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´╗┐Title: A King's Comrade - A Story of Old Hereford
Author: Whistler, Charles W. (Charles Watts), 1856-1913
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                          A KING'S COMRADE:

A Story of Old Hereford,

by Charles W. Whistler

  PREFACE.

  INTRODUCTORY.

  CHAPTER I. HOW THE FIRST DANES CAME TO ENGLAND.

  CHAPTER II. HOW WILFRID KEPT A PROMISE, AND SWAM IN PORTLAND

  CHAPTER III. HOW WILFRID MET ECGBERT THE ATHELING.

  CHAPTER IV. HOW WILFRID MET AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE IN NORWICH

  CHAPTER V. HOW WILFRID MET THE FLINT FOLK, AND OTHERS.

  CHAPTER VI. HOW WILFRID SPOKE WITH ETHELBERT THE KING.

  CHAPTER VII. HOW ETHELBERT'S JOURNEY BEGAN WITH PORTENTS.

  CHAPTER VIII. HOW ETHELBERT CAME TO THE PALACE OF SUTTON.

  CHAPTER IX. HOW QUENDRITHA THE QUEEN WOVE HER PLOTS.

  CHAPTER X. HOW GYMBERT THE MARSHAL LOST HIS NAME AS A GOOD

  CHAPTER XI. HOW ETHELBERT THE KING WENT TO HIS REST.

  CHAPTER XII. HOW QUENDRITHA THE QUEEN HAD HER WILL.

  CHAPTER XIII. HOW WILFRID AND ERLING BEGAN THEIR SEARCH.

  CHAPTER XIV. HOW WILFRID HAD A FRESH CARE THRUST ON HIM.

  CHAPTER XV. HOW WILFRID'S SEARCH WAS REWARDED.

  CHAPTER XVI. HOW WILFRID SPOKE ONCE MORE WITH OFFA.

  CHAPTER XVII. HOW WILFRID AND HIS CHARGE MET JEFAN THE

  CHAPTER XVIII. HOW JEFAN THE PRINCE GUARDED HIS GUESTS.

  CHAPTER XIX. HOW WILFRID CAME HOME TO WESSEX.



PREFACE.


Hereford Cathedral bears the name of Ethelbert of East Anglia, king
and martyr, round whose death, at the hands of the men of Offa of
Mercia, this story of his comrade centres, and dates its foundation
from Offa's remorse for the deed which at least he had not
prevented. In the sanctuary itself stands an ancient battered
statue--somewhat hard to find--of the saint, and in the pavement
hard by a modern stone bears a representation of his murder. The
date of the martyrdom is usually given as May 20, 792 A.D.

A brief mention of the occurrence is given under that date in the
"Anglo-Saxon Chronicle," and full details are recorded by later
historians, Matthew of Westminster and Roger of Wendover being the
most precise and full. The ancient Hereford Breviary preserves
further details also, for which I am indebted to my friend the Rev.
H. Housman, B.D., of Bradley.

These authorities I have followed as closely as possible, only slightly
varying the persons to whom the portents, so characteristic of the
times, occurred, and referring some--as is quite possible, without
detracting from their significance to men of that day--to natural
causes. Those who searched for the body of the king are unnamed by the
chroniclers, and I have, therefore, had no hesitation in putting the
task into the hands of the hero of the tale. The whole sequence of
events is unaltered.

Offa's own part in the removal of the hapless young king is given
entirely from the accounts of the chroniclers, and the characters
of Quendritha the queen and her accomplice Gymbert are by no means
drawn here more darkly than in their pages. The story of her voyage
and finding by Offa is from Brompton's Annals.

The first recorded landing of the Danes in Wessex, with which the
story opens, is from the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle;" the name of the
sheriff, and the account of the headstrong conduct which led to his
end, being added from Ethelwerd. The exact place of the landing is
not stated; but as it was undoubtedly near Dorchester, it may be
located at Weymouth with sufficient probability. For the reasons
which led to the exile of Ecgbert, and to his long stay at the
court of Carl the Great, the authority is William of Malmesbury.
The close correspondence between the Mercian and Frankish courts
is, of course, historic--Offa seeming most anxious to ally himself
with the great Continental monarch, if only in name. The position
of the hero as an honoured and independent guest at the hall of
Offa would certainly be that assigned to an emissary from Carl.

With regard to the proper names involved, I have preferred to use
modern forms rather than the cumbrous if more correct spelling of
the period. The name of the terrible queen, for example, appears on
her coins as "Cynethryth," and varies in the pages of the
chroniclers from "Quendred" to the form chosen as most simple for
use today. And it has not seemed worth while to substitute the
ancient names of places for those in present use which sufficiently
retain their earlier form or meaning.

The whole story of King Ethelbert's wooing and its disastrous
ending is a perfect romance in all truth, without much need for
enhancement by fiction, and perhaps has its forgotten influence on
many a modern romance, by the postponement of a wedding day until
the month of May--so disastrous for him and his bride--has passed.

C. W. WHISTLER.

STOCKLAND, 1904.



INTRODUCTORY.


A shore of dull green and yellow sand dunes, beyond whose low tops
a few sea-worn pines and birch trees show their heads, and at whose
feet the gray sea hardly breaks in the heavy stillness that comes
with the near thunder of high summer. The tide is full and nearing
the turn, and the shore birds have gone elsewhere till their food
is bared again at its falling. Only a few dotterels, whose eggs lie
somewhere near, run and flit, piping, to and fro, for a boat and
two men are resting at the very edge of the wave as if the ebb
would see them afloat again.

Armed men they are, too, and the boat is new and handsome, graceful
with the beautiful lines of a northern shipwright's designing. She
has mast and sail and one steering oar, but neither rowlocks nor
other oars to fit in them. One of the men is pacing quietly up and
down the sand, as if on the quarterdeck of a ship, and the other
rests against the boat's gunwale.

"Nigh time," says one, glancing at the fringe of weed which the
tide is beginning to leave.

"Ay, nigh, and I would it were past and over. It is a hard doom."

"No harder than is deserved. The doom ring and the great stone had
been the end in days which I can remember. That was the old Danish
way."

The other man nods.

"But the jarl is merciful, as ever."

"When one finds a coiled adder, one slays it. One does not say,
'Bide alive, because I saw you too soon to be harmed by you.' Mercy
to the beast that might be, but not to the child who shall some day
set his hand on it."

"Eh, well! The wind is off shore, and it is a far cry to succour,
and Ran waits the drowning."

"I know not that Ran cares for women."

"Maybe a witch like herself. They are coming!"

Now through a winding gap in the line of dunes comes from inland a
little company of men and women, swiftly and in silence. The two
men range themselves on either bow of the boat, and stand at
attention as the newcomers near them, and so wait. Maybe there are
two-score people, led by a man and woman, who walk side by side
without word or look passing between them. The man is tall and
handsome, armed in the close-knit ring-mail shirt of the Dane, with
gemmed sword hilt and golden mountings to scabbard and dirk, and
his steel helm and iron-gray hair seem the same colour in the
shadowless light of the dull sky overhead. One would set his age at
about sixty years.

But the woman at his side is young and wonderfully lovely. She is
dressed in white and gold, and her hair is golden as the coiled
necklace and armlets she wears, and hangs in two long plaits far
below her knees, though it is looped in the golden girdle round her
waist. Fastened to the girdle hangs the sheath of a little dagger,
but there is no blade in it. She is plainly of high rank, and
unwedded. Now her fair face is set and hard, and it would almost
seem that despair was written on it.

After those two the other folk seem hardly worth a glance, though
they are richly dressed, and the men are as well armed as the jarl
their leader. Nor do they seem to have eyes for any but those two
at their head, and no word passes among them. Their faces also are
set and hard, as if they had somewhat heavy to see to, and would
fain carry it through to the end unflinching.

So they come to the edge of the sea, where the boat waits them, and
there halt; and the tall jarl faces the girl at his side, and
speaks to her in a dull voice, while the people slowly make a half
circle round them, listening.

"Now we have come to the end," he says, "and from henceforth this
land shall know you and the ways of you no more. There were other
dooms which men had thought more fitting for you, but they were
dooms of death. You shall not die at our hands. You are young, and
you have time to bethink you whither the ways you have trodden
shall lead you. If the sea spares you, begin life afresh. If it
spares you not, maybe it is well. No others shall be beguiled by
that fair face of yours. The Norns heed not the faces of men."

He pauses; but the girl stands silent, hand locked in hand, and
with no change of face. Nor does she look at her accuser, but gazes
steadily out to the still sea, which seems endless, for there is no
line between sea and sky in the hot haze. For all its exceeding
beauty, hers is an evil face to look on at this time. And the women
who gaze on her have no pity in their eyes, nor have the men.

Once again the great jarl speaks, and his words are cold and
measured.

"Also, I and our wisest hold that what you have tried to compass
was out of the longing for power that ever lies in the heart of
youth. We had done no more than laugh thereat had you been content
to try to win your will with the ancient wiles of woman that lie in
beauty and weakness. But for the evil ways in which you have
wrought the land is accursed, and will be so as long as we suffer
you. Go hence, and meet elsewhere what fate befalls you. In the
skill you have in the seaman's craft is your one hope. We leave it
you."

Then, without a word of answer or so much as a look aside, the girl
of her own accord steps into the boat; and at a sign from their
lord the two men launch her from the shelving sand into the sea,
following her, knee deep, among the little breakers that hardly
hinder their steps. They see that in her look is deepest hate and
wrath, but they pay no heed to it. And even as their hands leave
the gunwale, the girl goes to the mast, and with the skill and ease
of long custom hoists the sail, and so making fast the halliard
deftly, comes aft again to ship the steering oar, and seat herself
as the breeze wakes the ripples at the bow and the land slips away
from her. She has gone, and never looks back.

Then a sort of sigh whispers among the women folk on shore; but it
is not as a sigh of grief, but rather as if a danger had passed
from the land. They know that the boat must needs drive but as the
wind takes her, for oars wherewith to row against it are none, and
the long summer spell of seaward breezes has set in. The jarl folds
his arms and bides still in his place, and the two men still stand
in the water, watching. And so the boat and its fair burden of
untold ill fades into the mist and grows ghostly, and is lost to
sight; and across the dunes the clouds gather, and the thunder
mutters from inland with the promise of long-looked-for rain to a
parched and starving folk.

* * * *

Through the long summer morning Offa, the young King of Mercia, has
hunted across the rich Lindsey marshes which lie south of the
Humber; and now in the heat of the noon he will leave his party
awhile and ride with one thane only to the great Roman bank which
holds back the tides, and seek a cool breath from the salt sea,
whose waves he can hear. So he sets spurs to his great white steed,
and with the follower after him, rides to where the high sand dunes
are piled against the bank, and reins up on their grassy summit,
and looks eastward across the most desolate sands in all England,
gull-haunted only.

"Here is a marvel," he cries, turning to his thane. "Many a time
have I hunted along this shore, but never before have I seen the
like of this here."

He laughs, and points below him toward the sand, and his thane
rides nearer. The tide has crept almost to the foot of the ancient
sea wall, and gently rocking on it lies a wondrously beautiful boat
with red and white sail set, but with no man, or aught living
beyond the white terns which hover and swoop about it, to be seen.

"'Tis a foreign boat," says the thane. "Our folk cannot frame such
an one as this. Doubtless she has broken her line from astern of
some ship last night, and so has been wafted hither."

"Men do not tow a boat with her sail set," laughs the king. "Let us
go and see her."

So they ride shoreward across the dunes, and ever the breeze edges
the boat nearer and nearer, till at last she is at rest on the edge
of the tide, lifting now and then as some little wave runs beneath
her sharp stern. For once the North Sea is still, and even the
brown water of the Humber tides is blue across the yellow sands.

The horses come swiftly and noiselessly across the strand, but the
white steed of the king is restless as he nears the boat, sniffing
the air and tossing his head. The king speaks to him, thinking that
it is the swinging sail which he pretends to fear. And then the
horse starts and almost rears, for at the sound of the clear voice
there rises somewhat from the hollow of the little craft, and the
king himself stays in amaze.

For he sees before him the most wondrously beautiful maiden his
eyes have rested on, golden-haired and blue-eyed, wan and weary
with the long voyage from the far-off shore, and holding out to him
piteous hands, blistered with the rough sheet and steering oar. She
says naught, but naught is needed.

"Lady," he says, doffing his gold-circled cap, "have no fear. All
is well, and you are safe. Whence come you?"

But he has no answer, for the maiden sinks back into the boat
swooning. Then in all haste the king sends his thane for help to
the party they have left; and so he sits on the boat's gunwale and
watches the worn face pityingly.

Now come his men, and at his word they tend the maiden with all
care, so that very soon she revives again, and can tell her tale.
Beyond the hunger and thirst there has indeed been little hardship
to a daughter of the sea in the summer weather, for the breeze has
been kindly and steady, and the boat stanch and swift. There has
been rain too, gentle, and enough to stave off the utmost thirst.

All this she tells the king truly; and then he must know how she
came to lose her own shore. And at that she weeps, but is ready. In
the long hours she has conned every tale that may be made, and it
is on her lips.

She is the orphan daughter of a Danish jarl, she says, and her
father has been slain. She has been set adrift by the chief who has
taken her lands, for her folk had but power to ask that grace for
her. He would have slain her, but that they watched him. Doubtless
he had poisoned their minds against her, or they would not have
suffered thus far of ill to her even. Otherwise she cannot believe
so ill of them. It is all terrible to her.

And so, with many tears, she accounts for her want of oars, and
provides against the day when some chapman from beyond seas shall
know her and tell the tale of her shame. At the end she weeps, and
begs for kindness to an outcast pitifully.

There is no reason why men should not believe the tale, and told
with those wondrous tear-dimmed eyes on them, they doubt not a word
of it. It is no new thing that a usurper should make away with the
heiress, and doubtless they think her beauty saved her from a worse
fate.

So in all honour the maiden is taken to Lincoln, and presently
given into the care of one of the great ladies of the court.

But as they ride homeward with the weary maiden in the midst of the
company, Offa the king is silent beyond his wont, so that the thane
who rode yonder with him asks if aught is amiss.

"Naught," answers Offa. "But if it is true that men say that none
but a heaven-sent bride will content me, maybe this is the one of
whom they spoke."

Now, if it was longing for power and place which had tempted this
maiden to ill in the old home, here she sees her way to more than
her wildest dream plain before her; and she bends her mind to
please, and therein prospers. For when wit and beauty go hand in
hand that is no hard matter. So in no long time it comes to pass
that she has gained all she would, and is queen of all the Mercian
land, from the Wash to the Thames, and from Thames to Trent, and
from Severn to the Lindsey shore; for Offa has wedded her, and all
who see her rejoice in his choice, holding her as a heaven-sent
queen indeed, so sweetly and lowly and kindly she bears herself.
Nor for many a long year can she think of aught which would bring
her more power, so that even she deems that the lust of it is dead
within her. Only for many a year she somewhat fears the coming of
every stranger from beyond the sea lest she may be known, until it
is certain that none would believe a tale against their queen.

Yet when that time comes there are old counsellors of the Witan who
will say among themselves that they deem Quendritha the queen the
leader and planner of all that may go to the making great the
kingdom of the Mercians; and there are one or two who think within
themselves that, were she thwarted in aught she had set her mind
on, she might have few scruples as to how she gained her ends. But
no man dare put that thought into words.



CHAPTER I. HOW THE FIRST DANES CAME TO ENGLAND.


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.

My cousin stayed his horse also with a grip of the reins that
brought him up short, and he also made an exclamation, but by no
means for the same reason as myself.

"Ho!" he said, "what are these ships?"

Then he set his hand to his forehead and looked long at them from
under it, while I watched them also, unknowing that there was
anything unusual in the sight for one who lived so near the sea and
the little haven of Weymouth below us.

"Well, what do you think of them?" I asked presently.

"On my word, I do not know," he answered thoughtfully. "They are no
Frisian traders, and I have never seen their like before. Moreover,
it seems to me that they are full of armed men. See how the sun
sparkles on their decks here and there!"

But we were too far off to make out more than that, and as we
watched it was plain that the ships would make for the river mouth
and haven.

"We will ride down and see more of them," said my cousin. "I only
hope--"

There he stayed his words; but I saw that his face had grown grave
of a sudden, and knew that some heavy thought had crossed his mind.

"What?" I asked.

"It must be impossible," he said slowly--"and this is between you
and me--for it seems foolish. But have you heard of the northern
strangers who have harried the Welsh beyond the Severn sea?"

I had heard of them, of course, for they traded with the Devon men
at times, having settled in towns of their own in Wales beyond the
Severn. It was said that they were heathen, worshipping the same
gods whom our forefathers had worshipped, and were akin to
ourselves, with a tongue not unlike our own at all, and easy to be
understood by us. Also they had fought the Welsh, as we had to
fight them; but one heard of them only as strangers who had naught
to do with us Saxons.

"Well, then," my cousin said, "suppose these are more of the
northern folk."

"If they are, they will have come to trade," I said lightly. "But
they will more likely be men from the land across this sea--men
from the land of the Franks, such as we saw at Winchester the other
day."

"Maybe, maybe," he said. "We shall see presently."

So we rode on. I dare say we had four miles to go before we came to
the outskirts of Weymouth village, and by that time the ships were
in the haven. By that time also the Weymouth folk were leaving the
place, and that hastily; and before we were within half a mile of
the nearest houses we met two men on horseback, who rode fast on
the road toward Dorchester.

"What is amiss?" cried my cousin as they neared us.

The men knew him well, and stayed.

"Three strange ships in the haven, and their crews ashore armed,
and taking all they can lay their hands on. We are going to the
sheriff; where is he?"

"Home at Dorchester. Whence are the ships? Have they hurt any one?"

"We cannot tell whence they are. They speak a strange sort of
English, as it were, like the Northumbrian priest we have.
Red-headed, big men they are, and good-tempered so far, seeing that
none dare gainsay them. But they are most outrageously thievish."

"What have they taken, then?"

"Ask the bakers and butchers. Now they are gathering up all the
horses, and they say they are going to drive the cattle."

"Sheriff's business that, in all truth. Get to him as soon as you
may. I will go and see if I can reason with them meanwhile."

"Have a care, thane!" they cried, and spurred their horses again.

Then my cousin turned to me, and his face was grave.

"Wilfrid," he said, "you had better go with those messengers. I am
going to see if aught can be done; but it sounds bad. I don't like
an armed landing of this sort."

"No, cousin," I answered. "Let me go with you. It would be hard if
you must send me back, for I would fain see the ships. That talk of
driving the cattle can be naught but a jest."

"Likely enough," he answered, laughing. "It is no new thing for a
crew to come ashore and clear out the booths of the tradesmen
without troubling to pay offhand. Presently their captains will
come and pay what is asked, grumbling, and there will be no loss to
our folk. As for this talk of taking the horses--well, a sailor
always wants a ride when he first comes ashore, if it is only on an
ass. Then if there is not enough meat ready to hand in the town, no
doubt they would say they would find it for themselves. Well, come
on, and we will see."

So we rode on, but the laugh faded from the face of my kinsman as
we did so.

"They have no business to come ashore armed," he said, half to
himself, "and Weymouth folk ought to be used to the ways of seamen
by this time. I don't like it, Wilfrid."

Nevertheless, we did not stop, and presently came among the first
houses of the village, where there was a little crowd of the folk,
half terrified, and yet not altogether minded to fly. They said
that the strangers were sacking the houses along the water's edge,
but not harming any one. However, they were taking all the ale and
cider casks they could find on board their ships, and never a word
of payment.

"Do not go near them," said my cousin. "Doubtless some one will pay
presently, and I will go and speak with their head men. Maybe they
can't find any one who can rightly understand their talk."

"Oh ay," said an old man, "it passes me to know how a thane like
your worship can understand all sorts of talk they use in England.
It is all the likes of us can compass to understand even a Mercian;
but I warrant you would ken what a Northumbrian means easily."

He shook his head with much wisdom, and we left him grumbling at
the speech of the priest we had already heard of.

We passed down the straggling shoreward street, and as we neared
the waterside we heard the shouts and laughter of the strangers
plainly enough. And over the houses were the mastheads of their
three ships. One of them had a forked red flag, whereon was a raven
worked in black, so well that it was easy to see what bird it was
meant for. It was the raven of the Danish sea kings, but that meant
naught to us yet. The terror which went before and the weeping that
bided after that flag were yet to come.

The next thing was that from the haven rode swiftly half a dozen
mounted men toward us, and the first glance told us that here were
warriors whose very war gear was new to us. Three of them had
close-fitting coats of ring mail, and wore burnished round helms of
bronze or steel; while the others, who were also helmed, had
jerkins of buff leather, gilded and cut in patterns on the edges of
the short sleeves and skirts. Their arms were bare, save that one
had heavy golden bracelets above the elbow; and they all wore white
trousers, girt to the leg loosely with coloured cross-gartering,
which reached higher than ours. I had never seen such mail as
theirs, and straightway I began to wonder if I might not buy a suit
from them.

But most different from any arming of ours was that each had a
heavy axe either in his hand or slung to his saddle, and that their
swords were longer, with very handsome hilts. Only two had spears,
and these were somewhat shorter than ours and maybe heavier. They
were better armed warriors than ever I had seen before, even at
Winchester.

Some word passed among these men as they saw us; but they came on,
making no sign of enmity of any sort. Perhaps that was because,
being in hunting gear and with naught more than the short sword and
seax one always wears, we had no weapons, and were plainly on
peaceful business.

And as in spite of their arms they seemed peaceful enough also, my
cousin and I waited for them, so that they pulled up to speak to
us, that man who wore the bracelets being at their head.

"Friends," said my cousin quietly, as they stared at him, "there is
no war in the land, and we are wont to welcome strangers. No need
for all this weapon wearing."

"Faith, I am glad to hear it," said the leader, with a grim smile.
"We thought there might be need. There mostly is when we come
ashore."

One could understand him well enough, if his speech was rougher
than ours. The words were the same, if put together somewhat
differently and with a new way of speaking them. It was only a
matter of thinking twice, as it were, and one knew what he meant.
Also he seemed to understand us better than we him, doubtless by
reason of years of travelling and practice in different tongues of
the northern lands.

"The arms somewhat terrify our folk," said my cousin, not heeding
the meaning which might lie in the words of the chief. "But I
suppose you have put in for food and water."

"For ale and beef--that is more like it," said the Dane. "Having
found which we are going away again. The sooner we find it the
better, therefore, and maybe you will be glad to help us to what we
seek."

"Our folk tell me that you are helping yourselves somewhat freely
already," answered the thane. "One may suppose that, like honest
seamen, you mean to face the reckoning presently."

"Oh ay, we always pay, if we are asked," answered the chief; and as
he said it he hitched his sword hilt forward into reach in a way
which there was no mistaking.

"It is a new thing to us that seamen should hint that they will pay
for what they need with the cold steel. We are not such churls as
to withhold what a man would seek in his need."

"No man ever withholds aught from us, if so be we have set our
minds on it," said the chief, with a great laugh.

Then he turned to his men, who were all round us by this time,
listening.

"Here, take these two down to the ships, and see that they escape
not; they will be good hostages."

In a moment, before we had time so much as to spur our horses, much
less to draw sword, we were seized and pinioned by the men in spite
of the rearing of the frightened steeds. Plainly it was not the
first time they had handled men in that wise. Then, with a warrior
on either side of us, we were hurried seaward; and I thought it
best to hold my tongue, for there was not the least use in
protesting. So also thought my cousin, for he never said a word.

Along the rough wharves there was bustle and noise enough, for the
place swarmed with the mailed seamen, who had littered the roadway
with goods of all sorts from the houses and merchants' stores, and
were getting what they chose to take across the gang planks into
their ships. Here and there I saw some of our people standing
helpless in doorways, or looking from the loft windows and
stairways; but it was plain that the most of them had fled. There
were several boatloads of them crossing the bay with all speed for
safety.

Next I saw that at the high stems and sterns of the ships stood
posted men, who seemed to be on watch, leaning on their spears, and
taking no part in the bustle. But every man worked with his arms
ready, and more men who had found horses rode out along the roads
as we came in. They were the pickets who would watch for the
raising of the country, or who would drive in the cattle from the
fields.

Twice I had seen border warfare with the west Welsh on the Devon
side of our country, and so I knew what these horsemen were about,
or rather guessed it. But at the time all the affair was a confused
medley to me, if I seem to see it plainly now as I look back. Maybe
I saw more from the ships presently, for we were hurried on board,
handed over to the ship guard and there left, while our captors
rode away again.

I only hoped that when the first messengers reached Beaduheard the
sheriff he would bring force enough with him. But I doubted it.

The guard took our weapons from us, bound us afresh but not very
tightly, and set us with our backs against the gunwale of the fore
deck of the ship they had us on board, which was that with the
raven flag. Over us towered a wonderful carven dragon's head,
painted green and gilded, and at the stern of the ship rose what
was meant for its carven tail. The other ships had somewhat the
same adornment to their stems and stern posts, but they were not so
high or so handsome. Plainly this was the chief's own ship.

Now I suppose that the presence of a captive or two was no new
thing to the men, for when they had secured us each to a ring bolt
with a short line, they paid little heed to us, but stood and
talked to one another with hardly a glance in our direction. Seeing
which my cousin spoke to me in a low voice.

"This is a bad business, Wilfrid," he said. "Poor lad, I am more
than sorry I let you come with me. Forgive me. I ought to have
known that there was danger."

"Trouble not at all," I said, as stoutly as I could, which is not
saying much. "I wanted to come, and there was no reason to think
that things would go thus. Even now I suppose we shall be let go
presently."

Elfric shook his head. I could see that he was far more deeply
troubled than he cared to show, and my heart sank.

"I cannot rightly make it all out," he said. "But these men are
certainly the northern strangers who have harried Wales, even as we
feared."

"Well," I said, "we shall have the sheriff here shortly."

"Beaduheard? I suppose so. Little help will be from him. It would
take three days to raise force enough to drive off these men, and
he is headstrong and hot tempered. His only chance is to scare them
away with a show of force, or, at best, to prevent their going
inland after plunder; for that is what they are here for."

"Maybe they will hold us to ransom."

"That is the best we can hope for. Of course I will pay yours."

The bustle went on, and I watched the stowing of the plunder after
this, for I had no more to say. I thought of my father, and of the
trouble he would be in if he knew my plight, and tried to think
what a tale I should have to tell him when I reached home again.

And then came an old warrior, well armed and handsome, with
iron-gray hair and beard, and he stepped on the deck and looked
curiously at us.

"Captives, eh?" he said to the men. "Whence came they?"

"Thorleif sent them in," answered one of the guard. "It was his
word that they would be good hostages."

As I knew that this man spoke of his chief, it seemed to me that he
was hardly respectful; but I did not know the way of free Danes and
vikings as yet. There was no disrespect at all, in truth, but full
loyalty and discipline in every way. Only it sounded strangely to a
Saxon to hear no term of rank or respect added to the bare name of
a leader.

Then the old warrior turned toward us, and looked us over again,
and I thought he seemed kindly, and, from his way, another chief of
some rank.

"I suppose this is your son?" he said to Elfric directly.

"My young cousin," answered the thane. "Let him go, I pray you; for
he is far from his own folk, and he was in my charge. You may bid
him ride home without a word to any man if you will, and he will
keep the trust."

The warrior shook his head, but smiled.

"No, I cannot do that. However, I suppose Thorleif will let you go
by and by. If our having you here saves trouble, you may be
thankful. We are not here to fight if we can help it."

"Why, then," said Elfric, "unbind us, and we will bide here
quietly. You may take the word of a thane."

"I have always heard that the word of a Saxon is to be relied on,"
said the old warrior, and gave an order to the guard.

Whereon they freed us, and glad I was to stretch my limbs again,
while my spirits rose somewhat.

The old chief talked with us for a while after that, and made no
secret of whence the ships had come. It seemed that they were
indeed from Wales, had touched on the south coast of Ireland, and
thence had rounded the Land's End, and, growing short of food, had
put in here. Also, he told us that they had been "collecting
property," and were on the way home to Denmark. He thought they
were the first ships of the Danes to cruise in these waters, and
was proud of it.

"It is a wondrously fair land of yours here," he said, looking
inland on the rolling downs and forest-hidden valleys.

"Fairer than your own?" I asked.

"Surely; else why should we care to leave our homes?"

"Ho, Thrond!" shouted some man from the wharves, "here are cattle
coming in."

The old warrior turned and left us, going ashore. Round the turning
of the street inland, whence we came, some of the mounted men were
driving our red cattle from the nearer meadows, and doing it well
as any drover who ever waited for hire at a fair. I saw that they
had great heavy-headed dogs, tall and smooth haired, which worked
well enough, though not so well as our rough gray shepherd dogs.
The ship we were in lay alongside the wooden wharf; and one could
watch all that went on, for the fore deck was high above the busy
crowd ashore.

I wondered for a few minutes what the Danes would do with the
cattle; but they had no doubt at all. Before old Thrond had reached
them the work of slaughter had begun, and wonderfully fast the men
were carrying the meat on board the ships, heaping it in piles
forward, and throwing the hides over the heaps. I heard one of the
guards say to another that this was a good "strand hewing," that
being their name for this hasty victualling of the ships.

More cattle came in presently, and sheep also, to be served in the
same way. There were a hundred and fifty men or so on each ship,
and I think that this was the first landing they had made since
they left Ireland, so that they were in need of plenty of stores.

Then all in the midst of the bustle came the wild note of a war
horn from somewhere inland beyond the town, and in a moment every
man stood still where he happened to be, and listened. Twice again
the note sounded, and a horseman came clattering down to the shore.
He was Thorleif, the chief with whom we had spoken, and he reined
up the horse and lifted his hand, with a short, sharp order of some
kind.

At that every man dropped what he was carrying, and the men who
were stowing the plunder on board the ships left their work and
hurried ashore, gripping their weapons from where they had set them
against the gunwales. There was a moment's wild hurrying on the
wharves, and then the warriors were drawn up in three lines along
the wharf, across the berths where they had laid the ships, and
facing the landward road. Only the ship guard never stirred.

"If only we could get our men to form up like these!" said Elfric.
"See, every man knows his place, and keeps it. They are silent
also. Mind you the way of our levies?"

I did well enough. Never had I seen aught like this. For our folk,
called up from plough and forest hastily--and now and then
only--have never been taught the long lesson of order and readiness
that these men had learned of necessity in the yearly battle with
wind and wave in their ships. Nor had they ever to face a foe any
better ordered than themselves.

"Is the sheriff at hand?" I said breathlessly.

"Maybe. I hope not closely."

Down the street galloped a few more Danes, looking behind them as
they rode. They spoke to Thorleif, and he laughed, and then turned
their horses loose and leaped to their places in the ranks.
Thorleif dismounted also, and paced to and fro, as a waiting seaman
will, with his arms behind him.

And then came a rush of horsemen, and my cousin gripped my arm, and
cried out in a choked voice:

"Mercy!" he gasped, "is the man mad?"

The new horsemen were men of our own from Dorchester. I saw one or
two of Elfric's housecarls among them, and the rest were the
sheriff's own men, with a few franklins who had joined him on the
road.

At the head of the group rode Beaduheard himself, red and hot with
his ride, and plainly in a rage. His rough brown beard bristled
fiercely, and his hand griped the bridle so that the knuckles were
white. He had armed himself, and his men were armed also, but their
gear showed poorly beside the Danish harness. He had hardly more
than twenty men after him, and I thought he had outridden his
followers who were on foot.

"O fool!" groaned Elfric. "What is the use of this?"

But we could do nothing, and watched in anxiety to see what
Beaduheard had in his mind. It was impossible that he could have
ridden in here with no warning of the real danger, as we had ridden
two hours ago, before things had gone so far. Every townsman had
fled long since, and would be making for Dorchester. He must have
met them.

Now he halted in front of that terrible silent line, while his men
seemed to shrink somewhat as they, too, pulled up. Then he faced
Thorleif as boldly as if he had the army of Wessex behind him, and
spoke his mind.

"What is the meaning of this?" he shouted in his great voice. "We
can have no breaking of the king's peace here, let me tell you. Set
down those arms, and do your errand here as peaceful merchants,
whereto will be no hindrance. But concerning the lifting of cattle
which has gone on, I must have your leaders brought to Dorchester,
there to answer for the same."

There was a moment's silence, and then the Danes broke into a great
roar of laughter. Even Thorleif's grim face had a smile on it, and
he set his hand to his mouth, and stroked his long moustache as if
hiding it, while he looked wonderingly at the angry man before him.
But beside me Elfric stamped his foot with impatience, and muttered
curses on the foolhardiness of the sheriff, which, indeed, I
suppose no one understands to this day.

Some say that he took them for merchants, run wild indeed, but to
be brought to soberness by authority. Others think that finding
himself, as it were, in a wolf's mouth, he was minded to carry it
off with a high hand, seeing no other way out of the danger. But
most think that he had such belief in his own power that he did
indeed look to see these men bow to it, and lay down their arms
then and there. But none will ever know, by reason of what was to
come.

"Throw down your arms!" he commanded again, when the laughter
ceased.

His voice shook with rage.

"Stay!" said Thorleif. "What is your authority?"

The question was put very courteously, if coldly, and it was common
sense.

"I am the sheriff of Dorchester. Whence are you that you should
defy the king's officer?"

"Pardon," said Thorleif. "It is only at this moment that we have
learned that we have so great a man before us. As for your
question, we are hungry Danes who are looking for victuals. It is
our custom to go armed in a strange land, that we may protect our
ships at the least."

"Trouble not for your ships, for none will harm them," Beaduheard
said, seeming to be somewhat pacified by the quiet way of the
chief. "Set down your arms, and render up yourself and the other
ship captains, and the theft of the cattle and damage here shall be
compounded for at Dorchester."

Then Thorleif turned to his men and said:

"You hear what the sheriff says; what is the answer?"

That came in a crash and rattle of weapons on round shields that
rang over the bay, and sent the staring cattle headlong from where
they had been left at the wharf end, tail in air, down the beach.
There was no doubting what that meant, and Beaduheard, brave man as
he was, if foolish, recoiled. His men were already edging out of
the wide space toward the homeward track, and he glanced at them
and saw it.

At that he seemed to form some sudden resolve; and calling to them,
he rode straight at Thorleif and griped him by the collar of his
mail shirt, crying that he arrested him in the name of Bertric the
king. Thorleif never struggled, but twisted himself round strongly,
and hauled the sheriff off his horse in a moment, and the two
rolled over and over on the ground, wrestling fiercely. Three or
four of Beaduheard's men rode up to their master's help in haste,
caring naught that a dozen of the Danes had sprung forward. There
was a wild shouting and stamping, and the horses went down as the
axes of the Danes flashed. Two more of the sheriff's men joined in,
and I saw the Danes hew off the points of their levelled spears.
Then into the huddled party of our men who were watching the
fight--still doubting whether they should join in or fly--rode a
dozen Danes from out of the country, axe and sword in hand, driving
them back on the main line of the vikings, and then the fight
seemed to end as suddenly as it began. Two or three horses went
riderless homeward, and that was how Dorchester learned that
Beaduheard the sheriff had met his end.

The Danes fell back into their places, one or two with wounds on
them; and Thorleif rose up from the ground, shaking his armour into
place, and looking round him on those who lay there. They were all
Saxons. Not one had escaped.

"Pick up the sheriff," he said to some of his men. "I never saw a
braver fool. Maybe he is not hurt."

But, however he died, Beaduheard never moved again. Some of the
Danes said that a horse must have kicked him; Thorleif had never
drawn weapon.

"Pity," said Thorleif. "He was somewhat of a Berserk; but he
brought it on himself."

Which was true enough, and we knew it. Neither Elfric nor I had a
word to say to each other. The whole fight had sprung up and was
over almost before we knew what was happening.

Then the Danes mounted the horses of the men who had fallen, caught
the others they had turned loose on the alarm, and were off on
their errands without delay. The ranks fell out, and went back to
their work as if nothing had happened, and the wharf buzzed with
peaceful-seeming noise again.

That is how the first Danes came to Wessex. Men say that these
three ships were the first Danish vessels that came to all England;
and so it may be, as far as coming on viking raids is concerned.
Wales knew them, and Ireland, and now our turn had come.



CHAPTER II. HOW WILFRID KEPT A PROMISE, AND SWAM IN PORTLAND RACE.


All the rest of that afternoon we two had to bide on the narrow
fore deck of the long ship, watching the pillage of the little
town. Once I waxed impatient, and asked my cousin if we might not
try to escape, seeing that little heed was paid to us, and that our
staying here as hostages had been of no use. But he shook his head,
telling me that until he had spoken with Thorleif or Thrond, to
whom we had passed our word, we must bide; which I saw was right.

Presently, as the evening began to close in, Thorleif came to us,
and with him was the old chief. After them came a man with food in
plenty in a ship's cauldron, and a leathern jack of ale, which he
set before us as we sat on the coils of rope which were stowed
forward.

"Welsh mutton and Welsh ale," said Thorleif, smiling. "That is
plunder one may ask a Saxon to share without offence. Fall to, I
pray you."

There was a rough courtesy in this, at the least intended, and we
were hungry, so we did not delay. And as we ate, the chief spoke
with us plainly.

"I had hoped," he said, "to manage this raid without fighting, but
I never met so headstrong a man as your sheriff. Truly, I would
have sent him home in peace, if in a hurry, had we been given a
chance, but, as you saw, we had none. Now, if you will, I will send
one of you home to say that if your folk will pay us fair ransom in
coined silver or weighed gold, we will harry no more, and will not
burn the town. One of you shall go at once, and bring me word by
noon at latest tomorrow, while the other shall bide as hostage for
his return. We will do no harm to aught until the time is up."

"Plain speaking, chief," said Elfric. "If we go, we must not have
more than a reasonable sum named, else will the message be
useless."

Then they talked of what sum should be named, and in the end agreed
on what was possible, I think; at all events, it was far less than
has been paid to the like force of Danes since. The riches of our
peaceful Wessex were as yet unknown to the vikings, save by
hearsay; indeed, it has been said that these three ships came to
spy out the land. And then came the question as to which of us two
was to go.

That was ended by Thorleif himself. I said that Elfric should go,
and he was most anxious that I should be freed from the clutches of
the Danes. And as we spoke thereof, neither of us being willing to
give way--for, indeed, it did not seem to me that it mattered much
whether I stayed, while Elfric had his own family, who would be
sorely terrified for him--Thorleif decided it.

"Elfric the thane must go," he said, "for men will listen to him.
That is the main thing, after all.

"We will not harm your cousin, thane, and you may be easy in your
mind."

"Nay," said Thrond, "I think that Dorchester would pay ransom for
the thane willingly. Best let the lad go."

"This is more a question of ransoming the town and countryside,
foster father," answered Thorleif. "The thane shall go."

In a quarter of an hour he was gone, the Danes giving him back his
weapons and mounting him on his own horse. He told me that he had
no doubt that I should be freed by noon tomorrow, and so we parted
in good spirits, as far as ourselves were concerned.

As to the trouble that had fallen on the land, that was another
matter. I did not rightly take it in, but it was heavy on his mind.
For myself, therefore, I was content enough; I had no reason to
think that the Danes were likely to treat me evilly in any way.

Nor did they. On the other hand, as if I were one of themselves,
they set me by the chief when they made a feast presently, and did
not ask me questions about the country; which was what I feared.
Most likely their riders had learned all they would from others.

When it grew dark they lighted great fires along the wharves, and
sat by them in their arms, drinking the Weymouth ale, and eating
the Dorset fare they had taken. The ship guards went ashore, and
their places were taken by others, and I saw strong pickets passing
out of the town to guard the ways into it. Thorleif would not risk
aught in the way of safeguard. After that was done, those whose
watch off it was went on board the ships, and slept under the
shelter of the gunwales, wrapped in their thick sea cloaks. They
gave me one, and bade me rest on the after deck by the chiefs; and
in spite of the strangeness of everything I slept dreamlessly,
being tired in mind as well as in body.

Next morning things were to all seeming much the same. The Danes
had kept their word, and all was peaceful. There being nothing more
in the town left worth taking, they stowed everything carefully,
and made all ready for sailing. And then, halfway between noon and
sunrise, Elfric rode back.

I did not see him, for he was not suffered to come beyond the line
of outposts, and all that he had to say, of course, I did not know
at the time. One came and told Thorleif that the thane waited to
speak with him, and he was gone from the ships for half an hour
with Thrond. When he came back his face was grimmer than ever, and
a red scar which crossed his forehead was burning crimson. He
stayed to speak to the men on the wharves, and some order he gave
was passed from one to another, and in ten minutes every man had
left the wharves and had passed inland, with him at their head.

"Ho, that is it!" said one of the ship guard from the deck below
me.

"What is it?" I asked, for I had been talking to the man in all
friendly wise, of ship and sea and strange lands.

"Why, your folk will not pay, and so we must needs take payment for
ourselves in the viking's way."

I said no more, nor did the man. I think he was sorry for me; but
it was not long before he called to me and pointed to the hillside
above the town. On it was a black throng of folk, slowly coming
down toward us.

"Your people coming to drive us out," he said, laughing a short
laugh.

Then he and his comrades bustled about the ship, setting every
loose thing in place, until the decks were clear. In the other
ships the guard were at the same work, and at last they cast off
all the shore lines but one at stem and stern. The ships might sail
at the moment their men were on board if they were beaten back.

About that time the farther houses in Weymouth began to burn, and I
heard the Wessex war cry rise, hoarse and savage, as the foes met.
There were more of our men coming over the hill, and it was good to
me to see that the Danes, who watched as eagerly as I, waxed silent
and anxious. One said that there seemed a many folk hereabout, as
if the gathering against them was more than they cared for.

Now I did not know what I had best wish for. Sometimes I thought
that if our men were beaten back they might come to terms, and I
should be freed. And it being a thing impossible that I could hope
that Wessex was to be beaten, and next to impossible that I should
so much as imagine she could, I mostly wondered what would happen
to me when the Danes had to seek the ships. But as the noise of the
fight drew nearer, and the black smoke from burning houses grew
thicker, I forgot myself, and only wished I was with Elfric in that
struggle; and at last I could stand it no longer.

"Let me go, men," I said; "I cannot bide here."

"We must, and you have to," said the friendly man. "We want to help
as much as you, but here we have to stay. Be quiet."

"Ay, or we will bind you again," said another man shortly.

But neither looked toward me; their eyes were on the road inland,
down which we could not see, for it opened at the end of the wharf.

Now a wounded man or two crawled down that road, and some of the
guard helped them to the ships. They growled fiercely when their
comrades asked how things went, and thereby I knew that it was ill
for the Danes. The houses nearer the wharves were burning one after
another, as they were driven back.

At last there came a rush of Danes down that road, and into the
seaward houses they went, and fired them. Then they came on board
the ships, and bade the ship guard relieve them at the front. More
than one of those who came thus had slight wounds on them, but they
did not heed them.

"Keep still, lad," said my friend as he hurried away. "The men are
savage. We are getting the worst of it--not for the first time."

Savage enough the men were, and I saw that the advice was good; so
I sat down on the steering bench and went on watching. But I was
not long left in peace. The noise of the fight came closer and
closer, and the wounded crept in a piteous stream to us. And then a
man would look to the after line from the ship to the bollard on
the wharf, and leaped on the after deck close to me.

"Out of the way, you Saxon!" he said savagely, and with that sent
me across the deck with a fierce push which was almost a blow; and
that was the spark which was all I needed to set my smouldering
impatience alight.

I recovered myself, and without a word hit him fairly in the face
with all my weight behind a good blow from the shoulder, and sent
him spinning in turn. He went headlong over the edge of the raised
deck, and lit among a group of his comrades, thereby saving himself
from what would have been a heavy fall on his head and shoulders.

"Well hit, Saxon!" shouted a man from the nearest ship, and there
was a great roar of laughter thence.

However, before his comrades, who had been watching the fires they
had lighted, knew rightly how the man had thus been hurled on them,
and were abusing him for clumsiness, he had his sword out, swearing
to end me; and I suppose he might have done so without any of the
others interfering had they understood the matter. But he was a
heavy man, and mailed moreover; whereby three or four were smarting
under his weight. So they fell on him and held his arm, thinking,
no doubt, that he was resenting their words; which was the saving
of me, for at that moment a roar came from the wharf, and slowly
out of the lane end we had been watching came Thorleif's men. Their
faces were toward the foe, and those who led the retreat were at
work with their bows, shooting over the heads of those before them
at the press which drove them back. And some leader from among
them, with lifted sword, signed to the ship guards to heed the open
end of the wharf, to my right.

They forgot the little matter on hand, and ran ashore. Then I noted
that on that end of the wharf, where a narrow lane came down to the
water, there was another fight going on, and they had to support
the Danes there. The other end of the wharf was kept by a curve of
the shore, and that was safe.

Presently all the Danes were back on the water front, and across
the end of the two entrances to its wide space they drew some heavy
wagons, which had been set there in readiness, blocking them. One
could only see now and then what was being done, as the wind
drifted the black smoke aside, for now every house was burning
fiercely.

Then came a wild and yet orderly rush of the Danes to the ships,
and it was wonderful to see each man get to his post at the oars as
he came. Three men went to each oar port. One had the oar ready for
thrusting outboard, one stood by with his shield ready to protect
the rower, and the other, standing in the midship gangway, had his
bow ready.

Thrond came on board with the first, and leaped to the steering
deck, where he grasped the tiller, paying no heed to me. His eyes
were on the lane end. I got out of his way, and stood by the stern
post, with my arm round the dragon tail.

For I saw nothing else to do but to keep quiet. I did not know
rightly whether honour compelled me to stay as a captive still, but
I thought it did. But if not, in one way I could have escaped; for
I had been forgotten, and every man was watching the shore. I could
drop overboard and swim ashore somewhere beyond the reach of the
Danes, being a good swimmer; but as I say, I doubted if I might. So
I stayed, whether wrongly or not I will leave others to decide; but
seeing that I doubted, I think I need not be blamed for doing as I
did.

One of the houses fell in with a tremendous crash, and an eddying
of smoke and flame across the wharf to leeward. Out of that smother
came running the men who had left the ships just now, stooping and
hiding their blackened faces from the sparks with their shields,
and they too found their posts at once. A dozen came on the after
deck with bows, and lined the shoreward gunwale.

Hardly had they come on board when the rest came in a rush,
Thorleif being last of all. Behind them the wharf was empty, save
for one man whom an arrow out of the smoke caught up and smote.
Thorleif heard him fall, though in the turmoil of trampling feet I
could not; and he turned back to him, and lifted him as if he had
been a child, and bore him on board. Then the gang planks rattled
in, and the lines were cast off, and the ship began to move.

Still the wharf was empty. I think the Saxons had been driven back
for a while, and that they did not yet know, so thick was the smoke
of the burning, that the barrier at the end of the lane was
unguarded.

Now there were five yards between ship and shore--then ten--then
twenty. The oars took the water, and she headed for sea. Out of the
smoke came my people, and ran yelling across the open, and I seemed
to wake up.

"Thrond," I cried, "I take back my promise. Let me go."

"Eh!" he said, looking round.

I was then with my hands on the gunwale, in the act of leaping
overboard, when he reached round and held me fast.

"Steady, fool!" he said; "you will have a dozen arrows through you.

"Here, hold him," he said sharply.

And the men fell on me, binding me deftly with a few turns of a
line, and then troubling themselves no more about me.

Next moment there was a sharp hiss, and an arrow from the shore
stuck in the deck close to me, and another chipped the tail of the
dragon and glanced into the sea. I mind noting that many another
such splinter had been taken from that stern post, and presently
saw--for I lay on my back, helpless--that a flint arrowhead still
showed itself through a new coat of paint. It was too deeply bedded
to be cut out, or else it was token of some honourable fight. It at
least had come from forward, whereas I thought that most of the
chips had come from astern, as this new one did. It is strange what
little things one will notice when at one's wits' end.

The shouts ashore grew more faint, and at last were past. The crew
were very silent, but the oars swung steadily, and at last Thorleif
came from the midship gangway and saw me. The weary men laid in the
oars at that moment, and threw themselves down to rest.

"Ho, Saxon!" he said, "on my word I had forgotten you. Who had you
tied up?"

"I did," said Thrond. "He said somewhat about taking back a
promise, and wanted to go overboard."

Thorleif stooped and unbound me, and I thanked him.

"Well, you won't go overboard now," he said, nodding toward the
shore.

The great rock of Portland was broad off on our right, and maybe we
were five miles from the nearest shore. Astern--for we were still
heading out to sea--the smoke of burning Weymouth hung black
against the blue sky. It was just such a day as yesterday, fair and
warm, and the land I loved had never seemed so lovely.

"Let me go, chief," I said; "it is of no use for you to keep me."

"Why," he answered, "I don't know that it is. But your folk would
pay no ransom, and it would seem foolish if I had let you go
offhand. Not but what your folk have not proved their wisdom, for
they have got rid of us pretty cheaply. Odin! how they swarmed on
us!"

"Ay," growled Thrond. "I did not dream that so many men could be
gathered in so few hours; but they fought anyhow, and it was only a
matter of numbers. Well, the place is good enough, and it is but a
question of more ships next time."

"Why did not you try an escape when we were all busy in the fight?"
asked Thorleif, turning to me. "I have lost more than one captive
in that way."

I told him, and he looked kindly enough at me, and smiled in his
grim way.

"You were right in saying that a Saxon's word was good, Thrond," he
said.

"I am sorry we can in no way send you back now. Your cousin did his
best to win his folk to peace--and fought well when he could not.
Nay, he is not hurt, so far as I know."

"Let me swim ashore, if there is no other way," I said, with a dull
despair on me.

Thorleif looked at the sea and frowned.

"I could not do it myself," he said. "There is a swift current
round yon headland. See, it is setting us eastward even now."

But I did not wait to hear any more; I shook my shoes off, and over
I went. The wake of the swift vessel closed over my head as the men
shouted, and when I came to the surface I looked back once. It
seemed that Thorleif was preventing the men from sending a shower
of arrows after me, but in those few moments a long space of water
had widened between us; and I doubt whether they would have hit me,
for I could have dived.

Then I headed for shore and freedom, and it was good to be in the
water alone with silence round me. As for the other two ships, they
were half a mile away from Thorleif's, and I did not heed them. So
I never looked back, but gave myself to the warm waves, and saved
my strength for the long swim before me. There was not much sea,
and what there was set more or less shoreward, so that it did not
hinder me. Presently I shook myself out of my tunic, and was more
free.

I suppose that I swam steadily for an hour before I began to think
in earnest what a long way the land yet was from me. In another
half hour I had to try to make myself believe that it was growing
nearer. Certainly Portland was farther from me, but that was the
set of the current; and presently I knew, with a terrible sinking
of heart, that the land also was lessening in my sight. The current
was sweeping me away from it.

