THE THRALL OF LEIF THE LUCKY
A Story of Viking Days
By Ottilie A. Liljencrantz
CHAPTER I Where Wolves Thrive Better than Lambs
CHAPTER II The Maid in the Silver Helmet
CHAPTER III A Gallant Outlaw
CHAPTER IV In a Viking Lair
CHAPTER V The Ire of a Shield-Maiden
CHAPTER VI The Song of Smiting Steel
CHAPTER VII The King's Guardsman
CHAPTER VIII Leif the Cross-Bearer
CHAPTER IX Before the Chieftain
CHAPTER X The Royal Blood of Alfred
CHAPTER XI The Passing of the Scar
CHAPTER XII Through Bars of Ice
CHAPTER XIII Eric the Red in His Domain
CHAPTER XIV For the Sake of the Cross
CHAPTER XV A Wolf-Pack in Leash
CHAPTER XVI A Courtier of the King
CHAPTER XVII The Wooing of Helga
CHAPTER XVIII The Witch's Den
CHAPTER XIX Tales of the Unknown West
CHAPTER XX Alwin's Bane
CHAPTER XXI The Heart of a Shield-Maiden
CHAPTER XXII In the Shadow of the Sword
CHAPTER XXIII A Familiar Blade in a Strange Sheath
CHAPTER XXIV For Dear Love's Sake
CHAPTER XXV "Where Never Man Stood Before"
CHAPTER XXVI Vinland the Good
CHAPTER XXVII Mightier than the Sword
CHAPTER XXVIII "Things that are Fated"
CHAPTER XXIX The Battle to the Strong
CHAPTER XXX From Over the Sea
THE Anglo-Saxon race was in its boyhood in the days when the Vikings lived. Youth's fresh fires burned in men's blood; the unchastened turbulence of youth prompted their crimes, and their good deeds were inspired by the purity and whole-heartedness and divine simplicity of youth. For every heroic vice, the Vikings laid upon the opposite scale an heroic virtue. If they plundered and robbed, as most men did in the times when Might made Right, yet the heaven-sent instinct of hospitality was as the marrow of their bones. No beggar went from their doors without alms; no traveller asked in vain for shelter; no guest but was welcomed with holiday cheer and sped on his way with a gift. As cunningly false as they were to their foes, just so superbly true were they to their friends. The man who took his enemy's last blood-drop with relentless hate, gave his own blood with an equally unsparing hand if in so doing he might aid the cause of some sworn brother. Above all, they were a race of conquerors, whose knee bent only to its proved superior. Not to the man who was king-born merely, did their allegiance go, but to the man who showed himself their leader in courage and their master in skill. And so it was with their choice of a religion, when at last the death-day of Odin dawned. Not to the God who forgives, nor to the God who suffered, did they give their faith; but they made their vows to the God who makes men strong, the God who is the never-dying and all-powerful Lord of those who follow Him.
The Thrall of Leif the Lucky
WHERE WOLVES THRIVE BETTER THAN LAMBS
Vices and virtues The sons of mortals bear In their breasts mingled; No one is so good That no failing attends him, Nor so bad as to be good for nothing. Ha'vama'l (High Song of Odin).
It was back in the tenth century, when the mighty fair-haired warriors of Norway and Sweden and Denmark, whom the people of Southern Europe called the Northmen, were becoming known and dreaded throughout the world. Iceland and Greenland had been colonized by their dauntless enterprise. Greece and Africa had not proved distant enough to escape their ravages. The descendants of the Viking Rollo ruled in France as Dukes of Normandy; and Saxon England, misguided by Ethelred the Unready and harassed by Danish pirates, was slipping swiftly and surely under Northern rule. It was the time when the priests of France added to their litany this petition: "From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us, good Lord."
The old, old Norwegian city of Trondhjem, which lies on Trondhjem Fiord, girt by the river Nid, was then King Olaf Trygvasson's new city of Nidaros, and though hardly more than a trading station, a hamlet without streets, it was humming with prosperity and jubilant life. The shore was fringed with ships whose gilded dragon-heads and purple-and-yellow hulls and azure-and-scarlet sails were reflected in the waves until it seemed as if rainbows had been melted in them. Hillside and river-bank bloomed with the gay tents of chieftains who had come from all over the North to visit the powerful Norwegian king. Traders had scattered booths of tempting wares over the plain, so that it looked like fair-time. The broad roads between the estates that clustered around the royal residence were thronged with clanking horsemen, with richly dressed traders followed by covered carts of precious merchandise, with beautiful fair-haired women riding on gilded chair-like saddles, with monks and slaves, with white-bearded lawmen and pompous landowners.
Along one of those roads that crossed the city from the west, a Danish warrior came riding, one keen May morning, with a young English captive tied to his saddle-bow.
The Northman was a great, hulking, wild-maned, brute-faced fellow, capped by an iron helmet and wrapped in a mantle of coarse gray, from whose folds the handle of a battle-axe looked out suggestively; but the boy was of the handsomest Saxon type. Though barely seventeen, he was man-grown, and lithe and well-shaped; and he carried himself nobly, despite his clumsy garments of white wool. His gold-brown hair had been clipped close as a mark of slavery, and there were fetters on his limbs; but chains could not restrain the glance of his proud gray eyes, which flashed defiance with every look.
Crossing the city northward, they came where a trading-booth stood on its outskirts—an odd looking place of neatly built log walls tented over with gay striped linen. Beyond, the plain rose in gentle hills, which were overlooked in their turn by pine-clad snow-capped mountains. On one side, the river hurried along in surging rapids; on the other, one could see the broad elbow of the fiord glittering in the sun. At the sight of the booth, the Saxon scowled darkly, while the Dane gave a grunt of relief. Drawing rein before the door, the warrior dismounted and pulled down his captive.
It was a scene of barbaric splendor that the gay roof covered. The walls displayed exquisitely wrought weapons, and rare fabrics interwoven with gleaming gold and silver threads. Piles of rich furs were heaped in the corners, amid a medley of gilded drinking-horns and bronze vessels and graceful silver urns. Across the back of the booth stretched a benchful of sullen-looking creatures war-captives to be sold as slaves, native thralls, and two Northmen enslaved for debt. In the centre of the floor, seated upon one of his massive steel-bound chests, gorgeous in velvet and golden chains, the trader presided over his sales like a prince on his throne.
The Dane saluted him with a surly nod, and he answered with such smooth words as the thrifty old Norse proverbs advise every man to practise.
"Greeting, Gorm Arnorsson! Here is great industry, if already this Spring you have gone on a Viking voyage and gotten yourself so good a piece of property! How came you by him?"
Gorm gave his "property" a rough push forward, and his harsh voice came out of his bull-thick neck like a bellow. "I got him in England last Summer. We ravaged his father's castle, I and twenty ship-mates, and slew all his kinsmen. He comes of good blood; I am told for certain that he is a jarl's son. And I swear he is sound in wind and limb. How much will you pay me for him, Karl Grimsson?"
The owner of the booth stroked his long white beard and eyed the captive critically. It seemed to him that he had never seen a king's son with a haughtier air. The boy wore his fetters as though they had been bracelets from the hands of Ethelred.
"Is it because you value him so highly that you keep him in chains?" he asked.
"In that I will not deceive you," said the Dane, after a moment's hesitation. "Though he is sound in wind and limb, he is not sound in temper. Shortly after I got him, I sold him to Gilli the Wealthy for a herd-boy; but because it was not to his mind on the dairy-farm, he lost half his herd and let wolves prey on the rest, and when the headman would have flogged him for it, he slew him. He has the temper of a black elf."
"He does not look to be a cooing dove," the trader assented. "But how came it that he was not slain for this? I have heard that Gilli is a fretful man."
The Dane snorted. "More than anything else he is greedy for property, and his wife Bertha advised him not to lose the price he had paid. It is my belief that she has a liking for the cub; she was an English captive before the Wealthy One married her. He followed her advice, as was to be expected, and saddled me with the whelp when I passed through the district yesterday. I should have sent him to Thor myself," he added with a suggestive swing of his axe, "but that silver is useful to me also. I go to join my shipmates in Wisby. And I am in haste, Karl Grimsson. Take him, and let me have what you think fair."
It seemed as if the trader would never finish the meditative caressing of his beard, but at last he arose and called for his scales. The Dane took the little heap of silver rings weighed out to him, and strode out of the tent. At the same time, he passed out of the English boy's life. What a pity that the result of their short acquaintance could not have disappeared with him!
The trader surveyed his new possession, standing straight and slim before him. "What are you called?" he demanded. "And whence come you? And of what kin?"
"I am called Alwin," answered the thrall; "and I come from Northumbria." He hesitated, and the blood mounted to his face. "But I will not tell you my father's name," he finished proudly, "that you may shame him in shaming me."
