Part 4 out of 5
service of the Most High. How come you here?"
Then Roderic smiled in derision.
"How came I here? And wherefore should I come if not to claim mine own?
Wherefore should I come if not to destroy the young cub Kenric, who hath
cruelly murdered many scores of innocent dwellers in the isles. Mine own
have I already regained, for I have planted my banner upon the towers of
Rothesay, and no man on earth shall now rob me of what I have so hardly
conquered. Two other things remain; and then I go to make further
conquests for my sovereign king. I shall have young Kenric's blood, and
I shall have my full revenge for the injuries he has done to the people
of Colonsay. And now, my father, you will go down upon your knees before
me -- for I am now your lord and king and will be obeyed -- and you
shall tell me truly where this young whelp Kenric is to be found, that I
may slay him."
"Earl Kenric of Bute shall never be slain by you, Roderic MacAlpin,"
said Elspeth. "For though you follow him over half the world, as you
followed Rapp the Icelander, yet shall you never draw one drop of blood
from that brave youth's body!"
"And who shall stay me?" cried Roderic. "By the mass, but you speak bold
words, Dame Elspeth!"
"I will stay you!" cried Elspeth. "Your right arm shall wither, your
eyes shall grow blind, your life's blood shall turn to gall ere you
touch a hair of Earl Kenric's head! Return whence you came, bold outlaw.
Go, ere it be too late. Overmuch injury have you already done in this
land of your fathers. And do you hope to rule in Bute -- do you believe
that there is one man in all this land who would accept you as his lord
and master, and who would pay homage to you, after the ills you have
done? Vain fool! be satisfied. Turn back to your ships and ask of Heaven
the forgiveness which no man on earth will now accord you! Go, Roderic
"Miserable hag!" cried Roderic grasping his sword. "And think you that I
would lead my brave men away ere they have had their full revenge upon
this stripling? No, no! Listen now, how they cry for his blood! Hear how
they cry out for the children whom you have spirited away! Elspeth
Blackfell, you know where those children are hidden, and by Saint Olaf
you shall now tell me where they are, or I will drive my blade into your
shrivelled carcase. Tell me, I say!"
"My lord Roderic," said Elspeth, looking at him with glittering eyes,
"you have lost your own two children. Do you still remember them? Do you
still remember their rosy cheeks, their sweet blue eyes, their golden
hair? Do you still hear the music of their laughter as they played among
the pebbles on the beach? Ah, it was a sad, sad day for you when they
were taken from you, my lord."
"A sad day indeed, Elspeth," echoed the sea rover, mechanically
sheathing his sword, and speaking in an altered voice that had a touch
of tenderness in it.
"And yet," added Elspeth, "there lives in Cowall one who might tell you
what became of your little ones."
"What? You tell me this! Who is that man?"
"On one condition shall you know," said Elspeth. "Take your men away
from Bute, and no more seek to learn whither our women and children are
"Agreed," said Roderic; "for, believe me, 'tis no wish of mine that the
people of my own lands should suffer. Tell me, who is this man?"
"When your followers are in their ships," said Elspeth, "when you are
taking up your anchors, then will I tell you, Lord Roderic. And if you
keep your word and leave us for a time in peace, most assuredly you
shall yet learn more."
Now Roderic, who was a man of iron, had yet one soft place in his heart,
and that was ever touched when he thought of his lost children.
Doubtless Elspeth knew all this, and whether it was true or false that
she could give him the word he wished, she at least succeeded in turning
him away from St. Blane's, and Kenric, half-wishing to take his sword
and slay him where he stood, peeped above the wall where he and his men
were intrenched and saw the pirate chief go up to his men and order them
to turn back to Rothesay.
In another hour thereafter, Roderic, having left the castle in charge of
one of his captains and a full garrison of men, entered his ship and
with his other galleys sailed away on his expedition of plunder on the
banks of the Clyde.
Being joined by other ships from Kintyre, Islay, and Jura, together with
the forces of Margad who had invaded and conquered the isle of Arran,
his armament now numbered sixty galleys. They took the castles of Dunoon
and Roseneath, and laid waste many villages and farmsteads. Farther
still they went, up the waters of Loch Long, devastating the lands on
either side. At the head of Loch Long they took their smaller ships and
mounting them on rollers made of the trunks of larch trees, they dragged
the vessels bodily over the neck of land that lies between Arrochar and
Tarbet, and launched them on the great lake that is called Loch Lomond.
Now on Loch Lomond there are many small islands that were at that time
thickly peopled, and many Scots of the invaded earldom of Lennox had
taken refuge on those islands when they heard that the Norsemen were
advancing. Their safeholds now became the scenes of plunder and
bloodshed, the islands were wasted with fire, the shores of the
beautiful lake were completely ravaged, and the houses on its borders
burnt to the ground.
After this, Roderic and Magnus made an extended expedition into the rich
county of Stirling, in which they massacred great numbers of
inhabitants, and returned driving herds of cattle before them, and
loaded with booty.
During his voyage up the Clyde, Roderic had paid little heed to the fair
captive Aasta. But when, triumphant and gloating, he returned to the
ships he had left in Loch Long, he discovered that his prisoner had
escaped, and he was very wrathful, for, as he said, the maid was passing
fair, and he had been minded to take her back with him to his castle.
But no man could tell him how the girl had escaped, or which way she had
Roderic, having filled his ships with plunder, then set out for Kintyre,
where he was to join King Hakon. But entering the Clyde from Loch Long,
he encountered a terrible storm. Ten of his vessels were completely
wrecked, and his own galley was forced to steer clear of Bute, and take
refuge behind the islands of Cumbrae.
The measure of the Norwegian success was now full. Hakon had gained
possession of every island, great and small, on the west of Scotland. In
the far north he had established his footing not only in the Shetlands
and Orkneys, but he had made himself master of the whole county of
Caithness. In the south, Kintyre had been unconditionally ceded to him
by its timid lord. Bute, Arran, and the Cumbraes had been conquered; the
rich county of Lennox -- one of the most fruitful in Scotland -- had
been laid waste, and on the outer coasts of the mainland the Norsemen
had planted their banner on many a well-built castle. Hakon was now
intent upon conquering Scotland, so, gathering his whole fleet of nearly
two hundred ships, he sailed from Gigha round the Mull of Kintyre, and
anchored in Kilbrannan Sound.
In the meantime King Alexander, having received Kenric's early warning
of the coming of the Norsemen, had with many Scots and English noblemen
taken up his residence in Stirling Castle, there to await further news.
One day in September he was out with a hawking party upon the lands
which, fifty years afterwards, became known to the world as the field of
Bannockburn, when suddenly a most beautiful maiden with blood-red hair
threw herself before his horse.
"May it please your Majesty," said she, "to hear your servant's petition?"
"Who, then, are you, my pretty maid?" said the King.
"I am a maid of Bute, your Majesty, and a faithful vassal of my lord
Earl Kenric of that isle. And I have come to tell you that the Norsemen
have landed on your shores. They have taken our castle of Rothesay. They
have harried your lands of Lennox. They are approaching upon Stirling.
And oh, your Majesty, of your mercy I implore you to give speedy succour
to your injured subjects by driving this enemy from our midst!"
"How came you here?" asked the King.
"I was carried off as a prisoner from Rothesay by the tyrant Roderic of
Gigha, who hath been sent by King Hakon to lay waste the shores of the
Clyde. He carried me as far as Loch Long in his ship. But there I
escaped and found my way hither to inform your Majesty of these disasters."
"Roderic of Gigha?" echoed the King. "So, ho, and 'tis he who hath taken
Bute? By St. Andrew, but he shall not long enjoy his conquests.
"My lords," he added turning to his companions, "methinks the maid
speaks truth. Now turn we back to Stirling and cease this sporting, for
there are higher duties to perform. Come, my lords, let us at once
muster a goodly army, and march against these bold sea wolves ere they
have gone too far."
But ere the king had time to do more than learn the extent of the
invasions, Roderic and Magnus had returned to their ships. Alexander,
however, soon learned that Hakon himself had entered the Clyde with his
armaments, and thereupon there ensued an interchange of messages between
the two monarchs. A truce was agreed upon until terms might be arranged.
It was the object of the King of Scots to so delay negotiations, that
every day might give him more time to concentrate his army; and as the
autumn was drawing to a close, it brought the Norwegians a nearer
prospect of wreck and disaster from the winter storms.
Alexander made such moderate demands that it was apparent he was not
fully prepared to resist the fleet and army of Norway. He had no
standing army. He had never been engaged in any warlike affair. He sent
word to the Norse king signifying that he would be content to retain the
mainland of Scotland and the islands inclosed by it -- Arran, Bute, and
the two Cumbraes -- and it appears that he was willing to have given up
to Norway the whole of the isles of the Hebrides. These terms, so
advantageous to Hakon, were, fortunately for Scotland, rejected. The
proud master of the invading force would give up nothing coming within
his claims. It then was observed that Alexander became shy of further
treating, and that a force was gradually collecting upon the heights
overlooking the Cunningham coast.
Hakon then proposed that Alexander should meet him, each at the head of
his army, and treat concerning a peace. If the attempt at negotiation
failed, then he would throw down the gauntlet from Norway and challenge
the Scottish monarch to debate the matter with his army in the field,
and let God, in His pleasure, determine the victory.
Upon this Alexander, in no wise unwilling to fight, pronounced the truce
at an end, and war was declared.
CHAPTER XXVI. A TRAITOR KNAVE.
Earl Kenric, on seeing the outlaw and his troops march back in the
direction of Rothesay, breathed a great sigh of relief.
The people of Bute were so far safe; much bloodshed had been avoided.
The abbot and Elspeth Blackfell had by their simple words reversed the
designs of an army. So when the abbot returned into the walled
inclosure, Kenric took his hands and reverently kissed them.
"And now, holy father," said he, "let us all offer thanks to God for His
great goodness at this time of our need, for God alone can have stayed
the hands of these ruffians."
Then the abbot and his friars stood before the many children and
moist-eyed women and brawny islanders who crowded into the circle, and
all knelt down upon the grass. Never since the gospel of Christ had been
introduced into that land had prayers been more fervently uttered.
In the midst of the prayers, Ailsa Redmain, kneeling by Kenric's side,
suddenly touched him on the shoulder, and pointed over towards the Arran
hills. There, in the direction of Ranza, he saw a great column of black
smoke rising in the air.
"Alas for Sir Piers de Currie!" he murmured, and then again bent his head.
But when the prayers were said Kenric quickly rose and climbed the thick
wall, and running with all speed to Dunagoil he ordered Allan Redmain to
take two ships over to Arran, for that Sir Piers de Currie's castle was
Not long were the two galleys in crossing the sound. Entering Loch
Ranza, they entrapped three ships of the Norsemen that had been sent
against the castle while Margad their chief was attacking the castle of
Brodick on the eastern side of the island. Attacking these ships, Allan
Redmain speedily put the Norse warriors to the sword and took their
vessels as prizes.
