Full Text Archive logoFull Text Archive — Free Classic E-books

A Thane of Wessex by Charles W. Whistler

Part 2 out of 4

Adobe PDF icon
Download this document as a .pdf
File size: 0.4 MB
What's this? light bulb idea Many people prefer to read off-line or to print out text and read from the real printed page. Others want to carry documents around with them on their mobile phones and read while they are on the move. We have created .pdf files of all out documents to accommodate all these groups of people. We recommend that you download .pdfs onto your mobile phone when it is connected to a WiFi connection for reading off-line.

CHAPTER VI. IN THE WOLF'S DEN.

There was only one man near it, and he sat on the settle inside, so that
he could see out and in as he wished. Him I knew at once, and was glad,
for it was that old warrior who had showed some liking for me at Brent.

He got up slowly as he saw a stranger stand in the gateway and came out
towards me. Then he started a little and frowned.

"Rash--master, rash," he said, but not loudly. "This is no safe place
for you," and he motioned me to fly.

Then I beckoned him out a little further and showed him what I bore in
my hand. And he was fairly amazed and knew not what to say, that I, an
outlaw, should have been sent on this errand, and more, that I should
have come.

I told him, speaking quickly and shortly, how it had come about, and he
understood that the man who gave me the arrow neither knew nor believed me.

"Master," he said, when I had done, "verily I believe that you are true,
and wronged by him I have served this past two months. But of this I
know not for certain, being a stranger here and little knowing of place
or people. But this I know, from the man you sent back, that our thane
sought your life against the word of the ealdorman, and, moreover,
believes that you are dead. But by the arms you wear I can learn how
that matter really went. Now, give me the arrow, and I will see to this
--do you fly."

But I was bent on ending the errand, and said I would carry out the
task, as was my duty, to the end. I would put the arrow with its message
into Matelgar's hand, and bide what might come.

He tried to dissuade me, but at last said that he would not stand by and
see me harmed, and for that I thanked him.

"Well then," he told me, "you have come in a good hour. Most of the men
have gone out here and there to spy what they may of the Danes and their
plans--if gone or not. Others are in the stables, and but one man sits
at the door of the great hall, and he is of no account."

"Where is Matelgar?" I asked.

"I know not exactly; but do as I say and all will be well."

Then I said that his advice had saved me, I thought, when before the
Moot, and I would follow it here.

"Then," he went on, "come you to the hall door and bide there while I go
in and call the thane thither. He will stay by his great chair to hear
your message, and I will stand by the man who keeps the door. Then, when
you have given up the arrow, tarry not, but come out at once, and get
out of this gate, lest he should raise some alarm. Then must you take to
the woods quickly."

So he turned and went in before me. There were some twenty yards of
courtyard to be crossed before we came to the great timber-built hall,
round which the other buildings clustered inside the palisades. But
there were no men about, though I could hear them whistling at their
morning's work in the stables, for the idle time of the day was yet to
come. Only a boy crossed from one side to the other on some errand,
behind us, and paid no attention beyond pausing a little to stare, as I
could judge by his footsteps. At any other time I should not have
noticed even that, but now that I was in the very jaws of the wolf, as
it were, I saw and heard everything. And all the while my heart beat
fast--but that was not from fear, but for thinking I might by chance
see Alswythe.

Yet I will say it truly, that thought of her had no share in bringing me
on this mad errand, which might have ending in such fashion as would
break her heart.

One man, as my guide had said, sat just inside the hall, but I knew him
not. Since he had my hall and his own to tend, Matelgar must have hired
more and new housecarles. This man was trimming a bow at the hearth, and
did not rise, seeing that, whoever I might be, I was brought in by his
comrade. The great hall looked wide and empty, for the long tables were
cleared away, and only the settle by the hearth in the centre remained,
beside the thane's own carved seat on the dais at the far end.

"Bide by the fire till he comes," said my guide, seeing that the man did
not know me, and leaving me there, he went through a door beyond the
thane's chair to seek him.

So I stood where the smoke rose between me and that door, waiting and
warming my hands quietly, and as unconcernedly to all seeing as I could.

"Ho, friend," said the man, so suddenly that he made me start; "look at
your sword hilt before the thane comes," and he pointed and grinned.

Sure enough, my sword hilt was not fastened to the sheath as it should
be in a peaceful hall, but the thong hung loose, as if ready for me to
thrust wrist through before drawing the blade. So I grinned back,
without a word, lest Matelgar should hear my voice and know it, and
began to pretend to knot the thong round the scabbard. All the same, I
was not going to fasten it so that I could not draw if need were, and
only kept on plaiting and twisting.

Then I heard Matelgar's voice and footstep, and I desisted, and, taking
the arrow from my belt, stood up and ready.

He came in, looking round, but not seeing me at first through the blue
smoke, for as I knew he would, he entered by the door through which my
guide had gone just now. So I waited till he stood with his hand on his
chair, while the old warrior came down towards me.

Then I strode forward boldly up to the foot of the dais, and looking
steadily a Matelgar, cast the arrow at his feet, saying:

"In the king's name. The levy is at Bridgwater Cross. In all haste."

He threw up his hands as one too terrified to draw sword--who would
ward off some sudden terror--giving back a pace or two, and staring at
me with wild eyes. His face grew white as milk, and drawn, and his
breath went in between his teeth with a long hissing sound. But he spoke
no word, and as he stood there, I turned and walked out into the
courtyard and to the gate, going steadily and without looking round,
like a man who has nothing either to keep or hurry him.

Three grooms, whom I knew, stood with an unbridled horse on one side,
but they were busy and minded me not till I was just at the gate.

Then one said to the other, "Yonder goes Heregar, as I live!"

Then there came a cry like a howl of rage from the hall, but no word of
command as yet, nor did either housecarle come out that I could hear.

Then I was at the gate, and as I passed it, turning sharp to the right,
for that was the nearest way to the woods, I heard one running across
the court.

When I heard that, instead of keeping straight on, I doubled quickly
round the angle of the palisade. By the time I had turned it the man may
have been at the gate, and would think me vanished. But now I ran and
got to cover in a thicket close to the rear of the house. A bad place
enough, but I must chance it.

I could hear shouts now from the courtyard. I looked round for a way to
escape, but to reach the woods I had now a long bit of open ground to
cover, and was puzzled. Then overhead I heard a bird rustle, and I
looked up, and at once a thought came to me. The tree was an old,
gnarled ash, and the leaves on it were thick for the time of year.
Moreover, the branches were so large that surely in the fork I could
find a hiding place. And being so close to the hall, search would be
with little, if any, care.

So with a little difficulty I climbed up, and there, sure enough, found
the tree hollow in the fork, so that if I crouched down none could see
me from below, while, lying flat against a great branch, I could safely
see something of what might be on hand.

I was hardly sure of this when men began to spread here and there about
the place, but mostly going in the direction of the woods. I heard
Matelgar's voice, harsh and loud, promising reward to him who should
bring in the outlaw, dead or alive, and presently saw him stand clear of
the palisading, about a bowshot from me.

He was red enough now, but his hand played nervously with his sword
hilt, and once when men shouted in the wood, he clutched it. Clearly I
had terrified him, and if he deemed me, as it seemed, a ghost at first
sight, the token of the arrow had undeceived him, and little rest would
he have now, night or day, while I was yet at large.

So I laughed to myself, and watched him till he went back.

Presently the men straggled in, too. One party, having made a circle,
came close by me, and they were laughing and saying that the thane had
seen a ghost.

"Moreover," said another, "we saw him cross the court slowly enough, and
when we got to the gate--lo! he was gone."

Then one said that he had heard the like before, and their voices died
away as he told the story.

Soon after this the horns were blown to recall all the men, and I knew
that Matelgar must needs, even were it a ghost who brought the war
arrow, lead his following to the sheriff's levy.

Aye, and the following that should be mine as well. The message I had
brought should have been to me as a king's thane, and I myself should
have sent one to Matelgar to bid him come to the levy, even as he would
now send to the other lesser thanes and the franklins round about, in my
place. The men were running out even now, north and west and east, as I
thought of this in my bitterness, and I watched them, knowing well to
whom this one and that must go in each quarter.

This was hard to think of. Yet I had stood in Matelgar's presence, and
had him in my power for a minute, while I might have struck him down,
and had not done so. And all that long night in Sedgemoor I had promised
myself just such a moment, and had pictured him falling at my feet, my
revenge taken.

But how long ago that seemed. Truly I was like another man then. And
since that night there had been the wise counsel of the hermit, the
prattle of the child, the touch and voice of my loved one, the thought
of a true friend, and now the sore need of the country I loved. And, for
the sake of all those things, I do not wonder that, as I saw Matelgar
pale and tremble before me, the thought of slaying him never entered my
head.

I will not say that I was much conscious of all these things moulding my
conduct; but I know that since I took this message on me, and it seemed
to me that the prophecy was on its way to fulfilment, I had, as it were,
stood by to see another avenger then myself at work in a way that should
unfold itself presently--so sure was I that all would come out as the
hermit foretold. So it was with a sort of confidence, and a boy's love
of adventure, too, that I had run into danger thus, while now that I had
come off so well, my confidence was yet stronger. However, it would not
make me foolhardy, for my father was wont to tell me that one may only
trust to luck after all care taken to be well off without it.

Men came trooping in from the nearer houses and farms very soon, armed
and excited. Often some passed under me, not ten paces off, and then I
shrank down into the hollow. All spoke of the Danes as gone, but at last
one said he thought he could see them, away by Steepholme Island, half
an hour agone. Though it might be fancy, he added, for their ships were
very low, and hard to see if no sail were spread.

But from all I gathered, the Danes were over on the other coast, and out
of our way for the time at least.

Then I grew very stiff in the tree: but so many were about that I dared
not come down. They were, however, mostly gathered in the open in front
of the great gate, and only passers by came near me. It was some three
hours after noon before they gathered into ranks at last, and the roll
was called over by Matelgar himself, as he rode along the line fully armed.

When that was done, he put himself at the head, and they filed off up
the road towards Bridgwater. I remembered that, when I was quite little,
my father once had to call out a levy against the West Welsh, and then
there was great cheering as the men started. There was none now--only
the loud voice of the thane as he chided loiterers and those who seemed
to straggle.

I began to think of coming down when the last had gone, but a few men
from far off came running past to catch them up, and I kept still yet.
Then a great longing came upon me to join the levy and fight the Danes,
if fight there should be, and I began to plan to do it in some way, yet
could not see how to disguise myself, or think to whose company to
pretend to belong.

The place seemed very quiet after all the loud talk and shouting that
had been going on. My father's levy had had ale in casks, and food
brought out to them while they waited. But I had seen none of that here.
Maybe, however, it was in the courtyard, I thought, and this I might
see, if I climbed higher, above the palisading.

So I left my sword in the hollow, lest it should hamper me, and went up
a big branch until I could see over just enough to look across to the
great gate, which still stood open. Then I forgot all about that which
had made me curious, for I saw two figures in the gateway.

Alswythe stood there, talking with my friend, as I will call him ever,
the old housecarle, and no one else was near them.

My first thought was to come down and run to her; but I remembered that
I could but see one corner of the court, and that many more housecarles
might be at hand, and waited, not daring to take my eyes from Alswythe
lest I should lose her.

They were too far off for me to hear their voices, nor did they make
sign or movement that would let me guess that which they spoke of; but
presently the old man saluted, and Alswythe went out of the gate.

Then my heart leaped within me, for I thought, and rightly, that she
sought her bower in the wood. And so she passed close by me in going
there, and I must not speak or move for fear of terrifying her.

But when she had gone up the path, I looked round carefully once or
twice, and came down, and then, buckling on my sword again, looked
warily out of the thicket, and seeing that none was near, crossed the
open and followed her.

There I found her in her place as she had found me the other day, and
soon once more we were side by side on the old seat; and she was blaming
me, tenderly, for my rashness. Yet she knew not that it was I who had
brought the arrow, and her one fear was that I had joined those Danes.
And when I looked at her, I saw that she had been sorely troubled, and
this was the cause, for she said:

"I knew that you, my Heregar, would not fight against your own land, and
so they would surely slay you."

So will a woman see the truth of things often more clearly than a man.
For that the vikings might call on me to fight my Saxon kin had, till
last night, never crossed my mind, yet after Charnmouth fight it was
like enough.

Then she asked what brought me here, and I told her that, seeing the
burning of Watchet, I had a mind to join the levy, if I could, and so
fight both for country and for her. That was true enough as my thoughts
ran now--and surely I was not wrong in leaving out the story of the
errand with the war arrow, for that would have told her of her father's
lust for my destruction.

Then she wept lest I should fall, but being brave and thoughtful for my
honour, and for my winning back name and lands, bade me do so if I
could, cheering me with many fond and noble words, so that I wondered
that such a man as I could have won the love of such a woman as she.

Now the time was all too short for me to tarry long: but before I went,
Alswythe would bring me out food and drink that I might go well
strengthened and provided. And as I let her go back to the hall, I asked
her the name of that old warrior to whom she spoke, for it was he, I
told her, who had tried to help me before the Moot.

And then I was sorry I had told her that, for she might ask him of the
matter and hear more than was good for her peace of mind; but it was
done, and nothing could recall it.

Yet she did not notice it then, but said his name was Wulfhere, and that
he was a stranger from Glastonbury, as she thought, lately come into her
father's service. She was going then, and I asked her to let me have
speech with him, as I thought it safe, if he were to be trusted, for I
needed his advice in some things.

She said she would sound him first, not knowing how he had seen me
already, of course, and so went quickly away towards the hall.

What I needed the old man for was but to try to repair my slip of the
tongue, and warn him of my love's ignorance of her father's unfaith to
me; but as it fell out, it was well I asked to see him.

Presently he came to me. I had to slip into the bushes and lie quiet
till I knew who it was, and when I came out he smiled gravely at me,
shaking his head, yet as one not displeased altogether.

"Well managed, master," he said, still smiling, "but I knew not that you
had so strong a rope to draw you hither."

Then I told him the trouble I was like to bring on Alswythe if he told
her all that passed at Brent; letting him have his own thoughts about my
reason for coming to Matelgar's hall, which were wrong enough, though
natural at first sight, maybe.

He promised to be most wary, and I was content. Then I asked him how I
should join the levy.

"Master," he said, very gravely, "this is like to be a matter of which
we have not seen the end. Yon Danes are up channel, and, as I believe,
lying at anchor by the Holms. It will not be their way, if, having gone
so far up, they sack not every town on their way back-unless they are
beaten off on their first landing. Now the country is raised against
them, sure enough; but our levy is a weak crowd when it is first raised,
and they are tried warriors, every one. Now they may go on up tide to
the higher towns, or else they will be back here, like a kite on a
chicken, before men think, and Bridgwater town will see a great fight,
and maybe a burning, before tomorrow."

Then I said that the levy would beat them off easily enough; but the old
warrior shook his head.

"I was at Charnmouth," he said, "when King Ethelwulf himself led the
charge. And our men fought well; but it was like charging a wall
bristling with spears. Again and again our men charged, but the Danes
stood in a great ring which never broke, although it wavered once or
twice, until we were wearied out, and then they swung into line and
swept us off the field. Until we learn to fight as they fight, we are
weaker."

Then I began to fear for Alswythe, and asked him what guard was left for
the hall, and again he shook his head.

"Myself, and five others--not the strongest--and a dozen women, and
three boys, thralls."

I knew not what to say to this; but the wise old man had already thought
of a plan in case of danger. And in this, he said, I could advise him,
for he was a stranger.

"Horses enough are left," he told me, "and if the Danes come to
Bridgwater, and are not beaten off, I shall mount the Lady Alswythe and
the women, and take them to a safer place. But whither?"

I told him at once of the house of a great thane beyond the Quantocks,
easily reached by safe roads through the forest land, where Danes would
not care to follow, and he thanked me.

Then he said that I might well try to join the levy; but that it was
possible that it would be hard for me. And I told him that if I could
not manage it I would join in the fight when no man would question me,
and that seemed possible to both of us. But if the Danes yet kept away I
knew I could wait in hiding, having money now, safely enough till they
had gone and the levy dispersed.

Then came Alswythe back, bearing with her the things I needed. And
Wulfhere begged her not to bide alone in the wood now, since robbers
might be overbold now that the men were drawn off to the levy. That was
good advice in itself; but I knew that he would have her near the hall,
lest there should be sudden need for fleeing. She promised him, thanking
him for the warning, and he left us.

Then she tended me as I ate, carefully, and never had there been for me
so sweet a meal as that, outlawed and homeless though I was to the
world. For her word was my law now, and my home was all in her love for me.

I think no man can rightly be held an outlaw who has kept law and has
home such as that. For while he has, and loves those, wrong will he do
to none.

It was Alswythe who bade me go at last, not for her own sake, but for
mine, that I might go on my way to win my fair name back again.

CHAPTER VII. OSRIC THE SHERIFF.

Through the woods I reached Bridgwater town before the sun set, and
looking down from the steep hill that overhangs the houses, I could see
the market square full of men, shining in arms and armour, and noisy
enough, as I could hear. But every one of the townsfolk knew me, and by
this time also knew what had befallen me, so that as I stood there it
seemed not quite so easy to win a way to the levy as before. The
highways were yet full of men coming in, for from where I stood on the
edge of the cover I could see the bend of one road, and straight down
another. If I went on them I must walk like a leper, alone and shunned
by all, with maybe hard words to hear as well.

While I thought of all this, there crept out from among the woods an old
crone, doubled up under the weight of a faggot of dry sticks, who stayed
to stare at me. I did not mind her, but of a sudden she dropped her
bundle of wood, and I saw that it was like to be a heavy task for her to
raise it again. So I turned and laid hold of it, for she was but six
paces from me, saying:

"Let me help you, Mother, to get it hoisted again. Truly would I carry
it for you for a while, but I must bide here."

"That must you, Heregar the outlaw," said the old woman coolly, without
a word of thanks, and I thought my story and face were better known than
I deemed. Therefore I must make the best of it.

"Well, Mother," said I, "you know me, and if you know me, so also must
many others. But I want to join the levy, and fight if need be."

"Thereby knew I you to be Heregar," said she; "for none but he must
stand here with the light of battle in his eyes and his hand clutched on
his sword hilt and not go down to the Cross yonder, as the summons is."

Then I marvelled at the old dame's wisdom, though maybe it was but a
guess, and asked her what I should do, seeing that she was wise, and the
words of such as she are often to be hearkened to.

"It is a wise man," she answered, "who will take advice; but never a
word should you have had from old Gundred, save you had helped her, as a
true man should."

"Truly, Mother Gundred," I said, "I have no rede of my own, and am
minded to take yours."

"Then, fool," she said curtly, "link up that tippet of mail across your
face, go down to Osric the Sheriff himself, beg to be allowed to fight,
and see what he will tell you."

I had forgotten that I could hook the hanging chain mail of my helmet
across, in such manner that little but my eyes could be seen; but then
that was never done but in battle--and I had never seen that yet.

"Thanks, Mother," said I, with truth, for I saw that I might do this.
"This is help indeed."

"Not so fast, young sir," answered the crone; "Osric will not have you."

"How know you that?"

"How does an old woman of ninety years know many things? When you tell
me that, I will say how I know that Osric will send you about your
business; and that will be the best day's work he ever did."

Now I was nearly angry at that, for it seemed to set light store on my
valour; but there seemed something more in the old woman's tone than her
taunting words would convey, so I said plainly:

"Then shall I go to him?"

"Aye, fool, did I not tell you so?"

"But if it is no good?"

"Is it no good for a man who is accused of disloyalty to have witness
that he wished, at least, to spend his life for his country? Moreover,
there is work for you to do which fighting will hinder for this turn--
go to, Heregar, I will tell you no more. Now do my bidding and go, and
never will you forget that you helped an old witch with her burden."

"Well, then, Mother," I said, hooking up the mail tippet across my face,
"if I must go down into the town, surely I will carry that bundle."

"That shall you not," she answered, dropping it again, and sitting down
on it. "Heregar the king's thane--the standard bearer--shall bend to
no humbler burden than the Dragon of Wessex. Go; and Thor and Odin
strike with you."

And then she covered up her face, and would look no more at me. I
thought her crazed, maybe, but a sort of chill came over me as I heard
her name the old heathen gods, and I thought of the Valas of old time,
and knew how here and there some of the old worship lingered yet.

