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´╗┐Title: King Alfred's Viking - A Story of the First English Fleet
Author: Whistler, Charles W. (Charles Watts), 1856-1913
Language: English
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King Alfred's Viking
A Story of the First English Fleet
by Charles W. Whistler.



Preface.


The general details and course of events given in this story are, so
far as regards the private life and doings of King Alfred, from his
life as written by his chaplain, Asser. One or two further incidents
of the Athelney period are from the later chroniclers--notably the
sign given by St. Cuthberht--as are also the names of the herdsman
and the nobles in hiding in the fen.

That Alfred put his first fleet into the charge of "certain
Vikings" is well known, though the name of their chief is not
given. These Vikings would certainly be Norse, either detached from
the following of Rolf Ganger, who wintered in England in 875 A.D.
the year before his descent on Normandy; or else independent rovers
who, like Rolf, had been driven from Norway by the high-handed
methods of Harald Fairhair. Indeed, the time when a Norse
contingent was not present with the English forces, from this
period till at least that of the battle of Brunanburh in 947 A.D.
would probably be an exception.

There are, therefore, good historic grounds for the position given
to the hero of the story as leader of the newly-formed fleet. The
details of the burning of his supposed father's hall, and of the
Orkney period, are from the Sagas.

Much controversy has raged over the sites of Ethandune and the
landing place of Hubba at Kynwith Castle, owing probably to the
duplication of names in the district where the last campaign took
place. The story, therefore, follows the identifications given by
the late Bishop Clifford in "The Transactions of the Somerset
Archaeological Society" for 1875 and other years, as, both from
topographic and strategic points of view, no other coherent
identification seems possible.

The earthworks of the Danish position still remain on Edington
hill, that looks out from the Polden range over all the country of
Alfred's last refuge, and the bones of Hubba's men lie everywhere
under the turf where they made their last stand under the old walls
and earthworks of Combwich fort; and a lingering tradition yet
records the extermination of a Danish force in the neighbourhood.
Athelney needs but the cessation of today's drainage to revert in a
very few years to what it was in Alfred's time--an island, alder
covered, barely rising from fen and mere, and it needs but little
imagination to reproduce what Alfred saw when, from the same point
where one must needs be standing, he planned the final stroke that
his people believed was inspired directly from above.

It would seem evident from Alfred's method with Guthrum that he
realized that this king was but one among many leaders, and not
directly responsible for the breaking of the solemn peace sworn at
Exeter and Wareham. His position as King of East Anglia has gained
him an ill reputation in the pages of the later chronicles; but
neither Asser nor the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle--our best authorities--
blames him as they, for his contemporaries knew him to be but a
"host king," with no authority over newcomers or those who did not
choose to own allegiance to him.

Save in a few cases, where the original spelling preserves a lost
pronunciation, as in the first syllable of "Eadmund," the modern
and familiar forms of the names have been used in preference to the
constantly-varying forms given by the chroniclers. Bridgwater has
no Saxon equivalent, the town being known only as "The Bridge"
since the time when the Romans first fortified this one crossing
place of the Parret; and the name of the castle before which Hubba
fell varies from Cynuit through Kynwith to Kynwich, whose
equivalent the Combwich of today is. Guthrum's name is given in
many forms, from Gytro to Godramnus. Nor has it been thought worth
while to retain the original spelling AElfred, the ae diphthong
having been appropriated by us to an entirely new sound; while our
own pronunciation of the name slightly broadened as yet in Wessex,
is correct enough.

The exact relationship of St. Neot to Alfred, beyond that he was a
close kinsman, is very doubtful. He has been identified with a
brother, Athelstan of East Anglia, who is known to have retired to
Glastonbury; but there is no more than conjecture, and I have been
content with "cousinship."

C. W. Whistler

Stockland, 1898.



Chapter I. The Seeking of Sword Helmbiter.


Men call me "King Alfred's Viking," and I think that I may be proud
of that name; for surely to be trusted by such a king is honour
enough for any man, whether freeman or thrall, noble or churl.
Maybe I had rather be called by that name than by that which was
mine when I came to England, though it was a good title enough that
men gave me, if it meant less than it seemed. For being the son of
Vemund, king of Southmereland in Norway, I was hailed as king when
first I took command of a ship of my own. Sea king, therefore, was
I, Ranald Vemundsson, but my kingdom was but over ship and men, the
circle of wide sea round me was nought that I could rule over, if I
might seem to conquer the waves by the kingship of good seaman's
craft.

One may ask how I came to lose my father's kingdom, which should
have been mine, and at last to be content with a simple English
earldom; or how it was that a viking could be useful to Alfred, the
wise king. So I will tell the first at once, and the rest may be
learned from what comes after.

If one speaks to me of Norway, straightway into my mind comes the
remembrance of the glare of a burning hall, of the shouts of savage
warriors, and of the cries of the womenfolk, among whom I, a
ten-year-old boy, was when Harald Fairhair sent the great Jarl
Rognvald and his men to make an end of Vemund, my father. For
Harald had sworn a great oath to subdue all the lesser kings in the
land and rule there alone, like Gorm in Denmark and Eirik in
Sweden. So my father's turn came, and as he feasted with his ninety
stout courtmen, the jarl landed under cover of the dark and fell on
him, surrounding the house and firing it. Then was fierce fighting
as my father and his men sallied again and again from the doors and
were driven back, until the high roof fell in and there was a
sudden silence, and an end.

Then in the silence came my mother's voice from where she stood on
the balcony of the living house across the garth {i}. I mind
that she neither wept nor shrieked as did the women round her, and
her voice was clear and strong over the roaring of the flames. I
mind, too, the flash of helms and armour as every man turned to
look on her who spoke.

"Coward and nidring art thou, Rognvald, who dared not meet Vemund,
my husband, in open field, but must slay him thus. Ill may all
things go with thee, till thou knowest what a burning hall is like
for thyself. I rede thee to the open hillside ever, rather than
come beneath a roof; for as thou hast wrought this night, so shall
others do to thee."

Then rose a growl of wrath from Rognvald's men, but the great Jarl
bade them cease, and harm none in all the place. So he went down to
his ships with no more words and men said that he was ill at ease
and little content, for he had lost as many men as he had slain, so
stoutly fought my father and our courtmen, and had earned a curse,
moreover, which would make his nights uneasy for long enough.

Then as he went my mother bade me look well at him, that in days to
come I might know on whom to avenge my father's death. After that
she went to her own lands in the south, for she was a jarl's
daughter, and very rich.

Not long thereafter Harald Fairhair won all the land, and then
began the trouble of ruling it; and men began to leave Norway
because of the new laws, which seemed hard on them, though they
were good enough.

Now two of Jarl Rognvald's sons had been good friends of my father
before these troubles began, and one, Sigurd, had been lord over
the Orkney Islands, and had died there. The other, Jarl Einar, fell
out with Rognvald, his father, and we heard that he would take to
the viking path, and go to the Orkneys, to win back the jarldom
that Sigurd's death had left as a prey to masterless men and
pirates of all sorts. So my mother took me to him, and asked him
for the sake of old friendship to give me a place in his ship; for
I was fourteen now, and well able to handle weapons, being strong
and tall for my age, as were many of the sons of the old kingly
stocks.

So Einar took me, having had no part in his father's doings towards
us, and hating them moreover. He promised to do all that he might
towards making a good warrior and seaman of me; and he was ever
thereafter as a foster father to me, for my own had died in the
hall with Vemund. It was his wish to make amends thus, if he could,
for the loss his folk had caused me.

Of the next five years I need speak little, for in them I learned
the viking's craft well. We won the Orkneys from those who held
them, and my first fight was in Einar's ship, against two of the
viking's vessels. After that we dwelt in Sigurd's great house in
Kirkwall, and made many raids on the Sutherland and Caithness
shores. I saw some hard fighting there, for the Scots are no babes
at weapon play.

Then when I was nineteen, and a good leader, as they said, the
words that my mother spoke to Jarl Rognvald came true, and he died
even as he had slain my father.

For Halfdan and Gudrod, Harald Fairhair's sons, deeming that the
Jarl stood in their way to power in Norway, burned him in his hall
by night, and so my feud was at an end. But the king would in
nowise forgive his sons for the slaying of his friend, and outlawed
them. Whereon Halfdan came and fell on us in the Orkneys; and that
was unlucky for him, for we beat him, and Jarl Einar avenged on him
his father's death.

Now through this it came to pass that I saw Norway for the last
time, for I went thither in Einar's best ship to learn if Harald
meant to make the Orkneys pay for the death of his son--which was
likely, for a son is a son even though he be an outlaw.

So I came to my mother's place first of all, and full of joy and
pleasant thoughts was I as we sailed into the well-remembered fiord
to seek the little town at its head. And when we came there, nought
but bitterest sorrow and wrath was ours; for the town was a black
heap of ruin, and the few men who were left showed me where the
kindly hands of the hill folk had laid my mother, the queen, in a
little mound, after the Danish vikings, who had fallen suddenly on
the place with fire and sword, had gone. They had grown thus bold
because the great jarl was dead, and the king's sons had left the
land without defence.

There I swore vengeance for this on every viking of Danish race
that I might fall in with; for I was wild with grief and rage, as
one might suppose. I set up a stone over the grave of my mother,
graving runes thereon that should tell who she was and also who
raised it; for I was skilled in the runic lore, having learned much
from one of Einar's older men who had known my father.

Thereafter we cruised among the islands northwards until we learned
that Harald was indeed upon us, and then I saw my last of Norway as
we headed south again, and the last hilltop sank beneath the sea's
rim astern of us. I did not know that so it would be at that
time--it is well that one sees not far into things to come--but
even now all my home seemed to be with Einar; and that also was not
to last long, as things went. How that came about I must tell, for
the end was that I came to Alfred the king.

When we came back to Kirkwall, I told the jarl all that I had done
and learned; and grieved for me he was when he heard of my mother's
death. Many things he said to me at that time which made him dearer
to me. Then after a while he spoke of Harald, who, as it seemed,
might come at any time.

"We cannot fight Norway," he said, "so we must even flit hence to
the mainland and wait until Harald is tired of seeking us. It is in
my mind that he seeks not so much for revenge as for payment of
scatt from our islands. Now he has a reason for taking it by force.
He will seek to fine us, and then make plans by which I shall hold
the jarldom from him for yearly dues."

So he straightway called the Thing {ii} of all the Orkney folk,
who loved him well, and put the matter before them; and they set to
work and did his bidding, driving the cattle inland and scattering
them, and making the town look as poor as they might.

Then in three days' time we sailed away laughing; for none but
poor-looking traders were left, and no man would think that never
had the Orkneys been so rich as in Einar's time. And he bade them
make peace with the king when he came, and told them that so all
would be well, for Harald would lay no heavy weregild on so poor a
place for his son's slaying.

Southward we went to Caithness, and so westward along the
Sutherland coast; for we had taken no scatt there for this year,
and Einar would use this cruise to do so, seeing that we must put
to sea. We were not the first who had laid these shores under rule
from the Orkneys, for Jarl Sigurd had conquered them, meeting his
death at last in a Sutherland firth, after victory, in a strange
way.

He fought with a Scottish chief named Melbrigda of the Tusks, and
slew him, and bore back his head to the ships at his saddle bow.
Then the great teeth of the chief swung against the jarl's leg and
wounded it, and of that he died, and so was laid in a great mound
at the head of the firth where his ships lay. After that, the
Orkneys were a nest of evil vikings till we came.

So it had happened that, from the time when it was made over him,
Jarl Sigurd's mound had been untended, for we ourselves had never
been so far south as this firth before. Indeed, it had been so laid
waste by Sigurd's men after his death that there was nought to go
there for. But at this time we had reason for getting into some
quiet, unsought place where we should not be likely to be heard of,
for the king had over-many ships and men for us to meet. So after a
week's cruising we put into that firth, and anchored in the shelter
of its hills.

There is no man of all our following who will forget that day,
because of what happened almost as soon as the anchor held. It was
very hot that morning, and what breeze had been out in the open sea
was kept from us now by the hills, so that for some miles we had
rowed the ships up the winding reaches of the firth; and then, as
we laid in the oars and the anchorage was reached, there crept from
inland a dim haze over the sun, dimming the light, and making all
things look strange among the mountains. Then the sounds of the
ships seemed to echo loudly over the still water and when all the
bustle of anchoring was over, the stillness seemed yet greater, for
the men went to their meals, and for a while spoke little.

Einar and I sat on his after deck under the awning, and spoke in
low voices, as if afraid to raise our tones.

"There is a thunderstorm about," I said.

"Ay--listen," the jarl answered.

Then I heard among the hills, far up the firth beyond us, a strange
sound that seemed to draw nearer, like and yet unlike thunder,
roaring and jarring ever closer to us, till it was all around us
and beneath us everywhere, and our very hearts seemed to stop
beating in wonder.

Then of a sudden the ship was smitten from under the keel with a
heavy, soundless blow, and the waters of the firth ebbed and flowed
fiercely about us; and then the sound passed on and down the firth
swiftly and strangely as it had come, and left us rocking on the
troubled waters that plashed and broke along the rocks of the
shore, while the still, thick air seemed full of the screams of the
terrified eagles and sea birds that had left them.

"Odin defend us!" the jarl said; "what is this?"

I shook my head, looking at him, and wondering if my face was white
and scared as his and that of every man whom I could see.

Now we waited breathless for more to come, but all was quiet again.
The birds went back to their eyries, and the troubled water was
still. Then presently our fears passed enough to let us speak with
one another; and then there were voices enough, for every man
wished to hear his own again, that courage might return.

Then a man from the Orkneys who had been with Jarl Sigurd came aft
to us, and stood at the break of the deck to speak with Einar.

"Jarl," he said, almost under his breath, "it is in my mind that
Sigurd, your brother, is wroth because his mound has been untended
since we made it."

Then Einar said:

"Was it so ill made that it needs tending?"

"It was well made, jarl; but rain and frost and sun on a new-made
mound may have wrought harm to it. Or maybe he thinks that enough
honour has not been paid him. He was a great warrior, jarl, and
perhaps would have more sacrifice, and a remembrance cup drunk by
his own brother at his grave."

Now this man's name was Thord, the same who taught me runes--a good
seaman and leader of men, and one who was held to be wise in more
matters than most folk. So his word was to be listened to.

"You know more of these matters than I, Thord," Einar answered. "Is
it possible that Sigurd could work this?"

"Who knows what a dead chief of might cannot work?" Thord said. "I
think it certain that Sigurd is angry for some reason; and little
luck shall we have if we do not appease his spirit."

Then the jarl looked troubled, as well he might, for to go near the
mound that held an angry ghost was no light matter. It lay far up
the firth, Thord said, and the ships could not go so far. But Einar
was very brave, and when he had thought for a little while he said:

"Well, then, I will take boat and go to Sigurd's mound and see if
he ails aught. Will any man come with me, however?"

I liked not the errand, as may be supposed, but I could not leave
my foster father to go alone.

"I will be with you," I said. "Will not Thord come also?"

"Ay," the grim Orkney man answered.

Now all our crew were listening to us, and I looked down the long
gangways by chance, and when I did so no man would meet my eye.
They feared lest they should be made to go to this haunted place,
as it seemed--all but one man, who sat on the mast step swinging
his feet. This was Kolgrim the Tall, the captain of the fore deck,
a young man and of few words, but a terrible swordsman, and knowing
much of sea craft. And when this man saw that I looked at him, he
nodded a little and smiled, for he had been a friend of mine since
I had first come to Einar.

"Two men to row the boat will be enough, jarl," I said. "Kolgrim
yonder will come with us."

"Well," the jarl answered, "maybe four of us are enough. We shall
not fright Sigurd with more, and maybe would find it hard to get
them to come."

So he called Kolgrim, and he said that he would go with us, and
went to get the boat alongside without more words.

Then the jarl and I and Thord armed ourselves--for a warrior should
be met by warriors. The men were very silent, whispering among
themselves, until the jarl was ready and spoke to them.

"Have no fear for us," he said. "Doubtless my brother needs
somewhat, and calls me. I am going to find out what it is and
return."

So we pushed off, Thord and Kolgrim rowing. It was strange to look
back, as we went, on the ships, for not a soul stirred on board
them, as it seemed, so intently were we watched; and the water was
like a sheet of steel under them, so that they were doubled.

Presently they were hidden as we rounded a turn in the firth, and
we were alone among the hills, and the lonesomeness was very great.
There was no dwelling anywhere along the shores, nor in the deep
glens that came down to them, each with its noisy burn falling
along it. Once I saw deer feeding far up at the head of a valley
that opened out, but they and the eagles were the only living
things we could see beside the loons that swam and dived silently
as we neared them.

The silence and the heat weighed on us, and we went for a mile or
more without a word. Then we turned into the last reach of the
water, and saw Sigurd's mound beside its edge at the very head of
the firth, where the hills came round in a circle that was broken
only by the narrow waters and the valley that went beyond them
among the mountains. It was a fitting resting place for one who
would sleep in loneliness; but I thought that I had rather lie
where I could look out on the sea I loved, and see the long ships
pass and the white waves break beneath me.

Now all seemed very peaceful here in the hot haze that brooded over
the still mountains, and there seemed to be nought to fear. We drew
swiftly up to the mound, with the plash of oars only to break the
silence, and there was nought amiss that we could see. They had
made it on a little flat tongue of land that jutted from the
mountain's foot into the deep water, so that on two sides the mound
was close to its edge. So we pulled on softly round the tongue of
land, being maybe about fifty paces from the mound across the
water. And when we saw the other side of Sigurd's resting place,
the oars stayed suddenly, and the jarl, who held the tiller, swung
the boat away from the shore, and I think I knew then what fear
was.

The mound was open. There was a wide, brown scar, as of
freshly-moved earth, across its base, reaching from the level to
six or eight feet of its height, as though half the grass-grown
side had been shorn away by a sword cut; and in the midst of that
scar was a doorway, open to the grave's heart, low and stone built.
Some of the earth that had fallen lay before it on the water's
edge, but the rest was doubtless in the water, for there was but a
narrow path between bank and mound.

At that sight we stared, thinking we should surely see the grim
form of Sigurd loom gigantic and troll-like {iii} across the
doorway; and the jarl half rose from his seat beside me, and cried
out with a great voice:

"Sigurd--my brother!"

I think he knew not what or why he cried thus, for he sank back
into his place and swayed against me, while his cry rang loud among
the hills, and the eagles answered it.

And I grasped my sword hilt, as one does in some sudden terror,
staring at the open mound; while old Thord muttered spells against
I know not what, and Kolgrim looked at me, pale and motionless.

Then came the sharp, mocking cry of a diver, that rang strangely;
and at once, without order. Thord dug his oar blade into the water
and swung the boat round, and when once Kolgrim's back was towards
that he feared, he held water strongly and then the boat was about,
and we were flying from the place towards the ships, before we knew
what was being done, panic stricken.

But Einar said never a word, and the two rowers slackened their
pace only when the bend of the firth hid the mound from our sight.

Then said I, finding that Einar spoke not:

"What are we flying from? there was nought to harm us."

For I began to be ashamed. Thereat Kolgrim stopped rowing, and
Thord must needs do likewise, though he said:

"It is ill for us to stay here. The dead jarl is very wroth."

"I saw nought to fray us; the cry we heard was but that of a loon."

But Thord shook his head. The silence of the place had made all
things seem strange, with the dull light that was over us, and the
great heat among the towering hills.

"The mound was freshly opened," he said. "I saw earth crumbling
even yet from the broken side. The blow we felt was that which
Sigurd struck when he broke free."

Then at last Einar spoke, and his voice was strange:

"I have left my brother unhonoured, and he is angry. What must be
done?"

Now I cannot tell what hardiness took hold of me, but it seemed
that I must needs go back and see more of this. I was drawn to do
so, as a thing they fear will make some men long to face it and
know its worst, not as if they dared so much as when they must.

"I think we should have waited to ask Sigurd that," I said; and
Einar looked strangely at me.

"Would you have us return?" he asked.

"Why not?" said I. "If the great jarl has called us as it seems,
needs must that we know what he wills."

Then said Thord:

"I helped to lay him in that place, and I mind how he looked at
that time. Somewhat we left undone, doubtless. I dare not go back."

Einar looked at the hills, leaning his chin on his hand, and said
slowly, when Thord had done:

"That is the first time Thord has said 'I dare not.' Now I would
that I had stayed to fight Harald and fall under his sword before.
I too must say the same. I have left my brother unhonoured, and I
dare not go back."

Pale and drawn the jarl's face was, and I knew he meant what he
said. Nevertheless it seemed to me that some one must know what
Sigurd willed.

"Jarl Einar," I said, "this is a strange business, and one cannot
tell what it means. Now Sigurd was my father's close friend, and I
have had nought to do with him. I will go back, therefore, and
learn what I can of him. I think he will not harm me, for he has no
reason to do so. Moreover if he does, none will learn what he
needs."

"I have heard," said Thord, "that a good warrior may ask what he
will of a dead hero, so that he shows no fear and is a friend. If
his courage fails, however, then he will be surely destroyed."

Then I said:

"I have no cause to fear Sigurd, save that he is a ghost. I do not
know if I fear him as such; that is to be seen."

Now Einar laid his hand on mine and spoke gravely:

"I think it is a hero's part to do what you say. If you go back and
return in safety, the scalds will sing of you for many a long day.
Go, therefore, boldly; this is not a matter from which you should
be held back, as it has come into your mind."

Then said Thord:

"It will be well to ask Sigurd for a token whereby we may know that
he sends messages by you."

And Einar said on that:

"In Sigurd's hand is his sword Helmbiter. I think he will give that
to the man who dares speak to him, for he will know that it goes
into brave hands. Ask him for it bravely."

"Put me ashore, therefore, before my courage goes," I said; and
they pulled the boat to the bank where I could step on a rock and
so to shore. And when I was there, Kolgrim rose up and followed me
without a word.

"Bide here for two hours, jarl, and maybe I will return in that
time," I said. "Farewell."

So I turned away as they answered me, thinking that Kolgrim held
the boat's painter. But he came after me, and I spoke to him:

"Why, Kolgrim, will you come also?"

"You shall not go alone, Ranald the king's son; I will come with
you as far as I dare."

"That is well," I answered, and with that wasted no more words, but
climbed the hillside a little, and then went steadily towards where
the mound was, with Kolgrim close at my shoulder, and the jarl and
Thord looking fixedly after us till we were out of sight.



Chapter II. The Gifts of Two Heroes.


I will not say that my steps did not falter when we came to whence
we could see the mound. But it was lonely and still and silent; no
shape of warrior waited our coming.

"Almost do I fear to go nearer," said Kolgrim.

"Put fear away, comrade," said I; "we shall fare ill if we turn our
backs now."

"Where you go I go," he answered, "though I am afraid."

"The next best thing to not being afraid is to be afraid and not to
show it," I said then, comforting myself also with a show of wisdom
at least. "Maybe fear is the worst thing we have to face."

So we went on more swiftly, and at last were on the tongue of land
on the tip of which the mound stood. Still, since we could not see
the open doorway, which was towards the water, the place seemed not
so terrible. Yet I thought that by this time we should have seen
Sigurd, or maybe heard his voice from the tomb. So now I dared to
call softly:

"Jarl Sigurd, here is one, a friend's son, who will learn what you
will."

My voice seemed to fill all the ring of mountains with echoes, but
there was no answer. All was still again when the last voice came
back from the hillsides.

Then I went nearer yet, and passed to the waterside, where I could
look slantwise across the doorway. And again I called, and waited
for an answer that did not come.

"It seems that I must go even to the door, and maybe into the
mound," I said, whispering.

"Not inside," said Kolgrim, taking hold of my arm.

But I had grown bolder with the thought that the hero seemed not
angry, and now I had set my heart on winning the sword of which the
jarl had told me, and I thought that I dared go even inside the
tomb to speak with Sigurd.

"Bide here, and I will go at least to the door," said I.

So I stepped boldly before it, standing on the heap of newly-fallen
earth that had slipped from across it. The posts and lintel of the
door were of stone slabs such as lay everywhere on the hillsides,
and I stood so close that I could touch them. The doorway was not
so high that I could see into it without stooping, for it was
partly choked with the fallen earth, and I bent to look in. But I
could only see for a few feet into the passage, as I looked from
light to darkness.

"Ho, Jarl Sigurd! what would you? Why have you opened your door
thus?"

Very hollow my voice sounded, and that was all.

"Sigurd of Orkney--Sigurd, son of Rognvald--I am the son of Vemund
your friend. Speak to me!"

There was no answer. A bit of earth crumbled from the broken side
of the mound and made me start, but I saw nothing. So I stepped
away from the door and back to my comrade, who had edged nearer the
place, though his face showed that he feared greatly.

"I think that the mound has been rifled," I said. "Sigurd would
have us know it and take revenge."

"No man has dared to go near that doorway till you came, Ranald
Vemundsson," Kolgrim answered. "Now I fear that he plans to lure
you into the mound, and slay you there without light to help you.
Go no further, maybe you will be closed up with the ghost."

That was not pleasant to think of, but I had seen nought to make me
fear to go in. There was no such unearthly light shining within the
mound as I had heard of in many tales of those who sought to speak
with dead chiefs.

"Well, I am going in," I said stoutly; "but do you hide here, and
make some noise that I may know you are near me. It is the silence
that frays me.

"What can I do?" he said. "I know no runes that are of avail. It
would be ill to disturb this place with idle sounds."

That seemed right, but I thought I could not bear the silence--silence
of the grave. I must know that he was close at hand. Then a thought
came to me, and I unfastened the silver-mounted whetstone that hung
from my belt and gave it him.

"Whet your sword edge sharply," I said. "That is a sound a hero
loves, for it speaks of deeds to be done."

"Ay, that is no idle sound," he said, and drew his sword gladly.
The haft of the well-known blade brought the light into his eyes
again. I drew my own sword also.

"If you need me, call, and I think I shall not fail you," he
whispered. "It shall not be said that I failed you in peril."

"I know it," I answered, putting my hand on his shoulder.

Then I went boldly, and stepped into the passage. The whetstone
sang shrill on the sword edge as it kissed the steel behind me, and
the sound was good to hear as I went into darkness with my weapon
ready.

I half feared that my first step would be my last, but it was made
in safety. Very black seemed the low stone-walled passage before
me, and I had to stoop as I went on, feeling with my left hand
along the wall. The way was so narrow that little light could pass
my body, and therefore it seemed to grow darker as I went deeper
into the mound's heart.

Five steps I took, and then my outstretched hand was on the post
that ended the passage, and beyond that I felt nothing. I had come
to the inner doorway, and before me was the place where Sigurd lay.
Yet no fiery eyes glared on me, and nothing stirred. The air was
heavy with a scent as of peat, and the sound of the whetstone
seemed loud as I stood peering into the darkness.

I moved forward, and somewhat rattled under my foot, and I started.
Then my fear left me altogether, for I had trodden on dry bones,
and shuddered at the first touch of them in that place. I had faced
fear, and had overcome it; maybe it was desperation that made me
cool then, for it was certain now that I must be slain or else
victor over I knew not what.

So I took one pace forward into the chamber, and stood aside from
the doorway; and the grey light from the passage came in and filled
all the place, so that it fell first on him whom I had come to
seek--Jarl Sigurd of Orkney.

And when I saw, a great awe fell upon me, and a sadness, but no
terror; and in my heart I would that hereafter I might rest as
slept the hero where the hands that had loved him had placed him.

Into the silent place came once more with me the clank of mail and
weapons that he had loved, and from without the song of the keen
sword edge whispered to him; but these could not wake him.
Peacefully he seemed to sleep as I stood by his side, and I thought
that I should take back no word of his to the jarl, his brother,
whom both he and I loved.

They had brought the great carven chair on which he was wont to sit
on his ship's quarterdeck, and thereon had set the jarl, as though
he yet lived, and did but sleep as he sat from weariness after
fight, with helm and mail upon him. Shield and axe rested on either
side of him, ready to hand, against the chair; and behind him,
along the wall, were his spears, ashen shafted and rune graven.

His blue, fur-trimmed cloak was round him, and before him was a
little table, heavy and carved, whereon were vessels for food,
empty now save for dust that showed that they had been full. And
across his knees was his sword, golden hilted, with a great yellow
cairngorm in the pommel, and with gold-wrought patterns from end to
end of the scabbard--such a sword as I had never seen before. His
right hand held the hilt, and his left rested on the shield's rim
beside him; and so Sigurd slept with his head bowed on his breast,
waiting for Ragnaroek and the last great fight of all.

The light seemed to grow stronger as I looked, or my eyes grew used
to it, and then I saw that the narrow chamber was full of things,
though I minded them afterwards, for now I was as in a dream,
noting only the jarl himself. Costly stuffs were on the floor, and
mail and helms and more weapons. Gold work there was also, and in
one corner lay the dried-up body of a great wolf hound, coiled as
in sleep where it had been chained. Another had been tied by the
passage doorway, where I had stepped on it; and below a spar that
stood across a corner lay a tumbled heap of feathers that had been
a falcon.

Many more things there were maybe, but this I saw at last--that the
jarl's right foot rested on the skull of a man whose teeth had been
long and tusk-like. It was the head of the Scot whose teeth had
been his death.

Now the sword drew my eyes, for Einar bade me ask for it, else I
think I had gone softly hence without a word, so peaceful seemed
the dead. And as I looked again, I saw that the hand holding the
hilt was dry and brown and shrunken, so that one might see all the
bones through the skin, and at first I was afraid to ask.

At last I said, and my mouth was dry:

"Jarl Einar, your brother, bids me ask for sword Helmbiter, great
Sigurd. Let me take it, that he may know how you rest in peace."

But Sigurd stirred not nor spoke; and slowly I put out my hand on
the sword to take it very gently, but his grasp was yet firm on it.
Then, as I bent to see if it had tightened when I would draw the
sword away, I could see beneath the helm the face of the dead,
shrunken indeed and brown, but as of one at rest and beyond anger.

Once more then I took the jarl's sword in my right hand, and raised
his hand with my left, putting my own weapon by against the wall.
And then the hilt slipped from the half-open fingers, and the sword
was mine, and my hand held the jarl's. And it seemed to me that he
gave it me, and that I must thank him for such a gift. The sword
though it was sheathed, was not girt to him, and its golden-studded
belt was twisted about it, and it was no imperfect giving.

So I spoke in a low voice:

"Jarl Sigurd, I thank you. If my might is aught, the sword will be
used as you would have used it. Surely I will say to Einar that you
rest in peace, and we will come here and close your mound again in
all honour."

I set back his hand then, and it seemed empty and helpless, not as
a warrior's should be. So I ungirt my own weapon--a good plain
sword that I had won from a viking in Caithness--and laid it in the
place of that he had given me. And as I put the thin fingers on its
hilt, almost thinking that they would chose around it, a ring
slipped from them into my hand, as if he would give that also, and
I kept it therefore.

Then for a minute I stood before Jarl Sigurd, waiting to see if he
had any word; but when he spoke not, I lifted the sword and saluted
him.

"Skoal to Jarl Sigurd; rest in peace, and farewell."

Then I went forth softly, and came out into sunshine; for the wind
was singing round the hilltops, and the dun mist had gone. Then I
was ware that the sound of the stone on the sword edge had long
ceased, and I looked for Kolgrim.

He was lying on the grass in the place where I had left him, but he
was on his face, and the sword and whetstone were flung aside from
him. At first I feared that he had been in some way slain because
of his terror; but when I came near, I saw that his shoulders
heaved as if he wept. Then I stood over him, treading softly.

"Kolgrim," I said.

At that he looked up, and a great light came into his face, and he
sprang to his feet and threw his arms round me, weeping, yet with a
strong man's weeping that does but come from bitter grief.

"Master," he cried, "O master I thought you lost--and I dared not
follow you."

"I have met with no peril," I said, "nor have I been long gone."

"More than two hours, master, have you been in that place--two long
hours. See how the sun has sunk since you left me!"

So indeed it seemed, though I knew not that I had been so long. I
had stayed still and gazed on that strange sight without stirring
for what seemed but a little while. Yet I had thought long thoughts
in that time, and I mind every single thing in that dim chamber,
even to the markings on the stones that made its walls and roof and
floor.

"See," I said, "Jarl Sigurd has given me the sword!"

Kolgrim gazed in wonder. There was no speck of dust on the broad
blade as I drew it, and the waving lines of the dwarf-wrought steel
and gold-inlaid runes were clear and bright along its middle for
half its length. For the mound was very dry, and they had covered
all the chamber with peat before piling the earth over it.

"Let us go back to Jarl Einar; he will fear for us," I said,
sheathing the sword and girding it to me.

So we went across the meadow, and even as we went a blast of cold
wind came from, over the mountains, and with it whirled the black
thunderclouds of the storm that had been gathering all day. We ran
to an overhanging rock on the hillside and crept beneath it, while
the thunder crashed and the lightning struck from side to side of
the firth, and smote the wind-swept water that was white with foam.

"Master," said Kolgrim, "the Jarl Sigurd is wroth; he repents the
sword gift."

But I did not think that he had aught to do with this. For, as any
hill-bred man could tell, the storm had been brewing in the heat,
and was bound to come, and would pass to and fro among the hills
till it was worn out.

Nevertheless, when it passed away in pouring rain that swept like a
hanging sheet of moving mist down the glens from the half-hidden
mountains, and the sun shone out brightly again over the clear-cut
purple hillsides and rippling water, I looked at the mound in
wonder. For it was closed. We had sought shelter in a place near
that whence we saw the mound in coming, and could see the fallen
side, though not the doorway, looking across its front. And now the
slope of the bank seemed to have been made afresh, as on the day
when Sigurd had been closed in, years ago. None could say, save
those who had seen it, where the opening into the grave-chamber
might be.

Now both the opening and closing of Sigurd's grave mound seem very
strange to me. Thord and the scalds will have it that he himself
wrought both. As for me, I know not. In after days I told this to
Alfred the king when he wondered at my sword, and he said that he
thought an earthquake opened and washing rain closed the mound, but
that it happened strangely for me. I cannot gainsay his wise words,
and I will leave the matter so.

Thereafter Kolgrim and I went back to Einar, who yet waited for us.
Glad was he to see us return in safety; but both he and Thord were
speechless when they saw the jarl's sword girt to me and the jarl's
golden ring on my hand. Neither they nor any one else will believe
that I met with no peril; and the tale that the scalds made
hereafter of the matter is over wonderful, in spite of all I may
say. For they think it but right that I should not be over boastful
of my deeds.

But Jarl Einar looked on sword and ring, and said:

"Well have you won these gifts. My brother is in peace in his
resting place now. I hold that he called for you."

So we went back to the ships, and there for many days the men
stared at Kolgrim and me strangely. They say I was very silent for
long, and it is likely enough. Moreover, Einar was wont to say that
I seemed five years older from that day forward.

We went no more to the place of the mound, for it seemed to need no
care of earthly hands. Nor were any wishing to go to so awesome a
place, and we left the firth next day, for the men waxed uneasy
there.

But on that day Einar gave me the great ship that we had taken from
Halfdan, the king's son, saying that he would add to Sigurd's
giving. Also he bade me choose what men I would for her crew,
bidding me thank him not at all, for I was his foster son, and a
king by birth moreover.

So when I knew that this would please him, I chose Thord for my
shipmaster, and Kolgrim for marshal, as we call the one who has
charge of the ordering of the crew. And I chose a hundred good men
whom I knew well, so that indeed I had the best ship and following
in Norway, as I thought. At least there were none better, unless
Harald Fairhair might match me.

Now there was one thing that pleased me not at this time, and that
was that Kolgrim, my comrade, never called me aught but "master"
since I came from Sigurd's presence--which is not the wont of our
free Norsemen with any man. Nor would he change it, though I was
angry, until I grew used to it in time.

"Call me not 'master,' Kolgrim, my comrade," I said; "it is
unfittinq for you."

At last he answered me in such wise that I knew it was of no more
use to speak of it.

"Master of mine you are, Ranald the king, since the day when you
dared more than I thought man might, while I lay like a beaten
hound outside, and dared not go within that place to see what had
become of you. Little comradeship was mine to you on that day, and
I am minded to make amends if I can. I think I may dare aught
against living men for you, though I failed at that mound. I will
give life for you, if I may."

I told him that what he had done was well done, and indeed he had
had courage to go where none else had dared; for I had ties of
friendship that made me bold to meet Jarl Sigurd, and might go
therefore where he might not. It was well that he did not come into
the presence of the dead.

"Therefore we are comrades, not master and man," I said.

"Nay, but master and man--lord and thrall," he answered.

So I must let him have his way, but he could not make me think of
him as aught but a good and brave comrade whom I loved well.

They hailed me as king when I went on board my ship for the first
time with my own men, as I have said. Then our best weapon smith
asked for gold from the men, and they gave what they had--it was in
plenty with us of Einar's following--and made a golden circlet
round my helm, that they might see it and follow it in battle.

It was good to wear the crown thus given willingly, but in the end
it sent me from north to south, as will be seen. That, however, is
a matter with which I will not quarrel, for it sent me to Alfred
the king.

We had left the firth two days, cruising slowly northward, when one
ship came from the north and met us, not flying from our fleet, but
bearing up to join us. And when she was close, there came a hail to
tell Einar that she bore a messenger from Harald the king in peace,
and presently we hove to while this messenger went on board the
Jarl's ship.

Then it seemed that Einar had been right, and that Harald would lay
a fine on the islands for Halfdan's slaying, and so give them back
to Einar to hold for him. The messenger was Thiodolf, Harald's own
scald, and he put the matter very plainly before the jarl, so that
he thought well of the offer, but would nevertheless not trust
himself in the king's power before all was certain, and confirmed
by oath. Whereon Thiodolf said that one must see the king on the
Jarl's part, and so I seemed the right man to go, as the jarl's
foster son and next in command to him.

"Nevertheless," said Thiodolf, "I would not advise you to sail in
Halfdan's ship, for that might wake angry thoughts, and trouble
would come especially as Halfdan took her without leave when he was
outlawed."

So I took the Jarl's cutter, manning her with enough men of my own
crew; and Kolgrim came with me, and we sailed to Kirkwall in
company with Thiodolf the scald.

Then when Thiodolf took me into his presence, I saw Harald Fairhair
for the first time, as he sat to receive Einar's messenger in the
great hall that Sigurd had built and which we had dwelt in. Then I
thought that never before could have been one more like a king.
Hereafter, when sagamen will sing of a king in some fancied story,
they will surely make him like King Harald of Norway. I myself have
little skill to say what he was like beyond this--that never had I
seen a more handsome man, nor bigger, nor stronger. King-like he
was in all ways, and his face was bright and pleasant, though it
was plain that it would be terrible if he was angry, or with the
light of battle upon it.

The hair, whence he had his name, was golden bright and shining,
and beard and eyebrows were of the same colour. But his eyes were
neither grey nor blue altogether, most piercing, seeming to look
straight into a man's heart, so that none dared lie to him.

I think that it is saying much for King Harald that, though his
arms and dress were wonderfully rich and splendid, one cared only
to look on his face; and that though many men of worth were on the
high place with him, there seemed to be none but he present.

When the scald told the king who I was, and what was my errand,
with all ceremony, he looked fixedly at me, so that I was ashamed,
and grew red under his gaze. Then he smiled pleasantly, and spoke
to me. His voice was as I thought to hear it--clear and steady, and
yet deep.

"So, Ranald Vemundsson, you are worthy of your father. It may be
that you bear me ill will on his account, but I would have you
forget the deeds done that Norway might be one, and the happier
therefor."

"Had my father been slain in fair fight, lord king," I said, "no
ill will had been thought of. It has not been in my mind that you
bade Rognvald slay him as he did. And that Jarl is dead, and the
feud is done with therefore. Jarl Einar is my foster father,
moreover."

"That is well said," answered Harald. "But I thought Sigurd must
have fostered you; he was ever a close friend of Vemund's."

I did not know why the king thought this, though the reason was at
my side; so I only said that my mother had given me to Einar's
keeping, and the king said no more at that time about it.

After that I gave the Jarl's messages, and the king heard them well
enough, though it seemed to Einar that the weregild to be paid was
over heavy, and he had bidden me tell Harald that it was so.
Therefore the king said that he would give me an answer on the
morrow, and I went away into the town well pleased with his kindly
way with me.

There was a feast made for me that night, and after it I must sit
still and hear the scalds sing of the deeds of Harald the king,
which was well enough. But then Thiodolf rose up and sang a great
saga about the winning of Sigurd's sword, wherein it seemed that I
had fought the dead jarl, and bale fires, and I know not what. He
had heard strange tales from Einar's men, if they told him all that
he sang.

Some men may be pleased to hear their own deeds sung of, with more
added thus; but I was not used to it, and the turning of all eyes
to me made me uncomfortable. But Harald had paid no sort of heed to
what they sang of him, and so I tried to look at my ease, and gave
the scald a bracelet when he ended.

"Overmuch make you of that matter, scald," said I quietly.

He laughed a little, and answered:

"One has to fill in what a warrior will not tell of himself."

Now the men shouted when I gave Thiodolf the bracelet, and Harald
looked quickly at me. Then I thought that maybe I had overdone the
gift, though Einar had ever told me that a good scald deserved good
reward, and Thiodolf was well known as the best in Norway. It was a
heavy ring, silver gilt, and of good design, that I took from the
same viking whose sword I gave to Sigurd.

