S ILENTLY the preparations of the Danes were made. The sons of Lodbrog went about from island to island, from coast to coast, rehearsing their father's fame, the glory that he had given to the north, and his fearful sufferings. Everywhere they found allies. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Russia, all sent their bravest men. Every little village contributed its champion. Eight jarls, or earls, so the legends say, swore on their golden bracelets to avenge the death of the hero of the north. Perhaps no other country was ever so united in its wrath. The greatest of the vikings had been put to death; not slain in battle, but slaughtered contemptuously as a thing of naught. Men's rage was at a white heat. Rival chiefs forgot their enmity. Old feuds were laid aside. Men who hated each other clasped hands and vowed to avenge the dead leader as never man was avenged before. Many vessels were built, not heavy and large like those that had brought Lodbrog to his death, but light enough to be easily governed. The sons of Lodbrog took command, and over their war-ships floated the magic banner of the raven, made by Lodbrog's daughters in a single day.
Not a whisper of this was known in the land of the Saxons. Had Ethelbald been on the throne, his spies would have found out what was going on in the country across the sea; but the preparations began in the latter part of Ethelbert's reign, when he was too engrossed with his own preparations for resistance to give as close attention as he ought to what might have to be resisted; and so, when Ethelred came to the throne, the protection of England was left in the hands of a weak, irresolute king and a boy of seventeen, who had never seen a battle.
The Danes were a superstitious people, and before they would embark on any great undertaking, they always consulted their soothsayers. On an occasion of so much moment, everything was done with the utmost formality. The leaders of the expedition assembled in the hall of the noblest among them, although only nobles and men of high birth were present, for all humbler men had been excluded, and the hall purified by the burning of fragrant resins and spices. A large retinue of young men and maidens had been sent to attend the soothsayer and bring her to the hall. As she entered, the warriors beat their shields and flashed their naked swords three times around their heads in sign of welcome.
She was dressed in a long, trailing robe of dark green with many gold ornaments fastened on it. At the door, the owner of the hall met her and humbly proffered her his house and all that was his. She bowed slightly, and without a glance at him or at any of the rest of the company assembled before her, walked to the dais followed by her attendants, and sank upon a richly carved bench with high back, draped and cushioned with scarlet of the finest material that the maraudings of the Danes could furnish. Food was brought her, the most delicate that could be found, and prepared by the hands of the wife of the noble. She ate lightly and with no apparent consciousness of the many who were watching her movements.
The noble then approached her most reverently and begged that she would honor his poor house by prophesying; that when the morning came, she would of her great wisdom and goodness deign to predict what should be the success of himself and his friends in the mighty undertaking that they had in mind. The soothsayer gave a slight nod, and then all withdrew, leaving her alone in the hall.
All around the building there must be perfect silence or the charms would fail; but from a distance men watched, and through the crevices they saw strangely colored lights, and those that dared to come nearer heard weird chantings and shrill cries. Then the hall was still and dark; and then there were sounds like the tramping of many feet.
In the morning they waited patiently about the door. At last it opened and the soothsayer stood before them. She looked upon each one of them in turn. She smiled and said:—
"The hall is cleansed. No evil spirit remains within its walls to work you ill. Enter the door. Whatever you plan in this hall to-day shall be smiled upon by the gods. Naught shall resist you unless it be by the will of the fates, against whom the gods themselves are powerless."
Then the nobles flocked around her and begged her to accept their gifts, gold and silver bracelets and ornaments and rare furs and jewels. She smiled upon them once more and said:—
"Remember that the sword of the hero is the will of the gods. The fates alone can oppose you." Then she seated herself in the brightly painted wagon that had been brought for her, and was slowly driven away, while the men feasted and sang fierce songs of revenge and exultation.
The great fleet set sail and went straight to the coast of Northumbria. When they were not far from the land, a wind sprang up from the north.
"It is the breath of Thor," said one of the leaders. "He wills that we go to the southward."
