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Edwy the Fair or the First Chronicle of Aescendune by A. D. Crake

Part 4 out of 5

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about to impale him, he diverted it by his sword blade, as he was
hurried into the midst of axes, swords, lances, and beheld the warrior
opposite to him in the second rank raise his axe to inflict a fearful
blow, which would have severed his horse's neck, had not an arrow
transfixed the foe.

The wedge seemed partly broken, and the king had begun to exult in the
anticipation of speedy victory, when from behind each end of the
entrenchment rushed two bodies of hostile cavalry; they fell upon Edwy's
forces in the rear, and in a few moments all was confusion.

The warriors of Edgar rallied, drove the horse out of their lines,
advanced slowly, and the horsemen of the rival brothers, mingled
together in deadly strife, in personal combat, where each man seemed to
have sought and found his individual foe.

They moved slowly down the bill towards the brook, man after man falling
and dotting the green sward of the hill with struggling, writhing bodies.

Meanwhile, Cynewulf was attempting to rally the flying foot, which had
been cut almost in two by the charge of the Mercian cavalry: he
succeeded, with great difficulty, in doing so at the brook which ran
along the bottom of the valley, and, with the stream in their front,
they prepared to afford a refuge to their own, and to resist the hostile
horse.

Edwy saw the opportunity, and, raising himself in his stirrups, called
upon his friends to follow him: he leapt the brook, and galloped round
behind the foot, where nearly all the unwounded horsemen followed him.
He had fought well, had slain more than one foe with his own royal hand,
as became a descendant of Cerdic, and now he but retired to organise
another and stouter resistance to the daring foe.

But he was forced to admit now that Cynewulf was right in his
conjecture, and that they were utterly outnumbered, for the foe poured
forth from their entrenchment and advanced in good order down the slope;
while the Mercian cavalry, forming in two detachments to the left and
right, crossed the brook and charged along its banks upon the flanks of
the Wessex infantry, at the same moment.

The warrior upon whose advice Edwy had been told to depend had fallen:
he was left to his own resources. Alas! he forgot he was a commander,
and, waving his plumed cap as a signal for his brother knights to
follow, charged upon the horsemen who were advancing up stream at like
speed, forgetting that a similar body was advancing in the opposite
direction, and that as all his force were following his lead, the
opposite flank of the foot was unprotected.

In a single minute they were all engaged in the fiercest melee which
imagination can well paint, fighting as furiously as men of the same
blood only seem to fight when once the claims of kindred are cast aside.
Swords ascended and descended with deadly violence; horses raised
themselves up on their hind legs, and, catching the deadly enthusiasm,
seemed to engage their fellows; riders fell, sternly repressing the
groan which pain would extort, while their steeds, less self controlled,
uttered, when wounded, those ear-piercing cries only heard from the
animals in deadly terror or pain.

In the midst of this tumult Elfric engaged a Mercian of superior size
and strength; it was his second personal encounter; in his first, he had
seen his adversary fall with a warrior's stern joy, but now he was
overmatched; borne down by an arm twice as strong as his own, his guard
was broken down, and a deadly blow laid open his shoulder, cutting the
veins in the neck of his horse at the same fell sweep. The animal,
blinded with blood, staggered, fell, and he was down amongst the horses'
feet, confined by one leg, for his horse rolled partly upon him in its
dying struggles; while he felt the hoofs of other chargers in close
proximity to his heed.

A loud cry, "They fly! They fly! Victory! Victory!" reached him even
then. He well knew from which party the cries must proceed, and that he
was left to the mercy of the victorious Mercians.

It was even so; the charge of the hostile cavalry on the left flank had
broken down the ranks of the infantry on that side; the hostile foot had
contrived to cross the brook in the confusion, and all was lost.

The reserve now came rapidly forward, but, seeing at a glance the state
of things, retired to defend the entrenched camp, so as to give the king
and his broken and routed followers time to escape, while they made good
the defence with their lives. So they retired at once into the camp,
whither Edwy and his few surviving companions galloped a moment after them.

Edwy was unhurt; he dismounted: his fair face flushed to a fiery red
with heat and excitement, he leapt on the entrenchment and looked on the
plain. He saw those of his own followers who had not yet made good their
escape, ridden down, cut to pieces, slaughtered in the excitement of the
moment without mercy; the sight stung him, be would have sallied out to
their defence, but Cynewulf, who was yet living, met him in the gateway,
and sternly seized the bridle of his steed.

"My lord and king," he said; "your life is precious to Wessex, you may
not throw it away."

"I cannot see my followers slaughtered: loose my bridle, I command you;"
and he raised his sword impetuously.

"You may cut me down, and so reward my faithful service; but, living,
you shall not pass me on your road to destruction. My lord, I am old
enough to be your father."

But there was one gay young noble present, who knew better than Cynewulf
the key to Edwy's heart. He was one of the boon companions we have been
before introduced to; but he had fought, poor young fellow, gallantly
all that day, and now he could fight no longer: Edwy saw him reel and
fall from his horse.

"Elfgar!" he said; as he strove to raise his friend and subject from the
ground--"not seriously wounded I hope!"

"Dying, and for my king, as is my duty let a dying voice reach you, my
dear lord. Save yourself if you would save Elgiva, if you--if you--"
the words came broken and faint "--are slain, she will be at the mercy
of her deadly foes."

His head fell helplessly down upon his shoulder, and ere the king could
make any reply, he saw that he was indeed past hope.

But his dying words had sunk deeply into the heart of Edwy.

"Poor Elfgar! he was right. O Elgiva! Elgiva! this is a sad day for thee."

"Return then to her, my lord," said Cynewulf. "See, they are preparing
now to assault the camp; I can hold it for hours, and if you are not
here, I can make good terms with our foes; but, if you stay, you but
embarrass us: ride out, my liege."

"And desert my subjects?"

"They will all acquit you: haste, my lord, haste, before they surround
the camp, for your fair queen's sake, or you are lost."

"Come, my men, we must fly," said Edwy, sullenly; and he led the way
reluctantly to the back of the camp.

The road was partly encumbered with fugitives, but not wholly, as most
of them sought the entrenched camp. Cynewulf accompanied him to the
gate, where he stopped to give one last piece of advice.

"Fly, my lord, for Wessex at once; lose no time; the best route will be
the Foss Way; they will not suspect that you have taken that direction.
Ride day and night; if you delay anywhere you are lost."

"Farewell, faithful and wise counsellor. Odin and Thor send that we may
meet again;" and Edwy with only a dozen followers rode out at full speed.

The Mercians had not yet reached that side of the camp, which was
concealed by woods which were clear of all enemies, and he rode on rapidly.

"What has become of Elfric, my Leofric?" he said to one of his faithful
train.

"I fear me he is dead: I saw him fall in the last struggle."

"Poor Elfric! poor Elfric! then his forebodings have come true; he will
never see his father again."

"It is all fortune and fate, and none can resist his doom, my lord,"
said Leofric.

"But Elfric; yes, I loved Elfric. I would I had never left that fatal
field."

"Think, my lord, of Elgiva."

"Yes, Elgiva--she is left to me and left all is left. Ride faster,
Leofric, I fancy I hear pursuers."

They had, at Cynewulf's suggestion, taken fresh horses from the reserve,
and had little cause to fear pursuit. In an hour they reached the Foss
Way and rode along the route described in our former chapter, until,
reaching the frontiers of the territory of the old Dobuni, they left the
Foss, and rode by the Roman trackway which we have previously described,
until they turned into a road which brought them deep into Oxfordshire.
Here they were in a territory which had been a debateable land between
Mercia and Wessex, where the sympathies of the people were not strongly
enlisted on either side and they were comparatively safe.

They passed Kirtlington; rested at Oxenford, then rode through
Dorchester and Bensington to Reading, whence they struck southward for
Winchester, where Edwy rested from his fatigue in the society of Elgiva.

So ended the ill-advised raid into Mercia.

CHAPTER XIX. EARTH TO EARTH, AND DUST TO DUST.

Although Edwy and his little troop had been successful in gaining the
main road, and in escaping into Wessex, yet few of his followers had
been so fortunate, and his broken forces were seeking safety and escape
in all directions, wanderers in a hostile country. A large number found
a refuge in the entrenched camp; but it was surrounded by the foe in
less than half-an-hour after the king's escape, and all ingress or
egress was thenceforth impossible.

While one large body fled eastward towards the Watling Street, the
soldiers who had accompanied the king to Aescendune naturally turned
their thoughts in that direction. It was, as they had seen, capable of a
long defence--well provisioned, and already partly garrisoned; nor
could they doubt the joy with which their old companions would receive
them, either to share in the defence of the post, or to accompany them
in an honourable retreat southward.

So, not only those who survived of the fifty who had left Aescendune the
previous morning, but all whom they could persuade to join them,
actuated separately by the same considerations, made their way in small
detachments through the forest towards the hall. Redwald had thoroughly
earned the confidence of all his warriors, and they would follow him to
death or victory with equal devotion. Now, in adversity, they only
sought to put themselves once more under the rule of their talented and
daring chieftain.

Therefore it was that while Father Cuthbert was yet kneeling in the
chapel, where the body of the departed thane had been placed, the
devotions of the good priest were disturbed by the blowing of horns and
the loud shout whereby the first fugitives sought admittance into the
castle.

Redwald had also been up nearly all night pacing his room, muttering
incoherently to himself. Over and over again he regarded intently a
locket containing a solitary tress of grey hair, and once or twice the
word "Avenged" rose to his lips.

"And they little know," said he, soliloquising, "who the avenger is, or
what have been his wrongs; little know they how the dead is represented
in the halls of his sire--blind! blind! Whichever way the victory
eventually turn, he is avenged."

While he thus soliloquised he was aroused by the same noise which had
disturbed Father Cuthbert's devotions, and, recognising its source,
betook himself to the gateway, where some of his own soldiers were on
guard, who, true to discipline, awaited his permission to allow their
comrades to enter: it is needless to say it was readily given.

