He tried to persuade me gently, but at last let me be, knowing that I spoke in earnest and with all wish to seek it rightly.
So we left him on the day after we came, and went back to Athelney, and Alfred was very silent all the way.
“What ails you, my king?” I asked him at last, fearing that his pain, which had left him of late altogether, might return.
“I will tell you, cousin,” he said. “Plainly has Neot shown me that all these troubles have come from my own pride and self will when first I was king. It is a long chain of happenings, of which you would know nought were I to try to tell you. But so it has been, and I weep therefor in my very heart.”
Then said I:
“What is past is past, King Alfred, and best friend. Look on to the days to come, for I think that there shall rise a new and happier England before the winter comes again. There is no man whom I have met in all the hosts in whose heart is not love and best thoughts of you. Old days are forgotten as if they had never been, save that you led and conquered in the great battles beyond the Thames.”
He held out his hand to me, and took mine and gripped it, saying no word, and riding on in silence for a mile and more. And after that he was of good cheer again till we came to Exeter, and there I stayed to see how fared my ships, for it was time they were in the water again.
Well had my men and the Saxon wrights wrought at building. If all went like this, King Alfred would have a fleet that could sweep the seas from Dover to Orme’s Head, and keep his land from new plunderers at least.
In a week I came back to Athelney, and there was good cheer, and all were in the best of heart, for things went well. Messengers came and went across the winding paths from the southern hills, and Ethered met me laughing, and said:
“The king has robbed you of your glory, Ranald. He has been into the Danish camp—even to the presence of Guthrum himself.”
Then I would hear of this from Alfred himself.
“Ay,” he said, when he had greeted me and heard that the ships were almost ready, “I have outdone you; for I have played the gleeman as I planned, and have been in the midst of them yonder on Edington hill.”
“It was an awesome risk to run, my king,” I said.
“Which you taught me yourself, cousin. Howbeit I met no damsel, and I had no companion to return with but him with whom I went—Heregar’s young son, my page. Thane is he now by right of unfearing service. Once, when I climbed the hill, I began to fear greatly, and I stayed, and asked the boy if he was afraid to go on. Tell me truly, Ranald, did you fear when you were in Wareham?”
“Truly I feared at first,” I answered; “but since I was there when it came on me, I must even go through with the business. So it passed.”