VANDRAD THE VIKING
The Feud and the Spell
J. STORER CLOUSTON
WITH SIX ILLUSTRATIONS BY HUBERT PATON
I. THE WEST SEA SAILING
II. THE BAIRN-SLAYERS
III. THE HOLY ISLE
IV. THE ISLAND SPELL
V. ANDREAS THE HERMIT
VI. THE HALL OF LIOT
VII. THE VERDICT OF THE SWORD
VIII. IN THE CELL BY THE ROOST
IX. THE MESSAGE OF THE RUNES
X. KING BUE'S FEAST
XI. THE HOUSE IN THE FOREST
XII. THE MAGICIAN
XIII. ARROW AND SHIELD
XIV. THE MIDNIGHT GUEST
XV. THE LAST OF THE LAWMAN
XVI. KING ESTEIN
XVII. THE END OF THE STORY
THE WEST SEA SAILING.
Long after King Estein had joined his fathers on the little holm beyond Hernersfiord, and Helgi, Earl of Askland, had become but a warlike memory, the skalds of Sogn still sang this tale of Vandrad the Viking. It contained much wonderful magic, and some astonishingly hard strokes, as they told it; but reading between their lines, the magic bears a strong resemblance to many spells cast even at this day, and as for the sword strokes, there was need for them to be hard in Norway then. For that was the age of the making of many kingdoms, and the North was beginning to do its share.
One May morning, more than a thousand years ago, so the story runs, an old man came slowly along a woodland track that uncoiled itself from the mountain passes and snow-crowned inlands of Norway. Presently the trees grew thinner, and grass and wild flowers spread on either hand, and at last, just where the path dipped down to the water-side at Hernersfiord, the traveller stopped. For a while he remained there in the morning sunshine, watching the scene below, and now and then speaking out his thoughts absently in the rapt manner of a visionary.
Though his clothes were old and weather-stained, and bare of any ornament, his face and bearing were such as strike the mind at once and stay in the memory. He was tall and powerfully framed, and bore his years and the white volume of his beard in an altogether stately fashion; but his eyes were most indelible, pale blue and singularly cold in repose, very bright and keen and searching when his face was animated.
They saw much to stir them that morning. On the slope above Hernersfiord stood the royal hall of Hakonstad, the seat of the kings of Sogn; and all about the house, and right down to the water's edge, there was a great bustle and movement of men. From the upland valley at the fiord head, warriors trooped down to the ships that lay by the long stone pier. The morning sun glanced on their helmets and coats of mail, and in the still air the clash of preparation rang far up the pine-clad hillside. He could see some bringing weapons and provisions down to the shore, and others busily lading the ships. Women mingled in the crowd, and every here and there a gay cloak and gilded helm marked a leader of rank.
"Ay, the season has come for Vikings to put to sea again," he said. "Brave and gay are the warriors of Sogn, and lightly they leave. When a man is young, all roads are pleasant, and all lead home again. Many have I seen set sail these last sixty years, and their sailing led them—where?"
And then again, as the stir increased, and he could see the men beginning to troop on board the long ships,—
"This voyage shall be as the falling of snowflakes into the sea; but what man can escape his fate?"
Meanwhile a party of men had just left the woods, and were coming down the path to the fiord, ten or twelve in all, headed by an exceedingly broad, black-bearded man, clad in a leather coat closely covered all over with steel scales, and bearing on his shoulder a ponderous halberd.
The path was very narrow at that point, and he of the black beard called out gruffly,—
"Make way, old man! Give room to pass."
Roused abruptly from his reverie, the dreamer turned quietly, but made no movement to the side. The party by this time were so close that they had perforce to halt, with some clash of armour, and again their captain cried,—
"Are you deaf? Make way!"
Yet there was something daunting in the other's pale eye, and though the Viking moved the halberd uneasily on his shoulder, his own glance shifted. With the slightest intonation of contempt, the traveller asked,—
"Who bids me make way?"
The black-bearded man looked at him with an air of some astonishment, and then answered shortly,—
"They call me Ketill; but what is that to you?"
