Read CHAPTER IX. IN BRIDGWATER of A Thane of Wessex, free online book, by Charles W. Whistler, on ReadCentral.com.

Two of Wulfhere’s men were by the gate, lounging against the sunny wall; but they roused into life as they heard the clatter of my horse’s hoofs, and came to meet me and take the bridle, as was their duty. They knew who I was well enough; but thralls may not question the ways of a thane, as I was yet in their eyes, though outlawed. Yet they asked me for news of the fight, and I told them lest they should raise a panic, or maybe leave us themselves only that our men stood against the Danes on Cannington Hill, and that beyond them the invaders could not come. And that satisfied them.

I was doubtful whether to go in at once and seek audience with the prioress, or wait until some fresh news came in; for now I began to have a hope that our men would sweep down the hill on the Danes and scatter them in turn, even as they had themselves been overborne. So for half an hour I waited, pacing the road before the nunnery, while I bade the men see to my horse; but the place was very quiet, being on that side the town away from the fight, so that any coming thence would stay their flight when the shelter of the houses was reached.

At last came one, running at a steady pace, and I sprang to meet him, for it was Wulfhere. His face was hard and set, his armour was covered with blood, and he had a bandage round his head instead of helmet; but he was not hurt much, as one might see by the way he came.

He grasped my hand without a word, and threw himself on the bank by the road side to get breath, and I stood by him, silent for a while.

“Heregar,” he said at last, “it is well for Bridgwater town, and these here in this nunnery, that you obeyed and fought not.”

“Wherefore?” I said. “Must we fly?”

“I saw you rally the men on Cannington Hill, and that was the best thing done in all this evil day.”

“Then,” I asked, “do they yet stand?”

“Aye; for the Danes have drawn off, and our men bar the way here.”

I told him what I had hoped from a charge of our levy; but he shook his head and told me that, even had our men the skill to see their advantage, the Danes had formed up again on seeing that this might be, and had gone back in good order to their first post at Combwich.

“But our levy will not bide a second fight,” he said sadly. “Already the men are making off home, in twos and threes, saying that the Danes will depart, and the like. Tomorrow the way here will be open, for there will be no force left to Osric by the morning. I have seen such things before.”

“Then must the Lady Alswythe fly,” I said: “but where is Matelgar?”

“Struck down as he fled,” said Wulfhere grimly. “I saw Osric and twenty of his men close round him and beat back the Danes for a moment: but I could not win to them, and so came back to you as you rallied us. That was well done,” he said again.

“I left when Osric came up. Matelgar I saw not,” I said.

“Osric saw you, though,” answered Wulfhere, “and, moreover, knew you. And I heard him cry out when he saw the white horse riderless; for the arrows were still flying, and he thought you slain, I think.”

Now I wondered if Osric would be wroth with me, thinking I had fought against his orders; but I had little time to think of myself, all my care being for Alswythe, who had lost home and father in one day; being left to Wulfhere, and me an outlaw.

Then Wulfhere and I took counsel about flight, being troubled also about the holy women in this place; for the heathen would not respect the walls of a nunnery. But for them we thought Osric would surely care.

Now there came to us as we stood and talked, a housecarle in a green cloak, and asked us if we had seen a warrior, wounded maybe, riding a great white horse, which, he added, had been Edred the Thane’s, who was killed.

“Aye, that have I,” said Wulfhere, “what of him?”

“Osric the Sheriff seeks him. Tell me quickly where I may find him.”

“Is Osric back in the town?” asked Wulfhere in surprise.

“Aye, man, and half the levy with him. The Danes will go away now. Enough are left to mind them.”

Then Wulfhere stamped on the ground in rage, cursing the folly of every man of the levy. And the housecarle stared at him as at one gone suddenly mad; but I knew only too well that his worst fears were on the way to be realized, and that soon there would be no force left on Cannington Hill.

Suddenly he turned on the messenger and asked if he knew the name of the man he sought.

“No; but men say that it was one Heregar an outlawed thane. And some say that it was one of the saints.”

“Will Osric string him up, think you, if he can catch him, and it be Heregar only, and no saint?”

The man stared again.

“Surely not,” he said, “for he was sore cast down once, on the hill, thinking him slain. But men had seen him remount and ride on, And Osric bid me, and all of us who seek him, pray Heregar if Heregar it be to come to him in all honour. Let me go and seek him.”

Then Wulfhere turned to me and asked if I would go. And at that the man made reverence to me, giving his message again.

Then I said “Is Matelgar the Thane with him?” and he answered that Matelgar was slain before the stand was made.

