A Thane of Wessex
Charles W. Whistler
Part 4 out of 4
Now was the ring of Danes parted, and the ring was of our men; yet round
it raged the vikings, as we had raged round their ring but a short space
before. Yet, every man of us knew that we had won, for, even if each one
of us fell before Eanulf came, the ships would not sail that tide. For
the tall masts were listing over as two ships took the ground unheeded,
and four were hauling out as the tide fell.
And I thought of my vision last night, and of those I had seen, and of
what they had bid me think of them; and the roar of battle went on
unheeded by me as I leant against the standard staff while I might, and
found my strength again.
"See," cried Wislac, pointing. And I looked over to the hill where the
road came down. It was full of horsemen, charging with levelled spears,
and surely that was Osric at their head! Then near me a voice cried
thrice "Victory!" but it seemed not as one of our men's rough voices,
but very strange.
Over the level the spearmen swept, and a cry broke from the Danes as
they saw the fresh foe upon them, and again they fell back from us
quickly, and, spite of our charge on them, and the spears of the leading
horsemen, once more closed up into their iron ring. But now it was not
motionless, but moved ever towards the ships, going backward steadily.
Round it went Osric and his men: but into it they could not break. For
the Danes hewed the ash shafts of the spears, and near them no horse
might live, for their axes would shear through man and horse alike.
Then Ealhstan shouted to Osric, bidding us stand. And right glad were we
to do this, while ever the Danes shrank away from us.
"Trapped they are, Sheriff," said Ealhstan, when Osric rode up to him,
bearing still a headless spear. "Let them bide till Eanulf comes. None
can reach the ships."
"He is hard behind me with all the levy," said Osric. "Let us finish
this without him."
But Ealhstan shook his head, pointing to our men. And when he looked
more coolly, he saw that barely half of us were left, and those worn
out. So must we stand and wait; but we had done what we went to do, and
had trapped the heathen when the tide was low. Yet the Danes went
steadily back towards their ships, having yet half a mile to cover, but
they left a line of wounded men to mark where they had gone, as one
after another dropped.
Now were we who were left safe, and knew we had done a deed which would
he told and sung till other tales of victory blotted out its remembrance
if they might.
Then Ealhstan bade us sit down, for our horsemen were between us and the
foe, and thereon he raised his voice, and with one accord his lay
brethren and his own housecarles joined in singing a psalm of victory.
And it was just at the matin time--yet that psalm ended not as it was
wont, for ere the last verses were sung, it was drowned in a great and
thundering war song of Wessex, old as the days of Ceawlin or beyond him.
And if I mistake not, in that song bishop and lay brethren joined,
leaving the chant for their own native and well-loved tongue, else would
they have been the only men of all the host unstirred thereby and silent.
Now, from that war song came a strange thing. It caused two great Danes
to go berserk in their rage, and back they flew on us, their shields
cast aside, and their broad axes overhead, howling and foaming as they
One of Osric's men tried to stop them. But he and his horse fell, for (I
say truth) one leapt high above the horse, smiting downwards with his
axe, so that the man was swept in twain under that blow, and the berserk
Dane came on unhindered, straight for the standard, for his comrade had
hewed off the horse's head.
Now I rested, by the standard, a long spear's length in front of our
line. But by this I had leapt to my feet; and it was time, for he was
almost on me. Spear had I none; so I dragged out the standard shaft from
the ground where I had struck it, and levelled that sharp butt end full
at his chest. Overhead was his axe again, and I had no shield to stop
the blow; but I must leap aside from it.
He paid no heed to the spear-ended shaft, but rushed straight on it,
spitting himself through and through, while his axe fell; but I had
wrenched myself and the shaft at once to one side, and he fell over,
burying the axe head in the ground but an inch from the collier's foot.
Yet had he not done with me, for, leaving the axe, he clawed the ashen
shaft and dragged himself up along it, howling, not with the pain, but
with madness, and I must needs smite him with my sword, for his dagger
was already at my throat.
Then looked I round for the other, but at first could not see him, for
he was dead also, pinned to the ground by another of the horsemen, from
behind. And all our men were on their feet, and the ring of Danes were
shouting, and cheering their two mad men, yet keeping close order.
This seems long in telling; but it was all done in a flash, as it were,
for the first I knew of the coming of these men was by the wheeling of
the horse and the leaping of the berserk above it.
Then my men came and rid the standard of its burden, not easily, while
Ealhstan stood with his arm on my shoulder, looking white and scared:
for that had been the greatest danger he had seen that day, as he told
me, which, indeed, it must have been, for else he had never changed
"Gratias Domino," he said, "verily into these heathen evil spirits
enter, driving them to death. Now have you fought the evil one, both
spiritually and bodily, my son, and have won the victory!"
Even as he spoke, the men, being sure of no more of such comings, began
to crowd round me, shouting and cheering as though I had done some great
deed. Which, if it were such, it seems to me that great deeds are forced
on men at times; for what else I could have done I know not, unless, as
Wislac says, I had run away, even as he was minded to do. But I had no
time for that, nor do I believe his saying concerning himself.
When the Danes were nigh their ships Ealhstan bade us tend our wounded.
And the first man tended was myself, for Wulfhere came to me, looking me
over, and at last binding a wound on my left shoulder, of which I knew
not, saying that my good mail had surely saved me. He himself had a gash
across his face, and Wislac one on the leg, but none of us was much hurt.
Then Wislac sought Aldhelm, whom he found sitting up, dazed, from a blow
across the helm that had stunned him, but he was soon able to walk,
though dizzy and sick. But Guthlac was slain outright, and two others of
Well, so might I go on, for of all our two hundred men there were left
but ninety fit to go on with the fight, the rest being slain or sore
wounded by the Danish axes. Ealhstan was unhurt; for, save that once
when he had broken the ring to reach us when we were hemmed in, his men
had kept before him.
Now what befell after that will not bear telling; for it was not long
before Eanulf and all the Somerset and the rest of the Dorset levy came
down and fell on the Danes as they fought their last fight as brave men
should, with a quarter mile of deep mud between them and their ships.
