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

Odda the ealdorman and I rode gaily into the king’s camp in the bright August morning, with Harek and Kolgrim and Thord beside us, and after us fifty of my men in their best array; which was saying much, for Einar the jarl was generous, and we had spoiled Halfdan, the king’s son, moreover. So there was a shouting when we came to the camp, and men ran together to stare at the vikings and their king.

In the midst of the camp, which was strong enough, and looked out on the old city, flew a banner whereon was a golden dragon the banner of Wessex. And it stood before a great pavilion, which was the court for the time, and where we should find the king waiting for us. There were several other tents joined to this great one, so that into them the king might retire; and there was a wide space, round which walked spearmen as sentries, between it and any other tent.

Some Devon thanes met us, and our men dismounted at the same time as we. Then Odda led us four to the door of the pavilion, and we were ushered in with much ceremony.

Inside the great tent was like a round hall, carpeted, and tapestry-hung in a way I had never seen before. There were many richly-dressed nobles present, and most of these were grouped round a high place over against the door, where I saw at once that the king sat on a throne in all state.

Now, coming from bright sunshine into the cool shadow of the place, I was dazzled at first; but Kolgrim’s eyes were quick, and we had hardly crossed the threshold, if I might call it so, when he plucked at my cloak.

“Master,” he whispered, “let me bide with the men; this is no place for me.”

“Hush,” I whispered; “the king is yonder.”

“Ay, master let me go the king is Godred whom I jested with.”

Harek was smiling, and he pulled Kolgrim forward.

“Have no fear,” he said; “those who play bowls expect rubs.”

Then the king came down from his throne and towards us. He had on gilded armour beneath his long, ermine-trimmed blue cloak, and that pleased me. He had sword and seax, but no helm, though that was on a table by the throne for he wore a crown.

Then I too saw that Godred, as he called himself, was, as the scald had guessed rightly, the king, and I was a little angry that he had tricked me thus. But he was laughing at Kolgrim as he came, and my anger passed at once. King or thane, here was a pleasant greeting enough.

He held out his hand to Odda first and then to me. The Saxon kissed it, bending one knee, which was doubtless right for him, as owning allegiance thereto. But I shook hands in our own way, saying:

“Skoal to Alfred the king.”

Which seemed to please him, for he answered:

“Welcome to King Ranald. I am glad my letter brought you. My counsellor, Godred, feared you might not care to come.”

“The letter turned the scale, lord king,” I said. “Yet I would have you remember what I said yesterday about my kingship.”

“Ay, cousin, I mind it,” he answered, laughing. “Also I mind that a king’s son is a king’s son, whatever else he may be called.”

Then he shook hands with Harek, and after that turned to Kolgrim, holding out his hand also to him.

“Concerning sails,” he said gravely, “I have many questions to ask you. Is it to the starboard hand that the bolt rope goes, or to the other board?”

“I pray you to forget my foolishness, lord king,” cried Kolgrim, growing very red and shame faced.

“That I shall not,” the king answered, laughing. “I owe you thanks for such a jest as I have not played on a man for many a long day. Truly I have been more light hearted for my laugh ever since.”

“Ay, lord, you had the laugh of me,” Kolgrim said, grinning uneasily.

Then the king nodded gaily to him and asked who Thord was.

“This is my master in sea craft,” said Odda. “Verily I fear him as I have feared no man since I was at school. But he cured the seasickness of me.”

“Maybe I forgot the sickness when I sent landsmen to sea in all haste,” said the king. “Nevertheless, Thord, how fought they when blows were going?”

“Well enough, king. And I will say that what I tried to teach them they tried to learn,” answered Thord.

“Wherein is hope. You think that I may have good seamen in time, therefore?”

“Ay, lord. It is in the blood of every man of our kin to take to the sea. They are like hen-bred ducklings now, and they do but want a duck to lead them pondwards. Then may hen cackle in vain for them.”

The king laughed.

“Faith,” he said, “I the hen drove Odda into the pond. He is, according to his own account, a poor duckling.”

“Let him splash about a little longer, lord king,” said Thord.

But Odda spoke with a long face.

“Not so, King Alfred, if you love me. Landsman am I, and chicken-hearted at sea. Keep the gamecock to mind the farmyard; there be more birds than ducks needed.”

“Make a song hereof, Harek,” said the king. “Here is word play enough for any scald.”

Then sang Harek, laughing, and ever ready with verses:

“The gamecock croweth bravely,
And guardeth hawk-scared hen roost;
But when the sea swan swimmeth
Against the shoreward nestings,
There mighty mallard flappeth,
And frayeth him from foray;
Yet shoreward if he winneth,
The gamecock waits to meet him.”

“That is in my favour,” said Odda. “Mind you the scald’s words, I pray you, lord king, and send me to my right place, even with hawk on one side and swan on the other.”

So a pleasant laugh went round, and then the king went back to his throne, and spoke words of open thanks to us of the fleet who had gained him such victory. Good words they were, neither too few nor too many, such as would make every man who heard them long to hear the like of himself again.

Now, while he was speaking, men came to the tent door and waited for his words to end; and then one came forward and told a noble, who seemed to be ordering the state which was kept, that Danish lords had come to speak with the king.

It seemed that this was expected, for when he heard it, Alfred bade that they should be brought in.

There were six of them in all, and they were in handsome dresses, but without mail, though not unarmed. The leader of them was Jarl Osmund, whom I had seen for a moment in Wareham street. I thought that his handsome face was careworn, as though peace would be welcome to him. But he and all his comrades carried themselves bravely.

Now there was long converse between the king and these chiefs, and it seemed that peace would be made.

Yet Alfred’s face was hard as he spoke to them not like the bright looks with which he had jested with us just now, or the earnest kingly regard which had gone with his words of thanks.

Presently the Danes said that the whole force would retire into Mercia beyond Thames, harming none by the way, and keeping peace thereafter, if the conditions were honourable.

Then the king flashed out into scorn:

“What honour is to be looked for by oath breakers?”

“We are not oath breakers, King Alfred,” Osmund said, looking him in the face.

“Once did the Danes swear to me on their holy ring, which seems to me to be their greatest oath, and they broke the peace so made. What is that but that they are forsworn?”

“We swore nought to you, lord king,” Osmund said. “Half of the men with us came newly from across the sea but a week or so since. Guthrum and those who swore are in their own land.”

Then the king glanced at me, suddenly, as it would seem, remembering what I had told him of the freedom of the chiefs.

“Ha! now I mind me of a word spoken in time,” he said. “It has seemed to me that there was oath breaking; maybe I was wrong. I will take your words that you have not done so. Is that amends enough?”

“It is well said, lord king,” Osmund answered gravely.

“But,” Alfred went on, “I must have the word of every chief who is in Exeter, and they must speak for every man. Tell me in all truth if there are those who would not make peace with me?”

Then said Osmund:

“Some will not, but they are few.”

“What if you make peace and they do not? what shall you do with them?”

“They must go their own way; we have no power over them.”

“Has not Guthrum?”

“No more than we. A free Dane cannot be hound, unless he chooses, by another man’s word.”

Then Alfred said plainly:

“I cannot treat for peace till I have the word of every chief in Exeter. Go your ways and let that be known.”

So Osmund bowed, and went out with his fellows. And when he had gone, the king turned to me.

“Have I spoken aright, King Ranald?”

“In the best way possible, lord king,” I answered.

“Go after those Danish lords,” the king said to one of his thanes, “and bid them to feast with me tonight, for I think that I have said too much to them.”

So they were bidden to the king’s feast presently, and I suppose they could do nought but come, for it was plain that he meant to honour them. After they had gone back into the town, Alfred spoke with my men, and what he said pleased them well.

Then he went to his resting tent, and I walked with Odda to his quarters, and sat there, waiting for the king to send for me to speak with him, as I expected. But word came that he would wait till he had heard more of the Danish answer to his message before we spoke together of that he had written of to me. So he prayed me to wait in the camp till he had seen the Danes again, and told Odda to find quarters for us.

“So we shall have a good talk together,” the ealdorman said. “I am glad you are not going back to the ships yet.”

So was I, for all this fresh life that I had not seen before pleased me. Most of all I wished to see more of Alfred and the state in which he lived.

Now, just when I was ready for the feast, and was sitting with Odda, there came a guard to the tent and said that the chief of the Danes was seeking King Ranald.

Then Odda said:

“What wills he? we have no traffic with Danes.”

“He would speak with King Ranald,” the man said.

Then said I:

“If it is Osmund the jarl, I think I know why he comes. Let him come in here and speak before you, ealdorman.”

“Why, do you know him?”

“I cannot rightly say that I do, but I nearly came to do so.”

Then Odda wondered, and answered:

“Forgive me; one grows suspicious about these Danes. I will go hence, and you shall speak with him alone. Maybe he wants your word with the king, because you know the ways of the viking hosts.”

