“Thank God!” broke from many an overcharged heart.
“But where are they? where are they?”
“Safe at the forest farm, protected by brake and morass; and now tell me, how came you here?”
Tidings arrived at headquarters that a small party of Danes were making an incursion into Mercia, riding as rapidly as they could, and I obtained Edric Streorn’s leave to pursue them, with great difficulty I can tell you, and he would only allow me then to take fifty men.
“He affected to disbelieve the intelligence, and said sarcastically that the safety of Wessex could not be neglected for Aescendune. The Northmen would never hurt a place which had so distinguished itself on St. Brice’s day.”
Here he sighed heavily.
“Elfwyn,” I said, “my brother, we must not be ungrateful to God. Here are ruins indeed, but they cover no dead bodies; all have escaped.”
“No, Cuthbert, not all.”
I was silent, for I thought of Bertric.
“We have buried him, Cuthbert, in God’s peace, in the place he hallowed by his blood.”
I saw the tears stream down his manly cheeks. My voice grew so hoarse, somehow, that I could not ask a question.
“I will tell you all we have seen by and by, not now. I could not bear it;” and he covered his face with his hands.
“How did he die?” I stammered at last.
“Like St. Edmund.”
I asked no more, but I hope the martyr will forgive me the tears I shed. I know I ought to rejoice that he has gained his crown, but I cannot yet. I shall be able some day.
“How could they find the path through the woods, Cuthbert?” asked my brother; “how did they know the fords?”
The same question had occurred to me.
Then the words of the churl Beorn, who had been taken prisoner, as the messenger had told us, came fresh to my mind.
“Elfwyn,” said I, “do you remember Beorn?”
He looked earnestly at me.
“Did he not say that his captors asked particularly about Aescendune, and that the name of Anlaf was mentioned, and inquiries made concerning Alfgar?”
“It is the curse of St. Brice’s night.”
“Fallen upon the innocent.”
“Leave it to God,” said I.
“I will try; let us go to my people.”
And we arose and took the path through the woods, sorrowing for the news we must carry, and still uncertain about the fate of Alfgar.
It was the noontide heat, and two Danish warriors reclined under the shadow of an ancient beech, hard by the entrenched camp of the Danes, a few days after the arrival of Alfgar therein. Their spears lay idly on the grass, as if there were no foe to dread, and the land were their own; they seemed deeply engrossed in conversation.
“Well, Anlaf, and when is your son going to give up his Christianity?”