Then I said I would go, if only to ask Osric for a guard to keep the Lady Alswythe safe in her flight. And Wulfhere agreed, but doubtfully, saying that nevertheless he would make ready the horses and provisions for a journey, biding till I came back, or sent a messenger.

So I went with the housecarle, who led me again through the marketplace to that same great house whence I had been sent forth overnight. All the square was full of men, drinking deeply, some boasting of their deeds, and some of deeds to be done yet. But many sat silent and gloomy, and more cried out with pain as their wounds were dressed by the leeches or the womenfolk. All was confusion, and, indeed, one might not know if this turmoil was after victory or defeat.

None noticed me or my guide, but, indeed, I saw few men I knew in all the crowd, for the men of Bridgwater and those of Matelgar’s following had fought most fiercely on their own land, and even now stayed to guard what they might on the hill.

Osric again sat in the great chair in the hall, as I could see through the open door, and round him were the thanes; but far fewer than last night. And presently a housecarle spoke to him, and he rose up and left the hall. Then they led me to a smaller chamber, and there he was alone, and waiting for me.

Now I knew not what his wish to see me might mean, but from him I looked for no harm, remembering how he had seemed to favour me even in refusing my request. But, least of all did I look for him to come forward to meet me, taking both my hands, and grasping them, while he thanked me for the day’s work.

“Lightly I let you go last night, Heregar,” he said, “setting little store on the matter among all the trouble of the gathering. But when I sent you away and forgot you, surely the saints guided me. For I have heard how you dared to go down to Stert and warn us all, and I saw you stay the flight, even now. Much praise, and more than that, is due to you. Were you in the fight?”

Then I could answer him to a plain question; for all this praise, though it was good to hear, abashed me.

“Nay, Sheriff,” I answered. “Fain would I have been there, but a wiser head than mine advised me, and bade me do your bidding, and forbear. Else should I surely have fought.”

“Loyalty has brought good to us all, Heregar,” he said, looking squarely at me. “Yet should I have hardly blamed you had you disobeyed me.”

Then I flushed red, thinking shame not to have done so, and went to excuse myself for obedience.

“Yet had I the safety of a lady who must die, if the battle went wrongly for us, laid on me in a way,” I said.

“Matelgar’s fair daughter?” he asked.

“Aye, Sheriff,” And I told him of the flight from the hall, and where she was now, wondering how he guessed this. But I had come from Stert, and therefore the guess was no wonder. He looked at me gravely, and then sat down, motioning me to be seated also. He treated me not as an outlaw, I thought.

“Matelgar is dead,” he said. “I saw him fall, and tried to bring him off. He was not yet sped when we beat off the Danes. And he had time to speak to me.”

I bowed in silence, not knowing what to say. Strange that, now my enemy was dead, I had no joy in it; but I thought of Alswythe only.

The sheriff went on, looking at me closely.

“He bade me find Heregar, the outlawed thane who spoke last night to me, and bid him forgive. Then he died, and I must needs leave him, for the Danes came on in force.”

Still I was silent, for many thoughts came up in my heart and choked me. How I had hated him, and yet how he had wronged me even to seeking my life. Yet was I beginning to think of him but as a bad father to my Alswythe, but a man to be held in some regard, for the sake of her love to him. And it seems to me that shaping my words to this end so often had gradually turned my utter bitterness away: for one has to make one’s thoughts go the way one speaks, if one would seem to speak true.

“I may not make out all this, Heregar, my friend,” said the sheriff; “but that you were disloyal ever, no man may say in my hearing after this day’s work. And I know that Matelgar was the foremost in accusing you. Wherefore it seems to me that there was work there to be forgiven by you. Is that so?”

The thing was so plain that I could but bow my head in assent.

“Now,” he went on, “I have heard private talk of this sort before now; but never mind. I cannot inlaw you again, Heregar; for that must needs be done in full Moot, as was the outlawry. Yet shall all my power be bent to help you back to your own, if only for the sake of today.”

Then would I thank him, but he stopped me.

“To the man who lit the fire of Stert, who checked the panic on Cannington Hill, thanks are due, not gratitude from him. And to him justice and reward.”

Now I knew not what to say; but at that moment came a hurried rapping on the door and the sound of voices, speaking together. Then the door was thrown open and a man entered, heated and breathless, crying:

“The Danes they are on our men again!”

Then Osric flushed red, and his eyes sparkled, and he bid the thanes who crowded after the messenger get to horse and sound the assembly at once to go to the assistance of those who were yet on the hill.

And yet he turned to me when this was said, and took my hand again.

