THE CONFLICT AT THE LAKE VILLAGE.
True it is deliverance will come
By the wished for man.
-- Red Book of Hergest.
TIGERNACH was the fevered one now. "Faster!" cried he to the horsemen hurrying behind them. "Faster! There's not one second to lose. Ride to death; ride to death if need be!"
Cian put forth his hand to bring his follower within bounds. "Tell me," said he; and in fragments Tigernach told him, with some aid from one of Llywarch's two marshmen, who had brought the news, and was their guide.
Eschwine had indeed broken faith, coming secretly against the lake village, in the hope of seizing Aurelia. His force was a great one, according to the measure of marsh-fighting. Oisin, in perfect good faith and zeal, had tempted her to remain over long. There was barely time to send this messenger to the villa, and one other toward London, before they were wrapped all around with enemies. Neither had failed; for while they spoke sounds of contention
came to them, as though Osburn, with his mercenaries and citizens, was vigorously attempting the guarded lower ford of the Lea. Their own route lay otherwhere; a détour reaching the northern border of the great marsh at a point where a path went inward--barely practicable and known to few.
It was not until they had crossed the lesser waters of that river that the uproar around Oisin and the queen became audible. At the same time, under thick hanging clouds, a beacon-flare of red and yellow light, waving with the wind, made a silent, powerful appeal for aid. All around it were lesser lights, doubled by reflection in water, and broken by intervening boughs. The marshman, pointing to these, laid his hand on Cian's knee. While he pointed, these divided and multiplied, as though fire were being borrowed from fire. All at once a flight as of shooting-stars went centring in from them toward the roofs under the beacon light.
Their guide gave a grunt of answered expectation, with no pleasure in it. All behind cried out once, but ceased as suddenly. In that breath came to them the fierce yell that went with the fire-arrows, and the high-keyed, harsh defiance of the villagers answering.
Flight followed flight, with the same company of noises. There was waving of flambeaux, also, about the palisades, and a huddle of dark forms, actively
moving, below them, with every discord of onset. Here and there a fresh outburst of flame within, as some bit of woodwork caught fire, showed the defenders with equal plainness. The outlines of the houses, too, were thrown out with fitful vividness; and their walls and slanting thatch danced back and forth between illumination and shadow.
Cian lost nothing of this, but saw as he hurried on, with only a moment's halting. His teeth and eyes were set, his breath came laboringly. Prayers and curses were in his heart together.
Suddenly there were no more meteors. The torches, being inverted, flared higher, and then were dark. Shadows went hurrying back across the half-lighted lake. A loud call of taunting and gladness followed them. One crisis of the little city of refuge had come and passed in Cian's distant vision; and, behold, it was living yet. But dwellings were ablaze already, so there was no more need for the beacon.
Their course was yet wide of that shining mark. Impatience assailed Cian; doubts began to hover; the night air, now clammy with marsh dampness, chilled him thoroughly; but he clenched his countenance, and kept on unquestioning.
The footing grew soft under a thin shell of frozen mire. At every step they sank deeper.
"Where is that secret way you promised us?" Tigernach demanded sharply.
"They Went in Ribbon-like Order."
"Here, turn!" was the marshman's answer, hoarse and savage as though from hostile lips. His gesture directed them toward that lessening riot of flame and the ruddy smoke-masses which overhung it.
They still went heavily, yet at first not increasingly so; having for path a narrow ribbon of moist but solid land, which dangled a good way out from the higher country into that bleak morass. They kept a thread-like and winding order, following the guide with good heed; their best light was the mere intermittent glimmer of a thin paring of moon from behind the now broken and marching clouds.
At last they had to leave their horses under guard at a little eyot of firm sod where some bushes grew, and pushed on afoot from tuft to tuft very precariously, now leaping, now dragging one another out of some oily hole where a man unaided would have sunk forever.
It was all a desperate task to Cian, the imperfectly convalescent; but he called wit to aid nerve and sinew, measuring the steps, and marking the footholds of the sure-stepping native next before him, and leaving rescue-work to those who were in better case for it. All strength which he could husband would be needed elsewhere, soon and right urgently.
The lights, fading down, appeared ever farther and farther ahead, until their seeming withdrawal grew disheartening. Then revelation came very start-
lingly. Once more the earth and air were alive with confusion of sound, with volumes of reddening cloud and dragons of fire--all just before them, with only a thin hedge of forestry between. They hurried on, and paused, as yet unseen amid the lake-encircling trees, with the glare of fire and water in their faces. Their nearest enemies were not a spear's throw away.
