Read Chapter V. Two Meetings in England of King Alfred's Viking A Story of the First English Fleet, free online book, by Charles W. Whistler, on ReadCentral.com.

It was not long before the shift of wind that I looked for came, and at once I took all the ships round to the river Exe. Odda had left me all the seamen he had, and they were enough for the short, fair passage. We came to the haven in the river, and there heard what news there was, and it was good enough. Odda had sent well-mounted men to reach the king by roads away from the retreating Danes, and he had been ready for them. He drew off his levies from before the walls of the town, and let his enemies pass him; then he and Odda fell on their rear and drove them into Exeter, and there was holding them. It was well done; for though the host sallied from the town to meet the newcomers, they gained nothing but a share in the rout that followed when Odda closed on the rear guard and the king charged the flank.

Now we heard that as soon as we landed. And then I had my first knowledge of the ways of a Saxon levy. For no sooner were the ships berthed than their crews began to leave them, making for their homes.

One or two men I caught in the act of leaving in the early morning, and spoke sharply to them, for it seemed that soon there would be ships enough and not a man to tend them. Whereon they answered:

“We have done what we were called up for, and more also. Now may others take our places. What more would you have? We have won our victory, and the ships are not needed for a while.”

So they went, and nothing I could say would stay them. I waxed angry on that, and I thought I might as well sail for Ireland as not. There seemed no chance of doing aught here, where men would throw away what they had won of advantage.

So I went back to my own ship and sat under the after awning, in no good temper. Thord and Kolgrim were yet busy in and about the vessels, making all secure, and setting men to work on what needed repairing. Presently Harek the scald came and sat with me, and I grumbled to my heart’s content about this Saxon carelessness and throwing away of good luck.

Many Saxons men from camp, and freemen of the place, and some thanes came, as one might expect, to stare at the ships and their prizes. I paid no heed to them as the day went on, only wishing that Odda would come and speak to me about his doings, for I had sent word to him that we were in the river. Sometimes a thane would stay and speak with me from the wharf alongside which my own ship was with one or two others, and they were pleasant enough, though they troubled me with over many thanks, which was Odda’s fault. However, I will say this, that if every man made as little of his own doings and as much of those of his friends as did the honest ealdorman, it were well in some ways.

By and by, while we were talking, having got through my grumble, Kolgrim came along the shore with some Saxon noble whom he had met; and this stranger was asking questions about each ship that he passed. I suppose that Kolgrim had answered many such curious folk already; for when he came near and we could hear what he was saying, I was fain to laugh, for, as sailors will, he was telling the landsman strange things.

“What do we pull up the anchor with?” he was saying. “Why, with yonder big rope that goes from masthead to bows.” and he pointed to the great mainstay of our ship. “One must have a long purchase, if you know what that is.”

“Ah, ’tis wonderful,” said the Saxon.

Then he caught my eye, and saw that I was smiling. He paid no heed to me, however, but looked long at the ship that lay astern of ours one of the captured Danes. Thord had set a gang of shore folk to bend the sail afresh to a new yard, for the old one had been strained in the gale that came before the fight.

“What are those men doing, friend?” he asked Kolgrim directly.

“Bending a sail,” answered my comrade listlessly, trusting, as it would seem, to the sea language for puzzlement enough to the landsman.

“So,” said the Saxon, quite quietly. “It was in my mind that when a sail was bent to the yard it was bent with the luff to the fore end thereof.”

At which words Kolgrim started, in a way, and looked first at the riggers and then back at the Saxon, who moved no muscle of his face, though one might see that his eyes twinkled. And I looked at the riggers also, and saw that the Saxon was right, and that the men had the square-cut sail turned over with the leech forward and the luff aft. The sail was half laced to the yard, and none but a man who knew much of ships would have seen that aught was wrong.

Then Kolgrim’s face was so red, and angry, and full of shame all at once, that I had the best laugh at him that had come to me for many a day. And he did not bide with the Saxon any longer, but went on board the ship hastily, and said what he had to say to the riggers. The Saxon stood, and looked after him with a smile breaking over his pleasant face, and I thought that maybe I owed him some amends for my comrade’s rough jesting, though indeed he had his revenge.

