Charles W. Whistler.

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call him and speak long with him of the ways of his home, as I
thought.

At Worcester we waited while a message went from the town to Offa,
and next day there came to meet us some score of the best thanes of
the Welsh borderland, who should be our guides to the end of the
journey. Hard warriors and scarred with tokens of the long wars
they were, but pleasant and straightforward in their ways, as
warriors should be. Only I did not altogether like the smooth way
of the man who was their leader. His name was Gymbert, and he was
of mixed Welsh and English blood, as I was told, and he was also
high in honour with Offa, and with Quendritha herself; which in
itself spoke well for him, but nevertheless in some way I cared not
for him.

They feasted us that night in Worcester, and early next morning we
rode out westward again on the last stage of our journey, the king
leading us with this thane at his side, followed by the rest of the
Mercians and his own thanes. So I, not altogether unwillingly, rode
with Hilda in the rear of the party, feeling somewhat downcast to
think that this was the last time I was at all likely to be her
companion.

I suppose that there is not a more wonderful outlook in all England
than from the Malvern heights, save only that from our own
Quantocks, in the west. I hold that the more wonderful, for there
one has the sea, and across it the mountains of Wales, which one
misses here, while it were hard to say whence the eye can range the
furthest.

I told Hilda so as we reined up the horses for a moment at the top
of the steep to breathe them, and she sighed, with all the wonder
before her. We of the hill countries do not know all the pleasure
that comes into the heart of one from the level east counties, as
he looks for the first time from a height over the lands spread out
below. I had been long enough in Friesland now to learn some of
that wonder for myself anew.

"Well," she said, "you will be back again at home in your hills
shortly, and all this ride will be forgotten. Where does your home
lie? Can it be seen?"

I pointed south or thereabout. I could almost fancy that I should
be able to see the far blue line of the Mendips under the sun, so
bright it all was and clear.

Then she asked if my folk knew that I was on my way home.

"No; else I had ridden straightway from Thetford to them. They
think that I am yet with the Franks across the sea, and a few days
can make no difference to them. Nor could I be so churlish as to
refuse the king's offer of help on my way."

"I wonder how you will find all when you get back?"

"And so do I. There were merchants from Bristol who brought me a
message that all was well with them six months ago, and by the same
hands I sent back word that so it was with me. Possibly that
message has reached them about this time."

That was the third time I had heard from home during these years,
and I was lucky to have heard at all. It seems that my father had
bidden friends of ours at the ports to let him hear of men from
across the seas who were to go to the court of Carl.

"Ah," she said, "I hope so. That would be more than joy to your
mother. And then for you to follow so quickly on the message! that
will be wonderful. I would that I could see that meeting."

She turned and laughed in the pleasure of the thought, and I
suppose there was that in my eyes which told her that I had the
same wish. Maybe I should have said so, but she flushed a little,
and gave me no time.

"But I shall be on the way back to East Anglia with the princess,
and I will picture it all. Some day, when you come back to see the
king, as you say he has asked you, I shall hear of it."

Now it was in my mind that it was possible that I might be back in
Thetford, or wherever Ethelbert's court might be at the time,
sooner than I had any wish. For if aught had happened amiss at
home, so that our lands, for want of the heir, had fallen into the
hands of Bertric, I should be left with naught but my sword for
heritage. Then - for the king had spoken of these chances to me - I
was to come straightway back to him and take service with him. My
knowledge of the ways in which Carl handled his men would be of use
to him, and a place and honour would wait me. But I would not think
much of such sorrow for me, though that it was possible, of course,
may have been the great reason which made me silent when there were
words I had more than once had it on the tip of my tongue to say to
Hilda. Could I have known for certain that home and wealth yet
waited for me, I know that I must needs have asked her to share
them, now that at the end of this daily companionship I learned
what my thoughts of her had grown to be.

"Ay, I shall be back with Ethelbert at some time," I said. "I do
not forget promises."

After that we rode down the long hill silently enough, and the way
did not seem so bright to me. And so through the long day we rode,
stopping for an hour or two at the strong oaken hall, moated and
stockaded, of some great border thane for the midday meal. There
were the marks of fire on roof and walls; for once the wild Welsh
had tried to burn it, and failed, in a sudden raid before Offa had
curbed them with the mighty earthwork that runs from Dee to Severn
to keep the border of his realm. "Offa's Dyke" men call it, and so
it will be called to the end of time.

