Arthurian Chronicles: Roman de Brut - Part 3

Part 3

When Hengist saw his champions turn their backs, like children, to the stroke, he fled to the town called Caerconan,[1] where he was persuaded of shelter. The king followed fast after him, crying to the hunters, "On, on." Hengist heard the noise of the pursuit, and had no care to be trapped in his castle. Better to fight in the open at the risk of his body, than to starve behind walls, with none to bring succour. Hengist checked the rout, and rallying the host, set it again in order of battle. The combat was pa.s.sing sharp and grievous, for the pagans advanced once more in rank and by companies. Each heartened his fellow, so that great damage and loss were sustained by the Christians. The host fell in disarray, and began to give back before the onset of the foe. All would have been lost were it not for those three thousand hors.e.m.e.n, who rode upon the Saxon in one mighty troop, bringing succour and help to the footmen when they were overborne. The pagans fought starkly and grimly. Well they knew not one would escape with his life, if they did not keep them in this peril. In the press, Eldof the Earl lighted on Hengist. Hatred gave him eyes, and he knew him again because of the malice he owed him. He deemed that the time and the means were come to satisfy his l.u.s.t. Eldof ran in upon his foe, striking him mightily with his sword. Hengist was a stout champion, or he had fallen at the stroke. The two closed together, with naked brands and lifted shields, smiting and guarding. Men forgot to fight, and stared upon them, watching the great blows fall and the gleaming swords.

Whilst the heroes strove, Gorlois, Earl of Cornwall, came hastening like a paladin to the battle. Eldof saw him come, and being a.s.sured of the end, arrayed himself against his adversary yet more proudly. He sprang upon Hengist, and seizing him by the nasal of his helmet, dragged him, with fallen head, amongst the Britons. "Knights," he cried, "thanks be to G.o.d Who has given me my desire. He is vanquished and taken who has caused such trouble to the land."

[Footnote 1: Conisburg in Yorkshire.]

Eldof showed the captive to his company, who demanded that he should be slain with the sword. "A short shrift for the mad dog," they clamoured, "who knows neither mercy nor pity. This is the source of the war. This is the shedder of blood. Smite the head from his body, and the victory is in your hands." Eldof made answer that Hengist should have the law, good law and just. He bound him fast in fetters, and delivered him to King Aurelius. The king chained him, hands and feet, and set him in a strong prison to await judgment.

Now Octa, Hengist's son, and Ebissa, his cousin, who were in the field, hardly escaped from the battle, and fleeing, entered into York.

They strengthened the city, and made all ready, till men might come to their aid. As for the others they hid in divers places, in the woods and valleys, in caves and in the hills. But the power of the paynim was broken, for many were dead, and of the living most were taken, and in bonds, or held as thralls. The king made merry over his victory, and gave the glory to G.o.d. He abode three full days at Caerconan to heal the wounded of their hurt, and to give a little leisure to the weary. At that place he called a council of his captains, to know what it were good to do with the traitor Hengist; whether he should be held in prison or slain outright. Eldad got him to his feet. A right learned clerk was he, a bishop of his orders, and brother by blood to that Earl Eldof, of whom you have heard. "My counsel to the king,"

said the bishop, "is to do to the traitor Hengist--our earthly adversary--that which holy Samuel did in old days to King Agag, when he was made captive. Agag was a prince, pa.s.sing proud, the right glorious king of the people of Amalek. He set a quarrel upon the Jews, that he might work them a mischief, since he sought to do them evil.

He seized their lands; he burned their goods with fire, and very often he slew them for his pleasure. Then on a day this King Agag was taken at a battle, the more to his sorrow. He was led before Saul, whom these Jews so greatly desired for their king. Whilst Saul was considering what it were well should be done with Agag, who was delivered into his hand, Samuel stood upon his feet. This Samuel was a holy prophet of Israel; a saint of G.o.d of the utmost sanct.i.ty; never has there lived his like amongst the sons of men. This holy Samuel seized on Agag, the proud king. He hewed him in many pieces, dividing him limb from limb, and his members he sent throughout the realm.

Hearken and learn what Samuel said whilst he was hewing Agag small.

'Agag, many a man hast thou tormented for thy pleasure; many a fair youth hast thou spoiled and slain. Thou hast drawn out many a soul from its body, and made many a mother troubled for her son. Many a babe hast thou rendered fatherless; but, O Agag, things evil and good come to the like end. Now your mother presently will I make barren, and from thy body shall the soul of thee be wrung.' Mete therefore to your captive, O king, the measure which Samuel counted out to his."

Eldof, Earl of Gloucester, was moved by the example furnished by the bishop. He rose in the council, and laying hands on Hengist led him without the city. There Eldof struck the head from Hengist with his own sword. The king caused the head to be set again on the shoulders, and gave Hengist's body seemly burial, according to the rite and fashion of those who observe the law of the paynim.

The king made no long stay at Caerconan, but followed eagerly after his enemies. He came to York with a great host, and sat himself down before the city. Octa, the son of Hengist, was within, and some of his kindred with him. When Octa was persuaded that none might win to his aid, he considered within himself whether he should render him to the king's mercy. If he took his fate in his hand, and humbly besought pity of the king, so mercy were given him all would be well, but if his prayer was scorned, then he would defend himself to the death.

Octa did as he devised, and as his kinsfolk approved. He came forth from the gate of the city with a company of all his barons. Octa wore a chain of iron upon his wrists, and walking at the head of his companions, came first to the king. "Sire," said he, "I beseech you for mercy and pity. The G.o.ds in whom we put our trust have failed us at need. Your G.o.ds are mightier than they. They have wrought wonders, and set strength upon you, since we are stricken to the dust. I am vanquished, and own myself thy servant. Behold the chain of thy bondman! Do with me now according to thy will, to me, and these my men. Life and limb, yea, all that we have, are at thy pleasure. But if it seem good to the king to keep us about his person, we will toil early and late in his service. We will serve him loyally in his quarrels, and become his liege men."

The king was a devout man, very piteous of heart. He looked around him to learn what his barons thought of this matter and what would be their counsel. Eldad, the fair bishop, spake first as a wise elder.

"Good it is, and was, and ever shall be, to show mercy on him who requires mercy to be shown. He who forgives not another his trespa.s.s, how may he hope that G.o.d will pardon him his sin? These cry loudly upon thee for mercy, mercy they implore, and mercy they must have.

