Read CHAPTER XVI: FREDA of The Dragon and the Raven / The Days of King Alfred, free online book, by G. A. Henty, on ReadCentral.com.

For some days Edmund and his party scoured the country round, journeying now in one direction, now in another, but without hearing ought of Sweyn’s party. Certainly they had not gone along the track which the main body of the Danes had followed; but the question was whether they had turned rather to the south in order to cross the mountain ranges between them and the Rhine, or had turned north and journeyed through the great forest of Ardennes, and so to some of the other rivers which run down into the North Sea.

The latter was in some respects the most likely course to have been chosen. By taking it Sweyn would avoid altogether the track which the majority of his countrymen were taking, and this would naturally be his object. Siegbert had many powerful friends, and the carrying off of the jarl’s daughter from the side of her wounded father would be regarded as a grave offence; and Sweyn might well wish to keep clear of his countrymen until he had forced Freda to become his wife. Even then it would not be safe for him for a long time to return to his country. Striking through the Ardennes he would come down upon the Scheldt, the Moselle, the Maas, or other rivers flowing into the North Sea direct, or into the Rhine.

Edmund knew nothing of these streams; but the Danes with him said there were several rivers so situated, for they had sailed up them. Where they took their rise they knew not, but it would probably be in or beyond the forest of Ardennes.

“Then in that way we will search,” Edmund said. “If they come upon a river they will doubtless set to work to build galleys to carry them to the sea, for with only three hundred men Sweyn will not venture to march by land through a country which has but lately suffered heavily at the hands of the Danes. It will take him a month or six weeks to cut down trees and build his ships; therefore we may hope to find him before he is ready to embark. First we will push through the forest to the other side; there we will question the inhabitants concerning the position of the nearest rivers; then we will divide into parties and go on the search, appointing a place of rendezvous where we may rejoin each other. It can hardly be that we shall fail to find them if they have taken that way.”

Before entering the forest they obtained a considerable store of provisions; for they had no idea of its extent, and had no time to spend in hunting game. The forest of Ardennes was at that time of immense size, extending from Verdun and Metz on the south, to Liege and Aix on the north.

Men of the present day would have found it impossible to find their way through, but would speedily have been lost in its trackless recesses; but the Saxons and Danes were accustomed to travel in forests, and knew the signs as well as did the Red-skins and hunters of the American forests. Therefore they felt no hesitation in entering the forest without a guide.

The danger which might beset them was of a different kind. Immense numbers of the inhabitants of France, Champagne, and Burgundy had taken refuge in the forests, driving their flocks and herds before them. Here they lived a wild life, hoping that the emperor would ere long clear the country of the invaders. No mercy could be expected if Edmund and his party fell in with a number of these fugitives. They would have no time to tell their story, but would be attacked at once as a party of plundering Danes.

Knowing that the horses would be an encumbrance to them in the forest, they were sold to the last party of Northmen they encountered before entering it, and they pursued their way on foot. The greatest caution was observed; every sound was marked, and at the call of a human voice, the low of cattle, or the bleating of sheep, they turned their course so as to avoid encounter with the inhabitants of the forest. They lit no fires at night, and scarce a word was spoken on the march. Several times they had to take refuge in thickets when they heard the sound of approaching voices, and it needed all their knowledge of woodcraft to maintain their direction steadily towards the north. At last, after six days’ journey, they issued out into the open country beyond the forest and soon arrived at a cottage.

The peasant was struck with terror and astonishment at the appearance of seven Danes; and he could with difficulty be made to understand that their object was neither plunder nor murder, but that they wished only information from him of the situation and direction of the various rivers of the country. After learning from him all that he knew Edmund arrived at the conclusion that Sweyn would probably attempt to descend either by a branch of the Moselle, and so to the Rhine on the right, or by one of the Maas on the left of the place at which they had emerged from the forest.

Edmund decided to strike the Maas, and to follow its course up into the forest, taking with him one of the Danes and two of his Saxons, and to send the others to search the banks of the tributary of the Moselle. Before starting he sent the peasant to the nearest village to purchase garments of the country for the whole party. He had already told the man that they were not Danes but Saxons, the bitter enemies of the Northmen, and that he had been aiding in the defence of Paris against them.