And now we were on the way of the war host from west to east, the
way of the Welshmen, and making toward the ford of the Wye, which
they were wont to cross, so that we call it the "ford of the host,"
the "Hereford."

It was late when we came into the little town of Fernlea, which
stands on the gentle rise above the ford, for the five-and-twenty
miles or so of this day's work had been heavy across the hills. The
great stronghold palace whither we were bound lay some miles
northward, and it seemed right that we waited here till the next
day, that into it we might pass with all travel stains done away
with and in full state.

Already there had been a royal camp pitched for us by Offa's folk,
and I was glad that we had not to bide in the town. One could not
wish for better weather for the open, and the lines of gay tents,
with the pavilion for the king in their midst, seemed homely and
pleasant to me with memory of the days which seemed so long ago
when the camp of Carl was my only home.

As soon as we reached this camp under the hill, where the town
stockading rose strong and high against the Welsh, the thane I have
already mentioned, Gymbert, arranged our lodging, he being the
king's marshal in charge of us, and also warden of the palace. He
was a huge man, burly and strong, somewhat too smooth spoken, as I
thought, but pleasant withal. He gave me a tent to myself, somewhat
apart from the king's pavilion, as a Frankish stranger, I suppose.

"Your thralls will bide with the rest," he said; "they can find
shelter in the tents there are yonder. If some of them have to bide
outside, it will not hurt them."

"Well enough you ken that, Gymbert," said Erling curtly, in good
Welsh.

I understood him, of course, for we had Welsh thralls enough at
home, but I wondered that he knew the tongue. Gymbert understood
him also, for his face flushed red and he bit his lip. But he
pretended not to do so.

"Your Frankish tongue is a strange one," he said. "What does the
man want?"

"I think that he means that outside the tent is as pleasant as in,
as you hint," I said. "But he will bide here across my door, as is
his wont."

"Outside, I suppose?" said Gymbert, with a laugh. "Well, as you
like."

He rode away, and I looked at Erling wonderingly. The Dane was
watching him with a black scowl on his face.

"Where on earth did you learn the British tongue?" I said; "and
what know you of Gymbert?"

"I learned the Welsh yonder," Erling answered, nodding westward. "I
lived in the little town men call Tenby for three years. There also
I heard of this man. He was a thrall himself once, and freed by
this queen for some service or another. He is a well-hated man,
both by Saxon and Welsh, being of both races, and therefore of
neither, as one may say."

"He seems to be trusted by the king, though!"

Erling shrugged his shoulders. "He has fought well for him, and is
rewarded. Were there aught to be had by betraying Offa, he would
betray him. Take a bad Saxon and a false Welshman, and that is
saying much, and weld them into one, and you have Gymbert."

"This is hearsay from the Welsh he has fought," said I; "one need
not heed it."

"I suppose not," quoth Erling; "but I never heard aught else of
him. And he has the face of a traitor."

With that he turned to his horses and began loosening the pack from
that one which bore it. There was no more to be got out of him, as
I knew, and so, leaving him to set the tent in order, I went my way
toward the river, being minded for a good swim therein after the
long, dusty way. And turning over what Erling had said of himself,
I remembered that Thorleif had told me how he had come from Wales
round the Land's End to Weymouth. I thought rightly that he had
picked up Erling there.

I had a good hour's swim in a deep pool of the river, and enjoyed
it to the full. The current was swift, and it was good to battle
with it, and then to turn and swing downward past the fern-covered
banks and under the shade of the trees with its flow. And while I
was splashing in the pool, a franklin came running from his field
with his hoe, waving wildly to me.

"Come out, master, I pray you!" he gasped; "the water is full forty
feet deep there!"

"Is that so?" I said gravely. "I will go and see."

With that I dived, and stayed under as long as I could, not being
able to find the bottom after all.

And when I came up again the honest face of the franklin was white
and his eyes stared in terror. So I laughed at him.

"I believe the pool is as deep as you say; but would seven feet of
water be any safer?"