Broken and dispirited was the little troop of ten or a dozen men, who
first appeared in this manner after the fight; their garments torn and
bloody, some of them wounded, they yet raised a shout of joy as they saw
their trusted leader.

"Whence come ye, my comrades in arms?" said he, "and what are your news
--you look like men who have fled from battle."

"We did not fly till all was lost."

The countenance of Redwald indicated some little emotion, though it was
transient as the lightning's flash in the summer night.

"The king--is it well with him?"

"He has fled with a small troop to the south."

"Saw you aught of Elfric of Aescendune?"

"He fell in the last charge of the cavalry."

"Dead?"

"We think so."

"How is it that you have suffered yourselves to be beaten?"

"Had you been there it might have ended differently. We became the
aggressors, and attacked a superior force, while they had all the
advantage of ground."

"Come in. You must first have some food and wine; then you shall tell me
all. We may need your help here, and shall be glad of every able-bodied
man."

"More are on the road."

And so it proved, for party after party continued to fall in. The solemn
quiet, which so well befitted the house of mourning, was banished by the
presence of the soldiery in such large numbers, for early in the day
nearly a hundred and fifty were gathered together, and accommodation
threatened to fall short.

Under these circumstances the lady Edith became very anxious that either
the departure of her unwelcome guests should be hastened, or that the
loved remains should be removed at once to the priory church, where she
could bemoan her grief in quiet solitude, and be alone with her beloved
and God. There seemed no rest or peace possible in the hall, and Redwald
was apportioning all the accommodation to his followers as they came,
preserving only the private apartments of the lady Edith from intrusion.

She was still expecting the arrival of Elfric, for Redwald had not
communicated the news he had received, and she did not even know that
King Edwy had been defeated; so absorbed was she in her grief, that she
did not note the thousand little circumstances which might have told her
as much.

But before the hour of terce, Alfred came into the room where she was
seated with her daughter, and she saw by his troubled countenance that
he had something to communicate which pained him to tell.

"Elfric!" she said--"he is well?"

"He has not come yet, my mother; and I grieve to say that we were
deceived yesterday--deceived about the battle."

"How so?"

"The king was defeated; he has fled southward, and there has been a
great slaughter."

"But Elfric?"

"No one can tell me anything about him," said Alfred, wringing his
hands. "Mother, you must leave this place."

"Leave our home--and now?"

"They talk of defending it against the forces of the Etheling Edgar, who
has been declared king; and we should all be in great danger."

"But will they stay here against our will?"

"Yes; for they say their lives depend upon it, that the Mercians scour
all the country round about, that all the roads are now occupied and
guarded, so that they can only hope to defend this place until they can
make terms with the King of Mercia, as they call Edgar, who is likely to
be acknowledged by all north of the Thames. The curse of the Church is,
they say, upon Edwy."

"Father Cuthbert is still here, is he not?--what does he advise? where
shall we go?"

"He says we can have the old house in which he, and the mass-thanes [xxix]
before him, lived while as yet the priory was incomplete
or unbuilt. It is very comfortable, and close to the church."

"But to take him so soon from his home!"

"They will place him in God's house, before the altar; there could not
be a better place where they or we could wish his dear remains to await
the last rites upon earth."

At that moment Father Cuthbert entered the room unannounced.

"Pardon me, my revered lady," he began; "but I grieve to say that your
safety demands instant action, and must excuse my intrusion; your life
and liberty are no longer safe here."

"Life and liberty?"

"There is some foul plot to detain you all here, on pretence your safety
requires it. I have been this morning to Redwald, and he refuses
permission for any one to leave the place, asserting that thus only can
he assure your safety. Now, it is plain that if the place comes to be
besieged you would be far safer in the priory or the old priests' house.
Our own countrymen would not injure us."

"He will not detain us by force?"

"I would not trust to that; but we must meet guile by guile. I have
pretended to be content on your behalf and he is just going to leave the
hall, with the greater part of his followers, to collect provisions and
cattle. I have told him that the Grange farm is well stocked; he has
caught the bait, and is going to superintend the work of spoliation in
person: far better, in the present need, that he should rob the estate
than that a hair of your head or of those of your children should perish."

"But why do you suspect him of evil?"

"I cannot tell you now. I have overheard dark, dark speeches. So soon as
he has gone, Alfred and I must summon all your own people who are in the
hall. We will then bring the body forth, and follow it ourselves; as we
shall outnumber those left behind I do not imagine they will dare, in
his absence, to interfere with our progress."

"I will go at once," said Alfred, "and summon the household."

"No; you would be observed. I am older and perhaps a little more
discreet. Stay with your mother till all is ready."

Alfred reluctantly obeyed, and Father Cuthbert went forth. So great was
their anxiety that it almost banished the power of prayer, save such
mental shafts as could be sent heavenward in each interval of thought.

At last Alfred, who was at the window, saw Redwald and his followers--
nearly a hundred in number--leave the castle and ride across towards
the forest in the direction of the farm in question. Another moment and
Father Cuthbert entered.

"Are you ready? If so, follow me."

He took them by a private passage into the chapel, where four men
already stood by the bier, ready to head the procession, and thirty or
forty others were gathered in the chapel or about the door--their own
vassals, good and true. They all were armed.

Father Cuthbert ascended the wooden tower above the chapel, which served
as a bell cot. He looked from its windows; the party of Redwald had
disappeared behind the trees.

He came down and gave the signal. The sad procession started; they
descended the steps to the courtyard. Redwald had left some forty or
fifty men behind--men who had grown old in arms, and who, if they had
pleased, might perhaps have stopped the exit, but they were not
sufficiently in the confidence of their leader to take the initiative;
and the only man who was in his confidence, and whom he had charged to
see that no one departed, was fortunately at that moment in another part
of the building. The sentinel at the drawbridge was one of Redwald's
troop. He menaced opposition, and refused to let the drawbridge be
peaceably lowered.

"Art thou a Christian?" said Father Cuthbert, coming forward in his
priestly attire, "and dost thou presume to interfere with a servant of
the Lord and to delay a funeral?"

"I must obey my orders."

"Then I will excommunicate thee, and deliver thy soul to Satan."

And he began to utter some awful Latin imprecation, which so aroused the
superstition of the sentinel that he made no further opposition, which
perhaps saved his life, for the retainers of Aescendune were meditating
instant violence, indignant at the delay and the outrage to their lady.

They themselves let the drawbridge down and guarded the sad cortege over
the plain. Their numbers increased every moment, and before they reached
the neighbourhood of the priory they had little cause to fear any
attack, should Redwald have arrived and have been rash enough to attempt
one.

The old parsonage house, which had served for the residence of each
successive parish prior or mass-thane, was a large and commodious
building, containing all such accommodation as the family absolutely
required in the emergency, while furniture, provision and comforts of
all kinds were sent over from the priory, for the good fathers did not
forget at this hour of need that they owed their own home to the
liberality of Ella and his father.

So when they had deposited the loved remains before the altar of the
church, and had knelt a brief season in prayer, the exiled family took
possession of their temporary home. It was hard--very hard--to give
up their loved dwelling at such a season of affliction, but the dread
which Redwald had somehow inspired made it a great relief to be removed
from his immediate presence.

Yet they could give no reason for the feeling they all shared. Father
Cuthbert evidently suspected, or knew, things which he as yet concealed
from them.

"Who could have slain the husband and father?"

This was the unanswered question. Their suspicions could only turn to
Redwald or some of his crew: no marauders were known to lurk in the
forest; there was, they felt assured, not one of his own people who
would not have died in his defence. Again, it was not the lust of gold
which had suggested the deed, for they had found the gold chain he wore
untouched. What then could have been the motive of the murderer?

Father Cuthbert had found a solution, which was based upon sad
experience of the traditional feuds so frequently handed down from
father to son. Still he would not suggest further cause of disquietude,
and added no further words.

The utter uncertainty about Elfric was another cause of uneasiness.
Whether he had gone southward with the king, or had fallen on the
battlefield, they knew not; or whether he had surrendered with the
prisoners taken in the entrenched camp, and who had been all admitted to
mercy.

In the course of the morning they saw Redwald return, laden with the
spoils of the Grange farm--oxen and sheep, waggons containing corn,
driven before him. What passed within on his entrance they could not
tell; how narrow their escape they knew not--were not even certain it
had been an escape at all.

It was now determined that the interment should take place on the
morrow, and the intelligence was communicated rapidly to all the tenantry.

Hourly they expected the forces of Mercia to appear, and exact a heavy
account from Redwald for his offences. He was supposed to be the
instigator of the expedition which had failed so utterly; it was not
likely that he would be allowed to retain Aescendune a long time. The
only surprise people felt was that he should have dared to remain at the
post when all hope of successful resistance had ceased. He had his own
reasons, which they knew not.

Under these circumstances it seemed desirable to hurry forward the
interment, lest it should be interfered with from without, in the
confusion of hostile operations against the hall.

The priory church was a noble but irregular structure, of great size for
those days. The cunning architect from the Continent, who had designed
it, had far surpassed the builders of ordinary churches in the grandeur
of his conception. The lofty roof, the long choir beyond the transept,
gave the idea of magnitude most forcibly, and added dignity to the
design. In the south transept was a chapel dedicated especially to St.
Cuthbert, where the aged Offa reposed, and the mother of Ella. There
they had removed the body to await the last solemn rites. Six large wax
tapers burned around it, and watchers were there day and night--
mourners who had loved him well, and felt that in him they had lost a
dear friend.

The wife, the son, or the daughter, were ever there, but seldom alone.
For when the monks in the choir were not saying the canonical hours, or
the low mass was not being said at one of the side altars, still the
voice of intercession arose, with its burden:

"Eternal rest give unto him, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon him."

