Then I asked him of himself and of his hurt.
"I am old to have the senses knocked out of me, and a blow that you might think little of is enough to keep me quiet for a time. However, that is all. Now that Hilda and you are safe, and the king is found and honoured, I have naught to do but to get well. Trouble not for me."
It seemed to me that there was no need for me to trouble about aught either, and out in the open air, by one of the fires, I slept till the dawn woke me, without so much as stirring.
CHAPTER XVIII. HOW JEFAN THE PRINCE GUARDED HIS GUESTS.
In the stir which comes with the waking of a camp, I and Erling went out of the eastward gate and watched the sun coming up over the Mercian hills across the river. The white morning mists lay deep and heavy below us, and the little breeze from the southwest drifted curls of it up the hill and across it, mixed with the smell of the newly-lighted fires; and as the sun touched the drifts they vanished. In the cattle enclosures the beasts moved restless and ghostlike, lowing for their home meadows after the night on the open hillside. Jefan had ridden out to go round his posts, and I was waiting to bid Hilda good morrow before breakfast.
"What shall you do next?" asked Erling, with his eyes on the misty treetops below us.
He was silent beyond his wont this morning, and I did not wonder at it.
"I can hardly say. I have thought that by-and-by, when Sighard is fit to move hence, we might get to one of the Welsh ports, and so cross into my own land, Wessex, unknown to any in all Mercia."
"That is good," he said. "I only wish we were a trifle farther from the Wye now, or that we had a few more men."
"You think that Gymbert is still to be feared?"
"T know it. Unless we get hence shortly we shall be fallen on. The reeve told me that he could gather five-score men of the worst sort in a day by the raising of his finger."
"It would need men of the best to take this place."
"Outlaws and suchlike I meant—men who will have Gymbert's promise of inlawing again if they will do his bidding. See, here comes Jefan!"
Up the hill from out of the mists rode the prince, and with him ran a few of his men, swiftly as mountain men will, so that the horse was no swifter up the steep. After them, through the mist, from men I could not see, sped an arrow, badly aimed, which fell short, and told of danger.
One of the two men who were at the gate on guard turned and whistled, and the rest, busy over their cooking, dropped what they held and ran to their weapons. Kynan came hastily to us, and watched his brother as he rode up.
"Jefan is in a hurry," he said. "Get your arms, thane, for there must be reason. Mayhap it is naught, however, for one is easily scared in a fog."
Still he was anxious; for if he had looked at me he would have seen that I was already armed, and that so also was Erling. We needed but our spears to complete the gear for battle—if that was to come—and they stood, each with the round shield at its foot, by the fire where we slept, twenty paces off.
Now Jefan pulled up, and tried to look back through the mists. They were thinning fast as the sun climbed higher, but were yet thick. His men came on and entered the gate, while Kynan asked what was amiss.
"There are men everywhere," one said—"Mercians. They must have slain the outpost toward the ford, and so have crept on us under cover of the thickness."
"Trying to see where their cattle are," said Kynan. "They will not come up here."
The man shook his head, but laughed.
"They are bold enough to shoot at us, however," he said.
"You would do the same if you met a Mercian cattle lifter," laughed Kynan. "That is naught."
Jefan rode in slowly, bidding us good morrow cheerfully as he came. Kynan said that he supposed the owners of the kine were about.
"They, or some others who should be on the other side of the river," answered his brother carelessly, as he dismounted. "Send a picket down on the west side of the hill, and bid them be wary. Let them eat their breakfast as they go, and send men to keep in touch with them. I can see naught in this mist, and if we have to leave here we must know in time. Come, let us get to our meal."
Plainly enough I saw that there was more in the matter than Jefan would let his men know yet; but if I was anxious, I would no more show it than he. So we sat down to the food his men had ready, and before we had half finished a man came and spoke to him quietly and went his way again.
"One of the western picket. It seems that here we must stay for a while."
So said Jefan, and laughed a short laugh. But he did not look at his brother, nor did Kynan look at him.
"That is the worst of a raid," said Kynan. "It stirs up such a hornet's nest round one's ears. However, we on the border are somewhat used to it. We can take care of ourselves."
We went on eating, and then a second man came; and Jefan told him to call in the pickets, after he had heard what was said. Then he turned to me at last.
"Thane," he said, "we seem to be beset here, but how and with what force we cannot yet tell. I am sorry, for your sakes and the lady's, that so it is. I fear our raid has made trouble for you, by bringing Offa's men on us in the hope we may be forced to return our booty."
"Our fault, I fear, for keeping you here, prince," said I. "I think that of your kindness to us you have stayed longer near the river than you might have done at any other time."
"That were to credit me with too much," he said. "Mostly the Mercians care little to follow us. There lies our mistake."
"Then it may be that Gymbert is after us," said I, "and this has happened because he knows that we are here. He is doing Quendritha's bidding."
"Not likely in the least," said Kynan; "it is just a cattle affair. It is my fault for suggesting a raid last evening. I would go, though Jefan had no mind for it."
"Do not listen to him, thanes. I did but stay here because it was his turn to go. One of us must needs bide in the camp."
Then they both laughed, and I dare say would have gone on with their jest; but there came a cry from the gate, and they both leaped up. It was the word that a man bearing a white scarf on a spear was coming.
