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King Olaf's Kinsman - A Story of the Last Saxon Struggle against the Danes in - the Days of Ironside and Cnut
by Charles Whistler
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Then came Olaf at the head of his men, and as he came I saw the first sparkle of armour across the heath under the sun, for the Danes were in array, and were coming up to the level ground over which we looked.

And when Olaf saw that his face grew bright with the joy of battle in a good cause, and his hand went to his sword while he looked quickly round for the place that he would choose. Nor was he long in choosing, for he led us but a furlong from the cover's edge, and there drew us up in a half circle, with the hollow towards the cover and our horsemen on the flanks, so that the greater force could not outflank us, while we had the wood in our rear. So if one half of the curved line was forced back it would but drive us closer together, back to back, and at the worst we could not be followed into the cover except by scattered men who would be of no account.

Now the strongest part of our curved line was in the centre, and there stood Olaf's mailed shipmen, and behind them my English spearmen. That place they liked not at first, till the king told them carefully what he would have them do at the first charge of horsemen for which he looked, for now it was plain that many of the Danes were mounted.

Olaf and I stood between his men and mine, leaving our horses in the cover, for a viking leader will ever fight on foot. Rani was on the right wing, and Biorn the marshal on the left; and Ottar the scald bore Olaf's banner beside the king. There were six of the best warriors of the crew before Olaf as his shield wall, and six of the best English warriors had been named by Prat to act in the same way for me. Olaf had given me a good plain sword in place of that which I broke, but I took a spear now, ashen shafted and strong, in the English way, that I might be armed as were my men, and I think that pleased them.

The Danes came on fast, and they had not been miscounted. They were full half as many again as we, and they were drawn up in line with their horsemen on the wings as we were, so that at first I thought we should fight man to man, both horse and foot, along the whole front.

Now they came almost within bow shot, and there they halted and closed up, leaning on their weapons, while a great man, tall and black bearded, and clad in black chain mail, rode out before them and came towards us with his right hand held up in token of parley.

Olaf went out from the line to meet him, and when they were close together a great hush fell on the two hosts to hear what was said.

"Are you the leader of this host?" the Dane said.

"Aye. Who are you?" answered Olaf.

"I am Egil Thorarinsson, of Colchester," he answered. "And whoever you may be, I call on you to yield to Cnut, King of Denmark and England, and Norway also."

"Maybe he is king of neither," Olaf answered quietly. "I am Olaf Haraldsson, and I am here to see if he shall be King of England. So I call on you to submit peaceably to Ethelred, leaving Cnut to take his own land if he can."

"We are Cnut's men and Danes," answered Egil, "and from your speech and name it would seem that you are no Englishman. Now if you are Olaf the Thick, own your own king Cnut, and leave this Ethelred the Unredy to his own foolishness."

"I am one of those Norsemen who hold that Cnut is no king of ours, and therefore I fight him wherever I can. But if you will own Ethelred there shall be peace from him, and you will but do what the Danes of Guthrum's host did in the old days—hold the land you have won from an English overlord."

"A fine overlord, forsooth," said the Dane; "maybe one would think of it had he been a second Alfred—but Ethelred the Unredy! Not so, King Olaf. Will you own Cnut, or must we make you?"

"It seems that we shall not agree until we have fought out this question," said Olaf, laughing a little.

The Dane laughed back.

"Aye, I suppose not. I would that you had a few more men. But that is a hard lot in the centre."

And so he looked down our line with an unmoved face, and turned his horse and rode slowly back to his own men. Olaf came back to us with a confident look enough.

"There is a man worth fighting," he said to me; "he is foster brother of Thorkel the High, who leads young Cnut, and he seems an honest warrior enough."

Then all at once his face hardened, and he spoke in the sharp tone of command:

"Get your spearmen forward—the horsemen are coming first."

And I saw even before he spoke that this was so, for they were closing in across their line from the wings, and forming up for an attack that they maybe thought would break the grim ranks of Olaf's crew who were the strength of our centre.

So I gave the word, and my spearmen came quickly forward through the viking line, and there stood two deep, setting the butt ends of their spears firmly in the ground at their feet, and lowering the points to meet the horses breast high. Olaf bade the front rank kneel on one knee and take both hands to the spear shaft, and then the thick hedge of glittering points was double. I had never seen this plan before, but it was what Olaf had bidden us do if there was a charge of horsemen. And I stood in the second rank with Prat beside me, and behind me were the men of Olaf's shield wall. I took my axe in my right hand instead of the sword, for the heavier weapon seemed best against what was coming.

Now were the foes ready, even as the spearmen knelt, and a chief rode out before them and gave the word to charge, and with a great roar they answered him, spurring their horses and flying down on us. The arrow shafts rattled on the bow staves as Olaf's vikings made ready, and I cried to my spearmen to stand steady, for it seemed as if that thundering charge must sweep the crouching lines like chaff before it. And as it came we were silent, and no spear wavered in all the long hedge to right and left of me.

They were but fifty paces from us; and then with hiss and rattle as of the first gust of a storm in dry branches the arrows flew among them, smiting man and horse alike, and down went full half of the foremost line, while over the fallen leapt and plunged those behind them unchecked, and were upon us sword in air; and the tough spear shafts bent and cracked, and a great shout went up, and over the shoulders of my men flashed the viking axes, falling on horses and dismounted men, and the Danish riders recoiled from the steadfast spearmen whose line they could not break though they had gapped it here and there, while the arrows and javelins flew among them unceasingly.

They drew back disordered, and then from the wings charged our horsemen and broke them, chasing them back towards their own men in disorder, while my stolid spearmen closed up again shoulder to shoulder, and the level hedge of spear points was ready again. But now they shone no longer, for they were dulled with the crimson token of their work.

Then the Danish ranks opened, and their horsemen passed through to the rear, and at once our men wheeled back to their posts on the wings, shouting in the faces of the Danes as they galloped past their lines. Then was the ground open between the forces again, but now it was cumbered with fallen men and horses, and below our spear points was a ghastly barrier of those who had dared to rush on them, for spear had begun and axe had finished the work.

"Well done, spearmen!" Olaf cried to us, "now is our turn."

And at his word his vikings took our place, and we were content. For we had borne the first shock of the battle after all, and had earned praise. Moreover the whole line cheered us as we fell back into the second line.

"Now comes the real fighting," said Olaf to me; "stay by my side, cousin, and you and I will see some sword play together."

So I stood on the left hand, and Ottar was on his right with the standard, and Prat of Sudbury was next to me. The viking line was two deep before us, and Olaf's shieldmen and mine were between us and the rear rank, and my spearmen leant on their weapons behind us again. But it took us less time to fall into place thus than it has taken to say how we stood.

And hardly were we steady again before the whole Danish line broke out into their war song and advanced. Then the song became a hoarse roar, and their line lapped round to compass our bowed front, and man to man they flung themselves on us as the storm of darts and arrows crossed from side to side between us. Then rang the war chime, the clang of steel on steel loud over Leavenheath, and there came into my heart again the longing to wipe out the memory of old defeats, and I gripped my axe and shield and waited for my turn to come.

There was a little time while I might see all that happened, and at the first rush I saw Biorn's men give back a pace—no more—and win their place again. I saw our horsemen watching for a chance to charge in on the Danish flank, and I saw the Danish riders wheeling to meet them. Then I must keep my eyes for what was before me, for men were falling. Then Ottar began to sing, and his voice rose over the cries of battle, and rang in tune with the sword strokes as it seemed to me, and with his singing came to me, as to many, the longing to do great deeds and to fall if I might but be sung thus.

Then I saw a Dane fell one of the vikings, and leap at the men of Olaf's shield wall, and an axe flashed and he went down. The fighting was coming nearer to me, and I watched and waited, and I knew that I had never seen so stern a fight as this, for before me Olaf's veterans fought against Swein's—the trained thingmen who held the towns. And neither side had ever known defeat, and it seemed to me that surely we must fight till all were slain, for these were men who would not yield.

Then was a gap in the ranks before me for a moment, and through it glanced like light a long spear with a hook that caught the edge of Prat's red shield and tore it aside; and I smote it and cut the shaft in twain, so that it was but wood that darted against Prat's mail, and he said, "Thanks, master," and smiled at me, for the ranks had closed up again.

Then before me I saw Egil's black armour, and the mighty form of the chief who had led the mounted Danes; and they rushed on us and their men followed them, and in a moment one was shield to shield with me, and I took his blow on mine, and my stroke went home on his helm, and he fell at my feet, swaying backwards, while over him tripped Egil, and lost his footing, and came with a heavy fall against me, so close and suddenly that I could not strike him or he me, and I grappled with him and we went down together.

