A Thane of Wessex
Charles W. Whistler
Part 3 out of 4
answer her, and we both bowed our heads in thanks, and rode, one on each
side of her, in silence.
Then she must ask Wulfhere what he would do when she was safely
bestowed. And that was a plain question he could answer well.
"Truly, lady, if you will give me leave, I would see Heregar, our
master, through whatever comes of his messages."
Then was I very glad, and the more that, though I might not think myself
such, the old warrior would call me his master, for that told me that he
had full belief in me.
Yet I could but say: "Friend should you call me, Wulfhere, my good
counsellor, not master."
And I reached out my hand to him, bowing to Alswythe, whose horse's neck
I must cross. And Wulfhere took it, and on our two rough hands Alswythe
laid her white fingers, pressing them, and, looking from one to the
"Two such friends I think no woman ever had, or wiser, or braver. Go on
together as you will, and yet forget not me here in Glastonbury."
Then we loosed our hands, looking, maybe, a little askance, for our
Saxon nature will oft be ashamed, if one may call it so, of a good
impulse acted on, and Wulfhere said that we must think of those things
When we came to the gate there was a little crowd following us, for word
had gone round in some way that we were fugitives from Parret side. But
Wulfhere had bade the men answer no questions till we had seen the
bishop, lest false reports should go about the place. So the crowd
melted away soon, and we knocked, asking admission, and showing the
letter from the prioress of Bridgwater.
Now here there was much state, as it seemed, and we must wait for a
little, but then the gates were thrown open, and we rode through them
into the courtyard, which was large and open. Then opened a great door
on the left, and there was the abbess with many sisters, and one asked
me for the letter we bore. So I gave it, and, standing there, the abbess
read it while we waited.
As she read she grew pale, and then flushed again, and at last, after
twice reading, came down the steps, all her state forgotten, and with
tears embraced Alswythe, giving thanks for her safety. And then, leaving
her, she came to me where I sat, unhelmed, and gave me her hand,
thanking me for all I had done, and, as she said, perhaps for the safety
of the Bridgwater sisters also.
Then all of a sudden she went back up the steps, where the sisters were
whispering together, and became cold and stately again, so that I
wondered if I had offended her in not speaking, which I dared not.
When she was back again in her place, she bade Alswythe and her maidens
welcome, and added that all her sister prioress asked her she would do.
Also, that one would come and show us lodging for men and horses, which
should be at the expense of the nunnery.
So Alswythe must needs part from us coldly, even as she had joined us at
Bridgwater, as a noble lady from her attendants, giving us her hand to
kiss only. But I went back to my horse well content, knowing that her
love and thoughts went out to me.
She went through the great door, but it closed not so fast but that I
might see the abbess put her arm around her very tenderly, her state
forgotten again, and I knew that she was in good hands.
Now when the horses were stabled, and our men knew where they should
bide in the strangers' lodgings--set apart for the trains of guests to
the nunnery, which were very spacious--Wulfhere and I must needs find
the way to get audience of the bishop. As far as the doors of the abbey
where he abode was easy enough, but there, waiting for alms and broken
meats, were crowds of beggars, sitting and lying about in the sun, with
their eyes ever on the latch to be first when it was lifted for the
daily dole. And again, round the gate were many men of all sorts,
suitors, as we deemed for some favour at the hands of bishop or abbot--
for the Abbot of Glastonbury was nigh as powerful as Ealhstan himself,
in his own town at least.
When we came among these we were told that we must bide our time, for
audience was not given but at stated hours. And one man, grumbling, said
that that was not Ealhstan's way in his own place at Sherborne, for
there the doors were open ever.
But I knew that my business might not wait, and so, after a little of
this talk, went up to the gate and thundered thereon in such sort that
the wicket opened, and the porter's face looked through it angrily
enough, and he would have bidden us begone, for war and travel had
stained us both, so that doubtless we were in no better case, as to
looks, than the crowd that pressed after us--very quietly, indeed--
to hear the parley.
One difference in our looks there was, however, which made the porter
silent--we wore mail and swords, and at that he seemed to stare in
Then I held up the ring and said, "Messages from Osric the Sheriff."
Whereupon the wicket closed suddenly, and there was a sound of
unbarring, and the door opened and we were let in, the rest, who must
wait, grumbling loudly at the preference shown to us, while the beggars,
who had roused at the sound of the hinges creaking, went back whining in
Then one came and bade us follow him, and we were led into the abbey
hall and there waited for a little. There were a few monks about,
passing and repassing, but they paid no attention to us, and we, too,
were silent in that quiet place. Only a great fire crackled at one end
of the hall, else there would have been no noise at all. It was, I
thought, a strangely peaceful place into which to bring news of war and
Then I thought of Ealhstan the Bishop, as he had seemed to me when he
judged me, and that seemed years ago, nor could I think of myself as the
same who had stood a prisoner before him. So I wondered if I should seem
the same to him.
Now it is strange that of Eanulf, the mighty ealdorman who had
pronounced my doom, I thought little at all, but as of one who was by
the bishop. All that day's doings seemed to have been as a dream,
wherein I and Wulfhere had living part with this bishop, while the rest,
Eanulf and Matelgar and the others, were but phantoms standing by.
Maybe this is not so wonderful, for the doom was the doom of the Moot,
and spoken by Eanulf as its mouthpiece, and that passed on my body only.
And Matelgar had found a new place in my thoughts, but Wulfhere was my
friend, and the bishop had spoken to my heart, so that his words and
looks abode there.
Then the servant cut short my thoughts, and led us to the bishop,
bidding me unhelm first.
He sat in a wide chamber, with another most venerable-looking man at the
same table. And all the walls were covered with books, and on the table,
too, lay one or two great ones, open, and bright with gold and crimson
borderings, and great litters on the pages. But those things I saw
presently, only the bishop first of all, sitting quietly and very
upright in his great chair, dressed in a long purple robe, and with a
golden cross hanging on his breast.
And for a moment as I looked at him, I remembered the day of the Moot,
and my heart rose up, and I was ready to hide my face for minding the
But he looked at me curiously, and then all of a sudden smiled very
kindly and said:
"Heregar, my son, are you the messenger?"
And I knelt before him on one knee, and held out the ring for him to
take, and he did so, laying it on the table before him--for my errand
was in hand yet.
"Then," he said, "things are none so ill with you, my son," and he
smiled gravely; "but do your errand first, and afterwards we will speak
So I rose up, and standing before him, told him plainly all that had
befallen, though there was no need for me to say aught of myself in the
matter, except that, flying with the lady, Osric had chosen me to bear
the message of defeat and danger.
And the while I spoke the bishop's face grew very grave, but he said
nothing till I ended by saying that Wulfhere could tell him of the fight.
Then he bade Wulfhere speak, being anxious to know the worst, as it
seemed to me. But the old man with him was weeping, and his hands shook
Now into what Wulfhere told, my name seemed to come often, for he began
with the first landing at Watchet, and my bearing the war arrow, and so
forward to the firing of the huts at Stert, to the rallying on
Cannington Hill, and our flight, and how Osric sent for me.
Then said the bishop, "Is that the worst?"
And Wulfhere was fain to answer that he feared not, telling of the smoke
clouds we had seen, and what he judged therefrom.
"Aye," said the bishop, as it were to himself and looking before him as
one who sees that which he is told of, "we saw the like after
Charnmouth, and let them have their way. Now must we wait, trembling,
for Osric's next messenger."
But as for me, though the old man was sorely terrified, as one might
see, I thought there was little trembling on the bishop's part, though
he spoke of it. Rather did he seem to speak in scorn of such as would so
"Tell me now," he went on presently, "how the men rallied, and with what
spirit, on the hill where Heregar stayed them?"
"Well and bravely," answered Wulfhere, "so that the Danes drew back,
forming up hastily lest there should be an attack on them; but none was
Then the bishop's eyes flashed, and I thought to myself that I would he
had been there. Surely he would have swept the Danes back to their
ships, and I think that was in Wulfhere's mind also, for he said:
"We want a leader who can see these things. No blame to Osric therein,
for it was his first fight."
Then the bishop laughed softly in a strange way, though his eyes still
flashed, and he seemed to put the matter by.
"Truly," said he, "with you, Wulfhere, to advise, and myself to ask
questions, and Heregar to prevent our running away, I think we might do
great things. Well, there is Eanulf, who fought at Charnmouth."
So saying he rose up, and clapped his hands loudly. The old man had
fallen to telling his beads, and paid no attention to him or us any
longer, doubtless dreaming of the burning of his abbey over his head,
unless some stronger help was at hand than that of the three men before
A lay brother came in to answer the bishop's summons.
"Take these thanes to the refectory," he said, "and care for them with
all honour. In two hours I will speak with them again, or sooner, if
Osric's messenger comes."
"I am no thane," said Wulfhere, not willing to be mistaken.
"I am Bishop of Sherborne," said he, smiling in an absent way, and
waving his hand for us to go.
So we went, and thereafter were splendidly treated as most honoured
guests, even to the replacing of the broad hat which Wulfhere had gotten
from the franklin by a plain steel helm, with other changes of garment,
for which we were most glad.
Now as we bathed and changed, I found that letter which Leofwine the
hermit priest had given me, and I prayed the brother to give it to the
bishop at some proper moment, and he took it away with him. I had
forgotten it in the greater business.
While we ate and drank, and talked of how to reach Eanulf the Ealdorman,
the brother came back and brought us a message, saying:
"The bishop bids you rest here in peace. He has sent messengers to
Eanulf, bidding him come here in all haste to speak with him and you."
So I asked where he was, and the brother said that he lay at Wells,
which pleased Wulfhere, who said that he would be here shortly, and that
we were in luck, seeing that he wanted another good night's rest; and
indeed so did I, sorely, though that I might yet stay near Alswythe was
Before the two hours the bishop had set, there was a clamour in the
great yard, and we thought the messenger from Osric had surely come. And
so it was, for almost directly the bishop sent for us, and we were taken
back to the same chamber. But he was alone now, and motioned us to seats
beside him to one side.
