"They are going," said I, with much gladness.
One of the men shook his head.
"They do but slant across the wind, master. Presently they will go about and so fetch the Wessex shore again, and so on till they reach where they will up channel."
We watched them, and while we watched, a man came up from the west, heated and tired out, and limping with long running as it seemed. And when he saw me he ran straight to me, and thrusting a splinter of wood into my hand, cried in a panting voice:
"I can no more—In the king's name to Matelgar of Stert—the levy is at Bridgwater Cross. In all haste."
It was the war arrow ǐ. No man might refuse to bear that onward. Yet—to Matelgar—and by an outlaw! But the man was beat, and the thralls might not bear it.
"Look at me; know you who I am?" I said to the man, who had cast himself down on the grass, panting again.
"No—nor care," he said, glancing at me sharply. "On, and tarry not."
"I am an outlaw," I said simply.
"Armed?" he said, with a laugh. "Outlaw in truth you will be, an you speed not."
"I am Heregar," I said again.
"Curse you!" said the man; "go on, and prate not. If you were Ealhstan himself, with his forked hat on, you must go."
"Heregar—my master's friend," cried one of the two thralls, "if it be true you are outlawed, as I heard yesterday, go and win yourself inlawed again by this."
Then I turned, and wasted no more time, running swiftly down the hill and away towards the spot where my enemy lay at Stert, and that honest thrall of my friend, the slain franklin's, shouted after me for good speed.
"Well," I thought, as I went on at a loping pace, "I can prove my loyalty maybe—but I have to bear this into the wolf's den—and much the proof will serve me!"
Then I thought that presently I would feign lameness, and send on some other. And so I ran on.
I struck a path soon, and kept it, knowing that, if one met and recognized me, the token I bore was pass enough—moreover, none might harm me, if they would, so that I was doing no wrong in being turned back, as it were, by emergency, from leaving the kingdom. Now, as I trotted swiftly along the track, there lay in my way what I thought was a stone till I neared it. Then I saw that it was a bag, and so picked it up, hardly pausing, shaking it as I did so.
It was full of money! Doubtless some one of the fugitives dropped it last night as they went in haste, hardly knowing they had it, perhaps. Well, better with me than with the Danes, I thought, and so bestowed the bag inside my mail shirt, and thanked the man who sent me on this errand. For now I felt as if free once more; for with sword and mail and money what more does man need?
When next I came to a place that looked out over sea, I could no more spy the ships. They must have stretched far across to the Welsh coast. Only the two holms broke the line of water to the north and east up channel.
Then the thought came to me that the Danes were gone, and what use going further with this errand? But that was not my business; the war arrow must go round, and the bearer must not fail, or else "nidring" [vii] should he be from henceforward. So I went on.
Now, at last, was I but a mile or two from Stert, and began to wish to meet one to whom to give the arrow—but saw no man. I turned aside to a little cluster of thralls' and churls' huts I knew. There were no people there, and one hut was burnt down. Afterwards I heard that they had been deserted by reason of some pestilence that had been there; but now it seemed like a warning to do the duty that had been thrust on me.
Then at last I remembered the prophecy of the old hermit—and my heart bounded within me—for, indeed, unlooked for as this was, surely it was like the beginning of its working out.
Now would I go through with it, and on the head of Matelgar be the blame were I slain. Known was I by name to the messenger who gave me the arrow, and to those thralls, and known therefore would my going to Matelgar be.
Nevertheless, when I went down that path that I have spoken of, toward the hall, looking to meet with one at every turn, my heart beat thick enough for a time, till a great coolness came over me and I feared nought.
Yet must I turn aside one moment to lock into that nook where Alswythe and I had met, but it was empty. I knew that it must be so at that hour, but I was of my love constrained to go there.
Then I ran boldly round the outer palisade and came to the great gate.
CHAPTER VI. IN THE WOLF'S DEN.
There was only one man near it, and he sat on the settle inside, so that he could see out and in as he wished. Him I knew at once, and was glad, for it was that old warrior who had showed some liking for me at Brent.
He got up slowly as he saw a stranger stand in the gateway and came out towards me. Then he started a little and frowned.
"Rash—master, rash," he said, but not loudly. "This is no safe place for you," and he motioned me to fly.
Then I beckoned him out a little further and showed him what I bore in my hand. And he was fairly amazed and knew not what to say, that I, an outlaw, should have been sent on this errand, and more, that I should have come.
I told him, speaking quickly and shortly, how it had come about, and he understood that the man who gave me the arrow neither knew nor believed me.
"Master," he said, when I had done, "verily I believe that you are true, and wronged by him I have served this past two months. But of this I know not for certain, being a stranger here and little knowing of place or people. But this I know, from the man you sent back, that our thane sought your life against the word of the ealdorman, and, moreover, believes that you are dead. But by the arms you wear I can learn how that matter really went. Now, give me the arrow, and I will see to this —do you fly."
But I was bent on ending the errand, and said I would carry out the task, as was my duty, to the end. I would put the arrow with its message into Matelgar's hand, and bide what might come.
He tried to dissuade me, but at last said that he would not stand by and see me harmed, and for that I thanked him.
"Well then," he told me, "you have come in a good hour. Most of the men have gone out here and there to spy what they may of the Danes and their plans—if gone or not. Others are in the stables, and but one man sits at the door of the great hall, and he is of no account."
"Where is Matelgar?" I asked.
"I know not exactly; but do as I say and all will be well."
Then I said that his advice had saved me, I thought, when before the Moot, and I would follow it here.
"Then," he went on, "come you to the hall door and bide there while I go in and call the thane thither. He will stay by his great chair to hear your message, and I will stand by the man who keeps the door. Then, when you have given up the arrow, tarry not, but come out at once, and get out of this gate, lest he should raise some alarm. Then must you take to the woods quickly."
So he turned and went in before me. There were some twenty yards of courtyard to be crossed before we came to the great timber-built hall, round which the other buildings clustered inside the palisades. But there were no men about, though I could hear them whistling at their morning's work in the stables, for the idle time of the day was yet to come. Only a boy crossed from one side to the other on some errand, behind us, and paid no attention beyond pausing a little to stare, as I could judge by his footsteps. At any other time I should not have noticed even that, but now that I was in the very jaws of the wolf, as it were, I saw and heard everything. And all the while my heart beat fast—but that was not from fear, but for thinking I might by chance see Alswythe.
Yet I will say it truly, that thought of her had no share in bringing me on this mad errand, which might have ending in such fashion as would break her heart.
One man, as my guide had said, sat just inside the hall, but I knew him not. Since he had my hall and his own to tend, Matelgar must have hired more and new housecarles. This man was trimming a bow at the hearth, and did not rise, seeing that, whoever I might be, I was brought in by his comrade. The great hall looked wide and empty, for the long tables were cleared away, and only the settle by the hearth in the centre remained, beside the thane's own carved seat on the dais at the far end.
"Bide by the fire till he comes," said my guide, seeing that the man did not know me, and leaving me there, he went through a door beyond the thane's chair to seek him.
So I stood where the smoke rose between me and that door, waiting and warming my hands quietly, and as unconcernedly to all seeing as I could.
"Ho, friend," said the man, so suddenly that he made me start; "look at your sword hilt before the thane comes," and he pointed and grinned.
Sure enough, my sword hilt was not fastened to the sheath as it should be in a peaceful hall, but the thong hung loose, as if ready for me to thrust wrist through before drawing the blade. So I grinned back, without a word, lest Matelgar should hear my voice and know it, and began to pretend to knot the thong round the scabbard. All the same, I was not going to fasten it so that I could not draw if need were, and only kept on plaiting and twisting.
Then I heard Matelgar's voice and footstep, and I desisted, and, taking the arrow from my belt, stood up and ready.
He came in, looking round, but not seeing me at first through the blue smoke, for as I knew he would, he entered by the door through which my guide had gone just now. So I waited till he stood with his hand on his chair, while the old warrior came down towards me.
Then I strode forward boldly up to the foot of the dais, and looking steadily a Matelgar, cast the arrow at his feet, saying:
"In the king's name. The levy is at Bridgwater Cross. In all haste."
He threw up his hands as one too terrified to draw sword—who would ward off some sudden terror—giving back a pace or two, and staring at me with wild eyes. His face grew white as milk, and drawn, and his breath went in between his teeth with a long hissing sound. But he spoke no word, and as he stood there, I turned and walked out into the courtyard and to the gate, going steadily and without looking round, like a man who has nothing either to keep or hurry him.
Three grooms, whom I knew, stood with an unbridled horse on one side, but they were busy and minded me not till I was just at the gate.
Then one said to the other, "Yonder goes Heregar, as I live!"
Then there came a cry like a howl of rage from the hall, but no word of command as yet, nor did either housecarle come out that I could hear.
Then I was at the gate, and as I passed it, turning sharp to the right, for that was the nearest way to the woods, I heard one running across the court.
When I heard that, instead of keeping straight on, I doubled quickly round the angle of the palisade. By the time I had turned it the man may have been at the gate, and would think me vanished. But now I ran and got to cover in a thicket close to the rear of the house. A bad place enough, but I must chance it.
