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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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 7 of 25)
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He laughed, and said that it was his place in the
old days, and there was a sigh at the back of the
laugh as he thought of those times, and then we
forgot the whole thing. Yet though it seems a
little matter in the telling, in no long time I was
to mind that waking in a strange way enough, and
then I remembered.

We must part presently, as I found, at least for
a little while. There was no question but that
Owen would stay at the court here, and so Gerent
had ready for me a letter which I should carry


back to Ina at once. He spoke very kindly to me
at that time, giving me a great golden bracelet from
his own arm, that I might remember to come back
to bide for a time with him ere long. And then
we broke our fast, and my men were ready, and I
parted from my foster-faster in the bright morning
light that made the white walls of the old palace
seem more wonderful to me than ever.

" Farewell, then, for a while," he said to me ;
"come back as soon as Ina will spare you. There
will be peace between him and Cerent now, as I

Then came a man in haste from out of the gate-
way where we stood yet, and he bore a last gift
from Cerent to me. It was a beautiful wide-winged
falcon from the cliffs of Tintagel in the far west,
hooded and with the golden jesses that a king's bird
may wear on her talons.

"It is the word of the king," said the falconer,
" that a thane should ride with hawk on wrist if he
bears a peaceful message. Moreover, there will be
full time on the homeward way for a flight or two.
Well trained she is, Master, and there is no better
passage hawk between here and Land's End."

That was a gift such as any man might be proud
of, and I asked Owen to thank the king for me.
And so we parted with little sorrow after all, for
it was quite likely that I should be back here
in a day or two for yet a little while longer with

So I and my men were blithe as we rode in the
still frosty air across the Quantocks by the way we
had come, and by and by, when we gained the wilder


crests, I began to look about me for some chance of
proving the good hawk that sat waiting my will on
my wrist. Soon I saw that the rattle and noise of
men and horses spoiled a good chance or two for me,
for the black game fled to cover, and once a roe
sprang from its resting in the bushes by the side of
the track and was gone before I could unhood the

" Ho, Wulf," I cried to one of the men who was
wont to act as forester when Ina hunted, " let us
ride aside for a space, and then we will see what sort
of training a Welshman can give a hawk."

So we put spurs to our horses and went on until
they were a mile behind us, and then we were on
a ridge of hill whence a long wooded combe sank
northward to the dense forest land at the foot of the
hills, and there we rode slowly, questing for what
might give us a fair flight. Bustard there were on
these hills, and herons also, for below me I could see
the bare branches of the tree tops on which the
broad-winged birds light at nesting time, twigless and
skeleton like. For a while we saw nothing, however,
and so rode wide of the track, across the heather,
until we found the woodland before us, and had to
make our way back to the road, which passed
through it. But before we came in sight of the road,
from almost under my feet, a hare bolted from a
clump of long grass, and made for the coverts. I
cast off the hawk and shouted, but we were too near
the underwood, and it seemed that the hare would
win to cover in time to save herself.

Yet in a moment the hare was back again out of
the cover, and running along its edge in the open as


though she had met with somewhat that she feared
even more than the winged terror which she had so
nearly baffled. And that was strange, for it is hard
to get a hare to stir from her seat if there is a hawk
overhead, so that sometimes men have even picked
up the timid beast from her place.

" There is a fox in the underwood, and she has
seen him," I cried, and then forgot all about the
strangeness of the matter in watching the stoop of the
ready hawk, who waited only for one more chance.

Not far did the hare win this time. The hawk
swooped and took her close to the edge of the wood,
and I rode quickly to take the bird again and give her
her share of the quarry. And then, while my eyes
were fixed on her, and I was just about to dismount,
I was aware of something like a streak of light that
flew from the underwood toward me, and suddenly
my horse reared wildly, and fell back on me, pinning
me to the ground.

At the same moment I heard Wulf roaring some-
what, and then he was between me and the cover,
and I saw him, through the dazedness of my eyes
with the fall, dismount and unsling his shield from
his back, with his eyes ever on the wood. Then an
arrow struck the ground close to me, and I heard
another smite Wulfs shield with the clap that no
warrior can mistake. At that his steed took fright
and left us.