So I came ashore and spoke to him. He was a slight, brown-haired man of about thirty, bearded and long-haired after the Saxon fashion, and I thought he seemed to be recovering from some wound or sickness that had made him white and thin. He wore his beard long and forked, which may have made him look thinner; but he seemed active and wiry in his movements one of those men who make up for want of strength by quickness and mastery of their weapons. Soberly dressed enough he was, but the cloth of his short cloak and jerkin was very rich, and he had a gold bracelet and brooch that seemed to mark him as high in rank.

“My comrade has been well caught, thane,” I said; “he will be more careful what tales he tells the next comer. But I think he was tired of giving the same answers to the same questions to all who come to see us.”

“Likely enough,” the Saxon answered, laughing a little. “I asked to see the prizes and the vikings’ ships, and he showed me more than I expected.”

Then he looked along the line of vessels that he had not yet passed, and added:

“I thought there were more Norse ships with Odda.”

I told him how the other vikings had left us with their plunder at Wareham, saying that I thought they could well be spared at that time.

“However,” I said, “I did not count on the Saxons leaving their vessels so soon.”

“Then I take it that I am speaking with King Ranald, of whom Odda has so much to say,” he said, without answering my last words.

“I am Ranald Vemundsson,” I said; “but this ship is all my kingdom now. Harald Fairhair has the land that should have been mine. I am but a sea king.”

Then he held out his hand, saying that there was much for which every Saxon should thank me, and I passed that by as well as I could, though I was pleased with the hearty grip he gave me.

“So long as Odda is satisfied it is enough,” I said. “If I have helped him a little, I have helped a man who is worth it.”

“Well,” said the thane, “you seem to be pleased with one another. Now I should like to see this ship of yours, of which he has so much to say.”

We went over her, and it was plain that this thane knew what he was talking about. I wondered that the king had not set him in command instead of Odda, who frankly said what was true that he was no sailor. I supposed that this man, however, was not of high rank enough to lead so great a gathering of Saxons, and so I said nothing to him about it.

By and by we sat on the after deck with Harek, and I had ale brought to us, and we talked of ship craft of all sorts. Presently, however, he said:

“What shall you do now if one may ask?”

“I know not. When I sailed from Wareham, I thought to have seen more sea service with Alfred your king. But now his men are going home, and in a day or two, at this rate, there will be none left to man the ships.”

“We can call them up again when need is,” he answered.

“They should not go home till the king sends them,” I said. “This is not the way in which Harald Fairhair made himself master of Norway. Once his men are called out they know that they must bide with him till he gives them rest and sends them home with rewards. It is his saying that one sets not down the hammer till the nail is driven home, and clinched moreover.”

“That is where the Danes are our masters,” the Saxon said, very gravely. “Our levies fight and disperse. It was not so in the time of the great battles round Reading that brought us peace, for they never had time to do so. Then we won. Now the harvest wants gathering. Our people know they are needed at home and in the fields.”

“They must learn to know that home and fields will be better served by their biding in arms while there is a foe left in the land. What says Alfred the king?” I said.

“Alfred sees this as well as you, or as any one but our freemen,” he answered; “but not yet can he make things go as he knows they should. This is the end at which he ever aims, and I think he will teach his people how to fight in time. I know this, that we shall have no peace until he does.”

“Your king can build a grand ship, but she is of no use without men in her day by day, till they know every plank of her.”

“Ay,” said the Saxon; “but that will come in time. It is hard to know how to manage all things.”

“Why,” I said, “if the care of a ship is a man’s business, for that he will care. You cannot expect him to care for farm and ship at once, when the farm is his living, and the ship but a thing that calls him away from it.”

“What then?”

“Pay the shipman to mind the sea, that is all. Make his ship his living, and the thing is done.”

“It seems to me,” the thane said, “that this can be done. I shall tell the king your words.”

“As you will,” I answered; “they are plain enough. I would say also that Harald our king has about him paid warriors whose living is to serve him, and more who hold lands on condition that they bear arms for him at any time.”

Now Harek had listened to all this, and could tell the thane more of Harald’s ordering of things than I; so he took up the talk for a time, and presently asked about the war and its beginning.

“Faith,” answered the Saxon, with a grim smile, “I cannot tell when the war began, for that was when the first Danes came to the English shores. But if you mean the trouble that is on hand now, it is easily told. Ten years has this host been in England coming first with Ingvar and Halfden and Hubba, the three sons of Lodbrok. Ingvar has gone away, and Guthrum takes his place. Halfden is in Northumbria, Hubba is in Wales, and Guthrum is king over East Anglia and overlord of Mercia. It is Guthrum against whom we are fighting.”