Eager-eyed the tall Saxon bowmen stood, sending arrow after arrow in long flight with fiery mane into and over the palisade, or bending to light at the fagot-pyres the tow, tar-painted, until impatience drove them, one after another, out through the ice-crusted shallows to a more immediate share in the assault.
The lake on that side was no real obstacle to these fighting watermen, except as they could not get footing for their strokes and labor at the last. Already in and on the deep water, next the palisade, there was a broad entanglement of boats and rafts and logs and swimming men. Some of the latter were chopping steps in the tall piles before them, others were swarming up with desperate energy at points that looked more nearly practicable than the rest. Many more came to them continually, either straight out from the shore, or around the village, wading knee-deep, waist-deep, neck-deep, and waist-deep again, or swimming overhand through the ice-film with great strokes.
To judge by the excited clamor and signs of effort, the besieged were not less busy. At the moment of Cian's appearance, two or three of the climbing Saxons were flung, from the top of the wall, with stabs or without them, and the air thickened with other missiles, often glowing hot, showered on the heads below. Yet the escalade was gaining, urged on to fury by yells of fight in the marshes toward the Lea, which were heard interruptedly through their own hurly-burly, and seemed approaching, though distant still.
Osburn was coming--resolutely, vehemently, in spite of all resistance, and with the utmost speed which it would allow; but he could never come in time. Well for the village folk, well for Aurelia, that there was no need to await him, with the Sword of Fire in person almost over the palisade!
Cian quickly spread his men to cover that curve of shore from which wading was possible, and then sent them at Eschwine, convergingly and with a dash.
Even while the last lingering archers were staring with half-turned heads at the sudden apparition of lines of armed men behind them, a great shout went up from these, which every Briton knew, and the keen cry of the marshman-guide followed it. As he sent that forth, he sprang on the nearest enemy, spearing him through the throat, and driving weapon and Saxon headlong into the water together. From
the village came a glad chorus of many applauding voices. The other Saxon bowmen hurried out to join their comrades, letting fly an arrow or two behind them as they fled.
Nearly the whole Saxon mass was now in such depth of water as allowed neither secure footing nor free arm-play. Before them was the well-manned barrier which had so tried their strength already; behind them a bristling array of new enemies, not very many in number, but with order yet unbroken, pausing where the bottom suddenly fell away, standing knee-deep or thigh-deep without harm since their part was simply to hold their places. Only at the ends of the curving line was there any outlet.
Eschwine stood on the platform of the palisade with a handful who had followed him, fighting bitterly to make good their hold; while Aurelia urged forward her guards, and Oisin called on the wild, lank villagers, to dislodge them.
Such of the Saxons as were yet climbing scrambled desperately up to their king. The others floundered uncertainly for some moments, with cries of discomfiture. Then, back toward the shore went the sea-heathen, swimming and wading as they could, mostly spear in hand, but some with swords, battle-axes, knives, and clubs of war, keeping no order, but fierce as cornered wolves.
There was very grim fighting then, so that the
water frothed and spouted with the frenzy of it, and men everywhere fell singly or in writhing and strangling couples. But the Saxons went down seven to one, growing momently less. Very soon there were none withstanding or assailing the Britons, but only a few who had broken through or swam around, and were now hastening to the woods, if so they might escape pursuers, and another few who sought refuge with Eschwine above the palisade.
These last were closely followed, Cian's men cutting into them as they swam, or dragging them down by the feet from the rough wood. Nevertheless, enough of them reached the top to extend very briefly the struggle of the Essex king. He gave those few moments to a charge against Aurelia, most likely in mere fury and bravado, for he could not hope to carry her away.
She did not shrink. The press behind her was such as to preclude any motion. Cian, painfully drawing himself up to the top of the palisade, discerned them both with blurred vision, and tumbled over upon the platform before her in a last violent effort.
Then another form sprang over him, a starved infuriated hovel-dweller of that border, prematurely aged, who had lost all who were dear to him by that Saxon, and had passed bodily under his torture. Like a figure of frenzy this odd assailant came at
Page 148 CHAPTER XV.
the Saxon chief, bony and knotted, agile as a dancing dervish of later days, white-hot with remembered outrage and ravening zeal, a firebrand in one hand, a great knife in the other, striking right at the enemy's eyeballs with the rapidity of cat-clawing, either weapon or both together--a very mountain-devil of a fighter.
Eschwine was bewildered and half blinded by the fantastic onfall. He took one step awry, swaying for the stroke that should end it; lost his balance under a new smiting of the torch, and went headlong down into the water, leaving that human firebrand to chant his pæans of victory alone.
The villagers and London men, with a shout of laughter, flung themselves on the remaining intruders, hewed them down, and cast them over after him, all but one likely youth, whom Cian bade them spare.
