Charles W. (Charles Watts) Whistler.

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

. (page 3 of 25)
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 3 of 25)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

is not to be said of one whose line goes back to
Woden, his forefather. But I cannot worship him
any longer. Forefather of mine he may be, but not
a god."

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

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

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

" Erpwald," said my father, " it is a new thing
that any man should be forced to quit his faith here


in Sussex. Nor is it the way of a thane to fall on
a house at night in outlaw fashion. Ina the king
will have somewhat to say of this."

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

Then said Stuf, the leader of the house-carles,
growling : " That is out of the question, and he
knows it. He means to fall on us, else had he
spoken to you elsewhere first, Thane. It seems to
me that here we shall die."

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

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

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

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

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


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

Owen held out his hand and took his. " I will
not fail you," he said, " if I live after you."

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

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

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

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


There was no thunderstorm that could ever wake

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Then was fighting such as the gleemen sing of,
with the light of the red fire waxing and waning
across the courtyard the while. The strange lights
and shadows it cast were to the advantage of our
men for a little while, but the numbers were too
great against them for that to be of much avail.
Soon they who had not fallen were borne back to
the hall door, and there stood again, but my father
was not with them. He fell at the first, as Owen
tells me. Another has told me that Owen stood
across his body and would have fallen with him, but
that Stuf drew him away, calling on him to mind
his promise concerning me, and so he went back,
still fighting, until he stood in the door of the hall.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, whether it was his wound, or whether he


saw that he had gone too far, Erpwald bethought
himself, and seemed minded to make terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man who had spoken before put in at once

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

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

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


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

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

" I will swear to take the child hence and let
this matter be for us as if it had not been," he said,
seeing that it was the best he could win for me.
What other thoughts were in his mind will be seen
hereafter, but I will say now that it was not all so
hopeless as it seemed to Erpwald.

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

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

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

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

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

So he spoke again with the priest, asking for
honest pledges in return for his own oath. Whereon
from across the courtyard, where a few wounded


men lay a voice weak with pain cried, with a
strange laugh

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

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

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

" Hold your peace, fool," snarled Erpwald, with
a sharp look at Owen. And at that Stuf laughed
again, unheeded.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

There he found Erpwald himself close at hand,


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

Erpwald turned as he heard the sliding door

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

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

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

At least, there would be no dishonour to his

friend in that, and Owen thought it best to say no

more, but he had one more boon, as it were, to ask.

" Let me take a horse from the stable for the

child," he said. " We may have far to go."

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

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


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

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

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

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

He bade us back to his house, and there I fell
asleep straightway, with the tiredness that comes
suddenly to a child. And Owen and he talked, and
I know that he told him all that had happened and


what his own plans for me were, under the seal of
secrecy. And then he begged the good priest to
tell me of my loss.

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

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

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

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

At this time he had no clear plan in his head
for the ending of our journey, nor was there need
to make one at once. We had store of money to


last us for many a long day, what with my father's
and that which Owen had of his own, and we were
well mounted, and what few things we needed to
seem but travellers indeed Owen bought in some little
town we passed through on the third day. After
that we went easily, seeing things that had nought
in them but wonder and delight for me.

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

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


know now that those two were old friends of the
closest at one time, when they met in Owen's own

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

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

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


black grew the handsome face of the king as he

" Am I often deceived thus ? " he said. " I will
even send some to ask of all the ins and outs of
such another case hereafter. This Erpwald sent
to me to say that Aldred and all his house had
been slain by outlaws, and that he himself had
driven them off, and I believed him. After that
I made over the Eastdean lands to him, and I take
it that they were what he wanted. Well, he has
not lived long to enjoy them, for he died not long
ago, and now his brother holds the lands after him,
and I know that he at least is a worthy man. Let
it be. The child is my ward now, as an orphan,
and I should have had to set his estate in the hands
of some one to hold till he can take them. There
will be no loss to him in the end."

Then he smiled and looked Owen in the face.

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

So it came to pass that we took leave of that
good friend the abbot, and went from Malmesbury
in the train of Ina of Wessex. Thereafter for six


years I served Ethelburga the queen, being trained
in all wise as her own child, and after that I was
one of the athelings of the court in one post or
another, but always with the king when there was
war on the long frontier of the Wessex land.



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

A court is always changing, as men come and

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 3 of 25)