They ran out, leaving a dozen with me. Edric's men were yet in the street, and now they drew near the door, listening as I thought.
"How shall you escape?" I said to the goldsmith.
"Out of the back way, lord, and up the meadows to the ford if the ferryman is asleep. But I must go before the house is beset."
"Keep the gold for your service," I said, "for I think that the silver penny has saved me."
So he thanked me, and crept away easily enough. I suppose that Edric's men had no orders that had made provision for trouble with me of this sort, and that they hardly knew what had happened. But it was likely that they would send word to Edric directly, when they began to be sure that something had gone amiss. They tried the door again, but without much heart. My men wanted to throw it open and charge out on them, but I would not suffer it. So long as they loitered outside we had time to get away. Then some of them tried the gate of the courtyard behind the house, but the men had barred that after the goldsmith had gone out. And all the while the horses were being saddled silently, and they would be ready in a few minutes.
The earl's men spoke now outside the door, and I could hear what they said.
"Let us break in and see what has befallen Godric."
"Nay, the hall is full of men now. Let us go back."
"It was Godric's own fault. He had no reason to smite the porter, who stayed him not."
Then I thought that the men knew not what their errand was, and were to take orders from the slain man. Thus there would be no fighting in the street when we came out.
So it was, for when the horses were ready, the stablemen of the house threw open the great gates of the courtyard, which was beside the house, as it happened, and we rode out quietly, but with weapons ready, and they did but shrink together and stare when they saw us. There were about thirty of them in all.
Now I would not give Edric any reason to blame me to Eadmund, and so I wheeled my men to the right, away from the bridge and along the great road towards London, and letting them go on slowly, I called to a man who stood foremost.
"This is a sorry business," I said; "but your leader had no right to smite my man, and one waxes hasty when a man behaves thus. He was an unmannerly messenger."
"Aye, lord, he was," the men said.
"Well, then, tell your earl that I have even now left the town, and that being ready to do so I came not with you; and say how it was that this man was slain, and that I am sorry therefor."
"We will tell him," they said.
So I spurred my horse and rode after my company, knowing that it would be hard for Edric to know the rights of the matter. The men would certainly not wonder at the slaying of Godric, seeing how he had behaved. I thought that Eadmund would never hear of this.
I believe that I escaped very narrowly, and also that the silver penny was the cause thereof. For, first of all, it had been likely that Eadmund's messenger would not have found me so easily had I gone elsewhere than back to get it, and so I should have been belated and attacked in the street by these men. And next, the goldsmith warned me that the armed men waited outside. And then it was certain that Godric, the earl's man, would have cut me down before I could have drawn sword, had I not already held the weapon unsheathed. And that was because I looked on the penny and its setting before belting on the scabbard.
Now I thought, when we were fairly on the road, that we would go to Peterborough, to my good friend the Abbot Elfric, for I would fain tell him all this, thinking that he might warn Eadmund of Streone to more effect than could I. And inside the abbey walls would be a safe place for the night. It was not so certain that we should not be pursued, and so we went quickly, the horses rejoicing in the road after their idleness, for we had been three weeks in Stamford, waiting for the earl.
So we rode till we came to Castor, the old Roman town, and stayed not there, but went to the ford over the Nene at Water Newton, the road beyond the river being better than that on this side. It is not an easy ford, for a horseman has to turn downstream when nearly over, else he is over head and ears before he knows. One of my men had known somewhat of the place, and was going through first, but as his horse shied a little at the sparkling water and he was urging it in, a man rode fast down the opposite bank, and into the river, coming over to us. I heard his horse snorting, as if out of breath.
"Watch how he comes," I said to my man.
But there was little use in that, for he went to ride straight through, and next moment his horse was swimming, and he was crying for help, being bewildered, for the river was full and current strong.
Now, I was used to swimming my horse in our Stour fords, which are often very deep in autumn and winter, and so I rode in and grasped his horse's bridle, and told him to take heart, and so fetched him to our side.
"Give me a fresh mount, in the king's name," he said, for his horse was spent.
"Little thanks is that," said I. "What is the hurry?"
"I am sent with all speed to Redwald the thane, at Stamford, with word for Eadmund the Atheling."
"I am Redwald," I said. "Who sent you?"
"Olaf the king. Show me your sword, master."
I held out the hilt of my sword, for that was a token which a messenger should give and receive that Olaf and I had agreed on.
"Cnut the Dane has landed at Sandwich," the man said. "Eight hundred ships he has, and men more than I can count. The Kentish men have risen, and Olaf is with them; but he has not, and cannot have enough men to stay the Dane. There must be a levy of all England."
Then I was almost beside myself with rage, and could have wept, for the levy that should have been waiting for this had not even had a summons. And from the bottom of my heart I blamed Edric Streone for all the woe that I saw must come on England.
There was but one thing for me to do, and that was to go back to Stamford and see the Atheling. He would see me at midnight when no one else dared wake him, maybe, for he would know that I had heavy matters to speak of if I thus summoned him. The messenger would have to wait till morning, and could but give his message. I could reason with the Atheling, while this messenger would fall into Streone's hands. And that I knew now was the worst that could befall.
"Give the man a fresh horse," I said. "I must go back with him."
"Not so, lord," the men said. "You will be waylaid."
"I think my luck will serve me," I answered. "Do you find some barn at Chesterton over the water, and leave two or three men to watch for my coming. Thrand and Guthorm may come with me."
Then they grumbled at my running into danger, but I would be obeyed, though I must let them bide on this side of the ford.
We were but seven miles from Stamford town, and we went back at a hard gallop on the good turf alongside the paving of the Roman way. It was in my mind to see Eadmund and leave him at once, before Streone knew that any man had come into the town, if I could.
The bridge was barred, and the gates were too high to be leapt; but the guards were sleepy, and would not let me through, until I bade them open in the king's name. Then they did so, and we rode clattering up the street to the great hall.
There was bustle enough when I beat on the courtyard gates, for the place was stockaded, and there was a strong guard inside. Presently they opened the wicket, and the captain looked out angrily enough.
He began to rate us, but I cut him short.
"I am Redwald," I said, "and I must see the Atheling without delay."
The officer knew me well enough then, and let us in.
"You cannot see the Atheling, thane," he said. "It is as much as my life is worth to disturb him."
"I will do it myself, then," I said. "Take me into the house."
"What is amiss?" he asked, hesitating. "Is the king dead?"
"Nay, worse than that," I answered shortly, and the officer stared at me in horror.
"Oh, fool!" I said; "Cnut is landed, and it is Eadmund only who can save our land. Let me to him."
The warrior clutched his sword hilt with a sort of groan, and turned and took me into the house without a word. We went across the great hall, where the housecarles slept around the walls, sword under pillow, and spear at side. They raised their heads when their captain spoke the watchword, and looked at me curiously, but did not stir more than enough for that. They were not bidden.
We crossed a room where a few young thanes' sons slept, as I had slept before the king's door when I was first at court, and these leapt up, sword in hand.
"What will you?" one said in a low voice, setting his back against the door.
"I must see Eadmund, our atheling, on king's business," I said gently, remembering how I should have felt when on the same duty, if one had come thus.
"He may not be waked," the boy said.
Then I spoke loudly, so as to end the business without troubling these faithful guards.
"I am Redwald of Bures. I think that Eadmund will see me."
"Hush! hush! thane," the boy said.
But there was no need to say more, for the long camp life had sharpened Eadmund's ears to aught unusual. Now I heard the bar of the door thrown down, and Eadmund came out with a cloak round him and his sheathed sword in his left hand.
"Redwald—friend—what is it?" he said.
"Even what we have feared, my prince," I answered, looking at him.
"Where has the blow fallen?"
"At Sandwich. Olaf is there, and the Kentishmen have risen. His word is that he has not enough men."
"Surely Kent and London and Olaf—" he said.
"Eight hundred ships lie in Ebbsfleet. A ship may hold a hundred or but twenty men—not less."
Then Eadmund made a sign to his people, and they went out and left us together, and we looked on one another.
"Let me send for the earl," he said; but I put my hand on his arm.
"You are enough, my prince. But for sending for him your levies would be here, and we should march together even now to London."
"You are right, and I am a fool," he said.
"Wait for the earl no longer," I urged; "raise your own levy, and bid him follow you or the king as he will. There must be a raising of all England. Send to the king tonight."
"What will Cnut do?" he asked me.
"Olaf thought that if he landed in Kent he would make for London and besiege it. If so, you have time yet."
"There shall be no delay. Bide here and help me."
"I cannot," I said, and told him plainly of Edric's message to me, and the way in which it was sent; and I ended: "Let me go to Olaf, therefore, and take word from you that you come in haste. The earl doubts me yet."
"I do not understand it," Eadmund said, "but it must be so. Go back and tell Olaf to hold Cnut under London walls, and I will be there in a day before he expects, gathering forces as I come."
I kissed his hand and went, and as I did so I heard him bid his followers arm him. So I knew that he was roused, and that if he were himself all might yet be well.
Then I got to horse, and I and my two men rode down the street as fast as we had come. No man was about, and the bridge gates swung open for us.
"They are in a hurry to get rid of us," said Thrand, as we went through and passed the last houses of the town beyond the river.
Then the road lay white in the moonbeams before us until it ran among the trees of the first woodland, and there in the black shadow was a sparkle as of armour in the shafts of light that came through the leaves into the over-arched hollow of the track.
If any man was there he could see us clearly, though we could not well see him, for we were in full brightness.
Then Guthorm spoke, peering under his hand.
"Four men across the road, lord—horsemen standing still."
Then said I:
"If they are friends they will stand aside for us. If not, they will expect us to halt and argue matters with them. Any way, they have no right to the whole road, even if they mean us no harm. Ride on steadily, one on either side of me, and when we are twenty paces from them, if they yet bar our way, spur your horses and we will clear the road."
"Swords out, master?" said Thrand.
"No, spear butts ready; maybe they are friends. But I am in a hurry."
So we rode over those four men, and I fear they were hurt, for we left two rolling horse and two men in the road. Nor did I ever know if they were Edric's men or not. Howbeit, their swords were drawn, and so I think we were not wrong in what we did, though the Colchester men smote hard, and my spear shaft was badly sprung over a helm.