"Nay, master, but it would drown me. Yet come out, I do pray you.
It gives me the cold terror to see you so overbold."

Then came Father Selred along the bank, and the man begged him to
bid me leave the water; and so we both laughed at him, until the
franklin waxed cross and went his way, saying that I was a fool for
not biding in the shoal water up yonder by the great tree. I could
walk across there waist deep, he said, grumbling.

Then I came out, and the father told me that the king would be here
anon. We walked to and fro waiting for him, and presently he came
with Hilda's father, Sighard, in attendance. The four of us sat
down on the river bank, under the great tree of which the franklin
had spoken, and watched the trout in the shallows till Ethelbert
lay back with his arms under his head, and said that he was tired
with the ride and would sleep.

He closed his eyes, and we went on talking in low voices for an
hour or so while he slept. And then the horns rang from the distant
camp to tell us that the evening meal was spread in the great
pavilion. But the king did not hear them, and I looked doubtfully
at him, wondering if he should be waked.

"Wilfrid," said Father Selred in a whisper, "surely the king dreams
wondrous things. His face is as the face of a saint!"

And so indeed it was as he lay there in the evening light, and I
wondered at him. There was no smile around his mouth, but stillness
and, as it seemed, an awe of what he saw, most peaceful, so that I
almost feared to look on him. The horns went again, soft and mellow
in the distance from across the evening meadows. The kine heard
them, and thought them the homing call, and so lifted their lazy
heads and waded homeward through the grass.

"Ethelbert, my king," said Sighard gently.

The eyes of the king opened, and he roused.

"Was that your voice, my thane," he asked, "or was it the voice of
my dream?"

"I called you, lord, for the horns are sounding."

"Thanks; but I would I had dreamed more! I do not know if I should
have learned what it all meant had I slept on."

"What was it, my son?" said Selred.

The king was silent for a little, musing.

"It was a good dream, I think," he said. "I will tell you, and you
shall judge. You mind the little wooden church which stands here in
Fernlea town? Well, in my dream I stood outside that, and it seemed
small and mean for the house of God, so that I would that it were
built afresh. Then it seemed to me that an angel came to me,
bearing a wondrous vessel full of blood, and on the little church
he sprinkled it; and straightway it began to grow and widen
wondrously, and its walls became of stone instead of timber and
wattle, and presently it stood before me as a mighty church, great
as any of those of which Carl's paladin here tells me.

"Then I heard from within the sound of wonderful music and the
singing of many people; and I went near to listen, for the like of
that was never yet heard in our land. And when I was even at the
door, from out the church came in many voices my own name, as if it
were being mingled with praises - and so you woke me."

"It is a good dream," said Sighard bluntly. "It came from the
wondering why Offa let so mean a church stand, and from the horns,
and from my speaking your name. Strange how things like that will
weave themselves into the mind of a sleeping man to make a wonder."

"It is a good dream," said Selred the priest, after a moment's
thought. I doubt not that it was in your mind to give some gift to
the church. Mayhap you shall ask Offa to restore it presently, for
memory of your wedding; and thereafter men will pray there for you
as the founder of its greatness."

"Yet the angel, and that he bore and sprinkled?"

"It seems to me," I said, "that it was a vision of the Holy Grail;
and happy would King Arthur or our Wessex Ina have held you that
you saw it, King Ethelbert."

"Ay," he said, "if I might think that it was so!"

Again the horns rang, and he leaped up.

"We must not keep them waiting," he cried. "Come!"

"More dreams," grumbled Sighard the old thane to me as the king
went on before us with the chaplain. "On my word, we have been
dream-ridden like a parcel of old women on this journey, till we
shall fear our own shadows next. There is Hilda as silent as a
mouse today, and I suppose she has been seeing more portents. I
mind that a black cat did look at us out of a doorway this
morning."

So he growled, scoffing, and I must say that I was more than half
minded to agree with him. Only the earthquake did seem more than an
everyday token.

"I suppose that the earthquake which we felt was sent for
somewhat?" I said.

"Why, of course; such like always are. But seeing that it was felt
everywhere we have ridden, even so far as Northampton, and likely
enough further on yet, I don't see why we should take it as meant
for the king."

Then he began to laugh to himself.

