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service of the Most High. How come you here?”

Then Roderic smiled in derision.

“How came I here? And wherefore should I come if not to claim mine own? Wherefore should I come if not to destroy the young cub Kenric, who hath cruelly murdered many scores of innocent dwellers in the isles. Mine own have I already regained, for I have planted my banner upon the towers of Rothesay, and no man on earth shall now rob me of what I have so hardly conquered. Two other things remain; and then I go to make further conquests for my sovereign king. I shall have young Kenric’s blood, and I shall have my full revenge for the injuries he has done to the people of Colonsay. And now, my father, you will go down upon your knees before me — for I am now your lord and king and will be obeyed — and you shall tell me truly where this young whelp Kenric is to be found, that I may slay him.”

“Earl Kenric of Bute shall never be slain by you, Roderic MacAlpin,” said Elspeth. “For though you follow him over half the world, as you followed Rapp the Icelander, yet shall you never draw one drop of blood from that brave youth’s body!”

“And who shall stay me?” cried Roderic. “By the mass, but you speak bold words, Dame Elspeth!”

“I will stay you!” cried Elspeth. “Your right arm shall wither, your eyes shall grow blind, your life’s blood shall turn to gall ere you touch a hair of Earl Kenric’s head! Return whence you came, bold outlaw. Go, ere it be too late. Overmuch injury have you already done in this land of your fathers. And do you hope to rule in Bute — do you believe that there is one man in all this land who would accept you as his lord and master, and who would pay homage to you, after the ills you have done? Vain fool! be satisfied. Turn back to your ships and ask of Heaven the forgiveness which no man on earth will now accord you! Go, Roderic MacAlpin!”

“Miserable hag!” cried Roderic grasping his sword. “And think you that I would lead my brave men away ere they have had their full revenge upon this stripling? No, no! Listen now, how they cry for his blood! Hear how they cry out for the children whom you have spirited away! Elspeth Blackfell, you know where those children are hidden, and by Saint Olaf you shall now tell me where they are, or I will drive my blade into your shrivelled carcase. Tell me, I say!”

“My lord Roderic,” said Elspeth, looking at him with glittering eyes, “you have lost your own two children. Do you still remember them? Do you still remember their rosy cheeks, their sweet blue eyes, their golden hair? Do you still hear the music of their laughter as they played among the pebbles on the beach? Ah, it was a sad, sad day for you when they were taken from you, my lord.”

“A sad day indeed, Elspeth,” echoed the sea rover, mechanically sheathing his sword, and speaking in an altered voice that had a touch of tenderness in it.

“And yet,” added Elspeth, “there lives in Cowall one who might tell you what became of your little ones.”

“What? You tell me this! Who is that man?”

“On one condition shall you know,” said Elspeth. “Take your men away from Bute, and no more seek to learn whither our women and children are gone.”

“Agreed,” said Roderic; “for, believe me, ’tis no wish of mine that the people of my own lands should suffer. Tell me, who is this man?”

“When your followers are in their ships,” said Elspeth, “when you are taking up your anchors, then will I tell you, Lord Roderic. And if you keep your word and leave us for a time in peace, most assuredly you shall yet learn more.”

Now Roderic, who was a man of iron, had yet one soft place in his heart, and that was ever touched when he thought of his lost children. Doubtless Elspeth knew all this, and whether it was true or false that she could give him the word he wished, she at least succeeded in turning him away from St. Blane’s, and Kenric, half-wishing to take his sword and slay him where he stood, peeped above the wall where he and his men were intrenched and saw the pirate chief go up to his men and order them to turn back to Rothesay.

In another hour thereafter, Roderic, having left the castle in charge of one of his captains and a full garrison of men, entered his ship and with his other galleys sailed away on his expedition of plunder on the banks of the Clyde.

Being joined by other ships from Kintyre, Islay, and Jura, together with the forces of Margad who had invaded and conquered the isle of Arran, his armament now numbered sixty galleys. They took the castles of Dunoon and Roseneath, and laid waste many villages and farmsteads. Farther still they went, up the waters of Loch Long, devastating the lands on either side. At the head of Loch Long they took their smaller ships and mounting them on rollers made of the trunks of larch trees, they dragged the vessels bodily over the neck of land that lies between Arrochar and Tarbet, and launched them on the great lake that is called Loch Lomond.

Now on Loch Lomond there are many small islands that were at that time thickly peopled, and many Scots of the invaded earldom of Lennox had taken refuge on those islands when they heard that the Norsemen were advancing. Their safeholds now became the scenes of plunder and bloodshed, the islands were wasted with fire, the shores of the beautiful lake were completely ravaged, and the houses on its borders burnt to the ground.

After this, Roderic and Magnus made an extended expedition into the rich county of Stirling, in which they massacred great numbers of inhabitants, and returned driving herds of cattle before them, and loaded with booty.

During his voyage up the Clyde, Roderic had paid little heed to the fair captive Aasta. But when, triumphant and gloating, he returned to the ships he had left in Loch Long, he discovered that his prisoner had escaped, and he was very wrathful, for, as he said, the maid was passing fair, and he had been minded to take her back with him to his castle. But no man could tell him how the girl had escaped, or which way she had fled.

Roderic, having filled his ships with plunder, then set out for Kintyre, where he was to join King Hakon. But entering the Clyde from Loch Long, he encountered a terrible storm. Ten of his vessels were completely wrecked, and his own galley was forced to steer clear of Bute, and take refuge behind the islands of Cumbrae.

The measure of the Norwegian success was now full. Hakon had gained possession of every island, great and small, on the west of Scotland. In the far north he had established his footing not only in the Shetlands and Orkneys, but he had made himself master of the whole county of Caithness. In the south, Kintyre had been unconditionally ceded to him by its timid lord. Bute, Arran, and the Cumbraes had been conquered; the rich county of Lennox — one of the most fruitful in Scotland — had been laid waste, and on the outer coasts of the mainland the Norsemen had planted their banner on many a well-built castle. Hakon was now intent upon conquering Scotland, so, gathering his whole fleet of nearly two hundred ships, he sailed from Gigha round the Mull of Kintyre, and anchored in Kilbrannan Sound.

In the meantime King Alexander, having received Kenric’s early warning of the coming of the Norsemen, had with many Scots and English noblemen taken up his residence in Stirling Castle, there to await further news.

One day in September he was out with a hawking party upon the lands which, fifty years afterwards, became known to the world as the field of Bannockburn, when suddenly a most beautiful maiden with blood-red hair threw herself before his horse.

“May it please your Majesty,” said she, “to hear your servant’s petition?”

“Who, then, are you, my pretty maid?” said the King.

“I am a maid of Bute, your Majesty, and a faithful vassal of my lord Earl Kenric of that isle. And I have come to tell you that the Norsemen have landed on your shores. They have taken our castle of Rothesay. They have harried your lands of Lennox. They are approaching upon Stirling. And oh, your Majesty, of your mercy I implore you to give speedy succour to your injured subjects by driving this enemy from our midst!”

“How came you here?” asked the King.

“I was carried off as a prisoner from Rothesay by the tyrant Roderic of Gigha, who hath been sent by King Hakon to lay waste the shores of the Clyde. He carried me as far as Loch Long in his ship. But there I escaped and found my way hither to inform your Majesty of these disasters.”

“Roderic of Gigha?” echoed the King. “So, ho, and ’tis he who hath taken Bute? By St. Andrew, but he shall not long enjoy his conquests.

“My lords,” he added turning to his companions, “methinks the maid speaks truth. Now turn we back to Stirling and cease this sporting, for there are higher duties to perform. Come, my lords, let us at once muster a goodly army, and march against these bold sea wolves ere they have gone too far.”

But ere the king had time to do more than learn the extent of the invasions, Roderic and Magnus had returned to their ships. Alexander, however, soon learned that Hakon himself had entered the Clyde with his armaments, and thereupon there ensued an interchange of messages between the two monarchs. A truce was agreed upon until terms might be arranged. It was the object of the King of Scots to so delay negotiations, that every day might give him more time to concentrate his army; and as the autumn was drawing to a close, it brought the Norwegians a nearer prospect of wreck and disaster from the winter storms.

Alexander made such moderate demands that it was apparent he was not fully prepared to resist the fleet and army of Norway. He had no standing army. He had never been engaged in any warlike affair. He sent word to the Norse king signifying that he would be content to retain the mainland of Scotland and the islands inclosed by it — Arran, Bute, and the two Cumbraes — and it appears that he was willing to have given up to Norway the whole of the isles of the Hebrides. These terms, so advantageous to Hakon, were, fortunately for Scotland, rejected. The proud master of the invading force would give up nothing coming within his claims. It then was observed that Alexander became shy of further treating, and that a force was gradually collecting upon the heights overlooking the Cunningham coast.

Hakon then proposed that Alexander should meet him, each at the head of his army, and treat concerning a peace. If the attempt at negotiation failed, then he would throw down the gauntlet from Norway and challenge the Scottish monarch to debate the matter with his army in the field, and let God, in His pleasure, determine the victory.

Upon this Alexander, in no wise unwilling to fight, pronounced the truce at an end, and war was declared.

CHAPTER XXVI. A TRAITOR KNAVE.

Earl Kenric, on seeing the outlaw and his troops march back in the direction of Rothesay, breathed a great sigh of relief.

The people of Bute were so far safe; much bloodshed had been avoided. The abbot and Elspeth Blackfell had by their simple words reversed the designs of an army. So when the abbot returned into the walled inclosure, Kenric took his hands and reverently kissed them.

“And now, holy father,” said he, “let us all offer thanks to God for His great goodness at this time of our need, for God alone can have stayed the hands of these ruffians.”

Then the abbot and his friars stood before the many children and moist-eyed women and brawny islanders who crowded into the circle, and all knelt down upon the grass. Never since the gospel of Christ had been introduced into that land had prayers been more fervently uttered.

In the midst of the prayers, Ailsa Redmain, kneeling by Kenric’s side, suddenly touched him on the shoulder, and pointed over towards the Arran hills. There, in the direction of Ranza, he saw a great column of black smoke rising in the air.

“Alas for Sir Piers de Currie!” he murmured, and then again bent his head.

But when the prayers were said Kenric quickly rose and climbed the thick wall, and running with all speed to Dunagoil he ordered Allan Redmain to take two ships over to Arran, for that Sir Piers de Currie’s castle was in flames.

Not long were the two galleys in crossing the sound. Entering Loch Ranza, they entrapped three ships of the Norsemen that had been sent against the castle while Margad their chief was attacking the castle of Brodick on the eastern side of the island. Attacking these ships, Allan Redmain speedily put the Norse warriors to the sword and took their vessels as prizes.

On the beach he found the gallant knight, Sir Piers, standing in the light of the flames that devoured his home. His wife and six children were clinging to his side piteously weeping. His castle was completely wrecked, and as there was not another fit dwelling for many miles around, Allan Redmain, having driven off the enemies who were on shore, besought Sir Piers to bring his family on board, and with twelve brave men of Arran who had escaped, he was taken over to St. Blane’s to such refuge as there remained to him. The beautiful Lady Adela and the Lady Grace de Currie fell into each other’s arms, for in the hour of their adversity they were as sisters.

