Part 3 out of 5
"It will occupy them nearly an hour," said Dunstan, "and we shall be far
far away before they have succeeded in effecting an entrance."
So they rode on rapidly into the night. Before them lay the Foss Way,
the road was good and well known to them, the moon was shining brightly,
and their spirits rose with the excitement and the exertion. Onward! Onward!
CHAPTER XII. AT HIS WORST.
The unhappy Elfric had indeed fallen from his former self before he
reached the depth at which our readers have just seen him, joining with
Redwald in the unhallowed enterprise so happily frustrated, if indeed it
were yet frustrated, by his own brother.
But when his father had returned to Aescendune alone, Elfric felt that
home ties were shattered, and that he had nothing but the royal favour
to depend upon, so he yielded to the wishes of King Edwy in all points.
Immediately after his coronation, the reckless and ill-advised Edwy had
married Elgiva, [xxiii] in defiance of the ban of the Church, and then
had abandoned himself to the riotous society and foolish counsels of
young nobles vainer than those who cost Rehoboam so large a portion of
his kingdom. Amongst these Elfric was soon conspicuous and soon a
leader. His spirit and physical courage far beyond his years excited
their admiration, and in return they taught him all the mysteries of
evil which were yet unknown to him.
Under such influences both the king and his favourite threw off all
outward semblance even of religion, and only sought the means of
enjoyment. Redwald ministered without reserve or restraint to all their
pleasures, and under his evil influence Edwy even found occasion to rob
and plunder his own grandmother, a venerable Saxon princess, in order
that he might waste the ill-gotten substance in riotous living.
Yet there was a refinement in his vice: he did not care for coarse
sensual indulgence to any great extent; his wickedness was that of a
sensitive cultivated intellect, of a highly-wrought nervous temperament.
Unscrupulous--careless of truth--contemptuous of religion--yet he
had all that attraction in his person which first endeared him to
Elfric, whom he really loved. Alas! his love was deadly as the breath of
the upas tree to his friend and victim. When the first measures of
vengeance were taken against Dunstan, with the concurrence of wicked but
able ministers of state, Redwald was selected as the agent who should
bribe the thanes, and begin the course of conduct which should
eventually lead to the destruction of the enemy of the king. He had only
waited till the temper of the times seemed turned against Dunstan (he
judged it wrongly); and the king seemed secure against every foe ere he
planned the expedition we have introduced to our readers.
We will now resume the thread of our narrative.
When the band of soldiers, headed by Redwald, had gained the gates of
the monastery, they found them, as we have seen, firmly locked and barred.
"Blow your horns; rouse up these sleepy monks to some purpose," said
Redwald. "Why, they have not a light about the place."
A loud and vigorous blast of horns was blown, while the greater part of
the troop dismounted and paused impatiently for an answer from within.
"Two or three of you step forward with your axes," exclaimed Redwald.
They did so, and thundered on the gate without any success, so stoutly
was it made.
"What can it mean?" said Redwald. "All is silent as the grave."
"No; there is some one laughing at us," said Elfric.
A peal of merry laughter was heard within.
Redwald was thoroughly enraged, and seizing an axe with his own hand, he
set the example of applying it to the gate, but without any result save
to split a few planks, while the iron framework, designed by Dunstan
himself, who was clever at such arts, held as firmly as ever.
Unprovided with other means of forcing it, the besiegers had recourse to
fire, and gathering fuel with some difficulty, they piled it against the
gate. Shortly the woodwork caught, and the whole gate presently yielded
to the action of the fire; the iron bars, loosened by the destruction of
the woodwork, gave way, and the besiegers rushed into the quadrangle.
Here, all was dark and silent, not a sound to be heard or a light seen.
"What can it mean? Have they fled? You all heard the laughter!"
"There it is again."
The boisterous and untimely mirth had begun just within the abbot's
lodgings, and the doorway at the foot was immediately attacked. It
presently yielded, and Redwald, who had obtained a good notion of the
place, rushed with his chief villains to the chamber he knew to be
Dunstan's; yet he began to fear failure, for the absence of all the
inmates was disheartening. No, not all, for there was the loud laughter
within the very chamber of the abbot.
The door was fastened securely, and while the axes were doing their
destructive work upon it, the mocking laughter was again heard. Redwald
had become so enraged that he mentally vowed the direst vengeance upon
the untimely jester, when the door burst open and he rushed in.
"Where is he? Surely there was some one here?"
"Who could it be? We all heard the laughter."
But victim there was none; and searching all the place in vain, they had
to satiate their vengeance by destroying the humble furniture of the abbot.
What to do next they knew not, and Redwald, deeply mystified, was
reluctantly forced to own his discomfiture, and to prepare to pass the
night in the abbey. Accordingly, his men dispersed in search of food and
wine. Some found their way to the buttery; it was but poorly supplied,
all the provisions in the place having been given to the poorer pilgrims
by the departing monks. The cellar was not so easily emptied, and such
wine as had been stored up for future use was at once appropriated.
Redwald and Elfric, having shared the common meal gloomily, were seated
in the abbot's chamber--little did Elfric dream that his brother had
so recently been in the same room--when one of the guards entered,
bringing with him a stranger. He turned out to be a neighbouring thane,
one of those bitter enemies to Dunstan whom Edwy had planted round the
monastery, and he came to give information that he had seen Dunstan with
five companions escaping by the Foss Way.
Redwald jumped up eagerly. "How long since?" he asked.
"About two hours, and ten miles off, I was returning home from a distant
farm of mine."
"Why did you not stop them?"
"I was too weak for that; they were six to one. I heard you had been
seen coming here by a cowherd, and came to warn you. If you ride fast
you may catch the holy fox yet before he runs to earth; but you must be
"What pace were they riding?"
"Slowly at that moment; it was up a hill."
Redwald rushed from the room, crying, "To horse, to horse!" but found
only a portion of his men awake: the others were mainly drunk and
sleeping it off on the floor.
Cursing their untimely indulgence, he got about a dozen men rapidly
mounted on the fleetest horses, taking care Elfric should be one, and
dashed off in pursuit of the fugitives.
Dunstan and his party had ridden some four or five hours, when the moon
became overcast, and low peals of distant thunder were heard. The
atmosphere was so intensely hot, and the silence of nature so
oppressive, that it was evident some convulsion was at hand.
"Is there any shelter near?"
"Only a ruined city [xxiv] in the wood on the left hand,
but it is a dangerous place to approach after nightfall. They say evil
spirits lurk there."
"They tell that story of every ruined place, be it city, temple, or
house; and even if it be, we have more cause to dread evil men than evil
The guide hesitated no longer, and struck into a bypath, which
penetrated the depth of the woody marsh through which the Foss Way then
had its course. After a minute or two it became evident, from the
footing, that they were upon the paved work of a causeway overgrown with
weeds and rank herbage; huge mounds showed where fortifications had once
existed, and shortly, broken pillars and ruined walls appeared at
They had little time to look around them, for the storm had come rapidly
up, and the glare of the lightning was incessant, while the rain poured
down in absolute torrents. Before them rose a huge ruin covered with ivy
and with the roof partly protecting the interior. It was so large that
they were able to lead their horses within its protection and wait the
cessation of the rain.
Between the flashes the sky was intensely dark, but they were almost
incessant, and revealed the city of the dead in which they had found
refuge. It was an ancient Welsh town, and in the latter years of the
deadly struggle with the English, had been taken after a protracted
resistance. Tradition had not even preserved its name, and only stated
that every living soul had perished in the massacre when the outer walls
were at length stormed and the town given to fire and sword. The
victors, as was frequently the case, had avoided the spot, preferring to
build elsewhere, and, like Silchester or Anderida, it had fallen into
desolation such as befell mighty Babylon.
And now the ignorant rustic peopled its buildings with the imaginary
forms of doleful creatures, and shunned the fatal precincts where once
family love and social affections had flourished; where hearts, long
mouldered to dust, had beaten with tender affection, where all the
little circumstances which make up life--the trivial round, the common
task--had gone on beneath the summer's sun or winter's storm, till the
great convulsion which ended the existence of the whole community.
Dunstan noticed that his whole party crowded closely together, and when
the lightning illuminated each face saw that fear had left its visible mark.
The continuous roar of thunder, the hissing of the descending rain, the
wind which blew in angry gusts, prevented all conversation until nearly
an hour had elapsed, when the strife began to diminish. It was a sad and
mournful sight to gaze upon the remains of departed greatness when thus
illuminated by the electric flash, and easily might the fancy, deceived
by the transient glimpses of things, people the ruins with the shades of
their departed inhabitants.
"Father," said Alfred, at length, "who were they who lived here? Do you
know aught about them?"
"The men whom our ancestors subdued--the Welsh, or British--an
"Were they heathen?"
"At one time, but they were converted by the missions from Rome and the
East, of which the earliest was that of St. Joseph of Arimathea to our
own Glastonbury; he may have preached to the very people who lived here,
nay, in this very basilica, which, I think, may have been converted into
It was indeed the ruin of a basilica wherein they stood, but no trace
survived to show whether Dunstan's conjecture was correct.
"It seems strange that God should have permitted them to fall before the
sword of our heathen ancestors."
"Their own historian Gildas, who lies buried at Glastonbury, explains
it. He tells us that such was the corruption of faith and of morals
towards the close of their brief day, that had not the Saxon sword
interposed; plague, pestilence, or famine, or some similar calamity,
must have done the fatal work. God grant that we, now that in turn we
have received the message of the Gospel, may be more faithful servants,
or similar ruin may, at no distant period, await the Englishman also, as
it did the Welshman."
He sighed deeply, and Alfred echoed the sigh in his heart; he read the
"Do you believe," said he, after a pause, "that their spirits ever
revisit the earth?"
"I know not; many wise men have thought it possible, and that they may
haunt the places where they sinned, ever bearing their condemnation
within them, even while they clothe themselves in semblance of the
mortal flesh they once wore."
The whole party shuddered, and Father Guthlac said, deprecatingly:
"My father, let us not talk of this now. We are too weak to bear it, and
the place is so awful!"