They went to the gate, which was not yet closed, and Erling and I climbed the rampart near and looked over, bareheaded, lest our English helms should tell who we were. In my own mind I was pretty sure that we were sought.
The mists had thinned to nothing, and only lingered in the hollows and round the scattered tree clumps. Long ago the Welsh had bared all this hillside, and there was no cover for a foe as he came up the hill. Across the grass came one man alone, and that man was Gymbert, as I had half expected. It was ourselves whom he was after. Maybe his only chance of regaining favour with the king being through Quendritha, he was trying his best to pleasure her. Or else she had threatened him. Either would be enough to set him on his mettle, for none with whom I had spoken thought that the forced retirement of the queen would last long. She would soon be as powerful as ever, they said.
Now he came within half arrow shot of the gate, outside of which the two princes stood. There he halted, and lowered his spear to the ground.
"Jefan ap Huwal the prince?" he said in the best of Welsh.
"You know me well enough by sight," Jefan replied. "There needs no ceremony. Tell us what you want here."
"I bring a message from Offa the king. It is his word that, if you will give up the English fugitives you have with you, this matter of the cattle will not be noticed."
"We have no objection to its being noticed," said Jefan. "I don't know what else you could do about it. But you say this message is from Offa?"
"Ay. You have here with you a Frankish thane, so called, being a Wessex man in disguise, a heathen Dane his servant, and a girl, escaped thrall of the queen. Doubtless you have apprehended them for us, and I only need ask you to give them up."
"This needs no answering, Gymbert. You never were known as a truth teller. This is your own affair, or Quendritha's, for Offa has seen no man to give any such order to. Nor dare you go near him on your own account, or short would be your shrift. Get hence, and take your lies back to her who sent you. Mayhap you have told that queen that you have slain Sighard the thane. If so, another lie or two will make no odds."
Thereat Gymbert grew purple with passion. Plainly that was just what he had told the queen. And now he began to bluster, after his wont, stammering with rage. He had forgotten what we must have told the princes.
"You hear the message? Pay heed to it, or it will be the worse for you. Set these folk outside the walls straightway, or else—"
He shook his spear at the gate.
"I will not give them up," said Jefan; "and if—"
He set his hand on his sword hilt and laughed. Naught more was needed.
Then Kynan, who was fairly stamping, broke in, being nowise so patient as his brother:
"Hence, knave and liar! If there were naught else, it were enough that you have called a freeborn thane's daughter a thrall to your evil mistress. The truce is at an end."
His sword flashed out, and Gymbert was ware of bent bows on the rampart which had more than a menace for him. He turned his horse slowly and went his way, only quickening his pace when he was out of range. Just before that some man loosed an arrow at him, which missed him but nearly; and at that Jefan's pent up rage found a vent.
"Take that man and bind him!" he cried to those on the rampart. "Shame on us that a truce bearer should be shot at. Bind him, and set me up a gallows that the country round may see."
I saw the man throw down his bow and hold out his hands.
"The prince is right," he said in a dull voice.
Jefan walked up to him and looked at him.
"So you own that? Well, you shall not die.
"Set him in a hut till this affair is ended, and then we will think of what shall be done to him."
His passion had blazed up and passed as the fierce rage of the Cymro will. They took the man away, and he turned to us with a word of regret on his lips, and that was cut short by a yell from the rampart, while the gate was swung to and barred hastily. I ran to my spear and shield, while Kynan cried to his men to get to their places; and scattered enough they seemed as they lined the ramparts. Already they had driven the cattle from the enclosures westward down the hill to the woodlands.
As I took my spear from the place where it stood upright, I looked toward the hut where Hilda was, and saw her standing in the door. It was the first sight I had of her that morning, and now her eyes were wide with wonder at the cries and bustle of armed men.
"Wilfrid, what is it all?" she cried.
"Gymbert has gathered some men, and is trying to make Jefan give us up," I said, knowing it was best to tell her plainly. "But you need have no fear; this place is strong, and the man cannot have any following worth naming."
"There will be fighting?"
"I think there will be little; but the arrows may come over the rampart, and you must keep under cover."
"Shall you take part if there is any?"
"Why, of course," said I, laughing; "it is for you."
She looked at me, and I know that for a moment she had a mind to beg me not to fight; but that she could not do, and so she only smiled a wan smile and bade me have a care. So I bent and kissed her hand, and she went back into the hut. Sighard was calling to her to come and tell him what all the turmoil was.
Then I hurried to where Jefan stood on the works by the gate, whence one could see all over the camp, and half round the hillside as well. Not a shred of mist was left, and it was as glorious a morning as one could see; only it was hotter than the wont of a Maytime morning, and over the southward hung a heavy, white-topped cloud bank, with a promise of thunder in its pile. Not that I noted it now, but I had done so. From the ramparts there was more than enough to keep my eyes on the hillside.
Up the steep came three bodies of men, to right and left, where the hill was sharpest, and straight for the gate, where there was a long, even slope ending in a platform, as it were, before it. Gymbert himself headed this company on foot, and men whose names the princes seemed to scorn altogether led the others. Altogether there were not less than a hundred and fifty men; but as they drew nearer I saw that they were not at all the sort of force with which I should hope to take so strongly stockaded a place as this. Outlaws, runaway thralls, and such-like masterless men they were, ill armed and unkempt and noisy. Their only strength was in their numbers, so far as I could see.