However, good advice had she given, showing me the way to try my fortune
in the way I wished, and after that heathenish blessing I had no mind to
stay longer, for such like are apt to prove unlucky; so I bid her good
even, and went my way towards the town. After all, I thought, king's
thane I was once, and may be again; and to bear the standard must be won
by valour, so that, too, may come to pass. Whereupon I remembered the
badger that scared me in the moonlight, and was less confident in myself.

Many were the questions put me as I passed into the marketplace of
Bridgwater, but I answered none, pushing on to where I saw Osric the
Sheriff's banner over a great house. Mostly the men scoffed at me for
thinking that I should win more renown in disguise; but some thought me
a messenger, and clustered after me, to hear what they might.

When I came to the house door, where Osric lay, it was guarded, and the
guards asked me my business. I said I would see the sheriff and then
they demanded name and errand. Now, I could give neither, and was at a
loss for a moment. Then I said that I was one of the bearers of the war
arrow, and though that was but a chance shot, as it were, it passed me
in at once, for often a bearer would return to give account of some
thane ill, or absent, or the like.

They took me to a great oaken-walled hall where sat many thanes along
great tables, eating and drinking, and at the highest seat was Osric,
and next him, Matelgar. This assembly, and most of all that my enemy
should be present, was against me in making my plea; but as the old
crone had said, I should be no loser by witness.

I waited till a thrall had told Osric that one of his messengers was
here, and then they beckoned me to go to him. He shifted round in his
chair to speak to me, but I was watching Matelgar, and saw his glance
light on my sword hilt. Recognizing it, he grew pale, and then red,
half-rising from his seat to speak to Osric, but thinking better thereof.

"Well; what news and whence?" said the sheriff, who was a small, wiry
man, with a sour look, as I thought. Men spoke well of him though.

"The Danes lie off the Holms, sir," I said, for I would gain time.

"I know that," he answered testily; "pull that mail off your face, man;
they are not here yet, and your voice is muffled behind it."

I suppose that the coming and going of messengers was constant, and
indeed there came another even then, so the other thanes paid little
attention after they heard my stale news, except Matelgar; who went on
watching me closely.

I was just about to ask the sheriff to hear me privately, when Matelgar
plucked him by the sleeve, having made up his mind at last, and drawing
him down a little, spoke to him a few words, among which I caught my own
name.

The sheriff looked sharply at me, twitching his sleeve away, and I saw
that there was to be no more concealment; so I dropped the tippet and
let him see who I was, saying at the same time:

"Safe conduct I crave, Osric the Sheriff."

Then a silence came over the thanes who saw and knew me, looking up to
see what this new freak of mine was. And Osric frowned at me, but said
nothing, so I spoke first.

"Outlaw I am, Osric, but I can fight; today I bore the war arrow--that
one who neither knew nor believed me gave me--faithfully to Matelgar
the Thane, who is here in obedience to that summons. And when I took it
I was on my way out of the kingdom as I was bidden, but I turned back
because of the need for a trusty messenger. Now I ask only to be allowed
to fight alongside your men in this levy, and after that it is over--
if I live--I will go my way again."

That was all I had to say, and when I ceased a talk buzzed up among the
thanes. But Matelgar looked black, and Osric made no answer, frowning,
indeed, but more I think at the doubt he was in than with anger at me.

I saw that Matelgar longed to speak, but dared not as yet, and then he
cast his eye down the hall, and seemed to make some sign.

Presently Osric said in a doubtful way, "Never heard I the like. Now I
myself know not why an outlaw should not fight if he wills to do so.

"What say you, thanes?" he cried loudly, turning to those down the hall.

Instantly one rose up and shouted, "We will have no traitors in our ranks."

Then I knew what Matelgar's sign meant, for this was a close friend of
his. On that, too, several others said the same, and one cried that I
should be hounded out of the hall and town. Osric frowned when he heard
that, and looked at me; but I stood with my arms folded, lest I should
be tempted to lay hand on sword, and so give my enemies a hold on me.
Matelgar himself said nothing, as keeping up his part of friend bound by
loyalty to accuse me against his will.

As for the other thanes, they talked, but all the outcry was against my
being allowed to join, and at last Osric seemed to be overborne by them,
for voices in my favour were few heard, if many thought little harm of
my request. But then the offer of the help of one man was, anyway, a
little thing, and if he were doubted it would be ill. And I could see,
as Osric would also see, that the matter would be spread through the
levy by those against me.

Now as I thought of the likelihood of one of Matelgar's men spearing me
during the heat of fight, I wondered if he feared the same of me, for I
have often heard tales of the like.

Then Osric answered me, kindly enough, but decidedly:

"Nay, Heregar, you hear that this must not be. Outlaw is outlaw, and
must count for naught. I may not go against the word of the Moot, and
inlaw you again by giving you a place. Go hence in peace, and take your
way; yet we thank you for bearing the message to Matelgar. Link up your
mail again, and tell any man that you bear messages from me; the
watchword is 'Wessex' for the guards are set by now, and you will need it."

As he spoke thus kindly Matelgar's face grew black as night; but he
dared say no word. So I bowed to the sheriff and, linking up my mail,
went sadly enough down the hall. It was crowded at one place, and there
some friendly hand patted me softly on the shoulder, though most shrank
from me; but yet I would not turn to see who it was, that helped me.

Now I have often wondered that no inquiry was made about my arms, and
how I came by them; but what I believe is, that even then men began to
know that Matelgar and his friends had played me false, but that they
would not, and Matelgar's people dared not, say much. As for Osric, his
mind was full of greater troubles, and I suppose he never thought thereof.

I passed out into the street, but now it was falling dark, and few
noticed me. The men sat about along the house walls on settles, eating
and drinking and singing. And I, coming to a dark place, sat down among
a few and ate and drank as well for half an hour, and then passing the
guards at the entrance to the town on the road to Cannington, struck out
for Stert, that I might be near Alswythe, and wait for the possible
coming of the Danes, and the battle in which I might join.

CHAPTER VIII. THE FIRES OF STERT.

I went along the highroad now, for it was dark, and few were about. Only
now and then I met a little party of men hurrying to the gathering
place, and mostly they spoke to me, asking for news. And from them I
learned, too, that nothing had been seen, while daylight served, of the
Danes. Once, I had to say I was on Osric's errand, as he bade me, being
questioned as to why I was heading away from the town.

I could not see my hall as I passed close by its place, for the lights
that ever shone thence in the old days, so lately, yet seeming so long,
gone, were quenched. But I thought of a safe place whence to watch if
the Danes came, where were trees in which I might hide if need were, as
I had hidden this morning. This was on the little spur of hill men call
by the name of the fisher's village below it, Combwich. It looked on all
the windings of Parret river, and there would I soon know if landing was
to be made for attack on Bridgwater. But I thought it likely that there
would be an outpost of our men there for the same reason, and going
thither went carefully.

Sure enough there was a little watchfire and half a dozen men round it
on the best outlook, and so I passed on still further, following round
the spur of hill till I came to where the land overlooks the whole long
tongue of Stert Point. That would do as well for me, I thought, and
choosing, as best I could in the dark, a tree into which I knew by
remembrance that I might easily get, I sat down at its foot, looking
seaward.

Now by this time the tide, which runs very strong and swiftly, must be
flowing again, and I thought that most likely the Danes, having anchored
during the ebb, would go on up channel with it, and that therefore I
might have to hang about here for days before they landed, even were
they to land at all. And this I had heard said many times by the men of
the levy, some, indeed, saying that they might as well go home again.

But I should do as well here as anywhere, or better, since, while
Matelgar was away, I might yet see Alswythe again; though that, after my
repulse by the sheriff, or perhaps I should rather say by his advisers,
I thought not of trying yet. It would but be another parting. Still, I
might find old Wulfhere, and send her messages by him before setting out
westward again.

Almost was I dozing, for the day had been very long, when from close to
Stert came that which roused me completely, setting my heart beating.

It was a bright flash of light from close inshore, on the Severn side of
the tongue, followed by answering flashes, just as I had seen them at
Watchet. But now the flashes came and went out instantly, for I was no
longer looking down on the ship's decks as then.

Well was it that I had seen this before from Quantock heights; for I
knew that once again the Danes were landing, and that the peril was
close at hand.

Then at once I knew the terrible danger of Alswythe, for Matelgar's was
the first hall that would be burnt.

My first thought was to hasten thither and alarm Wulfhere, and then to
hurry back to that outpost I had passed half a mile away, for the
country danger must be thought of too.

Then a better thought than either came to me. If it was, as it must be,
barely half tide, the Danes would find mud between them and shore, too
deep to cross, and must wait till the ships could come up to land, or
until there was water enough to float their boats. I had an hour or more
yet before they set foot on shore.

Moreover, I would find out if landing was indeed meant, or if these were
but signals for keeping channel on the outward course.

So across the level meadows of Stert I ran my best, right towards the
place where I had seen the light, which was at the top, as it were, of
the wedge that Stert makes between the waters of Parret and the greater
Severn Sea. There are high banks along the shore to keep out the spring
tides, and under these I could watch in safety, unseen. Three fishers'
huts were there only; but these I knew would be deserted for fear of the
Danes.

So I found them, and then, creeping up the bank, I stood still and
peered out into the darkness. Yet it was not so dark on the water (which
gleamed a little in the tide swirls here and there beyond half a mile of
mud, black as pitch in contrast) but that I could make out at last six
long black ships, lying as it seemed on the edge of the ooze. And I
could hear, too, hoarse voices crying out on board of them, and now and
then the rattle of anchor chains or the like, when the wind blew from
them to me.

And ever those ships crept nearer to me, so that I knew they were edging
up to the land as the tide rose.

That learnt, I knew what to do. I ran to the nearest fishers' hut, and
pulled handfuls of the thatch from under the eaves, piling it to
windward against the wooden walls. Then I fired the heap, and it blazed
up bright and strong, and at once came a great howl of rage from the
ships, plain to be heard, for they knew that now they might not land
unknown.

So had I warned Osric the Sheriff, and that matter was out of my hands.
And, moreover, Wulfhere, being an old and tried warrior, would be warned
as well. That, however, I would see to myself, and, if I could, I would
aid him in getting Alswythe into a place of safety. So I ran back,
bending my steps now towards her father's hall, up the roadway, if one
might so call the track through the marshland that led thither.