Then my spearmen roared "Out, out!" and charged on the Danes who had broken our line thus, and I heard Olaf's voice shouting, and then I was inside our line behind the heels of the men who fought, and struggling with the Danish chief for mastery.

That was a tough wrestle, but I had been in training with Olaf, and the Dane had been shut up in the town at ease; and at last he gave way, and I knelt on his broad chest, drew my seax, and bade him yield.

"Not I," he said, panting for breath.

But I would not slay a brave warrior who had fallen as I knew by chance, and so I said—for fighting was too hot for any man to pay heed to us, as his Danes were trying to reach him through my spearmen:

"You had better. For you have fought well, and this is but chance."

"Tie me up, then," he growled. "Who are you?"

"Olaf's cousin," said I.

"I can yield to you, then," he said; "take my sword and tie me up, for I will escape if I can."

Then two spearmen turned and shouted, and went to drive their weapons into the body of my foe, and I put my shield in the way.

"Strike not a fallen man," I said, and they forebore, ashamed.

Then I loosed the baldric that his sword hung in—his axe was gone as he fell or wrestled—and took the weapon. And lo! it was sword Foe's Bane, my father's sword; and I cast away my axe and gripped the well-known hilt, and bade the spearmen guard my captive, and turned back into the fight. And all this had gone by in a whirl, as it were, and the Danes were still striving to regain their lord, while Olaf and Ottar were smiting unceasingly. Only Prat was gone, while now our whole line was of spearmen and vikings mingled, and the Danish line was in no sort of order, but I thought they prepared for another rush on us.

Then it came, and we were driven back fighting; it slackened, and we took our ground again. And then I know not what sign Olaf saw in the faces of the Danes before him, but suddenly he spoke, and our war horns brayed. Then Ottar raised the standard and pointed it forward, and there rose a thundering cheer from our whole line as we charged and swept the Danes before us, spear and axe and sword cleaving their way unchecked. And surely sword Foe's Bane wiped out the dishonour of biding in a foeman's power that day.

Then rode our horsemen among the disordered crowd, and that was the end. The Danes broke and fled, and Olaf had won his seventh battle, and I had seen victory at last; moreover the sword of Thorgeir was in my hand.

The light-armed men and the riders followed the flying Danes, and Olaf sheathed his red sword with the light of victory shining on his face, and while the men cheered around us he put his hand on my shoulder and asked if I were hurt.

"I saw you fall, cousin," he said, "but I could not win to you. The Danes pressed on to reach the man you had down."

"It was Egil," I said. "I am not hurt—are you touched?"

And he was not, but it was our good mail that had saved us both. There would be work for the armourer by and by before we could wear it again, for after Egil had fallen I had been beside the king, and there was no lack of blows before the time had come when our charge ended the matter. Only three of his six shield men and two of mine were left.

But Prat was slain, and many another good warrior lay dead where our line had been.

Now when I looked for Egil he was gone. The two spearmen lay where I thought he had been, and I looked to find him slain also. So I asked the men round me, and at last found one who had seen him dragged up by the rush that bore us back. And so he had escaped.

"That is the chance of war," said Olaf, "but you could not have slain him with honour."

"Nevertheless," said Ottar, "Redwald has a sure token there that he overcame him," and he pointed to my sword.

"It is my father's sword," I said. "It has come back to me, even as you said it would."

"They have not said too much of sword Foe's Bane," Ottar answered. "For I have seen you use it—and I think that Hneitir is hardly more handsome."

Now came that which is the most terrible part of a battle, even for the victors, and that is the calling of the roll. And sad enough were we when that was done, for the loss was heavy. Yet what the loss was to the Danes I cannot say, for our men chased them till there were no two left together to make a stand among those who had not found safety in the woods that fringe the heath.

Then we bore back our wounded—and they were many—to Bures, and it was noonday when we reached there. But there was no rest for Olaf yet, for Colchester must be barred against the Danes.

He and I therefore took a hundred of our men, mounting them on the freshest of the horses, and covered the nine miles between us and the town as quickly as we might. Very fair the old place looked to me as we crossed the Colne and saw the walls among the trees on the steep hillside, and the houses nestling against it. The gates were shut, and there was a strong guard along the ramparts on either side, and we halted and summoned the townsfolk to surrender to Ethelred in peace.

Doubtless some flying Danes had brought news of how the battle had gone, for at once the gates were opened to us, and the chief men came out and prayed for favour at Olaf's hands, and he told them that Ethelred their king would take no revenge on them for having bowed to Swein and his mighty force. So there was rejoicing in Colchester, for it seemed to the townsfolk that peace had surely come at last, and with it relief from the oppression of the thingmen. For these warriors had carried matters with a high hand, so that no Anglian dared to call them aught but lord—it must be "lord Dane" if they spoke even to the meanest of the hosts and the gravest burgher must give way to some footman of Swein's if they met in street or on bridge. So they were not loved.

Olaf bade the townspeople prove their loyalty by taking all the Danish warriors who were in the place, and bringing them to him on the market hill where the great roads cross. Then was fighting in Colchester for a while, but in the end, towards sunset, there was a sullen gathering of them enough, and many were wounded.

Then the king went and spoke to them.

"What think you that I will do to you?" he asked.

"Even as we would do to you," one said.

"Hang me, maybe?" said Olaf.

"Aye, what else?" the man answered in a careless way, but looking more anxious than he would wish one to see.

"I do not hang good warriors," the king said. "What would you do if I gave you life?"

"What bargain do you want to make?" said the Dane.

"If I put you into a ship and let you go, will you promise to take a message for me to Cnut, and not to come back to England as foes?"

"If that is all, we will do it," the man answered, while his look grew less careful, and the other men assented readily enough with the fierce townsmen and their broad spears waiting around them.

"Go and tell Cnut, then, that Ethelred is king, and how you have fared. That is all I bid you. Are there any Norsemen among you?"

There were eight or ten among the six-score prisoners, and Olaf spoke aside with them.

"Go back to our own land and say what you have seen of the dealings of Olaf Haraldsson with those who fight bravely though against him. And if when you hear that I have returned to Norway you come and mind me of today, I will give you a place among my own men."

Then they said that they would fain serve him now; but he would not have that, and then they said that they would surely come to him if they heard that he was anywhere in their land.

There were two trading busses in the river, and into these vessels we put the Danes, giving them all they needed to take them back to Denmark, but leaving them no arms. The townsfolk would have it that they would return and take revenge in spite of their promise, but Olaf told them that they must not fear so few men, but rather take care to be ready against the coming of more.

So the Danes sailed away down the river and to sea, and whether they kept their promise or not I cannot say. But I think that Olaf had done somewhat towards preparing a welcome for himself when he should return to his own land by acting thus. I would that Ethelred and Eadmund had been wise as he, for by forgiveness they would have won men to them. But evil counsel was ever waiting on them, and maybe they are not to blame so much as is he who gave it.

There were no men of note among these Danes whom we took, and we thought that Ulfkytel would maybe hear of Egil before long, if he could by any means get his scattered forces together. Yet the rout was very complete, else he would have been back in Colchester before us.

The townsfolk made a great feast in Colchester for us that night, and next day Olaf called the headmen and set all in order for Ethelred the king. And we thought that the town was safe for him, for a levy would be made to hold the place at once. We rode back to Bures in the evening, therefore, taking a few of our men as a guard lest there should be parties of Danes on the road—a likely thing enough, as a beaten and disbanded force in a hostile land must live by plunder, for a time at least. But we met none.



Chapter 8: The White Lady Of Wormingford Mere.

As we rode over the uplands we saw that the Sudbury men would do all honour to those who had fallen fighting beside them, for they made a great mound over Olaf's men, and Ailwin our priest was there with us to see that they had Christian burial with such solemnity as might be in those troubled days. There might be no chanting of choir or swinging of censer at that burying; but when the holy rites were ended Ottar the scald sang the deeds of those who were gone, while the mound was closed. And that would be what those valiant warriors loved to hear.

So passed the day, and then were our wounded to be seen; but at last I might sit quietly in the house on the green and speak all that I would with Ailwin, and we had much to say. I know not if I longed or feared now to speak of Hertha, but I would do so. Yet first I asked Ailwin how he himself had fared when the Danes came; for I had thought that he would have been slain.

