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King Alfred's Viking - A Story of the First English Fleet
by Charles W. Whistler
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King Alfred's Viking A Story of the First English Fleet by Charles W. Whistler.



Preface.

The general details and course of events given in this story are, so far as regards the private life and doings of King Alfred, from his life as written by his chaplain, Asser. One or two further incidents of the Athelney period are from the later chroniclers—notably the sign given by St. Cuthberht—as are also the names of the herdsman and the nobles in hiding in the fen.

That Alfred put his first fleet into the charge of "certain Vikings" is well known, though the name of their chief is not given. These Vikings would certainly be Norse, either detached from the following of Rolf Ganger, who wintered in England in 875 A.D. the year before his descent on Normandy; or else independent rovers who, like Rolf, had been driven from Norway by the high-handed methods of Harald Fairhair. Indeed, the time when a Norse contingent was not present with the English forces, from this period till at least that of the battle of Brunanburh in 947 A.D. would probably be an exception.

There are, therefore, good historic grounds for the position given to the hero of the story as leader of the newly-formed fleet. The details of the burning of his supposed father's hall, and of the Orkney period, are from the Sagas.

Much controversy has raged over the sites of Ethandune and the landing place of Hubba at Kynwith Castle, owing probably to the duplication of names in the district where the last campaign took place. The story, therefore, follows the identifications given by the late Bishop Clifford in "The Transactions of the Somerset Archaeological Society" for 1875 and other years, as, both from topographic and strategic points of view, no other coherent identification seems possible.

The earthworks of the Danish position still remain on Edington hill, that looks out from the Polden range over all the country of Alfred's last refuge, and the bones of Hubba's men lie everywhere under the turf where they made their last stand under the old walls and earthworks of Combwich fort; and a lingering tradition yet records the extermination of a Danish force in the neighbourhood. Athelney needs but the cessation of today's drainage to revert in a very few years to what it was in Alfred's time—an island, alder covered, barely rising from fen and mere, and it needs but little imagination to reproduce what Alfred saw when, from the same point where one must needs be standing, he planned the final stroke that his people believed was inspired directly from above.

It would seem evident from Alfred's method with Guthrum that he realized that this king was but one among many leaders, and not directly responsible for the breaking of the solemn peace sworn at Exeter and Wareham. His position as King of East Anglia has gained him an ill reputation in the pages of the later chronicles; but neither Asser nor the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle—our best authorities— blames him as they, for his contemporaries knew him to be but a "host king," with no authority over newcomers or those who did not choose to own allegiance to him.

Save in a few cases, where the original spelling preserves a lost pronunciation, as in the first syllable of "Eadmund," the modern and familiar forms of the names have been used in preference to the constantly-varying forms given by the chroniclers. Bridgwater has no Saxon equivalent, the town being known only as "The Bridge" since the time when the Romans first fortified this one crossing place of the Parret; and the name of the castle before which Hubba fell varies from Cynuit through Kynwith to Kynwich, whose equivalent the Combwich of today is. Guthrum's name is given in many forms, from Gytro to Godramnus. Nor has it been thought worth while to retain the original spelling AElfred, the ae diphthong having been appropriated by us to an entirely new sound; while our own pronunciation of the name slightly broadened as yet in Wessex, is correct enough.

The exact relationship of St. Neot to Alfred, beyond that he was a close kinsman, is very doubtful. He has been identified with a brother, Athelstan of East Anglia, who is known to have retired to Glastonbury; but there is no more than conjecture, and I have been content with "cousinship."

C. W. Whistler

Stockland, 1898.



Chapter I. The Seeking of Sword Helmbiter.

Men call me "King Alfred's Viking," and I think that I may be proud of that name; for surely to be trusted by such a king is honour enough for any man, whether freeman or thrall, noble or churl. Maybe I had rather be called by that name than by that which was mine when I came to England, though it was a good title enough that men gave me, if it meant less than it seemed. For being the son of Vemund, king of Southmereland in Norway, I was hailed as king when first I took command of a ship of my own. Sea king, therefore, was I, Ranald Vemundsson, but my kingdom was but over ship and men, the circle of wide sea round me was nought that I could rule over, if I might seem to conquer the waves by the kingship of good seaman's craft.

One may ask how I came to lose my father's kingdom, which should have been mine, and at last to be content with a simple English earldom; or how it was that a viking could be useful to Alfred, the wise king. So I will tell the first at once, and the rest may be learned from what comes after.

If one speaks to me of Norway, straightway into my mind comes the remembrance of the glare of a burning hall, of the shouts of savage warriors, and of the cries of the womenfolk, among whom I, a ten-year-old boy, was when Harald Fairhair sent the great Jarl Rognvald and his men to make an end of Vemund, my father. For Harald had sworn a great oath to subdue all the lesser kings in the land and rule there alone, like Gorm in Denmark and Eirik in Sweden. So my father's turn came, and as he feasted with his ninety stout courtmen, the jarl landed under cover of the dark and fell on him, surrounding the house and firing it. Then was fierce fighting as my father and his men sallied again and again from the doors and were driven back, until the high roof fell in and there was a sudden silence, and an end.

Then in the silence came my mother's voice from where she stood on the balcony of the living house across the garth {i}. I mind that she neither wept nor shrieked as did the women round her, and her voice was clear and strong over the roaring of the flames. I mind, too, the flash of helms and armour as every man turned to look on her who spoke.

"Coward and nidring art thou, Rognvald, who dared not meet Vemund, my husband, in open field, but must slay him thus. Ill may all things go with thee, till thou knowest what a burning hall is like for thyself. I rede thee to the open hillside ever, rather than come beneath a roof; for as thou hast wrought this night, so shall others do to thee."

Then rose a growl of wrath from Rognvald's men, but the great Jarl bade them cease, and harm none in all the place. So he went down to his ships with no more words and men said that he was ill at ease and little content, for he had lost as many men as he had slain, so stoutly fought my father and our courtmen, and had earned a curse, moreover, which would make his nights uneasy for long enough.

Then as he went my mother bade me look well at him, that in days to come I might know on whom to avenge my father's death. After that she went to her own lands in the south, for she was a jarl's daughter, and very rich.

Not long thereafter Harald Fairhair won all the land, and then began the trouble of ruling it; and men began to leave Norway because of the new laws, which seemed hard on them, though they were good enough.

Now two of Jarl Rognvald's sons had been good friends of my father before these troubles began, and one, Sigurd, had been lord over the Orkney Islands, and had died there. The other, Jarl Einar, fell out with Rognvald, his father, and we heard that he would take to the viking path, and go to the Orkneys, to win back the jarldom that Sigurd's death had left as a prey to masterless men and pirates of all sorts. So my mother took me to him, and asked him for the sake of old friendship to give me a place in his ship; for I was fourteen now, and well able to handle weapons, being strong and tall for my age, as were many of the sons of the old kingly stocks.

So Einar took me, having had no part in his father's doings towards us, and hating them moreover. He promised to do all that he might towards making a good warrior and seaman of me; and he was ever thereafter as a foster father to me, for my own had died in the hall with Vemund. It was his wish to make amends thus, if he could, for the loss his folk had caused me.

Of the next five years I need speak little, for in them I learned the viking's craft well. We won the Orkneys from those who held them, and my first fight was in Einar's ship, against two of the viking's vessels. After that we dwelt in Sigurd's great house in Kirkwall, and made many raids on the Sutherland and Caithness shores. I saw some hard fighting there, for the Scots are no babes at weapon play.

Then when I was nineteen, and a good leader, as they said, the words that my mother spoke to Jarl Rognvald came true, and he died even as he had slain my father.

For Halfdan and Gudrod, Harald Fairhair's sons, deeming that the Jarl stood in their way to power in Norway, burned him in his hall by night, and so my feud was at an end. But the king would in nowise forgive his sons for the slaying of his friend, and outlawed them. Whereon Halfdan came and fell on us in the Orkneys; and that was unlucky for him, for we beat him, and Jarl Einar avenged on him his father's death.

Now through this it came to pass that I saw Norway for the last time, for I went thither in Einar's best ship to learn if Harald meant to make the Orkneys pay for the death of his son—which was likely, for a son is a son even though he be an outlaw.

So I came to my mother's place first of all, and full of joy and pleasant thoughts was I as we sailed into the well-remembered fiord to seek the little town at its head. And when we came there, nought but bitterest sorrow and wrath was ours; for the town was a black heap of ruin, and the few men who were left showed me where the kindly hands of the hill folk had laid my mother, the queen, in a little mound, after the Danish vikings, who had fallen suddenly on the place with fire and sword, had gone. They had grown thus bold because the great jarl was dead, and the king's sons had left the land without defence.

There I swore vengeance for this on every viking of Danish race that I might fall in with; for I was wild with grief and rage, as one might suppose. I set up a stone over the grave of my mother, graving runes thereon that should tell who she was and also who raised it; for I was skilled in the runic lore, having learned much from one of Einar's older men who had known my father.

Thereafter we cruised among the islands northwards until we learned that Harald was indeed upon us, and then I saw my last of Norway as we headed south again, and the last hilltop sank beneath the sea's rim astern of us. I did not know that so it would be at that time—it is well that one sees not far into things to come—but even now all my home seemed to be with Einar; and that also was not to last long, as things went. How that came about I must tell, for the end was that I came to Alfred the king.

