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THE COMING OF THE SONS OF LODBROG
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
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
 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
 the wife of the noble. She ate lightly and with no
apparent consciousness of the many who were watching
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
"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
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
"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
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
 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
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
"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
" 'Tis his old infirmity come upon him again," whispered
"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
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
 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!"