“He is minded to be overlord of all England,” said Harek.

“That is to be seen if a Dane shall be so,” the Saxon answered, flushing. “We beat them at first, as I have said, and have had peace till last year. Then they came to Wareham from East Anglia. There they were forced to make peace, and they swore on the holy ring {v} to depart from Wessex; and we, on our part, swore peace on the relics of the holy saints. Whereon, before the king, Alfred, was ware of their treachery, they fell on our camp, slew all our horsemen, and marched here. Then we gathered the levies again ay, I know why you look so impatiently, King Ranald and came here after them. As for the rest, you have taken your part. Now we have them all inside these walls, and I think we have done.”

Then his face grew dark, and he added:

“But I cannot tell. What can one do with oath breakers of this sort?”

Then I said:

“Surely you do not look for the men of one chief to be bound by what another promises?”

He looked wonderingly at me for a moment, and then said:

“How should it be that the oath of their king should not bind the people?”

“Why,” said I, “you have spoken of several chiefs. If Guthrum chooses to make peace, that is not Halfden’s business, or Hubba’s, or that of any chief who likes it not. One is as free as the other.”

“What mean you? I say that Guthrum and his chiefs swore by the greatest oath they knew to return to Mercia.”

“If they swore by the holy ring, there is no doubt that they who swore would keep the oath. But that does not bind those who were against the peace making. So I suppose that they who held not with the peace made by the rest fell on you, when your levies went home after their wont. One might have known they would do so.”

Thereat the thane was silent for a while, and I saw that he was troubled. It seemed to be a new thought to him at this time that the Danish hosts in England were many, and each free to act in the way its own chief thought best, uniting now and then, and again separating. This he must needs have learned sooner or later, but the knowledge came first to him there before Exeter walls.

Presently he said:

“I have believed that all the Danes were as much one under Guthrum their king as are my folk under theirs. I cannot see the end of this war.”

“It will end when Alfred the king is strong enough always to have men in the field to face every leader that will fall on him,” Harek said. “What King Ranald says is true. It is as if his own father had minded what Harald had sworn in the old days.”

“Wherefore Harald brought all Norway under him, that every man should mind what he said,” the Saxon answered.

Then came three or four more thanes along the shore, and he rose up and waved his hand to them.

“Here are more butts for Kolgrim,” he said, laughing. “Now, King Ranald, I must go to my friends. But I have learned much. I think you must speak with the king before you go, and I will tell him all you have said.”

“Maybe we shall meet again,” said I, taking his offered hand. “I think I would see Alfred; but he is over wise, from all accounts, to learn aught from me.”

“King Alfred says that wisdom comes little by little, and by learning from every one. I belong to the court, and so shall surely meet you if you do come to speak to him.”

Then I asked the thane’s name.

“Godred {vi} men say it is,” he answered, laughing; “but that means better counsel than belongs to me.”

So he went ashore and joined the thanes, who had gone slowly along the road, and we lost sight of him.

“Yonder goes a pleasant comrade enough,” I said to Harek.

“Ay,” the scald answered; “but if that is not Alfred the king himself, I am much in error.”

“It is not likely. I think he is a bigger man and older, from all accounts,” I said carelessly. “Moreover, he would not have put up with Kolgrim’s jests as he did.”

“One knows not; but I thought he spoke of ‘my folk’ once. And he seemed to ask more than would a simple thane, and in a different way.”

However, it seemed to me that Harek had found a marvel for himself, and I laughed at him for supposing that Alfred the king would come there to speak to any man.

Now towards evening Odda came, and with him many servants and a train of wagons. He would make a feast for us in the best house of the village, by the king’s order. Every one of us was called, and all the leading Saxon shipmen, when all was ready, and it was a kingly feast enough.

While they were making it ready, the ealdorman came to me on board the ship, and welcomed me in most friendly wise.

“I have a message for you, King Ranald,” he said presently. “Some thanes have been to me from the king, and he bids me ask you to come and speak with him.”

“I saw a thane here this morning who was anxious for me to see the king,” I said. “A pleasant man enough one Godred.”

