A Thane of Wessex
Charles W. Whistler
Part 1 out of 4
E-text prepared by Martin Robb
A THANE OF WESSEX
Being a Story of the Great Viking Raids into Somerset
CHARLES W. WHISTLER
CHAPTER I. OUTLAWED!
The whole of my story seems to me to begin on the day when I stood,
closely guarded, before my judges, in the great circle of the people at
the Folk Moot of the men of Somerset gathered on the ancient hill of
Brent. All my life before that seems to have been as nothing, so quiet
and uneventful it was compared to what came after. I had grown from
boyhood to manhood in my father's great hall, on the little hill of
Cannington that looks out over the mouth of the river Parret to the blue
hills beyond. And there, when I was but two-and-twenty and long
motherless, I succeeded him as thane, and tried to govern my people as
well and wisely as he, that I too might die loved and honoured as he
died. And that life lasted but three years.
Maybe, being young and headstrong, I spoke at times, when the feasting
was over and the ale cup went round, too boldly of the things that were
beyond me, and dared, in my want of experience, to criticize the ways of
the king and his ordering of matters--thinking at the same time no
thought of disloyalty; for had anyone disparaged the king to myself my
sword would have been out to chastise the speaker in a moment. But, as
it ever is, what seems wrong in another may be passed over in oneself.
However that may be, it came to pass that Matelgar, the thane of Stert,
a rich and envious man, saw his way through this conceit of mine to his
own profit. For Egbert, the wise king, was but a few years dead, and it
was likely enough that some of the houses of the old seven kings might
dare to make headway against Ethelwulf his successor, and for a time the
words of men were watched, lest an insurrection might be made unawares.
I thought nothing of this, nor indeed dreamt that such a thing might be,
nor did one ever warn me.
My father and this Matelgar were never close friends, the open nature of
the one fitting ill with the close and grasping ways of the other. Yet,
when Matelgar spoke me fair at the rere-feast of my father's funeral,
and thereafter would often ride over and sup with me, I was proud to
think, in my foolishness, that I had won the friendship that my father
could not win, and so set myself even above him from whom I had learnt
all I knew of wisdom.
And that conceit of mine was my downfall. For Matelgar, as I was soon to
find out, encouraged my foolishness, and, moreover, brought in friends
and bought men of his, who, by flattering me, soon made themselves my
boon companions, treasuring up every word that might tell against me
when things were ripe.
Then at last, one day as I feasted after hunting the red deer on the
Quantocks, my steward came into my hall announcing messengers from the
king. They followed close on his heels, and I, who had seen nothing of
courts, wondered that so many armed men should be needed in a peaceful
hall, and yet watched them as one watches a gay show, till some fifty
men of the king's household lined my hall and fifty more blocked the
doorway. My people watched too, and I saw a smile cross from one of
Matelgar's men to another, but thought no guile.
Then one came forward and arrested me in the king's name as a traitor,
and I drew my sword on him, telling him he lied in giving me that name,
calling too on my men to aid me. But they were overmatched, and dared
not resist, for the swords of the king's men were out, and, moreover, I
saw that Matelgar's men were weaponless. He himself was not with me, and
still I had no thought of treachery.
So the end was that I was pinioned from behind and bound, and taken away
that night to where I knew not. Only, wherever it was, I was kept in
darkness and chains, maddened by the injustice of the thing and my own
helplessness, till I lost count of days, and at last hope itself. And
all that time the real reason for my arrest, and for the accusation that
caused it, never entered my mind, and least of all did I suspect that
Matelgar, my friend, was at the bottom of it. Indeed, I hoped at first
that, hearing of my trouble, he would interfere and procure my release,
till, as I say, hope was gone.
It was March when I was taken to prison. It was into broad May sunshine
and greenness that I was brought out by my surly jailers at last, set,
half blind with the darkness of the prison, on a good horse, and so,
with my hands bound behind me, led off in the midst of a strong guard to
the place of my trial.
Then, as mind and feeling came back to me with the fresh air and
springtime warmth, I knew the place we were leaving: It was the castle
of a friend of Matelgar--and that seemed strange to me, for I had been
hardly treated, seeing none save the men who fed me and saw that my
chains were kept secure. Then I looked in the faces of my guards, but
all were unknown to me. As I had not before been to that castle as a
guest, I was not surprised, and I said nothing to them, for I had found
the uselessness of question and entreaty when I spoke at the first to
So, silently, we rode on, and the world looked very fair to me after the
long grayness of the prison walls.
One who knows the west country, hunting through it as I have hunted,
grows to love and recognize the changing shapes of every hill and coombe
and spur of climbing forest on their sides, and so, before long, I knew
we were making for the great hill of Brent, but why I could not tell.
Then we crossed Parret river, and I watched a salmon leap as we did so;
and then on over the level marshes till I could see that the wide circle
on Brent top was black with swarming people. Often enough, as the cloud
shadows passed from them, arms and bright armour sparkled in the
sunlight among the crowd; and then I could have wept, having no arms or
harness left me, for often when aforetime I rode free I would take a
childish pleasure in seeing the churls blink and shade their eyes as I
flashed on them, and would wonder, too, if my weapons shone as my
father's shone as we rode side by side on some sunny upland.
Then, when we came under the hill of Brent, the hum of voices came down
to us, for the day was still, and my guards straightened themselves in
the saddle and set their ranks more orderly. But I, clad as I was in the
rags of the finery I had worn at the feast whence I was taken, shrank
within myself, ashamed to meet the gazes that must be turned on me
presently, for I saw that we were going on up the steep ascent to mix
with the crowd on the summit of the great knoll.
Now, by this time the long ride had brought back my senses to me, and I
began to take more thought for myself and what might be meant by this
journey. At first I had been so stunned and dazed by the release--as
my removal from the dungeon seemed to me--that I had been content to
feel the light and air play about me once more; but that strangeness had
worn off now, and the consciousness of being yet a prisoner took hold of
My guards had ridden silent, either in obedience to command, or because
a Saxon is not often given to talk when under some responsibility, so
that I had learnt nothing from them thus far. But as we turned our
horses' heads up the steep, a longing at last came over me to speak, and
I turned to a gray-bearded man who had ridden silently at my right hand
all the morning and asked him plainly whither he was taking me, and for
answer he pointed up the hill, saying nothing.
Then I asked him why I must be taken there, and, grimly enough, he
replied in two words, "For trial", and so I knew that the Great Moot [i]
was summoned, and that presently I should know the whole meaning of this
thing that had befallen me. Then my spirits began to rise, for, being
conscious of no wrongdoing, I looked forward to speedy release with full
proof of innocence.
Then I began to look about me and to note the crowds of people whom the
Moot had gathered. So many and various were these that I and my guards
passed with little notice among those who toiled up the hill with us,
the crowd growing thicker as we neared the edge of the first great
square platform on the hilltop. And when we reached this, my guards
reined up to breathe their horses, for Brent has from this first
platform a yet steeper rise to the ancient circle on the very summit.
Men say that both platform and circle are the work of the Welsh, whom
our Saxon forefathers drove out and enslaved, but however this may be,
they were no idle workmen who raised the great earthworks that are there.
All the many acres of that great platform were covered with wagons and
carts, and everywhere were set booths and tents, and in them men and
women were eating and drinking, having come from far. There were, too,
shows of every kind to beguile the hours of waiting or to tempt the
curious, for many of the people, thralls and unfree men, had taken
holiday with their masters, and had come to see the Moot, though they
had no part in the business thereof.
So there were many gaily-dressed tumblers and dancers, jugglers and
gleemen, each with a crowd round them. But among these crowds were few
freemen, so that I judged that the Moot was set, and that they were
gathered on the higher circle that was yet before us to be climbed.
I had been on Brent once or twice before, but then it had been deserted,
and my eyes had had time and inclination to look out over the wide view
of hill and plain and sea and distant Welsh mountains beyond that. Now I
thought nothing of these things, but looked up to where it seemed that I
must be judged. I could make out one or two banners pitched and floating
idly in the sunshine, and one seemed to have a golden cross at its stave
head; but I could make out none of the devices on them, and so I looked
idly back on the crowd again. And then men brought us food and ale, and
at last, after some gruff talk among themselves, the guards untied my
hands, though they left my feet bound under the saddle girths, and bade
me help myself.
Nor was I loth to eat heartily, with the freshness of the ride on me,
and with the hope of freedom strong in my heart.
Then we waited for an hour or more, and the sun began to slope westward,
and my guards seemed to grow impatient. Still the crowds did not thin,
and if one group of performers ceased another set began their antics.
At last a richly-clad messenger came towards us, the throng making hasty
way for him, and spoke to the leader of our party. Then, following him,
we rode to the foot of the great mound, and there dismounted. And now
they bound my hands again, and if I asked them to forbear I cannot well
remember, but I think I did so in vain. For my mind was in a great
tumult as we climbed the hill, wondering and fearing and hoping all at
once, and longing to see who were my judges, and to have this matter
ended once for all.
We passed, I think, two groups coming down from some judgment given, and
of these I know one contained a guarded and ironed man with a white, set
face; and the other was made up of people who smiled and talked rapidly,
leading one who had either gained a cause or had been acquitted. There
were perhaps other people who met us or whom we passed, but these are
the two I remember of them all. Then we gained the summit and stood
there waiting for orders, as it seemed, and I could look round on all
And at first I seemed to be blinded by the brilliance of that assembly,
for our Saxon folk love bright array and fair jewellery on arm and neck.
Men sat four and six deep all round the great circle, leaving only the
gap where we should enter; and right opposite that gap seemed the place
of honour, for there were a score or more of chairs set, each with a
thane thereon, and in the midst of them sat those behind whom the
banners were raised. Near us at this end of the circle were the lesser
freemen, and so round each bend of the ring to right and left in order
of rank till those thanes were reached who were highest.
Before those stood some disputants, as it seemed, and I could not see
the faces of the seated thanes clearly at first. But presently I knew
the banners--they were those of Eanulf the Ealdorman, and of Ealhstan
the Bishop. And when I saw the first I feared, for the great ealdorman
was a stern and pitiless man, from all I had ever heard; but when I knew
that banner with the golden cross above it, my heart was lighter, for
all men loved and spoke well of the bishop.
