The door from the council chamber to the left led to the smallest division of the cross building, and there were two chambers for such honoured guest as Ethelbert. One could only reach these chambers from the council room, and they had no private way into the courtyard. It seemed that the guest hall, which was built against the great hall to its left, ran back to the walls of this end of the cross building, for there was a heavily-barred low doorway, which could lead nowhere else, in the wall of the outer living room. The only other door was that of the bedchamber, and that was opposite the entrance.
Pleasant and quiet chambers these were; for the noise of the hall could not reach them and their windows were set to the westward, looking out toward the Welsh hills beyond the Wye, which showed above the rampart and stockading.
So with much ceremony, which was wearisome to Ethelbert—and need not be set down, for it would weary any one, and was of no use—we reached those chambers, and there, being ready for the feast myself, I helped to array the king, and so passed with the royal party to the high place when the time came.
"Come back presently with me when the meal is over," the king said; "I have somewhat to ask you."
Then I found my way to the place which had been given me last night, and so had Hilda for neighbour again, to my much content; for the order of sitting had been little changed, save down the hall below the salt, where some fifty more men from the forest had been made room for. It was a great feast and merry, and it seemed the more so to me after the rough camp life across the sea, or the rare state banquets which I had seen in Carl's court. There was none of our hearty fellowship there, and there was more feeling of difference between men of high and low rank, which made a feast go stiffly to an English mind.
Presently I saw Gymbert across the hall, and I thought he looked uneasy. As he had fairly spoiled his name as a good huntsman, I was not surprised, nor did it trouble me. I missed him toward the end of the feast; but no doubt he had his duties about the place as when I spoke to him last night, and that was nothing to wonder at. I did not see him go.
It was a long feast. We began by daylight, and ended in the red blaze of torches set in sconces all down the hall, and in the whiter shine of great wax tapers which armed housecarls held behind us on the high place. I had never seen such waste of wax before; but Offa was magnificent in all he did, in a rougher way than that of Carl.
When the time of eating was ended and the toasts were to go round, the queen came with a wonderful golden cup which even the Frankish treasury could not match, and standing beside Ethelbert filled it with the red wine and pledged him. Very beautiful did she look as she held the cup to the young king, and her words were soft and full of kindness. She seemed well-nigh as young as the stately and pale Etheldrida, her daughter.
After that she and the other ladies left the hall after the custom, and we sat on telling tales and listening to the gleemen and harpers, and taking each our turn in singing. The East Anglian thanes had a way of singing together which was new to me and pleased me well. The hall grew hot and full of the smoke from the pine-knot torches before the kings rose up to go. By that time, too, the foresters seemed to be singing against one another, and the noise grew great with their mirth.
I rose and followed Ethelbert as I had been bidden, and passed into the council chamber, where Offa and his guest parted for the night, each going his own way. I thought Offa seemed heavy and moody, but in every wise friendly. Tired he was, methought, for it had been a long day.
Ethelbert signed to me, Father Selred, and Sighard to follow him, and we went into his apartment, closing the door after us. Out in the council chamber we left three of the Anglian thanes and three Mercian, who would act as guards for the night.
It was very pleasant in the silence of this cool chamber after the din and glare of the great hall. The moonlight came in at the western window; and though there were torches ready, the king would not have us light them, for he said we would sit in the dim light awhile till he grew sleepy. And so at first we spoke of the day's hunting, and, of course, Sighard had his say on the matter of Gymbert's carelessness.
Seeing that neither he nor the king had any doubt that carelessness it was, and naught else, I did not think it worth while to say anything of my own suspicions. I do not think that they could have believed that any harm was meant me had I told of the arrow. It seemed impossible, and if it were not that, it was a private matter of my own.
Presently that matter dropped, and there was a short silence. I heard then the sounds of shuffling feet plainly enough from somewhere close at hand, and thought that the wall between us and the guest hall must be somewhat thinner than it would seem, so that the sound came through thence. Sighard heard it also, and rose up quietly and looked into the inner chamber.
"What is it?" asked Ethelbert, as he came back and sat down again.
"Naught, lord. I thought I heard footsteps in your bedchamber; but there is nothing there. A strange house has strange sounds, and it takes time to get used to them."
"Some one passing under the window," said Selred the chaplain, laughing.
The little noise ceased, and we forgot it. Today I can seem to hear it as if it had thundered in our ears, for I know what it was and what it meant. Yet at the time there was no reason to think aught of it.
Then Ethelbert asked us somewhat which seemed strange.
"Have any of you noted aught in the look or way of King Offa which would make you think that he has not long to live?"
With one accord we said that we certainly had not done so, and that in some surprise. Sighard asked plainly what had put such a thought into his head.
"I will tell you," said Ethelbert in a low voice. "Between ourselves, here it is of no use to pretend that one does not know the name for ambition which Quendritha the queen has. Tell me what you make of this. Today I had a little private speech with her, and she would have me put off the wedding. She more than hinted that I might make a higher match, and that angered me. Whereon she told me that Offa might not have long to live; that Mercia and East Anglia would be a mighty realm if united. And, on my word, it seemed to me that she would bid me wait till she was a widow."
He laughed uneasily, as if he thought himself foolish; but we knew that unless he had full reason for that belief he would not have told us. That must have been a strange talk between this honest young king and Quendritha, if he deemed it best to speak to us of it.
Sighard frowned, and said:
"If it is true that Offa is thus—well, we are forewarned. Quendritha has let us see that in one way or the other she would fain have East Anglia. I think that she spoke unwarily to you, my king."
"Nay," said Selred the priest; "I hold that she sounded you as to whether you had any thought of adding Mercia to your own realm. If it is true that Offa has some secret ailment which is slowly and surely bringing his end near, she looks onward to the time when she shall stand alone. She would find out if you are to be feared."
"Maybe that is it," said Ethelbert, with a sigh of relief. "It must be. She is a mistress of craft; and had I one thought of adding to my realm, that would have made me show it. However, she should be satisfied. I would hear naught of putting off the wedding, as you may suppose."
I said nothing, but it was in my mind that mayhap there was more at the back of all this than they saw. I had heard overmuch of Quendritha to have much doubt that if she could see her way to reigning over both realms, she would stay for naught, even for the removing of Offa from her path if he stood in it. And almost did I tell the king of Thrond's knowledge of her, but forbore. Sighard knew it also, and he was the best judge of that. But I will say that I was somewhat lighter of heart to hear this, for it was plain to me that Offa himself had no thought of guile toward Ethelbert; and to this day I do not believe that he had. His mind was far too great for that; and if he loved power, I hold that to have married his daughter to a king was fully enough for him. Beyond that all was from Quendritha. To tell the truth, if I feared for any one, it was for Offa himself.
Now Ethelbert rose and said that he grew weary and would go to rest. Sighard said that he would get him a light from the council chamber; but he would rather bide in the moonlight, which was enough to fill all the room. So we three went into his sleeping chamber with him. At one side was the state bed with its heavy hangings, and midway in the room, by its side, was a great chair, softly cushioned. The smell of the sweet sedges with which the room had been newly strown was pleasant and cool, and a little chill breeze came in from the window with the moonlight.
"Leave me for a while, my thanes," he said; "I will call you anon. Wilfrid will no doubt be glad to go to his place; so goodnight"
He smiled at me, and held out his hand, and I bent and kissed it. So we went back to the other room to wait, for we knew that the king would pray. The door swung softly to after us.
Now I thought I heard the chair creak as the king went to it. Then there was a sound as of a fall somewhere near us, and a stifled cry.
"What is that?" I said, turning to Sighard.
"Housecarls outside;" he said. "It was from the place whence we heard the footsteps awhile ago. Listen! there they are again."
I heard the same sort of dull trampling as before, and there was also a voice.
"It seems to be almost beneath us," I said.
But the footsteps were plainly going away from us, and growing fainter in the distance. I climbed on a settle and looked out of the high window, which was set aloft so that none could see into the chamber as they passed it. But I could see no man. There were some wood piles and sheds between the rampart and us, but nothing stirred about them so far as I could see. Whereby I supposed that they had passed round the corner. On the rampart an armed sentry was pacing, black against the low moon, and beyond him the fires of the Welsh—who watched us—burnt as brightly as last night.
