THE WARD OF KING CANUTE
A Romance of the Danish Conquest
By Ottilie A. Liljencrantz
For the facts of this romance I have made free use of the following authorities: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; The Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England; Ingulph's History of the Abbey of Croyland; William of Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England; The Chronicles of Florence of Worcester; Lingard's History and Antiquities of the Anglo-Saxon Church, and Lingard's History of England; Dean Spencer's The White Robe of Churches; Collier's Ecclesiastical History of Great Britain; Montalembert's Monks of the West; Thrupp's Anglo-Saxon Home; Hall's Queens Before the Conquest; Kemble's Saxons in England; Ridgway's Gem of Thorney Island; Brayley and Britton's History of the Ancient Palace and Late Houses of Parliament; Loftie's Westminster Abbey and Loftie's History of London; Allen's History and Antiquities of London; Lappenberg's History of England Under the Anglo-Saxon Kings; Sharon Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons; Knight's Old England; Hume's History of England; Green's Conquest of England; Thierry's History of the Conquest of England by the Normans; Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest.
For the translations of Ha'vama'l, etc., used at the beginnings of the chapters, I am indebted to Professor Rasmus B. Anderson and Mr. Paul du Chaillu.
O. A. L.
Chicago, April 1, 1903.
I. The Fall of the House of Frode
II. Randalin, Frode's Daughter
III. Where War-Dogs Kennel
IV. When Royal Blood is Young Blood
V. Before the King
VI. The Training of Fridtjof the Page
VII. The Game of Swords
VIII. Taken Captive
IX. The Young Lord oi Ivarsdale
X. As the Norns decree
XI. When my Lord comes Home from War
XII. The Foreign Page
XIII. When Might made Right
XIV. How the Fates cheated Randalin
XV. How Fridtjof cheated the Jotun
XVI. The Sword of Speech
XVII. The Judgment of the Iron Voice
XVIII. What the Red Cloak hid
XIX. The Gift of the Elves
XX. A Royal Reckoning
XXI. With the Jotun as Chamberlain
XXII. How the Lord of Ivarsdale paid his Debt
XXIII. A Blood-Stained Crown
XXIV. On the Road to London
XXV. The King's Wife
XXVI. In the Judgment Hall
XXVIII. When Love meets Love
XXIX. The Ring of the Coiled Snake
XXX. When the King takes a Queen
XXXI. The Twilight of the Gods
XXXII. In Time's Morning
THE WARD OF KING CANUTE
There is an old myth of a hero who renewed his strength each time he touched the earth, and finally was overcome by being raised in the air and crushed. Whether or not the Angles risked a like fate as they raised themselves away from the primitive virtues that had been their life and strength, no one can tell; but it has been well said that when Northern blood mingled with English blood at the time of the Danish Conquest, the Anglo-Saxon race touched the earth again.
Chapter I. The Fall of the House of Frode
Full stocked folds I saw at the sons of Fitjung, Now they carry beggars' staffs; Wealth is Like the twinkling of an eye, The most unstable of friends. Ha'vama'l.
As the blackness of the midsummer night paled, the broken towers and wrecked walls of the monastery loomed up dim and stark in the gray light. The long-drawn sigh of a waking world crept through the air and rustled the ivy leaves. The pitying angel of dreams, who had striven all night long to restore the plundered shrine and raise from their graves the band of martyred nuns, ceased from his ministrations, softly as a bubble frees itself from the pipe that shaped it, and floated away on the breath of the wind. Through a breach in the moss-grown wall, the first sunbeam stole in and pointed a bright finger across the cloister garth at the charred spot in the centre, where missals and parchment rolls had made a roaring fire to warm the invaders' blood-stained hands.
As the lark rose through the brightening air to greet the coming day, a woman in the tunic and cowl of a nun opened what was left of the wicket-gate in the one unbattered wall. A trace of the luxury that had dwelt under the gilded spires survived in her robes, which had been of a royal purple and embroidered with silken flowers; but the voice of Time and of Ruin spoke from them also, for the purple was faded to a rusty brown, and the silken embroideries were threadbare. She struck a note in perfect harmony with her surroundings, as she stood under the crumbling arch, peering out into the flowering lane.
Stretching away from her feet in dewy freshness, it made a green link between the herb-garden of St. Mildred's and the highway of the Watling Street. Like the straggling hedges that were half buried under a net of wild roses, red and white, the path was half effaced by grass; but beyond, her eye could follow the straight line of the great Roman road over marsh and meadow and hill-top. If grass had gathered there also, during the Anglo-Saxon times, there were no traces of it now, in the days of Edmund Ironside when Canute of Denmark was leading his war-host back and forth over its stones. Between the dark walls of oak and beech, it gleamed as white as the Milky Way. The nun was able to trace its course up the slope of the last hill. Just beyond the crest, a pall of smoke was spread over a burning village. Though it was miles away, it seemed to her that the wind brought cries of anguish to her ear, and prayers for mercy. Shivering, she turned her face back to the desolate peace of the ruins.
"Now is it clear to all men why a bloody cloud was hung over the land in the year that Ethelred came to the throne," she said. "I feel as the blessed dead might feel should they be forced to leave the shelter of their graves and look out upon the world."
Rising from its knees beside a bed of herbs, a second figure in faded robes approached the gate. Sister Sexberga was very old, much older than her companion, and her face was a wrinkled parchment whereon Time had written some terrible lessons.
She said gently, "We are one with the dead, beloved sister. Those who lie under the chancel lay no safer than we, last night, though the Pagans' passing tread shook the ground we lay on, and their songs broke our slumbers. Let us cease not to give thanks to Him who has spread over us the peace of the grave."
The shadows deepened in the eyes of Sister Wynfreda as she turned them back toward the lane, for her patience was not yet ripe to perfect mellowness. She was but little past the prime of her rich womanhood, and still bore the traces of a great beauty. She bore in addition, upon cheek and forehead, the scars of three frightful burns.
"The peace of the grave can never be mine while my heart is open to the sorrows of others," she answered with sadness. "Sister Sexberga, that was an English band which passed last night. I made out English words in their song. I am in utmost fear for the Danes of Avalcomb."
"'They that take the sword shall perish with the sword,'" the old nun quoted, a little sternly. "An Englishman was despoiled of his lands when Frode the Dane took Avalcomb. If now Frode's turn has come—"
Her companion made a gesture of entreaty. "It is not for Frode that I am timorous, dear sister, nor for the boy, Fridtjof; it is for Randalin, his daughter."
Sister Sexberga was some time silent. When at last she spoke, it was but to repeat slowly, "Randalin, his daughter. God pity her!"
Sister Wynfreda was no longer listening. She had quitted her hold upon the gate and taken a step forward, straining her eyes. They had not deceived her. Out of a tall mass of golden bloom at the farther end of the lane, an arm clad in brown homespun had tossed itself for one delirious instant. Trailing her robes over the daisied grass, the nun came upon a wounded man lying face downward in the tangle.
There was little in that to awaken surprise; it would have been stranger had warriors passed without leaving some such mute token in their wake. Yet when the united strength of the four arms had turned the limp weight upon its back, a cry of astonishment rose from each throat.
"The woodward of Avalcomb!"
"The hand of the Lord hath fallen!"
After a moment the younger woman said in a trembling voice, "The whisper in my heart spoke truly. Dearest sister, put your arm under here, and we will get him to his feet and bring him in, and he will tell us what has happened. See! he is shaking off his swoon. After he has swallowed some of your wine, he will be able to speak and tell us."
It was muscle-breaking work for women's backs, for though he tried instinctively to obey their directions, the man was scarcely conscious; his arms were like lead yokes upon his supporters' shoulders. Just within the gate their strength gave out, and they were forced to put him down among the spicy herbs. There, as one was pulling off her threadbare cloak to make him a pillow, and the other was starting after her cordial, he opened his eyes.
"Master!" he muttered. "Master? Have they gone?"
In an instant Sister Wynfreda was on her knees beside him. "Is it the English you mean? Did they beset the castle?"
Slowly the man's clouded eyes cleared. "The Sisters—" he murmured. "I had the intention—to get to you—but I fell—" His words died away in a whisper, and his eyelids drooped. Sister Sexberga turned again to seek her restorative. Sister Wynfreda leaned over and shook him.
"Answer me, first. Where is your master? And young Fridtjof? And your mistress?"
He shrank from her touch with a gasp of pain. "Dead," he muttered. "Dead—At the gate—Frode and the boy—The raven-starvers cut them down like saplings."
"I heard her scream as the Englishman seized her—Leofwinesson had her round the waist—they knocked me on the head, then—I—I—" Again his voice died away.
Sister Wynfreda made no attempt to recall him. Mechanically she held his head so that her companion might pour the liquid down his throat. That done, she brought water and bandages, and stood by, absent-eyed and in silence, while Sexberga found his wounds and dressed them. It was the older woman who spoke first.
"The fate of this maiden lies heavy on your mind, beloved," she said tenderly; "and I would have you know that my heart also is sorrowful. For all that she is the fruit of darkness, it was permitted by the Lord that Randalin, Frode's daughter, should be born with a light in her soul. It was in my prayers that we might be enabled to feed that light as it were a sacred lamp, to the end that in God's good time the spreading glory of its brightness might deliver her from the shadows forever."
