The news filled Edmund with anxiety. Ever since the day he left her on her father's galley his thoughts had turned often to the Danish maiden, and the resolution to carry out his promise and some day seek her again had never for a moment wavered. He had seen many fair young Saxons, and could have chosen a bride where he would among these, for few Saxons girls would have turned a deaf ear to the wooing of one who was at once of high rank, a prime favourite with the king, and regarded by his countrymen as one of the bravest of the Saxon champions; but the dark-haired Freda, who united the fearlessness and independence of a woman with the frankness and gaiety of a child, had won his heart.
It was true she was a Dane and a pagan; but her father was his friend, and would, he felt sure, offer no objections on the ground of the enmity of the races. Since Guthorn and his people had embraced Christianity, the enmity between the races, in England at least, was rapidly declining. As to her religion, Edmund doubted not that she would, under his guidance and teaching, soon cast away the blood-stained gods of the Northmen and accept Christianity.
In the five years of strife and warfare which had elapsed since he saw her Edmund had often pictured their next meeting. He had not doubted that she would remain true to him. Few as were the words which had been spoken, he knew that when she said, "I will wait for you even till I die," she had meant it, and that she was not one to change. He had even been purposing, on his return to England, to ask King Alfred to arrange through Guthorn for a safe pass for him to go to Norway. To hear, then, that she had been carried off from her father's side was a terrible blow, and in his anxiety to arrive at Siegbert's tent Edmund urged the rowers to their fullest exertions.
It was three hours after leaving Paris when the Dane pointed to a village at a short distance from the river and told him that Siegbert was lying there. The Dragon was steered to shore, and Edmund leaping out followed the Dane with rapid footsteps to the village. The wounded jarl was lying upon a heap of straw.
"Is it really you, Edmund?" he exclaimed as the young Saxon entered. "Glad am I indeed that my messenger did not arrive too late. I heard of you when we first landed—how the Danes, when they sailed up the Seine, had seen a Saxon galley of strange shape which had rowed rapidly up the river; how the galley herself had never again been seen; but how a young Saxon with his band had performed wonders in the defence of Paris, and had burned well-nigh half the Danish fleet.
"They said that the leader was named Edmund, for they had heard the name shouted in battle; and especially when he, with one other alone, escaped from the burning tower and swam the river. So I was sure that it was you. Then, a week back, my men told me of a strange ship which had passed down the river to Paris, and I doubted not that it was your Dragon, which had been hidden somewhere during the siege. I thought then of sending to tell you that I was lying here wounded; but Freda, who had always been talking of you, suddenly turned coy and said that you might have forgotten us, and if you wanted us you would come to us in Norway."
"But where is Freda?" Edmund, who had been listening impatiently, exclaimed. "One of your men told me that she had been carried off. Is it true?"
"Alas! it is true," Siegbert replied; "and that is why I sent for you. I have never been good friends with Bijorn since the wounding of his son, but after a time the matter blew over. Sweyn, who though but with one arm, and that the left, has grown into a valiant warrior, is now, Bijorn being dead, one of our boldest vikings. A year since he became a declared suitor for Freda's hand. In this, indeed, he is not alone, seeing that she has grown up one of our fairest maidens, and many are the valorous deeds that have been done to win a smile from her; but she has refused all suitors, Sweyn with the others. He took his refusal in bad part, and even ventured to vow she should be his whether she willed it or not. Of course I took the matter up and forbade all further intimacy, and we had not met again till the other day before Paris. We had high words there, but I thought no more of it. A few days afterwards I was struck by a crossbow bolt in the leg. It smashed my knee, and I shall never be able to use my leg again. I well-nigh died of fever and vexation, but Freda nursed me through it. She had me carried on a litter here to be away from the noise and revelry of the camp. Last night there was a sudden outcry. Some of my men who sprang to arms were smitten down, and the assailants burst in here and tore Freda, shrieking, away. Their leader was Sweyn of the left hand. As I lay tossing here, mad with the misfortune which ties me to my couch, I thought of you. I said, 'If any can follow and recapture Freda it is Edmund.' The Danes had for the most part moved away, and there were few would care to risk a quarrel with Sweyn in a matter which concerned them not closely; but I felt that I could rely upon you, and that you would spare no pains to rescue my child."
"That will I not!" Edmund exclaimed; "but tell me first what you think are his plans. Which way has he gone, and what force has he with him?"
"The band he commands are six shiploads, each numbering fifty men. What his plans may be I know not, but many of the Danes, I know, purposed, when the war was finished here, to move east through Burgundy. Some intended to build boats on the banks of the Rhine and sail down on that river, others intended to journey further and to descend by the Elbe. I know not which course Sweyn may adopt. The country between this and the Rhine swarms with Danes. I do not suppose that Sweyn will join any other party. Having Freda with him, he will prefer keeping apart; but in any case it would not be safe for you to journey with your band, who would assuredly become embroiled with the first party of Danes they met; and even if they be as brave as yourself they would be defeated by such superior numbers."
"You do not think that Sweyn will venture to use violence to force Freda to become his wife?"
"I think he will hardly venture upon that," Siegbert said, "however violent and headstrong he may be. To carry off a maiden for a wife is accounted no very evil deed, for the maiden is generally not unwilling; but to force her by violence to become his wife would be a deed so contrary to our usages that it would bring upon him the anger of the whole nation. Knowing Sweyn's disposition, I believe that were there no other way, he would not hesitate even at this, but might take ship and carry her to some distant land; but he would not do this until all other means fail. He will strive to tire her out, and so bring her in her despair to consent to wed him."
Edmund was silent for three or four minutes; then he said: "I must consult my kinsman Egbert. I will return and tell you what I purpose doing."
On leaving the cottage Edmund found Egbert walking up and down outside awaiting the result of the interview. He had been present when the Dane had told of Freda's abduction, and knew how sore a blow it was to the young ealdorman, for Edmund had made no secret to him of his intention some day to wed the Danish jarl's daughter. Edmund in a few words related to him the substance of Siegbert's narrative, and ended by saying: "Now, Egbert, what is best to be done?"
"'Tis of no use asking me, Edmund; you know well enough that it is you that always decide and I agree. I have a hand to strike, but no head to plan. Tell me only what you wish, and you may be sure that I will do my best to execute it."
"Of course we must follow," Edmund said; "of that there is no question. The only doubt is as to the force we must take. What Siegbert said is true. The Danish bands are so numerous to the east that we should be sure to fall in with some of them, and fight as we might, should be destroyed; and yet with a smaller number how could we hope to rescue Freda from Sweyn's hands?"
Edmund walked up and down for some time.
"I think," he went on at last, "the best plan will be to take a party of but four at most. I must choose those who will be able to pass best as Danes. With so small a number I may traverse the country unobserved. I will take with me two of Siegbert's men, who, when we get nigh to Sweyn's band, may join with him and tell me how things are going, and how Sweyn treats his captive. If I find he is pushing matters to an extreme I must make some desperate effort to carry her off; but if, as is more probable, he trusts to time to break her resolution, I shall follow at a short distance."
"Shall I go with you, Edmund?"
"I think it will be better not, Egbert. Your beard would mark you as a Saxon at once."
"But that I can cut off," Egbert said. "It would be a sacrifice truly, but I would do it without hesitation."
"Thanks, dear kinsman, but I think it would be of more purpose for you to remain in command of the Dragon. She may meet many foes, and it were best that you were there to fight and direct her. I pray you at once to descend the Seine and sailing round the north coast of France, place the Dragon at the mouth of the Rhine. Do not interfere with any Danish ships that you may see pass out, but keep at a distance. Should Sweyn descend the Rhine I will, if possible, send a messenger down before him, so do you look out for small boats; and if you see one in which the rower hoists a white flag at the end of his oar, you will know he is my messenger. If I find Sweyn goes on towards the Elbe I will also send you word, and you will then move the Dragon to the mouth of that river.
"Lastly, if you receive no message, but if you mark that in a Danish vessel when passing you a white cloth is waved from one of the windows of the cabins in the poop, that will be a signal to you that the vessel is Sweyn's, and that Freda is a captive on board. In that case you will of course at once attack it. Let us ask Siegbert. He has sailed up both the Rhine and the Elbe, and can tell us of some quiet port near the mouth of each river where you may lay the Dragon somewhat out of sight of passers-by, while you can yet note all ships that go down the river. My messengers will then know where to find you." Having settled this point they returned to Siegbert, and Edmund told him what he thought of doing.
"I can advise no better," Siegbert said. "Assuredly you cannot prevail by force. At present I have only ten of my followers with me; the rest, after I was wounded, and it was plain that a long time must elapse before I could again lead them in the field, asked me to let them follow some other chief, and as they could not be idle here I consented. I have ten men with me, but these would be but a small reinforcement. As you say, your Saxons would be instantly known, and the Northmen have suffered so at their hands during the siege that the first party you met would set upon you."
"I will take two only of your men," Edmund said. "Choose me two who are not known by sight to Sweyn. I wish one to be a subtle fellow, who will act as a spy for me; the other I should choose of commanding stature; and the air of a leader. He will go with my party, and should we come upon Danes he will assume the place of leader, and can answer any questions. There is far too much difference between the Saxon and Danish tongue for me and my men to pass as Danes if we have many words to say. I shall take four of my men, all full grown, strong, and good fighters. They have but little hair upon their chins at present, and they can shave that off. Now, jarl, I want five Danish dresses, for your costume differs somewhat from ours. Have you horses? If not, I must send back to Paris to buy some."