"When one comes to think thereof," he chuckled, "there must have
been scores of men who felt it just as they were starting
somewhere; and I warrant every one of them took it to himself, and
put off his business! Well, well, I can tell what it did portend,
however, for Ethelbert, and that is a mighty change in his
household so soon as he gets his new wife home. Earthquake,
forsooth! Mayhap he will wish he had hearkened to its message when
she turns his house upside down."

"Nay," I said, smiling; "one has not heard that of the princess."

"She is Quendritha's daughter," he said grimly, and growing grave
of a sudden. "That is the one thing against this wedding, to my
mind. If she is like her mother, or indeed like her sister
Eadburga, who wedded your king, there is an end for peace to
Ethelbert, and maybe to East Anglia."

Now I had heard little or nothing of how that last match turned
out; I only knew that when I was taken from home we were full of
rejoicing over it. So I heard now for the first time that over all
the land of Wessex were whispers of ill done by our new queen - of
men who crossed her in aught dying suddenly, or going home to
linger awhile and come to a painful end. I heard that she bore rule
rather than the king, and that her sway was heavy, and so on in
many counts against her. The tales were the same as those I had
heard often of late about her mother, Quendritha, and with all my
heart I hoped that the Princess Etheldrida was not as those two. I
had heard naught but good of her, at all events, and I will say now
that all I had heard was true. There could be no sweeter maiden in
all the land than she. I heard the same good words of her only
brother, Ecgfrith, and I suppose that those two bore more likeness
to their mighty father than to the queen.

All this half-stifled talk of untold ill from Quendritha lay heavy
on my mind; and it came to me that Sighard was a true man, and that
to him I might tell the tale Thrond told me. I must share that
secret with some one who might, if he deemed it wise, warn King
Ethelbert in such sort that he should beware of her, now and
hereafter. So after a little while I said:

"Thane, I have heard that Quendritha came ashore - "

"Ay," he said sharply, looking round him. "But that is a tale which
is best let alone. It is true enough. My wife's folk took her in at
Lincoln."

"Is it known whence she came?" I went on, paying no heed to a
warning sign he made; for we were far from the camp yet, and the
king was a hundred yards ahead of us.

"Let be, Wilfrid; hold your peace on that. There are men who have
asked that question in all simplicity, and they have gone."

"Why, is there aught amiss in coming ashore as she did?"

"Hold your peace, I tell you. On my word, it is as well, though,
that you have had it out with me here in the meadows. Listen: there
is no harm in the drifting hither. What sent her adrift?"

"I have sailed for a month with Danes," I said. "I have met with a
man who once set a girl adrift."

As I said that I looked him meaningly in the face, and he grew
pale.

"So," he said slowly, "you have heard that tale also. There was a
Danish chapman who came to our haven at Mundesley, where I live,
and told it there to me. That was a year after the boat was found.
I bade him be silent, but there was no need. When he heard that the
girl had become what she is, he fled the land. And, mind you, he
could not be certain, nor can I."

"Nor could the man who told me. But my Dane is the nephew of that
man."

Sighard grasped my arm.

"Speak to him, and bid him hold his tongue if he has heard the
tale, else he and you are dead men. Get to him at once."

I thought, indeed, that there was need to do so, though Erling was
in nowise talkative. For if, as was pretty certain, the tale of the
coming of Quendritha went round the groups of men at the camp
fires, he might say that he had heard of one set adrift from his
own land.

So instead of going in at once with the king to the pavilion, I ran
down to the lines where the horses were picketed, and found Erling
on his way to the supper, which was spread under some trees for our
servants. I took him aside and walked out into the open with him.

"Erling," I said, "do you mind that tale which Thrond tells
concerning a damsel set afloat?"

"Ay, more than mind it - I saw it done! She went from our village. I
was a well-grown lad of fourteen then. Now I know what you would
say. It is the word of Thrond that this Quendritha, whom men fear
so, is she. He says so, since you spoke to him."

"Have you breathed a word thereof to any one?" I asked, with a sort
of cold fear coming on me.

I had no mind to die of poison.

"Not likely; here of all places. I mind what that maiden was in the
old days. From all accounts she has but held herself back somewhat
here. But had you had aught to do with her, I should have warned
you, master."

