A KING'S COMRADE:
A Story of Old Hereford,
by Charles W. Whistler
CHAPTER I. HOW THE FIRST DANES CAME TO ENGLAND.
CHAPTER II. HOW WILFRID KEPT A PROMISE, AND SWAM IN PORTLAND
CHAPTER III. HOW WILFRID MET ECGBERT THE ATHELING.
CHAPTER IV. HOW WILFRID MET AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE IN NORWICH
CHAPTER V. HOW WILFRID MET THE FLINT FOLK, AND OTHERS.
CHAPTER VI. HOW WILFRID SPOKE WITH ETHELBERT THE KING.
CHAPTER VII. HOW ETHELBERT'S JOURNEY BEGAN WITH PORTENTS.
CHAPTER VIII. HOW ETHELBERT CAME TO THE PALACE OF SUTTON.
CHAPTER IX. HOW QUENDRITHA THE QUEEN WOVE HER PLOTS.
CHAPTER X. HOW GYMBERT THE MARSHAL LOST HIS NAME AS A GOOD
CHAPTER XI. HOW ETHELBERT THE KING WENT TO HIS REST.
CHAPTER XII. HOW QUENDRITHA THE QUEEN HAD HER WILL.
CHAPTER XIII. HOW WILFRID AND ERLING BEGAN THEIR SEARCH.
CHAPTER XIV. HOW WILFRID HAD A FRESH CARE THRUST ON HIM.
CHAPTER XV. HOW WILFRID'S SEARCH WAS REWARDED.
CHAPTER XVI. HOW WILFRID SPOKE ONCE MORE WITH OFFA.
CHAPTER XVII. HOW WILFRID AND HIS CHARGE MET JEFAN THE
CHAPTER XVIII. HOW JEFAN THE PRINCE GUARDED HIS GUESTS.
CHAPTER XIX. HOW WILFRID CAME HOME TO WESSEX.
Hereford Cathedral bears the name of Ethelbert of East Anglia, king and martyr, round whose death, at the hands of the men of Offa of Mercia, this story of his comrade centres, and dates its foundation from Offa's remorse for the deed which at least he had not prevented. In the sanctuary itself stands an ancient battered statue—somewhat hard to find—of the saint, and in the pavement hard by a modern stone bears a representation of his murder. The date of the martyrdom is usually given as May 20, 792 A.D.
A brief mention of the occurrence is given under that date in the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," and full details are recorded by later historians, Matthew of Westminster and Roger of Wendover being the most precise and full. The ancient Hereford Breviary preserves further details also, for which I am indebted to my friend the Rev. H. Housman, B.D., of Bradley.
These authorities I have followed as closely as possible, only slightly varying the persons to whom the portents, so characteristic of the times, occurred, and referring some—as is quite possible, without detracting from their significance to men of that day—to natural causes. Those who searched for the body of the king are unnamed by the chroniclers, and I have, therefore, had no hesitation in putting the task into the hands of the hero of the tale. The whole sequence of events is unaltered.
Offa's own part in the removal of the hapless young king is given entirely from the accounts of the chroniclers, and the characters of Quendritha the queen and her accomplice Gymbert are by no means drawn here more darkly than in their pages. The story of her voyage and finding by Offa is from Brompton's Annals.
The first recorded landing of the Danes in Wessex, with which the story opens, is from the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;" the name of the sheriff, and the account of the headstrong conduct which led to his end, being added from Ethelwerd. The exact place of the landing is not stated; but as it was undoubtedly near Dorchester, it may be located at Weymouth with sufficient probability. For the reasons which led to the exile of Ecgbert, and to his long stay at the court of Carl the Great, the authority is William of Malmesbury. The close correspondence between the Mercian and Frankish courts is, of course, historic—Offa seeming most anxious to ally himself with the great Continental monarch, if only in name. The position of the hero as an honoured and independent guest at the hall of Offa would certainly be that assigned to an emissary from Carl.
With regard to the proper names involved, I have preferred to use modern forms rather than the cumbrous if more correct spelling of the period. The name of the terrible queen, for example, appears on her coins as "Cynethryth," and varies in the pages of the chroniclers from "Quendred" to the form chosen as most simple for use today. And it has not seemed worth while to substitute the ancient names of places for those in present use which sufficiently retain their earlier form or meaning.
The whole story of King Ethelbert's wooing and its disastrous ending is a perfect romance in all truth, without much need for enhancement by fiction, and perhaps has its forgotten influence on many a modern romance, by the postponement of a wedding day until the month of May—so disastrous for him and his bride—has passed.
C. W. WHISTLER.
A shore of dull green and yellow sand dunes, beyond whose low tops a few sea-worn pines and birch trees show their heads, and at whose feet the gray sea hardly breaks in the heavy stillness that comes with the near thunder of high summer. The tide is full and nearing the turn, and the shore birds have gone elsewhere till their food is bared again at its falling. Only a few dotterels, whose eggs lie somewhere near, run and flit, piping, to and fro, for a boat and two men are resting at the very edge of the wave as if the ebb would see them afloat again.
Armed men they are, too, and the boat is new and handsome, graceful with the beautiful lines of a northern shipwright's designing. She has mast and sail and one steering oar, but neither rowlocks nor other oars to fit in them. One of the men is pacing quietly up and down the sand, as if on the quarterdeck of a ship, and the other rests against the boat's gunwale.
"Nigh time," says one, glancing at the fringe of weed which the tide is beginning to leave.
"Ay, nigh, and I would it were past and over. It is a hard doom."
"No harder than is deserved. The doom ring and the great stone had been the end in days which I can remember. That was the old Danish way."
The other man nods.
"But the jarl is merciful, as ever."
"When one finds a coiled adder, one slays it. One does not say, 'Bide alive, because I saw you too soon to be harmed by you.' Mercy to the beast that might be, but not to the child who shall some day set his hand on it."
"Eh, well! The wind is off shore, and it is a far cry to succour, and Ran waits the drowning."
"I know not that Ran cares for women."
"Maybe a witch like herself. They are coming!"
Now through a winding gap in the line of dunes comes from inland a little company of men and women, swiftly and in silence. The two men range themselves on either bow of the boat, and stand at attention as the newcomers near them, and so wait. Maybe there are two-score people, led by a man and woman, who walk side by side without word or look passing between them. The man is tall and handsome, armed in the close-knit ring-mail shirt of the Dane, with gemmed sword hilt and golden mountings to scabbard and dirk, and his steel helm and iron-gray hair seem the same colour in the shadowless light of the dull sky overhead. One would set his age at about sixty years.
But the woman at his side is young and wonderfully lovely. She is dressed in white and gold, and her hair is golden as the coiled necklace and armlets she wears, and hangs in two long plaits far below her knees, though it is looped in the golden girdle round her waist. Fastened to the girdle hangs the sheath of a little dagger, but there is no blade in it. She is plainly of high rank, and unwedded. Now her fair face is set and hard, and it would almost seem that despair was written on it.
After those two the other folk seem hardly worth a glance, though they are richly dressed, and the men are as well armed as the jarl their leader. Nor do they seem to have eyes for any but those two at their head, and no word passes among them. Their faces also are set and hard, as if they had somewhat heavy to see to, and would fain carry it through to the end unflinching.
So they come to the edge of the sea, where the boat waits them, and there halt; and the tall jarl faces the girl at his side, and speaks to her in a dull voice, while the people slowly make a half circle round them, listening.
"Now we have come to the end," he says, "and from henceforth this land shall know you and the ways of you no more. There were other dooms which men had thought more fitting for you, but they were dooms of death. You shall not die at our hands. You are young, and you have time to bethink you whither the ways you have trodden shall lead you. If the sea spares you, begin life afresh. If it spares you not, maybe it is well. No others shall be beguiled by that fair face of yours. The Norns heed not the faces of men."
He pauses; but the girl stands silent, hand locked in hand, and with no change of face. Nor does she look at her accuser, but gazes steadily out to the still sea, which seems endless, for there is no line between sea and sky in the hot haze. For all its exceeding beauty, hers is an evil face to look on at this time. And the women who gaze on her have no pity in their eyes, nor have the men.
Once again the great jarl speaks, and his words are cold and measured.
"Also, I and our wisest hold that what you have tried to compass was out of the longing for power that ever lies in the heart of youth. We had done no more than laugh thereat had you been content to try to win your will with the ancient wiles of woman that lie in beauty and weakness. But for the evil ways in which you have wrought the land is accursed, and will be so as long as we suffer you. Go hence, and meet elsewhere what fate befalls you. In the skill you have in the seaman's craft is your one hope. We leave it you."
Then, without a word of answer or so much as a look aside, the girl of her own accord steps into the boat; and at a sign from their lord the two men launch her from the shelving sand into the sea, following her, knee deep, among the little breakers that hardly hinder their steps. They see that in her look is deepest hate and wrath, but they pay no heed to it. And even as their hands leave the gunwale, the girl goes to the mast, and with the skill and ease of long custom hoists the sail, and so making fast the halliard deftly, comes aft again to ship the steering oar, and seat herself as the breeze wakes the ripples at the bow and the land slips away from her. She has gone, and never looks back.
Then a sort of sigh whispers among the women folk on shore; but it is not as a sigh of grief, but rather as if a danger had passed from the land. They know that the boat must needs drive but as the wind takes her, for oars wherewith to row against it are none, and the long summer spell of seaward breezes has set in. The jarl folds his arms and bides still in his place, and the two men still stand in the water, watching. And so the boat and its fair burden of untold ill fades into the mist and grows ghostly, and is lost to sight; and across the dunes the clouds gather, and the thunder mutters from inland with the promise of long-looked-for rain to a parched and starving folk.