When I understood that, I turned on my back and rested. Then I saw
that the ships were not so far away as I had expected. I seemed to
have made little way from them also; which puzzled me. They had not
yet set sail, and it was almost as if the oars were idle. I think
they were not more than a mile off. I could almost have wept with
vexation, so utterly did all the toil seem to be thrown away.
However, a matter of two hours in the water when as pleasant as
this was nothing to me, for I had stayed as long therein, many a
time, for sport. So I hoped to do better with the turn of the tide,
and let myself go easily to wait for it.

We had left Weymouth when the flood had three hours more to run, so
I had not long to wait. It turned; and I knew when it turned,
because the wind against it raised a sea which bid fair to wear me
out. I had to go with it more or less.

Then, indeed, the land seemed very dear to me, and I began to think
of home and of those who sat there deeming that all was well with
me. They would never know how I had ended. I will not say much of
all that went on in my mind, save only that I am ashamed of naught
that passed through it. Nor did I swim less strongly for the
thoughts, but struggled on steadily.

And at last the sun set, and the wind came chill over the water,
and I knew that little hope was for me. Again I turned on my back
and rested, and I grew drowsy, I think.

Now the daylight faded from the sky, and overhead the stars began
to come out; but as the sky darkened the sea seemed to grow
brighter. Presently all around me seemed to sparkle, and I wondered
listlessly that the stars were so bright in the water to one who
swam among their reflections. Then the little crests of foam on the
waves seemed on fire, and my arms struck sparks, as it were from
the water, as the sparks fly from the anvil. Only these were palest
blue, not red, and I wondered at them, thinking at first that they
were fancy, or from the shine of the bright stars above.

And all of a sudden, ahead of me, moved swiftly in the sea and
across my way a sheet of dazzling blue brightness, and it
frightened me. Often as I had seen the sea and swum in it, I had
never seen the like of this, nor had heard of it. The sheet of
silver fire turned and drew toward me, and I ceased swimming, and
stood, treading water, watching it. Out of its midmost fires darted
long streaks of light, everywhere, lightning swift, coming and
going ceaselessly.

Into the midst of that brightness rushed five bolts of flame, and
scattered it. The water boiled, alive with the darting fires around
me and under my feet, and my heart stood still with terror. Yet I
was not harmed. And then I saw one of those great white-hot silver
bolts hurl itself from sea to air in a wide arch, and fall back
again into the water with a mighty splash; and all the flying water
seemed to burn as it fled.

Truly it was but a school of mackerel, and the porpoises which fed
on the silver fish, all made wonderful by the eerie fires of a
summer sea; but I could not tell that all at once. I think that I
knew what it was when the great sea pig leaped, for his shape was
plain to me. The shoal went its way, and after it the harmless
porpoises. But the sea was fairly alight now; all round me it shone
with its soft glow, and my body was wondrous with it, and I seemed
to float in naught but light.

Then I think that I wandered in my mind, what with the fright and
weariness; for I had been five or six hours in the water, and it
was long since I had tasted food. It came to me that I was dead at
last, and that I was far in the sky, floating on bright air, with
stars above me and stars below. And that seemed good to me. I
rested, paddling just enough to keep myself upright and forget my
troubles in wonderment.

Surely that was a voice singing! There was a strange melody I had
never heard the like of, and it came from the brightness not far
from me. I came back to knowledge of where I was with a start,
trying to make out from which direction it sounded.

"This is a nixie trying to lure me to the depth," I thought.
"Truly, he need not take the trouble; for thither I must go
shortly, without any coaxing."

I turned myself in the water, trying to see if I could make out the
singer, but I could not. Seeing that no other was likely to be
swimming in Portland race but myself, I had no thought that the
song was human.

But I could find nothing. When my face was seaward, I saw far off
the ships I had left, indeed; and one seemed to have set her sail,
for it showed as a square patch of blackness against the sky, but
no voice could come from them to me. Presently I thought that
somewhat dark rose and fell on the little waves between me and her,
but that was doubtless the tunic I had given to the water. I did
not think of wondering why I still saw it after all this long swim,
but I seemed to have made no headway from the ships, which were as
near as when I last looked at them.

So I turned again and swam easily, as I thought, shoreward. The
song went on, but it seemed to ring in my ears as the drone of our
miller's pipes comes up from the river on a still summer evening.
Yet it grew more plain.

Then I saw the ships before me. I was swimming in a circle, my
right arm mastering the left, I suppose. That told me how weary I
was, if I had not known it to the full before. At that moment the
song, which was close to me, stopped, and a fiery arm rose from a
wave top against the sky, and seemed to hail me.

"Ho, Wilfrid! have you had enough yet? By Aegir himself, you are a
fine swimmer!"

Through the brightness came a sparkling head, round which the foam
curled in fleecy fire; and shining as I shone, Thorleif the viking
floated up to me and trod the water.

"What, you also?" I said. "Both of us drowned together at last?"

And with that I went into the brightness below me, and troubled no
more for anything.



CHAPTER III. HOW WILFRID MET ECGBERT THE ATHELING.


It was indeed Thorleif whom I saw as the deadly faintness of utter
weariness and want of food came over me, and I sank. The Danes had
hardly lost sight of me from the ships, for they had drifted
backward and forward on the tide as I drifted, and I was never more
than a mile from them. Until the tide turned to the eastward there
had been no wind of any use to them, and that which came with
sunset was barely enough to give them steerage way. So they had
watched me for want of somewhat else to do, being worn out with the
long fight; and when I was far off, some keen-sighted seaman would
spy my head as it rose on a wave, and cry that the Saxon was yet
swimming.

Now, if there is one thing that the northern folk of our kin think
much of in the way of sports, it is swimming, and it seems that I
won high praise from all. Maybe they did not consider how a man who
is trying to win his home again from captivity is likely to do more
than his best. At all events, I had never so much as tried a swim
like that before, nor do I think that I could compass it again.
Presently, when the turn of the tide brought with it no eddy into
the bay which set me homeward, Thorleif would let me go no longer,
and followed me in the boat with two men; which was easy enough,
for I swam between the ship and the place where the red glow of
burning Weymouth still shone in the northern sky. He could not
leave me to drown.

For a time, in the growing dusk, he could not find me. Then the sea
fires showed me black against their glow, and the sea tempted him,
and he leaped in after me, singing to cheer me, for it was plain
that I was nearly spent. When he brought me up from the depth again
I had little of the drowned man about me, for I had fainted. I
remember coming round painfully after that swoon, and eating and
drinking, and straightway falling into a dreamless sleep on the
deck of the ship; and I also remember the untoldly evil and fishy
smell of the seal oil they had rubbed me with.

When I came to myself, my first thought was that a solid wall of
that smell stood round me; but such were the virtues of the oil and
the rubbing that when I woke after eighteen hours' sleep I was not
so much as stiff. It would ill beseem me to complain thereof,
therefore, but it might have been fresher.

When I woke from my great sleep it was long past noon. I lay in the
shelter of the gunwales under the curve of the high stern post,
wrapped in a yellow Irish cloak, and in my ears roared and surged a
deep-voiced song, which kept time with the steady roll of oars and
the thrashing of the water under their blades. The ship was
quivering in every timber with the pull of them, and I could feel
her leap to every stroke. The great red and white sail was set
also, and the westerly breeze was humming in it, and over the high
bows the spray arched and fell without ceasing as oar and sail
drove the sharp stem through the seas. Thorleif was in a hurry for
some reason.

Only one man was on the after deck, steering, and he was fully
armed. Save that his brown arm swayed a little, resting on the
carven tiller, as the waves lifted the steering oar with a creak
now and then, he was motionless, looking steadily ahead under the
arch of the foot of the sail. The run of the deck set me higher
than him, and I could not see more than the feet of some men who
were clustered on the fore deck. But I could look all down the
length of the ship, and there every man was armed, even the rowers.
They had hung red and yellow wooden shields all along the gunwales,
raising the bulwark against sea and arrow flight alike by a foot
and more, and the rowers were fairly in shelter under them, if
there was to be a broadside attack.

I never doubted that a fight was intended, though I could not tell
why. Every man was at his post--two to each oar bench beside the
rower, one with ready shield, and the other with bent bow, and
these were looking forward also as they sang that hoarse song which
had roused me. I do not know that I have ever heard aught so
terrible as that. The wildness and savageness of it bides with me,
and of a night when the wind blows round the roof I wake and think
I hear it again. But it set me longing for battle, even here on the
strange deck, and I would that I might join in it.

And then I knew that my own weapons lay beside me, and I sprang up,
and grasped the sword and seax in haste to buckle them on. They
rattled, and the steersman turned his head and laughed at me. It
was old Thrond.

"That is right, lad," he said, turning his head back to watch his
course again. "None the worse for the wetting, it seems."

Truth to tell, I felt little of it, being altogether myself again
after the rest. So I laughed also, setting aside for the moment the
question of what my fate was to be. It was plain that the man who
saved me from the sea and gave me back my arms did not mean to make
a captive of me in any hard sort.

"Only mightily hungry," I said. "It seems that I have slept
heavily."

Thrond jerked his free thumb toward a pitcher and wooden bowl that
were set near me, without looking round.

"So I suppose," he said. "Eat well, and then we will see what sort
of a viking you make. You have half an hour or so."

Ale and beef there were, ready for me, and I took them and sat down
at the feet of the old chief, with my legs hanging over the edge of
the fore deck. Thence I could see that Thorleif was forward, and
that away to the northward of us a ship was heading across our
course, under sail only. The two other Danish ships were far astern
of us, but their oars were flashing in the sun as they made after
us.

Then I looked northward for England, but there was only the sea's
rim, and over that a bank of white summer clouds. Under the sun, to
the south, was a long blue line of hills whose shapes were strange
to me, and that was the Frankish shore. We were far across the
Channel, and still heading eastward.

"Thrond," I said, "are you after that ship yonder?"

"Ay. She will be a Frankish trader going home, and worth
overhauling. Maybe there will be no fight, however; but one never
knows."

Now it was in my mind to ask him what would be done with me, but I
did not. That was perhaps a matter which must be settled hereafter,
and not on the eve of a fight at sea. Moreover, I thought that a
Frankish ship was fair game for any one, and that if I were needed
there was no reason at all why I should not take a hand in the
fight. Certainly I should fare no worse for taking my plight in the
best way I could. So I held my tongue and went on eating.

One or two of the men looked up from the oars and grinned at me,
and of these one had a black eye, being the man I had knocked off
the deck. It was plain that he bore no malice, so I smiled back at
him, and lifted the jug of ale toward him as I drank. He was a
pleasant-looking man enough, now that the savagery of battle had
passed from him.

Now I would have it remembered that a Saxon lad reared on the west
Welsh marches is not apt to think much of a cattle raid and the
fighting that ends it, and that with these Danes, who were so like
ourselves, we had as yet no enmity. It seemed to me that being in
strange company I must even fit myself to it, and all was wonderful
to me in the sight of the splendid ship and her well-armed,
well-ordered crew. Maybe, had we not been speeding to a fight the
like of which I had never so much as heard of, I should have
thought of home and the fears of those who would hear that I was
gone; but as things were, how could I think of aught but what was
on hand?

We were nearing the vessel fast, and seeing that she did not turn
her head and fly, old Thrond growled that there was some fight in
her.

"Unless," he added with a hard chuckle, "they have never so much as
heard of a viking. Are there pirates in this sea, lad?"

"They say that the seamen from the southern lands are, betimes. I
have heard of ships taken by swarthy men thence. The Cornish tin
merchants tell the tales of them."

"Tin?" said Thrond. "Now I would that we had heard thereof before.
I reckon we passed some booty westward. Eh, well, we shall know
better next time."

After that he was silent, watching the ship ahead. She was a great
heavy trader, with higher sides than this swift longship.

And presently, as I watched her, a thought came to me, and I was
ashamed that I had not asked before if it was true that my cousin
had not been hurt in the fighting.

"He was not harmed," answered the old chief. "He hurt us; he is a
good fighter. Get yon shield and hold it ready to cover me. It is
not worth while to have the helmsman shot, and it will set a man
free to fight forward."

Now the ship was within arrow shot, and we could see that there
were few men on her decks. Thorleif hailed her to heave to, sending
an arrow on her deck by way of hint. Whereon she shot up into the
wind, and her sail rattled down. Thrond whistled to himself.

"Empty as a dry walnut shell, or I am mistaken," he said between
his teeth.

Then he shouted to Thorleif, and some order came back. The sail was
lowered, and the ship swung alongside the stranger under oars only,
while a rush of men came aft. Thorleif hailed the other ship to
send him a line from the bows, and one flew on board us as we shot
past. Then in a few moments we were under easy sail again, towing
the great trader slowly after us; and the men were grumbling at the
ease of the capture, thinking, with Thrond, that it boded a useless
chase. Thorleif came aft to speak with the shipmaster from our
stern.

Then there climbed on the bows of the trader a tall, handsome young
man, at the sight of whom I could not withhold a cry of wonder, for
I knew him well. He was Ecgbert the atheling, nephew of our great
king Ina, and the one man whom Bertric feared as a rival when he
came to the throne. His father and mine had been close friends, and
we two had played and hunted together many a time, until the
jealousy of Bertric drove him to seek refuge with Offa of Mercia. I
thought him there yet.

"Yield yourselves," said Thorleif, "and we will speak in peace of
ransom. I will come on board with a score of men, and harm none."

"We have yielded, seeing that there was no other chance for as,"
said Ecgbert quietly. "Come on board if you will, but on my word it
is hardly worth your while. We left in too great a hurry to bring
much with us."

"Whence are you, then, and whither bound?"

"From Mercia, by way of Southampton, and bound anywhere out of the
way of Quendritha the queen. We had a mind to go to Carl the king,
but any port in a storm!"

"Well," said Thorleif, laughing, "I am coming on board. That must
be a terrible dame of whom you speak, if she has set the fear of
death on a warrior such as you seem to be."

Then he bade the men haul on the cable, and the ships drew together
slowly. I had to leave the deck, being in the way of the men, and
Ecgbert did not see me, as far as I could tell.

Thorleif and his men boarded the prize over her bows and went aft,
Ecgbert going with them. The two ships drifted apart again, and I
found my place by Thrond once more, while the men sat on the
gunwale, waiting for the time when their chief should return.

"Who is the queen yon Saxon speaks of?" asked Thrond.

I told him; and as we had heard much of her of late, I also told
him how men said that she had been found on the shore by the king
himself. Whereon Thrond's grave face grew yet more grave, and he
said:

"Lad, is that a true tale?"

"My father had it from the thane who was with the king when they
found her alone in her boat."

"So her name was not Quendritha when she began that voyage?"

"I have heard that she was a heathen. Mayhap the king gave her the
name when she was christened. It means 'the might of the king.'"

So I suppose that he did, for the hope of what his wife should be.
Nor was the name ill chosen, as it turned out, for all men knew by
this time that the queen was the wisest adviser in all the council
of Mercia in aught to do with the greatness of the kingdom.

"I have ever had it in my mind that she would get through that
voyage in safety," Thrond said. "Ran would not have her."

"What do you mean?"

"Lad, I saw her start thereon, or so I think. Tell me when she was
found."

That I could do, within a very short time. My father and Offa had
been wedded in the same year, as I had heard him say but a few days
ago, at Winchester, as men talked of the bride whom we had
welcomed, Quendritha's daughter. And as he heard, Thrond's face
grew very dark.

"That is she. Now I will tell you the beginning of that voyage. I
was a courtman then to the father of Thorleif, our jarl here, and I
myself made the boat ready and launched her in it."

And then he told me that which I have set down at the beginning of
this tale--neither more nor less. What was the fullness of the evil
the woman had wrought he did not tell me, and I am glad.

When he ended he sat silent and brooding for a long time. The ship
forged slowly and uneasily over the waves with the heavy trader
after her, and on our decks the men were silent, waiting for word
from Thorleif of what was to be done. We could hear him, now and
then, laughing with the crew of the other ship as if all went
easily.

"Lad," said old Thrond, suddenly turning to me, "you had best
forget all this. It is dangerous to know aught of the secrets of
great folk; and if it comes to the ears of Quendritha that one is
telling such a tale of her, the life of the man who has told it
will not be worth much. Maybe I am wrong, and I speak of one who is
drowned long since; for, indeed, it seems out of the way of chance
that a girl could win across the sea from Denmark to a throne thus.
And if it is true, she has done even as Thorleif's father bade her,
and has left her ways of ill.

"And, yet," he said again, "if ever you have to do with her,
remember what she may have been. It will be ill to offend her, or
to cross her in aught."

"That is the hardest saying that our folk have of her," I said,
"but I have heard it many a time."

"There is much in that saying," Thrond answered grimly.

"Well," I answered shortly, "I suppose that if any man will set
himself against a king or a queen, he has to take the chances."

"Small chance for such an one if the queen be--well, such another
as I helped to set adrift from our shore."

Meaningly that was said, and I had no answer. I was glad that
Thorleif showed himself on the bows of the prize and hailed Thrond.

"Send the Saxon lad on board here," he said; "we have met with a
friend of his."

That could be none but the atheling, and I leaped up. The men were
heaving on the tow line, and the ships were slowly nearing each
other.

"Thrond," I said breathlessly, "will Thorleif let me go?"

"Of course," he answered, smiling. "We only picked you up again to
save your life. He had a mind to land you on the English shore
presently; for he said you had kept faith with us well, and he
could not let you suffer therefor."

The bows of the trader grated against our stern, and one of the men
gave me a hoist over her gunwale with such good will that I landed
sprawling among the coils of rope on the fore deck. When I gathered
myself up I saw Ecgbert and Thorleif aft, while the Danes were
rummaging the ship, and I made my way to them. And as I came the
atheling stared at me, and then hastened forward with outstretched
hand of welcome.

"Why, Wilfrid, old comrade, how come you here? I heard only of a
West Saxon, and whether this is luck for you or not I do not know."

"Good luck enough, I think," I answered, with a great hand grip. "I
had not yet let myself wonder how long it would be before I saw
home again."

His face fell, and he looked doubtfully at me.

"I cannot take you home, Wilfrid; I am flying thence myself. The
Danish chief will set you ashore somewhere at his first chance, he
says."

"Why, what is amiss again?"

"The old jealousy, I suppose," he answered grimly. "As if a lad
like myself was likely to try to overturn a throne! Here had I
hardly settled down in Mercia as a fighter of the Welsh and
hanger-on of Offa's court, when there come Bertric's messengers,
asking that I should be given up, and backing the demand with a
request for closer alliance by marriage. Offa, being an honest man,
was for sending the message back unanswered. But the queen had a
mind for the match, and as I was in the way, it was plain to me
that I must be out of it. So I did not wait for Quendritha to
remove me, but removed myself."

"Alone?" I asked.

"Alone, and that hastily. You do not know the lady of Mercia, or
you would not ask."

Now I thought to myself that in the last half hour I had learned
more of that lady than even Ecgbert knew, and I felt that he was
wise in time, if Thrond's tale was true; which, indeed, I began to
believe. But it did not seem right to me that an atheling of Wessex
should be alone, without so much as a housecarl to tend him and
stand at his back at need. I minded what my father taught me since
I could learn.

"Here is your duty, son Wilfrid. First to God; then to the king;
then to the atheling, the king's son, and then to father and
mother; then to the shire reeve and the ealdorman, if so be that
they are loyal; and then to helpless woman and friendless poor man.
But to the weak first of all, against whomsoever will wrong them,
whether it be the king or myself."

"Where will you go, atheling?" I asked, speaking low, for I had
many things warring in my mind.

"I cannot tell yet. I am an outcast."

Then I knelt on the deck before him and made him take my hands
between his own, and I said to him, while he tried to prevent me:

"Whither you go I follow, to be your man in good or ill. Little use
I am, but some I may be; and at least the atheling of Wessex shall
not say that none would follow him."

"Wilfrid," he cried, "I cannot suffer you to leave all for me."

Then said Thorleif, who had been watching us in silence:

"Take him, prince, for you will need him. He has kept faith with
us, though he might have escaped easily enough, because he thought
his word withheld him. And he has proved himself a man in battle
with the waters, as I know well. Let him go with you, and be glad
of him."

"I am loath to take him from his folk to share my misfortunes."

"That is naught," said Thorleif. "Pay a trader who is going to
England to tell other chapmen to pass the word to his folk where he
is. They will hear in a month or less."

"Hearken to the chief, my prince," I said. "That is easy, and it
will be all I care for. If my father hears that I am with you, he
will be well content."

"More than content, Wilfrid," said Ecgbert, smiling. "We of the
line of Ina know your folk of old. Well, be it as you will, for, on
my word, I am lonely; and I think, comrade, that if I had choice of
one to stand by me, the choice would have fallen on you.

"There was little need, chief, for you to tell me that Wilfrid of
Frome was steadfast. We are old friends."

"Bide so, then. Friends are not easily made," answered Thorleif,
laughing. "Now tell me what you are thinking of doing. Maybe I can
advise you, being an adventurer by choice, as it seems you must be
by need. But first I will offer you both a share in our cruise, if
you will turn viking and go the way of Hengist and Horsa, your
forbears. Atheling and thane's son you will be to us still, if you
have to take an oar now and then."

"Kindly spoken," said Ecgbert; "but this I will tell you plainly.
It had not come into my mind to think that Bertric needed to fear
me until he showed that he did so. Had he left me to myself, I had
been as good a subject of Wessex as Wilfrid here. But now it seems
to me that maybe he has some good reason to think that the throne
might be or should have been mine. Wherefore it is in my mind to
seek the great King Carl, and learn what I can of his way of
warfare, that presently, when the time comes, I may be the more
ready to take that throne and hold it."

"Why, then," said Thorleif, watching the face of the atheling, "I
will tell you this from out of my own knowledge of Wessex. If you
learn what Carl can teach you, you will, if you can raise a
thousand followers, walk through Wessex into Mercia, and thence
home by East Anglia to London town, and there sit with three crowns
on your head--the greatest king that has been in England yet. For
your folk know no more of fighting, though they are brave enough,
than a herd of cattle. But it will be many a long year before you
know enough, and then you will need to be able to use your
knowledge."

"Can you tell me where to find Carl the king? It may be that I have
years enough before me to learn much."

"Those who want to learn do learn," quoth Thorleif. "It is in my
mind that, unless a Flemish arrow ends you, Wessex will have to
choose between you and Bertric presently."

Then he told us where he had last heard of the Frankish king, which
was somewhere on the eastern Rhine border. And at last, being taken
with the fearless way of the young atheling, said that if he would,
he himself would see him as far on his way as the Rhine mouth. And
in the end Ecgbert closed with the offer, and left the Frankish
ship accordingly.

Thorleif's men had sought every corner of her by that time, and had
some store of silver money to show for their long chase, and were
satisfied. As for the shipmen of their prize, I think they were
well enough content to be let go in peace, and had little to say on
the matter. Ecgbert was for giving them the gold ring which he had
promised them as passage money, that being the only thing of value
he had beyond his weapons; but Thorleif would not suffer him to do
so, saying that his Danes would but take it from them straightway.

So the great trader lumbered off southward, and I and the atheling
sat with Thrond and Thorleif, and told and heard all the story of
the raid on Weymouth until the stars came out. And I was well
content; for no Saxon can ask aught better than to serve his lord,
whether in wealth or distress.

Now I might make a long story of that voyage with Thorleif, for
there were landings such as had been made at Weymouth, and once
just such another fight. And ever the lands where we touched grew
more strange to me, until we came to the low shores of the Rhine
mouths, hardly showing above the gray waves of the sea which washed
their sad-coloured sand dunes. And there Thorleif landed us at a
fishing village, among whose huts rose the walls of a building
which promised us shelter at least.

Terribly frightened were the poor folk at our coming, but they took
us, with the guard Thorleif sent ashore with us, to the building,
and it turned out to be a monastery, where we were most welcome.
And there we bid farewell to the Danes, not without regret, for we
had been good comrades on the voyage. There was a great difference
between these crews of men from one village under their own chief,
and the terrible swarms of men, gathered none knows whence, and
with little heed to their leaders save in battle, which came in
after years. We saw the Dane at his best.

Now after that the good abbot of the place passed us on from town
to town until at last we came to Herulstad, where Carl the mighty
lay with his army, still watching and fighting the heathen Saxons
of the Rhinelands. And there Ecgbert was welcomed in all
friendliness, and our wanderings were at an end. Even the arm of
Quendritha could not reach the atheling here, though Carl and Offa
were friendly, and messengers came and went between the two courts
from time to time.

In that way I had messages sent home at last, and my mind was at
rest. It was, however, nearly a year before my folk heard of me, as
I learned afterward. But close on five years of warfare lay before
me ere I should set foot on English ground again.



CHAPTER IV. HOW WILFRID MET AN OLD ACQUAINTANCE IN NORWICH MARKET.


Looking back on them, it seems that those five years with Carl the
Great were long, but in truth they went fast enough. With Ecgbert I
went everywhere that war was to be waged, whether on the still half
heathen, unwillingly christened Saxons, who were our own kin of the
old land; or across on the opposite frontier, where the terrible
Moors of Spain had not yet forgotten Roncesvalles. For us it was
fighting, and always fighting, and little of that most splendid
court of the king did we see; for Ecgbert had set himself to learn
all that he might, and he was not one to do things by halves. Nor
had I any wish to be anywhere but near him.

They were good years, therefore, if we had our share of danger and
hardship to the full, and must needs bear the marks of it ever
after. Once I was sorely wounded, and Ecgbert tended me through
that as a brother rather than as my lord--even as I would have
tended him, only that he was never hurt. Some of us grew to think
that he had a charmed life; but I thought that he was kept for the
sake of what was to be in days to come, when England was worn out
with warfare between the kingdoms, and would welcome a strong hand
over her from north to south.

I know not whether it was Carl himself who bade Ecgbert wait for
that day, but it is likely. The atheling was in no haste to return
to England, and it was his word that until he was needed he should
bide here and learn.

But when the time went on he had thought for me, and one April day,
as we rode together, he bade me go home and see that all was well
with my folk. I had some fever on me at that time, for we were
among the Frisian marshlands, and it had fallen on me when I was
weak from the wound I spoke of, so that I could not shake it off.
It came every third day, and held me in its grip for the afternoon,
cold as ice, and then hot as fire, and so leaving me little the
worse, but always thin and yellow to look on. Moreover, it always
seemed to come on the wrong day for me, when I needed to be most
busy, so that over and over again Ecgbert had to ride out without
me. There were plenty more of us in the same case that year, when
we were hunting Frisian heathen rebels to their strongholds in
their fens.

"I must lose you in one way or the other, comrade," Ecgbert said.
"Either you will die here, which is the worst that could befall
you, or else you must go home to England. Now there is a fair
chance for you, for Carl is sending some messengers with presents
to the young King of East Anglia, who has yet to be crowned. Go
with them, and take him greetings from me."

But before I could bring myself to agree to parting from him he had
to put this before me in many ways, for I could not bear to leave
him. And at last he laid his commands on me that I must go. He said
it was time that he had a friend who knew his hopes in England,
watching how matters went for him, and that I could best do it. So
there was no way out of it, and I had to go.

And when I knew that, there woke in me the longing for England
which lies deep in the heart of every one of her sons, wheresoever
he may be across the seas, and the days were weary before Carl's
messengers should sail. I think that Ecgbert envied me, with the
same longing on him; but one could only know it from his silences,
or from the way in which he would talk to me of all that I should
see again.

Two days before we sailed I was sent for by Carl himself; which was
an honour indeed for me. Very kindly he thanked me for past
services, as if I had not rather served Ecgbert than himself; and
he gave me new arms of the best from head to foot, and a heavy bag
of gold moreover, that I might not say that Carl the Great was
sparing of his reward to those who had fought for him. I did not
need that, for he had been more than generous to us for all these
years, and any man knows that it is an honour to have served with
the greatest of kings, and to have spoken freely with him.

I told Ecgbert that I must return to him when I was free from the
fever, but he shook his head.

"Nay, but you have your work at home, and mine lies here," he said.
"Your father has no other child, and, he needs you. I am well off
here till that day we wot of comes. Wait for it in patience, and
then we shall meet again. There will be no comrade like you for me
till then, but I shall know I have one at least who will welcome me
presently if you go now."

He made it light for me; but it was a hard parting, and I will say
no more of it. The ship left the little Frisian port whence we
sailed, and he stood on the shore and watched us until I could see
him no more; then for a time a loneliness fell on me which made me
a poor companion for the gay Frankish nobles with whom I was to go
to East Anglia.

Not that it mattered much after an hour or so, when we met the
waves of the open sea; for they were no sort of companion to any
one, even to themselves, and the seamen had their laugh at them.

But for myself, not being troubled with the sickness, the sea
worked wonders. For the first time for many a long month the ague
fit had less hold on me when its time came next day. Then a Frisian
sailor saw that I had the illness he knew so well and over well,
and would have me take some bitter draught he made for me out of
willow bark, saying that Carl's leeches knew somewhat less than
nothing concerning ague. Whether it was the sea air, or the
draught, or both, the fit did not come when next it was due; and
the seaman said I was cured, for the power of the ill was broken.
He had time to say that again, for we had head winds the whole way
across, and were nigh a week before we made the mouth of the great
river which goes up to Norwich, where we hoped to find the king,
Ethelbert. And by that time the Franks were themselves again, and
my colour was coming back, and the joy of home was on me, and we
were gay enough.

It was on the last day of April that we saw the English shores
again, early in the morning, with the sun on the low green hills of
Norfolk. By sunset we were far in the heart of the land, at
Norwich, and across the wide river the cuckoo was calling. We had
left a leafless land, and here all was decked in the sweet green of
the first leaves, and all the banks were yellow with the primroses.
I heard the Franks scoffing at the houses of the town, and at the
wooden tower of the church which rose from among them; but I cared
not at all, for nothing like the beauty of sky and land had they to
show me beyond the sea.

And when the men thronged to the wharf, it seemed to me that never
had I looked on their like for goodliness and health, as their
great English laugh rang out over their work, and the sound of the
English voices made the old music for me.

The king was not at Norwich, but inland at Thetford, and there we
must seek him. But his steward rode down to us from the hall, which
stands a mile from the river, on its hill. Thither we were led in
all state as the messengers of the great king, and there we bided
for a day or two while they made ready a train of horses which
should take us to our journey's end. We had some wondrous gifts for
Ethelbert from Carl.

There is only one of these Frankish companions of mine of whom I
need speak, and that one was a young noble from our old land, named
Werbode. I had seen somewhat of him in these last wars, for he had
led the men of his father, and had been set under Ecgbert, who had
won to high command. So we were both Saxons, and of about the same
age; and it was pleasant to find ourselves together on the voyage,
for he was a good comrade, and, like myself, not altogether
thinking and feeling with the Franks.

So we saw much of each other on the voyage, and now it was pleasant
to take him about the old town, and show him what the new home of
the Saxon kin was like here in England. There was a great fair
going on at this time, and we enjoyed it; for though there was not
the richness of wares we had been wont to see at the like
gatherings of merchants and chapmen beyond the seas, here were
mirth and freedom, and rough plenty, which were as good, or better.

And presently he said that here we had horses which were as fine as
any he had ever seen, and that put a thought into my mind. I would
buy one for myself rather than ride one found me by the town reeve;
for I had to get home to Somerset, and I would make no delay.

"Well, then," says Werbode, "let us go and see if you people have
forgotten the ancient Saxon manner of horse dealing."

So we went to the horse fair, and there our foreign dress drew
every dealer in the place round us as soon as I had looked in the
mouth of one likely steed. After which, as may be supposed, it was
not likely that I could make any choice at all; but we two sat on
the bench outside the town gate, and had, I think, every horse in
the fair trotted past us, whether good or bad. And at last the
noise, and to tell the truth the wrangling of the dealers, grew
tiresome, and we went our way, some other buyer having taken their
notice for a moment.

And then it chanced that we came to a quiet place where a man,
armed and with two armed helpers, had a string of slaves for sale.
The poor folk were lying and sitting on the ground, with that dull
look on them which I hate to see, and I was going to pass them,
throwing them a penny as I did so. Werbode was laughing at the ways
of the horse dealers, and did not notice them; for the sight was
common enough after any war of ours with Carl, when the captives
who could not ransom them were sold.

And then one of them leaped up with a great cry, and hailed me by
name.

"Wilfrid! Wilfrid of Weymouth!"

I turned sharply enough at that call, for the last thing that one
could have expected was that my name should be known here in the
land of the East Angles. And who of all whom I knew in the years
gone by would name me as of Weymouth? I had but been there as a
stranger.

"Wilfrid the swimmer!" said the man, stretching his bound hands to
me.

The slave trader cracked his whip and rated the man for daring to
call to me thus, bidding him be silent. But I lifted my hand, and
he held his peace, doffing his cap to me with all reverence for the
fine dress and jewelled weapons--Carl's gift--that I wore.

I did not heed his words of apology, but looked at the ragged,
brown-faced man who called to me. He was thin and wiry, with a
yellow beard, and his hands were hard with some heavy work. Yet his
face was in some way not altogether strange to me, though I could
not name him. He was no thrall of ours or of my cousin's, so far as
I could tell.

"Wilfrid--thane--whatever you are now," he said, for I would not
suffer the trader to prevent his words, "you gave me a black eye at
Weymouth, and thereafter drank 'skoal' to me when we chased the
trading ship."

Thereat Werbode laughed.

"Faith," he said, "if every thrall to whom I have given a black eye
or so has a claim on me--"

But his words went on unheard as far as I was concerned. I seemed
to have the very smell of the smoke of burning Weymouth in my
nostrils, and the wild rowing song came back to me. I minded the
man well, and it went to my heart to see the free Danish warrior
tied here at the mercy of this evil-eyed slaver, for I knew that he
was as free born as myself.

I turned sharply on the merchant, and asked him how it came about
that he had this man for sale.

"He is a freeman, and I know him," I said.

Nevertheless it came into my mind that he had been taken prisoner
at the time of some such landing as that wherein I had first seen
him.

"He is a shipwrecked foreigner, lord," was the answer; "a
masterless man whom I bought from the Lindsey thane on whose manor
shore he was stranded."

But it seemed to me that there was a look of fear in the eyes of
this slave trader. It came when I, whom he had taken for a Frank
noble from my dress, spoke to him in good Wessex. Whereby I had a
shrewd guess that all was not so fair and lawful as he would make
it seem.

"He lies," growled the Dane. "Some thrall picked me up, and this
man took me from him. He was on the prowl for castaways on the morn
of the storm. Nigh dead I was, or would have fought."

He spoke low and quickly, and the trader seemed not to understand
his Danish. But I saw that he spoke the truth.

Now I think that if this shipmate of mine had been fairly taken
captive as he raided, I should have let him take the reward of his
work. But this chance was a different matter.

"Show me the receipt for payment to that thane of whom you speak,"
I said. "If you can, well and good; if not, then we will go to the
sheriff and see this matter righted. I know the man as a freeman."

"Ay, in his own land," said the trader, beginning to bluster. "What
is that to me? Here in England he is masterless--"

"No," said the Dane; "this is my master. Heard you not how I owned
to a black eye from him?"

And he looked at me in a half proud way which told me how the bonds
had broken him, and yet how they had not yet made him shameless if
he must beg me for help to freedom.

Then said Werbode quietly:

"Where is that receipt? I suppose that if you paid for his man, my
friend has to repay you for ransoming him. It is a simple matter."

"I do not carry it with me, stranger. You know not this land of
ours. It is at my inn. I can show it, of course."

"Well, then," said I, "I will take my man and answer for him. Bring
the writing to the house of the sheriff, where I lodge, and what is
there set down I will pay you."

Now there were a dozen idlers gathered by this time, and seeing
that the trader hesitated, I called to one, who seemed to be a
forester by his staff and green jerkin, and bade him fetch the
sheriff, if he could find him. I would have the matter settled
here. Whereon the slaver gave in.

"Well, then," he grumbled, "I hold you answerable for him. Take
him, and get your money ready.

"Let him free," he said, turning to his men.

That they did with somewhat more readiness than one would have
expected. The Dane shook himself and looked round him. And then,
without a word of warning, he sprang straight at the slaver and
wrested his whip from him. Then he swung him round by the collar of
his leather jerkin, and lashed him in spite of the sword which the
man drew. The idlers shouted, and Werbode laughed, while the two
men had all they could do to prevent the other slaves from breaking
away; or else they themselves had no reason to object to seeing
their master tasting his own sauce.

The heavy plaits of the whiplash curled round the legs of the
trader, and he writhed. They caught his short sword and twitched it
from his hand, to send it flying among the gathering crowd, and
then the man lay down and howled for mercy. But the thralls of the
crowd were only too pleased with the sport, and as I and Werbode
did not interfere, to do so was no one else's business.

At last the Dane held his hand, and left his tyrant groaning. He
broke the whip stock and twisted the thong from the end of the
fragment. Then he tied it round the neck of the slaver, and rose up
and saluted me in the way of the Danish courtman.

"Whither, lord?" he asked, quite coolly. "I am ready."

"Better go back to the sheriffs," I said. "Maybe we shall have to
answer for this, and we will tell him first."

"No," he said, with the ghost of a smile; "you will not set eyes on
this man again. What I told you is true. He has no more right to me
than the thrall who found me; less, maybe, for I suppose the thrall
would have taken me to his lord, who had some claim on me for a
castaway."

The crowd closed in round the slaver, and the other slaves raised a
sort of wretched cheer as we went away. Soon we turned the corner
of the street and came to the outskirts of the fair again, and none
had followed us. There the decent folk stared at us and our ragged
follower somewhat, and a thought came to me.

"Comrade," I said, for I could not mind his name, "let me rig you
out afresh before we part."

"They call me Erling," he said. "Have you so many men to serve you
that we must needs part?"

"No," I answered, "but I am no sort of a master to serve. I will
help an old comrade home, however."

"Home was burnt a year ago," he said. "Let me bide with you, thane;
I must be some man's man. You will go back to the west presently, I
suppose?"

"Yes, after a time. What of that? for it is not your way."

"Your way is mine, unless you drive me from you. You have given me
my freedom, and I know it. Let me serve you freely."

"Well," said I, "you will be my only servant when once I leave King
Carl's train, with which I have come."

"So much the better," he said. "I am likely to be as handy a
servant as you can find, in most things."

"Oh," said Werbode, laughing, "take him, Wilfrid. Free service is
not to be despised. Moreover, if you want any one well and soundly
beaten, here is your man."

"I can keep the thane's back at a pinch, young sir," said the Dane
quietly. "That mayhap is more than most will do if they are hired."

"Faith, I believe you could," said Werbode, looking the man's wiry
frame up and down.

"Take him, Wilfrid."

"Why, then," said I, "so I will, and gladly, for just so long as I
please you as a master. And when you will leave me, you shall go
without blame. Now let us see to clothing you afresh."

So we went to the quarter of the fair where such things as we
needed were to be had, and there we took pleasure in fitting my new
follower out in all decent housecarl attire, not by any means
sparing for good leather jerkin and Norwich-cloth hose and hood,
for I would not have him looked down on by our Frankish servants.
And, indeed, with weapon on hip and round helm on head, over washed
face and combed hair, he seemed a different man altogether. The old
free walk of the seaman came back to him, and he looked the world
in the face again as the free warrior he was.

He had been Thorleif's own court man, he told me, and knew the ways
of one who should follow his lord, whether in hall or field, and I
will say at once that so he did. I had little to teach him beyond
some Saxon ways which came strangely to him at first.

We went back to the king's hall, and there I told the sheriff
somewhat of the business with the slaver, and he laughed.

"Not the first time I have heard the like," he said. "If the man
complains, pay him. But if he is a man stealer, as is likely, you
will hear naught of him, and he will get him from Norwich as fast
as he may."

As I suppose he did, for neither I nor the sheriff heard more of
him, and next day his place in the market was empty.

I asked Erling of his shipwreck, and if Thorleif had been lost, but
he could not tell me. He had been washed off the fore deck as the
ship met a great breaker, and with him had come an oar, which he
clung to for long hours, making his way shoreward as best he might.
The ship was in danger at the time, and he lost sight of her very
soon. Presently some eddy of tide took him and cast him on the
sands of Humber mouth, and there he lay till he was found. That was
a month ago, and since then he had been hawked up and down the
coast with the other slaves till we met.

"But I was such a scarecrow, and so savage withal, that no man
would look at me," he said. "It was a good day for me when the
knave brought me to Norwich. Mayhap it was a lucky day for him
also, for sooner or later I should have got adrift, and then you
would not have been looking on to hold me from paying him somewhat
more than a beating."

Next day was the last of the fair, and again I went to seek a
horse, with my new follower after me. There was less choice but
more quiet, and soon I found that Erling knew more of the points of
a steed than I did. A Dane is a born horse dealer. So I sent him
one way while I went another, and when I was almost despairing of
finding what I thought would suit me, he came in search of me,
leading a great skew-bald horse, bright brown and white in broad
splashes all over him, in no sort of pattern. After him came a man
who might be a farmer, and looked as if he cared not whether he
sold the beast or kept him.

"The best horse in the fair, thane," Erling said to me. "I will not
praise his colour; but if you forget that and look at his build,
you will like him."

So I did; but if a man wanted to be noticed everywhere in such wise
that folk would reckon a week's time from the day when the man on
the skew-bald rode through the village, he could not choose a
better mount, and I said so, laughing.

"There is somewhat in that," Erling allowed; "but if you ride
through the foe at the head of your men on such an one, none can
deny that you did it. Nor can your men say that they lost sight of
you."

In the end I mounted and tried the horse. Presently I rode him out
of the town and away across the heaths, and had no fault to find
with him. Indeed, by the time that I brought him back I did not
care if he was of all the colours of the rainbow, for he was the
best horse I ever backed.

Then the franklin who owned him asked me a long price for him, and
I left Erling to settle that. Afterwards I knew that the man was a
known breeder of these horses, and that men thought me lucky to get
the steed. I think the Dane managed to bate somewhat of the price,
but very little, for it was a matter of taking or leaving with the
owner.

After that I bought a horse for Erling, or rather he chose one and
I paid for it; but that was a small matter, for the last day of the
fair brought prices down.

Then I had to put up with the jests of my friend Werbode concerning
my new horse, and the older Franks thought his colour was a bit of
vanity on my part. Werbode said that he was an unsafe beast to go
chicken stealing on, for he would be too well known on a dark
night; and the others said that they supposed that men would know
that I had come home now. But that sort of jest one gets used to in
camp life, and I cared not. I had a better steed than any one of
them, whether here or across the sea, and presently, as we
travelled toward Thetford, they knew it, and forgot to laugh at his
skin.

So we left Norwich, and rode across the moorlands to find the king;
and the gladness of homecoming grew on me every day, so that I
longed for the state affair to be over, that I might turn my
horse's head south and west for my own home. And thus, in all
gladness, and joying in every mile of the way, we came to Thetford,
strong with its earthen ramparts above its still river, and were
made most welcome at the hall of Ethelbert the king. There had gone
messengers before us to tell of our coming, and the greeting was
fitting for the men of Carl the Great.

Truly I saw the Franks smile at one another as we were led into the
great hall, homely and pleasant, with its open timbered roof and
central hearth, arms and antlers and heads of forest game on walls,
and bright hangings round the high place at the upper end; for it
was but a hut compared with the palaces of their own master. But
when Ethelbert the king came from his chamber to greet us, they had
no eyes for aught but him. Young and handsome and free of speech
and look as he was, none could doubt that here was one who was
worthy of his throne, for in every way he seemed a king indeed. He
minded me of Ecgbert, and if he did that, it may be certain that I
need add no more to my praise of him.

Now it happened that the day after we reached Thetford was a
Sunday, and I need not tell what a pleasure it was to me to hear
again the old English services that once I had thought so long, as
a boy will. And on that day, for the first time, it came to me that
my man, Erling the viking, was a stark heathen, Odin's man. Truly
he came to the church with me, and there he stood and stared at all
that went on, quietly and reverently enough, but in such wise that
I thought that he had somewhere seen the like before. So presently
when we came forth from the church I asked him if he had no
knowledge of the faith.

"Ay," he said; "I have helped to burn a church or two in my time,
and now I am sorry therefor. I have heard good words in this place,
so that I think I know why you were ready to risk gold to free a
captive. Let me go with you again."

"I will find some good priest who shall tell you more and teach
you," said I.

But he shook his head.

"That is another matter," he answered. "Let be for a time. I am
content to go your way and see what it is; but no man, if he is
worth aught, will leave the gods of his fathers offhand, not even
for the faith which is good for you and for Carl the king, and this
king here who has death written on his handsome face."

"What mean you by that?" I asked, almost angrily. "On the face of
Ethelbert?"

"Ay," he answered. "Cannot you see it?"

"Seldom have I seen a stronger or more healthy man! This is sheer
foolishness."

"I do not speak of health," he answered. "Eh, well, we of the old
race have the second sight now and then. On my word, I wish I had
it not. Pay no heed to me an you will; it is best not."

Then he laughed, because I was almost angered with him, and said
that maybe fasting with the slaver had made his mind full of
forebodings.

"There was a boding in it at one time that the slaver was nigh his
death, if so be that I got loose," he said. "That ended in a
whipping for him. But I would that this Ethelbert had not that thin
red line round his neck. It sets strange thoughts in one's head."

I told him to hold his peace, and he did so. But somewhat that
night made me look to see what he meant. The king had no line such
as he spoke of on his sunburned throat, so far as I could see.



CHAPTER V. HOW WILFRID MET THE FLINT FOLK, AND OTHERS.


It must not be supposed that the gifts of Carl the Great were
given, and his greetings spoken, offhand, as it were, by us. There
must needs be a gathering of the Witan of the East Anglians, that
all might be done with full honour both to Carl and his embassy. I
must say that it somewhat irked me to be treated with much
ceremony, as a Frank and paladin of the great king, instead of
being hailed in all good fellowship as a thane of England, who was
glad to get home again. However, there was no help for it till our
errand was done; for it was out of his goodness that Carl had given
me a place among his messengers, saying that they must have some
one of their number who could act as interpreter, and I would not
be ungrateful even in seeming.

So I had no chance yet of private speech with Ethelbert, when I
might give the message from Ecgbert; which was indeed the main
reason of my coming here instead of going straight home. That
chance would best be sought when the state business was done; for
since no man in all England rightly knew where Ecgbert was at this
time, and he had no mind that many should, my business would wait
well enough. So I bent myself to enjoy the feasting and the hunting
parties the court made for us all; and pleasant it was, in all
truth. And every day fresh companies of the great folk of the land
came in, till the town was full of thanes and ladies and their
trains, gathered to see and hear what had come from beyond the
seas.

So one day I rode with Werbode, who was all eagerness to see the
land (to which his forbears would not come when Hengist asked them,
by the way, as he told me) across the great heaths that lie north
and east of Thetford, with Erling after us, leading two greyhounds
which had been lent us from the royal kennels. There were bustards
in droves on these heaths, and roe deer to be found easily enough
by those who had skill to seek them in the right places. The
bustards were nesting; but that is the time when one can best
course the great birds, and many a good gallop we had after them.

Whereby we lost ourselves presently, and made light of it until we
had wandered for some hours, and then remembered that we had never
seen a man of whom to ask the way back to the town. Of course we
tried to make our way back by the sun, but ever there would seem to
grow up a thicket or wood before us, which we must skirt, or some
marshy lake shone across our path in a hollow of the heath; and it
was slow work, and the horses grew weary as ourselves. The hounds
trailed after us with bent heads, hardly rousing themselves to tug
at the long leash when a hare scudded from its form away from us,
for they had had their fill of sport by that time. And it grew near
sunset before we met with any trace of man. There was not even a
track across the wild upland which we could follow.

"We shall have to make a night out of it," said I at last.
"However, that will not matter. Here is game enough for us and to
spare."

"And no ale to wash it down withal," said Werbode and Erling in a
breath.

"Why, then, we will find the best water we can," I answered; and we
rode on our way looking for a clear pool.

And then the first sound which told us that any one was near came
to us.

There rose from off to our left, where a patch of woodland lay, a
cry that made each one of us rein in his horse and stare at the
others.

"That was some one in dire distress," said I.

"A woman crying for help," said Werbode.

Then we forgot our own plight, and set spurs to our horses and rode
toward the place whence the cry came. We heard it once more, and
that quickened us. My horse pricked up his ears, and broke into a
long stride that left the other two behind in a few minutes, as if
he knew that there was need for dire haste. I had to ride
carefully, too, for there were holes and great stones among the
heather.

So I was the first to see what was amiss; and it seemed bad enough.
Round the spur of the cover I came, and there before me I saw a
wild throng of men, savage as any I have ever seen in the mines of
our Mendips--bareheaded save for great shocks of black hair,
barefooted and hoseless, dressed in untanned hides of deer and
sheep, and armed with uncouth clubs and spears on rough ash poles.
They did not hear my coming, and they had their faces from me at
first. Twenty or more of them there were; and two horses rolled on
the ground hard by them, and they had been hamstrung, as one glance
told me. One man, too, in the dress of a housecarl, lay not far
off, wounded sorely. He saw me, and beckoned wildly to me. And next
I knew why, for out of the throng came three men dragging a lady
roughly away from the rest; and as their comrades parted to let
them pass, I saw another man on the ground, and with his back to a
third a gray-haired noble, who held back the wild men with long
sweeps of his sword. He was trying to follow those who held the
lady.

I saw all that at once, in a flash, for it broke on my eyes the
moment I cleared the thickets of the cover; and as I saw I shouted
and bore down on the throng, calling to my comrades to hasten. Then
the men knew that I was on them.

They yelled to one another, and, without waiting to see if more
followed me, left the lady and the men who fought for her, and
scattered, flying. It seemed to me that the best thing I could do
was to keep them in a mind to fly, and I rode after them. One or
two I rode down; and I heard a wild outcry as some met Werbode and
Erling when they came up. But they did not make for the wood, as I
expected, but for the open heath. They ran like deer up the swell
of a rising ground and passed over it.

When I came to the top of that I saw a wide stretch of bare land
before me, like miles of that which we had passed, hardly
heather-covered, and stony, and over it fled the men. There was no
place where they could hide. And yet before my very eyes they
vanished. One after another they went till but one was left, still
flying. I took my eyes from him for a moment, and he too was gone.
There was not so much as a bustard on the heath, which a moment
before had been full of fleeting figures.

"They are trolls, thane!" cried Erling from beside me.

He, too, had seen the moorland and the men who had gone. Then
Werbode rode up to me, and he looked and gasped.

"They went over this hill! I would swear it!" he said. "Where are
they?"

"I do not know," I answered blankly, and, to tell the truth, with a
bit of a chill down my back. "I should be better pleased if I did."

"See," said Erling, pointing, "there are the mounds wherein they
live. They are trolls;" and with that he began to mutter I know not
what heathen spells against them.

There were little low mounds everywhere, as I saw now.

"Trolls!" said Werbode, with a laugh. "One can't slay trolls. I saw
Wilfrid cut one down, and there he lies even yet."

"Nay, but one can, if so be the sword is rightly charmed," answered
Erling.