"Aye, my son, that I should have surely been," he said, "but I found a hiding place until their fury was past, and the host swept on, leaving but a few among us. Some of these were wounded men, and you mind that I am skilled in leechcraft. So I dressed myself in a freeman's garb and tended them, winning their respect at least, if not gratitude. So I have been the leech ever since, for the church was burnt, and many a priest was slain, and these Danes are but half Christian if they are not open pagans; and I might not don my frock, else would there have been no one left to christen and say mass and marry for our poor folk in quiet places."

Then I said:

"Where did you find a hiding place, father?"

"It was shown me by one who made me promise—aye and take oath, moreover, as if my word were not enough—that I would tell no man where it is. For such a place once known to any but those who use it is safe no longer."

"Was it Gunnhild who helped you thus?" I said, for I remembered now my last words to him, that he should seek her.

"I may say that it was Gunnhild. There she and Hertha and I were safe till the worst was over," he answered, and looked in my face.

Then I must say what was in my mind all the while, and I asked him plainly:

"Where is Hertha now, father? Is she yet well and safe?"

"Both well and safe with Gunnhild," he said.

"Where is she—can I seek her?"

The old man looked at me meaningly for a minute, and I grew hot under his kindly gaze.

"What remember you of Hertha, my son?" he said gently.

"All, father," I answered; "but does she remember aught?"

"She remembers—she has never forgotten," he said.

And I had forgotten for so long. I think the old priest, who was so used to deal with men, saw what was written in my face, for he smiled a little and said:

"Women have time to think, but a warrior of today has had none. What think you of your meeting with Hertha?"

Then I said, being sure that Ailwin understood the puzzle that was in my mind:

"Father, I know not what to think. We are bound—but now it is likely that we should not know one another if we met; in truth, I think I fear to meet her."

"Is there any other maiden?" he asked, still smiling.

"Once I thought there was—and not so long ago either," I said honestly, "but I remembered in time. Now I will say truly that there is not."

I had no longing for Penhurst now.

Then there came across me a strange feeling that one might hardly call jealousy—though it was near it—and I said:

"Has she seen any other who would make her wish to forget?"

"Truly she has not," Ailwin laughed; "how should she?"

"I know not where she has been, father," I said with a lighter heart, although but an hour ago I thought that I should have been glad to hear that it was so.

"Ah—I forgot," Ailwin said in some little confusion as I thought, and he was silent. But now I would say more.

"Well, then, father, both of us are heart whole, as it seems. But I know not if she would be pleased with me as I am now."

Ailwin looked up quickly at me, and then said:

"One cannot tell. Maybe she thinks the same concerning you and your thought of her."

Then I told the good man of that plan which the lady of Penhurst had made when we spoke of the same doubt, and he laughed thereat, which did not please me. So I said:

"Well, then, let me see her."

"Not yet," he said after a little thought. "This is not the first time that I have gone over this matter. Gunnhild has spoken with me more than once, and yesterday she gave me a message for you, and I was but to give it if I found that you longed to see Hertha again."

"What is it, then?"

"She says that the troubles are not over yet. Cnut will be back shortly, and then you have warriors' work to do. When that is done there will be peace, for England or Denmark, or both, will be worn out. It will not be long ere that is so, she says, and she is very wise. Then come and find Hertha if you will. But now there will be less trouble for both if you meet not."

Then I grew impatient, for I hate concealments of any kind.

"Better break the betrothal at once, then," I said, "for if I must wait I cannot say that I may not meet with a maiden whom I shall love."

"Then shall you let me know," said Ailwin coolly, "and it shall be broken. Thus will be no sorrow to Hertha."

"So be it," said I. "But I think you are hard on me."

"No so, my son," said the good man, "not so. Redwald and Hertha of today are strangers. I do not altogether hold with these early betrothals; but what is, must be. Wait a little, and then when peace comes, and you can dwell, one at Bures and one at Wormingford in the old way—seeing one another and learning what shall be best for both—all will be well. Be content. Your place and hers lie in ruins. Why, Redwald, what home have you to give her?"

Now that word of common sense was the best that he could have spoken, for I was waxing angry at being thus played with, as I thought. But at that moment Olaf and Ottar came in with clang and ring of mail and sword, and so no more was said, and soon Ailwin rose to depart. But I followed him out, and asked him for the last time:

"Will you not tell me where Hertha bides?"

"No, my son—not yet. Believe me it is best."

"Well, then," I answered, "I shall try to find her; but if I cannot, you mind what I said."

"I will not forget. But I will add this—that there are many fair maidens, and but one Hertha."

Then he turned away into the dark, and was gone with an uplifting of his hand in parting blessing. I knew the good man loved me, and now I was sorry that I had spoken harshly to him, yet I had a feeling that I had been treated ill. Maybe that was foolish, but one acts on foolish thoughts often enough.

There was a man sitting on the settle in the porch of the house as I turned back. I had not noticed him as we came out. Now the firelight from the half-open door fell on his face, and I saw that it was one of those two thralls of mine.

"Ho, Brand," I said, "answer me truly. Know you where bides Dame Gunnhild the witch?"

"No, lord. We know not where she bides but it is not far hence, for we see her at times in the village, though not often."

"How did she escape when the Danes came?"

"She and the lady Hertha took boat—it was but three days after you had gone. All the men had fled as she bade them, but her brother came and helped her with the boat. They went into the mere, and that was the last we saw of them."

Now I remembered to have heard of Gunnhild's brother, but I had never seen him.

"Where does her brother live?" I asked.

"I know not. I have not seen him again," answered the man.

"Whence comes Dame Gunnhild into the village?" I went on, thinking that I might learn somewhat in that way.

"Master," said Brand, "she comes at twilight, nor will she have anyone follow her. Ill would it fare with the man who did so. I do not know whence she comes."

Now it seemed to me that the man had more in his mind than that, and at least that there must be some talk about the place, which is small enough to make the doings of everyone the talk of each one else.

"Where do men say she lives?" I asked therefore.

The man looked doubtfully at me, but he could see that I was not angry. So he smiled foolishly, and answered:

"We say nought, lord. Danes hear everything in some way."

"Well, you can tell me safely enough."

"We think it is witchcraft of the old dame's, and that she and the lady Hertha live with the White Lady in the mere of Wormingford."

Then I was fain to laugh, for it was witchcraft more than even Gunnhild could compass, by which she might find refuge in the depths of that bottomless mere where the White Lady dwells. The place has an ill name enough among our folk, and even on a bright summer day, when all the margin of the wide circle of water is starred with the white lilies, I have known silence fall on those laughing ones who plucked the flowers, so still and dark are the waters, and so silent the thick woods that hem the mere round under the shadow of the westward hill that hides the sunset. No man cares to go near the mere when darkness has fallen, so much do our people fear to see the White Lady of whom Brand spoke.

I feared her not, for she was a lady of our own race, who was drowned there by the wild Welsh folk in some raid of theirs when we Angles first came from the land beyond the seas and drove them out. Ours was the clan of the Wormings—I bore the badge of the twining snake myself today, marked on my left arm, as had all my fathers before me—so ford and mere were named after us, and we were proud of the long descent, as I have said. Once had my mother seen the Lady, and that was on the day that my father was slain. Therefore had she seen unmoved the coming of Grinkel, for she knew already what had befallen. I had not seen the Lady, but I know that many others of my race had done so, and ever before the coming to them of somewhat great that was not always ill. But she never spoke to them, but floated, white robed, over the mere, singing at times, or silent.

Now it came into my mind that the thrall was not so far wrong, and that there was a chance that Gunnhild might have some hiding place among those woods about the mere, for no man willingly searches them, and Danes fear these places more than we, being heathenish altogether. So I asked Brand if the Danes knew about the White Lady.

"Ay, master, they soon learned that. They call her 'Uldra', though why I know not."

That was the name of the water spirit they believed in. So I became all the more sure that Gunnhild was there. It would be easy for her to feign to be the White Lady and so terrify any man who sought her. A man is apt to shape aught he sees into what he fears he may see.

"Has the White Lady been seen of late?" I asked therefore.

"I have heard that the Danes say that they have seen her," he answered. "They have seen also bale fires burning on the mound where the great queen lies."

That last was an old tale among us also, but I had never seen any light above the great mound. Ottar had many sagas that told of the fires that burnt, unearthly, above buried heroes, and the Danes would watch for them, and so, as I have said, would certainly see them, or deem that they did so. Yet I suppose that these strange fires may have burnt on the tombs of heathen men, else would not the tales have been told thereof so certainly. But Christian warriors rest in peace, and about their last bed is no unquiet. Nor may Christian folk be frighted by the bale fires of the long-ago heathen's mounds. For their sakes they have been quenched, as I think.