* * * *
Through the long summer morning Offa, the young King of Mercia, has hunted across the rich Lindsey marshes which lie south of the Humber; and now in the heat of the noon he will leave his party awhile and ride with one thane only to the great Roman bank which holds back the tides, and seek a cool breath from the salt sea, whose waves he can hear. So he sets spurs to his great white steed, and with the follower after him, rides to where the high sand dunes are piled against the bank, and reins up on their grassy summit, and looks eastward across the most desolate sands in all England, gull-haunted only.
"Here is a marvel," he cries, turning to his thane. "Many a time have I hunted along this shore, but never before have I seen the like of this here."
He laughs, and points below him toward the sand, and his thane rides nearer. The tide has crept almost to the foot of the ancient sea wall, and gently rocking on it lies a wondrously beautiful boat with red and white sail set, but with no man, or aught living beyond the white terns which hover and swoop about it, to be seen.
"'Tis a foreign boat," says the thane. "Our folk cannot frame such an one as this. Doubtless she has broken her line from astern of some ship last night, and so has been wafted hither."
"Men do not tow a boat with her sail set," laughs the king. "Let us go and see her."
So they ride shoreward across the dunes, and ever the breeze edges the boat nearer and nearer, till at last she is at rest on the edge of the tide, lifting now and then as some little wave runs beneath her sharp stern. For once the North Sea is still, and even the brown water of the Humber tides is blue across the yellow sands.
The horses come swiftly and noiselessly across the strand, but the white steed of the king is restless as he nears the boat, sniffing the air and tossing his head. The king speaks to him, thinking that it is the swinging sail which he pretends to fear. And then the horse starts and almost rears, for at the sound of the clear voice there rises somewhat from the hollow of the little craft, and the king himself stays in amaze.
For he sees before him the most wondrously beautiful maiden his eyes have rested on, golden-haired and blue-eyed, wan and weary with the long voyage from the far-off shore, and holding out to him piteous hands, blistered with the rough sheet and steering oar. She says naught, but naught is needed.
"Lady," he says, doffing his gold-circled cap, "have no fear. All is well, and you are safe. Whence come you?"
But he has no answer, for the maiden sinks back into the boat swooning. Then in all haste the king sends his thane for help to the party they have left; and so he sits on the boat's gunwale and watches the worn face pityingly.
Now come his men, and at his word they tend the maiden with all care, so that very soon she revives again, and can tell her tale. Beyond the hunger and thirst there has indeed been little hardship to a daughter of the sea in the summer weather, for the breeze has been kindly and steady, and the boat stanch and swift. There has been rain too, gentle, and enough to stave off the utmost thirst.
All this she tells the king truly; and then he must know how she came to lose her own shore. And at that she weeps, but is ready. In the long hours she has conned every tale that may be made, and it is on her lips.
She is the orphan daughter of a Danish jarl, she says, and her father has been slain. She has been set adrift by the chief who has taken her lands, for her folk had but power to ask that grace for her. He would have slain her, but that they watched him. Doubtless he had poisoned their minds against her, or they would not have suffered thus far of ill to her even. Otherwise she cannot believe so ill of them. It is all terrible to her.
And so, with many tears, she accounts for her want of oars, and provides against the day when some chapman from beyond seas shall know her and tell the tale of her shame. At the end she weeps, and begs for kindness to an outcast pitifully.
There is no reason why men should not believe the tale, and told with those wondrous tear-dimmed eyes on them, they doubt not a word of it. It is no new thing that a usurper should make away with the heiress, and doubtless they think her beauty saved her from a worse fate.
So in all honour the maiden is taken to Lincoln, and presently given into the care of one of the great ladies of the court.
But as they ride homeward with the weary maiden in the midst of the company, Offa the king is silent beyond his wont, so that the thane who rode yonder with him asks if aught is amiss.
"Naught," answers Offa. "But if it is true that men say that none but a heaven-sent bride will content me, maybe this is the one of whom they spoke."
Now, if it was longing for power and place which had tempted this maiden to ill in the old home, here she sees her way to more than her wildest dream plain before her; and she bends her mind to please, and therein prospers. For when wit and beauty go hand in hand that is no hard matter. So in no long time it comes to pass that she has gained all she would, and is queen of all the Mercian land, from the Wash to the Thames, and from Thames to Trent, and from Severn to the Lindsey shore; for Offa has wedded her, and all who see her rejoice in his choice, holding her as a heaven-sent queen indeed, so sweetly and lowly and kindly she bears herself. Nor for many a long year can she think of aught which would bring her more power, so that even she deems that the lust of it is dead within her. Only for many a year she somewhat fears the coming of every stranger from beyond the sea lest she may be known, until it is certain that none would believe a tale against their queen.
Yet when that time comes there are old counsellors of the Witan who will say among themselves that they deem Quendritha the queen the leader and planner of all that may go to the making great the kingdom of the Mercians; and there are one or two who think within themselves that, were she thwarted in aught she had set her mind on, she might have few scruples as to how she gained her ends. But no man dare put that thought into words.
CHAPTER I. HOW THE FIRST DANES CAME TO ENGLAND.
Two fair daughters had Offa, the mighty King of Mercia, and Quendritha his queen. The elder of those two, Eadburga, was wedded to our Wessex king, Bertric, in the year when my story begins, and all men in our land south of the Thames thought that the wedding was a matter of full rejoicing. There had been but one enemy for Wessex to fear, besides, of course, the wild Cornish, who were of no account, and that enemy was Mercia. Now the two kingdoms were knit together by the marriage, and there would be lasting peace.
Wherefore we all rejoiced, and the fires flamed from the hilltops, and in the towns men feasted and drank to the alliance, and dreamed of days of unbroken ease to come, wherein the weapons, save always for the ways of the border Welsh, should rust on the wall, and the trodden grass of the old camps of the downs on our north should grow green in loneliness. And that was a good dream, for our land had been torn with war for overlong—Saxon against Angle, Kentishman against Sussexman, Northumbrian against Mercian, and so on in a terrible round of hate and jealousy and pride, till we tired thereof, and the rest was needed most sorely.
And in that same year the shadow of a new trouble fell on England, and none heeded it, though we know it over well now—the shadow of the coming of the Danes. My own story must needs begin with that, for I saw its falling, and presently understood its blackness.
I had been to Winchester with my father, Ethelward the thane of Frome Selwood, to see the bringing home of the bride by our king, and there met a far cousin of ours, with whom it was good to enjoy all the gay doings of the court for the week while we were there. He belonged to Dorchester, and taking as much fancy to my company as a man double his age can have pleasure in the ways of a lad of eighteen, he asked me to ride home with him, and so stay in his house for a time, seeing the new country, and hunting with him for a while before I went home. And my father being very willing that I should do so, I went accordingly, and merry days on down and in forest I had with Elfric the thane, this new-found cousin of ours.
So it came to pass that one day we found ourselves on the steep of a down whence we could overlook the sea and the deep bay of Weymouth, with the great rock of Portland across it; and the width and beauty of that outlook were wonderful to me, whose home was inland, in the fair sunshine of late August. We had come suddenly on it as we rode, and I reined up my horse to look with a sort of cry of pleasure, so fair the blue water and dappled sky and towering headland, grass and woodland and winding river, leaped on my eyes. And in the midst of the still bay three beautiful ships were heading for the land, the long oars rising and falling swiftly, while the red and white striped sails hung idly in the calm. One could see the double of each ship in the water, broken wonderfully by the ripple of the oars, and after each stretched a white wake like a path seaward.
My cousin stayed his horse also with a grip of the reins that brought him up short, and he also made an exclamation, but by no means for the same reason as myself.
"Ho!" he said, "what are these ships?"
Then he set his hand to his forehead and looked long at them from under it, while I watched them also, unknowing that there was anything unusual in the sight for one who lived so near the sea and the little haven of Weymouth below us.
"Well, what do you think of them?" I asked presently.
"On my word, I do not know," he answered thoughtfully. "They are no Frisian traders, and I have never seen their like before. Moreover, it seems to me that they are full of armed men. See how the sun sparkles on their decks here and there!"
But we were too far off to make out more than that, and as we watched it was plain that the ships would make for the river mouth and haven.
"We will ride down and see more of them," said my cousin. "I only hope—"
There he stayed his words; but I saw that his face had grown grave of a sudden, and knew that some heavy thought had crossed his mind.
"What?" I asked.
"It must be impossible," he said slowly—"and this is between you and me—for it seems foolish. But have you heard of the northern strangers who have harried the Welsh beyond the Severn sea?"
I had heard of them, of course, for they traded with the Devon men at times, having settled in towns of their own in Wales beyond the Severn. It was said that they were heathen, worshipping the same gods whom our forefathers had worshipped, and were akin to ourselves, with a tongue not unlike our own at all, and easy to be understood by us. Also they had fought the Welsh, as we had to fight them; but one heard of them only as strangers who had naught to do with us Saxons.
"Well, then," my cousin said, "suppose these are more of the northern folk."
"If they are, they will have come to trade," I said lightly. "But they will more likely be men from the land across this sea—men from the land of the Franks, such as we saw at Winchester the other day."
"Maybe, maybe," he said. "We shall see presently."
So we rode on. I dare say we had four miles to go before we came to the outskirts of Weymouth village, and by that time the ships were in the haven. By that time also the Weymouth folk were leaving the place, and that hastily; and before we were within half a mile of the nearest houses we met two men on horseback, who rode fast on the road toward Dorchester.
"What is amiss?" cried my cousin as they neared us.
The men knew him well, and stayed.
"Three strange ships in the haven, and their crews ashore armed, and taking all they can lay their hands on. We are going to the sheriff; where is he?"
"Home at Dorchester. Whence are the ships? Have they hurt any one?"
"We cannot tell whence they are. They speak a strange sort of English, as it were, like the Northumbrian priest we have. Red-headed, big men they are, and good-tempered so far, seeing that none dare gainsay them. But they are most outrageously thievish."
"What have they taken, then?"