When we came back to Kirkwall, I told the jarl all that I had done and learned; and grieved for me he was when he heard of my mother's death. Many things he said to me at that time which made him dearer to me. Then after a while he spoke of Harald, who, as it seemed, might come at any time.

"We cannot fight Norway," he said, "so we must even flit hence to the mainland and wait until Harald is tired of seeking us. It is in my mind that he seeks not so much for revenge as for payment of scatt from our islands. Now he has a reason for taking it by force. He will seek to fine us, and then make plans by which I shall hold the jarldom from him for yearly dues."

So he straightway called the Thing {ii} of all the Orkney folk, who loved him well, and put the matter before them; and they set to work and did his bidding, driving the cattle inland and scattering them, and making the town look as poor as they might.

Then in three days' time we sailed away laughing; for none but poor-looking traders were left, and no man would think that never had the Orkneys been so rich as in Einar's time. And he bade them make peace with the king when he came, and told them that so all would be well, for Harald would lay no heavy weregild on so poor a place for his son's slaying.

Southward we went to Caithness, and so westward along the Sutherland coast; for we had taken no scatt there for this year, and Einar would use this cruise to do so, seeing that we must put to sea. We were not the first who had laid these shores under rule from the Orkneys, for Jarl Sigurd had conquered them, meeting his death at last in a Sutherland firth, after victory, in a strange way.

He fought with a Scottish chief named Melbrigda of the Tusks, and slew him, and bore back his head to the ships at his saddle bow. Then the great teeth of the chief swung against the jarl's leg and wounded it, and of that he died, and so was laid in a great mound at the head of the firth where his ships lay. After that, the Orkneys were a nest of evil vikings till we came.

So it had happened that, from the time when it was made over him, Jarl Sigurd's mound had been untended, for we ourselves had never been so far south as this firth before. Indeed, it had been so laid waste by Sigurd's men after his death that there was nought to go there for. But at this time we had reason for getting into some quiet, unsought place where we should not be likely to be heard of, for the king had over-many ships and men for us to meet. So after a week's cruising we put into that firth, and anchored in the shelter of its hills.

There is no man of all our following who will forget that day, because of what happened almost as soon as the anchor held. It was very hot that morning, and what breeze had been out in the open sea was kept from us now by the hills, so that for some miles we had rowed the ships up the winding reaches of the firth; and then, as we laid in the oars and the anchorage was reached, there crept from inland a dim haze over the sun, dimming the light, and making all things look strange among the mountains. Then the sounds of the ships seemed to echo loudly over the still water and when all the bustle of anchoring was over, the stillness seemed yet greater, for the men went to their meals, and for a while spoke little.

Einar and I sat on his after deck under the awning, and spoke in low voices, as if afraid to raise our tones.

"There is a thunderstorm about," I said.

"Ay—listen," the jarl answered.

Then I heard among the hills, far up the firth beyond us, a strange sound that seemed to draw nearer, like and yet unlike thunder, roaring and jarring ever closer to us, till it was all around us and beneath us everywhere, and our very hearts seemed to stop beating in wonder.

Then of a sudden the ship was smitten from under the keel with a heavy, soundless blow, and the waters of the firth ebbed and flowed fiercely about us; and then the sound passed on and down the firth swiftly and strangely as it had come, and left us rocking on the troubled waters that plashed and broke along the rocks of the shore, while the still, thick air seemed full of the screams of the terrified eagles and sea birds that had left them.

"Odin defend us!" the jarl said; "what is this?"

I shook my head, looking at him, and wondering if my face was white and scared as his and that of every man whom I could see.

Now we waited breathless for more to come, but all was quiet again. The birds went back to their eyries, and the troubled water was still. Then presently our fears passed enough to let us speak with one another; and then there were voices enough, for every man wished to hear his own again, that courage might return.

Then a man from the Orkneys who had been with Jarl Sigurd came aft to us, and stood at the break of the deck to speak with Einar.

"Jarl," he said, almost under his breath, "it is in my mind that Sigurd, your brother, is wroth because his mound has been untended since we made it."

Then Einar said:

"Was it so ill made that it needs tending?"

"It was well made, jarl; but rain and frost and sun on a new-made mound may have wrought harm to it. Or maybe he thinks that enough honour has not been paid him. He was a great warrior, jarl, and perhaps would have more sacrifice, and a remembrance cup drunk by his own brother at his grave."

Now this man's name was Thord, the same who taught me runes—a good seaman and leader of men, and one who was held to be wise in more matters than most folk. So his word was to be listened to.

"You know more of these matters than I, Thord," Einar answered. "Is it possible that Sigurd could work this?"

"Who knows what a dead chief of might cannot work?" Thord said. "I think it certain that Sigurd is angry for some reason; and little luck shall we have if we do not appease his spirit."

Then the jarl looked troubled, as well he might, for to go near the mound that held an angry ghost was no light matter. It lay far up the firth, Thord said, and the ships could not go so far. But Einar was very brave, and when he had thought for a little while he said:

"Well, then, I will take boat and go to Sigurd's mound and see if he ails aught. Will any man come with me, however?"

I liked not the errand, as may be supposed, but I could not leave my foster father to go alone.

"I will be with you," I said. "Will not Thord come also?"

"Ay," the grim Orkney man answered.

Now all our crew were listening to us, and I looked down the long gangways by chance, and when I did so no man would meet my eye. They feared lest they should be made to go to this haunted place, as it seemed—all but one man, who sat on the mast step swinging his feet. This was Kolgrim the Tall, the captain of the fore deck, a young man and of few words, but a terrible swordsman, and knowing much of sea craft. And when this man saw that I looked at him, he nodded a little and smiled, for he had been a friend of mine since I had first come to Einar.

"Two men to row the boat will be enough, jarl," I said. "Kolgrim yonder will come with us."

"Well," the jarl answered, "maybe four of us are enough. We shall not fright Sigurd with more, and maybe would find it hard to get them to come."

So he called Kolgrim, and he said that he would go with us, and went to get the boat alongside without more words.

Then the jarl and I and Thord armed ourselves—for a warrior should be met by warriors. The men were very silent, whispering among themselves, until the jarl was ready and spoke to them.

"Have no fear for us," he said. "Doubtless my brother needs somewhat, and calls me. I am going to find out what it is and return."

So we pushed off, Thord and Kolgrim rowing. It was strange to look back, as we went, on the ships, for not a soul stirred on board them, as it seemed, so intently were we watched; and the water was like a sheet of steel under them, so that they were doubled.

Presently they were hidden as we rounded a turn in the firth, and we were alone among the hills, and the lonesomeness was very great. There was no dwelling anywhere along the shores, nor in the deep glens that came down to them, each with its noisy burn falling along it. Once I saw deer feeding far up at the head of a valley that opened out, but they and the eagles were the only living things we could see beside the loons that swam and dived silently as we neared them.

The silence and the heat weighed on us, and we went for a mile or more without a word. Then we turned into the last reach of the water, and saw Sigurd's mound beside its edge at the very head of the firth, where the hills came round in a circle that was broken only by the narrow waters and the valley that went beyond them among the mountains. It was a fitting resting place for one who would sleep in loneliness; but I thought that I had rather lie where I could look out on the sea I loved, and see the long ships pass and the white waves break beneath me.

Now all seemed very peaceful here in the hot haze that brooded over the still mountains, and there seemed to be nought to fear. We drew swiftly up to the mound, with the plash of oars only to break the silence, and there was nought amiss that we could see. They had made it on a little flat tongue of land that jutted from the mountain's foot into the deep water, so that on two sides the mound was close to its edge. So we pulled on softly round the tongue of land, being maybe about fifty paces from the mound across the water. And when we saw the other side of Sigurd's resting place, the oars stayed suddenly, and the jarl, who held the tiller, swung the boat away from the shore, and I think I knew then what fear was.

The mound was open. There was a wide, brown scar, as of freshly-moved earth, across its base, reaching from the level to six or eight feet of its height, as though half the grass-grown side had been shorn away by a sword cut; and in the midst of that scar was a doorway, open to the grave's heart, low and stone built. Some of the earth that had fallen lay before it on the water's edge, but the rest was doubtless in the water, for there was but a narrow path between bank and mound.

At that sight we stared, thinking we should surely see the grim form of Sigurd loom gigantic and troll-like {iii} across the doorway; and the jarl half rose from his seat beside me, and cried out with a great voice:

"Sigurd—my brother!"

I think he knew not what or why he cried thus, for he sank back into his place and swayed against me, while his cry rang loud among the hills, and the eagles answered it.

And I grasped my sword hilt, as one does in some sudden terror, staring at the open mound; while old Thord muttered spells against I know not what, and Kolgrim looked at me, pale and motionless.

Then came the sharp, mocking cry of a diver, that rang strangely; and at once, without order. Thord dug his oar blade into the water and swung the boat round, and when once Kolgrim's back was towards that he feared, he held water strongly and then the boat was about, and we were flying from the place towards the ships, before we knew what was being done, panic stricken.

But Einar said never a word, and the two rowers slackened their pace only when the bend of the firth hid the mound from our sight.