On the beach he found the gallant knight, Sir Piers, standing in the
light of the flames that devoured his home. His wife and six children
were clinging to his side piteously weeping. His castle was completely
wrecked, and as there was not another fit dwelling for many miles
around, Allan Redmain, having driven off the enemies who were on shore,
besought Sir Piers to bring his family on board, and with twelve brave
men of Arran who had escaped, he was taken over to St. Blane's to such
refuge as there remained to him. The beautiful Lady Adela and the Lady
Grace de Currie fell into each other's arms, for in the hour of their
adversity they were as sisters.
At the time when Kenric was thus receiving his neighbours of Arran, the
men whom Roderic had left in charge of the castle of Rothesay were
making merry over their victories. A dozen of them, officers of the
garrison, sat in the great hall -- the hall in which the good Earl
Hamish had met his death. On the bare board of the table there lay a
cooked haunch of venison, with other viands that had been found in the
buttery, with many cakes of brown bread and drinking horns filled with
wine. For these men had not been long in command ere they had broached
more than one wine cask with casks of other liquors of a stronger sort,
and they grew ever more noisy and more boisterous, this one boasting of
how many dogs of Bute he had slain, and that one vaunting that he had
with his own hand struck the stripling lord of the island to the ground.
Often one of them would rise from the long bench before the fire and
maul the venison with his bloodstained hands, turning it over this way
and that; then taking his sword, which had been used that day for a very
different purpose, he would cut off a great slice of the meat, and
spreading a layer of salt upon it, clap it between two cakes of bread
and sit down to enjoy the food. In eating, drinking, and singing wild
battle songs, these warriors passed that evening, each thinking himself
Some of the men were wounded, but little did they seem to care; nay,
many a one even proudly displayed his bleeding cuts, to prove how sorely
bestead he had been in the fight, and the man who had the greatest show
of wounds was looked upon almost with envy. To be wounded was next to
being slain, and to be slain on the field of battle was the most
glorious death a man might die.
"Well, my brothers-in-arms," at length said one who appeared to be their
captain, "'tis a good day's work that we have done. So let us drink and
be merry. Here's waes-hael to king Rudri of Bute. Long life to him!"
Then the men took up their drinking horns and drank deep to the last
drop. But two there were who drank not at all, and they were men of
"Why drink ye not with me?" growled the captain, frowning.
"Because, Thorolf," said one with flashing eye, "I am but ill-content
with the way that Rudri broke his plighted word to us. When we set out
on this journey, was it that we should but help him to gain his father's
island? No. Did he not solemnly swear that he would give us our full
meed of vengeance upon the whelp who massacred our children? And what
man of us has had that chance? Blood for blood, say I!"
"And so say I," muttered his companion. "Methought when we came here
that I should have the chance of driving my spear into a full half score
of the children of Bute -- that I might have served them even as the
stripling Kenric served my little ones. Saint Olaf curse him!"
"It baffles me," said the first, "to know by what means the women and
children of this isle have been spirited away. Not since we landed
yestermorn have I so much as seen a living child, nor woman neither,
saving only that old witch."
"Ay, and the fighting maid who cut me this wound across my pate," added
another. "Methinks this Kenric must surely have got wind of our
intention; but how that can be, what man can tell?"
"What then of the thing we found on the moor of Gigha, after the council
that King Hakon held?" asked Thorolf the captain. "What man would have
slain the young Harald of Islay if it were not some spy of Bute? The lad
was stabbed through the back; 'twas in no fair fight that he fell."
"True," said they all. "By St. Olaf, that is surely so!"
"Could we find out in Rudri's absence where these babes and wives of
Bute have been so cunningly hidden," said one of the men of Colonsay,
"methinks we might well pay out both Rudri and young Kenric. What say
you, my bold brothers all?"
"'Tis my belief," said another, "that the old witch who spoke to Earl
Roderic had some secret intention in turning us away from yon chapel at
the end of the island."
At this the men were silent; but at last one said:
"I'd swear that it was even so. And what say you all if we go thence
this very night and fall upon the chapel with fire and sword? 'Tis a
straight road from this, and easily found."
At this moment there were footsteps in the outer corridor. Three men
entered, dragging with them yet another who was bound with ropes. Their
prisoner was David Blair, the farmer of Scalpsie. He had been captured,
hiding like a frightened cur, among the rocks of Ascog.
The Norse captain, who could speak the Gaelic, on learning who he was,
commanded him, on pain of instant death, to tell where Kenric of Bute
had taken the women and children.
The farmer hesitated a moment; then, seeing the captain draw his sword,
"Oh, spare me, spare me, my lord! Give me but my life, and I will tell
you all. I will tell you where you may find these people, and how you
can get at them. But, since death is the punishment wherewith you
threaten my silence, tell me, then, what shall be my reward if I tell
you this you ask?"
The captain smiled grimly. Then in Danish he said:
"You base inhuman craven! you ask what reward I will give you? Methinks
the only fitting reward for such treachery were to have a cauldron of
boiling lead poured down your guilty throat. Reward, forsooth!"
"Nay, but I cannot understand, my master. I am but a poor Scot who knows
not the Norse tongue. Say, what reward do you promise?"
"Fear not, my man. You shall have your deserts," said the captain. "Tell
me, now, or I will even cut you down this instant where you stand
"The families of Bute -- men, women, bairns -- are all in the abbey of
St. Blane's," said Blair. "They are penned up like a vast flock of sheep
in the abbey and the chapel, in the chapel vaults, and within the walls
of the Circle of Penance. There you will find them, with my lady Adela
of Rothesay, and young Kenric himself, and Allan Redmain that murdered
my poor dog --"
"Enough!" cried the captain sternly, "and now for your reward."
Then turning to one of the men who had brought in the captive, he added:
"Hundi, this man is a traitor, and as a traitor he must now be served.
You will therefore conduct him to the topmost towers of the castle, and
taking the rope that now binds him, you will tie a shipman's noose about
his neck and let him hang in mid-air, that the carrion crows may taste
the flesh of one of the meanest cowards in the isles."
Then, as the farmer was taken away to his death, Thorolf the captain
paced the floor moodily, speaking not a word.
"What said this man, Thorolf?" asked one of his comrades. "Come, tell us
where we may find these people."
"That will I tell to no man!" said Thorolf firmly, "and as I am captain
here, these are my orders: that if any man seek to discover where these
families are now harboured, or if any man does aught to further molest
the people of Bute, he may expect a reward equal to that of the traitor
who has now gone to meet his deserved death. There are ropes in Rothesay
for all who dare to disobey me!"
"Coward!" muttered one of the men of Colonsay, rising and passing out of
the hall, "think you that you alone could understand that man? I heard
his answer, and by my sword, I mean to act upon it;" and thereupon they
all stood up and followed, taking their arms and leaving Thorolf alone
beside the fire.
Later on that evening, when Sir Piers de Currie with the friars of St.
Blane's were sitting quiet in the abbey refectory, when the Lady Adela
and the mothers of Bute were busy putting the little ones to sleep, Earl
Kenric was walking to and fro in front of the gate of the Circle of
Penance. He carried his naked sword in his arms, and he wore the heavy
chain armour that had not been put aside for four long days. He was very
weary, for he had had a long day's fighting, and no sleep had he known
since the night of his adventure in Gigha.
He was thinking now of all that had passed, and of the many men, his
companions and faithful vassals, who now lay dead. Also he was wondering
what had become of the wild girl Aasta. She had done many things for
which he owed her deep gratitude. Not only had she given him the great
sword of Somerled, with which he had done so much in defence of his
people; but it was she who had warned him of the coming of the enemy; it
was she who had gone over with him to Gigha, and made it possible for
him to learn the plans of the Norsemen. (She had there saved his life,
though Kenric knew it not.) It was she who had told him that the great
pirate Rudri was his own evil uncle Roderic. He was accordingly much
concerned for her safety, and much troubled in his fear of what had
happened to her.
Suddenly, in the midst of his musing, someone passed him like a rush of
wind. In the dim evening light he saw Ailsa Redmain.
"Ailsa!" he cried, "where go you? Why do you thus come out here where
you know full well that none but men may come?"
"My lord," said she, "it is little Ronald Campbell that I seek, and his
sister Rachel. We cannot find them, and they have not been seen by
anyone since evensong. Methinks they must have crept under the gate and
so wandered into the grove."
"Are there no men who could seek the children as well as you? Go back,
Ailsa, and let me seek."
But as he spoke, he heard the sound of children's laughter from among
the birch trees, and, believing that Ailsa was turning back, he ran
forward towards the woods.
Now little Ronald Campbell was the same who had picked up Earl Kenric's
gauntlet on the day of his throning on the Great Plain.
Scarcely had Kenric entered the grove when the laughter he had heard was
changed into a scream of terror. Little Ronald, dragging his sister by
the hand, came running towards him, pursued by a score of savage
Norsemen. Kenric was about to snatch up the children in his arms when he
saw it was too late. The Norsemen were upon him. He gripped his sword
and stood his ground. At the same moment Ailsa Redmain brushed past him
and took the little Ronald by the hand. One of the men of Colonsay
darted forward, levelling his spear, and with its sharp point caught the
little Rachel. The child fell down, and the spear was but caught in her
woollen frock. In an instant Kenric had leapt forward, swinging his
sword in air. His heavy blade crashed into the man's skull. Then other
twenty men surrounded Kenric, menacing him and pressing forward to reach
the children he defended. A man of Colonsay caught Ailsa by her hand,
and with his dagger was about to take her life. With a great cry of
furious rage Kenric sprang upon him and felled him.
Closer still the Norsemen pressed in upon him. But Ailsa lay down at his
feet with the two little ones clasped tightly in her arms, protecting
them as a moor hen protects her chicks under the cover of her spreading
wings. Kenric, sweeping his blade from right to left, felled every man
who came within a couple of paces of Ailsa, until at last the yelling
warriors drew back, leaving the young earl standing in the midst of a
circle of dead men, with Ailsa and the two children still unscathed.
Then as the enemy, reinforced by many of their comrades from among the
trees, and ranking themselves shoulder to shoulder, drew in again,
suddenly a shower of arrows poured upon them, and a troop of the men of
Bute rushed forward from their ambush.
From another direction a warrior on horseback appeared and crashed in
among the Norsemen, felling them with mighty strokes of his heavy
battle-axe. Then followed such a slaughter of the Norsemen that in a few
minutes not one was left alive.
The warrior on horseback threw his battle-axe upon the ground, and
drawing rein, sat upon his saddle with folded arms, and Kenric saw by
his armour that he too was one of the enemy, and he marvelled much.
The men of Bute were now eager to make an end of that stranger, for they
thought that he was the leader of the men who had thus attempted to
surprise the guard and make inroads upon the abbey. But, seeing the man
sitting so calm upon his horse and unarmed, they lowered their weapons.
This stranger horseman was Thorolf the captain, who had followed his
rebel guards with intent to intercept them.
"Young man," said he to Kenric, "I know not who you are, but by the
circle of dead men now lying about you, and by the prowess whereby you
have saved the lives of these three children, I judge that you can be
none other than the young king of Bute."
"That, sir, is so," said Kenric, wiping his sword upon a mossy stone and
sheathing it. "And who are you, my master?"