"Overpaid am I," the scald said, putting it on his arm.

"You are the first who has ever sung of me," I answered; "and the
voice and tune were wonderful, if the saga was too strong for me."

Then Harald smiled again, and praised Thiodolf also, and I thought
no more of the matter. The feast was pleasant enough in the hall,
full of Harald's best men and chiefs, though it seemed strange to
sit as a guest in Einar's house.

Now on the next morning I was to speak with the king about Einar's
business, and I went to him unarmed, as was right, save for helm
and Sigurd's sword. He was in the jarl's own chamber, and with him
were Thiodolf and a young scald named Harek, who sat with things
for writing before him, which was what I had never seen before.

We talked for some time, and all went well for peace; but one more
message was to go and come between the king and Einar, and so I
said I would sail at once.

"Not so much need for haste but that you can bide here for a day or
two," Harald said. "I will not have you complain of my hospitality
hereafter. And Thiodolf and Harek here want to learn more about
Sigurd's sword and its winning."

"If I tell them the truth, I shall spoil their saga, lord king!" I
said, laughing.

"Trust the scalds to mind you do not," he answered. "There are
times when I have to ask them which of my own doings they are
singing about now. But is there no wonder in the tale?"

So I told him just how the matter was. And when he heard of the
noise, and the stroke with which the ships were smitten, he said,
looking troubled, as I thought:

"Sigurd is stronger now that he is dead than when he lived. We felt
that stroke even here."

But when I told how I had seen the dead jarl, his face grew
thoughtful, and at last he said:

"So shall I lie some day in a grave mound. It is passing strange to
think on. I would that if one comes to my side he may step gently
as you, Ranald Vemundsson."

"Else will that comer fare ill," said Thiodolf.

The king glanced up at him, and his face changed, and he said,
smiling grimly:

"Maybe. I think none will win my sword from me."

Then he had Kolgrim sent for, and Thord, and they told him truly
what they had seen, and how they had fared in the matter.

"You are a truth teller, Kolgrim the Tall," Harald said. "Now if
you will leave Einar's service and come and be of my courtmen, I
will speak to the jarl and make matters right with him, and it
shall be worth your while."

Then my comrade answered plainly:

"I am no jarl's man now, King Harald; I belong to King Ranald here,
and I will not leave him."

"So," said Harald, knitting his brows suddenly, "we have two kings
in the room, as it seems; and you dare choose another instead of
me."

"Not so, King Harald," Kolgrim answered, with all respect; "I chose
between the jarl and my king. If there is peace between you and the
jarl, I suppose we are all your men."

Now Harald's face was growing black, and I could see that his anger
was rising. But he stayed what words he was about to speak, and
only said:

"Jarl Einar is well served when he has a king in his train."

Then he rose up and turned to Thiodolf, who was looking anxious.

"Bid King Ranald to the feast tonight. He knows my words to Einar
his foster father, and I have no more to say."

So I was dismissed, and was not sorry to be outside the hall.

"Let us get down to the ship," said Thord. "Here is trouble
brewing, as I think."

So we went on board, and I wished that we might go. Yet the king
had bidden me stay, and I had no reason for what would be
discourteous at least, if it did not look like flight. What the
trouble was we could hardly understand.

In an hour's time or so I saw Thiodolf and the young scald Harek
coming along the wharf and towards our ship, which lay clear of
Harald's vessels, and next the harbour mouth. They came over the
gang plank, and I welcomed them, but I saw that they had somewhat
special to say to me.

They sat down under the after awning with me, and at once Thiodolf
said:

"That was an unlucky speech of your comrade's just now. No man
dares name himself king in Harald's presence--not even his own
sons. It is the one thing that he will not bear."

"So it seemed," said I; "and, in truth, he had enough trouble with
under kings not long since. But he knows what a sea king is--no
king at all, so to speak. He need not grudge the old title."

"That is not all," Thiodolf said. "It is in his mind that he has to
guard yet against risings of men of the old families of the kings,
and thinks you are likely to give him trouble. Maybe the portent of
the blow that spread from Sigurd's tomb to us has seemed much to
him. 'Here,' he says, 'is one who will gather masterless men to him
in crowds because he wears Sigurd's sword and ring, and has gained
with them the name of a hero. Already he has two of Einar's best
men at his heels. Yet I like him well enough, and I have no fault
to find with him, save that he puts a gold circle round his helm
and is called king--as he would have been but for me. Go to him,
therefore, and tell him to keep out of my way. I will not have two
kings in Norway.'"

"Well," I said, "that is plain speaking. But I cannot help what the
men call me. The king makes overmuch of the business. I am not
foolish enough to try to overturn Harald Fairhair."

"Maybe," said Thiodolf, "but those are his words. I rede you get
away quickly on the next tide."

"Ay," said Harek. "Harald is mild of mood now, because you made no
secret of what men call you. Five years ago you would not have
escaped hence at all."

"Then," said I, "I will go. I think you are right. Vemund's son
troubles Harald;" and I laughed, and added, "I have to thank you
for kindly counsel, scalds, as I think. Farewell. Tide serves at
any time now, and I will get my men and be gone."

"That is wise," they answered. "Einar must find some other
messenger, if he comes not himself, after you return."

They went, and I called two or three men and sent them into the
town for their comrades who were at friends' houses and in the
guest house where we were lodged, while Kolgrim made ready for
instant sailing.

The next thing that I was ware of was that there was a fight on the
wharf end next the town, and men were running to it. Then I heard
my own name shouted on one part, and that of Eric, the king's young
son, on the other. So I was going to lead down twenty men to quiet
the scuffle, when my people had the best of the matter, and broke
through the throng, cheering, and came on to me. The rest did not
follow them, for they saw that I was coming, and the wharf was
clear behind them but for three of their foes who stayed where they
had fallen.

Then another man broke away from the crowd, and came running after
my folk. It was Harek the scald, with his head broken.

"Here are fine doings," said Kolgrim, as the men swarmed on board.
"What is on hand now?"

"It is not done with yet," said a man: "look at yon ship."

Then came Harek, out of breath, and pale.

"Let me on board, King Ranald, or I am a dead man," he cried.

"Come, then!" I answered; and he ran across the plank, and Kolgrim
pulled it in after him. All my men were come.

Then I looked at the ship spoken of. Men were swarming into her,
and were making ready to sail. But if she meant to stay our going,
she was too far up the harbour, and we were already casting off the
shore ropes.

"Hold on," said Thord; "here come the other scald and two men."

The crowd that was yet round the fallen men had parted to let
Thiodolf pass, and he came quickly. One of the men bore a chest,
and the other a bale of somewhat. They gave these over the gunwale
to my people, and Thiodolf spoke to me from the wharf.

"These are gifts from Harald to Einar's foster son," he said. "He
bids me say that you have done your errand well, and that this is
to prove it. Also he says that Ranald, son of Vemund, may need mail
to keep his kingship withal, and so he has sent you a suit."

"That is a hard saying," I answered; "is it insult?"

"Nay, but a broad hint only. The gift is most goodly."

"Well," said I, "it is plain that he will warn me from Norway. I
will leave you, good friend, to say for me what should be said.
Maybe if I sent a message it would go wrongly from my lips."

Thiodolf laughed, and bade me farewell. He paid no heed to Harek,
who sat on the deck with his back to him.

Then Kolgrim whistled shrill to his men, and we began to move down
to the harbour mouth. I heard a sharp voice hurrying the men in the
other ship; but they could not be ready in time to catch us.

When we were well out to sea, I asked Harek what all this was
about.

"Your going has spoiled a plan that Eric, the king's son, had made.
He wanted your sword, and thought also that to rid himself now of
Vemund's son might save him trouble when the crown came to him, as
it will. You were to be set on as you came from the feast tonight
to the guest quarters, as if in a common broil between your men and
his. Then he found you were going, and tried to stay your men, and
next to take these gifts from Thiodolf and me, being very angry,
even to trying to cut me down. Lucky for me that his sword turned
in his hand. But he would have had me slain tonight, certainly, for
he says that it was our fault that you are getting away. He fears
Thiodolf, however. Now I must take service with you, if you will
have me."

It seemed to me that I was making friends with one hand and enemies
with the other, and that last rather more quickly than was well. So
I laughed, and answered:

"I suppose that if I have a scald of my own, King Harald will blame
me for overmuch kingship. However, he is angry enough already, and
maybe a good friend will balance that to me. So if you will indeed
cast in your lot with me, I am glad!"

So I took his hand, and more than friends have he and I been from
that day forward.

Now, when I looked at Harald's strangely-given gifts, I had reason
to say that he was open handed. The chest held two mail shirts, one
of steel rings, gold ornamented and fastened, and the other of
scales on deerskin, both fit for a king. There were two helms also,
one to match either byrnie {iv}, and a seax that was fit to
hang with Sigurd's sword. As for the bale, that held furs of the
best, and blue cloth and scarlet. If Harald banished me, it was for
no ill will; and it was handsomely done, as though he would fit me
out for the viking's path in all honour, that men might not deem me
outlawed for wrongdoing. So I have no ill word to say against him.
Five years later he would have troubled about me and my kingship
not at all; now he must be careful, for his power was not at its
full.

As for young Eric, I suppose that he boasted ever after that he had
put me to flight; but I do not know that it matters if he did.

So I came back to Durness, where I was to meet with Einar; and
peace was made between him and the king, and he thought it well to
go and speak with him. Then he and I must part, and that was hard.

"Now must you go your own way, son Ranald, for Harald is too strong
for us. Maybe that is best for you, for here shall I bide in peace
in Orkney; and that is not a life for a king's son--to sit at a
jarl's table in idleness, or fight petty fights for scatt
withholden and the like. Better for you the wide seas and the lands
where you may make a name, and maybe a kingdom, for yourself. Yet I
shall miss you sorely."

So he said, and I knew that he was right. Maybe the spirit of the
sword I had won got hold of me, as they say will happen; for I had
waxed restless of late, and I had tried to keep it from Einar. Now
I hated myself for it, seeing at hand what I had longed for.

So he went north to meet Harald, and of our parting I will not say
more. I could not then tell that I should not see him again, and
that was well: but I know that when I saw the last flicker of his
sails against the sky, I felt more lonely even than at the
graveside in Southmere.

Yet I was in no worse case than were many nobly-born men at that
time; for whosoever would not bow to Harald and his new laws must
leave Norway, and her bravest were seeking new homes everywhere.
Some had gone to far-off Iceland, and some to East Anglia; some to
the Greek emperor, or Gardariki, and more yet to Ireland. But the
greatest viking of all, Rolf, the son of Rognvald, Einar's young
brother, had gone to France or England, with a mighty following;
for Harald had outlawed him among the first who broke his law by
plundering on the Norway coasts. A good law it was, but it was new,
and so went against the grain at first. Rolf had sworn to make a
new kingdom for himself, and why should not I do the same?

So when I was in the open sea again, with all the world before me,
as the long sea-miles passed I grew lighthearted, and many were the
thoughts of great deeds to come that filled my mind.



Chapter III. Odda, the Ealdorman of Devon.


Now I steered eastward from Sutherland, and sailed down the east
coasts of Scotland and England; and there is nothing to say about
such a cruise, that had nought more wonderful in it than the
scaring of the folk when we put in for food. I had made up my mind
to go to Ireland for the winter, where, as every Northman knew,
there were kingdoms to be won--having no wish to be Rolf's
follower, seeing he was but a jarl's son; and finding that England
had no overlord, seeing that even now Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum
of East Anglia were fighting for mastery, so that the whole land
was racked and torn with strife.

Maybe I thought too much of myself at that time, but I was in no
haste to do aught but cruise about and find where I might best make
a name. I had but my one ship and crew, and I would not throw them
away on some useless business for want of care in choosing.

Now, when we came into the English Channel, a gale began to blow up
from the southwest; and we held over to the French shore, and there
put into a haven that was sheltered enough. The gale strengthened,
and lasted three days; but the people were kindly enough, being of
Saxon kin, who had settled there under the headland they call
Greynose, since Hengist's times of the winning of England across
the water. And when the gale was over, we waited for the sea to go
down, and then came a fair wind from the eastward, as we expected.
So we got provisions on board, and sailed westward again, taking a
long slant over to the English coast, until we sighted the great
rock of Portland; and then the wind came off the land, and in the
early morning veered to the northwest.

The tide was still with us as the light strengthened; then as the
day broke, with the haze of late summer over the land, we found
that we were right in the track of a strange fleet that was coming
up fast from the westward--great ships and small, in a strange
medley and in no sort of order, so that we wondered what they would
be.

"Here comes Rolf Ganger back from Valland," said Kolgrim. "He has
gathered any vessels he could get together, and is going to land in
England."

"We will even head out to sea from across their course," I said.
"Maybe they are Danes from Exeter, flying from the Saxons."

So we headed away for the open channel until at least we knew more.
The fleet drew up steadily, bringing the tide with them; and
presently we fell to wondering at the gathering. For there were
some half-dozen ships that were plainly Norse like ourselves, maybe
twenty Danish-built longships, and about the same number of heavy
trading vessels. There were a few large fishing boats also; but
leading the crowd were five great vessels the like of which none of
us had ever seen or heard of before. And even as we spoke of them,
two of these shook out reefs in their sails, and drew away from the
rest across channel, as if to cut us off.

"Ho, men," I said, when I saw that, "get to arms; for here they
come to speak with us. Maybe we shall have to fight--and these are
no easy nuts to crack!"

Whereat the men laughed; and straightway there was the pleasant
hustle and talk of those who donned mail shirt and helm and set the
throwing weapons to hand with all good will.

"Let us keep on our course," I said to Kolgrim. "We will see if we
cannot weather on these ships, and anyway shall fight them better
apart from the rest. It is a fine breeze for a sailing match."

So we held on; and the two great ships to windward of us began to
gain on us slowly, which was a thing that had never been done by
any ship before. I do not know that even Harald Fairhair had any
swifter ship than this that Halfdan had taken in his flight from
home. Kolgrim waxed very wroth when it became plain that these
could outsail us.

"There is witchcraft about those great hulks," he growled. "They
are neither Norse, nor Frisian, nor Danish, but better than all
three put together."

"I have sailed in ships, and talked of ships, and dreamed of them
moreover, since I could stand alone," said Thord, "but I never so
much as thought of the like of these. If they belong to some new
kind of viking, there are hard times in store for some of us."

"Faith," said I, "I believe they have swept up and made prizes of
all that medley astern of them."

So we held on for half an hour, and all that time they gained
steadily on us; and we neared them quickly at last, for we tried to
hold across their bows and weather on them. That was no good, for
they were as weatherly as we.

Now we could see that their decks were covered with armed men, and
it seemed certain that they meant to make prize of us. The leading
ship was maybe half a mile ahead of the other, and that a mile from
us--all three close-hauled as we strove to gain a weather berth.
Then the leading ship put her helm up and stood across our course,
and the second followed her.

"We must out oars now if we are to weather on them," said Kolgrim
at last.

Then the men shouted; and I looked at the second ship, to which
they were pointing. Her great sail was overboard, for the halliards
had gone--chafed through maybe, or snapped with the strain as she
paid off quickly. Then a new hope came to me.

"Men," I said, "let us take the other vessel, and then come back on
this; they are worth winning."

They cheered. And now the fight seemed to be even--ship to ship at
least, if our foe was larger and higher and swifter than ours; for
I thought that he would hardly have a crew like mine.

We up helm and stood away on the new course the foe had taken,
leaving the crippled ship astern very fast. And now we began to
edge up towards the other vessel, meaning to go about under her
stern, and so shoot to windward of her on the other tack. But then
I thought of a plan which might help us in the fighting. There had
seemed little order and much shouting on board the ship we had left
when her sail fell, and maybe there was the same want of discipline
here.

"Out oars, men! Keep them swinging, but put no weight on them. Let
them pull after us and tire themselves. I have a mind to see how
our dragon looks on yonder high stem head."

The men laughed grimly, and the oars were run out. One called to
me:

"Maybe they beat us in sailing, king; we can teach them somewhat in
weapon play."

"See how they get their oars out," said Kolgrim, with a sour grin;
"a set of lubbers they are."

One by one, and in no order, the long oars were being got to work.
The great ship was half as long again as ours, pulling twenty-eight
oars a side to our twenty. But while ours rose and fell as if
worked by one man, theirs were pulled anyhow, as one might say.

"Better are they at sailing than rowing," said Thord.

Nevertheless they flew down on us, and that because we only made a
show of rowing.

Then we laid on the oars, and came head to wind. The sail rattled
down, and was stowed on deck; and silently we waited, arrows on
string, for the fight that was now close at hand.

Then the great ship hove up, head to wind, right ahead of us, and a
loud hail came from her.

"Who knows what tongue he talks?" I said. "I cannot make him out
rightly."

"'Tis West Saxon," said an old warrior from the waist. "He asks who
we are and what is our business."

"Tell him therefore, if you can speak in his way," I answered; "and
ask the same of him."

So a hail or two went backwards and forwards, and then:

"Says he is Odda, jarl or somewhat of Devon in Wessex, and bids us
yield to Alfred the king."

"In truth," said I, "if he had not spoken of yielding, I had had
more to say to a king who can build ships like these. Now we will
speak with him on his own deck. Tell him he will have to fight us
first."

The old warrior sent a mighty curt hail back in answer to Odda's
summons; then our war horns blew, and the oars rose and fell, and
we were grinding our bows alongside the great ship's quarter before
they knew we were there. Alfred's men had yet somewhat to learn of
fighting in a sea way, as it seemed, for we were on their deck aft
before they had risen from their oar benches. There were but one or
two men on the quarter deck, besides the steersman, to oppose us.
Odda thought we should lay our ship alongside his towering sides if
we fought, as I suppose, for he was amidships.

So we swept the decks from aft forward without any hurt to
ourselves: for the Saxons were hampered with the oars, and fell
backward over them, and hindered one another. It was strange to
hear my men laughing in what seemed most terrible slaughter; for
their foes fell before they were smitten, and lay helpless under
the oars, while their comrades fell over them.

So we won to the foot of the mast, and then found that there were
some on board who were none so helpless: for as we came they swung
the great yard athwart ships, and that stayed us; while over the
heap of canvas glared those who would make it hard for us to win
the ship altogether.

But before we came to stern fighting, I had a word to say; so I
called for Odda.

A square built, brown-bearded man with a red, angry face pushed his
way to the front of his men, and frowned at me.

"What will you? here am I," he said shortly.

One could understand his words well enough when face to face, for
he spoke in the mixed tongue that any Northman understands, the
plain words of which all our kin have in common.

"I am no foe of Alfred's," I said; "I do not know, therefore, why I
should fight you."

"Are you not for the Danes?" he said.

"I hate them more or less, and I have no traffic with them."

"Well, then, what will you?"

"You bade me yield, and therefore I am here. Now I think it is a
matter to be seen whether of us does so."

"It seems that you have slain about half my men," he said.
"Nevertheless, I do not give up without fighting for the rest of my
ship that you have not won."

"That is well said," I answered.

But the men were laughing, for Kolgrim had stooped, and, reaching
under an oar bench, had dragged out a rower by the neck. The man
swore and struggled; but Kolgrim hove him up, and lifted him over
the yard to Odda's feet.

"They are all like that, Saxon," he said cheerfully. "Maybe there
is a head or two broken; 'tis mostly what we call seasickness,
however."

Odda looked at the man, who seemed wretched enough, but had no
hurt; then he stared at our laughing faces, and his own brow began
to clear.

"It comes into my mind," he said, "that maybe you would listen to
me if I owned first that you have the best of us, and then asked
you to fight for Alfred of Wessex. We need the help of such men as
you just now; and if you hate Danes, we have work enough for you."

"One may certainly listen to that," I answered, laughing.

"What say you, men? Shall we cast in our lot with Alfred for a
while?"

"We follow you, Ranald the king," Kolgrim answered for all. "If it
seems good to you, it is good for us. There will be fighting
enough, I trow, if all we have heard is true."

Then said Odda:

"And that before long. There is a Danish fleet in Poole Harbour
that is to bring Danes from Wareham to the help of those whom
Alfred holds in Exeter. We have to meet this fleet and scatter it."

"Then," said old Thord, "your men must be better handled, for Danes
are no new swordsmen or seamen either."

Now the men stood listening to our talk, and this sort of saying
was not good for them to hear, if they were to meet the foe soon
with a good hope of victory. So Odda said quickly:

"If you will indeed fight for us, you must trust to Alfred to give
you fitting reward. I do not know what I might say about that,
having thought of no such chance as this. But there is no man who
can complain of him."

I had heard that the king was ever open handed, but also that at
this time he had little to give. Maybe, however, we might help him
to riches again. I had the men to think of, but I will say for
myself that I had not thought of asking what reward or pay should
be given.

I sheathed my sword, and held out my hand to Odda across the yard
that was between us; and he grasped it honestly, while the men on
either side cheered.

"Stay here and speak with me," Odda said. "Now we must get back to
the fleet."

Then went back to our ship, all but Thord and half a dozen
warriors, whom he kept as guard for me, I suppose; and the
grappling lines were cast off. Then we made sail again, and headed
to rejoin the rest of the Saxon vessels. Odda's crippled ship had
repaired her damage at this time, and went with us. But first it
was plain that she thought we had taken her consort, for she
prepared to fight us, and Odda had to hail her once or twice before
she was sure of what had happened. Then her crew cheered also.

Now Odda took me aft, and we sat together on his quarter deck.
Thord came also, and leaned on the rail beside us, looking with
much disfavour at the crew, who were plainly landsmen at sea for
the first time, if they were stout fighting men enough. Maybe there
were ten seamen among the hundred and fifty, but these had handled
the ship well under canvas, as we knew.

"You have come in good time, King Ranald," Odda said. "You see what
state we are in; can you better it for us?"

"Many things I can see that need strengthening," I answered. "But
you seem to take me into your counsels over soon, seeing that I
have just fallen on you sword in hand."

"Why," said Odda frankly, "it is just your way of speaking to me
sword in hand that makes me sure that I can trust you. I cannot
deny that you had this ship at your mercy, and that the other would
have been yours next; and you knew it, and yet spoke me fair. So it
is plain that you mean well by us."

"Ay," said I, "but for your bidding me to yield, there would have
been no fighting at all, when I knew to whom the ships belonged."

"You have put a thought in my mind, and I am glad you did board us,
seeing there is no harm done," Odda answered. "I will tell you what
it is. Send me some of your men to order my people and tell them
how to prepare for battle. Here am I sent to sea for the first
time, with good warriors enough who are in like case, and a few
seamen who can sail the ship and know nought else."

"You have some Norsemen yonder, if I mistake not," I said, looking
at the fleet which we were nearing.

"Ay--wandering vikings who care nought for what I say. They were
going to Rolf, and the king persuaded them to take this cruise
first. If you can make them follow you, there will be another
matter for which I shall be more than thankful."

Thereat Thord growled: "They will follow Ranald Vemundsson well
enough; have no care about that."

Then said I:

"These are the finest ships I have ever seen. Where did they come
from?"

"Alfred, our king, planned them," said Odda, with much pride; "and
they were built by our own men, working under Frisian shipwrights,
in Plymouth."

"How will you like to command one of these, Thord?" I asked then.

"I like the ship well enough. The crew is bad. And then, whose
command is the fleet under?"

"Take the ship, Thord, and lick my crew into shape; and Ranald,
your king, shall command the fleet," Odda said plainly.

"Fair and softly," said Thord bluntly. "I can do the two things you
ask me; but will your men follow Ranald?"

"Faith," said Odda, "if I say they are to do so, they must."

So in the end I left Thord and my seamen with Odda; but I would not
take his place, only saying that I would lead the Norsemen, and
that he could follow our plans. I would put more good men into each
of his five ships, and they should do what they could. At least
they could teach the Saxons how to board a ship, and how to man
their own sides against boarders from a foe.

Those Norsemen said they would gladly follow the son of King Vemund
and foster son of Einar the jarl; and so we led the strange fleet,
and held on eastward with a light breeze all that day, making
little way when the tide turned, and held back by the slower
vessels. Men in plenty there were, but ill fitted for aught but
hand fighting; though I had more Norsemen sent into the larger
ships, such as those that had been taken from the Danes and the
better trading vessels. One might soon see the difference in the
trim and order on board as the vikings got to work and the Saxons
overcame their sickness.

Now we might meet the Danes at any time, and I could not tell how
matters would go. One thing was certain, however, and that was that
they looked for no gathering of ships by Alfred. We should
certainly take them by surprise, and I hoped, therefore, that they
would be in no trim for fighting.

There was a very swift cutter belonging to the Norsemen, and as
night fell I sent her on to keep watch along the shore for the
first coming of the Danes, while we shortened sail; for the mouth
of Poole Harbour was not far distant, and if we passed that we
should be seen, and perhaps it would be guessed that we were not a
friendly fleet. Towards evening, too, the wind shifted, and blew
more off the shore, and that might bring them out from their haven.
Kolgrim, who was weather wise, said that a shift of wind to the
southward was coming presently.

When morning came, the high cliffs of Swanage were on our bow, the
wind was yet steady from off shore, and beyond the headland lay
Poole Harbour, at whose head is Wareham, where the Danes were. It
is a great sea inlet with a narrow mouth, and one must have water
enough on a rising tide to enter it. Now the ebb was running, and
if the Danes came this morning, it would be soon.

They came, as it seemed, for the cutter was flying back to us under
sail and oars; and before she reached us, the first Danish ships
were clear of the Swanage headlands, making for the offing. Then I
got my ships into line abreast, and Thord worked up Odda's five
alongside us to seaward; and all the while the Danish sails hove
into sight in no sort of order, and seeming so sure that none but
friends could be afloat that they paid no heed to us.

Soon there were full a hundred vessels of all sorts off Swanage
point, and the cutter brought word that there were but twenty more.
Then I ran up my fighting flag, and everywhere along our line rose
a great cheering as we hoisted sail and sped down on the foe. It
was long since the seas had borne a fleet whence the Saxon war cry
rang.

The leading Danes were ahead of us as we gathered way, and their
long line straggled right athwart our course. We should strike
their midmost ships; and at last they saw what was coming, and
heard the din of war horns and men's voices that came down wind to
them, and there were confusion and clamour on their decks, and
voices seemed to call for order that did not come.

Then one or two longships from among them struck sail and cleared
for action, and on these swooped Alfred's great ships. Odda's
crashed upon and sank the first she met, and plunged and shook
herself free from the wreck, and sought another. And beyond her the
same was being wrought; and cheers and cries were strangely mixed
where those high bows went forward unfaltering.

Now a ship crowded with men was before me. As we boarded, her crew
were yet half armed, and struggling to reach the weapon chests
through the press, even while our dragon head was splintering the
gunwale; and I leaped on board her, with my men after me and Harek
beside me.

Then sword Helmbiter was let loose for the first time since Sigurd
wielded her; and though a great and terrible cry came from over the
water as one of Alfred's ships sank another Dane, I could look no
more, for there was stern fighting before me.

What a sword that was! Hardly could my arm feel the weight of it as
it swung in perfect balance, and yet I knew the weight it had as it
fell. Helm and mail seemed as nought before the keen edge, and the
shields flew in twain as it touched them.

Forward I went, and aft went Harek the scald, and there was soon an
end. The Danes went overboard, swimming or sinking, as their fate
might be, and only the slain bided before us. The ship was ours,
and I looked round to see what should be next. No other ship had
come to help our prey.

Then I saw a wonderful sight. Panic terror had fallen on the Danes,
and not one ship of all that great fleet was not flying down the
wind without thought of fighting. Among them went our vessels,
great and small, each doing her work well; and the Saxon shouts
were full of victory.

So we must after them, and once more we boarded a longship, and had
the victory; and then we were off the haven mouth, and with the
flood tide the wind was coming up in gusts from the southeast that
seemed to bode angry weather. By that time no two Danish ships were
in company, and the tide was setting them out to sea.

"Here is a gale coming," said Kolgrim, looking at the sky and the
whitening wave crests. "We had best get our ships into this haven
while we can."

It seemed that Thord was of the same mind, for now he was heading
homeward, and the other Saxons were putting about and following
him. So I got men into the best of the ships we had taken, and
waited till Thord in Odda's ship led the way, and so followed into
Poole Harbour.

Well it was for us that we had refuge so handy. For by noonday the
gale was blowing from the southwest, and two Danish ships were
wrecked in trying to gain the harbour--preferring to yield to us
rather than face the sea, with a lee shore, rocky and hopeless,
waiting for them.

We went into the Poole inlet, which is on the eastern side of the
wide waters of the haven, and there found good berths enough. The
village was empty, save for a few Saxon fishermen, who hailed us
joyfully. And then Odda made for us as good a feast as he might in
the best house that was there, bidding every shipmaster to it.
Merry enough were all, though we had but ship fare; for the Saxons
had great hopes from this victory.

Now Odda made much of what I had done--though it was little
enough--saying that I and my men deserved well of Alfred, and that
he hoped that we should stay with him for this winter, which would
perhaps see the end of the war.

"Why," said I, "things would have been much the same if I had not
been here."

"That they would not," he answered. "I should have blundered past
this place in the night, and so lost the Danes altogether; or if I
had not done that, they would soon have found out what state my men
were in. You should have heard old Thord rate them into order; it
is in my mind that he even called me--Odda the ealdorman--hard
names in his broad Norse tongue. But at least he gave us somewhat
more to think of than the sickness that comes of heaving planks
that will by no means keep steady for a moment."

He laughed heartily at himself, and then added:

"Good King Alfred thought not at all of that matter. Now I can
shift the whole credit of this victory to your shoulders, and then
he will not believe that I am the born sea captain that he would
have me think myself."

"I will not have that," I said, "for I have not deserved it."

"Ay; but, I pray you, let me put it from myself, else shall I be
sent to sea again without any one to look to for advice," he said
earnestly, and half laughing at the same time. "I did but take
command of this fleet because the king could find no one else at a
pinch. Heaven defend me from such a charge again!"

"Now you have only the Exeter Danes to deal with," I said.

"How many men might these ships have held?" he asked.

"Maybe five thousand," I answered.

Thereat his face changed, and he rose up from his seat at the high
table, and said that he would go down to see that the ships were
safe, for the gale was blowing heavily as the night fell.

So we went outside the house, and called a man, telling him to find
one of the Poole fishermen and bring him to speak to us.

"There were twelve thousand Danes in Wareham," he said, "for more
have come lately. I thought they would all have been in the ships."

"If that had been possible, not one would have seen the morning's
light," I answered, "for their ships are lost in this gale
certainly."

Now I will say that I was right. The wrecks strewed the shore of
Dorset and Hants next morning; and if any men won to land, there
waited for them the fishers and churls, who hated them. No Danish
fleet was left in the channel after that gale was spent.

When the fisher came, he told us that as many more Danes were left
in Wareham, and that those from Poole had fled thither when they
saw what had happened to the fleet.

"Shall you march on Wareham and scatter them, or will they fall on
us here?" I asked; for we had no more than two thousand men at
most.

"I would that I knew what they thought of this business," he
answered; "but I shall not move tonight. It is far by land, and I
suppose we could not get the ships up in the dark."

So he posted pickets along the road to Wareham, and we went back to
the house for a while. And presently, as it grew dark, a wild
thought came into my mind. I would go to Wareham with a guide, and
see what I could find out of the Danish plans. Maybe there were
fewer men than was thought, or they might be panic-stricken at our
coming in this wise; or, again, they might march on us, and if so,
we should have to get to sea again, to escape from double our
numbers.

Now the more I thought of this, the more I grew bent on going, for
I was sure that we must know what was going on. And at last I took
Odda aside while Harek sang among the men, and told him what I
would do.

At first he was against my running the risk; but I told him that a
Norseman might go safely where a Saxon could not among the Danes,
and at last I persuaded him. Then I called Kolgrim, and we went out
together into the moonlight and the wind, to find the fisherman we
had spoken with already and get him to act as guide. I think that
Odda did not expect to see either of us again; and when I came to
know more of Saxons, I learned that he trusted me most fully, for
many thanes would have thought it likely that I went on some
treacherous errand.



Chapter IV. Jarl Osmund's Daughter.


To my mind, no gale seems so wild as one that comes at the time of
full moon, when the clouds break up and fly in great masses of
black and silver against the deeper sky beyond, while bright light
and deepest shadow chase each other across land and sea beneath
them. Kolgrim and I stood under the lee of a shed, waiting for the
fisher to get his boat afloat, and looked out on bending trees and
whitened water, while beyond the harbour we could see the great
downs, clear cut and dark, almost as well as by day, so bright it
was.

It was low water now, which was good for us, for the winding
channels that lead up to Wareham were sheltered under their bare
banks. We could hear the thunder of the surf along the rocky coast
outside, when the wind ceased its howling for a moment; and at high
water the haven had been well nigh too stormy for a small boat. Now
we should do best to go by water, for wind was with us; though,
unless the gale dropped very quickly, we could not return in her,
for there would be a heavy sea and tide against us if we could get
away before it turned, while if we were long wind against tide
would be worse yet.

The fisherman was eager to help us against the Danes, who had made
him work for nought; and so in half an hour we were flying up the
haven on the first rise of tide, and the lights of Wareham town
grew plainer every moment. From the number of twinkling sparks that
flitted here and there, it would seem that many folk were waking,
even if some movement were not on hand.

Presently we turned into the channel that bends to the southwest
from the more open water, and the town was before us. The fisher
took to his oars now, lowering the scrap of sail that had been
enough to drive us very swiftly before the gale so far.

Wareham stands on the tongue of land between two rivers' mouths,
and the tide was setting us into the northward of these. That was
the river one would have to cross in coming to or from Poole, and
maybe we should learn as much there as anywhere.

There were three ships on the mud, but even in the moonlight it was
plain that they were not seaworthy. There were wide gaps in their
bulwarks, which none had tried to mend, and the stem head of one
was gone.

"These ships were hurt in the storm of lest week," the fisher said,
as we drifted past them; "there was hardly one that came in unhurt.
But the Danes were eager to go, and mended them as they could."

Perhaps that was partly the reason why we gained so easy a victory,
I thought at the time, and afterwards knew that I was right. They
had suffered very much, while we lay across channel in safety.

There loomed before us the timbers of a strong bridge that had been
over the north river, when we were fairly in it and under the
nearer houses of the town. But now it was broken down, and the gap
in its middle was too wide for hasty repair.

"When was this done?" I asked the fisherman.

"Since yesterday," he answered.

Now this seemed to me to indicate that the Danes meant to guard
against attack by land from Poole; also that they overrated our
numbers, which was probable in any case, seeing that a fleet had
fled from before us.

There were wharves on the seaward side of the bridge, but none were
beyond; and the houses stood back from the water, so that there was
a sort of open green between it and them. There were no people
about, but we could hear shouts from the town now and then.

"Let us go ashore and speak with some one," I said; "it is of no
use our biding here on the water."

Kolgrim and I were fully armed, and had boat cloaks with us which
covered us well, and we thought none would question who we were if
we mixed among the men in some inn or other gathering place. So we
bade the fisher wait for us, and found the stairs, and went to the
wide green along the waterside, and across it to the houses, which
were mostly poor enough here.

Many of them stood open, and in one a fire burned on the hearth,
but all were empty. So we turned into a street that led seemingly
from one bridge to the other across the town. Here men were going
hither and thither with torches, and groups were outside some of
the houses. To the nearest of these I went, as if I had all right
to be in the place.

They were bringing goods out of the house, and loading a cart with
them.

"Here is a flitting," said Kolgrim, "and another or two are on hand
yonder."

I stayed a man who came past me from out of a house.

"I have fled from Poole," I said. "What is in the wind here? Are we
to leave Wareham also?"

"If you come from Poole, you should know that it is time we did
so," he answered shortly. "I suppose you saw the whole business."

"So I did," I answered. "What are the orders?"

"Pack up and quit with all haste," said he. "You had better get to
work if you have aught to save."

"Shall we go to Exeter, or back to Mercia?" I said.

"Exeter they say; but I know not. Why not go and ask Jarl Osmund
himself--or follow the crowd and hinder no one with questions?"

He hurried on; but then some men began to question us about the
doings off Swanage, and Kolgrim told them such tales that they
shivered, and soon we had a crowd round us listening. Nor did I
like to hurry away, for I heard a man say that we were Northmen, by
our voices. But there were plenty of our folk among the Danes.

Then came a patrol of horsemen down the street, and they bade the
loiterers hurry. I drew Kolgrim into an open doorway, and stood
there till they passed, hearing them rate their fellows for delay.

"Wareham will be empty tomorrow," I said. "Now we can go; we have
learned enough."

Still I would see more, for there seemed no danger. Every man was
thinking of himself. So we went across the town, and as we came
near the western bridge the crowd grew very thick.

We heard before long that the army was as great as Odda had
thought, and that they were going to Exeter. Already the advance
guard had gone forward, but this train of followers would hardly
get clear of the town before daylight. They had heard great
accounts of our numbers, and I wished we had brought the ships up
here at once. There would have been a rout of the Danes.

But the place was strange to me, and to Odda also, so that we could
not be blamed.

We got back by the way we came, and then knew that we could in no
way take the boat to Poole. The gale was raging at its highest, and
thatch was flying from the exposed roofs. It would be dead against
us; and the sea was white with foam, even in the haven. So we must
go by road, and that was a long way. But we must get back to Odda,
for he should be in Wareham before the Danes learned, maybe, that
their flight was too hurried.

Now it seemed to me that to leave Wareham was not so safe as to
come into it, for no Dane would be going away from the place.
However, the bridge was down; and if it had not been done in too
great haste, any fugitives from the country would have come in. So
that maybe we should meet no one on the road that goes along the
shore of the great haven.

The fisherman ferried us over to the opposite shore, and then tied
his boat to the staging of the landing place, saying that he was
well known and in no danger. He would sleep now, and bring his boat
back when the wind fell. So we left him, thanking him for his
goodwill.

Grumbling, as men will, we set out on our long walk in the gale. We
could not miss the road, for it never left the curves of the shore,
and all we had to do was to be heedful of any meetings. There might
be outposts even yet, watching against surprise.

However, we saw no man in the first mile, and then were feeling
more secure, when we came to a large farmstead which stood a short
bowshot back from the road, with a lane of its own leading to the
great door. What buildings there were seemed to be behind it, and
no man was about; but there was light shining from one of the high
windows, as if some one were inside, and plain to be seen in the
moonlight were two horses tied by the stone mounting block at the
doorway.

"Here is a chance for us, master," said my comrade, coming to a
stand in the roadway. "I must try to steal these horses for
ourselves. If Danes are in the place, they have doubtless stolen
them; and if Saxons, they will get them back."

"There will be no Saxon dwelling so near the Danes," I said. "Maybe
the place is full of Danes--some outpost that is careless."

"Careless enough," said Kolgrim. "If they are careless for three
minutes more, they have lost their horses."

Then we loosened our swords in their sheaths, and drew our seaxes,
and went swiftly up the grassy lane. The wind howled round the
house so that none would hear the clank of mail, which we could not
altogether prevent. But the horses heard us, and one shifted about
and whinnied as if glad to welcome us.

At that we ran and each took the bridle of that next him, and cut
the halter that was tied to the rings in the wall, looking to see
the doors thrown open at any moment. Then we leaped to the saddles
and turned to go. The hoofs made a great noise on the paving stones
before the doorway, yet there was no sound from inside the house.

That seemed strange to me, and I sat still, looking back with the
horse's head turned towards the main road.

"Stay not, master," Kolgrim said. "'Tis some outpost, and the men
have slept over the farmhouse ale. Maybe the stables behind are
full of horses. Have a care, master; the door opens!"

He was going; but I waited for a moment, half expecting to see a
spear point come first, and my hand was on my sword hilt. But the
great heavy door swung slowly, as if the one who opened it had
trouble with its weight. So I must needs see who came. Maybe it was
some old man or woman whose terror I could quiet in a few words.

Then the red firelight from within shone out on me, and in the
doorway, with arms raised to post and door on either hand, stood a
tall maiden, white robed, with gold on neck and arm. The moonlight
on her seemed weird with the glow of the fire shining through the
edges of her hood and sleeves. I could see her face plainly, and it
was fair and troubled, but there was no fear in her looks.

"Father, is this you?" she said quietly.

I could make no answer to that, and she looked intently at me; for
the moon was beyond me, and both Kolgrim and I would seem black
against it, as she came from the light within, while the wind, keen
with salt spray, was blowing in her face.

"Who is it?" she said again. "I can scarcely see for moon and wind
in my eyes."

"Friends, lady," I said, for that at least was true in a way.

"Where are my horses? Have you seen aught of our thralls, who
should have left them?" she asked, looking to whence we had just
taken the beasts.

Now I was ashamed to have taken them, for she was so plainly alone
and helpless, and I could not understand altogether how it could be
so. I was sure that she was Danish, too.

"How is it that you have not fled, lady?" I asked. "Surely you
should have gone."

"Ay; but the thralls fled when they heard the news. Has not my
father sent you back for me?"

This seemed a terrible plight for the maiden, and I knew not what
to say or do. She could not be left in the way of our Saxons if
they came on the morrow, and I could not take her to Poole. And so,
lest I should terrify her altogether, I made up my mind even as she
looked to me for an answer.

"I think your father is kept in Wareham in some way. Does he look
for you there?"

"Ay, surely," she answered; but there was a note as of some new
fear in her voice. "Has aught befallen him? Have the Saxons come?"