Staring before her with unseeing eyes, Sister Wynfreda nodded an absent assent. "To me also it seemed that the Lord had led her to us... I keep in mind how she looked when she came that first morning... a bit of silk was in her hand, which Frode had given her for a present, because a golden apple was wrought upon it. She came on her horse, with the boy Fridtjof, to offer us bread from the castle kitchen if we would agree to teach her the secret of such handiwork. And when we said that for the sake of bread to lighten the evil days we would comply with her in the matter, she laughed with pleasure, and her laughter was as grateful to the ear as the chime of matin bells. I can see her again as she sat above us in her saddle, laughing: her long hair blew about her, and the red blood glowed in her cheeks, and her eyes were like pools that the sun is shining on—" Suddenly the Sister's voice broke, and she hid her face in her hands.
The old nun regarded her compassionately. Hers had been a long hard life, and she was very near the mountain-top from whose summit the mystery of the valleys is revealed.
After a time she spoke with tender reverence: "Almighty Father, who hast given us strength to endure our own trials without murmuring, grant us also the grace to accept patiently the chastening of those we love."
The bowed head of Sister Wynfreda sank lower, and slowly the heaving of her breast was stilled. In the chapel four feeble old voices raised a chant that trembled and shook like a quivering heart-string.
"I beseech thee now, Lord of Heaven, And pray to thee, Best of human-born, That thou pity me, Mighty Lord! And aid me, Father Almighty, That I thy will May perform Before from this frail life I depart."
Tremulously sweet it drifted out over the garden and blended with the aroma in the air. The wounded man smiled through his pain.
Raising her tear-stained face at last, Sister Wynfreda said humbly, "God pardon me if I sin in my grief, but to me it seems so bitter a thing when trouble comes upon the young. The first fall of the young bird in its flight, the first blow that startles the young horse,—I flinch before them as before my own wounds. When the light of the fair young day dies before the noon, I feel the shadow in my heart; and it saddens me to find a flower that worms have eaten in the bud and robbed of its brief life in the sun. How much more, then, shall I grieve for the blighting of this human flower? I declare with truth that the first time I saw her my heart went out to her in a love which taught me how mothers feel. Her freshness and gladness have fed my starved heart like wine. I cannot bear that trouble should crush them out of her in the very flower of her youth; I cannot bear that tears should wear channels down her soft cheeks and dim the brightness of her eyes. Sooner would I give what remains to me of life! Sister, do I sin? Do I seem to murmur against His will? But I have grown used to suffering, while she—what has she known but love? Oh, have I not suffered enough for both? Could she not have been spared?" Her voice mounted to a cry of exceeding bitterness.
Sister Sexberga rose, stretching toward her a tremulous pitying hand. The light that shines on the mountain-top was very bright on her wrinkled old face. She said softly, "It is not for me to say that you sin in your grief, most dear sister. But I give you this thought for your comfort: if you, who are tied to her by no bond of the flesh can feel for her so great and brooding an affection, what then must be the love of Him who fashioned her fair young body and lit the light of her glad spirit? Of a surety its tender yearning can be no less than yours. It may be that with tears He would wash the dust of the world from her eyes, that her sight may be clear for a vision of holier things. But believe that, even as you would shelter her, so will He not forsake her in her helplessness. Believe, and be eased of your fear." A rustling of her robe across the grass, and she was gone.
The chant ceased, the wavering treble dying away in a note of haunting sweetness. The man moaned and clutched at his wound; and the bowed figure by his side roused herself to tend him. Then a grating of rusty hinges made her turn her head.
Under the crumbling arch, relieved against the green of the lane beyond, stood the figure of a slender boy wrapped in a mantle of scarlet that bore a strangely familiar look. His hair fell upon his shoulders in soft wavy locks of raven blackness; but his face was turned away as his hands fumbled at the fastening.
Sister Wynfreda rose and took a step forward, staring at him in bewilderment.
"Fridtjof?" she questioned.
At the sound of her voice, the boy turned and hastened toward her. Then a great cry burst from Sister Wynfreda, for the face under the black locks was the face of Randalin.
Chapter II. Randalin, Frode's Daughter
At a hoary speaker Laugh thou never. Often is good that which the aged utter; Oft from a shrivelled hide Discreet words issue. Ha'vama'l.
She made a convincing boy, this daughter of the Vikings. Though she was sixteen, her graceful body had retained most of the lines and slender curves of childhood; and she was long of limb and broad of shoulder. Her head was poised alertly above her strong young throat, and she was as straight as a fir-tree and as supple as a birch. A life out-of-doors had given to her skin a tone of warm brown, which, in a land that expected women to be lily-fair, was like a mask added to her disguise. The blackness of her hair was equally unconnected with Northern dreams of beautiful maidens. "Dark-haired women, like slaves, black and bad," was the proverb of the Danish camps. Some fair-tressed ancestor back in the past must have qualified his blood from the veins of an Irish captive; in no other way could one account for those locks, and for her eyes that were of the grayish blue of iris petals.
The eyes were a little staring this morning, as though still stretched wide with the horror of the things they had looked upon; and all the glowing red blood had ebbed away from the brown cheeks.
She said in a low voice, "My father... Fridtjof..." then stopped to draw a long hard breath through her set teeth.
For the moment Sister Wynfreda was not a nun but a woman,—a woman with a great yearning tenderness that might have been a beautiful mother-love. She ran to the girl and caught her tremblingly by the hands, feeling up her arms to her shoulders and about her face, as if to make sure that she was really unharmed.
"Praise the Lord that you are delivered whole to me!" she breathed. "Gram told us—that they had taken you."
Gazing at her out of horror-filled eyes, Randalin stood quite still in her embrace. Her story came from her in jerks, and each fragment seemed to leave her breathless, though she spoke slowly.
"I broke away," she said. "They stood around me in a ring. Norman Leofwinesson said he would carry me before a priest and marry me, so that Avalcomb might be his lawfully, whichever king got the victory. I said by no means would I wed him; sooner would I slay him. All thought that a great jest and laughed. While they were shouting I slipped between them and got up the stairs into a chamber, where I bolted the door and would not open to them, though they pounded their fists sore and cursed at me. After a while the pounding became an exertion to them, and one began to talk about the mead that was waiting below. And after that they whispered together for a space. At last they began to laugh and jeer, and called to me that they would go down and drink my wedding toast before they broke in the door and fetched me; and then they betook themselves to feasting."
Sister Wynfreda bent her head to murmur a prayer: "God forgive me if I have lacked charity in my judgment on the Pagans! If they who have seen the light can do such deeds, what can be expected of those who yet labor under the curse of darkness?"
"I do not understand you," Randalin said wearily, sinking on the grass and passing her hands over her strained eyes. "When a man looks with eyes of longing upon another man's property, it is to be expected that he will do as much evil as luck allows him. Though he has got Baddeby, Norman was covetous of Avalcomb. When his lord, Edric Jarl, was still King Edmund's man, he twice beset the castle, and my father twice held it against him. And his greed was such that he could not stay away even after Edric had become the man of Canute."
It was the nun's turn for bewilderment. "The man of Canute? Edric of Mercia, who is married to the King's sister? It cannot be that you know what you say!"
"Certainly I know what I say," the girl returned a little impatiently. "All English lords are fraudulent; men can see that by the state of the country. Though he be thrice kinsman to the English King, Edric Jarl has joined the host of Canute of Denmark; and all his men have followed him. But even that agreement could not hold Norman back from Avalcomb. He lay hidden near the gate till he saw my father come, in the dusk, from hunting, when he fell upon him and slew him, and forced an entrance—the nithing! When he had five-and-fifty men and my father but twelve!"
She paused, with set lips and head flung high. The nun got down stiffly beside her and laid a gentle hand upon her knee.
"Think not of it, my daughter," she urged. "Think of your present need and of what it behooves us to do. Tell me how you escaped from the chamber, and why you wear these clothes."
"They were Fridtjof's." She spoke his name very softly. "I found them hanging on the chamber wall. In the night the men began to entertain themselves with singing, and it could be heard that they were getting drunk. It had been in my mind that I would stay where I was until they forced the door; then, because I would like it better to die than to marry any of them, I would throw myself out of the window, and the stones below would cause my death. But now it came to me that if I could dress so that they would not notice me, there were many good chances that I might slip past them and get out through the postern. I waited till they were all still, and then I crept into the women's room, and found the bondmaids huddled in their beds. They got afraid at the sight of me, for they thought I was Fridtjof's ghost; and they dared not move. So I had to go down alone." She shuddered in spite of herself. "Never did I think that darkness could be so unpleasant,—when one is listening for sounds and fears to put out a hand lest it touch something alive! But I got past the door and through the guard-room, where the Englishmen were snoring so loud that they would not have heard if I had stamped. In a niche in the wall outside I found Almstein the steward hiding, full of fear. I made him follow me out of the postern and around to the gate where...my father...and...Fridtjof..." Her voice broke, but she struggled on. "The English dogs had left them there... My father's face was...wounded...and the moon made his hair all silver round it, so that the blood looked to be black blots... And Fridtjof's sword was in his hand... Always he had wished to go into battle, though he was no more than fourteen winters old... There was a smile on his lips... I made Almstein dig two graves. He is a cowardly fellow, and it is likely that he would have left them there till the English were gone. I kissed Fridtjof's mouth...and...and I laid...my father's cloak...over...over his...face."
It was useless trying to go on; a deep sob shut off her voice and threatened to rend her when she tried to hold it back. Sister Wynfreda strove with gentle arms to draw her down upon her breast.
"Suffer the tears to come, my daughter," she urged her tenderly, "or sooner or later they must."
Randalin pulled away almost roughly, dashing the drops from her eyes.
