There we rested the horses, for we had yet two miles to go, and they were weary with the long and heavy travelling of the fens. And Alswythe would go into the hut, and there her maidens brought her food and wine, and we stayed for half an hour.
Wulfhere and I looked out towards Bridgwater town, now seeming under the very hills, in the last sunlight. Smoke rose from behind it, but that was doubtless from Cannington; yet there were other clouds of smoke rising against the sun, and as he looked at these the old warrior said that he feared the worst, for surely the Danes were spreading over the country and that need for them to keep together was gone.
"If we see not Bridgwater on fire by tomorrow," he said, "it will be a wonder."
But we knew that we could bide here for this night safe as if no Danes were nearer than the Scaw.
After that rest we rode on through the woodland path, down which they had come to exorcise me, till we saw before us in the gray twilight the church and houses of the village, pleasant with light from door and window, and noise of barking dogs, as we crossed the open mark [viii].
Dudda the Collier led us to the largest house which stood on the little central green round which the buildings clustered, and there the door stood open, and a tall man with a small boy beside him looked out to see what was disturbing the dogs. Behind them the firelight shone red on a pleasant and large room where we could see men at supper.
And the light shone out on me, for the boy sprang out from his father's side, shouting that it was "Grendel come back again", and running to me to greet me.
So we found a welcome in that quiet place, and soon the good franklin's wife came out, bustling and pitiful in her care for Alswythe and sorrow for her need to fly from her lost home, for it took but few words to explain what had befallen.
They brought us in, and the thralls left supper to tend our horses, though Wulfhere would go with them to see that done before he joined us in the wide oak-built room that made all the lower floor of the house. Overhead was the place where Alswythe and her maidens should be, and built against the walls outside were the thralls' quarters, save for a few who slept in the lower room round the great fire.
Now, how they treated us it needs not to be told, for it was in the way of a good Somerset franklin, and that is saying much. But that night he would talk little, seeing that I and Wulfhere were overdone with want of sleep. Indeed it was but the need of caution that had kept me from falling asleep on my horse more than once on the road. So very soon they brought us skins and cloaks, and we stretched ourselves before the fire, and warmed, and cleansed, and well refreshed with food and drink, fell to sleep on the instant.
Yet not so soundly could I sleep at first, but that I woke once, thinking I heard the yells of the Danes close on us: but it was some farmyard sound from without, and peaceful.
Then I slept again until, towards dawning I think, I awoke, shivering, and with a great untellable fear on me, and saw a tall, gray figure standing by my couch. And I looked, and lo it was Matelgar the Thane.
Then I went to rouse Wulfhere, but my hand would not be stretched out, and the other men slept heavily, so that I lay still and looked in the dead thane's face and grew calmer.
For his face was set with a look of sorrow such as I had never seen there, and he gazed steadfastly at me and I at him, and the grief in his face did but deepen. And at last he spoke, and the voice was his own, and yet not his own.
"Heregar, sorely have I wronged you," he said, "and my rest is troubled therefor. Yet, when I heard what you had done for mine last night, my heart was sore within me, and I repented of all, and would surely have made amends. And now it is too late, and my body lies dishonoured on Parret side while I am here. Yet do you forgive, and mayhap I shall rest."
Then I strove to speak, bidding him know that I forgave, but I could not, and he seemed to grow more sad, watching me yet. And when I saw that, I made a great effort, and stretching my hand towards him signed the blessed sign in token that that should bid me forgive him, so leaving my hand outstretched towards him.
And then his face changed and grew brighter, and he took my hand in his, as I might see, though I could feel nought but a chill pass on it, as it were, and spoke again, saying:
"It is well, and shall be, both with you and me. And when you need me I shall stand by you once again and make amends."
Then he was gone, and my hand fell from where his had been, and straightway I slept again in a dreamless sleep till Wulfhere roused me in the full morning light.
And in that light this matter seemed to me but a dream that had come to me. Yet even as I should have wished to speak to Alswythe's father, had I done, and I would not have had it otherwise. Then the dream in a way comforted me, being good to think on, for I would not willingly be at enmity with any man, or living or dead. But that it was only a dream seemed more sure, because in it Matelgar had said he knew of my saving Alswythe. And Wulfhere and I had agreed not to tell him that. Also I had little need of Matelgar living, in good truth, and surely less need of him now that he was gone past making amends.
Down into the great chamber to break her fast with us came Alswythe, bright and fresh, and with her grief put on one side, for our sakes who served her. And Turkil talked gaily with both Alswythe and me and Wulfhere, and would fain tell all the story of how he sought the fire-spitting fiend and was disappointed.
Then I missed the collier, and asked where he was. He had gone to bring the good hermit the franklin told me, and would be back shortly.
Now, when we had broken our fast it was yet very early, and the villagers must needs hear all the news of the great fight and terror beyond the fens, and as they heard, a growl of wrath went round, and the men grasped spade and staff and fork fiercely, bidding the franklin lead them at once to join the levy.
But Wulfhere told them that they needs must now wait a second raising, and that I was even now on my way to Eanulf the Ealdorman to tell him of the need. Then the franklin asked that he and his might go with me, but I, seeing that for an outlaw to take a following with him was not to be thought of, bade them wait for word and sure tidings of the gathering place.
While we talked thus the little bell in the church turret began to ring, and we knew that the hermit, Leofwine the priest, had come, and would say mass for us. Then, perhaps, was such a gathering to pray for relief for their land, as had not been since those days, far off now, when the British prayed, in that same place, the like prayers for deliverance from my own forbears. And as I prayed, looking on the calm face of the old man who had bidden me take heart and forgive, I knew that last night's dream was true in this, that I had forgiven.
So when the mass was over, and Wulfhere had begged Alswythe to take order at once for our going on our journey, I found the old man, and could greet him with a light heart. And he, looking on me, could read, as he had read the trouble, how that that had passed, and asked me if all was well, as my face seemed to say.
I told him how I had fared, and how my outlawry, though still in force, was now light on me as the sheriff's messenger—though this I thought was but because, flying with Alswythe, I might as well take the message as one who could be less easily spared.
Then he said that already he deemed the prophecy that had been given him was coming true, and spoke many good and loving words to me to strengthen my thoughts of peace withal.
Presently he looked at our horses, now standing ready at the franklin's door, and would have me go back with him into his own chamber in the little timber-walled church. And there he found writing things in a chest, and wrote on a slip of parchment a letter which he bade me give to the bishop when I came to him, signing it with his name at the end, as he told me, though I could not read it, for one who has been bred a hunter and warrior has no need for the arts of the clerk. Indeed, I had seen but two men write before, and one was our old priest at Cannington, and the other was Matelgar, and I ever wondered that this latter should be able to do so, and why of late he was often sending men with letters. Yet it seems to me now that surely they had to do with his schemes that had so come to nought.
Then the old man blessed me, telling me again that I should surely prosper unless that I failed by my own fault, and that it seemed to him that there was yet work for me to do that should set me again in my place, and maybe higher.
So talking with him, Wulfhere called me, and I must needs say farewell to Turkil and his father, and they bade us return, when the time came, by this way back to our own place. And Turkil wept, and would fain have gone with us, but I promised to see him again, and waved hand to him before the broad meadows of the mark were passed, and the woods hid the village from us.
Then did Alswythe, in her kindness, fall into a like mistake as that I had made with the boy; for she turned to me, smiling, and said that she would surely take him into her service at Stert, and see to his training hereafter, but then remembered that she had no longer home, and her smile faded into tears.
My heart ached for her, knowing I could give her no comfort. After that we rode in silence, and quickly, for the track was good.
Now there is little to tell of that ride till we reached the hilltop that Wulfhere knew, and where we could look down on the land we were to cross, and fancy we could see Glastonbury far away. Here Dudda the Collier's task was ended, and I called him to me, pulling out the purse the good prioress had given me, that I might give him a gold piece for his faithful service.
He stood before me, cap in hand, and I gave him a bright new coin, and he took it, turning it over curiously.
"Take it, Dudda," I said, "you have earned it well."
Then he grinned in his way, and answered: "It is no good to me, master. I pray you give me silver instead. Like were I to starve if life lay in the changing of this among our poor folk."
So I turned over the money to find silver, but there was not enough, and so I took out that bag which I had found in the roadway, and had not opened since, having almost forgotten it. There was silver and copper only in that, and I began to give him his reward.
But still the man hesitated, and seemed anxious to ask me something, and, while I counted out the money, he spoke: "Master, the men call you Heregar, and that is an outlaw's name."
"Well." said I, fearing no reproach from that just now, and being sure that by this time the man knew all about me from our thralls with us. "Heregar, the outlawed thane I was, and am, except that the sheriff has bid me ride on his business."
"Then, master," said he, "give me no reward but to serve you. No man's man am I, either free or unfree, but son of escaped thralls who are dead long ago. Therefore am I outlaw also by all rights, and would fain follow you. And it seems to me that you will need one to mind your steed."