At the time when Kenric was thus receiving his neighbours of Arran, the men whom Roderic had left in charge of the castle of Rothesay were making merry over their victories. A dozen of them, officers of the garrison, sat in the great hall — the hall in which the good Earl Hamish had met his death. On the bare board of the table there lay a cooked haunch of venison, with other viands that had been found in the buttery, with many cakes of brown bread and drinking horns filled with wine. For these men had not been long in command ere they had broached more than one wine cask with casks of other liquors of a stronger sort, and they grew ever more noisy and more boisterous, this one boasting of how many dogs of Bute he had slain, and that one vaunting that he had with his own hand struck the stripling lord of the island to the ground.

Often one of them would rise from the long bench before the fire and maul the venison with his bloodstained hands, turning it over this way and that; then taking his sword, which had been used that day for a very different purpose, he would cut off a great slice of the meat, and spreading a layer of salt upon it, clap it between two cakes of bread and sit down to enjoy the food. In eating, drinking, and singing wild battle songs, these warriors passed that evening, each thinking himself a king.

Some of the men were wounded, but little did they seem to care; nay, many a one even proudly displayed his bleeding cuts, to prove how sorely bestead he had been in the fight, and the man who had the greatest show of wounds was looked upon almost with envy. To be wounded was next to being slain, and to be slain on the field of battle was the most glorious death a man might die.

“Well, my brothers-in-arms,” at length said one who appeared to be their captain, “’tis a good day’s work that we have done. So let us drink and be merry. Here’s waes-hael to king Rudri of Bute. Long life to him!”

Then the men took up their drinking horns and drank deep to the last drop. But two there were who drank not at all, and they were men of Colonsay.

“Why drink ye not with me?” growled the captain, frowning.

“Because, Thorolf,” said one with flashing eye, “I am but ill-content with the way that Rudri broke his plighted word to us. When we set out on this journey, was it that we should but help him to gain his father’s island? No. Did he not solemnly swear that he would give us our full meed of vengeance upon the whelp who massacred our children? And what man of us has had that chance? Blood for blood, say I!”

“And so say I,” muttered his companion. “Methought when we came here that I should have the chance of driving my spear into a full half score of the children of Bute — that I might have served them even as the stripling Kenric served my little ones. Saint Olaf curse him!”

“It baffles me,” said the first, “to know by what means the women and children of this isle have been spirited away. Not since we landed yestermorn have I so much as seen a living child, nor woman neither, saving only that old witch.”

“Ay, and the fighting maid who cut me this wound across my pate,” added another. “Methinks this Kenric must surely have got wind of our intention; but how that can be, what man can tell?”

“What then of the thing we found on the moor of Gigha, after the council that King Hakon held?” asked Thorolf the captain. “What man would have slain the young Harald of Islay if it were not some spy of Bute? The lad was stabbed through the back; ’twas in no fair fight that he fell.”

“True,” said they all. “By St. Olaf, that is surely so!”

“Could we find out in Rudri’s absence where these babes and wives of Bute have been so cunningly hidden,” said one of the men of Colonsay, “methinks we might well pay out both Rudri and young Kenric. What say you, my bold brothers all?”

“‘Tis my belief,” said another, “that the old witch who spoke to Earl Roderic had some secret intention in turning us away from yon chapel at the end of the island.”

At this the men were silent; but at last one said:

“I’d swear that it was even so. And what say you all if we go thence this very night and fall upon the chapel with fire and sword? ‘Tis a straight road from this, and easily found.”

At this moment there were footsteps in the outer corridor. Three men entered, dragging with them yet another who was bound with ropes. Their prisoner was David Blair, the farmer of Scalpsie. He had been captured, hiding like a frightened cur, among the rocks of Ascog.

The Norse captain, who could speak the Gaelic, on learning who he was, commanded him, on pain of instant death, to tell where Kenric of Bute had taken the women and children.

The farmer hesitated a moment; then, seeing the captain draw his sword, he gasped:

“Oh, spare me, spare me, my lord! Give me but my life, and I will tell you all. I will tell you where you may find these people, and how you can get at them. But, since death is the punishment wherewith you threaten my silence, tell me, then, what shall be my reward if I tell you this you ask?”

The captain smiled grimly. Then in Danish he said:

“You base inhuman craven! you ask what reward I will give you? Methinks the only fitting reward for such treachery were to have a cauldron of boiling lead poured down your guilty throat. Reward, forsooth!”

“Nay, but I cannot understand, my master. I am but a poor Scot who knows not the Norse tongue. Say, what reward do you promise?”

“Fear not, my man. You shall have your deserts,” said the captain. “Tell me, now, or I will even cut you down this instant where you stand trembling.”

“The families of Bute — men, women, bairns — are all in the abbey of St. Blane’s,” said Blair. “They are penned up like a vast flock of sheep in the abbey and the chapel, in the chapel vaults, and within the walls of the Circle of Penance. There you will find them, with my lady Adela of Rothesay, and young Kenric himself, and Allan Redmain that murdered my poor dog –“

“Enough!” cried the captain sternly, “and now for your reward.”

Then turning to one of the men who had brought in the captive, he added:

“Hundi, this man is a traitor, and as a traitor he must now be served. You will therefore conduct him to the topmost towers of the castle, and taking the rope that now binds him, you will tie a shipman’s noose about his neck and let him hang in mid-air, that the carrion crows may taste the flesh of one of the meanest cowards in the isles.”

Then, as the farmer was taken away to his death, Thorolf the captain paced the floor moodily, speaking not a word.

“What said this man, Thorolf?” asked one of his comrades. “Come, tell us where we may find these people.”

“That will I tell to no man!” said Thorolf firmly, “and as I am captain here, these are my orders: that if any man seek to discover where these families are now harboured, or if any man does aught to further molest the people of Bute, he may expect a reward equal to that of the traitor who has now gone to meet his deserved death. There are ropes in Rothesay for all who dare to disobey me!”

“Coward!” muttered one of the men of Colonsay, rising and passing out of the hall, “think you that you alone could understand that man? I heard his answer, and by my sword, I mean to act upon it;” and thereupon they all stood up and followed, taking their arms and leaving Thorolf alone beside the fire.

Later on that evening, when Sir Piers de Currie with the friars of St. Blane’s were sitting quiet in the abbey refectory, when the Lady Adela and the mothers of Bute were busy putting the little ones to sleep, Earl Kenric was walking to and fro in front of the gate of the Circle of Penance. He carried his naked sword in his arms, and he wore the heavy chain armour that had not been put aside for four long days. He was very weary, for he had had a long day’s fighting, and no sleep had he known since the night of his adventure in Gigha.

He was thinking now of all that had passed, and of the many men, his companions and faithful vassals, who now lay dead. Also he was wondering what had become of the wild girl Aasta. She had done many things for which he owed her deep gratitude. Not only had she given him the great sword of Somerled, with which he had done so much in defence of his people; but it was she who had warned him of the coming of the enemy; it was she who had gone over with him to Gigha, and made it possible for him to learn the plans of the Norsemen. (She had there saved his life, though Kenric knew it not.) It was she who had told him that the great pirate Rudri was his own evil uncle Roderic. He was accordingly much concerned for her safety, and much troubled in his fear of what had happened to her.

Suddenly, in the midst of his musing, someone passed him like a rush of wind. In the dim evening light he saw Ailsa Redmain.

“Ailsa!” he cried, “where go you? Why do you thus come out here where you know full well that none but men may come?”

“My lord,” said she, “it is little Ronald Campbell that I seek, and his sister Rachel. We cannot find them, and they have not been seen by anyone since evensong. Methinks they must have crept under the gate and so wandered into the grove.”

“Are there no men who could seek the children as well as you? Go back, Ailsa, and let me seek.”

But as he spoke, he heard the sound of children’s laughter from among the birch trees, and, believing that Ailsa was turning back, he ran forward towards the woods.

Now little Ronald Campbell was the same who had picked up Earl Kenric’s gauntlet on the day of his throning on the Great Plain.

Scarcely had Kenric entered the grove when the laughter he had heard was changed into a scream of terror. Little Ronald, dragging his sister by the hand, came running towards him, pursued by a score of savage Norsemen. Kenric was about to snatch up the children in his arms when he saw it was too late. The Norsemen were upon him. He gripped his sword and stood his ground. At the same moment Ailsa Redmain brushed past him and took the little Ronald by the hand. One of the men of Colonsay darted forward, levelling his spear, and with its sharp point caught the little Rachel. The child fell down, and the spear was but caught in her woollen frock. In an instant Kenric had leapt forward, swinging his sword in air. His heavy blade crashed into the man’s skull. Then other twenty men surrounded Kenric, menacing him and pressing forward to reach the children he defended. A man of Colonsay caught Ailsa by her hand, and with his dagger was about to take her life. With a great cry of furious rage Kenric sprang upon him and felled him.

Closer still the Norsemen pressed in upon him. But Ailsa lay down at his feet with the two little ones clasped tightly in her arms, protecting them as a moor hen protects her chicks under the cover of her spreading wings. Kenric, sweeping his blade from right to left, felled every man who came within a couple of paces of Ailsa, until at last the yelling warriors drew back, leaving the young earl standing in the midst of a circle of dead men, with Ailsa and the two children still unscathed.

Then as the enemy, reinforced by many of their comrades from among the trees, and ranking themselves shoulder to shoulder, drew in again, suddenly a shower of arrows poured upon them, and a troop of the men of Bute rushed forward from their ambush.

From another direction a warrior on horseback appeared and crashed in among the Norsemen, felling them with mighty strokes of his heavy battle-axe. Then followed such a slaughter of the Norsemen that in a few minutes not one was left alive.

The warrior on horseback threw his battle-axe upon the ground, and drawing rein, sat upon his saddle with folded arms, and Kenric saw by his armour that he too was one of the enemy, and he marvelled much.

The men of Bute were now eager to make an end of that stranger, for they thought that he was the leader of the men who had thus attempted to surprise the guard and make inroads upon the abbey. But, seeing the man sitting so calm upon his horse and unarmed, they lowered their weapons.

This stranger horseman was Thorolf the captain, who had followed his rebel guards with intent to intercept them.

“Young man,” said he to Kenric, “I know not who you are, but by the circle of dead men now lying about you, and by the prowess whereby you have saved the lives of these three children, I judge that you can be none other than the young king of Bute.”

“That, sir, is so,” said Kenric, wiping his sword upon a mossy stone and sheathing it. “And who are you, my master?”

“The captain of these rebel scoundrels — Thorolf Sigurdson of Benbecula,” said the warrior, uncovering his head of ruddy curls. “I have been left warden of the castle of Rothesay by Rudri Alpinson; and now do I swear on mine honour, my lord, that this matter that hath just befallen is none of my doings, for I would fain have prevented it. But ’tis but an hour ago that one of your islanders was brought in a prisoner to Rothesay, and it was he who betrayed the harbourage of your people.”

