So across the ford we rode, with the trout flicking in and out among the horses' hoofs. The building, whatever it was, stood a hundred yards or more from the river on a little southern slope which had been once terraced carefully. Over the walls, which were ruinous, the weeds grew rankly, and among them a young tree had found a rooting. The place had been undisturbed for long years; and I thought that it seemed as if men shunned it as haunted, for of a certainty not a foot had gone within half arrowshot of it this spring.
We stood in the cattle track and looked at it, doubting, for no man cares to pass where others have feared to step for reasons not known.
"It is an uncanny place," said Erling; "which may be all the better for us. At any rate, we will go and look into it. Stay, though; no need to make a plain track to it hence."
The cattle tracks bent round and about it, and as we followed one it seemed at last to lead straight into the ruin. So we went with it, and found the entrance to the place. Last year the cattle had used it for a shelter, but not this, and there were no signs that any man had followed them into it. And then I knew what the place was, and wondered at its desertion little, for it was a Roman villa. Any Saxon knows that the old heathen gods those hard folk worshipped still hang about the walls where their images used to hold sway, not now in the fair shapes they feigned for them, but as the devils we know them to have been, horned and hoofed and tailed. Minding which a fear came on me that the marks we took for those made by harmless kine were of those unearthly footsteps, and I reined back.
"What is there to fear?" said Erling—"fiends? Well, they make no footmarks like honest cattle, surely. Moreover, I suppose that a good Christian man need not fear them; and Odin's man will not, so long as the horses do not. The beasts would know if aught of that sort was about."
Whereon I made the holy sign on my breast, and rode to the gap in the white walls which had been the doorway, and looked in. I suppose that some half-Roman Briton had made the house after the pattern his lords had taught him, or else that it did indeed belong to the Roman commander of that force which kept the border, with the Sutton camp hard by for his men. If this was so, the Briton had kept the place up till Offa came and burnt the roof over it, for the black charcoal of the timbers lay on the floors. Only in one place the pavement of little square stones set in iron-hard cement still showed in bright patches of red and black and yellow patterning, where a rabbit had scratched aside the gathered rubbish. Across walls and floors the brambles trailed, and the yellow wallflower crowned the ruins of the stonework everywhere.
One could see that there had been many rooms and a courtyard, bits of wall still marking the plan of the place. And in this one corner there was shelter enough in a stone-floored room whose walls were more than a man's height. The cattle had used that for long.
"This is luck," said my comrade. "Here we can leave the horses, and if one does happen past here before dark and spies a pied skin, he will but deem that kine are sleeping here. After dark, who will come this way at all?"
"We shall have to," said I, somewhat doubtfully.
Erling leaped from his horse and laughed. "We may hide here for a week if we must," he said. "I think that the trolls have all gone to the old lands where men yet believe in them; and seeing that we are on a good errand, your fiends should not dare come near us. I care not if I have to come back here alone to fetch the horses when you will."
I dismounted also, for he shamed me, and I said so. Then we tied the steeds carefully, loosening the girths, and managed to get a sapling or two from the undergrowth set across the door to keep wandering cattle out. More than that we could not do, but at least the horses were safe till we needed them, and that would hardly be long, as we hoped. They had well fed as I slept.
Then we went away from the ruin, passing behind it up the little slope on which it stood, meaning, if we were seen, to come down as if we had not been near the place. And from the top of that slope we could see the walls of the palace, with the white horse banner of Mercia floating over them. From the roof of his villa the Roman captain could have seen his camp, and maybe that deadly passage into its midst was for his use. It led this way.
We waded through the ford again, and wandered down stream once more, looking as we went for the first sign of wheel marks. I was on the banks above the water by twenty yards, and Erling was at their foot, close to the stream, when we had the first hope of finding what we sought. I spied a rough farm cart standing idle and deserted fifty yards away from me and the river, in the brushwood, half hidden by it, as if thrust hastily there out of sight; and the very glimpse of the thing, with its rough-hewn wheels of rounded tree-trunk slices, iron bound, made my heart beat fast and thick, for I feared what I might see in it.
I called Erling, and as he ran to me I pointed, and together, without a word, we went to the cart and looked into it. It was empty, but on its rough floor were tokens, not to be mistaken, which told us that it was indeed the cart which Gymbert and his men had used. And so we knew that we could not be far from the place where they had hidden the king's body.
Now, if there had been traces of that burden which would once have led us to its hiding place, the rain had washed them away, and we had naught to guide us. The turf held no footmarks of men, and it was not plain how the cart had come to this place; for men had been hauling timber and fagots hence, so that tracks were many, and some new. All round us was wooded, and it seemed most likely that somewhere among the bushes they had found a place; and so for half an hour we went to and fro, but never a sign of upturned ground did we see.
"They brought the cart far from the place," said I presently.
And at that moment from the palace courtyard the horns called men to their supper, and I started to find how near we were to the walls. We had wandered onward as we searched, and it is a wonder we had seen no man. But perhaps it was because this place was mostly deserted, being out of the way to anywhere, that Gymbert chose it. The traffic of the palace went along the road to Fernlea and the ford of the host there, away from here. The carting of the wood cut during winter was over now, and it was too near the palace for the deer to be sought in these woods.
"Selred will be waiting me, and all men else will be within the walls," I said. "I must go to him. Will you bide here and search, or risk coming with me, comrade?"
"I come with you, of course," Erling answered. "The search can wait. There is moonlight enough for us to carry it on again this night, if we will, between these showers."
It rained again as we went through the thickets. Under cover of the driving squalls we might pass unseen to where the little copse we sought came close to the river. And we cloaked ourselves against the shower, pulling the hoods over our helms. None, if we were seen, would take us for aught but belated men hurrying to the hall.
Unseen, so far as we could tell, we came to the edge of the little copse and entered it. The whole breadth of it lay between us and the palace; and under its trees was pretty dark, for the sun had set. We turned into the path where I had walked with Hilda, and I half hoped to see the priest there, but it was lonely. Down that path we hurried and turned the corner, but an arrow shot from the ramparts, and again I saw no one coming.
"We must bide and wait," I said. "He will come when the men are in hall."
"I don't like it," Erling answered, speaking quietly. "You were to meet him at the same time as before; yet he cannot have come. None would wonder at a priest staying out after the supper call, but maybe men might wonder at his leaving after it had sounded."
For a quarter of an hour we walked to and fro in the wood, down one path and up another. Then we thought that we might be following the priest round the wood as he looked for us, and we dared not call. The watch on the ramparts was set already. Now the loneliness of the wood had made us bold, and we thought we had best go one each way, and so make sure that we should find Selred if he were here.
At that time we were at the far corner of the wood, which was square, with a path all round it and one each way across. It was a favourite walk of Offa's during summer, men told me.
Erling turned to the left and I to the right, and we walked fast away from each other. It was getting very dim in these overarched paths under the great trees, but not so dim that one could not see fairly well if any figure came down the way. There was no wind to speak of, and it was all very silent. One could hear the noises from the palace plainly at times, and in one place the red light from the hall shone from a high window through the trees. Just at this time the clouds fled from off the face of the moon, and it was light, with that strange brightness that comes of dying day and brightening night mingled.
I came to the corner where my path turned, and before me there was a figure, as it were of some one who had just turned into the wood from toward the ramparts. The way by which Selred and I came here last night was there. And it was surely the cassocked priest himself, though I could not see his face. I hurried toward him with a little word of low greeting which he could hardly have heard. My foot caught a dry twig in the path, and it cracked loudly, and with that the figure stopped suddenly and half turned away.
Then I said, "Stay, father; it is but I."
And with that came a little cry from the figure, and it turned and came swiftly to me.
It was Hilda herself, and how she came here alone thus I could not guess. She had on a long black cloak which was like enough to the garb of the chaplain to deceive me at first in the dim light, so that I made no movement to meet her. I think that frightened her for the moment, for she stayed, as if she doubted whether I were indeed he whose voice she thought she knew, until I spoke her name and went toward her.
And then in a moment she had sought the safety of my arms, and was weeping as if she would never stop; while I tried to stay her fears, and bid her tell me what had befallen her. And it was many a minute before I could do that.
As we stood so Erling came hastily, having heard the hushed voices. More than that he had heard also, for his sword was drawn. He half halted as he saw who was here, and pointed over his shoulder toward the palace gate, and then held up his hand to bid me hearken.
I lifted my head and did so. There were footsteps in the stillness, and a gruff word or two, and the steps came this way, and nearer, fast.
"Hilda," I said, "are you likely to be pursued?"
For I could think of nothing but that she had managed to fly from Quendritha, and that perhaps Selred had bidden her seek me here.
"I cannot tell," she said, and her voice was full of terror. "Take me hence quickly—anywhere. That terrible queen told me that you had fled, and so thrust me out to seek you—"
I did not wait to hear more, for the steps came on. Between us Erling and I half carried the poor maiden back toward the place where we had entered the wood, and we went swiftly enough. Yet we could not help the noises that footsteps must needs make in the dark of a cover, where one cannot see to pick the way.
Nor, of course, could those who came, as they tried to follow us. We heard them plainly entering the wood as we came to the edge of it and passed out toward the river bank.
"We must get back to the horses, and then ride to Fernlea and the archbishop," I said, under my breath.
"Ay, if we can," Erling answered; "but that is more easily said than done."
He pointed to the river and up it. The moonlight was flooding all its valley, and the last of the day still lingered in the sky. If these men came to the place where we stood, they could see us before we had time to get to any cover.
