DAY after day the burgesses of Venta awaited the course of events. For some time they hoped that, after all, the town might not be visited by the invaders. The lurid glow of the skies by night, and the clouds of smoke by day, sometimes borne by the wind so close to the town that the smell could be distinctly recognized, proved that they were still near. But though the effects of their work of ruin were visible enough, of the barbarians themselves no one had yet caught a glimpse. But towards the evening of the seventh day after the Count's arrival a party was seen to emerge from a wood, distant about half a mile from the gates. There were four in all; two of them were mounted on small and very shaggy ponies, the others were on foot. The party advanced till they were about a hundred yards from the wall, and though the fading light prevented them from being seen very clearly, there could be no doubt that they were some of the dreaded Picts.
A debate, which seemed, from the gesticulations of the speakers to be of a somewhat violent kind, was carried on for a time among the savages. Then one of the mounted men rode, with all the speed to which his diminutive horse could be urged, almost up to the gates of the town. He wore a deer-skin robe of the very simplest construction, with holes through which his head and arms were thrust. His legs were bare. Round his neck was hung a bow of a very rude kind. In his right hand he carried a short spear. With the butt of this he struck violently at the gate, as if demanding entrance, and after waiting a few seconds, as it seemed for an answer, turned his pony's head and began to ride back to his party. He had almost reached them before the defenders of the wall had recovered from the astonishment which his audacity had caused them. Then one who was armed with a bow discharged at the retreating figure an arrow, which more by good luck than skill, for scarcely any aim had been taken, struck the Pict on the neck.
He did not fall from his horse, but swayed heavily to one side, catching at the animal's mane to steady himself. His three companions rushed forward to help him, and in another moment would have carried him off, but for the resolution and activity of the Saxon, who with the Count was standing on the rampart close to the gate. He lowered himself by his hands from the wall, a height of about fifteen feet, itself no small feat of activity, and ran at his full speed, a speed which, as has been said before, was quite uncommon. Hampered as they were by having to keep their wounded companion in the saddle, the Picts could move but slowly, and were soon overtaken. With two blows, delivered with all his gigantic strength, Cedric levelled two of them to the ground, and, seizing the wounded chief, threw him over his shoulder, then turning ran towards the gate. For a moment the third Pict stood too astonished to move. Cedric had thus a start of some yards, and before he could be overtaken, had got so close to the wall as to be under the protection of the archers and slingers who lined it. The next moment the wicket of the gate was opened, and the prisoner secured.
It was evident that he was a prize of some value, for a rudely wrought chain of gold round his neck showed that he was a chief. He had ridden up to the gate against the advice of his followers, as it was guessed, under the influences of copious draughts of metheglin. The effect of the liquor, together with the pain of his wound and the shock of his capture, had been to make him insensible when he was brought into the town. While he was in this state his wound was dressed by a slave who had some surgical skill, and who declared that though serious it was not mortal. When he recovered consciousness he behaved more like a wild beast than a man. His first act was to tear furiously at the bandage which had been applied to his wound. The attendants mastered him with difficulty, for he fought with the ferocity of a wild cat, and then bound his hands and feet. Thus rendered helpless, he raved at the top of his voice till sheer exhaustion reduced him to silence, a silence which was soon followed by sleep.
The night passed without any attack. It was evident that the Picts were in considerable force, for their watch fires were to be seen scattered over a wide extent of country, and there was much anxious talk in the town about the chances of a siege. Few indeed in Venta closed their eyes that night, and with the earliest morning the whole town was astir. The invaders, of course, had no notion of how a siege should be conducted, nor had they the necessary mechanical means even if they had known how to use them. Their arrows did but little harm, for their bows were ill made, and had but a small range, nothing like that which was commanded by the better weapons of the defenders. With the sling, however, they were singularly expert, and inflicted no small damage, making indeed some parts of the walls scarcely tenable. But as they could do nothing without showing themselves, they suffered more loss than they inflicted. In the early days of the siege especially, a catapult, which the garrison worked from the walls, did great damage among them. After awhile they were careful not to collect in such numbers as to give a fair mark for this piece of artillery.
The townspeople were greatly elated at their success, and when, about a fortnight after the first appearance of the invaders before the walls, two days had passed without one of them being visible, concluded that, hopeless of making any impression upon the place, they had disappeared.