Then they brought in a thane whom I did not know, and he said he was a
messenger from Osric, laying a letter on the table at the same time. I
saw that his armour was battle stained, and that he looked sorely downcast.
Not so the bishop as he read, for that which was written he had already
expected, and he never changed his set look. Once he read the letter
through, and then again aloud for us to hear. Thus it ran after fit
"Now what befell in the first fight you know or shall know shortly from
our trusty messenger Heregar, by whom the flight was stayed from that
field, on the Hill of Cannington. And this was well done. So, seeing
that the Danes had drawn off, I myself, foolishly deeming the matter at
an end, left three hundred men on that hill to watch the Danes back to
their ships, and returned to the town, there to muster again the men who
were sound, and, if it were possible, to lead them on the Danes as they
went on board again to depart. For the men, save those of Bridgwater,
would not bide on the hill, but came back, saving the Danes would surely
depart. And, indeed, I also thought so; but wrongly. For even as I
talked with Heregar of his own affairs, news came of a fresh attack,
whereon I sent him to you, fearing the worst, for the men on the hill
were few, and those in the town seeming of little spirit.
"Now when I came three parts of the way to Cannington, our men there
were sped and driven back on us. Whereupon I could no longer hold
together any force, and whither the men are scattered I know not.
Scarcely could I save the holy women and the monks, for even as they
fled under guard into the Quantock woods, and so to go beyond the hills,
the houses of Bridgwater next the Danes were burning.
"Now am I with two hundred men on Brent, and wait either for the Danes
to depart, or for orders from yourself or the Ealdorman Eanulf, to whom
I pray you let this letter be sent in haste after that you have read it."
So it ended with salutations, and when he had read it, the bishop folded
it slowly and looked at the thane, who shrugged his broad shoulders and
"True words, Lord Bishop, and all told."
"It is what I expected," said Ealhstan, "these two thanes told me it was
like to be thus."
"Surely," answered the thane. "What else?"
The bishop looked at him and asked him his name.
"Wislac, the Thane of Gatehampton by the Thames, am I," he said. "A
stranger here, having come on my own affairs to Bridgwater, and so
joining in the fight. Also, Osric's thanes having trouble enough on
hand, I rode with this letter."
"Thanks therefor," said the bishop. "I see that you fought also in a
place where blows were thick."
"Aye, in the first fight," said Wislac. "As for the second, being with
Osric, I never saw that."
"Did you stay on the hill where men rallied?"
"That did I, as any man would when the saints came to stay us. Otherwise
I had surely halted at Bridgwater, or this side thereof," answered the
strange thane, with a smile that was bitter enough.
Now the bishop had not heard that tale of the saint on a white horse;
but he was quick enough, and glanced aside at me. Whereupon Wislac the
Thane looked also, and straightway his mouth opened, and he stared at
me. Then, being nowise afraid of the bishop, or, as it seemed, of
saints, he said aloud, seemingly to himself:
"Never saw I bishop before. Still, I knew that they were blessed with
visions; but that live saints should sit below their seat, I dreamt
not!" and so he went on staring at me.
So the bishop, for all his trouble, could but smile, and asked him if he
saw a vision.
"Surely," he said, "this is the saint who stayed us on yonder hill."
"Nay, that is Heregar the Thane, messenger of Osric."
"Then," said Wislac, "let me tell you, Heregar the Thane, that one of
the saints, and I think a valiant one, is mightily like you. Whereby you
are the more fortunate."
Now for all the mistake I could not find a word to say, and was fain to
thank him for the good word on my looks. Yet he went on looking at me
now and then in a puzzled sort of way. And the bishop seemed to enjoy
his wonderment, but was in no mind to enlighten him.
Presently the bishop bade Wislac sit down, and then he took up Osric's
ring that I had given him, and also another which lay beside it on the
table--silver also, with some device on it, like that I had worn.
"See, thanes," he said, "have you three a mind to stay with me for a
while and be my council in this matter? For I am here without a fighting
man of my own to speak with."
Now this was what I would most wish, and I said so, eagerly and with
And Wislac said that he was surely in good company, and having nought to
call him home would gladly stay also.
Then said the bishop, "Stranger you are, friend Wislac, and therefore
wear this ring of Osric's, that men may pay heed to you as his friend
and mine; and do you, Heregar, wear this of mine that men may know you
for bishop's man, and so respect your word."
So was I put under the bishop's protection, and he would answer for my
presence in Wessex to all and any. That was good, and I felt a free man
again in truth, for here was no errand that would end, as Osric's was
ended, when I had seen Eanulf.
Now Wulfhere had not spoken, and the bishop asked him if he too would
"Ay, lord," answered Wulfhere, "gladly; but you spoke of thanes only."
"When the Bishop of Sherborne names one as a thane," said Ealhstan,
smiling, "men are apt to hold him as such. But only to the worthy are
such words spoken. Now, friend Wulfhere, I have heard of you at
Charnmouth fight, and also there is more in Osric's letter than I have
read to you. So if you will be but a bishop's landless thane, surely you
shall be one"
Then Wulfhere grew red with pleasure, and rising up, did obeisance to
the bishop for the honour, and the bishop called us two others to
witness that the same was given.
"Now is my council set," he said, "I to ask questions, and you to advise."
So for a long two hours we sat and told him all we knew of those Danes,
I of the ships, and Wulfhere and Wislac of numbers, and Wulfhere of
their ways in raiding a country, for this he had seen before, in Dorset,
and also in Ireland, as he told us, in years gone by.
That night we were treated as most honoured guests of the bishop's own
following, and early in the morning the bishop sent for me, before mass.
Once again I found him alone in that room of his, and all he said to me
I cannot write down. But I found that Leofwine the hermit had told him
of how I had taken counsel of him and abided by it, even as Ealhstan
himself had bidden me; and, moreover, that Osric had written in his
letter of what I had been able to do against the Danes, and of
Matelgar's last words concerning me. And for that remembrance of me,
according to his promise, even when writing of far greater matters, I am
ever grateful to the good sheriff.
So, because of these things known, Ealhstan spoke to me as a most loving
father, praising me where it seemed that praise was due, and reproving
me for the many things of deed and thought that were evil. And I told
him freely and fully all that had passed from the time I left the hill
of Brent till when I had seen the signals of the vikings from above
Watchet, and bore the war arrow to Matelgar. The rest he knew in a way;
but I opened all my heart to him, he drawing all from me most gently,
till at last I came to my dream of Matelgar, and my wish that for me he
might rest in peace.
"It is not all forgiveness, Heregar, my son," he said presently. "There
is love for Alsywthe, and pride in yourself, and thought of Matelgar's
failure, which have at least brought you to a beginning of it. But true
forgiveness comes slowly, and many a long day shall it be before that
has truly come."
And I knew that maybe he was right, and asked his help; whereupon that
was freely given, and in such sort that all my life long I must mind the
words he said, and love him in the memory.
When all that was said he would have me hear mass with him, as though I
needed urging. And there, too, were Wulfhere and Wislac; and that mass
in the great abbey was the most wonderful I ever heard.
After that we three went out into the town, and Wislac and I marvelled
at everything. Then we went to the nunnery gates and asked how our
charges fared, and then saw to our steeds. There was the collier,
working as a groom with the other men, and he told me that he was
learning his new trade fast, but would fain walk ever, rather than ride,
having fallen many times from the abbess' mule, which he had bestridden
in anxiety to learn. Whether the mule was the better for this lesson I
When we went back to the abbey Eanulf had come, and with him many
thanes. And I feared to meet these somewhat, for they might have been
among the Moot, and would know me. Yet Ealhstan had foreseen this, and
one was posted at the door to meet me, bidding me aside privately, since
the bishop needed me.
Wulfhere and Wislac went into the hall and left me, therefore, and I was
taken to a chamber where were six or seven lay brethren, who asked me
many things about the fight, and specially at last about the saint who
had appeared. And that was likely to be a troublesome question for me,
as I could not claim to have been the one so mistaken; but another
struck in, saying that there were many strange portents about, for that
a fiend had appeared bodily from the marsh and had devoured a child, in
Sedgemoor. Now it seems that fiends are rarer than saints among these
holy men, and they forgot the first wonder and ran on about the second,
not thinking that I could have told them of that also. And at last one
fetched a great book, as I thought in some secrecy, and made thereout
nothing more nor less than parts of the song of Beowulf itself, and all
about Grendel, which pleased us all well, and so we were quiet enough,
And it happened that while we were all intent on this reading (and I
never heard one read as brother Guthlac read to us) the sub-prior came
in to call me, and pulling back the hangings of the doorway, stood
listening, where I could see him.
First of all he looked pleased to find his people so employed. Then when
the crash of the fighting verses came to his ears he started a little,
and looked round. The good brothers were like to forget their frocks,
for their fists were clenched and their eyes sparkled, and their teeth
were set, and verily I believe each man of them thought himself one of
Beowulf's comrades, if not the hero himself.
Whereupon the sub-prior and I were presently grinning at one another.
"Ho!" said he, all of a sudden. "Now were I Swithun, where would you
heathens spend tonight? Surely in the cells!"
Then for a moment they thought Grendel had indeed come, such power has
verse like this in the mouth of a good reader, and they started up, one
And the reader saw who it was, and that there was no hiding the book
from him, so they stood agape and terrified, for by this time the good
man had managed to look mighty stern.
"Good Father," said I, seeing that someone must needs speak, "I am but a
fighting man, and the brothers were considering my weakness."
"H'm," said the sub-prior, seeming in great wrath. "Is there no fighting
to be read from Holy Writ that you must take these pagan vanities from
where you ought not? Go to! Yet, by reason of your care for the bishop's
thane, your penance shall be light now and not heavy hereafter. Brother
Guthlac shall read aloud in refectory today the story of David and
Goliath, and you brother," pointing to one, "that of Ahab at Ramoth, and
you, of Joshua at Jericho," and so he went on till each had a chapter of
war assigned him, and I thought it an easy penance.
"But," he added, "and until all these are read, your meals shall be
untasted before you."
Then the brothers looked at one another, for it was certain that all
this reading would last till the meal must be left for vespers.
