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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Thus, by the time we came over the great spur of the Downs that ends in Beachy Head, and looked over all Pevensea level to the Penhurst woods and hills beyond, I and Uldra were very good friends, and Relf was pleased that it should be so, and rode between us in high content.

It was midday when we passed the last hill of the Downs where the mighty giant lies like a shadow on the grass by Wilmington; then we saw the gray castle where Wulfnoth bided, away to our right; and then along the steep ridge inland and down to Boreham, where I must tell the maiden of the great sea wave, and how Olaf saved me. And so we came to Penhurst in its valley among the trees, and the ride was over.

Now there is no need to say what welcome was at that house, whether for its lord, or for the warrior who had been nursed back to life there, or for the new-come homeless maiden. Relf was not wrong when he told her that she should be as a daughter in the house.

Some of the men had ridden on, so that the homecoming feast should be spread for us, and there was the lady at the courtyard gates, and with her Sexberga, and a tall, handsome young thane, whom I knew for Eldred of Dallington; and there was Father Anselm, and Spray the smith, and many more whose faces I was glad to see again.

And among all those faces were nought but welcoming looks—save from one only. I did not note this, being taken up with watching how they greeted Uldra, for that seemed to me to be the only thing that I cared about. If I had any thought of Sexberga now, it was as if she had been my sister, and I hoped that she would be pleased with the maiden who was thus brought to her unlooked for. I need have troubled nought about that, however, for she and her mother were alike in many things, and if I was sure of the one, so might I have been of the other in all that had to do with kindness.

But if I had looked beyond Sexberga to where her young thane stood I should have met with a black scowl enough, though I could not have told why this should be his greeting for me. I had but seen him once before, and that was at Earl Wulfnoth's feast to Olaf when we first came.

That was an evening to be remembered as most pleasant when, after the feast, we sat and spoke of all that had happened since I left Penhurst. I told them all the tale of warfare, and of Olaf's deeds, and of the winning back of my sword, and how that helped our meeting with Egil.

And when Spray the smith, who sat listening, with the other men in the hall below the high place, heard of that escape from the Danes, he said, without ceremony:

"Master, well I knew that you would never be cast into prison."

"That was a saying of yours, Spray," said I. "May the luck last."

Then Uldra would tell the story of our journey in her way, and my name came pretty often into her tale. So, looking about the hall while she spoke, my eyes lit on Eldred, and it seemed that he was ill at ease, and displeased with somewhat. I thought that he would rather be sitting nearer Sexberga, maybe, and troubled nought about him, though I did think that he showed his ill temper over plainly in his face.

Now, in all this story telling there was one thing about which I said nothing, and that was my search for Hertha. It seemed to me that there was no need for doing so, and moreover, I would tell the lady thereof in private at some time. And I was glad that Sexberga asked me nought about it. I do not think that she had forgotten it, but she had her own reasons for saying nought of the matter, which were foolish enough when I found them out. The lady, her mother, waited for me to say what I would in my own way when I thought right.

Chapter 13: Jealousy.

That generous foe of mine, Egil—if indeed I should not call him my friend, as he named me once—had set two months as the time in which I must bide in peace, and I will not say that this space seemed likely to go over-heavily for me. We could hear little news except from such ships as put in from along the coast, and the first news that came was when Godwine returned from Bosham.

The Danes had taken the queen to Winchester in high honour, and there she was living in some sort of state, which pleased her well enough, until word came from Cnut concerning her. It was thought that he would let her go back to Normandy, keeping the athelings as hostages. So concerning her and them my mind was at rest.

Now Cnut was besieging London. But before he had left Wessex, there had been a great council of bishops and clergy at Salisbury, and at that gathering he had been chosen as king in succession to Ethelred, whose house was not loved. There, too, he was present, and swore to be their faithful king and to protect Holy Church in all things.

Then into Wessex went Eadmund, ravaging and laying waste there. One might know what hatred of him would come from that, and my heart sank at hearing this folly.

Two days after Godwine came, we saw the sails of a great fleet going westward, and we thought that Cnut had been beaten off from London. But a ship that had sprung a leak in some way put into Wulfnoth's haven at Shoreham from this fleet, and from thence we learnt that the Danes had halved their forces, and that Cnut and Ulf the jarl were going again into the Severn to withstand Eadmund in Wessex, and if possible to hem him in between two forces in the old way of the days of Alfred. London was beset straitly, but not taken yet.

I was more content then, for I could not have reached our king, had I returned from Normandy, as it seemed. And now it was possible that he might make headway against the divided forces of the Danes. I might join him yet in time to share in some final victory.

So the early summer days at Penhurst became very pleasant to me, for I had little care that need sit heavily on my mind. Indeed, I think that I should almost have forgotten that I had any, but for the foolishness of Sexberga, which bid fair to turn all things to sadness at one time.

I had spoken with her mother about my search for Hertha, telling her plainly all that had passed between me and Ailwin, and I asked her to tell me what she thought I must do now.

"Wait yet longer," she answered; "peace will come, and he will bring Hertha back to Bures."

That ought to have been my own plan, but I had rather hoped to hear her say that I was right in holding myself free to choose afresh as I would. The thought of being bound seemed irksome to me; though why I, landless and luckless, should have found it so, I could not say. It mattered not at all at present. So I said:

"That is all one can do, lady; it matters not."

"What thinks Sexberga?" I asked presently.

"You have not spoken to her of your search, then?" the lady said. "I had thought that she would ask you of it first of all."

She had asked nothing, and I had said nothing.

Then the lady said:

"She and I spoke thereof with Uldra but yesterday, and they were both full of your praises for wishing to seek for your Hertha. They will be glad to hear that you have done so, and sad that you have failed to find her."

Then there came over me a wish that Uldra knew nought about it. And that angered me with myself, because it was plain that I cared overmuch for the company and pleasant voice and looks of this maiden who was friendless as I.

So that was all that was said at the time, and I met Uldra in my foolishness as if this were going to make some difference in her way with me. Which of course it did not. Whereupon I was angrier yet with myself for deeming that it would.

Now, there was another person who should have known of this betrothal of mine, and that was Edred, but Sexberga never told him, and her mother did not, for she thought that Sexberga would do so.

Of all the foolish things that a maiden can do, the most foolish is to try to make the man who is to wed her jealous. For it is playing with edged tools in two ways—if the man, being an honest man and trustful, is not jealous, the maiden thinks that he cares not, and so is herself wretched. But if he is jealous, why, then every thought of his towards the maiden is changed and spoilt, and it will be long, if ever, before full trust is won again between those two.

But this seems to be good sport to some damsels, and so it was with Sexberga. The blacker grew the young thane's looks the more she would praise me, and the more she would choose to speak with me rather than to him; wherefore his life was made wretched for him, and I think he hated the sight of me. Maybe I was blind not to see this, but I liked him well enough, save for what I thought was his sullen temper, and I would try to joke him into better humour at times in all good fellowship. But I think that the trouble began before I came back, with talk of the time when I had been at Penhurst before.

He was ever at Penhurst—I should have thought ill of him if he had not been—for Dallington was close at hand, and he was ever welcome.

After that talk with the lady I must needs ask Sexberga what she thought concerning my strange betrothal, she having had so much to say thereon before. And so one day, as I had been with Spray to see some traps set by the bank of the Ashbourne river for otter, and was coming back with him, bearing a great one between us on a pole, we met Sexberga in the woodland track to the house, and Spray went on, while I walked back with her on her way to the old village—where we had had the fight—and talked about my baffled search.

Now her saying was that I had no need to pay any more heed to this betrothal after what I had said to Ailwin, and that he himself would seem to try to break it by thus taking Hertha out of my ken. And we talked freely of the matter, and the last thing that I said was this, coming round to what I had made up my better mind for:

"It is not much matter either way. I can think of no maiden as things are."

Whereon we met Eldred, and his face was not pleasant to look on, though he said nothing at that moment, and turned and walked silently with us on the other side of the maiden.

When we came to the village I said that we would wait outside until she came back, and thought that Eldred would go along with her. But he stayed with me, and I looked round for a sunny seat where one could see all the long chain of bright hammer ponds that went in steps, as it were, down the valley before us.

"Nay," he said in a strange voice, "come over to the other side of the valley—there is a pleasant place there."

"The lady will miss us," said I.

"We need not be long," he said. "The place I would show you is not far. One of us can be back before she has done with these churls."

So, as I supposed that we might have to wait for half an hour, because every woman in the place would want to tell her ailments to the kindly young mistress most likely, we went together, passing over the brook, and going up the steep valley side beyond it, until we came to the rocks of the old quarry where we had rested before the fight with the outlaws.

A pleasant place enough it was, truly, for the rocks stood round in a little cliff, hemming in a lawn of short grass on every side but one, and the trees that hung on the bank of the stream closed that in. So when we were fairly within this circle of red cliff and green trees Eldred said:

"This will do. We will see which of us is to go back to Sexberga."

"Why, you will," said I, thinking that he had some device by which he might be free from my presence. "I spoil company for you both, and will go back to the hall by the lower track presently."

"You have spoilt company long enough," he said, his face growing very savage of a sudden. "Now I will end it, one way or the other."

"What is this foolishness?" I said, seeing now what he meant.