"They shall not!" she cried brokenly. "They shall not! Am I a weak-minded English woman that I should shed tears because my kin are murdered? I will shed blood to avenge them; that is befitting a Danish girl. I will not weep,—as though there were shame to wash out! They died with great glory, like warriors. I will fix it in my mind that I am a kinswoman of warriors. I will not weep."
The older woman shrank a little. To ears attuned to the silence of the grave, such an outburst was little less than terrifying; she was at a loss how to soothe the girl. To gain a respite, she stole away and renewed the wounded man's bandages.
After a moment Randalin rose and followed, buckling her cloak as she went.
"Since I am become this man's lord, I think it right for me to see how he fares before I leave him," she explained. Once more she spoke gently, though the fire of her pride had quite dried her tears.
"Before you leave him?" The form in the faded robes turned inquiringly toward the erect young figure in its brave scarlet cloak. "What is it you say, my child?"
But Randalin was bending low over the green couch. "Do you know who I am?" she was asking urgently of the woodward. "Fix your eyes on me and try to gather together your wits."
Slowly the man's wandering gaze focussed itself; a silly laugh welled up in his throat. "It would be no strange wonder if I did not," he chuckled. "Odin has changed you greatly; your face was never so beautiful. But this once you cannot trick me, Fridtjof Frodesson."
There came a time when this mistake was a source of some comfort to Randalin, Frode's daughter; but now she stirred impatiently.
"Look again, and try to command your tongue. Tell me the state of your feelings. Can you live?"
The man shook with his foolish laughter. "You cub! Will not even being killed cure you of your tricks? If you who have been in Valhalla do not know what Odin intends about my life, how can I know, who have stayed on earth?"
Sister Wynfreda's hand fell upon the girl's arm. "Disquiet yourself no further," she whispered. "It is useless and to no end. If it please the Lord to bless our labors, the wound will soon be healed. Come this way, where he cannot hear our voices, and tell me what moves you to speak of leaving. Is it not your intention to creep in with us?"
As she yielded reluctantly to the pressure, Randalin even showed surprise at the question. "By no means. My errand hither was only to ask for bread. I thought it unadvisable to venture into the castle kitchen, yet it is needful that I keep up my strength. I go direct to the Danish camp to get justice from King Canute."
The nun reached out and caught the gay cloak, gasping. "The Danish camp? You speak in a raving fit! Better you thrust yourself into a den of ravenous beasts. You know not what you say."
Offense stiffened the figure under the cloak. "It is you who do not know. Now, as always, you think about Canute what lying English mouths have told of him. I know him from my father's lips. No man on the Island is so true as he, or so generous to those who ask of him. Time and again have I heard my father bid Fridtjof to imitate him. He is the highest-minded man in the world." Her voice as she ended was a stone wall of defiance. Sister Wynfreda made a desperate dash down another road.
"My daughter, I entreat that you will not despise my offer. The yoke is not so heavy here. Here is no strict convent rule; how could there be? We are but a handful of feeble old women left living after those who led us are gone, to the end that heathen fog smother not utterly the light which once was so bright. In truth, most dear child, you would have no hard lot among us. A few hours' work in the garden,—surely that is a pleasure, watching the fair green things spring and thrive under your care. And when the tenderness of the birds and the content of the little creeping creatures have filled your heart to bursting with a sense of God's goodness, to come and stand before the Holy Table and pour out your joys in sweet melody—"
But Randalin's head was shaking too decidedly, though she was not ungentle in her answering. "I give you thanks, Sister Wynfreda, but such a life is not for me. My nature is such that I do not like the gloomy songs you sing; nor do I care for green things, except to wear in my hair. And it seems to me that I should be spiritless and a coward if I should like such a life. I am no English girl, to tremble and hide under a mean kirtle. I am a Norse maiden, the kinswoman of warriors. I think I should not show much honor to my father and my brother were I to leave them unavenged and sit down here with you. No, I will go to my King and get justice. When he has slain the murderer and given me the castle again, I will come back; and you shall come and live with me, and eat meat instead of herbs, and—"
In her desperation, Sister Wynfreda caught her by the wrists and held her. "My daughter, my daughter, shake off this sleep of your wits, I entreat you! The men you are trusting in are dreams which you have dreamed in the safety of your father's arms. They among whom you are going are barbarians,—yea, devils! It were even better had you married the son of Leofwine. Think you I know nothing of the Pagans, that you set my words at naught? Who but Danish-men laid low these walls, and slaughtered the holy nuns as lambs are torn by wild beasts? Have I not seen their horrid wickedness? You think a nun a coward? Know you how these scars came on my face? Three times, with my own hands, I pressed a red-hot iron there to destroy the beauty that allured, else had the Pagans dragged me with them. Was I a coward?"
Randalin's eyes were very wide. "It seems to me that you were simple-minded," she breathed. "Why did you not thrust the iron in his face?"
But Sister Wynfreda's expression changed so strangely that the girl foresaw an attack along another line, and hastened to forestall it. "It is not worth while to tell me further about the matter. Do you not see that it is by no means the same? I shall be a Danish woman among Danish men. I shall not be a captive, to be made a drudge of and beaten. It is altogether different. I shall be with my own people, my own King. Let us end this talk. Give me the bread and let me go. The sun is getting high."
She glanced at it as she spoke, and found it so much higher than she had realized that her haste increased.
"No, I dare not wait for it. It is necessary that I get a good start, or they will overtake me. They are to join Canute near Scoerstan; I heard it talked among them. My horse is somewhat heavy in his movements, for he is the one Gram rode yesterday; I found him grazing by the road. Let me go, Sister Wynfreda. Bid me farewell and let me go."
Clutching at her belt, her arm, her cloak, the nun strove desperately to detain her. "Randalin! Listen! Alas! how you grieve me by talking after this manner! Wait, you do not understand. It is not their cruelty I fear for you. Child, listen! It is not their blows—"
But Randalin had wrenched herself free. "Oh, fear, fear, fear!" she cried impatiently. "Fear your enemies; fear your friends; fear your shadow! Old women are afraid of everything! You will see when I come back. No, no, do not look at me like that; I do not mean to behave badly toward you, but it will become a great misfortune to me ii I am hindered; it will, in truth. See now; I will kiss you—here where your cheek is softest. I cannot allow you to take hold of my cloak again. There! Now lay your hand upon my head, as you do with the children when you wish them good luck."
Because there was nothing else to do, and because the thought of doing this gave her some comfort, Sister Wynfreda complied. Laying her trembling hands upon the bared black head, she raised her despairing face to heaven and prayed with all the earnestness that was hers. Then she stood at the gate in silence and watched the girl set forth. As Randalin turned into the sunny highway, she looked back with a brave smile and waved her cap at the faded figure under the arch. But the nun, left in the moss-grown garden, wrapped in the peace of the grave, saw her through a blur of tears.
"God guard you, my fledgeling," she whispered over and over. "My prayers be as a wall around you. My love go with you as a warm hand in your loneliness. God keep you in safety, my most beloved daughter!"
Chapter III. Where War-dogs Kennel
Openly I now speak Because I both sexes know: Unstable are men's minds toward women; 'T is when we speak most fair, When we most falsely think: That deceives even the cautious. Ha'vama'l.
This morning there were few travellers upon the Street. South of the highway the land was held by English farmers, who would naturally remain under cover while a Danish host was in the neighborhood; while north of the great dividing line lay Danish freeholds whose masters might be equally likely to see the prudence of being in their watch-towers when the English allies were passing. Barred across by the shadows of its mighty trees, the great road stretched away mile after mile in cool emptiness. At rare intervals, a mounted messenger clattered over the stones, his hand upon his weapon, his eyes rolling sharply in a keen watch of the thicket on either side. Still more rarely, foraging parties swept through the morning stillness, lowing cows pricked to a sharp trot before them, and squawking fowls slung over their broad shoulders. Captured pigs gave back squeal for squawk, and the voices of the riders rose in uproarious laughter until the very echoes revolted and cast back the hideous din.
The approach of the first of these bands caused Randalin's heart to leap and sink under her brave green tunic. For all that she could tell from their dress, they might as well be English as Danish. If her disguise should fail! As they bore down upon her, she drew her horse to the extreme edge of the road and turned upon them a pale defiant face.
On they came. When they caught sight of a sprig of a boy drawn up beside the way with his hand resting sternly on his knife, they sent up a shout of boisterous merriment. The blood roared so loudly in Randalin's ears that she could not understand what they said. She jerked her horse's head toward the trees and drove her spur deep into his side. Only as he leaped forward and they swept past her, shouting, did the words reach home.
"Look at the warrior, comrades!" "Hail, Berserker!" "Scamper, cub, or your nurse will catch you!" "Tie some of your hair on your chin, little one!"
As the sound of hoof-beats died away, and the nag settled back to his steady jog-trot, the girl unclenched her hands and drew a long breath.
"Though it seems a strange wonder that they should not know me for a woman, I think I need give myself no further uneasiness. It must be that I am very like Fridtjof in looks. It may be that it would not be unadvisable now for me to ask advice of the next person how I can come to the camp."
The asking had become a matter of necessity by the time she found anyone capable of answering the question. Three foreign merchants whom she overtook near noon could give her no information, and she covered the next five miles without seeing a living creature; then it was only a beggar, who crawled out of the bushes to offer to sell the child beside him for a crust of bread. The petition brought back to Randalin her own famished condition so sharply that her answer was unnecessarily petulant, and the man disappeared before the question could even be put to him. Two miles more, and nothing was in front of her but a flock of ragged blackbirds circling over a trampled wheat-field. Already the sun's round chin rested on the crest of the farthest hill. In desperation, she turned aside and galloped after a mailed horseman who was trotting down a clover-sweet lane with a rattle and clank that frightened the robins from the hedges. He reined in with a guffaw when he saw what mettle of blade it was that had accosted him.