Britain is a great realm, long and wide, and in many a place is inhabited of none, save the beast. Grant them enough thereof that they may dig and plant, and live of the increase. But take first of them such hostages, that they will serve thee loyally, and loyally content them in their lot. We learn from Holy Writ that the children of Gibeon sought life and league from the Jew when the Israelites held them in their power. Peace they prayed, peace they received; and life and covenant were given in answer to their cry. A Christian man should not be harder than the Jew proved himself to be in his hour. Mercy they crave, mercy they should have; so let not death deceive them in their hope."

The king granted land to the Saxons, according to the counsel of Eldad The lot was appointed them in Scotland, and they set out speedily to the place where they must dwell. But first they gave to the king hostages of the children of their proudest blood and race. After the king was fifteen days in the city, he sent messages commanding his people to attend him in council. Baron and clerk, abbot and bishop, he summoned to his court. At this council the rights of the heir and the privileges of the orders were re-affirmed. He bade and a.s.sured that the houses of religion, destroyed by the Romans, should be rebuilt. He dismissed his soldiers to their homes, making viscounts and provosts to keep his fiefs in peace, and to ensure his revenues and rent. He sought masons and carpenters and built anew the churches. Such chapels in his realm as were hurt or damaged in the wars, the king restored to their former estate, for the fairer service and honour of G.o.d. After the council was done the king set forth towards London, where his presence was greatly desired of the citizens. He found the city but the shadow of its former splendour, for the streets were emptied of people, and houses and churches were alike fallen or decayed. Right grievously the king lamented the damage done to his fair city. He founded anew the churches, and bade clerks and burgesses to attend the service of G.o.d, as was of wont and right. From thence the king went to Ambresbury, that he might kneel beside the graves of those who were foully slain at Hengist's love-day, near the abbey. He called together a great company of masons, carpenters, and cunning artificers; for it was in his mind to raise to their worship a monument of stone that would endure to the world's end.

Thereat spake to the king a certain wise man, Tremonius, Archbishop of Caerleon, praying him to send for Merlin, and build according to his bidding, since there was none so skilled in counsel or labour, more truthful of word or apter in divination. The king desired greatly to behold Merlin, and to judge by hearing of his worth. At that time Merlin abode near the Well of Labenes. This fountain springs in a hidden place, very deep in Wales, but I know not where, since I have never been. Merlin came straightway to the king, even as he was bidden. The king welcomed him with marvellous joy, honouring him right gladly. He cherished him richly, and was ever about him with prayers and entreaties that he would show him somewhat of things that were yet to come, for these he was on itch to hear. "Sire," replied Merlin, "this I may not do. I dare not open my lips to speak of such awful matters, which are too high for me, save only when needs speak I must.

Should my tongue be unloosed by greed or lightness, should I be puffed up by vanity, then my familiar spirit--that being by whom I know that which I know--would withdraw his inspiration from my breath. My knowledge would depart from me, and the words I speak would be no weightier than the idle words on every gossip's lips. Let the future take care of itself. Consider rather the concerns of to-day. If thou art desirous to make a fair work and a lasting, of which men will brag till the end of time, cause to be brought hither the carol that a giant wrought in Ireland. This giant laboured greatly in the building of a mighty circle of stones. He shaped his carol, setting the stones one upon another. The stones are so many, and of such a kind; they are so huge and so weighty; that the strength of man--as men are in these times--might not endure to lift the least of his pebbles" The king laughed loudly. "Merlin," said he, "since these stones are of such heaviness that it the strength of the strong to move them, who shall carry them to my masons? Have we not in this realm stones mighty enough, and to spare?" "King," answered Merlin, "knowest thou not that wit is more than strength! Muscle is good, but craft is better. Skill devises means when strength fails. Cunning and engines bring many matters to a good end, that strength would not venture even to begin.

Engines can move these stones, and by the use of engines we may make them our own. King, these stones were carried from Africa: there they were first shapen. The giant who ravished them to Ireland, set up his carol to his own content. Very serviceable were these stones, and right profitable to the sick. It was the custom of the surgeons of that land to wash these stones with fair water. This water they would make hot in baths, and set therein those who had suffered hurt, or were grieved by any infirmity. They washed in this water, and were healed of their sickness. However sore their wound, however grievous their trouble, other medicine needed they none." When the king and his Britons heard of the virtue residing in the stones, they all desired them very greatly. Not one but would gladly have ventured on the quest for these stones, of which Merlin told such marvels. They devised therefore to pa.s.s the sea with fifteen thousand men to make war upon the Irish, and to ease them of the stones. Uther, at his own desire, was chosen as their captain. Merlin also went with them to furnish engines for their toil. So Uther and his company crossed to Ireland on such quest. When the King of Ireland, that men called Guillomer, heard tell that strangers were arrayed in his land, he a.s.sembled his household and the Irish, and menaced them proudly, seeking to chase them from the realm. After they had learned the reason of this quarrel, and that for stones the Britons were come, they mocked them loudly, making them their mirth and their song. For mad it seemed in the eyes of these Irish that men should pain themselves so grievously by land and sea to gain a treasure of naked stones. "Never a stone,"

said these, "shall they have; not one shall they carry with them to their homes." Very lightly you may scorn your enemy in your heart, but at your peril you seek to do him mischief with your hands. The Irish mocked and menaced the stranger, and sought him until they found. The combat was joined directly the hosts met together, but the Irish were men of peace, unclad in mail, and not accustomed to battle. The Britons were their jest, but they were also their victors. The King of Ireland fled from the battle discomfited. He went from town to town, with no long tarrying in any place, so that the Britons might not make him their captive.

After the Britons had laid aside their armour, and taken rest from the battle, they were brought by Merlin, their companion, into a mountain where the carol was builded. This high place was called Hilomar,[1] by the folk whom they had vanquished, and the carol was upon the summit of the mount. The Britons stared upon the stones.

[Footnote 1: Kildare.]