Now this was a long speech for the collier, who, as I had learnt, could hold his tongue: and we were short-handed also, with all these horses. Therefore I told him that it should be as he would, for service offered freely in this way was like to be faithful, seeing that there had been trial on both sides. But I gave him four silver pennies, which he would have refused, but that I bade him think of them as fasten pennies, which contented him well.
This, too, pleased both Alswythe and Wulfhere, who were glad of the addition to our party. So we rode on. But many were the far-off columns of smoke we looked back on beyond Parret, before the hills rose behind us and hid them.
CHAPTER XI. EALHSTAN THE BISHOP.
It was in the late afternoon when we rode into Glastonbury town, past the palisadings of the outer works, and then among cottages, and here and there a timber house of the better sort, till we came to the great abbey. It was not so great then as now, nor is it now as it will be, for ever have pious hands built so that those who come after may have room to add if they will. But it was the greatest building that I had ever seen, and, moreover, of stone throughout, which seemed wonderful to me. And there, too, Wulfhere showed me the thorn tree which sprang from the staff of the blessed Joseph of Arimathea, which flowers on Christmas Day, ever.
Then we came to the nunnery where we should leave Alswythe, and I, for my part, was sorry that the journey was over, sad though it had been in many ways, for when I must leave her I knew not how long it should be, if ever, before I saw her again.
And I think the same thought was in her heart, for, when Wulfhere showed her the great house, she sighed, looking at me a little, and I could say nothing. But she began to thank us two for our care of her, as though we could have borne to take less than we had. And her words were so sweet and gracious that even the old warrior could not find wherewith to answer her, and we both bowed our heads in thanks, and rode, one on each side of her, in silence.
Then she must ask Wulfhere what he would do when she was safely bestowed. And that was a plain question he could answer well.
"Truly, lady, if you will give me leave, I would see Heregar, our master, through whatever comes of his messages."
Then was I very glad, and the more that, though I might not think myself such, the old warrior would call me his master, for that told me that he had full belief in me.
Yet I could but say: "Friend should you call me, Wulfhere, my good counsellor, not master."
And I reached out my hand to him, bowing to Alswythe, whose horse's neck I must cross. And Wulfhere took it, and on our two rough hands Alswythe laid her white fingers, pressing them, and, looking from one to the other, said:
"Two such friends I think no woman ever had, or wiser, or braver. Go on together as you will, and yet forget not me here in Glastonbury."
Then we loosed our hands, looking, maybe, a little askance, for our Saxon nature will oft be ashamed, if one may call it so, of a good impulse acted on, and Wulfhere said that we must think of those things hereafter.
When we came to the gate there was a little crowd following us, for word had gone round in some way that we were fugitives from Parret side. But Wulfhere had bade the men answer no questions till we had seen the bishop, lest false reports should go about the place. So the crowd melted away soon, and we knocked, asking admission, and showing the letter from the prioress of Bridgwater.
Now here there was much state, as it seemed, and we must wait for a little, but then the gates were thrown open, and we rode through them into the courtyard, which was large and open. Then opened a great door on the left, and there was the abbess with many sisters, and one asked me for the letter we bore. So I gave it, and, standing there, the abbess read it while we waited.
As she read she grew pale, and then flushed again, and at last, after twice reading, came down the steps, all her state forgotten, and with tears embraced Alswythe, giving thanks for her safety. And then, leaving her, she came to me where I sat, unhelmed, and gave me her hand, thanking me for all I had done, and, as she said, perhaps for the safety of the Bridgwater sisters also.
Then all of a sudden she went back up the steps, where the sisters were whispering together, and became cold and stately again, so that I wondered if I had offended her in not speaking, which I dared not.
When she was back again in her place, she bade Alswythe and her maidens welcome, and added that all her sister prioress asked her she would do. Also, that one would come and show us lodging for men and horses, which should be at the expense of the nunnery.
So Alswythe must needs part from us coldly, even as she had joined us at Bridgwater, as a noble lady from her attendants, giving us her hand to kiss only. But I went back to my horse well content, knowing that her love and thoughts went out to me.
She went through the great door, but it closed not so fast but that I might see the abbess put her arm around her very tenderly, her state forgotten again, and I knew that she was in good hands.
Now when the horses were stabled, and our men knew where they should bide in the strangers' lodgings—set apart for the trains of guests to the nunnery, which were very spacious—Wulfhere and I must needs find the way to get audience of the bishop. As far as the doors of the abbey where he abode was easy enough, but there, waiting for alms and broken meats, were crowds of beggars, sitting and lying about in the sun, with their eyes ever on the latch to be first when it was lifted for the daily dole. And again, round the gate were many men of all sorts, suitors, as we deemed for some favour at the hands of bishop or abbot— for the Abbot of Glastonbury was nigh as powerful as Ealhstan himself, in his own town at least.
When we came among these we were told that we must bide our time, for audience was not given but at stated hours. And one man, grumbling, said that that was not Ealhstan's way in his own place at Sherborne, for there the doors were open ever.
But I knew that my business might not wait, and so, after a little of this talk, went up to the gate and thundered thereon in such sort that the wicket opened, and the porter's face looked through it angrily enough, and he would have bidden us begone, for war and travel had stained us both, so that doubtless we were in no better case, as to looks, than the crowd that pressed after us—very quietly, indeed— to hear the parley.
One difference in our looks there was, however, which made the porter silent—we wore mail and swords, and at that he seemed to stare in wonder.
Then I held up the ring and said, "Messages from Osric the Sheriff."
Whereupon the wicket closed suddenly, and there was a sound of unbarring, and the door opened and we were let in, the rest, who must wait, grumbling loudly at the preference shown to us, while the beggars, who had roused at the sound of the hinges creaking, went back whining in their disappointment.
Then one came and bade us follow him, and we were led into the abbey hall and there waited for a little. There were a few monks about, passing and repassing, but they paid no attention to us, and we, too, were silent in that quiet place. Only a great fire crackled at one end of the hall, else there would have been no noise at all. It was, I thought, a strangely peaceful place into which to bring news of war and tumult.
Then I thought of Ealhstan the Bishop, as he had seemed to me when he judged me, and that seemed years ago, nor could I think of myself as the same who had stood a prisoner before him. So I wondered if I should seem the same to him.
Now it is strange that of Eanulf, the mighty ealdorman who had pronounced my doom, I thought little at all, but as of one who was by the bishop. All that day's doings seemed to have been as a dream, wherein I and Wulfhere had living part with this bishop, while the rest, Eanulf and Matelgar and the others, were but phantoms standing by.
Maybe this is not so wonderful, for the doom was the doom of the Moot, and spoken by Eanulf as its mouthpiece, and that passed on my body only. And Matelgar had found a new place in my thoughts, but Wulfhere was my friend, and the bishop had spoken to my heart, so that his words and looks abode there.
Then the servant cut short my thoughts, and led us to the bishop, bidding me unhelm first.
He sat in a wide chamber, with another most venerable-looking man at the same table. And all the walls were covered with books, and on the table, too, lay one or two great ones, open, and bright with gold and crimson borderings, and great litters on the pages. But those things I saw presently, only the bishop first of all, sitting quietly and very upright in his great chair, dressed in a long purple robe, and with a golden cross hanging on his breast.
And for a moment as I looked at him, I remembered the day of the Moot, and my heart rose up, and I was ready to hide my face for minding the shame thereof.
But he looked at me curiously, and then all of a sudden smiled very kindly and said:
"Heregar, my son, are you the messenger?"
And I knelt before him on one knee, and held out the ring for him to take, and he did so, laying it on the table before him—for my errand was in hand yet.
"Then," he said, "things are none so ill with you, my son," and he smiled gravely; "but do your errand first, and afterwards we will speak of that."
So I rose up, and standing before him, told him plainly all that had befallen, though there was no need for me to say aught of myself in the matter, except that, flying with the lady, Osric had chosen me to bear the message of defeat and danger.
And the while I spoke the bishop's face grew very grave, but he said nothing till I ended by saying that Wulfhere could tell him of the fight.
Then he bade Wulfhere speak, being anxious to know the worst, as it seemed to me. But the old man with him was weeping, and his hands shook sorely.
Now into what Wulfhere told, my name seemed to come often, for he began with the first landing at Watchet, and my bearing the war arrow, and so forward to the firing of the huts at Stert, to the rallying on Cannington Hill, and our flight, and how Osric sent for me.
Then said the bishop, "Is that the worst?"
And Wulfhere was fain to answer that he feared not, telling of the smoke clouds we had seen, and what he judged therefrom.
"Aye," said the bishop, as it were to himself and looking before him as one who sees that which he is told of, "we saw the like after Charnmouth, and let them have their way. Now must we wait, trembling, for Osric's next messenger."
But as for me, though the old man was sorely terrified, as one might see, I thought there was little trembling on the bishop's part, though he spoke of it. Rather did he seem to speak in scorn of such as would so wait.
"Tell me now," he went on presently, "how the men rallied, and with what spirit, on the hill where Heregar stayed them?"