" Get my horn and wind it," I said, struggling to
get free from the horse. It was no mean bowman
who had sent that first arrow, for the poor beast
never moved after it fell, and had spent its last
strength in rearing,


" That is crushed flat, Master," Wulf said between
his teeth, and he tried to lift the weight that was
on me.

Then the arrows came thickly again, and he
crouched over me with the shield, behind the horse.
It was lucky that I was almost covered by it as I lay,
for it was between me and the wood. I writhed and
struggled and at last I was free again, and Wulf
helped me to get my own shield from my back as I
rose, and then we stood back to back and looked for
our foes.

" Morgan's people, I suppose," I said. " We should
not have left the men, for I knew that he was
leagued with Quantock outlaws."

" A nidring set too," said Wulf savagely. " Can't
they show themselves ? "

As if the men had heard him, they came from the
cover even as he spoke. There were more than I
could count after a few moments, for they poured
out in twos and threes from all along the edge of the
wood, and came cautiously toward us, in such wise
as to surround us. Wild looking men they were,
with never a helm or mail shirt among them, but
they were all well armed enough with bow and spear
and seax, and more than one had swords.

Then I looked round to see if I could see my
men coming, and my heart sank. We were hidden
from the road by the crest of the hill, and I knew
that the flight of the hawk had led us some way from
it. We could not be less than a full mile from them
at the rate we had ridden, and I did not think it
likely that they had hurried after us, for they would
not spoil sport.


Now the men were round us in a ring that was
closing quickly, and Wulf and I had our swords out
and were back to back facing them. Not a word
had been said on either side, and I was not going
to begin to talk to outlaws. If they had anything
to say they might say it. But they had not, and
I knew that they would make a rush on us

One who seemed to be the leader whistled sharply,
and the rush came with a wild howl and flight of
ill-aimed spears that were of no harm. The circle
was too close for a fair throw at us, lest the weapon
should go too far. I had time to catch one as it
passed me, and send it back with the Wessex war-
shout, and there was one man less against us.

I think that I cut down one or two after that, and
then I felt Wulf reel and prop himself against me.
Then I had a score of men crowding on me, and they
clogged my sword arm and gripped my shield and
tore it aside, and then from behind or at the side one
smote me on the head with a club or a stone hammer,
and I went down. I heard one cry that I was not to
be slain, as I fell. Then Wulf stood over me for a
little while and fought all that crowd, until he was
on his knees at my side, and my senses were coming
back to me. Then he fell over me, and the men
threw themselves on me and pinioned me and thrust
something into my mouth and then bound me.

I knew that Wulf was slain at that time, and that
he had given his life for me. That was what he
would have wished to do, but in my heart there grew
a wild rage with these men and with myself for my
carelessness that had led us into their hands.


Now they dragged me into the cover, and thither
also they brought Wulf and the fallen men, and for
a little while all sat silent, and soon I knew what
they were waiting for. I heard the voices of my men
and the very click and rattle of their arms as they
trotted slowly through the wood along the road, and
I tried to shout to them, but the gag would >not let
me. So their sounds died away beyond the hill,
and after them crept some of the foe, to see that they
did not halt or turn back, as one may suppose. I
thought how that they had at least three miles to
ride before they could come to any place whence they
could see that I and Wulf were not before them, and
then, when they missed us, how were they to begin
to seek us ? I suppose that my wits were sharpened
with my danger, for I saw one thing that might help
them even while I was thinking this. My hawk
had gorged herself with her prey when the fight had
turned aside from her, and so she was sitting sleepily
and contented on the high bough of one of the trees
that stood at the wood's edge. And she still had
her jesses on, so that my men would know her if they
caught sight of her by any chance.

Now the men who had me, being sure that all fear
was past, began to talk of what was to be done next,
and they spoke in Welsh, plainly thinking that I
could not understand them. There were three or
four who seemed to take the lead under the one who
had given the signal for attack, and the rest gathered
round them.