I could hear shouts now from the courtyard. I looked round for a way to escape, but to reach the woods I had now a long bit of open ground to cover, and was puzzled. Then overhead I heard a bird rustle, and I looked up, and at once a thought came to me. The tree was an old, gnarled ash, and the leaves on it were thick for the time of year. Moreover, the branches were so large that surely in the fork I could find a hiding place. And being so close to the hall, search would be with little, if any, care.
So with a little difficulty I climbed up, and there, sure enough, found the tree hollow in the fork, so that if I crouched down none could see me from below, while, lying flat against a great branch, I could safely see something of what might be on hand.
I was hardly sure of this when men began to spread here and there about the place, but mostly going in the direction of the woods. I heard Matelgar's voice, harsh and loud, promising reward to him who should bring in the outlaw, dead or alive, and presently saw him stand clear of the palisading, about a bowshot from me.
He was red enough now, but his hand played nervously with his sword hilt, and once when men shouted in the wood, he clutched it. Clearly I had terrified him, and if he deemed me, as it seemed, a ghost at first sight, the token of the arrow had undeceived him, and little rest would he have now, night or day, while I was yet at large.
So I laughed to myself, and watched him till he went back.
Presently the men straggled in, too. One party, having made a circle, came close by me, and they were laughing and saying that the thane had seen a ghost.
"Moreover," said another, "we saw him cross the court slowly enough, and when we got to the gate—lo! he was gone."
Then one said that he had heard the like before, and their voices died away as he told the story.
Soon after this the horns were blown to recall all the men, and I knew that Matelgar must needs, even were it a ghost who brought the war arrow, lead his following to the sheriff's levy.
Aye, and the following that should be mine as well. The message I had brought should have been to me as a king's thane, and I myself should have sent one to Matelgar to bid him come to the levy, even as he would now send to the other lesser thanes and the franklins round about, in my place. The men were running out even now, north and west and east, as I thought of this in my bitterness, and I watched them, knowing well to whom this one and that must go in each quarter.
This was hard to think of. Yet I had stood in Matelgar's presence, and had him in my power for a minute, while I might have struck him down, and had not done so. And all that long night in Sedgemoor I had promised myself just such a moment, and had pictured him falling at my feet, my revenge taken.
But how long ago that seemed. Truly I was like another man then. And since that night there had been the wise counsel of the hermit, the prattle of the child, the touch and voice of my loved one, the thought of a true friend, and now the sore need of the country I loved. And, for the sake of all those things, I do not wonder that, as I saw Matelgar pale and tremble before me, the thought of slaying him never entered my head.
I will not say that I was much conscious of all these things moulding my conduct; but I know that since I took this message on me, and it seemed to me that the prophecy was on its way to fulfilment, I had, as it were, stood by to see another avenger then myself at work in a way that should unfold itself presently—so sure was I that all would come out as the hermit foretold. So it was with a sort of confidence, and a boy's love of adventure, too, that I had run into danger thus, while now that I had come off so well, my confidence was yet stronger. However, it would not make me foolhardy, for my father was wont to tell me that one may only trust to luck after all care taken to be well off without it.
Men came trooping in from the nearer houses and farms very soon, armed and excited. Often some passed under me, not ten paces off, and then I shrank down into the hollow. All spoke of the Danes as gone, but at last one said he thought he could see them, away by Steepholme Island, half an hour agone. Though it might be fancy, he added, for their ships were very low, and hard to see if no sail were spread.
But from all I gathered, the Danes were over on the other coast, and out of our way for the time at least.
Then I grew very stiff in the tree: but so many were about that I dared not come down. They were, however, mostly gathered in the open in front of the great gate, and only passers by came near me. It was some three hours after noon before they gathered into ranks at last, and the roll was called over by Matelgar himself, as he rode along the line fully armed.
When that was done, he put himself at the head, and they filed off up the road towards Bridgwater. I remembered that, when I was quite little, my father once had to call out a levy against the West Welsh, and then there was great cheering as the men started. There was none now—only the loud voice of the thane as he chided loiterers and those who seemed to straggle.
I began to think of coming down when the last had gone, but a few men from far off came running past to catch them up, and I kept still yet. Then a great longing came upon me to join the levy and fight the Danes, if fight there should be, and I began to plan to do it in some way, yet could not see how to disguise myself, or think to whose company to pretend to belong.
The place seemed very quiet after all the loud talk and shouting that had been going on. My father's levy had had ale in casks, and food brought out to them while they waited. But I had seen none of that here. Maybe, however, it was in the courtyard, I thought, and this I might see, if I climbed higher, above the palisading.
So I left my sword in the hollow, lest it should hamper me, and went up a big branch until I could see over just enough to look across to the great gate, which still stood open. Then I forgot all about that which had made me curious, for I saw two figures in the gateway.
Alswythe stood there, talking with my friend, as I will call him ever, the old housecarle, and no one else was near them.
My first thought was to come down and run to her; but I remembered that I could but see one corner of the court, and that many more housecarles might be at hand, and waited, not daring to take my eyes from Alswythe lest I should lose her.
They were too far off for me to hear their voices, nor did they make sign or movement that would let me guess that which they spoke of; but presently the old man saluted, and Alswythe went out of the gate.
Then my heart leaped within me, for I thought, and rightly, that she sought her bower in the wood. And so she passed close by me in going there, and I must not speak or move for fear of terrifying her.
But when she had gone up the path, I looked round carefully once or twice, and came down, and then, buckling on my sword again, looked warily out of the thicket, and seeing that none was near, crossed the open and followed her.
There I found her in her place as she had found me the other day, and soon once more we were side by side on the old seat; and she was blaming me, tenderly, for my rashness. Yet she knew not that it was I who had brought the arrow, and her one fear was that I had joined those Danes. And when I looked at her, I saw that she had been sorely troubled, and this was the cause, for she said:
"I knew that you, my Heregar, would not fight against your own land, and so they would surely slay you."
So will a woman see the truth of things often more clearly than a man. For that the vikings might call on me to fight my Saxon kin had, till last night, never crossed my mind, yet after Charnmouth fight it was like enough.
Then she asked what brought me here, and I told her that, seeing the burning of Watchet, I had a mind to join the levy, if I could, and so fight both for country and for her. That was true enough as my thoughts ran now—and surely I was not wrong in leaving out the story of the errand with the war arrow, for that would have told her of her father's lust for my destruction.
Then she wept lest I should fall, but being brave and thoughtful for my honour, and for my winning back name and lands, bade me do so if I could, cheering me with many fond and noble words, so that I wondered that such a man as I could have won the love of such a woman as she.
Now the time was all too short for me to tarry long: but before I went, Alswythe would bring me out food and drink that I might go well strengthened and provided. And as I let her go back to the hall, I asked her the name of that old warrior to whom she spoke, for it was he, I told her, who had tried to help me before the Moot.
And then I was sorry I had told her that, for she might ask him of the matter and hear more than was good for her peace of mind; but it was done, and nothing could recall it.
Yet she did not notice it then, but said his name was Wulfhere, and that he was a stranger from Glastonbury, as she thought, lately come into her father's service. She was going then, and I asked her to let me have speech with him, as I thought it safe, if he were to be trusted, for I needed his advice in some things.
She said she would sound him first, not knowing how he had seen me already, of course, and so went quickly away towards the hall.
What I needed the old man for was but to try to repair my slip of the tongue, and warn him of my love's ignorance of her father's unfaith to me; but as it fell out, it was well I asked to see him.
Presently he came to me. I had to slip into the bushes and lie quiet till I knew who it was, and when I came out he smiled gravely at me, shaking his head, yet as one not displeased altogether.
"Well managed, master," he said, still smiling, "but I knew not that you had so strong a rope to draw you hither."
Then I told him the trouble I was like to bring on Alswythe if he told her all that passed at Brent; letting him have his own thoughts about my reason for coming to Matelgar's hall, which were wrong enough, though natural at first sight, maybe.
He promised to be most wary, and I was content. Then I asked him how I should join the levy.
"Master," he said, very gravely, "this is like to be a matter of which we have not seen the end. Yon Danes are up channel, and, as I believe, lying at anchor by the Holms. It will not be their way, if, having gone so far up, they sack not every town on their way back-unless they are beaten off on their first landing. Now the country is raised against them, sure enough; but our levy is a weak crowd when it is first raised, and they are tried warriors, every one. Now they may go on up tide to the higher towns, or else they will be back here, like a kite on a chicken, before men think, and Bridgwater town will see a great fight, and maybe a burning, before tomorrow."
Then I said that the levy would beat them off easily enough; but the old warrior shook his head.
"I was at Charnmouth," he said, "when King Ethelwulf himself led the charge. And our men fought well; but it was like charging a wall bristling with spears. Again and again our men charged, but the Danes stood in a great ring which never broke, although it wavered once or twice, until we were wearied out, and then they swung into line and swept us off the field. Until we learn to fight as they fight, we are weaker."
Then I began to fear for Alswythe, and asked him what guard was left for the hall, and again he shook his head.