The trader's patience was a little chafed. Peaceful merchants were also men of war between times in those days.
Suddenly he unsheathed the sword that hung at his side, and laid its point against the thrall's breast.
"I ask you again of what kin you come. If you do not answer now, it is unlikely that you will be alive to answer a third question."
Perhaps young Alwin's bronzed cheeks lost a little of their color, but his lip curled scornfully. So they stood, minute after minute, the sharp point pricking through the cloth until the boy felt it against his skin.
Gradually the trader's face relaxed into a grim smile. "You are a young wolf," he said at last, sheathing his weapon; "yet go and sit with the others. It may be that wolves thrive better than lambs in the North."
THE MAID IN THE SILVER HELMET
In a maiden's words No one should place faith, Nor in what a woman says; For on a turning wheel Have their hearts been formed, And guile in their breasts been laid. Ha'vama'l
Day after day, week after week, Alwin sat waiting to see where the next turn of misfortune's wheel would land him. Interesting people visited the booth continually. Now it was a party of royal guardsmen to buy weapons,—splendid mail-clad giants who ate at King Olaf's board, slept a his hall, and fought to the death at his side. Again it was a minstrel, with a harp at his back, who stopped to rest and exchange a song for a horn of mead. Once the Queen herself, riding in a shining gilded wagon, came in and bought some of the graceful spiral bracelets. She said that Alwin's eyes were as bright as a young serpent's; but she did not buy him.
The doorway framed an ever changing picture,—budding birch trees along the river-bank; men ploughing in the valley; shepherds tending flocks that looked like dots of cotton wool on the green hillsides. Sometimes bands of gay folk from the King's house rode by to the hunt, spurs jingling, horns braying, falcons at their wrists. Sometimes brawny followers of the visiting chiefs swaggered past in groups, and the boy could hear their shouting and laughter as they held drinking-bouts in the hostelry near by. Occasionally their rough voices would grow rougher, and an arrow would fly past the door; or there would be a clash of weapons, followed by a groan.
One day, as Alwin sat looking out, his chin resting in his hand, his elbow on his knee, his attention was caught by two riders winding swiftly down a hill-path on the right. At first, one was only a blur of gray and the other a flame of scarlet; they disappeared behind a grove of aspens, then reappeared nearer, and he could make out a white beard on the gray figure and a veil of golden hair above the scarlet kirtle. What hair for a boy, even the noblest born! It was the custom of all free men to wear their locks uncut; but this golden mantle! Yet could it be a girl? Did a girl ever wear a helmet like a silver bowl, and a kirtle that stopped at the knee? If it was a girl, she must be one of those shield-maidens of whom the minstrels sang. Alwin watched the pair curiously as they galloped down the last slope and turned into the lane beside the river. They must pass the booth, and then...
His brain whirled, and he stood up in his intense interest. Something had startled the white steed that bore the scarlet kirtle; he swerved aside and rose on his haunches with a suddenness that nearly unseated his rider; then he took the bronze bit between his teeth and leaped forward. Whitebeard and his bay mare were left behind. The yellow hair streamed out like a banner; nearer, and Alwin could see that it was indeed a girl. She wound her hands in the reins and kept her seat like a centaur. But suddenly something gave way. Over she went, sidewise; and by the wrist, tangled in the reins, the horse dragged her over the stony road.
Forgetting his manacled limbs, Alwin started forward; but it was all over in an instant. One of the trader's servants flew at the animal's head and stopped him, almost at the door of the booth. In another moment a crowd gathered around the fallen girl and shut her from his view. Alwin gazed at the shifting backs with a dreadful vision of golden hair torn and splashed with blood. She must be dead, for she had not once screamed. His head was still ringing with the shrieks of his mother's waiting-women, as the Danes bore them out of the burning castle.
Whitebeard came galloping up, puffing and panting. He was a puny little German, with a face as small and withered as a winter apple, but a body swaddled in fur-trimmed tunics until it seemed as fat as a polar bear's. He rolled off his horse; the crowd parted before him. Then the English youth experienced another shock.
Bruised and muddy, but neither dead nor fainting, the girl stood examining her wrist with the utmost calmness. Though her face was white and drawn with pain, she looked up at the old man with a little twisted smile.
"It is nothing, Tyrker," she said quickly; "only the girth broke, and it appears that my wrist is out of joint. We will go in here, and you shall set it."
Tyrker blinked at her for a moment with an expression of mingled affection and wonder; then he drew a deep breath. "Donnerwetter, but you are a true shield-maiden!" he said in a wavering treble.
The trader received them with true Norse hospitality; and Alwin watched in speechless amazement while the old man ripped up the scarlet sleeve and wrenched the dislocated bones into position, without a murmur from the patient. Despite her strange dress and general dishevelment, he could see now that she was a beautiful girl, a year or two younger than himself. Her face was as delicately pink-and-pearly as a sea-shell, and corn-flowers among the wheat were no bluer than the eyes that looked out from under her rippling golden tresses.
When the wrist was set and bandaged, the trader presented them with a silken scarf to make into a sling, and had them served with horns of sparkling mead. This gave a turn to the affair that proved of special interest to Alwin. There is an old Norse proverb which prescribes "Lie for lie, laughter for laughter, gift for gift;" so, while he accepted these favors, Tyrker began to look around for some way to repay them.
His gaze wandered over fabrics and furs and weapons, till it finally fell upon the slaves' bench. "Donnerwetter!" he said, setting down his horn. "To my mind it has just come that Leif a cook-boy is desirous of, now that Hord is drowned."
The girl saw his purpose, and nodded quickly. "It is unlikely that you can make a better bargain anywhere."
She turned to examine the slaves, and her eyes immediately encountered Alwin's. She did not blush; she looked him up and down critically, as if he were a piece of armor, or a horse. It was he who flushed, with sudden shame and anger, as he realized that in the eyes of this beautiful Norse maiden he was merely an animal put up for sale.
"Yonder is a handsome thrall," she said; "he looks as though his strength were such that he could stand something."
"True it is that he cannot a lame wolf be who with the pack from Greenland is to run," Tyrker assented. "That it was, which to Hord was a hindrance. For sport only, Egil Olafson under the water took him down and held him there; and because to get away he was not strong enough, he was drowned. But to me it seems that this one would bite. How dear would this thrall be?"
"You would have to pay for him three marks of silver," said the trader. "He is an English thrall, very strong and well-shaped." He came over to where Alwin sat, and stood him up and turned him round and bent his limbs, Alwin submitting as a caged tiger submits to the lash, and with much the same look about his mouth.
Tyrker caught the look, and sat for a long while blinking doubtfully at him. But he was a shrewd old fellow, and at last he drew his money-bag from his girdle and handed it to the trader to be weighed. While this was being done, he bade one of the servants strike off the boy's fetters.
The trader paused, scales in hand, to remonstrate. "It is my advice that you keep them on until you sail. I will not conceal it from you that he has an unruly disposition. You will be lacking both your man and your money."
The old man smiled quietly. "Ach, my friend," he said, "can you not better read a face? Well is it to be able to read runes, but better yet it is to know what the Lord has written in men's eyes." He signed to the servant to go on, and in a moment the chains fell clattering on the ground.
Alwin looked at him in amazement; then suddenly he realized what a kind old face it was, for all its shrewdness and puny ugliness. The scowl fell from him like another chain.
"I give you thanks," he said.
The wrinkled, tremulous old hand touched his shoulder with a kindly pressure. "Good is it that we understand each other. Nun! Come. First shall you go and Helga's horse lead, since it may be that with her one hand she cannot manage him. Why do you in your face so red grow?"
Alwin grew still redder; but he could not tell the good old man that he would rather follow a herd of unbroken steers all day, than walk one mile before a beautiful young Amazon who looked at him as if he were a dog. He mumbled something indistinctly, and hastened out after the horses.
Helga rose stiffly from the pile of furs; it was evident that every new motion revealed a new bruise to her, but she set her white teeth and held her chin high in the air. When she had taken leave of the trader, she walked out without a limp and vaulted into her saddle unaided. The sunlight, glancing from her silver helm, fell upon her floating hair and turned it into a golden glory that hid rents and stains, and redeemed even the kirtle, which stopped at the knee.
As he helped the old man to mount, Alwin gazed at her with unwilling admiration. Perhaps some day he would show her that he was not so utterly contemptible as...
She made him an imperious gesture; he stalked haughtily forward, he took his place at her bridle rein, and the three set forth.
A GALLANT OUTLAW
Two are adversaries; The tongue is the bane of the head; Under every cloak I expect a hand. Ha'vama'l
For a while the road of the little party ran beside the brawling Nid, whose shores were astir with activity and life. Here was a school of splashing swimmers; there, a fleet of fishing-smacks; a provision-ship loading for a cruise as consort to one of the great war vessels. They passed King Olaf's ship-sheds, where fine new boats were building, and one brilliantly-painted cruiser stood on the rollers all ready for the launching. Along the opposite bank lay the camps of visiting Vikings, with their long ships'-boats floating before them.
