Produced by Martin Robb
THE THIRSTY SWORD
A Story of the Norse Invasion of Scotland (1262-1263)
BY ROBERT LEIGHTON
CHAPTER I. THE WITCH OF BUTE.
“Ah, if only Kenric were here!”
It was on the evening of a bright day in June, in the year 1262, and a girl, clasping her hands in distress, walked restlessly to and fro on the bank of a stream that tinkled merrily along its gravelly bed towards the sea. She, in her loose gown of gray woollen homespun and girdle of crimson silk, was then the only figure to be seen for miles around. Far to the south were the blue mountains of Arran, and westward across the Sound were the brown hills of Kintyre, with the rosy light of the setting sun behind them. The girl, shading her eyes from the strong light, looked over the moorland towards the castle of Kilinory.
“If Kenric were but here!” she said again.
And as she turned to run to the stream, all suddenly she was startled by the sound of a heavy thud upon the heather at her feet. She looked round and saw that a large capercailzie had fallen there. The bird was dead, and there was an arrow in its breast.
At the same moment there was a lusty shout of joy from among the trees and a stalwart youth came bounding towards her. In his right hand he bore a longbow, and at his belt were hung a dead hare and a brace of wild moor fowl, whose dripping blood trickled down his sturdy legs.
“Ailsa!” he cried in surprise, seeing the girl as he came to secure the bird he had just killed. “You here so late, and alone?”
Ailsa’s fair cheeks grew rosy as the evening sky, for the youth was he whom she had wished for, Kenric, the son of the brave Earl Hamish of Bute, and now that he was so near her she felt suddenly timid.
He was a lad of sixteen years, not tall, but very thickset and stout built, broad shouldered, deep chested, and strong limbed. His long silky locks were a rich nut-brown, and his sparkling eyes were dark and gentle as those of a fallow deer. The sun and the bracing sea air had made ruddy his fair skin, even to his firm, round throat and his thick arms, that were left bare by his rough coat of untanned buckskin.
“You have been weeping, Ailsa,” said he, looking into her tearful eyes.
“Sir,” said she, speaking, as he did, in the guttural Gaelic tongue, “come, I beseech you, to the help of two poor ouzels, whose nest is far in under the roots of yonder birch tree. If you help not quickly, their little fledglings will be eaten up by a thieving stoat that has but a few moments ago entered their nest.”
“Youmake needless dole, Ailsa, over a pair of worthless birds and their chicks,” said he scornfully. “Why, I have this day slain a full half-score of birds! Ay, and right willingly would I have doubled their number.”
“The birds you have slain are for men’s food,” said she, “but the birds I speak of sing as sweetly as the mavis, and I have watched them tenderly for many sunny days past. Rescue them for me, good Kenric, for I love them right well, and I would not for the world that any ill should befall them.”
Then Kenric went with her to the stream’s bank, and as he stood there his keen eyes saw something move across the short grass at the water’s edge. Promptly he put an arrow to his bowstring and took deft aim. The shaft sped quickly to its mark, plunged into the body of a stoat, and pinned the animal to the soft turf.
“There, Ailsa,” said he, “the murderous thief is justly punished!” and springing down the bank he put his heel upon the writhing animal and lightly drew out his arrow from its body, while Ailsa picked up the bleeding fledgling that the stoat had been carrying away in its teeth. She took the maimed little bird to the birch tree that Kenric might restore it to its nest. But at the mouth of the nest lay the dead body of one of the parent birds, and hovering near it was the mother ouzel, uttering sharp cries of distress at the murder of her mate and little one.
“And now,” said Kenric, “I must hie me back to St. Blane’s, for our good Abbot Godfrey bade me be with him ere nightfall. Where is your brother Allan? Say, was he of those who went with my father and Alpin to the punting in Glen More this forenoon?”
But Ailsa was again weeping over the fate of her water ouzels and did not answer him.
Ailsa was some two years younger than himself. They had been companions from the time of their infancy. Her father, Sir Oscar Redmain, of Kilmory Castle, was the steward of Earl Hamish of Bute, and Ailsa was even as a sister to the two lads of Rothesay Castle. With Kenric, the younger of the earl’s sons, she had been taught what little there was to be learned in those rude times, under Godfrey Thurstan, the Abbot of St. Blane’s, a wise and holy man who, next to Earl Hamish himself, was held in the highest honour of all men in Bute.
Now, just as Kenric, unable to soothe Ailsa, was turning to leave her, a shadow passed between him and the evening sunlight, and at the head of the bank there walked an aged woman, bearing upon her bent back a bundle of faggots. Ailsa raised her blue eyes, and at sight of the old woman shrank back and felt in her dark hair for the sprig of feathery rowan leaves that she wore there as a charm against witchcraft.
“Give you good e’en, my lord of Bute,” said the old woman, seeing Kenric and dropping her bundle on the ground.
At these strange words Kenric’s cheeks grew crimson.
“I am no lord, Elspeth Blackfell,” said he, going nearer and trying to fathom her meaning in her wrinkled and grimy face, “and I know no reason for your calling me by that high name.”
“Not yet,” said the old crone, “not yet. But by my sooth, the time will surely come, and that full speedily, when all shall hail you lord of Bute.”
“I seek no sooth from such as you,” said Kenric frowning; “and you shall win naught from me by your false flatteries.”
Just then he felt the hand of Ailsa drawing him back as though to keep him from the blighting touch of the old woman’s bony fingers.
“Go not so near to her!” whispered the girl, making the sign of the cross. “Let her not touch you with her evil hands, lest she put her enchantments upon you.”
Old Elspeth smiled grimly, and showed the one lonely tooth that was in the front of her shrunken gums.
“Heed not the child’s silly fears,” said she to Kenric, “and tell me, for what cause has she been weeping?”
“It was a stoat that harried an ouzel’s nest and slew the birds,” replied Kenric.
“Bairns weep at trifles,” said Elspeth; “what matters the death of a little bird? The stoat must live by the food that the great God gives it, and the birds must die when their time comes. ‘Tis alike with all God’s creatures upon earth. Even the castle of Rothesay is no more free at this moment from its secret enemy than is the smallest wildfowl’s nest.”
“The castle of Rothesay?” repeated Kenric. “Set me none of your riddles, Elspeth, for they are harder to read even than the abbot’s missals. What is your meaning? My father has not an enemy in all the isles. Who, then, would do him an injury?”
“Speed you home to Rothesay and see with your own eyes,” said Elspeth, taking up her bundle of faggots again; “Earl Hamish of Bute is in great danger, I say. Go to him now, I charge you, and give him my warning against the enemy who is within his gates.”
And at that she hobbled away down the hillside towards the little wooden hut that was her home. As she went the red sun sank behind the dark hills of Kintyre. Kenric stood in doubt.
“I marvel that you will dare to hold speech with that evil hag,” said Ailsa. “‘Tis our own good fortune if she have not already cast her eldritch spells upon us both.”
“Nay, Ailsa; fear her not. She is but a poor harmless body,” said Kenric. “Only the witless carls and cottar folk are so simple as to believe that she has aught of evil in her words.”
“Ah, but I well know that Elspeth is a witch,” declared Ailsa. “Never do I see her but I must shrink away and cross myself in dread of her. Why do all the brave men of Bute fear her more than they would fear a band of armed Norsemen? She casts her spells upon our kine so that they give no milk, and upon the fountains so that the clear drinking water is turned rank and brown. Allan told me but yesternight that she rides over to Inch Marnock in a boat that has neither sails nor oars, and that the ribs of the boat are of dead men’s bones.”
Kenric smiled no more at Ailsa’s fears; for, indeed, so great was the superstition of that time, that deep in his heart he believed no less strongly than did Ailsa that Elspeth was assuredly a witch.
“And what meant she by her warnings of an enemy in your father’s castle?” added Ailsa.
“Little reck I that,” returned Kenric, “for never lived man in all the Western Isles who had so few enemies as my good father.”
“Right so,” said Ailsa. “But none the less, Elspeth is a most wise soothsayer, and you are unwise if you heed not her warning. And now I mind me that on this very day, as I was returning from matins, a great ship of twelve banks of oars came in from the west through Kilbrannan Sound, and it let anchor in Scalpsie Bay. As I looked upon that ship three tall warriors were brought ashore in a small boat, and, landing, they walked along the shore towards Rothesay.”
“Three tall warriors, say you?”
“Even so. Lulach the shepherd boy also saw them, and said that they were surely three of King Hakon’s men of the Northland. And Lulach was much afraid of them, and he fled from their sight lest by chance they should learn that he was a Dane, and seek to carry him off. But now, Kenric, I must away, for the night is coming on and you have far to go. Yonder is Lulach driving home my father’s kine. Go to him and he will tell you of these strange men.”
So Ailsa and Kenric bade each other goodnight, and Kenric sped lightly over the heather to where the young shepherd was driving home the long-horned cattle.
CHAPTER II. THE DARK FOREST OF BARONE.
When Lulach heard a shrill whistle from afar and saw Kenric, he tarried a while that the cattle might begin to browse upon the lush grass that grew on the marshes beside the sea. Then he went forth to meet him, and threw himself on his knees before him, for Lulach was a thrall, and it was his custom thus to pay homage to the sons of the brave lord of Bute.
“Rise, Lulach, rise!” said Kenric, speaking now in the Norse tongue that the lad might better understand him. “And tell me, what manner of men were the three strangers you saw landing in the bay of Scalpsie this forenoon?”
“They were men out of the North, my master. I heard them speaking in my own tongue,” said Lulach, throwing back his long red hair that had fallen over his suntanned face.
“And were they men of peace?”
“I know not, my master; but much did I fear them, for never knew I a Norseman yet who was not cruel to me; and seeing them I hid myself behind a rock.”
“Cowardly hind! You are but fit to drive a herd of kine. Of what aspect were these men?”
“The one who led them was even as a king,” said Lulach. “He was tall and strong, and his footing was firm upon the heath. He wore a helm crested with a golden dragon, and a great sword at his side. I thought that surely it was the Earl Hamish of Bute himself, for were it not that the stranger’s hair was of the colour of the fox’s coat, never saw I a man that more resembled your father.”
“And his followers, what of them?”
“One was an aged man with a silver beard. The other might be his son. Ah, I wot they are come for no good purpose, my master, for they landed when the tide was low, and that bodes ill for Bute.”
“Heaven forfend!” said Kenric, growing uneasy at the thought.
“And now,” added he, loosing the dead birds from his girdle, “take me these grouse to the abbey, and tell the good abbot that I come not to St. Blane’s this night, but that I go home to the castle to see who these strangers may be, and to learn their purpose.”
But as Lulach was taking the game into his hands, he drew back and pointed with trembling finger to the green path that led towards Rothesay.
