Charles W. (Charles Watts) Whistler.

A prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex online

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had returned, bearing word from Cerent that he
himself would come and speak to Ina of Wessex
and answer him, and it was doubtful what that
answer meant. There might well be a menace of
war therein, or it might mean that he was only
coming to Norton. It would not be the first time
that the two kings had met there and spoken with
one another in all friendliness concerning matters
which might have been of much trouble. And we
heard at least of no gathering of forces by the Welsh.

Yet Ina warned all the sheriffs of the Wessex
borderland, and could do no more. The levies
would come up at once when the first summons

All of which the ealdorman spoke to me of, but
neither Erpwald nor Elfrida knew that war was in
the air. We did not tell them.

Thus we hoped to keep all knowledge that aught
was unrestful from them in their happiness, until at
least they two were beyond the sound of war, if it
needs must come. But it came to pass on the day
before the wedding that all men knew thereof in
stern truth, and that was a hard time for many.

Erpwald and I sat on the bench before the ealdor-
man's house in the late sunshine of the long July
evening, talking of the morrow, and of Eastdean, and
aught else that came uppermost, so that it was
pleasant to think of, and before us we could see the
long road that goes up the slope of Polden hills and
so westward toward the Devon border. Along it


came a wain or two laden high with the first rye
that was harvested that year, and a herd or two of
lazy kine finding their way to the byres for the
evening milking. And then beyond the wains rose
a dust, and I saw the waggoners draw aside, and the
dust passed them, and the kine scattered wildly as
it neared them ; and so down the peaceful road
spurred a little company of men who shouted as
they came, never drawing rein or sparing spur for
all that the farm horses reared and plunged and the
kine fled terror-stricken.

I think that I knew what it meant at once, but
Erpwald laughed and said : " More of our guests,
belike. One rides fast to a bridal, but they are over

But I did not answer, for the hot pace of those
who came never slackened, and spurring and with
loose rein they swept across the bridge over the
stream and so thundered toward us.

" Here is a hurry beyond a jest," said Erpwald,
sitting up ; " somewhat is amiss, surely."

Never rode men in that wise but for life. In a
minute they were close, and one of them spied me
and called to me, waving his arm toward the palace
and reeling in his saddle as he did so. His arm
was bandaged, and I saw that the spear his comrade
next him bore was reddened, and that the other two
had leapt on their horses with nought but the halter
to guide them withal, as if in direst need for haste.
Not much longer could their horses last as it seemed.

I sprang up and followed to the king's courtyard,
leaving Erpwald wondering, and a footpath brought
me there almost as they drew rein inside the gates.


One of the horses staggered and fell as soon as he
stayed, and his rider was in little better plight.
That one who had beckoned to me knew me, and
spoke at once, breathless

"Let us to the king, Thane. The Welsh the
Welsh ! "

" An outlaw raid again ? " I asked.

" Would I come hither in this wise for that ? "
the man answered. He was a sturdy franklin from
the Quantock side of the. river one whose father
had been set there by Kenwalch. " I can deal, and
have dealt, with the like of them, but this is war.
They are on us in their thousands, and I have even
been burnt out for being a Saxon, by a raiding


" From Norton," answered another of the men.
" Gerent, their king, is there with a host beyond
counting. One fled from across the hills and told
us, and we believed him not till the raiders came."

With that I took the men straightway to the
king, bidding the house-carles hold their peace awhile.
And even as we talked with this party, another man
rode in from the Tone fenlands, and he had seen
the march of the West Welsh men, and knew that
Cerent's force was halted at Norton. A swift and
sudden gathering, and a swift march that was worthy
of a good leader, else had we heard thereof before

After that man came another, and yet another,
till all the courtyard was full of reeking horses and
white-faced men, and the ealdorman was sent for and
Nunna ; and in an hour or less the war arrow was


out, and the news was flying north and south and
east, with word that all Somerset was to be here on
the morrow to hold the land their forebears had won
from those who came.

Presently with the quiet of knowing all done that
might be done on us, the ealdorman and I went
down to his house.

" Here is an end of to-morrow's wedding," he said
sadly. " I do not know how Elfrida will take it,
for it is not to be supposed that Erpwald will hold
back from the levy, though, indeed, if ever man had
excuse, he has it in full."

