It was high time to fight fire, rather it was too late.
When the door was finally closed upon the brothers and their faithful thrall, Alfred did not give way to despair. The words of Ragnar, “If there be a God, let Him deliver you,” had sunk deeply into his heart, and had produced precisely the opposite effect to that which his cousin had intended; it seemed as if his cause were thus committed to the great Being in Whose Hand was the disposal of all things; as if His Honour were at stake, Whom the murderer had so impiously defied.
“‘If there be a God, let Him deliver you,’” repeated Alfred, and it seemed to him as if a Voice replied, “Is My Arm shortened, that It cannot save?”
But how salvation was to come, and even in what mode danger was to be expected, was unknown to them; nay, was even unguessed. They heard the bustle below, which followed Ragnar’s announcement of his intended departure from Aescendune. They heard the mustering of the horses—and at last the conviction forced itself upon them that the foe were about to evacuate the hall. But in that case, how would he inflict his sentence upon his victims?
The dread truth, the suspicion of his real intention, crept upon the minds of both Alfred and Oswy. Elfric yet lay insensible, or seemingly so, upon the bed, lost to all perception of his danger. Alfred sat at the head of the bed, looking with brotherly love at the prostrate form of him for whom he was giving his life; but feeling secretly grateful that there was no painful struggle imminent in his case; that death itself would come unperceived, without torturing forebodings.
It was at this moment that Oswy, who stood by the window, which was strongly barred, but which he had opened, for the night was oppressively warm, caught the faint and distant sound of a mighty host advancing through the forest; at first it was very faint, and he only heard it through the pauses in the storm of sound which attended Ragnar’s preparations for departure, but it soon became more distinct, and he turned to Alfred.
“Listen, my lord, they come to our aid; listen, I hear the army of Edgar.”
Alfred rushed to the window, the hope of life strong within him; at first he could hear nothing for the noise below, but at length there was a lull in the confusion, and then he heard distinctly the sound of the coming deliverers. Another minute, and he saw the dark lines leaving the shadow of the forest, and descending the hill in serried array, then deploying, as if to surround a foe in stealthy silence; he looked around for the object, and beheld Ragnar’s forces all unconscious of their danger, not having heard the approach in their own hasty preparations for departure. Another moment of dread suspense, like that with which the gazer watches the dark thundercloud before the lightning’s flash. A moment of dread silence—during which some orders, given loudly below, forced themselves upon him: