VI. Among Devils
Alfred and a band of gleemen arrive in Chippenham. Alfred gains an audience with Guthrum, but instead of killing him, he becomes his counselor.
Abundant-bellied Ymme, Halga’s handmaid,
whom Earl Hrut had brought from Cirencester
when the drubbed Saxon captains downed their swords,
hugged a pitcher of sweet mead to her breast
and by her bigness blazoned to the Danes,
victorious, though worn by years of toil,
the fruit of Freya’s bounty, soon to yield
the bounty of the newly conquered land.
Unknowingly, the lass prepared those pagans
to yield to what, to them, was yet unknown,
the knowledge and the blessing of our Lady,
the Holy Ghost’s beloved, heaven’s Queen—
though even those whom heaven’s King had chosen
to come to him through her, and her tough glory,
had yet a stony, blood-soaked road to tread,
which she with tears beheld from heaven’s mount.
The men had drunk and feasted for a spell
when a guard bent his lips to Halga’s ear,
old Gormr being absent from the platform.
“Heroes!” he cried, hammering on the table,
“a troupe of Jutish gleemen, circling home,
they say, from entertaining Frankish kings,
has come to Chippenham. Well, let them come.
If they be spies, their glee will be their grave.”
The hooting of a hawthorn flute was heard
from the thick bank of smoke that screened the door,
and four capering gleemen soon appeared.
First, Abba dipped, stiff-limbed, along the fire,
breathing the notes, his cheeks flicked by the flames;
his helpmeet then hopped in, thumping her drum;
next Edith wheeled into view, their daughter;
and last, the slender forepost of a harp,
thrusting from the chest of a one-eyed elder,
sundered the smudge as a dragon’s fanged prow
saws the fog that shrouds a sleeping shore.
Aghast at the display of weathered heads
he’d passed atop the fiends’ fresh-cut stockade,
and grieved to see the jarls’ raven banner
glowering from the thinly whitewashed wall,
the harper (Alfred) struck the instrument
as sick with hate, like Christ entering hell
among the elves, he bobbled past the tables
in easy reach of his exulting foes.
Too late, he saw that murdered Godfred’s seed
was not among the worthies ranged on high.
“My glorious lord,” cried Abba, bowing low,
“your hand-thanes have performed for counts and kings,
but never yet beneath the imperial eye
of Denmark, Frisia, and pacific Britain.”
“The emperor has just stepped out,” said Halga,
at which the rowers and their steersmen chortled,
“but I’m his sub-regulus pro tem.
A song, my good Jutes, to amuse the Danes!”
“A song!” cried the sailors, beating the boards.
“Dread master,” Alfred answered, bending so
low the wood of joy just touched the rushes,
“excuse us, but we dare not mock your monarch
by rendering unto other men, though noble,
our panegyric to His Caesarhood.”
The seed of Hemming, Ymme’s husband, brightened.
“Presumably, you’re murderers and thieves,”
he said, “in pay of some pig-headed personage
who kicks against the judgments of your God—
but you may play as long as your songs please.”
A stirring flourish heralded a run
on the taut harp, the Danes fell more or less quiet,
and Alfred, Ingeld’s seed, boldly intoned:
Nor trumpet we the trials of Cerdic king,
who wafted to the west and whipped the Welsh;
nor boast of Brutus, his own father’s bane,
who, banned from Rome, bred Romans in the island;
nor glorify Theodoric, the Goth,
the Amaling who upstaged Odovacar;
no, we sing the Cimbrian seed of kings,
the grim, greedy, groaning Gormr the Great!
The singer watched his fingers peck, then listened
as fiendish applause rattled Athulf’s hall.
When the Danes’ din died, he resumed his lay.
With shoals of heroes huge, from heath and shore
Gormr, guided by God to goad the folk,
floated to once-fruitful fertile Britain,
where one realm remained to rack and maim.
Again the sailors shouted for sheer pleasure,
but Alfred, hot brine rising in his eyes,
sang louder, outclamoring their clatter.
