Two fair daughters had Offa, the mighty King of Mercia, and Quendritha his queen. The elder of those two, Eadburga, was wedded to our Wessex king, Bertric, in the year when my story begins, and all men in our land south of the Thames thought that the wedding was a matter of full rejoicing. There had been but one enemy for Wessex to fear, besides, of course, the wild Cornish, who were of no account, and that enemy was Mercia. Now the two kingdoms were knit together by the marriage, and there would be lasting peace.
Wherefore we all rejoiced, and the fires flamed from the hilltops, and in the towns men feasted and drank to the alliance, and dreamed of days of unbroken ease to come, wherein the weapons, save always for the ways of the border Welsh, should rust on the wall, and the trodden grass of the old camps of the downs on our north should grow green in loneliness. And that was a good dream, for our land had been torn with war for overlong—Saxon against Angle, Kentishman against Sussexman, Northumbrian against Mercian, and so on in a terrible round of hate and jealousy and pride, till we tired thereof, and the rest was needed most sorely.
And in that same year the shadow of a new trouble fell on England, and none heeded it, though we know it over well now—the shadow of the coming of the Danes. My own story must needs begin with that, for I saw its falling, and presently understood its blackness.
I had been to Winchester with my father, Ethelward the thane of Frome Selwood, to see the bringing home of the bride by our king, and there met a far cousin of ours, with whom it was good to enjoy all the gay doings of the court for the week while we were there. He belonged to Dorchester, and taking as much fancy to my company as a man double his age can have pleasure in the ways of a lad of eighteen, he asked me to ride home with him, and so stay in his house for a time, seeing the new country, and hunting with him for a while before I went home. And my father being very willing that I should do so, I went accordingly, and merry days on down and in forest I had with Elfric the thane, this new-found cousin of ours.
So it came to pass that one day we found ourselves on the steep of a down whence we could overlook the sea and the deep bay of Weymouth, with the great rock of Portland across it; and the width and beauty of that outlook were wonderful to me, whose home was inland, in the fair sunshine of late August. We had come suddenly on it as we rode, and I reined up my horse to look with a sort of cry of pleasure, so fair the blue water and dappled sky and towering headland, grass and woodland and winding river, leaped on my eyes. And in the midst of the still bay three beautiful ships were heading for the land, the long oars rising and falling swiftly, while the red and white striped sails hung idly in the calm. One could see the double of each ship in the water, broken wonderfully by the ripple of the oars, and after each stretched a white wake like a path seaward.