“Come, my men, we must fly,” said Edwy, sullenly; and he led the way reluctantly to the back of the camp.
The road was partly encumbered with fugitives, but not wholly, as most of them sought the entrenched camp. Cynewulf accompanied him to the gate, where he stopped to give one last piece of advice.
“Fly, my lord, for Wessex at once; lose no time; the best route will be the Foss Way; they will not suspect that you have taken that direction. Ride day and night; if you delay anywhere you are lost.”
“Farewell, faithful and wise counsellor. Odin and Thor send that we may meet again;” and Edwy with only a dozen followers rode out at full speed.
The Mercians had not yet reached that side of the camp, which was concealed by woods which were clear of all enemies, and he rode on rapidly.
“What has become of Elfric, my Leofric?” he said to one of his faithful train.
“I fear me he is dead: I saw him fall in the last struggle.”
“Poor Elfric! poor Elfric! then his forebodings have come true; he will never see his father again.”
“It is all fortune and fate, and none can resist his doom, my lord,” said Leofric.
“But Elfric; yes, I loved Elfric. I would I had never left that fatal field.”
“Think, my lord, of Elgiva.”
“Yes, Elgiva—she is left to me and left all is left. Ride faster, Leofric, I fancy I hear pursuers.”
They had, at Cynewulf’s suggestion, taken fresh horses from the reserve, and had little cause to fear pursuit. In an hour they reached the Foss Way and rode along the route described in our former chapter, until, reaching the frontiers of the territory of the old Dobuni, they left the Foss, and rode by the Roman trackway which we have previously described, until they turned into a road which brought them deep into Oxfordshire. Here they were in a territory which had been a debateable land between Mercia and Wessex, where the sympathies of the people were not strongly enlisted on either side and they were comparatively safe.
They passed Kirtlington; rested at Oxenford, then rode through Dorchester and Bensington to Reading, whence they struck southward for Winchester, where Edwy rested from his fatigue in the society of Elgiva.
So ended the ill-advised raid into Mercia.
Although Edwy and his little troop had been successful in gaining the main road, and in escaping into Wessex, yet few of his followers had been so fortunate, and his broken forces were seeking safety and escape in all directions, wanderers in a hostile country. A large number found a refuge in the entrenched camp; but it was surrounded by the foe in less than half-an-hour after the king’s escape, and all ingress or egress was thenceforth impossible.
While one large body fled eastward towards the Watling Street, the soldiers who had accompanied the king to Aescendune naturally turned their thoughts in that direction. It was, as they had seen, capable of a long defence—well provisioned, and already partly garrisoned; nor could they doubt the joy with which their old companions would receive them, either to share in the defence of the post, or to accompany them in an honourable retreat southward.