It seemed long before that trial was over; but at last the men ceased
speaking, and the thanes seemed to take counsel upon it; and then Eanulf
pronounced judgment, and the men sat down in their places in the ring,
for it was, as one could tell, some civil dispute of boundary, or road,
or the like which had been toward.
Then there was a silence for a space, until the ealdorman rose and spoke
loudly, for all the great ring to hear.
"There is one more case this day that must come before this Moot, and
that is one which brings shame on this land of ours. That one from among
the men of Somerset should speak ill of Ethelwulf the King, and plot
against him, is not to be borne. But that all men may know and fear the
doom that shall be to such an one, he has been brought for trial by the
Moot, with full proof of his guilt in this matter, that Somerset itself,
as it were, should pronounce his sentence."
Now, when the assembly heard that, a murmur went round, and, as it
seemed to me, of surprise mixed with wrath. And I myself felt the same
for the moment--but then the eyes of all turned in a flash upon me--
and I remembered the accusation that had been brought against me, and I
knew that it was I of whom Eanulf spoke. Then shame fell on me, to give
place at once to anger, and I think I should have spoken hotly, but that
at some sign from the ealdorman, my guards laid hold of me, and led me
across the open space and set me before him and the bishop.
But as he with the others laid hands on me, that gray-bearded man, who
had answered me when I asked my one question, whispered hastily in my
ear, "Be silent and keep cool."
I would he were alive now; but that might not be. And I knew not then
why he thus spoke, unless he had known and loved my father.
So I stood before those two judges and looked them in the face; and then
one moved uneasily in his seat to their left, and my eyes were drawn to
him. It was Matelgar, and, as I saw him, I smiled for I thought him a
friend at least; but he looked not at me. Then from him I turned to seek
the face of some other whom I might know. And I saw thanes, friends of
my father, whom I had not cared to seek; and of these some frowned on
me, but some looked pityingly, as I thought, though it was but for a
moment that my eyes might leave the faces of those two judges before me.
Now, were it not that when I go over what followed my heart still rises
up again in a wrath and mad bitterness that I fain would feel no more, I
would tell all of that trial, if trial one could call it, where there
was none to speak for the accused, and every word was against him.
And in that trial I myself took little part by word or motion, standing
there and listening as though the words spoken of me concerned another,
as indeed, they might well have done.
But first Eanulf spoke to me, bending his brows as he did so, and
frowning on me.
"Heregar, son of Herewulf the Thane, you are accused by honourable men
of speaking evil of our Lord the King, Ethelwulf. What answer have you
to make to this charge? And, moreover, you are further charged with
conspiring against him--can you answer to that charge?"
Then I was about to make loud and angry denial of these accusations, but
that old guard of mine, who yet held my shoulder, gripped it tightly,
and I remembered his words, so that in a flash it came to me that an
innocent man need but deny frankly, as one who has no fear, and I looked
Eanulf in the face and answered him.
"Neither of these charges are true, noble Eanulf; nor know I why they
are brought against me, or by whom. Let them speak--there are those
here who will answer for my loyalty."
Now, as I spoke thus quietly, Eanulf's brows relaxed, and I saw, too,
that the bishop looked more kindly on me. Eanulf spoke again.
"Know you not by whom these charges are brought?"
"Truly, I know not, Lord Eanulf," I answered, "for no man may say these
things of me, save he lies."
"Have you enemies?" he asked.
"None known to me," I told him truthfully, for I had, as my father,
lived at peace with all.
"Then is the testimony of those against you the heavier," said the
And with that he turned to the bishop before I could make reply; and
they spoke together for a while in Latin, which I knew not.
So I looked to my friend Matelgar for comfort, but he seemed to see me
not, looking away elsewhere. And I thought him plainly troubled for me,
for his face was white, and the hand on which his chin rested was
turning the ends of his beard between his teeth, so that he bit it--as
I had seen him do before when in doubt or perplexity.
As I watched him, the bishop spoke in Saxon, saying that it would be
well to call the accusers first and hear them, that I might make such
reply as was possible to me.
"For," said he, "it seems to me that this Heregar speaks truth in saying
that he knows not his accusers."
Then Eanulf bowed gravely, and all the circle was hushed, for a little
talk had murmured round as these two spoke in private.
And now I will forbear, lest the rage and shame of it should get the
mastery of me again, and I should again think and speak things for which
(as once before, at the bidding of the man I love best on earth) I must
do long penance, if that may avail. For, truly, I forgave once, and I
would not recall that forgiveness. Yet I must tell somewhat.
Eanulf bade the accusers stand forward and give their evidence; and
slowly, and, as it were, unwillingly, rose Matelgar, my friend, as I had
deemed him, and behind him a score of those friends of his who had kept
me company for long days on moor and in forest, and had feasted in my hall.
Again that warning grasp on my shoulder, and I thought that surely
either I or they had mistaken the summons, and that my defenders had
Then, as in a dream, I listened to words that I will not recall, making
good those accusations. And through all that false witness there seemed
to me to run, as it were, a thread of those foolish, boy-wise words of
mine that had, and meant, no harm, but on which were now built mountains
of seeming proof. So that, when at last all those men had spoken I was
dumb, and knew that I had no defence. For no proof of loyalty had I to
give--for proof had never been required of me. And a man may live a
quiet life, and yet conspire most foully.
As my accusers went back to their seats there ran a murmur among the
folk, and then a silence fell. The level afternoon sun seemed to blaze
on me alone, while to me the air seemed thick and close, and full of
Ealhstan the Bishop broke the silence.
"The proof is weighty, and Matelgar the Thane is an honourable man," he
said, sadly enough; "but if a man conspires, there needs must be one
other, at least, in the plot. Surely we have heard little of this."
Then was added more evidence. And men proved lonely journeys of mine,
with evasion of notice thereof, and disavowal of the same. Yet I thought
that Matelgar the Thane knew of my love for Alswythe, his daughter, whom
I would meet, as lovers will meet, unobserved if they may, in all honour.
Yet, as I listened, it was of these meetings they spoke, saying only
that I had been able to concord whom I met, and where, though Matelgar
must have known it. When that was finished, Eanulf bade me call men to
disprove these things. And I could not. For my accusers were my close
companions, and of Alswythe I would not speak, and I must fain hold my
Only, after a silence, I could forbear no longer, and cried:
"Will none speak for me?"
Then one by one my father's friends rose and told what they knew of my
boyhood and training; but of these last few years of my manhood they,
alas for my own folly could not speak. What they might they did, and my
heart turned to them in gratitude for a little, though Matelgar's
treachery had seemed to make it a stone within me.
They ended, and the silence came again. It seemed long, and weighed on
me like a thunderstorm in the air, nor should I have started had the
whole assembly broken into one thunderclap of hatred of me. But instead
of that, came the calm voice of Ealhstan the Bishop:
"Eanulf and freemen of Somerset, there is one who witnesses for this
Heregar more plainly than all these. That witness is himself, in his
youth and inexperience. What are the wild words a boy will say? Who will
plot against a mighty king with a boy for partner? What weight have his
words? What help can come from his following? It seems to me that
Matelgar the Thane and these friends of his might well have laughed away
all these foolishnesses, rather than hoard them up to bring before this
solemn council. This, too, I hold for injustice, that one should be kept
in ward till his trial, unknowing of all that is against him, unhelped
by the counsel of any freeman, and unable to send word to those who
should stand by him at his trial. Indeed, this thing must be righted, I
tell you, before England is a free land."
At that there went a sound of assent round the Moot, and it seems to me,
looking back, that that trial of mine, hard as it was to bear, was yet
the beginning of good to all the land, by reason of those words which it
taught the bishop to say, and which found an abiding place in the hearts
of the honest men who heard; so that in these days of Alfred, our wise
king, they have borne fruit.
Then Eanulf signed to my guards, and they led me away and over the brow
of the hill, that the Moot might speak its mind on me. There my guards
bade me sit down, and I did so, resting head on hands, and thinking of
nought, as it seemed to me, until suddenly rose up hate of Matelgar, and
of Eanulf, and of all that great assembly, and of all the world.
There was an earthquake once when I was but a boy, and never could I
forget how it was as though all things one had deemed solid and secure
had suddenly become treacherous as Severn ooze. And now it was to me as
though an earthquake had shaken my thoughts of men. For, till that day,
never had I found cause to distrust anyone who was friend of mine. Now
could I trust none.
Then rose up in my mind the image of Alswythe, fair, and blue eyed, and
brown haired, smiling at me as she was wont. And I deemed her, too,
false, as having tricked me to meet her that this might come upon me.
Well it was that they called me back into the ring to hear my doom, for
such thoughts as these will drive a man to madness. Now must I think for
myself again, and meet what must be. Yet I would look at no man as I
went towards the place of my judges, and stood before them with my eyes
cast down. For I was beaten, and cared no more for aught.
Eanulf spoke; but he had no anger in his voice and it seemed as though
he repeated the words of others.
"Heregar, son of Herewulf," he said, "these things have been brought
against you by honourable men, and you cannot disprove them--hardly
can you deny them. They may not be passed over; yet for the sake of your
youth, and for the pleading of Ealhstan, our Bishop, your doom shall be
lighter than some think fit. Death it might be; but that shall not pass
now on you, or for this. But Thane you may be no longer, and we do
confirm that sentence. Landless also you must be, as unworthy to hold
it. Outlaw surely must he be who plots against the Head of law."
He paused a moment, and then said:
"This, then, is your doom. Outlawed you are from this day forward, but
wolf's head [ii] you shall not be. None in all Wessex shalt harbour you
or aid you, but none shall you harm, save you harm them. Go hence from
this place and from this land, to some land where no man knows you; and
so shall you rest again."
Now, had I not been blinded with rage and shame, I might have seen that
there was mercy in this sentence, and hope also. For I had seen a man
outlawed once, and given a day's start, like some wild beast, in which
to fly from the hand of every man that would seek his life. But I was to
be safe from such harm, and but that I must go hence, I was not to be
hounded forth, nor was my shame to be published beyond Wessex. So that
all the other kingdoms lay open and safe to me.
None of this I heeded; I only knew that my enemies had got the mastery,
and that ruin was upon me. So I ground my teeth and was mute.
Then they cut my bonds and I stood free, but cared not. Nor did I stir
from my place; and a look of surprise crossed Eanulf's face. But
Ealhstan the Bishop, knowing well, I think, what was in my mind, rose
from his seat, and came to me, laying his hands on my shoulders. I would
have shaken them off; but be kept them there gently, and spoke to me.