The road bent to the right, and wound along between the high fences that shut in the old farm-like manors. Ail the houses had their gable-ends faced to the front, like soldiers at drill, and little more than their tarred roofs showed among the trees. Most of the commons between the estates were enlivened by groups of gaily-ornamented booths. Many of them were traders' stalls; but in one, over the heads of the laughing crowd, Alwin caught a glimpse of an acrobat and a clumsy dancing bear; while in another, a minstrel sang plaintive love ballads to a throng that listened as breathlessly as leaves for a wind. The wild sweet harp-music floated out and went with them far across the plain.
The road swerved still farther to the right, entering a wood of spicy evergreens and silver-stemmed birches. In its green depths song-birds held high carnival, and an occasional rabbit went scudding from hillock to covert. From the south a road ran up and crossed theirs, on its way to the fiord.
As they reached this cross-road, a horseman passed down it at a gallop. He only glanced toward them; and all Alwin had time to see was that he was young and richly dressed. But Helga started up with a cry.
"Sigurd! Tyrker, it was Sigurd!"
Slowly drawing rein, the old man blinked at her in bewilderment. "Sigurd? Where? What Sigurd?"
"Our Sigurd—Leif's foster-son! Oh, ride after him! Shout!" She stretched her white throat in calling, but the wind was against her.
"That is now impossible that Jarl Harald's son it should be," Tyrker said soothingly. "On a Viking voyage he is absent. Besides, out of breath it puts me fast to ride. Some one else have you mistaken. Three years it has been since you have seen—"
"Then I will go myself!" She snatched the reins from Alwin, but Tyrker caught her arm.
"Certain it is that you would be injured. If you insist, the thrall shall go. He looks as though he would run well."
"But what message?" Alwin began.
Helga tried to stamp in her stirrups. "Will you stand there and talk? Go!"
They were fast runners in those days, by all accounts. It is said that there were men in Ireland and the North so swift-footed that no horse could overtake them. In ten minutes Alwin stood at the horseman's side, red, dripping, and furious.
The stranger was a gallant young cavalier, with floating yellow locks and a fine high-bred face. His velvet cloak was lined with ermine, his silk tunic seamed with gold; he had gold embroidery on his gloves, silver spurs to his heels, and a golden chain around his neck. Alwin glared up at him, and hated him for his splendor, and hated him for his long silken hair.
The rider looked down in surprise at the panting thrall with the shaven head.
"What is your errand with me?" he asked.
It was not easy to explain, but Alwin framed it curtly: "If you are Sigurd Haraldsson, a maiden named Helga is desirous that you should turn back."
"I am Sigurd Haraldsson," the youth assented, "but I know no maiden in Norway named Helga."
It occurred to Alwin that this Helga might belong to "the pack from Greenland," but he kept a surly silence.
"What is the rest of her name?"
"If there is more, I have not heard it."
"Where does she live?"
"The devil knows!"
"Are you her father's thrall?"
"It is my bad luck to be the captive of some Norse robber."
The straight brows of the young noble slanted into a frown. Alwin met it with a black scowl. Suddenly, while they faced each other, glowering, an arrow sped out of the thicket a little way down the road, and whizzed between them. A second shaft just grazed Alwin's head; a third carried away a tress of Sigurd's fair hair. Instantly after, a man crashed out of the underbrush and came running toward them, throwing down a bow and drawing a sword as he ran.
Forgetting that no weapon hung there now, Alwin's hand flew to his side. Young Haraldsson, catching only the gesture, stayed him peremptorily.
"Stand back,—they were aimed at me! It is my quarrel." He threw himself from his saddle, and his blade flashed forth like a sunbeam.
Evidently there was no need of explanations between the two. The instant they met, that instant their swords crossed; and from the first clash, the blades darted back and forth and up and down like governed lightnings. Alwin threw a quieting arm around the neck of the startled horse, and settled himself to watch.
Before many minutes, he forgot that he had been on the point of quarrelling with Sigurd Haraldsson. Anything more deft or graceful than the swiftness and ease with which the young noble handled his weapon he had never imagined. Admiration crowded out every other feeling.
"I hope that he will win!" he muttered presently. "By St. George, I hope that he will win!" and his soothing pats on the horse's neck became frantic slaps in his excitement.
The archer was not a bad fighter, and just now he was a desperate fighter. Round and round went the two. A dozen times they shifted their ground; a dozen times they changed their modes of attack and defence. At last, Sigurd's weapon itself began to change from one hand to the other. Without abating a particle of his swiftness, in the hottest of the fray he made a feint with his left. Before the other could recover from parrying it, the weapon leaped back to his right, darted like a hissing snake at the opening, and pierced the archer's shoulder.
He fell, snarling, and lay with Sigurd's point pricking his throat and Sigurd's foot pressing his breast.
"I think you understand now that you will not stand over my scalp," young Haraldsson said sternly. "Now you have got what you deserved. You managed to get me banished, and you shot three arrows at me to kill me; and all because of what? Because in last fall's games I shot better than you! It was in my mind that if ever I caught you I would drive a knife through you."
He kicked him contemptuously as he took his foot away.
"Sneaking son of a wolf," he finished, "I despise myself that I cannot find it in my heart to do it, now that you are at my mercy; but I have not been wont to do such things, and you are not worth beginning on. Crawl on your miserable way."
While the archer staggered off, clutching his shoulder, Sigurd came back to his horse, wiping his sword composedly. "It was obliging of you to stay and hold High-flyer," he said, as he mounted. "If he had been frightened away, I should have been greatly hindered, for I have many miles before me."
That brought them suddenly back to their first topic; but now Alwin handled it with perfect courtesy.
"Let me urge you again to turn back with me. It is not easy for me to answer your questions, for this morning is the first time I have seen the maiden; but she is awaiting you at the cross-roads with the old man she calls Tyrker, and—"
"Tyrker!" cried Sigurd Haraldsson. "Leif's foster-father had that name. It is not possible that it is my little foster-sister from Greenland!"
"I have heard them mention Greenland, and also the name of Leif," Alwin assured him.
Sigurd smote his knee a resounding thwack. "Strangest of wonders is the time at which this news comes! Here have I just been asking for Leif in the guardroom of the King's house; and because they told me he was away on the King's business, I was minded to ride straight out of the city. Catch hold of the strap on my saddle-girth, and we will hurry."
He wheeled Highflyer and spurred him forward. Alwin would not make use of the strap, but kept his place at the horse's shoulder without much difficulty. Only the pace did not leave him breath for questions, and he wished to ask a number.
It was not long, however, before most of his questions were asked and answered for him. Rounding a curve, they came face to face with the riders, who had evidently tired of waiting at the cross-roads. Tyrker, peering anxiously ahead, uttered an exclamation of relief at the sight of Alwin, whom he had evidently given up as a runaway. Helga welcomed Sigurd in a delighted cry.
The young Northman greeted her with frank affection, and saluted Tyrker almost as fondly.
"This meeting gladdens me more than tongue can tell. I do not see how it was that I did not recognize you as I passed. And yet those garments, Helga! By St. Michael, you look well-fitted to be the Brynhild we used to hear about!"
Helga's fair face flushed, and Alwin smiled inwardly. He was curious to know what the young Viking would do if the young Amazon boxed his ears, as he thought likely. But it seemed that Helga was only ungentle toward those whom she considered beneath her friendliness. While she motioned Alwin with an imperious gesture to hand her the rein she had dropped, she responded good-naturedly to Sigurd: "Nay, now, my comrade, you will not be mean enough to scold about my short kirtle, when it was you who taught me to do the things that make a short kirtle necessary! Have you forgotten how you used to steal me away from my embroidery to hunt with you?"
"By no means," Sigurd laughed. "Nor how Thorhild scolded when we came back! I would give a ring to know what she would say if she were here now. It is my belief that you would get a slap, for all your warlike array."
Helga's spur made her horse prance and rear defiantly. "Thorhild is not here, nor do I expect that she will ever rule over me again. She struck me once too often, and I ran away to Leif. For two years now I have lived almost like the shield-maidens we were wont to talk of. Oh, Sigurd, I have been so happy!" She threw back her head and lifted her beautiful face up to the sunlit sky and the fresh wind. "So free and so happy!"
Alwin thrilled with sudden sympathy. He understood then that it was not boldness, nor mere waywardness, that made her what she was. It was the Norse blood crying out for adventure and open air and freedom. It did not seem strange to him, as he thought of it. It occurred to him, all at once, as a stranger thing that all maidens did not feel so,—that there were any who would be kept at spinning, like prisoners fettered in trailing gowns.
