“Folly, in truth, if you let Ethelbert keep you from the realm which waits you. Were he gone, there is not so much as an atheling who would make trouble there for you.”
“Peace, I say. Ethelbert is my guest, and more than that. He shall go as he came—in honour. What may lie in the days to come, who shall know?”
“He who acts now shall see. Until the Norns set the day of doom for a man, he makes his own future. Surely they set his end on Ethelbert when he came here.”
So she says in the old heathen way, but Offa does not note it. It is in his mazed mind that Ethelbert wrongs him by living to hold back the frontier of Mercia from the eastern sea.
“He is my guest, and I may not touch him,” he says dully. “All the world would cry out on me if harm came to him here. And yet—”
“You shall not harm him,” Quendritha says quickly. “There are other ways. Your own name shall be free from so much as shadow of blame. Now I would that I myself had made an end before ever I said a word to you.”
“Had you done so—Peace. Let it be. You set strange thoughts, and evil, in my mind, wife.”
Then she leaves him, and in her face is triumph, for Offa has forbidden her nothing. Outside the door waits Gymbert, as if on guard, alone.
“All goes well. Have you sounded yon Frank?” she says.
“He is no Frank, but a Wessex thane and a hired man of Carl’s; moreover, he is Ethelbert’s friend.”
“Fool!” she says. “How far went you with him? What does he know—or suspect?”
“Naught,” answers Gymbert stiffly.
And with that he tells her what passed between us.
“Come to me tomorrow early,” Quendritha says, and goes her way.
But we slept in peace, deeming all well. Only Erling, sleeping armed across my door, was restless, for the cold eyes of the queen seem to be on him in his dreams.
There was to be a great hunt on this next day after we came to Sutton, the stronghold palace.
It had been made ready beforehand—men driving the game from the farther hills and woodlands into the valley of the Lugg, and then drawing a line of nets and fires across a narrow place in its upper reaches, that the wild creatures might not stray beyond reach again. I should hardly like to say how many thralls watched the sides of that valley from this barrier to a mile or two from the palace. Nor do I know if all the tales they told of the countless head of game, deer and boar, wolf and fox, roe and wild white cattle, which had been driven for the kings, are true, but I will say that never have I seen such swarming woods as those through which we rode after the morning meal.