"All is well in Wareham yet," I answered. "Now we will take you to
your father. But we are strangers, as you may see."

Then I called to Kolgrim, who was listening open eyed to all this,
and backed away from the door a little.

"What is this madness, master?" he whispered hoarsely.

"No madness at all. Ten minutes' ride to Wareham with the maiden,
give her to the fisherman to take to her friends, and then ride
away--that is all. Then we shall be in Poole long before any look
for us, for we are in luck's way."

Kolgrim laughed.

"Strange dangers must I run with you, master; but that is what one
might look for with Ranald of the Sword."

Then I got off the horse, which was very strong and seemed quiet,
and went to the maiden again.

"It will be best for you to come with us, lady," I said "we will
see you safely to Wareham."

The light fell on my arms now, and they were splendid enough, being
Harald Fairhair's gift, which I had put on for the fight, seeing
that the men loved to see their king go bravely, and being,
moreover, nowise loth to do so myself. She seemed to take
heart--for she was well nigh weeping now--when she saw that I was
not some wandering soldier of the great host.

"My horses, two of them should be here," she said. "I bade the
thralls leave them when they fled."

So she thought not that we had loosed them, and did not know her
own in the moonlight. Maybe she had no knowledge as to which of
many had been left, and I was glad of that, for so her fear was
less.

"You must ride with us," I said, "and I would ask you to come
quickly; even now the host is leaving Wareham."

"Ay, is that so? Then my father is busy," she said, and then she
faltered a little, and looked at me questioningly. "I cannot go
without my nurse, and she is very sick. I think she sleeps now. Men
feared her sickness so that we brought her here from the town. But
indeed there is nought to fear; there is no fever or aught that
another might take from her."

Then I grew fairly anxious, for this was more than I had looked
for. I knew that it was likely that she would soon be missed and
sought for; yet I could not think of leaving her to that chance,
with the bridge broken moreover.

I gave the bridle to Kolgrim then to hold.

"Let me see your nurse," I said gently; "I have some skill in these
troubles."

She led me into the house without a word. All the lower story was
in one great room, with a hearth and bright fire thereon in the
centre. Beyond that was a low bed, to which the maiden went. A very
old woman, happed in furs and heavy blankets, lay on it, and it
needed but one look to tell me that she needed no care but the
last. Past need of flight was she, for she was dead, though so
peacefully that her watcher had not known it.

"The sleep is good, is it not?" the maiden said, looking anxiously
into my face.

"It is good, lady," I answered, taking off my helm. "It is the best
sleep of all--the sleep that heals all things."

The maiden looked once at the quiet face, and once more at me, with
wide eyes, and then she knew what I meant, and turned quickly from
me and wept silently.

I stood beside her, not daring to speak, and yet longing to be on
the road. And so still were we that Kolgrim got off his horse and
came to the door and called me, though not loudly.

I stepped back to him.

"Come again in a few minutes and say one word--'Saxons'" I
whispered, "then we shall go."

He nodded and drew back. I think the maiden had not heard me move,
for she was bent over the bed and what lay thereon. It seemed very
long to me before I heard my comrade at the door.

"Saxons, master!" he said loudly.

"Say you so?" I answered, and then I touched the maiden's arm
gently.

"Lady, we must go quickly," I said. "The dame is past all help of
ours, and none can harm her. Come, I pray you."

She stood up then, still looking away from me, and I drew the
covering over the still face she gazed at.

"You must leave her, and I know these Saxons will not wrong the
dead," said I gently. "Your father will miss you."

"I am keeping you also in danger," she answered bravely. "I will
come."

"Loth to go am I," she said, as she gathered her wrappings to her
and made ready very quickly, "for it seems hard. But hard things
come to many in time of war."

After that she ceased weeping, and was, as I thought, very brave in
this trouble, which was indeed great to her. And when she was clad
in outdoor gear, she bent once more over the bed as in farewell,
while I turned away to Kolgrim and made ready the horses. Then she
came, and mounted behind me on a skin that I had taken from a chair
before the hearth.

Then we were away, and I was very glad. The good horse made nothing
of the burden, and we went quickly. Many a time had I ridden
double, with the rough grip of some mail-shirted warrior round my
waist, as we hurried back to the ships after a foray; but this was
the first time I had had charge of a lady, and it was in a strange
time and way enough. I do not know if it was in the hurry of
flight, or because they had none, but the horses had no saddles
such as were for ladies' use.

So I did not speak till we were half a mile from the house, and
then came a hill, and we walked, because I feared to discomfort my
companion. Then I said:

"Lady, we are strangers, and know not to whom we speak nor to whom
we must take you."

There was a touch of surprise in her voice as she answered:

"I am the Lady Thora, Jarl Osmund's daughter."

Then I understood how this was the chief to whom the man I spoke
with first had bidden me go for orders. It was plain now that he
was up and down among the host ordering all things, and deeming his
daughter in safety all the while. He had not had time to learn how
his cowardly folk had fled and left their mistress, fearing perhaps
the sickness of the old dame as much as the Saxon levies.

Now no more was said till we came to the riverside, where the flood
tide was roaring through the broken timbers of the bridge. The
fisher slept soundly despite the noise of wind and water, and
Kolgrim had some trouble in waking him.

"How goes the flight?" I asked him when he came ashore with the
boat's painter in his hand.

"Faith, master, I know not. I have slept well," he said.

Now by this time it seemed to me that I ought to take the lady into
a safe place, and I would go myself rather than leave her to the
fisherman, who was rough, and hated the Danes heartily, as I knew.
Moreover, I had a new plan in my head which pleased me mightily.
Then I thought that if I were to meet any man who suspected me,
which was not likely, the Lady Thora would be pass enough for me.
So I told Kolgrim to bide here for me, and he said at first that he
must be with me. However, I made him stay against his will at last,
telling him what I thought.

Then the fisher put us across quickly, and went back to the far
side to wait my return.

I asked Thora where I must take her to find the jarl.

"To his house, surely," she said.

"I do not know the way from here," I answered; "I fear you must
lead me."

"As you will," she said, wondering. "It is across the town
certainly."

That was bad for me, perhaps, but I should find that out presently.
So we went across the open, and came to the road through the town
along which I had been before. It was clearer, though there were
yet many people about.

Now when we were in the shadow of the first houses, Thora stopped
suddenly and looked hard at me.

"Will you tell me if I am heading you into danger?" she said.

"What danger is possible?" I answered. "There are no Saxons here
yet."

"Not one?" she said meaningly. "I may be wrong--it does seem
unlikely but I think you do not belong to us. Your speech is not
like ours altogether, and your helm is gold encircled, as if you
were a king."

"Lady," I said, "why should you think that I am not of your people?
Let us go on to the jarl."

"Now I know that you are not. Oh, how shall I thank you for this?"

Then she glanced at my helm again, and drew a sudden little quick
breath.

"Is it possible that you are Alfred of Wessex? It were like what
they say of him to do as you have done for a friendless maiden."

Then she caught my hand and held it in both of hers, looking half
fearfully at me.

"Lady," I said, "I am not King Alfred, nor would I be. Come, let us
hasten."

"I will take you no further," she said then. "Now I am sure that
you are of the Northmen that were seen with the Saxons. You are not
of us, and I shall lose you your life."

Then came the quick trot of horses, and I saw a little troop coming
down the street, their arms flashing in the streaks of moonlight
between the houses.

"I will see you in good hands, Lady Thora," I answered. "Who are
these coming?"

"It is my father," she said, and drew me back deeper into shadow.

After the horsemen and beside them ran men who bore planks and
ropes, and it was plain that the jarl had found out his loss, and
hastened to bridge the gap and cross the river.

I saw that I could keep up the pretence no longer.

"Let me walk behind you as your servant," I said. "If any heed me,
I pray you make what tale you can for me."

"What can I say to you in thanks?" she cried quickly, and letting
go my hand which she yet held. "If you are slain, it is my fault.
Tell me your name at least."

"Ranald Vemundsson, a Northman of King Alfred's," I said. "Now I am
your servant--ever."

Then Thora left my side suddenly, and ran forward to meet the
foremost horseman--for they were close to us--calling aloud to
Osmund to stay. And he reined up and leaped from his horse with a
cry of joy, and took her in his arms for a moment.

I got my cloak around me, pulling the hood over my helm, and stood
in the shadow where I was. I saw the jarl lift his daughter into
the saddle, and the whole troop turned to go back. The footmen cast
down their burdens where each happened to be, and went quickly
after them; and I was turning to go my way also, when a man came
riding back towards me.

"Ho, comrade," he said, "hasten after us. Mind not the things left
in the boat. There is supper ere we go."

I lifted my hand, and he turned his horse and rode away, paying no
more heed to me. That was a good tale of things left that Thora had
made in case I was seen to be going back to the boat.

Then I waxed light hearted enough, and thought of my other plan.
Kolgrim saw me coming, and the boat was ready.

"Have you flint and steel?" I said to the fisher as I got into the
boat.

"Ay, master, and tinder moreover, dry in my cap."

"Well, then, take me to those ships we saw. I have a mind to scare
these Danes."

It was a heavy pull against the sea to where they lay afloat now,
though it was not far. I fired all three in the cabins under the
fore deck, so that, as their bows were towards the town, the light
would not be seen till I was away.

Then we went swiftly back to Kolgrim, and as I mounted and rode
off, the blaze flared up behind us, for the tarred timbers burned
fiercely in the wind.

"That will tell Odda that the Danes are flying. And maybe it will
save Wareham town from fire, for they will think we are on them. So
I have spoiled Jarl Osmund's supper for him."

Then I minded that this would terrify the Lady Thora maybe, and
that put me out of conceit with my doings for a moment. But it was
plain that she was brave enough, for there were many things to fray
her in the whole of this matter, though perhaps it was because
Kolgrim stayed beyond the river that she made so sure that I was a
man of King Alfred's and no friend to the Danes.

So we rode away, pleased enough with the night's work, and reached
Poole in broad daylight, while the gale was slackening. Well
pleased was Odda to see me back, and to hear my news.

Then he asked me what I would do next. There seemed to be no more
work at sea, and yet he would have me speak with King Alfred and
take some reward from him. And I told him that the season grew
late, and that I would as soon stay in England for this winter as
anywhere.

"What will you do next in the matter of these Danes, however?" was
my question.

Then he said:

"I must chase them through the country till they are within the
king's reach. He has the rest pent in Exeter, and there will be
trouble if they sail out to join these. I must follow them,
therefore, end send men to Alfred to warn him. Then he will know
what to do. Now I would ask you to take the ships back into the
river Exe and join us there."

I would do that willingly, and thought that if the wind held fair
after the gale ended, I might be there before he joined the king by
land. But I should have to wait for a shift to the eastward before
sailing.

So Odda brought his men ashore, and marched on Wareham and thence
after the Danes, not meaning to fight unless some advantage showed
itself, for they were too many, but to keep them from harming the
country. And I waited for wind to take me westward.

Then the strange Norsemen left us. They had gained much booty in
the Danish ships, for they carried what had been won from the
Saxons, and what plunder should be taken was to be their share in
due for their services. They were little loss, for they were
masterless vikings who might have given trouble at any time if no
plunder was to be had, and I was not sorry to see them sail away to
join Rolf Ganger in France.

Now these men would have followed me readily, and so I should have
been very powerful at sea, or on any shore where I cared to land.
But Odda had made me feel so much that I was one in his counsel,
and a friend whom he valued and trusted, that I had made this
warfare against the Danes my own quarrel, as it were in his
company. Already I had a great liking for him, and the more I heard
of Alfred the king, the more I wished to see him. At the least, a
man who could build ships like these, having every good point of
the best I knew, and better than any ever heard of before, was
worth speaking with. I thought I knew somewhat of the shipwright's
craft, and one thinks much of the wisdom of the man who is easily
one's master in anything wherein one has pride.

Moreover, Alfred's men were wont to speak of him with little fear,
but as if longing for his praise. And I thought that wonderful,
knowing only Harald Fairhair and the dread of him.



Chapter V. Two Meetings in England.


It was not long before the shift of wind that I looked for came,
and at once I took all the ships round to the river Exe. Odda had
left me all the seamen he had, and they were enough for the short,
fair passage. We came to the haven in the river, and there heard
what news there was, and it was good enough. Odda had sent
well-mounted men to reach the king by roads away from the
retreating Danes, and he had been ready for them. He drew off his
levies from before the walls of the town, and let his enemies pass
him; then he and Odda fell on their rear and drove them into
Exeter, and there was holding them. It was well done; for though
the host sallied from the town to meet the newcomers, they gained
nothing but a share in the rout that followed when Odda closed on
the rear guard and the king charged the flank.

Now we heard that as soon as we landed. And then I had my first
knowledge of the ways of a Saxon levy. For no sooner were the ships
berthed than their crews began to leave them, making for their
homes.

One or two men I caught in the act of leaving in the early morning,
and spoke sharply to them, for it seemed that soon there would be
ships enough and not a man to tend them. Whereon they answered:

"We have done what we were called up for, and more also. Now may
others take our places. What more would you have? We have won our
victory, and the ships are not needed for a while."

So they went, and nothing I could say would stay them. I waxed
angry on that, and I thought I might as well sail for Ireland as
not. There seemed no chance of doing aught here, where men would
throw away what they had won of advantage.

So I went back to my own ship and sat under the after awning, in no
good temper. Thord and Kolgrim were yet busy in and about the
vessels, making all secure, and setting men to work on what needed
repairing. Presently Harek the scald came and sat with me, and I
grumbled to my heart's content about this Saxon carelessness and
throwing away of good luck.

Many Saxons--men from camp, and freemen of the place, and some
thanes--came, as one might expect, to stare at the ships and their
prizes. I paid no heed to them as the day went on, only wishing
that Odda would come and speak to me about his doings, for I had
sent word to him that we were in the river. Sometimes a thane would
stay and speak with me from the wharf alongside which my own ship
was with one or two others, and they were pleasant enough, though
they troubled me with over many thanks, which was Odda's fault.
However, I will say this, that if every man made as little of his
own doings and as much of those of his friends as did the honest
ealdorman, it were well in some ways.

By and by, while we were talking, having got through my grumble,
Kolgrim came along the shore with some Saxon noble whom he had met;
and this stranger was asking questions about each ship that he
passed. I suppose that Kolgrim had answered many such curious folk
already; for when he came near and we could hear what he was
saying, I was fain to laugh, for, as sailors will, he was telling
the landsman strange things.

"What do we pull up the anchor with?" he was saying. "Why, with
yonder big rope that goes from masthead to bows." and he pointed to
the great mainstay of our ship. "One must have a long purchase, if
you know what that is."

"Ah, 'tis wonderful," said the Saxon.

Then he caught my eye, and saw that I was smiling. He paid no heed
to me, however, but looked long at the ship that lay astern of
ours--one of the captured Danes. Thord had set a gang of shore folk
to bend the sail afresh to a new yard, for the old one had been
strained in the gale that came before the fight.

"What are those men doing, friend?" he asked Kolgrim directly.

"Bending a sail," answered my comrade listlessly, trusting, as it
would seem, to the sea language for puzzlement enough to the
landsman.

"So," said the Saxon, quite quietly. "It was in my mind that when a
sail was bent to the yard it was bent with the luff to the fore end
thereof."

At which words Kolgrim started, in a way, and looked first at the
riggers and then back at the Saxon, who moved no muscle of his
face, though one might see that his eyes twinkled. And I looked at
the riggers also, and saw that the Saxon was right, and that the
men had the square-cut sail turned over with the leech forward and
the luff aft. The sail was half laced to the yard, and none but a
man who knew much of ships would have seen that aught was wrong.

Then Kolgrim's face was so red, and angry, and full of shame all at
once, that I had the best laugh at him that had come to me for many
a day. And he did not bide with the Saxon any longer, but went on
board the ship hastily, and said what he had to say to the riggers.
The Saxon stood, and looked after him with a smile breaking over
his pleasant face, and I thought that maybe I owed him some amends
for my comrade's rough jesting, though indeed he had his revenge.

So I came ashore and spoke to him. He was a slight, brown-haired
man of about thirty, bearded and long-haired after the Saxon
fashion, and I thought he seemed to be recovering from some wound
or sickness that had made him white and thin. He wore his beard
long and forked, which may have made him look thinner; but he
seemed active and wiry in his movements--one of those men who make
up for want of strength by quickness and mastery of their weapons.
Soberly dressed enough he was, but the cloth of his short cloak and
jerkin was very rich, and he had a gold bracelet and brooch that
seemed to mark him as high in rank.

"My comrade has been well caught, thane," I said; "he will be more
careful what tales he tells the next comer. But I think he was
tired of giving the same answers to the same questions to all who
come to see us."

"Likely enough," the Saxon answered, laughing a little. "I asked to
see the prizes and the vikings' ships, and he showed me more than I
expected."

Then he looked along the line of vessels that he had not yet
passed, and added:

"I thought there were more Norse ships with Odda."

I told him how the other vikings had left us with their plunder at
Wareham, saying that I thought they could well be spared at that
time.

"However," I said, "I did not count on the Saxons leaving their
vessels so soon."

"Then I take it that I am speaking with King Ranald, of whom Odda
has so much to say," he said, without answering my last words.

"I am Ranald Vemundsson," I said; "but this ship is all my kingdom
now. Harald Fairhair has the land that should have been mine. I am
but a sea king."

Then he held out his hand, saying that there was much for which
every Saxon should thank me, and I passed that by as well as I
could, though I was pleased with the hearty grip he gave me.

"So long as Odda is satisfied it is enough," I said. "If I have
helped him a little, I have helped a man who is worth it."

"Well," said the thane, "you seem to be pleased with one another.
Now I should like to see this ship of yours, of which he has so
much to say."

We went over her, and it was plain that this thane knew what he was
talking about. I wondered that the king had not set him in command
instead of Odda, who frankly said what was true--that he was no
sailor. I supposed that this man, however, was not of high rank
enough to lead so great a gathering of Saxons, and so I said
nothing to him about it.

By and by we sat on the after deck with Harek, and I had ale
brought to us, and we talked of ship craft of all sorts. Presently,
however, he said:

"What shall you do now--if one may ask?"

"I know not. When I sailed from Wareham, I thought to have seen
more sea service with Alfred your king. But now his men are going
home, and in a day or two, at this rate, there will be none left to
man the ships."

"We can call them up again when need is," he answered.

"They should not go home till the king sends them," I said. "This
is not the way in which Harald Fairhair made himself master of
Norway. Once his men are called out they know that they must bide
with him till he gives them rest and sends them home with rewards.
It is his saying that one sets not down the hammer till the nail is
driven home, and clinched moreover."

"That is where the Danes are our masters," the Saxon said, very
gravely. "Our levies fight and disperse. It was not so in the time
of the great battles round Reading that brought us peace, for they
never had time to do so. Then we won. Now the harvest wants
gathering. Our people know they are needed at home and in the
fields."

"They must learn to know that home and fields will be better served
by their biding in arms while there is a foe left in the land. What
says Alfred the king?" I said.

"Alfred sees this as well as you, or as any one but our freemen,"
he answered; "but not yet can he make things go as he knows they
should. This is the end at which he ever aims, and I think he will
teach his people how to fight in time. I know this, that we shall
have no peace until he does."

"Your king can build a grand ship, but she is of no use without men
in her day by day, till they know every plank of her."

"Ay," said the Saxon; "but that will come in time. It is hard to
know how to manage all things."

"Why," I said, "if the care of a ship is a man's business, for that
he will care. You cannot expect him to care for farm and ship at
once, when the farm is his living, and the ship but a thing that
calls him away from it."

"What then?"

"Pay the shipman to mind the sea, that is all. Make his ship his
living, and the thing is done."

"It seems to me," the thane said, "that this can be done. I shall
tell the king your words."

"As you will," I answered; "they are plain enough. I would say also
that Harald our king has about him paid warriors whose living is to
serve him, and more who hold lands on condition that they bear arms
for him at any time."

Now Harek had listened to all this, and could tell the thane more
of Harald's ordering of things than I; so he took up the talk for a
time, and presently asked about the war and its beginning.

"Faith," answered the Saxon, with a grim smile, "I cannot tell when
the war began, for that was when the first Danes came to the
English shores. But if you mean the trouble that is on hand now, it
is easily told. Ten years has this host been in England--coming
first with Ingvar and Halfden and Hubba, the three sons of Lodbrok.
Ingvar has gone away, and Guthrum takes his place. Halfden is in
Northumbria, Hubba is in Wales, and Guthrum is king over East
Anglia and overlord of Mercia. It is Guthrum against whom we are
fighting."

"He is minded to be overlord of all England," said Harek.

"That is to be seen if a Dane shall be so," the Saxon answered,
flushing. "We beat them at first, as I have said, and have had
peace till last year. Then they came to Wareham from East Anglia.
There they were forced to make peace, and they swore on the holy
ring {v} to depart from Wessex; and we, on our part, swore
peace on the relics of the holy saints. Whereon, before the king,
Alfred, was ware of their treachery, they fell on our camp, slew
all our horsemen, and marched here. Then we gathered the levies
again--ay, I know why you look so impatiently, King Ranald--and
came here after them. As for the rest, you have taken your part.
Now we have them all inside these walls, and I think we have done."

Then his face grew dark, and he added:

"But I cannot tell. What can one do with oath breakers of this
sort?"

Then I said:

"Surely you do not look for the men of one chief to be bound by
what another promises?"

He looked wonderingly at me for a moment, and then said:

"How should it be that the oath of their king should not bind the
people?"

"Why," said I, "you have spoken of several chiefs. If Guthrum
chooses to make peace, that is not Halfden's business, or Hubba's,
or that of any chief who likes it not. One is as free as the
other."

"What mean you? I say that Guthrum and his chiefs swore by the
greatest oath they knew to return to Mercia."

"If they swore by the holy ring, there is no doubt that they who
swore would keep the oath. But that does not bind those who were
against the peace making. So I suppose that they who held not with
the peace made by the rest fell on you, when your levies went home
after their wont. One might have known they would do so."

Thereat the thane was silent for a while, and I saw that he was
troubled. It seemed to be a new thought to him at this time that
the Danish hosts in England were many, and each free to act in the
way its own chief thought best, uniting now and then, and again
separating. This he must needs have learned sooner or later, but
the knowledge came first to him there before Exeter walls.

Presently he said:

"I have believed that all the Danes were as much one under Guthrum
their king as are my folk under theirs. I cannot see the end of
this war."

"It will end when Alfred the king is strong enough always to have
men in the field to face every leader that will fall on him," Harek
said. "What King Ranald says is true. It is as if his own father
had minded what Harald had sworn in the old days."

"Wherefore Harald brought all Norway under him, that every man
should mind what he said," the Saxon answered.

Then came three or four more thanes along the shore, and he rose up
and waved his hand to them.

"Here are more butts for Kolgrim," he said, laughing. "Now, King
Ranald, I must go to my friends. But I have learned much. I think
you must speak with the king before you go, and I will tell him all
you have said."

"Maybe we shall meet again," said I, taking his offered hand. "I
think I would see Alfred; but he is over wise, from all accounts,
to learn aught from me."

"King Alfred says that wisdom comes little by little, and by
learning from every one. I belong to the court, and so shall surely
meet you if you do come to speak to him."

Then I asked the thane's name.

"Godred {vi} men say it is," he answered, laughing; "but that
means better counsel than belongs to me."

So he went ashore and joined the thanes, who had gone slowly along
the road, and we lost sight of him.

"Yonder goes a pleasant comrade enough," I said to Harek.

"Ay," the scald answered; "but if that is not Alfred the king
himself, I am much in error."

"It is not likely. I think he is a bigger man and older, from all
accounts," I said carelessly. "Moreover, he would not have put up
with Kolgrim's jests as he did."

"One knows not; but I thought he spoke of 'my folk' once. And he
seemed to ask more than would a simple thane, and in a different
way."

However, it seemed to me that Harek had found a marvel for himself,
and I laughed at him for supposing that Alfred the king would come
there to speak to any man.

Now towards evening Odda came, and with him many servants and a
train of wagons. He would make a feast for us in the best house of
the village, by the king's order. Every one of us was called, and
all the leading Saxon shipmen, when all was ready, and it was a
kingly feast enough.

While they were making it ready, the ealdorman came to me on board
the ship, and welcomed me in most friendly wise.

"I have a message for you, King Ranald," he said presently. "Some
thanes have been to me from the king, and he bids me ask you to
come and speak with him."

"I saw a thane here this morning who was anxious for me to see the
king," I said. "A pleasant man enough--one Godred."

"Ay, Godred is pleasant enough," Odda said, smiling, "but he is a
terrible man for asking questions."

He laughed again, as if he knew the man well, and was pleased to
think of him and his ways.

"None of his questions are foolish, however," I said. "I was
pleased with him."

"It is well if you pleased him, for he is a powerful man at court,"
said Odda.

"I do not know if I pleased him, or if it makes any difference to
me what power he has," I said carelessly. "If I want any man to
speak for me to the king--which is not likely--I should come to you
first."

"Speak for yourself," laughed Odda, "that is the best way with
Alfred."

So we planned to go to Exeter with the next morning's light. Odda
would bide here for the night, after the feast.

Now after we had finished eating, and the ale and mead and the wine
the king had sent in our honour were going round, and the gleemen
were singing at times, there came a messenger into the house, and
brought me a written message from the king himself, as he said.

"Much good are these scratches to me," said I to Odda. "Can you
read them?"

"I can read nought but what is written in a man's face," he said.

So I gave the scroll to Harek, who sat next me, thinking that maybe
the scald could read it. He pored over it for a while.

"It is of no use, king," he said. "It is in my mind that I know
which is the right way up of the writing, but I am not sure."

So I laughed, and asked aloud if any man present could read. There
were a good many thanes and franklins present to feast in our
honour.

Then rose up a man, in a long brown hooded habit girt with a cord,
from below the salt where he sat among the servants. He had a long
beard, but was very bald. His hair grew in a thick ring round his
head; which was strange, for he seemed young.

"I am here, ealdorman," he said to Odda; "I will read for King
Ranald."

Now all eyes turned to see who spoke, and in a moment Odda rose up
hastily and went down the long room till he came to where the man
stood. Then I was amazed, for the ealdorman went on one knee before
him, and said:

"Good my lord, I knew not that you were here among the crowd. I
pray you come to the high seat."

"When will you remember that titles and high places are no longer
pleasing to me?" the man said wearily. "I tire of them all. Rise
up, Odda, my friend, and let me be."

"I will not rise without your blessing, nevertheless," said the
ealdorman.

Whereon the man spoke a few words to him softly and quickly,
signing with his hand crosswise over him.

Then I said to those about me, who were watching all this in
silence:

"Who is this strange man?"

"It is Neot the holy, King Alfred's cousin," one answered,
whispering.

"That is a strange dress for an atheling," I said; but they hushed
me.

Now it seemed that Odda tried again to draw this Neot to the high
table, but he would not come.

Then I said to old Thord, who sat over against me beyond Odda's
empty chair:

"This is foolishness; or will he not honour the king's guests?"

But a thane shook his head at me, whispering behind his hand:

"It is humbleness. He has put his rank from him, and will not be
held as being above any man."

Then spoke old Thord:

"Maybe he can put his rank away among men who know him not, and
that is a good humbleness in a way. But where all know what his
birth is, he has but to be humble and kind in ways and speech, and
then men will think more thereof than they will if they see him
pretending to be a churl."

Now Thord's voice was rough with long years of speaking against the
wash of the waves, and the thunder of wind in sail and rigging, and
the roll and creak of oars; and as he said this, every one turned
towards him, for a silence had fallen on the crowd of folk who
watched Neot the king's cousin and his strife with Odda.

So Neot heard, and his face flushed a little, and he looked hard at
Thord and smiled curiously, saying:

"In good truth the old warrior is right, and I am foolish to hide
here now I am known. Let me go and sit by him."

Then Odda led him to the upper end of the room, and every one rose
as he passed by. I drew myself nearer to the ealdorman's place, and
made room for him where only the table was between him and Thord,
for that bench was full.

So he put his hand on my shoulder and sat down, looking over to
Thord, and saying with a quiet smile:

"Thanks for that word in season, friend."

But the old warrior was somewhat ashamed, and did but shift in his
seat uneasily.

"Ay, ay," he growled; "I cannot keep my voice quiet."

Neot laughed, and then turned to me and held out his hand for the
king's letter, which I gave him.

He ran his eyes over the writing very quickly, and then said:

"Here is nothing private; shall I read aloud?"

But the thanes fell to talking quickly, and I nodded.

"Alfred the king to his cousin Ranald Vemundsson, greeting. Odda
the ealdorman of Devon, and one Godred, have spoken to me of
yourself--one telling of help given freely and without question of
reward or bargain made, and the other of certain plain words spoken
this morning. Now I would fain see you, and since the said Godred
seems to doubt if you will come to me, I ask it under my own hand
thus. For I have thanks to give both to you and your men, and also
would ask you somewhat which it is my hope that you will not refuse
me. Therefore, my cousin, I would ask you to come with our
ealdorman tomorrow and hear all I would say."

Then Neot said,

"That is all. I think you will not refuse so kindly an invitation.
The writing is the king's own, and here is his name at the end."

So he showed it me. The letter was better written than the name, as
it seemed to me.

"I will take your word for it," I said, laughing as I looked; "but
it is a kindly letter, and I will surely come."

"Ay; he has written to you as to an equal," Odda said.

"That is so. Now I would have the good king know that I am not
that; I am but a sea king. Maybe he thinks that I shall be a good
ally, and makes more of my power than should be. I told Godred the
thane as plainly as I could what I was, this morning."

"Why, then," said Neot, smiling, "Godred has told the king, no
doubt."

"I hope he has," I answered, "but I doubt it. Nevertheless it is
easy to tell the king myself when I see him."

After that we talked about other matters, and it became plain that
this Neot was a wonderfully wise man, and, as I thought, a holy one
in truth, as they called him. There is that about such an one that
cannot be mistaken.

Harek sang for us, and pleased all, and into his song came, as one
might suppose, a good deal about the Asir. And then Neot began to
ask me a good deal about the old gods, as he called them. I told
him what I knew, which was little enough maybe, and so said that
Harek knew all about them, and that he should rather ask him.

He did not care to do that, but asked me plainly if I were a
Christian.

"How should I be?" I said. "Odda is the first Christian man I have
spoken with, to my knowledge. So, if I were likely to leave my own
faith, I have not so much as heard of another."

"So you are no hater of Christians?" he said.

"Surely not. Why should I be? I never thought of the matter."

Then he said:

"Herein you Norsemen are not like the Danes, who hate our faith,
and slay our priests because of their hatred."

"More likely because Christian means Saxon to them, or else because
you have slain them as heathens. Northmen do not trouble about
another nation's faith so long as their own is not interfered with.
Why should they? Each country has its own ways in this as in other
matters."

Thereat Neot was silent, and asked me no more. Hereafter I learned
that hatred of race had made the hatred of religion bitter, until
the last seemed to be the greatest hatred of all, adding terror and
bitterest cruelty to the struggle for mastery.

Presently, before it was very late, Neot rose up and spoke to Odda,
bidding him farewell. Then he came to me, and said:

"Tell the king that we have spoken together, and give him this
message if you will that I go to my place in Cornwall, and shall be
there for a while."

Then he passed to Thord, and took his hard hand and said:

"Good are words that come from an honest heart. I have learned a
lesson tonight where I thought to have learned none."

"I marvel that you needed to learn that," Thord said gruffly.

"So do I, friend," answered Neot; "but one is apt to go too far in
a matter which one has at heart, sometimes before one is aware.
Then is a word in season welcome."

Then he thanked Harek for his songs, and went, the Saxons bowing as
he passed down the long table with Odda.

"That is a wise man and a holy," said Thord.

"Ay, truly," answered the thane who had told me about him. "I mind
when he and Alfred the king were the haughtiest and most
overbearing of princes. But when Neot found out that his pride and
wrath and strength were getting the mastery in his heart, he thrust
himself down there to overcome them. So he grows more saintlike
every day, and has wrought a wondrous change in the king himself.
He is the only man to whom Alfred will listen in reproof."

"That is likely," I said, not knowing aught of the holy bishops who
were the king's counsellors; "kings brook little of that sort. But
why does he wear yon strange dress?"

"He has taken vows on him, and is a hermit," the thane said; but I
did not know what he meant at the time.

It was some Saxon way, I supposed, and cared not to ask more.

So it came to pass that I met one of the two most wonderful men in
England, and I was to see the other on the morrow. Yet I had no
thought that I should care to stay in the land, for it seemed
certain from what Odda told me that peace would be made, and peace
was not my business nor that of my men.

So in a way I was sorry that the war was at an end, seeing that we
came for fighting and should have none.

Then came a thought to me that made me laugh at myself. I was glad,
after all, that we were not going sword foremost into Exeter town,
because of the Lady Thora, who was there. I suppose it would not
have been reasonable had I not had that much thought for the brave
maiden whom I had helped out of danger once.



Chapter VI. Alfred the King.


Odda the ealdorman and I rode gaily into the king's camp in the
bright August morning, with Harek and Kolgrim and Thord beside us,
and after us fifty of my men in their best array; which was saying
much, for Einar the jarl was generous, and we had spoiled Halfdan,
the king's son, moreover. So there was a shouting when we came to
the camp, and men ran together to stare at the vikings and their
king.

In the midst of the camp, which was strong enough, and looked out
on the old city, flew a banner whereon was a golden dragon--the
banner of Wessex. And it stood before a great pavilion, which was
the court for the time, and where we should find the king waiting
for us. There were several other tents joined to this great one, so
that into them the king might retire; and there was a wide space,
round which walked spearmen as sentries, between it and any other
tent.

Some Devon thanes met us, and our men dismounted at the same time
as we. Then Odda led us four to the door of the pavilion, and we
were ushered in with much ceremony.

Inside the great tent was like a round hall, carpeted, and
tapestry-hung in a way I had never seen before. There were many
richly-dressed nobles present, and most of these were grouped round
a high place over against the door, where I saw at once that the
king sat on a throne in all state.

Now, coming from bright sunshine into the cool shadow of the place,
I was dazzled at first; but Kolgrim's eyes were quick, and we had
hardly crossed the threshold, if I might call it so, when he
plucked at my cloak.

"Master," he whispered, "let me bide with the men; this is no place
for me."

"Hush," I whispered; "the king is yonder."

"Ay, master--let me go--the king is Godred whom I jested with."

Harek was smiling, and he pulled Kolgrim forward.

"Have no fear," he said; "those who play bowls expect rubs."

Then the king came down from his throne and towards us. He had on
gilded armour beneath his long, ermine-trimmed blue cloak, and that
pleased me. He had sword and seax, but no helm, though that was on
a table by the throne--for he wore a crown.

Then I too saw that Godred, as he called himself, was, as the scald
had guessed rightly, the king, and I was a little angry that he had
tricked me thus. But he was laughing at Kolgrim as he came, and my
anger passed at once. King or thane, here was a pleasant greeting
enough.

He held out his hand to Odda first and then to me. The Saxon kissed
it, bending one knee, which was doubtless right for him, as owning
allegiance thereto. But I shook hands in our own way, saying:

"Skoal to Alfred the king."

Which seemed to please him, for he answered:

"Welcome to King Ranald. I am glad my letter brought you. My
counsellor, Godred, feared you might not care to come."

"The letter turned the scale, lord king," I said. "Yet I would have
you remember what I said yesterday about my kingship."

"Ay, cousin, I mind it," he answered, laughing. "Also I mind that a
king's son is a king's son, whatever else he may be called."

Then he shook hands with Harek, and after that turned to Kolgrim,
holding out his hand also to him.

"Concerning sails," he said gravely, "I have many questions to ask
you. Is it to the starboard hand that the bolt rope goes, or to the
other board?"

"I pray you to forget my foolishness, lord king," cried Kolgrim,
growing very red and shame faced.

"That I shall not," the king answered, laughing. "I owe you thanks
for such a jest as I have not played on a man for many a long day.
Truly I have been more light hearted for my laugh ever since."

"Ay, lord, you had the laugh of me," Kolgrim said, grinning
uneasily.

Then the king nodded gaily to him and asked who Thord was.

"This is my master in sea craft," said Odda. "Verily I fear him as
I have feared no man since I was at school. But he cured the
seasickness of me."

"Maybe I forgot the sickness when I sent landsmen to sea in all
haste," said the king. "Nevertheless, Thord, how fought they when
blows were going?"

"Well enough, king. And I will say that what I tried to teach them
they tried to learn," answered Thord.

"Wherein is hope. You think that I may have good seamen in time,
therefore?"

"Ay, lord. It is in the blood of every man of our kin to take to
the sea. They are like hen-bred ducklings now, and they do but want
a duck to lead them pondwards. Then may hen cackle in vain for
them."

The king laughed.

"Faith," he said, "I--the hen--drove Odda into the pond. He is,
according to his own account, a poor duckling."

"Let him splash about a little longer, lord king," said Thord.

But Odda spoke with a long face.

"Not so, King Alfred, if you love me. Landsman am I, and
chicken-hearted at sea. Keep the gamecock to mind the farmyard;
there be more birds than ducks needed."

"Make a song hereof, Harek," said the king. "Here is word play
enough for any scald."

Then sang Harek, laughing, and ever ready with verses:

"The gamecock croweth bravely,
And guardeth hawk-scared hen roost;
But when the sea swan swimmeth
Against the shoreward nestings,
There mighty mallard flappeth,
And frayeth him from foray;
Yet shoreward if he winneth,
The gamecock waits to meet him."

"That is in my favour," said Odda. "Mind you the scald's words, I
pray you, lord king, and send me to my right place, even with hawk
on one side and swan on the other."

So a pleasant laugh went round, and then the king went back to his
throne, and spoke words of open thanks to us of the fleet who had
gained him such victory. Good words they were, neither too few nor
too many, such as would make every man who heard them long to hear
the like of himself again.

Now, while he was speaking, men came to the tent door and waited
for his words to end; and then one came forward and told a noble,
who seemed to be ordering the state which was kept, that Danish
lords had come to speak with the king.

It seemed that this was expected, for when he heard it, Alfred bade
that they should be brought in.

There were six of them in all, and they were in handsome dresses,
but without mail, though not unarmed. The leader of them was Jarl
Osmund, whom I had seen for a moment in Wareham street. I thought
that his handsome face was careworn, as though peace would be
welcome to him. But he and all his comrades carried themselves
bravely.

Now there was long converse between the king and these chiefs, and
it seemed that peace would be made.

Yet Alfred's face was hard as he spoke to them--not like the bright
looks with which he had jested with us just now, or the earnest
kingly regard which had gone with his words of thanks.

Presently the Danes said that the whole force would retire into
Mercia beyond Thames, harming none by the way, and keeping peace
thereafter, if the conditions were honourable.

Then the king flashed out into scorn:

"What honour is to be looked for by oath breakers?"

"We are not oath breakers, King Alfred," Osmund said, looking him
in the face.

"Once did the Danes swear to me on their holy ring, which seems to
me to be their greatest oath, and they broke the peace so made.
What is that but that they are forsworn?"

"We swore nought to you, lord king," Osmund said. "Half of the men
with us came newly from across the sea but a week or so since.
Guthrum and those who swore are in their own land."

Then the king glanced at me, suddenly, as it would seem,
remembering what I had told him of the freedom of the chiefs.

"Ha! now I mind me of a word spoken in time," he said. "It has
seemed to me that there was oath breaking; maybe I was wrong. I
will take your words that you have not done so. Is that amends
enough?"

"It is well said, lord king," Osmund answered gravely.

"But," Alfred went on, "I must have the word of every chief who is
in Exeter, and they must speak for every man. Tell me in all truth
if there are those who would not make peace with me?"

Then said Osmund:

"Some will not, but they are few."

"What if you make peace and they do not? what shall you do with
them?"

"They must go their own way; we have no power over them."

"Has not Guthrum?"

"No more than we. A free Dane cannot be hound, unless he chooses,
by another man's word."

Then Alfred said plainly:

"I cannot treat for peace till I have the word of every chief in
Exeter. Go your ways and let that be known."

So Osmund bowed, and went out with his fellows. And when he had
gone, the king turned to me.

"Have I spoken aright, King Ranald?"

"In the best way possible, lord king," I answered.

"Go after those Danish lords," the king said to one of his thanes,
"and bid them to feast with me tonight, for I think that I have
said too much to them."

So they were bidden to the king's feast presently, and I suppose
they could do nought but come, for it was plain that he meant to
honour them. After they had gone back into the town, Alfred spoke
with my men, and what he said pleased them well.

Then he went to his resting tent, and I walked with Odda to his
quarters, and sat there, waiting for the king to send for me to
speak with him, as I expected. But word came that he would wait
till he had heard more of the Danish answer to his message before
we spoke together of that he had written of to me. So he prayed me
to wait in the camp till he had seen the Danes again, and told Odda
to find quarters for us.

"So we shall have a good talk together," the ealdorman said. "I am
glad you are not going back to the ships yet."

So was I, for all this fresh life that I had not seen before
pleased me. Most of all I wished to see more of Alfred and the
state in which he lived.

Now, just when I was ready for the feast, and was sitting with
Odda, there came a guard to the tent and said that the chief of the
Danes was seeking King Ranald.

Then Odda said:

"What wills he? we have no traffic with Danes."

"He would speak with King Ranald," the man said.

