Children of Kings
Many a stirring year had gone by since King Alfred told his story in Athelney, when it chanced upon a day that his little kinsman—now grown into a brave and stalwart man—rode through the vale of the White Horse, and bethinking him of his old nurse, turned aside to the village on the downs where she dwelt.
It was late in the spring-time. A warm light slept upon the hillsides; fruit-trees were flowering in the garth about the small log-house; a girl was singing half-hidden among the bright green leaves of the trees, and the prince checked his horse to listen to her.
For a moment as he stood at the doorway the old nurse gazed at him, wondering who he might be; then she caught him to her, laughing and crying; held him at arm's length and looked him fondly up and down. "Oh, little son of mine," she cried, "God has made you a tall man and strong; and good no less, I warrant. I little hoped to see you again, and now you bring me more joy than I can tell."
And when the horse had been put to graze in the meadow, she led him in and questioned him a hundred times of the king and of all her friends in the old days, and ran back in memory to his boyhood, asking him if he remembered this and that of the things done and said in the time long gone by. And when he in turn bade her tell him how she fared and if there was anything she needed for her happiness, "Nothing, dear lad," she answered, "unless it were to see you often, and to look once more, it might be, at the good king himself, were he to pass this way."
"And who is it sings so blithe among your apple-trees?" asked the prince.
"That is Egwina," said the nurse. "Her father was a shepherd on the downs, but he was lost in the snow of the Great Winter; and her mother died no long while after, so I brought her hither to be my foster-child."
"You had ever the big mother-heart, nurse," said the prince, "and little I wonder now at the flourish of your trees, for sweeter voice I never heard."
"Ay, and her face is as sweet as her voice, and her heart more sweet than either. But here is the garth. Will you not let her see what has come of the king's babe that lay in my lap?"
There then in the slumber of the ruddy sunshine these two met among the fruit-tree blossom, but red and white of apple and cherry were not more fresh and fair than the maid in her loveliness. And while Egwina thought, surely not even in the number of the king's great thegns is there any more lordly or more beautiful than this, the prince said to himself, here at last, by the blessed rood, I find the one girl in all the world that was meant for me.
So the prince wooed and won her; and when time had sped by, and their little son Athelstan had come to run about, a merry child with his mother's blue eyes and sunny hair, a new joy fell to Alfred's lot and he seemed to grow young again. Not that the king was now truly old, but illness and sorrow and many anxious labours had furrowed his brow and sown his hair with hoar-frost. Manly and cheerful he always was, but never more light of heart than when the boy was with him. Even while he conversed on learned matters with his Bishop Asser or dictated a book to John or Grimbold his Mass-priests, the little grandson would stand between his knees, holding his thumb, and waiting patiently till he could lure him away to some fresh revelry.
So dearly did the king love the child that when his sixth birthday came round, Alfred held a high feast at which he made him the youngest of his thegns. Calling him to the dais in the midst of the great chiefs, he buckled round him a sword-belt glittering with gems, threw a purple cloak over his shoulders, and drew back his long hair so that it fell down over the cloak in clusters of gold. Then he took a noble sword and held it out by the golden scabbard, and when the child grasped the hilt the king laughed gaily: "Aha, sea-rover! This time I have trapped you. You have taken the sword from me by the hilt, and that is a token that you are now my man."
"Yes, grandfather," Athelstan answered with a shining look, "always I shall be your man, and you shall be my man, and both of us shall man each other."
"So may it be!" rejoined the king. "And now I pray, little Stone of Nobleness, that you will wax as good as your name, ever remembering that goodness is the best nobleness, and that stone is the most steadfast thing in the world. And if some day God should make you king, I pray that He may be your strength against hardship and sorrow; for though there is not a king but would wish to be without these if he could, yet I know he cannot; so I do not pray that you may be quit of them. And God give you to know that every good gift and every power soon decays, and is heard of no more, if wisdom be not in it."
That, I think, was the happiest time in all the days of King Alfred's life, and it lasted to the end of it; for it was in that year, shortly before the Mass of All Hallows, that he died and was buried in the great church of the abbey he had founded at Winchester.
Long afterwards Athelstan came to the throne of his grandfather. He had waxed worthy of his name, as the king had prayed that he might do, and so well had he warded the land and kept faith with all men that his people called him the Steadfast. Looking abroad for some bright spirit of a man that he might make his friend, his thoughts turned to the north and rested upon Harald of the Fair Hair, who had subdued the hundred bickering little kings of the creeks and fells, and brought the whole of Norway under his strong rule. So it came about that on a summer evening as Harald feasted at Nidaros, an English earl entered the hall and strode up to the king's high seat, bearing a gift from Athelstan.
It was a sword of swords, fenced with a guard of gold and set in a gold sheath twinkling with precious stones. Harald rose graciously as he heard the message, but when the earl saw how he took the sword by the pommel, he laughed outright as King Alfred had laughed long years ago: "Aha, King of Norway, you have laid hand to hilt, so now you have made yourself King Athelstan's man."
Harald flushed and plucked the blade half from its sheath, and for a moment it seemed like as not that the jest would take an ill turn; but a happier thought flashed through his clear mind, and he answered with a smile: "That shall be as it may be. But the sword is a kingly sword, and it shall not cut kings' friendship. Sit on my right hand, Earl."
Now Harald's sons were a wild and turbulent brood, all save Hakon, the tricksy little elf of his old age, and he had often fretted lest, when he were gone, the child might fall into the hands of his fierce half-brothers. In this gift of the sword he saw a means of safety. "The boy shall go to England," he said, "and grow to his strength unharmed;" and as he planned all that was to be said and done in the matter, "That, I think, will be a jest worth two of the English earl's."