“See!” he exclaimed, “there is ill luck before you! Turn back, my master, turn back!”
“Ah! a magpie, and alone!” cried Kenric, seeing the bird in his path. “That is ill luck indeed! Give me some salt from your wallet, Lulach, for if this sign reads true then it were unwise in me to go farther without some salt in my pocket.”
“Alas!” said Lulach, “I have none. My wallet is empty!”
“Then God be my protection!” said Kenric, and with that he went on his way, feeling a dread foreboding at his heart.
The light of day had faded from the sky as he passed by the black waters of Loch Dhu; but there was a silvery glare above the jagged peaks of the Arran fells, and he knew that the moon was rising, and that he would soon have her friendly light to guide him through the dark pine forest of Barone.
All was calm and still, but through the stillness the hollow sound of a waterfall among the far-off mountains came to him like the moaning cry of a dying man. At that sound he felt his heart beating uneasily against his side, for that same cry, which rises from all mountain streams towards nightfall, was beforetime held to be of ill omen when heard from a distance, and Kenric was in a likely mood to be impressed by such a sign.
When he came to the borders of the forest he was almost afraid to venture among the gloomy shadows of the trees. Therein, as he believed, dwelt many strange and mysterious elves, that were wont to lead travellers astray to their destruction. But he must pass through that forest or else go round many miles across the hills; so he braced his girdle tighter about him and boldly plunged into the darkness. As he went forth the plaintive cry of the curlew high up above the treetops startled him more than once, and the sudden movement of every wild beast and bird that his own footsteps had frightened filled him with new fears.
In the broad daylight neither man nor beast could have had power to daunt him. He was, when put to his mettle, one of the most courageous and daring youths in the island, and, saving only his elder brother Alpin, who was the bravest swordsman of his own age in all the land, there was none who might attempt to draw arms against Kenric. And, in truth, had it not been that he was sorely troubled in spirit concerning the strange words of Elspeth Blackfell, and also that so many omens had foretold disaster, it may be that even on that same night he would have passed through the dark avenues of the forest with neither doubt nor tremor.
But in an age when the meaning of nature’s work was little understood, when even religion was not yet strong enough to conquer the superstition which found evil in things which were only mysteries, it was small wonder that young Kenric of Bute should wish himself safely at home in his father’s castle, or regret that he had not gone back to the abbey of St. Blane.
Nevertheless it was not alone the thought of trolls and elfins that disturbed him. At that time the wild boar and the wolf were denizens of the forest wherein he walked — animals which would indeed be welcomed in the daylight by a band of hunters with their spears and hounds, but which might give some trouble to a youth appearing alone in their midst on a dark night.
At one moment when he was deep within the heart of the forest he thought he heard hurried footsteps behind him. He felt for his dirk and turned round. The moon’s beams pierced the trees and fell upon a glistening pool of water where a wildcat was slaking its thirst. There was naught else that might cause him alarm.
But in a little while he heard the same sound again — this time in advance of him. He stood still. In the shadow of a great bare rock he saw two staring eyes that shone like gleaming fires, now green, now red, and he knew that they were the eyes of a wolf. There was a low growl as of distant thunder. Then the moon’s light shot through a rack of cloud, and he saw the form of the wolf standing out clear and black against the grey rock. He fixed an arrow to his bowstring; but at the sound of the creaking bow the wolf gave a sharp yelp and disappeared into the darkness beyond.
Kenric, bolder now, unbent his bow and stepped towards the rock that he might see whither the wolf had fled. In an open glade that was behind the rock he saw, instead of the wolf, a strange tall figure standing in the moonlight. It was the figure of a woman, wondrously fair and beautiful. Her long hair, that fell over her shoulders, was as the colour of blood, and her white bare arm, that shone like marble in the pale light, seemed to be pointing the way to Rothesay Castle. In her other hand she held a long bright-bladed sword.
Now whether this figure appearing so mysteriously before him was indeed that of a woman of human flesh, or, as he feared, the vision of some ghostly dweller in the pine forest, Kenric could not at that moment have told. Even as he stepped farther into the glade a dark cloud again obscured the moon and all was black night around him, and no sound could he hear but the beating of his own heart and the whispering of the wind among the trees.
CHAPTER III. HOW EARL RODERIC SPILLED THE SALT.
On that same June evening, in the year 1262, whilst Kenric was at the stream side with Ailsa Redmain, the three strangers who had landed earlier in the day on the shores of Bute were feasting in the great banqueting hall of the castle of Rothesay. For although to the tired lad Lulach and to Ailsa they had appeared in the guise of enemies, yet each of the three was known to the Earl Hamish. Their leader was, in truth, none other than his own brother, the Earl Roderic of the Isle of Gigha. The other two were Erland the Old of Jura, and Sweyn the Silent of Colonsay.
What their unexpected mission to the lord of Bute might be had yet to be learnt. But when, betimes, they came to the gate of Rothesay Castle they found Earl Hamish and his steward, Sir Oscar Redmain, on the point of setting out on a hunting expedition into the wilds of Glen More. And of the band of hunters were Kenric’s elder brother Alpin and young Allan Redmain.
So when the strangers entered the castle and had broken bread and refreshed their deep throats with wine, they left their swords and dirks in the armoury and took bows and hunting spears. Thus equipped, they set off with Earl Hamish and his merry men and long-limbed hounds. And they had great sport that day, coming back at sunset with a wild boar that Earl Roderic had slain, and three antlered stags and other spoil.
In their absence Kenric’s mother, the Lady Adela, had made prepare a feast for them all, with much venison and roasted beef and stewed black cock, with cakes of bread, both white and brown, and many measures of red wine and well-spiced liquors. A silver drinking bowl was set down for each of the kingly guests, and a goblet of beaten gold for the king of Bute.
The hall was lighted with many cruse lamps that hung suspended from the oaken joists, and, lest the evening should be chill, there was a fire of fragrant pine logs blazing on the open hearth. Round the walls of the hall, that were panelled with black oak boards, there were many glittering shields and corselets, with hunting horns and various trophies of the chase.
At the fireside there sat an aged minstrel, whose duty it was to fill in the intervals of the feast with the music of his harp, or, if need were, to recite to the company the saga of King Somerled and other great ancestors of the kings of Bute.
Earl Hamish — a tall, courtly Highlander, with sad eyes and a long brown beard — sat at the head of the board, that with his own strong hands he might carve the steaming venison. At his right hand sat the earl of Jura, Erland the Old, and at his left Earl Sweyn the Silent. His beautiful wife, the Lady Adela — attired in a rich gown inwoven with many devices of silk, and spun by the Sudureyans — sat facing him at the far end of the board. At her right hand sat Earl Roderic of Gigha; and at her left Alpin, her son.
So the feast began, with much merry discourse of how the men had fared that day at the hunting in Glen More.
Now Erland and Sweyn, kinglings of Jura and Colonsay, though owing yearly tribute to their overlord, Alexander the Third of Scotland, were both men of the North, and they spoke with Earl Hamish in the Norse tongue. Their discourse, which has no bearing upon the story, was mainly of cattle and sheep, and of the old breast laws of the Western Isles. But Roderic of Gigha spoke in the Gaelic, which the Lady Adela, though an Englishwoman born, could well understand.
“Ah, but,” said he, addressing young Alpin, who had been boasting of the manly sports that might be enjoyed in his father’s dominions, “you should one day come to Gigha, for there, I do assure you, we have adventure such as you never dream of in Bute.”
“I marvel, my lord, how that can be,” said Allan Redmain scornfully, “for the kingdom of which you boast is but a barren rock in the mid sea, and methinks your beasts of the chase are but vermin rats and shrew mice.”
“The sports of which I speak, young man,” said Roderic, frowning and wiping his red beard with his broad hand, “are not such bairns’ play as you suppose. Our beasts of the chase are burly men, and our hunting ground is the wide ocean. I and my gallant fellows carry our adventures far into the north to Iceland and Scandinavia, or southward even into the land of the Angles, where there is sport in plenty for those who would seek it.”
The Lady Adela looked up in shocked surprise.
“But,” said she, “you do not surely count the Angles among your enemies, my lord? The Scots are at peace these many years with my country England.”
“I should be grieved to call any man my enemy who is your friend, my fair Lady Adela,” said Roderic gallantly. “But though the Scots be indeed at peace with King Henry, yet the brave Easterlings of Ireland do ofttimes find the need of slaying a few of your proud countrymen; and if I help them — well, where there is aught to be gained what matters it who our victims be, or what lands we invade? I am for letting him take who has the power to conquer. Let them keep their own who can.
“What say you, Sir Oscar? Am I not right?”
“I am a man of peace, Earl Roderic,” said Sir Oscar Redmain gravely. “I have no enemies but the enemies of my king and country. And methinks, my lord, that a loyal subject of the King of Scots is but a traitorous hound if he stoop to take arms in favour of either Easterling or Norseman, and against our good friends of England. You, my lord, may perhaps pay fealty to King Hakon of Norway, as well as to his majesty Alexander of Scotland. It is not all men who can make it so easy to serve two masters.”
“A traitorous hound, forsooth! You surely mistake me, Sir Oscar,” cried Roderic, reddening at the reproach. “I said not that I paid truage to any king but our own King of Scots, God bless him! And though, indeed, King Alexander is but a stripling, knowing little of kingcraft, yet, even though he were a babe in arms, he and no other is still my sovereign lord.”
And at that he raised his goblet to his lips and drank a deep draught of wine. Then, lightly turning to the lady of Rothesay, and helping her to cut up the venison on her platter, that she might the more easily take the small pieces in her dainty white fingers, he said:
“After the rough roving life that I have been leading these many years, my lady, ’tis truly a great joy to come back once more to the peaceful Isle of Bute. Much do I envy my good brother Hamish, in that he hath so beauteous a partner as yourself to sit before him at his board. Truly he is a most fortunate man!”
Adela’s fair cheeks blushed rosy red at this compliment, but she did not smile.
“Methinks, Lord Roderic,” said she, nervously breaking the white bread cake at her side, “that with so small a distance between Bute and Gigha, you might surely have come to visit your brother long ere this present time. For although Earl Hamish hath ofttimes spoken of you, yet never until this day have I seen you; and ’tis well-nigh a score of years that I have lived in Bute.”
“Alas!” said Roderic, looking uneasy, “since my poor father, Earl Alpin, died, I have had little spirit to come back to these scenes. It was in anger that my brother and I parted, when, as you well know, the lordship over the two islands was divided. The larger dominion of Bute fell to the share of Hamish. I, as the younger son, was perforce content to take the miserable portion that I now possess. Gigha is but a small island, my lady.”