"Is it your intention to join the army?" he inquired. "Canute will consider himself in great luck."
"I am desirous to—to tell him something," Red Cloak faltered.
His grin vanishing, the man leaned forward alertly. "Is it war news? Of Edric Jarl's men?"
Before her tongue could move, Randalin's surprised face had answered. The warrior smote his thigh resoundingly.
"You will be able to tell us tidings we wish to know. Since the fight this morning we have been allowed to do no more than growl at the English dogs across the plain, because it was held unadvisable to make an onset until the Jarl's men should increase our strength. It is to be hoped they are not far behind?"
"You make a mistake," Randalin began hesitatingly. "My news does not concern the doings of Edric Jarl, but the actions of his man Norman—"
A blow across her lips silenced her.
"Hold your tongue until you come in to the Chief," the man admonished her, with good-humored severity. "Have you not learned that babbling turns to ill, you sprouting twig? And waste no more time upon the road, either. Yonder is your shortest way, up that lane between the barley. When you come to a burned barn, do you turn to the left and ride straight toward the woods; it should happen that an old beech stock stands where you come out. Take then the path that winds up-hill, and it will bring you to the war booths before you can open your foolish mouth thrice. Trolls! what a cub to send a message by! But get along, now; you will suffer from their temper if they think it likely that you have kept them waiting." He gave the horse a stinging slap upon the flank, that sent him forward like a shaft from a bow.
Snatching up her slackened rein with one hand, his rider managed to secure her leaping cap with the other; and after the first bounce, she caught the jerky gait instinctively and swayed her body into its uneven swing. But her heart was all at once a-throb in a wild panic. Was this what a boy must expect? This challenging brutal downrightness, which made one seem to have become a dog that must prove his usefulness or be kicked aside? Her spirit felt as bruised as a fledgeling fallen upon stony ground. She shivered as the old beech stock loomed up before her.
"If these other men behave so, it is in my mind to tell them that I am a woman," she decided. "Since they are my own people, no evil can come of their knowing; and I dislike the other feeling."
The recollection that she had always this escape open gave her a new lease of boldness. Her courage rose as fast as her body when they began to climb the hillside toward the ruddy light that slanted down between the tree-trunks. When a sentinel stopped her near the top, she faced him with a fairly firm front.
"I have war news for King Canute," she told him haughtily; and he let her pass with no more than a grin.
The camp appeared to be strung through the whole beech grove that covered the crest of the hill. The first sign of it began less than ten yards beyond the sentry, where a couple of squatting thralls were skinning a slain deer; and as far as eye could swim in the flood of sunset light, the green aisles were dotted with scattered groups. Every flat rock had a ring of dice-throwers bending over it; every fallen trunk its row of idlers. Wherever a cluster of boulders made a passable smithy, crowds of sweating giants plied hammer and sharpening-stone. The edges of the little stream that trickled down to the valley were thronged with men bathing gaping wounds and tearing up the cool moss to staunch their flowing blood. Never had the girl dreamed of such chaos. It gave her the feeling of having plunged into a whirlpool. She threaded her way among the groups as silently as the leaf-padded ground would permit.
She had come in by the back door, but now she began to reach the better quarters. Her nose reported sooner than her eyes that a meal was in making; and a glow of anticipation braced her famished body. Here, in this green alcove, preparations were just beginning; a white-robed slave knelt by the curling thread of smoke and nursed the flickering flame with his breath, while his circle of hungry masters pelted him with woolly beech-nuts and cursed his slowness. There, a dozen yards to the left, the meal was nearly over; between the gnarled trunks the fire shone like a red eye; and bursts of merriment and snatches of boisterous song marked the beginning of the drinking.
Sometimes a woman's lighter laughter would mingle with the peal. Sometimes, through the sway-ing branches, Randalin caught sight of the flower-fair face of an English girl, bending between the shaggy yellow heads of the captors. Once she came upon a brawny Viking employing his huge fingers to twine a golden chain around a white throat. The girl's face was dimpling bewitchingly as she held aside her shining hair. Randalin had an impulse of triumph.
"I wish that Sister Wynfreda could see that, now, since it is her belief that Danes are always overbearing toward their captives," she told herself. "This one has no appearance of having felt blows or known hard labor. She could not have been entertained with greater liberality in her father's house—"
She broke off suddenly, as the words suggested a new train of thought. This girl must have been driven from her father's house by Danes, even as she herself had been driven forth by the English. Yet here was she eating with her foes, taking gold from their hands! Could she have honor who would thus make friends with the slayers of her kin? Randalin watched her wonderingly until leaves shut out the picture.
Another sentinel hailed her, and she gave him absently her customary answer. He pointed to a great striped tent of red and white linen, adorned with fluttering streamers and guarded by more sentries in shining mail; and she rode toward it in a daze.
More revellers sprawled under these trees, and she looked at them curiously. The women here did not seem to be amusing themselves so well. One was weeping; and one—a slip of a girl with a face like a rose—was trying vainly to rise from her place beside a drunken warrior, who held her hands and strove to pull her lips down to his wine-stained mouth. In imagination Randalin felt again Norman's arm around her waist, and a wild pity was quickened in her. This was worse than drudgery, worse than blows! For the credit of Danish warriors, it was well that Sister Wynfreda could not see this.
Again her own words raised a startling apparition. What had been the Sister's last cry of warning? "It is not their cruelty I fear for you. Child, listen! It is not their blows—" Could it be possible that this was what—
Like a merciless answer came a scream from the girl,—a short piercing cry of horror and loathing and agonized appeal as she was drawn down upon the leering face. At that cry, childhood's blind trust died forever in Randalin. As she rode past the pair, with clenched hands and flashing eyes, she knew without reasoning that tortures would not tear from her the secret of her disguise.
When the sentinel before the tent challenged her roughly, it was her tongue, not her brain, that answered him.
"I have war news for the King."
In a twinkling he had dropped his spear, plucked her from her saddle, and was marching her toward the entrance by her collar.
"In the Troll's name, get in to the Chief, and let nothing hinder you!" he growled. "From your snail's pace I got the idea that you had come a-begging. Get in, and set your tongue wagging as speedily as you can! Why do you draw back? I tell you to make haste!"
Before she could so much as catch her breath, he had raised the tent-flap, pushed her bodily through the entrance, and dropped the linen door behind her.
Chapter IV. When Royal Blood Is Young Blood
The mind only knows What lies near the heart; That alone is conscious of our affections. No disease is worse To a sensible man Than not to be content with himself. Ha'vama'l.
Three richly dressed warriors, clinking golden goblets across a table,—so much Randalin caught in her first glance. On the spot where the sentinel had released her she stopped, stock-still, and with eyes bent on the ground tremblingly awaited the royal attention.
Clink-clank,—the golden goblet lips continued their noisy kissing. The hum of the low-toned voices droned on without interruption. Minute after minute dragged by. She ventured to shift her weight and steal an upward glance.
Her first thought was that a king's tent was very like a trader's booth. Spears and banners and gold-bossed shields decorated the walls, while the reed-strewn ground was littered with furs and armor, with jewelled altar-cloths and embroidered palls and wonder-ful gold-laced garments. The rude temporary benches were spread with splendid covers of purple and green, upon which silver lilies and gold-eyed peacocks had been wrought with exquisite skill. And the rough-hewn table bore such treasures as plunderers dream of when their sleeping-bags are lying the most comfortably,—ivory relique caskets, out of which the sacred bones had been unceremoniously turned, gemmed chalices from earls' feasting-halls, and amber chains and silver mirrors and strings of pearls from their ladies' bowers. Randalin's gaze lingered, dazzled, then slowly rose to examine the master of all this wealth.
He was not so easy to pick out. Of the three men around the table, only one was a graybeard; and of the two striplings left, either might have been the son of Sven of Denmark. Both were finely formed; both were dressed with royal splendor, and the hair of each fell from under a jewelled circlet in uncut lengths of shining fairness. The hair of the shorter one, though, was finer; and no red tainted the purity of its gold. When one came to look at it, it was like a royal cloak. Perhaps he might be the King! She wished he would raise his face from his hands, that she might see it. Then she noticed that his shoulders lacked the breadth of his companion's by as much as a palm's width; and her mind wavered. Surely so great a king as Canute must be broader-shouldered than any of his subjects! This youth was hardly brawny at all; as Vikings went, he was even slender. She turned her attention to the other man. He was big enough, certainly; the fist that he was waving in the air was like nothing so much as a sledge-hammer, and there was a likeness to the Jotuns in his florid coarse-featured face.
As she watched it, Randalin felt a coldness creep over her. His great jaws were like the jowl of a mastiff. His thick-lipped mouth—what was it that made that so terrible, even in smiling? Watching it with the fascination of terror, it occurred to her to endow him with the appetite of the drunken warrior at the table outside the tent. Suppose, just as they stood now, he should take the fancy to turn and kiss her lips; would anything stop him? In the drawing of a breath, her overwrought nerves had painted the picture so clearly that she was sick with horror. Sister Wynfreda's red-hot iron would not keep him back, instinct told her. That sacrifice of beauty had not been simple-minded; it had been the one alternative. The girl's light-hearted boldness went from her in a gasp. Her shaking limbs gave way beneath her, so that she sank on the nearest bench and cowered there, panting.