"You know well enough," he answered with a great oath. "Pluck out that fine sword of yours and show that you can do more than talk of using it."

"Come, Eldred," said I, "I have not deserved this."

"You deserve all that I shall give you," he answered, drawing his sword. "Stand up like a man."

Now it seemed very hard to me that all these friendships should be broken and spoilt by this foolish business, as they would be if either of us was hurt; and so I tried to quiet him yet once more.

"Eldred, listen to reason," I said. "I have done you no wrong. Tell me of what you complain."

Thereat he only cursed, bidding me draw and cease prating.

"I will not fight you thus," I said, for he was growing over wild to fight well for himself. "Let us find some to attend us and watch the business, that neither of us may be blamed. It is ill to slay a man in a hidden place like this with none to say that the fight was fair."

"You are afraid," he said sneeringly.

"You must ask Relf if that is likely," said I, for I would not be angered by his angry words. "But I do not care to risk blame to you or me. Nought is gained by fighting thus."

"Ask Relf, forsooth!" he snarled. "I care not to hear again how you lay hid in the pit yonder while others fought."

"Have a care, Eldred," I said then. "You grow heedless in your anger, and go too far. I do not think that you mean this."

"Do you need to be called nidring {12}?" he snarled at me.

Now none heard that word pass between us, and though it made me bitterly angry I kept my wrath back. Truly I began to think that I was foolish to argue with him; but there would be grief, lifelong, at Penhurst if deadly harm befell either of us where none could say that all was fairly fought out.

"Are you not going?" he said in a choking sort of way.

"No," I said, "not until I know what all this is about."

"What good in going over that again?" he answered. "You know well enough. Let me be—you have won."

"I know," said I; "but you have not told me aught. I can only guess that you think that I have taken your place with Sexberga."

"Aye—and now you have won it."

"I want it not," I answered. "Had you not been so angry you would have known that, when I bid you go back and meet her without me."

Now he looked at me with a sort of doubt, and said, in a somewhat halting way:

"I heard you just now tell her that it could not be that you could think of her—as things are."

Then I remembered what my last words had been, and I saw that they might easily have misled him after all the trouble he seemed to have had.

"You heard too much or too little," said I, being minded to laugh, though the matter was over serious to him to let me do so. "I spoke of my own troubles, which were the less because my fortunes prevent my thinking of any maiden, seeing that I have no home to give a wife when I find her. You were wrong in thinking that I spoke of Sexberga—I spoke, as you might have known, of the one whom I have lost."

"How should I know that? I know nought of your affairs."

Then thought I to myself that I would punish Sexberga, for she had tortured this honest lover of hers over much.

"I will not tell you that tale. Ask Sexberga, who has known it from the first."

Then I was sorry for what I had said, for he flushed darkly.

"I have been made a fool of," he said.

"Nay; but you should have been more trustful," said I. "Now, were I in your place, I would go home to Dallington and bide there for a week, and the maiden will be pleased enough to see you when you return. And if she tries to make you jealous again, seem to mind it not. There is little sport in it for her then."

"I suppose there would not be," said he, and he began to look more cheerful.

"Now," said I, "I was betrothed long ago—the war time has come between me and her who should have been my wife. I have hunted for her and cannot find her—and that is all. Now you understand. It was Sexberga who cheered me in my search, and so I spoke to her thereof."

"I should not have doubted you," he said frankly; "forgive me."

I held out my hand and he took it. There was nought but friendliness in his grasp, and I could not blame him. I blamed Sexberga wholly.

Then he laughed a little ruefully.

"I am a fool with a sword," he said. "Will you teach me somewhat? I think I was mad when I used those evil words to you."

"I have forgotten them," I answered; and so I had. One does not think much of what a man says in utmost rage as his. "Come, let us go back to the village."

So we went back together, but Sexberga had gone on her way homeward without us. Whereat Eldred was not sorry, and said that he was going back to his own place.

"You will see me no more for a few days," he said. "I think your plan is good."

"Mind this," I answered, "I never tried it."

"Lookers-on see best," he answered, laughing bitterly. "But think no more of my anger with yourself, I pray you."

I told him that I would not, and so we parted good friends enough, though I feared that he might take this matter to heart in such wise that he would have some ill moments presently. There was little spring in his walk as he took the path towards Dallington.

I said nought of this affair, as one might suppose, and made little excuse to Sexberga for leaving her. We had walked too far, and had returned too late to find her, I said. She pouted and said nothing, but I thought that her punishment had already begun.

Next day there were ships heading in for Pevensea, and I rode away to find out what I could, and forgot Eldred and his troubles. For Olaf had come, and that was luck beyond what I could have looked for.

The ten great ships slid into the haven, and I was first on the strand to meet the king. Wulfnoth and Godwine were riding inland, and doubtless were returning posthaste if they knew that ships had come. But for a little while I had my kinsman to myself, and great was his wonder to find me in this place.

"I have thought that I should have to ransom you from Cnut's hand," he said, "for we have heard that Thorkel's men took the queen's ship. Were you not taken likewise?"

So when he heard of all that had brought me here, he praised Egil highly.

"He is a Norseman, and no Dane, by birth," he said. "One may be proud that he is so. I would that he were my man."

Then was my turn, and I wondered how Olaf had left London, for the Thames was full of Danish ships, as I had heard.

"Aye, so it is yet," he told me. "The Danes cannot take the city, try what they will, though they dug a great ditch round the Southwark fort, and took ships through it above the bridge, and so kept us shut up close enough. But walls and forts and citizens are too much for them. Now the siege is but a blind, while the real warfare is to be in Wessex. So I came away with the Danes, my men being tired of unprofitable warfare where we were not wanted, and gaining, moreover, neither gold nor honour."

"You came away with the Danes?" I cried. "Surely you made no pact with them?"

"Not I," said he. "But they sailed with an evening tide, which was my chance. Ten ships among four hundred or so make no odds. We took off the dragon heads, and when it was quite dark rowed down after them, and so caught them up at Greenwich. Then we slipped through the fleet easily, for it was mostly of cargo ships full of men, and no one paid any heed to us, as might be supposed. So by daylight we led the fleet, or nearly, and when the next night came we stood away from it, going across Channel. Then I came here to see if Wulfnoth or Godwine would cruise with me on some other shore, as I promised."

Then I asked him what I had better do, for with the sight of his face came the longing to be free again.

"Come with me," he said. "I am going to win ransom from a town or two against the time when I shall need gold wherewith to win men to me in Norway."

I think that I should have done this in the end, though I did not like to leave England without striking one more blow for Eadmund, and I cannot deny that I thought that Uldra would blame me if I did leave our land when she needed every sword that would strike for her. I had come to think very much of what the steadfast eyes of the brave maiden would tell me as I watched her face.

But that evening came Wulfnoth and Godwine, and they had made a plan for themselves which might help me to reach Eadmund when my freedom came. They had manors on the Severn, at Berkeley, and the earl would go there to save them if possible from plunder. At least, that is what he told me and Olaf. Whether he had any other deeper plan I cannot say. It seemed afterwards as if that might be so.

They brought back some strange news, too, at which both Olaf and I wondered. There was a rumour spreading through the country from Winchester that Cnut would wed Emma the queen.

"It is not likely," said Olaf. "She is twenty years older than he."

"If any man wants revenge on Cnut, I would counsel him to go and do all he can to see that this marriage comes to pass," sneered the earl, in his hatred of the Norman lady.

"What says Redwald?" asked Godwine.

"First, that the queen has little choice in the matter," said I; "and next, that, between ourselves, I think that she would do much to remain a queen in truth, if it must be over Denmark instead of England; and lastly, that if Cnut weds her, he keeps the duke, her brother, quiet, and maybe brings over more of our people to his side."

It was only too plain now that Cnut had a party for him in England, and I thought that he tried to strengthen it thus, if the report were true. But it seemed hardly possible; so much so, that when I turned the question over in speaking with Olaf presently, we thought that no man could have invented the story, and that it must be true.

Now Olaf and I went to Penhurst on the next day, for though he would not stop long in England, he would see and thank these good friends of mine for their care of me. And great was the rejoicing when he came.

I had told him of Uldra, and presently he bade Ottar, who was with us, sing of Leavenheath fight, and so spoke quietly with her, sitting a little apart in the shadow of the hall, for he wished to tell her also that he owed her thanks.

When the end of the long summer day came, and he must go back to the ships—for he would not sleep away from them—I went with him in order to see all that I might of him before he left, for I had made up my mind to go westward with Godwine, seeing that my promise to Egil was to bide in peace with Wulfnoth till the time came when I was free.

So as we rode with no other near us, he said:

"What of Hertha, my cousin?"

"I know not," I answered. "I have heard nought, nor shall I now till I go back to Bures."

"Shall you hold to your betrothal?"

"Aye; the ladies think that it is my part to do so."

"So you asked them? Is that why fair Sexberga is so dull and restless?"

I laughed, for he had heard Ottar jesting about the fair maid at Penhurst more than once.

"No," I answered. "She has been crossing her lover, and he is in dudgeon for a while—that is all."

"I am glad," he said. "Asked you aught of Uldra?"

"I have not spoken of it to her."

"Is that so?" said Olaf, smiling. "Now she is likely to have more than common interest in you, for one reason or another."