Then said I:

"If it is Osmund the jarl, I think I know why he comes.--Let him
come in here and speak before you, ealdorman."

"Why, do you know him?"

"I cannot rightly say that I do, but I nearly came to do so."

Then Odda wondered, and answered:

"Forgive me; one grows suspicious about these Danes. I will go
hence, and you shall speak with him alone. Maybe he wants your word
with the king, because you know the ways of the viking hosts."

"No," said I; "stay here. Whatever it is he has to say cannot be
private; nor would I hear anything from him that you might not."

"As you will. Let him come here," Odda said; and the man went out.

Then entered Jarl Osmund, richly dressed for the king's feast, and
he looked from one of us to the other as we rose to greet him.
Suddenly he smiled grimly.

"I looked to find strangers, and was about to ask for King Ranald.
However, Odda the ealdorman and I have met before, as I am
certain."

"Faith, we have," said Odda. "Nor am I likely to forget it. It was
at Ashdown fight."

"And elsewhere," said the jarl. "But it was ever fair fighting
between us."

"Else had you slain me when I was down," said Odda frankly, and
with a smile coming into his face.

"The score is even on that count," said Osmund, and with that, with
one accord their hands met, and they laughed at each other.

That was good to see, and ever should things be so between brave
foes and honest.

Then Osmund looked at me.

"Now have I met with two men whom I have longed to see," he said,
"for you must be King Ranald Vemundsson. Two foes I have--if it
must be so said--of whom I have nought but good to say."

"So," laughed Odda. "When fought you twain, and which let the other
go?"

"We have not fought," the jarl answered. "But I have deeper reason
for thanking Ranald than for sparing my own life, or for staying a
blow in time out of sheer love of fair play."

Then he took my hand and looked me in the face.

"It was a good deed and noble that you wrought for me but the other
day," he said earnestly. "I do not know how to thank you enough. My
daughter laid command on me that I should seek you and tell you
this; but indeed I needed no bidding when I heard how she escaped."

"I had been nidring had I not helped a lady in need," I said, being
in want of better words.

"What is all this?" said Odda; for I had told him nought of the
matter, not seeing any reason to do so.

Then Osmund must needs tell him of what Kolgrim and I had done; and
the ealdorman laughed at me, though one might see that the affair
pleased him.

"This king," he said, "having no kingdom of his own, as he says,
goes about helping seasick ealdormen and lonely damsels, whereby he
will end with more trouble on his hands than any kingdom would give
him."

"I am only one," I said; "Kolgrim and Thord are in this also."

Then Osmund took a heavy gold bracelet from his arm.

"This is for Kolgrim, your comrade," he said, half doubtfully, "if
I may give it him in remembrance of a brave deed well done. Will he
be too proud to accept it?"

"I may give it him, certainly," I said, taking the gift.

Then Odda would not be behindhand, and he pulled off his own
armlet.

"If Kolgrim is to be remembered, Thord will never be forgotten.
Give this to him in sheer gratitude for swearing at me in such wise
that he overcame the sore sickness that comes of the swaying of the
deck that will not cease."

"Give it him yourself, ealdorman," I said. "You know him over well
to send it by another. It would not be so good a gift."

"As you will," he answered. "But I fear that viking terribly. Black
grows his face, and into his beard he blows, and the hard Norse
words grumble like thunder from his lips. Then know I that Odda the
ealdorman has been playing the land lubber again, and wonder what
is wrong. Nor is it long ere I find out, and I and my luckless crew
are flying to mind what orders are howled at us. In good truth, if
Alfred ever needs me to hurry in aught, let him send Thord the
viking to see that I do so. One may know how I fear him, since I
chose rather to risk battle with Jarl Osmund on shore than to bide
near him in my own ship any longer."

Then the jarl and I laughed till our sides ached, and Odda joined
us when he could not help it, so doleful was his face and solemn
were his words when he told his tale. But I knew that he and Thord
were the best of friends after those few days in the ship together,
and that the rough old viking had given every man of the crew
confidence. Nevertheless he was apt to rage somewhat when things
went in slovenly wise.

So Odda helped me through with Osmund's thanks, and I was glad. I
was glad also that the horns blew for the feast, so that no more
could be said about the Wareham doings.

Now I sat close to King Alfred at the feast, and saw much of his
ways with men. I thought it plain that he had trouble at times in
keeping back the pride and haughtiness which I had heard had been
the fault in both Neot and himself, for now and then they showed
plainly. Then he made haste to make amends if one was hurt by what
he had said in haste. But altogether I thought him even more kingly
than the mighty Harald Fairhair in some ways.

Truly he had not the vast strength and stature of Norway's king,
but Alfred's was the kingliness of wisdom and statecraft.

Once I said to Odda:

"Can your king fight?"

"Ay, with head as well as with hand," he answered. "His skill in
weapon play makes up for lack of weight and strength. He is maybe
the best swordsman and spearman in England."

I looked again at him, and I saw that since last I turned my eyes
on him he had grown pale, and now his face was drawn, and was
whitening under some pain, as it would seem; and I gripped Odda's
arm.

"See!" I said, "the king dies! he is poisoned!"

And I was starting up, but the ealdorman held me back.

"I pray you pay no heed," he said urgently. "It is the king's dark
hour; he will be well anon."

But nevertheless Alfred swayed in his seat, and two young thanes
who stood waiting on him came to either side and helped him up, and
together they took him, tottering, into the smaller tent that
opened behind the throne; while all the guests were silent, some in
fear, like myself, but others looking pityingly only.

Then a tall man in a dress strange to me--a bishop, as I knew
presently--rose up, and said to those who knew not what was the
matter:

"Doubtless all know that our good king is troubled with a strange
illness that falls on him from time to time. This is such a time.
Have no fear therefore, for the pain he suffers will pass. He does
not will that any should be less merry because of him."

So the feast went on, though the great empty chair seemed to damp
the merriment sadly. I asked Odda if this trouble often befell the
king.

"Ay, over often," he said, "and one knows not when it will come. No
leech knows what it is, and all one can say is that it seems to
harm him not at all when it has gone."

I asked no more, but the king did not come back to the feast, as he
would at times when things happened thus. It seemed that often the
trouble fell on him when feasting, and some have said that it was
sent to prevent him becoming over proud, at his own prayer
{vii}.

Soon the Danes rose up, and would go. Some of the great thanes set
them forth with all honour, and the feast ended. There was no long
sitting over the wine cup at Alfred's board, though none could
complain that he stinted them.

Then the tall bishop who had spoken just now came to me.

"The king will speak with you now, King Ranald, if you will come,"
he said.

So I went with him, and Odda came also. The king was lying on a
couch without his heavy state robes, and when we entered the small
tent the attendants left him. He was very pale, but the pain seemed
to have gone, and he looked up pleasantly at me.

"My people are used to this, cousin," he said, "but I fear I put
you out sorely."

"I thought you poisoned," I said; "but Odda told me not to fear."

"Ay, that has been the thought of others before this," he said.
"Have you ever seen the like in any man? I ask every stranger, in
hopes that I may hear of relief."

"No, I have not, lord king," I answered; "but I can grave runes
that will, as I think, keep away such pain if you bear them on you.
Thord, whom you know, taught me them. Maybe it would be better for
him to grave them, for runes wrongly written are worse than none,
and these are very powerful."

"That is a kindly thought, cousin," Alfred answered; "but I am sure
that no runes will avail when the prayers of my people, from holy
Neot to the little village children, do not. And I fear that even
would they heal me, I must sooner bear the pain than seek to magic
spells."

"Nay, but try them, King Alfred," I said; "there is no ill magic in
them."

Now he saw that I was in earnest, and put me by very kindly.

"I must ask Sigehelm, our bishop here, who is my best leech next to
Neot.

"What say you, father?"

"Even as you have said, my king."

"Maybe, bishop," said I, "you have never tried the might of runes?"

Whereat the good man held up his hands in horror, making no answer,
and I laughed a little at him.

"Well, then," said the king, "we will ask Neot, for mostly he seems
to say exactly what I do not."

"Neot has gone to Cornwall, and I had forgotten to give you that
message from him. He says he will be there for a time," I said,
rather ashamed at having let slip the message from my mind.

"So you saw him?" said Alfred.

"I knew he went to the ships yesterday after Godred came back," he
added, laughing.

"He read my letter for me, and after that I had a good deal of talk
with him," I said.

"Then," said Sigehelm, "you have spoken with the best man in all
our land."

Now the king said that he would let the question of the runes, for
which he thanked me, stand over thus; and then he asked me to sit
down and hear what he would ask me to do for him, if I had no plans
already made for myself.

I said that I had nothing so certainly planned but that I and my
men would gladly serve him.

"Then," he said, "I would ask you to winter with me, and set my
ships in order. There will be work for you and all your men, for
you shall give them such command in any ship of mine as you know
they are best fitted for. I would ask you to help me carry out that
plan of which you spoke to me when I was Godred."

When Odda heard that, he rubbed his hands together, saying:

"Ay, lord king, you have found the right man at last."

"Then in the spring you shall take full command of the fleet we
will build and the men we shall raise; and you shall keep the seas
for me, if by that time we know that we can work well together."

He looked hard at me, waiting my answer.

"Lord king," I said at last, "this is a great charge, and they say
that I am always thought older than I am, being given at least five
winters beyond the two-and-twenty that I have seen;" for I thought
it likely that the king held that I had seen more than I had.

"I was but twenty when I came to the throne," he answered. "I have
no fear for you. More than his best I do not look for from any man;
nor do I wonder if a man makes mistakes, having done so many times
myself."

Here Sigehelm made some sign to the king, to which he paid no heed
at the time, but went on:

"As for your men, I will give them the same pay that Harald of
Norway gives to his seamen, each as you may choose to rank them for
me. You may know what that is."

"Harek the scald knows," I said. "They will be well pleased, for
the pay is good, and places among Harald's courtmen are much sought
for."

Then Alfred smiled, and spoke of myself.

"As for King Ranald himself, he will be my guest."

"I am a wandering viking, and I seem to have found great honour," I
said. "What I can do I will, in this matter. Yet there is one thing
I must say, King Alfred. I would not be where men are jealous of
me."

"The only man likely to be so is Odda," the king answered. "You
must settle that with him. It is the place that he must have held
that you are taking. No man in all England can be jealous of a
viking whose business is with ships. But Odda put this into my mind
at first, and then Godred found out that he was right."

"Lord king," said I, "had I known who you were at that time, I
should have spoken no differently. We Northmen are free in speech
as in action."

"So says Odda," replied Alfred, smiling. "He has piteous tales of
one Thord, whom you sent to teach him things, and the way in which
he was made to learn."

"Nevertheless," said Odda, "I will not have Thord blamed, for it is
in my mind that we should have learned in no other way so quickly."

Again the bishop signed to the king, and Alfred became grave.

"Here is one thing that our good Sigehelm minds me of. It seems
that you are a heathen."

"Why, no, if that means one who hates Christians," I said.
"Certainly I do not do that, having no cause to do so. Those whom I
know are yourself, and Neot, and Odda, and one or two more only."

"That is not it," said the king. "What we call a heathen is one who
worships the old gods--the Asir."

"Certainly I do that--ill enough."

"Then," said Alfred, while Odda shifted in his seat, seeming
anxious as to how I should take this, "it is our rule that before a
heathen man can serve with us, he shall at least be ready to learn
our faith, and also must be signed with the cross, in token that he
hates it not {viii}."

"Why should I not learn of your faith?" I said. "Neot asked me of
mine. As for the other, I do not know rightly what it means. I see
your people sign themselves crosswise, and I cannot tell why,
unless it is as we hallow a feast by signing it with Thor's
hammer."

"It is more than that," Alfred said, motioning to Sigehelm to say
nothing, for he was going to speak. "First you must know what it
means, and then say if you will be signed therewith."

Then he said to Sigehelm:

"Here is one who will listen to good words, not already set against
them, as some Danes are, by reason of ill report and the lives of
bad Christians. Have no fear of telling him what you will."

Now, if I were to serve King Alfred, it seemed to me to be only
reasonable that I should know the beliefs of those with whom I had
to do. Then I minded me of Neot, and his way of asking about my
gods, as if the belief of every man was of interest to him.

"Here is a deep matter to be talked of, King Alfred," I said. "It
does not do to speak lightly and carelessly of such things. Nor am
I more than your guest as yet, willing to hear what you would have
me know. When winter has gone, and you know if I shall be any good
to you, then will be question if I enter your service altogether,
and by that time I shall know enough. Maybe I shall see Neot again;
he and I began to speak of these things."

Then Sigehelm said:

"I think this is right, and Neot can tell you more in a few words
than I in many. Yet whatever you ask me I will try to tell you."

"I want to speak with Neot," answered the king, "and we will ride
together and seek him when peace is made. I have many things to say
to him and ask him. We will go as soon as it is safe."

So ended my talk with King Alfred at that time, and I was well
content therewith. So also were my men, for it was certain that
every one of them would find some place of command, were it but
over a watch, when Alfred's new sea levies were to be trained.

Many noble Saxons I met in the week before peace was made with the
Danes in Exeter, for all the best were gathered there. Most of all
I liked Ethered, the young ealdorman of Mercia, and Ethelnoth, the
Somerset ealdorman, and Heregar, the king's standard bearer, an
older warrior, who had seen every battle south of Thames since the
long ago day when Eahlstan the bishop taught his flock how to fight
for their land against the heathen.

These were very friendly with me, and I should see more of them if
I were indeed to ward the Wessex coasts, and for that reason they
made the more of me.

Now I saw no more of Osmund the jarl, for Odda knew that the lesser
folk would mistrust me if I had any doings with the Danes. Maybe I
was sorry not to see the Lady Thora; but if I had seen her, I do
not know what I should have said to her, having had no experience
of ladies' ways at any time, which would have made me seem foolish
perhaps.



Chapter VII. The Pixies' Dance.


I do not know that there is anything more pleasant after long weeks
at sea than to have a good horse under one, and to be riding in the
fresh winds of early autumn over new country that is beautiful in
sunlight. So when at last every Danish chief had made submission,
and the whole host had marched back to what they held as their own
land in Mercia, going to Gloucester, as was said, with Odda and
Ethered the ealdormen hanging on their rear with a great levy, I
rode with King Alfred to find Neot his cousin gaily enough. Thord
stayed with the ships, but the scald and Kolgrim were with me, and
the king mounted us well. Ethelnoth of Somerset came also, and some
forty men of the king's household; and all went armed, for the
country we had to cross was of the wildest, though we went by the
great road that runs from west to east of England, made even before
the Romans came. But it crossed the edge of Dartmoor, the most
desolate place in all the land, where outlaws and masterless men
found fastnesses whence none could drive them.

One could not wish for a more pleasant companion than Alfred, and
the miles went easily. We had both hawks and hounds with us, for
there was game in plenty, and the king said that with the ending of
the war, and the beginning of new hopes for his fleet, he would
cast care aside for a little. So he was joyous and free in speech,
and at times he would sing in lightness of heart, and would bid
Harek sing also, so that it was pleasant to hear them. Ever does
Harek say that no man sings better than Alfred of England.

In late afternoon we came to the wild fringe of Dartmoor, and here
the king had a guest house in a little village which he was wont to
use on these journeys to see Neot. We should rest there, and so
cross the wastes in full daylight. So he went in, maybe fearing his
sickness, which was indeed a sore burden to him, though he was wont
to make light of it; but Ethelnoth asked me if we should not spend
the hours of evening light in coursing a bustard or two, for many
were about the moorland close at hand. They would be welcome at the
king's table, he said; and I, fresh from the sea and camp, asked
for nothing better than a good gallop over the wide-stretching
hillsides.

So we took fresh horses from those that were led for us, and rode
away. We took hawks--the king had given me a good one when we
started, for a Saxon noble ever rides with hawk on wrist--and two
leash of greyhounds.

I was for putting my arms aside, but the ealdorman said it was
better not to do so, by reason of the moor folk, who were wild
enough to fall on a small party at times. It was of little moment,
however; for we rode in the lighter buff jerkins instead of heavy
mail, and were not going far.

Ethelnoth took two men with him, and my two comrades were with
me--Kolgrim leading the hounds in leash beside his horse. We went
across the first hillside, and from its top looked northward and
westward as far as one could see over the strange grey wastes of
the moorland.

Then from the heather almost under our feet rose a great bustard
that ran down wind with outstretched wings before us, seeking the
lonelier country. Kolgrim whooped, and slipped the leash, and the
hounds sprang after it, and we followed cheering. It was good to
feel the rush of hillside air in our faces, and the spring and
stretch of the horses under us, and to see the long-reached hounds
straining after the great bird that might well be able to escape
them.

I suppose that Ethelnoth started a second bird. I did not look
behind me to see what any man was doing, but followed the chase
round the spur of a granite-topped hillside, and forgot him. For
when the bustard took wing for a heavy flight, and lit and ran
again, and again flew with wings that failed each time more and
more, while the strong legs were the stronger for the short rest,
and when the good hounds were straining after it, one could not
expect me to care for aught but that.

It had been strange if I thought of anything but the sport. I knew
there were two horsemen close by, a little wide on either flank,
but behind me. So we took the bird after a good chase, and then I
knew that we had in some way shaken off the Saxons, and that we
three vikings were together. It did not trouble us, for one looks
for such partings, and Ethelnoth had his own bounds. So we went on,
and found another bustard, and took it.

"Now we must go back," I said; "one must have a thought for the
king's horses."

So we turned, and then a heron rose from a boggy stream below us,
and that was a quarry not to be let go. I unhooded the falcon and
cast her off, and straightway forgot everything but the most
wonderful sight that the field and forest can give us--the dizzy
upward climbing circles of hawk and heron, who strive to gain the
highest place cloudwards, one for attack, the other for safety.

The evening sunlight flashed red from the bright under feathers of
the strong wings as the birds swung into it from the shadow of the
westward hill, and still they soared, drifting westward with the
wind over our heads. Then with a great rushing sound the heron gave
up, and fell, stone-like, from the falcon that had won to air above
him at last. At once the long wings of his enemy closed halfway,
and she swooped after him.

Then back and up, like a sword drawn at need, went the heron's
sharp beak; and the falcon saw it, and swerved and shot past her
nearly-taken prey. Again the heron began to tower up and up with a
harsh croak that seemed like a cry of mockery; then the wondrous
swing and sweep of the long, tireless wings of the passage hawk,
and the cry of another heron far off, scared by its fellow's note;
and again for us a canter over the moorland, eye and hand and knee
together wary for both hawk above and good horse below, till the
falcon bound to the heron, and both came to the ground, and there
was an end in the grey shadow of the Dartmoor tors. Ay, but King
Alfred's hawk was a good one!

"Now, where shall we seek Ethelnoth?" I said.

"No good seeking him," said Harek. "We had better make our way back
to the village."

We coupled up the greyhounds again and hooded the falcon, and rode
leisurely back over our tracks for some way. The sun set about that
time into a purple bank of mist beyond the farther hills. One does
not note how the miles go when one finds sport such as this, and
presently we began to be sure that we had ridden farther than we
had thought. We knew, as we thought, the direction from which we
had come, and steered, sailor-wise, by the sunset. But we could
take no straight course because of the hills, and we were as often
off the line as on.

Then crept up the mist from the valleys, and we had nought to steer
by, for the wind dropped. Then I said:

"Let the horses take us home; they know better than we."

So we rode on slowly until darkness came, but never saw so much as
a light that might guide us. And presently we let the dogs loose,
thinking that they would go homewards. But a greyhound is not like
a mastiff, and they hung round us, careless, or helpless, in the
mists and darkness.

Presently we came to a place where the horses stopped of their own
accord. There was a sheer rock on one side, and the hill was steep
below us, and a stream brawled somewhere before us.

"Well," I said, "here we stay for the night. It is of no use
wandering any longer, and the night is warm."

We thought nothing of this, for any hunter knows that such a chance
may befall him in a strange and wild country. So we laughed
together and off-saddled and hobbled the horses, and so sat down
supperless to wait for morning under the rock. The mist was clammy
round us, thinning and then thickening again as the breaths of wind
took it; but the moon would rise soon, and then maybe it would go.

We had no means of making a fire, and no cloaks; so sleep came
hardly, and we talked long. Then the dogs grew uneasy, and
presently wandered away into the fog and darkness. I thought that
perhaps they heard some game stirring, and did not wonder at them.

Now I was just sleeping, when I heard the sharp yelp of a dog in
pain, and sat up suddenly. Then came a second, and after that the
distant sound of voices that rose for a moment and hushed again.

"We must be close to the village after all," I said, for my
comrades were listening also; "but why did the hounds yell like
that?"

"Some old dame has taken the broomstick to them," said Kolgrim.
"They are hungry, and have put their noses into her milk pails."

"It is too late for open doors," I said; "unless they have found
our own lodging, where some are waiting for us. But there they
would not be beaten."

"Ho!" said Kolgrim, in another minute or so, "yonder is a fire."

The wind had come round the hillside and swept the mist away for a
moment, and below us in the valley was a speck of red light that
made a wide glow in the denser fog that hung there. One could
hardly say how far off it was, for fog of any sort confuses
distance; but the brook seemed to run in the direction of the fire,
and it was likely that any house stood near its banks.

"Let us follow the brook and see what we can find," I said
therefore. "These mists are chill, and I will confess that I am
hungry. We cannot lose our way if we keep to the water, and the
horses will be safe enough."

Anything was better, as it seemed to us, than trying to think that
we slept comfortably here, and so we rose up and went down the
banks of the stream at once; and the way proved to be easy enough,
if rocky. The bank on this side was higher, and dry therefore, so
that we had no bogs to fear. We knew enough of them in the Orkneys
and on the Sutherland coast.

The white mist grew very thick, but the firelight glow grew redder
as we went on, and at last we came near enough to hear many voices
plainly; but presently, when one shouted, we found that the tongue
was not known to us.

"Now it is plain whom we have come across," I said. "This is a camp
of the Cornish tin traders, of whom the king told us. They are
honest folk enough, and will put us on the great road. They must be
close to it."

That seemed so likely that we left the brook and began to draw
nearer to the fire, the voices growing plainer every moment, though
we could see no man as yet.

Now, all of a sudden, every voice was silent, and we stopped,
thinking we were heard perhaps; though it did seem strange to me
that no dogs were about a camp of traders. I was just about to call
out that we were friends, when there began a low, even beating, as
of a drum of some sort, and then suddenly a wild howl that sounded
like a war cry of maddened men, and after that a measured tramping
of feet that went swiftly and in time to a chant, the like of which
I had never heard before, and which made me grasp Harek by the arm.

"What, in Odin's name, is this?" r said, whispering.

"Somewhat uncanny," answered the scald. "Let us get back to the
horses and leave this place."

Then we turned back, and Kolgrim's foot lit on a stone that rolled
from under it, and he fell heavily with a clatter of weapons on the
scattered rocks of the stream bank.

There was a howl from the firelight, and the chanting stopped, and
voices cried in the uncouth tongue angrily, and there came a
pattering of unshod feet round us in the thickness, with a word or
two that seemed as if of command, and then silence, but for
stealthy footfalls drawing nearer to us. And I liked it not.

We pulled Kolgrim up, and went on upstream, drawing our swords,
though I yet thought of nothing but tin merchants whom we had
disturbed in some strange play of their own. Doubtless they would
take us for outlaws.

Now through the fog, dark against the flickering glow of the fire,
and only seen against it, came creeping figures; and I suppose that
some dull glitter of steel from helms or sword hilts betrayed us to
them, for word was muttered among them, and the rattle of stones
shifted by bare feet seemed to be all round us. I thought it time
to speak to them.

"We are friends, good people," I said. "We mean no harm, and have
but lost our way."

There was a whistle, and in a moment the leaping shadows were on
us. Kolgrim went down under a heavy blow on his helm, and lay
motionless; and Harek was whirled by a dozen pairs of hands off his
feet, and fell heavily with his foes upon him. I slew one, or
thought I slew him, and I stood over Kolgrim and kept them back
with long sword sweeps, crying to them to hold, for we were
friends--King Alfred's guests.

Now they were yelling to one another, and one threw a long-noosed
line over me from behind. It fell over my arms, and at once they
drew it tight, jerking me off my feet. As I went down, a howling
crowd fell on me and took the good sword from me, and bound me hand
and foot, having overpowered me by sheer numbers.

Then they looked at Kolgrim, and laughed, and left him. I was sure
he was dead then, and I fell into a great dumb rage that seemed
like to choke me.

They dragged the scald and me to the fire, and I saw into what
hands we had fallen, and I will say that I was fairly afraid. For
these were no thrifty Cornish folk, but wild-looking men, black
haired and bearded, clad in skins of wolf, and badger, and deer,
and sheep, with savage-eyed faces, and rough weapons of rusted iron
and bronze and stone. So strange were their looks and terrible in
the red light of the great fire, that I cried to Harek:

"These be trolls, scald! Sing the verses that have power to scare
them."

Now it says much for Harek's courage that at once he lifted up no
trembling voice and sang lustily, roaring verses old as Odin
himself, such as no troll can abide within hearing of, so that
those who bore him fell back amazed, and stared at him. Then I saw
that on the arms and necks of one or two of these weird folk were
golden rings flashing, and I saw, too, that our poor greyhounds lay
dead near where I was, and I feared the more for ourselves.

But they did not melt away or fly before the spells that Harek
hurled at them.

"These be mortal men," he said at last, "else had they fled ere
now."

By this time they had left me, helpless as a log, and were standing
round us in a sort of ring, talking together of slaying us, as I
thought. I mind that the flint-tipped spears seemed cruel weapons.
At last one of them said somewhat that pleased the rest, for they
broke into a great laugh and clapped their hands.

"Here is a word I can understand," said Harek, "and that is
'pixies.'"

But I was looking to see where our swords were, and I saw a man
take them beyond the fire and set them on what seemed a bank, some
yards from it. Then they went to the scald and began to loosen his
bonds, laughing the while.

"Have a care, Harek," I cried. "Make a rush for the swords beyond
the fire so soon as you are free."

"I am likely to be hove into the said fire," said the scald, very
coolly. "Howbeit I see the place where they are."

Then he gave a great bound and shout: but the numbers round him
were too great, and they had him down again, and yet he struggled.
This was sport to these savages, and those who were not wrestling
with him leaped and yelled with delight to see it. And I wrestled
and tore at my bonds; but they were of rawhide, and I could do
nothing.

Then Harek said, breathing heavily:

"No good; their arms are like steel about me."

Then some came and dragged me back a little, and set me up sitting
against a great stone, so I could see all that went on. Now I
counted fifty men, and there were no women that I could see
anywhere. Half of these were making a great ring with joined hands
round the fire, and some piled more fuel on it--turf and branches
of dwarf oak trees--and others sat round, watching the dozen or so
that minded Harek. One sat cross-legged near me, with a great pot
covered tightly with skin held between his knees.

Next they set Harek on his feet, and led him to the ring round the
fire. Two of the men--and they were among the strongest of
all--loosened their hands, and each gripped the scald by the wrist
and yelled aloud, and at once the man beat on the great pot's cover
drum-wise, and the ring of men whirled away round the fire in the
wild dance whose foot beats we had heard as we came. Then those who
sat round raised the chant we heard also.

I saw Harek struggle and try to break away; but at that they
whirled yet more quickly, and he lost his footing, and fell, and
was dragged up; and then he too must dance, or be haled along the
ground. My eyes grew dizzy with watching, while the drum and the
chant dulled into a humming in my brain.

"This cannot go on for long," I thought.

But then, from among those who sat round and chanted, I saw now one
and now another dart to the ring and take the place of a dancer who
seemed to tire; and so at last one came and gripped Harek's wrist
and swung into the place of his first holder before he knew that
any change was coming, and so with the one on the other side of
him.

Then it was plain that my comrade must needs fall worn out before
long, and I knew what I was looking on at. It was the dance of the
pixies, in truth--the dance that ends but with the death of him who
has broken in on their revels--and I would that I and Harek had
been slain rather with Kolgrim by the stream yonder.

At last the scald fell, and then with a great howl they let him go,
flinging him out of the circle like a stone, and he lay in a heap
where they tossed him, and was quite still.

Then the dancers raised a shout, and came and sat down, and some
brought earthen vessels of drink to refresh them, while they began
to turn their eyes to me, whose turn came next.

Whereon a thought came into my mind, and I almost laughed, for a
hope seemed to lie in a simple trick enough. That I would try
presently.

Now I looked, and hoped to see Harek come to himself; but he did
not stir. He lay near the swords, and for the first time now,
because of some thinning of the mist, I saw what was on the bank
where these had been placed. There was a great stone dolmen, as
they call it--a giant house, as it were, made of three flat stones
for walls, and a fourth for a roof, so heavy that none know how
such are raised nowadays. They might have served for a table, or
maybe a stool, for a Jotun. The two side walls came together from
the back, so that the doorway was narrow; and a man might stand and
keep it against a dozen, for it was ten feet high, and there was
room for sword play. One minds all these things when they are of no
use to him, and only the wish that they could be used is left.
Nevertheless, as I say, I had one little hope.

It was not long before the savage folk were ready for my dance, and
they made the ring again, refreshed. The drum was taken up once
more, and a dozen men came and unbound me. I also struggled as
Harek had struggled, unavailingly. When I was quiet they led me to
the circle, and I watched for my plan to work.

When I was within reach of the two who should hold me, I held out
my hands to grasp theirs, without waiting for them to seize me. The
man on my right took my wrist in a grasp like steel; but the other
was tricked, and took my hand naturally enough. Whereat my heart
leaped.

"Now will one know what a grip on the mainsheet is like!" I
thought; and even as the hand closed there came the yell, and the
thud of the earthen drum, and I was whirled away.

Now I kept going, for my great fear was that I should grow dizzy
quickly. I was taller than any man in the ring, and once I found
out the measure of the chant I went on easily, keeping my eyes on
the man ahead of me. That was the one to my right; for they went
against the sun, which is an unlucky thing to do at any time.

Once we went round, and I saw the great dolmen and the gleam of
sword Helmbiter beneath it. Then it was across the fire, and again
I passed it. I could not choose my place, as it seemed, and
suddenly with all my force I gripped the hand I held and around the
hones of it together, so that no answering grip could come. In a
moment the man let go of his fellow with the other hand, and
screamed aloud, and cast himself on the ground, staying the dance,
so that those after him fell over us. I let go, and swung round and
smote my other holder across the face; and he too let go, and I was
free, and in the uproar the dancers knew not what had happened.
Smiting and kicking, I got clear of them, and saw that the dolmen
towered across the fire, and straightway I knew that through the
smoke was the only way. I leaped at it, and cleared it fairly,
felling a man on the other side as I did so.

Then I had Helmbiter in my hand, and I shouted, and stepped back to
the narrow door of the dolmen, and there stood, while the wild men
gathered in a ring and howled at me. One ran and brought the long
line that had noosed me before, but the stone doorway protected me
from that; and one or two hurled spears at me, clumsily enough for
me to ward them off.

So we stood and watched each other, and I thought they would make a
rush on me. Harek lay within sweep of my sword, and his weapon was
nearer them than me, and one of them picked it up and went to
plunge it in him.

Then I stepped out and cut that man down, and the rest huddled back
a little at my onslaught. Whereon I drew my comrade back to my
feet, lest they should bring me out again and noose me.

As I did that, the one who seemed to be the chief leaped at me,
club in air; but I was watching for him, and he too fell, and I
shouted, to scare back the rest.

There was an answering shout, and Kolgrim, with the Berserker fury
on him, was among the wild crowd from out of the darkness, and his
great sword was cutting a way to my side.

Then they did not stay for my sword to be upon them also, but they
fled yelling and terror stricken, seeming to melt into the mist. In
two minutes the firelit circle was quiet and deserted, save for
those who had fallen; and my comrade and I stared in each other's
faces in the firelight.

"Comrade," I cried in gladness, "I thought you were slain."

"The good helm saved me," he answered; "but I came round in time.
What are these whom we have fought?"

I suppose the fury kept him up so far, for now I saw that his face
was ashy pale, and his knees shook under him.

"Are you badly hurt?" I asked.

"My head swims yet--that is all. Where is the scald?"

I turned to him and pointed. Kolgrim sat down beside him and bent
over him, leaning against the stone of the great dolmen.

"I do not think he is dead, master," he said. "Let us draw him
inside this house, and then he will be safe till daylight--unless
the trolls come back and we cannot hold this doorway till the sun
rises."

"They are men, not trolls," I said, pointing to the slain who lay
between us and the fire in a lane where Kolgrim had charged through
them, "else had we not slain them thus."

"One knows not what Sigurd's sword will not bite," he said.

"Why, most of that is your doing," I said, laughing a little.

But he looked puzzled, and shook his head.

"I mind leaping among them, but not that I slew any."

Now I thought that he would be the better for food. There had been
plenty of both food and drink going among these wild people,
whatever they were, and they had not waited to take anything. So I
said I would walk round the fire and see what I could find, and
went before he could stay me.

I had not far to go either, for there were plentiful remains of a
roasted sheep or two set aside with the skins, and alongside them a
pot of heather ale; so that we had a good meal, sitting in the door
of the dolmen, while the moon rose. But first we tried to make
Harek drink of the strong ale. He was beginning to breathe heavily
now, and I thought he would come round presently. Whether he had
been hurt by the whirling of the dance or by the fall when they
cast him aside, I could not tell, and we could do no more for him.

"Sleep, master," said Kolgrim, when we had supped well; "I will
watch for a time."

And he would have it so, and I, seeing that he was refreshed, was
glad to lie down and sleep inside the dolmen, bidding him wake me
in two hours and rest in turn.

But he did not. It was daylight when I woke, and the first ray of
the sun came straight into the narrow doorway and woke me. And it
waked Harek also. Kolgrim sat yet in the door with his sword across
his knees.

"Ho, scald!" I said, "you have had a great sleep."

"Ay, and a bad dream also," he answered, "if dream it was."

For now he saw before us the burnt-out fire, and the slain, and the
strangely-trampled circle of the dance.

"No dream, therefore," he said. "Is it true that I was made to
dance round yon fire till I was nigh dead?"

"True enough. I danced also in turn," I said.

And then I told him how things had gone after his fall.

"Kolgrim has fought, therefore, a matter of fifty trolls," I said;
"which is more than most folk can say for themselves."

Whereat he growled from the doorway:

"Maybe I was too much feared to know what I was doing."

We laughed at him, but he would have it so; and then we ate and
drank, and spoke of going to where we had left the horses, being
none so sure that we should find them at all.

Now the sun drank up the mists, and they cleared suddenly; and when
the last wreaths fled up the hillsides and passed, we saw that the
horses yet fed quietly where we had left them, full half a mile
away up the steep rise down which the stream came.

And it was strange to see what manner of place this was in
daylight, for until the mist lifted we could not tell in the least,
and it was confused to us. Now all the hillsides glowed purple with
heather in a great cup round us, and we were on a little rise in
the midst of them whereon stood the dolmen, and the same hands
doubtless that raised it had set up a wide circle of standing
stones round about it, such as I have seen in the Orkneys. It was
not a place where one would choose to spend the night.

There was no sign of the wild folk anywhere outside the stone
circle. They had gone, and there seemed no cover for them anywhere,
unless they dwelt in clefts and caves of the bare tors around us.
So we feared no longer lest there should be any ambush set for us,
and went about to see what they had left.

There were the long line that had noosed me, the earthen drum with
its dry skin head, the raw hide thongs we had been bound with, and
the food and drink; and that was all save what weapons lay round
the slain, and the bodies of the two good greyhounds.

"These are but men, and not trolls as one might well think," I
said, looking on those who lay before us.

One whom I had slain had a heavy gold torque round his neck, and
twisted gold armlets, being the chief, as I think. Kolgrim took
these off and gave them to me, and then he went to the drum and
dashed it on a stone and broke it, saying nothing.

"Let us be going," I said. "These folk will come back and see to
their dead."

But Kolgrim looked at the drumhead and took it, and then coiled the
long line on his arm.

"Trust a sailor for never losing a chance of getting a new bit of
rigging," said Harek, laughing; for he seemed none the worse for
the things of last night, which indeed began to seem ghostly and
dreamlike to us all. "But what good is the bit of skin?"

"Here be strange charms wrought into it," Kolgrim said. "It will
make a sword scabbard that will avail somewhat against such like
folk if ever we meet them again."

Truly there were marks as of branded signs on the bit of skin, and
so he kept it; and I hung the gold trophies in my belt, and Harek
took some of the remains of our supper: and so we went to the
horses, seeing nothing of the wild men anywhere.

Very glad were the good steeds to see us come, and the falcon, who
still sat on the saddle where I had perched her, spread her wings
and ruffled her feathers to hear us. I unhooded and fed her; and we
washed in the stream, and set out gaily enough, making southward,
for so we thought we should strike the great road. And at last,
when we saw its white line far off from a steep hillside, I was
glad enough.

I cannot tell how we had reached our halting place through the
hills in the dark, nor could I find it again directly. It was
midday before we reached the road, riding easily; so that, what
with the swift gallop of the hunting and the long hours of riding
in mist and darkness, we had covered many miles. We saw no house
till we were close to the road, and then lit on one made of stones
and turf hard by it, where an old woman told us that no party had
been by since daylight.

So we turned eastward and rode to meet the king, and did so before
long. He had left men at his village to wait for us in case we came
back there; but he laughed at us for losing ourselves, though he
said he had no fear for sailors adrift in the wilds when Ethelnoth
came in without us.

But when, as we rode on, I told him what had befallen us, he
listened gravely, and at last said:

"I have heard the like of this before. Men say that the pixies
dwell in the moorland, and will dance to death those who disturb
them. What think you of those you have seen?"

I said that, having slain them, one could not doubt that they were
men, if strange ones.

"That is what I think," he answered. "They are men who would be
thought pixies. Maybe they are the pixies. I believe they are the
last of the old Welsh folk who have dwelt in these wilds since the
coming of the Romans or before. There were the like in the great
fens of East Anglia and Mercia when Guthlac the Holy went there,
and he thought them devils. None can reach these men or know where
they dwell. Maybe they are heathen, and their dance in that stone
ring was some unholy rite that you have seen. But you have been
very far into the wastes, and I have never seen those stones."

And when he handled the gold rings, he showed me that they were
very old; but when he handled the drumhead and looked at the marks
thereon, he laughed.

"Here is the magic of an honest franklin's cattle brand. I have
seen it on beasts about the hills before now. The pixies have made
a raid on the farmer's herds at some time."

Now I think that King Alfred was right, and that we had fallen into
the hands of wild Welsh or Cornish moor folk. But one should hear
Kolgrim's tale of the matter as he shows his sword sheath that he
made of the drumhead; for nothing would persuade him that it was
not of more than mortal work.

"Had the good king been in that place with us, he would have told a
different tale altogether," he says.

So we went on our journey quietly, and ever as we went and spoke
with Alfred, I began to be sure that this pale and troubled king
was the most wondrous man that I had ever seen. And now, as I look
back and remember, I know that in many ways he was showing me that
the faith he held shaped his life to that which seemed best in him
to my eyes.

I know this, that had he scoffed at the Asir, I had listened to
Neot not at all. But when we came to his place, I was ready, and
more than ready, to hear what he had to tell me.



Chapter VIII. The Black Twelfth-Night.


When we came to the little out of the way village among the Cornish
hills near which Neot, the king's cousin, had his dwelling, I
thought it strange that any one should be willing to give up the
stirring life at court for such a place as this. Here was only one
fair-sized house in the place, and that was built not long before
by the king for his own use when he came here, which was often. And
Neot's own dwelling was but a little stone-walled and turf-roofed
hut, apart from all others, on the hillside, and he dwelt there
with one companion--another holy man, named Guerir, a Welshman by
birth--content with the simple food that the villagers could give
him, and spending his days in prayer and thought for the king and
people and land that he loved.

But presently, as I came to know more of Neot, it seemed good that
some should live thus in quiet while war and unrest were over the
country, else had all learning and deeper thought passed away. It
is certain from all that I have heard, from the king himself and
from others, that without Neot's steady counsel and gathered wisdom
Alfred had remained haughty and proud, well-nigh hated by his
people, as he had been when first he came to the throne.

At one time he would drive away any who came to him with plaints or
tales of wrong and trouble; but Neot spoke to him in such wise that
he framed his ways differently. And now I used to wonder to see him
stay and listen patiently to some rambling words of trifling want,
told by a wayside thrall, to which it seemed below his rank to
hearken, and next I would know that it was thus he made his people
love him as no other king has been loved maybe. There was no man
who could not win hearing from him now.

It is said of him that when Neot showed him the faults in his ways,
he asked that some sickness, one that might not make him useless or
loathsome to his people, might be sent him to mind him against his
pride, and that so he had at first one manner of pain, and now this
which I had seen. It may be so, for I know well that so he made it
good for him, and he bore it most patiently. Moreover, I have never
heard that it troubled him in the times of direst need, though the
fear of it was with him always.

Now what Alfred and Neot spoke of at this time I cannot say, except
that it was certainly some plan for the good of the land. I and my
comrades hunted and hawked day by day until the evening came, and
then would sup plainly with the king, and then sit at Neot's door
in the warm evening, and talk together till the stars came out.

Many things we spoke of, and Neot told me what I would. I cannot
write down those talks, though I mind every word of them. But there
was never any talk of the runes I had offered.