Though the men were too intent to notice her, in some sub-conscious way her moving seemed to rouse them. Their discussion had been growing gradually louder; now the bearded man and the young Jotun rose suddenly and faced their companion, whose voice became audible in an obstinate mutter,—
"Nevertheless, I doubt that it was wise to join hands with an English traitor."
The older man said in a tone of slowly gathering anger, "I told you to make the bargain, and I stand at the back of my counsels. Have you become like the wind, which tries every quarter of the sky because it knows not its own mind?"
While the young man warned in his heavy voice, "You will have your will in this as in everything, King Canute; but I tell you that if you keep the bargain, you will act against my advice."
Randalin had been mistaken in her deductions. It was not the brawny body that was King of the Danes; the leader's spirit lodged in the slender frame of the youth with the cloak of yellow hair.
He raised from his hands now a face of boyish sullenness, and sat glaring over his clenched fists at his counsellors.
"Certainly it would become a great misfortune to me if I should act against the advice of Rothgar Lodbroksson," he made stinging answer. "He is as wise and long-sighted as though he had eaten a dragon's heart. It was he who gave me the advice, when the English broke faith, to vent my rage upon the hostages. Men have not yet ceased to lift their noses at me for the unkingliness of the deed." His eyes blazed at the memory. They were not pleasant eyes when he was angry; the blue seemed to fade from them until they were two shining colorless pools in his brown face.
The son of Lodbrok shrugged his huge shoulders in stolid resignation; but the wrinkled forehead of the older man became somewhat smoother. There was nothing Jotun-like about his long, lean features, yet his expression was little pleasanter on that account. From under his lowering shaggy brows he appeared to see without being seen; and one distrusted his hidden eyes as a traveller in the open distrusts a skulker in the thicket.
He said in his measured voice, "In that matter my opinion stands with Canute. When bloodshed is unnecessary, it becomes a drawback. Craft is greatly to be preferred. One does not cross deep snow by stamping through it on iron-shod feet; one slides over it on skees."
Over the brown fists, the fierce bright eyes bent themselves upon him in his turn. The biting young voice said, "It is likely that Thorkel the Tall speaks from experience. It stands in my memory how well craft served him when he had deserted my father for Ethelred and then became tired of the Englishman. To procure himself peace, he was forced to creep back to my feet like a dog that has been kicked. Was there gold enough in his bribe to regild his fame?"
The gnarled old face of Thorkel the Tall grew livid; growling in his grizzled beard, his hand moved instinctively toward his sword. But Rothgar caught his arm with a boisterous laugh.
"Slowly, old wolf!" he admonished. "Never snarl at the snapping of the cub you have raised."
The King had not moved at the threatening gesture, and he did not move now, but he echoed the laugh bitterly. "In that, you say more truth than you know, foster-brother. He is a wolf, and I am a wolf's cub, and you are no better. We are all a pack of ravening beasts, we Northmen, that have no higher ambition than to claw and use our teeth. Talk of high-mindedness to such—bah!" He flung his arms apart in loathing; then, in a motion as boyishly weary as it was boyishly petulant, crossed them on the table before him and pillowed his head upon them.
His companions did not seem to be unused to such outbursts. Rothgar appeared to find it more amusing than anything else, for his mouth expanded slowly in a grin. A snort of impatience distended the nostrils of Thorkel the Tall. "At such times as these," he said, "are brought to my mind the words of Ulf Jarl, that a man does not really stand well upon his legs until he has lived twenty-five winters."
Up came the young King's yellow head. There was no question now about his temper. A spot of fiery red marked each cheek-bone, and his colorless eyes were points of blazing light.
"Better is it to stand unsteadily upon two legs than to go naturally upon four," he retorted. "If I also am a beast, at least there is a man's mind in me that tells me to loathe myself for being so. Even as I loathe you—both of you—and all your howling pack! Make me no answer or, by the head of Odin, you shall feel my fangs! You say that my will is like the wind's will. Can you not see why, dull brutes that you are? Because it is not my will, but yours,—now Rothgar's beast-fierceness, now your low-minded craft. Because I am not content with myself, I listen to you. And you—you—Oh, leave me, leave me, before I lose my human nature and go mad like a dog! Leave—You laugh!" As he caught sight of Rothgar, he interrupted himself with a roar. His hand shot to his belt and plucking forth the jewelled knife that hung there, hurled it, a glittering streak, at the grinning face. If it had reached home, one of Rothgar's eyes would have gone out in darkness.
But the son of Lodbrok had known his royal foster-brother too long to be taken by surprise. Throwing up a wooden platter like a shield, he caught the quivering blade in its bottom, whence he drew it forth with good-humored composure.
"If you wish to give a friend a present, King, you should not throw it at him so angrily," he suggested. "Had you given me the sheath too, your gift would have been doubly dear."
The fiery spots in Canute's cheeks deepened and spread. He turned away without answering, and stood a long time beating his fingers on the table in a sharp tattoo.
What does it mean, the pause that follows the storm, when Nature's accumulated discontent has vented itself in a passionate outbreak? The trees stand motionless, with hanging heads; the blue of the clearing sky is divinely tender; under the spangling drops, the flowers look up like tear-filled eyes. Does it mean repentance, or only exhaustion?
Gradually the color flowed back to the young King's eyes and softened them; gradually his mouth relaxed from its fierce lines and drooped in bitter curves. When at last his fingers stopped their nervous beat, it was to unfasten the sheath of chased gold which was attached to his waist, and stretch it out to Rothgar.
"Have it your own way," he said gravely. "It is right that I pay some fine; I have a troll's temper. Take the sheath. But do not make the mistake again of laughing at me because you cannot understand me. But one person may do that and live; and that person is a woman, and my wife... There is a strange feeling in my heart that we have begun to travel different paths, you and I,—and that it is because we no longer walk on the same level of ground, that we no longer see any object in the same light... And my mind tells me that in time to come your path will lead you down into the valley and my road will take me up the mountain-side,...until even our voices shall no longer reach across." He came out of his dreaming abruptly. "It is not worth while to speak further. I do not blame my foster-father that he is lifting the corner of his mouth at me. And you—you think I am talking in my sleep. Leave me, as I ordered you. There is no unfriendliness in my mind at this, but I can command myself no further. Go."
Rothgar said, with some approach to formal courtesy, "I ask you to pardon it that I have done what you dislike, for I wish that the least of all the world. And I give you thanks for your gift." Their hands clasped strongly as the trinket passed from grasp to grasp.
Then the sage and the soldier turned and strode past the cowering figure of Randalin and out of the linen doorway.
Chapter V. Before The King
Know if thou hast a friend Whom thou little trustest Yet wouldst good from him derive Thou shouldst speak him fair, But think craftily, And leasing pay with lying. Ha'vama'l.
When the curtain had fallen behind his advisers, the young King threw himself back upon his rude high-seat and rested motionless among its cushions, his head hanging heavily upon his breast.
Crouching on her bench near the door, Randalin watched him as a fly caught in a web watches the approaching spider. She had forgotten her errand; she had forgotten her disguise; she had forgotten where she was; her one conscious emotion was fear. Her eyes followed his roving glance from spear to banner, from floor to ceiling, in terrible anticipation. It approached her; it turned aside; it passed above her, hesitated, sank, touched her! Ashen-white, she staggered to her feet and faced him.
A lithe boyish figure with wide boyish eyes and a tanned boyish face,—Canute gazed incredulously; rubbed his eyes and looked again.
"In the Troll's name, who are you?" he ejaculated. "How came you here?"
The pale lips moved, but no sound came from them.
Their fruitless twitching seemed to irritate him. He made a petulant gesture toward the half-filled goblet. "Why do you stand there making mouths? Drink that and get a man's voice into your throat, if you have anything to say to me."
"A man's voice!" The girl stared at him. "A man's voice?" Then, like lungfuls of fresh air, it entered into her that she was not really the naked fledgeling she felt herself. She was in the toils, surely, but there was a shell around her. Glad to hide her face for a moment, she seized the goblet and drained it slowly to the last drop. If only she could remember just how Fridtjof had borne himself! As she swallowed the last mouthful, a recollection came to her of the thrall-women grumbling over Fridtjof's wine-stained tunics; and she carefully drew her sleeve across her mouth as she set down the cup.
Leaning back in his seat, the King took frowning measure of his guest, from the toe of her spurred riding-boot to the top of the green cap which she had forgotten to remove. His mood seemed wavering between annoyance and amusement; a word could decide the balance. With her last swallow he repeated his challenge.
"Are you capable now of giving me any reason why I should not have you flogged from the camp? Is it your opinion that because I choose to behave foolishly before my friends, I am desirous to have tale-bearing boys listening?"
"Boys" again! Randalin's sinking spirit rallied at the assurance as her fainting body had revived under the rich warmth of the mead.
She managed to stammer out, "I entreat you not to be angry, Lord King. It was the fault of the man on guard that I came in as I did. And I did not understand six of the words you spoke,—I beseech you to believe it."
That she had in truth been too frightened for intelligent eavesdropping, the remaining pallor of her face made it easy to believe. The scales tipped ever so little.
"Did you think you had fallen into a bear pit?" the King asked with a faint smile, that sharpened swiftly to bitterness. "After all, it would matter little what anyone told of me. Without doubt your kin have already taught you to call me thrall-bred and witless. Little more can be said."
That from the warrior whose foot was already planted on the neck of England! In her surprise, Randalin's eyes met his squarely. "By no means, King Canute; my father called you the highest-minded man in the world."
The young leader flushed scarlet, flushed till he felt the burning, and averted his face to hide it. He said in a low voice, "Many things have been told of me that I count for naught, but this—this has not been said of me before. Tell me his name."
