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."