At first they were for killing me off-hand as it
seemed, but the leader would not hear of that.

" Search him first, and let us see who he is," he


said. " We may have caught the wrong man,
after all."

So they came to me and searched my pouch
and thrust their grimy hands into the front of my
byrnie, and there they found the king's letter, which
they seized with a shout of delight. Then they took
my arms, wondering at the sword with its wondrous
hilt. Only my ring mail byrnie they could not take
from me, as they feared to untie my arms.

" Not much would I give for your life if this
warrior got loose," said one of them to that one who
had the letter. " See how he glares at you."

And true enough that was, moreover. I should
surely have gone berserk, like the men Thorgils told
me of as we rode yesterday, had I been able to get
free for a moment.

They took my belongings to the leaders, and they
asked for some one who could read the letter, and
there was none, even as I had expected, so that I
was glad.

" It does not matter much," the leader said ;
" doubtless it has a deal of talk in it which would
mean nought to us. We will have it read the next
time one of us goes to the church," and with that he
grinned, and the others laughed as at a good jest.
" Let me look at the sword he wore."

He looked and his eyes grew wide, and then he
whistled a little to himself. The others asked him
what was amiss.

" If we have got Owen's son, we have taken Ina's
own sword as well," he said. " Many a time have
I seen the king wear it before the law got the best
of me. It is not to be mistaken. Now, if we are


not careful we have a hornets' nest on us in
good truth. Ina does not give swords like this to
men he cares nought for, and there will be hue and
cry enough after him, and that from Saxon and
Welsh alike."

" Kill him and have done. That is what we
meant to do when we laid up for him." So said
many growling voices, and I certainly thought that
the end was very near.

" Ay, and have ourselves hung in a row that will
reach from here to the bridge," the leader said
coolly. " Mind you this, that with the Welsh up
against us we cannot get to Exmoor, and with the
Saxons out also we cannot win to the Mendips, as
we have done before now."

" There is the fen."

" And all the fenmen Owen's own men. Little
safety is there in that."

" But he slew Morgan, as they say."

" Worse luck for Morgan therefore. What is
that to you and me, when one comes to think
of if?"

Now I began to understand the matter more or
less. It seemed to me that these were Morgan's
outlaws, and that somehow they had heard all the
story. No doubt that was easy enough, for it
would be all over Norton before the night was very
old after our coming. And these outlaws have
friends everywhere. So they had laid up for me,
and now the leader was frightened, as it would seem,
or else he had some other plan in his head. It did
not seem that he had wished me to be slain, from
the first, if it could be helped. Maybe the others


had forced him to waylay me. A leader of outlaws
has little hold on his men.

" Let him swear to say nought of us, and let him
go then," one of the other leaders said in a surly

Then the chief got up and laughed at them all.

" There are six of us slain and a dozen with
wounds, and we will make him pay for that and for
Morgan as well before we have done with him.
Now we must not bide here, or we shall have his
men back on us, seeking him. Let us get away,
and I will think of somewhat as we go. There is
profit to be made out of this business, if I am not

Then they brought my man's horse, which they
had caught, and set me on it, making my feet fast
under the girth. The men who had fallen they hid
in the bushes, and it troubled me more than aught
to think that Wulf should lie among them. My
horse they dragged into a hollow, and piled snow
over him. Then they went swiftly down the hillside
into the deep combe, leaving only the trampled and
reddened snow to tell that there had been a fight.
I had a hope for a little while that the track they
left would be enough for my men to follow if they
hit on it, but there was little snow lying in the
sheltered woodlands, and there the track was lost.
And these men scattered presently in all directions,
so that trace of them was none. Only the leader
and some dozen men stayed with me.

So they took me for many a long mile, always
going seaward, until we were in a deep valley that
bent round among the hills until its head was lost


in their folds, and there was some sort of a camp of
these outlaws sheltered from any wind that ever
blew, and with a clear brook close at hand. All
round on the hillsides was the forest, but there was
one landmark that I knew.