"The captain of these rebel scoundrels -- Thorolf Sigurdson of
Benbecula," said the warrior, uncovering his head of ruddy curls. "I
have been left warden of the castle of Rothesay by Rudri Alpinson; and
now do I swear on mine honour, my lord, that this matter that hath just
befallen is none of my doings, for I would fain have prevented it. But
'tis but an hour ago that one of your islanders was brought in a
prisoner to Rothesay, and it was he who betrayed the harbourage of your
"Who was that man?" asked Kenric with wrathful voice.
"His name, my lord, was David Blair. He is now, for his betrayal,
dangling at a rope's end from the western tower of Rothesay Castle."
"Well have you served him," said Kenric; "and now for your courtesy I
thank you, Thorolf Sigurdson."
Then Kenric bade Ailsa Redmain return with the two children to the abbey.
"And now," he added, turning to the captain, "since you are here I would
beseech you to grant me a few days' truce, that we may have time to bury
"For the matter of that," said Thorolf, "I would willingly extend the
truce until the return of Rudri. For there are, if I mistake not, many
matters to attend to beyond the burial of the slain. The men of
Colonsay, as I hear, have played sad havoc with your homesteads, and it
were well that these were put again into decent repair."
"Your terms are more favourable than I had hoped for," said Kenric, "and
I well see that you are a man of honour."
"My lord," said Thorolf, "much do I commend and admire you for what you
have done in protecting your islanders. That protection, I do assure
you, was much needed, for had your people remained in their homes not
one of them would now have been alive. But I swear that they are
henceforth safe from all further peril. And now, for my own curiosity
alone, I would ask you how it happened that you were so timely warned of
the danger that threatened you, my lord?"
Kenric told how William MacAlpin had come to Bute, and how he himself
had spied upon the council of King Hakon in Gigha.
"Ah, then, 'twas you who slew the young son of John of Islay?" cried
Thorolf, though not in anger. "The lad was found dead on the very rock
you speak of."
"Not so," said Kenric; "I slew him not. And 'tis now for the first time
I hear that he is dead."
"But you had companions?"
"A girl was indeed with me. But -- ah, surely Aasta cannot have done
"Aasta? That is a Norse name. Well, 'tis no business of mine," said the
captain; "and now will I return to Rothesay well content that your
people have received no greater injuries than they now suffer at the
hands of my friends your enemies. Give you goodnight, my lord."
"By my faith, a right honest man!" said Kenric as Thorolf rode away.
"And a good Christian, if I mistake not," said the abbot, who had heard
"Ay, and a gallant soldier to boot," added Allan Redmain. "But for his
turning upon those ruffians, methinks it would have gone ill with Kenric
and my sister Ailsa."
"God be thanked for our escape," murmured the abbot. "And now, if
Roderic and his crew come not back over soon, all may yet go well with
us. At sunrise we will all set forth with picks and shovels and give a
true Christian burial to both friend and foe alike. And God rest their
souls, one and all."
CHAPTER XXVII. THE BATTLE OF LARGS.
Two weeks of gloomy weather passed, with clouded skies and fitful winds.
During that time nothing was heard in Bute of either Roderic the Rover
or King Hakon of Norway. Kenric and his men, with the priests of St.
Blane's, made busy work in burying the dead. Also, they got all their
shipmen and fishers, farm workers and shepherds, to build up the
devastated cottages and farmsteads, and one by one these dwellings again
received their wonted inmates. The villages of Rothesay, Ardbeg, Kames,
Ascog, and other settlements in the island had been roughly handled by
the invaders, and many farms had been despoiled. But for the greater
part the shells of the houses had been left standing, and there were
many hands to make light work of restoring them.
The Lady Adela of Rothesay, Lady Grace de Currie, Ailsa Redmain, and the
women of Rothesay Castle took up their quarters in the nunnery attached
to the barony of St. Blane's, for none would return to the castle while
yet a Norseman remained therein; and Kenric had passed his word that he
would not attempt to regain possession of his stronghold until the kings
of Norway and Scotland had settled their dispute.
On the last day of September Sir Piers de Currie, Kenric, and Allan --
now Sir Allan Redmain, for the knighthood of Scotland was hereditary --
were walking over from Ascog, when, looking towards the seaboard between
Arran and the Cumbraes, they observed a great fleet of ships, with many
flags flying from their masts, making across the Clyde. A hundred and
fifty war galleys there were in all.
"The saints protect us!" cried Allan. "What means all this?"
"'Tis even as I expected," said Kenric. "They are the ships of Hakon of
Norway, who now intends to invade the mainland."
"Then, if this be indeed so," said Sir Piers, "methinks it is now our
place to be following under the banner of our sovereign. Too long have
we already delayed. To your ships, Kenric! To your ships this very hour!
Muster your men and let us at once hasten over to Cunningham, for, if I
mistake not, King Alexander must even now be marching to the coast. 'Tis
but small help that we can offer, but let it not be said that we shirked
our duty in the hour of Scotland's need."
"Go, Sir Allan," said Kenric, "hasten to the headland of Garroch and
there blow me on your horn the call to arms. Not long will our men be in
answering that summons.
"And now, Sir Piers, to you do I resign the command of our forces. Give
us your directions and we will promptly obey."
"Let every man who can draw a longbow, or wield pike or sword, be sent
upon the ships," said the knight. "At noon, when the tide is at the half
flood, we set sail for Gourock."
"Even so. The bay of Gourock is our best shelter, and thence we can
march southward towards Largs, or to whatsoever spot the enemy determine
to make their landing place."
"'Tis well," said Kenric.
"And furnish me with the best horse you can find," added Sir Piers, "for
'tis on horseback that I would fight."
So at noon that day seven galleys hove anchor in the bay of Kilchattan,
with each a company of seven score men; in all a thousand gallant
islanders sailed that day from Bute. Creeping up the shores of the
island, past Kerrycroy and Ascog, they steered across by Toward Point.
And by this time the fleet of King Hakon had disappeared into the
channel that flows between the two Cumbrae islands.
As Kenric's ships crossed the Clyde a drizzling rain came on, and the
wind began to blow in fitful gusts from the southwest. But they reached
the safe harbour of Gourock without mishap, and there cast anchor.
That night the half moon that shone dimly through the scudding clouds
lay on her back, with a great circle of light around her, betokening
The next morning, which was the 1st of October, was cold and windy. Sir
Piers ordered his troops ashore, leaving but a few shipmen to watch the
galleys. Landing amidst a shower of heavy hail he was met by a party of
mounted Scots clad in complete mail, who told him that King Alexander
had already started from Lanark with fifteen hundred mounted men-at-arms.
Sir Piers marshalled his islanders in order and gave the word to march,
and ever as they moved southward they were joined by the villagers and
parties of sturdy fighting men.
Kenric and Allan, with Duncan Graham at their side, marched afoot, for
both were wont to feel ill at ease in the saddle. Nevertheless Allan
cast many an envious glance at the gallant knight who led them. Sir
Piers was clothed in the most beautiful suit of armour that had ever
been seen in that time. His horse was a powerful Spanish jennet that had
belonged to Earl Hamish of Bute, and it was protected by a heavy
breastplate and flank armour. The rider was splendidly armed from head
to foot, his helm and coat of mail being inlaid with gold. At his left
side there hung a long claymore, longer by three inches than Kenric's
great sword. In his right hand he held a ponderous battle-axe of solid
brass, and from his pommel there hung a spiked mace whose head was as
large as the head of a man. His belt was studded with precious stones.
Not in all his army had King Alexander a stronger or nobler warrior than
Sir Piers de Currie; nor had he one, either strong or weak, who had a
deeper hatred against the Norse invaders, for they had burnt down his
castle of Ranza, and by them had his own uncle's castle of Brodick been
razed to the ground and his uncle slain. He was to fight that day for
his beautiful wife and his children, for the possession of his estates,
for his revenge against his enemies, and for his King and country; and
none who saw him could have doubted that he would prove a most valiant
and powerful antagonist.
Kenric had on his crested helm of brass, and wore a shirt of steel mail.
His knees and arms were bare, showing his firm muscles and the suntanned
skin; on his feet he wore buskins of double hide, and his legs were
protected by brass greaves. Over his back his longbow was slung beside
his full arrow sheaf. At his right side was his dirk, at his left the
sword of Somerled. On his arm he carried a small round shield studded
with nails, though this was more an encumbrance than a defence, since
his sword required the use of his two hands, and the shield might only
be employed as a protection against arrows fired from a distance.
Sir Allan Redmain was attired in like manner. As to their islanders,
some few of them of the better condition -- as Duncan Graham and Ronald
Gray -- wore shirts of mail, but the larger number, so far from desiring
armour when they came to close quarters with the enemy, even threw their
plaids aside and fought in their shirts, bare legged, bare armed, bare
headed. Many of them carried bows and arrows; all had either claymores
or pole-axes, with daggers and targets.
They had marched some ten miles southward through the sheltered glens of
Noddsdale when, mounting to the ridge of the range of hills that rise
above the shores of Cunningham, they were met by a keen icy wind from
the southwest. Below them stretched the wide Firth of Clyde, turbulent,
angry with foam-capped waves. Far across the water rose the giant
mountains of Arran, with their tattered peaks frowning in dark-blue
blackness against the leaden sky, and through a rent in the clouds a
long beam of sunshine shot, slanting down for a moment upon the soft
green hills of Bute. On the nearer side were the two islands of Cumbrae,
with a strip of gray sea between them, where lay the storm-tossed
galleys of King Hakon the Old.
These ships, which during the night had taken shelter in the harbour
that is now named Millport Bay, were already making for the shores of
the mainland below the village of Largs, for it was at this point that
the Norse king had determined to land his invading forces.
Largs was not a spot which a modern general would have chosen for an
invasion. It was ill suited for troops forming in strength after
landing. There is a narrow strip of level ground, with bluffs rising
right up from it. Troops marching along this strip, either north or
south, would be flanked by the higher ground for many miles. To attempt
to pass through any of the ravines which pierce the range of hills would
have been perilous. Nevertheless Hakon had chosen this landing place.
"Methinks," said Sir Piers de Currie, as he watched the Norse galleys
battling with the waves, "that our work is already half accomplished.
Should the wind rise yet higher no easy task will Hakon find it to land
his men on that lee shore."
"Had I been he," said Kenric, "it is not thus that I would have lingered
among the isles ere I made a descent upon the mainland. Had Hakon
pressed onward with all his forces, instead of despatching a squadron
here and a squadron there for useless plundering, had he made straight
for Scotland while yet the fair weather continued, and while yet King
Alexander was unaware of his approach, he might even have made a
"But look eastward yonder across the hills at the fair troop of Scots
advancing in battle array. Look down upon the plain of Largs, where a
good two thousand men are waiting ready. Soon will King Alexander
himself be here with his cavalry from Lanark. By my faith, the Norseman
will have a warmer welcome than he looks for!"
"Let us then hasten downward," said Sir Piers, "that we may have a taste
of the battle before the elements have entirely robbed us of our foe."
Troop after troop of Scots marched onward toward Largs. From Ayr they
came, from Renfrew, Dumbarton, Stirling, Turnberry, and many another
stronghold that had been warned of the enemy's nearness by means of
beacon fires on the highest hilltops.