"Heregar, my son," he said, and his words were like the cool of a shower
after heat, to my burning brain, "be not cast down in the day of your
trouble overmuch. There are yet things for you to do in this world of
ours, and the ways of men are not all alike. Foolish you have been,
Heregar, my son, but the Lord who gave wisdom to Solomon the youth, will
give to you, if you will ask Him. Go your way in peace, and if you will
heed my words, take your trouble to some wise man of God, and so be led
by his counsel. And, Heregar," and here the bishop's voice was for me
alone, "if you need forgiveness, forgive if there is aught by you to be
Then I knew that the bishop, at least, believed in my innocence, and my
hard heart bent before him, though my body would not. He laid his hand
on my head for one moment, and so left me.
One of my father's old friends rose up and said:
"Ealdorman, he is unarmed. Give him that which will keep him from wanton
attack, or from the wolves, even if it be but a thrall's weapons."
Eanulf signed assent.
On that they gave me a woodman's billhook, and a seax, [iii] such as the
churls wear, and one thrust a good ash, iron-shod quarterstaff into my
hands. Then my guards led me away from the assembly, and set my face
towards the downward path. Once again the old man spoke to me with words
of good counsel.
"Keep up heart, master. Make for Cornwall, and turn viking with the next
Danes who come."
I would not answer him, but walked down the hill a little. Then the
bitterness of my heart overcame me, and I turned, and shaking my staff
up at the hill, cursed the Moot deeply.
So I went--an outlaw.
CHAPTER II. THE FIGHT WITH TWO.
Now whither I went for the next two hours I cannot tell, for my mind was
heedless of time or place or direction--only full of burning hate of
all men, and of Matelgar most of all. And though that has long passed
away from me, so that I may even think of him now as the pleasant
comrade in field and feast that he once was, I wonder not at all I then
felt; for this treachery had come on me so unawares, and was so deep.
Wherever it was I wandered it took me away from men, and at last, when I
roused myself to a knowledge again of the land round me, I was hard on
the borders of Sedgemoor Waste; and the sun was low down, and near setting.
Perhaps I had not roused even then; but it came into my mind that I was
followed, and that for some time past I had heard, as in a dream, the
noise of footsteps not far behind me. Now, since I was in the glade of a
little wood, a snapping stick broke the dream, and I started and turned.
Where I stood was in the shadow, but twenty paces from me a red, level
sunbeam came past the tree trunks, and made a bright patch of light on
the new growing grass beneath the half-clad branches. And, even as I
turned, into that patch of light came two of Matelgar's men, walking
swiftly, as if here at last they would overtake me. And, moreover, that
sunlight lit on drawn swords in their hands; so that in a moment I knew
that his hate followed me yet, and that for him the Moot had been too
merciful in not slaying me then and there, so that these were on that
errand for him.
Then all earth and sky grew red before my eyes, for here seemed to me
the beginning of my revenge; and before these two knew that I had
turned, out of the dim shadow I leapt upon them, silent, with that
quarterstaff aloft. Dazzled they were with the sunlight, and thinking
least of all of my turning thus swiftly, if at all. And I was as one of
the Berserks of whom men spoke--caring not for death if only I might
slay one of those who had wrought me wrong.
Into the face of that one to the left flew the iron-shod end of the
heavy staff and he fell; and as the other gave back a pace, I whirled it
round to strike his head. He raised his sword to guard the blow, and
that fell in shivers as I smote it. Then a second blow laid him across
his comrade, senseless.
Then I stood over them and rejoiced; and part of my anger and shame
seemed to pass into the lust of revenge begun well. I knew the men as
two of Matelgar's housecarles, and that made it the sweeter to see them
lie thus helpless before me.
I knew not if they were dead yet, but I would make sure. So I leaned my
staff against a tree, and drew the sharp seax from my belt.
Then came into my mind the words of my father, who would ever tell me
that he is basest who would slay an unarmed foe, or smite a fallen man;
and hastily I put back the seax again, lest I should be tempted to
become base as men had said I was; for I hold treachery to be of the
same nature as that of which my father warned me.
I took back my staff and leant on it, thinking, and looking at those
men. They were the first I had ever met in earnest, and this was the
first proof of the skill in arms my father had spent long years in
giving me. So there crept over me a pride that I had met two and
overcome them--and I unarmed, as we count it, against mail-clad men.
Then I thought that Herewulf, my father, would be proud of me could he
And then, instantly, the shame of what had led to this swallowed up all
my pride; and with that thought of my father's loved and honoured name,
my hard heart was broken, and I leant my head against a tree, and wept
One of the men stirred, and I sprang round hurriedly. It was the second
man, whose sword I had broken. He had been but stunned, and now sat up
as one barely awake, and unaware of what had happened. I might not slay
him now, but quick as I could I took off my own broad leather belt and
pinioned him from behind. He was yet too dazed to resist. And then I
took his dagger from him, and bound his feet with his own belt, dragging
him away from his comrade, and setting him against a tree. There he sat,
blinking at me, but becoming more himself quickly.
Then I looked at the other man. He was dead, for the end of the
quarterstaff had driven in his forehead, so madly had I struck at him
with all my weight.
And now, seeing that I was cooler and might think more clearly, it
seemed to me that it would be bitter to Matelgar that out of his wish to
destroy me should come help to myself. I needed arms, and now I had but
to take them from his own armoury, as it were. Well armed were all his
housecarles, and this one I had slain was their captain, and his byrnie
of linked mail was of the best Sussex steel, and his helm was crested
with a golden boar, with linked mail tippet hanging to protect the neck.
And his sword--but as my eyes fell on that my heart gave a great leap
of joy--for it was my own! Mine, too, was the baldric from which it
hung, and mine was the seax that balanced it, close to the right hand in
As I saw that I began to know more of the plans of Matelgar--for it
must be that my hall and all my goods had fallen into his hands, and
this was the reward his head man had asked and been given.
And now I minded that this man had been one of those who gave evidence
of my lonely rides and secret meetings. So he had been bought thus, for
my sword was a good one, and the hilt curiously wrought in ivory and
Then I made no more delay, but stripped the man of his armour, and also
of the stout leathern jerkin he wore beneath it, for I was clad in the
rags of feasting garb, as I have said, and hated them even as I threw
them aside. The man was of my own height and build, as it chanced, and
his gear fitted me well. So I took his hide shoes also, casting away my
frayed velvet foot coverings into the underwood.
Now once more I stood clad in the arms of a free man and how good it was
to feel again the well known and loved weight of mail, and helm, and
sword tugging at me I cannot say. But this I know, that, like the strong
man of old our old priest told me of, as I shook myself, my strength and
manhood came back to me.
But now, whereas I had been haled from my feasting a careless boy, and
had stood before my judges as an angry man, as I look back, I see that
from that arming I rose up a grim and desperate warrior with wrongs to
right, and the will and strength to right them.
So I stood for a little, and the savage thoughts that went through my
mind I may not write. Then I turned to my captive and looked at him,
though I thought nothing concerning him. But what he saw written in my
face as it glowered on him from under the helmet bade him cry aloud to
me to spare him.
And at that I laughed. It was so good to feel that this enemy of mine
feared me. At that laugh--and it sounded not like my own, even to
myself--the man writhed, and besought me again for mercy. But I had no
mind to kill him, and a thought crossed me.
"Matelgar bade you slay me," I said, "that I know. Tell me why he has
sought my life and I will spare you."
"Master," said the man hastily, "I knew not whom I was to slay. Matelgar
bade me follow Gurth yonder, and smite whom he smote."
"It would have mattered not--you would have slain me as well as any
"Nay, master," the man said earnestly, "that would I not."
"You lie," I answered curtly enough; "like master like man. Tell me what
I bade you."
"Truly I lie not, Heregar," cried he, "for I love my mistress over well
to harm you."
Now at that mention of Alswythe the blood rushed into my face, for I had
held her false with the rest, and this seemed to say otherwise, unless
the plot had been hidden from such as this man. But I would fain learn
more of that, for the sake of the hope of a love I had thought true.
"What is your mistress to me?" I asked. "Ye are all alike."
I think the man could see well at what I aimed, for he spoke of the Lady
Alswythe more freely than he would have dared at other times, nor would
I have let him name her lightly.
"Our mistress has gone sadly since the day you were taken, master; even
asking me to tell her, if I could, where you were kept, thinking me one
of those who guarded you, mayhap. But I knew not till today what had
chanced to you. Men may know well from such tokens what is amiss."
Hearing that, my heart lightened within me, for I saw that the man spoke
truth. However, I would not speak more of this to such as he, and I bade
him cease his prating, and answer plainly my first question, laying my
hand on my seax as if to draw it.
"Gurth could have told you; master," he cried, "but he is dead. Matelgar
held no counsel with me. I can but tell you what the talk is among the
"Because Matelgar had taken charge, as he said, of your lands while you
were away, and knowing well that in your taking he had had some hand,
men say it is to get possession thereof; and the women say that, while
you were near, the Lady Alswythe would marry no other, so that he had
had you removed."
The first I had guessed by the token of the sword that I had regained.
That last was sweet to hear.
"Go on," I said. "How came Matelgar to have power to hold my lands?"
"There came one from the king, after you were taken, giving him papers
with a great seal thereon, and these he read aloud in your hall, showing
the king's own hand at the end. So men bowed thereto, and all your men
he drove out if they would not serve him, and few remained. The rest
have taken service elsewhere if they were free."
So Matelgar was in possession, and now would be confirmed in the same.
What mattered that to an outlaw? But I could have borne anything better
than to think of him sitting in my place as reward for his treachery.
This was evidence of weakness, however, in his case, that he should have
tried to have me slain.
Now I had learnt all I needed, and more, in the one thing next my heart,
than I hoped, if that were true--for still I could not but doubt the
faith of all. Only one thing more I would ask, and that was if Matelgar
bided in his own or my hall. The man told me that he kept in his own place.
"Now," said I, "I had a mind to leave you bound here for the wolves, but
you shall take a message to your master."
On that the man swore to do my bidding, or, if I would, to follow me.