Then the sub-prior bade the reader take back the book and go to his own
cell, and beckoning me, we passed out and left the brothers in much
dismay, not knowing what should befall them from the abbot when he heard.
So I ventured to tell the sub-prior how this came about, and he smiled,
saying that he should not tell Tatwine the Abbot, for the brothers were
seldom in much fault, and that maybe it was laudable to search even
pagan books for the manners of fiends, seeing that forewarned was
Then he said that surely he wished (but this I need tell none else) that
he had been there in my place to hear Guthlac read it. Also that he was
minded to make the old rhyme more Christian-like, if he could, writing
parts of it afresh. And this he has done since, so that any man may read
it; but it is not so good as the old one [ix].
Now we came to the bishop's chamber, and he went in, calling me after
him in a minute or so. I could hear Ealhstan's voice and that of another
as I waited outside.
The other was Eanulf the Ealdorman, and as I entered he rose up and
"So, Heregar," he said, "you are bishop's man now, and out of my power.
I am glad of it," and so saying he reached me out his hand and wrung
mine, and looked very friendly as he did so.
"I have heard of your doings," he said, "and thank you for them. And I
will see this matter of yours looked into, for I think, as the bishop
believes, that there has been a plot against you for plain reasons
enough. However, that must stand over as yet. But come with me to the
hall and I will right you with the thanes there."
At that I thanked him, knowing that things were going right with me, and
the bishop smiled, as well pleased, but said nothing, as Eanulf took me
by the arm, and we went together to the great hall, where the thanes,
some twenty of them, were talking together. At once I saw several whose
faces had burnt themselves, as it were, into my mind at the Moot; but
none of Matelgar's friends among them.
They were quiet when their leader went in, and he wasted no time, but
spoke in his own direct way.
"See here, thanes; here is Heregar, whom we outlawed but the other day.
Take my word and Ealhstan's and Osric's for it that there was a mistake.
We know now that there is no truer man, for he has proved it, as some of
you know-he being the man who lit the huts at Stert in face of the
Danes, and being likewise the Saint of Cannington--"
"Aye, it is so," said several voices, and others laughed. Then, like
honest Saxons as they were, they came crowding and laughing to shake
hands with an outlawed saint, as one said; so that I was overdone almost
with their kindness, and knew not what to say or do.
But Eanulf pushed me forward among them, saying that I, being bishop's
man, was no more concern of his, outlaw or no outlaw, and that saints
were beyond him. So he too laughed, and went back to the bishop; and I
found Wulfhere and Wislac, and soon I was one of my own sort again, and
the bad past seemed very far away.
But Wislac looked at me and said: "You have spoilt a fine tale I had to
take home with me; but maybe I need not tell the ending. Howbeit, I
always did hold that there was none so much difference between a
fighting saint and one of ourselves."
And that seemed to satisfy him.
CHAPTER XII. THE GREAT LEVY.
It was not long before Eanulf made up his mind to action, and he was
closeted with the bishop all that morning. Then, after the midday meal,
he called a council of all who were there, and we sat in the great hall
to hear his plans.
Ealhstan came with him, and these two sat at the upper end of the hall,
and we on the benches round the walls, for the long tables had been
When all was ready, Eanulf stood up and told the thanes, for some were
men who had had no part in Osric's levy, all about the fighting, and how
it had ended. And having done that, he asked for the advice of such as
would have aught to say.
Very soon an old thane rose up and said that he thought all would be
well if forces were so posted as to prevent the Danes coming beyond the
land they then held.
And several growled assent to that; and one said that Danes bided in one
place no long time, but would take ship again and go elsewhere.
That, too, seemed to please most, and I saw Eanulf bite his lip, for he
was a man who loved action. And Wulfhere, too, shifted in his seat, as
Then they went back to the first proposal, and began to name places
where men might be posted to keep the Danes in Parret valley at least,
till they went away.
Then at last Wulfhere grew angry, and rose up, looking very red.
"And what think you will Parret valley be like when they have done their
will therein? Does no man remember the going back to his place when
these strangers had bided in it for a while, after they beat us in Dorset?"
There were two thanes who had lands in that part, and they flushed, so
that one might easily know they remembered; but they said naught.
Then Eanulf spake, very plainly:
"I am for raising the levy of Somerset again, and stronger, and driving
them out; but I cannot do it without your help."
Then there was silence, and the thanes looked at one another for so long
that I waxed impatient, and being headstrong, maybe, got up and spoke:
"Landless I am, and maybe not to be hearkened to, but nevertheless I
will say what it seems to me that a man should say. Into this land of
peace these men from over seas have come wantonly, slaying our friends,
burning our houses, driving our cattle, making such as escape them take
to the woods like hunted wild beasts. Where is Edred the Thane? Where is
Matelgar? Where twenty others you called friends? Dead by Combwich, and
none to bury them. The Danes have their arms, the wolves their bodies.
Is no vengeance to be taken for this? Or shall the Danes sail away
laughing, saying that the hearts of the Saxons are as water?"
Then there rose an angry growl at that, and I was glad to hear it. So
was Eanulf, as it seemed. And Wulfhere got up and stood beside me and
"This is good talk, and now I will add a word. Why came back the Danes
here? Because after we were beaten before, we let them do their worst,
and hindered them not; therefore come they back even now--aye, and if
we drive them not from us, hither will they come yet again, till we may
not call the land our own from year to year. I say with the ealdorman,
let us up and drive them out, showing them what Saxons are made of.
What? Are we done fighting after they have scattered one hastily
gathered levy? Shame there is none to us in being so beaten once, but I
hold it shame to let them so easily have the mastery."
Then there was a murmur, but not all of assent; though I could see that
many would side with us. Whereon Wislac rose up slowly, and looking
"I am a stranger, but having been present at the beating the other day,
yonder, am minded to see if I may yet go home on the winning side. And
it would be shame, even as these two thanes have said, not to give a
guest a chance to have his pleasure. I pray you, thanes, pluck up
spirit, and follow the ealdorman."
Now, though Wislac's words seemed idle at the beginning, there was that
in his last words which brought several of the younger thanes to their
feet, looking angrily at him, and one asked if he meant to call that
"Not I," said Wislac, smiling peacefully, "seeing that you have done
naught to deserve that foul name; but being a beaten man, as I said, I
need a chance to prove that I am not 'nidring' myself, so please you."
And they could not take offence at his tone, yet they saw well what he
meant; and this in the end touched them very closely, for they were in
the same case as he, but with more right, being of Somerset, to wipe out
their defeat. But maybe there would have been a quarrel if Eanulf had
"Peace, thanes," he said. "Heregar is right, and we must avenge our
dead. Wulfhere is right, and for the land's sake we must give these
Danes a lesson to bide at home. Wislac is right, and this defeat must be
wiped out. Now say if you will help me to raise the levy afresh?"
"Aye, we will," said the thanes, but there was not that heartiness in
their tones that one might have looked for.
In truth, though, it was no want of courage, but the thought of the
easier plan of waiting, that held them back.
Then Ealhstan the Bishop rose up and faced us all, with his eyes
shining, and his right hand gripping his crosier so tightly that his
knuckles shone white.
"What, my sons, shall it be said of you, as it is said of us Dorset
folk, that you let the Danes bide in your land and work their worst on
you and yours? I tell you that since we went back and saw, as we still
see, their track over our homes, our folk burn to take revenge on them;
and I, being what I am, think no wrong of counselling revenge on heathen
folk. Listen, for ye are men."
And then he told us in burning words such a tale of what must be were
these heathen to have their way, such things that he himself had seen
and known after Charnmouth fight, that we would fain at last be up and
drive them away without waiting for the levy.
And at last he said:
"Eanulf, this will I do. I will gather the Dorset levy and lead them to
your help, and so will we make short work of these heathen."
Then all the thanes shouted that they would not be behind in the matter;
and so their cool Saxon blood was fired to that white rage which is
quenched but in victory or death.
Now after that there was talk of nothing but of making the levy as soon
as might be, and Eanulf, thanking everyone, and most of all the bishop,
straightway gave his orders; and before that night the war arrow was
speeding through all Somerset and Dorset likewise, and word was sent to
Osric and the other sheriffs that the gathering place named was at the
hill of Brent.
Now of those days that followed there is little to say. The other thanes
left, each to gather his own men, vowing vengeance on the Danes; but
before they went there was hardly one who did not seek out Wulfhere,
Wislac, and myself, and in some way or another tell us that we had
spoken right. One fiery young thane, indeed, was minded to fight Wislac,
but the Mercian turned the quarrel very skilfully, and in the end agreed
with the thane that the matter should be settled by the number of Danes
each should slay, "which," said Wislac, "will be as good sport and more
profitable than pounding one another, and quite as good proof that
neither of us may be held nidring."
So that ended very well.
But every day came in reports, brought by fugitives, of the Danes and
their doings, which made our blood boil. At last came one who brought a
message for myself, could I be found. It was from the aunt of Alswythe,
the Prioress of Bridgwater, telling of her safety and that of her nuns,
at Taunton. And I begged the bishop to let me tell this good news to
Alswythe, and so gained speech with her once more. Yet would the abbess
be present, reading the while; but I might tell my love all that had
befallen me, and she rejoiced, bidding me go fight and win myself renown
in the good cause of my own country.
And when I left her I felt that I must indeed be strong for the sake of
her, and by reason of her words, which would be in my mind ever.
Now one day when I went to see the horses and ride out with Wulfhere and
Wislac, the collier came and hung about, seeming to wish to ask
somewhat. And when I noticed this and bade him speak, he prayed me that
I would give him arms, and let him follow me to the coming fighting.
Arms, save those I wore, I had none, but I promised him such as I could
buy him with what remained of the money I had found, which might be
enough, seeing that we lived at free quarters with the bishop, and had
little expense. As for the other money, I left that with the abbess
after I had seen Alswythe, for it was less mine than hers.
But I asked Dudda if he were able to use a sword. Whereupon he grinned,
and said that Brother Guthlac tended the abbot's mule, and had taught
him much when he came to the stables daily. He also showed me a bruised
arm and broken head in token of hard play with the ash plant between
"Here is the said Guthlac," said Wulfhere; and there was the reader of
Beowulf coming, with frock and sleeves tucked up, from out the stables.