But of the forces that were making ready to meet them the Norsemen knew
little. They were at present too much engaged in attending to the safety
of their ships, and not any of them could make a landing that day. The
wind rose higher, the tempest increased in fury, and at nightfall there
came a deluging storm of hail and rain which continued until late next
For this the Scots cared little. Curling themselves up with their plaids
about them they slept soundly upon the heather, undisturbed by the
howling of the wind and the raging of the waves upon the rocky shore.
But with the invaders it was far from being such an easy matter. Their
anchors dragged. Many vessels had to have their masts cut away. King
Hakon's own gallant ship, although secured by seven anchors, was driven
from her moorings, and five galleys were cast ashore.
And now when the tempest seemed to threaten the total destruction of
their enemies, a mixed multitude of armed Scots on the surrounding
heights watched every movement of the Norwegian fleet, ready to take
instant advantage of its distress. So, when the five galleys with their
armed shipmen were driven ashore, Sir Piers de Currie and the men of
Bute rushed down from the heights and attacked the stranded vessels.
Whereupon the Norsemen defended themselves with great gallantry.
The rest of the fleet were presently seen beating up the channel towards
Largs, and, as the tempest had lulled, reinforcements soon landed in
such numbers that the Scots were forced to retire towards the heights.
At sunrise King Hakon himself came ashore with a force of three thousand
men, ordering an advance towards the higher ground. At the moment when
the marching order was given the army of King Alexander appeared upon
the hilltop. The sun's rays breaking through the ragged clouds sparkled
upon spears and cuirasses. The cavalry made a noble appearance. Most of
them were knights and barons from the neighbouring counties, armed from
head to heel, and mounted on Spanish horses which were clothed in
complete armour. With this troop of fifteen hundred horsemen was a vast
body of foot soldiers.
Seeing all this, Sir Piers de Currie no longer hesitated to renew his
engagement. Rallying his men he began to skirmish with the advance of
the Danes and Norwegians. He pressed on both flanks with so much fury
that, fearing they would be cut to pieces -- as many were -- the enemy
began a retreat which soon changed into a flight. King Hakon and many of
his best fighting men scrambled into the boats and pushed off into the
safety of the deeper water, regaining their ships.
Everything now depended upon the landing of reinforcements. But at this
critical moment a violent storm of hail came on; the wind rose again
with such strength that it completed the ruin of many of the ships. In
the midst of the fighting on land there was a still more furious battle
upon the waves. Galley after galley was driven upon the rocks, and their
crews had little spirit for meeting their overpowering enemies.
Between the anger of the elements and the ceaseless showers of arrows
from the Scots, their army was greatly distressed. Their leaders, too,
began to desert them, and in their frantic efforts to escape they
overcrowded the boats, many of which went down.
Sir Piers de Currie now drew up his men in line on the hillside, and
left them in charge of Allan Redmain and Kenric. Then he rode to meet
the King, whose troops had by this time descended to the level ground.
"So, then, Sir Piers," said Alexander, whose tall figure, as he sat on
his brown jennet, was almost wholly covered by a great cloak -- "so you
have arrived before us? And are we then to have no share in this
adventure? 'Tis passing unfriendly in you thus to dismiss our enemy ere
we have seen his face. Tarry awhile and let them land again. Our
horsemen here are like hounds straining at the leash. What men have you,
"A few hundred peasant lads, your Majesty, and some eight hundred men of
Bute," said the knight.
"And are there then none cf your own men of Arran?"
"Alas, sire, these Norse dogs have left me but a handful of followers,
for my uncle has been slain, and our four castles have been taken. Our
islanders have taken refuge among the mountains. I and my family, who,
by God's grace, escaped, have been these two weeks past in Bute, where
Earl Kenric has most heroically saved the lives of many hundreds of your
loyal subjects. 'Tis true he has lost his castles of Rothesay and
Kilmory, but --"
"Kenric of Bute has done well," said the King. "We have already heard of
all that he has done for the people of Bute. It was from one of his own
messengers that we first heard of Hakon's arrival on our coasts. Kenric
shall not be forgotten. Our only regret is that he did not put an end to
that villainous outlaw his uncle. But there may yet be hope that Roderic
is in the field this day. So we pray you, Sir Piers, should you
encounter him, deal him his death blow, and you shall have our eternal
gratitude. And now to your work, and God defend the right."
Then as Sir Piers rode off to rejoin his troops, the King turned to a
stalwart warrior at his side and bade him show King Hakon a lesson in
defence. This warrior was Alexander the high steward of Scotland, a man
bred in the use of arms, and, next to Sir Piers de Currie, the most
valiant soldier that fought in that field. And with him rode three good
English knights who were of the court of Alexander. With a full company
of cavalry he rode across the plain and took up his position with Sir
Piers de Currie.
During this interval the hailstorm had abated, and the Norsemen had
again effected a landing in great numbers under the chiefs Ogmund
Kraekidantz and Haffling of Orkney.
Sir Piers de Currie and the steward rode forward side by side,
attempting in the chivalrous style of the time to provoke an encounter.
But none would take this challenge, so Sir Piers rode back. Then the
steward, riding in front of the ranks of the enemy who were drawn up
along the beach, was speedily surrounded. Spurring his charger, he
dashed forward, and wielding his great battle-axe he struck down the
opposing Norsemen as the waving wheat falls before the sickle, leaving a
row of slain men in his track.
The Norsemen then rushed forward with loud cries to meet the troops of
peasants and men of Bute who charged them. But the horsemen galloped in
between and drove the enemy along the shore. The fair-haired warriors of
the North again and again rallied and behaved with the accustomed
bravery of their viking ancestors, fearless of wounds and glorying in
Many galleys were then brought nearer inshore, and though assailed by
heavy stones from the Scots' machines and ceaseless showers of arrows,
their men scrambled upon the beach. And now Sir Piers de Currie again
rode forward, followed by Kenric, Allan Redmain, Duncan Graham, many men
of Bute, and others of Lanark and Ayr. This was the one sortie of the
engagement that was in the nature of a real battle. In numbers the two
sides were almost equal.
Sir Piers was met by five Norse chiefs, and he encountered them with
fierce courage. One by one he felled them to the ground, cleaving their
brass helms with his heavy axe. And ever as they fell their places were
taken by as many others. At his horse's left side fought Kenric, Allan,
and Duncan; Kenric swinging his great sword and smiting right and left
at those who tried to reach the horseman, Allan and Duncan in like
manner fighting with steady blows. And thus they pressed their way ever
farther into the ranks of the enemy, moving with Sir Piers, backward or
forward, and defending his left side as he slew his assailants on his right.
Kenric heard the gallant knight's panting breath growing weaker.
"To the other side, Duncan," he cried. And Duncan Graham worked round
behind the horse's tail to relieve Sir Piers of some of his foes who
pressed upon him. Not long had he changed his position when Kenric saw
the horse swerve and fall. A deep groan from Sir Piers was all that told
of the terrible wounds he had received.
The Norwegian chronicle recording this fight says that Sir Piers de
Currie was killed by a blow which severed his thigh from his body, the
sword cutting through the greaves of his armour and penetrating to the
saddle. Howbeit the brave Sir Piers was slain, and the man who slew him
was the outlaw Roderic MacAlpin.
Duncan Graham, seeing who had done this thing, at once closed with
Roderic, and the two fought with terrible vigour.
Now Duncan, ever since he had received that wound in his chest over at
Coll, had lost the power to raise his right arm above his head, and it
went ill with him. When Kenric, rushing to Sir Piers de Currie's right
side, first saw his enemy, Roderic was in the act of smiting a fearful
blow upon Duncan's bare and outstretched neck. Duncan fell, not even
uttering a groan, so speedily fatal was the blow he had received.
But above the clang of the battle and the thunderous surging of the
waves, there rose at this moment into the air a woman's cry of anguish.
It was the cry of Aasta the Fair.
Wearing the same coat of mail and helmet that she had worn at the siege
of Rothesay, and wielding a light broadsword, she had been fighting with
as fearless bravery as any man there present. She had cloven her way
through the battling men to the place where rose the towering head of
her lover Duncan, and arrived at his side at the very moment when the
sword of Roderic smote him down. Splashed with her lover's blood she
gripped her sword, nor paused to see if Duncan were indeed dead. She
leapt with a wolf-like howl upon Roderic MacAlpin, and so pressed him
with her blows that he stepped back and back.
The maid, though strong, was ill-trained in the use of the sword, and
her every blow was skilfully parried. But to Aasta's side came Kenric,
his eyes gleaming with fierce hatred of his foe. They were now at the
very verge of the sea, and the spray from the surging billows fell upon
them like heavy rain. Roderic struck at Aasta, muttering a curse, and
Kenric in parrying that blow missed his chance. He saved Aasta's life,
but before he could recover his weapon, Roderic had quickly turned round
and plunged into the foaming waves.
Promptly did Kenric thrust his sword between his knees and take his
longbow from over his shoulder. Aasta as promptly handed him an arrow.
He saw Roderic standing waist deep in the breakers sheathing his sword.
He levelled an arrow at his throat, but quickly as the arrow flew
Roderic raised his shield. The dart plunged into the hard board. Another
and another arrow followed with the same result. Then Roderic, throwing
himself into the deeper water, and holding his shield to defend his bare
neck, swam outward towards the ships.
No other man in all that host could have breasted those great waves
without being dashed to pieces on the rocks. But Roderic MacAlpin was as
much at home in the water as upon the dry land, and though Kenric
believed that he had but preferred a watery grave to being hacked to
death by sword or axe, yet Roderic reached his ship in safety and lived
to fight another day.
Kenric, returning with Aasta from the beach, found Allan Redmain,
surrounded by many men of Bute, fighting still. There was a great sword
cut across his cheek, but his strong arms waved about him unceasingly,
smiting down at every blow one of the fair-haired warriors of the North.
Then Kenric joined in the fray, swinging his trusty blade to right, to
left, and forcing his way to Allan's side, where he stood his ground
over the dead body of Sir Piers de Currie.
That good knight's splendid armour had caught the eyes of his covetous
foes, who were also enraged at the thought of the many doughty Norsemen
who had fallen under his mighty blows. Twelve of their best men were
victims of his well-wielded battle-axe, and of the twelve were the Norse
barons Ogmund Kraekidantz, Thorlang Bosi, Paul Soor, Andrew Nicholson,
and King Hakon's own nephew, Hakon of Steini, all of them most gallant
and brave warriors.
But not less enraged were the Scots on their side at the death of Sir
Piers, whose body now became the centre point of battle. The Norsemen
strove to gain possession of his armour, and piece by piece they carried
it away. But ever the Scots bore down upon their foes. Swords, pikes,
and axes dripped with the crimson drops of battle, arrows and heavy
stones fell in the midst of the contending forces; the groans of the
wounded, the lusty shouts of the deep-throated combatants sounded loud
above the raging of the wind and the thunderous beating of the waves.
Very soon the foemen shrank away, leaving a great gap in their lines
through which the Scots cavalry charged, driving the Norsemen to their
ships, or forcing them into the turbulent sea.
At the head of the cavalry rode the Scottish King with his valiant
steward at his side. But little did the horsemen do, for the enemy,
already routed by the defenders, and further dispersed by the tempest of
wind and hail, gave up the fight. Many scrambled upon their boats and
pushed off from land, and very soon there was scarce a living Norseman
to be seen upon the strand.