Just at the foot of the hill I met three men of the outpost, who were
hurrying down to see what my fire meant. They challenged me, halting
with levelled spears across the track. Then was I glad of the password,
and answered by giving it.

"Right!" said the man who seemed to be the leader. "What news?"

I told him quickly, bidding him waste no time, but hurry back and tell
the sheriff that the Danes would be ashore in half an hour. I spoke as I
was wont to speak when I was a thane, forgetting in the dire need of the
moment that I was an outlaw now, and the man was offended thereat.

"Who are you to command me thus?" he said shortly.

"Heregar, the thane of Cannington." said I, still only anxious that he
should go quickly.

"Heard one ever the like!" said the man, and then I remembered.

I looked round at my fire. Two huts were burning now, very brightly, for
the wind fanned the flames.

"Saw you ever the like?" I said, and pointed. "Now, will you go?"

The bright light shone on a row of flashing, gilded dragon heads on the
ships' stems--on lines of starlike specks beyond them, which were
helms and mail coats--and on lines again of smaller stars above, which
were spear points.

"Holy saints!" cried the man, adding a greater oath yet; "be you Heregar
the outlaw or no, truth you tell, and well have you done. Let us begone,
men!"

And with that those three leapt away into the darkness up the hill,
leaving me to follow if I listed.

That was not my way, however, and I ran on to Matelgar's hall.

One stood at the gate. It was Wulfhere. Inside I heard the trampling of
horses, and knew that they would be ready in time. Wulfhere laid hand on
sword as I came up, doubting if I were not a Dane, but I cried to him
who I was, and he came out a step or two to me, asking for news.

And when I told him what I had seen and done, he, too, said I had done
well, and that I had saved Alswythe, if not many more. Also, that he had
sent a man to tell Matelgar of his plans. Then he told me that even now
the horses were ready, and that he was about to abandon the place, going
to the house of that thane of whom I had told him. And I said that I
would go some way with him, and then return to join the levy, making
known my ill-luck with Osric.

"Ho!" said he; "it was well he sent you away, as it seems to me."

That was the word of the old crone, I remembered, that it should be so.

Then came a soft touch on my arm, and on turning I saw Alswythe standing
by me, wrapped in a long cloak, and ready. And neither I nor she thought
shame that I should lay my arm round her, and kiss her there, with the
grim old housecarle standing by and pretending to look out over Stert,
where the light of my fires shone above the trees.

"Heregar, my loved one, what does it all mean?" she said, trembling a
little. "Have they come?"

I folded my arm more closely round her, and would have answered, but
that Wulfhere did so for me.

"Aye, lady, and it is to Heregar that we owe our safety, for he has been
down to Stert and warned us all."

At that my love crept closer to me, as it were to thank me. Then she said:

"Will there be fighting? And will my father have to fight?"

"Aye, lady," said Wulfhere again, "as a good Saxon should."

"Must I go from here?" she asked again; and I told her that the house
would be burnt, maybe, in an hour or so.

At that she shivered, and tried not to weep, being very brave.

"Where must we go?" she said, with a little tremble in her voice.

I told her where we would take her, and then she cried out that she must
bide near at hand lest her father should be hurt, and none to tend him.

And Wulfhere and I tried a little to overpersuade her, but then a groom
came to say that all was ready.

And, truly, no time must be lost, if we would get off safely.

Then I said that it would be safe to go to Bridgwater, for then we
should be behind the levy, and that the Danes must cut through that
before reaching us. And to that Wulfhere agreed, for I knew he would
rather be swinging his sword against the Danes at Stert than flying
through the woods of the Quantocks.

Alswythe thanked me, without words indeed, and then in a few minutes she
was mounted, and we were going up towards the high road to Bridgwater.
We had twelve horses, and on them were the women of the house, bearing
what valuables they might, as Wulfhere had bade them. One horse carried
two women, but they were a light burden, and we had no such terrible
haste to make, seeing that every moment brought us nearer the levy.
There were the men and boys as well, but they led the beasts.

Now when we reached the high road, some half mile away, suddenly
Alswythe reined up her horse, by which I walked, giving a little cry,
and I asked what it was.

Then she said, sobbing a little, that she would her cows were driven out
into the forest where they were wont to feed, lest the cruel Danes
should get them. And to please her I think I should myself have gone
back, but that Wulfhere called one of the men, who, it seemed, was the
cowherd, bidding him return and do this, if the Danes were not coming
yet. Glad enough was I to hear the man say that he had done it already
--"for no Dane should grow fat on beasts of his tending, and they were
a mile off by now."

So we went on, and every minute I looked to meet our levy advancing. But
the moon rose, and shone on no line of glancing armour that I longed
for, and Wulfhere growled to himself as he went. I would have asked him
many questions, but would not leave Alswythe, lest she should be
alarmed. And all the way, as we went, I told her of what had befallen me
with Osric, saying only that her father was there, but had not been able
to speak for me. And I told her of the old crone's words, which she
thought would surely come true, all of them, as they had begun to do so.

It is a long five miles from Matelgar's place to the town, and we could
only travel at a foot's pace. But still we met no force. Indeed, until
we were just a half mile thence, we saw no one. Then we met a picket,
who, seeing we were fugitives, let us go on unchallenged.

But Wulfhere stopped and questioned the men, and got no pleasant answer
as it seemed, for he caught us up growling, coming alongside of me, and
saying--for Alswythe could not know the ways of war--that they would
attack with morning light. But I felt only too keenly, though I knew so
little, that to fight the Danes when they had their foot firmly ashore,
was a harder matter than to meet them but just landed.

We were so close to the town now that I asked Alswythe where she would
be taken. Already we were passing groups of fugitives from the nearer
country, and the town would be full of them, to say nothing of the men
of the levy.

She thought a little, and then asked me if she might not go to her
father, wherever he was. But I told her that he was but a guest of
Osric, as it seemed. Then she said that she would go to her aunt, who
was the prioress of the White Nuns, and bide in the nunnery walls till
all was safe. And that seemed a good plan, both to me and Wulfhere, for
it would--though this we said not to Alswythe--set us free to fight,
as there we might not come, and she would be safe without us.

Then I told Wulfhere how we could reach that house without going through
the crowded town, and so turned to the right, skirting round in the
quiet lanes.

The gray dawn began to break as we saw the nunnery before us, and it was
very cold. But Alswythe pointed to a crimson glow behind us, as we
topped the last rise, saying that the sun would be up soon.

Wulfhere and I looked at each other. That glow was not in the east, but
shone from Matelgar's hall--in flames.

And then we feigned cheerfulness, and said that it would be so; and
Alswythe smiled on me, though she was pale and overwrought with the
terror she would not show, and the long, dark, and cold journey.

We came to the nunnery gate and knocked; and the old portress looked out
of the wicket and asked our business, frightened at the glint of mail
she saw. But Alswythe's voice she knew well, as she answered, begging
lodging for herself and her maidens, till this trouble was over.

It was no new thing for a lady of rank to come into that quiet retreat
with her train when on a journey; and after a little time, while the
portress told the prioress, the doors were thrown open, and we rode into
the great courtyard, where torches burnt in the dim gray morning light.

Then came the prioress, mother's sister to Alswythe, a tall and
noble-looking lady, greeting her and us kindly, and so promising safe
tending to her niece so long as she needed.

Here Alswythe must part from me, giving me but her hand to kiss, as also
to Wulfhere, but there was a warm pressure on my hand for myself alone
that bided with me. And the prioress thanked us for our care, not
knowing me in the half light, and in mail, and so were we left in the
courtyard, where an old lay brother, brought from the near monastery,
showed us the stabling and provender for our horses, and the loft where
the men should sleep, outside the walls of the inclosed building.

Here Wulfhere bade the men and boys remain, tending their horses until
he should return, or until orders came from their master himself or from
the lady Alswythe; for they were thralls, and not men who should be with
the levy.

Then he and I went out into the roadway and walked away until we were
alone.

"What now?" I asked.

"I must join my master, telling him what I have done, and that the lady
is safe. So shall I march with the rest most likely. What shall I say of
your part in this?"

"Nought," I answered.

"Maybe that is best--just now," he agreed.

We had come to the town streets now, and they seemed empty. The light
was strong enough by this time, and there came a sound of shouting from
the place of the market cross, and then we heard the bray of war horns,
and Wulfhere quickened his pace, saying that the men were mustering, or
maybe on the march.

Then I longed to go with him, but that might not be. So I left him at
last, saying that I should surely join in the fight.

I had not gone six paces from him when he called me, and I could see
that he looked anxious.

"Master," he said, "this is going to be a doubtful fight as it seems to
me. Yon Danes know that the country is raised, but yet they have come
back, and they mean to fight. Now our levy is raw, and has no
discipline, and I doubt it will be as it was at Charnmouth. If that is
so, Bridgwater will be no safe place for the lady Alswythe. She must be
got hence with all speed."

"Shall you not return and hide with her?" I asked.

"That is as the master bids," said he, and then he added, looking at me
doubtfully, "I would you were not so bent on this fight."

Then was I torn two ways--by my longing to strike a blow for Wessex,
and by my love for my Alswythe and care for her safety. And I knew not
what to say. Wulfhere understood my silence, and then decided for me.

"You have hearkened to me before, master, and now I will speak again.
Get you to your place of last night on Combwich Hill, and there look on
the fight; or, if it be nearer this, find such a place as you know.
Then, if there is victory for us, all is well: but if not, you could not
aid with your one strength to regain it. Then will Alswythe need you."

"I would fain fight," I said, still doubting.

"Aye, master; but already have you done well, and deserved well of the
sheriff, and of all. He bade you fight not today--let it be so. There
is loyalty also in obedience, and ever must some bide with the things
one holds dear."

"I will do as you say," said I shortly, and so I turned and went.

He stood and looked after me for a little, and then he too hurried away
towards the cross. Then I skirted round the town, and waited at that
place where I had met with the old woman, until I saw the van of our
forces marching down the road towards Cannington. These I kept up with
by hurrying from point to point alongside the road, as best I might.

They were a gallant show to look on, gay with banners and bright armour.
Yet I had heard of the ways of armies, and thought to see them marching
in close order and in silence. But they were in a long line with many
gaps, and here and there the mounted thanes rode to and fro, seemingly
trying to make them close up. And they sang and shouted as they went.