Tyrker nodded in answer to Sigurd's look of amazement. "The truth it is which the child speaks. Over winters, stays she at the King's house with one of the Queen's women, who is a friend of Leif; and during the summer, voyages she makes with me. But to me it appears that of her we have spoken enough. Tell to us how it comes that you are in Norway, and—whoa! Steady!—Wh—o—a!"
"And tell us also that you will ride on to the camp with us now," Helga put in, as Tyrker was obliged to transfer his attention to his restless horse. "Rolf Erlingsson and Egil Olafsson, whom you knew in Greenland, are there, and all the crew of the 'Sea-Deer'."
"The 'Sea-Deer'!" ejaculated Sigurd. "Surely Leif has got rid of his ship, now that he is in King Olaf's guard."
The backing and sidling and prancing of Tyrker's horse forced him to leave this also to Helga.
"Certainly he has not got rid of his ship. When he does not follow King Olaf to battle with her, Tyrker takes her on trading voyages, and she lies over-winter in the King's ship-shed. There are forty of the crew, counting me,—there is no need for you to smile, I can take the helm and stand a watch as well as any. Can I not, Tyrker?"
The old man relaxed his vigilance long enough to nod assent; whereupon his horse took instant advantage of the slackened rein to bolt off homeward, despite all the swaying and sawing of the rider.
That set the whole party in motion once more.
"You will come with me to camp, Sigurd my comrade?" Helga urged. "It is but a little way, on the bank across the river. Come, if only for a short time."
Sigurd gathered up his rein with a smile and a sigh together. "I will give you a favorable answer to that. It seems that you have not heard of the mishap that has befallen me. The lawman has banished me from the district."
It pleased Alwin to hear that he was likely to see more of the young Norseman. Helga was filled with amazement. On the verge of starting, she stopped her horse to stare at him.
"It must be that you are jesting," she said at last. "You, who are the most amiable person in the world,—it is not possible that you can have broken the law!"
Sigurd laughed ruefully. "In my district I am not spoken of as amiable, just now. Yet there is little need to take it heavily, my foster-sister. I have done nothing that is dishonorable,—should I dare to come before Leif's face if I had? It will blow over in time to come."
Helga leaned from her saddle to press his hand in a friendly grasp. "You have come to the right place, for nowhere in the world could you be more welcome. Only wait and see how Rolf and Egil will receive you!"
She gave the thrall a curt shake of her head, as he stepped to her bridle-rein; and they rode off.
As Helga had said, the camp was not far away. Once across the river, they turned to the left and wound along the rolling woody banks toward the fiord. Entering a thicket of hazel-bushes on the crest of the gentle slope, they were met by faint sounds of shouting and laughter. Emerging into a green little valley, the camp lay before them.
Half a dozen wooden booths tented over with gay striped linen and adorned with streaming flags, a leaping fire, a pile of slain deer, a string of grazing horses, and a throng of brawny men skinning the deer, chasing the horses, scouring armor, drinking, wrestling, and lounging,—these were Alwin's first confused impressions.
"There it is!" cried Helga. "Saw you ever a prettier spot? There is Tyrker under that ash tree. And there,—do you remember that black mane? Yonder, bending over that shield? That is Egil Olafsson. Now it comes to my mind again! To-night we go to a feast at the King's house; that is why he is so busy. And yonder! Yonder is Rolf wrestling. He is the strongest man in Greenland; did you know that? Even Valbrand cannot stand against him. Whistle now as you were wont to for the hawks, and see if they will not remember."
They swept down the slope, the high sweet notes rising clear above the clatter. One man glanced up in surprise, then another and another; then suddenly every man dropped what he was doing, and leaped up with shouts of greeting and welcome. Sigurd disappeared behind a hedge of yellow heads and waving hands.
Alwin felt himself clutched eagerly. "Donnerwetter, but I have waited a long time for you!" said the old German, short-breathed and panting. "That beast was like the insides of me to have out-shaken. Bring to me a horn of ale; but first give me your shoulder to yonder booth."
IN A VIKING LAIR
Leaving in the field his arms, Let no man go A fool's length forward: For it is hard to know When, on his way, A man may need his weapon. Ha'vama'l
The camp lay red in the sunset light, and the twilight hush had fallen upon it so that one could hear the sleepy bird-calls in the woods around, and the drowsy murmur of the river. Sigurd lay on his back under a tree, staring up into the rustling greenery. From the booth set apart for her, Helga came out dressed for the feast. She had replaced her scarlet kirtle and hose by garments of azure-blue silk, and changed her silver helmet for a golden diadem such as high-born maidens wore on state occasions; but that was her only ornament, and her skirt was no longer than before. Sigurd looked at her critically.
"It does not appear to me that you are very well dressed for a feast," said he. "Where are the bracelets and gold laces suitable to your rank? It looks ill for Leif's generosity, if that is the finest kirtle you own."
"That is unfairly spoken," Helga answered quickly. "He would dress me in gold if I wished it; it is I who will not have it so. Have you forgotten my hatred against clothes so fine that one must be careful of them? But this was to be expected," she added, flushing with displeasure; "since the Jarl's son has lived in Normandy, a maiden from a Greenland farm must needs look mean to him."
She was turning away, but he leaped up and caught her by her shoulders and shook her good-naturedly. "Now are you as womanish as your bondmaid. You know that all the gold on all the women in Normandy is not so beautiful as one lock of this hair of yours."
At least Helga was womanish enough to smile at this. "Now I understand why it is that men call you Sigurd Silver-Tongue," she laughed. Suddenly she was all earnestness again. "Nay, but, Sigurd, tell me this,—I do not care how you scold about my dress,—tell me that you do not despise me for it, or for being unlike other maidens."
Sigurd's grasp slipped from her shoulders down to her hands, and shook them warmly. "Despise you, Helga my sister? Despise you for being the bravest comrade and the truest friend a man ever had?"
She grew rosy red with pleasure. "If that is your feeling, I am well content."
She took a step toward the place where her horse was tethered, and looked back regretfully. "It seems inhospitable to leave you like this. Will you not come with us, after all?"
Sigurd threw himself down again with an emphatic gesture of refusal. "I like better to be left so than to be left in a mound with my head cut off, which is what would happen were an outlaw to visit the King uninvited."
"I shall not deny that that would be disagreeable," Helga assented. "But do not let your mishap stand in the way of your joy. Leif has great favor with King Olaf; there is no doubt in my mind that he will be able to plead successfully for you."
"I hope so, with all my heart," Sigurd murmured. "When all brave men are fighting abroad or serving the King at home, it is great shame for me to be idling here." And he sighed heavily as Helga passed out of hearing.
As she went by the largest of the booths, which was the sleeping-house of the steersman Valbrand and more than half the crew, Alwin came out of the door and stood looking listlessly about. He had spent the afternoon scouring helmets amid a babble of directions and fault-finding, accented by blows. Helga did not see him; but he gazed after her, wondering idly what sort of a mistress she was to the young bond-girl who was running after her with the cloak she had forgotten,—wondering also what there was in the girl's brown braids that reminded him of his mother's little Saxon waiting-maid Editha.
The sound of a deep-drawn breath made him turn, to find himself face to face with a young mail-clad Viking, in whose shaggy black locks he recognized the Egil Olafsson whom Helga had that morning 'pointed out. But it was not the surprise of the meeting that made Alwin leap suddenly backward into the shelter of the doorway; it was the look that he caught in the other's dark face,—a look so full of hate and menace that, instead of being strangers meeting for the first time, one would have supposed them lifelong enemies.
Still eying him, Egil said slowly in a voice that trembled with passion: "So you are the English thrall,—and looking after her already! It seems that Skroppa spoke some truth—" He broke off abruptly, and stood glaring, his hand moving upward to his belt.
For once Alwin was fairly dazed. "Either this fellow has gotten out of his wits," he muttered, crossing himself, "or else he has mistaken me for some—"
He had not time to finish his sentence. Young Olafsson's fingers had closed upon the haft of his knife; he drew it with a fierce cry: "But I will make the rest of it a lie!" Throwing himself upon Alwin, he bore him over backwards across the threshold.
It is likely that that moment would have seen the end of Alwin, if it had not happened that Valbrand the steersman was in the booth, arraying himself for the feast. He was a gigantic warrior, with a face seamed with scars and as hard as the battle-axe at his side. He caught Egil's uplifted arm and wrested the blade from his grasp.
"It is not likely that I will allow Leif's property to be damaged, Egil the Black. Would you choke him? Loose him, or I will send you to the Troll, body and bones!"
Egil rose reluctantly. Alwin leaped up like a spring released from a weight.
"What has he done," demanded Valbrand, "that you should so far forget the law as to attack another man's thrall?"
Instead of bursting into the tirade Alwin expected, Egil flushed and looked away. "It is enough that I am not pleased with his looks," he said sullenly.
