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A Prince of Cornwall - A Story of Glastonbury and the West in the Days of Ina of Wessex
by Charles W. Whistler
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A PRINCE OF CORNWALL:

A Story of Glastonbury and the West in the Days of Ina of Wessex; by Charles W. Whistler.

PREFACE.

CHAPTER I. HOW OWEN OF CORNWALL WANDERED TO SUSSEX, AND WHY HE BIDED THERE.

CHAPTER II. HOW ALDRED THE THANE KEPT HIS FAITH, AND OWEN FLED WITH OSWALD.

CHAPTER III. HOW KING INA'S FEAST WAS MARRED, AND OF A VOW TAKEN BY OSWALD.

CHAPTER IV. HOW THE LADY ELFRIDA SPOKE WITH OSWALD, AND OF THE MEETING WITH GERENT.

CHAPTER V. HOW OSWALD FELL INTO BAD HANDS, AND FARED EVILLY, ON THE QUANTOCKS.

CHAPTER VI. HOW OSWALD HAD AN UNEASY VOYAGE AND A PERILOUS LANDING AT ITS END.

CHAPTER VII. HOW OSWALD CROSSED THE DYFED CLIFFS, AND MET WITH FRIENDS.

CHAPTER VIII. HOW OSWALD LOST A HUNT, AND FOUND SOMEWHAT STRANGE IN CAERAU WOODS.

CHAPTER IX. WHY IT WAS NOT GOOD FOR OWEN TO SLEEP IN THE MOONLIGHT.

CHAPTER X. HOW THE EASTDEAN MANORS AND SOMEWHAT MORE PASSED FROM OSWALD TO ERPWALD.

CHAPTER XI. HOW ERPWALD FELL FROM CHEDDAR CLIFFS; AND OF ANOTHER WARNING.

CHAPTER XII. OF THE MESSAGE BROUGHT BY JAGO, AND A MEETING IN DARTMOOR.

CHAPTER XIII. HOW OSWALD AND HOWEL DARED THE SECRET OF THE MENHIR, AND MET A WIZARD.

CHAPTER XIV. HOW OSWALD FOUND WHAT HE SOUGHT, AND RODE HOMEWARD WITH NONA THE PRINCESS.

CHAPTER XV. HOW ERPWALD SAW HIS FIRST FIGHT ON HIS WEDDING DAY.

CHAPTER XVI. OF MATTERS OF RANSOM, AND OF FORGIVENESS ASKED AND GRANTED.

CHAPTER XVII. HOW OSWALD FOUND A HOME, AND OF THE LAST PERIL OF OWEN THE PRINCE.

NOTES.



PREFACE.

A few words of preface may save footnotes to a story which deals with the half-forgotten days when the power of a British prince had yet to be reckoned with by the Wessex kings as they slowly and steadily pushed their frontier westward.

The authority for the historical basis of the story is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which gives A.D. 710 as the year of the defeat of Gerent, king of the West Welsh, by Ina of Wessex and his kinsman Nunna. This date is therefore approximately that of the events of the tale.

With regard to the topography of the Wessex frontier involved, although it practically explains itself in the course of the story, it may be as well to remind a reader that West Wales was the last British kingdom south of the Severn Sea, the name being, of course, given by Wessex men to distinguish it from the Welsh principalities in what we now call Wales, to their north. In the days of Ina it comprised Cornwall and the present Devon and also the half of Somerset westward of the north and south line of the river Parrett and Quantock Hills. Practically this old British "Dyvnaint" represented the ancient Roman province of Damnonia, shrinking as it was under successive advances of the Saxons from the boundary which it once had along the Mendips and Selwood Forest. Ina's victory over Gerent set the Dyvnaint frontier yet westward, to the line of the present county of Somerset, which represents the limit of his conquest, the new addition to the territory of the clan of the Sumorsaetas long being named as "Devon in Wessex" by the chroniclers rather than as Somerset.

The terms "Devon" or "Dyvnaint," as they are respectively used by Saxon or Briton in the course of the story, will therefore be understood to imply the ancient territory before its limitation by the boundaries of the modern counties, which practically took their rise from the wars of Ina.

With regard to names, I have not thought it worth while to use the archaic, if more correct, forms for those of well-known places. It seems unnecessary to write, for instance, "Glaestingabyrig" for Glastonbury, or "Penbroch" for Pembroke. I have treated proper names in the same way, keeping, for example, the more familiar latinised "Ina" rather than the Saxon "Ine," as being more nearly the correct pronunciation than might otherwise be used without the hint given by a footnote.

The exact spot where Wessex and West Wales met in the battle between Ina and Gerent is not certain, though it is known to have been on the line of the hills to the west of the Parrett, and possibly, according to an identification deduced from the Welsh "Llywarch Hen," in the neighbourhood of Langport. Local tradition and legend place a battle also at the ancient Roman fortress of Norton Fitzwarren, which Ina certainly superseded by his own stronghold at Taunton after the victory. As Nunna is named as leader of the Saxons, together with the king himself, it seems most likely that there were two columns acting against the Welsh advance on the north and south of the Tone River, and that therefore there were battles at each place. On the Blackdown Hills beyond Langport a barrow was known until quite lately as "Noon's barrow," and it would mark at least the line of flight of the Welsh; and if not the burial place of the Saxon leader, who is supposed to have fallen, must have been raised by him over his comrades.

The line taken by the story will not be far wrong, therefore, as in any case the Blackdown and Quantock strongholds must have been taken by the Saxons to guard against flank attacks, from whichever side of the Tone the British advance was made.

The course of the story hangs to some extent on the influence of the old feud between the British and Saxon Churches, which dated from the days of Augustine and his attempt to compel the adoption of Western customs by the followers of the Church which had its rise from the East. There is no doubt that the death of the wise and peacemaking Aldhelm of Sherborne let the smouldering enmity loose afresh, with the result of setting Gerent in motion against his powerful neighbour. Ina's victory was decisive, Gerent being the last king of the West Welsh named in the chronicles, and we hear of little further trouble from the West until A.D. 835, when the Cornish joined with a new-come fleet of Danes in an unsuccessful raid on Wessex.

Ina's new policy with the conquered Welsh is historic and well known. Even in the will of King Alfred, two hundred years later, some of the best towns in west Somerset and Dorset are spoken of as "Among the Welsh kin," and there is yet full evidence, in both dialect and physique, of strongly marked British descent among the population west of the Parrett.

There is growing evidence that very early settlements of Northmen, either Norse or Danish, or both, contemporary with the well-known occupation of towns, and even districts, on the opposite shores of South Wales, existed on the northern coast of Somerset and Devon. Both races are named by the Welsh and Irish chroniclers in their accounts of the expulsion of these settlers from Wales in A.D. 795, and the name of the old west country port of Watchet being claimed as of Norse origin, I have not hesitated to place the Norsemen there.

Owen and Oswald, Howel and Thorgils, and those others of their friends and foes beyond the few whose names have already been mentioned as given in the chronicles, are of course only historic in so far as they may find their counterparts in the men of the older records of our forefathers. If I have too early or late introduced Govan the hermit, whose rock-hewn cell yet remains near the old Danish landing place on the wild Pembrokeshire coast between Tenby and the mouth of Milford Haven, perhaps I may be forgiven. I have not been able to verify his date, but a saint is of all time, and if Govan himself had passed thence, one would surely have taken his place to welcome a wanderer in the way and in the name of the man who made the refuge.

CHAS. W. WHISTLER.

STOCKLAND, 1904.



CHAPTER I. HOW OWEN OF CORNWALL WANDERED TO SUSSEX, AND WHY HE BIDED THERE.

The title which stands at the head of this story is not my own. It belongs to one whose name must come very often into that which I have to tell, for it is through him that I am what I may be, and it is because of him that there is anything worth telling of my doings at all. Hereafter it will be seen, as I think, that I could do no less than set his name in the first place in some way, if indeed the story must be mostly concerning myself. Maybe it will seem strange that I, a South Saxon of the line of Ella, had aught at all to do with a West Welshman—a Cornishman, that is—of the race and line of Arthur, in the days when the yet unforgotten hatred between our peoples was at its highest; and so it was in truth, at first. Not so much so was it after the beginning, however. It would be stranger yet if I were not at the very outset to own all that is due from me to him. Lonely was I when he first came to me, and lonely together, in a way, have he and I been for long years that for me, at least, have had no unhappiness in them, for we have been all to each other.

