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   Chapter 24 No.24

Wulnoth the Wanderer By Herbert Escott-Inman Characters: 17925

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

How Wulnoth met with Guthred again

Now, after these things Wulnoth pondered long in his mind, for he was anxious to set out again to seek Prince Guthred if still he might be alive, and yet he knew not where, in all the wide world, he should seek.

Nor could Wyborga help him, for now she was very old and feeble, and she lived in one of the holy houses, and rarely saw strangers.

But once Wulnoth saw her and asked her whither he should go; and Wyborga told him to wait patiently and to take the first duty that should come, and then the way should be revealed to him.

"Indeed, my Princess and sweet love," Wulnoth said to Edgiva when they talked of this thing, "I am rather tried about this matter. In the past thy brother put this promise upon me and I gave it right willingly; but here from boyhood to manhood have I grown, and I do not even know if he may be alive. I am minded sometimes to give up this, and to take the joy which thou dost hold out to me, if still a royal princess will marry one who is nameless."

"Now, nameless!" laughed Edgiva proudly. "Whose name is better known than that of Wulnoth; and has not the King given thee broad lands for thine own?"

"And I am going wandering again, and leaving them for any to do as they like with."

"Nay, thou hast friends in plenty, who will look to thy possessions if thou art away. My rede is this, Wulnoth; wait till the next duty comes, as Wyborga has counselled thee, and then, if nothing comes of it, I will say that thou hast searched faithfully, and that thou canst, without shame, rest from thy labors, as from a hopeless task."

"So be it, dear love," Wulnoth answered. "Thou hast never counselled me wrongly yet, and by thy rede will I abide."

Now, not long after this the King sent to call Wulnoth to his side, and he spake to him and said-

"Now, Wulnoth, my faithful friend, I have a task for thee." And Wulnoth said gleefully-

"That is good hearing, King, for a man grows rusty quickly if he be not at work."

"Little fear of Wulnoth growing rusty," laughed the King, "for he is forever anxious to be doing. But listen, friend. This is the burden of it. Thou knowest that in Northumbria there have ever been troubles, for the people there quarrel amongst themselves, Northumbrians and Danes together. Now of late, Halfdane-ah! thou knowest him?"

"Right well, King," answered Wulnoth grimly. "Well, what of him?"

"This Halfdane gained all power in Northumbria, and he and his barbarians ruled as with rods of iron. Now tidings have come that Halfdane is dead."

"Dead!" cried Wulnoth. "So much the worse! I thought perchance that it was to slay him thou wouldst have me go."

"What a warrior art thou, Wulnoth! thou wouldst go against a host and laugh at it! Nay, Halfdane is dead-slain by one of his own holdas in a drunken brawl. Now the people of Northumbria are divided and have no leader. The Danes have none they can place at their head without endless quarrels following, and the Northumbrians have no king either. Now, this is my desire, that thou speed north to Bishop Eadred, and urge him to seek for a chieftain to be their king-one who will be of the Christian faith, and who will be true to me so that I have no cause to fear war in the north.

"Mercia has acknowledged me, and the Welsh are content that I should be their champion against the Danes, from whom they have suffered much. Cantua has no power now, and East Anglia is held by Guthrun for me. London welcomes me, and if the North be but friendly, then all England will be as one, and we can bend all our thoughts towards resisting any fresh attacks from the Danes-for more are certain to come ere long."

"So long as there are vikings in Denmark, and ships to sail the sea, they will come," answered Wulnoth. "Well, O King, I will do thy bidding and seek out the Bishop."

"Methinks," said the King slowly, "I might do worse than try to have thee made king there." But to that Wulnoth answered quickly-

"Nay, nay, Alfred, that may not be. I am no kingly man. I should rule by hard blows, and have no head for the business of state. Each man to his own trade, O King, and mine is fighting-not ruling and law making."

"Perchance thou art right, Wulnoth," the King answered. "Thou art wise at any rate, for 't is no light task to be a king."