Now there was a gentle knock on the outer door, and I opened it. One of the thanes said that the man who served me would see me, and I went out into the great hall, bidding Sighard and the chaplain goodnight as I did so. Down the length of the hall men were throwing themselves on the rushes to sleep along the walls in their wonted places, though there were yet groups at the tables still telling tales and drinking. The torches were almost all burnt out save where these men were, and across the open roof were strange white shafts of moonlight through the smoke, from windows and under westward eaves.
Outside the door, on the high place, stood Erling alone, for the tables there had been cleared away. Only the throne of the king remained. And in the light from the council chamber I saw that the face of my comrade was white as death.
"Where is Ethelbert the king?" he said, almost wildly, and clutching my arm.
"In his chamber," I answered. "All is well. I saw him there not ten minutes ago."
"How can that be? It is not that time ago since he stood by me on the rampart, where I walked alone, and spoke to me."
"It was some one else like him," I said. "He is going to sleep."
But Erling stared beyond me, and grew yet paler. I saw the black rims grow round his eyes. Then his grip tightened on my arm, and he gasped:
"He stood before me, and that red line round his neck had drops like gems therefrom. He said, 'Now do I die and pass to rest. I would that you came after me.' And I said, 'Trouble not yourself, king, for the like of me.' And he smiled wondrously, and answered, 'Nay, but needs must I, for you are the only heathen man in this palace garth. I would that all were well with you as with me.' Then he was gone, and there was only a brightness, and betimes that faded. Then I came hither. There is ill which has befallen the king."
"Impossible," I said. And even as I said it into my mind flashed that strange, unaccounted for trampling, and I went back, with Erling after me, unbidden. The six thanes who waited in the council chamber stared at me, but I did not heed them. Across to the king's door I went, and passed in. Selred and the old thane were talking quietly under their breath, and I had but been gone three minutes.
"Back again, Wilfrid? Eh, what is amiss?" said Sighard, starting as he set eyes on Erling.
"Has the king called you?" I asked hastily.
"No; it is hardly time for him to do so," Selred answered, smiling.
"Look into his chamber softly, I pray you, Father Selred," Erling said in a strange voice. "It is upon me that all is not well."
Now so urgent was the tone in which the Dane spoke that the priest went at once to the inner door and opened it very gently, and peered in. Then he started forward suddenly and threw the door wide.
"Thanes!" he cried wildly, and we were at his side.
The room was empty. There was naught but the bed in it, for even the great chair was gone. Only where it had been there was a square patch of floor which was not covered with the sedges I had noted as so lavishly strown. Nor was the king in the bed, whose coverings were unruffled. Sighard lifted its hangings and peered under and behind them in a sort of frantic hope; for though there was no sound, and no answer to his whispering of the well-loved name of his master, it seemed unbelievable that from this little chamber a man should have gone utterly and without a sound during these few minutes. Yet so it was.
I set my hands on the high sill of the window and drew my face to its level. It was too narrow for a man to get through, and there was nothing to be seen outside but the white moonlight, and the mist which rose from the Lugg and curled over the rampart, white and ghostly round the sentry, who leaned on his spear and stared at the twinkling hill fires.
"It is wizardry," said Sighard, groaning, while cold drops broke out on his forehead. "He has been spirited away."
"I saw him on the rampart," answered Erling; "but it was his ghost that I saw. I knew it, and came and told my master here."
Now there came a silence in which we looked at one another. Then Sighard went and began to search the walls for hidden doors—hopelessly, for the timbers were a full foot thick. And so of a sudden some frenzy seemed to take him, for he set his hand on his sword, and would have waked the palace with the cry of treason, but that Selred stayed him.
"Friend, friend," he said earnestly, "have a care—wait! We are but two score amid hundreds, and that cry may mean death to us all.
"Wilfrid, call the other thanes hither."
I went to the door of the council chamber, and there was that in my face which bade the thanes spring up and hurry to me with words of question. I looked first at the three Mercians; but their faces were blank as those of the Anglians. They expected naught.
"The king has gone," I said. "You Mercians may best know whither."
One of them laughed, and sat down again.
"You have a strange idea of a jest in Carl's camp, paladin," he said. "What is it? The king gone, with us sitting here at his door, forsooth!"
"No jest, thane, but the truth," I said, taking the tall wax torch which was on the table before them. "Come."
Then they leaped up and followed me into the bedchamber, and stood staring as we had stared. It was plain that they knew as little as ourselves.
"He has passed into the guest hall," said one of the Mercians, looking round him wildly enough.
But that was not possible, for the door was in the outer room whence we had come, and it was barred on both sides.
"We are disgraced," said another, groaning. "Our charge has been made away with, and how we cannot tell. We shall pay for this with our lives."
Then Sighard said, "He cannot be far off. Men—think! How can he have gone hence? Who would make away with him?"
But there was no answer to these questions. The thing remained a mystery. If there was any plot, these three honest thanes were not in it. And then as I walked uneasily from side to side of the room, turning over impossible ways of disappearance in my mind, I came near where the great chair had been. And under my step the floor creaked.
Now seeing how that house was built, this was a sound one would not expect to hear at all. It came into my mind that here was one of the few floors which were boarded, the most being of beaten clay, or paved with great stones wonderfully. So I trod again firmly in that place, and it seemed to me that the floor gave, somewhat.
I reached out for the torch which I had set on the sconce in the wall and looked at the floor, but why it creaked I did not make out. The boards were of hewn oak, and how thick one could not tell.
"Fetch Offa the king," said a Mercian; "we had better tell him. No use in gaping here. We can swear that Ethelbert has not passed out of these doors."
"No," said Selred quickly; "that were to wake the whole palace. Let us seek further into this.—Thanes, if aught has been done amiss to our king, we are all in danger."
The floor creaked under my foot again, and I looked back to it. What I saw now made me start and call the others to me.
"See here!" I cried.
Round that clear space where the chair had been was a saw cut newly made. It went through the flooring, so that the square was like a trapdoor. And it was uneven, as if it had been made in haste. Then I knew what must have been the meaning of the sounds we heard and thought nothing of—the creak, and the fall, and the stifled cry.
Sighard looked once, and then threw himself on his knees, drawing his stout seax as he did so.
"Have it up!" he said, with his teeth clenched, "have it up!"
Then a thought came to me, and I beckoned to Erling. It might be that armed men lurked under that trapdoor, and that our end was coming; but at least we would have fair play.
"Go and bar the door to the great hall," I told him. "We will have none else in here if there is a fight. Then see if you can get the door to the guest hall undone."
He nodded and went out. One of the Mercians asked sharply where he was going; but Sighard paid no heed to him, for he was trying to get his blade into the saw cut, and so raise the square of flooring.
"Thane," I said to the Mercian, staying him from following Erling, "he will shut the door to the hall, and let this thing be seen through in silence. Go you and watch at the door of Offa, for it has bided untended long enough."
He went out in haste, and Erling watched him there. I saw him sit down to the table whence he had risen at my coming, and set his head on his hands as if in despair. I had no fear that he would call Offa yet, or that Erling would suffer him to go to his comrades in the hall. The other two stayed and watched Sighard silently.
Now the old thane had his blade fast in the timber and lifted. The square of floor rose slowly at that corner, and one of the Mercians set his hand to it. Another lift, and the whole was coming up, for the boards had been fastened together with cross pieces underneath, doorwise. As it rose I heard the fall of props that had kept it in place, and I bade Sighard have a care. I feared it would let him through suddenly as these props fell; but it had been roughly hinged at one end with thongs. He rose, and he and the Mercian heaved on the door and threw it back.
Then below us gaped a black pit which seemed to go deep into the earth, and for a moment we shrank back from it as men must needs do when a depth is suddenly before them. Nor should I have wondered if thence the bright points of waiting spears had darted upward in our faces.
But there was nothing save a little cold draught of wind that blew into them from out of that pit, and we looked into it. I held the torch so that its flickering blaze went to the bottom, and as we saw what was there a groan came from us.
There was the great chair lying, overturned on its side as it may have fallen, but it was dragged back from under the door somewhat. There were the cushions I had noted also—one lying on the stone floor of the pit, and the other on the seat of the chair. But there was no sign of the king—none but a stain of red on the cushions and on the floor, and on the blade of a sword which lay beside that terrible pool. And the sword was the king's own.