I have said that I was lonely when he first came to me, and I must tell how that was. I suppose that the most lonesome place in the world is the wide sea, and after that a bare hilltop; but next to these in loneliness I would set the glades of a beech forest in midwinter silence, when the snow lies deep on the ground under boughs that are too stiff to rustle in the wind, and the birds are dumb, and the ice has stilled the brooks. Set a lost child amid the bare grey tree trunks of such a winter forest, in the dead silence of a great frost, with no track near him but that which his own random feet have made across the snow, and I think that there can be nought lonelier than he to be thought of: and in the depth of the forest there is peril to the lonely.

I had no fear of the forest till that day when I was lost therein, for the nearer glades round our village had been my playground ever since I could remember, and before I knew that fear therein might be. That was not so long a time, however, save that the years of a child are long years; for at this time, when I first learned the full wildness of the woods of the great Andredsweald and knew what loneliness was, I was only ten years old. Since I could run alone my old nurse had tried to fray me from wandering out of sight of those who tended me, with tales of wolf and bear and pixy, lest I should stray and be lost, but I had not heeded her much. Maybe I had proved so many of her tales to be but pretence that, as I began to think for myself, I deemed them all to be so.

But now I was lost in the forest, and what had been a playground was become a vast and desolate land for me, and all the things that I had ever heard of what dangers lurked within it, came back to my mind. I remembered that the grey wolf's skin on which I slept had come hence, and I minded the calf that the pack had slain close to the village a year ago, and I thought of the girl who went mazed and useless about the place, having lost her wits through being pixy led, as they said, long ago. The warnings seemed to me to be true enough, now that all the old landmarks were lost to me, and all the tracks were buried under the crisp snow. I did not know when I had left the road from the village to the hilltop, or in which direction it lay.

It was very silent in the aisles of the great beech trunks, for the herds were in shelter. There was no sound of the swineherds' horn, though the evening was coming on, and but for the frost it was time for their charges to be taken homeward, and the woodmen's axes were idle. Even the scream of some hawk high overhead had been welcome to me, and the harsh cry of a jay that I scared was like the voice of a friend.

It was the fault of none but myself that I was lost. I had planned to go hunting alone in the woods while the old nurse, whose care I was far beyond, slept after her midday meal before the fire. So, over my warm woollen clothing I had donned the deerskin short cloak that was made like my father's own hunting gear, and I had taken my bow and arrows, and the little seax {i} that a thane's son may always wear, and had crept away from the warm hall without a soul seeing me. I had thought myself lucky in this, but by this time I began to change my mind in all truth. Well it was for me that there was no wind, so that I was spared the worst of the cold.

I went up the hill to the north of the village by the track which the timber sleds make, climbing until I was on the crest, and there I began to wander as the tracks of rabbit and squirrel led me on. Sometimes I was set aside from the path by deep drifts that had gathered in its hollows with the wind of yesterday, and so I left it altogether in time. Overhead the sky was bright and clear as the low sun of the month after Yule, the wolf month, can make it. I wandered on for an hour or two without meeting with anything at which to loose an arrow, and my ardour began to cool somewhat, so that I thought of turning homewards. But then, what was to me a wondrous quarry crossed my way as I stood for a moment on the edge of a wide aisle of beech trees looking down it, and wondering if I would not go even to its end and so return. Then at once the wild longing for the chase woke again in me, and I forgot cold and time and place and aught else in it.

Across the glade came slowly and lightly over the snow a great red hare, looking against the white background bigger than any I had ever set eyes on before. It paid no heed at all to me, even when I raised my bow to set an arrow on the string with fingers which trembled with eagerness and haste. Now and again it stopped and seemed to listen for somewhat, and then loped on again and stopped, seeming hardly to know which way it wished to go. Now it came toward me, and then across, and yet again went from me, and all as if I were not there.

It was thirty paces from me when I shot, and I was a fair marksman, for a boy, at fifty paces. However, the arrow skimmed just over its back, and it crouched for a second as it heard the whistle of the feathers, and then leapt aside and on again in the same way. But now it crossed the glade and passed behind some trees before I was ready with a second arrow, and I ran forward to recover the first, which was in the snow where it struck, hoping thence to see the hare again.

When I turned with the arrow in my hand I saw what made the hare pay no heed to me. There was a more terrible enemy than even man on its track. Sniffing at my footprints where they had just crossed those of the hare was a stoat, long and lithe and cruel. I knew it would not leave its quarry until it had it fast by the throat, and the hare knew it also by some instinct that is not to be fathomed, for I suppose that no hare, save by the merest chance, ever escaped that pursuer. The creature seemed puzzled by my footprint, and sat up, turning its sharp eyes right and left until it spied me; but when it did so it was not feared of me, but took up the trail of the hare again. And by that time I was ready, and my hand was steady, and the shaft sped and smote it fairly, and the hare's one chance had come to it. I sprang forward with the whoop of the Saxon hunter, and took up and admired my prey, not heeding its scent at all. It was in good condition, and I would get Stuf, the house-carle, who was a sworn ally of mine, to make me a pouch of it, I thought.

I mind that this was the third wild thing that I had slain. One of the others was a squirrel who stayed motionless on a bough to stare at me, in summer time, and the second was a rabbit which Stuf had shown me in its seat. This was quite a different business, and I was proud of my skill with some little reason. I should have some real wild hunting to talk of over the fire tonight.

Then I must follow up the hare, of course, and I thrust the long body of the stoat through my girdle, so that its head hung one way and its tail the other, and took up the trail of the hare where my prey had left it. Now, I cannot tell how the mazed creature learned that its worst foe was no longer after it, but so it must have been, else it had circled slowly in lessening rings until the stoat had it, and presently it would have begun to scream dolefully. But I only saw it once again, and then it seemed to be listening at longer spaces. Yet it took me a long way before it suddenly fled altogether, as its footmarks told me. A forest-bred lad learns those signs soon enough, if he is about with the woodmen in snow time.

Then I turned to make my way home, following my own track for a little way. That was crooked, and I went to take a straighter path, and after that I was fairly lost.

Yet I held on, hoping every minute to come into some known glade or sight, some familiar landmark, before the sun set. But I found nought but new trees, and new views over unknown white country all round me as I turned my steps hither and thither as one mark after another drew me. Then the sun set and the short day was over, and the grey twilight of snow weather came after the passing of the warm red glow from the west, shadowless and still.

That was about the time when I was missed at home, for my father came back from Chichester town, and straightway asked for me. And when I came not for calling, nor yet for the short notes of the horn which my father had always used to bring me to him, one ran here and another there, seeking me in wonted places about the village, until one minded that he had seen a boy, who must have been myself, go up the hill track forestwards.

Then was fear enough for me, seeing that from our village more than one child has wandered forth thus and been seen no more, and I was the only son of the long-widowed thane, and the last of the ancient line that went back to Ella, and beyond him even to Woden. So in half an hour there was not a man left in the village, and all the woods and hillsides rang with their calls to me, while in the hall itself bided only the old nurse, who wept and wailed by the hearth, and my father, whose tall form came and went across the doorway, restless; for he waited here lest he should miss my coming homeward. Up the steep street of the village the wives stood in the doorways silent, and forgetting their ailments for once in listening for the cries that should tell that I was found. If they spoke at all, they said that I should not be seen again, for the cold had driven the wolves close to the villages.

But I was by this time far beyond the reach of friendly voices, on the edge of the great hill that falls sheer down through many a score feet of hanging woods and thicket to the Lavington valley far below, and there at last I knew for certain that I was lost utterly, for this place or its like I had never seen before. Then I stayed my feet, bewildered, for the sun was gone, and I had nothing to tell me in which direction I was heading, for at that time the stars told me nought, though there were enough out now to direct any man who was used to the night. When I stood still I found that I was growing deadly cold, and the weariness that I had so far staved off began to creep over me, so that I longed to sleep.

And I suppose that I should have done so, and thereby met my death shortly, but for a thing that roused me in an instant, and set the warm blood coursing through me again.