“No,” said I; “stay here. Whatever it is he has to say cannot be private; nor would I hear anything from him that you might not.”

“As you will. Let him come here,” Odda said; and the man went out.

Then entered Jarl Osmund, richly dressed for the king’s feast, and he looked from one of us to the other as we rose to greet him. Suddenly he smiled grimly.

“I looked to find strangers, and was about to ask for King Ranald. However, Odda the ealdorman and I have met before, as I am certain.”

“Faith, we have,” said Odda. “Nor am I likely to forget it. It was at Ashdown fight.”

“And elsewhere,” said the jarl. “But it was ever fair fighting between us.”

“Else had you slain me when I was down,” said Odda frankly, and with a smile coming into his face.

“The score is even on that count,” said Osmund, and with that, with one accord their hands met, and they laughed at each other.

That was good to see, and ever should things be so between brave foes and honest.

Then Osmund looked at me.

“Now have I met with two men whom I have longed to see,” he said, “for you must be King Ranald Vemundsson. Two foes I have if it must be so said of whom I have nought but good to say.”

“So,” laughed Odda. “When fought you twain, and which let the other go?”

“We have not fought,” the jarl answered. “But I have deeper reason for thanking Ranald than for sparing my own life, or for staying a blow in time out of sheer love of fair play.”

Then he took my hand and looked me in the face.

“It was a good deed and noble that you wrought for me but the other day,” he said earnestly. “I do not know how to thank you enough. My daughter laid command on me that I should seek you and tell you this; but indeed I needed no bidding when I heard how she escaped.”

“I had been nidring had I not helped a lady in need,” I said, being in want of better words.

“What is all this?” said Odda; for I had told him nought of the matter, not seeing any reason to do so.

Then Osmund must needs tell him of what Kolgrim and I had done; and the ealdorman laughed at me, though one might see that the affair pleased him.

“This king,” he said, “having no kingdom of his own, as he says, goes about helping seasick ealdormen and lonely damsels, whereby he will end with more trouble on his hands than any kingdom would give him.”

“I am only one,” I said; “Kolgrim and Thord are in this also.”

Then Osmund took a heavy gold bracelet from his arm.

“This is for Kolgrim, your comrade,” he said, half doubtfully, “if I may give it him in remembrance of a brave deed well done. Will he be too proud to accept it?”

“I may give it him, certainly,” I said, taking the gift.

Then Odda would not be behindhand, and he pulled off his own armlet.

“If Kolgrim is to be remembered, Thord will never be forgotten. Give this to him in sheer gratitude for swearing at me in such wise that he overcame the sore sickness that comes of the swaying of the deck that will not cease.”

“Give it him yourself, ealdorman,” I said. “You know him over well to send it by another. It would not be so good a gift.”

“As you will,” he answered. “But I fear that viking terribly. Black grows his face, and into his beard he blows, and the hard Norse words grumble like thunder from his lips. Then know I that Odda the ealdorman has been playing the land lubber again, and wonder what is wrong. Nor is it long ere I find out, and I and my luckless crew are flying to mind what orders are howled at us. In good truth, if Alfred ever needs me to hurry in aught, let him send Thord the viking to see that I do so. One may know how I fear him, since I chose rather to risk battle with Jarl Osmund on shore than to bide near him in my own ship any longer.”

Then the jarl and I laughed till our sides ached, and Odda joined us when he could not help it, so doleful was his face and solemn were his words when he told his tale. But I knew that he and Thord were the best of friends after those few days in the ship together, and that the rough old viking had given every man of the crew confidence. Nevertheless he was apt to rage somewhat when things went in slovenly wise.

So Odda helped me through with Osmund’s thanks, and I was glad. I was glad also that the horns blew for the feast, so that no more could be said about the Wareham doings.

Now I sat close to King Alfred at the feast, and saw much of his ways with men. I thought it plain that he had trouble at times in keeping back the pride and haughtiness which I had heard had been the fault in both Neot and himself, for now and then they showed plainly. Then he made haste to make amends if one was hurt by what he had said in haste. But altogether I thought him even more kingly than the mighty Harald Fairhair in some ways.

Truly he had not the vast strength and stature of Norway’s king, but Alfred’s was the kingliness of wisdom and statecraft.

Once I said to Odda:

“Can your king fight?”

“Ay, with head as well as with hand,” he answered. “His skill in weapon play makes up for lack of weight and strength. He is maybe the best swordsman and spearman in England.”

I looked again at him, and I saw that since last I turned my eyes on him he had grown pale, and now his face was drawn, and was whitening under some pain, as it would seem; and I gripped Odda’s arm.