“Who was that man?” asked Kenric with wrathful voice.

“His name, my lord, was David Blair. He is now, for his betrayal, dangling at a rope’s end from the western tower of Rothesay Castle.”

“Well have you served him,” said Kenric; “and now for your courtesy I thank you, Thorolf Sigurdson.”

Then Kenric bade Ailsa Redmain return with the two children to the abbey.

“And now,” he added, turning to the captain, “since you are here I would beseech you to grant me a few days’ truce, that we may have time to bury our dead.”

“For the matter of that,” said Thorolf, “I would willingly extend the truce until the return of Rudri. For there are, if I mistake not, many matters to attend to beyond the burial of the slain. The men of Colonsay, as I hear, have played sad havoc with your homesteads, and it were well that these were put again into decent repair.”

“Your terms are more favourable than I had hoped for,” said Kenric, “and I well see that you are a man of honour.”

“My lord,” said Thorolf, “much do I commend and admire you for what you have done in protecting your islanders. That protection, I do assure you, was much needed, for had your people remained in their homes not one of them would now have been alive. But I swear that they are henceforth safe from all further peril. And now, for my own curiosity alone, I would ask you how it happened that you were so timely warned of the danger that threatened you, my lord?”

Kenric told how William MacAlpin had come to Bute, and how he himself had spied upon the council of King Hakon in Gigha.

“Ah, then, ’twas you who slew the young son of John of Islay?” cried Thorolf, though not in anger. “The lad was found dead on the very rock you speak of.”

“Not so,” said Kenric; “I slew him not. And ’tis now for the first time I hear that he is dead.”

“But you had companions?”

“A girl was indeed with me. But — ah, surely Aasta cannot have done this thing?”

“Aasta? That is a Norse name. Well, ’tis no business of mine,” said the captain; “and now will I return to Rothesay well content that your people have received no greater injuries than they now suffer at the hands of my friends your enemies. Give you goodnight, my lord.”

“By my faith, a right honest man!” said Kenric as Thorolf rode away.

“And a good Christian, if I mistake not,” said the abbot, who had heard the conversation.

“Ay, and a gallant soldier to boot,” added Allan Redmain. “But for his turning upon those ruffians, methinks it would have gone ill with Kenric and my sister Ailsa.”

“God be thanked for our escape,” murmured the abbot. “And now, if Roderic and his crew come not back over soon, all may yet go well with us. At sunrise we will all set forth with picks and shovels and give a true Christian burial to both friend and foe alike. And God rest their souls, one and all.”

CHAPTER XXVII. THE BATTLE OF LARGS.

Two weeks of gloomy weather passed, with clouded skies and fitful winds. During that time nothing was heard in Bute of either Roderic the Rover or King Hakon of Norway. Kenric and his men, with the priests of St. Blane’s, made busy work in burying the dead. Also, they got all their shipmen and fishers, farm workers and shepherds, to build up the devastated cottages and farmsteads, and one by one these dwellings again received their wonted inmates. The villages of Rothesay, Ardbeg, Kames, Ascog, and other settlements in the island had been roughly handled by the invaders, and many farms had been despoiled. But for the greater part the shells of the houses had been left standing, and there were many hands to make light work of restoring them.

The Lady Adela of Rothesay, Lady Grace de Currie, Ailsa Redmain, and the women of Rothesay Castle took up their quarters in the nunnery attached to the barony of St. Blane’s, for none would return to the castle while yet a Norseman remained therein; and Kenric had passed his word that he would not attempt to regain possession of his stronghold until the kings of Norway and Scotland had settled their dispute.

On the last day of September Sir Piers de Currie, Kenric, and Allan — now Sir Allan Redmain, for the knighthood of Scotland was hereditary — were walking over from Ascog, when, looking towards the seaboard between Arran and the Cumbraes, they observed a great fleet of ships, with many flags flying from their masts, making across the Clyde. A hundred and fifty war galleys there were in all.

“The saints protect us!” cried Allan. “What means all this?”

“‘Tis even as I expected,” said Kenric. “They are the ships of Hakon of Norway, who now intends to invade the mainland.”

“Then, if this be indeed so,” said Sir Piers, “methinks it is now our place to be following under the banner of our sovereign. Too long have we already delayed. To your ships, Kenric! To your ships this very hour! Muster your men and let us at once hasten over to Cunningham, for, if I mistake not, King Alexander must even now be marching to the coast. ‘Tis but small help that we can offer, but let it not be said that we shirked our duty in the hour of Scotland’s need.”

“Go, Sir Allan,” said Kenric, “hasten to the headland of Garroch and there blow me on your horn the call to arms. Not long will our men be in answering that summons.

“And now, Sir Piers, to you do I resign the command of our forces. Give us your directions and we will promptly obey.”

“Let every man who can draw a longbow, or wield pike or sword, be sent upon the ships,” said the knight. “At noon, when the tide is at the half flood, we set sail for Gourock.”

“Gourock?”

“Even so. The bay of Gourock is our best shelter, and thence we can march southward towards Largs, or to whatsoever spot the enemy determine to make their landing place.”

“‘Tis well,” said Kenric.

“And furnish me with the best horse you can find,” added Sir Piers, “for ’tis on horseback that I would fight.”

So at noon that day seven galleys hove anchor in the bay of Kilchattan, with each a company of seven score men; in all a thousand gallant islanders sailed that day from Bute. Creeping up the shores of the island, past Kerrycroy and Ascog, they steered across by Toward Point. And by this time the fleet of King Hakon had disappeared into the channel that flows between the two Cumbrae islands.

As Kenric’s ships crossed the Clyde a drizzling rain came on, and the wind began to blow in fitful gusts from the southwest. But they reached the safe harbour of Gourock without mishap, and there cast anchor.

That night the half moon that shone dimly through the scudding clouds lay on her back, with a great circle of light around her, betokening stormy weather.

The next morning, which was the 1st of October, was cold and windy. Sir Piers ordered his troops ashore, leaving but a few shipmen to watch the galleys. Landing amidst a shower of heavy hail he was met by a party of mounted Scots clad in complete mail, who told him that King Alexander had already started from Lanark with fifteen hundred mounted men-at-arms.

Sir Piers marshalled his islanders in order and gave the word to march, and ever as they moved southward they were joined by the villagers and parties of sturdy fighting men.

Kenric and Allan, with Duncan Graham at their side, marched afoot, for both were wont to feel ill at ease in the saddle. Nevertheless Allan cast many an envious glance at the gallant knight who led them. Sir Piers was clothed in the most beautiful suit of armour that had ever been seen in that time. His horse was a powerful Spanish jennet that had belonged to Earl Hamish of Bute, and it was protected by a heavy breastplate and flank armour. The rider was splendidly armed from head to foot, his helm and coat of mail being inlaid with gold. At his left side there hung a long claymore, longer by three inches than Kenric’s great sword. In his right hand he held a ponderous battle-axe of solid brass, and from his pommel there hung a spiked mace whose head was as large as the head of a man. His belt was studded with precious stones. Not in all his army had King Alexander a stronger or nobler warrior than Sir Piers de Currie; nor had he one, either strong or weak, who had a deeper hatred against the Norse invaders, for they had burnt down his castle of Ranza, and by them had his own uncle’s castle of Brodick been razed to the ground and his uncle slain. He was to fight that day for his beautiful wife and his children, for the possession of his estates, for his revenge against his enemies, and for his King and country; and none who saw him could have doubted that he would prove a most valiant and powerful antagonist.

Kenric had on his crested helm of brass, and wore a shirt of steel mail. His knees and arms were bare, showing his firm muscles and the suntanned skin; on his feet he wore buskins of double hide, and his legs were protected by brass greaves. Over his back his longbow was slung beside his full arrow sheaf. At his right side was his dirk, at his left the sword of Somerled. On his arm he carried a small round shield studded with nails, though this was more an encumbrance than a defence, since his sword required the use of his two hands, and the shield might only be employed as a protection against arrows fired from a distance.

Sir Allan Redmain was attired in like manner. As to their islanders, some few of them of the better condition — as Duncan Graham and Ronald Gray — wore shirts of mail, but the larger number, so far from desiring armour when they came to close quarters with the enemy, even threw their plaids aside and fought in their shirts, bare legged, bare armed, bare headed. Many of them carried bows and arrows; all had either claymores or pole-axes, with daggers and targets.

They had marched some ten miles southward through the sheltered glens of Noddsdale when, mounting to the ridge of the range of hills that rise above the shores of Cunningham, they were met by a keen icy wind from the southwest. Below them stretched the wide Firth of Clyde, turbulent, angry with foam-capped waves. Far across the water rose the giant mountains of Arran, with their tattered peaks frowning in dark-blue blackness against the leaden sky, and through a rent in the clouds a long beam of sunshine shot, slanting down for a moment upon the soft green hills of Bute. On the nearer side were the two islands of Cumbrae, with a strip of gray sea between them, where lay the storm-tossed galleys of King Hakon the Old.

These ships, which during the night had taken shelter in the harbour that is now named Millport Bay, were already making for the shores of the mainland below the village of Largs, for it was at this point that the Norse king had determined to land his invading forces.

Largs was not a spot which a modern general would have chosen for an invasion. It was ill suited for troops forming in strength after landing. There is a narrow strip of level ground, with bluffs rising right up from it. Troops marching along this strip, either north or south, would be flanked by the higher ground for many miles. To attempt to pass through any of the ravines which pierce the range of hills would have been perilous. Nevertheless Hakon had chosen this landing place.

“Methinks,” said Sir Piers de Currie, as he watched the Norse galleys battling with the waves, “that our work is already half accomplished. Should the wind rise yet higher no easy task will Hakon find it to land his men on that lee shore.”

“Had I been he,” said Kenric, “it is not thus that I would have lingered among the isles ere I made a descent upon the mainland. Had Hakon pressed onward with all his forces, instead of despatching a squadron here and a squadron there for useless plundering, had he made straight for Scotland while yet the fair weather continued, and while yet King Alexander was unaware of his approach, he might even have made a successful conquest.

“But look eastward yonder across the hills at the fair troop of Scots advancing in battle array. Look down upon the plain of Largs, where a good two thousand men are waiting ready. Soon will King Alexander himself be here with his cavalry from Lanark. By my faith, the Norseman will have a warmer welcome than he looks for!”

“Let us then hasten downward,” said Sir Piers, “that we may have a taste of the battle before the elements have entirely robbed us of our foe.”

Troop after troop of Scots marched onward toward Largs. From Ayr they came, from Renfrew, Dumbarton, Stirling, Turnberry, and many another stronghold that had been warned of the enemy’s nearness by means of beacon fires on the highest hilltops.

But of the forces that were making ready to meet them the Norsemen knew little. They were at present too much engaged in attending to the safety of their ships, and not any of them could make a landing that day. The wind rose higher, the tempest increased in fury, and at nightfall there came a deluging storm of hail and rain which continued until late next morning.