"He was called Frode, the Dane of Avalcomb." The red mouth trembled a little. "He is dead now. He was slain last night, by Norman Leofwinesson, who is Edric Jarl's thane."
As both horseman and sentinel had started at that name, so now the King straightened into alertness, forgetting everything else.
"Leofwinesson? What know you of him or his Jarl? Where are they? When saw you them?"
"Last night; when they lay drunk in my father's castle at Avalcomb, after—"
"Avalcomb? Near St. Alban's? The swine!" The monarch was a soldier now, shooting his questions like arrows. "After I bade them at Gillingham come straight to me! How many were they? Where is the Jarl?"
"He was not with them. It was Norman of Baddeby who led, and he had no more than five-and-fifty men. It was spoken among them that they would join you at sunset to-day—"
Canute's hand shot out and gripped her arm and shook it. "You know this for certain? I will have your tongue if you lie to me! You are sure that they intend coming,—that it is not their intention to play me false and return to Edmund?" His voice was stern, his gaze mercilessly direct. An hour before, the girl would have shrunk from them both.
One can learn life-lessons in an hour. She faced the roughness now as one faces a rush of bracing north wind. "I know what I heard them say, Lord King. They said that Edric Jarl had marched on to St. Alban's to lie there over-night. Leofwinesson stopped at Avalcomb because he wished to vent his spite upon my father. It was their intention to meet at the city gate at noon and come on to join you. They will be here before the sun is set."
Canute released her arm to reach for his goblet. "I wish I could know it for certain," he muttered. "But it is as the saying has it, 'Though they fight and quarrel among themselves, the eagles will mate again.'" He looked at her with a half-smile as he refilled his cup, motioning toward the other flagon. "Fill up, and we will drink a toast to their loyalty and to your beard; they appear to be equally in need of encouragement." Draining it off, he sat staring down into the dregs, twirling the stem thoughtfully between his fingers.
By the time she had shifted her weight twice for each foot, the petitioner ventured to recall him.
"It gives me some hope, to hear what you say about suspecting Edric Jarl," she said timidly; "for that makes it appear more likely that you will be willing to give me justice on his man."
"Justice?" The King's mind came back to her slowly, as from an immense distance. "By Thor, I had forgotten! There have not been so many to me on that errand... Though I take it well that you should trust me... Yes, certainly; I will be king-like once. Stand here before me, while I question you."
She caught her breath rather sharply as she stepped forward. Would she be able to tell a straight story? She stood with fingers interlacing nervously.
"Tell me first how you are called?"
"I am called Fridtjof Frodesson."
"Frode of Avalcomb! Now I know where I have heard that name; my father spoke it often, and always with great respect. It will go hard with me if I must return an unfavorable answer to his son. Tell me how his death was brought about."
Randalin thrust the sobs back from her throat; the tears back from her eyes. Only a clear head could deliver her out of the snare. She began slowly: "Leofwinesson set upon him last night, at the gate of the castle, and slew him. The Englishman had long been covetous of Avalcomb, so that even his fear of you was not so great as his greed. He had five-and-fifty men, and my father but twelve—besides me; he—we—had just come in from hunting. Then he rode over my father's body into the castle." She stopped uncertainly to glance at her listener.
The brightness of his eyes startled her, though they were not turned in her direction. They were blazing down into the cup that he was turning and pinching between his fingers. He said, half as though to himself: "Vermin! What would I give if I might take them in my teeth and shake them like the filth-fed rats they are! Ten hundred such do not reach the value of one finger of a warrior like Frode! I knew that the fetters of Thorkel's craftiness would pinch me some-where—" He broke off and flung the goblet from him, burying his hands in his yellow hair. "How I hate them!" he breathed between his teeth. "How I hate their smooth-tongued Jarl, and all their treacherous hides! Oh, for the day when I no longer need their aid; when I am free to strike!" The joy of his face was a terrible thing to hold in one's memory.
Perhaps he saw its awfulness reflected in the wide blue eyes, for he checked himself abruptly. When he spoke again, he had himself well in hand.
"I act like a fool to let you hear my ravings. Poor cub! it is likely you will call me a worse name when you find out how I am hindered! Yet go on and tell me the rest. How comes it that you escaped unharmed?"
With Gram's experience to follow, it was not hard to frame that answer. "They knocked me on the head with a spear-butt and left me for dead. When I got my senses again, I found my way to the nuns of St. Mildred's; and they gave me food, and I rode hither."
"It is the Troll's luck! I—yet, go on. The day will come! Did they further harm within the castle? Have you women-kin?"
Randalin hesitated. Would it not be safer if she could deny altogether the existence of a daughter of Frode? But no, that was not possible, in the face of what Norman might reveal. She began very, very carefully: "It happened that my mother died before we came to Avalcomb; and my father had but one daughter. She was called Randalin. I did not see what became of her, for I was outside; but I think that she is dead. A—her thrall-woman told me that Leofwinesson pursued her to a chamber in the wall. And and because she could not escape from him—she—she threw herself from the window, and the stones below caused her death."
The King's hands clenched convulsively. "It is like them!" he muttered. "It has happened as I supposed. If the master be like his men, I ask you in what their God is to be preferred to ours? Have no fear but that I will avenge your kinswoman. Those of her own blood-ties could do no more. And Frode also. You need not wait long for me when the day comes; the last hair of the otter-skin shall be covered, though I take from them the Ring itself. You shall see! Have patience, and you shall see!"
Upon burning ears the word "patience" falls coldly.
"Patience!" the child of Frode repeated.
Perhaps in days gone by the young King himself had rebelled at the tyranny of that word. Perhaps the smart of its scourge was still upon him. He put forth a kindly hand and drew the boy down beside him.
"Listen, young one," he said, "and do not blame me for what I cannot help. Had I come hither only to get property and go away again, as Northmen before me have come, it would not matter to me whom I killed, and I would slay Leofwinesson more gladly than I would eat; may the Giant take me if I lie! But I have come to the Island to set up my seat-pillars and get myself land. I think no one guesses how much I have the ambition at heart; even to me it appears a strange wonder. But it is true that I look upon the fair rolling meadows with such eyes of love that when it is necessary that I should set fire to them, it is as though I had laid the torch to my hair. And because of that, in order that I be not kept destroying them until they are not worth the having, I have made a bargain with Edric Jarl, who is dissatisfied with his king, that we are to support each other in the game. There it is all open to you. Leofwinesson is the man of Edric. Until such time as I get the kingship firmly in my hands, it would be unadvisable for me to reckon with him though he had slain my foster-brother. You see? It is the way the Fates order things. I must submit to them, though I am a king. Can you not, then, bend your head without shame, and wait with me?"
Reasoning was lost on Randalin. The bitterness of failure had swept over her and maddened her. Was she mistaken, then, about everything? Could those trembling old women behind the broken wall read the world like witches? Was everyone false or a beast? Oh, how her father had been wronged! She shook off the King's hand and faced him with blazing eyes, seeking for words that should bite like her thoughts. Then she became conscious that a word would precipitate a flood of hysterical tears, to the eternal disgrace of her warrior kin. All that was left for her was to get away without speaking. Out in the woods there would be no one to see; and the grass would hide the quivering of her lips. She put up her hand now to hide it and, struggling to her feet, began groping toward the door.
She did not stop when Canute's voice called after her,—not until she had reached the entrance, and the rattle of crossing spears, without, had told her that her way was barred. Then she whirled back with a sharp cry.
"Let me go! I hate you! Let me go!"
He did not bid his guards kill her, as she half expected. Instead, he said patiently, "I foresaw that you would take it ill; there is the greatest excuse for you. In your place I should be equally unruly. Indeed, there is a likeness about our luck, which causes my heart to go out to you as it has done to no one else. I will grant your boon in time to come; so sure as I live, I will. And until then, since all your stock has been cut off, I will be your guardian and you shall be my ward, as though you were my own brother. Come, sit here, and I will tell you."
She repulsed him sharply. "No, no, you shall do nothing for me! I am going back. I ask you to let me go."
"Let you go, to starve under a hedge?"
"I shall not starve; Avalcomb is mine."
"What food will that put in your mouth, since Leofwinesson has conquered it and driven out your servants and set his own in their place?"
Her heart sickened within her. Once more the impulse came to creep away, like a wounded animal, and fight it out alone. She turned again to the door.
"I will starve, then. Let me go."
Leaning at his ease in the great chair, the young King regarded his ward thoughtfully. "It is not possible that the son of Frode the Fearless should be a coward," he said at last; "but you are over-peevish, boy. That you have never known government is easily seen. Listen now to the truth of the matter. If you were a maiden, it would be easy for me to—Are you listening?" He paused, for the slim figure had suddenly become so statue-like that he suspected it of plotting another attack upon the door.
The boy answered very low, "Yes, Lord King, I am listening."
Canute went on again: "I say that if you were a maiden,—if you were your sister, to tell it shortly,—I could easily dispose of you in marriage. Thus would you get protection, and your father's castle would gain a strong arm to fight for it. I would wed you to my foster-brother, Rothgar Lodbroksson, and thus bring good to both of—Are you finding fault with that also?"
But the lad stood before him like a stone. If a faint cry had come from him, it was not repeated; and there was nothing offensive about a hidden face and shaking limbs.
The King continued more gently: "But since you were so simple as to be born a boy, such good luck is not to be expected. It is the best that I can do to offer you to become my ward and follow me as my page, until the sword's game has decided between me and Edmund of England. But I do not know where your ambition is if that does not content you. There are lads in Denmark who would give their tongues for the chance. What say you, Fridtjof the Bold?"