Then said I, finding that Einar spoke not:

"What are we flying from? there was nought to harm us."

For I began to be ashamed. Thereat Kolgrim stopped rowing, and Thord must needs do likewise, though he said:

"It is ill for us to stay here. The dead jarl is very wroth."

"I saw nought to fray us; the cry we heard was but that of a loon."

But Thord shook his head. The silence of the place had made all things seem strange, with the dull light that was over us, and the great heat among the towering hills.

"The mound was freshly opened," he said. "I saw earth crumbling even yet from the broken side. The blow we felt was that which Sigurd struck when he broke free."

Then at last Einar spoke, and his voice was strange:

"I have left my brother unhonoured, and he is angry. What must be done?"

Now I cannot tell what hardiness took hold of me, but it seemed that I must needs go back and see more of this. I was drawn to do so, as a thing they fear will make some men long to face it and know its worst, not as if they dared so much as when they must.

"I think we should have waited to ask Sigurd that," I said; and Einar looked strangely at me.

"Would you have us return?" he asked.

"Why not?" said I. "If the great jarl has called us as it seems, needs must that we know what he wills."

Then said Thord:

"I helped to lay him in that place, and I mind how he looked at that time. Somewhat we left undone, doubtless. I dare not go back."

Einar looked at the hills, leaning his chin on his hand, and said slowly, when Thord had done:

"That is the first time Thord has said 'I dare not.' Now I would that I had stayed to fight Harald and fall under his sword before. I too must say the same. I have left my brother unhonoured, and I dare not go back."

Pale and drawn the jarl's face was, and I knew he meant what he said. Nevertheless it seemed to me that some one must know what Sigurd willed.

"Jarl Einar," I said, "this is a strange business, and one cannot tell what it means. Now Sigurd was my father's close friend, and I have had nought to do with him. I will go back, therefore, and learn what I can of him. I think he will not harm me, for he has no reason to do so. Moreover if he does, none will learn what he needs."

"I have heard," said Thord, "that a good warrior may ask what he will of a dead hero, so that he shows no fear and is a friend. If his courage fails, however, then he will be surely destroyed."

Then I said:

"I have no cause to fear Sigurd, save that he is a ghost. I do not know if I fear him as such; that is to be seen."

Now Einar laid his hand on mine and spoke gravely:

"I think it is a hero's part to do what you say. If you go back and return in safety, the scalds will sing of you for many a long day. Go, therefore, boldly; this is not a matter from which you should be held back, as it has come into your mind."

Then said Thord:

"It will be well to ask Sigurd for a token whereby we may know that he sends messages by you."

And Einar said on that:

"In Sigurd's hand is his sword Helmbiter. I think he will give that to the man who dares speak to him, for he will know that it goes into brave hands. Ask him for it bravely."

"Put me ashore, therefore, before my courage goes," I said; and they pulled the boat to the bank where I could step on a rock and so to shore. And when I was there, Kolgrim rose up and followed me without a word.

"Bide here for two hours, jarl, and maybe I will return in that time," I said. "Farewell."

So I turned away as they answered me, thinking that Kolgrim held the boat's painter. But he came after me, and I spoke to him:

"Why, Kolgrim, will you come also?"

"You shall not go alone, Ranald the king's son; I will come with you as far as I dare."

"That is well," I answered, and with that wasted no more words, but climbed the hillside a little, and then went steadily towards where the mound was, with Kolgrim close at my shoulder, and the jarl and Thord looking fixedly after us till we were out of sight.



Chapter II. The Gifts of Two Heroes.

I will not say that my steps did not falter when we came to whence we could see the mound. But it was lonely and still and silent; no shape of warrior waited our coming.

"Almost do I fear to go nearer," said Kolgrim.

"Put fear away, comrade," said I; "we shall fare ill if we turn our backs now."

"Where you go I go," he answered, "though I am afraid."

"The next best thing to not being afraid is to be afraid and not to show it," I said then, comforting myself also with a show of wisdom at least. "Maybe fear is the worst thing we have to face."

So we went on more swiftly, and at last were on the tongue of land on the tip of which the mound stood. Still, since we could not see the open doorway, which was towards the water, the place seemed not so terrible. Yet I thought that by this time we should have seen Sigurd, or maybe heard his voice from the tomb. So now I dared to call softly:

"Jarl Sigurd, here is one, a friend's son, who will learn what you will."

My voice seemed to fill all the ring of mountains with echoes, but there was no answer. All was still again when the last voice came back from the hillsides.

Then I went nearer yet, and passed to the waterside, where I could look slantwise across the doorway. And again I called, and waited for an answer that did not come.

"It seems that I must go even to the door, and maybe into the mound," I said, whispering.

"Not inside," said Kolgrim, taking hold of my arm.

But I had grown bolder with the thought that the hero seemed not angry, and now I had set my heart on winning the sword of which the jarl had told me, and I thought that I dared go even inside the tomb to speak with Sigurd.

"Bide here, and I will go at least to the door," said I.

So I stepped boldly before it, standing on the heap of newly-fallen earth that had slipped from across it. The posts and lintel of the door were of stone slabs such as lay everywhere on the hillsides, and I stood so close that I could touch them. The doorway was not so high that I could see into it without stooping, for it was partly choked with the fallen earth, and I bent to look in. But I could only see for a few feet into the passage, as I looked from light to darkness.

"Ho, Jarl Sigurd! what would you? Why have you opened your door thus?"

Very hollow my voice sounded, and that was all.

"Sigurd of Orkney—Sigurd, son of Rognvald—I am the son of Vemund your friend. Speak to me!"

There was no answer. A bit of earth crumbled from the broken side of the mound and made me start, but I saw nothing. So I stepped away from the door and back to my comrade, who had edged nearer the place, though his face showed that he feared greatly.

"I think that the mound has been rifled," I said. "Sigurd would have us know it and take revenge."

"No man has dared to go near that doorway till you came, Ranald Vemundsson," Kolgrim answered. "Now I fear that he plans to lure you into the mound, and slay you there without light to help you. Go no further, maybe you will be closed up with the ghost."

That was not pleasant to think of, but I had seen nought to make me fear to go in. There was no such unearthly light shining within the mound as I had heard of in many tales of those who sought to speak with dead chiefs.

"Well, I am going in," I said stoutly; "but do you hide here, and make some noise that I may know you are near me. It is the silence that frays me.

"What can I do?" he said. "I know no runes that are of avail. It would be ill to disturb this place with idle sounds."

That seemed right, but I thought I could not bear the silence—silence of the grave. I must know that he was close at hand. Then a thought came to me, and I unfastened the silver-mounted whetstone that hung from my belt and gave it him.

"Whet your sword edge sharply," I said. "That is a sound a hero loves, for it speaks of deeds to be done."

"Ay, that is no idle sound," he said, and drew his sword gladly. The haft of the well-known blade brought the light into his eyes again. I drew my own sword also.

"If you need me, call, and I think I shall not fail you," he whispered. "It shall not be said that I failed you in peril."

"I know it," I answered, putting my hand on his shoulder.

Then I went boldly, and stepped into the passage. The whetstone sang shrill on the sword edge as it kissed the steel behind me, and the sound was good to hear as I went into darkness with my weapon ready.

I half feared that my first step would be my last, but it was made in safety. Very black seemed the low stone-walled passage before me, and I had to stoop as I went on, feeling with my left hand along the wall. The way was so narrow that little light could pass my body, and therefore it seemed to grow darker as I went deeper into the mound's heart.

Five steps I took, and then my outstretched hand was on the post that ended the passage, and beyond that I felt nothing. I had come to the inner doorway, and before me was the place where Sigurd lay. Yet no fiery eyes glared on me, and nothing stirred. The air was heavy with a scent as of peat, and the sound of the whetstone seemed loud as I stood peering into the darkness.

I moved forward, and somewhat rattled under my foot, and I started. Then my fear left me altogether, for I had trodden on dry bones, and shuddered at the first touch of them in that place. I had faced fear, and had overcome it; maybe it was desperation that made me cool then, for it was certain now that I must be slain or else victor over I knew not what.

So I took one pace forward into the chamber, and stood aside from the doorway; and the grey light from the passage came in and filled all the place, so that it fell first on him whom I had come to seek—Jarl Sigurd of Orkney.

And when I saw, a great awe fell upon me, and a sadness, but no terror; and in my heart I would that hereafter I might rest as slept the hero where the hands that had loved him had placed him.

Into the silent place came once more with me the clank of mail and weapons that he had loved, and from without the song of the keen sword edge whispered to him; but these could not wake him. Peacefully he seemed to sleep as I stood by his side, and I thought that I should take back no word of his to the jarl, his brother, whom both he and I loved.

They had brought the great carven chair on which he was wont to sit on his ship's quarterdeck, and thereon had set the jarl, as though he yet lived, and did but sleep as he sat from weariness after fight, with helm and mail upon him. Shield and axe rested on either side of him, ready to hand, against the chair; and behind him, along the wall, were his spears, ashen shafted and rune graven.

