“Elfric of Aescendune! right glad am I to hear that he is alive; my followers have brought me word that they saw him fall in battle.”
“Nay, spare thy deceit, thou son of perdition, for well do we know that he was brought home wounded last night. One of his bearers escaped thy toils, even as a bird the snare of the fowler, and is now with us.”
“Assuredly the loon has lied unto you. Rejoiced should I be to see the unhappy youth, and to know that he yet lived. I but hold this place, faithful to his lord and mine, Edwy, King of all England.”
“Then why hast thou expelled the rightful dwellers therein from their house and home? We know Elfric is with thee, and that thou art a traitor, wherefore, deliver him up, or we will even excommunicate thee.”
“Thou hadst better not begin in the hearing of the men who sit upon the wall; for myself, excommunication cannot hurt a man who never goes to church, and does not company over much with those who do.”
“Infidel! heretic! pagan! misbeliever! accursed Ragnar!” began the irate monk, when an arrow, perhaps only meant to frighten him (for they could hardly have missed so fair a mark), glanced by him.
He retreated, but still continued his maledictions.
“Excommunicabo te, et omnes tibi adhaerentes; thou art an accursed parricide, who hast raised thine hand against thy father’s house. Vade retro, Sathanas, I will shake off the dust of my feet against thee,”— another arrow stuck in his frock—“thou shalt share the fate of Sodom, yea of Gomorrha; in manus inimici trado te;” by this time his words were inaudible; and he departed, not having accomplished much good, but having nevertheless informed Redwald of two great facts—the first, that Elfric’s return was blazed abroad; the second, that his own identity was more than suspected.
“Ragnar!” said he, “What fiend has told them that? how came they to suspect? Confusion! it will foil all my plans, and my vengeance will be incomplete. At least this one victim must not escape, and yet I had sooner he should escape than any other member of the house. Poor boy! the sins of the fathers are heavy upon the children, as these Christians have it; but my oath, my oath taken before a dying father! no; he must die!”
So spake the avenger of blood, a man whose heart was evidently not all of iron; yet from childhood had he striven to restrain every tender impulse, and had bound himself to vengeance. Long years of peace in England had come between him and the execution of his projects, and he had prepared himself for the task he never lost sight of, by acquiring all the accomplishments of a knight and warrior, and even of a man of letters, at that court of Rouen, now rapidly becoming the focus of European chivalry, where the fierce barbarian Northmen were becoming the refined but ruthless Normans. Then, in England, he had wormed himself into the confidence of the future king with singular astuteness, and at length had found the occasion he had long sought, in a manner the most unforeseen save as a possible contingency.