A King's Comrade

A Story of Old Hereford


Charles Whistler


Hereford Cathedral bears the name of Ethelbert of East Anglia, king and martyr, round whose death, at the hands of the men of Offa of Mercia, this story of his comrade centres, and dates its foundation from Offa's remorse for the deed which at least he had not prevented. In the sanctuary itself stands an ancient battered statue--somewhat hard to find--of the saint, and in the pavement hard by a modern stone bears a representation of his murder. The date of the martyrdom is usually given as May 20, 792 A.D.

A brief mention of the occurrence is given under that date in the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," and full details are recorded by later historians, Matthew of Westminster and Roger of Wendover being the most precise and full. The ancient Hereford Breviary preserves further details also, for which I am indebted to my friend the Rev. H. Housman, B.D., of Bradley.

These authorities I have followed as closely as possible, only slightly varying the persons to whom the portents, so characteristic of the times, occurred, and referring some--as is quite possible, without detracting from their significance to men of that day--to natural causes. Those who searched for the body of the king are unnamed by the chroniclers, and I have, therefore, had no hesitation in putting the task into the hands of the hero of the tale. The whole sequence of events is unaltered.

Offa's own part in the removal of the hapless young king is given entirely from the accounts of the chroniclers, and the characters of Quendritha the queen and her accomplice Gymbert are by no means drawn here more darkly than in their pages. The story of her voyage and finding by Offa is from Brompton's Annals.

The first recorded landing of the Danes in Wessex, with which the story opens, is from the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;" the name of the sheriff, and the account of the headstrong conduct which led to his end, being added from Ethelwerd. The exact place of the landing is not stated; but as it was undoubtedly near Dorchester, it may be located at Weymouth with sufficient probability. For the reasons which led to the exile of Ecgbert, and to his long stay at the court of Carl the Great, the authority is William of Malmesbury. The close correspondence between the Mercian and Frankish courts is, of course, historic--Offa seeming most anxious to ally himself with the great Continental monarch, if only in name. The position of the hero as an honoured and independent guest at the hall of Offa would certainly be that assigned to an emissary from Carl.

With regard to the proper names involved, I have preferred to use modern forms rather than the cumbrous if more correct spelling of the period. The name of the terrible queen, for example, appears on her coins as "Cynethryth," and varies in the pages of the chroniclers from "Quendred" to the form chosen as most simple for use today. And it has not seemed worth while to substitute the ancient names of places for those in present use which sufficiently retain their earlier form or meaning.

The whole story of King Ethelbert's wooing and its disastrous ending is a perfect romance in all truth, without much need for enhancement by fiction, and perhaps has its forgotten influence on many a modern romance, by the postponement of a wedding day until the month of May--so disastrous for him and his bride--has passed.




A shore of dull green and yellow sand dunes, beyond whose low tops a few sea-worn pines and birch trees show their heads, and at whose feet the gray sea hardly breaks in the heavy stillness that comes with the near thunder of high summer. The tide is full and nearing the turn, and the shore birds have gone elsewhere till their food is bared again at its falling. Only a few dotterels, whose eggs lie somewhere near, run and flit, piping, to and fro, for a boat and two men are resting at the very edge of the wave as if the ebb would see them afloat again.

Armed men they are, too, and the boat is new and handsome, graceful with the beautiful lines of a northern shipwright's designing. She has mast and sail and one steering oar, but neither rowlocks nor other oars to fit in them. One of the men is pacing quietly up and down the sand, as if on the quarterdeck of a ship, and the other rests against the boat's gunwale.

"Nigh time," says one, glancing at the fringe of weed which the tide is beginning to leave.

"Ay, nigh, and I would it were past and over. It is a hard doom."

"No harder than is deserved. The doom ring and the great stone had been the end in days which I can remember. That was the old Danish way."

The other man nods.

"But the jarl is merciful, as ever."

"When one finds a coiled adder, one slays it. One does not say, 'Bide alive, because I saw you too soon to be harmed by you.' Mercy to the beast that might be, but not to the child who shall some day set his hand on it."

"Eh, well! The wind is off shore, and it is a far cry to succour, and Ran waits the drowning."

"I know not that Ran cares for women."

"Maybe a witch like herself. They are coming!"

Now through a winding gap in the line of dunes comes from inland a little company of men and women, swiftly and in silence. The two men range themselves on either bow of the boat, and stand at attention as the newcomers near them, and so wait. Maybe there are two-score people, led by a man and woman, who walk side by side without word or look passing between them. The man is tall and handsome, armed in the close-knit ring-mail shirt of the Dane, with gemmed sword hilt and golden mountings to scabbard and dirk, and his steel helm and iron-gray hair seem the same colour in the shadowless light of the dull sky overhead. One would set his age at about sixty years.

But the woman at his side is young and wonderfully lovely. She is dressed in white and gold, and her hair is golden as the coiled necklace and armlets she wears, and hangs in two long plaits far below her knees, though it is looped in the golden girdle round her waist. Fastened to the girdle hangs the sheath of a little dagger, but there is no blade in it. She is plainly of high rank, and unwedded. Now her fair face is set and hard, and it would almost seem that despair was written on it.

