He nodded and went out. One of the Mercians asked sharply where he was going; but Sighard paid no heed to him, for he was trying to get his blade into the saw cut, and so raise the square of flooring.
“Thane,” I said to the Mercian, staying him from following Erling, “he will shut the door to the hall, and let this thing be seen through in silence. Go you and watch at the door of Offa, for it has bided untended long enough.”
He went out in haste, and Erling watched him there. I saw him sit down to the table whence he had risen at my coming, and set his head on his hands as if in despair. I had no fear that he would call Offa yet, or that Erling would suffer him to go to his comrades in the hall. The other two stayed and watched Sighard silently.
Now the old thane had his blade fast in the timber and lifted. The square of floor rose slowly at that corner, and one of the Mercians set his hand to it. Another lift, and the whole was coming up, for the boards had been fastened together with cross pieces underneath, doorwise. As it rose I heard the fall of props that had kept it in place, and I bade Sighard have a care. I feared it would let him through suddenly as these props fell; but it had been roughly hinged at one end with thongs. He rose, and he and the Mercian heaved on the door and threw it back.
Then below us gaped a black pit which seemed to go deep into the earth, and for a moment we shrank back from it as men must needs do when a depth is suddenly before them. Nor should I have wondered if thence the bright points of waiting spears had darted upward in our faces.
But there was nothing save a little cold draught of wind that blew into them from out of that pit, and we looked into it. I held the torch so that its flickering blaze went to the bottom, and as we saw what was there a groan came from us.
There was the great chair lying, overturned on its side as it may have fallen, but it was dragged back from under the door somewhat. There were the cushions I had noted also—one lying on the stone floor of the pit, and the other on the seat of the chair. But there was no sign of the king—none but a stain of red on the cushions and on the floor, and on the blade of a sword which lay beside that terrible pool. And the sword was the king’s own.
Then said Sighard, and his voice came hoarse and broken:
“Our king is slain! Hounds of Mercians, tell us who has wrought this!”
One answered him from dry lips:
“We cannot tell. It is a shame on the house of Offa, and on the very name of Mercia. Kill us if you will, for we are niddering.”
He plucked his sword from his belt and threw it on the floor. The thane who had gone into the council chamber was on his feet and staring at us through the open doors, and Erling was ready to fall on him if he cried out. But the third Mercian, whose name was Witred, did not lose his senses thus.