I set my hand on his shoulder.

"I know you would. Now you will see the queen tomorrow. Tell me,
then, if this is indeed she."

"Ay, I shall know her well enough. What I fear is that she may know
me!"

Grim as his voice was, that made me laugh.

"Seeing that you were but a lad when she last set eyes on you - and
now you are ten years older than myself, bearded and scarred
moreover - I do not fear that for you in the least."

"Nor will she have need to scan me," he said. "Of course I need not
fear it."

Then I asked him if he had more of the second sight.

"Naught fresh, master. Only that look on the face of the young king
deepens, and ever there is the red line round his neck. I fear for
him."

So did I, but of that we spoke no more. I tried all I knew to
fathom that fear of mine, and the most I could do was to make it
seem more and more needless and foolish. And presently, when we sat
at the table, and I saw the king speaking with the Mercians, and
noted their admiring looks at him, and their eagerness to listen to
him, I thought that Sighard was right, and that I was frayed with
shadows of my own making. I knew enough of men by this time to see
that here was no thought of ill toward Ethelbert.



CHAPTER IX. HOW QUENDRITHA THE QUEEN WOVE HER PLOTS.


Great was the welcome which Ethelbert of East Anglia had from Offa
of Mercia when we reached the great stronghold of Sutton Walls on
the next morning, riding there in all state and due array in our
best holiday gear, with those Mercian thanes who had met us as
escort before and after us. The morning was bright and clear, and I
thought I had never seen so fair a procession as this with which
the king went to meet his bride.

I had heard much of this palace of Offa's from the Mercians and
from Ethelbert himself, but it was a far stronger place than I had
expected. Seeing that here, on the newly-conquered Welsh border
lands, no man could tell when the wild Britons might swarm across
the ford, and bring fire and sword in revenge on the lands they had
lost, if the king would have a palace here, it must be a very
strong hold, and Offa had indeed made one.

The Romans had chosen the place long ago, having the same foe to
watch and the same ford to keep, and on the low hill, which they
saw was best for strength and position alike, they had set a great
square camp with high earthen walls and deep moat below them. Once
they had had their stone houses within it, but they had gone. The
last of them were cleared when Offa drove out the Welsh and set his
own place there after our fashion. Then he had repaired the
earthworks, and crowned them afresh with a heavy timber stockade,
making new gates and bridges across the moat.

Across the bridge which faces toward Wales we rode, between lines
of country folk, who thronged outside the stockading to see our
coming; and so with their cheers to greet us we came into a great
open courtyard, with long buildings for thralls and kitchens and
the like on either side of it, and right opposite the gate, facing
toward it, the timber hall of the king itself. A little chapel,
cross crowned, stood on its left, and the guest house and guard
rooms for the housecarls to the right, stretching across the centre
of the camp where once the Roman huts had been.

The hall was high and long, and had a wide porch and doorway in the
end which faced the gate. Behind it one could see the roofs of
other buildings which joined it, and beyond it again were stables,
and byres, and kennels, and barns, and the countless other offices
which a great house needs, filling up the rest of the space the
stockade enclosed. Nor were they set at random, as one mostly sees
them; but all having been built at once, they stood in little
streets, as it were, most orderly to look on, with a wider street
running from the back of the hall to the gate which led toward
Mercia through the midst.

Presently I learned that the queen's bower was a lesser hall, which
joined the back of the great palace hall itself, and that there
were other buildings, which were not to be seen at first. It was
the greatest palace in all England, and I wished that the Franks,
who had little praise for our dwellings, had seen this before they
went back home. It is true that all was built of timber, while the
Franks used stone; but that last no Angle or Saxon cares for while
good oak and ash and chestnut are to be had.

I did not pay much heed to the place at the time when we rode in,
beyond a swift glance round me. There was that which held my eyes
from the first on the wide steps that led to the hall door. There
stood Offa and his queen to meet their guest, with the nobles of
Mercia round them in a wondrous gathering, blazing with colour, and
gold, and jewels, and the white horse banner of Mercia over them.


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Online LibraryCharles W. WhistlerA King's Comrade A Story of Old Hereford → online text (page 9 of 21)