The time seemed long as we waited, but it could not have been much more than ten minutes before I heard the footfalls of our party as they returned by the passage way. One by one they came out from under the arch, and I took the torch from Witred the Mercian, who came first as he had gone, and then helped them one by one to the room again from the pit. Their faces were white and hard set in the light, and Sighard seemed as a man broken and aged in a moment with trouble beyond his bearing. Then I knew that I had to hear the worst, and made ready for it. Witred the Mercian told it quietly.
“This passage runs under the ramparts, and ends in a thicket on the steep by the river. I knew that there were old stones in that, but not one of us knew of the passage. That end has been newly opened, and the tools with which it was done are there yet. A man sat by that entrance on guard outside, and as I came I spoke to him by name and told him who I was. Then he stayed, and we fell on him and bound him without giving him a chance to cry out. Whereon he told all, and it is an evil tale.”
He paused, and wiped his forehead, looking round as if he would have any man but himself tell it; but none else spoke.
“Yesterday Gymbert’s men sawed the floor through and made this trapdoor. Then they waited underneath, and the king fell, as they had expected, into the ready arms that waited him. There were Gymbert and half a dozen of his men. The cushion stayed his cry, and he was helpless. Yet he was very strong, and so Gymbert snatched his own sword from his side and smote off his head. Out by the river they had a cart waiting, and they bore him away at speed. We saw and followed the wheel tracks till we lost them, and could do no more. Then we bound and gagged the man, and have haled him halfway down the passage till we need him again. That is all.”
Then I said, with a cold wrath on me, “At whose orders was this done?”
The Mercian shook his head, glancing at his comrades. The other Mercian had come to hear from the council chamber.
“The man could not or would not tell; but I pray you think not that this is done by Offa. The one thing that the man begged us was that he might not be delivered to the king. And he said that Gymbert and his men would hide till Offa’s wrath was past.”
“There is but one other at whose word this could have been done,” I said.
“Ay,” said Witred, “I know. Yet Ethelbert was to be the bridegroom of our princess. Is it possible that Gymbert has looked so high, and would take him from his way?”
And at that one of the other Mercians answered bluntly:
“You speak of what is not possible, and you know it. Who but that one of whom we ken would have seen that those who wrought here with saw and axe were not disturbed? Let us say at once that the thing has been wrought by the hand of Quendritha, and have done with it. Which of us does not know that she is capable of it, and has never dared say so yet till this minute?”