In the stir which comes with the waking of a camp, I and Erling went out of the eastward gate and watched the sun coming up over the Mercian hills across the river. The white morning mists lay deep and heavy below us, and the little breeze from the southwest drifted curls of it up the hill and across it, mixed with the smell of the newly-lighted fires; and as the sun touched the drifts they vanished. In the cattle enclosures the beasts moved restless and ghostlike, lowing for their home meadows after the night on the open hillside. Jefan had ridden out to go round his posts, and I was waiting to bid Hilda good morrow before breakfast.
“What shall you do next?” asked Erling, with his eyes on the misty treetops below us.
He was silent beyond his wont this morning, and I did not wonder at it.
“I can hardly say. I have thought that by-and-by, when Sighard is fit to move hence, we might get to one of the Welsh ports, and so cross into my own land, Wessex, unknown to any in all Mercia.”
“That is good,” he said. “I only wish we were a trifle farther from the Wye now, or that we had a few more men.”
“You think that Gymbert is still to be feared?”
“T know it. Unless we get hence shortly we shall be fallen on. The reeve told me that he could gather five-score men of the worst sort in a day by the raising of his finger.”
“It would need men of the best to take this place.”
“Outlaws and suchlike I meant—men who will have Gymbert’s promise of inlawing again if they will do his bidding. See, here comes Jefan!”
Up the hill from out of the mists rode the prince, and with him ran a few of his men, swiftly as mountain men will, so that the horse was no swifter up the steep. After them, through the mist, from men I could not see, sped an arrow, badly aimed, which fell short, and told of danger.
One of the two men who were at the gate on guard turned and whistled, and the rest, busy over their cooking, dropped what they held and ran to their weapons. Kynan came hastily to us, and watched his brother as he rode up.
“Jefan is in a hurry,” he said. “Get your arms, thane, for there must be reason. Mayhap it is naught, however, for one is easily scared in a fog.”
Still he was anxious; for if he had looked at me he would have seen that I was already armed, and that so also was Erling. We needed but our spears to complete the gear for battle—if that was to come—and they stood, each with the round shield at its foot, by the fire where we slept, twenty paces off.
Now Jefan pulled up, and tried to look back through the mists. They were thinning fast as the sun climbed higher, but were yet thick. His men came on and entered the gate, while Kynan asked what was amiss.
“There are men everywhere,” one said—“Mercians. They must have slain the outpost toward the ford, and so have crept on us under cover of the thickness.”