So the word was passed in a whisper down the line, and immediately it seemed as if the force had vanished, as the white mist crept over where they had stood.
Now Dudda and I went down to the boats and there found, not the two we had left only, but a third and larger one beside them. And at first this frightened us, and we stood looking at them, almost expecting armed men to rise from the dark hollows of the boats and fall on us.
Then I would see if such were there, and stepped softly into the nearest. It was empty, and so was the next, and these were our two. Dudda came after me, and he hissed to me under his breath. The oars had been muffled with sacking.
Now none but a friend would have done this, unless it was a most crafty trap to take us withal; and yet to leave the boats as they were had been surer than to meddle with them, if such was meant.
Now Dudda, perplexed as I, though in my heart was a thought that after all Elgar had escaped, stepped into the large boat, and there he started back so suddenly as almost to overturn it, smothering a cry. Then was silence for a moment, while I for my part drew my dagger. Then I saw him stoop down, and again he hissed to me. The boats were afloat, and I drew that I was in up to the big boat.
"Oh, master," said Dudda, whispering, "surely this is Elgar the fisher!"
And I, peering into the dark bottom of the boat could see a dark still form, lying doubled over a thwart, that seemed to me to bear likeness to him.
"Is he dead?" I asked.
"Aye, master, but not long," answered the collier; feeling about.
"Ah!" he said, with a sort of groan, "here is a broken arrow in his shoulder, and in his hand somewhat to muffle the oars withal. Well done, brave Elgar—well done!"
Then I climbed softly over the gunwale, and so it was. Wounded to death as he had been by the arrow shot, he had yet in some way contrived to get this boat here, and afterwards to use his last strength in muffling the oars, and so died, spent, before he could end his task!
And for him I was not ashamed of weeping, thinking there in the darkness, as we bore him hastily to the bank and laid him beyond the reach of hurrying feet to come, of how he must have been shot, and so at once feigning death have floated, or perhaps stranded on the mud, till the Danes were gone, and then returned in spite of pain and growing weakness to do what he had set himself for the sake of his country.
But there was no time for more than thought, and now that we knew the boats safe, I went back to the bishop, and told him that all was ready. And he, ever thoughtful, had told off skilful men to row the boats over, and though now we must have enough for three, he had found six or eight oarsmen, and there was no delay, though they must work with less change, and the tide was still making, so that the pull to Combwich creek would be hard.
Then ten men went softly to the boats, and at the last I bade them pull across to where they might, not making for the creek, and in a minute or two they were gone into the mist and darkness.
Then came crawling to the river bank some six or eight men, strong swimmers, and would have tried to cross; but I bade them wait till the next boatloads went over, so that they might cross beside them, and cling to the gunwale if the stream was too strong. However, though most knew that was good counsel, two must needs try it, and one got across, nearly spent, and the other came back, clinging to the first boat to return, else had he been drowned, and it was a lucky chance that the boat met him.
Now the man who rowed this first boat reported that there was silence, and no sign of Danes, on the other side, and so also did the rest as they came. After that the crossing went on quickly, men swimming beside the boats, and in an hour and a half all were over.
When we found that all was safe, the bishop bade me cross with the standard, and so keep the men together. He himself came last of all.
When Wulfhere came, swimming beside the boat in which sat Wislac, he took three men and went quietly to Combwich, which was nearly half a mile from where we landed, and was back presently, reporting all quiet.
Then Dudda and the other rowers sank the boats, lest they should be seen by chance, and so betray us and our crossing.
Now we went—I leading through this place I knew so well—round the head of the little creek, and so on up the hill, walking in single file almost, and very silently. And when we topped the hill—there before us, among the tree trunks, glowed a little fire, and round that sat six Danes, wrapped in their red cloaks, and, as I could see, all or most of them asleep.
At that I stopped, and the line behind me stopped also, making a clatter of arms as men ran against one another in the dark.
One of the Danes stirred at that, and looked up and round; but he could see nothing, and so folded himself up again. Then I saw that they had an ale cask.
Now I knew that this post must be surrounded and taken, and whispered to Wulfhere, who was next me, what to do. And he answered that he would manage it, bidding me stand still. Then he went down the line, whispering in each man's ear, till he had told off twenty men, and them he sent off right and left into the darkness and I was left with Wislac standing alone, watching the Danes.
I kept my eyes fixed on them till they seemed to waver and grow dim, so intently did I watch them; and then all of a sudden there was the sound of a raven's croak, and into the firelight and on those careless watchers leapt Wulfhere and his men from all around.
There was one choked cry, and that was all, and Wulfhere beckoned to me. I advanced, and the line closed up and followed.
Now we stood on Combwich hill, and all was well so far. Ealhstan came up to me, unknowing of what had caused the halt, being over the brow of the hill, and when he knew, said it was well done, and that now we might rest safely for a time.
So we bade the men sit down, and those who were wet made up the fire afresh: for there was no need to put it out, but rather reason for allowing the Danes to see it burning, as if in safety.
When we three sat by the bishop, Wislac asked what we were to wait for, and, indeed, that must be the next thought.
Then said the bishop that after a while he would take the force to the woods that overhung the roadway, and so wait for the Danes as Eanulf and Osric drove them back; but that it was not more than midnight yet.
Then came a little silence, and in that I seemed to hear the sound of footsteps coming up the hill from Combwich, and bade the others listen. And at the same time some of the men heard the sound, and started up to see who came. But they were the steps of one man only, walking carelessly.
Into the light of the fire stepped one, at the sight of whom the men stared, though Wislac laughed quietly. It was that young thane who had wanted to fight my friend Wislac on the day of the council. He was very wet, and tired, throwing himself down beside us when he saw where we sat.
Ealhstan asked him who bade him come, and how he had followed us.
"Nearly had I forgotten a dispute I have with Wislac the Thane here. Wherefore I asked no man's leave, but followed you just too late for the crossing. So needs must swim. And here am I to see that Wislac counts fairly, and that he may have the same surety of me."
Whereat we were obliged to laugh, and most of all the bishop, because he would fain have been angry, and could not. Then the thane, whose name was Aldhelm, asked who was the slain man over whose body he had well-nigh fallen on the other side of the river. So I told them of Elgar the fisher and of his brave deeds, and they were silent, thinking of what his worth was; too great indeed for praise. Only the bishop said he should surely have a mound raised over him as over a warrior, charging us three, or whichever lived after this fight, to see to that.
Now we slept a little, posting sentries at many points, and giving those next the Danes on either side the red cloaks of the picket we had slain, lest daylight should betray them. It was in all our minds that at daybreak our men would attack from Bridgwater, driving the Danes back on us, and so we should fall on them while they were retreating, and complete the victory. So we had men on the hill overlooking the road to Bridgwater through Cannington that they might give us the first warning.
Therefore I slept quietly, and all with me. And as I slept I dreamed.
It seemed that I was standing alone on Brent Hill and from that I could look all over the land of Somerset, as an eagle might look, but being close to everything that I would see. And I saw all that I had done since I stood there as a prisoner, watching myself curiously in all that I did, and yet knowing all the thoughts that drove me to deed after deed.
And so through the mirk wood till I turned and slew, and armed myself, and tormented my prisoner; then to the collier's hut, and my talking with the child; then on till I saw the lights of the viking ships and so thereafter bore the war arrow—everything, till at last I saw myself sleeping under the trees, on the top of this hill of Combwich, and there I thought my dream would surely end; but it did not.
For now out of the shadows came Matelgar and stood beside me and waked me, and he told me that when the tide was out I must be up and doing. And so he passed. And the old crone, Gundred, came out of the shadows, and sat on her bundle of sticks and looked at me, and she too bade me be up and doing when the tide was low. And she looked at the standard that lay beside me, and said, "Aye, a standard; but not yet the Dragon of Wessex"; and so she, too, faded away.
And then came Alswythe, and as she came, it seemed, as I looked, that I stretched my arms to her; but she smiled and said, "Love, when the tide is out, I shall be praying in the abbey for you and your men."