The peasant did not doubt what Edmund told him, for the conduct of his visitors was so opposed to all that he had heard of the doings of the Danes that he well believed they could not belong to that nation. He was away some hours, and returned with the required dresses. Having put these on, and laying aside their helmets and shields, the two parties started, the Danes alone carrying with them their former garments. The next day Edmund arrived at the river, and at once followed its course upwards, for Sweyn and his party would be building their ships in the forest.

They had not proceeded many miles before they heard the sound of axes. Edmund gave an exclamation of delight. It was almost certain that he had hit upon Sweyn’s track, for it was unlikely that any of the inhabitants of the country would have gone so far into the forest for timber. They now moved with the greatest caution, and as they approached the place whence the sound proceeded Edmund halted the two Saxons and bade them conceal themselves. The Dane resumed his own garments and put on his helmet and shield; and then, taking advantage of every clump of undergrowth, and moving with the greatest caution, he and Edmund made their way forward. Presently they came within sight of an animated scene.

A large number of trees had been felled by the banks of the river and three hundred Northmen were busily at work. The frames of two great galleys had already been set up, and they were now engaged in chopping out planks for their sides. Two huts were erected in the middle of the clearing. One was large, and Sweyn’s banner floated from a spear before it. The other which stood close by was much smaller, and Edmund doubted not that this was appropriated to Freda.

Nothing more could be done now their object was so far attained; and retiring they joined the two Saxons and made their way along the river bank till they reached the edge of the forest. One of the Saxons was now sent off to the peasant’s hut, where he was to remain until the return of the other party, and was then to bring them on to the spot which Edmund had chosen for his encampment. This was in the heart of a large clump of underwood extending down to the river.

The brushwood was so thick that it was entered with difficulty, and no passer-by would dream that a party was hidden within it. Near the stream Edmund and his companions with their swords soon cleared away a circle, and with the boughs constructed an arbour. A thin screen of bushes separated them from the river, but they could see the water, and none could pass up or down unperceived.

The Saxon was charged to bring with him on his return a considerable supply of provisions, for it would have been dangerous to wander in the woods in pursuit of game. The Northmen had, Edmund noticed, some cattle with them; but they would be sure to be hunting in the woods, as they would wish to save the cattle for provision on their voyage. It was nightfall before the hut was completed; and as they had journeyed far for many days Edmund determined to postpone an attempt to discover what was passing in Sweyn’s camp until the following evening.

The day passed quietly, and towards evening Edmund and the Dane started for Sweyn’s camp. When they approached it they saw many fires burning, and the shouting and singing of the Norsemen rang through the forest. They waited until the fires burnt down somewhat and they could see many of the Danes stretching themselves down by them. Then Edmund’s companion proceeded to the camp.

Anxious as Edmund was himself to learn what was doing, he restrained his impatience, for it was safer that the Northman should go alone. In the dull light of the dying fires his features would be unnoticed, and his tongue would not betray him if spoken to. Siegbert had commended him as a crafty and ready fellow, and Edmund felt that he would be able to gather more information than he could do himself. From his place of concealment he kept his eyes fixed on the Northman’s figure. Presently he saw him enter the clearing, and sauntering slowly across it throw himself down near a fire by which a party of Danes were still sitting talking.

One by one these lay down, and when the last had done so the Northman rose quietly and stole out again into the forest. When he rejoined Edmund the latter set forward with him, and not a word was spoken until they were some distance from the camp; then Edmund stopped.

“What have you learned?” he asked.

“All that there is to learn, I think,” the Northman replied. “The lady Freda is, as you supposed, a captive in the little hut. Two men only keep watch over it by day, but at night six lie around it, two being always on foot. They speak in admiration of her courage and spirit. She has sworn to Sweyn that she will slay herself if he attempts to use violence to force her to marriage with him, and they doubt not that she will keep her word. However, they believe that she will grow tired out at last when she finds that there is no hope whatever of a rescue. The ships are being built for a long sea voyage, for Sweyn is going to lead them to join the Viking Hasting in the Mediterranean, and has promised his men the plunder of countries ten times richer than France or England. With so long an expedition in view, they may well think that the Lady Freda’s resolution will soon give way, and that she may come to see that the position of the wife of a bold viking is a thousand times preferable to that of a captive. Many of the men loudly express their wonder why she would refuse the love of so valiant a warrior as Sweyn.”