“Our happiness need not depend upon the extent of our dominions, Lord Roderic,” said Adela; “and I doubt not you are passing happy, notwithstanding that you have but a younger son’s inheritance.”
“Not so,” said Roderic, planting his heavy elbows on the board; “for where can a man find happiness when those who are dearest to him have been torn away?”
“Then you have had sorrows?” questioned the lady.
“When I went forth to take the kingship of my island home,” said he, “my life was indeed most bright and joyous; and on a time it befell that I went north to Iceland, and there I met one who (with submission I say it) was not less beautiful than yourself, my lady. She was the most beauteous damsel that ever came out of the Northland, and her name was Sigrid the Fair. I married her and we were happy.”
Roderic again filled his drinking bowl and looked across the table at Alpin’s handsome brown face.
“We had two children,” he continued sadly. “The girl would have been of the years of your own son there, the boy was two summers younger than she.”
“Oh, do not tell me that they are dead!” cried Adela.
“Alas! but that is so,” he sighed. “One sunny day they went out hand in hand from our castle to play, as was their wont, among the rocks and caves that are at the south of our island. Never since then have they returned, and some said that the water kelpie had taken them and carried them away to his crystal home under the sea. Others whispered that the kraken or some other monster of the deep had devoured them. They said these things, believing that Sigrid had no heart for her children, and that she was unkind to them. But many days thereafter I learned that a strange ship had been seen bearing outward between Gigha and Cara; and it was the ship of Rapp the Icelander, the cruellest sea rover that ever sailed upon the western seas. Then did I believe that neither kelpie nor kraken had taken my bairns, but Rapp the Rover.
“So I got ship and followed him. For three long years I followed in his track — to the frozen shores of Iceland, and into every vic and fiord in Scandinavia. Southward then I sailed to the blue seas of England — always behind him yet never encountering him. But at last there came a day of terrible tempest. The thunder god struck my ship and we were wrecked. Every man that was on board my ship was drowned saving only myself, for the white sea mew swims not more lightly on the waters than I. So I was picked up by a passing vessel, and it was the vessel of Rapp the Icelander. Instead of killing him I loved him, in that he had saved my life. Then he told me, swearing by St. Olaf, that never in all his time of sea roving had he touched at the little island of Gigha, and that he knew naught soever of the dear children I had lost.”
“Greatly do I pity you, Earl Roderic,” said Adela, clasping her hands. “And you have not yet found trace of your little ones?”
“No,” said Roderic. “And now do I believe that they are still at play in the crystal halls of the water kelpie, whence no man can rescue them.”
“And your wife Sigrid, what of her?” asked Sir Oscar Redmain.
“When I got back to Gigha,” murmured Roderic, “they told me that in my absence she had gone mad, and that in her frenzy she had cast herself from the cliffs into the sea. Whithersoever I have gone since that sad time, there have I found unhappiness.”
The Lady Adela looked upon the man with gentle pity in her dark eyes. She felt how different had been his lot from hers and her dear husband’s. For notwithstanding that she dwelt in a country not her own, and among people who spoke a foreign tongue, yet she was very happy. The Earl Hamish loved her well and was ever good to her. And their two sons, Alpin and Kenric, growing up into manhood, were very dear to her heart.
She was the daughter of a proud English baron, who had wide dominions near the great city of York. Twenty years before, Earl Hamish of Bute had been sent with other wise counsellors by King Alexander the Second on a mission to the court of the English king, Henry the Third, concerning the great treaty of peace between England and Scotland, and also to consider the proposal of a marriage between the daughter of the King of England and the son of the King of Scots. The treaty established a peace which had not yet been broken, and the Princess Margaret of England was now the Queen of Scotland. But while on that embassy to York Earl Hamish of Bute won more than the gratitude of his sovereign, for he won the heart of the Lady Adela Warwick, and, making her his wife, he brought her to his castle of Rothesay, where she had lived happily ever since.
She was thinking of these matters as she heard Earl Roderic’s story of his great unhappiness, and her eyes were fixed dreamily before her.
Now Roderic, to whom the presence of this sweet and beautiful lady was a new experience, observed her pensiveness and wondered thereat. His roving glance presently fell upon her plate.
“Ah!” said he, “you have no salt, my lady.”
And thereupon he took her knife and dug its point into the salt horn.
“Nay, nay!” she cried in alarm; and she grasped his wrist so that he spilled the salt upon the table.
“What have you done?” he exclaimed. “This is the most unlucky thing that could have happened! Alas, alas!”
“Would you, then, have helped my lady to sorrow?” cried Sir Oscar Redmain, rising wrathfully. “By the rood, but you are a thoughtless loon!”
Earl Hamish at the head of the board, hearing his lady’s cry, rose hastily and approached her, and saw that she was very pale.
“I will retire,” said she, “for the hall is over warm. I am faint and uneasy.”
Earl Hamish led her to the door. There he kissed her fondly on her white brow and she went to her chamber.
CHAPTER IV. THE DARKENING HALL.
The lord of Bute sat not down again, for the feast was at an end. Sir Oscar Redmain, minding that he had to travel all the way to Kilmory that night, went to his master and spoke with him aside. While the earl and his steward were thus engaged, a tall seneschal with his serving men came into the hall to clear away the remains of the banquet; and as the old minstrel left his place at the fireside to continue his harping in the supping room of the guards, the two lads, Alpin of Bute and Allan Redmain, stepped to the hearth to hold converse with the three guests.
Alpin and his young friend were both about nineteen years of age. They were almost full grown, and manly exercise had made them strong. They wore their rough hunting clothes — loose vests of leather, homespun kilts, and untanned buskins. They carried no weapons, for it was held in custom that none should sit armed at table in the presence of strangers.
“Tell me, Earl Roderic,” said Alpin, running his fingers through his long hair — “you have, you say, been in far-off Iceland — tell me, is it true that in that land there be many mountains that shoot forth fire and brimstone?”
“Ay, that is quite true, my lad,” said his much-travelled uncle, “for I have myself seen such mountains. Higher than Goatfell they are, with streams of fire pouring down their glens.”
“A most marvellous country!” exclaimed Alpin. “I wonder much if I shall ever behold that land.”
“There you will have no such lordly feast as that we have just risen from,” added Roderic, picking his teeth with his broad thumbnail.
Alpin and Allan watched him, hoping he would tell them something of his roving life. Roderic, finding that he could not easily dislodge the piece of meat from betwixt his teeth, picked up a twig of pine wood from the hearth, and took from the table the large knife with which his brother had carved the venison, and as he began to sharpen the little twig to a point he continued:
“No roasted beef there nor venison, but good tough whale flesh, black as a peat, or else a few candle ends — for the Icelanders are fond of fat. Once when I was ship-broken on their coasts naught could my shipmates find to eat but reasty butter. Disliking that alone, we took our ship’s cable, that was made of walrus hide, and smearing the cable with butter we bolted morsels of it, by which means we managed to exist for fourteen days.
“There,” he said, finishing his toothpick, “that will serve. ‘Tis strange, is it not, Master Alpin, what a piece of steel can do?”
And then, first looking at its point, he laid the long knife carelessly upon the shelf above the hearth.
“Why, in Norway, where I have also been, your man can take his knife and two slips of wood nine ells long, and he will so shape the wood that when the two slips are fitted to his feet he can outstrip a bird, a hound, or a deer.”
“Does he, then, fly with them in the air, as a witch on her broom?” asked Allan Redmain.
“Why, no; he skates along the ice or snow,” returned Roderic. “With such instruments and a snowy ground, master Redmain, you might be back at your castle of Kilmory in two flickers of a rush light. Go you to Kilmory tonight?”
“Yes,” said Allan, “we go at once, for now I see my father is ready. Give you goodnight, my lords.”
“Goodnight, boy,” said the three guests.
And Allan, with his father and Alpin, then left the hall.
Two of the cruse lamps had by this time spent their oil, and their flames had died out. Earl Hamish was now alone with his guests.
“Shall we,” said he, “retire to the smaller hall, Roderic? I have ordered Duncan to take some spiced wine there for us.”
“I like the odour of the log fire here,” said Roderic, exchanging glances with Erland the Old. “I pray you let us remain here a while.”
Earl Hamish and his brother stood side by side, looking into the fire, while Sweyn the Silent and Erland the Old sat them at either corner of the hearth. The two brothers were much alike in stature, both being tall and broad; but Hamish was gentler, and his every movement showed that he was accustomed to the company of those who deemed a courtly bearing of more account than mere bodily prowess, though in truth he lacked not that either. His hair and beard, too, were dark, touched here and there with the frost of age; while his brother’s long hair was red as the back of the fox.
“Well, Hamish,” began Roderic, moving uneasily on his feet, “you have, as I have heard, won your way into the good graces of our lord the King?”
“I trust,” said Hamish, “that I may never be accused of disloyalty. I am ever at my sovereign’s service in whatsoever he commands me to do.”
“What, even though the doing of that service be to your own great disadvantage?” said Roderic, looking aside at Earl Sweyn and smiling grimly.
“Naught can be to my disadvantage that is done in dutiful service of my country and King,” answered the lord of Bute proudly.
Roderic laughed scornfully, and his laugh was echoed by Sweyn and Erland.
“There may be two thoughts as to that,” returned Roderic. “As for myself, I’d snap my fingers in the King’s face ere I would go on a journey such as you have newly undertaken, my brother. Think not that we have no eyes nor ears in the outer isles, Earl Hamish; for it is known in every castle between Cape Wrath and the Mull of Kintyre that you have but now returned from a mission to King Hakon of Norway.”
“And what though it were yet more widely known?” said Hamish in surprise. “Am I, then, the only lord in all the isles who remains true to his oaths of fealty? And are they all as you are, Roderic, who have failed these many years to pay due tribute to the King of Scots?”
“You are the only one among us,” croaked Erland the Old, “who pays not homage to our rightful lord and sovereign the good King Hakon.”
“I owe no sort of fealty to Norway,” said Hamish. “Nor do I know by what right Hakon claims sovereignty over any one of the isles south of Iona.”
“Methinks,” said Sweyn the Silent, looking up under his dark brows, “that Harald Fairhair settled that matter a good four hundred years ago.”
“Right well am I aware that at such time Harald did indeed conquer the Western Isles — ay, even to Bute and Arran” — returned Earl Hamish. “But methinks, my lord of Colonsay, that my own ancestor the great king Somerled (God rest him!) did at least wrest the isles of Bute, Arran, and Gigha from the power of Norway. Those three island kingdoms do to this day owe truage to no overlord saving only the King of Scots, and to Alexander alone will I pay homage.”