"I have plenty to mount you and your party."
"Good," Edmund said; "I will go down to my ship and pick my men."
In half an hour the party were ready to start. Egbert had received from Siegbert particulars of villages at the mouths of the Rhine and Elbe, and he promised Edmund that a watch should be kept night and day at the mouth of the Rhine until a messenger arrived. Edmund had already ascertained that Sweyn had left a fortnight before with his following, and had marched towards Champagne. There probably he had halted his main body, returning only with a party of horsemen to carry off Freda.
"I would I could go with you," Siegbert groaned as Edmund said adieu to him. "I would ride straight into his camp and challenge him to mortal combat, but as it is I am helpless."
"Never fear, good Siegbert," Edmund said cheerfully; "when your leg is cured travel straight homeward, and there, I trust, before very long to place Freda safe and unharmed in your arms. If I come not you will know that I have perished."
A minute later, after a few parting words with Egbert, Edmund mounted his horse, and followed by his six companions, rode off at full speed. He knew that it would be useless making any inquiries about Sweyn and his party. But few of the inhabitants of the country were to be seen about, for the Danes had burned every house within very many miles of Paris, and the peasants would assuredly not have paid any special attention to a party of Danes, for whenever they saw the dreaded marauders even at a distance they forsook their homes and fled to the forests. The party therefore rode eastward until nightfall, then picketed their horses, and having lit a fire, made their supper from the store of provisions they had brought with them, and then lay down to sleep for the night.
At daybreak they again started and continued their journey until it was necessary to halt to give their horses a rest. They had passed several parties of Danes, for these in great numbers, after the siege of Paris had been given up, were journeying towards Burgundy. There was but slight greeting as they passed; but on one occasion a horseman rode out from one of the bands and entered into conversation with the two Danes who rode at the head of the party. They told them that they were followers of the Jarl Siegbert, and were riding to join the rest of his band, who were with the company of Jarl Eric, as Siegbert would be long before he would be able to move, and had therefore kept only a few of his followers with him.
"Eric is a long way ahead," the Dane said; "he must be full as far as Nancy by this time. Those who left first," he grumbled, "will have the pick of the country. We were fools to linger so long before Paris." Then turning his horse, he rode back to his comrades, and the party continued their way.
They avoided all towns and large Danish encampments on the way, but made inquiries from all small parties they met after the party of Sweyn. They learned without difficulty the place where he had been encamped a few days before, but on their arriving in the neighbourhood they found that the place was deserted, nor could any tell them the direction in which the Northmen had travelled.
CHAPTER XVI: FREDA
For some days Edmund and his party scoured the country round, journeying now in one direction, now in another, but without hearing ought of Sweyn's party. Certainly they had not gone along the track which the main body of the Danes had followed; but the question was whether they had turned rather to the south in order to cross the mountain ranges between them and the Rhine, or had turned north and journeyed through the great forest of Ardennes, and so to some of the other rivers which run down into the North Sea.
The latter was in some respects the most likely course to have been chosen. By taking it Sweyn would avoid altogether the track which the majority of his countrymen were taking, and this would naturally be his object. Siegbert had many powerful friends, and the carrying off of the jarl's daughter from the side of her wounded father would be regarded as a grave offence; and Sweyn might well wish to keep clear of his countrymen until he had forced Freda to become his wife. Even then it would not be safe for him for a long time to return to his country. Striking through the Ardennes he would come down upon the Scheldt, the Moselle, the Maas, or other rivers flowing into the North Sea direct, or into the Rhine.
Edmund knew nothing of these streams; but the Danes with him said there were several rivers so situated, for they had sailed up them. Where they took their rise they knew not, but it would probably be in or beyond the forest of Ardennes.
"Then in that way we will search," Edmund said. "If they come upon a river they will doubtless set to work to build galleys to carry them to the sea, for with only three hundred men Sweyn will not venture to march by land through a country which has but lately suffered heavily at the hands of the Danes. It will take him a month or six weeks to cut down trees and build his ships; therefore we may hope to find him before he is ready to embark. First we will push through the forest to the other side; there we will question the inhabitants concerning the position of the nearest rivers; then we will divide into parties and go on the search, appointing a place of rendezvous where we may rejoin each other. It can hardly be that we shall fail to find them if they have taken that way."
Before entering the forest they obtained a considerable store of provisions; for they had no idea of its extent, and had no time to spend in hunting game. The forest of Ardennes was at that time of immense size, extending from Verdun and Metz on the south, to Liege and Aix on the north.
Men of the present day would have found it impossible to find their way through, but would speedily have been lost in its trackless recesses; but the Saxons and Danes were accustomed to travel in forests, and knew the signs as well as did the Red-skins and hunters of the American forests. Therefore they felt no hesitation in entering the forest without a guide.
The danger which might beset them was of a different kind. Immense numbers of the inhabitants of France, Champagne, and Burgundy had taken refuge in the forests, driving their flocks and herds before them. Here they lived a wild life, hoping that the emperor would ere long clear the country of the invaders. No mercy could be expected if Edmund and his party fell in with a number of these fugitives. They would have no time to tell their story, but would be attacked at once as a party of plundering Danes.
Knowing that the horses would be an encumbrance to them in the forest, they were sold to the last party of Northmen they encountered before entering it, and they pursued their way on foot. The greatest caution was observed; every sound was marked, and at the call of a human voice, the low of cattle, or the bleating of sheep, they turned their course so as to avoid encounter with the inhabitants of the forest. They lit no fires at night, and scarce a word was spoken on the march. Several times they had to take refuge in thickets when they heard the sound of approaching voices, and it needed all their knowledge of woodcraft to maintain their direction steadily towards the north. At last, after six days' journey, they issued out into the open country beyond the forest and soon arrived at a cottage.
The peasant was struck with terror and astonishment at the appearance of seven Danes; and he could with difficulty be made to understand that their object was neither plunder nor murder, but that they wished only information from him of the situation and direction of the various rivers of the country. After learning from him all that he knew Edmund arrived at the conclusion that Sweyn would probably attempt to descend either by a branch of the Moselle, and so to the Rhine on the right, or by one of the Maas on the left of the place at which they had emerged from the forest.
Edmund decided to strike the Maas, and to follow its course up into the forest, taking with him one of the Danes and two of his Saxons, and to send the others to search the banks of the tributary of the Moselle. Before starting he sent the peasant to the nearest village to purchase garments of the country for the whole party. He had already told the man that they were not Danes but Saxons, the bitter enemies of the Northmen, and that he had been aiding in the defence of Paris against them.
The peasant did not doubt what Edmund told him, for the conduct of his visitors was so opposed to all that he had heard of the doings of the Danes that he well believed they could not belong to that nation. He was away some hours, and returned with the required dresses. Having put these on, and laying aside their helmets and shields, the two parties started, the Danes alone carrying with them their former garments. The next day Edmund arrived at the river, and at once followed its course upwards, for Sweyn and his party would be building their ships in the forest.
They had not proceeded many miles before they heard the sound of axes. Edmund gave an exclamation of delight. It was almost certain that he had hit upon Sweyn's track, for it was unlikely that any of the inhabitants of the country would have gone so far into the forest for timber. They now moved with the greatest caution, and as they approached the place whence the sound proceeded Edmund halted the two Saxons and bade them conceal themselves. The Dane resumed his own garments and put on his helmet and shield; and then, taking advantage of every clump of undergrowth, and moving with the greatest caution, he and Edmund made their way forward. Presently they came within sight of an animated scene.
A large number of trees had been felled by the banks of the river and three hundred Northmen were busily at work. The frames of two great galleys had already been set up, and they were now engaged in chopping out planks for their sides. Two huts were erected in the middle of the clearing. One was large, and Sweyn's banner floated from a spear before it. The other which stood close by was much smaller, and Edmund doubted not that this was appropriated to Freda.
Nothing more could be done now—their object was so far attained; and retiring they joined the two Saxons and made their way along the river bank till they reached the edge of the forest. One of the Saxons was now sent off to the peasant's hut, where he was to remain until the return of the other party, and was then to bring them on to the spot which Edmund had chosen for his encampment. This was in the heart of a large clump of underwood extending down to the river.
The brushwood was so thick that it was entered with difficulty, and no passer-by would dream that a party was hidden within it. Near the stream Edmund and his companions with their swords soon cleared away a circle, and with the boughs constructed an arbour. A thin screen of bushes separated them from the river, but they could see the water, and none could pass up or down unperceived.
The Saxon was charged to bring with him on his return a considerable supply of provisions, for it would have been dangerous to wander in the woods in pursuit of game. The Northmen had, Edmund noticed, some cattle with them; but they would be sure to be hunting in the woods, as they would wish to save the cattle for provision on their voyage. It was nightfall before the hut was completed; and as they had journeyed far for many days Edmund determined to postpone an attempt to discover what was passing in Sweyn's camp until the following evening.
The day passed quietly, and towards evening Edmund and the Dane started for Sweyn's camp. When they approached it they saw many fires burning, and the shouting and singing of the Norsemen rang through the forest. They waited until the fires burnt down somewhat and they could see many of the Danes stretching themselves down by them. Then Edmund's companion proceeded to the camp.
