“Fire the castle, every portion of it; fire the stables, the barns, the outbuildings; we will leave a pile of blackened ruins for Edgar when he comes; the halls where the princely Edwy has feasted shall never be his, or entertain him as guest.”
Meanwhile, the dark forces, unseen by the destroyers, were still surrounding the castle, deploying on all sides to surround it as in a net; for they saw the intention of their victims, and meant to cut off all chance of escape.
But the position of the brothers seemed as perilous as ever—for how could Edgar’s troops rescue them if the place were once on fire? Alfred gazed with pallid face upon Oswy, but met only a resigned helpless glance in return.
Yet, even at this moment of awful suspense, a voice seemed to whisper in his ear, “Stand still, and see the salvation of God.”
“Oswy,” he exclaimed, “we shall not die—I feel sure that God will save us!”
“It must be soon then,” replied Oswy; “soon, my lord, for they have already set the place on fire, just beneath us; can you not smell the smoke?”
Just at that moment came the war cry of the Mercians, and the charge we have already described.
It was during the following few minutes, while Ragnar and all his men were vainly striving to extinguish the conflagration they had raised— for the dry timber of which the hall was chiefly built had taken fire like matchwood—it was while the friends without were preparing to attack, that a sudden change came over the patient.
“Alfred, my brother!”
Alfred looked round in surprise; consciousness had returned, and the face was calm and possessed as his own.
“Elfric, my dear Elfric!”
“What does all this mean? How came I here? What makes this smoke?”
“We are in danger, great danger; prisoners in our own house, which they have set on fire.”
“I remember now—is not this our dear father’s room?”
“Yes; we are prisoners in it, they have barred the door upon us.”
“But they cannot bar us in: there is another door, Alfred; one my father once pointed out to me, but told me to keep its existence a secret, as it always had been kept. Who are without?”
“The Mercians, Edgar’s army, come to deliver us; if we can reach them, we are safe.”
“I thought they were our foes, but all seems strange now. Alfred, lift up the tapestry which conceals the recess where dear father’s armour hung.”
“Now, just where the breastplate hung you will find a round knob of wood like a peg.”
“Yes, it is here.”
“Push it hard—no, harder.”
Alfred did so, and a concealed door flew open; he stepped through it with a cry of joy, and found himself on the staircase leading up from the postern gate by which he had entered, just below the closed door which led into the gallery above.