So I stood and mused for a while, turning over in my mind how best to find Gunnhild at the mere without leading others to her hiding place. And at last I laughed to myself, the thing was so simple. I had but to go into the mere woods at twilight or in the dusk, and wander about until she heard and feared my coming. Then she would play the White Lady's part on me to fray me away, and all was done. She could not tell who I was, nor would she think it likely that I would seek her there, and would easily forgive me for doing so, when we met.

I bade Brand the thrall goodnight, and went back into the great room of the house, where Olaf sat with Ottar resting and talking together. There was no one else in the place, for we had no fear of aught, and Olaf cared not to have many men about him. Some of his men would come presently and sleep across the doorway, but the evening was young yet.

"You seem as if you had heard somewhat pleasant," Olaf said when I came in.

I suppose that my certainty of finding Gunnhild and Hertha pleased me well enough to make my face bright.

Now both Olaf and Ottar knew of my wish to search for Hertha, and who she was, for I had told them as we sailed to Maldon on the way to my own country again, and they were eager to help me to take her from hiding into what we thought would be greater safety. So when the king said this, at first I thought of saying only that I had surely found out where she was hidden. But then I would not keep back what Ailwin had said, for Olaf might have advice for me.

Therefore I sat down and told them all the story of my talks with the priest and the thrall, adding that I was the more sure that Gunnhild was hard by, because Ailwin had said that it was but yesterday she had given him the message for me.

Then Olaf said:

"Cousin, I think these two old folk are right. Better wait for peace, as they say."

"It is not so sure that Cnut will come back," I said.

"Is it not?" said Olaf. "Why—seeing that he has left his host of thingmen in the towns, and we had Thorkel's foster brother to fight but the other day, and that these Danes do not yield at once and so gain peace and hold what they have, but will rather fight than own Ethelred—I think that none can well doubt that word has gone round the Danes in the kingdom that he will return, and that they need not fear to hold out till he comes."

Then the last doubt of trouble to come passed from me, for it was plain that these thingmen looked for help presently. But Olaf was thinking of my affairs again.

"Four years is overlong for anyone to play ghost on a whole countryside," he said laughing. "I cannot think that Gunnhild, even if she be a witch, can have bided in sight of the village all this time without being found."

"No man dares go near the place," I said.

"Well, whence has she her food unless from the village? I think she cannot be so near," he replied, and there was reason in his question.

I was cast down at this, for I had made so sure that I had found out the secret that was so carefully kept from me. When there is mystery made, which is, or seems, needless, there is pleasure and a feeling of mastery in finding it out unaided, and I was losing that.

I will say this, however, that I was more vexed in this way than with the thought that I should not find Hertha, for in my own mind I began already to own that Ailwin and Gunnhild were in the right about our not meeting yet.

Olaf saw that I was vexed now, and put forward a plan which he thought would be pleasant to me, for he was certain that I should not be satisfied until I had seen if I was right.

"There is no reason why we should not go to the mere and see if Gunnhild is there," he said. "If she is, maybe it will be well for you to speak with her. And if not—why, then we know at least that she has a good hiding place elsewhere."

That was a plan that pleased me well, for though I had no fear of going to that lonely place so long as I had made myself certain that I should meet Gunnhild, now that it seemed not quite so sure but that I should find myself alone there, the thought of the quest was not quite so pleasant to me.

"Then we may as well go at once," Olaf said. "How like you the thought, Ottar?"

"I like not such places, my king," the scald answered honestly. "There are chills that come over one, and rising of the hair."

"Aye, there are," answered Olaf. "I have a fear of this White Lady myself. Therefore am I going with Redwald, because I want to see if there is aught to be feared of."

"I will come with you," the scald said, hardening his heart, for his mind was full of the wild tales of the old heathen days which he sang, and he feared more than we.

"It is but a lady after all," said Olaf, laughing at Ottar's face.

"I have a sort of fear of living ladies," the scald said, "how much more, therefore, of their ghosts! I had rather meet Danes. For when one sees them there comes a stiffening of back and knees and fists—whereas—"

"Aye, Redwald and I know somewhat of what you mean," laughed Olaf, and then Ottar laughed, and we took our cloaks and were going, but first must seek Rani, and tell him that we were now about to leave the village for an hour or so.

Now no man questioned Olaf as to his lonely walks, as I saw in Normandy, and Rani said nought but:

"Take your arms, for there may be wandering Danes about."

But we were armed already, though without mail, and as we went not far it seemed unlikely that we should need any. It was but a half-hour's walk from the house.

Now the mere lies on the south side of the river, which runs into it only by a narrow inlet, and this inlet is so overshadowed by the trees of the thick woodland that when one has passed through the opening it is lost to sight very quickly. So heavy is the growth of timber round the mere that one can see the water from no place, save for a glimpse as this inlet is passed in going down the river, and many a stranger has passed by all unknowing that such a mere could be near him. Hardly can the wind reach the wide waters to ruffle them even when a gale blows, and so the place is more silent, and its terror falls more heavily on a man's mind.

It was two hours after sunset when we started, but the fringe of the woodland is but a mile and a half from the village, and we were soon there. The night was bright enough, with a clear sky and stars overhead, though there was no moon as yet.

As we went Olaf was very cheerful, and railed pleasantly at Ottar for his fears, while I said little, not knowing if I wanted to find Gunnhild or not.

But Ottar would not pretend to be braver than he felt, having no shame in fear of things other than earthly, a matter wherein I think that he was right.

"Why," said the king, "if Dame Gunnhild tries to fray us, do you but turn that cloak of yours inside out, and you will frighten her"—for it chanced that the scald's red cloak had a white woollen lining, whereof he was somewhat proud, being a lover of bright dress.

"It is ill to mock a spirit," the scald said; "wherefore do I believe the less that a Wise Woman will bide in the place that it haunts."

So they talked until we came to the woodland; and when we came among the trees a silence fell on us.

"It is of no use," I said, "let us go back. You are right, and she cannot bide here."

"Why, now that I have got over my fear so far," Olaf said, "I will go on, even to the water's edge. Then will we go back."

I could not gainsay him, as may be known, and so we went on. It was easy at first to thread our way through the trees, but presently they were thicker, and it was dark. There was no wind moving in the boughs overhead, and there is no denying that the silence of that deserted place weighed heavily on us all.

And when we drew close to the water's edge, and saw the still water, starlit, stretching before us, a water hen sprang from the reeds almost at our feet with her shrill warning cry, and flapped out into the middle of the dark mere, leaving a long trail of broken water behind her that gleamed for a moment with dancing star sparks from the sky, as if it might have been the path of the White Lady herself. And from all round the lake came the answering cries of her mates, sounding weird and strange through the silent gloom. I heard Ottar draw a deep breath, and we all three started, and stood still, as if turned to stone.

"We have taken fright easily," said Olaf, as if angry with himself for being thus startled. "My heart beats like a hammer, and I will bide here till I can do better than that."

Yet he spoke in a whisper; and I saw no reason to try to answer him if I could. Then he walked on, keeping to the right, where the ground is high, at the hill foot, but still skirting the water's edge. Then I saw something beside the reeds, and went aside to see what it was; and, as I thought, it was a canoe that some fisher had left. There was a paddle still in it, and a bow net set on hoops, such as we were wont to use for eels and tench.

"Here is how Gunnhild might find food," I thought, but it was not likely.

Ottar stood and looked into it with me, but the king had walked on.

Now it grew darker as we followed him, and Ottar tripped and fell, and I lost him, though I could hear him close behind me as he broke a branch now and then in passing.

The king stayed in a clear place that I remembered well. Great trees stood round, and it was pleasant to sit there and look out over the water on a summers noonday.

"Where is Ottar?" he said, when I stood by him.

"Close behind me. I heard him even now," I answered. "Let us go back, my king. There is nought here."

"Aye, we will go back now," he said. "But Ottar is before me."

"Listen," I said, "the scald is behind us. I lost him in the dark."

"Nay, but I heard him in front of me even as you came," the king said.

And when we stood still we could hear the scald where I thought; but also we heard footsteps and breaking branches before us.

We could see anything that was not in shadow pretty plainly; and now Olaf whispered to me:

"Someone is forward, and coming nearer. Get your sword loose."

At that there came a cry like the moor hen's from the thicket before us, and in a moment, with a great shout and crashing, there broke out on us many men, and I was down and held fast before I could draw on them. I saw Olaf draw the long dagger that hung ready to his right hand, and smite backwards over his shoulder in the face of a man who was pinioning him from behind, and the man shrieked and reeled backward into the bushes, hands to face. And then Olaf cried, "We are beset," and was borne down.