Valbrand tossed him his knife with a scornful grunt. "Go and get sense! Is he yours, that you may slay him because you dislike the tilt of his nose? Go dress yourself. And you," he added, with a nod over his shoulder at Alwin, "do you take yourself out of his sight somewhere. It is unwisdom to tempt a hungry dog with meat that one would keep."
"If I had so much as a hunting-knife," Alwin cried furiously, "I swear by all the saints of England, I would not stir—"
Valbrand wasted no time in argument. He seized Alwin and threw him out of the door, with energy enough to roll him far down the slope.
The force with which he struck inclined Alwin to stay where he was for a while; and gradually the coolness and the quietness about him soothed him into a more reasonable temper. Egil Olafsson was mad; there could be no question of that. Undoubtedly it was best to follow Valbrand's advice and keep out of his way,—at least until he could secure a weapon with which to defend himself. He stretched himself comfortably in the soft, dewy grass and waited until the revellers, splendid in shining mail and gay-hued mantles, clanked out to their horses and rode away. When the last of them shouted his farewell to Sigurd and disappeared amid the shadows of the wood-path, Alwin arose and walked slowly back to the deserted camp.
Even the sunset light had left it now; a soft grayness shut it in, away from the world. The air was full of night-noises; and high in the pines a breeze was whispering softly. Very softly and sweetly, from somewhere among the booths, the voice of the bond-girl arose in a plaintive English ballad.
Alwin recognized the melody with a throb that was half of pleasure, half of pain. In the old days, Editha had sung that song. Poor little gentle-hearted Editha! The last time he had seen her, she had been borne past him, white and unconscious, in the arms of one of the marauding Danes. He shook himself fiercely to drive off the memory. Turning the corner of Helga's booth, he came suddenly upon the singer, a slender white-robed figure leaning in the shadow of the doorway. Sigurd still lounged under the trees, half dozing, half listening.
As the thrall stepped out of the shadow into the moonlight, the singer sprang to her feet, and the song merged into a great cry.
"My lord Alwin!"
It was Editha herself. Running to meet him, she dropped on her knees before him and began to kiss his hands and cry over them. "Oh, my dear lord," she sobbed, "you are so changed! And your hair—your beautiful hair! Oh, it is well that Earl Edmund and your lady mother are dead,—it would break their hearts, as it does mine!" Forgetting her own plight, she wept bitterly over his, though he tried with every gentle word to soothe her.
It was a sad meeting; it could not be otherwise. The memory of their last terrible parting, the bondage in which they found each other, the shameful, hopeless future that stretched before them,—it was all full of bitterness. When Editha went in at last, her poor little throat was bursting with sobs. Alwin sank down on the trunk of a fallen tree and buried his head in his hands, and the first groan that his troubles had wrung from him was forced now from his brave lips.
He had forgotten Sigurd's presence. In their preoccupation, neither of them had noticed the young Viking watching them curiously. Now Alwin started like a colt when a hand fell lightly on his shoulder. "It appears to me," came in Sigurd's voice, "that a man should be merry when he has just found a friend."
Alwin looked up at him with eyes full of savage despair.
"Merry! Would you be merry, had you found Helga the drudge of an English camp?" He shook off the other's hand with a fierce motion.
But Sigurd answering instantly, "No, I would look even blacker than you, if that were possible," the thrall was half appeased.
The young Viking dropped down beside him, and for a while they sat in silence, staring away where the moonlit river showed between the trees. At last Sigurd said dreamily: "It came to my mind, while you two were talking, how unevenly the Fates deal things. It appears, from what the maiden said, that you are the son of an English jarl who has often fought the Northmen. Now I am the son of a Norwegian jarl who has not a few times met the English in battle. It would have been no more unlikely than what has happened had I been the captive and you the victor."
"That is true," said Alwin slowly. He did not say more, but in some odd way the idea comforted and softened him. Neither of the young men turned his eyes from the river toward the other, yet in some way something friendly crept into their silence.
After a while Sigurd said, still without looking around, "It seems to me that the right-minded thing for me in this matter is to do what I should desire you to do if you were in my place; therefore I offer you my friendship."
Something blurred the bright river for an instant from Alwin's sight. "I give you thanks," he said huskily. "Save Editha, I have not a friend in the world."
He hesitated a while; then slowly, bit by bit, he set forth the story that he had never expected to unfold to Northern ears. "The Danes set fire to my father's castle, and he was burned with many of my kinsmen. The robbers came in the night, and a Danish churl opened the gates to them,—though he had been my father's man for four seasons. It was from him that I learned to speak the Northern tongue. They took me while I slept, bound me, and carried me out to their boats. They carried out also the young maidens who attended my mother,—Editha among them,—and not a few of the youth of the household, all that they chose for captives. They took out all the valuables that they wanted. After that, they threw great bales of hay into the hall, and set fire to them, and—"
"The bloody wolves!" Sigurd burst out. "Did they not offer your mother to go out in safety?"
"Nay, they had the most hatred against her." The bearing of his head grew more haughty. "My mother was a princess of the blood of Alfred."
It happened that Sigurd had heard of that great monarch. His face kindled with enthusiasm.
"Alfred! He who got the victory over the Danes? Small wonder they did not love his kin after they had known his cunning! I know a fine song about him,—how he went alone into the Danish camp, though they were hunting him to kill him; and while they thought him a simple—minded minstrel, he learned all their secrets. By my troth, that is good blood to have in one's veins! Were I English, I would rather be his kinsman than Ethelred's."
He stared at Alwin with glowing eyes; they were facing each other now. Suddenly he stretched out his hand.
"It is naught but a piece of bad luck that you are Leif's thrall. It might just as easily have happened that I were in your place. Now I will make a bargain with you that hereafter I will remember this, and never hold your thraldom against you."
Such a concession as that, few of the proud Viking race were generous enough to make. Alwin could not but be moved by it. He took the outstretched hand in a hard grip.
"Will you do that?" he said; and it seemed for a time as though he could not find words to answer. At last he spoke: "If you will do that, I promise on my side that I will forgive your Northern blood and your lordship over me, and love you as my own brother."
THE IRE OF A SHIELD-MAIDEN
With insult or derision Treat thou never A guest or wayfarer; They often little know, Who sit within, Of what race they are who come. Ha'vama'l
Alwin was sitting on the ground in front of the provision-shed, grinding meal on a small stone hand-mill, when Editha came to seek him.
"If it please you, my lord—"
He broke into a bitter laugh. "By Saint George, that fits me well! 'If it please you,' and 'my lord,' to a short-haired, callous-handed hound of a slave!"
Tears filled her eyes, but her gentle mouth was as obstinate as gentle mouths can often be. "Have they drawn Earl Edmund's blood out of you? Until they have done that, you will be my lord. Your lady mother in heaven would curse me for a traitor if I denied your nobility."
Alwin ground out a resigned sigh with his last handful of meal. "Go on then, if you must. We spoke enough of the matter last night. Only see to it that no one hears you. I warn you that I shall kill the first who laughs,—and who could help laughing?"
She was too wise to answer that. Instead, she motioned over her shoulder toward the group of late-risen revellers who were lounging under the trees, breaking their fast with an early meal. "Tyrker bids you come and serve the food."
"If it please me?"
"My dear lord, I pray you give over all bitterness. I pray you be prudent toward them. I have not been a shield-maiden's thrall for nearly a year without learning something."
"Poor little dove in a hawk's nest! Certainly I think you have learned to weep!"
"You need not pity me thus, Lord Alwin. It is likely that my mistress even loves me in her own way. She has given me more ornaments than she keeps for herself. She would slay anyone who spoke harshly to me. What is it if now and then she herself strikes me? I have had many a blow from your mother's nurse. I do not find that I am much worse than before. No, no; my trouble is all for you. My dearest lord, I implore you not to waken their anger. They have tempers so quick,—and hands even quicker."
Remembering his encounter with Egil the evening before, Alwin's eyes flared up hotly. But he would make no promises, as he arose to answer the summons.
The little maid carried an anxious heart to her task of mending Helga's torn kirtle.
No one seemed to notice the young thrall when he came among them and began to refill the empty cups. The older men, sprawling on the sun-flecked grass and over the rude benches, were still drowsy from too deep soundings in too many mead horns. The four young people were talking together. They sat a little apart in the shade of some birch trees which served as rests for their backs,—Helga enthroned on a bit of rock, Rolf and Sigurd lounging on either side of her, the black-maned Egil stretched at her feet. Between them a pair of lean wolf-hounds wandered in and out, begging with glistening eyes and poking noses for each mouthful that was eaten,—except when a motion of Helga's hand toward a convenient riding-switch made them forget hunger for the moment.
"I wonder to hear that Leif was not at the feast last night," Sigurd was saying, as he sipped his ale in the leisurely fashion which some of the old sea-rovers in the distance condemned as French and foolish.