"Well, they have gone," said I. "Do you two go and see after these
folk they were attacking, and I will bide here to watch that they
do not come back."

"That is the work of the man, not the master," quoth Erling. "Here
I bide, for I have runes which are of power against any trolls. I
am not afraid."

Nor did he seem so; and I told him to call if but one man showed
himself, and so rode back to the little party we had saved. The man
who I had seen was of rank was bending over the lady, who lay where
the wild men had left her; and his unhurt servant was watching
beside him. The wounded man was sitting up and trying to bind a
hurt in his thigh with a scarf, which, from its gold fringes, was
plainly that of his mistress.

The thane rose up when he heard us coming, and saluted us. He was a
handsome man of sixty years or so, richly dressed, who had plainly
had a bad fall when his horse went down. There were three or four
of his assailants lying where they had been round him as I came.

"Many thanks, sirs," he said. "It was going hard with us when you
came up. Now is no time for ceremony, or I would say more. I do not
know if my daughter lives yet."

I dismounted, and Werbode held my horse while I went to the side of
the thane and looked at his charge. Wonderfully beautiful that
young maiden seemed in the red light of the sunset, even though her
face was white and her fair hair all tangled over her shoulders,
and her rich dress all in tatters from the hands of the wild men.
And at first I thought that she was dead. Then I minded that unless
she had died of fright, which was possible, I had seen no harm done
her beyond rough handling, while those who held her had fled from
me without delay or heed to how she fell from their hands; and I
knelt and tried to find the pulse in her wrist, very gently.

Her white hand fell limp and cold, but the fluttering beat was
there.

"Not dead, thane, but fainting," I said. "Let your man get water;
there is a pool yonder."

The housecarl started toward it, but as he passed one of the
helpless horses, he turned to that and brought me a horn from the
saddlebags. It had wine in it, and that was better. The old thane
tried to get some of it into the lips of the lady, and succeeded
while I rubbed her hands.

And all the while Werbode had his eyes on Erling, whose gaunt form
was clear against the sky as he sat still on his horse and watched
the heath for the trolls to return on us. Behind him the two hounds
sat, careless.

"She is coming round," said the thane, with a sigh of relief.

Seeing that so she was, I rose up and stood aside, not caring to be
right before her eyes as she opened them, lest she should be
frightened again. Slowly she came to herself, trembling, and
looking round fearful of what she might find about her. But when
she saw only her father and the man, she tried to smile and sat up,
with a little clutch at her disordered dress as if she wanted to
straighten it.

"That is better," said the thane heartily. "Those thieves have
fled, and all will be well, thanks to our good friends here."

The maiden looked round, and saw that I was a stranger, and at that
the colour came back of a sudden to her cheeks, and she tried to
set her hair hastily out of her eyes. Whereat her father laughed at
her, and then she was herself again.

"I think we had better be going on before it grows dark," I said.
"Do you know the road to Thetford?"

"My man here does. But you will not leave us--at least yet?"

"We are seeking the same road," I answered. "Now our horses are at
the service of the lady and yourself. I suppose we are not far from
the town, if we cannot find it;" and I laughed.

"Matter of ten or twelve miles, lord," said the housecarl.

"Why, then, the sooner we go the better. Lucky that the May
twilight is long."

"We have met you in the nick of time," said the old thane
courteously. "From your dress I take it that you are one of the
Frankish paladins we were on the way to see. But do they always
talk good Wessex at the court of King Carl?"

"No," laughed Werbode. "Sometimes they talk old Saxon--as I do."

The thane bowed, and let that matter rest. Then he looked ruefully
at the two crippled horses, and set his arm round the lady, who had
risen and was leaning on him.

"I thank you for that offer of a horse," he said. "I had twelve
good men with me when we started across this moor, and you see all
who are left. One after another they have been shot by unseen men
as we rode, until these swarmed out on us as you saw."

"Who are they?" I asked, rolling up my cloak to set it pillion-wise
behind my saddle for the lady.

"The flintknappers, I suppose," he said. "But I am a stranger to
these parts, and I have but heard of them as dwelling about these
heaths."

Then I would have the thane mount my horse; and I lifted the maiden
up behind him, and wrapped Werbode's cloak round her, having a
smile and thanks for the service. And when they were ready I
whistled for Erling, and he came back to us at a canter, looking
behind him now and then. But there was no sign of any follower.

"Ten miles from the town," I said to him, "and more heath to cross.
We must hurry. But we cannot leave those horses to suffer."

"Our horses; and I have tended them, lord," said the rough
housecarl, with a bit of a shake in his voice. "Leave that to me."

He drew his seax, and we went on. The poor beasts could never rise
again, and that was the only way. The thane knew, and rode round
the wood end, and we went with him. Then Erling lifted the wounded
man on his own horse, and walked beside him.

"You and I will ride in turn," said Werbode. "As I am mounted, I
will take first turn for a mile or two. It will be all the same in
the end."

Presently Erling came alongside me, leaving the housecarl to mind
his comrade. He held out a broken arrow to me.

"I said they were trolls," he remarked. "See, this is an elf shot."

And truly the arrow which he had drawn from one of the horses had
as well wrought a flint head as I have ever seen--lustrous black,
and covered with tiny chippings.

"It is a better made head than usual," I said; "but many a thrall
has naught but flint-headed arrows in his quiver as he tends the
swine in the forest. They are good enough against the forest
beasts."

Erling laughed. "Maybe. But they have slain ten of this party. I
have no mind to hear them whistling about my ears again."

"Again?" said I.

"Oh ay; they had a shot or two at me yonder. The arrows came from
nowhere and missed me, so it did not seem worth while to call you.
I could not see any one."

Now it seemed to me that I had found a cool and valiant man in this
Dane.

"I think that I should have wanted to take cover," I said. "These
are perilous folk to have to do with. I wonder what became of
them?"

"Gone into the mounds we saw," said he. "Betimes in our land men
have seen such mounds raised, as it were, on pillars at night, and
under them halls full of dancing trolls. But if the seer will go
near them, all is gone. And mostly thereafter he dies."

"Not many trolls could get under those mounds we saw," I said.
"See, there are more here; they are too small for dwellings."

There was indeed one of the heaps of earth close at hand to us, and
Werbode rode toward it to see that none of the wild men lurked in
its shelter. He reached it, and then his horse started and leaped
aside, almost falling; and through a rattle of falling stones my
comrade called to the steed to "hold up."

Whereon we supposed, of course, that he had been served as the
horses of the thane had been crippled, and Erling and I ran to him,
sword in hand, bidding the others go on. But when we came to the
side of Werbode, we found him staring into a pit which seemed to
have opened under the weight of his horse; and there was no sign of
other danger.

"Strange folk these," he said. "I suppose this is a trap. The
ground over it was as solid as anywhere, to all seeming. I was nigh
into it."

The pit was ten feet deep or so, and it was plain that out of it
had come what made the mound, though one could not see how. When I
looked in I saw that the ground had given way over the roof of a
passage hewn in the soft chalk, and that the opening of it must
have fallen in long ago. The twisted stems of the sparse heather on
the mound and all around it told of years, if not of long ages,
that had passed undisturbed.

"There is the trolls' house," said Erling, shrinking back somewhat.

The level sunlight showed me walls of dull gray chalk, with the
marks of the pick on them still. There was a layer of black and
white flints bedded in either wall, halfway up, and on the floor
were piled stones chosen from it carefully. I wondered who had
handled them, and when. Erling moved a little aside, and a shaft of
sunlight darted down the passage and reached its end, and showed me
those who had wrought here.

Two white skeletons sat against the wall, with a pile of flints
between them. There was a lamp hewn from chalk on the top of that,
and the stain of its smoky flame was on the wall behind it. One man
had a pick made of the brow tine of an antler, greater than any
which the red deer carry nowadays, across his knees, and another
like pick lay by the bones of the other skeleton. That one had a
broken thigh, and he seemed to bend over it in pain.

"Holy saints," said Werbode, in a whisper, "they were buried
alive!"

So they must have been; but who shall know when? They had delved in
the chalk for the flints they needed for their weapons, and their
mine had fallen in at the mouth, and they could not escape. The
stones had, doubtless, broken the leg of that one in falling. But
by the token of the deer-horn pick I take it that it was ages ago
when this happened, maybe before the days of the Welshmen whom we
found here. Yet even then, as the red sun lit up the place of their
death, we could see that the marks of their chalky hands bided on
the handles of their picks, fresh as if made yesterday.

"Come away," said Erling. "I like it not. This is over troll-like
for me."

I do not think that either of us was sorry to leave that sight. We
went one on either side of Werbode, with our arms across the
crupper of his horse, and hastened after the thane and his charge,
who were half a mile away by this time, waiting for us. But we
never heard any elvish arrow whistling after us, or saw any more of
the uncouth folk.

I told him as we went on of the pit we had seen, and how Werbode
thought it was a trap. Whereon the housecarl laughed a little, and
said that it was but an ancient flint working. The men who had
fallen on the party were the descendants of those who had made it.
The flints had been worked here from time untold even till now, and
those who worked them today had all the craft of their forebears.

"Why, then, they went into their workings when they fled from us,"
I said.

"No doubt, thane. Where else should they go?" he said. "They came
out of them on us."

"I wonder you brought your master and the lady across this heath at
all," I said "it is a perilous place."

"It grew late, and it is the nearest way," said the man humbly.
"Nor did I ever hear that the flintknappers, as we call them,
harmed any."

"Nor did I," said the old thane. "It is somewhat fresh to me. Maybe
parties like ours have passed here so often during this last week
that at last the sight of gold and jewels has roused them to try to
take from a weak band."

So we talked and went on as fast as we might, all the while keeping
a lookout around us. The lady had, in some way which is beyond me
altogether, set herself in such array again that I, for one, could
hardly tell that aught had been awry on her; and I wondered that
Werbode's red cloak had never seemed so graceful a garment on his
broad shoulders. But she said little or nothing, leaning her head
on her father as she rode with her arm round him, save when we
asked her if all was well. I think she was very tired.

And so at last, with no more adventure, we came to the well-worn
track which we were making for, and by-and-by, in the May
moonlight, saw the twinkling lights of Thetford town, seeming to
welcome us into the shelter of its protecting ramparts. I was glad
to see them; but I had enjoyed that long tramp back, for some
reason which was not plain to me, unless it had been the talk of
the old thane and my comrades, and the sense of escape from danger.

Now we came to the great hall, and the grooms thronged round us to
take the horses; and seeing that there was a lady, one told the
steward, and he bustled out to help her. But there I was at hand,
and lifted the maiden from the horse and set her on her feet,
having to support her for a moment, for she was weary and stiff. So
she stumbled a little and laughed at herself, and thanked me, and
was glad of my arm to help her toward the great door of the hall.

Werbode and Erling went off with the horses to the stables, and
some of the housecarls took charge of the wounded man. I heard him
groan heavily as they took him from the horse.

Then the thane gave his name to the steward, and that was the first
time I had learned it.

"Sighard, thane of Mundesley, and his daughter, the Lady Hilda."

They were led into the hall; and I went my way, or was going, for I
had only passed down the steps, when some one called me.

"Paladin, one moment!"

I turned, for the Frankish title could be meant for no one but
myself, and there was the old thane at the door.

"I did but take my daughter into the house, and I have yet to thank
you and your comrades for your help. Believe me, I know how great
it has been; but one is confused at these times. I think we shall
meet again?"

"Doubtless," I said. "But it was chance which brought us to you, as
we wandered."

"For which chance I have need to be thankful. It is not every one,
however, who can make use of a chance as you did. If you had stood
and stared for a moment instead of spurring your horse, I should
have had a flint spear among my ribs. They ache at the thought
thereof even now. Tell me your names at least."

"Wilfrid, son of the thane of Frome, in Somerset," I said. "I have
served with King Carl for some years, and am here with his messages
on my way home. My comrade is Werbode of old Saxony, one of the
messengers also. The third of us is my man, a Dane."

Sighard laughed, as if highly amused. "That explains it all. I have
been puzzling all the way hither at the divers ways in which you
three spoke. Your Dane's tongue is almost good Anglian, and yet not
quite. Werbode's Saxon is quaint, but good enough, as it should be;
but broad Wessex from the mouth of a seeming Frank was too much.
Not the best master in the world could compass it for you. Now I am
right glad that you are of England. When she has got over her
fright and is rested, the girl shall thank you also."

He shook hands with me heartily and left me, following his
daughter. Presently I saw him as we sat at table, and he lifted his
cup to me; but though he was on the high place, where of course we
were set, I was too far off to speak to him.

Now I cannot say that I had much right to that title of paladin he
had given me, unless it was as a messenger from the palace of King
Carl. Thane I was in Wessex, now that I had come of age, by right
of lands that came to me from my mother's side; but our folk got
hold of the Frankish title, and used it for any one of us, so that
I had to accept it. I did tell the old noble who led us that it was
not by my wish that so they called me; but he stroked his beard and
laughed at me.

"What does it matter?" he said; "it is naught but the old name for
a palace officer. It is near enough. Trouble not about it; for if
we have taken it to mean a warrior noble--well, I will not say that
you have not deserved it, else Carl had never sent you with us."

One may guess that at supper that night I tried to see the Lady
Hilda. But among all the bright array of ladies at that feast I
could not spy her. And perhaps that is not to be wondered at, for
long ere we came up all the baggage had been lost. By this time her
court dress was being worn by swart women of the flint folk, far on
the wild heaths. I dare say they fought over it.



CHAPTER VI. HOW WILFRID SPOKE WITH ETHELBERT THE KING.


Early on the next morning Ethelbert the king sent for me, to ask me
concerning this affair with the flintknappers. Very pleasant he
was, too, and the first thing he did was to laugh at himself for
taking me for a Frank.

"I ought to have seen that you were a Saxon," he said; "and if I
had had the courtesy to speak with you, I should have learned it at
once. I had a good friend once in that atheling of yours, who is
lost to us."

His face clouded as he said that, and but that there were a dozen
courtiers present, I should have told him that Ecgbert was found
again for him, then and there; however, that would wait, and I
passed it over. Then he asked me of myself, and what I would do
when the state affair was ended; and I told him that I had no
greater wish than to find my way home at once.

"That is a long ride," he said. "I think we can assist you. It is
in my mind to ride westward myself in a week or so to see Offa, on
a matter of business. That will take us far on your way, if you
care to ride with me."

Now I wondered what this business might be, for the honest face of
the young king flushed somewhat as he spoke thereof; and one or two
of the courtiers behind his chair smiled at one another meaningly.
That was not for me to ask, but whatever it might be, I was glad of
the kindly offer. I thanked him, and then we spoke of the flint
folk, and I told him all I knew.

Then, of course, we must talk of the court of King Carl, and of all
that I had seen and done beyond the sea, and the time went fast. I
had my breakfast with the king there in his private chamber, for he
wanted to hear of laws and the like, of which, to tell the truth, I
could let him know little.

"Best ask the old paladin who is the head of the embassy, King
Ethelbert," I said presently. "I can tell you how Carl manages the
sword; but of the way he wields the sceptre, I cannot. Mayhap I
shall mislead you."

"No," he answered; "I would hear how his way seems to a plain
Englishman as myself. My chancellor shall talk with the paladin."

Then at last he started up, and cried:

"Why, I have forgotten somewhat. I promised to take you to my
mother's bower to be thanked by the Lady Hilda. Come with me at
once."

"There is Werbode," I said.

"Let him wait," said Ethelbert. "It is the thane on the great pied
horse whom she will thank."

I wondered whether it was the steed or myself she remembered best,
which was not courteous of me. Ethelbert laughed and told me so,
adding that he thought after all that the horse would be noticed
first. He was the first thing which had caught his own eye when we
rode into the palace yard on our coming, certainly, so I had to
stand another jest or two about him.

We came to the bower, across a fair garden where the May flowers
were gay and sweet, and the king knocked at the door. It was a
handsome, low-built little hall which stood at right angles to the
great one, so that it had a door opening on the high place where we
sat at table. Its windows on this garden side were wide and high,
and this morning the heavy shutters were flung back from each, and
the curtains were drawn aside, for it faced south to the warm sun.
There were bright faces of the queen-mother's ladies at one or two
as they sat in the deep window seats working or spinning, and
anywise laughing with one another; whereon I grew bashful, for of
ladies' talk and presence I have a sort of fear, being more used to
camp than court, as I have said.

However, we went in, and there we stood on a floor strewn with
sweet sedge in a fair hall, tapestry hung, full of sunlight, and of
ladies also. There was a high place here at one end, and on it sat
the mother of the king, not in any state, but working at a little
loom, whose beams were all carven and made beautiful for her royal
hands. There were two ladies helping her, and they rose as the king
entered, as did all the others, and there was a sudden silence.

I should have been happier if only they had paid no heed to us, and
with all my heart I wished myself elsewhere. Nor did I dare look
round for the Lady Hilda, and so kept my eyes fixed more or less on
the ground, or else trying to seem unconcerned, looking foolish, no
doubt, in that effort. It came to me that one of my shoes was
muddy, and that I could not remember having combed my hair this
morning.

Then the queen rose and came to meet her son with a smile and
morning greeting, setting her hands on his shoulder and kissing
him, and so turned to me as if to ask Ethelbert to say who I was.
And when she heard, I knelt and kissed the hand she held to me; and
my shyness went, for I was no longer at a loss for somewhat to
think of besides myself. I suppose the king or queen made some sign
at this time, for the ladies rustled back to their seats, and their
pleasant talk began again as if we were not present, only so low
that it was like the murmur of the bees outside as we came past the
hives.

Now the queen asked me just a question or two of my journey--if the
crossing had been rough, and so on, and then said smiling:

"But you have had another journey since then, and that handsome
horse of yours bore a double burden, they tell me. Here is the Lady
Hilda, who would thank you for somewhat you did for her."

She beckoned, and a lady rose up from the window seat near by and
came forward. Truly I had to look twice before I was quite sure
that this was she, for here was a wonderfully stately young lady,
clad in white and gold and blue, all unlike the maiden who had
clung to her father as we rode yestereven. And if I had thought her
fair then, I saw now that she was the fairest of all those who
attended this homely and kindly-faced queen. She held out her hand
to me, and I bent and kissed it; and on the white wrist I saw the
blue marks of the clutch of the wild men, which made a great wrath
rise in my heart straightway. Yet I must say somewhat or seem
mannerless.

"You have fared none the worse for your ride, lady?" I said. "I
fear you were weary."

"I am black and blue with the claws of those folk," she said,
laughing ruefully; "they were grimy also. But I meant to try to
thank you for much kindness."

She blushed somewhat, and I made haste to say that I was happy to
have served her in aught. But I would not have her forget my
comrades.

"Ay, they helped you," she said; "I had not forgotten. And I had
the cloak of one of them. Will you thank him for it?"

I said that I would, and added words about Werbode's pleasure in
the loan, and so on. One could not say much with all those eyes on
us, as it were, if I had had much to say. I was glad when the king
took up the talk and asked after the welfare of the lady.

"I have sent men across that heath," he said; "at least they will
see to those who fell of your party. I hope they may bring back
some not much hurt after all. A fall from a horse will not be of
much account after half an hour."

But she shook her head and paled, for, as her father had told me,
his men who had fallen were not mounted. The king saw that the
matter was hard for her to think of, and so turned the talk by
asking how she liked that steed of mine.

"Sire," she said gravely, "when horse and rider first came suddenly
before my eyes, I thought that one of the saints had come to our
help. It was the most welcome sight I have ever seen, and I shall
ever love to look on a horse of that--of those--"

"Patchwork colours," laughed the king.

"Wilfrid, so long as you live you will no more be taken for a saint
than shall I again. Make the most thereof. Of a truth I will even
buy me a skew-bald mount and ride round corners in search of the
like reputation. Nay, sell me yours straightway!"

"No, King Ethelbert," I answered--"not even to yourself after he
has won me that word, and since he has borne so fair a burden."

"Let us go straightway," said Ethelbert. "You will not better that
speech if you bide here for an hour.

"Farewell, mother; and farewell, ladies."

He bowed, and I did my best to leave gracefully, all those who were
present rising again as he went, and returning his bow. The queen
was laughing at him, and I dared to see if the Lady Hilda had a
smile on her face. She had, and it did not pass when she met my
look; but behind the smile was something of the terror of last
evening, which had been brought back to her. It was in my mind as
we passed the door again that if the sight of me and my horse so
wrought on her, it were better that I kept away if I could; and I
would have the beast stabled in the town.

Then said Ethelbert when we were halfway across the garden:

"We shall have the company of that very fair lady to Offa's court.
She is going to the queen as one of her ladies for a time, by our
permission. Her mother was of Lincoln, and gave hospitality to
Quendritha when she was first found on the shore. Then she married
our thane of Mundesley here; whereby we have gained this fair
subject."

Into my mind there came the thought of what old Thrond had told me,
and I would that this maiden could be warned. And that was just a
wild thought, for even Thrond could not say for certain that his
guess was true, and he had bidden me hold my peace; and thereon I
tried to consider that it was no concern of mine where the Lady
Hilda went, though it troubled me more than enough to think that
she was to go to Quendritha. So I said naught, and the king did not
expect any answer.

"I suppose you have heard why we go thither," he went on quickly.
"If not, you will, and you may as well have it from myself."

He glanced sidewise at me, and I bowed. I supposed I should hear
some words of policy or other.

"They--that is, our wise folk and my good mother--have been saying
that I ought to marry. They have dinned that into my ears for the
last two months since I have been on the throne. It is a matter
which I had not thought of, and therefore I have been in no haste
to answer them; and they have grown impatient, saying that it is
for the good of the realm. Have you ever been at the court of King
Offa of Mercia?"

I had not, and I think I had told him so before, when he asked me
if I would ride with him thither.

He took my arm and turned to pace the garden back again, thinking.
I wondered that he took the trouble to tell me all this, as I was
so complete a stranger to him.

"I am sorry for that," he said; "I would have asked you somewhat.
You would have answered it frankly, and without the thought of what
might please me, as our courtiers would of course stay to consider.
But tell me, what have you heard of Offa and his family?"

Now I could say nothing of what I had heard from Thrond; that was
impossible. Nor did it seem to me to matter that of it I spoke not.
The life of Quendritha the queen had lain open to all England, as
one may say, for the last twenty years, and that was of more
account than the half-told tale of a wandering Dane. So I said
simply the truth.

"I have ever heard of that royal house as the noblest and greatest
in all England--at least since Ina of Wessex died; but I have been
abroad for these five years, and I know not what they have
brought."

"Why, then," he answered, laughing, "it is I who must tell you of
them. There was once a fair little playmate of mine in Offa's
house, his youngest daughter Etheldrida. Since you left England she
has grown up, and now--Well, you will not need telling the rest,
maybe?"

He reddened and laughed, as if well content, and plain to me it was
that if Ethelbert meant to wed that playmate of whom he spoke he
was happy; for in this case certainly policy and inclination went
hand in hand.

"Then both yourself and East Anglia will be happy, King Ethelbert,"
said I, smiling in turn. "That is what you would tell me."

"That is it. This princess has the fairness of her wondrous mother,
and promise of the wisdom of her father; and I have known her for
long years. Three weeks ago I sent with all solemnity to ask her
hand, and I need not tell you how I waited for the answer. It came
on the day before you landed, and now when your people have gone we
shall ride to Fernlea, and--well, I suppose there will be a
wedding."

If Ethelbert when that day came looked as he looked at this moment,
there would in all truth be a handsome bridegroom. I thought that
the princess was to be envied, for more worth than that were the
words of every man of his land in his favour, whether as the
atheling of East Anglia or her king. And it was much for me that
here this open-hearted king was telling me his hopes as if I were
an old friend. Maybe that was because to his subjects he did not
care to speak thus, or could not, by reason of old habit. He was
wise beyond his years, being, as I think, about two years younger
than myself. And as to this match, of course it was plain that Offa
in furthering it was in nowise unwilling to link the land to the
east of Mercia to himself in so peaceful a bond as he had linked
Wessex in the year when I left home. It did come into my mind that
thus in time the descendants of that mighty king would be likely to
rule from the Humber to the Channel, but that was a dim thought of
years to come. There was Ecgbert to be counted on.

And at that I wondered whether this were, as it almost seemed a
good chance, a fitting time for me to remind the king of him. He
himself had told me carefully that in aught I said of his doings I
must be cautious; and now I could not tell what Ethelbert might not
think right to make known to Offa, and so to Quendritha.

Ethelbert went on telling me of the coming journey, having found a
listener who was no courtier, and did not heed that I was silent.
And so we paced the garden, while he chatted hopefully, and I
turned over somewhat heavier matters in my mind.

Once I did well-nigh tell him of Ecgbert, and then forbore; for at
that moment he said somewhat of Quendritha which almost made me
think that he feared her. Whereon I was troubled to think that this
bright and happy young king should be drawn into the net of her
pride and policy, and again thought myself foolish for giving two
thoughts to a matter which did not concern me. If the king was
happy and yon fair maiden was content, they knew more of the queen
than I. So I ended my questionings by a hearty wish that old Thrond
had never told me that wild tale of his, and said naught of my
prince, but listened patiently to the king until some one came and
prayed him to meet the council, which he had forgotten.

I followed him to the great hall, and thence went to the stables,
and so met with Werbode and Erling, and rode hawking with them all
that afternoon. And when we came back we heard that tomorrow was
the day for the meeting of the Witan, to hear and see what King
Carl had to say and had sent.

Now, of all that wonderful gathering in the hall at Thetford I need
say little. I know that our Franks had somewhat despised our
buildings, for indeed they seemed somewhat poor to me after the
mighty piles which Carl had reared. But such a wealth of colour and
jewels decking so gallant an assemblage of brave men and fair
ladies even Carl's court could not match, and so they told me. As
we stood before the high place our Frankish dress seemed almost
plain beside the English, richly as we were clad.

Then I found that I, by reason of having to interpret, was thrust
somewhat more forward than I liked; but there was no help for it,
and I went through it all as well as I knew how. Maybe it was lucky
that I had that talk in all confidence with the king in the garden,
for I was now in nowise afraid of him, though he sat there crowned
and with his sceptre. I was afraid, however, of the Lady Hilda,
knowing just where she stood behind the queen, and one would have
thought that with her I might have claimed more close acquaintance
than with the king; which is curious, for if I had not known her at
all, I should have cared naught for all the ladies present, having
business that needed other thoughts on hand.

However, after it was all over, the old paladin, who was our chief,
thanked me, and spoke some honest words of praise for the way in
which his message had been set before the Witan and the king; and
gave me, moreover, a ring, set with a ruby from some far Eastern
land, as a kindly remembrance of himself; so I verily believe that
I did not manage so badly.

After that was a day or two more of feasting and hunting, and then
the embassy would return. I was sorry to part with Werbode, but I
bade him carry back messages to Ecgbert, and in them I told him
that I waited for the time when his message should best be spoken.
Werbode knew not what that meant, but did not trouble to ask. He
would give my message, and would also tell the atheling of the
coming marriage. I had no doubt that it would be understood well by
him to whom it was sent. At that time there were none of the Franks
who knew or cared who Ecgbert was, save Carl; and if by chance my
friend had spoken to any of these East Anglians of the Saxon leader
under whom he had warred for Carl, the name of Ecgbert would mean
naught to them. A Wessex atheling has no honour in East Anglia, and
I doubt whether it had ever been heard here.

On the day after the great ceremony I noticed that Erling went
about somewhat silently, and I thought that he very likely had a
wish to cross the sea with the Franks, and so make his way home by
land from the Rhine mouth. I asked him, therefore, if it was so,
saying that I would give him money enough for all needs.

"It is not that, master," he said; and when he called me master
(which I had forbidden him, for he was more of a comrade, and I
would not have him remember whence I took him), I knew that he was
in earnest--"not that, for I would not leave you; unless, indeed
this means that you would have me go?"

"No, comrade, that I would not. But you are downcast, and I thought
that you might have the longing for home on you. Well, what is it?"

"It is naught," he said.

But so plain it was that somewhat was amiss that I pressed him, and
at last he said that he would tell me if I would not be angry with
him. We were alone at the time, sitting on a great log in the
corner of the courtyard, waiting for supper.

"Saw you aught strange about the robe which this young king had on
yesterday, when you stood before him?" he asked first. "You were
close to him."

"I did not notice anything beyond that it was wonderfully wrought
with gold and colours. The queen made it, they tell me."

He sighed, and his face fell.

"I have heard that the Christian folk hold most precious such robes
as are marked with the blood of one who has died for his faith. Are
you sure that this robe is not such an one?"

"I know it is not. The queen made it new for the coronation."

He was silent for a while, looking on the ground and shifting his
foot in the dust, and some fear rose in my mind as to what he would
tell me.

"Eh, well," he said, sighing again, "mayhap the sun was in my eyes
before I looked on him."

"Is it the second sight again, Erling?" I asked in a low voice, for
that was what I feared.

"Ay. Methought I saw that royal robe all spotted with blood as he
sat in it."

"What does that portend?" I said.

He lifted his eyes slowly to mine, and answered, "Why need you
ask?"

I did not answer him, for, in truth, I only asked with a half hope
that he might have some other interpretation of this portent than
that of violent death, which seemed the plain meaning of it--that
is, if he saw aught, and I had no reason to disbelieve him. I tried
to think that his glance had met the sun for a moment before he
looked on the king; but I could not think it, for in the hall was
no chance thereof. And then he spoke again slowly, with his eyes
still on the ground.

"Thrond, who is my uncle, saw the same on the mail of my father not
long before he fell. He said at that time that so it had often been
in our family; but this has not come to me until I came here. I had
no second sight up to this time."

"It is sent for some reason, therefore," said I. "Now, is it
possible to avert the doom which seems written?"

He shook his head. "I have never heard so," he answered.

"Yet the king does not seem fey," said I, "and there is no man in
all this land who would harm him. Ah, maybe you saw the robe as of
a saint, because all men hold him most saintly!"

"May it he so," he answered. "You are Christian folk, and it may
mean that; I will hope it does. How should a heathen man know what
is for you? Over you the Norns may have no power. Pay no heed to
me."

"No," said I. "We ride to Offa with the king in a few days, and if
you and I have fears for him, there are two who will watch him
carefully. That is why the sight has come to you, I think. There is
danger, and we may meet it."

Thereat he cheered up, for the thought of facing a peril heartened
him. His heathen fear of fate was enough to make any man downcast
when it seemed to promise naught but ill, and I verily believe that
he thought the way of the Christian might be altogether different
from his. But I liked his second sight not at all, for of course we
Saxons know that when it is given it is not to be despised. My
father had many times told me of the like before I heard this.

After that I asked now and then if there was any danger to be
guarded against on the way to Fernlea, and I was told by all that
there was none. Hardly would a strong guard be needed, for the hand
of Offa was heavy on ill doers, and his land had peace from end to
end.

So then I began to think the portent altogether heathenish, and
half forgot it. And with that I hoped that Erling would not often
be taken in this way.

I rode with the Franks for an hour or two on their road back to
Norwich, homeward, and then took leave of them, riding back to
Thetford with Erling alone, for the king had but set the embassy as
far as the gates of the town. And as I watched them pass across the
heaths and at last disappear behind a hill, it seemed to me that I
had my life to begin afresh, for the days when I was one of the
paladins of King Carl of the Franks were past and done with. Many
were the lessons I had learned therein, and I have never regretted
those five years; and, best of all, in them I had been the friend
and close comrade of Ecgbert, who I know had then all the promise
of his greatness of the days to come.



CHAPTER VII. HOW ETHELBERT'S JOURNEY BEGAN WITH PORTENTS.


Seeing that Carl the Great was at this time, and I suppose always
will be, the model of what a king should be, Ethelbert had many
things to ask me of him, and out of the hours which he spent in
questioning me it came to pass that he took pleasure in my company
at other times as well, treating me as a close comrade. That sort
of thing is apt to be perilous in time, for it makes jealousies
about a court if there is favour for one more than for another of
the courtiers; but as I was no more than a passing stranger, who
had not the least intention of biding here, I escaped that. Nor do
I think that any one was jealous of me, for the honour which Carl
had set on me for the sake of Ecgbert hung about me, as it were,
and I suppose that half the court thought that I had to take some
message on to Offa from my late lord.

Moreover, for good and wise reasons of his own, Ethelbert had no
close companions of his own age, and maybe longed for such, finding
in myself one to whom he could speak his mind of his own affairs
without any thought of favour or policy rising up to cloud my
answers to him, as his guest.

So in a few days I told him of Ecgbert, and gave him those messages
of which I have spoken, being sure that with him they were safe.
And I was glad that I did so, for his joy on hearing of his friend
was good to see. As for the rest of the hopes of our atheling, he
may have had his own thoughts, but he said plainly that the day
when Wessex would need him might come, and that if it did none
would more willingly welcome him home again.

"But," he said, "I think that best of all Ecgbert would wish to
come home in peace at once, and set all ambition aside. Presently,
if we are careful, I may be able to speak to Offa of him again.
Nay, but have no fear; I understand how matters are with Bertric,
and will risk naught. I think we may find that Offa, who is
friendly with King Carl, knows more of Ecgbert than you might
guess."

So that matter dropped, and I had done my errand. But for the sake
of Ecgbert I was all the more welcome to the king, for I had to
tell him of the wars and the deeds of his friend. I do not think
that any will wonder that thus I saw more of the king than
otherwise might have been my lot.

Now there was another of whom I saw much at this time before we
started to ride westward, and that, of course, was the Lady Hilda.
She, I found, was going to Fernlea, rather that she might be one of
the ladies who should attend the bride whom it was hoped that the
king would bring home, than as going to remain with Quendritha, and
I must say that I was glad thereof. With her and her father I rode
many a mile hawking, and both of them seemed to hold me as an old
friend by reason of that lucky chance which brought about our first
meeting; and the only fault I had to find with the journey we
looked for was that in Offa's court would end my friendship with
them.

So it happened one day as we rode thus that while the thane had
crossed a stream, beating up the far bank for a heron, we fell into
talk of the journey and its ending.

"What is amiss with it all?" she asked. "The good queen seems
terribly downcast about it. Is not the princess her choice?"

"Altogether so, as the king tells me. Perhaps the queen has
mother-like fears for the safety of this only son of hers, and lets
them get on her mind overmuch."

"That would be hardly like our queen," she answered, laughing; "she
is above that foolishness. No, but there is somewhat more."

"Then," said I, thinking that this was fancy, "it will be some
trouble of state which is at the bottom of her anxiety. That none
of us can mend."

"It may be that," she said; "but it is some heavy trouble. I have
never seen her so downcast until yesterday. It is a sudden thing."

There we left the subject, and I thought little more of it until
the next morning, which was that of the day before we started. It
had become a custom that I should wait on the king at his first
rising, when he had most leisure to talk with me, and this time I
found the queen with him in his chamber. She looked sad and
anxious, as I thought.

"Wilfrid," she said to me when the fitting greetings were over,
"you are a stranger here, and no thought of policy will come into
your mind. Tell me truly what you think of this; it may be that
your word will have some weight with my son."

Ethelbert smiled, but it was not quite his usual untroubled smile
at all.

"It is not fair to ask Wilfrid," he said; "maybe he puts much faith
in these omens."

"No, but he is of Wessex," she said. "He cares naught for alliance
or court, or for any of those things which blind our eyes. I want
him to answer me as if I were just a franklin's wife who is in
doubt.

"Listen, then, if you will."

She turned to me with a sort of appeal, and spoke quietly, though I
saw that she was almost weeping.

"Last night I dreamed a dream, and in it I waited in the church
here for the bells to ring for the wedding of my son and
Etheldrida, whom he loves. It was in my mind that all the good folk
would come in their best array, and that so we should sing a great
'Te Deum' for the happiness of all. And indeed there was a voice
from the belfry--but it was of the great bell alone, as of a knell
for the dead. And indeed it seemed that the people came--but they
came softly and weeping, and they were clad all in black. And then
they sang--but it was the psalm 'De Profundis.'"

I think that I paled, for I minded those other things which Erling
had told me. The lady, who looked in my face, saw it, and she grew
white also--whiter than she had been before.

"Lady," I stammered, "I have no wit to read these things. It were
well to ask the good bishop, for he is wise."

"Ay, too wise," she said. "I would hear simplicity."

Then Ethelbert rose up and set his arm round his mother very
gently, and said gravely:

"Mother, know you not of what you have dreamed? Even as you told it
first to me, and now again, I seemed to be back on that day, not so
long past, when we buried my father. So it was in the church at
that time, and it was the most terrible thing which you have known.

"Is it wonderful, Wilfrid, that it should come back thus in the
night watches?"

"It is not wonderful," I said.

"Lady, I think that the king is right.

"But, King Ethelbert, if I am to say my mind, I would put off the
journey for the sake of the peace of the queen your mother."

"And thereby offend Offa, and maybe hurt that little playmate of
mine? No, it cannot be. And what should the dream be but that we
say?"

Then the queen said plainly:

"I fear for you, my son--I fear Quendritha. In the days gone by
your wise father was wont to say that if ever danger came from
Mercia to East Anglia, it would be by reason of her ambition and
longing for power and width of realm."

"Why, mother, then surely in gaining the East Anglian throne for
her daughter she gains all she would. And she is Offa's queen, and
in his court can be no danger to me or any man. Presently you shall
surely dream again, and that dream shall show you the old sorrow
turned to joy, for you will have a fair daughter to drive away your
loneliness. She will be all you need, for I know that I can be of
little help to you. The dream was of the sorrow which is passing to
make way for joy to come."

Then the queen made shift to smile, and told him that she deemed
that her fears might be foolish. But to me it seemed that even as
she had said, the thought of policy and state came first of
necessity, setting aside such a vision as any simple thane would
surely have thought held him from a journey he would take. Indeed,
many a one would have given it up for far less, for I have known
men turn back when already started, because a harmless hare crossed
their path or a lone magpie sat on a wayside tree. Maybe I minded
such like myself once, but service with Carl mended that. If he
bade a man do a thing, that man had to do it, omen or none. Whereby
I found that mostly these journey tokens, as one may call them,
came to naught, and certainly I should not have done that if I had
been able to mind them. And yet I do not know if aught would turn a
true lover from the way which leads him toward the lady of his
choice.

"One thing only I do fear from this dream of yours, my mother," the
king said after a little while. "Can it mean harm to Etheldrida?
Was it for her that the knell passed, and shall I find her gone
from me? It is many days since I heard from her or of her."

Now when it came to that, I knew that nothing would stay the king,
and so also did his mother. Whereon she was eager as himself to say
that the dream was but wrought of her sorrow.

"Why, then," said Ethelbert, "you and Wilfrid may laugh at me if
you will; for I have dreamed a dream to set against yours, because
I think it has a good meaning. I thought that I was in a city, and
that from its marketplace rose heavenward a great beam of light,
like a pathway. And so I would climb it, but I could not. Then I
had wings, and up it at last I sailed as a ship sails on the path
of sunlight on an evening sea. Surely that promises a happy journey
for me. Fear no more, therefore, my mother."

Then we went from him, for state business called him, and I would
take the queen across the garden to the bower door. There was
little ceremony in this quiet court, and no waiting ladies were
biding her return outside. And when we were alone there she turned
to me, and her eyes were dim and pitiful.

"Friend," she said, "yon beam of light led to heaven. I do not know
what it all means, but I fear--I fear terribly."

"Lady," I said, "many a time I have known men who thought they had
ill dreams on the night before a battle, and naught came of them. I
have forgotten to trouble myself much therewith."

"Nay, but they are sent at times for our warning."

"It may be so. I should be foolish if I did not believe what wiser
men than I tell me of their messages. But if there is ill before
the king, can it be anywise turned aside? What if he were persuaded
not to go?"

"Oh," she said, with a little sob, "then his troth would be broken,
and that in itself would bring ill. It seems dark all round me."

Then I said, for she was in sore distress:

"Lady, I am a stranger and hardly known to you, but I am to ride
with your son. Will it be aught if I tell you that I will watch him
as if he were my own atheling, and if need be die for him, with his
own thanes?"

"It is much," she said eagerly, "much; for in that court where I
fear for him you will be a stranger, and may hear and note more
than our folk, for if ill is plotted they may be careless of you. I
shall have less fear now that I may feel that one at least shares
in my dread. I do not know how to thank you for the promise."

She set forth her hand to mine, and I bent and kissed it; but she
pressed my great fingers as my own mother used to press them. Then
she said in a low voice:

"I do not fear Offa, for he is noble in all he does. I fear
Quendritha."

"I have heard that she is to be feared. Can you tell me more of
her?"

"You will see her as the fairest woman in all the land, and will
but know her as the softest spoken. Once or twice I have seen what
looks may lie under that fair outward show, and I know that in her
heart is the rage for power and ever more power, let it be what it
may. It goes ill with the lady of her train who shares a secret
with her, if the secret is the lady's. I cannot think how harm may
come to Ethelbert from her; but none know how it may not. I pray
you remember that."

I promised, and then she led me to her doorway; and there I left
her, but not before she had thanked me again. I suppose that to
share a burden even with me helped somewhat to lighten it. And in
all truth I meant to do my part in watching, and if possible
guarding, the king. Perhaps it would be as the queen said, that
being in and yet not of his train I might be able to look on at all
that went on more easily.

To that end I kept my Frankish dress, though I had meant to take to
plain Saxon wear once more, with the knowledge that none would
wonder that Carl's man was kept near the king, and that in Offa's
court I should not be taken for an Anglian of his train.

Now the day came when we should set out on the long ride across
England to the Welsh border, where Offa had set his throne for the
time. As may be supposed, we went first of all on that morning to
the church in the dim daybreak, and there heard mass and sought for
blessing on our going and returning, and then I went and saw all
ready for the ride. I had bought two more horses, good enough for
change of mount now and then, one brown and the other black; and
Erling was to lead them, with our belongings on a pack. The king
would travel steadily, but no more slowly than might be managed,
and we were to have no wagons or the like to hinder us, though
there were three ladies besides the Lady Hilda who were to go with
us.

It was past sunrise when I went to find Erling, but the morning was
dull and dark. It was hot, too, for no breath of wind stirred the
trees, and I seemed to notice a silence around me. That was because
the thrushes and blackbirds were not singing after their wont in
the dewy daybreak of May time, and I thought they waited for the
sun to break out.

When I came to the stables there was bustle everywhere, of course;
but the grooms seemed troubled in some way out of the common, and
Erling himself came to meet me with a puzzled face which told me
that all was not well.

"There is thunder in the air, thane," he said. "If I mistake not,
we shall have somewhat out of the way, too. The horses are feeling
it--unless some thrall has poisoned the whole stable."

Truly the horses were looking strangely. Their coats stared, and
their ears were cold and damp, while they seemed glad of the
company of the men, whinnying low and rubbing themselves against
them as they came into the stalls. I heard one thrall say to
another that the whole stable had surely been witch ridden in the
night.

"Get the horses into the open," I said. "It is stifling in this
stable. Maybe that is what is wrong."

My own horse was standing ready, and he greeted me, after his wont,
with a little neigh; but he was wet, and his coat had lost the
gloss of which Erling was so proud. I did not like it at all, but
as every horse in the place seemed to be in the same way or worse,
I put it down to the thundery feel in the air. I led him out
myself, and there were two thanes of our party, who had come for
their horses.

"Why, paladin," said one, "what is amiss with the skew-bald? You
can't ride him today if he is as bad as he looks."

I told him that his own horse was much in the same case, and added
that I thought with Erling that it was the thundery weather which
upset the stable, though I had never known the like before.

"I suppose that the king will not start until it clears," I said.

"Ay, but he will," said the other thane, looking at the gray sky.
"Seldom does he put off a start, and today of all days there is a
strong cable pulling him westward."

Now Erling came out with the other horses, and the thane and his
comrade glanced at them, and hurried to see to their own steeds.
There was no sound of pawing hoofs and coaxing voices to be heard
as one by one the horses were led out. It might have been the
clearing of a sheep fold for all the spirit there was in the
beasts.

I mounted, and rode with Erling after me out of the courtyard into
the open. On the green were gathering the twenty thanes or so who
made up the party, and across it was drawn up the mounted escort.
There was the usual gathering of onlookers, and by the gate stood
the king's own huntsmen, with hawks and hounds.

The first thing I noticed was that the birds were dull and uneasy,
and that the dogs were still more so. The hooded hawks sat with
ruffled feathers, and one or two of the hounds lay on their backs,
with paws drawn to them as if they feared a beating, while the rest
whined, and had no eagerness in them. It seemed closer here than in
the courtyard even, and every one was watching the sky and speaking
in a low voice. Each sound seemed over loud, and overhead the hot
haze brooded without sign of breaking.

The king's chaplain came out, and a lay brother brought him his
mule. He looked at it as I had looked at my horse just now, and his
brow knitted. He was rather a friend of mine.

"Father," I said, "there is somewhat strange in the air. Look at
all the beasts; they feel more than we can."

He nodded to me gravely. Then he said, with his hand smoothing the
wet coat of his mule, which at any other time would have resented
the touch with a squeal, but now did not heed him:

"It minds me of one day in Rome when I was a lad there, at college,
learning. There is a great burning mountain at Naples, and it was
smoking at the time. Then there came--"

"Way for the king!" cried the marshal who waited at the gate, and
the good father had to stand aside with his tale unfinished.

Ethelbert came forth with a smiling return to our salute, and with
him came his mother and the four ladies who were to bear us company
on the way. One of these was, of course, the Lady Hilda, and I
dismounted and left my horse to a groom for the time, having
promised myself the pleasure of helping her to mount.

At that moment the marshal, who was a thane set over all the
ordering of the journey, went to the king and asked him if it might
not be his pleasure to wait for an hour to see if the weather
broke. I think that the king was so taken up with parting words to
the queen that he had hardly noticed the gloom and heat, and
certainly he had not noted the uneasiness of the horses, which was
growing more and more. So he only turned for a moment to the thane,
signing to the man to bring his horse.

"Nay, but a dull start often forebodes a bright ending to a
journey. We will go," he said, laughing.

"Now farewell, mother, for the last time."

He bent his knee for her blessing, doffing his cap as he did so.
And even as he bent I was aware of a dull rumble, not loud or like
thunder, but as if all the wains of the host of King Carl were
passing toward us from far off. Hilda stood by me at that moment,
and she heard it.

For the life of me, though I knew that no wagons were near us, I
could not help glancing round for them, and as I did so I saw the
end of a thrall's mud hut across a field fall out. The king leaped
up and set his foot in the stirrup, and at that moment the earth
heaved and shook under us, and the whole oaken hall and buildings
round us creaked and groaned like a ship in a ground swell, while
Hilda clung to my arm in terror. Her horse, which the thane, her
father, held, trembled and broke out into white foam all over,
stumbling forward.

I do not think that the king felt it; indeed, as he was swinging
himself into the saddle at the moment, he could not have done so.
But his horse reared almost on end with terror, and any less
perfect rider must have had a heavy fall. All around us were
plunging horses and shouting men, but he did not seem to heed them.
He had all he could do to get his horse in hand again, and I think
his eyes were misty with that parting.

He gave the horse the rein, crying to us to follow, and so passed
down the dim street and out under the green arches of the lane
beyond at a gallop, as gay and hopeful a lover as heart could wish.
Doubtless to him the shouts seemed but the cries of good speed, and
the plunging of the maddened horses but the sounds of mounting; for
the way had been left clear for him westward, and he did not look
back.

Out of the houses of the town I saw the folk running and crying,
not in farewell to him, but in wild terror of rattling roofs and
crumbling walls. They did not heed him; but I saw him wave his hand
to them, for he thought they cheered him, as he passed too swiftly
to note either pale faces or woeful cries.

Then after him rode their hardest the men of the escort and others
who were already mounted, and the tumult stilled suddenly. They say
that the queen swooned there on the pavement at the gate; and I do
not doubt it, though her ladies took her so quickly away that I did
not see her. Hilda was almost fainting on my arm, and I had to drag
her away from the wild frenzy of her horse, which the thane could
hardly hold.

I saw two or three men stand staring at Erling, who was in trouble
with his charges, and then they went to his help. And next I was
aware that somewhat soft rubbed my sleeve, and I started and
turned. It was my own horse, who sought me in danger, and would
tell me in his own way that he was there. In that glance I noted
that his eye was bright again, and in a minute or two he shook
himself heartily. Thereby I knew that there was no more of this
terror to come, or he would have felt it yet.

"Thane," I said, "see. The skew-bald has not lost his senses like
that beast. Let us set Hilda on him. The marshal will help to shift
the saddle."

But Hilda came to herself again, and tried to laugh, saying that
there was never yet a horse of which she was afraid. Nor would she
hear of a change, for when her horse grew more quiet it was plain
that its terror had passed away. She took herself gently from my
arm, and spoke bravely now.

"What was it?" she asked me while Sighard soothed the beast.

"Why," answered Father Selred for me, "just what I was going to
tell the paladin--such an earthquake as I felt on a like day in
Rome years ago. But why it comes here in quiet England, where is no
fiery mountain to disquiet the earth, I cannot say."

"Father, it is the end of the world!" said a thrall, forgetting our
presence in his terror.

"Not so, my son. The thousand years of prophecy are not at an end
yet; and there are more foretellings of Holy Writ yet to be
fulfilled. It is just the old earth shaking herself after a sleep."

The man's face cleared, and he shrank back with a low bow,
frightened at his own boldness. All seemed to have found their
tongues again, and were telling how the matter had seemed to them
without waiting to know whether they were listened to.

"No hurry," said Sighard; "the king cannot keep up that pace, and
anywise will have to wait the pack-horse train somewhere. Let us
see all well first."

Maybe we waited for half an hour after that, for the ladies were
sorely frightened. We had the horses walked to and fro for a while,
and presently they were themselves again. And there came no more
trembling of the ground, while the clouds grew blacker, and a
short, sharp thunderstorm swept over us. It was good to feel the
cleared air again, and to smell the scent that rises after rain,
and to hear the song of the birds break out around us.

Yet on every face was a fear that would not be put aside. Men
thought that the earthquake boded ill for the journey of the king
and what might come thereof.

So when the rain had passed we rode away after the king, followed
by the pack horses, and before noon caught him up. He had heard
then what had happened to set his steed beyond control, and his
face was grave also. Even he could not help fearing that the
earthquake, coming at that moment as it did, might be sent as a
token which he must hear though the dreams of his mother went for
naught.

"And yet," he said to Father Selred and myself as we rode beside
him, "I am doing what I deem best for throne and realm, and I have
no thought of guile or harm to any man. Nor can I see that I have
to fear any from Offa, or that at his court can be danger to me."

"Journey and reason therefor are alike good so far as man can see
or plan," said Selred the priest. "I would that every journey was
undertaken as fully innocently. I cannot think that any tokens have
been sent to warn you from it. Yet if there had been aught amiss in
your plans, it is true that there have been tokens enough to scare
any man from evil."