"There is a wide harbor and a good landing-place for ships farther south," said one, "where a vessel would hardly rock with the touch of the waves in all the winter."
"Let us stay all winter," said another. "We are come for more than gold and silver. We are here for vengeance. Let us go home no more with a few loads of treasure; let us take the land itself. Let us stay all winter, and then when the warmer time has come, let us burn their monasteries and strike down their kings, and kill, kill, kill, and torture even as the mighty Lodbrog was tortured by these Christians—these traitors to Odin and to Thor. It is Thor whose breath fills our sails; he, too, would have revenge. Let us stay in the land to which he leads us."
There was a great shouting of approval, there were horrible cries of exultation and a deafening beating of the shields that made a grim bulwark to their vessels, when the word of their leaders was made known to them.
The fleet passed Northumbria and came to the shores of East Anglia. The boats were not large, but they were appalling. At their prows were figures of raging lions or wolves or savage bulls or a serpent might rear his frightful head over the waves that dashed against the ship. Many of the superstitions of the heathen were even yet in full force in the Saxon land. These Saxons were not cowards, but who could tell what awful fiends might be hidden under the cover of the form of a wild beast? No wonder that they feared when they thought that they might have to contend not only with their human foes, but with the demons that were their allies.
It was almost a relief when the pirates left their ships with a guard and marched inland; and when, instead of coming upon the Saxons with fire and sword, they went straight to the king's palace and demanded an audience, the people breathed more freely. They really rejoiced when the invaders only demanded what they might easily have taken. A kind of treaty was made. The invaders agreed to winter quietly in their own lines along the shore, and to do no harm to the men of East Anglia. In return, their unwilling hosts were to furnish them with food and with horses.
There was no special reason for expecting the invaders to keep their part of the treaty, but the Saxons had no choice in the matter, and they could only wait, dreading what the spring would bring to them. The other Saxon states had little fear. The Danes had always landed where they meant to strike the first blow, and the Saxons had no idea that this invasion was in any respect different from the preceding ones.
When the first warm days of spring came, there was little need of questioning. More ships had arrived during the winter. Men swarmed like flies; the shore was black with them. With lowering brows the sons of Ragnar and their followers strode on, and as they marched, they burned and killed and tortured. Far to the northward they went, cutting through the helpless land a wide swath of ruin like the path of some malignant pestilence. At the river Tyne they halted, and turned to cut another terrible swath of devastation in their southward march.
There was almost no opposition, the country seemed paralyzed. Only union could save it, and Northumbria was torn by fierce dissension between Ella and Osbert, whom Ella had driven from the throne. At last the rivals united their forces. For once it was the Danes who were surprised; for when in their march to the south they came near the city of York, the Saxons dashed out from ambush and fell upon them. Great was their delight when the resistless Danes were forced to flee. In the northward march of the Danes they had partially destroyed the fortifications of York, and it was an easy matter for them to take refuge in the city.
If the Saxons had waited for reënforcements, the whole course of the invaders might have been checked; but they were so little used to victory that, having once routed the heathen, they fancied themselves resistless, and madly tore down what remained of the city walls to get at their foes. They were only shutting themselves into a trap, for the Danes had recovered from their first surprise; they fell upon their enemies, and the whole Northumbrian army was cut down almost at a blow. Ella was taken alive, and was put to a lingering death with tortures too horrible to describe.
This was the beginning of the vengeance that the sons of Lodbrog visited upon the Saxons; but they were not yet satisfied, the whole land must be theirs. They took Northumbria for their rallying place. Stories of the riches of the island and the ease with which they might be won made their way back to the shores of the north. Relatives and friends of the leaders came in legions, until the narrow bounds of Northumbria would not contain them.