"And no king do I desire to be," answered Wulnoth; and then he went in haste and bade adieu to Edgiva, and saddled his horse and started off with no better company than his sword and his axe, and his good shield slung at his back.

And from Wessex he rode northwards into Mercia, and there he met with King Guthrun, who had gone thither on business from East Anglia; and with the Dane he tarried a day and a night while his good steed rested.

Now, Wulnoth thought that perchance Guthrun might know something of what became of Guthred, and he asked him if he had ever heard the sons of Regner Lodbrok speak of the matter.

"Ay," answered Guthrun, "and I have often thought that it was but a poor thing to sell a lad, and a king's son, into slavery, for that is what they did. I know not of a certainty, but I heard that the boy was sold to a Danish holda, who soon afterwards sailed for England in the days when the first invasion was. That is all I know. Most likely he has died long since."

"I fear that it must be so," sighed Wulnoth, and his heart felt sad as he thought of a king's son sold into such slavery. But then he thought of what Wyborga had said-how she had prophesied that he and the Prince and Edgiva should all meet again, and the Prince should reign in another land; and that seemed a very hard saying to him.

Well, after bidding farewell to Guthrun, Wulnoth resumed his journey and rode northwards; and everywhere he saw the tokens of the bad times that had been, for the land lay desolate and lonely, and there were no people to till it. And in those fields where the grass grew darkest and longest he knew that the war game had been played, and that the grass grew because men lay buried beneath.

For a great part of the way his road led through vast forests, of which many abounded in England in those days, or across wild and desolate plains and over steep rocky hills; and so he journeyed through the realm of Mercia and came at length into the confines of Northumbria. Here the signs of cruel war were even more frequent, and he passed whole towns which were only deserted, smoke-blackened ruins now, where still the bones of men lay, picked clean by wild dogs or wolves.

Thus his road led, nor was it without adventure that he journeyed, for twice was he attacked by masterless men, and had to swing his axe and deal lusty blows ere he could pass on.

But such things troubled Wulnoth little, for the robbers were but half-hearted, as every one appeared to be, and trouble and dismay seemed everywhere.

"Now," thought Wulnoth to himself, "in sooth the King is wise. It would be a good thing to have a wise ruler here-one who would bring things to order again and lay the land under the plough. 'T is a shame to see it all idle like this, and makes a man feel that the war game is evil, and not good, no matter how it seems in the heat of the fight."

For two days Wulnoth rode, asking for tidings of the Bishop, and hearing from those who cared to return a civil answer-and that was not all-that he was still farther northward, seeking to lead the people to Christ.

Now it chanced, as he rode forward through a wood, that he suddenly heard the sounds of strife, and, putting spurs to his horse, he galloped forward, guided by the sounds, and came upon four masterless men-black-haired Danes every one-who had surrounded a man and were seeking to slay him, while he, with his back to a tree, flourished a long staff and kept them at bay.

"Hallo, nithings! rascals!" thundered Wulnoth as he came upon the scene. "What, four to one, and he unarmed! Shame upon you! If you want to play that game, here is one who is ready for it." And with that he smote one knave a lusty blow and sent him sprawling, while the man cracked the pate of another, and the remaining pair ran away as fast as their legs could carry them.

"Thou art come in good time, friend," the man said, leaning on his staff and gazing at the Wanderer; and at the sound of that voice Wulnoth started and stared anxiously.

Poorly dressed was this man, and his brow was careworn, and around his neck he wore a thrall collar; but for all that, and for the many years which had passed, Wulnoth knew him-his heart went out, and recognized, and he felt, with wonder and thankfulness, that Wyborga's words had come true, and that he had found his friend the Prince.

"Thou art welcome, friend," he said; "by what name art thou called?"

"By the name of Gurth," was the answer, and Wulnoth laughed-

"That may be, but there are some in the world who know you by another name and would call you, not G

urth the Thrall, but Guthred the Prince."