His blue, fur-trimmed cloak was round him, and before him was a little table, heavy and carved, whereon were vessels for food, empty now save for dust that showed that they had been full. And across his knees was his sword, golden hilted, with a great yellow cairngorm in the pommel, and with gold-wrought patterns from end to end of the scabbard—such a sword as I had never seen before. His right hand held the hilt, and his left rested on the shield's rim beside him; and so Sigurd slept with his head bowed on his breast, waiting for Ragnaroek and the last great fight of all.

The light seemed to grow stronger as I looked, or my eyes grew used to it, and then I saw that the narrow chamber was full of things, though I minded them afterwards, for now I was as in a dream, noting only the jarl himself. Costly stuffs were on the floor, and mail and helms and more weapons. Gold work there was also, and in one corner lay the dried-up body of a great wolf hound, coiled as in sleep where it had been chained. Another had been tied by the passage doorway, where I had stepped on it; and below a spar that stood across a corner lay a tumbled heap of feathers that had been a falcon.

Many more things there were maybe, but this I saw at last—that the jarl's right foot rested on the skull of a man whose teeth had been long and tusk-like. It was the head of the Scot whose teeth had been his death.

Now the sword drew my eyes, for Einar bade me ask for it, else I think I had gone softly hence without a word, so peaceful seemed the dead. And as I looked again, I saw that the hand holding the hilt was dry and brown and shrunken, so that one might see all the bones through the skin, and at first I was afraid to ask.

At last I said, and my mouth was dry:

"Jarl Einar, your brother, bids me ask for sword Helmbiter, great Sigurd. Let me take it, that he may know how you rest in peace."

But Sigurd stirred not nor spoke; and slowly I put out my hand on the sword to take it very gently, but his grasp was yet firm on it. Then, as I bent to see if it had tightened when I would draw the sword away, I could see beneath the helm the face of the dead, shrunken indeed and brown, but as of one at rest and beyond anger.

Once more then I took the jarl's sword in my right hand, and raised his hand with my left, putting my own weapon by against the wall. And then the hilt slipped from the half-open fingers, and the sword was mine, and my hand held the jarl's. And it seemed to me that he gave it me, and that I must thank him for such a gift. The sword though it was sheathed, was not girt to him, and its golden-studded belt was twisted about it, and it was no imperfect giving.

So I spoke in a low voice:

"Jarl Sigurd, I thank you. If my might is aught, the sword will be used as you would have used it. Surely I will say to Einar that you rest in peace, and we will come here and close your mound again in all honour."

I set back his hand then, and it seemed empty and helpless, not as a warrior's should be. So I ungirt my own weapon—a good plain sword that I had won from a viking in Caithness—and laid it in the place of that he had given me. And as I put the thin fingers on its hilt, almost thinking that they would chose around it, a ring slipped from them into my hand, as if he would give that also, and I kept it therefore.

Then for a minute I stood before Jarl Sigurd, waiting to see if he had any word; but when he spoke not, I lifted the sword and saluted him.

"Skoal to Jarl Sigurd; rest in peace, and farewell."

Then I went forth softly, and came out into sunshine; for the wind was singing round the hilltops, and the dun mist had gone. Then I was ware that the sound of the stone on the sword edge had long ceased, and I looked for Kolgrim.

He was lying on the grass in the place where I had left him, but he was on his face, and the sword and whetstone were flung aside from him. At first I feared that he had been in some way slain because of his terror; but when I came near, I saw that his shoulders heaved as if he wept. Then I stood over him, treading softly.

"Kolgrim," I said.

At that he looked up, and a great light came into his face, and he sprang to his feet and threw his arms round me, weeping, yet with a strong man's weeping that does but come from bitter grief.

"Master," he cried, "O master I thought you lost—and I dared not follow you."

"I have met with no peril," I said, "nor have I been long gone."

"More than two hours, master, have you been in that place—two long hours. See how the sun has sunk since you left me!"

So indeed it seemed, though I knew not that I had been so long. I had stayed still and gazed on that strange sight without stirring for what seemed but a little while. Yet I had thought long thoughts in that time, and I mind every single thing in that dim chamber, even to the markings on the stones that made its walls and roof and floor.

"See," I said, "Jarl Sigurd has given me the sword!"

Kolgrim gazed in wonder. There was no speck of dust on the broad blade as I drew it, and the waving lines of the dwarf-wrought steel and gold-inlaid runes were clear and bright along its middle for half its length. For the mound was very dry, and they had covered all the chamber with peat before piling the earth over it.

"Let us go back to Jarl Einar; he will fear for us," I said, sheathing the sword and girding it to me.

So we went across the meadow, and even as we went a blast of cold wind came from, over the mountains, and with it whirled the black thunderclouds of the storm that had been gathering all day. We ran to an overhanging rock on the hillside and crept beneath it, while the thunder crashed and the lightning struck from side to side of the firth, and smote the wind-swept water that was white with foam.

"Master," said Kolgrim, "the Jarl Sigurd is wroth; he repents the sword gift."

But I did not think that he had aught to do with this. For, as any hill-bred man could tell, the storm had been brewing in the heat, and was bound to come, and would pass to and fro among the hills till it was worn out.

Nevertheless, when it passed away in pouring rain that swept like a hanging sheet of moving mist down the glens from the half-hidden mountains, and the sun shone out brightly again over the clear-cut purple hillsides and rippling water, I looked at the mound in wonder. For it was closed. We had sought shelter in a place near that whence we saw the mound in coming, and could see the fallen side, though not the doorway, looking across its front. And now the slope of the bank seemed to have been made afresh, as on the day when Sigurd had been closed in, years ago. None could say, save those who had seen it, where the opening into the grave-chamber might be.

Now both the opening and closing of Sigurd's grave mound seem very strange to me. Thord and the scalds will have it that he himself wrought both. As for me, I know not. In after days I told this to Alfred the king when he wondered at my sword, and he said that he thought an earthquake opened and washing rain closed the mound, but that it happened strangely for me. I cannot gainsay his wise words, and I will leave the matter so.

Thereafter Kolgrim and I went back to Einar, who yet waited for us. Glad was he to see us return in safety; but both he and Thord were speechless when they saw the jarl's sword girt to me and the jarl's golden ring on my hand. Neither they nor any one else will believe that I met with no peril; and the tale that the scalds made hereafter of the matter is over wonderful, in spite of all I may say. For they think it but right that I should not be over boastful of my deeds.

But Jarl Einar looked on sword and ring, and said:

"Well have you won these gifts. My brother is in peace in his resting place now. I hold that he called for you."

So we went back to the ships, and there for many days the men stared at Kolgrim and me strangely. They say I was very silent for long, and it is likely enough. Moreover, Einar was wont to say that I seemed five years older from that day forward.

We went no more to the place of the mound, for it seemed to need no care of earthly hands. Nor were any wishing to go to so awesome a place, and we left the firth next day, for the men waxed uneasy there.

But on that day Einar gave me the great ship that we had taken from Halfdan, the king's son, saying that he would add to Sigurd's giving. Also he bade me choose what men I would for her crew, bidding me thank him not at all, for I was his foster son, and a king by birth moreover.

So when I knew that this would please him, I chose Thord for my shipmaster, and Kolgrim for marshal, as we call the one who has charge of the ordering of the crew. And I chose a hundred good men whom I knew well, so that indeed I had the best ship and following in Norway, as I thought. At least there were none better, unless Harald Fairhair might match me.

Now there was one thing that pleased me not at this time, and that was that Kolgrim, my comrade, never called me aught but "master" since I came from Sigurd's presence—which is not the wont of our free Norsemen with any man. Nor would he change it, though I was angry, until I grew used to it in time.

"Call me not 'master,' Kolgrim, my comrade," I said; "it is unfittinq for you."

At last he answered me in such wise that I knew it was of no more use to speak of it.

"Master of mine you are, Ranald the king, since the day when you dared more than I thought man might, while I lay like a beaten hound outside, and dared not go within that place to see what had become of you. Little comradeship was mine to you on that day, and I am minded to make amends if I can. I think I may dare aught against living men for you, though I failed at that mound. I will give life for you, if I may."

I told him that what he had done was well done, and indeed he had had courage to go where none else had dared; for I had ties of friendship that made me bold to meet Jarl Sigurd, and might go therefore where he might not. It was well that he did not come into the presence of the dead.

"Therefore we are comrades, not master and man," I said.

"Nay, but master and man—lord and thrall," he answered.

So I must let him have his way, but he could not make me think of him as aught but a good and brave comrade whom I loved well.

They hailed me as king when I went on board my ship for the first time with my own men, as I have said. Then our best weapon smith asked for gold from the men, and they gave what they had—it was in plenty with us of Einar's following—and made a golden circlet round my helm, that they might see it and follow it in battle.

It was good to wear the crown thus given willingly, but in the end it sent me from north to south, as will be seen. That, however, is a matter with which I will not quarrel, for it sent me to Alfred the king.

We had left the firth two days, cruising slowly northward, when one ship came from the north and met us, not flying from our fleet, but bearing up to join us. And when she was close, there came a hail to tell Einar that she bore a messenger from Harald the king in peace, and presently we hove to while this messenger went on board the Jarl's ship.