"Well and bravely," answered Wulfhere, "so that the Danes drew back, forming up hastily lest there should be an attack on them; but none was made."
Then the bishop's eyes flashed, and I thought to myself that I would he had been there. Surely he would have swept the Danes back to their ships, and I think that was in Wulfhere's mind also, for he said:
"We want a leader who can see these things. No blame to Osric therein, for it was his first fight."
Then the bishop laughed softly in a strange way, though his eyes still flashed, and he seemed to put the matter by.
"Truly," said he, "with you, Wulfhere, to advise, and myself to ask questions, and Heregar to prevent our running away, I think we might do great things. Well, there is Eanulf, who fought at Charnmouth."
So saying he rose up, and clapped his hands loudly. The old man had fallen to telling his beads, and paid no attention to him or us any longer, doubtless dreaming of the burning of his abbey over his head, unless some stronger help was at hand than that of the three men before him.
A lay brother came in to answer the bishop's summons.
"Take these thanes to the refectory," he said, "and care for them with all honour. In two hours I will speak with them again, or sooner, if Osric's messenger comes."
"I am no thane," said Wulfhere, not willing to be mistaken.
"I am Bishop of Sherborne," said he, smiling in an absent way, and waving his hand for us to go.
So we went, and thereafter were splendidly treated as most honoured guests, even to the replacing of the broad hat which Wulfhere had gotten from the franklin by a plain steel helm, with other changes of garment, for which we were most glad.
Now as we bathed and changed, I found that letter which Leofwine the hermit priest had given me, and I prayed the brother to give it to the bishop at some proper moment, and he took it away with him. I had forgotten it in the greater business.
While we ate and drank, and talked of how to reach Eanulf the Ealdorman, the brother came back and brought us a message, saying:
"The bishop bids you rest here in peace. He has sent messengers to Eanulf, bidding him come here in all haste to speak with him and you."
So I asked where he was, and the brother said that he lay at Wells, which pleased Wulfhere, who said that he would be here shortly, and that we were in luck, seeing that he wanted another good night's rest; and indeed so did I, sorely, though that I might yet stay near Alswythe was better still.
Before the two hours the bishop had set, there was a clamour in the great yard, and we thought the messenger from Osric had surely come. And so it was, for almost directly the bishop sent for us, and we were taken back to the same chamber. But he was alone now, and motioned us to seats beside him to one side.
Then they brought in a thane whom I did not know, and he said he was a messenger from Osric, laying a letter on the table at the same time. I saw that his armour was battle stained, and that he looked sorely downcast.
Not so the bishop as he read, for that which was written he had already expected, and he never changed his set look. Once he read the letter through, and then again aloud for us to hear. Thus it ran after fit greeting:
"Now what befell in the first fight you know or shall know shortly from our trusty messenger Heregar, by whom the flight was stayed from that field, on the Hill of Cannington. And this was well done. So, seeing that the Danes had drawn off, I myself, foolishly deeming the matter at an end, left three hundred men on that hill to watch the Danes back to their ships, and returned to the town, there to muster again the men who were sound, and, if it were possible, to lead them on the Danes as they went on board again to depart. For the men, save those of Bridgwater, would not bide on the hill, but came back, saving the Danes would surely depart. And, indeed, I also thought so; but wrongly. For even as I talked with Heregar of his own affairs, news came of a fresh attack, whereon I sent him to you, fearing the worst, for the men on the hill were few, and those in the town seeming of little spirit.
"Now when I came three parts of the way to Cannington, our men there were sped and driven back on us. Whereupon I could no longer hold together any force, and whither the men are scattered I know not. Scarcely could I save the holy women and the monks, for even as they fled under guard into the Quantock woods, and so to go beyond the hills, the houses of Bridgwater next the Danes were burning.
"Now am I with two hundred men on Brent, and wait either for the Danes to depart, or for orders from yourself or the Ealdorman Eanulf, to whom I pray you let this letter be sent in haste after that you have read it."
So it ended with salutations, and when he had read it, the bishop folded it slowly and looked at the thane, who shrugged his broad shoulders and said:
"True words, Lord Bishop, and all told."
"It is what I expected," said Ealhstan, "these two thanes told me it was like to be thus."
"Surely," answered the thane. "What else?"
The bishop looked at him and asked him his name.
"Wislac, the Thane of Gatehampton by the Thames, am I," he said. "A stranger here, having come on my own affairs to Bridgwater, and so joining in the fight. Also, Osric's thanes having trouble enough on hand, I rode with this letter."
"Thanks therefor," said the bishop. "I see that you fought also in a place where blows were thick."
"Aye, in the first fight," said Wislac. "As for the second, being with Osric, I never saw that."
"Did you stay on the hill where men rallied?"
"That did I, as any man would when the saints came to stay us. Otherwise I had surely halted at Bridgwater, or this side thereof," answered the strange thane, with a smile that was bitter enough.
Now the bishop had not heard that tale of the saint on a white horse; but he was quick enough, and glanced aside at me. Whereupon Wislac the Thane looked also, and straightway his mouth opened, and he stared at me. Then, being nowise afraid of the bishop, or, as it seemed, of saints, he said aloud, seemingly to himself:
"Never saw I bishop before. Still, I knew that they were blessed with visions; but that live saints should sit below their seat, I dreamt not!" and so he went on staring at me.
So the bishop, for all his trouble, could but smile, and asked him if he saw a vision.
"Surely," he said, "this is the saint who stayed us on yonder hill."
"Nay, that is Heregar the Thane, messenger of Osric."
"Then," said Wislac, "let me tell you, Heregar the Thane, that one of the saints, and I think a valiant one, is mightily like you. Whereby you are the more fortunate."
Now for all the mistake I could not find a word to say, and was fain to thank him for the good word on my looks. Yet he went on looking at me now and then in a puzzled sort of way. And the bishop seemed to enjoy his wonderment, but was in no mind to enlighten him.
Presently the bishop bade Wislac sit down, and then he took up Osric's ring that I had given him, and also another which lay beside it on the table—silver also, with some device on it, like that I had worn.
"See, thanes," he said, "have you three a mind to stay with me for a while and be my council in this matter? For I am here without a fighting man of my own to speak with."
Now this was what I would most wish, and I said so, eagerly and with thanks.
And Wislac said that he was surely in good company, and having nought to call him home would gladly stay also.
Then said the bishop, "Stranger you are, friend Wislac, and therefore wear this ring of Osric's, that men may pay heed to you as his friend and mine; and do you, Heregar, wear this of mine that men may know you for bishop's man, and so respect your word."
So was I put under the bishop's protection, and he would answer for my presence in Wessex to all and any. That was good, and I felt a free man again in truth, for here was no errand that would end, as Osric's was ended, when I had seen Eanulf.
Now Wulfhere had not spoken, and the bishop asked him if he too would not stay.
"Ay, lord," answered Wulfhere, "gladly; but you spoke of thanes only."
"When the Bishop of Sherborne names one as a thane," said Ealhstan, smiling, "men are apt to hold him as such. But only to the worthy are such words spoken. Now, friend Wulfhere, I have heard of you at Charnmouth fight, and also there is more in Osric's letter than I have read to you. So if you will be but a bishop's landless thane, surely you shall be one"
Then Wulfhere grew red with pleasure, and rising up, did obeisance to the bishop for the honour, and the bishop called us two others to witness that the same was given.
"Now is my council set," he said, "I to ask questions, and you to advise."
So for a long two hours we sat and told him all we knew of those Danes, I of the ships, and Wulfhere and Wislac of numbers, and Wulfhere of their ways in raiding a country, for this he had seen before, in Dorset, and also in Ireland, as he told us, in years gone by.
That night we were treated as most honoured guests of the bishop's own following, and early in the morning the bishop sent for me, before mass. Once again I found him alone in that room of his, and all he said to me I cannot write down. But I found that Leofwine the hermit had told him of how I had taken counsel of him and abided by it, even as Ealhstan himself had bidden me; and, moreover, that Osric had written in his letter of what I had been able to do against the Danes, and of Matelgar's last words concerning me. And for that remembrance of me, according to his promise, even when writing of far greater matters, I am ever grateful to the good sheriff.
So, because of these things known, Ealhstan spoke to me as a most loving father, praising me where it seemed that praise was due, and reproving me for the many things of deed and thought that were evil. And I told him freely and fully all that had passed from the time I left the hill of Brent till when I had seen the signals of the vikings from above Watchet, and bore the war arrow to Matelgar. The rest he knew in a way; but I opened all my heart to him, he drawing all from me most gently, till at last I came to my dream of Matelgar, and my wish that for me he might rest in peace.
"It is not all forgiveness, Heregar, my son," he said presently. "There is love for Alsywthe, and pride in yourself, and thought of Matelgar's failure, which have at least brought you to a beginning of it. But true forgiveness comes slowly, and many a long day shall it be before that has truly come."
And I knew that maybe he was right, and asked his help; whereupon that was freely given, and in such sort that all my life long I must mind the words he said, and love him in the memory.