Then did Guthred stare, and pass his hands across his brow, and say-

"Who art thou, stranger, who callest me by a name now long forgotten-so long forgotten, indeed, that it has almost passed from my memory?"

"Who am I?" cried Wulnoth. "I am one who made a promise and has been all his life trying to keep it-and now has found the chance. Guthred, my brother and my Prince, have you forgotten Wulnoth?"

"Wulnoth!" cried the other, trembling with emotion. "Wulnoth! Thou Wulnoth! Nay, I can see now. I can see the same bold yet kindly eyes, the same strong form! Wulnoth, my friend, my friend, at last thou hast come to cheer me in my loneliness!"

And then did these two embrace, and, though they were men grown, they shed tears. And they sat down side by side, and allowed the two wounded thieves to slip off, for, as Wulnoth said, they owed them a kindness, since had they not attacked Guthred he would never have found him.

And Wulnoth told all his story of his journeyings, and of the death of Hubba and Hungwar, and of how Edgiva was with Alfred the King, and old Wyborga still lived, though she was feeble and old. And Guthred told him of his sorrows and trials, and how his master had died and left him to his widow, and the old woman was cross and crabbed, and fond of beating her servants, so that ofttimes Guthred had been tempted to run away and become a masterless man himself.

"Yet I tarried, Wulnoth," he said, "for ofttimes I have dreamt that you would come; and I have seen a gray and noble-looking old man, who has placed a crown upon my head and hailed me king of the north."

"Now, that is passing strange!" mused Wulnoth, "and I remember how that Wyborga said that thou shouldst become a king of a vaster kingdom than was Lethra. There is much to think of here, my friend-much that puzzles my comprehension and-"

But then a shrill voice broke upon their talk, and they saw a gaunt cross-looking old crone, clad in wealthy garments and being driven upon a mule through the wood.

"My mistress!" said Guthred in low tones, and Wulnoth thought of the neatherd's wife.

"There he is, the lazy rascal!" she cried. "Gossiping with a stranger instead of attending to his work. Thy back shall smart for this, sirrah, believe me, when thou art home."

"Now, nay, most beautiful lady," said Wulnoth; "the blame-if blame there be-is mine. Know that four knaves attacked thy servant, demanding that he give up thy property, which I see he carried at his girdle. And he defended himself in a most worthy way, though armed only with his stick, and I came to his aid and, as a reward, asked him to tell me of the whereabouts of Bishop Eadred."

"Beshrew Bishop Eadred-he makes men discontented and lazy with his talk of all being brethren. Still, he is a brave man, who keeps a bold front, let the danger be what it may. Now, as thou hast done me the service to preserve my slave and my money-like as not he would have run off with it and have joined the thieves himself-still, I say, since thou hast done this and hast, moreover, a civil tongue-a most uncommon thing amongst men in these days-therefore, my man shall be thy guide and shall lead thee to the Bishop's dwelling if it will do thee service."

"Your goodness is indeed great, most dear lady," replied Wulnoth, "and I will humbly avail myself of it, and kiss my hand to you." And with that he beckoned to Guthred, saying aloud, "Come, knave, and rejoice that thou hast so good a mistress and one so fair."

Guthred followed, dumb with surprise, for the woman was most ill-favored; but when Wulnoth had ridden on in silence for a space, and they were safely out of sight and hearing, he looked round at his companion and then fell to laughing so much that he nigh rolled from his horse.

"Thou dost look surprised, dear friend," he said. "I almost laughed aloud before that old beldam when I caught sight of thy face."

"How didst thou learn such subtlety, Wulnoth?" asked Guthred. "'T is not as thou usedst to be."

"Marry! I learnt it from a neatherd in the Southland," answered Wulnoth, "and a king told me of it. Moreover, Guthred, many things have come true, and I have indeed helped to place that king's crown firmly upon his head, and I am his friend. And I think the rest shall come true also, for I know of the thorn cross now, and I thank God that I do."

"I have heard," answered Guthred. And Wulnoth asked-

"And you believe it?"