There came a rustling in the undergrowth of the hillside below me, and that was the most homely sound that I had heard since the wild geese flew over me seaward with swish and whistle of broad wings and call that I knew well. The silence of the great brown owls that circled swiftly over me now and then was uncanny.

The rustling drew nearer, and then out into the open place under the tall bare tree trunks where I stood trotted a grey beast that was surely a shepherd's dog, for he stayed and looked back and whined a little as if his master must be waited for. I thought that I could hear the cracking of more branches once farther down the hill.

Then I called to the dog, knowing that he and the shepherd would not be far apart, and at the call the dog turned quickly toward me and leaped back a yard, cowering a little with drooping tail. So I called him again, and more loudly.

"Hither, lad! Hither, good dog!"

But the beast backed yet more from me, and I saw the dull gleam of yellow teeth and heard him snarl as he did so, and then he growled fiercely, so that I thought him sorely ill-tempered. But I had no fear of dogs, and I called him again cheerily, and at that he sank on his haunches and set back his head and howled and yelled as I had never heard any dog give tongue before. And presently from a long way off I heard the like howls, as if all the dogs of some village answered him, and I thought their tongue was strange also.

Then came the shout of a man, even as I expected, and there was the noise of one who tears his way through briers and brambles in haste; but at that shout the dog turned and fled like a grey shadow into the farther thickets, and was gone.

"Who calls?" one said loudly, and from the hillside climbed hastily into the open a tall man, bearded and strong, and with a pleasant-looking, anxious face. He was dressed in leather like our shepherds, and like them carried but quarterstaff and seax for weapons. I suppose that I was in some shadow, for at first he did not see me.

"Surely I heard a child's voice," he said out loud—"or was it some pixy playing with the grey beast of the wood?"

"Here I am," I cried, running to him; "take me home, shepherd, for I think that I am lost."

He caught me up in haste, looking round him the while.

"Child," he said, "how came you here—and to what were you calling?"

"I was calling your dog," I answered, "but he is not friendly. Does he look for a beating? for he ran away yonder when he heard you coming."

"Ay, sorely beaten will that dog be if he comes near me just now," the man said grimly. "Never mind him, but tell me how you came here, and where you belong."

So I told him that I was Oswald, the son of Aldred, the thane of Eastdean, thinking, of course, that all men would know of us, and so I bade him take me home quickly.

"I have been hunting," I said, showing him my unsavoury prey, which by this time was frozen stiff in my belt. "Then I followed the hare this was after, and I cannot tell how far I have come."

All this while the man had me in his strong arms, and he had looked at the track of the dog in the snow, and now was walking swiftly from it, through the beech trees, looking up at their branches as if wondering at the way the great trunks shot up smooth and bare from the snow at their roots before they reached the first forking, fathoms skyward.

"I am a stranger, Oswald, the thane's son," he said. "I do not rightly know in which direction your home may lie."

I know now that he was himself as lost as I, but that he did not tell me, for my sake. It is an easy thing for a stranger to go astray in the Andredsweald. But I could not tell him more than that I knew that I had left the sea always behind me so long as I knew where it lay. So he turned southwards at once when he heard that, and went on swiftly. Then I heard the howl of his dog again, and I laughed, for the other howls that answered him were nearer.

"Listen, shepherd," I said. "Your dog is making his comrades howl for him, and the beating that is to come.

"Are you cold?"

For he had shivered suddenly, and his pace quickened. He had heard the howl of the single wolf that has found its quarry, and calls the answering pack to follow. But he did not tell me of my mistake.

"I am not cold overmuch," he answered. "Let us run and warm me."

Then he ran until we came to the top of a hill whence the last glimmer of the sea over Selsea was plain before him, and there I asked him to set me down lest I tired him.

"Nay, but you keep me warm," he said. "Tell me, are there oak trees as one goes seaward?"

"Ay, many and great ones in some places."

Then he ran down the hill, and the sway of his even stride lulled me so that I dozed a little. I roused when he stayed suddenly.

"Sit here, Oswald, for a moment, and fear nought while I rest me," he said in a strange voice.

We were halfway up a long slope and among fresh trees. Then he lifted me and set me on the curved arm of a great oak tree, some eight feet from the ground, asking me if I was safe there. And when I laughed and answered that I was, he set his back against the trunk, and drew his heavy seax, putting his staff alongside him, where he could reach it at once if it was needed. It was light enough, with the clear frosty starlight on the snow.

Then I heard the swift patter of feet over the crisp surface, and the grey beast came and halted suddenly not three yards from us, and on his haunches he sat up and howled, and I heard the answering yells in no long space of time coming whence we had come. His eyes glowed green with a strange light of their own as he stared at my friend, and for a moment I looked to see him come fawning to his master's feet.

Suddenly he gathered himself together, and sprung silently at the throat of the man who waited him, and there was a flash of the keen steel, and a sound as of the cleaving of soft wood, and the beast was in a twitching heap at the man's feet. I knew what it was at last, yet I could say nothing. The wolf was quite dead, with its head cleft.

Swiftly my friend hewed the great head from the trunk and tore one of the leather cross garterings from his leg, and so leapt at a branch which hung above him and pulled it down. Then he bound the head to its end with the thong and let it go, so that it dangled a fathom and a half above him, and then he lifted me from my place and ran as I had not thought any man could run, until he stayed at the brow of the hill for sheer want of breath.

Behind us at that moment rose the sound as of hungry dogs that fight over the food in their kennels, and my friend laughed under his breath strangely.

"That will be a wild dance beneath the tree anon," he said, as if to himself.

Then he said to me, "Are you frayed, bairn?" as he ran on again.

"No," I answered, "You can smite well, shepherd."

"Needs must, sometime," he said. "Now, little one, have you a mother waiting you at home?"

"No. Only father and old nurse."

"Nor brother or sister?"

"None at all," I said.

"An only child, and his father lonely," the man said. "Well, I will chance it while the trees last. The head will stay them awhile, maybe."

Now he went swiftly across the rolling woodlands, and again I slept in his arms, but uneasily and with a haunting fear in my dreaming that I should wake to see the wild eyes of the wolf glaring across the snow on us again. So it happens that all I know of the rest of that flight from Woden's pack has been told me by others, so that I can say little thereof.

The howls of the pack as they stayed to fall on the carcass of their fellow, after their wont, died away behind us, and before they were heard again my friend had come across a half-frozen brook, and for a furlong or more had crashed and waded through its ice and water that our trail might be lost in it. Then he lit on the path that a sounder of wild swine had made through the snow on either side of it as they crossed it, and that he followed, in hopes that the foe would leave us to chase the more accustomed quarry. From that he leapt aside presently with a wondrous leap and struck off away from it. He would leave nothing untried, though indeed by this time he had reason to think that the pack had lost us at the brook, for he heard no more of them.

So at last he came within sound of some far-off shouts of those who were seeking me, and he guessed well what those shouts meant, and turned in their direction. Had he not heard them I do not know what place of refuge, save the trees, he would have found that night, for he was then passing across the valley that winds down to our home.

So it happened that when at last he saw the red light from the door of our hall gleaming across the snow, for it had been left open that perchance I might see it, he was close to the place, and he came into the courtyard inside the stockading without meeting any one, for he came from the side on which the village is not.

There I woke as the house dogs barked, and at first it was with a cry of fear lest the wolves were on us again; but the fear passed as I saw my father come quickly into the light of the doorway, and heard his voice as he stilled the dogs and cried to ask if the boy was found.

"Ay, Thane, he is here, and safe," my friend answered, and he set me down in the midst of the court, while the dogs leapt and fawned round me.

Then I ran to the arms that were held out for me, forgetting for the moment the one who had brought me back to them, and left him standing there.

Then the man who had saved me turned after one long look at that meeting, and I think that he was going his way in silence, content with that he had done, but my father saw it and called to him:

"Friend, stay, for I have not thanked you, and I hold that there is reward due to you for what you have brought back to me."

"It was a chance meeting, Thane, and I am glad to have been of use. No need to speak of reward, for it is indeed enough to have seen the boy home safely."

"Why, then," said my father, "I cannot have a stranger pass my hall at this time in the evening, when it is too late to reach the town in safety. Here you must at least lodge for the night, or Eastdean will be shamed. Your voice tells me that you are a stranger—but maybe you have your men waiting for you at hand? There will be room for them also."