“See!” I said, “the king dies! he is poisoned!”

And I was starting up, but the ealdorman held me back.

“I pray you pay no heed,” he said urgently. “It is the king’s dark hour; he will be well anon.”

But nevertheless Alfred swayed in his seat, and two young thanes who stood waiting on him came to either side and helped him up, and together they took him, tottering, into the smaller tent that opened behind the throne; while all the guests were silent, some in fear, like myself, but others looking pityingly only.

Then a tall man in a dress strange to me a bishop, as I knew presently rose up, and said to those who knew not what was the matter:

“Doubtless all know that our good king is troubled with a strange illness that falls on him from time to time. This is such a time. Have no fear therefore, for the pain he suffers will pass. He does not will that any should be less merry because of him.”

So the feast went on, though the great empty chair seemed to damp the merriment sadly. I asked Odda if this trouble often befell the king.

“Ay, over often,” he said, “and one knows not when it will come. No leech knows what it is, and all one can say is that it seems to harm him not at all when it has gone.”

I asked no more, but the king did not come back to the feast, as he would at times when things happened thus. It seemed that often the trouble fell on him when feasting, and some have said that it was sent to prevent him becoming over proud, at his own prayer {vii}.

Soon the Danes rose up, and would go. Some of the great thanes set them forth with all honour, and the feast ended. There was no long sitting over the wine cup at Alfred’s board, though none could complain that he stinted them.

Then the tall bishop who had spoken just now came to me.

“The king will speak with you now, King Ranald, if you will come,” he said.

So I went with him, and Odda came also. The king was lying on a couch without his heavy state robes, and when we entered the small tent the attendants left him. He was very pale, but the pain seemed to have gone, and he looked up pleasantly at me.

“My people are used to this, cousin,” he said, “but I fear I put you out sorely.”

“I thought you poisoned,” I said; “but Odda told me not to fear.”

“Ay, that has been the thought of others before this,” he said. “Have you ever seen the like in any man? I ask every stranger, in hopes that I may hear of relief.”

“No, I have not, lord king,” I answered; “but I can grave runes that will, as I think, keep away such pain if you bear them on you. Thord, whom you know, taught me them. Maybe it would be better for him to grave them, for runes wrongly written are worse than none, and these are very powerful.”

“That is a kindly thought, cousin,” Alfred answered; “but I am sure that no runes will avail when the prayers of my people, from holy Neot to the little village children, do not. And I fear that even would they heal me, I must sooner bear the pain than seek to magic spells.”

“Nay, but try them, King Alfred,” I said; “there is no ill magic in them.”

Now he saw that I was in earnest, and put me by very kindly.

“I must ask Sigehelm, our bishop here, who is my best leech next to Neot.

“What say you, father?”

“Even as you have said, my king.”

“Maybe, bishop,” said I, “you have never tried the might of runes?”

Whereat the good man held up his hands in horror, making no answer, and I laughed a little at him.

“Well, then,” said the king, “we will ask Neot, for mostly he seems to say exactly what I do not.”

“Neot has gone to Cornwall, and I had forgotten to give you that message from him. He says he will be there for a time,” I said, rather ashamed at having let slip the message from my mind.

“So you saw him?” said Alfred.

“I knew he went to the ships yesterday after Godred came back,” he added, laughing.

“He read my letter for me, and after that I had a good deal of talk with him,” I said.

“Then,” said Sigehelm, “you have spoken with the best man in all our land.”

Now the king said that he would let the question of the runes, for which he thanked me, stand over thus; and then he asked me to sit down and hear what he would ask me to do for him, if I had no plans already made for myself.

I said that I had nothing so certainly planned but that I and my men would gladly serve him.

“Then,” he said, “I would ask you to winter with me, and set my ships in order. There will be work for you and all your men, for you shall give them such command in any ship of mine as you know they are best fitted for. I would ask you to help me carry out that plan of which you spoke to me when I was Godred.”

When Odda heard that, he rubbed his hands together, saying:

“Ay, lord king, you have found the right man at last.”

“Then in the spring you shall take full command of the fleet we will build and the men we shall raise; and you shall keep the seas for me, if by that time we know that we can work well together.”

He looked hard at me, waiting my answer.

“Lord king,” I said at last, “this is a great charge, and they say that I am always thought older than I am, being given at least five winters beyond the two-and-twenty that I have seen;” for I thought it likely that the king held that I had seen more than I had.

