This is a chapter of The Pirates of the Saxon Shore, by Henry Gilbert.
It was a misty morning in the spring of the year 366. Dawn had hardly broken, and toward the east the sun was trying to pierce through the swirling eddies of fog that lay over the sea and the shore. Two youths, both of about seventeen years of age, were walking along a trackway not far from the beach. Both were dressed alike, with the woolen tunic and gartered breeches of the ordinary British-Roman provincial. Each wore leathern sandals, and around his tunic a strap supporting a knife and a pouch, while each carried a stout staff. But a glance at their faces showed that they were not both of the same race. One had a round face, freckled, with grey eyes; his short hair was reddish; he was a Briton, though he liked sometimes to call himself a Roman when Italian boys were with him. The other had a long face, with a square jaw; his eyes were blue, and his hair, which was long and tied by a fillet, was as yellow as ripened corn; he was what everyone called a Saxon, but the home of his forbears had been among the flat and reedy lands of Frisia, or Friesland, as we know it now.
Both lads were sturdy and well built, but they differed in manner. Elphin, the British boy, had a merry, mischievous eye; he was ever ready for a laugh or a jest, and was friendly disposed to all. Yet there was a look of determination in his glance and his jaw was strong. Wulf, the Saxon, or Vulpius, as Elphin and everyone else called him, in the Latin which all affected to know, had a reserved, fierce look in his sharp eyes, as if he were always on the lookout to resent snubs or insults. Yet when he looked at Elphin a kind light came into his eyes.
“The mist is getting thicker,” said Wulf. “I guess we are not far from the river.”
Elphin peered into the coiling mists around him and said: “We must go carefully here. We don’t want to drown ourselves in the marsh. Hallo, it’s clearing in front.”
All about was the keen smell of the sea, filling the lads with an exuberance as of wine. They pushed on through the thinning mists, into which the great shafts of sunlight seemed to pierce like wide, golden spearheads, and in a little while they stood in some bushes looking down on the shallow valley below them, two miles wide, over which the sea foamed at high tide. The sun was gaining the mastery more and more over the mist fiends which were fleeing from his warmth and light, but the marsh was still obscured in places.
Suddenly Elphin bent and pointed. “Look!” he said in an excited whisper. “It’s a pirate boat! They’ve pushed up the creek in the mist and are landing!”
Both boys peered down, straining their eyes. Just below them, in a creek which ran into the marsh, was one of the low, open galleys, captured specimens of which they had often seen towed into the harbor of Richborough, or Rutupiae, where they lived, two miles away on the other side of the marsh. But never had they seen one filled with its crew of fierce, bearded pirates, as now they saw them, each with a thick leather helmet on his head of long fair hair, a spear in one hand, and a round buckler on his left arm. The mist drew aside like a curtain for a moment, showing the pirates descending from their longship and walking off into the clouds to the right of the boys, and then the curtain whirled back again, hiding them from view.
Elphin quickly took a resolution.
“The captain of the guard must know of this,” he said in a quick whisper. “These fellows may be the first of a big band. We’ll run on to Rutupiae at once and tell Julian.”
Without waiting for a reply, Elphin turned to the left and began to make his way toward the causeway which led across the marshes for about two miles to the hill on which Richborough, or Rutupiae, was perched. The boys had been visiting Elphin’s uncle, a farmer in a village nearby. This would be the last day for some weeks that Elphin would be ashore. Next day he was to join a galley for the first time. His vessel was keeping watch in the Channel for the longboats of the pirates, who, now that spring was come again, would be beating down from the sandy winding creeks of their misty land to harry and murder and rob on the fair shores of Britain and Gaul.
He glanced at his friend as he ran, and wondered for a moment at the strange look on the face of Wulf. He seemed to be dazed and looked before him with straining eyes as if he saw something of terror and wonder which was invisible to others. Next moment, Elphin almost tripped over the root of a tree, and in saving himself forgot his surprise. They reached the stone causeway, which, though covered with seaweed, they could cross almost dryfoot while the tide was out. They ran all the way. Both were silent; Elphin led the way, while Wulf followed not far behind. When they breasted the headland on which the thick-walled little town stood, Wulf began to flag, but Elphin did not notice this, so impatient was he to rush into the guardroom at the main gate and tell his story to Julian, the big chief of the centurions whom he so much admired.
By this time, the mists had almost gone and the sun was shining. As they reached the first of the hovels of the slaves and laborers, which were built along narrow, muddy little lanes just outside the mainland gate, Elphin noticed that Wulf was some distance behind him and seemed to be running slowly. He waited till his friend came nearer and then shouted:
“What ails you, Vulpius? A stone in your sandal?”
“No,” replied Wulf, and looked up quickly and then turned his eyes away. “I have a pain in my side.”
“That’s through eating too much oatmeal at breakfast, or running too soon after it,” said Elphin with a laugh. “You wait here till I come back. I shan’t be long.”