At length the morning came, the second only after death. The
neighbouring thanes whom the troubled times did not detain at home, the
churls of the estate, the thralls, crowded the precincts of the minster,
as the solemn bell tolled the deep funeral knell. At length the monks
poured into the church, while the solemn "_Domino refugium_" arose from
their lips--the same grand words which for these thousand years past
have told of the eternity of God and the destiny of the creature;
speaking as deeply to the heart then as in these days of civilisation.

The mourners entered, Alfred supporting his widowed mother, who had
summoned all her fortitude to render the last sad offices to her dear
lord; her daughter, a few distant relations--there were none nearer of
kin. The bier, with its precious burden, was placed in the centre before
the high altar. Six monks, bearing torches, knelt around it. A pall,
beautifully embroidered, covered the coffin, a wreath of flowers
surmounting a cross was placed upon it.

The solemn requiem mass commenced, and the great Sacrifice once offered
upon Calvary was pleaded for the soul of the deceased thane. When the
last prayer had been said, the coffin was sprinkled with hallowed water,
and perfumed with sweet incense, after which it was removed to its last
resting place. The grave was already prepared. Again the earthly cavern
was sprinkled with the hallowed water, emblematical of the blood of
sprinkling which speaketh better things than that of Abel, and the body
--the sacred dust for which Christ had died, in which God had dwelt as
in a temple--was lowered, to be sown in corruption, that hereafter it
might be raised in incorruption and joy unspeakable.

All crowded to take the last sad look. Alfred felt his dear mother's arm
tremble as she leant on him, yet gazed firmly into that last resting
place, while the solemn strain arose:

"Ego sum resurrectio et vita. Qui credit in Me, etiam si mortuus fuerit
vivet; et omnis qui vivit, et credit in Me, non morietur in aeternum."
[xxx]

CHAPTER XX. "AND THE DOOR WAS SHUT."

The reader is, we trust, somewhat impatient to learn what had really
been the fate of the unhappy Elfric of Aescendune--whether he had
indeed been cut off with the work of repentance incomplete, or whether
he yet survived to realise the calamity which had fallen upon his household.

He lived. When the blow of his adversary, as we have seen, crushed him
to the earth, and he lay there with his head on the ground, prostrate,
amidst kicking and plunging hoofs, and the roar and confusion of deadly
strife, Providence, without which not one sparrow falleth to the ground,
watched over him, and averted the iron hoofs from his forehead. Could
one have concentrated his gaze upon that little spot of earth and have
seen the furious hoofs graze, without injuring, that tender forehead,
could he have beheld the gallop of the retreating steeds over and around
that senseless form, for it now lay senseless, he would have realised
that there is One Whose Eye is observant of each minute detail which
concerns the life of His beloved ones--nay, Who knows the movements of
the tiniest insect, while His Hand directs the rolling spheres. And his
care preserved Elfric for His Own wise ends, until the fight receded,
leaving its traces behind it, as when the tide of ocean recedes after a
storm and the beach is strewn with wreck--bodies of men, of horses,
mutilated, dismembered, dead or dying, disabled or desperately wounded.

Hours had passed, during which the sounds of the combat still maintained
at the entrenched camp came freshly on the ear, and then died away,
until the solemn night fell upon the scene, and the only sound which
smote the ear were faint, faint moans--cries of "Water! water!"
incessantly repeated from hundreds of feeble lips.

It was then that Elfric awoke from the insensibility which had resulted
from exhaustion and the stunning blow he had received in his fall. Every
limb seemed in pain, for the loss of blood had not left the vital powers
strength for the maintenance of the due circulation through the body,
and the cold night air chilled the frame. He did not at first comprehend
where he was, but as his senses returned he perceived all too well that
he was left for dead.

His first impulse was to see whether he had strength to arise. He raised
himself partially, first on one elbow, and then he strove to stand up,
but fell back feebly and helplessly, like an infant who first essays to
escape its mother's arms and to trust its feeble limbs.

Then he looked around him, thus raising his head, and gazed upon the sad
and shocking scene. Close by him, with the head cleft literally in two
by a battle-axe, lay a horseman, and his blood reddened all the ground
around Elfric's feet, and had deeply dyed the youth's lower garments; a
horse, his own, lay dead, the jugular vein cut through, with all the
surrounding muscles and sinews; hard by, a rider had fallen with such
impetus, that his helmet had fixed itself deeply in the ground, and the
body seemed as if it had quivered for the moment in the air; a dart had
transfixed another through belt and stomach, and he lay with the weapon
appearing on either side the body. Near these lay another, whose thigh
had been pierced to the great artery, and who had bled to death, as the
deadly paleness of the face showed; here and there one yet lived, as
faint moan and broken utterance testified; but Elfric could bear no
more, his head sank upon the ground, and he hid his face.

It was bright starlight, and the gleam of the heavenly host seemed to
mock the wounded youth as he thought of the previous night, when, sound
in body, he had wandered beneath the glittering canopy of the heavens;
and thus reminded, all the thoughts of that previous night came back
upon him, especially the remembrance of his sin, of his desertion of his
father, of his vicious life at court, of his neglect for three years and
more of all the obligations of religion, and he groaned aloud in the
anguish of his spirit.

"Oh! spare me, my God!" he cried, "for I am not fit to die! Spare me,
that I may at least receive my father's forgiveness."

For he felt as if he could not ask God to forgive him until he had been
forgiven by his father. Little did he think, poor boy, that that father
lay cold in death; that never could he hear the blessed words of
forgiveness from his tongue; neither had he the consolation of knowing
how completely he had been forgiven, and how lovingly he had been
remembered in his father's last hours upon earth.

"I cannot die! I cannot die!" thus he cried; and he strove again to
raise himself from the ground, but in vain; strove again, as if he would
have dragged his feeble body through pain and anguish all the way to
Aescendune, but could not. The story of the prodigal son, often told him
by Father Cuthbert, came back to him, not so much in its spiritual as in
its literal aspect: he would fain arise and go to his father; but he
could not.

"O happy prodigal!" he cried; "thou couldst at least go from that far
off country, and the husks which the swine did eat; but I cannot, I cannot!"

While thus grieving in bitterness of spirit, he saw a light flitting
about amongst the dead bodies, and stopping every now and then; once he
saw it pause, and heard a cry of expostulation, then a faint scream, and
all was still; and he comprehended that this was no ministering angel,
but one of those villainous beings who haunt the battlefield to prey
upon the slain, and to despatch with short mercy those who offer resistance.

He lay very, very quiet, hoping that the light would not come near him,
and he trembled every time it bent its course that way; but at length
his fears seemed about to be realised--it drew near, and he saw the
face of a hideous looking hag, dressed in coarse and vile garments, who
held a bloody dagger in the right hand, and kept the left in a kind of
bag, tied to her person, in which she had evidently accumulated great
store. Her eyes were roaming about, until the light suddenly was
reflected from the poor lad's brilliant accoutrements, and she advanced
towards him.

He groaned, and sank backwards, and her hand was upon the dagger, while
she cast such a look as the fabled vampire might cast upon her destined
victim, loving gold much, but perhaps blood most, when all at once she
turned and fled.

Elfric knew not what had saved him; when voices fell upon his ear, and
the baying of a dog.

"Which way has that hag fled? Pursue her, she murders the wounded."

The sound of rushing feet was heard, and Elfric felt that help was near,
yet leaving him, and he cried aloud, "Help! help! for the love of God."

One delayed in his course, and came and stood over the prostrate form.
It was a monk, for the boy recognised the Benedictine habit, and his
heart sank within him as he remembered how pitilessly he had helped to
drive that habit from Glastonbury.

"Art thou grievously wounded, my son?"

"I feel faint, even unto death, with loss of blood. Oh! remove me, and
bear me home; if thou art a man of God leave me not here to perish in my
sins."

The piteous appeal went to the heart of the monk, and he knelt down, and
by the aid of a small lamp, examined the wounds of the sufferer.

"Thou mayst yet live, my son," he said; "tell me where is thy home; is
it in Mercia?"

"It is! it is! My home is Aescendune; it is not far from here."

"Aescendune--knowest thou Father Cuthbert?"

"I do indeed; he was my tutor, once my spiritual father."

"Thy name?"

"Elfric, son of the thane Ella."

The monk started, then raised a loud cry, which speedily brought two or
three men in the dress of thralls (theows) to his side.

"She will murder no more, father; the dog overtook her, and held her
till we came; she was red with blood, and we knocked her down; Oswy here
brained her with his club."

"It is well--she deserved her fate; but, Oswy, look at this face."

"St. Wilfred preserve us!" cried the man "it is the young lord. He is
not dying, is he? She hadn't hurt him--the she-wolf?"

"No, we were just in time, and only just in time; we must carry him home
to his father."

The monk had started for the expected scene of battle, intent on doing
good, with a small party of the thralls of Aescendune, just after Edwy
had left the hall; consequently, he knew nothing of the death of the
thane or the subsequent events. Oh, how sweetly his words fell upon
Elfric's ears, "Carry him home to his father."

A litter was speedily made; one of the thralls jumped into a willow tree
which overhung the stream, and cut down some of the stoutest boughs. The
others wove them with withes into a kind of litter, threw their own
upper garments thereon in their love, placed the poor wounded form as
tenderly upon it as a mother would have done, and bore him from the
field, ever and anon stopping to relieve some other poor wounded
sufferer, and to comfort him with the intelligence that similar aid was
at hand for all, as the various lights now appearing testified.

For themselves, they felt all other obligation fade before their duty to
their young lord. He was object of their solicitude.

So they bore him easily along, until they reached a stream; there they
paused and washed the heated brow, and allowed the parched lips to
imbibe, but only slightly, the pure fresh beverage, sweeter far than the
stimulant the good monk had poured down his throat on the field. Then
they arranged his dress--bound up his wounds, for the Benedictine was
an accomplished surgeon for the times; after which, having satisfied
himself that his patient was able to bear the transit, he departed, with
a cheerful benediction, to render the like aid to others.