For a time it looked as if "Fridtjof the Bold" did not know what to say. He stood without raising his hanging head or moving a muscle. Silence filled the tent, while from outside leaked in the noise of the revel. Then, through that noise or above it, there became audible the notes of far-away horns. Edric Jarl was fulfilling his pledge. Cheers answered the blast. An exclamation broke from the King's lips, and he leaped up. At that moment, "Fridtjof the Bold" fell at his feet with clasped hands and supplicating eyes.
"Let me go, Lord King," he besought passionately. "Let me go, and I will ask nothing further of you. I will never trouble you again. Let me go!—only let me go!"
Canute of Denmark is not to be blamed that he stamped with exhausted patience.
"Go into the hands of the Trolls!" he swore. And again, "In the Fiend's name!" And at last, "By the head of Odin, it would serve you well did I take you at your word! It would serve you right did I turn you out to starve. Were it not for your father's sake, and for the sake of my own honor, I vow I would! Now hearken to this." Bending, he picked the boy up by his collar and shook him. "Listen now to this, and understand that you cannot move me by the breadth of a hair. I shall not let you go, and you shall be my ward, whether you will or no. And if you run away, soldiers shall go after you and bring you back, as often as you run. And if you answer me now or anger me further—but I will not say that, for it is your misfortune that makes you unruly, and you are weak-spirited from hunger. Take this bread now for your meal, and that bench yonder for your bed, and trouble me no more to-night. I would not be hard upon you, yet it would be advisable for you to remember that I have sufficient temper for one tent. Go as I bid you. I must meet with the Jarl. Go! Do you heed my orders?"
Only one answer was possible. After a moment the page gave it in a low voice.
"Yes, Lord King," he whispered, and crept away to his corner.
Chapter VI. The Training of Fridtjof The Page
A foolish man Is all night awake, Pondering over everything; He then grows tired, And when morning comes All is lament, as before. Ha'vama'l.
Who that has youth and a healthy body is not made a new being by a night of dreamless slumber? What young heart is so despairing that to waken into a fair day does not bring courage? Wakened by the sun's caress, to the morning song of blowing trees, Randalin faced her future as became the kinswoman of warriors.
"I do not know why it was that fear crept into my breast last night," she told herself severely, when the first wave of strangeness and grief had broken over her, and she had come up again into the sparkling air. "Great dangers have threatened me, but I have escaped them all with great luck; it is poor-spirited of me to despair. And it must be that witches had thinned my blood with water that I should have thought of running away. To do that would be to lose my revenge forever. I should become a creature without honor, like the girl with the necklace. To stay is no less than my duty. If I think all the time of Fridtjof, it is certain that I can hide it that I am a girl." Turning in her furry bed, she rose cautiously upon her elbow and looked about.
The tent was empty, though scattered furs along the benches showed where sleepers might have rested. But from outside, a clatter of hurrying feet and excited voices broke suddenly upon her. Did it mean a battle? She sat up, straining eye and ear. The jubilant voices shouted greetings that just missed being intelligible. The sun, glancing from moving weapons, flashed through the doorway in fantastic shapes.
While she was trying to unravel it all, one pair of the hurrying feet halted before the entrance. After a muttered word with the sentinel, they came on and brought the son of Lodbrok into view. The girl started up with a gasp of alarm, then made the strange discovery that she was no longer afraid of him. Though he showed against the linen wall as brawny and big of jowl as he had loomed up the night before, she found herself moved only to dislike. What had been the matter last night? Understanding nothing of the clairvoyant power of sharpened nerves, she set it down to cowardice, and put on an extra swagger now as her eyes met his.
Rothgar surveyed the sprig of defiance with no more than a perfunctory interest. "It seems that you are the son of Frode the Dane," he said in his heavy voice. "Frode was a mighty raven-feeder; for his sake I am going to support you until you can go well on your legs. Have you had anything to eat?"
As she shook her head, Randalin's heart rather softened toward him. But it hardened again when the thralls had brought the food, and he had sat down and begun to share it. Seen in a strong light, his rich tunic proved to be foul with beer stains, while his great hands reeked with grease. His thick lips, his heavy breathing—bah, he was revolting! Before she had finished the meal, she had come to the conclusion that she hated him.
Perhaps it was as well that there was something to add firmness to her bearing. As he swallowed his last mouthful of food, Rothgar said abruptly, "Canute has put your training into my hands. It is his will that I find out how much skill you have with weapons."
It was nothing more than she should have expected, yet it came upon her with the suddenness of a blow. She could only stammer, "Weapons?"
The Jotun's voice rumbled hideously as he talked into his goblet. "Have you the accomplishment to wield a battle-axe or throw a spear? Can you shoot straight?"
"No," she faltered.
He rolled his eyes around at her as he threw back his head to catch the last drop that clung to the golden rim. "Can you handle a sword?"
Randalin hesitated, uncertain how far her idle play at fencing with her brother would bear her out; she provided as many loop-holes as she could devise. "I think you will find my skill slight. I have—I have grown so fast that I lack strength in my arms. And I have not exercised myself as much as I should have done."
"It is in my mind that you have been a lazy cub," the warrior pronounced deliberate sentence, as he set down his goblet. "It is easily seen that Frode has been over-gentle with you. But you will pay now for your laziness, by receiving a cut each time I pass your guard. Stand forth, and show what your skill is worth. This sword will not be too heavy." Selecting the smallest of the jewelled blades upon the floor, he thrust it into her hands.
It is good to have in one's veins the liquid fire of the North, blood to which the presence of peril is like the touch of the Ice King to water. At the first clash of the blades, strange tingling fires began to flash through Randalin,—and then a hardness, that burnt while it froze. The first pass, her hands had parried seemingly by their own instinct; now she flung back her tumbling curls and proceeded to give those hands the aid of her eyes. They were marvellously quick eyes; for Fridtjof's thrusts, consulting no rule but his own will, had required lightning to follow them and something like mind-reading to anticipate them. Three times her blade met Rothgar's squarely, and deftly turned it aside. The big warrior gave a grunt of approval and tried a more complicated pass. Her backward leap, the sudden doubling of her body, and the excited clawing of her free hand, were not graceful swordsmanship, certainly, but her steel was in the right place. The next instant, she even drew a little clink from one of the Jotun's silver buttons.
As she was recovering herself, she felt something like a pin prick her wrist; and she wondered vaguely what brooch had become unfastened. But she gave it scant attention for the big blade was threatening her from a new direction. She leaped to meet it, and for the next minute was kept turning, twisting, dodging, till her breath began to come in gasps, and her exhausted hand to relax its hold. Her weapon was almost falling from it by the time the son of Lodbrok lowered his point. Imitating him, she stood leaning on her sword, making futile gasps after her lost breath.
A grin slowly wrinkled his face as he watched her. "It appears that one who is no bigger around than a willow twig may be capable of a berserk rage," he said. "Do you not feel it that you are wounded?"
Following his eyes down to her hand, she found blood trickling from her sleeve. Oh, and pain! Now that she had wakened to it—pain! pricking, stinging, stabbing. Dropping her sword, she caught at her wrist.
"How did it happen? I thought a pin had pricked me!"
Roaring with laughter, he caught her under the arms and tossed her in the air.
"A pin!" he shouted. "A pin! That is Frode himself! A beard on your chin, and you also will be a feeder of wolves! For that you shall have a share in the battle. I swear it by the hilt of the Hanger!"
For the moment, the girl forgot her wound and hung limp in the great hands. "The battle?" she gasped. "I—I fight?"
Roaring afresh, the Jotun gave her another jubilant toss. "You blustering field-mouse! Showing your teeth already? Who knows? If you meet a blind Englishman without a weapon, you may even kill him. Here," he tumbled her roughly to the ground, "tie up your pin-scratch and then come after me. I must go up yonder to Canute, under the oak tree. If you are too tired to wield the sword, tie your hand to the hilt, and no man shall have a better will to do harm to the English. Frode the Dane will experience great pride when he looks out of Valhalla to-day." Putting out one great hand, he patted her soft curls as though she were some shaggy dog, then hurried out to his chief.
It was a respite to be alone, and she accepted it gratefully, sinking among the cushions with closed eyes and a hand on her throbbing wrist. But it was only a respite; she never for a moment lost sight of that. The battle must be faced, and faced boldly. One word of reluctance would be the surest betrayal of her secret. And betrayal meant Rothgar! She shivered as she fancied she still felt his greasy touch upon her hair. To become his property that he might even kiss! With a gasp of relief, she turned her thoughts back to the battle.
After all, it was not unthinkable. Her riding would never betray her; and in the confusion, who would notice whether or not she used her sword? She did grow a little cold as the possibility of being killed occurred to her; but even that darkness gave birth to a light. Being dressed in man's garments, it was likely that the Valkyrias would mistake her for a boy; if she bore herself bravely, it was possible that they might carry her up to Valhalla. Should she once reach her father's arms, he would not let Odin himself drive her forth. The hot tears gathered under her lids. If only she could get to her father! He would be glad to see her, and he would be proud of her; Rothgar himself had said it. Even Fridtjof would not be ashamed that she had borne his name. She must be very careful about that, she realized suddenly. He had never known what the word "fear" meant; even in Valhalla he would turn from her, should she disgrace him. It would become an unheard-of wickedness to borrow a name from the helpless dead if you could not wear it worthily. Her conscience smote her now, for her shirking, and she struggled to her feet.