So I called him, and asked him to try a bout with the collier, telling
At first he denied all knowledge of carnal warfare, but I reminded him
of his reading of Beowulf, saying that, if he knew naught of fighting,
the verses would have had none of that fire in them. So, in the end,
they went to it, and I saw that Guthlac was well used to sword play, and
was satisfied also with his pupil.
Then I asked Guthlac whence he got his skill in arms, and why he was
shut up thus inside four walls.
"Laziness, Thane," he answered, telling me nothing of the first matter
at all. Nor would he. But I found afterwards that he had been lamed
once, and tended by the monks, and so had bided in the abbey, liking the
life, though he had been a stout housecarle to some thane or other.
Then Wislac must ask him if there were any more of his sort in the
abbey, and seeing that we meant no harm, and looking on me as an ally in
that matter of the reading, he said there were five more, "whom Heregar
the Thane knew, if he would remember, reading certain Scriptures at
And I found that these six kindred spirits had managed to get themselves
told off to amuse me while I waited that day, so that they might hear of
So we laughed and rode out, and I thought no more of Guthlac and his
brethren till the time came when I remembered them gladly.
All day long during that week came pouring in the Dorset levies in
answer to the bishop's summons. Hard and wiry men they were, and as I
could well see, a very much harder set than Osric's first levy, for
these were veterans. Ealhstan's word had gone out that all men who would
wipe out the defeat of Charnmouth should gather to him, and these were
the men who had fought there, and only longed to try their strength
again against their conquerors of that disastrous day.
Day by day, also, would Ealhstan go out into the marketplace, and there
speak burning words to them, bidding them remember the days gone by, and
the valour of their fathers who won the land for them, and to have ever
in mind that this war was not of Christian against Christian, but
against heathen men who were profaning the houses of God wherever they
Many more things did he say, ever finding something fresh wherewith to
stir their courage, but ever, also, did he bid them remember how the
Danes had won by discipline more than courage, and to pay heed to that
as their leaders bade them.
Also, day by day, he bade the thanes who had seen fighting, train their
men as well as they might, and they worked well at that. Moreover, he
could teach them much, reading to us at times from a great Latin book of
the wars of Caesar such things as seemed like to be useful, putting it
into good Saxon as he went on.
Then, as the week drew to an end, there began to be questions as to who
should be leader of the Dorset men. And many said that Osric should be
the man, for he was an Ealdorman of Dorset. But when the bishop sent to
Brent for him, and asked him to lead his men, Osric doubted; and what he
said to the other thanes, and to us three, made them send us to the
bishop with somewhat to ask.
So we, finding him ever ready to hear what was wanted, put the question
to him plainly as they had bidden us. And that was, that he himself
should lead the levy of Dorset.
Now Tatwine, the old abbot, sat with him and heard this, and straightway
he began to tremble, and cry out that such work was unfit for a bishop.
So the bishop said to me, very quietly, but with a look in his eyes
which seemed to show that this was what he longed for:
"Heregar, my son, go and tell the thanes what the abbot says, and ask if
they will go without me."
All the thanes were waiting to hear the bishop's answer to our request,
and I told them this, and they knew at once what answer to give, for
they said, or Osric said for them, while all applauded:
"We will not go against these heathens unless the bishop leads us. Else
must Somerset fight her own battles."
So with that word I went back to the bishop, and told him.
"So, Tatwine, my brother, you see how it is. Needs must that I go, else
were it shame to us that heathen men should have freedom in a Christian
But Tatwine groaned, and, maybe knowing the bishop well, said no more.
Then Ealhstan bade him remember all the saints who had warred against
the heathen, and were held blameless--nay, rather, the holier.
"Therefore," said he, "I am in good company, and will surely go."
Whereupon Tatwine rose up and went out, saying that he should go to the
abbey and seek protection for the bishop, and men say he bided there
almost night and day, praying until all was past. Certainly I saw him no
more in his accustomed places, save at mass.
When he had gone the bishop smiled a little, looking after him, and then
spoke to us.
"I may tell my council that this is what I should love. Nevertheless, it
will not be I who lead, but you three. For the counsel must be
Wulfhere's, and the coolness Wislac's, and the rest Heregar's, who will
by no means bide that we run away. Now, I think that you three will make
a good leader of me."
On that we thanked him for his words, and we followed him out to the
hall. And there the thanes shouted and cheered as he came, and still
more when he prayed them to follow him to victory or a warrior's death.
And that they swore to do, not loudly, but in such sort that none could
mistake that they would surely do so.
Then he bade them muster their men by the first light in the morning,
and so he would lead them first of all to Brent, to join the ealdorman.
And Osric should be his second in command.
That pleased all, and soon we were left alone with him again, but we
could hear outside the cheering of men now and then, as some thane
gathered his following and told them the name of their leader.
So we three went out presently and saw to our horses, and then I was
wondering about arms for Dudda, for I had left the matter too long, and
it seemed there were few weapons remaining for sale in the town by
reason of men of the levy buying or borrowing what they lacked in
equipment. And the poor fellow hung about sadly, thinking he should find
none in the end, and swearing he would follow me even had he naught but
a quarterstaff in his hand.
But when we went back to the abbey, the bishop sent for us, and we were
taken into a room we had not seen before, and there on the table were
laid out three suits of mail, helmets, and arms.
"Now," said Ealhstan, as he saw our eyes go, as a man's eyes will,
straight to these things, "if you thanes are not too proud to accept
such as I can give, let me arm you, and tell you where you shall bear
And that was what we longed for, for as yet we had no post in the levy,
and we told him as much.
"That is well," he answered. "See, Wislac, here is bright steel armour
and helm and shield for you. Sword also, if you need it, for maybe you
will scarce part from your own tried weapon?"
But Wislac smiled at that, and took hold of his sword hilt, loosening
the strings which bound it to the sheath. There were but eight inches of
blade left, and these were sorely notched.
"Aha!" quoth the bishop, "now know I why Wislac thought well to stop
fighting the other day," which pleased the Mercian well enough.
"Then, Wulfhere," went on Ealhstan, "here is this black armour and helm
and shield for you, and sword or axe as you will."
And Wulfhere thanked him, taking the axe, as his own sword was good.
"Now, Heregar, my son, this is yours," said the bishop, looking kindly
And as I looked I thought I had never seen more beautiful arms. No
better were they than the other two suits, for all three were of good
Sussex ring mail as to the byrnies, [x] while the boar-crested helms
were of hammered steel.
But mine was silver white, with gold collar and gold circles round the
arms. Gold, too, was the boar-crest of the helm, and gold the circle
round the head, and to me it seemed as I looked that this was too good.
And Ealhstan knew my thoughts and answered them.
"Black for the man of dark counsel, bright steel for the warrior, and
silver-bright armour for the man who brings back hope when all seems lost."
"That is good," said Wislac. "Now read us the meaning of the gold
thereon also," for he seemed to see that the bishop had some meaning in
that, whereat the bishop smiled.
"Gold for trust," he said, "and for the man who shall be honoured."
"That is well also," said Wulfhere, and Wislac nodded gravely.
"Now," said the bishop, "I will put Heregar out of my council for a
minute, so that he may not speak nor hear. Tell me, Thanes both, if it
will be well to give Heregar the place whereto men shall rally in need?"
"Aye, surely," they said. "We know he can fill that place."
"Then shall he bear my standard," said the bishop, "and none will
gainsay it," and so he turned to me.
"Now, Heregar, may you hear this decision. Standard bearer to me shall
you be, and I know you will bear it well and bravely. And these two,
your friends and mine, shall stand to right and left of you, and six
stout carles may you choose from the levy to stand before and behind
you. And whom you choose I will arm alike, that all may know them."
Now knew I not what to say or do, but I knelt before the bishop and
kissed his hand, and so he laid it on my head and blessed me, bidding me
speak no words of thanks, but only deserve them from him.
Now there was a little silence after this, and Wislac, being ever ready,
broke it for us,
"Much do I marvel," he said, "that these suits of armour should be so
exactly fitting to each of us. Surely there is some magic in it."
"Only the magic of a wearied man's sleep, and of a good weapon smith,"
said the bishop, laughing. "One measured your mail, byrnie and helm
both, as you slept. We have lay brethren apt for every craft."
And that reminded me of Brother Guthlac, and a thought came to me.
"Father," I said, "six men have you bidden me choose, and I know none of
the Dorset men. Yet there are six lay brethren here who have been
warriors, of whom brother Guthlac is one, and if they may march against
heathen men, I pray you let me have them."
Now that the Bishop seemed to find pleasant, as though he knew something
of those lovers of war songs, and answered that he wot not if Tatwine
would let them go. But, in any case, he would choose men for me of the
best, and that we all thought well, knowing in what spirit he would put
those men whom he should choose.
So he bade us go, taking our arms with us, and we, thanking him, went
out. But I found my collier, and showed him the arms I had been wearing,
saying they should be his, and then took him, rejoicing, into the town.
There I bought him, after some search, a plain, good sword and target,
which he bore to his lodgings to scour and gaze at for the rest of the day.
CHAPTER XIII. A MESSAGE FROM THE DEAD.
How shall I tell what it was like when the bishop, standing aloft at the
head of the abbey steps with all the monks round him, gave into my
hands, as I knelt, his standard to bear at the head of his men?
Very early in the morning it was, and all the roofs were golden in
bright sunlight, and the men, drawn up in a hollow square fronting the
abbey, were silent and attentive as mass was sung in the great church,
so that the sound of the chanting came out to them through the open
doors. And when the sacring [xi] bell rang, as though a
wave went along the ranks, all knelt, and there was a clash and ring of
steel, and then silence for a space, very wonderful.
Then came out, when mass was said, bishop, and thanes, and monks, and
there gave me the banner, Wulfhere and Wislac kneeling on either side of
me, and behind us those six stout housecarles whom the bishop had chosen
and armed for me. So the banner was given and blessed, and I rose up,
grasping the golden-hafted cross from which it hung, and lifted it that
all might see.