Into that fight none of us bishop's men went, for we had done our part.
But we lay and saw the Danes charge again and again against odds, their
line growing thinner each time, until our men swept the last of them
from the bank into the ooze, and there was an end.
Yet a few managed, I know not how, to reach the ships, and there they
were safe; but thence they constantly shot their arrows into our men,
harmless enough, but yet showing their mettle.
So was a full end made of that host, for none but those few were left
alive from Stert field, and Somerset and Dorset had taken their fill of
But, for all the victory, down sat Ealhstan the Bishop, and hiding his
face in his hands wept that such things could be, and must be till war
is no more.
CHAPTER XVI. AT GLASTONBURY.
On that hard-won field we lay all that day, for we knew not if more
Danes were left up country, or if by chance the ships might fall into
our hands with the rising tide. And I think we might have taken them had
not our men, in their fury, broken the boats which lay along the bank;
so that we could not put off to them. Therefore, as the tide rose again
and they floated, the men on board hauled out, and setting sail with
much labour, for there were very few in each ship, stood off into mid
channel. Out of Severn they could not get, for the wind was westerly,
and the tide setting eastward, so at last they brought up in the lee of
the two holms, and there furled sail and lay at anchor.
Very stiff and sore were we when we had rested for a little, and there
fell a sadness on the levy, now that the joy of battle had gone, and the
cost of victory must be counted. And that was heavy, for so manfully and
steadily had the vikings fought that they had accounted for man to man
as nearly as one might count, either slain or maimed.
Now on this matter I heard Wislac speak to Aldhelm, who sat facing him,
and holding his aching head with both hands.
"So, friend," quoth Wislac, "as touching that matter of dispute we had.
How stands the account?"
"I know not, nor care," said Aldhelm. "All I wot is that my head is like
"Nay, that will it not, having stood such a stout blow," said Wislac,
laughing. "Cheer up, and count our score of heads."
"I can count but one head, and that my own. Let it bide."
"So, that is better," said Wislac. "I should surely have been slain five
times by my own count, but it seems I am wrong. Wherefore I must have
escaped somehow. And that is all I know about it."
Then he turned to me, and asked if I had noted any doings at all.
And when I thought, all I could remember plainly were the fall of the
tall chief I slew, and the coming of Ealhstan, and the attack of the
berserk, and no more; all the rest was confused, and like a dream. So I
said that it seemed to me that we had had no time to do more than mind
ourselves, but that withal my shield wall had kept the standard. And
that kept, there need be no question as to who had done best.
Then Wislac nodded, after his wont, and said that if Aldhelm was content
so was he.
Whereupon Aldhelm held out his hand, and said that Wislac was wise and
he foolish. And Wislac, grasping it, answered that it was a lucky
foolishness that had brought so stout a comrade to his side, for had it
not been for Aldhelm putting his thick head betwixt him and an axe,
slain he would have been.
"Aye, brother," he said, "deny it not, for I saw you thrust yourself
forward and save me by yourself, which doubtless is your way of settling
a grudge, brother, and a good one."
So those two were sworn friends from that day forward, as were many
another couple who met on that field for the first time, fighting side
by side for Wessex.
Thus wore away the day and the next night, and with the morning those
ships were yet under the holms, swinging at their anchors, for the
westerly breeze held.
Then said Eanulf: "Let them be; harm can they do none, being so few.
They will go with the shift of wind."
But the shift of wind came not for days and days, and there they lay,
never putting out from shelter. And they are out of my story, so that I
will say what befell them.
One night it freshened up to a gale, and in the morning there were five
ships where six had been. One had sunk at her moorings. Then men said
that the Danes had made a hut on the flat holm, plain to be seen from
the nearest shore. And at last a shift of wind came, and they put not out.
So certain fishers dared to sail across and spy what was amiss, and
finding no man in the ships, nor seeing any about the hut, went ashore,
none hindering them.
Ships and hut and shore were but the resting place of the dead, for
after a while they had no food left, and were too few and weak even to
man one ship and go.
Many a long year it was before the king of their land, Norse or Dane,
whichever he was, learned what had befallen his host, and how their
bones lay on the Wessex shore and islands, for not one of all that had
sailed that spring returned to give the news, or to tell how his
comrades died on Stert fighting to the last, and on the island wishing
they had fallen with the slain.
Now must I tell how we went back to Glastonbury town, marching proudly
as became conquerors, while on every side was shouting of men, and at
the same time weeping of women for those who had fallen.
When we came to the great square there stood Tatwine the Abbot and all
his monks; but I had no eyes for them. For there, with abbess and nuns,
stood Alswythe, smiling on me through tears of joy, and though her
cheeks were thinner and paler by reason of fasting and prayer for us
all, looking most beautiful, and to me like a vision of some saint.
That was all I could see of her then, for we must kneel, while a great
Te Deum was sung, and then crowd into the abbey to hear mass once more.
Then after that was over, there was a great feast in the wide hall of
the abbey, where Ealhstan and Eanulf sat side by side in the high seats,
and on their right, Osric and myself, and on the left, Wulfhere and
Wislac, none grudging those chief places to the men who had kept the
standard and broken the Danish ring.
When the feasting was done, then came the telling of great deeds over
the ale cup, and that lasted long, and many were the brave men praised;
nor were the deeds of the vikings, as brave foes, forgotten, for men
praised them also. Moreover, the gleemen sang of the fight, and in those
songs my name came so often, as needs it must, seeing that I bore the
standard, that I will not set them down. Nor is there need, for the
housecarles sing them even yet.
Now before we went to rest, Eanulf bade me wait on him early in the
morning, and so, being refreshed by a long, quiet night, I went to him
as he had bidden me.
There he thanked me as man to man for that crossing of Parret, and for
staying the going of the Danes, saying that a greater man than he should
add to the thanks. For needs must that one took word of all that had
befallen to Ethelwulf the King, and that to be such a messenger was most
honourable. Therefore should I myself bear the news, taking with me my
two friends and such men as I chose, and should bear, written down, the
reports of both Osric and Ealhstan, besides his own.