“Very well,” said Wulf, and seemed suddenly to have a gloomy air about him. As he set off running again, Elphin wondered why Wulf seemed so slow: he was by far the stronger of the two and could usually beat Elphin in a race.
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He had no time for further thought, for here was the landgate, with the legionaries lounging at the guard house door, chatting to the Britons who brought in vegetables on their little horses. Elphin ran through the narrow main street, with its road worn into two big ruts and many holes, dodged the crowd of market women, gossiping soldiers’ wives, and shopkeepers just stirring to open their booths, until he reached the other end of the road, where the watergate gave a view over the wide sea, on which the white mists still floated here and there in wisps like wool. Most of the men on guard knew him, and soon he was telling Julian, the big, good-natured Gaul, what he had seen.
“By Jupiter!” said Julian, when he heard; “but the dogs don’t lack for courage. To land in the creek almost under our noses — and at low tide!”
“But the water is deep enough in the creek at all tides to float out their boat,” replied Elphin.
“All the more reason why we should send across and try to cut them off before they get back!” said Julian. “Here, Lucius, Prasutigos, Cadno, take a company of men with you — you say they counted some fifty men?” he broke off, turning to Elphin.
“As many as I could count, and judging from the size of the boat,” replied Elphin.
“—— and get across the south marsh quickly. A Saxon boat landed its men in the creek to the east of it half an hour ago. Cut them off if you can, the saucy dogs! If more have come up, send to me and hold them in play till I come, or a war galley takes them in the rear.”
Lucius and his two lieutenants saluted and quickly filed out. Then Julian called in one of his sea captains and told him to take a war galley with all speed and try to cut off the pirates in the creek.
“My lad,” he said, turning to Elphin when the captain had gone, “you have shown good judgment in what you have done.” Elphin glowed with pleasure. “You go under Caros in the Seamew tomorrow, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir,” replied Elphin.
“I will speak to him about you. Go on as you have begun — keep your eyes and ears open, and your mind always on your work, and in a few years you will command a war galley of your own.”
Elphin saluted in his turn, thanked the chief centurion, who pinched his ear with good-natured gravity, and then started off to find Wulf.
But Wulf was nowhere to be found. He sought for him up and down the rising ground just before the slaves’ quarters or cannabae, outside the land gate, and then went home, a mile along the rising ground further west, where his father, Cadgan, a time-expired veteran, lived on his allotment. But neither his father nor his mother had seen aught of Wulf that day. Coming back again into the castrum, he asked many who knew his half-brother, but none had seen him. It was not Wulf’s habit to go off by himself in this way, and Elphin was distressed, thinking some evil had happened to his chum.
In one of the narrow little lanes of the fort, lined by the huts of the legionaries who formed the garrison at that time —the Second Augusta— he met Cadno, one of the lieutenants who had gone to intercept the pirates that morning.
“Did you have good fortune this morning, optio?” he asked respectfully.
Cadno, a lean, long Scot, with grey eyes and wrinkled face, wind-bitten and war-seamed from long years of fighting, first as a freebooter and enemy of Rome beyond the Great Wall to the north, and then as loyal soldier of the emperor, turned his keen looks on the lad.
“Nay,” he said, “they were not stopping long enough. A friend gave them the word — or they smelled us coming, or they were never there.”
“I do not lie!” cried Elphin hotly. “I saw them there and so did Wulf.”
“Humpf-hum!” replied Cadno. “I doubt not your word,” he went on, emphasizing the word ‘your.’ He walked away some paces and then came back. “I hear ye are looking for your friend Wulf. It’s the second centurion Lucius will be glad to see him when you find him.”
With these mysterious words, Cadno went off. Elphin stood thunderstruck. Did they really suspect Wulf of having warned the pirates? But he would answer for Wulf’s loyalty as his own. Was not Wulf his blood-brother? Had they not taken the old oath of eternal loyalty to each other by drinking one another’s blood? Certainly Wulf was a Saxon: by race he was one of these pirates, but— but—
As he walked slowly homeward, Elphin sadly reflected, and things became a little plainer to him. Seven years before, when Elphin was a little fellow of ten, playing before his home in a narrow lane of the castrum, he had seen his father coming toward him, leading a strange little boy by the hand — a boy with a mass of blond curls, with sullen, fierce blue eyes, dressed in woolen tunic, breeches, and sea boots, like one of the pirates whom Elphin had seen once or twice hanging on a cross by the wayside outside the fort. His father had had a strange tale to tell.