The steward of Scotland then drew up his forces to the heights, where
they formed anew. There they remained for many hours in the shelter of
the woods, for the storming of the elements was terrible to behold.
Towards evening the tempest lulled and the Norsemen, still undaunted,
again ventured ashore in vast numbers, landing their boats through a
tremendous surf. These new troops, led by Roderic MacAlpin and Haffling
of Orkney, attacked the Scots upon two points, making a desperate
charge, and with such success that they killed many and drove the whole
army back into the farther valley. But here the Scots suddenly halted.
Their left wing wheeled round, and taking the invaders in their rear
they speedily brought to an end that battle of Largs.
The relics of this brave body of invaders, with their two leaders, again
embarked in their boats, and although the storm continued, safely
arrived at the fleet. The remaining ships of Hakon were woefully
shattered; they drove from their anchors, many were stranded on the
shore, others struck against shallows and rocks, or found equal disaster
by running foul of each other.
The next morning presented a beach covered with dead bodies and a sea
strewn with wreckage.
King Hakon himself had never so much as drawn his sword. His barons and
officers had urged him to remain on board his ship. Defeated, and
dismayed at his manifold disasters, he called for a truce for the burial
of his dead, and five days were spent by friend and foe in consort in
raising above the graves of the fallen warriors those rude memorials the
traces of which still remain to mark the field of battle.
Of the twenty thousand followers of the Norse king scarcely as many
hundreds remained alive, and of his splendid fleet but a score of
dismantled galleys were left afloat to carry back the defeated invaders
to their several homes.
Crossing to the outer seas, Hakon gathered about him the few pirate
chiefs who had joined him in the hope of plunder, and upon them he
bestowed as rewards for their service the islands of which he had made
imaginary conquest. He gave the isle of Arran to Earl Margad, who had
invaded it, and upon Roderic MacAlpin he bestowed the isle of Bute.
These chiefs, however, did not at once take possession of their estates,
but remained on the ships that they might help to replenish the
exhausted provisions of the fleet by forcible contribution from the isles.
King Hakon now felt the vast change that had come over his armament
during the few weeks since he sailed down among the Western Isles,
conquering and winning to his side the island princes as vassals of his
flag. He returned as a baffled invader, and encountered many severe
rebuffs from the islanders as well as further disasters from the winter
storms. The fatigues of that expedition and his bitter disappointments
sank deep into his old heart, and never again did he see the home that
he had left. Landing in Orkney on the 29th of October, he remained in
the palace of Kirkwall, and there died a broken-hearted man.
So concluded this memorable expedition against Scotland, which began
with high hopes, but ended only with disaster and the death of its royal
leader. No more did the sons of the vikings attempt to take their stand
upon the Western Isles.
Alexander III, freed from a restless and powerful enemy, could look
forward to a continuance of peace and prosperity. But he lost no time in
following up the advantages he had gained from the engagement at Largs.
In the following year he sent a strong military force against those
unfortunate chiefs who during the late expedition had remained faithful
to Hakon. Some of the island kings were executed; all were reduced.
Three years afterwards, in 1266, the disputes with Norway were finally
settled by a formal treaty with Magnus IV, Hakon's son, who agreed to
yield to Scotland for ever after, all right and sovereignty over the
Isle of Man and the Western Isles, specially reserving Orkney and
Shetland to the crown of Norway.
In the year 1281 a bond of friendship was established between the two
nations by the marriage of the Scottish princess Margaret, daughter of
Alexander III, to Eric of Norway, the grandson of Hakon the Old. It was
the daughter of this marriage, Margaret the Maid of Norway, whose sad
death in 1290 brought about the disputes of Bruce and Baliol, and led to
the great war of Scottish Independence.
CHAPTER XXVIII. AASTA'S SECRET MISSION.
Since the invasion of Bute, when Elspeth Blackfell's cottage had been
laid in ruins, Aasta the Fair had taken up her abode with the old woman
in a little cave that may still be seen opening out upon the wooded
heights above Ascog Bay.
On an evening in late December the maiden sat in this cave. Her fair
head, with its long flowing hair, was resting in her hands, and her deep
blue eyes were fixed upon the glow of a peat fire that burned in the
middle of the chamber, and reflected its warm light upon the deerskin
curtain at the entrance. From without came the soughing of a bitter east
wind that blew in biting gusts across the Clyde.
The three months that had passed since the battle of Largs had brought
but little joy into Aasta's lonely heart. The destruction of the castle
of Kilmory, and the coming of winter, had deprived her of her daily
occupations upon the farm lands, and her work would not be renewed until
Allan Redmain had rebuilt his castle and spring had softened the frozen
fields. The frosts and snows had brought many hardships; food was
scarce, and life in that rocky cave had few comforts. More than all,
Duncan Graham, whom she had hoped to wed, was dead -- slain in battle by
the sword of the outlaw Roderic. Aasta almost felt that she had rather
have been slain at her lover's side than live longer without him in a
world that offered her so little joy.
But in her despair for herself she yet was comforted by the knowledge
that the Earl Kenric had been spared to his people, and that the
Norsemen had finally left him in possession of his castle and lands. It
was of Kenric that she was now thinking as she sat before the fire. Ever
since that night in September, when she had journeyed with him to Gigha,
she had felt a strange, close sympathy with him, an affection for him
that was stronger than any other feeling she had ever known. Kenric's
peaceful happiness was the one thing that she yearned for.
But now, when she had thought such happiness was surely before him, an
unexpected danger had suddenly arisen. Roderic the Rover was still
alive. The battle which had brought about the death of so many of his
companions had spared him. The raging elements that had destroyed so
many of the ships had left Roderic's galley unharmed. He had voyaged
into the far north with the defeated King Hakon, and after Hakon's death
he had returned to Gigha. On any day he might be expected again in Bute.
Aasta had just heard this unwelcome news from a fisherman who had come
ashore at Ascog, and she was questioning in her mind how she might
profit by the occasion and, unknown to Kenric, go secretly over to Gigha
and compass the death of this powerful enemy of Bute. She hated Earl
Roderic as the cushat hates the nighthawk, and if by some subtle means
she could bring him to his death, then might she deem herself fortunate
indeed, and her own life not wholly thrown away by a sacrifice that
would be the means of ensuring lasting happiness to the lord of Bute.
A new light beamed in her large eyes as she determined at all hazards to
attempt this thing.
Presently she rose from her little wooden stool and took down a heavy
cloak that she threw about her shoulders. Then from under a sheepskin
mat she drew forth a long sharp dirk, which she placed in her leathern
belt. She went further into the cave and put some bread cakes into her
wallet. Then drawing aside a curtain that shut off a side chamber in the
rocky walls, she held up a lighted cruse lamp and looked for a few
silent moments upon the sleeping form of Elspeth Blackfell.
"Fare you well, Elspeth," she murmured softly. "It may be that I shall
never see you again -- no, never again. But God will reward you for the
great goodness you have shown to your poor Aasta. Fare you well."
As she sighed and dropped the curtain she turned to leave the cave, and
there crept towards her the gaunt form of a great dog wolf, upon whose
breast there was a patch of pure white hair. The animal lazily stretched
himself and yawned, showing his long red tongue and his white fangs.
Aasta bent down and patted his shaggy coat.
"No, Lufa, it is alone I go. Get back to your corner," she said coaxingly.
The animal turned tail, and with the obedience of a tame dog went back
into the darkness and lay down on his mat of sheepskin, while Aasta,
drawing her cloak about her, slipped silently out into the clear
twilight and faced the keen east wind.
Turning along a narrow path that led upward to the head of the bank, she
followed the course of a little stream whose pure water was now turned
into icy crystals. As she gained the level height the wind blew her hair
about her pale and beautiful face. She drew her hood over her head and
turned inland. To the south the giant fells of Arran, shrouded in snow,
stood out white and distinct against a steel-blue sky, with the wan moon
above them. But the ground that Aasta trod was bare and hard, and the
drifted snow lay only in the deeper hollows crisp as ice. She crossed
the Great Plain beside the Seat of Law, until she came to the wooded
shores of Loch Ascog. She observed that the ruffled water of the little
lake was of a deep blue, and she thought of the weird belief of that
time which held that those waters claimed once every year a new victim,
and that they only assumed that dark-blue colour in token of a coming death.
She looked upon Ascog Mere with a superstitious dread, for the people of
Bute believed that it was a place of punishment for unhappy spirits, who
might often be heard wailing in the dismal morass about its margin. She
heard such a wailing even now, though perhaps it was but the whistling
of the wintry wind among the frozen reeds, or the tinkling of the ice
that was gathering in a film at the water's verge.
Hastening her steps, she sought the shelter of the tall fir trees, and
made her way to the southern point of the lake that she might reach the
western shores of the island, and so take a fisher's boat across to
Gigha by the same easy course that Kenric had taken with her three
months before. The journey must now be taken alone, for she meant that
the vengeful work she contemplated should be secret, and that Earl
Kenric should be rid of his dangerous enemy without knowing by whom or
by what means Roderic had been slain.
Scarcely had Aasta emerged from among the trees and crossed towards the
lake when she heard the beating of footsteps upon the hard ground. She
stood still and listened. Nearer and nearer the footsteps advanced, and
presently at the top of a bald knoll in front of her there appeared the
tall figure of a man. He was covered by a seaman's great cloak, which he
held partly over his face to shield him from the cutting wind. He came
rapidly towards her, and when they were but a few paces apart he drew
back his cloak, revealing his long red beard.
"Roderic of Gigha!" cried Aasta recoiling a step and feeling for her
dirk, as she recognized the man she had set out to slay.
"Ay, Roderic it is," said he smiling grimly. "And methinks, fair damsel,
that you are the very same who so cunningly escaped from my ship over at
Arrochar -- the same also who fought so bravely against me at Largs. By
the saints, my pretty one, but you are a most courageous maiden; much do
I admire you, and fain would I know you better.
"Nay, be not afraid of me," he added as he saw her draw back from him,
"I will not hurt you.
"What wicked schemes, my lord, have brought you yet again to Bute?"
asked Aasta, making pretence to be very calm, and thinking that by
seeming to yield to his humour she might be the better able presently to
use her dirk.
"If you must know," said he as he stepped aside to the leeward of a
great rock, "I come hither to see the old witch Elspeth Blackfell, to
reproach her for her false prophecy. Where lives the old hag these
"In the cave of Ascog, if you know that place," said Aasta, promptly
deciding how she might entrap him there, and knowing full well that the
wolf Lufa would be a sufficient protection for Elspeth.
"I know it well," said Roderic, "and there will I go. And now, how fares
the young lord of Bute since he has lost his castles and lands?"
"My lord Kenric's castles and lands are in no wise lost to him," said
Aasta more boldly.
"How so? Not lost?" cried Roderic in surprise. "Where, then, is Thorolf
Sigurdson, whom I left as warden over my isle of Bute?"
"Thorolf Sigurdson, Heaven bless his honest heart! has gone home these
many weeks past to Benbecula, and taken his cowardly Norsemen with him."
"The traitor!" gasped Roderic. "And is the young Kenric again in
possession of my castle of Rothesay?"