"Save your oaths," I said. "I have heard a many today, and I hold them
as nothing. Take these cast rags of mine, and bear them back to your
master. Give them to him, and then say to him whatsoever you will--
either that you have slain me and these are the tokens, but that Gurth
was by me slain, and you must leave him and his arms here because of the
wolves which you feared; or else you can tell him the truth, as it has
happened, and see what he does to you. I mind how he hung up a thrall of
his by the thumbs once for two days. He will surely take good care of
one of two who were beaten by an unarmed man. But I think the lie will
come easiest to your master's man."
Thus spoke I bitterly, and cut the belt which bound the man's arms,
thinking all the while that he would never go back at all if he were
wise. But he said he would go back and tell the lie, and I laughed at him.
It was dusk now, and though I feared not the man, I would play with him
yet a little longer in my bitterness. So I bade him keep still, and stir
not till I gave him leave. His feet were yet bound, and he would need an
edge-tool to loose that binding. Telling him, then, that I would not run
the chance of his falling on me from behind, I took his dagger and the
seax they had given me, and stuck them in the ground a full hundred
yards away, and then bade him, when I was out of sight, crawl thither as
best he might and so loose himself.
The poor wretch was too glad to be spared to do aught but repeat that he
would do my errand faithfully, and thank me; and, but for the sort of
madness that was still on me, I must have been ashamed to torture him
so. I am sorry now as I think of it, and many a man who has well
deserved punishment have I let go since that day, fearing lest that old
cruelty should be on me again, perhaps.
Then I turned and walked away, and even as I passed the weapons, I heard
the low howl of a wolf from the swamp to my right. Far off it was, but
at that sound the man cast himself on hands and knees and began to crawl
in all haste to free himself.
Then I laughed again, and plunging deeper into the wood, lost sight of him.
CHAPTER III. BY BELL, BOOK, AND CANDLE.
I had never been into Sedgemoor before, and so went straight on as I
could, only turning aside from swampy places while the light lasted.
Then I must wait for the moon to rise, and I sat me down under an old
thorn tree on a little rise where I could see about me. I had come out
of the woods, and all the moor was open to the west and south so far as
I could see. I knew that the place was haunted of evil spirits, and
shunned at night time by all: but now I was not afraid of them--or
indeed of anything, save the wolves. The terror of the man I had left
had put that fear into my head, or I think that, desperate as I was,
only the sound of a pack of them in full cry would have warned me.
Still, I had heard no more since that one howled an hour ago.
Cold mists rose from the marsh, and in them I could see lights flitting.
A month or two ago I should have feared them, thinking of Beowulf, son
of Hygelac, and what befell him and his comrades from the marsh fiends,
Grendel and his dam. Now I watched them, and half longed for a fight
like Beowulf's. [iv]
At last the moon rose behind me, and I walked on. Once a vast shape rose
up in the mist and walked beside me, and I half drew my sword on it. But
that, too, drew sword, and I knew it for my own shadow on the thick
vapour. Then a sheet of water stretched out almost under my feet, and
thousands of wildfowl rose and fled noisily, to fall again into further
pools with splash and mighty clatter. I must skirt this pool, and so
came presently to a thicket of reeds, shoulder high, and out of these
rose, looking larger than natural in the moonlight, a great wild boar
that had his lair there, and stood staring at me before he too made off,
grunting as he went.
So I went on aimless. The night was full of sounds, but whether earthly;
from wildfowl and bittern and curlew, from fox, and badger, and otter;
or from the evil spirits of the marsh, I knew not nor cared. For now the
long imprisonment and the day's terrible doings, and the little food I
had had since we halted on the hill of Brent, all began to get hold of
me, and I stumbled on as a man in a bad dream.
But nothing harmed or offered to harm me. Only when some root or twisted
tussock of grass would catch my foot and hinder me I cursed it for being
in league with Matelgar, tearing my way fiercely over or through it. And
at last, I think, my mind wandered.
Then I saw a red light that glowed close under the edge of some thick
woodland, where the land rose, and that drew me. It was the hut of a
charcoal burner, and the light came from the kiln close by, which was
open, and the man himself was standing at it, even now taking out a
glowing heap of the coal to cool, before he piled in fresh wood and
closed it for the night.
When I saw the hut, it suddenly came on me that I was wearied out, and
must sleep, and so went thither. The collier heard the clank of my
armour, and turned round in the crimson light of the glowing coals to
see what came. As he saw me standing he cried aloud in terror, and,
throwing up his hands, fled into the dark beyond the kiln, calling on
the saints to protect him.
For a moment I wondered that he should thus fly me; but I staggered to
his hut, and I remember seeing his rush-made bed, and that is all.
When I woke again, at first I thought myself back in the dungeon, and
groaned, but would not open my eyes. But I turned uneasily, and then a
small voice spoke, saying:
"Ho, Grendel! are you awake?"
I sat up and looked round. Then I knew where I was--but I had slept a
great sleep, for out of the open door I saw the Quantock hills, blue
across the moor, and the sun shone in almost level. It was late afternoon.
I looked for him who had spoken, and at first could see no one, for the
sun shone in my face: but something stirred in a corner, and I looked
It was a small sturdy boy of some ten years old, red haired, and
freckled all over where his woollen jerkin and leather hose did not
cover him. He sat on a stool and stared at me with round eyes.
I stared back at him for a minute, and then, from habit, for I would
always play with children, made a wry face at him, at which he smiled,
pleased enough, and said:
"Spit fire, good Grendel, I want to see."
Now I was glad to be kept off my own fierce thoughts for a little, and
so answered him back, wondering at the name he gave me, and at his request.
"So--I am Grendel, am I?"
"Aye," said the urchin, "Dudda Collier ran into village in the night,
saying that you had come out of the fen, all fire from head to foot, and
so he fled. But I came to see."
"Where is the collier then?"
"He dare not come back, he says, without the priest, and has gone to get
the hermit. So the other folk bided till he came too."
"Were not you afraid of me?"
"Maybe I was feared at first--but I would see you spit fire before the
holy man drives you away. So I looked in through a crack, and saw you
asleep. Then I feared not, and bided your waking for a little time."
"What is your name, brave urchin?' I asked, for I was pleased with the
child and his fearlessness.
"Turkil," he said.
"Well, Turkil--I am not Grendel. He fled when I came in here."
"Did you beat him?" asked the boy, with a sort of disappointment.
"Nay; but he disappeared when the hot coals went out," I said. "And now
I am hungry, can you find me aught to eat?" and, indeed, rested as I was
with the long sleep, I had waked sound in mind and body again, and
longed for food, and I think that finding this strange child here to
turn my thoughts into a wholesome channel, when first they began to stir
in me, was a mercy that I must ever be thankful for.
Turkil got up solemnly and went to the hearth. Thence he took an iron
cauldron, and hoisted it on the great round of tree trunk that served as
table in the midst of the hut.
"Dudda Collier left his supper when he fled. Wherefore if we eat it he
will think Grendel got it--and no blame to us," remarked the boy,
And when I thought how I had not a copper sceatta left me in the world,
I stopped before saying that I would pay him when he returned, and so
laughed back at the boy and fell to.
When we had finished, the cauldron, which had been full of roe deer
venison, was empty, and Turkil and I laughed at one another over it.
"Grendel or no Grendel," said the urchin, "Dudda will ask nought of his
"By reason of what it was made of."
Then I remembered that a thrall might by no means slay the deer, and
that he would surely be in fear when he knew that one had found him out.
So I said to the boy:
"Grendel ate it, doubtless. Nor you nor I know what was in the honest
Turkil was ready to meet me in this matter, and looking roguishly at me,
gathered up the bones and put them into the kilns.
"Now must I go home," he said, when this was done, "or I shall be
beaten. But I would I had seen Grendel--though I love warriors armed
"Verily, Turkil, my friend," said I, "a stout warrior will you be if you
go on as you have begun."
Thereupon something stirred within me, as it were, and I took the urchin
and kissed him, for I had never thought to call one "friend" again.
Then I feared to let him go from me, lest the thoughts of yesterday
should come back, as I knew they would, did I give way to them. So I
told him to bide here with me till the village people came to drive away
Grendel, and that I would make all right for him.
Then we went out of the little hut, and sat on the logs of timber, and
he told me tales of the wood and stream and meres to which I must answer
now and then, while I pondered over what I must do and where betake myself.
My outlawry would not be known till the people had got home from Brent,
and then but by hearsay, till the sheriff's men had proclaimed me in the
This place, too, where a man could slay roe deer fearless of discovery,
must be far from notice, and I would bide here this next night, and so
make my plans well, and grow fully rested. But always, whatever I
thought, was revenge on Matelgar uppermost.
Now Turkil would see my sword, and then my seax, and try my helm on his
head, laughing when it covered his eyes, and I had almost bade him come
to my hall at Cannington and there try the little weapons I had when I
was his size, so much his ways took from me the thought of my trouble.
But that slip brought it all back again, and for a time I waxed moody,
so that the child was silent, finding no answer to his prattle, and at
last leant against me and slept. Presently, I leaned back and slept too,
in the warm sun.
I woke with the sound of chanting in my ears, and the ringing of a
little bell somewhere in the wood; but Turkil slept on, and I would not
stir to wake him, sitting still and wondering.
Then out of the wood came towards the hut a little procession, and when
I saw it I knew that I, as Grendel, was to be exorcised. But though I
thought not of it, exorcism there had been already, and that of my evil
spirit of yesterday, by the fearless hand of--a little child.
There came first an old priest, fully vested, bearing a great service
book in one hand, and in the other a crucifix, and reading as he went,
but in Latin, so that I could not know what he read. And on either side
of him were two youths, also vested, one bearing a great candle that
flared and guttered in the wind, and the other a bell, which now and
then he rang when the old priest ceased reading between the verses.
After these came the villagers. I saw the collier among the first, and
his knees shook as he walked. Then some of the men were armed with bills
and short swords, and a few with bows. All, I think, had staves. After
them came some women, and I saw one who wept, looking about her eagerly.
They did not see me, for the timber pile was next the kiln and a little
behind it; so that before they got near I was shut out from view for a
While they were thus hidden from me, they stopped and began to chant
again, priest and people in turn. After that had gone on for a little
time, Turkil woke and sat up, but I bade him in a whisper to be silent,
and putting his finger in his mouth he obeyed, wide eyed.