Without heeding the other's gruffness, the old man asked,—
"Does King Hakon sail from Hernersfiord to-day?"
"King Hakon has not sailed for many a day. His son leads this force."
"Ay, I had forgotten, we are both old men now. Then Estein sails to-day?"
"Ay, and I sail with him. My ship awaits me, so make way, old man," replied Ketill.
"Whither do ye sail?"
"To the west seas. I have no time for talking more. Do you hear?"
"Go on then," replied the old man, stepping to one side; "something tells me that Estein will have need of all his men before this voyage is over."
Without stopping for further words, the black-bearded captain and his men pushed past and continued their way to the fiord, while the old man slowly followed them.
As he went down the hillside he talked again aloud to himself:—
"Ay, this then is the meaning of my warning dreams—danger in the south lands, danger on the seas. Little heed will Estein Hakonson pay to the words of an old man, yet I am fain to see the youth again, and what the gods reveal to me I must speak."
Down below, near the foot of the path that led from the pier up to the hall of Hakonstad, a cluster of chiefs stood talking. In the midst of them, Hakon, King of Sogn, one of the independent kinglings who reigned in the then chaotic Norway, watched the departure of his son.
He was a venerable figure, conspicuous by his long, wintry locks and embroidered cloak of blue, straight as a spear-shaft, but grown too old for warfare. His hand rested on the shoulder of Earl Sigvald of Askland, a bluff old warrior, long the king's most faithful counsellor and companion in arms. Before them stood his son Estein, a tall, auburn-haired, bright-eyed young man, gaily dressed, after the fashion of the times, in red kirtle and cloak, and armed as yet only with a gilded helmet, surmounted with a pair of hawk's wings, and a sword girt to his side. His face, though regular and handsome, would have been rather too grave and reserved but for the keenness of his eyes, and a very pleasant smile which at times lit up his features when he spoke.
After they had talked for a while, he glanced round him, and saw that the bustle was subsiding, and most of the men had gone aboard.
"All is ready now," he said.
"Ay," replied Thorkel Sigurdson, one of his ship captains, "they wait but for us."
"Farewell then, Estein!" cried the earl. "Thor speed you, and send you worthy foemen!"
"My son, I can ill spare you," said the king. "But it becomes a king's son to see the world, and prove his valour in distant lands. Warfare in the Baltic seas is but a pastime for common Vikings. England and Valland, [Footnote: France] the countries of the black man and the flat lands of the rivers, lie before you. There Estein Hakonson must feed the wolves."
"And yet, Estein," he added in a lower tone, as he embraced him, "I would that Yule were here again and you with it. I am growing old, and my dreams last night were sorrow-laden."
"Farewell, son of Hakon!" shouted a loud-mouthed chieftain. "I would that I too were sailing to the southern lands. Spare not, Estein; fire and sword in England, sword and fire in Valland!"
The group had broken up, and Estein was about to go on board when he heard himself hailed by name. He looked round, and saw the same old man who had accosted Ketill coming down the pier after him.
"Hail, Estein Hakonson!" he cried; "I have come far to see thee."
"Hail, old man!" replied Estein courteously; "what errand brings you here?"
"You know me not?" said the old man, looking at him keenly.
"Nay, I cannot call your face to mind."
"My name is Atli, and if my features are strange to thee, much stranger must my name be."
He took Estein's hand, looked closely into his eyes for a minute, and then said solemnly,—
"Estein Hakonson, this voyage will have an ending other than ye deem. Troubles I see before ye—fishes feeding on warriors, and winds that blow as they list, and not as ye."
"That is likely enough," replied Estein. "We are not sailing on a trading voyage, and in the west seas the winds often blow high. But what luck shall I have?"
"Strange luck, Estein, I see before thee. Thou shalt be warned and heed not. More shall be left undone than shall be done. There shall come a change in thee that I cannot fathom. Many that set out shall not return, but thine own fate is dim to me."
A young man of barely twenty, very gaily dressed and martial- looking, had come up to them while they were talking. He had a reckless, merry look on his handsome face, and bore himself as though he was aware of his personal attractions.