The news was at once good and bad. Edmund did not fear Freda’s resolution giving way for a long time, but the news that Sweyn intended to carry her upon so distant an expedition troubled him. It was of course possible that he might intercept them with the Dragon at the mouth of the Maas, but it was uncertain whether the ship would arrive at the mouth of the Rhine in time to be brought round before the Northmen descended. The length of her voyage would depend entirely on the wind. Were this favourable when she reached the mouth of the Seine, a week would carry her to her destination. Should it be unfavourable there was no saying how long the voyage would last.

The risk was so great that Edmund determined to make an effort to rouse the country against the Danes, and to fall upon them in their encampment; but the task would he knew be a hard one, for the dread of the Danes was so great that only in large towns was any resistance to them ever offered. However he determined to try, for if the Northmen succeeded in getting to the sea the pursuit would indeed be a long one, and many weeks and even months might elapse before he could again come up to them.

On the following day the rest of the party arrived, and leaving the forest Edmund proceeded with them through the country, visiting every village, and endeavouring to rouse the people to attack the Danes, but the news that the dreaded marauders were so near excited terror only. The assurances of Edmund that there was much rich plunder in their camp which would become the property of those who destroyed them, excited but a feeble interest. The only point in the narrative which excited their contentment was the news that the Danes were building ships and were going to make their way down to the sea.

“In Heaven’s name let them go!” was the cry; “who would interfere with the flight of a savage beast? If they are going down the river they will scarcely land to scatter and plunder the country, and he would be mad indeed who would seek them when they are disposed to let us alone.”

Finding his efforts vain in the country near the forest Edmund went down the river to the town of Liege, which stood on its banks. When it became known that a band of Northmen was on the upper river, and was likely to pass down, the alarm spread quickly through the town, and a council of the principal inhabitants was summoned. Before these Edmund told his story, and suggested that the fighting men of the town should march up the river and fall upon the Danes in their camp.

“It is but two days’ march the Northmen will be unsuspicious of danger, and taken by surprise may be easily defeated.” The proposition, however, was received with absolute derision.

“You must be mad to propose such a thing, young Saxon, if Saxon indeed you are, but for aught we know you may be a Northman sent by them to draw us into an ambush. No; we will prepare for their coming. We will man our walls and stand on the defensive, and if there be, as you say, but three hundred of them, we can defend ourselves successfully; and we may hope that, seeing our strength, and that we are prepared for their coming, the Northmen will pass by without molesting us; but as for moving outside our walls, it would be worse than folly even to think of such a thing.”

After this rebuff Edmund concluded that he could hope for no assistance from the inhabitants of the country, but must depend upon himself and the Dragon alone. He at once despatched two of his men, a Dane and a Saxon, with orders to journey as rapidly as possible to the rendezvous, where the Dragon was to be found at the mouth of the Rhine, and to beg Egbert to move round with all speed to the Maas.

Having done this, he purchased a small and very fast rowing-skiff at Liege, and taking his place in this with his four remaining followers, he rowed up the river. It took them three days before they reached the edge of the forest. On reaching their former hiding-place, they landed. The bushes were carefully drawn aside, and the boat hauled up until completely screened from sight of the river, and Edmund and the Dane at once started for the encampment of the Northmen.

They had been ten days absent, and in that time great progress had been made with the galleys. They looked indeed completely finished as they stood high and lofty on the river bank. The planks were all in their places; the long rows of benches for the rowers were fastened in; the poop and forecastle were finished and decked. A number of long straight poles lay alongside ready to be fashioned into oars; and Edmund thought that in another two or three days the galleys would be ready for launching. They were long and low in the waist, and were evidently built for great speed. Edmund did not think that they were intended to sail, except perhaps occasionally when the wind was favourable, as an aid to the rowers. Each would carry a hundred and fifty men, and there were thirty seats, so that sixty would row at once.

“They are fine galleys,” the Dane whispered. “Sweyn has a good eye for a boat.”