After those two the other folk seem hardly worth a glance, though they are richly dressed, and the men are as well armed as the jarl their leader. Nor do they seem to have eyes for any but those two at their head, and no word passes among them. Their faces also are set and hard, as if they had somewhat heavy to see to, and would fain carry it through to the end unflinching.

So they come to the edge of the sea, where the boat waits them, and there halt; and the tall jarl faces the girl at his side, and speaks to her in a dull voice, while the people slowly make a half circle round them, listening.

"Now we have come to the end," he says, "and from henceforth this land shall know you and the ways of you no more. There were other dooms which men had thought more fitting for you, but they were dooms of death. You shall not die at our hands. You are young, and you have time to bethink you whither the ways you have trodden shall lead you. If the sea spares you, begin life afresh. If it spares you not, maybe it is well. No others shall be beguiled by that fair face of yours. The Norns heed not the faces of men."

He pauses; but the girl stands silent, hand locked in hand, and with no change of face. Nor does she look at her accuser, but gazes steadily out to the still sea, which seems endless, for there is no line between sea and sky in the hot haze. For all its exceeding beauty, hers is an evil face to look on at this time. And the women who gaze on her have no pity in their eyes, nor have the men.

Once again the great jarl speaks, and his words are cold and measured.

"Also, I and our wisest hold that what you have tried to compass was out of the longing for power that ever lies in the heart of youth. We had done no more than laugh thereat had you been content to try to win your will with the ancient wiles of woman that lie in beauty and weakness. But for the evil ways in which you have wrought the land is accursed, and will be so as long as we suffer you. Go hence, and meet elsewhere what fate befalls you. In the skill you have in the seaman's craft is your one hope. We leave it you."

Then, without a word of answer or so much as a look aside, the girl of her own accord steps into the boat; and at a sign from their lord the two men launch her from the shelving sand into the sea, following her, knee deep, among the little breakers that hardly hinder their steps. They see that in her look is deepest hate and wrath, but they pay no heed to it. And even as their hands leave the gunwale, the girl goes to the mast, and with the skill and ease of long custom hoists the sail, and so making fast the halliard deftly, comes aft again to ship the steering oar, and seat herself as the breeze wakes the ripples at the bow and the land slips away from her. She has gone, and never looks back.

Then a sort of sigh whispers among the women folk on shore; but it is not as a sigh of grief, but rather as if a danger had passed from the land. They know that the boat must needs drive but as the wind takes her, for oars wherewith to row against it are none, and the long summer spell of seaward breezes has set in. The jarl folds his arms and bides still in his place, and the two men still stand in the water, watching. And so the boat and its fair burden of untold ill fades into the mist and grows ghostly, and is lost to sight; and across the dunes the clouds gather, and the thunder mutters from inland with the promise of long-looked-for rain to a parched and starving folk.

* * * *

Through the long summer morning Offa, the young King of Mercia, has hunted across the rich Lindsey marshes which lie south of the Humber; and now in the heat of the noon he will leave his party awhile and ride with one thane only to the great Roman bank which holds back the tides, and seek a cool breath from the salt sea, whose waves he can hear. So he sets spurs to his great white steed, and with the follower after him, rides to where the high sand dunes are piled against the bank, and reins up on their grassy summit, and looks eastward across the most desolate sands in all England, gull-haunted only.

"Here is a marvel," he cries, turning to his thane. "Many a time have I hunted along this shore, but never before have I seen the like of this here."

He laughs, and points below him toward the sand, and his thane rides nearer. The tide has crept almost to the foot of the ancient sea wall, and gently rocking on it lies a wondrously beautiful boat with red and white sail set, but with no man, or aught living beyond the white terns which hover and swoop about it, to be seen.

"'Tis a foreign boat," says the thane. "Our folk cannot frame such an one as this. Doubtless she has broken her line from astern of some ship last night, and so has been wafted hither."

"Men do not tow a boat with her sail set," laughs the king. "Let us go and see her."

So they ride shoreward across the dunes, and ever the breeze edges the boat nearer and nearer, till at last she is at rest on the edge of the tide, lifting now and then as some little wave runs beneath her sharp stern. For once the North Sea is still, and even the brown water of the Humber tides is blue across the yellow sands.

The horses come swiftly and noiselessly across the strand, but the white steed of the king is restless as he nears the boat, sniffing the air and tossing his head. The king speaks to him, thinking that it is the swinging sail which he pretends to fear. And then the horse starts and almost rears, for at the sound of the clear voice there rises somewhat from the hollow of the little craft, and the king himself stays in amaze.

For he sees before him the most wondrously beautiful maiden his eyes have rested on, golden-haired and blue-eyed, wan and weary with the long voyage from the far-off shore, and holding out to him piteous hands, blistered with the rough sheet and steering oar. She says naught, but naught is needed.

"Lady," he says, doffing his gold-circled cap, "have no fear. All is well, and you are safe. Whence come you?"

But he has no answer, for the maiden sinks back into the boat swooning. Then in all haste the king sends his thane for help to the party they have left; and so he sits on the boat's gunwale and watches the worn face pityingly.

Now come his men, and at his word they tend the maiden with all care, so that very soon she revives again, and can tell her tale. Beyond the hunger and thirst there has indeed been little hardship to a daughter of the sea in the summer weather, for the breeze has been kindly and steady, and the boat stanch and swift. There has been rain too, gentle, and enough to stave off the utmost thirst.