“Ay, Godred is pleasant enough,” Odda said, smiling, “but he is a terrible man for asking questions.”

He laughed again, as if he knew the man well, and was pleased to think of him and his ways.

“None of his questions are foolish, however,” I said. “I was pleased with him.”

“It is well if you pleased him, for he is a powerful man at court,” said Odda.

“I do not know if I pleased him, or if it makes any difference to me what power he has,” I said carelessly. “If I want any man to speak for me to the king which is not likely I should come to you first.”

“Speak for yourself,” laughed Odda, “that is the best way with Alfred.”

So we planned to go to Exeter with the next morning’s light. Odda would bide here for the night, after the feast.

Now after we had finished eating, and the ale and mead and the wine the king had sent in our honour were going round, and the gleemen were singing at times, there came a messenger into the house, and brought me a written message from the king himself, as he said.

“Much good are these scratches to me,” said I to Odda. “Can you read them?”

“I can read nought but what is written in a man’s face,” he said.

So I gave the scroll to Harek, who sat next me, thinking that maybe the scald could read it. He pored over it for a while.

“It is of no use, king,” he said. “It is in my mind that I know which is the right way up of the writing, but I am not sure.”

So I laughed, and asked aloud if any man present could read. There were a good many thanes and franklins present to feast in our honour.

Then rose up a man, in a long brown hooded habit girt with a cord, from below the salt where he sat among the servants. He had a long beard, but was very bald. His hair grew in a thick ring round his head; which was strange, for he seemed young.

“I am here, ealdorman,” he said to Odda; “I will read for King Ranald.”

Now all eyes turned to see who spoke, and in a moment Odda rose up hastily and went down the long room till he came to where the man stood. Then I was amazed, for the ealdorman went on one knee before him, and said:

“Good my lord, I knew not that you were here among the crowd. I pray you come to the high seat.”

“When will you remember that titles and high places are no longer pleasing to me?” the man said wearily. “I tire of them all. Rise up, Odda, my friend, and let me be.”

“I will not rise without your blessing, nevertheless,” said the ealdorman.

Whereon the man spoke a few words to him softly and quickly, signing with his hand crosswise over him.

Then I said to those about me, who were watching all this in silence:

“Who is this strange man?”

“It is Neot the holy, King Alfred’s cousin,” one answered, whispering.

“That is a strange dress for an atheling,” I said; but they hushed me.

Now it seemed that Odda tried again to draw this Neot to the high table, but he would not come.

Then I said to old Thord, who sat over against me beyond Odda’s empty chair:

“This is foolishness; or will he not honour the king’s guests?”

But a thane shook his head at me, whispering behind his hand:

“It is humbleness. He has put his rank from him, and will not be held as being above any man.”

Then spoke old Thord:

“Maybe he can put his rank away among men who know him not, and that is a good humbleness in a way. But where all know what his birth is, he has but to be humble and kind in ways and speech, and then men will think more thereof than they will if they see him pretending to be a churl.”

Now Thord’s voice was rough with long years of speaking against the wash of the waves, and the thunder of wind in sail and rigging, and the roll and creak of oars; and as he said this, every one turned towards him, for a silence had fallen on the crowd of folk who watched Neot the king’s cousin and his strife with Odda.

So Neot heard, and his face flushed a little, and he looked hard at Thord and smiled curiously, saying:

“In good truth the old warrior is right, and I am foolish to hide here now I am known. Let me go and sit by him.”

Then Odda led him to the upper end of the room, and every one rose as he passed by. I drew myself nearer to the ealdorman’s place, and made room for him where only the table was between him and Thord, for that bench was full.

So he put his hand on my shoulder and sat down, looking over to Thord, and saying with a quiet smile:

“Thanks for that word in season, friend.”

But the old warrior was somewhat ashamed, and did but shift in his seat uneasily.

“Ay, ay,” he growled; “I cannot keep my voice quiet.”

Neot laughed, and then turned to me and held out his hand for the king’s letter, which I gave him.

He ran his eyes over the writing very quickly, and then said:

“Here is nothing private; shall I read aloud?”

But the thanes fell to talking quickly, and I nodded.