When we came to the steep rise of Cannington hill, some of those thanes
spurred on and rode to the summit, and there waited a little, till the
men joined them. There was silence, and a closing up as they breasted
the steep pitch; and then I must go through woods, and so lost sight of
them for a while. I passed close to my own hall--closed and deserted.
Every soul in all the countryside had fled into the town, though after
the levy came a great mixed crowd of thralls and the like to see the fray.

Now here I thought to cross in the rear of the force that I might reach
Combwich hill. But that was not to be.

When I saw the array again it was halted, and the men were closing up.
And between the levy and that crowd of followers was a great gap, and
some of these last were making for the shelter of swamp and wood. I
myself was on a little rise of heathy land and could see plainly before
me the road going up over the neck of Combwich hill in the steep-sided
notch there is there, where the ascent is easiest.

And that road was barred halfway up the hillside by a close-ranked
company, on which the sun shone brightly, showing scarlet cloaks and
gilded helms not only on the roadway, but flanking the hills on either
side. These were the Danes, and behind them, over the hill, rose the
smoke from Matelgar's burnt home.

Even as I looked, a great roar of defiance came from our men; but the
Danes made no answer, standing still and silent. And that seemed
terrible to me. So for a moment they stood, and then, as at some signal,
from them broke out that deep chant with its terrible swinging melody,
that had come faintly to me from Watchet haven.

Then our men rushed forward, and even where I stood I could hear the
crash of arms on shields as the lines met--the ringing of the chime of
war--and our men fought uphill.

And now it needed all my force to keep myself, for Alswythe's sake, from
joining in that fray, and presently, when I would take my hand from my
sword hilt, it was stiff and cramped from clutching hard upon it, as I
watched those two lines swaying, and heard the yells of the fighters.

And indeed I should surely have joined, but there came a voice to me:

"Bide here in patience, Heregar, the king's thane! There is work for you
yet that fighting will hinder."

And the old crone, Gundred, who had come I know not how, laid her hand
on my arm.

"Look at the tide, Heregar, look at the tide!" she said, pointing to
Parret river, where the mud banks lay bare and glistening with the
falling water. "Let them drive these Danes back to their stranded ships,
and how many will go home again to Denmark, think you?"

And I prayed that this might be so: for I knew she spoke truth. If they
might not reach their ships, and became penned in on Stert, they were
lost--every one, for none might cross the deep ooze.

"Not this time, Heregar. Remember, when the time comes," she said.

And I paid no heed to her. For now horses were galloping riderless along
the road and into the fields. And men were crawling back from the fight,
to fall exhausted in the rear, and then--then the steadfast line of
the scarlet-cloaked Danes charged down the hill, driving our men like
sheep before them.

"Up and to your work!" said the crone, pointing towards Bridgwater; and
I, who had already made two steps, with drawn sword, towards that
broken, flying rabble, remembered Alswythe, and turned away, groaning,
to hasten to her rescue. For it was, as Wulfhere had said, all that I
could do.

Swiftly I went, turning neither to right nor left along the road,
hearing always behind me the cries of those who fled, and the savage
shouts of the pursuing vikings. I was in the midst of that crowd of
thralls once, but they thinned, taking to the woods whence I had come;
while I kept on.

Then I saw one of those horses, a great white steed, standing, snorting,
by the wayside where he had stopped, and I spoke to him, and he let me
catch and mount him, and so I rode on.

Yet when I came to the top of Cannington Hill I looked back. All the
road was full of our men, flying; and a thought came into my head, and I
dared to draw rein and wait for them, linking my mail again across my face.

They came up, panting, and wild with panic, and there with voice and
hand I bade them stand on that vantage ground and block the way against
the Danes; bidding them remember the helpless ones in the town, who must
have time to fly, and how the Danes must needs shrink from a second
fight after hot pursuit.

And there is that in a Saxon's stubborn heart which bade them heed me,
and there they formed up again, wild with rage and desperate, and the
line grew thicker and firmer as more came up, with the sheriff himself,
till the foremost pursuing Danes recoiled, and some were slain, and I
knew that the flight was over.

Then I slipped from my horse and made my way on foot, lest men should
notice my going, but the horse followed me, and soon I mounted him again
and galloped on.

Then I found that though I had not noticed it, my mail had fallen apart:
but I knew not if any had known me, or even had noted who I might be.

So I came to Bridgwater, bringing terror with me, as men gathered what
had befallen from my haste. Yet I stayed for none; but went on to the
nunnery.

CHAPTER IX. IN BRIDGWATER.

Two of Wulfhere's men were by the gate, lounging against the sunny wall;
but they roused into life as they heard the clatter of my horse's hoofs,
and came to meet me and take the bridle, as was their duty. They knew
who I was well enough; but thralls may not question the ways of a thane,
as I was yet in their eyes, though outlawed. Yet they asked me for news
of the fight, and I told them--lest they should raise a panic, or
maybe leave us themselves--only that our men stood against the Danes
on Cannington Hill, and that beyond them the invaders could not come.
And that satisfied them.

I was doubtful whether to go in at once and seek audience with the
prioress, or wait until some fresh news came in; for now I began to have
a hope that our men would sweep down the hill on the Danes and scatter
them in turn, even as they had themselves been overborne. So for half an
hour I waited, pacing the road before the nunnery, while I bade the men
see to my horse; but the place was very quiet, being on that side the
town away from the fight, so that any coming thence would stay their
flight when the shelter of the houses was reached.

At last came one, running at a steady pace, and I sprang to meet him,
for it was Wulfhere. His face was hard and set, his armour was covered
with blood, and he had a bandage round his head instead of helmet; but
he was not hurt much, as one might see by the way he came.

He grasped my hand without a word, and threw himself on the bank by the
road side to get breath, and I stood by him, silent for a while.

"Heregar," he said at last, "it is well for Bridgwater town, and these
here in this nunnery, that you obeyed and fought not."

"Wherefore?" I said. "Must we fly?"

"I saw you rally the men on Cannington Hill, and that was the best thing
done in all this evil day."

"Then," I asked, "do they yet stand?"

"Aye; for the Danes have drawn off, and our men bar the way here."

I told him what I had hoped from a charge of our levy; but he shook his
head and told me that, even had our men the skill to see their
advantage, the Danes had formed up again on seeing that this might be,
and had gone back in good order to their first post at Combwich.

"But our levy will not bide a second fight," he said sadly. "Already the
men are making off home, in twos and threes, saying that the Danes will
depart, and the like. Tomorrow the way here will be open, for there will
be no force left to Osric by the morning. I have seen such things before."

"Then must the Lady Alswythe fly," I said: "but where is Matelgar?"

"Struck down as he fled," said Wulfhere grimly. "I saw Osric and twenty
of his men close round him and beat back the Danes for a moment: but I
could not win to them, and so came back to you as you rallied us. That
was well done," he said again.

"I left when Osric came up. Matelgar I saw not," I said.

"Osric saw you, though," answered Wulfhere, "and, moreover, knew you.
And I heard him cry out when he saw the white horse riderless; for the
arrows were still flying, and he thought you slain, I think."

Now I wondered if Osric would be wroth with me, thinking I had fought
against his orders; but I had little time to think of myself, all my
care being for Alswythe, who had lost home and father in one day; being
left to Wulfhere, and me--an outlaw.

Then Wulfhere and I took counsel about flight, being troubled also about
the holy women in this place; for the heathen would not respect the
walls of a nunnery. But for them we thought Osric would surely care.

Now there came to us as we stood and talked, a housecarle in a green
cloak, and asked us if we had seen a warrior, wounded maybe, riding a
great white horse, which, he added, had been Edred the Thane's, who was
killed.

"Aye, that have I," said Wulfhere, "what of him?"

"Osric the Sheriff seeks him. Tell me quickly where I may find him."

"Is Osric back in the town?" asked Wulfhere in surprise.

"Aye, man, and half the levy with him. The Danes will go away now.
Enough are left to mind them."

Then Wulfhere stamped on the ground in rage, cursing the folly of every
man of the levy. And the housecarle stared at him as at one gone
suddenly mad; but I knew only too well that his worst fears were on the
way to be realized, and that soon there would be no force left on
Cannington Hill.

Suddenly he turned on the messenger and asked if he knew the name of the
man he sought.

"No; but men say that it was one Heregar--an outlawed thane. And some
say that it was one of the saints."

"Will Osric string him up, think you, if he can catch him, and it be
Heregar only, and no saint?"

The man stared again.

"Surely not," he said, "for he was sore cast down once, on the hill,
thinking him slain. But men had seen him remount and ride on, And Osric
bid me, and all of us who seek him, pray Heregar--if Heregar it be--
to come to him in all honour. Let me go and seek him."

Then Wulfhere turned to me and asked if I would go. And at that the man
made reverence to me, giving his message again.

Then I said "Is Matelgar the Thane with him?" and he answered that
Matelgar was slain before the stand was made.

Then I said I would go, if only to ask Osric for a guard to keep the
Lady Alswythe safe in her flight. And Wulfhere agreed, but doubtfully,
saying that nevertheless he would make ready the horses and provisions
for a journey, biding till I came back, or sent a messenger.

So I went with the housecarle, who led me again through the marketplace
to that same great house whence I had been sent forth overnight. All the
square was full of men, drinking deeply, some boasting of their deeds,
and some of deeds to be done yet. But many sat silent and gloomy, and
more cried out with pain as their wounds were dressed by the leeches or
the womenfolk. All was confusion, and, indeed, one might not know if
this turmoil was after victory or defeat.

None noticed me or my guide, but, indeed, I saw few men I knew in all
the crowd, for the men of Bridgwater and those of Matelgar's following
had fought most fiercely on their own land, and even now stayed to guard
what they might on the hill.

Osric again sat in the great chair in the hall, as I could see through
the open door, and round him were the thanes; but far fewer than last
night. And presently a housecarle spoke to him, and he rose up and left
the hall. Then they led me to a smaller chamber, and there he was alone,
and waiting for me.

Now I knew not what his wish to see me might mean, but from him I looked
for no harm, remembering how he had seemed to favour me even in refusing
my request. But, least of all did I look for him to come forward to meet
me, taking both my hands, and grasping them, while he thanked me for the
day's work.