As we came hither we had gone easily, under the shelter of the gray rain, because no man was at this place to spy us. It was different now. The men were in the wood at this time as we stood and doubted. Next we heard them running to right and left, that they might be sure to meet whoever it was they sought; and plainly that could be none but Hilda, unless we had been seen. Yet we could hardly have been suspected to be any but late comers homeward.
"There is but one thing," I said suddenly. "We must cross the river. They will be here in a moment and looking into the open."
Hilda shrunk close to me in terror, and Erling looked at the stream. It was coming down in full volume after the rain, for up in its hills there had been much more than here. Across the stream were bushes enough to hide us.
"You have your mail on, and there is the lady. But it is not far; maybe we two could manage. We can't fight these men, or we shall have the whole place out on us like a beehive."
So said Erling, looking doubtfully at the water. I asked Hilda if she feared, and she shivered a little, but answered that aught was better than to bide and be taken by Quendritha.
"I can trust you," she said quietly. "Do what you will."
"Faith," said Erling, "one must do somewhat to stay these men, or else little chance shall we have of aught but a good fight here against odds. I count six of them by the voices. Wait a moment and we will try somewhat. Get you to the water, thane, ready."
I set my arm round Hilda and led her to the water's edge. Erling went to the very verge of the wood and listened for a moment. The men from either side were nearing each other, but as yet neither party could see the other. Then, of a sudden, Erling lifted his voice and called, as if hastily:
"Back, back! Get round the far end—quick!"
The footsteps stopped, and voices cried in answer. Each party thought the other called to them. Erling gave a hunter's whoop, as if he saw the quarry, and cried them back again. Then there were a quick rush away on either side, and more shouts, and at that Erling came to us, laughing.
"There will be a bit of a puzzlement at the other end of the cover," he said. "Now, master, let me see what water there is."
He stepped into it, trying the depth with his spear as he went. For ten paces it deepened gradually, and then more quickly. He passed on, up to his waist, then to his elbows, and so to his neck. Then he disappeared suddenly, and Hilda almost cried out. His head came up again in a moment, and he swam for three strokes or so, and then he was on his feet again.
Now he turned toward us, and felt about with his spear once more, and so walked steadily back to us—not quite in the same line, but with the water hardly more than to his shoulders.
"It is easy enough," he said. "I did but step into a hole, and so lost my footing. Pass me the cloaks, for we will have them over dry."
I took his from where he left it by me, and rolled up mine and Hilda's in it. Silently, but with a little wan smile, she took a scarf from her neck and gave it me to tie them with. Then Erling took them on his spear and waded back till he could toss them to the far bank, and so turned to my help.
By that time I had taken up Hilda as best I might, holding her high, bidding her fear not, and clutch me as little as possible. She said nothing, being very brave, but nearly choked me once when the water struck cold as it reached her.
The rising flood water swirled and beat on me as I went deeper and deeper, and glad enough I was when Erling came to my side upstream and helped to steady me. Once we stopped and swayed against the rush for a long moment, half helpless; but we won, and struggled on. Then a back eddy took the pressure from us, and we went more quickly and steadily, and so found the shallows, and at last the bank.
Thankful enough I was, for it had nearly been a matter of swimming at one time; and if that had happened, I hardly care to think how we should have fared.
I set Hilda down and gasped. She was not light when we started, but with each step from the deeps to the shallows she had grown heavier with the dragging weight of wet skirts; and that had puzzled me in a foolish way, so that I thought that the weeds were holding her down. Now we three stood and dripped, and were fain to laugh at one another; while the men we had escaped from were talking loudly at the far end of the cover, where they had met.
"That will not last long," I said; "they will be back at the water's edge in a minute."
Thereat we took to the bushes, which were thick here, in a little patch. Beyond them was a clear space of turf a hundred yards wide, which we must cross to reach more wooded land, where we might go as we pleased back to the ruin where the horses waited. Hilda went slowly, for the wet garments clogged her, and were heavy still.
We must bide here till the men went away, or till it grew darker; for there was no need—though they would hardly follow us—to let them know who was with their quarry, or that she was anywhere but on their side of the water. We might find our way to Fernlea cut off. We took Hilda into the thicket, and crept back to see what happened, leaving the dry cloaks with her.
The loud voices had stopped suddenly, and we knew that it meant that the men were coming back through the wood, beating it cautiously. We lay flat under the nut bushes and alders, watching, and the edge of the cover was not more than an arrow flight from us.
Presently there was a rustle in it, and a man looked out, but we could not see much of him. He spoke to another, and then came into the open, peering up and down the moonlit river. Another joined him, and this newcomer wore mail which glistened as he turned. A third man came from the other side of the wood and saw these two, and came to them, and there they stood and wondered.
"I could swear the girl went into the wood," said one; "I saw her plainly."
"Then she must be there still," answered the second comer. "Get back and look again."
"We have beaten the wood as if for a hare," said the third. "Unless she has climbed a tree she is not there."
"Well, then, look in the trees," said the mailed man, and with that he came down to the water, and turned his face toward us.
It was Gymbert himself.
"Mayhap she has drowned herself," said one of the men sullenly.
Gymbert growled somewhat, and turned sharply, going back to the wood. The other men looked after him, and one chuckled.
"Best thing she could do," he said. "Gymbert would surely have sold her to the Welsh."
"Maybe made her his own slave, which were worse."
"No, but he is out of favour just now. The money she would fetch will be more to him maybe. He dare not let Offa see him."
They turned away slowly. At least it did not seem that these two were much in earnest in the matter. As they went, one asked the other who cried the chase back after all.
"Some fool on the other side who doesn't care to own to it now, seeing that he must have fancied he saw her," was the answer.
Then they turned into the wood again and were gone. Still we waited; and it was as well, for suddenly Gymbert came back, leaping out into the open as if he thought to surprise the lost object of his search. He glanced up and down, and then went back. I heard him call his men together and rate them, and so they seemed to pass back to the palace. Their voices rose and died away, and we were safe.
CHAPTER XV. HOW WILFRID'S SEARCH WAS REWARDED.
For ten minutes after the last voice was to be heard we waited, and then, leaving two pools of water where we had lain, we crept back to the open and sought Hilda. I feared to find her chilled with the passage of the river; but, in some way which is beyond me, she had made to herself, as it were, dry clothing of the cloak she had given to Erling. What she had taken off had been carefully wrung out, and lay near her in a bundle. She laughed a little when I told her that I had been troubling about her wetness.
"What, with three dry cloaks ready for me?" she said. "I have fared worse on many a wet ride."
Then we crossed the little meadow swiftly, and entered the scattered trees of the riverside forest. After that we had no more fear of Gymbert and his men, and went easily. In that time I heard what had happened in the palace, and how this strange meeting had come about.
"Offa the king has shut himself up, and will see no man," Hilda said. "Nor will he go near the queen or suffer her to see him. He has had guards set at the doors of the bower that she may not go from it, so that she is a prisoner in her own apartments with her ladies. The poor princess is ill, and has none but bitter words for the queen; for all know by whose contrivance this has been done. I heard that all our thanes had fled."
There she would have ended; but I had to hear more of herself, and it was not easy for her to tell me. Only when Erling fell behind us somewhat, out of thought for her, would she speak of what she had gone through, after I had told her that her father was surely safe, and maybe not far off.
"The queen turned on me when she was left a prisoner. I do not know why, but I think my father had offended her in some way. I know that he speaks too hastily at times when he is angry. First she told me that he had slain our king, and seeing that I would not believe it by any means, said that you had done the deed—that she had hired you to do it. Thereat I was more angry yet, for the saying was plainly false, and had no excuse. And because I was so angry I think she knew that I—that I did think more of you than I would have her know. After that I had no peace. I tried to send the arrowhead to you by the little page who was left with the queen, and I do not know if you had it. He told me that you were yet in the palace."
"Ay, I did, and therefore I am here," I said.
"I was sorry afterward, for I did not know what you could do. The page was not suffered to come back, I think, for I have not seen him again. This morning the queen told me that you had fled, after slaying a man of her household. So she went on tormenting me, until I could forbear no longer, and told her to mind that my mother had befriended her at her first coming to this land, and it was ill done to treat her daughter thus.
"Thereat she turned deathly white, and she shook with rage, as it seemed. At that time she said no word to me, but turned and left me, and I was glad. Presently one of her ladies, who pitied me, told me that Gymbert had done the deed, as all men knew by this time, and that I was to be brave, for all this must have an end. And that end came as the sun set. I was with the princess, and Quendritha came in. First she spoke soothingly to Etheldrida, who turned from the sight of her, being too sick at heart to answer her; then she spoke to me, looking at me evilly, so that I feared what was coming.
"'You minded me that your mother was one of our subjects,' she said, in that terrible, cold voice of hers. 'Now I will see you wedded safely, to one who is a friend of ours.
"'No,' she said sharply, for I was going to speak, 'you have no choice. Whom I choose you shall wed. The man I have in my mind for you is our good thane Gymbert.'
"I suppose that she sought an opportunity against me, and she had her will. I do not rightly know what I said. The end of it was that out of the palace I was to go, and she bade me seek you, Wilfrid. It is in my mind that she meant it in insult, or that she deems you far away, careless of what befalls me. And I think, too, that after me she meant to send Gymbert."
Then she set both hands on my arm, and leaned on it, shaking. I knew that she was weeping with the thought of what had been, and I did not know what to say rightly. Only I was sure that the secret of the queen's coming was at the bottom of this, as Quendritha must have feared that Hilda knew it all, either from me or her father.
"Your father would not have fled had he not known that Selred and I were to stay and look after you," I said, lamely enough. "Have you not seen the good chaplain?"