He lauded Alfred’s downlands, meadows, fields,
then traced the Danes’ campaigns to treacherous Wareham,
followed Gorm’s escape to Exeter,
and haled the host from Gloucester back to Wiltshire,
feasting the fiends on his own feigned demise.
The chief chivvied the cheat through chilly vales,
shivered his shield and spitted him at Wilton.
The Wylye, winter-wild, whelmed his relics,
bouncing his body off its ice-bound bottom:
Swanage swallowed Sceaf’s sorry spawn.
So Alfred twined the tale he’d meditated
from Hamwic, where he’d taken up with Abba,
on past the hanging stones and Woden’s dike.
He’d known the gleeman at his father’s court
in Canterbury, during Athulf’s exile.
The Jute had had a little son named Samson
who joined young Alfred when he roamed the meadows,
harrying hares with a soft, boy-sized bow.
Now Samson filled the Frisian fosse he’d found
upholding Edith’s, and their father’s, honor.
The count (a northman) granted Abba wergild
and leave to sail from Dorestad unharmed,
whence he’d arrived in Hamwic, where the king
encountered him, despondent, in a tavern.
Abba fell in with Alfred’s scheme. That night,
a frigid, moonless night in vanquished Hampshire,
they set out on their march to Chippenham—
which, when they boarded, Beornwulf took leave,
hurrying home to Denulf and their herds.
The rowers, ravished by the rascal’s fate,
which none had known, rocked the roof with their cheers.
Satisfied, the Saxon broached the theme
he hoped would win an interview with Gorm.
The region’s ravaged raches, reft of rule,
implore the pirate to appoint a peace.
Does Gormr grab the god-descended scepter?
Hang hundreds to console young Harald’s ghost?
The king recalls the kinship of two kindreds:
he waits on word from wide-ruling Woden
on how to hew a keel for a kingdom,
for as the stem strays, so swerves the stern.
Thuswise Guthrum governs the Gewisse,
dealing dire dooms to doleful docgan.
The oarsmen rose. They rang the planks and roared.
The earls on the dais clapped their hands,
content to hear, in terms their foes could follow,
the justice of their cause and Alfred’s end.
But Ingeld’s imp begged pardon of the Lord
deep in his heart, for unlike Hilda’s herdsman,
whom an angel taught the art of plaiting hymns,
he hadn’t praised earth’s splendor, or the hand
that ransomed Moses, or our Savior’s passion.
No, to serve his folk, he caressed their foes,
for unlike Willibald, or Boniface
who felled the fiends’ world-tree at Geismar,
the Lord had charged him not to save the Danes,
but by his grace to flush them from the kingdom.
The gleemen had unrolled their humble bedding
when Halga summoned Alfred to the study.
“He overheard you from the passageway,”
said Halga. “Hew to the truth, or hello hell.”
The harper’s blood was thudding in his head,
so quickly did his business rush to meet him.
Again he saw his dame turning away
and Octa cut down in the skirts of Selwood.
Mercifully, the Spirit of the Lord
relieved him of the pangs of memory.
Like Ehud, Eglon’s bane, like Eomer,
he wore a two-edged thigh-knife on his hip.
“Here is your one-eyed spy,” said Hemming’s grandson.
“Obviously, you didn’t finish Alfred.
We saw the scoundrel scram on a swift gray.”
He cast a parting glance at Ingeld’s seed.
A hunk of pork appeared before the harper,
who crossed himself and drew his whetted blade.
“Excuse a hero’s rudeness,” said the Dane,
watching the gleeman manhandle the joint.
“I stood him as a mother and a father,
but failed to inculcate our courtlier ways.”
“He loves you with a brother’s love,” said Alfred,
affecting an old poet’s gruff abruptness.
Six, seven times he’d met the heathen chieftain,
but never had he glimpsed a kinsman’s heart
pittering under the grim mask of war.
“How marvelously harp and song,” said Gormr,
tapping his breast with a scarred, bristled fist,
“both rouse and soothe the tumult in the soul!
I bet the earl a shilling you were Welsh.
But is it true, this figment of our triumph?