Anxious as Edmund was himself to learn what was doing, he restrained his impatience, for it was safer that the Northman should go alone. In the dull light of the dying fires his features would be unnoticed, and his tongue would not betray him if spoken to. Siegbert had commended him as a crafty and ready fellow, and Edmund felt that he would be able to gather more information than he could do himself. From his place of concealment he kept his eyes fixed on the Northman's figure. Presently he saw him enter the clearing, and sauntering slowly across it throw himself down near a fire by which a party of Danes were still sitting talking.
One by one these lay down, and when the last had done so the Northman rose quietly and stole out again into the forest. When he rejoined Edmund the latter set forward with him, and not a word was spoken until they were some distance from the camp; then Edmund stopped.
"What have you learned?" he asked.
"All that there is to learn, I think," the Northman replied. "The lady Freda is, as you supposed, a captive in the little hut. Two men only keep watch over it by day, but at night six lie around it, two being always on foot. They speak in admiration of her courage and spirit. She has sworn to Sweyn that she will slay herself if he attempts to use violence to force her to marriage with him, and they doubt not that she will keep her word. However, they believe that she will grow tired out at last when she finds that there is no hope whatever of a rescue. The ships are being built for a long sea voyage, for Sweyn is going to lead them to join the Viking Hasting in the Mediterranean, and has promised his men the plunder of countries ten times richer than France or England. With so long an expedition in view, they may well think that the Lady Freda's resolution will soon give way, and that she may come to see that the position of the wife of a bold viking is a thousand times preferable to that of a captive. Many of the men loudly express their wonder why she would refuse the love of so valiant a warrior as Sweyn."
The news was at once good and bad. Edmund did not fear Freda's resolution giving way for a long time, but the news that Sweyn intended to carry her upon so distant an expedition troubled him. It was of course possible that he might intercept them with the Dragon at the mouth of the Maas, but it was uncertain whether the ship would arrive at the mouth of the Rhine in time to be brought round before the Northmen descended. The length of her voyage would depend entirely on the wind. Were this favourable when she reached the mouth of the Seine, a week would carry her to her destination. Should it be unfavourable there was no saying how long the voyage would last.
The risk was so great that Edmund determined to make an effort to rouse the country against the Danes, and to fall upon them in their encampment; but the task would he knew be a hard one, for the dread of the Danes was so great that only in large towns was any resistance to them ever offered. However he determined to try, for if the Northmen succeeded in getting to the sea the pursuit would indeed be a long one, and many weeks and even months might elapse before he could again come up to them.
On the following day the rest of the party arrived, and leaving the forest Edmund proceeded with them through the country, visiting every village, and endeavouring to rouse the people to attack the Danes, but the news that the dreaded marauders were so near excited terror only. The assurances of Edmund that there was much rich plunder in their camp which would become the property of those who destroyed them, excited but a feeble interest. The only point in the narrative which excited their contentment was the news that the Danes were building ships and were going to make their way down to the sea.
"In Heaven's name let them go!" was the cry; "who would interfere with the flight of a savage beast? If they are going down the river they will scarcely land to scatter and plunder the country, and he would be mad indeed who would seek them when they are disposed to let us alone."
Finding his efforts vain in the country near the forest Edmund went down the river to the town of Liege, which stood on its banks. When it became known that a band of Northmen was on the upper river, and was likely to pass down, the alarm spread quickly through the town, and a council of the principal inhabitants was summoned. Before these Edmund told his story, and suggested that the fighting men of the town should march up the river and fall upon the Danes in their camp.
"It is but two days' march—the Northmen will be unsuspicious of danger, and taken by surprise may be easily defeated." The proposition, however, was received with absolute derision.
"You must be mad to propose such a thing, young Saxon, if Saxon indeed you are, but for aught we know you may be a Northman sent by them to draw us into an ambush. No; we will prepare for their coming. We will man our walls and stand on the defensive, and if there be, as you say, but three hundred of them, we can defend ourselves successfully; and we may hope that, seeing our strength, and that we are prepared for their coming, the Northmen will pass by without molesting us; but as for moving outside our walls, it would be worse than folly even to think of such a thing."
After this rebuff Edmund concluded that he could hope for no assistance from the inhabitants of the country, but must depend upon himself and the Dragon alone. He at once despatched two of his men, a Dane and a Saxon, with orders to journey as rapidly as possible to the rendezvous, where the Dragon was to be found at the mouth of the Rhine, and to beg Egbert to move round with all speed to the Maas.
Having done this, he purchased a small and very fast rowing-skiff at Liege, and taking his place in this with his four remaining followers, he rowed up the river. It took them three days before they reached the edge of the forest. On reaching their former hiding-place, they landed. The bushes were carefully drawn aside, and the boat hauled up until completely screened from sight of the river, and Edmund and the Dane at once started for the encampment of the Northmen.
They had been ten days absent, and in that time great progress had been made with the galleys. They looked indeed completely finished as they stood high and lofty on the river bank. The planks were all in their places; the long rows of benches for the rowers were fastened in; the poop and forecastle were finished and decked. A number of long straight poles lay alongside ready to be fashioned into oars; and Edmund thought that in another two or three days the galleys would be ready for launching. They were long and low in the waist, and were evidently built for great speed. Edmund did not think that they were intended to sail, except perhaps occasionally when the wind was favourable, as an aid to the rowers. Each would carry a hundred and fifty men, and there were thirty seats, so that sixty would row at once.
"They are fine galleys," the Dane whispered. "Sweyn has a good eye for a boat."
"Yes," Edmund said, "they look as if they will be very fast. With oars alone they would leave the Dragon behind, but with sails and oars we should overhaul them in a wind. I wish it had been otherwise, for if, when they reach the mouth of the river, there is no wind, they may give the Dragon the slip. Ah!" he exclaimed, "there is Freda."
As he spoke a tall maiden came out from the small hut. The distance was too great for Edmund to distinguish her features, but he doubted not from the style of her garments that it was Siegbert's daughter. There were other women moving about the camp, for the Danes were generally accompanied by their wives on their expeditions; but there was something in the carriage and mien of the figure at the door of the hut which distinguished it from the rest. She did not move far away, but stood watching the men at work on the ships and the scene around. Presently a tall figure strode down from the vessels towards her.
"There is Sweyn!" Edmund exclaimed, seeing that the warrior possessed but one arm.
"Ah! you know him by sight then?" The Dane said.
"I should do so," Edmund answered grimly, "seeing that it was I who smote off that right arm of his. I regret now that I did not strike at his head instead."
The Dane looked with admiration and surprise at his leader. He had heard of the fight between the Saxon champion and Sweyn, which had cost the latter his right arm, but until now he had been ignorant of Edmund's identity with Sweyn's conqueror.
Freda did not seek to avoid her captor, but remained standing quietly until he approached. For some time they conversed; then she turned and left him and re-entered her hut. Sweyn stood looking after her, and then with an angry stamp of the foot returned to the galleys.
"I would give much to be able to warn her that I am present and will follow her until I rescue her from Sweyn," Edmund said. "Once at sea and on her way south she may well despair of escape, and may consent, from sheer hopelessness, to become his wife. Were it not that her hut is so strongly guarded at night I would try to approach it, but as this cannot be done I must take my chance in the day. To-morrow I will dress myself in your garments and will hide in the wood as near as I can to the hut; then if she come out to take the air I will walk boldly out and speak with her. I see no other way of doing it."
On the following morning, attired in the Dane's clothes and helmet, Edmund took his place near the edge of the wood. It was not until late in the afternoon that Freda made her appearance. The moment was propitious; almost all the men were at work on the ships and their oars. The women were cooking the evening meal, and there was no one near Freda, with the exception of the two armed Danes who sat on the trunk of a fallen tree on guard, a short distance away. Edmund issued boldly from the wood, and, waiting till Freda's steps, as she passed backwards and forwards, took her to the farthest point from the guards, he approached her.
"Freda," he said, "do not start or betray surprise, for you are watched."
At the sound of his voice the girl had paused in her steps, and exclaimed in a low voice, "Edmund!" and then, obeying his words, stood motionless.
"I am near you, dear, and will watch over you. I have not strength to carry you away; but my ship will be at the mouth of the river as you pass out. Hang a white cloth from the window of your cabin in the poop as a signal. If we fail to rescue you there we will follow you wheresoever you may go, even to Italy, where I hear you are bound. So keep up a brave heart. I have seen your father, and he has sent me to save you. See, the guards are approaching, I must go."
Edmund then made for the forest. "Stop there!" the guards cried. "Who are you, and whence do you come?"
Edmund made no answer, but, quickening his steps, passed among the trees, and was soon beyond pursuit. This, indeed, the Danes did not attempt. They had been surprised at seeing, as they supposed, one of their party addressing Freda, for Sweyn's orders that none should speak with her were precise. He had given this command because he feared, that by the promise of rich rewards she might tempt some of his followers to aid her escape. They had, therefore, risen to interrupt the conversation, but it was not until they approached that it struck them that the Northman's face was unfamiliar to them, and that he was not one of their party, but Edmund had entered the wood before they recovered from their surprise. Their shouts to him to stop brought Sweyn to the spot.
"What is it?" he asked.
"A strange Northman has come out of the wood, and spoken to the lady Freda."