Then said Sighard, and his voice came hoarse and broken:
"Our king is slain! Hounds of Mercians, tell us who has wrought this!"
One answered him from dry lips:
"We cannot tell. It is a shame on the house of Offa, and on the very name of Mercia. Kill us if you will, for we are niddering."
He plucked his sword from his belt and threw it on the floor. The thane who had gone into the council chamber was on his feet and staring at us through the open doors, and Erling was ready to fall on him if he cried out. But the third Mercian, whose name was Witred, did not lose his senses thus.
"True enough," he said, looking fearlessly at the angry group before him. "But it were better to follow this passage and see if we may not overtake those who have been here.
"Bide here, paladin and priest, and keep our way back clear with my comrade yonder, and let us go quickly. If they slay us—maybe that is no loss, but at least we have done what we should."
Without another word Sighard leaped into that awesome pit, and Witred followed him. Then went our three thanes, and Selred and I stood alone in the room. I handed the torch down to the last man, and so saw that from the place where the chair was set a low stone-arched passage led westward into darkness. It was some work of the old Romans, no doubt, for no Saxon ever made such stonework—strong and heavy as rock itself.
The light flashed from somewhat on the wall also, as it seemed, drawing my eyes to it.
"Yonder is a spear set," I said to the thane, as he took the light from me; "hand it to me."
He took it from where it rested against the wall and gave it me, turning at once to follow our comrades. Then I knew the spear well enough, for I had seen it over close to me once before. It was Gymbert's boar spear.
CHAPTER XII. HOW QUENDRITHA THE QUEEN HAD HER WILL.
Slowly the footfalls of our comrades died away down the low passage, and then the last flicker of their torch passed from the stone walls of that terrible pit, leaving Selred and myself alone in the cold moonlight. Out through the doors toward the council chamber I saw the Mercian thane, who had been watching us in silence, sit down at the table and set his head in his hands wearily; and I heard Erling try the bars of the door to the guest hall, and finding it impossible to open, after a while pass into the council chamber, and set himself against the great door once more.
After that there fell a dead silence over all the place, and it was uncanny. It seemed impossible that all men should sleep in peace in the palace where such a deed had been wrought at our feet. I had rather the rush and yell of the Welsh over these ramparts they hated than this stillness of coldly-planned treachery.
Nor should I have been surprised if at any moment I had heard the tramp of men who came to fall on us and end what had been begun, or the cries and din of arms which should tell that they had fallen on the sleeping thanes of Anglia in the guest hall. Anything was possible after what had been wrought already, and indeed it was hardly likely that the king should be slain and the servants let go free.
I think that the stillness and waiting for unknown doings thus went near to terrifying me. I know that I started at every sound, if it were but the crackling of the little fire in the council chamber, or the low challenge of one sentry to his fellow as the word which told all well passed round the ramparts. Selred was on his knees, and I would not speak to disturb the prayers which we so sorely needed.
The time seemed long as we waited, but it could not have been much more than ten minutes before I heard the footfalls of our party as they returned by the passage way. One by one they came out from under the arch, and I took the torch from Witred the Mercian, who came first as he had gone, and then helped them one by one to the room again from the pit. Their faces were white and hard set in the light, and Sighard seemed as a man broken and aged in a moment with trouble beyond his bearing. Then I knew that I had to hear the worst, and made ready for it. Witred the Mercian told it quietly.
"This passage runs under the ramparts, and ends in a thicket on the steep by the river. I knew that there were old stones in that, but not one of us knew of the passage. That end has been newly opened, and the tools with which it was done are there yet. A man sat by that entrance on guard outside, and as I came I spoke to him by name and told him who I was. Then he stayed, and we fell on him and bound him without giving him a chance to cry out. Whereon he told all, and it is an evil tale."
He paused, and wiped his forehead, looking round as if he would have any man but himself tell it; but none else spoke.
"Yesterday Gymbert's men sawed the floor through and made this trapdoor. Then they waited underneath, and the king fell, as they had expected, into the ready arms that waited him. There were Gymbert and half a dozen of his men. The cushion stayed his cry, and he was helpless. Yet he was very strong, and so Gymbert snatched his own sword from his side and smote off his head. Out by the river they had a cart waiting, and they bore him away at speed. We saw and followed the wheel tracks till we lost them, and could do no more. Then we bound and gagged the man, and have haled him halfway down the passage till we need him again. That is all."
Then I said, with a cold wrath on me, "At whose orders was this done?"
The Mercian shook his head, glancing at his comrades. The other Mercian had come to hear from the council chamber.
"The man could not or would not tell; but I pray you think not that this is done by Offa. The one thing that the man begged us was that he might not be delivered to the king. And he said that Gymbert and his men would hide till Offa's wrath was past."
"There is but one other at whose word this could have been done," I said.
"Ay," said Witred, "I know. Yet Ethelbert was to be the bridegroom of our princess. Is it possible that Gymbert has looked so high, and would take him from his way?"
And at that one of the other Mercians answered bluntly:
"You speak of what is not possible, and you know it. Who but that one of whom we ken would have seen that those who wrought here with saw and axe were not disturbed? Let us say at once that the thing has been wrought by the hand of Quendritha, and have done with it. Which of us does not know that she is capable of it, and has never dared say so yet till this minute?"
Then said Witred, "That is the truth, thanes. Now what will you, for the time goes on? This man said that it was thought that the deed would not be known till waking time in the morning. It is not midnight yet."
We looked at one another, for what was best we could not say. It was more than likely that the queen had planned against some too early discovery of the deed, and even now waited for any sign which should tell her to act. But for the staying of that man at the entrance, I have no doubt that by this time her men had been warned to fall on us. The gathering of the Welsh, and the open passage into the heart of the palace, might be seeming proof that we had planned the downfall of Offa, and so short work with us.
Now one said that it were best to tell Offa straightway, but Selred and my comrades would not have that. We were not so sure in our own minds that he was guiltless in the matter; and at last Selred said that he would try to reach the guest hall and wake the other thanes and bring them here.
So we passed into the council chamber, and I think we were all glad to be away from the side of that pit. Erling stood at the great door, and he had taken the bars down from that which led to the guest hall. If only we could make some one of our folk hear without too much noise, they could unbar it from their side.
"There is one asleep near to it," said Erling; "I heard him in the stillness."
I tapped sharply once or twice on the heavy door with my sword handle. I heard the sounds the sleeper made on the other side, and presently they stopped suddenly. Whereon I tapped again, and I heard a voice, and then another, as if men heard it. And then a tapping came back. The door was very thick, and made of oaken logs, bound together with iron, so that it was hard to hear. But I set my face close to it and spoke, thinking that no doubt an ear was not far off beyond.
"Unbar the door," I said—"unbar."
"Who is that?" came the muffled voice.
Then Selred answered, and presently I heard the great bars being drawn from their sockets in the door posts, and at last the door opened slowly toward us. A thane was there with his sword in his hand, staring at us.
"Let me in, for I have a word to say," said Selred quietly. "Be silent, for one does not want to rouse the place."
He passed in, and we closed the door. Beyond the other door lay the housecarls of Offa down the long hall where we had feasted, and within his own chambers there were a score or more of the young thanes of his bodyguard sleeping across his own doors.
Now we heard the still voice of Selred, and after it a stifled outcry, hushed almost before it arose, and then silence. In a minute the door was pushed gently, and the father came back with a pale face. Ho had told the thanes, and they were arming in silence. Then they would come and see what we had seen.
"And after that?" said Witred.
"If I were in their place, naught should stay me here," said the Mercian who had bided with me plainly.
"No," said Sighard savagely; "I have a mind to bid them burn this hall over Offa's head, and meet their end in the turmoil."
"Thereby giving occasion to men to say that we wrought treason and were punished rightly, both ourselves and the king," said Selred coolly. "That be far from us, Sighard."
The old thane growled, and seeing that he was beyond reason, the priest set his mouth close to his ear and spoke to him. Whereon he calmed at once, and a new look of fear came into his face.
"Hilda," he groaned; "I had forgotten her."
Now the thanes came quietly through the door into the chamber, and one by one passed to that room where Ethelbert had been betrayed. Presently they were all gathered there, and when they saw, there grew a sort of panic among them.
