Then Thora had finished, and I put my arm round her and kissed her once.
“My lady,” I said, “it was worth the wound that you should tend it.”
And so she looked up at me frankly, and we knew well what had grown up between us since the day when we had ridden together into Wareham streets.
Now after this we held the great Dowsborough fort on Quantocks for a few days, looking out over the land that should see the greatest deeds of Alfred, the wise king, from Glastonbury in the east to the wide stretches of the great wood, Selwood Forest, beyond the Stanmoor fens; and there, in the clear air, and with plenty of good provender from the smiling Taunton vale behind us, we grew strong again.
The Danes marched on Bridgwater, and the garrison must needs leave the place and retreat to the heights at Petherton, and there hide. I was grieved that my good ship was in Danish hands, but at least I knew that they would not harm her; and such was our faith in Alfred the king, that I believed that I should have her back. Old Thord came up to us when his charge was thus lost.
“Maybe they will finish painting her, and we shall be able to launch her, when we go back, without more trouble,” he said. “Two of Hubba’s ships, moreover, are worth having.”
Then the king rode up to us, and told us that we had done well, and that the great plan yet held. Already he had messengers out throughout all the southern counties, and already men were gathering through the land and filling the towns that the Danes were leaving.
“When I know that the Danes have their eyes fixed on Quantock side again, I shall strike,” he said.
So began again the life in Athelney and at Stanmoor fort; but now the Devon men gathered openly on our hills, and every day the Danish force grew also. When the last fight came, there would be an end to either one side or the other, and Guthrum knew it.
Once in that time I rode with Alfred, and saw Neot again; and if it were but for a few hours that we might stay with him, he found time to speak with me, asking if I had learned aught of his faith as yet.
“I have been in Athelney,” I answered, “and I saw what might the holy Name has at Chippenham. The old gods have passed from me.”
Little have I said of this, for one cannot speak of inmost thoughts; but so it was. Yet I think that, had I been older, the old faith would have died more slowly from my mind. So it was also with Harek the scald, but I think that he was Christian in heart before I had bent my mind to the matter in earnest. Long talks had he with Denewulf, the wise herdsman, while I listened.
So holy Neot rejoiced greatly over us, bidding me seek baptism at once.
“Nay, father,” I said; “I fear it, knowing what it is. Let me bide for a time till I am stronger in these deep things.”