For this the Scots cared little. Curling themselves up with their plaids about them they slept soundly upon the heather, undisturbed by the howling of the wind and the raging of the waves upon the rocky shore. But with the invaders it was far from being such an easy matter. Their anchors dragged. Many vessels had to have their masts cut away. King Hakon’s own gallant ship, although secured by seven anchors, was driven from her moorings, and five galleys were cast ashore.

And now when the tempest seemed to threaten the total destruction of their enemies, a mixed multitude of armed Scots on the surrounding heights watched every movement of the Norwegian fleet, ready to take instant advantage of its distress. So, when the five galleys with their armed shipmen were driven ashore, Sir Piers de Currie and the men of Bute rushed down from the heights and attacked the stranded vessels. Whereupon the Norsemen defended themselves with great gallantry.

The rest of the fleet were presently seen beating up the channel towards Largs, and, as the tempest had lulled, reinforcements soon landed in such numbers that the Scots were forced to retire towards the heights.

At sunrise King Hakon himself came ashore with a force of three thousand men, ordering an advance towards the higher ground. At the moment when the marching order was given the army of King Alexander appeared upon the hilltop. The sun’s rays breaking through the ragged clouds sparkled upon spears and cuirasses. The cavalry made a noble appearance. Most of them were knights and barons from the neighbouring counties, armed from head to heel, and mounted on Spanish horses which were clothed in complete armour. With this troop of fifteen hundred horsemen was a vast body of foot soldiers.

Seeing all this, Sir Piers de Currie no longer hesitated to renew his engagement. Rallying his men he began to skirmish with the advance of the Danes and Norwegians. He pressed on both flanks with so much fury that, fearing they would be cut to pieces — as many were — the enemy began a retreat which soon changed into a flight. King Hakon and many of his best fighting men scrambled into the boats and pushed off into the safety of the deeper water, regaining their ships.

Everything now depended upon the landing of reinforcements. But at this critical moment a violent storm of hail came on; the wind rose again with such strength that it completed the ruin of many of the ships. In the midst of the fighting on land there was a still more furious battle upon the waves. Galley after galley was driven upon the rocks, and their crews had little spirit for meeting their overpowering enemies.

Between the anger of the elements and the ceaseless showers of arrows from the Scots, their army was greatly distressed. Their leaders, too, began to desert them, and in their frantic efforts to escape they overcrowded the boats, many of which went down.

Sir Piers de Currie now drew up his men in line on the hillside, and left them in charge of Allan Redmain and Kenric. Then he rode to meet the King, whose troops had by this time descended to the level ground.

“So, then, Sir Piers,” said Alexander, whose tall figure, as he sat on his brown jennet, was almost wholly covered by a great cloak — “so you have arrived before us? And are we then to have no share in this adventure? ‘Tis passing unfriendly in you thus to dismiss our enemy ere we have seen his face. Tarry awhile and let them land again. Our horsemen here are like hounds straining at the leash. What men have you, Sir Piers?”

“A few hundred peasant lads, your Majesty, and some eight hundred men of Bute,” said the knight.

“And are there then none cf your own men of Arran?”

“Alas, sire, these Norse dogs have left me but a handful of followers, for my uncle has been slain, and our four castles have been taken. Our islanders have taken refuge among the mountains. I and my family, who, by God’s grace, escaped, have been these two weeks past in Bute, where Earl Kenric has most heroically saved the lives of many hundreds of your loyal subjects. ‘Tis true he has lost his castles of Rothesay and Kilmory, but –“

“Kenric of Bute has done well,” said the King. “We have already heard of all that he has done for the people of Bute. It was from one of his own messengers that we first heard of Hakon’s arrival on our coasts. Kenric shall not be forgotten. Our only regret is that he did not put an end to that villainous outlaw his uncle. But there may yet be hope that Roderic is in the field this day. So we pray you, Sir Piers, should you encounter him, deal him his death blow, and you shall have our eternal gratitude. And now to your work, and God defend the right.”

Then as Sir Piers rode off to rejoin his troops, the King turned to a stalwart warrior at his side and bade him show King Hakon a lesson in defence. This warrior was Alexander the high steward of Scotland, a man bred in the use of arms, and, next to Sir Piers de Currie, the most valiant soldier that fought in that field. And with him rode three good English knights who were of the court of Alexander. With a full company of cavalry he rode across the plain and took up his position with Sir Piers de Currie.

During this interval the hailstorm had abated, and the Norsemen had again effected a landing in great numbers under the chiefs Ogmund Kraekidantz and Haffling of Orkney.

Sir Piers de Currie and the steward rode forward side by side, attempting in the chivalrous style of the time to provoke an encounter. But none would take this challenge, so Sir Piers rode back. Then the steward, riding in front of the ranks of the enemy who were drawn up along the beach, was speedily surrounded. Spurring his charger, he dashed forward, and wielding his great battle-axe he struck down the opposing Norsemen as the waving wheat falls before the sickle, leaving a row of slain men in his track.

The Norsemen then rushed forward with loud cries to meet the troops of peasants and men of Bute who charged them. But the horsemen galloped in between and drove the enemy along the shore. The fair-haired warriors of the North again and again rallied and behaved with the accustomed bravery of their viking ancestors, fearless of wounds and glorying in warlike death.

Many galleys were then brought nearer inshore, and though assailed by heavy stones from the Scots’ machines and ceaseless showers of arrows, their men scrambled upon the beach. And now Sir Piers de Currie again rode forward, followed by Kenric, Allan Redmain, Duncan Graham, many men of Bute, and others of Lanark and Ayr. This was the one sortie of the engagement that was in the nature of a real battle. In numbers the two sides were almost equal.

Sir Piers was met by five Norse chiefs, and he encountered them with fierce courage. One by one he felled them to the ground, cleaving their brass helms with his heavy axe. And ever as they fell their places were taken by as many others. At his horse’s left side fought Kenric, Allan, and Duncan; Kenric swinging his great sword and smiting right and left at those who tried to reach the horseman, Allan and Duncan in like manner fighting with steady blows. And thus they pressed their way ever farther into the ranks of the enemy, moving with Sir Piers, backward or forward, and defending his left side as he slew his assailants on his right.

Kenric heard the gallant knight’s panting breath growing weaker.

“To the other side, Duncan,” he cried. And Duncan Graham worked round behind the horse’s tail to relieve Sir Piers of some of his foes who pressed upon him. Not long had he changed his position when Kenric saw the horse swerve and fall. A deep groan from Sir Piers was all that told of the terrible wounds he had received.

The Norwegian chronicle recording this fight says that Sir Piers de Currie was killed by a blow which severed his thigh from his body, the sword cutting through the greaves of his armour and penetrating to the saddle. Howbeit the brave Sir Piers was slain, and the man who slew him was the outlaw Roderic MacAlpin.

Duncan Graham, seeing who had done this thing, at once closed with Roderic, and the two fought with terrible vigour.

Now Duncan, ever since he had received that wound in his chest over at Coll, had lost the power to raise his right arm above his head, and it went ill with him. When Kenric, rushing to Sir Piers de Currie’s right side, first saw his enemy, Roderic was in the act of smiting a fearful blow upon Duncan’s bare and outstretched neck. Duncan fell, not even uttering a groan, so speedily fatal was the blow he had received.

But above the clang of the battle and the thunderous surging of the waves, there rose at this moment into the air a woman’s cry of anguish. It was the cry of Aasta the Fair.

Wearing the same coat of mail and helmet that she had worn at the siege of Rothesay, and wielding a light broadsword, she had been fighting with as fearless bravery as any man there present. She had cloven her way through the battling men to the place where rose the towering head of her lover Duncan, and arrived at his side at the very moment when the sword of Roderic smote him down. Splashed with her lover’s blood she gripped her sword, nor paused to see if Duncan were indeed dead. She leapt with a wolf-like howl upon Roderic MacAlpin, and so pressed him with her blows that he stepped back and back.

The maid, though strong, was ill-trained in the use of the sword, and her every blow was skilfully parried. But to Aasta’s side came Kenric, his eyes gleaming with fierce hatred of his foe. They were now at the very verge of the sea, and the spray from the surging billows fell upon them like heavy rain. Roderic struck at Aasta, muttering a curse, and Kenric in parrying that blow missed his chance. He saved Aasta’s life, but before he could recover his weapon, Roderic had quickly turned round and plunged into the foaming waves.

Promptly did Kenric thrust his sword between his knees and take his longbow from over his shoulder. Aasta as promptly handed him an arrow. He saw Roderic standing waist deep in the breakers sheathing his sword. He levelled an arrow at his throat, but quickly as the arrow flew Roderic raised his shield. The dart plunged into the hard board. Another and another arrow followed with the same result. Then Roderic, throwing himself into the deeper water, and holding his shield to defend his bare neck, swam outward towards the ships.

No other man in all that host could have breasted those great waves without being dashed to pieces on the rocks. But Roderic MacAlpin was as much at home in the water as upon the dry land, and though Kenric believed that he had but preferred a watery grave to being hacked to death by sword or axe, yet Roderic reached his ship in safety and lived to fight another day.

Kenric, returning with Aasta from the beach, found Allan Redmain, surrounded by many men of Bute, fighting still. There was a great sword cut across his cheek, but his strong arms waved about him unceasingly, smiting down at every blow one of the fair-haired warriors of the North. Then Kenric joined in the fray, swinging his trusty blade to right, to left, and forcing his way to Allan’s side, where he stood his ground over the dead body of Sir Piers de Currie.

That good knight’s splendid armour had caught the eyes of his covetous foes, who were also enraged at the thought of the many doughty Norsemen who had fallen under his mighty blows. Twelve of their best men were victims of his well-wielded battle-axe, and of the twelve were the Norse barons Ogmund Kraekidantz, Thorlang Bosi, Paul Soor, Andrew Nicholson, and King Hakon’s own nephew, Hakon of Steini, all of them most gallant and brave warriors.

But not less enraged were the Scots on their side at the death of Sir Piers, whose body now became the centre point of battle. The Norsemen strove to gain possession of his armour, and piece by piece they carried it away. But ever the Scots bore down upon their foes. Swords, pikes, and axes dripped with the crimson drops of battle, arrows and heavy stones fell in the midst of the contending forces; the groans of the wounded, the lusty shouts of the deep-throated combatants sounded loud above the raging of the wind and the thunderous beating of the waves.

Very soon the foemen shrank away, leaving a great gap in their lines through which the Scots cavalry charged, driving the Norsemen to their ships, or forcing them into the turbulent sea.

At the head of the cavalry rode the Scottish King with his valiant steward at his side. But little did the horsemen do, for the enemy, already routed by the defenders, and further dispersed by the tempest of wind and hail, gave up the fight. Many scrambled upon their boats and pushed off from land, and very soon there was scarce a living Norseman to be seen upon the strand.