They went about them, saying each to his fellow that none had seen so mighty a building. They marvelled how these stones were set one upon another, and how they should be got across the sea. "Comrades," said Merlin, "you are strong champions. Strive now if of your strength you may move these stones, and carry them from their seat." The young men therefore encompa.s.sed the stones before, behind, and on every side, but heave and tug as mightily as they could, the stones for all their travail would not budge one single inch. "Bestir yourselves," cried Merlin, "on, friends, on. But if by strength you can do no more, then you shall see that skill and knowledge are of richer worth than thews and fleshly force." Having spoken these words Merlin kept silence, and entered within the carol. He walked warily around the stones. His lips moved without stay, as those of a man about his orisons, though I cannot tell whether or no he prayed. At length Merlin beckoned to the Britons. "Enter boldly," cried he; "there is nought to harm. Now you may lift these pebbles from their seat, and bear and charge them on your ships." So at his word and bidding they wrought as Merlin showed them. They took the stones and carrying them to the ships, bestowed them thereon. Afterwards the mariners hoisted their sails, and set out for Britain. When they were safely come to their own land, they bore the stones to Ambresbury, and placed them on the mountain near by the burying ground. The king rode to Ambresbury to Keep the Feast of Pentecost. Bishops, abbots, and barons, he had bidden them all to observe the Feast. A great company of folk, both rich and poor, gathered themselves together, and at this fair festival the king set the crown upon his head. Three days they observed the rite, and made merry. On the fourth--because of his exceeding reverence--he gave pastoral crosses to two prelates. Holy Dubricius became Bishop of Caerleon, and York he bestowed upon holy Sampson. Both these fair prelates were great churchmen, and priests of devout and spotless life. At the same time Merlin ranged the stones in due order, building them side by side. This circle of stones was called by the Britons in their own tongue The Giant's Carol, but in English it bears the name of Stonehenge.

When the rich feast was come to its appointed end, the court departed, each man unto his own place. Now Pa.s.sent, that was a son of Vortigern, had fled from Wales and Britain, for fear of Aurelius and his brother Uther. He sought refuge in Germany, and there purchased to himself ships, and men who would serve him for guerdon; but of these he had no great company. This Pa.s.sent arrived in the north country and ravaged it, burning the towns and spoiling the land. He dared make no long stay, for the king hastened to the north to give him battle, and this he might not endure. Pa.s.sent took again to his ships, and fearing to return whence he came, fared so far with sail and oar that in the end he cast anchor off the coast of Ireland. Pa.s.sent sought speech of the king of that realm. He told over his birth and state, and showed him his bitter need. Pa.s.sent prayed the king so urgently; the twain took such deep counsel together; that it was devised between them to pa.s.s the sea, and offer battle to the Britons. This covenant was made of Pa.s.sent that he might avenge his father's death, and dispute his heritage with Aurelius; but of the King of Ireland to avenge him upon the Britons, who had vanquished him in battle, robbed his folk, and taken to themselves the carol with a strong hand. Thus they plighted faith to satisfy each the other for these wrongs. Guillomer and Pa.s.sent made ready as many soldiers as they might. They ordained their ships, and with a fair wind crossed the sea, and came safely to Wales.

The host entered in Menevia, that city so praised of the Welsh, and now called of men, Saint David. It befell that King Aurelius lay sick at Winchester. His infirmity was sore upon him, for the trouble was long and grievous, and the surgeons knew not whether he would mend or die. When Aurelius learned that Pa.s.sent and the King of Ireland were come together in Wales to make sorrow in the land, he sent for Uther his brother. He grieved beyond measure that he could not get him from his bed. He charged Uther to hasten into Wales, and drive them from the realm. Uther sent messages to the barons, and summoned the knights to the war. He set out from Winchester; but partly by reason of the long journey, and partly to increase the number of his power, he tarried for a great while upon the road. Very long it was before he arrived in Wales. Whilst he dallied in this fashion a certain pagan named Appas, a man born in Saxony, craved speech of Pa.s.sent. This Appas was meetly schooled, and apt in parts. He spoke to many people in their own tongues; he was wise in all that concerned medicine and surgery; but he was felon and kept bad faith. "Pa.s.sent," said Appas privily, "thou hast hated this King Aurelius for long. What should be mine if I were to slay him?" "Ease and riches I will give thee,"

answered Pa.s.sent. "Never a day but I will stand thy friend, so only thy word be fulfilled, and the king taste death at thy hand" "May your word," said Appas, "be true as mine" So the covenant was ordained between them that Pa.s.sent should count out one thousand livres, what time Appas had done to death the king Appas was very cunning, and right greedy and covetous of wealth. He put upon him a habit of religion; he shaved his crown, and caused his hair to be polled close to his head. Like a monk he was shaven, like a monk he seemed; in gown and hood he went vested as a monk. In this guise and semblance Appas took his way to the royal court. Being a liar he gave out that he was a good physician, and thus won to the king's bed. Him he promised to make whole very speedily, if he would trust himself to his hand. He counted the pulse, and sought for the trouble "Well I know," said he, "the cause of this evil. I have such a medicine as will soon give you ease." Who could mis...o...b.. so sweet a physician? The gentle king desired greatly to be healed of his hurt, as would any of you in a like case. Having no thought of treason, he put himself in this traitor's care. Appas made ready a potion, laced with venom, and gave the king to drink. He then wrapped the king warmly in a rich coverlet, and bade him lie in peace and sleep. After the king was heated, and the poison had lain hold upon his body, ah, G.o.d, the anguish, there was nothing for him but death. When Aurelius knew that he must die, he took oath of his household, that so truly as they loved him they would carry his body to Stonehenge, and bury him within the stones that he had builded. Thus died the king and was buried; but the traitor, Appas, escaped and fled with his life.

Uther entered in Wales with his host, and found the folk of Ireland abiding yet at Menevia. At that time appeared a star, which was seen of many. This star was hight Comet, and according to the clerks it signified death and the pa.s.sing of kings. This star shone marvellously clear, and cast a beam that was brighter than the sun. At the end of this beam was a dragon's head, and from the dragon's mighty jaws issued two rays. One of these rays stretched over France, and went from France even to the Mount of St. Bernard. The other ray went towards Ireland, and divided into seven beams. Each of these seven beams shone bright and clear, alike on water and on land. By reason of this star which was seen of all, the peoples were sorely moved.

Uther marvelled greatly what it might mean, and marvellously was he troubled. He prayed Merlin that he would read him the sign, and the interpretation thereof. Merlin answered not a word. Sorrow had him by the heart, and he wept bitterly. When speech returned to his mouth he lamented with many words and sighed often. "Ah, G.o.d," said he, "sorrow and trouble and grief have fallen on Britain this day. The realm has lost its great captain. The king is dead--that stout champion who has delivered the land from such evil and shame, and plucked his spoil from the pagan."

