CHAPTER XVIII. FATHER CUTHBERT’S DIARY.
In the Aescendune Woods, Easter Tide, 1007.—
Here I am at home, if I may call these woods home, once more, having spent my Lent with my brethren in the monastery of Abingdon. We are a very large party: Herstan and all his family are here, the Etheling Edmund, and Alfgar.
We all travelled together from Abingdon. Passing through Oxen ford, Kirtlington (where Bishop Sidesman of Crediton died at the Great Council, whose body is buried in the abbey), Beranbyrig, and Warwick, we reached the domains of Aescendune.
We passed through the desolated village where lie the blackened ruins of priory and hall, not without a sigh, and entered the forest. Although I had so recently travelled by that path (in September last), yet I could hardly find my way, and had once or twice like to have lost the party in quagmires. So much the better; for if we can hardly escape such impediments, I do not think we need fear that the Danes will find their way through the swamps and brakes.
But the woods were so fresh and delightful to men like ourselves, who have but just escaped from the confinement of the town. Blessed, thrice blessed, are they who dwell in the woods, God’s first temples, apart from strife and the turmoil of arms!
So spake I to my companions. The while the birds from each tree and bush chanted their Maker’s praise, and the sweet fresh green of springtide enlivened the scene, as if to welcome us pilgrims to our home.
“And not less, father,” said the Etheling, “need we be grateful for yon fat buck, which I mean to send an arrow after. See, we have the wind of him.”
So speaking, while we all stood motionless, he crept near his victim, and drawing an arrow to its head, while all we saw was the branching horns of the stag, he let it fly. It whizzed through the air, and drank the life blood of the poor beast, which bounded a few steps, staggered, and fell, when in a moment Alfgar ended its struggles by drawing his knife across its throat, while young Hermann, a true hunter by instinct, clapped his hands with joy.
“We shall bring our dinner with us,” quoth the boy.
At this point I found great difficulty. A brook coming down from the hills had overflowed the land until a swamp or quagmire had been formed, whereon huge trees rotted in slime, while creeping plants hid the deformity of decay.
Our horses refused the path, and it took me a good hour’s search, for I was guide, to find a more secure one. At last I found the tracks where others had gone before me, and we followed a winding path for a full hour, until we arrived in a deep valley, where a brook made its way between deep rocky banks, by the side of which lay our upward path.
“What a splendid place for defence!” said Edmund. “With a score or two warriors, one might hold an entire army at bay here.”