Then it seemed that Einar had been right, and that Harald would lay a fine on the islands for Halfdan's slaying, and so give them back to Einar to hold for him. The messenger was Thiodolf, Harald's own scald, and he put the matter very plainly before the jarl, so that he thought well of the offer, but would nevertheless not trust himself in the king's power before all was certain, and confirmed by oath. Whereon Thiodolf said that one must see the king on the Jarl's part, and so I seemed the right man to go, as the jarl's foster son and next in command to him.

"Nevertheless," said Thiodolf, "I would not advise you to sail in Halfdan's ship, for that might wake angry thoughts, and trouble would come especially as Halfdan took her without leave when he was outlawed."

So I took the Jarl's cutter, manning her with enough men of my own crew; and Kolgrim came with me, and we sailed to Kirkwall in company with Thiodolf the scald.

Then when Thiodolf took me into his presence, I saw Harald Fairhair for the first time, as he sat to receive Einar's messenger in the great hall that Sigurd had built and which we had dwelt in. Then I thought that never before could have been one more like a king. Hereafter, when sagamen will sing of a king in some fancied story, they will surely make him like King Harald of Norway. I myself have little skill to say what he was like beyond this—that never had I seen a more handsome man, nor bigger, nor stronger. King-like he was in all ways, and his face was bright and pleasant, though it was plain that it would be terrible if he was angry, or with the light of battle upon it.

The hair, whence he had his name, was golden bright and shining, and beard and eyebrows were of the same colour. But his eyes were neither grey nor blue altogether, most piercing, seeming to look straight into a man's heart, so that none dared lie to him.

I think that it is saying much for King Harald that, though his arms and dress were wonderfully rich and splendid, one cared only to look on his face; and that though many men of worth were on the high place with him, there seemed to be none but he present.

When the scald told the king who I was, and what was my errand, with all ceremony, he looked fixedly at me, so that I was ashamed, and grew red under his gaze. Then he smiled pleasantly, and spoke to me. His voice was as I thought to hear it—clear and steady, and yet deep.

"So, Ranald Vemundsson, you are worthy of your father. It may be that you bear me ill will on his account, but I would have you forget the deeds done that Norway might be one, and the happier therefor."

"Had my father been slain in fair fight, lord king," I said, "no ill will had been thought of. It has not been in my mind that you bade Rognvald slay him as he did. And that Jarl is dead, and the feud is done with therefore. Jarl Einar is my foster father, moreover."

"That is well said," answered Harald. "But I thought Sigurd must have fostered you; he was ever a close friend of Vemund's."

I did not know why the king thought this, though the reason was at my side; so I only said that my mother had given me to Einar's keeping, and the king said no more at that time about it.

After that I gave the Jarl's messages, and the king heard them well enough, though it seemed to Einar that the weregild to be paid was over heavy, and he had bidden me tell Harald that it was so. Therefore the king said that he would give me an answer on the morrow, and I went away into the town well pleased with his kindly way with me.

There was a feast made for me that night, and after it I must sit still and hear the scalds sing of the deeds of Harald the king, which was well enough. But then Thiodolf rose up and sang a great saga about the winning of Sigurd's sword, wherein it seemed that I had fought the dead jarl, and bale fires, and I know not what. He had heard strange tales from Einar's men, if they told him all that he sang.

Some men may be pleased to hear their own deeds sung of, with more added thus; but I was not used to it, and the turning of all eyes to me made me uncomfortable. But Harald had paid no sort of heed to what they sang of him, and so I tried to look at my ease, and gave the scald a bracelet when he ended.

"Overmuch make you of that matter, scald," said I quietly.

He laughed a little, and answered:

"One has to fill in what a warrior will not tell of himself."

Now the men shouted when I gave Thiodolf the bracelet, and Harald looked quickly at me. Then I thought that maybe I had overdone the gift, though Einar had ever told me that a good scald deserved good reward, and Thiodolf was well known as the best in Norway. It was a heavy ring, silver gilt, and of good design, that I took from the same viking whose sword I gave to Sigurd.

"Overpaid am I," the scald said, putting it on his arm.

"You are the first who has ever sung of me," I answered; "and the voice and tune were wonderful, if the saga was too strong for me."

Then Harald smiled again, and praised Thiodolf also, and I thought no more of the matter. The feast was pleasant enough in the hall, full of Harald's best men and chiefs, though it seemed strange to sit as a guest in Einar's house.

Now on the next morning I was to speak with the king about Einar's business, and I went to him unarmed, as was right, save for helm and Sigurd's sword. He was in the jarl's own chamber, and with him were Thiodolf and a young scald named Harek, who sat with things for writing before him, which was what I had never seen before.

We talked for some time, and all went well for peace; but one more message was to go and come between the king and Einar, and so I said I would sail at once.

"Not so much need for haste but that you can bide here for a day or two," Harald said. "I will not have you complain of my hospitality hereafter. And Thiodolf and Harek here want to learn more about Sigurd's sword and its winning."

"If I tell them the truth, I shall spoil their saga, lord king!" I said, laughing.

"Trust the scalds to mind you do not," he answered. "There are times when I have to ask them which of my own doings they are singing about now. But is there no wonder in the tale?"

So I told him just how the matter was. And when he heard of the noise, and the stroke with which the ships were smitten, he said, looking troubled, as I thought:

"Sigurd is stronger now that he is dead than when he lived. We felt that stroke even here."

But when I told how I had seen the dead jarl, his face grew thoughtful, and at last he said:

"So shall I lie some day in a grave mound. It is passing strange to think on. I would that if one comes to my side he may step gently as you, Ranald Vemundsson."

"Else will that comer fare ill," said Thiodolf.

The king glanced up at him, and his face changed, and he said, smiling grimly:

"Maybe. I think none will win my sword from me."

Then he had Kolgrim sent for, and Thord, and they told him truly what they had seen, and how they had fared in the matter.

"You are a truth teller, Kolgrim the Tall," Harald said. "Now if you will leave Einar's service and come and be of my courtmen, I will speak to the jarl and make matters right with him, and it shall be worth your while."

Then my comrade answered plainly:

"I am no jarl's man now, King Harald; I belong to King Ranald here, and I will not leave him."

"So," said Harald, knitting his brows suddenly, "we have two kings in the room, as it seems; and you dare choose another instead of me."

"Not so, King Harald," Kolgrim answered, with all respect; "I chose between the jarl and my king. If there is peace between you and the jarl, I suppose we are all your men."

Now Harald's face was growing black, and I could see that his anger was rising. But he stayed what words he was about to speak, and only said:

"Jarl Einar is well served when he has a king in his train."

Then he rose up and turned to Thiodolf, who was looking anxious.

"Bid King Ranald to the feast tonight. He knows my words to Einar his foster father, and I have no more to say."

So I was dismissed, and was not sorry to be outside the hall.

"Let us get down to the ship," said Thord. "Here is trouble brewing, as I think."

So we went on board, and I wished that we might go. Yet the king had bidden me stay, and I had no reason for what would be discourteous at least, if it did not look like flight. What the trouble was we could hardly understand.

In an hour's time or so I saw Thiodolf and the young scald Harek coming along the wharf and towards our ship, which lay clear of Harald's vessels, and next the harbour mouth. They came over the gang plank, and I welcomed them, but I saw that they had somewhat special to say to me.

They sat down under the after awning with me, and at once Thiodolf said:

"That was an unlucky speech of your comrade's just now. No man dares name himself king in Harald's presence—not even his own sons. It is the one thing that he will not bear."

"So it seemed," said I; "and, in truth, he had enough trouble with under kings not long since. But he knows what a sea king is—no king at all, so to speak. He need not grudge the old title."

"That is not all," Thiodolf said. "It is in his mind that he has to guard yet against risings of men of the old families of the kings, and thinks you are likely to give him trouble. Maybe the portent of the blow that spread from Sigurd's tomb to us has seemed much to him. 'Here,' he says, 'is one who will gather masterless men to him in crowds because he wears Sigurd's sword and ring, and has gained with them the name of a hero. Already he has two of Einar's best men at his heels. Yet I like him well enough, and I have no fault to find with him, save that he puts a gold circle round his helm and is called king—as he would have been but for me. Go to him, therefore, and tell him to keep out of my way. I will not have two kings in Norway.'"

"Well," I said, "that is plain speaking. But I cannot help what the men call me. The king makes overmuch of the business. I am not foolish enough to try to overturn Harald Fairhair."

"Maybe," said Thiodolf, "but those are his words. I rede you get away quickly on the next tide."

"Ay," said Harek. "Harald is mild of mood now, because you made no secret of what men call you. Five years ago you would not have escaped hence at all."

"Then," said I, "I will go. I think you are right. Vemund's son troubles Harald;" and I laughed, and added, "I have to thank you for kindly counsel, scalds, as I think. Farewell. Tide serves at any time now, and I will get my men and be gone."

"That is wise," they answered. "Einar must find some other messenger, if he comes not himself, after you return."

They went, and I called two or three men and sent them into the town for their comrades who were at friends' houses and in the guest house where we were lodged, while Kolgrim made ready for instant sailing.

The next thing that I was ware of was that there was a fight on the wharf end next the town, and men were running to it. Then I heard my own name shouted on one part, and that of Eric, the king's young son, on the other. So I was going to lead down twenty men to quiet the scuffle, when my people had the best of the matter, and broke through the throng, cheering, and came on to me. The rest did not follow them, for they saw that I was coming, and the wharf was clear behind them but for three of their foes who stayed where they had fallen.