All this she tells the king truly; and then he must know how she came to lose her own shore. And at that she weeps, but is ready. In the long hours she has conned every tale that may be made, and it is on her lips.

She is the orphan daughter of a Danish jarl, she says, and her father has been slain. She has been set adrift by the chief who has taken her lands, for her folk had but power to ask that grace for her. He would have slain her, but that they watched him. Doubtless he had poisoned their minds against her, or they would not have suffered thus far of ill to her even. Otherwise she cannot believe so ill of them. It is all terrible to her.

And so, with many tears, she accounts for her want of oars, and provides against the day when some chapman from beyond seas shall know her and tell the tale of her shame. At the end she weeps, and begs for kindness to an outcast pitifully.

There is no reason why men should not believe the tale, and told with those wondrous tear-dimmed eyes on them, they doubt not a word of it. It is no new thing that a usurper should make away with the heiress, and doubtless they think her beauty saved her from a worse fate.

So in all honour the maiden is taken to Lincoln, and presently given into the care of one of the great ladies of the court.

But as they ride homeward with the weary maiden in the midst of the company, Offa the king is silent beyond his wont, so that the thane who rode yonder with him asks if aught is amiss.

"Naught," answers Offa. "But if it is true that men say that none but a heaven-sent bride will content me, maybe this is the one of whom they spoke."

Now, if it was longing for power and place which had tempted this maiden to ill in the old home, here she sees her way to more than her wildest dream plain before her; and she bends her mind to please, and therein prospers. For when wit and beauty go hand in hand that is no hard matter. So in no long time it comes to pass that she has gained all she would, and is queen of all the Mercian land, from the Wash to the Thames, and from Thames to Trent, and from Severn to the Lindsey shore; for Offa has wedded her, and all who see her rejoice in his choice, holding her as a heaven-sent queen indeed, so sweetly and lowly and kindly she bears herself. Nor for many a long year can she think of aught which would bring her more power, so that even she deems that the lust of it is dead within her. Only for many a year she somewhat fears the coming of every stranger from beyond the sea lest she may be known, until it is certain that none would believe a tale against their queen.

Yet when that time comes there are old counsellors of the Witan who will say among themselves that they deem Quendritha the queen the leader and planner of all that may go to the making great the kingdom of the Mercians; and there are one or two who think within themselves that, were she thwarted in aught she had set her mind on, she might have few scruples as to how she gained her ends. But no man dare put that thought into words.


Two fair daughters had Offa, the mighty King of Mercia, and Quendritha his queen. The elder of those two, Eadburga, was wedded to our Wessex king, Bertric, in the year when my story begins, and all men in our land south of the Thames thought that the wedding was a matter of full rejoicing. There had been but one enemy for Wessex to fear, besides, of course, the wild Cornish, who were of no account, and that enemy was Mercia. Now the two kingdoms were knit together by the marriage, and there would be lasting peace.

Wherefore we all rejoiced, and the fires flamed from the hilltops, and in the towns men feasted and drank to the alliance, and dreamed of days of unbroken ease to come, wherein the weapons, save always for the ways of the border Welsh, should rust on the wall, and the trodden grass of the old camps of the downs on our north should grow green in loneliness. And that was a good dream, for our land had been torn with war for overlong--Saxon against Angle, Kentishman against Sussexman, Northumbrian against Mercian, and so on in a terrible round of hate and jealousy and pride, till we tired thereof, and the rest was needed most sorely.

And in that same year the shadow of a new trouble fell on England, and none heeded it, though we know it over well now--the shadow of the coming of the Danes. My own story must needs begin with that, for I saw its falling, and presently understood its blackness.

I had been to Winchester with my father, Ethelward the thane of Frome Selwood, to see the bringing home of the bride by our king, and there met a far cousin of ours, with whom it was good to enjoy all the gay doings of the court for the week while we were there. He belonged to Dorchester, and taking as much fancy to my company as a man double his age can have pleasure in the ways of a lad of eighteen, he asked me to ride home with him, and so stay in his house for a time, seeing the new country, and hunting with him for a while before I went home. And my father being very willing that I should do so, I went accordingly, and merry days on down and in forest I had with Elfric the thane, this new-found cousin of ours.

So it came to pass that one day we found ourselves on the steep of a down whence we could overlook the sea and the deep bay of Weymouth, with the great rock of Portland across it; and the width and beauty of that outlook were wonderful to me, whose home was inland, in the fair sunshine of late August. We had come suddenly on it as we rode, and I reined up my horse to look with a sort of cry of pleasure, so fair the blue water and dappled sky and towering headland, grass and woodland and winding river, leaped on my eyes. And in the midst of the still bay three beautiful ships were heading for the land, the long oars rising and falling swiftly, while the red and white striped sails hung idly in the calm. One could see the double of each ship in the water, broken wonderfully by the ripple of the oars, and after each stretched a white wake like a path seaward.

My cousin stayed his horse also with a grip of the reins that brought him up short, and he also made an exclamation, but by no means for the same reason as myself.

"Ho!" he said, "what are these ships?"

Then he set his hand to his forehead and looked long at them from under it, while I watched them also, unknowing that there was anything unusual in the sight for one who lived so near the sea and the little haven of Weymouth below us.

