Read CHAPTER IX. THE CAMP OF THE DANES. of Alfgar the Dane / the Second Chronicle of Aescendune, free online book, by A. D. Crake, on ReadCentral.com.

It was the noontide heat, and two Danish warriors reclined under the shadow of an ancient beech, hard by the entrenched camp of the Danes, a few days after the arrival of Alfgar therein. Their spears lay idly on the grass, as if there were no foe to dread, and the land were their own; they seemed deeply engrossed in conversation.

“Well, Anlaf, and when is your son going to give up his Christianity?”

“You are in a great hurry, Sidroc.”

“Nay, all the camp inquires.”

“They must wait.”

“How long?”

“I cannot tell,” said Anlaf, shifting uneasily about; “he is my only son, the heir of a long line of warrior princes.”

“To whom his life is a disgrace.”

“Not altogether; he is brave.”

“Would be, you mean, were he not a Christian.”

“No, he is, or he would not dare cross my path as he does; death, with which I have often threatened him, does not seem to have much terror for him.”

“Perhaps he does not know how terrible death can be made. Has he ever heard of the rista oern {vii} (spread eagle)?”

“I should not value him much if I won him by fear. I must try other modes.”

“Only do not tarry; Sweyn himself inquires how long his obstinacy is to be endured.”

“He must not expect that every conversion can be accomplished with as much rapidity as his own in early days.”

“Better not refer to that.”

“Why! he was baptized himself.”

“He would slay any one who reminded him of it.”

“Yes; the curse of Harold Bluetooth, they say, was not a comfortable thing to get.”

“The father was a Christian in that case, and the son returned to the gods of his ancestors; in your case it is the opposite: the first might be permitted, the last never.”

“You would not talk in that way if he were your own son.”

“Should I not? listen; I had a son, a noble, gallant boy of fifteen-all fire and spirit-do you know how he died?”

“It was before we knew each other.”

“Then I will tell you. We had been ravaging the Frankish coasts, and the lad got a wound in his shoulder; we carried him home, for he had fought like a wolf, and the leeches tried to cure him, but it was all in vain; they said he would never be fit to go to battle again. Poor Sigard! he could not bear that, and he said one day when I was trying to cheer him, ’No, father, I shall never be able to strike a good downright blow again, and I cannot live until I die a cow’s death in my bed; I will die as my fathers have died before me when they could no longer fight.’ I saw what he meant, but I did not like the thought, and I tried to change the subject, but he returned to it again and again, until at last he persuaded me to let him have his way. So we took one of our ships, stuffed it full with things that would burn easily, made a funereal pile on the deck, and laid him thereon in state, with a mantle fit for a king thrown over him. Then we bade him goodbye and a happy journey to Valhalla; he was as cheerful as if he were going to his bridal; we tried to appear as if we were too, but it tore my heart all the same. Then we applied the torch and cut the cable; the wind blew fair, the bark stood out to sea. She had not got half-a-mile from shore when the flames burst out from every crevice of the hold; we saw them surround the pile where he lay passive; he did not move so far as we could see, and after that all was hidden from our sight in flame and smoke.”

The old warrior was silent, and, in spite of his stoicism, Anlaf thought a tear stood in his eye.

“So don’t tell me I could not give up an only son,” added Sidroc.

Anlaf made no reply, but only sighed-a sign of weakness he strove to repress the moment he betrayed it.

They walked back together to the camp, and there they parted. Anlaf repaired at once to his tent, and found Alfgar seated therein.

“The king wishes to know when you will be enrolled amongst his followers.”

The lad looked up sadly, yet firmly; the expression of his face, whereon filial awe contended with yet higher feelings of duty, was very touching. Anlaf felt it, and in his heart respected his son, while sometimes he felt furious at his disobedience.

“Father, it is useless, you should not have brought me here, I shall live and die a Christian.”

“At all events, Alfgar, you should give more attention to all we have said to you, and more respect to the defenders of the old belief in which your ancestors were all content to die. What do you suppose has become of them?”

If Alfgar had been a modern Christian, he might have said, conscientiously enough, that he believed they would be judged by their light, but no such compromise in belief was possible then.

“There is no salvation save in the Church,” he said, sorrowfully enough.

“Then where are they-in hell?”

Alfgar was silent.

“What was good enough for them is good enough for me, and for that matter for you, too. I should be more comfortable there with them than with your saints and monks; at all events, I will take my chance with my forefathers, cannot you do the same?”

“They did not know all I do.”

“All fudge and priestly pratings, begotten of idleness and dreams. Valhalla and Niffelheim are much more reasonable; at all events they are parts of a creed which has made its followers the masters of the world.”

“This world.”

“The next may take its chance, if there is one, of which I by no means feel sure. You are throwing away the certainty of pleasure and glory here for an utter uncertainty; those rewards you will gain by submission are at your feet to take up; those you will gain by a bloody death only exist in the imaginations of priests.”