"Maybe it all means naught but danger on the journey. Well, we knew
there was always that in any ride. For the rest, we are in the
hands of Him who orders all and can see beyond our ken. We will go
on till the tokens, if tokens they be, are plain in their meaning."

Father Selred approved, gravely. Then he muttered somewhat to
himself, and laughed. It was Latin, but the king told me afterward
what it meant. Some old Roman poet had made a song in which he said
that a man who was just and straightforward in his purposes need
not fear if the world fell, shattered in ruins, around him.

It was a good saying, and surely that was the way of Ethelbert of
East Anglia. Maybe the one thing which did trouble him was his
thought of the terror of his mother, and of her anxiety for him.

But it was a long while before the rest of us shook off the fear of
what all this might betoken. Perhaps of all I had the most reason
to think that ill was before the king, for Erling, though he said
no more to me, was plainly full of bodings. And I have heard that
other men dreamed dreams of terror and told them to one another.
Only Ethelbert was always cheerful, singing as he rode and laughing
with us, so that we ought to have been ashamed to be dull.

Save for what was in my mind, I cannot say that the miles went
slowly. The days were bright and warm, and ever did I take more
pleasure in the old home land. And always when Ethelbert had his
counsellors round him I rode with Hilda and her father, and I think
that I wished that journey might never end, after a while.

For I was going homeward to where mother and father waited me, in
the first place. Then I had pleasant companions, and most of all
this one of whom I have just spoken. I had a good horse under me,
and a comrade in Erling who served me silently with that best of
service that is given for love. I was high in honour with this
wonderful young king, for the sake of Ecgbert first, I think, then
of King Carl, and lastly because he did indeed seem to like my own
company. I do not think that one could need more to add to
pleasure.

I have seen the progresses of kings before this and since, and
often it has been that after their passing there has been
grumbling, and the hearty hope that the long and greedy train which
ate men out of house and home, borrowed their best horses, and
otherwise made a little famine in their wake, might never come that
way again. But this Ethelbert left, as it were, a track of
happiness across England, in hall and in village, in cot and in
forest. He had ridden with so small a train that he might
overburden none of those who had to entertain him on his way, and
he stayed nowhere overlong. Everywhere he seemed to leave smiles
and wishes that he would honour that house or that town again on
his return, and not a man to whom he had spoken, if it were but a
word of thanks, would ever forget how Ethelbert the Anglian looked
on him with that kindly glance of his.



CHAPTER VIII. HOW ETHELBERT CAME TO THE PALACE OF SUTTON.


By Ely and Huntingdon and Northampton, and so through the very
heart of England, across the sweet Avon at Stratford, our way took
us, under trees that had their first leaves fresh and sweet on
them, and past orchards pink and white, with the bees busy among
the bloom. I had seen many a fair country beyond the sea in the
wide realms of Carl, but none so sweet as this to my mind. The warm
rain that came and stayed us now and then but made it all the
sweeter; and I mind, with a joy that bides with me, the hours of
waiting in old halls and quiet monasteries.

That black cloud of fears cleared away presently, for it was in all
truth a very bridal procession in which we rode. Everywhere the
news went before us that hither came the well-loved king to bear
away the sweet daughter of Mercia, and from town and hamlet the
bells greeted us, and the folk donned their holiday gear to come to
meet us. I had not known that the name of Ethelbert, young as he
was, could have been so held in love across the land. But Father
Selred told me that never had been such a king as he, as there
surely had never been such promise of the days when he was the heir
to the throne.

First in all he was in the minds of every man who knew him, whether
in war or peace, council or chamber, and maybe he was the only one
who did not know it. I learned much of him in that ride, and always
with a growing love of him and a deeper wonder. He thought for
every one but himself.

Nor was there a church, however small, which he passed on that
happy journey toward his bride which was not the richer and
brighter for some gift of his, left on the altar after the morning
mass, which always began our day, or given quietly after the
evensong which ended it. One might know his road now by the words
of the people, who will say with more than pride that once
Ethelbert crossed the threshold of their church and gave this or
that gift. I have seen richer gifts given, and heard more words
said; but what he gave seemed always that which was wanted, and the
word he spoke was always the best that could have been. And I have
wondered at the mighty churches which Carl the Great had reared and
was still rearing, but in some wise it seemed to me that the way of
Ethelbert was of more worth.

Now, seeing that we had started with our minds full of portents, it
is not by any means wonderful that we found more on the road. For a
time, if a horse did but cast a shoe, the thane it belonged to
shook his head and wished that naught ill might come of the little
delay. And once, when we stumbled into a fog among the river
country of the midlands, where one would expect to meet with it,
there was nigh a panic in the company, so that the thanes crowded
round Ethelbert and begged him to return. Whereon he laughed at
them gaily.

"Thanes, thanes!" he cried, "one can no more see to return than to
go forward! I might take it as a warning not to go back, just as
well. Did none of you ever see a fog before? Had it fallen on you
while hunting, you would have done naught but grumble and wait its
lifting."

But they were terrified, as it seemed, beyond reason; and, indeed,
it was as thick as any Friesland fog I have ever seen, and it grew
blacker for an hour or so, while we had perforce to wait under
dripping trees till we could see to go on. Even a horse will lose
his way home in such a fog as that.

And at last they begged the king to pray that it might clear from
off us, and so he knelt and did so. It was strange to hear his
clear voice rising from the midst of half-seen men and steaming
horses, praying for the light. And then the fog lifted as suddenly
as it had come, and the sun shone out.

"See," he said, "our fears are like this mist, and cloud our
senses. Surely the fears shall pass likewise from the heart of him
who prays. So read I the token, if token it be."

All that day thereafter we rode in brightest sunshine, and men were
fairly ashamed to say more of ill-luck and the like. And so also in
lovely weather we went for the fourteen days of our journey, until
we came to the place where we should cross the Severn at Worcester,
and but a day's long ride was before us.

After that time of the mist Ethelbert noticed Erling, and would
call him and speak long with him of the ways of his home, as I
thought.

At Worcester we waited while a message went from the town to Offa,
and next day there came to meet us some score of the best thanes of
the Welsh borderland, who should be our guides to the end of the
journey. Hard warriors and scarred with tokens of the long wars
they were, but pleasant and straightforward in their ways, as
warriors should be. Only I did not altogether like the smooth way
of the man who was their leader. His name was Gymbert, and he was
of mixed Welsh and English blood, as I was told, and he was also
high in honour with Offa, and with Quendritha herself; which in
itself spoke well for him, but nevertheless in some way I cared not
for him.

They feasted us that night in Worcester, and early next morning we
rode out westward again on the last stage of our journey, the king
leading us with this thane at his side, followed by the rest of the
Mercians and his own thanes. So I, not altogether unwillingly, rode
with Hilda in the rear of the party, feeling somewhat downcast to
think that this was the last time I was at all likely to be her
companion.

I suppose that there is not a more wonderful outlook in all England
than from the Malvern heights, save only that from our own
Quantocks, in the west. I hold that the more wonderful, for there
one has the sea, and across it the mountains of Wales, which one
misses here, while it were hard to say whence the eye can range the
furthest.

I told Hilda so as we reined up the horses for a moment at the top
of the steep to breathe them, and she sighed, with all the wonder
before her. We of the hill countries do not know all the pleasure
that comes into the heart of one from the level east counties, as
he looks for the first time from a height over the lands spread out
below. I had been long enough in Friesland now to learn some of
that wonder for myself anew.

"Well," she said, "you will be back again at home in your hills
shortly, and all this ride will be forgotten. Where does your home
lie? Can it be seen?"

I pointed south or thereabout. I could almost fancy that I should
be able to see the far blue line of the Mendips under the sun, so
bright it all was and clear.

Then she asked if my folk knew that I was on my way home.

"No; else I had ridden straightway from Thetford to them. They
think that I am yet with the Franks across the sea, and a few days
can make no difference to them. Nor could I be so churlish as to
refuse the king's offer of help on my way."

"I wonder how you will find all when you get back?"

"And so do I. There were merchants from Bristol who brought me a
message that all was well with them six months ago, and by the same
hands I sent back word that so it was with me. Possibly that
message has reached them about this time."

That was the third time I had heard from home during these years,
and I was lucky to have heard at all. It seems that my father had
bidden friends of ours at the ports to let him hear of men from
across the seas who were to go to the court of Carl.

"Ah," she said, "I hope so. That would be more than joy to your
mother. And then for you to follow so quickly on the message! that
will be wonderful. I would that I could see that meeting."

She turned and laughed in the pleasure of the thought, and I
suppose there was that in my eyes which told her that I had the
same wish. Maybe I should have said so, but she flushed a little,
and gave me no time.

"But I shall be on the way back to East Anglia with the princess,
and I will picture it all. Some day, when you come back to see the
king, as you say he has asked you, I shall hear of it."

Now it was in my mind that it was possible that I might be back in
Thetford, or wherever Ethelbert's court might be at the time,
sooner than I had any wish. For if aught had happened amiss at
home, so that our lands, for want of the heir, had fallen into the
hands of Bertric, I should be left with naught but my sword for
heritage. Then--for the king had spoken of these chances to me--I
was to come straightway back to him and take service with him. My
knowledge of the ways in which Carl handled his men would be of use
to him, and a place and honour would wait me. But I would not think
much of such sorrow for me, though that it was possible, of course,
may have been the great reason which made me silent when there were
words I had more than once had it on the tip of my tongue to say to
Hilda. Could I have known for certain that home and wealth yet
waited for me, I know that I must needs have asked her to share
them, now that at the end of this daily companionship I learned
what my thoughts of her had grown to be.

"Ay, I shall be back with Ethelbert at some time," I said. "I do
not forget promises."

After that we rode down the long hill silently enough, and the way
did not seem so bright to me. And so through the long day we rode,
stopping for an hour or two at the strong oaken hall, moated and
stockaded, of some great border thane for the midday meal. There
were the marks of fire on roof and walls; for once the wild Welsh
had tried to burn it, and failed, in a sudden raid before Offa had
curbed them with the mighty earthwork that runs from Dee to Severn
to keep the border of his realm. "Offa's Dyke" men call it, and so
it will be called to the end of time.

And now we were on the way of the war host from west to east, the
way of the Welshmen, and making toward the ford of the Wye, which
they were wont to cross, so that we call it the "ford of the host,"
the "Hereford."

It was late when we came into the little town of Fernlea, which
stands on the gentle rise above the ford, for the five-and-twenty
miles or so of this day's work had been heavy across the hills. The
great stronghold palace whither we were bound lay some miles
northward, and it seemed right that we waited here till the next
day, that into it we might pass with all travel stains done away
with and in full state.

Already there had been a royal camp pitched for us by Offa's folk,
and I was glad that we had not to bide in the town. One could not
wish for better weather for the open, and the lines of gay tents,
with the pavilion for the king in their midst, seemed homely and
pleasant to me with memory of the days which seemed so long ago
when the camp of Carl was my only home.

As soon as we reached this camp under the hill, where the town
stockading rose strong and high against the Welsh, the thane I have
already mentioned, Gymbert, arranged our lodging, he being the
king's marshal in charge of us, and also warden of the palace. He
was a huge man, burly and strong, somewhat too smooth spoken, as I
thought, but pleasant withal. He gave me a tent to myself, somewhat
apart from the king's pavilion, as a Frankish stranger, I suppose.

"Your thralls will bide with the rest," he said; "they can find
shelter in the tents there are yonder. If some of them have to bide
outside, it will not hurt them."

"Well enough you ken that, Gymbert," said Erling curtly, in good
Welsh.

I understood him, of course, for we had Welsh thralls enough at
home, but I wondered that he knew the tongue. Gymbert understood
him also, for his face flushed red and he bit his lip. But he
pretended not to do so.

"Your Frankish tongue is a strange one," he said. "What does the
man want?"

"I think that he means that outside the tent is as pleasant as in,
as you hint," I said. "But he will bide here across my door, as is
his wont."

"Outside, I suppose?" said Gymbert, with a laugh. "Well, as you
like."

He rode away, and I looked at Erling wonderingly. The Dane was
watching him with a black scowl on his face.

"Where on earth did you learn the British tongue?" I said; "and
what know you of Gymbert?"

"I learned the Welsh yonder," Erling answered, nodding westward. "I
lived in the little town men call Tenby for three years. There also
I heard of this man. He was a thrall himself once, and freed by
this queen for some service or another. He is a well-hated man,
both by Saxon and Welsh, being of both races, and therefore of
neither, as one may say."

"He seems to be trusted by the king, though!"

Erling shrugged his shoulders. "He has fought well for him, and is
rewarded. Were there aught to be had by betraying Offa, he would
betray him. Take a bad Saxon and a false Welshman, and that is
saying much, and weld them into one, and you have Gymbert."

"This is hearsay from the Welsh he has fought," said I; "one need
not heed it."

"I suppose not," quoth Erling; "but I never heard aught else of
him. And he has the face of a traitor."

With that he turned to his horses and began loosening the pack from
that one which bore it. There was no more to be got out of him, as
I knew, and so, leaving him to set the tent in order, I went my way
toward the river, being minded for a good swim therein after the
long, dusty way. And turning over what Erling had said of himself,
I remembered that Thorleif had told me how he had come from Wales
round the Land's End to Weymouth. I thought rightly that he had
picked up Erling there.

I had a good hour's swim in a deep pool of the river, and enjoyed
it to the full. The current was swift, and it was good to battle
with it, and then to turn and swing downward past the fern-covered
banks and under the shade of the trees with its flow. And while I
was splashing in the pool, a franklin came running from his field
with his hoe, waving wildly to me.

"Come out, master, I pray you!" he gasped; "the water is full forty
feet deep there!"

"Is that so?" I said gravely. "I will go and see."

With that I dived, and stayed under as long as I could, not being
able to find the bottom after all.

And when I came up again the honest face of the franklin was white
and his eyes stared in terror. So I laughed at him.

"I believe the pool is as deep as you say; but would seven feet of
water be any safer?"

"Nay, master, but it would drown me. Yet come out, I do pray you.
It gives me the cold terror to see you so overbold."

Then came Father Selred along the bank, and the man begged him to
bid me leave the water; and so we both laughed at him, until the
franklin waxed cross and went his way, saying that I was a fool for
not biding in the shoal water up yonder by the great tree. I could
walk across there waist deep, he said, grumbling.

Then I came out, and the father told me that the king would be here
anon. We walked to and fro waiting for him, and presently he came
with Hilda's father, Sighard, in attendance. The four of us sat
down on the river bank, under the great tree of which the franklin
had spoken, and watched the trout in the shallows till Ethelbert
lay back with his arms under his head, and said that he was tired
with the ride and would sleep.

He closed his eyes, and we went on talking in low voices for an
hour or so while he slept. And then the horns rang from the distant
camp to tell us that the evening meal was spread in the great
pavilion. But the king did not hear them, and I looked doubtfully
at him, wondering if he should be waked.

"Wilfrid," said Father Selred in a whisper, "surely the king dreams
wondrous things. His face is as the face of a saint!"

And so indeed it was as he lay there in the evening light, and I
wondered at him. There was no smile around his mouth, but stillness
and, as it seemed, an awe of what he saw, most peaceful, so that I
almost feared to look on him. The horns went again, soft and mellow
in the distance from across the evening meadows. The kine heard
them, and thought them the homing call, and so lifted their lazy
heads and waded homeward through the grass.

"Ethelbert, my king," said Sighard gently.

The eyes of the king opened, and he roused.

"Was that your voice, my thane," he asked, "or was it the voice of
my dream?"

"I called you, lord, for the horns are sounding."

"Thanks; but I would I had dreamed more! I do not know if I should
have learned what it all meant had I slept on."

"What was it, my son?" said Selred.

The king was silent for a little, musing.

"It was a good dream, I think," he said. "I will tell you, and you
shall judge. You mind the little wooden church which stands here in
Fernlea town? Well, in my dream I stood outside that, and it seemed
small and mean for the house of God, so that I would that it were
built afresh. Then it seemed to me that an angel came to me,
bearing a wondrous vessel full of blood, and on the little church
he sprinkled it; and straightway it began to grow and widen
wondrously, and its walls became of stone instead of timber and
wattle, and presently it stood before me as a mighty church, great
as any of those of which Carl's paladin here tells me.

"Then I heard from within the sound of wonderful music and the
singing of many people; and I went near to listen, for the like of
that was never yet heard in our land. And when I was even at the
door, from out the church came in many voices my own name, as if it
were being mingled with praises--and so you woke me."

"It is a good dream," said Sighard bluntly. "It came from the
wondering why Offa let so mean a church stand, and from the horns,
and from my speaking your name. Strange how things like that will
weave themselves into the mind of a sleeping man to make a wonder."

"It is a good dream," said Selred the priest, after a moment's
thought. I doubt not that it was in your mind to give some gift to
the church. Mayhap you shall ask Offa to restore it presently, for
memory of your wedding; and thereafter men will pray there for you
as the founder of its greatness."

"Yet the angel, and that he bore and sprinkled?"

"It seems to me," I said, "that it was a vision of the Holy Grail;
and happy would King Arthur or our Wessex Ina have held you that
you saw it, King Ethelbert."

"Ay," he said, "if I might think that it was so!"

Again the horns rang, and he leaped up.

"We must not keep them waiting," he cried. "Come!"

"More dreams," grumbled Sighard the old thane to me as the king
went on before us with the chaplain. "On my word, we have been
dream-ridden like a parcel of old women on this journey, till we
shall fear our own shadows next. There is Hilda as silent as a
mouse today, and I suppose she has been seeing more portents. I
mind that a black cat did look at us out of a doorway this
morning."

So he growled, scoffing, and I must say that I was more than half
minded to agree with him. Only the earthquake did seem more than an
everyday token.

"I suppose that the earthquake which we felt was sent for
somewhat?" I said.

"Why, of course; such like always are. But seeing that it was felt
everywhere we have ridden, even so far as Northampton, and likely
enough further on yet, I don't see why we should take it as meant
for the king."

Then he began to laugh to himself.

"When one comes to think thereof," he chuckled, "there must have
been scores of men who felt it just as they were starting
somewhere; and I warrant every one of them took it to himself, and
put off his business! Well, well, I can tell what it did portend,
however, for Ethelbert, and that is a mighty change in his
household so soon as he gets his new wife home. Earthquake,
forsooth! Mayhap he will wish he had hearkened to its message when
she turns his house upside down."

"Nay," I said, smiling; "one has not heard that of the princess."

"She is Quendritha's daughter," he said grimly, and growing grave
of a sudden. "That is the one thing against this wedding, to my
mind. If she is like her mother, or indeed like her sister
Eadburga, who wedded your king, there is an end for peace to
Ethelbert, and maybe to East Anglia."

Now I had heard little or nothing of how that last match turned
out; I only knew that when I was taken from home we were full of
rejoicing over it. So I heard now for the first time that over all
the land of Wessex were whispers of ill done by our new queen--of
men who crossed her in aught dying suddenly, or going home to
linger awhile and come to a painful end. I heard that she bore rule
rather than the king, and that her sway was heavy, and so on in
many counts against her. The tales were the same as those I had
heard often of late about her mother, Quendritha, and with all my
heart I hoped that the Princess Etheldrida was not as those two. I
had heard naught but good of her, at all events, and I will say now
that all I had heard was true. There could be no sweeter maiden in
all the land than she. I heard the same good words of her only
brother, Ecgfrith, and I suppose that those two bore more likeness
to their mighty father than to the queen.

All this half-stifled talk of untold ill from Quendritha lay heavy
on my mind; and it came to me that Sighard was a true man, and that
to him I might tell the tale Thrond told me. I must share that
secret with some one who might, if he deemed it wise, warn King
Ethelbert in such sort that he should beware of her, now and
hereafter. So after a little while I said:

"Thane, I have heard that Quendritha came ashore--"

"Ay," he said sharply, looking round him. "But that is a tale which
is best let alone. It is true enough. My wife's folk took her in at
Lincoln."

"Is it known whence she came?" I went on, paying no heed to a
warning sign he made; for we were far from the camp yet, and the
king was a hundred yards ahead of us.

"Let be, Wilfrid; hold your peace on that. There are men who have
asked that question in all simplicity, and they have gone."

"Why, is there aught amiss in coming ashore as she did?"

"Hold your peace, I tell you. On my word, it is as well, though,
that you have had it out with me here in the meadows. Listen: there
is no harm in the drifting hither. What sent her adrift?"

"I have sailed for a month with Danes," I said. "I have met with a
man who once set a girl adrift."

As I said that I looked him meaningly in the face, and he grew
pale.

"So," he said slowly, "you have heard that tale also. There was a
Danish chapman who came to our haven at Mundesley, where I live,
and told it there to me. That was a year after the boat was found.
I bade him be silent, but there was no need. When he heard that the
girl had become what she is, he fled the land. And, mind you, he
could not be certain, nor can I."

"Nor could the man who told me. But my Dane is the nephew of that
man."

Sighard grasped my arm.

"Speak to him, and bid him hold his tongue if he has heard the
tale, else he and you are dead men. Get to him at once."

I thought, indeed, that there was need to do so, though Erling was
in nowise talkative. For if, as was pretty certain, the tale of the
coming of Quendritha went round the groups of men at the camp
fires, he might say that he had heard of one set adrift from his
own land.

So instead of going in at once with the king to the pavilion, I ran
down to the lines where the horses were picketed, and found Erling
on his way to the supper, which was spread under some trees for our
servants. I took him aside and walked out into the open with him.

"Erling," I said, "do you mind that tale which Thrond tells
concerning a damsel set afloat?"

"Ay, more than mind it--I saw it done! She went from our village. I
was a well-grown lad of fourteen then. Now I know what you would
say. It is the word of Thrond that this Quendritha, whom men fear
so, is she. He says so, since you spoke to him."

"Have you breathed a word thereof to any one?" I asked, with a sort
of cold fear coming on me.

I had no mind to die of poison.

"Not likely; here of all places. I mind what that maiden was in the
old days. From all accounts she has but held herself back somewhat
here. But had you had aught to do with her, I should have warned
you, master."

I set my hand on his shoulder.

"I know you would. Now you will see the queen tomorrow. Tell me,
then, if this is indeed she."

"Ay, I shall know her well enough. What I fear is that she may know
me!"

Grim as his voice was, that made me laugh.

"Seeing that you were but a lad when she last set eyes on you--and
now you are ten years older than myself, bearded and scarred
moreover--I do not fear that for you in the least."

"Nor will she have need to scan me," he said. "Of course I need not
fear it."

Then I asked him if he had more of the second sight.

"Naught fresh, master. Only that look on the face of the young king
deepens, and ever there is the red line round his neck. I fear for
him."

So did I, but of that we spoke no more. I tried all I knew to
fathom that fear of mine, and the most I could do was to make it
seem more and more needless and foolish. And presently, when we sat
at the table, and I saw the king speaking with the Mercians, and
noted their admiring looks at him, and their eagerness to listen to
him, I thought that Sighard was right, and that I was frayed with
shadows of my own making. I knew enough of men by this time to see
that here was no thought of ill toward Ethelbert.



CHAPTER IX. HOW QUENDRITHA THE QUEEN WOVE HER PLOTS.


Great was the welcome which Ethelbert of East Anglia had from Offa
of Mercia when we reached the great stronghold of Sutton Walls on
the next morning, riding there in all state and due array in our
best holiday gear, with those Mercian thanes who had met us as
escort before and after us. The morning was bright and clear, and I
thought I had never seen so fair a procession as this with which
the king went to meet his bride.

I had heard much of this palace of Offa's from the Mercians and
from Ethelbert himself, but it was a far stronger place than I had
expected. Seeing that here, on the newly-conquered Welsh border
lands, no man could tell when the wild Britons might swarm across
the ford, and bring fire and sword in revenge on the lands they had
lost, if the king would have a palace here, it must be a very
strong hold, and Offa had indeed made one.

The Romans had chosen the place long ago, having the same foe to
watch and the same ford to keep, and on the low hill, which they
saw was best for strength and position alike, they had set a great
square camp with high earthen walls and deep moat below them. Once
they had had their stone houses within it, but they had gone. The
last of them were cleared when Offa drove out the Welsh and set his
own place there after our fashion. Then he had repaired the
earthworks, and crowned them afresh with a heavy timber stockade,
making new gates and bridges across the moat.

Across the bridge which faces toward Wales we rode, between lines
of country folk, who thronged outside the stockading to see our
coming; and so with their cheers to greet us we came into a great
open courtyard, with long buildings for thralls and kitchens and
the like on either side of it, and right opposite the gate, facing
toward it, the timber hall of the king itself. A little chapel,
cross crowned, stood on its left, and the guest house and guard
rooms for the housecarls to the right, stretching across the centre
of the camp where once the Roman huts had been.

The hall was high and long, and had a wide porch and doorway in the
end which faced the gate. Behind it one could see the roofs of
other buildings which joined it, and beyond it again were stables,
and byres, and kennels, and barns, and the countless other offices
which a great house needs, filling up the rest of the space the
stockade enclosed. Nor were they set at random, as one mostly sees
them; but all having been built at once, they stood in little
streets, as it were, most orderly to look on, with a wider street
running from the back of the hall to the gate which led toward
Mercia through the midst.

Presently I learned that the queen's bower was a lesser hall, which
joined the back of the great palace hall itself, and that there
were other buildings, which were not to be seen at first. It was
the greatest palace in all England, and I wished that the Franks,
who had little praise for our dwellings, had seen this before they
went back home. It is true that all was built of timber, while the
Franks used stone; but that last no Angle or Saxon cares for while
good oak and ash and chestnut are to be had.

I did not pay much heed to the place at the time when we rode in,
beyond a swift glance round me. There was that which held my eyes
from the first on the wide steps that led to the hall door. There
stood Offa and his queen to meet their guest, with the nobles of
Mercia round them in a wondrous gathering, blazing with colour, and
gold, and jewels, and the white horse banner of Mercia over them.

To right and left along the front of chapel and guest house were
lines of the scarred housecarls who had followed Offa and won the
land for him, bright with flashing helms and weapons; and close
behind the group on the steps were some black-robed priests, who
had a vested bishop in their midst.

So they waited while we dismounted, and then Ethelbert went forward
alone toward the king and queen, carrying his helm in his hand, and
with only a little golden circlet round his fair hair. I mind that
the bright sun flashed from it as he went till there seemed a halo
round his head, like to the ring of light they paint round the
heads of the saints in the churches. And I thought that even Offa
seemed less kingly than did he, though the great king was fully
robed and wearing his crown. I think he had on a white tunic with a
broad golden hem, and a crimson cloak fastened on his shoulder with
cross-shaped brooch, golden and gemmed, while his hose were of dark
blue, cross-gartered with gold.

And then I must look at the queen, and I saw the most wonderfully
beautiful lady who ever lived outside of a gleeman's tale, so that
hardly could Guinevere herself, King Arthur's queen, have been more
beautiful. She was tall and yet not thin, and her golden hair fell
in two long plaits almost to the ground over her pale green dress.
From her shoulders hung a cloak of deeper green, wondrously wrought
with crimson and gold and silver, and fastened with golden
brooches. She also wore her crown; but even if she had not had it,
none could mistake her for any but the queen among all the ladies
who stood behind her, and they were of the noblest of that land.

I thought that the Princess Etheldrida would be there also, for
beside the king was Ecgfrith the atheling; but she was not. They
say that she had some maidenly fear of meeting this husband of
hers, who was to be, in the open court thus.

Now Offa smiled and came down the steps to meet Ethelbert, and set
his hand on his shoulder and kissed him in a royal greeting, and so
led him to the queen, who waited him with a still face, which at
least had naught but friendliness in it. One would say that it was
such a look as a fond mother might well turn on the man who would
take her loved daughter from her, not unwilling, but half doubting
for her. There seemed no look of ill, and none of guile, in her
blue eyes as Ethelbert bent and kissed her hand; and she too bent
and kissed his forehead.

And at that moment from my shoulder growled Erling, and his face
was white and troubled:

"Yonder is she!"

Then he shrank away behind me, and so took himself beyond her
sight. I did not see him again until the queen had left.

The words struck a sort of chill into me, and I looked more closely
at the queen. Maybe I was twenty paces from her, and one of many,
so that she paid no heed to me. And as I looked again I seemed to
see pride, and mayhap cruelty, in the straight, thin lips and
square, firm chin. It was a face which would harden with little
change, and the blue eyes would be naught but cold at any time.

And it came to me that it was a face to be feared; yet I did not
know why one should fear aught for Ethelbert from her.

Now those greetings were over, and Offa led Ethelbert into the
hall. Then Gymbert the marshal came and took us to our quarters,
that we might prepare for the feast, giving some of us in charge of
his men, while he led away the leaders of the party himself toward
the guest hall by the palace.

One took charge of me, and led me round the little church to the
back of the hall, telling me that the king had given special orders
that the Frankish noble was to have some lodging of his own. It did
not seem to be worth while for me to explain the case to this man,
who would, doubtless, be sorely put out if I wanted to remain with
the other thanes; so I said nothing, but followed him to the rear
of the great hall, where a long building with a lean-to roof had
been set against it, behind the chapel, and as it were continuing
it. Inside it was like a great room, rush-strewn, and with a hearth
in its midst, round which the servants of those who were lodged
there might sleep, and along one side of it were chambers, small
and warm, with sliding doors opening into the room. I found Father
Selred there before me, and it seemed that he also was to have one
of these chambers, the priest's house being full, and I was glad of
it. Soon after that they brought Sighard, Hilda's father, there
also, and I thought I was in good company, and had no wish to go
further.

I told the man to bid Erling the Dane come hither when his work in
the stables was done, and so he left me. Sighard's men, of whom
there were two, had followed him with his packs.

Now they take Ethelbert to his chamber, and Offa and Quendritha
seek their own in the queen's bower.

"A gallant son-in-law this of ours, in all truth," says the king
gaily.

"Ay. And now you hold East Anglia in your hand, King Offa."

"Faith, I suppose so," he answers, laughing--"that is, if
Etheldrida can manage him as you rule me, my queen! She is ever a
dutiful daughter."

"If this young king were to die, the crown he wears with so good a
grace would then fall to you," says the queen, coldly enough.

"Heaven forbid that so fair a life were cut short! Do not speak so
of what may not be for many a long year, as one may hope."

"Then if he outlives you, he will make a bid for Mercia."

"Nay, but he is loyal, and Ecgfrith will be his brother. It will be
good for our son that he has two queens for sisters--Wessex and
Anglia are his supporters. But there is no need to speak thus; it
is ill omened."

"Nay, but one must look forward. There would be no realm like yours
if East Anglia were added thereto," says the queen slowly.

"We are adding it, wife, by this marriage, surely, as nearly as one
may."

"It were better if it were in your own hands," she persists.

"Truly, you think that none can rule but yourself. Let it be, my
queen. You will have a new pupil in statecraft in your son-in-law."

So says Offa, half laughing, and yet with a doubt in his mind as to
what the queen means. Then he adds, for her face is cloudy:

"Trouble not yourself over these matters which are of the years to
come; today all is well."

"Ay, today. But when the time comes that Ethelbert knows his
strength? I will mind you that East Anglia has had a king ere this
nigh as powerful as yourself. He will have other teachers in
king-craft besides ourselves."

"Why, you speak as if you thought there would be danger to our
realm from Ethelbert in the days to come?"

"So long as there is a young king there, who can tell?"

Then says Offa, "I am strong enough to take care of that. Moreover,
he will be our son-in-law. I wit well that not so much as a mouse
will stir in his court but you will know it;" and he laughs.

At that she says plainly in a low voice:

"You have East Anglia in your hands. If Ethelbert did not return
thither, it is yours."

Whereon Offa rises, and his face grows red with wrath.

"Hold your peace!" he says. "What is this which you are hinting?
Far from me be the thought of the death of Ethelbert, in whatever
way it may come."

And so, maybe knowing only too well what lies behind the words of
the queen, he goes his way, wrathful for the moment. And presently
he forgets it all, for the spell of his love for Quendritha is
strong, and by this time he knows that her longing for power is apt
to lead her too far, in word at least, sometimes.

But we knew naught of this. It was learned long afterward from one
to whom Offa told it, and I have set it here because it seems
needful.

Nor can I tell, even if I would, how Ethelbert met Etheldrida, his
promised bride. We saw them both at the great feast to which we
were set down in an hour or so, and the great roar of cheering
which went up was enough to scare the watching Welshmen from the
hills beyond the river, where all day long they wondered at the
thronging folk around the palace, and set their arms in order, lest
Offa should come against them across the ford of the host again.
Their camp fires were plain to be seen at night, for they were
gathering in fear of him.

All the rest of that day we feasted; and such a feast as that I had
never seen, nor do I suppose that any one of those present will
ever see the like of it. Three kings sat on the high place, for
Ecgfrith reigned with his father; and there was the queen, and she
who should be a queen before many days had gone by. It was the word
of all that those two, Ethelbert and the princess, were the most
royal of all who were present, whether in word or in look, and in
all the wide hall there was not one who did not hail the marriage
with pleasure. It was plain to be known that there was no plot laid
by these honest Mercian nobles against their guest. One feels aught
of that sort in the air, as it were, and it holds back the tongues
of men and makes their eyes restless.

There were some fifty or more who sat with the kings on the high
place at the end of the hall opposite the great door, thanes and
their ladies, of rank from earl to sheriff. They set me at one end
of the high table also, as a stranger of the court of Carl, asking
me nothing of my own rank, but most willing to honour the great
king through his man. And that was all the more pleasant because
next above me was the Lady Hilda, so that I was more than content.
She had found that she was indeed to ride home with the new-made
bride, and had spoken with her already.

"See," she said, "the omens have come to naught. We were most
foolish to be troubled by them. Saw you ever a fairer face than
Etheldrida's?"

And that was the thought of all of us who so much as remembered
that such a thing as a portent of ill had ever crossed the path of
the king on his way hither.

So the business of eating was ended at last, and then the servants
cleared the long boards which ran lengthwise down the hall for the
folk of lesser rank, and there was a great shifting of places as
all turned toward the high seats to hear what Offa had to say to
his guests. And when that little bustle was ended he welcomed
Ethelbert kindly and frankly, and so would drink to him in all
ceremony.

Then Quendritha rose from her seat and took a beaker from the
steward, and filled the king's golden horn from it. As she did so I
saw Offa look at her with a little questioning smile, as if asking
her somewhat; but she did not answer in words. She passed him, and
filled the cup of the young king who was her guest, and so sat down
again. Then Offa and Ethelbert pledged each other, and the cheers
of all the great company rose to hail them.

Not long after that the queen and the ladies went their way, and we
were left to end the evening with song and tale, after the old
fashion. Those gleemen of Offa's court were skilful, and he had
both Welsh and English harpers, who harped in rivalry. Soon
Ethelbert left the hall, and men smiled to one another, for they
deemed that he was seeking some quiet with the princess. But he was
only following his own custom, and I knew that he would most likely
be in the little chapel for the last service of the day.

Offa sat on, and it seemed to me that his face grew flushed, and
his voice somewhat loud, as the time passed. His courtiers noted it
also.

"Our king is merry," one said to me. "It is not often that he will
drink the red wine which your Frankish lord sent him."

"Ay," said another Mercian. "I saw him lift his brows when the
queen filled his horn with it awhile ago. But he has kept to it
ever since."

I did not heed this much, but there was more in it than one would
think. What the drinking of that potent wine might lead to was to
be seen. I hold that Offa was not himself thereafter, though none
might say that he was aught but as a king should be--not, like the
housecarls at the end of the hail, careless of how the unwonted
plenty of that feast blinded them and stole their wits.

Presently, indeed, the noise and heat of the hall irked me, and I
found my way out. It was a broad moonlight night, and the shadows
were long across the courtyard. There was a strong guard at the
gate, which was closed, and far off to the westward there twinkled
a red fire or two on hill peaks. They were the watch fires of the
Welshmen, and I suppose they looked at the bright glare from the
palace windows as I looked at their posts.

In the little chapel the lamp burned as ever, but no one stirred
near it. I thought I would find Father Selred in our lodging, and
turned that way; and as I passed the corner of the chapel I met a
man who was coming from the opposite direction.

"Ho!" he said, starting a little; "why, it is the Frank. What has
led you to leave the hall so early?"

Then I knew that it was Gymbert the marshal.

"I might ask you the same," I said, laughing. "I have not learned
to keep up a feast overlong in the camps of Carl, however, and I
was for my bed."

"Nay, but a walk will bring sleep," he said. "I have my rounds to
make, and I shall be glad of a companion. Come with me awhile."

So we visited the guard, and with them spoke of the fires I had
seen, and laughed at the fears of those who had lighted them.

"All very well to laugh," said the captain at the gate; "but if the
Welsh are out, it will be ill for any one who will ride westward
tonight. Chapman, or priest, or beggar man, he is likely to find a
broad arrow among his ribs first, and questioned as to what his
business may be afterward."

Then we went along the ramparts to the rearward gate; and it seemed
as if Gymbert had somewhat on his mind, for he fell silent now and
then, for no reason which I could fathom. However, he asked me a
few questions about the life in Carl's court, and so on, until he
learned that I was a Wessex man, and that I was not going back to
him.

"Then you are at a loose end for the time?" he said. "Why not take
service here with Offa?"

"I am for home so soon as this is over," I said. "If all is well
there, I have no need to serve any man."

"So you have not been home yet," he said slowly, as if turning over
some thought in his mind. "What if I asked you to help me in some
small service here and now? You are free, and no man's man, as one
may say."

"Nor do I wish to be," I answered dryly.

I did not like this Gymbert.

"No offence," he said quickly. "You are a Frank as one may say, and
a stranger, and such an one may well be useful in affairs of state
which need to be kept quiet. I could, an you will, put you in the
way of some little profit, on the business of the queen, as I
think."

"Well, if the queen asks me to do her a service, that may be. These
matters do not come from second hand, as a rule."

He glanced sidewise at me quickly, and I minded the face of another
queen, whose hand had been on my arm while she had spoken to me
with the tears in her eyes.

"Right," he said, laughing uneasily. "But if one is told to seek
for, say, a messenger?"

"I am a thane," I said. "To a thane even a queen may speak
directly."

"You Wessex folk are quick-tempered; or is that a Frankish trick
you have picked up?" he sneered. "Nay, but I will not offend you."

Then he was silent for a time while we walked on. I thought that
the queen had hardly sent a message to me in that way, and that he
had made some mistake. I would leave him as soon as we turned back
toward the hall. We were alone on the rampart, with the stables
below us on one side and the high stockading on the other; and then
he dropped that subject, and talked of my home going in all
friendly wise.

"There are always chances," he said. "Come and take service with
Offa if aught goes amiss at home."

"I have promised to go to Ethelbert, if so I must," I answered,
thinking to end his seemingly idle talk.

I had put up with it because I was his guest in a way, seeing that
he was the marshal, and it does not do to offend needlessly those
who hold one's comfort in their hands.

End his talk this did, suddenly, and why I could not tell.

"Why," he said, "then you are his man after all! I deemed that you
had but ridden westward with him for your own convenience."

"So it was, more or less," I said, somewhat surprised at his tone.

And when I looked at him his face seemed white in the moonlight.

"Of his kindness he bade me bear him company."

But he made no answer, and half he halted and made as if to speak.
Again he went on, but said naught until we came to the steps which
led down from the rampart to the rear gate. On the top of them he
turned and said in a low voice, staying me with his hand on my arm:

"Say naught to any man of what I said concerning a state need of
the queen's, for mayhap I took too much on myself when I spoke
thereof; there may be no need after all."

I laughed a little, for I did but think that he had been trying to
make out that he held high honour in the counsels of Quendritha,
out of vanity, not knowing what my rank was.

"If she does send for me, I shall remember it, not else," I
answered.

And then, as he had the guard to visit, I left him, and went across
the broad street, from the gate to the hall through the huts, back
to my lodging. There I found Father Selred, and together we waited
for Sighard. Erling sat on the settle by the door, with his weapons
laid handy to him, on guard.

"All seems well, father," I said; "there is naught but friendliness
here."

"Well indeed," he answered. "It is good to hear the talk of priests
and nobles alike; they know the worth of our young king."

"Well, and what is the talk of the housecarls, Erling?" I asked.

"Good also," he growled. "But I would that I kenned the talk of her
of whom I have seen overmuch in the days gone by."

Then he remembered that of this matter Father Selred knew nothing,
and he swore under his breath at his own foolishness; but the good
father had not heard him, or his rough Danish prevented his
understanding.

"What says he of the men?" he asked.

And when I told him he was well content, saying that from high to
low all had a warm welcome for our king.

But even now Offa rises from the table and leaves the hall, all men
rising with him. So he passes out of the door on the high place and
seeks his own chamber, and there to him comes Quendritha.

"I have dreamed a dream, my king," she says, standing before him,
for he has thrown himself into a great chair, wearily. "I have
dreamed that your realm stretched from here on the Wye and the
mountains of the Welsh even to the sea that bounds the lands from
the Wash to the Thames. What shall that portend?"

"A wedding, and a son-in-law whom you may bend to your will,"
answers the king; but his eyes are bright, and there comes a flash
into them.

That would be a mighty realm indeed, greater than any which had yet
been in our land. If the East Anglian levies were his, he would
march across Wales at their head, with the Mercian hosts to right
and left of him. He might even wrest Northumbria from the hold of
her kings.

Quendritha sees that flash, and knows that the cup has done its
work. The mind of the king is full of imaginings. So she sits by
him, and her voice seems to blend with his thoughts, and he does
not hinder her as she sets before him the might and glory of the
kingdom that would be his if that dream were true. And so she wakes
the longing for it in the mind of Offa, and plays on it until he is
half bent to her will; and her will is that the dream should come
true, and that shortly.

Then at last she says, "And all this is but marred because of a
niddering lad who will leave the hall at a feast for the whining of
the priests yonder! In truth, a meet leader of men, and one who
will be a source of strength to our realm! It makes me rage to
think that but he is in the way. It is ill for his own land, as it
seems to me."

"Ay, wife," says Offa. "But he is in the way, and there is an end
thereof."

"He is in your hand, and there are those who would say that Heaven
itself has set him there. Listen. He hunts with you tomorrow. Have
you never heard of an arrow which went wide of its mark--by
mischance?"

Again the eyes of the king flash, but he does not look on the
queen.

"Who would deem it mischance?" he says. "No man. And I were
dishonoured evermore."

"Not your arrow, not yours, but another's--mayhap yonder Frank's.
He is a stranger, and would care naught if reward was great; then
afterward he should be made to hold his peace."

And at that she smiles evilly. A stray Frank's life was naught to
her if he was in her way.

"Say no more. The thing is not possible for me; it is folly."

"Folly, in truth, if you let Ethelbert keep you from the realm
which waits you. Were he gone, there is not so much as an atheling
who would make trouble there for you."

"Peace, I say. Ethelbert is my guest, and more than that. He shall
go as he came--in honour. What may lie in the days to come, who
shall know?"

"He who acts now shall see. Until the Norns set the day of doom for
a man, he makes his own future. Surely they set his end on
Ethelbert when he came here."

So she says in the old heathen way, but Offa does not note it. It
is in his mazed mind that Ethelbert wrongs him by living to hold
back the frontier of Mercia from the eastern sea.

"He is my guest, and I may not touch him," he says dully. "All the
world would cry out on me if harm came to him here. And yet--"

"You shall not harm him," Quendritha says quickly. "There are other
ways. Your own name shall be free from so much as shadow of blame.
Now I would that I myself had made an end before ever I said a word
to you."

"Had you done so--Peace. Let it be. You set strange thoughts, and
evil, in my mind, wife."

Then she leaves him, and in her face is triumph, for Offa has
forbidden her nothing. Outside the door waits Gymbert, as if on
guard, alone.

"All goes well. Have you sounded yon Frank?" she says.

"He is no Frank, but a Wessex thane and a hired man of Carl's;
moreover, he is Ethelbert's friend."

"Fool!" she says. "How far went you with him? What does he know--or
suspect?"

"Naught," answers Gymbert stiffly.

And with that he tells her what passed between us.

"Come to me tomorrow early," Quendritha says, and goes her way.

But we slept in peace, deeming all well. Only Erling, sleeping
armed across my door, was restless, for the cold eyes of the queen
seem to be on him in his dreams.



CHAPTER X. HOW GYMBERT THE MARSHAL LOST HIS NAME AS A GOOD HUNTSMAN.


There was to be a great hunt on this next day after we came to
Sutton, the stronghold palace.

It had been made ready beforehand--men driving the game from the
farther hills and woodlands into the valley of the Lugg, and then
drawing a line of nets and fires across a narrow place in its upper
reaches, that the wild creatures might not stray beyond reach
again. I should hardly like to say how many thralls watched the
sides of that valley from this barrier to a mile or two from the
palace. Nor do I know if all the tales they told of the countless
head of game, deer and boar, wolf and fox, roe and wild white
cattle, which had been driven for the kings, are true, but I will
say that never have I seen such swarming woods as those through
which we rode after the morning meal.

I had no thought that Offa seemed otherwise than as we met him
yesterday, and I suppose that all thought, or perhaps all
remembrance, of what he and his queen had talked of last night had
gone from him. Gay and friendly he was, and we heard him jesting
lightly with Ethelbert as they led us. With them went Gymbert,
smooth and pleasant as ever; and he nodded to me as his eye lit on
me, and smiled without trace of aught but friendliness. I looked
for nothing else, indeed; but seeing what he and Quendritha had so
nearly asked me to do that day, it may be a marvel that he hid his
thoughts so well.

Presently I had reason to wonder at somewhat which happened to me,
and that would have been no matter for wonder at all if I had but
known that the queen was doubtful how much I had gathered from that
talk of mine with her servant. Of course I had not suspected
anything, but a plotter will always go in fear that a chance word
will undo all.

Now we rode with bow and quiver on shoulder, and boar spear in
hand, as we had been bidden. All of our party, save the ladies,
from East Anglia were present, and about the same number of Mercian
thanes. Besides these there were swarms of foresters, and the
thralls who drove the game. Hounds in any number were with us, in
leash, mostly boar hounds. And as for myself, I rode the skew-bald,
whom I had called "Arrowhead," in jest, after that little matter of
the flint folk. It was the Lady Hilda who chose the name, and I had
had the flint head Erling gave me set in silver for her in
Thetford, as a charm, for they are always held lucky.

I suppose I might have sold that horse a dozen times, and that for
double what I gave for him, by this time. There was not an Anglian
who rode with us but wanted him, for he seemed tireless, and here
already was a horse dealer from the south who was plaguing Erling
for him. All of which, of course, made me the less willing to part
with him, even had I not found him the best steed I ever knew,
after a fortnight's steady use of him.

When we came to the narrowing part of the valley where the great
drive up to the nets was to begin, I was set by the head forester
off to the right of the line, being bidden to shoot any large game
which broke back, save only the boar. Most of them would go
forward, it was thought, and those which went back would be set up
by the hounds again at the end of the drive, men being in line also
behind us to harbour them. I cannot say that I have so much liking
for this sort of sport as for the wilder hunting in the open, with
as much chance for the quarry as for the man; but sport enough of a
sort there was. The bright little Lugg river lay on our left, and
for a mile on that side on which we were the woods and hills were
full of men, who drew together in a lessening curve as we rode
slowly onward. It was good to hear the shouts and the baying of the
hounds in the clear May morning.

Men said it was Offa's last hunt of the season; and that is likely,
seeing that the time grew late. If it was, there is no doubt that
he meant it to be his greatest also. Mile by mile, and presently
furlong by furlong, as we went the game grew thicker, until the
covers and thickets seemed alive with deer which tried to break
back, and the undergrowth on either hand of me rustled and crackled
with the wild rush of smaller game, to which I soon forgot to pay
any heed. And soon I had no arrows to waste on anything less than a
stag of ten, leaving aught else to be dealt with by the foresters
behind me.

Once or twice Gymbert rode across the rear of the line, and called
to me in cheery wise as he did so. He seemed to be seeing that no
man was out of his place; which was somewhat needful, since as we
drew together the arrows must be aimed heedfully.

Which matter was plain to me shortly. A great red hind crossed me,
and I let her go, though I had an arrow on the string, and had
aimed. Even as I lowered the bow, over my shoulder, and grazing it,
came another shaft, missing the hind and myself alike. Some one had
shot from behind at her.

"Ho," shouted Erling, who rode behind me, "clumsy lout, whoever you
are! That is over near to be sportsmanlike. Have a care, will you?"

I turned sharply with the same thought, and angrily. But I could
not see any man near enough to have shot, for the trees were thick,
and we were in a glade of a great wood. Whoever it was had crossed
this glade out of our sight, and doubtless was somewhat ashamed of
himself. It was in my mind to tell Gymbert if he came near me
again. The man who would shoot so carelessly was not safe in a
drive like this.

Nor had Erling seen any one. He had heard a horse behind us,
however. Now he pulled the arrow from a sapling where it had stuck,
and showed it me. It was a handsome shaft enough.

Of course I forgot the matter directly. It was just one of the
common chances of a hunt, which now and then will spoil the sport
of a day. We were getting near the barrier now, and the kings must
go forward. Gymbert passed word along our line to halt, and cease
from shooting.

"About time, too," growled Erling as we pulled up.

Then we dismounted, and the foresters closed up and went forward.
One of the head men left two couple of hounds and some men with me,
saying that if I could not see the sport at the nets I might have a
boar back, and could maybe bring him to bay here, unless the hounds
were wanted. I thought that they would be, for there were sounds of
wild baying from the midst of the line, forward where the kings
were, and now and then howls told me that some more bold hound had
dashed in on a boar at bay and had met the tusk. I would that I
could see some of that sport, but there was no chance of it.

However, my turn came before long. Sighard joined me, leading his
horse; and another thane, a Mercian, came up also. They had been to
right and left of me in the line, and had seen the hounds left with
me. For a quarter of an hour we stood there talking a little under
our breath, but mostly listening with some envy to the sounds of
the hunt ahead of us where wolf and boar died at the nets, turning
in grim despair on their foes. Then there was a shout of warning
that a boar had broken back.

He came into the glade at a swinging trot straight for us. After
him were two hounds, who kept him going though they dared not near
him. And after boar and hounds came Gymbert himself, on horseback,
with his boar spear in his hand. I thought that he could not reach
the boar by reason of the hounds, or else that he had a mind to let
us end the matter, as guests.

The men with us let loose the hounds we had, and they sprang in on
the boar at the sight of him. At that the great beast turned sharp
on the first two, and gored one from flank to shoulder with the
terrible sidelong swing of the flashing tusk; and then he had his
back to a great tree in a moment, and was at bay, with the hounds
round him, yelling.

We three ran forward, and with us came Erling, with a second spear
for me. The horses were in charge of some thralls who had gathered
to us. Then it was to be seen who should win the honour of first
spear to touch that dun hide. Gymbert was already waiting his time,
wheeling his horse round to find an opening among the hounds, and
Sighard cried to him to let us have a chance, laughing. Whereon he
reined his horse back somewhat, and we paid no more heed to him.
One has no time to mind aught behind one when the boar is at bay.