For there was that in the tones of the voice of this man which told my father that here he had no common wanderer.

"I am alone," my friend said. "But your men seek the little one even yet in the forest. Will you not call them in?"

My father looked at the man for a moment, and smiled.

"Ay, I forgot in my joy. They are well-nigh as anxious as I have been."

Then he took down the great horn that hung by the door, and wound the homing call that brings all within its hearing back to the hall, and its hoarse echoes went across the silent woods until it was answered by the other horns that passed on the message until the last sounds came but faintly to us. I heard men cheering also, for they knew by the token that all was well. My father had me in his arms all this time, standing in the door.

"There would have been sorrow enough had he been lost indeed," my father said. "He is the last of the old line, and the fathers of those men whom you hear have followed his fathers since the days of Ella. Come in, and they will thank you also. Where did you find him?"

Then as he turned and went into the hall the light flashed red on my jerkin suddenly, and he cried, "Here is blood on his clothing!—Is he hurt?"

"No," I said stoutly; "maybe it is the blood of the stoat I slew, or else it has come off the shepherd's sleeves. He hewed off the wolf's head and hung it on the tree."

Then my father understood what my peril had been—even that which he and all the village had feared for me, and his face paled, and he held out his hand to the man, drawing in his breath sharply.

"Woden!" he cried, "what is this, friend? Are you hurt, yourself? For the wolf must be slain ere his head can be hefted, as we say."

"No hurt to any but the wolf," the man said, smiling a little. "We did but meet with one who called the pack on us. So I even hung his head on a tree, that the pack when it came might stay to leap at it. They were all we had to fear, and maybe that saved us."

"I marvel that you are not even now in the tree, yourself—with the boy."

"Nay, but the frost is cruel, and he would have been sorely feared with the leaping and howls of the beasts. There were always trees at hand as we fled, if needs were to take to them. It was in my mind that it were best to try to get him home, or near it."

Then said my father, gripping the hand that met his: "There is more that I would say, but I cannot set thoughts into words well. Only, I know that I have a man before me. Tell me your name, that neither I nor the boy may ever forget it."

"Here, in the Saxon lands, men call me Owen the Briton," he answered simply.

"I thought your voice had somewhat of the Welsh tone," my father said. "And your English is of Mercia. I have heard that there are Britons in the fenland there."

"I am of West Wales, Thane, but I have bided long in Mercia."

Then came my old nurse, and there were words enough for the time. Her eyes were red with weeping, but it was all that my father could do to prevent her scolding me soundly then and there for the fright I had given her. But she set a great bowl of bread and milk before me, and the men began to come in at that time, and they stood in a ring round me and watched me eat it as if they had never seen me before, while my father spoke aside of the flight to Owen on the high place. But concerning his own story my father asked the stranger no more until he chose to open the matter himself.

After supper there was all the tale to be told, and when that was done the Welshman slept before the hall fire with the house-carles, but my father had me with him in the closed chamber beyond the high seat, for it seemed that he would not let me go beyond his sight again yet.

Now, that is how Owen came to me at first, and the first thing therefore that I owe to him is nothing less than life itself. And from that time we have been, as I have said, together in all things.

On the next morning my father made his guest take him back over the ground we had crossed together, for no fresh snow had fallen, and the footprints were plain to be followed almost from the gate of the hall stockade. So they came at last to the tree, and on it the head hung yet, but the body was clean gone. All round the tree the snow was reddened and trampled by the fierce beasts who leapt to reach the head, and the marks of their clawing was on the trunk, where they had tried to climb it. From the footmarks it seemed that there were eight or nine of them. Three great ones had left the head and followed us presently as far as the brook, half a mile away.

After that the two men went on to the place where Owen had found me, and there my father, judging from the dress and loneliness of the Briton that he might be able to help him somewhat, said:

"I do not know what your plans may be, but is there any reason why you should not bide here and help me tend the life you have kept for me?"

Then answered Owen: "You know nought of me, Thane. For all you ken, I may be but an outlaw who is fleeing from justice."

"Do I know nought about you? I think that last night and what I have seen today have told me much, and I have been held as a good judge of a man. If so be that you were an outlaw, which I do not think, what you have done is enough to inlaw you again with any honest man—even had you taken a life, for you have saved one. Did I know you were an outlaw I would see to your pardon. But maybe you are on a journey that may not be hindered?"

Now Owen was silent for a little, and there came a shadow over his face as he answered, slowly and with his eyes on the far sea:

"No man's man am I, and I am but drifting Westward again at random. Yet I can say in all truth, that I am no wanderer for ill reason in any wise. I will tell you, Thane, here and alone, that there are foes in my home for whose passing, in one way or another, I must needs wait. Even now I was on my way to Bosham, where they tell me are Western monks with whom I might bide for a time, if not altogether. I was lost in the forest last night."

Now my father saw that some heavy sorrow of no common sort lay beneath the quiet words of the man before him, and he forbore to ask him more. Also, he deemed that in the Welsh land he would surely rank as a thane, for his ways and words bespoke more than his dress would tell. Therefore he said:

"Wait here with us for a while at least. There will be no more welcome guest."

"Let me be of some use, rather," Owen answered. "If I bide with you, Thane, and I thank you for the offer, let it be as I have bided elsewhere from time to time—as one of the household, not as an idle guest, if it were but to help the woodmen in the forest."

"Why, that will be well. I need a forester, and it is plain that you are a master of woodcraft. Let it be so. Yet I must tell you one thing fairly, and that is, that I am what you would call a heathen. I know that you are a good Christian man, for I saw you sign your holy sign before you ate last night and this morning. Yet I do not hate Christians."

"I had heard that all Sussex was turned to the faith," Owen said.

"If one says that all the men have gone to market, one knows that here and there one is excepted for good reason. It is not for a thane of the line of Woden to give up the faith of his fathers idly. I do not know what may be in the days to come, but here in the Andredsweald some dozen of us will not leave the old gods. It was the bidding of Ethelwalch the king that we should do so, but that is not a matter wherein a king may meddle, as it seems to us."

"I do not know why I should not bide with you, Thane, if so be that there is no hindrance to my faith."

"That there will be none. Why, the most of my folk are Christian enough. And if a man of the Britons did not honour his old faith it would be as strange as if I honoured not that of my fathers. I have no quarrel with the faith of any man, either king or thrall."

"Then I will be your forester, Thane, for such time as I may, and I thank you."

"Nay, but the thanks are all on my side," answered my father. "Now I shall know that the boy will have one with whom he may live all day in the woods if he will, and I shall be content."

So Owen bided with us, half as honoured guest and half as forester, and as time went on he was well loved by all who knew him, for he was ever the same to each man about the place. As for me, it was the best day that could have dawned when he found me in the woods as a lost child. And that my father said also.



CHAPTER II. HOW ALDRED THE THANE KEPT HIS FAITH, AND OWEN FLED WITH OSWALD.

Our Sussex was the last land in all England that was heathen. I suppose that the last heathen thanes in Sussex were those whose manors lay in the Andredsweald, as did ours. Most of these thanes had held aloof from the faith because at the first coming of good Bishop Wilfrith, some twelve years ago, those who had hearkened to him were mostly thralls and freemen of the lower ranks, and they would not follow their lead. Yet of these there were some, like my father, who had no hatred, to say the least, of the Christian and his creed, and did but need the words of one who could speak rightly to them to turn altogether from the Asir.

Maybe the only man who was at this time really fierce against the faith was Erpwald, the thane of Wisborough, some half-score miles from us northwards across the forest. He had been the priest of Woden in the old days, and indeed held himself so even now, though secretly, for fear of Ina the Wessex king, who ruled our land well and strongly. This Erpwald was no very good neighbour of ours, as it happened, for he and my father had some old feud concerning forest rights and the like which he had taken to heart more than there was any occasion for, seeing that it was but such a matter as most thanes have, unless they are unusually lucky, in a place where boundaries are none. It is likely enough that but for the easy ways of my father, who gave in to him so far as he could, this feud would have been of trouble some time ago, for as the power of Erpwald, as priest, waned he seemed to look more for power in other ways. Yet in the end both the matter of the faith and the matter of the feud seemed to work together in some way that brought trouble enough on our house, which must be told; for it set Owen and me out into the world together for a time, and because of it there befell many happenings thereafter which have not all been sad in their ending.