By this time the wind had made a huge rent in the black clouds overhead,
and the moon came suddenly in sight, sailing tranquilly in the azure
void above, and casting her beams on the ruins, as she had once cast
them on the beauteous city; its basilicas, palaces, and temples yet
At this moment their guide came hastily to them.
"We are in some danger, father. Horsemen, twelve of them, are galloping
along the Foss Way in spite of the storm."
Dunstan left the shelter, which was no longer needed, the rain having
ceased, and followed the guide to the summit of the huge mound which
marked the fall of some giant bastion of early days. From that position
they could see the Foss Way, now about half-a-mile distant in the bright
moonlight, and Dunstan's eye at once caught twelve figures--horsemen
--sweeping down it like the wind, which brought the sound of their
passage faintly to the ear.
"Wait," he said, "and see whether they pass the bypath; in that case we
The whole party was now on the mound, their persons carefully concealed
from the view of the horsemen, while they watched their passage with
intense anxiety. The enemy reached the bypath; eleven of them passed
over it, but the twelfth reined his horse suddenly, almost upon its
haunches, and pointed to the ground. He had evidently seen the tracks of
the fugitives upon the soft turf.
The next moment they all turned their horses into the bypath.
"Follow," said the guide; and they all rushed eagerly down the mound and
mounted at once.
"Follow me closely; I think I can save you from them; only lose not a
The guide led them by a wandering path amongst the ruins, where their
tracks would leave the least trace, until he passed through a gap in the
external fortifications on the opposite side. Then he rode rapidly along
a descending path in the woods, until the sound of rushing water greeted
their ears, and they arrived on the brink of a small river which was
swollen by the violent rain, and which dashed along an irregular and
stony bed with fearful impetuosity.
There was but one mode of crossing it: a bridge constructed of planks
was thrown over, which one horseman might pass at a time. The whole
party rode over in safety, although the crazy old bridge bent terribly
beneath the weight of each rider.
But when all were over, the guide motioned to Alfred and Oswy to remain
behind for one moment, while the monks proceeded. He threw himself from
his horse, and taking the axe which he had slung behind him, commenced
hacking away at the bridge. But although the bridge was old, yet it was
tough; and although Alfred, and Oswy who was armed with a small
battle-axe, assisted with all their might, the work seemed long.
Before it was completed, they heard the voices of their pursuers calling
to each other amongst the ruins. They had evidently lost the track, and
were separating to find it.
Crash went one huge plank into the raging torrent, then a second, and
but one beam remained, when a horseman emerged from the trees opposite,
and by the light of the moon Alfred recognised his brother.
Desperate in the excitement of the chase, Elfric leapt from his horse,
and drawing his sword rushed upon the bridge.
Alfred, who felt it tremble, cried:
"Back, Elfric! Back if you value your life!" while at the same moment,
true to his duty, without raising his axe or any other attempt at
offence, he opposed his own body in passive resistance to Elfric's
passage over the beam.
Elfric knew the voice, and drew back in utter amazement. He had already
stepped from the half-severed beam, when he saw it bend, break, and
roll, with Alfred, who had advanced to the middle of the bridge, into
the torrent beneath, which swept both beam and man away with resistless
CHAPTER XIII. THE RETURN OF ALFRED.
The reader is, we trust, somewhat impatient to learn the fate of Alfred
of Aescendune, whom we left in so critical a position.
The fall of the bridge was so sudden and unexpected, that he scarcely
knew where he was, till he found himself sucked rapidly down stream by
the raging waters, when he struck out like a man, and battled for dear
life. But the only result seemed to be that he was bruised and battered
against the rocks and stones, until, exhausted, he was on the point of
succumbing to his fate, as the current bore him into a calm deep pool,
where he sank helplessly, his strength gone. But the guide and his
companion Oswy had succeeded in reaching the spot, which was
inaccessible from the other side, and plunging at once into the waters,
the latter succeeded in bringing the dying youth to land. Dunstan and
the other members of the party were soon on the spot; the lay brother
was skilled in the art of restoring suspended animation, and they soon
had the happiness of beholding Alfred return to consciousness; he raised
his head, and gazed about him like one in a dream, not able to realise
"Where am I? What have I been doing?" he exclaimed.
"You are safe, my dear son, and in the hands of friends," replied
Dunstan, "although you have had a narrow, narrow escape; we are secure
for the present from our foes."
They consulted together in low tones as to their future movements, and
the abbot inquired particularly of the guide concerning the fords and
"There is a ford only a mile or two away, but I expect they will find
they cannot cross it."
"Is there no place of refuge near? He is unable to sit his horse."
"There is a cottage close by, kept by a cowherd, who is a good and true
"Then lead us to it at once," replied Dunstan.
Alfred had by this time recognised his position, and he implored Dunstan
not to endanger his own safety for his sake; but the abbot paid no
attention. They reached the cottage just as the day was dawning, and the
east was bright with rosy light. It was such a place as the great king,
after whom Alfred was named, had found refuge in when pressed by the
Danes. It was poor, but neat and clean beyond the usual degree; and when
the wants of their early visitors were known, and Dunstan was
recognised, the utmost zeal was displayed in his cause.
All that could be done for Alfred was done at once, but he was
manifestly too shaken and bruised to be able to travel; and, giving him
his fatherly blessing, Dunstan was compelled by the guide to hurry on,
leaving him in the care of Oswy.
They had not, however, great fear of their pursuers, for their own
horses were comparatively fresh after the rest in the ruined city, and
those of their foes would be necessarily fatigued, after the rapid ride
along the Foss Way, and their exertions to pass the stream.
So it was not with great uneasiness, well mounted as they were, that,
gaining the road, they beheld their pursuers in the distance, who, on
their part, beholding their intended victims afar off, hastened to spur
their horses on.
It was useless: the pursued had the advantage, and after the gallop of a
mile or two, it became evident they were in no especial danger, although
it must be remembered that a false step or slip, or any accident, would
have been fatal.
"I should not mind racing them down the Foss to the Sea Town," [xxv]
said the guide; "but if the abbot has no objection, I should prefer
leaving them to pursue the road, while we take a cross-country route,
which I have often travelled; it is a very good one."
"By all means," said Dunstan, "and then we may slacken this furious pace."
They were quite out of sight of their pursuers when, coming upon a track
of dry stony ground, they suddenly left the road, and crossing a wild
heath, put a copse between them and the enemy, who did not this time
discover for miles the absence of the footprints, for the soil was very
dry and hard, the storm not having passed that way, and the foe were
intent upon hard riding.
So they gained a long start, and eventually reached a hill, from which
they obtained their first view of the sea. It was eventide, and the
western sun, sinking towards the promontories beyond the distant Exe,
reddened the waters with his glowing light. Dunstan and his brethren
"We have come to the setting sun," said they, "and at eventide have seen
light; let us thank Him Who hath preserved us."
But the guide, who knew what relentless pursuers were yet behind, would
allow them no rest. In another hour they reached a small fishing village
on the coast, where a solitary bark was kept. The owner was just about
to put out for an evening's fishing, but at the earnest request of his
visitors, backed by much gold, he consented to take them over to the
"The weather promises to be very clear and fine," he said; "and we may
sail across without any danger."
It was indeed a lovely night; they stepped on board, the anchor was
loosed, the sail set, and with the wind behind, they stood rapidly out
to sea. They were quite silent, each immersed in his own thoughts. At
last they heard the sound of horsemen galloping on the fast-receding
shore, and looking back, they saw twelve riders reach the beach, and
pause, looking wistfully out to sea.
"Our soul is escaped, even as a bird out of the snare of the fowler; the
snare is broken, and we are delivered," said Dunstan.
"Our help standeth in the name of the Lord, Who hath made heaven and
earth," replied Father Guthlac.
Meanwhile, Alfred rapidly gained strength. Happily no bones were broken,
he was only sadly bruised. The next day he expressed his earnest wish to
return home, but his host would not permit him, saying he should have to
answer to Dunstan some day for his guest.
The time passed monotonously enough that second day, yet not
unpleasantly: there were a thousand things to observe in the woods and
marshes around, full of animal life.
Early in the morning, a sweet fresh morning, the cowherd drove his
cattle forth to graze, where he knew the pastures were sweetest, and
Alfred would willingly have gone, too, but they told him he must rest.
So he took his breakfast of hot milk and bread, with oat cakes baked on
the hearth, and waited patiently till the warmth of the day tempted him
out, under the care of Oswy, to watch the distant herd, to drink of the
clear spring or recline under some huge spreading beech, while the
breeze made sweet melodies in his ears, and lulled him pleasantly to sleep.
At midday they returned to the customary dinner, which was not of such
inferior quality as one would now expect to find in such a place,
contrasting strongly with the fare on the tables of the rich: then there
was far more equality in the food of rich and poor, and Alfred had no
cause to complain of the cowherd's table.
Then he sauntered forth again with Oswy, and strove to amuse himself
with the book of nature; till just at eventide, as he was longing
earnestly that he could know the fate of his fugitive friends, they
heard the sound of a horse at full trot, and soon the guide appeared in
Alfred rose up eagerly.
"Are they safe?" he cried.
"Yes, quite safe; they had got a mile out to sea when their pursuers got
to the beach; I saw it all, hidden in a woody hill above."
"Did they try to follow?"
"They could not, there was no boat: I never saw men in such a rage."
Alfred felt as if a weight were removed from his heart, then he looked
up in the face of the guide.
"Will you guide us home?" he said.
"Yes," was the reply; "the holy abbot particularly desired me to return
to his son Alfred, and to take care of him on his journey home; and if
you will have me as your guide, I will warrant you a safe journey to
Aescendune, for we are not worth following."
"Then let us start tomorrow morning," said Alfred, longing to be once
more in his old father's presence, and to cheer his mother's heart.
They returned together to the cowherd's cottage, and slept peacefully
that night. Early in the morning they retook the path to the Foss Way,
crossing the stream at a ford higher up. Their horses being well rested
and full of spirit for the journey, they passed Glastonbury, still empty
and desolate, in the middle of the day, and retraced by easy stages the
whole of Alfred's previous route from home.