"Well, what do you think of them?" I asked presently.

"On my word, I do not know," he answered thoughtfully. "They are no Frisian traders, and I have never seen their like before. Moreover, it seems to me that they are full of armed men. See how the sun sparkles on their decks here and there!"

But we were too far off to make out more than that, and as we watched it was plain that the ships would make for the river mouth and haven.

"We will ride down and see more of them," said my cousin. "I only hope--"

There he stayed his words; but I saw that his face had grown grave of a sudden, and knew that some heavy thought had crossed his mind.

"What?" I asked.

"It must be impossible," he said slowly--"and this is between you and me--for it seems foolish. But have you heard of the northern strangers who have harried the Welsh beyond the Severn sea?"

I had heard of them, of course, for they traded with the Devon men at times, having settled in towns of their own in Wales beyond the Severn. It was said that they were heathen, worshipping the same gods whom our forefathers had worshipped, and were akin to ourselves, with a tongue not unlike our own at all, and easy to be understood by us. Also they had fought the Welsh, as we had to fight them; but one heard of them only as strangers who had naught to do with us Saxons.

"Well, then," my cousin said, "suppose these are more of the northern folk."

"If they are, they will have come to trade," I said lightly. "But they will more likely be men from the land across this sea--men from the land of the Franks, such as we saw at Winchester the other day."

"Maybe, maybe," he said. "We shall see presently."

So we rode on. I dare say we had four miles to go before we came to the outskirts of Weymouth village, and by that time the ships were in the haven. By that time also the Weymouth folk were leaving the place, and that hastily; and before we were within half a mile of the nearest houses we met two men on horseback, who rode fast on the road toward Dorchester.

"What is amiss?" cried my cousin as they neared us.

The men knew him well, and stayed.

"Three strange ships in the haven, and their crews ashore armed, and taking all they can lay their hands on. We are going to the sheriff; where is he?"

"Home at Dorchester. Whence are the ships? Have they hurt any one?"

"We cannot tell whence they are. They speak a strange sort of English, as it were, like the Northumbrian priest we have. Red-headed, big men they are, and good-tempered so far, seeing that none dare gainsay them. But they are most outrageously thievish."

"What have they taken, then?"

"Ask the bakers and butchers. Now they are gathering up all the horses, and they say they are going to drive the cattle."

"Sheriff's business that, in all truth. Get to him as soon as you may. I will go and see if I can reason with them meanwhile."

"Have a care, thane!" they cried, and spurred their horses again.

Then my cousin turned to me, and his face was grave.

"Wilfrid," he said, "you had better go with those messengers. I am going to see if aught can be done; but it sounds bad. I don't like an armed landing of this sort."

"No, cousin," I answered. "Let me go with you. It would be hard if you must send me back, for I would fain see the ships. That talk of driving the cattle can be naught but a jest."

"Likely enough," he answered, laughing. "It is no new thing for a crew to come ashore and clear out the booths of the tradesmen without troubling to pay offhand. Presently their captains will come and pay what is asked, grumbling, and there will be no loss to our folk. As for this talk of taking the horses--well, a sailor always wants a ride when he first comes ashore, if it is only on an ass. Then if there is not enough meat ready to hand in the town, no doubt they would say they would find it for themselves. Well, come on, and we will see."

So we rode on, but the laugh faded from the face of my kinsman as we did so.

"They have no business to come ashore armed," he said, half to himself, "and Weymouth folk ought to be used to the ways of seamen by this time. I don't like it, Wilfrid."

Nevertheless, we did not stop, and presently came among the first houses of the village, where there was a little crowd of the folk, half terrified, and yet not altogether minded to fly. They said that the strangers were sacking the houses along the water's edge, but not harming any one. However, they were taking all the ale and cider casks they could find on board their ships, and never a word of payment.

"Do not go near them," said my cousin. "Doubtless some one will pay presently, and I will go and speak with their head men. Maybe they can't find any one who can rightly understand their talk."

"Oh ay," said an old man, "it passes me to know how a thane like your worship can understand all sorts of talk they use in England. It is all the likes of us can compass to understand even a Mercian; but I warrant you would ken what a Northumbrian means easily."

He shook his head with much wisdom, and we left him grumbling at the speech of the priest we had already heard of.

We passed down the straggling shoreward street, and as we neared the waterside we heard the shouts and laughter of the strangers plainly enough. And over the houses were the mastheads of their three ships. One of them had a forked red flag, whereon was a raven worked in black, so well that it was easy to see what bird it was meant for. It was the raven of the Danish sea kings, but that meant naught to us yet. The terror which went before and the weeping that bided after that flag were yet to come.

The next thing was that from the haven rode swiftly half a dozen mounted men toward us, and the first glance told us that here were warriors whose very war gear was new to us. Three of them had close-fitting coats of ring mail, and wore burnished round helms of bronze or steel; while the others, who were also helmed, had jerkins of buff leather, gilded and cut in patterns on the edges of the short sleeves and skirts. Their arms were bare, save that one had heavy golden bracelets above the elbow; and they all wore white trousers, girt to the leg loosely with coloured cross-gartering, which reached higher than ours. I had never seen such mail as theirs, and straightway I began to wonder if I might not buy a suit from them.