She had not, and it seemed most likely that in some way he had been prevented from leaving the palace. Afterwards I knew that Offa had had all going out of the place stopped, hoping to take some man who knew more of the secret of Ethelbert's end, if not Gymbert himself. Hilda had been thrust out by a private postern hastily, and doubtless Gymbert had been told where to seek her long before. I believe it was no affair of the spur of the moment, but wrought in revenge on Sighard and myself.
Now what more I said to Hilda at this time is no matter, but at the end of the words I made shift to put together she knew that I could wish no more than to guard her with my life, and for all my life, and naught more was needed to be said between us. What we might do next remained to be seen, but the first thing now was to get to the archbishop, with whom we should be in safety no doubt. Even Quendritha would not dare to take Hilda from his charge.
I had forgotten my fear of the old walls when we came to the ruined villa. Maybe I thought thereof when I and Erling went in and found the horses all safe and ready to take to the road again; for in one corner of the wall among the grass shone a glow worm, and it startled me, whereat Erling chuckled, and I remembered.
We made a pillion of my cloak, and lifted Hilda up behind me; and so we set out in the moonlight to find our way to Fernlea, striking away from the river somewhat at first, and then taking a track which led in the right direction. And so for an hour we rode and saw no man. The land slept round us, and the night was still and warm, and I forgot the troubles that were upon us in the pleasure of having Hilda here and safe with me.
Presently we came out of forest growth into the open, and passed a little hut, out of whose yard a dog came and barked fiercely as we passed. There was no sound of any man stirring in the hovel, however, and we went on steadily. As the crow flies, Fernlea town was not more than five miles from the palace; but we wandered somewhat, no doubt, being nowise anxious to meet any men on the way, and also wishing to come into the town from any direction but that of the road from Sutton.
A quarter of a mile from the hut where the dog was we entered a deep old track, worn with long years of timber hauling and pack-horse travel, and under the overhanging trees it was dark again.
Now we had not gone fifty yards down this lane when my horse grew uneasy, snorting, and bidding me beware of somewhat, as a horse will. Hilda knew what the steed meant, and took a tighter hold on my belt, lest he should swerve or rear.
"'Tis a stray wolf or somewhat," said Erling from behind us. "The horses have winded him."
Then out of the shadows under the trees came a great voice which cried in bad Saxon, "Ay, a wolf indeed! Stand and answer for yourselves!"
"Spurs!" I cried to Erling, and the great skew-bald shot forward.
Out of the darkness, from the overhanging banks, and seemingly from the middle of the hollow road, rose with a roar a crowd of white-clad dim figures and flung themselves at the bridles, and had my sword arm helpless before ever I had time to know that they were there. And all in a moment I knew that these were no men of Gymbert's, but Welshmen from the hills spying on the doings of Offa at Sutton. Some one had told me that they were in doubt as to what his great gathering meant.
Now, if Hilda had not been with us, there would have been some sort of a fight here in the dark, for I should certainly have drawn sword first and spurred afterward. As it was, my only thought must needs be to save Hilda from any harm.
"Hold hard!" I cried in Welsh; "this is a lady travelling."
"Yes, indeed," one of the men who had hold of my bridle answered; "he says truly."
"A lady?" said the voice which had spoken first. "Let her bid her men be still, and we will speak with her!"
Then Hilda answered very bravely, "So it shall be. Bid your men free us, and we shall harm none."
The leader spoke in Welsh, and his men fell back from us. Then he came to my side and asked what we did here so late. And as he spoke it came to me that the best thing to do would be to tell him the very truth. No more than himself were we friends of Offa and Quendritha.
"To tell the truth, we are flying from Sutton," I said. "We belonged to the train of Ethelbert of East Anglia."
"Why fly, then?"
"Have you heard nothing of what has been done?" I asked.
"No. We heard that there was a king with Offa; that is all."
Then I told him what our trouble was, and the men round me—for I spoke in Welsh, learned when I was a child from our thralls—understood me; and more than once I heard them speak low words of pity for the young king. They had no unfriendliness for East Anglia.
"Then that is all that the gathering was for?" asked the leader.
And then he suddenly seemed suspicious, and said sharply, with his hand on the neck of my horse:
"But to come hither from Sutton you had to cross the river. Your horse is dry. He has not had time to shake the water from him yet."
"That is a longer story," I said. "But he was on this side; we had to wade to reach him."
The chief set his hand on my leg and gripped it. Then he laughed. "Reach down your arm," he said.
I did so, and he laughed again.
"Very wet," he said. "But the lady?"
"Very wet also," answered Hilda. "I pray you, sir, let us pass on, if only for that reason. I would fain get to the archbishop at Fernlea shortly."
"Why to him, lady?"
"Because even Quendritha will fear to take me thence."
"Eh, but you are flying from her! Then speed you well, lady and good sirs. We have little love for Offa, but he is a warrior and a man; whereas—Well, I will bid you promise to say no word of this meeting, and you shall go."
That promise we gave freely, as may be supposed. If the Welsh chose to swarm over the border and burn Sutton Palace, it might be but just recompense for what those walls had seen; but I thought that, with their fear of the gathering at an end, the man who had lit yonder hillside fires would disband his levies for the time. So we parted very good friends, in a way, and this chief bade one of his men guide us for the mile or so which he could pass in safety. We were closer then to Fernlea than I thought, and in half an hour we were at the gates.
Where our Welshman left us I cannot say. Somewhere he slipped from my side into the darkness, and when next I spoke to him there was no answer.
Now we had to wait outside the town gates—for the place was, as might be supposed, strongly stockaded against the Welsh—until one went to the town reeve and fetched him, seeing that we had not the password for the night. But at last they let us in, and took us to the house of the reeve himself, for the archbishop was there. And there is no need to say that when he heard our story he welcomed us most kindly, promising Hilda his protection. There, too, the good wife of the reeve cared for the maiden as if she were her own daughter, and I saw her no more that night.
As for myself, I sat down at supper, which they had but half finished, with the archbishop and his little train; and glad enough I was of it, and I and Erling ate as famished men who do not know when their next meal may be.
The archbishop watched us, smiling at first, and then grew thoughtful. After I had fairly done, he said:
"My son, I thought you had come to me with news of the finding of the body of your poor king. That is a matter which lies heavily on my mind. It must be done."
"I think I can tell you within a few yards, father, where it must needs be, for today I and my comrade have searched where it was taken. We have found, at least, the cart Gymbert used, and it cannot be far thence. We think that the cart was left close to the hiding place."
Then one of the priests said eagerly:
"Father, the moon lies bright on all the meadows, and we might well seek in the place the thane has found. This is a thing done at night in most seemly wise, as I think."
"Ay," answered the archbishop thoughtfully. "Yet it were hard to ask the thane to turn out once more."
"This is a quest which lies close to my heart, lord," I said, rising. "I will go gladly if you will let me guide your folk."
"Yet you are weary, and need rest."
"I have slept for long hours in the open today," I said. "I am fed and rested. Let us go."
For indeed, now that Hilda was in safety, the longing to end the quest came on me, and I should have slept little that night for thinking of it. Moreover, I should have no fear of Gymbert and his men spying me, and thereby making fresh trouble.
So in the end the archbishop said that we might go, and with that four of his priests and the reeve with half a dozen men made ready, and in a very short time we rode out of the gates again in the moonlight, on our way back toward Sutton. The river was between us and the Welsh we had met, and they were not to be feared. The monks were riding their sumpter mules, and the reeve and we were mounted on horses from his own stable or lent by his friends, and his men trotted after us, some bearing picks and spades.
Under the little hill whereon the palace stands we rode presently, and I suppose that we were taken for a train of belated chapmen, or that the guards saw we were headed by monks, and would not trouble us. Maybe, however, the disorder of the palace had put an end for the time to much care in watching, but at any rate we passed without challenge.
And so we came to the riverside track which should lead us to the end of our journey, and, as I hoped with all my heart, to the end of our quest. Already I could see the trees under which the cart stood.
Out of the southwest came one of those showers which had been about all day, and which had not yet quite cleared off from the hills round us. It drew across the face of the moon, which had been sending our long shadows before us as if they were in as great haste as we, and for a few minutes we stayed in the dark to let it pass. And as it passed there came what men sometimes hold as a marvel.
The rain left us, passing ahead of us like a dark wall, and the moon shone out suddenly from the cloud's edge, and then across the land leaped a great white rainbow, perfect and bright, so that one could dimly see the seven colours which should be in its span. And one end rested on the river bank close under the place where the cart stood among the trees, and the other was away beyond the forest, eastward somewhere.
"Lo," said the monk who had bidden us come, "yonder is the sign of hope, leading us as it were the pillar of fire of Holy Writ!"
"Men say there is ever treasure hidden under the end of a rainbow," said the reeve; "but never yet did I meet with a man who had found it. Yet I have never seen the like of this. I have heard that they may be seen at night."
And so said another and another; for indeed men look to their feet rather than to the sky at night, and thereby miss the things they might see. But a strange thought came to my mind, and I spoke it.
"Under the end of that pillar does indeed lie the treasure we seek. See, it is not on the wood, but on the river bank. We searched not there, comrade."
"Ay, we shall find it there," Erling answered. "It is Bifrost—Allfather's bridge. He takes his son home across it."
The rainbow faded and passed to the north and east with the rain, and it went across the land through which Ethelbert had ridden so gaily but a few days agone. Sometimes I love to think that its end rested here and there on house or village or church which had been the happier for the bright presence of the king, and betimes I think that a strange fancy for a rough warrior like myself. Yet I had ridden with Ethelbert, and the thoughts he set in the minds of men are not as common thoughts. I hold that once I rode and spoke with a very saint.