As for ourselves, the gate was the weakest place, by reason of there being no ditch before it, and that the ground was level, or nearly so, for twenty paces outside. I did not think it in the least likely that our men could not hold off the two side attacks; for the stockade was well placed and high, and the ditch sheer-sided and deep. Take it all round, it was hard to see how Gymbert expected to take the place, or why he would try it at all.
"Quendritha is driving him," said Kynan, laughing, when I said as much. "If that woman bids a man do a thing, he has to do it, or woe betide him. But it will be a fight, for a time."
Now Gymbert halted his men beyond bow shot, and called to Jefan once more to give us up; and so finding no answer beyond a laugh from the men who were watching him from the rampart, drew his sword and bade his men fall on.
They broke into a run for a dozen paces, and then some half of either company halted, and while the rest went forward, those who stood began to try to clear the way with arrow flights, shooting over their heads so that the shafts might drop within the stockading. And at the same time our men began to shoot, somewhat too soon; for the Welsh bow will not carry so far as the English, though the arrows are more deadly, being heavier.
Seeing that, Jefan bade his men hold their hands until he gave the word; on which Gymbert called to his men, and they came the faster. The arrows met them then at short range, and in a deadly hail, and they faltered. Many fell under them, yet they still came on; and now the men who had been shooting found that the Welsh were too well sheltered under the stockade timbering for much harm to be done them, and they ran and joined their comrades at some call from their leaders. Then without stay the whole three companies threw themselves with a great shout against the defences, leaping into the ditch on either side, and surging up against the gate itself.
In a breathing space our Welsh were ready with the long spears, and as one by one the heads of those who climbed gate or stockade showed themselves, hoisted up by their comrades, or climbing in some way or other, back they were sent with a flash of the terrible weapon, falling on those below them. And now and again the Welsh spears darted through the spaces between the timbers of the stockade at some man who came close to them and was spied, or at those who tried to help their comrades to climb. The whole place was full of yells and shouting.
But it was harder work at the gate, for there the foemen were more densely packed before us, and they seemed to climb in an unending stream. More than one fell inside the gate, and there lay still; but none had won his way to the ground alive, nor had we yet lost a man. The loss was all on the side of the attack.
Then at last the men at the gate drew back for a time; but from the side attacks came a new danger. With spear butt and seax they were trying to undermine the stockade, and one could hear the creaking of the stout timbers as they tried to tear them down. It would have gone hardly with us had there been but a few more men, or if these had brought pick and spade with them.
As it was, that attempt did not last long. Into the crowd of men who worked the heavy javelins fell, and through the timbering the reddened spears went and came, driving at last the foe to safer distance. And so the first attack ended, and for all that Gymbert from the gate tried to urge them on, his men stood sullenly in the deep ditch and under the gate, where we could not well reach them, save by casting javelins and darts high into the air, that they might pitch among them; but there were few throwing weapons to spare.
"He would have done better to attack at one point only," said Jefan, sitting down on the rampart above the gate. "He might have overwhelmed us so, for he has men enough."
His brother laughed.
"There is a difference between us in this way," he said, "and it is a great one: there is little fight in his men, and we must needs fight our best. Listen! they are passing some word round."
So it was, for there fell a silence on the humming men below us, and we could hear muttered words from one to another. Then the attack came again from the same three places, but I thought it was not pushed home as at first. Nor did it last so long. In a few minutes men began to get out of the ditch and away down the hillside while the Welsh were too busy to shoot at them. There they scattered, and stood and watched. And then the attack on the gate ceased, and back the foe went.
"After them, and scourge them home to their mistress," shouted Kynan, leaping down to the gateway, where his men did but wait some word which should tell them to throw it open for a sally.
I looked for Jefan; but he was across the camp, seeing hastily to the weakened places in the stockade.
"Kynan," I cried, "have a care! This is what they want you to do! Wait!"
For I could see that in the open Gymbert had the advantage of numbers, and I suspected that he was trying to draw the fiery Welsh from their works. There was surely some reason for this half-hearted attack on the stockade that had been already proved too strong.
He did not hear me. It is in my mind that I may have called to him in the Frankish tongue of my last warfare. That is likely enough, for with the clash of arms again I know I had been thinking in the familiar tongue once more. I do not know, but again I called him, and he seemed not to hear. The gate flew open, and with a wild yell of victory out went the Welshmen, with the prince at their head.
Jefan heard and turned back, and called to him to stay; but he also was too late. He had but a dozen men with him, while from the opposite side of the camp those who had driven off their foes had joined those who poured out with Kynan. One or two of Jefan's men shouted, and went with them, unheeding the call of their leader to stay.
Then in a moment I knew what the word which had been passed meant. The Mercians who had drawn off from the side attacks closed up and charged down on the scattered Welsh, on whose pursuit Gymbert and his men turned. We could do naught but stand and watch, helpless, for we dared not leave the gate, which we could not close against the retreat which must come.
Round Kynan and his men Gymbert's force swarmed, and the din of wild battle rang as the ancient foes, Welsh and Mercian, met on the level turf. I saw Kynan's red sword rise above the turmoil, and heard his voice rallying his men to him; and then he had them together in a close body, outnumbered indeed by two to one, but better fighters and better trained than the mob against them. And then they began to cut their way back to the gate.