Sweyn turned to his captive. She stood pale and trembling, for the shock of the surprise had been a severe one.
"Who is this whom you have spoken to?" he asked. Freda did not answer.
"I insist upon knowing," Sweyn exclaimed angrily.
Freda recovered herself with an effort, and, raising her head, said, "Your insistence has small effect with me, as you know, Jarl Sweyn; but as there is no reason for concealment I will tell you. He is a messenger whom my dear father has sent to me to tell me that some day he hopes to rescue me from your hands."
Sweyn laughed loudly.
"He might have saved himself the trouble," he said. "Your good father lies wounded near Paris, and by the time he is able to set out to your rescue we shall be with Hasting on the sunny waters of Italy, and long ere that you will, I hope, have abandoned your obstinate disposition, and consented to be my wife."
Freda did not answer at once. Now that there was a hope of rescue, however distant, she thought it might be as well to give Sweyn some faint hope that in time she might yield to his wishes. Then she said:
"I have told you often, jarl, that I will never be your wife, and I do not think that I shall ever change my mind. It may be that the sunny skies you speak of may work a wonderful change in me, but that remains to be seen." Sweyn retired well satisfied. Her words were less defiant than any she had hitherto addressed to him. As to the message of her father, who could know nothing of his intention to sail to the Mediterranean, he thought no further of it.
Three days later the galleys were launched, and after a day spent in putting everything in its place they started on their way down the river. They rowed many miles, and at night moored by the bank. After darkness had fallen a small boat rowed at full speed past them. It paid no attention to the summons to stop, enforced though it was by several arrows, but continued its way down the river, and was soon lost in the darkness. Sweyn was much displeased. As they rowed down they had carefully destroyed every boat they found on the river, in order that the news of their coming might not precede them.
"The boat must have been hauled up and hidden," he said; "we might as well have stopped and landed at some of the villages and replenished our larder. Now we shall find the small places all deserted, and the cattle driven away from the river. It is an unfortunate mischance."
As the Northmen anticipated they found the villages they passed the next day entirely deserted by their inhabitants, and not a head of cattle was to be seen grazing near the banks. In the afternoon they came to Liege. The gates were shut, and the walls bristled with spears. The galleys passed without a stay. Sweyn had other objects in view. Any booty that might be obtained without severe fighting he would have been glad enough to gather in; but with a long sea-voyage before him he cared not to burden his galleys, and his principal desire was to obtain a sufficient supply of provisions for the voyage. For several days the galleys proceeded down the river. The villages were all deserted, and the towns prepared for defence.
When he arrived within a day's journey of the sea he was forced to halt. Half the crews were left in charge of the ships, and with the others he led a foray far inland, and after some sharp fighting with the natives succeeded in driving down a number of cattle to the ships and in bringing in a store of flour.
Edmund had kept ahead of the galleys, stopping at every town and village and warning the people of the approach of the marauders. He reached the mouth of the river two days before them, but to his deep disappointment saw that the Dragon had not arrived at the rendezvous. On the following afternoon, however, a distant sail was seen, and as it approached Edmund and his followers gave a shout of joy as they recognized the Dragon, which was using her oars as well as sails and was approaching at full speed. Edmund leaped into the boat and rowed to meet them, and a shout of welcome arose from the Dragon as the crew recognized their commander.
"Are we in time?" Egbert shouted.
"Just in time," Edmund replied. "They will be here to-morrow." Edmund was soon on board, and was astonished at seeing Siegbert standing by the side of his kinsman.
"What is the news of Freda?" the jarl asked eagerly.
"She is well and keeps up a brave heart," Edmund replied. "She has sworn to kill herself if Sweyn attempts to make her his wife by violence. I have spoken to her and told her that rescue will come. But how is it that you are here?"
"After you had left us your good kinsman Egbert suggested to me that I should take passage in the Dragon. In the first place I should the sooner see my daughter; and in the next, it would be perilous work, after the Danish army had left, for a small party of us to traverse France."
"I would I had thought of it," Edmund said; "but my mind was so disturbed with the thought of Freda's peril that it had no room for other matters. And how fares it with you?"
"Bravely," the Northman replied. "As soon as I sniffed the salt air of the sea my strength seemed to return to me. My wound is well-nigh healed; but the joint has stiffened, and my leg will be stiff for the rest of my life. But that matters little. And now tell me all your adventures. We have heard from the messenger you sent how shrewdly you hunted out Sweyn's hiding-place."
CHAPTER XVII: A LONG CHASE
The following morning the weather was still and dull. Not a breath of wind ruffled the surface of the river.
"This is unfortunate," Edmund said to his companion. "Sweyn's galleys will row faster than we can go with oars alone, and though they may not know the Dragon they will be sure that she is not one of their own ships. We must hope that they may attack us."
The day passed on without a sight of the galleys, but late in the afternoon they were seen in the distance. The Dragon was moored near the middle of the rivet. Her oars were stowed away, and the crews ordered to keep below the bulwarks, in hopes that the Danes, seeing but few men about and taking her for an easy prize, might attack her. When they approached within half a mile the Danish galleys suddenly ceased rowing.
"What is that strange-looking vessel?" Sweyn asked the Northmen standing round him.
"I know her," one of them said, "for I have twice seen her before to my cost. The first time she chased us hotly at the mouth of the Thames, destroying several of the vessels with which we were sailing in convoy. The next time was in the battle where King Alfred defeated us last year, nearly in the same water. She is a Saxon ship, wondrous fast and well-handled. She did more damage in the battle than any four of her consorts."
"Were it not that I have other game in view," Sweyn said, "we would fight her, for we are two to one and strongly manned, and the Saxon can scarce carry more men than one of our galleys; but she is not likely to be worth the lives she would cost us to capture her; therefore we will e'en let her alone, which will be easy enough, for see that bank of sea-fog rolling up the river; another ten minutes and we shall not see across the deck. Give orders to the other galley to lay in oars till the fog comes, then to make for the left bank of the river and to drift with the tide close inshore. Let none speak a word, and silence be kept until they hear my horn. I will follow the right bank till we reach the mouth."
Freda was standing near and heard these orders with a sinking heart. She had no doubt that Edmund was on board the Saxon ship, and she had looked forward with confidence to be delivered from her captor; but now it seemed that owing to the evil change of the weather the hope was to be frustrated.
Edmund and the Saxons had viewed with consternation the approach of the sea-fog. The instant it enveloped the ship the oars were got out and they rowed in the direction of the Danish vessels, which they hoped would drop anchor when the fog reached them. Not a word was spoken on board the Dragon. Edmund, Egbert, and Siegbert stood on the forecastle intently listening for any sound which would betray the position of the Danes, but not a sound was to be heard. They had, they calculated, already reached the spot where the Dane should have been anchored when from the left, but far away astern, a loud call in a woman's voice was heard.
"That must be Freda!" Edmund exclaimed. "Turn the ship; they have passed us in the fog."
The Dragon's head was turned and she was rowed rapidly in the direction of the voice. No further sound was heard. Presently there was a sudden shock which threw everyone on to the deck. The Dragon had run high on the low muddy bank of the river. The tide was falling; and although for a few minutes the crew tried desperately to push her off they soon found that their efforts were in vain, and it was not until the tide again rose high nine hours later that the Dragon floated. Until morning broke nothing could be done, and even when it did so matters were not mended, for the fog was still dense.
The disappointment of Edmund and Siegbert at the escape of the Danes was extreme. Their plans had been so well laid that when it was found that the Dragon had arrived in time no doubts were entertained of the success of the enterprise, and to be foiled just when Freda seemed within reach was a terrible disappointment.
"My only consolation is," Edmund said as he paced the deck impatiently side by side with Egbert, "that this fog which delays us will also hinder the Danes."
"That may be so or it may not," Egbert answered. "It is evident that some on board the Danish ships must have recognized us, and that they were anxious to escape rather than fight. They draw so little water that they would not be afraid of the sandbanks off the mouth of the river, seeing that even if they strike them they can jump out, lighten the boats, and push them off; and once well out at sea it is probable that they may get clearer weather, for Siegbert tells me that the fog often lies thick at the mouths of these rivers when it is clear enough in the open sea."
When the tide again began to run out Edmund determined at all risks to proceed to sea. The moorings were cast off from the shore and the Dragon suffered to drift down. Men with poles took their stations in her bows and sounded continually, while at her stern two anchors were prepared in readiness to drop at a moment's notice. Several times the water shoaled so much that Edmund was on the point of giving orders to drop the anchors, but each time it deepened again.
So they continued drifting until they calculated that the tide must be nearly on the turn, and they then dropped anchor. It was much lighter now than it had been in the river, but was still so misty that they could not see more than a hundred yards or so round the vessel. No change took place until night, and then Edmund, who had been too excited and anxious to sleep on the previous night, lay down to rest, ordering that he should be woke if any change took place in the weather. As the sun rose next morning the fog gradually lifted, and they were able to see where they were. Their head pointed west; far away on their left could be seen a low line of coast. Not a sail was in sight, and indeed sails would have been useless, for the water was still unruffled by a breath of wind. The anchors were at once got up and the oars manned, and the ship's head turned towards shore.
