“I am willing to do so, if there be a judgment seat whereat to answer. I had a father, too, who was condemned to a lingering death, by thirst, hunger, and madness; I witnessed his agonies; I swore to avenge them. You appeal to the memory of your father, who has perished a victim to avenging justice; I appeal to that of mine. If there be a God, let Him deliver you, and perhaps I will believe in Him. Farewell for ever!”
He closed the door, and, with the aid of his men, securely fastened it on the outside, so that no strength from within could open it; he descended to the hall.
“Warriors,” he said, “the moment I predicted has come; I have received a warning that the usurper Edgar already marches against us; tomorrow, at the latest, he will be here; before he arrives we shall be halfway to Wessex. Let every one secure his baggage and his plunder, and let the horses be all got ready for a forced march. We have eaten the last feast that shall ever be eaten in these halls.”
A few moments of bustle and confusion followed, and before half-an-hour had expired all was ready, and the men-at-arms from without announced that every horse—their own and those of the thane, to carry their booty, the plunder of the castle—awaited them without.
“Then,” said he, “listen, my men, to the final orders. Fire the castle, every portion of it; fire the stables, the barns, the outbuildings. We will leave a pile of blackened embers for Edgar when he comes; the halls where the princely Edwy has feasted shall never be his, or entertain him as a guest.”
A loud shout signified the alacrity with which his followers bent themselves to the task; torches flashed in all directions, and in a few moments the flames began to do their destroying work.
An officer addressed Ragnar—“There are three thralls locked up in an outbuilding, shall we leave them to burn?”
“Nay; why should we grudge them their miserable lives; they have done us no harm.”
At that moment a loud cry of dire alarm was heard, the trampling of an immense body of horse followed—a rush into the hall already filled with smoke—loud outcries and shrieks from without.
“What is the matter?” cried Ragnar.
“The Mercians are upon us! the Mercians are upon us!”
Ragnar rushed to the gateway, and a sight met his startled eyes he was little prepared to behold.
The clouds had been driven away by a fierce wind, the moon was shining brightly, and revealed a mighty host surrounding the hall on every side. Every horse before the gateway was driven away or seized, every man who had not saved himself by instant retreat had been slain by the advancing host; without orders the majority of his men had repassed the moat, and had already raised the drawbridge against the foe, not without the greatest difficulty.
“Extinguish the fires which you have raised; let each man fight fire— then we will fight the Mercians.”