We stood there across it, waiting, and then it was our turn. Of a sudden out of the ditch on either hand leaped men who had waited there unnoticed for this moment, and they fell on us. We were eight, and but four of us could stand in the gateway at a time. Jefan and I and Erling and a tall Welshman were the first, and before us were some dozen Mercians, and more to come as they could find room on the narrow causeway.
Now it was a question whether we might hold the gate till Kynan won back to it, or whether when he did come he should find it held against him; and for one terrible moment I had a fear that men would be coming over the stockade in the rear upon us. And I could not look round, for I had all my time taken up in keeping my own life from the attack in front.
I think it was about that time that Kynan began to sing some wonderful old Welsh war song, which rang above the clash of weapons and the cries of those who fought. It took hold of me, and I seemed to smite in time to its swinging cadence. Yet he came back very slowly.
Jefan went down first. Into the ditch he rolled, with his grip on the throat of a Mercian; for his sword snapped, and he flew at the man. One from behind us took his place with a yell of rage, and he went too far, and was gone also, speared at once. Then another, and another to my left; for the tall Briton was down, and still Erling and I were not hurt. I would that Kynan would get back more quickly. He was coming, but the press before us was thick.
So we fought, and I fell to thinking what a wondrous sword this was which Carl the Great had given me. It shore the spear shafts, and the brass-studded shields seemed to split before it touched them, and the tough leather jerkins of the forest men could not hold its edge back. The wild song of Kynan never ceased, and he seemed to sing of it. He was getting nearer, but the Mercians thronged between his men and us.
Now there seemed to be a grim joy in the faces of the men before me, and the Briton at my right fell. There was none left to take his place, and there were but three of us in the gate.
"Kynan! Kynan!" I cried, for in a moment he would find his retreat barred. I do not know whether any voice came from me, but I seemed to call him.
Then Erling and I were alone in the gateway, and the snarling Mercians leaped at us. The last Welshman had fallen, hurling his broken sword at a man who smote at me, and so staying the blow.
"A good fight for a man's last, master," said Erling to me through his teeth, standing steadily as a rock with his hacked shield linked in mine, and his notched sword swinging untiringly to the grim old viking war shout "Ahoy!" as it fell.
Kynan was twenty yards from us, and now I saw Gymbert among those whom he was steadily driving back.
A shadow swept over me, and it grew darker. I saw all the land below me lying in brightest sunlight, and then the great swift cloud shadow fled across it, though round us there was not a breath of wind. I think the men before us two shrank back a little at that moment, so that I had time to note all that went on, as a man will at such a time, and yet without taking his eyes from the foe before him.
That was but a breathing space. With a fresh yell the Mercians fell on us again, and I had three of them on me; and my hands were full, though they hampered one another. The old Wessex war cry which I had not heard for so long came back to me, and I shouted "Out! out!" and met them. There needed but a little time and Kynan would be on the causeway. His song rang close to us.
Erling reeled and steadied himself against me, and the Mercians howled. His war shout rang once, and then he fell across my feet, face downward, and I stood over him in a white rage, and set my teeth and smote. It came to me that there were more men on the causeway now, but that they would not near me. I was fending spearheads from me, and I forgot Kynan.
Then of a sudden those who were on me seemed to know that his song was in their very ears, and they looked round. His men were on the narrow gate path, and they were between them and me; and with that they yelled and fled into the ditch on either side the causeway, and I was aware that for a long minute I had kept the gate alone.
But I did not think of that. Out of the way of heedless, tramping feet of those who came back into safety I must get my fallen comrade, and I threw my sword within the gate and stooped and dragged him after it, setting him on one side, on the steep rampart bank, out of the way. He smiled and tried to speak, but could not; and even so much cheered me, for I had thought him dead.
Some one came swiftly and touched me as I bent over him, and I saw the old priest.
"Leave him to me," he said. "See to Kynan now; there may be work yet for the lady's sake."
Even as I rose at his word, loath to leave my comrade, but knowing that I must, and while I still had my face from the gate, there came a blinding flash of lightning from the ragged black edge of the cloud overhead, and with it one short, awesome crash of thunder. The storm which had crept up behind us had broken on the hilltop.
After that crash came a dead silence, and then were yells of terror such as the fight had had no power to raise from men on either side. And among them one voice cried shrill that this was the work of Ethelbert, the slain king.
Then as the foe fled back the gates swung to, and I heard the bars clatter into their sockets, and Kynan came to me.
"Holy saints!" he said; "look yonder!"
I went a pace or two up the earthwork and looked over toward the foe. Some twenty yards from the gate lay as it were a blackened heap, round which reeled and staggered men with hands to blinded faces, and from which those who were unhurt fled in wildest terror down the hill, casting even their weapons from them. Save only those who could not fly, not one Mercian was staying.
"Yonder lies Gymbert," Kynan said in a still voice. "The bolt struck him. It is the judgment of Heaven on him for that which he wrought in darkness."
CHAPTER XIX. HOW WILFRID CAME HOME TO WESSEX.
For a moment I looked and then turned away, with but one thought in my mind, and that was the knowledge that it was a good thing that the punishment of this man had been taken from our hands. I do not think that I took in all the terror of it at the time, for on that field there was death in so many forms—death brought needlessly by his contriving again, and in all injustice—and this end of his was to me but right and fitting. Some terrible fate the man deserved, and he had met it. Now I had my own friends to think of.
"See to Jefan!" I said to Kynan, without a word of Gymbert. "He fell at the gate, in the first onset."