Then another man broke away from the crowd, and came running after my folk. It was Harek the scald, with his head broken.

"Here are fine doings," said Kolgrim, as the men swarmed on board. "What is on hand now?"

"It is not done with yet," said a man: "look at yon ship."

Then came Harek, out of breath, and pale.

"Let me on board, King Ranald, or I am a dead man," he cried.

"Come, then!" I answered; and he ran across the plank, and Kolgrim pulled it in after him. All my men were come.

Then I looked at the ship spoken of. Men were swarming into her, and were making ready to sail. But if she meant to stay our going, she was too far up the harbour, and we were already casting off the shore ropes.

"Hold on," said Thord; "here come the other scald and two men."

The crowd that was yet round the fallen men had parted to let Thiodolf pass, and he came quickly. One of the men bore a chest, and the other a bale of somewhat. They gave these over the gunwale to my people, and Thiodolf spoke to me from the wharf.

"These are gifts from Harald to Einar's foster son," he said. "He bids me say that you have done your errand well, and that this is to prove it. Also he says that Ranald, son of Vemund, may need mail to keep his kingship withal, and so he has sent you a suit."

"That is a hard saying," I answered; "is it insult?"

"Nay, but a broad hint only. The gift is most goodly."

"Well," said I, "it is plain that he will warn me from Norway. I will leave you, good friend, to say for me what should be said. Maybe if I sent a message it would go wrongly from my lips."

Thiodolf laughed, and bade me farewell. He paid no heed to Harek, who sat on the deck with his back to him.

Then Kolgrim whistled shrill to his men, and we began to move down to the harbour mouth. I heard a sharp voice hurrying the men in the other ship; but they could not be ready in time to catch us.

When we were well out to sea, I asked Harek what all this was about.

"Your going has spoiled a plan that Eric, the king's son, had made. He wanted your sword, and thought also that to rid himself now of Vemund's son might save him trouble when the crown came to him, as it will. You were to be set on as you came from the feast tonight to the guest quarters, as if in a common broil between your men and his. Then he found you were going, and tried to stay your men, and next to take these gifts from Thiodolf and me, being very angry, even to trying to cut me down. Lucky for me that his sword turned in his hand. But he would have had me slain tonight, certainly, for he says that it was our fault that you are getting away. He fears Thiodolf, however. Now I must take service with you, if you will have me."

It seemed to me that I was making friends with one hand and enemies with the other, and that last rather more quickly than was well. So I laughed, and answered:

"I suppose that if I have a scald of my own, King Harald will blame me for overmuch kingship. However, he is angry enough already, and maybe a good friend will balance that to me. So if you will indeed cast in your lot with me, I am glad!"

So I took his hand, and more than friends have he and I been from that day forward.

Now, when I looked at Harald's strangely-given gifts, I had reason to say that he was open handed. The chest held two mail shirts, one of steel rings, gold ornamented and fastened, and the other of scales on deerskin, both fit for a king. There were two helms also, one to match either byrnie {iv}, and a seax that was fit to hang with Sigurd's sword. As for the bale, that held furs of the best, and blue cloth and scarlet. If Harald banished me, it was for no ill will; and it was handsomely done, as though he would fit me out for the viking's path in all honour, that men might not deem me outlawed for wrongdoing. So I have no ill word to say against him. Five years later he would have troubled about me and my kingship not at all; now he must be careful, for his power was not at its full.

As for young Eric, I suppose that he boasted ever after that he had put me to flight; but I do not know that it matters if he did.

So I came back to Durness, where I was to meet with Einar; and peace was made between him and the king, and he thought it well to go and speak with him. Then he and I must part, and that was hard.

"Now must you go your own way, son Ranald, for Harald is too strong for us. Maybe that is best for you, for here shall I bide in peace in Orkney; and that is not a life for a king's son—to sit at a jarl's table in idleness, or fight petty fights for scatt withholden and the like. Better for you the wide seas and the lands where you may make a name, and maybe a kingdom, for yourself. Yet I shall miss you sorely."

So he said, and I knew that he was right. Maybe the spirit of the sword I had won got hold of me, as they say will happen; for I had waxed restless of late, and I had tried to keep it from Einar. Now I hated myself for it, seeing at hand what I had longed for.

So he went north to meet Harald, and of our parting I will not say more. I could not then tell that I should not see him again, and that was well: but I know that when I saw the last flicker of his sails against the sky, I felt more lonely even than at the graveside in Southmere.

Yet I was in no worse case than were many nobly-born men at that time; for whosoever would not bow to Harald and his new laws must leave Norway, and her bravest were seeking new homes everywhere. Some had gone to far-off Iceland, and some to East Anglia; some to the Greek emperor, or Gardariki, and more yet to Ireland. But the greatest viking of all, Rolf, the son of Rognvald, Einar's young brother, had gone to France or England, with a mighty following; for Harald had outlawed him among the first who broke his law by plundering on the Norway coasts. A good law it was, but it was new, and so went against the grain at first. Rolf had sworn to make a new kingdom for himself, and why should not I do the same?

So when I was in the open sea again, with all the world before me, as the long sea-miles passed I grew lighthearted, and many were the thoughts of great deeds to come that filled my mind.



Chapter III. Odda, the Ealdorman of Devon.

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.

"Ho, men," I said, when I saw that, "get to arms; for here they come to speak with us. Maybe we shall have to fight—and these are no easy nuts to crack!"

Whereat the men laughed; and straightway there was the pleasant hustle and talk of those who donned mail shirt and helm and set the throwing weapons to hand with all good will.

"Let us keep on our course," I said to Kolgrim. "We will see if we cannot weather on these ships, and anyway shall fight them better apart from the rest. It is a fine breeze for a sailing match."

So we held on; and the two great ships to windward of us began to gain on us slowly, which was a thing that had never been done by any ship before. I do not know that even Harald Fairhair had any swifter ship than this that Halfdan had taken in his flight from home. Kolgrim waxed very wroth when it became plain that these could outsail us.

"There is witchcraft about those great hulks," he growled. "They are neither Norse, nor Frisian, nor Danish, but better than all three put together."

"I have sailed in ships, and talked of ships, and dreamed of them moreover, since I could stand alone," said Thord, "but I never so much as thought of the like of these. If they belong to some new kind of viking, there are hard times in store for some of us."

"Faith," said I, "I believe they have swept up and made prizes of all that medley astern of them."

So we held on for half an hour, and all that time they gained steadily on us; and we neared them quickly at last, for we tried to hold across their bows and weather on them. That was no good, for they were as weatherly as we.

Now we could see that their decks were covered with armed men, and it seemed certain that they meant to make prize of us. The leading ship was maybe half a mile ahead of the other, and that a mile from us—all three close-hauled as we strove to gain a weather berth. Then the leading ship put her helm up and stood across our course, and the second followed her.

"We must out oars now if we are to weather on them," said Kolgrim at last.

Then the men shouted; and I looked at the second ship, to which they were pointing. Her great sail was overboard, for the halliards had gone—chafed through maybe, or snapped with the strain as she paid off quickly. Then a new hope came to me.

"Men," I said, "let us take the other vessel, and then come back on this; they are worth winning."

They cheered. And now the fight seemed to be even—ship to ship at least, if our foe was larger and higher and swifter than ours; for I thought that he would hardly have a crew like mine.

We up helm and stood away on the new course the foe had taken, leaving the crippled ship astern very fast. And now we began to edge up towards the other vessel, meaning to go about under her stern, and so shoot to windward of her on the other tack. But then I thought of a plan which might help us in the fighting. There had seemed little order and much shouting on board the ship we had left when her sail fell, and maybe there was the same want of discipline here.

"Out oars, men! Keep them swinging, but put no weight on them. Let them pull after us and tire themselves. I have a mind to see how our dragon looks on yonder high stem head."

The men laughed grimly, and the oars were run out. One called to me:

"Maybe they beat us in sailing, king; we can teach them somewhat in weapon play."

"See how they get their oars out," said Kolgrim, with a sour grin; "a set of lubbers they are."

One by one, and in no order, the long oars were being got to work. The great ship was half as long again as ours, pulling twenty-eight oars a side to our twenty. But while ours rose and fell as if worked by one man, theirs were pulled anyhow, as one might say.

"Better are they at sailing than rowing," said Thord.

Nevertheless they flew down on us, and that because we only made a show of rowing.

Then we laid on the oars, and came head to wind. The sail rattled down, and was stowed on deck; and silently we waited, arrows on string, for the fight that was now close at hand.

Then the great ship hove up, head to wind, right ahead of us, and a loud hail came from her.

"Who knows what tongue he talks?" I said. "I cannot make him out rightly."

"'Tis West Saxon," said an old warrior from the waist. "He asks who we are and what is our business."

"Tell him therefore, if you can speak in his way," I answered; "and ask the same of him."

So a hail or two went backwards and forwards, and then:

"Says he is Odda, jarl or somewhat of Devon in Wessex, and bids us yield to Alfred the king."