Then I said frankly, knowing what he meant:

"And I in her. That is partly the reason why I must go with Wulfnoth and Godwine westward. And the rest of the reason is this, that I would be near Eadmund. And maybe if I looked to find more reason yet it would be to leave Sexberga to work out matters without having me to fall back on when Eldred is to be made jealous."

Thereat Olaf laughed long.

"You have had an ill time with the womenfolk of late," he said, and it was true enough.

"I have," said I, "and I am tired thereof. I shall be glad to be where byrnies and swords are more common than kirtles and distaffs."

Yet in my mind I knew that I should not leave Uldra with much cheerfulness. Such companionship as ours had been, strange and full of peril, was a closer bond than even the care of me that had made me think twice or more about Sexberga. Thoughts of her came lightly in idleness, but when I thought of Uldra, there was comradeship that had borne the strain of peril.

Now I knew well what that comradeship might easily ripen into, and maybe, because I knew it, what I would not allow had begun. But Uldra had never given me any reason to think that this was so with her.

Olaf said that maybe I was right, and after that we talked of his doings, wondering now when we should meet again, for we were going different ways. Our parting was not as it had been before, when we knew that sooner or later we should forgather in one place or the other.

"I think, my cousin," he said, "that the time will soon come when I shall head north again for Norway, and I long for the sign that I must go. I am going to sail now towards Jerusalem Land, that I may at least try to see the Holy Places before I die. It may be that I shall reach that land, and it may be not, but when the sign comes I must turn back and go to fight the last fight that shall be between Christian and heathen in our country."

So he said to me before his ship sailed with the morning tide. And I had no words in which to answer him, for his going seemed to leave me friendless again, so much had we been at one together. Almost had I taken up that journey to the Holy Land with him, but I thought that if it was a good and pious thing to go on that pilgrimage for myself, it was even more so to bide for the sake of king and country here in the land that should be holy for all of us who are English. And when I said that to Olaf, he smiled brightly and answered:

"If old Norway called for me, I would say the same. You are right."

Thus we parted, and I watched his sails fade and sink into the rim of the southern sea, and then rode back to Relf feeling as if the time to come had little brightness for me.

I went slowly, and by the longer way, for I had much to think of, and I cared not just yet for the light talk of the happy people in the Penhurst hall. And so I came into the way that leads across the woodland through Ashburnham and so by the upper hammer ponds to Penhurst, and when I was about a mile from the hall I met Uldra coming from a side track.

"Why, thane," she said in her bright way, "is aught amiss?"

"I have lost my kinsman, lady," I said, "and I have none other left me. Therefore I am sad enough. But these things must be, and the shadow of parting will pass presently."

I got off my horse and walked beside her, and I was glad that I had met her first of all. She had been to some sick thrall, and was now returning.

"Partings are hard," she said, "but one may always hope to meet again."

Then I said, speaking my thoughts:

"I must go west into Wessex with the earl's ships, and I have more partings to come therefore."

She made no answer at once, and I thought that none was needed; but when she spoke again her voice was graver than before.

"You would be near our king if possible by doing so?"

"That is my thought," I answered. "If I wait in this pleasant place I may be far from him when the day comes that I should stand at his side again."

"You have six weeks—not so much by two days—yet," she said thoughtfully. "It is not long. Then you will be fighting once more."

"I hope so—and not in vain at last," I answered. "All our land longs for peace."

"Aye, and they tell me that you have a search to make," she said, looking away across the woodlands that lay down the valley to our right. "I fear there will be sorrow if—if you fall."

"Aye, I have a search that has been made hard for me," I said somewhat bitterly. "Truly I had not thought of falling; but it is in my mind that little grief will be in that quarter if I do so. Those who might have ended the search in an hour or two have kept their charge more deeply hidden than ever from me."

"Is that the maiden's doing, think you?" she said, hesitating a little, for the question was not an easy one for her to put, maybe. But it was like her to make excuse for others.

"I cannot tell," said I, "but I think it likely. We were but children, and she fears me now."

"That is to be seen," she said; "but I hope that you will find her. What shall you do if—if she loves you not now?"

"I would let her go free, surely."

"Even if you found you loved her yet?"

"Aye. I would not hold her bound were she unwilling."

"But if it were the other way—if she would wed you willingly, and you—well, were unwilling?"

"I would keep troth," said I; "she should not know it."

She laughed softly and answered:

"You could not hide that from her."

Then I fell silent, for I liked not this subject at any time—still less from Uldra. And I think that she saw that I was displeased at her questioning, for after a little while she said shyly:

"I think that I have asked you too closely about your affairs. Forgive me—women are anxious about such matters."

"It is a trouble to me, lady," I said, hardening my heart lest I should say too much; "but I can see no further than the coming warfare. When that is ended there will be time for me to think more thereof. But, as I have said, I believe that Hertha wishes that she were not bound."

Now I had almost said "even as I wish," but I stopped in time.

"Now, whether that is so or not, she should think well of you for your faith kept to her," Uldra said, and there was a little shake in her voice as of tears close at hand.

Then I knew that if she kept faith with me as I with her—though this was in a poor way enough—I must think well of her also. Wherefore, being obliged thus to think of one another, it would be likely enough that there would be pretence of love on both sides—and so things would be bad. Whereupon the puzzle in my mind grew more tangled yet, and I waxed savage, being so helpless.

And all the while those two words that came to me as I talked to Relf grew plainer, and seemed to ring in my ears unspoken, "Landless and luckless—landless and luckless," for that was what it all came to.

Then Uldra looked at me and saw the trouble in my face, and took what seemed to her to be the only way to help me.

"You cannot think of these matters now, Redwald," she said softly. "It is well for a warrior that he has none who is bound to him so closely that he must ever think of her. It is well for Hertha that she knows not what peril you are in—that she cannot picture you to herself—"

She stopped with a sob that she could not check, and stayed her walk as if she had tripped. I turned to her, and put out my hand, and she leant on my arm with both hers for a moment, hanging her head down, and I thought she was faint, for my pace had quickened. So I waited till she raised her head again, longing to help her more and yet not daring to do so, lest I should give way altogether and say all I would. And then I said:

"Let me set you on the horse—you are weary with keeping step with me."

She shook her head, but she said nothing, and so I lifted her and set her in the saddle, and the colour came back to her face.

"Thanks, thane," she said, "I am very foolish. I have been setting myself in your Hertha's place—as if she knew aught of you now. Aye, it is better as it is for both of you, as things must be for a while."

And I thought to myself:

"Would that you were in Hertha's place;" and then this other thought, "She says right—landless and luckless am I, and there is none to trouble about me—nor shall there be."

"But I was going to tell you this, if I may," she said, "I will pray night and day that things may be well for you and yours in the end."

"Aye, pray therefor, Uldra," I answered, and thereafter we said no more, for the hall gates were before us, and the dogs came out to bid us welcome, and the thralls followed them to see who came. I helped her from the horse, and she smiled and went in.

Now, I saw Uldra no more that night, and Sexberga was unfriendly with me because Eldred still kept away. So I had my thoughts to myself while Relf slept as was his wont after supper, and the lady of the house turned her wheel as ever. I think that I would not wish any man to have such strange and sad thoughts as mine were at that time. There was nought of which I could be sure—save of Uldra's friendship, and of that it were better not to think, maybe.

Chapter 14: The Last Great Battle.

Ten days after I spoke thus with Uldra I was at Berkeley with Wulfnoth and Godwine. That was in the third week in June, while I was on my honour not to fight for a month yet. I had parted from Uldra as from a dear friend and no more, though well I knew now that she was more than that to me. And there had been a look in her face, moreover, that bided with me, making me wretched and yet glad, for it told me that her thoughts were as mine. And more than that neither of us would show. The tide of war had hold of me, and whither it would drift me none could say. Nor did I lose much. I had nought to lose as it seemed to me.

As for the rest of those who were such good friends of mine at Penhurst, they had wished me hearty God-speeds, bidding me return again, and that soon. Eldred of Dallington and Sexberga stood hand in hand as I went, vowing that they would not be content till I returned for their wedding, for there was no trouble between them since the young thane had come in from his place one day as if nought had happened, calling me to walk with him when Sexberga had feigned to wish for none of his company. After which he had talked lightly of going to Wessex with the earl and me; and he had no further trouble. I know not what he said presently in private to Sexberga, but he was the one who led thereafter, and I think that the maiden was the happier that it was so. There are some maids who will seem to wish to rule, though they are longing all the while to be ruled.

So we came up the Severn river to Berkeley, passing the endless lines of Danish ships that lay along the strand below Anst cliffs and Oldbury. Cnut's ship guard held the ancient fort in force, men said. His men boarded us, but Wulfnoth's name was well known, and it was not Cnut's plan to make an enemy of him. So we went on our way unhindered, and I bided, chafing sorely, in the great house where Wulfnoth lived in no state at all, as if he were but a rich franklin—gray clad and rough in ways and talk.

Now it is hard to me to think of what passed so close to me while I was helpless. But I saw nought of the battle that was at Pen-Selwood, and even as I heard thereof from men who had left the levy, the greatest battle of all was being fought within a morning's ride of us, at Sherston.