Neot spoke mostly, but Alfred put in words now and then that ever
seemed to make things plainer; and I mind how Ethelnoth the
ealdorman sat silent, listening to questions and answers that maybe
he had never needed to put or hear concerning his own faith.

At first I was only asking because the king wished it, then because
I grew curious, and because I thought it well to know what a
Saxon's faith was if I was to bide among Alfred's folk. Kolgrim
listened, saying nought. But presently Harek the scald would ask
more than I, and his questions were very deep, and I thought that
as days went on he grew thoughtful and silent.

Then one evening the song woke within the scald's breast, and he
said to Neot:

"Many and wise words have you spoken, Father Neot. Hear now the
song of Odin--the Havamal--and tell me if you have aught to equal
it."

"Sing, my son," the good man answered. "Wisdom is from above, and
is taught in many ways."

Then Harek sang, and his voice went over the hillsides, echoing
wonderfully; while we who heard him were very still, unwilling to
lose one word or note of the song. Many verses and sayings of the
"Havamal" I knew, but I had not heard it all before. Now it seemed
to me that no more wisdom than is therein could be found {ix}.

So when Harek ended Neot smiled on him, and said:

"That is a wondrous song, and I could have listened longer. There
is little therein that one may not be wiser in remembering."

"There is nought wiser; it is Odin's wisdom," said Harek.

Now the old hermit, Guerir, Neot's friend, sat on the stone bench
beside the king, and he said:

"Hear the words of the bards, the wondrous 'triads' of old time."

And he chanted them in a strange melody, unlike aught I had ever
heard. And they, the old savings, were wise as the "Havamal"
itself. But he stopped ere long, saying:

"The English words will not frame the meaning rightly. I do no
justice to the wisdom that is hidden."

Then Neot turned to the king, and said:

"Sing to Harek words from the book of Wisdom that we know. I think
you can remember it well."

"I have not rhymed it," the king answered; "but sometimes the song
shapes itself when it is needed."

He took Guerir's little harp and tuned it afresh and sang. And in
the words were more wisdom than in the Havamal or in the song of
the bards, so that I wondered; and Harek was silent, looking out to
the sunset with wide eyes.

Not long did the king sing, as it seemed to us; and when he ceased,
Harek made no sign.

"Sing now, my cousin, words that are wiser than those; even sing
from the songs of David the king."

So said Neot; and Alfred sang again very wondrously, and as with
some strange awe of the words he said. Then to me it seemed that
beside these the words of Odin were as nought. They became as words
of the wisdom of daily life, wrung from the lips of men forced to
learn by hardness and defeat and loss; and then the words that
Alfred had first sung were as those of one who knew more than Odin,
and yet spoke of daily troubles and the wisdom that grows thereout.
But now the things that he sang must needs have come from wisdom
beyond that of men--wisdom beyond thought of mine. And if so it
seemed to me, I know not how the heart of the scald, who was more
thoughtful and knew more than I, was stirred.

He rose up when Alfred ceased, and walked away down the hillside
slowly, as in a dream, not looking at us; and the kindly Saxons
smiled gently, and said nothing to rouse him.

It is in my mind that Harek's eyes were wet, for he had lost
somewhat--his belief in things he held dearest and first of
all--and had as yet found nothing that should take its place. There
is nought harder than that to a man.

When he had passed out of hearing, I said:

"Are there wiser things yet that you may sing?"

"Ay, and that you may learn, my son," answered Neot. "Listen."

Then he spoke words from Holy Writ that I know now--the words that
speak of where wisdom may be found. And he said thereafter, and
truly, that it was not all.

Then I seemed to fear greatly.

"Not now, my king, not now," I said; "it is enough."

Then those two spoke to me out of their kind hearts. Yet to me the
old gods were very dear, and I clung to them. Neither Neot nor the
king said aught against them, being very wise, at that time.

Presently Harek came back, and his eyes were shining.

"Tell me more of this learning," he said, casting himself down on
the grass at Alfred's feet. "Scald have I been since I could sing,
and nought have I heard like this."

"Some day," Neot said; "it is enough now that you should know what
you have heard."

So ended that strange song strife on Neot's quiet hillside. The sun
set, and the fleecy mists came up from the little river below, and
we sat silent till Alfred rose and said farewell, and we went to
the guest house in the village.

Now I think that none will wonder that after we had been with Neot
for those ten days, we were ready and willing to take on us the
"prime signing," as they called it, gladly and honestly. So we were
signed with the cross by Neot, and Alfred and Ethelnoth and Guerir
were our witnesses.

I know that many scoff at this, because there are heathen who take
this on them for gain, that they may trade more openly, or find
profit among Christian folk, never meaning or caring to seek
further into the faith that lies open, as it were, before them. But
it was not so with us, nor with many others. We were free to serve
our old gods if we would, but free also to learn the new faith; and
to learn more of it for its own sake seemed good to us.

So we went back to Exeter with the king, and Neot came for a few
miles with us, on foot as was his wont, parting from us with many
good words. And after he was gone the king was cheerful, and spoke
with me about the ordering of the fleet we were to build, as though
he were certain that I should take command of it in the spring.

And, indeed, after that time there was never any question among us
three vikings about it. It seemed to us that if we had lost Norway
as a home, we had gained what would make as good a country; and,
moreover, Alfred won us to him in such wise that it seemed we could
do nought but serve him. There can be few who have such power over
men's hearts as he.

Exeter seemed very quiet when we came back; for the Danes were
gone, and the king's levies had dispersed, and only the court
remained, though that was enough to make all the old city seem very
gay to those who had known it only in the quiet of peace.

One man was there whom I had hardly thought to meet again, and that
was Osmund the Danish jarl. For he was a hostage in the king's
hands, to make more sure that the peace would be kept. I knew there
were hostages to be given by the beaten host; but I had not asked
who they were, and had been at the ships when they were given up,
ten of them in all, and of the best men among the Danes.

Alfred treated his captives very well, giving them good lodgings,
and bating them often at his own table, so that I saw much of
Osmund. And more than that, I saw much of the Lady Thora, his
daughter, who would not leave him. I do not think that there could
be more certain manner of beginning a close friendship between a
warrior and the lady whom he shall learn to hold first in his
heart, than that in which I first met this fair maiden.

Now one will say that straightway I must fall in love with her, but
it was not so: first of all, because I had not time, since every
day Alfred planned new ships with me and Thord; and next, because I
was his guest, and Osmund was his hostage. Maybe I thought not much
of that, however, not having the thoughts of a Saxon towards a
Dane. But I will say this, that among all the fair ladies of the
queen's household there was none of whom I thought at all; while of
what Thora would say I thought often, and it pleased me that the
Lady Etheldreda, Odda's fair eldest daughter, took pity on the
lonely maiden, and made much of her after a time.

Three weeks I was in Exeter, and then the king went eastward
through his country to repair what damage had been done. Then I
took up my work for him, and got out my ship and sailed westward,
putting into every harbour where a ship might be built, and set the
shipwrights to work, having with me royal letters to sheriffs and
port reeves everywhere that they should do what I ordered them. In
each yard I left two or three of my men, that they should oversee
all things; because if one Saxon thinks he knows better than his
fellow, he will not be ruled by him, whereas no man can dispute
what a born viking has to say about ship craft. It seemed that all
were glad of our coming, and the work began very cheerfully.

All this took long, but at last I came up the Severn, and so into
the river Parret--for the weather would serve me no longer and laid
up the ship in a creek there is at Bridgwater, where Heregar, the
king's standard bearer, was sheriff. He made me very welcome at his
great house near by, at Cannington, and then rode with me to
Bristol; and there I set two ships in frame, and so ended all I
could do for the winter. King Alfred would have a fleet when the
spring came.

Then Heregar and I would go to Chippenham, to spend the time of the
Yule feast with King Alfred; and we rode there with Harek and
Kolgrim, and were made most welcome. Many friends whom I had made
at Exeter were there, and among them, quiet and yet hopeful of
release, were the hostages.

That was a wonderful Yule to me; but I will say little of it, for
the tale of the most terrible Twelfth Night that England has ever
known overshadows it all, though there were things that I learned
at that time, sitting in the church with Harek, at the west end,
and listening, that are bright to me. But they are things by
themselves, and apart from all else.

Now peace was on all the land, and the frost and snow were bright
and sharp everywhere; so that men said that it was a hard winter,
and complained of the cold which seemed nothing to us Northmen.
Maybe there was a foot of snow in deep places, and the ice was six
inches thick on the waters; and the Saxons wondered thereat, saying
that they minded the like in such and such years before. Then I
would tell them tales of the cold north to warm them, but I think
they hardly believed me.

The town was full of thanes and their families who had been called
to Alfred's Yule keeping, and it was very bright and pleasant among
them all, though here and there burnt ruins made gaps between the
houses, minding one that the Danes had held the place not so long
since.

So they kept high feasting for Yule and the New Year, and the last
great feast was for Twelfth Night, and all were bidden for that,
and there was much pleasant talk of what revels should be in the
evening.

The day broke very bright and fair, with a keen, windless frost
that made the snow crisp and pleasant to ride over, hindering one
in no way. And there was the sun shining over all in a way that
made the cold seem nought to me, so that I had known nothing more
pleasant than this English winter, having seen as yet nothing of
the wet and cold times that come more often than such as this.
Then, too, the clear ringing of the bells from every village near
and far was new to me, and I thought I had heard nothing sweeter
than the English call to the church for high festival {x}.

So I went to the king, and asked him if I might take with me the
Danish jarl for a ride beyond the town; for the hostages were only
free inside the walls, and I knew this would please Osmund and
Thora well. I said that I would see to his safety and be answerable
for him.

"This must be Osmund, I suppose," the king said, smiling. "I have
heard how you came to know him and his fair daughter at Wareham. It
was well done, though maybe I should blame you for running
over-much risk."

"I think I ran little, lord king," I said; "and I could have done
no less for the poor maiden."

"Surely; but I meant that to go at all was over dangerous."

"I am ready to do the same again for you, my king," I said. "And
after all I was in no danger."

Then said the king, smiling gravely at me:

"Greater often are the dangers one sees not than those which one
has to meet. I have my own thoughts of what risk you ran.

"Well, take your fair lady and the jarl also where you will. But
the feast is set for two hours after noon, and all must be there."

So I thanked him, and he bade me ask his steward for horses if I
would, and I went straight to Osmund from his presence.

"I think it will be a more pleasant ride than our last," said
Thora. "Yet that is one that I shall not forget."

Then I tried to say that I hoped she did not regret it either, but
I minded me of the loved nurse she had to leave, and was silent in
time. Yet I thought that she meant nothing of sorrow in the
remembrance as she spoke.

We called out my two comrades, for Osmund liked them well, and rode
away northward, that the keen air might be behind us as we
returned. That was all the chance that led us that way, and it was
well that we were so led, as things turned out.

The white downs and woodlands sparkling with frost were very
beautiful as we rode, and we went fast and joyously in the fresh
air; but the countryside was almost deserted, for the farmsteads
were burned when the Danes broke in on the land last spring, and
few were built up as yet. The poor folk were in the town now, for
the most part, finding empty houses enough to shelter them, and
none left to whom they belonged.

Now we rode for twelve miles or so, and then won to a hilltop which
we had set as our turning place. I longed to stand there and look
out over all this country, that seemed so fair after the rugged
northern lands I had known all my life. But when we were there we
saw a farmstead just below us, on the far slope of the gentle hill;
and we thought it well to go there and dismount, and maybe find
some food for ourselves and the horses before turning back.

So we went on. It was but a couple of furlongs distant, and the
buildings lay to the right of the road, up a tree-shaded lane of
their own.

We turned into this, and before we had gone ten yards along it I
halted suddenly. I had seen somewhat that seemed strange, and
unmeet for the lady to set eyes on.

"Bide here, jarl," I said, "and let us go on and see what is here;
the place looks deserted."

And I looked meaningly at him, glancing at Thora.

But he had seen what had caught my eye, and he stayed at once,
turning back into the main road, and beckoning Harek to come with
him and Thora, for some reason of his own.

Then Kolgrim and I went on. What we had seen was a man lying
motionless by the farm gate, in a way that was plain enough to me.
And when we came near, we knew that the man had been slain. He was
a farm thrall, and he had a pitchfork in his hand, the shaft of
which was half cut through, as with a sword stroke that he had
warded from him, though he had not stayed a second cut, for so he
was killed.

"Here is somewhat strangely wrong," I said.

"Outlaws' work," answered Kolgrim; for the wartime had made the
masterless folk very bold everywhere, and the farm was lonely
enough.

We rode through the swinging gate, and then we saw three horses by
the stable yard paling, and with them was an armed man, who saw us
as we came round the house, and whistled shrilly. Whereon two
others came running from the building, and asked in the Danish
tongue what he called for. The first man pointed to us, and all
three mounted at once. They were in mail and helm, fully armed.

Now we were not, for we had thought of no meeting such as this, and
rode in woollen jerkins and the like, and had only our swords and
seaxes, as usual; but for the moment I did not think that we should
need either. Outlaws such as I took them for do not make any stand
unless forced.

Presently one of the men, having mounted leisurely enough, called
to us.

"There is no plunder to be had," he said, "even if you were not too
late; our folk cleared out the place over well last time."

Then a fourth man, one who seemed of some rank, rode from beyond
the house, passing behind us without paying any heed to us, except
that he called to the men to follow him, and so went down the lane
towards where Osmund was waiting with Harek.

All this puzzled me, and so I cried to the three men:

"What do you here? Whose men are you?"

At that they looked at one another--they were not more than ten
yards from us now--and halted.

"You should know that," one said; and then he put his hand to his
sword suddenly, adding in a sharp voice:

"These be Saxons; cut them down."

When hand goes to sword hilt one knows what is coming, and even as
the man said his last words I was on them, and Kolgrim was not a
pace behind me. The Dane's sword was out first; but I was upon him
in time. His horse swerved as mine plunged forward, and I rode him
down, horse and man rolling together in the roadway. Then the man
to my right cut at me, and I parried the blow and returned it. Then
that horse was riderless, and I heard Kolgrim laugh as his man went
down with a clatter and howl.

My horse plunged on for a few steps, and then I turned. Kolgrim had
one horse by the bridle, and was catching that which had fallen. I
caught the other, and so we looked at each other.

"This is your luck, master," said Kolgrim.

"Well," said I, "these are Danes, and I do not think they are
wanderers either. Here are forage bags behind the saddles. One
would say that they were on the march if this were not mid-winter
and time of peace. The horsemen in advance of a host, or the like."

Then Kolgrim said:

"Where has the other man gone? I had forgotten him for the moment."

"Bide here and see if any poor farm folk are yet alive," I said. "I
will ride after him."

So I gave the horse I was holding to my comrade, and went back
quickly down the lane to where Osmund and the other two were. The
man I sought was speaking with the jarl, whose face was white and
troubled. Harek was looking red and angry, but on Thora's face was
written what I could not understand--as it were some fear of a new
terror.

Now it was plain that all three were very glad of my coming; but
the stranger looked round for a single glance, and then went on
speaking to Osmund.

"Be not a fool, jarl," he said angrily. "Here is your chance; let
it not slip."

"I tell you that my word shall not be broken," Osmund replied, very
coldly and sternly.

"What say you, girl?" the man said then, turning to Thora. "Short
shrift will be the jarl's when Alfred finds that we are on him."

But Thora turned away without a word, and then the Dane spoke to
me:

"Here! you are another hostage, I suppose."

"I am not," I answered.

"Well, then, here is Jarl Osmund, if you know him not, and he is
one. Tell him that what I say is true, and that Chippenham town
will be burned out tonight king and all."

I saw that the Dane, seeing that I was armed, and not clad in the
Saxon manner altogether, took me for one of his own people. And
from his words it was plain that some of the Danish chiefs had
broken away from Guthrum, and were making this unheard-of
mid-winter march to surprise Alfred. Most likely they were
newcomers into Mercia, and had nought to do with the Exeter host.

"Maybe it is true," I answered; "but I am no Dane."

He laughed loudly.

"Why, then, you are one of Alfred's Norsemen! Now I warn you to get
away from Chippenham, for it is unsafe, and there will be no king
to pay you tomorrow. I think that you will say with me that it were
better for Osmund to come with me to meet the host than to go back
to Alfred and be hung before he flies--if he gets news of us in
time to do so."

Herein the man was right, for Alfred had warned the chiefs at
Exeter that he held the hostages in surety for peace on the part of
all and any Danes. But I thought I might learn more, so I said:

"Guthrum thinks little of his friends' lives."

"Guthrum!" the Dane answered sneeringly; "what have we to do with
him and his peace making?"

"What then are you Hubba's men?"

"He is in Wales. Think you that we are all tied to the sons of
Lodbrok?"

"You might have worse leaders," I said.

And just then Kolgrim came along the lane, leading the three
horses, and on them were the armour and weapons of the slain. It
was not my comrade's way to leave for other folk aught that was
worth having.

At once the Dane knew what had happened, and he swung his horse
round and spurred it fiercely, making for flight. Then Harek looked
at me and touched his sword hilt, and I nodded. It was well to let
no tidings of our knowledge go back to the host. After the Dane
therefore went Harek, and I looked at Osmund.

"Jarl," I said, "I am in a strait here. If you go back, your life
is in Alfred's hands."

"I know it," he said, smiling faintly. "It is a hard place maybe
for us both, but there is only one way. You must get back to the
king, and I with you; for you have to answer for me, and my word is
passed not to escape."

Then Thora said:

"The king is just, as all men know. How should he slay you for what
you cannot help?"

"Ay," he answered, smiling at her, "that is right."

So she was satisfied, knowing nought perhaps of what the place of a
hostage is.

So we started back to Chippenham quickly, and after us I heard
Harek coming. He had a led horse when he joined us, and I knew that
none would take word to the Danish host that the king was warned.

When we came to the hilltop over which we had ridden so blithely an
hour ago or less, we looked back, and at first saw nothing. Then
over the white brow of a rolling down that shone in the level
sunlight came a black speck that grew and lengthened, sliding, as
it were, like a snake down the hillside. And that line sparkled
like ice in the sunlight from end to end; for it was the Danish
host on the march, and in two hours they would be where we stood,
and in two more they who were mounted would be in Chippenham
streets, where Alfred had not enough men even to guard the gates
against such a force as was coming.

Then we rode hard for the lives of all who were in the town, and as
I went I thought also that we rode to the death of the brave,
honest jarl who was beside me, saying nothing, but never letting
his horse falter. Just as bravely rode Thora.

In an hour we were at the gates, and I rode straight to the king's
house, and sought him on urgent business.

Ethered of Mercia came out to me.

"What is it, Ranald?" he said. "The Witan is set now."

I told him in few words, and his face changed.

"It seems impossible in frost and snow," he said.

"Ay; but there are proofs," I said, pointing through the great
doorway.

There was my party, and Kolgrim was binding a wound on Harek's arm
of which I knew nought till that moment, and the led horses and
spoils were plain enough to say all.

Then Ethered made haste and took me to the great hall, where Alfred
sat with some thirty thanes of his Witan {xi}, and many clergy.
I knew they were to meet on some business that I had nought to do
with. Ethered went to the king without any ceremony, and speaking
low told him my message. Whereon the king's face grew white and
then red, and he flashed out into terrible wrath:

"Forsworn and treacherous!" he cried, in a thick voice that shook
with passion. "The hostages--chain them and bring them here. Their
friends shall find somewhat waiting them here that shall make them
wish they had kept their oaths!"

Then he said to me:

"Speak out, Ranald, and tell these thanes your news."

I spoke plainly, and they listened with whitening faces and
muttered oaths. And when I ceased, one cried, hardly knowing what
he said, as I think:

"This outlander rode with Osmund the Dane to bring them on us even
now."

"Silence!" Alfred said; and then in a cold voice he asked me:

"Where is this Osmund? I suppose he has fled to his people."

"That he has not, though he could have done so," I answered.
"Moreover, the Dane I spoke with said in so many words that this is
no host of Guthrum's."

At that Alfred frowned fiercely.

"Whose then? What good is a king if he cannot make his people keep
their oaths?"

There was a stir at the door, and the eyes of all turned that way.
And when the thanes saw that the hostages were being led in, with
Osmund at their head, a great sullen growl of wrath broke from
them, and I thought all hope was gone for the lives of those
captives.

"Hear you this?" the king said, in a terrible voice, when the noise
ceased. "By the deed of your own people your lives are forfeit.
They have broken the peace, and even now are marching on us. Your
leader, Osmund himself, has seen them."

"It is true," Osmund said. "We are in the king's hands."

Then Alfred turned to the Witan, who were in disorder, and in
haste, as one might see, to be gone to their houses and fly.

"You heard the Danish oath taken at Exeter; what is your word on
this?"

They answered in one voice:

"Slay them. What else?"

"You hear," said the king to the Danes. "Is not the sentence just?"

"It is what one might look for," Osmund answered, "but I will say
this, that this is some new band of Danes, with whom we have nought
to do."

"What!" said Alfred coldly; "will you tell me that any Dane in the
country did not know that I held hostages for the peace? Go to.

"See to this matter, sheriff."

Then the sheriff of Chippenham came forward, and it seemed to me
that it was of no use for me to say aught; yet I would try what I
could do, so I spoke loudly, for a talk had risen among the thanes.

"What is this, lord king? Will you slay Osmund the jarl, who has
kept his troth, even to coming back to what he knew would be his
death? You cannot slay such a man for the oath breaking of others."

Then the king looked long at me, and the sheriff stayed, and at
first I expected passionate words; but the king's rage was cold and
dreadful now.

"His friends slay him--not I," he answered.

Then of a sudden I minded somewhat, and clear before me stood a
test by which I might know certainly if it were good that I should
leave the Asir and follow the way of the white Christ.

"King Alfred," I said, "I have heard the bishop tell, in the great
church here, of a king who slew the guiltless at Christmastide.
There was nought too hard for any to say of that man. Moreover, I
have heard strange and sweet words of peace at this time, of
forgiveness of enemies and of letting go of vengeance. Are these
things nought, or are they indeed those by which you guide
yourselves, as Neot says?"

He was silent, gazing fixedly on me; and all the Witan were
speechless, listening.

"These men are enemies maybe, but they at least have done nought.
Shall you avenge yourself on them for the wrongdoing of others?"

Then the king's face changed, and he looked past me, and in his
eyes grew and shone a wondrous light, and slowly he lifted up his
hand, and cried, in a great voice that seemed full of joy:

"Hear this, O ye Danes and foes of the Cross. For the love of
Christ, and in His name, I bid you go in peace!"

And then, as they stared at him in wonder and awe at his look and
words, Alfred said to me:

"Unbind them, my brother, and let them go--nay, see them safely to
some strong house; for the poor folk may slay them in their blind
anger, even as would I have done."

Then no man hindered me--for it seemed as if a great fear, as of
the might of the holy name, had fallen on all--and I went and cut
the bonds of the captives. And as I did so, Osmund said in a low
voice to me:

"First daughter and then father. We owe our lives to you."

"Nay," I answered, "but to the Christians' faith."

Then I hurried them out before news of what was on hand could get
among the townsfolk, and we went quickly to my lodgings; for that
was a strong house enough, and could be barred in such wise that
even if any tried to attack the place in the flight that would
begin directly, it would take too long to break the doors down to
be safe with the host at hand.

Then came Heregar, armed and mounted, with a single man behind him,
and he called for me.

"Ride out with me, King Ranald, for we must count these Danes, and
see that we are not overrating their number. After that we will
join the king, who goes to Glastonbury."

So I bade farewell to Osmund and to Thora, who said nought, but
looked very wistfully, as if she would say words of thanks but
could not; and at that I went quickly, for it seemed hard to leave
her, in some way that was not clear to me, amid all the turmoil of
the place.

But when we were on the road, Heregar said to me:

"It is in my mind that Osmund, your friend, will fare ill among
these Danes. They will hear how he rode back, and will hold that by
his means the king escaped."

"What can be done?"

"The man is one of a thousand, as it seems to me. Let us bid him
leave the town and get back to Guthrum as he can."

"He can have the Danish horses," I said.

Now before sunset we had seen the Danish force, and our hearts
sank. There were full ten thousand men, many of whom were mounted.

Then we rode back, and found the town in such tumult as it is not
good to think on. There is nothing more terrible to see than such a
flight, and in midwinter.

When we came to my lodging, Heregar went in to find Osmund. I would
not see him again, lest Thora should weep. But in a few minutes he
came out with the jarl.

"Here is a wise man," said Heregar. "He says that he swore to keep
the peace with Alfred, and he will do it. He and the Lady Thora
will go with us. There are one or two also of the other hostages
who blame him for returning. He cannot stay among the Danes here."

Then I was very glad, and we made haste to have all ready for
Thora's comfort on the ride that might be so long. And so we rode
out after the king along the road to Glastonbury, and I think that
the Danes were in the town half an hour after we left it.

Next we knew that Danes were on the road before us, and that more
were hard after us. Some had skirted the town in order to cut off
the king, and were pursuing him. So we struck off the road into
by-lanes that Heregar knew, resting at lonely houses as we went on.
And when we came to Glastonbury at last, the king was not there,
nor did any know of his fate.

Then we rode, with the Danes swarming everywhere, through the
Sedgemoor wastes to Bridgwater, and found rest at Cannington,
Heregar's great house not far off.



Chapter IX. The Sign of St. Cuthberht.


I suppose that in our flight from Glastonbury to Bridgwater we
passed through more dangers than we knew of; for Danes were hard
after us, riding even into sight from the town that evening, and
next day coming even to the eastern end of the old bridge, and
bandying words with the townsfolk who guarded it. Across it they
dared not come, for there is a strong earthwork on the little rise
from the river, which guards both bridge and town, and in it were
my Norsemen with the townsfolk.

So we were in safety for a time; and it seemed likely that we might
be so for long if but a few men could be gathered, for here was a
stretch of country that was, as it were, a natural fastness. Three
hundred years ago the defeated Welsh had turned to bay here while
Kenwalch of Wessex and his men could not follow them; and now it
seemed likely that here in turn would Wessex stand her ground.

It is a great square-sided patch of rolling, forest-covered
country, maybe twelve miles long from north to south, and half as
much across. None can enter it from the north, because there is the
sea, and a wild coast that is not safe for a landing; on the west
the great, steep, fort-crested Quantock Hills keep the border; on
the eastern side is the river Parret, and on the north the Tone,
which joins it. Except at Bridgwater, at the eastern inland corner,
and Taunton, at the western--one at the head of the tidal waters of
the Parret, and the other guarding the place where the Quantocks
end--there is no crossing the great and wide-stretching fens of
Sedgemoor and Stanmoor and the rest that lie on either bank of the
rivers. Paths there are that the fenmen know, winding through mere
and peat bog and swamp, but no host can win through them; and
perhaps those marches are safer borders than even the sea.

If one came from the sea, one must land at Watchet, and then win a
path across the Quantocks, and there is the ancient camp of
Dowsborough to block the way; or else put into the Parret, and
there, at the first landing place, where they say that Joseph of
Arimathaea landed, bearing the holy thorn staff in his hand, is the
strong hill fort of Combwich, old as the days of that Joseph, or
maybe older.

So with walled towns and hill forts the corners of Heregar's land
were kept; and with sea and marsh and hill the sides were strong,
and we thought to find Alfred the king here before us. But he was
not; and next day we rode on to Taunton to seek him there, for that
was the strongest fortress in that part of the west. And again he
was not to be heard of. Then fear for his life began to creep into
our minds, and we came back to Cannington sorely downcast.

Then Heregar spoke to me very kindly of what he thought I could
best do, and it was nothing more or less than that I should leave
this land, which seemed to have no hope of honour for me now.

"Go rather to Rolf, your countryman," he said. "There is great talk
of his doings in Neustria {xii} beyond the Channel. It is your
kindness only that holds you here, King Ranald, and there wait
glory and wealth for you and your men."

So he urged me for a little while, not giving me time to answer him
as I would; but when I said nothing he stayed his words, and then I
spoke plainly, and it was good to see his face light up as I did
so.

"It shall not be said of me that I left King Alfred, who has been
my good friend, in time of trouble; rather will I stay here and do
what I can to help him out of it. Why, there are ships that I have
put in frame for him in the western ports that the Danes will not
reach yet, if at all. When spring comes we will man them and make a
landing somewhere, and so divide the Danish host at least."

"Now I will say no more," answered the thane, putting his hand on
mine. "Speak thus to the king when we find him, and it will do him
good, for I think that when he left Chippenham he was well-nigh
despairing."

"It is hard to think that of Alfred," I said.

"Ay; but I saw his face as he rode away just before I sought you.
Never saw I such a look on a man's face before, and I pray that I
may not see it again. It was terrible to look on him, for I think
he had lost all hope."

"For the time, maybe," I said; "but I cannot believe that when the
first weight of the blow passed he was not himself again."

Presently there came a shift of wind and a quick thaw with driving
rain, and floods grew and spread rapidly in the low-lying lands.
One good thing can be said of this weather, and that was that
because of it the Danes burned neither town nor farmstead, needing
all the shelter they could find.

Three days that gale lasted, and then the wind flew round again to
the north, with return of the frost in even greater strength than
before; and the weather-wise fishers and shepherds said that this
betokened long continuance thereof, and so it seemed likely to be.

But through it all we heard no tidings of the king; and in one way
that was good, for had he been taken by the Danes, they would have
let all men know thereof soon enough. But we feared that he might
have been slain by some party who knew not who he was, and that
fear hung heavily over us all.

Next we had a messenger from Odda, who was at Exeter, asking for
sure word of what had befallen; and the one hope we had yet was
gone, for he too knew nothing.

Very sad and silent was Osmund the jarl, though he and Thora were
most kindly received as honoured guests by the Lady Alswythe and
the household of the thane.

Once I asked him what his plans were, for we were both strangers,
and I knew him best.

"Presently," he said, "I shall try to get back to Guthrum. While I
am here I will be held as if I were no one--as a harmless ghost who
walks the house, neither seeing nor hearing aught. If there were
Welsh to be fought, I would fight beside you all, gladly, for
Alfred; but as the war is against my own folk, I can do nothing. I
will neither fight for them nor fight against them; for King Alfred
and you, my friend, gave me life, and it is yours. I think that
some day I may be of use to Alfred in helping to bring about a
lasting peace."

"If we find him," I said.

"Ay, you will find him. He is hiding now for some wise reason that
we shall know. I think it is not known how his plans are feared by
our folk. I am sure that of this midwinter march the Danes will say
that it is worthy of Alfred himself."

Nevertheless we heard nothing of him, though the thane had men out
everywhere trying to gain news. All that they heard was the same
tale of dismay from whoever they might meet, and I think that but
for a chance we should not have found him until he chose to come
forth from his refuge.

Heregar the thane had a strange serving man, the same who had
ridden with him and me to meet the Danish forces; and this man was
a fenman from Sedgemoor, who knew all the paths through the wastes.
Lean and loose-limbed he was, and somewhat wild looking, mostly
silent; but where his lord went he went also. They said that he had
saved the thane's life more than once in the great battles about
Reading, when the Danish host first came.

This man was out daily, seeking news with the rest; and one day,
just a week after we had come to Cannington, when the frost had
bound everything fast again, he came home and sought his master.

Heregar and I and Osmund sat together silently before the fire, and
he looked from one to the other of us outlanders.

"Speak out, Dudda," said Heregar, who knew his ways; "here are none
but friends."

"Ay, friends of ours sure enough; but are they the king's?"

"Most truly so. Have you news of him?"

"I have not; but I have heard some fenmen talking."

Then Osmund rose up and went his way silently, as was his wont; and
Dudda grinned at us.

"He is a good Dane," he said; "now I can speak. They say there is
some great lord hiding in the fens beyond the round hill where Tone
and Parret join, that we call the Stane--somewhere by Long Hill,
they say. Now I mind that one day when the king rode with you
across the Petherton heights, he looked out over all the fens, and
called me and asked much of them. And when I told him what he
would, he said, 'Here is a place where a man might lie hid from all
the world if he chose.' So he laughed, and we rode on."

"I mind it," said Heregar; "but it was many years ago."

"I think he may be there, for our king weighs his words, and does
not forget. I held his horse at your door in Chippenham the other
day, and he spoke to me by name, and put me in mind of little
things for which he had laughed at me in those same old days. He is
a good king."

So said Dudda, the rough housecarl; and it is in my mind that the
kindly remembrance would have wiped out many a thought of wrong,
had there been any. That is a kingly gift to remember all, and no
king has ever been great who has not had it; for it binds every man
to his prince when he knows that aught he has done is not
forgotten, so it be good to recall.

So it came to pass that next day, very early, we rode away, taking
Harek and Kolgrim and this man Dudda with us, well armed and
mounted and full of hope, across the southward ridge that looks
down over the fens of the meeting of Tone and Parret, where they
are widest and wildest. No Danes had crossed them yet, and when I
saw what they were like I thought that they never could do so.

And as I looked at the long chains of ice-bound meres and pools
that ran among dense thickets of alder and wide snow-covered
stretches of peat bogs, it seemed that we might search in vain for
one who would hide among them. Only the strange round hill on
Stanmoor seemed to be a point that might be noted on all the level,
though Dudda told us that there were many islets hidden in the
wooded parts.

We went to the lower hills and then to the very edge of the
fenland, skirting along it, and asking here and there of the
cottagers if they knew of any folk in hiding in the islets. But
though we heard of poor people in one or two places, none of them
knew of any thane; and the day wore on, and hope began to grow dim,
save for Dudda's certainty that what he had heard was true.

At last we came to a long spur of high ground that runs out into
the fen, about midway between Bridgwater and Taunton; and there is
the village they call Lyng, where we most hoped to hear good news.
The day was drawing to sunset, and we would hasten; so Heregar went
one way and I another, each to distant cottages that we saw. The
lane down which I and my two comrades rode seemed to lead fenwards,
and it was little more than a track, deep in snow and tree
bordered. The cottage we sought was a quarter mile away when we
left the thane, and as we drew near it we saw an old woman walking
away from it, and from us also. She did not seem to hear us when we
called to her; and, indeed, such was the fear of Danes that often
folk would fly when they saw us, and the faster because we called,
not waiting to find out who we were.

Then from out of the cottage came another old woman, who hobbled
into the track and looked after the first, shaking her fist after
her, and then following her slowly, looking on the ground. She
never glanced our way at all, and our horses made no noise to speak
of in the snow.

We drew up to her, and then I saw that she had a hammer in her
right hand and a broad-headed nail in her left. I wondered idly
what she was about with these things, when she stooped and began to
hammer the nail into the iron-hard ground, and I could hear her
muttering some words quickly.

I reined up to watch her, puzzled, and said to Harek:

"Here is wizardry; or else what is the old dame about?"

"It is somewhat new to me," the scald said, looking on with much
interest; for if he could learn a new spell or charm, he was
pleased as if he had found a treasure.

Then I saw that she was driving the nail into a footprint. There
were three tracks only along the snow--two going away from the
cottage and one returning. That which went and returned was made by
this old woman, as one might see from her last steps, which made a
fourth track from the door.

"She is hammering the nail into her own footprint," I said, noting
this.

Now she sang in a cracked voice, hammering savagely the while; and
now and then she shook her fist or hammer, or both, towards where
the other old dame had gone out of sight round a bend of the lane.

Then she put her hand to her back and straightened herself with a
sort of groan, as old dames will, and slowly turned round and saw
us.

Whereat she screamed, and hurled the hammer at Kolgrim, who was
laughing at her, cursing us valiantly for Danes and thieves, and
nearly hitting him.

"Peace, good mother," I said; "we are not Danes. Here is earnest
thereof," and I threw her a sceatta from my pouch.

She clutched it from the ice pool where it fell, and stared at us,
muttering yet. Then Harek spoke to her.

"Mother, I have much skill in spells, but I know not what is
wrought with hammer and nail and footprint. I would fain learn."

"Little know you of spells if you know not that," she said, having
lost all fear of us, as it seemed.

"I am only a northerner," Harek said. "Maybe 'tis a spell against a
sprained ankle, which seems likely. I only know one for that."

"Which know you?" she said scornfully; "you are over young to
meddle with such like."

"This," said Harek. "It works well if the sprain be bathed with
spring-cold water, while one says it twice daily:

"'Baldur and Woden
Went to the woodland;
There Baldur's foal fell,
Wrenching its foot.'

"That is how it begins."

Then the old woman's eyes sparkled.

"Ay; that is good. Learn it me, I pray you. Now I know that you
have wizardry, for you name the old gods."

"Tell me first what hammer and nail work in footprint."

"Why, yon old hag has overlooked me," she said savagely. "Now, if
one does as I have done, one nails her witchcraft to herself
{xiii}."

"Whose footprint does the nail go into?" Harek asked.

"Why, hers surely. Now this is the spell," and she chanted somewhat
in broad Wessex, and save that Baldur's name and Thor's hammer also
came into it, I do not know what it all was. I waxed impatient now,
for I thought that Heregar might be waiting for us.

But she and Harek exchanged spells, and then I said:

"Now, dame, know you of any thane in hiding hereabouts?"

Thereat she looked sharply at me.

"I know nothing. Here be I, lamed, in the cottage all day."

"There is a close friend of mine in hiding from the Danes somewhere
here," I said, doubting, from her manner, if she spoke the truth.
"I would take him to a safer place."

"None safer," she answered. "What is his name?"

Then I doubted for a moment; but Harek's quick wit helped me.

"Godred," he said; for the name by which the king had called
himself once it was likely that he would use again.

"I know of no thanes," she said, though not at once, so that I was
sure she knew somewhat more than she thought safe to tell.

Then she was going, but Harek stayed her.

"Yours is a good spell against the evil eye, mother," he said, "but
I can tell you a better."

"What is it?" she said eagerly.

"News for news," he answered carelessly. "Tell us if you know aught
of this thane, and I will tell you."

"I said not that there was a thane." she said at once.

"Nay, mother; but you denied it not. Come now; I think what I can
tell you will save you trouble."

She thought for a little, weighing somewhat in her mind, as it
seemed, and then she chose to add to her store of witchcraft.

"Yonder, then," she said, nodding to the dense alder thickets that
hid the river Tone from us, across a stretch of frozen mere or
flooded land. "I wot well that he who bides in Denewulf's cottage
is a thane, for he wears a gold ring, and wipes his hands in the
middle of the towel, and sits all day studying and troubling in his
mind in such wise that he is no good to any one--not even turning a
loaf that burns on the hearth before his eyes. Ay, they call him
Godred."

Then my heart leaped up with gladness, and I turned to seek
Heregar; but he was coming, and so I waited. Then the dame
clamoured for her reward, which Harek had as nearly forgotten as
had I.

"Mother," the scald said gravely, "when I work a spell with hammer
and nail, the footprint into which the nail is driven is of her who
cast the evil eye on me."

"Why, so it should be."

"Nay, but you drive it into your own," he said.

She looked, and then looked again. Then she stamped a new print
alongside the nailed one, and it was true. She had paid no heed to
the matter in her fury, and when she knew that she turned pale.

"Man," she cried, "help me out of this. I fear that I have even
nailed the evil overlooking fast to myself."

"Ay, so you have," said Harek; "but it is you who know little of
spells if you cannot tell what to do. Draw the nail out while
saying the spell backwards, and then put it into the right place
carefully. Then you will surely draw away also any ill that she has
already sent you, and fasten it to her."

"Then I think she will shrivel up," said the old witch, with much
content. "You are a great wizard, lord; and I thank you."

"Here is a true saying of a friend of mine," said Heregar, coming
up in time to hear this. "But what has come to you, king? have you
heard aught?"

Now when the old woman heard the thane name the king, before I
could answer she cried out and came and clung to my stirrup, taking
my hand and kissing it, and weeping over it till I was ashamed.

"What is this?" I said.

"O my lord the king!" she cried. "I thought that yon sad-faced man
in Denewulf's house was our king maybe, so wondrous proud are his
ways, and so strange things they hear him speak when he sleeps. But
now I am glad, for I have seen the king and kissed his hand, and,
lo, the sight of him is good. Ay, but glad will all the countryside
be to know that you live."

Then I knew not what to say; but Heregar beckoned to me, saying:

"Come, leave her her joy; it were cruel to spoil it, and maybe she
will never know her mistake."

So we rode on, and Heregar called Dudda, asking him if he knew
Denewulf's cottage; while in the track stood the witch, blessing
her king as eagerly as she had cursed her gossip just now.

"I know not the path, though I have heard of the cottage," Dudda
said; "but it will be strange if I cannot find a way to the place."

He took us carefully into the fen for some way until we passed
through a thicket and came to the edge of a mere, and there were
five men who bore fishing nets and eel spears, which had not been
used, as one might suppose, seeing that the ice was nigh a foot
thick after the thaw and heavy frost again.

And those two men who came first were Ethelnoth, the Somerset
ealdorman, and young Ethered of Mercia. It was strange to see those
nobles bearing such burdens; but we knew that we had found the
king.

They saw us, and halted; but Heregar waved his hand, and they came
on, for they knew him. It would be hard to say which party was the
more pleased to meet the other.

"Where is the king?" we asked.

"Come with us, and we will take you to him," Ethered said. "But
supperless you must be tonight. We have nought in the house, and
nothing can we catch."

Then I was surprised, and said:

"Is it so bad as that here? In our land, when the ice is at its
thickest we can take as much fish as we will easily."

"Save us from starvation, Ranald," said Ethered, laughing ruefully,
"and we will raise a big stone heap here in your honour."