One of our fresh hounds ran in, and in a moment was howling on his
back before the boar, whose white tusk and dun jowl were reddened
as he glared in fury at us from his fiery eyes. Then across the
hound I had my chance, and I ran in with levelled spear.

There was a shout, and some one gripped my arm and swung me aside
with force enough to fling me to the ground. As I fell, the broad,
flashing blade of a spear passed me, and then in a medley, as it
were, I saw the boar charge over the hound and across my legs, and
I heard a wild stamping and the scream of a wounded horse.

I leaped to my feet, dumb with anger, and saw the end of that.
Gymbert's steed was rearing, and one of the foresters was trying to
catch his bridle, while the boar was away down the glade with the
unwounded hounds after him, and a broken spear in his flank. And
then my three comrades broke into loud blame of Gymbert, in nowise
seeking to use soft words to him.

Then I saw that the flank of the horse was gashed as with a sword
cut, and that the face of the rider was more white and terrified
than should have been by reason of such a mishap. The horse dragged
its bridle from the hand of the forester, and reared again, and
then fell heavily backward, almost crushing Gymbert. However, he
had foreseen it, and was off and rolling away from it as it reached
the ground. I heard the saddletree snap as it did so.

"Hold your peace, master," said Erling to me, before I could speak;
"leave this to us."

I looked at the Dane in wonder, and saw his face white with wrath,
while Sighard was plainly in a towering rage. The Mercian thane was
looking puzzled, but well-nigh as angry, and the foresters were
silently helping up their leader, or seeing to the horse, which did
not rise.

"A foul stroke, Master Gymbert," said Sighard, going up to the
marshal; "a foul spear as ever was! Had it not been for his man
yonder, you had fairly spitted my friend the paladin. Ken you
that?"

"How was I to know that he was going to run in?" said Gymbert,
trying to bluster. "He crossed my horse, and it is his own fault if
he was in the way of the spear."

"One would think that you had no knowledge of woodcraft," said
Sighard, with high disdain. "Heard one ever of a mounted man coming
in on a boar while a spear on foot was before him? Man, one needs
eyes in the back of one's head if you are about."

Then he turned to the Mercian thane.

"Is this the way of Gymbert as a rule? or has he only been suffered
to come out today?"

"A man gets careless at these times," answered the thane. "Anyway
he is like to lose a good horse, and I will not say that it does
not serve him right.

"It was a near thing for the Frank, Gymbert, let me tell you."

"Well, I am sorry," said Gymbert gruffly. "I was a careless fool,
if that will suit you."

"A mighty poor sort of apology that."

"Well, then," said Gymbert stiffly, and as I thought somewhat
ashamed of himself, "I will ask pardon for a bit of heedlessness in
all truth. Mayhap I did ride in somewhat over jealously."

Now by that time I was myself again, and told him to think no more
of it, so far as I was concerned. Whereon he blamed himself again
more heartily, and so went to see to his horse, which was past use
again for that and many a long day. Sighard turned away with a
growl, and Erling said nothing, for the matter was ended for the
time.

As for the boar, it was Sighard's spear which he took with him. The
thane had got it home in his flank as he gored the horse, but to
little effect. Then the boar had taken to the thickets, and there
the foresters had slain him.

Gymbert sent a man for a fresh horse, and so rode away without
another word to us. The noise from the nets went on, shifting
across the little valley as the kings went from place to place in
search of fresh game at the barrier.

"Well," said Sighard, looking after Gymbert as he went, "if yon
thane had it in his mind to spear you, or to ride over you, or
anywise to send you on the tusks of the boar, he went the right way
to work. He rode straight at you from behind, as if he meant it."

"But for his man here the paladin had gone home on a litter, feet
foremost, for certain," said the Mercian. "I do not know what came
to Gymbert, for he knows more of woodcraft than most of us. Maybe
he thought it his boar by all right, and was over hasty."

"A jealous hunter is no pleasant companion," answered Sighard, with
a shrug of his broad shoulders. "Well, there is no harm done, but
to the poor steed yonder."

Then I thanked Erling for his promptness, for it was his hand which
had swung me out of danger. Whereon he smiled, and said that he saw
it coming in time and risked my wrath. But I could tell that he had
more in his mind, and let the matter rest till we were alone. But
Sighard and the other thane went on growling now and then over the
closeness of the mishap, until the horns sounded merrily for the
gathering of us all to the barrier, where was even more work for
men and hounds than the kings could undertake. They had taken their
fill of the sport also, and had no mind to leave their courts apart
from it all.

So for a long hour or two we brought to bay boar and wolf under the
forest trees or along the river banks, until I was fairly glad when
it was all ended. There was hardly a chance for the quarry, and it
was good when one either leaped the nets or swam the stream and was
away. Maybe it is as well to have seen such a drive, but I do not
care to take part in another. Better the horn calling one in the
early morning, and the music of the hounds whose names one knows,
and the long drawing of the cover while they work together well and
keenly, and the breaking of the stag or boar from his holt, and so
the air on one's face, and the swing of the gallop over the open,
with friends to right and left, before or behind.

Maybe, then, one will end the day with the death of a valiant stag
in some bend of the trout stream, or with the last of a warrior
boar at the foot of an ancient oak; or maybe there will be naught
to show for the long day's questing. But always there will have
been the working of hounds and the paces of the good horse to dwell
on afterward, with, over all, the sight of bird and beast under the
sky with friends and freedom. Today I had not so much as breathed
my horse, and had nigh met my end in a sort of foolish chance which
came, as I had only reason to think, of the crush and hustle of men
at the end of the drive. There was, in truth, a sort of wild
excitement in the air at that time, and it brings heedlessness.

Presently they gathered the game to a wide clearing on the river
banks, and such an array of lordly deer and grim boars, row on row
of fallow buck, and heaps of gray wolves, I have never seen. Roe
and even hares were there also, hardly accounted for in the
numbering. Hunting would be fairly spoiled on the Lugg side for a
season or two, maybe; but many a farmstead would be the better off
for lack of the nightly harriers of field and fold.

But, most of all, men looked at the one mighty wild bull which
Ethelbert himself had slain. He was the only one which had been
seen, though it was said that another had escaped at the first, and
the kine of the herd had been suffered to go free. Snow white he
was, with black muzzle and ears and hoofs, and his short horns
shone like polished ebony above the curling mane of his forehead
and neck. He was a splendid beast, the like of whom my forefathers
had slain in fair hunt among the Mendips long ago, until none were
left for us today. The wild Welsh hills held them for Offa, as did
his midland forests everywhere, as men told me.

Now at this last gathering I did not see Gymbert. I thought he had
most likely gone homeward, either on business or else because he
would fain hear no more of what he had done in the way of bad
woodcraft. Sighard said plainly that it was just as well that he
had gone, or his clumsiness would have been spoken of pretty
plainly. But all those to whom he did mention it, and they were
many, seemed hardly able to understand it, for the marshal's skill
was well known.

I suppose it was a matter of two hours before sunset when we
started for the palace from where we ended the drive, with an
hour's ride before us. We straggled back somewhat, for the kings
rode on together, and men followed as they listed. So it came to
pass that before long Erling and I were together and almost alone;
out of earshot from any one else, at all events, for Sighard was
behind us with one or two more of our own party, and the Mercians
whom we followed were ahead.

"What have you done to offend this Gymbert?" asked Erling, of a
sudden.

"Naught that I ken," I answered. "We had a talk last evening on the
rampart, but it was of no account. Why?"

"Because that was his arrow which so nearly struck you, first; and
then, if ever a man tried to spear another by a seeming accident,
he tried to end you when the boar turned to bay."

"His arrow? How do you know that?"

"Easily enough. When he fell yonder, those he had left fell out of
his quiver. They are easily to be known, and they were the same as
that I showed you--peacock-feathered with a bone nock, and tied
with gold and silver thread twisted curiously."

"A man does not shoot another with an arrow of his own known
pattern if he means it" I said.

"You hear what they say of the skill of Gymbert? All the more
reason, if his arrow in you were known, that men would say that of
course it was mischance, and pity him more than you. Moreover, that
is the word which would go back to Carl, whom they deem your master
yet. Offa would fain stand well with him."

There was truth in this, and I knew it; and yet I could hardly
believe such a tale of treachery to an unoffending stranger as this
would tell. Then I minded how Erling had spoken to him in Welsh,
and a half thought crossed my mind that he bore ill will for that.
But in that case Erling was the man who had offended by plain
speech on a matter of which every one knew. So I did not recall
this to my comrade; it seemed personal to me.

"Tell me what you and he spoke of last night," Erling asked me
gravely, as I turned the matter over.

I told him all I could remember, and it came back to me clearly as
I went on. Then he said slowly:

"There was more in that talk of a service to be done for the queen
than he would care for you to know. Why should a stranger be asked
if he might be led to undertake one, when there are scores of
faithful Mercians who would be only too glad to do aught to
pleasure her? As it seems to me, they needed one who could be put
away without being missed afterward, when his errand was finished."

"No reason why Gymbert should have tried to end me now in that
case."

"The king's wine was potent last night. It may be that he cannot
rightly remember how far a loosened tongue led him," Erling said.
"Master, there is trouble in the air. I sorely misdoubt that errand
of Quendritha's."

"Faith," said I, "if you did not sleep across my door I would wear
my mail tonight."

"Ay," he answered, under his breath and earnestly. "Do so anywise.
These great palaces have strange tricks of passages and doors which
are hidden, and the like."

"Little shall I sleep tonight if you go on thus," I said, trying to
laugh; though it did indeed seem that he had somewhat more than
fancy in what he feared, and I grew strangely uneasy.

"Better so," he answered; and I gave it up.

Riding easily, we came back to the palace close after the kings;
and in the great courtyard I looked round for Gymbert, but could
not see him. There was nothing in that, of course; but when a man
has apparently tried twice to end one, it seems safer to have him
in sight. And Erling, as he took my horse, growled to me to have a
care and wear my mail under my tunic; which in itself was
disquieting.

Most of all it was so because the affair seemed unreasonable. I
tried honestly to think that all was accident, but two such mishaps
from the same hand looked unlike that.

So I went straight to my chamber and did as my comrade bade me,
somewhat angry with myself for thinking it needful. I took a light
chain-mail byrnie, of that wondrous Saracen make, which I had won
from a chief when we were warring on the western frontier mountains
by Roncesvalles, and belted it close to me that it should not
rattle as I moved. It was hardly so heavy as a helm, and fell into
a little handful of rings in one's hand when taken off; but there
was no sword forged in England which would bite it, nor spear which
its tiny rings would not stay. There was a hood to it also, which
went under the helm, but that I took off now. Then none could see
it under my tunic, and I myself hardly felt that it was there.

Then I clad myself in all feasting finery, with Carl's handsome
sword at my side, and a seax, which Ecgbert had given me to match
it, also handy to my right hand in my belt. And so I went out into
the open, for I mistrusted the dark chamber somewhat after Erling's
words, though he knew less of palaces than did I. Maybe, however,
that was why I knew that he was not so far wrong.

I went round to the courtyard, with a mind to pass to the stables
and look at the horses; but I met Father Selred, who asked me to
come out into the fields with him. Ethelbert had gone thither, he
said, and he would find some one to follow him quietly as guard.

So we went from the great gate across the moat, and then turned to
the right, where the little Lugg flows under the palace hill across
the meadows, and then found a path toward a little copse, which we
followed. Father Selred told me that the king had bidden him seek
him there presently. He had gone to meet his princess in such quiet
as a king may find by good chance.

They had cut a path round this copse, and through it here and
there, and we walked slowly round the outer edge on the soft grass,
with the song of the birds and the cooing of the wood doves
pleasant to listen to in the last evening sunlight. And then we met
the Lady Hilda walking, idly as we walked, by herself, and her face
grew bright as she saw us.

"Two are company, my daughter," said Father Selred, with his eyes
dancing with his jest. "I doubt not that you are carrying out the
rest of the proverb. I will also retire and meditate awhile."

"No, Father--" began Hilda.

But he smiled, and swung his rosary, and so walked away from us,
while I laughed at him. Then Hilda smiled also, and with that made
the best of it, and walked with me to and fro under the trees. The
king and the princess were here, she told me, for a little time,
and she was in attendance.

Presently she told me also of the goodness of Etheldrida, saying
that she thought the king and the land alike happy in this match.
She had much to say of her; and it seemed that the wedding was to
be in three days' time, here in the palace chapel. But presently
she spoke of Quendritha, and as she did so her face clouded.

"I am afraid of her," she said at last. "She is terrible to me, and
why I cannot tell. She is naught but kind to me. All the ladies
fear her but one or two who are her close friends."

"Well, you will soon be away from her," I said.

"I do not know," she answered, glancing round her. "She has said
that she would fain keep me here. What she says she means, mostly."

"Then," said I boldly, "I shall have to come and take you away
myself."

Whereon she laughed a little, but did not seem displeased at the
thought.

"Stay," I said. "You have that arrowhead I gave you?"

"An I have not lost it. I will search."

"Send it me if you need my help," I said; "then naught shall hinder
me from coming to you."

"Spoken paladin-wise," she answered, laughing at me. "Mayhap that
bit of flint shall chase you round Wessex in vain, and meanwhile
the ogre will have devoured me."

But she set her white hand on my arm for a moment, as if in thanks.
Then she started and looked at me in the face wonderingly. She felt
the steel.

"Wilfrid," she whispered, "why do you wear mail under your tunic?"

I told her plainly; otherwise it would have surely seemed that it
was a niddering sort of habit of mine, and unworthy of a warrior in
a king's friendly hall. And there was no laughter in her fair face
as she heard, but fear for me. Like Erling, she seemed to see peril
around us.

"Listen," she said. "The princess dreams that she is to be wedded,
and that even before the altar her bridal robes grow black and the
flowers of her wreath fall withered, while the strown blooms under
her feet turn to ashes on her path."

"More dreams!" I said bitterly. "We are beset with them, and they
are all ill!"

"Have you also visions?" she asked, almost faintly.

"No; unless you are one, and I must wake to find myself back in
bleak Flanders, or fighting for my life in Portland race again. And
I pray that so it may not be; for if I must lose the sight of you,
I am lonely indeed."

"Nay, hush," she said; "not now. Wait till all is well for you and
for the king--and then, maybe; but I pray you have a care of
Gymbert."

Now I would have told her that I had no fear of him, and mayhap I
should have heeded her other words little enough. But at that
moment Father Selred came back and beckoned to us, and silently we
went after him. The king had seen him and called to him.

Then and there I was made known to the princess, and I thought her
strangely sad for one so fair, when she was not speaking. She
looked wistfully on Hilda and on me, as if she knew how we had
spoken, and smiled; and then her face was as the face of a saint in
some painted evangel, such as Carl had in his churches, still and
sweet.

But Ethelbert was bright and cheerful as ever; and he bade me see
him home to his apartment, for he would talk with me. And I thought
rightly that as he had spoken in the Thetford garden of Etheldrida,
and as he had also spoken with me more than once on the road
hither, so he had much to say of her now.

So across the glades passed the princess and Hilda with the priest,
and with them the brightness went from the sunset for us two, I
think. We waited for a few minutes, and then followed slowly,
saying little. We had each our own thoughts.



CHAPTER XI. HOW ETHELBERT THE KING WENT TO HIS REST.


Now it becomes needful that I should tell where Ethelbert was
lodged, for I had not been to his apartments yet.

Across the upper end of the great hall there was a long building
set, and this was divided into three uneven parts. From the hall
one entered it by the door behind the king's high seat on the dais,
whence I had seen Offa and his guest come last night; and then one
found that the midmost of these divisions was a sort of council
chamber, lighted by a window in the opposite wall, and with a door
on the right and left at either end. That on the right led to the
largest division, where were the king's own chamber and the queen's
bower. Other buildings had been added to this end; and it had its
own entrance for the queen from the courtyards, as I knew, for it
was behind the church and priest's lodging where they had bestowed
me.

The door from the council chamber to the left led to the smallest
division of the cross building, and there were two chambers for
such honoured guest as Ethelbert. One could only reach these
chambers from the council room, and they had no private way into
the courtyard. It seemed that the guest hall, which was built
against the great hall to its left, ran back to the walls of this
end of the cross building, for there was a heavily-barred low
doorway, which could lead nowhere else, in the wall of the outer
living room. The only other door was that of the bedchamber, and
that was opposite the entrance.

Pleasant and quiet chambers these were; for the noise of the hall
could not reach them and their windows were set to the westward,
looking out toward the Welsh hills beyond the Wye, which showed
above the rampart and stockading.

So with much ceremony, which was wearisome to Ethelbert--and need
not be set down, for it would weary any one, and was of no use--we
reached those chambers, and there, being ready for the feast
myself, I helped to array the king, and so passed with the royal
party to the high place when the time came.

"Come back presently with me when the meal is over," the king said;
"I have somewhat to ask you."

Then I found my way to the place which had been given me last
night, and so had Hilda for neighbour again, to my much content;
for the order of sitting had been little changed, save down the
hall below the salt, where some fifty more men from the forest had
been made room for. It was a great feast and merry, and it seemed
the more so to me after the rough camp life across the sea, or the
rare state banquets which I had seen in Carl's court. There was
none of our hearty fellowship there, and there was more feeling of
difference between men of high and low rank, which made a feast go
stiffly to an English mind.

Presently I saw Gymbert across the hall, and I thought he looked
uneasy. As he had fairly spoiled his name as a good huntsman, I was
not surprised, nor did it trouble me. I missed him toward the end
of the feast; but no doubt he had his duties about the place as
when I spoke to him last night, and that was nothing to wonder at.
I did not see him go.

It was a long feast. We began by daylight, and ended in the red
blaze of torches set in sconces all down the hall, and in the
whiter shine of great wax tapers which armed housecarls held behind
us on the high place. I had never seen such waste of wax before;
but Offa was magnificent in all he did, in a rougher way than that
of Carl.

When the time of eating was ended and the toasts were to go round,
the queen came with a wonderful golden cup which even the Frankish
treasury could not match, and standing beside Ethelbert filled it
with the red wine and pledged him. Very beautiful did she look as
she held the cup to the young king, and her words were soft and
full of kindness. She seemed well-nigh as young as the stately and
pale Etheldrida, her daughter.

After that she and the other ladies left the hall after the custom,
and we sat on telling tales and listening to the gleemen and
harpers, and taking each our turn in singing. The East Anglian
thanes had a way of singing together which was new to me and
pleased me well. The hall grew hot and full of the smoke from the
pine-knot torches before the kings rose up to go. By that time,
too, the foresters seemed to be singing against one another, and
the noise grew great with their mirth.

I rose and followed Ethelbert as I had been bidden, and passed into
the council chamber, where Offa and his guest parted for the night,
each going his own way. I thought Offa seemed heavy and moody, but
in every wise friendly. Tired he was, methought, for it had been a
long day.

Ethelbert signed to me, Father Selred, and Sighard to follow him,
and we went into his apartment, closing the door after us. Out in
the council chamber we left three of the Anglian thanes and three
Mercian, who would act as guards for the night.

It was very pleasant in the silence of this cool chamber after the
din and glare of the great hall. The moonlight came in at the
western window; and though there were torches ready, the king would
not have us light them, for he said we would sit in the dim light
awhile till he grew sleepy. And so at first we spoke of the day's
hunting, and, of course, Sighard had his say on the matter of
Gymbert's carelessness.

Seeing that neither he nor the king had any doubt that carelessness
it was, and naught else, I did not think it worth while to say
anything of my own suspicions. I do not think that they could have
believed that any harm was meant me had I told of the arrow. It
seemed impossible, and if it were not that, it was a private matter
of my own.

Presently that matter dropped, and there was a short silence. I
heard then the sounds of shuffling feet plainly enough from
somewhere close at hand, and thought that the wall between us and
the guest hall must be somewhat thinner than it would seem, so that
the sound came through thence. Sighard heard it also, and rose up
quietly and looked into the inner chamber.

"What is it?" asked Ethelbert, as he came back and sat down again.

"Naught, lord. I thought I heard footsteps in your bedchamber; but
there is nothing there. A strange house has strange sounds, and it
takes time to get used to them."

"Some one passing under the window," said Selred the chaplain,
laughing.

The little noise ceased, and we forgot it. Today I can seem to hear
it as if it had thundered in our ears, for I know what it was and
what it meant. Yet at the time there was no reason to think aught
of it.

Then Ethelbert asked us somewhat which seemed strange.

"Have any of you noted aught in the look or way of King Offa which
would make you think that he has not long to live?"

With one accord we said that we certainly had not done so, and that
in some surprise. Sighard asked plainly what had put such a thought
into his head.

"I will tell you," said Ethelbert in a low voice. "Between
ourselves, here it is of no use to pretend that one does not know
the name for ambition which Quendritha the queen has. Tell me what
you make of this. Today I had a little private speech with her, and
she would have me put off the wedding. She more than hinted that I
might make a higher match, and that angered me. Whereon she told me
that Offa might not have long to live; that Mercia and East Anglia
would be a mighty realm if united. And, on my word, it seemed to me
that she would bid me wait till she was a widow."

He laughed uneasily, as if he thought himself foolish; but we knew
that unless he had full reason for that belief he would not have
told us. That must have been a strange talk between this honest
young king and Quendritha, if he deemed it best to speak to us of
it.

Sighard frowned, and said:

"If it is true that Offa is thus--well, we are forewarned.
Quendritha has let us see that in one way or the other she would
fain have East Anglia. I think that she spoke unwarily to you, my
king."

"Nay," said Selred the priest; "I hold that she sounded you as to
whether you had any thought of adding Mercia to your own realm. If
it is true that Offa has some secret ailment which is slowly and
surely bringing his end near, she looks onward to the time when she
shall stand alone. She would find out if you are to be feared."

"Maybe that is it," said Ethelbert, with a sigh of relief. "It must
be. She is a mistress of craft; and had I one thought of adding to
my realm, that would have made me show it. However, she should be
satisfied. I would hear naught of putting off the wedding, as you
may suppose."

I said nothing, but it was in my mind that mayhap there was more at
the back of all this than they saw. I had heard overmuch of
Quendritha to have much doubt that if she could see her way to
reigning over both realms, she would stay for naught, even for the
removing of Offa from her path if he stood in it. And almost did I
tell the king of Thrond's knowledge of her, but forbore. Sighard
knew it also, and he was the best judge of that. But I will say
that I was somewhat lighter of heart to hear this, for it was plain
to me that Offa himself had no thought of guile toward Ethelbert;
and to this day I do not believe that he had. His mind was far too
great for that; and if he loved power, I hold that to have married
his daughter to a king was fully enough for him. Beyond that all
was from Quendritha. To tell the truth, if I feared for any one, it
was for Offa himself.

Now Ethelbert rose and said that he grew weary and would go to
rest. Sighard said that he would get him a light from the council
chamber; but he would rather bide in the moonlight, which was
enough to fill all the room. So we three went into his sleeping
chamber with him. At one side was the state bed with its heavy
hangings, and midway in the room, by its side, was a great chair,
softly cushioned. The smell of the sweet sedges with which the room
had been newly strown was pleasant and cool, and a little chill
breeze came in from the window with the moonlight.

"Leave me for a while, my thanes," he said; "I will call you anon.
Wilfrid will no doubt be glad to go to his place; so goodnight"

He smiled at me, and held out his hand, and I bent and kissed it.
So we went back to the other room to wait, for we knew that the
king would pray. The door swung softly to after us.

Now I thought I heard the chair creak as the king went to it. Then
there was a sound as of a fall somewhere near us, and a stifled
cry.

"What is that?" I said, turning to Sighard.

"Housecarls outside;" he said. "It was from the place whence we
heard the footsteps awhile ago. Listen! there they are again."

I heard the same sort of dull trampling as before, and there was
also a voice.

"It seems to be almost beneath us," I said.

But the footsteps were plainly going away from us, and growing
fainter in the distance. I climbed on a settle and looked out of
the high window, which was set aloft so that none could see into
the chamber as they passed it. But I could see no man. There were
some wood piles and sheds between the rampart and us, but nothing
stirred about them so far as I could see. Whereby I supposed that
they had passed round the corner. On the rampart an armed sentry
was pacing, black against the low moon, and beyond him the fires of
the Welsh--who watched us--burnt as brightly as last night.

Now there was a gentle knock on the outer door, and I opened it.
One of the thanes said that the man who served me would see me, and
I went out into the great hall, bidding Sighard and the chaplain
goodnight as I did so. Down the length of the hall men were
throwing themselves on the rushes to sleep along the walls in their
wonted places, though there were yet groups at the tables still
telling tales and drinking. The torches were almost all burnt out
save where these men were, and across the open roof were strange
white shafts of moonlight through the smoke, from windows and under
westward eaves.

Outside the door, on the high place, stood Erling alone, for the
tables there had been cleared away. Only the throne of the king
remained. And in the light from the council chamber I saw that the
face of my comrade was white as death.

"Where is Ethelbert the king?" he said, almost wildly, and
clutching my arm.

"In his chamber," I answered. "All is well. I saw him there not ten
minutes ago."

"How can that be? It is not that time ago since he stood by me on
the rampart, where I walked alone, and spoke to me."

"It was some one else like him," I said. "He is going to sleep."

But Erling stared beyond me, and grew yet paler. I saw the black
rims grow round his eyes. Then his grip tightened on my arm, and he
gasped:

"He stood before me, and that red line round his neck had drops
like gems therefrom. He said, 'Now do I die and pass to rest. I
would that you came after me.' And I said, 'Trouble not yourself,
king, for the like of me.' And he smiled wondrously, and answered,
'Nay, but needs must I, for you are the only heathen man in this
palace garth. I would that all were well with you as with me.' Then
he was gone, and there was only a brightness, and betimes that
faded. Then I came hither. There is ill which has befallen the
king."

"Impossible," I said. And even as I said it into my mind flashed
that strange, unaccounted for trampling, and I went back, with
Erling after me, unbidden. The six thanes who waited in the council
chamber stared at me, but I did not heed them. Across to the king's
door I went, and passed in. Selred and the old thane were talking
quietly under their breath, and I had but been gone three minutes.

"Back again, Wilfrid? Eh, what is amiss?" said Sighard, starting as
he set eyes on Erling.

"Has the king called you?" I asked hastily.

"No; it is hardly time for him to do so," Selred answered, smiling.

"Look into his chamber softly, I pray you, Father Selred," Erling
said in a strange voice. "It is upon me that all is not well."

Now so urgent was the tone in which the Dane spoke that the priest
went at once to the inner door and opened it very gently, and
peered in. Then he started forward suddenly and threw the door
wide.

"Thanes!" he cried wildly, and we were at his side.

The room was empty. There was naught but the bed in it, for even
the great chair was gone. Only where it had been there was a square
patch of floor which was not covered with the sedges I had noted as
so lavishly strown. Nor was the king in the bed, whose coverings
were unruffled. Sighard lifted its hangings and peered under and
behind them in a sort of frantic hope; for though there was no
sound, and no answer to his whispering of the well-loved name of
his master, it seemed unbelievable that from this little chamber a
man should have gone utterly and without a sound during these few
minutes. Yet so it was.

I set my hands on the high sill of the window and drew my face to
its level. It was too narrow for a man to get through, and there
was nothing to be seen outside but the white moonlight, and the
mist which rose from the Lugg and curled over the rampart, white
and ghostly round the sentry, who leaned on his spear and stared at
the twinkling hill fires.

"It is wizardry," said Sighard, groaning, while cold drops broke
out on his forehead. "He has been spirited away."

"I saw him on the rampart," answered Erling; "but it was his ghost
that I saw. I knew it, and came and told my master here."

Now there came a silence in which we looked at one another. Then Sighard
went and began to search the walls for hidden doors--hopelessly, for the
timbers were a full foot thick. And so of a sudden some frenzy seemed to
take him, for he set his hand on his sword, and would have waked the
palace with the cry of treason, but that Selred stayed him.

"Friend, friend," he said earnestly, "have a care--wait! We are but
two score amid hundreds, and that cry may mean death to us all.

"Wilfrid, call the other thanes hither."

I went to the door of the council chamber, and there was that in my
face which bade the thanes spring up and hurry to me with words of
question. I looked first at the three Mercians; but their faces
were blank as those of the Anglians. They expected naught.

"The king has gone," I said. "You Mercians may best know whither."

One of them laughed, and sat down again.

"You have a strange idea of a jest in Carl's camp, paladin," he
said. "What is it? The king gone, with us sitting here at his door,
forsooth!"

"No jest, thane, but the truth," I said, taking the tall wax torch
which was on the table before them. "Come."

Then they leaped up and followed me into the bedchamber, and stood
staring as we had stared. It was plain that they knew as little as
ourselves.

"He has passed into the guest hall," said one of the Mercians,
looking round him wildly enough.

But that was not possible, for the door was in the outer room
whence we had come, and it was barred on both sides.

"We are disgraced," said another, groaning. "Our charge has been
made away with, and how we cannot tell. We shall pay for this with
our lives."

Then Sighard said, "He cannot be far off. Men--think! How can he
have gone hence? Who would make away with him?"

But there was no answer to these questions. The thing remained a
mystery. If there was any plot, these three honest thanes were not
in it. And then as I walked uneasily from side to side of the room,
turning over impossible ways of disappearance in my mind, I came
near where the great chair had been. And under my step the floor
creaked.

Now seeing how that house was built, this was a sound one would not
expect to hear at all. It came into my mind that here was one of
the few floors which were boarded, the most being of beaten clay,
or paved with great stones wonderfully. So I trod again firmly in
that place, and it seemed to me that the floor gave, somewhat.

I reached out for the torch which I had set on the sconce in the
wall and looked at the floor, but why it creaked I did not make
out. The boards were of hewn oak, and how thick one could not tell.

"Fetch Offa the king," said a Mercian; "we had better tell him. No
use in gaping here. We can swear that Ethelbert has not passed out
of these doors."

"No," said Selred quickly; "that were to wake the whole palace. Let
us seek further into this.--Thanes, if aught has been done amiss to
our king, we are all in danger."

The floor creaked under my foot again, and I looked back to it.
What I saw now made me start and call the others to me.

"See here!" I cried.

Round that clear space where the chair had been was a saw cut newly
made. It went through the flooring, so that the square was like a
trapdoor. And it was uneven, as if it had been made in haste. Then
I knew what must have been the meaning of the sounds we heard and
thought nothing of--the creak, and the fall, and the stifled cry.

Sighard looked once, and then threw himself on his knees, drawing
his stout seax as he did so.

"Have it up!" he said, with his teeth clenched, "have it up!"

Then a thought came to me, and I beckoned to Erling. It might be
that armed men lurked under that trapdoor, and that our end was
coming; but at least we would have fair play.

"Go and bar the door to the great hall," I told him. "We will have
none else in here if there is a fight. Then see if you can get the
door to the guest hall undone."

He nodded and went out. One of the Mercians asked sharply where he
was going; but Sighard paid no heed to him, for he was trying to
get his blade into the saw cut, and so raise the square of
flooring.

"Thane," I said to the Mercian, staying him from following Erling,
"he will shut the door to the hall, and let this thing be seen
through in silence. Go you and watch at the door of Offa, for it
has bided untended long enough."

He went out in haste, and Erling watched him there. I saw him sit
down to the table whence he had risen at my coming, and set his
head on his hands as if in despair. I had no fear that he would
call Offa yet, or that Erling would suffer him to go to his
comrades in the hall. The other two stayed and watched Sighard
silently.

Now the old thane had his blade fast in the timber and lifted. The
square of floor rose slowly at that corner, and one of the Mercians
set his hand to it. Another lift, and the whole was coming up, for
the boards had been fastened together with cross pieces underneath,
doorwise. As it rose I heard the fall of props that had kept it in
place, and I bade Sighard have a care. I feared it would let him
through suddenly as these props fell; but it had been roughly
hinged at one end with thongs. He rose, and he and the Mercian
heaved on the door and threw it back.

Then below us gaped a black pit which seemed to go deep into the
earth, and for a moment we shrank back from it as men must needs do
when a depth is suddenly before them. Nor should I have wondered if
thence the bright points of waiting spears had darted upward in our
faces.

But there was nothing save a little cold draught of wind that blew
into them from out of that pit, and we looked into it. I held the
torch so that its flickering blaze went to the bottom, and as we
saw what was there a groan came from us.

There was the great chair lying, overturned on its side as it may
have fallen, but it was dragged back from under the door somewhat.
There were the cushions I had noted also--one lying on the stone
floor of the pit, and the other on the seat of the chair. But there
was no sign of the king--none but a stain of red on the cushions
and on the floor, and on the blade of a sword which lay beside that
terrible pool. And the sword was the king's own.

Then said Sighard, and his voice came hoarse and broken:

"Our king is slain! Hounds of Mercians, tell us who has wrought
this!"

One answered him from dry lips:

"We cannot tell. It is a shame on the house of Offa, and on the
very name of Mercia. Kill us if you will, for we are niddering."

He plucked his sword from his belt and threw it on the floor. The
thane who had gone into the council chamber was on his feet and
staring at us through the open doors, and Erling was ready to fall
on him if he cried out. But the third Mercian, whose name was
Witred, did not lose his senses thus.

"True enough," he said, looking fearlessly at the angry group
before him. "But it were better to follow this passage and see if
we may not overtake those who have been here.

"Bide here, paladin and priest, and keep our way back clear with my
comrade yonder, and let us go quickly. If they slay us--maybe that
is no loss, but at least we have done what we should."

Without another word Sighard leaped into that awesome pit, and
Witred followed him. Then went our three thanes, and Selred and I
stood alone in the room. I handed the torch down to the last man,
and so saw that from the place where the chair was set a low
stone-arched passage led westward into darkness. It was some work
of the old Romans, no doubt, for no Saxon ever made such
stonework--strong and heavy as rock itself.

The light flashed from somewhat on the wall also, as it seemed,
drawing my eyes to it.

"Yonder is a spear set," I said to the thane, as he took the light
from me; "hand it to me."

He took it from where it rested against the wall and gave it me,
turning at once to follow our comrades. Then I knew the spear well
enough, for I had seen it over close to me once before. It was
Gymbert's boar spear.



CHAPTER XII. HOW QUENDRITHA THE QUEEN HAD HER WILL.


Slowly the footfalls of our comrades died away down the low
passage, and then the last flicker of their torch passed from the
stone walls of that terrible pit, leaving Selred and myself alone
in the cold moonlight. Out through the doors toward the council
chamber I saw the Mercian thane, who had been watching us in
silence, sit down at the table and set his head in his hands
wearily; and I heard Erling try the bars of the door to the guest
hall, and finding it impossible to open, after a while pass into
the council chamber, and set himself against the great door once
more.

After that there fell a dead silence over all the place, and it was
uncanny. It seemed impossible that all men should sleep in peace in
the palace where such a deed had been wrought at our feet. I had
rather the rush and yell of the Welsh over these ramparts they
hated than this stillness of coldly-planned treachery.

Nor should I have been surprised if at any moment I had heard the
tramp of men who came to fall on us and end what had been begun, or
the cries and din of arms which should tell that they had fallen on
the sleeping thanes of Anglia in the guest hall. Anything was
possible after what had been wrought already, and indeed it was
hardly likely that the king should be slain and the servants let go
free.

I think that the stillness and waiting for unknown doings thus went
near to terrifying me. I know that I started at every sound, if it
were but the crackling of the little fire in the council chamber,
or the low challenge of one sentry to his fellow as the word which
told all well passed round the ramparts. Selred was on his knees,
and I would not speak to disturb the prayers which we so sorely
needed.

The time seemed long as we waited, but it could not have been much
more than ten minutes before I heard the footfalls of our party as
they returned by the passage way. One by one they came out from
under the arch, and I took the torch from Witred the Mercian, who
came first as he had gone, and then helped them one by one to the
room again from the pit. Their faces were white and hard set in the
light, and Sighard seemed as a man broken and aged in a moment with
trouble beyond his bearing. Then I knew that I had to hear the
worst, and made ready for it. Witred the Mercian told it quietly.

"This passage runs under the ramparts, and ends in a thicket on the
steep by the river. I knew that there were old stones in that, but
not one of us knew of the passage. That end has been newly opened,
and the tools with which it was done are there yet. A man sat by
that entrance on guard outside, and as I came I spoke to him by
name and told him who I was. Then he stayed, and we fell on him and
bound him without giving him a chance to cry out. Whereon he told
all, and it is an evil tale."

He paused, and wiped his forehead, looking round as if he would
have any man but himself tell it; but none else spoke.

"Yesterday Gymbert's men sawed the floor through and made this
trapdoor. Then they waited underneath, and the king fell, as they
had expected, into the ready arms that waited him. There were
Gymbert and half a dozen of his men. The cushion stayed his cry,
and he was helpless. Yet he was very strong, and so Gymbert
snatched his own sword from his side and smote off his head. Out by
the river they had a cart waiting, and they bore him away at speed.
We saw and followed the wheel tracks till we lost them, and could
do no more. Then we bound and gagged the man, and have haled him
halfway down the passage till we need him again. That is all."

Then I said, with a cold wrath on me, "At whose orders was this
done?"

The Mercian shook his head, glancing at his comrades. The other
Mercian had come to hear from the council chamber.

"The man could not or would not tell; but I pray you think not that
this is done by Offa. The one thing that the man begged us was that
he might not be delivered to the king. And he said that Gymbert and
his men would hide till Offa's wrath was past."

"There is but one other at whose word this could have been done," I
said.

"Ay," said Witred, "I know. Yet Ethelbert was to be the bridegroom
of our princess. Is it possible that Gymbert has looked so high,
and would take him from his way?"

And at that one of the other Mercians answered bluntly:

"You speak of what is not possible, and you know it. Who but that
one of whom we ken would have seen that those who wrought here with
saw and axe were not disturbed? Let us say at once that the thing
has been wrought by the hand of Quendritha, and have done with it.
Which of us does not know that she is capable of it, and has never
dared say so yet till this minute?"

Then said Witred, "That is the truth, thanes. Now what will you,
for the time goes on? This man said that it was thought that the
deed would not be known till waking time in the morning. It is not
midnight yet."

We looked at one another, for what was best we could not say. It
was more than likely that the queen had planned against some too
early discovery of the deed, and even now waited for any sign which
should tell her to act. But for the staying of that man at the
entrance, I have no doubt that by this time her men had been warned
to fall on us. The gathering of the Welsh, and the open passage
into the heart of the palace, might be seeming proof that we had
planned the downfall of Offa, and so short work with us.

Now one said that it were best to tell Offa straightway, but Selred
and my comrades would not have that. We were not so sure in our own
minds that he was guiltless in the matter; and at last Selred said
that he would try to reach the guest hall and wake the other thanes
and bring them here.

So we passed into the council chamber, and I think we were all glad
to be away from the side of that pit. Erling stood at the great
door, and he had taken the bars down from that which led to the
guest hall. If only we could make some one of our folk hear without
too much noise, they could unbar it from their side.

"There is one asleep near to it," said Erling; "I heard him in the
stillness."

I tapped sharply once or twice on the heavy door with my sword
handle. I heard the sounds the sleeper made on the other side, and
presently they stopped suddenly. Whereon I tapped again, and I
heard a voice, and then another, as if men heard it. And then a
tapping came back. The door was very thick, and made of oaken logs,
bound together with iron, so that it was hard to hear. But I set my
face close to it and spoke, thinking that no doubt an ear was not
far off beyond.

"Unbar the door," I said--"unbar."

"Who is that?" came the muffled voice.

Then Selred answered, and presently I heard the great bars being
drawn from their sockets in the door posts, and at last the door
opened slowly toward us. A thane was there with his sword in his
hand, staring at us.

"Let me in, for I have a word to say," said Selred quietly. "Be
silent, for one does not want to rouse the place."

He passed in, and we closed the door. Beyond the other door lay the
housecarls of Offa down the long hall where we had feasted, and
within his own chambers there were a score or more of the young
thanes of his bodyguard sleeping across his own doors.

Now we heard the still voice of Selred, and after it a stifled
outcry, hushed almost before it arose, and then silence. In a
minute the door was pushed gently, and the father came back with a
pale face. Ho had told the thanes, and they were arming in silence.
Then they would come and see what we had seen.

"And after that?" said Witred.

"If I were in their place, naught should stay me here," said the
Mercian who had bided with me plainly.

"No," said Sighard savagely; "I have a mind to bid them burn this
hall over Offa's head, and meet their end in the turmoil."

"Thereby giving occasion to men to say that we wrought treason and
were punished rightly, both ourselves and the king," said Selred
coolly. "That be far from us, Sighard."

The old thane growled, and seeing that he was beyond reason, the
priest set his mouth close to his ear and spoke to him. Whereon he
calmed at once, and a new look of fear came into his face.

"Hilda," he groaned; "I had forgotten her."

Now the thanes came quietly through the door into the chamber, and
one by one passed to that room where Ethelbert had been betrayed.
Presently they were all gathered there, and when they saw, there
grew a sort of panic among them.

"Let us hence while there is time," said one, voicing the fears of
the rest; "we are all dead men else. This is what the earthquake
betokened."

"It is the part of Anglian thanes to die with their king," said
Sighard angrily.

"An there were a king left us to die with--"

Then Witred broke in with words of common sense which ended the
talk. He had every reason to wish us gone, to save the terror of a
wild vengeance let loose in this palace; and that we should go was
best in every way.

"Thanes, thanes," he said, "listen to me. Tomorrow morning early
men deemed that this would be found out. In the dawning the grooms
lead the horses to water yonder at the river, and they are the
first men afoot. Gymbert is gone, and on this thane here falls the
task of ordering the stables. He shall bid your grooms keep
together, and after watering lead your horses, as for airing,
eastward to the forest paths. Go hence by this passage, and I will
take you to some place which we will arrange, and there they shall
meet you. Then make your way swiftly beyond the reach of
Quendritha; yet it is in my mind that even Offa can no longer be
blind to the evil she works. Her power will be little."

The thanes looked at one another, and then one or two said that it
was not the way of Anglian thanes to fly thus; but they had little
voice in the matter. The rest had no thought but to fly, and I do
not blame them. Save some such savage work as that which Sighard
would set on foot, there was naught else to be planned.

But I minded the voice and pleading look of that mother who spoke
with me in the garden at Thetford, and I had a mind to stay and see
this thing to an end, for it was all that I might do. Maybe I could
find the body of her son and see it brought back to her.

"I bide here," I said; and Selred stepped to my side without a
word.

"I also," said Sighard; "I have words to say yet before I die."

They tried to persuade us, but in vain, and at last they left the
matter. In silence they went each to his place, and took the arms
and things which were of value, and so passed down the passage with
Witred at their head, and I heard one or two threaten the honest
thane with death if he played them false. But he did not answer
them, for he knew that they spoke wildly as yet in the new terror
which had broken their sleep.

After that we went back to the council chamber and sat down. The
worst strain was past with their going, as it seemed to me, and the
morning would tell what was to be.

"We will stay here," said Selred. "There should be three thanes and
myself, and you two and Erling will seem the right number when men
look into this room presently."

So again the silence of the midnight came down on us, and in the
chill we waited for the return of Witred; and it was two hours
before he came. After him we closed the trapdoor, and the doors of
the private rooms of the king who had gone, and then the Mercian
planned that matter of the horses.

"Halfway to the forest," he told us, "some of the thanes would fain
have returned to fall on this place, and take revenge and die. Once
I deemed that they would do so, but that fit passed from them. Then
they went on with me, and now they are safe. It may be that they
will get their horses, and if not, they will scatter and make their
way home on foot. Men who come to such a gathering as this have
money enough with them."

After that it was a question with us, and a hard one, to know what
it were best to do. It seemed terrible to wait there until men woke
and learned all; but save that we might find Offa himself, there
was naught else to be done. We must wait him. It is not to be
supposed that his thanes would hear one word which seemed to hint
that he had had any hand in this deed; but it was plain enough that
they feared what evil Quendritha might not have urged him to, else
had they made haste to call him.

Now, while we waited there and doubted, word came from Gymbert
secretly to Quendritha that her bidding had been done, and that
Ethelbert stood in her way no longer. In the darkness a thrall
crept to where the queen sat at a window and watched, and made some
sign which she understood, and then in a little while our waiting
was at an end.

For straightway she goes to Offa, and stands by his bedside with
eyes that gleam in the dim light of the lamp that burns in the
chamber, and wakes him, but not easily. On him the potency of that
Frankish wine lingers yet, and he does not rouse quickly, but
stares at her with wondering eyes.

"Wake," she says. "Today you are the mightiest king that has ruled
in England yet."

"Ay, and was so yesterday," he says, for so the songs of his
gleemen tell him night after night.

"Rouse yourself," she cries angrily; "hear what I have wrought for
you."

Thereat some remembrance of those other words of hers comes into
his mind, and he wakes suddenly, fearing, and yet half hoping.

"What mean you?" he says.

"I mean that naught stands in your way from here to the eastern
sea. Call your levies and march across the land in all its breadth,
and there is not one who will forbid you. East Anglia is yours."

Now Offa looks on her face, and sees triumph written in her eyes;
and he minds all, and knows that she has done that which he forbade
her not, and round his heart is a terror and a chill suddenly.

"Wife," he says in a harsh voice, "what have you done?"

"That which you would not do for yourself, but left to me. I have
taken the weak out of the way of the strong, and hereafter East
Anglia will thank me."

Then says Offa under his breath, "Ethelbert has been slain in my
house! There is not a thrall in all the land who will not sleep
better than shall I hereafter. Yet I will not believe it. This is
an evil dream. Let me hence!"

Then he springs from his bed, and the queen will not prevent him.
Presently, she thinks, he will learn the truth and be glad of it.
So she does but call the pages and armour bearers from the outer
chambers, and bids them see to their lord, and so leaves him. Then
he dresses and arms quickly, being minded, if the worst is not yet
done, to see that all is well. Maybe she does but urge him to that
which she would have him do again. And he will not do it. That much
he knows clearly. For the rest, all is misty in his mind, and that
is what Quendritha had planned.

So it came to pass that, even as we had made up our minds that we
must needs call the king, the door to his chamber opened, and a
page came out with the words that bid men meet the king, and we
rose and stood to greet him. He came forth quickly, looking
wild-eyed and haggard, with his sheathed sword grasped in the hand
which held his cloak round him against the night air. He halted for
a moment on the threshold, and stared at us; while from very force
of habit we saluted, and spoke the words of good morrow that were
but mockery today. And he knew it.

"Good morrow, forsooth," he said, in a terrible, dull voice; "and I
would from my heart that so it may be. Tell me, thanes, is aught
wrong here? It seems that all is quiet. Mayhap I have but dreamed
of ill--dreamed, I say, for it could be nowise else. I had an evil
dream. I thought that Ethelbert, my guest and son to be, was
harmed."

He looked from one of us to the other, and our faces spoke to him,
though we could find no words. The hand that held the sword
tightened its grip on the gilded scabbard, and he strode forward
into the room fiercely.

"It is no dream, but the truth," he said hoarsely. "Answer me, is
it true?"

Now I saw the wrath growing in his face. And I heard Witred
stammer, for the fear of the great king was on him; and I knew not
what Sighard might not say in his wrath, for already Selred had his
hand on him to stay him. So I spoke for the rest, being a stranger,
and of no account if the anger of the king sought a vent on me.

"King Offa," said I, "there is evil wrought by stealth here, and
your thanes are not to blame. Come with me, and you shall see that
so it is, and you will learn the worst. Keep your wrath for those
who are not yet named. It is true that Ethelbert has been slain
this night; but he does not lie here."

The king went back a pace from me and paled suddenly. I did not
know what he might do next, for I could not tell that this was but
certainty to him of that which he had reason to fear. But he kept a
tight rein on himself, and in a moment spoke to me clearly, if in
low tones.

"You are Carl's messenger to Ethelbert, and therefore trusted by
him. You have no need to keep aught from me, nor do you fear me, as
it seems. Tell me plainly what has been done."

I think that he had not understood that Ethelbert had been taken
hence, and that he dreaded to look on him. So I told him once more.

"Through the old passage which lies beneath his chamber men crept
and slew Ethelbert. Then they took him hence; whither we cannot
tell. It has been but chance that we have found it out before we
went to call him in the morning."

"Silently, without noise, was this wrought, then?" he said, as if
he hardly believed it.

"So silently that if noise there was we could not tell it from the
sounds of men about the house. I pray you come and see what was
planned."

He hesitated for a moment, and then knew that go he must, sooner or
later.

"So let it be," he said. "Bide here, you others."

I turned, and led the way into the bedchamber. There I stooped and
opened the trapdoor, and held the torch so that the light fell into
the pit, without a word. He saw the fallen props, and the chair,
and all else that told him the terrible tale. And as he saw he
reeled a little, and I caught his arm. But he shook off my hand
savagely.

"Tell me," he said, between his teeth, "have you hunted for those
who did this deed?"

"Such of us as might go have done so. Your own door was not left
unguarded, King Offa. But the slayers had gone far hence swiftly."

"An they were wise they would bide there," he said grimly.

Now he was more himself, and his eyes sought the pit and the room
for all he might learn. I saw that he knew the spear of Gymbert,
but he said nothing of it. It came to my mind that to his dying day
King Offa would not forget aught that his eyes lit on in that
place.

"There shall be a reckoning for this," he said at last, turning to
me with a stern look on his face. "Tell me, is it said that in this
I have any part?"

"None have said it, King Offa," I answered.

"They have but thought it," he said; "that is what you mean. Well,
what is that to me? Yet hereafter you shall tell Carl that in it I
had no part."

I bowed, and let that bide. It seemed that to be thought still the
messenger for whose return Carl would look might be some sort of a
safeguard to me if things went ill. Then Offa remembered somewhat.

"What of the Anglian thanes? What will they say when this is known
by them?"

His brow knitted, for he thought of the likelihood of wild turmoil
in the palace, and what would come of the cry of treason.

"They know, and have gone," I said simply. "It seemed best to them
and to your thanes that, seeing that this deed was done and none
could amend it, they should fly hence by this passage. It could not
be foreseen how matters would go with them."

"On my word, some of you have your senses still about you," said
Offa, in that cold voice of his.

And then all of a sudden his command of himself gave way, and he
sat down on the bed and hid his face in his hands. With the passing
of the Anglians the strain had gone from him as from us, and he was
left with the bare terror of the deed he had half approved.

Presently he looked up, and the weakness had passed. Then he rose
and signed to me to follow him, and we went out into the council
chamber. And even as we closed the ill-fated rooms behind us, from
his own door came forth Quendritha and moved swiftly toward him.

"My king," she said, "they told me that somewhat was amiss."

"Ay," he said, and his words were like ice, "there is, and more
than amiss. Get you to your bower, and we will speak thereof in
private."

He did not look at her, and went to pass her, almost thrusting her
aside. And at that she gave a little plaintive cry, and would have
taken his arm, saying for us to hear that he was surely distraught.

"Thanes, tell me what is wrong!" she said.

"We have no need to tell you," said Sighard savagely, and unheeding
the warning grasp of the priest on his arm. "What has been done is
your doing."