Meanwhile, the people of Wessex were comparatively free from danger, or thought they were, for they had at first no idea that the Danes meant anything more than a temporary invasion. The bonds between the different portions of the land were slight, although several of the weaker states were nominally tributary to Wessex; the more Northumbria suffered, the better were the chances of escape for the other countries. But fifteen years before, Buhred, the king of Mercia, had married King Ethelwulf's daughter Ethelswitha. These two kingdoms were adjoining, and this, together with the relationship between the rulers, had brought them into much closer intercourse than existed between either Northumbria or East Anglia and Wessex. More than once Buhred had bought off the Danes. If Mercia fell into their hands, Wessex would be the next to suffer. So Alfred reasoned, and at last it was decided that he should go to Mercia to visit his sister Ethelswitha and her husband Buhred, and to plan a closer union between Wessex and the tributary kingdom, should the need for defense arise.
In less than two months Alfred returned to report that Buhred did not think there was immediate danger of an invasion. He had made a kind of treaty with the Danes, and somehow, even after all their sad experience, it never seemed to occur to the Saxons that their heathen foes could break their word. Perhaps Alfred's eyes were not so keen in looking for Danes as they should have been, for they were bent upon one Lady Elswitha, daughter of a princess of the royal family and one of the most revered nobles of Mercia. Alfred was not yet twenty, but this was not an unusually youthful age for marriage; moreover, it was regarded as ungallant to postpone the wedding ceremony many weeks after the betrothal.
Being married was in those days a somewhat complicated proceeding. First came the solemn betrothal, the promise of the groom to the bride's nearest male relative that he would care for her as a man ought to care for the one who is dearest to him. The promise alone was not enough, for he had to bring forward men as his security who must forfeit a large sum if he did not keep his word. He must then name the gift that he would present to her for agreeing to be his wife, and what he would give her if she lived longer than he. After this, the bride's father pronounced the words:—
"I give thee my daughter to be thy honor and thy wife."
All this took place at the house of the groom, whither the maiden had been brought with great ceremony. Her future husband had gone with his friends in search of her. They were armed, lest any former lover should pursue and try to steal her from them. The bride's father and brothers, indeed all her male relatives, escorted her, and a company of her girl friends went with her as bridesmaids.
The marriage ceremony was performed in the church. Both bride and groom were crowned with flowers, and it was partly because of the lavish use of flowers that the usual time of celebrating marriages was the summer.
Then came the wedding feast. All day, all night, far into the next day, the festivities went on; for at the wedding of a prince, what limit could be put to the rejoicing? The men of Mercia were happy, for was it not yet another bond between their land and the stronger land of Wessex? Why need they fear the heathen army when the soldiers of Wessex would be ready to aid them in repelling their foes? The men of Wessex rejoiced none the less, for it was the wedding of their beloved prince, of him who would one day be their king. As the feast went on, they talked of his prowess in hunting, how he was ever first in the chase, how little he seemed to care for danger or fatigue.
"And even as a little child, he made the great pilgrimage," said one, "and he remembers still just where the Pope touched him with the holy oil."
"The Lady Elswitha comes of the royal line," said another, looking at the head of the long table where the royal pair were seated. "Her father is the wisest of King Buhred's counselors; and her mother is a noble woman, she has been almost as a mother to Queen Ethelswitha since she became the wife of King Buhred."
"Do you remember Queen Osburga, the mother of Ethelswitha?" asked one.
"Yes," said his neighbor, "and I stood nearest to her when the prince was starting out on his journey to Rome. I saw her kiss the jewel at his neck, and I heard her words. She said that in time to come he would lose it, but he must not mourn, for then his hardest days would be past; and she pointed to the southwest. She spoke like a soothsayer. Could it be that she meant the time when he spent a day and a night alone in the chapel at Cornwall? That lies far to the southwest—but no, for he still wears the jewel about his neck. That night the priest did not dare to leave him. He said that the fiends sometimes harassed a good man even in a church, and so he lay all night under the window to guard the prince."
"And did any fiend appear?"
"No, but he closed his eyes once for a moment, and he says that as he opened them, he is almost sure that he saw a bright light. Saint Guerir is buried there, and it might have been over his grave, and perhaps this was why evil spirits dared not come near. He heard the prince praying before the altar. He thinks he was begging to be freed from his disease, for he heard him say, 'Anything but that,' but he could not understand all."