And then from beside her came Turkil, the little child, smiling also, but hanging to Alswythe's dress as he said, "Warrior, when the water falls low, my father will call me from the hill, and I will pray for you and for him."
So these two were gone. And at that I seemed to see our men lie in Bridgwater, and there was Turkil's father, the franklin, sleeping with the rest. But up and down among them went Eanulf the Ealdorman, watching ever.
Then fled I, as it were, to that hill where lay the Danes, and on the road thither I saw Osric and twenty men, looking up at the fires that burnt where the enemy lay.
And then I looked on those fires, and there were no men round them.
One shook me by the shoulder, and my dream went.
It was Dudda, and his eyes were bright in the firelight.
And over Brent the first streaks of dawn were broadening, and the mists were gone.
"Master, master," he said, "come with me to the roadway. Something is afoot."
Then I woke Wulfhere, asking him to wait for me, guarding the standard, and followed my man swiftly to the place where the road cuts the hill. And there was a knot of the men, standing and listening.
I listened also, and far off towards Cannington I could hear the sound of the tread of many feet, for the morning was still and quiet; and the men said that this was growing nearer.
Then knew I that the Danes were falling back to the ships without risking battle, and my dream came back to me, with its vision of unguarded watch fires, and it seemed to me that surely, unless we could stay them, they would depart with the tide as it fell.
"How is the tide?" asked I of the men round me.
"Failing now," said one who knew, "but not fast."
Then I remembered things I had hardly noted in years gone by. How the tide hung around Stert Point, as though Severn and Parret warred for a while, before the mighty Severn ebb sucked Parret dry, and how the ebb at last came swift and sudden.
"When the tide is low," said they whom I had seen in my dream.
And in a moment I recalled the first fight, and the words of Gundred, and I knew that we had the Danes in a trap.
They were marching now in time to gain their ships and be off as the last man stepped on board, with the full draft of the ebb to set them out to sea beyond Lundy Isle, into open water. Nor had they left their post till the last moment, lest our levy should be on their heels, or else some more distant marauding party had not come in till late.
I went back to Wulfhere and told him this, and in it all he agreed.
And, as we whispered together, Ealhstan sat up, asking quickly, "Who spoke to me?" and looking round for one near him, as it seemed.
"None spoke, Father," said I, "or none but Wulfhere to me, whispering."
"What said Wulfhere?"
"That the tide was failing," I answered.
The bishop was silent for a moment, and then he said:
"I heard a voice, plainly, that cried to me, 'Up! for the Lord has delivered these heathen into your hands'."
"We heard no such voice, Father," I said, "but I think it spoke true."
Now the light was broadening, making all things cold and gray as it came. And quickly I told Ealhstan what I had heard, and what both I and Wulfhere thought of the matter.
"Can we let them pass us, and so fall on them as they gain the level land of Stert?" asked Ealhstan, saying nothing more.
"That can we," I answered. "They will keep to the road, and we can draw back to the edge of the hill, so taking them in flank as they leave it."
For the hills bend round a little beyond the place where the road falls into the level below Matelgar's hall.
"So be it," said the bishop. "Go you, Wulfhere, and see how near the host is, and come back quickly."
When he was gone the bishop bade me wake the men. And at first I was for going round, but by this thane Wislac had waked, and had been listening to us: and he said that if I would let him wake the men he could do it without alarm or undue noise. Only I must raise the standard and bid them be silent. At that the bishop smiled and nodded, and I raised the standard, and waited.
Then Wislac stood up and crowed like a cock, and instantly the men began to turn and sit up, and as their eyes lit on the standard raised in their midst, became broad awake, each man rousing the next sleeper if one lay near him. And there was the bishop, finger on lip, and they were silent.
"Verily I thought on the hard chapel stones," muttered Guthlac, the lay brother, behind me.
"It is the war chime, not the matin bell, you shall hear this morning," said one of his brethren.
"That is better—mea culpa," said Guthlac, clapping his hand on his mouth to stop his own warlike ejaculation.
Then came Wulfhere back, swiftly. Barely a mile were they from the hill, he said, and coming on quickly in loose order. Moreover, a horseman had passed, riding hard to the ships, doubtless to bid them be ready. But that would take little time, for these vikings are ever ready for flight, keeping their ships prepared from day to day.
CHAPTER XV. THE GREAT FIGHT AT PARRET MOUTH.
Now very silently we drew off from that place to the edge of the hill which looks across the road to Stert. And there the bishop drew us up in line, four deep, and told the men what we must do, bidding them be silent till we charged, though that could not prevent a hum of stern approval going down the line.
One man the bishop called out by name, and when he stood before him, bade him, as a swift runner, hasten back to Eanulf or Osric, and bid them on here with all speed. And, when the man's face fell, the bishop bade him cheer up and go, for the swifter he went the sooner would he be back at the sword play. Whereat the man bowed, and, leaving his mail at a tree foot, started at a steady run over the ground we had covered already, and was lost in the trees.
Then we waited, and the light grew stronger every moment. As we lay in line among the bushes we could see without much fear of being ourselves seen, and by and by we could make out the ships. They had their masts raised, and the sails were plain to be seen, ready for hoisting. The men were busy about their decks, and on shore as well, while the vessels were yet close up to the land.
They must haul off soon, little by little, or they would be aground, as doubtless they had been with every tide till this, for rocks are none, only soft mud on which a ship may lie safely, but through which no man may go, save on such a "horse" as the fishers use to reach their nets withal, sledge-like contrivances of flat boards which sink not.
The wait seemed long, but at last we heard the hum of voices, and the tramp of feet, and our hearts beat fast and thick, for the time was coming.
Over the hill and down it they streamed in a long, loose line, laughing and shouting as the ships came in sight. A long breath came from us, and there was a little stir among the men; but the time was not yet, and we crouched low, waiting to make our spring.
Then ran up a long red forked flag, with a black raven on it, from the largest ship, and that seemed to be a signal for haste, for the tide was failing, so that some of the foremost men began to stream away from their comrades. And then I saw that many carried packs full of plunder, and also that the last of them were on the level.
So also saw the bishop, and he rose to his feet, pointing with the great mace he bore (for he might not wield sword) to the Danes, and saying:
"For the honour of Dorset—for the holy cross—charge!"
With a mighty shout we rose up, each in his place, and down the hill we rushed sword and axe aloft, on that straggling line.
Then from the Danes came a howl of wrath and terror, and, for a moment, dropping their burdens, they fled in a panic towards the ships.
Yet that was not the way of Danish men and vikings, and that flight stayed almost before it had gone fifty yards. Up rose amidst the throng a mighty double axe, and a great voice was heard shouting, and round their chief began to form a great ring of tried warriors, shoulder to shoulder as well as might be. But that ring might not be perfect all at once—too close were we upon them, having already cut down many of the last to fly.
And then the battle began in earnest, and I will tell what I saw of it. For I was in the centre of our line, as befitted, and on either side of me were Wulfhere and Wislac, and on either side of them again, my collier next to Wulfhere, and next to Wislac his young thane. Before me were Guthlac and two brethren, and the other three behind me. That was the standard's shield wall. Behind that came Ealhstan the Bishop, hemmed in by twelve of his own best men.
So, with voice, and gesture of arm and mace the bishop swung our line in a half circle round the face of that grim ring of vikings, and as they closed up we closed, and faced them. Then saw I that we were outnumbered by three to one, but we were fresh, and they tired with a long march, quickly made, and under burdens.
Now began the spears to fly from one side to the other, and men began to fall. And yet there was no great attack made on either side. Then grew I impatient, for it seemed to me that as we were the weaker side the first charge might do all for us. So I spoke to Wulfhere, saying:
"We must charge before they. Let us break into that circle."
"Aye!" said the veteran, and "Aye!" shouted Wislac; and so I pointed the banner forward and shouted for my shield men to charge.
And that, with a great roar, they did; and down before the brawny arms of those foremost three lay brethren went three of the heathen, and we were pressing into the circle. Then a brother fell, dragging a Dane with him, and Wislac took his place, and three more Danes fell. Then went Aldhelm to Wislac's side, and Lo! the circle was broken, and our standard stood in the midst.
