So as not to frighten their prospective hosts, both men proceeded on foot and leading their mounts.
They went and found their first hut, and it was so mean and low looking, pigs might have been kept there in considerable discomfort, and so they passed on. The next dwelling looked more fit for human beings, but the boars carved upon the door said this was a heathen household devoted to the pagan god Frey or his foul, leering consort, and they passed it too.
“Perhaps not, by the looks of it,” the king said. “The infidel Danes have burnt the churches, and the folk are everywhere turning like dirty-snouted dogs back to the old vomit of paganism. They have grown ignorant of men’s knowledge as well as the knowledge of God. Imagine, sacrificing your children to dumb idols of wood and stone, and the women lending their bodies to any lewd practice and to witchcraft! I know our people used to follow such horrid things, before the holy men of God reached us with the purifyng Gospel, and now we are falling back into the old dirty ditch! No churches, no schools for the youth, no priests and no Holy Bible being read and studied and copied--it is a dark time indeed for our beloved West Saxons!”
“Alfred, fourth son of AEthelwulf,” announced the king wearily, though he chose not to say anything more.
Then the gleam of armor caught her eye, also the golden figured hilt on the sword of the one called Alfred. Her eyes seemed to glow. She opened the door wider. “Oh, my, by the blessed relics of St. Joseph, I haven’t a grand place for fine gentlefolk like you! And no proper beds and embroidered linens for lords! But such as it is, such as it is, we bid you welcome!”
Had she converted the table to that use too, Alfred wondered, since the floor was damp, and her bones had begun to hurt from damp? At least she had sense, if not an excess of propriety, he observed.
They watched as the old woman sank to her knees at the hearth and got busy, tending to the oaken cake. She turned the lumpy dough with a withy wand. Then she rose, offering the wand to the king. "Would you tend it as I see to my beasts for a short time? Now turn it so it will not burn, will ye?
The old woman was gone longer than he had anticipated, perhaps. Or Alfred was engrossed in too many pressing thoughts concerning the wily Danes' incursions and ferocious attacks on his forces all across Mercia and Wessex and along the coasts--pushing him, victory after victory, to the very low extremity he was now in--running like a quarry of the hounds! In any case, the woman returned and found Alfred had forgotten the cake, and it was burning on the side turned to the stone.
At the old woman's sharp but deserved rebuke, the king looked up surprised, then saw the cake was indeed burning, and he hastily turned it. The old woman reached and took away his wand and waved him away with it. "I will see to it, sir! You best watch how best it is done!"
Prince AElfmund’s explosive “Amen” in response was a bit too loud and impatient, and the king shot him a glance that made the younger man's cheeks blanch momentarily.
With no herbs, meats, sauces, or cheese to make the oat cake more tasty or appealing, the men had no recourse but to make do with the unadorned cake with bare fingers. Somehow the king managed to chew and swallow his portion of the unleavened oat-barleycake, burnt on the edges and soft in the center as it was. It tended immediately to rise back, he found, in his royal throat, but with a deft, mannerly finger or two he managed to send it southwards with an additional hard swallow, chasing it down with a draught of water from his bowl.
His eyes lowered, and his face red as if he had choked, the young warrior re-entered and seated himself, careful not to encounter the king’s steely gaze.
Oblivious to all the goings and comings of her guest, the old woman finished her piece of the oat-barley cake with long, drawn-out relish. Then she took the drinking bowls and replaced them on the wall.
The iron pot where she had mixed the cake’s ingredients she scraped out for the goat and the cat’s benefit, and the chickens got the last few bits of the meal. It seemed to take her forever to complete these few domestic duties.
Finally, she bolted the door, crossing herself as she turned to her prayers.
“So you are truly not the Danes and Vikings, I thought as much!” she laughed. “What king do you serve then, good sirs?”
Both men exchanged looks. Alfred raised his ringed forefinger in caution to the other, then spoke. “I serve no king but the Lord God. I am this country's sovereign by God's grace, good Christian woman.”
Now it was the old woman’s turn to be mightily surprised. She backed up a few paces, which brought her to her kitchen wall, knocking against her two bowls. Then, bowing her head several times but forgetting to kneel properly, she continued speaking, unable to control her tongue.
“Forgive my words over the oaken-cake, sir! I did not know who you were, to lay such words on you in that manner as I did! So your name is Alfred, son of AEthelwulf, and you are king! I have lived here all my days, and I never heard of you! Is it we good Christian Saxons you be high king over?”
Fully realizing for the first time the full significance of her place as a subject to this guest of hers and how she had rebuked him to his face over the burning of the oaten cake, the old woman, overcome, dropped like a stone, her knees to the floor, quaking like an aspen leaf in the wind and raising her hands to him.
“Oh, blessed saints and relics! If I had only known, I would not have spoken so commonly to thee! Forgive an old woman, a poor farmer’s widow. I am not used to tabernacling royal guests in my humble abode!”
Alfred shook his head over her peasant simplicity, and Prince AElfmund appeared about to laugh uproariously over her "tabernacling", but Alfred gave him a stern, warning look that normally could seize a man's heartbeat and send him unconscious into the arms of his aides and cnichts.
He rose with majesty from the tottering wreck of a chair, gently drawing the woman up also by her hand as if she were a fine noblewoman at court.
“No, don’t apologize to me. In the circumstances you did very well by us. We can make no complaint against you. You made us feel welcome, and we thank God for you, since we have ridden far to find a safe haven to spend the night. God’s blessing be unto your head, old one! We are most grateful, and I will give you something for your trouble from the king’s purse. AElfmund?”
“No! No!” she cried out. “But wait! I forgot provender for your noble mounts.”