Then the little bell gave a note or two, and the reading began, so near
that I could hear the words, or seem to remember them as I know now what
"Adjuro te maleficum Grendel vocatum diabolum--"
So far had the priest got when they turned the corner of the house, and
I stood up. There came a shout from the men, and the exorcism went no
further, for the old priest saw at once, as it seemed, that I was but a
mortal. Not so some of his train, for several turned to fly, sorely
fearing that the wrestle between the powers spiritual had begun, and, as
one might think, lacking faith in their own side, for they showed little.
But Grendel or no Grendel, there was one who thought not of her own
safety. That woman whom I had seen weeping gave a great cry and rushed
at me, seizing my little comrade from my arms, for I had lifted him as I
stood, and covering him with kisses, chided him and petted at the same
It was his mother, who hearing that her darling had wandered away from
his playmates with the intention of "seeing Grendel" as he avowed, had
dared to join the rest to learn what had been his end.
The old priest looked on this with something of a smile, and then turned
to his people saying:
"Doubtless the fiend has fled, or this warrior and the child had not
been here. Search, my children, and see if there be traces left of his
presence, and I will speak to the stranger."
They scattered about the place in groups, for they yet feared to be
alone, and the priest came up to me, scanning my arms as he did so, to
guess my rank. My handsome sword and belt seemed to decide him, for
though the armour and helm were plain, they were good enough for any
thane who meant them for hard wear and not for show.
"Sir," he said, very courteously but without any servility, "I see you
are a stranger, and you meet me on a strange errand. I am the priest
whom they call the hermit, Leofwine--should I name you thane?"
I was going to answer him as I would have replied but yesterday morning
--so hesitated a little, and then answered shortly.
"No thane, Father, but the next thing to it--a masterless man."
"As you will, sir," he replied, thinking that I doubtless had my own
reason for withholding whatever rank I had. "We meet few strangers in
"I lost my way, Father," I said, "and wandered here in the night, and,
being sorely weary, slept in this empty hut till two hours ago, waking
to find yon child here."
Now little Turkil, seeing that I looked towards him, got free from his
mother and ran to me, saying that he must go home, and that I must speak
for him, as his mother was wroth with him for playing truant.
The woman, who seemed to be the wife of some well-to-do freeman,
followed him, and I spoke to her, begging her to forgive the boy, as he
had been a pleasant comrade to me, and that, indeed, I had kept him, as
he said some folk were coming from the village.
Whereon she thanked me for tending him, saying that she had feared the
foul fiend whom the collier had seen would surely have devoured him. So
I pleased her by saying that a boy who would face such a monster now
would surely grow up a valiant man. Then Turkil must kiss me in going,
bidding me come and see him again, and I knew not how to escape
promising that, though it was a poor promise that could not be kept,
seeing that I must fly the kingdom of Wessex as soon as I might. Then
his mother took him away, he looking back often at me. With them went
the most of the people, some wondering, but the greater part laughing at
Dudda Collier's fright.
I asked the old priest where the village might be, and he told me that
it lay in a clearing full two miles off, and that the father of Turkil
was the chief franklin there, though of little account elsewhere. He had
not yet come back from the great Moot at Brent, and that was good
hearing for me, for though he must return next day, I should be far by
While we talked, the collier and two or three men came to us, telling
excitedly how that the kiln was raked out, and that the cauldron was
empty--doubtless the work of the fiend.
"Saw you aught of any fiend, good sir?" asked the priest of me.
Now I remembered the roe deer in time, and answered, "I saw nought worse
than myself"--but I think that, had the collier known my thoughts, he
would have fled me as he fled that he took me for. But that he was sore
terrified I have no doubt, for it seemed that he neither recognized me,
nor remembered what he was doing at the kiln when I came. Maybe, as
often happens, he had told some wild story to so many that he believed
"Then, my sons," said the hermit, "the fiend finding Dudda no prey of
his, departed straightway, and he need fear no more."
However, they would have him sprinkle all the place with holy water,
repeating the proper prayers the while, which he did willingly, knowing
the fears of his people, and gladly trying to put them to rest.
Then the collier begged one after another to bide with him that night,
but all refused, having other things to be done which they said might
not he foregone. It was plain that they dared not stay; but this seemed
to be my chance.
The men had many times looked hard at me, but as I was speaking with the
priest, dared not question me as they would. So having seen this, I said:
"I am a stranger from beyond the Mendips, and lost my way last night
coming back from Brent. Glad should I be of lodging here tonight, and
guidance on the morrow, for it is over late for me to be on my way now."
That pleased the collier well enough, and he said he would take me in,
and guide me where I would go next day. The other men wanted to ask me
news of the Moot, but I put them off, saying that I had not sat thereon,
but had passed there on my way from Sherborne. So they were content, and
asking the hermit for his blessing, they went their way.
Then the old priest took off the vestments which were over his brown
hermit garb, and giving them to the youths who had acted as his acolytes
bade them depart also, having given them some directions, and so we
three, the hermit, collier, and myself, were left alone by the hut.
The hermit bade the collier leave us, and he, evidently holding the old
man in high veneration, bowed awkwardly, and went to fill and relight
his kiln fires.
And then the old priest spoke to me.
"Sir, I was brought here, as you see, to drive away an evil spirit,
which this poor thrall said had appeared to him last night, and from
which he fled. Now all men know that these fens are haunted by fiends,
even as holy Guthlac found in the land of the Gyrwa's, [v] being sorely
troubled by them. But I have seen none, though I dwell in this fen much
as he dwelt, though none so worthy, or maybe worth troubling as he.
Know you what he saw? for I seem to see that your coming has to do with
this--" and the old man smiled a little.
Then I told him how I had come unexpectedly into the firelight, and that
the man had fled, adding that I was nigh worn out, and so, finding a
resting place, slept without heeding him; and then how little Turkil had
called me "Grendel", bidding me "spit fire for him to see".
At that the old man laughed a hearty laugh, looking sidewise to see that
Dudda was at work and unheeding.
"Verily," he said, "it is as I deemed, but with more reason for the
collier to fly than I had thought--for truly mail-clad men are never
seen here, and thy face, my son, is of the grimmest, for all you are so
young. I marvel Turkil feared you not--but children see below the
outward mask of a man's face."
Now as he said that, the old man looked kindly, but searchingly, at me,
and I rebelled against it: but he was so saintly looking that I might
not be angry, so tried to turn it off.
"Turkil the Valiant called me Grendel, Father. Also I think you came out
to exorcise the same by name, for I heard it in the Latin. But that was
a heathen fiend."
The hermit sighed a little and answered me.
"They sing the song of Beowulf and love it, heathen though it be, better
than aught else, and will till one rises up who will turn Holy Writ into
their mother tongue, as Caedmon did for Northumbria. Howbeit, doubtless
those who were fiends in the days of the false gods are fiends yet, and
if Grendel then, so also Grendel now, though he may have many other
names. And knowing that name from their songs, small wonder that the
terror that came from the marsh must needs be he. And, no doubt," went
on the good priest, though with a little twinkle in his eye, "he knew
well enough whom I came to exorcise, even if the name were wrong, had he
indeed been visibly here."
So he spoke: but my mind was wandering away to my own trouble; and when
I spoke of Sherborne just now, the thought of Bishop Ealhstan and his
words had come to me, and I wondered if I would tell my troubles to this
old man as he bade me. But, though to think of it showed that I was
again more myself, something of yesterday's bitterness rose up again as
the scene at the Moot came back, and I would not.
The priest was silent for a while, and must have watched my face as
these thoughts hardened it again.
"Be not wroth with an old man, my son," he said, very gently; "but there
is some trouble on your mind, as one who has watched the faces of men as
long as I may well see. And it is bitter trouble, I fear. Sometimes
these troubles pass a little, by being told."
The kind words softened me somewhat, and I answered him quietly:
"Aye, Father--there is trouble, but not to be told. I will take myself
and it away in the morning, and so bear it by myself."
He looked wistfully at me as one who fain would help another, saying:
"Other men's troubles press lightly on such as I, my son, save that they
add to my prayers."
And I was half-minded to tell him all and seek his counsel: but I would
not. Still, I would answer him, and so feigning cheerfulness, said:
"One trouble, Father, I fear you cannot help me in. I have nought
wherewith to reward this honest man for lodging and guidance--nor for
playing Grendel on him, and eating his food to boot."
"Surely you have honest hands by whom to send him somewhat? or he will
lead you to friends who will willingly lend to you?"
And I had neither. I, who but a few weeks ago could have commanded both
by scores--and now none might aid me. None might call me friend--I
was alone. These words brought it home to me more clearly than before,
and the loneliness of it sank into my heart, and my pride fled, and I
told the good man all, looking to see him shrink from me.
But he did not, hearing me patiently to the end. I think if he had
shrunk from me, the telling had left me worse than when I kept it hid
When I ended, he laid his hand on my shoulder--even as the bishop had
laid his, and said:
"Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord."
And I, who had never heard those words before, thought them a promise
sent by the mouth of this prophet, as it were, to me, and wondered. Then
he went on:
"Surely, my son, I believe you to be true, and that you suffer
wrongfully, for never one who would lie told the evil of himself as you
have told me. Foolish you have been, indeed, as is the way of youth, but
disloyal you were not."
I was silent, and waited for him to speak such words again. And he, too,
was silent for a little, looking out over the marsh, and rocking himself
to and fro as he sat on the tree trunk beside me.
"Watching and praying and fasting alone, there has been given me some
little gift of prophecy, my son; now and then it comes, but never with
light cause. And now I will say what is given me to say. Cast out you
are from the Wessex land, but before long Wessex shall be beholden to
you. Not long shall Matelgar, the treacherous, hold your place--but
you shall be in honour again of all men. Only must you forego your
vengeance and leave that to the hand of the Lord, who repays."
"What must I do now, Father?" I asked, in a low voice.
"Go your own way, my son, and, as you were bidden, depart from this
kingdom as you will and whither; and what shall be, shall be. Fighting
there is for you, both within and without: but the battle within will be
the sorest: for I know that the longing for revenge will abide with you,
and that is hard to overcome. Yet remember the message of forbearance."
Then I cried out that I must surely be revenged and the good man strove
with me with many and sweet words, till he had quieted the thought
within me again. Yet I longed for it.
So we talked till the sun sank, and he must go ere darkness fell. But at
last he bade me kneel, and I knelt, who had thought in my pride never to
humble myself before mortal man again, till one dealt me my death blow
and I needs must fall before him.
