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The spies upon their return reported that Sweyn had taken up his abode in the mansion of the Count of Ugoli, who was the lord of that part of the country. Most of the Danes lived on shore in the houses of the townspeople. Many of these had been slain, and the rest were treated as slaves. The lady Freda was also on shore, and it was thought that she would ere long become the bride of the Viking.
"Think you that there will be any possibility of surprising the house and carrying her off?"
"I think not," the Dane said, "for Sweyn's men are on the alert, and keep good guard, for the people of this part of the island, being maddened by their exactions and cruelty, have banded themselves together; and although they cannot withstand the strong parties which go out in search of plunder they cut off stragglers, and have made several attacks on small parties. It is thought that they may even venture an attack upon the place at night, therefore sentries are set, and a portion of the force remains always under arms in readiness to sally out in case of alarm."
"I would fain go myself," Edmund said, "and see how matters stand, and try to communicate with Freda. It may be that her long resistance has tired her out, and that she is at the point of consenting to become Sweyn's bride."
"I think not that," Siegbert replied. "When Freda has once made up her mind she is not given to change."
"I doubt not her resolution," Edmund said; "but none can blame her if, after all these months, she has begun to despair of rescue; nay, it is even probable that, having Sweyn, who is assuredly a brave and enterprising Viking, always near her, she may have come to love him."
"No, Edmund," Siegbert replied. "I am sure you need have no fear that she has softened towards Sweyn. But how do you think of proceeding if you land?"
"I will take with me this Dane, and if one of the Genoese nobles will go with me I will take him, and also the man we brought from Marseilles, who acts as an interpreter between us and the Italians."
"But why hamper yourself with two men, who would be even more likely to be detected by the Danes than would you yourself?"
"I shall leave them in the outskirts of the place," Edmund replied. "I would fain see if I can enter into any negotiations with the natives. Perhaps we may arrange that they shall attack the place on the land side, while the Dragon falls upon the galleys, and in any case we may need an interpreter with the people."
One of the young Genoese, upon being asked whether he would take part in the adventure, at once consented, and the four men, attiring themselves as Danes, speedily landed in the Dragon's boat. The bay in which the ship was lying was some ten miles along the shore from the town. The spies had made their way along the sea-coast by night, but as it was morning when Edmund landed, he thought that it would be safer to make a detour so as to arrive near the landward side of the town and so enter it after dark.
They had not proceeded far when they came upon the ruins of a village. It had been destroyed by fire, and the freshness of the charred beams showed that it had been done but a short time before, probably not many days. Marks of blood could be seen in the roadway, but no bodies were visible, and Edmund supposed that, after the Danes had retired, the survivors must have returned and buried their dead. They had not proceeded far when the Dane pointed out to Edmund a half-naked lad who was running with the swiftness of a deer over a slope of some little distance.
"He is going too fast for us to catch him," Edmund said carelessly; "and as, even if we did so, he could give us no information of any use, for you may be sure he has not ventured near the town, we may well let him go on in his way."
For three or four miles further they pursued their course. The country, which was exceedingly fertile, and covered with corn-fields and vineyards, appeared entirely deserted. Here and there a wide blackened tract showed where, from carelessness or malice, a brand had been thrown into the standing corn.
"The Danes are ever the same," Edmund said. "Well may they be called the sea-wolves. It would be bad enough did they only plunder and kill those who oppose them; but they destroy from the pure love of destroying, and slay for the pleasure of slaying. Why are these robbers permitted to be the scourge of Europe?"
"Why indeed?" the Genoese repeated when the interpreter had translated Edmund's exclamation to him. "'Tis shame and disgrace that Christendom does not unite against them. They are no more invincible now than they were when Caesar overran their country and brought them into subjection. What the Romans could do then would be easy for the Christian powers to do now if they would but make common cause against these marauders--nay, Italy alone should be able at any rate to sweep the Mediterranean free of their pirate galleys; but Venice and Genoa and Pisa are consumed by their own petty jealousies and quarrels, while all our seacoasts are ravaged by these wolves of the ocean."
"Ah! what is that?" he exclaimed, breaking off, as an arrow struck smartly against his helmet.
They were at the moment passing through a small wood which bordered the road on both sides. The first arrow seemed but a signal, for in an instant a score of others flew among the party. It was well that they carried with them the long Danish shields, which nearly covered their whole body. As it was, several slight wounds were inflicted, and the interpreter fell dead with an arrow in his forehead.
Immediately following the flight of arrows a crowd of peasants armed with staves, axes, and pikes dashed out from the wood on both sides and fell upon them, uttering shouts of "Death to the marauders!" "Kill the sea-wolves!"