"Kolgrim will show you," I said; "let me go to the king."

"I am a great ice fisherman," said Harek; "let me go also."

Then Heregar laughed in lightness of heart.

"Ay, wizard, go also. There will be charms of some sort needed
before Ethered sees so much as a scale."

Whereon they dismounted, and Kolgrim took his axe from his saddle
bow, asking where the river was, while he wondered that such a
simple matter as breaking a hole in the ice and dropping a line
among the hungry fish, who would swarm to the air, had not been
thought of. We had not yet learned that such a winter as this comes
but seldom to the west of England, and the thanes knew nothing of
our northern ways.

Then Ethelnoth led Heregar and me across twisting and almost unseen
paths, safer now because of the frost, though one knew that in some
places a step to right or left would plunge him through the crust
of hard snow into a bottomless peat bog. The alder thickets grew
everywhere round dark, ice-bound pools of peat-stained water, and
we could nowhere see more than a few yards before us; and it was
hard to say how far we had gone from the upland edge of the swamp
when the ground began to rise from the fen, and grew harder among
better timber. But for the great frost, one would have needed a
boat in many places.

Then we came to a clearing, in which stood a house that was hardly
more than a cottage, and round it were huts and cattle sheds. And
this was where the king was--the house of Denewulf the herdsman,
the king's own thrall. There was a rough-wattled stockade round the
place, and quick-set fences within which to pen the cattle and
swine outside that, and all around were the thickets. None could
have known that such an island was here, for not even the house
overtopped the low trees; and though all the higher ground was
cleared, there were barely two acres above the watery level--a
long, narrow patch of land that lay southeast and northwest, with
its southerly end close to the banks of the river Tone. Men call
the place Athelney now, since the king and his nobles lay there. It
had no name until he came, but I think that it will bear ever
hereafter that which it earned thus.

Two shaggy grey sheepdogs came out to meet us, changing their angry
bark for welcome when they saw Ethelnoth; and a man came to the
door to see what roused them, and he had a hunting spear in his
hand. I took him for some thane, as he spoke to us in courtly wise;
but he was only Denewulf the herdsman himself.

"How fares the king?" asked Ethelnoth.

"His dark hour came on him after you went," Denewulf answered; "and
then the pain passed, and he slept well, and now has just wakened
wonderfully cheerful. I have not seen him so bright since he came
here; and he is looking eagerly for your return, seeming to expect
some news."

"It may be that our coming has been foretold him beforehand," said
Heregar. "Our king has warnings given him in his dreams at times."

Then from out of the house Alfred's voice hailed us:

"Surely that is the voice of my standard bearer.

"Come in quickly, Heregar, for all men know that hope comes with
you."

We went in; and it was a poor place enough for a king's lodging,
though it was warm and neat. Alfred sat over the fire in the middle
of the larger room of the two which the house had, and a strew of
chips and shreds of feathers and the like was round him; for he was
arrow making--an art in which he was skilful, and he had all the
care and patience which it needs. When we came in he rose up,
shaking the litter from his dress into the fire; and we bent our
knees to him and kissed his hand.

"O my king," said Heregar, "why have you thus hidden yourself
from us? All the land is mourning for you."

Then Alfred looked sadly at him and wistfully, answering:

"First, because I must hide; lastly, because I would be hidden: but
between these two reasons is one of which I repent--because I
despaired."

"Nay," said Denewulf, "it was not despair; it was grief and
anxiousness and thought and waiting for hope. Never have you spoken
of despair, my king."

"But I have felt it," he answered, "and I was wrong. Hope should
not leave a man while he has life, and friends like these, and
counsellors like yourself. Now have I been rebuked, and hope is
given me afresh."

Then he smiled and turned to me.

"Why, Ranald my cousin, this is kindness indeed. I had not thought
that you would bide with a lost cause, nor should I have thought of
blame for you had you gone from this poor England; you are not
bound to her as are her sons."

"My king," I said truly, "there are things that bind more closely
even than birth."

I think he was pleased, for he smiled, and shook his head at me as
though to say that he could not take my saying to himself, as I
meant it. And then, before we could ask him more, he began to think
of our needs.

"Here we have been pressed for food, friends, for the last few
days, and I fear you must fast with us. The deer have fled from our
daily hunting, and the wild fowl have sought open water. Unless our
fishers have luck, which seems unlikely, we must do as well as we
can on oaten bread."

Then Ethelnoth said:

"There have been no fish caught today, my king."

"Why, then, we will wait till the others return; and meanwhile I
will hear all the news, for Ranald and Heregar will have much to
tell me."

So we told him all that we knew, and he asked many questions, until
darkness fell.

"Why are you here, lord king?" asked Heregar; "my hall is safe."

"Your hall and countryside are safe yet because I am not there,"
Alfred answered, fixing his bright eyes on the thane. "The Danes
are hunting for me, and were I in any known place, thither would
they come. Therefore I said that now I choose to bide hidden.
Moreover, in this quiet and loneliness there comes to me a plan
that I think will work out well; for this afternoon, as I slept, I
was bidden to look for a sign that out of hopelessness should come
help and victory."

Just then the dogs rose up and whined at the door, as if friends
came; and there were cheerful voices outside. The door opened, and
in stumbled Ethered, bearing a heavy basket of great fish, which he
cast on the floor--lean green and golden pike, and red-finned
roach, in a glittering, flapping heap.

"Here is supper!" he cried joyfully, "and more than supper, for
each of us is thus laden. Fish enough for an army could we have
taken had we not held our hands. I could not have thought it
possible."

Whereat Alfred rose up and stared, crossing himself.

"Deo gratias," he said under his breath, and then said aloud, "Lo,
this is the sign of which I spoke even now--that my fishers should
return laden with spoil, even for an army, although frost and snow
have prevented them from taking fish for many days, and today was
less likelihood of their doing so than ever."

"Ranald knew well how this would cheer you, King Alfred," said
Ethered, thinking that I had spoken of this as a proof that all was
not lost, in some way.

"Ranald said nought; but the sign came from above, thus," the king
said gravely. "In my dream the holy Saint Cuthberht stood by my
side, and reproved me sharply for my downheartedness and despair,
and for my doubt of help against the heathen; and when he knew that
I was sorry, he foretold to me that all would yet be well, and that
I should obtain the kingdom once more with even greater honour than
I have had--with many more wondrous promises. And then he gave me
this sign, as I have told you and, behold, it has come, and my
heart is full of thankfulness. Now I know that all will be well
with England."

Then said Denewulf, who it was plain took no mean place with the
king and thanes:

"Say how this miracle was wrought, I pray you, for it is surely
such."

"Hither came King Ranald and his two friends and bade us make holes
in the ice and fish through them. So we did, and this is what came
thereof," said Ethered.

"Therefore King Ranald and his coming are by the hand of God," said
Denewulf. "Therein lies the miracle."

Then I was feared, for all were silent in wonder at the coming to
pass of the sign; and it seemed to me that I was most truly under a
power stronger than that of the old gods, who never wrought the
like of this.

Then came Harek's voice outside, where he hung up fish to freeze
against the morrow; and he sang softly some old saga of the fishing
for the Midgard snake by Asa Thor. And that grated on me, though I
ever waited to hear what song the blithe scald had to fit what was
on hand, after his custom. Alfred heard too, and he glanced at me,
and I was fain to hang my head.

"Ranald, who brought to pass the sign, shall surely share in its
bodings of good," he said, quickly and kindly. "I think that he is
highly favoured."

Then in came my comrades, and they bent to the king, and he thanked
them; and after that was supper and much cheerfulness. Harek sang,
and Alfred, and after them Denewulf. Much I marvelled at the wisdom
of this strange man, but I never knew how he gained it. King Alfred
was ever wont to say that in him he had found his veriest
counsellor against despair in that dark time; and when in after
days he took him from the fen and made him a bishop, he filled the
place well and wisely, being ever the same humble-minded man that I
had known in Athelney {xiv}.



Chapter X. Athelney and Combwich.


In the morning King Alfred took us to the southern end of his
island, and there told us what his plans were. And as we listened
they seemed to us to be wiser than mortal mind could have made, so
simple and yet so sure were they, as most great plans will be. It
is no wonder that his people hold that he was taught them from
above.

He bade us look across the fens to the wooded heights of Selwood
Forest, to south and east, and to the bold spur of the Polden Hills
beyond the Parret that they call Edington. There was nought but fen
and river and marsh between them and us--"impassable by the Danes
who prowled there. Only at the place where the two rivers join was
a steep, rounded hill, that stood up strangely from the level--the
hill that they call the Stane, on Stanmoor; and there were other
islands like this on which we stood, unseen among the thickets, or
so low that one might not know of them until upon them.

"Now," he said, "sooner or later the Danes will know I am here,
where they cannot reach me. Therefore I will keep them watching
this place until I can strike them a blow that will end the trouble
once for all. They will be sure that we gather men on the Quantock
side, whence Heregar can keep them; and so, while they watch for us
to attack them thence, we will gather beyond Selwood, calling all
the thanes from Hants and Wilts and Dorset and Somerset to meet me
on a fixed day, and so fall on them. Now we will build a fort
yonder on Stane hill that will make them wonder, and so the plan
will begin to work. For I have only told you the main lines
thereof; the rest must go as can be planned from day to day."

Then he looked steadfastly at the Selwood heights, and added:

"And if the plan fails, and the battle I look for goes against us,
there remain Heregar's places yet. Petherton, Combwich, and
Dowsborough are good places, where a king may die in a ring of
foes, looking out over the land for which his life is given."

"We shall not fail, my king," said Heregar. "Devon will gather to
you across the Quantocks also."

"Ay," he said; "and you will need them with you."

Then said I:

"Hubba is in Wales, and is likely to come here when he hears that
his fellows are gathering against us. Then will Devon be needed at
Combwich in Parret mouth, or at Watchet."

"That will be Devon's work," the king said. "If Hubba comes before
your ships are ready to meet him, he must at least be driven to
land elsewhere, or our stronghold is taken behind us."

Now I was so sure that Hubba would come, that this seemed to me to
be the weakest part of the king's plan. But Alfred thought little
of it.

"My stronghold seems to be on Quantock side; it is rather beyond
Selwood, in the hearts of my brave thanes and freemen. Fear not,
cousin. Hubba will come, and you and Heregar will meet him; and
whether you win or not, my plan holds."

Then I knew that the king saw far beyond what was plain to me, and
I was very confident in him. And I am sure that I was the only man
who had the least doubt from the beginning.

Now, after all was planned, Heregar and I rode back to his place,
and sent word everywhere that the king was safe, though he
commanded us to tell no man where he lay as yet. None but thanes
were to be in the island with him; and from that time the name we
knew it by began, as one by one the athelings crossed the fen paths
thereto, and were lost, as it were, in the hiding place.

Then we wrought there at felling timber and hewing, until we had
bridged the river and made a causeway through the peat to Stanmoor
hill, and then began to make a triple line of earthworks around its
summit. No carelessly-built fort was this, for the king said: "If
the nobles build badly, there will be excuse for every churl to do
the like hereafter. Therefore this must needs be the most
handsomely-wrought fort in all Wessex."

There came to us at this fort many faithful workmen, sent from the
towns and countryside, until we had a camp there. But every night,
after working with us and cheering all with his voice and example,
Alfred went back to Athelney with us; and none would seek to
disturb him there, so that for long none quite knew, among the
lesser folk, where he bided. Presently the queen and athelings came
there to him, and were safe.

That time in the fens was not altogether unpleasant, though the
life was hard. Ever was Alfred most cheerful, singing and laughing
as we wrought, and a word of praise from him was worth more than
gold to every man. And then there were the hunting, the fishing,
and the snaring of wild fowl, that were always on hand to supply
our wants, though now we had plenty of food from the Quantock side.
I know this, that many a man who was in Athelney with Alfred was
the better therefor all the days of his after life. Men say that
there is a steadfast look in the faces of the Athelney thanes, by
which they can be well known by those who note the ways of men.

The frost lasted till February went out in rain and south winds.
And then the Danes began to gather along the southern hills,
watching us. By that time we had made causeways to other islets
from the fort, and the best of these was to Othery, a long, flat
island that lay to the east, nearer to the Polden Hills and
Edington.

So one day the king sent for me as we wrought at the fort, and both
he and I were horny handed and clay stained from the work. I came
with spade in hand, and he leaned on a pick. Whereat he laughed.

"Faith, brother king, now can I speak in comrade's wise to my
churls as you speak to your seamen. Nor do I think that I shall be
the worse ruler for that."

Then he took my arm, and pointed to Edington hill.

"For many nights past I have seen watch fires yonder," he said;
"and that is a place where I might strike the Danes well. So I
would draw them thither in force. Do you feel as if a fight would
be cheerful after this spade work?"

Now I could wish for nothing better, and I said so.

"Well, then," he went on, laughing at my eagerness, "go to
Ethelnoth, and take twenty men, and do you and he fall on that post
from Othery by night; and when you have scattered it, come back
into the fen. I would have you lose no men, but I would make the
Danes mass together by attack on some one point, and that as soon
as may be, before Hubba comes. I do not want to hold their place."

Now that was the first of daily attacks on the Danish posts, at
different places along the Selwood and Polden hills, until they
thought that we wished to win Edington height, where we began and
annoyed them most often. So I will tell how such a raid fared.

Good it was to lay aside pick and spade and take sword Helmbiter
again, and don mail and helm; and I made Harek fence with me, lest
I should have lost my sword craft through use of the weapons
whereby the churl conquers mother earth. But once the good sword
was in my hand I forgot all but the warrior's trade.

So Ethelnoth and I and twenty young thanes went in the evening to
Othery island, and there found a fenman to guide us, and so went to
the foot of Edington hill just as darkness fell. The watch-fire
lights, that were our guide, twinkled above us through the trees
that were on the hillside; and we made at once for them, sending on
the fenman to spy out the post before we were near it. It was very
dark, and it rained now and then.

When he came back to where we had halted, he said that there were
about twenty tents, pitched in four lines, with a fire between each
line; and that the men were mostly under cover, drinking before
setting watch, if they set any at all.

So we drew nearer, skirting round into cover of some trees that
came up to the tents, for the hilltop was bare for some way. The
lighted tents looked very cheerful, and sounds of song and laughter
came from them, and now and then a man crossed from one to another,
or fed the fires with fresh wood, that hissed and sputtered as he
cast it on.

"How shall we attack?" said Ethelnoth.

"Why, run through the camp in silence first and cut the tent lines,
and then raise a war shout and come back on them. Then we may slay
a few, and the rest will be scared badly enough."

Thereat we both laughed under our breath, for it seemed like a
schoolboy's prank. Well, after the long toil in the fen, we were
like boys just freed from school, though our game was the greatest
of all--that of war--the game of Hodur's playground, as we Norse
say.

Then I said:

"After we come through for the second time, we must take to this
cover, and so get together at some place by the hill foot. There is
a shed by a big tree that can be found easily."

So we passed the wood, and our comrades chuckled. It was good sport
to see the shadows of the careless Danes on the tent walls, and to
know that they dreamed of nothing less than that Saxons were on
them. Four rows of tents there were, and there were twenty-two of
us; so we told off men to each row, and then made for them at a
moment when no man was about--hacking at the ropes, and laughing to
see the tents fall. It was strange to watch the shadows start up
and stand motionless, as the first patter of feet came and the
first blows fell, and then bustle, helpless and confused, with
savage shouts and curses, as the heavy canvas and skins fell in
upon them.

Now we were through the camp, and the outcries were loud behind us.
Two or three tents did not fall, and from them the men swarmed,
half armed and startled, not knowing if this was not some sorry
jest at first; and then rang our war cry from the dark, and we were
back upon them. We were but two-and-twenty to a hundred, but they
knew not what was on hand, while we did; and so we cut through them
without meeting with any hurt. Two tents were on fire and blazing
high, and blackened men cut and tore their way out of them howling;
and I think that more than one Dane was cut down by his comrades in
the panic that fell on all.

Yet even as we passed into the cover and went our way back towards
the fen, some bolder spirits began to rally, and a horn was blown.
But we were gone, leaving six slain and many more wounded among
them, while not one of us was scratched.

They did not follow us, and we heard the clamour we had caused
going on for some time after we had gained the fen. Presently, too,
when we reached Othery, we saw a fire signal lit to call for help,
and we were well content. Doubtless those Danes waked under arms
all that night through.

After that these attacks were seldom so easy, for the Danes kept
good watch enough; but they were ever the same in most ways.
Suddenly in the night would come the war cry and the wild rush of
desperate men on some Danish outpost, and before they knew what to
do we were away and into the fen again. We grew to know every path
well before long, and sometimes we would fall on small parties of
our foes when they were on the march or raiding the cattle, and cut
through them, and get back to our fastness.

Once or twice we were followed in the grey of early morning; but
few Danes ever got back from that pursuit. We would cut them off
amid the peat bogs, or they would founder therein, and sink under
the weight of armour.

Then they tried to force some fenmen they caught to guide them to
us at Othery. Once the brave fenman led them to where they dared
not move till daylight came, while the blue fen lights flitted
round them like ghosts in the dark; and then the fen people swarmed
round them, and ended them with arrows and sling stones from a
distance. They tried no more night attacks on us after that. But
again they came in some force by daylight, and we had a strange
fight on a narrow strip of hard land in Sedgemoor, with all
advantage on our side. No Danes won back to the Polden Hills.

Then they dared not try the fens any more, and daily we kept their
sentries watching, and nightly we fell on outposts, until at last
they thought our force grew very great, and began to gather on
Edington hill, even as Alfred wished. And this saved many a village
and farm and town from plunder, for the fear of Alfred the king
began to grow among his foes.

Then the king made his next move; for, now that the way was open,
he sent to Odda at Exeter, bidding him move up to Taunton by some
northerly road, gathering what Devon men he could on the way. There
is hardly a stronger town in Wessex than the great fortress that
Ine the king made.

At this time I began to be full of thoughts about my ships. But
they could hardly be built as yet; and most of them were in
southern havens, whence, even were they ready, one could not bring
them round the stormy Land's End in early March. Yet the weather
was mild and open, and I began to think that at any time Hubba
might bring his Danes across the narrow Severn sea to join his
kinsmen at Edington. We heard, too, that Guthrum, the king of East
Anglia, was there now, and that he had summoned every warrior who
would leave the land he had won to come to him.

Men have blamed Guthrum for treachery in this; but seeing that the
peace was broken, and that he must needs fight for the peace at
least of his kingdom, I hold that this is not right. At all events,
Alfred blamed him not in the time to come. Nevertheless, I suppose
that in men's minds he always will be held answerable for what the
other chiefs wrought of ill, because he bore the name of king from
the first, and ruled East Anglia. No Saxon, who is used to hold his
king as over all, will understand how little power a host-king of
the north has.

Now all this while my good ship lay at Bridgwater, and with her
were fifty of my men, who were well quartered among the townsfolk,
and helped to guard the bridge. And, as I have said, two ships were
being built there. So one day in the third week in March I rode
away with Kolgrim from Athelney, to see how all things were going
on there, meaning also to go to Heregar's place for a time, having
messages to give him from the king.

Harek was coming with me; but Alfred asked me to spare him for this
time.

"I have to learn somewhat from the scald," he said.

"Wizardry, my king?" I asked, laughing, for that was ever a jest at
the scald's expense after it was known how we found out that Alfred
was at Denewulf's house.

"Nay, but song," he answered. "Now I see not why I should not tell
you who put the thought into my mind; but I am going, as you did,
to spy out the Danish camp. And I will go as a gleeman, and be
welcome enough as a Saxon who has enough love of Danes to learn
some northern sagas for them!"

"My king," I cried, "this is too perilous altogether."

He looked quaintly at me.

"Go to, cousin; are you to have all the glory? If you went, why not
I? Maybe I too may find a chance of helping some fair maiden on the
way back."

Then I prayed him to do nothing rash, for that he was the one hope
of England.

"And maybe the one man in England who can do any good by going,
therefore," he answered. "And neither you nor I would ask any man
to do for us what we durst not do ourselves."

"You will be known, my king," I said.

Whereon he held out his hands, which were hard and horny now with
hard work, and he laughed as he did so.

"Look at those," he said, "and at my unkempt hair and beard! Verily
I may be like Alfred the king in some ways, but not in these. They
will pass me anywhere."

So I could not dissuade him, and ever as I tried to do so he waxed
more cheerful, and made sport of me, throwing my own doings in my
teeth, and laughing about Thora. So I was fain to get away from his
presence, lest I should grow angry at last. And when I was going he
said:

"Have no fear, cousin; I will not go unless I am well prepared."

So I went, and next day was back in Athelney, riding hard; for
Hubba's ships had been sighted from the Quantocks, and they were
heading for the Parret. What I looked for and feared was coming.

Then Alfred sent messengers to Odda, who had come to Taunton two
days before this. And he gathered every man from the fen, and we
went to Bridgwater, leaving our little force there, and so rode on
the way to Combwich, thinking to see the sails of the ships in
Bridgwater Bay. But a shift of wind had come, and they were yet
over on the Welsh coast, waiting for the tide to enable them to
come down on us.

By that time a fire burned on the highest spur of the Quantocks to
tell us that Odda was there, and at once another was lit on the
Combwich fort to bring him to us, for it seemed certain that here
we must fight the first battle of Alfred's great struggle.

"Here you must meet this newcomer and drive him away, if it can be
done, or if not, hinder him from coming further; or if that is
impossible, do your best. I would have you remember that defeat
here is not loss of all hope, for beyond Selwood lies our real
gathering. But victory, even if dearly bought, will almost win the
day for us."

So Alfred said, and we, who began to see what his great plan was,
were cheered.

In the evening Odda came with eight hundred men of Devon. Alfred
had two hundred maybe, and my few men and the townsfolk made
another two hundred. But Hubba had twenty-three longships, whose
crews, if up to fighting strength, would not be less than a hundred
in each.

So we watched till the tide fell, when he could not come into the
Parret, and then I went back to Heregar's hall. It seemed very
bare, for all goods had been sent up to the great refuge camp of
Dowsborough, to which all day long the poor folk had been flying,
driving with them their sheep and cattle and swine, that they might
save what they could. But with Odda had come his daughter, the Lady
Etheldreda, who would not leave him; and she and the Lady Alswythe
and Thora were yet in the house, and Osmund the jarl sat in the
hall, listless and anxious of face. It was an ill time for him; but
there were none of us who did not like him well, and feel for him
in his helplessness.

"What news?" he said, when he saw me come into the hall.

"Hubba will be here on the next tide--with early morning," I said.

He sighed, and rising up went to the doorway and looked out to the
hills.

"I would that I could make these two noble ladies seek refuge
yonder," he said; "but one will not leave her father, nor the other
her husband."

Then I said:

"At least I think you should take Thora there. This is a difficult
place for you."

"I know Hubba," he said, "and if I abide here I may be of use. I
need not tell you that you are fighting the best warrior of our
time, and that with too small a force."

"Well," I said, "you and I can speak plainly, neither of us being
Saxons. We shall be beaten by numbers, and you mean that you will
be able to save these ladies by staying?"

"Ay," he said. "And if by any chance Alfred wins, I may be able to
ask for mercy for the conquered."

Then came in Thora, and her face was troubled. She had been trying
to make Etheldreda go to the hill fort, where all the women and
children of the countryside had been sent.

"It is of no use," she said; "they will bide here."

"Well," said Osmund, "then we will stay also. I and our friend have
spoken thereof, and it seems well that we do so."

I suppose they had talked of this before, for she made no answer,
but sat down wearily enough before the fire; and Osmund and I went
out to the courtyard, for we were both restless.

Then Heregar came in on his white horse, and saw Osmund, and called
to him, asking of the same business, for he had asked the jarl to
speak about it as a friend. So I went in again, and Thora sat by
herself yet, looking up to see who came now. I went and stood by
her, staring into the fire, and feeling as if I wanted to go out
again. Restlessness was in the very air while we waited for the
coming fight.

"King Ranald," she said, after a little silence, "I wonder if ever
a maiden was in such sad doubt as I. I cannot wish that these dear
ladies, who have made a friend of me, should see their folk beaten,
and maybe slain; and cannot wish that my own kin should be beaten
either. It seems that in either way I must find heavy sorrow."

That was true; but it was certain that her own people were the
cause of all the trouble, though I could not say so. I put it this
way:

"I think that if your people are driven off there will be peace the
sooner, and maybe they will not land when they find us waiting. I
know, too, that those who have loved ones in the battle that may be
are in a harder case than yours, dear lady."

Then she looked up at me once, and a flush came slowly over her
pale face, and she answered nothing. I thought that she felt some
shame that a warrior like her father should bide here, without
moving hand or foot, when the war horns were blowing. So I said:

"Harder yet would it be if the jarl were in the battle against our
friends. Then would the fear of his loss be a terror to you also."

Now came in Osmund, and straightway Thora rose up, turning away
from us both, and went from the hall. The jarl looked after her
curiously and sadly.

"This is a strange business for the girl," he said.

"She seems almost as troubled because you are not fighting as if
you were in danger by doing so," I answered, with that thought
still in my mind.

Thereat the jarl stared at me.

"What has put that into your head?" he asked.

I told him what she and I had said, adding that I feared I had
seemed to hint somewhat discomforting.

Then said Osmund, looking in my face with a half smile:

"She is glad I am honourably out of this business, and the trouble
is not that. There are one or two, maybe, whom she would like to
see as safe in the same way."

Then it flashed through my dull mind that perhaps I was one of
these, and the thought was pleasant to me.

"Well," I said, "there are the thane, and his young son, the king's
page, who is here. They have been very kind to her."

"Also a wandering king who took her out of danger," he said then.

"Ay; I shall be glad if she thinks of me."

There were a little laugh and a rustling behind us, and one said:

"Either you are the least conceited of men or the blindest, King
Ranald, or you would know what is amiss."

I turned, and saw the Lady Etheldreda herself, and I bowed to her
in much confusion.

"O you men!" she said. "Here you will let the poor girl break her
heart in silence, while you fight for glory, or somewhat you think
is glory, without a word to say that you care that she shall see
what you win. Of course she thinks of you, even night and day. How
else should it be, when you have been as a fairy prince to her?"

Then I knew for myself that among all the wild life of Athelney and
the troubles of the king the thought of Thora had been pleasant to
me; but now I was confused, having the matter brought home to me
suddenly, and, as it were, before I was ready to shape all my
thoughts towards her. So all that I could say was foolish enough.

"I am a poor sort of fairy prince, lady."

"Ay," she said; "I am as good a fairy godmother, maybe. And perhaps
I should have said nothing--at this time. But, Ranald, the maiden
weeps for your danger, for, at the very least, she owes you much."

Then I said, humbly as I felt:

"That is more honour to me than I deserve."

"That is for her to say," answered the fair lady, turning to where
Osmund had been.

But he was now in the doorway, looking out again to the hills. So
she was silent, and I thought of somewhat.

"There is none in this land or in any other--of whom I think as I
do of Thora," I said; "but my mind has been full of warfare and
trouble with the king. Now, if I may, I will ask for somewhat that
I may wear for her sake in the fight, and so she will know that I
think of her."

"Now that is well said," answered Etheldreda. "But you must ask it
for yourself."

Thereat I thought for a moment, and at last I said that I would not
do so.

"If I might, I would ask you to gain this favour for me," I said;
"for I think that a parting would be very hard, as things have come
about."

"You are a wiser man than I thought you, Ranald," she said; and so
she went from me, and I stayed by the fire, thinking thoughts that
were sweet and yet troublous, for beyond tomorrow's fight I could
not see.

Then the lady came back, and with her she brought a little glove,
worn and shapely from the hand that it belonged to.

"She bids me give this to her king and warrior," Etheldreda said.
"I did but tell her that you asked a token that she minded you."

"It was well," I answered. "What said she?"

"Nought at once. But her sadness went, and her face changed--ay,
but she is beyond any of us in beauty when her eyes light up in
that way--and she fetched this, and then said 'Say, if you think
that he will care to know it, that this is the glove wherein I rode
to Wareham.'

"Do you care to know it, Ranald?"

"Ay, with all my heart," I said.

And so I put it very carefully under the broad, golden-studded
baldric of Sigurd's sword. And it would not stay there, and
Etheldreda laughed at me, and took a little golden brooch like a
cross that she wore, and pinned it through glove and baldric,
making all safe.

"There," she said, "is a token from me also, though it was unasked.
Bear yourself well, Ranald, for our eyes are on you. If Hubba comes
indeed, we women folk will be in the fort."

Then I said, being at a loss for words enough:

"I would I had the tongue of Harek the scald, that I might thank
you for gift and words, my fairy princess."

"I have half a mind to take it back for that fine saying," she
answered.

And then she gave me her hand, and I kissed it; and she went from
me with her eyes full of tears for all the trouble that was on us,
though she had tried bravely to carry it off lightly.

Then I would stay in the house no longer, but went out to the fort,
and sat down by the great Dragon banner of Wessex, Heregar's
charge, that floated there, and ate and drank with the other
chiefs, and waited. But my mind was full of what I had heard, and
the war talk went on round me without reaching my ears.



Chapter XI. The Winning of "The Raven."


Now we none of us like much to speak of the fight that came next
morning, for it went ill enough. Yet we were outnumbered by twice
our force, for some more of the host beyond the fens made Alfred
send many of his men back to watch the crossing at Bridgwater.

Hubba brought his ships up on the tide, and when he saw that we
were waiting for him, he made as if to go on up the river; and we
began to move from our position, thinking that he would go and fall
on the town. Then, very suddenly, he turned his ships' bows to the
bank at the one place where he saw that the land was high almost to
the river's edge; and before we knew that we must be there to stay
him, his men were ashore, and had passed the strip of marsh, and
were on a long, gentle rise that ends in Cannington hill and the
Combwich fort, half a mile away.

We fought well for an hour, and then our men began to give on
either wing, for they were, as I would have it remembered, raw
levies that Odda had brought with him--valiant men and strong, but
with no knowledge of how to fight in line or how to hold together.
And when a force like that begins to go, it is ended.

Hard fought we in the centre after that. There were the Athelney
thanes, and my fifty men, and Odda's Exeter and Taunton townsfolk,
who had fought before; but when the wings broke, Hubba's great
force of veterans lapped round us, and we had nought left us but to
cut our way out, and make the best retreat we could. My men shouted
as they struck, in our Norse way; but a deadly silence fell on the
Saxons, and I thought that, as they grew quiet, their blows became
ever more stern and fell, until at last even Hubba's vikings gave
way before the hard-set faces and steadfast eyes of the
west-country spearmen, whom no numbers seemed to daunt, and they
drew back from us for a space.

Then we were clear of them, and at once Ethelnoth closed in on the
king, taking his horse's rein, and praying him to fly to
Bridgwater, where a stand could be made. And at last he persuaded
him, and they turned. Then fearing that this might set the example
for general flight, I spoke to Odda, and we shouted to the men to
stand fast and hold back pursuit; and so a guard of some fifty
thanes went with Alfred, and we faced the Danes even yet.

They saw what was done, and roared, and charged on us; and we began
to retreat slowly, fighting all the way, up the long slope of land
towards the fort. But I saw Heregar's horse rear and fall, and the
banner went down, and I thought him slain in that attack.

Presently they let us go. We won ever to better ground, and they
had to fight uphill; and then we gained the fort, and there they
durst not come.

Then rode towards me a man in silver armour that was dinted and
hacked--shieldless, and with a notched sword in his hand. It was
Heregar.

"I thought you slain, friend," I said gladly.

"Would that I were! for my charge is lost; they have my banner," he
answered.

"That may be won back yet," I said. "But there is no shame to you;
we were outnumbered by more than two to one."

"I have borne it through ten battles," he said, and that was all;
but he put his face in his hands and groaned.

Now I looked out over the field we had left, and saw the Danes
scattering in many ways. Some were going in a long line up the
steep hill beyond which the village lay, and over this line swayed
and danced the lost banner. There was a crowd of our men from the
broken wings gathered there--drawn together by the king as he fled,
as I knew afterwards; and I think the Danes bore our banner with
them in order to deceive them. I knew that the lane was deep and
hollow up which they must go, and there were woods on either side.

Whereat I sprang up.

"Thane," I said, "here is a chance for us to win back the banner,
as I think."

He looked up sharply, and I pointed.

"Let us ride at once into the wood, and wait for them to pass us.
Then, if we dare, we can surely dash through them."

Kolgrim sat close to me, and our horses were tethered to a spear.
He rose up when he heard me speak, saying:

"Here is more madness. But trust to Ranald's luck, thane."

Then in a few more minutes we were riding our hardest towards the
wood. I heard Odda shout after us from the entrance to the fort as
we went, but we heeded him not.

We edged up to the deep lane through the trees until we were so
near that we could almost see into it. The banner was at the head
of the column, and there were no mounted men with it. Hubba had
brought no horses with him from across the sea.

Then we waited for a long minute, hearing the tramp of the coming
men, and their loud talk and laughter as they boasted of their
prize. They were going very carelessly.

"If we get it," I whispered to the thane, whose eyes were shining,
"ride hard up the hill to our folk who are there."

He nodded and then before us fluttered the folds of his treasure.
Instantly he spurred his great white horse, and leaped straight at
it into the lane, and after him on either side came Kolgrim and I.

A great howl rose from the startled Danes, and I saw Heregar wheel
his horse and tear the banner from the man who held it, cutting
down another warrior who tried to catch his bridle. Then Helmbiter
was hard at work for a moment, and Kolgrim's axe rattled on a helm
or two; and we were away up the lane before the shouting and
confusion were over, none of the Danes knowing but that more of us
would follow from out the cover.

One or two arrows, shot by men who found their wits sooner than the
rest, pattered after us, and we gained the hilltop and the great
cheer that went up from our few men who were there made the Danes
halt and waver, and at last turn back to the open again.

We stayed on that hilltop for an hour. Then the Danes were coming
up in force, and there was no hope in staying, so we got back to
the fort before they could cut us off.

Soon after this there was a general movement on the part of our
foes, and before evening we were surrounded on all sides by strong
posts, and it was plain that we were not to move from the fort.

Now this is not very large, but it is very strong--the hill which
has been fortified being some two hundred feet high, and steep
sided as a house roof on all sides but the east, where the entrance
must needs be. But this again has outworks; and the road into the
ramparts from the long slope of Cannington hill to the southward
runs slantwise through them, so that the gap it makes in the first
line is covered by the second. And both upper and lower rampart go
right round the circle of the hilltop, and are very strong, having
been made by the British folk, who well understood such matters,
and had such fighters as the old Romans and our own forefathers to
deal with. Some parts of the works were of piled stones, and the
rest of earth, as the ground required.

There is but one way in which that fort could be taken by force, as
I think, and that is by attacking on all sides at once, which needs
a greater force than would ever be likely to come against it.
Moreover, on one side the marshy course of the Combwich stream
would hinder any heavy onslaught.

So inside these ramparts were we with some six hundred men, and
there we were watched by three times our number. There was a strong
post on Cannington hill, between us and Bridgwater; another--and
that the main body--between us and the ships, on a little, sharp
hill crest across a stony valley two bowshots wide that lay between
it and the fort; and so we were well guarded.

At first this seemed of little moment, for we were to stay Hubba
before the place; and for a while there was nothing but rejoicing
over the return of the banner. Then I found there was no water in
the place, and that we had but what food each man happened to carry
with him. Presently that want of water became terrible, for our
wounded began to cry for it piteously. Maybe it was as well that we
had few with us, because the field was left in the hands of the
Danes.

Up and down among those few went Etheldreda and Alswythe and Thora,
tending them and comforting them, where we had sent them--to the
highest point of the hilltop, inside the upper rampart; and I could
see the flutter of their dresses now and then from where I watched
beside Odda on the lower works. I had spoken to neither since we
came here.

Towards dusk I spoke to Odda, and he gave me twenty men; and
gathering all the vessels of any sort that would hold water, we
climbed over the rampart next the marsh, and stole down to the
nearest pool and brought back all we could, using helms and
leathern cloaks and the like, for want of buckets. We got back
safely that time, and I sent the same men again, thinking that
there was no danger, and so not going myself.

They got back, indeed, but with a party of Danes after them; and
but for our arrow flights from the earthworks, they would have had
to fight, and lose what they brought. After that Hubba knew what we
needed, and sent a strong picket to keep us from the marsh.

So the night passed and we had some hopes that a force might come
to our help from Bridgwater in the morning, for it was possible
that the king would be able to gather men there. It was a slender
hope, though, for the host on Polden Hills had to be watched.

All day we waited, and no help came; and with evening the last food
had gone. It had rained heavily, however, and the want of water was
past for the time. The Danes never moved from their places, waiting
to starve us out; and in the last light of evening a small party
came across the little valley from the main body, bearing a white
flag in token of parley. Hubba bid us yield, and our lives should
be spared.

"It is good of Hubba to give us the chance of living a little
longer," answered Odda; "but we will wait here a while, so please
him."

The Danes threatened us, and mocked, and so went back. We had no
more messages from their chief after that.

That night we slept round the standard where it flapped on the
hilltop. The men watched, turn by turn, along the lower ramparts;
and the Danes were not so near that we could be surprised by them,
for there was no cover to hide their coming. Nestled under the
northwest rampart was a little hut--some shepherd's shelter where
the three poor ladies were bestowed. Osmund the jarl sat a little
apart from us, but all day and night he had been tending the
wounded well. Harek who, as befitted a scald, was a good leech,
said that the jarl knew almost as much of the craft as he.

Now, in the early morning, when the light was grey, I woke, hearing
the rattle of arms and the quiet passing of the word as the men
changed guard, and I thought I would go round the ramparts; and
then Odda woke also. The rest slept on, for they had taken their
turns on watch--Heregar with his arm round the pole of the
standard, and his sword beneath his head.

Odda looked at me as we sat up stiffly, and spoke what was in his
mind and mine also.

"I have a mind to send Osmund to Hubba, and ask him to let the
women go hence. There is nought to eat today."

"There is enough kept for them," I said; for Heregar had seen to
that, and none had grudged a share.

"Ay," he answered; "but what are we to do? Are we to be starved
like rats here?"

"There are the half-dozen horses," I said.

"And nought to cook them withal. I would that the king would come."

"It is in my mind that he cannot," I answered; "there has been some
move of the other host."

Now that was true, for Guthrum's great following had suddenly swept
down towards Bridgwater, and that could not be left. They were
camped now at the foot of the hill, watching there as Hubba watched
us.

Then some one came, stepping lightly, but with clank of mail,
towards us; and I glanced round, thinking that some message was
brought from the ramparts. Odda turned idly at the same time, and
he started up.

"Ah!" he said, under his breath, "what is this?"

A tall maiden, mail clad and bearing a broad-bladed spear, stood
beside us; and I thought her one of the Valkyrias--Odin's
messengers--come to us, to fight for us in some strife to which she
would lead us. I rose too, saluting.

"Skoal to the shield maiden!" I said.

"Skoal to the heroes!" she answered; and then I knew the voice,
though, under the helm and in the grey light, the face of the
ealdorman's daughter Etheldreda had been strange to me. And Odda
knew also.

"What would you in this guise, my daughter?" he cried.

"I think that I have come as Ranald thought--as a Valkyria to lead
you to battle," she answered, speaking low, that she might not wake
the tired warriors around her. "There is but one thing for us to
do, and that is to die sword in hand, rather than to perish for
want of food and water here."

I know that this had been in my mind, and most likely in Odda's
also; but Alfred might come.

"We wait the king," the ealdorman said.

"No use," she answered. "One may see all the Polden Hills from this
place, and tonight there are no fires on Edington height, where we
have been wont to see them."

Odda groaned. "My Etheldreda, you are the best captain of us all,"
he said.

Then suddenly Heregar rose up on his elbow from beside the
standard, crying strangely:

"Ay, Father Eahlstan--when the tide is low. Somerset and Dorset
side by side. What say you, father--Somerset and Devon? Even so."

The other sleepers stirred, and the lady turned and looked on the
thane, but he slept even yet.

"Heregar dreams of the bishop he loved, and of the great fight they
fought yonder and won thirty rears ago," she said {xv}.

"Worn out is the brave thane," said I. "Strange dreams come to one
when that is so."

Then Heregar woke, and saw the maiden, and rose up at her side.

"Dear lady," he asked, "what is this?"

"Ranald thought me a Valkyria, friend; and I come on a Valkyria's
errand."

"I had a strange dream but now," Heregar said, as if it dwelt in
his mind, so that he hardly heeded what Etheldreda answered him. "I
thought that Bishop Eahlstan stood by me as in the old days, and
minded me of words that I spoke long ago, words that were taught me
by a wise woman, who showed me how to trap the Danes, when the tide
left their ships aground, so that they had no retreat. Then he
said, 'Even again at this time shall victory be when the tide is
low.' And I said that Somerset and Dorset would fail not at this
time. Then said he, 'Somerset and Devon.' Then it seemed that he
blessed me and passed. Surely I think that he would tell us that
victory is before us."

Now the other sleepers woke, and listened wondering. The light was
strong, and I looked away towards the Danes between us and the
river. Their fires were burning up one by one as they roused also;
but I thought there was some bustle down at the shore of the river,
where the ships were now afloat on the rising tide.

Then Etheldreda spoke to us in words that were brave and good to
hear--words to make a man long to give his life for country and for
friends--telling us that, since we must needs die, it was well that
we should fall sword in hand, ridding England of her foes man to
man, rather than perish in this place for nought.

