And so the last sad words of adieu were spoken as bravely as might be, and the little troop, about fifty in number, departed from the hall. They crossed the rude wooden bridge, and took the southern road.
Their loved ones watched them until the last. They saw their warriors cast many a longing lingering look behind, and then the woodland hid them from sight; and a dread quiet came down upon Aescendune, as when the air is still before the coming hurricane.
It was a long time before any news of the warriors reached home; for in those days the agony of suspense had always to be endured in the absence of posts and telegrams; but after a few weeks a special messenger came from the army. He was one of the Aescendune people, and his was the great privilege of embracing wife and family once more ere returning to the perils of the field.
His news was brief. The forces of Mercia had been placed under the command of Edric, formerly the sheriff of the county in which Aescendune lay, but long since returned to court, where his smooth tongue gained him great wealth and high rank. Gifted with a subtle genius and persuasive eloquence, he had obtained a complete ascendency over the mind of the weak Ethelred, while he surpassed even that treacherous monarch in perfidy and cruelty.
Under his direction that unhappy king had again and again embrued his hands in innocent blood. This very year they had both given a proof of these tendencies worth recording.
Edric had conceived a hatred against the Ealdorman Elfhelm, which he carefully concealed. He invited that unfortunate lord to a banquet at Shrewsbury, where he welcomed him as his intimate friend. On the third or fourth day of the feast he took him to hunt in a wood where he had prepared an ambuscade, and while all the rest were engaged in the chase, the common hangman of Shrewsbury, one Godwin “port hund,” or the town’s hound, bribed by Edric to commit the crime, sprang from behind a bush, and foully assassinated the innocent ealdorman. Not to be behind his favourite in cruelty, Ethelred caused the two sons of the unfortunate Elfhelm to be brought to him at Corsham, near Bath, where he was then residing, and he ordered their eyes to be put out.
Such was the man to whom the destinies of the English army were now confided, and such the king who ruled the unhappy land—cruel as he was cowardly.
Under such leaders it is no marvel that the messenger Ulric had no good news to tell. The army had assembled, and had marched after the Danes, whose policy for the present was to avoid a pitched battle, and to destroy their enemies in detail. So they were continually harassing the English forces, but avoiding every occasion of fair fight. Did the English march to a town under the impression the Danes were about to attack it, they found no foe, but heard the next day that some miserable district at a distance had been cruelly ravaged. Did they lie in ambush, the Danes took another road. Meanwhile the English stragglers were repeatedly cut off; and did they despatch a small force anywhere, it was sure to fall into an ambush, and be annihilated by the pagans.