After that we did not draw rein till we came to our comrades, and they were halfway back to Stamford looking for me. Then we took the road to London, for we would not tarry now at Peterborough.
Maybe my story would have had a different end had I gone there—but it was not to be. Yet, though I knew it not, I was close to Hertha at that time.
Chapter 10: The Flight From London.
I came back to Olaf while he gathered his ships in the Pool below London Bridge, and I found him ill at ease and angry with Ethelred and Eadmund, and when I told him all, most angry with Streone.
"Now you must stay with me, cousin, for that man will have you slain if he can. There is no doubt that he works for Cnut. And this word of his about a bribe for me is not his own invention; he has been told to make it."
Then he told me of the vast host that had poured into Kent. It was the greatest host that had ever landed on English shores—greater even than had been ours when we Angles left our old home a desert, and came over to this new land and took it. Olaf and the Kentish levies had fought and had been driven back, and now day by day we looked to see Cnut's armies before London, and also for the coming of Eadmund with his men. But neither came, for the Mercian levies would not fight unless the king himself headed them, and Cnut passed through Surrey into Wessex and none could withstand him.
Aye, they fought him. Wessex is covered with nameless battlefields; but ere long half of Cnut's fleet was sent round to the Severn, and Ethelred, sick and despairing, came back to London with but a few men.
It angers me even to think of what befell after that. Eadmund and Streone gathered each a good force, and came together within touch of Cnut. And then on the eve of battle, Edric made known his plan to his Mercian thanes, and that was nothing more nor less than that they should go over bodily to Cnut when the fight began. Which treachery so wrought on the honest Mercians that they would fight not at all, and so disbanded in sight of the enemy, leaving Eadmund with but enough men to make good his retreat. And Cnut was master of all the land from Kent to Severn shores, Ethelred's own country. So Edric Streone went over to Cnut, and with him many thanes who despaired of help from Ethelred, and chose rather peace under a king who was strong enough to give it them. And one night forty of the English ships slipped away from us down the tide and joined the Danes at Sandwich. The men had been bribed by Streone, as we found.
Almost then did Olaf make up his mind to leave England, but he pitied Ethelred, who turned to him again in this new trouble, and he did not go.
"But my men will not bide patiently much longer," he told me; "here is neither honour nor gold to be won, and I need them for my going to Norway when the time comes."
For every day Olaf looked for some sign that should bid him go back and take his own land from Cnut's hand.
Now Ethelred would not stir from London, fearing treachery everywhere. And again Eadmund's levies melted away for want of their king's presence, and at last we persuaded him to meet Eadmund at Coventry, and I went with him. There was a good levy that would have followed him, but some breath of suspicion came over him, and suddenly he left them and fled back to London and the citizens, whom he trusted alone of all England. And he would not suffer me to bide with Eadmund, but I must go back with him. So the levies melted, and Eadmund went north to Earl Utred of Northumbria for help.
Then when the winter wore away, and April came in calm and bright, the most awesome thing befell England that had been yet. For in the north Eadmund and Utred marched across the country, laying waste all as they went, lest the north should rise for Cnut; and going east as they went west, Cnut ravaged and burnt all the southern midlands. Then rose the wail of all England, for friend and foe alike had turned on her, and her case was at its hardest. And from that time forwards I know that none who chose Cnut for king should be blamed.
Then Cnut fell on York, and Utred of Northumbria, whose wife was Danish, submitted to him, and was slain by Streone's advice, as men say, though some say that he was slain by Thorkel the Jarl when he took the ships that tried to escape from the Humber. It may be thus. The shipmen fought well, and were all slain—sixty ships' crews.
Now all England was open to Cnut, and Eirik the jarl fell on Norwich and drove Ulfkytel back on us, and from him we heard of this trouble.
On the eve of St. George's day, Ethelred sent for me to his chamber, for he would speak with me. I found him sitting in a great chair before the fire, wrapped in furs, though the day was warm and sunny, and he was very feeble, so that his thin hands had little strength in them. The queen, Emma, was with him, looking young and handsome as ever, and in the light of a narrow window sat Eadward the Atheling, the sunshine falling on his strange white hair and on the pages of a great book over which he pored. He just lifted his pale eyes from his reading as I went in and saw who it was, and smiled pleasantly at me, and then turned to his book again. I thought that the troubles of the time passed lightly on the proud lady and the boy, whose learning was all that she cared for.
"Come near, Redwald, my son," the king said, in his voice that had grown so faint of late. "I have a charge to lay on you."
I went and knelt by him, and he put his hand on my shoulder, and the tears came to my eyes at the kindly touch, for it was the same as, and yet so unlike, that which had been a promise of friendship to me at the first time that I saw him.
"All things are slipping from me, Redwald," the king said; "nor is there aught that I grieve to lay down when the day comes on which I must pass through the gate of death. Crown and sceptre have been heavy burdens to me, for with them has been the weight of the sword also. I have borne those ill, and used that cruelly. I am the Unredy; but I have listened to ill counsels, having none of my own, nor wit to see what was best."
He ceased for faintness, and my heart ached to hear him speak thus to me, his servant. But Emma the queen turned half away from him, her face growing hard and scornful as she heard. Then Eadward set his book down gently, and, looking sadly at his mother, came and stood over against me at the other side of the king, and took his wan hand and said:
"There are laws which you have made, my father, which will live in the hearts of men alongside those that Eadgar made—our best. There will not be all blame to you in the days to come, when men see clearly how things have gone with you."
Thereat Ethelred smiled faintly, and he answered:
"I pray that it may be so. But the good outweighs not the evil. I may not count the one—I must confess the other."
He passed into thought, looking into the fire, and we were still beside him. The queen moved away to the seat where Eadward had been sitting and took his place, staring out of the window with unseeing eyes. And I was glad that she was no longer beside us.
Presently the king raised his head and turned it a little towards me.
"Redwald," he said, "you were our companion in Normandy, and you are a trusted friend of ours. It will not be long before the queen must fly to her brother—the good duke—again, and it is in my mind that her flight will be perilous. When that time comes, let it be your place to see her safely thither, with the athelings, her sons. It may be that Olaf will help you, but that you must see to as best you can. And I have sent for Abbot Elfric to help you."
"Lord king," I said, "what I can I will do, but I think there are men better fitted than I to guard our queen."
"None whom we trust more fully," the king said.
"See, my queen, this is he to whom you must look for furtherance of your journey."
Then Emma turned from the window, and her face was still unmoved.
"I can trust Redwald," she said. "It will be well."
But Eadward wept openly, for he knew that the king spoke of the day when he should die.
"That is well," the king said, and leaned back on his pillows. "Now have I no care left. Yet it is hard to put so heavy a burden on your young shoulders, my thane."
"It is an honour rather," I answered. "May I be worthy thereof."
Then a brightness came over the king's face, and he answered me slowly and plainly, and with great joy, as it were.
"Presently I shall meet with Eadmund, your martyred king, and to him I will say that his thane of Bures is worthy."
"Forget me not also, my father, when you come to that place," Eadward said.
"I will not forget. Now is given me to see plainly what shall be in the time to come—to what all tends even now. For now in the time of my death comes to me rede unearthly, as I think. There must be a strong hand who shall weld England into one—who shall bid our land forget that difference has ever been betwixt Angle and Saxon, Jute and Northumbrian, Mercian and Wessexman, Saxon and English and Dane. And when that wonder is wrought, then shall come peace and a new life to the land, under one who will give them the laws that they need to bind them into one English race, strong and honest, and patient in all things."
Then said Eadward, as the king ceased:
"That is what those who love England would most hope for."
But his voice was hushed, as in the presence of one who sees beyond this earth.
Thereat the king looked on him, and said:
"Have patience, my son, and you shall see it; aye, and you shall have part and share therein."
After that he spoke no more, and for a time we waited beside him. Soon he seemed to sleep, and I rose at a sign from the queen and left his chamber. Nor did I ever see Ethelred our king alive again. For when the morning came he had laid his heavy burdens down and had passed to the rest that he longed for. And the bells that rang merrily for St. George's mass ceased, and the toll for the dead went mournfully over the city.
"Eadmund is king, God help him," men said.
So it came to pass that even as they buried the king in the great Church of St. Paul the Danish armies were closing round the city, and when I went to Olaf to beg him to advise me concerning the flight of the queen, he answered:
"You and I must part, my cousin. For you had better take ship from some quiet port, and that on the southern coast, and so make for Normandy. But I must see the citizens through this siege, and then I will come to you at Rouen, and we will take counsel together again."
He would bide no longer in England after this, for the doubt of him that Eadmund would not listen to was strong in the minds of others, and his presence was of little use. Only the London folk and Ulfkytel loved him, knowing him well, and holding that they owed him much. But none knew better than Earl Ulfkytel that Olaf must not bide here longer.
Now our scouts kept coming in with news of Cnut, and at last I could see by which road to fly with most chance of safety. I would go by Winchester and so to Southampton and there take ship with the queen. Cnut's fleet would be in the Thames ere long, if it barred not the mouth already.
But Abbot Elfric had not come. We feared that he had fallen into Danish hands, for it was hard to say where they were not. It seemed that we must perforce leave London without him. Yet I would stay till the last for his coming.
Now I must leave England, and I have said little about myself. But when this duty was laid on me by the king, I thought more of my lost quest of Hertha than I had done of late. For now I must leave her in our poor land, where she must be hunted maybe from hiding to biding, place to place, and in my heart grew up an unreasoning anger against Ailwin and Gunnhild, who by their secrecy had kept me from bringing her here with Olaf.
Then as I looked over this I became sure that they had seen somewhat in me which their charge could not love, so that they would keep me from her altogether. And I made up my mind to that at last, not wondering that it was so, for I was but a warrior and a landless thane with nought to be proud of but skilful weapon play, and some scars to show that I had been in a fight or two where blows were falling. And I minded how I had told Ailwin that I held myself free, and thought that he and Gunnhild, and maybe Hertha also, would have it so.