None too soon; above the outside din a horn clarioned, loud and clear. Through the hush that followed could be heard the voice of Canute, assigning their positions to the different bands.
"I and my kinsman, Ulf Jarl, shall be foremost. To the right of my standard Edric Jarl shall stand, and the men with whom he joined us. He shall have another standard. To the left of my bodyguard shall stand the men of Eric of Norway. Friends and kinsmen shall stand together. There each will defend the other best."
Then Rothgar's harsh voice sounded, shouting her name,—Fridtjof's name. Giving her scarf a hasty twist about her arm, she knotted it with her teeth; and seizing the sword in her little brown hand clotted with her own blood, she ran out into the tumult.
Chapter VII. The Game of Swords
It is better for the brave man Than for the coward To join in the battle. It is better for the glad Than for the sorrowing In all circumstances. Fafnisma'l.
It would have been a dull soul that would not have been stirred by a sight of Danish camp. The host was like a forest of mighty trees tossing and swaying before the approach of a storm. Lines of moving shot lightning flashes through the dusk of the shady grove; while the hundreds of jubilant voices blended into rumbling thunder. Through the tumult, the blaring horns thrilled like pulse-beats.
Flaring crimson under her brown skin, Randalin's Viking blood leaped to answer the call. For Rothgar's shout she gave another, and laughed out of sheer delight when he tossed her upon the back of a pawing horse. Away with woman's fears! The world was a grand brave place, and men a race of heroes. To ride by their sides, and share their mighty deeds, and see their glory,—what keener joy had life to offer? Away with fear, with foreboding! The present was all-glorious, and there would be no to-morrow.
Shrill and clear from the opposite hill came the notes of the English horns, as down the green slope moved the ranks of English bowmen. The hum of Danish voices sank in a breathless hush; through the stillness, Tovi, the royal bannerman, galloped to his post. A rustle, a boom, and the great standard was unfurled, giving to the breeze the dread Raven of Denmark. Anxious eyes scanned its mien; should it hang motionless, drooping—but no, it soared like a living bird! Exultation burst from a thousand throats.
Down the line came the young King upon his white war-horse, clad for the battle as for a feast. The sun at noonday is not more fiercely bright than was his face. His long locks flowed behind him on the wind like tongues of yellow flame; and like northern lights in a blue northern sky, the leader's fire flashed in his eyes. So Balder the Beautiful might have come among the Jotuns. So the brawny sweating hard-breathing giants might have jostled and crowded toward him, expectant, adoring.
As he came, he was calling out terrible reminders: words that were to the ears of his champing host what the smell of blood is to the nostrils of wolves.
"Free men, true men, remember that ye face oath-breakers! Remember how they have spoken fine words to us of plighted faith...and when we have believed them and laid down our arms...they have stolen upon us in our sleep..and murdered our comrades! And our kinswomen whom they had taken to be their wives! Remember Saint Brice's day! Remember our murdered kin!"
On he went down the line; and like a trail in his wake, rose an answering chorus of growls and clashing steel. Down some of the battered old faces tears of excitement began to flow, like the water out of the riven rock; while the delirium of others took the form of mirth, so that they sent forth wild terrible laughter to swell the uproar.
Above the tumult his voice rang like a bell: "Heroes and sons of heroes, remember you fight cowards! Remember that, since the days of our fathers, they have made gold do the work of steel. To get gold to buy peace, they will sell their children into slavery. Sooner than look our swords in the face, they will yield us their daughters to be our thralls! Oath-breakers, nithings! Will you be beaten by such? Vikings, Odinmen, forward!"
His answer was the bursting roar of the Danish battle-cry. Like an avalanche loosed from its moorings, they swept down the hillside upon the English bow-men. From that moment, Randalin rode in a dream.
At first it was a glorious dream. On, on, over the green plain, with the wind fresh in her face and the music of the horns in her ears. The son of Lodbrok was beside her, singing as he went, and tossing his great battle-axe in the air to catch it again by the handle. In front of them rode Canute the King; in his hand his gleaming blade, whose thin edge he tried now and again on a lock of his floating hair, while he laughed with boyish delight. Once he turned his bright face back over his shoulder to call gayly to the Jotun:
"Brother, you were right in despising craft. When the battle-madness fills a man, he becomes a god!" On, till the bowmen's faces were plain before them; then suddenly it began to hail,—"the hail of the string." Arrows! One hissed by the girl's ear, and one bit her cloak, to hang there quivering with impotent fury. The man on her right made a terrible gurgling sound and put up his hand to tear a shaft from his throat. Would they be slain before—Canute rose in his stirrups with a great shout. The horns echoed it; the trot became a gallop, and the gallop a run. On, on, into the very heart of the hail-cloud. How the stones rattled on the armor! And hissed! There! a man was death-doomed; he was falling.
Her cry was cut short by the flashing of a blade before her. They had passed through the hail and reached the lightning! Throwing up her sword, she swerved to one side and escaped the bolt. Another faced her in this direction. The air was shot with bright flashes. Swish—clash! they sounded behind her; then a sickening jar, as Rothgar's terrible axe fell. A yell of agony rent the air. Swish—clash! the blows came faster; her ear could no longer separate them. The thud of the falling axes became one continuous pound. Faster and faster, heavier and heavier,—they blended into a discordant roar that closed around her like a wall. Here and there and to and fro, Rothgar's great charger followed the King; and here and there and to and fro, on her foam-flecked horse, Randalin followed the son of Lodbrok, staring, dazed, stunned.
Her wits were like a flock of birds loosed from the cage of her will, alighting here, upstarting there, without let or hindrance. Sometimes they stooped to so foolish a thing as a notch on her horse's ear, and spent whole minutes questioning dully whether the teeth of another horse had made the wound or whether a sword had nicked it in battle. Sometimes they followed the notes of the horns, as the ringing tones passed the order along. From the blaring blast at her ear, the sound was drawn out on either side of her as fine as silver wire, far, far away toward the hills. It gave her no conscious impression of the vastness of the hosts, but it brought a vague sense of wandering, of helplessness, that caused her fluttering wits to turn back, startled, and set to watching the pictures that showed through rifts in the swirling dust clouds,—an Englishman falling from his saddle, his fingers widespread upon the air; a Danish bowman wiping blood from his eyes that he might see to aim his shaft; yonder, the figure of Leofwinesson himself, leaping forward with swift-stabbing sword. But whether they were English who fell or Danes who stood, she had no thought, no care; they meant no more to her than rune figures carved in wood.
The sun rose higher in the heavens, till it stood directly overhead, and sweat mingled with the blood. Suddenly, the girl awoke to find that Rothgar's singing had changed into cursing.
"Heed him not, King," he was bellowing over his horse's head. "We have no need of trick-bought victories. We bear the highest shields; warrior-skill will win. We need not his snake-wisdom."
To the other side of the young leader, Thorkel the Tall was spurring, bending urgently from his saddle. "Craft, my King! Craft! It will take till nightfall to decide the game. Why spill so much good blood? Listen to Edric the Gainer—"
Canute's furious curse cut him short. "To the Troll with your craft! Swords shall make us, or swords shall mar us. Use your blade, or I will sheathe it in you."
Only the wind that took it from his lips heard the Tall One's answer; for at that moment his horse reared and sheered away before a spear-prick, and into the rift a handful of English rushed with shouts of triumph.
There were no more than half-a-dozen of them, and all were on foot, the two whose gold-hilted swords proclaimed their nobility of birth sharing the lot of their lesser comrades according to the old Saxon war-custom; but it needed not the daring of the attack to mark them as the very flower of English chivalry. The young noble, who hovered around his chief much as Rothgar circled about Canute, would have been lordly in a serf's tunic; and the leader's royal bearing distinguished him even more than his mighty frame.
At the sight of him, Rothgar uttered a great cry of "Edmund!" and moved forward, swinging his uplifted axe. But the Ironside caught it on his shield and delivered a sword-thrust in return that dropped the Dane's arm by his side. As it fell, Rothgar's left hand plucked forth his blade, but the English king had pressed past him toward his master.
Canute's weapon had need to dart like a northern light. The noble and one of the soldiers had forced their way to the side from which Thorkel had been riven, and a third threatened him from the rear. Three blades stabbed at him as with one motion.
It was a strange thing that saved him,—Randalin could explain it least of all. But in a lightning flash it was burnt into her mind that, while her King's sword was a match for the two in front of him, the one behind was going to deal him his death. And even as she thought it, she found that she had thrown herself across her horse's neck and thrust out her sword-arm,—out with the force of frenzy and down into the shoulder of the Englishman. In a kind of dazed wonder, she saw his blade fall from his grasp and his eyes roll up at her, as he staggered backwards.
Canute laughed out, "Well done, Berserker!" and redoubled his play against those before him.
A turn of his wrist disarmed the soldier, and his point touched the young noble's breast; but before he could lunge, the mighty figure of Edmund rose close at hand, his blade heaved high above his head.
For such a stroke there was no parry. A kingdom seemed to be passing. Canute threw his shield before him, while his spur caused his horse to swerve violently; but the blade cleft wood and iron and golden plating like parchment, and falling on the horse's neck, bit it to the bone. Rearing and plunging with pain, the animal crashed into those behind him, missed his footing and fell, entangling his rider in the trappings. Bending over him, the Ironside struck again.
But the son of Lodbrok had still his left arm. Bearing his shield, it shot out over the body of his King. The falling brand bit this screen also, and lopped off the hand that held it, but the respite was sufficient. In a flash Canute was on his feet, both hands grasping the hilt of his high-flung sword.