Looking back on them, it seems that those five years with Carl the Great were long, but in truth they went fast enough. With Ecgbert I went everywhere that war was to be waged, whether on the still half heathen, unwillingly christened Saxons, who were our own kin of the old land; or across on the opposite frontier, where the terrible Moors of Spain had not yet forgotten Roncesvalles. For us it was fighting, and always fighting, and little of that most splendid court of the king did we see; for Ecgbert had set himself to learn all that he might, and he was not one to do things by halves. Nor had I any wish to be anywhere but near him.
They were good years, therefore, if we had our share of danger and hardship to the full, and must needs bear the marks of it ever after. Once I was sorely wounded, and Ecgbert tended me through that as a brother rather than as my lord—even as I would have tended him, only that he was never hurt. Some of us grew to think that he had a charmed life; but I thought that he was kept for the sake of what was to be in days to come, when England was worn out with warfare between the kingdoms, and would welcome a strong hand over her from north to south.
I know not whether it was Carl himself who bade Ecgbert wait for that day, but it is likely. The atheling was in no haste to return to England, and it was his word that until he was needed he should bide here and learn.
But when the time went on he had thought for me, and one April day, as we rode together, he bade me go home and see that all was well with my folk. I had some fever on me at that time, for we were among the Frisian marshlands, and it had fallen on me when I was weak from the wound I spoke of, so that I could not shake it off. It came every third day, and held me in its grip for the afternoon, cold as ice, and then hot as fire, and so leaving me little the worse, but always thin and yellow to look on. Moreover, it always seemed to come on the wrong day for me, when I needed to be most busy, so that over and over again Ecgbert had to ride out without me. There were plenty more of us in the same case that year, when we were hunting Frisian heathen rebels to their strongholds in their fens.
“I must lose you in one way or the other, comrade,” Ecgbert said. “Either you will die here, which is the worst that could befall you, or else you must go home to England. Now there is a fair chance for you, for Carl is sending some messengers with presents to the young King of East Anglia, who has yet to be crowned. Go with them, and take him greetings from me.”
But before I could bring myself to agree to parting from him he had to put this before me in many ways, for I could not bear to leave him. And at last he laid his commands on me that I must go. He said it was time that he had a friend who knew his hopes in England, watching how matters went for him, and that I could best do it. So there was no way out of it, and I had to go.