After a week's easy travelling, by the blessing of Providence, they
reached the neighbourhood of Aescendune: it had never looked so lovely,
so home-like to Alfred as then. He felt as if every spot were full of
joy, and as he was recognised by person after person, by his favourite
dogs as they bounded forth, and finally fell into his mother's arms at
the gate of the hall, he experienced feelings which in these days, when
we are all so familiar with the thought of travel, can seldom be realised.
Then he had to recount his adventures that night, after supper, to an
admiring audience, who listened enraptured to his account of the
holiness of Dunstan and the cruelty of his foes. But it will easily be
imagined that he made no allusion to his rencontre with Elfric; and
Oswy, instructed by his young master, was equally silent.
He had quite made up his mind to persevere in this course: it could do
no good to tell father or mother how grievously Elfric had fallen, and
how nearly he had been the involuntary instrument of his brother's death.
"God can change his heart," said Alfred to himself, "and bring him home
like the prodigal son about whom Father Cuthbert talks so often."
So he prayed earnestly every day for his brother, and many a
supplication on his behalf arose from the altar of St. Wilfred. Time
will show whether they were lost.
CHAPTER XIV. EDWY AND ELGIVA.
Edwy, King of England, and Elgiva, his queen, gave a great feast at
their royal palace in London, a month after the events recorded in our
last chapter; and a numerous company had assembled to do honour to their
hospitality. Yet the company was very different from that which had
assembled round the same hospitable board in the days of King Edred.
First, the Churchmen were conspicuous by their absence; and secondly,
all the old grey-headed counsellors, who had been the pride and ornament
of the reigns of Edmund and Edred, were not seen; for, after the rumour
of their marriage had reached Odo, he had pronounced the sentence of the
lesser excommunication upon them, severing them from the sacraments; and
this was felt by the old counsellors of Edred to be a most serious
stigma, yet one which they could not call undeserved: hence they
deserted the court.
In their place were the young and giddy, the headstrong sons of wiser
fathers, the spendthrifts, the young fops of the period, those who went
in for a fast life, to use a modern phrase--who spent the night, if
not the day, over the wine cup, and consumed their substance in riotous
living--such were they who gathered around Edwy the Fair and the yet
And truly king and queen more beautiful in person had never sat upon a
throne; and it was difficult to look upon them and feel aught but
admiration, save when one knew all their history, and then pity and
sorrow might supply the place of admiration, at least with the sober minded.
Fish, flesh, and fowl; nought was wanting. The earth the air, and the
water, all yielded their tribute; for was it not the anniversary of the
marriage--the uncanonical marriage, alas!--of the royal pair, if
marriage it had truly been?
Eels of enormous size, fine as the Roman lamprey, pike roasted with
puddings in their bellies, tench and carp stewed; while the sea yielded
its skate, its sturgeon, and its porpoise, which the skill of the cook
had so curiously dressed with fragrant spices that it won him great
renown. The very smell, said a young gourmand, was a dinner in itself;
and the wild buck supplied its haunch, and the boar its head, while fowl
of all kinds were handed round on spits.
The drinking was of like sumptuous character, and Rhenish wine contended
with the wines of sunny France for precedence, as they were passed round
in silver cups and gold-mounted horns; for glass was seldom, if ever,
used for such purposes then.
The floor was strewed with the sweetest summer flowers, and exhaled an
odour balmy as the breath of eastern climes, where the breeze plays with
the orange blossoms. The tapestry was beautifully woven by foreign
artists, and represented the loves of the gods; while there was nothing
in keeping with the olden style throughout the whole apartment.
But one seat was vacant near the king's throne, and every now and then
Edwy seemed to cast a wistful eye upon it, as if he would fain see its
ordinary occupant there.
The gleemen rose and sang, the harpers harped, but something was
wanting; they brought tears to the eyes of the fair queen by their
plaintive songs of hapless lovers, which had superseded alike the war
songs of Athelstane and the monkish odes of Edred.
"Where is Elfric? He promised to be back by our wedding day; why does he
delay, my Edwy?" asked Elgiva.
"It is little less than treason to the queen of youth and beauty to be
thus absent, my Elgiva, but remember he has been unwell, and Redwald
told me that for prudential reasons they delayed his return to court."
"And your brother Edgar--"
"Is somewhere in Mercia: the churlish boy has declined our invitation to
honour our feast with his presence. We do not want his serious face at
the board. I am sure he would preach on the duty of fasting."
"He has but seldom been our visitor."
"No; he is afraid, perhaps, to trust his cold heart within the magic of
my Elgiva's sunshine, lest the ice should be melted."
These had been asides, while all the company were listening to the
gleeman; but now Edwy threw himself heart and soul into the current
conversation, and all went merry as a marriage peal, until the
ceremoniarius--for Edwy loved formality in some things--threw open
the folding doors and announced the captain of the hus-carles, and
Elfric of Aescendune.
The whole company rose to receive them, and Elfric in particular
received a warm welcome; but it was at once seen that there was a marked
constraint upon him: his eye was restless and uneasy, and he seemed like
one carrying a load at his breast.
In truth, since that fatal night when, as he believed, he had witnessed
the death of his brother, he had striven in vain to drown care and to
banish remorse: the thought of his aged father deprived of both his sons
--the one by death, the other by desertion--would force its way
unbidden to his mind. Still, he had determined to throw aside reserve in
honour of the occasion, and he made heroic efforts to appear happy and gay.
Redwald was at his ease, as usual in all company, and seemed to cause
prodigious laughter as he told his adventures to the younger folk at the
bottom of the board. Dark and malign as his demeanour usually was, yet
he could affect a light and airy character at times.
"Redwald, my trusty champion," said Edwy, "this is the first campaign
thou hast ever returned from unsuccessful. Tell us, how did Dunstan
"By the aid of the devil, my liege."
"Doubtless; but we had all hoped for a different result, and that thou
wouldst either have left the traitor no eyes in his head, or no head on
"Said I not rightly, my Elgiva?"
The eyes of the fair enemy of the abbot flashed fire, and she exchanged
some very significant words with her mother, Ethelgiva, who occupied the
"Come, my fairy-given [xxvi] one, you must not be too hard
on Redwald, who doubtless did his best--
"How was it, Elfric?"
"The devil was certainly on Dunstan's side: he and no other could have
betrayed our coming, for betrayed it was."
"How long had he left when you reached the abbey?"
"Only an hour or two; but there was a sound of mocking laughter,
doubtless caused by his incantations, which kept us for some hours
forcing doors and the like."
"And you could discover no cause?"
"None whatever; however, we found he had taken the Foss Way for the
coast, and followed, and nearly caught him."
"What prevented you?"
Elfric turned pale as if with great mental emotion, and tried to proceed
"You are not well," said Elgiva, anxiously.
"Not quite," he said; and then, overcoming his feelings by a vigorous
effort, while no one save Redwald suspected the true cause, he continued:
"There had been a great storm, and they had broken down the only bridge
which existed for miles over a swollen river: we lost hours."
"And yet, as your messengers told us, you arrived in time to see him
leave the coast."
"The vessel which bore him was still distinctly in sight when we stood
on the sands."
"But had you no means of following?"
"None: it was a lonely fishing village with a small harbour, and his
bark was a mere fishing smack, the only one of the place."
"I trust the sea has swallowed him," said the king; "but there is a
rumour today that he is playing the saint in Flanders with great pomp.
Well, only let him show his face in England again, and the devil may
pinch my nose with his tongs if I leave him a head on his shoulders: he
shall be a sacrifice to your outraged dignity, my Elgiva."
"And yours, my Edwy."
Husband and wife were quite agreed on this subject: they had never
forgiven Dunstan in the least degree, and, identifying him with
religion, had well-nigh abjured it altogether.
The ordinary dishes being now removed, the guests all partook lavishly
of wine, and, their heads already heated, yielded entirely to the
excitement of the moment. Toast after toast was drunk to the king: he
was compared to Apollo for his beauty, and Elgiva to Venus, while the
old northern mythology was ransacked also for appellations in honour of
the youthful pair.
Adjoining, in the outer hall, the higher domestics had their music and
dancing, and the king and queen came to honour the entertainment by
their presence. So the happy hours wore away, and at length the company
were on the eve of departure, for fatigue was making itself felt, when
an ominous blowing of a horn was heard at the outer gate.
A pause, during which the company looked at each other, so strangely had
the sound struck them, and yet they knew not why, save that it was an
unlikely hour for such an occurrence.
There was one only who knew what the message would probably be--
Redwald; and he had kept the secret purposely from the king.
The doors opened, and an usher brought in a messenger who had only been
allowed a moment to change a dusty dress, ere he broke into the presence
"Speak," said Edwy, as the messenger bowed before him, and kissed his hand.
"My lord and king--" and the messenger glanced at Elgiva.
"Let him speak, Edwy, my lord. Are we not one? What you can bear, your
wife must bear also."
Thus adjured, the messenger spoke his news.
"Mercia has revolted, and proclaimed Edgar king."
"The cause alleged?"
"I know not, my lord."
"I can tell you," said Redwald; "the banishment of the holy fox,
Dunstan, and very shame prevents my adding that--"
"No more," said Edwy; "I can guess the rest."
He wished to spare Elgiva.
He walked up and down the hall several times. His festive air had gone.
"And on my wedding day, too," he said. "Redwald, you knew this."
"Yes, my lord, but I wished to spare my king upon his wedding day, still
I have not spared myself. The necessary steps are taken, your immediate
vassals are summoned, and my own men are ready to march; we will sweep
these rebels off the field."
"Elfric," said the king, "you must be my right hand in the field: you
will be ready to invade your native Mercia tomorrow. Think you your own
friends are firm?"
"My father, although he has disowned me, would never disown his lawful
king; the duty and love he bore to your murdered father would forbid."
"Well, Redwald, have you known this many hours?"
"I heard it at the frontier town of Mercia, Reading, last night, and
took all my measures immediately."