"Lightly I let you go last night, Heregar," he said, "setting little
store on the matter among all the trouble of the gathering. But when I
sent you away and forgot you, surely the saints guided me. For I have
heard how you dared to go down to Stert and warn us all, and I saw you
stay the flight, even now. Much praise, and more than that, is due to
you. Were you in the fight?"

Then I could answer him to a plain question; for all this praise, though
it was good to hear, abashed me.

"Nay, Sheriff," I answered. "Fain would I have been there, but a wiser
head than mine advised me, and bade me do your bidding, and forbear.
Else should I surely have fought."

"Loyalty has brought good to us all, Heregar," he said, looking squarely
at me. "Yet should I have hardly blamed you had you disobeyed me."

Then I flushed red, thinking shame not to have done so, and went to
excuse myself for obedience.

"Yet had I the safety of a lady who must die, if the battle went wrongly
for us, laid on me in a way," I said.

"Matelgar's fair daughter?" he asked.

"Aye, Sheriff," And I told him of the flight from the hall, and where
she was now, wondering how he guessed this. But I had come from Stert,
and therefore the guess was no wonder. He looked at me gravely, and then
sat down, motioning me to be seated also. He treated me not as an
outlaw, I thought.

"Matelgar is dead," he said. "I saw him fall, and tried to bring him
off. He was not yet sped when we beat off the Danes. And he had time to
speak to me."

I bowed in silence, not knowing what to say. Strange that, now my enemy
was dead, I had no joy in it; but I thought of Alswythe only.

The sheriff went on, looking at me closely.

"He bade me find Heregar, the outlawed thane who spoke last night to me,
and bid him forgive. Then he died, and I must needs leave him, for the
Danes came on in force."

Still I was silent, for many thoughts came up in my heart and choked me.
How I had hated him, and yet how he had wronged me--even to seeking my
life. Yet was I beginning to think of him but as a bad father to my
Alswythe, but a man to be held in some regard, for the sake of her love
to him. And it seems to me that shaping my words to this end so often
had gradually turned my utter bitterness away: for one has to make one's
thoughts go the way one speaks, if one would seem to speak true.

"I may not make out all this, Heregar, my friend," said the sheriff;
"but that you were disloyal ever, no man may say in my hearing after
this day's work. And I know that Matelgar was the foremost in accusing
you. Wherefore it seems to me that there was work there to be forgiven
by you. Is that so?"

The thing was so plain that I could but bow my head in assent.

"Now," he went on, "I have heard private talk of this sort before now;
but never mind. I cannot inlaw you again, Heregar; for that must needs
be done in full Moot, as was the outlawry. Yet shall all my power be
bent to help you back to your own, if only for the sake of today."

Then would I thank him, but he stopped me.

"To the man who lit the fire of Stert, who checked the panic on
Cannington Hill, thanks are due, not gratitude from him. And to him
justice and reward."

Now I knew not what to say; but at that moment came a hurried rapping on
the door and the sound of voices, speaking together. Then the door was
thrown open and a man entered, heated and breathless, crying:

"The Danes--they are on our men again!"

Then Osric flushed red, and his eyes sparkled, and he bid the thanes who
crowded after the messenger get to horse and sound the assembly at once
to go to the assistance of those who were yet on the hill.

And yet he turned to me when this was said, and took my hand again.

"Get your lady in safety to Glastonbury, where Ealhstan the Bishop is. I
will care for the nuns if need be. Take this ring of mine and show it to
him, and then ride with it to Eanulf the Ealdorman and tell him of our
straits. The words I leave to you, who have done better than all of us
today."

Then he took helm and sword from one who brought them in haste, and
armed himself, while I, putting the ring he had given me on my finger,
yet stood beside him. When he was armed he turned sharply to me.

"You want to fight again," he said. "Well, I will not blame you; but
believe me, you will do more for us in going to Eanulf than in spending
your life here for nought."

Then he saw he had said too much, perhaps, and motioning his man out of
the room, so that we were alone, he went on quickly: "I say for nought,
because all I can do is to hold back the Danes for a little; you have
seen how it is. We are evenly matched in numbers, or thereabout; but
they are trained and hardened warriors, and our poor men are all unused
to war. Moreover, Heregar, these Danes come to fight, and our men do but
fight because they must. Now I will send one after you to Glastonbury to
let you know how this matter goes; but it will be, I fear, no pleasant
message."

Then would I not ask him for men as I had been minded to do, knowing
what a strait he was in, and that his words were only too true. Those
two differences between Dane and Saxon in those days of the first
fighting left the victory too plainly on the side of the newcomers. And
they sum up all the reasons for the headway they made against us till
Alfred, our wise king, taught us to meet them in their own way.

So once more I felt the grip of Osric's hand on mine, and I left him,
with a heavy heart indeed, but with a new hope for myself and for
Alswythe, in the end.

I stood for a moment before I turned out of the marketplace, eating a
loaf I had taken from the table as I passed, and watching the men
gather, spiritless, for this new fight. On many, too, the strong ale had
told, and it was a sorry force that Osric could take with him.

But I might not stay, and was turning to go, when I saw one standing
like myself and watching, close by. It was my host of Sedgemoor, Dudda
the Collier. And never was face more welcome than his grimy countenance,
for now I knew that I had found one who, in an hour, would take Alswythe
into paths where none might follow, and that, too, on the nearest road
to Glastonbury. There is no safer place for those who would fly, than
the wastes of Sedgemoor to those who know, or have guide to them, and
there no Danes would ever come.

So I stepped up to him and touched him, and he grinned at seeing a known
face, muttering to himself, "Grendel, the king's messenger."

And as I beckoned he willingly followed me towards my destination,
asking me of the fight, and what was on hand now so suddenly.

I told him shortly, finding that he had been drawn from his own
neighbourhood by curiosity, which must be satisfied before he went back.
And I told him that now the Danes were close on Bridgwater, and that I
must bear messages to Eanulf the Ealdorman. Would he earn a good reward
by getting me and some others across Sedgemoor by the paths along which
he had led me?

And at that he grinned, delighted, saying, "Aye, that will I, master,"
seeming to forget all else in prospect of gain.

So I bade him follow me closely, and soon we were back at the nunnery
gates.

They were open, and inside I could see the horses standing. Wulfhere was
waiting for me, looking anxious; but his brow cleared as he saw me, and
he asked for the news, saying that he feared I had fallen into the wrong
hands.

Then I told him I had, as I thought, no more to fear, showing him the
sheriff's ring and telling him of my errand.

"That is nigh as good as inlawed again," he said gladly. "Anyway, you
ride as the sheriff's man now."

Then his face clouded a little, and he added, "But Glastonbury is a far
cry, master, for the roads are none so direct."

Then I called the collier, and Wulfhere questioned him, and soon was
glad as I that I had met with him, saying that in an hour we should be
in safety. But he would that the prioress and her ladies would come
also, for he knew that Osric's fears would be only too true. Then must
we go and tell Alswythe of the journey she must make; and how to tell of
her father's death I knew not, nor did Wulfhere. And there we two men
were helpless, looking at one another in the courtyard, and burning with
impatience to get off.

"Let us go first, and tell her on the way" said he.

But I reminded him that we were here even now, and not on the far side
of the Quantocks, because she would by no means leave her father.

Now while we debated this, the old sister who was portress, opened the
wicket and asked us through it why these horses stood in the yard, and
what we armed men did there. And that decided me. I would ask for speech
with the prioress, and tell her the trouble.

That pleased Wulfhere: and I did so. Then the portress asked who I might
be, and lest my name should but prove a bar to speech with the lady, I
showed her Osric's ring, which she knew as one he was wont to give to
men as surety that they came from him on his errand. And that was
enough, for in a few minutes she came back, taking me to the guest chamber.

There I unhelmed and waited, while those minutes seemed very long,
though they were but few before the lady came in.

She started a little when she saw who I was, for she had known me well,
and knew now in what case I had been. But Alswythe had told her also of
what I had been able to do for her last night, if she had heard no more,
for news gets inside even closed walls, in one way or another, from the
lay people who serve the place.

I bent my knee to her, and she looked at me very sadly, saying: "I knew
and loved your mother, Heregar, my son, and sorely have I grieved for
you--not believing all the things brought against you. How come you
here now?"

Then I held out my hand and showed her Osric's ring, only saying that as
the good sheriff trusted me I would ask her to do so. And at that she
looked glad, and said that she would hold Osric's trust as against any
word she had heard of me in dispraise.

So I bowed, and then, thinking it foolish to waste time, begged her to
forgive bluntness, and told her of the death of Matelgar and of the sore
danger of the town, and of how Osric had hidden me take Alswythe to
Glastonbury to the bishop, and how he would himself care for her own
safety.

She was a brave lady, and worthy of the race of Offa from which she
sprung. And she heard me to the end, only growing very pale, while her
hand that rested on the table grew yet whiter as she clenched it.

"Can we not recover the body of the thane?" she asked, speaking very low.

I could but shake my head, for I knew that where he lay was now in the
hands of the Danes. True, if Osric could beat them off again he might
gain truce for such recovery on both sides; but that seemed hopeless to
me. Then I was bold to add:

"Now, lady, this matter is pressing, and in your hands I must leave it.
Trust the Lady Alswythe to me and her faithful servant, Wulfhere, and I
will be answerable for her with my life. But of her father's death I
dare not tell her."

Then she bowed her head a little, and, I think, was praying. For when
she looked at me again her face was very calm though so pale.

"Alswythe has told me of you, Heregar, my son," she said, "and to you
will I trust her. Moreover I will bid her go at once, and I will tell
her that heavy news you bring. You will not have long to wait, for in
truth we are ready, fearing such as this."

Then I kissed her hand, and she blessed me, and went from the room. And,
taught by her example, I prayed that I might not fail in this trust, but
find safety for her I loved.

Now came the sister who had charge of such things, and set before me a
good meal with wine, saying no word, but signing the cross over all in
token that I might eat, and glad enough was I to do so, though in haste.
Yet before I would begin I asked that sister to let Wulfhere know that
all was going right, and to bid him be ready. She said no word, as must
have been their rule, but went out, and I knew afterwards that she sent
one to tell him.

