Read CHAPTER XVI. AT GLASTONBURY of A Thane of Wessex, free online book, by Charles W. Whistler, on ReadCentral.com.

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 to split.”

“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 men would.”

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 me again.

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 deserved.”

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 their doorstep.

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 the nuns.

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 Alswythe.

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 business.”

“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 cast away.

“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 set off.

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 own way.

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.