There fell a sort of awe and a silence on us after that. Silently we went on up the riverside track, for I was leading with Erling, and that strange belief that by the river we should find what we sought would not leave me; and when we came below the place where the cart was, I saw marks where its wheels had riven the soft earth close to the water. Without a word I signed my companions to spread abroad and search, and I dismounted, and with the bridle of my horse over my arm, I went scanning each foot of the ground in the moonlight.
Twenty yards, not more, from the water, where some winter flood had left a wide patch of sand and little pebbles, I saw the marks of the cart again. It had stopped there, and round the spot were deep footprints of men. They went on for a few yards, and then there was a little fresh-turned place. Out of that lapped a piece of cloth, plain to be seen in the light of the moon, but easily overlooked in the haste of those who had left it. And then I knew that I had indeed found the king.
Now I lifted my hand, and the rest saw me, one by one, and came to my side, and for a moment we stood still, not daring to disturb that resting. Then I took the spade one man had, and gently turned the gravel from that bit of cloth, and there was surety. They who set him there had but covered him hastily, no doubt because they heard our friends after them.
Little by little, and very reverently, we uncovered, and so took him from that strange resting, and the water welled into the place where he had lain. And as we thought, his head had been smitten from his body, and it was that which we found first, wrapped in the cloak whose end had betrayed his hiding. Yet had it not been for the token of the rainbow we had hardly thought to seek here, so near the water.
Men speak today of the finding of Ethelbert the saint by reason of the pillar of fire which shone from where he was hidden, and they tell the truth in a way, if they know not how that marvel came from the heaven before our eyes who saw it. Let the tale be, for from the heaven the sign came in our need and it is near enough, so that it be not forgotten. There is many a man who has seen the like, but not at such a time or as such a portent; and, again, for one man who has seen the bow in the clouds over against the moon are mayhap a thousand who may go through long lives and never set eyes thereon. Whereby it happens that there are some who will not believe that such a thing can be.
Now we wondered how to bear back this precious burden, until we bethought ourselves of that cart which had been used before. Erling and two of the reeve's men went to seek it, and it stood untouched where we found it. Moreover, those who fled from it in haste left the rough harness still hanging anywise from the shafts, and we were able, therefore, to set one of the horses in it without trouble. Then we made a bed of our cloaks in the bottom, and thereon laid the body, covering it carefully; and so we went our way toward Fernlea, silently and slowly, but with hearts somewhat lightened, for we had done what we might.
But yet I have to tell somewhat strange of this journey, and how it came about I do not rightly know. Nor will I answer for the truth of it all, for part of that I must set down I did not see for myself; only the priests told me, and they heard it from the men who did see.
This cart was old and crazy. I think that Gymbert must have taken it from some deserted farm, whence it would not be missed. It was open behind, and its wheels were bad. Still it served us; and glad enough we were of it, for the road was rough, and heavy with the rain of the day. It pained me to see the thing jolting and lurching as it went, knowing how little it befitted that which it was honoured in bearing.
Presently out of the roadside rose up a man, and joined us.
"Good sirs," he said, "I am a blind man, and would fain be led to Fernlea. May I go with you so far as the road you take lies in that direction?"
"Truly, my son," said the eldest priest. "But you are afoot late."
"'Tis a priest speaks to me, as I hear," said the man, doffing his cap in the direction of the voice and laughing gently. "Is it so late, father? Well, I have thought so, for there seem to be few men about. Yet I slept alone in a shed last night, and know not for how long. I think I have also slept some of today, for I am out of count of the hours. There is neither dark nor light for me."
He fell back and walked after the cart, saying no more. Now and then I heard his stick tapping the stones of the way, and once one of our men helped him in a rough place, and he thanked him.
Now we came to a terribly bad place in the road, and there the cart seemed like to break down; and it was the worse for us that a cloud came over the moon at the time, and it was very dark. Whereby the blind man was of much help in the care for the cart, until the moon shone out again suddenly, when he was left behind us for a few minutes. Then we heard him calling.
"Two of you help the poor soul," said the reeve, "else he will hardly get across that slough. He has fallen, I think."
He named two of his own men, and they went back. After a while the blind man's voice came again, and he seemed to be shouting joyfully. I thought it was by reason of the help that came to him.
"Thane," said the eldest priest to me just at this time, "I pray you ride on and tell the archbishop that you have indeed found what we sought. It is but right that all should be ready against the time we get back. We are not more than a mile away from the gates, and you will have time. This is slow travelling, perforce."
Erling and I rode on with the reeve, therefore, and I thought no more of the blind man, as one may suppose, until I heard what had happened.
When the two men went back to his help, he sat again by the side of the road, hiding his face in his hands on his knees. And he was trembling.
"Friends," he said, "now I know why you go so sadly, welladay! For evil men have slain some one young and well favoured, as I learned even now, when I helped you yonder. Tell me what has befallen, I pray you, for I am afeard."
"Why," said one of the men, "we are honest folk, as our being with the good fathers may be surety. The trouble is ours to bear."
But the blind man still kept his eyes hidden, and when the other man bade him rise and come on with them he did not move.
"I know not what ails me," he said. "Even as I set my hand on him you bear yonder, there came as it were a great flash of light across my eyes, and needs must I fall away and hide them. I fear that, not you, friends. I pray you, tell me what has been wrought."
"His foes have slain a bridegroom, most cruelly," one of the men answered after a pause. "We do but bear him to Fernlea."
"What bridegroom?" he asked, in a hushed voice.
And then the pity of the thing came to him, and he wept silently. Presently he raised his head, dashing away the tears as he did so.
"It is a many years since these eyes of mine have wept," he said. "It seems to me that to weep for the woes of another is a wondrous thing."
His eyes of a sudden opened widely in the moonlight, and he cried out and clutched at the man next him.
"Brothers! brothers!" he said; "what is this?"
And again he set his hand to his eyes as if shading them, as does a man at noontide.
"What ails you?" one of the men asked, wondering.
"I have no ailment—none. I see once more!" he cried. "Look you, yonder is the blessed moon, and there lies a broken tree; and see, there are fires on the hills of the Welshmen!"
Then with both hands wide before him he said:
"Now I see that I have set my hands on one who can be naught but a saint most holy, for therefrom I have my sight again. Who is this that has been slain?"
The men answered him, telling him. The blind man had heard, of course, of the poor young king, and had, indeed, been brought hither from wherever he lived that he might share in the largess of the wedding day.
Now the men would go their way with him again, wondering, but yet half doubting the truth of what the man said.
"It is in my mind that you have not been so blind as you would have us think," said one, growling.
The man pointed at the cart as it went.
"Would I lie in that presence?" he said.
And with that he broke into the song I had heard. Some old chant of victory it was, which he made to fit his case, being somewhat of a gleeman, as so many of these wanderers are. And there the men left him in the road, singing and careless of aught save his recovered sight, and hastened after the party.
Yet it was not until the next day that they told the tale, and whether the once blind man was ever found again I cannot tell; but I have set this down as I knew of it, because it was the first of many healings wrought by the saint we loved. I ken well that the tale is told nowadays in a more awesome way; but let that pass. Tales of wonder grow ever more strange as the years go on.
Men call Ethelbert a martyr now, I suppose because he was slain. That is not quite what we mean by a martyr, for that is one who gives up his life rather than deny his Lord. Yet Ethelbert was indeed a witness to the faith all his life, and so the name may stand.
So presently they brought back the body to Fernlea, and its resting was ready in the little church which had come into the strange dream by the riverside. And I knew, as I watched by it all the rest of that night till the hour of prime, that this was what the vision foreboded.
CHAPTER XVI. HOW WILFRID SPOKE ONCE MORE WITH OFFA.
Now that I had Hilda safe with the archbishop, it mattered nothing to me if all the world knew that I was yet here. So when Ealdwulf, the archbishop himself, asked me to ride with him to Sutton Palace and tell Offa of the finding, I said that I was most willing. I should see Selred, and maybe bring him away with me, and at least could tell him that all was well with Hilda.
I will say now that she was none the worse for the wetting and the rest of last night's doings, but that I saw her come fresh and bright to the breakfast in the little hall of the reeve's house. There she would bide till she could go with the archbishop homewards in some way, most likely from nunnery to nunnery across the land, as ladies will often travel, with parties of the holy women—that is, if Sighard was not to be found. In my own mind I thought that he would not be far off, most likely with Witred, the Mercian thane who had arranged the flight.
Presently, therefore, we rode away from Fernlea toward Sutton, there being but one priest with the archbishop, and six of the townsmen, besides Erling and myself. It was no state visit, but the going of one who would speak with an erring friend in private. Sorely downcast was the good man, for he loved Offa well, and this terrible wrong lay heavily on his heart.
Halfway or so to Sutton we passed the place where trees were thick, and I saw a man lurking among them as if he was watching the road. Wherefore I watched him, and presently saw that he was coming to us, as if half afraid. Somehow the walk and figure of this man seemed known to me, though his face was strange, and I thought that he made for myself. Soon I knew that this was indeed the case; for finding that there were none whom he need fear in the party, the man came boldly from the trees, and, cap in hand, stood by the wayside waiting me.
"Well, friend, what is it?" I asked, as he walked alongside my horse.
He answered in Welsh, and then I knew that he was the guide we had been given last night.
"Jefan ap Huwal the prince sends greeting to the thane on the pied horse, and bids him and the lady come to him if there is need for help. He has heard that the thane serves the Frankish king who hates Saxons beyond the seas, and thinks that mayhap he has foes here in Mercia."