Swallowing enough of the smoked meat in her mouth to make speaking practicable, Helga answered: "He will be away two days yet; did I not tell you? He has gone south with a band of guardsmen to convert a chief to Christianity."
"Then Leif himself has turned Christian?" Sigurd exclaimed in astonishment. "The son of the pagan Eric a Christian! Now I understand how it is that he has such favor with King Olaf, for all that he comes of outlawed blood. In Wisby, men thought it a great wonder, and spoke of him as 'Leif the Lucky,' because he had managed to get rid of the curse of his race."
Rolf the Wrestler shook his head behind his uplifted goblet. He was an odd-looking youth, with chest and shoulders like the forepart of an ox, and a face as mild and gently serious as a lamb's. As he put down the curious gilded vessel, he said in the soft voice that matched his face so well and his body so ill: "If you have a boon to ask of your foster-father, comrade, it is my advice that you forget all such pagan errors as that story of the curse. Egil, here, came near being spitted on Leif's sword for merely mentioning Skroppa's name."
Alwin recognized the name with a start. Egil scowled in answer to Sigurd's curious glance.
"Odin's ravens are not more fond of telling news, than you," the Black One growled. "At meal-time I have other uses for my jaws than babbling. Thrall, bring me more fish."
Alwin waited long enough to possess himself of a sharp bronze knife that lay among the dishes; then he advanced, alertly on his guard, and shovelled more herrings upon the flat piece of hard bread that served as a plate. Egil, however, noticed him no more than he did the flies buzzing around his food. Whatever the cause of their enmity, it was evidently a secret.
The English youth was retiring in surprise, when Rolf took it into his head to accost him. The wrestler pointed to a couple of large flat stones that he had placed, one on top of the other, beside him. "This is very tough bread that you have given me, thrall," he said reproachfully.
Their likeness to bread was not great, and the jest struck Alwin as silly. He retorted angrily: "Do you suppose that my wits were cut off with my hair, so that I cannot tell stones from bread?"
Not a flicker stirred the seriousness of Rolf's blue eyes. "Stones?" he said. "I do not know what you mean. Can they be stones that I am able to treat like this?" His fist arose in the air, doubled itself into the likeness of a sledge-hammer, and fell in a mighty blow. The upper stone lay in fragments.
Whereupon Alwin realized that it had all been a flourish to impress him. So, though unquestionably impressed, he refused to show it. A second time he was turning his back on them, when Helga stopped him.
"You must bring something that I want, first. In the northeast corner of the provision shed, was it not, Sigurd?"
Young Haraldsson was scrambling to his feet in futile grabs after one of the hounds that was making off with his herring, but he nodded back over his shoulder. Helga looked from one to the other of her companions with an ecstatic smack of her lips. "Honey," she informed them. "Sigurd ran across a jar of it last night. That pig of an Olver yonder hid it on the highest shelf. Very likely the goldsmith's daughter gave it to him and it was his intention to keep it all for himself. We will put a trick upon him. Bring it quickly, thrall. Yet have a care that he does not see it as you pass him. That is he with the bandaged head. If he looks sharply at you, hide the jar with your arm and it is likely he will think that you have been stealing some food for yourself, and be too sleepy to care."
Lord Alwin of Northumbria lost sight of the lounging figures about him, lost sight of Sigurd chasing the circling hound, lost sight of everything save the imperious young person before him. He stared at her as though he could not believe his ears. She waved him away; but he did not move.
"Let him think that I am stealing!" he managed to gasp at last.
The grass around Helga's foot stirred ominously.
"I have told you that he is too sleepy to care. If he threatens to flog you, I promise that I will interfere. Coward, what are you afraid of?"
She caught her breath at the blazing of his face. He said between his clenched teeth: "I will not let him think that I would steal so much as one dried herring,—were I starving!"
The fire shot out of Helga's beautiful eyes. Egil and the Wrestler sprang up with angry exclamations; but words would not suffice Helga. Leaping to her feet, she caught up the riding-whip from the grass beside her and lashed it across the thrall's face with all her might. A bar of livid red was kindled like a flame along his cheek.
"You are cracking the face of Leif's property," Rolf murmured in mild remonstrance.
Egil laughed, a hateful gloating laugh, and settled himself against a tree to see the finish. As Helga's arm was flung up the second time, the thrall leaped upon her and tore the whip from her grasp and broke it in pieces. He would that he might have broken her as well; he thirsted to,—when he caught sight of the laughing Egil, and everything else was blotted out of his vision. Without a sound, but with the animal passion for killing upon his white face, he wheeled and leaped upon the Black One, crushing him, pinioning him against the tree, strangling him with the grip of his hands.
THE SONG OF SMITING STEEL
To his friend A man should be a friend,— To him and to his friend; But no man Should be the friend Of his foe's friend. Ha'vama'l
In the madness of his rush, Alwin blundered. Springing upon Egil from the left, he left his enemy's right arm free. Instantly this arm began forcing and jamming its way downward across Egil's body. Should it find what it sought—!
Alwin saw what was coming. He set his teeth and struggled desperately; but he could not prevent it. Another moment, and the Black One's fingers had closed upon his sword-hilt; the blade hissed into the air. Only an instant wrenching away, and a lightning leap aside, saved the thrall from being run through. His short bronze knife was no match for a sword. He gave himself up for lost, and stiffened himself to die bravely,—as became Earl Edmund's son. He had yet to learn that there are crueler things than sword-thrusts.
As Egil advanced with a jeering laugh, Helga caught his sleeve; and Rolf laid an iron hand upon his shoulder.
"Think what you do!" the Wrestler admonished. "This will make the third of Leif's thralls that you have slain; and you have no blood-money to pay him."
"Shame on you, Egil Olafsson!" cried Helga. "Would you stain your honorable sword with a thing so foul as thrall-blood?"
Rolf's grip brought Egil to a standstill. The contempt in Helga's words was reflected in his face. He sheathed his sword with a scornful gesture.
"You speak truth. I do not know how it was that I thought to do a thing so unworthy of me. I will leave Valbrand to draw the fellow's blood with a stirrup leather."
He turned away, and the others followed. Those of the crew who had raised their muddled heads to see what the trouble was, laid them down again with grunts of disappointment. Alwin was left alone, untouched.
Yet truly his anguish would not have been greater had they cut him in pieces. Without knowing what he did, he sprang after them, crying hoarsely: "Cowards! Churls! What know you of my blood? Give me a weapon and prove me. Or cast yours aside,—man to man." His voice broke with his passion and the violence of his heart-beats.
But the mocking laughter that burst out died in a sudden hush. A moment before, Sigurd had concluded his pursuit of the thieving hound and rejoined the group,—in time to gather something of what had passed. The instant Alwin ceased, he stepped out and placed himself at the young thrall's side. He was no longer either the courteous Sigurd Silver-Tongue or Sigurd the merry comrade; his handsome head was thrown up with an air of authority which reminded all present that Sigurd, the son of the famous Jarl Harald, was the highest-born in the camp.
He said sternly: "It seems to me that you act like fools in this matter. Can you not see that he is no more thrall-born than you are? Or do you think that ill luck can change a jarl's son into a dog? He shall have a chance to prove his skill. I myself will strive against him, to any length he chooses. And what I have thought it worth while to do, let no one else dare scorn!"
He unbuckled his own gold-mounted weapon and forced it into Alwin's hands, then turned authoritatively to the Wrestler: "Rolf, if you count yourself my friend, lend me your sword."
It was yielded him silently; and they stepped out face to face, the young noble and the young thrall. But before their steel had more than clashed, Egil came between and knocked up their blades with his own.
"It is enough," he said gruffly. "What Sigurd Haraldsson will do, I will not disdain. I will meet you honorably, thrall. But you need not sue for mercy." A gleam of that strange groundless hatred played over his savage face.
It did not daunt Alwin; it only helped to warm his blood. "This steel shall melt sooner than I ask for quarter!" he cried defiantly, springing at his enemy.
Whish-clash! The song of smiting steel rang through the little valley. The spectators drew back out of the way. Again the half-drunken loungers rose upon their elbows.
They were well matched, the two. If Alwin lacked any of the Black One's strength, he made it up in skill and quickness. The bright steel began to fly fast and faster, until its swish was like the venomous hiss of serpents. The color came and went in Helga's cheek; her mouth worked nervously. Sigurd's eyes were fixed upon the two like glowing lamps, as to and fro they went with vengeful fury. In all the valley there was no sound but the fierce clash and clatter of the swords. The very trees seemed to hold their breath to listen.
Egil uttered a panting gasp of triumph; his, blade had bitten flesh. A widening circle of red stained the shoulder of Alwin's white tunic. The thrall's lips set in a harder line; his blows became more furious, as if pain and despair gave him an added strength. Heaving his sword high in the air, he brought it down with mighty force on Egil's blade. The next instant the Black One held a useless weapon, broken within a finger of the hilt.