But most different from any arming of ours was that each had a heavy axe either in his hand or slung to his saddle, and that their swords were longer, with very handsome hilts. Only two had spears, and these were somewhat shorter than ours and maybe heavier. They were better armed warriors than ever I had seen before, even at Winchester.

Some word passed among these men as they saw us; but they came on, making no sign of enmity of any sort. Perhaps that was because, being in hunting gear and with naught more than the short sword and seax one always wears, we had no weapons, and were plainly on peaceful business.

And as in spite of their arms they seemed peaceful enough also, my cousin and I waited for them, so that they pulled up to speak to us, that man who wore the bracelets being at their head.

"Friends," said my cousin quietly, as they stared at him, "there is no war in the land, and we are wont to welcome strangers. No need for all this weapon wearing."

"Faith, I am glad to hear it," said the leader, with a grim smile. "We thought there might be need. There mostly is when we come ashore."

One could understand him well enough, if his speech was rougher than ours. The words were the same, if put together somewhat differently and with a new way of speaking them. It was only a matter of thinking twice, as it were, and one knew what he meant. Also he seemed to understand us better than we him, doubtless by reason of years of travelling and practice in different tongues of the northern lands.

"The arms somewhat terrify our folk," said my cousin, not heeding the meaning which might lie in the words of the chief. "But I suppose you have put in for food and water."

"For ale and beef--that is more like it," said the Dane. "Having found which we are going away again. The sooner we find it the better, therefore, and maybe you will be glad to help us to what we seek."

"Our folk tell me that you are helping yourselves somewhat freely already," answered the thane. "One may suppose that, like honest seamen, you mean to face the reckoning presently."

"Oh ay, we always pay, if we are asked," answered the chief; and as he said it he hitched his sword hilt forward into reach in a way which there was no mistaking.

"It is a new thing to us that seamen should hint that they will pay for what they need with the cold steel. We are not such churls as to withhold what a man would seek in his need."

"No man ever withholds aught from us, if so be we have set our minds on it," said the chief, with a great laugh.

Then he turned to his men, who were all round us by this time, listening.

"Here, take these two down to the ships, and see that they escape not; they will be good hostages."

In a moment, before we had time so much as to spur our horses, much less to draw sword, we were seized and pinioned by the men in spite of the rearing of the frightened steeds. Plainly it was not the first time they had handled men in that wise. Then, with a warrior on either side of us, we were hurried seaward; and I thought it best to hold my tongue, for there was not the least use in protesting. So also thought my cousin, for he never said a word.

Along the rough wharves there was bustle and noise enough, for the place swarmed with the mailed seamen, who had littered the roadway with goods of all sorts from the houses and merchants' stores, and were getting what they chose to take across the gang planks into their ships. Here and there I saw some of our people standing helpless in doorways, or looking from the loft windows and stairways; but it was plain that the most of them had fled. There were several boatloads of them crossing the bay with all speed for safety.

Next I saw that at the high stems and sterns of the ships stood posted men, who seemed to be on watch, leaning on their spears, and taking no part in the bustle. But every man worked with his arms ready, and more men who had found horses rode out along the roads as we came in. They were the pickets who would watch for the raising of the country, or who would drive in the cattle from the fields.

Twice I had seen border warfare with the west Welsh on the Devon side of our country, and so I knew what these horsemen were about, or rather guessed it. But at the time all the affair was a confused medley to me, if I seem to see it plainly now as I look back. Maybe I saw more from the ships presently, for we were hurried on board, handed over to the ship guard and there left, while our captors rode away again.

I only hoped that when the first messengers reached Beaduheard the sheriff he would bring force enough with him. But I doubted it.

The guard took our weapons from us, bound us afresh but not very tightly, and set us with our backs against the gunwale of the fore deck of the ship they had us on board, which was that with the raven flag. Over us towered a wonderful carven dragon's head, painted green and gilded, and at the stern of the ship rose what was meant for its carven tail. The other ships had somewhat the same adornment to their stems and stern posts, but they were not so high or so handsome. Plainly this was the chief's own ship.

Now I suppose that the presence of a captive or two was no new thing to the men, for when they had secured us each to a ring bolt with a short line, they paid little heed to us, but stood and talked to one another with hardly a glance in our direction. Seeing which my cousin spoke to me in a low voice.

"This is a bad business, Wilfrid," he said. "Poor lad, I am more than sorry I let you come with me. Forgive me. I ought to have known that there was danger."

"Trouble not at all," I said, as stoutly as I could, which is not saying much. "I wanted to come, and there was no reason to think that things would go thus. Even now I suppose we shall be let go presently."

Elfric shook his head. I could see that he was far more deeply troubled than he cared to show, and my heart sank.

"I cannot rightly make it all out," he said. "But these men are certainly the northern strangers who have harried Wales, even as we feared."

"Well," I said, "we shall have the sheriff here shortly."

"Beaduheard? I suppose so. Little help will be from him. It would take three days to raise force enough to drive off these men, and he is headstrong and hot tempered. His only chance is to scare them away with a show of force, or, at best, to prevent their going inland after plunder; for that is what they are here for."

"Maybe they will hold us to ransom."

"That is the best we can hope for. Of course I will pay yours."