"The castle of Rothesay was never yours, Earl Roderic, and never shall
be," returned Aasta firmly. "His Majesty of Scots hath given us full
protection, and for you to seek to remove Earl Kenric from his rightful
lordship were vain. If you value your life, my lord, go not near to
"Your warnings are useless, bold maiden," said Roderic with a sneer. "To
Rothesay I will surely go, and Kenric, were he the strongest man in all
the isles, shall not prevent me from taking my own. I have sworn to
bring that whelp to his death, and by St. Olaf he shall die this very
Aasta drew nearer until she stood close enough to touch him. The light
of the moon shone upon her beautiful face, and Roderic, standing with
his back against the rock, thought that surely she was the fairest woman
his eyes had ever beheld.
"My lord," said she softly, as though she meant to help him to his
coveted power, "if this be indeed your intention, methinks 'twere well
that you should first reckon with me."
Her right hand now grasped the haft of her dirk, her left hand was ready
to fly at the man's bare throat.
"Haply I am but a weak woman; yet a woman can ofttimes do that which men
would shrink from."
"Even so," said he calmly. "And now if you would but help me in this
project, I swear to you that I will love you always, and when I am in
possession of my lands and castles, I will even make you my wedded wife,
and you shall be right happy."
"Villain!" cried Aasta. Then she flung back her cloak and sprang upon
him, seizing his throat and raising her knife to strike it to his heart.
Roderic saw her eyes flash like two fierce fires. He saw her weapon
gleaming in the moon's pale light. With a wild cry of rage he caught her
uplifted arm and arrested it.
"Deceitful witch," he cried, "is it thus that you would help me?"
"Even so," said Aasta the Fair. "For now your last hour has come. No
mercy will I show you, base villain that you are!"
And then they struggled together in each other's arms, swaying and
panting, gripping and twisting, like two furious animals. Aasta held him
firmly with her left hand, burying her strong fingers in his thick
throat. But at last he freed himself and forced her back. Then with
fierce anger he caught her up in his arms and raised her from her feet,
and carried her away.
Thereupon Aasta gave forth a loud and piercing cry that sounded far away
in the keen winter air.
That cry was heard at the farther side of Loch Ascog, where, in the
dingle of Lochly, Allan Redmain was walking northward towards Rothesay.
Allan thought at first that it was the cry of some imprisoned spirit in
the mere; but again he heard it, and no longer doubted that it was a
woman's voice calling for help. He ran back to the southern point of the
lake, and searched in the growing darkness for a sign that might tell
him what had happened. Nothing could he see but the bare bleak land with
its patches of frozen snow, the dark trees waving in the wind, and the
still blue surface of the mere where the frost was swiftly congealing
the water into transparent ice. And then he thought that his ears had
He went onward to Rothesay over the ever-hardening land. The frost bit
sharply. Every stream of water shrank into itself in firm clear ice and
grew silent. Allan was full-blooded in his strong manhood, but when he
reached the castle gates his fingers, toes, and ears were numb with the
Before the blazing fire in the great hall he found Kenric with the Lady
Adela and his own sister Ailsa.
Another also was there whose presence made Allan forget the cold. This
other was sweet Margery de Currie, the eldest daughter of brave Sir
Piers. She blushed as Allan entered, and made room beside her for him to
sit down. She took his hands in hers and chafed them into warmth, at
which the Lady Adela smiled approval, thinking how brave a pair they made.
Presently the servitors entered and made ready the evening meal. Allan
rose and drew Kenric aside.
"Over at Kilmory two hours ago," said he, "I learned bad news, my lord."
"What news is that, Sir Allan?" asked Kenric. "Is it that your builders
refuse to work in this cold weather? What matters it? Have you not a
good home here, where you can see your lady love every day? Have
patience, Allan; Margery will wait, and you will be wedded when the
springtime comes, and when your castle will be better fitted to receive
"Nay, Kenric, 'tis not such matters as these that trouble me," said
Allan gravely. "The news I speak of is that the rascal Roderic the
Outlaw, has, as I believe, returned to Gigha."
"Roderic in Gigha!" cried Kenric in alarm. "Alas! and I thought him
dead. Who told you this thing?"
"A fisherman of Gigha," said Allan. "But I understood him ill. Methinks
we had better inquire of the maid Aasta the Fair, for the fisher spoke
with her, and well I wot he told her all."
"Doubtless," said Kenric. "And on the morrow I will even seek Aasta and
learn from her if this be true. It may be that there still is work for
my sword to perform. Well is it that I have not already fulfilled my
intention of casting the brave weapon into the sea."
CHAPTER XXIX. ELSPETH BLACKFELL.
Early on the following morning, which was the last of the year, Elspeth
Blackfell awoke to find herself alone in the cave. Aasta was gone; even
the wolf Lufa was no longer there, and the fire was dead out. Elspeth
with some difficulty kindled the hard dry peats, and went to put some
water into the pot to make porridge. The water in the well at the far
end of the cave was turned to solid ice. At the cave's entrance there
was a fringe of long icicles hanging like sword blades from the bare
rock. All was cold and desolate. The black frost had penetrated
everywhere, even, it seemed, to the old woman's bones, for she moved
slowly and bent for many minutes over the little fire vainly trying to
bring warmth into her shrivelled limbs.
When at last she was able to put some broken ice into her pot, she went
out into the chill open air, climbed the slippery bank, and stood upon
the height looking abroad for Aasta. She heard the tread of footsteps
crunching upon the hard ground among the neighbouring trees; but the
tread was strangely heavy. It was not that of the light-footed maiden.
Elspeth returned into the cave and began to prepare her meal. The sound
of the footsteps continued to fall upon her ears; they came nearer. She
went to the entrance and drew aside the deerskin curtain. She started
back at sight of Roderic the Outlaw.
"You!" she cried, scowling. "What devil's work now brings you back to
Bute? for evil it must surely be that tempts you hither."
"Cease your croaking, Elspeth Blackfell," said he, "and give me food.
This cold has crept into my very marrow. Quick, give me food."
Elspeth stood aside and allowed him to enter. He went to the fire and
snatched up a burning peat, moving it rapidly from hand to hand, and
blowing it into a red glow with his misty breath. Then when he had
warmed himself, he took out his dirk and cut up some wood for the fire,
making the flames rise high about the pot until the water began to simmer.
Elspeth, without speaking, brought him an oaten cake, which he
ravenously devoured. By the time that he had eaten it the water was
boiling. He thrust his strong red hand into the bag of oatmeal, and then
proceeded to stir the porridge, while the old woman brought wooden bowls
and a dish of goat's milk.
They ate their meal in silence, each eyeing the other with suspicious
glances of mutual hatred. Not until he had appeased his hunger did
Roderic say more than a few casual words. Elspeth felt herself in his
power, for she was alone, a frail and weaponless old woman against a
strong healthy man, whose sword might at any moment be flashed forth to
her destruction. She waited, anxiously hoping that Aasta would soon
return with the wolf.
"And now, Elspeth Blackfell," said he at last, as he tossed his empty
bowl into a corner, "you would know my reason for coming back to Bute,
eh? Need you ask it? It is, in the first place, that I may bring my bold
nephew Kenric to his account. I am, as you know, a poor defeated
warrior. I am tired of battling; I would rest myself awhile. My late
sovereign King Hakon of Norway is dead. To Alexander of Scots must I now
turn for protection. 'Tis true he has made me an outlaw; but what of
that? Bute is mine, Gigha is mine, and Alexander can ill afford to keep
me his enemy. I will turn young Kenric from my lands which he usurps,
and I doubt not all will yet go well with me."
"Methinks," said Elspeth, "that you will find it no easy matter to turn
my lord Kenric from his seat, for Alexander loves him right well, and
has assured him of his fullest protection."
"I care not that much for Alexander or Kenric," said Roderic, snapping
his fingers. "Think you that I mean to wander about, a homeless
vagabond, as I have wandered these few weeks past? Not so; Kenric shall
die, and by fair means or foul I shall take his place."
Roderic here stood up to his full height and faced the old woman.
"And now, as to my second motive in returning hither," said he; "it is
to have some words with you --a y, you, Elspeth Blackfell -- concerning
the false prophecy you made me. When, as I landed over at St. Ninian's
three moons ago, with my gallant warriors, I besought you in your
witchery to tell me the true issue of our invasion, you told me --
false-tongued hag that you are -- that if the first blood that was drawn
should be that of a man of Bute, then my Norsemen should be victorious;
and if it was that of a Norseman, then the Scots should win the fight.
And I believed you. Now it was a lad of Bute that gave the first blood,
and yet the Scots are free and the Norsemen are utterly defeated.
Explain me this, thou harridan."
"My lord," said Elspeth, rising and putting the fire between them,
"listen to me. What I said at that time may indeed seem passing strange.
But though I claim no power, as you mistakenly think, to see into the
future, yet nevertheless the words I spake have come true."
"True? How so?" cried he, handling his sword.
"The youth you slew, my lord Roderic, was not of Bute," said Elspeth
with a trembling voice. "Ah! you look with surprise! But wait. You knew
not what you did; you knew not who it was that you so wantonly slew."
"What mean you? Who then was this youth? Of what land was he, and what
was his name?"
Elspeth paused and stepped nearer.
"His name, my lord, was Lulach, and he was the son of Roderic MacAlpin
and Sigrid the Fair."
"You lie, vile witch, you lie!" cried Roderic, recoiling as he heard her
words, and pressing his hands to his brow.
"Not so," said Elspeth, "the youth you then slew was indeed your own son."
"God forgive me!" murmured Roderic, sinking to his seat and burying his
shaggy head in his hands. "Oh, Lulach, Lulach! my son, my son!"
"Well may you weep, my lord; but methinks your punishment is full well
deserved. Better had you obeyed our good abbot, and gone upon the holy
pilgrimage; better still had you remained content upon your isle of
Gigha, and never sought, in your ambition, to wrest from your brother
Hamish the larger inheritance that you coveted. But you slew our good
Earl Hamish; you slew his son Alpin. Blame now yourself alone in that
your folly led you to slay also your own son Lulach. 'Twas an evil game
you played, my lord, and your punishment is just."
"Taunt me no more," said Roderic sullenly. "Taunt me no more. But tell
me, if it indeed be that my boy is dead -- my dear son Lulach, whom I
might have loved all these years had I but known he could be found --
tell me, when came he into Bute?"
"Long years ago, my lord, when he was but a child, and at the time when
you were roving the seas in pursuit of Rapp the Icelander. Had you,
instead of following your life of plundering, but come as a friend and
brother to Earl Hamish, it may be that you might have found your boy.
'Twas not for me to seek you out, or to send Lulach to the home of a
father who was no better than a murdering pirate. The lad was happier
where he was, even though he lived the life of a poor thrall."
"Alas! so near, so very near!" murmured Roderic. "And I believed that
the kelpie had carried off my bairns, while all the time it was but a
few brief miles of sea that divided us!
"My bairns? Ay, there were two. And the other -- the girl -- what of
her? What of my sweet, blue-eyed Aasta?"
"Aasta? She, my lord, is still in life."
"Ay, even in Bute."
"God be thanked for that!" sighed Roderic. "There is yet some happiness
in store for me. Where is she? Where may I see her?"