So comforted was Elfric, and so relieved from pain, that he slept all
through the following hours, as they bore him along through woodland
paths; and he dreamt that he had met his father and was clasped lovingly
in his forgiving arms.

At daybreak they were six or seven miles from the camp, and they rested,
for the continued effort had wearied the bearers. They made a fire,
cooked their breakfast, and tried to persuade Elfric to eat, which he
did, sparingly.

Then they resumed their journey; they kept as much in the shade as
possible, for it was a bright day; rested again at noontide, with only
five or six miles before them; started when the heat was a little
overpast, and just after sunset came in sight of the halls of
Aescendune, from the opening in the forest whence Elfric had beheld them
that night when he first brought Prince Edwy home in company with his
brother Alfred.

The wounded youth raised himself up, looked with intense affection at
the home of his youth, and sank back contented on his couch, thinking
only of father and mother, brother and sister, and the sweet forgiveness
he felt sure awaited him. Poor boy!

It was almost dark when they reached the gate of the castle, and the
drawbridge was up. One of the bearers blew his horn loudly, and the
summons brought the warder to the little window over the postern gate.

"Who are you, and what do you seek?" was the cry.

"We are bringing my young lord, Elfric of Aescendune, home from the
battlefield wounded."

"Wait a while."

A few minutes passed; then the drawbridge was lowered, and the bearers
bore their burden into the courtyard. Every moment Elfric expected to
see the beloved faces bending over him; but all seemed strange, till he
remembered that Redwald had remained behind at the hall; the four
bearers spoke uneasily to one another, and Oswy disappeared in the dusky
twilight.

At length three or four men, in the military costume so familiar to
Elfric, approached the litter; and raising him, bore him into the
interior of the building, up the stairs, into the gallery, which partly
ran round at the height of the first floor. The door of a room was
opened, a familiar room; it had been his father's bedroom, and Elfric
was placed on the bed.

"Ask them to come to me," he said "father, mother, Alfred, Edgitha!
--where are they?"

But minute after minute passed by, and no one came near; there was no
light in the room, and it was soon very dark. Elfric became very
uncomfortable; it was not the kind of reception he had promised himself.

"Why does not my father come," he muttered impatiently, "to see his
wounded boy?" and he felt at one moment his pride revive, then a
sickening feeling of anxiety filled his heart.

But it was not until an hour had passed that he heard a heavy step on
the stairs, and soon the door opened, and Redwald appeared.

Elfric. gazed upon him with surprise; especially when he noted the stern
cold look which sat on his features. As Redwald did not speak, Elfric
took the initiative.

"Why is not my father here? I want to see him, Redwald; do send him to
me; say I must see him, I must--I cannot endure this longer; it is
more than I can bear."

"Calm yourself and listen to me, for I have a strange story to unfold to
you."

"Not now; some other time; do send them to me."

"It must be heard now; and perhaps when you have heard it, you will
comprehend why they do not come."

"But they will come?"

"Elfric, there was, two generations back, a man who had two sons; he was
a noble thane of high descent, his eldest son was worthy of his father,
high souled, impetuous, brave, fiery, and in short, all a warrior's son
should be: the younger son had the heart of a monk, and was learned in
all pious tricks; he stole the father's heart from his elder brother."

Elfric began to listen at this point.

"At last, misjudgment and unkindness drove the elder brother from home,
and he sought food and shelter from men who had the souls of conquerors.
With them he lived, for his father disinherited him; he had no father,
he had no country."

Elfric began to draw his breath quickly.

"At length war arose between those who had sheltered and protected him,
and the people who should have been his own people; say what side was
the exile to be found on?"

"He should have fought with his own people."

"His own people were those who had really adopted him when his father
and family disowned him, and with them he fought for victory; but the
fates were unpropitious, the people with whom his father and brother
fought were successful; the son was taken prisoner, and adjudged to die
a traitor's death, his own father and brother consenting."

Elfric began to comprehend all.

"They put him on board an open boat, and sent him out to sea, at the
mercy of winds and waves; but not alone; he had married amongst the
people who had adopted him, and his boy would not forsake his sire, for
he had one boy--the mother was dead. This boy besought the
hard-hearted executioners of a tyrant's will to let him share the fate
of his sire, so earnestly, that at last they consented."

"The boat, as it pleased fate, was driven by wind and tide on the shore
of Denmark, and there the unhappy exile landed; but he had been wounded
in the battle, and his subsequent exposure caused his early death;
before he died he bequeathed one legacy, and only one, to his son--

"Vengeance."

Elfric was pale as death, and trembled visibly.

"Then you are--"

"Elfric, I am your cousin, and the deadly foe of you and yours!"

"Then my poor father; but if you must find a victim seek it in me; spare
him! oh, spare him!"

Redwald smiled; but such a smile.

"At least let me see him now, and obtain his forgiveness. Redwald, he is
my father; you were faithful to your father; let me atone for my
unfaithfulness to mine."

"You believe there is another world, perhaps?"

Elfric. only answered by a look of piteous alarm.

"Because, in that case, you must seek your father there; although I fear
Dunstan would say there is likely to be a gulf between you."

Elfric comprehended him, and with a cry which might have melted a heart
of stone, fell back upon the bed. For a moment he lay like one stunned,
then began to utter incoherent ravings, and gazed vacantly around, as
one who is delirious.

Redwald seemed for one moment like a man contending with himself, like
one who felt pity struggling with sterner emotions; yet the contest was
very short.

"It is of no use--he must die; if hearts break, I hope his will break,
and save me the task of shedding his blood, or causing it to be shed;
there must be no weakness now; he has been sadly wounded; if he is left
alone, he will die; better so--I would spare him if I were not bound
by an oath so dread that I shudder to think of it. The others have
escaped: he must die."

Still he walked to and fro, as if pity yet contended with the thirst for
vengeance in his hardened breast: perhaps it was his day of grace, and
the Spirit of Him, Who has said "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,"
pleaded hard with the sinner. Yet the gentle Voice pleaded in vain;
still he walked to and fro, until his resolution seemed firmly made; and
he left the chamber, fastening it on the outside.

CHAPTER XXI. "UNDER WHICH KING?"

It will be remembered that one of the theows who had borne Elfric home
from the field of battle had become alarmed by the suspicious aspect of
things at the hall, and had escaped, by prompt evasion, the confinement
which awaited his companions. Oswy, for it was he, thus showed his
natural astuteness, while he also conferred the greatest possible
obligation upon Elfric, since he bore the news of his ill-timed arrival
at once to the priory.

Here his worst suspicions were confirmed; and the faithful thrall heard
for the first time of the death of his late lord, and that he had given
his young master into the hands of his bitter foes. Alfred was at once
summoned; and a conference was held, in which Father Cuthbert, his
brethren, and the chamberlain and steward of the hall, took part.

"It is now generally believed," said Father Cuthbert, "that Redwald is
the bitter enemy, for some reason, of the house of Aescendune. Has any
one here suspected that reason?"

No one could give any reply.

"I fear what I am about to say," he continued, "will startle you all.
Redwald is a member of the family himself."

"A member of the family!"

"Yes. Is there any one present who remembers the unhappy brother of our
late lamented lord--Oswald, the son of Offa?"

"Yes," said the old chamberlain, "I remember him well; and I see now
what you mean."

"Is not the expression of the face identical? Are they not the same
features, as one might say?"

"Yet Redwald is much darker."

"Because his mother was Danish, and he has inherited some of her
peculiarities, that is all."

"Still," said the steward, "every one supposed that the unhappy Oswald
perished at sea with his son. Never shall I forget the grief of the old
thane Offa, when inquiring for the son, he learned that he had gone with
the father to his death. He would have adopted him."

"And do we not," added a Benedictine. "say a mass daily at St. Wilfred's
altar for the souls of Oswald and his son Ragnar?"

"Oswald may be dead; Ragnar yet lives in Redwald. The name alone is
changed."

"But where are the proofs? We cannot wholly trust an imaginary resemblance."

"It is not imaginary; and these are the proofs in question. The night
after the murder" (all looked at each other as if a sudden inspiration
struck them), "as I was going to the chapel from the lady Edith's
apartments, I passed through a passage little used, but leading past the
chamber allotted to Redwald, and only separated by a thin wainscoting. I
was startled as I passed it by the sound of a pacing to and fro; an
incessant pacing; and I heard the inmate of the room soliloquising with
himself as in a state of frenzied feeling. I caught only broken words
but again and again I heard 'Avenged;' and once 'Father you are
avenged;' and once 'Little do they know who is their guest;' once 'It is
a good beginning,' and such like ejaculations. I remained a long time,
because, as you will all see, the murderer stood revealed."

"Then why did you not tell us before?" exclaimed all, almost in a breath.

"Because it would have been of no avail. Had there been the least chance
of calling him to account, I should, you may be sure, have proclaimed
his guilt. But early in the morning fresh forces began to arrive to his
aid. My only endeavour was to get the lady Edith and her remaining
children safe from the castle; and it was only by dissembling my
feelings, by talking face to face with the man of blood, by pretending
to trust him, that I could succeed. Had he not thought us all perfectly
satisfied, he would never have left the hall to go foraging in person;
and now all would be well, but for this sad, sad chance, which has
placed the poor lad Elfric in his power."

"But," said Alfred, "this makes the case worse than ever. Poor Elfric!
they will kill him. Oh, can this be Ragnar?"

The Benedictines expressed themselves convinced, because the supposition
explained the present circumstances so clearly, and accounted for that
hitherto unaccountable circumstance--the murder. The steward and
chamberlain both fancied they recognised the family likeness; and so the
solution at which Father Cuthbert had arrived was accepted by all.

The question was now what course to adopt, for the night was fast
wearing away.

"Two things are to be done," said Father Cuthbert. "The first is to
secure the safety of the lady Edith and her children from any sudden
attack from the castle, to which effect I propose holding all the
vassals in arms; and, in case of any force leaving the hall, I purpose
giving the lady Edith and her daughter instant sanctuary in the priory,
while the vassals gather round its precincts; for, I fear me, this
Ragnar is a heathen, and would but little respect the house of God."

"Could we not attack the hall and release Elfric? Think of Elfric," said
Alfred.

"It would be madness; Redwald has more than a hundred and fifty men of
war within it. The place is full; we could not attack with the least
chance of success. No: the second thing I meant to propose was this,
that we should send an instant message to King Edgar, who is near at
hand, and explain the whole circumstances to him. He has many causes of
enmity against Redwald, and would probably come to our aid at once, as
the safety of his realm would require him to do eventually."

"Let me be the messenger; he will surely listen to the pleadings of a
brother for a brother."

"I had so designed," said Father Cuthbert; "and in order that no chance
may be thrown away, I will adventure myself in the lion's den, and
threaten with the penalties of excommunication this vindictive Redwald
or Ragnar."

"No, father; you will never come out alive. No, no!" said they all.

The last proposal was universally discouraged. Redwald had already
special cause of enmity against Father Cuthbert, who had robbed him of
part of his destined prey; and it was ultimately settled that Father
Swithin, another of the order, should be charged with the mission, with
the power to make conciliatory offers, or to act on the other course as
he should see fit; in short, to use all his wit for Elfric.

Alfred did not delay a moment unnecessarily, but in the dawning light
set forward to seek Edgar, of whom he had no definite information, but
who was believed to linger in the neighbourhood of the battlefield,
holding council with earls and thanes as to the further steps to be
taken, and receiving the submission of the whole Mercian, East Anglian,
and Northumbrian nobility.

Therefore, mounted upon a good steed, and accompanied by Oswy, he
rapidly traversed the country over which his brother had been so
painfully borne; slowly, however, in places, for here and there large
tracts of swamp obstructed the way, and in other places the thickets
were dense and impervious; even where the country was cultivated the
unpaved roads were rough and hazardous for riders.

It was past the hour of nones, the ninth hour of the day, when the
riders reached the battlefield, which still bore frightful traces of the
recent combat; reddened with blood, which had left its dark traces on
large patches of the ground, and encumbered with the bodies of horses
and men which had not yet found sepulture, although bands of theows from
the neighbouring estates were busily engaged in the necessary toil,
excavating huge pits, and placing the dead--no longer rivals--
reverently and decently in their last long home. Several wolves could be
discerned, hanging about under the skirts of the forest, but not daring
to come out into the plain while the day lasted and the men were about;
whole flocks of ravenous birds flew about the scene, now settling down
on the spots where the strife had been hottest, now soaring away when
disturbed in their sickening feast.

It was the first time Alfred had ever gazed upon a battlefield; and now
he saw it stripped of all the romance and glamour which bards had thrown
over it, and the sight appalled him.

He drew near a large pit into which the thralls were casting the dead.
Many of the bodies presented, as we have already seen, a most ghastly
spectacle; and nearly all had begun to decompose. Mentally he thanked
God that Elfric, at least, was not there; and he turned aside his head
in horror at the sight.

He now inquired of the foreman of the labourers whether he knew where
the Etheling Edgar would be.

"You mean King Edgar, for the Mercians will acknowledge no other king.
The people of Wessex may keep the enemy of the saints, if they like."

"King Edgar, I mean. Where is he now?"

"He has been holding a council at Tamworth town, in the old palace of
King Offa; and they say all the tributary kings have come there to be
his men, and all the great earls."

"Can you tell me the nearest road to Tamworth?"

"Why, it lies through the forest there, where you see those wolves
lurking about. They will begin to be dangerous when the sun goes down,
and perhaps some of them would not mind a snap at a horse or even a man,
now."

"We must take our chance;" said Alfred: "life and death hang on our
speed," and he and Oswy rode on.

The wolves were no longer seen. In the summer they generally avoided
men, at least during the day, and they were gradually becoming more
uncommon at that date. Alfred entertained little fear as he proceeded,
until the darkening shadows showed that night was near, and they were
still in the heart of the forest, when he began to feel alarmed. The
road before them was a good wide woodland path, and easy to follow even
in the gathering darkness.

Suddenly their horses started violently, as a loud howl was heard
behind, and repeated immediately from different quarters of the forest.

Alfred felt that it was the gathering of the ferocious beasts, which had
been attracted from distant forests by the scent of the battlefield, and
had thus happened to lie in increased numbers around their path. The
howling continued to increase, and their horses sped onward as if mad
with fear--it was all they could do to guide them safely.

Nearer and nearer drew the fearful sound; and looking back they beheld
the fiery eyes swarming along the road after them. They had begun to
abandon hope, when all at once they heard the sound of advancing
horsemen in front of them, accompanied by the clank of arms. The wolves
heard it too, and with all the cunning cowardice of their race scampered
away from their intended prey, just as Alfred and Oswy avoided impaling
themselves upon the lances of the coming deliverers.

"Whom have we here, riding at this pace through the woods?" cried out a
rough, manly voice.

"The wolves were after the poor fellows," said another.

"They may speak for themselves," said the leader, confronting Alfred.
"Art thou a Mercian and a friend of King Edgar? Under which king? Speak,
or die!"

"I seek King Edgar. My name is Alfred, son of Ella of Aescendune."

"Who sheltered the men of Wessex, and entertained the impious Edwy in
his castle."

"We had no power to resist had we wished to do so."

"Which you evidently did not. May a plain soldier ask you now why you
seek King Edgar?"

"Because," said Alfred, "my father has been murdered, and my brother
made a prisoner by Redwald, the captain of King Edwy's hus-carles, who
holds our house, and has driven us all out."

"Your father murdered! Your family expelled! Your brother a prisoner!
These are strange news."

"Why this delay!" cried another speaker, riding up from behind. "The
king is impatient to get on. Ride faster."

"The king!" cried Alfred. "Oh, lead me to him."

"Who is this," demanded the second officer, "who demands speech of the
royal Edgar?"

"Alfred of Aescendune. He tells us that the infamous Redwald holds the
fortified house there, has murdered the thane Ella, and expelled the
family, save the brother, whom he holds to ransom."

"No, not to ransom," cried Alfred. "It is his life that is threatened.
Oh, take me to Edgar!"

"He is close behind, in company with the Ealdorman of Mercia and Siward
of Northumbria."

"Stay behind with him, Biorn, and let us continue our route. You may
introduce him to the king, if he will see him."

The first party--the advance guard--now passed on, and was succeeded
almost immediately by the main body, foremost amongst whom rode Prince
or rather King Edgar, then only a youth of fifteen years of age. We last
beheld him a boy of twelve, at the date of Elfric's arrival at the court
of Edred. By his side rode Siward, Ealdorman of Northumbria.

"Who is this?" cried the latter, as he saw Alfred and his attendant
waiting to receive him.

"Alfred of Aescendune, with a petition for aid against Redwald, who has
seized his father's castle."

"Alfred of Aescendune!" cried Edgar. "Halt, my friends, one moment.
Alfred of Aescendune, tell me your story; to me, Edgar, your king."

Alfred hastened to pour his tale of sorrows into an ear evidently not
unsympathising, and when he had concluded Edgar asked--"And tell me
what is your request. It shall be granted even to the uttermost."

"Only that you, my lord, would hasten to our aid and deliver my brother
for his poor widowed mother's sake."

"We should send a troop against Redwald in any case, but even had our
plans been otherwise, know this, Alfred of Aescendune, that he who by
his devoted service saved the life, or at least the liberty, of Dunstan,
the light of our realm of England, and the favourite of heaven, has a
claim to ask any favour Edgar can grant.

"Siward, my father, bid the advanced guard bend its course towards
Aescendune at once."

"My lord, the men are too weary to travel all night. We had purposed
halting when we reached the battlefield on our march southward. There is
a cross-country road thence to Aescendune, almost impassable in the night."

"Then we will travel early in the morning; and doubt not, Alfred, we
shall arrive in time to chastise this insolent aggressor. Redwald has
been my poor brother's evil spirit in all things; he shall die, I swear
it," said the precocious Edgar, a man before his time.

"But, my lord," said Alfred, "may I ask but one favour, that you will
permit me to proceed and relieve the anxiety of my people with the
tidings of your approach?"

"If you must leave our side, such an errand would seem to justify you.
Poor Elfric! I remember him well. I could not have thought him in any
danger from Redwald."

"Redwald is his, is our bitterest foe."

"Indeed," said Edgar, and proceeded to elicit the whole history of the
case from Alfred.

The sad tale was not complete till they reached the battlefield, and
encamped in the entrenchments the young prince had occupied the night
before the combat.

"We had intended," said Edgar, "to march at once for London, owing to
news we have received from the south, but we will tarry at Aescendune
until the work is completed there, even if it cost us our crown.

"Nay, Siward, I may have my way this once. I am soldier enough to know I
may not leave an enemy behind me on my march."

"But a small detachment might accomplish the work."

"Then I will go with it myself; my heart is in it. But, Alfred, you look
very ill; you cannot proceed tonight. When did you sleep last?"

"Three nights ago."

"Then it would be madness to proceed; you must sleep, and at early dawn
you shall precede us on my own charger--which has been led all the way
--if your own is too wearied, and with an attendant or two in case of
danger from man or beast. Nay, it must be so."

Alfred, who could scarcely stand for very fatigue, was forced to yield,
and that night he slept soundly in the camp of Edgar. At the first dawn
they aroused him from sleep, and he found a splendid warhorse awaiting
him--a gift, they told him, from Edgar. Two attendants, well mounted,
awaited him in company with Oswy. He would willingly have dispensed with
their company; but he was told that the king, anxious for his safety,
had insisted upon their attending him, and that they were answerable for
his safe return to Aescendune, the country being considered dangerous
for travellers in its present disturbed state.