Two hours' rowing took them within a short distance of land, and keeping about a mile out they rowed to the west. The men, knowing how anxious was their leader to overtake the Danish galleys, rowed their hardest, relieving each other by turns, so that half the oars were constantly going. Without intermission they rowed until night set in, and then cast anchor. When the wind came—it was not until the third day—it was ahead, and instead of helping the Dragon it greatly impeded its progress.
So far they had seen nothing of the galleys, and had the mortification of knowing that in spite of all their efforts these were probably gaining ground upon them every day. Even without wind the galleys would row faster than the Dragon, and being so fully manned would be able to keep all their oars going; but against the wind their advantage would be increased greatly, for lying low in the water they would offer but little resistance to it, and would be able to make way at a brisk pace, while the Dragon could scarce move against it.
The Saxon ship was off Calais when the breeze sprang up, and as it increased and their progress became slower and slower Edmund held a consultation with his companions and it was determined to run across the channel and lie in the mouth of the Thames till the wind turned. So long as it continued to blow they would lag farther and farther behind the chase, who might, moreover enter any of the rivers in search of shelter or provisions, and so escape their pursuers altogether. Siegbert had never been up the Mediterranean, but he had talked with many Danes who had been. These had told him that the best course was to sail west to the extremity of England, then to steer due south until they came upon the north coast of Spain. They would follow this to its western extremity; and then run south, following the land till they came to a channel some ten miles wide, which formed the entrance to the Mediterranean.
They decided, therefore, to follow this course in hopes of interrupting the galleys there; they would thus avoid the dangerous navigation of the west coast of France, where there were known to be many islands and rocks, around which the tides ran with great fury. For a fortnight the Dragon lay windbound; then came two days of calm; and then, to their delight, the pennon on the top of the mast blew out from the east.
They were lying in the mouth of the Colne, and would therefore have no difficulty in making the Foreland; and with her sail set and her oars out the Dragon dashed away from her moorings. Swiftly they ran round the south-easterly point of England and then flew before the breeze along the southern coast. On the third day they were off Land's End and hauled her head to the south. The east wind held, the Bay of Biscay was calm, and after a rapid voyage they sighted the high lands of Spain ahead. Then they sheered to the west till they rounded its extremity and then sailed down the coast of Spain. They put into a river for provisions, and the natives assembled in great numbers on the banks with the evident intention of opposing a landing; but upon Egbert shouting that they were not Danes but Saxons, and were ready to barter for the provisions they required, the natives allowed them to approach. There was no wrangling for terms. Cattle were purchased, and the water-tanks filled up, and a few hours after entering the river the Dragon was again under way. Rounding the southern point they followed the land. After a day's sailing they perceived land on their right, and gave a shout of joy at the thought that they had arrived at the entrance of the straits. At nightfall they dropped anchor.
"What are you looking at, Siegbert?" Edmund asked, seeing the jarl looking thoughtfully at the anchor-chain as the ship swung round.
"I am thinking," the jarl said, "that we must have made some error. Do you not see that she rides, just as we were sailing, with her head to the north-east? That shows that the current is against us."
"Assuredly it does," Edmund said; "but the current is a very slack one, for the ropes are not tight."
"But that agrees not," Siegbert said, "with what I have been told. In the first place, this channel points to the northeast, whereas, as I have heard, the straits into the Mediterranean run due east. In the next place, those who have been through have told me that there are no tides as in the northern seas, but that the current runs ever like a river to the east."
"If that be so," Edmund said, "we must have mistaken our way, for here what current there is runs to the west. To-morrow morning, instead of proceeding farther, we will cross to the opposite side, and will follow that down until we strike upon the right channel."
In the morning sail was again made, and crossing what was really the Bay of Cadiz they sailed on till they arrived at the mouth of the straits. There was no doubt now that they were right. The width of the channel, its direction, and the steady current through it, all corresponded with what Siegbert had heard, and proceeding a mile along it they cast anchor.
They soon opened communications with the natives, who, although speaking a tongue unknown to them, soon comprehended by their gestures and the holding up of articles of barter that their intentions were friendly. Trade was established, and there was now nothing to do but to await the coming of the galleys.
"I would," Edmund said, as, when evening was closing, he looked across the straits at the low hills on the opposite side, "that this passage was narrower. Sweyn will, doubtless, have men on board his ship who have sailed in these seas before, and will not need to grope his way along as we have done. If he enters the straits at night we shall see nothing of him, and the current runs so fast that he would sweep speedily by. It is possible, indeed, that he has already passed. If he continued to row down the shores of France all the time we were lying wind-bound he would have had so long a start when the east wind began to blow, that, although the galleys carry but little sail, they might well have been here some days before us. Sweyn would be anxious to join Hasting as soon as he could. The men would be thirsting for booty, and would make but short halt anywhere. I will stay but a week. If in that time they come not we will enter this southern sea and seek the fleet of Hasting. When we find that we shall find Sweyn; but I fear that the search will be a long one, for these people speak not our tongue, and we shall have hard work in gaining tidings of the whereabouts of the Northmen's fleet."
Day and night a vigilant watch was kept up from the mast-head of the Dragon, but without success. Each day they became more and more convinced that Sweyn must be ahead of them, and on the morning of the seventh they lifted their anchor and proceeded through the straits. Many had been the consultations between Edmund and his friends, and it had been determined at last to sail direct for Rome. Siegbert knew that by sailing somewhat to the north of east, after issuing from the passage, they would in time arrive at Italy.
At Rome there was a monastery of Saxon monks, and through them they would be able to obtain full information as to the doings and whereabouts of the squadron of Hasting. Scarcely were they through the straits than the wind, veering to the south-east, prevented them from making the course they had fixed upon, but they were able to coast along by the shore of Spain. They put into several small ports as they cruised up, but could obtain no intelligence of the Danes, being unable to converse except by signs.
When they reached Marseilles they were pleased to meet with Franks, with whom they could converse, and hired a pilot acquainted with the coasts of the Mediterranean. They learned that Hasting and his fleet had harried the coasts of Provence and Italy; that the Genoese galleys had had several engagements with them, but had been worsted.
The Danish fleet was now off the coast of Sicily, and the Northmen were ravaging that rich and fertile island. They were reported to have even threatened to ascend the Tiber and to burn Rome. Having obtained the services of a man who spoke both the Italian and Frankish tongues, Edmund started again. He first went to Genoa, as he thought that the people there might be despatching another fleet against the Northmen in which case he would have joined himself to them. On his arrival there he was well entertained by the Genoese when they learned, through the interpreter, who they were, and that they had come from England as enemies of the Danes.
Edmund and his Saxons were much surprised at the splendour of Genoa, which immensely surpassed anything they had hitherto seen in the magnificence of its buildings, the dress and appearance of its inhabitants, the variety of the goods displayed by the traders, and the wealth and luxury which distinguished it. It was indeed their first sight of civilization, and Edmund felt how vastly behind was Northern Europe, and understood for the first time Alfred's extreme eagerness to raise the condition of his people. On the other hand, the Genoese were surprised at the dress and appearance of the Saxons.
The crew of the Dragon were picked men, and their strength and stature, the width of their shoulders, and the muscles of their arms, and, above all, their fair hair and blue eyes, greatly astonished the Genoese. Edmund and his companions might have remained in Genoa and received entertainment and hospitality from its people for a long time; but after a stay of a day or two, and having obtained the various stores necessary for their voyage, Edmund determined to proceed. Three of the young Genoese nobles, fired by the story which they heard of the adventures which the Dragon had gone through, and desirous of taking part in any action which she might fight against the Danes, begged leave to accompany them.
Edmund gladly acceded to the request, as their presence would be of great utility in other ports at which the Dragon might touch. At Genoa Edmund procured garments for his men similar to those worn by the Italian soldiers and sailors, and here he sold to the gold and silversmiths a large number of articles of value which they had captured from the Danes, or with which the Count Eudes and the people of Paris had presented them.
The Dragon differed but little in appearance from the galleys of the Genoese, and Edmund determined when he approached the shores where the Northmen were plundering to pass as a Genoese ship, for should the news come to Sweyn's ears that a Saxon galley was in the Mediterranean it might put him on his guard, as he would believe that she was specially in pursuit of his own vessel.
On arriving at the mouth of the Tiber the Dragon ascended the river and anchored under the walls of the imperial city. The Genoese nobles had many friends and relations there, and Edmund, Egbert, and Siegbert were at once installed as guests in a stately palace.
The pope, upon hearing that the strange galley which had anchored in the river was a Saxon, sent an invitation to its commander to visit him, and Edmund and his kinsman were taken by their Italian friends to his presence. The pope received them most graciously, and after inquiring after King Alfred and the state of things in England, asked how it was that a Saxon ship had made so long a voyage.
Edmund explained that he was in search of a Danish damsel who had once shown him great kindness, and who had been carried off from her father by one of the vikings of Hasting's fleet. When he said that they had taken part in the defence of Paris the holy father told him that he now recognized his name, for that a full account of the siege had been sent to him by one of the monks there, and that he had spoken much of the valour of a Saxon captain and the crew of his galley, to whom indeed their successful resistance to the Northmen was in no slight degree due.
