I thought the king changed countenance a little at that, and he bit his lip.
“We have been well beaten in East Anglia,” he said as if to himself. “Here is truth from this boy at least.”
Now, if Ethelred did not know that our men had been so scattered by the Danes that they could not even ask for truce to recover their slain, it seemed plain even to me that the king was ill-served in some way. But I could say nought; and after that he bade us farewell for the time.
So it came to pass that he gave me a place among the thanes’ sons of his own court and there I was well trained in all that would make me a good warrior. Soon I had many friends, and best of all I loved the athelings, Eadmund and Eadward, who soon took notice of me, the one because I was never weary of weapon play, and the other, Eadward, who was somewhat younger than I, because of the learning that our good priest of Bures had taken such pains to teach me against my will. For above all things Eadmund loved the craft of the warrior, and Eadward all that belonged to peace.
My mother lived but a few months after that flight of ours; but at least she knew before she died that Bertha was safe. What the old nurse had foreseen had come to pass. The half-Danish and Danish folk of the East Angles owned Swein as king, though not willingly, and a housecarle from Wormingford made his way to us with word from Gunnhild that set our minds at rest. Truly our hall and Osgod’s had been burnt by parties from the Danish host, and for a time the danger was great, for Swein’s vengeance for his sister’s death was terrible.
Now the land was poorer, but in peace. Yet Hertha would keep in hiding till we might see how things went, for the Danes might be forced back, and when a Danish host retreats it hinders pursuit by leaving a desert in its wake. Many a long year will it be before those Danish pathways are lost to sight again. They seem to be across every shire of our land.
So I lived on in Ethelred’s court now in one town and now in another, as the long struggle bade us shift either to follow or fly the Danes; and presently the memory both of my mother and Hertha grew dim, for wartime and new scenes age and harden a youth very quickly. Soon I might ride at the side of Eadmund the Atheling to try to stay the march of Swein through England; and many were the fights I saw with him, until I was the only one left of all the youths who had been my comrades at first, and Eadmund had won his name of “Ironside” in bravest hopeless struggle.
I grew to be a close and trusted friend of his, and so at last amidst the trouble that was all round us in those heavy times the remembrance of Hertha became but as part of a childhood that was long gone, and I thought of her but as of the little one with whom I had played in the old days beside the quiet Stour. There were none left to remind me of her, for one by one my few Bures men had fallen, and Edred, who had been my servant at the court, gave his life for mine in my first battle. Into Swein’s East Anglia our levies never made their way.