When Uther was certified that his brother and good lord had finished his course, he was right heavy, and much was he dismayed. But Merlin comforted him as he might. "Uther," said he, "be not altogether cast down, since from Death there is no return. Bring to an end this business of the war. Give battle to thine enemies, for to-morrow shall see Pa.s.sent and the King of Ireland vanquished. Fight boldly on the morrow; so shalt thou conquer, and be crowned King of Britain. Hearken to the interpretation of the sign. The dragon at the end of the beam betokens thee thyself, who art a stout and hardy knight. One of the two rays signifies a son born of thy body, who shall become a puissant prince, conquering France, and beyond the borders of France. The other ray which parted from its fellow, betokens a daughter who shall be Queen of Scotland. Many a fair heir shall she give to her lord, and mighty champions shall they prove both on land and sea." Uther lent his ear to the counsel of Merlin. He caused his folk to rest them the night, and in the morning arm them for the battle. He thought to take the city by a.s.sault, but when the Irish saw him approach their walls, they put on their harness, and setting them in companies, issued forth to fight without the gates. The Irish fought valiantly, but right soon were discomfited, for on that day the Britons slew Pa.s.sent, and the King of Ireland, his friend. Those who escaped from the field fled towards the sea, but Uther following swiftly after, harried them to the death. Such as reached the water climbed wildly upon their ships, and with sail and oar set out to sea, that Uther should work them no more mischief.

When Uther had brought his business to a good end, he took his way towards Winchester, and the flower of his chivalry with him. On his road a messenger met him who told him of a surety the king was dead, and as to the manner of his death. He related how the bishops had laid Aurelius to rest with great pomp in the Giant's Carol, even as he had required of his sergeants and barons whilst he was yet alive. At these tidings Uther pressed on to Winchester, sparing not the spur. The people came before him on his pa.s.sage clamouring shrilly. "Uther, sire," cried the common folk, "since he is dead who maintained the poor, and did nought but good to his people, we have none to defend us, save thee. Take then the crown, as thine by heritage and right.

Fair sire, we thy poor commons pray this thing, who desire nothing but thy worship and thy gain." Uther rejoiced greatly at their words. He saw clearly where his profit lay, and that no advancement is possible to a king. He hastened, therefore, to do as the folk entreated. He took the crown, and becoming king, loved well his people, and guarded the honour of the realm. In remembrance of the dragon, and of the hardy knight who should be king and a father of kings, which it betokened, Uther wrought two golden dragons, by the counsel of his barons. One of these dragons he caused to be borne before him when he went into battle. The other he sent to Winchester to be set up in the church of the bishop. For this reason he was ever after called Uther Pendragon. Pendragon was his name in the Britons' tongue, but Dragon's head in that of Rome.

Uther was a mighty lord, who had confidence in his power. His sacring at Winchester he held for proof and token that he was a king who would beget puissant princes, by whom great deeds should be done. This faith in his destiny gave him increase of strength. He determined in his heart that he would accomplish all that was foretold of him, and that through good report and ill, never would he turn back. He knew and was persuaded that whatever the task he took in hand, he must in fulness of time bring it to a good end. Merlin was a true prophet; and since no lying spirit was in his mouth, it was impossible to doubt that very swiftly all these things would come to pa.s.s.

Now Octa, the son of Hengist, had received from Aurelius broad lands and fair manors for him and his companions. When Octa knew that the mighty captain was dead, he kept neither loyalty nor faith with a king whom he despised in his heart. He called together a great company of his friends and kinsmen, and amongst them Ossa, his cousin. Octa and Ossa were hardy champions, and they were the lords of the host. With them moreover were such folk as had escaped from Uther at the slaying of Pa.s.sent. These Octa had taken to himself, so that his fellowship was pa.s.sing strong. This host overran the realm from Humber to Scotland, and subdued it in every part. Octa then came before York, and would have seized it by violence, but the burgesses of the city held it stoutly against him, so that the pagans might not enter within the walls. He sat down, therefore, before the gates, and invested the city straitly, by reason of the numbers of his host. Uther had no thought but to succour his city, and to rescue his friends who were shut within. He marched hot foot to York, calling his men together from every part. Being resolved at all cost to force the heathen to give over the siege, Uther offered them battle without delay. The Melly was right sharp and grievous. Many a soul was parted from the body. The heathen played their parts as men, and contended boldly with the sword. The Britons could do them no mischief. They might not force their way into the city, neither could those within prevail to issue forth. The Batons might endure the battle no longer. They gave back in the press, and as they fled, the pursuing Saxons did them marvellous damage. The pursuit lasted until the Britons took refuge in a fastness of those parts, and the night parted the adverseness one from the other. This mountain was named Damen. The peak was very sharp. About its flanks were rocks and precipices, whilst close at hand stood a thicket of hazel trees. Upon this mountain the Britons climbed. By this way and that, they ascended the height, until they sought safety on the summit. There the heathen shut them fast, for they sat beneath them in the plain, whilst all about them stretched the mountain.

The king was very fearful, and not for himself alone. He was in sore straits and perplexity as to what he should do to get his spearmen from the trap. Now Gorlois, Earl of Cornwall, was with the king. This lord was very valiant and courteous, though stricken in years, and was esteemed of all as a right prudent councillor. To him the king went, and unravelled all the coil. Uther prayed Gorlois to counsel him as became his honour, for he knew well that the earl regarded honour beyond the loss of life or limb. "You ask me my counsel," said Gorlois. "My counsel--so it be according to your will--is that we should arm ourselves forthwith, and get down from this hill amongst our foes. They are a.s.suredly sleeping at this hour, for they despise us overmuch to deem that we shall challenge them again to battle. In the morning they will come to seek us--so we await them in the trap.

Let us take our fate in our hands like men, and fall upon them suddenly. The foe will then be confused and bewildered, for we must come upon them silently, without battle cry or blowing of trumpets.