So he yielded; and before the king had arisen he left the camp, after a
hasty meal, and rode as rapidly as the roads would permit towards his
desolated home.

CHAPTER XXIII. LOVE STRONG AS DEATH.

Meanwhile Father Swithin had gone alone and unprotected, save by his
sacred character, into the very jaws of the lion; or rather, would have
gone, had he been suffered to do so; for when he approached the hall he
found the drawbridge up, and the whole place guarded as in a state of siege.

He advanced, nothing daunted, in front of the yawning gap where the
bridge should have been, and cried aloud--"What ho! porter; I demand
speech of my lord Redwald."

"You may demand speech--swine may demand pearls--but I don't think
you will get it. Deliver me your message."

"Tell your lord, rude churl, that I, Father Swithin, of the holy Order
of St. Benedict, have come, in the name of the rightful owners of this
house, and in the power of the Church, to demand that he deliver up
Elfric of Aescendune to the safe keeping of his friends."

"I will send your message; but keep a civil tongue in your mouth, Sir
Monk, and don't begin muttering any of your accursed Latin, or I will
see whether the Benedictine frock is proof against an arrow."

In a short time Redwald appeared on the roof, above the gateway.

"What dost thou require, Sir Monk?" said he; "thy words sound strange in
my ears."

"I am come, false traitor," said Father Swithin, waxing wroth, "to
demand the person of Elfric of Aescendune, whom thou detainest contrary
to God's law and the king's."

"Elfric of Aescendune! right glad am I to hear that he is alive; my
followers have brought me word that they saw him fall in battle."

"Nay, spare thy deceit, thou son of perdition, for well do we know that
he was brought home wounded last night. One of his bearers escaped thy
toils, even as a bird the snare of the fowler, and is now with us."

"Assuredly the loon has lied unto you. Rejoiced should I be to see the
unhappy youth, and to know that he yet lived. I but hold this place,
faithful to his lord and mine, Edwy, King of all England."

"Then why hast thou expelled the rightful dwellers therein from their
house and home? We know Elfric is with thee, and that thou art a
traitor, wherefore, deliver him up, or we will even excommunicate thee."

"Thou hadst better not begin in the hearing of the men who sit upon the
wall; for myself, excommunication cannot hurt a man who never goes to
church, and does not company over much with those who do."

"Infidel! heretic! pagan! misbeliever! accursed Ragnar!" began the irate
monk, when an arrow, perhaps only meant to frighten him (for they could
hardly have missed so fair a mark), glanced by him.

He retreated, but still continued his maledictions.

"_Excommunicabo te, et omnes tibi adhaerentes_; thou art an accursed
parricide, who hast raised thine hand against thy father's house. _Vade
retro, Sathanas_, I will shake off the dust of my feet against thee,"--
another arrow stuck in his frock--"thou shalt share the fate of Sodom,
yea of Gomorrha; _in manus inimici trado te_;" by this time his words
were inaudible; and he departed, not having accomplished much good, but
having nevertheless informed Redwald of two great facts--the first,
that Elfric's return was blazed abroad; the second, that his own
identity was more than suspected.

"Ragnar!" said he, "What fiend has told them that? how came they to
suspect? Confusion! it will foil all my plans, and my vengeance will be
incomplete. At least this one victim must not escape, and yet I had
sooner he should escape than any other member of the house. Poor boy!
the sins of the fathers are heavy upon the children, as these Christians
have it; but my oath, my oath taken before a dying father! no; he must die!"

So spake the avenger of blood, a man whose heart was evidently not all
of iron; yet from childhood had he striven to restrain every tender
impulse, and had bound himself to vengeance. Long years of peace in
England had come between him and the execution of his projects, and he
had prepared himself for the task he never lost sight of, by acquiring
all the accomplishments of a knight and warrior, and even of a man of
letters, at that court of Rouen, now rapidly becoming the focus of
European chivalry, where the fierce barbarian Northmen were becoming the
refined but ruthless Normans. Then, in England, he had wormed himself
into the confidence of the future king with singular astuteness, and at
length had found the occasion he had long sought, in a manner the most
unforeseen save as a possible contingency.

And now he turned from the battlements to his own chamber, but on the
way he paused, for he passed the door of the late thane's room, where
poor Elfric lay. He passed the sentinel and entered. The unhappy boy was
extended on the bed, in a raging fever; ever and anon he called
piteously upon his father, then he cried out that Dunstan was pursuing
him, driving him into the pit, then he cried--"Father, I did not
murder thee; not I, thy son! nay, I always loved thee in my heart. Who
is laughing? it is not Dunstan; break his chamber open, slay him: is a
monk's blood redder than a peasant's? O Elgiva hast thou slain my
father? See, I am all on fire; it is thy doing. Edwy, my king, Dunstan
is burning me: save me!"

Then there was a long pause, and Redwald or Ragnar as we may now call
him stood over his unhappy cousin. The fair head lay back on the pillow,
with its profusion of golden locks; the face was red and fiery, the eyes
weak and bloodshot.

"Water! water! I burn!" he said.

There was no cooling medicine to alleviate the burning throat, no gentle
hand to smooth the pillow, no mother to render the sweet offices of
maternal love, no father to whisper forgiveness to the dying boy.

"Better he should die thus," said Ragnar, "since I cannot spare him
without breaking my oath to the dead."

Then he left the room hastily, as if he feared his own resolution. The
sentinel looked imploringly at him, as the cries of the revellers came
from below.

"Go!" said Ragnar, "join thy companions; no sentinel is required here.
Go and feast; I will come and join you."

So he tried to drown his new-born pity in wine.

At a late hour of the day, Alfred and his attendants arrived, bringing
news of the coming succour to Father Cuthbert and the other friends who
awaited him with much anxiety. They had contrived to account for his
absence to the lady Edith, from whom they thought it necessary to hide
the true state of affairs.

But everything tended to increase Alfred's feverish anxiety about his
brother. The relieving force could not arrive for hours; meanwhile he
knew not what to do. No tidings were heard: Father Swithin had failed
and Elfric might perhaps even now be dead.

So Alfred, taking counsel only of his own brave, loving heart, left the
priory in the dusk, attended by the faithful Oswy, and walked towards
his former home. The night was dark and cloudy, the moon had not yet
arisen, and they were close upon the hall ere they saw its form looming
though the darkness. Neither spoke, but they paused before the
drawbridge and listened.

Sounds of uproarious mirth arose from within; Danish war songs, shouting
and cheering; the whole body of the invaders were evidently feasting and
revelling with that excess, of which in their leisure moments they were
so capable.

"It is well!" said Alfred; and they walked round the exterior of the
moat, marking the brightly lighted hall and the unguarded look of the
place; yet not wholly unguarded, for they saw the figure of a man
outlined against a bright patch of sky, pacing the leaded roof,
evidently on guard.

And now they had reached that portion of their circuit which led them
opposite the chamber window of the lamented Ella, and Alfred gazed sadly
upon it, when both he and Oswy started as they heard cries and moans,
and sometimes articulate words, proceeding therefrom.

They listened eagerly, and caught the name "Dunstan," as if uttered in
vehement fear, then the cry. "Water! I burn!" and cry after cry, as if
from one in delirium.

"It is Elfric! it is Elfric!" said Alfred.

"It is my young lord's voice," said the thrall; "he is in a fever from
his wound."

"What can we do?" and Alfred walked impatiently to and fro; at last he
stopped.

"Oswy! if it costs me my life I will enter the castle!"

"It shall cost my life too, then. I will live and die with my lord!"

"Come here, Oswy; they do not know the little postern door hidden behind
those bushes; the passage leads up to the chapel, and to the gallery
leading to my father's chamber, where Elfric lies dying. I remember that
that door was left unlocked, and perhaps I can save him. They are all
feasting like hogs; they will not know, and if Ragnar meet me, why, he
or I must die;" and he put his hand convulsively upon the sword which
was dependent from his girdle.

"Lead on, my lord; you will find your thrall ready to live or die with
you!" said Oswy.

At the extreme angle of the building there was a large quantity of holly
bushes which grew out of the soil between the moat and the wall, which
itself was clothed with the thickest ivy; the roof above was slanting--
an ordinary timber roof covering the chapel--so that no sentinel could
be overhead. Standing on the further side of the moat, all this and no
more could be observed.

The first difficulty was how to cross the moat in the absence of either
bridge or boat. It was true they might swim over; but in the event of
their succeeding in the rescue of Elfric, how were they to bear him
back? The difficulty had to be overcome, and they reflected a moment.

"There is a small boat down at the ferry," whispered Oswy.

It was all Alfred needed, and he and Oswy at once started for the river.
They returned in a few minutes, bearing a light boat, almost like a
British coracle, on which they instantly embarked, and a push or two
with the pole sent them noiselessly across the moat.

They landed, made fast the boat, and searched in the darkness for the
door; it was an old portal, almost disused, for it was only built that
there might be a retreat in any such pressing emergency as might easily
arise in those unsettled times; the holly bushes in front, and the thick
branches of dependent ivy, concealed its existence from any person
beyond the moat, and it had not even been seen by the watchful eye of
Ragnar.

Alfred, however, had but recently made use of the door, when seeking
bunches of holly wherewith to deck the board on the occasion of the
feast given to King Edwy, and he had omitted to relock it on his return,
an omission which now seemed to him of providential arrangement.

He had, therefore, only to turn the rusty latch as noiselessly as might
be, and the door slowly opened. The key was in the lock, on the inside.

Entering cautiously, taking off their heavy shoes and leaving them in
the doorway, they ascended a flight of steps which terminated in front
of a door which entered the chapel underneath the bell cot, while
another flight led upwards to the gallery, from which all the principal
chambers on the first floor opened.

Arriving at this upper floor, Alfred listened intently for one moment,
and hearing only the sounds of revelry from beneath, he opened the door
gently, and saw the passage lie vacant before him.