The steward of Scotland then drew up his forces to the heights, where they formed anew. There they remained for many hours in the shelter of the woods, for the storming of the elements was terrible to behold.

Towards evening the tempest lulled and the Norsemen, still undaunted, again ventured ashore in vast numbers, landing their boats through a tremendous surf. These new troops, led by Roderic MacAlpin and Haffling of Orkney, attacked the Scots upon two points, making a desperate charge, and with such success that they killed many and drove the whole army back into the farther valley. But here the Scots suddenly halted. Their left wing wheeled round, and taking the invaders in their rear they speedily brought to an end that battle of Largs.

The relics of this brave body of invaders, with their two leaders, again embarked in their boats, and although the storm continued, safely arrived at the fleet. The remaining ships of Hakon were woefully shattered; they drove from their anchors, many were stranded on the shore, others struck against shallows and rocks, or found equal disaster by running foul of each other.

The next morning presented a beach covered with dead bodies and a sea strewn with wreckage.

King Hakon himself had never so much as drawn his sword. His barons and officers had urged him to remain on board his ship. Defeated, and dismayed at his manifold disasters, he called for a truce for the burial of his dead, and five days were spent by friend and foe in consort in raising above the graves of the fallen warriors those rude memorials the traces of which still remain to mark the field of battle.

Of the twenty thousand followers of the Norse king scarcely as many hundreds remained alive, and of his splendid fleet but a score of dismantled galleys were left afloat to carry back the defeated invaders to their several homes.

Crossing to the outer seas, Hakon gathered about him the few pirate chiefs who had joined him in the hope of plunder, and upon them he bestowed as rewards for their service the islands of which he had made imaginary conquest. He gave the isle of Arran to Earl Margad, who had invaded it, and upon Roderic MacAlpin he bestowed the isle of Bute. These chiefs, however, did not at once take possession of their estates, but remained on the ships that they might help to replenish the exhausted provisions of the fleet by forcible contribution from the isles.

King Hakon now felt the vast change that had come over his armament during the few weeks since he sailed down among the Western Isles, conquering and winning to his side the island princes as vassals of his flag. He returned as a baffled invader, and encountered many severe rebuffs from the islanders as well as further disasters from the winter storms. The fatigues of that expedition and his bitter disappointments sank deep into his old heart, and never again did he see the home that he had left. Landing in Orkney on the 29th of October, he remained in the palace of Kirkwall, and there died a broken-hearted man.

So concluded this memorable expedition against Scotland, which began with high hopes, but ended only with disaster and the death of its royal leader. No more did the sons of the vikings attempt to take their stand upon the Western Isles.

Alexander III, freed from a restless and powerful enemy, could look forward to a continuance of peace and prosperity. But he lost no time in following up the advantages he had gained from the engagement at Largs. In the following year he sent a strong military force against those unfortunate chiefs who during the late expedition had remained faithful to Hakon. Some of the island kings were executed; all were reduced.

Three years afterwards, in 1266, the disputes with Norway were finally settled by a formal treaty with Magnus IV, Hakon’s son, who agreed to yield to Scotland for ever after, all right and sovereignty over the Isle of Man and the Western Isles, specially reserving Orkney and Shetland to the crown of Norway.

In the year 1281 a bond of friendship was established between the two nations by the marriage of the Scottish princess Margaret, daughter of Alexander III, to Eric of Norway, the grandson of Hakon the Old. It was the daughter of this marriage, Margaret the Maid of Norway, whose sad death in 1290 brought about the disputes of Bruce and Baliol, and led to the great war of Scottish Independence.

CHAPTER XXVIII. AASTA’S SECRET MISSION.

Since the invasion of Bute, when Elspeth Blackfell’s cottage had been laid in ruins, Aasta the Fair had taken up her abode with the old woman in a little cave that may still be seen opening out upon the wooded heights above Ascog Bay.

On an evening in late December the maiden sat in this cave. Her fair head, with its long flowing hair, was resting in her hands, and her deep blue eyes were fixed upon the glow of a peat fire that burned in the middle of the chamber, and reflected its warm light upon the deerskin curtain at the entrance. From without came the soughing of a bitter east wind that blew in biting gusts across the Clyde.

The three months that had passed since the battle of Largs had brought but little joy into Aasta’s lonely heart. The destruction of the castle of Kilmory, and the coming of winter, had deprived her of her daily occupations upon the farm lands, and her work would not be renewed until Allan Redmain had rebuilt his castle and spring had softened the frozen fields. The frosts and snows had brought many hardships; food was scarce, and life in that rocky cave had few comforts. More than all, Duncan Graham, whom she had hoped to wed, was dead — slain in battle by the sword of the outlaw Roderic. Aasta almost felt that she had rather have been slain at her lover’s side than live longer without him in a world that offered her so little joy.

But in her despair for herself she yet was comforted by the knowledge that the Earl Kenric had been spared to his people, and that the Norsemen had finally left him in possession of his castle and lands. It was of Kenric that she was now thinking as she sat before the fire. Ever since that night in September, when she had journeyed with him to Gigha, she had felt a strange, close sympathy with him, an affection for him that was stronger than any other feeling she had ever known. Kenric’s peaceful happiness was the one thing that she yearned for.

But now, when she had thought such happiness was surely before him, an unexpected danger had suddenly arisen. Roderic the Rover was still alive. The battle which had brought about the death of so many of his companions had spared him. The raging elements that had destroyed so many of the ships had left Roderic’s galley unharmed. He had voyaged into the far north with the defeated King Hakon, and after Hakon’s death he had returned to Gigha. On any day he might be expected again in Bute.

Aasta had just heard this unwelcome news from a fisherman who had come ashore at Ascog, and she was questioning in her mind how she might profit by the occasion and, unknown to Kenric, go secretly over to Gigha and compass the death of this powerful enemy of Bute. She hated Earl Roderic as the cushat hates the nighthawk, and if by some subtle means she could bring him to his death, then might she deem herself fortunate indeed, and her own life not wholly thrown away by a sacrifice that would be the means of ensuring lasting happiness to the lord of Bute.

A new light beamed in her large eyes as she determined at all hazards to attempt this thing.

Presently she rose from her little wooden stool and took down a heavy cloak that she threw about her shoulders. Then from under a sheepskin mat she drew forth a long sharp dirk, which she placed in her leathern belt. She went further into the cave and put some bread cakes into her wallet. Then drawing aside a curtain that shut off a side chamber in the rocky walls, she held up a lighted cruse lamp and looked for a few silent moments upon the sleeping form of Elspeth Blackfell.

“Fare you well, Elspeth,” she murmured softly. “It may be that I shall never see you again — no, never again. But God will reward you for the great goodness you have shown to your poor Aasta. Fare you well.”

As she sighed and dropped the curtain she turned to leave the cave, and there crept towards her the gaunt form of a great dog wolf, upon whose breast there was a patch of pure white hair. The animal lazily stretched himself and yawned, showing his long red tongue and his white fangs. Aasta bent down and patted his shaggy coat.

“No, Lufa, it is alone I go. Get back to your corner,” she said coaxingly.

The animal turned tail, and with the obedience of a tame dog went back into the darkness and lay down on his mat of sheepskin, while Aasta, drawing her cloak about her, slipped silently out into the clear twilight and faced the keen east wind.

Turning along a narrow path that led upward to the head of the bank, she followed the course of a little stream whose pure water was now turned into icy crystals. As she gained the level height the wind blew her hair about her pale and beautiful face. She drew her hood over her head and turned inland. To the south the giant fells of Arran, shrouded in snow, stood out white and distinct against a steel-blue sky, with the wan moon above them. But the ground that Aasta trod was bare and hard, and the drifted snow lay only in the deeper hollows crisp as ice. She crossed the Great Plain beside the Seat of Law, until she came to the wooded shores of Loch Ascog. She observed that the ruffled water of the little lake was of a deep blue, and she thought of the weird belief of that time which held that those waters claimed once every year a new victim, and that they only assumed that dark-blue colour in token of a coming death.

She looked upon Ascog Mere with a superstitious dread, for the people of Bute believed that it was a place of punishment for unhappy spirits, who might often be heard wailing in the dismal morass about its margin. She heard such a wailing even now, though perhaps it was but the whistling of the wintry wind among the frozen reeds, or the tinkling of the ice that was gathering in a film at the water’s verge.

Hastening her steps, she sought the shelter of the tall fir trees, and made her way to the southern point of the lake that she might reach the western shores of the island, and so take a fisher’s boat across to Gigha by the same easy course that Kenric had taken with her three months before. The journey must now be taken alone, for she meant that the vengeful work she contemplated should be secret, and that Earl Kenric should be rid of his dangerous enemy without knowing by whom or by what means Roderic had been slain.

Scarcely had Aasta emerged from among the trees and crossed towards the lake when she heard the beating of footsteps upon the hard ground. She stood still and listened. Nearer and nearer the footsteps advanced, and presently at the top of a bald knoll in front of her there appeared the tall figure of a man. He was covered by a seaman’s great cloak, which he held partly over his face to shield him from the cutting wind. He came rapidly towards her, and when they were but a few paces apart he drew back his cloak, revealing his long red beard.

“Roderic of Gigha!” cried Aasta recoiling a step and feeling for her dirk, as she recognized the man she had set out to slay.

“Ay, Roderic it is,” said he smiling grimly. “And methinks, fair damsel, that you are the very same who so cunningly escaped from my ship over at Arrochar — the same also who fought so bravely against me at Largs. By the saints, my pretty one, but you are a most courageous maiden; much do I admire you, and fain would I know you better.

“Nay, be not afraid of me,” he added as he saw her draw back from him, “I will not hurt you.

“What wicked schemes, my lord, have brought you yet again to Bute?” asked Aasta, making pretence to be very calm, and thinking that by seeming to yield to his humour she might be the better able presently to use her dirk.

“If you must know,” said he as he stepped aside to the leeward of a great rock, “I come hither to see the old witch Elspeth Blackfell, to reproach her for her false prophecy. Where lives the old hag these wintry days?”

“In the cave of Ascog, if you know that place,” said Aasta, promptly deciding how she might entrap him there, and knowing full well that the wolf Lufa would be a sufficient protection for Elspeth.

“I know it well,” said Roderic, “and there will I go. And now, how fares the young lord of Bute since he has lost his castles and lands?”

“My lord Kenric’s castles and lands are in no wise lost to him,” said Aasta more boldly.

“How so? Not lost?” cried Roderic in surprise. “Where, then, is Thorolf Sigurdson, whom I left as warden over my isle of Bute?”

“Thorolf Sigurdson, Heaven bless his honest heart! has gone home these many weeks past to Benbecula, and taken his cowardly Norsemen with him.”

“The traitor!” gasped Roderic. “And is the young Kenric again in possession of my castle of Rothesay?”

“The castle of Rothesay was never yours, Earl Roderic, and never shall be,” returned Aasta firmly. “His Majesty of Scots hath given us full protection, and for you to seek to remove Earl Kenric from his rightful lordship were vain. If you value your life, my lord, go not near to Rothesay.”