High over the valley's head rose a great hill, and
on that was an ancient camp. It was what they
call the " Dinas," the refuge camp of the Quantock
side, which one can see from Glastonbury and all
the Mendips.

Here they took me from the horse and bound
my feet afresh, and took the gag from my mouth
and set me against a tree, and so waited until the
band had gathered once more, lighting a great fire
meanwhile. Glad enough was I of its warmth, for
it is cold work riding bound through the frost.

When that was done the leader bade some of
those with him fetch the goods to this place, and
catch some ponies ready against the journey. I
could not tell what this might mean, but I thought
that they had no intention of biding here, and I was
sorry in a dull way. It had yet been a hope that
they might be tracked by my men from the place
of the fight. After these men had gone hillward
into the forest, others kept coming in from one
way or another until almost all seemed to have

One by one as these gathered, they eame and
looked at me, and laughed, making rough jests at
me, which I heeded not at all, if they made my
blood boil now and then. Once, indeed, their leader
shouted roughly to them to forbear, when some evil
words came with a hoarse gust of laughter to his


ears, and they said under their breath, chuckling as
at a new jest

" Evan has a mind to tell Tregoz that he treated
the Saxon well," and so left me. It seemed to me
that I had heard that name at Norton.

When the best part of the band had gathered
again they lit another fire fifty yards from me, and
round it they talked and wrangled for a good half-
hour. It was plain that they were speaking about
me and my fate, but I could hear little of what they
said. The leader took not much part in the talk
at first, but let the rest have their say. And when
they had talked themselves out, as it were, he told
them his plans. I could not hear them, but the
rest listened attentively enough, and at the end of
his speech seemed to agree, for they laughed and
shouted and made not much comment.

Then the leaders got up and came and looked at

" Tell him what we are going to do with him,
Evan," one said to the chief. So Evan spoke in
the worst Saxon I had ever heard, and I thought
that it fitted his face well.

" No good glaring in that wise," he said ; " if you
are quiet no harm will come to you. We are going
to hold you as a hostage until your Saxon master
or your British father pay ransom for you, and
inlaw us again. That last is a notion of my own,
for I am by way of being an honest man. The
rest do not care for anything but the money we
shall get for you from one side or the other, or
maybe from both. By and by, when we have you
in a safe place, you shall write a letter for us to use,


and I will have you speak well of me in it, so that
it shall be plain that you owe your life to me, and
then I shall be safe. That is a matter between you
and me, however. None of these knaves ken a word
of Saxon."

I suppose that I showed pretty plainly what I
thought of this sort of treachery to his comrades, for
one of the others laughed at me, and said

" Speak him fair, Evan, speak him fair, else we
shall have trouble with him."

" I am just threatening him now," the villain said
in Welsh, " after that is time to give him a chance
to behave himself," and then he went on to me in
Saxon : " Now, if you will give your word to keep
quiet and go with me as a friend I will trust you,
but if not well, we must take you as we can.
How do you prefer to go ? "

He waited for an answer, but I gave him none.
I would not even seem to treat with them.

" Don't say that I did not give you a chance," he
said ; " but if you will go as a captive, that is your
own fault."

And as I said nothing he turned away, and said
to the rest

" We shall have to bind him. He will not go

" How shall we get him on board as a captive ? "
one asked.

" That would be foolishness," Evan said ; " the
next thing would be that every one would know
who the captive that was taken out of Watchet
was. I have a better plan than that. We will
tie him up like a sorely wounded man, and so get


him shipped carefully and quietly with no questions

" Well, then, there is no time to lose. We must
be at the harbour in four hours' time at the latest.
Tide will serve shortly after that," one of the others
said. " What about the sword ? shall we sell it to
the Norsemen ? "

" What ! and so tell all the countryside what we
have been doing? it is too well known a weapon.
No, put it into one of the bales of goods, and I can
sell it safely to some prince on the other side. No
man dare wear it on this, but they will not know it
there, or will not care if they do. Now get a litter
made, and bring me some bandages."