Is Alfred Athulfing distinctly dead?
You paint him as a prize ass, a weakling,
but it took seven years to bring him down.”
The Saxon brushed a sleeve across his lips
to cover an involuntary grin.
“I wish him dead, of course,” the northman said,
“but as a reigning king, I wish him peace.
The Saxons will not pull a pagan’s wagon,
nor will the jealous Zealanders endure
me as their king. Had we but captured Alfred,
we could have salvaged his, and Edward’s, reign.
Did I twig it? You are a Welshman born?”
“Gise,” the seed of Athelwulf replied,
“a Briton from Dumnonia I am.
They snatched me when they massacred my kin.
Old Ecgbert son of Ealhmund was cyning,
the dragon egg the Germans call ‘the Great.’”
“You hate them, then,” concluded Godfred’s seed.
“So tell me what you know of Alfred’s death.”
“We halted, sir, three nights ago in Wilton,”
said Alfred, “where the whipped whelp retired.
I saw him, sir, I saw him plain as daylight
topple like a felled oak from his mount,
with purple blood spurting from every pore.
He broke the ice and disappeared from sight.”
The pagan sailor halted by the table
and fixed the harper’s solitary eye.
“Then you have seen him but as I have seen him,”
he said, “in the sly jugglery of thought.
A hurt hero can drop from his horse and live.”
“Gee, sir, he can,” the Athulfing concurred,
“he can, if there’s a dram of blood left in him.
By now the hræw has reached the open sea.”
Gormr examined Alfred’s glabrous scars
and watched his fingers roll the idle knife.
The Saxon felt he now might stick the devil,
but doubted it would benefit his folk
to sic a pack of wolfish jarls on them.
“What is your name, old man?” inquired Gormr.
“They called me Mervyn at my christening,”
said Alfred, “Mervyn ap, or son of, Myrddin.”
The sailor turned away. “Are you a wizard?
Can you commune with *alfar, ghosts, and trolls
and mutter spells like Saxon cunning men?”
The seed of Ingeld scanned the brigand’s back,
in which he read old pride worn down with toil,
and answered he could pray as well as any.
“Then you shall prove your worth,” the northman said,
“by tracking down the ousted Saxon king
wherever he may be in the nine worlds.
Do it, and I’ll hand over ten gold pounds
and my exhausted folk will have a home.”
He poured a sack of thrymsas on the desk
collected from the hoards of Frankish lords.
Their muted clatter, softer than pure silver’s,
startled Alfred, who never touched such spoil.
They flickered under his eye like sun-soaked pebbles
bathing in the bed of a shallow stream.
It struck him that the stranger, Harald’s father,
was tapping him to serve, as Joseph served
Pharaoh and preserved his father’s house.
He fidgeted. It seemed the Holy Ghost
said no to nicking Godrum’s jugular.
The Dane inclined his head so near that Alfred
could feel his vinous breath caress his ear.
“Two widowed sisters live nearby,” said Gorm,
“One will bear me the son of my old age
who, backed by his ambitious Saxon kinsmen,
will split and mitigate the natives’ hate.
Now, which of these two fruitful Saxonesses
to wed and bed is what I want to know.
The one is forward, fit to rule our board.
The other, overshadowed, even grave,
will nurse our newborn nation on her wisdom.”
The seed of Ingeld flushed and swallowed hard.
He knew the noble families nearby
and didn’t relish heaping up their troubles.
He spied Ealhswith’s silver sieve on the chest.
“Gee, sir,” he said, “our spell must ease their fears.
May I inspect the sisters?”
“By no means,”
said Gorm, his grained and pouchy eye aglitter,
“you might fancy the *froia meant for me.”
“Then lend me a short bow,” said Alfred, rising,
“to spit a hare, whose heart we’ll grind to dust.”
“There’s one more thing,” said Godrum, “keep your seat.
If Hrothulf takes the crown, he’ll offer up
the whole Saxon folk to Woden’s glory.
He must be crushed, for your good and for ours.
You do these things for me, and you shall be
my father, son, and mother, three in one.