"Would I could aid you, my son, in your enterprise against these northern pirates. The depredations which they are committing on the shores of Italy are terrible indeed, and we are powerless to resist them; they have even threatened to ascend the Tiber and attack Rome, and though I trust that we might resist their attacks, yet rather than such misfortune as a siege should fall upon my people I have paid a large sum of money to the leader of the Northmen to abstain from coming hither; but I know that the greed of these pirates does but increase with their gains, and that ere long we may see their pagan banner floated before our walls. A few galleys I could man and place under your orders, but in truth the people of this town are not skilled in naval fighting. I have already endeavoured to unite the states of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice against them, for it is only by common effort that we can hope to overwhelm these wolves of the sea."
Edmund expressed his thanks to the pope for his offer, but said that he would rather proceed with the Dragon alone.
"She is to the full as swift as the Northmen's vessels," he said; "and although I would right gladly join any great fleet which might be assembled for an attack upon them, I would rather proceed alone than with a few other ships. Not being strong enough to attack their whole armament I must depend upon stratagem to capture the galley of which I am specially in pursuit, and will with your permission set out as soon as I have transformed my ship so that she will pass muster as a galley of Genoa or Venice."
The holy father gave orders that every assistance should be afforded to Edmund to carry out his designs, and the next morning a large number of artisans and workmen took possession of the Dragon. She was painted from stem to stern with bright colours. Carved wood-work was added to her forecastle and poop, and a great deal of gilding overlaid upon her. The shape of her bow was altered, and so transformed was she that none would have known her for the vessel which had entered the Tiber, and she would have passed without observation as a galley of Genoa.
A number of prisoners accustomed to row in the state galleys were placed on board to work the oars, thus leaving the whole of the crew available for fighting purposes, and a state officer was put in command of these galley-slaves. The ship was well stored with provisions, and after a farewell interview with the pope, Edmund and his companions returned on board ship, and the Dragon took her way down the river.
The fleet of the Northmen was at Palermo, and keeping under the land, the Saxon ship sailed down the coast of Calabria, and at night crossed near the mouth of the straits to the shore of Sicily. They entered a quiet bay, and Edmund dressed as a Dane, with the two Northmen who had accompanied him from Paris, landed and journeyed on foot to Palermo.
Everywhere they came upon scenes similar to those with which they were familiar in France. Villages burned and destroyed, houses deserted, orchards and crops wasted, and a country destitute of inhabitants, all having fled to the mountains to escape the invader. They did not meet with a single person upon their journey. When they approached Palermo they waited until nightfall, and then boldly entered the town. Here the most intense state of misery prevailed. Many of the inhabitants had fled before the arrival of the Danes, but those who remained were kept in a state of cruel subjection by their conquerors, who brutally oppressed and ill-used them, making free with all their possessions and treating them as slaves.
The Danes entered into conversation with some of their countrymen, and professing to have that evening but newly arrived from home, learned much of the disposition of the fleet of the Northmen. They pretended that they were desirous of joining the galleys under the command of Sweyn, and were told that these had arrived three weeks before, and were now absent with some others on the southern side of the island.
Having obtained this information, Edmund and his companions started without delay to rejoin the Dragon. Upon reaching her she at once put to sea. Palermo was passed in the night, and the vessel held her way down the western coast of Sicily. She was now under sail alone, and each night lay up at anchor in order that she might not pass the Danish galleys unobserved. On the third day after passing Palermo, several galleys were seen riding off a small port. The wind was very light, and after a consultation with his friends Edmund determined to simulate flight so as to tempt the Danes to pursue, for with so light a breeze their smaller galleys would row faster than the Dragon; besides, it was possible that Sweyn might be on shore.
It was early morning when the Danish galleys were seen, and apparently the crews were still asleep, for no movement on board was visible, and the Dragon sailed back round a projecting point of land and then cast anchor. It was so important to learn whether Sweyn was with Freda on board his ship, or whether, as was likely, he had established himself on shore, that it was decided it would be better to send the two Danes to reconnoitre before determining what plan should be adopted.
CHAPTER XVIII: FREDA DISCOVERED
The spies upon their return reported that Sweyn had taken up his abode in the mansion of the Count of Ugoli, who was the lord of that part of the country. Most of the Danes lived on shore in the houses of the townspeople. Many of these had been slain, and the rest were treated as slaves. The lady Freda was also on shore, and it was thought that she would ere long become the bride of the Viking.
"Think you that there will be any possibility of surprising the house and carrying her off?"
"I think not," the Dane said, "for Sweyn's men are on the alert, and keep good guard, for the people of this part of the island, being maddened by their exactions and cruelty, have banded themselves together; and although they cannot withstand the strong parties which go out in search of plunder they cut off stragglers, and have made several attacks on small parties. It is thought that they may even venture an attack upon the place at night, therefore sentries are set, and a portion of the force remains always under arms in readiness to sally out in case of alarm."
"I would fain go myself," Edmund said, "and see how matters stand, and try to communicate with Freda. It may be that her long resistance has tired her out, and that she is at the point of consenting to become Sweyn's bride."
"I think not that," Siegbert replied. "When Freda has once made up her mind she is not given to change."
"I doubt not her resolution," Edmund said; "but none can blame her if, after all these months, she has begun to despair of rescue; nay, it is even probable that, having Sweyn, who is assuredly a brave and enterprising Viking, always near her, she may have come to love him."
"No, Edmund," Siegbert replied. "I am sure you need have no fear that she has softened towards Sweyn. But how do you think of proceeding if you land?"
"I will take with me this Dane, and if one of the Genoese nobles will go with me I will take him, and also the man we brought from Marseilles, who acts as an interpreter between us and the Italians."
"But why hamper yourself with two men, who would be even more likely to be detected by the Danes than would you yourself?"
"I shall leave them in the outskirts of the place," Edmund replied. "I would fain see if I can enter into any negotiations with the natives. Perhaps we may arrange that they shall attack the place on the land side, while the Dragon falls upon the galleys, and in any case we may need an interpreter with the people."
One of the young Genoese, upon being asked whether he would take part in the adventure, at once consented, and the four men, attiring themselves as Danes, speedily landed in the Dragon's boat. The bay in which the ship was lying was some ten miles along the shore from the town. The spies had made their way along the sea-coast by night, but as it was morning when Edmund landed, he thought that it would be safer to make a detour so as to arrive near the landward side of the town and so enter it after dark.
They had not proceeded far when they came upon the ruins of a village. It had been destroyed by fire, and the freshness of the charred beams showed that it had been done but a short time before, probably not many days. Marks of blood could be seen in the roadway, but no bodies were visible, and Edmund supposed that, after the Danes had retired, the survivors must have returned and buried their dead. They had not proceeded far when the Dane pointed out to Edmund a half-naked lad who was running with the swiftness of a deer over a slope of some little distance.
"He is going too fast for us to catch him," Edmund said carelessly; "and as, even if we did so, he could give us no information of any use, for you may be sure he has not ventured near the town, we may well let him go on in his way."
For three or four miles further they pursued their course. The country, which was exceedingly fertile, and covered with corn-fields and vineyards, appeared entirely deserted. Here and there a wide blackened tract showed where, from carelessness or malice, a brand had been thrown into the standing corn.
"The Danes are ever the same," Edmund said. "Well may they be called the sea-wolves. It would be bad enough did they only plunder and kill those who oppose them; but they destroy from the pure love of destroying, and slay for the pleasure of slaying. Why are these robbers permitted to be the scourge of Europe?"
"Why indeed?" the Genoese repeated when the interpreter had translated Edmund's exclamation to him. "'Tis shame and disgrace that Christendom does not unite against them. They are no more invincible now than they were when Caesar overran their country and brought them into subjection. What the Romans could do then would be easy for the Christian powers to do now if they would but make common cause against these marauders—nay, Italy alone should be able at any rate to sweep the Mediterranean free of their pirate galleys; but Venice and Genoa and Pisa are consumed by their own petty jealousies and quarrels, while all our sea-coasts are ravaged by these wolves of the ocean."
"Ah! what is that?" he exclaimed, breaking off, as an arrow struck smartly against his helmet.
They were at the moment passing through a small wood which bordered the road on both sides. The first arrow seemed but a signal, for in an instant a score of others flew among the party. It was well that they carried with them the long Danish shields, which nearly covered their whole body. As it was, several slight wounds were inflicted, and the interpreter fell dead with an arrow in his forehead.
Immediately following the flight of arrows a crowd of peasants armed with staves, axes, and pikes dashed out from the wood on both sides and fell upon them, uttering shouts of "Death to the marauders!" "Kill the sea-wolves!"
So great was the din, that, although the Genoese shouted loudly that they were not Danes but friends, his words were unheard in the din; and attacked fiercely on all sides, the three men were forced to defend themselves for their lives. Standing back to back in the form of a triangle, they defended themselves valiantly against the desperate attacks of their assailants.
Several of these were cut down, but so furious was the attack of the maddened peasants that the defenders were borne down by the weight of numbers, and one by one beaten to the ground. Then the peasants rained blows upon them as if they had been obnoxious wild beasts, and in spite of their armour would speedily have slain them had not the Genoese, with a great effort, pulled from his breast a cross, which was suspended there by a silken cord, and held it up, shouting, "We are Christians, we are Italians, and no Danes."
So surprised were the peasants at the sight that they recoiled from their victims. The Dane was already insensible. Edmund had just strength to draw his dagger and hold up the cross hilt and repeat the words, "We are Christians." It was the sight of the cross rather than the words which had arrested the attacks of the peasants. Indeed, the words of the Genoese were scarce understood by them, so widely did their own patois differ from the language of polished Italy.