When all that was said he would have me hear mass with him, as though I needed urging. And there, too, were Wulfhere and Wislac; and that mass in the great abbey was the most wonderful I ever heard.
After that we three went out into the town, and Wislac and I marvelled at everything. Then we went to the nunnery gates and asked how our charges fared, and then saw to our steeds. There was the collier, working as a groom with the other men, and he told me that he was learning his new trade fast, but would fain walk ever, rather than ride, having fallen many times from the abbess' mule, which he had bestridden in anxiety to learn. Whether the mule was the better for this lesson I doubt.
When we went back to the abbey Eanulf had come, and with him many thanes. And I feared to meet these somewhat, for they might have been among the Moot, and would know me. Yet Ealhstan had foreseen this, and one was posted at the door to meet me, bidding me aside privately, since the bishop needed me.
Wulfhere and Wislac went into the hall and left me, therefore, and I was taken to a chamber where were six or seven lay brethren, who asked me many things about the fight, and specially at last about the saint who had appeared. And that was likely to be a troublesome question for me, as I could not claim to have been the one so mistaken; but another struck in, saying that there were many strange portents about, for that a fiend had appeared bodily from the marsh and had devoured a child, in Sedgemoor. Now it seems that fiends are rarer than saints among these holy men, and they forgot the first wonder and ran on about the second, not thinking that I could have told them of that also. And at last one fetched a great book, as I thought in some secrecy, and made thereout nothing more nor less than parts of the song of Beowulf itself, and all about Grendel, which pleased us all well, and so we were quiet enough, listening.
And it happened that while we were all intent on this reading (and I never heard one read as brother Guthlac read to us) the sub-prior came in to call me, and pulling back the hangings of the doorway, stood listening, where I could see him.
First of all he looked pleased to find his people so employed. Then when the crash of the fighting verses came to his ears he started a little, and looked round. The good brothers were like to forget their frocks, for their fists were clenched and their eyes sparkled, and their teeth were set, and verily I believe each man of them thought himself one of Beowulf's comrades, if not the hero himself.
Whereupon the sub-prior and I were presently grinning at one another.
"Ho!" said he, all of a sudden. "Now were I Swithun, where would you heathens spend tonight? Surely in the cells!"
Then for a moment they thought Grendel had indeed come, such power has verse like this in the mouth of a good reader, and they started up, one and all.
And the reader saw who it was, and that there was no hiding the book from him, so they stood agape and terrified, for by this time the good man had managed to look mighty stern.
"Good Father," said I, seeing that someone must needs speak, "I am but a fighting man, and the brothers were considering my weakness."
"H'm," said the sub-prior, seeming in great wrath. "Is there no fighting to be read from Holy Writ that you must take these pagan vanities from where you ought not? Go to! Yet, by reason of your care for the bishop's thane, your penance shall be light now and not heavy hereafter. Brother Guthlac shall read aloud in refectory today the story of David and Goliath, and you brother," pointing to one, "that of Ahab at Ramoth, and you, of Joshua at Jericho," and so he went on till each had a chapter of war assigned him, and I thought it an easy penance.
"But," he added, "and until all these are read, your meals shall be untasted before you."
Then the brothers looked at one another, for it was certain that all this reading would last till the meal must be left for vespers.
Then the sub-prior bade the reader take back the book and go to his own cell, and beckoning me, we passed out and left the brothers in much dismay, not knowing what should befall them from the abbot when he heard.
So I ventured to tell the sub-prior how this came about, and he smiled, saying that he should not tell Tatwine the Abbot, for the brothers were seldom in much fault, and that maybe it was laudable to search even pagan books for the manners of fiends, seeing that forewarned was forearmed.
Then he said that surely he wished (but this I need tell none else) that he had been there in my place to hear Guthlac read it. Also that he was minded to make the old rhyme more Christian-like, if he could, writing parts of it afresh. And this he has done since, so that any man may read it; but it is not so good as the old one [ix].
Now we came to the bishop's chamber, and he went in, calling me after him in a minute or so. I could hear Ealhstan's voice and that of another as I waited outside.
The other was Eanulf the Ealdorman, and as I entered he rose up and faced me.
"So, Heregar," he said, "you are bishop's man now, and out of my power. I am glad of it," and so saying he reached me out his hand and wrung mine, and looked very friendly as he did so.
"I have heard of your doings," he said, "and thank you for them. And I will see this matter of yours looked into, for I think, as the bishop believes, that there has been a plot against you for plain reasons enough. However, that must stand over as yet. But come with me to the hall and I will right you with the thanes there."
At that I thanked him, knowing that things were going right with me, and the bishop smiled, as well pleased, but said nothing, as Eanulf took me by the arm, and we went together to the great hall, where the thanes, some twenty of them, were talking together. At once I saw several whose faces had burnt themselves, as it were, into my mind at the Moot; but none of Matelgar's friends among them.
They were quiet when their leader went in, and he wasted no time, but spoke in his own direct way.
"See here, thanes; here is Heregar, whom we outlawed but the other day. Take my word and Ealhstan's and Osric's for it that there was a mistake. We know now that there is no truer man, for he has proved it, as some of you know-he being the man who lit the huts at Stert in face of the Danes, and being likewise the Saint of Cannington—"
"Aye, it is so," said several voices, and others laughed. Then, like honest Saxons as they were, they came crowding and laughing to shake hands with an outlawed saint, as one said; so that I was overdone almost with their kindness, and knew not what to say or do.
But Eanulf pushed me forward among them, saying that I, being bishop's man, was no more concern of his, outlaw or no outlaw, and that saints were beyond him. So he too laughed, and went back to the bishop; and I found Wulfhere and Wislac, and soon I was one of my own sort again, and the bad past seemed very far away.
But Wislac looked at me and said: "You have spoilt a fine tale I had to take home with me; but maybe I need not tell the ending. Howbeit, I always did hold that there was none so much difference between a fighting saint and one of ourselves."
And that seemed to satisfy him.
CHAPTER XII. THE GREAT LEVY.
It was not long before Eanulf made up his mind to action, and he was closeted with the bishop all that morning. Then, after the midday meal, he called a council of all who were there, and we sat in the great hall to hear his plans.
Ealhstan came with him, and these two sat at the upper end of the hall, and we on the benches round the walls, for the long tables had been cleared.
When all was ready, Eanulf stood up and told the thanes, for some were men who had had no part in Osric's levy, all about the fighting, and how it had ended. And having done that, he asked for the advice of such as would have aught to say.
Very soon an old thane rose up and said that he thought all would be well if forces were so posted as to prevent the Danes coming beyond the land they then held.
And several growled assent to that; and one said that Danes bided in one place no long time, but would take ship again and go elsewhere.
That, too, seemed to please most, and I saw Eanulf bite his lip, for he was a man who loved action. And Wulfhere, too, shifted in his seat, as if impatient.
Then they went back to the first proposal, and began to name places where men might be posted to keep the Danes in Parret valley at least, till they went away.
Then at last Wulfhere grew angry, and rose up, looking very red.
"And what think you will Parret valley be like when they have done their will therein? Does no man remember the going back to his place when these strangers had bided in it for a while, after they beat us in Dorset?"
There were two thanes who had lands in that part, and they flushed, so that one might easily know they remembered; but they said naught.
Then Eanulf spake, very plainly:
"I am for raising the levy of Somerset again, and stronger, and driving them out; but I cannot do it without your help."
Then there was silence, and the thanes looked at one another for so long that I waxed impatient, and being headstrong, maybe, got up and spoke:
"Landless I am, and maybe not to be hearkened to, but nevertheless I will say what it seems to me that a man should say. Into this land of peace these men from over seas have come wantonly, slaying our friends, burning our houses, driving our cattle, making such as escape them take to the woods like hunted wild beasts. Where is Edred the Thane? Where is Matelgar? Where twenty others you called friends? Dead by Combwich, and none to bury them. The Danes have their arms, the wolves their bodies. Is no vengeance to be taken for this? Or shall the Danes sail away laughing, saying that the hearts of the Saxons are as water?"
Then there rose an angry growl at that, and I was glad to hear it. So was Eanulf, as it seemed. And Wulfhere got up and stood beside me and spoke.
"This is good talk, and now I will add a word. Why came back the Danes here? Because after we were beaten before, we let them do their worst, and hindered them not; therefore come they back even now—aye, and if we drive them not from us, hither will they come yet again, till we may not call the land our own from year to year. I say with the ealdorman, let us up and drive them out, showing them what Saxons are made of. What? Are we done fighting after they have scattered one hastily gathered levy? Shame there is none to us in being so beaten once, but I hold it shame to let them so easily have the mastery."
Then there was a murmur, but not all of assent; though I could see that many would side with us. Whereon Wislac rose up slowly, and looking round, said:
"I am a stranger, but having been present at the beating the other day, yonder, am minded to see if I may yet go home on the winning side. And it would be shame, even as these two thanes have said, not to give a guest a chance to have his pleasure. I pray you, thanes, pluck up spirit, and follow the ealdorman."