Yet I cared little for that, having heavier things to fill my mind than thought for a maiden whose very looks I knew not now. At least these two had taken Hertha into their charge, denying me any part therein, and I could not blame them rightly. I had done my best and could no more.
Then at the last moment Elfric came.
"Glad am I that you have not gone, my son," he said, as I greeted him. "I have wandered many a long mile over crossroads to escape the Danes. Very nearly did they have me once, but I escaped them. That will be a pleasant tale beside Duke Richard's fire, however. When must we go?"
"With nightfall, father," I said. "The horses are standing almost ready even now. How many shall you need?"
"Myself, and my chaplain, and three sisters—five," he said, "if you can take so many. These would fly with me and the queen."
I thought for a moment. The queen had Eadward and his brother Alfred and five maidens with her, and there were the pack horses and the servants. But two of the maidens were unwilling to go, being daughters of London thanes. Our court was very small in these days. So, as every woman added to our company was a source of weakness, in that our pace must be that of the least able to bear fatigue, I doubted until I thought that the queen might let the sisters take the places of the maidens who cared not to fly with her.
I went and asked her this, and she flushed with wounded pride, though I gave her my reasons and urged her peril.
"How shall it be told that Emma of Normandy was beholden to a nunnery for her handmaidens?" she said.
"It shall not be told, my queen," I said stoutly. "Men shall say that you gave protection to the holy women."
Truly my wits were sharpened by sore need, for at once the queen agreed to this. She loved power, and even this little use thereof pleased her.
"When can we go?" she asked. "I long to see my own land again."
"At nightfall, in two hours' time," I told her.
"It is well. Be ready then," she said.
She had persuaded herself, as I believe, that she arranged all things, and I was glad to have it so, for I had feared that I should have had trouble more than enough with her unreasoning pride.
So I told Elfric that his nuns could go, and he thanked me, laughing a little, with some thought of their journey here as I thought, and he added:
"Aye, their dress protects them a little. It is not as in the old days of heathen against Christian. There is this to be said for Cnut, that he will have no monastery or nunnery harried if his orders are carried out."
Then a thought came to me, and I wished that I could persuade our queen to take on herself and her maidens the convent dress. She would not be the first royal lady of England who had worn it. And I asked Elfric to persuade her to do so, for Emma's great failing was love of queenship.
"If I know aught of our queen," he said, "she wants to ride in state."
"She does," I answered. "I think, father, that we have a troublous journey before us. She will not believe but that she may ride as ever through the land."
"You plan and I will argue," the good man said, being ever light hearted.
So he went to the queen and spoke long with her, but she would in no wise ride out of London but as a queen, even as she had told me more than once. There was nothing against that but that word might go to the Danish leaders that she was leaving the city. Still, if we could get her to disguise herself thus when our guards left us it might be as well. The Danes, did they seek her, would look for a larger party than ours, and would pay no heed to us, perhaps.
Now Olaf and my Colchester spearmen would be our guards even to the Surrey hills, for beyond them was not much fear of the Danes, who were advancing from Mercia, northward of the Thames. Only in the towns were garrisons whom we must fear, for they sent out parties to raid the land for provender and plunder and to keep the poor folk from rising on them.
So it was my plan, and it seemed good to Elfric, to travel as a little party only. So could we more easily escape notice, and take the byways, while an armed force, however small, would draw on us the notice of the Danes whose duty it was to watch against any gathering of English warriors.
We started that night as soon as dark came on, and the queen was pleased with the guard around her, and that Olaf the king himself rode at her side. Men cheered him as we passed along the streets, and the queen deemed that the cries were for her, and drew herself up proud and disdainful as she sat on her white horse with spearmen before and behind her, and her maidens on either side. But I doubt if any man knew who she was in the dusk. And I had sent the pack horses and servants on before us to wait our coming at a certain place, so that none should be able to say that we were a party of fugitives.
Presently the queen waxed silent, and Olaf and I could talk to one another of what we would do in the time to come if this and that happened. I told him that I should certainly return to fight at Eadmund's side, for the queen would not keep me in Rouen. When he left London it was his wish to seek me there, and so we looked to see one another again before very long.
"Then it is farewell, my cousin," he said, when at last we came to Banstead, for he would not leave us sooner. "We have had a good fight or two together, and may have more, and to more profit, as I hope, in the days to come."
We halted at the monastery and prayed for shelter there for the night, or at least what was left of it, and while Elfric spoke with the superior of the nuns who were there, I took leave thus of Olaf and of my spearmen. And these prayed me to return soon and lead them again. That I promised them, and so the darkness closed between us as they rode away, and I was left sad at heart enough, for Olaf was as a brother to me, and I knew not when I should meet with him again.
There was no talk of Danes at this quiet place over which the wave of war had gone already, leaving it poorer, but in peace; and it was not until the next afternoon that we rode out again, our party being that which must see the long road over together.
Twelve of us there were. The queen and her two maidens and the three nuns, Elfric the abbot and his chaplain, Eadward and Alfred the athelings, and Alfred's tutor—who was a churchman of Elfric's own monastery—and myself.
Then there were the servants, ten in all, who rode each leading a lightly-laden pack horse. It was such a party as an abbot might well travel with, and that is all that would be said of us if the Danish riders asked aught of the roadside folk. I and Eadward alone were armed as the abbot's housecarles. The men bore but spear and seax, as would any wayfarer for fear of robbers and the like.
Now, when all was ready in the courtyard, and we waited for the queen, she stood on the threshold before I knew her, for the nuns of the place, taught by Elfric, had prayed her to take their dress for the journey, and she had done so, as also had her two maidens. They were as abbess and sisters therefore, and I thought that one trouble was over—that is if our queen would but take the part of a nun as well as the dress, and be guided by Elfric the abbot.
Thus our journey to the sea was begun. And of that journey I might tell much, for it was a strange one. I think that the hardest task that a man could have, must be to take a proud and headstrong woman through a country full of danger, when she dislikes the manner of journey. And when that woman is a queen, surely it is harder yet. Had it not been for Elfric and Eadward I know not how we should have fared, for at times Emma the queen would not speak with me, if some plan that I must needs make was not to her liking. And seeing that she knew nought of the meaning of either time or distance, that was often enough. And when I heard of danger that must be skirted she would tell me that none would dare molest the queen—that she would declare herself and all would be well.
And seeing that of all hostages to Cnut the queen would be the most valuable, that plan would be fatal. I will say this now, that more than once I was obliged for very safety's sake to give wayside folk, among whom we were, to understand that the abbess was crazed through the long troubles, believing herself a queen.
And, alas for our land! it was but too easy for them to believe it. Few there were who knew not some wretched ones crazed at that time by all that had befallen them.
Well it was for us that the nights were clear and warm, and that the good Surrey and Hampshire franklins' wives were compassionate and hospitable. I could not now retrace our footsteps, for we could go by no road at times, but must take to the woods and downs.
And ever when we did so the queen rode sullenly, and angry with all around her, while Eadward and I and the two priests, who were valiant men enough, were ahead, scenting danger everywhere, for we had many a narrow escape of meeting raiding Danes. The stragglers of that mighty host were everywhere. I think that had we fallen into such hands I should have tried to send a man in all haste to the nearest post of the thingmen, that we might be taken again by warriors at least.
But the ladies bore the long journey well, and Elfric's nuns the best. I had little to do with them, having so many cares about me, and was glad enough to leave them in the closer charge of the abbot and his priests. But soon I found that there was one of the three nuns who was untiring and ever able to hearten the rest, and that even the queen listened to her. The dress made all five of the maidens seem alike at first, but in a few days the pleasant, cheerful face of this one seemed familiar to me, and it was fair enough for all the novice's garb she wore. I thought she minded me of someone whom I knew, and at last, finding out a likeness as I looked for one, I called her in my own mind Sister Sexberga, for surely she was like that fair friend of mine. It never happened that I heard her name, for I was ever forward and away from the queen's complainings, and the nuns spoke little even to one another.
Little rest and much care had I all the way thus. I will not write it, but will go on to the time when we came safely in sight of Winchester town. I could not enter it with my charges, but must needs go by myself, for here I should learn more sure news than anywhere. And what I might learn would decide whether I could take ship in Southampton Water or turn eastwards a little and go to Portsmouth or Bosham havens.
Now I knew that the Danes held the place in force, and so I told the queen. But to pass by her royal city seemed more than she could bear, and she wished and commanded us to ride in and call on her citizens to rise and protect her.
"Queen of England I am and will be," she said. "I have borne indignity long enough."
"My queen," I said, "if you see Winchester you will not see Normandy."
Then Elfric spoke with her, and at last she wept, saying that she was deserted, and the like, and so turned sullen, bidding us give her up to the Danes, who would respect a queen in distress.
Having seen this manner of submission to counsel not once or twice before, I put on a franklin's dress, and gave sword Foe's Bane into Eadward's keeping, and took a hunting spear instead, and went down into the town, leaving my party ten miles away in a nook of the wooded hills.
The scarlet-cloaked Danish thingmen at the gates paid no heed to me, for it was market day, and many countryside people were going in and out. So I went to the marketplace, and sat down on a bench outside an inn with others and listened to all that I could, while I drank my ale and ate as did the rest.
Some I talked with. There was little hatred of Cnut here, as I found. There was some change, too, in the ways of the thingmen, for it was not their plan here to make themselves hated and feared as in East Anglia.
Then came a man whose face and walk were those of a seaman, and he sat down close to me, and I pushed the ale mug towards him, and we began to talk of his calling. He had come to Winchester to find some merchant who needed a ship, as it seemed, and he began, as a good sailor will, to praise his own vessel with little encouragement.
I found out from him that Southampton Water was full of Danish vessels, and so I asked where his own lay.
"In Bosham haven," he said. "Earl Wulfnoth will have no Danes in his land. I must get some safe conduct from the Danish folk here if I come into the Water. So being tired of doing nought I even rode up to this place to see if aught could be managed for a voyage."
Now I thought that I was in luck's way, for from this man, who seemed honest enough, I could perhaps gain all I wanted. His ship was a great buss, fitted with a cabin fore and aft under the raised decks, and I could wish for no better chance than this might be.
"Would you take passengers for Normandy instead of goods?" I asked him carelessly.