"What mean you?" she flashed on him with a terrible look.

Erling answered from where he stood with his back to the great
door, "So you spoke in our old land on the day when our Jarl Hauk
bade you confess the wrong you had done, before you were set adrift
on the sea. It had been better had he slain you, as some would have
had him slay, if it were but for the saving of this."

Now Offa had turned angrily as he heard Sighard speak to the queen
in no courteous wise, but Erling had not heeded his look or what
wrath might light on him. Before he could say aught, and it was
plain that he was going to speak angrily enough, Offa heard the
first words of the Dane, and checked himself.

And when he had heard, he said in a cold voice, slowly, "So that
tale is true after all. I can believe it now, though once I slew a
man who told it me."

With that he turned on his heel and passed through the door and was
gone, paying no more heed to the queen than to us. For a long
moment she stood and glared at Erling, and I think that she
remembered his face in some dim way, so that the old days came back
to her, and with that remembrance the terror that had been in them.
And as she stood there in the torchlight she seemed to have grown
old of a sudden, and her face was gray and lined, while her long
white hands worked as they fell at her side.

But not another word did she say, though her lips seemed to form
somewhat, and in her eyes was written most terrible hate and anger.
She took her gaze from Erling, for he did not shrink from it, and
let it rest for a moment on Sighard with a meaning which made him
pale as he thought of Hilda, who was yet in her hands, and so went
from the room suddenly, and the door was closed after her from
within.

Then said Witred the Mercian earnestly, "Friends, an you value your
lives, get you hence while yet that passage is open. I am going
with those who do go, for we who have seen and heard all this will
not be suffered to live to tell it."

"It seems to me that Erling's tale is not new to some folk here," I
said.

"It is an old tale with us, but we did not believe it. It had been
well-nigh forgotten, for it was nowise safe to do so much as
whisper it.

"But, thanes, did you mark the face of the king?"

"It was terrible," said Selred, shuddering: "it was as the face of
the lost."

And then out in the courtyard the horns blew the morning call
cheerily, and the hall buzzed in a moment with the rousing of the
men who slept along its walls, and there reached us the sound of
jest and laughter and shouts as they waked the heavy sleepers.

"Thanes," said Witred, quite coolly, "if we want to see another day
dawn we had best be going.

"Brother, I rede you go to the horse watering yourself, and take
your best steed under you; and I pray you bring mine also.

"Paladin, that gay steed of yours will be with the rest--and yours
also, thane.

"Erling, you shall in nowise go stablewards, but come with us."

The thane who had to see to the stables leaped up, and without more
than a nod to his comrade and us went his way down the hall in
haste.

"There are two or three things I don't want to leave behind," said
Witred, "but I shall have to forego them. A man need not stop to
gather property when Quendritha is at his heels. Come; why are you
waiting? I tell you that we shall find the far end of that passage
closed in one way or another if we haste not."

"My daughter!" said Sighard, groaning; "she is in the queen's
bower."

"So also is Etheldrida the princess," said Witred. "She is of her
court, as one may say, and will be safe. No harm can come to her."

"I fear for her," said Sighard, still hesitating.

"This woman, who has slain the bridegroom of her own daughter, will
stick at little. I have offended her, and I know it."

Then Selred said gently, "I am going to stay, and I can do more
than even yourself. Today the archbishop comes, and I will tell him
of Hilda. Go, for I am sure that Witred speaks no less than the
truth, else he would not fly thus. For her sake you must go, and I
will bring her home. Have no fear."

"I am thought to be Carl's man," I said, "and one may suppose that
I am safe. I will stay with Selred, and see what happens. It is in
my mind to search for the body of the king, and surely none will
hinder that. Erling must go into hiding, but in some way he must
let me know where he is."

"That I can manage for you. I have men of my own in this palace,
and they shall take any message. Erling can be hidden in the town
easily."

So said Witred, and with that he would wait no more. We heard men
coming up the hall, and though it was most likely but the thanes
who should relieve those who had watched during the night, there
was no more delay. Sighard shook hands with me as if he would set
all that he wanted to say into that grasp, and then they passed
down the passage once more and were gone.

For a while I waited, fearing lest I should hear the sounds of a
fight at the far end, but no noise came. But just as I was about to
set the trapdoor back in its place I heard footsteps, and stayed.
They came from whence my friends had gone.

It was Erling. He came into the pit, set his hands on the edge of
the floor, and swung himself up sailorwise.

"I did but go to see that they got away safely," he said. "You may
need a man at your back, master, before this day is out."

"Erling," I cried, "I will not suffer this. I think I am safe
enough."

"Well, mayhap so am I. If Quendritha slays me, it is as much as to
say that my tale is true. Say no more, master, for on my word our
case is about the same; and if I must die, I had as soon do it in
good company, and for reason, as be hunted like a rat through the
hovels of yon townlet."



CHAPTER XIII. HOW WILFRID AND ERLING BEGAN THEIR SEARCH.


Selred smiled and shook his head at Erling when we went back to
him, but I could see that he thought no less of the Dane for
standing by me. Nor did I, as may be supposed, but I had rather his
safety was somewhat more off my mind than it was likely to be here.
As he had returned for care of me, it would seem that we were each
pretty anxious about the other; but there was no use in showing it.

Now the thanes who had the morning watch to keep came in, fresh and
gay, with words of good morrow, and stayed suddenly and stared at
us, for we three strangers had the council chamber to ourselves.

"Where are Witred and his fellows?" one asked me.

I thought the best thing was to tell them the truth, and I told all
the tale of the night's doings in as few words as I could, and at
the end said that offence having been given to Quendritha, it had
seemed safest for those of whom he spoke to get out of her way for
a while. Whereat the thanes made no denial, but seemed to agree
that it was the best way for all concerned.

"This thing will be known all over the place in an hour or so," one
said. "What will you yourself do?"

"I stay here to search for the body of the Anglian king, and for
aught else I may do to help the chaplain here, and the ladies of
the Thetford party."

Then Selred went into the inner chamber and gathered to him the
little crown of the king, and one or two more things which were of
value because of him who had worn them, and said that he would
bestow them in the church until they might be taken back to his
mother in Norfolk. I took his arms, and the sword we had found in
the pit, for Sighard had brought that up from thence. And so we
three went down the hall, none paying much heed to us, and into the
church.

It was strange to see the gay bustle of the place going on with all
manner of preparations for the wedding that should never be, and
yet to say naught to stay it all. That was not our business.

Selred found the sacristan in the church, for it was the hour of
matins, and between them they set what we had brought in the ambry
which was built in the chancel wall. I do not know if Selred told
the man why they were to be kept there. Then came Offa's two
chaplains, and the bell rang for the service; and it was good to
kneel and take part therein, while outside the quiet church the
noise of the great palace went on unceasingly, as the noise of a
waking camp. Beside me knelt Erling the heathen, quiet and
attentive.

Somewhere about the midst of the service it seemed to grow very
still all about us of a sudden. Then there were the sounds of many
men running past the door, and a dull murmur as of voices of a
crowd. The news of the deed of the night had been set going, and it
was passing from man to man; and each went to the hall to learn
more, for presently none were sure which king had been slain, and
then many thought that it was Offa. Before the service was ended he
had to show himself, and at the sight of him a great roar of joy
went up, and men were at ease once more--concerning him at least.

When the little service was over I went to the church door and
looked out on the courtyard; and the whole place swarmed with folk,
for work had been stayed by the news, and none knew what was to be
done next. If one could judge from the looks of those who spoke to
one another, there were some strange tales afloat already. Some
recognized me, and doffed their caps; but it was plain that they
had no thought that I had been so nearly concerned in the matter,
and I was the easier, therefore. And while we watched them Selred
came to us.

"Now I am going to try to see our poor ladies," he said. "We must
learn what they will do, for if they will go homeward, we are the
only men who can ride with them. I know that you would fain go
home, but I will ask you to help me in this. Indeed, it is a work
of charity."

"Of course I will, father," I answered; "I am at your service and
theirs, till you need me no longer. My folk do not so much as know
that I am likely to be in England, let alone on my way to them."

"Why, then, your homecoming will be none the less joyful for you,
good friend. But I pray you have a care of yourselves, both of you,
awhile."

Now we went back through the church, and so passed into our lodging
by the door which was between the two parts of the building of
which I have spoken already. The priest had somewhat to take with
him, book or beads or the like, and I would fain rest awhile after
that night of terrible unrest.

"Go to breakfast in the hall," said Selred, "and there I will come
to you."

It was somewhat dark in the outer room, and darker yet in the
little chambers. Selred had to grope awhile before he found what he
wanted; then Erling opened the outer door for him, and he went his
way, and I would have the door left open after him for more light.

Then I went to my own chamber, sliding back its door and speaking
to Erling at the same time, so that I had my head a little turned
aside. Whereby, before I had time to hear more than a sudden
scuffle within the dark chamber, out of it leaped a man upon me,
sending me spinning against the opposite wall with a blow on the
chest which took the breath from me for the moment, and then
smiting Erling with a sort of back-handed blow as he passed him;
but the Dane saw him in time, and set out his foot, and the man
fell headlong over it. His head struck the doorpost with a great
thud, and there he lay motionless, while something flew from his
hand across the floor, rattling as it went. It was the hilt of a
knife of some sort.

Erling shut the outer door in haste, and then helped me to rise,
asking me if I were hurt.

"No," I answered. "Ho, but what is that?"

Out of my tunic as I straightened myself there fell a gleaming
blade, and I picked it up. It was half of a Welsh knife, keen and
pointed, which had broken on my mail shirt, leaving only a long
slit in my tunic, and maybe a black bruise to come presently on the
skin where the dint fell.

"I owe life to you, Erling," I said. "And I laughed at the thought
of wearing the mail, and well-nigh did not put it on. But he smote
you; has he harmed you?"

"The mail saved me also," he said, "for the knife broke on it;
otherwise--No, master, I am not hurt; not so much as a cut tunic. I
wonder if there are more of this sort in these dens?"

I drew my sword, and we looked cautiously into the chamber, and
then into Sighard's, but there was no one there. This man had been
alone, and he had fared badly. He lay yet as he had fallen,
breathing heavily.

"This means that Quendritha is after us," said Erling. "Our old saw
is true enough when it says, 'Look to the door or ever you pass
it;' and that we shall have to do for a while. Now I have a mind to
tie this man up for a day or two; we have a spare chamber for him."

"Do so," I said. "Then we will pass out through the church, and
Quendritha will think that he waits us here yet, and we shall be
the safer."

So we bound him and set him, still senseless, in the empty chamber
of Sighard, making fast the door with the broken dagger so that,
even if presently the man worked his bonds loose, he could not get
to Quendritha to say that he had failed. Then I made Erling don a
buff coat of Sighard's, good enough to turn most blows. He might
need it if this went on.

"It is in my mind," said I when this was done, "that a crowd is the
safest place for us just now. Let us go and see how matters fare at
the stables. It is time that the horses came back from the water."

We passed through the church and went stable-wards, among all the
idle and half-terrified thralls and servants; and when we came to
the long stables with their scores of stalls, there was talk and
wonderment enough among the grooms. Gymbert was nowhere to be
found, and the other thane, who took his place and gave the orders
when he was busy, had gone out with his horses, and had fled with
the Anglians, it was said. None seemed surprised that they should
have gone hastily, but the going of the king's horse thane was a
wonder.

However, all that was good hearing to us, and I went to see what
horses had returned. It was plain that Witred's plan had worked
well, for only those which the ladies had ridden, the pack horses,
and our own had been brought back. The young king's steeds were
both in the stable where Offa's own white chargers were kept.

Somewhat late the breakfast call sounded, and I went back to the
hall, not by any means wishing to seem put out by the flight of the
Anglian party, as Carl's messenger. Erling sat where I could see
him, below the salt; and I went to my own place on the dais, as
before. There were not many thanes present at first, and Offa never
appeared at all; and the meal was silent, and carelessly ordered,
for the whole course of the great household had been set awry by
the word of heavy rumour which had flown from man to man.

As the time went on a few more thanes came in and sat them down
with few words, and those curt, and mostly of question as to where
such and such a friend was. And soon it grew plain that man by man
the guests of Offa were leaving him and the palace.

Maybe that was mostly because there had come an end of that for
which they had gathered, but there were words spoken which told me
that many who might have stayed left because of the shame of the
deed which had been wrought. The great name of Offa was no cloak
for that. Few spoke to me as I sat and ate, though many seemed as
if they would like to do so but were ashamed. Those who did speak
were only anxious to tell me that their king was surely blameless;
that it was some private matter of feud--surely some Welsh
treachery or the like; but no man so much as named Quendritha,
whether in blame or in excuse.

Presently there came up the hall quietly one of the young thanes,
boys of fifteen or less, who were pages to the king and queen; and
he sat himself down not far from me below the high place, where
they had their seats. I noticed him because he was the only one of
the half-dozen or so who came to that breakfast at all, and also
because he seemed to look somewhat carefully at me. As I still wore
my Frankish dress I was used to that, and only smiled at him, and
nodded a good morrow.

Presently two men near me rose and went, and as they did so the boy
rose also, and taking a loaf from his table handed it to me
gravely.

"Paladin," he said, "I think you need this."

He was a little below me, of course, and I bent to take it. He had
both hands to the loaf, and with one he gave me it, and from the
other dropped something small into my palm at the same time, so
that the bread covered it there. I thanked the lad, and while he
watched me eagerly, looked at that which he had hidden in my hand.
It was that little arrowhead which I had given Hilda, and which I
had bidden her send me if she was in danger or in anywise sought my
help.

Somehow I kept my countenance when I saw that. I suppose it was
because I knew that the need must be great when Hilda sent the
token, and that no doubt the queen had her spies everywhere on me;
but what thoughts went through my mind I can hardly set down. Fear
for Hilda in ways that I could not fathom, and wonder as to how I
was to help her, were the uppermost. I halved the loaf with my
dagger, and handed the half back to the boy, who came close to the
edge of the dais again for it.

"In the church, presently," I said to him, and he nodded.

I thought he might have some message also from her who gave the
token.

Then I made myself bide a little longer, and it was hard work. As
soon as I might I went out, Erling following me, and turned into
the church. There I waited impatiently, with my eyes on the door of
the great hall, in the porch, and at last I saw the page come out
as it were idly, and turn toward me. Then a man came up to him and
spoke to him, and the boy seemed eager to get away. At last he
glanced toward me, and went away with the man, passing the door of
the church, and turning toward the rearward buildings. I had little
doubt that he was purposely being prevented from having more words
with me.

That troubled me more than enough, as may be supposed, for what the
need of Hilda might be I could not tell. And what I should have
done next I can hardly say, for I was beginning to think of going
and asking to see her; so that it was as well that as I stood in
the deep porch I turned at the sound of hasty footsteps, and saw
Selred coming to me from out of the building. He had passed through
our lodging to the church as he had gone. His look was grave and
full of care, but not more than it had shown before he left us.

"I have seen none of the ladies," he said. "The palace is in a
turmoil, and Offa has shut himself up, seeing but one or two of his
thanes, in grief for what has been done, as men say, and as may be
hoped. Nor will Quendritha see any one, or let her attendants pass
from her bower and its precincts."

"Father," I said, "I have had a token from the Lady Hilda to say
that she is in sore need of help."

And with that I told him of our talk yesterday in the little wood,
and of the coming of the page to me.

"I do not know what this may mean," he said gravely. "They say that
the poor Princess Etheldrida is overborne with grief, so that they
fear for her life. I thought that Hilda was with her; but this
would suggest that she is not. Yet all the ladies of the court are
within the bower."

Now there was a stir round the great gates, and a little train of
clergy came through them, with a few lay brothers, who led mules
laden with packs, after them. The whole party were dusty and
wearied, as if they had come from far on foot; and indeed only one
of all the dozen or so was mounted, and that was a man who rode,
cloaked and hooded, in their midst on a tall mule. Before him the
weariest looking of all the brothers carried a tall brazen cross.

"The archbishop," said Selred. "He has not turned back, or maybe
the news has not yet reached him."

This was Ealdwulf, the Mercian Archbishop of Lichfield, and he had
come for the wedding from his own place. He was a close friend of
the king, who indeed had wished that Mercia should not be second to
any realm, and had so wrought that an archbishop's see had been
made for him, subject to neither Canterbury nor York. I suppose
that somewhere men had been on the watch for him, for now came the
clergy of the palace to meet him, two by two, with the chaplain of
the king at their head.

They came and bent before him, and he blessed them with uplifted
hand; and then I think that the first word of what had befallen was
told to him, for as the chaplain rose and spoke to him the
archbishop started somewhat and knit his brows. Nor did he offer to
dismount as yet, but sat on his mule, seeming to question those
before him, while his clergy gathered round him as close as they
dared, listening. The men who had been hurrying about the courtyard
had stayed their footsteps, and there was a strange silence while
the bad news was told.

Presently the chaplain looked round and spied us, and at once came
toward the church porch and said that the archbishop would fain
speak with us.

So together we went across the court, and with me came Erling. Like
us, he bent for the blessing of the archbishop's greeting, and then
we had to tell what we knew of the end of Ethelbert. Ealdwulf would
have it from us, as we were of the train of the young king. And
when we had told all in few words, he said:

"I bide in this house no longer. Not until the day when King Offa
will send for me will I stand here again, save for sterner reproof
than I may give to any while one doubt remains as to who wrought
this deed. Mayhap you men deem that you have reason to blame a
certain one; but I need surety. Now, I lay it on you that you
search for the body of your king; and when it is found, bring him
to me at Fernlea, where I will abide. It is not fitting that these
walls should hold him again."

And then, taking that brazen cross of his into his hand as token of
his office, there, in the open court for all to hear, he laid such
a ban on the one whose mind had contrived and on those whose hands
had wrought this murder that I may not set it down here. But I
thought that none who had any part in it could live much longer
thereafter.

So he turned his mule and went away, leaving men staring aghast at
one another behind him.

Selred and I followed him beyond the gate, watching how he rode
with bent head, wearily, by reason of the trouble which had come to
him, for he had loved the young king well, as men told us. And
after he had passed out of sight I said that I had hoped for help
for Hilda from him.

"Quendritha would not have seen him," said Selred. "I do not know
what he could have done. Courage, Wilfrid! for all this is but a
matter of last night, and even now the day is young. Get to horse,
and do as he bade you; and presently, when you return, I may have
news for you."

Loath enough I was to leave the palace, but yet there did not seem
much use in loitering about here. I should not see Hilda, and
Selred would be more likely to learn what was amiss than I. He
said, also, that if he heard of any danger to her he would seek the
king straightway, and demand speech with him on urgent business, so
that he should see matters righted. And then a thought came to him,
for I told him of the man whom we had bound in the empty chamber.

"My son," he said, "it were better that you were out of this place.
Neither you nor Erling nor myself will dare sleep in peace tonight
if such deeds are still planned. Listen. Arm yourselves, and go on
your search. Take your horses with you, and presently follow the
archbishop to Fernlea for the night. It will be thought that you
have fled also. Let the man go to tell his tale, and it will seem
certain that you have done so, in fear of what may happen. Then be
in that little cover where we spoke with the king and Hilda tonight
at the same time, and there I will come to you and tell you all I
know."

"That is good advice, father," said Erling. "Well I know what holds
the thane here, but he can do naught.

"Master, if yon thrall is come to himself, we will speak words
which he will take to his mistress, and then we shall have time
before us. He shall think that we have fled eastward with the
rest."

Not anywise willingly, but as it were of our need, I knew that
these two friends of mine spoke rightly; so we left the good father
and went back to our lodging, there to gather what few things we
would take with us. I had no thought that we should return to this
ill-omened place.

In Sighard's chamber we heard the man shifting himself and
muttering; and as those sounds stilled as we entered, we knew that
he had come to himself, and that he was most likely trying to free
himself from his bonds.

"This is no place for us, master," said Erling pretty loudly; "it
is as well that we go while we may. Presently the road to the
eastward may be blocked against us."

The man was very still, listening, as we thought.

"The sooner the better," I answered. "One might put thirty miles
between here and ourselves before noontide. I have no mind to ride
through Worcester town, and we must pass that either to north or
south. Then we were safe enough."

Now the man shifted somewhat, and we heard him.

"That thrall lives yet," said Erling. "He listens."

With that he grinned at me and went to the door, drawing the knife
blade from it, and sliding it back so that the dim light filled the
chamber. As he went in the man was still, and seemingly insensible,
as we had left him; and Erling bent over him, as if to listen to
his breathing. Then he rose and came out, sliding the door
carelessly to behind him. We had no need to keep the man now. It
was plain to the Dane that he was waking enough.

He nodded to me as he returned, as if to say that all went well,
but aloud he said that the man was still enough. Then we armed
ourselves fully, donning mail shirt and steel helm, sword and seax
and spear for myself; and leathern jack and iron-bound leathern
helm, sword and seax, and bow and quiver for Erling--each of us
taking our round shields on our shoulders, over the horsemen's
cloaks we wore. None would think much of our going thus, for so a
thane and his housecarl may be expected to ride in time when there
is trouble about, more especially if there are but the two of them.

As we armed we spoke more yet of flight, and haste, and so on, till
the thrall must have deemed that he knew all our plans.

We had little more than our arms that we would take. All that
bright holiday gear I had bought in Norwich and Thetford, first
against my home going, and then for this wedding that was to be, I
left behind, taking only, in the little pack which Erling would
carry behind his saddle, what linen one may need on a journey, and
fastening my little store of jewels about me under my mail. Little
enough there was, in truth; but what I had was from Ecgbert or
Carl, with one little East Anglian brooch, set with garnets, from
the lost king himself, and these I would not lose.

Money I had in plenty for all needs and more, as may be expected of
a warrior who has seen success with Carl. Mostly that was in rings
and chains of gold, easily carried and hidden, for a link of one of
which I could anywhere get value in silver coin enough to carry us
on for a fortnight or more.

Then we went round to the stables, leaving the place by the door
away from the church, not minding who saw us go out. We had no
doubt at all that word would go to Quendritha that we were unhurt
and away so soon as we were seen to come thence; whereon she would
send to seek her man.

"I would your steed was not quite so easily known," growled Erling
to me as we crossed the open garth round the palace and entered
what I call the street of small buildings which went toward the
rear gate. "He will be easily heard of."

"When they find that we have not gone to the one side of Worcester,
therefore, they will try the other," I answered; "that is, if any
take the trouble to follow us, which I doubt."

"I doubt not at all concerning that," said Erling grimly. "Too well
I ken the ways of Quendritha. Neither you nor I who know the truth
of her sending to this land may be suffered to tell that tale, if
she can prevent it."

The great skew-bald whinnied as I came to him, glad to see that I
meant to take him out across the open country, and the grooms came
in haste to see what I needed. And as they saddled the two horses,
Erling was watching all they did, and had his eye on the doorway
from time to time. But here it was peaceful enough, for the first
turmoil of the morning had passed, and there were none but a few of
the grooms about. There was no man to ask us aught, and we mounted
quietly, without seeming to find much notice from any.

Now, as I have said, the rear gate of the palace enclosure led
toward Mercia, and we rode straight out of it, and away down the
road, grass grown and little cared for, which the Romans had once
made and paved for the march of their legions. At first we went in
leisurely wise, and then before we were fairly out of sight from
the gate spurred away in haste. And so we rode for two miles or so,
into the heart of the woodland country, where the road became a
mere track midway in the crest of its wide embankment. Then we drew
rein and took counsel as to whither next.

"Master," said Erling as we stayed, "did you see a man staring at
us from out of a stable across the road as we started?"

"Ay. But I did not heed him; he was only one of the thralls."

"So he looked; but if that was not Gymbert, I am sorely blind
today. Moreover, I looked back as we passed the gate, as if one of
the guard spoke to me. The man was hastening toward our lodging.
And he walked like Gymbert. Many a man can disguise his face; but,
after all, his back and gait betray him."

Now if this was indeed Gymbert whom Erling had seen, it was plain
that he waited about the palace precincts for speech with his
mistress, or for some fresh orders, and I did not by any means like
it. However, when I came to turn the matter over in my mind, I
thought that after all, whether inside the palace garth or out, he
would not be far from the call of Quendritha, so that maybe it did
not so much matter. At all events, what I would do would be to bide
as near to the place as I might without being known, and be content
to hear from Selred that at least naught was wrong.

Troubled enough I was in my mind at this time in all truth. For it
lay heavily on me that I had promised the poor queen away in
Thetford that I would watch her loved son and if need be die with
him, and I had lost him and yet lived. I know now that I had no
real need to blame myself in this; but the thing was so terrible,
and had been wrought as it were but at arm's length from me, that
for the time I did so bitterly, framing to myself all sorts of ways
in which a little care might have prevented all. As if one can ever
guard against such treachery!

And then there was the fear for Hilda, none the less troublous that
I knew not what her need might be. One could believe aught of
cruelty from Quendritha.

Only these two things remained to me--one, in some measure to
redeem my word to the mother of the king by finding his body; and
the other, to stay here and watch as well as I might for chance of
helping this one who had suddenly grown to be the best part of my
life, as it seemed to me. And these things I told Erling, for he
was my comrade, and together we had been in danger, and so were
even yet. Rough he was, but with that roughness which is somehow
full of kindness. And I was glad I had told him, for he understood,
and straightway planned for me.

Most of all the difficulty in this planning lay in the outrageous
colour of my good steed. Once we thought of tarring him; but a
tarred horse would be nearly as plain to be noticed as a skew-bald.
I think it says much for the steed that neither of us thought for a
moment of parting with him. In the end we said that we would even
take our chance, for if we were sought it would not be near the
palace.

So we bent ourselves to plan the search for where the body of the
king might be hidden, and that was to unravel a tangled skein
indeed. All we knew was that the cart which had borne him from the
end of the hidden passage had gone northward along a riverside
track. Beyond that, we guessed that it might not have gone far,
whether for fear of meeting folk in the dawning, or because the
slayers would not be willing to cumber their flight for any
distance with it. Moreover, Gymbert was in the palace, as Erling
was certain.

We would ride northward and seek what we might till the time for
meeting Selred came, working down the river toward the palace from
far up stream. Sooner or later thus we should meet with the wheel
tracks, and perhaps be able to follow them whither they went into
the woodlands from the old stream-side way which Gymbert had at
first taken.



CHAPTER XIV. HOW WILFRID HAD A FRESH CARE THRUST ON HIM.


Now we were just about to ride off the ancient road into the woods
when we heard the muffled sounds of a party coming along the way.
For a moment I thought that we were pursued, but then I knew that
whoever came was bound in the direction of the palace. The causeway
was straight as an arrow, as these old Roman roads will be, but the
track men used on its crest was not so. Here and there a great tree
had grown from acorn or beech nut, and had set wayfarers aside
since it was a sapling, to root up which was no man's business. So
we could not see who came, there being a tree and bushes at a
swerve of the way. The horses heard, and pricked up their ears, and
told us in their way that more steeds were nearing us.

"Ho!" said Erling suddenly. "Mayhap it is just as well that these
good folk should see us in flight eastward. Spur past them, and
look not back, master."

I laughed, and let my horse have his head, and glad enough he was.
Round that bend of the track we went at a swinging gallop, and saw
a dozen foresters ahead of us, bearing home some deer, left in the
woodlands wounded, no doubt, after the great hunt, on ponies. They
reined aside in haste as they saw us coming, while their beasts
reared and plunged as the thundering hoofs of our horses minded
them of liberty; and through the party we went, leaving them
shouting abuse of us so long as they could see us. And so long as
that was possible we galloped as in dire haste, nor did we draw
rein for a good mile.

Then we leaped from the causeway, and went northward through the
woodlands, sure that the chase for us would hear from the foresters
whither we were heading, and would pass on for many a mile before
they found that no other party had seen us. Whereon they would
suppose that we had struck southward to pass Worcester by the other
road, even as we had said in the hearing of the thrall in the
house.

Then I thought that the chase for us was not likely to be kept up
long, for it would grow difficult; but Erling shook his head. He
had a deadly fear of Quendritha.

Now we rode for all the forenoon in a wide curve, northward and
then westward, across the land which the long border wars had
ravaged so that we saw no man save once or twice a swineherd. More
than once we passed burned farmsteads, over whose piled ruin the
creepers were thriving; and all the old tracks were overgrown, and
had never a wheel mark on them, save ancient ruts in which the
water stood, thick with the growth of duckweed, which told of long
disuse.

And at last we came to the valley of the little Lugg river which we
sought, and then were perhaps ten miles north of Sutton and its
palace stronghold. The day had grown dull, and now and then the
rain swept up from the southwest and passed in springtime showers,
just enough to make us draw our cloaks round us for the moment,
soft and sweet. In the river the trout leaped at the May flies that
floated, fat and helpless, into their ready mouths, and the
thrushes were singing everywhere above their nests.

Those were things that I was ever wont to take pleasure in, and the
more since I had been beyond the sea. But today I had little heart
to heed them, for the heaviness of all the trouble was on me.
Maybe, however, and that I do believe, I should have been more
gloomy still had I been one of those who have no care for the
things of the land they look on, lovely as they are. I dare say
Erling the viking took pleasure in them, if he would have preferred
the wild sea birds and the thunder of the shore breakers to all
this quiet inland softness. At all events, he had no mind that I
should brood on trouble overmuch, and strove to cheer me.

"Thane," he said presently, even as I began to quest hither and
thither by the riverside for the track of the cart, which indeed I
hardly thought would have come thus far, "it seems to me that food
before search will be the better, an you please."

"Why," said I, having altogether forgotten that matter, "twice men
have told me that when Quendritha is at a man's heels he had better
not wait for aught. Yet I blame myself for having forgotten. It is
not the way for a warrior to be heedless of the supplies."

"When the warrior is a seaman also he cannot forget," quoth Erling.
"Had you bided with Thorleif for another season, you had found that
out. I have not forgotten. Dismount, and we will see what is hidden
in the saddlebags."

We went into a sheltered nook among the water-side trees, and he
brought out bread and venison enough for two meals each, and I was
glad of the rest and food. He had helped himself at breakfast, he
said, being sure that sooner or later we should have to fly the
palace.

"Well, and if we had not had to fly?" I asked.

"Betimes I wax hungry in the night," he answered, smiling broadly.
"It would not have been wasted."

When that little meal was done I leaned myself against a tree
trunk, and said naught for a time. Nor did Erling. The horses
cropped the grass quietly at a little distance, and the sound of
the water was very soothing.

The next thing that I knew was that Erling was bidding me wake, and
I opened my eyes to see that the sun was not more than two hours
from setting, and that therefore I had had a great sleep, which
indeed I needed somewhat sorely after that last night. The sky had
cleared, but here and there the rain drifted from the sky over the
hills to the west. I sprang to my feet, somewhat angry.

"You should have waked me earlier," I said. "Now it grows late for
our quest."

"About time to begin it, master," the Dane said, "if we do not want
to run our heads into parties from the palace. Maybe they will be
out also on the same business. What we seek cannot be far from
thence."

Then we mounted and rode down stream, quickly at first, with a wary
eye for any comers, searching the banks for traces of wheels,
carelessly for a few miles, and afterward more closely. But we saw
nothing more than old marks. The track ended, and we climbed the
rising ground above the river, and sought it there, found it, and
went back to the water, for no cart had newly passed to it here.
And so we went until we were but a mile or two from the palace, and
then we were fain to go carefully.

In an hour I was due in the copse to meet Selred, and then men
would be gathered in the palace yards in readiness for supper, so
that we might have little trouble in being unseen there. Now, on
the other hand, men from the forest and fields might be making
their way palaceward for the same reason.

"I would that we could find some place where we might hide the
horses for a while," I said. "What is that yonder across the
river?"

There was some sort of building there, more than half hidden in
bushes and trees. Toward it a little cattle track crossed the
water, showing that there was a ford.

"The track passes the walls, and does not go thereto," said Erling.
"It may be worth while to see if there is a shelter there."

So across the ford we rode, with the trout flicking in and out
among the horses' hoofs. The building, whatever it was, stood a
hundred yards or more from the river on a little southern slope
which had been once terraced carefully. Over the walls, which were
ruinous, the weeds grew rankly, and among them a young tree had
found a rooting. The place had been undisturbed for long years; and
I thought that it seemed as if men shunned it as haunted, for of a
certainty not a foot had gone within half arrowshot of it this
spring.

We stood in the cattle track and looked at it, doubting, for no man
cares to pass where others have feared to step for reasons not
known.

"It is an uncanny place," said Erling; "which may be all the better
for us. At any rate, we will go and look into it. Stay, though; no
need to make a plain track to it hence."

The cattle tracks bent round and about it, and as we followed one
it seemed at last to lead straight into the ruin. So we went with
it, and found the entrance to the place. Last year the cattle had
used it for a shelter, but not this, and there were no signs that
any man had followed them into it. And then I knew what the place
was, and wondered at its desertion little, for it was a Roman
villa. Any Saxon knows that the old heathen gods those hard folk
worshipped still hang about the walls where their images used to
hold sway, not now in the fair shapes they feigned for them, but as
the devils we know them to have been, horned and hoofed and tailed.
Minding which a fear came on me that the marks we took for those
made by harmless kine were of those unearthly footsteps, and I
reined back.

"What is there to fear?" said Erling--"fiends? Well, they make no
footmarks like honest cattle, surely. Moreover, I suppose that a
good Christian man need not fear them; and Odin's man will not, so
long as the horses do not. The beasts would know if aught of that
sort was about."

Whereon I made the holy sign on my breast, and rode to the gap in
the white walls which had been the doorway, and looked in. I
suppose that some half-Roman Briton had made the house after the
pattern his lords had taught him, or else that it did indeed belong
to the Roman commander of that force which kept the border, with
the Sutton camp hard by for his men. If this was so, the Briton had
kept the place up till Offa came and burnt the roof over it, for
the black charcoal of the timbers lay on the floors. Only in one
place the pavement of little square stones set in iron-hard cement
still showed in bright patches of red and black and yellow
patterning, where a rabbit had scratched aside the gathered
rubbish. Across walls and floors the brambles trailed, and the
yellow wallflower crowned the ruins of the stonework everywhere.

One could see that there had been many rooms and a courtyard, bits
of wall still marking the plan of the place. And in this one corner
there was shelter enough in a stone-floored room whose walls were
more than a man's height. The cattle had used that for long.

"This is luck," said my comrade. "Here we can leave the horses, and
if one does happen past here before dark and spies a pied skin, he
will but deem that kine are sleeping here. After dark, who will
come this way at all?"

"We shall have to," said I, somewhat doubtfully.

Erling leaped from his horse and laughed. "We may hide here for a
week if we must," he said. "I think that the trolls have all gone
to the old lands where men yet believe in them; and seeing that we
are on a good errand, your fiends should not dare come near us. I
care not if I have to come back here alone to fetch the horses when
you will."

I dismounted also, for he shamed me, and I said so. Then we tied
the steeds carefully, loosening the girths, and managed to get a
sapling or two from the undergrowth set across the door to keep
wandering cattle out. More than that we could not do, but at least
the horses were safe till we needed them, and that would hardly be
long, as we hoped. They had well fed as I slept.

Then we went away from the ruin, passing behind it up the little
slope on which it stood, meaning, if we were seen, to come down as
if we had not been near the place. And from the top of that slope
we could see the walls of the palace, with the white horse banner
of Mercia floating over them. From the roof of his villa the Roman
captain could have seen his camp, and maybe that deadly passage
into its midst was for his use. It led this way.

We waded through the ford again, and wandered down stream once
more, looking as we went for the first sign of wheel marks. I was
on the banks above the water by twenty yards, and Erling was at
their foot, close to the stream, when we had the first hope of
finding what we sought. I spied a rough farm cart standing idle and
deserted fifty yards away from me and the river, in the brushwood,
half hidden by it, as if thrust hastily there out of sight; and the
very glimpse of the thing, with its rough-hewn wheels of rounded
tree-trunk slices, iron bound, made my heart beat fast and thick,
for I feared what I might see in it.

I called Erling, and as he ran to me I pointed, and together,
without a word, we went to the cart and looked into it. It was
empty, but on its rough floor were tokens, not to be mistaken,
which told us that it was indeed the cart which Gymbert and his men
had used. And so we knew that we could not be far from the place
where they had hidden the king's body.

Now, if there had been traces of that burden which would once have
led us to its hiding place, the rain had washed them away, and we
had naught to guide us. The turf held no footmarks of men, and it
was not plain how the cart had come to this place; for men had been
hauling timber and fagots hence, so that tracks were many, and some
new. All round us was wooded, and it seemed most likely that
somewhere among the bushes they had found a place; and so for half
an hour we went to and fro, but never a sign of upturned ground did
we see.

"They brought the cart far from the place," said I presently.

And at that moment from the palace courtyard the horns called men
to their supper, and I started to find how near we were to the
walls. We had wandered onward as we searched, and it is a wonder we
had seen no man. But perhaps it was because this place was mostly
deserted, being out of the way to anywhere, that Gymbert chose it.
The traffic of the palace went along the road to Fernlea and the
ford of the host there, away from here. The carting of the wood cut
during winter was over now, and it was too near the palace for the
deer to be sought in these woods.

"Selred will be waiting me, and all men else will be within the
walls," I said. "I must go to him. Will you bide here and search,
or risk coming with me, comrade?"

"I come with you, of course," Erling answered. "The search can
wait. There is moonlight enough for us to carry it on again this
night, if we will, between these showers."

It rained again as we went through the thickets. Under cover of the
driving squalls we might pass unseen to where the little copse we
sought came close to the river. And we cloaked ourselves against
the shower, pulling the hoods over our helms. None, if we were
seen, would take us for aught but belated men hurrying to the hall.

Unseen, so far as we could tell, we came to the edge of the little
copse and entered it. The whole breadth of it lay between us and
the palace; and under its trees was pretty dark, for the sun had
set. We turned into the path where I had walked with Hilda, and I
half hoped to see the priest there, but it was lonely. Down that
path we hurried and turned the corner, but an arrow shot from the
ramparts, and again I saw no one coming.

"We must bide and wait," I said. "He will come when the men are in
hall."

"I don't like it," Erling answered, speaking quietly. "You were to
meet him at the same time as before; yet he cannot have come. None
would wonder at a priest staying out after the supper call, but
maybe men might wonder at his leaving after it had sounded."

For a quarter of an hour we walked to and fro in the wood, down one
path and up another. Then we thought that we might be following the
priest round the wood as he looked for us, and we dared not call.
The watch on the ramparts was set already. Now the loneliness of
the wood had made us bold, and we thought we had best go one each
way, and so make sure that we should find Selred if he were here.

At that time we were at the far corner of the wood, which was
square, with a path all round it and one each way across. It was a
favourite walk of Offa's during summer, men told me.

Erling turned to the left and I to the right, and we walked fast
away from each other. It was getting very dim in these overarched
paths under the great trees, but not so dim that one could not see
fairly well if any figure came down the way. There was no wind to
speak of, and it was all very silent. One could hear the noises
from the palace plainly at times, and in one place the red light
from the hall shone from a high window through the trees. Just at
this time the clouds fled from off the face of the moon, and it was
light, with that strange brightness that comes of dying day and
brightening night mingled.

I came to the corner where my path turned, and before me there was
a figure, as it were of some one who had just turned into the wood
from toward the ramparts. The way by which Selred and I came here
last night was there. And it was surely the cassocked priest
himself, though I could not see his face. I hurried toward him with
a little word of low greeting which he could hardly have heard. My
foot caught a dry twig in the path, and it cracked loudly, and with
that the figure stopped suddenly and half turned away.

Then I said, "Stay, father; it is but I."

And with that came a little cry from the figure, and it turned and
came swiftly to me.

It was Hilda herself, and how she came here alone thus I could not
guess. She had on a long black cloak which was like enough to the
garb of the chaplain to deceive me at first in the dim light, so
that I made no movement to meet her. I think that frightened her
for the moment, for she stayed, as if she doubted whether I were
indeed he whose voice she thought she knew, until I spoke her name
and went toward her.

And then in a moment she had sought the safety of my arms, and was
weeping as if she would never stop; while I tried to stay her
fears, and bid her tell me what had befallen her. And it was many a
minute before I could do that.

As we stood so Erling came hastily, having heard the hushed voices.
More than that he had heard also, for his sword was drawn. He half
halted as he saw who was here, and pointed over his shoulder toward
the palace gate, and then held up his hand to bid me hearken.

I lifted my head and did so. There were footsteps in the stillness,
and a gruff word or two, and the steps came this way, and nearer,
fast.

"Hilda," I said, "are you likely to be pursued?"

For I could think of nothing but that she had managed to fly from
Quendritha, and that perhaps Selred had bidden her seek me here.

"I cannot tell," she said, and her voice was full of terror. "Take
me hence quickly--anywhere. That terrible queen told me that you
had fled, and so thrust me out to seek you--"

I did not wait to hear more, for the steps came on. Between us
Erling and I half carried the poor maiden back toward the place
where we had entered the wood, and we went swiftly enough. Yet we
could not help the noises that footsteps must needs make in the
dark of a cover, where one cannot see to pick the way.

Nor, of course, could those who came, as they tried to follow us.
We heard them plainly entering the wood as we came to the edge of
it and passed out toward the river bank.

"We must get back to the horses, and then ride to Fernlea and the
archbishop," I said, under my breath.

"Ay, if we can," Erling answered; "but that is more easily said
than done."

He pointed to the river and up it. The moonlight was flooding all
its valley, and the last of the day still lingered in the sky. If
these men came to the place where we stood, they could see us
before we had time to get to any cover.

As we came hither we had gone easily, under the shelter of the gray
rain, because no man was at this place to spy us. It was different
now. The men were in the wood at this time as we stood and doubted.
Next we heard them running to right and left, that they might be
sure to meet whoever it was they sought; and plainly that could be
none but Hilda, unless we had been seen. Yet we could hardly have
been suspected to be any but late comers homeward.

"There is but one thing," I said suddenly. "We must cross the
river. They will be here in a moment and looking into the open."

Hilda shrunk close to me in terror, and Erling looked at the
stream. It was coming down in full volume after the rain, for up in
its hills there had been much more than here. Across the stream
were bushes enough to hide us.

"You have your mail on, and there is the lady. But it is not far;
maybe we two could manage. We can't fight these men, or we shall
have the whole place out on us like a beehive."

So said Erling, looking doubtfully at the water. I asked Hilda if
she feared, and she shivered a little, but answered that aught was
better than to bide and be taken by Quendritha.

"I can trust you," she said quietly. "Do what you will."

"Faith," said Erling, "one must do somewhat to stay these men, or
else little chance shall we have of aught but a good fight here
against odds. I count six of them by the voices. Wait a moment and
we will try somewhat. Get you to the water, thane, ready."

I set my arm round Hilda and led her to the water's edge. Erling
went to the very verge of the wood and listened for a moment. The
men from either side were nearing each other, but as yet neither
party could see the other. Then, of a sudden, Erling lifted his
voice and called, as if hastily:

"Back, back! Get round the far end--quick!"

The footsteps stopped, and voices cried in answer. Each party
thought the other called to them. Erling gave a hunter's whoop, as
if he saw the quarry, and cried them back again. Then there were a
quick rush away on either side, and more shouts, and at that Erling
came to us, laughing.

"There will be a bit of a puzzlement at the other end of the
cover," he said. "Now, master, let me see what water there is."

He stepped into it, trying the depth with his spear as he went. For
ten paces it deepened gradually, and then more quickly. He passed
on, up to his waist, then to his elbows, and so to his neck. Then
he disappeared suddenly, and Hilda almost cried out. His head came
up again in a moment, and he swam for three strokes or so, and then
he was on his feet again.

Now he turned toward us, and felt about with his spear once more,
and so walked steadily back to us--not quite in the same line, but
with the water hardly more than to his shoulders.

"It is easy enough," he said. "I did but step into a hole, and so
lost my footing. Pass me the cloaks, for we will have them over
dry."

I took his from where he left it by me, and rolled up mine and
Hilda's in it. Silently, but with a little wan smile, she took a
scarf from her neck and gave it me to tie them with. Then Erling
took them on his spear and waded back till he could toss them to
the far bank, and so turned to my help.

By that time I had taken up Hilda as best I might, holding her
high, bidding her fear not, and clutch me as little as possible.
She said nothing, being very brave, but nearly choked me once when
the water struck cold as it reached her.

The rising flood water swirled and beat on me as I went deeper and
deeper, and glad enough I was when Erling came to my side upstream
and helped to steady me. Once we stopped and swayed against the
rush for a long moment, half helpless; but we won, and struggled
on. Then a back eddy took the pressure from us, and we went more
quickly and steadily, and so found the shallows, and at last the
bank.

Thankful enough I was, for it had nearly been a matter of swimming
at one time; and if that had happened, I hardly care to think how
we should have fared.

I set Hilda down and gasped. She was not light when we started, but
with each step from the deeps to the shallows she had grown heavier
with the dragging weight of wet skirts; and that had puzzled me in
a foolish way, so that I thought that the weeds were holding her
down. Now we three stood and dripped, and were fain to laugh at one
another; while the men we had escaped from were talking loudly at
the far end of the cover, where they had met.

"That will not last long," I said; "they will be back at the
water's edge in a minute."

Thereat we took to the bushes, which were thick here, in a little
patch. Beyond them was a clear space of turf a hundred yards wide,
which we must cross to reach more wooded land, where we might go as
we pleased back to the ruin where the horses waited. Hilda went
slowly, for the wet garments clogged her, and were heavy still.

We must bide here till the men went away, or till it grew darker;
for there was no need--though they would hardly follow us--to let
them know who was with their quarry, or that she was anywhere but
on their side of the water. We might find our way to Fernlea cut
off. We took Hilda into the thicket, and crept back to see what
happened, leaving the dry cloaks with her.

The loud voices had stopped suddenly, and we knew that it meant
that the men were coming back through the wood, beating it
cautiously. We lay flat under the nut bushes and alders, watching,
and the edge of the cover was not more than an arrow flight from
us.

Presently there was a rustle in it, and a man looked out, but we
could not see much of him. He spoke to another, and then came into
the open, peering up and down the moonlit river. Another joined
him, and this newcomer wore mail which glistened as he turned. A
third man came from the other side of the wood and saw these two,
and came to them, and there they stood and wondered.

"I could swear the girl went into the wood," said one; "I saw her
plainly."

"Then she must be there still," answered the second comer. "Get
back and look again."

"We have beaten the wood as if for a hare," said the third. "Unless
she has climbed a tree she is not there."

"Well, then, look in the trees," said the mailed man, and with that
he came down to the water, and turned his face toward us.

It was Gymbert himself.

"Mayhap she has drowned herself," said one of the men sullenly.

Gymbert growled somewhat, and turned sharply, going back to the
wood. The other men looked after him, and one chuckled.

"Best thing she could do," he said. "Gymbert would surely have sold
her to the Welsh."

"Maybe made her his own slave, which were worse."

"No, but he is out of favour just now. The money she would fetch
will be more to him maybe. He dare not let Offa see him."

They turned away slowly. At least it did not seem that these two
were much in earnest in the matter. As they went, one asked the
other who cried the chase back after all.

"Some fool on the other side who doesn't care to own to it now,
seeing that he must have fancied he saw her," was the answer.

Then they turned into the wood again and were gone. Still we
waited; and it was as well, for suddenly Gymbert came back, leaping
out into the open as if he thought to surprise the lost object of
his search. He glanced up and down, and then went back. I heard him
call his men together and rate them, and so they seemed to pass
back to the palace. Their voices rose and died away, and we were
safe.



CHAPTER XV. HOW WILFRID'S SEARCH WAS REWARDED.


For ten minutes after the last voice was to be heard we waited, and
then, leaving two pools of water where we had lain, we crept back
to the open and sought Hilda. I feared to find her chilled with the
passage of the river; but, in some way which is beyond me, she had
made to herself, as it were, dry clothing of the cloak she had
given to Erling. What she had taken off had been carefully wrung
out, and lay near her in a bundle. She laughed a little when I told
her that I had been troubling about her wetness.

"What, with three dry cloaks ready for me?" she said. "I have fared
worse on many a wet ride."

Then we crossed the little meadow swiftly, and entered the
scattered trees of the riverside forest. After that we had no more
fear of Gymbert and his men, and went easily. In that time I heard
what had happened in the palace, and how this strange meeting had
come about.

"Offa the king has shut himself up, and will see no man," Hilda
said. "Nor will he go near the queen or suffer her to see him. He
has had guards set at the doors of the bower that she may not go
from it, so that she is a prisoner in her own apartments with her
ladies. The poor princess is ill, and has none but bitter words for
the queen; for all know by whose contrivance this has been done. I
heard that all our thanes had fled."

There she would have ended; but I had to hear more of herself, and
it was not easy for her to tell me. Only when Erling fell behind us
somewhat, out of thought for her, would she speak of what she had
gone through, after I had told her that her father was surely safe,
and maybe not far off.

"The queen turned on me when she was left a prisoner. I do not know
why, but I think my father had offended her in some way. I know
that he speaks too hastily at times when he is angry. First she
told me that he had slain our king, and seeing that I would not
believe it by any means, said that you had done the deed--that she
had hired you to do it. Thereat I was more angry yet, for the
saying was plainly false, and had no excuse. And because I was so
angry I think she knew that I--that I did think more of you than I
would have her know. After that I had no peace. I tried to send the
arrowhead to you by the little page who was left with the queen,
and I do not know if you had it. He told me that you were yet in
the palace."

"Ay, I did, and therefore I am here," I said.

"I was sorry afterward, for I did not know what you could do. The
page was not suffered to come back, I think, for I have not seen
him again. This morning the queen told me that you had fled, after
slaying a man of her household. So she went on tormenting me, until
I could forbear no longer, and told her to mind that my mother had
befriended her at her first coming to this land, and it was ill
done to treat her daughter thus.

"Thereat she turned deathly white, and she shook with rage, as it
seemed. At that time she said no word to me, but turned and left
me, and I was glad. Presently one of her ladies, who pitied me,
told me that Gymbert had done the deed, as all men knew by this
time, and that I was to be brave, for all this must have an end.
And that end came as the sun set. I was with the princess, and
Quendritha came in. First she spoke soothingly to Etheldrida, who
turned from the sight of her, being too sick at heart to answer
her; then she spoke to me, looking at me evilly, so that I feared
what was coming.

"'You minded me that your mother was one of our subjects,' she
said, in that terrible, cold voice of hers. 'Now I will see you
wedded safely, to one who is a friend of ours.

"'No,' she said sharply, for I was going to speak, 'you have no
choice. Whom I choose you shall wed. The man I have in my mind for
you is our good thane Gymbert.'

"I suppose that she sought an opportunity against me, and she had
her will. I do not rightly know what I said. The end of it was that
out of the palace I was to go, and she bade me seek you, Wilfrid.
It is in my mind that she meant it in insult, or that she deems you
far away, careless of what befalls me. And I think, too, that after
me she meant to send Gymbert."