"This very day may you see her, my lord. Tonight the good abbot of St.
Blane's holds the festival of the New Year. Aasta will be within the
"Alas! but I cannot show my face in the company of men," said Roderic.
"I am in hiding as an outlaw, and I am alone and ill-defended."
"Be, then, upon the headland of Garroch at the midnight hour," said
Elspeth. "Wait there, my lord, and I will send to you either Aasta
herself or else a messenger who will tell you all you may wish to know."
"Right so," said Roderic; "at midnight on the Garroch Head."
"And now I beg you, Earl Roderic, go hence from this cave. Go hence to
your boat and remain there in hiding; for if it be that the maid, who
knows you not as her father, should learn of your presence in Bute, your
plans will most surely be frustrated."
"I will obey you, Elspeth," said the outlaw, rising.
And forthwith he left the cave.
Elspeth followed him to the heights and watched him journeying southward
through the trees. Then when he was out of sight, she went back to the
cave and sat down, meditating how she might prevent the meeting she had
planned and turn the appointment to a very different account.
She waited for Aasta to return, intending to send the maid at once to
Rothesay to warn Earl Kenric that his outlawed uncle was in the island.
But as Aasta did not appear before midday, Elspeth took her cloak and
staff and prepared to go herself to the castle.
She was putting some new fuel upon the fire, when the curtain at the
cave's entrance was drawn aside, and there she saw Kenric himself. He
wore an otter skin cap that covered his ears, and a great cloak of
"Give you good day, my lord," said the old woman, her eyes brightening
as she offered him a seat beside the fire.
"Knew you ever so cold a day as this, Elspeth? By the rood, but the
frost bites keenly! And you, how can you live in this cold cell? It
grieves me to see you here. Better it were that you came to bide in our
castle -- you and Aasta. This is no place for a dog to live in in frosty
weather. Where is Aasta? 'Twas her I came to see, for I hear that she
has news from Gigha."
"News indeed, Earl Kenric. But not alone from Gigha. Roderic is even in
"In Bute! When came he?"
"Even this morning he was here in this cave. And he has come hither to
do you injury, my lord."
"Doubtless; for when came he to Bute with other intent? Where can I find
"That will I soon tell," said Elspeth, "and glad I am that so little
time has been lost. You will find him, my lord, at midnight on the
Garroch Head. Take with you your sword of Somerled, and meeting him,
send him speedily to his deserved death. You will not fail. If what I
hear of your increased prowess with your weapon be true, assuredly you
are now a match even for Roderic MacAlpin."
"What takes him to Garroch at that dread hour?"
"It is that he expects to meet Aasta."
"Even so, my lord."
"And wherefore should Roderic have aught to do with the maid?"
"You well may ask," said Elspeth, "and it is not willingly that I would
have them meet. But 'twas the only plan I could devise for getting him
from my presence and bringing him to a place where you, my lord, may
encounter him. As to Aasta, of her and of Roderic I have something
strange to tell."
Kenric looked up at Elspeth in surprise.
"You are young, my lord," she continued, and you know not the things
that have been. But I am old. Not always has it been with me as you see
me now. Time was, my lord, when I, who am now a poor infirm woman,
decried as a witch, despised of men, was a fair and joyous young maid.
My father was a king --"
"A king?" echoed Kenric.
"Even so. And he had his castle under the Black Fell that is in far-off
Iceland. Men named me Elspeth White Arm, and my lord and husband was
also a king. He was the noblest and truest of all the monarchs of the
North, and he was the lord over the Westermann Islands. We had one
child, and we named her Sigrid the Fair."
"Elspeth, Elspeth, What is this that you are saying?" cried Kenric,
partly guessing what was to come.
"Sigrid was a wild and self-willed child," the old woman continued,
fixing her blue eyes on Kenric, "but I loved her well. And on a time --
'tis a full score and four years ago -- she disappeared, and we could
find her nowhere, until my lord went out upon his ship and boarded the
galley of a bold viking of the south whose name was Rudri Alpinson, or,
as the Scots called him, Roderic MacAlpin. On Roderic's galley was
Sigrid found; but she would not return, for she loved this man Roderic
passing well, knowing little of his evil heart. My lord, in trying to
win her back, was slain by Roderic's hand, and thereupon Roderic carried
away my child as his willing captive to his island home in Gigha. There
he made her his wedded wife. But not long had my lord been dead, not
long had his younger brother taken his place as ruler in our land, when
my heart so yearned for my fair Sigrid that I took ship and came south
in search of her. By chance I landed upon your father's isle of Bute,
for it was of Bute that Roderic had spoken as the home of his fathers.
"The ship that brought me hither was the ship of my brother, Rapp the
Icelander. Him I bade go over to Gigha and fulfil for me my vengeance
upon my enemy Roderic, and rescue my daughter. But the people secretly
told him that Roderic had been cruel to Sigrid, and that her love for
him had vanished as the morning mist. My child had lost her reason, and
in her mad despair she had gone out one day and cast herself from the
cliffs into the sea. Now Sigrid had left two children, and it was said
that they were unhappy. So Rapp, searching for them, with intent to
carry them off and bring them to me that I might be revenged upon their
father, found them one day playing in a great rock tunnel in Gigha."
"I know the place," said Kenric; "'twas there that Aasta --"
"'Twas there that Rapp the Icelander found Earl Roderic's bairns, and
from thence he carried them off. Those bairns, my lord, were Aasta the
Fair and the boy Lulach."
"Aasta? Lulach?" cried Kenric in astonishment, as he rose and began to
pace the rocky floor. "And they were brother and sister? And they were
the children of Roderic -- my own cousins? This is a strange thing that
you are telling me, Elspeth, and I can scarce believe it!"
"'Tis none the less true, my lord," said Elspeth.
"And Lulach -- it was then his own father who slew him! And it was her
own father whom Aasta fought against at Largs!"
"Even so. And pity 'tis that she did not kill him."
"Pity indeed," said Kenric. "And now you say that Roderic is in Bute?"
"He is here with intent to slay you, Earl Kenric, in some such subtle
way as he slew your good father. But I have told you where he will be at
midnight. Go thither, I charge you, and take the Thirsty Sword that
Aasta gave you. And may the blood of our enemy Roderic be the last that
it will drink."
CHAPTER XXX. THE BLACK FROST ON ASCOG MERE.
Kenric took old Elspeth back with him to Rothesay, and there, as she
would not agree to take up her quarters within the castle, he gave her a
little cottage, bidding her remain there in comfort for the rest of her
days. As to Aasta the Fair, he had no doubt in his mind that on being
told that she was his own cousin, she would yield to him when he asked
her to make the castle of Rothesay her home, and he at once besought his
mother to make preparations to receive her.
Late in the evening, the moon being at the full, Allan and Ailsa
Redmain, with Margery de Currie, set out, attended by two armed guards,
for the chapel of St. Blane's, where midnight mass was to be celebrated
for the dying year.
Kenric, less cheerful than his three companions, went with them but a
little distance. Leaving them to continue their way through the dingle
of Lochly, he branched off eastward towards Ascog. He wended his way
across the bare hard land, walking with rapid strides, for the night was
bitterly cold, and the wintry wind made his cheeks tingle as he bent
before it. Under his sheepskin cloak that he held close about his body,
he carried his terrible sword.
He kept to the leeward shelter of the rising ground, but at times he was
obliged to cross the ridges of the bare hills, and there the wind,
sweeping over the wide moonlit firth, was like the cutting of knife
blades upon his face. His breath, that gathered as dew upon the down of
his upper lip, was turned to beads of ice. The streams and pools of
water had shrunk into solid icy masses, and the earth was unyielding as
Still keeping to the uplands, he at length entered into the woods of
Ascog, and walked among the dark trees until he stood above the steep
path leading downward to Elspeth's cave. He descended by the slippery
ground, holding on by the dry tree branches.
At the mouth of the cave he stood awhile, stamping his feet that he
might be heard. But there was no response. He drew aside the stiff hide
curtain and looked within. All was black, cold desolation.
"Aasta? Aasta?" he called. But no voice answered him.
He went inside the cave and felt about for the place where he had seen
Elspeth leave the flint and steel. He lighted a rush candle and looked
about him. Everything was as he had left it a few hours before. Aasta
had not returned. He found, here a little cap, made of gay feathers and
squirrel fur, that Aasta was wont to wear; and there a necklace of
bright-hued seashells. In a corner there was a pair of small slippers,
trimmed with odd bits of coloured silk, and lined with white hare skin,
and beside them a girdle of crimson leather.
He looked upon these objects with strange reverence, but did not dare to
Then he went to the cave's entrance and stood with his shoulder leaning
against the rock, and looking dreamily across the Clyde towards Largs.
It was still two hours before midnight, and believing that he was soon
to encounter his enemy Roderic in a hand-to-hand combat, he felt a
gloomy, melancholy spirit come upon him. If Roderic should overcome him
in the fight, how would it be with the people of Bute? They would never
be happy under the tyrannical rule of the bold sea rover. What would
become of his mother? She would have to leave the castle of Rothesay,
and perhaps return, desolate and alone, to England. Sir Allan Redmain,
who was now the steward of Bute, would never bend before the man who had
brought so much misfortune upon the island. And Aasta, what of her?
Would she, who had nursed a hatred against Roderic more bitter even than
Kenric's, would she ever recognize this man as her father, however kind
he might be to her? No, no. Kenric knew not a man or woman in all the
land who would welcome his uncle as their king. No evil could befall
them greater than this.
But if Roderic should fall in the fight, there might follow many, many
years of peace and happiness in Bute. Kenric pictured what that
happiness might be. He pictured his people living in safe prosperity,
with thriving commerce and fruitful farms; himself ruling, with what
wisdom or justice he possessed, over a contented and law-abiding people
-- his mother living to a ripe and happy old age in Rothesay Castle. Sir
Allan Redmain, his trusty steward and loved friend, would be wedded to
Margery de Currie. Aasta would be happy too; he would love her always as
his very dear cousin, and who could tell but that some day, when all her
past troubles were forgotten, she might marry some great and good
nobleman of Scotland, who would restore her to such dignity as she deserved?
There was another of whom, deep in his heart, Kenric thought very
tenderly, and that other was Ailsa Redmain. Both he and she were yet
young to think of such matters, but he loved her right well, and in a
few years' time he might even follow the example of her brother Allan
and take unto himself a wife. And if Ailsa would yield to him -- But he
checked himself in his dreams. All this possible good fortune must
depend upon the issue of his encounter with Roderic.
Standing there at the mouth of the cave, he felt the sharp frost
penetrating his limbs, and he turned away.
Regaining the higher ground he began to run, and soon his feet grew
warm. Slackening his pace, he walked down towards Ascog Loch, listening
the while for the sounds of Aasta's footsteps. Elspeth had told him that
the maiden would surely return to the cave two hours before midnight.
But she had not come. Had some disaster overtaken her? Whither had she gone?
The story that Elspeth Blackfell had told him had sunk deep in his mind.
It explained many things that had before been mysteries to him. He saw
in it an explanation of why he had been drawn in affection towards
Aasta, and why, in spite of her having been a bondmaid, he had
recognized that she was of gentle blood. He was glad that he had given
her freedom from her thralldom. And now he thought of how she had
bestowed upon him the great sword of his noble ancestor, and reflected
that king Somerled was in truth Aasta's ancestor no less than his own.