There were splashing and fighting where Eschwine made his unwilling dive, and many calls afterward, as that he was here, or here. Those within the wall were in high hope of his capture. But at last no one could find him, and there was little doubt that some chance had aided his escape to the wood.
Not long afterward, Osburn, with his forces, came up, all opposition having suddenly left them. Their loss had been far greater than that of the other Britons, as Osburn had steadily to dislodge an enemy
noted for doggedness, who fell back again and again from one strong position to another.
He was ill-pleased with Cian that even one prisoner should be taken after so much slaughter and broken faith, and incensed above all against Oisin--who joined very willingly in his condemnation--for having by his spiritual solicitude brought such trouble on them all. Not even the queen escaped his censure. He would take no rest until he had her within London wall again.
Therein the villagers mightily concurred. She had indeed been the soul of the defence from its beginning; but what need to defend, if there were no temptation for Eschwine? Better than royalty with fireworks was their safe and wonted obscurity.
Meanwhile Eschwine, safe now beyond the Thames, was blaspheming and grinning together over the grotesqueness of his overthrow, as he made his way to take shelter with that half-ally, half-competitor, Aesc, the Under-king of West Kent. He had hope of aid there, when wrongs and opportunities should have been thrillingly presented. He had no thought of giving up his purpose or his future prize after all that had been staked thereon.
LONDON BEFORE THE STORM.
I love not him that causes contention.
IT was but a dismal home-journey to Aurelia, notwithstanding the great joy of rescue, and though they spared her whatever they could. There were no sounds to distress her, for the Saxons had been put beyond moaning, and the wounded Britons borne tenderly away; but along that hard-fought road, which was rarely more than a mere path or cartway, the dead of either side were strewn. Hide-bound forms of the populace, and sons of wealthy houses in glittering mail, encumbered the shallows of the Lea. Roman-trained mercenaries, iron fellows of the Teuton borderland, with teeth yet locked together and blades held forward, lay where Osburn had led them again and again, up the eastward slope, ever stabbing at the face, until at last with those insistent points he bore a way over and through. They were very grim relics to her in the light of that wintry sunrise.
She paused on the London side with a backward
look, wistful and faintly shivering. Silence fell on her companions. The face of Osburn darkened with returning blame.
"We have many dead," he reiterated slowly. "We cannot spare so many."
Cian saw her under lip quiver, and it stirred him.
"It is the part of a man to die for his queen," said he.
"Doubtless--where she is queening."
"Ask any one who fought there. How could her bearing have been more queenly?"
Osburn bowed with gravity. "Undoubtedly a hot fight, well fought--which never needed fighting. Is that queen-craft?"
"You presume too far," began Cian angrily; but Aurelia interposed.
"I cannot blame Osburn," she said; "and if I could, I would not, after what he has done for me. Nor will I blame myself unduly. I was on my proper errand, with good intent; and I am well assured that the Sword of Fire would have found occasion before long if I had stayed or gone elsewhere. For what truth was in him had wholly turned to falseness. My danger might have come where Prince Cian could not so fatally have trapped them. But I will not serve again as a marsh-decoy if I can help it."
"Your majesty is very right!" answered Osburn, with slow emphasis. "Yet it was the hardest cuff
Eschwine has taken. Mere luck saved him, to sting again--if we let him get ready."
"But Eschwine is in neutral territory."
"No Saxon is neutral," exclaimed Tigernach.
Osburn grunted assent. "We should strike all who harbor him, and talk about neutrality afterward."
Aurelia smiled, shaking her head, and looked at Cian.
"It might be fairer," he admitted, "to ascertain first whether they intend to come with him against us."
"You don't doubt it," answered Osburn. "Fooling is dangerous."
"We might try an embassy to Aesc of West Kent," Aurelia suggested.
"An embassy to the wolf's teeth!" growled Osburn. "I know the cut of them. The two fiends are cousins."
Cian considered. "I feel with you," said he. "Yet we may be wrong. But if we could keep this down to a fight with Essex! We need risk no man. There is the prisoner."
Osburn and Tigernach muttered something with black looks.
But when they were again in London and in council, Aurelia sent for the youth.
He came between guards, with a fair show of nimbleness, both in wit and form. Bright colors in stripes bound his legs from foot to knee. His tunic
--he had lost his mantle--was of scarlet, broidered with tattered gold. All this gayety of garb had been dimmed by swamp service. His head was bare and sunny. His right arm hung in a sling.
"What is your name?" Aurelia inquired graciously.
"Wulfhelm," returned the lad, with a bow.
