Presently, as the evening began to close in, Thorleif came to us, and with him was the old chief. After them came a man with food in plenty in a ship’s cauldron, and a leathern jack of ale, which he set before us as we sat on the coils of rope which were stowed forward.
“Welsh mutton and Welsh ale,” said Thorleif, smiling. “That is plunder one may ask a Saxon to share without offence. Fall to, I pray you.”
There was a rough courtesy in this, at the least intended, and we were hungry, so we did not delay. And as we ate, the chief spoke with us plainly.
“I had hoped,” he said, “to manage this raid without fighting, but I never met so headstrong a man as your sheriff. Truly, I would have sent him home in peace, if in a hurry, had we been given a chance, but, as you saw, we had none. Now, if you will, I will send one of you home to say that if your folk will pay us fair ransom in coined silver or weighed gold, we will harry no more, and will not burn the town. One of you shall go at once, and bring me word by noon at latest tomorrow, while the other shall bide as hostage for his return. We will do no harm to aught until the time is up.”
“Plain speaking, chief,” said Elfric. “If we go, we must not have more than a reasonable sum named, else will the message be useless.”
Then they talked of what sum should be named, and in the end agreed on what was possible, I think; at all events, it was far less than has been paid to the like force of Danes since. The riches of our peaceful Wessex were as yet unknown to the vikings, save by hearsay; indeed, it has been said that these three ships came to spy out the land. And then came the question as to which of us two was to go.
That was ended by Thorleif himself. I said that Elfric should go, and he was most anxious that I should be freed from the clutches of the Danes. And as we spoke thereof, neither of us being willing to give way—for, indeed, it did not seem to me that it mattered much whether I stayed, while Elfric had his own family, who would be sorely terrified for him—Thorleif decided it.
“Elfric the thane must go,” he said, “for men will listen to him. That is the main thing, after all.
“We will not harm your cousin, thane, and you may be easy in your mind.”
“Nay,” said Thrond, “I think that Dorchester would pay ransom for the thane willingly. Best let the lad go.”
“This is more a question of ransoming the town and countryside, foster father,” answered Thorleif. “The thane shall go.”
In a quarter of an hour he was gone, the Danes giving him back his weapons and mounting him on his own horse. He told me that he had no doubt that I should be freed by noon tomorrow, and so we parted in good spirits, as far as ourselves were concerned.
As to the trouble that had fallen on the land, that was another matter. I did not rightly take it in, but it was heavy on his mind. For myself, therefore, I was content enough; I had no reason to think that the Danes were likely to treat me evilly in any way.