"Ask the bakers and butchers. Now they are gathering up all the horses, and they say they are going to drive the cattle."
"Sheriff's business that, in all truth. Get to him as soon as you may. I will go and see if I can reason with them meanwhile."
"Have a care, thane!" they cried, and spurred their horses again.
Then my cousin turned to me, and his face was grave.
"Wilfrid," he said, "you had better go with those messengers. I am going to see if aught can be done; but it sounds bad. I don't like an armed landing of this sort."
"No, cousin," I answered. "Let me go with you. It would be hard if you must send me back, for I would fain see the ships. That talk of driving the cattle can be naught but a jest."
"Likely enough," he answered, laughing. "It is no new thing for a crew to come ashore and clear out the booths of the tradesmen without troubling to pay offhand. Presently their captains will come and pay what is asked, grumbling, and there will be no loss to our folk. As for this talk of taking the horses—well, a sailor always wants a ride when he first comes ashore, if it is only on an ass. Then if there is not enough meat ready to hand in the town, no doubt they would say they would find it for themselves. Well, come on, and we will see."
So we rode on, but the laugh faded from the face of my kinsman as we did so.
"They have no business to come ashore armed," he said, half to himself, "and Weymouth folk ought to be used to the ways of seamen by this time. I don't like it, Wilfrid."
Nevertheless, we did not stop, and presently came among the first houses of the village, where there was a little crowd of the folk, half terrified, and yet not altogether minded to fly. They said that the strangers were sacking the houses along the water's edge, but not harming any one. However, they were taking all the ale and cider casks they could find on board their ships, and never a word of payment.
"Do not go near them," said my cousin. "Doubtless some one will pay presently, and I will go and speak with their head men. Maybe they can't find any one who can rightly understand their talk."
"Oh ay," said an old man, "it passes me to know how a thane like your worship can understand all sorts of talk they use in England. It is all the likes of us can compass to understand even a Mercian; but I warrant you would ken what a Northumbrian means easily."
He shook his head with much wisdom, and we left him grumbling at the speech of the priest we had already heard of.
We passed down the straggling shoreward street, and as we neared the waterside we heard the shouts and laughter of the strangers plainly enough. And over the houses were the mastheads of their three ships. One of them had a forked red flag, whereon was a raven worked in black, so well that it was easy to see what bird it was meant for. It was the raven of the Danish sea kings, but that meant naught to us yet. The terror which went before and the weeping that bided after that flag were yet to come.
The next thing was that from the haven rode swiftly half a dozen mounted men toward us, and the first glance told us that here were warriors whose very war gear was new to us. Three of them had close-fitting coats of ring mail, and wore burnished round helms of bronze or steel; while the others, who were also helmed, had jerkins of buff leather, gilded and cut in patterns on the edges of the short sleeves and skirts. Their arms were bare, save that one had heavy golden bracelets above the elbow; and they all wore white trousers, girt to the leg loosely with coloured cross-gartering, which reached higher than ours. I had never seen such mail as theirs, and straightway I began to wonder if I might not buy a suit from them.
But most different from any arming of ours was that each had a heavy axe either in his hand or slung to his saddle, and that their swords were longer, with very handsome hilts. Only two had spears, and these were somewhat shorter than ours and maybe heavier. They were better armed warriors than ever I had seen before, even at Winchester.
Some word passed among these men as they saw us; but they came on, making no sign of enmity of any sort. Perhaps that was because, being in hunting gear and with naught more than the short sword and seax one always wears, we had no weapons, and were plainly on peaceful business.
And as in spite of their arms they seemed peaceful enough also, my cousin and I waited for them, so that they pulled up to speak to us, that man who wore the bracelets being at their head.
"Friends," said my cousin quietly, as they stared at him, "there is no war in the land, and we are wont to welcome strangers. No need for all this weapon wearing."
"Faith, I am glad to hear it," said the leader, with a grim smile. "We thought there might be need. There mostly is when we come ashore."
One could understand him well enough, if his speech was rougher than ours. The words were the same, if put together somewhat differently and with a new way of speaking them. It was only a matter of thinking twice, as it were, and one knew what he meant. Also he seemed to understand us better than we him, doubtless by reason of years of travelling and practice in different tongues of the northern lands.
"The arms somewhat terrify our folk," said my cousin, not heeding the meaning which might lie in the words of the chief. "But I suppose you have put in for food and water."
"For ale and beef—that is more like it," said the Dane. "Having found which we are going away again. The sooner we find it the better, therefore, and maybe you will be glad to help us to what we seek."
"Our folk tell me that you are helping yourselves somewhat freely already," answered the thane. "One may suppose that, like honest seamen, you mean to face the reckoning presently."
"Oh ay, we always pay, if we are asked," answered the chief; and as he said it he hitched his sword hilt forward into reach in a way which there was no mistaking.
"It is a new thing to us that seamen should hint that they will pay for what they need with the cold steel. We are not such churls as to withhold what a man would seek in his need."
"No man ever withholds aught from us, if so be we have set our minds on it," said the chief, with a great laugh.
Then he turned to his men, who were all round us by this time, listening.
"Here, take these two down to the ships, and see that they escape not; they will be good hostages."
In a moment, before we had time so much as to spur our horses, much less to draw sword, we were seized and pinioned by the men in spite of the rearing of the frightened steeds. Plainly it was not the first time they had handled men in that wise. Then, with a warrior on either side of us, we were hurried seaward; and I thought it best to hold my tongue, for there was not the least use in protesting. So also thought my cousin, for he never said a word.
Along the rough wharves there was bustle and noise enough, for the place swarmed with the mailed seamen, who had littered the roadway with goods of all sorts from the houses and merchants' stores, and were getting what they chose to take across the gang planks into their ships. Here and there I saw some of our people standing helpless in doorways, or looking from the loft windows and stairways; but it was plain that the most of them had fled. There were several boatloads of them crossing the bay with all speed for safety.
Next I saw that at the high stems and sterns of the ships stood posted men, who seemed to be on watch, leaning on their spears, and taking no part in the bustle. But every man worked with his arms ready, and more men who had found horses rode out along the roads as we came in. They were the pickets who would watch for the raising of the country, or who would drive in the cattle from the fields.
Twice I had seen border warfare with the west Welsh on the Devon side of our country, and so I knew what these horsemen were about, or rather guessed it. But at the time all the affair was a confused medley to me, if I seem to see it plainly now as I look back. Maybe I saw more from the ships presently, for we were hurried on board, handed over to the ship guard and there left, while our captors rode away again.
I only hoped that when the first messengers reached Beaduheard the sheriff he would bring force enough with him. But I doubted it.
The guard took our weapons from us, bound us afresh but not very tightly, and set us with our backs against the gunwale of the fore deck of the ship they had us on board, which was that with the raven flag. Over us towered a wonderful carven dragon's head, painted green and gilded, and at the stern of the ship rose what was meant for its carven tail. The other ships had somewhat the same adornment to their stems and stern posts, but they were not so high or so handsome. Plainly this was the chief's own ship.
Now I suppose that the presence of a captive or two was no new thing to the men, for when they had secured us each to a ring bolt with a short line, they paid little heed to us, but stood and talked to one another with hardly a glance in our direction. Seeing which my cousin spoke to me in a low voice.
"This is a bad business, Wilfrid," he said. "Poor lad, I am more than sorry I let you come with me. Forgive me. I ought to have known that there was danger."
"Trouble not at all," I said, as stoutly as I could, which is not saying much. "I wanted to come, and there was no reason to think that things would go thus. Even now I suppose we shall be let go presently."
Elfric shook his head. I could see that he was far more deeply troubled than he cared to show, and my heart sank.
"I cannot rightly make it all out," he said. "But these men are certainly the northern strangers who have harried Wales, even as we feared."
"Well," I said, "we shall have the sheriff here shortly."
"Beaduheard? I suppose so. Little help will be from him. It would take three days to raise force enough to drive off these men, and he is headstrong and hot tempered. His only chance is to scare them away with a show of force, or, at best, to prevent their going inland after plunder; for that is what they are here for."
"Maybe they will hold us to ransom."
"That is the best we can hope for. Of course I will pay yours."
The bustle went on, and I watched the stowing of the plunder after this, for I had no more to say. I thought of my father, and of the trouble he would be in if he knew my plight, and tried to think what a tale I should have to tell him when I reached home again.
And then came an old warrior, well armed and handsome, with iron-gray hair and beard, and he stepped on the deck and looked curiously at us.
"Captives, eh?" he said to the men. "Whence came they?"
"Thorleif sent them in," answered one of the guard. "It was his word that they would be good hostages."
As I knew that this man spoke of his chief, it seemed to me that he was hardly respectful; but I did not know the way of free Danes and vikings as yet. There was no disrespect at all, in truth, but full loyalty and discipline in every way. Only it sounded strangely to a Saxon to hear no term of rank or respect added to the bare name of a leader.
Then the old warrior turned toward us, and looked us over again, and I thought he seemed kindly, and, from his way, another chief of some rank.
"I suppose this is your son?" he said to Elfric directly.
"My young cousin," answered the thane. "Let him go, I pray you; for he is far from his own folk, and he was in my charge. You may bid him ride home without a word to any man if you will, and he will keep the trust."
The warrior shook his head, but smiled.
"No, I cannot do that. However, I suppose Thorleif will let you go by and by. If our having you here saves trouble, you may be thankful. We are not here to fight if we can help it."
"Why, then," said Elfric, "unbind us, and we will bide here quietly. You may take the word of a thane."
"I have always heard that the word of a Saxon is to be relied on," said the old warrior, and gave an order to the guard.
Whereon they freed us, and glad I was to stretch my limbs again, while my spirits rose somewhat.