"Aye, truly, and gladly if they could pay well."
"Now I will tell you that I am Earl Wulfnoth's friend," I said, "and you may know that pay is safe, therefore. I was at Pevensea when Olaf the Thick, the viking, came there."
He took my word for my friendship with the earl, and then I arranged for all things to be ready for us in a week's time. We had some rough country to cross before we came to Bosham, and I would not hurry over it. We wrangled over the price a little, as was fitting, for I would not seem too eager; but at last he said that he would depart on the morrow, and we shook hands and were satisfied.
"Speak not of this matter, friend Bertric," I said, "or we may be waylaid by Danes off the haven's mouth."
"Little fear of that, master," he laughed. "Our young Earl Godwine has beaten one or two ships already."
Then I went back light hearted to my people, and when the queen heard what I had done her mood changed, and she was most gracious, and thanked me, saying that she feared that I had run into danger for her in going into the town. So I felt myself repaid in full for the little trouble, that had been without risk as it fell out.
Very fair was the great Andred's-weald in the late April weather, but the forest tracts were rough and the way seemed long. Once we beat off, easily enough, some cowardly outlaws, but there were no Danes in Andred's-weald, and we came to Bosham in safety.
There Bertric's good ship was ready for us, and it happened that no other vessels, save fishing craft, were in the haven. I had looked to meet Godwine, my friend, but he and his ships were in Dorchester water, and there were few to mark our coming into the quiet town, or our going on board, which we did without delay.
We had no need of the stout housecarles, who had led the horses and served us so well, so the queen, as I asked her, gave them the horses as gifts in recompense for their journey, and so when they had gone we were few indeed. But there was room for few passengers in the buss. The queen and her ladies had the larger after cabin, and Elfric and the athelings and the two priests had that under the fore deck. I would remain on deck with Bertric and his crew of twenty men, but there was no hardship in that.
That night on Bertric's ship was the first for three long weeks that had sound sleep for me, for they hauled out into the middle of the haven, and none could come near us unseen, and I was at last free from care and watching.
But one thing troubled honest Bertric, and that was that he had found a black kitten on board. None knew whence it came, and he said it was an ill sign. And he dared do nought but treat it well, since it had come.
Chapter 11: The Taking Of The Queen.
When the early sunlight woke me, we were almost at the haven mouth, and slipping past Selsea, with its gray pile of buildings, on the first of the ebb tide. The wind was in the northeast, with a springtime coldness in it, but it was fair for Normandy, and there was no sea running under the land. We were well out at sea, therefore, ere Elfric, almost as worn out as I, came from his close quarters forward and stood by me, looking over the blue water of the Channel to where the Isle of Wight loomed to the westward.
"Now I think that all is well, Redwald," the abbot said, "and every mile from the English shore takes us further from danger."
And so we stood and talked in the waist of the ship, and Eadward came and joined us. The men ate their breakfast forward, and brought us some, and the two churchmen came out with the little atheling, and then Sister Sexberga, as I called her, came and shivered in the cold breeze and spoke to Bertric, who was alone on the after deck steering, and so went back to the cabin, where the queen had all things needful for breaking her fast.
Then Bertric whistled sharply, and I looked up at him. He pointed away to the eastward, and out to sea. There I saw far off on the skyline the sails of two ships that grew larger as I watched them.
I went to the break of the after deck and climbed up beside him.
"Men say that two ships passed westwards tonight, master," he said. "Here be two more heading over from the south."
"Can you tell what they are?" I asked him.
"Longships, as I think," he answered. "We shall know betimes."
The vessels hove up quickly, for our great brown sail bore us more or less across their course.
"It is safer to hold on, master," he said, "for to up helm and fly would be to bring them after us if they are vikings. They will see that we are not laden with cargo, and will not pay heed to us therefore."
It was but half an hour after that when we knew that the two ships were Danish war vessels, and that they were laying a fresh course to overhaul us. Nor was there any chance of our escaping them. They were thrice as fast as we.
Then I feared greatly, for I knew not what would happen. It might be that they would let our party go on, finding them to all seeming nought but church folk; but one could not tell, and I feared. So also did Elfric when I went to him and told him what these ships were, and that they were bearing down on us.
"We cannot fight," he said. "We must let things be as the Lord will."
"If any roughness is shown to the womenfolk," I said, "there will be one man who will fight."
"And will lose his life for naught," he answered. "If the worst comes to the worst we must even do as the queen has bidden us before now. We must proclaim her, and then we shall be safe from harm, if captives to Cnut. Tell me, have you heard that he is cruel to those he takes?"
"Rather I have heard that he is not," I said. "Moreover, if Emma of Normandy suffers aught at his hands he will have the duke to deal with very shortly."
"Now are we in the Lord's hands," said Elfric, for a hoarse hail came from the leading ship, which was to windward of us. She was a splendid dragonship, bright with gold and colour.
"What will you have me do, master?" Bertric cried to me.
"They can do what they will with us whatever we try. We may fare better by obeying," I said, for in truth there was nought else to do.
Now the great ship ranged up alongside of us, and the tall warrior at the helmsman's side hailed us again to heave to. And I saw a man bend his bow, and an arrow flew down the wind and stuck in the deck not far from me. Whereon Bertric raised his arm in answer and called to his men, and luffed while they lowered the sail. The Dane at the same time struck sail, and got out some oars in order to come alongside of us. There was no sea running that would make this dangerous.
Then I went to the low door of the after cabin, and spoke to the queen.
"Here is a ship that will come alongside ours," I said. "Fear nought, but wait for my word."
And then a glint of bright colour caught my eyes, and I looked more closely into the dark place; and there sat the queen no longer as a humble abbess, but in her own dress, for she had cast off the garb she hated, and she answered me:
"Who dares to stay the Queen of England on her passage?"
"Oh, madam," I said, "for pity's sake don the convent robe again. I fear that the Danes are on us."
Then she cowered back into the shadow and said nought, for the very word terrified her when she knew her foes were so near. But Sister Sexberga came to the door, and she was pale enough, though her face lacked no courage.
"What shall we do, Redwald—thane?" she said quickly.
"Keep a brave heart, sister," I answered, "and let me manage all. I will bide before the door, and you will hear all I say. Then, if I say that we have the Queen of England, let our mistress come forward and disclose herself. But I hope they will let us go free. Pray that it may be so."
Then the two ships jarred together, and I saw that the Dane was well manned with armed warriors, and I also saw that their leader was Egil Thorarinsson, whom I had captured and again lost at Leavenheath fight. I will say that I was glad to see him, for I knew him as a free-spoken warrior who loved fair play, and I thought that he owed me a life, for I did not slay him when I might.
They leapt on board—a dozen armed Danes with Egil at their head—and there before them stood Elfric the abbot with his cross in his hand, facing them alone. His priests were forward under cover, praying doubtless, with the athelings. The great ship sheered off again, and bided within half arrow shot of us, all her rail crowded with men looking on.
"Neither gold nor goods have we," Elfric cried. "We are peaceful folk who cross the seas. It is the part of a good warrior and viking to let such go unharmed."
"Aye, so it is," answered Egil; "but, as it happens, we are looking for certain peaceful folk."
"You will not harm us," said Elfric, who knew nought of our queen's foolishness. "It is but a party of church people who go to Normandy."
"Put the holy man aside," said Egil to his men. "We are not heathens, and we will not hurt you, father."
So the warriors laughed, and went to draw Elfric away; but when he saw that I stood before the cabin door, he stepped aside by himself and watched what should befall. I had no mail on, and at first they did not notice me. It was the first day that I had not worn mail since we left London; but Foe's Bane was loose in the scabbard, and ready in case of need.
"Ho, skipper!" Egil cried, "whom have you on board?"
"Yon priest and some more of his sort," Bertric said.
"We have lit on a crow's nest," a man said, laughing. "Where are they, then?"
"In the fore peak, and aft here, deadly sick," said Bertric.
Then Egil's eyes lit on me, and he stared for a minute.
"Ho!" he cried, "here is no crow, but a stout warrior enough. What do you here, Olaf's right-hand man?"
"Helping the crows over seas," I said, trying to meet his words lightly, though my heart was heavy enough.
"Why then, friend," he said, "I must see these charges of yours. Stand aside, and let me go into that cabin."
"Nay, Egil; they are but nuns here."
The honest warrior looked puzzled, but some of his men began to crowd aft, being tired of the parley, and one tried to push me aside, saying:
"Let us fetch them out, and waste no more words."
Whereon I sent him reeling against the gunwale, hands to face, for I dealt with him even as Godric served my warrior at Stamford.
Then I had my sword out, for it was time—and two men who drew sword on me went down on the deck before me. Sword Foe's Bane smote not amiss. Then was a ring of shouting Danes forming, and I felt someone at my shoulder, and Egil cried out:
"Hold, men! the warrior is my man. Let me deal with him."
And there was Sister Sexberga beside me, with Bertric's sword, that had hung over his berth, in her hand; and her eyes were flashing, and it seemed to me that she had used a sword before this, or had learnt its use. It was reddened now.
The men gave back, and Egil came before me and he was laughing.
"That is enough, Redwald of Bures," he said. "I owe you a life, and you have it. If all your charges are like that maiden we had better begone. Little nunnery training is there about her sword play."
Then the sister shrank back into the cabin, and the men stared after her with a kind of awe, as at a Valkyrie of the old faith who had come to my help. There was a man whom she had smitten who was binding up a wound in his bare forearm. I believe that she stayed a shrewd blow from me.
"Let us go, Egil," I said.
"Presently, maybe. But I seek someone, and must needs see your people. No harm shall come to them."
Then I thought that all was well, and I turned to the door and spoke:
"Lady abbess, you must needs come forward. I know this chief, and you need fear nought."
I heard Sister Sexberga's voice speaking low and pleadingly for a moment—and then all was lost.
"I am the Queen of England," said Emma in her proud, shrill voice. "Begone, churls, and let me not."
And bright in crimson and ermine she came from the cabin and stood swaying on the deck before Egil and his men, while round her train played heedlessly the ill-omened black kitten; and that seemed strange.
Egil bared his head and bowed before her.
"Are you truly the queen?" he said.
