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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until Cerent learned how few we were here would
he dare to divide his forces. Far off to the south-
ward in the valley we could see the blue reek of his
camp-fires, and it would seem that he had not yet
moved on the Wessex border.

All the day we waited and watched, anxious and
restless, but no attack came on us here, and the
smoke of the camp grew no thinner at Norton. A
few Norsemen rode up to us from Watchet, and
they said that no move was on hand yet, so far as
they could tell. And at last, as the sun was setting,
and shone level on the slope of the Poldens, above
which the Tor of Glastonbury sent a waving wreath
of smoke into the air to bid Wessex gather against
the ancient foe, we saw the long line of sparkling
helms and spear-points as our host marched from
hill to causeway to the bridge that spans the Parrett.
Ina would hold the heights above Norton before
morning. But that made it the more needful that
we should bide here till we were sent for, seeing
that we guarded the flank of our advance ; and hard
it was to sit still and do it, with a battle pending
yonder. It was a long night to us, and hungry.

Early in the next morning there was heavy smoke
on these hills that told of burning on the line of our
march, and there was more away toward the far


Blackdown hills, as if there were trouble beyond
Tone. And in the afternoon there fell a strange
stillness on the woods round us, and I wondered.
There was never a buzzard or kite, raven or crow,
left in all the woodland, and then I minded that
overhead lately the birds of prey had all flown in
one direction, and that toward where Norton lay.
It was the cry of the kite and the voice of the song-
birds that I missed. The birds of prey had gone,
and in the cover their little quarry cowered in fear
of the shadow of the broad wings which had crossed
them so often. Even now two of the great sea-
eagles were sailing inland, and from these strange
signs we knew for certain that yonder a battlefield
was spread for them, where Saxon and Welsh strove
for mastery in the fair valley. But we must pace
the hillcrest, silent and moody, waiting for some
sign that might tell us of victory.

That came at last in the late afternoon. Slowly
there gathered, over the trees where Norton was, a
haze that thickened into a smoke, and that grew
into heavy dun clouds which rose and drifted even
to the hilltops, for Norton was burning, and by that
token we knew that Ina was victor.

Presently there were flying men of the Welsh
who could be seen on the open hillsides, and some
few came even up to this camp, and we took them,
and from them heard how the battle had gone. It
had been a terrible battle, from their account, but
they knew little more than that, and that they were
beaten. I suppose that Ina thought it best for us
to hold this camp for the night, for here we bided,
chafing somewhat ; and but for what we took from


the Welsh, hungry, until early morning. Then at
last a mounted messenger came to us, and we went
to Norton.

There, indeed, was high praise waiting for us from
Ina, for it seemed that our work had checked the
advance of Cerent, and had given time for full
gathering of the levies before he was over the border.
But now I learnt that there was another Welsh
army in the field, beyond the Tone River, and until
we heard how it fared with the Dorset levies in that
direction it was doubtful if we might hold that all
was well yet. Gerent had not set everything on
this one attack, but had also marched on Langport
across the Blackdown hills. Thither Nunna had
led what men he could be spared, and was to meet
the Dorset levies, whose ealdorman, Sigebald, had
sent word to Glastonbury, soon after I left there, to
tell of this attack.

In the late evening there were beacon-fires on
the Blackdown hills, and a great one on the camp
at Neroche which crowns and guards the hills in
that direction. And so presently through the dusk
one rode into Norton with word of the greatest
battle that Wessex had fought since men could
remember, for Nunna had met the foe on the way
to Langport, and at last, after a mighty struggle
which had long seemed doubtful, had swept them
back across the hills whence they came, in full flight
homeward. So there was full victory for Wessex,
but we had to pay a heavy price therefor. Nunna
had fallen in the hour of triumph, and Sigebald, the
ealdorman, was lost to Dorset also. Presently we
laid Nunna in his mound on the Blackdown hills


where he had fallen. There he bides as the fore-
most of Saxon leaders in the new land we had won,
and I do not think that it is an unfitting place for
such a one as he. It is certain that so long as a
Wessex man who minds the deeds of his fathers is
left the name of Nunna will be held in honour with
that of the king, his kinsman.