Before they are awakened from sleep, we shall have slain so many in our onset, that those who escape from our swords will not dare to rally against us in their flight. Only this thing first. Let every man have penitence for that he has done amiss. Let us ask G.o.d's pardon for the sins that we have wrought, and promise faithfully to amend our lives. Let us turn from the wickedness wherein we have walked all these days; praying the Saviour to hold us in His hand, and grant us strength against those who fear not His name, and make war upon His Christians. If we do these things G.o.d will sustain our quarrel; and if G.o.d be with us who then can do us wrong?"

This counsel seemed good to the king and his captains. They did as Gorlois said, and humbled themselves before G.o.d with a contrite heart, promising to put away the evil from their lives. After they had made an end of prayer, they took their arms, and stole down the hillside to the valley. The Britons came amongst the pagans lying naked upon the ground, and fast in sleep. The swordplay was right merry, for the slaughter was very great. The Britons thrust their glaives deep in the b.r.e.a.s.t.s of the foe. They lopped heads and feet and wrists from their bodies. The Britons ranged like lions amongst their enemies. They were as lions a-hungered for their prey, killing ewes and lambs, and all the sheep of the flock, whether small or great. Thus the Britons did, for they spared neither spearman nor captain. The heathen were altogether dismayed. They were yet heavy with sleep, and could neither get to their harness, nor flee from the field. No mercy was shown them for all their nakedness. Armed or naked the sword was thrust through their breast or heart or bowels. In that place the heathen perished from the land, since the Christians destroyed them utterly. Octa and Ossa, the lords of their host--these troublers of Britain--were taken alive. They were led to London, and set fast in a strong prison, bound in iron. If any of their fellows escaped from the battle, it was only by reason of the blackness of the night. He who was able to flee, ran from the field. He tarried not to succour his own familiar friend. But many more were slam in that surprise than got safely away.

When Uther parted from York he pa.s.sed throughout Northumberland. From Northumberland he entered into Scotland, having many ships and a great host with him. He went about the length and breadth of the land, and purged it throughly in every part. Such folk as were oppressed of their neighbours he confirmed in their rights. Never before had the realm such rest and peace as in the days of Uther the king. After Uther had brought his business in the north to an end, he set forth to London, where he purposed to take the crown on Easter Day. Uther desired the feast to be very rich and great. He summoned therefore dukes, earls, and wardens, yea, all his baronage from near and far, by brief and message, to come with their wedded dames and privy households to London for his feast. So all the lords came at the king's commandment, bringing their wives as they were bidden. Very richly the feast was holden. After the Ma.s.s was sung, that fair company went in hall to meat. The king sat at the head of his hall, upon a dais. The lords of his realm were ranged about him, each in his order and degree. The Earl of Cornwall was near the king's person, so that one looked upon the other's face. By the earl's side was seated Igerne, his wife. There was no lady so fair in all the land. Right courteous was the dame, n.o.ble of peerage, and good as she was fair.

The king had heard much talk of this lady, and never aught but praise.

His eyes were ravished with her beauty. He loved her dearly, and coveted her hotly in his heart, for certainly she was marvellously praised. He might not refrain from looking upon her at table, and his hope and desire tyrned to her more and more. Whether he ate or drank, spoke or was silent, she was ever in his thought. He glanced aside at the lady, and smiled if she met his eye. All that he dared of love he showed. He saluted her by his privy page, and bestowed upon her a gift. He jested gaily with the dame, looking nicely upon her, and made a great semblance of friendship. Igerne was modest and discreet. She neither granted Uther's hope, nor denied. The earl marked well these lookings and laughings, these salutations and gifts. He needed no other a.s.surance that the king had set his love upon his wife. Gorlois deemed that he owed no faith to a lord who would supplant him in her heart. The earl rose from his seat at table; he took his dame by the hand, and went straight from the hall. He called the folk of his household about him, and going to the stables, got him to horse. Uther sent after Gorlois by his chamberlain, telling him that he did shame and wrong in departing from the court without taking leave of his king. He bade him to do the right, and not to treat his lord so despitefully, lest a worse thing should befall him. He could have but little trust in his king, if he would not return for a s.p.a.ce. Gorlois rode proudly from the court without leave or farewell. The king menaced him very grievously, but the earl gave small heed to his threats, for he recked nothing of what might chance. He went into Cornwall, and arrayed his two castles, making them ready against the war. His wife he put in his castle of Tintagel, for this was the home of his father and of his race. It was a strong keep, easily holden of a few sergeants, since none could climb or throw down the walls. The castle stood on a tall cliff, near by the sea. Men might not win to enter by the gate, and saving the gate, there was no door to enter in the tower.

The earl shut his lady fast in the tower. He dared hide his treasure in no other place, lest thieves broke through, and stole her from him.

Therefore he sealed her close in Tintagel. For himself he took the rest of his men-at-arms, and the larger part of his knights, and rode swiftly to the other strong fortress that was his. The king heard that Gorlois had garnished and made ready his castle, purposing to defend himself even against his lord. Partly to avenge himself upon the earl, and partly to be near his va.s.sal's wife, the king arrayed a great host. He crossed the Severn, and coming before the castle where the earl lay, he sought to take it by storm. Finding that he might not speed, he sat down before the tower, and laid siege to those within.

The host invested the castle closely for full seven days, but could not breach the walls. The earl stubbornly refused to yield, for he awaited succour from the King of Ireland, whom he had entreated to his aid. King Uther's heart was in another place. He was weaned beyond measure of Gorlois and his castle. His love for Igerne urged and called him thence, for the lady was sweeter to his mind than any other in the world. At the end he bade to him a baron of his household, named Ulfin, who was privy to his mind. Him he asked secretly of that which he should do. "Ulfin," said the king, "my own familiar friend, counsel me wisely, for my hope is in thee. My love for Igerne hath utterly cast me down I am altogether broken and undone. I cannot go or come about my business; I cannot wake nor sleep, I cannot rise from my bed nor lay my head on the pillow; neither can I eat or drink, except that this lady is ever in my mind. How to gain her to my wish I cannot tell. But this I know, that I am a dead man if you may not counsel me to my hope." "Oh my king," answered Ulfin, "I marvel at your words.

You have tormented the earl grievously with your war, and have burned his lands. Do you think to win a wife's heart by shutting her husband close in his tower? You show your love for the dame by hara.s.sing the lord! No, the matter is too high for me, and I have one only counsel to give you. Merlin is with us in the host. Send after him, for he is a wise clerk, and the best counsellor of any man living. If Merlin may not tell you what to do, there is none by whom you may win to your desire."

