“This is all moonshine, Elfric. You have not been such a bad fellow after all; if you go wrong, what will happen to the greater part of those amongst us who may die tomorrow? When you once get into the fight, and your blood gets warm, you will be all right; it is only the first battle that gives one all these fancies.”
“No; it is not that. I am of a race of warriors, and I do not suppose one of that race ever felt like this in his first battle. I have often looked forward to mine with joy, but now my mind is full of gloomy forebodings: I feel as if some terrible danger, not that of the fight, were hanging over me and mine, and as if I should never meet those I did love once, either in this world or the next.”
“The next! all we know about that comes from the priestly pratings. I think, of the two heavens, Valhalla,[xxviii] with its hunting or fighting by day, its feasting by night, would suit me best. I don’t know why we should think ourselves wiser than our ancestors; they were most likely right about the matter, if there be another world at all.”
“I cannot disbelieve, if you can,” replied poor Elfric, “I have tried to, but I can’t. Well, I daresay I shall know all about it by this time tomorrow.”
“Pshaw! let tomorrow take care of itself; ’tis our first fight, Elfric, and we will have no cowardly forebodings; we shall live to laugh at them all. What shall we do with Edgar, if we get him tomorrow? I suppose one must not shed a brother’s blood, even if he be a rebel?”
“Certainly not; no, no.”
“Perhaps it will be shed for me, and a lucky thrust with sword or lance may end all our trouble, and leave me sole king; but won’t the holy fox Dunstan grieve if his pet, his favourite, gets hurt? Come, cheer up, Elfric, my boy; dismiss dull care, and be yourself again!”
Elfric tried very hard to do so, and again partly succeeded. They had extended their walk all round the limits of the camp. It was a beautiful starlit night: there was a new moon, which was just going down, and an uncertain light hung about the field which was to be the scene of the conflict. It was one of those bright nights when the very aspect of nature suggests thoughts of the Eternal and the Infinite; when the most untutored being, gazing up into the deep blue void, finds his mind struggle vainly to grasp the hidden secrets those depths conceal; when the soul seems to claim her birthright, and dreams of an existence boundless, illimitable, as the starry wastes around. Such were, perhaps, the ideas which animated the philosophers of the old heathen world when they placed their departed heroes amongst the constellations; such, perhaps, the thoughts which led the dying apostate Julian to bid his followers weep no more for a prince about to be numbered with the stars.
Thoughts of peace would those radiant orbs have spoken, under any other circumstances, to the ardent youth as he gazed upon them; but now they oppressed him with the consciousness that he was at enmity with the mighty Unknown, that he was in danger, such danger as he could not comprehend; not that which comes from the lance point or the sword blade, but danger which fills the soul with the consciousness of its existence, yet is impalpable, not having revealed itself, only its presence.