Now I must needs tell somewhat of the way in
which Ina won Norton, for that had so much to do
with my fortunes as it turned out, seeing that all
went well by reason of our holding the hill-fort, in
which matter, indeed, Thorgils must have his full
share of praise.

Gerent halted in his march when the flying men
from the camp came in to him, telling him that we
were in strong force on the hill, and so our men
crossed the Parrett unhindered, and won to the
long crest of the southward spurs of Quantocks,
where the Welsh gathered against Kenwalch in the
old days and stayed his farther conquest. There
was some sort of an advance post by this time in
the Roman camp at Roborough, and Ina sent a
few men to take it, and that was easily done.
Then Gerent heard that Ina was on him, and went
to meet him, and so the two armies met on the
westward slope of the hills above Norton, and there
all day long the battle swayed to and fro until the
Welsh broke and fled back to the town itself. Then
was a long fight across the ramparts, and at last



Ina took the place, and so chased his enemy in
hopeless rout across the moorland westward yet,
until there was no chance of any stand being made.

But Gerent escaped, though it was said that it
was sorely against his will. I was told that the
old king came to the battle in a wonderful chariot
drawn by four white horses, and that he stood in it
fully armed, bidding his nobles carry him to the
forefront of the fighting, but that they would not
heed him. And presently when they knew that all
was lost they hurried him from the field, though he
cursed them, and even hewed at them with his sword
to stay them as they went.

Now Ina's camp was set within the walls of
Norton among the yet smoking ruins of the palace,
where not one stone was left on another ; and the
Dragon banner of Wessex floated side by side
with the White Horse of the sons of Hengist,
where I had been wont to see the Dragon of the
line of Arthur.

All the afternoon of that day Ina sat and saw
the long files of captives pass before him, and I
was there to question any he would, for he knew
little or none of the Welsh tongue.

Many of these captives were of high rank, men
who had only yielded when they must, and here
and there I knew one of these by sight. They
would be held to ransom by their captors, and the
rest, freeman or thrall, as they had been, would be
the slaves of those who took them, save they also
could pay for freedom. It was a sad enough
throng that passed under the shadow of the proud


At last I saw one whom I knew well, and whom
the king knew, for it was Jago. He stood in the
line, looking neither to right nor left, but taking his
misfortune like a brave man.

" Here is Jago, the friend of Owen, whom you
know, King Ina," I said.

The king glanced up at the Welsh thane. There
was no pride of conquest in the face of Ina as he
gazed at his captives, and when one came as Jago
came he looked little at him, lest he should seem
to exult.

" Take him, and do what you will with him,
Oswald. We owe you much again ; if you see
others for whom you would speak, tell me. I will
deal with friends of Owen as you will. That is
known already, and none will gainsay it."

I thanked the king quietly, but none the less
heartily, and I ran my eyes down the line, but I
saw no more known faces. So I went after Jago,
who had passed on.

" Friend, you are free," I said. " That is the
word of our king, for the sake of old friendship."

He could not answer, but the light leapt into his
eyes, and he held out his hand to me. Then I took
him to the tent which my house-carles had pitched
next the king's, where Nunna's should have been,
and bade him sit down there. Then I went out
and brought up my own prisoners, passing the
commoners into the hands of the men who had
been with me, but keeping the chief until the last.
Two of the house-carles led him up, and his face
had as black a scowl on it as I had ever seen, and
he looked sullenly at us.


" Who is he ? " asked Ina, turning towards me.

I did not know, and, to tell the truth, had
forgotten to ask him in the waiting for news of
Nunna. So I asked him his name with all courtesy,
and could win no answer from him but a blacker
scowl than ever. Judging from his arms, which
were splendid, and of the half Roman pattern that
Howel wore, he might be of some note. I thought
Jago might know him, so I asked him.

" Mordred, prince of Morganwg, 1 from across the
channel," he answered, looking from the tent door.
" He is a prize for whoever took him. Gerent sent
word to several of those princes, and his men are
somewhere in the country yet, I suppose. They
came at Cerent's invitation."