"Thank your prince from me," I answered, after a moment's thought, in which it came to me that no offer of friendship was to be scorned, "and tell him that if need is I will not forget. Tell him also that, thanks to him, the lady is safe and well, and that I have no fear at present."
"That, said Jefan, is what a thane would answer," said the man. "Whereon I was to tell you that yonder evil queen was to be feared the most when she seemed to be the least dangerous. He wits well that she is shut up."
Then it seemed plain that the Welsh prince had spies pretty nearly inside the palace; which is not at all unlikely. However, I said nothing of that, and thanked the man again, looking to see him leave me. The archbishop had ridden on with the rest, for I went slowly, to talk to the Welshman. Still the man did not go, and he had more to say.
"Also I was to tell you that he had a chief of your folk in his hands. But that he deems that he belongs to East Anglia, he would have set him in chains. He is hurt, and is in our camp, free, save for his promise not to escape. His name is Sighard."
"Sighard?" I said. "How came he in your hands?"
"He came over the border, lord, and we had him straightway," said the man simply. "Methinks there were men after him."
"Where is he?" said I, anxiously enough. "He can pay ransom."
"He is ill," said the man; "he cries for his daughter. Jefan thinks that he is that thane whose daughter was in our hands last night with you."
"Ill?" said I; "is he much hurt?"
"There had been a bit of a fight before we took him. One smote him on the helm, and he was stunned. Thereafter he came to himself, and again fell ill. He will mend, for it is naught."
"But where is he?"
"We have many camps, and I cannot tell you. You are a stranger. But, says Jefan the prince, an you will come to him I am to guide you."
Now I was in doubt indeed, for this was a dangerous errand. The man saw that I hesitated, and smiled at me.
"Wise is our prince," he said. "He knew that you would fear to come, therefore he bade me say that you were to mind that once he had you, and set you free, and that he does not go back on his doings, save he must. He has no enmity for the friends of the slain king, but a great hatred for him who slew him."
"Would he not let Sighard the thane come to Fernlea, where his daughter is?"
"Truly, if you will. But it is safer for you to come to him. There Jefan will have all care for all of you until he may send you home. It is told him that Quendritha has sworn the death of four men—of the thane who rides the great pied horse, of his housecarl, of Sighard of Anglia, and of Witred of Bradley, who helped the Anglians to escape."
"How knows he all this? It is more than I have heard—if I have guessed some of it."
The man shrugged his shoulders.
"Thane," he said, with a sidewise smile, "a man who is thrall to a Mercian may yet be a Briton. The Saxon may make a slave of his body, but his heart will be free."
Now I was the more sure that this Welsh prince had some good source of knowledge of what went on inside the palace, and I thought that mayhap he was right. Across the Welsh border might indeed be the safest place for any man who had brought the wrath of the queen on him. I would go to Sighard, and take Hilda with me. One thing I was fairly glad of, and that was that so far as I knew none in all the court of Offa had heard who my folk in Wessex were, else there might be trouble for them; for Quendritha's daughter was not unlike her mother, if all I heard was true.
"Meet me tonight, then," I said. "I will go to Jefan, and will bring the lady."
"You do well," he answered gravely. "I will meet you somewhere on the westward track, a mile from Fernlea ford. You shall but ride on till I come. You shall choose your own time, for I cannot tell what may stay you. I have naught to do but wait. If you meet other Britons, tell them that you seek the prince, and they will pass you on. If so be you come not tonight, I will wait for another, and yet another. After that—"
"If we do not come, what then?"
"Doubtless we shall burn Sutton walls. A curse lies thereon now, and it may be that we shall wreak it."
With that he leaped across the brook which ran by the road, and passed into shelter. Then I turned to Erling, who waited for me across the road, and asked if he had understood what was said.
"Ay, all," he answered. "It is good enough; otherwise I might have put in a word. This Jefan has the name for an honest man, as I have ever heard."
"The one thing about it that I mislike is that we seem to be running away from hearsay," I said.
"Mighty little hearsay was that which set Sighard flying across the border, I take it," Erling answered. "Seeing that you have no more to keep you here, it is about time we went also. We have foes we cannot see, and are in a land of which we know not a foot. Jefan will help us to ken the foe, and will guide us when we need it."
Now of all things which I had in my mind, the first seemed to me to be that I must ride eastward with Hilda and see the mother of the slain king, to give what account I might of that charge she had laid on me. But if Sighard had been prevented from getting homeward, it was certain that so should I. Wherefore we should not be watched for on any westward road, and that way, at least, was open. Thence we might find our way when the days wore on and Sighard could travel. That remained to be seen; and, take it all round, I was more easy than I had been.
So also seemed the archbishop presently, when I told him the message I had had. And he agreed with us that we might do worse than go to Jefan at once with Hilda; matters being as they were, it was not safe in Mercia.
"He is a good prince and honourable," he said; "and if I say that, I speak of one who is the foe of our folk. He has suffered much from us, and has cause for enmity with Offa—and maybe with Quendritha. I can say plainly now that her restless longing for power has kept our armies busy many a time when they had been better at rest."
He sighed; and then came somewhat which turned our thoughts, and no more was said at the time, either of Quendritha or of my doings. For now we were in sight of the palace on its little hill, and from its gates came toward us a train of folk, guarded by men of Offa's own housecarls in front and rear, as if those who travelled were no common wayfarers. In the midst of all was a closed horse litter, beside which rode two or three veiled and hooded ladies and a priest. Save the captain of the guards, there was no thane with the party, and but a few pack horses followed them, and I thought it would be some abbess, perhaps, who was leaving the palace.
We drew up on the roadside to let this train pass, though I suppose that by all right the archbishop might have claimed the crown of the way for himself, had he been other than the humble-minded man that he was. As the leading guards passed us they saluted in all due form; and then one of the ladies knew who was here, and bent to the litter, and so turned and spoke to the captain, who straightway called a halt, and came, helm in hand, to the archbishop, praying him to speak with the lady who was in his charge.
Who this was I did not hear, but I saw the face of the good man change, and he hurried to dismount and go to the litter. And thence, after a word or two had passed, came the priest I had seen; and when he uncowled I knew him for my friend Selred, and glad I was to see him.
"Why, how goes it, father?" I said, as my hand met his. "You were not in the wood of our tryst, and I feared that you were in trouble."
Very gravely he shook his head, looking sadly at me.
"There is naught but trouble in all this place," he said. "I could not come to you, for the gates were closed early, that Gymbert might be taken. He was not taken. And yet I have heavier trouble to tell you than you can think."
"No, father," I said quickly, seeing that he had learned too little, and doubtless believed Hilda either drowned or else in the hands of Gymbert and his men—whichever tale Quendritha had been told or chose to tell him.
"I was in the wood, and thither came the lady we ken of when she was set forth from the place. I was in time to get her away, and she is safe."
It was wonderful to see the face of the chaplain lighten at this.
"Laus Deo," he said under his breath, and his hand sought mine again and gripped it. "That is a terrible load off my heart," he said. "Yet I have heard that our good Sighard is slain. They have burned the hall of honest Witred over his head, and he is gone, and it was said that Sighard fell there with him."
"It is not half an hour ago that I heard how he fled to the west, where the Welsh saved him, for hatred of Offa and pity for the betrayed Anglian king. He is safe, if a little hurt."
Now the horse of Erling reared suddenly, and I looked up. It was still in a moment, and he spoke to it without heeding me. But as soon as he caught my eye when I first turned, he set his hand carelessly across his lips, and I knew what he meant. I had better say no more of where Sighard was or how I hoped to see him.
So I said what I had to tell him of the finding of the king, and how we had come to tell Offa thereof; and as he heard, Selred the chaplain knelt there by the roadside and gave thanks openly, with the tears of joy in his eyes. The rough housecarls heard also, and there went a word or two among them; and their grim faces lightened, for one shame, at least, had been taken from the house of their master.
Now there was a sound as of a woman's weeping from the litter, and Selred heard it and rose to his feet.
"It is Etheldrida the princess," he whispered to me. "She is flying to some far nunnery—mayhap to Crowland—that there she may end her days in what peace she may find. It is well, for here with her mother is but terror for her."
The archbishop signed to me, and I went to the side of that litter, unhelming, while Erling took my horse's bridle. There I knelt on one knee, and waited for what I was to hear. It was a little while before that came, but the sobs were at length stilled. I heard one of the ladies, who were those who came from East Anglia, say to the other that it was good that she had wept at last.
And presently from behind the curtains of the litter the princess spoke to me, very low, and I do not think any other heard.
"Good friend of him whom I loved, I thank you for your loyalty to him. The archbishop has told me, and you have given me back a little of my trust in men. I had deemed that all were false for aye, but for you, I think. Now I go hence, and beyond the walls of some nunnery I shall never pass, and there I will pray for you also. And for you there shall be happy days to come, in the meed of utmost loyalty."
I could not answer her, and still I knelt, for there was somewhat needed to come ere I could part from her without a word. But before I could frame aught she set her hand through the curtains, and in it was somewhat small, as it were a silken case cunningly woven round a little jewel, perchance.
"There was none whom I would ask to do what I longed for," she said; "but now it will be done. I pray you set this on his heart, that it may go to his grave with him."
"There it shall most surely be, lady," I said. "I am honoured in the duty."
"Go!" she said faintly; "and farewell."
I rose up hastily, and went back to my horse, while the lady who had spoken just now busied herself in caring for her mistress. Selred took my arm and walked aside with me.