The old chief talked with us for a while after that, and made no secret of whence the ships had come. It seemed that they were indeed from Wales, had touched on the south coast of Ireland, and thence had rounded the Land's End, and, growing short of food, had put in here. Also, he told us that they had been "collecting property," and were on the way home to Denmark. He thought they were the first ships of the Danes to cruise in these waters, and was proud of it.
"It is a wondrously fair land of yours here," he said, looking inland on the rolling downs and forest-hidden valleys.
"Fairer than your own?" I asked.
"Surely; else why should we care to leave our homes?"
"Ho, Thrond!" shouted some man from the wharves, "here are cattle coming in."
The old warrior turned and left us, going ashore. Round the turning of the street inland, whence we came, some of the mounted men were driving our red cattle from the nearer meadows, and doing it well as any drover who ever waited for hire at a fair. I saw that they had great heavy-headed dogs, tall and smooth haired, which worked well enough, though not so well as our rough gray shepherd dogs. The ship we were in lay alongside the wooden wharf; and one could watch all that went on, for the fore deck was high above the busy crowd ashore.
I wondered for a few minutes what the Danes would do with the cattle; but they had no doubt at all. Before old Thrond had reached them the work of slaughter had begun, and wonderfully fast the men were carrying the meat on board the ships, heaping it in piles forward, and throwing the hides over the heaps. I heard one of the guards say to another that this was a good "strand hewing," that being their name for this hasty victualling of the ships.
More cattle came in presently, and sheep also, to be served in the same way. There were a hundred and fifty men or so on each ship, and I think that this was the first landing they had made since they left Ireland, so that they were in need of plenty of stores.
Then all in the midst of the bustle came the wild note of a war horn from somewhere inland beyond the town, and in a moment every man stood still where he happened to be, and listened. Twice again the note sounded, and a horseman came clattering down to the shore. He was Thorleif, the chief with whom we had spoken, and he reined up the horse and lifted his hand, with a short, sharp order of some kind.
At that every man dropped what he was carrying, and the men who were stowing the plunder on board the ships left their work and hurried ashore, gripping their weapons from where they had set them against the gunwales. There was a moment's wild hurrying on the wharves, and then the warriors were drawn up in three lines along the wharf, across the berths where they had laid the ships, and facing the landward road. Only the ship guard never stirred.
"If only we could get our men to form up like these!" said Elfric. "See, every man knows his place, and keeps it. They are silent also. Mind you the way of our levies?"
I did well enough. Never had I seen aught like this. For our folk, called up from plough and forest hastily—and now and then only—have never been taught the long lesson of order and readiness that these men had learned of necessity in the yearly battle with wind and wave in their ships. Nor had they ever to face a foe any better ordered than themselves.
"Is the sheriff at hand?" I said breathlessly.
"Maybe. I hope not closely."
Down the street galloped a few more Danes, looking behind them as they rode. They spoke to Thorleif, and he laughed, and then turned their horses loose and leaped to their places in the ranks. Thorleif dismounted also, and paced to and fro, as a waiting seaman will, with his arms behind him.
And then came a rush of horsemen, and my cousin gripped my arm, and cried out in a choked voice:
"Mercy!" he gasped, "is the man mad?"
The new horsemen were men of our own from Dorchester. I saw one or two of Elfric's housecarls among them, and the rest were the sheriff's own men, with a few franklins who had joined him on the road.
At the head of the group rode Beaduheard himself, red and hot with his ride, and plainly in a rage. His rough brown beard bristled fiercely, and his hand griped the bridle so that the knuckles were white. He had armed himself, and his men were armed also, but their gear showed poorly beside the Danish harness. He had hardly more than twenty men after him, and I thought he had outridden his followers who were on foot.
"O fool!" groaned Elfric. "What is the use of this?"
But we could do nothing, and watched in anxiety to see what Beaduheard had in his mind. It was impossible that he could have ridden in here with no warning of the real danger, as we had ridden two hours ago, before things had gone so far. Every townsman had fled long since, and would be making for Dorchester. He must have met them.
Now he halted in front of that terrible silent line, while his men seemed to shrink somewhat as they, too, pulled up. Then he faced Thorleif as boldly as if he had the army of Wessex behind him, and spoke his mind.
"What is the meaning of this?" he shouted in his great voice. "We can have no breaking of the king's peace here, let me tell you. Set down those arms, and do your errand here as peaceful merchants, whereto will be no hindrance. But concerning the lifting of cattle which has gone on, I must have your leaders brought to Dorchester, there to answer for the same."
There was a moment's silence, and then the Danes broke into a great roar of laughter. Even Thorleif's grim face had a smile on it, and he set his hand to his mouth, and stroked his long moustache as if hiding it, while he looked wonderingly at the angry man before him. But beside me Elfric stamped his foot with impatience, and muttered curses on the foolhardiness of the sheriff, which, indeed, I suppose no one understands to this day.
Some say that he took them for merchants, run wild indeed, but to be brought to soberness by authority. Others think that finding himself, as it were, in a wolf's mouth, he was minded to carry it off with a high hand, seeing no other way out of the danger. But most think that he had such belief in his own power that he did indeed look to see these men bow to it, and lay down their arms then and there. But none will ever know, by reason of what was to come.
"Throw down your arms!" he commanded again, when the laughter ceased.
His voice shook with rage.
"Stay!" said Thorleif. "What is your authority?"
The question was put very courteously, if coldly, and it was common sense.
"I am the sheriff of Dorchester. Whence are you that you should defy the king's officer?"
"Pardon," said Thorleif. "It is only at this moment that we have learned that we have so great a man before us. As for your question, we are hungry Danes who are looking for victuals. It is our custom to go armed in a strange land, that we may protect our ships at the least."
"Trouble not for your ships, for none will harm them," Beaduheard said, seeming to be somewhat pacified by the quiet way of the chief. "Set down your arms, and render up yourself and the other ship captains, and the theft of the cattle and damage here shall be compounded for at Dorchester."
Then Thorleif turned to his men and said:
"You hear what the sheriff says; what is the answer?"
That came in a crash and rattle of weapons on round shields that rang over the bay, and sent the staring cattle headlong from where they had been left at the wharf end, tail in air, down the beach. There was no doubting what that meant, and Beaduheard, brave man as he was, if foolish, recoiled. His men were already edging out of the wide space toward the homeward track, and he glanced at them and saw it.
At that he seemed to form some sudden resolve; and calling to them, he rode straight at Thorleif and griped him by the collar of his mail shirt, crying that he arrested him in the name of Bertric the king. Thorleif never struggled, but twisted himself round strongly, and hauled the sheriff off his horse in a moment, and the two rolled over and over on the ground, wrestling fiercely. Three or four of Beaduheard's men rode up to their master's help in haste, caring naught that a dozen of the Danes had sprung forward. There was a wild shouting and stamping, and the horses went down as the axes of the Danes flashed. Two more of the sheriff's men joined in, and I saw the Danes hew off the points of their levelled spears. Then into the huddled party of our men who were watching the fight—still doubting whether they should join in or fly—rode a dozen Danes from out of the country, axe and sword in hand, driving them back on the main line of the vikings, and then the fight seemed to end as suddenly as it began. Two or three horses went riderless homeward, and that was how Dorchester learned that Beaduheard the sheriff had met his end.
The Danes fell back into their places, one or two with wounds on them; and Thorleif rose up from the ground, shaking his armour into place, and looking round him on those who lay there. They were all Saxons. Not one had escaped.
"Pick up the sheriff," he said to some of his men. "I never saw a braver fool. Maybe he is not hurt."
But, however he died, Beaduheard never moved again. Some of the Danes said that a horse must have kicked him; Thorleif had never drawn weapon.
"Pity," said Thorleif. "He was somewhat of a Berserk; but he brought it on himself."
Which was true enough, and we knew it. Neither Elfric nor I had a word to say to each other. The whole fight had sprung up and was over almost before we knew what was happening.
Then the Danes mounted the horses of the men who had fallen, caught the others they had turned loose on the alarm, and were off on their errands without delay. The ranks fell out, and went back to their work as if nothing had happened, and the wharf buzzed with peaceful-seeming noise again.
That is how the first Danes came to Wessex. Men say that these three ships were the first Danish vessels that came to all England; and so it may be, as far as coming on viking raids is concerned. Wales knew them, and Ireland, and now our turn had come.
CHAPTER II. HOW WILFRID KEPT A PROMISE, AND SWAM IN PORTLAND RACE.
All the rest of that afternoon we two had to bide on the narrow fore deck of the long ship, watching the pillage of the little town. Once I waxed impatient, and asked my cousin if we might not try to escape, seeing that little heed was paid to us, and that our staying here as hostages had been of no use. But he shook his head, telling me that until he had spoken with Thorleif or Thrond, to whom we had passed our word, we must bide; which I saw was right.
Presently, as the evening began to close in, Thorleif came to us, and with him was the old chief. After them came a man with food in plenty in a ship's cauldron, and a leathern jack of ale, which he set before us as we sat on the coils of rope which were stowed forward.
"Welsh mutton and Welsh ale," said Thorleif, smiling. "That is plunder one may ask a Saxon to share without offence. Fall to, I pray you."
There was a rough courtesy in this, at the least intended, and we were hungry, so we did not delay. And as we ate, the chief spoke with us plainly.
"I had hoped," he said, "to manage this raid without fighting, but I never met so headstrong a man as your sheriff. Truly, I would have sent him home in peace, if in a hurry, had we been given a chance, but, as you saw, we had none. Now, if you will, I will send one of you home to say that if your folk will pay us fair ransom in coined silver or weighed gold, we will harry no more, and will not burn the town. One of you shall go at once, and bring me word by noon at latest tomorrow, while the other shall bide as hostage for his return. We will do no harm to aught until the time is up."
"Plain speaking, chief," said Elfric. "If we go, we must not have more than a reasonable sum named, else will the message be useless."