“Alfred the king to his cousin Ranald Vemundsson, greeting. Odda the ealdorman of Devon, and one Godred, have spoken to me of yourself one telling of help given freely and without question of reward or bargain made, and the other of certain plain words spoken this morning. Now I would fain see you, and since the said Godred seems to doubt if you will come to me, I ask it under my own hand thus. For I have thanks to give both to you and your men, and also would ask you somewhat which it is my hope that you will not refuse me. Therefore, my cousin, I would ask you to come with our ealdorman tomorrow and hear all I would say.”

Then Neot said,

“That is all. I think you will not refuse so kindly an invitation. The writing is the king’s own, and here is his name at the end.”

So he showed it me. The letter was better written than the name, as it seemed to me.

“I will take your word for it,” I said, laughing as I looked; “but it is a kindly letter, and I will surely come.”

“Ay; he has written to you as to an equal,” Odda said.

“That is so. Now I would have the good king know that I am not that; I am but a sea king. Maybe he thinks that I shall be a good ally, and makes more of my power than should be. I told Godred the thane as plainly as I could what I was, this morning.”

“Why, then,” said Neot, smiling, “Godred has told the king, no doubt.”

“I hope he has,” I answered, “but I doubt it. Nevertheless it is easy to tell the king myself when I see him.”

After that we talked about other matters, and it became plain that this Neot was a wonderfully wise man, and, as I thought, a holy one in truth, as they called him. There is that about such an one that cannot be mistaken.

Harek sang for us, and pleased all, and into his song came, as one might suppose, a good deal about the Asir. And then Neot began to ask me a good deal about the old gods, as he called them. I told him what I knew, which was little enough maybe, and so said that Harek knew all about them, and that he should rather ask him.

He did not care to do that, but asked me plainly if I were a Christian.

“How should I be?” I said. “Odda is the first Christian man I have spoken with, to my knowledge. So, if I were likely to leave my own faith, I have not so much as heard of another.”

“So you are no hater of Christians?” he said.

“Surely not. Why should I be? I never thought of the matter.”

Then he said:

“Herein you Norsemen are not like the Danes, who hate our faith, and slay our priests because of their hatred.”

“More likely because Christian means Saxon to them, or else because you have slain them as heathens. Northmen do not trouble about another nation’s faith so long as their own is not interfered with. Why should they? Each country has its own ways in this as in other matters.”

Thereat Neot was silent, and asked me no more. Hereafter I learned that hatred of race had made the hatred of religion bitter, until the last seemed to be the greatest hatred of all, adding terror and bitterest cruelty to the struggle for mastery.

Presently, before it was very late, Neot rose up and spoke to Odda, bidding him farewell. Then he came to me, and said:

“Tell the king that we have spoken together, and give him this message if you will that I go to my place in Cornwall, and shall be there for a while.”

Then he passed to Thord, and took his hard hand and said:

“Good are words that come from an honest heart. I have learned a lesson tonight where I thought to have learned none.”

“I marvel that you needed to learn that,” Thord said gruffly.

“So do I, friend,” answered Neot; “but one is apt to go too far in a matter which one has at heart, sometimes before one is aware. Then is a word in season welcome.”

Then he thanked Harek for his songs, and went, the Saxons bowing as he passed down the long table with Odda.

“That is a wise man and a holy,” said Thord.

“Ay, truly,” answered the thane who had told me about him. “I mind when he and Alfred the king were the haughtiest and most overbearing of princes. But when Neot found out that his pride and wrath and strength were getting the mastery in his heart, he thrust himself down there to overcome them. So he grows more saintlike every day, and has wrought a wondrous change in the king himself. He is the only man to whom Alfred will listen in reproof.”

“That is likely,” I said, not knowing aught of the holy bishops who were the king’s counsellors; “kings brook little of that sort. But why does he wear yon strange dress?”

“He has taken vows on him, and is a hermit,” the thane said; but I did not know what he meant at the time.

It was some Saxon way, I supposed, and cared not to ask more.

So it came to pass that I met one of the two most wonderful men in England, and I was to see the other on the morrow. Yet I had no thought that I should care to stay in the land, for it seemed certain from what Odda told me that peace would be made, and peace was not my business nor that of my men.

So in a way I was sorry that the war was at an end, seeing that we came for fighting and should have none.

Then came a thought to me that made me laugh at myself. I was glad, after all, that we were not going sword foremost into Exeter town, because of the Lady Thora, who was there. I suppose it would not have been reasonable had I not had that much thought for the brave maiden whom I had helped out of danger once.