The bustle went on, and I watched the stowing of the plunder after this, for I had no more to say. I thought of my father, and of the trouble he would be in if he knew my plight, and tried to think what a tale I should have to tell him when I reached home again.

And then came an old warrior, well armed and handsome, with iron-gray hair and beard, and he stepped on the deck and looked curiously at us.

"Captives, eh?" he said to the men. "Whence came they?"

"Thorleif sent them in," answered one of the guard. "It was his word that they would be good hostages."

As I knew that this man spoke of his chief, it seemed to me that he was hardly respectful; but I did not know the way of free Danes and vikings as yet. There was no disrespect at all, in truth, but full loyalty and discipline in every way. Only it sounded strangely to a Saxon to hear no term of rank or respect added to the bare name of a leader.

Then the old warrior turned toward us, and looked us over again, and I thought he seemed kindly, and, from his way, another chief of some rank.

"I suppose this is your son?" he said to Elfric directly.

"My young cousin," answered the thane. "Let him go, I pray you; for he is far from his own folk, and he was in my charge. You may bid him ride home without a word to any man if you will, and he will keep the trust."

The warrior shook his head, but smiled.

"No, I cannot do that. However, I suppose Thorleif will let you go by and by. If our having you here saves trouble, you may be thankful. We are not here to fight if we can help it."

"Why, then," said Elfric, "unbind us, and we will bide here quietly. You may take the word of a thane."

"I have always heard that the word of a Saxon is to be relied on," said the old warrior, and gave an order to the guard.

Whereon they freed us, and glad I was to stretch my limbs again, while my spirits rose somewhat.

The old chief talked with us for a while after that, and made no secret of whence the ships had come. It seemed that they were indeed from Wales, had touched on the south coast of Ireland, and thence had rounded the Land's End, and, growing short of food, had put in here. Also, he told us that they had been "collecting property," and were on the way home to Denmark. He thought they were the first ships of the Danes to cruise in these waters, and was proud of it.

"It is a wondrously fair land of yours here," he said, looking inland on the rolling downs and forest-hidden valleys.

"Fairer than your own?" I asked.

"Surely; else why should we care to leave our homes?"

"Ho, Thrond!" shouted some man from the wharves, "here are cattle coming in."

The old warrior turned and left us, going ashore. Round the turning of the street inland, whence we came, some of the mounted men were driving our red cattle from the nearer meadows, and doing it well as any drover who ever waited for hire at a fair. I saw that they had great heavy-headed dogs, tall and smooth haired, which worked well enough, though not so well as our rough gray shepherd dogs. The ship we were in lay alongside the wooden wharf; and one could watch all that went on, for the fore deck was high above the busy crowd ashore.

I wondered for a few minutes what the Danes would do with the cattle; but they had no doubt at all. Before old Thrond had reached them the work of slaughter had begun, and wonderfully fast the men were carrying the meat on board the ships, heaping it in piles forward, and throwing the hides over the heaps. I heard one of the guards say to another that this was a good "strand hewing," that being their name for this hasty victualling of the ships.

More cattle came in presently, and sheep also, to be served in the same way. There were a hundred and fifty men or so on each ship, and I think that this was the first landing they had made since they left Ireland, so that they were in need of plenty of stores.

Then all in the midst of the bustle came the wild note of a war horn from somewhere inland beyond the town, and in a moment every man stood still where he happened to be, and listened. Twice again the note sounded, and a horseman came clattering down to the shore. He was Thorleif, the chief with whom we had spoken, and he reined up the horse and lifted his hand, with a short, sharp order of some kind.

At that every man dropped what he was carrying, and the men who were stowing the plunder on board the ships left their work and hurried ashore, gripping their weapons from where they had set them against the gunwales. There was a moment's wild hurrying on the wharves, and then the warriors were drawn up in three lines along the wharf, across the berths where they had laid the ships, and facing the landward road. Only the ship guard never stirred.

"If only we could get our men to form up like these!" said Elfric. "See, every man knows his place, and keeps it. They are silent also. Mind you the way of our levies?"

I did well enough. Never had I seen aught like this. For our folk, called up from plough and forest hastily--and now and then only--have never been taught the long lesson of order and readiness that these men had learned of necessity in the yearly battle with wind and wave in their ships. Nor had they ever to face a foe any better ordered than themselves.

"Is the sheriff at hand?" I said breathlessly.

"Maybe. I hope not closely."

Down the street galloped a few more Danes, looking behind them as they rode. They spoke to Thorleif, and he laughed, and then turned their horses loose and leaped to their places in the ranks. Thorleif dismounted also, and paced to and fro, as a waiting seaman will, with his arms behind him.

And then came a rush of horsemen, and my cousin gripped my arm, and cried out in a choked voice:

"Mercy!" he gasped, "is the man mad?"

The new horsemen were men of our own from Dorchester. I saw one or two of Elfric's housecarls among them, and the rest were the sheriff's own men, with a few franklins who had joined him on the road.

At the head of the group rode Beaduheard himself, red and hot with his ride, and plainly in a rage. His rough brown beard bristled fiercely, and his hand griped the bridle so that the knuckles were white. He had armed himself, and his men were armed also, but their gear showed poorly beside the Danish harness. He had hardly more than twenty men after him, and I thought he had outridden his followers who were on foot.