"Else," said he, "there are perhaps some to whom credit is due whose
names may pass unmentioned."
And thanking him, I said that that was likely, for I knew few in the
levy, which came from far and wide.
Whereat he laughed, saying that I was either very modest or very simple.
So I knew that he spoke of myself, and thanked him again.
"Nay," he said, "small thanks to me, for if I did you not justice the
Then all of a sudden he asked me about the business of my trial, and
what I thought of it, bidding me tell him as a friend, thinking naught
of the judge.
And that I was able to do now without passion, so far off and small a
thing it seemed after all these stirring doings. And I knew that but for
it I had been only a foolish thane, and slain maybe over my feasting in
my own hall, or on Combwich hill, with my back to the foe, beside Matelgar.
Now when I had ended my tale and my thoughts concerning it, he told me
that he had found out much of late, as he and the thanes spoke together
here while waiting for the levy, and that word should go to the king of
the whole matter, so that without waiting for the Moot, he should inlaw
Then I knew not enough to say; but he clapped me on the shoulder, saying
that he had been an unjust judge for once, and that I must be heedful if
ever I sat in his place, and so bid me go and find my friends--and get
ready to ride to Salisbury, where the king lay, having moved from
Winchester nearer to us.
That went I to do with a light heart, and only sorry that I might not
see Alswythe before I went.
And this I told Wislac, who looked oddly at me, and then laughed, saying
that he believed I feared an old nun more than a wild berserk. And true
it was that I was afraid of that stately abbess, though not in the same
way as one fears a raging madman flying on one.
"Pluck up courage," said he, "and go and ask the old dame to let you
have speech with your lady; and if she grants it not, I am mistaken, for
the lady is not one of her nuns, and there is a guest chamber for such
folk as bishop's right-hand men, surely!"
That was good counsel, and so I went to the nunnery, trembling first
because I was afraid, and next lest I might not see Alswythe.
Now that wondrous silver mail of mine was too easily known, and so soon
as I got out into the street, the beggar men began to shout and crawl
towards me. And then others looked, and ran, and then more, till there
was a crowd of men of the levy pressing round me, stretching hands to
pat me and the like.
Then one stood in front of me, hands on hips, and stared at me, and all
at once he shouted: "Ho, comrades, this is the saint of Cannington hill!
I saw him there, and soundly did he rate me for running, even as I
And at that there was a mighty shouting and crowding, so that I could in
no wise go on my way, and I began to wax wroth.
My back was to the abbey gates, which were closed after me by the
porter, and just then I saw some of the men look up over my head and
point, and laugh; so I turned round, and there were Eanulf and Osric on
the gateway battlements, looking on, as drawn thither by the noise. And
just then Eanulf, laughing, made some sign or speech which I could not
hear, to the men, who cheered; and soon they brought a great shield and
on that set me, in spite of myself, raising me up shoulder high and
saluting me as the man who had gained all the honour and victory. There
must I lie still, lest I should fall and be made to look more foolish
yet, and when I sat up, crosslegged thereon, they stopped shouting and
stared at me.
"Let me down, ye pigs!" said I, very cross, and unmindful of the honour
they would do me.
"Speak to us, Thane; speak to us," they cried; and one--he who knew me
at Cannington after the first fight--added:
"Aye, Thane, you made us strong again on the hill the other day--
blaming us rightly. Praise us now if that may be."
Then I cast about for what to say, not being a great hand at speaking,
though maybe, when real occasion is, the words have come fast enough.
Howbeit, this was in coolness. But I knew that they were worthy of
praise, so I said:
"Well have ye done, every man of you, even as I knew ye would when once
ye turned to bay. And if the Danes come again, as I think they will not
speedily, fight as ye fought at Stert, and there will be victory again."
Then they cheered and shouted again, louder than before; and I made to
leap down, but they would not suffer me.
Then said I: "Let me go, for I have an errand."
Whereupon the men who held the shield, and could hear me amid the
slackening uproar, asked where I would go, and being dazed by the noise
and tumult, like an owl in daylight, I must needs answer, without
thinking; "To the great nunnery."
And the end of that foolishness was that they bore me thither, for it
was not far, with a great crowd of all sorts following and shouting. And
there must I stand with all that tail after me while they beat on the
gates in such sort that the poor nuns must have thought the Danes at
But I held up my hand for silence, not thinking it would come; but as it
were by nature longing for it. And instantly all the crowd was hushed,
and that surprised me, though when I told Wulfhere thereof he said it
was no wonder.
Seeing which I begged them all to go away and not scare the holy women,
who were used to quiet in the place. And then I remembered the honour
the honest warriors had meant this for, and thanked them, bidding them
make allowances for my being put out at first.
Then took they off their helms and shouted thrice; and then fled
rapidly, for the gates opened behind me, and there was the abbess
herself, with her cheeks red, and her eyes burning bright in anger, as I
thought, while behind her peeped all her nuns at the crowded street, and
at myself standing shamefaced on the steps, doffing my helm as I saw her.
But instead of being angry, she held out both her hands, and spoke
kindly, saying; "Never has our quiet place heard such clamour before;
but we women will not be behind the men in welcoming Heregar;" and so
she bade the nuns come forward, laying her hands on my shoulder, and
adding; "See, daughters, this is he who dared to warn the land of its
danger, saving the lives of our sisters of Bridgwater, and many others,
and who has even now led the host and conquered, giving us safety and
peaceful rest again."
But I knelt and kissed her hand, while there went a little murmur among
Then the lady abbess touched gently my bound shoulder, and said that the
hurt was but rudely tended and that she must bind it afresh; so should
she show her gratitude to one who had bled for the land. And they led me
into the courtyard; and thence to the guest chamber, and there waited
Now when I looked to see her greet me formally, as in the presence of
the abbess, she ran into my arms, and I found that we were alone.
Then must she hear and I tell all that had happened to me since we
parted; but that was too long for the telling then, for very soon the
abbess came with clatter of vessels along the passage, bringing warm
water and salves to bind my small wound afresh.