King Uther, by the counsel of Ulfin, commanded Merlin to be brought before him. The king opened out his bitter need. He prayed that for pity's sake Merlin would find him a way to his hope, so he were able, since die he must if of Igerne he got no comfort. But let the clerk seek and buy so that the king had his will. Money and wealth would be granted plenteously, if gold were needed, for great as was the king's evil, so large would be his delight. "Sire," answered Merlin, "have her you shall. Never let it be said that you died for a woman's love.

Right swiftly will I bring you to your wish, or evil be the bounty that I receive of the king's hand. Hearken to me. Igerne is guarded very closely in Tintagel. The castle is shut fast, and plenteously supplied with all manner of store. The walls are strong and high, so that it may not be taken by might; and it is victualled so well, that none may win there by siege. The castle also is held of loyal castellans, but for all their vigils, I know well how to enter therein at my pleasure, by reason of my potions. By craft I can change a man's countenance to the fashion of his neighbour, and of two men each shall take on his fellow's semblance. In body and visage, in speech and seeming, without doubt I can shape you to the likeness of the Earl of Cornwall. Why waste the time with many words! You, sire, shall be fashioned as the earl. I, who purpose to go with you on this adventure, will wear the semblance of Bertel. Ulfin, here, shall come in the guise of Jordan. These two knights are the earl's chosen friends, and are very close to his mind and heart. In this manner we may enter boldly in his castle of Tintagel, and you shall have your will of the lady. We shall be known of none, for not a man will doubt us other than we seem." The king had faith in Merlin's word, and held his counsel good. He gave over the governance of the host, privily, to a lord whom he much loved. Merlin put forth his arts, and transfigured their faces and vesture into the likeness of the earl and his people.

That very night the king and his companions entered in Tintagel. The porter in his lodge, and the steward within his office, deemed him their lord. They welcomed him gladly, and served him with joy.

When meat was done the king had his delight of a lady who was much deceived. Of that embrace Igerne conceived the good, the valiant, and the trusty king whom you have known as Arthur. Thus was Arthur begotten, who was so renowned and chivalrous a lord.

Now the king's men learned very speedily that Uther had departed from the host. The captains were wearied of sitting before the castle. To return the more quickly to their homes, they got into their harness and seized their arms. They did not tarry to order the battle, or make ready ladders for the wall, but they approached the tower in their disarray. The king's men a.s.saulted the castle from every side, and the earl defended himself manfully, but at the last he himself was slain, and the castle was swiftly taken. Those who were fortunate enough to escape from the tower fled lightfoot to Tintagel. There they published the news of this misadventure, and the death of their lord. The sorrow and lamentation of those who bewailed the earl's death reached the ears of the king. He came forth from his chamber, and rebuked the messengers of evil tidings. "Why all this noise and coil?" cried he "I am safe and sound, thank G.o.d, as you may see by looking on my face.

These tidings are not true, and you must neither believe all that the messengers proclaim, nor deem that they tell naught but lies. The cause is plain why my household think me lost. I came out from the castle taking leave and speaking to no man. None knew that I went secretly through the postern, nor that I rode to you at Tintagel, for I feared treachery upon the way. Now men cry and clamour of my death, because I was not seen when the king won within the tower. Doubtless it is a grievous thing to have lost my keep, and to know that so many goodly spearmen lie dead behind the walls. But whilst I live, my goods at least are my own. I will go forth to the king, requiring a peace, which he will gladly accord me. I will go at once, before he may come to Tintagel, seeking to do us mischief, for if he falls upon us in this trap we shall pipe to deaf ears."

Igerne praised the counsel of him she deemed her lord. The king embraced her by reason of her tenderness, and kissed her as he bade farewell. He departed straightway from the castle, and his familiars with him. When they had ridden for a while upon the road, Merlin again put forth his enchantments, so that he, the king, and Ulfin took their own shapes, and became as they had been before. They hastened to the host without drawing rein, for the king was with child to know how the castle was so swiftly taken, and in what manner the earl was slain. He commanded before him his captains, and from this man and that sought to arrive at the truth. Uther considered the adventure, and took his lords to witness that whoever had done the earl to death, had done not according to his will. He called to mind Earl Gorlois' n.o.ble deeds, and made complaint of his servants, looking upon the barons very evilly. He wore the semblance of a man in sore trouble, but there were few who were so simple as to believe him. Uther returned with his host before Tintagel. He cried to those who stood upon the wall asking why they purposed to defend the tower, since their lord was dead and his castle taken, neither could they look for succour in the realm, or from across the sea. The castellans knew that the king spake sooth, and that for them there was no hope of aid. They therefore set open the gates of the castle, and gave the fortress and its keys into the king's hand. Uther, whose love was pa.s.sing hot, spoused Igerne forthwith, and made her his queen. She was with child, and when her time was come to be delivered, she brought forth a son. This son was named Arthur, with the rumour of whose praise the whole world has been filled. After the birth of Arthur, Uther got upon Igerne a daughter cleped Anna. When this maiden came of age she was bestowed upon a right courteous lord, called Lot of Lyones. Of this marriage was born Gawain, the stout knight and n.o.ble champion.

Uther reigned for a long time in health and peace. Then he fell into a great sickness, failing alike in mind and strength. His infirmity lay so sore upon him, that he might not get him from his bed. The warders, who watched over his prison in London, were pa.s.sing weary of their long guard, and were corrupted also by fair promises that were made.

They took rich gifts from Octa, that was Hengist's son, and from Ossa, his cousin, and delivering them out of their bonds, let them go free from their dungeon. Octa and Ossa returned swiftly to their own place.

They purchased war galleys to themselves, and gathering their men about them menaced Uther very grievously. With a great company of knights, and spearmen, and archers they pa.s.sed the marches of Scotland, burning and spoiling all the realm. Since Uther was sick, and could do little to defend his life and land, he called Lot, the husband of his daughter, to his aid. To this lord he committed the guidance of his host, and appointed him constable of his knights. He commanded these that they should hearken Lot as himself, and observe all his biddings. This Uther did because he knew Lot for a courteous and liberal lord, cunning in counsel, and mighty with the spear.