Then was a great shout from all the men, and swords were drawn and
brandished on every side, and, without need of command, all the Dorset
host swore to follow it even to the death. And that was good to hear.
But as for me, my thoughts were more than I may write, but it seems to
me that they were as those of Saint George when he rode out to slay the
dragon in the old days, so great were they.
After that a little wait, and then the horses; and the bishop mounted a
great bay charger, managing him as a master. And to me was brought my
white horse by the collier, looking a grim fighting man enough in his
arms, and to Wulfhere and Wislac black and gray steeds given by Ealhstan
Now the bishop rode, followed by us, to the centre of the levy, and
again a great shout rose up even mightier than that first, and when it
ended he spoke to the men as he was wont to speak but even yet more
freely, and then put himself at their head, and so began the march to
Brent. And all the town was out to see us go, never doubting of our
victory, nor thinking of how few might return of all that long line of
sturdy and valiant fighting men.
When we were clear of the town at last, and went, the men singing as
they marched, down the ancient green lanes that had seen our
forefathers' levies and the Roman legions alike, I had time to look
around me at my own following, being conscious in some way that, mixed
up as it were with the war song, there had been the sound of the droning
of a chant as by monks close by me. And I could see no monks near. The
thanes were riding round and after the bishop, who came next me as I led
the way with the standard, and Ealhstan indeed had on his robes; but
there was a stiffness about him, and a glint of steel also, when a
breeze shifted the loose fold of his garments, that seemed to say that
his was not all peaceful gear.
Just behind me, as I rode with Wulfhere and Wislac to right and left,
came my six men, big powerful housecarles, all in black armour and
carrying red and black shields, and with a red cross on their helms'
fronts. And the squarest of these six, he who seemed to be their leader,
looked up at me, when I turned again, with a grin that I seemed to know.
So I took closer notice of him, and lo! it was Guthlac, the reader of
Beowulf, and the other five were his brethren. Small wonder that I had
not recognized the holy men in their war gear, so little looked they
like the peaceful brethren who had walked in the abbey cloisters.
With them was my collier, keeping step and holding himself with the best
of them, and I thought that they would be seven hardy Danes who should
overmatch my standard guard. So I was well content with the bishop's
choice for me.
Now of that march to Brent, and the meeting there with the Somerset
levy, there is no need to tell. But by the time we marched from thence
against the Danes, there were five hundred men of Dorset, and near nine
hundred of Somerset. Of the Danes some judged that there would be eight
hundred or more, but if that was so, they were tried men, and our
numbers were none too great. Moreover, we must separate, so as to drive
them down to their ships, for they were spread over the country, burning
and destroying on every side.
We lay but one night on Brent, while the leaders held counsel, and even
as we sat gathered, we could see plainly the fires the Danes had lit, of
burning hamlet and homestead, far and wide across the marshes of Parret.
And the end of that council was that Eanulf should take his Somerset men
up Parret valley, and so drive down the Danes, while Ealhstan should
fall on them by Bridgwater as they came down, and so scatter them.
Therefore would the Somerset levy march very early, before light; while
we should wait till the next night, unless word should come beforehand.
So we went to sleep. And as I slept in my place, with the standard
flapping above me, and my comrades on either side and behind, it seemed
to me that one came and waked me. And when I sat up and looked, thinking
it was a messenger from the bishop, I saw that it was Matelgar.
Now this time I had no fear of him, and I waited for him to speak, just
as though he had been before me in the flesh, for there seemed naught
uncanny about the matter to me. And yet even at the moment that seemed
strange, though it was so.
But for a while he looked not at me, but out over the low lands towards
Parret mouth and Stert, shading his eyes with his hand as though it were
broad noonday. And then he turned back to me and spoke.
"Heregar; I promised to stand by you again when the time came. Now I bid
you go to Combwich hill, there to wait what betides. So, if you will do
the bidding of the dead who has wronged you, but would now make amends,
shall you thank me for this hereafter--aye, and not you only."
Then out over Parret he gazed again and faded from beside me, so that I
could ask him nothing. Then knew I that I was awake, and that this had
been no dream; for a great fear came on me for a little, knowing what I
had seen to be not of this world. Yet all around me my comrades slept,
and only round the rim of the trenched hill went the wakeful sentries,
too far for speech--for we leaders were in the centre of the camp.
But presently I began to think less of the vision, and more of the
words. And at first they seemed vain, for Combwich hill was over near to
Stert; nor did I see how I could reach the place without cutting through
the Danes (who would doubtless leave a strong guard with the ships, and
were also in and about Bridgwater), seeing that the river must be crossed.
Then as I turned over the matter, not doubting but that a message so
given was sooth, and by no means lightly to be disregarded, I seemed to
wake to a resolve concerning the meaning of the whole thing. What if I
could win there under cover of darkness, and so fall on the Danish host
as Eanulf drove them back and the bishop and Osric chased them to the
That seemed possible, if only I could cross Parret with men enough, and
unseen. I would ask Wulfhere and Wislac, when morning came, and so, if
they could help, lay the matter before the bishop himself. So thinking I
fell asleep again, peacefully enough, nor dreamt I aught.
With morning light that vision and the bidding to Combwich, and what I
had thought thereon, seemed yet stronger. Very early the Somerset men
went with Eanulf, and we of the bishop's levy only remained on Brent
after the morning meal.
Then as we three stood on the edge of the hill, and looked out where
Matelgar had looked, I told my two friends of his coming and of his words.
"Three things there are," said Wislac, "that hinder this ghost's
business; namely, want of wings, uncertainty of darkness, and ignorance
of the time when the Danes shall come."
"There are also three things that make for it, brother," said Wulfhere.
"Namely: that men can swim, that there is no moon, and that the Danes
are careless in their watch of the waste they leave behind them."
"Think you that the hill will be unguarded?" asked I, glad that Wulfhere
did not put away the plan at once.
"Why should they guard it? There are Danes at the ships--though few, I
expect, for we have been well beaten. And more in plenty from Parret to
Quantocks, and no Saxon left between the two forces."
"Why not burn the ships then?" asked Wislac.
"Doubtless that could we, once over Parret," answered Wulfhere, "but
what then? Away go the Danes through Somerset, burning and plundering
even to Cornwall, and there bide till ships come, and then can be gone
in safety. That is not what we need. We have to trap them and beat them
"So then, Wulfhere," I said, "think you that the plan is good?"
"Aye," he answered, "good enough; but not easy. Moreover, I doubt if the
bishop would let his standard bearer part from him."
That was likely enough to stop all the plan; but yet I would lay it
before Ealhstan, for it seemed to us that such a message might by no
means go untold at least.
So we sought him, and asked for speech with him; and at that he laughed,
saying that surely his council had the best right to that. Osric was
with him, and the bishop told him how that we three had been his first
advisers in this matter.
Then we sat down and I told Ealhstan all, asking nothing.
When I had ended, Osric looked at me, and said that the plan was
venturesome; but no doubt possible to be carried out, and if so, by none
better than myself, who knew every inch of that country. Then, thinking
over it, as it were, he added that the woods beyond Matelgar's hall
would shelter any force that must needs seek cover, so that, even were
Combwich hill unsafe, there was yet a refuge whence attack could again
Then Ealhstan, who had listened quietly, said that such messages were
rare, but all the less to be despised. Therefore would he think thereof
"What," he asked, "is the main difficulty?"
I said that the crossing of Parret was like to be hard in any case; but
at night and unobserved yet more so. But that, could we reach the
farther bank, I could find places where we might lie in wait for a day,
if need were, with many men.
Thereupon the bishop took that great book of Caesar's wars, and looked
into it. But he seemed long in finding aught to meet that case, while we
talked of one thing or another concerning it among ourselves.
At last he shut the book and said, very gravely: "I would that I could
"I also, Father," said Wislac, "and why I cannot, save for sheer
cowardice, I know not, having been brought up on Thames side, and never
daring to go out of depth."
At that we were fain to laugh, so dismally did the broad-shouldered
Mercian blame himself. But the bishop said that if I went, needs must
that he came also. But he did not dissuade me in any way.
"Wulfhere the Counsellor," he said then, "have you no plan?"
"To cross the river?" answered the veteran. "Aye, many, if they may be
managed. Rafts for those who cannot swim, surely."
Now I bethought me of the many boats that ever lay in the creek under
Combwich, and wondered if any were yet whole. For if they were, surely
one might swim over and bring one back. And that I said.
Then of a sudden, the bishop rose up, and seemed to have come to a
"See here, thanes; ever as we march to Bridgwater, we draw nearer
Parret. Now by this evening, we shall be close over against this place
Combwich, so that one may go thither and spy what there is to be done,
and come back in good time and tell us if crossing may be made by raft
or boat. Let this rest till then. But if it may be so, then I, and
Heregar and his following, and two hundred men will surely cross, and
wait for what may betide. For I think this plan is good."
So he would say no more of it then. And presently all his men were
mustered, and we marched from Brent slowly along the way to Bridgwater.
CHAPTER XIV. ELGAH THE FISHER.
Now men have said that this plan of mine needed no ghost to set it
forth, but is such that would enter the mind of any good leader. That
might be so had there been one there who knew the country as I knew it,
but there was not. And I was no general as was Eanulf. However that
might be, I tell what happened to me in the matter, and sure am I that
but for Matelgar's bidding I had never thought of this place or plan.
But once Ealhstan had heard thereof, the thought of it seemed ever
better to him. And when we were fairly marching along the level towards
Bridgwater he called me, and began to talk of that business of spying
out the crossing place.
Now I too had been thinking of that same, and asked him to let me go at
once, taking one man with me. Then would I rejoin him as best I might,
and close to the place where I might fix on means of getting over.
Now there seemed little danger in the matter, for our spies had reported
no Danes on this side of Parret, for they kept the water between us and
them, doubtless knowing that Osric had gone to Brent at first, and
thinking it likely that another levy might be made. So the bishop, not
very willingly, as it seemed to me, let me go, as there was none else
who could go direct to the point as I could without loss of time, even
as Osric told him.