"My fault," groaned the brother, "my fault. I should have waited his word before sallying out. I heard you call me back, too, and heeded not."
He called some men, and they opened the gate and passed out hastily, while I knelt at the side of Erling. The old priest was trying to stay the bleeding from a great wound in his side; but he shook his head at me, and I knew that it was hopeless.
Erling knew it also.
"Get to the others, father," he said; "I am past your heeding."
"They will fetch me if I am needed, my son," the old man answered. "There are few of us who cannot tend a common wound. I am but wanted at the last."
"Ay, for the one thing," said Erling, with a great light springing into his weary eyes. "For me also, father.
"Tell him, master."
The old man looked at me, and I nodded. He was a British priest, and one had been told that they and our priests hated each other and quarrelled over deep matters; but what was that in this moment? Neither Briton nor Englishman, priest of St. David's nor of Canterbury would heed that here and thus. He rose and went hurriedly, and we two were alone.
"We kept the gate," he said.
"Ay, we kept it; and all is well."
"Jefan is not dead," he said next; "he lay and watched it all. I could see him."
Then across my shoulder he saw some one, and smiled. I turned, and there was Hilda, white and still, standing by us, and she set her hand on my shoulder. Then she bent toward my comrade.
"Ay, you two kept the gate, and all are praising you. They say that but for you the fort had been lost."
The lightning came again, and after a second or two the thunder, close still, but not so terribly so. The rain would come presently, and I longed for it, but not yet. I dared not move Erling, and there was the priest to come.
Now he came, and with him brought that which was needed; and so we two knelt, and there came one or two Welshmen, gently, and knelt also, unlike our Saxons, who would have stood aloof, with bared heads indeed, but unsharing.
I will say naught of that little service. When it was ended Erling closed his eyes and sighed, as one who is content; and we waited for them to open again, but they did not. It was the first and last sacrament of the new-made Christian.
The priest ended his words, and looked at me. Hilda took her cloak and gave it to him, and he set it across my comrade, and that was all. He was Ethelbert's first follower to the new place he had won, and that also seemed good to me.
Through the gate came Kynan, followed by four men who bore on a spear-framed stretcher their prince who had fallen.
"All well," he called up to me cheerfully. "Naught but a broken leg from the fall, and no wound."
Then the rain came, sweeping in a sheet across the open hilltop. Hilda took my arm.
"Come," she said, "take me to the hut again. My father is well-nigh raving because he is too weak to fight. Once he rose and staggered to the door, and there fell. He cried to you as you stood alone with those savage men before you in the gate. Did you not hear him?"
So she spoke fast, and drew me away to the hut, and there Sighard bade me tell him all I might of the fight. It had been hard for him to lie and hear the din going on, to know that the battle was for Hilda and for him, and not to be able to share it. And he grumbled that the girl would not look out on it and tell him how it went.
"But I saw Wilfrid in the gate," she said, "and I feared for him for a moment, until I saw that the foe feared him; and then I was proud. But Erling has gone, father."
"A good man and steadfast," Sighard said. "I think that you and I owe life to him and Wilfrid alike. It will be long before we forget him, or before you find such another comrade and follower, Wilfrid."
More there was said of him at that time, but not too much. I had known him but a little while, but in that we had gone through peril together with but one mind. It hardly seemed possible that it was only a matter of six weeks since I took him from the Norwich marketplace.
The thunder rolled round us while we talked of him, passing but slowly, and the rain fell in sheets, washing away the more terrible stains of war. Through it came back, unarmed and humbly, some of the Mercians, begging truce wherein to take away their comrades, and Kynan spoke to them. As we had reason to think, the whole affair was the doing of Gymbert, so far as his men knew. Behind him was the hand of Quendritha, of course, but of that they had heard no more than that to take us would please her.
When the storm ended, with naught but a far-off mutter of thunder among the hills beyond the Wye to mind us of it, I went out to find Jefan. At that time there were folk from the Welsh woodlands coming up to help in any way that was needed, for a fire on the highest point of the ramparts was sending a tall smoke curling and wavering into the air, and the meaning of that was well known to them. One might see by the way in which they were tending the wounded and digging two long trenches without the ramparts, where the slain should rest presently, that such fights were no new thing to them on the marches of Mercia.
Jefan the prince lay in a hut, and he smiled ruefully as I came in. His ankle was broken, and the old priest had set it, skilfully enough, but it would be many a long day before he could use it again. He held out his hand to me before I could speak.
"Are you hurt?" he said anxiously.
I was not, save for a scratch or two of no account. More was Kynan, and that was a wonder, or his luck, as he would have it. But Jefan said, trying to laugh:
"I would that I might see just one bout of sword play betwixt you two. I had held my brother as the best swordsman in all the West, but I saw a better in the gate. There I must lie helpless, with a Mercian across me moreover, and it was somewhat of a comfort that there was that to watch. I had seen naught of it but for the fall."
So I had not been learning all that the best men in the Frankish armies could teach me of weapon craft for nothing, and hereafter I learned that such praise from Jefan was worth having.
But as for my thanking them for this protection of us, they would have it that the whole trouble was of their own making, since they had stayed so near the border after a raid. Even now we must hence, for the sheriff would gather a levy to follow them no doubt. It needed no command from Offa for that; but he would be here anon, in leisurely wise perhaps, but certainly.