Then the men tied us roughly with belts, and stood round us.

I looked every moment to see the rush of Ottar into the midst, sword in hand; and saw that it would go hard with him, for all the men were armed, and some wore mail that rattled as they moved. But he came not; and I wondered if he too were taken, or if he had turned craven and had fled, a thought that I put from me as sorely wronging the brave scald; and then wondered how long it would take him to reach the nearest outpost of our men and come to rescue us.

But now one was hammering flint on steel and making a fire in haste that he might see who they had caught. And when it blazed up I saw that the men were Danes. No doubt they were strangers to the place, men who had wandered here from the Leavenheath woods after the battle; for no Dane who came from close at hand would have dared to shelter in this place. There were fourteen of them in all.

"Ho," said one who seemed to take the lead, "we have trapped some gay birds. Now, who might you be?"

He spoke to Olaf, who answered nothing. So the man turned to me with the same question. But I followed the king's plan and made no answer. Whereat the man kicked me, saying:

"Answer, you Norway rat!"

I ground my teeth with rage, and said nothing.

"Fetch the English churl, and ask him if he knows who these are," said the Dane. "Then shall we see if this is a question of drowning or ransom."

Two of tho men went back into the woods, and presently returned, dragging with them my thrall Brand, whose teeth chattered with terror, more of the place than of the Danes as it seemed, for he kept his eyes on the mere.

When he saw me I shook my head ever so little in token that he should not own us. If Olaf thought best we could do that for ourselves.

Then they cuffed the poor thrall, and asked him if he knew us; and for answer he did but point out over the mere, whose waters looked black as ink beyond the fire lit circle of trees and shore.

"Let us go hence, lord Danes," he said trembling, "then will I say what I can. The Lady is wroth with men who come here at night."

"We care for no ladies," said the leading Dane. "What are you feared of?"

"The White Lady who dwells in the mere. To look on her in her wrath is death," Brand said—and one might well see that his terror was real.

The Danes looked on one another, and there were white faces among them. Then, as luck would have it, one said:

"This must be the mere of which I have heard strange tales. Let us go," and he began to edge away towards the fire.

Then the leader said:

"Let us find out if these men are worth taking with us," and he came and questioned us again, and again we answered not.

"I will make you speak," he said savagely. "Take them up and make ready to cast them into the water."

Now I wondered where Ottar was. Surely he must be back with more men soon.

"Aye, throw them in, and let us be going," said one or two, for they had been asking Brand many questions, and now were eager to leave the place and its terrors.

So one brawny Dane took my feet and another my shoulders and began to lift me; while I could not so much as struggle, so tightly was I bound.

"Hold!" said the leader. "Will you throw away a sword like that?"

It was certain now that they were in haste, for they had forgotten to strip me in their wish to have done.

They set me down again, and that was the saving of us. For even as they loosed their grip on me, one who stood near the water cried out in a sharp voice:

"Listen—what is that!"

And they all stayed motionless as had we when the bird scared us.

There was a sound of wondrously sweet singing from away across the mere. Such a voice it was as I had never heard before, neither like the singing of man or woman, nor had the song words that I could catch.

The Danes forgot us as they heard that, and huddled together in twos and threes, looking out to whence the sound came. As for Brand the thrall, he fell on his knees and hid his face against a tree trunk, crying faintly:

"It is the White Lady."

So too thought I; and now I will not say that I feared her, for she was of my own race, and maybe she came to my help.

Then I saw some of the Danes gasp and start, and point across the water, speechless, and I looked also.

Plain enough in the firelight stood a tall white figure on the water of the mere, coming slowly towards us, and singing the while that wondrous song. And ever as it drew nearer the song grew wilder; and the long white-robed arm pointed towards us.

Then the thrall leapt up and yelled, and fled into the dark wood. And that was enough for the Danes. They gave not another thought to us, but cried out in mortal terror and fled also, tripping and crashing through the underwood as they went; while the song of the White Lady grew louder, and she still neared us.

Then, still singing, her pace quickened, and suddenly I saw that she came in no magic wise, but in the fisher's canoe which I had seen. And then the bows touched the shore, while with a wholesome clank of sword, and throwing back his long white cloak, Ottar the scald leapt ashore and came to us, dagger in hand, and cut our bonds.

"Into the boat, lord king—quick!" he said. "We shall be safe there."

Dazed and stiff I was, but I rose and followed Olaf; then Ottar pushed off, and we shot out towards the midst of the mere into safety.

Then the king stared at me and at Ottar for a moment in amazement, and then laughed until the woods rang again, and I and the scald were fain to join him. Never had I heard such sounds before in that haunted place.

"Now, Ottar," he said, when he could speak again, "never say more that you fear troll, or nix, or ghost—for you have done what you told me but half an hour ago was most unwise."

"I needs must do somewhat, lord king," said Ottar gravely, "and it came into my mind that these Danes would be as badly scared as should I have been had I met Gunnhild; and methought that Redwald's lady would forgive me for his sake."

"Aye, surely," I said.

Then—was it fancy, or a vision wrought on me by long looking at Ottar as he came across the red track of the firelight on the water, still dimpled by the boat, glided the white form of no earthly maiden, and was gone.

I saw it and said nought. Ottar sat in the stern facing us, and his eyes were away from the fire, and Olaf was beside me, and I thought that he started.

Then Ottar said:

"Can we go back by water, Redwald? It would be safer."

I showed him the channel which leads to the river, and he took the paddle with which he had so deftly sculled the boat across the mere, and as we left the overhanging trees and saw the faint glow of the rising moon across the open river we breathed more freely, and were safe.

Surely had it not been for the scald's ready wit both Olaf and I had been lying even now in the dark mere. For it would have been death to us all three had Ottar tried to rescue us sword in hand. It is his saying that he was so frozen with fear at first—until he knew we had met with mortals only—that he stood still and helpless, listening. Then came to him the thought of what to do, when he heard the talk of either ransom or drowning and knew that we were not slain. So even as Olaf had bidden him in jest, he had turned his cloak and had saved us.

But Ottar the scald's courage and craft are well known, and I have other thoughts concerning his fear. But I know this, that never again could he find that strange and sweet voice that had come to him in the need of his master.

Brand the thrall cowered in the house porch when we returned, and he was pale as a sheet, while his knees trembled even yet. We took him in and gave him wine and meat, and then asked him how the Danes got hold of him.

"Master," he said, "they caught me but a little while after I had left you—as I set snares for rabbits on the hill. I let them come to me, thinking them some of the king's men who are kindly. Then they said they needed a guide through the country to the sea, and kept me with them."

Then Olaf said to him:

"No ill will come of this seeing of the White Lady, for she came to save Redwald your lord; you may sleep in peace therefore, but it would be unlucky to say that you saw her."

Then the man said that he would not speak of the matter, and it was plain that he dared not do so. But he went away cheerfully enough, with his mind at rest from its fears.

"It would be ill luck for me if Rani heard of this," said Olaf, looking ruefully at us; "for we cannot deny that he warned us. My foster father loves rating a king now and then, though it be only a small one like myself."

So we said nought that night, and none asked where we had been. Now I slept next to Olaf, and in the night I woke with a new terror on me, and I put my hand on his and woke him.

"My king," I whispered, "what if Gunnhild and Hertha are indeed in the woods yonder? These Danes will have found them."

The king was silent for a moment, for the fear that my guess as to their hiding place might be right came to him also before he gave the matter thought.

"It is not likely. The thought of danger makes it seem possible again," he said. "But I like not these prowling Danes—they are looking for hiding places for themselves."

"She was safe before," I said, but a great fear came to me with his words.

There had been nought to drive the Danes to seek sheltered spots before, now they were sure to do so.

"This matter is not in our hands," said the king, when I said as much. "We can do nought. Pray, therefore, and sleep again. I think that you need fear little."

Then after a while he spoke once more.

"Redwald, saw you aught upon the mere while we sat in the canoe in its midst?"

"Aye, my king," I answered, knowing what he meant.

"I saw her also," he said.

So it had been no fancy of mine, but the White Lady of our house had indeed passed before my eyes. I began to wonder if this portended aught to me, but soon I thought that it did not, for the like peril in which I had been, and even then had hardly escaped from, had not befallen any of my kin, as I was in peril at her own place, which was a new thing. So I judged that she showed her thought of us only.

In the morning matters fell out so that we had never need to say what danger we had run. For the men had seen Brand's plight, which was pitiful, after Danes and thickets had done their work on him, and told Olaf that the man had met with and escaped Danes from the mere woods.