Yet was not that ring destroyed, and in a moment it closed after us, and now were we ten in the midst of a crowd of foes, while again outside them raged Ealhstan and his men, striving to break through to us.
Then knew I that our case was hard, and I struck the spear that held the standard into the ground, and round it we stood, back to back, Wulfhere and Wislac once more to right and left of me. And it would seem that so grim looked we in our desperation, that they feared us a little, or, at least, that each feared to be the first to fall on us, for the Danes drew back and let us stand for a breathing space, until that great chief who rallied the men—leaving the care of the outer ring for a moment —came and faced me, speaking in fair Saxon enough, and bidding us surrender.
And for answer I threw my seax at him, and as he raised shield to stop it, for it flew straight and hard as a forester can throw, I leapt at him, going in under his shield, and he fell heavily, moving not, for my blow went home. Well it was that Wulfhere came after me, for he warded blow of axe that would have slain me. And then the Danes howled and fell on us.
Hard fighting it was, but round us grew a ring of dead, and no man had laid hands on the standard. Guthlac was down, and Aldhelm, two lay brethren also, and we were all but sped when I was ware of a Saxon shout, and the crash of a great mace on a helmet before me, and then, "Well done, my sons!" cried Ealhstan the Bishop, as he came and ringed us round with his own men, and we might breathe again.
Now was the ring of Danes parted, and the ring was of our men; yet round it raged the vikings, as we had raged round their ring but a short space before. Yet, every man of us knew that we had won, for, even if each one of us fell before Eanulf came, the ships would not sail that tide. For the tall masts were listing over as two ships took the ground unheeded, and four were hauling out as the tide fell.
And I thought of my vision last night, and of those I had seen, and of what they had bid me think of them; and the roar of battle went on unheeded by me as I leant against the standard staff while I might, and found my strength again.
"See," cried Wislac, pointing. And I looked over to the hill where the road came down. It was full of horsemen, charging with levelled spears, and surely that was Osric at their head! Then near me a voice cried thrice "Victory!" but it seemed not as one of our men's rough voices, but very strange.
Over the level the spearmen swept, and a cry broke from the Danes as they saw the fresh foe upon them, and again they fell back from us quickly, and, spite of our charge on them, and the spears of the leading horsemen, once more closed up into their iron ring. But now it was not motionless, but moved ever towards the ships, going backward steadily.
Round it went Osric and his men: but into it they could not break. For the Danes hewed the ash shafts of the spears, and near them no horse might live, for their axes would shear through man and horse alike.
Then Ealhstan shouted to Osric, bidding us stand. And right glad were we to do this, while ever the Danes shrank away from us.
"Trapped they are, Sheriff," said Ealhstan, when Osric rode up to him, bearing still a headless spear. "Let them bide till Eanulf comes. None can reach the ships."
"He is hard behind me with all the levy," said Osric. "Let us finish this without him."
But Ealhstan shook his head, pointing to our men. And when he looked more coolly, he saw that barely half of us were left, and those worn out. So must we stand and wait; but we had done what we went to do, and had trapped the heathen when the tide was low. Yet the Danes went steadily back towards their ships, having yet half a mile to cover, but they left a line of wounded men to mark where they had gone, as one after another dropped.
Now were we who were left safe, and knew we had done a deed which would he told and sung till other tales of victory blotted out its remembrance if they might.
Then Ealhstan bade us sit down, for our horsemen were between us and the foe, and thereon he raised his voice, and with one accord his lay brethren and his own housecarles joined in singing a psalm of victory. And it was just at the matin time—yet that psalm ended not as it was wont, for ere the last verses were sung, it was drowned in a great and thundering war song of Wessex, old as the days of Ceawlin or beyond him. And if I mistake not, in that song bishop and lay brethren joined, leaving the chant for their own native and well-loved tongue, else would they have been the only men of all the host unstirred thereby and silent.
Now, from that war song came a strange thing. It caused two great Danes to go berserk in their rage, and back they flew on us, their shields cast aside, and their broad axes overhead, howling and foaming as they came.
One of Osric's men tried to stop them. But he and his horse fell, for (I say truth) one leapt high above the horse, smiting downwards with his axe, so that the man was swept in twain under that blow, and the berserk Dane came on unhindered, straight for the standard, for his comrade had hewed off the horse's head.
Now I rested, by the standard, a long spear's length in front of our line. But by this I had leapt to my feet; and it was time, for he was almost on me. Spear had I none; so I dragged out the standard shaft from the ground where I had struck it, and levelled that sharp butt end full at his chest. Overhead was his axe again, and I had no shield to stop the blow; but I must leap aside from it.
He paid no heed to the spear-ended shaft, but rushed straight on it, spitting himself through and through, while his axe fell; but I had wrenched myself and the shaft at once to one side, and he fell over, burying the axe head in the ground but an inch from the collier's foot. Yet had he not done with me, for, leaving the axe, he clawed the ashen shaft and dragged himself up along it, howling, not with the pain, but with madness, and I must needs smite him with my sword, for his dagger was already at my throat.
Then looked I round for the other, but at first could not see him, for he was dead also, pinned to the ground by another of the horsemen, from behind. And all our men were on their feet, and the ring of Danes were shouting, and cheering their two mad men, yet keeping close order.
This seems long in telling; but it was all done in a flash, as it were, for the first I knew of the coming of these men was by the wheeling of the horse and the leaping of the berserk above it.
Then my men came and rid the standard of its burden, not easily, while Ealhstan stood with his arm on my shoulder, looking white and scared: for that had been the greatest danger he had seen that day, as he told me, which, indeed, it must have been, for else he had never changed countenance.
"Gratias Domino," he said, "verily into these heathen evil spirits enter, driving them to death. Now have you fought the evil one, both spiritually and bodily, my son, and have won the victory!"
Even as he spoke, the men, being sure of no more of such comings, began to crowd round me, shouting and cheering as though I had done some great deed. Which, if it were such, it seems to me that great deeds are forced on men at times; for what else I could have done I know not, unless, as Wislac says, I had run away, even as he was minded to do. But I had no time for that, nor do I believe his saying concerning himself.
When the Danes were nigh their ships Ealhstan bade us tend our wounded. And the first man tended was myself, for Wulfhere came to me, looking me over, and at last binding a wound on my left shoulder, of which I knew not, saying that my good mail had surely saved me. He himself had a gash across his face, and Wislac one on the leg, but none of us was much hurt.
Then Wislac sought Aldhelm, whom he found sitting up, dazed, from a blow across the helm that had stunned him, but he was soon able to walk, though dizzy and sick. But Guthlac was slain outright, and two others of the brethren.
Well, so might I go on, for of all our two hundred men there were left but ninety fit to go on with the fight, the rest being slain or sore wounded by the Danish axes. Ealhstan was unhurt; for, save that once when he had broken the ring to reach us when we were hemmed in, his men had kept before him.
Now what befell after that will not bear telling; for it was not long before Eanulf and all the Somerset and the rest of the Dorset levy came down and fell on the Danes as they fought their last fight as brave men should, with a quarter mile of deep mud between them and their ships.
Into that fight none of us bishop's men went, for we had done our part. But we lay and saw the Danes charge again and again against odds, their line growing thinner each time, until our men swept the last of them from the bank into the ooze, and there was an end.
Yet a few managed, I know not how, to reach the ships, and there they were safe; but thence they constantly shot their arrows into our men, harmless enough, but yet showing their mettle.
So was a full end made of that host, for none but those few were left alive from Stert field, and Somerset and Dorset had taken their fill of vengeance.
But, for all the victory, down sat Ealhstan the Bishop, and hiding his face in his hands wept that such things could be, and must be till war is no more.
CHAPTER XVI. AT GLASTONBURY.
On that hard-won field we lay all that day, for we knew not if more Danes were left up country, or if by chance the ships might fall into our hands with the rising tide. And I think we might have taken them had not our men, in their fury, broken the boats which lay along the bank; so that we could not put off to them. Therefore, as the tide rose again and they floated, the men on board hauled out, and setting sail with much labour, for there were very few in each ship, stood off into mid channel. Out of Severn they could not get, for the wind was westerly, and the tide setting eastward, so at last they brought up in the lee of the two holms, and there furled sail and lay at anchor.