And in that Alswythe helped her, with many pitying words and soft
touches, so that I thought it good to be hurt if such tendance might
ever be had. And many things they asked, as of Wulfhere's safety, and
the collier's, and of how I got that wound, and the like. And that last
I could not tell them, marvelling myself when it came, and more that it
was the only one; but I know I smote flatwise once or twice myself in
the heat of fight, so doubtless it was so with others, else would
Aldhelm have been in halves or thereabouts.
Then I told them of my message to the king, and at that Alswythe
rejoiced. And the abbess said that doubtless the king would reward the
messenger, and what reward would I ask an he did so?
Now there was only one reward to me in all the world, and for answer I
took Alswythe's hand, all wet with the water she bathed my hurt with,
and kissed it. On which the maiden blushed, and looked down, but the
abbess laughed softly, saying, "Verily, I thought so," and then seemed
to choke a little, turning away from us. And Alswythe did not draw away
her hand from mine, but let her cheek rest for a moment against my head,
and so there was a little silence.
Then the abbess turned round again, and her eyes were bright, but the
shine was of tears in them, and she spoke briskly.
"Now must you get hence, Heregar, my son, and go your way to the king
with all haste, so shall you be back the sooner. Give him a scarf to
bind that wound, Alswythe; so shall it seem an honour and not a scar."
So there was a little leave taking, but not much, though enough, and I
went from the nunnery with Alswythe's white and red and gold scarf over
my shoulder; gay enough to look at, but no gayer than the heart beneath it.
And there, waiting for me in the street, was my tail, armed and drawn up
in line of fours to see me back to the abbey. So I went there at the
head of them, with more shouting of people.
There was Wulfhere sitting on the doorsteps of the great door, having a
bag in his hand, and when I got up to him, he thrust it out to me,
saying "largess", and that I was glad enough to understand.
So I put my hand into the bag, and crying, "Here is withal to drink to
Somerset and Dorset shoulder to shoulder," scattered the silver pennies
among them, and so left them without any order among them at all, though
shoulder to shoulder certainly.
"Ho, master!" said Wulfhere, "you looked mighty angry when you were
carried aloft an hour ago."
"Aye," said I, "'tis pity a thane cannot walk abroad quietly on his own
"Well, well, they thought that you were their business, doubtless."
"Whence came all those pennies?" I asked, for we had no store at all to
"From Eanulf and Ealhstan," said Wulfhere, laughing. "They came to me,
and saying that they were sore jealous, and minded to have good cause
therefor, gave me this that you might carry off all well to the end."
And that was good of them, for else I know not how I should have left
the men without more speech making.
Just then came the ealdorman into the hall where we were, and laughing,
asked me if I meant to take all that following to Salisbury. But I only
wanted the standard guards who were left, and Aldhelm, as one who had
fought as such. This I had told Wulfhere before, so that I was not
surprised when I heard that all were ready, and but waiting for me to
Then Eanulf and Osric took me to the bishop, and there gave me writings
to deliver to the king, and also bade me tell all that he asked, in my
And those three saw us set forth, all well mounted, and a goodly company
to look at, the bishop blessing us before we went, and the people and
warriors following and cheering us on our way through the town, and even
some way beyond the walls.
CHAPTER XVII. ALFRED THE ATHELING.
Of our long ride to the king's place there is little to tell. Only that
everywhere the news seemed to have flown before us, and men knew who we
were and what our errand, crowding round us to hear all about the
fighting, and to be assured that the Danes had truly gone. And great
cheer made they for us everywhere, so that we were treated as princes
Therefore, that was a merry ride and a pleasant in the early June
weather, and we were ever cheerful, for it so happened, as may have been
already seen, that no one of us had lost close friend or kin in the
battles, but had the rather gained much. Yet maybe we were the only ones
of whom that might be said; for mixed with the joy was mourning over all
the land. And of all my company, I had the most cause to be
lighthearted; so that for all I had gained I thought the hard things I
had gone through were well worth the bearing. Ever, therefore, have I
judged him the happiest who out of hardship gains rest; for he best
knows its worth.
So at last we came to Salisbury town, and that was full of a brilliant
company: the courtiers of the king, and their following again. Yet, for
all their magnificence, thanks to our good bishop's gifts, we showed
well as we rode into the streets, and I think were envied by many
because the marks of honourable war were yet on us; so that the men
spoke of Aldhelm's crushed headpiece, or Wulfhere's gashed shield that
bore the mark of the axe that he stopped from me, or my riven mail that
Alswythe's scarf would scarcely hide, and Wislac's broken crest.
And if they looked from us to our men, there was yet more of the like to
speak about; for not one of the standard guard had been scatheless from
heavy weapon play.
Being thus marked we were easy to be known, and hardly had we drawn rein
at the great hostelry where we should wait till the king summoned us,
when a thane came to me, asking if we were from bishop or ealdorman. And
when I said we were so, bearing letters from them, he bade us to the
king's presence at once, tarrying for nothing, as we were waited for.
Fain would we have washed away the stains of travel; but he was urgent,
saying that the king's word brooked no delay. Therefore, leaving our
horses with the people of the inn, we followed him, marching in order,
to the great house where Ethelwulf was.
Here were guards and many thanes, and I must show the tokens given me,
before we might enter, while our thane stood by, impatient at the
Those over, we came to a greet hall high-ceiled with oak, and carved
everywhere, and strewn with sweet sedges, and on the high place sat the
king and queen and one of the athelings.
Now I had never seen the king before, but I thought him like all that I
had heard of in stories. For he sat in his purple robes, ermine-trimmed,
having on a little gold crown over his long, curling hair, and his
gloves and shoes were of cloth of gold, curiously wrought with pearls,
while at his feet sat a page, holding a cushion whereon lay sceptre and
But I looked to see the face of a warrior under the gold circle of the
king, and therein was disappointed; for his face was kind and gentle, as
many a good warrior's has been in time of peace, but lacked those lines
which a man might know would harden into grimness and strength in time
of need. And I thought that Ealhstan was like a king, and Ethelwulf like
a bishop rather.