I went back to Ina, who had set the chief aside
for the moment, and when some other man's captives
had passed, bound to a long cord, my men brought
him forward again.

" Ask him what brought him here," said Ina,
when he heard who he was.

" I have a mind not to answer you," Mordred
growled, when I put the question, " but seeing that
there is no use in keeping silence, I will tell you.
I hate Saxons, and so when Gerent asked me I
came to help him."

" With your men ? "

" A shipload of them. They are up in the hills
yonder, where you left them, I suppose ; and they
will be a trouble to you until they get home, if they
can. I am well quit of the cowards."

1 The ancient Welsh province now represented by the county of


Now I began to understand how it was that this
force went aside to fall on Watchet, and had little
heart in the defence of the camp. They were
strangers, who hated the name of the Northmen
from their own knowledge of them, and could not
miss a chance of a fight with them here. After
that the men of Gerent who were with them at the
camp cared nought for their strange leader.

" Take him, and hold him to ransom, Oswald,"
Ina said, when I told him all this. " From all I
ever heard of Morganwg, he should be some sort
of reward for what you have done. I should set
his price high also, for he deserves it for coming

So I took Mordred to my tent, telling him that
I must speak of him of ransom.

" Ransom ? Of course, that will be paid. What
price do you set on me ? "

Now that was a question on which I had no
thought ready, seeing that I had never held any
man of much rank to ransom before, and I hesitated.
At ' last I remembered what some great Mercian
thane had to pay to Owen some years ago, and I
named that sum, which was good enough for me
and Erpwald and Thorgils to share between us.

Thereon his face flushed red, and he scowled
fiercely at me.

" What ! Is that the value of a prince of
Morganwg? It is ill to insult a captive."

" Nay, Prince, there is no insult "

" By St. Petroc, but there is, though ! What will
the men of Morganwg what will the Dyfed men
say when they hear that the Saxon holds one of


the line of Arthur at the value of a hundred cows ?
Ay, that is how I shall be known henceforth !
Mordred of the cows, forsooth."

He was working himself up into a rage now, and
even Jago from the corner of the tent where he sat,
dejectedly enough, began to smile. I had spoken
of fair coined silver, and I had some trouble myself
in keeping a grave face when this Welsh prince
counted the cost of cattle therein.

" Will you double the sum, Prince ? " I asked in
all good faith.

" I will pay the ransom that is fitting for a
prince of Morganwg to pay when his foes have
the advantage of him. The honour of the Cymro
is concerned."

" Ask him his value," said Jago in Saxon, knowing
that Mordred did not understand that tongue at all.
" Never was so good a chance of selling a man at
his own price."

Then I could not help a smile, and Mordred
waxed furious. He turned on Jago with his fist

" Silence, you miserable "

" Prince, Prince," I cried. " He did but bid me
ask you what was fitting."

" Well, then, do it," he cried, stamping impatiently,
and glaring at Jago yet. It was plain that if he
did not understand the Saxon he saw that there
was some jest.

" It is a hard matter for me to set a price on you,
Prince," I said gravely. " I have never held one of
your rank to ransom before, so that you will forgive
seeming discourtesy if I have unwittingly done what


was not fitting in the matter. What would the men
of your land think worthy of you ? "

" Once," he said slowly, " it was the ill luck of
my of some forebear of mine to have to be ransomed.
They paid so much for him."

He named a sum in good Welsh gold that it had
never come into my mind to dream of. It was
riches for all three of us. And I dared not say
that it was too much and somewhat like foolish-
ness, for it was his own valuation. So I held my

" Not enough ? " he asked, not angrily, but as if
it would be an honour to hear that I set him higher.
" What more shall I add ? "

" No more, Prince. I see that I have yet things
to learn."

Truly, I had always heard that the tale of the
golden tribute to Rome from Britain had tempted
my forebears here first of all, and now I believed it.
I suppose these Welsh princes had hoards which had
been carried from out of the way of us Saxons and
Angles long ago.

" Ay, you have," Mordred said grimly. " One
day it shall be what the worth of a British prince
is in good cold steel, maybe. Now let me have a
messenger who shall take word to my people and
bring back what is needed."