Owen had been with us for a year and a half when what I am going to tell came to pass, and in that time my father had come to look on him rather as a brother than as a guest, and the thought that he might leave him at any time was one which he did not like to keep in his mind.

That being so, it was not at all surprising that in this summer my father had at last borne witness that he wished to become a Christian altogether, and so it had come to pass that he and Owen and I used to ride to Bosham, the little seacoast village beyond Chichester town, to speak with Dicul, the good old Irish priest, who yet bided there rather than in the new monastery which Wilfrith built at Selsea, until we were taught all that was needful, and the time came when we should be baptized.

That my father would have done here at Eastdean, that all his people, who were Christians before him, should see and rejoice. Yet it was not an easy matter for him as it had been for them, for now he would stand alone among his fellows, the heathen thanes; and most of all Erpwald the priest would be wroth with him for leaving that which he had held so long. He must meet these men often enough, and he knew that they would have biting words to hurl at him, but that thought did not stay him for a moment. It was more than likely that one or two more would follow him when once the old circle was broken.

So on a certain day Dicul rode over from Bosham on his mule, and early on the next morning he set up a little wooden cross by the spring above the hall, and there my father and I and Stuf, the head man of the house-carles, who had bided in the old faith for love of my father, were baptized, Owen and one of the village freemen standing sponsors for us, and that was a wondrous day to us all, as I think. For when all was done my father gave their freedom to all our thralls, for the sake of the freedom that had been given him, and he promised that here, where he and they had been freed, a church should be built of good forest oak, after the woodcutting of the winter to come.

Then Dicul went his way homewards, with one of our men to lead his mule and carry some few presents for his people to Bosham, and after he was gone we had a quiet feasting in our hall until the light was gone. And even as our feasting ended there came in a swineherd from the forest with word that from the northward there came a strong band of armed men through the forest, and he held it right that my father should be warned thereof, for he feared they were some banded outlaws, seeing that there was peace in the land. That was no unlikely thing at all, for our forests shelter many, and game being plentiful they live there well enough, if not altogether at ease. As a rule they gave little trouble to us, and at times in the winter we would even have men who were said to be outlaws from far off working in the woods for us.

Yet now and then some leader would rise among them and gather them into bands which waxed bold to harry cattle and even houses, so that there might be truth in what the swineherd told. Nevertheless my father thought of little danger but to the herds, and so had them driven into the sheds from the home fields, and set the men their watches as he had more than once done before in like alarms.

Presently I was awakened, for I had gone to rest before the message came, by the hoarse call of a horn and the savage barking of the dogs. I heard the hall doors shut and open once or twice as men passed in and out, and in the hall was the rattle of weapons as the men took them from their places on the walls, but I heard no voices raised more than usual. Then I got out of my bed and tried to open the sliding doors that would let me out on the high place from my father's chamber, where I always slept now, but I could not move them. So I went back to my place and listened.

What was happening I must tell, therefore, as Owen has told me, for I saw nothing to speak of.

As the horn was blown, one of the men who had been on guard came into the hall hastily and spoke to my father.

"The house is beset, Lord. Stuf blew the horn and bade me tell you. There are men all round the stockade."

"Outlaws?"

The man shook his head.

"We think not, Lord. But it is dark, and we cannot fairly see them. We heard them call one 'Thane.' Nor are there any outland voices among them, as there would be were they outlaws."

Then my father armed himself in haste and went out. The night was very dark, and it was raining a little. Stuf had shut the stockade gates, which were strong enough, and had reared a ladder against the timbers that he might look over.

Close to the ladder stood Owen, armed also, for he had been out to see that all was quiet and that the men were on guard.

"There are men everywhere," he said. "I would we had some light."

"Heave a torch on the straw stack," my father answered; "there will be enough then."

The stack was outside the stockade, and some twenty yards from its corner. One of the men ran to the hall and brought a torch from its socket on the wall, and handed it to Stuf, who threw it fairly on the stack top, from the ladder. It blazed up fiercely as it went through the air, and from the men who beset us there rose a howl as they saw it. Several ran and tried to reach it with their spears, but they were not in time. The first damp straws of the thatch hissed for a moment, dried, and burst into flame, and then nought could stop the burning. The red flames gathered brightness every moment, lighting up two sides of the stockading, in the midst of which the hall stood. Then an arrow clicked on Stuf's helm, and he came down into shelter.

"This is a strange affair, Master," he said. "I have seen three men whom I know well among them."

"Who are they?"

"Wisborough men—freemen of Erpwald's."

My father and Owen looked at one another. Words my father knew he should have to put up with, after today, from Erpwald, but this seemed token of more than words only.

Then came the blast of a horn from outside, and a strange voice shouted that the thane must come and speak with those who called him. So my father went to the gate and answered from within it:

"Here am I. What is all the trouble?"

"Open the gate, and you shall know."

"Not so, Thane," cried one of our men, who was peering through the timbers of the stockade. "Now that I can see, I have counted full fifty men, and they are waiting as if to rush in."

Then said my father:

"Maybe we will open the gate when we are sure you are friends. One may be forgiven for doubting that when you come thus at midnight to a peaceful house."

"We are friends or not, as you choose, Aldred," the voice answered. "I am Erpwald, Woden's priest, and I am here to stay wrong to the Asir of which I have heard."

"I will not pretend not to know what you mean, Erpwald," answered my father. "But this, as it seems to me, is a matter that concerns me most of all."

"If it concerns not Woden's priest, whom shall it concern?" answered Erpwald. "It is true, then, that you have left the Asir to follow the way of the thralls, led aside by that Welshman you have with you?"

"It is true enough that I am a Christian," said my father steadily. "As for leaving the Asir, that is not to be said of one whose line goes back to Woden, his forefather. But I cannot worship him any longer. Forefather of mine he may be, but not a god."

"Ho! that is all I needed to hear. Now, I will not mince matters with you, Aldred. Either you give up this foolishness, or I am here to make you do so."

Now, my father looked round at the men and saw that all the house-carles and one or two from the village were in the courtyard, fifteen of them altogether, besides himself and Owen. They were all Christian men, and they stood in a sort of line behind him across the closed gate with their faces set, listening.

"Don't suppose that there is any help coming to you from the village," said the hard voice from outside. "There is a guard over every house."

"Erpwald," said my father, "it is a new thing that any man should be forced to quit his faith here in Sussex. Nor is it the way of a thane to fall on a house at night in outlaw fashion. Ina the king will have somewhat to say of this."

"If there is one left to tell him, that is," came back the reply. "There will not be shortly, unless I have your word that tomorrow you come to me at Wisborough and make such atonement to the Asir as you may, quitting your new craze."

Then said Stuf, the leader of the house-carles, growling:

"That is out of the question, and he knows it. He means to fall on us, else had he spoken to you elsewhere first, Thane. It seems to me that here we shall die."

He looked round on his fellows, and they nodded, and one set his helm more firmly on his head, and another tightened his belt, and one or two signed the cross on their broad chests, but not one paled, though they knew there was small hope for them if Erpwald chose to storm the house. The court was light as day with the flames of the stack by this time.

"What think you of this, Owen," my father said.

"That it is likely that we must seal our faith with our blood, brother," he answered. "Yet I think that there is more in this than heathenism, in some way."

"There is an old feud of no account," said my father, "but I would not think hardly of Erpwald. After all, he was Woden's priest, and is wroth, as I myself might have been. It is good to die thus, and but for the boy I would be glad."

"I do not think that he will be harmed," said Owen, "even if the worst comes to the worst."

"Well, if I fall, try to get him hence. After that maybe Erpwald will be satisfied. I set him in your charge, brother, for once you have saved him already. Fail me not."

Owen held out his hand and took his.

"I will not fail you," he said—"if I live after you."

Now from outside the voices began to be impatient, and Erpwald had been crying to my father to be speedy, unheeded. But in the midst of the growing shouts of the heathen my father turned to the men and asked them if they were content to die with him for the faith. And with one accord they said that they would.

Then with a thundering crash a great timber beam was hurled against the gate, shaking its very posts with the force of the six men who wielded it at a run, and in the silence that fell as they drew back Erpwald cried:

"For the last time, Aldred, will you yield?"

But he had no answer, and after a short space the timber crashed against the gate again and again. And across it waited our few, silent and ready for its falling.