"Let us hence while there is time," said one, voicing the fears of the rest; "we are all dead men else. This is what the earthquake betokened."
"It is the part of Anglian thanes to die with their king," said Sighard angrily.
"An there were a king left us to die with—"
Then Witred broke in with words of common sense which ended the talk. He had every reason to wish us gone, to save the terror of a wild vengeance let loose in this palace; and that we should go was best in every way.
"Thanes, thanes," he said, "listen to me. Tomorrow morning early men deemed that this would be found out. In the dawning the grooms lead the horses to water yonder at the river, and they are the first men afoot. Gymbert is gone, and on this thane here falls the task of ordering the stables. He shall bid your grooms keep together, and after watering lead your horses, as for airing, eastward to the forest paths. Go hence by this passage, and I will take you to some place which we will arrange, and there they shall meet you. Then make your way swiftly beyond the reach of Quendritha; yet it is in my mind that even Offa can no longer be blind to the evil she works. Her power will be little."
The thanes looked at one another, and then one or two said that it was not the way of Anglian thanes to fly thus; but they had little voice in the matter. The rest had no thought but to fly, and I do not blame them. Save some such savage work as that which Sighard would set on foot, there was naught else to be planned.
But I minded the voice and pleading look of that mother who spoke with me in the garden at Thetford, and I had a mind to stay and see this thing to an end, for it was all that I might do. Maybe I could find the body of her son and see it brought back to her.
"I bide here," I said; and Selred stepped to my side without a word.
"I also," said Sighard; "I have words to say yet before I die."
They tried to persuade us, but in vain, and at last they left the matter. In silence they went each to his place, and took the arms and things which were of value, and so passed down the passage with Witred at their head, and I heard one or two threaten the honest thane with death if he played them false. But he did not answer them, for he knew that they spoke wildly as yet in the new terror which had broken their sleep.
After that we went back to the council chamber and sat down. The worst strain was past with their going, as it seemed to me, and the morning would tell what was to be.
"We will stay here," said Selred. "There should be three thanes and myself, and you two and Erling will seem the right number when men look into this room presently."
So again the silence of the midnight came down on us, and in the chill we waited for the return of Witred; and it was two hours before he came. After him we closed the trapdoor, and the doors of the private rooms of the king who had gone, and then the Mercian planned that matter of the horses.
"Halfway to the forest," he told us, "some of the thanes would fain have returned to fall on this place, and take revenge and die. Once I deemed that they would do so, but that fit passed from them. Then they went on with me, and now they are safe. It may be that they will get their horses, and if not, they will scatter and make their way home on foot. Men who come to such a gathering as this have money enough with them."
After that it was a question with us, and a hard one, to know what it were best to do. It seemed terrible to wait there until men woke and learned all; but save that we might find Offa himself, there was naught else to be done. We must wait him. It is not to be supposed that his thanes would hear one word which seemed to hint that he had had any hand in this deed; but it was plain enough that they feared what evil Quendritha might not have urged him to, else had they made haste to call him.
Now, while we waited there and doubted, word came from Gymbert secretly to Quendritha that her bidding had been done, and that Ethelbert stood in her way no longer. In the darkness a thrall crept to where the queen sat at a window and watched, and made some sign which she understood, and then in a little while our waiting was at an end.
For straightway she goes to Offa, and stands by his bedside with eyes that gleam in the dim light of the lamp that burns in the chamber, and wakes him, but not easily. On him the potency of that Frankish wine lingers yet, and he does not rouse quickly, but stares at her with wondering eyes.
"Wake," she says. "Today you are the mightiest king that has ruled in England yet."
"Ay, and was so yesterday," he says, for so the songs of his gleemen tell him night after night.
"Rouse yourself," she cries angrily; "hear what I have wrought for you."
Thereat some remembrance of those other words of hers comes into his mind, and he wakes suddenly, fearing, and yet half hoping.
"What mean you?" he says.
"I mean that naught stands in your way from here to the eastern sea. Call your levies and march across the land in all its breadth, and there is not one who will forbid you. East Anglia is yours."
Now Offa looks on her face, and sees triumph written in her eyes; and he minds all, and knows that she has done that which he forbade her not, and round his heart is a terror and a chill suddenly.
"Wife," he says in a harsh voice, "what have you done?"
"That which you would not do for yourself, but left to me. I have taken the weak out of the way of the strong, and hereafter East Anglia will thank me."
Then says Offa under his breath, "Ethelbert has been slain in my house! There is not a thrall in all the land who will not sleep better than shall I hereafter. Yet I will not believe it. This is an evil dream. Let me hence!"
Then he springs from his bed, and the queen will not prevent him. Presently, she thinks, he will learn the truth and be glad of it. So she does but call the pages and armour bearers from the outer chambers, and bids them see to their lord, and so leaves him. Then he dresses and arms quickly, being minded, if the worst is not yet done, to see that all is well. Maybe she does but urge him to that which she would have him do again. And he will not do it. That much he knows clearly. For the rest, all is misty in his mind, and that is what Quendritha had planned.
So it came to pass that, even as we had made up our minds that we must needs call the king, the door to his chamber opened, and a page came out with the words that bid men meet the king, and we rose and stood to greet him. He came forth quickly, looking wild-eyed and haggard, with his sheathed sword grasped in the hand which held his cloak round him against the night air. He halted for a moment on the threshold, and stared at us; while from very force of habit we saluted, and spoke the words of good morrow that were but mockery today. And he knew it.
"Good morrow, forsooth," he said, in a terrible, dull voice; "and I would from my heart that so it may be. Tell me, thanes, is aught wrong here? It seems that all is quiet. Mayhap I have but dreamed of ill—dreamed, I say, for it could be nowise else. I had an evil dream. I thought that Ethelbert, my guest and son to be, was harmed."
He looked from one of us to the other, and our faces spoke to him, though we could find no words. The hand that held the sword tightened its grip on the gilded scabbard, and he strode forward into the room fiercely.
"It is no dream, but the truth," he said hoarsely. "Answer me, is it true?"
Now I saw the wrath growing in his face. And I heard Witred stammer, for the fear of the great king was on him; and I knew not what Sighard might not say in his wrath, for already Selred had his hand on him to stay him. So I spoke for the rest, being a stranger, and of no account if the anger of the king sought a vent on me.
"King Offa," said I, "there is evil wrought by stealth here, and your thanes are not to blame. Come with me, and you shall see that so it is, and you will learn the worst. Keep your wrath for those who are not yet named. It is true that Ethelbert has been slain this night; but he does not lie here."
The king went back a pace from me and paled suddenly. I did not know what he might do next, for I could not tell that this was but certainty to him of that which he had reason to fear. But he kept a tight rein on himself, and in a moment spoke to me clearly, if in low tones.
"You are Carl's messenger to Ethelbert, and therefore trusted by him. You have no need to keep aught from me, nor do you fear me, as it seems. Tell me plainly what has been done."
I think that he had not understood that Ethelbert had been taken hence, and that he dreaded to look on him. So I told him once more.
"Through the old passage which lies beneath his chamber men crept and slew Ethelbert. Then they took him hence; whither we cannot tell. It has been but chance that we have found it out before we went to call him in the morning."
"Silently, without noise, was this wrought, then?" he said, as if he hardly believed it.
"So silently that if noise there was we could not tell it from the sounds of men about the house. I pray you come and see what was planned."
He hesitated for a moment, and then knew that go he must, sooner or later.
"So let it be," he said. "Bide here, you others."
I turned, and led the way into the bedchamber. There I stooped and opened the trapdoor, and held the torch so that the light fell into the pit, without a word. He saw the fallen props, and the chair, and all else that told him the terrible tale. And as he saw he reeled a little, and I caught his arm. But he shook off my hand savagely.
"Tell me," he said, between his teeth, "have you hunted for those who did this deed?"
"Such of us as might go have done so. Your own door was not left unguarded, King Offa. But the slayers had gone far hence swiftly."
"An they were wise they would bide there," he said grimly.
Now he was more himself, and his eyes sought the pit and the room for all he might learn. I saw that he knew the spear of Gymbert, but he said nothing of it. It came to my mind that to his dying day King Offa would not forget aught that his eyes lit on in that place.