"Aye, knave. Who else should I be?" she answered. "Fetch me the old priest."
"Nay, Redwald will tell me now," Egil said. "Does this lady speak truth?"
"It is true," I answered. "Why should you hinder her going to the duke, her brother, who will seek her at your hands?"
Now Emma had been still during these words, looking with hard and scornful eyes at all before her, but now she spoke:
"Let the sail be set again that I may go on my way. You shall surely answer for this hindrance."
But no one stirred, though even the Danes were silent, for there is that in the tones of one who is wont to be obeyed which makes men listen whether they will or not.
"Do you hear me?" she said, stamping her foot.
"Redwald, see that I am obeyed. Drive these knaves into the sea, and let me be rid of them."
Then Egil answered her, saving me trouble thereby, for I had nought to say:
"Queen, we will do your bidding and hoist the sail. But my men and I must bide here."
"I care not, so that you do not hinder my folk," she said.
And with that she turned away, saying to the brave sister who yet stood beside her:
"Let us seek shelter again—the wind is cold, and I am offended with the sight of these men."
They went into the cabin and closed the door after them, and Egil and I looked at one another. Egil grinned, but I could not. Outside the door the kitten mewed restlessly in the cold wind to be taken in.
"So," he said, "cheer up. This is not your fault; you almost won through. Had the queen come forth as an abbess, I think that I had left you for very shame. Priests and black cats are aye unlucky passengers, however."
I think that I was never so angry as then. To lose all our pains for the safety of the queen, and that by reason of her own foolishness, was hard.
Egil left me and went to Bertric; and once more the sail was set, and the ship headed backward for the English coast. We had almost lost sight of it. The two longships ranged up on either side of us, shortening sail to keep us company.
They took the two men whom I had slain and set them forward under some covering. Neither Egil nor his warriors bore me any grudge for their fall, which was in fair fight of their own making. After that Egil's men made the crew bring them what food and ale they had, and sat down below the fore deck quietly enough. They were courtmen of Jarl Thorkel's, as I thought, being better than the wild warriors who made the bulk of Cnut's great host.
Elfric came to me when all was quiet thus, and leant on the rail beside me for some time without speaking. We were making a long slant over to the English coast, and my heart was full of heavy thoughts, for I could not help wondering if this mischance had come about by my fault; and I was angry and sore that all the plans that I had made so confidently had come to naught. Presently the abbot said:
"The queen takes this matter very easily."
"The trouble is to come," I answered; "she thinks that she is yet on her journey."
"It is no fault of ours that she is not," said he. "Maybe it is best thus. I suppose that she will understand how things are when we reach the shore. What will be done with us?"
"Let us ask Egil," I said. "I think we might have fallen into worse hands than his. It is in my mind that he likes not his errand."
So we went aft to the chief, who stood beside Bertric. And when I came to him he said, pointing westward:
"Here comes Earl Wulfnoth, as I think."
Then I saw three large ships beating up to us, and the sail of one bore, painted on it, the device of a fighting warrior, Earl Wulfnoth's own ensign.
Now, on this I had a hope that we might be rescued by him, and my face must have shown as much, while Elfric glanced at me with the same thought written plainly in his eyes.
"I will not risk meeting the earl, though I do not think that he will interfere with us," Egil said; "but we are to windward of him, and can do as we like.
"Now, I have been wondering what I shall do with you, Redwald."
"Let me be taken with the queen and the athelings," I said. "What will you do with them?"
"They must go to Cnut," he answered; "but I am thinking that that will be bad for you."
"Maybe it is not my business, but I think that I owe you a good turn for letting me off at Leavenheath. If I take you to Cnut, Streone will have somewhat to say about you—and he is a great man with our king just now."
"Well, what if he has. He knows me well enough, and cares nought about me," I answered.
"Cares enough about you to have told Cnut to hang you as soon as he gets you," Egil said. "I suppose you have offended him in some way."
Then Elfric said:
"That is so. Redwald escaped from his hands at Stamford. We heard many tales about it at Peterborough. They say that Eadmund the Martyr came bodily and saved him out of a house beset by the earl's men."
"If there is one dead man that we Danes have to fear, it is that king," Egil said. "Is this tale true?"
And he stared at me as at one who had dealings with the other world.
I knew that my story must have come into this shape through some tales that the goldsmith had set about.
"Hardly," said I; "but it is a long story. Maybe Eadmund the Saint had more to do with it than I know; but I saw him not."
"Well then, Redwald, it seems unsafe for you to go near Streone—"
"It will be unsafe for him," I said savagely, for my temper was sorely tried by my failure, as I have said.
"Why, then, all the more must I keep you out of his way."
"Hang me and have done," I said; "I am of no more use."
"That," quoth Egil, "is what I thought concerning myself when you had me down in the fight. Now I am here to let you go, and bid you take heart. This is but chance of war, and one must take it as it comes."
Now it was so plain that the honest chief wished me well, that I could not but thank him for his words, though, indeed, just at this time I seemed to care little for what became of me.
"You are a generous foe, Egil Thorarinsson," I said.
"You and I shall be good friends some day, as I hope," he said; "meanwhile we will be fair foes. You slew me not, because I had fallen more or less by chance. Therefore I will let you go because you have fallen into my hands by chance. I will only lay this on you, that you shall bide with Earl Wulfnoth for two months before you fight against us again."
I was full of wonder at this, for he might well have made me promise to take up arms against Cnut no more, and I could have done no less than promise it, seeing that I was in his hands.
"Why, I must tie you down for a while," he said laughing at my face of doubt.
"Nay, Egil, I do but wonder that you set me free at all," I said.
"Is that so? I have wondered that you slew me not in the heat of battle. Well, I will add this, that if we fall on Earl Wulfnoth you may fight for him."
I held out my hand, and Egil took it.
"You have my word, Egil; you are most generous," I said.
Then he glanced at sword Foe's Bane.
"Some day you and I, maybe, will have a good fight for your sword in all friendliness," he said.
"Surely I thought you would take it back," I cried. "I feared so, for it was my father's sword."
"Aha! I knew there was somewhat strange about that blade," he said. "Tell me what story it has."
I told him in a few words about the winning of the sword from the grave mound by Thorgeir, my grandfather, and asked Egil how he came by it.
"I bought it from a man after Nacton fight, and I have never had any luck with it. I was sure it was a magic sword of some sort; for it let go three men whom I should surely have slain with any other blade. It seemed to turn in my hand. Such swords as these will not be used by any other than he who can win them from the owner."
"Ottar, Olaf's scald, said that it would draw the holder to me," I said; "but I would not believe it."
"You English have forgotten the old sayings," Egil said. "Now you know that he is right; keep the sword therefore."
Then I said:
"If I must die a bed death, Egil, the sword shall be sent to you, for I think that you have the most claim to it."
He grew red with pleasure at my saying, and Elfric broke in on our talk.
"I would that I might see many more meetings of brave foes like this. Then would peace come very shortly."
"Why, father," said Egil, "Redwald and I have not any hate for each other, though we must fight on opposite sides."
"That is well. I would that it were ever so."
Then Egil changed his tone, for we were nearing shore. The ships he had seen were still far away, beating southward now.
"Are these maidens nuns, or but in disguise, father?" he said.
Elfric answered not at once, and I said:
"Three are nuns, two only are disguised. You will not take the queen's maidens from her?"
"Not I," he answered. "I think that even with the abbot's help and theirs I shall have trouble enough with the queen when she finds that the shore we reach is not Normandy."
"Shall you take me?" asked Elfric.
"I must take all but my own friend here, and the three holy women; I will not hinder them. They can find shelter in Selsea or Chichester—a nun has always friends and a house—if Redwald will see them safely to the door," Egil said very kindly.
Then he bade the men get out the boat, which was a good one, and fitted for carrying cargo from ship to shore. Two of Bertric's men were to go ashore with me and the nuns, taking messages also to the Bosham folk of what had befallen the ship.
"You will scare the wife if you say you have fallen into the hands of the Danes," Egil said laughing at the shipmaster.
"It is the truth," Bertric said stoutly. "'Tis the doing of yon cat."
"You shall come to no harm with us, and your ship shall come back to Bosham shortly. We have no war with your earl, and all will be well. Tell them, therefore, that it is thus. King Cnut is generous to all who fight not against him."
When I heard that I began to see why our people went over to his side so readily, and it seemed to me that he was fighting not only with sword, but also with policy.
"Now call your nuns, father," Egil said.
"May I have one word with Redwald first?" the abbot asked.
"Tell him what you will," Egil answered, and went forward.
He called one of the priests and told him to bid the three nuns come forth.
Then Elfric said to me:
"Two of these women are nuns, the third, she who stood by you so well even now—saving your life, moreover—is not. She is the orphan daughter of a thane, whom her guardians begged me to take to Normandy, finding her a place in the queen's household or in some convent, if that might not be. She is friendless. But I think she may as well go with the nuns to Selsea. Bid her wait there till she hears from me—unless some lady will take pity on her and give her shelter."
"She will be more likely to take the vows, as have so many maidens of today who are in her case," I said. "I will do all for the nuns and her that I can."
The three sisters came out now. Two were weeping, and they were the nuns. The third was flushed and looked troubled, and she cast a glance back into the dark cabin. I heard the queen's voice speaking fast to her, as it would seem, and she shrank away as if dreading it.
Elfric went to meet them, and then the queen herself came through the cabin door stooping, for it was not high.
"This is your doing," she said to the abbot. "Am I to be left without any attendants?"
"My queen," the good man said, "we can take the sisters no further with us. They must go ashore."
The queen looked at the coast, which was plain enough now. It was certain that she had no knowledge that we were returning to England. That the ship was on another tack meant nothing to her.
"Why cannot they bide here and go on land with me? We cannot be more than an hour in reaching the harbour," and she pointed to Selsea.
"Tell her, father, I pray you," said the maiden in a low voice. "She believes that we are even now nearing her home."
Then I thought that this might come more easily from myself, seeing that Elfric had to stay with her, and I stood before her, and spoke.
"My Queen, that is not the Norman shore which you see. The Danes, into whose hands we have fallen, are taking us back to England."
