Now I steered eastward from Sutherland, and sailed down the east coasts of Scotland and England; and there is nothing to say about such a cruise, that had nought more wonderful in it than the scaring of the folk when we put in for food. I had made up my mind to go to Ireland for the winter, where, as every Northman knew, there were kingdoms to be won—having no wish to be Rolf’s follower, seeing he was but a jarl’s son; and finding that England had no overlord, seeing that even now Alfred of Wessex and Guthrum of East Anglia were fighting for mastery, so that the whole land was racked and torn with strife.
Maybe I thought too much of myself at that time, but I was in no haste to do aught but cruise about and find where I might best make a name. I had but my one ship and crew, and I would not throw them away on some useless business for want of care in choosing.
Now, when we came into the English Channel, a gale began to blow up from the southwest; and we held over to the French shore, and there put into a haven that was sheltered enough. The gale strengthened, and lasted three days; but the people were kindly enough, being of Saxon kin, who had settled there under the headland they call Greynose, since Hengist’s times of the winning of England across the water. And when the gale was over, we waited for the sea to go down, and then came a fair wind from the eastward, as we expected. So we got provisions on board, and sailed westward again, taking a long slant over to the English coast, until we sighted the great rock of Portland; and then the wind came off the land, and in the early morning veered to the northwest.
The tide was still with us as the light strengthened; then as the day broke, with the haze of late summer over the land, we found that we were right in the track of a strange fleet that was coming up fast from the westward—great ships and small, in a strange medley and in no sort of order, so that we wondered what they would be.
“Here comes Rolf Ganger back from Valland,” said Kolgrim. “He has gathered any vessels he could get together, and is going to land in England.”
“We will even head out to sea from across their course,” I said. “Maybe they are Danes from Exeter, flying from the Saxons.”
So we headed away for the open channel until at least we knew more. The fleet drew up steadily, bringing the tide with them; and presently we fell to wondering at the gathering. For there were some half-dozen ships that were plainly Norse like ourselves, maybe twenty Danish-built longships, and about the same number of heavy trading vessels. There were a few large fishing boats also; but leading the crowd were five great vessels the like of which none of us had ever seen or heard of before. And even as we spoke of them, two of these shook out reefs in their sails, and drew away from the rest across channel, as if to cut us off.