Very stiff and sore were we when we had rested for a little, and there fell a sadness on the levy, now that the joy of battle had gone, and the cost of victory must be counted. And that was heavy, for so manfully and steadily had the vikings fought that they had accounted for man to man as nearly as one might count, either slain or maimed.
Now on this matter I heard Wislac speak to Aldhelm, who sat facing him, and holding his aching head with both hands.
"So, friend," quoth Wislac, "as touching that matter of dispute we had. How stands the account?"
"I know not, nor care," said Aldhelm. "All I wot is that my head is like to split."
"Nay, that will it not, having stood such a stout blow," said Wislac, laughing. "Cheer up, and count our score of heads."
"I can count but one head, and that my own. Let it bide."
"So, that is better," said Wislac. "I should surely have been slain five times by my own count, but it seems I am wrong. Wherefore I must have escaped somehow. And that is all I know about it."
Then he turned to me, and asked if I had noted any doings at all.
And when I thought, all I could remember plainly were the fall of the tall chief I slew, and the coming of Ealhstan, and the attack of the berserk, and no more; all the rest was confused, and like a dream. So I said that it seemed to me that we had had no time to do more than mind ourselves, but that withal my shield wall had kept the standard. And that kept, there need be no question as to who had done best.
Then Wislac nodded, after his wont, and said that if Aldhelm was content so was he.
Whereupon Aldhelm held out his hand, and said that Wislac was wise and he foolish. And Wislac, grasping it, answered that it was a lucky foolishness that had brought so stout a comrade to his side, for had it not been for Aldhelm putting his thick head betwixt him and an axe, slain he would have been.
"Aye, brother," he said, "deny it not, for I saw you thrust yourself forward and save me by yourself, which doubtless is your way of settling a grudge, brother, and a good one."
So those two were sworn friends from that day forward, as were many another couple who met on that field for the first time, fighting side by side for Wessex.
Thus wore away the day and the next night, and with the morning those ships were yet under the holms, swinging at their anchors, for the westerly breeze held.
Then said Eanulf: "Let them be; harm can they do none, being so few. They will go with the shift of wind."
But the shift of wind came not for days and days, and there they lay, never putting out from shelter. And they are out of my story, so that I will say what befell them.
One night it freshened up to a gale, and in the morning there were five ships where six had been. One had sunk at her moorings. Then men said that the Danes had made a hut on the flat holm, plain to be seen from the nearest shore. And at last a shift of wind came, and they put not out.
So certain fishers dared to sail across and spy what was amiss, and finding no man in the ships, nor seeing any about the hut, went ashore, none hindering them.
Ships and hut and shore were but the resting place of the dead, for after a while they had no food left, and were too few and weak even to man one ship and go.
Many a long year it was before the king of their land, Norse or Dane, whichever he was, learned what had befallen his host, and how their bones lay on the Wessex shore and islands, for not one of all that had sailed that spring returned to give the news, or to tell how his comrades died on Stert fighting to the last, and on the island wishing they had fallen with the slain.
Now must I tell how we went back to Glastonbury town, marching proudly as became conquerors, while on every side was shouting of men, and at the same time weeping of women for those who had fallen.
When we came to the great square there stood Tatwine the Abbot and all his monks; but I had no eyes for them. For there, with abbess and nuns, stood Alswythe, smiling on me through tears of joy, and though her cheeks were thinner and paler by reason of fasting and prayer for us all, looking most beautiful, and to me like a vision of some saint.
That was all I could see of her then, for we must kneel, while a great Te Deum was sung, and then crowd into the abbey to hear mass once more.
Then after that was over, there was a great feast in the wide hall of the abbey, where Ealhstan and Eanulf sat side by side in the high seats, and on their right, Osric and myself, and on the left, Wulfhere and Wislac, none grudging those chief places to the men who had kept the standard and broken the Danish ring.
When the feasting was done, then came the telling of great deeds over the ale cup, and that lasted long, and many were the brave men praised; nor were the deeds of the vikings, as brave foes, forgotten, for men praised them also. Moreover, the gleemen sang of the fight, and in those songs my name came so often, as needs it must, seeing that I bore the standard, that I will not set them down. Nor is there need, for the housecarles sing them even yet.
Now before we went to rest, Eanulf bade me wait on him early in the morning, and so, being refreshed by a long, quiet night, I went to him as he had bidden me.
There he thanked me as man to man for that crossing of Parret, and for staying the going of the Danes, saying that a greater man than he should add to the thanks. For needs must that one took word of all that had befallen to Ethelwulf the King, and that to be such a messenger was most honourable. Therefore should I myself bear the news, taking with me my two friends and such men as I chose, and should bear, written down, the reports of both Osric and Ealhstan, besides his own.
"Else," said he, "there are perhaps some to whom credit is due whose names may pass unmentioned."
And thanking him, I said that that was likely, for I knew few in the levy, which came from far and wide.
Whereat he laughed, saying that I was either very modest or very simple. So I knew that he spoke of myself, and thanked him again.
"Nay," he said, "small thanks to me, for if I did you not justice the men would."
Then all of a sudden he asked me about the business of my trial, and what I thought of it, bidding me tell him as a friend, thinking naught of the judge.
And that I was able to do now without passion, so far off and small a thing it seemed after all these stirring doings. And I knew that but for it I had been only a foolish thane, and slain maybe over my feasting in my own hall, or on Combwich hill, with my back to the foe, beside Matelgar.
Now when I had ended my tale and my thoughts concerning it, he told me that he had found out much of late, as he and the thanes spoke together here while waiting for the levy, and that word should go to the king of the whole matter, so that without waiting for the Moot, he should inlaw me again.
Then I knew not enough to say; but he clapped me on the shoulder, saying that he had been an unjust judge for once, and that I must be heedful if ever I sat in his place, and so bid me go and find my friends—and get ready to ride to Salisbury, where the king lay, having moved from Winchester nearer to us.
That went I to do with a light heart, and only sorry that I might not see Alswythe before I went.
And this I told Wislac, who looked oddly at me, and then laughed, saying that he believed I feared an old nun more than a wild berserk. And true it was that I was afraid of that stately abbess, though not in the same way as one fears a raging madman flying on one.
"Pluck up courage," said he, "and go and ask the old dame to let you have speech with your lady; and if she grants it not, I am mistaken, for the lady is not one of her nuns, and there is a guest chamber for such folk as bishop's right-hand men, surely!"
That was good counsel, and so I went to the nunnery, trembling first because I was afraid, and next lest I might not see Alswythe.
Now that wondrous silver mail of mine was too easily known, and so soon as I got out into the street, the beggar men began to shout and crawl towards me. And then others looked, and ran, and then more, till there was a crowd of men of the levy pressing round me, stretching hands to pat me and the like.
Then one stood in front of me, hands on hips, and stared at me, and all at once he shouted: "Ho, comrades, this is the saint of Cannington hill! I saw him there, and soundly did he rate me for running, even as I deserved."
And at that there was a mighty shouting and crowding, so that I could in no wise go on my way, and I began to wax wroth.
My back was to the abbey gates, which were closed after me by the porter, and just then I saw some of the men look up over my head and point, and laugh; so I turned round, and there were Eanulf and Osric on the gateway battlements, looking on, as drawn thither by the noise. And just then Eanulf, laughing, made some sign or speech which I could not hear, to the men, who cheered; and soon they brought a great shield and on that set me, in spite of myself, raising me up shoulder high and saluting me as the man who had gained all the honour and victory. There must I lie still, lest I should fall and be made to look more foolish yet, and when I sat up, crosslegged thereon, they stopped shouting and stared at me.
"Let me down, ye pigs!" said I, very cross, and unmindful of the honour they would do me.