"Myself, and five others—not the strongest—and a dozen women, and three boys, thralls."
I knew not what to say to this; but the wise old man had already thought of a plan in case of danger. And in this, he said, I could advise him, for he was a stranger.
"Horses enough are left," he told me, "and if the Danes come to Bridgwater, and are not beaten off, I shall mount the Lady Alswythe and the women, and take them to a safer place. But whither?"
I told him at once of the house of a great thane beyond the Quantocks, easily reached by safe roads through the forest land, where Danes would not care to follow, and he thanked me.
Then he said that I might well try to join the levy; but that it was possible that it would be hard for me. And I told him that if I could not manage it I would join in the fight when no man would question me, and that seemed possible to both of us. But if the Danes yet kept away I knew I could wait in hiding, having money now, safely enough till they had gone and the levy dispersed.
Then came Alswythe back, bearing with her the things I needed. And Wulfhere begged her not to bide alone in the wood now, since robbers might be overbold now that the men were drawn off to the levy. That was good advice in itself; but I knew that he would have her near the hall, lest there should be sudden need for fleeing. She promised him, thanking him for the warning, and he left us.
Then she tended me as I ate, carefully, and never had there been for me so sweet a meal as that, outlawed and homeless though I was to the world. For her word was my law now, and my home was all in her love for me.
I think no man can rightly be held an outlaw who has kept law and has home such as that. For while he has, and loves those, wrong will he do to none.
It was Alswythe who bade me go at last, not for her own sake, but for mine, that I might go on my way to win my fair name back again.
CHAPTER VII. OSRIC THE SHERIFF.
Through the woods I reached Bridgwater town before the sun set, and looking down from the steep hill that overhangs the houses, I could see the market square full of men, shining in arms and armour, and noisy enough, as I could hear. But every one of the townsfolk knew me, and by this time also knew what had befallen me, so that as I stood there it seemed not quite so easy to win a way to the levy as before. The highways were yet full of men coming in, for from where I stood on the edge of the cover I could see the bend of one road, and straight down another. If I went on them I must walk like a leper, alone and shunned by all, with maybe hard words to hear as well.
While I thought of all this, there crept out from among the woods an old crone, doubled up under the weight of a faggot of dry sticks, who stayed to stare at me. I did not mind her, but of a sudden she dropped her bundle of wood, and I saw that it was like to be a heavy task for her to raise it again. So I turned and laid hold of it, for she was but six paces from me, saying:
"Let me help you, Mother, to get it hoisted again. Truly would I carry it for you for a while, but I must bide here."
"That must you, Heregar the outlaw," said the old woman coolly, without a word of thanks, and I thought my story and face were better known than I deemed. Therefore I must make the best of it.
"Well, Mother," said I, "you know me, and if you know me, so also must many others. But I want to join the levy, and fight if need be."
"Thereby knew I you to be Heregar," said she; "for none but he must stand here with the light of battle in his eyes and his hand clutched on his sword hilt and not go down to the Cross yonder, as the summons is."
Then I marvelled at the old dame's wisdom, though maybe it was but a guess, and asked her what I should do, seeing that she was wise, and the words of such as she are often to be hearkened to.
"It is a wise man," she answered, "who will take advice; but never a word should you have had from old Gundred, save you had helped her, as a true man should."
"Truly, Mother Gundred," I said, "I have no rede of my own, and am minded to take yours."
"Then, fool," she said curtly, "link up that tippet of mail across your face, go down to Osric the Sheriff himself, beg to be allowed to fight, and see what he will tell you."
I had forgotten that I could hook the hanging chain mail of my helmet across, in such manner that little but my eyes could be seen; but then that was never done but in battle—and I had never seen that yet.
"Thanks, Mother," said I, with truth, for I saw that I might do this. "This is help indeed."
"Not so fast, young sir," answered the crone; "Osric will not have you."
"How know you that?"
"How does an old woman of ninety years know many things? When you tell me that, I will say how I know that Osric will send you about your business; and that will be the best day's work he ever did."
Now I was nearly angry at that, for it seemed to set light store on my valour; but there seemed something more in the old woman's tone than her taunting words would convey, so I said plainly:
"Then shall I go to him?"
"Aye, fool, did I not tell you so?"
"But if it is no good?"
"Is it no good for a man who is accused of disloyalty to have witness that he wished, at least, to spend his life for his country? Moreover, there is work for you to do which fighting will hinder for this turn— go to, Heregar, I will tell you no more. Now do my bidding and go, and never will you forget that you helped an old witch with her burden."
"Well, then, Mother," I said, hooking up the mail tippet across my face, "if I must go down into the town, surely I will carry that bundle."
"That shall you not," she answered, dropping it again, and sitting down on it. "Heregar the king's thane—the standard bearer—shall bend to no humbler burden than the Dragon of Wessex. Go; and Thor and Odin strike with you."
And then she covered up her face, and would look no more at me. I thought her crazed, maybe, but a sort of chill came over me as I heard her name the old heathen gods, and I thought of the Valas of old time, and knew how here and there some of the old worship lingered yet.
However, good advice had she given, showing me the way to try my fortune in the way I wished, and after that heathenish blessing I had no mind to stay longer, for such like are apt to prove unlucky; so I bid her good even, and went my way towards the town. After all, I thought, king's thane I was once, and may be again; and to bear the standard must be won by valour, so that, too, may come to pass. Whereupon I remembered the badger that scared me in the moonlight, and was less confident in myself.
Many were the questions put me as I passed into the marketplace of Bridgwater, but I answered none, pushing on to where I saw Osric the Sheriff's banner over a great house. Mostly the men scoffed at me for thinking that I should win more renown in disguise; but some thought me a messenger, and clustered after me, to hear what they might.
When I came to the house door, where Osric lay, it was guarded, and the guards asked me my business. I said I would see the sheriff and then they demanded name and errand. Now, I could give neither, and was at a loss for a moment. Then I said that I was one of the bearers of the war arrow, and though that was but a chance shot, as it were, it passed me in at once, for often a bearer would return to give account of some thane ill, or absent, or the like.
They took me to a great oaken-walled hall where sat many thanes along great tables, eating and drinking, and at the highest seat was Osric, and next him, Matelgar. This assembly, and most of all that my enemy should be present, was against me in making my plea; but as the old crone had said, I should be no loser by witness.
I waited till a thrall had told Osric that one of his messengers was here, and then they beckoned me to go to him. He shifted round in his chair to speak to me, but I was watching Matelgar, and saw his glance light on my sword hilt. Recognizing it, he grew pale, and then red, half-rising from his seat to speak to Osric, but thinking better thereof.
"Well; what news and whence?" said the sheriff, who was a small, wiry man, with a sour look, as I thought. Men spoke well of him though.
"The Danes lie off the Holms, sir," I said, for I would gain time.
"I know that," he answered testily; "pull that mail off your face, man; they are not here yet, and your voice is muffled behind it."
I suppose that the coming and going of messengers was constant, and indeed there came another even then, so the other thanes paid little attention after they heard my stale news, except Matelgar; who went on watching me closely.
I was just about to ask the sheriff to hear me privately, when Matelgar plucked him by the sleeve, having made up his mind at last, and drawing him down a little, spoke to him a few words, among which I caught my own name.
The sheriff looked sharply at me, twitching his sleeve away, and I saw that there was to be no more concealment; so I dropped the tippet and let him see who I was, saying at the same time:
"Safe conduct I crave, Osric the Sheriff."
Then a silence came over the thanes who saw and knew me, looking up to see what this new freak of mine was. And Osric frowned at me, but said nothing, so I spoke first.
"Outlaw I am, Osric, but I can fight; today I bore the war arrow—that one who neither knew nor believed me gave me—faithfully to Matelgar the Thane, who is here in obedience to that summons. And when I took it I was on my way out of the kingdom as I was bidden, but I turned back because of the need for a trusty messenger. Now I ask only to be allowed to fight alongside your men in this levy, and after that it is over— if I live—I will go my way again."
That was all I had to say, and when I ceased a talk buzzed up among the thanes. But Matelgar looked black, and Osric made no answer, frowning, indeed, but more I think at the doubt he was in than with anger at me.
I saw that Matelgar longed to speak, but dared not as yet, and then he cast his eye down the hall, and seemed to make some sign.
Presently Osric said in a doubtful way, "Never heard I the like. Now I myself know not why an outlaw should not fight if he wills to do so.
"What say you, thanes?" he cried loudly, turning to those down the hall.
Instantly one rose up and shouted, "We will have no traitors in our ranks."
Then I knew what Matelgar's sign meant, for this was a close friend of his. On that, too, several others said the same, and one cried that I should be hounded out of the hall and town. Osric frowned when he heard that, and looked at me; but I stood with my arms folded, lest I should be tempted to lay hand on sword, and so give my enemies a hold on me. Matelgar himself said nothing, as keeping up his part of friend bound by loyalty to accuse me against his will.