Two days that battle raged, and all men say that Eadmund would surely have chased the Danes in the end to their ships, but for a trick of Edric Streone's. It was another count in the long score against him, and I seemed to see that the words of the witch of Senlac were coming true—his shadow was over our king, for ill in all things.

The battle was going against Cnut—once Eadmund himself had cut his way through the press of Danes before their king, and had almost come to hand strokes with him, but had been borne back. And then Streone's eyes lit on one Osmer, a warrior of the Danish host, standing near him, and he saw that he was like our king. Therefore he slew him, and set his head on a spear, and rode forward to where the English line pressed most hardly on the Danish ranks. There he raised the head aloft, shouting in his great voice:

"Fly, English, fly! Eadmund is dead. Know his head!"

Then for a moment panic seized our folk, and they held their hands, and in that pause Ulf the jarl charged among them, and the line was broken and flight began.

But Eadmund unhelmed when he heard the cry that he was slain, and rode through the ranks, and our men knew him, and cheered, and fell on the Danes afresh, and the broken line closed up, and they fought till night fell, and in the night the Danes drew off. And in the night by twos and threes, and then in companies, Eadmund's levies melted away from him, for his men were worn out and sick of slaughter, and knew not enough to bid them stay to follow their foes and turn retreat into rout, and doubt into victory. The Danes were going, they saw and heard; what need to stay longer?

So it came to pass that nothing was wrought by that awful fighting, and both sides claimed victory, for our men deemed that they had won, and the Danes claimed it because they were not followed, and because Ulf the jarl had cut through our line.

It was through this last that I lost Godwine as a companion. For Ulf lost himself in the forest that was in the rear of our forces, because he followed the flying too far, and the dusk of the evening was close at hand. He thought that the victory was surely won, for it had ever been that the first sign of flight was followed by rout of our men. At least the Danes learnt this at Sherston, that Eadmund could hold his own against them.

So Ulf the jarl wandered all night in the wood, and came out of it on the hillside where Godwine was speaking to one of his father's shepherds. And Godwine brought him, unknowing who he was, back to Berkeley.

Then maybe came into Wulfnoth's mind that rede of the witch of Senlac, that bade Godwine mind his sheep, and so find his place, or else this was part of the plan which had brought him into Wessex. For he asked Ulf to take Godwine to Cnut, and find him a place in his court, and the jarl did so. It was not until Godwine came to the ships that he knew who it was that he had guided, and they won him over, and he stayed.

Nor did I know. I spoke with Ulf, asking him of the battle, and of Egil, and the like, for he was the earl's guest. And I thought nothing of Godwine's guidance of a Dane to the ships, for the earl was no foe of Cnut. But when I rose in the morning after Ulf had come, and found that he and Godwine had gone in the night, and was told by Wulfnoth who the warrior was, and what he had asked for his son, I was very angry, though I knew that the earl had little cause to love the house of Ethelred.

But the earl said, very quietly:

"There are two kings in England, and no king of England. Choice is free to me, and I choose that king who will honour my son, and who has done me no wrong. Were you to go to Cnut I would hold you blameworthy, seeing how things have been between you and Eadmund. Godwine goes to Cnut even as he flies to his ships. No man may say that he did but join him when he was victor."

Now, it was not Wulfnoth's way to give reasons thus for aught that he did, and I was surprised that he would do so to me. But I could look at things in his way if I put my own love for Eadmund aside, and I said:

"I may not blame you, lord earl, maybe; but it is hard for me to see my friend take what I think the wrong side."

"Think no ill of him. It is my doing," Wulfnoth said. "All his life has Godwine been bidden to hate the house of Ethelred of Wessex. Now before long this warfare must end. And if your king has the victory I pray you speak for Godwine if need is. And if Cnut is victor you will need Godwine, maybe, to speak for you. Let this matter bide there between us. I would now that I had not let him go, for I am lonely."

Then I knew why the fierce old earl unbent to speak thus to me, and I spoke only of honour to be gained in the service of so great a king as Cnut.

Thereafter the time went very heavily for me. The great Danish fleet left the Severn on the day when Godwine would have come to them, and then Eadmund must gather another levy, and prepare for some fresh landing. And before that was done I was free again, and I could join him with a light heart. The earl gave me a good horse when I rode away, and parted with me very kindly for Godwine's sake, he said, and his own liking for me also.

"I shall look for you at Pevensea yet. Come to me when things go ill with you, and you shall be welcome."

I knew not if ever I should see Sussex again. But of this I was sure now, that if fortune went with me presently, I would surely seek Ailwin and tell him that I must be free, and so would seek Uldra, and ask her to share what I might have to give her, if a home should be mine again. I had thought much of this brave, quiet maiden while I was chafing at doing nought in Wulfnoth's farmstead, though I would not have stayed at Penhurst.

Now came a time when the victory was ours, and it seemed that at last the strong hand had come. For men would follow Eadmund, and he had the power of making them fight as he would. Yet there was nothing that would keep our levies together. Had they done so we had surely conquered, but it was ever the same. They fought and dispersed, and all the work and loss was for nought. I think it would have been the same with the Danish host had they been in their own country; but here they must needs hold together, and Cnut and his jarls wielded that mighty force as a man wields his sword. Eadmund smote as a man who fells his enemy with a staff that breaks in the smiting, so that he must needs seek another while his fallen foe rises again, sword in hand.

But our men were called from home and fireside to fight, and when they won and their own fields and houses were safe, they thought they had done all, and went home again, at ease, and maybe boasting overmuch.

We marched on London and relieved the city, driving the Danes in flight to their ships. And Eadmund slept that night among a great host; and in the morning the Wessex men were going home, and only his own housecarles and the men who followed him from ruined Mercia and East Anglia and Kent would bide around him. London could take care of herself now. But Eadmund strove to gather them for one more blow, and we had a great fight at Brentford, for the Danes had gone up river, and we won. Yet the Danes turned on us when the ships were reached, and we lost many men in the river, for they scattered in their eagerness to plunder the ships that they thought were already won, and so, without order or leaders, were driven to their death in the swift water.

Then Wessex disbanded, and all the work of gathering our forces must be done over again; and at once the Danes closed in round London when Eadmund had gone back to Salisbury.

Surely it would have broken the heart of any man but Eadmund the Ironside that thus it must be, but he would say:

"England is waking; we shall win yet."

Then Cnut recalled the ships and host from London, and they raised the siege, and went into the Orwell, and once again began to march across the heart of our land.

This fourth levy that Eadmund the king had made was the best that he had had. And word must have come thereof to the Danes, for they went back to their fleet; and so waited for a little while, thinking doubtless that this levy would melt away in idleness as ever. For they came back into the Medway with the booty they had, and there we fell on them and drove them headlong to their ships, and I surely thought that we had done with Cnut for good and all.

Then fell the shadow of ill on us. Edric Streone and his men met us at Aylesford, and he came in to the king and made most humble submission to him.

And that was what Olaf had told Eadmund would happen when once again he had the victory. Therefore when I saw the earl come into the camp to speak with Eadmund I said:

"Mind you what Olaf said. How that you should hang Streone."

"Aye, I mind it. But the man is deserted by his new friends. They have gone."

Almost had Eadmund quarrelled with Olaf on that saying.

"Put him in ward, my king, at least," I urged, and Ulfkytel, who had come with us from London, prayed him also to do so.

But Eadmund's fate was on him, and he received his foster father kindly, and forgave him, and thought that all would be well.

Now with Ulfkytel came my Colchester men, or rather the thirty who were left, And those two brothers, Thrand and Guthorm, who had ridden to Stamford with me were there also. These two came to me that evening when I was alone, and said that they had a plan they would carry out if I gave the word. And it was nothing more or less than that they would fall on Edric Streone and slay him when and where they met him.

I would that they had not asked me, but had wrought the deed on their own account. But I said that I could not have this done, for it was too much after Streone's own manner of settling things. I could not think of letting my men lie in wait for any foe of mine, however good cause I had for hating him. And I did hate Streone with a hate that I am not ashamed of, not for my own sake, but because he was a traitor to both king and country. There were Englishmen who fought for Cnut thinking that thus they wrought best for England and her peace—as Wulfnoth chose for Godwine—and I had no hatred for them. They were honest if they were wrong; but they were no traitors. But Edric Streone was as Judas to me.

So Thrand and Guthorm grumbled, and forbore, though they would have spent their own lives willingly in this way had I lifted a finger. It was, however, in revenge for the Stamford business that they would slay the earl, and that was only my quarrel, nothing higher. Nevertheless I owed them thanks for their love thus shown to me, and so I told them. Little had I done to deserve it; but who shall know what wins the love of rough souls like these?

Strange news came with Streone, though I had heard rumours thereof before, as I have said. It was true that Cnut was to wed Emma the queen; and they had, as it seemed, already been betrothed, at the advice of the three great jarls. Now she and the athelings her sons were back in Normandy, and one might see what the reason of this policy was, Not only was Duke Richard kept quiet, but also Cnut was stepfather to Eadward Atheling and his brothers. That meant that if Cnut won, they must needs suffer him to take the crown unopposed. And more than this, if Cnut must leave England alone presently, when Eadmund died he would claim the throne at once, either for himself or for one of these athelings as his under-king. For no man ever thought twice of Eadmund's brother Edwy, who was weak bodily, nor of his half brother, the other Edwy, whom we called "king of the churls," by reason of the low birth of his mother, for no thanes would follow him had he had the gift of leading.