At that Earl Roderic’s eyes found their way to the shelf that was above the hearth, and his two friends, following his glance, saw the knife upon the shelf and smiled. From the halls below, where the guards and servitors were feasting, came the strains of the minstrel’s harp and a henchman’s joyous song of triumphant battle.
“‘Tis then no marvel,” said Roderic, “that the young King of Scots, like his father before him, has made of you a willing cat’s-paw. On what fool’s errand went you to Norway?”
“That,” said the lord of Bute, “is quickly told;” and he looked round for a moment, observing that all the lamps save one had burned out their feeble lights. “I went to Norway, bearing letters to King Hakon from the King of Scots and his majesty of England, King Henry the Third.”
“His majesty of England!” exclaimed all three.
“Henry of England is no more a friend to the Norseman than is Alexander,” said Hamish, as he pressed down the burning logs with his foot. “And I do assure you, my lords, that both are well prepared to resist the incursions of King Hakon’s vassals.”
“And what manner of princely reward got you for your trouble as letter bearer?” asked Roderic in a tone of injured envy.
“Ten score head of Highland cattle, I would guess,” muttered Erland the Old.
“Nay, twenty score, rather,” chimed in Sweyn the Silent.
“Methinks, brother Hamish,” said Roderic hoarsely, as he stepped nearer to him and looked with an evil scowl into his face — “methinks it had been your part to have sent me word, that I might also have been of that journey. It had been but reason that I had the honour as well as you. Selfish man that you are, you are ever ready to win worship from me and put me to dishonour!”
At this moment the last remaining cruse light flickered, burned blue, flickered again, and then went out. The hall was now in darkness, saving only for the feeble light of the fire, and the moonbeams that slanted in through the mullioned windows and shone here and there upon some burnished helmet or corselet upon the walls.
As Roderic of Gigha ceased speaking, Erland the Old coughed thrice and stroked his silvery beard. Sweyn the Silent echoed the fatal sign, and Roderic drew back, resting his right hand upon the mantel.
“Had I tarried till I had sent for you, Roderic,” said Earl Hamish, “I must first have wasted much precious time in suing with King Alexander for his pardon for my brother who has betrayed him!”
“You lie! base slanderer! you lie!” cried Roderic in jealous fury, snatching the knife from off the shelf. And then, springing forward and raising his right hand above his head, he plunged the blade deep, deep into his brother’s heart. The good Earl Hamish staggered and fell.
“Treachery!” he groaned. “Adela! Adela!” and with the name of his loved wife upon his lips, he died there upon the stone of his own hearth.
Roderic and his two companions approached the dead man, gazed upon him, and then at each other with satisfaction in their dark looks. But there was fear, too, in Roderic’s face, for he was craven of heart. He drew back into the shadow, where neither moonbeam nor firelight could fall upon him and reveal him.
And all the while the henchman’s song of triumph reached their ears from the halls below.
CHAPTER V. A TERRIBLE DISCOVERY.
Kenric tarried not long in search of the ghostly figure that had appeared before him so mysteriously in the dark forest of Barone. Whence that figure had come and whither it had gone he could not tell. Nor did he exercise his mind in fruitless questionings concerning her. Leaving the rock behind him, he set off at a brisk pace through the shadows of the trees, more timid than ever, and came out upon the high ground that is behind Rothesay Bay.
Down by the water’s brink, outlined against the moonlit waves, stood the dark towers of Rothesay Castle. A light shone dimly in his mother’s chamber window; but the great banqueting hall wherein his father was wont to entertain his guests was dark, and Kenric thought this passing strange. Where were the strangers of whom he had heard? If they were not in the banqueting hall, then they must surely have already left the island.
Hastening down the hillside, he hied him to the castle, and as he neared the little postern in the western walls, a burst of boisterous song reached his ears from the guardroom. Taking up a stone from the ground he was about to knock three loud knocks, when the door was opened from within, and a tall man with a thick plaid over his broad shoulders slipped out, almost overthrowing Kenric as he ran against him.
“Duncan!” exclaimed Kenric, perceiving his father’s seneschal, “whither go you at this late hour of night?”
“Ah, master Kenric, and that is yourself, eh? And you are here, and not at the abbey of St. Blane’s? Well, sir, it’s a bonnie night, you see, and I even thought I would take a quiet saunter along the side of Loch Fad.”
“Then,” said Kenric, “I warn you, go not near to the forest of Barone, Duncan; for I have but now come through, and therein I saw a sight that would raise your hair on end. It was, as I believe, none other than the werewolf that I saw. First there was an old gray wolf with a white patch on its breast, and then, even as I looked, that wolf was spirited into the form of a fair lady, and I was like to sink into the ground with fear.”
“‘Tis the first time that I have heard of a son of the house of Rothesay knowing fear,” said Duncan, smiling and showing his great yellow teeth in the moonlight. “‘Twas but the maid Aasta of Kilmory that you saw.”
“Aasta? Then it is true that the maid has been bewitched? It is true that she has that power of turning herself at will into the form of a wolf?”
“Men say so,” answered Duncan. “But methinks ’tis no more true than that other thing they say of her — that though she looks but a girl of eighteen, she is yet full five score winters old. ‘Tis idle talk, Kenric. But where saw you this sight? Was it not by the Rock of Solitude, in the heart of the forest?”
“‘Twas even there. But in an instant she disappeared, and I saw her no more.”
“If she be not there now,” said Duncan, heaving a great sigh out of his deep chest, “then will I return into the castle; for now do I mind me that mine eyes are wanting sleep after the weary day that I have had among the hills, running high and low as though I were but a dumb hound made only to scent out game for those who know less of hunting than I do of building a ship. That lazy old graybeard, the lord of Jura, may bring his own gillies with him the next time he comes to the hunting in Bute. Never again shall he get me to fetch and carry for him!”
“The lord of Jura?” said Kenric. “It is then true that there are strangers in the castle.”
“And is it not for that same cause that you have come home?” asked Duncan. “Methought you knew that they were here — three gallant kings out of the west they are, and one of them is your own uncle, Earl Roderic of Gigha, whom, when he was but a bairn as high as my girdle, I taught to bend the bow and wield the broadsword. They are but now in the feasting hall with my lord your father; for Sir Oscar and young Allan have gone home to Kilmory, and my lady and Alpin have gone to their chambers.”
“Have you then left my father alone with these three strange men?” asked Kenric as they entered the postern.
“My lord’s own brother, Earl Roderic, is with him,” said Duncan, looking at Kenric in surprise. “You would not surely have me mount guard over my lord’s own guests! By the rood, that were strange hospitality!”
“Where are their dirks and swords?”
“Under my own keeping in the armoury, where ’tis right they should be; for men of peace, as these most surely are, encumber not themselves with the instruments of war.”
“‘Tis well,” returned Kenric, much relieved. “Old Elspeth Blackfell was but playing me with her groundless forewarnings of danger. Well, get me some meat and a bowl of milk, Duncan, while I go up and see this uncle of mine. He has seen much of the world, and methinks his discourse must be full of instruction for a home-keeping youth.”
So Duncan went into the guardroom, where two score of noisy retainers were making merry over their cups, and Kenric went upstairs to the great hall.
Up the steep stone steps he climbed, making little noise with his deerskin buskins. Hearing footsteps at the head of the stairs, he glanced along the north corridor, whose lancet windows looked out upon the quiet sea.
Suddenly in the midst of the moonbeams that streamed in through the western window, lighting the corridor with a clear silvery light, he saw three men steal out of the banqueting hall. The last of the three moaned grievously as they passed beyond into another apartment.
“Oh, Hamish, Hamish my brother!” he moaned, and his voice was as the wailing of the wind, “what is this evil thing that I have done!”
Kenric drew back into the shadow of the stairway, and not seeing his father with the three guests, he began again to fear some ill.
“What!” croaked the old man with the silvery beard, “and is this your resolution? Is this your courage? I fear me, Roderic, you are but a weak craven thus to deplore the fulfilment of our most righteous mission!”
Then the door of the smaller hall closed behind the three earls, and Kenric was left alone. He still heard the rumour of their voices as he walked with quick steps along the moonlit corridor, and he paused to listen at the door.
“And now that we have done so completely with the fox,” said a voice, “what say you, comrades, to our making equal despatch with the vixen and her cub? ‘Twere easy doing, could we but discover in what corner we might entrap them.”
Kenric did not understand the purport of these words. He did not guess that the “fox” meant his own father, and the “vixen and her cub” his mother and Alpin. But he listened yet again.
“Wait, wait, my lord of Jura,” said another voice. “‘Twere better we tarried until all the watchdogs are sound asleep. Fill me yon drinking horn, Sweyn, for my hand trembles, and my mind is strangely cloudy.”
Silence followed this speech, and Kenric crept along the corridor until he came to the entrance of the great hall. He drew aside the arras hangings and peered into the deserted room. All was silent as the grave. The crackling embers of the fire gave but a sorry light, with only a fitful glimmer that rose now and again from some half-consumed pine log. But with the feeble moonbeams, that shone through the thin films of skin that in those days — except in the churches — did service for glass, there was still light enough in that vast room to show what terrible deed had been enacted upon the hearthstone.
Kenric had taken but a few strides into the hall when his eyes rested upon the form of his murdered father. He started back aghast at the horrible sight.
“Oh, my father, my father!” he cried, flinging himself down upon the bloodstained floor. “Father? father? It is I, Kenric — your son. Tell me, I beseech you, tell me, what foul villain has done this thing?”
Then he took hold of the earl’s cold right hand and chafed it tenderly, as he still tried to arouse him. But there was no response. He knelt down closer and bent his head to his father’s bare throat, and, putting out his tongue, he felt with its sensitive touch if there was sign of breathing, or if the pulses were beating in the veins.
As he rested his hand on the dead earl’s chest he touched the haft of the weapon that had worked this cruel deed. He knew the knife and guessed how all had happened. He grasped the handle in his fingers and tried to withdraw the long blade; but the blood gushed out from the terrible wound, and the lad grew faint at the sight.
“Dead! dead!” he moaned, rising to his feet, and then from the halls below came the shouts of the retainers as they pledged “waes hael” to the lord of Bute.
Kenric hastened out of the hall and crept down the stairs to summon the guard and station them in the corridor, that none of the three traitorous guests might escape. He met Duncan the seneschal at the foot of the stairs carrying the food that he had ordered, and by the light of a lamp in the lower passage Duncan saw the lad’s pale and terrified face.
“God assoil me!” cried Duncan, “what has happened?”
“A terrible thing, Duncan. My dear father has been brutally slain under his own roof tree.”
“Slain! My lord, the Earl Hamish slain? Nay, boy, it cannot be!”