How sweet it was to think of the journey he had gone with her over to
Gigha, the home from which as a child she had been carried off with
Lulach! It was easy now to understand how she had recognized that rock
tunnel through which the little coracle had been paddled. Aasta had
thought that she had but seen the place in a dream vision, but haply she
had many a time played among those rocky caverns in her infant days.
And now he was going forth with intent to kill Aasta's father, believing
that to be the only means by which Aasta's happiness and the welfare of
his people of Bute and Gigha could be secured. Aasta herself had tried
to slay this man; she had fought with him upon the ships at the siege of
Rothesay; she had engaged with him hand to hand in the battle of Largs.
She did not then know that Roderic was her own parent; but Roderic had
done nothing that could have power to change his daughter's hatred into
love, and even if she were now restored to him, would she ever forgive
him the injuries he had done?
Kenric turned this question over in his mind, wondering if Aasta would
blame him if it should be that he brought her father to his death
without first allowing her to speak with him, and for this reason he was
ill at ease. But Aasta was nowhere to be found, and Kenric well
understood what ills might follow if he missed this chance that Elspeth
Blackfell had afforded him of encountering his dread foe.
He was presently upon the shore of Ascog Mere, whose surface was now
frozen over with thick clear ice. The black frost of the past night and
day had taken into its firm grip the waters of every lake and torrent in
the island. Even the distant murmur of the waterfalls of Arran was
hushed into silence now, and all around was deathly still. The wind had
sunk into a whisper and the few fleecy white clouds up above glided like
ghosts across the deep-blue sky. High over the snowy peaks of the Arran
mountains the full moon shone like a great silver shield and cast its
radiance upon the glassy surface of the lake. The wintry night was
almost as light as day, and every rock and tree stood out distinct and
Kenric left the uneven ground and stepped upon the thick strong ice,
which was so clear at the edge that he could even see the shadowy reeds
below. He walked outward with steady steps, and bent his course
southward in the shimmering track of the moon's light. The lake was very
deep, but Kenric had no fear, for the ice was many inches thick and his
foothold was sure.
As he reached the middle of the lake, where no sound came to him but the
regular tread of his soft hide shoes and the tinkling ring of the ice, a
feeling of awe came over him. He solemnly remembered that it was the
last hour of the passing year -- it might also be his last hour upon
earth. He was not afraid; but the deadly silence, the wan light of the
moon, the piercing cold, his lonely situation upon that shining stretch
of ice, and his knowledge that he would soon be engaged in a mortal
combat, whose results must determine so much for himself and for his
people, oppressed his mind very strangely; nor could he dismiss from his
thoughts the surprising things that he had heard that day concerning
Aasta the Fair.
Suddenly, as he looked before him towards the shore that he was
approaching, he was startled at seeing a black shadow upon the ice. It
was as though some human being were lying there. He saw the figure move.
Slowly, stealthily it crept towards him. Kenric stood still, taking off
his fur gauntlets and putting his hand to his sword. Then the figure
crept more rapidly. Nearer and yet nearer it came. He saw now that it
was a large animal. Its glistening eyes and long legs showed that it was
He drew his sword and went to meet it. The wolf growled as in hungry
anger, and crouched down as though preparing to spring upon him. Kenric
raised his sword to strike, the wolf bounded forward, and as his weapon
was about to descend upon its head the animal swerved. The moon's light
revealed a white patch of hair upon its breast.
Kenric staggered backward, unwilling now to strike.
"Aasta!" he cried. "Aasta? The werewolf?"
At the same moment he loosed his grip of the sword, and the weapon,
impelled by the force his arm had given it, flew from his hand, and
falling upon the slippery ice skated along for many yards, making a
noise like the chirping of a vast flock of finches.
Kenric stepped back yet further and stood ready to meet the wolf, and,
if need were, grapple with it. But the animal, startled at the sound
made by the sliding sword, ran off towards the shore and quickly
disappeared among the shadows of the trees.
What was the meaning of that wolf being there upon the ice? Kenric stood
in confused wonderment. And if, as he half supposed, this white-breasted
animal was not as other wolves, which fear to tread on ice -- if it was
in very truth the werewolf form which the wild Aasta had power to
assume, why had she not recognized him? Why had she run away? Was it
that she had now taken to the cover of the woods, that she might
presently reappear in her own maidenly figure? There was something in
all this that passed his understanding.
He followed a few paces in the direction taken by the wolf, then,
remembering his sword, he turned aside. He looked about upon the clear
icy surface for his weapon. The force that his arm had given it had sent
it far away towards the margin of the mere, to the same spot, indeed,
where the werewolf had first been seen. At last he saw the shining blade
lying in the midst of the line of light shed by the bright moon upon the
He went towards it and bent down to pick it up. The ice where it lay was
smooth and transparent as a sheet of glass, and it seemed to Kenric as
he bent over it that he saw in it the reflection of his own face. So
distinct were the features that he recoiled in sudden alarm. Then he
fell down upon his knees, resting upon his outstretched hands. He fixed
his astonished eyes upon the face in the ice. A wild cry escaped him.
The face was not his own!
Drawing back for a moment he looked once more at the strange image. The
rounded cheeks were white as snow; the eyes were motionless and glassy;
the beautiful bloodless lips, slightly parted, revealed a row of pearly
teeth. It was the face of Aasta the Fair.
Kenric tried to touch her, to take her in his arms. But the intervening
ice inclosed her as in a crystal casket. He saw that the stray locks of
her long hair, floating in the clear water, had been caught by the quick
frost, and that they were now held within the firm thick ice. Upon her
fair white throat there were marks as of a man's rough fingers. She held
her right hand upon her breast, and in its grasp there was a long sharp
Kenric rose and stood looking down upon the beautiful form of the dead
girl. He was as one who had been stunned by a terrible blow. For many
minutes he stood there mute and motionless, with folded hands and bowed
head. Soon a snowy cloud passed before the moon and cast a dark shadow
upon the ice. The imprisoned image seemed to melt away. Yet Kenric knew
that what he had seen was no illusion, but that Aasta the Fair lay
lifeless in her frost-bound tomb.
Then Kenric thought of his enemy -- who was surely Aasta's enemy even
more than his own -- and he gripped his sword.
"I will come back," he murmured sadly as he cast once more a lingering
glance upon the now indistinct figure beneath the ice. "I will come
back, Aasta. And now, a truce to all fear. Let me now meet this man and
slay him, for there is no one who can now mourn for his death. It is
right that he should die, for the hour of retribution has surely come!"
CHAPTER XXXI. THE LAST DREAD FIGHT.
Not long was Kenric in covering the few miles between Loch Ascog and
Garroch Head. He feared to be too late, for it was already but one short
hour before midnight. But his limbs were cold, and he had therefore a
double reason for running. Soon, instead of being too cold he became
over-hot; his heavy sheepskin cloak oppressed him, and he threw it off,
leaving it lying upon the ground. Thus relieved, he slung his sword
under his arm and ran on and on past the silent farmsteads, over hard
ploughed fields and bare moorland, past the desolate Circle of Penance,
and past the little chapel of St. Blane's, where many islanders were
already gathered to join in the New Year service. Then for another short
mile beyond the abbey he hastened, until from the rising ground he came
in sight of the murmuring, moonlit sea.
Now he slackened his pace to a brisk walk, and skirting the line of
cliffs he presently came upon the rocky headland of Garroch.
His whole body was in a warm glow; his breath came regular and strong
from the depths of his broad chest. He felt himself better fitted for
battle, more powerful of limb than he had ever done before, and never
had he entered into combat with a fuller sense of the justice of the
He looked about the bald headland to left and right, but Roderic was not
yet to be seen. Kenric's heart sank within him in anxious
disappointment. But as he approached the extreme angle of the cape, he
saw a tall cloaked figure appear from behind the shelter of a dark rock.
Roderic came slowly towards him, blowing his warm breath into his cold,
crisped fists. Kenric's face was in shadow, and the outlaw did not
"So," said Roderic, "Elspeth Blackfell has not this time deceived me,
eh? 'Twas she who sent you here, young man?"
"It was," Kenric replied.
"And how happens it that she sent not the maid Aasta?"
"'Twas beyond her power, Earl Roderic," answered Kenric in a quivering
"What?" cried Roderic surlily, "beyond her power? Tell me no lies. The
old crone is but playing some witch's trick upon me. Where is my
daughter, I say? where is my child?"
"Aasta the Fair, Heaven rest her soul! now sleeps beneath the cold ice
of Ascog Loch," said Kenric solemnly; "she is dead."
A sudden hoarse cry from Roderic followed these words.
"Dead?" he echoed, "dead, you say, and under the ice of the loch?"
"Even so," replied the youth, keeping his eye fixed upon Roderic's
movements. "'Tis but a little time since that I saw her lying in the
Roderic staggered back a pace, wildly. He tugged at the neck of his
cloak as though it were stifling him.
"Ah, God forgive me!" he wailed. "Alas, 'twas she -- 'twas then my own
child who so wildly attacked me yesternight! 'Twas my own Aasta who so
boldly fought against me at Largs. 'Twas she whom I took captive in my
ship from Rothesay. And 'twas she also who cursed me over at Barone --
ay, cursed her own father! Great God, the curse has come true! For my
own two children have been slain before my eyes -- first Lulach, then
herself -- and I their father slew them both!"
"What means this?" cried Kenric, growing pale in the moonlight and
grasping his sword. "You slew Aasta? you? Oh, villain!"
"Ah, that voice! methinks I know it," said Roderic, starting in surprise
and turning upon Kenric. "So then 'tis you, young Kenric, that is Dame
Elspeth's messenger? Much do I thank her for so promptly helping me. By
St. Olaf, but this is most fortunate. Ha! no need have you to draw your
sword. It will serve you no purpose now. As well might you seek to move
Goatfell as think of holding your own against Roderic MacAlpin."
But Kenric, learning thus how Aasta had come by her terrible fate, felt
his craving for battle grow stronger. He spoke no word, but stood with
his naked weapon ready in his hands.
Roderic threw off his heavy cloak and drew his sword. The moonlight
shone in his fierce eyes as he looked upon the strong young form of his
From the shore at the foot of the cliff came the mournful sighing of the
rising tide. For a few moments the two warriors faced each other in
silence. Then like a pair of rival stags they stamped their feet upon
the frozen ground. Roderic tried to get Kenric round with the moonlight
upon him. But Kenric stood firm as a rock. Their weapons crossed,
scraping each upon the other, pressing easily to right and left, and
always touching. Then Roderic made a sudden step backward; the swords
were point to point. Swiftly, at the same instant, each raised his
weapon above his head, grasping its handle with his two strong hands,
and flinging it back till his elbows were on a level with his crown.
They rushed together, each taking two steps forward. Their two swords
swished through the air; but Kenric's glanced aside with a quick
movement of his strong wrists, and caught Roderic's weapon in mid-blade
with a ringing clash.
"Well guarded!" muttered Roderic grudgingly. "By the saints, but you are
no weakling novice, young man," and he stepped back again to recover.