"Then, can we really depend upon Wessex?"
"I treat so indeed, my lord, else we should be in a very bad way indeed."
"Well, we must rest now. Elgiva, darling, this is a cold termination to
our first anniversary, but your husband's love shall ever protect you
until he be cold in death.
"Goodnight, Elfric, be ready for the morrow.
"Goodnight, Redwald, trustiest warrior who ever served grateful lord.
"Goodnight, gentlemen all."
And thus the royal party broke up, and thus ended the first anniversary
of the ill-starred union.
On the morrow all was haste and confusion in the royal palace. Elgiva
departed early for Winchester, which, being farther removed from the
frontier, was safer than London from any sudden excursion on the part of
the Mercians, and the city was also devoted to the royal family. The
citizens of London were directed to provide for the defence of their
city, while the royal guards, attended by the immediate vassals of the
crown, prepared to march into the heart of the rebellious district.
It is too often supposed that the feudal system was of Norman
importation, whereas its very foundation--the act of homage, or of
"becoming your man,"--was brought by the Saxons and Angles from their
German home. The lord was the protector of the vassal, but the vassal
was bound to attend his feudal superior both in peace and war.
So imperative was this obligation, that a vassal who abandoned his lord
in the field of battle was liable to the death of a traitor.
Therefore Edwy soon found himself at the head of a compact body of ten
thousand men, all bound to stand by him to death. But there was one very
disheartening circumstance, which attracted notice. No volunteers joined
the little army, although a royal proclamation had promised lands from
the territories of the rebels to each successful combatant in the cause
of Edwy and Elgiva.
The fear of the Church hung on all, the conviction that the law of both
Church and State had been broken by the young king; the universal belief
in the sanctity of Dunstan, and in the true patriotism of Odo whom they
called "the good;" the thoughtless misgovernment since the wiser
counsellors had dispersed--all these things weakened the hearts of the
followers of Edwy.
There was therefore but little enthusiasm when the inhabitants saw the
soldiers of the king march out by the Watling Street, and the soldiers
themselves looked dispirited.
It was early dawn on the second day from the feast that the departure
took place. Cynewulf, a valiant Earl of Wessex, was the real commander;
nominally, Edwy commanded in person, and Elfric rode out of London by
his side. Redwald's rank would not have entitled him to the chief command.
Passing through the environs of the city, they gained the open country,
and marched steadily along the causeway the Romans had so firmly laid,
until they reached Verulam or St. Alban's, where they passed the night.
It excited great discontent amongst the inhabitants that Edwy did not
visit the shrine of the saint, the glory of their town; and his
departure again took place amidst gloomy silence.
They were now about to cross the frontier and enter Mercia, then in many
respects an independent state; governed, it might be, by the same
monarch and Witan as Wessex, even as Scotland and England are governed
by the same sovereign and Parliament, yet retaining like them its own
peculiar code of laws in many respects.
And now Mercia had sternly refused to be governed any longer by the
"enemy of the Church," and chose the Etheling, Edgar, to be its king.
Acting with the sanction of Odo, whom he deeply revered, the young
Edgar, then only in his fifteenth year, accepted the offer, and the
whole force of Mercia was gathering to support him when Edwy crossed the
It must not be supposed that either Cynewulf or Redwald expected to
conquer the Mercians with ten thousand men. No, their design was
simpler: they had learned where Edgar was residing, and that the forces
around him were small. One bold stroke might secure his person, and then
Edwy might make his own terms. This was the secret of the advice they
both gave to the young king.
Redwald had, as we shall see, deep designs of his own to serve also, but
they had been locked for years in his own breast, and no servant could
seem more trusty and faithful than he did, or act with more energy in
his master's cause.
The forces of Edwy, as we have related, left St. Alban's on the second
morning, and travelled, horse and foot, very rapidly all that day.
Crossing the Icknield Street at Dunstable, where the remains of a huge
temple, once sacred to Diana, were visible, they entered Mercia, and
soon reached Towcester, a town which had been walled round by King
Athelstane; here they found no force prepared to receive them, and the
town opened its gates at once.
They tarried here for a day, while they sent scouts and spies in all
directions, many of whom never returned. The troops were quartered
freely upon the inhabitants, who were evidently very hostile; and, in
return, the soldiers of Edwy insulted the women and bullied the men.
Every hour some quarrel arose, and generally ended in bloodshed; the
citizens being commonly the victims.
Late at night messengers arrived at the royal quarters, bringing
information that Edgar was at Alcester, the ancient Alauna, beyond the
Avon, and that Osric, the great Earl of Mercia, was with him collecting
A council was held at once, and it was decided to leave the Watling
Street and to march for the Avon by cross-country routes. They rested
that night amidst the ruins of the ancient Brinavae, and here another
council was held, to deliberate on their future movements, and it was
decided to march westward at once, for tidings came that Edgar's forces
were rapidly increasing, and prudence suggested prompt measures. Edwy
was becoming very anxious.
The route for the next day was then made out and, with beating heart,
Elfric learned that they purposed crossing the river not far from
"Elfric, my friend," said Edwy, "there will be a chance for you to visit
Aescendune, and to obtain the old man's forgiveness."
He said this with a slight sneer.
"I cannot go there; I would die first."
Edwy started at the tone of deep feeling with which the words were said;
he knew nothing of the rencontre of Elfric with his brother.
"Still I think that I must spend this coming night there, and I will try
and act the Christian for the occasion: perhaps I may do you a good
turn, while I renew my acquaintance with your people."
In his very heart Elfric wished that Edwy might never arrive there, yet
he knew not what to say.
"Well," said the prince, observing his hesitation, "you may go on with
Cynewulf and the main body of the army, which will cross the Avon higher
up, and I will make excuse that your duties detain you. I must go--I
have special reasons, I wish at least to secure the fidelity of the few
--and Redwald will accompany me; we join the army on the morrow,
without losing any time by the move."
And so the matter was settled.
CHAPTER XV. THE ROYAL GUEST.
It was the morning of the first of August, and the sun, dispersing the
early mists, gave promise of a bright summer day.
The inhabitants of Aescendune, lord and vassals alike, were astir from
the early daybreak; for that day the harvest was to be commenced, and
the crops were heavier than had been known for many a year. A good
harvest meant peace and prosperity in those times, a bad harvest famine,
and perhaps rebellion; for if the home crop failed, commerce did not, as
now, supply the deficiency.
So it was with joy and gladness that the people went forth that day to
reap with their sharp sickles in their hands, while the freshness of the
early morn filled each heart insensibly with energy and life. The corn
fell on the upland before their sharp strokes, while behind each reaper
the younger labourers gathered it into sheaves.
Old Ella stood in their midst looking on the familiar scene, while his
pious heart returned many a fervent thanksgiving to the Giver of all
good. Under the shade of some spreading beeches, which bordered the
field, the domestics from the manor house were spreading the banquet for
the reapers--mead and ale, corn puddings prepared in various modes
with milk, huge joints of cold roast beef--for the hour when toil
should have sharpened the appetite of the whole party.
By the side of his father stood young Alfred administering with filial
affection to all his wants, as if he felt constrained to supply a double
service in his own person now that Elfric was no more, or, at least,
dead to home ties.
Thicker and thicker fell the wheat, and they thought surely such heavy
sheaves had never fallen to their lot before.
At last the blowing of a horn summoned all the reapers to their dinner,
and when Father Cuthbert had said grace, the whole party fell to--the
thane at the head of them; and when the desire of eating and drinking
was appeased, the labourers lay on the grass, in the cool shade, to pass
away the hour of noontide heat, before resuming their toil.
"Father," said Alfred, "a horseman is coming."
"My old eyes are somewhat dim; I do not see any one approaching."
"Nor I, as yet, but I hear him; listen, he is just crossing the brook; I
can hear the splashing."
"Some royal messenger, perhaps, from Edgar or from Edwy, my son. I fear
such may be the case; yet I wish I could be left in peace, afar from the
strife which must convulse the land, if the ill-advised brothers cannot
agree to reign--the one over Mercia, the other over Wessex."
"We have repeatedly said that we should be quite neutral, father."
"And yet, my son, we offend both parties, and, I fear me, we shall be
forced to defend ourselves in the end. But God is our refuge and
strength, a very present help in trouble. And now that I am old I can
lean more and more upon Him. He will be a father to you, my Alfred, when
these hoary hairs are hidden in the grave."
It was seldom that the old thane expressed his devotion in this strain;
it seemed to Alfred as if there were a foreboding of coming trial in it,
and he felt as when a cloud veils the face of the sun in early spring.
The messenger now came in sight--a tall, resolute looking man, well
armed and well mounted, and evidently bound for the hall. But when he
saw the party beneath the trees he bent his course aside, and saluting
the thane with all deference, inquired if he spoke to Ella of Aescendune.
"I am he," replied Ella. "I trust you are not the bearer of other than
good tidings; but will you first refresh yourself, since it is ill
talking between the full and the fasting?"
"With gladness do I accept your bounty; for I have ridden since early
dawn, and rider and horse are both exhausted."
"There is corn for your horse, and food and wine for his master.
"Uhred, take charge of the steed.
"Alfred, my son, place that best joint of beef before the stranger, and
those wheaten cakes.
"I drink to you, fair sir."
The messenger seemed in no hurry to open his tale until he had eaten and
drunk, and it was with the greatest patience that the thane, who was one
of nature's gentlemen, awaited his leisure.
At length the messenger looked up, and pushed his wooden platter aside.
"I have come to be the bearer of good tidings to you, noble thane. Edwy,
your king, with a small troop of horse, his royal retinue, proposes
honouring your roof with his presence, and asks bed and board of his
loyal subject, Ella of Aescendune."
"The king's will is my law; and since it pleases the son of my late
beloved master, King Edmund, to visit me, he shall find no lack of
hospitality. But may I ask what sudden event has brought him into the
heart of our country?"
"He comes to chastise rebellion. A large force of several thousand men
crosses the river a few miles higher this evening, and, not to incommode
you with numbers, King Edwy comes apart from his followers."