It seemed to me to be plain that they would try
to get me across the channel into Wales, or maybe
Ireland, and my heart sank. But after all, Owen
would gladly pay ransom for me, and that was the
one hope I had. And then I wondered what vessel
they had ready, and all of a sudden I minded that
Thorgils had spoken of a winter voyage that he
was going to take on this tide, and my heart
leapt. It was likely that these men were going to
sail with him, so I might have a chance of swift

Now Evan went to work on me with the help of
one of his men, who seemed to know something of

" This," said Evan, " is a poor friend of mine who
has met with a bad fall from his horse. His thigh
is broken and his shoulder is out. Also his jaw is
broken, because the horse kicked him as he lay.
For the same reason he is stunned, and cannot


move much. It is a bad case altogether," and he
grinned with glee at his own pleasantry.

Then they fitted a long splint to my right leg
from hip to ankle, so that I was helpless as a babe
in its swaddlings, and made fast the other leg to
that. They did not do more than loosen the cords
that bound me just enough to suffer them to pass
the bandages round until the splint was on, and the
other men stood in a ring and gibed at me all the
time. After that they bandaged my right arm
across my chest as if for a slipped shoulder, but
under the bandages were cords that pinioned my
elbows to one another across my back, so that I
could only move my left forearm. Evan said that
he would tie that also if need was, but it might pass
now. I could not reach my mouth with this free
hand, if I did try to take out a gag.

Next they bandaged my head and chin carefully,
so that only my eyes were to be seen. I suppose
that I might be thankful that they left my mouth
uncovered more or less. And Evan said that he
would gag me by and by.

" No need to discomfort him more than this now,"
he added. " Maybe he will be ready to promise
silence when he has gone some time in this rig."

By this time some had caught half a dozen hill
ponies, and on them they loaded several bales of
goods, which I thought looked like those of some
robbed chapman, and I have reason to think that
they were such. They opened one of these, and in
it they stowed my sword and helm and the great
gold ring that Cerent gave me. There was some
argument about this, but the leader said that it was


better to sell it for silver coin which they could use

Now Evan and two others dressed themselves
afresh, and washed in the brook. One would have
taken them for decent traders when that was done,
for they were soberly clad in good blue cloth jerkins,
with clean white hose, and red garterings not too
new. Good cloaks they had also, and short seaxes
in their belts. Only Evan had a short Welsh sword,
and the peace strings of that were tied round the
hilt. I wondered where the bodies of the honest
men they had taken these things from were hidden
in the wild hills. Half a dozen of the best clad of
the other men took boarspears, and so they were
ready for a start, for all the world like the chapmen
they pretended to be. They put me into the litter
they had ready then, and four of the men were told
off to bear me, grumbling. It was only a length of
sacking made fast to two stout poles, and when they
had hoisted me to their shoulders a blanket was
thrown over me, and a roll of cloth from one of the
bales set under my head, so that I might seem to
be in comfort at least.

Then the band set out, and we went across the
hills seaward and to the west until we saw Watchet
below us. There was a road somewhere close at
hand, as I gathered, for we stopped, and some of
the rabble crept onward to the crest of the hill and
spied to see if it was clear. It was so, and here all
the band left us, and only Evan and the other two
seeming merchants went on with their followers, who
bore me and led the laden ponies. The road had
no travellers on it, as far as I could see, nor did we


meet with a soul until we were close into the little
town that the Norsemen had made for themselves
at the mouth of a small river that runs between
hills to the sea.

Maybe there were two score houses in the place,
wooden like ours, but with strange carvings on the
gable ends. And for fear, no doubt, of the British,
they had set a strong stockade all round the place
in a half-circle from the stream to the harbour.
There were several long sheds for their ships at the
edge of the water, and a row of boats were lying on
a sort of green round which the houses stood with
their ends and backs and fronts giving on it, as each
man had chosen to set his place.


I THOUGHT that Evan had forgotten to gag me, but
before we went to the gate of the stockade he came

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 7 of 25)