He scowled when I mentioned Thorgils, but he
knew him by repute at least, and was willing to
trust him, as I would do so. In the end, therefore,
it was he who took the signet ring and the letter
the prince had written and brought back the gold.
Some of the coins were of the days of Cunobelin,


but the most of it was in bars and rings and chains,
wrought for traffic by weight.

Now I will say at once that neither of my
comrades would share in this ransom, though I
thought that it was a matter between the three of
us, as leaders of the force that day.

" Not I," quoth Thorgils " the man was your own
private captive, for you sent him down yourself.
What do I want with that pile of gold ? I have
enough and to spare already, and I should only
hoard it. Or else I should just give it back to you
for a wedding present by and by. What ? Shaking
your head ? Well, what becomes of all my songs if
they end not in a wedding? Have a care, Oswald,
and see that you make up your mind in time."

So he went away, laughing at me, but afterward
I did make him promise that if he needed a new
ship at any time he would tell me, so that I might
give him one for the sake of the first voyage in the
old vessel, and that pleased him well.

Now I told Ina this, being always accustomed to
refer anything to him, and he was not surprised to
hear that the Norseman would not take the gold.

" And if I may advise," he said, " I would not
offer a share to Erpwald ; for, in the first place, he
does not expect it, seeing that the captive is yours
only, by all right of war ; and in the next, he deems
that you have already given him Eastdean, and he
is not so far wrong. So it would hurt him. He
will be all the happier now that he will know that
you have withal to buy four Eastdeans, if you

So against my will, as it were, that day made a


rich man of me. Presently I gave the wealth into
the hand of Herewald the ealdorman, and he so
managed it, being a great trader in his way, that it
seemed to grow somewise, and I have a yearly
sum therefrom in ways that are hard to be under-
stood by me, but which seem simple enough to

I handed over Mordred to the Norsemen to keep
until Thorgils returned with the ransom, for before
we could rest with the sword in its scabbard again
it was needful that all care should be taken for the
holding of the new land we had won, and Ina would
see to that himself. Here and there we had fighting,
but the Welsh never gathered again in force against
us, and at last we held every town and camp from
sea to sea along the line of the hills that run from
Exmoor southwards, and there was our new border.

Jago went back to Exeter, seeing that his house
was burnt at Norton with the rest of the town, and
I heard afterwards that there he had found his wife,
whom he had sent away when the certainty of war
arose. I was in no trouble for him, as he had
houses elsewhere.

But we sent Erpwald back to Glastonbury in all
haste, and he was in nowise loth to go, as may be
supposed. One may also guess how he was received
there. Then, as soon as Ina came back with us all,
the ealdorman set to work to prepare afresh the
wedding that was so strangely and suddenly broken
in upon, and it was likely to be little less joyous that
it had been so.

On the evening before the wedding the ealdorman
came to me, when the day's duties were over, and


said that Elfrida wished to speak to me. So I went,
of course, not at all troubling that the ealdorman
could not tell me what was to be said, for there were
many things concerning to-morrow's arrangements
with which I was charged in one way or another.
So I found her waiting me alone, in that chamber
off the hall where her father and I spoke of the

" I have not sent for you for nothing, Oswald,"
she said, blushing a little as if it were a hard matter
she had to speak of. " There is somewhat on my
mind that I must needs disburden."

" Open confession is good," I said, laughing
"what is it?"

" Well have you forgotten your vow of last Yule-

" Not in the least. Would you have me do so ?
For that were somewhat hard."

" No but yes, in a way."

There she stopped for a moment, and I waited
for her to go on, not having any very clear notion
of what was to come. She turned away from me
somewhat, letting her ringers play over one of the
tall horns on the table, when she spoke again.

" It has been in my mind that you that maybe
you thought that I have been hard on you in ways,
since we spoke in the orchard."

So that was what troubled her, but I did not see
why she should have spoken of it, seeing that a lady
has no need at all to justify her ways in such a
matter, surely.