So he blessed me and departed, bidding me remember that at sunrise and
midday and sunset, Leofwine, the priest, and Turkil, the child, should
remember me in their prayers. And, for he was very thoughtful, he told
me that he would take such order with the collier that he would ask
nought from me, nor must I offer him anything, save thanks. And he spoke
to him in going.
I watched him go till I could see him no more, and then, calling my
host, supped with him, and slept peacefully till the first morning light.
CHAPTER IV. THE SECRET MEETING.
I woke before the collier, who slept across the doorway on some skins,
and lay in his sleeping place for half an hour, thinking of what should
be before me, and whither I would go this day.
And, thinking quietly enough now, I made the resolve to leave at all
events my revenge that I had so longed for to sleep for a while--for
the words of the good priest had bided with me, and moreover, I had some
hope from his words of prophecy. So I would see how that turned out, and
then, if nought came of it, I would turn to my revenge again.
So having got thus far, the advice of the gray-haired warrior seemed as
good as any, for it was easy to me to get into West Wales, and then take
service with the under-king until such time as Danish or Norse vikings
put in thither, as they would at times for provender, or to buy copper
and tin from the miners.
But then a great longing came over me to see Alswythe once more, and
learn the truth of her faith or falseness. The man I had bound seemed to
speak truth, though she was the daughter of Matelgar. Yet if she were
child of that false man, I had known her mother well, and loved her
until she died a year ago. And she was a noble lady, and full of honesty.
Now as safe a way as any into the Westland would be over the Quantocks,
and so into the wilds of Dartmoor and beyond, where no man would know or
care for my outlawry--if, indeed, I found not more proscribed men
there than anywhere, who had fled, as I must fly, but with a price on
them. And if I fled that way, it was but a step aside to pass close to
It was the least safe path for me, it is true--for I had had a taste
of what sort of reception I should meet with at his hands did he catch
me or meet with me. But love drew me, and I would venture and see at
least the place where the one I loved dwelt.
Having made up my mind to that, I was all impatience to be going, and
woke the collier, saying that I must be afoot. He, poor man, started up
in affright, dreaming doubtless that the fiend had returned, but
recovered himself, making a low obeisance to me, quickly.
Then he brought out bread of the coarsest and cheese of the best,
grumbling that the fiend had devoured his better cheer. And I, being
light hearted, having made up my mind, and being young enough not to
look trouble in the face too long, asked him if he had none of the roe
deer left over?
Whereat he started, and looked terrified at me. Then I laughed, and said
that Grendel had told me what was in the pot, and the man, seeing that I
was not angry, began to grin also, wondering. Then the meaning of the
whole business seemed to come to him, and he sat down and began to
laugh, looking at me from under his brows now and then, lest I should be
wroth with him for the freedom. But I laughed also, and so in the end we
two sat and laughed till the tears came, opposite one another, and that
was a thing that I had never thought to do again. At last I stopped, and
then he made haste to compose himself.
"Master," he said, "forgive me. But if you were Grendel, as I think now,
there is a great fear off my mind."
"I was Grendel, Dudda," said I; "but you must have a sorely evil
conscience to be so easily frighted."
"Nay, master; but from week to week I see none, least of all at
midnight, and mail-clad men never at all. I think I am the only man who
fears not this marsh and what may haunt it."
"That you may never boast again," said I; "for scared you were, and that
"It is between you and me, master," said he, with much cunning in his
look; "as I pray the matter of what was in the cauldron may be also--"
"Well, as for that," I answered, "I ate it, and was glad of it, so I
will not inquire how it came there."
But I was glad to have this secret as a sort of hold over this man, for
thralls are not to be trusted far, nor was I in a mood to put much faith
After that we ate in silence, and when we had finished, he put a loaf
and a half cheese into a wallet, and took a staff, and asked me to
command him. I knew not what the hermit had told him, so asked how much
he had learned of my errand.
"That you are on king's business, master, and in haste. Moreover that
your errand is secret, so that you would not be seen in town or village
on your way."
"That is right," I said, thanking in my mind the good hermit, whose
ready wit had made things so easy for me; moreover it was truthful
enough, for outlawry is king's business in all earnest, though not the
honour this poor thrall doubtless thought was put on me.
Then I told him that I need ask him but to guide me beyond Parret river,
on this side of Bridgwater, for after that the long line of the
Quantocks would guide me well enough. It was all I needed, for once out
of this fenland I knew the country well--aye, every furlong of it--
but I was willing enough to let him guide me through land I knew, that
if ever he were questioned--as he might well be when my outlawry was
known--his tale of my little knowledge of the country would make men
think me some stranger, and so no blame would come on him for harbouring
So we started in the bright early morning, and he guided me well. There
is little to say of that journey, but finding from the man's talk that
the Moot rose not until the next day, I thought, with a lifting of my
heart, how Matelgar would likely enough be yet there, and that I might
almost in safety, unless he had sent word back concerning me to his men,
go and try to gain speech of Alswythe.
Now it chanced presently that, looking about me, I seemed to know the
lie of a woodland through which we passed, and in a little was sure we
were in that glade where I fought my fight. And next, I saw my
quarterstaff still resting against the tree where I had left it. The
collier saw it too, and said that some forester was doubtless resting
close by, seeming uneasy about the same. But I said that no question
should be made of his presence in the wood, if it were so, and we came
up to it. Then he started, and cried to me to look around.
My billhook, covered with new rust from the dew, lay where I had thrown
it in stripping off my own garments to arm myself; but of the man I had
slain only scattered bones were left. The wolves had devoured him.
When I saw that, I thought that this dead man might as well pass for
myself--Heregar, the outlaw. So I examined billhook and quarterstaff,
and at last said I knew them. They had been given to one Heregar, who
had been outlawed and driven from the Moot even as I stood to watch the
gathering as I passed by.
"Then his outlawry has ended here," said the collier. "The wolves have
"Just as well," I said carelessly. "Shall you take his staff and bill?
They are good enough."
"Not I," said the man. "It is ill meddling with strange men's weapons,
most of all an outlaw's."
"Mayhap you are wise," I said, and, casting down the things alongside
the bones, went on.
Now I had looked all round, and saw that my old garments were gone, so
that the man I had let go had at all events started away with them. But
now I knew that the news of my death would soon spread, hard on the
publishing of the sentence of outlawry, for the doings of an outlaw are
of the first interest to those among whom he may wander. As it was,
indeed, to my guide, who spoke so much thereof that I knew he would be
full of it, and tell it to all whom he met. And when he told me he
should go back through the town I was glad, for so Matelgar would have
news of the same, confirming the tale of his man, though not accounting
for his captain. Whereby he would be puzzled, and his life would be none
the easier, for I knew he would dread my vengeance, though it might be
hard for me to compass.
At last we crossed the river, and went a little way together into the
woods beyond, till we came to the road which should lead the collier
back to Bridgwater town. And there I made him give me directions for
crossing the Quantocks, as though I would go by Triscombe--which I
feigned to know not, save by name given for my guidance on my way.
I looked for him to ask reward, but he did not, and what the hermit had
told him I could not say, unless he had promised him reward on his
return. He made a low salutation before me, cap in hand, and I thanked
him for his pains, saying that I would not forget him, as I was sure he
would not forget "Grendel". And so we laughed, and he went away pleased
enough, giving me the wallet of food.
Then was I left alone in the woodlands that had been mine to hunt
through, for, holding our land from the king himself, I had many rights
that stretched far and wide, which doubtless that Matelgar coveted for
himself, and would now enjoy. And hard it was, and bitter exceedingly,
not to turn my steps straight through the town, where men had saluted me
reverently, to my own hall where it nestles under the great rock that
looks out over my low meadows, and away towards Brent across the wide
river. But that might not be. So I tried to stay myself with the thought
of the hermit's prophecy, and plunging deep into the woods, crossed far
back of my own place, until I could circle round towards Matelgar's hall.
And there I must go carefully, lest I should be seen and known by any;
but the woods were thick, and none knew them better than I. These things
come by nature to a man, and so I should not be proud that the very
woodmen would own that I was their master in all the craft of the
forest, as my father had been before me.
Now Matelgar's hall, smaller than mine, though as well built, or better,
lay in that glen which runs down towards the level meadows of Stert
point between Severn and Parret, north of the little hills of Combwich
and Stockland, and almost under that last. And there the forest came
down the valley--for it is not enough for me to call a combe--almost
to the rear of the hall and the quickset inclosure around it.
It was afternoon and towards evening when I came here, and I bided in
the woods a mile from the hall, in a safe place where none ever came,
until I heard the horn which called all men in to sup. Then, when I
judged that they had gathered, I struck towards the path that leads down
to the hall, keeping yet under cover. One ran in haste towards his
supper as I neared it, so I knew that perhaps he was the last to take
his place, and that for an hour or two I was secure.
Now in this wood, and not so far from where I was, is a little nook with
a fallen tree, and here Alswythe and her mother were wont to come in the
warm evenings, and sit while the feeding in hall went on, so soon as
they could leave the board. And there, too, I had met Alswythe often
lately, sitting and taking pleasure in her company, till she knew that I
would want no better companion for all my life.
This was just such an evening as might tempt her there, and I would at
least have the sorrow of biding there alone for the last time. So I
crept to that place very softly, and sat me down to think.
Maybe I had sat there a quarter of an hour when I heard a step coming,
and that step set my heart beating fast, for it was the one I longed
for. Then I feared to frighten her with sight of an armed man in her
retreat, but before I could move, she came round the bend of the path
that made the place private, and saw me.
She gave a little scream, and half turned to fly, for she was alarmed,
not knowing me in my arms. And all I could do was to take off my helm
and hold out my hands to her, for I could not speak her name in my joy.
Then she laid her hand to her heart, and paused and looked; and before I
could step towards her, she was in my arms of her own will; so I was
Now how we two found ourselves sitting side by side presently, in the
old place, I may hardly say, but so it was. And I forgot all about her
father and the evil he had wrought, knowing that she had no part in it,
or indeed knowledge thereof.
For when we came to talk quietly, I found that she had thought me dead,
and mourned for me: for Matelgar had told her that he knew nought of me.