As I said this, the queen's face grew white with rage, and she looked from Elfric to me, speechless. On the deck above stood Egil, and he caught my eye, and looked ruefully at us.
"What!" she said, "has Cnut bought you also? Is there no man whom I can trust?"
That was the most cruel thing that she could have said, but I knew what despair might lie behind her anger, and I answered nothing—nor did Elfric. We waited for the storm to pass.
"Ill it was that Ethelred trusted me to your hands—" she began again.
But there was one who would not bear this. The friendless maiden spoke plainly for us.
"Queen," she said, "I have borne your reproaches to myself in silence, but I cannot bear that these brave servants of yours should be blamed. Look at the abbot's torn and dusty robes, look at the thane's care-worn face—are they in the plight of men who are bribed?"
But the queen made no answer, and her face was like stone as she looked on none of us, gazing straight before her.
"What lies on yonder deck?" the girl went on, pointing to where the two bodies lay under their covering. "It is the thane's sword and risk of life that stayed them from laying hands on you. Does a bought man slay his buyers?"
Still the queen was silent, and then I said:
"I think that you misjudge us, my queen. Had we wished to betray you it would have been long ere this that the Danes would have been summoned to take you."
I do not think that she heard me, and I am glad, for I spoke in anger. I saw her lean against the bulkhead, and her hand sought her heart, and she reeled a little. The maiden sprang forward to support her, for it seemed as if she would fall. But she recovered in a moment, and shook herself free of the girl's clasp.
"I am wrong, good friends," she said. "Now I know from what you have shielded me all this long journey through. What will they do with me?"
And she began to weep silently, yet she would not let the maiden touch her.
Elfric spoke then in his gentle voice.
"We cannot blame you, my queen, for the blow is heavy; yet the chief who has taken us is a true warrior and kindly, you need fear nought."
Then came Egil from the fore deck, and bowed to the queen, and said:
"I must take you to Cnut the king, lady; and his commands are that you are to be treated as becomes the sister of Duke Richard. I am here to see that it is so."
Then the queen's mood changed, and she was once more herself.
"You shall answer to my brother for all you do," she said in her proud way.
"I have to answer to Jarl Thorkel and to King Cnut," Egil said simply. "The duke is no lord of mine."
Thereat the queen paid no sort of heed to him, but spoke to me.
"I will tell my brother hereafter of your great care for me, my thane. Why must you leave me now?"
Surely I should have asked Egil to let me stay, but he knew best what was safe for me.
"I will not take either thane or nuns, lady," he said. "They must leave you even now; time is short."
She glanced coldly at the chief, and answered him by speaking to me. She had brought herself now to see that she was powerless.
"Then I must say farewell, Redwald. In better days I will not forget your service," and then she smiled a little, and gave me her hand to kiss as I knelt before her, adding: "I think that I have been an ill-natured travelling companion at times."
Then she turned away quickly and sought the cabin. But she said no word to the maiden who had made the journey lighter to her, and I saw that this grieved her sorely.
Now I took hasty leave of Elfric and the athelings, and sad was I at parting with them. But I told Eadward that Egil was worthy of his charge, and a generous foe.
"You will not blame me that this matter has failed even at the last, my prince," I said.
"Not I, Redwald, good friend; you and I will laugh over it at some time hereafter," the atheling said.
I shook my head.
"It has been waste trouble and pains," I said sorrowfully.
"That it has not been," quoth Elfric. "No duty well and truly done is lost in the end, though it may seem to be so at the time. I shall remember my guardian in this journey all my life long, and the queen shall remember presently. You have been most patient. Lose not patience now. Be of good cheer rather that things are none so ill as they might be."
So the good man strove to hearten me, for I thought meanly enough of myself at that time, because I had been so certain that all was well, and now my pride was humbled. Maybe it was good for me that this should be so, but good things are passing bitter if all are like this. Lastly, he gave me his blessing, and I joined the sisters in the boat, and she was cast off, while at that moment the black kitten came to the rail and leapt in after us, which I liked not at all.
Then the great ship slipped away, her helm went down, and she headed away out to sea to escape a meeting with Godwine's vessels that had now gone about for the shore again, beating to windward for Bosham. As she passed us I saw the abbot and Eadward wave to us from the fore deck, and Egil lifted his hand in salute from beside Bertric at the helm.
Then they were gone beyond our reach, and we could no longer make them out. Our rowers were bending to their oars, and the boat was making good way enough, shoreward.
I do not know how I can say enough of Egil's friendliness to me, for I found my armour on the floor of the boat alongside the few things the poor women had. Helm and shield and axe too were there. He was as one of the heroes, of whom Ottar sang, in his way to me. Then I grew light hearted in that strange way that comes after long strain of fearing the worst, when the worst is known and it is not so terrible after all. I had no fear for the queen, and I was free, and going to Godwine and his father who were my friends. Also I should see Penhurst and Relf again, most likely.
Now when that memory came to me, suddenly I thought that I must see Sexberga. And it was strange to me that I had no pleasure in that thought. Most of all I hoped that Olaf would put in at Pevensea on his way to Normandy. It was likely enough.
So I sat and pondered, not sadly, but looking forward ever, and, as I say, feeling that a load was lifted from me. Then at last my thoughts came back from myself, and I turned to the sisters and told them that the queen was safe, if a prisoner. They need not grieve for her. The two nuns wept, but the thane's daughter smiled a little, and said, fondling the cat meanwhile on her lap:
"In truth, I think that the queen will be happier in making Egil and his Danes obey her in little services than she has been in having to be guided by yourself and the abbot."
"It has been hard for her," I answered; "but she owes you much, as I think."
"She hates me," the girl said, half tearfully, "because I was the only one who dared speak plainly to her."
"Elfric and I owe you much, Sister Sexberga," said I, naming her as I had thought of her through all the journey, because I recalled so many times when we had looked to her for help in persuading the queen to common sense,
She looked astonished at this, and smiled oddly, and then I saw what I had done.
"Forgive me," I said hastily; "I know not your name. That is what I ever called you to myself when I had to think of you in ordering matters."
"Why 'Sexberga'?" she said, looking out seawards.
"Truly I thought you like a lady of that name whom I knew. But now the likeness is gone," I said.
"Maybe I ought to be proud thereof," she said coldly enough.
"I will not say that," I answered. "Let me know your name that I may remember it."
"My name is Uldra," she said, without looking at me, and flushing a little, and then busying herself with the kitten's ears.
"That is a Norse name, lady," said I.
"Aye—and a heathen one. But it is the best I have."
Then I said, feeling that I could not say aright what I would:
"Lady Uldra, I have to thank you for saving my life today. Yours was a brave deed."
She shivered a little, at the thought of what she had done, as I think, for the heat of anger had gone.
"I am glad I was of use," she answered. "What are we to do when we come to land?"
"I will take you and the sisters to the great nunnery that good St. Wilfrith founded. There you will be welcomed."
So I said, but as I looked at her I thought what a prison the nunnery would be to such a maiden as this. Yet it was all that could be done.
"That will be peaceful," she said, but the tears seemed close at hand.
Now one of the men spoke to the other, looking back over his shoulder at him, and then when he was answered he turned to me.
"Master," he said, "tide serves ill for Selsea, and it will be easy for us to go straight up the haven to Bosham. The flood tide is strong in with us. May we do so?"
"Is there any nunnery there?" I asked.
"Why, yes, master—a little one."
There too was Wulfnoth's great house, where I should be welcome, as I knew. So I asked the sisters if this would suit them.
"One place is as another to us," they replied.
So we went on up the haven, and it was a long pull, so that it was late in the afternoon when we came in sight of the town.
Now I had said no more to Uldra about ourselves—save for a few words concerning sea and tides and the like—but had tried to cheer her, and myself also, by speaking of how Cnut would treat the queen—namely, that it was most likely to be in high honour, lest the duke should fall on him.
But as we sighted our journey's end, I bethought myself.
"Lady," I said, "is there aught that I can do for you in sending messages to your folk? There will be chapmen and the like going Londonwards shortly, when the siege is over."
"I have no friends there," she said.
"You shall bid me do what you will for you when I am free to go to our king again," said I. "There will be some who would know where you are and how you fare."
She thanked me, saying nothing but that when the time came, if I yet remembered her and would ask her, she might give me messages for those at Peterborough whom she had left, and I promised to do all I could in bearing them.
"I cannot forget the maiden who saved my life," I said.
She made no answer, and the boat shot alongside the little wharf, where a crowd was gathering quickly to see us come. Many questions there were when Bertric's men were known.
There was a kindly-looking monk among his people, and I went to him, and brought him to the nuns where they and Uldra stood apart by themselves, while the two men were busy with their folk.
"Pax vobiscum," he said; "you shall be welcome, my sisters, at our little nunnery for tonight. Then will we ask the bishop on the morrow what you had better do."
Then they were eager to go with him, and I bade them farewell, bowing, and they turned away. They might say nothing, according to their rule, Elfric told me, save in need.
Neither did Uldra speak, though no vow of silence was on her, but she went with them for a little way. I was rather hurt at this, and began to go back to the boat, wondering that she had no word of farewell.
"Redwald—thane," came a gentle call in her voice, and I turned sharply.
She was close to me, and the sisters were waiting for her twenty paces or so away.
"Farewell," she said. "I could but thank you for all your care for us."
"It has been freely given, lady," I said. "I only grieve that the journey has ended thus. May it be well with you."
"I will pray for you, thane, day and night in the nunnery that it may be so with you," she answered, with a little sort of choking. "The gratitude of us helpless women to you for your long patience is more than we can say."
Then she went swiftly back to the nuns, and they went their way. I thought that I had not deserved so much. And of this I was sure, that had not the sisters' dress kept me far from Uldra, I had forgotten Hertha in her company. Then thought I that there was no reason why I should remember Hertha any longer. And next, that it were better that I should think of no maiden at all, at this time.
Which last seemed wisest, and so I grew discontented, and went down to the boat and bade the men take my arms and few belongings to Earl Wulfnoth's house.
