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- Beric the Briton - 6/74 -

"And if they did we should not obey them, Boduoc; but as the Trinobantes have long been forbidden to carry arms, it might have caused trouble had I gone armed into the town, and we don't want trouble at present. I went on a peaceful visit, and there was no occasion for me to carry my weapons. But give me a piece of that deer flesh and an oaten cake; we have a long march before us."

"Why, did you not eat with them?"

"No. I was, of course, invited, but I had but a short time to stop and did not wish it to seem as if I had come for a taste of Roman dainties again."

As soon as the meal was eaten they set out. It was but a track through the forest, for although the trees had been cleared away for a width of twenty feet there was but little traffic, for the road was seldom traversed, save by an occasional messenger from Prasutagus. It had been used by the legions at the time that Ostorius had built a line of forts stretching from the Nen to the Severn, and by it they had advanced when the Iceni had risen; but from that time it had been unused by them, as the Iceni had paid their tribute regularly, and held aloof from all hostile movements against them. Prasutagus was always profuse in his assurance of friendship towards Rome, and save that the Roman officers visited his capital once a year to receive their tribute, they troubled but little about the Iceni, having their hands occupied by their wars in the south and west, while their main road to the north ran far to the west of Camalodunum.

"We shall arrive about midnight," Beric said as they strode along.

"We may or we may not," Boduoc said curtly.

"What is to prevent us, Boduoc?"

"Well, the wolves may prevent us, Beric; we heard them howling several times as we came along this morning. The rapacious brutes have not been so bold for years, and it is high time that we hunted them down, or at any rate made our part of the country too hot to hold them. I told Borgon before I started that if we did not return by an hour after midnight it would be because we had been obliged to take to a tree, and that he had better bring out a party at the first break of day to rescue us."

"But we have never had any trouble of that kind while we have been hunting, Boduoc."

"No; but I think there must have been some great hunts up in Norfolk, and that the brutes have come south. Certain it is that there have in the last week been great complaints of them, and, as you know, it was for that reason that your mother ordered all the men of the tribe to assemble by tomorrow morning to make war against them. The people in the farms and villages are afraid to stay out after nightfall. No man with arms in his hands fears a wolf, or even two or three of them, in the daytime; but when they are in packs they are formidable assailants, even to a strong party. Things are getting as bad now as they were twenty years ago. My father has told me that during one hard winter they destroyed full half our herds, and that hundreds of people were devoured by them. They had to erect stockades round the villages and drive in all the cattle, and half the men kept guard by turns, keeping great fires alight to frighten them away. When we have cleared the land of those two legged wolves the Romans, we shall have to make a general war upon them, for truly they are becoming a perfect scourge to the land. It is not like the wild boar, of which there might with advantage be more, for they do but little harm, getting their food for the most part in the woods, and furnishing us with good eating as well as good sport. But the wolves give us nothing in return, and save for the sport no one would trouble to hunt them; and it is only by a general order for their destruction, or by the offer of a reward for their heads, that we shall get rid of them."

"Well, let us press on, Boduoc. I would not that anything should occur to prevent us starting with the rest in the morning."

"We are walking a good pace now," Boduoc said, "and shall gain but little by going faster. One cannot run for six hours; and besides it is as much as we can do to walk fast in the dark. Did we try to run we should like enough fall over a stump or root, and maybe not arrive there even though the wolves stopped us not."

For two hours more they strode along. Boduoc's eyes had been trained by many a long night spent among the woods, and dark as it was beneath the overarching trees, he was able to discern objects around him, and kept along in his regular stride as surely and almost as noiselessly as a wild beast; but the four years spent in the Roman town had impaired Beric's nocturnal vision; and though he had done much hunting since his return home, he was far from being able to use his eyes as his companion did, and he more than once stumbled over the roots that crossed the path.

"You will be on your head presently," Boduoc growled.

"It is all very well for you, Boduoc, who have the eyes of a cat; but you must remember we are travelling in the dark, and although I can make out the trunks on either hand the ground is all black to me, and I am walking quite at hazard."