"Wherefore we must go," said Kynan. "Then, as usual, he will find no one to fight with, and naught but a few broken marrow bones to remind him that last night we feasted on Mercian cattle up here."
Now I would that Erling might have been laid to rest in Fernlea, near to Ethelbert, but that could not be. We set him in a place near the gate which he had kept so well, raising a little mound over him, and Jefan said that it should be a custom with every warrior of the Cymro who entered the camp in the days to come that he should salute him, and that the tale of his deed should be told at the camp fire here from age to age, so long as harp was strung and men should sing of deeds worth minding. Maybe that was the resting and that the honour the viking would have chosen for himself.
And he was set there with all the still rites of the ancient Church of the Briton, in the way which he had learned to love.
Alone, unmarked Gymbert lies, out of sight of the warriors against whom he came. The Mercians dared not touch him, and the Welsh would not. But Jefan bade that man who had shot at him see to him, and that was the punishment for his deed. Men say that when a storm breaks round Dynedor hill fort it is ill to be there, for then he wanders round the gate unquiet and wailing; and so he also is not forgotten, nor the evil which he wrought.
That evening we were in some Welsh thane's house, far in the folds of the Black Mountains, and there not even Offa could reach us. The people had come with litters and hill ponies, and slowly and somewhat painfully we had gone our way from the hill, gathering the cattle, and leaving men to bring them after us still more slowly.
"Hurry no man's cattle," quoth Kynan, "except when they are by way of becoming yours by right of haste homeward to the hills."
In this homestead, whose name I cannot write, we rested for a fortnight or so, while Sighard gathered his strength again and Jefan's ankle knit itself together. For me there was the best of hunting in the hills and rich forests with Kynan, who was a master of all woodcraft, and with our host. Wonderfully plentiful was game of all sorts, whether red deer or fallow, boar, or wolf, or badger in the forests, and here and there beaver as well as otter in the swift trout streams. There were the white wild cattle also; and there were tales of a bear somewhere in the hills, but we never came on his tracks, though I knew them well from having seen them often enough on the Basque frontier lands. That one chance of having slain the bear there was the only matter of hunting in which I was ahead of my hosts.
At the end of the fortnight we went from this village to the ancient city of Caerleon, travelling slowly, though Jefan made shift to mount a horse, and so ride with us. Pleasant were the June days that passed among the hilly ways, under the great green mountains, and through the forest lands, with good friends and pleasant halts by the way. And I was going homeward now in all truth.
Jefan had a wonderful palace in Caerleon, which his forbears had held since the days when they took the place of the Roman governor by whom it had been built. I think that it had been but little altered, and on its walls were still the pictures the artists brought from far-off Rome had painted, and its floors were laid with the wondrous patterned pavement of the old days, so beautiful that it almost seemed a shame to tread on them. The old Roman walls stood round the town, and there were more houses, less but well-nigh as good, in the place, and the great tower the Romans made.
Yet, being a Saxon and a forest-bred man, I cared not at all for the stone-walled houses. They seemed low and hot to me, and above one was the ceiled roof, all unlike the high open timbering of our halls, where the smoke curls, and the birds are as free to perch on the timbers as they were in the oaks whence they were cut. The walls round the town irked me also, for one does not like to feel shut in from the open country. One must have fences, of course, and maybe in border places earthworks and stockades, but surely no more should be needed. Yet in a day or two I grew used to all this, and I have naught but good to say of Caerleon elsewise.
For when we had been there a few days Jefan would speak with me, and together we went to the walls of the city and looked southward across the river toward the Severn sea, beyond which lay my home.
"See, friend," he said, "there is your way, and there is a ship crossing to the old port at Worle tomorrow. Now, from all you have told me, there is a chance that through her daughter Quendritha may yet try to harm you."
"I think she cannot," I said. "So far as I know, she has never learned where my home is."
"Yet," he said, "go home and see how things are for you. Well I know that your first thought is for the Lady Hilda, and that is right. I am going to see your wedding. But you cannot take her home without going there first to learn whether she will have any home to go to."
"That is what I have been thinking," said I. "You are but first in speaking of the matter by a day or so."
"Well, then, do you go at once. If all is well, then you shall come back here, and so there will be a wedding. If not, come back, and I will give you a place with me.
"Nay, but listen. I have sorely troublesome tenants, the Danes, in our land of Gower, and you can take them in hand for me. You are the man I need as what you would call the ealdorman there. You may take such a place in all honour."
"Jefan," I said, "you are indeed a friend, and I will not say no to you. All seems to go well when you have a hand in it."
"Sometimes," said he, laughing. "I only wish that everything was as easily arranged as this. Well, go. I want you back to stay, and yet I don't, as one may say. At all events, we will have the wedding here."
Now it need not be said that on the next day I did go, landing in the early morning under the ancient walled camp of Worle, which the Eastern traders made when they used to come for our Mendip metals; and there I hired a horse and rode homeward, sorely longing for my good skew-bald steed, which stood in a Roman stable at Caerleon.
Now I cannot tell all the thoughts which came into my mind as I climbed the last hill and looked down into the wooded hollow where lay our home. The long years seemed to roll back, and it was but as yesterday that I had been there. And then I met a man I knew, one of our own thralls; and he seemed to have aged all in a moment, for I had thought, before he drew near, to see his face as it had been on the day when I went to Winchester to see the bride of our king brought home. He did not know me, but he doffed his cap.
