A loud cry, “They fly! They fly! Victory! Victory!” reached him even then. He well knew from which party the cries must proceed, and that he was left to the mercy of the victorious Mercians.
It was even so; the charge of the hostile cavalry on the left flank had broken down the ranks of the infantry on that side; the hostile foot had contrived to cross the brook in the confusion, and all was lost.
The reserve now came rapidly forward, but, seeing at a glance the state of things, retired to defend the entrenched camp, so as to give the king and his broken and routed followers time to escape, while they made good the defence with their lives. So they retired at once into the camp, whither Edwy and his few surviving companions galloped a moment after them.
Edwy was unhurt; he dismounted: his fair face flushed to a fiery red with heat and excitement, he leapt on the entrenchment and looked on the plain. He saw those of his own followers who had not yet made good their escape, ridden down, cut to pieces, slaughtered in the excitement of the moment without mercy; the sight stung him, be would have sallied out to their defence, but Cynewulf, who was yet living, met him in the gateway, and sternly seized the bridle of his steed.
“My lord and king,” he said; “your life is precious to Wessex, you may not throw it away.”
“I cannot see my followers slaughtered: loose my bridle, I command you;” and he raised his sword impetuously.
“You may cut me down, and so reward my faithful service; but, living, you shall not pass me on your road to destruction. My lord, I am old enough to be your father.”
But there was one gay young noble present, who knew better than Cynewulf the key to Edwy’s heart. He was one of the boon companions we have been before introduced to; but he had fought, poor young fellow, gallantly all that day, and now he could fight no longer: Edwy saw him reel and fall from his horse.
“Elfgar!” he said; as he strove to raise his friend and subject from the ground—“not seriously wounded I hope!”
“Dying, and for my king, as is my duty let a dying voice reach you, my dear lord. Save yourself if you would save Elgiva, if you—if you—” the words came broken and faint “—are slain, she will be at the mercy of her deadly foes.”
His head fell helplessly down upon his shoulder, and ere the king could make any reply, he saw that he was indeed past hope.
But his dying words had sunk deeply into the heart of Edwy.
“Poor Elfgar! he was right. O Elgiva! Elgiva! this is a sad day for thee.”
“Return then to her, my lord,” said Cynewulf. “See, they are preparing now to assault the camp; I can hold it for hours, and if you are not here, I can make good terms with our foes; but, if you stay, you but embarrass us: ride out, my liege.”
“And desert my subjects?”
“They will all acquit you: haste, my lord, haste, before they surround the camp, for your fair queen’s sake, or you are lost.”