"O fool!" groaned Elfric. "What is the use of this?"

But we could do nothing, and watched in anxiety to see what Beaduheard had in his mind. It was impossible that he could have ridden in here with no warning of the real danger, as we had ridden two hours ago, before things had gone so far. Every townsman had fled long since, and would be making for Dorchester. He must have met them.

Now he halted in front of that terrible silent line, while his men seemed to shrink somewhat as they, too, pulled up. Then he faced Thorleif as boldly as if he had the army of Wessex behind him, and spoke his mind.

"What is the meaning of this?" he shouted in his great voice. "We can have no breaking of the king's peace here, let me tell you. Set down those arms, and do your errand here as peaceful merchants, whereto will be no hindrance. But concerning the lifting of cattle which has gone on, I must have your leaders brought to Dorchester, there to answer for the same."

There was a moment's silence, and then the Danes broke into a great roar of laughter. Even Thorleif's grim face had a smile on it, and he set his hand to his mouth, and stroked his long moustache as if hiding it, while he looked wonderingly at the angry man before him. But beside me Elfric stamped his foot with impatience, and muttered curses on the foolhardiness of the sheriff, which, indeed, I suppose no one understands to this day.

Some say that he took them for merchants, run wild indeed, but to be brought to soberness by authority. Others think that finding himself, as it were, in a wolf's mouth, he was minded to carry it off with a high hand, seeing no other way out of the danger. But most think that he had such belief in his own power that he did indeed look to see these men bow to it, and lay down their arms then and there. But none will ever know, by reason of what was to come.

"Throw down your arms!" he commanded again, when the laughter ceased.

His voice shook with rage.

"Stay!" said Thorleif. "What is your authority?"

The question was put very courteously, if coldly, and it was common sense.

"I am the sheriff of Dorchester. Whence are you that you should defy the king's officer?"

"Pardon," said Thorleif. "It is only at this moment that we have learned that we have so great a man before us. As for your question, we are hungry Danes who are looking for victuals. It is our custom to go armed in a strange land, that we may protect our ships at the least."

"Trouble not for your ships, for none will harm them," Beaduheard said, seeming to be somewhat pacified by the quiet way of the chief. "Set down your arms, and render up yourself and the other ship captains, and the theft of the cattle and damage here shall be compounded for at Dorchester."

Then Thorleif turned to his men and said:

"You hear what the sheriff says; what is the answer?"

That came in a crash and rattle of weapons on round shields that rang over the bay, and sent the staring cattle headlong from where they had been left at the wharf end, tail in air, down the beach. There was no doubting what that meant, and Beaduheard, brave man as he was, if foolish, recoiled. His men were already edging out of the wide space toward the homeward track, and he glanced at them and saw it.

At that he seemed to form some sudden resolve; and calling to them, he rode straight at Thorleif and griped him by the collar of his mail shirt, crying that he arrested him in the name of Bertric the king. Thorleif never struggled, but twisted himself round strongly, and hauled the sheriff off his horse in a moment, and the two rolled over and over on the ground, wrestling fiercely. Three or four of Beaduheard's men rode up to their master's help in haste, caring naught that a dozen of the Danes had sprung forward. There was a wild shouting and stamping, and the horses went down as the axes of the Danes flashed. Two more of the sheriff's men joined in, and I saw the Danes hew off the points of their levelled spears. Then into the huddled party of our men who were watching the fight--still doubting whether they should join in or fly--rode a dozen Danes from out of the country, axe and sword in hand, driving them back on the main line of the vikings, and then the fight seemed to end as suddenly as it began. Two or three horses went riderless homeward, and that was how Dorchester learned that Beaduheard the sheriff had met his end.

The Danes fell back into their places, one or two with wounds on them; and Thorleif rose up from the ground, shaking his armour into place, and looking round him on those who lay there. They were all Saxons. Not one had escaped.

"Pick up the sheriff," he said to some of his men. "I never saw a braver fool. Maybe he is not hurt."

But, however he died, Beaduheard never moved again. Some of the Danes said that a horse must have kicked him; Thorleif had never drawn weapon.

"Pity," said Thorleif. "He was somewhat of a Berserk; but he brought it on himself."

Which was true enough, and we knew it. Neither Elfric nor I had a word to say to each other. The whole fight had sprung up and was over almost before we knew what was happening.

Then the Danes mounted the horses of the men who had fallen, caught the others they had turned loose on the alarm, and were off on their errands without delay. The ranks fell out, and went back to their work as if nothing had happened, and the wharf buzzed with peaceful-seeming noise again.

That is how the first Danes came to Wessex. Men say that these three ships were the first Danish vessels that came to all England; and so it may be, as far as coming on viking raids is concerned. Wales knew them, and Ireland, and now our turn had come.


All the rest of that afternoon we two had to bide on the narrow fore deck of the long ship, watching the pillage of the little town. Once I waxed impatient, and asked my cousin if we might not try to escape, seeing that little heed was paid to us, and that our staying here as hostages had been of no use. But he shook his head, telling me that until he had spoken with Thorleif or Thrond, to whom we had passed our word, we must bide; which I saw was right.