"The trouble has nearly left him, has it not?"
"Yes, it is long since he has been troubled by it. They say that if one makes the pilgrimage to Rome, he may ask what he will."
The feasting went on. All the luxury of the two kingdoms had been brought together to do honor to the beloved prince and his bride. The hall was hung with bright scarlet draperies embroidered with figures of men and horses, representing the early battles of the Saxons with the Britons. The tables at which they feasted were richly carved and inlaid in graceful designs with silver and mother of pearl. They were almost too beautiful to be covered as they were, even with the cloths of fair white linen. The royal seats were inlaid with ivory and gold, and draped with purple bordered with golden fringes. There were great cups of gold and of silver; and when all had well eaten and drunk, there came in troops of tumblers and dancers and jugglers and men with trained animals. Then came the songs of the harpers, the wild chantings of the deeds of their ancestors, of the stabbing of monsters of the sea, of fire-breathing dragons whose many heads were cut off at a single blow by a wonderful sword: of the half-wild Britons whom they found in the island and drove to the westward; and then the strain grew more gentle, and they sang softly of the little child who had grown up among them to be their prince, and who would one day become their king. Alfred smiled and half shook his head as the music changed again and the harpers sang of the fair-haired boy who had pursued the wild boar, and had slain him on his first hunt; but the feasters only cheered and shouted louder and louder. Then they sang of the noble maiden who had become the bride of their prince, and of the joy of the two lands in the alliance.
The great hall resounded with their shouts, the merriment was at its height; but in a moment every voice was hushed, and men sprang to their feet and grasped their swords, or turned instinctively to their spears leaning in martial clusters against the wall. What was it? Would they have to fight with men or with fends? Was it a wile of Satan? Was it poison? The prince in the very fulness of his happiness had given a deep groan and fallen forward heavily to the floor.
" 'Tis his old infirmity come upon him again," whispered one.
"No," said another; "that did not come in this way. Some one has bewitched him."
"But he has not an enemy in the kingdom."
"They say the heathen have great power in magic, and that if they stick a thorn into an image of wax and melt it before a fire, and say over it a man's name, the man will die. Perhaps this is the work of Satan himself," and he made the sign of the cross.
"It is an unlucky day," said one. "The wedding should have been yesterday or to-morrow. To-day the moon is just five days old, and what is begun to-day will not be finished."
Men skilled in leechcraft were present, but all their remedies were tried in vain. Gradually the prince came to himself, but the pain lasted till nightfall; and ever after this time, for many years, the mysterious illness would come upon him with its agonies. No one could predict the attack, and the prince upon whose shoulders a nation's need was to press so heavily was never free from either intense pain or the dread of its coming. Between the attacks, however, it seemed to have little effect upon his health and strength.
The suffering passed, and Alfred and his bride went in joyful procession to the land of the West Saxons. A long train of wagons bore the wedding gifts, silver and golden dishes, silver mirrors, candlesticks, bracelets, earrings, and brooches, all set with precious stones, and garments of silk and of fine wool. There were tables and benches and high-backed chairs carved into figures of flowers and animals. There were low bedsteads, bed-curtains, and coverlets, and everything was of the richest description and most beautifully ornamented, for was it not the day of rejoicing of their beloved prince? Nothing that was in their power to obtain was too costly to give him.
There were musicians, too, in the retinue, and as they went on happily, there were jubilant sounds of flutes and trumpets and horns and drums and cymbals.
It was a time of happiness, a flash of joy in the night of gloom that was to fall upon the land of the Saxons. For one blissful hour the people forgot the sufferings that lay behind them, and had no thought of what might be before them. Joyfully, then, Alfred carried his bride to her new home, but almost before the long train of wagons had been unloaded, the fleetest of messengers came from Buhred.
"Help me; the Danes are upon me!"