Then I’ll uncork the rest of my adventures
which, I promise, you will find worth singing.”
The Saxon stumbled out under the stars,
which seemed a sharper, harder testament,
now that he was the devil’s captive bard,
than when, though menaced, he’d possessed his realm.
His head aswim, he ranged the palisade
where farers, lit by fires, warmed their hands.
“Lord, take this vial from my lips,” he prayed,
“this sickening leechcraft of sin.”
Alfred awoke with Godrum’s hugeous head
blotting out the charred beams of the hall.
Had the fiend pierced his sham? Was this the end?
Blindly they trod the hard-rutted yard
to the limed stables, dim gray in the starlight,
where two young mermen held four drowsy mounts.
“Can Mervyn ride?” inquired Harald’s father,
watching a gelding nuzzle the harper’s chest.
“Aye, sir,” said Alfred, scratching bony noses,
“in Kent I had the run of a dun nag.”
The heavens shed successive robes of gloom
as Guthrum, too familiar with the track
for Alfred’s liking, led them through the trees.
Screeching, a jay alighted on a branch;
a woodpecker rattled its alarm.
“We need all kinds of herbs,” cried Ingeld’s seed.
He slid down and kicked at a hump of snow.
“A doe hare’s belly, dried, will propagate
their goodness, but you too must swig the brew.”
He knelt beside the path, tying a snare.
“Can’t you compel your elves,” the fiend inquired
coolly, “to inflame their widowed loins?”
Twisting his head, the seed of Ingeld saw
the heathen’s eyeballs shining like wet stones.
“We do not call upon such sprites,” said Alfred,
“but only spirits that obey our Frea.
A litany, a credo, and twelve masses
should saturate the potion with his power.”
They breakfasted astride a rotting oak,
shortening a sausage with their steel.
“Your ladies,” Alfred added as he chewed,
“as Saxon matrons, surely serve our Savior.”
“Of course they do,” the foreigner replied.
“I told you the whole purpose of this union.”
“The Church,” said Alfred, “judges ‘disparate cults’
a ‘diriment impediment’ to marriage.”
He paused and said, “My lord, you should convert.”
The pagan cut an ample chunk of flesh
and masticated it in pregnant silence.
Tearing a loaf of bread, the harper added,
“King Athelbert of Kent acknowledged Christ
after marrying a Frankish maid.
Their daughter wed King Edwin of Deira
on promise he would study heaven’s law.
The pope urged her to sermonize her husband
and sent her robes, a mirror, and a comb.
Chlodovech, that lady’s ancestor,
received a Catholic girl from Burgundy,
Clotilde, as she is known, or Chrotochildis.
She led him to the font, assisted by
the Lord’s miraculous victory at Zulpich,
where he dispersed the menacing Alamanni.
Thus three prepotent pagan kings converted
based on acquiring royal Christian brides.”
The sailor took a long pull from the wineskin
then cautiously surveyed the nearby trees.
Observing him, the son of Athulf thought,
I could dispatch him now, here in this grove.
Yet by God’s grace, we gabble peacefully.
Sufficient unto the day the ills thereof.
Soon a junior devil reappeared,
a nest of tangled herbage in his arms.
The Saxon extracted a blackened leaf.
“Waybread it is,” he said, “the warrior’s friend,
for wounds, sores, and the bite of a mad dog.”
Just then the wintry overcast disbanded
as heaven’s artisans blew up the flames
that lit their tilework above the trees.
The seed of Ingeld saw the other youngster
high in the black branches of an ash,
straining to reach a sprig of mistletoe.
The anxious Athulfing felt comforted
by the sausage, bread, and staunch Frankish wine—
his own, untasted through these wretched weeks—
and by the oddity of heaven’s ways.
King Eric’s august killer occupied
the former judgment seat of Saxon kings,
as Halga and suspicious Hrut perused
the clustered suitors, muttering in the smoke.