"It is not what I should call a light night," Boduoc admitted.

"Well, no, considering that there is no moon, and that the clouds that were rising when the sun went down have overspread all the sky. I don't see that it could well be darker."

"Well we will stop at that hut in the little clearing, somewhere about half a mile on, and get a couple of torches. If you were to fall and twist your foot you would not be able to hunt tomorrow."

"What is that?" Beric exclaimed as a distant cry came to their ears.

"I think it is the voice of a woman," Boduoc said. "Or maybe it is one of the spirits of evil."

Beric during his stay among the Romans had lost faith in most of his superstitions. "Nonsense, Boduoc! it was the cry of a woman; it came from ahead. Maybe some woman returning late has been attacked by wolves. Come along," he shouted, and he started to run, followed reluctantly by his companion.

"Stop, Beric, stop!" he said in a short time, "I hear other sounds."

"So do I," Beric agreed, but without checking his pace. "My eyes may be dull, Boduoc, but they are not so dull as your ears. Why, don't you know the snarling of wolves when you hear them?"

Again the loud cry of distress came on the night air. "They have not seized her yet," Beric said. "Her first cry would have been her last had they done so. She must be in that hut, Boduoc, and they are trying to get at her. Maybe her husband is away."

"It is wolves," Boduoc agreed in a tone of relief. "Since that is all I am ready for them; but sword and spear are of no avail against the spirits of the air. We must be careful though, or instead of us attacking we may be attacked."

Beric paid no attention. They had as they passed the hut that morning stopped for a drink of water there, and he saw now before his eyes the tall comely young woman with a baby in her arms and two children hanging to her skirts. In a short time they stood at the edge of the little clearing by the side of the path. It was lighter here, and he could make out the outline of the rude hut, and, as he thought, that of many dark figures moving round it. A fierce growling and snarling rose from around the hut, with once or twice a sharp yell of pain.

"There are half a dozen of them on the roof," Boduoc said, "and a score or more round the hut. At present they haven't winded us, for the air is in our faces."

"I think we had best make a rush at them, Boduoc, shouting at the top of our voices as we go, and bidding the woman stand in readiness to unbar the door. They will be scared for a moment, not knowing how many of us there may be, and once inside we shall be safe from them."

"Let us get as near as we can before we begin to shout, Beric. They may run back a few paces at our voice, but will speedily rally."

Holding their spears in readiness for action they ran forward. When within thirty yards of the hut Boduoc raised his voice in a wild yell, Beric adding his cry and then shouting, "Unbar your door and stand to close it as we enter."

There was, however, no occasion for haste. Boduoc' s sudden yell completely scared the wolves, and with whimpers of dismay they scattered in all directions. The door opened as Beric and his companion came up, and they rushed in and closed it after them. A fire burned on the hearth. A dead wolf lay on the ground, the children crouched in terror on a pile of rushes, and a woman stood with a spear in her hand.

"Thanks to our country's gods you have come!" she said. "A few minutes later and all would have been over with me and my children. See, one has already made his way through the roof, and in half a dozen places they have scratched holes well nigh large enough to pass through."

"We heard your cry," Beric said, "and hastened forward at the top of our speed."

"It was for you that I called," the woman said. "By what you said this morning I judged you would be returning about this hour, and it was in hopes you might hear me that I cried out, for I knew well that no one else would be likely to be within earshot."

"Where is your husband?" Beric asked.

"He started this afternoon for Cardun. He and all the able bodied men were ordered to assemble there tonight in readiness to begin the war against the wolves at daybreak. There is no other house within a mile, and even had they heard me there they could have given me no assistance, seeing there are but women and children remaining behind."

"They are coming again," Boduoc broke in; "I can hear their feet pattering on the dead leaves. Which shall we do, Beric, pile more wood on the fire, or let it go out altogether? I think that we shall do better without it; it is from the roof that they will attack,

Beric the Briton - 6/74

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