Although he foresaw grave inconvenience, and even danger, in the
proposal, yet Ella could not appear churlish and inhospitable;
therefore, learning from the messenger that the king might be expected
before sunset, he returned home to make such preparations as should
suggest themselves for the entertainment of his royal master, for so he
still would have styled Edwy, deeply as he felt he had been wronged by him.
"Father," said Alfred, as he walked homeward by his side, "think you
Elfric will be in his train? I wish he may be."
"Alas, my son! I fear I shall never see poor Elfric again. My mind
always seems to misgive me when I think of him; and I have so strong a
foreboding that he has received my last blessing, that I cannot overcome
it. No, Alfred, I fear we shall not see Elfric tonight."
No more was said upon the subject; they reached the hall in good time,
and startled the lady Edith by their tidings.
Instantly all was in preparation: the best casks of wine were broached,
fowls and wild birds alike had cause to lament that their lives were
shortened, chamberlain and cook were busy, clean rushes were brought in
to adorn the floor of the hall, sweet flowers and aromatic grass for
that of the royal bedchamber; and it was not till a flourish of trumpets
announced the approach of the cavalcade that all was ready, and the
maidens and men servants, arrayed in their best holiday attire, stood
grouped without the gate to receive their king.
At last the glitter of the departing ray upon pointed lances announced
the approach, and soon the whole party might be seen--a hundred horse
accompanying the king's person, and one or two nobles of distinction,
including Redwald, riding by his side.
When the train first reached the spot from which the castle was visible,
a strange thing occurred. The king's eyes were fixed upon Redwald, and,
to the royal astonishment, the whole frame of that worthy seemed shaken
by a sudden emotion. His countenance became pale, his lips were
compressed, and his eyes seemed to dart fire.
"What is the matter, my Redwald?" asked the king.
"Oh, nothing, my lord!" said he, resuming his wonted aspect with
difficulty, but at last becoming calm as a lake when the wind has died
away. "Only a sudden spasm."
"I hope you are not ill?"
"No, my lord; you need not really feel anxious concerning me.
"The hall of Aescendune appears a pleasant place for a summer
residence," he added.
"I have been there before," said the king. "Spent some weeks there. Yes;
I thought it a great change for the better then, after the musty odour
of sanctity which reigned in the palace of my uncle the monk, but all
things go by comparison. I might not relish a month there now."
"Yet it looks like a place formidable for its kind, and it might not be
amiss to persuade the worthy old thane to receive a garrison there, so
that if the worst came to the worst we might have a place of refuge,
otherwise the Mercians would soon have possession of it."
"Ella is one of themselves."
"But the rebel Edgar may not forgive him for entertaining us!"
"He can hardly help himself. Still, the smoke of those fires, which, I
trust, betokens good cheer; and the peaceful aspect of that party coming
out to meet us, in the midst of whom I recognise old Ella and his son
Alfred, Elwy's brother, does not look much like compulsion."
"Making the best of a bad bargain, perhaps."
"I prefer to think otherwise."
At this moment the two parties met, and Edwy at once dismounted from his
courser with that bewitching and kingly grace which became "Edwy the
Fair." He advanced gracefully to the old thane, and, presenting the
customary mark of homage, embraced him as a son might embrace a father
--"For," said he, "Elfric has taught me to revere you as a father even
if Aescendune had not taught me before then. I robbed you of your son,
now I offer you two sons, Elfric and myself."
The tears stood in the old man's eyes at this reception, and the mention
of his dear prodigal son.
"He is well, I hope?" said he, striving to speak with such sternness and
dignity as sell-respect taught in opposition to natural feeling.
"Well and happy; and I trust you will see him in a day or two, when we
shall have chastised our rebels; justice, mingled with mercy, must first
have its day."
"Where is he now?"
"With the main body of the army; in fact, he is my right hand. It is my
fault, not his, that he is not here now; but we could not both leave,
and he preferred that I should come and proffer my filial duty first,
and perhaps that I should assure you of his love and duty, however
appearances may have seemed against him."
Then the eye of Edwy caught Alfred. It must be remembered that Elfric
had kept the secret of his brother's supposed death, even from the king.
"And of Alfred, too, I have ever been reminded by his brother; your name
has seldom been long absent from our conversation."
"I trust now," he continued, "that I may profitably renew an
acquaintance suspended for three years. I am but young, only in my
eighteenth year, and I have no father; let me find one in the wisest of
So bewitching was the grace of the fair speaker that he seemed to carry
all before him. Ella began to think he must have misjudged the king.
Alfred alone, who knew much more of the relations between the king and
the Church than his father, still suspended his belief in these most
Leaning upon the still powerful arm of Ella, his young agile form
contrasting strongly with the powerful build of the old thane--
powerful even in decay--they came in front of the hall, where the
serfs and vassals all received them with joyful acclamations, and amidst
the general homage the king entered the hall.
There he reverentially saluted the lady Edith.
"The mother of my friend, my brother, Elfric, is my mother also," said he.
Then he was conducted to his chamber, where the bath was provided for
him, and unguents for anointing himself, after which, accepting the loan
of a change of clothing more suitable than his travelling apparel, he
received the visit of Ella, who came to conduct him to the banquet.
All this while his followers had been received according to their
several degrees; and a board was spread, of necessity, in a barn, for
the due feasting of the soldiers of Edwy and the vassals of Aescendune;
while the officers and the chief tenants of the family met at the royal
table in the great hall once before introduced to our readers.
It boots not to repeat an oft-told tale, to describe the banquet in all
its prodigal luxury, to tell how light the casks in the cellars of
Aescendune seemed afterwards, how empty the larder; suffice it to say
that in due course the banquet was ended, the toasts were drunk, and,
with an occasional interlude in the gleeman's song and the harper's wild
music, the conversation was at its height. Wine and wassail unloosed
Redwald sat near the king, who had introduced him to Ella as a dear
friend both to him and his son--"a very Mentor," he said, "who, since
the unhappy quarrel into which my counsellors forced me--yes, forced
me--with Dunstan, has done more to keep Elfric and me straight in our
morals than at one time I should have thought possible for any man to do.
"Redwald, you need not blush; it is true, and your king is proud to own it."
Redwald was not exactly blushing; he had spent the interval before the
banquet in looking eagerly and wistfully all round the house, and now
his countenance had a cold composure, which made it seem as if he had
never known emotion; still he answered fittingly to the king's humour:
"Alack, my lord, such credit is due only to the blessed saints,
especially St. Wilfred, whom you first learned to love at Aescendune, as
you have often told me."
"Yes," said Edwy; "you remember, Ella, how I used to steal away even
from the chase, and visit his chapel at the priory which your worthy
father founded. Truly, I mused upon the saint so much that I marvel he
appeared not to me; I think he did once."
"Indeed!" exclaimed his auditors.
"Yes; I had been musing upon my condition as a poor orphan boy, deprived
of my brave father--he was your friend, Ella!--when methought a
figure in the dress of a very ancient bishop, stood beside me, yet
immaterial as the breeze of evening. 'Thy prayer is heard' said he to
me; 'thou hast brought many gifts to St. Wilfred; he shall send thee
one, even a friend.' It was fulfilled in Elfric."
"Truly, it was marvellous," said Father Cuthbert, who listened with open
mouth. "I doubt not it was our sainted patron."
Alfred said nothing; his recollections of Edwy's days at Aescendune did
not embrace many hours in the chapel of St. Wilfred.
The great wonderment of Ella may be conceived: he had always mourned
over Edwy as a headstrong youth, dead to religion, and now he was called
upon to contemplate him in so different a light. The reader may wonder
at his credulity, but if he had listened to the sweet voice of the
beautiful king, had gazed into that innocent-looking face--those eyes
which always seemed to meet the gaze, and never lowered themselves or
betrayed their owner--he would, perhaps, have been deceived too; yet
Edwy was overdoing it, and a look from Redwald warned him of the fact.
He took the other line.
"Alas!" he said, "I have been very very unworthy of St. Wilfred's fond
interest in me, and may have done very rash things; but some day the
saint may rejoice in me again, and then he shall not find in me a
Further than this he was not disposed to go, for in truth he felt
himself sickened by his very success in deceit, although half disposed
to be proud of it at the same time. But Redwald had taken up the
"These halls of yours seem old, venerable thane; has your family long
dwelt under this hospitable roof?"
"My remote ancestor fought by the side of Cynric in the victories which
led to the foundation of Mercia."
"Ah! many a sad yet glorious tale and legend for the gleeman's harp,
doubtless, adorns your annals."
"Not many; we have our traditions."
"For instance, is there one connected with the foundation of the priory
"It is of recent date, my father built it."
"Strange, for generally these old places are reared up by repentant
sinners, mourning over the sins they have committed, or the day of grace
they have cast away; is there no tale attached to your foundation?"
"Alas! there is; but it is one whose stain is all too recent, one we
cannot recount, or suffer gleeman's harp to set to music, lest we harrow
the yet bleeding wound."
Redwald could not ask more; the answer was too plain and distinct, and
so he was forced to repress his curiosity.
The conversation then became desultory and, finally, when the gleemen
began the well known _piece de resistance_, the battle of Brunanburgh,
Edwy yawned and Redwald looked sleepy, while the old thane actually
slept in his huge armchair, and was awakened only by the cessation of
the music and singing.
Even in the presence of royalty itself Ella did not suffer the company
to disperse before the chaplain had said the customary compline service,
after which the guard was doubled at the door, and soon the whole
household was buried in sweet and peaceful sleep.
Yet, although they knew it not, they nourished the deadliest foe of
their race in the bosom of the family. There was one at least who could
not sleep that night who now paced his narrow chamber, now looked forth
at the meadows, woods, and hills, sleeping in the summer twilight; now,
unchecked, burst into the wildest excitement, and paced his chamber as a
wild beast might pace the floor of his cage; now calmed down into a
"Yes!" he said in soliloquy, "and here I am at last; here in the halls
which should have been his and mine, and shall be mine yet; here! and
they know it not; here! and the reward of years of patient endurance is
at hand; here! yes, here, in the halls of Aescendune--dreamed of,
sighed after, prayed for at the shrine of such gods as promise
vengeance; here, by Woden and Thor; here by Satan's help, if there be a
Satan!--here! here! here!"