"In truth," said I, "if he had not spoken of yielding, I had had more to say to a king who can build ships like these. Now we will speak with him on his own deck. Tell him he will have to fight us first."

The old warrior sent a mighty curt hail back in answer to Odda's summons; then our war horns blew, and the oars rose and fell, and we were grinding our bows alongside the great ship's quarter before they knew we were there. Alfred's men had yet somewhat to learn of fighting in a sea way, as it seemed, for we were on their deck aft before they had risen from their oar benches. There were but one or two men on the quarter deck, besides the steersman, to oppose us. Odda thought we should lay our ship alongside his towering sides if we fought, as I suppose, for he was amidships.

So we swept the decks from aft forward without any hurt to ourselves: for the Saxons were hampered with the oars, and fell backward over them, and hindered one another. It was strange to hear my men laughing in what seemed most terrible slaughter; for their foes fell before they were smitten, and lay helpless under the oars, while their comrades fell over them.

So we won to the foot of the mast, and then found that there were some on board who were none so helpless: for as we came they swung the great yard athwart ships, and that stayed us; while over the heap of canvas glared those who would make it hard for us to win the ship altogether.

But before we came to stern fighting, I had a word to say; so I called for Odda.

A square built, brown-bearded man with a red, angry face pushed his way to the front of his men, and frowned at me.

"What will you? here am I," he said shortly.

One could understand his words well enough when face to face, for he spoke in the mixed tongue that any Northman understands, the plain words of which all our kin have in common.

"I am no foe of Alfred's," I said; "I do not know, therefore, why I should fight you."

"Are you not for the Danes?" he said.

"I hate them more or less, and I have no traffic with them."

"Well, then, what will you?"

"You bade me yield, and therefore I am here. Now I think it is a matter to be seen whether of us does so."

"It seems that you have slain about half my men," he said. "Nevertheless, I do not give up without fighting for the rest of my ship that you have not won."

"That is well said," I answered.

But the men were laughing, for Kolgrim had stooped, and, reaching under an oar bench, had dragged out a rower by the neck. The man swore and struggled; but Kolgrim hove him up, and lifted him over the yard to Odda's feet.

"They are all like that, Saxon," he said cheerfully. "Maybe there is a head or two broken; 'tis mostly what we call seasickness, however."

Odda looked at the man, who seemed wretched enough, but had no hurt; then he stared at our laughing faces, and his own brow began to clear.

"It comes into my mind," he said, "that maybe you would listen to me if I owned first that you have the best of us, and then asked you to fight for Alfred of Wessex. We need the help of such men as you just now; and if you hate Danes, we have work enough for you."

"One may certainly listen to that," I answered, laughing.

"What say you, men? Shall we cast in our lot with Alfred for a while?"

"We follow you, Ranald the king," Kolgrim answered for all. "If it seems good to you, it is good for us. There will be fighting enough, I trow, if all we have heard is true."

Then said Odda:

"And that before long. There is a Danish fleet in Poole Harbour that is to bring Danes from Wareham to the help of those whom Alfred holds in Exeter. We have to meet this fleet and scatter it."

"Then," said old Thord, "your men must be better handled, for Danes are no new swordsmen or seamen either."

Now the men stood listening to our talk, and this sort of saying was not good for them to hear, if they were to meet the foe soon with a good hope of victory. So Odda said quickly:

"If you will indeed fight for us, you must trust to Alfred to give you fitting reward. I do not know what I might say about that, having thought of no such chance as this. But there is no man who can complain of him."

I had heard that the king was ever open handed, but also that at this time he had little to give. Maybe, however, we might help him to riches again. I had the men to think of, but I will say for myself that I had not thought of asking what reward or pay should be given.

I sheathed my sword, and held out my hand to Odda across the yard that was between us; and he grasped it honestly, while the men on either side cheered.

"Stay here and speak with me," Odda said. "Now we must get back to the fleet."

Then went back to our ship, all but Thord and half a dozen warriors, whom he kept as guard for me, I suppose; and the grappling lines were cast off. Then we made sail again, and headed to rejoin the rest of the Saxon vessels. Odda's crippled ship had repaired her damage at this time, and went with us. But first it was plain that she thought we had taken her consort, for she prepared to fight us, and Odda had to hail her once or twice before she was sure of what had happened. Then her crew cheered also.

Now Odda took me aft, and we sat together on his quarter deck. Thord came also, and leaned on the rail beside us, looking with much disfavour at the crew, who were plainly landsmen at sea for the first time, if they were stout fighting men enough. Maybe there were ten seamen among the hundred and fifty, but these had handled the ship well under canvas, as we knew.

"You have come in good time, King Ranald," Odda said. "You see what state we are in; can you better it for us?"

"Many things I can see that need strengthening," I answered. "But you seem to take me into your counsels over soon, seeing that I have just fallen on you sword in hand."

"Why," said Odda frankly, "it is just your way of speaking to me sword in hand that makes me sure that I can trust you. I cannot deny that you had this ship at your mercy, and that the other would have been yours next; and you knew it, and yet spoke me fair. So it is plain that you mean well by us."

"Ay," said I, "but for your bidding me to yield, there would have been no fighting at all, when I knew to whom the ships belonged."

"You have put a thought in my mind, and I am glad you did board us, seeing there is no harm done," Odda answered. "I will tell you what it is. Send me some of your men to order my people and tell them how to prepare for battle. Here am I sent to sea for the first time, with good warriors enough who are in like case, and a few seamen who can sail the ship and know nought else."

"You have some Norsemen yonder, if I mistake not," I said, looking at the fleet which we were nearing.

"Ay—wandering vikings who care nought for what I say. They were going to Rolf, and the king persuaded them to take this cruise first. If you can make them follow you, there will be another matter for which I shall be more than thankful."

Thereat Thord growled: "They will follow Ranald Vemundsson well enough; have no care about that."

Then said I:

"These are the finest ships I have ever seen. Where did they come from?"

"Alfred, our king, planned them," said Odda, with much pride; "and they were built by our own men, working under Frisian shipwrights, in Plymouth."

"How will you like to command one of these, Thord?" I asked then.

"I like the ship well enough. The crew is bad. And then, whose command is the fleet under?"

"Take the ship, Thord, and lick my crew into shape; and Ranald, your king, shall command the fleet," Odda said plainly.

"Fair and softly," said Thord bluntly. "I can do the two things you ask me; but will your men follow Ranald?"

"Faith," said Odda, "if I say they are to do so, they must."

So in the end I left Thord and my seamen with Odda; but I would not take his place, only saying that I would lead the Norsemen, and that he could follow our plans. I would put more good men into each of his five ships, and they should do what they could. At least they could teach the Saxons how to board a ship, and how to man their own sides against boarders from a foe.

Those Norsemen said they would gladly follow the son of King Vemund and foster son of Einar the jarl; and so we led the strange fleet, and held on eastward with a light breeze all that day, making little way when the tide turned, and held back by the slower vessels. Men in plenty there were, but ill fitted for aught but hand fighting; though I had more Norsemen sent into the larger ships, such as those that had been taken from the Danes and the better trading vessels. One might soon see the difference in the trim and order on board as the vikings got to work and the Saxons overcame their sickness.

Now we might meet the Danes at any time, and I could not tell how matters would go. One thing was certain, however, and that was that they looked for no gathering of ships by Alfred. We should certainly take them by surprise, and I hoped, therefore, that they would be in no trim for fighting.

There was a very swift cutter belonging to the Norsemen, and as night fell I sent her on to keep watch along the shore for the first coming of the Danes, while we shortened sail; for the mouth of Poole Harbour was not far distant, and if we passed that we should be seen, and perhaps it would be guessed that we were not a friendly fleet. Towards evening, too, the wind shifted, and blew more off the shore, and that might bring them out from their haven. Kolgrim, who was weather wise, said that a shift of wind to the southward was coming presently.

When morning came, the high cliffs of Swanage were on our bow, the wind was yet steady from off shore, and beyond the headland lay Poole Harbour, at whose head is Wareham, where the Danes were. It is a great sea inlet with a narrow mouth, and one must have water enough on a rising tide to enter it. Now the ebb was running, and if the Danes came this morning, it would be soon.

They came, as it seemed, for the cutter was flying back to us under sail and oars; and before she reached us, the first Danish ships were clear of the Swanage headlands, making for the offing. Then I got my ships into line abreast, and Thord worked up Odda's five alongside us to seaward; and all the while the Danish sails hove into sight in no sort of order, and seeming so sure that none but friends could be afloat that they paid no heed to us.

Soon there were full a hundred vessels of all sorts off Swanage point, and the cutter brought word that there were but twenty more. Then I ran up my fighting flag, and everywhere along our line rose a great cheering as we hoisted sail and sped down on the foe. It was long since the seas had borne a fleet whence the Saxon war cry rang.

The leading Danes were ahead of us as we gathered way, and their long line straggled right athwart our course. We should strike their midmost ships; and at last they saw what was coming, and heard the din of war horns and men's voices that came down wind to them, and there were confusion and clamour on their decks, and voices seemed to call for order that did not come.

Then one or two longships from among them struck sail and cleared for action, and on these swooped Alfred's great ships. Odda's crashed upon and sank the first she met, and plunged and shook herself free from the wreck, and sought another. And beyond her the same was being wrought; and cheers and cries were strangely mixed where those high bows went forward unfaltering.