Cnut's fleet went from the Medway northward, and it was in the thoughts of all men that the end had come, and that he sought his own land at last. And that seemed the more certain to most because Streone had submitted, as if he knew that he had no further hope of honour from the Danish king. Presently, however, it was plain that his coming over was but part of the deepest plot that he had yet made.

Suddenly, even as our levies dispersed in spite of all the king's entreaties, came the news that the Danish fleet had turned and was in the Crouch river in Essex, whence already the host had begun their march inland across Mercia in the old way. And so for the fifth time Eadmund strove to gather all England to him, and his summons was well obeyed. The thanes and their men gathered in haste, savage with hope deferred, and Cnut shrank back again to Ashingdon on the Crouch, and there built himself an earthwork on the south side of the river, while his ships lay on the further shore at Burnham, and in the anchorage, and along the mud below the earthworks, seeming countless. And there he waited for us, and there we knew that he meant to end the warfare in one great fight for mastery, with his ships behind him that he might go if he were at last obliged.

And there, too, though we knew it not, he waited for Streone to give England into his hands.

We were close on him when his main force fell back upon his earthworks, where they stand on the little hill above the river banks that men will call "Cnut's dune" {13} henceforward, in memory of what he won there. And Ulfkytel and I and the few East Anglians that we had were with the advance guard, and drove in the pickets that were between us and the hill. And then we knew that Cnut meant to stand and fight in the open, and we were glad, for out of his intrenchments poured his men, and we sent horsemen back to Eadmund to hurry on the main body of our forces.

They were a mile or two behind us, and we waited impatiently, watching the Danish host as it neared us, forming into the terrible half circle as it came. And I remember all of that waiting, for the day began with such hope, and ended so fearfully for us.

One could not have had a better day on which to fight, for there was neither sun to dazzle, nor rain to beat in the faces of men who needed eyes to guard their lives. But it was a gray day with a pleasant wind that blew in from the sea, and the light was wonderfully clear and shadowless as before rain, so that one could see all things over-plainly, as it were. The rounded top of Ashingdon hill seemed to tower higher than its wont, and close at hand, beyond the swampy meadows to our left, and I wondered that Cnut had not chosen that for his camping ground, though maybe it would have been less well placed for reaching the ships, owing to some shoaling of water that did not suit them. The tide was nearly high now, and all the wide stretch of the Crouch river was alive with the ships that brought over men from the Burnham shore, and one could see the very wake and the ripple at the bows as they came.

And when one looked at the Danes, the chiefs who ordered the host were plain to be seen, and the gay colours of banners and cloaks and shields were wonderful in the brightness, though at first we were nearly half a mile from them as we waited. I thought that we were about equal to them in numbers, and I knew that did we but fight as at Sherston the day would surely be ours. For when a force that is hard pressed knows that safety is close behind them there is an ever-present reason for giving way.

"We can drive this host to the ships, lord earl," I said to Ulfkytel.

"Aye, surely," he answered. "They know that the ships wait for them, and so will give back."

Now came Eadmund, and behind him our men marched steadily, and at his side was Edric Streone. He looked at the Danes, and his face was bright and confident.

"How shall we fight, lord earl?" he said to Ulfkytel.

"Redwald and I have spoken thereof," the earl answered. "And it seems to us that Olaf's viking plan is best. Let us fight in a wedge, and drive the point through that circle and break it in twain. We of East Anglia will willingly make the point, as we are on our own ground."

"It is a good plan, but I have not tried it," said Eadmund; and then Streone spoke.

"The old Saxon line is surely good enough," he said. "What need to take up with outland plans?"

"It will be good enough if our men fight as at Sherston," Eadmund answered.

And all the thanes who were gathering round him cried out that they would surely not fail him, and one could not but listen to the voice of all the noblest in England who were gathered there, for Eadmund had all his best with him. It was indeed a levy of all England.

So we were to fight in line, as Eadmund had given us our places on the day before, when we neared the battlefield. He himself was in the centre with his Wessex men, and Edric Streone and his Mercians were with him. There were some of us who had cried out at that, but the earl had said proudly that he would make amends for former ill, and the council had listened to and believed his words.

Ulfkytel was on the left, and there our line was flanked by the marshes that lie between the long slope where we were to fight and Ashingdon hill. At least he would have no horsemen upon him from the side, and that flank was safe from turning. The right wing was given to the Lindsey men under their own ealdorman, and with them were the men of the Five Boroughs {14}.

So our line was drawn up, and Eadmund rode out before them and they cheered, and then he unhelmed, and Bishop Ednoth of Dorchester, clad in his robes over chain mail, and with a heavy mace at his saddle bow, rode up beside him, and a monk who was with him brought forward and raised aloft a golden cross, and at that sign the host knelt, and the bishop shrived them and blessed them before the fight, and the sound of the "Amen" they spoke was like a thunder roll from end to end of the line. And it reached the ears of the Danes who waited for us, and they broke out into their war song—the Heysaa—and thereat our men sprang up and shouted thrice, and then the sullen silence of the Saxon kin settled down on them, for we are not wont to speak much when work is meant.

Silently we crossed the heath between us and the yelling Danes, and I rode beside Eadmund in my old place, and my heart was light, and sword Foe's Bane rattled in the scabbard as if longing to be let loose. And all the while I kept my eyes on Streone, who was riding among his Mercians twenty yards away to our right, and presently behind him I saw Thrand and Guthorm.

I thought that was ill for Streone, but I could not help it now—we were but a hundred yards from the foe. The first arrow flight crossed as I saw them, and then Eadmund cried:

"Forward—remember Sherston!"

At that word the front ranks sprang like wolves to meet one another—and then came the shock of the meeting lines and the howl and cheer of Dane and Englishman—and under the arrow storm the spear and axe and sword were at work.

I kept my shield up and covering Eadmund's right side, and watched. The time for us to take our part had not come yet. And Eadmund looked on his foes to see what chance might be for a charge that would break them when arms grew weary.

Many were the brave deeds that I saw done in that little time, as the first lines fought man to man. And presently I knew that over against us was Cnut the king, for I saw one who was little more than a boy, whose helm bore a golden crown. There were several chiefs round him also, and one was Ulf. But I saw not Godwine, for he would not fight on that day against his own kin.

There, too, was another chief—he was Eirik the jarl, though I knew it not then; and he looked ever to our right, as if waiting for somewhat. And when I saw that I looked also, but there was nought that I could see. Our whole line was fighting well, and this first attack had brought no faltering on either side.

Then said Eadmund to me:

"Let us make a dash for my stepfather yonder," pointing to Cnut—and even as he said it the brave bishop on his left threw up his arms and fell from his horse, smitten in the face with a javelin, and Eadmund leapt down to help him.

As he did so I heard a shout raised that he was slain.

Then was a roar from our right like nothing that I had ever heard—I pray that none may ever hear the like again—and I turned and looked to see what was on hand, and I saw the Mercians going backward, and Streone's horse was heading away from the Danes; and then the men of the Five Boroughs howled and fell on Dane and Mercian alike, cursing and smiting like madmen.

And I saw my two men leap up among the press and smite over the heads of those around them at Streone, and they were smitten down—they had not touched him.

That was all in a moment, and I called to the king, and he rose up and leapt on his horse and looked. And as he did so the Mercians, Streone's men, wheeled round and fell on our flank, fighting for the Danes, and the Danish line swept the Stamford men from before them and joined the Mercians; and I heard a great sob rise in Eadmund's throat, and he called to me, and charged among the traitor's men to reach him if he might. And the Mercians broke and fled before us, and the Danish line unbroken rolled forward and swept us into flight, for our men knew not what they could do.

Then I pointed to Ashingdon hill and cried:

"We can rally yonder!"

And Eadmund gainsaid me not, but groaned, and called to his men, and we got together and faced round, so that the Danes drew back a little, as men will when a boar turns to bay. And we fought to reach the Lindsey and Borough men through the Danes, who had filled the gap that the flight of the Mercians had made—and won to them. There was the greatest slaughter of the Danish host at that time. But we could not win to Ulfkytel, for the centre and left wing of the Danes lapped us round, and their right drove him back on the marshes, away from us.

Then we were pressed back along the higher ground, and we were forced into a great ring that the Danes could not break, and ever where sign of weakening was Eadmund rode and shouted and smote, and the Danes gave back before him. Once or twice I could hold my hand as he sat in the midst of our circle watching all that went on, and I saw many things in those few moments while sword Foe's Bane rested.

The Mercians had not followed us for very shame, but they sat on the open hillside in the place where the Danish line had been. I think it was not Streone's fault that they were not fighting hand to hand with us. I saw him ride to Ulf the jarl, and I saw Ulf turn his shoulder on him, and then he sought Rink, and that chief spoke but a word to him, so that he tried not to reach Cnut, who never looked at him.

Then I saw Ulfkytel's men breaking and taking to the marshes, where the Danes cared not to follow them. More than one I could see sinking under the weight of arms in the fen slime among the green tussocks of grass that he had slipped from, and I saw that the flying men made for Ashingdon hill.