“Your warnings are useless, bold maiden,” said Roderic with a sneer. “To Rothesay I will surely go, and Kenric, were he the strongest man in all the isles, shall not prevent me from taking my own. I have sworn to bring that whelp to his death, and by St. Olaf he shall die this very night!”

Aasta drew nearer until she stood close enough to touch him. The light of the moon shone upon her beautiful face, and Roderic, standing with his back against the rock, thought that surely she was the fairest woman his eyes had ever beheld.

“My lord,” said she softly, as though she meant to help him to his coveted power, “if this be indeed your intention, methinks ’twere well that you should first reckon with me.”

Her right hand now grasped the haft of her dirk, her left hand was ready to fly at the man’s bare throat.

“Haply I am but a weak woman; yet a woman can ofttimes do that which men would shrink from.”

“Even so,” said he calmly. “And now if you would but help me in this project, I swear to you that I will love you always, and when I am in possession of my lands and castles, I will even make you my wedded wife, and you shall be right happy.”

“Villain!” cried Aasta. Then she flung back her cloak and sprang upon him, seizing his throat and raising her knife to strike it to his heart.

Roderic saw her eyes flash like two fierce fires. He saw her weapon gleaming in the moon’s pale light. With a wild cry of rage he caught her uplifted arm and arrested it.

“Deceitful witch,” he cried, “is it thus that you would help me?”

“Even so,” said Aasta the Fair. “For now your last hour has come. No mercy will I show you, base villain that you are!”

And then they struggled together in each other’s arms, swaying and panting, gripping and twisting, like two furious animals. Aasta held him firmly with her left hand, burying her strong fingers in his thick throat. But at last he freed himself and forced her back. Then with fierce anger he caught her up in his arms and raised her from her feet, and carried her away.

Thereupon Aasta gave forth a loud and piercing cry that sounded far away in the keen winter air.

That cry was heard at the farther side of Loch Ascog, where, in the dingle of Lochly, Allan Redmain was walking northward towards Rothesay. Allan thought at first that it was the cry of some imprisoned spirit in the mere; but again he heard it, and no longer doubted that it was a woman’s voice calling for help. He ran back to the southern point of the lake, and searched in the growing darkness for a sign that might tell him what had happened. Nothing could he see but the bare bleak land with its patches of frozen snow, the dark trees waving in the wind, and the still blue surface of the mere where the frost was swiftly congealing the water into transparent ice. And then he thought that his ears had deceived him.

He went onward to Rothesay over the ever-hardening land. The frost bit sharply. Every stream of water shrank into itself in firm clear ice and grew silent. Allan was full-blooded in his strong manhood, but when he reached the castle gates his fingers, toes, and ears were numb with the intense cold.

Before the blazing fire in the great hall he found Kenric with the Lady Adela and his own sister Ailsa.

Another also was there whose presence made Allan forget the cold. This other was sweet Margery de Currie, the eldest daughter of brave Sir Piers. She blushed as Allan entered, and made room beside her for him to sit down. She took his hands in hers and chafed them into warmth, at which the Lady Adela smiled approval, thinking how brave a pair they made.

Presently the servitors entered and made ready the evening meal. Allan rose and drew Kenric aside.

“Over at Kilmory two hours ago,” said he, “I learned bad news, my lord.”

“What news is that, Sir Allan?” asked Kenric. “Is it that your builders refuse to work in this cold weather? What matters it? Have you not a good home here, where you can see your lady love every day? Have patience, Allan; Margery will wait, and you will be wedded when the springtime comes, and when your castle will be better fitted to receive you –“

“Nay, Kenric, ’tis not such matters as these that trouble me,” said Allan gravely. “The news I speak of is that the rascal Roderic the Outlaw, has, as I believe, returned to Gigha.”

“Roderic in Gigha!” cried Kenric in alarm. “Alas! and I thought him dead. Who told you this thing?”

“A fisherman of Gigha,” said Allan. “But I understood him ill. Methinks we had better inquire of the maid Aasta the Fair, for the fisher spoke with her, and well I wot he told her all.”

“Doubtless,” said Kenric. “And on the morrow I will even seek Aasta and learn from her if this be true. It may be that there still is work for my sword to perform. Well is it that I have not already fulfilled my intention of casting the brave weapon into the sea.”

CHAPTER XXIX. ELSPETH BLACKFELL.

Early on the following morning, which was the last of the year, Elspeth Blackfell awoke to find herself alone in the cave. Aasta was gone; even the wolf Lufa was no longer there, and the fire was dead out. Elspeth with some difficulty kindled the hard dry peats, and went to put some water into the pot to make porridge. The water in the well at the far end of the cave was turned to solid ice. At the cave’s entrance there was a fringe of long icicles hanging like sword blades from the bare rock. All was cold and desolate. The black frost had penetrated everywhere, even, it seemed, to the old woman’s bones, for she moved slowly and bent for many minutes over the little fire vainly trying to bring warmth into her shrivelled limbs.

When at last she was able to put some broken ice into her pot, she went out into the chill open air, climbed the slippery bank, and stood upon the height looking abroad for Aasta. She heard the tread of footsteps crunching upon the hard ground among the neighbouring trees; but the tread was strangely heavy. It was not that of the light-footed maiden.

Elspeth returned into the cave and began to prepare her meal. The sound of the footsteps continued to fall upon her ears; they came nearer. She went to the entrance and drew aside the deerskin curtain. She started back at sight of Roderic the Outlaw.

“You!” she cried, scowling. “What devil’s work now brings you back to Bute? for evil it must surely be that tempts you hither.”

“Cease your croaking, Elspeth Blackfell,” said he, “and give me food. This cold has crept into my very marrow. Quick, give me food.”

Elspeth stood aside and allowed him to enter. He went to the fire and snatched up a burning peat, moving it rapidly from hand to hand, and blowing it into a red glow with his misty breath. Then when he had warmed himself, he took out his dirk and cut up some wood for the fire, making the flames rise high about the pot until the water began to simmer.

Elspeth, without speaking, brought him an oaten cake, which he ravenously devoured. By the time that he had eaten it the water was boiling. He thrust his strong red hand into the bag of oatmeal, and then proceeded to stir the porridge, while the old woman brought wooden bowls and a dish of goat’s milk.

They ate their meal in silence, each eyeing the other with suspicious glances of mutual hatred. Not until he had appeased his hunger did Roderic say more than a few casual words. Elspeth felt herself in his power, for she was alone, a frail and weaponless old woman against a strong healthy man, whose sword might at any moment be flashed forth to her destruction. She waited, anxiously hoping that Aasta would soon return with the wolf.

“And now, Elspeth Blackfell,” said he at last, as he tossed his empty bowl into a corner, “you would know my reason for coming back to Bute, eh? Need you ask it? It is, in the first place, that I may bring my bold nephew Kenric to his account. I am, as you know, a poor defeated warrior. I am tired of battling; I would rest myself awhile. My late sovereign King Hakon of Norway is dead. To Alexander of Scots must I now turn for protection. ‘Tis true he has made me an outlaw; but what of that? Bute is mine, Gigha is mine, and Alexander can ill afford to keep me his enemy. I will turn young Kenric from my lands which he usurps, and I doubt not all will yet go well with me.”

“Methinks,” said Elspeth, “that you will find it no easy matter to turn my lord Kenric from his seat, for Alexander loves him right well, and has assured him of his fullest protection.”

“I care not that much for Alexander or Kenric,” said Roderic, snapping his fingers. “Think you that I mean to wander about, a homeless vagabond, as I have wandered these few weeks past? Not so; Kenric shall die, and by fair means or foul I shall take his place.”

Roderic here stood up to his full height and faced the old woman.

“And now, as to my second motive in returning hither,” said he; “it is to have some words with you –a y, you, Elspeth Blackfell — concerning the false prophecy you made me. When, as I landed over at St. Ninian’s three moons ago, with my gallant warriors, I besought you in your witchery to tell me the true issue of our invasion, you told me — false-tongued hag that you are — that if the first blood that was drawn should be that of a man of Bute, then my Norsemen should be victorious; and if it was that of a Norseman, then the Scots should win the fight. And I believed you. Now it was a lad of Bute that gave the first blood, and yet the Scots are free and the Norsemen are utterly defeated. Explain me this, thou harridan.”

“My lord,” said Elspeth, rising and putting the fire between them, “listen to me. What I said at that time may indeed seem passing strange. But though I claim no power, as you mistakenly think, to see into the future, yet nevertheless the words I spake have come true.”

“True? How so?” cried he, handling his sword.

“The youth you slew, my lord Roderic, was not of Bute,” said Elspeth with a trembling voice. “Ah! you look with surprise! But wait. You knew not what you did; you knew not who it was that you so wantonly slew.”

“What mean you? Who then was this youth? Of what land was he, and what was his name?”

Elspeth paused and stepped nearer.

“His name, my lord, was Lulach, and he was the son of Roderic MacAlpin and Sigrid the Fair.”

“You lie, vile witch, you lie!” cried Roderic, recoiling as he heard her words, and pressing his hands to his brow.

“Not so,” said Elspeth, “the youth you then slew was indeed your own son.”

“God forgive me!” murmured Roderic, sinking to his seat and burying his shaggy head in his hands. “Oh, Lulach, Lulach! my son, my son!”

“Well may you weep, my lord; but methinks your punishment is full well deserved. Better had you obeyed our good abbot, and gone upon the holy pilgrimage; better still had you remained content upon your isle of Gigha, and never sought, in your ambition, to wrest from your brother Hamish the larger inheritance that you coveted. But you slew our good Earl Hamish; you slew his son Alpin. Blame now yourself alone in that your folly led you to slay also your own son Lulach. ‘Twas an evil game you played, my lord, and your punishment is just.”

“Taunt me no more,” said Roderic sullenly. “Taunt me no more. But tell me, if it indeed be that my boy is dead — my dear son Lulach, whom I might have loved all these years had I but known he could be found — tell me, when came he into Bute?”

“Long years ago, my lord, when he was but a child, and at the time when you were roving the seas in pursuit of Rapp the Icelander. Had you, instead of following your life of plundering, but come as a friend and brother to Earl Hamish, it may be that you might have found your boy. ‘Twas not for me to seek you out, or to send Lulach to the home of a father who was no better than a murdering pirate. The lad was happier where he was, even though he lived the life of a poor thrall.”

“Alas! so near, so very near!” murmured Roderic. “And I believed that the kelpie had carried off my bairns, while all the time it was but a few brief miles of sea that divided us!

“My bairns? Ay, there were two. And the other — the girl — what of her? What of my sweet, blue-eyed Aasta?”

“Aasta? She, my lord, is still in life.”

“In Bute?”

“Ay, even in Bute.”

“God be thanked for that!” sighed Roderic. “There is yet some happiness in store for me. Where is she? Where may I see her?”

“This very day may you see her, my lord. Tonight the good abbot of St. Blane’s holds the festival of the New Year. Aasta will be within the chapel.”