Yet by the king's side, leaning on his chair, was one whom I then noted
not, having eyes only for his father--Alfred the Atheling, who, to my
mind, is both warrior and saint, as though Ethelwulf, his father, and
Ealhstan, his teacher, had each taught him the properties of the other,
making a perfect king.
Now, while I looked, our guide went and made obeisance before the king,
telling him of our coming, and at that the face of Ethelwulf lighted up,
and he called to us to come near and give our message. And I saw the
queen clasp her hands, as preparing to hear things all too heavy for a
lady's ear, while the atheling stood up and gazed eagerly at us. Then,
too, over all the court was deep silence, as they made a lane through
which we must pass to reach the throne, and our feet seemed to make all
the sound there was.
So we tramped up, and bowed low before the king, who ran his eyes over
us, though not as a captain: but as one who knows men of all sorts well,
and is accustomed to judge their faces.
Then he said to me; "You are Heregar, the bishop's standard bearer. We
have heard of you as such, and welcome you, knowing you must bring good
news, as your face tells me."
"I am Heregar, Lord King," I answered, "and I bring good news--written
in these which I am to give into your own hand."
Then the king smiled a little, and signed the atheling to take the
letters, and give them him.
But I, not knowing court ways, must needs think this beside my duty, and
said quickly, not knowing to whom I spoke; "Pardon me, Thane, I am to
give these into the king's own hand," and so stepped past him, holding
out the letters to Ethelwulf.
And at that the atheling laughed outright, which was strange to me in
the king's presence, saying, "Not so far wrong, standard bearer, if not
very polite;" and so stepped back to his place, still laughing.
But Ethelwulf did not notice this, having taken the letters eagerly from
me, and broken open the first that came.
Now when he had read the first few lines, he looked up, and reading from
the letter, which doubtless told him the names of the bearers--
"Heregar I know," he said; "which is Wulfhere?"
Then Wulfhere bowed, and the king asked for Wislac and Aldhelm, and then
for each of the men in turn. And when each had answered, he looked hard
at us, still holding the letter open, but saying nothing, and then fell
to reading again. So we must stand still till all those letters were read.
Presently he took one, and reading the outside, gave it to the atheling,
saying it was to him, and went on reading. That the atheling took, and
as he read, looked at us, and it seemed particularly at me, though I
thought nothing of that.
At last the king finished, and turned to a tall, noble-looking warrior
who stood very near the dais, bidding him treat us with all honour, and
see to our lodging near him while we were at court. Shortly, he said, he
would speak to us of all we could tell him.
Then he held out his ungloved hand to us, which the atheling made a
smiling sign for me to kiss, and that we all did, and then he looked
pleasantly at us, and went his way from the hall, followed by his close
attendants, with the queen and the atheling.
So soon as the king was gone, the talk began all over the hall, and most
of all they crowded round us to learn what we could tell them; but that
tall thane, whose name was Ceorle, came and took us away, telling the
rest jestingly that they should have the second telling of the news, but
that the king must have the first. And so he took us to guest chambers
in his own house, and there left us in charge of his steward, treating
us four thanes with all honour, and our men, as became their standing,
among his own best men.
At least, this last was but for a short time, for the lay brethren came
to me, looking oddly at me, and saying that they were in a strait; for,
being lay brethren first, and warriors after, they knew not how to join
in the talk and idle jests of the servants and housecarles. Moreover,
they said that their vows obliged them to certain duties of prayer. And
this I thought was honest of them, for many a lay brother would, when he
found that I noted not their state, have broken out of bounds gladly,
for the time.
So I sent for the steward, and asked him where they might be bestowed,
and after a little thought, he said that the abbot, who had a following
of honest housecarles, would take them in; and that he managed for us,
and afterwards told me that Ealhstan's men had gained great praise, both
for themselves and the bishop, by their ways in the abbey.
This is a little thing: but I tell it because it shows what sort of man
Bishop Ealhstan was. For even over these rough warriors he had gained
such a power for good that he had made of them all he wished--sturdy
champions of the faith, both bodily and spiritually.
So when those three were gone elsewhere our only serving man was my
collier, and well was he treated in Ceorle's house.
We bided quietly there all the rest of that day and that night, and then
in the morning were bidden to speak with the king, Ceorle taking us four
himself and sending one to find the lay brethren and Dudda.
The king sat with Alfred the Atheling in a private chamber, no other but
Ceorle being beside him while we were there. And I was a little
frightened about my putting aside the young prince now, for I knew who
he was from Ceorle. But he had a pleasant look and greeting for us as we
came in. So also had Ethelwulf himself, who seemed less stately than
yesterday when he sat in his royal attire in full court.
Richly dressed he was now, with a gold circlet on his head and great
gold bracelets on his arms; but he was in no high place, only sitting
easily in a carved and cushioned chair, while the atheling sat on a
settle by the window.
The letters I had brought lay open on the table at the king's elbow, and
his hand was on them, and there were other writings scattered about;
great ones with red seals hanging thereto--made no doubt by the gold
signet which stood close by in its open casket.
"Come near, Thanes," the king said in his deep, quiet voice. "Let us
talk together of this matter as friends, for a useless king were I but
for such as you who keep my throne from the blows of enemies."
"Stay, Father," said Alfred the Atheling, starting up. "Let me write
while the thanes speak," and he gathered up pens and such, and a roll of
parchment, sitting down at the table and then holding pen ready, and
looking at us.
The king smiled at him and his haste, and said, "Verily, Thanes, you
must mind your words if Alfred writes them down, for he will ever keep
records of tales such as yours, saying that they are for men to read
But that had no terrors for us, seeing that we had a plain tale to tell,
truth and nothing more. So, as Ceorle bid us, we four sat down by the
window, and the king asked me to tell my story from the first.
So I began by saying that I had seen the landing of the Danes at Stert,
and warned the watchmen of the levy.
There Alfred stopped me, holding up his pen suddenly.
"Tell us, Thane, of the Watchet landing," he said.
And when I began to tell of that he looked up again, with his eyes
dancing, and asked me how I came on Quantock hill.
Thereat the king laughed a little, saying that Alfred should have been a
lawman, and the atheling said that, with his father's help, he meant to
be such, and a good one.