So with twenty men we searched those covers in broad daylight, and found no token of any dwellers in the place. Nor were any Danes left, save one, and that was the man whom Olaf had smitten, for he had died. The embers of the fire were near him, and on the bank lay the severed belts that had bound us.

"These Danes have fought among themselves," said our men, and hove the body into the water. So the Dane lies there instead of Olaf the king and me, with the Welshmen whom my heathen forefathers cast into the black depths, in revenge for the death of the White Lady.

Now when we came back to Bures there was a tired horse standing by the house door, and in the hall waited a messenger from Colchester, and he brought the news that we looked for and yet feared, so that we had hoped against hope that it would not come.

A Frisian trader had put into the Colchester river, and he brought word that even now Cnut might be taking the sea for England, for in all the western havens of Denmark was gathered such a mighty host and fleet that no man had ever known the like, and he had heard that the day for sailing would soon come.

Then Olaf made no delay but rode to Colchester to see this shipmaster and speak with him, for he thought that he might find out from him what point on our coasts would be that at which Cnut aimed first.

So Gunnhild and Olaf were right, and the little peace we had had was to end. Now would come the last struggle of English and Dane for mastery in our land, and in my heart I wished that we had such a king as Olaf Haraldsson. For it seemed to me that we were not ready, though we had had a year and more in which to prepare.



Chapter 9: The Treachery Of Edric Streone.

When Olaf had gone I sought out Father Ailwin, for the danger that I had seen for Hertha lay heavily on my mind, and now also I would tell him of the certainty of coming warfare, asking him what he and Gunnhild would do. So I went to the place where one might be sure to find him during the last two days, and that was in the churchyard, where our people and Olaf's men were working together to raise for him a little wattled chapel among the ruins, that should serve at least until I could return and build the church anew.

It was a sore grief to me that the old one was gone, for in it had been crowned Eadmund the Holy, and it was rich with his gifts. And our hall had been the first house in which he had feasted as crowned king, so that we call the lane from church to hilltop St. Eadmund's Lane since he rode along it in all the pomp of that high festival after he left the altar. Only the ruins of God's house and man's abode were there now, but the lane was bright with the flowers that the good king loved, and the nightingale sang in the wooded banks even as when he listened to it in the old days. We had always these things to mind us of the martyr.

But Ailwin was not with the men, though he had been foremost in working and planning with them. Nor had any of them seen him that day.

So I waited for a little while and watched the work, wondering if I should live now to do all that I would in making new the place. And then as I walked to look across the bridge I passed a heap of earth that the men had thrown out for the place of a post, and I saw somewhat glittering in it, and stooped and took it up.

It was a silver penny, and when I rubbed the earth from it, I knew that it was one of Eadmund's, mint new and fresh as on the day when he stood in his robes and crown, even where I stood in the place of the old porch, while the people shouted and scrambled and fought in glee for the largess he threw among them. Doubtless this had been so thrown and had been trodden under foot and lost.

Now it came into my hands even when my thoughts were most troubled, and to me it seemed as a sign that I should surely return to the place that the saint had loved. I was greatly cheered thereat, for as I waited for Olaf to return I saw as it were the long hope of home and peace dashed from me, and the pain of the coming war grew plainer than I had known it in Ethelred's court. The old love of home had waked in me as I wandered in the places of my boyhood, and for the first time I learned the aching of the hearts of those who had known more of home than I, and would lose it.

But I was young, and it needed but a little thing to turn my thoughts, so this token as I say helped me to banish them. What might not Eadmund the Saint, who slew Swein to save his shrine from heathen hands, be able to do for me?

I would tell Ailwin presently, and ask him what vow I should make in return for this remembrance.

But Ailwin came not, and I grew impatient, and went to the cottage where he dwelt as the leech, at the head of the little street towards our hall. Maybe he would be there.

The door was open, and the little black cat that had been the leech's in the old days, and would not leave its house, sat in the sun on the step. I went inside and called, but there was no man. And then a footstep came from the road and in at the wicket, and a strange priest, younger than Ailwin, and frocked and cowled came in.

He saluted me gravely, and I bowed to him, and then he asked me where Redwald the thane might be found.

"I am he, father," I said.

"Then I have a message to you from Ailwin, your priest, whose place I am sent to take for a time."

"This is his house, father," I answered. "Let us come in and hear what he would tell me."

So we sat down inside the one room on the bench across the wall, and I wondered what I should hear.

"I will give my message first," the priest said, "and afterwards you shall tell me Ailwin's ways with your people, and I will try to be as himself with them."

I laughed a little, though I was pleased, and answered:

"You cannot do that, father—for he has christened everyone in the parish that is thirty years younger than he.

"Aye, I forgot that," the priest said gravely. "They will miss him sorely. Therefore I will say that he will return ere long, but that my ways must be borne with until he comes."

"Now I think that if you steer between those two sayings of yours you will do well," I answered.

"Ailwin's ways wrought in my manner, therefore. I thank you, thane," the priest said. "I am cloister bred, and know nought much of secular work. Now, that is enough about myself. This morning, very early, came Ailwin and asked for one to take his place, and I am a Dane of the old settlement, and so I came, as running less risk if Cnut returns, as they say he will. Then Ailwin bade me seek you and say this. That because of the wandering Danes he would take his charges into some more quiet place for a time at least. Truly, he bade me tell you, they have a last refuge where none would find them, but it is ill fitted for a long stay, and it is likely that once there it might now be months before they could leave it. So he and Gunnhild think best to go far off. They will return with peace, and then he bids me tell you that, if the Lord will, all shall be well."

"Where will he go?" I asked.

"I know not. He gave me the message, and I know no more. Not even of whom he speaks."

Now for a moment I grew angry with Ailwin again, for it seemed to me that I should have been told more than this. Then I thought that perhaps Ailwin himself knew not yet where he would go.

"Does Ailwin know that there is news from Denmark?" I asked.

"Our abbot told him, but he knew already, having had word from Colchester in some way. He had heard before we as it seems."

That was doubtless Gunnhild's work, for I came to know afterwards that in the long years of trouble she had made a chain of friends who would pass word to her from every point whence trouble would come. It seems to me that much of the dame's knowledge of coming events was gained in ways like this rather than by witchcraft.

Then I was glad that the danger that I had learned had been foreseen by her and Ailwin; and as I sat without speaking for a few minutes I felt that now I was free to follow Olaf where he would lead his men to meet the Danes, for Hertha was not here, and her I could follow no longer.

There was no more to be learned from the priest, and so we rose up and went down to the churchyard, and saw the work, and I told him what I could of Ailwin and his ways, and thought that he had found one who was like him in thought and gentleness.

So presently I took Eadmund's penny from my pouch and gave it to him, telling him about it, even as I would have told Ailwin.

"Give me this back when I return, father," I said, "and it shall remind me of some vow which I will make at your advice."

"Make no vows, my son, save this one," he said. "What will befall you we know not, and therefore there is but one vow which we know certainly that you may be able to keep. I will have you put the penny where you may see it often, and so you shall remember, and vow if you will, that when your eyes fall on it you shall say a prayer to Him who gave power to Eadmund to conquer in dying, for this home of yours and this church, that out of ruin may come beauty, and after war, peace."

"I will make that vow, father," I said gladly.

"Forget not me at times in the prayer," he said very humbly; and I promised that I would not, taking the penny back.

Then he went and began to work on the church, being plainly skilful in the matter, and I went up to our hall's ruins and looked out over the land, and planned again what I would do in the days to come.

It was long dark when Olaf rode back, and he had learnt but little. But he had sent messengers to Ulfkytel at Thetford to warn him to watch his coasts, for he must go back to London with the ships to guard the Thames.

"And you, Redwald, my cousin, must go to Ethelred or Eadmund and warn them, and make them rouse, and raise and have ready the mightiest levy that they have ever led, for I think that all Denmark and Norway have sent their best to follow Cnut. We will ride together to Maldon, for the men shall follow me and find the ships with their cables up-and-down waiting for them, and you must hasten, for no time must be lost."

So it came to pass that my dream of finding Hertha passed from me, and the thought of war filled my mind again, for next morning we rode away southward along the Roman road, and the cheers of the villagers died away behind me and were forgotten.

Then I left Olaf where the road turns off to Maldon, to meet him again in London before many days, and I and my fifty men rode on. For Olaf would have me go as befitted his kinsman, and a word to the Colchester elders had found me the well-armed and mounted Anglian warriors who joined us after we reached the great road.

But when I came to London my journey was not at an end. Ethelred the king was at Corsham, in Wiltshire, and sorely sick as was said, and Eadmund was at Stamford. Now when I heard that I wondered, and asked the Sheriff, at whose house I was made most welcome, how this was.