As for the other thanes, they talked, but all the outcry was against my being allowed to join, and at last Osric seemed to be overborne by them, for voices in my favour were few heard, if many thought little harm of my request. But then the offer of the help of one man was, anyway, a little thing, and if he were doubted it would be ill. And I could see, as Osric would also see, that the matter would be spread through the levy by those against me.
Now as I thought of the likelihood of one of Matelgar's men spearing me during the heat of fight, I wondered if he feared the same of me, for I have often heard tales of the like.
Then Osric answered me, kindly enough, but decidedly:
"Nay, Heregar, you hear that this must not be. Outlaw is outlaw, and must count for naught. I may not go against the word of the Moot, and inlaw you again by giving you a place. Go hence in peace, and take your way; yet we thank you for bearing the message to Matelgar. Link up your mail again, and tell any man that you bear messages from me; the watchword is 'Wessex' for the guards are set by now, and you will need it."
As he spoke thus kindly Matelgar's face grew black as night; but he dared say no word. So I bowed to the sheriff and, linking up my mail, went sadly enough down the hall. It was crowded at one place, and there some friendly hand patted me softly on the shoulder, though most shrank from me; but yet I would not turn to see who it was, that helped me.
Now I have often wondered that no inquiry was made about my arms, and how I came by them; but what I believe is, that even then men began to know that Matelgar and his friends had played me false, but that they would not, and Matelgar's people dared not, say much. As for Osric, his mind was full of greater troubles, and I suppose he never thought thereof.
I passed out into the street, but now it was falling dark, and few noticed me. The men sat about along the house walls on settles, eating and drinking and singing. And I, coming to a dark place, sat down among a few and ate and drank as well for half an hour, and then passing the guards at the entrance to the town on the road to Cannington, struck out for Stert, that I might be near Alswythe, and wait for the possible coming of the Danes, and the battle in which I might join.
CHAPTER VIII. THE FIRES OF STERT.
I went along the highroad now, for it was dark, and few were about. Only now and then I met a little party of men hurrying to the gathering place, and mostly they spoke to me, asking for news. And from them I learned, too, that nothing had been seen, while daylight served, of the Danes. Once, I had to say I was on Osric's errand, as he bade me, being questioned as to why I was heading away from the town.
I could not see my hall as I passed close by its place, for the lights that ever shone thence in the old days, so lately, yet seeming so long, gone, were quenched. But I thought of a safe place whence to watch if the Danes came, where were trees in which I might hide if need were, as I had hidden this morning. This was on the little spur of hill men call by the name of the fisher's village below it, Combwich. It looked on all the windings of Parret river, and there would I soon know if landing was to be made for attack on Bridgwater. But I thought it likely that there would be an outpost of our men there for the same reason, and going thither went carefully.
Sure enough there was a little watchfire and half a dozen men round it on the best outlook, and so I passed on still further, following round the spur of hill till I came to where the land overlooks the whole long tongue of Stert Point. That would do as well for me, I thought, and choosing, as best I could in the dark, a tree into which I knew by remembrance that I might easily get, I sat down at its foot, looking seaward.
Now by this time the tide, which runs very strong and swiftly, must be flowing again, and I thought that most likely the Danes, having anchored during the ebb, would go on up channel with it, and that therefore I might have to hang about here for days before they landed, even were they to land at all. And this I had heard said many times by the men of the levy, some, indeed, saying that they might as well go home again.
But I should do as well here as anywhere, or better, since, while Matelgar was away, I might yet see Alswythe again; though that, after my repulse by the sheriff, or perhaps I should rather say by his advisers, I thought not of trying yet. It would but be another parting. Still, I might find old Wulfhere, and send her messages by him before setting out westward again.
Almost was I dozing, for the day had been very long, when from close to Stert came that which roused me completely, setting my heart beating.
It was a bright flash of light from close inshore, on the Severn side of the tongue, followed by answering flashes, just as I had seen them at Watchet. But now the flashes came and went out instantly, for I was no longer looking down on the ship's decks as then.
Well was it that I had seen this before from Quantock heights; for I knew that once again the Danes were landing, and that the peril was close at hand.
Then at once I knew the terrible danger of Alswythe, for Matelgar's was the first hall that would be burnt.
My first thought was to hasten thither and alarm Wulfhere, and then to hurry back to that outpost I had passed half a mile away, for the country danger must be thought of too.
Then a better thought than either came to me. If it was, as it must be, barely half tide, the Danes would find mud between them and shore, too deep to cross, and must wait till the ships could come up to land, or until there was water enough to float their boats. I had an hour or more yet before they set foot on shore.
Moreover, I would find out if landing was indeed meant, or if these were but signals for keeping channel on the outward course.
So across the level meadows of Stert I ran my best, right towards the place where I had seen the light, which was at the top, as it were, of the wedge that Stert makes between the waters of Parret and the greater Severn Sea. There are high banks along the shore to keep out the spring tides, and under these I could watch in safety, unseen. Three fishers' huts were there only; but these I knew would be deserted for fear of the Danes.
So I found them, and then, creeping up the bank, I stood still and peered out into the darkness. Yet it was not so dark on the water (which gleamed a little in the tide swirls here and there beyond half a mile of mud, black as pitch in contrast) but that I could make out at last six long black ships, lying as it seemed on the edge of the ooze. And I could hear, too, hoarse voices crying out on board of them, and now and then the rattle of anchor chains or the like, when the wind blew from them to me.
And ever those ships crept nearer to me, so that I knew they were edging up to the land as the tide rose.
That learnt, I knew what to do. I ran to the nearest fishers' hut, and pulled handfuls of the thatch from under the eaves, piling it to windward against the wooden walls. Then I fired the heap, and it blazed up bright and strong, and at once came a great howl of rage from the ships, plain to be heard, for they knew that now they might not land unknown.
So had I warned Osric the Sheriff, and that matter was out of my hands. And, moreover, Wulfhere, being an old and tried warrior, would be warned as well. That, however, I would see to myself, and, if I could, I would aid him in getting Alswythe into a place of safety. So I ran back, bending my steps now towards her father's hall, up the roadway, if one might so call the track through the marshland that led thither.
Just at the foot of the hill I met three men of the outpost, who were hurrying down to see what my fire meant. They challenged me, halting with levelled spears across the track. Then was I glad of the password, and answered by giving it.
"Right!" said the man who seemed to be the leader. "What news?"
I told him quickly, bidding him waste no time, but hurry back and tell the sheriff that the Danes would be ashore in half an hour. I spoke as I was wont to speak when I was a thane, forgetting in the dire need of the moment that I was an outlaw now, and the man was offended thereat.
"Who are you to command me thus?" he said shortly.
"Heregar, the thane of Cannington." said I, still only anxious that he should go quickly.
"Heard one ever the like!" said the man, and then I remembered.
I looked round at my fire. Two huts were burning now, very brightly, for the wind fanned the flames.
"Saw you ever the like?" I said, and pointed. "Now, will you go?"
The bright light shone on a row of flashing, gilded dragon heads on the ships' stems—on lines of starlike specks beyond them, which were helms and mail coats—and on lines again of smaller stars above, which were spear points.
"Holy saints!" cried the man, adding a greater oath yet; "be you Heregar the outlaw or no, truth you tell, and well have you done. Let us begone, men!"
And with that those three leapt away into the darkness up the hill, leaving me to follow if I listed.
That was not my way, however, and I ran on to Matelgar's hall.
One stood at the gate. It was Wulfhere. Inside I heard the trampling of horses, and knew that they would be ready in time. Wulfhere laid hand on sword as I came up, doubting if I were not a Dane, but I cried to him who I was, and he came out a step or two to me, asking for news.
And when I told him what I had seen and done, he, too, said I had done well, and that I had saved Alswythe, if not many more. Also, that he had sent a man to tell Matelgar of his plans. Then he told me that even now the horses were ready, and that he was about to abandon the place, going to the house of that thane of whom I had told him. And I said that I would go some way with him, and then return to join the levy, making known my ill-luck with Osric.
"Ho!" said he; "it was well he sent you away, as it seems to me."
That was the word of the old crone, I remembered, that it should be so.
Then came a soft touch on my arm, and on turning I saw Alswythe standing by me, wrapped in a long cloak, and ready. And neither I nor she thought shame that I should lay my arm round her, and kiss her there, with the grim old housecarle standing by and pretending to look out over Stert, where the light of my fires shone above the trees.
"Heregar, my loved one, what does it all mean?" she said, trembling a little. "Have they come?"
I folded my arm more closely round her, and would have answered, but that Wulfhere did so for me.
"Aye, lady, and it is to Heregar that we owe our safety, for he has been down to Stert and warned us all."
At that my love crept closer to me, as it were to thank me. Then she said:
"Will there be fighting? And will my father have to fight?"
"Aye, lady," said Wulfhere again, "as a good Saxon should."
"Must I go from here?" she asked again; and I told her that the house would be burnt, maybe, in an hour or so.
At that she shivered, and tried not to weep, being very brave.
"Where must we go?" she said, with a little tremble in her voice.
I told her where we would take her, and then she cried out that she must bide near at hand lest her father should be hurt, and none to tend him.
And Wulfhere and I tried a little to overpersuade her, but then a groom came to say that all was ready.