“Alas, ’tis true! One of those miscreant traitors who came hither today has plunged a knife into my father’s heart. Take back the food. I will neither eat nor sleep again until I have discovered the villain who has done this foul crime. Turn out the guard this instant. Station them without the door of the room wherein those three wicked men are now carousing. And now to call my brother Alpin.”
Kenric went softly to his brother’s room, which was next to the chamber of the Lady Adela, and he knocked gently at the door. Alpin was sound asleep upon his couch, for his day’s hunting had wearied his limbs. Kenric went within and awoke him.
In the darkness Alpin did not see his brother’s pallid face, and he turned over with many complaints at being so roughly disturbed.
“Nay, Alpin, ’tis for no light cause that I disturb you,” urged Kenric.
And hearing his husky, trembling voice, Alpin roused himself with sudden terror.
“What brings you back to the castle?” he cried; “and wherefore do you call me at this late hour?”
“It is that our father has been entertaining enemies unawares,” said Kenric. “Entering the hall but a few moments ago I found him lying dead upon the hearth with a cruel knife in his heart.”
Alpin gave a piercing cry of sudden grief and sprang up from his bed.
“No, no, it cannot be!” he exclaimed, recovering himself as he threw on some clothing. “You have made some strange mistake. These friends could not have harmed our father. They were not armed. And what could our uncle Roderic gain by such treachery?”
Kenric drew his brother out into one of the dark passages, not observing that their mother’s chamber door had opened and that the Lady Adela, roused from her slumber by Alpin’s cry of grief, had taken the alarm and was preparing to follow.
“Alas, he has but too much to gain,” said Kenric. “Had he been left to carry out his base plot to the end, you and I, Alpin, must surely have fallen as our father has fallen — victims to Earl Roderic’s ambition to make himself lord over Bute.”
“If this be so,” returned Alpin, raising his voice in wrath, “then with my own hands will I take a deadly vengeance. I swear it now, Kenric — by our holy faith I swear that if Roderic of Gigha has indeed slain our father, then Roderic shall die by my hand!”
“Will such vengeance give back the life that has been taken?” asked Kenric solemnly. “Will vengeance restore to our dear mother the happiness that she now has lost? Methinks it had been wiser in you, Alpin, to have stayed by our father’s side instead of slinking off to your bed and leaving him thus exposed to danger. Come, let us arm ourselves and confront these evil men, that we may learn which one of them has dealt this fatal blow.”
“With what weapon, say you, was my father slain?” asked Alpin, as, being now in the armoury, they proceeded to don their coats of chain mail.
“With the great knife wherewith he was wont to carve the venison and meat,” said Kenric, taking down a sword.
“Ah!” cried Alpin with swift recollection, “now do I perceive the reason wherefore Earl Roderic took that same knife from off the board and placed it so cunningly above the hearth. Oh, villain that he is! He designed even then to do as he has done.
“Now,” he added, snatching up a great two-handed sword, “I am ready. Let me but meet him — let me but face him for a moment, and I will slay him like a dog.”
“Think well ere you strike the blow you contemplate,” said Kenric as they ascended a side stairway that led to the upper floors of the castle. “Remember that you are now the rightful lord over Bute, and that you will have power to inflict due punishment upon this man without taking a personal vengeance that would surely lead to an endless blood feud.”
“Tush! You are but a timid boy, Kenric. What priestly precepts has the old Abbot Thurstan been cramming you with? Would you pardon the man who has slain our own father?”
“Pardon him?” exclaimed Kenric. “No, never will I do that. If you slay him not, Alpin, then, by the holy rood, I myself will do so. But it shall be in fair fight that I will overcome him, and by no mean subterfuge.”
The two lads were now at the entrance of the larger hall, wherein the good Earl Hamish lay dead. Alpin went within, and there, bending over his father’s body, he was overwhelmed by his grief. He staggered to a seat and sat down with his head in his hands, weeping piteously.
Kenric heard loud voices in the corridor, and grasping his sword he hastened to where the guards were stationed. Duncan Graham, of the long arm, was holding parley with the three earls within the smaller hall. His broad frame filled up the half-open doorway, so that the presence of the armed guard was not yet known to Roderic and his two companions.
“More wine it may be you can have,” said Duncan; “but as to bringing you your swords, that I cannot do without orders from my master.”
“I am now your master!” said the gruff voice of Roderic of Gigha; “and again I command you to bring us our swords and dirks.”
“You are no master of mine, Earl Roderic,” said Duncan; “and now for your insolence shall you have neither wine nor weapons,” and with that he slammed to the door.
“Insolent varlet!” growled Roderic within the room.
“Nay, calm yourself, good Roderic,” said the voice of Erland the Old; “we had better have tarried till daylight. It may be that they have already discovered what you have done. Truly you were an arrant simpleton to leave the weapon in your brother’s breast. ‘Twould have served our further purpose well.”
Kenric heard these last words, and though they were spoken in the Danish, yet full well did he understand that the further purpose of Earl Roderic was indeed the slaying of the Lady Adela and Alpin.
Assured that the three miscreants were unarmed, he drew Duncan aside and whispered his commands, which were that four of the guards should follow him into the room and make prisoners of the three island kings. Thereupon Duncan went back to the door and forced it open, and Kenric, with buckler on arm and sword in hand, marched in, and standing firmly upright faced the three men defiantly.
“Which man of you is Earl Roderic of Gigha?” said he.
CHAPTER VI. ALPIN’S VOW OF VENGEANCE.
Erland the Old, with an empty drinking horn in his bony hand, sat by the hearth looking vacantly into the dead embers of the fire. Sweyn the Silent stood beside him with his thumbs stuck in his leathern girdle; while Roderic of Gigha sat upon the table facing the door and swinging his legs to and fro. The light of a hanging cruse lamp shone upon his long red hair and beard. His strong bare arms were folded, one within the other, across his broad chest, and the back of his right hand was splashed with blood that had been partly wiped off upon his under jerkin.
“Which man of you is Earl Roderic of Gigha?” repeated Kenric.
The three looked one to the other with evil smiles. Roderic drank off what remained in his wine cup.
“I am he,” he said coolly as he again folded his arms. “And who, then, are you who demand to know?”
“Then if you be he,” said Kenric, “you are the vilest man that ever breathed within these walls. Oh, Roderic MacAlpin, unworthy son of a noble and good prince, you have brought the guilt of blood upon your father’s name! You have slain your own brother, our dear lord and master; you have shed his life’s blood within his own hall. Deceitful traitor that you are, you came to this peaceful island in the semblance of a friend. But, by all that I hold sacred, you shall not leave it again ere you have been duly judged for your foul crime.”
A burst of mocking laughter from Roderic greeted this speech.
“And now,” added Kenric, turning to the guard, “take me this man as prisoner to the deepest dungeon. For though he were King Hakon himself he should not longer remain as a guest in the castle whose shelter he has abused.”
“Let one of those varlets but touch me with his hand,” said Roderic, “and I will break his back across my knee. And you, who are you, my young knave, that dares to threaten his betters? By St. Olaf, but you are passing bold to speak of prisoning me in the walls wherein I was born. Away with you to your couch; this is no hour for bairns to be awake.”
Then turning to the lord of Colonsay he said: “Slip you out behind the young whelp, Sweyn, and bring me the knife you wot of. This is surely the stripling of whom we heard. He barks passing well; let us see if he can bite. A few ells of cold steel will speedily settle him, I warrant me.”
Earl Sweyn stepped towards the door, but one of the men of Rothesay bounded forward and caught him in his strong arms, struggled with him for a moment, and then flung him heavily to the floor.
Roderic, seeing this and waxing wrathful, sprang lightly from his seat, and ere Kenric could well understand his intention he had caught hold of the youth and gripped him by his sword hand. He wreathed his other strong arm round the lad’s lithe body. Long he wrestled with him, but at last he drew him down by main force with his back across his thigh and his right hand set hard at his throat. With his left hand he again gripped Kenric’s sword hand and tried to wrest the weapon from his grasp. But Kenric’s wrist was of mighty strength and he held with a grip of iron to the handle of his sword. Then Roderic dragged the lad’s hand forward and got it between his teeth, that by biting it he might force him to loosen his hold of the weapon. And now Kenric must surely have been overcome had not Duncan of the long arm at that moment come behind Earl Roderic and rushed upon him and caught him up in his arms. With all the force of his giant strength the Highlander lifted the man high in the air and shook him fiercely. Kenric, freeing himself, drew back to the door, and he saw Duncan fling Earl Roderic upon the table and grip him by the throat.
“Spare him!” cried Kenric as the seneschal drew his dirk.
Then Duncan, thrusting his knife in his garter, turned Roderic over with his face downward, and holding him there with his bare knee on his back, he took off his great plaid and twisting it ropewise he bound the earl’s arms tightly together, so that he could no longer move them.
The earl of Colonsay had already been pinioned in like manner. But Erland the Old, when he saw Kenric stand free and unharmed, fearing to be ill treated, rushed out into the corridor. There he was met by Alpin, who, with drawn sword, was about to kill him. His sword was raised in the act of smiting him when, from the banqueting hall beyond, there came a loud and plaintive cry that echoed throughout the castle like the cry of a wounded eagle. Alpin lowered his weapon and, leaving old Erland to be arrested by the guards, he sped towards the hall. Kenric, hearing that scream, followed after him.
In the hall they found their mother. A crowd of the men and women of the castle were there with her, holding torches and lighted cruse lamps over the body of the dead lord of Bute. The Lady Adela was wringing her hands in frantic grief.
“Who is the villain that hath done this wicked thing?” she cried as Alpin and Kenric entered.
“Roderic, Earl of Gigha,” answered Kenric.
“Ah, unhappy hour that ever brought him within these walls! Where is he now?”
“He is made prisoner with his two companions,” said Kenric.
“Prisoner — not slain! You have not slain him? Oh, my sons, where is your spirit? Why have you let him live thus long? And you, Alpin, wherefore did you suffer your father to be left alone with these men?”
“Alas, my mother, was it possible I could foresee this crime?” said Alpin. “Even my poor father could not have seen treachery through the mask of his brother’s friendship.”
“There has been some quarrel,” said Dovenald the bard. “Heard you aught of a dispute between them, young man?”
“Methinks there is little need to seek for a cause of quarrel,” said Kenric. “Roderic of Gigha is even now meditating how he can make himself the lord over Bute. No farther shall he go, for he cannot now escape the penalty that is his due.”
“And what penalty is that?” asked the Lady Adela.
Kenric turned to Dovenald for reply, knowing well that Dovenald was better learned than any other man in the breast laws of that land.
“My lady,” said Dovenald, “he must be judged and punished for his crime as the wise men of Bute shall direct. Justice will be done. Fear not for that.”