"Wulf," said I, "how fares the thane?"
"Well, lord," he answered, staring at me. "He is in the hall an you want him."
And then of a sudden a great smile began to grow across his face, and he roared in his honest Wessex voice:
"By staff and thorn, if it is not our young master home from the wars! Good lack, but how you have grown and widened!"
He clutched at my hand and shook it, and then kissed it, after a friend's fashion first, and then as a thrall should, saying all sorts of welcomes. And then he turned, forgetting any business which was taking him to the hill, and must needs lead my horse with all care down to the hall. And as he went, whenever he saw any man of the place he shouted to him, and one by one men came running, until I had half the village after me. That was a good old Saxon welcome, and I could not find fault with it.
So we came to the hall gate, and the dogs ran out and barked; and I thought I could tell those which had been but pups when I left home, for they had been my charge. Then they bayed and yelled, mistrusting what all the noise meant, though they saw none but friends there, till two gray old hounds rose from the sunny corner of the court and came running, and they knew me; and I called them by name, and the rest stilled their clamour.
Then, with his sword caught up to him, my father came to the great door and called for silence, and so saw me as I sat in my outland mail and stretched my hands to him; and after him came my mother. So I was home once more, and all was well.
I need say naught of the feasting which they made for me, nor of all that I had to tell of my doings since that day when the Danes came and took me. Little enough there was to tell me, save of the village happenings; and that was well, for it meant that there had in every way been peace.
Two days after I came home my cousin came from Weymouth, rejoicing to see me safe and well once more, for he had ever blamed himself for my loss.
Presently we spoke of Ecgbert, but there was yet no chance for him to return. Our Wessex queen, Quendritha's daughter, was bad as her mother, in all truth; but Bertric the king was just and wise, save only when he was swayed by her. Moreover, to him Ecgbert had sworn fealty when he came to the crown, and until he was gone he would do naught.
And then there was the question as to whether it was safe for me to come home.
There was an old thane who came to see me at this time, and he had been to Winchester within a few days; and he settled the matter, having heard all the court news from Mercia.
"Quendritha's power is over for good and all," he said. "Offa has sworn a great oath that he will never set eyes on her again. They say that she is shut up in some stronghold, with none but men of the king's own round her, and that there she pines and rages in turn, helpless for harm. You may be sure that no word of you has come hither. Doubtless she believes you fled back to Carl the Great. You may sleep in peace."
"Get married, my son, and settle down," said my mother softly. "I may not bear to lose you again."
So that other matter was easily settled, as may be supposed, though no doubt my good mother would have fain had somewhat more say in the choice of a wife for me. But when my father and cousin heard of the way in which we two had met, and what we had gone through together, they said it was good that I had found no fair weather, fireside bride, and there was a great welcome ready for her as soon as we could bring her home.
Ten miles south of Selwood, on the forest's edge, lies that hall which was my mother's, and to which I had the right as her son, and there I was to live. I think that I have spoken of it before as that which gave me the right to the rank of thane. Now and then we had gone there and bided in the hall, seeing to the lands, and so forth, but mostly it had been left to the care of the steward. So it was waiting for me, and thither I should bring Hilda as soon as all was ready.
And I need not tell of that time of preparation, which seemed long to me; but at last we sailed across the still sea from Worle to Caerleon—my father, and my cousin, and half a dozen others of our friends—for word had gone and come from Jefan by the fishers of the Parrett river, and he would welcome all whom we would bring with us.
"Make it as good a wedding as you may," was his word to me.
I think that Offa once sent an embassy to Caerleon, and that they were the first of our race who had ever been within its old walls. But I know that never before had a Saxon party been welcomed there as we were welcomed, nor had there been such a feast since Jefan himself was wedded.
It seems to me that I am leaving out a many things now; but who wants to hear of that wedding? If any one does, he must even go to Caerleon and call the bards to him, if they will come, and ask them to sing the songs they made thereon. Otherwise he may ask any man of Caerleon to tell him what he saw of it himself, for indeed I cannot say that I had thought or eyes for any but one figure in all the splendour of that ancient court. I do mind that Jefan's fair princess had clad Hilda in wondrous British array, which passes me to tell of, and that Kynan and Jefan and the men of their host had decked her with gold and pearl and mountain gems, such as lured the Roman hither. They had a splendid sword and mail shirt and helm for me, too, better even than that which Carl gave me, because of the holding of the gate.
Now if one listens, as I have said, to the tales they tell over there, it will be heard how I was said to have kept that gate against all the host of Mercia, not to say Offa himself; for, like our own gleemen, the Welsh bards do not fail to make the most of a story. But how much thereof to believe those who have read my own tale will know. I suppose they are obliged to make too much of a matter, so that about the rights thereof may be believed.
At that wedding there were a surprise and a pleasure for me which Jefan had prepared. He had heard of a vessel new come to Swansea, where the Danes are, and he had sent thither to learn what she was. And when he heard, he bade her captain to this feast to meet me. And so it came to pass that when we landed I saw two men in the Danish array standing behind the Welsh nobles, and I seemed to know them. One was tall and grim and scarred, and the other broad of shoulder and white of hair and beard. They were Thorleif and old Thrond, come from Ireland to see their friends in this land, and so Jefan's guests.