Presently, as the evening began to close in, Thorleif came to us, and with him was the old chief. After them came a man with food in plenty in a ship's cauldron, and a leathern jack of ale, which he set before us as we sat on the coils of rope which were stowed forward.

"Welsh mutton and Welsh ale," said Thorleif, smiling. "That is plunder one may ask a Saxon to share without offence. Fall to, I pray you."

There was a rough courtesy in this, at the least intended, and we were hungry, so we did not delay. And as we ate, the chief spoke with us plainly.

"I had hoped," he said, "to manage this raid without fighting, but I never met so headstrong a man as your sheriff. Truly, I would have sent him home in peace, if in a hurry, had we been given a chance, but, as you saw, we had none. Now, if you will, I will send one of you home to say that if your folk will pay us fair ransom in coined silver or weighed gold, we will harry no more, and will not burn the town. One of you shall go at once, and bring me word by noon at latest tomorrow, while the other shall bide as hostage for his return. We will do no harm to aught until the time is up."

"Plain speaking, chief," said Elfric. "If we go, we must not have more than a reasonable sum named, else will the message be useless."

Then they talked of what sum should be named, and in the end agreed on what was possible, I think; at all events, it was far less than has been paid to the like force of Danes since. The riches of our peaceful Wessex were as yet unknown to the vikings, save by hearsay; indeed, it has been said that these three ships came to spy out the land. And then came the question as to which of us two was to go.

That was ended by Thorleif himself. I said that Elfric should go, and he was most anxious that I should be freed from the clutches of the Danes. And as we spoke thereof, neither of us being willing to give way--for, indeed, it did not seem to me that it mattered much whether I stayed, while Elfric had his own family, who would be sorely terrified for him--Thorleif decided it.

"Elfric the thane must go," he said, "for men will listen to him. That is the main thing, after all.

"We will not harm your cousin, thane, and you may be easy in your mind."

"Nay," said Thrond, "I think that Dorchester would pay ransom for the thane willingly. Best let the lad go."

"This is more a question of ransoming the town and countryside, foster father," answered Thorleif. "The thane shall go."

In a quarter of an hour he was gone, the Danes giving him back his weapons and mounting him on his own horse. He told me that he had no doubt that I should be freed by noon tomorrow, and so we parted in good spirits, as far as ourselves were concerned.

As to the trouble that had fallen on the land, that was another matter. I did not rightly take it in, but it was heavy on his mind. For myself, therefore, I was content enough; I had no reason to think that the Danes were likely to treat me evilly in any way.

Nor did they. On the other hand, as if I were one of themselves, they set me by the chief when they made a feast presently, and did not ask me questions about the country; which was what I feared. Most likely their riders had learned all they would from others.

When it grew dark they lighted great fires along the wharves, and sat by them in their arms, drinking the Weymouth ale, and eating the Dorset fare they had taken. The ship guards went ashore, and their places were taken by others, and I saw strong pickets passing out of the town to guard the ways into it. Thorleif would not risk aught in the way of safeguard. After that was done, those whose watch off it was went on board the ships, and slept under the shelter of the gunwales, wrapped in their thick sea cloaks. They gave me one, and bade me rest on the after deck by the chiefs; and in spite of the strangeness of everything I slept dreamlessly, being tired in mind as well as in body.

Next morning things were to all seeming much the same. The Danes had kept their word, and all was peaceful. There being nothing more in the town left worth taking, they stowed everything carefully, and made all ready for sailing. And then, halfway between noon and sunrise, Elfric rode back.

I did not see him, for he was not suffered to come beyond the line of outposts, and all that he had to say, of course, I did not know at the time. One came and told Thorleif that the thane waited to speak with him, and he was gone from the ships for half an hour with Thrond. When he came back his face was grimmer than ever, and a red scar which crossed his forehead was burning crimson. He stayed to speak to the men on the wharves, and some order he gave was passed from one to another, and in ten minutes every man had left the wharves and had passed inland, with him at their head.

"Ho, that is it!" said one of the ship guard from the deck below me.

"What is it?" I asked, for I had been talking to the man in all friendly wise, of ship and sea and strange lands.

"Why, your folk will not pay, and so we must needs take payment for ourselves in the viking's way."

I said no more, nor did the man. I think he was sorry for me; but it was not long before he called to me and pointed to the hillside above the town. On it was a black throng of folk, slowly coming down toward us.

"Your people coming to drive us out," he said, laughing a short laugh.

Then he and his comrades bustled about the ship, setting every loose thing in place, until the decks were clear. In the other ships the guard were at the same work, and at last they cast off all the shore lines but one at stem and stern. The ships might sail at the moment their men were on board if they were beaten back.

About that time the farther houses in Weymouth began to burn, and I heard the Wessex war cry rise, hoarse and savage, as the foes met. There were more of our men coming over the hill, and it was good to me to see that the Danes, who watched as eagerly as I, waxed silent and anxious. One said that there seemed a many folk hereabout, as if the gathering against them was more than they cared for.

Now I did not know what I had best wish for. Sometimes I thought that if our men were beaten back they might come to terms, and I should be freed. And it being a thing impossible that I could hope that Wessex was to be beaten, and next to impossible that I should so much as imagine she could, I mostly wondered what


Verlag: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG

Tag der Veröffentlichung: 26.03.2014
ISBN: 978-3-7309-9502-0

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