Now, though Wislac's words seemed idle at the beginning, there was that in his last words which brought several of the younger thanes to their feet, looking angrily at him, and one asked if he meant to call that assembly "nidring".
"Not I," said Wislac, smiling peacefully, "seeing that you have done naught to deserve that foul name; but being a beaten man, as I said, I need a chance to prove that I am not 'nidring' myself, so please you."
And they could not take offence at his tone, yet they saw well what he meant; and this in the end touched them very closely, for they were in the same case as he, but with more right, being of Somerset, to wipe out their defeat. But maybe there would have been a quarrel if Eanulf had not spoken.
"Peace, thanes," he said. "Heregar is right, and we must avenge our dead. Wulfhere is right, and for the land's sake we must give these Danes a lesson to bide at home. Wislac is right, and this defeat must be wiped out. Now say if you will help me to raise the levy afresh?"
"Aye, we will," said the thanes, but there was not that heartiness in their tones that one might have looked for.
In truth, though, it was no want of courage, but the thought of the easier plan of waiting, that held them back.
Then Ealhstan the Bishop rose up and faced us all, with his eyes shining, and his right hand gripping his crosier so tightly that his knuckles shone white.
"What, my sons, shall it be said of you, as it is said of us Dorset folk, that you let the Danes bide in your land and work their worst on you and yours? I tell you that since we went back and saw, as we still see, their track over our homes, our folk burn to take revenge on them; and I, being what I am, think no wrong of counselling revenge on heathen folk. Listen, for ye are men."
And then he told us in burning words such a tale of what must be were these heathen to have their way, such things that he himself had seen and known after Charnmouth fight, that we would fain at last be up and drive them away without waiting for the levy.
And at last he said:
"Eanulf, this will I do. I will gather the Dorset levy and lead them to your help, and so will we make short work of these heathen."
Then all the thanes shouted that they would not be behind in the matter; and so their cool Saxon blood was fired to that white rage which is quenched but in victory or death.
Now after that there was talk of nothing but of making the levy as soon as might be, and Eanulf, thanking everyone, and most of all the bishop, straightway gave his orders; and before that night the war arrow was speeding through all Somerset and Dorset likewise, and word was sent to Osric and the other sheriffs that the gathering place named was at the hill of Brent.
Now of those days that followed there is little to say. The other thanes left, each to gather his own men, vowing vengeance on the Danes; but before they went there was hardly one who did not seek out Wulfhere, Wislac, and myself, and in some way or another tell us that we had spoken right. One fiery young thane, indeed, was minded to fight Wislac, but the Mercian turned the quarrel very skilfully, and in the end agreed with the thane that the matter should be settled by the number of Danes each should slay, "which," said Wislac, "will be as good sport and more profitable than pounding one another, and quite as good proof that neither of us may be held nidring."
So that ended very well.
But every day came in reports, brought by fugitives, of the Danes and their doings, which made our blood boil. At last came one who brought a message for myself, could I be found. It was from the aunt of Alswythe, the Prioress of Bridgwater, telling of her safety and that of her nuns, at Taunton. And I begged the bishop to let me tell this good news to Alswythe, and so gained speech with her once more. Yet would the abbess be present, reading the while; but I might tell my love all that had befallen me, and she rejoiced, bidding me go fight and win myself renown in the good cause of my own country.
And when I left her I felt that I must indeed be strong for the sake of her, and by reason of her words, which would be in my mind ever.
Now one day when I went to see the horses and ride out with Wulfhere and Wislac, the collier came and hung about, seeming to wish to ask somewhat. And when I noticed this and bade him speak, he prayed me that I would give him arms, and let him follow me to the coming fighting. Arms, save those I wore, I had none, but I promised him such as I could buy him with what remained of the money I had found, which might be enough, seeing that we lived at free quarters with the bishop, and had little expense. As for the other money, I left that with the abbess after I had seen Alswythe, for it was less mine than hers.
But I asked Dudda if he were able to use a sword. Whereupon he grinned, and said that Brother Guthlac tended the abbot's mule, and had taught him much when he came to the stables daily. He also showed me a bruised arm and broken head in token of hard play with the ash plant between them.
"Here is the said Guthlac," said Wulfhere; and there was the reader of Beowulf coming, with frock and sleeves tucked up, from out the stables. So I called him, and asked him to try a bout with the collier, telling him why.
At first he denied all knowledge of carnal warfare, but I reminded him of his reading of Beowulf, saying that, if he knew naught of fighting, the verses would have had none of that fire in them. So, in the end, they went to it, and I saw that Guthlac was well used to sword play, and was satisfied also with his pupil.
Then I asked Guthlac whence he got his skill in arms, and why he was shut up thus inside four walls.
"Laziness, Thane," he answered, telling me nothing of the first matter at all. Nor would he. But I found afterwards that he had been lamed once, and tended by the monks, and so had bided in the abbey, liking the life, though he had been a stout housecarle to some thane or other.
Then Wislac must ask him if there were any more of his sort in the abbey, and seeing that we meant no harm, and looking on me as an ally in that matter of the reading, he said there were five more, "whom Heregar the Thane knew, if he would remember, reading certain Scriptures at supper time."
And I found that these six kindred spirits had managed to get themselves told off to amuse me while I waited that day, so that they might hear of the fighting.
So we laughed and rode out, and I thought no more of Guthlac and his brethren till the time came when I remembered them gladly.
All day long during that week came pouring in the Dorset levies in answer to the bishop's summons. Hard and wiry men they were, and as I could well see, a very much harder set than Osric's first levy, for these were veterans. Ealhstan's word had gone out that all men who would wipe out the defeat of Charnmouth should gather to him, and these were the men who had fought there, and only longed to try their strength again against their conquerors of that disastrous day.
Day by day, also, would Ealhstan go out into the marketplace, and there speak burning words to them, bidding them remember the days gone by, and the valour of their fathers who won the land for them, and to have ever in mind that this war was not of Christian against Christian, but against heathen men who were profaning the houses of God wherever they came.
Many more things did he say, ever finding something fresh wherewith to stir their courage, but ever, also, did he bid them remember how the Danes had won by discipline more than courage, and to pay heed to that as their leaders bade them.
Also, day by day, he bade the thanes who had seen fighting, train their men as well as they might, and they worked well at that. Moreover, he could teach them much, reading to us at times from a great Latin book of the wars of Caesar such things as seemed like to be useful, putting it into good Saxon as he went on.
Then, as the week drew to an end, there began to be questions as to who should be leader of the Dorset men. And many said that Osric should be the man, for he was an Ealdorman of Dorset. But when the bishop sent to Brent for him, and asked him to lead his men, Osric doubted; and what he said to the other thanes, and to us three, made them send us to the bishop with somewhat to ask.
So we, finding him ever ready to hear what was wanted, put the question to him plainly as they had bidden us. And that was, that he himself should lead the levy of Dorset.
Now Tatwine, the old abbot, sat with him and heard this, and straightway he began to tremble, and cry out that such work was unfit for a bishop.
So the bishop said to me, very quietly, but with a look in his eyes which seemed to show that this was what he longed for:
"Heregar, my son, go and tell the thanes what the abbot says, and ask if they will go without me."
All the thanes were waiting to hear the bishop's answer to our request, and I told them this, and they knew at once what answer to give, for they said, or Osric said for them, while all applauded:
"We will not go against these heathens unless the bishop leads us. Else must Somerset fight her own battles."
So with that word I went back to the bishop, and told him.
"So, Tatwine, my brother, you see how it is. Needs must that I go, else were it shame to us that heathen men should have freedom in a Christian land."
But Tatwine groaned, and, maybe knowing the bishop well, said no more.
Then Ealhstan bade him remember all the saints who had warred against the heathen, and were held blameless—nay, rather, the holier.
"Therefore," said he, "I am in good company, and will surely go."
Whereupon Tatwine rose up and went out, saying that he should go to the abbey and seek protection for the bishop, and men say he bided there almost night and day, praying until all was past. Certainly I saw him no more in his accustomed places, save at mass.
When he had gone the bishop smiled a little, looking after him, and then spoke to us.
"I may tell my council that this is what I should love. Nevertheless, it will not be I who lead, but you three. For the counsel must be Wulfhere's, and the coolness Wislac's, and the rest Heregar's, who will by no means bide that we run away. Now, I think that you three will make a good leader of me."
On that we thanked him for his words, and we followed him out to the hall. And there the thanes shouted and cheered as he came, and still more when he prayed them to follow him to victory or a warrior's death. And that they swore to do, not loudly, but in such sort that none could mistake that they would surely do so.
Then he bade them muster their men by the first light in the morning, and so he would lead them first of all to Brent, to join the ealdorman. And Osric should be his second in command.
That pleased all, and soon we were left alone with him again, but we could hear outside the cheering of men now and then, as some thane gathered his following and told them the name of their leader.
So we three went out presently and saw to our horses, and then I was wondering about arms for Dudda, for I had left the matter too long, and it seemed there were few weapons remaining for sale in the town by reason of men of the levy buying or borrowing what they lacked in equipment. And the poor fellow hung about sadly, thinking he should find none in the end, and swearing he would follow me even had he naught but a quarterstaff in his hand.