So that was a great wedding, in which I had the least part, being overlooked, as mostly happens with a bridegroom. And after it we passed home again to peace and happiness in the old hall in the land of Wessex, and there none will care to follow me. It is the troublous part of a man's life that makes the story to all but himself. He is glad enough when it is over and there is no more danger left of which to make a tale.
When I first came back to Caerleon I had some news to hear from the Mercian border, and that was nothing more or less than that after all Offa had stretched out his hand to grasp that realm which Quendritha had plotted to give him; for he had gathered his levies, and marched eastward into East Anglia. There was none to oppose him, and he took it, and so reigned from the Wye to the sea, the greatest king who had ever sat on an English throne.
And Quendritha was dead. That which her daughter had boded for her as she left the palace had come to pass, and she had gone. She had never set eyes on her husband again, and never heard how that which she planned had come to pass.
That death seemed to take the last doubt of our peace from us; but now Sighard would no more go back to his lands.
"I was Ethelbert's thane and his father's; I will not hold from Offa. Let me come back with you now until I know what I can do."
So when our wedding was over he crossed with us to Wessex, and there for a time he bided. Then came a message from Thetford that the widowed queen, Ethelbert's mother, would speak with him, and without delay he went to her. Offa had left her in peace in her own house; but now she would go to Crowland, that she might be with her who should have been her daughter, and thither Sighard took her. Then he went to see what had happened with his own place, and found it untouched. Offa, when he took the realm, had at least proved that he had no mind to enrich himself with lesser spoils.
So Sighard sold his right of succession, and all else that was his own in East Anglia, and thereafter bought a place for himself near us; and there he lives now, well loved by all and honoured. Many and kind were the messages which he brought back from the queen to me and to Hilda, whom she had loved, rejoicing that the way to Sutton had at least brought happiness to us two.
My good skew-bald steed I could not take across the sea with me, and I was loath to sell him. At last I persuaded Jefan, our friend, to take him as a gift, for I cared for none save the prince himself to ride him.
"He is nowise a safe steed to go cattle-raiding on," said Kynan, "for one can mark him for miles. Nevertheless he is a princely mount, and a good rallying point for the men after they have been scattered in a charge."
So they laughed, and were well pleased, as was I. Erling's horse I gave to that man who had been our guide when we fled, and there was no difficulty in finding owners for the rest.
Now one will ask concerning Ecgbert the atheling, whose friend I had been for so long.
All men know that today he is the king of all England, and the greatest who ever sat on her throne. But for long years we waited till the time for his return came. While Bertric lived, to whom he had sworn fealty, he would do naught, in utmost loyalty, and with the Mercian throne he had no mind to meddle.
Two years after the death of Ethelbert, Offa died. His bright young son took the throne, and was gone also in a few months, and then the house of Offa was at an end. An atheling of some younger branch of the Mercian royal line took his place peaceably, and under this king, Kenulf, Mercia was at her greatest. The doom of Offa fell not on him.
Ecgbert bided with Carl the emperor, learning all he might of statecraft and of war until his time came, and well he learned his lesson. Then at last, through Quendritha's teaching, came the end of the Wessex line, and thereafter the fall of Mercia from her first place among the English kingdoms. For, after Quendritha's way, Eadburga would poison some thane of the court who had offended her; and Bertric drank the cup she had made ready for his servant, and so perished. Eadburga fled to Carl the emperor, as men had then hailed him; and he received her kindly for Offa's sake, and at least England knew her ways no more. Then we had all ready, and sent for Ecgbert; and from the time of his coming began that day of greatness for Wessex which has led him to the overlordship of all England and the end of the old divided and warring kingdoms.
One may see many tokens of the repentance of Offa for that deed which was wrought unhindered by him. Greatest of all, perhaps, is the cathedral which he built at Hereford over the remains of the murdered king. There the saint rests in peace, and will be honoured while time is. But where Offa himself lies no man knows. His folk buried him in a little church which he had loved, hard by Bedford, in the heart of his realm, on the banks of the Ouse. But in one night of storm and rain the ancient river rose and swept away both church and tomb and what lay therein, not leaving so much as the foundations to tell where the place had been. And yet, not a stone's throw from the edge of the rapid Lugg, the little church of Marden, built where we found the body of the murdered king, stands, and will stand, unharmed by the waters which once made soft his resting.
The wonderful palace of Sutton lies shunned and ruined. After that which had been done there, Offa would live within its walls no longer, and it was deserted by all men. Only, as the wind and rain wrought their will unchecked on the timbered halls, the thralls took what they would for huts and for firing, and slowly at first, and then apace, the palace sank to heaps of rotting rubbish, where the fox and the badger have their lairs, and the boar from the forest roots unscared. Presently naught hut the ancient Roman earthworks will be left to tell that once it was a place of strength against the Briton.
And with bated breath the thralls tell of a white wolf which haunts the ruin from time to time, deeming it the witch queen herself, who may not leave the scene of her ill doing.
Now, for myself, I have but to say that for the sake of old days in the Frankish land I stand high in the honour of Ecgbert the king. And yet it seems to me that greater honour still it is that I should have ridden across England on that strange wedding journey as the comrade of Ethelbert the king and saint.
Often I am asked to tell the story of that ride and all that came thereafter, for men say that they cannot learn it better than from me. And so I have set all down here that men may read. Yet, whether I write or not, I know well that forgotten Ethelbert can never be.