“Justice?” cried she. “I know well what justice means with your wise men. It is not the worthless fine of a few score of cattle that would repay me for the loss of my dear husband. No, no. A life for a life. Earl Roderic has cruelly slain our good and noble lord, and now I demand a speedy vengeance.”
She flung herself on her knees before her son Alpin.
“Oh, my sweet son,” she cried, clasping his two hands, “I charge you upon my blessing, and upon the high nobility you inherit, to be revenged upon this traitor for his crime;” and thereupon she took up the bloodstained weapon and forced it into her son’s hand.
Alpin started back and grew pale.
“Fair mother,” said he, “what may this mean?”
“Take this fatal knife,” said she, “and before the blood is dry upon its blade drive it into the murderer’s black heart.”
Then Alpin, holding the knife, raised his mother in his arms.
“Dear mother,” said he, “you have given me a great charge, and here I promise you I shall be avenged upon Earl Roderic ere long, and that do I promise to God and to you.”
“Nay, mother,” appealed Kenric, stepping forward. “In mercy I beg you, charge not my brother with so terrible a mission. Withdraw it, I beseech you, for you know not what you do in thus exposing Alpin to both danger and dishonour. For if he take vengeance by stealth, then is his treachery as evil as that of the murderer whom he would punish. If he challenge this man to mortal combat, then most surely he will be slain, for Roderic, as I have seen, is most powerful of arm, and it is his heart’s desire that he should slay my brother, whose death he has already planned. If you would indeed have this man die, then I entreat you let me, and not Alpin, fulfill your behest. Alpin is now our rightful king, and his life is of more value than mine.”
Now while Kenric was thus speaking his mother remained in Alpin’s arms, with her head upon his shoulder. And when Alpin drew away his arm that she might answer Kenric face to face, she turned not round, but sank down at Alpin’s feet, and it was seen that she was in a swoon.
So Alpin carried her away in his strong arms to her chamber, where the women of the castle tended her. But for three long days and nights she lay on her couch in a strange sickness that none could understand. For those three days she was unconscious, speaking never a word.
CHAPTER VII. THE ARROW OF SUMMONS.
How the three island kings fared in the dark dungeons of the castle of Rothesay on that fatal night need not be told. Earl Roderic of Gigha had doubtless in his sea rovings slept on many a less easy couch. But it may be that in those dark hours of solitude his mind was more disturbed than were his hardy limbs. He had come to Bute full of a guilty design, by the fulfilment of which he had hoped to at last gain possession of the rich dominions that he had coveted for twenty years. His own inheritance of the small island of Gigha was not enough to satisfy his vaulting ambition, and the growing power of the King of Norway, who was year by year extending his territories in the west of Scotland, offered a further inducement to Roderic, who believed that by slaying his brother Hamish, and taking his place, he might bring the island of Bute under the protection of the Norwegian crown.
His design was clumsily planned, for though subtle as a fox, Roderic was yet an ignorant man, even for those uncultured times, and he had failed to take into account the two sons of Earl Hamish, both of whom stood between him and the coveted earldom, and who now appeared to him as an obstacle not easy to overcome.
But for the unexpected appearance of Kenric, however, even this obstacle in his path might have been cleared, for he had planned that in the darkness and quiet of the night he would steal into the sleeping chamber of Alpin and so deal with him that he would never again waken to claim his dead father’s lands. Roderic had learned from the Lady Adela that her younger son, Kenric, was but a boy of sixteen, living with the learned abbot of St. Blane’s, and to the wicked earl of Gigha it seemed that Kenric might be disposed of by very simple means.
But now, even after having slain his brother, he had failed in his object. Instead of being king in Bute, he was a prisoner in the deepest dungeon of Rothesay Castle.
The moor fowl had scarcely shaken the dew from off their wings ere the two sons of the dead Earl Hamish were climbing the heathery heights behind Rothesay. With them went the aged Dovenald, bearing in his arms a young goat, white as the driven snow. When they were upon the topmost knoll they stood a while. Dovenald laid down the bleating kid, whose little feet were tethered one to the other, and he bade the two youths go about and gather some dry twigs of heather and gorse that a fire might be made.
A soft breeze from over the moorland played with the silvery locks of the old man’s bare head. He turned his face to the east and looked across the gray waters of the Clyde, where above the hills of Cunningham, the dawn was breaking into day. Southward then he gazed and watched the giant mountains of Arran that were half shrouded in rosy mists. Very soon the golden light of the rising sun kissed here and there the jagged peaks of Goatfell, and Dovenald bent his head and murmured a prayer, calling upon God to shed His light into the hearts of men and to guide them in the solemn work they were called upon to fulfil that day. Then he turned to Alpin.
“Now kindle me the fire,” he said. “Here are flint and steel.
“And, Kenric, give me the arrow.”
He took the arrow in his hand and waited till the fire was well alight. With the arrow’s point he stirred the flaming twigs, and the two youths looked on.
“And now take your dirk, Alpin,” said he, “and slay me the kid. Give as little pain as may be, for it is not well that the innocent thing should suffer.”
Kenric held the animal while his brother drove his sharp dirk into its white and throbbing throat. The kid turned its soft blue eyes upon him and gave a plaintive bleat. Its warm breath rose visible in the morning air and then died away.
“‘Tis done!” said Kenric, and Dovenald brought the burning arrow and extinguished it in the kid’s blood. With the innocent blood he smeared the arrow’s shaft.
“Fly now as speedily as your feet can carry you to the castle of Kilmory,” said the old man to Alpin, giving him the arrow, “and you will give this burnt arrow into the hands of Sir Oscar Redmain. No need have you to tell him the meaning thereof. It is a summons ordained by ancient custom, and well known to all the wise men of Bute. Sir Oscar will despatch it to our good father the abbot of St. Blane’s. The abbot will in like manner send it to Ronald Gray of Scoulag. So, in turn, will it pass round to each of the twelve wise ruthmen, calling them one and all to hasten to the Seat of Law on the great plain beside Ascog mere, that they may there in solemn assize pronounce judgment upon the traitor who hath slain our king.
“Haste! haste! my son. Why do you tarry?”
“Have I not sworn an oath on my mother’s blessing that I will have this man Roderic’s life? Why, then, should this assize be assembled?”
“Go, do my bidding, rash boy,” said Dovenald sternly. “Seek not to oppose the customs of your ancestors, and let not your thirst for vengeance now blind you to the folly of violence. Go, I command you; and believe me the earl of Gigha shall not escape just retribution.”
Alpin, then, taking the arrow in his right hand, ran off at a brisk pace down the hill. Kenric took up the dead kid and walked at Dovenald’s side towards Rothesay.
“Rash, rash that he is,” murmured the old man. “Much do I fear that he will make but a sorry king. He is over hasty, and his judgment is ofttimes wrong. He will not rule as did his father. The Lady Adela hath spoiled him with her caresses.”
“You are over hard upon my brother,” said Kenric. “There lives not a man in the Western Isles better fitted than Alpin for the great office of kingship. He is just, and noble, and trusty. No man in all Bute can say that he ever broke a promise or told an untruth. Think you that because he is hasty with his dirk he is therefore a thoughtless loon, who knows not when a gentle word can do more service than a blow? When did he ever draw dirk or sword without just cause? You do not know him as I do, Dovenald, or you would not breathe a word in his dispraise. And if my gentle mother loves him above all else next to my father, whom she has now lost, who shall say that Alpin is not deserving of her great favour?”
The old retainer walked on in silence.
Presently he turned to Kenric and said: “What has your brother done with the weapon wherewith my lord was slain? He tried in the dead of night to gain entrance to the traitor Roderic that he might use that fatal knife even as my lady so weakly charged him to do. Where is it, I say?”
“I know not,” said Kenric. “But methinks ’tis a pity he did not drive it into the villain’s heart.”
“My son! my son! let me not hear you utter such evil thoughts again. It ill becomes a pupil of our holy abbot to speak thus. And yesternight you were disposed to leave the guilty earl to whatever punishment the wise men should appoint.”
“Reflection has changed me, Dovenald; and were Roderic before me at this moment I would willingly lay him dead at my feet. Should Alpin fail to slay him, then will I fulfil my revenge. In fair fight or by stealth Roderic shall surely die.”
“Alas, that I should ever hear such words from one so young!” murmured Dovenald.
And the old man continued his complaints until they had entered the castle gates.
CHAPTER VIII. AN ERIACH FINE.
Under the clear sky of high noon the people of Bute had assembled on the great plain of Laws, at the margin of Loch Ascog. They had come from all parts of the island, for the word had travelled round with the swiftness of a bird’s flight that their good king, Earl Hamish, had been cruelly slain by his own brother, and all were eager not only to see the man who had done this treacherous deed, but also to hear judgment passed upon him for his crime.
At the foot of the great standing stone Sir Oscar Redmain, as steward or prefect of Bute, took his seat as judge. Noble and comely he looked, holding his great glittering sword, point upward, waiting for the prisoner and his accuser. At his right stood Godfrey Thurstan, the good abbot of St. Blane’s, with his cowl drawn over his reverend head to shield him from the warm sun. At his left Dovenald, most learned in the laws of the land, ready to explain and discuss the ancient legal customs; and round them in a circle were the others of the twelve ruthmen. The witnesses or compurgators stood in an outer ring within a fencing of cords running from stake to stake. Without the verge of the sacred circle of justice were gathered a great crowd of islanders — herdsmen and husbandmen, tribesmen, fishermen, and thralls — who had left their labours on hill and in vale, or on the sea, and come hither crying out loud for speedy vengeance.
Duncan Graham the seneschal and his guards of the castle had already gone amongst these onlookers to see that no man carried weapons, for it was held in strict custom that none should bear arms or make disturbance at such a time on pain of life and limb.
These hardy islanders, as they stood in silence, were a rugged set of men, with sunburnt faces and bushy beards. Many of them were clothed in garments of sheepskin, others of a better condition wore a plaid or mantle of frieze. They had buskins made of rawhide, and a knitted bonnet, though many of them wore no covering for their heads but their own shaggy hair tied back with a leathern strap.
The assize being sworn and admitted the abbot stepped forward and called upon the God of the Christians to punish the peace breaker. Then the crowd opened and young Alpin came in, stalwart, handsome, noble, and bowed before the judge.
He wore a mantle of tartan, clasped at the shoulder by a silver buckle. His legs were swathed in fine cloth and cross-gartered below the bare knees, and his feet were encased in brogues with silver clasps. His long hair was well combed, and it hung about his broad shoulders in dark brown locks. A deep hum of praise rose in greeting from many throats as he stood in the light of the noonday sun.
“Hail to Earl Alpin, king of Bute!” cried one.
“Long life to the king!” cried another; and the cries were taken up by the whole assembly, dying away in echoes among the far-off hills.