"You must not come back to East Anglia," he said. "I know that you would fain see the lady of Thetford, but it were useless danger for you. I will tell her all that you have done, now; and if in after days you may come to us, do so. Bide and tend Sighard and Hilda, and mind that there is sore peril to both of them so long as Quendritha lives. She is shut up now, but all the more has her mind freedom to plan and plot the fall of those who have seen her at her worst. One cannot shut up such a woman as she, but she will have her ways of learning all she will, and her tools are many."
"I would that you could bide here," I said.
"I also; but I must pass eastward with this poor lady and these others. Yet I am sure that Offa will do all honour to our king. He has been seen by none as yet save his pages. They whisper that he is fasting, and bowed with shame and grief."
For a little longer we spoke, and then we must part. The sad train of the princess went on, and swung into the eastward track which she would take, and the archbishop signed to us to follow him. And that was the last which any man in Mercia saw of the fair princess who had been the pride of the land, for she came safely to far Crowland, in the fenland, and there pined and died.
It is said that the parting between her and her terrible mother was such that men will tell little thereof. I know that in that time some strange gift of prophecy came over the maiden, and she foretold the death of her who planned the deed, even to the day, and the awesome manner of it; and that also she wept for the knowledge given her that the deed should bring the end of the line of Offa and the fall of Mercia—things which no man could think possible at this time, so that she seemed to rave. More things strange and terrible, I heard also, but them I will not set down. Mayhap they were not true.
Now we went on slowly up the hill, and at last rode into the gates. There men loitered idly, as yesterday; for the head of the house sat silent and moody in his chamber, and none had orders for aught. Across the court we went to the priests' lodgings, and thence came the chaplains to meet their lord, and with him I was taken into the house.
"I have come to see the king," said the archbishop; "take me to him straightway."
"He will see none," they said; "it is his word that no man shall disturb him."
"If he will hear what shall make his heart less heavy, he will see me," said the archbishop. "Tell him that I have news for him. Or stay; I will go to him myself."
The priests looked at one another, but they could not stop their lord; and with a sign to us to follow, he passed across the court again, up the long hall, and so into the council chamber. At the door which led to Offa's apartments there was a young thane on guard, but no others were to be seen. I suppose that never before had Offa been so ill attended, for the very courtiers feared what curse should light on the place and all who bided in it.
"Tell your lord that I demand audience with him," said the archbishop to this thane. "The matter will not wait; it is urgent."
The youth rose and bowed, and passed within the door. In a moment or two he was back again, throwing the door open for us.
"Yourself and no other, lord," he said.
"I take these two," answered Ealdwulf the archbishop. "I will answer to the king for their presence."
So we two, Erling and I, followed him into the chamber of the king; and with my first glance at Offa there fell on me a great pity for him.
He sat at a great heavy table in a carven chair, leaning his crossed arms before him on the board, and staring at naught with hollow, black-ringed eyes, as of sleeplessness and grief. His face was wan and drawn, so that he seemed ten years or more older than when last he sat in hall with us; and he was clad in the same clothes which he wore when he came forth to us on the morning of terror. None had dared to touch aught in his room; and bent and soiled among the rushes on the floor lay the little gold crown which he wore at the last feast, as if he had swept it from the table out of his sight, and had spurned it from him thereafter in some fit of passion. Hard by that lay a broken sword, and its hilt flashed and sparkled with the gems I had noted in the hall. It was his own.
On the table was neither wine nor food, but there was a great book, silver covered and golden lettered, and it was open at a place where a wondrous picture in many hues showed a king who seemed to humble himself in fear before a long-robed man priestlike.
He did not stir when we came in, nor did he say a word. Only he looked at Ealdwulf, as it were blindly, waiting what he should hear from his lips. And into his look there crept somewhat like fear.
But there was naught terrible or hard in the face which he looked on; it had but deepest sorrow and pity.
"My king," said Ealdwulf, seeing that he must needs speak first, "here is one who has a word for you. I think that you will be glad to hear it. Know you where the body of Ethelbert was hidden?"
"No," said the king in a dull voice. "My men search even now. It is all that I can do."
Then Ealdwulf bade me tell the story of the finding, and I did so. Yet the look of Offa never brightened as he heard, nor did he ask me one question.
"It is well," he said, when I had no more to say, and his fingers moved restlessly on the table.
But he did not look in my face, nor had he done so since I came before him. I stood back, and Ealdwulf was alone near him.
"My son," said the old man, "my son, this has not been your doing. I will not believe that."
Offa set his hand on the great book with its picture.
"As much my doing as the slaying of the Hittite by David the king. It was planned, and I hindered it not."
Then he set his hands to his face, and his voice softened. And at that I passed silently from the room, leaving those two together, for this was not a meeting in which I had wish to meddle. Erling came with me, and we sat in the council chamber for half an hour, waiting.
Presently—after the young thane had told us how that Quendritha was closely guarded, and that the voice of all blamed her utterly for every wrong that had been wrought in Mercia for many a long year, now that the fear of her was somewhat passed—Erling rose up.
"With your leave, thane," he said to me, "we have a few things left here, and our other horses still stand in the stable. It is in my mind to see what I can take back with me."
We went out together, for the stillness and waiting grew wearisome. There were none of the pleasant sounds of the household at work or sport in all the palace. It was as a place stricken with some plague.
So we passed through the church to our lodging, and took our few goods, and Sighard's, and so went with them to the long stables where our two spare horses stood in idleness. The rows of stalls were well-nigh empty now, those who had gone having taken their steeds.
"I wonder ours are left," quoth Erling. "These Mercians are more honest than some folk I know."
He called the grooms, and we made ready, taking the horses out to where the folk of the archbishop waited in the sunny courtyard, and there leaving them. Then we went back to the council chamber, and again waited for what seemed a long time. The young thane had a meal brought for us there.
Presently Ealdwulf himself came to the door and called me softly, and I followed him back to the presence of the king. I cannot tell what had passed between those two, nor do I suppose that any man will ever know; but Offa was more himself, save that on his face was a deep sadness, and no trace of hardness or pride therewith.
"Friend," he said, "is it your duty to go back to Carl the Great?"
"I have left his service, King Offa; I am on my way homeward. It was but by the kindness of Ethelbert, to whom I helped bear messages, that I came hither."
"Well," he said, "I will not hinder you. Had you gone back, I would have asked you to tell him plainly all of this. As it is, Ealdwulf shall send churchmen to tell him; I would have him know the truth. Now I must thank you for this that you did last night, and tell you what shall be done in atonement for the death of your friend."
There he checked himself and bit his lip.
"Nay," he said unsteadily, "there is no atonement possible. There is but left to me the power of showing that I do repent, and will have all men know it for aye. There shall be at Fernlea, where he will lie in his last sleep, the greatest cathedral that has been seen or heard of in this land, and men shall hail him as the very saint that you and I knew him to be; and after his name shall it be called, and in it shall be all due service of priest and choir for him till time shall end it. What more may I do?"
"I think that the place where his body lay should not be left unmarked," I said boldly, for so it had seemed to me. "May not somewhat be done there, that the spot may be kept?"
"Ay, at Marden," he said eagerly, as if he did but long to do all that he might, "there also shall be a church, that it may be held holy for all time. It shall be seen to at once."
After that promise Offa bade me farewell sadly enough, and I was glad to leave the chamber. Nor had we long to wait before Ealdwulf came out, and we were once more turning our backs on the palace of Sutton. On its walls I never set eyes again, nor did I wish to do so.
As we went in leisurely wise back to Fernlea, the archbishop told me those few things which I have set down concerning the way in which Quendritha had beguiled the king into suffering the thought of this deed of shame. No more than was needful for me to understand how little part, indeed, Offa had had in the matter did he tell me, for all else that had passed between those two was not to be told. Both he and I think that had the evil queen left the doing of her deed until morning it had never been wrought, for Offa would have come to himself.
Yet one cannot tell. What Quendritha had set her heart on was apt to be carried through, even to the bitterest of endings for those who were in her way thereto. How she would fare now Ealdwulf could not tell me. It was true that she was almost imprisoned, as I have said, but none could tell whether that would last. Yet he thought, indeed, that Offa would have no more to do with her.
So we came back to Fernlea, and when I saw the little church I minded once more that strange dream of the poor young king's. I had heard the words which told that it would come to pass. Nor was there any doubt now in my mind that all those things which we had deemed omens were indeed so. The fears we had tried to laugh at were more than justified.
CHAPTER XVII. HOW WILFRID AND HIS CHARGE MET JEFAN THE PRINCE.
Now I went straightway to Hilda with the news of her father, telling her that it seemed almost the best for us to trust to the word of the Welsh prince, and go to him, rather than to risk a journey hither for the thane if he was wounded.
"I trust you altogether, Wilfrid," she said. "Take me to him. I know that you have bided here in sore risk for me, and maybe you also will be safer if once we are across the Wye. The Welsh are not the foes of East Anglia."
I did not tell her that they were very much so of Wessex, on our western border; for at all events ours were Cornish, who had not so much to do with their brothers beyond the Channel here. So, having bidden her keep up heart, I sought the wife of the reeve, and would have given her gold to buy such things as she might think Hilda needed for travel.
"Dear heart!" she said, bridling, "set your gold back in your pouch. May not the reeve's wife of Fernlea give of her plenty to one so fair and hapless? I will see to that in all good time."
She stood by a great press against the wall, and as she spoke, as if by chance, she swung the door open, so that I had a glimpse of the mighty piles of homespun cloth and linen, her pride, which lay therein, Truly she had to spare, and I laughed.