They were soon undeceived. It was growing dusk on the third day after the supposed departure of the enemy, when a heavily laden cart was drawn up to the western gate of the city. The driver, apparently a country man, knocked for admittance. By rights, at such an hour, it should have been refused, but the vigilance of the watch had begun to slacken, most of the besieged believing that the danger was practically over. Accordingly, no difficulty was made about throwing open the gates. But, once thrown open, they were not so easily closed. Just as the cart was passing through the opening in the wall one of the wheels came off, and the vehicle broke down hopelessly. Commonly it would not have taken long to clear the obstacle out of the way. There was usually a throng of people about the gates and on the walls, and a multitude of willing hands would have been ready to lend their help. But just at this moment the gates and walls were almost deserted. Even- song was going on in the Church of Venta, and a preacher of some local fame was expected to enlarge on the Divine mercy shown in the deliverance of the town from the barbarians.
The keepers of the gate would, therefore, have been at a loss even if they had seen the necessity of bestirring themselves. As it was, they were content to do nothing. They amused themselves by standing by and laughing at the rustic driver as he slowly unladed from his vehicle its miscellaneous cargo, the contents, it seemed, of one of the country-side cottages, from which the terror of the invasion had driven their inhabitants. The process of unloading, carried on slowly and with much grumbling, was scarcely half finished, when one of the warders, chancing to look behind him, caught sight of a body of men rapidly approaching through the darkness. A number of Picts had concealed themselves in the wood mentioned before as distant about half a mile from the wall, and when they saw the gate blocked by the broken-down cart—a part, it need hardly be said, of the stratagem—had made a rush to get to it before the obstacle could be removed. A hasty alarm was raised, and some of the citizens who were in hearing ran up.
But it was too late. The rustic driver, a villain whose treacherous services had been bought by the enemy, had quickened his work when he saw his employers approaching, and contrived to finish the unloading of the cart at the very moment of their coming up. In a few moments some of them had clambered over the empty vehicle, struck down the guards, and disabled the fastenings of the gates. Before many minutes had passed the whole of the ground outside the gates seemed to swarm with the enemy, and though the townspeople had now begun to make a rally in force, it was too late to make any effectual effort to keep them out. The situation would in any case have been full of danger. At Venta it was hopeless. A garrison of veterans might have kept their heads, but there were not more than sixty or seventy among the defenders of Venta who had ever seen service in the field; and the citizen soldiers were fairly panic-stricken when they saw themselves actually facing a furious, yelling crowd of barbarians, cruel and savage creatures in reality, and commonly reported to be even worse than they were. Without even striking a blow they turned and fled.
The Count, whom the alarm had just reached, was met, and, for a time, carried away by the tide of fugitives. Still he was able to rally a few men to his side for a last effort. Some of his own followers were with him, and the rest could be fetched in a few moments. The gallant old centurion, in spite of his seventy years, was prompt with the offer of his sword; and, as always happens, the infection of courage spread not less rapidly than the infection of cowardice. Altogether a compact body of about a hundred men were collected. Well armed and well disciplined they turned a steadfast face to the enemy, and were able to make their retreat to a little fort which stood on a hill to the south-east of the town. Carna, the priest of Venta and his family, and a few other non-combatants were with them. More, in the terrible confusion of the scene, it was impossible to rescue. All through the trying time Cedric distinguished himself by his coolness and courage. When once he had seen Carna safely bestowed in the centre of the party, and had also seen that the person of the Pictish chief was secured (having the presence of mind to foresee that he would be a valuable hostage), he took up a position in the extreme rear of the retreat, and performed prodigies of valour in keeping the pursuers at bay.
The occupation of the fort could, of course, do nothing more than give them a breathing space. Though it had been for some time unoccupied, its defences were tolerably perfect, and it might have been held against a barbarian enemy as long as provisions held out. Unfortunately this was the weak part of their position. Of provisions they had very little. Luckily the place had latterly been used as a warehouse, and contained some sacks of flour. A few sheep were feeding in a meadow hard by, and were hastily driven within the defences. Happily there was a well within the walls.
That night was a dismal experience which none of the party ever forgot. A confused noise came up from the town, where the savages were busy with plunder and massacre. Every now and then some piercing shriek was heard, curdling the blood of all the listeners. At other times the loud crash of some falling building could be distinguished. Towards midnight flames could be seen bursting out from various parts of the town, and before an hour had passed, every eye was fixed on a hideous spectacle, on which it was an agony to look, but from which it yet seemed impossible to turn. Venta was on fire. The flames could be seen to catch street after street, and distinctly against the lurid background of the burning houses could be seen, flitting here and there, as they busied themselves with the work of destruction, the dark shapes of the barbarians. When the morning dawned only a few detached buildings, among them the church, a basilica of some size, built by the munificence of the Empress Helena, were standing.