"Speak to us, Thane; speak to us," they cried; and one—he who knew me at Cannington after the first fight—added:
"Aye, Thane, you made us strong again on the hill the other day— blaming us rightly. Praise us now if that may be."
Then I cast about for what to say, not being a great hand at speaking, though maybe, when real occasion is, the words have come fast enough. Howbeit, this was in coolness. But I knew that they were worthy of praise, so I said:
"Well have ye done, every man of you, even as I knew ye would when once ye turned to bay. And if the Danes come again, as I think they will not speedily, fight as ye fought at Stert, and there will be victory again."
Then they cheered and shouted again, louder than before; and I made to leap down, but they would not suffer me.
Then said I: "Let me go, for I have an errand."
Whereupon the men who held the shield, and could hear me amid the slackening uproar, asked where I would go, and being dazed by the noise and tumult, like an owl in daylight, I must needs answer, without thinking; "To the great nunnery."
And the end of that foolishness was that they bore me thither, for it was not far, with a great crowd of all sorts following and shouting. And there must I stand with all that tail after me while they beat on the gates in such sort that the poor nuns must have thought the Danes at their doorstep.
But I held up my hand for silence, not thinking it would come; but as it were by nature longing for it. And instantly all the crowd was hushed, and that surprised me, though when I told Wulfhere thereof he said it was no wonder.
Seeing which I begged them all to go away and not scare the holy women, who were used to quiet in the place. And then I remembered the honour the honest warriors had meant this for, and thanked them, bidding them make allowances for my being put out at first.
Then took they off their helms and shouted thrice; and then fled rapidly, for the gates opened behind me, and there was the abbess herself, with her cheeks red, and her eyes burning bright in anger, as I thought, while behind her peeped all her nuns at the crowded street, and at myself standing shamefaced on the steps, doffing my helm as I saw her.
But instead of being angry, she held out both her hands, and spoke kindly, saying; "Never has our quiet place heard such clamour before; but we women will not be behind the men in welcoming Heregar;" and so she bade the nuns come forward, laying her hands on my shoulder, and adding; "See, daughters, this is he who dared to warn the land of its danger, saving the lives of our sisters of Bridgwater, and many others, and who has even now led the host and conquered, giving us safety and peaceful rest again."
But I knelt and kissed her hand, while there went a little murmur among the nuns.
Then the lady abbess touched gently my bound shoulder, and said that the hurt was but rudely tended and that she must bind it afresh; so should she show her gratitude to one who had bled for the land. And they led me into the courtyard; and thence to the guest chamber, and there waited Alswythe.
Now when I looked to see her greet me formally, as in the presence of the abbess, she ran into my arms, and I found that we were alone.
Then must she hear and I tell all that had happened to me since we parted; but that was too long for the telling then, for very soon the abbess came with clatter of vessels along the passage, bringing warm water and salves to bind my small wound afresh.
And in that Alswythe helped her, with many pitying words and soft touches, so that I thought it good to be hurt if such tendance might ever be had. And many things they asked, as of Wulfhere's safety, and the collier's, and of how I got that wound, and the like. And that last I could not tell them, marvelling myself when it came, and more that it was the only one; but I know I smote flatwise once or twice myself in the heat of fight, so doubtless it was so with others, else would Aldhelm have been in halves or thereabouts.
Then I told them of my message to the king, and at that Alswythe rejoiced. And the abbess said that doubtless the king would reward the messenger, and what reward would I ask an he did so?
Now there was only one reward to me in all the world, and for answer I took Alswythe's hand, all wet with the water she bathed my hurt with, and kissed it. On which the maiden blushed, and looked down, but the abbess laughed softly, saying, "Verily, I thought so," and then seemed to choke a little, turning away from us. And Alswythe did not draw away her hand from mine, but let her cheek rest for a moment against my head, and so there was a little silence.
Then the abbess turned round again, and her eyes were bright, but the shine was of tears in them, and she spoke briskly.
"Now must you get hence, Heregar, my son, and go your way to the king with all haste, so shall you be back the sooner. Give him a scarf to bind that wound, Alswythe; so shall it seem an honour and not a scar."
So there was a little leave taking, but not much, though enough, and I went from the nunnery with Alswythe's white and red and gold scarf over my shoulder; gay enough to look at, but no gayer than the heart beneath it.
And there, waiting for me in the street, was my tail, armed and drawn up in line of fours to see me back to the abbey. So I went there at the head of them, with more shouting of people.
There was Wulfhere sitting on the doorsteps of the great door, having a bag in his hand, and when I got up to him, he thrust it out to me, saying "largess", and that I was glad enough to understand.
So I put my hand into the bag, and crying, "Here is withal to drink to Somerset and Dorset shoulder to shoulder," scattered the silver pennies among them, and so left them without any order among them at all, though shoulder to shoulder certainly.
"Ho, master!" said Wulfhere, "you looked mighty angry when you were carried aloft an hour ago."
"Aye," said I, "'tis pity a thane cannot walk abroad quietly on his own business."
"Well, well, they thought that you were their business, doubtless."
"Whence came all those pennies?" I asked, for we had no store at all to cast away.
"From Eanulf and Ealhstan," said Wulfhere, laughing. "They came to me, and saying that they were sore jealous, and minded to have good cause therefor, gave me this that you might carry off all well to the end."
And that was good of them, for else I know not how I should have left the men without more speech making.
Just then came the ealdorman into the hall where we were, and laughing, asked me if I meant to take all that following to Salisbury. But I only wanted the standard guards who were left, and Aldhelm, as one who had fought as such. This I had told Wulfhere before, so that I was not surprised when I heard that all were ready, and but waiting for me to set off.
Then Eanulf and Osric took me to the bishop, and there gave me writings to deliver to the king, and also bade me tell all that he asked, in my own way.
And those three saw us set forth, all well mounted, and a goodly company to look at, the bishop blessing us before we went, and the people and warriors following and cheering us on our way through the town, and even some way beyond the walls.
CHAPTER XVII. ALFRED THE ATHELING.
Of our long ride to the king's place there is little to tell. Only that everywhere the news seemed to have flown before us, and men knew who we were and what our errand, crowding round us to hear all about the fighting, and to be assured that the Danes had truly gone. And great cheer made they for us everywhere, so that we were treated as princes almost.
Therefore, that was a merry ride and a pleasant in the early June weather, and we were ever cheerful, for it so happened, as may have been already seen, that no one of us had lost close friend or kin in the battles, but had the rather gained much. Yet maybe we were the only ones of whom that might be said; for mixed with the joy was mourning over all the land. And of all my company, I had the most cause to be lighthearted; so that for all I had gained I thought the hard things I had gone through were well worth the bearing. Ever, therefore, have I judged him the happiest who out of hardship gains rest; for he best knows its worth.
So at last we came to Salisbury town, and that was full of a brilliant company: the courtiers of the king, and their following again. Yet, for all their magnificence, thanks to our good bishop's gifts, we showed well as we rode into the streets, and I think were envied by many because the marks of honourable war were yet on us; so that the men spoke of Aldhelm's crushed headpiece, or Wulfhere's gashed shield that bore the mark of the axe that he stopped from me, or my riven mail that Alswythe's scarf would scarcely hide, and Wislac's broken crest.
And if they looked from us to our men, there was yet more of the like to speak about; for not one of the standard guard had been scatheless from heavy weapon play.
Being thus marked we were easy to be known, and hardly had we drawn rein at the great hostelry where we should wait till the king summoned us, when a thane came to me, asking if we were from bishop or ealdorman. And when I said we were so, bearing letters from them, he bade us to the king's presence at once, tarrying for nothing, as we were waited for.
Fain would we have washed away the stains of travel; but he was urgent, saying that the king's word brooked no delay. Therefore, leaving our horses with the people of the inn, we followed him, marching in order, to the great house where Ethelwulf was.
Here were guards and many thanes, and I must show the tokens given me, before we might enter, while our thane stood by, impatient at the formalities.
Those over, we came to a greet hall high-ceiled with oak, and carved everywhere, and strewn with sweet sedges, and on the high place sat the king and queen and one of the athelings.