He passed along it until he came to the door of his father's chamber,
feeling the whole time that his life hung on a mere thread, upon the
chance that Ragnar and his warriors might remain out of the way, and
that no one might be near to raise the alarm. With nearly two hundred
inmates this was but a poor chance, but Alfred could dare all for his
brother. He committed himself, therefore, to God's protection, and went
firmly on till he reached the door.

He opened it with trembling eagerness, and the whole scene as we have
already described it was before him. Elfric sat up in the bed, uttering
the cries which had pierced the outer air. When Alfred entered he did
not seem to know him, but saluted him as "Dunstan." His cries had become
too familiar to the present inmates of the hall for this to attract
attention. Alfred closed the door.

"It is I, Elfric!--I, your brother Alfred!"

Elfric stared vacantly, then fell back on the pillow: a moment only
passed, and then it was evident that an interval of silence had begun,
during which the patient only moaned. The noise from those who were
feasting in the hall beneath, which communicated with the gallery by a
large staircase, was loud and boisterous as ever.

A step was heard approaching.

Alfred took Oswy by the arm, and they both retired behind the tapestry,
which concealed a small recess, where garments were usually suspended.

The heavy step entered the room, and its owner was evidently standing
beside the bed gazing upon the couch. There he remained stationary for
some minutes, and again left the room. It was not till the last sound
had died away that Alfred and Oswy ventured to leave their concealment.

The silence still continued, save that it was sometimes broken by the
patient's moans.

"Take and wrap these clothes round him; we must preserve him from the
night air;" and they wrapped the blankets around him; then Oswy, who was
very strongly built, took the light frame of Elfric in his arms, and
they left the room.

One moment of dread suspense--the passage was clear--a minute more
would have placed them in safety, when the paroxysm returned upon the
unfortunate Elfric.

"Help, Edwy! Redwald, help! Dunstan has seized me, and is bearing me to
the fire! I burn! help, I burn!"

Alfred groaned in his agony; the shrieking voice had been uttered just
as they passed the staircase leading down to the hall. Up rushed Ragnar,
followed by several of his men, and started back in amazement as he
beheld Alfred and Oswy with their burden. Alfred drew his sword to
dispute the passage, but was overpowered in a moment. Ragnar himself
attacked Oswy, who was forced to relinquish his burden. All was lost.

Another moment and Ragnar confronted his prisoners. Elfric had been
carried back to his bed. Alfred and Oswy stood before him, their arms
bound behind them, in the great hall, while the soldiers retired at a
signal a short distance from them.

"What has brought you here?"

"To deliver my brother."

"To share his fate, you mean. Know you into whose hands you have fallen?"

"Yes; into those of my cousin Ragnar."

"Then you know what mercy to expect."

"I came prepared to share my brother's fate."

"And you shall share it. It must be the hand of fate which has placed
you both in my power, me, the representative of the rightful lord of
Aescendune, dispossessed by your father, and being myself the legitimate
heir."

"We do not dispute your title; give my brother his life and liberty, and
take all; we have never injured you."

"All would be nothing without vengeance; you appeal in vain to me. Did I
wish to spare you I could not; an oath, a fearful oath, binds me, taken
to one from whom I derived life, one whose death was far more agonising
and lingering than yours shall be."

"Let us at least die together."

"Do you scorn the company of your thrall in death?"

"God forbid!

"Oswy, you have given your life for us; we die in company. God protect
my poor mother, my poor childless mother! She will be alone!"

"You shall die together as you desire."

He addressed a few words in an unknown tongue to his men; his face was
now pale as death, his lips compressed as of one who has taken a
desperate resolution.

"Retire to your brother's chamber again. You will not compel me to use
force?"

They retired up the stairs; Ragnar followed, two or three of his men at
a respectful distance from him.

They re-entered the chamber; Ragnar followed and stood before them.

"I will grant you all that is in my power; you shall all die together,
and you may tend your brother to the last."

"What shall be the manner of our death?" asked Alfred, who was very
calm, fearfully calm.

"You will soon discover; my hand shall not be upon you, or red with your
blood. Believe me, I am, like you, the victim of stern necessity,
although I am the avenger, you the victims."

"You cannot thus deceive yourself, or shake off the guilt of murder; our
father's blood is upon you. You will answer for this, for him and for
us, at the judgment seat."

"I am willing to do so, if there be a judgment seat whereat to answer. I
had a father, too, who was condemned to a lingering death, by thirst,
hunger, and madness; I witnessed his agonies; I swore to avenge them.
You appeal to the memory of your father, who has perished a victim to
avenging justice; I appeal to that of mine. If there be a God, let Him
deliver you, and perhaps I will believe in Him. Farewell for ever!"

He closed the door, and, with the aid of his men, securely fastened it
on the outside, so that no strength from within could open it; he
descended to the hall.

"Warriors," he said, "the moment I predicted has come; I have received a
warning that the usurper Edgar already marches against us; tomorrow, at
the latest, he will be here; before he arrives we shall be halfway to
Wessex. Let every one secure his baggage and his plunder, and let the
horses be all got ready for a forced march. We have eaten the last feast
that shall ever be eaten in these halls."

A few moments of bustle and confusion followed, and before half-an-hour
had expired all was ready, and the men-at-arms from without announced
that every horse--their own and those of the thane, to carry their
booty, the plunder of the castle--awaited them without.

"Then," said he, "listen, my men, to the final orders. _Fire the castle,
every portion of it; fire the stables, the barns, the outbuildings._ We
will leave a pile of blackened embers for Edgar when he comes; the halls
where the princely Edwy has feasted shall never be his, or entertain him
as a guest."

A loud shout signified the alacrity with which his followers bent
themselves to the task; torches flashed in all directions, and in a few
moments the flames began to do their destroying work.

An officer addressed Ragnar--"There are three thralls locked up in an
outbuilding, shall we leave them to burn?"

"Nay; why should we grudge them their miserable lives; they have done us
no harm."

At that moment a loud cry of dire alarm was heard, the trampling of an
immense body of horse followed--a rush into the hall already filled
with smoke--loud outcries and shrieks from without.

"What is the matter?" cried Ragnar.

"The Mercians are upon us! the Mercians are upon us!"

Ragnar rushed to the gateway, and a sight met his startled eyes he was
little prepared to behold.

The clouds had been driven away by a fierce wind, the moon was shining
brightly, and revealed a mighty host surrounding the hall on every side.
Every horse before the gateway was driven away or seized, every man who
had not saved himself by instant retreat had been slain by the advancing
host; without orders the majority of his men had repassed the moat, and
had already raised the drawbridge against the foe, not without the
greatest difficulty.

"Extinguish the fires which you have raised; let each man fight fire--
then we will fight the Mercians."

It was high time to fight fire, rather it was too late.

CHAPTER XXIII. "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY."

When the door was finally closed upon the brothers and their faithful
thrall, Alfred did not give way to despair. The words of Ragnar, "If
there be a God, let Him deliver you," had sunk deeply into his heart,
and had produced precisely the opposite effect to that which his cousin
had intended; it seemed as if his cause were thus committed to the great
Being in Whose Hand was the disposal of all things; as if His Honour
were at stake, Whom the murderer had so impiously defied.

"'If there be a God, let Him deliver you,'" repeated Alfred, and it
seemed to him as if a Voice replied, "Is My Arm shortened, that It
cannot save?"

But how salvation was to come, and even in what mode danger was to be
expected, was unknown to them; nay, was even unguessed. They heard the
bustle below, which followed Ragnar's announcement of his intended
departure from Aescendune. They heard the mustering of the horses--and
at last the conviction forced itself upon them that the foe were about
to evacuate the hall. But in that case, how would he inflict his
sentence upon his victims?

The dread truth, the suspicion of his real intention, crept upon the
minds of both Alfred and Oswy. Elfric yet lay insensible, or seemingly
so, upon the bed, lost to all perception of his danger. Alfred sat at
the head of the bed, looking with brotherly love at the prostrate form
of him for whom he was giving his life; but feeling secretly grateful
that there was no painful struggle imminent in his case; that death
itself would come unperceived, without torturing forebodings.

It was at this moment that Oswy, who stood by the window, which was
strongly barred, but which he had opened, for the night was oppressively
warm, caught the faint and distant sound of a mighty host advancing
through the forest; at first it was very faint, and he only heard it
through the pauses in the storm of sound which attended Ragnar's
preparations for departure, but it soon became more distinct, and he
turned to Alfred.

"Listen, my lord, they come to our aid; listen, I hear the army of Edgar."

Alfred rushed to the window, the hope of life strong within him; at
first he could hear nothing for the noise below, but at length there was
a lull in the confusion, and then he heard distinctly the sound of the
coming deliverers. Another minute, and he saw the dark lines leaving the
shadow of the forest, and descending the hill in serried array, then
deploying, as if to surround a foe in stealthy silence; he looked around
for the object, and beheld Ragnar's forces all unconscious of their
danger, not having heard the approach in their own hasty preparations
for departure. Another moment of dread suspense, like that with which
the gazer watches the dark thundercloud before the lightning's flash. A
moment of dread silence--during which some orders, given loudly below,
forced themselves upon him:

"Fire the castle, every portion of it; fire the stables, the barns, the
outbuildings; we will leave a pile of blackened ruins for Edgar when he
comes; the halls where the princely Edwy has feasted shall never be his,
or entertain him as guest."

Meanwhile, the dark forces, unseen by the destroyers, were still
surrounding the castle, deploying on all sides to surround it as in a
net; for they saw the intention of their victims, and meant to cut off
all chance of escape.

But the position of the brothers seemed as perilous as ever--for how
could Edgar's troops rescue them if the place were once on fire? Alfred
gazed with pallid face upon Oswy, but met only a resigned helpless
glance in return.

Yet, even at this moment of awful suspense, a voice seemed to whisper in
his ear, "Stand still, and see the salvation of God."

"Oswy," he exclaimed, "we shall not die--I feel sure that God will
save us!"