When I came there the steward knew me, and made me very welcome. The earl was at Pevensea or Shoreham, but Godwine was in and out of the haven, and would be here ere long. So they told me, and set a good meal before me. And when I had eaten I lay down on a settle and slept the long sleep that comes to one wearied in mind and body alike. If the house had burnt over my head I should not have waked, for others watched now, and I had no need to wake for aught.
A man knows those things in his sleep, I verily believe. One ill dream I had, and that was of Bertric's unlucky kitten, which seemed to be the queen in some uncanny way. Sometimes I wonder what became of it. I never learned, but it brought me no more ill luck.
Chapter 12: Among Friends.
When I woke it was daylight again. A fire burnt on the hearth in the middle of the hall, and someone had spread a wolf-skin rug over me. I had not moved from sunset to sunrise, and I was refreshed and broad awake at once, wondering at first where I was, and who had laughed and woke me.
There was a youth sitting on a table's edge by the wall over against where I lay, and a big broad-shouldered man leant on it with folded arms beside him, and at first I stared at them till my thoughts came back, and they laughed at me again, and then I knew Godwine and Relf the thane, who had but just come up from their ship to find me.
"On my word," said Godwine, "here is a man who could teach one how to sleep! We have sat here and talked about you for ten minutes or more."
"Redwald sleeps as though he had lost time to make up," said Relf. "Welcome back to us, anyway."
"Aye—welcome you are," said Godwine warmly, "but how did you come here?"
I got up and took their hands, rejoicing to see them. It was good to be among friends again after the long watching and many dangers. Then came the steward followed by his men with a mighty breakfast, and as he set the tables on the high place, Godwine's men trooped in. They had had to wait for the morning tide into the haven, and the ship was just berthed.
"Food first," Relf advised. "Then shall Redwald tell us all he knows."
So by and by we sat in the morning sunlight in the courtyard, and I told them all that had happened from beginning to end. They knew no more than that Ethelred was dead, and that Cnut was besieging London.
"We tried to chase those Danes because they had got our man's ship," said Godwine. "When we got near enough, for they came down wind and passed us before long, we found that Bertric was contented enough, running up his own flag, and the Danes did not stay to fight. So we came home, only losing our tide by the delay."
"What would you have done had you known that the queen was on board, and a prisoner?" I asked.
"Why, nothing more than we have done," Godwine said. "My father hates Emma the cat as bitterly as he does Streone the fox, which is saying a good deal. The cat's claws are clipped now, maybe."
Well, I knew this, and said nothing. One could expect no more from Earl Wulfnoth's son. Nor do I think that any loved Emma the queen much. One may know how a person is thought of by the way in which folk name them often enough, and though our king would have had his young wife called by her English name, Elfgiva, none ever did so. Her Norman, foreign name was all we used. If she had been loved, we should have rejoiced to name her in our own way.
Then Godwine said:
"You have had an ill time with Emma, as I think, if she is all that my father says."
"Nay, Godwine," said Relf, "Redwald will not bear much of this. He is the queen's faithful servant, and will have nought against her, and he is right."
"So he is, and I am wrong," said the lad at once. "Forgive me, friend; I did not think."
Then I laughed, and turned it off. Godwine was only too right, but I could not say so. Now, however, I may say that the memory of Emma the queen's ways is to me as a nightmare.
"I would that I could meet with this Egil," Godwine said as I gave him sword Foe's Bane to handle; and then he forgot all else in the beauty of the weapon.
"What have you done with the brave maiden?" Relf asked me now.
"She is in the nunnery here," I said. "She is friendless, having no folk of her own nearer than Peterborough."
"That is far off," said Relf, and began to think, twisting his beard as was his wont when pondering somewhat weighty.
Now, before he had made up his mind to say any more, Godwine was ready to hear about the winning back of the sword, and of the fights in Ulfkytel's land, and then a man came from the ships with some business, and he went away with him. And by that time Relf had somewhat to say.
"Penhurst is a lonesome place, and it will be worse for my wife when Sexberga is gone," he said musingly.
"Why, where is your daughter going?" I asked him.
He looked at me sidewise for a moment, and I thought that his face fell a little. Then he said:
"Going to be wedded shortly."
"That is well," I said. "To whom?"
Then the thane turned fairly round on me with wide eyes, and a blank fear fell on me that he meant that I was to wed her. Yet surely the lady had told him that I was betrothed.
"Ho!" he said; "did you not know that? Methought everyone did."
That was worse, and I knew not what he looked for from me.
"I have been away; I have heard nought," I answered lamely enough.
"Oh, aye; so you have," he said. "Truly, I forgot that. We quiet people fancy that all the world knows our affairs. And it was in my mind that you had a tenderness that way yourself. I knew not how you would take it."
Then we both laughed, but it was not a hearty laughter, for each feared the other a little, as it seemed.
"I am glad for Sexberga, if she is happy," said I.
"Why, now, that is well," said Relf. "I had thought that I must break this matter gently to you."
"Maybe you would have had to do so had I bided at Penhurst much longer," said I truly enough.
"All the same, Redwald, I wish it were you, on my faith," said the thane, growing red in his earnestness.
"Thanks therefor," said I. "It is good to hear you say so; but I am a landless warrior in bad luck, and so it is better as it is. Who is the man of Sexberga's choice?"
"Eldred of Dallington," said he. "A good youth enough, and with lands enough. He has never seen a fight, though," and then he turned on me suddenly, putting his hand on mine. "I could have sworn, lad, that you were fond of the girl. Tell me if it is so, and Eldred shall go down the wind like a strayed hawk, for all I care."
I shook my head, but it came over me for a moment that I wished I might recall the wandering fancies of the winter days in Penhurst—but that passed, and I was lonely in heart.
"Nay, thane, that is not so. My sword here is all that I love next to my king and Olaf my cousin—and Relf the thane. I have no love for any maiden, nor could Sexberga think twice of me."
"If you had bided a little longer. Well, then, no hearts are broken, or so much as awry, and that is well. So, as I was saying, Penhurst will be lonely directly, and already I love this maiden with the outland name for saving you. How would she take it if we gave her shelter with us? I am going back home in a day or two, and you must come with me."
The good thane spoke fast, being easier in his mind, as it seemed, on one point, and not willing to make any show of generosity on the other.
"That is a kind thought of yours," I said, being very glad, and not less so that I could not help rejoicing that I should see more of Uldra.
"I wonder what my wife would say?" he said thoughtfully.
"If I know aught of her kindness, and I think that I have proved it well," answered I, "she will be glad to help this orphan maiden."
"Let us go and see her, and ask her to come, therefore," said Relf, rising up. "I want to thank her, moreover, for saving you."
I was nowise loath, and so we went along under the trees towards the nunnery. And as we went Relf talked of Eldred, the Thane of Dallington, and the wedding that was to come. And all the while I believe that he was troubling about two things that were mixed in his mind—fear that I was set aside by Sexberga, and a wish that I had been the bridegroom.
Then we knocked on the great door, and he was silent until a sister looked through the little barred square wicket in the midst of it.
"We would speak with the Lady Uldra," I said. "I am the thane who brought her ashore."
The sister said nought, but shut the wicket door, and left us. We heard her steps retreating across the little courtyard, and she shut a door after her somewhere else. Then all was quiet.
"What does that mean?" Relf said.
"That we have to wait," said I "that is all. It is the way in which they treat folk at these places. They would do the same if the queen came. She has gone to her Superior."
"What would Emma say?" chuckled Relf, looking slyly at me.
"One cannot say much to an iron-barred oak door."
"But there are thanes and such-like left outside," he said, laughing more yet. "Now Godwine is not here, I dare say that you have felt, more than once, the queen's tongue for nought."
"I will deny it," said I, "to anyone but Elfric the abbot," whereat he laughed till the tears came into his eyes. He had known our queen in the old days before Streone's treachery.
I was glad that the wicket flew open again. Relf stayed his laughter in a moment, and became very grave.
"What would she say now?" he whispered.
"Enough," I said, for the sister, having seen that we waited, unbarred the gate and let us in. Then she pointed to a door on our right, and went away.
I took Relf's arm and led him to this door—for he was going to follow the sister—and we opened it. It led into a small high-roofed chamber, that had a great crucifix painted in bright colours on the east wall, and pictured legends on the rest, between high narrow windows.
But there stood Uldra, no longer in convent dress, but in some robe of dark blue and crimson that became her well, so that at first I hardly knew her, for now for the first time I saw her bright brown hair that the novice's hood had hidden from me. I could not say that Uldra was fair as Sexberga to look on, but, as ever, I thought that her face was the sweetest that I had seen in all my life.
I was a little abashed before this grave and stately maiden, who was the same, and yet not the same, as she who had been through so much danger and trial with me, and I could not find a word to say at first. Nor could she, as it seemed, and so we looked at one another until she smiled. It was only for a moment, however, for when her face lighted up thus, Relf found his voice and spoke.
"I have come to thank you, lady, for saving my comrade's life yesterday," he said, taking her hand and kissing it. "I had lost a good friend but for you, he tells me."
"But for the thane, your friend, I know not what would have become of us," she answered. "The thanks are from me to him, rather."
"Yet I think that I owe you somewhat," Relf said, "and now I am minded to try to show that I would thank you in deed, and not in word only."
He paused, and Uldra looked at me as if asking if I could throw any light on this stranger's meaning.
"Relf, the Thane of Penhurst, is he who gave me shelter and care when I was hurt in a fight and a flood last winter," I said. "He has indeed been a good friend to me."
"Not I," said Relf; "you fought for me. It was my wife and Sexberga, my daughter, who tended you."
Now at that name, which she already knew, the maiden looked quickly away from me, and a little flush began to creep up into her face, with pleasure as it would seem.
"I have heard of your daughter Sexberga already," she said to Relf with a little smile.
"Why, that is well," he said. "Now, after her wedding my wife will be sorely lost for want of a companion, and I would ask you to come home to Penhurst with us, and bide there until you may seek your friends again—or as long as you wish. And glad shall we be of your help at the wedding feast."
So he spoke cheerfully, trying to make all the honour come from her, as kindness to himself and his wife. But though the tears came into Uldra's eyes at the good thane's plain meaning, she was silent yet, save that she said:
"I know not how to thank you for your goodwill to me."