CHAPTER XVI. NAKED THOUGH LOCKED IN STEEL.
Early in the morning the whole household was astir, and the breakfast
alone preceded the preparations for the departure of Edwy and his
retinue. Redwald did not appear, and they became uneasy at his prolonged
absence, until, sending to his room, they found him suffering from
sudden, but severe illness; which, as the leech shortly decided, would
absolutely prevent his travelling that day.
It was evident that Edwy was annoyed by this, but it was not until after
a long conference with Redwald that he took Ella aside, and pointing out
to him the exposed position of the hall, besought his permission to
leave a garrison of fifty men under the command of this trusty officer,
which would ensure their safety, in case of any sudden attack on the
part of Edgar's troops.
"I can hardly feel that I need such protection, my royal master,"
replied Ella; "I dwell among my own people, and am perhaps safer when
"In that case, may I press my own poor claims?" replied the king. "In
case of the worst, I should have Aescendune to fall back upon, a retreat
secured by chosen men behind me, where one might halt and turn to bay;
again, Redwald's sudden illness necessitates my leaving him to your
Thus pressed on every side, Ella felt he could but yield to a request
which the speaker had not only the power but the right, as his feudal
superior, to enforce; for Ella was not prepared to throw off his
allegiance, as most of his neighbours had done, and to make common cause
with Edgar. Again, the conversation of the previous night had given him
more confidence in Edwy, and more hope of seeing Elfric again, like the
returning prodigal, than he had previously had.
Edwy saw this, and continued:
"And it is but a few days hence, ere I propose to return with Elfric--
whom I could indeed put in command of such forces as are necessary to
secure you against our mutual foes, when I return southward. Redwald and
his troops will hold the place in trust for Elfric, till he arrives."
The last lingering feeling of reluctance was now forcibly banished, and
Ella consented to receive Redwald as his guest, with a picked troop of
"They shall be the best behaved warriors you have ever seen, my own
hus-carles--men who go to mass every morning, and shrift every week,"
added the deceitful prince; "at least," he added, as he saw the look of
incredulity Ella could not suppress, "some of them do, I can't say how
In the course of an hour from this conversation, the royal party took
its departure, reduced to half its numbers.
Edwy left amidst the regret of all, so amiable had been his manners, so
winning his ways.
"I take a son's liberty," said he, as he saluted the venerable cheek of
the lady Edith; "but I will bring your other son back with me in a few
The road leading over the hill and through the forest had swallowed up
the retreating force, when Ella personally superintended the
distribution of quarters to the guard of Redwald, many of whom
afterwards volunteered to follow him to the harvest field, and displayed
uncommon alacrity in carrying the wheat safely to its granaries, saying
the rebels should never have the reaping thereof.
There was, however, a kind of gloom over the whole party through that
day. The thought that deadly strife impended close at hand weighed upon
the spirits of Ella, but they brightened again at the renewed hope of
meeting his prodigal, and he now hoped repentant, son in peace.
Meanwhile, very different scenes were on the point of being enacted only
twice ten miles from the spot.
The main body of the army left its quarters on the right bank of the
Avon, at the same hour in which Edwy left Aescendune to join them on
their march and they proceeded in safety all through the morning. At
midday they lay down to feed and to rest, and while thus resigning
themselves to repose, with the guards posted carefully around, the sound
of cavalry was heard in the distance, and shortly the royal party
appeared. Elfric was alert to receive them, but could not conceal his
surprise when he saw their diminished numbers, and perceived the absence
Edwy saw his look of embarrassment, and hastened to reply to the
question it conveyed.
"They are left at Aescendune, fifty under the command of Redwald, to
fortify the house until we return. You must go home this time, and you
need not fear, for I have been a very saint at Aescendune, and they are
expecting Dunstan will speedily return and canonise me. Elfric, I have
used my sanctity for your advantage, since I have represented you as
sharing it at least in some degree."
"I fear me, my father is too wise to be so easily deceived."
"Nothing of the kind; he really seemed to believe in it; at all events,
I have promised you shall return with me."
"Did they really seem to wish to see me?"
"They did really, especially your brother Alfred."
Elfric started as if an arrow had struck him.
"Alfred. Alfred!" he said.
"Yes, why not Alfred?"
"And you saw him alive and well?"
"To be sure, why not? Did you think he was dead."
Elfric became confused, and muttered some incoherent answer, but he
rejoiced in his very heart; he felt as if a mountain were removed from
him, and a sweet longing for home, such as he had not felt since a
certain Good Friday, sprang up in his mind, so strongly that he would
have gone then and there, had circumstances permitted.
Alas, poor boy! his wish was not thus easily to be gratified: he had
sinned very deeply--his penance had yet to be accomplished; well has
the poet written:
"_Facilis descensus Averno . . . . Sed retrograre gradum,
superasque evadere ad auras, Hoc opus--hic labor est._" [xxvii]
The midday halt concluded, the troops resumed their march for Alcester,
where they hoped to arrive about nightfall, and to surprise Edgar and
his few followers. All that afternoon they proceeded through a dense
woodland country; and the evening was setting in upon them, when
suddenly the scouts in front came galloping back, and gave the startling
information that entrenchments were thrown up across their path, and
that a large force was evidently entrenched behind.
At first Edwy could scarcely believe the report; but Cynewulf, the
experienced commander upon whom, as we have said, the real command of
the force devolved, rode forward, and soon returned, having previously
ordered a general halt, and that entrenchments should be thrown up for
their own protection during the night.
"Ealdorman," said Edwy, impatiently, "why throw up entrenchments? can we
not carry theirs by storm? we are all ready, are we not, for a valiant
"Nay, my lord, we are but ill prepared," was the reply, "for such
desperate measures. I am not certain they do not outnumber us; even so,
we probably excel them in discipline and skill, and have every chance of
victory tomorrow, which we should lose by fighting in the dark."
So Edwy, who did not lack personal courage, and would gladly have ended
the short raid then and there, was forced to be governed by wiser heads,
and accordingly the bivouacs were made, the fires lighted, and the royal
tent pitched upon the slope of a gentle valley, which descended to a
brook in the bottom, where the ground rose similarly on the other side,
and was crowned by the hostile entrenchment, behind which rose the smoke
of the enemy's fires. The heads of numerous soldiers, seen over the
mound, showed how well they were prepared.
The entrenchment was dug, the mound thrown up, the sentinels posted, and
all in so short a space of time that to the uninitiated in the art of
war, it would have seemed little short of miraculous; but the discipline
of the Danes, who owed their success generally to the skill with which
they fortified their camps, had been partially inherited by their
adversaries, and the hus-carles were not even all English: there were
many Danes amongst them.
The suppers were soon cooked and eaten, the wine circulated freely, and
patriotic songs began to be heard: but there was one who seemed to have
no heart for them--Elfric. At the huge fire, which blazed near the
royal tent, Edwy sat as master of the feast, and he was in a state of
boisterous merriment. But all Elfric's efforts could not hide the
depression of his spirits, and Edwy, who loved him sincerely--for the
reader has seen that he was quite capable of love--tried to rouse him
from it, anxious that no one should suspect the courage of his favourite.
Once or twice Elfric seemed to make great efforts to overcome this
feeling of depression, and partially succeeded in veiling it from all
but the observant young king.
At last the feast was over.
"My friends," said the king, "we must be stirring early in the morning,
so we will now disperse for the night."
They drank a parting cup, then separated, while the king took Elfric's
arm and led him aside.
"Elfric," said he, "did I not know my friend and most faithful follower,
I should suspect that he feared the morrow's conflict."
"I cannot help it," said Elfric; "perhaps I do fear it, yet, had I but
my father's forgiveness, could I but see him once more, I could laugh at
the danger. It is not pain or death I fear, but I long to be where you
have been, I would I had gone with you now."
"So do I."
"And now I have my forebodings that I shall never hear my father's
forgiveness; and, Edwy, if I die without it, I believe my spirit cannot
rest; I shall haunt the spot till the day of doom."
"This is all moonshine, Elfric. You have not been such a bad fellow
after all; if you go wrong, what will happen to the greater part of
those amongst us who may die tomorrow? When you once get into the fight,
and your blood gets warm, you will be all right; it is only the first
battle that gives one all these fancies."
"No; it is not that. I am of a race of warriors, and I do not suppose
one of that race ever felt like this in his first battle. I have often
looked forward to mine with joy, but now my mind is full of gloomy
forebodings: I feel as if some terrible danger, not that of the fight,
were hanging over me and mine, and as if I should never meet those I did
love once, either in this world or the next."
"The next! all we know about that comes from the priestly pratings. I
think, of the two heavens, Valhalla,[xxviii] with its hunting or fighting
by day, its feasting by night, would suit me best. I don't know why we
should think ourselves wiser than our ancestors; they were most likely
right about the matter, if there be another world at all."
"I cannot disbelieve, if you can," replied poor Elfric, "I have tried
to, but I can't. Well, I daresay I shall know all about it by this time
"Pshaw! let tomorrow take care of itself; 'tis our first fight, Elfric,
and we will have no cowardly forebodings; we shall live to laugh at them
all. What shall we do with Edgar, if we get him tomorrow? I suppose one
must not shed a brother's blood, even if he be a rebel?"
"Certainly not; no, no."
"Perhaps it will be shed for me, and a lucky thrust with sword or lance
may end all our trouble, and leave me sole king; but won't the holy fox
Dunstan grieve if his pet, his favourite, gets hurt? Come, cheer up,
Elfric, my boy; dismiss dull care, and be yourself again!"