In a quarter hour or so, and when I, refreshed with the good food I so
needed, was waxing restless and impatient, the prioress came back, and
signed me to follow her, and taking my helm, I did so, till we came to
the great door leading to the courtyard. There stood Alswythe, very
pale, and trying to stop her weeping very bravely, and she gave me her
hand for a moment, without a word, and it was cold as ice, and shook a
little; yet it had a lingering grasp on mine, as though it would fain
rest with me for a little help.

There were but two of her maidens with her, and the prioress saw that I
was surprised, and said: "The rest bide with us, Heregar, and here they
will surely be safe. Alswythe will take no more than these, lest you are
hindered on the journey."

And I was glad of that, though I should have loved to see her better
attended, as befitted her; yet need was pressing, and this was best.
Then the prioress kissed Alswythe and the maidens, and Wulfhere set them
on their horses, for though I would fain help Alswythe myself, the lady
had more to say to me, and kept me.

She told me to take my charge to the abbess of her own order at
Glastonbury, where they would be tended in all honour as here with
herself, and she gave me a letter also to the abbess to tell her what
was needed and why they came, and then she gave me a bag with gold in
it, knowing that I might have to buy help on the way. For all this I
thanked her; but she said that rather it was I who should be thanked,
and from henceforward, if her word should in any way have weight, it
should go with that of Osric the Sheriff for my welfare.

And this seemed to me to be much said before my task was done, but
afterwards I knew that she had talked with Wulfhere, who had told her
all--even to the treachery of Matelgar. That would I have prevented,
had I known, but so it was to be, and I had no knowledge of it till long
after. Wulfhere had been called in to give her news while I was with
Osric, yet he had not dared to tell her of the thane's death.

All being ready, I mounted that white steed that had been the dead
thane's, knowing that in war and haste these things must be taken as
they come, and that he was better in Saxon hands than Danish. Then I
gave the word, and we started, Dudda the Collier going by my side, and
staring at the prioress and all things round him.

Alswythe turned and looked hard at her aunt as we passed the gates, and
I also. She stood very still on the steps before the great door, with
the portress beside her. There was only the old lay brother in the court
beside, and so we left her. And what my fears were for her and hers I
could not tell Alswythe. For, as we left the gates, something in the sky
over towards the battleground caught my eyes, and I turned cold with
dread. It was the smoke from burning houses at Cannington.

CHAPTER X. FLIGHT THROUGH SEDGEMOOR.

I was glad we had not to go through the town, for the sights there were
such as Alswythe could not bear to look on. And if that smoke meant
aught, it meant that our men were beaten back, and would even now be
flying into the place with perhaps the Danes at their heels.

I rode alongside Wulfhere, and motioned to him to look, and as he did so
he groaned. Then he spoke quite cheerfully to his lady, saying that we
had better push on and make a good start; and so we broke into a steady
trot and covered the ground rapidly enough, ever away from danger.

I rode next Alswythe, but I would not dare speak to her as vet. She had
her veil down, and was quite silent, and I felt that it would be best
for me to wait for her wish.

Beside me trotted the collier, Wulfhere was leading, and next to
Alswythe and me came the two maidens. After them came the three men and
two boys, all mounted, and leading with them the other three horses of
the twelve we had brought from Stert. They were laden with things for
the journey given by the prioress, and with what they had saved from
Matelgar's hall, though that was little enough.

Wulfhere would fain have made the collier ride one of these spare
horses; but the strange man had refused, saying that his own legs he
could trust, but not those of a four-footed beast.

It was seven in the bright May morning when Dane and Saxon met on
Combwich Hill. It was midday when I met Wulfhere at the nunnery, and now
it was three hours and more past. But I thought there was yet light
enough left for us to find our way across Sedgemoor, and lodge that
night in safety in the village near the collier's hut; and so, too,
thought Wulfhere when I, thinking that perhaps Alswythe's grief might
find its own solace in tears when I was not by her, rode on beside him
for a while.

"Once set me on Polden hills, master," said Wulfhere, "I can do well
enough, knowing that country from my youth. But this is a good chance
that has sent you your friend the collier."

So he spoke, and then I fell to wondering, if it was all chance, as we
say, that led my feet in that night of wandering to Dudda's hut, that
now I might find help in sorer need than that. For few there are who
could serve as guide over that waste of fen and swamp, and but for him
we must needs have kept the main roads, far longer in their way to
Glastonbury, as skirting Sedgemoor, and now to be choked with flying
people.

Presently Wulfhere asked me if in that village we might find one good
house where to lodge the Lady Alswythe. And I told him that there I had
not been, but at least knew of one substantial franklin, for my
playfellow, Turkil, had been the son of such an one, as I was told. The
collier, who ran, holding my stirrup leather, tireless on his lean limbs
as a deerhound, heard this, and told me that the man's house was good
and strong--not like those in Bridgwater--but a great house for
these parts. So I was satisfied enough.

Then this man Dudda, finding I listened to him in that matter, began to
talk, asking me questions of the fighting, and presently "if I had seen
the saint?"

I asked him what he meant; and as I did so I heard Wulfhere chuckle to
himself. Then he told me a wild story that was going round the town. How
that, when all seemed lost, there came suddenly a wondrous vision,
rising up before the men, of a saint clad in armour and riding a white
horse, having his face covered lest men should be blinded by the light
thereof, who, standing with drawn sword on Cannington Hill, so bade the
men take courage that they turned and beat the Danes back. Whereupon he
vanished, though the white horse yet remained for a little, before it,
too, was gone.

Well, thought I, Grendel the fiend was I but the other day, and now I am
to be a saint. And with that I could not restrain myself, but laughed as
once before I had laughed at this same man, for the very foolishness of
the thing. Yet I might not let Alswythe know that I laughed, and so
could not let it go as I would, and I saw that Wulfhere was laughing
likewise, silently.

Now this is not to be wondered at, though it was but a little thing
maybe. For we had been like a long-bent bow, overstrained with doubt and
anxiety, and, now that we were in safety with the lady, it needed but
like this to slacken the tension, and bid our minds relieve themselves.
So that laugh did us both good, and moreover took away some of the
downcast look from our faces when next we spoke to our charge.

When he could speak again, Wulfhere answered the man, still smiling.

"Aye, man, I saw him. And he was wondrous like Heregar, our master, here."

And at that the collier stared at me, and then said: "There be painted
saints in our church. But they be not like mortal men, being no wise so
well-favoured as the master."

And that set Wulfhere laughing again, for the good monks who paint these
things are seldom good limners, but make up for bad drawing by bright
colour. So that one may only know saint from fiend by the gold, or the
want of it, round his head.

Then fell I to thinking again about myself, and what it takes to make
man a saint or a fiend. And that thought was a long thought.

Now were we come across Parret, and began our journey into the fens. And
presently we must ride in single file along a narrow pathway which I
could barely trace, and indeed in places could not make out at all. And
here the collier led, going warily, then came Wulfhere, and then
Alswythe, with myself next behind her to help if need were. After us the
maidens, and then the rest.

So we were in safety, for half a mile of this ground was safer than a
wall behind us. We went silently for a little while, save for a few
words of caution here and there. But at last Alswythe turned to me, and
lifted her veil, smiling a little to me at last, and asking why we left
the good roads for this wild place, for though we men were used to the
like in hunting, she knew not that such places and paths could be,
brought up as she was in the wooded uplands of our own corner of the
country.

I told her how I was to make all speed to Glastonbury, and that this was
the nearest road: and she was content, being very trustful in both her
protectors. But then she asked if that place should be reached before
dark, having little knowledge of places or distances.

Then I must needs tell how we were bound for that village where the
hermit was, and Turkil of whom I had told her, seeing that it was over
late to reach the town, but that there we hoped to come next day. And
she said she would fain see those two, "and maybe Grendel also," smiling
again a little to please me. And I knew how much that little jest cost
her to make, and loved her the more for her thought for me. Then she was
silent for a while.

Presently one of the men in the rear shouted, and there was a great
splashing and snorting of horses, and we looked round. One of the led
horses had gone off the path and was in a bog, and that had set the rest
rearing with fright.

So we had to halt, and Wulfhere gave his horse to Dudda to hold while he
went back. And that kept us for a while waiting, and then I could stand
beside Alswythe for a little.

"I have seen the last of my outlaw, they tell me," she said, wanting to
learn how things were with me.

Yet I was still that, if only for loss of lands and place. Though as
Osric's chosen messenger I had that last again for a little, because of
his need.

So I told her that that matter must be settled by the Moot, but that
Osric was my friend, and that while I bore his ring at least none might
call me "outlaw". And at that she was glad, and told me that if she saw
Leofwine the hermit she would tell him that his words were coming true.
Then she looked hard at me, and said that she had heard from her aunt
why Osric so trusted me, and that she was proud of Heregar. And I said
that I had but done the things that someone had to do, and which came in
my way, as it seemed to me, wherein I was fortunate.

At that she smiled at me, seeming to think more of the matter than that,
and so talked of other things. Yet she must needs at last come to that
which lay nearest her heart, and so asked me if I had seen her father fall.

And I was glad to say that I had not; adding that it was near Combwich
Hill, as I had heard, and close to where Osric the Sheriff fought.

So I think that all her life long she believed him to have fallen
fighting in the first line, where Osric was, with his face to the enemy;
for all men spoke well of the sheriff's valour that day, and none would
say more than I told her. Yet it may have been that the thane fought
well, unobserved, in that press, and there is perhaps little blame to
many who fly in a panic.

Now, that spoken of and passed over, she became more like her brave
self, and from that time on would speak cheerfully both to Wulfhere and
myself, as, the horses set in order again, we once more went on our
winding way, following our guide.

Glad was I when, just before sunset, we saw the woodland under which his
hut was set, and heard the vesper bell ringing far off from the village
church. Soon we were on hard ground again, and then I could show
Alswythe where I had played Grendel unwittingly, and point the way I had
wandered from Brent.

There we rested the horses, for we had yet two miles to go, and they
were weary with the long and heavy travelling of the fens. And Alswythe
would go into the hut, and there her maidens brought her food and wine,
and we stayed for half an hour.

Wulfhere and I looked out towards Bridgwater town, now seeming under the
very hills, in the last sunlight. Smoke rose from behind it, but that
was doubtless from Cannington; yet there were other clouds of smoke
rising against the sun, and as he looked at these the old warrior said
that he feared the worst, for surely the Danes were spreading over the
country and that need for them to keep together was gone.