The fact, however, that these Danes were Christians seemed so extraordinary to them that they desisted from their attack. The Danes, they knew, were pagans and bitterly hostile to Christianity, the monasteries and priests being special objects of their hostility. The suggestion of one of the peasants, that the cross had no doubt been taken from the body of some man murdered by the Danes, revived the passion of the rest and nearly cost the prisoners their lives; but an older man who seemed to have a certain authority over the others said that the matter must be inquired into, especially as the man who had the cross, and who continued to address them in Italian, clearly spoke some language approaching their own. He would have questioned him further, but the Genoese was now rapidly losing consciousness from the pain of his wounds and the loss of blood.
The three prisoners were therefore bound, and being placed on rough litters constructed of boughs, were carried off by the peasants. The strength and excellence of Edmund's armour had enabled him to withstand the blows better than his companions, and he retained his consciousness of what was passing. For three hours their journey continued. At the end of that time they entered a wood high up on the hillside. There was a great clamour of voices round, and he judged that his conductors had met another party and that they were at the end of their journey.
The litters were now laid down and Edmund struggled to his feet. Before him stood a tall and handsome man in the attire of a person of the upper class. The old peasant was explaining to him the manner of their capture of the prisoners, and the reason why they had spared their lives.
"How is it," the noble asked when he had finished, turning to Edmund, "that you who are Danes and pagans, plunderers and murderers, claim to be Christians?"
Edmund did not understand the entire address, but he had already picked up a little Italian, which was not difficult for him from his acquaintance with French.
"We are not Danes," he said; "we are their enemies, I am a Saxon earl, and this my friend is a noble of Genoa."
"A Saxon!" the Italian exclaimed in surprise; "one of the people of King Alfred, and this a Genoese noble! How is it that you are masquerading here as Danes?"
"I speak but a few words of Italian," Edmund said, "but my friend will tell you the whole story when he recovers. I pray you to order aid to be given to him at once."
Although still at a loss to understand how it had come about, the Count of Ugoli—for it was that noble himself—saw that his prisoner's statement must be a true one. In their native patois he hastily told the peasants that there must be some mistake, and that although their prisoners seemed to be Danes they were really Christians and friends. He bade them then instantly to strip off their armour, to bind up their wounds, and to use all their efforts to restore them to life.
At his bidding one of the peasants brought a wine-skin, and filling a large cup with the liquid, offered it to Edmund. The latter drained it at a draught, for he was devoured by a terrible thirst. After this he felt revived, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing his comrades recovering under the ministrations of the peasants, who chafed their hands, applied cool poultices of bruised leaves to their bruises, and poured wine down their throats.
In half an hour the Genoese was sufficiently recovered to be able to sit up and to give a full account of their presence there, and of their object in assuming the disguise of Danes. He then told the count that Edmund intended to reconnoitre the place alone, and that he hoped he and his people would attack the town, while the Saxons in their galley made an assault from the sea. The count replied that the peasantry could not be induced to take such a step.
"I will, however, aid your friend," he said, "by a feigned attack to-morrow evening when he is there. This may help him to escape, and if the Danes sally out next day in pursuit there will be the fewer for him to cope with."
When Edmund awoke the next morning he found himself able to walk and move without difficulty and with but little pain, thanks to the care of the peasants, and in the afternoon, being furnished by the count with a guide, he started for the town.
When he arrived within a short distance he dismissed his guide and lay down in some bushes till nightfall, then he rose and made his way into the town, passing unobserved between the watch-fires made by the parties of Danes encamped in its outskirts to protect it against surprise. Once in the town, he walked boldly on, having no fear of recognition or question.
Sounds of carousing came through the open casements, but few people were in its streets. He made his way down to the sea-shore, which he followed until he came to a large and stately mansion standing in beautifully laid out gardens at the end of the town. Several tents were erected in the garden; and although the night was not cold great fires had been lighted, around which the Danes were carousing.
Avoiding these Edmund walked up to the open windows. The first room he looked into was deserted, but in the next, which was a large apartment, a number of Danes were seated at table. At its head sat Sweyn with Freda on his right hand. Around were a number of his leading men, the captains of the galleys and their wives. The meal was over, and the winecup was passing round. A number of attendants moved about the room, and many of the warriors who had supped elsewhere stood around the table, joining in the conversation and taking their share of the wine.
Edmund saw at once that he could not hope for a more favourable opportunity, and he accordingly entered the mansion, and, passing through the open door, joined the party within, keeping himself in rear of those standing round the table, so that the light from the lamps placed there should not fall upon his face.
Just as he had taken his place, Sweyn called out: "Let us have a song. Odoacre the minstrel, do you sing to us the song of the Raven."
A minstrel bearing a small harp advanced into the centre of the horse-shoe table, and after striking a chord, began to sing, or rather to chant one of the favourite songs of the sea-rovers.
A shout of applause rose from the Danes as the minstrel ceased, and holding their goblets high above their heads, they drank to the Raven.
While the singing was going on Edmund quietly made his way round to one of the open windows. It was the hour at which the count had promised to make his attack, and he listened eagerly for any sound which might tell that the peasants had begun their work. Other songs followed the first, and Edmund began to be afraid that the courage of the peasants had failed at the last moment.
Suddenly he saw lights appear at five or six points in the distance, and, putting his head out, he thought he could hear distant cries and shouts. The lights grew brighter, and soon broad tongues of flame shot up. Shouts at once arose from the guards without. Some of the revellers hearing these went to the windows to see what was happening, and gave a cry of alarm. "Sweyn, we must be attacked; fires are rising in the outskirts of the town."
"These cowards would never venture to disturb us," Sweyn said scornfully; "of all the foes we have ever met none were so feeble and timid as these Italians."
"But see, Sweyn, the flames are rising from eight points; this cannot be accident."
Sweyn rose from his seat and went to the window.
"No, by Wodin," he exclaimed, "there is mischief here; let us arm ourselves, and do you," he said, turning to a young man, "run swiftly to the outposts, and learn what is the meaning of this."
Scarcely, however, had he spoken when a man ran breathlessly into the hall.
"Haste to the front, jarl," he said to Sweyn, "we are attacked. Some of the enemy creeping in between our fires set fire to the houses in the outskirts, and as we leapt to our feet in astonishment at the sudden outbreak, they fell upon us. Many of my comrades were killed with the first discharge of arrows, then they rushed on in such numbers that many more were slain, and the rest driven in. How it fares with the other posts I know not, but methinks they were all attacked at the same moment. I waited not to see, for my captain bade me speed here with the news."
"Sound the horn of assembly," Sweyn said. "Do you, Oderic, take twenty of the guard without, and at once conduct the ladies here to the boats and get them on board the galleys. Let all others hasten to the scene of attack. But I can hardly even now believe that this coward herd intend to attack us in earnest."
In the confusion which reigned as the warriors were seizing their shields and arms, Edmund approached Freda, who had with the rest risen from her seat.
"The Dragon is at hand," he whispered; "in a few hours we will attack Sweyn's galley; barricade yourself in your cabin until the fight is over."
Freda gave a little start as Edmund's first words reached her ear. Then she stood still and silent. She felt her hand taken and pressed, and glancing round, met Edmund's eye for a moment just as he turned and joined the Danes who were leaving the hall. A minute later Oderic entered with the guard, and at once escorted the women down to the boats, and rowed them off to the galleys.
Sweyn and the main body of the Danes rushed impetuously to the outskirts of the town. The fighting was already at an end, the peasants having withdrawn after their first success. Two or three of the parties round the watch-fires had been annihilated before they could offer any effectual resistance, others had beaten off the attack, and had fallen back in good order to the houses, losing, however, many men on the way from the arrows which their assailants shot among them.
Sweyn and the Norsemen were furious at the loss they had suffered; but as pursuit would have been useless, there was nothing to be done for the present, and after posting strong guards in case the attack should be renewed, the Danish leaders returned to the banqueting hall, where, over renewed draughts of wine, a council was held.
Most of those present were in favour of sending out a strong expedition on the following day to avenge the attack; but Sweyn argued that it might be that the natives had assembled from all parts of the island, and that this sudden attack, the like of which had not been attempted before, was perhaps made only to draw them out into an ambush or to attack the town in their absence. Therefore he urged it was better to delay making an expedition for a short time, when they would find the enemy unprepared.
After some discussion Sweyn's arguments prevailed, and it was determined to postpone the expedition for a few days.
CHAPTER XIX: UNITED
No sooner did Edmund find himself outside the mansion than he separated himself from the Danes, and following the sea-shore, set out on his return to the Dragon. The tide was out, and although the night was dark he had no difficulty in finding his way along the shore, keeping close to the margin of the waves. When he approached the headland he was forced to take to the land, as the waves beat against the foot of the rock. Guided by the stars he made his way across the cape and came down on to the shore of the bay.
A light was burning on the poop of the Dragon, and his hail was at once answered. A few minutes later a boat touched the shore beside him, and he was soon on board the ship, and at once held council with Egbert and Siegbert, to whom he related all that had happened. He learned from them that his two wounded comrades had been brought down to the beach that evening by the country people, and had told them how narrow an escape they had had of death at the hands of the enraged peasants.