But when we went back to the abbey, the bishop sent for us, and we were taken into a room we had not seen before, and there on the table were laid out three suits of mail, helmets, and arms.
"Now," said Ealhstan, as he saw our eyes go, as a man's eyes will, straight to these things, "if you thanes are not too proud to accept such as I can give, let me arm you, and tell you where you shall bear these arms."
And that was what we longed for, for as yet we had no post in the levy, and we told him as much.
"That is well," he answered. "See, Wislac, here is bright steel armour and helm and shield for you. Sword also, if you need it, for maybe you will scarce part from your own tried weapon?"
But Wislac smiled at that, and took hold of his sword hilt, loosening the strings which bound it to the sheath. There were but eight inches of blade left, and these were sorely notched.
"Aha!" quoth the bishop, "now know I why Wislac thought well to stop fighting the other day," which pleased the Mercian well enough.
"Then, Wulfhere," went on Ealhstan, "here is this black armour and helm and shield for you, and sword or axe as you will."
And Wulfhere thanked him, taking the axe, as his own sword was good.
"Now, Heregar, my son, this is yours," said the bishop, looking kindly at me.
And as I looked I thought I had never seen more beautiful arms. No better were they than the other two suits, for all three were of good Sussex ring mail as to the byrnies, [x] while the boar-crested helms were of hammered steel.
But mine was silver white, with gold collar and gold circles round the arms. Gold, too, was the boar-crest of the helm, and gold the circle round the head, and to me it seemed as I looked that this was too good. And Ealhstan knew my thoughts and answered them.
"Black for the man of dark counsel, bright steel for the warrior, and silver-bright armour for the man who brings back hope when all seems lost."
"That is good," said Wislac. "Now read us the meaning of the gold thereon also," for he seemed to see that the bishop had some meaning in that, whereat the bishop smiled.
"Gold for trust," he said, "and for the man who shall be honoured."
"That is well also," said Wulfhere, and Wislac nodded gravely.
"Now," said the bishop, "I will put Heregar out of my council for a minute, so that he may not speak nor hear. Tell me, Thanes both, if it will be well to give Heregar the place whereto men shall rally in need?"
"Aye, surely," they said. "We know he can fill that place."
"Then shall he bear my standard," said the bishop, "and none will gainsay it," and so he turned to me.
"Now, Heregar, may you hear this decision. Standard bearer to me shall you be, and I know you will bear it well and bravely. And these two, your friends and mine, shall stand to right and left of you, and six stout carles may you choose from the levy to stand before and behind you. And whom you choose I will arm alike, that all may know them."
Now knew I not what to say or do, but I knelt before the bishop and kissed his hand, and so he laid it on my head and blessed me, bidding me speak no words of thanks, but only deserve them from him.
Now there was a little silence after this, and Wislac, being ever ready, broke it for us,
"Much do I marvel," he said, "that these suits of armour should be so exactly fitting to each of us. Surely there is some magic in it."
"Only the magic of a wearied man's sleep, and of a good weapon smith," said the bishop, laughing. "One measured your mail, byrnie and helm both, as you slept. We have lay brethren apt for every craft."
And that reminded me of Brother Guthlac, and a thought came to me.
"Father," I said, "six men have you bidden me choose, and I know none of the Dorset men. Yet there are six lay brethren here who have been warriors, of whom brother Guthlac is one, and if they may march against heathen men, I pray you let me have them."
Now that the Bishop seemed to find pleasant, as though he knew something of those lovers of war songs, and answered that he wot not if Tatwine would let them go. But, in any case, he would choose men for me of the best, and that we all thought well, knowing in what spirit he would put those men whom he should choose.
So he bade us go, taking our arms with us, and we, thanking him, went out. But I found my collier, and showed him the arms I had been wearing, saying they should be his, and then took him, rejoicing, into the town. There I bought him, after some search, a plain, good sword and target, which he bore to his lodgings to scour and gaze at for the rest of the day.
CHAPTER XIII. A MESSAGE FROM THE DEAD.
How shall I tell what it was like when the bishop, standing aloft at the head of the abbey steps with all the monks round him, gave into my hands, as I knelt, his standard to bear at the head of his men?
Very early in the morning it was, and all the roofs were golden in bright sunlight, and the men, drawn up in a hollow square fronting the abbey, were silent and attentive as mass was sung in the great church, so that the sound of the chanting came out to them through the open doors. And when the sacring [xi] bell rang, as though a wave went along the ranks, all knelt, and there was a clash and ring of steel, and then silence for a space, very wonderful.
Then came out, when mass was said, bishop, and thanes, and monks, and there gave me the banner, Wulfhere and Wislac kneeling on either side of me, and behind us those six stout housecarles whom the bishop had chosen and armed for me. So the banner was given and blessed, and I rose up, grasping the golden-hafted cross from which it hung, and lifted it that all might see.
Then was a great shout from all the men, and swords were drawn and brandished on every side, and, without need of command, all the Dorset host swore to follow it even to the death. And that was good to hear.
But as for me, my thoughts were more than I may write, but it seems to me that they were as those of Saint George when he rode out to slay the dragon in the old days, so great were they.
After that a little wait, and then the horses; and the bishop mounted a great bay charger, managing him as a master. And to me was brought my white horse by the collier, looking a grim fighting man enough in his arms, and to Wulfhere and Wislac black and gray steeds given by Ealhstan himself.
Now the bishop rode, followed by us, to the centre of the levy, and again a great shout rose up even mightier than that first, and when it ended he spoke to the men as he was wont to speak but even yet more freely, and then put himself at their head, and so began the march to Brent. And all the town was out to see us go, never doubting of our victory, nor thinking of how few might return of all that long line of sturdy and valiant fighting men.
When we were clear of the town at last, and went, the men singing as they marched, down the ancient green lanes that had seen our forefathers' levies and the Roman legions alike, I had time to look around me at my own following, being conscious in some way that, mixed up as it were with the war song, there had been the sound of the droning of a chant as by monks close by me. And I could see no monks near. The thanes were riding round and after the bishop, who came next me as I led the way with the standard, and Ealhstan indeed had on his robes; but there was a stiffness about him, and a glint of steel also, when a breeze shifted the loose fold of his garments, that seemed to say that his was not all peaceful gear.
Just behind me, as I rode with Wulfhere and Wislac to right and left, came my six men, big powerful housecarles, all in black armour and carrying red and black shields, and with a red cross on their helms' fronts. And the squarest of these six, he who seemed to be their leader, looked up at me, when I turned again, with a grin that I seemed to know. So I took closer notice of him, and lo! it was Guthlac, the reader of Beowulf, and the other five were his brethren. Small wonder that I had not recognized the holy men in their war gear, so little looked they like the peaceful brethren who had walked in the abbey cloisters.
With them was my collier, keeping step and holding himself with the best of them, and I thought that they would be seven hardy Danes who should overmatch my standard guard. So I was well content with the bishop's choice for me.
Now of that march to Brent, and the meeting there with the Somerset levy, there is no need to tell. But by the time we marched from thence against the Danes, there were five hundred men of Dorset, and near nine hundred of Somerset. Of the Danes some judged that there would be eight hundred or more, but if that was so, they were tried men, and our numbers were none too great. Moreover, we must separate, so as to drive them down to their ships, for they were spread over the country, burning and destroying on every side.
We lay but one night on Brent, while the leaders held counsel, and even as we sat gathered, we could see plainly the fires the Danes had lit, of burning hamlet and homestead, far and wide across the marshes of Parret. And the end of that council was that Eanulf should take his Somerset men up Parret valley, and so drive down the Danes, while Ealhstan should fall on them by Bridgwater as they came down, and so scatter them.
Therefore would the Somerset levy march very early, before light; while we should wait till the next night, unless word should come beforehand.
So we went to sleep. And as I slept in my place, with the standard flapping above me, and my comrades on either side and behind, it seemed to me that one came and waked me. And when I sat up and looked, thinking it was a messenger from the bishop, I saw that it was Matelgar.
Now this time I had no fear of him, and I waited for him to speak, just as though he had been before me in the flesh, for there seemed naught uncanny about the matter to me. And yet even at the moment that seemed strange, though it was so.
But for a while he looked not at me, but out over the low lands towards Parret mouth and Stert, shading his eyes with his hand as though it were broad noonday. And then he turned back to me and spoke.
"Heregar; I promised to stand by you again when the time came. Now I bid you go to Combwich hill, there to wait what betides. So, if you will do the bidding of the dead who has wronged you, but would now make amends, shall you thank me for this hereafter—aye, and not you only."
Then out over Parret he gazed again and faded from beside me, so that I could ask him nothing. Then knew I that I was awake, and that this had been no dream; for a great fear came on me for a little, knowing what I had seen to be not of this world. Yet all around me my comrades slept, and only round the rim of the trenched hill went the wakeful sentries, too far for speech—for we leaders were in the centre of the camp.