"There shall be a reckoning for this," he said at last, turning to me with a stern look on his face. "Tell me, is it said that in this I have any part?"
"None have said it, King Offa," I answered.
"They have but thought it," he said; "that is what you mean. Well, what is that to me? Yet hereafter you shall tell Carl that in it I had no part."
I bowed, and let that bide. It seemed that to be thought still the messenger for whose return Carl would look might be some sort of a safeguard to me if things went ill. Then Offa remembered somewhat.
"What of the Anglian thanes? What will they say when this is known by them?"
His brow knitted, for he thought of the likelihood of wild turmoil in the palace, and what would come of the cry of treason.
"They know, and have gone," I said simply. "It seemed best to them and to your thanes that, seeing that this deed was done and none could amend it, they should fly hence by this passage. It could not be foreseen how matters would go with them."
"On my word, some of you have your senses still about you," said Offa, in that cold voice of his.
And then all of a sudden his command of himself gave way, and he sat down on the bed and hid his face in his hands. With the passing of the Anglians the strain had gone from him as from us, and he was left with the bare terror of the deed he had half approved.
Presently he looked up, and the weakness had passed. Then he rose and signed to me to follow him, and we went out into the council chamber. And even as we closed the ill-fated rooms behind us, from his own door came forth Quendritha and moved swiftly toward him.
"My king," she said, "they told me that somewhat was amiss."
"Ay," he said, and his words were like ice, "there is, and more than amiss. Get you to your bower, and we will speak thereof in private."
He did not look at her, and went to pass her, almost thrusting her aside. And at that she gave a little plaintive cry, and would have taken his arm, saying for us to hear that he was surely distraught.
"Thanes, tell me what is wrong!" she said.
"We have no need to tell you," said Sighard savagely, and unheeding the warning grasp of the priest on his arm. "What has been done is your doing."
"What mean you?" she flashed on him with a terrible look.
Erling answered from where he stood with his back to the great door, "So you spoke in our old land on the day when our Jarl Hauk bade you confess the wrong you had done, before you were set adrift on the sea. It had been better had he slain you, as some would have had him slay, if it were but for the saving of this."
Now Offa had turned angrily as he heard Sighard speak to the queen in no courteous wise, but Erling had not heeded his look or what wrath might light on him. Before he could say aught, and it was plain that he was going to speak angrily enough, Offa heard the first words of the Dane, and checked himself.
And when he had heard, he said in a cold voice, slowly, "So that tale is true after all. I can believe it now, though once I slew a man who told it me."
With that he turned on his heel and passed through the door and was gone, paying no more heed to the queen than to us. For a long moment she stood and glared at Erling, and I think that she remembered his face in some dim way, so that the old days came back to her, and with that remembrance the terror that had been in them. And as she stood there in the torchlight she seemed to have grown old of a sudden, and her face was gray and lined, while her long white hands worked as they fell at her side.
But not another word did she say, though her lips seemed to form somewhat, and in her eyes was written most terrible hate and anger. She took her gaze from Erling, for he did not shrink from it, and let it rest for a moment on Sighard with a meaning which made him pale as he thought of Hilda, who was yet in her hands, and so went from the room suddenly, and the door was closed after her from within.
Then said Witred the Mercian earnestly, "Friends, an you value your lives, get you hence while yet that passage is open. I am going with those who do go, for we who have seen and heard all this will not be suffered to live to tell it."
"It seems to me that Erling's tale is not new to some folk here," I said.
"It is an old tale with us, but we did not believe it. It had been well-nigh forgotten, for it was nowise safe to do so much as whisper it.
"But, thanes, did you mark the face of the king?"
"It was terrible," said Selred, shuddering: "it was as the face of the lost."
And then out in the courtyard the horns blew the morning call cheerily, and the hall buzzed in a moment with the rousing of the men who slept along its walls, and there reached us the sound of jest and laughter and shouts as they waked the heavy sleepers.
"Thanes," said Witred, quite coolly, "if we want to see another day dawn we had best be going.
"Brother, I rede you go to the horse watering yourself, and take your best steed under you; and I pray you bring mine also.
"Paladin, that gay steed of yours will be with the rest—and yours also, thane.
"Erling, you shall in nowise go stablewards, but come with us."
The thane who had to see to the stables leaped up, and without more than a nod to his comrade and us went his way down the hall in haste.
"There are two or three things I don't want to leave behind," said Witred, "but I shall have to forego them. A man need not stop to gather property when Quendritha is at his heels. Come; why are you waiting? I tell you that we shall find the far end of that passage closed in one way or another if we haste not."
"My daughter!" said Sighard, groaning; "she is in the queen's bower."
"So also is Etheldrida the princess," said Witred. "She is of her court, as one may say, and will be safe. No harm can come to her."
"I fear for her," said Sighard, still hesitating.
"This woman, who has slain the bridegroom of her own daughter, will stick at little. I have offended her, and I know it."
Then Selred said gently, "I am going to stay, and I can do more than even yourself. Today the archbishop comes, and I will tell him of Hilda. Go, for I am sure that Witred speaks no less than the truth, else he would not fly thus. For her sake you must go, and I will bring her home. Have no fear."
"I am thought to be Carl's man," I said, "and one may suppose that I am safe. I will stay with Selred, and see what happens. It is in my mind to search for the body of the king, and surely none will hinder that. Erling must go into hiding, but in some way he must let me know where he is."
"That I can manage for you. I have men of my own in this palace, and they shall take any message. Erling can be hidden in the town easily."
So said Witred, and with that he would wait no more. We heard men coming up the hall, and though it was most likely but the thanes who should relieve those who had watched during the night, there was no more delay. Sighard shook hands with me as if he would set all that he wanted to say into that grasp, and then they passed down the passage once more and were gone.
For a while I waited, fearing lest I should hear the sounds of a fight at the far end, but no noise came. But just as I was about to set the trapdoor back in its place I heard footsteps, and stayed. They came from whence my friends had gone.
It was Erling. He came into the pit, set his hands on the edge of the floor, and swung himself up sailorwise.
"I did but go to see that they got away safely," he said. "You may need a man at your back, master, before this day is out."
"Erling," I cried, "I will not suffer this. I think I am safe enough."
"Well, mayhap so am I. If Quendritha slays me, it is as much as to say that my tale is true. Say no more, master, for on my word our case is about the same; and if I must die, I had as soon do it in good company, and for reason, as be hunted like a rat through the hovels of yon townlet."
CHAPTER XIII. HOW WILFRID AND ERLING BEGAN THEIR SEARCH.
Selred smiled and shook his head at Erling when we went back to him, but I could see that he thought no less of the Dane for standing by me. Nor did I, as may be supposed, but I had rather his safety was somewhat more off my mind than it was likely to be here. As he had returned for care of me, it would seem that we were each pretty anxious about the other; but there was no use in showing it.
Now the thanes who had the morning watch to keep came in, fresh and gay, with words of good morrow, and stayed suddenly and stared at us, for we three strangers had the council chamber to ourselves.
"Where are Witred and his fellows?" one asked me.
I thought the best thing was to tell them the truth, and I told all the tale of the night's doings in as few words as I could, and at the end said that offence having been given to Quendritha, it had seemed safest for those of whom he spoke to get out of her way for a while. Whereat the thanes made no denial, but seemed to agree that it was the best way for all concerned.
"This thing will be known all over the place in an hour or so," one said. "What will you yourself do?"
"I stay here to search for the body of the Anglian king, and for aught else I may do to help the chaplain here, and the ladies of the Thetford party."
Then Selred went into the inner chamber and gathered to him the little crown of the king, and one or two more things which were of value because of him who had worn them, and said that he would bestow them in the church until they might be taken back to his mother in Norfolk. I took his arms, and the sword we had found in the pit, for Sighard had brought that up from thence. And so we three went down the hall, none paying much heed to us, and into the church.
It was strange to see the gay bustle of the place going on with all manner of preparations for the wedding that should never be, and yet to say naught to stay it all. That was not our business.
Selred found the sacristan in the church, for it was the hour of matins, and between them they set what we had brought in the ambry which was built in the chancel wall. I do not know if Selred told the man why they were to be kept there. Then came Offa's two chaplains, and the bell rang for the service; and it was good to kneel and take part therein, while outside the quiet church the noise of the great palace went on unceasingly, as the noise of a waking camp. Beside me knelt Erling the heathen, quiet and attentive.
Somewhere about the midst of the service it seemed to grow very still all about us of a sudden. Then there were the sounds of many men running past the door, and a dull murmur as of voices of a crowd. The news of the deed of the night had been set going, and it was passing from man to man; and each went to the hall to learn more, for presently none were sure which king had been slain, and then many thought that it was Offa. Before the service was ended he had to show himself, and at the sight of him a great roar of joy went up, and men were at ease once more—concerning him at least.
When the little service was over I went to the church door and looked out on the courtyard; and the whole place swarmed with folk, for work had been stayed by the news, and none knew what was to be done next. If one could judge from the looks of those who spoke to one another, there were some strange tales afloat already. Some recognized me, and doffed their caps; but it was plain that they had no thought that I had been so nearly concerned in the matter, and I was the easier, therefore. And while we watched them Selred came to us.
"Now I am going to try to see our poor ladies," he said. "We must learn what they will do, for if they will go homeward, we are the only men who can ride with them. I know that you would fain go home, but I will ask you to help me in this. Indeed, it is a work of charity."
"Of course I will, father," I answered; "I am at your service and theirs, till you need me no longer. My folk do not so much as know that I am likely to be in England, let alone on my way to them."
"Why, then, your homecoming will be none the less joyful for you, good friend. But I pray you have a care of yourselves, both of you, awhile."
Now we went back through the church, and so passed into our lodging by the door which was between the two parts of the building of which I have spoken already. The priest had somewhat to take with him, book or beads or the like, and I would fain rest awhile after that night of terrible unrest.
"Go to breakfast in the hall," said Selred, "and there I will come to you."
It was somewhat dark in the outer room, and darker yet in the little chambers. Selred had to grope awhile before he found what he wanted; then Erling opened the outer door for him, and he went his way, and I would have the door left open after him for more light.
Then I went to my own chamber, sliding back its door and speaking to Erling at the same time, so that I had my head a little turned aside. Whereby, before I had time to hear more than a sudden scuffle within the dark chamber, out of it leaped a man upon me, sending me spinning against the opposite wall with a blow on the chest which took the breath from me for the moment, and then smiting Erling with a sort of back-handed blow as he passed him; but the Dane saw him in time, and set out his foot, and the man fell headlong over it. His head struck the doorpost with a great thud, and there he lay motionless, while something flew from his hand across the floor, rattling as it went. It was the hilt of a knife of some sort.
Erling shut the outer door in haste, and then helped me to rise, asking me if I were hurt.
"No," I answered. "Ho, but what is that?"
Out of my tunic as I straightened myself there fell a gleaming blade, and I picked it up. It was half of a Welsh knife, keen and pointed, which had broken on my mail shirt, leaving only a long slit in my tunic, and maybe a black bruise to come presently on the skin where the dint fell.
"I owe life to you, Erling," I said. "And I laughed at the thought of wearing the mail, and well-nigh did not put it on. But he smote you; has he harmed you?"
"The mail saved me also," he said, "for the knife broke on it; otherwise—No, master, I am not hurt; not so much as a cut tunic. I wonder if there are more of this sort in these dens?"
I drew my sword, and we looked cautiously into the chamber, and then into Sighard's, but there was no one there. This man had been alone, and he had fared badly. He lay yet as he had fallen, breathing heavily.
"This means that Quendritha is after us," said Erling. "Our old saw is true enough when it says, 'Look to the door or ever you pass it;' and that we shall have to do for a while. Now I have a mind to tie this man up for a day or two; we have a spare chamber for him."
"Do so," I said. "Then we will pass out through the church, and Quendritha will think that he waits us here yet, and we shall be the safer."
So we bound him and set him, still senseless, in the empty chamber of Sighard, making fast the door with the broken dagger so that, even if presently the man worked his bonds loose, he could not get to Quendritha to say that he had failed. Then I made Erling don a buff coat of Sighard's, good enough to turn most blows. He might need it if this went on.
"It is in my mind," said I when this was done, "that a crowd is the safest place for us just now. Let us go and see how matters fare at the stables. It is time that the horses came back from the water."
We passed through the church and went stable-wards, among all the idle and half-terrified thralls and servants; and when we came to the long stables with their scores of stalls, there was talk and wonderment enough among the grooms. Gymbert was nowhere to be found, and the other thane, who took his place and gave the orders when he was busy, had gone out with his horses, and had fled with the Anglians, it was said. None seemed surprised that they should have gone hastily, but the going of the king's horse thane was a wonder.
However, all that was good hearing to us, and I went to see what horses had returned. It was plain that Witred's plan had worked well, for only those which the ladies had ridden, the pack horses, and our own had been brought back. The young king's steeds were both in the stable where Offa's own white chargers were kept.
Somewhat late the breakfast call sounded, and I went back to the hall, not by any means wishing to seem put out by the flight of the Anglian party, as Carl's messenger. Erling sat where I could see him, below the salt; and I went to my own place on the dais, as before. There were not many thanes present at first, and Offa never appeared at all; and the meal was silent, and carelessly ordered, for the whole course of the great household had been set awry by the word of heavy rumour which had flown from man to man.
As the time went on a few more thanes came in and sat them down with few words, and those curt, and mostly of question as to where such and such a friend was. And soon it grew plain that man by man the guests of Offa were leaving him and the palace.
Maybe that was mostly because there had come an end of that for which they had gathered, but there were words spoken which told me that many who might have stayed left because of the shame of the deed which had been wrought. The great name of Offa was no cloak for that. Few spoke to me as I sat and ate, though many seemed as if they would like to do so but were ashamed. Those who did speak were only anxious to tell me that their king was surely blameless; that it was some private matter of feud—surely some Welsh treachery or the like; but no man so much as named Quendritha, whether in blame or in excuse.
Presently there came up the hall quietly one of the young thanes, boys of fifteen or less, who were pages to the king and queen; and he sat himself down not far from me below the high place, where they had their seats. I noticed him because he was the only one of the half-dozen or so who came to that breakfast at all, and also because he seemed to look somewhat carefully at me. As I still wore my Frankish dress I was used to that, and only smiled at him, and nodded a good morrow.
Presently two men near me rose and went, and as they did so the boy rose also, and taking a loaf from his table handed it to me gravely.
"Paladin," he said, "I think you need this."
He was a little below me, of course, and I bent to take it. He had both hands to the loaf, and with one he gave me it, and from the other dropped something small into my palm at the same time, so that the bread covered it there. I thanked the lad, and while he watched me eagerly, looked at that which he had hidden in my hand. It was that little arrowhead which I had given Hilda, and which I had bidden her send me if she was in danger or in anywise sought my help.
Somehow I kept my countenance when I saw that. I suppose it was because I knew that the need must be great when Hilda sent the token, and that no doubt the queen had her spies everywhere on me; but what thoughts went through my mind I can hardly set down. Fear for Hilda in ways that I could not fathom, and wonder as to how I was to help her, were the uppermost. I halved the loaf with my dagger, and handed the half back to the boy, who came close to the edge of the dais again for it.
"In the church, presently," I said to him, and he nodded.
I thought he might have some message also from her who gave the token.
Then I made myself bide a little longer, and it was hard work. As soon as I might I went out, Erling following me, and turned into the church. There I waited impatiently, with my eyes on the door of the great hall, in the porch, and at last I saw the page come out as it were idly, and turn toward me. Then a man came up to him and spoke to him, and the boy seemed eager to get away. At last he glanced toward me, and went away with the man, passing the door of the church, and turning toward the rearward buildings. I had little doubt that he was purposely being prevented from having more words with me.
That troubled me more than enough, as may be supposed, for what the need of Hilda might be I could not tell. And what I should have done next I can hardly say, for I was beginning to think of going and asking to see her; so that it was as well that as I stood in the deep porch I turned at the sound of hasty footsteps, and saw Selred coming to me from out of the building. He had passed through our lodging to the church as he had gone. His look was grave and full of care, but not more than it had shown before he left us.
"I have seen none of the ladies," he said. "The palace is in a turmoil, and Offa has shut himself up, seeing but one or two of his thanes, in grief for what has been done, as men say, and as may be hoped. Nor will Quendritha see any one, or let her attendants pass from her bower and its precincts."
"Father," I said, "I have had a token from the Lady Hilda to say that she is in sore need of help."
And with that I told him of our talk yesterday in the little wood, and of the coming of the page to me.
"I do not know what this may mean," he said gravely. "They say that the poor Princess Etheldrida is overborne with grief, so that they fear for her life. I thought that Hilda was with her; but this would suggest that she is not. Yet all the ladies of the court are within the bower."
Now there was a stir round the great gates, and a little train of clergy came through them, with a few lay brothers, who led mules laden with packs, after them. The whole party were dusty and wearied, as if they had come from far on foot; and indeed only one of all the dozen or so was mounted, and that was a man who rode, cloaked and hooded, in their midst on a tall mule. Before him the weariest looking of all the brothers carried a tall brazen cross.
"The archbishop," said Selred. "He has not turned back, or maybe the news has not yet reached him."
This was Ealdwulf, the Mercian Archbishop of Lichfield, and he had come for the wedding from his own place. He was a close friend of the king, who indeed had wished that Mercia should not be second to any realm, and had so wrought that an archbishop's see had been made for him, subject to neither Canterbury nor York. I suppose that somewhere men had been on the watch for him, for now came the clergy of the palace to meet him, two by two, with the chaplain of the king at their head.
They came and bent before him, and he blessed them with uplifted hand; and then I think that the first word of what had befallen was told to him, for as the chaplain rose and spoke to him the archbishop started somewhat and knit his brows. Nor did he offer to dismount as yet, but sat on his mule, seeming to question those before him, while his clergy gathered round him as close as they dared, listening. The men who had been hurrying about the courtyard had stayed their footsteps, and there was a strange silence while the bad news was told.
Presently the chaplain looked round and spied us, and at once came toward the church porch and said that the archbishop would fain speak with us.
So together we went across the court, and with me came Erling. Like us, he bent for the blessing of the archbishop's greeting, and then we had to tell what we knew of the end of Ethelbert. Ealdwulf would have it from us, as we were of the train of the young king. And when we had told all in few words, he said:
"I bide in this house no longer. Not until the day when King Offa will send for me will I stand here again, save for sterner reproof than I may give to any while one doubt remains as to who wrought this deed. Mayhap you men deem that you have reason to blame a certain one; but I need surety. Now, I lay it on you that you search for the body of your king; and when it is found, bring him to me at Fernlea, where I will abide. It is not fitting that these walls should hold him again."
And then, taking that brazen cross of his into his hand as token of his office, there, in the open court for all to hear, he laid such a ban on the one whose mind had contrived and on those whose hands had wrought this murder that I may not set it down here. But I thought that none who had any part in it could live much longer thereafter.
So he turned his mule and went away, leaving men staring aghast at one another behind him.
Selred and I followed him beyond the gate, watching how he rode with bent head, wearily, by reason of the trouble which had come to him, for he had loved the young king well, as men told us. And after he had passed out of sight I said that I had hoped for help for Hilda from him.
"Quendritha would not have seen him," said Selred. "I do not know what he could have done. Courage, Wilfrid! for all this is but a matter of last night, and even now the day is young. Get to horse, and do as he bade you; and presently, when you return, I may have news for you."
Loath enough I was to leave the palace, but yet there did not seem much use in loitering about here. I should not see Hilda, and Selred would be more likely to learn what was amiss than I. He said, also, that if he heard of any danger to her he would seek the king straightway, and demand speech with him on urgent business, so that he should see matters righted. And then a thought came to him, for I told him of the man whom we had bound in the empty chamber.
"My son," he said, "it were better that you were out of this place. Neither you nor Erling nor myself will dare sleep in peace tonight if such deeds are still planned. Listen. Arm yourselves, and go on your search. Take your horses with you, and presently follow the archbishop to Fernlea for the night. It will be thought that you have fled also. Let the man go to tell his tale, and it will seem certain that you have done so, in fear of what may happen. Then be in that little cover where we spoke with the king and Hilda tonight at the same time, and there I will come to you and tell you all I know."
"That is good advice, father," said Erling. "Well I know what holds the thane here, but he can do naught.
"Master, if yon thrall is come to himself, we will speak words which he will take to his mistress, and then we shall have time before us. He shall think that we have fled eastward with the rest."
Not anywise willingly, but as it were of our need, I knew that these two friends of mine spoke rightly; so we left the good father and went back to our lodging, there to gather what few things we would take with us. I had no thought that we should return to this ill-omened place.
In Sighard's chamber we heard the man shifting himself and muttering; and as those sounds stilled as we entered, we knew that he had come to himself, and that he was most likely trying to free himself from his bonds.
"This is no place for us, master," said Erling pretty loudly; "it is as well that we go while we may. Presently the road to the eastward may be blocked against us."
The man was very still, listening, as we thought.
"The sooner the better," I answered. "One might put thirty miles between here and ourselves before noontide. I have no mind to ride through Worcester town, and we must pass that either to north or south. Then we were safe enough."
Now the man shifted somewhat, and we heard him.
"That thrall lives yet," said Erling. "He listens."
With that he grinned at me and went to the door, drawing the knife blade from it, and sliding it back so that the dim light filled the chamber. As he went in the man was still, and seemingly insensible, as we had left him; and Erling bent over him, as if to listen to his breathing. Then he rose and came out, sliding the door carelessly to behind him. We had no need to keep the man now. It was plain to the Dane that he was waking enough.
He nodded to me as he returned, as if to say that all went well, but aloud he said that the man was still enough. Then we armed ourselves fully, donning mail shirt and steel helm, sword and seax and spear for myself; and leathern jack and iron-bound leathern helm, sword and seax, and bow and quiver for Erling—each of us taking our round shields on our shoulders, over the horsemen's cloaks we wore. None would think much of our going thus, for so a thane and his housecarl may be expected to ride in time when there is trouble about, more especially if there are but the two of them.
As we armed we spoke more yet of flight, and haste, and so on, till the thrall must have deemed that he knew all our plans.
We had little more than our arms that we would take. All that bright holiday gear I had bought in Norwich and Thetford, first against my home going, and then for this wedding that was to be, I left behind, taking only, in the little pack which Erling would carry behind his saddle, what linen one may need on a journey, and fastening my little store of jewels about me under my mail. Little enough there was, in truth; but what I had was from Ecgbert or Carl, with one little East Anglian brooch, set with garnets, from the lost king himself, and these I would not lose.
Money I had in plenty for all needs and more, as may be expected of a warrior who has seen success with Carl. Mostly that was in rings and chains of gold, easily carried and hidden, for a link of one of which I could anywhere get value in silver coin enough to carry us on for a fortnight or more.
Then we went round to the stables, leaving the place by the door away from the church, not minding who saw us go out. We had no doubt at all that word would go to Quendritha that we were unhurt and away so soon as we were seen to come thence; whereon she would send to seek her man.
"I would your steed was not quite so easily known," growled Erling to me as we crossed the open garth round the palace and entered what I call the street of small buildings which went toward the rear gate. "He will be easily heard of."
"When they find that we have not gone to the one side of Worcester, therefore, they will try the other," I answered; "that is, if any take the trouble to follow us, which I doubt."
"I doubt not at all concerning that," said Erling grimly. "Too well I ken the ways of Quendritha. Neither you nor I who know the truth of her sending to this land may be suffered to tell that tale, if she can prevent it."
The great skew-bald whinnied as I came to him, glad to see that I meant to take him out across the open country, and the grooms came in haste to see what I needed. And as they saddled the two horses, Erling was watching all they did, and had his eye on the doorway from time to time. But here it was peaceful enough, for the first turmoil of the morning had passed, and there were none but a few of the grooms about. There was no man to ask us aught, and we mounted quietly, without seeming to find much notice from any.
Now, as I have said, the rear gate of the palace enclosure led toward Mercia, and we rode straight out of it, and away down the road, grass grown and little cared for, which the Romans had once made and paved for the march of their legions. At first we went in leisurely wise, and then before we were fairly out of sight from the gate spurred away in haste. And so we rode for two miles or so, into the heart of the woodland country, where the road became a mere track midway in the crest of its wide embankment. Then we drew rein and took counsel as to whither next.
"Master," said Erling as we stayed, "did you see a man staring at us from out of a stable across the road as we started?"