Then I gave the standard into Wulfhere's hand, and must seek one to go
with me. First I thought of Wislac, but he was a stranger, and then my
eyes lit on my collier, and I knew that I need go no further. So I
called him, and taking him aside--while the men streamed past us,
looking at my silver arms and speaking thereof to one another--told
him what we had to do.
Whereat his eyes sparkled, and he said that it was good hearing.
"But, master," he went on, "take off those bright arms of yours and let
us go as marshmen. Then will be no suspicion if the Danes see us from
across the water."
That was wise counsel, and we left our arms in a baggage wagon,
borrowing frocks from the churls who followed us, and only keeping our
seaxes in our belts.
Then Dudda found a horse that was led with the wagons, and I bade the
man whose it was lend it to him, promising good hire for its use. And so
we two rode off together across the marshland, away by Burnham, while
the levy held on steadily by the main road.
Then was I glad that I had brought the collier, for the marsh was
treacherous and hard to pass in places. But he knew the firm ground, as
it were, by nature, and we went on quickly enough. Now and then we
passed huts, but they were empty; for away across the wide river mouth
at Burnham, though we rode not into that village, we could see the six
long black ships as they lay at Stert, and the smoke of the fires their
guard had made on shore.
But on this side of the river they had been, for Burnham was but a heap
of ashes. They had crossed in their small boats, doubtless, and found
the place empty.
Then at last we came to a hut some two miles off in the marshes from
Combwich, and in that we left our horses, giving them hay from the
little rick that stood thereby. To that poor place, at least, the Danes
had not come, for the remains of food left on the table showed that the
owners had fled hastily, but in panic, and that none had been near the
Now Dudda would have us take poles and a net we found left, on our
shoulders, that we might seem fishers daring to return, or maybe driven
by hunger to our work. For we must go unhidden soon, where the marshland
lay open and bare down to the river, the alder and willow holts ceasing
when their roots felt the salt water of the spring tides. But we had
been able to keep under their cover as far as the hut.
So we went towards the river, as I had many a time seen the fishers go
in the quiet days that were past; and we said little, but kept our eyes
strained both up and down the river for sign of the Danes.
But all we saw was once, far off on Stert, the flash of bright arms or
helm; and there we knew before that men must be.
On Combwich hill was no smoke wreath of the outpost fires I had feared,
nor could I see aught moving among the trees. Then at last we stood on
the river bank and looked across at the little haven. All the huts were
burnt and silent. There were many crows and ravens among the trees above
where they had stood, and a great osprey wheeled over our heads as we
"No men here," said my comrade, "else would not yon birds be so quiet."
But I could see no boat, and my heart sank somewhat; for nothing was
there on this bank wherewith to make the raft of which Wulfhere spake.
Then said I: "Let us swim over and see what we can find."
Now it was three hours after noon, or thereabouts, and the tide was
running out very swiftly, and it was a long passage over. Nevertheless
we agreed to try it, and so, going higher up the stream, we cast
ourselves in, and swam quartering across the tide.
A long and heavy swim it was, but no more than two strong men could well
manage. All the time, however, I looked to see some red-cloaked Dane
come out from the trees and spy us; but there was none.
Then we reached the other bank, and stood to gain breath, for now we
were in the enemy's country, and tired as we were, we threw ourselves
down in the shelter of a broad-stemmed willow tree, on the side away
from the hill and village.
In a moment the collier touched my arm and pointed. On the crest of the
hill stood a man, looking down towards us, but he was unarmed, as well
as I could see, and, moreover, his figure seemed familiar. We watched
him closely, for he began to come down towards us, and as he came nearer
I knew him. It was one of the Combwich villeins--a fisher of the name
Now I would speak with him, for he could tell me all I needed; yet I
knew not if he had made friends with the Danes, being here and seeming
We lost sight of him among the trees, and the birds flew up, croaking,
from them, marking his path as yet towards us; and at last he came from
behind a half-burnt hut close to us. Then I called him by name.
He started, and whipped out a long knife, and in a moment was behind the
hut wall again. So I knew that he was not in league with the enemy, but
feared them. Therefore I rose up and called him again, adding that I was
Heregar, and needed him.
Then he came out, staring at me with his knife yet ready. But when he
saw that it was really myself he ran to meet me with a cry of joy and
knelt before me, kissing my hands and weeping; so that it was a while
before I could ask him anything. Very starved and wretched he looked,
and I judged rightly that he had taken to the woods from the first.
Presently he was quiet enough to answer my questions, and he told me
that at first the Danes had had a strong post on the hill above us; but
that, growing confident, they had left it these two days. But there were
many passing and repassing along the road, bringing plunder back to the
ships. He had watched them from the woods, he said.
Also he told me that even now mounted men had ridden past swiftly, going
to the ships, and from that I guessed that Eanulf's force had been seen
at least, and tidings sent thereof.
Then I asked him if any boats were left unburnt, and at that a cunning
look came into his thin face, and he answered:
"Aye, master. Three of us were minded to save ours, and we sank them
with stones in the creek before we fled. But the other two are slain,
and I only am left to recover them."
Now that was good hearing, and I bade the men show me where they lay,
and going with him found that now the water was low, we could see them
and reach them easily. There were two small boats that might hold three
men each, and one larger.
Then I told Elgar how I needed them for this night's work, and at first
he was terrified, fearing nothing more than that his boats should be
lost to him after all. But I promised him full amends if harm came to
them, and that in the name of Osric, which he knew well. And with that
he was satisfied.
So with a little labour we got the two small boats afloat, and then cast
about where to hide them; for though Elgar said that the Danes came not
nigh the place, it was likely that patrols would be sent out after the
alarm of Eanulf's approach, and might come on them.
At last Elgar said that there was a creek half a mile or less up the
river, and on the far side, where they might lie unseen perhaps. And
that would suit us well if we could get them there. And the time was
drawing on, so that we could make no delay.
Then out of a hollow tree Elgar drew oars for both boats, and we got
them out into the river, and Dudda rowing one, and Elgar the other, in
which I sat, we went to the place where they should be, keeping under
the bank next the Danes. And it was well for us that the tide was so
low, for else we should surely have been spied.
Yet we got them into the creek, Elgar making them fast so that they
would rise as the water rose. Then he said he would swim back, and if he
could manage it would raise the large boat and bring that also.
So without climbing out from under the high banks of the creek he
splashed out into the tideway, and started back.
Now Dudda and I must make our way along to the horses, and so we began
to get out of the creek, which was very deep, at this low ebb of the
water, below the level of the meadows. Dudda was up the bank first, and
looked towards Combwich. Then he dropped back suddenly, and bade me
creep up warily and look also, through the grass.
So I did, and then knew how near an escape we had had, for there was a
party of Danes, idlers as it seemed, among the burnt huts, turning over
the ashes with their spears and throwing stones into the water.
Then I saw Elgar's head halfway across the river, and knew he could not
see the Danes over the high bank. He was swimming straight for them, and
unless he caught sight of one who stood nearest, surely he was lost. It
was all that I could do to keep myself from crying out to him; but that
would have betrayed us also, and, with us, the hope of our ambush. So we
must set our teeth and watch him go.
Then a Dane came to the edge of the high bank and saw him, and at the
same moment was himself seen. The Dane shouted, and Elgar stopped
paddling with his hands and keeping his head above water.
Now we looked to see him swim back to this bank, and began to wonder if
the enemy would follow him and so find us. And for one moment I believe
he meant to do so, and then, brave man as he was, gave himself away to
save us; for he stretched himself out once more and began to swim
leisurely downstream, never looking at the Danes again; for now half a
dozen were there and watching him, calling, too, that he should come
ashore, as one might guess. But Elgar paid no heed to them, and swam on.
They began to throw stones, and one cast a spear at him, but that fell
short. Then the bank hid him from us; but we saw a Dane fixing arrow to
bowstring, and saw him shoot; but he missed, surely, for he took another
arrow and ran on down the bank.
Then Dudda pulled me by the arm, and motioned me to follow him, and I
saw no more.
Now the creek wherein we were ran inland for a quarter mile that we
could see, ever bending round so that our boats were hidden from the
side where the Danes were. Up that creek we ran, or rather paddled,
therefore, knee deep in mud, but quite unseen by any but the great erne
that fled over us crying.
Hard work it was, but before the creek ended we had covered half a mile
away from danger, and looking back through the grass along the bank
could see the Danes no longer. Yet we had no surety that they could not
see us, and therefore crawled yet among grass and thistles, along such
hollows as we could find.
At last we dared stand up, and still we could see no Danes as we looked
back. And then we grew bolder and walked leisurely, as fishers might,
not daring to run, across to that hut where the horses were. And
reaching that our adventure was ended, for we were safe, and believed
ourselves unnoticed if not unseen, for there was no reason why the Danes
should think aught of two thralls, as we seemed, crossing the marsh a
mile away, and quietly, even if they spied us.
After we reached our horses, there is nothing to tell of our ride back
to the bishop. We overtook him before dark, where his men were halted
two miles from Bridgwater, on the road, waiting for word from Eanulf.
Much praise gave he to me and the collier for what we had done, as also
did Osric. And we, getting our arms again, went back to our own places
well content; eager also was I to tell Wulfhere and Wislac of all that
had befallen, and how I had boats for the crossing.
And when they heard how Elgar the fisher had swam on, rather than draw
attention to the place where we two lay, Wulfhere nodded and said: "That
was well done," and Wislac said: "Truly I would I could do the like of
that. Much courage is there in the man who will face a host with
comrades beside him against odds; but more is there in the man who will
go alone to certain death because thereby he will save others."
Even as we talked there came riding a man from Bridgwater, going fast,
yet in no great hurry as it seemed. He rode up to us, for there was the
standard, and asked for the bishop, having word from Eanulf for him; and
Guthlac told Ealhstan, who came up to speak to him, bidding us bide and
What the man had to tell was this. That the Danes had, in some way, had
word of the march of our levies, and had straightway gathered together,
or were yet gathering from their raidings here and there, on the steep
hill above Bridgwater, having passed through the town, or such as was
left thereof after many burnings. And it was Eanulf's plan to attack
them there with the first light, if the bishop would join him with his
Then the bishop asked if there had been any fighting. And the man said
that there had been some between the van of our force, and the rear of
the Danish host; but that neither side had lost many men, nor had there
been any advantage gained except to clear the town of the heathen.