"Wulfhelm, Wulfnoth, Wulfgang, Wulf!" muttered Tigernach distastefully. "Show me a Saxon name without the wolf in it."
"Better wolves than sheep!" retorted the Saxon.
Aurelia looked at the woodland chief with offended eyes. Then, turning to her prisoner, she said gently, "Wolves would have slain you."
"True. I owe my life to the boar's head." He bowed toward Cian.
"I will leave you to him," said she, with a smile.
Cian had not thought his cognizance known so far, and the allusion pleased him.
"What I need of you is very simple," he said. "Ask the King of West Kent for me--'Is it peace or war?' If you will do this, you are free."
"To join the Sword of Fire?"
"What you will."
Within the half-hour he was away.
"If they kill him for the inquiry, at least it will not be one of our own people," said Osburn. "Let us make ready to fight--in case the answer should be `Peace.'"
While he busied himself in and about the city, Cian was given charge of all the northern and eastern country to and beyond Caer Collin, where he made his headquarters. Chariots began to grow plentiful, even to be a jest. Not a smith nor wagon-maker but was overdriven with work on them.
His late signal triumph answered all murmuring. Truly it had been won where scythes and wheels could never be of much avail. But there was plenty of firm open land for them. Osburn had already begun to obstruct the river with barriers.
Wulfhelm was back very speedily, with the answer "Peace," and left again hurriedly. But there were more disquieting tales through other channels, and the work of making ready went on. It was too late to do more.
Daily the population of London grew, as the few remaining people of exposed places flocked in at the urgent call of their queen. For she had begun to dread lest she had brought ruin on some of her friends by persistence in untimely scruple.
There was a little stir of trade in the shops again, as provisions came from far corners of the outer country, and mouths which must eat them. There was a stir of labor also, both in strengthening the defences and bringing disused homes into some kind of life and service again. The houses yet intact were mostly
crowded. Many tented families occupied in part the belt between these and the walls; and others lay about near their fires in the open air or under any rude shelter.
The Celtic and pagan element of the cruder sort had been re-enforced beyond any other. Its manifestations of grotesque faith and fervor were disquieting. The dread silent watcher of the White Hill--dead but sleepless--was more than ever a power among men, but the power of a palsy.
The victory in the marsh, that made Oisin's people chant so loudly, did not turn the tide. It was too plainly the rescue of one who had been quite safe while within the wall and the promise. How grievous, too, were the losses that followed her escapade!
This current of feeling disturbed Aurelia. Her amplitude ef vision and contact with many beliefs had not wholly freed her from a fantasy born in the blood. Sometimes, when weary, she seemed to feel eyes on her out of that august burial-place; and though such fancies might be resolutely put by, the legend haunted her memory.
"Sylvia," said she, in a lonely hour, after many trying things, "what am I ever to do with all these people?"
"Send for papa!" was the natural child-answer.
Aurelia petted her, but did not look exhilarated.
"He is busy elsewhere," she replied. "No, my dear, our papa cannot come."
Sylvia gazed at her with the huge responsibility of tender years called on for a decision. Presently it came abruptly: "Aurelia, send for Prince Cian."
At that name the queen sister put her involuntarily away; then, seeing in the little counsellor those lip-quiverings which precede the tears of pain, Aurelia folded the ringlets very close to her, exclaiming: "I did not mean to be unkind."
"But why?" began the pretty wondering mouth and eyes together, uptilted from their nest.
"Oh, never mind, never mind!" and a soft hand pressed the sunny head down again. A low laugh followed, with an echo of self-impatience in it. Presently Aurelia said, with complimentary gravity, "I think so highly of your advice, my dear, that I am going to do just as you have said. And that is more than I always do for our wisest old men. Even our good bishop," she added meditatively.
"He isn't a 'good bishop,"' declared the child, with emphasis.
"Why do you say so?"
"He talks against Prince Cian."
"Ah!" Aurelia found herself admitting this in evidence. But she answered very justly, "They don't agree, you know. And when people don't agree they misjudge."
"I don't like him," persisted Sylvia. "Besides, he hates our Holy One, the sacred Head. He hates Vran!"
"Why child; what do you know of Him?"--smiling at this echoed earnestness.
"Just what so many people say. What you have told me, sister."
"I--oh, I have told you many things. As an old tale, not for certain truth."
Sylvia pondered dubiously. "Anyway," said she, "I think it's very good of him to keep watch for us. And such a long, long time! Just think! And only a head to him! It must be very lonesome, Aurelia."
"Would you like to see it and talk to it, then?" Aurelia blamed herself for the question before she had done asking it.