I heard all this in the closed chamber, and the red light of the fire shone across the slit whence the light and fresh air came into it, but it was too high for me to look out of. I got up and dressed myself then, for no reason but that I must be doing something. I waxed excited with the noise and flickering light, and no one came near me. My old nurse was the only woman in the house, for the married house-carles lived in the village, and I daresay she slept through it all in her own loft. There was no thunderstorm that could ever wake her.

At this time my father sent a few of the men to the back of the house, that they might try at least to keep off the foe from climbing the stockade and so falling on them in the rear. But the timbers were high, and the ditch outside them full of water, and as it happened there was no attack thence.

Erpwald watched the back indeed, but all his force was bent on the gate.

It was not long before that fell, crashing inwards, and across it strode the heathen priest into the gap. He was fully armed, and wore the great golden ring of the temple—all that was left him of his old surroundings since Ethelwalch the king, who sent Wilfrith to us, had destroyed the building that stood with the image of Woden in it hard by his house. Men used to take oath on that ring, as do we on the Book of the Gospels, and they held it holier than the oaken image of the god itself. I do not think that any man had seen it since that time until this night.

Now Erpwald stood for a moment in the gate, with his men hard behind him, expecting a rush at him, as it would seem. But our folk stood firm in the line across the courtyard, shoulder to shoulder, with my father and Owen before them. So they looked at one another.

Then Erpwald slipped the golden ring from his arm and held it up. There may have been some thought in his mind that my father was hesitating yet.

"By the holy ring I adjure you, Aldred, for the last time, to return to the Asir," he said loudly.

My father shook his head only, but Stuf the house-carle, who had stood beside him at the font this morning, had another answer which was strange enough.

"This for the ring!" he said.

And with that he hurled a throwing spear at it as it shone in the firelight, with a true aim. The spear went through the ring itself without harming the hand of the holder, and coming a little slantwise, twitched it away from him and stuck in the timber of the stockade whence the gatepost had been riven. The ring hung spinning on the shaft safely enough, but to Erpwald it seemed that his treasure had gone altogether, and he yelled with rage and sprang forward. After him came his men, and in a moment the two parties were hand to hand.

Then was fighting such as the gleemen sing of, with the light of the red fire waxing and waning across the courtyard the while. The strange lights and shadows it cast were to the advantage of our men for a little while, but the numbers were too great against them for that to be of much avail. Soon they who had not fallen were borne back to the hall door, and there stood again, but my father was not with them.

He fell at the first, as Owen tells me. Another has told me that Owen stood across his body and would have fallen with him, but that Stuf drew him away, calling on him to mind his promise concerning me, and so he went back, still fighting, until he stood in the door of the hall.

There Erpwald and his men stayed their hands, like a ring of dogs that bay a boar. There was a little porch, so that they could not get at him sideways, and needs must that they fell on him one at a time. It seemed that not one cared to be the first to go near the terrible Briton as he stood, in the plain arms and with the heavy sword my father had given him, waiting for them. Well do I know what he was like at that time, and I do not blame them. There is no man better able to wield weapons than he, and they had learnt it.

Then the light of the straw stack went out suddenly, as a stack fire will, and the darkness seemed great. Yet from the well-lit hall a path of light came past Owen and fell on his foes, so that he could well see any man who was bold enough to come, and they held back the more.

There were but six men of ours in the house behind Owen.

Then came Erpwald, leaning, sorely wounded, on one of his men, and Owen spoke to him.

"You have wrought enough harm, Erpwald, for this once. Let the rest of the household go in peace."

"Harm?" groaned the heathen. "Whose fault is it? How could I think that the fool would have resisted?"

"As there are fifty men in the yard at this moment, it seems that you were sure of it," answered Owen in a still voice. "If you knew it not before, now at least you know that a Christian thinks his faith worth dying for."

Now, whether it was his wound, or whether he saw that he had gone too far, Erpwald bethought himself, and seemed minded to make terms.

"I wish to slay no more," he said. "Yield yourselves quietly, and no harm shall come to you."

"Let them not go, Thane," said one of his men, "else will they be off to Ina, and there will be trouble. You mind what you promised us."

Now, Owen heard this, and the words told him that he was right in thinking that there was more than heathenry in the affair. It seemed to him that the first thing was to save me, and that if he could do that in any way nought else mattered much. It was plain that no man was to be left to bring Ina on the priest for his ill deeds.

"If that is all the trouble now," he said, therefore, "as we are in your power you can make us promise what you like. Give us terms at least; if not, come and end us and the matter at once."

One of the men flew at him on that, and bided where he fell, across the doorway of the porch; none stirred to follow him.

"Swear that you will not go to Ina for a month's time with any tales, and you and all shall go free," Erpwald said.

The man who had spoken before put in at once:

"What of the blood feud, Erpwald?—There is Aldred's son yet."

At that the priest lost temper with his follower, and turned on him savagely:

"Is it for men to war with children? What care I for a blood feud? Can I not fend for myself? Hold your peace."

Then he said to Owen:

"They say that you are the child's foster-father now. If I give him to you, will you swear that you or he shall cross my path no more? You need not trouble to go to Ina, for he will not hearken to a Briton in any case."

Owen reddened under the last, but for my sake he did not answer, save to the first part of the saying.

"I will swear to take the child hence and let this matter be for us as if it had not been," he said, seeing that it was the best he could win for me.

What other thoughts were in his mind will be seen hereafter, but I will say now that it was not all so hopeless as it seemed to Erpwald.

"What of the other men," asked one or two of Erpwald's following.

"They shall bide here, where we can keep an eye on them," the priest answered. "They will not hurt us, nor we them, save only if they try to make trouble."

Then some of our house-caries said in a low tone to Owen: "Better to die with the master. Let us out and fall on them."

But he said: "This is for the boy's sake. Let me be, my brothers; I have the thane's word to carry out."

Then they knew that he was right, but they bade him make Erpwald swear to keep faith with them all.

So he spoke again with the priest, asking for honest pledges in return for his own oath. Whereon from across the courtyard, where a few wounded men lay—a voice weak with pain cried, with a strange laugh:

"Get him the holy ring, that he may be well bound. It hangs yonder where I put it, in the gateside timbers."

Erpwald glowered into the darkness, but he could see nothing of the man who had spoken. But one of his men had seen the spear cast, and knew what was meant, though the fight had set it out of his mind. So he ran, and found the shaft easily in the darkness, and took the ring from it, bringing it back to Erpwald.

"It is luck," he said. "Spear and ring alike have marked the place for Woden."

"Hold your peace, fool," snarled Erpwald, with a sharp look at Owen.

And at that Stuf laughed again, unheeded.

Then Owen swore as he had promised, on the cross hilt of his sword, and Erpwald swore faith on the ring, and so the swords were sheathed at last; and when they had disarmed all our men but Owen, Erpwald's men took torches from the hall and went to tend the wounded, who lay scattered everywhere inside the gate, and most thickly where my father fell.

Owen went to that place, with a little hope yet that his friend might live, but it was not so. Therefore he knelt beside him for a little while, none hindering him, and so bade him farewell. Then he went to Stuf, who was sorely hurt, but not in such wise that he might not recover.

"What will you do with the child?" the man asked.

"Have no fear for him. I shall take him westward, where my own people are. He shall be my son, and I think that all will be well with him hereafter."

"I wit that you are not what you have seemed, Master," Stuf said. "It will be well if you say so."

Then Owen bade him farewell also, and went to find me and get me hence before the ale and mead of the house was broached by the spoilers. And, as I have said, I was already dressed, and I ran to his arms and asked what all the trouble was, and where my father had gone, and the like. I think that last question was the hardest that Owen ever had put to him, and he did not try to answer it then. He told me that he and I must go to Chichester at once, at my father's bidding; and I, being used to obey without question, was pleased with the thought of the unaccustomed night journey. And then Owen bethought him, and left me for a moment, going to the chest where my father had his store of money. It was mine now, and he took it for me.

It seemed strange to him that there was no ransacking of the house, as one might have expected. Had the foe fired it he would not have been surprised at all, but all was quiet in the hall, and the voices of the men came mostly from the storehouses, whence he could hear them rolling the casks into the courtyard; so he told me to bide quietly here in the chamber for a few minutes, and went out on the high place swiftly, closing the door after him, that I might see nothing in the hall.