Elfric tried very hard to do so, and again partly succeeded. They had
extended their walk all round the limits of the camp. It was a beautiful
starlit night: there was a new moon, which was just going down, and an
uncertain light hung about the field which was to be the scene of the
conflict. It was one of those bright nights when the very aspect of
nature suggests thoughts of the Eternal and the Infinite; when the most
untutored being, gazing up into the deep blue void, finds his mind
struggle vainly to grasp the hidden secrets those depths conceal; when
the soul seems to claim her birthright, and dreams of an existence
boundless, illimitable, as the starry wastes around. Such were, perhaps,
the ideas which animated the philosophers of the old heathen world when
they placed their departed heroes amongst the constellations; such,
perhaps, the thoughts which led the dying apostate Julian to bid his
followers weep no more for a prince about to be numbered with the stars.
Thoughts of peace would those radiant orbs have spoken, under any other
circumstances, to the ardent youth as he gazed upon them; but now they
oppressed him with the consciousness that he was at enmity with the
mighty Unknown, that he was in danger, such danger as he could not
comprehend; not that which comes from the lance point or the sword
blade, but danger which fills the soul with the consciousness of its
existence, yet is impalpable, not having revealed itself, only its presence.
"Goodnight, Elfric," said Edwy, as they reached the camp on their
return; "goodnight. I hope you will be in better spirits in the morning."
Edwy retired within the folds which concealed the entrance to his own
tent. Close by was the tent appointed for Elfric, who acted as his page;
and the latter entered also, and sat down on a camp stool.
His bed did not seem to invite him; he sat on the seat, his face buried
in his hands; then he suddenly rose, threw himself on his knees, only
for a moment, rose up again:
"I can't, I can't pray; if my fate be death, then come death and welcome
the worst. There will at least be nothing hidden then, nothing behind
the scenes. I will not be a coward."
The phrase was not yet written--"Conscience makes cowards of us all;"
yet how true the principle then as now--true before Troy's renown had
birth, true in these days of modern civilisation.
He could not sleep peacefully, although he laid himself down; his hands
moved in the air, as if to drive off some unseen enemy, as if the danger
whose presence was impalpable to the waking mind revealed itself in sleep.
"No, no" he muttered; "let the blow fall on me, on me, on me alone!"
then he rose as if he would defend some third person from the attack of
an enemy, and the word "Father" once or twice escaped his lips; yet he
was only dreaming.
"Father!" again he cried, in the accents of warning, as if some imminent
danger menaced the loved one.
He awoke, stared about, hardly recognising where he was.
"What can I have been dreaming about?" he cried; "what can it all mean?
I thought I was at Aescendune;" and he strove vainly to recall the
scenes of his dream.
The tread of the passing guard was the only sound which broke the
stillness of the camp.
"I cannot sleep," said Elfric, and walked forth.
The night was waning, and in the east a red glow was creeping upwards;
the stars were, however, still brilliant. Opposite, at the distance of
less than a mile, the reflection of the camp fires, now low, revealed
the presence of the enemy; before him the mist slowly arose in white
thin smoke-like wreaths, from the grass whereon many should soon sleep
their last sleep, now in unconsciousness of their fate.
"I wonder where I shall lie?" thought Elfric, as if it were certain he
He felt cooler now, as the hour drew near; he watched the red light
creeping upward, and saw the light clouds above catch the glow, until
the birds began their songs, the glorious orb arose to gild the coming
strife, and the shrill trumpet in the camp was answered by the distant
notes in the camp of the foe, like an echo afar off.
CHAPTER XVII. THE SLEEP OF PEACE.
The first day after the departure of the king from Aescendune passed
rapidly away. The soldiers who had remained behind with Redwald were
quiet and orderly in their demeanour, and even, in obedience to secret
orders, attended the evensong at the minster church, as if moved thereto
by devotion, although the curious spectator might easily discover the
unaccustomed character of their service, by the difficulty with which
they followed the prayers, and the uneasy impatience with which they
listened to a lengthened exposition of a portion of the Anglo-Saxon
version of the Gospels from Father Cuthbert.
The old thane and all his family were very anxious, it may be readily
believed, for the earliest news from the field of battle, for battle
every one agreed was impending; and, to gratify their natural curiosity.
Redwald sent out quick and alert members of his troop, to act as
messengers, and bear speedy news from the scene of action.
The night set in clear and bright, as we have already seen; and while
poor Elfric was wandering about uneasily beneath that brilliant sky, the
same stars looked down peacefully upon his home, where all slept sweetly
under the fostering care, as they would have said, of their guardian angels.
The morn broke brightly, and with every promise of a fine harvest day.
The labourers were speedily again in the fields; the cattle wandered
under the herdsman's care to their distant pastures; the subdued
tinkling of the sheep bells met the ear, and the other subdued sounds
which soothe the air on a summer's day; and so the hours fled by, and no
one would have dreamed that, not twenty miles away, man met man in the
fierce and deadly struggle of war.
When the reapers assembled for their midday meal, they discussed the
merits of the quarrel, and nearly all those who had been brought under
the eye of "Edwy the Fair" were eager in pleading his cause, and trying
to find some extenuation of his misdeeds in the matter of the illegal
marriage, for such it was, from the mildest point of view; and scarcely
a voice was raised on the opposite side, until Ella drew near the scene
of conversation, and observed that "while God forbid they should judge
the matter harshly, yet law was law, and right was right, and a
beautiful face or winsome look could not change it."
Strolling near the field, seemingly absorbed in thought, walked Redwald,
and seeing the reapers, he came towards them.
"A picture of peaceful enjoyment," he quietly said. "How often have I
wished I could but lay down sword and lance to take more innocent
weapons in hand, and to spend my declining days 'mid scenes like these."
"Indeed!" said Ella. "It is generally thought that men whose trade is
war love their calling."
"Yes; sometimes the fierce din of battle seems a pastime fit for the
gods, but the banquet is apt to cloy."
"Have you followed your profession for many years?"
"Since I was a mere child; even my boyhood was passed amid the din of arms."
There were very few professional soldiers in that day, and they were
much dreaded. An Englishman was always ready to take up arms when
lawfully called by his feudal superior, or when home or civil rights
were in danger, but he generally laid them down and returned to his
fields with joy; hence the rustics looked upon a man like Redwald with
much undisguised curiosity.
"Think you we shall soon hear from the contending parties?" asked
Alfred, who was, as usual, in attendance upon his father.
"Perhaps by nightfall; one of my men has just returned to tell me that
the king's progress was stopped by an entrenched camp of the rebels, and
that they expected to fight at early dawn."
The news was unexpected, and every one felt his heart beat more quickly.
"I have a messenger already on the spot, and so soon as the royal forces
have gained the victory he will speed hither as fast as four legs can
bring him; we shall probably hear by eventide."
It is needless to say how every one panted for the decisive news. Ella
and Alfred soon returned to the castle, and Redwald took his horse, and
rode out, as he said, to meet the messenger.
The hours seemed to pass more slowly; the sun drew near the west, the
shadows lengthened; and Ella, with the lady Edith, Alfred, Edgitha, and
all the members of the little society, could hardly bend their minds to
any occupation, mental or physical. Elfric was ever in their thoughts.
"O Ella!" said his wife, "this suspense is very hard to bear; I long to
hear about our boy."
The mother's heart was bound up in him, as if there were no other life
in danger that day; Edwy or Edgar, it was little to her in comparison
with her longing for her first-born son.
"He is in God's Hands, dearest!" returned her husband; "and in better
Hands than ours."
Well might the thoughts of the lady Edith be concentrated on the crisis
before her. She had borne, with a mother's wounded heart, the separation
of three years, and now it was a question of a few short hours whether
she should ever see him again or not. Now fancy painted him wounded, nay
dying, on the bloodstained field; now it impelled her to sally forth
towards the scene, as though her feeble strength could bear her to him.
Now she sought the chapel, and found refuge in prayer. She had found
refuge many many hours of that eventful day, but especially since
Redwald had borne the news of the imminent battle.
At length the long suspense was ended. Redwald was seen riding at full
speed towards the castle, followed by the long-expected messenger.
"Victory! victory!" he cried; "the rebels are defeated; the king shall
enjoy his own."
"But Elfric, my son! my son!"
"Is safe: and will be here in a day or two, perhaps tomorrow."
"Thank God!" and the overcharged heart found relief in tears--happy
tears of joy.
The messenger who followed Redwald brought detailed accounts of the
event. According to his statements it appeared that the king had broken
through the hostile entrenchment, and had scattered their forces in the
first attack. The messenger particularly asserted that he had seen
Elfric, and had been charged with the fondest messages for home, where
the youth hoped to be in a few days at the latest, seeing there was no
longer an enemy to fear.
The hearts of all present were filled with thankfulness and joy.
"Come, my beloved Edith," said the old thane. "Let us go first to thank
God;" and they went together to the chapel which had witnessed so many
earnest prayers that day--now, they believed, so fully answered.
All gloom and despondency seemed removed, and Ella went forth to walk
alone in the woods, to meditate in silence on the goodness of God.
Nearly each evening this had been his habit. The woods, he said, were
God's first temples, and when alone he best raised his heart from nature
to nature's God.
His thoughts were happy that evening: his first-born boy would be
restored to him, and, like the father in the Gospels, he longed to
embrace the prodigal, and to tell him that all was forgiven. But he
schooled himself to patience, and many a fervent thanksgiving did he
offer as he wandered amidst the grassy glades.
But he was more weary than usual with the toil and anxiety of the day,
and shortly seated himself upon a mossy bank beneath an aged oak. The
trees grew thickly behind and before him, on each side of the glade,
which terminated at no great distance in the heart of the pathless
forest, so that no occasional wayfarer would be likely to pass that way.
There he reposed, until a gentle slumber stole over him and buried all
his senses in oblivion.
The day was nearly spent, the light clouds which still reflected the
sun's ruddy glow were fast fading into a grey neutral tint, and darkness
was approaching. Once a timid deer passed along the glade, and started
as it beheld the sleeping form, then went on, but started yet more
violently as it passed a thicket on the opposite side. The night breeze
had arisen and was blowing freshly; but still the old man slept on, as
though he slept that sleep from which none shall awaken until the
Meanwhile they grew uneasy at the hall over his prolonged absence, and
at length Alfred started to find his father, beginning to fear that the
excitement of the day had been too great for him, and that he might need
assistance. He knew the favourite glade wherein the aged thane was wont
to walk, and the mossy bank whereon he frequently reposed, so he lost no
time, but bent his steps directly for the spot.