Then Alpin raised his hand and asked that the chain of silence should be shaken; and when one of the guards had shaken the rattling chains and all were listening with bated breath he took up and made his plea, demanding prompt justice on the slayer of his father.
“And whom do you charge with this foul crime?” asked Sir Oscar Redmain, though indeed none needed to be told.
“I charge Roderic MacAlpin, king of Gigha,” said Alpin, and at that there was a great yell of execration.
“Down with the traitor! Death to him!” was the cry as the crowd opened.
And Alpin turning round saw Duncan Graham — taller by a head than the tallest man there present — leading in the criminal, followed by his two companions of Colonsay and Jura.
In a moment Alpin sprang forward at his enemy. He raised his right hand and all saw that he held the bloodstained knife.
“Die, slayer of the just!” he cried, bringing down the weapon upon Roderic’s breast.
But Roderic of Gigha laughed a mocking laugh, and catching Alpin by the wrist he threw him backward. Duncan Graham broke his fall and tore the weapon from his grasp.
“Oh, foolish lad!” he murmured, “to attempt such a thing within the very fences of the court!”
“Alpin of Bute,” said the judge gravely as he rose from his seat, “you have done that which no other man in this land might do without the severest punishment. You are here to plead the cause of justice, and not to insult those whom you have summoned to this place to do justice for you. Bear yourself discreetly, or resign your cause into the hands of those who can control their wrath.”
Alpin scowled as he again took his place before the judge, and then when silence had been restored he proceeded to state the whole case concerning the killing of his father.
By his side stood Kenric, who helped him when he faltered in his narrative. The two brothers might almost have been mistaken for master and serf, so much did their appearance differ. Kenric’s face was unwashed and streaked with the traces of tears. His brown hair, lighter than Alpin’s, was rough and tangled, and now, as always, he wore no covering on his head. His coarse buckskin coat looked mean beside the richer apparel of his brother, and his buskins were ill-tied and his kilt was dusty and tattered. The elder brother was taller and more lithe of body; but Kenric’s bare arms and legs were thick and strong, and despite his coarse clothing he bore himself no less nobly upright than did Alpin.
“Roderic, son of Alpin, what have you to say in defence for this grave crime whereof you are accused?” asked Sir Oscar Redmain when Alpin had told his tale.
The two lads stepped back and Roderic took their place. His long golden hair as the sunlight fell upon it shone scarcely less bright than the well-wrought dragon that twined its scaled form upon his burnished helm of brass. He looked towards his judge with bold defiance in his blue eyes.
“What the boy says is true,” said he. “I slew my brother Hamish. I slew him upon his own hearth stone. But it was in fair fight that I did it; and I call my two friends, the lords of Jura and Colonsay, to bear me out in the truth of what I say.”
There was a loud howl of rage from the crowd as he spoke these false words, and no one tried to stifle those outbursts of popular feeling.
“‘Tis a lie you tell!” cried Kenric furiously as he pushed his brother aside and confronted Earl Roderic. “You say it was in fair fight you smote my father his death blow. Oh, perjured villain! Where, then, was my father’s weapon? Had he been armed with a knife such as the one you used, methinks you would not now be here to utter your false words. Your own arms were left in the armoury hail, where ’twas right they should be; and you took up the knife from the board, knowing full well what you meant to do with it. Oh, Roderic MacAlpin, may your tongue shrivel in your throat ere you utter such base and wicked lies again! You came to this island, the land of your fathers, with the evil purpose of climbing over our dead bodies to the kingship that you covet –“
Roderic bit his lips with rage and doubled his great fists as he stepped forward to smite young Kenric to the ground. Kenric drew back.
“I know it,” continued Kenric with full and sonorous voice that might have been heard at the further side of Ascog mere. “I know your purpose, Roderic of Gigha. Think you that there are none of us that can understand the Norse tongue in which you spake to your two base comrades? /I/ know that tongue. I heard your craven moans of anguish when you came out from that darkened hall wherein my father lay dead. I heard you tell of how you meant to slay the vixen and her cubs. And who are they? My mother and Alpin and me! My mother, whom you flattered with soft speeches — my mother, in whose presence you were not worthy to breathe, and whose noble heart you have now broken by your murderous treachery. And you would have slain her as you slew our father. I thank the great God who stayed your hand from fulfilling such devil’s work to the end. May He punish you as you deserve to be punished for the evil you have done!”
A deep silence followed upon this speech, and then a thousand lusty voices broke out in a prolonged groan of imprecation. But Roderic of Gigha only turned to Erland the Old and smiled.
Kenric looked to the crowd that stood behind the judge’s seat, and there he saw Ailsa Redmain standing with her brother Allan; and Ailsa’s eyes glistened with approval of what Kenric had just spoken, and he took new courage.
“Men of Bute,” said Sir Oscar Redmain, turning to the ruthmen, “ye have heard what has passed. It is now for you to pronounce judgment upon the accused man. What say you?”
“That Earl Roderic is guilty of the crime,” said Ronald Gray, their spokesman, “and that he shall pay the highest penalty that our laws can impose.”
“Then,” said Alpin, “I claim that Roderic of Gigha shall die the death.”
But at that the wise men shook their heads.
“In the time of my father, the good king Alpin,” said Roderic with a voice of triumph, “it was ordained, as all of you must surely know, that no man should die for the slaying of his enemy unless he were caught red-handed and with the weapon in his hand; but that for taking the life of a man in hot blood he should be assoiled or cleansed on payment of the eriach fine, which is nine score of kine, to the kin of his victim. And I ask Dovenald Dornoch if this be not so?”
At this Alpin held speech with Dovenald the lawman, and his face grew sullen in disappointment.
“Alas!” said Alpin to Sir Oscar, “what Earl Roderic hath said is indeed true; for it seems that my grandsire, king Alpin, and also my father, who is dead, did in their mercy so ordain that crimes of violence should be dealt with in such manner that the traitor might have time in which to repent of his ill deeds and commend himself to God. But for the slaying of a king the fine is not nine score, but six times nine-score of kine, or three thousand golden oras. And if that fine be not paid within a year and a day, then shall the traitor die the death. And now, oh men of Bute, since that I cannot see this man die — as, would that I might! — I call upon him for the due payment of my eriach fine. And moreover, oh judge, you and the wise men of Bute whom I see here present are guarantees for the full payment, and you shall see that it be paid within a year and a day.”
Now this was far from being what Roderic wished, for well he knew that no man in all the Western Isles would spare him if he failed to pay the price of his liberty. But also he knew that neither in cattle nor in other movable wealth was it in his power to pay the value of a thousand head of cattle in so short a time. So he up and told this to Sir Oscar Redmain.
“I cannot pay the fine,” he said; “for not in all my lands and ships do I possess such wealth nor know I any man who would be my broch, or bail.”
“Then,” said Sir Oscar, “if that be so, I now pronounce you an outlaw in the Western Isles and in Scotland, and our sovereign lord, King Alexander, shall ratify that sentence upon you forthwith. You shall be an outlaw for the term of three years and three days. For those three days you shall live within the sanctuary of Dunagoil and under the protection of the good abbot of St. Blane’s. On the third day, or before, you shall take ship and depart hence whithersoever the holy abbot shall direct you.”
Then turned Sir Oscar to the crowd.
“Men of Bute,” said he, “I charge you all that if within three years to come any of you shall see this man Roderic MacAlpin within the isle of Bute, or within his forfeited lands of Gigha and Cara, or in any other land in the dominions of the King of Scots, you shall put him to the sword and slay him.”
There was a loud cry of assent; and Roderic, wrathful at his position, felt at his side for his absent sword.
Here again were his plans defeated. The sentence passed upon him required that during his three days of grace in the sanctuary of the church lands no man should molest him or hold speech with him. How, then, could he hope to compass the death of the two lads, Alpin and Kenric, who stood in the way of his ambition? Turning his eyes with fierce malice upon the two brothers he stepped boldly to the front.
“There is yet another way for me,” he cried aloud. “Think you that I, a king, am to be hunted about by a set of wolves like these? No, no. Now, on this spot and before you all, do I claim wager of battle, for that is my due. Let any man of you stand forth and meet me in fair fight, and I will fight him to the death.”
Then Duncan Graham, the seneschal, came forward in his towering height, and said he:
“I will fight you, treacherous earl, for you deserve to die!”
“You!” exclaimed Roderic, awed at the man’s giant height. “Not so. An earl may hold such combat with none but his equals. I will not cross swords with a low-born churl like you. Show me a man whose blood is worthier of my steel.”
“Coward!” cried Duncan; “you are afraid to cross arms with me. I would slay you at the first passage.”
“There is but one among you who is of my own rank,” said Roderic, “and there he stands;” and he pointed to Alpin.
“And I am ready,” said Alpin. “I will engage with you to the death. And God defend the right!”
CHAPTER IX. THE ORDEAL BY BATTLE.
While Duncan Graham and one of the guards went back to the castle of Rothesay to bring the swords of Alpin and Roderic, Sir Oscar Redmain pronounced the assize at an end; and such as wished not to witness the deadly combat — the abbot Godfrey and some few women — went away.
Then Roderic stood apart with Erland the Old and Sweyn the Silent, bidding them not wait for their weapons, but to slip away out of the crowd and get them to their ship, and so away to their island homes.
“Our project has so far failed,” said he; “but be assured that I shall yet gain the lordship over Bute. They have made me an outlaw, and I fear me that Redmain will most surely communicate this whole matter to the King of Scots. Well, be it so; we shall see what Alexander can do. Methinks it will not be long that he will hold his own against us. When these three years of my outlawry are over you shall see such things as will surprise you. Farewell, good Erland, and you, dear Sweyn! Hold you both fast by King Hakon. That is our highest game; and so we serve him well there is no fear but we will reap a good harvest of power.”
“God grant it may be so!” said Erland; “for if his Majesty of Norway fail in conquering Scotland, then are we all lost men. Farewell, then!”
When Sir Oscar Redmain had left the seat of justice his daughter Ailsa crept within the circle of the court, and there she found Kenric.
“As I came hither,” she said, “I saw Elspeth Blackfell; and she bade me ask you, Kenric, if what she spake had aught of sooth in it?”
“Ah,” said Kenric, “right truly did she tell what was to befall. For even as it was with your nest of ouzels, Ailsa, so has it been with the castle of Rothesay. This man Roderic, is he not even as the stoat that harried the nest?”