I knew that he would not, also, and said nothing.
He was yet sitting on the settle where I had left
him waiting for me, with the level sun in his face
as it sank across the Poldens, and he looked content
with all things.

" What a coil and a clatter has been past me,
surely," he said. " I doubt there must be a raid
over the border, from what I hear the men shouting."

" More than that, friend," I said gravely, looking
straight at him. " The Welsh are on us in all
earnest, and to-morrow we must meet them some-
where yonder, where the sun is setting."

He looked at me, and his face flushed redder and

" What, fighting in the air ? " he said, with a sort
of new interest.

" War, nothing more or less," answered Herewald
with a groan.

" I am in luck for once," he said, leaping up.
" Let me go with you, Oswald ; for this is what I
have never seen."


" Hold hard, son-in-law," cried the ealdorman.
" What of the wedding ? "

His face fell, and he stared at us blankly, but his
cheek paled.

" Forgive me," he said. " I never can manage to
keep more than one thing in my head at a time.
Here was I thinking of nought but that, until
this news came and drove out all else. Don't tell
Elfrida that I forgot it."

" Trouble enough for her without that," answered
Herewald. "You cannot hold back, maybe, though
indeed, not one will think the worse of you if you
do so. We must tell Elfrida what has befallen,
however, and she must speak her mind on your
doings. Come, let us find her."

" Do you speak first, Ealdorman," I said, and he
nodded and went his way.

Erpwald and I followed him into the hall, and
there stayed. He was long gone thence to the
bower where Elfrida sat with her maidens preparing
for the morrow.

" What will she say ? " asked Erpwald presently.

" I think that she will bid you fight for the king,
though it will be hard for her to do so."

" I hope she will, though, indeed, I should like to
think that it will not be easy for her to send me
away," said the lover, torn in two ways. " How
long will it take to settle with these Welsh ? "

" I cannot tell," I said, shaking my head. For,
indeed, though I would not say it, a Welsh war is
apt to be a long affair if once they get among the

" If we have the victory, I think that the wedding


will not be put off for so very long," I added to
comfort him.

He walked back and forth across the hall until
Herewald came back, and then started toward him.

" Go yonder and speak with her," the ealdorman
said, pointing to the door whence he came.

Then he went hastily, and we two looked at one

" How is it with her ? " I said.

"In the way of the girl who helped you slay
Morgan," he said grimly. " She would hold him
nidring if he had not wished to go."

We went to the door and looked out. All the
road was dotted with men from the nearer villages
who came to the gathering, and as they marched,
each after the reeve of the place, they sang. And
past the hindmost of them came a single horseman
hurrying. Another messenger with the same news,

Then there were footsteps across the hall behind
us, and Elfrida and Erpwald came to us. I stole
one glance at her, and saw that she hid her sorrow
and pain well, though it was not without an effort.
She spoke fast, and seemingly in cheerful wise, as we
turned to her.

" Father, here is this Erpwald, who will go to the
war, and I cannot hold him back. What can you
say to him ? "

" Nought, surely. For if he will not listen to you,
it is certain that he will hearken to none else."

She laughed a little strained laugh, and turned to

" You must have your own way, as I can see plainly


enough; and our wedding must needs wait your
pleasure. Even my father will not help to keep
you here."

" But, Elfrida it was your own saying " the
poor lover went no further, for he was beyond his
depth altogether. It would seem that this was not
the way in which she had spoken to him when they
were alone. So I went to help him.

" We will take care of him, Elfrida," I said, trying
to laugh ; " but I think that he is able to do that for
himself fairly well."

Then I was sorry that I had spoken, for it was
a foolish speech, seeing that it brought the thought
of danger more closely to her than was need, or
maybe than she had let it come to her yet. She
turned into the half-darkness of the hall again, and
after her went Erpwald. The ealdorman and I
went to the courtyard and left them, feeling that we
need say no more.

Then through the dusk that horseman whom we
had. noted clattered up, and called in a great voice to
us, asking if we knew where he should find Oswald
the marshal, and I answered him and went out into
the road to him. And there sat Thorgils, fully
armed, on a great horse that was white with foam,
but had been carefully ridden.