Having heard that, Ealhstan bade me go aside with him, and called Osric
and some more of the thanes to hold a council. And in the end it was
decided that Osric should take on the bulk of the levy to join the
ealdorman, while the bishop and I, and two hundred of the men, should
try that crossing at Combwich.
"For thus," said Ealhstan, "we can fall on the Danes from behind if they
stand or in flank if they retreat."
And except that the bishop would go with me, this pleased them well
enough; but they tried to dissuade him from leaving the levy. But he
laughed and said that indeed he was only going on before it, for to
reach him they would have to go clear through the Danes where they stood
thickest, and when they reached the standard, victory would be theirs.
Then they cried that they would surely not fail to reach him, and so the
matter was settled, and the thanes told this to their men, who shouted
and cheered, so that this seemed to be a good plan after all.
Now the bishop rode among the men, calling out those whom he knew well,
and bidding the thanes give him their best, or if they had no best, such
as could swim, and very shortly we had full two hundred men ranged on
one side of the road, waiting with us, while the rest went off towards
Bridgwater, the bishop blessing them ere they started. And as they went
they shouted that we should meet again across the ranks of Danes.
When they were gone the bishop bade us rest. And while we lay along the
roadside he went up and down, sorting out men who could swim well, and
there were more than half who could do so, and more yet who said they
were swimmers though poor at it.
Then he told me his plan. How that the men who could not swim must go
over first in the boats, and then the arms of the rest should be ferried
over while they swam, and so little time would be lost: but all must be
done in silence and without lights. So we ate and slept a little, and
then, when it grew dark, started off across the meadows. And there the
collier guided us well, having taken note of all the ground we had
crossed in the morning, as a marshman can.
It was dark, and a white creeping mist was over the open land when we
reached it. But over the mists to our left we could see the twinkle of
Danish watchfires, where they kept the height over Bridgwater; and again
to the right we could see lights of fires at Stert, where the ships lay.
But at Combwich were no lights at all, and that was well.
Presently we reached a winding stretch of deep water, and though it was
far different when I saw it last, I knew it was the creek in which our
boats lay, and up which Dudda and I had fled, full now with the rising
We held on down its course until Dudda told me in a low voice that we
were but a bowshot from the boats, and that now it were well for the men
to lie down that they might be less easily noticed.
So the word was passed in a whisper down the line, and immediately it
seemed as if the force had vanished, as the white mist crept over where
they had stood.
Now Dudda and I went down to the boats and there found, not the two we
had left only, but a third and larger one beside them. And at first this
frightened us, and we stood looking at them, almost expecting armed men
to rise from the dark hollows of the boats and fall on us.
Then I would see if such were there, and stepped softly into the
nearest. It was empty, and so was the next, and these were our two.
Dudda came after me, and he hissed to me under his breath. The oars had
been muffled with sacking.
Now none but a friend would have done this, unless it was a most crafty
trap to take us withal; and yet to leave the boats as they were had been
surer than to meddle with them, if such was meant.
Now Dudda, perplexed as I, though in my heart was a thought that after
all Elgar had escaped, stepped into the large boat, and there he started
back so suddenly as almost to overturn it, smothering a cry. Then was
silence for a moment, while I for my part drew my dagger. Then I saw him
stoop down, and again he hissed to me. The boats were afloat, and I drew
that I was in up to the big boat.
"Oh, master," said Dudda, whispering, "surely this is Elgar the fisher!"
And I, peering into the dark bottom of the boat could see a dark still
form, lying doubled over a thwart, that seemed to me to bear likeness to
"Is he dead?" I asked.
"Aye, master, but not long," answered the collier; feeling about.
"Ah!" he said, with a sort of groan, "here is a broken arrow in his
shoulder, and in his hand somewhat to muffle the oars withal. Well done,
brave Elgar--well done!"
Then I climbed softly over the gunwale, and so it was. Wounded to death
as he had been by the arrow shot, he had yet in some way contrived to
get this boat here, and afterwards to use his last strength in muffling
the oars, and so died, spent, before he could end his task!
And for him I was not ashamed of weeping, thinking there in the
darkness, as we bore him hastily to the bank and laid him beyond the
reach of hurrying feet to come, of how he must have been shot, and so at
once feigning death have floated, or perhaps stranded on the mud, till
the Danes were gone, and then returned in spite of pain and growing
weakness to do what he had set himself for the sake of his country.
But there was no time for more than thought, and now that we knew the
boats safe, I went back to the bishop, and told him that all was ready.
And he, ever thoughtful, had told off skilful men to row the boats over,
and though now we must have enough for three, he had found six or eight
oarsmen, and there was no delay, though they must work with less change,
and the tide was still making, so that the pull to Combwich creek would
Then ten men went softly to the boats, and at the last I bade them pull
across to where they might, not making for the creek, and in a minute or
two they were gone into the mist and darkness.
Then came crawling to the river bank some six or eight men, strong
swimmers, and would have tried to cross; but I bade them wait till the
next boatloads went over, so that they might cross beside them, and
cling to the gunwale if the stream was too strong. However, though most
knew that was good counsel, two must needs try it, and one got across,
nearly spent, and the other came back, clinging to the first boat to
return, else had he been drowned, and it was a lucky chance that the
boat met him.
Now the man who rowed this first boat reported that there was silence,
and no sign of Danes, on the other side, and so also did the rest as
they came. After that the crossing went on quickly, men swimming beside
the boats, and in an hour and a half all were over.
When we found that all was safe, the bishop bade me cross with the
standard, and so keep the men together. He himself came last of all.
When Wulfhere came, swimming beside the boat in which sat Wislac, he
took three men and went quietly to Combwich, which was nearly half a
mile from where we landed, and was back presently, reporting all quiet.
Then Dudda and the other rowers sank the boats, lest they should be seen
by chance, and so betray us and our crossing.
Now we went--I leading through this place I knew so well--round the
head of the little creek, and so on up the hill, walking in single file
almost, and very silently. And when we topped the hill--there before
us, among the tree trunks, glowed a little fire, and round that sat six
Danes, wrapped in their red cloaks, and, as I could see, all or most of
At that I stopped, and the line behind me stopped also, making a clatter
of arms as men ran against one another in the dark.
One of the Danes stirred at that, and looked up and round; but he could
see nothing, and so folded himself up again. Then I saw that they had an
Now I knew that this post must be surrounded and taken, and whispered to
Wulfhere, who was next me, what to do. And he answered that he would
manage it, bidding me stand still. Then he went down the line,
whispering in each man's ear, till he had told off twenty men, and them
he sent off right and left into the darkness and I was left with Wislac
standing alone, watching the Danes.
I kept my eyes fixed on them till they seemed to waver and grow dim, so
intently did I watch them; and then all of a sudden there was the sound
of a raven's croak, and into the firelight and on those careless
watchers leapt Wulfhere and his men from all around.
There was one choked cry, and that was all, and Wulfhere beckoned to me.
I advanced, and the line closed up and followed.
Now we stood on Combwich hill, and all was well so far. Ealhstan came up
to me, unknowing of what had caused the halt, being over the brow of the
hill, and when he knew, said it was well done, and that now we might
rest safely for a time.
So we bade the men sit down, and those who were wet made up the fire
afresh: for there was no need to put it out, but rather reason for
allowing the Danes to see it burning, as if in safety.
When we three sat by the bishop, Wislac asked what we were to wait for,
and, indeed, that must be the next thought.
Then said the bishop that after a while he would take the force to the
woods that overhung the roadway, and so wait for the Danes as Eanulf and
Osric drove them back; but that it was not more than midnight yet.
Then came a little silence, and in that I seemed to hear the sound of
footsteps coming up the hill from Combwich, and bade the others listen.
And at the same time some of the men heard the sound, and started up to
see who came. But they were the steps of one man only, walking carelessly.
Into the light of the fire stepped one, at the sight of whom the men
stared, though Wislac laughed quietly. It was that young thane who had
wanted to fight my friend Wislac on the day of the council. He was very
wet, and tired, throwing himself down beside us when he saw where we sat.
Ealhstan asked him who bade him come, and how he had followed us.
"Nearly had I forgotten a dispute I have with Wislac the Thane here.
Wherefore I asked no man's leave, but followed you just too late for the
crossing. So needs must swim. And here am I to see that Wislac counts
fairly, and that he may have the same surety of me."
Whereat we were obliged to laugh, and most of all the bishop, because he
would fain have been angry, and could not. Then the thane, whose name
was Aldhelm, asked who was the slain man over whose body he had
well-nigh fallen on the other side of the river. So I told them of Elgar
the fisher and of his brave deeds, and they were silent, thinking of
what his worth was; too great indeed for praise. Only the bishop said he
should surely have a mound raised over him as over a warrior, charging
us three, or whichever lived after this fight, to see to that.
Now we slept a little, posting sentries at many points, and giving those
next the Danes on either side the red cloaks of the picket we had slain,
lest daylight should betray them. It was in all our minds that at
daybreak our men would attack from Bridgwater, driving the Danes back on
us, and so we should fall on them while they were retreating, and
complete the victory. So we had men on the hill overlooking the road to
Bridgwater through Cannington that they might give us the first warning.
Therefore I slept quietly, and all with me. And as I slept I dreamed.
It seemed that I was standing alone on Brent Hill and from that I could
look all over the land of Somerset, as an eagle might look, but being
close to everything that I would see. And I saw all that I had done
since I stood there as a prisoner, watching myself curiously in all that
I did, and yet knowing all the thoughts that drove me to deed after deed.
And so through the mirk wood till I turned and slew, and armed myself,
and tormented my prisoner; then to the collier's hut, and my talking
with the child; then on till I saw the lights of the viking ships and so
thereafter bore the war arrow--everything, till at last I saw myself
sleeping under the trees, on the top of this hill of Combwich, and there
I thought my dream would surely end; but it did not.
For now out of the shadows came Matelgar and stood beside me and waked
me, and he told me that when the tide was out I must be up and doing.