A murmur rose from the three watchers. Helga's hand moved toward her knife.
Rolf shook his head gently. "Fair play," he reminded her; and she fell back.
Tossing away his broken blade, Egil folded his arms across his breast and waited in scornful silence; but in a moment Alwin also was empty-handed.
"I do no murder," he panted. "Man to man we will finish it."
With lowered heads and watchful eyes, like beasts crouching for a spring, they moved slowly around the circle. Then, like angry bears, they grappled; each grasping the other below the shoulder, and striving by sheer strength of arm to throw his enemy.
Only the blood that mounted to their faces, the veins that swelled out on their bare arms, told of the strain and struggle. So evenly were they matched, that from a little distance it looked as if they were braced motionless. Their heels ground deep into the soft sod. Their breath began to come in labored gasps. It could not last much longer; already the great drops stood on Alwin's forehead. Only a spurt of fury could save him.
Suddenly, in changing his hold, Egil grasped the other's wounded shoulder. The grip was torture,—a spur to a fainting horse. The blood surged into Alwin's eyes; his muscles stiffened into iron. Egil swayed, staggered, and fell headlong, crashing.
Mad with pain, Alwin knelt on his heaving breast. "If I had a sword," he gasped; "if I had a sword!"
Shaken and stunned, Egil still laughed scornfully. "What prevents you from getting your sword? I shall not run away. Do you think it matters to me how soon my death-day comes?"
Alwin was still crazy with pain. He snatched the bronze knife from his belt and laid it against Egil's throat. Sigurd's brow darkened, but no one spoke or moved,—least of all, Egil; his black eyes looked back unshrinkingly.
It was their calmness that brought Alwin to himself. As he felt their clear gaze, it came back to him what it meant to take a human life,—to change a living breathing body like his own into a heap of still, dead clay. His hand wavered and fell away. The passion died out of his heart, and he arose.
"Sigurd Haraldsson," he said, "for what you have done for me, I give you your friend's life."
Sigurd's fine face cleared.
"Only," Alwin added, "I think it right that he should explain the cause of his enmity toward me, and—"
Egil leaped to his feet; his proud indifference flamed into sudden fury. "That I will never do, though you tear out my tongue-roots!" he shouted.
Even his comrades regarded him in amazement.
Alwin tried a sneer. "It is my belief that you fear to speak of Skroppa."
"Skroppa?" a chorus of astonishment repeated. But only two scarlet spots on Egil's cheeks showed that he heard them. He gave Alwin a long, lowering look. "You should know by this time that I fear nothing."
Helga made an unfortunate attempt. "I think it is no more than honorable, Egil, to tell him why you are his enemy."
Unconsciously she spoke of the thrall now as of an equal. He noticed it; Egil also saw it. It seemed to enrage him beyond bearing.
"If you speak in his favor," he thundered, seizing her wrist, "I will sheathe my knife in you!" But even before she had freed herself, and Rolf and Sigurd had turned upon him, he realized that he had gone too far. Leaving them abruptly, he went and stood a little way off with his back toward them, his head bowed, his hands clenched, struggling with himself.
For a long time no one spoke. Sigurd questioned with his eyes, and Rolf answered by a shrug. Once, as Helga offered to approach the Black One, Sigurd made a warning gesture. They waited in dead silence. While the voices of the other men came to them faintly, and the insects chirped about their feet, and the birds called in the trees above them.
At last Egil came slowly back, sullen-eyed and grim-mouthed. He held a branch in his hands and was bending and breaking it fiercely. "It is shame enough," he began after a while, "that any man should have had it in his power to spare me. I wonder that I do not die of the disgrace! But it would be a still fouler shame if, after he had spared my life, I let myself keep a wolf's mind toward him." His eyes suddenly blazed out at Alwin, but he controlled himself and went on. "The reason for my enmity I will not tell; wild steers should not tear it out of me. But,—" He stopped and drew a hard breath, and set his teeth afresh; "but I will forego that enmity. It is more than my life is worth. It is worth a dozen lives to him,—" his voice broke with rage,—"yet because it is honorable, I will do it. If you, Sigurd Haraldsson, and you, Rolf, will pledge your friendship to this man, I will swear him mine." It was well that he had reached the end, for he could not have spoken another syllable.
Bewilderment tied Alwin's tongue. Sigurd was the first to speak.
"That seems to me a fair offer; and half the condition is already fulfilled. I clasped his hand last night."
Rolf answered with less promptness. "I say nothing against the Englishman's courage or his skill; yet—I will not conceal it—even in payment for a comrade's life, I do not like to give my friendship to one of thrall-birth."
That loosened Alwin's tongue. "In my own country," he said haughtily, "you would be done honor by a look from me. Editha will tell you that my father was Earl of Northumbria, and my mother a princess of the royal blood of Alfred."
Helga uttered an exclamation of surprise and interest; but he would not deign to look at her. For a while longer Rolf hesitated, looking long and strangely at Egil, and long and keenly at Sigurd. But at last he put forth his huge paw.
"Alwin of England," he said slowly, "though you little know how much it means, I offer you my hand and my friendship."
Alwin took it a little coldly. "I will not give you thanks for a forced gift; yet I pledge you my faith in return."
Though his face still worked with passion, Egil's hand was next extended. "However much I hate you, I swear that I will always act as your friend."
In his secret heart Alwin murmured, "The Fiend take me if ever I turn my back on your knife!" But aloud he merely repeated his former compact.
When it was finished, Sigurd laid an affectionate hand upon his shoulder. "We cannot bind our friend-ship closer, but it is my advice that you do not leave Helga out of the bargain. Truer friend man never had."
The bar across Alwin's cheek grew fiery with his redder flush. He stood before her, rigid and speechless. Helga too blushed deeply; but there was nothing of a girl's shyness about her. Her beautiful eyes looked frankly back into his.
"I will not offer you my friendship," she said simply, "because I read in your face that you have not forgiven the foul wrong I put upon you,—not knowing that you were brave, high-born and accomplished. I can understand your anger. Were I a man, and a woman should do such a thing to me, it is likely that I should kill her on the spot. But it may be that, in time to come, the memory will fade out of your mind, even as the scar will fade from your face. Then, if you have seen that my friendship is worth having, do you come and ask me for it, and I will give it to you."
Before Alwin had time to think of an answer that would say neither more nor less than he meant, she had walked away with Sigurd. He looked after her with a scowl,—because he saw Egil watching him. But it surprised him that, search as he would, he could nowhere find that great soul-stirring rage which he had first felt against her.
THE KING'S GUARDSMAN
Something great Is not always to be given. Praise is often for a trifle bought. Ha'vama'l
It was the day after this brawl, when the guardsman Leif returned to Nidaros. Alwin was brought to the notice of his new master in a most unexpected fashion.
For one reason or another, the camp had been deserted early. At day-break, Egil slung his bow across his back, provided himself with a store of arrows and a bag of food, and set out for the mountains,—to hunt, he told Tyrker, sullenly, as he passed. Two hours later, Valbrand called for horses and hawks, and he and young Haraldsson, with Helga and her Saxon waiting-maid, rode south for a day's sport in the pine woods.
Helga was the best comrade in the camp, whether one wished to go hawking, or wanted a hand at fencing, or only asked for a quiet game of chess by the leaping firelight. Her ringing laugh, her frank glance, and her beautiful glowing face made all other maidens seem dull and lifeless. Alwin dimly felt that hating her was going to be no easy task, and he dared not raise his eyes as she rode past him. Instead he forced himself to stare at the reflection of his scarred face in the silver horn he was wiping; and he blew and blew upon the sparks of his anger.
Noticing it, Helga frowned regretfully. "I cannot blame him if he will not speak to me," she said to Sigurd Haraldsson. "The nature of a high-born man is such that a blow is like poison in his blood. It must rankle and fester and break out before he can be healed. I do not think he could have been more lordlike in his father's castle than he was yesterday. Hereafter I shall treat him as honorably as I treat you, or any other jarl-born man."
"In this you show yourself as high-minded as I have always thought you," answered Sigurd, turning toward her a face aglow with pleasure.
By the middle of the forenoon, everyone had gone, this way or that, to hunt, or fish, or swim, or loiter about the city. There were left only a man with a broken leg and a man with a sprained shoulder, throwing dice on a bench in the sun; Alwin, whistling absently as he swept out the sleeping-house; and Rolf the Wrestler sitting cross-legged under a tree, sharpening his sword and humming snatches of his favorite song:
"Hew'd we with the Hanger! Hard upon the time 't was When in Gothlandia going To give death to the serpent."
Rolf had declined to go hunting, on the plea of his horse's lameness. Now, as he sat working and humming, he was presumably thinking up some other diversion,—and the frequent glances he sent toward the thrall seemed to indicate that the latter was to be concerned in it.