" Ho, comrade ! have you heard the news ? " he
said, gripping my hand.

" Twenty times in half an hour," I answered.
" But is there somewhat fresh ? "

" Have any of your twenty told you that these
knaves of Welsh have broken peace with us, tried to
burn Watchet town and had their heads broken ? "


" News indeed, that," said I. " What more ? "

" If you Saxons will stand by us, your kin, it may
be worth your while. Here have I ridden to tell
you so."

Then I hurried him to the king, for this was a
matter worth hearing. Watchet was on Cerent's
left flank, and a force there was a gain to us indeed,
if only by staying the force at Norton for a day
longer. We should have so much the more time in
which to gather the levies.

But, seeing that they were not yet gathered, it
did not at first seem possible to Ina that we could
help to save the little town, whose few men had
beaten off to-day's attack, but would be surely over-
whelmed by numbers on the morrow if Gerent chose.
But Thorgils had not come hither without a plan in
his head, and he set it before the king plainly.

" Norton is on the southern end of the Quantocks,
and Watchet is at the northern end, as you know,
King Ina. Between the two on the hills is the
great camp which any force can hold, but nought
but a great one can storm. If you will give me
two hundred men, I will have that camp by morning,
and that will save Watchet, and maybe hold back
Gerent in such wise that he will not care to pass
it without re-taking it. He will not know how few
of us will be there, and you will be able to choose
your own ground for the fighting while he bethinks
him. There is but one road into Wessex across
the Quantocks, and we shall seem to menace that
while we cover the way to Watchet."

" So the camp is held ? " asked Ina. " Gerent is
before me there."


" Held by the men we beat off from VVatchet,
King. One we took tells us that they had no
business to fall on our town, but turned aside to
do it. Gerent has little hold on some of his chiefs.
Now they are there with a fear of us and our axes
on them, and if we may fall on them unawares we
can take the camp without trouble, as I think."

" Oswald," said Ina, after a little thought, " how
many horsemen can you raise now ? "

The town was full of horses by this time, and
I thought that it would not be hard to raise a
hundred, and that in half an hour. Maybe if we
did go with Thorgils we should meet many more
men on the way to the levy also.

" Then you shall go with Thorgils," the king said.
" It is a risk, certainly, but it is worth it. We had
held that camp, had we had but a day's earlier
warning, and that loss may be made good thus.
That outlaw of yours will know many a safe place
of retreat for you if need is. Good luck be with

He shook hands with us both, and we did not
delay. His only bidding was that we should hold
the camp until we had word from him, if we took
it, and he was to learn thereof by signal.

So it came to pass that in an hour and a half
Thorgils and I and Erpwald, who would by no
means let me go without him, and three of his
Sussex friends, rode across the causeway to the
Polden hills in the dusk, with a matter of six score
men behind us, well armed and mounted all for
these borderers have need to keep horse and arms
of the best, and those ever ready. From the


ealdorman's door Elfrida watched us go very
bravely, and the glimmer of her white dress was
the lode-star that kept the eyes of her lover turned
backward while it might be seen. It vanished
suddenly, and he heaved a deep sigh, and I knew
that she had been fain to watch no longer lest her
tears should be seen.

As we went along the Polden ridge we met flying
men, and men who came to the levy, and by twos
and threes we added to our little force, until we had
a full hundred more than when we started. Thorgils
took us to a tidal ford that crosses the Parrett River
far below any bridge, which he thought would
not yet be watched by the Welsh. There is a
steep hill fort that covers this ford, but on it were
no fires as of an outpost yet. Then we were a
matter of eight miles from the great camp on the
highest ridge of the Quantocks which we had to
take, and we had ridden five-and-twenty miles.
I was glad that we had to wait an hour or more
for the fall of the tide before we could cross, for we
rode fast thus far.