So great was the din, that, although the Genoese shouted loudly that they were not Danes but friends, his words were unheard in the din; and attacked fiercely on all sides, the three men were forced to defend themselves for their lives. Standing back to back in the form of a triangle, they defended themselves valiantly against the desperate attacks of their assailants.
Several of these were cut down, but so furious was the attack of the maddened peasants that the defenders were borne down by the weight of numbers, and one by one beaten to the ground. Then the peasants rained blows upon them as if they had been obnoxious wild beasts, and in spite of their armour would speedily have slain them had not the Genoese, with a great effort, pulled from his breast a cross, which was suspended there by a silken cord, and held it up, shouting, "We are Christians, we are Italians, and no Danes."
So surprised were the peasants at the sight that they recoiled from their victims. The Dane was already insensible. Edmund had just strength to draw his dagger and hold up the cross hilt and repeat the words, "We are Christians." It was the sight of the cross rather than the words which had arrested the attacks of the peasants. Indeed, the words of the Genoese were scarce understood by them, so widely did their own patois differ from the language of polished Italy.
The fact, however, that these Danes were Christians seemed so extraordinary to them that they desisted from their attack. The Danes, they knew, were pagans and bitterly hostile to Christianity, the monasteries and priests being special objects of their hostility. The suggestion of one of the peasants, that the cross had no doubt been taken from the body of some man murdered by the Danes, revived the passion of the rest and nearly cost the prisoners their lives; but an older man who seemed to have a certain authority over the others said that the matter must be inquired into, especially as the man who had the cross, and who continued to address them in Italian, clearly spoke some language approaching their own. He would have questioned him further, but the Genoese was now rapidly losing consciousness from the pain of his wounds and the loss of blood.
The three prisoners were therefore bound, and being placed on rough litters constructed of boughs, were carried off by the peasants. The strength and excellence of Edmund's armour had enabled him to withstand the blows better than his companions, and he retained his consciousness of what was passing. For three hours their journey continued. At the end of that time they entered a wood high up on the hillside. There was a great clamour of voices round, and he judged that his conductors had met another party and that they were at the end of their journey.
The litters were now laid down and Edmund struggled to his feet. Before him stood a tall and handsome man in the attire of a person of the upper class. The old peasant was explaining to him the manner of their capture of the prisoners, and the reason why they had spared their lives.
"How is it," the noble asked when he had finished, turning to Edmund, "that you who are Danes and pagans, plunderers and murderers, claim to be Christians?"
Edmund did not understand the entire address, but he had already picked up a little Italian, which was not difficult for him from his acquaintance with French.
"We are not Danes," he said; "we are their enemies, I am a Saxon earl, and this my friend is a noble of Genoa."
"A Saxon!" the Italian exclaimed in surprise; "one of the people of King Alfred, and this a Genoese noble! How is it that you are masquerading here as Danes?"
"I speak but a few words of Italian," Edmund said, "but my friend will tell you the whole story when he recovers. I pray you to order aid to be given to him at once."
Although still at a loss to understand how it had come about, the Count of Ugoli--for it was that noble himself- saw that his prisoner's statement must be a true one. In their native patois he hastily told the peasants that there must be some mistake, and that although their prisoners seemed to be Danes they were really Christians and friends, He bade them then instantly to strip off their armour, to bind up their wounds, and to use all their efforts to restore them to life,
At his bidding one of the peasants brought a wine-skin, and filling a large cup with the liquid, offered it to Edmund. The latter drained it at a draught, for he was devoured by a terrible thirst. After this he felt revived, and soon had the satisfaction of seeing his comrades recovering under the ministrations of the peasants, who chafed their hands, applied cool poultices of bruised leaves to their bruises, and poured wine down their throats.
In half an hour the Genoese was sufficiently recovered to be able to sit up and to give a full account of their presence there, and of their object in assuming the disguise of Danes. He then told the count that Edmund intended to reconnoitre the place alone, and that he hoped he and his people would attack the town, while the Saxons in their galley made an assault from the sea. The count replied that the peasantry could not be induced to take such a step.
"I will, however, aid your friend," he said, "by a feigned attack to-morrow evening when he is there. This may help him to escape, and if the Danes sally out next day in pursuit there will be the fewer for him to cope with."
When Edmund awoke the next morning he found himself able to walk and move without difficulty and with but little pain, thanks to the care of the peasants, and in the afternoon, being furnished by the count with a guide, he started for the town.
When he arrived within a short distance he dismissed his guide and lay down in some bushes till nightfall, then he rose and made his way into the town, passing unobserved between the watch-fires made by the parties of Danes encamped in its outskirts to protect it against surprise. Once in the town, he walked boldly on, having no fear of recognition or question.
Sounds of carousing came through the open casements, but few people were in its streets. He made his way down to the sea-shore, which he followed until he came to a large and stately mansion standing in beautifully laid out gardens at the end of the town. Several tents were erected in the garden; and although the night was not cold great fires had been lighted, around which the Danes were carousing.