"And what is my fate, old man?" he asked, more as if he were in jest than in earnest. "Shall I feed the fishes, or make this strange change with Estein into a troll, [Footnote: A kind of goblin] or werewolf, or whatsoever form he is to take?"
"Thy fate is naught to me, Helgi Sigvaldson," replied the seer; "yet I think thou wilt never be far from Estein."
"That was easily answered," said Helgi with a laugh. "And I can read my fate yet further. When I part from my foster-brother Estein, then shall a man go to Valhalla. What say you to that?"
Atli's face darkened.
"Darest thou mock me?" he cried.
"Not so," interposed Estein. "' Bare is back without brother behind it,' and Helgi means that death only can part us. Farewell, Atli! If your prophecy comes true, and I return alive, you may choose what gift you please from among my spoils."
"Little spoil there will be, Estein!" answered the old man, as the foster-brothers turned from him down the pier.
The last man sprang on board, the oars dipped in the still water, and as the little fleet moved slowly down the fiord the crowd on shore gradually dispersed.
Out at sea, beyond the high headlands that guarded Hernersfiord, a fresh breeze was blowing briskly from the north-east, and past the rocky islets of the coast white caps gleamed in the sunshine. As the ships drew clear of the fiord, and the boom of the outer sea breaking on the skerries rose louder and nearer, sails were spread and oars shipped. Slowly at first, and then more quickly as they caught the deep-sea wind, the vessels cut the open water. Past the islands they heeled to the breeze, and over a wake of foam the men watched the mountains of Norway sink slowly into the wilderness of waters.
On the decked poop of an open boat, sailing over an ocean unknown to him, towards countries of whose whereabouts he was only vaguely informed, Estein Hakonson stood lost in stirring fancies. He was the only surviving son of the King of Sogn. Three brothers had fallen in battle, one had perished at sea, and another, the eldest, had died beneath a burning roof-tree. His education had been conducted according to the only standard known in Scandinavia. At fourteen he had slain his first man in fair fight; at seventeen he was a Viking captain on the Baltic; and now, at two-and-twenty—old far beyond his years and hardened in varied experience—he was setting forth on the Viking path that led to the wonderful countries of the south.
The tide of Norse energy was not yet at the full, the fury and the terror were waxing fast, and the fever of unrest was ever spreading through the North. Men were always coming back with tales of monasteries filled with untold wealth, and rich provinces to be won by the sword. Skalds sang of the deeds done in the south, and shiploads of spoil confirmed their lays. Little wonder then that Estein should feel his heart beat high as he stood by the great tiller.
That night, long after the sun was set, he still sat on deck watching the stars. By-and-by his foster-brother Helgi came up to him, wrapped in a long sea cloak, and humming softly to himself.
"The night is fair, Estein. If Thor is kind, and this wind speeds us, we shall soon reach England."
"Ay, if the gods are with us," answered Estein. "I am trying to read the stars. Methinks they are unfavourable."
Helgi laughed. "What know you of the stars?" he said, "and what does Estein Hakonson want with white magic? Will it make his life one day longer? Will it make mine, if I too read the stars?"
"Not one day, Helgi, not one instant of time. We are in the hands of the gods. This serves but to while away a long night."
"Norsemen should not read the stars," said Helgi. "These things are for Finns and Lapps, and the poor peoples who fear us."
"I wished to know what Odin thought of Helgi Sigvaldson," said Estein with a smile.
Helgi laughed lightly as he answered,—
"I know what Odin thinks of you, Estein—a foolish man and fey."
Estein stepped forward a pace, and leaning over the side gazed for a while into the darkness. Helgi too was silent, but his blue eyes danced and his heart beat high as his thoughts flew ahead of the ship to the clash of arms and the shout of victory.
"There remains but me," said Estein at length. "Hakon has no other son."
"And you have five brothers to avenge; the sword should not rust long in your scabbard, Estein."
"Twice I have made the Danes pay a dear atonement for Eric. I cannot punish Thor because he suffered Harald to drown, but if ever in my life it be my fate to meet Thord the Tall, Snaekol Gunnarson, or Thorfin of Skapstead, there shall be but one man left to tell of our meeting."