Now as we drew back some word went round among the Danish host and their onset slackened, and presently they drew off and left us to retreat as we would. They could not break our ring, and we were coming to broken land where we might have some advantage.

Then Eadmund said:

"We will go to yonder hill and hold it. Then will East Anglia come to us, and we can begin again tomorrow, maybe; and if not, we can watch the Danes away. All is not lost yet."

So we went to Ashingdon hill, and there formed up. Only the Danish horsemen followed us to find out what we did. And we saw the main force drawing back towards their earthworks on one wing, while the other held the place of battle, and it was not plain at once why they thus divided.

We rested for a short half hour on Ashingdon hill, and the men of Ulfkytel gathered to us. But the brave earl was slain, and with him Abbot Wulsy, and the Mercians had slain the Ealdorman of Lindsey when they turned on us, and many more lay in the place where the flight began, good men and noble sold to their deaths by the traitor.

It was about midday when we won back to the hill, and the battle, from the time when we had first met, had lasted but a short time. Yet what with slaughter when we broke, and the desertion of the Mercians, we were short of a full third of our men now.

Eadmund waxed restless. There was the best half of a long summer day before us, and our men were angry and full of longing to fight and take revenge. I think there was not one that did not know all that might hang on this battle.

"Redwald," the king said, "is there no way by which we might cross the river? Then might we fall on the ships at Burnham, and Cnut must send his men over ship by ship, and so we might well gain the victory."

I looked at the tide, and called for some Essex men who knew the place, and one came and told me that in two hours' time we might cross at a ford higher up, which they name Hull bridge, though there is no bridge there. And when he heard that, at once our king set his men in order and cheered them with fresh hopes, and we started to march thither.

And at the same time Cnut's ships began to move, and from Burnham and from this shore his men were coming up on the tide towards the very place where we would cross, and before the ford could be passed by us we knew that they would be there in force.

"So," said Eadmund quietly, "they are before us. We will even go back to the hill."

We went back, and then I think that we knew the worst. We were hemmed in upon it, for the half of the Danish force that had remained were barring our way inland, while from the river every other man of the Danish host was coming up to attack us from that side.

"Now it would seem that some of us will stay on this hill for good," said Eadmund; "but if we must lie here till the last day it is a place whence one can look out over the English land and sea and river for which we have died."

And so he drew us up in the ring again there on the hilltop, which was wide enough, and we sat down and waited for the coming of the Danes.

"Lord king," I said, "let us make a wedge and cut through the Danes inland. So shall we win back to the open country, and we can gather men afresh."

He smiled wearily at me, and it seemed to me that at last he had given up hope. And but for Streone's treachery that thing would never have been. It had broken our king's spirit.

"Friend," he said, "I will die here if I can."

"That shall not be while there is one to give his life for you," I answered, and the thanes around us murmured "Aye!" in that stern voice that means more than aught of clamour.

Then I saw some Wessex thanes speaking earnestly to one another, and presently they beckoned to me, and while Eadmund sat silent on his horse I went to them to hear what they would.

"We will get the king off this field if we can," they said. "We cannot lose him. If chance is, we will take him against his will. Hinder us not."

"That is well," said I. "I will help you, for he is the hope of England."

Maybe Ashingdon hilltop is full fifty acres in the more level summit, and we could not guard it all; so we waited on that edge nearest the Danes, the half circle that faces inland from the marshes towards the battle ground we had lost, and to Hockley from the river. And presently the Danes began to come up the hill in even line, and we watched them drawing nearer in silence.

Then Eadmund bade our bowmen get to work; but the arrows were as nought against the long line that did but quicken its advance as they felt their sting here and there.

The Danes spread out along the hillside to surround us, and then when they had gained the summit they charged on us, and again we were hand to hand with them.

I suppose we fought so, without stirring from the place where we were, for half an hour. Our circle thinned, but never broke, and Dane after Dane fell or drew back to let fresh men come forward, and as we might we also sent fresh men from our inner ranks to relieve those who had grown weary. It was stern hand-to-hand fighting, and one knows how that will ever be—one of two men must go down or give way, and our men fell, but give way they would not.

I have said we were on the edge of the hilltop circle, and therefore the attack from the steep hill slope was weakest. And so it came to pass that presently the line against us there was thinned out, because men pressed upwards to the level, and then those Wessex thanes saw that we might break through and cut our way down the hill and make good our retreat.

Where Eadmund was I followed, and I know that I saved him once or twice from spear thrusts that would have slain him when he charged among the Danes, where they pressed us most hardly. Wearied was my arm, but sword Foe's Bane bit through helm and harness, and once I was facing Ulf the jarl, and he cried out to me:

"Well smitten, Wulfnoth's man!"

For he knew me. And I looked for Egil, that I might call him to come and win the sword from me, but I could not see him; and a foolish fear that some other than he might get the good blade got hold of me, for I had no doubt that I must fall, and no fear thereof, save that. And why I longed for Egil thus was, I think, because of utter weariness and loss of hope.

Then they pushed us as it were over the hill edge, and we began to go down, and I knew at once what would come next.

The line of Danes on the hill slope gave way before us and left the way clear; and at first we went slowly and in good order, and then they charged on us down the hill with crushing weight of numbers.

And so we fled. I saw the Wessex thanes catch Eadmund's bridle, and they turned his horse and spoke to him. And he threatened them with his sword for a moment; but they were urgent, and at last he fled. And I, knowing that if we could keep back the Danes but for a few minutes longer he might escape, cried to what chiefs were left to us, and we rallied on the hillside for a last stand.

Then my horse reared and fell back on me, and I heard a great shout, and the rush of many feet passed over me, and Ashingdon fight and aught else was lost in blackness.

Chapter 15: The Shadow Of Edric Streone.

"The man is dead," said a rough voice. "Let him bide."

"He is not," one answered. "He had nought to slay him. Here be three flesh wounds only."

Then I began to come to myself, for water was being poured on my face, and I opened my eyes and saw Thrand of Colchester looking at me. My head was on his knee, and he had a helm full of water in his hand. His own head and arm were bandaged, and the man who spoke to him was passing on, seeking elsewhere. All that had happened came back to me in a moment then, and my ears woke to the sounds round me. I knew them only too well, for they were the awesome sounds of the time after battle.

"Where is the king?" I said.

"Safe enough, they say," Thrand answered. "Is it well with you, master?"

I sat up, and the maze passed from me. I had but been stunned by the fall from my horse, and now seemed little the worse, save for sickness and dull weight of weariness. I had been an hour or two thus, as it would seem, for now the Danish host was gone, and only a few men sought for friends on that hillside, as Thrand had sought for me. My horse was dead, slain by the spear thrust that made him rear. It was that one which Earl Wulfnoth gave me when I left him.

"I shall be myself again directly," I said. "How has it all ended? I thought I saw you slain."

"The Danes are chasing our men towards yon village," he said grimly pointing towards Hockley. "They will not catch the king, however. They smote me badly enough when I tried to be revenged on Streone, and they slew Guthorm; but they only stunned me."

"Go hence before Streone catches you," said I.

"Not I," said Thrand. "He knows me not, and I shall wait for another chance. The Danes think me a Mercian, and so I bide with you. Can you fly now, master?"

I tried to rise, but I was weak and shaken, and sank down again. I was not fit for walking even yet.

"I must wait," I said.

"There are stray horses enough down yonder," Thrand said, looking over the meadows below us. "I will go and catch one. We must go soon, or the Danes will be back."

"No use," said I. "They are between us and safety. I must wait and take my chance."

With that I missed the sword that I loved, for I had thought of selling my life dearly if the Danes would slay me.

"Where is sword Foe's Bane?" I cried.

Thrand looked round about me, but could see it not. Then he turned over one or two of the slain men who lay thickly in the place where our last stand was made. But he could not find it, until a wounded man of ours asked what he sought. Thrand told him. Then I noted how few wounded there were. The sun, nigh to setting now, broke out and shone athwart the hillside; and it sparkled like the ice heaps on the long banks that a winter's tide has left by the river, for everywhere were the mail-clad slain. But the sparkles were steady, as on the ice, not as on a host that is marching. Ice cold were those who would need mail no more on Ashingdon hill.

"The sword is under the horse," the man said groaning. And it was so, and unhurt.

"Get me a sword from off the field," I said, "and hide Foe's Bane somewhere. Then, if they slay me, take it to Egil, Jarl Thorkel's foster brother; and if not, I can find it again. I will not have it taken from me thus."

So Thrand took it and its scabbard and hid both under his cloak, and went to where there was a patch of woodland at the foot of the hill—ash and alder growing by the marsh side—some two hundred yards off.

I closed my eyes and waited till he came back—and he was gone for some while. Presently he came, and told me that he had hidden it under a fallen tree trunk, and that the place was dry and safe. He found me another sword easily enough—and it was notched from point to hilt. Its edge was not like that of Foe's Bane, but the man whose it had been had done his duty with it. It was an English sword.

Now I thought that I could walk again, and stood up and made a step or two, painfully enough, in truth, but in such wise that I should soon do better. And then over the brow of the hill the Danes began to come. They had circled round and I had not noted them, and came on us from the other side. They were searching among the slain for their comrades.

Half a dozen of them came towards Thrand and me, and I suppose that they would have slain me. But my man was ready for them, and took the sword from me quickly.