Just as had happened that very morning, so, all those years ago, Cadgan, who was second centurion at the time, had been sent to look for marauding pirates down about the marshlands north of Dubris (Dover). Creeping along the creek heads, they had come across two boats drawn up under a guard of thirty men, the main body of pirates having stolen off inland on a swift raid, burning and plundering. Warily Cadgan had disposed his forces, and then, in a sudden onset, had completely surrounded the boat guard and slain them to a man. On boarding one of the galleys, a knife had been thrown at him from the open cabin door, and, if it had not been for his quickness, it would probably have pierced one of his eyes. Looking for his assailant he had found it was this little boy, who on being seized showed the fiercest spirit, tearing, biting, and scratching ere he could be bound. Some were for knocking the young viper on the head, but the lad’s spirit had caught Cadgan’s fancy, and he had determined to keep him, if all went well.
Then, having dressed some of his men in the garb of the dead pirates, he had placed them so as to deceive the main body of Saxons when they should return. In a storm of wind and rain, indeed, they were soon heard coming back, the booty from two or three villas slung over their backs, but they had no captives with them, as they were moving quickly. They got almost to the boats before they suspected something was wrong, but then it was too late. A shrill trumpet sounded and the Roman soldiers, closing in upon them, overwhelmed and slew them all, not one escaping. Ever since then, Wulf, the little Saxon boy, whose father had been slain with the others, had been kept by Cadgan, and after a time had seemed to forget his hatred of his captors and had become almost like a brother to Elphin.
But there had always been something of a hard reserve in Wulf’s manner when in the presence of strangers, as if he felt that he was looked upon as of the breed of the pirates whom men slaughtered or crucified, though, indeed, the Roman soldiers often suffered severely from death and wounds at the hands of the hardy and brave sea rovers. Though Wulf and Elphin were great friends, Wulf never spoke of what he wished to become when he was a man. Elphin’s father had said he should join one of the legions, as other Saxons and Angles had already done, though they generally were sent to serve in other provinces than Britain to prevent treachery. Wulf never said whether he was willing or unwilling to do this, though once he told Elphin that he would prefer to go with him in the fleet — the sea was his place.
Now, as Elphin walked home, he thought that, maybe, Wulf had felt that he could not allow those pirates to be cut off and massacred without trying to warn them. After all, they were his own kin and spoke the Saxon tongue, which he still remembered, though he had rarely spoken it during these seven years. And therefore, maybe, he had run back along the causeway and warned the pirates guarding the boats and had gone off with them. Elphin was depressed to think that he had lost Wulf in this way, and wondered whether he could ever get to know whether this was really what had happened.
Next day, however, and for many days thereafter, Elphin had too much to think about in his new work to spare time even to wonder about Wulf. For now he was an apprentice pilot in the famous fleet which was under command of the great Admiral Nectarides, count of the Saxon Shore, who guarded the coast of Britain from the Wash right round to the Isle of Wight, against the forays and raids of the fierce sea robbers, mingled bands of Saxons, Franks, Angles, Frisians, and Danes who were known to the Romans under the general title of Saxons, that being the name of the tribe who were the leading spirits in this confederacy of plunder.
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It was a hundred years before, about the year 260, that the long low ships of the sea rovers had first begun to be seen and feared on the coasts of Britain and Gaul along the Narrow Seas. For a few years, little notice was taken of them in either province, but then the complaints of townsmen in the coast towns, or of well-to-do dwellers in country villas, and of villagers became so bitter that the Roman governors had to do something to cope with the nuisance. In Britain, therefore, a special leader was appointed, generally a man who had been a good seaman, and to his charge was committed the defense of the shores which the pirates infested. Certain coast forts were built and strongly defended, and in these were stationed the troops whose duty it was to assist in beating off the pirate bands. A fleet of galleys was built to act as scouts upon the lonely seas, and to bring word swiftly back when they sighted the squadron of pirate craft making toward Britain or Gaul over the leaping waves. When news came that the pirates were coming, the trumpet rang out, and the seamen and fighting men manned the war galleys, which put out to sea to meet the pirate fleet and to do battle with it.
On shore, horsemen were sent swiftly from one fort or station to another to put the legionary officers on guard, so that, if by chance the pirates broke through the Roman fleet or defeated it, they would still be prevented from landing or they would suffer greatly in doing so. But of course it was not always such “plain sailing” as this. Two or three pirate boats would creep along in the dark or in a sea mist, under the very noses of the chilled and wearied men in a patrol boat, and, having landed, they would make a swift raid inland, leaving a black wake behind them of burning villages and ruined homes and crops. Working in a circle, they would return to their boats and speedily put to sea again, laden with treasure and captives —likely looking young men and women, boys and girls, who would command good prices in the slave markets of Paris or Bajoccas (Bayeux), Dol or Ronnenberg— and race back to the misty flats of Frisia or to the Holy Island, a nest of pirates, which we now know as Heligoland. Sometimes a keen Roman general, served by clever scouts, would come up with them before they could reach their boats, and there would be a fierce fight with many dead on both sides. If the Roman-British conquered, they made no prisoners, but the Saxon pirates were noted for their ferocity and would capture their opponents if they could, in order that they might torture or sacrifice them to their gods later.