“Get your lady in safety to Glastonbury, where Ealhstan the Bishop is. I will care for the nuns if need be. Take this ring of mine and show it to him, and then ride with it to Eanulf the Ealdorman and tell him of our straits. The words I leave to you, who have done better than all of us today.”

Then he took helm and sword from one who brought them in haste, and armed himself, while I, putting the ring he had given me on my finger, yet stood beside him. When he was armed he turned sharply to me.

“You want to fight again,” he said. “Well, I will not blame you; but believe me, you will do more for us in going to Eanulf than in spending your life here for nought.”

Then he saw he had said too much, perhaps, and motioning his man out of the room, so that we were alone, he went on quickly: “I say for nought, because all I can do is to hold back the Danes for a little; you have seen how it is. We are evenly matched in numbers, or thereabout; but they are trained and hardened warriors, and our poor men are all unused to war. Moreover, Heregar, these Danes come to fight, and our men do but fight because they must. Now I will send one after you to Glastonbury to let you know how this matter goes; but it will be, I fear, no pleasant message.”

Then would I not ask him for men as I had been minded to do, knowing what a strait he was in, and that his words were only too true. Those two differences between Dane and Saxon in those days of the first fighting left the victory too plainly on the side of the newcomers. And they sum up all the reasons for the headway they made against us till Alfred, our wise king, taught us to meet them in their own way.

So once more I felt the grip of Osric’s hand on mine, and I left him, with a heavy heart indeed, but with a new hope for myself and for Alswythe, in the end.

I stood for a moment before I turned out of the marketplace, eating a loaf I had taken from the table as I passed, and watching the men gather, spiritless, for this new fight. On many, too, the strong ale had told, and it was a sorry force that Osric could take with him.

But I might not stay, and was turning to go, when I saw one standing like myself and watching, close by. It was my host of Sedgemoor, Dudda the Collier. And never was face more welcome than his grimy countenance, for now I knew that I had found one who, in an hour, would take Alswythe into paths where none might follow, and that, too, on the nearest road to Glastonbury. There is no safer place for those who would fly, than the wastes of Sedgemoor to those who know, or have guide to them, and there no Danes would ever come.

So I stepped up to him and touched him, and he grinned at seeing a known face, muttering to himself, “Grendel, the king’s messenger.”

And as I beckoned he willingly followed me towards my destination, asking me of the fight, and what was on hand now so suddenly.

I told him shortly, finding that he had been drawn from his own neighbourhood by curiosity, which must be satisfied before he went back. And I told him that now the Danes were close on Bridgwater, and that I must bear messages to Eanulf the Ealdorman. Would he earn a good reward by getting me and some others across Sedgemoor by the paths along which he had led me?

And at that he grinned, delighted, saying, “Aye, that will I, master,” seeming to forget all else in prospect of gain.

So I bade him follow me closely, and soon we were back at the nunnery gates.

They were open, and inside I could see the horses standing. Wulfhere was waiting for me, looking anxious; but his brow cleared as he saw me, and he asked for the news, saying that he feared I had fallen into the wrong hands.

Then I told him I had, as I thought, no more to fear, showing him the sheriff’s ring and telling him of my errand.

“That is nigh as good as inlawed again,” he said gladly. “Anyway, you ride as the sheriff’s man now.”

Then his face clouded a little, and he added, “But Glastonbury is a far cry, master, for the roads are none so direct.”

Then I called the collier, and Wulfhere questioned him, and soon was glad as I that I had met with him, saying that in an hour we should be in safety. But he would that the prioress and her ladies would come also, for he knew that Osric’s fears would be only too true. Then must we go and tell Alswythe of the journey she must make; and how to tell of her father’s death I knew not, nor did Wulfhere. And there we two men were helpless, looking at one another in the courtyard, and burning with impatience to get off.

“Let us go first, and tell her on the way” said he.

But I reminded him that we were here even now, and not on the far side of the Quantocks, because she would by no means leave her father.

Now while we debated this, the old sister who was portress, opened the wicket and asked us through it why these horses stood in the yard, and what we armed men did there. And that decided me. I would ask for speech with the prioress, and tell her the trouble.

That pleased Wulfhere: and I did so. Then the portress asked who I might be, and lest my name should but prove a bar to speech with the lady, I showed her Osric’s ring, which she knew as one he was wont to give to men as surety that they came from him on his errand. And that was enough, for in a few minutes she came back, taking me to the guest chamber.

There I unhelmed and waited, while those minutes seemed very long, though they were but few before the lady came in.