"Will the king suffer us to keep captives?" he said.

"Aye," one answered, in some Jutland speech that was new to me, though one could understand it well enough, "there is word that we are to take any chiefs alive—but that is a new word to us. Who minds it?"

"I do," said Thrand. "Here is one who will pay for freedom, and he has yielded to me."

"That is luck for you," they said, and passed on.

There was plunder enough all around, and they were in haste lest others should come. Thrand's Anglian speech was Danish enough for them.

"Now you are safe, master," Thrand said; "no need for the sword."

"I am a captive," said I bitterly.

Then my eyes sought the ground as Thrand cast the useless blade away, and there, crawling on the reddened turf, was a toad that feared not the still dead, and must seek its food whether men lived or died, unheeding aught but that. And when I saw it, into my mind flashed the time when I had stood, weakened and hurt, and looked at the like in Penhurst village—and the words that Spray the smith spoke came to me, and they cheered me, as a little thing will sometimes. And then I thought of her who prayed for me among Penhurst woods, and I was glad that life was left me yet.

More Danes kept coming now, and presently one who was in some command came to where I sat with Thrand standing over me.

"Is this a captive?" he asked.

"Aye," said Thrand.

"Who is he?"

"Some thane or other. What shall I do with him?"

"Cnut wants to see all captives. Take him to the fort whence we came."

He passed on, and Thrand said:

"Master, if you can find Egil all may be well, Let us go."

That was all that I could do. Egil or Godwine might befriend me. Godwine surely would, but I knew not if his word would go for anything.

Aye, but that was an awesome walk across the upland, where the flower of England lay dead. I knew not what had befallen us fully until I went slowly over Ashingdon hill. All the best blood of England was spilt there; and I knew, as we passed the wide ring of heaped corpses where our stand had been longest, that the hopes of Eadmund had come to nought, and that the shadow of Streone lay black across his life.

We came to the further slope of the hill, and were going down, and through the tears of rage and grief that filled my eyes I saw a few horsemen breasting the slope towards us, and one of them was Edric Streone the traitor himself; and when I saw him I felt as a man who lights suddenly on a viper, and I shuddered, for the sight of him was loathsome to me, and Thrand ground his teeth.

Streone's eyes fell on us, and he turned his horse to meet us. And when he knew who I was he glowered at me without speaking, and I looked him full in the face once, and then turned my back on him. He did not know my man.

"Bind your prisoner," he said sharply to Thrand.

"No need to do that," said Thrand coolly, "he is sorely hurt, and has no arms."

Then the other horsemen rode up leisurely.

"Who is this?" said one—and he was Jarl Eirik.

"No one worth having," said Streone, and reined round his horse to go on as if caring nought.

They went on up the hill. I suppose that they were going there that Edric Streone might say who the slain were. As for us we went our way, and Thrand cursed the earl with every step.

We had hardly got away from the hill when men came after us in haste, and before I knew that it was myself whom they sought, they had pushed Thrand aside and bound my hands.

"What is this?" Thrand asked angrily.

And I said:

"Bind me not. I go to yield myself."

"Earl Edric's orders," said the men. "We are to keep you here till he comes."

At that I knew that I had fallen into his hands, and that my life was not worth much. I could see that Thrand knew this also.

"That is all very well," I said; "but I am Egil Thorarinsson's captive."

Whereat one of the men laughed.

"You may not choose your captor, man. Egil has not been ashore all day. He is with the ships yonder."

Then Thrand said, seeming very wroth:

"I will not lose a good captive and ransom for any Mercian turncoat. I will go and find the king and make complaint."

"Tell him that you are Egil at the same time," a Dane sneered. "You will not hoodwink him as you have this Saxon."

"Is not this man Egil?" I asked, looking at Thrand with a hope that he would guess whom I needed.

"He Egil!" they answered, laughing loudly. And at that Thrand turned and went away quickly, and I sat down and said:

"What will Earl Edric do with me?"

One said one thing and one another, and I did not listen much. But they all thought in the end that Edric's lust for gold would make him hold me to heavy ransom. I thought that he loved revenge even better than wealth, and this cheered me not at all.

About sunset Edric Streone came. Thrand had, I thought, made his escape, most likely, and I was glad. He had helped me all he could.

The earl left the party he was with, and came to me and my guards. He looked at me sidewise for a while, and then spoke to me in broad Wessex, which the Danes could hardly understand, if at all.

"So, Master Redwald, what will you give for freedom?"

I answered him back in my own Anglian speech, which any Dane knows, for it is but the Danish tongue with a difference of turn of voice, and words here and there:

"I will give a traitor nothing."

"But I am going to hang you," and he chuckled in his evil way. There were many meanings in that laugh of Streone's.

"You can do as you like with me, as it happens," I answered, "but I had rather swing at a rope's end as an honest man than sit at Cnut's table as Streone the traitor."

He tried to laugh, but it stuck in his throat, and so he turned to rage instead.

"Smite him," he said to the Danes.

"Not we," said the spokesman of the half dozen. "Settle your own affairs between you."

"Take him to yon tree and hang him, and have done," said Edric.

"Spear me rather," said I in a low voice to the men.

They laughed uneasily, but did not move, and Edric again bade them take me to the tree, which was about a hundred paces away.

They took me there and set me under a great bough, and then stood looking at me and the earl. They had no rope, and the belts that bound me were of no use for a halter. Edric saw what was needed, and swore. Then he sent one of the men to the ships to get a line of some sort; and I think that his utter hatred of anyone who had seen through his plans made him spare me from spear or sword, for there is no disgrace in death by steel. But at this time there seemed no disgrace in the death he meant me to die, for it was shame to him, not to me.

The ships were not so far off. It was not long before three or four men came through the gathering dusk, and one had a coil of rope over his shoulder. And after them came across the hillside a horseman, beside whom ran a man on foot. There were many men about, and these were too far for me to heed them. I only noticed that which should end my life.

"Set to work quickly," said Streone.

So they flung the end of the line over the bough, sailorwise, and made a running bowline in the part that came down. There is torture in that way, and some of the men grumbled thereat, being less hard hearted. So they began to argue about the matter, and Streone watched my face, for this was pleasure to him, as it seemed, though he did not look straight at me. I wished they would hasten, that was all.

Now the horseman and his follower came up, and lo! Egil was the rider, and with him was Thrand.

"Ho!" cried Egil, "hold hard. That is my man."

Streone turned on him with a snarl.

"Your man!" he said. "I took him. Hold your peace."

"There you lie," quoth Thrand. "I took him myself for Egil, my master—as your own men know. I told them."

"He did so," the Danes said, for they loved Egil, and Streone was a stranger of no great reputation, though high in rank.

"Set him loose," said Egil. "I will have no man interfere with my captives."

Then Streone hid his anger, and took Egil aside while the Danes and Thrand set me free. Presently Egil broke out into a great laugh.

"Want you to hang him for slaying men of yours!" he cried. "Why, he might hang you for the same. How many of his men did you slay this morning?"

"That was in fight—he killed the others in time of peace."

"Better not say much of that fight," said Egil. "There was a peace breaking there."

Streone turned pale at that, for he saw that the Danes did not hold his ways in honour though they had profited by them.

"Well, then, take him. Little gain will he be to you, for he is landless and ruined," he sneered, chuckling.

"Well," said Egil, "he is a close friend of Earl Wulfnoth's, and maybe it is just as well that you hung him not. Cnut would hardly have thanked you for setting that man against him, and maybe bringing Olaf the Norseman down on him also."

Streone had thought not of those things. He turned ashy pale at the picture Egil had drawn of loss of Cnut's favour. He looked once or twice towards me as if he were trying to frame some excuse, but none would come.

"I knew it not," he said, falsely enough. "I am glad you came."

Egil only laughed, and with that Streone rode away quickly, and never looked back as he went.

Thereafter Egil took me down to the ships, and he sent Thrand for sword Foe's Bane when the night had fallen. Most kindly did the Dane treat me, but I cared for little. I could not move for stiffness and bruising after I had slept for twelve hours on end, but that was nought compared with the sorrow for what had befallen us.

Two days after this the Danish host followed in the track of Eadmund and his flying levies: but Egil stayed in command of the ships, and I with him. I had not seen Cnut, but Egil had spoken of me to him.

"I have heard of Redwald of Bures before," the king had said. "What know I of him? I think it is somewhat good."

"He nearly got Emma the queen out of England," Egil had answered. "I know not if you call that a good deed, lord king."

"That is it. She spoke to me for him, asking me to treat him well if he fell into my hands, because of his faithful service and long-suffering patience on the journey."

Then he asked what he could do, but Egil answered that I would bide with him at this time, and hereafter he would mind the king of me again.

"Do so," said Cnut. "He must be a friend of mine."

I could not but think well of the young king for this, but it seemed unlikely that friendly towards him I should ever be. Nevertheless, the words of the witch of Senlac were coming true.

Then we, safe in the shelter of the river, waited for news: the two kings being in Wessex. But I could not think it likely that Cnut would give time for a fresh gathering of Wessex men to Eadmund.

Nor did he. All men know how the two kings met at Olney in the Severn, and how peace was made, after Eadmund had said that he would rather fight out the matter hand to hand to the death. Few of us knew then how little able Cnut was to fight the mighty Ironside, but we thought him strong in body as in name. Else had that plan never been thought of.