Avoiding these Edmund walked up to the open windows. The first room he looked into was deserted, but in the next, which was a large apartment, a number of Danes were seated at table. At its head sat Sweyn with Freda on his right hand. Around were a number of his leading men, the captains of the galleys and their wives. The meal was over, and the winecup was passing round. A number of attendants moved about the room, and many of the warriors who had supped elsewhere stood around the table, joining in the conversation and taking their share of the wine.
Edmund saw at once that he could not hope for a more favourable opportunity, and he accordingly entered the mansion, and, passing through the open door, joined the party within, keeping himself in rear of those standing round the table, so that the light from the lamps placed there should not fall upon his face.
Just as he had taken his place, Sweyn called out: "Let us have a song. Odoacre the minstrel, do you sing to us the song of the Raven."
A minstrel bearing a small harp advanced into the centre of the horse-shoe table, and after striking a chord, began to sing, or rather to chant one of the favourite songs of the sea-rovers.
A shout of applause rose from the Danes as the minstrel ceased, and holding their goblets high above their heads, they drank to the Raven.
While the singing was going on Edmund quietly made his way round to one of the open windows. It was the hour at which the count had promised to make his attack, and he listened eagerly for any sound which might tell that the peasants had begun their work. Other songs followed the first, and Edmund began to be afraid that the courage of the peasants had failed at the last moment.
Suddenly he saw lights appear at five or six points in the distance, and, putting his head out, he thought he could hear distant cries and shouts. The lights grew brighter, and soon broad tongues of flame shot up. Shouts at once arose from the guards without. Some of the revellers hearing these went to the windows to see what was happening, and gave a cry of alarm. "Sweyn, we must be attacked; fires are rising in the outskirts of the town."
"These cowards would never venture to disturb us," Sweyn said scornfully; "of all the foes we have ever met none were so feeble and timid as these Italians."
"But see, Sweyn, the flames are rising from eight points; this cannot be accident."
Sweyn rose from his seat and went to the window.
"No, by Wodin," he exclaimed, "there is mischief here; let us arm ourselves, and do you," he said, turning to a young man, "run swiftly to the outposts, and learn what is the meaning of this."
Scarcely, however, had he spoken when a man ran breathlessly into the hall.
"Haste to the front, jarl," he said to Sweyn, "we are attacked. Some of the enemy creeping in between our fires set fire to the houses in the outskirts, and as we leapt to our feet in astonishment at the sudden outbreak, they fell upon us. Many of my comrades were killed with the first discharge of arrows, then they rushed on in such numbers that many more were slain, and the rest driven in. How it fares with the other posts I know not, but methinks they were all attacked at the same moment. I waited not to see, for my captain bade me speed here with the news."
"Sound the horn of assembly," Sweyn said. "Do you, Oderic, take twenty of the guard without, and at once conduct the ladies here to the boats and get them on board the galleys. Let all others hasten to the scene of attack. But I can hardly even now believe that this coward herd intend to attack us in earnest."
In the confusion which reigned as the warriors were seizing their shields and arms, Edmund approached Freda, who had with the rest risen from her seat.
"The Dragon is at hand," he whispered; "in a few hours we will attack Sweyn's galley; barricade yourself in your cabin until the fight is over."
Freda gave a little start as Edmund's first words reached her ear. Then she stood still and silent. She felt her hand taken and pressed, and glancing round, met Edmund's eye for a moment just as he turned and joined the Danes who were leaving the hall. A minute later Oderic entered with the guard, and at once escorted the women down to the boats, and rowed them off to the galleys.
Sweyn and the main body of the Danes rushed impetuously to the outskirts of the town. The fighting was already at an end, the peasants having withdrawn after their first success. Two or three of the parties round the watch-fires had been annihilated before they could offer any effectual resistance, others had beaten off the attack, and had fallen back in good order to the houses, losing, however, many men on the way from the arrows which their assailants shot among them.
Sweyn and the Norsemen were furious at the loss they had suffered; but as pursuit would have been useless, there was nothing to be done for the present, and after posting strong guards in case the attack should be renewed, the Danish leaders returned to the banqueting hall, where, over renewed draughts of wine, a council was held.
Most of those present were in favour of sending out a strong expedition on the following day to avenge the attack; but Sweyn argued that it might be that the natives had assembled from all parts of the island, and that this sudden attack, the like of which had not been attempted before, was perhaps made only to draw them out into an ambush or to attack the town in their absence. Therefore he urged it was better to delay making an expedition for a short time, when they would find the enemy unprepared.
After some discussion Sweyn's arguments prevailed, and it was determined to postpone the expedition for a few days.
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