Now Octa vexed the Britons very sorely. He boasted himself greatly, by reason of the number of his folk, and of the kings weakness. To avenge his father's death and his own wrongs, he made Britain fearful of his name; for he neither granted truce nor kept faith. Lot met Octa once and again in battle. Many a time he vanquished his foe, but often enough the victory remained with Octa. The game of war is like a game of tables. Each must lose in his turn, and the player who wins to-day will fail to-morrow. At the end Octa was discomfited, and was driven from the country. But it afterwards befell that the Britons despised Lot. They would pay no heed to his summons, this man for reason of jealousy, this other because of the sharing of the spoil. The war, therefore, came never to an end, till the king himself perceived that something was amiss, whilst the folk of the country said openly that the captains were but carpet knights, who made pretence of war. At this certain men of repute came before the king, praying him to remain no longer hidden from his people. "Come what may," said these counsellors, "you must get to the host, and show yourself to the barons." The king took them at their word. He caused himself to be set within a horse litter, and carried, as though in a bier, amongst his people. "Now we shall see," said these, "which of these recreant lords will follow him to the host." The king sent urgent messages to the knights who were so disdainful of Lot, summoning them on their allegiance to hasten to his aid. For himself he was carried straight to Verulam.[1] This once was a fair city where St. Alban fell upon his death, but was now altogether ravaged and destroyed of the heathen.

Octa had led his people to the city, and seized thereon, making fast the gates. The king sat down without the town. He caused great engines to be arrayed to break through the wall, but it was very strong, and he might make no breach. Octa and his friends made merry over the catapults set over against them. On a morning they opened wide their gates, and came forth to do battle with the king. A vile matter it seemed to them that the door should be locked and barred because of a king lying sick within a litter. They could not endure to be so despised that he should fight against them from his coffin. As I deem their pride went before a fall. That captain won who was deserving of the victory. The heathen were defeated, and in that battle Octa and his fair cousin Ossa were slain.

[Footnote 1: St. Albans.]

Many who escaped from the field fled into Scotland. There they made Colgrin their chieftain, who was a friend of Octa and his cousin.

Uther rejoiced so greatly by reason of his victory, and of the honour G.o.d had shown him, that for sheer joy he was as a man healed and altogether whole. He set himself to hearten his barons, and inspire them with his own courage. He said to his men, with mirth, "I like rather to be on my bier, languishing in long infirmity, than to use health and strength in fleeing from my foe. The Saxons disdained me, holding me in despite because I cannot rise from my bed; but it has befallen that he who hath one foot in the grave hath overthrown the quick. Forward then, and press hardly on their heels who seek to destroy our religion from the land."

When the king had rested him for a s.p.a.ce, and had encouraged the lords with his words, he would have followed after the heathen. Seeing that his sickness was yet heavy upon him, the barons prayed that he would sojourn awhile in the city, until it pleased G.o.d to give him solace from his hurt. This they said fearing lest his courage should bring him to his death. It chanced, therefore, that the host departed, leaving Uther at Verulam, because of his infirmity, none being with him, save the folk of his private household. Now the Saxons who were driven from the land, when they had drawn together, considered within themselves that if the king were but dead, he had no heir who might do them a mischief, and despoil them of their goods. Since they had no trust in their weapons, doubting that they could slay him with the sword, they devised to murder the king by craft and poison. They suborned certain evil-doers, whose names I do not know, by promises of pennies and of land. These men they conveyed to the king's court, arrayed in ragged raiment, the better to spy in what fashion they might draw near his person and carry out their purpose. The malefactors came to Verulam, but for all their cunning and craft of tongues, in no way could they win anigh the king. They went to and fro so often; they listened to the servitors' talk so readily; that in the end they knew that the king drank nothing but cold water, that other liquor never pa.s.sed his lips. This water was grateful to his sickness.

It sprang from a well very near his hall, and of this water he drank freely, for none other was to his mind. When these privy murderers were persuaded that they might never come so close to the king's body as to slay him with a knife, they sowed their poison in the well. They lurked secretly about the country, until it came to their ears when and how he died, and then fled incontinent whence they came. Presently the king was athirst, and called for drink. His cupbearer gave him water, laced with venom, from the spring. Uther drank of the cup, and was infected by the plague, so that there was no comfort for him save in death. His body swelled, becoming foul and black, and very soon he died. Right quickly all those who drank of the water from that fountain died of the death from which their lord lay dead. After this thing became known, and the malice of these evil-doers was made clear, the burgesses of the city met together, and choked the well for evermore. They cast therein so much earth, that a pyre stood above the source, as a witness to this deed. Uther the king having fallen asleep, his body was borne to Stonehenge, and laid to rest close by Aurelius, his brother; the brethren lying side by side. The bishops and barons of the realm gathered themselves together, and sent messages to Arthur, Uther's son, bidding him to Cirencester to be made their king. Arthur at the time of his coronation was a damoiseau of some fifteen years, but tall and strong for his age. His faults and virtues I will show you alike, for I have no desire to lead you astray with words. He was a very virtuous knight, right worthy of praise, whose fame was much in the mouths of men. To the haughty he was proud, but tender and pitiful to the simple. He was a stout knight and a bold: a pa.s.sing crafty captain, as indeed was but just, for skill and courage were his servants at need: and large of his giving. He was one of Love's lovers; a lover also of glory; and his famous deeds are right fit to be kept in remembrance. He ordained the courtesies of courts, and observed high state in a very splendid fashion. So long as he lived and reigned he stood head and shoulders above all princes of the earth, both for courtesy and prowess, as for valour and liberality. When this Arthur was freshly crowned king, of his own free will he swore an oath that never should the Saxons have peace or rest so long as they tarried in his realm. This he did by reason that for a great while they had troubled the land, and had done his father and his uncle to their deaths. Arthur called his meinie to his aid. He brought together a fair company of warriors, bestowing on them largely of his bounty, and promising to grant largely of the spoil. With this host he hastened into the land that lay about York, Colgrin--who was the chief and captain of these Saxons since the slaying of Octa--had many Picts and Scots in his fellowship, besides a goodly company of his own people. He desired nothing more hotly than to meet Arthur in battle, and to abate his pride. The armies drew together upon the banks of the Douglas. The two hosts fell one upon the other furiously, and many a sergeant perished that day, by reason of lance thrust, or quarrel, or dart. At the end Colgrin was discomfited, and fled from the field. Arthur followed swiftly after, striving to come upon his adversary, before he might hide him in York. But Colgrin, for all his pains, took refuge in the city; so Arthur sat him down without the walls.