And I would not tell her of his treachery, for he was her father, and so
for her sake I made such a tale as I knew he was like to tell her,
though maybe the truth would come sooner or later: how that secret
enemies had trapped me, and had brought false charges against me, which
none of my friends could combat, so skilfully were they wrought, and
then how that I was outlawed, and must fly.
And hearing this she wept bitterly, fearing, and with reason, that I
should not return.
Then I comforted her with the hermit's prophecy, saying nought of her
father. And she, sweet soul, promised that Matelgar should tend my lands
and hall well till the words of the holy man came true, and I might take
them back from him. And then she added that sorely cast down and
troubled had her father seemed when he rode back from the Moot that day,
and doubtless it was from this. But how glad would he be to know me
living, and even now would take me in and set me on my way,
notwithstanding the order of the ealdorman!
Now when I heard that Matelgar was indeed returned, and so close to me,
I knew not what to do or say: for all my plans that he should think me
dead were like to be overthrown by the talk of this innocent daughter of
And she, seeing me troubled, would have me say what it was, and I found
it hard to answer her.
At last I told her how even Matelgar dared not harbour or assist me, and
cried out on my folly in bringing blame even on her, were my presence
known. But she stopped my mouth, telling me most lovingly that the risk
was worth the running, so that she knew me living again.
Then I said that, lest harm should come to her father, it were better to
keep secret that I had been here. And that, moreover, those enemies of
mine would doubtless track me till they knew me gone from the kingdom,
so that were a whisper to go abroad that I had been seen here, it might
be death for me.
"And for this," I added, "it is likely that Matelgar, your father, will
have it spread abroad that I am dead, in his care for my safety. For so
will question about me and where I am cease."
This I said lest she should deny when the news came, as it must, that
this was so.
Yet she longed to tell her father that I was here; but at last I
overpersuaded her, and she promised to tell none, not even him, that she
had seen me, and for my sake to feign to believe that I was dead.
Then we must part. I told her my plans for going still westward to make
myself a name, if that might be; and promised to let her have news of
me, if and when I might, and in all to be true to her.
And she, brave girl, would try not to weep as I kissed her for the last
time; and gave me the little silver cross from her neck to keep for her
sake, telling me that she would pray for me night and day, and that
surely her prayers, and those of the holy man and the innocent child
would be heard for me, so that the prophecy would come true. And more
she said, which I may not write. Then footsteps came up the main path,
and I must go.
I heard her singing as she went back to the hail in the evening light,
and knew that that was for my sake, and not for lightness of heart; and
so, when her voice died away, I plunged again into the woods, making
westward while light lasted.
CHAPTER V. THE VIKINGS ARRIVE.
Now after I had parted from Alswythe, my true love, I could not forbear
a little heaviness at first, because I knew not when I should see her
again. But there is a wonderful magic in youth, and good health, and
strength, and yet more in true love requited, which will charm a man
from any long heaviness. So before long, as I went through the twilight
woodlands towards the mighty Quantock hills, my heart grew light within
me; and I even dared to weave histories in my mind of how I would make a
name for myself, and so return in high honour by very force of brave
deeds done, deeds that should be spoken of through all the land. It is a
strange heart in a youth that cannot, or will not, do the like for his
future, and surely want of such thoughts will lead him to nothing great,
even if it does not bid him sink to the level of his own thralls, as I
have known men fall.
However, my heart was full of brave dreamings, always with the thought
of Alswythe as my reward at the end; so that I began to long to start my
new life, and went on swiftly that I might the sooner leave behind the
land that was to be closed to me.
Night fell as I came to the mouth of the long combe that runs up under
Triscombe where the road crosses, and to south of it, and I began to
wonder how I should lodge for the night. Then I remembered a woodman's
hut, deep in the combe, that would serve for shelter, keeping the wolves
from me, as it kept them from the woodmen, who made it for the purpose
--the place being far from any village, so that at times they would
bide there for nights when much work was on hand. None would be there in
Maytime, for the season for felling was long past.
So I found my way to the hut, and there built a fire, and then must, in
the dark, grope for a flint wherewith to strike light on steel, but
could not find one among the thick herbage. So I sat in the dark, eating
my bread and cheese, and thinking how that I was like to make a poor
wanderer if I thought not of things such as this. However, I thought my
wanderings would last no long time, and as the moon rose soon I was
content enough, dreaming of her from whom I had parted so lately.
I will not say that the wish for revenge on Matelgar had clean gone, for
him I hated sorely. But for me to strike the blow that I had longed for
would be to lose Alswythe, and so I must long for the words of sooth to
come true, that I might see revenge by other hands than mine. Then again
must I think of hurt to Matelgar as of hurt to Alswythe, so that I dared
not ponder much on the matter; but at last was fain to be minded to wait
and let the hermit's words work themselves out, and again fall to my
dreaming of great deeds to come.
Out of those dreams I had a rough waking, that told me that I was not
all a cool warrior yet.
Something brushed by the door of the hut with clatter of dry chips, and
snarl, as it went, and my heart stopped, and then beat furiously, while
a cold chill went over me with the start, and I sprang up and back,
drawing my sword. And it was but a gray badger pattering past the hut,
which he feared not, it having been deserted for so long, on his search
Then I was angry with myself, for I could not have been more feared had
it been a full pack of wolves; but at last I laughed at my fears, and
began to look round the hut in the moonlight. Soon I had shut and barred
the heavy door, and laid myself down to sleep, with a log for pillow.
Though sleep seemed long in coming, it came at last, and it was heavy
and dreamless, until the sun shone through the chinks between the logs
whereof the hut was built, and I woke.
Then I rose up, opened the door, and looked out on the morning. The
level sunbeams crept through the trees and made everything very fresh
and fair, and a little light frost hung over twigs and young fern fronds
everywhere, so that I seemed in the land of fairy instead of the
Quantocks. The birds were singing loudly, and a squirrel came and
chattered at me, and then, running up a bough, sat up, still as if
carved from the wood it was resting on, and watched me seemingly without
fear. Then I went down the combe and sought a pool, and bathed, and ate
the last of the food the collier had given me. Where I should get more I
knew not, nor cared just then, for it was enough to carry me on for the
next day and night, if need be, seeing that I had been bred to a
hunter's life in the open, and a Saxon should need but one full meal in
the day, whether first or last.
Now while I ate and thought, it seemed harder to me to leave these hills
and combes that I loved than it had seemed overnight; and at last I
thought I would traverse them once again, and so make to the headland,
above Watchet and Quantoxhead on either side, and then down along the
shore, always deserted there, to the hills above Minehead, by skirting
round Watchet, and so on into the great and lonely moors beyond, where I
could go into house or hamlet without fear of being known.
Then I remembered that to seek help in the villages must be to ask
charity. That would be freely given, doubtless, but would lead to
questions, and, moreover, my pride forbade me to ask in that way. Then,
again, for a man so subsisting it might be hard to win a way to a great
man's favour, though, indeed, a stout warrior was always sure to find
welcome with him who had lands to protect, but not so certainly with the
other housecarles among whom he would come.
So I began to see that my plight was worse than I thought, and sat
there, with my back to an ash tree, while the birds sang round me, and
was downcast for a while.
Then suddenly, as I traced the course that I had laid out in my mind,
going over the hunts of the old days, when I rode beside my father and
since, I bethought me of one day when the stag, a great one of twelve
points, took to the sea just this side of Watchet town, swimming out
bravely into Severn tide, so that we might hardly see him from the
strand. There went out three men in a little skiff to take him, having
with them the young son of the owner of the boat. And in some way the
boat was overturned, as they came back towing the stag after them, when
some hundred or more yards from shore, and in deep water where a swift
current ran. Two men clung to the upturned boat; but the other must
swim, holding up his son, who, though a big boy of fourteen, was
helpless in the water. And I saw that it was like to go hard with both
of them, for the current bore them away from shore and boat alike.
So I rode in, and my horse swam well, and we reached them in time, so
that I took the boy by his long hair and raised him above the water,
while the man, his father, swam beside us, and we got safely back to the
beach, they exhausted enough but safe, and I pleased that my good horse
did so well.
But the man would have it that I and not the horse saved his son, and
was most grateful, bidding me command him in anything all his life long,
even to life itself, saying that he owed me both his own and the boy's.
And that made me fain to laugh it away, being uneasy at his praise,
which seemed overmuch. However, as we rode home, my father said I had
made a friend for life, and that one never knew when such would be wanted.
Now this man was a franklin, and by no means a poor one, so now at last
I remembered my father's words, and knew that I was glad to have one
friend whom I knew well enough would not turn away from me, for I had
seen him many times since, and liked him well.
I would go to him, tell him all--if he had not yet heard it, which was
possible--and so ask him to lend me a few silver pieces in my need. I
knew he would welcome the chance of showing the honesty of his words,
and might well afford it. Thus would I go, after dark lest I should be
seen and he blamed, and so make onward with a lighter heart and freer hand.
So I waited a little longer in the safe recesses of the deep combe until
a great gray cloud covered all the tops of the hills above me, and I
thought it well to cross the open under its shelter to Holford Coombe,
which I did.
There I loitered again, hearing the stags belling at times across the
hollows to one another, but hardly wishful to meet with them in their
anger. I saw no man, for once I had crossed the highroad none was likely
to seek the heights in Maytime. And I think that no one would have known
me. For in my captivity my beard had grown, and my hair was longer than
its wont; and when I had seen my face in the little pool that morning, I
myself had started back from the older, bearded, and stern face that met
me, instead of the fine, smooth, young looks that had been mine on the
night of my last feast. But there were many at the Moot, which was even
now dispersing, who had seen only this new face of mine, and I could not
trust to remaining long unrecognized. None might harm me, that was true;
but to be driven on, like a stray dog, from place to place, man to man,
for fear of what should be done to him who aided me in word or deed, was
worse, to my thought, than open enmity.
Now as night fell the clouds thickened up overhead, but it was still and
clear below, if dark; and by the time the night fairly closed in, I
stood on the heights above Watchet, and, looking down over the broad
channel and to my left, saw the glimmering lights of the little town.
There I waited a little, pondering the safest way and time for reaching
the franklin's house, for I would not bring trouble on him by being
seen. All the while I looked out over the sea, and then I saw something
else that I could not at first make out.