"If we see not Bridgwater on fire by tomorrow," he said, "it will be a
wonder."

But we knew that we could bide here for this night safe as if no Danes
were nearer than the Scaw.

After that rest we rode on through the woodland path, down which they
had come to exorcise me, till we saw before us in the gray twilight the
church and houses of the village, pleasant with light from door and
window, and noise of barking dogs, as we crossed the open mark [viii].

Dudda the Collier led us to the largest house which stood on the little
central green round which the buildings clustered, and there the door
stood open, and a tall man with a small boy beside him looked out to see
what was disturbing the dogs. Behind them the firelight shone red on a
pleasant and large room where we could see men at supper.

And the light shone out on me, for the boy sprang out from his father's
side, shouting that it was "Grendel come back again", and running to me
to greet me.

So we found a welcome in that quiet place, and soon the good franklin's
wife came out, bustling and pitiful in her care for Alswythe and sorrow
for her need to fly from her lost home, for it took but few words to
explain what had befallen.

They brought us in, and the thralls left supper to tend our horses,
though Wulfhere would go with them to see that done before he joined us
in the wide oak-built room that made all the lower floor of the house.
Overhead was the place where Alswythe and her maidens should be, and
built against the walls outside were the thralls' quarters, save for a
few who slept in the lower room round the great fire.

Now, how they treated us it needs not to be told, for it was in the way
of a good Somerset franklin, and that is saying much. But that night he
would talk little, seeing that I and Wulfhere were overdone with want of
sleep. Indeed it was but the need of caution that had kept me from
falling asleep on my horse more than once on the road. So very soon they
brought us skins and cloaks, and we stretched ourselves before the fire,
and warmed, and cleansed, and well refreshed with food and drink, fell
to sleep on the instant.

Yet not so soundly could I sleep at first, but that I woke once,
thinking I heard the yells of the Danes close on us: but it was some
farmyard sound from without, and peaceful.

Then I slept again until, towards dawning I think, I awoke, shivering,
and with a great untellable fear on me, and saw a tall, gray figure
standing by my couch. And I looked, and lo it was Matelgar the Thane.

Then I went to rouse Wulfhere, but my hand would not be stretched out,
and the other men slept heavily, so that I lay still and looked in the
dead thane's face and grew calmer.

For his face was set with a look of sorrow such as I had never seen
there, and he gazed steadfastly at me and I at him, and the grief in his
face did but deepen. And at last he spoke, and the voice was his own,
and yet not his own.

"Heregar, sorely have I wronged you," he said, "and my rest is troubled
therefor. Yet, when I heard what you had done for mine last night, my
heart was sore within me, and I repented of all, and would surely have
made amends. And now it is too late, and my body lies dishonoured on
Parret side while I am here. Yet do you forgive, and mayhap I shall rest."

Then I strove to speak, bidding him know that I forgave, but I could
not, and he seemed to grow more sad, watching me yet. And when I saw
that, I made a great effort, and stretching my hand towards him signed
the blessed sign in token that that should bid me forgive him, so
leaving my hand outstretched towards him.

And then his face changed and grew brighter, and he took my hand in his,
as I might see, though I could feel nought but a chill pass on it, as it
were, and spoke again, saying:

"It is well, and shall be, both with you and me. And when you need me I
shall stand by you once again and make amends."

Then he was gone, and my hand fell from where his had been, and
straightway I slept again in a dreamless sleep till Wulfhere roused me
in the full morning light.

And in that light this matter seemed to me but a dream that had come to
me. Yet even as I should have wished to speak to Alswythe's father, had
I done, and I would not have had it otherwise. Then the dream in a way
comforted me, being good to think on, for I would not willingly be at
enmity with any man, or living or dead. But that it was only a dream
seemed more sure, because in it Matelgar had said he knew of my saving
Alswythe. And Wulfhere and I had agreed not to tell him that. Also I had
little need of Matelgar living, in good truth, and surely less need of
him now that he was gone past making amends.

Down into the great chamber to break her fast with us came Alswythe,
bright and fresh, and with her grief put on one side, for our sakes who
served her. And Turkil talked gaily with both Alswythe and me and
Wulfhere, and would fain tell all the story of how he sought the
fire-spitting fiend and was disappointed.

Then I missed the collier, and asked where he was. He had gone to bring
the good hermit the franklin told me, and would be back shortly.

Now, when we had broken our fast it was yet very early, and the
villagers must needs hear all the news of the great fight and terror
beyond the fens, and as they heard, a growl of wrath went round, and the
men grasped spade and staff and fork fiercely, bidding the franklin lead
them at once to join the levy.

But Wulfhere told them that they needs must now wait a second raising,
and that I was even now on my way to Eanulf the Ealdorman to tell him of
the need. Then the franklin asked that he and his might go with me, but
I, seeing that for an outlaw to take a following with him was not to be
thought of, bade them wait for word and sure tidings of the gathering
place.

While we talked thus the little bell in the church turret began to ring,
and we knew that the hermit, Leofwine the priest, had come, and would
say mass for us. Then, perhaps, was such a gathering to pray for relief
for their land, as had not been since those days, far off now, when the
British prayed, in that same place, the like prayers for deliverance
from my own forbears. And as I prayed, looking on the calm face of the
old man who had bidden me take heart and forgive, I knew that last
night's dream was true in this, that I had forgiven.

So when the mass was over, and Wulfhere had begged Alswythe to take
order at once for our going on our journey, I found the old man, and
could greet him with a light heart. And he, looking on me, could read,
as he had read the trouble, how that that had passed, and asked me if
all was well, as my face seemed to say.

I told him how I had fared, and how my outlawry, though still in force,
was now light on me as the sheriff's messenger--though this I thought
was but because, flying with Alswythe, I might as well take the message
as one who could be less easily spared.

Then he said that already he deemed the prophecy that had been given him
was coming true, and spoke many good and loving words to me to
strengthen my thoughts of peace withal.

Presently he looked at our horses, now standing ready at the franklin's
door, and would have me go back with him into his own chamber in the
little timber-walled church. And there he found writing things in a
chest, and wrote on a slip of parchment a letter which he bade me give
to the bishop when I came to him, signing it with his name at the end,
as he told me, though I could not read it, for one who has been bred a
hunter and warrior has no need for the arts of the clerk. Indeed, I had
seen but two men write before, and one was our old priest at Cannington,
and the other was Matelgar, and I ever wondered that this latter should
be able to do so, and why of late he was often sending men with letters.
Yet it seems to me now that surely they had to do with his schemes that
had so come to nought.

Then the old man blessed me, telling me again that I should surely
prosper unless that I failed by my own fault, and that it seemed to him
that there was yet work for me to do that should set me again in my
place, and maybe higher.

So talking with him, Wulfhere called me, and I must needs say farewell
to Turkil and his father, and they bade us return, when the time came,
by this way back to our own place. And Turkil wept, and would fain have
gone with us, but I promised to see him again, and waved hand to him
before the broad meadows of the mark were passed, and the woods hid the
village from us.

Then did Alswythe, in her kindness, fall into a like mistake as that I
had made with the boy; for she turned to me, smiling, and said that she
would surely take him into her service at Stert, and see to his training
hereafter, but then remembered that she had no longer home, and her
smile faded into tears.

My heart ached for her, knowing I could give her no comfort. After that
we rode in silence, and quickly, for the track was good.

Now there is little to tell of that ride till we reached the hilltop
that Wulfhere knew, and where we could look down on the land we were to
cross, and fancy we could see Glastonbury far away. Here Dudda the
Collier's task was ended, and I called him to me, pulling out the purse
the good prioress had given me, that I might give him a gold piece for
his faithful service.

He stood before me, cap in hand, and I gave him a bright new coin, and
he took it, turning it over curiously.

"Take it, Dudda," I said, "you have earned it well."

Then he grinned in his way, and answered: "It is no good to me, master.
I pray you give me silver instead. Like were I to starve if life lay in
the changing of this among our poor folk."

So I turned over the money to find silver, but there was not enough, and
so I took out that bag which I had found in the roadway, and had not
opened since, having almost forgotten it. There was silver and copper
only in that, and I began to give him his reward.

But still the man hesitated, and seemed anxious to ask me something,
and, while I counted out the money, he spoke: "Master, the men call you
Heregar, and that is an outlaw's name."

"Well." said I, fearing no reproach from that just now, and being sure
that by this time the man knew all about me from our thralls with us.
"Heregar, the outlawed thane I was, and am, except that the sheriff has
bid me ride on his business."

"Then, master," said he, "give me no reward but to serve you. No man's
man am I, either free or unfree, but son of escaped thralls who are dead
long ago. Therefore am I outlaw also by all rights, and would fain
follow you. And it seems to me that you will need one to mind your steed."

Now this was a long speech for the collier, who, as I had learnt, could
hold his tongue: and we were short-handed also, with all these horses.
Therefore I told him that it should be as he would, for service offered
freely in this way was like to be faithful, seeing that there had been
trial on both sides. But I gave him four silver pennies, which he would
have refused, but that I bade him think of them as fasten pennies, which
contented him well.

This, too, pleased both Alswythe and Wulfhere, who were glad of the
addition to our party. So we rode on. But many were the far-off columns
of smoke we looked back on beyond Parret, before the hills rose behind
us and hid them.

CHAPTER XI. EALHSTAN THE BISHOP.

It was in the late afternoon when we rode into Glastonbury town, past
the palisadings of the outer works, and then among cottages, and here
and there a timber house of the better sort, till we came to the great
abbey. It was not so great then as now, nor is it now as it will be, for
ever have pious hands built so that those who come after may have room
to add if they will. But it was the greatest building that I had ever
seen, and, moreover, of stone throughout, which seemed wonderful to me.
And there, too, Wulfhere showed me the thorn tree which sprang from the
staff of the blessed Joseph of Arimathea, which flowers on Christmas
Day, ever.

Then we came to the nunnery where we should leave Alswythe, and I, for
my part, was sorry that the journey was over, sad though it had been in
many ways, for when I must leave her I knew not how long it should be,
if ever, before I saw her again.

And I think the same thought was in her heart, for, when Wulfhere showed
her the great house, she sighed, looking at me a little, and I could say
nothing. But she began to thank us two for our care of her, as though we
could have borne to take less than we had. And her words were so sweet
and gracious that even the old warrior could not find wherewith to

Book of the day: