer that they would not. But Alfred made no attempt to attack them, for he knew that hunger must do its work in the end.

And at the end of that fortnight Guthrun called a great meeting of all his warriors, and asked them what should be done-

"We wait in vain for aid," he said, "and this Alfred grows in power each day. Men have wearied of our cruelty and hate us for our deeds; and methinks sometimes that I hate myself for having taken part in some things that have gone. Now, what can we do? We can stay till hunger slays us-but that is not a warrior's death."

"We can go forth sword in hand and die like heroes," said one holda; and the others nodded.

"That is a hero death," Guthrun said, "but it is death, and life is sweet."

"We may not go back to the Northland with this shame tale," said another. "Landless and nameless should we then be, and all men would scoff at us."

"This England is a fair land, and plenteous," said Guthrun, "and here it would be good to stay."

"And here we cannot stay, unless it be in the death-sleep," was the reply he received.

"Softly," he replied. "Here we can abide as Alfred's thanes. If we swear obedience to him, he will give us land, and we can live in peace; and that is better than this perpetual slaying and harrying, and better than being slain."

Then the holdas were silent, and they pondered; and at last one said gravely-

"Now, Guthrun, the matter is thus. Alfred may do as thou sayest if we are Christians; but Alfred will not do so if we are worshippers of our gods. For myself," and he laughed bitterly, "I care little what gods I worship, and the gods of our land have failed us."

Now again all the holdas bent their brows and thought. And Guthrun spoke and said that long he had pondered this thing; and that he felt that the gods of the Northland were no gods, but only the creatures of sagas; but that the Lord Christ was a God indeed, who had been on earth amongst men, and had been spoken with.

And he told them how the maiden Edgiva had spoken with him concerning the matter; and how she had said that Wulnoth the Wanderer was a Christian. And he had determined to abide by the issue of the fight; and to say that did Wulnoth conquer, then the Lord Christ was the true God; and that if Hungwar conquered, that the gods of the Northland were the mightier.

"Ye know how the fight went," he said-"how Hungwar was shamed, and broken, and slain. To my mind, the Christians' God is the true God; and if Alfred will but make terms with us, and accept our service, I, for my part, am right ready to accept the faith of this land and remain here in peace."

Then rose one old graybeard of a warrior, and he spoke, leaning on his axe, and his voice was deep and full, and he said-

"What is life, O holdas? We know not. Nor know we what death is, whether it be a beginning or an end. Whence come we? We know not; nor know we whither we go, beyond the wild dreams of the ancient times. 'T is as when we sit around the welcome fire in the dark winter, and without the tempest roars. Lo, through the window a little bird comes, storm-driven and nigh perished; and for a little space it flutters in the light and warmth, and then flies out into the darkness again. So are we. For a little space we are here-we came from a darkness of which we know nothing; and presently the death-song is sung, and into the darkness we go again. Now, O holdas, if this Christian creed can tell us aught of the darkness, and make our pathway light, then I say it is a good religion, and one for men to think of; and I for one say Skoal to the Lord Christ if this be so."[11]

Long and earnestly did the Danes ponder; and finally Guthrun himself went to King Alfred, and spoke with him, saying that for a man to change his religion simply to save his life was a poor thing, and that he and his must know what they did, ere they accepted the Lord Christ for their God.

And then did the King rejoice, not only because he was glad that the Danes should become Christians, but also because it helped him from a hard problem. For, though he had conquered the Danes, he saw not how to utterly make an end of them and drive them out; and if they would stay and be his servants, then they would be of help to him indeed.

So he talked long with Guthrun, and he sent priests and learned men to converse with the holdas; and the end of the matter was that Guthrun and all his host said that they would put aside their gods, and become Christians.

And then there was rejoicing throughout the land; and on one day the host were baptized, and Wulnoth and Guthrun at the same time, and King Alfred became their godfather and sponsor; and together did they kneel and receive blessing, and swear to live to the honor of Christ the Lord.

Then did King Alfred give broad lands to the Danes; and those lands in part which were most open to attack from other invaders. East Anglia and part of Mercia did fall to their lot, and in the very place where they had carried fire and sword and slaughtered King Edmund, did Guthrun build churches and walk in God's way.

And these lands which the King gave to Guthrun, together with the land of Northumbria, became known as the Danelagh; and so it continued for many years.

And of Guthrun but little more is said; only this, that during the rest of his life he faithfully kept his promise, and never rebelled against Alfred the King, but ruled his people wisely, and was the King's liegeman and friend.

Now, this is how Wulnoth went holmgang with Hungwar the Dane, and slew him, and set Edgiva the Beautiful free; and this is how Guthrun and his host turned to the Lord Christ, and dwelt in the Danelagh.

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