"I know not. I have never thought seriously; and yet the story is a good one, and sometimes when I have been cast down it has comforted me. And so thou dost find the prophecy coming true, Wulnoth! Will it come true even to marrying a king's daughter?"

"Guthred," said Wulnoth gravely, "and if I said yes to that, would you say nay?"

"I! Who am I to say nay, Wulnoth? You mock me! I am a thrall, and forgotten. Nay, if it be that Edgiva, my sister, says yes, Guthred, her brother will not say nay."

"Yes she will say, when I tell her that this last quest is over. As to the thraldom and the crown, that is as it may be; but I have a thought."

"Tell me of this neatherd," said Guthred. And Wulnoth told him the story, and how the man had made his wife do as he desired, simply by doing as she bade him; whereat even the poor Prince laughed heartily.

Now when the pair reached the dwelling where Bishop Eadred tarried, Wulnoth directed the Prince to await him in an outer apartment, while he went to give the King's message; and Guthred asked why he need wait, seeing that his task was done now.

"You wait, friend," answered Wulnoth; and Guthred was content.

And the Bishop greeted Wulnoth warmly, and asked him all the tidings, and rejoiced to hear of his being a Christian, saying that he had heard of Guthrun's conversion from certain of the Danes.

And Wulnoth gave him the King's message, and Bishop Eadred looked grave and shook his head.

"Wulnoth," he said, "thinkest thou not that I have pondered this matter? And, strangely enough, thrice have I in my dreams placed the crown of Northumbria upon the head of an unknown man, and that man dressed in a churl's dress, and wearing a thrall's collar. Who is this man, and what does this dream mean?"

"Would you know the man if you saw him?" asked Wulnoth; and the Bishop said that he would.

"Then," answered Wulnoth, "go into the outer room and you will see him seated there and awaiting me."

Now, at this the Bishop was bewildered, but he complied; and when he saw Guthred, he cried out that it was the man of his dream; and Guthred said that the Bishop was the one whom he had seen; and both they and Wulnoth were filled with wonder, and marvelled at the ways of God.

And Wulnoth told Bishop Eadred who this man was, and all the story; and the Bishop talked long with Guthred, and Guthred confessed that he did believe in the Lord, though he had always been afraid to say so, because his mistress pretended to believe in the old Norse gods.

"Now," cried Bishop Eadred, "surely this is the guiding of Heaven. Go ye back, Wulnoth, to the King, and take Guthred with you and-nay, better still-let Guthred tarry here, and return to his mistress, while you go to the King. Tell him everything, and ask if it will not be well to set Guthred over the land of Northumbria."

"Gladly will I do this thing," cried Wulnoth; "and if ever my horse travelled, he must travel now."

So Guthred, saying nothing, went back to his toil, and Wulnoth started on his journey; and for two days and nights he journeyed, and then he came to the King's house, and Alfred greeted him in wonder and asked mildly why he had returned so quickly.

"I have returned, O King," he cried, "because methinks that the thing which thou desirest is done, and the man whom thou wouldst like to be king is found."

"Indeed!" said the King; "and who may the man be, Wulnoth?"

"The man whom I have journeyed far to find, O King," Wulnoth said. "I have found Guthred the Prince, the brother of Edgiva." And thereat the King looked amazed, and made Wulnoth sit and tell him all the story.

And when this was done, the King said that indeed Guthred was a fit man to be King of Northumbria.

"He is of the old stock," he said, "and in the direct line. Ay, let this be, if it may. Travel back yet once more-well may we call you 'Wanderer'-and when all is ready, if the people will listen to advice and do this thing, then I will journey down; and perchance Edgiva will be glad to see her brother, and a crowning may also mean a wedding"; and thereat the King smiled.

So Wulnoth hurried to see Edgiva, and to tell her the news, and how her brother fared, and what the King purposed; and then he once more set out on his journey, and without adventure came to Northumbria.

Now, this is how Wulnoth found Guthred the Prince, and how it was purposed to give a thrall the crown of Northumbria.

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