Then she set both hands on my arm, and leaned on it, shaking. I
knew that she was weeping with the thought of what had been, and I
did not know what to say rightly. Only I was sure that the secret
of the queen's coming was at the bottom of this, as Quendritha must
have feared that Hilda knew it all, either from me or her father.

"Your father would not have fled had he not known that Selred and I
were to stay and look after you," I said, lamely enough. "Have you
not seen the good chaplain?"

She had not, and it seemed most likely that in some way he had been
prevented from leaving the palace. Afterwards I knew that Offa had
had all going out of the place stopped, hoping to take some man who
knew more of the secret of Ethelbert's end, if not Gymbert himself.
Hilda had been thrust out by a private postern hastily, and
doubtless Gymbert had been told where to seek her long before. I
believe it was no affair of the spur of the moment, but wrought in
revenge on Sighard and myself.

Now what more I said to Hilda at this time is no matter, but at the
end of the words I made shift to put together she knew that I could
wish no more than to guard her with my life, and for all my life,
and naught more was needed to be said between us. What we might do
next remained to be seen, but the first thing now was to get to the
archbishop, with whom we should be in safety no doubt. Even
Quendritha would not dare to take Hilda from his charge.

I had forgotten my fear of the old walls when we came to the ruined
villa. Maybe I thought thereof when I and Erling went in and found
the horses all safe and ready to take to the road again; for in one
corner of the wall among the grass shone a glow worm, and it
startled me, whereat Erling chuckled, and I remembered.

We made a pillion of my cloak, and lifted Hilda up behind me; and
so we set out in the moonlight to find our way to Fernlea, striking
away from the river somewhat at first, and then taking a track
which led in the right direction. And so for an hour we rode and
saw no man. The land slept round us, and the night was still and
warm, and I forgot the troubles that were upon us in the pleasure
of having Hilda here and safe with me.

Presently we came out of forest growth into the open, and passed a
little hut, out of whose yard a dog came and barked fiercely as we
passed. There was no sound of any man stirring in the hovel,
however, and we went on steadily. As the crow flies, Fernlea town
was not more than five miles from the palace; but we wandered
somewhat, no doubt, being nowise anxious to meet any men on the
way, and also wishing to come into the town from any direction but
that of the road from Sutton.

A quarter of a mile from the hut where the dog was we entered a
deep old track, worn with long years of timber hauling and
pack-horse travel, and under the overhanging trees it was dark
again.

Now we had not gone fifty yards down this lane when my horse grew
uneasy, snorting, and bidding me beware of somewhat, as a horse
will. Hilda knew what the steed meant, and took a tighter hold on
my belt, lest he should swerve or rear.

"'Tis a stray wolf or somewhat," said Erling from behind us. "The
horses have winded him."

Then out of the shadows under the trees came a great voice which
cried in bad Saxon, "Ay, a wolf indeed! Stand and answer for
yourselves!"

"Spurs!" I cried to Erling, and the great skew-bald shot forward.

Out of the darkness, from the overhanging banks, and seemingly from
the middle of the hollow road, rose with a roar a crowd of
white-clad dim figures and flung themselves at the bridles, and had
my sword arm helpless before ever I had time to know that they were
there. And all in a moment I knew that these were no men of
Gymbert's, but Welshmen from the hills spying on the doings of Offa
at Sutton. Some one had told me that they were in doubt as to what
his great gathering meant.

Now, if Hilda had not been with us, there would have been some sort
of a fight here in the dark, for I should certainly have drawn
sword first and spurred afterward. As it was, my only thought must
needs be to save Hilda from any harm.

"Hold hard!" I cried in Welsh; "this is a lady travelling."

"Yes, indeed," one of the men who had hold of my bridle answered;
"he says truly."

"A lady?" said the voice which had spoken first. "Let her bid her
men be still, and we will speak with her!"

Then Hilda answered very bravely, "So it shall be. Bid your men
free us, and we shall harm none."

The leader spoke in Welsh, and his men fell back from us. Then he
came to my side and asked what we did here so late. And as he spoke
it came to me that the best thing to do would be to tell him the
very truth. No more than himself were we friends of Offa and
Quendritha.

"To tell the truth, we are flying from Sutton," I said. "We
belonged to the train of Ethelbert of East Anglia."

"Why fly, then?"

"Have you heard nothing of what has been done?" I asked.

"No. We heard that there was a king with Offa; that is all."

Then I told him what our trouble was, and the men round me--for I spoke
in Welsh, learned when I was a child from our thralls--understood me;
and more than once I heard them speak low words of pity for the young
king. They had no unfriendliness for East Anglia.

"Then that is all that the gathering was for?" asked the leader.

And then he suddenly seemed suspicious, and said sharply, with his
hand on the neck of my horse:

"But to come hither from Sutton you had to cross the river. Your
horse is dry. He has not had time to shake the water from him yet."

"That is a longer story," I said. "But he was on this side; we had
to wade to reach him."

The chief set his hand on my leg and gripped it. Then he laughed.
"Reach down your arm," he said.

I did so, and he laughed again.

"Very wet," he said. "But the lady?"

"Very wet also," answered Hilda. "I pray you, sir, let us pass on,
if only for that reason. I would fain get to the archbishop at
Fernlea shortly."

"Why to him, lady?"

"Because even Quendritha will fear to take me thence."

"Eh, but you are flying from her! Then speed you well, lady and
good sirs. We have little love for Offa, but he is a warrior and a
man; whereas--Well, I will bid you promise to say no word of this
meeting, and you shall go."

That promise we gave freely, as may be supposed. If the Welsh chose
to swarm over the border and burn Sutton Palace, it might be but
just recompense for what those walls had seen; but I thought that,
with their fear of the gathering at an end, the man who had lit
yonder hillside fires would disband his levies for the time. So we
parted very good friends, in a way, and this chief bade one of his
men guide us for the mile or so which he could pass in safety. We
were closer then to Fernlea than I thought, and in half an hour we
were at the gates.

Where our Welshman left us I cannot say. Somewhere he slipped from
my side into the darkness, and when next I spoke to him there was
no answer.

Now we had to wait outside the town gates--for the place was, as
might be supposed, strongly stockaded against the Welsh--until one
went to the town reeve and fetched him, seeing that we had not the
password for the night. But at last they let us in, and took us to
the house of the reeve himself, for the archbishop was there. And
there is no need to say that when he heard our story he welcomed us
most kindly, promising Hilda his protection. There, too, the good
wife of the reeve cared for the maiden as if she were her own
daughter, and I saw her no more that night.

As for myself, I sat down at supper, which they had but half
finished, with the archbishop and his little train; and glad enough
I was of it, and I and Erling ate as famished men who do not know
when their next meal may be.

The archbishop watched us, smiling at first, and then grew
thoughtful. After I had fairly done, he said:

"My son, I thought you had come to me with news of the finding of
the body of your poor king. That is a matter which lies heavily on
my mind. It must be done."

"I think I can tell you within a few yards, father, where it must
needs be, for today I and my comrade have searched where it was
taken. We have found, at least, the cart Gymbert used, and it
cannot be far thence. We think that the cart was left close to the
hiding place."

Then one of the priests said eagerly:

"Father, the moon lies bright on all the meadows, and we might well
seek in the place the thane has found. This is a thing done at
night in most seemly wise, as I think."

"Ay," answered the archbishop thoughtfully. "Yet it were hard to
ask the thane to turn out once more."

"This is a quest which lies close to my heart, lord," I said,
rising. "I will go gladly if you will let me guide your folk."

"Yet you are weary, and need rest."

"I have slept for long hours in the open today," I said. "I am fed
and rested. Let us go."

For indeed, now that Hilda was in safety, the longing to end the
quest came on me, and I should have slept little that night for
thinking of it. Moreover, I should have no fear of Gymbert and his
men spying me, and thereby making fresh trouble.

So in the end the archbishop said that we might go, and with that
four of his priests and the reeve with half a dozen men made ready,
and in a very short time we rode out of the gates again in the
moonlight, on our way back toward Sutton. The river was between us
and the Welsh we had met, and they were not to be feared. The monks
were riding their sumpter mules, and the reeve and we were mounted
on horses from his own stable or lent by his friends, and his men
trotted after us, some bearing picks and spades.

Under the little hill whereon the palace stands we rode presently,
and I suppose that we were taken for a train of belated chapmen, or
that the guards saw we were headed by monks, and would not trouble
us. Maybe, however, the disorder of the palace had put an end for
the time to much care in watching, but at any rate we passed
without challenge.

And so we came to the riverside track which should lead us to the
end of our journey, and, as I hoped with all my heart, to the end
of our quest. Already I could see the trees under which the cart
stood.

Out of the southwest came one of those showers which had been about
all day, and which had not yet quite cleared off from the hills
round us. It drew across the face of the moon, which had been
sending our long shadows before us as if they were in as great
haste as we, and for a few minutes we stayed in the dark to let it
pass. And as it passed there came what men sometimes hold as a
marvel.

The rain left us, passing ahead of us like a dark wall, and the
moon shone out suddenly from the cloud's edge, and then across the
land leaped a great white rainbow, perfect and bright, so that one
could dimly see the seven colours which should be in its span. And
one end rested on the river bank close under the place where the
cart stood among the trees, and the other was away beyond the
forest, eastward somewhere.

"Lo," said the monk who had bidden us come, "yonder is the sign of
hope, leading us as it were the pillar of fire of Holy Writ!"

"Men say there is ever treasure hidden under the end of a rainbow,"
said the reeve; "but never yet did I meet with a man who had found
it. Yet I have never seen the like of this. I have heard that they
may be seen at night."

And so said another and another; for indeed men look to their feet
rather than to the sky at night, and thereby miss the things they
might see. But a strange thought came to my mind, and I spoke it.

"Under the end of that pillar does indeed lie the treasure we seek.
See, it is not on the wood, but on the river bank. We searched not
there, comrade."

"Ay, we shall find it there," Erling answered. "It is
Bifrost--Allfather's bridge. He takes his son home across it."

The rainbow faded and passed to the north and east with the rain,
and it went across the land through which Ethelbert had ridden so
gaily but a few days agone. Sometimes I love to think that its end
rested here and there on house or village or church which had been
the happier for the bright presence of the king, and betimes I
think that a strange fancy for a rough warrior like myself. Yet I
had ridden with Ethelbert, and the thoughts he set in the minds of
men are not as common thoughts. I hold that once I rode and spoke
with a very saint.

There fell a sort of awe and a silence on us after that. Silently
we went on up the riverside track, for I was leading with Erling,
and that strange belief that by the river we should find what we
sought would not leave me; and when we came below the place where
the cart was, I saw marks where its wheels had riven the soft earth
close to the water. Without a word I signed my companions to spread
abroad and search, and I dismounted, and with the bridle of my
horse over my arm, I went scanning each foot of the ground in the
moonlight.

Twenty yards, not more, from the water, where some winter flood had
left a wide patch of sand and little pebbles, I saw the marks of
the cart again. It had stopped there, and round the spot were deep
footprints of men. They went on for a few yards, and then there was
a little fresh-turned place. Out of that lapped a piece of cloth,
plain to be seen in the light of the moon, but easily overlooked in
the haste of those who had left it. And then I knew that I had
indeed found the king.

Now I lifted my hand, and the rest saw me, one by one, and came to
my side, and for a moment we stood still, not daring to disturb
that resting. Then I took the spade one man had, and gently turned
the gravel from that bit of cloth, and there was surety. They who
set him there had but covered him hastily, no doubt because they
heard our friends after them.

Little by little, and very reverently, we uncovered, and so took
him from that strange resting, and the water welled into the place
where he had lain. And as we thought, his head had been smitten
from his body, and it was that which we found first, wrapped in the
cloak whose end had betrayed his hiding. Yet had it not been for
the token of the rainbow we had hardly thought to seek here, so
near the water.

Men speak today of the finding of Ethelbert the saint by reason of
the pillar of fire which shone from where he was hidden, and they
tell the truth in a way, if they know not how that marvel came from
the heaven before our eyes who saw it. Let the tale be, for from
the heaven the sign came in our need and it is near enough, so that
it be not forgotten. There is many a man who has seen the like, but
not at such a time or as such a portent; and, again, for one man
who has seen the bow in the clouds over against the moon are mayhap
a thousand who may go through long lives and never set eyes
thereon. Whereby it happens that there are some who will not
believe that such a thing can be.

Now we wondered how to bear back this precious burden, until we
bethought ourselves of that cart which had been used before. Erling
and two of the reeve's men went to seek it, and it stood untouched
where we found it. Moreover, those who fled from it in haste left
the rough harness still hanging anywise from the shafts, and we
were able, therefore, to set one of the horses in it without
trouble. Then we made a bed of our cloaks in the bottom, and
thereon laid the body, covering it carefully; and so we went our
way toward Fernlea, silently and slowly, but with hearts somewhat
lightened, for we had done what we might.

But yet I have to tell somewhat strange of this journey, and how it
came about I do not rightly know. Nor will I answer for the truth
of it all, for part of that I must set down I did not see for
myself; only the priests told me, and they heard it from the men
who did see.

This cart was old and crazy. I think that Gymbert must have taken
it from some deserted farm, whence it would not be missed. It was
open behind, and its wheels were bad. Still it served us; and glad
enough we were of it, for the road was rough, and heavy with the
rain of the day. It pained me to see the thing jolting and lurching
as it went, knowing how little it befitted that which it was
honoured in bearing.

Presently out of the roadside rose up a man, and joined us.

"Good sirs," he said, "I am a blind man, and would fain be led to
Fernlea. May I go with you so far as the road you take lies in that
direction?"

"Truly, my son," said the eldest priest. "But you are afoot late."

"'Tis a priest speaks to me, as I hear," said the man, doffing his
cap in the direction of the voice and laughing gently. "Is it so
late, father? Well, I have thought so, for there seem to be few men
about. Yet I slept alone in a shed last night, and know not for how
long. I think I have also slept some of today, for I am out of
count of the hours. There is neither dark nor light for me."

He fell back and walked after the cart, saying no more. Now and
then I heard his stick tapping the stones of the way, and once one
of our men helped him in a rough place, and he thanked him.

Now we came to a terribly bad place in the road, and there the cart
seemed like to break down; and it was the worse for us that a cloud
came over the moon at the time, and it was very dark. Whereby the
blind man was of much help in the care for the cart, until the moon
shone out again suddenly, when he was left behind us for a few
minutes. Then we heard him calling.

"Two of you help the poor soul," said the reeve, "else he will
hardly get across that slough. He has fallen, I think."

He named two of his own men, and they went back. After a while the
blind man's voice came again, and he seemed to be shouting
joyfully. I thought it was by reason of the help that came to him.

"Thane," said the eldest priest to me just at this time, "I pray
you ride on and tell the archbishop that you have indeed found what
we sought. It is but right that all should be ready against the
time we get back. We are not more than a mile away from the gates,
and you will have time. This is slow travelling, perforce."

Erling and I rode on with the reeve, therefore, and I thought no
more of the blind man, as one may suppose, until I heard what had
happened.

When the two men went back to his help, he sat again by the side of
the road, hiding his face in his hands on his knees. And he was
trembling.

"Friends," he said, "now I know why you go so sadly, welladay! For
evil men have slain some one young and well favoured, as I learned
even now, when I helped you yonder. Tell me what has befallen, I
pray you, for I am afeard."

"Why," said one of the men, "we are honest folk, as our being with
the good fathers may be surety. The trouble is ours to bear."

But the blind man still kept his eyes hidden, and when the other
man bade him rise and come on with them he did not move.

"I know not what ails me," he said. "Even as I set my hand on him
you bear yonder, there came as it were a great flash of light
across my eyes, and needs must I fall away and hide them. I fear
that, not you, friends. I pray you, tell me what has been wrought."

"His foes have slain a bridegroom, most cruelly," one of the men
answered after a pause. "We do but bear him to Fernlea."

"What bridegroom?" he asked, in a hushed voice.

And then the pity of the thing came to him, and he wept silently.
Presently he raised his head, dashing away the tears as he did so.

"It is a many years since these eyes of mine have wept," he said.
"It seems to me that to weep for the woes of another is a wondrous
thing."

His eyes of a sudden opened widely in the moonlight, and he cried
out and clutched at the man next him.

"Brothers! brothers!" he said; "what is this?"

And again he set his hand to his eyes as if shading them, as does a
man at noontide.

"What ails you?" one of the men asked, wondering.

"I have no ailment--none. I see once more!" he cried. "Look you,
yonder is the blessed moon, and there lies a broken tree; and see,
there are fires on the hills of the Welshmen!"

Then with both hands wide before him he said:

"Now I see that I have set my hands on one who can be naught but a
saint most holy, for therefrom I have my sight again. Who is this
that has been slain?"

The men answered him, telling him. The blind man had heard, of
course, of the poor young king, and had, indeed, been brought
hither from wherever he lived that he might share in the largess of
the wedding day.

Now the men would go their way with him again, wondering, but yet
half doubting the truth of what the man said.

"It is in my mind that you have not been so blind as you would have
us think," said one, growling.

The man pointed at the cart as it went.

"Would I lie in that presence?" he said.

And with that he broke into the song I had heard. Some old chant of
victory it was, which he made to fit his case, being somewhat of a
gleeman, as so many of these wanderers are. And there the men left
him in the road, singing and careless of aught save his recovered
sight, and hastened after the party.

Yet it was not until the next day that they told the tale, and
whether the once blind man was ever found again I cannot tell; but
I have set this down as I knew of it, because it was the first of
many healings wrought by the saint we loved. I ken well that the
tale is told nowadays in a more awesome way; but let that pass.
Tales of wonder grow ever more strange as the years go on.

Men call Ethelbert a martyr now, I suppose because he was slain.
That is not quite what we mean by a martyr, for that is one who
gives up his life rather than deny his Lord. Yet Ethelbert was
indeed a witness to the faith all his life, and so the name may
stand.

So presently they brought back the body to Fernlea, and its resting
was ready in the little church which had come into the strange
dream by the riverside. And I knew, as I watched by it all the rest
of that night till the hour of prime, that this was what the vision
foreboded.



CHAPTER XVI. HOW WILFRID SPOKE ONCE MORE WITH OFFA.


Now that I had Hilda safe with the archbishop, it mattered nothing
to me if all the world knew that I was yet here. So when Ealdwulf,
the archbishop himself, asked me to ride with him to Sutton Palace
and tell Offa of the finding, I said that I was most willing. I
should see Selred, and maybe bring him away with me, and at least
could tell him that all was well with Hilda.

I will say now that she was none the worse for the wetting and the
rest of last night's doings, but that I saw her come fresh and
bright to the breakfast in the little hall of the reeve's house.
There she would bide till she could go with the archbishop
homewards in some way, most likely from nunnery to nunnery across
the land, as ladies will often travel, with parties of the holy
women--that is, if Sighard was not to be found. In my own mind I
thought that he would not be far off, most likely with Witred, the
Mercian thane who had arranged the flight.

Presently, therefore, we rode away from Fernlea toward Sutton,
there being but one priest with the archbishop, and six of the
townsmen, besides Erling and myself. It was no state visit, but the
going of one who would speak with an erring friend in private.
Sorely downcast was the good man, for he loved Offa well, and this
terrible wrong lay heavily on his heart.

Halfway or so to Sutton we passed the place where trees were thick,
and I saw a man lurking among them as if he was watching the road.
Wherefore I watched him, and presently saw that he was coming to
us, as if half afraid. Somehow the walk and figure of this man
seemed known to me, though his face was strange, and I thought that
he made for myself. Soon I knew that this was indeed the case; for
finding that there were none whom he need fear in the party, the
man came boldly from the trees, and, cap in hand, stood by the
wayside waiting me.

"Well, friend, what is it?" I asked, as he walked alongside my
horse.

He answered in Welsh, and then I knew that he was the guide we had
been given last night.

"Jefan ap Huwal the prince sends greeting to the thane on the pied
horse, and bids him and the lady come to him if there is need for
help. He has heard that the thane serves the Frankish king who
hates Saxons beyond the seas, and thinks that mayhap he has foes
here in Mercia."

"Thank your prince from me," I answered, after a moment's thought,
in which it came to me that no offer of friendship was to be
scorned, "and tell him that if need is I will not forget. Tell him
also that, thanks to him, the lady is safe and well, and that I
have no fear at present."

"That, said Jefan, is what a thane would answer," said the man.
"Whereon I was to tell you that yonder evil queen was to be feared
the most when she seemed to be the least dangerous. He wits well
that she is shut up."

Then it seemed plain that the Welsh prince had spies pretty nearly
inside the palace; which is not at all unlikely. However, I said
nothing of that, and thanked the man again, looking to see him
leave me. The archbishop had ridden on with the rest, for I went
slowly, to talk to the Welshman. Still the man did not go, and he
had more to say.

"Also I was to tell you that he had a chief of your folk in his
hands. But that he deems that he belongs to East Anglia, he would
have set him in chains. He is hurt, and is in our camp, free, save
for his promise not to escape. His name is Sighard."

"Sighard?" I said. "How came he in your hands?"

"He came over the border, lord, and we had him straightway," said
the man simply. "Methinks there were men after him."

"Where is he?" said I, anxiously enough. "He can pay ransom."

"He is ill," said the man; "he cries for his daughter. Jefan thinks
that he is that thane whose daughter was in our hands last night
with you."

"Ill?" said I; "is he much hurt?"

"There had been a bit of a fight before we took him. One smote him
on the helm, and he was stunned. Thereafter he came to himself, and
again fell ill. He will mend, for it is naught."

"But where is he?"

"We have many camps, and I cannot tell you. You are a stranger.
But, says Jefan the prince, an you will come to him I am to guide
you."

Now I was in doubt indeed, for this was a dangerous errand. The man
saw that I hesitated, and smiled at me.

"Wise is our prince," he said. "He knew that you would fear to
come, therefore he bade me say that you were to mind that once he
had you, and set you free, and that he does not go back on his
doings, save he must. He has no enmity for the friends of the slain
king, but a great hatred for him who slew him."

"Would he not let Sighard the thane come to Fernlea, where his
daughter is?"

"Truly, if you will. But it is safer for you to come to him. There
Jefan will have all care for all of you until he may send you home.
It is told him that Quendritha has sworn the death of four men--of
the thane who rides the great pied horse, of his housecarl, of
Sighard of Anglia, and of Witred of Bradley, who helped the
Anglians to escape."

"How knows he all this? It is more than I have heard--if I have
guessed some of it."

The man shrugged his shoulders.

"Thane," he said, with a sidewise smile, "a man who is thrall to a
Mercian may yet be a Briton. The Saxon may make a slave of his
body, but his heart will be free."

Now I was the more sure that this Welsh prince had some good source
of knowledge of what went on inside the palace, and I thought that
mayhap he was right. Across the Welsh border might indeed be the
safest place for any man who had brought the wrath of the queen on
him. I would go to Sighard, and take Hilda with me. One thing I was
fairly glad of, and that was that so far as I knew none in all the
court of Offa had heard who my folk in Wessex were, else there
might be trouble for them; for Quendritha's daughter was not unlike
her mother, if all I heard was true.

"Meet me tonight, then," I said. "I will go to Jefan, and will
bring the lady."

"You do well," he answered gravely. "I will meet you somewhere on
the westward track, a mile from Fernlea ford. You shall but ride on
till I come. You shall choose your own time, for I cannot tell what
may stay you. I have naught to do but wait. If you meet other
Britons, tell them that you seek the prince, and they will pass you
on. If so be you come not tonight, I will wait for another, and yet
another. After that--"

"If we do not come, what then?"

"Doubtless we shall burn Sutton walls. A curse lies thereon now,
and it may be that we shall wreak it."

With that he leaped across the brook which ran by the road, and
passed into shelter. Then I turned to Erling, who waited for me
across the road, and asked if he had understood what was said.

"Ay, all," he answered. "It is good enough; otherwise I might have
put in a word. This Jefan has the name for an honest man, as I have
ever heard."

"The one thing about it that I mislike is that we seem to be
running away from hearsay," I said.

"Mighty little hearsay was that which set Sighard flying across the
border, I take it," Erling answered. "Seeing that you have no more
to keep you here, it is about time we went also. We have foes we
cannot see, and are in a land of which we know not a foot. Jefan
will help us to ken the foe, and will guide us when we need it."

Now of all things which I had in my mind, the first seemed to me to
be that I must ride eastward with Hilda and see the mother of the
slain king, to give what account I might of that charge she had
laid on me. But if Sighard had been prevented from getting
homeward, it was certain that so should I. Wherefore we should not
be watched for on any westward road, and that way, at least, was
open. Thence we might find our way when the days wore on and
Sighard could travel. That remained to be seen; and, take it all
round, I was more easy than I had been.

So also seemed the archbishop presently, when I told him the
message I had had. And he agreed with us that we might do worse
than go to Jefan at once with Hilda; matters being as they were, it
was not safe in Mercia.

"He is a good prince and honourable," he said; "and if I say that,
I speak of one who is the foe of our folk. He has suffered much
from us, and has cause for enmity with Offa--and maybe with
Quendritha. I can say plainly now that her restless longing for
power has kept our armies busy many a time when they had been
better at rest."

He sighed; and then came somewhat which turned our thoughts, and no
more was said at the time, either of Quendritha or of my doings.
For now we were in sight of the palace on its little hill, and from
its gates came toward us a train of folk, guarded by men of Offa's
own housecarls in front and rear, as if those who travelled were no
common wayfarers. In the midst of all was a closed horse litter,
beside which rode two or three veiled and hooded ladies and a
priest. Save the captain of the guards, there was no thane with the
party, and but a few pack horses followed them, and I thought it
would be some abbess, perhaps, who was leaving the palace.

We drew up on the roadside to let this train pass, though I suppose
that by all right the archbishop might have claimed the crown of
the way for himself, had he been other than the humble-minded man
that he was. As the leading guards passed us they saluted in all
due form; and then one of the ladies knew who was here, and bent to
the litter, and so turned and spoke to the captain, who straightway
called a halt, and came, helm in hand, to the archbishop, praying
him to speak with the lady who was in his charge.

Who this was I did not hear, but I saw the face of the good man
change, and he hurried to dismount and go to the litter. And
thence, after a word or two had passed, came the priest I had seen;
and when he uncowled I knew him for my friend Selred, and glad I
was to see him.

"Why, how goes it, father?" I said, as my hand met his. "You were
not in the wood of our tryst, and I feared that you were in
trouble."

Very gravely he shook his head, looking sadly at me.

"There is naught but trouble in all this place," he said. "I could
not come to you, for the gates were closed early, that Gymbert
might be taken. He was not taken. And yet I have heavier trouble to
tell you than you can think."

"No, father," I said quickly, seeing that he had learned too
little, and doubtless believed Hilda either drowned or else in the
hands of Gymbert and his men--whichever tale Quendritha had been
told or chose to tell him.

"I was in the wood, and thither came the lady we ken of when she
was set forth from the place. I was in time to get her away, and
she is safe."

It was wonderful to see the face of the chaplain lighten at this.

"Laus Deo," he said under his breath, and his hand sought mine
again and gripped it. "That is a terrible load off my heart," he
said. "Yet I have heard that our good Sighard is slain. They have
burned the hall of honest Witred over his head, and he is gone, and
it was said that Sighard fell there with him."

"It is not half an hour ago that I heard how he fled to the west,
where the Welsh saved him, for hatred of Offa and pity for the
betrayed Anglian king. He is safe, if a little hurt."

Now the horse of Erling reared suddenly, and I looked up. It was
still in a moment, and he spoke to it without heeding me. But as
soon as he caught my eye when I first turned, he set his hand
carelessly across his lips, and I knew what he meant. I had better
say no more of where Sighard was or how I hoped to see him.

So I said what I had to tell him of the finding of the king, and
how we had come to tell Offa thereof; and as he heard, Selred the
chaplain knelt there by the roadside and gave thanks openly, with
the tears of joy in his eyes. The rough housecarls heard also, and
there went a word or two among them; and their grim faces
lightened, for one shame, at least, had been taken from the house
of their master.

Now there was a sound as of a woman's weeping from the litter, and
Selred heard it and rose to his feet.

"It is Etheldrida the princess," he whispered to me. "She is flying
to some far nunnery--mayhap to Crowland--that there she may end her
days in what peace she may find. It is well, for here with her
mother is but terror for her."

The archbishop signed to me, and I went to the side of that litter,
unhelming, while Erling took my horse's bridle. There I knelt on
one knee, and waited for what I was to hear. It was a little while
before that came, but the sobs were at length stilled. I heard one
of the ladies, who were those who came from East Anglia, say to the
other that it was good that she had wept at last.

And presently from behind the curtains of the litter the princess
spoke to me, very low, and I do not think any other heard.

"Good friend of him whom I loved, I thank you for your loyalty to
him. The archbishop has told me, and you have given me back a
little of my trust in men. I had deemed that all were false for
aye, but for you, I think. Now I go hence, and beyond the walls of
some nunnery I shall never pass, and there I will pray for you
also. And for you there shall be happy days to come, in the meed of
utmost loyalty."

I could not answer her, and still I knelt, for there was somewhat
needed to come ere I could part from her without a word. But before
I could frame aught she set her hand through the curtains, and in
it was somewhat small, as it were a silken case cunningly woven
round a little jewel, perchance.

"There was none whom I would ask to do what I longed for," she
said; "but now it will be done. I pray you set this on his heart,
that it may go to his grave with him."

"There it shall most surely be, lady," I said. "I am honoured in
the duty."

"Go!" she said faintly; "and farewell."

I rose up hastily, and went back to my horse, while the lady who
had spoken just now busied herself in caring for her mistress.
Selred took my arm and walked aside with me.

"You must not come back to East Anglia," he said. "I know that you
would fain see the lady of Thetford, but it were useless danger for
you. I will tell her all that you have done, now; and if in after
days you may come to us, do so. Bide and tend Sighard and Hilda,
and mind that there is sore peril to both of them so long as
Quendritha lives. She is shut up now, but all the more has her mind
freedom to plan and plot the fall of those who have seen her at her
worst. One cannot shut up such a woman as she, but she will have
her ways of learning all she will, and her tools are many."

"I would that you could bide here," I said.

"I also; but I must pass eastward with this poor lady and these
others. Yet I am sure that Offa will do all honour to our king. He
has been seen by none as yet save his pages. They whisper that he
is fasting, and bowed with shame and grief."

For a little longer we spoke, and then we must part. The sad train
of the princess went on, and swung into the eastward track which
she would take, and the archbishop signed to us to follow him. And
that was the last which any man in Mercia saw of the fair princess
who had been the pride of the land, for she came safely to far
Crowland, in the fenland, and there pined and died.

It is said that the parting between her and her terrible mother was
such that men will tell little thereof. I know that in that time
some strange gift of prophecy came over the maiden, and she
foretold the death of her who planned the deed, even to the day,
and the awesome manner of it; and that also she wept for the
knowledge given her that the deed should bring the end of the line
of Offa and the fall of Mercia--things which no man could think
possible at this time, so that she seemed to rave. More things
strange and terrible, I heard also, but them I will not set down.
Mayhap they were not true.

Now we went on slowly up the hill, and at last rode into the gates.
There men loitered idly, as yesterday; for the head of the house
sat silent and moody in his chamber, and none had orders for aught.
Across the court we went to the priests' lodgings, and thence came
the chaplains to meet their lord, and with him I was taken into the
house.

"I have come to see the king," said the archbishop; "take me to him
straightway."

"He will see none," they said; "it is his word that no man shall
disturb him."

"If he will hear what shall make his heart less heavy, he will see
me," said the archbishop. "Tell him that I have news for him. Or
stay; I will go to him myself."

The priests looked at one another, but they could not stop their
lord; and with a sign to us to follow, he passed across the court
again, up the long hall, and so into the council chamber. At the
door which led to Offa's apartments there was a young thane on
guard, but no others were to be seen. I suppose that never before
had Offa been so ill attended, for the very courtiers feared what
curse should light on the place and all who bided in it.

"Tell your lord that I demand audience with him," said the
archbishop to this thane. "The matter will not wait; it is urgent."

The youth rose and bowed, and passed within the door. In a moment
or two he was back again, throwing the door open for us.

"Yourself and no other, lord," he said.

"I take these two," answered Ealdwulf the archbishop. "I will
answer to the king for their presence."

So we two, Erling and I, followed him into the chamber of the king;
and with my first glance at Offa there fell on me a great pity for
him.

He sat at a great heavy table in a carven chair, leaning his
crossed arms before him on the board, and staring at naught with
hollow, black-ringed eyes, as of sleeplessness and grief. His face
was wan and drawn, so that he seemed ten years or more older than
when last he sat in hall with us; and he was clad in the same
clothes which he wore when he came forth to us on the morning of
terror. None had dared to touch aught in his room; and bent and
soiled among the rushes on the floor lay the little gold crown
which he wore at the last feast, as if he had swept it from the
table out of his sight, and had spurned it from him thereafter in
some fit of passion. Hard by that lay a broken sword, and its hilt
flashed and sparkled with the gems I had noted in the hall. It was
his own.

On the table was neither wine nor food, but there was a great book,
silver covered and golden lettered, and it was open at a place
where a wondrous picture in many hues showed a king who seemed to
humble himself in fear before a long-robed man priestlike.

He did not stir when we came in, nor did he say a word. Only he
looked at Ealdwulf, as it were blindly, waiting what he should hear
from his lips. And into his look there crept somewhat like fear.

But there was naught terrible or hard in the face which he looked
on; it had but deepest sorrow and pity.

"My king," said Ealdwulf, seeing that he must needs speak first,
"here is one who has a word for you. I think that you will be glad
to hear it. Know you where the body of Ethelbert was hidden?"

"No," said the king in a dull voice. "My men search even now. It is
all that I can do."

Then Ealdwulf bade me tell the story of the finding, and I did so.
Yet the look of Offa never brightened as he heard, nor did he ask
me one question.

"It is well," he said, when I had no more to say, and his fingers
moved restlessly on the table.

But he did not look in my face, nor had he done so since I came
before him. I stood back, and Ealdwulf was alone near him.

"My son," said the old man, "my son, this has not been your doing.
I will not believe that."

Offa set his hand on the great book with its picture.

"As much my doing as the slaying of the Hittite by David the king.
It was planned, and I hindered it not."

Then he set his hands to his face, and his voice softened. And at
that I passed silently from the room, leaving those two together,
for this was not a meeting in which I had wish to meddle. Erling
came with me, and we sat in the council chamber for half an hour,
waiting.

Presently--after the young thane had told us how that Quendritha
was closely guarded, and that the voice of all blamed her utterly
for every wrong that had been wrought in Mercia for many a long
year, now that the fear of her was somewhat passed--Erling rose up.

"With your leave, thane," he said to me, "we have a few things left
here, and our other horses still stand in the stable. It is in my
mind to see what I can take back with me."

We went out together, for the stillness and waiting grew wearisome.
There were none of the pleasant sounds of the household at work or
sport in all the palace. It was as a place stricken with some
plague.

So we passed through the church to our lodging, and took our few
goods, and Sighard's, and so went with them to the long stables
where our two spare horses stood in idleness. The rows of stalls
were well-nigh empty now, those who had gone having taken their
steeds.

"I wonder ours are left," quoth Erling. "These Mercians are more
honest than some folk I know."

He called the grooms, and we made ready, taking the horses out to
where the folk of the archbishop waited in the sunny courtyard, and
there leaving them. Then we went back to the council chamber, and
again waited for what seemed a long time. The young thane had a
meal brought for us there.

Presently Ealdwulf himself came to the door and called me softly,
and I followed him back to the presence of the king. I cannot tell
what had passed between those two, nor do I suppose that any man
will ever know; but Offa was more himself, save that on his face
was a deep sadness, and no trace of hardness or pride therewith.

"Friend," he said, "is it your duty to go back to Carl the Great?"

"I have left his service, King Offa; I am on my way homeward. It
was but by the kindness of Ethelbert, to whom I helped bear
messages, that I came hither."

"Well," he said, "I will not hinder you. Had you gone back, I would
have asked you to tell him plainly all of this. As it is, Ealdwulf
shall send churchmen to tell him; I would have him know the truth.
Now I must thank you for this that you did last night, and tell you
what shall be done in atonement for the death of your friend."

There he checked himself and bit his lip.

"Nay," he said unsteadily, "there is no atonement possible. There
is but left to me the power of showing that I do repent, and will
have all men know it for aye. There shall be at Fernlea, where he
will lie in his last sleep, the greatest cathedral that has been
seen or heard of in this land, and men shall hail him as the very
saint that you and I knew him to be; and after his name shall it be
called, and in it shall be all due service of priest and choir for
him till time shall end it. What more may I do?"

"I think that the place where his body lay should not be left
unmarked," I said boldly, for so it had seemed to me. "May not
somewhat be done there, that the spot may be kept?"

"Ay, at Marden," he said eagerly, as if he did but long to do all
that he might, "there also shall be a church, that it may be held
holy for all time. It shall be seen to at once."

After that promise Offa bade me farewell sadly enough, and I was
glad to leave the chamber. Nor had we long to wait before Ealdwulf
came out, and we were once more turning our backs on the palace of
Sutton. On its walls I never set eyes again, nor did I wish to do
so.

As we went in leisurely wise back to Fernlea, the archbishop told
me those few things which I have set down concerning the way in
which Quendritha had beguiled the king into suffering the thought
of this deed of shame. No more than was needful for me to
understand how little part, indeed, Offa had had in the matter did
he tell me, for all else that had passed between those two was not
to be told. Both he and I think that had the evil queen left the
doing of her deed until morning it had never been wrought, for Offa
would have come to himself.

Yet one cannot tell. What Quendritha had set her heart on was apt
to be carried through, even to the bitterest of endings for those
who were in her way thereto. How she would fare now Ealdwulf could
not tell me. It was true that she was almost imprisoned, as I have
said, but none could tell whether that would last. Yet he thought,
indeed, that Offa would have no more to do with her.

So we came back to Fernlea, and when I saw the little church I
minded once more that strange dream of the poor young king's. I had
heard the words which told that it would come to pass. Nor was
there any doubt now in my mind that all those things which we had
deemed omens were indeed so. The fears we had tried to laugh at
were more than justified.



CHAPTER XVII. HOW WILFRID AND HIS CHARGE MET JEFAN THE PRINCE.


Now I went straightway to Hilda with the news of her father,
telling her that it seemed almost the best for us to trust to the
word of the Welsh prince, and go to him, rather than to risk a
journey hither for the thane if he was wounded.

"I trust you altogether, Wilfrid," she said. "Take me to him. I
know that you have bided here in sore risk for me, and maybe you
also will be safer if once we are across the Wye. The Welsh are not
the foes of East Anglia."

I did not tell her that they were very much so of Wessex, on our
western border; for at all events ours were Cornish, who had not so
much to do with their brothers beyond the Channel here. So, having
bidden her keep up heart, I sought the wife of the reeve, and would
have given her gold to buy such things as she might think Hilda
needed for travel.

"Dear heart!" she said, bridling, "set your gold back in your
pouch. May not the reeve's wife of Fernlea give of her plenty to
one so fair and hapless? I will see to that in all good time."

She stood by a great press against the wall, and as she spoke, as
if by chance, she swung the door open, so that I had a glimpse of
the mighty piles of homespun cloth and linen, her pride, which lay
therein, Truly she had to spare, and I laughed.

"Mistress," I said, "be not offended. I am in haste, for we must go
hence tonight. There is no time for planning and cutting and
making."

She turned, swinging the heavy press door to and fro.

"Tonight!" she said, with wide eyes; "why so hasty?"

"Because her father lies wounded across the Wye, and we have to go
to him. Maybe we shall have to ransom him."

"Man," she cried, "those Welsh are swarming beyond the river. Ken
you what you are doing with this poor damsel?"

"Ay," answered I plainly: "I am taking her out of the way of
Quendritha and of Gymbert. I have the word of Jefan the prince for
our safety."

"Get to him," she said at once, "get to him straightway; he is
honest. And on my word, if Gymbert is the man you saved her from
last night, there is no time to be lost."

"He does not know where she has gone."

"Did not," she said. "By this time he kens well enough. Go, and all
shall be ready."

I thanked her heartily, for she was a friend in need in all truth.
And then I sought her husband, and told him what we must do. I do
not know if I were the more pleased or disquieted when he said much
the same as his wife. He would have us go from the town after the
gates were shut, and he himself would see us across the ford. Once
beyond that he did not think there was any risk. Most likely Jefan
and his men were on Dynedor hill fort, their nearest post to the
river, for he had seen a fire there. What he did fear was that
Gymbert had his spies in the town, and would beset all the roads.

"He cares naught for reeve--or for archbishop either, for that
matter," he said. "He has half the outlaws on these marches at his
beck and call, and one has to pay him for quiet. Nor dare any man
complain, for he is the servant of Quendritha."

So his advice also was that the sooner we were gone the better. I
have somewhat of a suspicion that he half feared that his house
should be burned over his head, like Witred's. It seems that when
the archbishop came back here from Sutton he excommunicated, with
all solemnity, every man who had aught to do with that deed of
which he had been told. Wherefore Gymbert, if he cared aught for
the wrath of the Church, might be desperate, and would heed little
whom he destroyed, so that he ended those he meant to harm.

Then I called Erling, and we planned all that we might for going,
and after that we two went into the little church where lay
Ethelbert the king. There was silence in it, and little light save
for two tall tapers which burned at the head of the bier on which
he lay, but I could see that all had been made ready against his
showing to the people on the morrow. A priest sat on either side of
the bier's head, and one of them read softly, so that I had not
heard him at first. So I stood and looked in the face which was so
calm, and then knelt and prayed there for a little time.

When I rose I was aware for the first time that behind me knelt
Erling, but he did not rise with me. He stayed as he was, and in
the light of the tall tapers was somewhat which glistened on the
rough cheeks of the viking. I knew that he had been mightily taken
with the way of Ethelbert on our long ride with him; but he was
silent, and said little at any time of what his thoughts were. I
had not thought to see him so moved. Now he looked up at me as it
were wistfully, and spoke to me, yet on his knees:

"Master, this poor king, who talked with me as we rode, bade me be
a Christian man, that hereafter we might meet again. And you ken
that I saw him, and how he spoke to me, that night when he was
slain, so that from me you learned his death. Now I would do his
bidding, and so be christened straightway, if so it may be."

I did not know what to answer, for it was sudden.

Not that I was much surprised, for Erling had ever been most
careful of all that might offend in his way when he came into a
church with me, but that here in the dim church the question came
so strangely and, as it were, fittingly. I held out my hand to him,
and looked round to the priests, who had heard all. One of them was
that elder man who went to seek the king's body with us, and he
rose up and came to us, and bade us into the little bare sacristy
apart.

"My son," he said to Erling, "it is a good and fitting wish; yet I
would not have you do aught hastily. How long has this matter been
in your mind?"

"I think that it indeed began long years ago, when my lord here
kept his faith with Thorleif when he might have escaped. That made
me think well of Christian men. He had not so much as taken oath."

"Carl the Great would christen a heathen man first and teach him
afterward," said I, meaning indeed to help on Erling's hope without
bringing my own name into the matter thus, and minding Carl's rough
way with the Saxon folk.

"Carl's man has taught first, and that all unknowing," he said,
smiling. "I do not know what he speaks of, but it has been worth
doing."

"I only kept my word, father, as a Saxon should."

"As a Saxon Christian has been taught to keep it, by his faith,
rather," he answered, smiling at me. "Well, well, so may it be.

"Now, my son, you will need many a long day's teaching, mayhap."

"I think not, father," said Erling. "I have been in Wales, and
there I learned well-nigh enough. They gave me the prime signing
there. You have but my word for it, but Ethelbert himself said that
an I would be baptized he would stand sponsor for me. He said it as
we rode on the day of the great mist, when it chanced that all of
us must pray together. He saw me make the holy sign, and asked
presently if it was that of Thor. And I told him that in Wales I
was what they call a catechumen. I mind me that so ran the word for
one prime signed."

"And thereafter he spoke to you?"

"He said many and wondrous things to me."

I minded how often Ethelbert had spoken with Erling. I had deemed
that he did but ask him questions of Denmark, as once he did in my
hearing at the first.

So I wondered. But the old priest asked Erling to say the creed,
and that he did well, and with a sort of gladness on him. After
which the good father said that tomorrow should surely be the
baptism, in all form.

"Nay, but here and now," begged Erling. "Tomorrow I must be away
with my master beyond the river, and I would fain be christened
here--in yon presence."

"Ay; why not," said the old priest, half to himself, "why not? Yet
I will fetch the archbishop."

He led the way back into the church, and we entered just below the
sanctuary steps. In the little chancel lay the king; and almost in
shadow, for no window light fell on it, the font stood at the
entering in of the nave, opposite the one south door.

"See," said the priest, "some one has come in. Maybe he seeks you
twain."

I looked toward the door, and dimly I saw a tall figure standing
close to the font, but I could not see who it was. Erling knew him.

"It is Ethelbert," he said very quietly; "he said he would be my
godfather."

The priest set his hand on my arm and half shrank back. The other
priest lifted his eyes from his book, and so bided, motionless. But
I did not rightly take in what they meant, and looked more closely.
Then some stray gleam of light from the broken sky overhead came
into the door, and it shone round the tall and gracious figure--and
it was that of Ethelbert himself.

I saw him, and there he bided while he turned his face to us,
smiling at us. And so he set his hand on the font, and smiled
again, and was gone.

"Brother," said the seated priest, "did you see?"

"I saw, and I think it is but the first of many wonders which we
may see here."

Now we stayed there still and hardly daring to move, looking yet
for the king to be yonder again, but we saw no more. Then at last
the priest begged me to go to the archbishop and bring him, telling
him what had happened. I went, and when Ealdwulf came there was no
more delay, but where the form of Ethelbert had stood there stood
Erling, and was baptized by the archbishop, I and the old priest
standing for him. And thereafter he knelt at the steps of the
sanctuary, and on him the hands of the archbishop were laid in his
confirmation.

That was the most wonderful baptism I have ever seen, and it bides
in my mind ever as I see another, even if it be but of a little
babe of thrall or forester, so that for a time I seem to stand in
the church at Fernlea once more, and hear the voice of Erling as he
made his answers firmly and truly. Betimes it seems to me that it
was but longing and the work of minds in many ways overwrought
which showed us the form of the dead king there by the font--and I
cannot tell. Yet the watching priest saw, besides us three who had
searched for him.

Presently, on the morrow, and again in days later, when the body of
the king lay for the people to pass and see, and when it was taken
with all pomp to its resting in the great new cathedral which men
call that of Hereford, there were many healings and the like, as
they tell me. And at Marden, where Offa built at once the little
church which should mark where Ethelbert was hidden, that water
which welled from the place whence we took him healed many.

Now we went forth from the church for a little while, and presently
I went back alone and placed the little gift which Etheldrida had
given me on the breast of the king, hiding it next his heart in his
robes. I had learned that they would not be moved again. Ealdwulf
knew that I had done it, and when I came back to him, where he
talked yet with Erling in the reeve's chamber, he asked me if I
knew what the little case held. I did not, and that is known to
none save to her who gave it me.

"I think that you two will value this more than other men," he said
then.

And with that he gave us each a little silken bag, square, with a
cross and a letter E worked thereon. He had cut for us each a lock
from the head of Ethelbert, and had it set hastily thus for us. And
he was right as to the way in which we held it of more worth than
aught else. Hilda wrought the little cases as she sat waiting in
the house. It is my word that mine shall go to my last resting with
me.

Now all too soon the dusk came, and we must set ourselves back from
these wondrous things that had been to the ways of hard warriors
again, with a precious charge in our keeping. With Hilda we supped,
and then it was dark. Out in the stables the horses stood ready, my
brown second steed being made ready for the lady, and Erling's
second carrying the packs, as on our first journey from Norfolk.
And then we heard the last words of farewell from the archbishop,
and knelt for his blessing, even as the watch mustered outside in
the street, and the last wayfarer hurried into or from the gates,
and I heard the horns which told their closing. It was dark
overhead, and the moon had not yet climbed far into the sky; which
was as well for our passing the ford unseen, if Gymbert had it
watched.

Then the reeve came in, armed and ready, and we must go. There was
a little sobbing from the good wife, as was no doubt fitting, but
by no means cheering; and so we passed from the warmly-lit little
hall into the street, and mounted, clattering away toward the
westward gate of the town, with the reeve ahead and two of his men
after us.

The gates swung open for us, and two wayfarers took advantage
thereof to get inside, which was to their good fortune. Then we had
a quarter of a mile of road to pass before we came to the ford
below the field where our camp had been when we came. After us the
gates were shut again, and we rode on.

Then befell us a wonderful bit of good luck. There came the quick
tramp of a horse coming toward us, and out of the gloom rode a man
in haste. He pulled up short on seeing us, and I heard another
horse stop and go away directly afterward. It was too dark to see
much against the black trees and land among which we rode, and the
plainest thing about this comer was the little shower of sparks
which flew now and then from the paving of the old way and from his
horse's hoofs.

"Ho," said the reeve, with his hand on his sword hilt, "who comes?"

"Is that you, reeve? Well glad am I. Are you out with a posse
against those knaves at the ford?"

"Eh," said the reeve, while we all halted, "is the ford beset with
the Welsh?"

The man laughed somewhat.

"Not Welsh, but thieves of nearer kin. I ride homeward along the
river bank, and they stop me. It seemed to put them out that my
horse is not skew-bald, and that I am alone. However, they would
rob me."

The reeve whistled under his breath.

"How have you got away?" he asked.

"Rode over one of them who held my horse. There was one after me,
or more."

Now the reeve turned to me.

"What is to be done?" he said blankly. "This is what we had to fear
most of all. This is surely Gymbert with his men."

"How many may there be?" said I.

"Ten or a dozen, and mostly mounted," the stranger told me.

Now I had no time to think of aught, for the men who waited for us
heard the voices, and had been told that we had halted; whereon
here they came up the road at a hand gallop, in silence. The two
men of the reeve made no more ado, but fled townwards, and after
them, swearing, went their leader. With him the stranger went also,
shouting, and we three were left in the road with plunging horses;
and then, with a wild half thought that we might meet and cut our
way through these knaves ere they knew we were on them, I bethought
me of somewhat. I cried to Erling, and caught Hilda's bridle, and
so leaped from the road to the meadow, and held on straight across
it toward the dim outlines of bush and furze clumps which I
remembered as being close to our first camp.

I suppose that against the black woodland, with the town rampart
beyond us, we were hardly noted, or else those who came made sure
that we must try to get back to the town. At all events along the
road they thundered, past where we had stopped, and on after the
reeve and his men, who were shouting for the guard to open to them.

So we did not turn to right or left, but rode our hardest across
the soft turf, among the ashes of our camp fires, until we were
close on the place where Ethelbert had dreamed his dream of Fernlea
church under the riverside trees, by the pool where I had bathed
and frightened the franklin by my pranks. That schoolboy jest had
flashed into my mind with the memory of the shallows and
half-forgotten ford across them. I thought I might find it again.