Somewhere on the sea, right off the mouth of the Watchet haven, and
seemingly close under me, there flashed brightly a light for a moment
and instantly, far out in the open water another such flash answered it
--seen and gone in an instant. Then came four more such flashes, each a
little nearer than the second, and from different places. Then I found
that the first and one other near it were not quite vanished, but that I
could see a spark of them still glowing.
Now while I wondered what this might mean, those two nearer lights began
to creep in towards the haven, closer and closer, and as they did so,
flashed up again, and answering flashes came from the other places.
The night was still, and I sat down to see more or this, knowing that
they who made these signals must be in ships or boats; but not knowing
why they were made, or why so many ships should be gathered off the
haven. Anyway there would be many people about to meet them if they came
in, and that would not suit me.
Then all of a sudden the light from the nearest ship flamed up, bright
and strong, and moved very fast towards the haven, and the others
followed, for first one light and then another came into sight like the
first two as they drew near. I knew not much about ships, but it seemed
to me as if lanterns were on deck, and hidden from the shore by the
bulwarks, perhaps, but that being so high above, I could look down on them.
"If they be honest vessels," thought I, all of a sudden, "why do they
hide their lights?" for often had I seen the trading busses pass up our
Parret river at night with bright torches burning on deck.
What was that?
Very faint and far away there came up to me in the still air, for what
breeze there was set from the sea to me, a chant sung by many rough
voices--a chant that set my blood spinning through me, and that
started me to my feet, running with all the speed I could make in the
darkness to warn Watchet town that the vikings were on them! For now I
knew. I had heard the "Heysaa", the war song of the Danes.
But before I could cover in the dark more than two miles I stopped, for
I was too late. There shot up a tongue of flame from Watchet town, and
then another and another, and the ringing of the church bell came to me
for a little, and then that stopped, and up on Minehead height burnt out
a war beacon that soon paled to nothing in the glare of the burning
houses in the town. I could fancy I heard yells and shrieks from thence,
but maybe that was fancy, though I know they were there for me to hear
But I could do nothing. The town was too evidently in the hands of the
enemy, and I could only climb up the hill again, and watch where the
ships went, perhaps, as I had seen them come.
As I clomb the hill the heavy smell of the smoke caught me up and bided
with me, making me wild with fury against the plunderers, and against
Matelgar, in that now I might not call out my own men and ride to the
sheriff's levy with them, and fight for Wessex as was my right.
And these Danes, or Northmen, whichever they might be--but we called
them all Danes without much distinction--were the very men with whom I
had thought to join when I won down to Cornwall.
One thing I could do, I could fire the beacon on the Quantocks. That was
a good thought; and I hurried to the point where I knew it was ever
piled, ready, since the day of Charnmouth fight two years agone.
I found it, and, hammering with the flint I had found in case of such a
necessity as last night's, I kindled the dry fern at its foot to
windward, and up it blazed. Then in a quarter hour's time it was
answered from Brent, and from a score of hills around.
Now, as I stood by the fire, I heard the sound of running footsteps, far
off yet, and knew they were the messengers who were bidden to fire the
beacon. So I slipped aside into cover of its smoke, and lay down in a
little hollow under some bushes, where I could both see and hear them
when they came.
They were four in all, and were panting from their run.
"Who fired the beacon?" said one, looking round.
"Never mind," said another; "we shall have credit for mighty diligence
in doing it."
"But," said the first, "he should be here."
Then they forgot that in the greater interest they had left, or escaped
from, and began to talk of the vikings.
The men from two ships had landed, I learned, and had surprised the
place; scarce had any time to flee; none to save goods. They mentioned
certain names of the slain whom they had seen fall, and of these one was
the franklin whom I was going to seek. There was no help for me thence now.
One man said he had heard there were more ships lying off; but they did
not know how many, and I could see they had been in too great haste to
care to learn.
Soon fugitives--men, women, and children--began to straggle in
wretched little groups up the hill, weeping and groaning, and I knew
there would soon be too many there for my liking. So I crept away,
easily enough, and went out to the headland.
But I could see nothing on the sea now; and so, very sad at heart, I
sought a bushy hollow and laid me down and slept, while the smoke of
Watchet hung round me, and now and then a brighter glare flashed over
the low clouds, as the roof of some building fell in and fed the flames
I woke in the light of the gray dawn, and the smell of burning was gone,
and the sea I looked out on was clear again, for a fresh breeze from the
eastward was sweeping the smoke, as I could see, away to the other
hills, westward. But the town was gone--only a smoke was left for all
there was for me to look down on, instead of the red-tiled and
gray-thatched roofs that I had so often seen before from that place or
Next I saw the ships of the vikings. They lay out in the channel at
anchor, for the tide was failing. I suppose they had gone into the
little haven as soon as there was water enough, and that those lights I
saw were signs made from one to the other when that was so. There were
specks near them--moving--their boats, no doubt, from the shore,
bringing off plunder. The long ships themselves looked like barley corns
from so high above, or so I thought them to look, if they were larger to
sight than that, for that was their shape.
Now I had not thought that they would have bided when the beacons were
lit; but would have gone out westward with this tide. And therefore I
wondered what their next move would be, but expected to see them up
anchor and go soon.
Waiting so, I waxed hungry, for nought had I tasted, save a few birds'
eggs that I had found in Holford Coombe, since that time yesterday.
Birds' eggs, thought I, were better than nought, so I wandered among the
bushes seeking more. As I did so, by and by, I came in sight of the
beacon on the hilltop, and looking up at it, rather blaming my
carelessness, saw that but two men were there, tending it, and from
their silver collars I knew that they were thralls. They were putting on
green bushes to make a smother and black smoke that would warn men that
the enemy were yet at hand.
When I saw that both the men were strange to me, I went up to them, as
though come to find out news of the business. And they saluted me,
evidently not knowing me. I talked with them awhile, and then shared
their breakfast with them, glad enough of it. They had, however, no more
to tell me than I had already learnt, beyond tales of horror brought by
the fugitives of last night, which I will not write.
Those people had soon passed on, fearing, as each new group came up,
that the enemy was on their heels. They had doubtless scattered into the
So the time went idly, and the sun rose, while yet the tide fell and the
ships lay beneath us. Smoke, as of cooking fires, rose from their decks,
and they were evidently in no hurry. Nor need they be. In those days we
had no warships such as our wise king has made us since then, and none
could harm them on the open water.
In an hour's time, however, there came a change over the sea. Little
waves began to curl over it, and when the sun broke out it flashed
bright where the wind came over in flaws here and there. Then from each
ship were unfurled great sails, striped in bright colours, and one by
one they got under way, and headed over towards the Welsh coast, beyond
channel. The tide had turned.
"They are going," said I, with much gladness.
One of the men shook his head.
"They do but slant across the wind, master. Presently they will go about
and so fetch the Wessex shore again, and so on till they reach where
they will up channel."
We watched them, and while we watched, a man came up from the west,
heated and tired out, and limping with long running as it seemed. And
when he saw me he ran straight to me, and thrusting a splinter of wood
into my hand, cried in a panting voice:
"I can no more--In the king's name to Matelgar of Stert--the levy is
at Bridgwater Cross. In all haste."
It was the war arrow [vi]. No man might refuse to bear that onward.
Yet--to Matelgar--and by an outlaw! But the man was beat, and the
thralls might not bear it.
"Look at me; know you who I am?" I said to the man, who had cast himself
down on the grass, panting again.
"No--nor care," he said, glancing at me sharply. "On, and tarry not."
"I am an outlaw," I said simply.
"Armed?" he said, with a laugh. "Outlaw in truth you will be, an you
"I am Heregar," I said again.
"Curse you!" said the man; "go on, and prate not. If you were Ealhstan
himself, with his forked hat on, you must go."
"Heregar--my master's friend," cried one of the two thralls, "if it be
true you are outlawed, as I heard yesterday, go and win yourself inlawed
again by this."
Then I turned, and wasted no more time, running swiftly down the hill
and away towards the spot where my enemy lay at Stert, and that honest
thrall of my friend, the slain franklin's, shouted after me for good speed.
"Well," I thought, as I went on at a loping pace, "I can prove my
loyalty maybe--but I have to bear this into the wolf's den--and much
the proof will serve me!"
Then I thought that presently I would feign lameness, and send on some
other. And so I ran on.
I struck a path soon, and kept it, knowing that, if one met and
recognized me, the token I bore was pass enough--moreover, none might
harm me, if they would, so that I was doing no wrong in being turned
back, as it were, by emergency, from leaving the kingdom. Now, as I
trotted swiftly along the track, there lay in my way what I thought was
a stone till I neared it. Then I saw that it was a bag, and so picked it
up, hardly pausing, shaking it as I did so.
It was full of money! Doubtless some one of the fugitives dropped it
last night as they went in haste, hardly knowing they had it, perhaps.
Well, better with me than with the Danes, I thought, and so bestowed the
bag inside my mail shirt, and thanked the man who sent me on this
errand. For now I felt as if free once more; for with sword and mail and
money what more does man need?
When next I came to a place that looked out over sea, I could no more
spy the ships. They must have stretched far across to the Welsh coast.
Only the two holms broke the line of water to the north and east up
Then the thought came to me that the Danes were gone, and what use going
further with this errand? But that was not my business; the war arrow
must go round, and the bearer must not fail, or else "nidring" [vii]
should he be from henceforward. So I went on.
Now, at last, was I but a mile or two from Stert, and began to wish to
meet one to whom to give the arrow--but saw no man. I turned aside to
a little cluster of thralls' and churls' huts I knew. There were no
people there, and one hut was burnt down. Afterwards I heard that they
had been deserted by reason of some pestilence that had been there; but
now it seemed like a warning to do the duty that had been thrust on me.
Then at last I remembered the prophecy of the old hermit--and my heart
bounded within me--for, indeed, unlooked for as this was, surely it
was like the beginning of its working out.
Now would I go through with it, and on the head of Matelgar be the blame
were I slain. Known was I by name to the messenger who gave me the
arrow, and to those thralls, and known therefore would my going to
Nevertheless, when I went down that path that I have spoken of, toward
the hall, looking to meet with one at every turn, my heart beat thick
enough for a time, till a great coolness came over me and I feared nought.
Yet must I turn aside one moment to lock into that nook where Alswythe
and I had met, but it was empty. I knew that it must be so at that hour,
but I was of my love constrained to go there.
Then I ran boldly round the outer palisade and came to the great gate.
Back to Full Books