Sylvia sprang up and off with a gasp, looking about her and trembling. "No!" she cried, with a stamp of her foot, half-petulant, half-terrified.
"There, there," said Aurelia soothingly. "I see the most fervent partisans of the great Vran are even more so at a distance. I must own I think him rather a frightful defender. But you wouldn't be afraid to talk with--Prince Cian?"
"No," demurely; "I love Cian."
"Oh, you do!" said Aurelia. "Why?"
"Because he is good--and kind. And he kills the wolves and the Saxons."
"So does Oisin. Didn't you hear how he made the people knock Eschwine into the lake?"
"Yes," judicially, "I love Oisin too."
"What, that little croaking rook of a man!"
"Yes, I do."
"But he doesn't like Vran."
"I don't care," with another glance around. "Don't you love Oisin?"
"I like him, and trust him, and prize him."
"Don't you love Cian, Aurelia?"
"I like him, and trust him, and prize him, too. Sylvia, don't you love Osburn and Vortimer and the great Emperor?"
Sylvia reflected. All items but one were passed by in her slow answer. "The great Emperor Arthur was like the sun, when he rode in his armor up the northern road," she said. "I was very glad to look at him. But he is too far away."
This lingered in Aurelia's mind with something, perhaps, of that comfort which we find in a spokesman raised up for us unexpectedly. Both of these notably strong and picturesque men had been in her thought and her fancy, and the child had spoken.
Yet, when Cian came hurrying to her presence, he was received only with an elaborate presentation of affairs. For the moment he would gladly have been back at Colchester.
He took himself to task after the manner of the
disconcerted. Beyond question, the queen had good right to send for him when needed; nor would he loiter by the way if thus summoned again. Ay, Cian--yet hardly would that coming be with the same stir and thrill of expectancy, a star-gleam going on before.
But soon she passed to matters of more intimate disquiet--those eyes of fire that verily burned through black night out of the blacker hillside; the frenzied processions winding upward in the moonlight, imploring an answer.
"Did they really hear anything?" he inquired.
"A thunder of words in tongues unknown. The sound came to me even here. It makes the votaries more assured, more darkling, more uplifted."
Cian looked grave. He could not feel so sure of the redoubtable obstructive dead, as of wonders which belonged to the common faith of all elder Britain. Yet, true or false, it was a very disturbing feature of local lore and pride.
"I will see and hear to-night," he answered at last.
"Oh!" and she put her hand forward dissuasively; then added, with quiet self-command, "If it seems best to you."
That let the sunshine through. Surely he was, at least, a little more to her than a mere engine of war and pillar of the state. His look, going beyond his
will, told her of what he saw and felt, and her face warmed again.
But before either spoke, word was brought of the presence of the Saxon whom they had freed.
"Let him enter," said Aurelia, surmising urgent tidings; but Cian fancied a touch of resigned vexation in her tone.
When Wulfhelm appeared, the marks of wild unresting haste were apparent all over his new and brave attire. He had indeed come fast and far, and sighed with relief, as one who could not hold his course much longer.
"I thought never to be here again," he said. "But since my word was `Peace,' your destruction unarmed would weigh on me more than death."
Cian took his hand and pressed it. "So they are coming," said he.
"From everywhere--the town of the Cantwara, the wet Merscwara country, the walled isles of the sea, and the valleys of the Darent and the Medway. Both Kents and all Essex. They will strike at the heart, hoping to catch you asleep. And that very soon. They look for rain and mire to clog your wheeling scythe-devils."
Cian bowed to the compliment. "So they hope to see my chariots mud-locked at Colchester?"
"That is their hope. I brought word there, found you gone, and followed."
Cian looked him over. "Will not Eschwine carve the blood eagle on you for this?"
A shiver passed through the young man's frame. He made no answer.
"Oh, stay with us! you shall have what you will," cried Aurelia.
He glanced at her haughtily, softening to indulgence, but answered nothing.
"We will neither tempt you nor hold you," said Cian. "But Cerdic is as good a Saxon as Eschwine, with a greater name, and hates him no less than I."
The face of Wulfhelm brightened. "Will you send me to Cerdic?" inquired he.
"Surely. That is over little for all your peril and kindness. My letter to him may aid you. He knows of Cian Gwenclan. Sooner or later, with him, you will be made happy in fighting against us. And now I pray you to await me below, for we must see Osburn."
At the door Wulfhelm turned again, and came back with extended hand.
"It is not only for the life that you have given me," said he. "But you have not asked me to change my soul,--to become a Briton."
"A fine compliment!" quoth Cian; but he seized on the hand with kind eyes.
But what he saw in those of Aurelia drove the Frank and the Saxon together out of his mind.