And when she ended the chiefs were silent, looking on the Danes
with eyes that gleamed; and Kolgrim put the thoughts of all into
words when he said:

"Once or twice has the Berserker fury come on me when my master has
been in peril. Berserker again will you drive me, lady, so that I
care not for six foemen against me or sixty."

Then Odda cried:

"What goes on yonder? Do they leave us?" and he shaded his eyes
against the rising sun, and pointed. Certainly the Danes were
drawing towards the ships in parties of twenty and thirty at a
time, but their sentries went on their beats without heeding them.
There was no movement, either, among those on the other hill, and
the Raven banner that told of Hubba's presence was not borne away.

Now we forgot all but that here was a new hope for us, and we
watched for half an hour. Then it was plain that full half the
force was drawn off, and that the Danes were crossing the river in
the ships. We saw them land on the opposite shore, where the road
comes down to the Combwich crossing, that can only be used at
lowest tides; and they marched eastward, doubtless in search of
cattle and plunder.

Then Heregar's eyes shone, and he said:

"Now has our time come, even as Eahlstan foretold to me. In two
hours or three none of that force can return, and we have but half
as many again as ourselves left here for us to deal with."

"Let me lead you on them," said Etheldreda.

Then with one voice we prayed her to bide in the fort, and for long
she would not be persuaded. But we told her that the men would
fight as well under her eye as if they were led by her--if, indeed,
her presence did not weaken them, in fear for her safety--and so at
last she gave way.

After that there was no more doubt as to what should be done; but
Odda went round among the men, and spoke to them in such wise that
he stirred their hearts to die bravely hand to hand with the Danes.
And I thought that some of us might live to see a great if
dearly-bought victory; for it was certain that not one of these
Saxons but meant to die before he left the field.

Then Heregar and Osmund went with Etheldreda to the other two
ladies, and they bade them take the horses and fly to Dowsborough
camp as soon as the fighting drew every Dane to the eastward side
of the fort and left the way clear. Osmund would go with them, and
so no fear for them was on our minds.

Then we got the soundest of the wounded down to the lower rampart,
and drew off the men there towards the gateway, so that the Danes
might think our movement was but a changing of guard; then we
waited until we saw that the ships on the far bank had taken the
ground.

Then we sallied out, and as I went I looked back once. Three women
stood alone on the hilltop, and one waved to us. That was the
Valkyria, for her mail sparkled in the sun; but I had eyes only for
that one whom I thought I should not see again, whose little glove
was on my heart.

Now, if we were desperate, Odda was not the man to waste any chance
of victory that there might be. We went swiftly up the long slope
of Cannington hill, and fell on the post there before they on the
main guard could reach them. There was no withstanding the terrible
onset of our Saxons; half that force was slain, and the rest were
in full flight in a few minutes.

Then we went steadily down the hill to where Hubba himself waited
for us. His war horns were blowing, to call in every man who was
within hearing; and his men were formed in line four deep at the
foot of the spur on which their camp had been.

Now, when I saw this I looked on our men, who were in column again;
and it seemed to me that the old Norse plan would be good, for it
was certain that on this field we meant to stay.

"Ealdorman," I said, "while there is yet time let us form up in a
wedge and go through that line. Then shall we fight back to back,
and shall have some advantage. I and my men, who have axes, will go
first."

Then my few vikings cried, "Ay, king!" and shouted; whereat Odda
laughed grimly.

"Go on, Berserker--axes must needs lead--we will do it."

Then we changed the ranks quickly, and I and Kolgrim and Harek made
the point of that wedge. Heregar and the banner were in the midst,
and Odda himself was not far behind me, putting his best men along
the two foremost faces of the wedge.

"We shall not be foremost long," I said; "we shall be surrounded
when once we are through the line."

But as we came on, Hubba closed up his men into a dense, square
mass.

"Ho!" said Harek to me; "you are wrong, my king."

Now we were close at hand, and the Danish arrows flew among us, and
the javelins fell pretty thickly. I think that a wedge bears this
better than any other formation, for it is easy to stop the weapons
that reach it.

Our men were silent now, and I was glad, having known already what
that meant; but the Danes began to yell their war cries. Then we
were within ten paces of them, and I gripped shield and axe and
gave the word to charge, and Odda answered it.

Then was such a terrible roar from the Saxons as I had never
heard--the roar of desperate men who have their foes before them,
more awful than any war shout. And at that even the vikings shrank
a little, closing their ranks, and then, with all the weight of the
close-ranked wedge behind me, we were among them, and our axes were
at work where men were driven on one another before us; and the
press thinned and scattered at last, while the Danes howled, and
for a moment we three and a few lines behind us stood with no
foemen before us, while all down the sides of the wedge the fight
raged. Then we halted, and the Danes lapped round us. I do not know
that we lost more than two men in this first onset, so heavy was
it; but the Danes fell everywhere.

Now began fighting such as I had heard of, but had never seen
before. The scalds sing of men who fought as fights a boar at bay
in a ring of hounds, unfearing and silent; and so fought we. My axe
broke, and I took to sword Helmbiter, and once Kolgrim went
Berserker, and howled, and leaped from my side into a throng which
fell on us, and drove them back, slaying three outright, and
meeting with no hurt.

Our wedge held steady. Men fell, but we closed up; and there grew a
barrier of slain before us. I had not seen Hubba since we first
closed in, and then he had been a little to the right of where we
struck his line, under a golden banner, whereon was a raven
broidered, that hung motionless in the still morning air.

Presently the Danish onslaught slackened. Men were getting away
from their line to the rear, worn out or wounded, and the hill
beyond them was covered with those who had fallen out. They had
beaten against our lines as one beats on a wall--hewing out stones,
indeed, but without stirring it. They had more hurt than we.

Odda pushed to my side, and said to me:

"What if we advance towards the hill crest?"

"Slowly, then," I said.

He passed the word, and we began to move, and the Danes tried to
stay us. Then their attack on the rear face of the wedge slackened
and ceased, and they got round before us to fight from the higher
ground. At once Odda saw that an attack in line as they wavered
thus would do all for us, so he swung his hard Devon levies to
right and left on us Norsemen as the centre--maybe there were
twenty of us left at that time--and as the wings swung forward with
a rolling cheer, the Danes crumbled away before them, and we drove
them up the little hill and over the brow, fighting among the
half-burnt watch fires and over heaps of plunder, even to where the
tall "Raven" drooped from its staff.

Then I saw the mighty Hubba before me; and had I not known it
already, one might see defeat written in his face as he looked
across to his ships. His men were back now, and stood on the far
shore, helpless. Then was a cheer from our left, and he looked
there, and I looked also.

Out of the fort came our wounded--every one who could put one foot
before another--a strange and ghastly crowd of fifty or sixty men
who would yet do what they might for England. And with them was a
mixed crowd of thralls and village folk, bearing what arms they
could find on the place whence we drove the first Danes, and forks,
and bill hooks, and heavy staves.

I do not know if the Danes saw what manner of force came to our
help; but I think they did not. Many broke and fled to the ships;
but Hubba's face grew hard and desperate, and he cried to his men
to stand, and they gathered round him and the Raven banner.

Once again our great wedge formed up, and again charged into the
thick of the Danes. Then I faced the great chief, and men fell back
from us to see what fight should be. But from beside me came Odda.

"My fight, Ranald," he said, and strode before the Dane.

His sword was gone--the hilt and three inches of blade hung from
his wrist--and his shield was notched and gashed. His only weapon
was the broad-bladed Saxon spear, ashen shafted, with iron studs
along its length below the head. He was a head shorter than the
Dane, who was, in truth, the most splendid warrior I had ever seen;
and he bore a broad axe, wedge beaten and gold inlaid. There was
not much to choose between his shield and Odda's, but I thought the
spear the weaker weapon.

"Axe against spear," said Harek; "here is somewhat of which to
sing."

Once Odda feinted, lunging at Hubba's face; and the Dane raised his
shield a little, but did not move else, nor did his eyelids so much
as flinch, and his steady look never left his foe's face. Then, as
Odda recovered, the great axe flashed suddenly, and fell harmless
as its mark sprang back from its sweep; while like light the spear
point went forward over the fallen axe, that recovered too slowly
to turn it, and rang true on the round shield that met it.

I had not thought much of spear play until now, for we think little
of the weapon.

Again the Saxon lunged, and Hubba hewed at the spear shaft,
splintering it a little as the quick-eyed spearman swung it away
from the blow. Then the butt was over Odda's left shoulder, and
before one could tell that its swing aside had ended, forward flew
the point, darting from left to right over Hubba's arm that had not
yet recovered from the lost axe blow, and behind the shield's rim.
That blow went home, and the mighty Dane reeled and fell.

One moment's silence, and then a howl from the Danes who watched,
and they flew on us, bearing us back a pace or two. Odda went down
under the rush that was made on him, and I called to my comrades,
and stood over him, and beat them back. But Hubba's fall was the
end.

Even as I stood there, there came a rash of men from our ranks past
me; and I cheered, for I saw Heregar's silver mail driving straight
for the Raven standard, at the head of the young thanes who were
the shield wall of the Dragon of Wessex. Then, too, closed in the
wounded men and the country folk; and the Danes broke and fled
towards the ships in disorder. We followed for a little way, and
then the thralls ended matters. They say that not one Dane reached
the river's bank, beyond which their comrades watched and raged,
powerless to help them.

I went back to where Odda had fallen, and at that time there rose a
thundering cheer of victory from our wearied line, and helms were
cast into the air, and weapons waved in wild joy. That roused one
who lay before me, and white and shaking, up rose Odda from among
the slain. I went to him, and got my arm round him; and again the
men cheered, and little by little the colour came back to his face.

"I thought you slain outright," I said; "are you much hurt?"

"I cannot tell," he said. "I believe I am sound in limb, but my
wind is gone. It is ill for a stout man to have mail-clad Danes
hurled on him by heavy-handed vikings."

So he said, gasping, but trying to laugh. And, indeed, he was
unwounded, save for a cut or two, and he still grasped his red
spear in his right hand.

Now I looked on our men, and saw that we might not bide for another
fight. Already some whom the wild joy of battle had kept strong in
spite of wounds were falling among their comrades, and it seemed to
me that wounds were being bound up everywhere.

But there was a token of victory that made these seem as nothing.
In the midst of all Heregar stood with the Dragon banner, and by
his side his son-in-law, Turkil the thane of Watchet, bore the
captured "Raven."

Harek the scald looked at it once, and then went to its heavy
folds, and scanned carefully the runes that were thereon.

"Ho, comrades!" he cried joyfully, "here is a winning that will be
sung of long after our names are forgotten. This is the magic Raven
that was wrought with wizardry and spells by the daughters of
Ragnar Lodbrok. Ill will this news fall on Danish ears from end to
end of England. This is worth two victories."

"I have seen it many times before," said Heregar; "nor is this the
only time that I have tried to win it. But never before have I seen
it hanging motionless as it hung today. There seems to be somewhat
in the tale they tell of its flapping foreboding victory."

"Ay," said Odda. "Today they despised us, and bore it not forward;
therefore it flapped not, seeing that there was no wind where it
hung."

The ealdorman called us together then, and pointed to the Danes who
were massed beyond the river.

"Now it is time for us to go. We have won a good fight, and some of
us are yet alive. It will not be well to lose all by biding here to
be slain to the last man now. Shall we go to Bridgwater or to the
Quantocks, and so to Taunton?"

Then Heregar said:

"To the hills; for we should be penned in Bridgwater between this
force and the other. I think that while we are yonder they will not
do much on this side the Parret; and men will ever gather to us."

Then we took our wounded and went back to the fort--four hundred
men out of six hundred who sallied out, where we thought that none
would return. But how many Danes we left on the field it is hard to
say. Some say six hundred, and some more; and it may be so. Their
graves are everywhere over the hill where they fell. When the tide
rose we were gone; and Hubba's men sought the body of their chief,
and raised a mound over it. But they had no mind to stay on our
side of the river, and they went to the Polden Hills, and laid the
land waste far and wide, even to holy Glastonbury, until they
joined Guthrum's force at Edington.

Now one may know in what wise Etheldreda the brave shield maiden
met us, as we came back from that hard-won field, with words of
praise and thanks. But Thora stood not with her as we passed
through the fort gates, where she waited on the rampart with the
Lady Alswythe. Nor had she watched the fight at all, being torn
with sorrow and fear alike.

I found her presently, while the men made litters whereon to bear
our wounded to safety, having cleansed the stains of war from my
armour. King Harald's mail had kept me from wound worth
notice--though, indeed, I hardly know how it was that I was unhurt
thus. Kolgrim would not use his arm for many days, and Harek was
gashed in arm and thigh also.

When Osmund heard my tread, he started up from where he sat beside
Thora, looking away towards the hills to which we were going, and
greeted me warmly.

"It was a good fight, Ranald, and well won," he said.

Then Thora turned slowly, and looked at me fearfully, as if she
feared me. I was grieved, and would have gone away; but she drew
nearer, and the fear went from her eyes when she saw that I was
safe, knowing little of what I had been through. And at last she
smiled faintly, saying:

"King Ranald, they say my warrior has fought well."

"It had been strange had I not, Thora," I said.

"I think I should have hated my own kin had you fallen," she said
then.

"Ay," said Osmund, "war sees strange chances, and a man's thoughts
are pulled in many ways. Many a time have I seen Dane fight with
Dane on the old shores; and I can welcome a victor heartily, even
if it is my own kin who have been beaten. Presently we Danes will
fight for our new homes in England against such a landing from
beyond seas as you have met."

There was some scratch on my shield arm that drew Thora's eyes at
this time, and as the jarl spoke she came quickly to me, taking
some light scarf she had from her dress at the same moment.

"You are hurt," she said; "though it is little. Let me bind it for
you."

I suffered her to do so, saying nothing, but smiling at her, while
the colour came brightly into her face as she wrought. The jarl
smiled also, turning away presently as some new shouting came up
from the fort gateway, where men welcomed those who bore back the
spoils from the slain.

Then Thora had finished, and I put my arm round her and kissed her
once.

"My lady," I said, "it was worth the wound that you should tend
it."

And so she looked up at me frankly, and we knew well what had grown
up between us since the day when we had ridden together into
Wareham streets.



Chapter XII. Edington Fight.


Now after this we held the great Dowsborough fort on Quantocks for
a few days, looking out over the land that should see the greatest
deeds of Alfred, the wise king, from Glastonbury in the east to the
wide stretches of the great wood, Selwood Forest, beyond the
Stanmoor fens; and there, in the clear air, and with plenty of good
provender from the smiling Taunton vale behind us, we grew strong
again.

The Danes marched on Bridgwater, and the garrison must needs leave
the place and retreat to the heights at Petherton, and there hide.
I was grieved that my good ship was in Danish hands, but at least I
knew that they would not harm her; and such was our faith in Alfred
the king, that I believed that I should have her back. Old Thord
came up to us when his charge was thus lost.

"Maybe they will finish painting her, and we shall be able to
launch her, when we go back, without more trouble," he said. "Two
of Hubba's ships, moreover, are worth having."

Then the king rode up to us, and told us that we had done well, and
that the great plan yet held. Already he had messengers out
throughout all the southern counties, and already men were
gathering through the land and filling the towns that the Danes
were leaving.

"When I know that the Danes have their eyes fixed on Quantock side
again, I shall strike," he said.

So began again the life in Athelney and at Stanmoor fort; but now
the Devon men gathered openly on our hills, and every day the
Danish force grew also. When the last fight came, there would be an
end to either one side or the other, and Guthrum knew it.

Once in that time I rode with Alfred, and saw Neot again; and if it
were but for a few hours that we might stay with him, he found time
to speak with me, asking if I had learned aught of his faith as
yet.

"I have been in Athelney," I answered, "and I saw what might the
holy Name has at Chippenham. The old gods have passed from me."

Little have I said of this, for one cannot speak of inmost
thoughts; but so it was. Yet I think that, had I been older, the
old faith would have died more slowly from my mind. So it was also
with Harek the scald, but I think that he was Christian in heart
before I had bent my mind to the matter in earnest. Long talks had
he with Denewulf, the wise herdsman, while I listened.

So holy Neot rejoiced greatly over us, bidding me seek baptism at
once.

"Nay, father," I said; "I fear it, knowing what it is. Let me bide
for a time till I am stronger in these deep things."

He tried to persuade me gently, but at last let me be, knowing that
I spoke in earnest and with all wish to seek it rightly.

So we left him on the day after we came, and went back to Athelney,
and Alfred was very silent all the way.

"What ails you, my king?" I asked him at last, fearing that his
pain, which had left him of late altogether, might return.

"I will tell you, cousin," he said. "Plainly has Neot shown me that
all these troubles have come from my own pride and self will when
first I was king. It is a long chain of happenings, of which you
would know nought were I to try to tell you. But so it has been,
and I weep therefor in my very heart."

Then said I:

"What is past is past, King Alfred, and best friend. Look on to the
days to come, for I think that there shall rise a new and happier
England before the winter comes again. There is no man whom I have
met in all the hosts in whose heart is not love and best thoughts
of you. Old days are forgotten as if they had never been, save that
you led and conquered in the great battles beyond the Thames."

He held out his hand to me, and took mine and gripped it, saying no
word, and riding on in silence for a mile and more. And after that
he was of good cheer again till we came to Exeter, and there I
stayed to see how fared my ships, for it was time they were in the
water again.

Well had my men and the Saxon wrights wrought at building. If all
went like this, King Alfred would have a fleet that could sweep the
seas from Dover to Orme's Head, and keep his land from new
plunderers at least.

In a week I came back to Athelney, and there was good cheer, and
all were in the best of heart, for things went well. Messengers
came and went across the winding paths from the southern hills, and
Ethered met me laughing, and said:

"The king has robbed you of your glory, Ranald. He has been into
the Danish camp--even to the presence of Guthrum himself."

Then I would hear of this from Alfred himself.

"Ay," he said, when he had greeted me and heard that the ships were
almost ready, "I have outdone you; for I have played the gleeman as
I planned, and have been in the midst of them yonder on Edington
hill."

"It was an awesome risk to run, my king," I said.

"Which you taught me yourself, cousin. Howbeit I met no damsel, and I
had no companion to return with but him with whom I went--Heregar's
young son, my page. Thane is he now by right of unfearing service.
Once, when I climbed the hill, I began to fear greatly, and I stayed,
and asked the boy if he was afraid to go on.  Tell me truly, Ranald,
did you fear when you were in Wareham?"

"Truly I feared at first," I answered; "but since I was there when
it came on me, I must even go through with the business. So it
passed."

"Well, I am glad you confess it," he answered, "for I was minded to
turn and run when the first lights of the great camp showed through
the trees. Then the boy answered me, 'My king, why should I fear
when you are with me?' I was ashamed, and took Harek's harp from
him--for he carried it--and went forward boldly, singing the song
of Gunnar in the snake pit. And it seemed to me that Harek would
have chosen that song as fitting my case; for, putting Danes for
snakes, I was in a close place enough. The warriors came out when
they heard me; and I was well treated, and listened as I drank.
Many things I learned."

Now I cannot believe that Alfred feared at all. He was surely but
anxious, and took that feeling for fear. So think all his people.

"It seems that they thought I sang well," he went on; "so they took
me to Guthrum. He indeed looked sharply at me once, and maybe
twice; but I went on singing Harek's songs, and paid no heed to
him. Presently he gave me a great horn of ale from his own table,
and this gold bracelet that I wear also, and sent me away. Then I
went about the camp and heard the talk. One man asked me if I had
seen Alfred, and what he was like. 'Faith,' said I, 'men say I am
like him.' Whereat they laughed long at me and at the king also.
Then heard I the truth about my own looks for once. I had some
trouble in getting away, but at last I seemed to wax hoarse, and so
made as if I would go to Bridgwater, and left them, promising to
come again. Ay, and I will keep my promise," he said; "but as
Harek's heathen songs say, it is the sword's mass that I will sing
to them."

Then his eyes glowed, and he was silent, and I wondered at the
courage and resource in the slight figure that was before me.

"All goes well, and the plan is good," he went on directly. "They
look for some easily-beaten attack from this side of the Parret,
and at the first sign thereof will leave Edington height for the
level ground below, as they did when Hubba came. Then when they
turn, on Edington hill will be our levy suddenly--a levy of which
they have not dreamed. And there will be the greatest fight that
England has seen yet, and after that there will be a Saxon overlord
of England against whom none will dare rise."

"May it be so, my king," I answered.

"It will be so," he said. "Here in this cottage have I had the word
that tells me thereof; and you, Ranald, brought the sign that made
the word sure to me."

I minded it, and I knew that for all my life my ways were bound to
the service of Alfred the king; for my fate was linked with his, as
it seemed, from my first coming.

It was not long now before the day came that will never be
forgotten; for word was brought in from every quarter that thanes
and freemen and churls alike would not be behind when Alfred gave
the word, and he sent back to bid them meet him at Ecgbryht's
Stone, beyond Selwood, on Whitsunday. There is a great and strong
camp there on a rocky hill that looks out far and wide, near the
two great roads, British and Roman, that cross in the vale beneath;
and to that all were to gather, for there would the Golden Dragon
be set up. Men call it White Sheet Castle.

On the day before I rode to Odda, who had already drawn his men to
the Petherton ridge above Bridgwater, and told him what the king's
word was. Then I went on up the long side of the Quantocks, and
spoke in the Maytime woods with Thora, telling her--for she was a
warrior's daughter, and was worthy of a warrior's love--that I must
be at the king's side. And so she bade me fight bravely, speaking
many noble and loving words to me, until I must go. Then I led her
back to Osmund in his place among the rough huts within the wide
circle of the camp ramparts, that now held but a few poor folk from
the Parretside lands.

"King Alfred makes some new move," I said to him, "and it is
possible that we may not meet again. I think that what is coming
will end all the trouble between Saxon and Dane."

He shook his head.

"Some day it will end," he said, "but not in my time or yours--not
until the Danes have grown to know that England is their home, and
that they are English by birth and right of time--maybe not till
Denmark has ceased to send forth the sons for whom she has no place
in her own borders."

Then I answered that perhaps he was right. I did not see into
things as far as he, and I was a stranger in the land.

"But this at last will give a strong overlord to England," I said.

"Ay, for the time. So long as a strong king rules, there will be
less trouble indeed; but if Alfred's sons are weak, it will begin
afresh. England will no longer bear two kings; and while there is a
Saxon kingdom alongside a Danish, there cannot be lasting peace."

Then I said:

"What of yourself? Shall you go back to Guthrum when this is over?"

"I cannot tell," he answered. "What my fate is I know not yet. What
mean you to do if all goes well for Alfred? Shall you bide in
England?"

We had walked apart now, and were looking over all the fair
Quantock vale beneath us. I think there is no fairer lookout in all
England: land and river and hills and sea, and beyond the sea the
blue mountains of the Welsh coast--ever changing and ever beautiful
under sun and cloud and flying shadows.

"I have found the fairest land under the northern sun," I said;
"and I have found the best king, as I think. I shall bide here. One
other thing I have found of which I hardly dare to think, so many
are the chances of wartime. Yet, jarl, but for them I should not
have met with Thora, though in my heart I believe that I should not
have spoken to her yet."

"I would not have had it otherwise," he said, kindly taking my arm.
"I have seen what was coming long before Etheldreda spoke. It has
been good for Thora that she did so, whatever befalls."

Then we spoke of my promised place with the king, as if his victory
were certain. Indeed, I believe that we both had no thought of its
being otherwise.

"I do not know, however," said Osmund, "if your taking a Danish
wife will be well received. It may be likely that Alfred will wish
you to be bound to him by some tie of that nearness which shall be
of his making."

I had not thought of that, but it was a thing that was common
enough. Harald Fairhair was wont to give a rich wife to some chief
whom he would keep at his side.

"If that is so, I shall go hence," I said. "There are things that
come before friendship."

"Well," he answered, "we shall see. There is always a place for us
both at Rolf's side in his new-won land."

"Yet I should be loth to leave Alfred," I said most truly. "I think
that this is the only thing that would make me do so."

"Thora would not stand in your way to honour with him, nor would
I," said Osmund.

"Honour with Alfred shall not stand in my way, rather," I answered.
"But we speak of chances, as I think."

We said no more, and he bade me farewell.

I went back to Alfred somewhat sad, and yet with many thoughts that
were good and full of hope; and soon I had little time to do aught
but look on at the way in which the king's plans worked out most
wonderfully.

On the eve of the great Whitsunday festival we set out through the
fen paths southward to the hills and the first woodlands of Selwood
Forest, and when the morning came we were far in its depths,
passing eastward towards the place where we were to meet the levy.

Presently we turned aside to a little woodland chapel that had
escaped the sight of the Danes, and from a hut beside it came out
an old priest, white-bearded and bent with age and scanty fare. At
first he feared that the heathen had found him at last; yet he
looked bravely at us, catching up the crucifix that hung at his
side and clasping it in both his hands as he stood in the open
doorway of his church, as if to stay us from it.

Alfred rode forward to him when he saw his fear.

"Father, I am Alfred the king," he said. "Far have I ridden on this
holy day. Now I would fain hear mass and have your blessing before
we go on."

Thereat the old priest gave thanks openly to the King of kings, who
had brought Alfred again into the land, and hastened to make ready.
So that was the king's Whitsuntide mass, and we three heathen and
our few men must bide outside while the others went into the holy
place and returned with bright faces and happy; for this was a
service to which we might not be admitted, though all knew that we
would be Christians indeed ere long.

So at last we came to the ancient castle, and saw the valley to
north and east beneath its height, bright everywhere with sparkling
arms that gleamed from lane and field and forest glade, as all
Wessex gathered to meet their king.

Then the Golden Dragon that we had lost and won was unfurled; and
the war horns blew bravely enough to wake the mighty dead whose
mounds were round about us; and soon the hillside was full of men
who crowded upwards and filled the camp and ramparts and fosse, so
that before sunset Alfred had a host that any king might be proud
to call his own. Yet he would call it not Alfred's force, but
England's.

Standing on the old ramparts, he spoke to them, while all the great
gathering was silent. And the words he said sank into the heart of
every man who heard, so that he felt as if on his arm alone it
rested to free England, and that his arm could not fail. Not long
did the king speak, but when he ended there rose a cheering that
was good to hear, for it came from hearts that had been made strong
to dare aught that might come.

After that he spoke to the thanes, giving each one his place, and
telling them all that he had planned, so that each knew what was
looked for from him. It seemed that he had forgotten nothing, and
that the day must go as he said he thought it would.

Men slept on their arms that night, without watch fires, lest any
prowling Danes should see that somewhat was on hand, although
Guthrum had drawn to him every man from out of Wessex, as was said,
and as seemed true. I have heard tales from some that in the night
the warriors who lie resting in the mounds around their old
stronghold came forth and wandered restless along the ramparts,
longing to take their part again in the mighty struggle they knew
was coming. I saw nothing, but Harek the scald says he saw.

Next day we marched towards our foes. Eighteen miles we went, and
then came to the holy place Glastonbury, where the burnt ruins
spoke again, as it were, to the warriors of wrong and cruelty to be
avenged.

There we were, but eight miles from the foe, and that night we lay
in a great meadow they called Iglea, deep down in the folds of the
hills, where even so great a host might be hidden for many days if
no chance betrayed them. Alfred took a few of us when night came,
and climbed the steep tor above Glastonbury town. Thence we could
see the long line of fires on Polden Hills that marked where the
Danes slept, all unknowing that any host could be gathered in their
rear.

In the grey of morning we set our ranks in order. I was with
Alfred, with Ethered of Mercia and Ethelnoth, and more nobles whom
I knew; and my few men were in the shield wall, among the best
warriors of the Saxon levies. None grudged that honour to those who
had made the point of the wedge that broke Hubba's ranks and won
the Raven banner.

Now, in our Norse land there is ever sacrifice to the Asir when one
leads a host to battle, that luck may be on the right side; and now
I was to see a more wondrous thing than even that. I knew by this
time the meaning of what I saw, and there crept into my heart a
wish that I might take full part therein with Alfred, who had
taught me.

When all the ranks were ordered, and the deep columns were drawn up
on Iglea meadows in three sides of a square, there came a little
train of robed monks, at whose head was Bishop Sigehelm of
Sherborne, before whom went a tall gilded cross. Careworn and
anxious looked the good fathers, for there was not one of them who
had not a tale of Danish cruelty and destruction to tell, and more
than one had hardly escaped with his life; but now their faces were
brighter with new hope as they came into the open side of the armed
square and waited for a moment.

Alfred and we stood before them, and the bishop raised his hand. At
that we all knelt, with a strange clash and rattle of arms that
went round the great host and ceased suddenly, so that the
stillness was very great.

Then was only the voice of the bishop, who in a clear tone spoke
the words of peace to those who should pass hence in the coming
battle, that they might fight bravely, and even rejoice in death.

So he shrived the host, and at the end they said "Amen" in one
voice.

Thereafter the bishop prayed to the Lord of hosts--not such a
prayer as I had been wont to hear, but more wonderful, and with no
boasting therein, nor, as it were, any hate of the foe, but rather
the wish that the strife should make for peace, and even blessing
to them.

Then he lifted his hand and blessed all the host as they bared
their heads, and again the last word rolled deep and strong round
the ranks, and that was all; then Alfred cried cheerily to his men,
and we began our march that must needs end in battle.

There is a great road that climbs up the slope of the Polden Hills
from Glastonbury and then runs along their top to Edington and
beyond, and by this way we went, among pleasant woodlands.
Guthrum's own place was on the spur of Edington, because thence one
looks out on all the land that Alfred held, from the fort at Stane
hill to Bridgwater and Combwich and the sea beyond. That was only
eight miles from us, and was the point which we would win. Thence
to Bridgwater is five miles, and the town was now held in force by
the Danes; and where the road leaves the hills to cross the marsh
to the bridge and town, two miles away, was a camp that guarded the
causeway through the level.

We went quickly as a great host may, and Alfred had so ordered
matters that even as we set out from Iglea, Odda and his force were
moving in battle array from the Petherton heights on the Quantock
side of the town, as if to attack it. That was what Guthrum had
looked for since the time we had beaten Hubba, and the only attack
which could have seemed possible in any way.

It is likely that he overrated the number which Odda had with him;
for those who escaped us at Combwich had not been near enough to
see from the far side of the river how small our force was, and
would make much of those who had been able to overcome their
mightiest chief. Moreover, since that time seven weeks had gone by,
and the gathering of Devon might be greater yet. So it was, indeed;
but Odda had not a thousand men. Perhaps, too, the Danes feared
some sally from the fens; but however it was, they made not the
mistake which destroyed Hubba by despising us rashly, for Guthrum
drew his whole force together, and left the hills for a march
towards the town which he heard was threatened.

So when we came to Edington, Guthrum's hill fort was empty, save
for a camp guard to keep the country folk who lurked in wood and
fen from pillaging it. These men fled, and we stood on the ridge
without striking one blow; and King Alfred turned to us, and cried
that surely his plan was working out well.

Then our host lined the ridge, and a mighty Saxon cheer from ten
thousand throats went pealing across the valley below us, and they
say that shout was heard even in Bridgwater. Guthrum heard it as he
rode with his host across the long causeway, and his men heard it
and halted, and saw in their rear the blaze of war gear that shone
from their own lines, and knew that they were pent in between fens
and hills, with an unknown force ready to fall on them.

Whereon a panic very nearly seized them. Hubba's end was fresh in
their minds, and it needed all that Guthrum could say to prevent
them making for the town. But he minded them of old victories, and
bade them not fear to face the despised Saxons once again, and they
rallied. But it was noon before he could lead them to attack us,
and by that time he learned that Odda had halted above the town,
and need not be feared. But by that time also every post of vantage
along the hills was in our hands, and if Edington height was to be
held by Danes again, it must be won by hard fighting. That is a
thing that no Dane shrinks from, and now for Guthrum there was
nought else to be done, for he was surrounded, as it were.

No man saw the whole of that fight, for it began at noon, as I have
said, when Guthrum turned to find the hillward road blocked behind
him. And from that time on it raged from spur to spur and point to
point, as step by step the Danes won back to the hillsides. But the
crest of the hill they never gained, save where for a time they
might set foot and be driven headlong in turn by those who had
given way before them at first. And so the fight swept on to the
base of Edington hill and along its sides, for there Alfred had
held his best men in reserve. Already the Danes had made for
themselves some shallow lines of earthworks along the crest, and
now these were manned against their own attack.

Men who looked on from afar tell strange tales of the shouts and
cries that rang among the quiet Polden hills and woodlands that day
for long hours. It was very still, as it chanced, and the noise of
battle went far and wide from the place where Saxon and Dane fought
their greatest fight for mastery.

Ever rode Alfred with the light of battle on his face, confident
and joyous, among his men from post to post. Ever where the tide of
battle seemed to set against us his arm brought victory again,
until at last Guthrum drew his men together for one final attack
that should end the day.

On Edington hillside he massed them, and steadily they came on
under shield in a dense column to where, in their own camp, we
waited under the Dragon banner. Half our men, the best spearmen of
the force, were lying down resting, but along the little ridges of
the earthworks the archers stood, each knowing that he fought under
the eye of the king he loved.

"This is the end," said Alfred, as the Danes came on. "Be ready,
spearmen, when I give the word."

And they lay clutching their weapons, with their eyes fixed on him
as he stood on the hilltop, surrounded by his thanes, gazing on the
last assault of the Danes, whose archers from the wings were
already at work, so that the men of the shield wall closed in
around him.

I think that the Danes had no knowledge of what force was hidden by
the hill brow. For when they were within half arrow shot, and
Alfred gave the word, and the long ranks of spearmen leaped from
the ground and closed up for their charge, a waver went along the
shielded line, and they almost halted, though it passed, and they
came on even more swiftly.

Then Alfred lifted his sword and shouted, and, with that awful roar
that I had heard before on the Combwich meadows, over the hill
crest and down upon the Danes the spearmen rushed. The lines met
with a mighty crash of steel on steel, and while one might count
two score they swayed in deadly hand-to-hand strife. Then Guthrum's
men gave back one pace, and howled, and won their place again, and
again lost it.

Then forward went Alfred and his shield wall, and I was on one side
of him and Ethered of Mercia on the other, while after him came
Heregar, bearing the banner. The Danes in the centre closed up as
they saw us come, and there were shouts in which Guthrum's name was
plain to be heard, and I saw him across a four-deep rank of his
men.

Straight for him went Alfred, and the Danish line grew thin before
us. But as their king went forward our Saxons cheered again and
pressed their attack home, and right and left the Danish line fell
back and broke. At that a wild shout and charge with levelled
spears swept them down the hillside in full rout, and the end had
come. His courtmen closed round Guthrum and bore him from before
us, and the full tide of pursuit swept him away before we reached
him.

Alfred stayed his horse and let the men go on. His face was good to
see as he glanced round at the hills to our right; but when it fell
on the slain, who lay thickly where the lines had met, he bared his
head and looked silently on them for a space, while his lips moved
as if he prayed.

Then he said:

"These have given their lives not in vain, for they have helped to
bring peace, and have died to set an English king over the English
land."

He put on his crown-circled helm again, and as he did so, among the
fallen there was a stir and movement, and the wounded rose up on
arms and knees and turned on their sides, and raised their hands,
waving broken weapons, and crying in a strange, wearied voice that
yet had a ring of victory in it:

"Waeshael to Alfred the king!"

For the silence that had fallen, and the lessening shouts of the
pursuers, told them that they had won, and they were content.

Thereat Alfred flushed red, and I think that he almost wept, for he
turned from us. And then he spoke to the men who yet stood round
him, and said:

"Let every man who has any knowledge of care for the wounded, or
who has known a wound of his own and the way it was cared for, go
among these brave ones and help them."

Nor would he leave the place till he saw men going up and down
among the hurt, tending them as well as they could; and he was the
more content when he saw Bishop Sigehelm and many other clergy come
on the field from the rear, where he had bidden them stay. The
bishop had mail under his robes, having been eager to join in the
fight, as would Eahlstan, his great forerunner, have certainly
joined; but Alfred would not suffer him to do so.

Once more Guthrum tried to rally his men, when the flight bore him
to his camp at the hill foot, on the way across the fens to the
town. There was a sharp fight there, and Ethelnoth was wounded as
he led on his men; and thence the Danes fled to Bridgwater, making
no more delay. So close on them were our men that Guthrum's
housecarls closed the gates after their king on many of their
comrades, who fell under the Saxon spear in sight of safety. Nor
did we give them time to drive in the cattle that were gathered
from all the countryside to the meadows round the place.

Then came Thord to me and put me in mind of somewhat.

"Now is our work to be done, king. These Danes will take Hubba's
ships and be gone down the river next. We must stop them in some
way, for the king's plan is to starve them out, as it seems."

We had left the king at that time, for we would not suffer him to
join in pursuit, which has its dangers, if men turn desperate and
make a stand, as many did, dying like brave warriors that they
were. So I rode on quickly with my followers, and came to the river
bank below the bridge. The Danes were swarming on the ramparts of
the fortress like angry bees, and in the ships, which lay beneath
the walls, men were busy, even as Thord had guessed they would be,
making ready to sail when tide served. We could not reach them by
any means, for every boat had been taken from this side long ago,
when the first news of defeat was brought back by flying horsemen.

Then Thord's face glowered under his helm, and he pointed to the
ship that was farthest from the bridge, and therefore likely to be
the first to start away when the tide was full. It was my own ship,
which they had got afloat.

"Thor's hammer smite them!" he growled; "they have launched the old
keel without finishing her painting--just as I left her. How are we
to stay their going off with her?"

"Is there a chain cable anywhere?" I asked.

"Not one in the place," he said; "and if we did get one across the
river, we should have to fight to keep the far end of it."

The tide was rising fast, and I thought we should surely lose every
ship, while Guthrum and his chiefs would escape us at the same
time. One might line the banks with archers, certainly, but that
would not stay the going. Evening was closing in, moreover. By
midnight they would be gone, and I was in a difficulty out of which
I could not see my way.

Suddenly Thord smote his hands together, and his face grew
brighter.

"I have it," he cried. "There is an old vessel that lies in a creek
a mile down the river. A great buss {xvi} she is, and worth
nothing; but she will float, and maybe will be afloat now. If we
can sink her across the channel in a place that I know, not one of
these ships will get away till she is raised."

Then I called every man to me whom I could see, and we went quickly
to the place where this buss was, and she was just afloat. Thord
knew where her tackle was kept, and he had the oars out--what there
were of them at least, for they were old and rotten enough. Then we
had to shove her off and get her boat into the water, and the
vessel itself floated up on the tide towards the narrow place where
she might best be sunk to block the channel against ships that came
from the town.

We had not gone far when there came a sound at which I started, for
it was nothing more or less than the quick beat of oars coming down
the river against the tide. Thord and I and eight men of my own
crew were in the buss, while I had maybe thirty men ashore who were
keeping pace with us along the bank. The rest of my own men were
with these, and one shouted that he could see the ship, and that it
was our own, crammed with men too.

Now at first it seemed as if the only thing for us to do was to go
ashore in the boat as quickly as we could and get away; but Thord
cried to me:

"Then will the Danes take our ship to sea, and we have lost her for
good. It should not be said of us that we let her go without a blow
struck to save her."

"Sink this hulk straightway, then," I said, falling to work, with
the axe I had in thy hand, on the lowest strakes. My men leaped to
work as well, and in two minutes the seams began to gape, and then
was a rush of water from broken planking that sent us over the side
and into the boat in hot haste.

Then we pulled for shore, towing the bows of the fast-sinking buss
with us till they grounded in the mud, and even as her stern swung
with the tide across the channel she lurched and sank.

"We should have bided in her and fought," growled Thord. "Now in
five minutes we shall see the bottom ripped out of our own ship by
our own deed."

But a foot of the bows and the mast of the buss stood out of the
water, and I thought the Danes would see these marks.

Even as we gained the shore our dragon stem swept round the bend
that had hidden us, and came on swiftly. Then the Danes saw us, and
those on the fore deck shouted, and the oars plashed wildly, and
many on the side next to us stopped altogether; and at the same
time the steersman saw the stem of the wreck, and, as I think, lost
his head between fear of it and the sudden appearance of the foe
whom he thought he had escaped. The larboard oars were going yet,
and the starboard had almost stopped. He paid no heed to it, and
the ship swung over. Then the tide caught her bows, and in a moment
she ran hard and fast on our bank, and the men in her fell right
and left with the shock.

I had seen what was coming, and so had Thord, and we ran our best
to meet her as she struck. The tide was a good one, and she came
well on the hard bank, and there was no need to tell my men what to
do. Before the Danes knew what had happened we were climbing over
the bows on board, and the Danes aft were leaping into the river to
get away from us.

Some few tried to fight; but there must have been two hundred men
packed along the gangways, and they could do nothing. They threw
themselves into the water like the rats that had left the old buss
even now, and we slew many, and the good ship was our own again.
Some of the Danes got ashore on the far bank, some were met by our
Saxons on this side, and but few got back to Bridgwater, for the
river had most of them.

Another ship was coming at this time, but those in her heard the
shouting and the cries; and it would seem that their hearts failed
them, for they went back before we could see more than the tall
mast above the banks from our decks.