“Yes,” Edmund said, “they look as if they will be very fast. With oars alone they would leave the Dragon behind, but with sails and oars we should overhaul them in a wind. I wish it had been otherwise, for if, when they reach the mouth of the river, there is no wind, they may give the Dragon the slip. Ah!” he exclaimed, “there is Freda.”

As he spoke a tall maiden came out from the small hut. The distance was too great for Edmund to distinguish her features, but he doubted not from the style of her garments that it was Siegbert’s daughter. There were other women moving about the camp, for the Danes were generally accompanied by their wives on their expeditions; but there was something in the carriage and mien of the figure at the door of the hut which distinguished it from the rest. She did not move far away, but stood watching the men at work on the ships and the scene around. Presently a tall figure strode down from the vessels towards her.

“There is Sweyn!” Edmund exclaimed, seeing that the warrior possessed but one arm.

“Ah! you know him by sight then?” The Dane said.

“I should do so,” Edmund answered grimly, “seeing that it was I who smote off that right arm of his. I regret now that I did not strike at his head instead.”

The Dane looked with admiration and surprise at his leader. He had heard of the fight between the Saxon champion and Sweyn, which had cost the latter his right arm, but until now he had been ignorant of Edmund’s identity with Sweyn’s conqueror.

Freda did not seek to avoid her captor, but remained standing quietly until he approached. For some time they conversed; then she turned and left him and re-entered her hut. Sweyn stood looking after her, and then with an angry stamp of the foot returned to the galleys.

“I would give much to be able to warn her that I am present and will follow her until I rescue her from Sweyn,” Edmund said. “Once at sea and on her way south she may well despair of escape, and may consent, from sheer hopelessness, to become his wife. Were it not that her hut is so strongly guarded at night I would try to approach it, but as this cannot be done I must take my chance in the day. To-morrow I will dress myself in your garments and will hide in the wood as near as I can to the hut; then if she come out to take the air I will walk boldly out and speak with her. I see no other way of doing it.”

On the following morning, attired in the Dane’s clothes and helmet, Edmund took his place near the edge of the wood. It was not until late in the afternoon that Freda made her appearance. The moment was propitious; almost all the men were at work on the ships and their oars. The women were cooking the evening meal, and there was no one near Freda, with the exception of the two armed Danes who sat on the trunk of a fallen tree on guard, a short distance away. Edmund issued boldly from the wood, and, waiting till Freda’s steps, as she passed backwards and forwards, took her to the farthest point from the guards, he approached her.

“Freda,” he said, “do not start or betray surprise, for you are watched.”

At the sound of his voice the girl had paused in her steps, and exclaimed in a low voice, “Edmund!” and then, obeying his words, stood motionless.

“I am near you, dear, and will watch over you. I have not strength to carry you away; but my ship will be at the mouth of the river as you pass out. Hang a white cloth from the window of your cabin in the poop as a signal. If we fail to rescue you there we will follow you wheresoever you may go, even to Italy, where I hear you are bound. So keep up a brave heart. I have seen your father, and he has sent me to save you. See, the guards are approaching, I must go.”

Edmund then made for the forest. “Stop there!” the guards cried. “Who are you, and whence do you come?”

Edmund made no answer, but, quickening his steps, passed among the trees, and was soon beyond pursuit. This, indeed, the Danes did not attempt. They had been surprised at seeing, as they supposed, one of their party addressing Freda, for Sweyn’s orders that none should speak with her were precise. He had given this command because he feared, that by the promise of rich rewards she might tempt some of his followers to aid her escape. They had, therefore, risen to interrupt the conversation, but it was not until they approached that it struck them that the Northman’s face was unfamiliar to them, and that he was not one of their party, but Edmund had entered the wood before they recovered from their surprise. Their shouts to him to stop brought Sweyn to the spot.

“What is it?” he asked.

“A strange Northman has come out of the wood, and spoken to the lady Freda.”

Sweyn turned to his captive. She stood pale and trembling, for the shock of the surprise had been a severe one.

“Who is this whom you have spoken to?” he asked. Freda did not answer.

“I insist upon knowing,” Sweyn exclaimed angrily.