They say that Edric Streone advised Cnut to take the old Danelagh and Northumbria and leave Eadmund the rest of the kingdom, the survivor to succeed to all the land. Maybe he did. If so, it was that he might earn more from Cnut by giving him all the land. But it is certain that thus Cnut wrought best for himself, for the Danelagh received him gladly, while Wessex loved Eadmund. And when Eadmund should die, Wessex would take Cnut for king at Eadmund's word, as it were, by reason of the treaty made and oaths given and received. Not for nothing do men call the King Cnut the Wise, for it is certain that he had Eadmund in his power, and forbore to use his advantage to the full.

So the long struggle ended, and at last there was rest to the land. But I, who had hoped for victory, felt as though life had little pleasure left when first this news came to me. But in a few days came one of Godwine's men bearing messages to me from him, and also from Eadmund my king.

The first were most kindly, speaking of hope of seeing me ere long, and the like; but it seemed that the young earl had promised Eadmund to send me the letter which the messenger brought, and that that was the most important business. I took the letter ashore and went to Ashingdon hill and sat there among the graves of the slain and read it, while the summer sun and wind and sky were over me, while the land and sea seemed at rest, and all was in a great peace after the strife that I had seen in that place.

To my Thane, greeting.—What has befallen us, and how we have divided the kingdom with our brother Cnut in the old way of the days of Alfred the greatest of our line, you will have heard. We have fought, and all men say that we have fought well; but this is how things have been ordered by the Lord of Hosts. Therefore, my thane, for your sake, and seeing specially that already our brother Cnut is well disposed toward you, as Godwine son of Wulfnoth tells us, by reason of your service to Emma the queen—I would bid you accept him as ruler of East Anglia, where your place is. And you shall hold this letter in proof that thus our word to you is, if in days to come the line of Wessex kings shell hold the kingdom once more. Few have been those who have been faithful to us as have you.

Now, I will set down no more, for Eadmund my king wrote to me as he was wont to speak in the days that were gone, and I wept as I read his words—wept bitterly there on Ashingdon hill, and I am not ashamed thereof.

And when I had spelt out to the end of his letter there were words also that were pleasant to me. For they were written by Elfric the abbot, my friend, thus:

Written by the hand of Elfric, Abbot of St. Peter's Minster at Medehamstede.

I, Elfric, bid you, my son Redwald, be of cheer, for in the end all shall be for the best. Bide in your home of Bures if Cnut wills, as I think shall be, and see to the good of your own people as would your father who has gone. There is an end of war for England. It remains for us to make for the things of peace.

Then I sat and thought for long, and at last it seemed to me that I could do nought but as both king and friend would bid me, and the words that Elfric had written weighed more with me than those of the king. Now that I could fight no more I began to long to get back to that home life in the old place that had seemed so near to me and had been taken away.

And then came the thought of Uldra, and of what she would say of this. But as things were, and with this letter before me, I could not doubt what her word would be. She would speak as Elfric wrote. Then I longed for Olaf and his counsel. But he was far beyond my reach, nor could I tell where he might be. He had gone across the gray rim of the sea, and no track was there for me to follow.

The evening fell, and still I sat there, and Thrand of Colchester came to seek me—I know not what he feared for me if I grew lonely on Ashingdon hill now that all seemed lost.

"Master, come back to the ships," he said. "It is ill biding here after sunset. The slain are unquiet by reason of Streone's deeds."

"They will not harm me, Thrand," I answered. "I would I lay here with them even now . . . but that is past."

I rose up and went down the hill with him, and the sun set behind it, and it was gray and black against the red evening sky. There was a mist from the river, and one might think that one saw many things moving therein.

And I know not that I saw anything more than mortal—though maybe I did—until as we went to Cnut's dune, under which Egil's ship lay, and we passed that place where the left wing of our line had been driven back on the marsh. Then I saw an armed man coming towards us, and Thrand, who walked at my shoulder, closed up to me, for the warrior had a drawn sword in his hand.

And when we came face to face I knew that I looked once more on Ulfkytel our earl, and a great fear fell on me, for he lay with his men in the mound where he fell, and Egil and I had raised it over him. Then I must speak.

"Greeting to the earl," I said, and my voice sounded strange.

But he made no answer, save that he looked me in the face and smiled at me gravely and sweetly, and sheathed the sword he held, folding his arms thereafter as one whose work is done. And while one might count a score, I saw him, plainly as in life, and then he was gone.

Wherefore I thought that our own earl was not wroth with me for what I would do; and after that my mind was at rest, and ready to take what peace might come to me at the hands of Cnut the king.

"We have seen the earl," Thrand said, when he was gone.

"Aye. He tells us that the war is at an end, and that, in truth, Cnut is king in East Anglia."

"It is well," Thrand answered simply. "Dane were my fathers, and Danish is my name and that of Guthorm my brother. If Cnut lets us keep our old customs and governs with justice, it is all we need."

There was spoken the word of all Anglia, whether of the north or south folk, and I knew it. No man would but hail him there willingly. Our people had never forgotten that the Wessex kings were far from them, and that little help came from thence.

Now, when I came to Egil, I told him that the letter I had gotten bore messages to me from Eadmund, and I read it to him so far as I have written here.

"This is good," he answered, when I said that it should be as the king said. "Now are you Cnut's man and my friend indeed. Thorkel, my foster brother, is to be Earl of East Anglia, and you shall be Thane of Bures as ever. And I shall have to mind Colchester and this shore, and we shall see much of each other."

So he rejoiced, and I grew more cheerful as the days went on. Then Thorkel came, and together we went to Colchester, and thence he bade me go to Bures in peace and take my old place, for he said that Cnut and Emma the queen would have me honoured in all that I would, even did he himself not wish to keep me as his own friend.

Then said I:

"What of Geirmund, your own man, who had Bures?"

Egil laughed.

"Geirmund is the man over whom I fell at your feet at Leavenheath fight. You yourself have made an end of him. I wonder that you knew it not."

So I went back to Bures, and there is no need to say how my poor folk rejoiced. But Ailwin was not there, nor had Gunnhild been seen. The young priest was there yet, and well loved.

Then I said to myself:

"Let things bide for a while. When peace comes altogether and certainly, then will Ailwin bring back Hertha, and there will be trouble enough then, maybe. As it is, my house must be rebuilt, and the land has to settle down after war."

With that I set to work to gather the timber together from my own woods, that we might begin to build in the coming springtime, and I grew happy enough at that work, though I would that I worked for Uldra.

Then came the news that Eadmund our king was dead, slain by Streone's men—some say by the Earl's son, others by the king's own men, whom he bribed. One will, I suppose, never know what hands did the deed, but Streone's doing it was when all is told.

There is more in my mind about this than I will say. But Thrand, who had been with me, begged that he might go to Colchester for a while; and I let him go, for he waxed restless, though I knew not what he would leave me for.

Then the kingdom was Cnut's, and he spoke to the Wessex nobles at a great council in London in such wise that they hailed him for king. There was naught else for them to do. And he promised to keep the laws of Eadgar {15}, and to defend Holy Church, and to make no difference between Dane and Saxon, and by that time men knew that what Cnut the king promised that he would perform.

So came the strong hand that Ethelred our dying king had foretold, and sure and lasting peace lay fair before England. Above all things that made for our content Cnut promised to send home his host. Nor was it long before Jarl Eirik sailed away with all but those to whom lands had fallen. There were many manors whose English lords had died, and they must own Danish masters.

And I will say this other word, that now at the time that I write of these things, men speak of English only, for Cnut has welded the races of England into one in such wise as has never been before.

So I mourned for Eadmund, and wrought at home-making until the springtime came, and all the while the thought of Uldra grew dearer to me, and I longed to seek her again. And the thought of Hertha and my betrothal seemed as bondage to me. Yet I would do nought till Ailwin came or till I could find him. But none knew where he was.

I knew now that it was well that Hertha and I should not meet till all was broken off, for her I could not love, and she knew nought of me. Yet for her sake I set the Wormingford thralls at work in the like manner as my own people were busied, that she might find withal to build her own house place afresh, when, if ever, she should return.

Now, one day as I stood watching the shaping of the timber for the first framing of my hall, Thrand came back. He ran to me when he saw me, and cried:

"Master all is avenged! Streone the traitor is no more."

I took him away to a quiet place, for this news was strange, and the thralls were listening wonderingly, and I asked him how this came about.

"Master, I slew him myself," he said grimly.

Then said I:

"By subtlety—after his own manner?"

"Not so, master. But even in Cnut's own presence."

So I was amazed, and bade him tell all.

"When I left you, master," he said, "I took service with Jarl Thorkel. Then he went to court in London, even as I hoped, for that was all I needed, and presently came Streone with a great train to see Cnut. Now the king is not a great and strong man, as men think who have not seen him, but is tall and overgrown for his years, looking eighteen or twenty, though he is younger. He will be a powerful man some day, but his mail hangs loosely on him now. He is like an eagle in face, for his nose is high and bent, and his eyes are clear and piercing. Quiet and very pleasant is he in his way, and being so young also, some think they can do as they will with him. But that they try not twice.

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