But presently I began to think less of the vision, and more of the words. And at first they seemed vain, for Combwich hill was over near to Stert; nor did I see how I could reach the place without cutting through the Danes (who would doubtless leave a strong guard with the ships, and were also in and about Bridgwater), seeing that the river must be crossed.
Then as I turned over the matter, not doubting but that a message so given was sooth, and by no means lightly to be disregarded, I seemed to wake to a resolve concerning the meaning of the whole thing. What if I could win there under cover of darkness, and so fall on the Danish host as Eanulf drove them back and the bishop and Osric chased them to the ships?
That seemed possible, if only I could cross Parret with men enough, and unseen. I would ask Wulfhere and Wislac, when morning came, and so, if they could help, lay the matter before the bishop himself. So thinking I fell asleep again, peacefully enough, nor dreamt I aught.
With morning light that vision and the bidding to Combwich, and what I had thought thereon, seemed yet stronger. Very early the Somerset men went with Eanulf, and we of the bishop's levy only remained on Brent after the morning meal.
Then as we three stood on the edge of the hill, and looked out where Matelgar had looked, I told my two friends of his coming and of his words.
"Three things there are," said Wislac, "that hinder this ghost's business; namely, want of wings, uncertainty of darkness, and ignorance of the time when the Danes shall come."
"There are also three things that make for it, brother," said Wulfhere. "Namely: that men can swim, that there is no moon, and that the Danes are careless in their watch of the waste they leave behind them."
"Think you that the hill will be unguarded?" asked I, glad that Wulfhere did not put away the plan at once.
"Why should they guard it? There are Danes at the ships—though few, I expect, for we have been well beaten. And more in plenty from Parret to Quantocks, and no Saxon left between the two forces."
"Why not burn the ships then?" asked Wislac.
"Doubtless that could we, once over Parret," answered Wulfhere, "but what then? Away go the Danes through Somerset, burning and plundering even to Cornwall, and there bide till ships come, and then can be gone in safety. That is not what we need. We have to trap them and beat them here."
"So then, Wulfhere," I said, "think you that the plan is good?"
"Aye," he answered, "good enough; but not easy. Moreover, I doubt if the bishop would let his standard bearer part from him."
That was likely enough to stop all the plan; but yet I would lay it before Ealhstan, for it seemed to us that such a message might by no means go untold at least.
So we sought him, and asked for speech with him; and at that he laughed, saying that surely his council had the best right to that. Osric was with him, and the bishop told him how that we three had been his first advisers in this matter.
Then we sat down and I told Ealhstan all, asking nothing.
When I had ended, Osric looked at me, and said that the plan was venturesome; but no doubt possible to be carried out, and if so, by none better than myself, who knew every inch of that country. Then, thinking over it, as it were, he added that the woods beyond Matelgar's hall would shelter any force that must needs seek cover, so that, even were Combwich hill unsafe, there was yet a refuge whence attack could again be made.
Then Ealhstan, who had listened quietly, said that such messages were rare, but all the less to be despised. Therefore would he think thereof more fully.
"What," he asked, "is the main difficulty?"
I said that the crossing of Parret was like to be hard in any case; but at night and unobserved yet more so. But that, could we reach the farther bank, I could find places where we might lie in wait for a day, if need were, with many men.
Thereupon the bishop took that great book of Caesar's wars, and looked into it. But he seemed long in finding aught to meet that case, while we talked of one thing or another concerning it among ourselves.
At last he shut the book and said, very gravely: "I would that I could swim."
"I also, Father," said Wislac, "and why I cannot, save for sheer cowardice, I know not, having been brought up on Thames side, and never daring to go out of depth."
At that we were fain to laugh, so dismally did the broad-shouldered Mercian blame himself. But the bishop said that if I went, needs must that he came also. But he did not dissuade me in any way.
"Wulfhere the Counsellor," he said then, "have you no plan?"
"To cross the river?" answered the veteran. "Aye, many, if they may be managed. Rafts for those who cannot swim, surely."
Now I bethought me of the many boats that ever lay in the creek under Combwich, and wondered if any were yet whole. For if they were, surely one might swim over and bring one back. And that I said.
Then of a sudden, the bishop rose up, and seemed to have come to a decision, saying:
"See here, thanes; ever as we march to Bridgwater, we draw nearer Parret. Now by this evening, we shall be close over against this place Combwich, so that one may go thither and spy what there is to be done, and come back in good time and tell us if crossing may be made by raft or boat. Let this rest till then. But if it may be so, then I, and Heregar and his following, and two hundred men will surely cross, and wait for what may betide. For I think this plan is good."
So he would say no more of it then. And presently all his men were mustered, and we marched from Brent slowly along the way to Bridgwater.
CHAPTER XIV. ELGAH THE FISHER.
Now men have said that this plan of mine needed no ghost to set it forth, but is such that would enter the mind of any good leader. That might be so had there been one there who knew the country as I knew it, but there was not. And I was no general as was Eanulf. However that might be, I tell what happened to me in the matter, and sure am I that but for Matelgar's bidding I had never thought of this place or plan.
But once Ealhstan had heard thereof, the thought of it seemed ever better to him. And when we were fairly marching along the level towards Bridgwater he called me, and began to talk of that business of spying out the crossing place.
Now I too had been thinking of that same, and asked him to let me go at once, taking one man with me. Then would I rejoin him as best I might, and close to the place where I might fix on means of getting over.
Now there seemed little danger in the matter, for our spies had reported no Danes on this side of Parret, for they kept the water between us and them, doubtless knowing that Osric had gone to Brent at first, and thinking it likely that another levy might be made. So the bishop, not very willingly, as it seemed to me, let me go, as there was none else who could go direct to the point as I could without loss of time, even as Osric told him.
Then I gave the standard into Wulfhere's hand, and must seek one to go with me. First I thought of Wislac, but he was a stranger, and then my eyes lit on my collier, and I knew that I need go no further. So I called him, and taking him aside—while the men streamed past us, looking at my silver arms and speaking thereof to one another—told him what we had to do.
Whereat his eyes sparkled, and he said that it was good hearing.
"But, master," he went on, "take off those bright arms of yours and let us go as marshmen. Then will be no suspicion if the Danes see us from across the water."
That was wise counsel, and we left our arms in a baggage wagon, borrowing frocks from the churls who followed us, and only keeping our seaxes in our belts.
Then Dudda found a horse that was led with the wagons, and I bade the man whose it was lend it to him, promising good hire for its use. And so we two rode off together across the marshland, away by Burnham, while the levy held on steadily by the main road.
Then was I glad that I had brought the collier, for the marsh was treacherous and hard to pass in places. But he knew the firm ground, as it were, by nature, and we went on quickly enough. Now and then we passed huts, but they were empty; for away across the wide river mouth at Burnham, though we rode not into that village, we could see the six long black ships as they lay at Stert, and the smoke of the fires their guard had made on shore.
But on this side of the river they had been, for Burnham was but a heap of ashes. They had crossed in their small boats, doubtless, and found the place empty.
Then at last we came to a hut some two miles off in the marshes from Combwich, and in that we left our horses, giving them hay from the little rick that stood thereby. To that poor place, at least, the Danes had not come, for the remains of food left on the table showed that the owners had fled hastily, but in panic, and that none had been near the place since.
Now Dudda would have us take poles and a net we found left, on our shoulders, that we might seem fishers daring to return, or maybe driven by hunger to our work. For we must go unhidden soon, where the marshland lay open and bare down to the river, the alder and willow holts ceasing when their roots felt the salt water of the spring tides. But we had been able to keep under their cover as far as the hut.
So we went towards the river, as I had many a time seen the fishers go in the quiet days that were past; and we said little, but kept our eyes strained both up and down the river for sign of the Danes.
But all we saw was once, far off on Stert, the flash of bright arms or helm; and there we knew before that men must be.
On Combwich hill was no smoke wreath of the outpost fires I had feared, nor could I see aught moving among the trees. Then at last we stood on the river bank and looked across at the little haven. All the huts were burnt and silent. There were many crows and ravens among the trees above where they had stood, and a great osprey wheeled over our heads as we looked.
"No men here," said my comrade, "else would not yon birds be so quiet."
But I could see no boat, and my heart sank somewhat; for nothing was there on this bank wherewith to make the raft of which Wulfhere spake.
Then said I: "Let us swim over and see what we can find."
Now it was three hours after noon, or thereabouts, and the tide was running out very swiftly, and it was a long passage over. Nevertheless we agreed to try it, and so, going higher up the stream, we cast ourselves in, and swam quartering across the tide.
A long and heavy swim it was, but no more than two strong men could well manage. All the time, however, I looked to see some red-cloaked Dane come out from the trees and spy us; but there was none.
Then we reached the other bank, and stood to gain breath, for now we were in the enemy's country, and tired as we were, we threw ourselves down in the shelter of a broad-stemmed willow tree, on the side away from the hill and village.