And that he has become, for the laws he has given us will last, as it
seems to me, till the name of Saxon has departed.
Then I was a little in doubt what to say, and the king saw this. So he
told me kindly that he had had very full accounts written by the bishop
and ealdormen; but now both he and the atheling would fain hear about
myself; that is, if my friends already knew all, and if I would not heed
Now I saw that I must speak more of myself than I wished, and would fain
have been excused, saying something of that sort. But the atheling asked
me to think of them as friends who would feel for me, saying, too, that
of my own history he would not write, and so kindly did he urge me,
drawing me on, that at last I had told him all from the beginning of my
troubles, even to the time when I rode with Alswythe into Glastonbury
and sought the bishop.
"That is well told," said Alfred, when I had finished so far, and the
king sighed a little, but left all the speaking to his son.
"Now, Wulfhere," he went on, "it is your turn," and so made the old
warrior take up the tale; but he bade him begin at the first fight.
However, Wulfhere must needs go back to the war arrow business, and then
to the staying of the flight at Cannington, and in this Alfred did not
stop him, though I thought it more than needed.
So he told all his tale, even to the slaying of the berserk, and things
like that. And as he told of the breaking of the ring, and our stand
inside of it, Alfred the Atheling wrote fast, and presently he bade
Wulfhere cease, and going to a corner took down a harp, while his father
smiled on him, and tuning it, broke out into a wondrous war song that
made our hearts beat fast, for we seemed to feel that it was full of the
very shout and ring of battle inside our circle of foes, and we were as
men who looked on and saw our own deeds over again, only made more
glorious by the hand of the poet and the voice of the singer.
So that when he ended the king's eyes flashed, and Ceorle's face was red
and good to look at with a war light on it, and Wislac shouted, as I had
But at that sound, strange in the king's presence, we all started, and
Wislac seemed abashed.
"Truly, Lord King," he said humbly, "I could not help it."
"Almost had I done as you did," said the kindly king. "Alfred must bear
the blame. Now shall you tell your story."
But Wislac said he had nought to add to Wulfhere's tale, save that
Aldhelm here had saved him at his own cost, and that he had had,
moreover, as much fighting as he was like ever to want.
But even from him Alfred gained many things about the fighting, and from
Aldhelm also, and these he wrote down.
Thus we all told our tales, and they were long in the telling, so that
when Aldhelm had finished, the king rose up, blaming Alfred gently for
the long sitting, saying, however, that he had feared somewhat of the
sort, but that doubtless the thanes were more wearied than either of the
other three who had listened.
"Now," he said, "well have you four thanes deserved of me and of all,
and you shall not say that the king is ungrateful. And I think that each
of you has said less of your own selves than might be said, or, indeed,
than is said in these letters. Now have Ceorle and I and my council
spoken of this matter, and we have thought of rewards fitting for the
shield wall of the standard."
Then would we thank the king; but he bade us wait for a little, putting
his hand on those great parchments with the seals. One of these he took
and gave to Aldhelm.
"This is to your father, confirming his rights of the land he holds of
me to him and his heirs for ever, by reason of your good service. Yet is
there a little blame to you from the way in which you found a foremost
place, though much praise for the holding thereof and in your manner of
ending that quarrel."
So Aldhelm took the deed and kissed the king's hand in token of homage,
going to his place very glad, for this was what his father desired most
Then the king beckoned Wislac and gave him also a deed like Aldhelm's,
granting him the lordship of the manor of Goring on the Thames, and that
was a good reward to the stout Mercian, who thanked the king, saying
that he wotted not how his majesty knew what he would have most wished.
Whereupon the king laughed, saying that kings knew more than men gave
them credit for, and so Wislac did homage, and sat down.
Then Ethelwulf looked at Wulfhere, and said; "Wulfhere, my old warrior,
I know not rightly what to do with you, for you are a lonely man, and I
think that a place in my court would not suit you. Nor would you care to
hold a manor in a strange place. Wait a little, and we will think it over."
Now at that Wulfhere looked glad, for I think he feared rather than
Now came my turn, and my face flushed, and I was a little frightened,
for there was but one thing I wanted, and I feared that that might not be.
But the king made a step towards me and took me by the hand, looking
hard at me.
"Heregar," he said, "yours has been a strange story, and from beginning
to end you have been first in this victory that will gain us peace for
many years to come. Moreover you have suffered wrong, being punished for
evil falsely laid to your charge on my account. And that I must show all
men to be untrue, and that I, the king, hold it so. Now shall you choose
your own reward."
Then was I sorely abashed, not knowing how to say what I longed for, and
the king stood waiting a little. And maybe I should never have got it
out, but the atheling looked up, and said:
"May I speak for you, Heregar?"
And so plainly did I see that he knew all, that I asked him to do so,
and he came beside me and said; "Heregar needs but one thing, my father,
and that is the hand of the maiden he loves--Alswythe the daughter of
Matelgar, and your ward since her father was slain."
"Are you so foolish as to ask no more than that?" said the king, smiling.
And on that my tongue was loosed, and I answered; "Aye my Lord the King.
If foolish it be to long for the one whom a man loves, and who loves
him, so that he holds her beyond all other reward."
"Then is your request granted," said the king very kindly. "Yet must you
have withal to keep so great a treasure rightly."
Now I had forgotten that I was landless, and well it was for me that the
king went on quickly; "So I give you the lands that were Matelgar's, and
your own lands again; and my men, and at my cost, shall build your halls
afresh that the Danes have burnt. And whatever rights were Matelgar's or
your father's shall be confirmed to you and yours for ever. Yet these
things are but justice, and no reward."
So he paused a little, and I found courage to speak.
"My Lord the King, I need no more than you have given, for love and
honour and lands have come back to me, and withal friendship of these
three here, and of Ealhstan the Bishop, and of the noble ealdormen;
while but for what has befallen I might have been still a careless
thane, living at ease and for naught; but now, having heard Your good
words, it is enough, and reward fit for any man."