So we dismounted and watched the slow fall of
the water, and we planned what we would do
presently ; until at last we splashed through the
muddy ford, and rode on through dense forest
land until the great camp rose above us, a full
thousand feet skyward, and we saw the glow of
the watch-fires of those who held it. It seemed
almost impossible to scale this hill as we looked
on its slope in the darkness, but we reached its
foot where the hill is steepest, and held on north-
ward yet, until we came to where there is a long


steady rise up to the very gate of the earth-

Now there should have been an outpost half-way
along this slope toward the camp, for whatever
tribe of the Britons made the stronghold had not
forgotten to raise a little fort for one. But we were
in luck, for this outpost was not held, and we rode
past it, and knew that there was every chance now
of our fairly surprising the camp. The first grey
of dawn was coming when I passed the word to
the men to close up, and told them what we were
to do.

" We charge through the earthworks, for there is
no barrier across the gate, and spread out across the
camp with all the noise we can. Follow a flight
for no long distance beyond the earthworks, but
scatter the Welsh."

So we rode on steadily until we were but a
bowshot from the trench, and yet no alarm was
raised, for the foe watched hardly at all, deeming
that -no Saxon force would think of crossing where
we crossed the river, or of coming on them from the
north at all.

Then Thorgils and I and Erpwald rode forward,
and I gave the word to charge, and up the long
smooth slope we went at the gallop, with a heavy
thunder of hoofs on the firm turf of the ancient
track. And that thunder was the first sign that the
Welsh knew of our coming.

I saw one come to the gateway and look, and
then with a wild howl throw himselt into the outer
ditch for safety, and the camp roared with the
alarm, and the dim white figures flocked to the


rampart, and through a storm of ill-aimed arrows
we rode through the unguarded gate and were on

" Ahoy ! Out, out ! Holy Cross ! "

The war shouts of Norseman and South Saxon
and Wessex men were in startling medley together
here, and that terrified the Welsh yet more. It
must have seemed to them that the Norsemen had
called unheard of allies to their help. There was
no order or rallying power among them.

We three were first through the gateway, and
then we were riding across the camp with levelled
spears, over men and through the fires, and a panic
fell on the foe, so that without waiting to see what
our numbers were, in headlong terror they fled from
the charge over the ramparts and into the forests
in the valleys on either side beyond whence we
came. I had no fear of their rallying thence to
any effect, for it would take them all their time to
find their leaders in the combes and the thick under-
growth that clothed their sides. Once out of the
camp, too, they could not see into it to tell how
few we were. I suppose that there were some five
hundred Welsh in the place. I do not think that
we harmed many of them in the hurry and the dark,
but we scared them terribly. Here and there one
rolled under the horses' hoofs, and we paid no heed
to such as fell thus, and they rose again and fled
the faster. All but one, that is, so far as I was
concerned. I charged a man, and my spear missed
him as he leapt aside, and he struck at my horse
as I passed him, and the next moment I was rolling
on the ground with the good steed, and the man


behind me had to leap over us as we lay. That was
one of the Sussex thanes, and he was no mean
horseman or unready, luckily. Then he chased my
enemy out of the camp, and came back to see if I
were hurt. But I was not, and I bade him go on
with the rest. We were almost across the camp at
this time.

" Take my horse rather," he said. " See, there is
a bit of a stand being made yonder."

There were yet some valiant and cooler headed
Welshmen whom the panic had not carried away,
and they were getting together to our right. The
camp was full three hundred paces across, and as
we spread over it our line had gaps here and there,
so that some at least had seen what our numbers
were. They had passed into the camp again over
the earthworks, or had been passed by in the place
by us, and they were gathering round one who wore
the crested helm and gilded arms of a chief, and he
was raving at the cowards who had left him. Even
now .he had not more than a score of men with

Our men were chasing the flying foe across the
open hilltop now, outside the camp, and there were
but few left within its enclosure, though I saw the
dim forms of some who were turning back without
going beyond the rampart, and one of these was
Erpwald. He also saw the group of Welshmen, and
called the other horsemen to him, and even as the
chief saw us two standing alone together, and led
his few toward us, the shout of the four or five who
charged with my friend stayed them, and they closed
up to meet the new attack.


Then the Sussex thane, whose name was Algar,
saw this, and again urged me to take his horse,
saying that it was not fitting for the leader to be
dismounted while work was yet in hand ; but I saw
a thing that bade me forget him, and set me running
at full speed toward the Welshmen. Erpwald had
ridden well ahead of his comrades, and as his spear
crossed those of the foe one of them stepped for-
ward before his chief and made a sweeping blow
at the legs of the horse with a long pole-axe.
Down the horse came, and Erpwald flew over its
head into the midst of the enemy, overthrowing
one or two of them as if he had been a stone from
a sling.