"Mistress," I said, "be not offended. I am in haste, for we must go hence tonight. There is no time for planning and cutting and making."
She turned, swinging the heavy press door to and fro.
"Tonight!" she said, with wide eyes; "why so hasty?"
"Because her father lies wounded across the Wye, and we have to go to him. Maybe we shall have to ransom him."
"Man," she cried, "those Welsh are swarming beyond the river. Ken you what you are doing with this poor damsel?"
"Ay," answered I plainly: "I am taking her out of the way of Quendritha and of Gymbert. I have the word of Jefan the prince for our safety."
"Get to him," she said at once, "get to him straightway; he is honest. And on my word, if Gymbert is the man you saved her from last night, there is no time to be lost."
"He does not know where she has gone."
"Did not," she said. "By this time he kens well enough. Go, and all shall be ready."
I thanked her heartily, for she was a friend in need in all truth. And then I sought her husband, and told him what we must do. I do not know if I were the more pleased or disquieted when he said much the same as his wife. He would have us go from the town after the gates were shut, and he himself would see us across the ford. Once beyond that he did not think there was any risk. Most likely Jefan and his men were on Dynedor hill fort, their nearest post to the river, for he had seen a fire there. What he did fear was that Gymbert had his spies in the town, and would beset all the roads.
"He cares naught for reeve—or for archbishop either, for that matter," he said. "He has half the outlaws on these marches at his beck and call, and one has to pay him for quiet. Nor dare any man complain, for he is the servant of Quendritha."
So his advice also was that the sooner we were gone the better. I have somewhat of a suspicion that he half feared that his house should be burned over his head, like Witred's. It seems that when the archbishop came back here from Sutton he excommunicated, with all solemnity, every man who had aught to do with that deed of which he had been told. Wherefore Gymbert, if he cared aught for the wrath of the Church, might be desperate, and would heed little whom he destroyed, so that he ended those he meant to harm.
Then I called Erling, and we planned all that we might for going, and after that we two went into the little church where lay Ethelbert the king. There was silence in it, and little light save for two tall tapers which burned at the head of the bier on which he lay, but I could see that all had been made ready against his showing to the people on the morrow. A priest sat on either side of the bier's head, and one of them read softly, so that I had not heard him at first. So I stood and looked in the face which was so calm, and then knelt and prayed there for a little time.
When I rose I was aware for the first time that behind me knelt Erling, but he did not rise with me. He stayed as he was, and in the light of the tall tapers was somewhat which glistened on the rough cheeks of the viking. I knew that he had been mightily taken with the way of Ethelbert on our long ride with him; but he was silent, and said little at any time of what his thoughts were. I had not thought to see him so moved. Now he looked up at me as it were wistfully, and spoke to me, yet on his knees:
"Master, this poor king, who talked with me as we rode, bade me be a Christian man, that hereafter we might meet again. And you ken that I saw him, and how he spoke to me, that night when he was slain, so that from me you learned his death. Now I would do his bidding, and so be christened straightway, if so it may be."
I did not know what to answer, for it was sudden.
Not that I was much surprised, for Erling had ever been most careful of all that might offend in his way when he came into a church with me, but that here in the dim church the question came so strangely and, as it were, fittingly. I held out my hand to him, and looked round to the priests, who had heard all. One of them was that elder man who went to seek the king's body with us, and he rose up and came to us, and bade us into the little bare sacristy apart.
"My son," he said to Erling, "it is a good and fitting wish; yet I would not have you do aught hastily. How long has this matter been in your mind?"
"I think that it indeed began long years ago, when my lord here kept his faith with Thorleif when he might have escaped. That made me think well of Christian men. He had not so much as taken oath."
"Carl the Great would christen a heathen man first and teach him afterward," said I, meaning indeed to help on Erling's hope without bringing my own name into the matter thus, and minding Carl's rough way with the Saxon folk.
"Carl's man has taught first, and that all unknowing," he said, smiling. "I do not know what he speaks of, but it has been worth doing."
"I only kept my word, father, as a Saxon should."
"As a Saxon Christian has been taught to keep it, by his faith, rather," he answered, smiling at me. "Well, well, so may it be.
"Now, my son, you will need many a long day's teaching, mayhap."
"I think not, father," said Erling. "I have been in Wales, and there I learned well-nigh enough. They gave me the prime signing there. You have but my word for it, but Ethelbert himself said that an I would be baptized he would stand sponsor for me. He said it as we rode on the day of the great mist, when it chanced that all of us must pray together. He saw me make the holy sign, and asked presently if it was that of Thor. And I told him that in Wales I was what they call a catechumen. I mind me that so ran the word for one prime signed."
"And thereafter he spoke to you?"
"He said many and wondrous things to me."
I minded how often Ethelbert had spoken with Erling. I had deemed that he did but ask him questions of Denmark, as once he did in my hearing at the first.
So I wondered. But the old priest asked Erling to say the creed, and that he did well, and with a sort of gladness on him. After which the good father said that tomorrow should surely be the baptism, in all form.
"Nay, but here and now," begged Erling. "Tomorrow I must be away with my master beyond the river, and I would fain be christened here—in yon presence."
"Ay; why not," said the old priest, half to himself, "why not? Yet I will fetch the archbishop."
He led the way back into the church, and we entered just below the sanctuary steps. In the little chancel lay the king; and almost in shadow, for no window light fell on it, the font stood at the entering in of the nave, opposite the one south door.
"See," said the priest, "some one has come in. Maybe he seeks you twain."
I looked toward the door, and dimly I saw a tall figure standing close to the font, but I could not see who it was. Erling knew him.
"It is Ethelbert," he said very quietly; "he said he would be my godfather."
The priest set his hand on my arm and half shrank back. The other priest lifted his eyes from his book, and so bided, motionless. But I did not rightly take in what they meant, and looked more closely. Then some stray gleam of light from the broken sky overhead came into the door, and it shone round the tall and gracious figure—and it was that of Ethelbert himself.
I saw him, and there he bided while he turned his face to us, smiling at us. And so he set his hand on the font, and smiled again, and was gone.
"Brother," said the seated priest, "did you see?"
"I saw, and I think it is but the first of many wonders which we may see here."
Now we stayed there still and hardly daring to move, looking yet for the king to be yonder again, but we saw no more. Then at last the priest begged me to go to the archbishop and bring him, telling him what had happened. I went, and when Ealdwulf came there was no more delay, but where the form of Ethelbert had stood there stood Erling, and was baptized by the archbishop, I and the old priest standing for him. And thereafter he knelt at the steps of the sanctuary, and on him the hands of the archbishop were laid in his confirmation.
That was the most wonderful baptism I have ever seen, and it bides in my mind ever as I see another, even if it be but of a little babe of thrall or forester, so that for a time I seem to stand in the church at Fernlea once more, and hear the voice of Erling as he made his answers firmly and truly. Betimes it seems to me that it was but longing and the work of minds in many ways overwrought which showed us the form of the dead king there by the font—and I cannot tell. Yet the watching priest saw, besides us three who had searched for him.
Presently, on the morrow, and again in days later, when the body of the king lay for the people to pass and see, and when it was taken with all pomp to its resting in the great new cathedral which men call that of Hereford, there were many healings and the like, as they tell me. And at Marden, where Offa built at once the little church which should mark where Ethelbert was hidden, that water which welled from the place whence we took him healed many.
Now we went forth from the church for a little while, and presently I went back alone and placed the little gift which Etheldrida had given me on the breast of the king, hiding it next his heart in his robes. I had learned that they would not be moved again. Ealdwulf knew that I had done it, and when I came back to him, where he talked yet with Erling in the reeve's chamber, he asked me if I knew what the little case held. I did not, and that is known to none save to her who gave it me.
"I think that you two will value this more than other men," he said then.
And with that he gave us each a little silken bag, square, with a cross and a letter E worked thereon. He had cut for us each a lock from the head of Ethelbert, and had it set hastily thus for us. And he was right as to the way in which we held it of more worth than aught else. Hilda wrought the little cases as she sat waiting in the house. It is my word that mine shall go to my last resting with me.
Now all too soon the dusk came, and we must set ourselves back from these wondrous things that had been to the ways of hard warriors again, with a precious charge in our keeping. With Hilda we supped, and then it was dark. Out in the stables the horses stood ready, my brown second steed being made ready for the lady, and Erling's second carrying the packs, as on our first journey from Norfolk. And then we heard the last words of farewell from the archbishop, and knelt for his blessing, even as the watch mustered outside in the street, and the last wayfarer hurried into or from the gates, and I heard the horns which told their closing. It was dark overhead, and the moon had not yet climbed far into the sky; which was as well for our passing the ford unseen, if Gymbert had it watched.
Then the reeve came in, armed and ready, and we must go. There was a little sobbing from the good wife, as was no doubt fitting, but by no means cheering; and so we passed from the warmly-lit little hall into the street, and mounted, clattering away toward the westward gate of the town, with the reeve ahead and two of his men after us.
The gates swung open for us, and two wayfarers took advantage thereof to get inside, which was to their good fortune. Then we had a quarter of a mile of road to pass before we came to the ford below the field where our camp had been when we came. After us the gates were shut again, and we rode on.
Then befell us a wonderful bit of good luck. There came the quick tramp of a horse coming toward us, and out of the gloom rode a man in haste. He pulled up short on seeing us, and I heard another horse stop and go away directly afterward. It was too dark to see much against the black trees and land among which we rode, and the plainest thing about this comer was the little shower of sparks which flew now and then from the paving of the old way and from his horse's hoofs.
"Ho," said the reeve, with his hand on his sword hilt, "who comes?"