The seed of Ingeld, lurking in a corner,
revolted at the sight of Saxon swordsmen
humbly soliciting the devils’ dooms,
but such disgust was nothing to the shame
that whelmed him when he saw his alderman,
Lord Wulfhere, his late brother’s widow’s father,
posted among the earls flanking Gorm—
like one of those putrescent senators
that ratified their Gothic master’s rancor
and sentenced the philosopher to death.
Unsure whom he should hate the most, the fiend,
his princeps, or himself, he seemed to sway,
but as he swayed, good Halga cocked a finger
at two devils dragging a monk between them,
a man whose stricken features Alfred knew.
“What is it, lads?” King Hemming’s grandson asked.
“Did Freya cast her fascination on him?
Inveigle him to thieve some sluttish sow?”
The younger fiend replied, “He was hoarding grain.”
“You know your country’s law,” the earl said.
“Thou shalt not steal.”
“I charge the wretched monk,”
said Hrut, “with pilfering our property.
Cut off his hands and hang him from Ygg’s tree.”
“Kind lords, the people faint,” the brother said.
The Saxons glared, incensed at his neglect
of Godrum’s laws and waste of Godrum’s patience.
Contemptibly, Lord Wulfhere lowered his eyes.
King Alfred bent his lips to Godrum’s ear.
“A holy monk,” he murmured. “La, have mercy.
Who loves his heavenly Father feeds his sheep.”
Godfred’s grandson, twisting in his chair,
stared into Alfred’s single blinking eye.
“Enough,” he said, “or you shall wield the axe.
I know your God doomed his own Son to death.”
“Then take me in his stead,” the harper said.
“Take me. I’ll hang for the man’s criminal love.”
The heathen growled to Halga, “Let him go.”
That afternoon, the northman ordered Alfred
to join him for a jaunt, allotting him
the mare on which Edward had learned to ride—
but first they watched the fiends drill in the yard.
Lord Halga, vapor dangling from his lips,
strode like a god among his worshippers,
explaining how to shed a heavy brunt
or swing a swifter, shrewder, deadlier tip.
“Observe the science of the Franks,” said Godrum.
They passed the gateway, crowned with pecked-at heads,
and trotted down the high street, where the townsmen
had patched their roofs with reeds hacked from the ice.
On Godrum’s undertaking, they’d restored
their market day, when folk sold hides and cheese.
“The Saxons have declined since former times,”
said Godrum, “though King Alfred’s father thrashed us.
I’d hate to grow as feeble as these Christians.”
They galloped for a mile below the meads,
then reined in to track a crusted brook,
and as they jogged, the agitated Saxon
assailed the Dane’s ignorant reluctance.
“A Christian crushed the Welsh at Heavenfield
after rearing our Redeemer’s rood.
When Penda martyred him at Oswestry,
his brother pegged the unrepentant pagan
and won the warlike Mercian tribe for Christ.
Among the Franks, the Christian emperor,
roaring like a fire through dry timber,
in eight campaigns devoured the Old Saxons.”
At this, the heathen chief had had enough.
“My grandfather stopped him cold,” said Gormr,
“despite the elephant called Abul Abbas—
the caliph sent him to stampede our men.”
“He overcame the Avar horde,” said Alfred,
“and baptized their high chagan Abraham.”
“His pious son betrayed his Danish allies,”
said Guthrum. “Men he’d sponsored at the font.”
The pair proceeded southwest in silence.
Then Alfred touched his heels to the mare
and shot ahead, outpacing Guthrum’s stallion
(though slowing at the brook called Cocklemoor
for the frail shells that lingered from the Flood),
and veered, laboring up the oak-wood slope.
Gormr, flushed, caught up with him on the crest.
From there, they overlooked the stripped elms,
the gray-black river, and the captive town.
“His throne is vacant now,” the harper said,
extending a cupped, reddened palm to Gorm.
“Our warlike pontiff craves a warlike partner
to shove the Saracens from Sicily.
A murderous usurper rules the Greeks.”
He clenched a ruddy fist. The farer frowned.
“King Pippin worshipped Woden,” he replied,
referring to great Charles the Great’s great-grandson.
“I sailed with a man who feasted with him.”