Now I had never seen the king before, but I thought him like all that I had heard of in stories. For he sat in his purple robes, ermine-trimmed, having on a little gold crown over his long, curling hair, and his gloves and shoes were of cloth of gold, curiously wrought with pearls, while at his feet sat a page, holding a cushion whereon lay sceptre and orb.
But I looked to see the face of a warrior under the gold circle of the king, and therein was disappointed; for his face was kind and gentle, as many a good warrior's has been in time of peace, but lacked those lines which a man might know would harden into grimness and strength in time of need. And I thought that Ealhstan was like a king, and Ethelwulf like a bishop rather.
Yet by the king's side, leaning on his chair, was one whom I then noted not, having eyes only for his father—Alfred the Atheling, who, to my mind, is both warrior and saint, as though Ethelwulf, his father, and Ealhstan, his teacher, had each taught him the properties of the other, making a perfect king.
Now, while I looked, our guide went and made obeisance before the king, telling him of our coming, and at that the face of Ethelwulf lighted up, and he called to us to come near and give our message. And I saw the queen clasp her hands, as preparing to hear things all too heavy for a lady's ear, while the atheling stood up and gazed eagerly at us. Then, too, over all the court was deep silence, as they made a lane through which we must pass to reach the throne, and our feet seemed to make all the sound there was.
So we tramped up, and bowed low before the king, who ran his eyes over us, though not as a captain: but as one who knows men of all sorts well, and is accustomed to judge their faces.
Then he said to me; "You are Heregar, the bishop's standard bearer. We have heard of you as such, and welcome you, knowing you must bring good news, as your face tells me."
"I am Heregar, Lord King," I answered, "and I bring good news—written in these which I am to give into your own hand."
Then the king smiled a little, and signed the atheling to take the letters, and give them him.
But I, not knowing court ways, must needs think this beside my duty, and said quickly, not knowing to whom I spoke; "Pardon me, Thane, I am to give these into the king's own hand," and so stepped past him, holding out the letters to Ethelwulf.
And at that the atheling laughed outright, which was strange to me in the king's presence, saying, "Not so far wrong, standard bearer, if not very polite;" and so stepped back to his place, still laughing.
But Ethelwulf did not notice this, having taken the letters eagerly from me, and broken open the first that came.
Now when he had read the first few lines, he looked up, and reading from the letter, which doubtless told him the names of the bearers— "Heregar I know," he said; "which is Wulfhere?"
Then Wulfhere bowed, and the king asked for Wislac and Aldhelm, and then for each of the men in turn. And when each had answered, he looked hard at us, still holding the letter open, but saying nothing, and then fell to reading again. So we must stand still till all those letters were read.
Presently he took one, and reading the outside, gave it to the atheling, saying it was to him, and went on reading. That the atheling took, and as he read, looked at us, and it seemed particularly at me, though I thought nothing of that.
At last the king finished, and turned to a tall, noble-looking warrior who stood very near the dais, bidding him treat us with all honour, and see to our lodging near him while we were at court. Shortly, he said, he would speak to us of all we could tell him.
Then he held out his ungloved hand to us, which the atheling made a smiling sign for me to kiss, and that we all did, and then he looked pleasantly at us, and went his way from the hall, followed by his close attendants, with the queen and the atheling.
So soon as the king was gone, the talk began all over the hall, and most of all they crowded round us to learn what we could tell them; but that tall thane, whose name was Ceorle, came and took us away, telling the rest jestingly that they should have the second telling of the news, but that the king must have the first. And so he took us to guest chambers in his own house, and there left us in charge of his steward, treating us four thanes with all honour, and our men, as became their standing, among his own best men.
At least, this last was but for a short time, for the lay brethren came to me, looking oddly at me, and saying that they were in a strait; for, being lay brethren first, and warriors after, they knew not how to join in the talk and idle jests of the servants and housecarles. Moreover, they said that their vows obliged them to certain duties of prayer. And this I thought was honest of them, for many a lay brother would, when he found that I noted not their state, have broken out of bounds gladly, for the time.
So I sent for the steward, and asked him where they might be bestowed, and after a little thought, he said that the abbot, who had a following of honest housecarles, would take them in; and that he managed for us, and afterwards told me that Ealhstan's men had gained great praise, both for themselves and the bishop, by their ways in the abbey.
This is a little thing: but I tell it because it shows what sort of man Bishop Ealhstan was. For even over these rough warriors he had gained such a power for good that he had made of them all he wished—sturdy champions of the faith, both bodily and spiritually.
So when those three were gone elsewhere our only serving man was my collier, and well was he treated in Ceorle's house.
We bided quietly there all the rest of that day and that night, and then in the morning were bidden to speak with the king, Ceorle taking us four himself and sending one to find the lay brethren and Dudda.
The king sat with Alfred the Atheling in a private chamber, no other but Ceorle being beside him while we were there. And I was a little frightened about my putting aside the young prince now, for I knew who he was from Ceorle. But he had a pleasant look and greeting for us as we came in. So also had Ethelwulf himself, who seemed less stately than yesterday when he sat in his royal attire in full court.
Richly dressed he was now, with a gold circlet on his head and great gold bracelets on his arms; but he was in no high place, only sitting easily in a carved and cushioned chair, while the atheling sat on a settle by the window.
The letters I had brought lay open on the table at the king's elbow, and his hand was on them, and there were other writings scattered about; great ones with red seals hanging thereto—made no doubt by the gold signet which stood close by in its open casket.
"Come near, Thanes," the king said in his deep, quiet voice. "Let us talk together of this matter as friends, for a useless king were I but for such as you who keep my throne from the blows of enemies."
"Stay, Father," said Alfred the Atheling, starting up. "Let me write while the thanes speak," and he gathered up pens and such, and a roll of parchment, sitting down at the table and then holding pen ready, and looking at us.
The king smiled at him and his haste, and said, "Verily, Thanes, you must mind your words if Alfred writes them down, for he will ever keep records of tales such as yours, saying that they are for men to read hereafter."
But that had no terrors for us, seeing that we had a plain tale to tell, truth and nothing more. So, as Ceorle bid us, we four sat down by the window, and the king asked me to tell my story from the first.
So I began by saying that I had seen the landing of the Danes at Stert, and warned the watchmen of the levy.
There Alfred stopped me, holding up his pen suddenly.
"Tell us, Thane, of the Watchet landing," he said.
And when I began to tell of that he looked up again, with his eyes dancing, and asked me how I came on Quantock hill.
Thereat the king laughed a little, saying that Alfred should have been a lawman, and the atheling said that, with his father's help, he meant to be such, and a good one.
And that he has become, for the laws he has given us will last, as it seems to me, till the name of Saxon has departed.
Then I was a little in doubt what to say, and the king saw this. So he told me kindly that he had had very full accounts written by the bishop and ealdormen; but now both he and the atheling would fain hear about myself; that is, if my friends already knew all, and if I would not heed Ceorle.
Now I saw that I must speak more of myself than I wished, and would fain have been excused, saying something of that sort. But the atheling asked me to think of them as friends who would feel for me, saying, too, that of my own history he would not write, and so kindly did he urge me, drawing me on, that at last I had told him all from the beginning of my troubles, even to the time when I rode with Alswythe into Glastonbury and sought the bishop.
"That is well told," said Alfred, when I had finished so far, and the king sighed a little, but left all the speaking to his son.
"Now, Wulfhere," he went on, "it is your turn," and so made the old warrior take up the tale; but he bade him begin at the first fight.
However, Wulfhere must needs go back to the war arrow business, and then to the staying of the flight at Cannington, and in this Alfred did not stop him, though I thought it more than needed.
So he told all his tale, even to the slaying of the berserk, and things like that. And as he told of the breaking of the ring, and our stand inside of it, Alfred the Atheling wrote fast, and presently he bade Wulfhere cease, and going to a corner took down a harp, while his father smiled on him, and tuning it, broke out into a wondrous war song that made our hearts beat fast, for we seemed to feel that it was full of the very shout and ring of battle inside our circle of foes, and we were as men who looked on and saw our own deeds over again, only made more glorious by the hand of the poet and the voice of the singer.