“I was but twenty when I came to the throne,” he answered. “I have no fear for you. More than his best I do not look for from any man; nor do I wonder if a man makes mistakes, having done so many times myself.”

Here Sigehelm made some sign to the king, to which he paid no heed at the time, but went on:

“As for your men, I will give them the same pay that Harald of Norway gives to his seamen, each as you may choose to rank them for me. You may know what that is.”

“Harek the scald knows,” I said. “They will be well pleased, for the pay is good, and places among Harald’s courtmen are much sought for.”

Then Alfred smiled, and spoke of myself.

“As for King Ranald himself, he will be my guest.”

“I am a wandering viking, and I seem to have found great honour,” I said. “What I can do I will, in this matter. Yet there is one thing I must say, King Alfred. I would not be where men are jealous of me.”

“The only man likely to be so is Odda,” the king answered. “You must settle that with him. It is the place that he must have held that you are taking. No man in all England can be jealous of a viking whose business is with ships. But Odda put this into my mind at first, and then Godred found out that he was right.”

“Lord king,” said I, “had I known who you were at that time, I should have spoken no differently. We Northmen are free in speech as in action.”

“So says Odda,” replied Alfred, smiling. “He has piteous tales of one Thord, whom you sent to teach him things, and the way in which he was made to learn.”

“Nevertheless,” said Odda, “I will not have Thord blamed, for it is in my mind that we should have learned in no other way so quickly.”

Again the bishop signed to the king, and Alfred became grave.

“Here is one thing that our good Sigehelm minds me of. It seems that you are a heathen.”

“Why, no, if that means one who hates Christians,” I said. “Certainly I do not do that, having no cause to do so. Those whom I know are yourself, and Neot, and Odda, and one or two more only.”

“That is not it,” said the king. “What we call a heathen is one who worships the old gods the Asir.”

“Certainly I do that ill enough.”

“Then,” said Alfred, while Odda shifted in his seat, seeming anxious as to how I should take this, “it is our rule that before a heathen man can serve with us, he shall at least be ready to learn our faith, and also must be signed with the cross, in token that he hates it not {viii}.”

“Why should I not learn of your faith?” I said. “Neot asked me of mine. As for the other, I do not know rightly what it means. I see your people sign themselves crosswise, and I cannot tell why, unless it is as we hallow a feast by signing it with Thor’s hammer.”

“It is more than that,” Alfred said, motioning to Sigehelm to say nothing, for he was going to speak. “First you must know what it means, and then say if you will be signed therewith.”

Then he said to Sigehelm:

“Here is one who will listen to good words, not already set against them, as some Danes are, by reason of ill report and the lives of bad Christians. Have no fear of telling him what you will.”

Now, if I were to serve King Alfred, it seemed to me to be only reasonable that I should know the beliefs of those with whom I had to do. Then I minded me of Neot, and his way of asking about my gods, as if the belief of every man was of interest to him.

“Here is a deep matter to be talked of, King Alfred,” I said. “It does not do to speak lightly and carelessly of such things. Nor am I more than your guest as yet, willing to hear what you would have me know. When winter has gone, and you know if I shall be any good to you, then will be question if I enter your service altogether, and by that time I shall know enough. Maybe I shall see Neot again; he and I began to speak of these things.”

Then Sigehelm said:

“I think this is right, and Neot can tell you more in a few words than I in many. Yet whatever you ask me I will try to tell you.”

“I want to speak with Neot,” answered the king, “and we will ride together and seek him when peace is made. I have many things to say to him and ask him. We will go as soon as it is safe.”

So ended my talk with King Alfred at that time, and I was well content therewith. So also were my men, for it was certain that every one of them would find some place of command, were it but over a watch, when Alfred’s new sea levies were to be trained.

Many noble Saxons I met in the week before peace was made with the Danes in Exeter, for all the best were gathered there. Most of all I liked Ethered, the young ealdorman of Mercia, and Ethelnoth, the Somerset ealdorman, and Heregar, the king’s standard bearer, an older warrior, who had seen every battle south of Thames since the long ago day when Eahlstan the bishop taught his flock how to fight for their land against the heathen.

These were very friendly with me, and I should see more of them if I were indeed to ward the Wessex coasts, and for that reason they made the more of me.

Now I saw no more of Osmund the jarl, for Odda knew that the lesser folk would mistrust me if I had any doings with the Danes. Maybe I was sorry not to see the Lady Thora; but if I had seen her, I do not know what I should have said to her, having had no experience of ladies’ ways at any time, which would have made me seem foolish perhaps.