“Alas! but I cannot show my face in the company of men,” said Roderic. “I am in hiding as an outlaw, and I am alone and ill-defended.”

“Be, then, upon the headland of Garroch at the midnight hour,” said Elspeth. “Wait there, my lord, and I will send to you either Aasta herself or else a messenger who will tell you all you may wish to know.”

“Right so,” said Roderic; “at midnight on the Garroch Head.”

“And now I beg you, Earl Roderic, go hence from this cave. Go hence to your boat and remain there in hiding; for if it be that the maid, who knows you not as her father, should learn of your presence in Bute, your plans will most surely be frustrated.”

“I will obey you, Elspeth,” said the outlaw, rising.

And forthwith he left the cave.

Elspeth followed him to the heights and watched him journeying southward through the trees. Then when he was out of sight, she went back to the cave and sat down, meditating how she might prevent the meeting she had planned and turn the appointment to a very different account.

She waited for Aasta to return, intending to send the maid at once to Rothesay to warn Earl Kenric that his outlawed uncle was in the island. But as Aasta did not appear before midday, Elspeth took her cloak and staff and prepared to go herself to the castle.

She was putting some new fuel upon the fire, when the curtain at the cave’s entrance was drawn aside, and there she saw Kenric himself. He wore an otter skin cap that covered his ears, and a great cloak of sheepskins.

“Give you good day, my lord,” said the old woman, her eyes brightening as she offered him a seat beside the fire.

“Knew you ever so cold a day as this, Elspeth? By the rood, but the frost bites keenly! And you, how can you live in this cold cell? It grieves me to see you here. Better it were that you came to bide in our castle — you and Aasta. This is no place for a dog to live in in frosty weather. Where is Aasta? ‘Twas her I came to see, for I hear that she has news from Gigha.”

“News indeed, Earl Kenric. But not alone from Gigha. Roderic is even in Bute.”

“In Bute! When came he?”

“Even this morning he was here in this cave. And he has come hither to do you injury, my lord.”

“Doubtless; for when came he to Bute with other intent? Where can I find him?”

“That will I soon tell,” said Elspeth, “and glad I am that so little time has been lost. You will find him, my lord, at midnight on the Garroch Head. Take with you your sword of Somerled, and meeting him, send him speedily to his deserved death. You will not fail. If what I hear of your increased prowess with your weapon be true, assuredly you are now a match even for Roderic MacAlpin.”

“What takes him to Garroch at that dread hour?”

“It is that he expects to meet Aasta.”

“Aasta?”

“Even so, my lord.”

“And wherefore should Roderic have aught to do with the maid?”

“You well may ask,” said Elspeth, “and it is not willingly that I would have them meet. But ’twas the only plan I could devise for getting him from my presence and bringing him to a place where you, my lord, may encounter him. As to Aasta, of her and of Roderic I have something strange to tell.”

Kenric looked up at Elspeth in surprise.

“You are young, my lord,” she continued, and you know not the things that have been. But I am old. Not always has it been with me as you see me now. Time was, my lord, when I, who am now a poor infirm woman, decried as a witch, despised of men, was a fair and joyous young maid. My father was a king –“

“A king?” echoed Kenric.

“Even so. And he had his castle under the Black Fell that is in far-off Iceland. Men named me Elspeth White Arm, and my lord and husband was also a king. He was the noblest and truest of all the monarchs of the North, and he was the lord over the Westermann Islands. We had one child, and we named her Sigrid the Fair.”

“Elspeth, Elspeth, What is this that you are saying?” cried Kenric, partly guessing what was to come.

“Sigrid was a wild and self-willed child,” the old woman continued, fixing her blue eyes on Kenric, “but I loved her well. And on a time — ’tis a full score and four years ago — she disappeared, and we could find her nowhere, until my lord went out upon his ship and boarded the galley of a bold viking of the south whose name was Rudri Alpinson, or, as the Scots called him, Roderic MacAlpin. On Roderic’s galley was Sigrid found; but she would not return, for she loved this man Roderic passing well, knowing little of his evil heart. My lord, in trying to win her back, was slain by Roderic’s hand, and thereupon Roderic carried away my child as his willing captive to his island home in Gigha. There he made her his wedded wife. But not long had my lord been dead, not long had his younger brother taken his place as ruler in our land, when my heart so yearned for my fair Sigrid that I took ship and came south in search of her. By chance I landed upon your father’s isle of Bute, for it was of Bute that Roderic had spoken as the home of his fathers.

“The ship that brought me hither was the ship of my brother, Rapp the Icelander. Him I bade go over to Gigha and fulfil for me my vengeance upon my enemy Roderic, and rescue my daughter. But the people secretly told him that Roderic had been cruel to Sigrid, and that her love for him had vanished as the morning mist. My child had lost her reason, and in her mad despair she had gone out one day and cast herself from the cliffs into the sea. Now Sigrid had left two children, and it was said that they were unhappy. So Rapp, searching for them, with intent to carry them off and bring them to me that I might be revenged upon their father, found them one day playing in a great rock tunnel in Gigha.”

“I know the place,” said Kenric; “’twas there that Aasta –“

“‘Twas there that Rapp the Icelander found Earl Roderic’s bairns, and from thence he carried them off. Those bairns, my lord, were Aasta the Fair and the boy Lulach.”

“Aasta? Lulach?” cried Kenric in astonishment, as he rose and began to pace the rocky floor. “And they were brother and sister? And they were the children of Roderic — my own cousins? This is a strange thing that you are telling me, Elspeth, and I can scarce believe it!”

“‘Tis none the less true, my lord,” said Elspeth.

“And Lulach — it was then his own father who slew him! And it was her own father whom Aasta fought against at Largs!”

“Even so. And pity ’tis that she did not kill him.”

“Pity indeed,” said Kenric. “And now you say that Roderic is in Bute?”

“He is here with intent to slay you, Earl Kenric, in some such subtle way as he slew your good father. But I have told you where he will be at midnight. Go thither, I charge you, and take the Thirsty Sword that Aasta gave you. And may the blood of our enemy Roderic be the last that it will drink.”

CHAPTER XXX. THE BLACK FROST ON ASCOG MERE.

Kenric took old Elspeth back with him to Rothesay, and there, as she would not agree to take up her quarters within the castle, he gave her a little cottage, bidding her remain there in comfort for the rest of her days. As to Aasta the Fair, he had no doubt in his mind that on being told that she was his own cousin, she would yield to him when he asked her to make the castle of Rothesay her home, and he at once besought his mother to make preparations to receive her.

Late in the evening, the moon being at the full, Allan and Ailsa Redmain, with Margery de Currie, set out, attended by two armed guards, for the chapel of St. Blane’s, where midnight mass was to be celebrated for the dying year.

Kenric, less cheerful than his three companions, went with them but a little distance. Leaving them to continue their way through the dingle of Lochly, he branched off eastward towards Ascog. He wended his way across the bare hard land, walking with rapid strides, for the night was bitterly cold, and the wintry wind made his cheeks tingle as he bent before it. Under his sheepskin cloak that he held close about his body, he carried his terrible sword.

He kept to the leeward shelter of the rising ground, but at times he was obliged to cross the ridges of the bare hills, and there the wind, sweeping over the wide moonlit firth, was like the cutting of knife blades upon his face. His breath, that gathered as dew upon the down of his upper lip, was turned to beads of ice. The streams and pools of water had shrunk into solid icy masses, and the earth was unyielding as granite rocks.

Still keeping to the uplands, he at length entered into the woods of Ascog, and walked among the dark trees until he stood above the steep path leading downward to Elspeth’s cave. He descended by the slippery ground, holding on by the dry tree branches.

At the mouth of the cave he stood awhile, stamping his feet that he might be heard. But there was no response. He drew aside the stiff hide curtain and looked within. All was black, cold desolation.

“Aasta? Aasta?” he called. But no voice answered him.

He went inside the cave and felt about for the place where he had seen Elspeth leave the flint and steel. He lighted a rush candle and looked about him. Everything was as he had left it a few hours before. Aasta had not returned. He found, here a little cap, made of gay feathers and squirrel fur, that Aasta was wont to wear; and there a necklace of bright-hued seashells. In a corner there was a pair of small slippers, trimmed with odd bits of coloured silk, and lined with white hare skin, and beside them a girdle of crimson leather.

He looked upon these objects with strange reverence, but did not dare to touch them.

Then he went to the cave’s entrance and stood with his shoulder leaning against the rock, and looking dreamily across the Clyde towards Largs. It was still two hours before midnight, and believing that he was soon to encounter his enemy Roderic in a hand-to-hand combat, he felt a gloomy, melancholy spirit come upon him. If Roderic should overcome him in the fight, how would it be with the people of Bute? They would never be happy under the tyrannical rule of the bold sea rover. What would become of his mother? She would have to leave the castle of Rothesay, and perhaps return, desolate and alone, to England. Sir Allan Redmain, who was now the steward of Bute, would never bend before the man who had brought so much misfortune upon the island. And Aasta, what of her? Would she, who had nursed a hatred against Roderic more bitter even than Kenric’s, would she ever recognize this man as her father, however kind he might be to her? No, no. Kenric knew not a man or woman in all the land who would welcome his uncle as their king. No evil could befall them greater than this.

But if Roderic should fall in the fight, there might follow many, many years of peace and happiness in Bute. Kenric pictured what that happiness might be. He pictured his people living in safe prosperity, with thriving commerce and fruitful farms; himself ruling, with what wisdom or justice he possessed, over a contented and law-abiding people — his mother living to a ripe and happy old age in Rothesay Castle. Sir Allan Redmain, his trusty steward and loved friend, would be wedded to Margery de Currie. Aasta would be happy too; he would love her always as his very dear cousin, and who could tell but that some day, when all her past troubles were forgotten, she might marry some great and good nobleman of Scotland, who would restore her to such dignity as she deserved?

There was another of whom, deep in his heart, Kenric thought very tenderly, and that other was Ailsa Redmain. Both he and she were yet young to think of such matters, but he loved her right well, and in a few years’ time he might even follow the example of her brother Allan and take unto himself a wife. And if Ailsa would yield to him — But he checked himself in his dreams. All this possible good fortune must depend upon the issue of his encounter with Roderic.

Standing there at the mouth of the cave, he felt the sharp frost penetrating his limbs, and he turned away.

Regaining the higher ground he began to run, and soon his feet grew warm. Slackening his pace, he walked down towards Ascog Loch, listening the while for the sounds of Aasta’s footsteps. Elspeth had told him that the maiden would surely return to the cave two hours before midnight. But she had not come. Had some disaster overtaken her? Whither had she gone?