Next summer then, when Hakon was four years old, Hawk Halbrok and Sigurd the Earl bore away with him from Norway in two noble dragon-ships. Soon they saw the English shores running blue into the grey sea, and from them the sea-fowl came glittering; and up the broad reaches of Water of Thames they sailed between meadows smelling sweet of the summer; and where the tideway narrowed there were the flowery garths and white houses of London town. But most they wondered at the great bridge with its street of high gables across the river, and below it they moored to the rings of a wharf of stone.
Then thirty of the Norsemen sprang ashore with Hawk and Earl Sigurd—each with his sword hidden under his coat—and passed through the busy streets to the royal house. The king was sitting in council as they entered; and Hawk, who went foremost, bore the fair little lad on his left arm, and on his right he had heavy bracelets of gold, and he wore a crimson tunic, with his hair in a gold-embroidered silk cap. A strange gallant figure he made as he advanced straight to the king's throne, and without a word placed the boy upon the king's knee.
"What does this mean?" asked Athelstan, gazing in astonishment at the bold strangers.
"This is Harald Fair Hair's young son," answered Hawk, "that he has sent you to foster."
"Does he dare?" cried Athelstan, and his brows blackened with wrath, for the foster-father of another man's child was ever counted his inferior.
"You have the child set upon your knee, King," said Hawk, as he saw the fierce passion rising. "You may slay him if you will, but you will not have destroyed all the sons of Harald."
Athelstan glanced down at the boy, and the blithe little creature looked up into his face with eyes so fearless and friendly that the king's heart warmed towards him.
"Tell your King Harald I will keep his son. And setting babe against sword, it may be that he has sent me the goodlier gift."
Then said Earl Sigurd, "I am Harald's brother, and as he would not have you think we are come to you as beggars, he bade me pray you come down to our ships and see for yourself."
"Very willingly," answered the king.
Down to the quay they went straightway. One of the stately vessels was moored to the rings, but the other lay out in the stream. And never did ship more glorious swim on the Water of Thames; for forty rowers held it in its place against the race of the tide, and there it lay, with beak of gold, and dragon-coils of gold gleaming astern, shields of scarlet and silver to shelter the rowers on the benches, and glittering vane aloft on the masthead. From the great yard a purple sail hung billowing in the wind. Round it sailed the white swans that the folk of London loved to see on their river, and the salmon-fishers had crept up in their boats to behold the wondrous ship.
"This," said the earl, "is Harald's gift to you, King Athelstan; or, rather, I shall say, it is the casket that holds his gifts."
At a sign the rowers brought the vessel along-side the quay, and right gladly the king went on board.
In this fashion Hakon became Athelstan's foster-son. And the king had him baptised, and reared and taught with his own children; and he came to love him beyond words. So, indeed, did all people, for there was no lad more winsome in all England, or so tall and strong and comely as he.
Harald never saw his little elf again. His mighty heart broken by the ingratitude of his children, and all his fair hair white as snow, he died very old, and was laid in his cairn in Hordaland, with his war-gear about him. Under his son Erik peace or comfort in Norway there was none. His savage cruelty won him the name of Blood-axe, and when at last the people rose and drove out him and his wicked queen, Gunhild, King Athelstan equipped three war-ships for Hakon, girded him with Quern-biter (the Cutter of Millstones), and sent him forth glad and fearless to claim his royal heritage.
The lad had yet but turned his fifteenth year, and when the crowds at the Peasant Assembly saw him in the bloom of his boyish grace, their hearts went out to him; old men cried that 'twas Harald Fair Hair come back young again; and quicker than fire glitters through dry grass, the tidings that he had been chosen king flew over Norway.
No one dreamed then of the adventure that lay before him. Nothing less was that than the overthrow of the ancient gods of the North; and a hopeless work Hakon found it to be. More than once did Sigurd, the stout heathen earl of his childhood, make peace between him and his unyielding people, but in those iron days kings were slow to learn that it was ill preaching the Gospel of Peace with fire and sword.
Yet for all his masterfulness, earl and peasant loved him well enough, and when the sons of Erik began their invasions, they upheld him staunchly by land and sea. But the Blood-axe brood brought him to his death at last. Under the wicked eyes of Brunhild herself, he had driven them in mad rout to their ships, when a random arrow struck him beneath his uplifted arm. His men carried him on board, and bent to their oars homeward. But life was ebbing fast, and Hakon was never to see home again. They turned aside and landed him on Hella, the Flat Rock, and there he died in the house in which he was born.
As the end drew near, his thoughts were busy with the country of Christ's earthly wayfaring; and thither, he said, he had a mind to go, if he lived, and be with Christian men. When he was asked whether he wished that his body should be taken to England, "Little better than a pagan have I lived in a pagan land," he answered; "bury me how you will."
So he too was laid kingly in his cairn by those true-hearted heathen folk; and Norway was ruled by another Harald, who was of the Blood-axe strain, and who was called Greyfell from the colour of his cloak.
So strangely do events repeat themselves, and from one generation to another weave together into a single picture the lives of men who were strangers to each other. Even beyond this the story goes. In the troubles that followed the death of King Hakon many of his friends and kinsfolk perished. Sigurd the wise and friendly earl was slain; and though Harald Grey Cloak proved a righteous king, and many of the people were brought to belief in Christ in his day, dearly did he abide that slaying, for the earl's son, Hakon, lured him to a treacherous death at last. Tryggva too, the under-king of Vikin, they killed in Christni Fjord; but his Queen, Astrid, escaped, and of that came many things worth telling.