There he found Erpwald himself close at hand, sitting in my father's own chair while the wound that Owen himself had given him was being dressed. At the side of the great room sat the rest of our men, downcast and wondering, and half a dozen of the foe stood on guard at the door. It was plain that nought in the house was to be meddled with.

Erpwald turned as he heard the sliding door open.

"Get you gone as soon as you may," he said sullenly.

"There is one thing that I must ask you, Erpwald," Owen said. "It is what one may ask of one brave man concerning another. Let Aldred's people bury him in all honour, as they will."

"There you ask too much, Welshman. But I will bury him myself in all honour in the way that I think best. He shall have the burial of a son of Woden for all his foolishness."

At least, there would be no dishonour to his friend in that, and Owen thought it best to say no more, but he had one more boon, as it were, to ask.

"Let me take a horse from the stable for the child," he said. "We may have far to go."

He thought that he would have been met with rage at this, but it was worth asking. However, Erpwald answered somewhat wearily, and not looking at him:

"Take them all, if you will. I am no common reiver, and they are not mine. The farther you go the better. But let me tell you, that it will be safer for you not to make for Winchester and the king. I shall have you watched."

"A plain warning not to be disregarded," answered Owen. "We shall not need it."

Erpwald said no more, and Owen came back to me, closing the door after him again. There was another door, seldom used, from this chamber to the back of the house where the servants had their quarters, and through that he took me, wrapped in such warm furs as he could find. Then he went to the stables, and in the dark, for he would not attract the notice of Erpwald's men, who were round the ale in the courtyard, he saddled my forest pony, and another good horse which he was wont to ride with my father at times. He did not take the thane's own horse, as it would be known, and he would risk no questions as to how he came by it.

Then we rode away by the back gate, and when the darkness closed on us as we passed along the well-known road towards Chichester the voices of the foe who revelled in our courtyard came loudly to us. And I did but think it part of the rejoicing of that day as I listened.

Through the warm summer rain we came before daylight had fully broken to Bosham, not passing through Chichester, for the gates would be closed. And just before the sun rose, Dicul the priest came from his house to the little church and saw us sitting in the porch, waiting him, while the horses cropped the grass on the little green outside the churchyard, hobbled in forest fashion.

He bade us back to his house, and there I fell asleep straightway, with the tiredness that comes suddenly to a child. And Owen and he talked, and I know that he told him all that had happened and what his own plans for me were, under the seal of secrecy. And then he begged the good priest to tell me of my loss.

So it came to pass that presently Dicul took me on his knee and told me wonderful stories of the martyrs of old time, and of his own land in times that are not so far off; and when it seemed to me that indeed there is nought more wonderful and blessed than to give life for the faith, he told me how my father had fallen at the hands of heathen men, and was indeed a martyr himself. I do not know that he could have done it more wisely or sweetly, for half the sting was lost in the wonder of it all.

But he did not tell me who it was had slain my father, and that I did not know for many a long day.

After that we ate with him, and he gave us some little store for a journey, and so Owen and I rode on again, westward, homeless indeed, but in no evil case.

Now, as one may suppose, Owen's first thought was to get me beyond the reach of Erpwald, whose mood might change again, from that in which he let us go with what we would, to that in which he came on us. So all that day we went on steadily, sleeping the night in a little wayside inn, and pushing on again in the early morning, until Owen deemed it safe for us to draw rein somewhat, and for my sake to travel slowly.

At this time he had no clear plan in his head for the ending of our journey, nor was there need to make one at once. We had store of money to last us for many a long day, what with my father's and that which Owen had of his own, and we were well mounted, and what few things we needed to seem but travellers indeed Owen bought in some little town we passed through on the third day. After that we went easily, seeing things that had nought in them but wonder and delight for me.

Then at last we came in sight of the ancient town of Sarum on its hill, and there we drew up on the wayside grass to let a little train of churchmen pass us, and though I did not know it, that little halt ended our wandering. In the midst of the train rode a quiet looking priest, who sang softly to himself as his mule ambled easily along, and he turned to give us his blessing as Owen unhelmed when he passed abreast of us. Then his hand stayed as he raised it, and I saw his face lighten suddenly, and he pulled up the mule in haste, crying to Owen by name, and in the Welsh tongue. And I saw the face of my foster-father flush red, and he leapt from his horse and went to the side of the priest, setting his finger on his lip for a moment as he did so.

Then the priest signed that his people should go on, and at once they left him with us, and Owen bade me do reverence to Aldhelm, the abbot of Malmesbury, before whom we stood. And after that they talked long in Welsh, and that I could not follow, though indeed I knew a fair smattering of it by this time, seeing that Owen would have me learn from him, and we had used it a good deal in these few days as we rode.

It seemed to me that Aldhelm was overjoyed to see Owen, and I know now that those two were old friends of the closest at one time, when they met in Owen's own land.

So from that meeting it came to pass that we found a home with the good abbot at Malmesbury for a time, and there I learned much, as one may suppose, while Owen trained me in arms, and the monks taught me book learning, which I liked not at all, and only suffered for love of Owen, who wished me to know all I might.

Then one day, after two years in quiet here, came Ina the king with all his court to see the place and the new buildings that were rising under the hand of Aldhelm and Owen, who had skill in such matters, and then again was a change for us. It seems that Ethelburga the queen took a fancy to me, and asked that I might be with her as a page in the court, and that was so good a place for the son of any thane in the land that Owen could not refuse, though at first it seemed that we must be parted for a time.

But it was needful that the king should hear my story, that he might have some surety as to who I was, and if I were worthy by birth to be of his household, and Owen hardly knew how to tell him without breaking his oath to Erpwald. Yet it was true that the heathen thane had scoffed at him, rather than forbidden him to seek Ina, though indeed it was plain that he meant to bind us from making trouble for him in any way. But at last Owen said that if the king would forbear to take revenge for a wrong done to me, he might speak, and so after promise given he told all.

Very black grew the handsome face of the king as he heard.

"Am I often deceived thus?" he said. "I will even send some to ask of all the ins and outs of such another case hereafter. This Erpwald sent to me to say that Aldred and all his house had been slain by outlaws, and that he himself had driven them off and I believed him. After that I made over the Eastdean lands to him, and I take it that they were what he wanted. Well, he has not lived long to enjoy them, for he died not long ago, and now his brother holds the lands after him, and I know that he at least is a worthy man.

"Let it be. The child is my ward now, as an orphan, and I should have had to set his estate in the hands of some one to hold till he can take them. There will be no loss to him in the end."

Then he smiled and looked Owen in the face.

"I know you well, Owen, though it is plain that you would not have it so. Mind you the day when I met Gerent at the Parrett bridge? I do not often forget a face, and I saw you then, and asked who you were. Now there is good and, as I hope, lasting peace between our lands, thanks to the wisdom of our good Aldhelm here, and I will ask you somewhat, for I know that you also wrought for that peace while you might. Come to me, and be of the nobles who guard me and mine, and so wait in honour until the time comes when you may return to your place. Then you will be with the boy also."

So it came to pass that we took leave of that good friend the abbot, and went from Malmesbury in the train of Ina of Wessex. Thereafter for six years I served Ethelburga the queen, being trained in all wise as her own child, and after that I was one of the athelings of the court in one post or another, but always with the king when there was war on the long frontier of the Wessex land.



CHAPTER III. HOW KING INA'S FEAST WAS MARRED, AND OF A VOW TAKEN BY OSWALD.

At this time, when I take up my story again, I was two and twenty, not very tall indeed, but square in the shoulder, and well able to hold my own, at the least, with the athelings who were my comrades, at the weapon play or any of our sports. It would have been my own fault if I were not so, for there was no better warrior in all Ina's following than Owen, and he taught me all I knew. And that knowledge I had tested on the field more than once, for Ina had no less trouble with his neighbours than any other king in England, whether in matters of raiding to be stopped or tribute to be enforced. Since I was too old to serve the queen as page any longer I had been of his bodyguard, and where he went was not always the safest place on a field for us who shielded him.