Finally Rolf called to Alwin: "Ho there, Englishman! Come hither and tell me what you think of this for a weapon."
It needed no urging to make Alwin exchange a broom for a sword. He came and lifted the great blade, and made passes in the air, and examined the hilt of brass-studded wood.
"Saw I never a finer weapon," he admitted. "The hilt fits to one's hand better than those gold things on Sigurd Haraldsson's sword. What is it called?" For in those days a good blade bore a name as certainly as a horse or a ship.
Rolf answered, in his soft voice: "It is called 'The Biter.' And it has bitten not a few,—but it is fitting that others should speak of that. Since the handle fits your grasp so well, will you not hold it a little longer, while I borrow Long Lodin's weapon here, and we try each other's skill?" He made a motion to rise, then checked himself and hesitated: "Or it may be," he added gently, "that you do not care to strive against one as strong as I?"
"Now, by St. Dunstan, you need not spare me thus!" Alwin cried hotly. "Never have I turned my back on a challenge; and never will I, while the red blood runs in my veins. Get your weapon quickly." He shook the big blade in the air, and threw himself into a posture of defence.
But the Wrestler made no move to imitate him. He remained sitting and slowly shaking his head.
"Those are fine words, and I say nothing against your sincerity; but my appetite has changed. I will tell you what we will do instead. When your work is done, we will betake ourselves across the river to Thorgrim Svensson's camp and see the horse-fight he is going to have. He has a black stallion of Keingala's breed, named Flesh-tearer, that it is not necessary to prod with a stick. When he stands on his hind legs and bites, you would swear he had as many feet as Odin's gray Sleipnir. Do you not think that would be good entertainment?"
For a moment Alwin did not know what to think. He did not believe that Rolf was afraid of him; and if the challenge was withdrawn, surely that ended the matter. A horse fight? He had enjoyed no such spectacle as that since the Michaelmas Day when his father had the great bear-baiting in the pit at his English castle. And a ramble through the sun and the wind, a taste of liberty—!
"It seems to me that it would be very enjoyable," he agreed. He started eagerly to finish his work, when a thought caught him like a lariat and whirled him back. "I am forgetting the yoke upon my neck, for the first time in a twelvemonth! Is it allowed a dog of a slave to seek entertainment?"
Mild displeasure stiffened Rolf's big frame. He said gravely: "It is plain your thoughts do not do me much honor, since you think I have so little authority. I tell you now that you will always be free to do whatever I ask of you. If there is anything wrong in the doing, it is I who must answer for it, not you. That is the law, while you are bound and I am free."
A fresh sense of the shame of his thraldom broke over Alwin like a burning wave. It benumbed him for a second; then he laughed with jeering bitterness.
"It is true that I have become a dog. I can follow any man's whistle, and it is the man who is responsible. I ask you to forget that for a moment I thought myself a man." In sudden frenzy, he whirled the great sword around his head and lunged at the pine tree behind Rolf, so that the blade was left quivering in the trunk.
It was weather to gladden a man's heart,—a sunlit sky overhead, and a fresh breeze blowing that set every drop of blood a-leaping with the desire to walk, walk, walk, to the very rim of the world. The thrall started out beside the Wrestler in sullen silence; but before they had gone a mile, his black mood had blown into the fiord. River bank and lanes were sweet with flowers, and every green hedge they passed was a-flutter with nesting birds. The traders' booths were full of beautiful things; musicians, acrobats, and jugglers with little trick dogs, were everywhere,—one had only to stop and look. A dingy trading vessel lay in the river, loaded with great red apples, some Norman's winter store. One of the crew who knew Rolf threw some after him, by way of greeting; and the two munched luxuriously as they walked along. They passed many Viking camps, gay with streamers and striped linens, where groups of brawny fair-haired men wrestled and tried each other's skill, or sat at rough tables under the trees, drinking and singing. In one place they were practising with bow and arrow; and, being quite impartial in their choice of a target, one of the archers sent a shaft within an inch of Rolf's head, purely for the expected pleasure of seeing him start and dodge. Finding that neither he nor Alwin would go a step faster, they rained shafts about their ears as long as they were within bow-shot, and saw them out of range with a cheer.
The road branched into one of the main thoroughfares, and they met pretty maidens who smiled at them, melancholy minstrels who frowned at them, and grim-mouthed warriors whose eyes were too intent on future battles even to see them. Occasionally Rolf quietly saluted some young guardsman; and, to the thrall's surprise, the warrior answered not only with friendliness but even with respect. It seemed strange that one of Rolf's mild aspect should be held in any particular esteem by such young fire-eaters. Once they encountered a half-tipsy seaman, who made a snatch at Rolf's apple, and succeeded in knocking it from his hand into the dust. The Wrestler only fixed his blue eyes upon him in a long look, but the man went down on his knees as though he had been hit.
"I did not know it was you, Rolf Erlingsson," he hiccoughed over and over in maudlin terror. "I beg you not to be angry."
"It is seldom that I have seen such a coward as that," Alwin said in disgust as they walked on.
Rolf turned upon him his gentle smile. "It is your opinion, then, that a man must be a coward to fear me?"
Alwin did not answer immediately: of a sudden it occurred to him to doubt the Wrestler's mild manner.
While he was still hesitating, Rolf caught him lightly around the waist and swung him over a hedge into a field where a dozen red-and-yellow tented booths were clustered. "These are Thorgrim Svensson's tents," he explained, following as coolly as though that were the accepted mode of entrance. "Yonder he is,—that lean little man with the freckled face. He is a great seafaring man. I promise you that you will see many precious things from all over the world."
Approaching the booths, Alwin had immediate proof of this statement, for bench and bush and ground were littered with garments and furs and weapons, and odds-and-ends of spoil, as if a ship had been overturned on the spot. The lean little man whom Rolf had pointed out stood in the midst of it all, examining and directing. He was dressed in coarse homespun of the dingy colors of trading vessels, gray and brown and rusty black, which contrasted oddly with the mantle of gorgeous purple velvet he was at that moment trying on. His little freckled face was wrinkled into a hundred shrewd puckers, and his eyes were two twinkling pin-points of sharpness. He seemed to thrust their glance into Alwin, as he advanced to meet his visitors; and the men who were helping him paused and looked at the thrall with expectant grins.
Rolf said blandly, "Greeting, Thorgrim Svensson! We have come to see your horse-fight. This is Alwin, Edmund Jarl's son, of England. Bad luck has made him Leif's thrall, but his accomplishments have made me his friend."
He spoke with the utmost mildness, merely glancing at the grinning crew; yet they sobered as though their mirth had been turned off by a faucet, and Thorgrim gave the thrall a civil welcome.
"It is a great pity," he continued, addressing the Wrestler, "that you cannot see the Flesh-Tearer, since you came for that purpose; but it has happened that he has lamed himself, and will not be able to fight for a week. Do not go away on that account, however. My ship has brought me some cloaks even finer than the one you covet,"—here it seemed to Alwin as if the little man winked at Rolf,—"and if the Englishman is as good a swordsman as you have said—ahem!" He broke off with a cough, and endeavored to hide his abruptness by turning away and picking a fur mantle off a pile of costly things.
Alwin's momentary surprise was forgotten at sight of the treasure thus disclosed. Beneath the cloak, thrown down like a thing of little value, lay an open book. It was written in Anglo-Saxon letters of gold and silver; its crumpled pages were of rarest rose-tinted vellum; its covers, sheets of polished wood gold-embossed and adorned with golden clasps. Even Alfred's royal kinswoman had never owned so splendid a volume. The English boy caught it up with an exclamation of delight, and turned the pages hungrily, trying whether his mother's lessons would come back to him.
He was brought to himself by the touch of Rolf's hand on his shoulder. They were all looking at him, he found,—once more with expectant grins. Opposite him an ungainly young fellow in slave's garb—and with the air of belonging in it—stood as though waiting, a naked sword in his hand.
"Now I have still more regard for you when I see that you have also the trick of reading English runes," the Wrestler said. "But I ask you to leave them a minute and listen to me. Thorgrim here has a thrall whom he holds to be most handy with a sword; but I have wagered my gold necklace against his velvet cloak that you are a better man than he."
The meaning of the group dawned on Alwin then: he drew himself up with freezing haughtiness. "It is not likely that I will strive against a low-born serf, Rolf Erlingsson. You dare to put an insult upon me because luck has left your hair uncut."
A sound like the expectant drawing-in of many breaths passed around the circle. Alwin braced himself to withstand Rolf's fist; but the Wrestler only drew back and looked at him reprovingly.
"Is it an insult, Alwin of England, to take you at your word? It is not three hours since you vowed never to turn your back on a challenge while the red blood ran in your veins. Have witches sucked the blood out of you, that your mind is so different when you are put to the test?"