“Grim jilted him,” the harper answered sharply,
“to perish, raving, in his uncle’s dungeon.”
The sailor shrugged, for such was Woden’s way.
He eyed the chilly country with a smile.
“I wonder why you subjugated Britons,”
he countered, “haven’t profited from our toil.”
“No noble dux bellorum,” Alfred said,
“has led our people since Artorius’ day.
They say he’ll come again. You may be he.”
Returning, they drew up beside the river.
The heavens were a faceless, depthless mass,
as if the Lord, at large among the clouds,
had crushed the sun under his booted heel.
Across the pitch-black flood, a pair of swans
stood motionlessly on a bank of ice,
apart and yet unquestionably united,
their black shanks tying their shining bodies
to the bright shoreline under their black feet.
“The earls will be here in two weeks’ time,”
said Godrum, rolling backwards as his stallion
stretched head and neck to clear the silvery shelf.
“My plan is, at that gathering, to unveil
the spouse you were supposed to help me choose.”
“I thought you meant allegorical ladies,”
said Alfred. “Is my high lord decided
not to fish for a royal Frankish damsel?”
“To thrust me from the throne and wed my son,”
the Dane rejoined, “like Alfred’s Frankish stepmother,
now trebly wedded to the count of Flanders?
I saw her in Count Eric’s ale-hall—
Halga’s uncle, in case you didn’t know.
He gave them sanctuary when her father
and Archbishop Hincmar banished them.
A willful and experienced young quean,
superbly cased in yards of crimson stuff.”
“I counseled so,” the Saxon countered coldly,
“that my dread dryhten, dunked and dripping chrism,
might row to Rome and reap the diadem.
Our Lord himself was born a man of Rome—
though if you’d bathed, my brego of the Bright-Danes,
you wouldn’t have breached your sworn pact with Alfred.”
A surge of anger blackened Godrum’s brow
as Alfred darkened to his stubbled scalp.
“Besides,” he said, “I never heard that Judith,
tutored by Pardulus and John the Scot,
ever indulged in her own flesh and blood.
In justice, then, she may not be compared
to Semiramis, who debauched her son;
or poor Jocasta, whose exuberant womb
bore four ill-fortuned siblings to their father;
or Philip, who defiled Alexander,
the brother of his Epirotic queen;
or Ptolemy of Alexandria,
who spoiled his sister, then, his daughter-niece;
or Gaius, who molested his three sisters;
or Agrippina’s lad, who smirched his dam.
“Unlike such signal evildoers, lord,
our Judith but infringed an ecclesial scheme
adopted to amalgamate the nations,
which purpose she’d already served by marrying
the widowed Saxon cyning, Alfred’s father,
instead of one of her gilt Frankish cousins.”
Here Alfred took advantage of the pagan,
for Judith, when she married Alfred’s brother,
in truth fused with her spiritual son.
“Moreover, sir,” the seed of Athulf added,
“you have no son to blast your nuptial comfort
with the shamefast stigma you detest.”
Across the way, the swans had moved downstream
to keep their territory free of mallards,
a flock of which had occupied the reach.
“You vex me, Mervyn,” Godfred’s seed replied.
“You said yourself King Alfred breached the peace
when he withheld the wergild owed the Danes,
not to mention murdering my boy.
As to the spotlessness of Baldwin’s bedmate,
conceded, though when last I saw the lady,
she looked well founded to support the load
of sin that men’s malice laid at her feet.
But I will never brook a Frankish bride.
You know what Lothar’s lass was saddled with—
and look at Brunhild, who destroyed ten kings.”
The seed of Ingeld warily declared,
“She was a Gothic, not a Frankish, frow.”
After a time, the heathen captain growled,
“Your God won’t grudge a favor done a friend.”
But Alfred saw no amiable glint
in Guthrum’s speckled eyes. “La, sir,” he said,
“You long to dive beneath the Savior’s wave.
Why wait until you sniff the pit of hell?”
“I know your water rite,” the Dane replied,
“is more than just a change of loyalty.
On peril of your head,” he remonstrated,
then turned his steed and spurred it to a run.