And this I meant from my heart, for no more could I see that any man
should need than this: honour of his fellows and of the king, and love
and lands, and friends. Surely is a man rich in these things.
Yet must Alfred the Atheling add a word.
"Call me your friend also, Heregar, if you will, for fain would I be
so," and he held out his strong white hand to take mine.
And it is good to think that, as it were, the grasp of his has never
slackened from that day to this, but that he is my friend still.
Then Ceorle must say likewise, and last of all the king said; "Friend to
all my people would I be, and to none more than to those who have risked
life for the land. Therefore, to you and yours am I friend always, so
that you shall ever think of me as friend first and king after. Nor is
it to everyone that I dare say that, Heregar, my friend."
And he took my hand also, as the atheling and Ceorle had taken it.
So was I fain to weep for very joy at all this that had come to me, and
must turn away for a little lest it should be seen.
Then the king spoke cheerfully, as on business.
"Now, Heregar, I have work for you to do in your home; for I would have
no man idle. Here is Watchet town burnt up, and no man left--for its
lord is slain--to see that it is built aright, and that each man, or
family, has his own again. Now, you knew that place well, nor is it very
far from you. Therefore shall you see to all that, and you shall have
writings from me to back you. But men must know that you yourself have
power there, and, therefore, I make you lord of all Quantock side, from
Watchet stream to Parret, and from the borders of your own land at
Cannington to Severn shore between those two. And this shall you render
in return for those rights: that you shall be ready at all times to bear
the standard of Wessex, against all comers from over seas, at my bidding."
Now that was the Dragon of Wessex of which the old witch spoke. And lo!
those things that had been foretold of me were sooth, and I knelt before
the king, and swore to bear him this service faithfully.
So the rest bore witness of that oath gladly, rejoicing in the honour,
which was in truth to them as well as to me, for I could not have gone
through aught without them, and if mine was the grip on Ealhstan's
banner shaft, theirs were the hands that had kept it there.
Then said Ethelwulf; "Choose now one who shall have charge under you of
the watchings and beacons on your shore."
And straightway I turned to Wulfhere, and begged him to do this for me,
and it was good to see the warrior's face light up with gladness as he
promised to give me his help. Doubtless that was what the king had in
store for him, for at once he gave him the manor of the Watchet thane
who had been slain, for as it chanced he had no heirs, and the land came
back to the king.
That was the end of a long morning's work, and very kindly did Ethelwulf
take his leave of us, saying that we must have these matters confirmed
when the Witan [xii] met in two days' time.
So we went out, landed men and noble, and with us went the atheling, who
took us to his own lodgings at the abbey, where he would see and speak
to our men that he might write yet more from their lips, for he said
that often it was good to hear what the common sort thought.
And my collier must needs tell him--for he was very pleasant, so that
none need fear his rank--of Grendel, and also of the saint, which
mightily pleased the atheling. So that often would he call me "Grendel"
in sport thereafter, for we grew close friends in the time we bided at
And that seemed long to me, for now would I fain be back at Glastonbury
Soon Wislac, also, grew tired of the court, and said that he longed for
the deep meadows and lofty trees, and green downs along the clear river
in this June time, and must seek his own home again. But it seemed that
Alfred over-persuaded him, for reasons which he told me not, and he stayed.
We went to the great meeting of the Witan, taking our seats there when
our rights were confirmed to us. And into my hands was put the standard
of Wessex by the king himself, and I bore it to the great church, there
to be blessed in the bearing thereof.
And there stood Ealhstan himself in his robes, having come even that
morning for this very purpose. And that was pleasant, and even as I
should have most wished. Moreover, my friends, and Alfred, and Ceorle
stood by me as if for shield wall at that time, and I was well attended.
Now betimes, in the afternoon, came Alfred the Atheling to me as I sat
with Ceorle, talking of the arms of the vikings, and asked me to come
and speak with friends of his, who would not see him save he brought me.
And at that Ceorle laughed, saying that they must be of importance if
they would deny the prince an audience, making conditions. And Alfred
said very gravely that they were so, and maybe the only people, save the
king and queen, who might delay seeing him.
So I was curious to know who these were. But we left Ceorle still
laughing. Then Alfred took me to the abbey, and sent one of his men to
say we had come, who, when he returned, bade us into the presence of
When we came to a great door, in a part of the abbey where I had not
before been, he took my arm, and pushed me in first, saying that he
would ensure himself a good reception; and there sat Ealhstan, and
beside him stood Alswythe, smiling at me, and with a little colour in
CHAPTER XVIII. PEACE IN THE LAND.
Now of the wedding in the great church I knew very little, save that I
had Alswythe beside me, and that Ealhstan married us. And that was all I
cared for, heeding naught of the rest.
But the king and the queen were there, and many thanes, while the
atheling must needs be a groomsman with my friends, and Ceorle gave away
the bride on the king's behalf. There, too, was Eanulf, looking very
noble in his court array, beside the king. And the little page in blue
and silver who held Alswythe's dress was none other than Turkil,
"Grendel's friend" as Alfred called him, whom Alswythe had begged the
bishop to bring with him.
There also was Dudda the Collier, clad beyond knowledge by Wislac,
holding my helm and sword, and the lay brethren, mail clad for the last
time, with the white cross painted on their shields and helms. Lustily
did they join in the chanting.
Osric only was not there, but on Alswythe's neck and arms shone
presently wonderfully-wrought collar and bracelets of gold that he had
sent, having had them made from the spoils of that tall viking chief
that I had slain.
Then was there feasting, and songs of gleemen, and, better still, that
song of Stert fight sung by Alfred the Atheling himself in full hall.
And then had Wislac full excuse for what he did in the king's presence,
for at the end all the hall joined in a mighty Wessex war shout. And
that, said the atheling, was a poet's greatest praise, to have stirred
the hearts of men to forgetfulness of aught but the song.
Now, when we must needs ride away westward, with Wulfhere and Aldhelm
for attendants, and the collier and my lay brethren again for guards,
the king gave Alswythe a ring, praying her to spare me to him if need
should be; and she, half weeping, yet proudly, told him that she would
be the first to arm me for his service. And the queen kissed her, but
the atheling said that soon he should see us again, for he would ride
with me over the battle-ground, and learn it all, when our hall was
ready for a guest.