"It must be soon then," replied Oswy; "soon, my lord, for they have
already set the place on fire, just beneath us; can you not smell the
smoke?"

Just at that moment came the war cry of the Mercians, and the charge we
have already described.

It was during the following few minutes, while Ragnar and all his men
were vainly striving to extinguish the conflagration they had raised--
for the dry timber of which the hall was chiefly built had taken fire
like matchwood--it was while the friends without were preparing to
attack, that a sudden change came over the patient.

"Alfred, my brother!"

Alfred looked round in surprise; consciousness had returned, and the
face was calm and possessed as his own.

"Elfric, my dear Elfric!"

"What does all this mean? How came I here? What makes this smoke?"

"We are in danger, great danger; prisoners in our own house, which they
have set on fire."

"I remember now--is not this our dear father's room?"

"Yes; we are prisoners in it, they have barred the door upon us."

"But they cannot bar us in: there is another door, Alfred; one my father
once pointed out to me, but told me to keep its existence a secret, as
it always had been kept. Who are without?"

"The Mercians, Edgar's army, come to deliver us; if we can reach them,
we are safe."

"I thought they were our foes, but all seems strange now. Alfred, lift
up the tapestry which conceals the recess where dear father's armour hung."

Alfred complied.

"Now, just where the breastplate hung you will find a round knob of wood
like a peg."

"Yes, it is here."

"Push it hard--no, harder."

Alfred did so, and a concealed door flew open; he stepped through it
with a cry of joy, and found himself on the staircase leading up from
the postern gate by which he had entered, just below the closed door
which led into the gallery above.

"God be thanked! we are saved--saved. Elfric!

"Oswy, take him in your arms, quick! quick! I lead the way, and will get
the boat ready--door open and boat ready."

It was all the work of a moment; they were on the private staircase,
carrying Elfric, carefully wrapt up. The smoke had entered even here;
the next moment they were at the entrance. Happily the whole attention
of Ragnar was concentrated on self preservation.

One more minute, and Elfric was placed in the coracle. The Mercians on
the further bank now observed them, and at first, not knowing them,
seemed disposed to treat them as foes; when Oswy cried aloud, "Spare
your arrows; it is Elfric of Aescendune;" and they crowded to the bank
joyfully, for the purpose of the attack was known to all, and now they
saw its object placed beyond the reach of further risk of failure.

The coracle touched the further bank; a dozen willing hands assisted
them up the slope. And amidst shouts of vociferous joy and triumph they
were conducted to King Edgar, who hastened towards the scene with Siward.

"Now, let the castle burn, let it burn," said Oswy.

"Alfred, is it you?" exclaimed the young king; "just escaped from the
flames! How came you there? and this is Elfric; you have saved him."

"God has delivered us."

"But you have been the instrument; you must tell me all another time,
get him into shelter quickly.

"Here, men, bear him to the priory, while we stay to do our duty here.

"Alfred, you must not linger."

"One favour, my lord and king; show mercy to Ragnar, to Redwald, you
know not how sad his story has been."

"Leave that to me; he shall have all he deserves;" and Alfred was forced
to be content.

At this moment, aroused by the shouts of joy, Ragnar, forgetting even
his danger, rushed to the roof. There he saw a crowd surrounding some
object of their joy; in the darkness of the night he could not
distinguish more, but the cry, "Long live Alfred of Aescendune!" arose
spontaneously from the crowd, just as the brothers departed. Faint with
toil as he was, his heart beating wildly with apprehension, he rushed to
the chamber through smoke and flame, for the tongues of fire were
already licking the staircase. He withdrew the bars, he rushed in, the
room was empty.

"It is magic, sorcery, witchcraft," he groaned.

But the remembrance of his last words, of his scornful defiance of God,
came back to him, and with it a conviction that he had indeed lifted up
his arm against the Holy One. He felt a sickening feeling of horror and
despair rush upon him, when loud cries calling him from beneath aroused him.

"We must charge through them; we cannot burn here; we must die fighting
sword in hand, it is all that is left."

Not one voice spoke of surrender amongst those fierce warriors, or of
seeking mercy.

It was indeed high time, for all efforts to extinguish the flames had
proved vain; every part of the castle was on fire; the fiery element
streamed from the lower windows, and curled upwards around the towers;
it crackled and hissed in its fury, and the atmosphere became unfit to
breathe; it was like inhaling flame. Sparks flew about in all
directions, dense stifling smoke filled every room. Not a man remained
in the hall, when Redwald rushed down the gallery, holding his breath,
for the hot air scorched the lungs; when, just as he arrived, the
staircase fell with a huge crash, and the flames shot up in his face,
igniting hair and beard, and scorching his flesh. He rushed back to the
opposite end of the passage, only to meet another blast of fire and
smoke--for they had ignited the hall in twenty places at once; they
had done their work all too well. He rushed to the room he had left,
shut the door for a moment's respite from flame and smoke, and then,
springing at the window, strove to tear the bars down, but all in vain.

"There must be some egress. How did they escape? How could they escape?"
he cried; and he sought in vain for the exit, for they had closed the
door again, and he knew not where to look; in vain he lifted the
tapestry, he could not discover the secret; and at last, overpowered by
the heat, he sprang again to the window, and drank in deep draughts of
fresh cool air to appease the burning feeling in his throat.

Crash! crash! part of the roof had given way, and the whole chamber
trembled; then a single tongue of flame shot up through the floor, then
another; the door had caught outside. Even in that moment he beheld his
men, his faithful followers, madly seeking death from the swords of the
foe; they had lowered the drawbridge, and dashed out without a leader.

"Would I were with them!" he cried. "Oh, to die like this!"

"Behold," cried a voice without, "he hath digged and graven a pit, and
is fallen himself into the destruction he made for others."

It was Father Swithin, who had observed the face at the window, and who
raised the cry which now drew all the enemy to gaze upon him, for they
had no longer a foe to destroy.

The flames now filled the room, but still he clung to the window, and
thus protracted his torments; his foes, even the stern monk, could but
pity him now, so marred and blackened was his visage, so agonised his
lineaments; like, as they said, the rude pictures of the lost, where the
last judgment was painted on the walls of the churches. Yet he uttered
no cry, he had resolved to die bravely; all was lost now. Another
moment, and those who watched saw the huge beams which supported the
building bend and quiver; then the whole framework collapsed, and with a
sound like thunder the roof tumbled in, and the unhappy Ragnar was
buried in the ruin; while the flames from his funeral pyre rose to the
very heavens, and the smoke blotted the stars from view.

"Even so," said the monk, solemnly, "let Thine enemies perish, O Lord,
but let them that love Thee be as the sun, when he goeth forth in his
might."

But those were not wanting who could not sympathise with the stern
sentiment, remembering better and gentler lessons from the lips of the
great Teacher and Master of souls.

"He has passed into the Hands of his God, there let us leave him," said
Father Cuthbert, who had just arrived at the moment. "It is not for us
to judge a soul which has passed to the judgment seat, and is beyond the
sentence of men."

Meanwhile, they had borne Elfric first to the priory, for they judged it
not well that he should yet be brought to his mother; they feared the
sudden shock. Many of the good monks had studied medicine, for they were
in fact the healers both of soul and body throughout the district, and
they attended him with assiduous care. They put him to bed, they gave
him cordials which soon produced quiet sleep, and watched by him for
many hours.

It was not till the day had far advanced that he awoke, greatly
refreshed, and saw Father Cuthbert and Alfred standing by him. They had
allayed the fever, bound up the wound, which was not in itself
dangerous, and he looked more like himself than one could have imagined
possible.

And now they thought they might venture to summon the lady Edith; and
Alfred broke the intelligence to her, for she knew not the events of the
night.

"Mother," he said; "we have news of Elfric, both bad and good, to tell you."

"He lives then," she said; "he lives!"

"Yes, lives, and is near; but he was wounded badly in the battle."

"I must go to him," she said, and arose, forgetting all possible
obstacles in a mother's love.

"He is near at hand, in the priory; you will find him much changed, but
they say he will do well."

She shook like an aspen leaf, and threw her garments around her with
nervous earnestness.

"Come, mother, take my arm."

"O Alfred, may I not come, too?" said little Edgitha.

"Yes, you may come too;" and they left the house.

Elfric heard them approach, and sat up in his bed, Father Cuthbert
supporting him with his arm; while another visitor, Edgar himself, stood
at the head of the bed, but retired to give place to the mother, as if
he felt no stranger could then intrude, when the widow clasped her
prodigal to her loving breast.

CHAPTER XXIV. SOW THE WIND, AND REAP THE WHIRLWIND.

When Alfred rebuilt the city of Winchester, after it had been burned by
the Danes, he erected a royal palace, which became a favourite retreat
of his successors.

Here the unhappy Edwy retired after his defeat, to find consolation in
the company of Elgiva. Indeed he needed it. Northumbria had followed the
example of Mercia, and acknowledged Edgar, and he had no dominions left
north of the Thames, while it was rumoured that worse news might follow.

In an inner chamber of the palace, and remote from intrusion, sat the
king and his chosen advisers. It was early in the year 958, a spring day
when the sun shone brightly and all things spoke of the coming summer--
the songs of the birds, the opening buds, the blossoming orchards.

But peace was banished from those who sat in that council chamber. Edwy
was strangely disturbed, his face was flushed, and he bore evidence of
the most violent agitation.

"It must come to that at last, my king," exclaimed Cynewulf, "or Wessex
will follow the example of Mercia."

"Better lose my crown then and become a subject, with a subject's
liberty to love."

"A subject could never marry within the prohibited degree," said a
grey-headed counsellor.

"We have messengers from all parts of Wessex, from Kent, from Essex,
from Sussex, and they all unite in their demand that you should submit
to the Church, and put away (forgive me for repeating their words) your
concubine."

"Concubine!" said Edwy, and his cheek flushed, "she is my wife and your
queen."

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