Now my father saw that some heavy sorrow of no common sort lay beneath the quiet words of the man before him, and he forbore to ask him more. Also, he deemed that in the Welsh land he would surely rank as a thane, for his ways and words bespoke more than his dress would tell. Therefore he said:
“Wait here with us for a while at least. There will be no more welcome guest.”
“Let me be of some use, rather,” Owen answered. “If I bide with you, Thane, and I thank you for the offer, let it be as I have bided elsewhere from time to time—as one of the household, not as an idle guest, if it were but to help the woodmen in the forest.”
“Why, that will be well. I need a forester, and it is plain that you are a master of woodcraft. Let it be so. Yet I must tell you one thing fairly, and that is, that I am what you would call a heathen. I know that you are a good Christian man, for I saw you sign your holy sign before you ate last night and this morning. Yet I do not hate Christians.”
“I had heard that all Sussex was turned to the faith,” Owen said.
“If one says that all the men have gone to market, one knows that here and there one is excepted for good reason. It is not for a thane of the line of Woden to give up the faith of his fathers idly. I do not know what may be in the days to come, but here in the Andredsweald some dozen of us will not leave the old gods. It was the bidding of Ethelwalch the king that we should do so, but that is not a matter wherein a king may meddle, as it seems to us.”
“I do not know why I should not bide with you, Thane, if so be that there is no hindrance to my faith.”
“That there will be none. Why, the most of my folk are Christian enough. And if a man of the Britons did not honour his old faith it would be as strange as if I honoured not that of my fathers. I have no quarrel with the faith of any man, either king or thrall.”
“Then I will be your forester, Thane, for such time as I may, and I thank you.”
“Nay, but the thanks are all on my side,” answered my father. “Now I shall know that the boy will have one with whom he may live all day in the woods if he will, and I shall be content.”
So Owen bided with us, half as honoured guest and half as forester, and as time went on he was well loved by all who knew him, for he was ever the same to each man about the place. As for me, it was the best day that could have dawned when he found me in the woods as a lost child. And that my father said also.
CHAPTER II. HOW ALDRED THE THANE KEPT HIS FAITH, AND OWEN FLED WITH OSWALD.
Our Sussex was the last land in all England that was heathen. I suppose that the last heathen thanes in Sussex were those whose manors lay in the Andredsweald, as did ours. Most of these thanes had held aloof from the faith because at the first coming of good Bishop Wilfrith, some twelve years ago, those who had hearkened to him were mostly thralls and freemen of the lower ranks, and they would not follow their lead. Yet of these there were some, like my father, who had no hatred, to say the least, of the Christian and his creed, and did but need the words of one who could speak rightly to them to turn altogether from the Asir.