" No," I answered, " that I never thought. If my
vow displeased you, or maybe rather if I displeased


you thereafter, I had no reason to blame any one but
myself for the way in which it was needful that I
should be shewn that so it was. It was just the
best thing for me, for it cured me of divers kinds of

" That is what I would have heard you say," she
said with a light-hearted laugh enough, while her face
cleared. " Now I can say what I will. Do you
know that you have kept your vow to the full
already ? "

" Not at all. There are long years before you
yet, as one may hope."

" Ay, Oswald, and through you those years seem
bright to look forward to. See, through you has
come Erpwald, and now you have kept his life for
me at risk of your own. All my life long I shall
thank you for those two things. Surely your vow
is fulfilled, for this will be lifelong service. There is
more that I would say to you, but I cannot."

She turned away again, weeping for very happiness,
as . I think, that could not be told, and I had no word
to speak that was worth uttering, though I must say

" It will be good to think of you two together "

"In the place you have given us," she broke in on
me. " Love and a home for all my life ! What
more could your vow have wrought than that ? Let
me go, Oswald, or I shall weep. It was a good day
that sent you to be my champion."

Then she stepped swiftly to me and kissed me
once, and fled, and I do not mind saying that I was
glad that she had gone. Too much thanks for
things that had been done more or less by chance,


and as they came to hand as it were, without any
special thought for any one, are apt to make one feel

The wedding on the morrow I have no skill to
tell of, but as every one has seen such a thing, that
hardly matters. I will only set down that never had
I seen such a bright one, or so good a company,
there being all the more guests present because
many who came to the levies stayed on to do
honour to the ealdorman and his daughter. Elfrida
looked all that a bride should, as I thought, and also
as the queen said in my hearing, so that I think I
cannot be wrong. I gave her Cerent's great gold
armlet, having caused it to be wrought into such a
circlet for her hair as any thane's wife might be well
pleased to wear.

As for Erpwald, he was dazed and speechless with
it all, but none heeded him, though indeed he made
a gallant groom, for that is the usual way as regards
the bridegroom at such times. Which is perhaps
all the more comfortable for him.

Then was pleasant feasting, and after it some of
us who had been Erpwald's closer friends here rode
a little way with those two wedded ones on the first
stage of their homeward journey. The Sussex
thanes and their men were with them as guard,
and they rode on ahead and left us to take our

And by and by, after a mile or two, the rest
turned back with gay farewells, and left me alone
with the two, for they knew that I was their nearest
friend, and would let me be the last to speak with
them. We had not much to say, indeed, but there


are thoughts, and most of all, good wishes, that can
be best read without words.

" There is but one thing that I wish," Elfrida said
at the very last, even when I had turned my horse
and was leaving them.

" What is that ? " I asked, seeing that there was
some little jest coming.

" Only, that I had seen the Princess Nona."

I laughed, and so they were gone, and I went
back to Glastonbury, wondering if Elfrida guessed
what my thoughts of that lady might be. I had
not said much of her to any one, except as one
must speak of people with whom one has been for
a while.

Strangely enough had come to pass that which I
vowed to do for Elfrida, though not in the way
which had been in my mind when I drank the
Bragi bowl. Presently, when I came back to the
ealdorman's house, I had to put up with some old
jests concerning that vow, which seemed to others to
have come to naught, but they did not hurt me.

Three days after the wedding Thorgils came to
Glastonbury with his charge, and glad enough I was
to hand it to Herewald, as I have already said, and
to get the care of it off my mind. Yet I will say
that by this time there had come to me a knowledge
concerning this gold which was pleasant. Only the
other day I had been but the simple captain of
house-carles, though I was also the friend of a mighty
king, and foster-son of a prince indeed, and that had
been all that I needed or cared for. Lately there had
come a new hope into my life, and it was one that
was far from me at that time. But now, when the


time came for me to go to Dyfed for Owen, I should
go with power to choose lands and a home for
myself, and for that one whom I dared now to ask to
share it. And that was the only reason that I cared
to think of the new riches at all. If that hope came
to naught I should certainly care for them or need
them little enough, for my home would be the court
as ever.

Better to me than the gold was a letter from Owen.
The honest Norseman had gone out of his way to
put in at Tenby, knowing that I should be glad

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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 22 of 25)