Now Baldulph, the brother of Colgrin, tamed by the sh.o.r.e, awaiting the coming of Cheldric, the king, and his Saxons from Germany. When he heard the tidings of what had befallen Colgrin at the Ford of Douglas, and of how he was holden straitly by Arthur in York, he was pa.s.sing heavy and sorrowful, for with this Colgrin was all his hope. Baldulph made no further tarrying for Cheldric. He broke up his camp, and marching towards York, set his comrades in ambush, within a deep wood, some five miles from the host. Together with the folk of his household, and the strangers of his fellowship, Baldulph had in his company six thousand men in mail. He trusted to fall upon Arthur by night, when he was unready, and force him to give over the siege. But certain of the country who had spied Baldulph spread this snare, ran to the king, and showed him of the matter. Arthur, knowing of the malice of Baldulph, took counsel with Cador, Earl of Cornwall, a brave captain, who had no fear of death. He delivered to the earl's care seven hundred hors.e.m.e.n, and of spearmen three thousand, and sent him secretly to fall upon Baldulph in his lurking place. Cador did the king's bidding. The Saxons heard no rumour of his coming, for the host drew to the wood privily without trumpet or battle cry. Then when Cador was near the foe, he cried his name, and burst fiercely upon the heathen with the sword. In this combat there perished of the Saxons more than three thousand men. Had it not been for the darkness of the night, and the hindrance of the wood, not one might have fled on his feet. Baldulph, the cunning captain, got him safely from the field, by hiding beneath every bush and brake. He had lost the fairer and the stronger half of his meinie, and was at his wits' end to know how to take counsel with his brother, or to come to his aid. But speak with him he would, so that craft and courage might find a way. Baldulph devised to seek the besiegers' camp in the guise of a jongleur. He arrayed himself in all points as a harper, for he knew well how to chant songs and lays, and to touch the strings tunably. For his brother's sake he made himself as a fool. He shaved off one half of his beard and moustache, and caused the half of his head to be polled likewise. He hung a harp about his neck, and showed in every respect as a lewd fellow and a jester. Baldulph presently went forth from his abode, being known again of none. He went to and fro harping on his harp, till he stood beneath the walls of the city. The warders on the towers hearkened to his speech, so that they drew him up by cords upon the wall. At Baldulph's tale the folk within the city despaired of succour, and knew not how to flee, nor where to escape. In their extremity the news was bruited amongst them that Cheldric had come to a haven in Scotland, with a fleet of five hundred galleys, and was speeding to York. Cheldric knew and was persuaded that Arthur dared not abide his onset. This was a right judgment, for Arthur made haste to begone. The king called a council of his captains, and by their rede decided not to await Cheldric at York, neither to give him battle, because of the proud and marvellous host that was with him, "Let the king fall back upon London," said the lords, "and summon his meinie about him. The king's power will increase daily, and if Cheldric have the hardihood to follow, with the more confidence we shall fight." Arthur took his captains at their word. He let well the siege, and came to London, that he might strengthen his castle, choose his own battle ground, and trouble his adversary the more surely.

Arthur, by the rede of his counsellors, sent letters to his nephew, the son of his sister, Hoel, King of Little Britain. For in that country dwelt many strong barons, sib to his flesh, and the stoutest knights of his race. In these letters, and by the mouth of his amba.s.sadors, Arthur prayed the king to hasten to his rescue. If Hoel came not swiftly over sea--wrote the king--certainly his realm would be taken from him, and shame would always be on those who watched tamely their cousin stripped of his heritage.

When this bitter cry came to Hoel he sought neither hindrance nor excuse. His va.s.sals and kinsmen got in their harness forthwith. They arrayed their ships, and set thereon the stores. Within these ships there entered twelve thousand knights alone, without taking count of the sergeants and archers. So in a good hour they crossed the sea, coming with a fair wind to the port of Southampton. Arthur welcomed them with great joy, showing them the honour which it became him to offer. They made no long tarrying at Southampton, nor wasted the day in fair words and idle courtesies. The king had summoned his va.s.sals, and had brought together his household. Without speeches and blowings of trumpets the two hosts set forth together towards Lincoln, which Cheldric had besieged but had not yet taken. Arthur came swiftly and secretly upon Cheldric. He fell silently upon the Saxons, making no stir with horns and clarions. King Arthur and his men slew so many in so grim and stark a fashion, that never was seen such slaughter, such sorrow and destruction, as they made of the Saxons in one single day.

The Saxons thought only of flight. They stripped off their armour to run the more lightly, and abandoned their horses on the field Some fled to the mountains, others by the valleys, and many flung themselves into the river, and were drowned miserably, striving to get them from their foe. The Britons followed hotly at their heels, giving the quarry neither rest nor peace. They struck many a mighty blow with the sword, on the heads, the necks, and bodies of their adversaries.

The chase endured from Lincoln town to the wood of Cehdon. The Saxons took refuge within the thick forest, and drew together the remnants of their power. For their part, the Britons watched the wood, and held it very strictly. Now Arthur feared lest the Saxons should steal from their coverts by night, and escape from his hand. He commanded, therefore, his meinie to cut down the trees on the skirts of the forest. These trunks he placed one upon another, lacing the branches fast together, and enclosing his foe. Then he sat down on the further side of his barrier, so that none might issue forth, nor enter in.

Those within the wood were altogether dismayed, since they might neither eat nor drink. There was no man so cunning or strong, so rich or valiant, who could devise to carry bread and wine, flesh and flour, for their sustenance. Three days they endured without food, till Thur bodies were weak with hunger. Since they would not die of famine, and might not win forth from the wood by arms, they took counsel as to what it were well to do. They approached Arthur, praying him to keep raiment and harness and all that they had, saving only their ships, and let them depart to their own land. They promised to put hostages in his power, and render a yearly tribute of their wealth, so only the king allowed them to go on foot to the sh.o.r.e, and enter naked in the ships. Arthur set faith in their word. He gave them leave to depart, receiving hostages for a.s.surance of their covenant. He rendered them the ships, but kept their armour as a spoil, so that they left the realm without a mantle to their bodies, or a sword for their defence.