In a moment the collier touched my arm and pointed. On the crest of the hill stood a man, looking down towards us, but he was unarmed, as well as I could see, and, moreover, his figure seemed familiar. We watched him closely, for he began to come down towards us, and as he came nearer I knew him. It was one of the Combwich villeins—a fisher of the name of Elgar.
Now I would speak with him, for he could tell me all I needed; yet I knew not if he had made friends with the Danes, being here and seeming careless.
We lost sight of him among the trees, and the birds flew up, croaking, from them, marking his path as yet towards us; and at last he came from behind a half-burnt hut close to us. Then I called him by name.
He started, and whipped out a long knife, and in a moment was behind the hut wall again. So I knew that he was not in league with the enemy, but feared them. Therefore I rose up and called him again, adding that I was Heregar, and needed him.
Then he came out, staring at me with his knife yet ready. But when he saw that it was really myself he ran to meet me with a cry of joy and knelt before me, kissing my hands and weeping; so that it was a while before I could ask him anything. Very starved and wretched he looked, and I judged rightly that he had taken to the woods from the first.
Presently he was quiet enough to answer my questions, and he told me that at first the Danes had had a strong post on the hill above us; but that, growing confident, they had left it these two days. But there were many passing and repassing along the road, bringing plunder back to the ships. He had watched them from the woods, he said.
Also he told me that even now mounted men had ridden past swiftly, going to the ships, and from that I guessed that Eanulf's force had been seen at least, and tidings sent thereof.
Then I asked him if any boats were left unburnt, and at that a cunning look came into his thin face, and he answered:
"Aye, master. Three of us were minded to save ours, and we sank them with stones in the creek before we fled. But the other two are slain, and I only am left to recover them."
Now that was good hearing, and I bade the men show me where they lay, and going with him found that now the water was low, we could see them and reach them easily. There were two small boats that might hold three men each, and one larger.
Then I told Elgar how I needed them for this night's work, and at first he was terrified, fearing nothing more than that his boats should be lost to him after all. But I promised him full amends if harm came to them, and that in the name of Osric, which he knew well. And with that he was satisfied.
So with a little labour we got the two small boats afloat, and then cast about where to hide them; for though Elgar said that the Danes came not nigh the place, it was likely that patrols would be sent out after the alarm of Eanulf's approach, and might come on them.
At last Elgar said that there was a creek half a mile or less up the river, and on the far side, where they might lie unseen perhaps. And that would suit us well if we could get them there. And the time was drawing on, so that we could make no delay.
Then out of a hollow tree Elgar drew oars for both boats, and we got them out into the river, and Dudda rowing one, and Elgar the other, in which I sat, we went to the place where they should be, keeping under the bank next the Danes. And it was well for us that the tide was so low, for else we should surely have been spied.
Yet we got them into the creek, Elgar making them fast so that they would rise as the water rose. Then he said he would swim back, and if he could manage it would raise the large boat and bring that also.
So without climbing out from under the high banks of the creek he splashed out into the tideway, and started back.
Now Dudda and I must make our way along to the horses, and so we began to get out of the creek, which was very deep, at this low ebb of the water, below the level of the meadows. Dudda was up the bank first, and looked towards Combwich. Then he dropped back suddenly, and bade me creep up warily and look also, through the grass.
So I did, and then knew how near an escape we had had, for there was a party of Danes, idlers as it seemed, among the burnt huts, turning over the ashes with their spears and throwing stones into the water.
Then I saw Elgar's head halfway across the river, and knew he could not see the Danes over the high bank. He was swimming straight for them, and unless he caught sight of one who stood nearest, surely he was lost. It was all that I could do to keep myself from crying out to him; but that would have betrayed us also, and, with us, the hope of our ambush. So we must set our teeth and watch him go.
Then a Dane came to the edge of the high bank and saw him, and at the same moment was himself seen. The Dane shouted, and Elgar stopped paddling with his hands and keeping his head above water.
Now we looked to see him swim back to this bank, and began to wonder if the enemy would follow him and so find us. And for one moment I believe he meant to do so, and then, brave man as he was, gave himself away to save us; for he stretched himself out once more and began to swim leisurely downstream, never looking at the Danes again; for now half a dozen were there and watching him, calling, too, that he should come ashore, as one might guess. But Elgar paid no heed to them, and swam on.
They began to throw stones, and one cast a spear at him, but that fell short. Then the bank hid him from us; but we saw a Dane fixing arrow to bowstring, and saw him shoot; but he missed, surely, for he took another arrow and ran on down the bank.
Then Dudda pulled me by the arm, and motioned me to follow him, and I saw no more.
Now the creek wherein we were ran inland for a quarter mile that we could see, ever bending round so that our boats were hidden from the side where the Danes were. Up that creek we ran, or rather paddled, therefore, knee deep in mud, but quite unseen by any but the great erne that fled over us crying.
Hard work it was, but before the creek ended we had covered half a mile away from danger, and looking back through the grass along the bank could see the Danes no longer. Yet we had no surety that they could not see us, and therefore crawled yet among grass and thistles, along such hollows as we could find.
At last we dared stand up, and still we could see no Danes as we looked back. And then we grew bolder and walked leisurely, as fishers might, not daring to run, across to that hut where the horses were. And reaching that our adventure was ended, for we were safe, and believed ourselves unnoticed if not unseen, for there was no reason why the Danes should think aught of two thralls, as we seemed, crossing the marsh a mile away, and quietly, even if they spied us.
After we reached our horses, there is nothing to tell of our ride back to the bishop. We overtook him before dark, where his men were halted two miles from Bridgwater, on the road, waiting for word from Eanulf.
Much praise gave he to me and the collier for what we had done, as also did Osric. And we, getting our arms again, went back to our own places well content; eager also was I to tell Wulfhere and Wislac of all that had befallen, and how I had boats for the crossing.
And when they heard how Elgar the fisher had swam on, rather than draw attention to the place where we two lay, Wulfhere nodded and said: "That was well done," and Wislac said: "Truly I would I could do the like of that. Much courage is there in the man who will face a host with comrades beside him against odds; but more is there in the man who will go alone to certain death because thereby he will save others."
Even as we talked there came riding a man from Bridgwater, going fast, yet in no great hurry as it seemed. He rode up to us, for there was the standard, and asked for the bishop, having word from Eanulf for him; and Guthlac told Ealhstan, who came up to speak to him, bidding us bide and listen.
What the man had to tell was this. That the Danes had, in some way, had word of the march of our levies, and had straightway gathered together, or were yet gathering from their raidings here and there, on the steep hill above Bridgwater, having passed through the town, or such as was left thereof after many burnings. And it was Eanulf's plan to attack them there with the first light, if the bishop would join him with his levy.
Then the bishop asked if there had been any fighting. And the man said that there had been some between the van of our force, and the rear of the Danish host; but that neither side had lost many men, nor had there been any advantage gained except to clear the town of the heathen.
Having heard that, Ealhstan bade me go aside with him, and called Osric and some more of the thanes to hold a council. And in the end it was decided that Osric should take on the bulk of the levy to join the ealdorman, while the bishop and I, and two hundred of the men, should try that crossing at Combwich.
"For thus," said Ealhstan, "we can fall on the Danes from behind if they stand or in flank if they retreat."
And except that the bishop would go with me, this pleased them well enough; but they tried to dissuade him from leaving the levy. But he laughed and said that indeed he was only going on before it, for to reach him they would have to go clear through the Danes where they stood thickest, and when they reached the standard, victory would be theirs.
Then they cried that they would surely not fail to reach him, and so the matter was settled, and the thanes told this to their men, who shouted and cheered, so that this seemed to be a good plan after all.
Now the bishop rode among the men, calling out those whom he knew well, and bidding the thanes give him their best, or if they had no best, such as could swim, and very shortly we had full two hundred men ranged on one side of the road, waiting with us, while the rest went off towards Bridgwater, the bishop blessing them ere they started. And as they went they shouted that we should meet again across the ranks of Danes.
When they were gone the bishop bade us rest. And while we lay along the roadside he went up and down, sorting out men who could swim well, and there were more than half who could do so, and more yet who said they were swimmers though poor at it.
Then he told me his plan. How that the men who could not swim must go over first in the boats, and then the arms of the rest should be ferried over while they swam, and so little time would be lost: but all must be done in silence and without lights. So we ate and slept a little, and then, when it grew dark, started off across the meadows. And there the collier guided us well, having taken note of all the ground we had crossed in the morning, as a marshman can.
It was dark, and a white creeping mist was over the open land when we reached it. But over the mists to our left we could see the twinkle of Danish watchfires, where they kept the height over Bridgwater; and again to the right we could see lights of fires at Stert, where the ships lay. But at Combwich were no lights at all, and that was well.
Presently we reached a winding stretch of deep water, and though it was far different when I saw it last, I knew it was the creek in which our boats lay, and up which Dudda and I had fled, full now with the rising tide.
We held on down its course until Dudda told me in a low voice that we were but a bowshot from the boats, and that now it were well for the men to lie down that they might be less easily noticed.