“Even so,” said Ailsa. “But the stoat also slew the fledgling as well as the parent bird. Elspeth, when she heard that the good Earl Hamish had been so cruelly slain, looked grave, and, said she, ‘Hasten, Ailsa, to the sons of Rothesay and bid them still be wary of this man. Not until he is dead will all danger from him be past.’ Those were her words, Kenric; and lest there should be truth in them I have come to you as speedily as I might. Alpin is about to engage in mortal combat. Bid him be wary, bid him arm himself well; for I heard one of the shepherds say that Roderic is clothed in a shirt of iron network, and that if it had not been so the knife wherewith Alpin smote him would have slain him where he stood.”
“Ailsa,” said Kenric, “much do I fear me that there is ample need of this warning. Help me, I beseech you. Run to the castle and bid Duncan not fail to bring my brother’s coat of mail.”
Then Ailsa disappeared and like a lapwing ran across the moorland.
Not long had she been gone when Duncan appeared, bearing two great claymores. But he had not brought the coat of mail; and Kenric seeing this drew his brother aside and bade him tarry until Ailsa should return, that he might protect his body with the chain shirt, and so be equal with his foe.
The men of Bute then went in a vast crowd to the lower march beside Ascog mere, for it was against the ancient custom that any blood should be shed within the sacred circle reserved for the administration of the laws. And they formed a great ring upon the level ground, in the midst of which stood Earl Roderic alone, with his great two-handed sword in his hand, and the sun glancing upon his helm as he held his head proudly aloft.
And the cry went about:
“Alpin! where is Alpin? Is he then afraid?”
But soon a gap was made in the circle and Alpin strode boldly forward with a light step.
Kenric, who had sent Ailsa away, telling her that it was no sight for a girl, stood beside Sir Oscar and Allan Redmain, and he told how Ailsa had brought Alpin’s armour.
“Then am I much relieved,” said Sir Oscar. “Nevertheless there is no man I know, unless it be Sir Piers de Currie, who can handle a sword as your brother can; and methinks Earl Roderic will not easily bear up against him. Look at them both. Alpin is fresh and lithe as a young stag. Ah, Roderic, methinks your hour has surely come!”
Alpin dressed the end of his plaid about his left arm and pulled out his sword. He stood at five paces from his foe. Then both swerved about with their heads bent forward. Still keeping apart, eyeing one the other, round and round they traversed. Then Alpin got his back to the sunlight, drew himself up, and flung back his sword. With a fierce cry they rushed together and their swords clashed with mighty strokes. Then they both reeled backward two strides to recover. Tracing and traversing again they leapt at each other as noble men who had often been well proved in combat, and neither would stint until they both lacked wind, and they stood a while panting and blowing, each grasping his weapon ready to begin again.
When they had rested they went to battle once more, tracing and foining and hurtling together, so that none who beheld them could know which was like to win the battle. Their clothing was so far hewn that the chains of their coats of mail could be seen. Alpin had a cut across his knee, Roderic’s arm was bleeding.
Roderic was a wily man of war, and his wily fighting taught Alpin to be wise and to guard well his bare head, for it was ever at his head that Roderic aimed. Often he smote such strokes as made Alpin stagger and kneel; but in a moment the youth leapt lightly to his feet and rushed at his foe, until Roderic’s arms and face were red with blood.
The crowd about them hailed Alpin’s dexterous fighting with lusty cries of approval, and none doubted that he would soon make an end of his boastful antagonist. But neither had yet gained the upper hand.
So for a full half-hour they fought, until Alpin at length sorely wounded Roderic on the shoulder. At that Roderic was wroth out of measure, and he rushed upon Alpin, doubling his mighty strokes. Their swords clashed and clanged and flashed in bright circles through the air. But at last, by fortune, Roderic smote Alpin’s sword out of his hand, and if Alpin had stooped to pick it up surely he would have been slain.
He stood still a moment and beheld his weapon with a sorrowful heart. There was a deep groan of anguish from the crowd, and Kenric, seeing the peril in which his brother was placed, would have rushed forward to Alpin’s help had not Duncan Graham held him back, fearing that he too might find himself in Earl Roderic’s power. Then Allan Redmain was about to run in to Alpin’s aid, but his father caught his arm and bade him stand back.
“How now?” cried Roderic. “Now have I got you at an advantage as you had me yesternight. But it shall never be said that Roderic of Gigha would meanly slay any man who was weaponless. And therefore take up your sword, Earl Alpin, and let us make an end of this battle.”
Roderic then drew back that Alpin might without hindrance take up his sword. Then into Roderic’s eyes there came a look of fixed fury, and in that look Alpin read his doom.
Again they took their ground, and this time neither seemed so eager to spring at the other. But at last young Alpin leapt wildly at his foe, with his sword upraised in the grip of his two hands. Down came his weapon with a mighty swing, and all thought surely that blow would be Roderic’s end. But Roderic sprang lightly aside, so that the young man’s aim was spent upon the soft ground. Roderic’s sword flashed in a circle above his crested helm. There was a dull crunching sound, and then a deep groan.
Kenric promptly rushed to his brother’s side and tried to raise him from the ground. But the sword of Roderic of Gigha had done its work. Earl Alpin was dead.
Then the men of Bute, seeing what had befallen their young king, raised a wailing cry that rent the sunny air, and they closed in their ranks around their fallen chief.
Earl Roderic looked but for a moment at Alpin, and then swinging his bloodstained sword from right to left he passed through the crowd of men. For the islanders, having just left the court of the mooting, were none of them armed. So when Roderic made his way into their midst they fell back beyond the range of his swinging blade.
They saw that he was making his way towards the shores of the lake, which was but a few paces from where the battle had been fought. Many of them picked up great stones and flung them after him and struck him on the back.
“Down with the base traitor!” they cried.
But he little heeded either their missiles or their menacing cries. On he sped until his feet were ankle deep in the mere. Then he turned round for a moment and saw young Kenric, armed with his brother’s sword, with Sir Oscar Redmain, Allan, Duncan Graham, and many others pursuing him.
He sent up a hollow mocking laugh as he lightly sheathed his sword. Then he waded farther into the loch and threw himself into the deeper waters, so that only his glancing helm could be seen above the surface. As the antlered stag, pursued by men and hounds, swims swiftly over the mountain tarn to the safety of crag and fell, so swam Earl Roderic before the fury of the men of Bute. And none dared follow him, for it is said that that loch is deeper than the hills are high.
So many ran round to the farther shores that they might there meet him and assail him with showers of stones. In the brief time that had passed between two settings of the sun this man, this traitorous sea rover, had taken the lives of two kings — the well-beloved Hamish, who had ruled over that little nation for a score of peaceful and prosperous years, and Alpin, his son and successor, who had fallen ere yet he had known the power of his kingship. And forgetting that by the sentence of outlawry which their judge had passed but two hours before, Roderic had been allowed three days of grace, during which it was a crime to molest him, they were driven to the extremity of wild rage; they thirsted for his blood.
It was not now enough that he should quit their island with his treachery unavenged; they wanted to strike him down that the world might no longer harbour a villain whose evil deeds were blacker and more terrible than any the oldest man in Bute had ever known.
But ere they had turned either point of the lake Roderic had already gained the firm ground on the western shore, and now he shook the water from him and sat down on a large stone to rest his limbs and to dress his bleeding wounds.
Soon he heard the rumour of men’s angry cries coming nearer and nearer, like the yelping of a pack of wolves. Rising and looking about him he saw many men running towards him from north and from south through the dingle of Lochly; and now most surely he might think that he was entrapped, for he was upon the strip of land that divides Loch Ascog from Loch Fad.
His deep voice rang out across the moorland like the bellowing call of the stag that challenges his rival in the glens. Bracing his long sword about his back he crossed westward over the rising ground until he came in view of the quiet waters of Loch Fad, where a flock of wild swans, startled at his approach, flew over towards the forest of Barone.
The two companies of islanders closed in upon him, believing doubtless that he would be speedily overcome. The one band was led by Sir Oscar Redmain and his son, the other by Duncan Graham and Kenric.
Roderic ran onward to the water’s edge, and ere the first stone that was thrown could reach him he had plunged into Loch Fad, and as he swam outward stones and clods of turf fell in showers about his head. A stone thrown by Kenric struck him on the helmet. He sank deep down, and all believed that the water would be his death. But, like the diver bird of his native seas, he went under but to appear again many yards away beyond the reach of any weapon but the arrow, and of arrows there were none in all that company.
Now Loch Fad, which is the largest of the lakes of Bute, is full two miles long and but four furlongs wide, and it was useless for any to think of meeting the fugitive earl on the farther shore. So at the bidding of Sir Oscar Redmain the men all gave up the chase and turned back to where the dead body of Lord Alpin lay prone upon the turf, and thence they bore him to the castle of Rothesay.
CHAPTER X. AASTA’S CURSE.
Roderic of Gigha, for all that he had been absent from Bute for a score of years, had not forgotten the old landmarks that had been familiar to him in boyhood. After swimming across Loch Fad he found himself among the tall pine trees of the forest of Barone. Wet and weary after his escape from his pursuers, and smarting sorely of his many wounds, he passed through the forest glades and emerged at the point where, on the evening before, Kenric had entered.
As he skirted the lands of Kilmory he saw a herd of shaggy long-horned cattle browsing there, with many sheep and goats. He looked about for their shepherd that he might ask him concerning the earls of Jura and Colonsay. He began to regret that he had so lightly dismissed his friends, who might better have waited to carry him in their ship to Gigha.
Presently he heard voices from behind a great rock. A young sheepdog appeared, but when it saw him it turned tail and slunk away as if it were afraid of him. Then from behind the rock came young Lulach the herd boy, and with him a most beautiful girl. Lulach stood for a moment looking at the strange man.
“Ah, ’tis he! ‘Tis he whom we were but now speaking of!” he cried, and dropping the brown bread cake that he had been eating he ran away down the hill in terror.
But the girl stood still, with her hand resting on the rock.
Now this girl was the same strange maiden who had appeared so mysteriously before Kenric on his night journey through the forest. Tall she was and very fair — tall and graceful as a young larch tree, and fair as the drifted snow whose surface reflects the red morning sun. Her eyes were blue as the starry sky, and her long hair fell upon her white skin like a dark stream of blood. Men named this wondrous maiden Aasta the Fair.
Earl Roderic started back at sight of her great beauty as she stood before him in her gray and ragged garments, for she was but a poor thrall who worked upon the lands of Kilmory, minding the goats upon the hills or mending the fishermen’s nets down on the shore.
“Fair damsel,” said he, “tell me, I pray you, if you have seen pass by an aged man and his companion towards the bay of Scalpsie?”
“‘Tis but an hour ago that they passed hence,” said Aasta. “Cursed be the occasion that brought both them and you into this isle!”
Then she pointed across the blue moor of the sea where, under the shadow of the high coast of Arran, a vessel appeared as a mere speck upon the dark water.