In a moment they closed over him, but I was
there before they could get clear of one another to
slay him. I cut my way through the turmoil before
they knew I was on them, and stood over him sword
in hand, while the Welsh shrank back for a space
with the suddenness of my coming. There was
Algar also hewing at them and trying to reach
my side, having dismounted, and those who followed
Erpwald were on them with their long spears. It
was more as a shouting than a fight for a moment
or two, but Erpwald never moved, being stunned,
as it seemed. It was like to go hard with me for
a time, for my men could not reach me. Still, I
held the Welsh back from Erpwald and myself.

There was a great shout of " Ahoy," and I saw
from beyond the ring round me the rise and fall of
a broad axe, and then Thorgils was at my back,
and close behind him was Evan. More of our men
were coming up fast to where they heard the noise ;


but the foe were minded to make a good fight of
it, and only to yield when there was no shame in
doing so.

" It is no bad thing to have a good axe at one's
back," quoth Thorgils in a gruff shout between his
war cries as he hewed, and with that I heard the
said axe crash on a foe again. Then I had the
chief before me, and his men fell back a little to
make way for him to me. Our swords crossed, and
I took his first thrust fairly on the shield and
returned it, wounding him a little, and he set his
teeth and flew at me, point foremost, with the deadly
thrust of the Roman weapon. That the shield met
again, and I struck out over his guard and he went
down headlong. And at that his men made a wild
rush on me, yelling. At that time I saw Thorgils,
with a great smile on his face, smite one man to his
right with the axe edge, and another on his left with
the blunt back of the weapon as he swung it round,
and Evan saved me from a man who was coming
on, me from behind. That is all I know of the
fight, save that it seemed that I heard some cry for
quarter, for of a sudden I went down across Erpwald
for no reason that I could tell.

It was full daylight when I came round, and the
first thing that my eyes lit on was the broad face of
Erpwald, who sat by my side with a woebegone
look that changed suddenly to a great grin when
he saw me stir and look at him. Then I saw Evan
also watching me, with his arm tied up, and I was
fain to laugh at his solemn face of trouble. Whereon
from somewhere behind me Thorgils cried in his
great seafaring voice : " There now, what did I tell


you two owls ? His head is too hard to mind a bit
of a knock like that."

Then he came and laughed at me, and I asked
what sent me over.

" The pole-axe man hit you with the flat of his
unhandy weapon. It is lucky for you that he was
a bungler, however, for there is a sore dint in your

I sat up and looked round the camp. There was
a knot of captives in its midst, among whom was
the chief I had fought, wounded, indeed, but not
badly, and our men were eating the enemy's
provender and laughing. A fire of green brush-
wood and heather was sending a tall pillar of smoke
into the air to tell the watchers on the Poldens and
at Watchet that we had done what we came to do.
But here we had to stay till we heard from Ina that
we were to join him, and for Erpwald's sake and
Elfrida's I was not sorry. He had seen his first
fight, and nearly found his end therein. I do not
know how I could have looked Elfrida in the face
again had he indeed risen no more from that
medley. But I thought that he made more than
enough of my coming to his rescue. It was only a
matter of holding back a crowd till help came.

" All very well to put it in that way, comrade,"
said Thorgils ; " but where does my axe come in ?
You are not fair, for, by Thor's hammer, Erpwald,
both of you had been mincemeat but for that."

" Nay," said I, laughing ; " you and I were those
who held back the crowd. I could not have done
it alone."

" But you did, though," the Norseman answered


at once. " Nevertheless, it was as well that I
happened up in good time."

Now we rode across the nearer hills until we
could see into the fair valley which men call
Taunton Deane since those days, and we saw the
answering fires which told us that all was well at
Watchet, for we had saved the little town. Not

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Online LibraryCharles W. (Charles Watts) WhistlerA prince of Cornwall : a story of Glastonbury and the West in the days of Ina of Wessex → online text (page 21 of 25)