Eadmund had been with his father, and had gone to Malmsbury, and there had seen the Lady Algitha, the widow of Earl Sigeferth whom Edric Streone slew, and had married her, and now had gone to take over the Five Boroughs for himself. That was good hearing, maybe, for Olaf had feared that Streone would have taken them.

But next I found that this marriage was sorely against the king's will, and that he and Eadmund had parted in anger therefore. I seemed then to see the hand of Streone in this quarrel, for all men knew that he slew the earls to gain the Five Boroughs for his own.

Then I thought that to go so far into Wessex to seek the sick king would be but lost time. I had better go to Stamford and seek the Atheling, and maybe it would be as well that he was free to act by himself, seeing that need was urgent. So I lay but one night in London, and then rode away to Stamford along the great Ermin Street, and there I found Eadmund and told him all that Olaf had bidden me.

And when he had heard all, he said:

"Let me send for Edric Streone, my foster father, and we will take counsel with him."

"Send round the war arrow first, my prince," I urged, "then when the earl comes no time will be lost. He cannot but counsel you to raise men instantly."

"Why," he said, "Cnut can but fall on the east coast. Utred is in Northumbria to guard the Humber, and Ulfkytel guards the Wash, and Olaf is in the Thames. They will drive away the Danes before they set foot on the beach."

"They are still fighting the thingmen in the towns," I said. "Northumbria and Anglia are Danish at heart yet."

Aye, and I might have added "Mercia also," but I knew not that yet. Eadmund should have known it, though. It was but a few weeks before it was plain that Wessex alone and London stood fast for Ethelred.

I chafed, but Eadmund would not be hurried. I cannot tell what strange blindness, save it was his trust in Streone, had fallen on him at this time.

Then the earl came from Nottingham, and at the very first he sent for me. Eadmund had told him my news when he sent for him.

I found him alone in a chamber of Eadmund's house—that which had been Sigeferth's, and it seemed that no memory of the murdered earl haunted him. His great form was as square and strong as ever, and his grizzled brown beard was as bushy and well cared for as when I used to see him and speak with him before the flight into Normandy. And he still had the same pleasant voice and ways, even to the little chuckle—as to himself—when he spoke, and the way he had of gazing on the rafters rather than at the man to whom he was talking.

"So, Redwald, my friend," he laughed, "you have turned viking as it seems! How have you fared in East Anglia with Olaf the Thick?"

"Well enough, lord earl," I said, "but there is work to be done there yet."

"Aha! those thingmen are no babes," he said. "Where is your earl now?"

"At Thetford, as they say."

"Well, what is this tale that you bring about Cnut?"

I told him, and he laughed in his way.

"Cnut is but a boy. No such great following would gather to him," he said. "It is not possible."

"Eirik and Ulf and Thorkel the jarls may gather them for Cnut," I answered. "And he is Swein's son."

"Those men are Cnut as yet, as one may say," answered Edric chuckling. "One has to deal with them therefore. What says Olaf?"

"He says the same, lord earl."

Then he turned sharply towards me, though he did not look at me, and said:

"The king does not trust Olaf, I fear. He thinks that he might be won over to Cnut's side."

"Ethelred our king should have no mistrust of the man who brought him home," I said coldly, having no doubt who made the first jealousy of Olaf.

"He should not, in truth," Edric answered. "But what if Cnut offered Olaf the under-kingship of Norway, or Northumbria say, if he would go over to his side?"

"He would not take it," I said.

"Have you ever heard him say as much?" asked Edric in a careless way.

I was growing angry now, for this seemed beside the point.

"Such a thing has never been spoken of between us," I said.

"So. Then ask him the question one day, and see what his answer is."

"I can answer it now," I said hotly; "he would refuse. Nor will the offer ever be made."

"I am not so sure of that," said Edric. "Cnut needs help, and will bid high for it. Nay, I know that it will be made. We have our spies in Cnut's court, Redwald, and know more than you may think. Tell him, therefore, only what I have said to you, and let me know his answer by someone whom you can trust."

Then I rose up in my anger, and said:

"You ask me to spy on the king, lord earl, and I will not do it."

"Nay, nay," he said. "I do but want to set our king's mind at rest. I know what the honest viking's answer would be; he would be as wroth as you. Only I would have sure word to send to Ethelred."

Then I said, while Edric watched me sidelong:

"Olaf's force is small, and our levies, lord earl, should be enough without his help, if they are raised in time. Our king may be sure that Olaf has not sent me to raise England thus against himself."

"Aye, I will tell Ethelred so. Our king is very sick, and a sick man's fancies are many. So Olaf thinks that we should raise a great levy at once."

Then he spoke of nought but that, and so earnestly that I believed that the summons to the sheriffs would surely go out that night. And he spoke of the help of the ships that Olaf had gathered, praising him honestly, and not over much or too little, so that I forgot his doubtful speeches, and thought that all was well, and that his own levies were now gathering.

And so after an hour or more's talk he rose up and held out his hand.

"Many thanks, Redwald, for your pains," he said taking mine. "I think that Cnut and his jarls will have lost their journey through your coming hither. The king shall not forget you when all is safe again."

Who would not have been pleased with this? I went from Streone's presence with a light heart, until I came to the great hall, and there sat in the high place the Lady Algitha herself and her maidens. Very beautiful she was, but very sad looking. And when I crossed the floor before her I bowed, and she beckoned to me.

So I came near, and knelt on one knee before her.

"You are Redwald, Olaf's kinsman and messenger?" she asked.

"Yes, lady," I answered.

"I have heard of your coming. Have you spoken with the earl—Streone?" she said, while a wrinkle crossed her fair forehead as she named him.

"I have but just left him, lady."

She sunk her voice very low, and bent a little towards me.

"Were his words pleasant and fair spoken?" she said.

"They could not have been more so—at the last," I replied, the memory of my anger coming back to me of a sudden.

"You crossed him once, then?"

"But a little; he crossed me rather," I said plainly.

"Wear your mail, Redwald," she said whisperingly. "Farewell."

Then she was once more herself again, the lady whose hand I might kiss reverently and look at afar. But in those few moments she had been as a friend who warned me of a danger unforeseen. Even thus had Edric Streone spoken with Sigeferth, fairly and pleasantly.

I left the house, feeling uneasy therefore; but I could not think that Edric would deem me worth crushing, and it seemed that the lady would let her hatred of Edric go far.

They had given me lodging in the town across the river, where there was a large guest house that had been made in the days of OEthelfloed {11}, the brave lady of the Mercians who won back the Five Boroughs from the Danes. One could see the great fort she made rising from the river banks over the whole town. No other thane was in guest quarters there with me, and I and my men had the place to ourselves. Nor was there anyone in Stamford at the time whom I knew, apart from the people of Eadmund's household.

So I went along the street slowly enough, and presently I passed a house where through the open window I saw a goldsmith working, and I thought that he could do somewhat for me. I would have the penny of St. Eadmund set in a gold band on the scabbard of sword Foe's Bane, where I should see it continually. There was much gilt silver work over all the scabbard from end to end—wrought by what skilful artists in the Norseland, or how long ago, I cannot tell—and there was a place among the other work where such a fitting would go well.

But I had placed the coin in safety in the house, and I must go and fetch it, and I passed on for the time. Then I loitered on the bridge, for the old town and its grim earthworks looks very fair thence, and so a thane sent from Eadmund caught me up and took me back to the great house, for he had some word for me. It was near sunset by this time.

"Redwald, my friend," the Atheling said, when I stood before him, "I would have you go back to Olaf. You have done your errand well, and your kinsman will want to have you with him. You will fight for us no less well with him than here."

Now I could speak plainly with the Atheling ever, and I said, being anxious to know more of Streone's meanings:

"I am glad that you tell me so, my prince, for Edric the earl would have it that our king fears that Olaf's good faith may be little."

"That is new to me," Eadmund said, frowning; "but, as you know, my father and I have had little to say to each other of late."

"Then you doubt him not?" I asked.

"I would as soon doubt Edric himself," he said, "and him I trust as I would trust myself."

"That is well," answered I. "For I feared that you also might have been doubtful of Olaf."

"Why, what should the king think of Olaf but that he has been his best friend?"

"The earl tells me that he has heard that Cnut will offer Olaf some under-kingship if he will take his part," I said.

"I cannot tell how he has heard that," Eadmund said, and he looked puzzled.

"By your spies in Cnut's court," said I.

"We have no spies there. I hate spying," the Atheling said. "What means he?"