"They are after us," said Erling. "Whither now?"

Hilda drew her breath in sharply, but made no more sign of fear.

"There is a ford here," I said, "if I can but find it. Let the
packhorse go, if need be."

"No need yet; they are at fault," my comrade answered.

Now I saw the tree which had sheltered the king, and close to it
was the ford, and already I scanned the surface of the swirling
water for the breaks in its flow which would mark the shallows. The
pursuers had spread abroad somewhat, and were keeping on a line
that would lead them past us, for we had turned down to the river
somewhat sharply.

Then the river water flashed white suddenly, and I pulled up. This
ford was beset also, for across it, waist deep in the middle,
hustled and splashed a line of men whose long spears lifted black
lines against the gleam of the pool below. And I suppose we were
seen at the same time against the white water; for there came a
yell from behind us, and the hoofs which followed us trampled
wildly after us.

At that the men in the water hurried yet more, passing to the Welsh
side, and that struck me as unlike the men who would seek to stay
us. And Erling knew what it meant.

"Welshmen," he said--"raiders! After them, and call to them."

With that I lifted my voice, and spurred my horse at the same time.

"Ho, men of the Cymro!" I cried in Welsh. "Ho! we are beset. Ho,
Jefan ap Huwal!"

The Welsh stayed in a moment, with a roar and swinging round of
weapons. Not fifty yards behind us, as the horses plunged into the
ford, there was a shout for halt, and Gymbert's men reined up with
a sound of slipping hoofs and clattering weapons on the steep bank
above us. A sharp voice from the other bank called to know who we
were and who after us.

"The Anglians!" I cried back. "Gymbert and ten men in pursuit!"

Then was a yell from the Welsh, and past us back they came with a
rush that told of hate for Gymbert. For a moment the longing to get
but one blow at that villain took hold of me, and I half turned
also.

"No, no," said Hilda at my side, and I remembered I might not go
from her.

So I passed through the water, and on the far bank turned to see
what I might. The white-clad Welsh were still swarming back, and
their leader began to try to stop them. I heard, as did he, the
sound of retreating horsemen as Gymbert found out the trap into
which he had so nearly fallen, and made haste to get out of it.

Now we were safe, and a tall Welshman came to me and welcomed us.
All this far bank was like a fair; for it was full of cattle, and
sheep, and horses, with a gray dog or two minding them.

"Jefan told us you were to come," he said; "but we looked for you
to cross at the great ford. We thought none knew of this now."

I told him how I found it, and thanked him for timely help. His men
were coming back, laughing and talking fast over the scare they had
given their enemy. They had taken one horse also, in the first
rush, but Gymbert had escaped.

The chief gave a short laugh.

"We were in time, indeed," he said; "but your coming fairly
frightened our rearguard across the water more quickly than our
wont. We could not tell who was coming. A wise man runs first and
looks round afterward, when he is in this sort of case."

"It seems to me that you have been somewhat bold tonight," I said.

"Yes, indeed; which made us fear the more. But we have had a fair
lifting, as you may see, dark as it is. Save that Offa has gone to
sleep, as men say, we might not have come. We have lifted every
head of stock well-nigh up to Sutton walls since dusk," and he
chuckled. "There was no man to hinder us."

Then he told us that we were all bound for Dynedor hill fort
together, and that there we should find Jefan. And so we went
slowly, with the herd of raided cattle before us, with a silence
which made me wonder. Presently I said as much, and the chief
chuckled again.

"'Tis practice," quoth he. "An you had had as much raiding as we
borderers, you would have learned the trick of quiet cattle
droving. I doubt if ever you had need to lift a herd."

I heard Erling laugh, and he answered for me.

"The paladin has most likely stolen as many head in a day as you
may find in a year. And I ken somewhat of the trade myself: I was
driving his countryside when I first met him. But we have both done
it with the high hand, and I think that yours is like to be the
best sport. You are first-rate drovers!"

That pleased the raiders, and there was pleasant talk enough of old
days as we went on. Presently the moon came out, and we went
quicker. It shone on the white faces of the great Hereford oxen and
kine, and showed us the keen dogs herding them skilfully as men.

So at last the black hill of Dynedor, crested with its works, rose
before us, and from it shone a score of watch fires.

"See, Hilda," I said, "yonder is your father, and all will be
well."

She answered me cheerfully, with a little shake of the reins, as if
she longed to hurry on; and I told her that now I must keep her
back, as she had kept me just now.

"Each to their own way," she said, sighing somewhat: "the man to
his weapon, and the woman to the sickbed that comes thereafter. See
what one evil deed has let loose on this land. It is terrible to
me. And how long it seems since we came to Fernlea in the bright
sunshine, deeming that all was to go well!"

"Yet all is not so much amiss," said I, seeing that the fears of
the day had hold of her.

And so I told her of Erling's christening, and of what we saw in
the church; for of this I had had no time to tell her before, save
when Erling himself had been with us.

Then in very gladness, for she liked my comrade, she lost her
gloomy thoughts, and would tell him softly of her pleasure. And so
we climbed the steep of the hill, and were met at the gate by Jefan
himself, with a frank welcome.

There were rough huts across the camp, set more or less at random,
and among them burned the fires which we had seen. There would be
about fifty men at most in the place, now that all had returned;
but the prince told me presently that he had had more when first
the alarm had been raised that Offa was summoning his thanes to him
for some unknown reason; whereby I gathered that here he had waited
for us.

"Lady," he said, as he helped Hilda from her horse, "your father is
but weak. I think that he began to mend when I told him that
doubtless you would be here tonight. I hope your ride has been easy
and without alarm."

"Hardly," said the chief who had rescued us. "It was a hard ride
for a matter of ten minutes, and we were frightened sorely. The
lady is the bravest I have ever met, for she screamed not once; and
the thanes are no bad judges of cattle raiding."

"Why, you have met with men after your own heart, Kynan," laughed
Jefan. "More of that tale by-and-by.

"Well, lady, you are safe, and that is the best. Now you shall see
your father.

"See to our guests, brother."

Jefan took Hilda's hand and led her to the best of the huts, and,
with a word to one within, entered. In a moment he was out again,
with a smile on his face in the firelight. I knew from that how
Sighard had met his daughter.

Kynan gave some orders to his men, and they took our horses,
leading them to a far corner of the camp. After that we were set
down to a great supper, and the tale of the flight and the raid was
told and retold. Then at last one fetched a little gilded harp, and
Kynan ap Huwal, the raider of cattle, set the whole story into
song, and did it well and sweetly.

After that was done came a white-haired priest, and we knelt for
the vespers; and then the watch was set under the moonlight, and
Erling and I stood in the gateway of the fort, and looked out on
the quiet land below us. It was no very great hill, but the place
was strong. How old it may be I cannot say, perhaps no man knows;
but since Offa drove the Welsh to the Wye it had been set in order,
with a stockade halfway down the steep earthwork round the hill
crest, so that men on its top could use their weapons on those who
were trying to scale it. The dry ditch was deep and steep sided,
and, so far as I could see in the moonlight, on this side at least
it would need a strong force to take it by storm, were it fairly
manned by say two hundred men. The gate had been made afresh of
heavy timber, narrow, and flanked on either side by overhanging
mounds, whence men could rain javelins on those who tried to force
it; and outside the gate were slight fences, which bent in wide
half circles, inside which the cattle we had driven in were penned.
Peaceful enough it all was, and the stillness of this hilltop after
the long unrest seemed as of a very haven after storm.

Presently Jefan and his brother came back after posting their men,
and then for half an hour I sat with Sighard and Hilda in the hut.
The thane had indeed had a narrow escape from the burning hall, and
had been left for dead by his pursuers. However, he had been but
stunned by the blow which felled him from his horse, and presently
recovering, had managed to get across the river and to some
Welshman's hut, whence Jefan took him.

As for those who had burnt the hall, he was sure that they were led
by Gymbert, and that they were no housecarls of Offa's. They had
slain Witred and another of the Mercian thanes who had fled with
him.

Then I asked him of himself and of his hurt.

"I am old to have the senses knocked out of me, and a blow that you
might think little of is enough to keep me quiet for a time.
However, that is all. Now that Hilda and you are safe, and the king
is found and honoured, I have naught to do but to get well. Trouble
not for me."

It seemed to me that there was no need for me to trouble about
aught either, and out in the open air, by one of the fires, I slept
till the dawn woke me, without so much as stirring.



CHAPTER XVIII. HOW JEFAN THE PRINCE GUARDED HIS GUESTS.


In the stir which comes with the waking of a camp, I and Erling
went out of the eastward gate and watched the sun coming up over
the Mercian hills across the river. The white morning mists lay
deep and heavy below us, and the little breeze from the southwest
drifted curls of it up the hill and across it, mixed with the smell
of the newly-lighted fires; and as the sun touched the drifts they
vanished. In the cattle enclosures the beasts moved restless and
ghostlike, lowing for their home meadows after the night on the
open hillside. Jefan had ridden out to go round his posts, and I
was waiting to bid Hilda good morrow before breakfast.

"What shall you do next?" asked Erling, with his eyes on the misty
treetops below us.

He was silent beyond his wont this morning, and I did not wonder at
it.

"I can hardly say. I have thought that by-and-by, when Sighard is
fit to move hence, we might get to one of the Welsh ports, and so
cross into my own land, Wessex, unknown to any in all Mercia."

Erling nodded.

"That is good," he said. "I only wish we were a trifle farther from
the Wye now, or that we had a few more men."

"You think that Gymbert is still to be feared?"

"T know it. Unless we get hence shortly we shall be fallen on. The
reeve told me that he could gather five-score men of the worst sort
in a day by the raising of his finger."

"It would need men of the best to take this place."

"Outlaws and suchlike I meant--men who will have Gymbert's promise
of inlawing again if they will do his bidding. See, here comes
Jefan!"

Up the hill from out of the mists rode the prince, and with him ran
a few of his men, swiftly as mountain men will, so that the horse
was no swifter up the steep. After them, through the mist, from men
I could not see, sped an arrow, badly aimed, which fell short, and
told of danger.

One of the two men who were at the gate on guard turned and
whistled, and the rest, busy over their cooking, dropped what they
held and ran to their weapons. Kynan came hastily to us, and
watched his brother as he rode up.

"Jefan is in a hurry," he said. "Get your arms, thane, for there
must be reason. Mayhap it is naught, however, for one is easily
scared in a fog."

Still he was anxious; for if he had looked at me he would have seen
that I was already armed, and that so also was Erling. We needed
but our spears to complete the gear for battle--if that was to
come--and they stood, each with the round shield at its foot, by
the fire where we slept, twenty paces off.

Now Jefan pulled up, and tried to look back through the mists. They
were thinning fast as the sun climbed higher, but were yet thick.
His men came on and entered the gate, while Kynan asked what was
amiss.

"There are men everywhere," one said--"Mercians. They must have
slain the outpost toward the ford, and so have crept on us under
cover of the thickness."

"Trying to see where their cattle are," said Kynan. "They will not
come up here."

The man shook his head, but laughed.

"They are bold enough to shoot at us, however," he said.

"You would do the same if you met a Mercian cattle lifter," laughed
Kynan. "That is naught."

Jefan rode in slowly, bidding us good morrow cheerfully as he came.
Kynan said that he supposed the owners of the kine were about.

"They, or some others who should be on the other side of the
river," answered his brother carelessly, as he dismounted. "Send a
picket down on the west side of the hill, and bid them be wary. Let
them eat their breakfast as they go, and send men to keep in touch
with them. I can see naught in this mist, and if we have to leave
here we must know in time. Come, let us get to our meal."

Plainly enough I saw that there was more in the matter than Jefan
would let his men know yet; but if I was anxious, I would no more
show it than he. So we sat down to the food his men had ready, and
before we had half finished a man came and spoke to him quietly and
went his way again.

"One of the western picket. It seems that here we must stay for a
while."

So said Jefan, and laughed a short laugh. But he did not look at
his brother, nor did Kynan look at him.

"That is the worst of a raid," said Kynan. "It stirs up such a
hornet's nest round one's ears. However, we on the border are
somewhat used to it. We can take care of ourselves."

We went on eating, and then a second man came; and Jefan told him
to call in the pickets, after he had heard what was said. Then he
turned to me at last.

"Thane," he said, "we seem to be beset here, but how and with what
force we cannot yet tell. I am sorry, for your sakes and the
lady's, that so it is. I fear our raid has made trouble for you, by
bringing Offa's men on us in the hope we may be forced to return
our booty."

"Our fault, I fear, for keeping you here, prince," said I. "I think
that of your kindness to us you have stayed longer near the river
than you might have done at any other time."

He smiled.

"That were to credit me with too much," he said. "Mostly the
Mercians care little to follow us. There lies our mistake."

"Then it may be that Gymbert is after us," said I, "and this has
happened because he knows that we are here. He is doing
Quendritha's bidding."

"Not likely in the least," said Kynan; "it is just a cattle affair.
It is my fault for suggesting a raid last evening. I would go,
though Jefan had no mind for it."

"Wrong, brother.

"Do not listen to him, thanes. I did but stay here because it was
his turn to go. One of us must needs bide in the camp."

Then they both laughed, and I dare say would have gone on with
their jest; but there came a cry from the gate, and they both
leaped up. It was the word that a man bearing a white scarf on a
spear was coming.

They went to the gate, which was not yet closed, and Erling and I
climbed the rampart near and looked over, bareheaded, lest our
English helms should tell who we were. In my own mind I was pretty
sure that we were sought.

The mists had thinned to nothing, and only lingered in the hollows
and round the scattered tree clumps. Long ago the Welsh had bared
all this hillside, and there was no cover for a foe as he came up
the hill. Across the grass came one man alone, and that man was
Gymbert, as I had half expected. It was ourselves whom he was
after. Maybe his only chance of regaining favour with the king
being through Quendritha, he was trying his best to pleasure her.
Or else she had threatened him. Either would be enough to set him
on his mettle, for none with whom I had spoken thought that the
forced retirement of the queen would last long. She would soon be
as powerful as ever, they said.

Now he came within half arrow shot of the gate, outside of which
the two princes stood. There he halted, and lowered his spear to
the ground.

"Jefan ap Huwal the prince?" he said in the best of Welsh.

"You know me well enough by sight," Jefan replied. "There needs no
ceremony. Tell us what you want here."

"I bring a message from Offa the king. It is his word that, if you
will give up the English fugitives you have with you, this matter
of the cattle will not be noticed."

"We have no objection to its being noticed," said Jefan. "I don't
know what else you could do about it. But you say this message is
from Offa?"

"Ay. You have here with you a Frankish thane, so called, being a
Wessex man in disguise, a heathen Dane his servant, and a girl,
escaped thrall of the queen. Doubtless you have apprehended them
for us, and I only need ask you to give them up."

"This needs no answering, Gymbert. You never were known as a truth
teller. This is your own affair, or Quendritha's, for Offa has seen
no man to give any such order to. Nor dare you go near him on your
own account, or short would be your shrift. Get hence, and take
your lies back to her who sent you. Mayhap you have told that queen
that you have slain Sighard the thane. If so, another lie or two
will make no odds."

Thereat Gymbert grew purple with passion. Plainly that was just
what he had told the queen. And now he began to bluster, after his
wont, stammering with rage. He had forgotten what we must have told
the princes.

"You hear the message? Pay heed to it, or it will be the worse for
you. Set these folk outside the walls straightway, or else--"

He shook his spear at the gate.

"I will not give them up," said Jefan; "and if--"

He set his hand on his sword hilt and laughed. Naught more was
needed.

Then Kynan, who was fairly stamping, broke in, being nowise so
patient as his brother:

"Hence, knave and liar! If there were naught else, it were enough
that you have called a freeborn thane's daughter a thrall to your
evil mistress. The truce is at an end."

His sword flashed out, and Gymbert was ware of bent bows on the
rampart which had more than a menace for him. He turned his horse
slowly and went his way, only quickening his pace when he was out
of range. Just before that some man loosed an arrow at him, which
missed him but nearly; and at that Jefan's pent up rage found a
vent.

"Take that man and bind him!" he cried to those on the rampart.
"Shame on us that a truce bearer should be shot at. Bind him, and
set me up a gallows that the country round may see."

I saw the man throw down his bow and hold out his hands.

"The prince is right," he said in a dull voice.

Jefan walked up to him and looked at him.

"So you own that? Well, you shall not die.

"Set him in a hut till this affair is ended, and then we will think
of what shall be done to him."

His passion had blazed up and passed as the fierce rage of the
Cymro will. They took the man away, and he turned to us with a word
of regret on his lips, and that was cut short by a yell from the
rampart, while the gate was swung to and barred hastily. I ran to
my spear and shield, while Kynan cried to his men to get to their
places; and scattered enough they seemed as they lined the
ramparts. Already they had driven the cattle from the enclosures
westward down the hill to the woodlands.

As I took my spear from the place where it stood upright, I looked
toward the hut where Hilda was, and saw her standing in the door.
It was the first sight I had of her that morning, and now her eyes
were wide with wonder at the cries and bustle of armed men.

"Wilfrid, what is it all?" she cried.

"Gymbert has gathered some men, and is trying to make Jefan give us
up," I said, knowing it was best to tell her plainly. "But you need
have no fear; this place is strong, and the man cannot have any
following worth naming."

"There will be fighting?"

"I think there will be little; but the arrows may come over the
rampart, and you must keep under cover."

"Shall you take part if there is any?"

"Why, of course," said I, laughing; "it is for you."

She looked at me, and I know that for a moment she had a mind to
beg me not to fight; but that she could not do, and so she only
smiled a wan smile and bade me have a care. So I bent and kissed
her hand, and she went back into the hut. Sighard was calling to
her to come and tell him what all the turmoil was.

Then I hurried to where Jefan stood on the works by the gate,
whence one could see all over the camp, and half round the hillside
as well. Not a shred of mist was left, and it was as glorious a
morning as one could see; only it was hotter than the wont of a
Maytime morning, and over the southward hung a heavy, white-topped
cloud bank, with a promise of thunder in its pile. Not that I noted
it now, but I had done so. From the ramparts there was more than
enough to keep my eyes on the hillside.

Up the steep came three bodies of men, to right and left, where the
hill was sharpest, and straight for the gate, where there was a
long, even slope ending in a platform, as it were, before it.
Gymbert himself headed this company on foot, and men whose names
the princes seemed to scorn altogether led the others. Altogether
there were not less than a hundred and fifty men; but as they drew
nearer I saw that they were not at all the sort of force with which
I should hope to take so strongly stockaded a place as this.
Outlaws, runaway thralls, and such-like masterless men they were,
ill armed and unkempt and noisy. Their only strength was in their
numbers, so far as I could see.

As for ourselves, the gate was the weakest place, by reason of
there being no ditch before it, and that the ground was level, or
nearly so, for twenty paces outside. I did not think it in the
least likely that our men could not hold off the two side attacks;
for the stockade was well placed and high, and the ditch
sheer-sided and deep. Take it all round, it was hard to see how
Gymbert expected to take the place, or why he would try it at all.

"Quendritha is driving him," said Kynan, laughing, when I said as
much. "If that woman bids a man do a thing, he has to do it, or woe
betide him. But it will be a fight, for a time."

Now Gymbert halted his men beyond bow shot, and called to Jefan
once more to give us up; and so finding no answer beyond a laugh
from the men who were watching him from the rampart, drew his sword
and bade his men fall on.

They broke into a run for a dozen paces, and then some half of
either company halted, and while the rest went forward, those who
stood began to try to clear the way with arrow flights, shooting
over their heads so that the shafts might drop within the
stockading. And at the same time our men began to shoot, somewhat
too soon; for the Welsh bow will not carry so far as the English,
though the arrows are more deadly, being heavier.

Seeing that, Jefan bade his men hold their hands until he gave the
word; on which Gymbert called to his men, and they came the faster.
The arrows met them then at short range, and in a deadly hail, and
they faltered. Many fell under them, yet they still came on; and
now the men who had been shooting found that the Welsh were too
well sheltered under the stockade timbering for much harm to be
done them, and they ran and joined their comrades at some call from
their leaders. Then without stay the whole three companies threw
themselves with a great shout against the defences, leaping into
the ditch on either side, and surging up against the gate itself.

In a breathing space our Welsh were ready with the long spears, and
as one by one the heads of those who climbed gate or stockade
showed themselves, hoisted up by their comrades, or climbing in
some way or other, back they were sent with a flash of the terrible
weapon, falling on those below them. And now and again the Welsh
spears darted through the spaces between the timbers of the
stockade at some man who came close to them and was spied, or at
those who tried to help their comrades to climb. The whole place
was full of yells and shouting.

But it was harder work at the gate, for there the foemen were more
densely packed before us, and they seemed to climb in an unending
stream. More than one fell inside the gate, and there lay still;
but none had won his way to the ground alive, nor had we yet lost a
man. The loss was all on the side of the attack.

Then at last the men at the gate drew back for a time; but from the
side attacks came a new danger. With spear butt and seax they were
trying to undermine the stockade, and one could hear the creaking
of the stout timbers as they tried to tear them down. It would have
gone hardly with us had there been but a few more men, or if these
had brought pick and spade with them.

As it was, that attempt did not last long. Into the crowd of men
who worked the heavy javelins fell, and through the timbering the
reddened spears went and came, driving at last the foe to safer
distance. And so the first attack ended, and for all that Gymbert
from the gate tried to urge them on, his men stood sullenly in the
deep ditch and under the gate, where we could not well reach them,
save by casting javelins and darts high into the air, that they
might pitch among them; but there were few throwing weapons to
spare.

"He would have done better to attack at one point only," said
Jefan, sitting down on the rampart above the gate. "He might have
overwhelmed us so, for he has men enough."

His brother laughed.

"There is a difference between us in this way," he said, "and it is
a great one: there is little fight in his men, and we must needs
fight our best. Listen! they are passing some word round."

So it was, for there fell a silence on the humming men below us,
and we could hear muttered words from one to another. Then the
attack came again from the same three places, but I thought it was
not pushed home as at first. Nor did it last so long. In a few
minutes men began to get out of the ditch and away down the
hillside while the Welsh were too busy to shoot at them. There they
scattered, and stood and watched. And then the attack on the gate
ceased, and back the foe went.

"After them, and scourge them home to their mistress," shouted
Kynan, leaping down to the gateway, where his men did but wait some
word which should tell them to throw it open for a sally.

I looked for Jefan; but he was across the camp, seeing hastily to
the weakened places in the stockade.

"Kynan," I cried, "have a care! This is what they want you to do!
Wait!"

For I could see that in the open Gymbert had the advantage of
numbers, and I suspected that he was trying to draw the fiery Welsh
from their works. There was surely some reason for this
half-hearted attack on the stockade that had been already proved
too strong.

He did not hear me. It is in my mind that I may have called to him
in the Frankish tongue of my last warfare. That is likely enough,
for with the clash of arms again I know I had been thinking in the
familiar tongue once more. I do not know, but again I called him,
and he seemed not to hear. The gate flew open, and with a wild yell
of victory out went the Welshmen, with the prince at their head.

Jefan heard and turned back, and called to him to stay; but he also
was too late. He had but a dozen men with him, while from the
opposite side of the camp those who had driven off their foes had
joined those who poured out with Kynan. One or two of Jefan's men
shouted, and went with them, unheeding the call of their leader to
stay.

Then in a moment I knew what the word which had been passed meant.
The Mercians who had drawn off from the side attacks closed up and
charged down on the scattered Welsh, on whose pursuit Gymbert and
his men turned. We could do naught but stand and watch, helpless,
for we dared not leave the gate, which we could not close against
the retreat which must come.

Round Kynan and his men Gymbert's force swarmed, and the din of
wild battle rang as the ancient foes, Welsh and Mercian, met on the
level turf. I saw Kynan's red sword rise above the turmoil, and
heard his voice rallying his men to him; and then he had them
together in a close body, outnumbered indeed by two to one, but
better fighters and better trained than the mob against them. And
then they began to cut their way back to the gate.

We stood there across it, waiting, and then it was our turn. Of a
sudden out of the ditch on either hand leaped men who had waited
there unnoticed for this moment, and they fell on us. We were
eight, and but four of us could stand in the gateway at a time.
Jefan and I and Erling and a tall Welshman were the first, and
before us were some dozen Mercians, and more to come as they could
find room on the narrow causeway.

Now it was a question whether we might hold the gate till Kynan won
back to it, or whether when he did come he should find it held
against him; and for one terrible moment I had a fear that men
would be coming over the stockade in the rear upon us. And I could
not look round, for I had all my time taken up in keeping my own
life from the attack in front.

I think it was about that time that Kynan began to sing some
wonderful old Welsh war song, which rang above the clash of weapons
and the cries of those who fought. It took hold of me, and I seemed
to smite in time to its swinging cadence. Yet he came back very
slowly.

Jefan went down first. Into the ditch he rolled, with his grip on
the throat of a Mercian; for his sword snapped, and he flew at the
man. One from behind us took his place with a yell of rage, and he
went too far, and was gone also, speared at once. Then another, and
another to my left; for the tall Briton was down, and still Erling
and I were not hurt. I would that Kynan would get back more
quickly. He was coming, but the press before us was thick.

So we fought, and I fell to thinking what a wondrous sword this was
which Carl the Great had given me. It shore the spear shafts, and
the brass-studded shields seemed to split before it touched them,
and the tough leather jerkins of the forest men could not hold its
edge back. The wild song of Kynan never ceased, and he seemed to
sing of it. He was getting nearer, but the Mercians thronged
between his men and us.

Now there seemed to be a grim joy in the faces of the men before
me, and the Briton at my right fell. There was none left to take
his place, and there were but three of us in the gate.

"Kynan! Kynan!" I cried, for in a moment he would find his retreat
barred. I do not know whether any voice came from me, but I seemed
to call him.

Then Erling and I were alone in the gateway, and the snarling
Mercians leaped at us. The last Welshman had fallen, hurling his
broken sword at a man who smote at me, and so staying the blow.

"A good fight for a man's last, master," said Erling to me through
his teeth, standing steadily as a rock with his hacked shield
linked in mine, and his notched sword swinging untiringly to the
grim old viking war shout "Ahoy!" as it fell.

Kynan was twenty yards from us, and now I saw Gymbert among those
whom he was steadily driving back.

A shadow swept over me, and it grew darker. I saw all the land
below me lying in brightest sunlight, and then the great swift
cloud shadow fled across it, though round us there was not a breath
of wind. I think the men before us two shrank back a little at that
moment, so that I had time to note all that went on, as a man will
at such a time, and yet without taking his eyes from the foe before
him.

That was but a breathing space. With a fresh yell the Mercians fell
on us again, and I had three of them on me; and my hands were full,
though they hampered one another. The old Wessex war cry which I
had not heard for so long came back to me, and I shouted "Out!
out!" and met them. There needed but a little time and Kynan would
be on the causeway. His song rang close to us.

Erling reeled and steadied himself against me, and the Mercians
howled. His war shout rang once, and then he fell across my feet,
face downward, and I stood over him in a white rage, and set my
teeth and smote. It came to me that there were more men on the
causeway now, but that they would not near me. I was fending
spearheads from me, and I forgot Kynan.

Then of a sudden those who were on me seemed to know that his song
was in their very ears, and they looked round. His men were on the
narrow gate path, and they were between them and me; and with that
they yelled and fled into the ditch on either side the causeway,
and I was aware that for a long minute I had kept the gate alone.

But I did not think of that. Out of the way of heedless, tramping
feet of those who came back into safety I must get my fallen
comrade, and I threw my sword within the gate and stooped and
dragged him after it, setting him on one side, on the steep rampart
bank, out of the way. He smiled and tried to speak, but could not;
and even so much cheered me, for I had thought him dead.

Some one came swiftly and touched me as I bent over him, and I saw
the old priest.

"Leave him to me," he said. "See to Kynan now; there may be work
yet for the lady's sake."

Even as I rose at his word, loath to leave my comrade, but knowing
that I must, and while I still had my face from the gate, there
came a blinding flash of lightning from the ragged black edge of
the cloud overhead, and with it one short, awesome crash of
thunder. The storm which had crept up behind us had broken on the
hilltop.

After that crash came a dead silence, and then were yells of terror
such as the fight had had no power to raise from men on either
side. And among them one voice cried shrill that this was the work
of Ethelbert, the slain king.

Then as the foe fled back the gates swung to, and I heard the bars
clatter into their sockets, and Kynan came to me.

"Holy saints!" he said; "look yonder!"

I went a pace or two up the earthwork and looked over toward the
foe. Some twenty yards from the gate lay as it were a blackened
heap, round which reeled and staggered men with hands to blinded
faces, and from which those who were unhurt fled in wildest terror
down the hill, casting even their weapons from them. Save only
those who could not fly, not one Mercian was staying.

"Yonder lies Gymbert," Kynan said in a still voice. "The bolt
struck him. It is the judgment of Heaven on him for that which he
wrought in darkness."



CHAPTER XIX. HOW WILFRID CAME HOME TO WESSEX.


For a moment I looked and then turned away, with but one thought in
my mind, and that was the knowledge that it was a good thing that
the punishment of this man had been taken from our hands. I do not
think that I took in all the terror of it at the time, for on that
field there was death in so many forms--death brought needlessly by
his contriving again, and in all injustice--and this end of his was
to me but right and fitting. Some terrible fate the man deserved,
and he had met it. Now I had my own friends to think of.

"See to Jefan!" I said to Kynan, without a word of Gymbert. "He
fell at the gate, in the first onset."

"My fault," groaned the brother, "my fault. I should have waited
his word before sallying out. I heard you call me back, too, and
heeded not."

He called some men, and they opened the gate and passed out
hastily, while I knelt at the side of Erling. The old priest was
trying to stay the bleeding from a great wound in his side; but he
shook his head at me, and I knew that it was hopeless.

Erling knew it also.

"Get to the others, father," he said; "I am past your heeding."

"They will fetch me if I am needed, my son," the old man answered.
"There are few of us who cannot tend a common wound. I am but
wanted at the last."

"Ay, for the one thing," said Erling, with a great light springing
into his weary eyes. "For me also, father.

"Tell him, master."

The old man looked at me, and I nodded. He was a British priest,
and one had been told that they and our priests hated each other
and quarrelled over deep matters; but what was that in this moment?
Neither Briton nor Englishman, priest of St. David's nor of
Canterbury would heed that here and thus. He rose and went
hurriedly, and we two were alone.

"We kept the gate," he said.

"Ay, we kept it; and all is well."

"Jefan is not dead," he said next; "he lay and watched it all. I
could see him."

Then across my shoulder he saw some one, and smiled. I turned, and
there was Hilda, white and still, standing by us, and she set her
hand on my shoulder. Then she bent toward my comrade.

"Ay, you two kept the gate, and all are praising you. They say that
but for you the fort had been lost."

The lightning came again, and after a second or two the thunder,
close still, but not so terribly so. The rain would come presently,
and I longed for it, but not yet. I dared not move Erling, and
there was the priest to come.

Now he came, and with him brought that which was needed; and so we
two knelt, and there came one or two Welshmen, gently, and knelt
also, unlike our Saxons, who would have stood aloof, with bared
heads indeed, but unsharing.

I will say naught of that little service. When it was ended Erling
closed his eyes and sighed, as one who is content; and we waited
for them to open again, but they did not. It was the first and last
sacrament of the new-made Christian.

The priest ended his words, and looked at me. Hilda took her cloak
and gave it to him, and he set it across my comrade, and that was
all. He was Ethelbert's first follower to the new place he had won,
and that also seemed good to me.

Through the gate came Kynan, followed by four men who bore on a
spear-framed stretcher their prince who had fallen.

"All well," he called up to me cheerfully. "Naught but a broken leg
from the fall, and no wound."

Then the rain came, sweeping in a sheet across the open hilltop.
Hilda took my arm.

"Come," she said, "take me to the hut again. My father is well-nigh
raving because he is too weak to fight. Once he rose and staggered
to the door, and there fell. He cried to you as you stood alone
with those savage men before you in the gate. Did you not hear
him?"

So she spoke fast, and drew me away to the hut, and there Sighard
bade me tell him all I might of the fight. It had been hard for him
to lie and hear the din going on, to know that the battle was for
Hilda and for him, and not to be able to share it. And he grumbled
that the girl would not look out on it and tell him how it went.

"But I saw Wilfrid in the gate," she said, "and I feared for him
for a moment, until I saw that the foe feared him; and then I was
proud. But Erling has gone, father."

"A good man and steadfast," Sighard said. "I think that you and I
owe life to him and Wilfrid alike. It will be long before we forget
him, or before you find such another comrade and follower,
Wilfrid."

More there was said of him at that time, but not too much. I had
known him but a little while, but in that we had gone through peril
together with but one mind. It hardly seemed possible that it was
only a matter of six weeks since I took him from the Norwich
marketplace.

The thunder rolled round us while we talked of him, passing but
slowly, and the rain fell in sheets, washing away the more terrible
stains of war. Through it came back, unarmed and humbly, some of
the Mercians, begging truce wherein to take away their comrades,
and Kynan spoke to them. As we had reason to think, the whole
affair was the doing of Gymbert, so far as his men knew. Behind him
was the hand of Quendritha, of course, but of that they had heard
no more than that to take us would please her.

When the storm ended, with naught but a far-off mutter of thunder
among the hills beyond the Wye to mind us of it, I went out to find
Jefan. At that time there were folk from the Welsh woodlands coming
up to help in any way that was needed, for a fire on the highest
point of the ramparts was sending a tall smoke curling and wavering
into the air, and the meaning of that was well known to them. One
might see by the way in which they were tending the wounded and
digging two long trenches without the ramparts, where the slain
should rest presently, that such fights were no new thing to them
on the marches of Mercia.

Jefan the prince lay in a hut, and he smiled ruefully as I came in.
His ankle was broken, and the old priest had set it, skilfully
enough, but it would be many a long day before he could use it
again. He held out his hand to me before I could speak.

"Are you hurt?" he said anxiously.

I was not, save for a scratch or two of no account. More was Kynan,
and that was a wonder, or his luck, as he would have it. But Jefan
said, trying to laugh:

"I would that I might see just one bout of sword play betwixt you
two. I had held my brother as the best swordsman in all the West,
but I saw a better in the gate. There I must lie helpless, with a
Mercian across me moreover, and it was somewhat of a comfort that
there was that to watch. I had seen naught of it but for the fall."

So I had not been learning all that the best men in the Frankish
armies could teach me of weapon craft for nothing, and hereafter I
learned that such praise from Jefan was worth having.

But as for my thanking them for this protection of us, they would
have it that the whole trouble was of their own making, since they
had stayed so near the border after a raid. Even now we must hence,
for the sheriff would gather a levy to follow them no doubt. It
needed no command from Offa for that; but he would be here anon, in
leisurely wise perhaps, but certainly.

"Wherefore we must go," said Kynan. "Then, as usual, he will find
no one to fight with, and naught but a few broken marrow bones to
remind him that last night we feasted on Mercian cattle up here."

Now I would that Erling might have been laid to rest in Fernlea,
near to Ethelbert, but that could not be. We set him in a place
near the gate which he had kept so well, raising a little mound
over him, and Jefan said that it should be a custom with every
warrior of the Cymro who entered the camp in the days to come that
he should salute him, and that the tale of his deed should be told
at the camp fire here from age to age, so long as harp was strung
and men should sing of deeds worth minding. Maybe that was the
resting and that the honour the viking would have chosen for
himself.

And he was set there with all the still rites of the ancient Church
of the Briton, in the way which he had learned to love.

Alone, unmarked Gymbert lies, out of sight of the warriors against
whom he came. The Mercians dared not touch him, and the Welsh would
not. But Jefan bade that man who had shot at him see to him, and
that was the punishment for his deed. Men say that when a storm
breaks round Dynedor hill fort it is ill to be there, for then he
wanders round the gate unquiet and wailing; and so he also is not
forgotten, nor the evil which he wrought.

That evening we were in some Welsh thane's house, far in the folds
of the Black Mountains, and there not even Offa could reach us. The
people had come with litters and hill ponies, and slowly and
somewhat painfully we had gone our way from the hill, gathering the
cattle, and leaving men to bring them after us still more slowly.

"Hurry no man's cattle," quoth Kynan, "except when they are by way
of becoming yours by right of haste homeward to the hills."

In this homestead, whose name I cannot write, we rested for a
fortnight or so, while Sighard gathered his strength again and
Jefan's ankle knit itself together. For me there was the best of
hunting in the hills and rich forests with Kynan, who was a master
of all woodcraft, and with our host. Wonderfully plentiful was game
of all sorts, whether red deer or fallow, boar, or wolf, or badger
in the forests, and here and there beaver as well as otter in the
swift trout streams. There were the white wild cattle also; and
there were tales of a bear somewhere in the hills, but we never
came on his tracks, though I knew them well from having seen them
often enough on the Basque frontier lands. That one chance of
having slain the bear there was the only matter of hunting in which
I was ahead of my hosts.

At the end of the fortnight we went from this village to the
ancient city of Caerleon, travelling slowly, though Jefan made
shift to mount a horse, and so ride with us. Pleasant were the June
days that passed among the hilly ways, under the great green
mountains, and through the forest lands, with good friends and
pleasant halts by the way. And I was going homeward now in all
truth.

Jefan had a wonderful palace in Caerleon, which his forbears had
held since the days when they took the place of the Roman governor
by whom it had been built. I think that it had been but little
altered, and on its walls were still the pictures the artists
brought from far-off Rome had painted, and its floors were laid
with the wondrous patterned pavement of the old days, so beautiful
that it almost seemed a shame to tread on them. The old Roman walls
stood round the town, and there were more houses, less but
well-nigh as good, in the place, and the great tower the Romans
made.

Yet, being a Saxon and a forest-bred man, I cared not at all for
the stone-walled houses. They seemed low and hot to me, and above
one was the ceiled roof, all unlike the high open timbering of our
halls, where the smoke curls, and the birds are as free to perch on
the timbers as they were in the oaks whence they were cut. The
walls round the town irked me also, for one does not like to feel
shut in from the open country. One must have fences, of course, and
maybe in border places earthworks and stockades, but surely no more
should be needed. Yet in a day or two I grew used to all this, and
I have naught but good to say of Caerleon elsewise.

For when we had been there a few days Jefan would speak with me,
and together we went to the walls of the city and looked southward
across the river toward the Severn sea, beyond which lay my home.

"See, friend," he said, "there is your way, and there is a ship
crossing to the old port at Worle tomorrow. Now, from all you have
told me, there is a chance that through her daughter Quendritha may
yet try to harm you."

"I think she cannot," I said. "So far as I know, she has never
learned where my home is."

"Yet," he said, "go home and see how things are for you. Well I
know that your first thought is for the Lady Hilda, and that is
right. I am going to see your wedding. But you cannot take her home
without going there first to learn whether she will have any home
to go to."

"That is what I have been thinking," said I. "You are but first in
speaking of the matter by a day or so."

"Well, then, do you go at once. If all is well, then you shall come
back here, and so there will be a wedding. If not, come back, and I
will give you a place with me.

"Nay, but listen. I have sorely troublesome tenants, the Danes, in
our land of Gower, and you can take them in hand for me. You are
the man I need as what you would call the ealdorman there. You may
take such a place in all honour."

"Jefan," I said, "you are indeed a friend, and I will not say no to
you. All seems to go well when you have a hand in it."

"Sometimes," said he, laughing. "I only wish that everything was as
easily arranged as this. Well, go. I want you back to stay, and yet
I don't, as one may say. At all events, we will have the wedding
here."

Now it need not be said that on the next day I did go, landing in
the early morning under the ancient walled camp of Worle, which the
Eastern traders made when they used to come for our Mendip metals;
and there I hired a horse and rode homeward, sorely longing for my
good skew-bald steed, which stood in a Roman stable at Caerleon.

Now I cannot tell all the thoughts which came into my mind as I
climbed the last hill and looked down into the wooded hollow where
lay our home. The long years seemed to roll back, and it was but as
yesterday that I had been there. And then I met a man I knew, one
of our own thralls; and he seemed to have aged all in a moment, for
I had thought, before he drew near, to see his face as it had been
on the day when I went to Winchester to see the bride of our king
brought home. He did not know me, but he doffed his cap.

"Wulf," said I, "how fares the thane?"

"Well, lord," he answered, staring at me. "He is in the hall an you
want him."

And then of a sudden a great smile began to grow across his face,
and he roared in his honest Wessex voice:

"By staff and thorn, if it is not our young master home from the
wars! Good lack, but how you have grown and widened!"

He clutched at my hand and shook it, and then kissed it, after a
friend's fashion first, and then as a thrall should, saying all
sorts of welcomes. And then he turned, forgetting any business
which was taking him to the hill, and must needs lead my horse with
all care down to the hall. And as he went, whenever he saw any man
of the place he shouted to him, and one by one men came running,
until I had half the village after me. That was a good old Saxon
welcome, and I could not find fault with it.

So we came to the hall gate, and the dogs ran out and barked; and I
thought I could tell those which had been but pups when I left
home, for they had been my charge. Then they bayed and yelled,
mistrusting what all the noise meant, though they saw none but
friends there, till two gray old hounds rose from the sunny corner
of the court and came running, and they knew me; and I called them
by name, and the rest stilled their clamour.

Then, with his sword caught up to him, my father came to the great
door and called for silence, and so saw me as I sat in my outland
mail and stretched my hands to him; and after him came my mother.
So I was home once more, and all was well.

I need say naught of the feasting which they made for me, nor of
all that I had to tell of my doings since that day when the Danes
came and took me. Little enough there was to tell me, save of the
village happenings; and that was well, for it meant that there had
in every way been peace.

Two days after I came home my cousin came from Weymouth, rejoicing
to see me safe and well once more, for he had ever blamed himself
for my loss.

Presently we spoke of Ecgbert, but there was yet no chance for him
to return. Our Wessex queen, Quendritha's daughter, was bad as her
mother, in all truth; but Bertric the king was just and wise, save
only when he was swayed by her. Moreover, to him Ecgbert had sworn
fealty when he came to the crown, and until he was gone he would do
naught.

And then there was the question as to whether it was safe for me to
come home.

There was an old thane who came to see me at this time, and he had
been to Winchester within a few days; and he settled the matter,
having heard all the court news from Mercia.

"Quendritha's power is over for good and all," he said. "Offa has
sworn a great oath that he will never set eyes on her again. They
say that she is shut up in some stronghold, with none but men of
the king's own round her, and that there she pines and rages in
turn, helpless for harm. You may be sure that no word of you has
come hither. Doubtless she believes you fled back to Carl the
Great. You may sleep in peace."

"Get married, my son, and settle down," said my mother softly. "I
may not bear to lose you again."

So that other matter was easily settled, as may be supposed, though
no doubt my good mother would have fain had somewhat more say in
the choice of a wife for me. But when my father and cousin heard of
the way in which we two had met, and what we had gone through
together, they said it was good that I had found no fair weather,
fireside bride, and there was a great welcome ready for her as soon
as we could bring her home.

Ten miles south of Selwood, on the forest's edge, lies that hall
which was my mother's, and to which I had the right as her son, and
there I was to live. I think that I have spoken of it before as
that which gave me the right to the rank of thane. Now and then we
had gone there and bided in the hall, seeing to the lands, and so
forth, but mostly it had been left to the care of the steward. So
it was waiting for me, and thither I should bring Hilda as soon as
all was ready.

And I need not tell of that time of preparation, which seemed long
to me; but at last we sailed across the still sea from Worle to
Caerleon--my father, and my cousin, and half a dozen others of our
friends--for word had gone and come from Jefan by the fishers of
the Parrett river, and he would welcome all whom we would bring
with us.

"Make it as good a wedding as you may," was his word to me.

I think that Offa once sent an embassy to Caerleon, and that they
were the first of our race who had ever been within its old walls.
But I know that never before had a Saxon party been welcomed there
as we were welcomed, nor had there been such a feast since Jefan
himself was wedded.

It seems to me that I am leaving out a many things now; but who
wants to hear of that wedding? If any one does, he must even go to
Caerleon and call the bards to him, if they will come, and ask them
to sing the songs they made thereon. Otherwise he may ask any man
of Caerleon to tell him what he saw of it himself, for indeed I
cannot say that I had thought or eyes for any but one figure in all
the splendour of that ancient court. I do mind that Jefan's fair
princess had clad Hilda in wondrous British array, which passes me
to tell of, and that Kynan and Jefan and the men of their host had
decked her with gold and pearl and mountain gems, such as lured the
Roman hither. They had a splendid sword and mail shirt and helm for
me, too, better even than that which Carl gave me, because of the
holding of the gate.

Now if one listens, as I have said, to the tales they tell over
there, it will be heard how I was said to have kept that gate
against all the host of Mercia, not to say Offa himself; for, like
our own gleemen, the Welsh bards do not fail to make the most of a
story. But how much thereof to believe those who have read my own
tale will know. I suppose they are obliged to make too much of a
matter, so that about the rights thereof may be believed.

At that wedding there were a surprise and a pleasure for me which
Jefan had prepared. He had heard of a vessel new come to Swansea,
where the Danes are, and he had sent thither to learn what she was.
And when he heard, he bade her captain to this feast to meet me.
And so it came to pass that when we landed I saw two men in the
Danish array standing behind the Welsh nobles, and I seemed to know
them. One was tall and grim and scarred, and the other broad of
shoulder and white of hair and beard. They were Thorleif and old
Thrond, come from Ireland to see their friends in this land, and so
Jefan's guests.

So that was a great wedding, in which I had the least part, being
overlooked, as mostly happens with a bridegroom. And after it we
passed home again to peace and happiness in the old hall in the
land of Wessex, and there none will care to follow me. It is the
troublous part of a man's life that makes the story to all but
himself. He is glad enough when it is over and there is no more
danger left of which to make a tale.

When I first came back to Caerleon I had some news to hear from the
Mercian border, and that was nothing more or less than that after
all Offa had stretched out his hand to grasp that realm which
Quendritha had plotted to give him; for he had gathered his levies,
and marched eastward into East Anglia. There was none to oppose
him, and he took it, and so reigned from the Wye to the sea, the
greatest king who had ever sat on an English throne.

And Quendritha was dead. That which her daughter had boded for her
as she left the palace had come to pass, and she had gone. She had
never set eyes on her husband again, and never heard how that which
she planned had come to pass.

That death seemed to take the last doubt of our peace from us; but
now Sighard would no more go back to his lands.

"I was Ethelbert's thane and his father's; I will not hold from
Offa. Let me come back with you now until I know what I can do."

So when our wedding was over he crossed with us to Wessex, and
there for a time he bided. Then came a message from Thetford that
the widowed queen, Ethelbert's mother, would speak with him, and
without delay he went to her. Offa had left her in peace in her own
house; but now she would go to Crowland, that she might be with her
who should have been her daughter, and thither Sighard took her.
Then he went to see what had happened with his own place, and found
it untouched. Offa, when he took the realm, had at least proved
that he had no mind to enrich himself with lesser spoils.

So Sighard sold his right of succession, and all else that was his
own in East Anglia, and thereafter bought a place for himself near
us; and there he lives now, well loved by all and honoured. Many
and kind were the messages which he brought back from the queen to
me and to Hilda, whom she had loved, rejoicing that the way to
Sutton had at least brought happiness to us two.

My good skew-bald steed I could not take across the sea with me,
and I was loath to sell him. At last I persuaded Jefan, our friend,
to take him as a gift, for I cared for none save the prince himself
to ride him.

"He is nowise a safe steed to go cattle-raiding on," said Kynan,
"for one can mark him for miles. Nevertheless he is a princely
mount, and a good rallying point for the men after they have been
scattered in a charge."

So they laughed, and were well pleased, as was I. Erling's horse I
gave to that man who had been our guide when we fled, and there was
no difficulty in finding owners for the rest.

Now one will ask concerning Ecgbert the atheling, whose friend I
had been for so long.

All men know that today he is the king of all England, and the
greatest who ever sat on her throne. But for long years we waited
till the time for his return came. While Bertric lived, to whom he
had sworn fealty, he would do naught, in utmost loyalty, and with
the Mercian throne he had no mind to meddle.

Two years after the death of Ethelbert, Offa died. His bright young
son took the throne, and was gone also in a few months, and then
the house of Offa was at an end. An atheling of some younger branch
of the Mercian royal line took his place peaceably, and under this
king, Kenulf, Mercia was at her greatest. The doom of Offa fell not
on him.

Ecgbert bided with Carl the emperor, learning all he might of
statecraft and of war until his time came, and well he learned his
lesson. Then at last, through Quendritha's teaching, came the end
of the Wessex line, and thereafter the fall of Mercia from her
first place among the English kingdoms. For, after Quendritha's
way, Eadburga would poison some thane of the court who had offended
her; and Bertric drank the cup she had made ready for his servant,
and so perished. Eadburga fled to Carl the emperor, as men had then
hailed him; and he received her kindly for Offa's sake, and at
least England knew her ways no more. Then we had all ready, and
sent for Ecgbert; and from the time of his coming began that day of
greatness for Wessex which has led him to the overlordship of all
England and the end of the old divided and warring kingdoms.

One may see many tokens of the repentance of Offa for that deed
which was wrought unhindered by him. Greatest of all, perhaps, is
the cathedral which he built at Hereford over the remains of the
murdered king. There the saint rests in peace, and will be honoured
while time is. But where Offa himself lies no man knows. His folk
buried him in a little church which he had loved, hard by Bedford,
in the heart of his realm, on the banks of the Ouse. But in one
night of storm and rain the ancient river rose and swept away both
church and tomb and what lay therein, not leaving so much as the
foundations to tell where the place had been. And yet, not a
stone's throw from the edge of the rapid Lugg, the little church of
Marden, built where we found the body of the murdered king, stands,
and will stand, unharmed by the waters which once made soft his
resting.

The wonderful palace of Sutton lies shunned and ruined. After that
which had been done there, Offa would live within its walls no
longer, and it was deserted by all men. Only, as the wind and rain
wrought their will unchecked on the timbered halls, the thralls
took what they would for huts and for firing, and slowly at first,
and then apace, the palace sank to heaps of rotting rubbish, where
the fox and the badger have their lairs, and the boar from the
forest roots unscared. Presently naught hut the ancient Roman
earthworks will be left to tell that once it was a place of
strength against the Briton.

And with bated breath the thralls tell of a white wolf which haunts
the ruin from time to time, deeming it the witch queen herself, who
may not leave the scene of her ill doing.

Now, for myself, I have but to say that for the sake of old days in
the Frankish land I stand high in the honour of Ecgbert the king.
And yet it seems to me that greater honour still it is that I
should have ridden across England on that strange wedding journey
as the comrade of Ethelbert the king and saint.

Often I am asked to tell the story of that ride and all that came
thereafter, for men say that they cannot learn it better than from
me. And so I have set all down here that men may read. Yet, whether
I write or not, I know well that forgotten Ethelbert can never be.

THE END.





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