Then they talked of what sum should be named, and in the end agreed on what was possible, I think; at all events, it was far less than has been paid to the like force of Danes since. The riches of our peaceful Wessex were as yet unknown to the vikings, save by hearsay; indeed, it has been said that these three ships came to spy out the land. And then came the question as to which of us two was to go.
That was ended by Thorleif himself. I said that Elfric should go, and he was most anxious that I should be freed from the clutches of the Danes. And as we spoke thereof, neither of us being willing to give way—for, indeed, it did not seem to me that it mattered much whether I stayed, while Elfric had his own family, who would be sorely terrified for him—Thorleif decided it.
"Elfric the thane must go," he said, "for men will listen to him. That is the main thing, after all.
"We will not harm your cousin, thane, and you may be easy in your mind."
"Nay," said Thrond, "I think that Dorchester would pay ransom for the thane willingly. Best let the lad go."
"This is more a question of ransoming the town and countryside, foster father," answered Thorleif. "The thane shall go."
In a quarter of an hour he was gone, the Danes giving him back his weapons and mounting him on his own horse. He told me that he had no doubt that I should be freed by noon tomorrow, and so we parted in good spirits, as far as ourselves were concerned.
As to the trouble that had fallen on the land, that was another matter. I did not rightly take it in, but it was heavy on his mind. For myself, therefore, I was content enough; I had no reason to think that the Danes were likely to treat me evilly in any way.
Nor did they. On the other hand, as if I were one of themselves, they set me by the chief when they made a feast presently, and did not ask me questions about the country; which was what I feared. Most likely their riders had learned all they would from others.
When it grew dark they lighted great fires along the wharves, and sat by them in their arms, drinking the Weymouth ale, and eating the Dorset fare they had taken. The ship guards went ashore, and their places were taken by others, and I saw strong pickets passing out of the town to guard the ways into it. Thorleif would not risk aught in the way of safeguard. After that was done, those whose watch off it was went on board the ships, and slept under the shelter of the gunwales, wrapped in their thick sea cloaks. They gave me one, and bade me rest on the after deck by the chiefs; and in spite of the strangeness of everything I slept dreamlessly, being tired in mind as well as in body.
Next morning things were to all seeming much the same. The Danes had kept their word, and all was peaceful. There being nothing more in the town left worth taking, they stowed everything carefully, and made all ready for sailing. And then, halfway between noon and sunrise, Elfric rode back.
I did not see him, for he was not suffered to come beyond the line of outposts, and all that he had to say, of course, I did not know at the time. One came and told Thorleif that the thane waited to speak with him, and he was gone from the ships for half an hour with Thrond. When he came back his face was grimmer than ever, and a red scar which crossed his forehead was burning crimson. He stayed to speak to the men on the wharves, and some order he gave was passed from one to another, and in ten minutes every man had left the wharves and had passed inland, with him at their head.
"Ho, that is it!" said one of the ship guard from the deck below me.
"What is it?" I asked, for I had been talking to the man in all friendly wise, of ship and sea and strange lands.
"Why, your folk will not pay, and so we must needs take payment for ourselves in the viking's way."
I said no more, nor did the man. I think he was sorry for me; but it was not long before he called to me and pointed to the hillside above the town. On it was a black throng of folk, slowly coming down toward us.
"Your people coming to drive us out," he said, laughing a short laugh.
Then he and his comrades bustled about the ship, setting every loose thing in place, until the decks were clear. In the other ships the guard were at the same work, and at last they cast off all the shore lines but one at stem and stern. The ships might sail at the moment their men were on board if they were beaten back.
About that time the farther houses in Weymouth began to burn, and I heard the Wessex war cry rise, hoarse and savage, as the foes met. There were more of our men coming over the hill, and it was good to me to see that the Danes, who watched as eagerly as I, waxed silent and anxious. One said that there seemed a many folk hereabout, as if the gathering against them was more than they cared for.
Now I did not know what I had best wish for. Sometimes I thought that if our men were beaten back they might come to terms, and I should be freed. And it being a thing impossible that I could hope that Wessex was to be beaten, and next to impossible that I should so much as imagine she could, I mostly wondered what would happen to me when the Danes had to seek the ships. But as the noise of the fight drew nearer, and the black smoke from burning houses grew thicker, I forgot myself, and only wished I was with Elfric in that struggle; and at last I could stand it no longer.
"Let me go, men," I said; "I cannot bide here."
"We must, and you have to," said the friendly man. "We want to help as much as you, but here we have to stay. Be quiet."
"Ay, or we will bind you again," said another man shortly.
But neither looked toward me; their eyes were on the road inland, down which we could not see, for it opened at the end of the wharf.
Now a wounded man or two crawled down that road, and some of the guard helped them to the ships. They growled fiercely when their comrades asked how things went, and thereby I knew that it was ill for the Danes. The houses nearer the wharves were burning one after another, as they were driven back.
At last there came a rush of Danes down that road, and into the seaward houses they went, and fired them. Then they came on board the ships, and bade the ship guard relieve them at the front. More than one of those who came thus had slight wounds on them, but they did not heed them.
"Keep still, lad," said my friend as he hurried away. "The men are savage. We are getting the worst of it—not for the first time."
Savage enough the men were, and I saw that the advice was good; so I sat down on the steering bench and went on watching. But I was not long left in peace. The noise of the fight came closer and closer, and the wounded crept in a piteous stream to us. And then a man would look to the after line from the ship to the bollard on the wharf, and leaped on the after deck close to me.
"Out of the way, you Saxon!" he said savagely, and with that sent me across the deck with a fierce push which was almost a blow; and that was the spark which was all I needed to set my smouldering impatience alight.
I recovered myself, and without a word hit him fairly in the face with all my weight behind a good blow from the shoulder, and sent him spinning in turn. He went headlong over the edge of the raised deck, and lit among a group of his comrades, thereby saving himself from what would have been a heavy fall on his head and shoulders.
"Well hit, Saxon!" shouted a man from the nearest ship, and there was a great roar of laughter thence.
However, before his comrades, who had been watching the fires they had lighted, knew rightly how the man had thus been hurled on them, and were abusing him for clumsiness, he had his sword out, swearing to end me; and I suppose he might have done so without any of the others interfering had they understood the matter. But he was a heavy man, and mailed moreover; whereby three or four were smarting under his weight. So they fell on him and held his arm, thinking, no doubt, that he was resenting their words; which was the saving of me, for at that moment a roar came from the wharf, and slowly out of the lane end we had been watching came Thorleif's men. Their faces were toward the foe, and those who led the retreat were at work with their bows, shooting over the heads of those before them at the press which drove them back. And some leader from among them, with lifted sword, signed to the ship guards to heed the open end of the wharf, to my right.
They forgot the little matter on hand, and ran ashore. Then I noted that on that end of the wharf, where a narrow lane came down to the water, there was another fight going on, and they had to support the Danes there. The other end of the wharf was kept by a curve of the shore, and that was safe.
Presently all the Danes were back on the water front, and across the end of the two entrances to its wide space they drew some heavy wagons, which had been set there in readiness, blocking them. One could only see now and then what was being done, as the wind drifted the black smoke aside, for now every house was burning fiercely.
Then came a wild and yet orderly rush of the Danes to the ships, and it was wonderful to see each man get to his post at the oars as he came. Three men went to each oar port. One had the oar ready for thrusting outboard, one stood by with his shield ready to protect the rower, and the other, standing in the midship gangway, had his bow ready.
Thrond came on board with the first, and leaped to the steering deck, where he grasped the tiller, paying no heed to me. His eyes were on the lane end. I got out of his way, and stood by the stern post, with my arm round the dragon tail.
For I saw nothing else to do but to keep quiet. I did not know rightly whether honour compelled me to stay as a captive still, but I thought it did. But if not, in one way I could have escaped; for I had been forgotten, and every man was watching the shore. I could drop overboard and swim ashore somewhere beyond the reach of the Danes, being a good swimmer; but as I say, I doubted if I might. So I stayed, whether wrongly or not I will leave others to decide; but seeing that I doubted, I think I need not be blamed for doing as I did.
One of the houses fell in with a tremendous crash, and an eddying of smoke and flame across the wharf to leeward. Out of that smother came running the men who had left the ships just now, stooping and hiding their blackened faces from the sparks with their shields, and they too found their posts at once. A dozen came on the after deck with bows, and lined the shoreward gunwale.
Hardly had they come on board when the rest came in a rush, Thorleif being last of all. Behind them the wharf was empty, save for one man whom an arrow out of the smoke caught up and smote. Thorleif heard him fall, though in the turmoil of trampling feet I could not; and he turned back to him, and lifted him as if he had been a child, and bore him on board. Then the gang planks rattled in, and the lines were cast off, and the ship began to move.
Still the wharf was empty. I think the Saxons had been driven back for a while, and that they did not yet know, so thick was the smoke of the burning, that the barrier at the end of the lane was unguarded.
Now there were five yards between ship and shore—then ten—then twenty. The oars took the water, and she headed for sea. Out of the smoke came my people, and ran yelling across the open, and I seemed to wake up.
"Thrond," I cried, "I take back my promise. Let me go."
"Eh!" he said, looking round.
I was then with my hands on the gunwale, in the act of leaping overboard, when he reached round and held me fast.
"Steady, fool!" he said; "you will have a dozen arrows through you.
"Here, hold him," he said sharply.
And the men fell on me, binding me deftly with a few turns of a line, and then troubling themselves no more about me.
Next moment there was a sharp hiss, and an arrow from the shore stuck in the deck close to me, and another chipped the tail of the dragon and glanced into the sea. I mind noting that many another such splinter had been taken from that stern post, and presently saw—for I lay on my back, helpless—that a flint arrowhead still showed itself through a new coat of paint. It was too deeply bedded to be cut out, or else it was token of some honourable fight. It at least had come from forward, whereas I thought that most of the chips had come from astern, as this new one did. It is strange what little things one will notice when at one's wits' end.