Then I saw that for some reason which was beyond me Streone had let me know more than was safe. It was plain that if he spoke truth, he had more dealings with Cnut than were known to the Atheling. Yet the earl might, for Ethelred's sake, watch thus on Cnut, rightly enough, and think it safer to say nought to Eadmund, whose wisdom was not so great as his valour. It was a poor watch enough though, I thought, if he knew the talk about Olaf and not the plans for sailing, which should surely have been told him first of all.

"Maybe he minded him of some old plan of Cnut's that he heard when you were in Lindsey," I said, that being all that I could imagine. "That were enough to return to the mind of our king in his sickness, and trouble him."

"Aye, I think my father fears treachery from all men," the Atheling answered. "But Olaf has done well for us both at the first and now in sending word by you."

Then the sword I was wearing caught Eadmund's eyes, for he was ever fond of goodly war gear.

"So—you have a new sword instead of that I gave you," he said. "And I think you have made a good exchange. Let me see this."

"I broke the other blade strangely enough," I told him. "But this was my father's sword, and it has come back to me."

Now I must tell him all about our great fight, and at the end he said:

"I would that I had been there. It was a good fight." Then he laughed, and added: "Now, I will say this, that Streone noted this fine sword of yours, and wondered who had given it you, and why."

"Did he think that Cnut had bribed me also?" I said. "Such a sword as this is to a simple thane as much as a petty kingdom to Olaf."

Then Eadmund spoke in the old tone of comradeship that we had been wont to use in Normandy.

"On my word, I believe he did! But you have often spoken to me of this sword, and you described it well. I think had I found it on a Dane I should have claimed it for you. But I never thought you would see it again."

"Would you have believed that I was bribed, my prince, had it not chanced that you had heard of the sword from me beforetime?" I asked, being bitterly hurt that the earl should have put this into Eadmund's mind.

Did he want to make him doubt all his former friends?

"Not I, Redwald," the Atheling said. "Streone is over careful for our safety, I think, and lets his love for us make him suspect all men. I told him as much, and he said that perhaps it was so. Then I said that Olaf had doubtless given you the weapon, and he would have me ask you. He thought that you should not have lightly set aside my gift."

Now I was sure that the earl strove to break Eadmund's friendship with Olaf, for to anger me would help to do so. The next thing would be to have me made away with, for that would turn Olaf into a foe, and he would leave England maybe. I thought that the earl would stand alone in Eadmund's counsels, and did not dream yet that he was indeed working for Cnut in order to take the first place in England as Thorkel did in Denmark. But that was plain enough ere long, and all men know it now. At this time, however, these matters puzzled me, and had it not been for the slaying of Sigeferth and Morcar and one or two others, maybe I should have thought little of danger to myself. It was only as Olaf's kinsman that I was worth a thought of the man whose deep statecraft I could not pretend to understand.

So I said:

"The earl's life must be uneasy with all these doubts. But so long as you yourself have none of King Olaf and myself, it is little matter what he thinks. His doubts will be proved false in time, and he will have fretted for nought."

"That is true," Eadmund answered. "I would that he troubled me not with his suspicions."

So the matter passed, and we spoke for a little while of the fleet and of Olaf's plans, and then I left him, saying that I would ride back to London with the first light of morning.

"We shall have one good fight, and then peace," said Eadmund. "Farewell, and trouble nought about my foster father and his ways of doubting. He will doubt me next, maybe."

He laughed lightly, and I went away down the street with a troubled mind, and was willing to get back to my lodgings through the dusk as quickly as I might.

And when I came there I put on my mail, as the lady had bidden me—rather blaming myself for doing so for all that, for it seemed to show fear of somewhat that I could not name.

Then I thought of the goldsmith again, and sent a man for him, thinking that he could do the work here in hall, so that I could be sure of having the scabbard, which was very valuable, when I rode away.

When he came I showed him what I would have done, and he said that it was no long business, and took his tools into a corner and lighted a wax taper and began to work by its light. The sword stood by my chair as I ate my supper at the head of the long tables where my men sat.

The goldsmith ended his work soon after the men had gone out to the stables to tend their horses for the night, and only he and I and my headman Thrand were left in the hall. He had put a flat band of chased gold round the scabbard, and the silver penny showed through a round setting that was in it.

I gave him one of the gold pieces that Earl Wulfnoth had taken from the treasure for me, and the man weighed it, wondering at its weight and fineness. Then he said that he was overpaid, and must give me money for the overweight, and asked that one should go back to his house with him and return with it.

"There were men lurking in the porches and on the bridge," he said, "when I came down here. I suppose there will be a fray when they meet the men they wait for, so I fear to go back alone. A goldsmith is ever fair prey."

Then came a knocking on the door, and my man went to see what was wanted. Then one said to him:

"Edric the earl bids Redwald the thane to speak with him at his house before he sleeps."

Now the goldsmith stood where he could see the long streak of light that shone from the door across the street, and he said to me in a low voice:

"There are a dozen armed men outside, lord."

Thrand turned round to tell me this message, and as he did so Streone's messenger pushed by him into the hail, rudely enough.

"To the stables and call my men," I whispered to the goldsmith, pointing to the door which led thither, and he went out slowly, not knowing why I sent him.

"Where is Redwald, Olaf's man?" the newcomer said, and his tone was so rough that at the uncivil words I glanced at him sharply and made no answer. He was fully armed, I saw.

But my follower would not bear this.

"Yonder is Redwald the thane," he said; "mind how you speak, man."

"Thane or not, I have come to take him to Edric the earl," was the answer.

"Ho, thane! hear you the earl's message?"

Now when this began, I had taken up the scabbard with my right hand and was looking at the work, and the sword was in my left, hidden by my cloak as it fell to my side. I suppose the earl's housecarle thought I was unarmed.

"I am Redwald," I said, putting the scabbard on the table, and so leaving my right hand free. "I hear an uncivilly-given message enough. And I think the earl has not sent for me in such terms as those."

The man raised his hand a little and made a sign, and I heard the quick steps of men crossing the street with clatter of steel. Then I knew that Edric had sent for me, dead or alive.

"Come you must," the man said.

"What if I will not?" I answered.

"I will make you," he said, and with that he smote Thrand fairly in the face and felled him, hitting squarely from his left shoulder, and then his sword was out and he made one step towards me.

Quick as thought I grasped the hilt of my sword, and smote upwards with it as I drew it from under the fold of my cloak. There is no stopping that stroke, and the man leapt back from it as it seemed, but the blade smote him beneath the chin, and so far as he was concerned Edric's message had come to naught. He would never draw sword on any man again. Nor do I think he would have been thus bold had he not thought me unarmed.

Then at the same moment my man was up, cursing, and the doorway to the street was full of Edric's men, and some of mine were coming leisurely through the other.

The crash of the falling man woke my people into life, and they ran to their spears, which were piled along the walls, and the earl's men faltered on the threshold, for they liked not the look of sword Foe's Bane, maybe. Then my man Thrand ran at the great door, which opened inward, and swung it to in the faces of Edric's men, and barred it. I heard them give a howl of rage as he did so, for one or two of them were flung backward into the street, so suddenly and strongly did he fling it against them in his rage.

Then we looked at one another, and at the dead man on the floor, in silence. I was the only one of all who knew what this message brought by armed men from Streone might mean. And all had happened so suddenly, from the time that the man had told me that I must come, and had drawn sword on me, to when the door slammed, that there had been no time for thought or wonder even.

I took up the scabbard and buckled it on, and sheathed the sword, and said:

"We shall hear more of this, men. Stamford town is no place for us now."

"What is all this, lord?" asked the leader, who stood with his back against the door still.

"Edric the earl has another business on hand like that of Earls Sigeferth and Morcar," I said. Whereat the men growled fiercely.

The goldsmith came in with the last of my men, and heard me say this, and now looked in the face of him whom I had slain.

"This is the man who brought the like message to our earls," he said. "I was at Oxford, and saw him come. And the street then was full of armed men, as is ours tonight. Better go hence, lord, else you will be burnt out, as our men were when they went to avenge our lords' deaths, and were driven into St. Frideswide's Church."

Now it seemed to me also that we had better hasten, or we should have a strong force down on us. Then if we fought, Edric would have occasion against me, and if not, I was lost.

"To horse, men!" I said. "We will go to Peterborough for this night. Abbot Elfric is my friend, and will give us shelter."

"Let us take the road for London rather, and get back to Olaf the king," said the headman. "The horses are fresh, and we can ride far, and the nights are warm if we must lie out."

"We will speak of that outside the town," I answered. "To horse at once, and silently, or they will take warning and bring more men."

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