She hurried out, and later she came back, her face flushed, a crock of fresh goat’s milk in her hand “Now that we’ve slaked our thirst with God’s good water, there will be enough milk for all of us, my lords! And as for your horses, they are no worry to you now. I put the pig out to go fetch himself roots and old acorns in the woods, and the horses in, with plenty to eat. My two fields grow fine hay, and I always have plenty provender for my animals. I have a goat too, a lovely white one I named after St. AElfmund. But he is not saint himself, sirs. He’s always slipping off his tether to go sporting, randy beast that he is, with a she-goat of my neighbor's whose dam was a heathen piebald! I have to tie him stoutly to a tree or I can't keep him a day, the blessed saints forgive me!”
After offering each a draught from the jug, with AElfmund abstaining because he was thinking instead of good Wessex or even Danish mead, she set aside the rest for cheese making, then hurried out again, and when she returned she hobbled in with a big bundle of hay on her stooped back.
Fresh and clean and smelling very fragrant, she spread it in two places on the floor. Helping, the men spread their cloaks, and they soon had beds made, such as they were in this humble hut.
And, if that failed, she still had her mighty angel beside the cross-beamed door and another she had asked to stand by the isle’s gate in case additional warcraft be needed!
Her household guardian was so fierce in countenance, only once had she dared ask him to his face why he should bother so much for the sake of one old woman, a widow of no account or any wealth.
With a voice that sounded like thunder he had replied, telling her how the Blessing of St. Joseph stood firm and anchored in her prayers for her people, and would always hold true at the gates of the land, and until her soul flew back to God, for now she was the Island's Gatekeeper of the Lord.
Then it would be a hard dash through the alder and willow-thicketed swamp, not an easy way out surely, but it would cover their retreat nicely. Knowing their countryside better than Danish foreigners, they could skirt the horseless armies of raiders and ford the various rivers and get away to the strong-hold at Tintagel where his wife and royal household had gone because of the latest raids.
Before they could stop her, she hurried out and behind the hut. Returning, she had a basket of four or five brown eggs, but not so clean as they might have liked.
“The merciful God of Father Jacob be praised!” she exclaimed. “Usually I find one or two for all the trouble of feeding them! Oh, my, just look at these beauties--they’re fit for a king in a grand palace!” She spit, then rubbed each one tenderly with a bit of her none too clean head scarf-cap.
Stepping outdoors, the king glanced down the path toward the way he had come. It was high time to be going.
“Where will you be faring now, Your Majesty?’ the old woman asked, surprising him.
His thoughts showed in his face, and his brow wrinkled. He rubbed his beard, and shook his head, and looked most unready to undertake any new venture, which then showed in his words. “We must ride fast, then ford the river and get free of the Danes, and if we succeed I may be able to raise another army among the South Saxons, perhaps, and--”
Quick in passion, he could have slapped her for speaking thusly to the royal high king of Wessex, but Alfred knew him well, and marking that their circumstances and prospects were so greatly reduced, as to make them wards of a poor widow for the night, chose a humbler road and stepped between them.
After having confronted the king so stoutly, the woman surprised them when she began to weep. She shook her head, shedding tears like a dog shakes off wet from his coat.
“What am I to counsel a high king? You have noble counselors for that! But go and learn what you have not seen in your great palace yonder. Or let the land teach you necessary arts. Better, let the Lord of the heavens and the earth counsel you, O king, and then you will find the right path through this dark and wicked forest that would swallow both you and your men up!”
But still Alfred, chastened in his spirit by her admonishing words, could not leave her just then. “Yes, “ he said to her, ignoring the prince. "We are in grave peril. My kingdom may not last another day if things do not change for the better. Favor me with your dream. It cannot hurt.”
Alfred stepped out of the hut, with AElfmund following gladly. They mounted their horses, then were surprised as the woman cried out, “Wait! One more thing, Your Majesty! I see it now! It’s so clear! If you want to stop the enemy, the heathen Danes, go to where they first come at the approaches of the Island, not wait for them to gather together in strength. They are weakest then, and you will be strongest and prevail! After that you can take a big broom and sweep them from the great waters, and no one will touch your throne until four and three quarters generations have sprung from your loins.”
A short time later they were back at the eastern entrance to Athelney, the men there waiting impatiently, strain showing plainly in their expressions.
“What kept you, Your Majesty? The sun is well up, and the Danes are no doubt scouring the countryside round about here for you by now!” said Alfred’s chief marshal of the army.
Alfred looked dazed and could not find his words. “I’ll tell you later.” The old woman’s last instructions were running through his mind, again and again. ‘Go to where they first come, not wait for them to gather together. They are weakest then. Then take a big broom and sweep--’”
Why hadn’t he seen that before? And where were they strongest? Where they gathered together to fight pitched battles under their chosen league commanders!
Now he had the way, the path the Lord had shown! Someday he would also build a "broom" of a navy to stop and sweep away the long-boats on the waves that brought them to the undefended shores of the Saxon and Anglish kingdoms. Until then he must take his men and go and attack the landing parties, surprising them from the cover of thick brush and trees that lined the streams and rivers! And, of course, he must send men to do sentry duty and runners to carry the reports of landings! There was much to do!
And the angel she had prayed would accompany him “in all his ways”? That was a nice thought, comforting him not a little! If only heaven would answer such a prayer!
Shaking his head over his lapse, he thought he must return, or at least send someone. But, hard-pressed with the duties of statecraft and warcraft, he never returned to Atheney’s isle in time, though at intervals he had sensed an angel standing guard, not only for his life, but for the entire realm which had enclosed nigh all but half of Britain.
Truly, he owed her something for her having shown favor to him in a moment of ebbing royal fortunes, knowing now that he had met not just a rustic hostess for the night but a genuine woman of God on, of all places in his large-grown and various realm, that swamp isle of old Athelney.