Somewhat startled to find that they had saved the future Basileus or King of Britain—the hope of the royal line of Cerdic—the brothers led their guest through the darkening forest until the distant light of a clearing appeared in the west, and they emerged from the shadow of the trees upon the brow of a gentle hill.
Below them lay the castle (if such it should be called) of their father the Thane of Aescendune. Utterly unlike the castellated buildings which, at a later period, formed the dwellings of the proud Norman nobility, it was a low irregular building, the lower parts of which were of stone, and the upper portions, when there was a second story, of thick timber from the forest.
A river, from which the evening mist was slowly rising, lay beyond, and supplied water to a moat which surrounded the edifice, for in those troublous times few country dwellings lacked such necessary protection. The memory of the Danish invasions was too recent; the marauders of either nation still lurked in the far recesses of the forest, and plundered the Saxon inhabitant or the Danish settler indiscriminately, as occasion served.
On the inner side of the moat a strong palisade of timber completed the defence. One portal, opening upon a drawbridge, formed the sole apparent means of ingress or egress.
Passing the drawbridge unquestioned, the boys entered the courtyard, around which the chief apartments were grouped. Before them a flight of stone steps led to the great hall where all the members of the community took their meals in common, and where, around the great fire, they wiled away the slow hours of a winter evening.
On each side of the great hall stood the bowers, as the small dormitories were called, furnished very simply for the use of the higher domestics with small round tables, common stools, and beds in recesses like boxes or cupboards. Such were commonly the only sleeping chambers, but at Aescendune, as generally in the halls of the rich, a wide staircase conducted to a gallery above, from each side of which opened sleeping and sitting apartments allotted to the use of the family. It was only in the houses of the wealthy that such an upper floor was found.
On the right hand, as they entered the courtyard, stood the private chapel of the household, where mass was said by the chaplain, to whom allusion has been already made, as the first duty of the day, and where each night generally saw the household again assembled for compline or evening prayers.[iii] On the left hand were domestic offices.
Upon the steps of his hall stood Ella, the Thane of Aescendune, the representative of a long line of warlike ancestors, who had occupied the soil since the Saxon conquest of Mercia.
He was clad in a woollen tunic reaching to the knee, over which a cloak fastened by a clasp of gold was loosely thrown; and his feet were clad in black pointed boots, while strips of painted leather were wound over red stockings from the knee to the ankle.