“’Eye hath not seen, ear hath not heard, but He hath revealed them to us by His Spirit,’” said Alfgar in a low voice.

His father was silent; the words struck him like a strain of weird music; but he did not yield the point, save for the time, and after a pause changed the subject.

“You have other motives than heavenly ones. You love a Christian maiden.”

“How do you know that?” said Alfgar, blushing to the temples.

“I have lain near you at night, and you talk in your dreams. Now, I have yet another motive to put before you. You think you have cause to love the Aescendune people, because they saved your life. I think I have cause to hate them, because they made you a Christian. Now, if you die in your superstition, when we invade Mercia they shall suffer for it.”

“They have suffered enough.”

“Nay, only in buildings, which they will restore. I will pursue them with unrelenting vengeance, with the death feud, till I have destroyed the accursed race utterly.”

“Father!”

“If you would save them,” said Anlaf, who saw he had made an impression, “renounce your Christianity, and I will forget Aescendune.”

Here he left the tent.

The days which followed were, it may be imagined, very uncomfortable ones for Alfgar; but he was not destitute of occupation. It was his father’s wish that he should join the youth of the camp in athletic and warlike exercises. This he had no objection to do, and he spent nearly his whole time in practising the use of battle-axe, of bow, of spear, of sword, and shield, or in managing the war horse, for the Danes had acquired cavalry tactics on stolen horses.

Naturally quick, both of eye and hand, he learned all these things easily, and excited the admiration and envy of his companions. They became useful in time.

In this manner nearly a month passed away, when an incident occurred which claims our attention.

Strolling on the earthworks which defended the camp, near the royal quarters, Alfgar came unexpectedly upon no less a person than the king himself, in close conversation with a stranger.

There was something in the form and manner of this stranger which even in the brief moment conveyed recognition to the mind of our hero; and a second glance, which was all he dared to cast, as he withdrew from the spot, revealed to him the face of a traitor.

It was Edric Streorn.

A few hours later the chieftains were all summoned to a council in the king’s tent, and when, after a short session, they came forth, the general order was given to break up the encampment, and move towards the southwest for the winter, for all the resources of the country around were exhausted.

The work was a laborious one. From the dawn of day, horses, heavily laden, left the camp, loaded with the accumulated spoil of the year. Anlaf himself was very busy, and it was with some real alarm that Alfgar asked him what would happen did the English suddenly appear.

“No fear of them, boy. We have received certain intelligence that their army is disbanded for want of provisions. They will not meet till the spring unless we rout them up.”

Alfgar knew well whence the “certain intelligence” came.

Destroying and plundering, the mighty host moved on its way, crossing into Hampshire, and doing, as the chronicle says, “their old wont.” Of them it might be said in the words of the prophet:

“Like Eden the land at morn they find;
But they leave it a desolate waste behind.”

Whenever they found a tract of country as yet unexhausted, there they settled until they had exhausted it. The wretched inhabitants, who had fled at their approach, perished with hunger, unless they had strength to crawl to the far distance, where as yet bread might be found.

It was the custom of the invaders to burn all their resting places when they left them, and to slay all captives, save such as could be held to ransom, or a few whom they detained in slavery, till they died a worse death from want and ill usage.

Thus they moved from spot to spot, until towards the middle of November they reached the coast opposite the Isle of Wight, in which unfortunate island they decided, after due consideration, to winter.

Opposite the host, across the Solent, rose the lovely and gentle hills of the “garden of England;” but between them lay the Danish fleet, in all its grandeur, calmly floating on the water. Each of the lofty ships bore the ensign of its commander; some carried at the prow the figures of lions, some of bulls, dolphins, dragons, or armed warriors, gaudily painted or even gilded; while others bore from their mast the ensign of voracious birds-the eagle, the raven-which appeared to stretch their wings as the flag expanded in the wind.

The sides of the ships were also gay with bright colours, and as the warriors embarked and hung up their bright shields, grander sight was never seen.

But chiefly Alfgar admired the ship of Sweyn, called the “Great Dragon.” It was in the form of an enormous serpent; the sharp head formed the prow, with hissing tongue protruding forth, and the long tail tapered over the poop.

In this ship Anlaf himself had his place, in deference to his descent, and Alfgar accompanied him. It may easily be imagined he would sooner have been elsewhere.

Scarcely a fishing boat belonging to the English could be discerned: the Danes made a desert around them.

Eight years before, in the year 998, they had wintered on the island, and since that time had regarded it as a Danish colony. No English remained in it save in the position of slaves, and the conquerors had accumulated huge stores of spoil therein, while they drew their stores of provisions from every part of the adjacent mainland.

“Is it not a grand sight, Alfgar?” exclaimed his father. “Are you not proud of your people, the true monarchs of the sea?”

Alfgar was for the moment inclined to sympathise; but he thought of the darker side of the picture, and was silent.

There was a higher glory far than all this, and it had left a lifelong impression on his soul.