So that when he ended the king's eyes flashed, and Ceorle's face was red and good to look at with a war light on it, and Wislac shouted, as I had nearly done.
But at that sound, strange in the king's presence, we all started, and Wislac seemed abashed.
"Truly, Lord King," he said humbly, "I could not help it."
"Almost had I done as you did," said the kindly king. "Alfred must bear the blame. Now shall you tell your story."
But Wislac said he had nought to add to Wulfhere's tale, save that Aldhelm here had saved him at his own cost, and that he had had, moreover, as much fighting as he was like ever to want.
But even from him Alfred gained many things about the fighting, and from Aldhelm also, and these he wrote down.
Thus we all told our tales, and they were long in the telling, so that when Aldhelm had finished, the king rose up, blaming Alfred gently for the long sitting, saying, however, that he had feared somewhat of the sort, but that doubtless the thanes were more wearied than either of the other three who had listened.
"Now," he said, "well have you four thanes deserved of me and of all, and you shall not say that the king is ungrateful. And I think that each of you has said less of your own selves than might be said, or, indeed, than is said in these letters. Now have Ceorle and I and my council spoken of this matter, and we have thought of rewards fitting for the shield wall of the standard."
Then would we thank the king; but he bade us wait for a little, putting his hand on those great parchments with the seals. One of these he took and gave to Aldhelm.
"This is to your father, confirming his rights of the land he holds of me to him and his heirs for ever, by reason of your good service. Yet is there a little blame to you from the way in which you found a foremost place, though much praise for the holding thereof and in your manner of ending that quarrel."
So Aldhelm took the deed and kissed the king's hand in token of homage, going to his place very glad, for this was what his father desired most of all.
Then the king beckoned Wislac and gave him also a deed like Aldhelm's, granting him the lordship of the manor of Goring on the Thames, and that was a good reward to the stout Mercian, who thanked the king, saying that he wotted not how his majesty knew what he would have most wished. Whereupon the king laughed, saying that kings knew more than men gave them credit for, and so Wislac did homage, and sat down.
Then Ethelwulf looked at Wulfhere, and said; "Wulfhere, my old warrior, I know not rightly what to do with you, for you are a lonely man, and I think that a place in my court would not suit you. Nor would you care to hold a manor in a strange place. Wait a little, and we will think it over."
Now at that Wulfhere looked glad, for I think he feared rather than desired reward.
Now came my turn, and my face flushed, and I was a little frightened, for there was but one thing I wanted, and I feared that that might not be.
But the king made a step towards me and took me by the hand, looking hard at me.
"Heregar," he said, "yours has been a strange story, and from beginning to end you have been first in this victory that will gain us peace for many years to come. Moreover you have suffered wrong, being punished for evil falsely laid to your charge on my account. And that I must show all men to be untrue, and that I, the king, hold it so. Now shall you choose your own reward."
Then was I sorely abashed, not knowing how to say what I longed for, and the king stood waiting a little. And maybe I should never have got it out, but the atheling looked up, and said:
"May I speak for you, Heregar?"
And so plainly did I see that he knew all, that I asked him to do so, and he came beside me and said; "Heregar needs but one thing, my father, and that is the hand of the maiden he loves—Alswythe the daughter of Matelgar, and your ward since her father was slain."
"Are you so foolish as to ask no more than that?" said the king, smiling.
And on that my tongue was loosed, and I answered; "Aye my Lord the King. If foolish it be to long for the one whom a man loves, and who loves him, so that he holds her beyond all other reward."
"Then is your request granted," said the king very kindly. "Yet must you have withal to keep so great a treasure rightly."
Now I had forgotten that I was landless, and well it was for me that the king went on quickly; "So I give you the lands that were Matelgar's, and your own lands again; and my men, and at my cost, shall build your halls afresh that the Danes have burnt. And whatever rights were Matelgar's or your father's shall be confirmed to you and yours for ever. Yet these things are but justice, and no reward."
So he paused a little, and I found courage to speak.
"My Lord the King, I need no more than you have given, for love and honour and lands have come back to me, and withal friendship of these three here, and of Ealhstan the Bishop, and of the noble ealdormen; while but for what has befallen I might have been still a careless thane, living at ease and for naught; but now, having heard Your good words, it is enough, and reward fit for any man."
And this I meant from my heart, for no more could I see that any man should need than this: honour of his fellows and of the king, and love and lands, and friends. Surely is a man rich in these things.
Yet must Alfred the Atheling add a word.
"Call me your friend also, Heregar, if you will, for fain would I be so," and he held out his strong white hand to take mine.
And it is good to think that, as it were, the grasp of his has never slackened from that day to this, but that he is my friend still.
Then Ceorle must say likewise, and last of all the king said; "Friend to all my people would I be, and to none more than to those who have risked life for the land. Therefore, to you and yours am I friend always, so that you shall ever think of me as friend first and king after. Nor is it to everyone that I dare say that, Heregar, my friend."
And he took my hand also, as the atheling and Ceorle had taken it.
So was I fain to weep for very joy at all this that had come to me, and must turn away for a little lest it should be seen.
Then the king spoke cheerfully, as on business.
"Now, Heregar, I have work for you to do in your home; for I would have no man idle. Here is Watchet town burnt up, and no man left—for its lord is slain—to see that it is built aright, and that each man, or family, has his own again. Now, you knew that place well, nor is it very far from you. Therefore shall you see to all that, and you shall have writings from me to back you. But men must know that you yourself have power there, and, therefore, I make you lord of all Quantock side, from Watchet stream to Parret, and from the borders of your own land at Cannington to Severn shore between those two. And this shall you render in return for those rights: that you shall be ready at all times to bear the standard of Wessex, against all comers from over seas, at my bidding."
Now that was the Dragon of Wessex of which the old witch spoke. And lo! those things that had been foretold of me were sooth, and I knelt before the king, and swore to bear him this service faithfully.
So the rest bore witness of that oath gladly, rejoicing in the honour, which was in truth to them as well as to me, for I could not have gone through aught without them, and if mine was the grip on Ealhstan's banner shaft, theirs were the hands that had kept it there.
Then said Ethelwulf; "Choose now one who shall have charge under you of the watchings and beacons on your shore."
And straightway I turned to Wulfhere, and begged him to do this for me, and it was good to see the warrior's face light up with gladness as he promised to give me his help. Doubtless that was what the king had in store for him, for at once he gave him the manor of the Watchet thane who had been slain, for as it chanced he had no heirs, and the land came back to the king.
That was the end of a long morning's work, and very kindly did Ethelwulf take his leave of us, saying that we must have these matters confirmed when the Witan [xii] met in two days' time.
So we went out, landed men and noble, and with us went the atheling, who took us to his own lodgings at the abbey, where he would see and speak to our men that he might write yet more from their lips, for he said that often it was good to hear what the common sort thought.
And my collier must needs tell him—for he was very pleasant, so that none need fear his rank—of Grendel, and also of the saint, which mightily pleased the atheling. So that often would he call me "Grendel" in sport thereafter, for we grew close friends in the time we bided at Salisbury.
And that seemed long to me, for now would I fain be back at Glastonbury with Alswythe.
Soon Wislac, also, grew tired of the court, and said that he longed for the deep meadows and lofty trees, and green downs along the clear river in this June time, and must seek his own home again. But it seemed that Alfred over-persuaded him, for reasons which he told me not, and he stayed.
We went to the great meeting of the Witan, taking our seats there when our rights were confirmed to us. And into my hands was put the standard of Wessex by the king himself, and I bore it to the great church, there to be blessed in the bearing thereof.
And there stood Ealhstan himself in his robes, having come even that morning for this very purpose. And that was pleasant, and even as I should have most wished. Moreover, my friends, and Alfred, and Ceorle stood by me as if for shield wall at that time, and I was well attended.
Now betimes, in the afternoon, came Alfred the Atheling to me as I sat with Ceorle, talking of the arms of the vikings, and asked me to come and speak with friends of his, who would not see him save he brought me.