And, truly, no time must be lost, if we would get off safely.
Then I said that it would be safe to go to Bridgwater, for then we should be behind the levy, and that the Danes must cut through that before reaching us. And to that Wulfhere agreed, for I knew he would rather be swinging his sword against the Danes at Stert than flying through the woods of the Quantocks.
Alswythe thanked me, without words indeed, and then in a few minutes she was mounted, and we were going up towards the high road to Bridgwater. We had twelve horses, and on them were the women of the house, bearing what valuables they might, as Wulfhere had bade them. One horse carried two women, but they were a light burden, and we had no such terrible haste to make, seeing that every moment brought us nearer the levy. There were the men and boys as well, but they led the beasts.
Now when we reached the high road, some half mile away, suddenly Alswythe reined up her horse, by which I walked, giving a little cry, and I asked what it was.
Then she said, sobbing a little, that she would her cows were driven out into the forest where they were wont to feed, lest the cruel Danes should get them. And to please her I think I should myself have gone back, but that Wulfhere called one of the men, who, it seemed, was the cowherd, bidding him return and do this, if the Danes were not coming yet. Glad enough was I to hear the man say that he had done it already —"for no Dane should grow fat on beasts of his tending, and they were a mile off by now."
So we went on, and every minute I looked to meet our levy advancing. But the moon rose, and shone on no line of glancing armour that I longed for, and Wulfhere growled to himself as he went. I would have asked him many questions, but would not leave Alswythe, lest she should be alarmed. And all the way, as we went, I told her of what had befallen me with Osric, saying only that her father was there, but had not been able to speak for me. And I told her of the old crone's words, which she thought would surely come true, all of them, as they had begun to do so.
It is a long five miles from Matelgar's place to the town, and we could only travel at a foot's pace. But still we met no force. Indeed, until we were just a half mile thence, we saw no one. Then we met a picket, who, seeing we were fugitives, let us go on unchallenged.
But Wulfhere stopped and questioned the men, and got no pleasant answer as it seemed, for he caught us up growling, coming alongside of me, and saying—for Alswythe could not know the ways of war—that they would attack with morning light. But I felt only too keenly, though I knew so little, that to fight the Danes when they had their foot firmly ashore, was a harder matter than to meet them but just landed.
We were so close to the town now that I asked Alswythe where she would be taken. Already we were passing groups of fugitives from the nearer country, and the town would be full of them, to say nothing of the men of the levy.
She thought a little, and then asked me if she might not go to her father, wherever he was. But I told her that he was but a guest of Osric, as it seemed. Then she said that she would go to her aunt, who was the prioress of the White Nuns, and bide in the nunnery walls till all was safe. And that seemed a good plan, both to me and Wulfhere, for it would—though this we said not to Alswythe—set us free to fight, as there we might not come, and she would be safe without us.
Then I told Wulfhere how we could reach that house without going through the crowded town, and so turned to the right, skirting round in the quiet lanes.
The gray dawn began to break as we saw the nunnery before us, and it was very cold. But Alswythe pointed to a crimson glow behind us, as we topped the last rise, saying that the sun would be up soon.
Wulfhere and I looked at each other. That glow was not in the east, but shone from Matelgar's hall—in flames.
And then we feigned cheerfulness, and said that it would be so; and Alswythe smiled on me, though she was pale and overwrought with the terror she would not show, and the long, dark, and cold journey.
We came to the nunnery gate and knocked; and the old portress looked out of the wicket and asked our business, frightened at the glint of mail she saw. But Alswythe's voice she knew well, as she answered, begging lodging for herself and her maidens, till this trouble was over.
It was no new thing for a lady of rank to come into that quiet retreat with her train when on a journey; and after a little time, while the portress told the prioress, the doors were thrown open, and we rode into the great courtyard, where torches burnt in the dim gray morning light.
Then came the prioress, mother's sister to Alswythe, a tall and noble-looking lady, greeting her and us kindly, and so promising safe tending to her niece so long as she needed.
Here Alswythe must part from me, giving me but her hand to kiss, as also to Wulfhere, but there was a warm pressure on my hand for myself alone that bided with me. And the prioress thanked us for our care, not knowing me in the half light, and in mail, and so were we left in the courtyard, where an old lay brother, brought from the near monastery, showed us the stabling and provender for our horses, and the loft where the men should sleep, outside the walls of the inclosed building.
Here Wulfhere bade the men and boys remain, tending their horses until he should return, or until orders came from their master himself or from the lady Alswythe; for they were thralls, and not men who should be with the levy.
Then he and I went out into the roadway and walked away until we were alone.
"What now?" I asked.
"I must join my master, telling him what I have done, and that the lady is safe. So shall I march with the rest most likely. What shall I say of your part in this?"
"Nought," I answered.
"Maybe that is best—just now," he agreed.
We had come to the town streets now, and they seemed empty. The light was strong enough by this time, and there came a sound of shouting from the place of the market cross, and then we heard the bray of war horns, and Wulfhere quickened his pace, saying that the men were mustering, or maybe on the march.
Then I longed to go with him, but that might not be. So I left him at last, saying that I should surely join in the fight.
I had not gone six paces from him when he called me, and I could see that he looked anxious.
"Master," he said, "this is going to be a doubtful fight as it seems to me. Yon Danes know that the country is raised, but yet they have come back, and they mean to fight. Now our levy is raw, and has no discipline, and I doubt it will be as it was at Charnmouth. If that is so, Bridgwater will be no safe place for the lady Alswythe. She must be got hence with all speed."
"Shall you not return and hide with her?" I asked.
"That is as the master bids," said he, and then he added, looking at me doubtfully, "I would you were not so bent on this fight."
Then was I torn two ways—by my longing to strike a blow for Wessex, and by my love for my Alswythe and care for her safety. And I knew not what to say. Wulfhere understood my silence, and then decided for me.
"You have hearkened to me before, master, and now I will speak again. Get you to your place of last night on Combwich Hill, and there look on the fight; or, if it be nearer this, find such a place as you know. Then, if there is victory for us, all is well: but if not, you could not aid with your one strength to regain it. Then will Alswythe need you."
"I would fain fight," I said, still doubting.
"Aye, master; but already have you done well, and deserved well of the sheriff, and of all. He bade you fight not today—let it be so. There is loyalty also in obedience, and ever must some bide with the things one holds dear."
"I will do as you say," said I shortly, and so I turned and went.
He stood and looked after me for a little, and then he too hurried away towards the cross. Then I skirted round the town, and waited at that place where I had met with the old woman, until I saw the van of our forces marching down the road towards Cannington. These I kept up with by hurrying from point to point alongside the road, as best I might.
They were a gallant show to look on, gay with banners and bright armour. Yet I had heard of the ways of armies, and thought to see them marching in close order and in silence. But they were in a long line with many gaps, and here and there the mounted thanes rode to and fro, seemingly trying to make them close up. And they sang and shouted as they went.
When we came to the steep rise of Cannington hill, some of those thanes spurred on and rode to the summit, and there waited a little, till the men joined them. There was silence, and a closing up as they breasted the steep pitch; and then I must go through woods, and so lost sight of them for a while. I passed close to my own hall—closed and deserted. Every soul in all the countryside had fled into the town, though after the levy came a great mixed crowd of thralls and the like to see the fray.
Now here I thought to cross in the rear of the force that I might reach Combwich hill. But that was not to be.
When I saw the array again it was halted, and the men were closing up. And between the levy and that crowd of followers was a great gap, and some of these last were making for the shelter of swamp and wood. I myself was on a little rise of heathy land and could see plainly before me the road going up over the neck of Combwich hill in the steep-sided notch there is there, where the ascent is easiest.
And that road was barred halfway up the hillside by a close-ranked company, on which the sun shone brightly, showing scarlet cloaks and gilded helms not only on the roadway, but flanking the hills on either side. These were the Danes, and behind them, over the hill, rose the smoke from Matelgar's burnt home.
Even as I looked, a great roar of defiance came from our men; but the Danes made no answer, standing still and silent. And that seemed terrible to me. So for a moment they stood, and then, as at some signal, from them broke out that deep chant with its terrible swinging melody, that had come faintly to me from Watchet haven.
Then our men rushed forward, and even where I stood I could hear the crash of arms on shields as the lines met—the ringing of the chime of war—and our men fought uphill.
And now it needed all my force to keep myself, for Alswythe's sake, from joining in that fray, and presently, when I would take my hand from my sword hilt, it was stiff and cramped from clutching hard upon it, as I watched those two lines swaying, and heard the yells of the fighters.
And indeed I should surely have joined, but there came a voice to me:
"Bide here in patience, Heregar, the king's thane! There is work for you yet that fighting will hinder."
And the old crone, Gundred, who had come I know not how, laid her hand on my arm.
"Look at the tide, Heregar, look at the tide!" she said, pointing to Parret river, where the mud banks lay bare and glistening with the falling water. "Let them drive these Danes back to their stranded ships, and how many will go home again to Denmark, think you?"