The shouts ashore grew more faint, and at last were past. The crew were very silent, but the oars swung steadily, and at last Thorleif came from the midship gangway and saw me. The weary men laid in the oars at that moment, and threw themselves down to rest.
"Ho, Saxon!" he said, "on my word I had forgotten you. Who had you tied up?"
"I did," said Thrond. "He said somewhat about taking back a promise, and wanted to go overboard."
Thorleif stooped and unbound me, and I thanked him.
"Well, you won't go overboard now," he said, nodding toward the shore.
The great rock of Portland was broad off on our right, and maybe we were five miles from the nearest shore. Astern—for we were still heading out to sea—the smoke of burning Weymouth hung black against the blue sky. It was just such a day as yesterday, fair and warm, and the land I loved had never seemed so lovely.
"Let me go, chief," I said; "it is of no use for you to keep me."
"Why," he answered, "I don't know that it is. But your folk would pay no ransom, and it would seem foolish if I had let you go offhand. Not but what your folk have not proved their wisdom, for they have got rid of us pretty cheaply. Odin! how they swarmed on us!"
"Ay," growled Thrond. "I did not dream that so many men could be gathered in so few hours; but they fought anyhow, and it was only a matter of numbers. Well, the place is good enough, and it is but a question of more ships next time."
"Why did not you try an escape when we were all busy in the fight?" asked Thorleif, turning to me. "I have lost more than one captive in that way."
I told him, and he looked kindly enough at me, and smiled in his grim way.
"You were right in saying that a Saxon's word was good, Thrond," he said.
"I am sorry we can in no way send you back now. Your cousin did his best to win his folk to peace—and fought well when he could not. Nay, he is not hurt, so far as I know."
"Let me swim ashore, if there is no other way," I said, with a dull despair on me.
Thorleif looked at the sea and frowned.
"I could not do it myself," he said. "There is a swift current round yon headland. See, it is setting us eastward even now."
But I did not wait to hear any more; I shook my shoes off, and over I went. The wake of the swift vessel closed over my head as the men shouted, and when I came to the surface I looked back once. It seemed that Thorleif was preventing the men from sending a shower of arrows after me, but in those few moments a long space of water had widened between us; and I doubt whether they would have hit me, for I could have dived.
Then I headed for shore and freedom, and it was good to be in the water alone with silence round me. As for the other two ships, they were half a mile away from Thorleif's, and I did not heed them. So I never looked back, but gave myself to the warm waves, and saved my strength for the long swim before me. There was not much sea, and what there was set more or less shoreward, so that it did not hinder me. Presently I shook myself out of my tunic, and was more free.
I suppose that I swam steadily for an hour before I began to think in earnest what a long way the land yet was from me. In another half hour I had to try to make myself believe that it was growing nearer. Certainly Portland was farther from me, but that was the set of the current; and presently I knew, with a terrible sinking of heart, that the land also was lessening in my sight. The current was sweeping me away from it.
When I understood that, I turned on my back and rested. Then I saw that the ships were not so far away as I had expected. I seemed to have made little way from them also; which puzzled me. They had not yet set sail, and it was almost as if the oars were idle. I think they were not more than a mile off. I could almost have wept with vexation, so utterly did all the toil seem to be thrown away. However, a matter of two hours in the water when as pleasant as this was nothing to me, for I had stayed as long therein, many a time, for sport. So I hoped to do better with the turn of the tide, and let myself go easily to wait for it.
We had left Weymouth when the flood had three hours more to run, so I had not long to wait. It turned; and I knew when it turned, because the wind against it raised a sea which bid fair to wear me out. I had to go with it more or less.
Then, indeed, the land seemed very dear to me, and I began to think of home and of those who sat there deeming that all was well with me. They would never know how I had ended. I will not say much of all that went on in my mind, save only that I am ashamed of naught that passed through it. Nor did I swim less strongly for the thoughts, but struggled on steadily.
And at last the sun set, and the wind came chill over the water, and I knew that little hope was for me. Again I turned on my back and rested, and I grew drowsy, I think.
Now the daylight faded from the sky, and overhead the stars began to come out; but as the sky darkened the sea seemed to grow brighter. Presently all around me seemed to sparkle, and I wondered listlessly that the stars were so bright in the water to one who swam among their reflections. Then the little crests of foam on the waves seemed on fire, and my arms struck sparks, as it were from the water, as the sparks fly from the anvil. Only these were palest blue, not red, and I wondered at them, thinking at first that they were fancy, or from the shine of the bright stars above.
And all of a sudden, ahead of me, moved swiftly in the sea and across my way a sheet of dazzling blue brightness, and it frightened me. Often as I had seen the sea and swum in it, I had never seen the like of this, nor had heard of it. The sheet of silver fire turned and drew toward me, and I ceased swimming, and stood, treading water, watching it. Out of its midmost fires darted long streaks of light, everywhere, lightning swift, coming and going ceaselessly.
Into the midst of that brightness rushed five bolts of flame, and scattered it. The water boiled, alive with the darting fires around me and under my feet, and my heart stood still with terror. Yet I was not harmed. And then I saw one of those great white-hot silver bolts hurl itself from sea to air in a wide arch, and fall back again into the water with a mighty splash; and all the flying water seemed to burn as it fled.
Truly it was but a school of mackerel, and the porpoises which fed on the silver fish, all made wonderful by the eerie fires of a summer sea; but I could not tell that all at once. I think that I knew what it was when the great sea pig leaped, for his shape was plain to me. The shoal went its way, and after it the harmless porpoises. But the sea was fairly alight now; all round me it shone with its soft glow, and my body was wondrous with it, and I seemed to float in naught but light.
Then I think that I wandered in my mind, what with the fright and weariness; for I had been five or six hours in the water, and it was long since I had tasted food. It came to me that I was dead at last, and that I was far in the sky, floating on bright air, with stars above me and stars below. And that seemed good to me. I rested, paddling just enough to keep myself upright and forget my troubles in wonderment.
Surely that was a voice singing! There was a strange melody I had never heard the like of, and it came from the brightness not far from me. I came back to knowledge of where I was with a start, trying to make out from which direction it sounded.
"This is a nixie trying to lure me to the depth," I thought. "Truly, he need not take the trouble; for thither I must go shortly, without any coaxing."
I turned myself in the water, trying to see if I could make out the singer, but I could not. Seeing that no other was likely to be swimming in Portland race but myself, I had no thought that the song was human.
But I could find nothing. When my face was seaward, I saw far off the ships I had left, indeed; and one seemed to have set her sail, for it showed as a square patch of blackness against the sky, but no voice could come from them to me. Presently I thought that somewhat dark rose and fell on the little waves between me and her, but that was doubtless the tunic I had given to the water. I did not think of wondering why I still saw it after all this long swim, but I seemed to have made no headway from the ships, which were as near as when I last looked at them.
So I turned again and swam easily, as I thought, shoreward. The song went on, but it seemed to ring in my ears as the drone of our miller's pipes comes up from the river on a still summer evening. Yet it grew more plain.
Then I saw the ships before me. I was swimming in a circle, my right arm mastering the left, I suppose. That told me how weary I was, if I had not known it to the full before. At that moment the song, which was close to me, stopped, and a fiery arm rose from a wave top against the sky, and seemed to hail me.
"Ho, Wilfrid! have you had enough yet? By Aegir himself, you are a fine swimmer!"
Through the brightness came a sparkling head, round which the foam curled in fleecy fire; and shining as I shone, Thorleif the viking floated up to me and trod the water.
"What, you also?" I said. "Both of us drowned together at last?"
And with that I went into the brightness below me, and troubled no more for anything.
CHAPTER III. HOW WILFRID MET ECGBERT THE ATHELING.
It was indeed Thorleif whom I saw as the deadly faintness of utter weariness and want of food came over me, and I sank. The Danes had hardly lost sight of me from the ships, for they had drifted backward and forward on the tide as I drifted, and I was never more than a mile from them. Until the tide turned to the eastward there had been no wind of any use to them, and that which came with sunset was barely enough to give them steerage way. So they had watched me for want of somewhat else to do, being worn out with the long fight; and when I was far off, some keen-sighted seaman would spy my head as it rose on a wave, and cry that the Saxon was yet swimming.
Now, if there is one thing that the northern folk of our kin think much of in the way of sports, it is swimming, and it seems that I won high praise from all. Maybe they did not consider how a man who is trying to win his home again from captivity is likely to do more than his best. At all events, I had never so much as tried a swim like that before, nor do I think that I could compass it again. Presently, when the turn of the tide brought with it no eddy into the bay which set me homeward, Thorleif would let me go no longer, and followed me in the boat with two men; which was easy enough, for I swam between the ship and the place where the red glow of burning Weymouth still shone in the northern sky. He could not leave me to drown.
For a time, in the growing dusk, he could not find me. Then the sea fires showed me black against their glow, and the sea tempted him, and he leaped in after me, singing to cheer me, for it was plain that I was nearly spent. When he brought me up from the depth again I had little of the drowned man about me, for I had fainted. I remember coming round painfully after that swoon, and eating and drinking, and straightway falling into a dreamless sleep on the deck of the ship; and I also remember the untoldly evil and fishy smell of the seal oil they had rubbed me with.
When I came to myself, my first thought was that a solid wall of that smell stood round me; but such were the virtues of the oil and the rubbing that when I woke after eighteen hours' sleep I was not so much as stiff. It would ill beseem me to complain thereof, therefore, but it might have been fresher.
When I woke from my great sleep it was long past noon. I lay in the shelter of the gunwales under the curve of the high stern post, wrapped in a yellow Irish cloak, and in my ears roared and surged a deep-voiced song, which kept time with the steady roll of oars and the thrashing of the water under their blades. The ship was quivering in every timber with the pull of them, and I could feel her leap to every stroke. The great red and white sail was set also, and the westerly breeze was humming in it, and over the high bows the spray arched and fell without ceasing as oar and sail drove the sharp stem through the seas. Thorleif was in a hurry for some reason.
Only one man was on the after deck, steering, and he was fully armed. Save that his brown arm swayed a little, resting on the carven tiller, as the waves lifted the steering oar with a creak now and then, he was motionless, looking steadily ahead under the arch of the foot of the sail. The run of the deck set me higher than him, and I could not see more than the feet of some men who were clustered on the fore deck. But I could look all down the length of the ship, and there every man was armed, even the rowers. They had hung red and yellow wooden shields all along the gunwales, raising the bulwark against sea and arrow flight alike by a foot and more, and the rowers were fairly in shelter under them, if there was to be a broadside attack.
I never doubted that a fight was intended, though I could not tell why. Every man was at his post—two to each oar bench beside the rower, one with ready shield, and the other with bent bow, and these were looking forward also as they sang that hoarse song which had roused me. I do not know that I have ever heard aught so terrible as that. The wildness and savageness of it bides with me, and of a night when the wind blows round the roof I wake and think I hear it again. But it set me longing for battle, even here on the strange deck, and I would that I might join in it.
And then I knew that my own weapons lay beside me, and I sprang up, and grasped the sword and seax in haste to buckle them on. They rattled, and the steersman turned his head and laughed at me. It was old Thrond.
"That is right, lad," he said, turning his head back to watch his course again. "None the worse for the wetting, it seems."
Truth to tell, I felt little of it, being altogether myself again after the rest. So I laughed also, setting aside for the moment the question of what my fate was to be. It was plain that the man who saved me from the sea and gave me back my arms did not mean to make a captive of me in any hard sort.
"Only mightily hungry," I said. "It seems that I have slept heavily."
Thrond jerked his free thumb toward a pitcher and wooden bowl that were set near me, without looking round.
"So I suppose," he said. "Eat well, and then we will see what sort of a viking you make. You have half an hour or so."
Ale and beef there were, ready for me, and I took them and sat down at the feet of the old chief, with my legs hanging over the edge of the fore deck. Thence I could see that Thorleif was forward, and that away to the northward of us a ship was heading across our course, under sail only. The two other Danish ships were far astern of us, but their oars were flashing in the sun as they made after us.
Then I looked northward for England, but there was only the sea's rim, and over that a bank of white summer clouds. Under the sun, to the south, was a long blue line of hills whose shapes were strange to me, and that was the Frankish shore. We were far across the Channel, and still heading eastward.
"Thrond," I said, "are you after that ship yonder?"
"Ay. She will be a Frankish trader going home, and worth overhauling. Maybe there will be no fight, however; but one never knows."
Now it was in my mind to ask him what would be done with me, but I did not. That was perhaps a matter which must be settled hereafter, and not on the eve of a fight at sea. Moreover, I thought that a Frankish ship was fair game for any one, and that if I were needed there was no reason at all why I should not take a hand in the fight. Certainly I should fare no worse for taking my plight in the best way I could. So I held my tongue and went on eating.
One or two of the men looked up from the oars and grinned at me, and of these one had a black eye, being the man I had knocked off the deck. It was plain that he bore no malice, so I smiled back at him, and lifted the jug of ale toward him as I drank. He was a pleasant-looking man enough, now that the savagery of battle had passed from him.
Now I would have it remembered that a Saxon lad reared on the west Welsh marches is not apt to think much of a cattle raid and the fighting that ends it, and that with these Danes, who were so like ourselves, we had as yet no enmity. It seemed to me that being in strange company I must even fit myself to it, and all was wonderful to me in the sight of the splendid ship and her well-armed, well-ordered crew. Maybe, had we not been speeding to a fight the like of which I had never so much as heard of, I should have thought of home and the fears of those who would hear that I was gone; but as things were, how could I think of aught but what was on hand?
We were nearing the vessel fast, and seeing that she did not turn her head and fly, old Thrond growled that there was some fight in her.
"Unless," he added with a hard chuckle, "they have never so much as heard of a viking. Are there pirates in this sea, lad?"
"They say that the seamen from the southern lands are, betimes. I have heard of ships taken by swarthy men thence. The Cornish tin merchants tell the tales of them."
"Tin?" said Thrond. "Now I would that we had heard thereof before. I reckon we passed some booty westward. Eh, well, we shall know better next time."
After that he was silent, watching the ship ahead. She was a great heavy trader, with higher sides than this swift longship.
And presently, as I watched her, a thought came to me, and I was ashamed that I had not asked before if it was true that my cousin had not been hurt in the fighting.
"He was not harmed," answered the old chief. "He hurt us; he is a good fighter. Get yon shield and hold it ready to cover me. It is not worth while to have the helmsman shot, and it will set a man free to fight forward."
Now the ship was within arrow shot, and we could see that there were few men on her decks. Thorleif hailed her to heave to, sending an arrow on her deck by way of hint. Whereon she shot up into the wind, and her sail rattled down. Thrond whistled to himself.
"Empty as a dry walnut shell, or I am mistaken," he said between his teeth.
Then he shouted to Thorleif, and some order came back. The sail was lowered, and the ship swung alongside the stranger under oars only, while a rush of men came aft. Thorleif hailed the other ship to send him a line from the bows, and one flew on board us as we shot past. Then in a few moments we were under easy sail again, towing the great trader slowly after us; and the men were grumbling at the ease of the capture, thinking, with Thrond, that it boded a useless chase. Thorleif came aft to speak with the shipmaster from our stern.
Then there climbed on the bows of the trader a tall, handsome young man, at the sight of whom I could not withhold a cry of wonder, for I knew him well. He was Ecgbert the atheling, nephew of our great king Ina, and the one man whom Bertric feared as a rival when he came to the throne. His father and mine had been close friends, and we two had played and hunted together many a time, until the jealousy of Bertric drove him to seek refuge with Offa of Mercia. I thought him there yet.
"Yield yourselves," said Thorleif, "and we will speak in peace of ransom. I will come on board with a score of men, and harm none."
"We have yielded, seeing that there was no other chance for as," said Ecgbert quietly. "Come on board if you will, but on my word it is hardly worth your while. We left in too great a hurry to bring much with us."
"Whence are you, then, and whither bound?"
"From Mercia, by way of Southampton, and bound anywhere out of the way of Quendritha the queen. We had a mind to go to Carl the king, but any port in a storm!"
"Well," said Thorleif, laughing, "I am coming on board. That must be a terrible dame of whom you speak, if she has set the fear of death on a warrior such as you seem to be."
Then he bade the men haul on the cable, and the ships drew together slowly. I had to leave the deck, being in the way of the men, and Ecgbert did not see me, as far as I could tell.
Thorleif and his men boarded the prize over her bows and went aft, Ecgbert going with them. The two ships drifted apart again, and I found my place by Thrond once more, while the men sat on the gunwale, waiting for the time when their chief should return.
"Who is the queen yon Saxon speaks of?" asked Thrond.
I told him; and as we had heard much of her of late, I also told him how men said that she had been found on the shore by the king himself. Whereon Thrond's grave face grew yet more grave, and he said:
"Lad, is that a true tale?"
"My father had it from the thane who was with the king when they found her alone in her boat."
"So her name was not Quendritha when she began that voyage?"
"I have heard that she was a heathen. Mayhap the king gave her the name when she was christened. It means 'the might of the king.'"
So I suppose that he did, for the hope of what his wife should be. Nor was the name ill chosen, as it turned out, for all men knew by this time that the queen was the wisest adviser in all the council of Mercia in aught to do with the greatness of the kingdom.
"I have ever had it in my mind that she would get through that voyage in safety," Thrond said. "Ran would not have her."
"What do you mean?"
"Lad, I saw her start thereon, or so I think. Tell me when she was found."
That I could do, within a very short time. My father and Offa had been wedded in the same year, as I had heard him say but a few days ago, at Winchester, as men talked of the bride whom we had welcomed, Quendritha's daughter. And as he heard, Thrond's face grew very dark.
"That is she. Now I will tell you the beginning of that voyage. I was a courtman then to the father of Thorleif, our jarl here, and I myself made the boat ready and launched her in it."
And then he told me that which I have set down at the beginning of this tale—neither more nor less. What was the fullness of the evil the woman had wrought he did not tell me, and I am glad.
When he ended he sat silent and brooding for a long time. The ship forged slowly and uneasily over the waves with the heavy trader after her, and on our decks the men were silent, waiting for word from Thorleif of what was to be done. We could hear him, now and then, laughing with the crew of the other ship as if all went easily.
"Lad," said old Thrond, suddenly turning to me, "you had best forget all this. It is dangerous to know aught of the secrets of great folk; and if it comes to the ears of Quendritha that one is telling such a tale of her, the life of the man who has told it will not be worth much. Maybe I am wrong, and I speak of one who is drowned long since; for, indeed, it seems out of the way of chance that a girl could win across the sea from Denmark to a throne thus. And if it is true, she has done even as Thorleif's father bade her, and has left her ways of ill.
"And, yet," he said again, "if ever you have to do with her, remember what she may have been. It will be ill to offend her, or to cross her in aught."
"That is the hardest saying that our folk have of her," I said, "but I have heard it many a time."
"There is much in that saying," Thrond answered grimly.
"Well," I answered shortly, "I suppose that if any man will set himself against a king or a queen, he has to take the chances."
"Small chance for such an one if the queen be—well, such another as I helped to set adrift from our shore."
Meaningly that was said, and I had no answer. I was glad that Thorleif showed himself on the bows of the prize and hailed Thrond.
"Send the Saxon lad on board here," he said; "we have met with a friend of his."
That could be none but the atheling, and I leaped up. The men were heaving on the tow line, and the ships were slowly nearing each other.
"Thrond," I said breathlessly, "will Thorleif let me go?"
"Of course," he answered, smiling. "We only picked you up again to save your life. He had a mind to land you on the English shore presently; for he said you had kept faith with us well, and he could not let you suffer therefor."
The bows of the trader grated against our stern, and one of the men gave me a hoist over her gunwale with such good will that I landed sprawling among the coils of rope on the fore deck. When I gathered myself up I saw Ecgbert and Thorleif aft, while the Danes were rummaging the ship, and I made my way to them. And as I came the atheling stared at me, and then hastened forward with outstretched hand of welcome.
"Why, Wilfrid, old comrade, how come you here? I heard only of a West Saxon, and whether this is luck for you or not I do not know."
"Good luck enough, I think," I answered, with a great hand grip. "I had not yet let myself wonder how long it would be before I saw home again."
His face fell, and he looked doubtfully at me.
"I cannot take you home, Wilfrid; I am flying thence myself. The Danish chief will set you ashore somewhere at his first chance, he says."
"Why, what is amiss again?"
"The old jealousy, I suppose," he answered grimly. "As if a lad like myself was likely to try to overturn a throne! Here had I hardly settled down in Mercia as a fighter of the Welsh and hanger-on of Offa's court, when there come Bertric's messengers, asking that I should be given up, and backing the demand with a request for closer alliance by marriage. Offa, being an honest man, was for sending the message back unanswered. But the queen had a mind for the match, and as I was in the way, it was plain to me that I must be out of it. So I did not wait for Quendritha to remove me, but removed myself."
"Alone?" I asked.
"Alone, and that hastily. You do not know the lady of Mercia, or you would not ask."
Now I thought to myself that in the last half hour I had learned more of that lady than even Ecgbert knew, and I felt that he was wise in time, if Thrond's tale was true; which, indeed, I began to believe. But it did not seem right to me that an atheling of Wessex should be alone, without so much as a housecarl to tend him and stand at his back at need. I minded what my father taught me since I could learn.
"Here is your duty, son Wilfrid. First to God; then to the king; then to the atheling, the king's son, and then to father and mother; then to the shire reeve and the ealdorman, if so be that they are loyal; and then to helpless woman and friendless poor man. But to the weak first of all, against whomsoever will wrong them, whether it be the king or myself."
"Where will you go, atheling?" I asked, speaking low, for I had many things warring in my mind.
"I cannot tell yet. I am an outcast."
Then I knelt on the deck before him and made him take my hands between his own, and I said to him, while he tried to prevent me:
"Whither you go I follow, to be your man in good or ill. Little use I am, but some I may be; and at least the atheling of Wessex shall not say that none would follow him."
"Wilfrid," he cried, "I cannot suffer you to leave all for me."
Then said Thorleif, who had been watching us in silence:
"Take him, prince, for you will need him. He has kept faith with us, though he might have escaped easily enough, because he thought his word withheld him. And he has proved himself a man in battle with the waters, as I know well. Let him go with you, and be glad of him."
"I am loath to take him from his folk to share my misfortunes."
"That is naught," said Thorleif. "Pay a trader who is going to England to tell other chapmen to pass the word to his folk where he is. They will hear in a month or less."
"Hearken to the chief, my prince," I said. "That is easy, and it will be all I care for. If my father hears that I am with you, he will be well content."
"More than content, Wilfrid," said Ecgbert, smiling. "We of the line of Ina know your folk of old. Well, be it as you will, for, on my word, I am lonely; and I think, comrade, that if I had choice of one to stand by me, the choice would have fallen on you.
"There was little need, chief, for you to tell me that Wilfrid of Frome was steadfast. We are old friends."
"Bide so, then. Friends are not easily made," answered Thorleif, laughing. "Now tell me what you are thinking of doing. Maybe I can advise you, being an adventurer by choice, as it seems you must be by need. But first I will offer you both a share in our cruise, if you will turn viking and go the way of Hengist and Horsa, your forbears. Atheling and thane's son you will be to us still, if you have to take an oar now and then."
"Kindly spoken," said Ecgbert; "but this I will tell you plainly. It had not come into my mind to think that Bertric needed to fear me until he showed that he did so. Had he left me to myself, I had been as good a subject of Wessex as Wilfrid here. But now it seems to me that maybe he has some good reason to think that the throne might be or should have been mine. Wherefore it is in my mind to seek the great King Carl, and learn what I can of his way of warfare, that presently, when the time comes, I may be the more ready to take that throne and hold it."
"Why, then," said Thorleif, watching the face of the atheling, "I will tell you this from out of my own knowledge of Wessex. If you learn what Carl can teach you, you will, if you can raise a thousand followers, walk through Wessex into Mercia, and thence home by East Anglia to London town, and there sit with three crowns on your head—the greatest king that has been in England yet. For your folk know no more of fighting, though they are brave enough, than a herd of cattle. But it will be many a long year before you know enough, and then you will need to be able to use your knowledge."
"Can you tell me where to find Carl the king? It may be that I have years enough before me to learn much."
"Those who want to learn do learn," quoth Thorleif. "It is in my mind that, unless a Flemish arrow ends you, Wessex will have to choose between you and Bertric presently."
Then he told us where he had last heard of the Frankish king, which was somewhere on the eastern Rhine border. And at last, being taken with the fearless way of the young atheling, said that if he would, he himself would see him as far on his way as the Rhine mouth. And in the end Ecgbert closed with the offer, and left the Frankish ship accordingly.
Thorleif's men had sought every corner of her by that time, and had some store of silver money to show for their long chase, and were satisfied. As for the shipmen of their prize, I think they were well enough content to be let go in peace, and had little to say on the matter. Ecgbert was for giving them the gold ring which he had promised them as passage money, that being the only thing of value he had beyond his weapons; but Thorleif would not suffer him to do so, saying that his Danes would but take it from them straightway.
So the great trader lumbered off southward, and I and the atheling sat with Thrond and Thorleif, and told and heard all the story of the raid on Weymouth until the stars came out. And I was well content; for no Saxon can ask aught better than to serve his lord, whether in wealth or distress.
Now I might make a long story of that voyage with Thorleif, for there were landings such as had been made at Weymouth, and once just such another fight. And ever the lands where we touched grew more strange to me, until we came to the low shores of the Rhine mouths, hardly showing above the gray waves of the sea which washed their sad-coloured sand dunes. And there Thorleif landed us at a fishing village, among whose huts rose the walls of a building which promised us shelter at least.
Terribly frightened were the poor folk at our coming, but they took us, with the guard Thorleif sent ashore with us, to the building, and it turned out to be a monastery, where we were most welcome. And there we bid farewell to the Danes, not without regret, for we had been good comrades on the voyage. There was a great difference between these crews of men from one village under their own chief, and the terrible swarms of men, gathered none knows whence, and with little heed to their leaders save in battle, which came in after years. We saw the Dane at his best.
Now after that the good abbot of the place passed us on from town to town until at last we came to Herulstad, where Carl the mighty lay with his army, still watching and fighting the heathen Saxons of the Rhinelands. And there Ecgbert was welcomed in all friendliness, and our wanderings were at an end. Even the arm of Quendritha could not reach the atheling here, though Carl and Offa were friendly, and messengers came and went between the two courts from time to time.
In that way I had messages sent home at last, and my mind was at rest. It was, however, nearly a year before my folk heard of me, as I learned afterward. But close on five years of warfare lay before me ere I should set foot on English ground again.
CHAPTER IV. HOW WILFRID MET AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE IN NORWICH MARKET.
Looking back on them, it seems that those five years with Carl the Great were long, but in truth they went fast enough. With Ecgbert I went everywhere that war was to be waged, whether on the still half heathen, unwillingly christened Saxons, who were our own kin of the old land; or across on the opposite frontier, where the terrible Moors of Spain had not yet forgotten Roncesvalles. For us it was fighting, and always fighting, and little of that most splendid court of the king did we see; for Ecgbert had set himself to learn all that he might, and he was not one to do things by halves. Nor had I any wish to be anywhere but near him.
They were good years, therefore, if we had our share of danger and hardship to the full, and must needs bear the marks of it ever after. Once I was sorely wounded, and Ecgbert tended me through that as a brother rather than as my lord—even as I would have tended him, only that he was never hurt. Some of us grew to think that he had a charmed life; but I thought that he was kept for the sake of what was to be in days to come, when England was worn out with warfare between the kingdoms, and would welcome a strong hand over her from north to south.
I know not whether it was Carl himself who bade Ecgbert wait for that day, but it is likely. The atheling was in no haste to return to England, and it was his word that until he was needed he should bide here and learn.
But when the time went on he had thought for me, and one April day, as we rode together, he bade me go home and see that all was well with my folk. I had some fever on me at that time, for we were among the Frisian marshlands, and it had fallen on me when I was weak from the wound I spoke of, so that I could not shake it off. It came every third day, and held me in its grip for the afternoon, cold as ice, and then hot as fire, and so leaving me little the worse, but always thin and yellow to look on. Moreover, it always seemed to come on the wrong day for me, when I needed to be most busy, so that over and over again Ecgbert had to ride out without me. There were plenty more of us in the same case that year, when we were hunting Frisian heathen rebels to their strongholds in their fens.
"I must lose you in one way or the other, comrade," Ecgbert said. "Either you will die here, which is the worst that could befall you, or else you must go home to England. Now there is a fair chance for you, for Carl is sending some messengers with presents to the young King of East Anglia, who has yet to be crowned. Go with them, and take him greetings from me."
But before I could bring myself to agree to parting from him he had to put this before me in many ways, for I could not bear to leave him. And at last he laid his commands on me that I must go. He said it was time that he had a friend who knew his hopes in England, watching how matters went for him, and that I could best do it. So there was no way out of it, and I had to go.