As he drew near, he saw his father lying on the bank beneath the oak as
still in sound sleep, and marvelled that the chilly air of the evening
had not awoke him. He was not wont to sleep thus soundly. He approached
closely, but his steps did not arouse the sleeper. He now bent over him,
and put his hand on his shoulder affectionately and lovingly.
"Father, awake," he said; "the night is coming on; you will take cold."
But there was no answering voice, and the sleeper stirred not. Alfred
became seriously alarmed, but his alarm changed suddenly into dread
certainty. The feathered shaft of an arrow met his eye, dimly seen in
the darkness, as it stuck in the left side of the sleeping Ella.
Sleeping, indeed. But the sleep was eternal.
Horrified at the sight, refusing to believe his eyes, the son first
continued his vain attempts to awake his sire, then fell on his knees,
and wrung his hands while he cried piteously, "O father, speak to me!"
as if he could not accept the fact that those lips would never salute
him more. The moonbeams fell on that calm face, calm as if in sleep,
without a spasm of pain, without the contraction of a line of the
countenance. The weapon had pierced through the heart; death had been
instantaneous, and the sleeper had passed from the sleep of this earth
to that which is sweetly called "sleep in the Lord," without a struggle
or a pang.
His heart full of joy and thanksgiving, he had gone to carry his tribute
of praise to the very throne of God.
When the first paroxysm of pain and grief was over, the necessity of
summoning some further aid, of bearing the sad news to his home, pressed
itself upon the mind of Alfred, and he took his homeward road alone, as
if he hardly knew what he was doing, but simply obeyed instinct. Arrived
there, he could not tell his mother or sister; he only sought the
chamberlain and the steward, and begged them to come forth with him, and
said something had happened to his father. They went forth.
"We must carry something to bear him home," he said, and they took a
framework of wood upon which they threw some bearskins.
Alfred did not speak during the whole way, save that in answer to the
anxious inquiries of his companions he replied, "You will see!" and they
could but infer the worst from his manner, without giving him the pain
of telling the fatal truth.
At length they reached the glade where the dead body lay. The moon was
bright, and in her light they saw the fatal truth at once.
"Alas, my master! alas, my dear lord! Who has done this? Who could have
done it?" was their cry. "Was there one who did not love and revere him?"
More demonstrative than Alfred had been were they in their lamentations,
for the deepest grief is often the most silent.
At length they raised the body, the temple of so pure and holy a spirit,
which had now returned to the God Who gave it, reverently as men would
have handled the relics of some martyr saint, and placed it on the bier
which they had prepared. Then they began their homeward route, and ere a
long time had passed they stood before the great gate of the castle with
It now became a necessity for Alfred to announce the sad news to his
widowed mother; and here the power of language fails us--the shock was
so sudden, so unexpected. The half of her life was so suddenly torn from
the bereaved one, that the pang was well-nigh insupportable. But God
tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, and has promised that the strength
of His beloved ones shall be even as their day. So He strengthened the
sensitive frame to bear a shock which otherwise might have slain it.
The sounds of lamentation and woe were heard all over the castle as they
slowly bore the body to the domestic chapel, while some drew near,
impelled by an irresistible desire to gaze upon it, and then cried aloud
in excess of woe. Amongst the others, Redwald approached, and gazed
fixedly upon the corpse; and Eric the steward often declared, in later
days, that he saw the wound bleed afresh under the glance of the
ruthless warrior, but perhaps this was an afterthought.
Father Cuthbert, who had now been elected prior of the monastic house
below, on the banks of the river, soon heard the sad news, and hastened
up to tender the sweet consolations of religion--the only solace at
such a time, for it is in seasons of suffering that we best comprehend
When he entered he saw the corpse in the chapel, where they had placed
it before the altar, and he could only say, "Alas, my lord! alas, my
dear friend!" until he knelt down to pray, and rose up somewhat calmed.
Then he sought the chamber where the lady Edith hid her woe, and there
he showed her that God was love, hard though it was sometimes for the
frail flesh to see it; and he bade her look to the Divine Sufferer of
Whom it is said, "In all their afflictions He was afflicted;" and so by
his gentle ministrations he brought calm to the troubled breast, and it
seemed as if one had said to the waves of grief, "Peace, be still."
And then he gathered the household to prayer, and while they prayed many
a "_Requiescat_" for the faithful soul, as they said the dirge
commending to the Fathers Hands a sheep of His fold, so they also prayed
for strength to see the love which was hidden behind all this sad, sad
visitation, and to know the meaning of the words "Though He slay me, yet
will I trust in Him."
And then he bade them rest--those, at least, who were able to do so--
while he watched by the body, as was then the custom, all through the
And so the stars which had looked down from heaven so peacefully upon
the house of Aescendune the night before, of which we wrote, now looked
down as coldly bright as if no change had occurred, shining alike upon
weal or woe, upon crime or holy deed of saint. Yet as the kneeling friar
saw them through the chapel window, he thought they were but the golden
lights which lay about the confines of that happy region where the
faithful live in unspeakable felicity for ever with their Lord, and he
found consolation in the thought of the Eternal and the Infinite.
CHAPTER XVIII. THE BATTLE.
The early morn, as we have already seen, broke upon the adverse hosts of
Edwy and Edgar as the trumpet sounded to arouse them from their
slumbers, in many instances from the last slumber they should ever enjoy.
Every soldier was on his legs in a moment, and, in the first place,
preparations were made for breakfast: for it was a recognised fact
amongst our ancestors that if you wanted a man to fight or do anything
else well, you must feed him well first. So the care of the body was
never neglected, however pressing the danger.
Accordingly, Edwy called Elfric to sit by his side at the substantial
meal which commenced the day, and saw, with much pleasure, that the
cloud had partly passed from his friend's brow for the hope of immediate
action, of the excitement of battle, had done much to drive lowness and
depression from the young warrior. So he strove to chat and laugh with
the loudest, and when the moment came to marshal the host, and to put
them in array, his spirits were as high as in old times.
The cavalry, which was their strongest arm, was under the command of
Edwy himself, although a sturdy warrior, who had fought in many a
battle, rode on his right hand to supply his lack of experience.
The main body of the infantry was under the command of Earl Cynewulf,
while the reserve was under the command of Redwald's immediate
subordinate, and consisted almost exclusively of the household guard.
The plan of attack, for it was quite decided that they should take the
initiative, was simple, and in accordance with the ordinary tactics of
the times. The heavy-armed foot were bidden first to advance upon the
entrenchments which crowned the opposite hill, and to break the infantry
of the enemy, which was drawn up before them in formidable array; this
done, the horse were immediately to avail themselves of the opening thus
made, and the entrenchments to be assaulted by both cavalry and infantry.
Armed with huge axes, clad in mail, and bearing large shields, the foot
advanced to the attack. They were a gallant company; and as the sun
shone upon their glittering armour, or was reflected back from the
bright steel of their axes, they might well inspire faint hearts with
terror; but faint hearts were not amongst those opposed to them. The
chosen men of the northwest, some of half-British blood, crowned the
opposite hill, drawn up in front of their entrenchments, as if they
scorned any other defence than that supplied by their living valour.
They had borrowed their tactics from the Danes: deep and strong on all
sides, they seemed to oppose an impenetrable wall to the foe; they had
their shields to oppose to darts or arrows, their axes for the footmen,
their spears to form a hedge of steel no horse could surmount.
Even should they yield to the pressure, still all would not be lost;
their retreat was secured into the entrenchments, and there they might
well hope to detain the enemy until the whole population should rise
against the men of Wessex and their leader, and his cause become hopeless.
Steadily up the hill came the brave troops of Edwy, and from within
their ranks, as they ascended the slope, a shower of arrows was
discharged by the archers who accompanied them, under their protection;
but no return was yet made by the foe, until they were close at hand,
when a loud war cry burst from the hostile ranks, and a perfect shower
of darts and arrows rained upon the invaders.
Still they persevered, although they left a living, struggling line on
the bloody grass behind them--persevered, like men longing for the
close hand-to-hand encounter, longing to grasp their foes in deadly
grip. The shock arrived; and axe and sword were busy in reaping the
harvest of death. So great was the physical strength of the combatants
that arms and legs were mown off by a stroke, and men were cloven in
two, from the crown downwards, by the sweeping blows of the deadly steel.
It was a fearful struggle, but it was a short one; the line was unshaken
in its strength; in vain Edwy's archers behind shot their arrows so as
to curve over the heads of their brethren and fall amongst the foe; the
men of Wessex recoiled and gave way.
Edwy seized what he thought the auspicious moment when the ranks of the
foe, although unbroken, were yet weary and breathless, and ordered his
cavalry to charge. The Mercians beheld the coming storm at a distance;
down on their knees went the first line, their spears resting on the
ground; behind them the second bent over to strike with their axes;
while a third rank, the archers, drew their bows, and prepared to
welcome the rushing enemy with a discharge of deadly arrows.
Every heart beat quickly as the fatal moment came near; onward, with a
sound like thunder, galloped the horse of Edwy. He himself rode at their
head, clad in light armour, and by his side Elfric. All trace of fear
was gone now in the mad excitement of the charge; before them they saw
the wail of spear points; nearer and nearer their coursers bounded,
until they seemed to fly. Every rider leant forward, that his sword
might smite as far as possible; and, daring the points, trusting perhaps
to the breastplates of their horses and their own ready blades, they
rushed madly upon the foe.
In cold blood no one could, perhaps, have ridden fearlessly against such
an obstacle; but in the excitement of the moment the warriors of Edwy
seemed capable of charging any imaginable barrier: and it became almost
a pure calculation, not of the respective bravery of the troops, for
none were cowards on either side, but of mere physical laws of force and
Elfric scarcely looked where he was going. He saw a shining lance point,