"Ay. But I did not heed him; he was only one of the thralls."
"So he looked; but if that was not Gymbert, I am sorely blind today. Moreover, I looked back as we passed the gate, as if one of the guard spoke to me. The man was hastening toward our lodging. And he walked like Gymbert. Many a man can disguise his face; but, after all, his back and gait betray him."
Now if this was indeed Gymbert whom Erling had seen, it was plain that he waited about the palace precincts for speech with his mistress, or for some fresh orders, and I did not by any means like it. However, when I came to turn the matter over in my mind, I thought that after all, whether inside the palace garth or out, he would not be far from the call of Quendritha, so that maybe it did not so much matter. At all events, what I would do would be to bide as near to the place as I might without being known, and be content to hear from Selred that at least naught was wrong.
Troubled enough I was in my mind at this time in all truth. For it lay heavily on me that I had promised the poor queen away in Thetford that I would watch her loved son and if need be die with him, and I had lost him and yet lived. I know now that I had no real need to blame myself in this; but the thing was so terrible, and had been wrought as it were but at arm's length from me, that for the time I did so bitterly, framing to myself all sorts of ways in which a little care might have prevented all. As if one can ever guard against such treachery!
And then there was the fear for Hilda, none the less troublous that I knew not what her need might be. One could believe aught of cruelty from Quendritha.
Only these two things remained to me—one, in some measure to redeem my word to the mother of the king by finding his body; and the other, to stay here and watch as well as I might for chance of helping this one who had suddenly grown to be the best part of my life, as it seemed to me. And these things I told Erling, for he was my comrade, and together we had been in danger, and so were even yet. Rough he was, but with that roughness which is somehow full of kindness. And I was glad I had told him, for he understood, and straightway planned for me.
Most of all the difficulty in this planning lay in the outrageous colour of my good steed. Once we thought of tarring him; but a tarred horse would be nearly as plain to be noticed as a skew-bald. I think it says much for the steed that neither of us thought for a moment of parting with him. In the end we said that we would even take our chance, for if we were sought it would not be near the palace.
So we bent ourselves to plan the search for where the body of the king might be hidden, and that was to unravel a tangled skein indeed. All we knew was that the cart which had borne him from the end of the hidden passage had gone northward along a riverside track. Beyond that, we guessed that it might not have gone far, whether for fear of meeting folk in the dawning, or because the slayers would not be willing to cumber their flight for any distance with it. Moreover, Gymbert was in the palace, as Erling was certain.
We would ride northward and seek what we might till the time for meeting Selred came, working down the river toward the palace from far up stream. Sooner or later thus we should meet with the wheel tracks, and perhaps be able to follow them whither they went into the woodlands from the old stream-side way which Gymbert had at first taken.
CHAPTER XIV. HOW WILFRID HAD A FRESH CARE THRUST ON HIM.
Now we were just about to ride off the ancient road into the woods when we heard the muffled sounds of a party coming along the way. For a moment I thought that we were pursued, but then I knew that whoever came was bound in the direction of the palace. The causeway was straight as an arrow, as these old Roman roads will be, but the track men used on its crest was not so. Here and there a great tree had grown from acorn or beech nut, and had set wayfarers aside since it was a sapling, to root up which was no man's business. So we could not see who came, there being a tree and bushes at a swerve of the way. The horses heard, and pricked up their ears, and told us in their way that more steeds were nearing us.
"Ho!" said Erling suddenly. "Mayhap it is just as well that these good folk should see us in flight eastward. Spur past them, and look not back, master."
I laughed, and let my horse have his head, and glad enough he was. Round that bend of the track we went at a swinging gallop, and saw a dozen foresters ahead of us, bearing home some deer, left in the woodlands wounded, no doubt, after the great hunt, on ponies. They reined aside in haste as they saw us coming, while their beasts reared and plunged as the thundering hoofs of our horses minded them of liberty; and through the party we went, leaving them shouting abuse of us so long as they could see us. And so long as that was possible we galloped as in dire haste, nor did we draw rein for a good mile.
Then we leaped from the causeway, and went northward through the woodlands, sure that the chase for us would hear from the foresters whither we were heading, and would pass on for many a mile before they found that no other party had seen us. Whereon they would suppose that we had struck southward to pass Worcester by the other road, even as we had said in the hearing of the thrall in the house.
Then I thought that the chase for us was not likely to be kept up long, for it would grow difficult; but Erling shook his head. He had a deadly fear of Quendritha.
Now we rode for all the forenoon in a wide curve, northward and then westward, across the land which the long border wars had ravaged so that we saw no man save once or twice a swineherd. More than once we passed burned farmsteads, over whose piled ruin the creepers were thriving; and all the old tracks were overgrown, and had never a wheel mark on them, save ancient ruts in which the water stood, thick with the growth of duckweed, which told of long disuse.
And at last we came to the valley of the little Lugg river which we sought, and then were perhaps ten miles north of Sutton and its palace stronghold. The day had grown dull, and now and then the rain swept up from the southwest and passed in springtime showers, just enough to make us draw our cloaks round us for the moment, soft and sweet. In the river the trout leaped at the May flies that floated, fat and helpless, into their ready mouths, and the thrushes were singing everywhere above their nests.
Those were things that I was ever wont to take pleasure in, and the more since I had been beyond the sea. But today I had little heart to heed them, for the heaviness of all the trouble was on me. Maybe, however, and that I do believe, I should have been more gloomy still had I been one of those who have no care for the things of the land they look on, lovely as they are. I dare say Erling the viking took pleasure in them, if he would have preferred the wild sea birds and the thunder of the shore breakers to all this quiet inland softness. At all events, he had no mind that I should brood on trouble overmuch, and strove to cheer me.
"Thane," he said presently, even as I began to quest hither and thither by the riverside for the track of the cart, which indeed I hardly thought would have come thus far, "it seems to me that food before search will be the better, an you please."
"Why," said I, having altogether forgotten that matter, "twice men have told me that when Quendritha is at a man's heels he had better not wait for aught. Yet I blame myself for having forgotten. It is not the way for a warrior to be heedless of the supplies."
"When the warrior is a seaman also he cannot forget," quoth Erling. "Had you bided with Thorleif for another season, you had found that out. I have not forgotten. Dismount, and we will see what is hidden in the saddlebags."
We went into a sheltered nook among the water-side trees, and he brought out bread and venison enough for two meals each, and I was glad of the rest and food. He had helped himself at breakfast, he said, being sure that sooner or later we should have to fly the palace.
"Well, and if we had not had to fly?" I asked.
"Betimes I wax hungry in the night," he answered, smiling broadly. "It would not have been wasted."
When that little meal was done I leaned myself against a tree trunk, and said naught for a time. Nor did Erling. The horses cropped the grass quietly at a little distance, and the sound of the water was very soothing.
The next thing that I knew was that Erling was bidding me wake, and I opened my eyes to see that the sun was not more than two hours from setting, and that therefore I had had a great sleep, which indeed I needed somewhat sorely after that last night. The sky had cleared, but here and there the rain drifted from the sky over the hills to the west. I sprang to my feet, somewhat angry.
"You should have waked me earlier," I said. "Now it grows late for our quest."
"About time to begin it, master," the Dane said, "if we do not want to run our heads into parties from the palace. Maybe they will be out also on the same business. What we seek cannot be far from thence."
Then we mounted and rode down stream, quickly at first, with a wary eye for any comers, searching the banks for traces of wheels, carelessly for a few miles, and afterward more closely. But we saw nothing more than old marks. The track ended, and we climbed the rising ground above the river, and sought it there, found it, and went back to the water, for no cart had newly passed to it here. And so we went until we were but a mile or two from the palace, and then we were fain to go carefully.
In an hour I was due in the copse to meet Selred, and then men would be gathered in the palace yards in readiness for supper, so that we might have little trouble in being unseen there. Now, on the other hand, men from the forest and fields might be making their way palaceward for the same reason.
"I would that we could find some place where we might hide the horses for a while," I said. "What is that yonder across the river?"
There was some sort of building there, more than half hidden in bushes and trees. Toward it a little cattle track crossed the water, showing that there was a ford.
"The track passes the walls, and does not go thereto," said Erling. "It may be worth while to see if there is a shelter there."