She started a little when she saw who I was, for she had known me well, and knew now in what case I had been. But Alswythe had told her also of what I had been able to do for her last night, if she had heard no more, for news gets inside even closed walls, in one way or another, from the lay people who serve the place.

I bent my knee to her, and she looked at me very sadly, saying: “I knew and loved your mother, Heregar, my son, and sorely have I grieved for you not believing all the things brought against you. How come you here now?”

Then I held out my hand and showed her Osric’s ring, only saying that as the good sheriff trusted me I would ask her to do so. And at that she looked glad, and said that she would hold Osric’s trust as against any word she had heard of me in dispraise.

So I bowed, and then, thinking it foolish to waste time, begged her to forgive bluntness, and told her of the death of Matelgar and of the sore danger of the town, and of how Osric had hidden me take Alswythe to Glastonbury to the bishop, and how he would himself care for her own safety.

She was a brave lady, and worthy of the race of Offa from which she sprung. And she heard me to the end, only growing very pale, while her hand that rested on the table grew yet whiter as she clenched it.

“Can we not recover the body of the thane?” she asked, speaking very low.

I could but shake my head, for I knew that where he lay was now in the hands of the Danes. True, if Osric could beat them off again he might gain truce for such recovery on both sides; but that seemed hopeless to me. Then I was bold to add:

“Now, lady, this matter is pressing, and in your hands I must leave it. Trust the Lady Alswythe to me and her faithful servant, Wulfhere, and I will be answerable for her with my life. But of her father’s death I dare not tell her.”

Then she bowed her head a little, and, I think, was praying. For when she looked at me again her face was very calm though so pale.

“Alswythe has told me of you, Heregar, my son,” she said, “and to you will I trust her. Moreover I will bid her go at once, and I will tell her that heavy news you bring. You will not have long to wait, for in truth we are ready, fearing such as this.”

Then I kissed her hand, and she blessed me, and went from the room. And, taught by her example, I prayed that I might not fail in this trust, but find safety for her I loved.

Now came the sister who had charge of such things, and set before me a good meal with wine, saying no word, but signing the cross over all in token that I might eat, and glad enough was I to do so, though in haste. Yet before I would begin I asked that sister to let Wulfhere know that all was going right, and to bid him be ready. She said no word, as must have been their rule, but went out, and I knew afterwards that she sent one to tell him.

In a quarter hour or so, and when I, refreshed with the good food I so needed, was waxing restless and impatient, the prioress came back, and signed me to follow her, and taking my helm, I did so, till we came to the great door leading to the courtyard. There stood Alswythe, very pale, and trying to stop her weeping very bravely, and she gave me her hand for a moment, without a word, and it was cold as ice, and shook a little; yet it had a lingering grasp on mine, as though it would fain rest with me for a little help.

There were but two of her maidens with her, and the prioress saw that I was surprised, and said: “The rest bide with us, Heregar, and here they will surely be safe. Alswythe will take no more than these, lest you are hindered on the journey.”

And I was glad of that, though I should have loved to see her better attended, as befitted her; yet need was pressing, and this was best. Then the prioress kissed Alswythe and the maidens, and Wulfhere set them on their horses, for though I would fain help Alswythe myself, the lady had more to say to me, and kept me.

She told me to take my charge to the abbess of her own order at Glastonbury, where they would be tended in all honour as here with herself, and she gave me a letter also to the abbess to tell her what was needed and why they came, and then she gave me a bag with gold in it, knowing that I might have to buy help on the way. For all this I thanked her; but she said that rather it was I who should be thanked, and from henceforward, if her word should in any way have weight, it should go with that of Osric the Sheriff for my welfare.

And this seemed to me to be much said before my task was done, but afterwards I knew that she had talked with Wulfhere, who had told her all even to the treachery of Matelgar. That would I have prevented, had I known, but so it was to be, and I had no knowledge of it till long after. Wulfhere had been called in to give her news while I was with Osric, yet he had not dared to tell her of the thane’s death.

All being ready, I mounted that white steed that had been the dead thane’s, knowing that in war and haste these things must be taken as they come, and that he was better in Saxon hands than Danish. Then I gave the word, and we started, Dudda the Collier going by my side, and staring at the prioress and all things round him.

Alswythe turned and looked hard at her aunt as we passed the gates, and I also. She stood very still on the steps before the great door, with the portress beside her. There was only the old lay brother in the court beside, and so we left her. And what my fears were for her and hers I could not tell Alswythe. For, as we left the gates, something in the sky over towards the battleground caught my eyes, and I turned cold with dread. It was the smoke from burning houses at Cannington.