"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.