The story that Elspeth Blackfell had told him had sunk deep in his mind. It explained many things that had before been mysteries to him. He saw in it an explanation of why he had been drawn in affection towards Aasta, and why, in spite of her having been a bondmaid, he had recognized that she was of gentle blood. He was glad that he had given her freedom from her thralldom. And now he thought of how she had bestowed upon him the great sword of his noble ancestor, and reflected that king Somerled was in truth Aasta’s ancestor no less than his own. How sweet it was to think of the journey he had gone with her over to Gigha, the home from which as a child she had been carried off with Lulach! It was easy now to understand how she had recognized that rock tunnel through which the little coracle had been paddled. Aasta had thought that she had but seen the place in a dream vision, but haply she had many a time played among those rocky caverns in her infant days.

And now he was going forth with intent to kill Aasta’s father, believing that to be the only means by which Aasta’s happiness and the welfare of his people of Bute and Gigha could be secured. Aasta herself had tried to slay this man; she had fought with him upon the ships at the siege of Rothesay; she had engaged with him hand to hand in the battle of Largs. She did not then know that Roderic was her own parent; but Roderic had done nothing that could have power to change his daughter’s hatred into love, and even if she were now restored to him, would she ever forgive him the injuries he had done?

Kenric turned this question over in his mind, wondering if Aasta would blame him if it should be that he brought her father to his death without first allowing her to speak with him, and for this reason he was ill at ease. But Aasta was nowhere to be found, and Kenric well understood what ills might follow if he missed this chance that Elspeth Blackfell had afforded him of encountering his dread foe.

He was presently upon the shore of Ascog Mere, whose surface was now frozen over with thick clear ice. The black frost of the past night and day had taken into its firm grip the waters of every lake and torrent in the island. Even the distant murmur of the waterfalls of Arran was hushed into silence now, and all around was deathly still. The wind had sunk into a whisper and the few fleecy white clouds up above glided like ghosts across the deep-blue sky. High over the snowy peaks of the Arran mountains the full moon shone like a great silver shield and cast its radiance upon the glassy surface of the lake. The wintry night was almost as light as day, and every rock and tree stood out distinct and black.

Kenric left the uneven ground and stepped upon the thick strong ice, which was so clear at the edge that he could even see the shadowy reeds below. He walked outward with steady steps, and bent his course southward in the shimmering track of the moon’s light. The lake was very deep, but Kenric had no fear, for the ice was many inches thick and his foothold was sure.

As he reached the middle of the lake, where no sound came to him but the regular tread of his soft hide shoes and the tinkling ring of the ice, a feeling of awe came over him. He solemnly remembered that it was the last hour of the passing year — it might also be his last hour upon earth. He was not afraid; but the deadly silence, the wan light of the moon, the piercing cold, his lonely situation upon that shining stretch of ice, and his knowledge that he would soon be engaged in a mortal combat, whose results must determine so much for himself and for his people, oppressed his mind very strangely; nor could he dismiss from his thoughts the surprising things that he had heard that day concerning Aasta the Fair.

Suddenly, as he looked before him towards the shore that he was approaching, he was startled at seeing a black shadow upon the ice. It was as though some human being were lying there. He saw the figure move. Slowly, stealthily it crept towards him. Kenric stood still, taking off his fur gauntlets and putting his hand to his sword. Then the figure crept more rapidly. Nearer and yet nearer it came. He saw now that it was a large animal. Its glistening eyes and long legs showed that it was a wolf.

He drew his sword and went to meet it. The wolf growled as in hungry anger, and crouched down as though preparing to spring upon him. Kenric raised his sword to strike, the wolf bounded forward, and as his weapon was about to descend upon its head the animal swerved. The moon’s light revealed a white patch of hair upon its breast.

Kenric staggered backward, unwilling now to strike.

“Aasta!” he cried. “Aasta? The werewolf?”

At the same moment he loosed his grip of the sword, and the weapon, impelled by the force his arm had given it, flew from his hand, and falling upon the slippery ice skated along for many yards, making a noise like the chirping of a vast flock of finches.

Kenric stepped back yet further and stood ready to meet the wolf, and, if need were, grapple with it. But the animal, startled at the sound made by the sliding sword, ran off towards the shore and quickly disappeared among the shadows of the trees.

What was the meaning of that wolf being there upon the ice? Kenric stood in confused wonderment. And if, as he half supposed, this white-breasted animal was not as other wolves, which fear to tread on ice — if it was in very truth the werewolf form which the wild Aasta had power to assume, why had she not recognized him? Why had she run away? Was it that she had now taken to the cover of the woods, that she might presently reappear in her own maidenly figure? There was something in all this that passed his understanding.

He followed a few paces in the direction taken by the wolf, then, remembering his sword, he turned aside. He looked about upon the clear icy surface for his weapon. The force that his arm had given it had sent it far away towards the margin of the mere, to the same spot, indeed, where the werewolf had first been seen. At last he saw the shining blade lying in the midst of the line of light shed by the bright moon upon the polished ice.

He went towards it and bent down to pick it up. The ice where it lay was smooth and transparent as a sheet of glass, and it seemed to Kenric as he bent over it that he saw in it the reflection of his own face. So distinct were the features that he recoiled in sudden alarm. Then he fell down upon his knees, resting upon his outstretched hands. He fixed his astonished eyes upon the face in the ice. A wild cry escaped him. The face was not his own!

Drawing back for a moment he looked once more at the strange image. The rounded cheeks were white as snow; the eyes were motionless and glassy; the beautiful bloodless lips, slightly parted, revealed a row of pearly teeth. It was the face of Aasta the Fair.

Kenric tried to touch her, to take her in his arms. But the intervening ice inclosed her as in a crystal casket. He saw that the stray locks of her long hair, floating in the clear water, had been caught by the quick frost, and that they were now held within the firm thick ice. Upon her fair white throat there were marks as of a man’s rough fingers. She held her right hand upon her breast, and in its grasp there was a long sharp dirk.

Kenric rose and stood looking down upon the beautiful form of the dead girl. He was as one who had been stunned by a terrible blow. For many minutes he stood there mute and motionless, with folded hands and bowed head. Soon a snowy cloud passed before the moon and cast a dark shadow upon the ice. The imprisoned image seemed to melt away. Yet Kenric knew that what he had seen was no illusion, but that Aasta the Fair lay lifeless in her frost-bound tomb.

Then Kenric thought of his enemy — who was surely Aasta’s enemy even more than his own — and he gripped his sword.

“I will come back,” he murmured sadly as he cast once more a lingering glance upon the now indistinct figure beneath the ice. “I will come back, Aasta. And now, a truce to all fear. Let me now meet this man and slay him, for there is no one who can now mourn for his death. It is right that he should die, for the hour of retribution has surely come!”

CHAPTER XXXI. THE LAST DREAD FIGHT.

Not long was Kenric in covering the few miles between Loch Ascog and Garroch Head. He feared to be too late, for it was already but one short hour before midnight. But his limbs were cold, and he had therefore a double reason for running. Soon, instead of being too cold he became over-hot; his heavy sheepskin cloak oppressed him, and he threw it off, leaving it lying upon the ground. Thus relieved, he slung his sword under his arm and ran on and on past the silent farmsteads, over hard ploughed fields and bare moorland, past the desolate Circle of Penance, and past the little chapel of St. Blane’s, where many islanders were already gathered to join in the New Year service. Then for another short mile beyond the abbey he hastened, until from the rising ground he came in sight of the murmuring, moonlit sea.

Now he slackened his pace to a brisk walk, and skirting the line of cliffs he presently came upon the rocky headland of Garroch.

His whole body was in a warm glow; his breath came regular and strong from the depths of his broad chest. He felt himself better fitted for battle, more powerful of limb than he had ever done before, and never had he entered into combat with a fuller sense of the justice of the approaching encounter.

He looked about the bald headland to left and right, but Roderic was not yet to be seen. Kenric’s heart sank within him in anxious disappointment. But as he approached the extreme angle of the cape, he saw a tall cloaked figure appear from behind the shelter of a dark rock.

Roderic came slowly towards him, blowing his warm breath into his cold, crisped fists. Kenric’s face was in shadow, and the outlaw did not recognize him.

“So,” said Roderic, “Elspeth Blackfell has not this time deceived me, eh? ‘Twas she who sent you here, young man?”

“It was,” Kenric replied.

“And how happens it that she sent not the maid Aasta?”

“‘Twas beyond her power, Earl Roderic,” answered Kenric in a quivering voice.

“What?” cried Roderic surlily, “beyond her power? Tell me no lies. The old crone is but playing some witch’s trick upon me. Where is my daughter, I say? where is my child?”

“Aasta the Fair, Heaven rest her soul! now sleeps beneath the cold ice of Ascog Loch,” said Kenric solemnly; “she is dead.”

A sudden hoarse cry from Roderic followed these words.

“Dead?” he echoed, “dead, you say, and under the ice of the loch?”

“Even so,” replied the youth, keeping his eye fixed upon Roderic’s movements. “‘Tis but a little time since that I saw her lying in the frozen waters.”

Roderic staggered back a pace, wildly. He tugged at the neck of his cloak as though it were stifling him.

“Ah, God forgive me!” he wailed. “Alas, ’twas she — ’twas then my own child who so wildly attacked me yesternight! ‘Twas my own Aasta who so boldly fought against me at Largs. ‘Twas she whom I took captive in my ship from Rothesay. And ’twas she also who cursed me over at Barone — ay, cursed her own father! Great God, the curse has come true! For my own two children have been slain before my eyes — first Lulach, then herself — and I their father slew them both!”

“What means this?” cried Kenric, growing pale in the moonlight and grasping his sword. “You slew Aasta? you? Oh, villain!”

“Ah, that voice! methinks I know it,” said Roderic, starting in surprise and turning upon Kenric. “So then ’tis you, young Kenric, that is Dame Elspeth’s messenger? Much do I thank her for so promptly helping me. By St. Olaf, but this is most fortunate. Ha! no need have you to draw your sword. It will serve you no purpose now. As well might you seek to move Goatfell as think of holding your own against Roderic MacAlpin.”

But Kenric, learning thus how Aasta had come by her terrible fate, felt his craving for battle grow stronger. He spoke no word, but stood with his naked weapon ready in his hands.

Roderic threw off his heavy cloak and drew his sword. The moonlight shone in his fierce eyes as he looked upon the strong young form of his antagonist.

From the shore at the foot of the cliff came the mournful sighing of the rising tide. For a few moments the two warriors faced each other in silence. Then like a pair of rival stags they stamped their feet upon the frozen ground. Roderic tried to get Kenric round with the moonlight upon him. But Kenric stood firm as a rock. Their weapons crossed, scraping each upon the other, pressing easily to right and left, and always touching. Then Roderic made a sudden step backward; the swords were point to point. Swiftly, at the same instant, each raised his weapon above his head, grasping its handle with his two strong hands, and flinging it back till his elbows were on a level with his crown.

They rushed together, each taking two steps forward. Their two swords swished through the air; but Kenric’s glanced aside with a quick movement of his strong wrists, and caught Roderic’s weapon in mid-blade with a ringing clash.

“Well guarded!” muttered Roderic grudgingly. “By the saints, but you are no weakling novice, young man,” and he stepped back again to recover.