Freda recovered herself with an effort, and, raising her head, said, “Your insistence has small effect with me, as you know, Jarl Sweyn; but as there is no reason for concealment I will tell you. He is a messenger whom my dear father has sent to me to tell me that some day he hopes to rescue me from your hands.”

Sweyn laughed loudly.

“He might have saved himself the trouble,” he said. “Your good father lies wounded near Paris, and by the time he is able to set out to your rescue we shall be with Hasting on the sunny waters of Italy, and long ere that you will, I hope, have abandoned your obstinate disposition, and consented to be my wife.”

Freda did not answer at once. Now that there was a hope of rescue, however distant, she thought it might be as well to give Sweyn some faint hope that in time she might yield to his wishes. Then she said:

“I have told you often, jarl, that I will never be your wife, and I do not think that I shall ever change my mind. It may be that the sunny skies you speak of may work a wonderful change in me, but that remains to be seen.” Sweyn retired well satisfied. Her words were less defiant than any she had hitherto addressed to him. As to the message of her father, who could know nothing of his intention to sail to the Mediterranean, he thought no further of it.

Three days later the galleys were launched, and after a day spent in putting everything in its place they started on their way down the river. They rowed many miles, and at night moored by the bank. After darkness had fallen a small boat rowed at full speed past them. It paid no attention to the summons to stop, enforced though it was by several arrows, but continued its way down the river, and was soon lost in the darkness. Sweyn was much displeased. As they rowed down they had carefully destroyed every boat they found on the river, in order that the news of their coming might not precede them.

“The boat must have been hauled up and hidden,” he said; “we might as well have stopped and landed at some of the villages and replenished our larder. Now we shall find the small places all deserted, and the cattle driven away from the river. It is an unfortunate mischance.”

As the Northmen anticipated they found the villages they passed the next day entirely deserted by their inhabitants, and not a head of cattle was to be seen grazing near the banks. In the afternoon they came to Liege. The gates were shut, and the walls bristled with spears. The galleys passed without a stay. Sweyn had other objects in view. Any booty that might be obtained without severe fighting he would have been glad enough to gather in; but with a long sea-voyage before him he cared not to burden his galleys, and his principal desire was to obtain a sufficient supply of provisions for the voyage. For several days the galleys proceeded down the river. The villages were all deserted, and the towns prepared for defence.

When he arrived within a day’s journey of the sea he was forced to halt. Half the crews were left in charge of the ships, and with the others he led a foray far inland, and after some sharp fighting with the natives succeeded in driving down a number of cattle to the ships and in bringing in a store of flour.

Edmund had kept ahead of the galleys, stopping at every town and village and warning the people of the approach of the marauders. He reached the mouth of the river two days before them, but to his deep disappointment saw that the Dragon had not arrived at the rendezvous. On the following afternoon, however, a distant sail was seen, and as it approached Edmund and his followers gave a shout of joy as they recognized the Dragon, which was using her oars as well as sails and was approaching at full speed. Edmund leaped into the boat and rowed to meet them, and a shout of welcome arose from the Dragon as the crew recognized their commander.

“Are we in time?” Egbert shouted.

“Just in time,” Edmund replied. “They will be here to-morrow.” Edmund was soon on board, and was astonished at seeing Siegbert standing by the side of his kinsman.

“What is the news of Freda?” the jarl asked eagerly.

“She is well and keeps up a brave heart,” Edmund replied. “She has sworn to kill herself if Sweyn attempts to make her his wife by violence. I have spoken to her and told her that rescue will come. But how is it that you are here?”

“After you had left us your good kinsman Egbert suggested to me that I should take passage in the Dragon. In the first place I should the sooner see my daughter; and in the next, it would be perilous work, after the Danish army had left, for a small party of us to traverse France.”

“I would I had thought of it,” Edmund said; “but my mind was so disturbed with the thought of Freda’s peril that it had no room for other matters. And how fares it with you?”

“Bravely,” the Northman replied. “As soon as I sniffed the salt air of the sea my strength seemed to return to me. My wound is well-nigh healed; but the joint has stiffened, and my leg will be stiff for the rest of my life. But that matters little. And now tell me all your adventures. We have heard from the messenger you sent how shrewdly you hunted out Sweyn’s hiding-place.”