And so he passed. And the old crone, Gundred, came out of the shadows,
and sat on her bundle of sticks and looked at me, and she too bade me be
up and doing when the tide was low. And she looked at the standard that
lay beside me, and said, "Aye, a standard; but not yet the Dragon of
Wessex"; and so she, too, faded away.
And then came Alswythe, and as she came, it seemed, as I looked, that I
stretched my arms to her; but she smiled and said, "Love, when the tide
is out, I shall be praying in the abbey for you and your men."
And then from beside her came Turkil, the little child, smiling also,
but hanging to Alswythe's dress as he said, "Warrior, when the water
falls low, my father will call me from the hill, and I will pray for you
and for him."
So these two were gone. And at that I seemed to see our men lie in
Bridgwater, and there was Turkil's father, the franklin, sleeping with
the rest. But up and down among them went Eanulf the Ealdorman, watching
Then fled I, as it were, to that hill where lay the Danes, and on the
road thither I saw Osric and twenty men, looking up at the fires that
burnt where the enemy lay.
And then I looked on those fires, and there were no men round them.
One shook me by the shoulder, and my dream went.
It was Dudda, and his eyes were bright in the firelight.
And over Brent the first streaks of dawn were broadening, and the mists
"Master, master," he said, "come with me to the roadway. Something is
Then I woke Wulfhere, asking him to wait for me, guarding the standard,
and followed my man swiftly to the place where the road cuts the hill.
And there was a knot of the men, standing and listening.
I listened also, and far off towards Cannington I could hear the sound
of the tread of many feet, for the morning was still and quiet; and the
men said that this was growing nearer.
Then knew I that the Danes were falling back to the ships without
risking battle, and my dream came back to me, with its vision of
unguarded watch fires, and it seemed to me that surely, unless we could
stay them, they would depart with the tide as it fell.
"How is the tide?" asked I of the men round me.
"Failing now," said one who knew, "but not fast."
Then I remembered things I had hardly noted in years gone by. How the
tide hung around Stert Point, as though Severn and Parret warred for a
while, before the mighty Severn ebb sucked Parret dry, and how the ebb
at last came swift and sudden.
"When the tide is low," said they whom I had seen in my dream.
And in a moment I recalled the first fight, and the words of Gundred,
and I knew that we had the Danes in a trap.
They were marching now in time to gain their ships and be off as the
last man stepped on board, with the full draft of the ebb to set them
out to sea beyond Lundy Isle, into open water. Nor had they left their
post till the last moment, lest our levy should be on their heels, or
else some more distant marauding party had not come in till late.
I went back to Wulfhere and told him this, and in it all he agreed.
And, as we whispered together, Ealhstan sat up, asking quickly, "Who
spoke to me?" and looking round for one near him, as it seemed.
"None spoke, Father," said I, "or none but Wulfhere to me, whispering."
"What said Wulfhere?"
"That the tide was failing," I answered.
The bishop was silent for a moment, and then he said:
"I heard a voice, plainly, that cried to me, 'Up! for the Lord has
delivered these heathen into your hands'."
"We heard no such voice, Father," I said, "but I think it spoke true."
Now the light was broadening, making all things cold and gray as it
came. And quickly I told Ealhstan what I had heard, and what both I and
Wulfhere thought of the matter.
"Can we let them pass us, and so fall on them as they gain the level
land of Stert?" asked Ealhstan, saying nothing more.
"That can we," I answered. "They will keep to the road, and we can draw
back to the edge of the hill, so taking them in flank as they leave it."
For the hills bend round a little beyond the place where the road falls
into the level below Matelgar's hall.
"So be it," said the bishop. "Go you, Wulfhere, and see how near the
host is, and come back quickly."
When he was gone the bishop bade me wake the men. And at first I was for
going round, but by this thane Wislac had waked, and had been listening
to us: and he said that if I would let him wake the men he could do it
without alarm or undue noise. Only I must raise the standard and bid
them be silent. At that the bishop smiled and nodded, and I raised the
standard, and waited.
Then Wislac stood up and crowed like a cock, and instantly the men began
to turn and sit up, and as their eyes lit on the standard raised in
their midst, became broad awake, each man rousing the next sleeper if
one lay near him. And there was the bishop, finger on lip, and they were
"Verily I thought on the hard chapel stones," muttered Guthlac, the lay
brother, behind me.
"It is the war chime, not the matin bell, you shall hear this morning,"
said one of his brethren.
"That is better--mea culpa," said Guthlac, clapping his hand on his
mouth to stop his own warlike ejaculation.
Then came Wulfhere back, swiftly. Barely a mile were they from the hill,
he said, and coming on quickly in loose order. Moreover, a horseman had
passed, riding hard to the ships, doubtless to bid them be ready. But
that would take little time, for these vikings are ever ready for
flight, keeping their ships prepared from day to day.
CHAPTER XV. THE GREAT FIGHT AT PARRET MOUTH.
Now very silently we drew off from that place to the edge of the hill
which looks across the road to Stert. And there the bishop drew us up in
line, four deep, and told the men what we must do, bidding them be
silent till we charged, though that could not prevent a hum of stern
approval going down the line.
One man the bishop called out by name, and when he stood before him,
bade him, as a swift runner, hasten back to Eanulf or Osric, and bid
them on here with all speed. And, when the man's face fell, the bishop
bade him cheer up and go, for the swifter he went the sooner would he be
back at the sword play. Whereat the man bowed, and, leaving his mail at
a tree foot, started at a steady run over the ground we had covered
already, and was lost in the trees.
Then we waited, and the light grew stronger every moment. As we lay in
line among the bushes we could see without much fear of being ourselves
seen, and by and by we could make out the ships. They had their masts
raised, and the sails were plain to be seen, ready for hoisting. The men
were busy about their decks, and on shore as well, while the vessels
were yet close up to the land.
They must haul off soon, little by little, or they would be aground, as
doubtless they had been with every tide till this, for rocks are none,
only soft mud on which a ship may lie safely, but through which no man
may go, save on such a "horse" as the fishers use to reach their nets
withal, sledge-like contrivances of flat boards which sink not.
The wait seemed long, but at last we heard the hum of voices, and the
tramp of feet, and our hearts beat fast and thick, for the time was coming.
Over the hill and down it they streamed in a long, loose line, laughing
and shouting as the ships came in sight. A long breath came from us, and
there was a little stir among the men; but the time was not yet, and we
crouched low, waiting to make our spring.
Then ran up a long red forked flag, with a black raven on it, from the
largest ship, and that seemed to be a signal for haste, for the tide was
failing, so that some of the foremost men began to stream away from
their comrades. And then I saw that many carried packs full of plunder,
and also that the last of them were on the level.
So also saw the bishop, and he rose to his feet, pointing with the great
mace he bore (for he might not wield sword) to the Danes, and saying:
"For the honour of Dorset--for the holy cross--charge!"
With a mighty shout we rose up, each in his place, and down the hill we
rushed sword and axe aloft, on that straggling line.
Then from the Danes came a howl of wrath and terror, and, for a moment,
dropping their burdens, they fled in a panic towards the ships.
Yet that was not the way of Danish men and vikings, and that flight
stayed almost before it had gone fifty yards. Up rose amidst the throng
a mighty double axe, and a great voice was heard shouting, and round
their chief began to form a great ring of tried warriors, shoulder to
shoulder as well as might be. But that ring might not be perfect all at
once--too close were we upon them, having already cut down many of the
last to fly.
And then the battle began in earnest, and I will tell what I saw of it.
For I was in the centre of our line, as befitted, and on either side of
me were Wulfhere and Wislac, and on either side of them again, my
collier next to Wulfhere, and next to Wislac his young thane. Before me
were Guthlac and two brethren, and the other three behind me. That was
the standard's shield wall. Behind that came Ealhstan the Bishop, hemmed
in by twelve of his own best men.
So, with voice, and gesture of arm and mace the bishop swung our line in
a half circle round the face of that grim ring of vikings, and as they
closed up we closed, and faced them. Then saw I that we were outnumbered
by three to one, but we were fresh, and they tired with a long march,
quickly made, and under burdens.
Now began the spears to fly from one side to the other, and men began to
fall. And yet there was no great attack made on either side. Then grew I
impatient, for it seemed to me that as we were the weaker side the first
charge might do all for us. So I spoke to Wulfhere, saying:
"We must charge before they. Let us break into that circle."
"Aye!" said the veteran, and "Aye!" shouted Wislac; and so I pointed the
banner forward and shouted for my shield men to charge.
And that, with a great roar, they did; and down before the brawny arms
of those foremost three lay brethren went three of the heathen, and we
were pressing into the circle. Then a brother fell, dragging a Dane with
him, and Wislac took his place, and three more Danes fell. Then went
Aldhelm to Wislac's side, and Lo! the circle was broken, and our
standard stood in the midst.
Yet was not that ring destroyed, and in a moment it closed after us, and
now were we ten in the midst of a crowd of foes, while again outside
them raged Ealhstan and his men, striving to break through to us.
Then knew I that our case was hard, and I struck the spear that held the
standard into the ground, and round it we stood, back to back, Wulfhere
and Wislac once more to right and left of me. And it would seem that so
grim looked we in our desperation, that they feared us a little, or, at
least, that each feared to be the first to fall on us, for the Danes
drew back and let us stand for a breathing space, until that great chief
who rallied the men--leaving the care of the outer ring for a moment
--came and faced me, speaking in fair Saxon enough, and bidding us
And for answer I threw my seax at him, and as he raised shield to stop
it, for it flew straight and hard as a forester can throw, I leapt at
him, going in under his shield, and he fell heavily, moving not, for my
blow went home. Well it was that Wulfhere came after me, for he warded
blow of axe that would have slain me. And then the Danes howled and fell
Hard fighting it was, but round us grew a ring of dead, and no man had
laid hands on the standard. Guthlac was down, and Aldhelm, two lay
brethren also, and we were all but sped when I was ware of a Saxon
shout, and the crash of a great mace on a helmet before me, and then,
"Well done, my sons!" cried Ealhstan the Bishop, as he came and ringed
us round with his own men, and we might breathe again.
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