Then Wislac took leave of us last of all, even as we started, for he
said he would have no long leave taking. Nor did he know if he must not
come with Alfred to fight the battle over again. And we prayed him to do
so, for I loved the quaint sayings and cool valour of the
But Eanulf and Ceorle rode with many of the thanes a mile or more with
us on our way from the town, and there, having set us fairly off, left
us with hearty good-speeds. But they left one behind, who joined himself
to our little company. And that was Turkil, clad like myself in silver
mail, and on a white pony, but with flame-coloured cloak and scarf. For
that was the atheling's doing, when he knew that "Grendel's friend" was
to be brought up in our hall, to grow into the stout warrior I had boded
him to be.
Now should my story be ended were it a fairy tale, but it is not that.
Well I knew that, happy as I was, the day must come when I must bear
forward to battle the golden dragon banner of Wessex, and I cannot
rightly tell if I dreaded or longed for that day. Maybe there was a
mixture of both dread and longing in my thoughts thereof.
But when we came over Brent Knoll, on our way back to my place and
Alswythe's at Cannington, there lay the black ships under the holms yet,
and there, too, were the burnt walls of our houses, though these were
rising up again as the king's men wrought at them. And all the land lay
waste and neglected, and, as we rode over Cannington hill, a broken helm
rolled from my horse's hoof from among the grass of the roadside. Those
things brought back to us the memory of war and trouble even in our new
happiness; and there, over the river, was the new-made mound over Elgar,
the man who had died for his land, and not in vain.
It was many days since we started from Salisbury town, however, before
we came to Cannington, and in that time we had sought the house of
Turkil's father, the franklin, lodging with him for a day and night,
that we might seek Leofwine the hermit. But him we might not find, for
he was dead, and that grieved me sorely, for I would fain have seen him
again, aye, and if it might be, taken him to live with us.
But he died as the tide went out on the day of Stert fight, and those
who stood by him say that he had visions of all that befell there.
For many times he called to me as exhorting me; and once, after long
silence, in the gray of early dawn, he rose up, crying, "Up, Ealhstan,
up, for the Lord has delivered these heathen into your hands!"
And that was at the time when the bishop had heard those words spoken to
him. And again, once more he roused, even at the time when the Danes
drew off from us at the coming of Osric. He lifted his hands, crying
"Victory!" thrice, and then saying very softly, "Heregar, my son," was
silent thereafter till he died at the time of the lowest ebb, only his
lips moving as if in prayer. And I remembered the strange voice I had
heard crying round me, and I wept, for I thought how much more was
wrought by the prayers of feeble ones than men wot of.
But his prophecy had indeed come true, and though I might not see him
more, the memory of Leofwine is with me always, with his words of wise
counsel that he had spoken to me.
Now of that other one who prophesied in her strange way to me I know no
more, nor did I ever see her again. Gundred the witch, men called her,
knowing her well, and fearing her. But she was never seen after the
Danes swept over our land, and how she ended none ever knew. I sought
her carefully that I might give her shelter and ease for the rest of her
days, but without avail.
All his life long has Dudda the Collier bided with me, serving well and
roughly, but in all most faithfully, as is his wont. And not many days
after we came homewards he brought me the berserk's axe to hang in hall,
for he had taken it and hidden it when we left the battlefield on the
day after the fight. So there it is now, and beside it hangs the raven
flag of the largest ship, for he must needs go with the fishers across
to the holms, and bring me back the tale of how the last of the Danes
And now what am I to say of the years since our hall was built again?
Long have they been, and not all happy, for many a time have I had to
bear the standard of Wessex against the Danes. Yet Stert fight won us
six years of peace, and after that the Earl Ceorle and I led our levies
and conquered at Wenbury. But that was Wulfhere's last fight, for of his
wounds he might not recover, though we bore him back and tended him
carefully for a month or more. So he lies in God's Acre at Cannington,
and is at rest.
Then came long years of fighting, and ever I bore the banner, and ever
Alswythe set me forth most lovingly, with brave words that should bide
with me till I came back to her. And all the time our hall was safe, for
beyond Parret the Danes came not again.
And to tell of all those fights were too long, or of how Wislac and
Aldhelm would ever fight beside me as of old, and at last Turkil in
Aldhelm's place, when that brave thane fell at Wilton, fighting for
Alfred the King.
Then were we in Athelney with Alfred, and it was the collier who found
us that place of safety. And thence we went at last to victory again,
and now once more the land has rest.
Yet Wislac is with us in Wulfhere's place, for his own land is in Danish
hands, and we know not what wars may be yet with them, though we have
stood by the king's side when the greatest victory of all was won, and
Guthrum the heathen became Athelstan the Christian, and peaceful
division of the land was made.
So I and Alswythe grow old here in Cannington, seeing our children grow
up around us. And Alfred the king has our eldest in his court, there
training him in all things well and wisely. And Turkil is thane of
Watchet, and our son-in-law, much loved by all, well and faithfully
tending all my shore as Wulfhere tended it in his time.
So to me and mine after storm has come peace, and with us and the land
all is well.
i A representative assembly or court of judgment.
ii An outlaw for whose slaying there was a reward, or at
least no penalty.
iii A curved, one-edged sword or war knife.
iv The "Saga of Beowulf" was the great popular poem of
the Saxon races, and as well known to them as the legends of Robin Hood
to us. The principal episode is the hero's victory over the marsh fiend
v Crowland in Lincolnshire, where the saint founded his
vi Like the Highland "fiery cross", the signal for
rising in arms.
vii The most contemptuous term that could be applied to
a Saxon. Its exact force is lost, but may be expressed by "worth nothing."
viii The border of cleared land round a forest
settlement, across which in times of war none might come without sound
of horn in warning.
ix The "Saga of Beowulf" as we have it is the work of a
Christian editor of King Alfred's time.
x A corselet or coat of mail.
xi The bell which is rung during mass.
xii The great national council, or parliament.
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