And I prayed that this might be so: for I knew she spoke truth. If they might not reach their ships, and became penned in on Stert, they were lost—every one, for none might cross the deep ooze.
"Not this time, Heregar. Remember, when the time comes," she said.
And I paid no heed to her. For now horses were galloping riderless along the road and into the fields. And men were crawling back from the fight, to fall exhausted in the rear, and then—then the steadfast line of the scarlet-cloaked Danes charged down the hill, driving our men like sheep before them.
"Up and to your work!" said the crone, pointing towards Bridgwater; and I, who had already made two steps, with drawn sword, towards that broken, flying rabble, remembered Alswythe, and turned away, groaning, to hasten to her rescue. For it was, as Wulfhere had said, all that I could do.
Swiftly I went, turning neither to right nor left along the road, hearing always behind me the cries of those who fled, and the savage shouts of the pursuing vikings. I was in the midst of that crowd of thralls once, but they thinned, taking to the woods whence I had come; while I kept on.
Then I saw one of those horses, a great white steed, standing, snorting, by the wayside where he had stopped, and I spoke to him, and he let me catch and mount him, and so I rode on.
Yet when I came to the top of Cannington Hill I looked back. All the road was full of our men, flying; and a thought came into my head, and I dared to draw rein and wait for them, linking my mail again across my face.
They came up, panting, and wild with panic, and there with voice and hand I bade them stand on that vantage ground and block the way against the Danes; bidding them remember the helpless ones in the town, who must have time to fly, and how the Danes must needs shrink from a second fight after hot pursuit.
And there is that in a Saxon's stubborn heart which bade them heed me, and there they formed up again, wild with rage and desperate, and the line grew thicker and firmer as more came up, with the sheriff himself, till the foremost pursuing Danes recoiled, and some were slain, and I knew that the flight was over.
Then I slipped from my horse and made my way on foot, lest men should notice my going, but the horse followed me, and soon I mounted him again and galloped on.
Then I found that though I had not noticed it, my mail had fallen apart: but I knew not if any had known me, or even had noted who I might be.
So I came to Bridgwater, bringing terror with me, as men gathered what had befallen from my haste. Yet I stayed for none; but went on to the nunnery.
CHAPTER IX. IN BRIDGWATER.
Two of Wulfhere's men were by the gate, lounging against the sunny wall; but they roused into life as they heard the clatter of my horse's hoofs, and came to meet me and take the bridle, as was their duty. They knew who I was well enough; but thralls may not question the ways of a thane, as I was yet in their eyes, though outlawed. Yet they asked me for news of the fight, and I told them—lest they should raise a panic, or maybe leave us themselves—only that our men stood against the Danes on Cannington Hill, and that beyond them the invaders could not come. And that satisfied them.
I was doubtful whether to go in at once and seek audience with the prioress, or wait until some fresh news came in; for now I began to have a hope that our men would sweep down the hill on the Danes and scatter them in turn, even as they had themselves been overborne. So for half an hour I waited, pacing the road before the nunnery, while I bade the men see to my horse; but the place was very quiet, being on that side the town away from the fight, so that any coming thence would stay their flight when the shelter of the houses was reached.
At last came one, running at a steady pace, and I sprang to meet him, for it was Wulfhere. His face was hard and set, his armour was covered with blood, and he had a bandage round his head instead of helmet; but he was not hurt much, as one might see by the way he came.
He grasped my hand without a word, and threw himself on the bank by the road side to get breath, and I stood by him, silent for a while.
"Heregar," he said at last, "it is well for Bridgwater town, and these here in this nunnery, that you obeyed and fought not."
"Wherefore?" I said. "Must we fly?"
"I saw you rally the men on Cannington Hill, and that was the best thing done in all this evil day."
"Then," I asked, "do they yet stand?"
"Aye; for the Danes have drawn off, and our men bar the way here."
I told him what I had hoped from a charge of our levy; but he shook his head and told me that, even had our men the skill to see their advantage, the Danes had formed up again on seeing that this might be, and had gone back in good order to their first post at Combwich.
"But our levy will not bide a second fight," he said sadly. "Already the men are making off home, in twos and threes, saying that the Danes will depart, and the like. Tomorrow the way here will be open, for there will be no force left to Osric by the morning. I have seen such things before."
"Then must the Lady Alswythe fly," I said: "but where is Matelgar?"
"Struck down as he fled," said Wulfhere grimly. "I saw Osric and twenty of his men close round him and beat back the Danes for a moment: but I could not win to them, and so came back to you as you rallied us. That was well done," he said again.
"I left when Osric came up. Matelgar I saw not," I said.
"Osric saw you, though," answered Wulfhere, "and, moreover, knew you. And I heard him cry out when he saw the white horse riderless; for the arrows were still flying, and he thought you slain, I think."
Now I wondered if Osric would be wroth with me, thinking I had fought against his orders; but I had little time to think of myself, all my care being for Alswythe, who had lost home and father in one day; being left to Wulfhere, and me—an outlaw.
Then Wulfhere and I took counsel about flight, being troubled also about the holy women in this place; for the heathen would not respect the walls of a nunnery. But for them we thought Osric would surely care.
Now there came to us as we stood and talked, a housecarle in a green cloak, and asked us if we had seen a warrior, wounded maybe, riding a great white horse, which, he added, had been Edred the Thane's, who was killed.
"Aye, that have I," said Wulfhere, "what of him?"
"Osric the Sheriff seeks him. Tell me quickly where I may find him."
"Is Osric back in the town?" asked Wulfhere in surprise.
"Aye, man, and half the levy with him. The Danes will go away now. Enough are left to mind them."
Then Wulfhere stamped on the ground in rage, cursing the folly of every man of the levy. And the housecarle stared at him as at one gone suddenly mad; but I knew only too well that his worst fears were on the way to be realized, and that soon there would be no force left on Cannington Hill.
Suddenly he turned on the messenger and asked if he knew the name of the man he sought.
"No; but men say that it was one Heregar—an outlawed thane. And some say that it was one of the saints."
"Will Osric string him up, think you, if he can catch him, and it be Heregar only, and no saint?"
The man stared again.
"Surely not," he said, "for he was sore cast down once, on the hill, thinking him slain. But men had seen him remount and ride on, And Osric bid me, and all of us who seek him, pray Heregar—if Heregar it be— to come to him in all honour. Let me go and seek him."
Then Wulfhere turned to me and asked if I would go. And at that the man made reverence to me, giving his message again.
Then I said "Is Matelgar the Thane with him?" and he answered that Matelgar was slain before the stand was made.
Then I said I would go, if only to ask Osric for a guard to keep the Lady Alswythe safe in her flight. And Wulfhere agreed, but doubtfully, saying that nevertheless he would make ready the horses and provisions for a journey, biding till I came back, or sent a messenger.
So I went with the housecarle, who led me again through the marketplace to that same great house whence I had been sent forth overnight. All the square was full of men, drinking deeply, some boasting of their deeds, and some of deeds to be done yet. But many sat silent and gloomy, and more cried out with pain as their wounds were dressed by the leeches or the womenfolk. All was confusion, and, indeed, one might not know if this turmoil was after victory or defeat.
None noticed me or my guide, but, indeed, I saw few men I knew in all the crowd, for the men of Bridgwater and those of Matelgar's following had fought most fiercely on their own land, and even now stayed to guard what they might on the hill.
Osric again sat in the great chair in the hall, as I could see through the open door, and round him were the thanes; but far fewer than last night. And presently a housecarle spoke to him, and he rose up and left the hall. Then they led me to a smaller chamber, and there he was alone, and waiting for me.
Now I knew not what his wish to see me might mean, but from him I looked for no harm, remembering how he had seemed to favour me even in refusing my request. But, least of all did I look for him to come forward to meet me, taking both my hands, and grasping them, while he thanked me for the day's work.
"Lightly I let you go last night, Heregar," he said, "setting little store on the matter among all the trouble of the gathering. But when I sent you away and forgot you, surely the saints guided me. For I have heard how you dared to go down to Stert and warn us all, and I saw you stay the flight, even now. Much praise, and more than that, is due to you. Were you in the fight?"
Then I could answer him to a plain question; for all this praise, though it was good to hear, abashed me.
"Nay, Sheriff," I answered. "Fain would I have been there, but a wiser head than mine advised me, and bade me do your bidding, and forbear. Else should I surely have fought."
"Loyalty has brought good to us all, Heregar," he said, looking squarely at me. "Yet should I have hardly blamed you had you disobeyed me."
Then I flushed red, thinking shame not to have done so, and went to excuse myself for obedience.
"Yet had I the safety of a lady who must die, if the battle went wrongly for us, laid on me in a way," I said.
"Matelgar's fair daughter?" he asked.
"Aye, Sheriff," And I told him of the flight from the hall, and where she was now, wondering how he guessed this. But I had come from Stert, and therefore the guess was no wonder. He looked at me gravely, and then sat down, motioning me to be seated also. He treated me not as an outlaw, I thought.
"Matelgar is dead," he said. "I saw him fall, and tried to bring him off. He was not yet sped when we beat off the Danes. And he had time to speak to me."