Now a ship crowded with men was before me. As we boarded, her crew were yet half armed, and struggling to reach the weapon chests through the press, even while our dragon head was splintering the gunwale; and I leaped on board her, with my men after me and Harek beside me.

Then sword Helmbiter was let loose for the first time since Sigurd wielded her; and though a great and terrible cry came from over the water as one of Alfred's ships sank another Dane, I could look no more, for there was stern fighting before me.

What a sword that was! Hardly could my arm feel the weight of it as it swung in perfect balance, and yet I knew the weight it had as it fell. Helm and mail seemed as nought before the keen edge, and the shields flew in twain as it touched them.

Forward I went, and aft went Harek the scald, and there was soon an end. The Danes went overboard, swimming or sinking, as their fate might be, and only the slain bided before us. The ship was ours, and I looked round to see what should be next. No other ship had come to help our prey.

Then I saw a wonderful sight. Panic terror had fallen on the Danes, and not one ship of all that great fleet was not flying down the wind without thought of fighting. Among them went our vessels, great and small, each doing her work well; and the Saxon shouts were full of victory.

So we must after them, and once more we boarded a longship, and had the victory; and then we were off the haven mouth, and with the flood tide the wind was coming up in gusts from the southeast that seemed to bode angry weather. By that time no two Danish ships were in company, and the tide was setting them out to sea.

"Here is a gale coming," said Kolgrim, looking at the sky and the whitening wave crests. "We had best get our ships into this haven while we can."

It seemed that Thord was of the same mind, for now he was heading homeward, and the other Saxons were putting about and following him. So I got men into the best of the ships we had taken, and waited till Thord in Odda's ship led the way, and so followed into Poole Harbour.

Well it was for us that we had refuge so handy. For by noonday the gale was blowing from the southwest, and two Danish ships were wrecked in trying to gain the harbour—preferring to yield to us rather than face the sea, with a lee shore, rocky and hopeless, waiting for them.

We went into the Poole inlet, which is on the eastern side of the wide waters of the haven, and there found good berths enough. The village was empty, save for a few Saxon fishermen, who hailed us joyfully. And then Odda made for us as good a feast as he might in the best house that was there, bidding every shipmaster to it. Merry enough were all, though we had but ship fare; for the Saxons had great hopes from this victory.

Now Odda made much of what I had done—though it was little enough—saying that I and my men deserved well of Alfred, and that he hoped that we should stay with him for this winter, which would perhaps see the end of the war.

"Why," said I, "things would have been much the same if I had not been here."

"That they would not," he answered. "I should have blundered past this place in the night, and so lost the Danes altogether; or if I had not done that, they would soon have found out what state my men were in. You should have heard old Thord rate them into order; it is in my mind that he even called me—Odda the ealdorman—hard names in his broad Norse tongue. But at least he gave us somewhat more to think of than the sickness that comes of heaving planks that will by no means keep steady for a moment."

He laughed heartily at himself, and then added:

"Good King Alfred thought not at all of that matter. Now I can shift the whole credit of this victory to your shoulders, and then he will not believe that I am the born sea captain that he would have me think myself."

"I will not have that," I said, "for I have not deserved it."

"Ay; but, I pray you, let me put it from myself, else shall I be sent to sea again without any one to look to for advice," he said earnestly, and half laughing at the same time. "I did but take command of this fleet because the king could find no one else at a pinch. Heaven defend me from such a charge again!"

"Now you have only the Exeter Danes to deal with," I said.

"How many men might these ships have held?" he asked.

"Maybe five thousand," I answered.

Thereat his face changed, and he rose up from his seat at the high table, and said that he would go down to see that the ships were safe, for the gale was blowing heavily as the night fell.

So we went outside the house, and called a man, telling him to find one of the Poole fishermen and bring him to speak to us.

"There were twelve thousand Danes in Wareham," he said, "for more have come lately. I thought they would all have been in the ships."

"If that had been possible, not one would have seen the morning's light," I answered, "for their ships are lost in this gale certainly."

Now I will say that I was right. The wrecks strewed the shore of Dorset and Hants next morning; and if any men won to land, there waited for them the fishers and churls, who hated them. No Danish fleet was left in the channel after that gale was spent.

When the fisher came, he told us that as many more Danes were left in Wareham, and that those from Poole had fled thither when they saw what had happened to the fleet.

"Shall you march on Wareham and scatter them, or will they fall on us here?" I asked; for we had no more than two thousand men at most.

"I would that I knew what they thought of this business," he answered; "but I shall not move tonight. It is far by land, and I suppose we could not get the ships up in the dark."

So he posted pickets along the road to Wareham, and we went back to the house for a while. And presently, as it grew dark, a wild thought came into my mind. I would go to Wareham with a guide, and see what I could find out of the Danish plans. Maybe there were fewer men than was thought, or they might be panic-stricken at our coming in this wise; or, again, they might march on us, and if so, we should have to get to sea again, to escape from double our numbers.

Now the more I thought of this, the more I grew bent on going, for I was sure that we must know what was going on. And at last I took Odda aside while Harek sang among the men, and told him what I would do.

At first he was against my running the risk; but I told him that a Norseman might go safely where a Saxon could not among the Danes, and at last I persuaded him. Then I called Kolgrim, and we went out together into the moonlight and the wind, to find the fisherman we had spoken with already and get him to act as guide. I think that Odda did not expect to see either of us again; and when I came to know more of Saxons, I learned that he trusted me most fully, for many thanes would have thought it likely that I went on some treacherous errand.



Chapter IV. Jarl Osmund's Daughter.

To my mind, no gale seems so wild as one that comes at the time of full moon, when the clouds break up and fly in great masses of black and silver against the deeper sky beyond, while bright light and deepest shadow chase each other across land and sea beneath them. Kolgrim and I stood under the lee of a shed, waiting for the fisher to get his boat afloat, and looked out on bending trees and whitened water, while beyond the harbour we could see the great downs, clear cut and dark, almost as well as by day, so bright it was.

It was low water now, which was good for us, for the winding channels that lead up to Wareham were sheltered under their bare banks. We could hear the thunder of the surf along the rocky coast outside, when the wind ceased its howling for a moment; and at high water the haven had been well nigh too stormy for a small boat. Now we should do best to go by water, for wind was with us; though, unless the gale dropped very quickly, we could not return in her, for there would be a heavy sea and tide against us if we could get away before it turned, while if we were long wind against tide would be worse yet.

The fisherman was eager to help us against the Danes, who had made him work for nought; and so in half an hour we were flying up the haven on the first rise of tide, and the lights of Wareham town grew plainer every moment. From the number of twinkling sparks that flitted here and there, it would seem that many folk were waking, even if some movement were not on hand.

Presently we turned into the channel that bends to the southwest from the more open water, and the town was before us. The fisher took to his oars now, lowering the scrap of sail that had been enough to drive us very swiftly before the gale so far.

Wareham stands on the tongue of land between two rivers' mouths, and the tide was setting us into the northward of these. That was the river one would have to cross in coming to or from Poole, and maybe we should learn as much there as anywhere.

There were three ships on the mud, but even in the moonlight it was plain that they were not seaworthy. There were wide gaps in their bulwarks, which none had tried to mend, and the stem head of one was gone.

"These ships were hurt in the storm of lest week," the fisher said, as we drifted past them; "there was hardly one that came in unhurt. But the Danes were eager to go, and mended them as they could."

Perhaps that was partly the reason why we gained so easy a victory, I thought at the time, and afterwards knew that I was right. They had suffered very much, while we lay across channel in safety.

There loomed before us the timbers of a strong bridge that had been over the north river, when we were fairly in it and under the nearer houses of the town. But now it was broken down, and the gap in its middle was too wide for hasty repair.

"When was this done?" I asked the fisherman.

"Since yesterday," he answered.

Now this seemed to me to indicate that the Danes meant to guard against attack by land from Poole; also that they overrated our numbers, which was probable in any case, seeing that a fleet had fled from before us.

There were wharves on the seaward side of the bridge, but none were beyond; and the houses stood back from the water, so that there was a sort of open green between it and them. There were no people about, but we could hear shouts from the town now and then.

"Let us go ashore and speak with some one," I said; "it is of no use our biding here on the water."

Kolgrim and I were fully armed, and had boat cloaks with us which covered us well, and we thought none would question who we were if we mixed among the men in some inn or other gathering place. So we bade the fisher wait for us, and found the stairs, and went to the wide green along the waterside, and across it to the houses, which were mostly poor enough here.

Many of them stood open, and in one a fire burned on the hearth, but all were empty. So we turned into a street that led seemingly from one bridge to the other across the town. Here men were going hither and thither with torches, and groups were outside some of the houses. To the nearest of these I went, as if I had all right to be in the place.

They were bringing goods out of the house, and loading a cart with them.

"Here is a flitting," said Kolgrim, "and another or two are on hand yonder."

I stayed a man who came past me from out of a house.

"I have fled from Poole," I said. "What is in the wind here? Are we to leave Wareham also?"

"If you come from Poole, you should know that it is time we did so," he answered shortly. "I suppose you saw the whole business."

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