A court is always changing, as men come and go again to their own places after some little service there, but Owen and I were of those to whom the court was home altogether. Owen was the king's marshal now, and I was in command of the house-carles, and had been so for a year or more. It was no very heavy post, nor responsible after all, for Ina's guard was the love of his people, and beyond these warriors from the freemen who served as palace guard and watch, were the athelings of the household, from whose number I had been chosen for this post by right of longest service more than for any other reason, as I think. I knew all the ins and outs of every house where Ina went, and had nothing fresh to learn in the matter. Still, if the men under me were few, the post had its own privileges, and was always held to lead to somewhat higher, and I was more than content therewith, for it kept me near Owen and the king, whom I loved next to my foster father.

I do not think that by this time any one knew, save the king, that I was not Owen's own son. I was wont to call him father always, and I cannot be blamed, for he was foster father and godfather to me, and well did he take the father's place to the orphan whom he had saved. And I had forgotten Eastdean, save as one keeps a memory of the home where one was a child. I never thought of it as a place that should have been mine, for neither the king nor Owen ever spoke to me concerning it. Sometimes, in remembrances of my father, I would wonder into whose hands the manors had passed, but rather in hopes that some day those who owned them now would suffer me to see that the grave where he lay was honoured, rather than as a matter which at all concerned me in any closer way.

For, since I was but a child, the court had been my home, with Owen as my father, and Ina the king as the loved guardian for whom I would gladly give my life in need. All my training and thoughts were centred here, not as what one calls a courtier at all, but as one of the household who feared the king and queen no more than Owen himself, and yet reverenced all three as those to whom all homage was due since he could remember.

Thus things were with us at the end of the tenth year after we left Aldhelm at Malmesbury, and now the court was at Glastonbury in fair Somerset, keeping the Christmastide there in the place that is the holiest in all England by reason of the coming thither of Joseph of Arimathea, and the first preaching of the Gospel in our land by him. It was not by any means the first time I had been in the place, and here I had some good friends indeed; for Ina loved the vale of Avalon well, and often came hither with a few of us, or with the whole court, to the house which he had made that he might watch the building of the wondrous church which he was raising over the very spot where the little chapel of the saint had been in the old days.

Fair is the place indeed, for it lies deep among green hills, and from the westward slope where the church stands, at their foot stretch great meres to lesser hills toward the sunset beyond. Very pleasant are the trees and flowers of the rich meadows of the island valley, and the wind comes but gently here even at Yuletide, hardly ruffling the clear waters that have given the place its name, "Inys Vitryn," and "Avalon" men called the place before we Saxons came, by reason of those still meres and the wondrous orchards which fear no frost among the hills that shelter them. The summer seems to linger here after it has fled from the uplands.

There was a goodly company gathered in Ina's hall for the twelfth night feasting. Truly, the hall was not so great as that in the palace at Winchester, but it was all the brighter for that reason. It was hard to get that great space well lighted and warmed at times, when the wind blew cold under eaves and through narrow windows; but here all was well lit and comfortable to look on and to feel also, as one sat and feasted with the sweet sedges of the mere banks deep under foot on the floor and the great fire in the hall centre near enough to every one. I think that this hall in Glastonbury was as pleasant as any that I know in all Wessex.

There was a great door midway in the southern side of the hall, and as one entered, to right and left along that wall ran the tables for the house-carles and other men of the lower ranks, and for strangers who might come in to share the king's hospitality and had no right to a higher place. Then at either end of the hall were cross tables, where the thanes and their ladies had their places in due order, above the franklins whose cross tables were next to those of the house-carles. And then, right over against the south wall and across the fire on the hearth, was the longest table of all, and in the midst of that was the high place for the king and queen and a few others. That dais was the only place where the guests did not sit on both sides of the tables, for the king's board stood open to the midst of the hall on its three low steps that he might see and be seen by all his guests, and be fitly served from in front.

On the hearth a great yule log burnt brightly, and all round the wall were set torches in their sconces, so that the hall was very bright. On the walls were the costly hangings that we took everywhere with us, and above them shone the spare arms and helms and shields of the house-carles, mixed with heads of boar and stag and wolf from the Mendips and Quantocks where Ina hunted, each head with its story. Up and down in the spaces between the tables hurried the servants who tended the guests, so that the hall was full of life and brightness from end to end. There was peace in all Wessex at this time, and so here was a full gathering of guests to the little town.

Ina and Ethelburga the queen were on the high place, and to their left was Herewald, the Somerset ealdorman, who lived in Glastonbury, and was a good friend of mine, as will be seen, with his fair daughter Elfrida, and on the right of the king was Nunna, his cousin, and his wife. Owen was next to Herewald, at one end of the high place, and at the other end was Sigebald, the Dorset ealdorman, under whom I had fought not so long ago. There were many others of high rank in the west to the right and left of these again at the long tables.

Indeed, there was but one whom I missed in all the gathering. My old friend Aldhelm was gone. He died in the last year, after having been Bishop of Sherborne for a little while. I missed him sorely, as did every man who knew him.

I do not think that if one searched all England through there could have been found a more noble looking group than that at Ina's high table. It is well known that our king and queen were beyond all others for royalty of look and ways, and I will venture to say that neither of the ealdormen had their equals, save in Nunna, anywhere. But it is not my word only, for it was a common saying, that Owen seemed most royal next to the king himself. Grave he always was, but with a ready smile and pleasant, in the right place, and though he was now about five-and-forty he had changed little to my eyes from what he was twelve years ago, when he saved me from the wolves. He was one of those men who age but slowly.

One other on the high place I have not mentioned in this way. That was Elfrida, the Somerset ealdorman's daughter, of whom it was said that she was the fairest maiden in all Wessex. Certainly at this time I for one would have agreed in that saying. She was two years younger than I, if I dare say it, and it seemed to me that in the last three years she had suddenly grown from the child that I used to play with to a very stately lady, well fitted to take the place of her mother, who used to be kind to me when I first came here as the queen's somewhat mischievous page, and had but died a year or so ago. I think that this feast was the first Elfrida and her father had been present at since then, and at least, that was the reason I heard given for her presence on the high place.

Now I must say where my place was in the hall, for it may make more plain what happened hereafter. The young nobles of the court who had no relatives present sat at one of the cross tables at the king's right hand, and at the head of these tables was my seat by reason of my post as captain of the house-carles. So I sat with my back to the long chief table, with its occupants just behind me, and to my left was the open space in the centre of the hall, so that if I was needed, or had to go out for the change of guard or other house-carle business, all that I had to do, being at one end of the bench, was to get up and go my way without disturbing any one. At the same time I could see all the hall before me, and a half turn of the head would set my eyes on the king himself.

The door of the hall was closed when the king entered from his own chambers and took his place, so that the cold, and the draughts, which might eddy the smoke of fire and torches about the guests too much, was kept out. But it was closed against weather only, for any man might crave admittance to the king's ball at the great feast, whether as wayfarer or messenger or suppliant, so that he had good reason for asking hospitality. Several men had come in thus as the feast went on, but none heeded the little bustle their coming made, nor so much as turned to see where they were set at the lower tables, except myself and perhaps Owen. There was merriment enough in the hall, and room and plenty for all comers, even as Ina loved to have it.

Now there is no need to tell aught of that feast, until the meat was done and the tables were cleared for the most pleasant part of the evening, when the servants, whether men or women, sat down at their tables also, and the harp went round, with the cups, and men sang in turn or told tales, each as he was best able to amuse the rest. There was a little bustle while this clearance went on, and men changed their seats to be nearer friends and the like, for the careful state of the beginning of the feast was over in some degree; but at last all was ready, and the great door, which had been open for a few minutes as the servants took out into the courtyard the great cauldrons and spits, was closed, and then there fell a silence, for we waited for a custom of the king's.

Here at Ina's court we kept up the old custom of drinking the first cup with all solemnity, and making some vows thereover. This cup was, of course, to be drunk by the host, and after him by any whom he would name, or would take a vow on him. In the old heathen days this cup was called the "Bragi bowl," and the vows were made in the names of the Asir, and mostly ended in fighting before the year was over. We kept the old name yet, but now the vows were made in the name of all the Saints, and if Ina or any other made one it was sure to be of such sort that it would lead to some worthy deed before long, wrought in all Christian wise. Maybe the last of the old pattern of vow was made when Kentwine our king swore to clear the Welsh from the Parrett River to the sea, and did it.

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