"Is that you, reeve? Well glad am I. Are you out with a posse against those knaves at the ford?"
"Eh," said the reeve, while we all halted, "is the ford beset with the Welsh?"
The man laughed somewhat.
"Not Welsh, but thieves of nearer kin. I ride homeward along the river bank, and they stop me. It seemed to put them out that my horse is not skew-bald, and that I am alone. However, they would rob me."
The reeve whistled under his breath.
"How have you got away?" he asked.
"Rode over one of them who held my horse. There was one after me, or more."
Now the reeve turned to me.
"What is to be done?" he said blankly. "This is what we had to fear most of all. This is surely Gymbert with his men."
"How many may there be?" said I.
"Ten or a dozen, and mostly mounted," the stranger told me.
Now I had no time to think of aught, for the men who waited for us heard the voices, and had been told that we had halted; whereon here they came up the road at a hand gallop, in silence. The two men of the reeve made no more ado, but fled townwards, and after them, swearing, went their leader. With him the stranger went also, shouting, and we three were left in the road with plunging horses; and then, with a wild half thought that we might meet and cut our way through these knaves ere they knew we were on them, I bethought me of somewhat. I cried to Erling, and caught Hilda's bridle, and so leaped from the road to the meadow, and held on straight across it toward the dim outlines of bush and furze clumps which I remembered as being close to our first camp.
I suppose that against the black woodland, with the town rampart beyond us, we were hardly noted, or else those who came made sure that we must try to get back to the town. At all events along the road they thundered, past where we had stopped, and on after the reeve and his men, who were shouting for the guard to open to them.
So we did not turn to right or left, but rode our hardest across the soft turf, among the ashes of our camp fires, until we were close on the place where Ethelbert had dreamed his dream of Fernlea church under the riverside trees, by the pool where I had bathed and frightened the franklin by my pranks. That schoolboy jest had flashed into my mind with the memory of the shallows and half-forgotten ford across them. I thought I might find it again.
"They are after us," said Erling. "Whither now?"
Hilda drew her breath in sharply, but made no more sign of fear.
"There is a ford here," I said, "if I can but find it. Let the packhorse go, if need be."
"No need yet; they are at fault," my comrade answered.
Now I saw the tree which had sheltered the king, and close to it was the ford, and already I scanned the surface of the swirling water for the breaks in its flow which would mark the shallows. The pursuers had spread abroad somewhat, and were keeping on a line that would lead them past us, for we had turned down to the river somewhat sharply.
Then the river water flashed white suddenly, and I pulled up. This ford was beset also, for across it, waist deep in the middle, hustled and splashed a line of men whose long spears lifted black lines against the gleam of the pool below. And I suppose we were seen at the same time against the white water; for there came a yell from behind us, and the hoofs which followed us trampled wildly after us.
At that the men in the water hurried yet more, passing to the Welsh side, and that struck me as unlike the men who would seek to stay us. And Erling knew what it meant.
"Welshmen," he said—"raiders! After them, and call to them."
With that I lifted my voice, and spurred my horse at the same time.
"Ho, men of the Cymro!" I cried in Welsh. "Ho! we are beset. Ho, Jefan ap Huwal!"
The Welsh stayed in a moment, with a roar and swinging round of weapons. Not fifty yards behind us, as the horses plunged into the ford, there was a shout for halt, and Gymbert's men reined up with a sound of slipping hoofs and clattering weapons on the steep bank above us. A sharp voice from the other bank called to know who we were and who after us.
"The Anglians!" I cried back. "Gymbert and ten men in pursuit!"
Then was a yell from the Welsh, and past us back they came with a rush that told of hate for Gymbert. For a moment the longing to get but one blow at that villain took hold of me, and I half turned also.
"No, no," said Hilda at my side, and I remembered I might not go from her.
So I passed through the water, and on the far bank turned to see what I might. The white-clad Welsh were still swarming back, and their leader began to try to stop them. I heard, as did he, the sound of retreating horsemen as Gymbert found out the trap into which he had so nearly fallen, and made haste to get out of it.
Now we were safe, and a tall Welshman came to me and welcomed us. All this far bank was like a fair; for it was full of cattle, and sheep, and horses, with a gray dog or two minding them.
"Jefan told us you were to come," he said; "but we looked for you to cross at the great ford. We thought none knew of this now."
I told him how I found it, and thanked him for timely help. His men were coming back, laughing and talking fast over the scare they had given their enemy. They had taken one horse also, in the first rush, but Gymbert had escaped.
The chief gave a short laugh.
"We were in time, indeed," he said; "but your coming fairly frightened our rearguard across the water more quickly than our wont. We could not tell who was coming. A wise man runs first and looks round afterward, when he is in this sort of case."
"It seems to me that you have been somewhat bold tonight," I said.
"Yes, indeed; which made us fear the more. But we have had a fair lifting, as you may see, dark as it is. Save that Offa has gone to sleep, as men say, we might not have come. We have lifted every head of stock well-nigh up to Sutton walls since dusk," and he chuckled. "There was no man to hinder us."
Then he told us that we were all bound for Dynedor hill fort together, and that there we should find Jefan. And so we went slowly, with the herd of raided cattle before us, with a silence which made me wonder. Presently I said as much, and the chief chuckled again.
"'Tis practice," quoth he. "An you had had as much raiding as we borderers, you would have learned the trick of quiet cattle droving. I doubt if ever you had need to lift a herd."
I heard Erling laugh, and he answered for me.
"The paladin has most likely stolen as many head in a day as you may find in a year. And I ken somewhat of the trade myself: I was driving his countryside when I first met him. But we have both done it with the high hand, and I think that yours is like to be the best sport. You are first-rate drovers!"
That pleased the raiders, and there was pleasant talk enough of old days as we went on. Presently the moon came out, and we went quicker. It shone on the white faces of the great Hereford oxen and kine, and showed us the keen dogs herding them skilfully as men.
So at last the black hill of Dynedor, crested with its works, rose before us, and from it shone a score of watch fires.
"See, Hilda," I said, "yonder is your father, and all will be well."
She answered me cheerfully, with a little shake of the reins, as if she longed to hurry on; and I told her that now I must keep her back, as she had kept me just now.
"Each to their own way," she said, sighing somewhat: "the man to his weapon, and the woman to the sickbed that comes thereafter. See what one evil deed has let loose on this land. It is terrible to me. And how long it seems since we came to Fernlea in the bright sunshine, deeming that all was to go well!"
"Yet all is not so much amiss," said I, seeing that the fears of the day had hold of her.
And so I told her of Erling's christening, and of what we saw in the church; for of this I had had no time to tell her before, save when Erling himself had been with us.
Then in very gladness, for she liked my comrade, she lost her gloomy thoughts, and would tell him softly of her pleasure. And so we climbed the steep of the hill, and were met at the gate by Jefan himself, with a frank welcome.
There were rough huts across the camp, set more or less at random, and among them burned the fires which we had seen. There would be about fifty men at most in the place, now that all had returned; but the prince told me presently that he had had more when first the alarm had been raised that Offa was summoning his thanes to him for some unknown reason; whereby I gathered that here he had waited for us.
"Lady," he said, as he helped Hilda from her horse, "your father is but weak. I think that he began to mend when I told him that doubtless you would be here tonight. I hope your ride has been easy and without alarm."
"Hardly," said the chief who had rescued us. "It was a hard ride for a matter of ten minutes, and we were frightened sorely. The lady is the bravest I have ever met, for she screamed not once; and the thanes are no bad judges of cattle raiding."
"Why, you have met with men after your own heart, Kynan," laughed Jefan. "More of that tale by-and-by.
"Well, lady, you are safe, and that is the best. Now you shall see your father.
"See to our guests, brother."
Jefan took Hilda's hand and led her to the best of the huts, and, with a word to one within, entered. In a moment he was out again, with a smile on his face in the firelight. I knew from that how Sighard had met his daughter.
Kynan gave some orders to his men, and they took our horses, leading them to a far corner of the camp. After that we were set down to a great supper, and the tale of the flight and the raid was told and retold. Then at last one fetched a little gilded harp, and Kynan ap Huwal, the raider of cattle, set the whole story into song, and did it well and sweetly.
After that was done came a white-haired priest, and we knelt for the vespers; and then the watch was set under the moonlight, and Erling and I stood in the gateway of the fort, and looked out on the quiet land below us. It was no very great hill, but the place was strong. How old it may be I cannot say, perhaps no man knows; but since Offa drove the Welsh to the Wye it had been set in order, with a stockade halfway down the steep earthwork round the hill crest, so that men on its top could use their weapons on those who were trying to scale it. The dry ditch was deep and steep sided, and, so far as I could see in the moonlight, on this side at least it would need a strong force to take it by storm, were it fairly manned by say two hundred men. The gate had been made afresh of heavy timber, narrow, and flanked on either side by overhanging mounds, whence men could rain javelins on those who tried to force it; and outside the gate were slight fences, which bent in wide half circles, inside which the cattle we had driven in were penned. Peaceful enough it all was, and the stillness of this hilltop after the long unrest seemed as of a very haven after storm.
Presently Jefan and his brother came back after posting their men, and then for half an hour I sat with Sighard and Hilda in the hut. The thane had indeed had a narrow escape from the burning hall, and had been left for dead by his pursuers. However, he had been but stunned by the blow which felled him from his horse, and presently recovering, had managed to get across the river and to some Welshman's hut, whence Jefan took him.
As for those who had burnt the hall, he was sure that they were led by Gymbert, and that they were no housecarls of Offa's. They had slain Witred and another of the Mercian thanes who had fled with him.