And at that Ceorle laughed, saying that they must be of importance if they would deny the prince an audience, making conditions. And Alfred said very gravely that they were so, and maybe the only people, save the king and queen, who might delay seeing him.
So I was curious to know who these were. But we left Ceorle still laughing. Then Alfred took me to the abbey, and sent one of his men to say we had come, who, when he returned, bade us into the presence of these people.
When we came to a great door, in a part of the abbey where I had not before been, he took my arm, and pushed me in first, saying that he would ensure himself a good reception; and there sat Ealhstan, and beside him stood Alswythe, smiling at me, and with a little colour in her face.
CHAPTER XVIII. PEACE IN THE LAND.
Now of the wedding in the great church I knew very little, save that I had Alswythe beside me, and that Ealhstan married us. And that was all I cared for, heeding naught of the rest.
But the king and the queen were there, and many thanes, while the atheling must needs be a groomsman with my friends, and Ceorle gave away the bride on the king's behalf. There, too, was Eanulf, looking very noble in his court array, beside the king. And the little page in blue and silver who held Alswythe's dress was none other than Turkil, "Grendel's friend" as Alfred called him, whom Alswythe had begged the bishop to bring with him.
There also was Dudda the Collier, clad beyond knowledge by Wislac, holding my helm and sword, and the lay brethren, mail clad for the last time, with the white cross painted on their shields and helms. Lustily did they join in the chanting.
Osric only was not there, but on Alswythe's neck and arms shone presently wonderfully-wrought collar and bracelets of gold that he had sent, having had them made from the spoils of that tall viking chief that I had slain.
Then was there feasting, and songs of gleemen, and, better still, that song of Stert fight sung by Alfred the Atheling himself in full hall. And then had Wislac full excuse for what he did in the king's presence, for at the end all the hall joined in a mighty Wessex war shout. And that, said the atheling, was a poet's greatest praise, to have stirred the hearts of men to forgetfulness of aught but the song.
Now, when we must needs ride away westward, with Wulfhere and Aldhelm for attendants, and the collier and my lay brethren again for guards, the king gave Alswythe a ring, praying her to spare me to him if need should be; and she, half weeping, yet proudly, told him that she would be the first to arm me for his service. And the queen kissed her, but the atheling said that soon he should see us again, for he would ride with me over the battle-ground, and learn it all, when our hall was ready for a guest.
Then Wislac took leave of us last of all, even as we started, for he said he would have no long leave taking. Nor did he know if he must not come with Alfred to fight the battle over again. And we prayed him to do so, for I loved the quaint sayings and cool valour of the broad-shouldered thane.
But Eanulf and Ceorle rode with many of the thanes a mile or more with us on our way from the town, and there, having set us fairly off, left us with hearty good-speeds. But they left one behind, who joined himself to our little company. And that was Turkil, clad like myself in silver mail, and on a white pony, but with flame-coloured cloak and scarf. For that was the atheling's doing, when he knew that "Grendel's friend" was to be brought up in our hall, to grow into the stout warrior I had boded him to be.
Now should my story be ended were it a fairy tale, but it is not that. Well I knew that, happy as I was, the day must come when I must bear forward to battle the golden dragon banner of Wessex, and I cannot rightly tell if I dreaded or longed for that day. Maybe there was a mixture of both dread and longing in my thoughts thereof.
But when we came over Brent Knoll, on our way back to my place and Alswythe's at Cannington, there lay the black ships under the holms yet, and there, too, were the burnt walls of our houses, though these were rising up again as the king's men wrought at them. And all the land lay waste and neglected, and, as we rode over Cannington hill, a broken helm rolled from my horse's hoof from among the grass of the roadside. Those things brought back to us the memory of war and trouble even in our new happiness; and there, over the river, was the new-made mound over Elgar, the man who had died for his land, and not in vain.
It was many days since we started from Salisbury town, however, before we came to Cannington, and in that time we had sought the house of Turkil's father, the franklin, lodging with him for a day and night, that we might seek Leofwine the hermit. But him we might not find, for he was dead, and that grieved me sorely, for I would fain have seen him again, aye, and if it might be, taken him to live with us.
But he died as the tide went out on the day of Stert fight, and those who stood by him say that he had visions of all that befell there.
For many times he called to me as exhorting me; and once, after long silence, in the gray of early dawn, he rose up, crying, "Up, Ealhstan, up, for the Lord has delivered these heathen into your hands!"
And that was at the time when the bishop had heard those words spoken to him. And again, once more he roused, even at the time when the Danes drew off from us at the coming of Osric. He lifted his hands, crying "Victory!" thrice, and then saying very softly, "Heregar, my son," was silent thereafter till he died at the time of the lowest ebb, only his lips moving as if in prayer. And I remembered the strange voice I had heard crying round me, and I wept, for I thought how much more was wrought by the prayers of feeble ones than men wot of.
But his prophecy had indeed come true, and though I might not see him more, the memory of Leofwine is with me always, with his words of wise counsel that he had spoken to me.
Now of that other one who prophesied in her strange way to me I know no more, nor did I ever see her again. Gundred the witch, men called her, knowing her well, and fearing her. But she was never seen after the Danes swept over our land, and how she ended none ever knew. I sought her carefully that I might give her shelter and ease for the rest of her days, but without avail.
All his life long has Dudda the Collier bided with me, serving well and roughly, but in all most faithfully, as is his wont. And not many days after we came homewards he brought me the berserk's axe to hang in hall, for he had taken it and hidden it when we left the battlefield on the day after the fight. So there it is now, and beside it hangs the raven flag of the largest ship, for he must needs go with the fishers across to the holms, and bring me back the tale of how the last of the Danes had perished.
And now what am I to say of the years since our hall was built again? Long have they been, and not all happy, for many a time have I had to bear the standard of Wessex against the Danes. Yet Stert fight won us six years of peace, and after that the Earl Ceorle and I led our levies and conquered at Wenbury. But that was Wulfhere's last fight, for of his wounds he might not recover, though we bore him back and tended him carefully for a month or more. So he lies in God's Acre at Cannington, and is at rest.
Then came long years of fighting, and ever I bore the banner, and ever Alswythe set me forth most lovingly, with brave words that should bide with me till I came back to her. And all the time our hall was safe, for beyond Parret the Danes came not again.
And to tell of all those fights were too long, or of how Wislac and Aldhelm would ever fight beside me as of old, and at last Turkil in Aldhelm's place, when that brave thane fell at Wilton, fighting for Alfred the King.
Then were we in Athelney with Alfred, and it was the collier who found us that place of safety. And thence we went at last to victory again, and now once more the land has rest.
Yet Wislac is with us in Wulfhere's place, for his own land is in Danish hands, and we know not what wars may be yet with them, though we have stood by the king's side when the greatest victory of all was won, and Guthrum the heathen became Athelstan the Christian, and peaceful division of the land was made.
So I and Alswythe grow old here in Cannington, seeing our children grow up around us. And Alfred the king has our eldest in his court, there training him in all things well and wisely. And Turkil is thane of Watchet, and our son-in-law, much loved by all, well and faithfully tending all my shore as Wulfhere tended it in his time.
So to me and mine after storm has come peace, and with us and the land all is well.
i A representative assembly or court of judgment.
ii An outlaw for whose slaying there was a reward, or at least no penalty.
iii A curved, one-edged sword or war knife.
iv The "Saga of Beowulf" was the great popular poem of the Saxon races, and as well known to them as the legends of Robin Hood to us. The principal episode is the hero's victory over the marsh fiend Grendel.
v Crowland in Lincolnshire, where the saint founded his monastery.
vi Like the Highland "fiery cross", the signal for rising in arms.
vii The most contemptuous term that could be applied to a Saxon. Its exact force is lost, but may be expressed by "worth nothing."
viii The border of cleared land round a forest settlement, across which in times of war none might come without sound of horn in warning.
ix The "Saga of Beowulf" as we have it is the work of a Christian editor of King Alfred's time.
x A corselet or coat of mail.
xi The bell which is rung during mass.
xii The great national council, or parliament.