The party in the fort reviewed their position anxiously. The civilians were for the most part in favour of staying where they were. They felt the substantial protection of the stout walls which surrounded them, and were indisposed to leave it. The military men, on the other hand, recognized facts more clearly and more completely. The protection of the fort was worth this and this only—that it gave them time to reflect. To stand a siege would be to ensure destruction.
"We must cut our way through," said the Count. "If we do not try it now we shall have to try it three or four days hence, and try it with less courage, and hope, and strength, and probably fewer men than we have now."
"Cut our way through all those thousands of savages!" said the Princeps, who was one of the few who had escaped from the town. "No; we should be fools to leave the shelter of these walls."
"Shelter!" cried the old centurion; "will they shelter you against famine? No; let us go while we have strength to walk."
"But how," said another of the townspeople, "how will you do all the three things at once—retreat, and fight, and save the women? A few of the men may get through, but it will be as much as they can do to take care of themselves."
The argument was only too clear, and the Count turned away with a groan of despair. The prospect seemed hopeless. All the comfort that he could find was in the thought that he and Carna should, anyhow, not fall alive into the hands of the barbarians.
But now Cedric came again to the rescue with the happy thought which had made him carry off the Pictish chief. He said nothing to any of his companions; but he managed the affair with the prisoner, and managed it with an astonishing speed and success. He pointed to a party of the chief's fellow-countrymen who were approaching the fort, by way, it appeared, of reconnoitring its defences, and intimated that he wished to open communications with them, showing at the same time, by holding up two of his fingers, that not more than two were to approach. The chief, whose intelligence was sharpened by a keen sense of his danger, by a shrill piercing whistle, twice repeated, conveyed this intimation to his countrymen, and two of them approached to within speaking distance of the walls.
Cedric now addressed himself to the task of making his prisoner understand that his life and liberty depended upon his inducing his countrymen to retire. This was not very easily done. The expressive gestures of drawing a knife across the throat was readily understood; and at last by a pantomime of signs he was made to comprehend that this would be the result, if his countrymen were to approach the walls. Then the other alternative was expressed. One of the bonds with which he was secured was partially loosed, and this action was accompanied by a sweeping gesture of the hand towards the north, which was to indicate that that must be their way, if he was to be freed. A light of comprehension gradually dawned in the chief's eye, and the Saxon had little doubt that he had made his meaning intelligible. Whether the man could be trusted to keep the engagement was what neither he nor any one could say. But it was clear that the risk had to be run, for the only possible hope of escape lay in this direction. A conversation followed between the chief and his countrymen, accompanied by signs which were intended to convey to the Saxon the purport of what he was saying. When it was over, they disappeared, and the chief, turning to Cedric, raised his hands to the sky in a gesture which the latter interpreted, and rightly interpreted, to mean that he was calling the powers above to witness his fidelity to the engagement which he had made.
Cedric then communicated the result of his negotiations through his interpreter the peddler to the Count. It was not received with unanimous approval by the party in the fort. The Princeps especially protested loudly against trusting their lives to the good faith of a couple of savages. "A Pict and a Saxon!" he cried, "the worst enemies that Britain has, and you think that they are going to save us!" He was quickly overruled by the Count, who let him understand quite plainly that he would be left to shift for himself unless he availed himself of this chance of escape.
"Do as you please," was Ælius's first utterance, "you have authority over the fort, and if you choose to defend it with as many of your friends as you can induce to stay with you, I cannot hinder you. But you must take the consequences, and I haven't the shadow of a doubt what these will be. Meanwhile, I and my party mean to go. As for the Pict, I know nothing of him; the Saxon I would trust with my life, and what is far dearer to me, the life of my daughter. He has proved his good faith already in such a way that I for one shall never doubt him again."
Preparations for departure were hastily made. Indeed there was little to prepare. The party had simply nothing with them except their arms. Every one had to walk—for food they had to trust to what they might find on the road. But before they started the Count loosed with his own hand the chief's bonds. The chief put his hand upon his heart, and then lifted it to the sky with the same gesture of appeal that he made before.
It is sufficient to say that he kept his word, for the party reached the coast without molestation.