Then we took our wounded and went back to the fort—four hundred men out of six hundred who sallied out, where we thought that none would return. But how many Danes we left on the field it is hard to say. Some say six hundred, and some more; and it may be so. Their graves are everywhere over the hill where they fell. When the tide rose we were gone; and Hubba’s men sought the body of their chief, and raised a mound over it. But they had no mind to stay on our side of the river, and they went to the Polden Hills, and laid the land waste far and wide, even to holy Glastonbury, until they joined Guthrum’s force at Edington.
Now one may know in what wise Etheldreda the brave shield maiden met us, as we came back from that hard-won field, with words of praise and thanks. But Thora stood not with her as we passed through the fort gates, where she waited on the rampart with the Lady Alswythe. Nor had she watched the fight at all, being torn with sorrow and fear alike.
I found her presently, while the men made litters whereon to bear our wounded to safety, having cleansed the stains of war from my armour. King Harald’s mail had kept me from wound worth notice—though, indeed, I hardly know how it was that I was unhurt thus. Kolgrim would not use his arm for many days, and Harek was gashed in arm and thigh also.
When Osmund heard my tread, he started up from where he sat beside Thora, looking away towards the hills to which we were going, and greeted me warmly.
“It was a good fight, Ranald, and well won,” he said.
Then Thora turned slowly, and looked at me fearfully, as if she feared me. I was grieved, and would have gone away; but she drew nearer, and the fear went from her eyes when she saw that I was safe, knowing little of what I had been through. And at last she smiled faintly, saying:
“King Ranald, they say my warrior has fought well.”
“It had been strange had I not, Thora,” I said.
“I think I should have hated my own kin had you fallen,” she said then.
“Ay,” said Osmund, “war sees strange chances, and a man’s thoughts are pulled in many ways. Many a time have I seen Dane fight with Dane on the old shores; and I can welcome a victor heartily, even if it is my own kin who have been beaten. Presently we Danes will fight for our new homes in England against such a landing from beyond seas as you have met.”
There was some scratch on my shield arm that drew Thora’s eyes at this time, and as the jarl spoke she came quickly to me, taking some light scarf she had from her dress at the same moment.
“You are hurt,” she said; “though it is little. Let me bind it for you.”
I suffered her to do so, saying nothing, but smiling at her, while the colour came brightly into her face as she wrought. The jarl smiled also, turning away presently as some new shouting came up from the fort gateway, where men welcomed those who bore back the spoils from the slain.