I bowed in silence, not knowing what to say. Strange that, now my enemy was dead, I had no joy in it; but I thought of Alswythe only.
The sheriff went on, looking at me closely.
"He bade me find Heregar, the outlawed thane who spoke last night to me, and bid him forgive. Then he died, and I must needs leave him, for the Danes came on in force."
Still I was silent, for many thoughts came up in my heart and choked me. How I had hated him, and yet how he had wronged me—even to seeking my life. Yet was I beginning to think of him but as a bad father to my Alswythe, but a man to be held in some regard, for the sake of her love to him. And it seems to me that shaping my words to this end so often had gradually turned my utter bitterness away: for one has to make one's thoughts go the way one speaks, if one would seem to speak true.
"I may not make out all this, Heregar, my friend," said the sheriff; "but that you were disloyal ever, no man may say in my hearing after this day's work. And I know that Matelgar was the foremost in accusing you. Wherefore it seems to me that there was work there to be forgiven by you. Is that so?"
The thing was so plain that I could but bow my head in assent.
"Now," he went on, "I have heard private talk of this sort before now; but never mind. I cannot inlaw you again, Heregar; for that must needs be done in full Moot, as was the outlawry. Yet shall all my power be bent to help you back to your own, if only for the sake of today."
Then would I thank him, but he stopped me.
"To the man who lit the fire of Stert, who checked the panic on Cannington Hill, thanks are due, not gratitude from him. And to him justice and reward."
Now I knew not what to say; but at that moment came a hurried rapping on the door and the sound of voices, speaking together. Then the door was thrown open and a man entered, heated and breathless, crying:
"The Danes—they are on our men again!"
Then Osric flushed red, and his eyes sparkled, and he bid the thanes who crowded after the messenger get to horse and sound the assembly at once to go to the assistance of those who were yet on the hill.
And yet he turned to me when this was said, and took my hand again.
"Get your lady in safety to Glastonbury, where Ealhstan the Bishop is. I will care for the nuns if need be. Take this ring of mine and show it to him, and then ride with it to Eanulf the Ealdorman and tell him of our straits. The words I leave to you, who have done better than all of us today."
Then he took helm and sword from one who brought them in haste, and armed himself, while I, putting the ring he had given me on my finger, yet stood beside him. When he was armed he turned sharply to me.
"You want to fight again," he said. "Well, I will not blame you; but believe me, you will do more for us in going to Eanulf than in spending your life here for nought."
Then he saw he had said too much, perhaps, and motioning his man out of the room, so that we were alone, he went on quickly: "I say for nought, because all I can do is to hold back the Danes for a little; you have seen how it is. We are evenly matched in numbers, or thereabout; but they are trained and hardened warriors, and our poor men are all unused to war. Moreover, Heregar, these Danes come to fight, and our men do but fight because they must. Now I will send one after you to Glastonbury to let you know how this matter goes; but it will be, I fear, no pleasant message."
Then would I not ask him for men as I had been minded to do, knowing what a strait he was in, and that his words were only too true. Those two differences between Dane and Saxon in those days of the first fighting left the victory too plainly on the side of the newcomers. And they sum up all the reasons for the headway they made against us till Alfred, our wise king, taught us to meet them in their own way.
So once more I felt the grip of Osric's hand on mine, and I left him, with a heavy heart indeed, but with a new hope for myself and for Alswythe, in the end.
I stood for a moment before I turned out of the marketplace, eating a loaf I had taken from the table as I passed, and watching the men gather, spiritless, for this new fight. On many, too, the strong ale had told, and it was a sorry force that Osric could take with him.
But I might not stay, and was turning to go, when I saw one standing like myself and watching, close by. It was my host of Sedgemoor, Dudda the Collier. And never was face more welcome than his grimy countenance, for now I knew that I had found one who, in an hour, would take Alswythe into paths where none might follow, and that, too, on the nearest road to Glastonbury. There is no safer place for those who would fly, than the wastes of Sedgemoor to those who know, or have guide to them, and there no Danes would ever come.
So I stepped up to him and touched him, and he grinned at seeing a known face, muttering to himself, "Grendel, the king's messenger."
And as I beckoned he willingly followed me towards my destination, asking me of the fight, and what was on hand now so suddenly.
I told him shortly, finding that he had been drawn from his own neighbourhood by curiosity, which must be satisfied before he went back. And I told him that now the Danes were close on Bridgwater, and that I must bear messages to Eanulf the Ealdorman. Would he earn a good reward by getting me and some others across Sedgemoor by the paths along which he had led me?
And at that he grinned, delighted, saying, "Aye, that will I, master," seeming to forget all else in prospect of gain.
So I bade him follow me closely, and soon we were back at the nunnery gates.
They were open, and inside I could see the horses standing. Wulfhere was waiting for me, looking anxious; but his brow cleared as he saw me, and he asked for the news, saying that he feared I had fallen into the wrong hands.
Then I told him I had, as I thought, no more to fear, showing him the sheriff's ring and telling him of my errand.
"That is nigh as good as inlawed again," he said gladly. "Anyway, you ride as the sheriff's man now."
Then his face clouded a little, and he added, "But Glastonbury is a far cry, master, for the roads are none so direct."
Then I called the collier, and Wulfhere questioned him, and soon was glad as I that I had met with him, saying that in an hour we should be in safety. But he would that the prioress and her ladies would come also, for he knew that Osric's fears would be only too true. Then must we go and tell Alswythe of the journey she must make; and how to tell of her father's death I knew not, nor did Wulfhere. And there we two men were helpless, looking at one another in the courtyard, and burning with impatience to get off.
"Let us go first, and tell her on the way" said he.
But I reminded him that we were here even now, and not on the far side of the Quantocks, because she would by no means leave her father.
Now while we debated this, the old sister who was portress, opened the wicket and asked us through it why these horses stood in the yard, and what we armed men did there. And that decided me. I would ask for speech with the prioress, and tell her the trouble.
That pleased Wulfhere: and I did so. Then the portress asked who I might be, and lest my name should but prove a bar to speech with the lady, I showed her Osric's ring, which she knew as one he was wont to give to men as surety that they came from him on his errand. And that was enough, for in a few minutes she came back, taking me to the guest chamber.
There I unhelmed and waited, while those minutes seemed very long, though they were but few before the lady came in.
She started a little when she saw who I was, for she had known me well, and knew now in what case I had been. But Alswythe had told her also of what I had been able to do for her last night, if she had heard no more, for news gets inside even closed walls, in one way or another, from the lay people who serve the place.
I bent my knee to her, and she looked at me very sadly, saying: "I knew and loved your mother, Heregar, my son, and sorely have I grieved for you—not believing all the things brought against you. How come you here now?"
Then I held out my hand and showed her Osric's ring, only saying that as the good sheriff trusted me I would ask her to do so. And at that she looked glad, and said that she would hold Osric's trust as against any word she had heard of me in dispraise.
So I bowed, and then, thinking it foolish to waste time, begged her to forgive bluntness, and told her of the death of Matelgar and of the sore danger of the town, and of how Osric had hidden me take Alswythe to Glastonbury to the bishop, and how he would himself care for her own safety.
She was a brave lady, and worthy of the race of Offa from which she sprung. And she heard me to the end, only growing very pale, while her hand that rested on the table grew yet whiter as she clenched it.
"Can we not recover the body of the thane?" she asked, speaking very low.
I could but shake my head, for I knew that where he lay was now in the hands of the Danes. True, if Osric could beat them off again he might gain truce for such recovery on both sides; but that seemed hopeless to me. Then I was bold to add:
"Now, lady, this matter is pressing, and in your hands I must leave it. Trust the Lady Alswythe to me and her faithful servant, Wulfhere, and I will be answerable for her with my life. But of her father's death I dare not tell her."
Then she bowed her head a little, and, I think, was praying. For when she looked at me again her face was very calm though so pale.
"Alswythe has told me of you, Heregar, my son," she said, "and to you will I trust her. Moreover I will bid her go at once, and I will tell her that heavy news you bring. You will not have long to wait, for in truth we are ready, fearing such as this."
Then I kissed her hand, and she blessed me, and went from the room. And, taught by her example, I prayed that I might not fail in this trust, but find safety for her I loved.
Now came the sister who had charge of such things, and set before me a good meal with wine, saying no word, but signing the cross over all in token that I might eat, and glad enough was I to do so, though in haste. Yet before I would begin I asked that sister to let Wulfhere know that all was going right, and to bid him be ready. She said no word, as must have been their rule, but went out, and I knew afterwards that she sent one to tell him.
In a quarter hour or so, and when I, refreshed with the good food I so needed, was waxing restless and impatient, the prioress came back, and signed me to follow her, and taking my helm, I did so, till we came to the great door leading to the courtyard. There stood Alswythe, very pale, and trying to stop her weeping very bravely, and she gave me her hand for a moment, without a word, and it was cold as ice, and shook a little; yet it had a lingering grasp on mine, as though it would fain rest with me for a little help.
There were but two of her maidens with her, and the prioress saw that I was surprised, and said: "The rest bide with us, Heregar, and here they will surely be safe. Alswythe will take no more than these, lest you are hindered on the journey."
And I was glad of that, though I should have loved to see her better attended, as befitted her; yet need was pressing, and this was best. Then the prioress kissed Alswythe and the maidens, and Wulfhere set them on their horses, for though I would fain help Alswythe myself, the lady had more to say to me, and kept me.
She told me to take my charge to the abbess of her own order at Glastonbury, where they would be tended in all honour as here with herself, and she gave me a letter also to the abbess to tell her what was needed and why they came, and then she gave me a bag with gold in it, knowing that I might have to buy help on the way. For all this I thanked her; but she said that rather it was I who should be thanked, and from henceforward, if her word should in any way have weight, it should go with that of Osric the Sheriff for my welfare.
And this seemed to me to be much said before my task was done, but afterwards I knew that she had talked with Wulfhere, who had told her all—even to the treachery of Matelgar. That would I have prevented, had I known, but so it was to be, and I had no knowledge of it till long after. Wulfhere had been called in to give her news while I was with Osric, yet he had not dared to tell her of the thane's death.
All being ready, I mounted that white steed that had been the dead thane's, knowing that in war and haste these things must be taken as they come, and that he was better in Saxon hands than Danish. Then I gave the word, and we started, Dudda the Collier going by my side, and staring at the prioress and all things round him.
Alswythe turned and looked hard at her aunt as we passed the gates, and I also. She stood very still on the steps before the great door, with the portress beside her. There was only the old lay brother in the court beside, and so we left her. And what my fears were for her and hers I could not tell Alswythe. For, as we left the gates, something in the sky over towards the battleground caught my eyes, and I turned cold with dread. It was the smoke from burning houses at Cannington.
CHAPTER X. FLIGHT THROUGH SEDGEMOOR.
I was glad we had not to go through the town, for the sights there were such as Alswythe could not bear to look on. And if that smoke meant aught, it meant that our men were beaten back, and would even now be flying into the place with perhaps the Danes at their heels.
I rode alongside Wulfhere, and motioned to him to look, and as he did so he groaned. Then he spoke quite cheerfully to his lady, saying that we had better push on and make a good start; and so we broke into a steady trot and covered the ground rapidly enough, ever away from danger.
I rode next Alswythe, but I would not dare speak to her as vet. She had her veil down, and was quite silent, and I felt that it would be best for me to wait for her wish.
Beside me trotted the collier, Wulfhere was leading, and next to Alswythe and me came the two maidens. After them came the three men and two boys, all mounted, and leading with them the other three horses of the twelve we had brought from Stert. They were laden with things for the journey given by the prioress, and with what they had saved from Matelgar's hall, though that was little enough.
Wulfhere would fain have made the collier ride one of these spare horses; but the strange man had refused, saying that his own legs he could trust, but not those of a four-footed beast.
It was seven in the bright May morning when Dane and Saxon met on Combwich Hill. It was midday when I met Wulfhere at the nunnery, and now it was three hours and more past. But I thought there was yet light enough left for us to find our way across Sedgemoor, and lodge that night in safety in the village near the collier's hut; and so, too, thought Wulfhere when I, thinking that perhaps Alswythe's grief might find its own solace in tears when I was not by her, rode on beside him for a while.
"Once set me on Polden hills, master," said Wulfhere, "I can do well enough, knowing that country from my youth. But this is a good chance that has sent you your friend the collier."
So he spoke, and then I fell to wondering, if it was all chance, as we say, that led my feet in that night of wandering to Dudda's hut, that now I might find help in sorer need than that. For few there are who could serve as guide over that waste of fen and swamp, and but for him we must needs have kept the main roads, far longer in their way to Glastonbury, as skirting Sedgemoor, and now to be choked with flying people.
Presently Wulfhere asked me if in that village we might find one good house where to lodge the Lady Alswythe. And I told him that there I had not been, but at least knew of one substantial franklin, for my playfellow, Turkil, had been the son of such an one, as I was told. The collier, who ran, holding my stirrup leather, tireless on his lean limbs as a deerhound, heard this, and told me that the man's house was good and strong—not like those in Bridgwater—but a great house for these parts. So I was satisfied enough.
Then this man Dudda, finding I listened to him in that matter, began to talk, asking me questions of the fighting, and presently "if I had seen the saint?"
I asked him what he meant; and as I did so I heard Wulfhere chuckle to himself. Then he told me a wild story that was going round the town. How that, when all seemed lost, there came suddenly a wondrous vision, rising up before the men, of a saint clad in armour and riding a white horse, having his face covered lest men should be blinded by the light thereof, who, standing with drawn sword on Cannington Hill, so bade the men take courage that they turned and beat the Danes back. Whereupon he vanished, though the white horse yet remained for a little, before it, too, was gone.
Well, thought I, Grendel the fiend was I but the other day, and now I am to be a saint. And with that I could not restrain myself, but laughed as once before I had laughed at this same man, for the very foolishness of the thing. Yet I might not let Alswythe know that I laughed, and so could not let it go as I would, and I saw that Wulfhere was laughing likewise, silently.
Now this is not to be wondered at, though it was but a little thing maybe. For we had been like a long-bent bow, overstrained with doubt and anxiety, and, now that we were in safety with the lady, it needed but like this to slacken the tension, and bid our minds relieve themselves. So that laugh did us both good, and moreover took away some of the downcast look from our faces when next we spoke to our charge.
When he could speak again, Wulfhere answered the man, still smiling.
"Aye, man, I saw him. And he was wondrous like Heregar, our master, here."
And at that the collier stared at me, and then said: "There be painted saints in our church. But they be not like mortal men, being no wise so well-favoured as the master."
And that set Wulfhere laughing again, for the good monks who paint these things are seldom good limners, but make up for bad drawing by bright colour. So that one may only know saint from fiend by the gold, or the want of it, round his head.
Then fell I to thinking again about myself, and what it takes to make man a saint or a fiend. And that thought was a long thought.
Now were we come across Parret, and began our journey into the fens. And presently we must ride in single file along a narrow pathway which I could barely trace, and indeed in places could not make out at all. And here the collier led, going warily, then came Wulfhere, and then Alswythe, with myself next behind her to help if need were. After us the maidens, and then the rest.
So we were in safety, for half a mile of this ground was safer than a wall behind us. We went silently for a little while, save for a few words of caution here and there. But at last Alswythe turned to me, and lifted her veil, smiling a little to me at last, and asking why we left the good roads for this wild place, for though we men were used to the like in hunting, she knew not that such places and paths could be, brought up as she was in the wooded uplands of our own corner of the country.
I told her how I was to make all speed to Glastonbury, and that this was the nearest road: and she was content, being very trustful in both her protectors. But then she asked if that place should be reached before dark, having little knowledge of places or distances.
Then I must needs tell how we were bound for that village where the hermit was, and Turkil of whom I had told her, seeing that it was over late to reach the town, but that there we hoped to come next day. And she said she would fain see those two, "and maybe Grendel also," smiling again a little to please me. And I knew how much that little jest cost her to make, and loved her the more for her thought for me. Then she was silent for a while.
Presently one of the men in the rear shouted, and there was a great splashing and snorting of horses, and we looked round. One of the led horses had gone off the path and was in a bog, and that had set the rest rearing with fright.
So we had to halt, and Wulfhere gave his horse to Dudda to hold while he went back. And that kept us for a while waiting, and then I could stand beside Alswythe for a little.
"I have seen the last of my outlaw, they tell me," she said, wanting to learn how things were with me.
Yet I was still that, if only for loss of lands and place. Though as Osric's chosen messenger I had that last again for a little, because of his need.
So I told her that that matter must be settled by the Moot, but that Osric was my friend, and that while I bore his ring at least none might call me "outlaw". And at that she was glad, and told me that if she saw Leofwine the hermit she would tell him that his words were coming true. Then she looked hard at me, and said that she had heard from her aunt why Osric so trusted me, and that she was proud of Heregar. And I said that I had but done the things that someone had to do, and which came in my way, as it seemed to me, wherein I was fortunate.
At that she smiled at me, seeming to think more of the matter than that, and so talked of other things. Yet she must needs at last come to that which lay nearest her heart, and so asked me if I had seen her father fall.
And I was glad to say that I had not; adding that it was near Combwich Hill, as I had heard, and close to where Osric the Sheriff fought.
So I think that all her life long she believed him to have fallen fighting in the first line, where Osric was, with his face to the enemy; for all men spoke well of the sheriff's valour that day, and none would say more than I told her. Yet it may have been that the thane fought well, unobserved, in that press, and there is perhaps little blame to many who fly in a panic.
Now, that spoken of and passed over, she became more like her brave self, and from that time on would speak cheerfully both to Wulfhere and myself, as, the horses set in order again, we once more went on our winding way, following our guide.
Glad was I when, just before sunset, we saw the woodland under which his hut was set, and heard the vesper bell ringing far off from the village church. Soon we were on hard ground again, and then I could show Alswythe where I had played Grendel unwittingly, and point the way I had wandered from Brent.