Then we thought we might rest, for we were wearied out; but Thord
would not suffer us to do so till he had got the ship carefully
below the wreck, so that she was free. Had we waited for the next
tide we could not have done it, as it turned out; for the rise of
flood shortened quickly to the neap tides, and a bank of mud grew
round the sunken hull, making the channel impassable altogether for
the time, and so the last way of escape for Guthrum and his men was
barred.

So I thought we had done well, and left Thord and my men to guard
the ship and take her back to Combwich, where she would lie safely
in the creek, while I rode to Alfred, almost sleeping on my wearied
horse as I went.

There were two wrecks in that place in the morning; for they
brought down one of Hubba's ships in the dark on the next tide, and
she ran on the sunken stem of the buss, and went down almost at
once. After that no more attempt was made to fly by water.

Then began a siege that lasted for a fortnight, without anything
happening that is worth telling; for the fear of Alfred was on the
Danes, and they had not heart so much as to make one sally from the
gates.



Chapter XIII. The Greatest Victory.


Now in a few days it was plain that Alfred held the Danes in the
hollow of his hand as it were, and could do what he would with
them. At first we looked for messengers from the place, to treat
with him for peace; but none came. From the town at times we could
hear shoutings and the noise of men who quarrelled, as if there
were divided counsels among them that led to blows. They were very
short of food also, because all their stores of cattle were left
outside the walls, as I have said, so that we fared the better for
their plundering while we waited.

At the end of the first week, therefore, Alfred sent a message
under flag of truce, and told the chiefs that he was willing to
hear what they would say; and next day Guthrum asked that some
chiefs might come and speak with him. But Alfred would not trust
the Danes enough to send any of his nobles into the town, and bade
Guthrum come out to the camp and say what he had to say. But he
would not. Then one day, when Alfred held counsel as to what was
best to be done to ensure lasting peace, I said that I thought Jarl
Osmund might be of use, for he could go between the two camps in
safety.

That seemed good to the king, and Heregar and I rode to find him,
crossing the tidal ford at Combwich, where we heard from village
folk who had returned that the Danish lord bided in Heregar's house
beyond the fort.

There I thought I should find Thora, and we went quickly. The place
looked very deserted, and when we came to the courtyard gates it
seemed more so, for the Maytime had sprinkled the gay-patterned
paving of grey and white shore pebbles with blades of grass and
weeds that sprang up between them everywhere for want of tendance.

Only the Lady Alswythe and a few of her servants were there now,
for the Lady Etheldreda had taken Thora with her to Taunton when
she left the hills. It had not been so safe here, though there was
little plunder to bring the Danes to the place now. So I need not
say that I was grievously disappointed, though in the dismantled
hall sat Osmund, listlessly shaping a bow stave, and waiting for
what turn of fortune should take him next.

Very glad, as one might think, were both the lady and the jarl for
our coming, and we had to tell them all the tale of the working of
Alfred's plan, and of the great fight. And when that was heard, we
told the jarl of Alfred's wish to treat with Guthrum and the other
chiefs through him.

That Osmund would gladly do; indeed, he said that, in hopes of
being thus useful, he had stayed so near at hand.

So he and the thane talked long of the matter--for Alfred had sent
messages--while I spoke with the lady, of Thora mostly.

It did not seem to me that I had any part in the king's business
with the Danes, and so presently I thought that I could do no
better than ride to Taunton to see Thora, who I feared might be in
trouble or doubt as to my safety.

So I rode there with Kolgrim. At that time the scald was laid up
with a wound in the camp, and the king seemed to miss his presence,
and to care for his welfare as if he were his brother; but, indeed,
he made every man with whom he had to do feel as if his king were
his best friend.

There is not much need for me to tell what manner of welcome I had
at Taunton from Thora. As for Etheldreda, she would have me tell
her everything, and I sat with those two, until night came and
rest, talking of all the time past. But of the time to come Thora
said nothing, and once or twice when Etheldreda left us and we were
alone for a little while, so that I could try to plan out somewhat,
she would but turn the talk again.

In the morning I found out how this was. She had gathered from
Osmund somewhat of his thoughts about what Alfred's plan for me
might be, and was unhappy therefore, not wishing to stand in my way
to honour with the king. So she told me when I pressed her a little
to speak of what I would do; and when I said that there should be
nothing that I would let stand between us, she was the more
troubled yet.

So at last I went and found Etheldreda, and prayed her to come and
speak with Thora.

"Falling out already?" she said, laughing.

"Not so, but a greater trouble than that," I said, "one that will
need your help before it is mended."

"Ay, I suppose you could patch up a quarrel for yourselves," she
said. "What is this mighty trouble?"

So she came and sat by Thora, taking her hand and kissing her, and
we told her what Osmund's thoughts were.

"There is such enmity between Saxon and Dane," Thora said, "that it
is not likely that the king will trust one who will wed one of his
foe's daughters."

It was plain that Etheldreda thought the same; but she cheered us
both, saying that she would do all that she could to help us, and
that Odda would not be behind in the matter. After all, if we were
to wait for a while, things might be very different after a little
time of peace. And so we were content.

So I went back to Alfred next day, and when he heard where I had
been he smiled a little, and said:

"One thing I must tell you, my Norseman, and that is that our
thanes who know little of you will be jealous that you should have
much dealing with any Dane as yet."

Which made me the more uneasy; for though I might think that the
king, at all events, was not displeased with me, others, and the
wishes of others, might be too strong for him to go against.

But my affairs are little things compared with what was on hand at
this time, and on the same day Alfred spoke to me about somewhat
that he would have me do for him.

In the town the Danes were in the greatest straits by this time,
for by no means could they get stores of any sort to them, so close
was the watch round the place. Osmund had been in and out once or
twice, and Guthrum had received him well enough, and it was thought
that there would be no long delay now before the siege was at an
end by the submission of the Danes to any terms they might gain,
and the more so that an assault on the fortress would surely have
been successful, ending in the fall of all its defenders.

But Alfred was most willing to be merciful, and he had bidden
Osmund tell Guthrum and his chiefs that if he might name twelve
hostages for himself the rest should go free, while Guthrum should
hold the East Anglian kingdom for him as under-king.

But this was what Alfred would have me do.

"One other thing there is," he said. "If there is to be any
brotherhood between us, it must be as between Christians. The ways
of persecution must be forgotten and that cannot come to pass until
the chiefs at least have accepted the faith."

"It is strange to me, my king," I said, "that Guthrum, who has been
in England for ten years, is not Christian by this time."

"Ay, but his hosts are heathen," the king answered. "Now I think I
can speak to you as if no longer a heathen at least?"

"As a Christian, my king," I answered.

"Well, then," he said, smiling on me, "go and speak to Guthrum and
tell him what I have said. I think that he will listen to you
better than if I sent a priest or even Bishop Sigehelm. Warrior may
speak to warrior plainly."

Now this was a hard thing for me to do, as it seemed. Maybe it was
the hardest thing he could have asked me. But it was in my mind
that I could not but go to Guthrum and give the message, else would
I seem to deny the faith that I loved. Alfred saw at once that I
was troubled in some way, and I believe that he knew well what the
seeming doubt was.

"Once you brought a token of good to me," he said. "Now that was
all unknowing. Go now and take a message of good to Guthrum openly,
and have no fear."

"What shall I say?"

"Mind not that at all," he answered; "what is needed will come to
you."

So I said that I would go if Harek might come with me, for his
words were ever ready. But Alfred would not suffer that. I must go
without help from a scald, taking only my own words; and at last I
consented, though indeed my only fear was that I might not succeed
by reason of my slowness of speech.

Then I went to Osmund, and told him that I was to go into the town
with him next day, for that is how Alfred planned for me; and I
told him also what my part in the business was to be. Whereon he
surprised me.

"I do not know that your errand is so hopeless as you seem to
think," he said. "Guthrum has harmed no Christians in East Anglia
since he was king there."

"Well," I answered, "I hope it may be easy, though I doubt it."

I would not say more then, but, being anxious, went and spoke long
with Harek. The brave scald's wounds were deep, though he had said
little of them. Some say that he saved the life of Ethelnoth at the
time when that ealdorman was struck down, and that also is
Ethelnoth's story; though the scald says that if so it was by
accident, and less worth speaking of than many braver deeds that
were wrought and went untold that day.

"Here have I been in England but six months or so, and I have more
to sing of than ever I learned with Harald Fairhair," he said one
day, as he made songs on his bed while his wounds were healing.

And he spoke the truth. Never was a winter so full of deeds wrought
by a king and a valiant people that were worth a scald's
remembrance.

Now Osmund had a last message from Alfred that day, and in the
morning we went together to the bridge. There Guthrum's own
courtmen met us, and they took us into the fortress, beyond which
lies the town, so that we saw little of what straits the host might
be in by this time. In the fortress itself all seemed in order at
least; and there was a guard set at the door of the well-built hut
where the Danish king was, as if some state were yet kept up.

There Guthrum welcomed us, and with him were many chiefs, on whose
faces was the same care-worn look that Osmund had borne when I saw
him at Exeter before Alfred.

"Two messages come to you today," Osmund said; "one by my mouth,
and the other by that of King Ranald Vemundsson, who is with me. I
think you may hear both, and answer them both favourably."

Guthrum made no reply, but took his seat at the upper end of the
one room the hut had; and all the chiefs sat also, leaving us
messengers standing.

Then said Osmund:

"I think it right that I should stand in the presence of my king,
but the son of King Vemund should not do so in any less presence
than that of his overlord."

Thereat Guthrum smiled a little.

"I have heard that Harald of Norway came to blows with his brother
kings because they would not stand before him, and that others have
left that kingdom because they did not choose to do so. Sit down,
King Ranald. Your father's name was well known to all of us in the
old days. I am glad to see his son, though maybe I should not say
so."

"We would rather that he were on our side," said one of the other
chiefs.

Then they set places for both of us, and we waited for Guthrum's
word.

"Well," he said, wearily enough, "let us hear what King Alfred
says."

"Few are his words," said Osmund:

"'Let Guthrum suffer me to choose any hostages that I will for
myself, let him swear to keep the peace hereafter as my under-king
beyond Thames, doing homage to me, and he shall go hence with his
host in honour.' There is also the message of Ranald to add
hereto."

Now I thought that the faces of the chiefs showed that they thought
these terms very light; but they said nothing as yet.

Guthrum turned to me.

"Well, King Ranald?"

"Alfred the king bids me say that he would fain treat with you
hereafter as a brother altogether. And that can only be if the
great trouble between Dane and Saxon is removed--that is, if
Guthrum becomes a Christian."

Now I expected some outburst of scorn and wrath on this, but
instead of that a silence fell, in which the chiefs looked at one
another; and Guthrum gazed at me steadfastly, so that I felt my
face growing hot under his eyes, because I knew I must say more,
and that of myself and my own wishes most likely.

Then Guthrum said slowly:

"Why has he not sent some priest to say this?"

"Because he thought that a warrior would listen best to a brother
warrior," I answered.

"Ay, that is true," said the king. "Are you a Christian,
therefore?"

"I am as yet unbaptized," I said. "I have taken the prime signing
on me, as have many others; but I shall certainly seek baptism
shortly."

"You came here as a heathen, then?"

"As a heathen altogether, except that I had no hatred of
Christians," I answered, not quite seeing what the king would know.

"What turned your mind so far from the old gods that you should be
a fit messenger on such a matter to us?"

"I have learned from Alfred and Neot," I answered, "and I know that
I have found what is true."

Then Guthrum turned to Osmund.

"What say you, jarl? you have been with Alfred also."

"When Ranald is baptized, I shall be so with him," the jarl
answered simply.

And that was the first word thereof that I had heard from him.

Then an older chief spoke sharply to us.

"What profit do you look to make thereout--either of you?"

"Certainty of better things both in this life and in that to come,"
I answered.

"Ay, so they always say," the chief growled; "but what place with
Alfred in return?"

"It is likely that I shall gain no place with him," I said. "Jarl
Osmund knows that I do not count on that."

"Ay," said Osmund, "I know it. Nor will any man think that I seek
honour at Alfred's hands."

Then Guthrum rose up, and spoke gravely and yet very determinedly,
as if this was no new matter to him.

"Here, chiefs, are two good and tried warriors who willingly choose
Alfred's faith. You and I have heard thereof since we were in
England; and many a man have we seen die, since we have been here,
because he would not give it up. I mind me of Edmund, the martyred
king, whom Ingvar, our great chief, slew, and of Humbert the
bishop, and many more lesser folk. Tell me truly how much you have
thought of the Asir in these last years?"

But none answered. It was with them as with me: the Asir were not
of England.

"One thing," said Guthrum, "has gone against our taking up the
English faith--we have thought the words of peace have made men
cowardly. Now we know that is not so. Here is one who withstood
Hubba, and round the walls watch Christian men who have beaten us
sturdily."

Then he stayed his words for a little, and his voice sank, and he
looked round and added:

"Moreover, the words of the new faith are good. I will accept King
Alfred's brotherhood altogether."

Then one or two more of the younger chiefs spoke, and said that
they would do so also; but again the elder warrior spoke fiercely.

"Is this forced on us as part of the peace making?"

"It is not," I answered. "It is, as I have said, the wish for
brotherhood altogether."

Then said Guthrum:

"That is enough. I do not think that we need be ashamed to be
conquered altogether by King Alfred."

"One more word," said the old chief. "Are we to have no hostages?"

"There can be no exchange of hostages," said Osmund.

"Things are all on the side of the Saxon," he growled.

"Ay, they are, in more ways than that," said Guthrum. "We have no
power to say a word. It is in my mind that we could not have looked
for such mildness at the king's hands. For there is no denying that
we are at his mercy.

"What say you, as a stranger, Ranald?"

"I have known the ways of Harald of Norway," I answered. "I think
that he would not have left a man of this host alive."

Whereon the old warrior laughed shortly, and was silent while
Guthrum bade us go back to Alfred and thank the king for his word,
saying that an answer should be given as soon as the word of the
host had been taken in open Thing.

So Alfred won Guthrum to the faith, and greatly did he rejoice when
he heard what the Danish king had said. I think he was more glad
yet when he knew that Osmund would become Christian also, and he
urged us both to be baptized at once.

"Let us be so with Guthrum," I asked.

"That will be fitting," he answered, "for I think you have won him
over."

But I hold that Guthrum and more of his chiefs had been won by the
deaths of those martyrs of whom he spoke long before the choice was
set before him. One cannot tell how this was wrought in the mind of
the Danes altogether by the hand of God. Some will ever say, no
doubt, that they took the Cross on them by necessity; but I know
that it was not so. Nor have their lives since that time given any
reason for the thought.

Then Alfred asked the name of that old warrior who withstood us,
and Osmund told him.

"I will have that chief as a hostage," the king said, "for I think
that he is worth taming."

"I think that King Alfred's hostages are not in any way to be
pitied," Osmund said.

"Save that they are kept from home and friends, I would have them
as happy as may be," the king answered; "but I would have none
presume on what mercy came to you, Jarl Osmund, for the sake of the
Christmastide message."

"I think that none will do so," Osmund said. "There is full
knowledge among my kin that you showed mercy when justice was about
to be done, and well they know that your kindness was not weakness.
It is likely that the mercy shown here also will do more for peace
than would even destruction of your enemies."

So it seemed at last, for on the fourteenth day of the siege the
Danes accepted the king's terms with one consent. And more than
that, Guthrum and thirty of his chiefs asked that they might be
baptized; which was a wonder to all of our host.

Now I have said nothing about the life in the great camp before
Bridgwater, for it had nothing of much note to me, though it was
pleasant enough. I think there was some jealousy of me among the
younger thanes at one time; but it passed because I would not
notice it, and also because I took no sort of authority on me,
being only the king's guest and warrior as yet. But I did find a
few young thanes of Odda's following who knew somewhat of the sea,
and I was wont to talk with them often of the ships and the like,
until I knew they would be glad to take to the viking's path with
me in the king's ships, bringing their men with them. And often
Alfred spoke with me of the matter, until I was sure that he would
have me stay.

It was but a few days after the peace had been made when Alfred
went to a great house he had at Aller, which lies right amidst the
marshes south of Athelney. We had saved that house and the church
by our constant annoyance of the Danes, with many another house and
village along the fen to which they dared not come for fear of us
at last. Guthrum was to come to him there, and I think that he
chose the place because there at least was nought to bring thoughts
of defeat to the Danes, and there they could be treated as guests,
apart from the great camp and fortress. Great were the preparations
there for the high festival that should be when Alfred himself
should take Guthrum to the font.

Then came Neot on foot, with Guerir his fellow hermit, from
Cornwall, to be present; and Harek and I rejoiced as much as the
king that he had come.

"I think I must answer for you two at the font," he said.

"For Kolgrim also, I pray you, Father Neot," said I; "for he will
be baptized with us."

"Ay, for honest Kolgrim also," he answered; "but what of old Thord,
my reprover?"

"He will have nought to do with the new faith," I said. "But at
least he does not blame us for leaving the old gods. He says he is
too old to learn what we younger men think good."

"I will seek him and speak with him again," Neot said. "I think I
owe him somewhat."

Then we thanked the holy man for the honour that he was showing us;
but he put thanks aside, saying that we were his sons in the truth,
and that the honour was his rather.

Now in the seven weeks that we waited for Guthrum at Aller, while
the priests whom Alfred sent taught him and his chiefs what they
should know rightly before baptism, Osmund and I were wont to go to
Taunton, across the well-known fens, and bide for days at a time in
Odda's house there, and we told Thora for what we waited.

She had come to England, when she was quite a child, with the first
women who came into East Anglia, and already she knew much of
Christianity from the Anglian thralls who had tended her. And when
she had heard more of late from Etheldreda and Alswythe, she had
longed to be of the same faith as these friends of hers, and now
rejoiced openly.

"Ranald," she said, "I had not dared to speak of this to my father,
but I was wont to fear the old gods terribly. They have no place
for a maiden in their wild heaven. There are many more Danish
ladies who long for this change, even as I have longed. Yet I still
fear the wrath of Odin for you and my father."

"The old gods are nought--they have no power at all," I said,
bravely enough; though even yet I had a little fear in thus defying
them, as it seemed.

"Then I will dread them no more," she answered. "Nor do I think
that you need fear them."

So I comforted her, and bade her ask more of Etheldreda, who would
gladly teach her; and the matter passed by in gladness, as a
trouble put away, for she and I were at one in this. I will say
that I had half feared that she whom I loved would have been angry
with me.

Now on that night Osmund and I and Harek would ride to Heregar's
house over the shoulder of the Quantocks, with some message we had
to take to him from Alfred; and we went without any attendants, for
the twelve miles or so would have no risk to any one, and the
summer evening was long and bright.

Yet we were later in starting away than we should have been, and so
when we were among the wilder folds of the hills, where the bare
summits rise from wooded slopes and combes, we were overtaken by a
heavy thunderstorm that came up swiftly from the west behind us,
darkening the last sunset light with black clouds through which the
lightning flickered ceaselessly.

We rode on steadily, looking for some place of shelter; but it grew
very dark, and the narrow track was rough, and full of loose stones
that made the going slow. Presently the clouds settled down on the
hill crest and wrapped us round, and the storm broke afresh on us,
with thunder that came even as the darkness was changed to blue
brightness with the lightning flashes that played around us almost
unceasing. There was no rain yet and no wind, and the heat grew
with the storm.

Soon the nearness of the flashes scared our horses, and we had to
dismount and lead them, and in the darkness we lost the little
track among the heavy heather. And then there seemed to me to be a
new sound rising among the thunder, and I called to Harek, bidding
him hearken.

It came from seaward, and swelled up louder and louder and nearer,
until it passed over our heads--the yelp and bay of Odin's wild
hounds, and the trample and scream of his horses and their dead
riders. A great fear fell on me, so that the cold sweat stood on my
forehead, while the hunt seemed everywhere above us for a moment,
and then passed inland among the thunder that hardly drowned its
noises.

Then Osmund the jarl cried out:

"That was Odin's hunt. I have heard it before, and ill came
thereof. He hunts us who forsake him."

And out of the darkness Harek answered, without one shake in his
brave voice:

"Odin's hunt in truth it was, and the ill comes to Odin, who must
leave this land before the might of the Cross. We who bear the sign
of might he cannot touch."

Then I remembered myself, and the fear passed from me, and I was
ashamed. I had no doubt now that there was need for Odin's wrath,
seeing that he was surely defeated. And Osmund was silent also,
thinking doubtless the same things; for he had taken on him the
prime signing long ago, and had forgotten it maybe.

Then we went on, and the storm grew wilder. Harek sang now, but
what the words were I cannot tell. I think they were some that he
had learned from Alfred.

Now we began to go down the southern slope of the highest neck of
the hill, as it seemed, though we could not rightly say where we
were, and in a little silence that came between the thunderclaps I
heard the rattle of hoofs as of another rider coming after us,
going faster than we dared.

"Here is one who knows the hill well," I said; "maybe he will guide
us."

And then the lightning showed the horseman close to us. He reined
up, and cried in a great voice:

"Ho, strangers! are you wandering here?"

"Ay; we are lost till the storm passes. Can you guide us to shelter
before the rain comes?" I said.

"Whence come you?" he asked.

"We are Alfred's men from Taunton--going to the thane's house at
Cannington."

"Ay, is that so? Then I will guide you. Follow," he said, and he
rode on.

One could see him plainly when the lightning came, and it showed a
tall man, grey bearded, and clad in a long hooded horseman's cloak,
under which gleamed golden-shining mail. Well mounted on a great
horse he was also, and its sides were white with foam on the dark
skin, as though he had ridden hard.

We mounted and went after him, with the lightning playing round us
and glancing from the mail of our leader as his arm threw the cloak
back over his shoulder from time to time. He led us along the hill
crest northward, crossing the places where the fire beacons had
been; and we wondered whither he was taking us, for shelter here
was none. And now the storm grew wilder, with the wind and chill of
coming rain.

Then he turned downhill, riding fast until we came to a place where
rocks lay loose and scattered everywhere, and our horses stumbled
among them. There he reined up suddenly, holding up his hand, and
shouting through the uproar of wind and thunder:

"Hold, for your lives! Hearken!"

We stayed motionless, listening, and again we heard the cry and
clang of Odin's hunt, coming now from inland over us, and I made
the sign of the Cross on my breast, in fear thereof.

"Ho for Odin's hunt!" the strange man cried, in his mighty voice.
"Hear it, Alfred's men, for you shall join it and ride the wind
with him if you defy him."

"We fear him not," said Harek; "he has no power over us."

"Has he not?" the man roared, facing full upon us; and as he did so
the lightning glared on him, and I saw that his drawn sword was
aloft, and that from its point glowed a blue flame, and that blue
flames also seemed to start from his horse's ears. One-eyed the man
was also, and he glowered on us under shaggy eyebrows.

Harek saw also, and he raised his hand towards the man and signed
the holy sign, crying:

"Speak! who are you?"

Thereat the man gave a hoarse roar as of rage, and his horse
reared, trampling wildly on the loose rocks, and, lo, he was gone
from before our eyes as if he had never been, while the thunder
crashed above us and below us everywhere!

"Odin! the Cross has conquered!" Harek cried again, in a voice that
was full of triumph; and the blood rushed wildly through me at the
thought of what I had seen.

Then Harek's horse shifted, and his hoof struck a great stone that
rolled as if going far down the hill, and then stopped, and maybe
after one could count five came a crash and rattle underneath us
that died away far down somewhere in the bowels of the hill. And at
that Osmund shouted suddenly:

"Back to the hill; we are on the brink of the old mine shaft! Back,
and stay not!"

Nor did we wait, but we won back to the higher ground before we
drew rein.

"We have met with Odin himself," Osmund said when we stopped and
the thunder let him speak.

"Ay, and have driven him hellwards by the might of the holy sign,"
said Harek. "Nearly had he lured us to death, unbaptized as we are,
in that place."

"Come," said Osmund; "I know where we are now. We are well-nigh
under the great fort, and there is a farm near at hand."

We found that soon and the rain came, and the storm spent its fury
and passed as we sat under cover in the stables waiting. Then came
the moonlight and calm, and the sweetness of rain-soaked earth and
flowers refreshed, and we went on our way wondering, and came to
the thane's with the first daylight. And I thought that our faces
were pale and marked with the terror of the things through which we
had gone, and maybe also with a new light of victory {xvii}.



Chapter XIV. King Alfred's Will.


When we came back to Aller, the first thing that I did was to tell
Neot of our meeting with Odin while his wild hunt went on through
the tempest, telling him how that I had feared unwisely, and also
of Harek's brave withstanding of the danger.

"It is said that our forefathers met Odin in like wise in the days
of the first christening of our race," he said. "I do not know what
to make thereof, seeing that I hold Odin as nought; but I think
this, that in some way Satan tried to destroy you before you were
baptized. Wherefore, whether Odin or mortal man drew you to that
place, I have no doubt what power saved you."

But Sigehelm thought that we had met with Satan himself in the
shape of the old god, and so also thought Guerir the hermit, who
told strange tales of like appearings among the Welsh hills where
he was born.

As for Alfred the king, he marvelled, and said even as Neot. But he
added this:

"I know the mine shaft well, and it is in my mind that some day
Odin's bones will be found at the bottom thereof. Nevertheless
there is more than mortal in what has happened to you by way of
trial."

Now came the time when Guthrum and his thirty comrades should seek
the king, and I have no words to tell of that time when in the
peaceful church we heathen stood white-robed and unarmed altogether
at the font, while Sigehelm, with a wonderful gathering of priests,
enlisted us as warriors of the Cross. It was, as all men think, the
most mighty victory that Alfred had ever gained.

At that time he chose Guthrum as his own son in the faith, and
named him Athelstan {xviii}, as the first and most noble stone
of the new building up of the church among the Danes. Neot would
not have our names changed, for he said we had wronged the faith in
them not at all. Odda stood for Osmund, as Neot for us.

After that was joyous feasting, and the loosing of the chrism bands
at Alfred's royal town of Wedmore, whither we went in bright
procession through the long summer day. Four days we bided there,
till we knew that the great Danish host was on its march homewards,
and then Guthrum and his comrades must join it. But before he went
he accepted from Alfred the gifts that an under-king should take
from his overlord, and they were most splendid. All men knew by
those tokens given and taken that Alfred was king indeed, and that
Guthrum did but hold place by his sufferance. Those two parted in
wondrous friendship with the new bond of the faith woven round
them, and the host passed from Wessex and was gone.

Yet, as ever, many a long year must pass by before the track of the
Danes should be blotted out from the fair land they had laid waste.
Everywhere was work to hand on burnt hall and homestead, ruined
church, and wasted monastery. There was nought that men grieved
over more than the burning of King Ine's church at Glastonbury, for
that had been the pride of all the land. Once, after the Chippenham
flight, the monks had dared to go out in sad procession to meet the
fierce raiders at the long dike that bars the way to Avalon, and
for that time they had won safety for the place--maybe by the loss
of their treasures given as ransom, or, as some say, by the power
of fearless and unarmed men; for there were men in the Danish host
whose minds were noble, and might well be touched thereby. But
Hubba's men could not be withheld after they had lost their mighty
leader, and the place must feel their fury of revenge.

Now after the host was gone we went back to Taunton, and there
Alfred called together his Witan, that he might set all things in
order with their help; and at that time, before the levies were
dismissed, he bade me seek out such men as would take to the ships
as his paid seamen. Therein I had no hard task, for from the ruined
coast towns came seafarers, homeless and lonely, asking nought
better than to find a place in the king's fleet, and first of all
were the Parret-mouth men and my fisher of Wareham. Presently, with
one consent, the Witan made me leader of the king's Wessex sea
levies, offering me the rank and fee of an English ealdorman, with
power to demand help in the king's name from all sea-coast sheriffs
and port reeves in whatever was needed for the ships, being
answerable to the throne only for what I should do. And that I
accepted willingly for love of Alfred, who was my friend, and for
the sake of comradeship with those valiant men who had fought
beside me when Hubba fell, and at Edington.

Then must I set myself to my new charge, having nought to do with
all the inland work that was before the king; and when the next
day's business was over, I went to tell him of this wish of mine,
and of some other matters that were on my mind whereof one may
easily guess.

Alfred sat in his private chamber in the great house that King Ine
built, and on the table before him were a great ink horn and other
writing gear, and beside him sat on a low stool his chaplain,
reading to him out of a great book while the king wrote. The rough
horn cage wherein was a candle, that he had planned in wind-swept
Athelney, stood close at hand, against the time of dusk that was
near. Ever was Alfred planning things like this, even in his
greatest troubles; and therein he was wise, for it is not good to
keep the mind full of heavy things alone. Moreover, as we wondered
at his skilful devices in these little things, we took heart from
his cheerful pleasure in them.

When the chamberlain brought me in, the great book was put aside,
and the pen set down, and the king looked up at me with his bright
smile.

"Welcome, my ship thane," he said. "Come and sit here beside me. I
have somewhat to read to you."

So I sat down wondering, and he turned back to some place in his
writing, and took the little knife that lay by him--for he had lost
his jewelled book staff in Athelney--and running its point along
the words, read to me from the writings of some old Roman what he
had been busy putting into good Saxon:

"Now when the Roman folk would make a fleet hastily, and had no
rowers, nor time to train them rightly, they built stages like to
the oar benches of a ship in a certain lake, and so taught the men
the swing and catch of the long oars."

"Will not that plan serve us, Ranald?" he said.

"Ay, lord," I answered, laughing. "In good truth, if a man can
learn to keep time, and swing rightly, and back water, and the
like, on such a staging, it is somewhat. But it will be hard work
pulling against dead water from a stage that moves not. Nor will
there be the roll and plunge of waves that must be met."

"Nor the sore sickness whereof Odda speaks," Alfred said, with his
eyes twinkling. "But I think that if the Romans found the plan
good, it will be so for us."

So we talked of this for a while, and I will say now that in after
days we tried it, and the plan worked well enough, at least in the
saving of time. Alfred's book learning was ever used for the good
of his people, and this was but one way in which he found ready
counsel for them.

This was pleasant talk enough, and neither I nor the king grew
weary thereof, but the good monk slept at last, and presently the
darkness fell, and Alfred dismissed him.

One came and lit the torches on the wall, and still we spoke of my
work, until at last Alfred said:

"So you must be busy, and I am glad. When will you set out, and
where will you go first?"

Now what I wanted to ask him was where Osmund the jarl had gone. He
had ridden to Taunton from Aller, that he might be present at
Thora's christening, and that their chrism loosing {xix} might
be held at the same time; and I had looked to find both here, but
they were gone. Nor had they left any word for me, and I was
troubled about that. So I was about to tell the king what was in my
mind concerning Thora first of all, and my heart began to beat
strangely. But he waited not for me to answer him.

"Stay," he said, smiling a little. "Before you go I must have a
hostage from my wild viking, lest he be, as it were, let loose on
the high seas where I cannot reach him."

Then he laughed, at my puzzled face, I suppose, and I saw that he
had some jest that pleased him.

"What hostage can I give, lord king?" I said. "Shall I leave Harek
and his harp with you?"

"Harek would charm our ears, and would escape," Alfred answered.
"Nay, but I must give you house and lands for a home, and therein
you shall leave a fair wife, whose loneliness will bring you ashore
now and then."

I thought there was more to come, and I liked not this at all, for
it went too closely with my fears of what might be. So I bowed, and
answered nothing as yet, while he looked laughingly at me.

"Why," he cried, "half my thanes would have gone wild with joy if I
had promised them either half of what I have said I would give to
you. Are you so fond of the longships and the restless waves that
you will not be bound to the shore?"

"Nay, my king," I said; "but I cannot yet rightly understand all
that you mean for me."

"Well, it means that I must find you a rich wife, as I think I can.
What say you to that fair lady of Exeter town and Taunton--Odda's
daughter, Etheldreda?"

"My king," I answered, somewhat over-gladly maybe, "Ethelnoth of
Somerset, my good comrade, might have some grudge against me if I
cast favouring eyes in that direction. Let this bide for a little
while, I pray you, King Alfred. Yet I would not have you think me
ungrateful, for indeed I know well what kindness is in your thought
for me."

"Nay, but I have it in my mind that you were fond of going to
Taunton not so long since, and one might well think that a maiden's
hair drew you. Well, if Ethelnoth has outdone you there, I am sorry
for your sake, not his. Cheer up, nevertheless. There are more
maidens and well dowered in our broad Wessex coasts, and I am
minded to see how far you will obey your new overlord."

"This is great kindness, King Alfred," I answered; "but we Northmen
are apt to keep some matters wherein to prove our freedom. I pray
you not to press this on me."

"Faith," he said, as if to himself, "this viking might be in love
already, so wrathful grows he--

"Now, Ranald, it is true that I have set my mind on your wedding a
maiden who is rich, and dowered with a coast town, and a good
harbour, moreover, where you might keep all your ships under your
own eye. I would not have you disappoint me so soon."

Then I said plainly,

"King Alfred, I am loth to do so. But from the very first day that
I set foot in England there has been one maiden whose ways have
seemed to be bound up with my own, and I can wed none but her. If
it does not seem good to you that I should do so now, let me wait
till times have grown easier between Saxon and Dane. I think that
you may know well that I shall fight none the worse for you if I
must strive to win your consent."

"That is straightforward," he said, smiling as if he would seem
content. "Let it be so. But it is only fair that before we close
this bargain you should see the well-dowered fair lady of whom I
speak."

"I will do so if this matter is unknown to her," I answered, "else
would be trouble, perhaps, and discomfort. But it is of no use. I
have eyes and heart but for that one. Do I know the lady already,
perhaps?"

"I believe that you may do so," Alfred said, looking grieved, in a
strange way, as if he were half minded to laugh at me for all his
seeming vexation. "Odda says that you do, and so also says
Etheldreda. Her name is Thora, daughter of Jarl Osmund, and she
will have Wareham town and Poole in right of her marriage, as dower
to her and to my sea captain."

So spoke the king quickly, and then he could make pretence no
longer, but laughed joyously, putting his hands on my shoulders and
shaking me a little, while he cried:

"Ay, Ranald; I did but play with you. True lover you are indeed, as
I thought. If you are faithful to the king as to the maiden of your
choice, both she and I are happy, and it is well."

Then I knew not how to thank him; but he said that Etheldreda and
Odda, Heregar and the Lady Alswythe, and maybe Guthrum also, as
Thora's guardian, were to be thanked as well.

"You have found many friends here in England already, Ranald my
cousin," Alfred said. "Wait until you meet some gathering of them
all at Wareham, presently perhaps, where Osmund and Thora are
preparing for a wedding--and then make a great thanking if you
will, and save words. But I wonder that I have never heard of this
matter from you before, for we have been close comrades."

"You must have heard thereof today, my king," I answered; "and you
were but beforehand with me. I could speak of such things now that
peace has come. Yet I feared that you would be against my wedding a
Danish lady."

"It was a natural thought," answered Alfred; "but Thora and Osmund
are ours, surely. Perhaps I should have doubted were your mind set
on any other. But I have no fears for you."

Then he pondered a little, and went on:

"You say that peace has come. So it has--for a time; and had we to
do only with the force that is in England now, I think it would
grow and strengthen. We cannot drive out the Danes, and there is
room in England for both them and us, and in the days to come the
difference of race will be forgotten--not in our time, Ranald, but
hereafter, as long years go by. Some day one of my line, if God
will, shall reign alone over a united England, stronger for the new
blood that has come among us. But it is a great charge that I give
to you, Ranald. What we have to fear are the new hosts that come
from Denmark, and only a strong fleet can stay them from our
shores. I can deal with those who are here, and these in time will
help me against fresh comers to the land. There is that in English
soil that makes every settler an Englishman in heart. But there is
warfare before us yet, and the fleet must break the force of the
storm, if it cannot altogether turn it aside."

Then his grave voice changed, and he laughed.

"Heavy things are these to speak in the ears of a bridegroom, but
you know all I mean. Now go your ways, and seek Odda, who will
rejoice to see you; for word comes from him that his master, Thord
the viking, is saying hard things to him because the men do not
come in readily to man the ships. At the summer's end I shall be in
Winchester, and thence I will come to Wareham to see the fleet, and
your wedding also. Go now, and all good go with you."

So Alfred the king set me forth in brotherly wise, speaking on the
morrow to my men to bid them serve him and England well under me.
And after that all came to pass as the king had planned, and at the
summer's end there was a bright wedding for us in Wareham town,
while in the wide haven rode at anchor the best fleet that England
had ever seen.

So that is how I came to be called "King Alfred's Viking," and made
this land my home. What this Wessex fleet of mine has done since
those days has been written by others in better words than I can
compass; and Harek, whom they call "King Alfred's Scald" nowadays,
has made song of what he has seen at my side in English waters; and
more he may have to make yet, for the North has not yet sent forth
all her hosts. Only I will say this, that if we have not been
altogether able to stay the coming of new Danish fleets to the long
seaboard that must needs lie open to them here and there till our
own fleets are greater, at least they know that the host may no
longer come and go as they will, for Alfred's ships have to be
reckoned with.

Now of ourselves I will add that Thora and I have many friends, but
the best and closest are those whom we made in the days when Hubba
came and fell under the shadow of the Quantock Hills, and they do
not forget us.

Into our house sometimes come Heregar and Ethered, Denewulf the
wise and humble, Odda, and many more, sure of welcome. Only the
loved presence of Neot the holy is wanting, for he died in Cornwall
in that year of the end of the troubles, and I think that in him I
lost more than any save Alfred himself.

Osmund went back to East Anglia for a time, but there he grew
wearied with the wrangling of the Danish chiefs as they shared out
the new land between them; so he bides with us, finding all his
pleasure in the life of farm and field, which is ever near to the
heart of a Dane. With him goes old Thord, grumbling at the thralls
in strange sea language, and yet well loved. Not until he was
wounded sorely in a sea fight we had and won under the Isle of
Wight would he leave the war deck; but even now he is the first on
board when the ships come home, and he is the one who orders all
for winter quarters or for sailing.

Now for long I would that I might look once more on Einar of the
Orkneys, my kind foster father, who still bided there in peace,
hearing of him now and then as some Norse ship, on her way to join
Rolf's fleet in the new land of the Northmen beyond our narrow
seas, put into our haven for repair, perhaps after the long voyage,
or to see if King Alfred would hire her men for a cruise against
the common foe--the Danes. And it was not until the news of his
death came thus to me that the home longing for the old lands
altogether left me; but since that day my thoughts have been, and
will be, for England only. I have no thought or wish that I were
sharer in Rolf's victories, nor have my comrades, Harek and Kolgrim
and Thord; for we have with Alfred more than the viking could have
given us.

I suppose that in days to come out of this long strife shall be
wrought new strength and oneness for England, even as Alfred in his
wisdom foresees; but as yet sword Helmbiter must be kept sharp, and
the ships must be ever ready. But unless the wisdom of Alfred is
forgotten, there will never again be wanting a ship captain of
English race, as when I, a stranger, was called to the charge of
the king's ships in Wessex. The old love of the sea is waking in
the hearts of the sons of Hengist.

Therefore I am content, for here have I found the sweetest wife,
and the noblest master, and the fairest land that man could wish.
And the fear of the old gods is taken from me, and to me has come
honour, and somewhat of the joy of victory in a good cause--the
cause of freedom and of peace.

Now I write these things as springtime grows apace, and at any
time--today, or tomorrow, or next day--into our hall may come
Kolgrim my comrade, his scarred face bright with the light of
coming battle, to say that Danish ships are once more on the
gannet's path; and the sword of Sigurd will rattle in the golden
scabbard, and a great English cheer will come from the haven, for
King Alfred's ships are ready.

The End.



Notes.


i A Norse homestead consisted of several buildings--the great
hall standing alone and apart from the domestic arrangements.

ii The Norse assembly, corresponding to a Saxon "Folkmote," or
representative council for a district.

iii Unearthly. The trolls were the demons of the Northern
mythology.

iv Byrnie, the close-fitting mail shirt.

v The consecrated silver ring kept in the temple of the
district, and worn by the godar, or priest, at all assemblies where
it might be necessary to administer an oath. Odin, Frey, and Niord
were always called to witness an oath on this ring.

vi God-rede = "good counsel," or "God's counsel," as Alfred
means "elves' counsel."

vii Asser's "Life of Alfred." This illness never left the king
from his twentieth year to his death. Probably it was neuralgic, as
it seems to have been violent pain without lasting effect.

viii This was called "prime signing," and was practically the
admission of the heathen as a catechumen.

ix The "Havamal" was the Northern poem which practically
embodied the ancient code of morals and behaviour.

x The use of bells was popular early in England, and not less
so because a freeman who could afford to build a church with a bell
tower became a thane in consequence.

xi The national representative assembly, and origin of our
parliament.

xii Now Normandy, and so called after Rolf's Northmen.

xiii This charm against the "evil eye" was used in the west of
England until quite lately, and may still linger. The charm against
sprains is one yet recorded in the original tongue.

xiv Alfred had Denewulf instructed, and made him Bishop of
Winchester.

xv In 845 A.D. Bishop Eahlstan and the levies of Somerset and
Dorset defeated the first Danes who landed in Wessex, at the mouth
of the Parret.

xvi Trading vessel, more heavily built than the swift
longships.

xvii The "wild hunt" is still believed to pass over Cannington
and the Quantock Hills, the sounds of the migration of flocks of
sea fowl probably keeping the tradition alive.

xviii Athelstan = "noble stone."

xix Confirmation.





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