"Nay," he said; "but my wife will blame me if you come not. 'Here,' she will say, 'is the companion whom I needed, and a friend of our Redwald's, moreover, and you have not brought her.' I pray you, come with us. Do you ask her, Redwald; I am rough, and you are courtly."
Then I said:
"Lady, this is all that Elfric would wish for you. I cannot tell you of the great kindness that is waiting for you in the thane's home."
And for answer she turned away and began to weep, and Relf could bear that not at all, and he went to her and put his arm round her, as he would have done to Sexberga, and tried to reassure her.
"Why," he said, "here is nought to weep about, maiden. Maybe we are homely people, but I think that you may learn to be happier in freedom with us than here. Nay, but weep not so bitterly, you shall be as our daughter to us if you will, for Redwald's life's sake. Aye, you shall have Sexberga's own chamber and all that—"
But still Uldra wept, and I was unhappy to see her do so. This could not be all for sudden relief from doubt as I had thought at first.
Then she took herself gently from the thane's arm, and dried her eyes, and clasped her hands tightly before her, and said:
"I cannot say how I thank you; but I must bide here."
"This is a cold place," said the thane. "It is no home for you."
"I think it will be so in the end," she said very sadly.
And I tried hard to think of somewhat to say that might persuade her, but there was that meaning in her voice that seemed to stay whatever came to me. I thought that she had made up her mind to take the veil, and there are few things that will turn a maiden from that when once she has chosen it.
Then said Relf:
"Maybe I ask you too suddenly, lady. Let us leave it till tomorrow, and I pray you think with all kindness of the matter, for I shall be sorely grieved if you will not come."
And I said the same as well as I could, but though she promised to give her answer in the morning, it was plain to me that it would be even as she said now.
Then we took our leave of her, and found our way out of the place, somewhat down-hearted. The door was bolted after us, though I do not know who did it, or whence the portress watched our going. And it was dismal to hear the great bars jarring in their sockets.
"Poor maid," said Relf. "Why does she choose such a prison?"
"Those dismal nuns have talked her into it," said I angrily.
"Maybe. It is a way they have," the thane said. "'Come in here!' said the rat in the trap to the rat outside, 'one is safe from the cat behind these bars.'"
So we walked on for a little, and then he said:
"How did she hear of Sexberga? I thought you had had no speech with her on the journey."
"Nor had I," I answered. "I thought she was another silent nun. But I thought she was like Sexberga, and so I called her Sister Sexberga to myself, giving her a name in my thoughts. Then in the boat it slipped out unawares when I had to speak to her, and she asked to be told why I called her so."
"As much like Sexberga as you are like Godwine, which is not at all," said Relf laughing. "Was she pleased?"
"Why, I think not," I answered.
"How much more about Sexberga did you tell her?" he asked.
"Nothing, there was no need."
Then Relf began to chuckle to himself, and I could not tell why. But presently he said:
"Did you give the sisters names likewise?"
"Yes, I did. I do not think I should have cared to say what they were," I answered, laughing also.
He said no more about this, and we came to the hall, and then went to find Godwine at the ships. But I could not but feel disappointed that Uldra would not come with us. And that was not all for her own sake, as I found when I came to turn over my thoughts a little. I would fain see more of the maiden who had borne peril so well, and had stood so bravely at my side.
Now when Godwine heard how our errand had failed, he laughed at Relf's downcast looks and said, scanning my weatherbeaten and forest-worn garments:
"Maidens love to see warriors go in bright array. She is tired of those old weeds of Redwald's. We must fit him out afresh in the morning, and then she will listen maybe."
He was so pleased with this boyish wisdom of his own, being fully persuaded that he was right, that he and I must ride together to Chichester with morning light, and find new gear for me.
"We roll in riches since you fell into the pit," he said, when I would pay for what I had with my last piece of gold. "And you must keep that one; there are more due to you yet as I think."
Nor would he be denied in this, and it is not a warrior's part to take an earl's gifts grudgingly. And when I fairly shone in bright array from head to foot, he must needs add a wonderful round brooch, silver and gold wrought, with crimson garnets at the ends and in the spaces of the arms of a cross of inlaid pearl and enamel, such as one seldom sees.
"It is a Kentish brooch," he said, "so shall men know that you are a friend of the earls of Kent and Sussex."
That was an earl's giving indeed, but Godwine is ever open handed, and I am not alone in learning how he will give.
"Now we must go back, and you shall seek this damsel again since old Relf is so set thereon. As for you, it is likely that you have had trouble enough with her already, and will care little if she will not come," he said, and looked me over from head to foot as we stood outside the chapman's house in the wide place where the four roads cross in Chichester town.
"My faith!" he added, "I believe that even Emma the Cat would mind what you told her now!"
"Lord earl," said I, "you will make me vain."
"Earl, forsooth!" he cried, "the clothes have made you mighty courtly all at once. Godwine and Redwald are going back to Bosham, and the earl bides at Chichester Cross—mind you that!"
And he swung himself on his horse laughing, and we rode away, while the people shouted, for they had gathered in twos and threes to look on him.
Now when we came back to the great house, there was Relf sitting on the bench where we had sat yesterday, and he looked as if he had had good news.
"Now, thane," said Godwine, "here is a new messenger to your sorrowful damsel."
Relf stared at me and laughed, and when I got off my horse Godwine would have us go at once. So Relf took my arm and we went, while the young earl joked us till we were out of hearing.
"Now," said the thane, "we will not spoil the earl's jest, but must even let him think that all has been his doing thus."
"Why, he will see us start for Penhurst, and if Uldra is not there—"
"Aye, but she will be. She is coming gladly," Relf said.
"How is this?" I asked.
"Just that I have been to see the maiden while you were gone, and I spoke to her as to a daughter, and so she is coming."
"You would not wait for me, then?" I said, being glad that he had managed without me, as things had turned out.
"Methought I could do better alone. The girl would say more to me than if you were there, perhaps. Moreover, I had a notion why she would not come, and I wanted to ask her if I was right. And I was."
"I thought of that," said I; "she was in the same plight as myself until Godwine decked me out thus. Women think more of their attire than we."
The thane chuckled in his quiet way.
"Why, perhaps that had somewhat to do with it, but I did not ask her, I forgot. But I did tell the old Lady Superior to do so, and gave her withal to care for the maiden."
Then I said:
"It is well that you persuaded her; maybe I should have been in the way. I should have lost my tongue again, I think."
"Well, yes," said Relf, still laughing to himself, "it was you who were in the way; however, as you say, all is well, and she rides with us tomorrow. We will go and find a mule or a good forest pony for her, and so tell Godwine that the clothes have done it."
Now I never thought that there was anything more behind the thane's words, for of all things that had made my soul weary in these last weeks the complaints of Emma the queen about her dress had been the worst. So this seemed to me to be quite enough to explain Uldra's first refusal, and though I believe that Relf had been on the point of telling me more, he forbore, and let this suffice.
Relf knew where to look for a beast, and we soon had a good bay pony, that was quiet enough and strong, sent to Godwine's stables. And then Relf told the earl what he had done.
"Then I was right," said Godwine gleefully. "I will warrant that you two wise heads would never have thought thereof."
"Are you coming with us?" I asked him, for I did not care to have to find answers to many questions about our speech with Uldra, as things were.
"I am coming by sea presently with two ships," he said. "I shall wait till Bertric comes back, and so maybe shall have news of your queen to tell you. He should not be long. Relf goes back for the early hay time, he says, but I believe that he is tired of the sea."
"I am no sailor, lord," the thane said.
"As any of my crew will tell you," Godwine said merrily.
"Never, Redwald, was any man so undone as Relf when there is a little sea on. A common forest deer thief could tie him up."
"I should have thanked one for slaying me at times," said Relf grimly. "I prefer solid ground to shifty deck planks."
So whether it was love of home or loathing of sea that took him back to Penhurst, Relf and I left Godwine on the next morning; and at the nunnery door waited Uldra, looking bright and cheerful and greeting us gladly as we came. And it seemed to me that her troubles had passed from her, and that she was indeed glad to be leaving the walls of the place that was so prison-like.
Now that was a fair and pleasant ride over the Downs and among the forest paths through Sussex, and I look back on it as the brightest time that I had had in all the long years of trouble. The joy of going back to my old home at Bures had been clouded with the knowledge of loss, and with the sight of the trail of war. But here were none of these things.
We rode with twenty housecarles of Relf's behind us, and it was a new thing to me that I should see the wayside folk run out into the trackway to see us pass; that the farm thralls in the fields should but rise up, straightening stiffened backs and laughing, and stay their work for a moment to watch us; that no man who met us should ask with anxious face, "What news of the Danes?"
New it was, and most pleasant to Uldra also, for she had come through all the harried land, where the click of steel or the glint of armour had bidden the poor folk fly in terror, so that one rode through silent and deserted villages, and past farms where nought but the dogs told of life about the place. And that was what I had seen over all England since Swein of Denmark landed, so long ago. Men will hardly believe it now. Relf could hardly believe us as we told him. Yet today, were I to ride into an East Saxon village shouting "The Danes!" there are men who would cast down tools and all else that they were busied with, and clutch at the weapons that rust on the wall before thought could come to them. For the terror of these years cannot pass from England yet while any man is alive who knew it.
Now there was another pleasure for me, and that was to watch Uldra growing brighter and happier day by day. It was wonderful to me to see this, and with me she was ever frank and open, never wearying of speaking of our former journey and its troubles, for we could smile at them now. And Relf grew very fond of her in those few days, as one might see. Nor do I know how anyone could help doing so. Even the rough housecarles would watch for a chance of doing some little service for her.
And yet, as I have said, Uldra was not the fairest maiden that I had seen. Men are apt to think that the fairest must ever be the best, and a man learns that it is not so only by degrees, maybe. And when I looked on Uldra's face it began to seem to me the best that could be, and ever to me it would seem that I knew it well. For some look of hers that should be new to me was not new—I had expected it in some way, and should have wondered not to see it cross her face. And so in gesture and in word also. So that she seemed already well known to me, and why this was I could not say, and at times it troubled me as puzzling things will. But, all the same, I loved to find myself so puzzled.