After a discussion of all the different plans upon which they might act, it was determined that the attempt to rescue Freda should be made at once, as they considered it certain that Sweyn with a large portion of his band would set out at daybreak to take vengeance upon the natives.
The plan decided upon was that they should proceed along the shore, and that if the Danish galleys, being undermanned, did not put out in pursuit, they should sail in and attack them. The Danes were indeed greatly superior in force, for they had counted the ships, the smallest of which would carry a hundred men. Still in the absence of a portion of their crews, and from the effects of surprise, they thought that success was possible.
The next morning sail was hoisted, and the Dragon made her way along the coast. The hour was later than that at which she had shown herself on the previous day. She sailed on until within two miles of the town, and then suddenly turned her head seaward, as if she had only then perceived the Danish vessels. The instant she did so a great bustle was observed among them. Many boats were seen pushing off from shore crowded with men, oars were got out, and sails loosed.
"From the number of men who are crowding on board," Egbert said, "I believe that Sweyn cannot have started in pursuit of the natives; in that case we shall have a hard fight of it."
"So much the better," Siegbert exclaimed. "I should consider our task was half accomplished if we rescued Freda without punishing Sweyn. Let them come," he said, shaking his battle-axe at the galleys. "Though my leg is stiff my arms are not, as Sweyn shall learn if I meet him."
The Dragon's oars were now put out and the galley-slaves began to row, the Saxons concealing themselves behind the bulwarks. In a few minutes the whole of the Danish galleys were unmoored and started in the pursuit of the supposed Italian vessel. The breeze was light, but somewhat helped the Dragon. Four of the Northmen vessels were large ships with sails, and these speedily fell behind, but the others with their oars gained slowly on the Dragon.
Edmund saw with satisfaction that the two galleys of Sweyn, which he at once recognized, were somewhat faster than their consorts, and the slaves were made to row as hard as they could in order to prolong the chase as much as possible, by which means Sweyn's galleys would be the further separated from the others.
After the pursuit had been continued for some miles Sweyn's galleys were but a few hundred yards in the rear, and were nearly a quarter of a mile ahead of those of their comrades, which had gained but little upon the Dragon since the chase began. Edmund ordered the men to cease rowing, as if despairing of escape. The Genoese took their station on the poop, and as Sweyn's galley came rushing up they shouted to it that they would surrender if promised their lives. The Northmen answered with a shout of triumph and derision, and dashed alongside.
Sweyn's own galley was slightly in advance of the others. Edmund ordered the oars to be pulled in as the Northmen came up, so as to allow them to come alongside. Not a word was spoken on board the Dragon till the Danes, leaving their oars, swarmed up the side headed by Sweyn himself. Then Edmund gave a shout, the Saxons leaped to their feet, and raising their battle-cry fell upon the astonished Danes.
Those who had climbed up were instantly cut down or hurled back into their own galley, and the Saxons leaping down, a tremendous fight ensued. Edmund with Siegbert and half his crew boarded the Dane close to the poop, and so cut the Northmen off from that part of the vessel, while Egbert with the rest boarded farther forward. The Danes would have been speedily overpowered had not the second galley arrived upon the spot; and these, seeing the combat which was raging, at once leaped upon Sweyn's galley. With this accession of force, although numbers of the Danes had fallen in the first attack, they still outnumbered the Saxons.
Sweyn, heading his men, made a desperate effort to drive back Edmund's party. His men, however, fought less bravely than usual. Their astonishment at finding the ship which they had regarded as an easy prize manned by Saxons was overwhelming, and the sight of Siegbert, whom many of them knew, in the front rank of their enemies added to their confusion.
Sweyn himself, as he recognized Edmund, at once made at him, and, wielding a heavy axe in his left hand, strove to cut him down; and Edmund, strong and skilful as he was, had great difficulty in parrying the blows which the Northman rained upon him. The combat, however, was decided by Siegbert, who hurled his javelin at Sweyn, the weapon passing completely through his body.
Sweyn fell on the deck with a crash.
The Northmen, dispirited at the fall of their leader, hesitated, and as the Saxons sprang upon them turned and fled into the other galley. The door of the poop opened and Freda flew into her father's arms.
"Quick, Siegbert, to the Dragon!" Edmund cried, and shouted orders to his men. "There is not a moment to be lost. The other galleys are just upon us!"
The Saxons rushed back to the Dragon; the oars were thrust out again, and the vessel got under weigh just as the other Danish galleys arrived on the spot. While some of the Saxons poured volleys of arrows and javelins into the Northmen, the others at Edmund's order leaped down and double-banked the oars. The increase of power was soon manifest, and the Dragon began to draw away from the Danes. Gradually their galleys fell back out of bow-shot, and after continuing the chase for some little time longer they abandoned it as hopeless and lay upon their oars to rest.
A shout of triumph rose from the Saxons, and then Edmund, who had hitherto been fully occupied with the command of the vessel, turned to Freda, who was still standing by her father.
"I have been a long time in fulfilling my promise, Freda," he said; "but as your father will tell you I have done my best. Thank God, who has given me success at last!"
"I never doubted that you would come, Edmund," she said, "and the knowledge has enabled me to stand firm against both the entreaties and threats of Sweyn. How can I thank you for all you have done for me?"
"I have spoken to your father, Freda; and he has promised me your hand if you, indeed, are willing to bestow it. I promised to come for you if you would wait, nearly five years ago, and I have never thought of any other woman."
"I have waited for you, Edmund," she said simply, "and would never have wed another had you not come. You are my hero, and methinks I have loved you ever since the day when you boarded our ship off the mouth of the Humber."
"Take her, Edmund," Siegbert said; "you have nobly won her, and there is no one to whom I could be so well content to intrust her. I now join your hands in token of betrothal."
The crew of the Dragon, who had been watching the scene, raised a shout of gladness as they saw Siegbert place Freda's hand in that of Edmund. They had guessed that their lord must have an affection for this Danish maiden in whose pursuit they had come so far, and were delighted at the happy issue of the expedition.
"I trust, Freda," Edmund said to her after a while, "that you have thought of the talk we had about religion, and that you will forsake the barbarous gods of your people and become a Christian, as so many of your people have done in England, and that you will be wedded to me not in the rude way of the Danes, but in a Christian church."
"I have thought much of it," she said, "and have come to think that your God of peace must be better than the gods of war; but I would fain know more of Him before I desert the religion of my fathers."
"That shall you," Edmund said. "With your father's permission I will place you for a short time in a convent in Rome, and one of the Saxon monks shall teach you the tenets of our faith. It will be but for a short time, dear; and while you are there we will try and capture some of Hasting's galleys, filled with plunder, for my men have come far, and I would fain that they returned with an ample booty."
Freda and Siegbert agreed to the plan, and the latter said, "I too will tarry in Rome while you are away, Edmund. I could fight against Sweyn, for it was in a private quarrel, but I cannot war against my countrymen. I too will talk with your Saxon monks, and hear about this new religion of yours, for I think that as I have no others to love or care for I shall return to England with you, and, if you will have me, take up my abode in your English home so as to be near you and my daughter."
The Dragon returned to Rome. There Edmund procured lodgings for Siegbert and Freda, and the Saxon monks gladly arranged to visit them and instruct them in the doctrines of Christianity. The Dragon sailed again for the coast of Sicily and was absent a month, during which time she captured a number of Danish galleys, most of which were laden with rich booty. Then she returned to Rome. A few days later a solemn service was held, at which Freda and Siegbert were baptized as Christians, and after this was done a marriage service was held, and Edmund and Freda married with the rites of the Christian Church. The pope himself was present at the services and bestowed his blessing upon the newly married couple, the novelty of the occasion drawing a vast crowd of spectators.
A few days later the Dragon again put to sea, and after a speedy voyage with favourable weather arrived in England without further adventure. Edmund's arrival at home was the occasion of great rejoicings. The news of the share which the Dragon and her crew had taken in the defence of Paris had reached England, but none knew what had become of her from that time, and when months had passed without tidings of her being received it was generally supposed that she must have been lost.
Her return laden with rich booty excited the greatest enthusiasm, and the king himself journeyed to Sherborne to welcome Edmund on his arrival there.
"So this is the reason," he said smiling, when Edmund presented Freda to him, "why you were ever so insensible to the attractions to our Saxon maidens! Truly the reason is a fair one and fully excuses you, and right glad am I to welcome your bonnie bride to our shores."
Alfred remained three days at Sherborne and then left Edmund to administer the affairs of his earldom, for which a substitute had been provided in his absence. The large plunder which the Dragon had brought home had enriched all who had sailed in her, and greatly added to the prosperity which prevailed in Edmund's district.
He found that in his absence Alfred had introduced many changes. The administration of justice was no longer in the hands of the ealdormen, judges having been appointed who journeyed through the land and administered justice. Edmund highly approved of the change, for although in most cases the ealdormen had acted to the best of their powers they had a great deal of other business to do; besides, their decisions necessarily aggrieved one party or the other and sometimes caused feuds and bad feelings, and were always liable to be suspected of being tinged with partiality; whereas the judges being strangers in the district would give their decisions without bias or favour.
Freda had, as was the custom, taken a new name in baptism, but at Edmund's request her name had only been changed to the Christian one of Elfrida, and Edmund to the end of his life continued to call her by her old name. She speedily became as popular in the earldom as was her husband.