"The burners of Olaf have long gone out of Norway, have they not?"
"I was but a child when my brother was burned like a fox in his hole at Laxafiord. The burners knew my father too well to bide at home and welcome him; and since then no man has told aught of them, save that Thord the Tall at one time raided much in England, and boasted widely of the burning. He perchance forgot that Hakon had other sons.
"But now, Helgi, we must sleep while we may; nights may come when we shall want it."
For six days and six nights they sailed with a favouring wind over an empty ocean. On the seventh day land was sighted on the starboard bow.
"Can that be England?" asked old Ulf, Estein's forecastle man, a hairy, hugely muscular Viking from the far northern fiords.
"The coast of Scotland more likely," said Helgi. "Shall we try our luck, Estein?"
"I should like to spill a little Scottish blood, and mayhap carry off a maid or two," said Thorolf Hauskoldson, a young giant from the upland dales.
"It may be but a waste of time," Estein replied. "We had best make for England while this wind holds."
"I like not the look of the sky," said Ulf, gazing round him with a frowning brow.
The wind had been dropping off for some time, and along the eastern horizon the settled sky was giving place to heavy clouds. For a short time Estein hesitated, but as the outlook grew more threatening and the wind beat in flaws and gusts, now from one quarter, now from another, the Vikings changed their course and ran under oars and sails for the shelter of the land. Little shelter it promised as they drew nearer: a dark, inhospitable line of precipices stretched north and south as far as the eye could reach, and even from a long distance they could see white flashes breaking at the cliff foot. Again they changed their course; and then, with a dull hum of approaching rain, a south-easterly storm broke over them, and there was nothing for it but to turn and run before the gale.
"I read the stars too well," said Estein grimly between his teeth, clinging to the straining tiller, and watching the rollers rising higher. "And the first part of Atli's prophecy has come true."
"Winds, war, and women make a Viking's luck," replied Helgi; "this is but the first part of the rede."
At night the gale increased, the fleet was scattered over the North Sea, and next morning from Estein's ship only two other black hulls could be seen running before the tempest. Another wild day passed, and it was not till the evening that the weather moderated. Little by little the great seas began to calm, and the drifts of stinging rain ceased. In their wake the stars struggled through the cloud wrack, and towards morning the wind sank altogether.
At earliest dawn eyes were strained to catch a glimpse of something that might tell them where they were. None of the men on Estein's ship had been in those seas more than two or three times at most, and the vaguest conjectures were rife when, as the light was slowly gaining, Ulf raised a cry of land ahead.
"Land to the right!" cried Helgi, a moment later.
"Land to the left!" exclaimed Estein; "and we are close on it, methinks."
When the morning fully broke they found themselves lying off a wide-mouthed sound, that bent and narrowed among low, lonely- looking islands. Only on the more distant land to the right were heather hills of any height to be seen, and those, so far as they could judge, were uninhabited. A heavy swell was running in from the open sea, and a canopy of grey clouds hung over all.
"I like not this country," said Ulf. "What think you is it?"
"The Hjaltland islands, I should think, from what men tell of them," Estein suggested.
"The Orkneys more likely," said Thorolf, who had sailed in those seas before.
Far astern one other vessel was making towards them.
"Which ship is that, Ulf?" asked Estein. "One of our fleet, think you?"
"Ay, it is Thorkel Sigurdson's," replied the shaggy forecastle man, after a long, frowning look.
"By the hammer of Thor, she seems in haste," said Helgi. "They must have broached the ale over-night."
"Perchance Thorkel feels cold," suggested Thorolf with a laugh.
"They have taken the shields from the sides," Estein exclaimed as the ship drew nearer. "Can there be an enemy, think you?"
Again Ulf's hairy face gathered into a heavy frown. "No man can say I fear a foeman," he said, "but I should like ill to fight after two sleepless nights."
"Bah! Thorkel is drunk as usual, and thinks we are chapmen," [Footnote: Merchants.] said Helgi. "They are doubtless making ready to board us."
The ship drew so near that they could plainly see the men on board, and conspicuous among them the tall form of Thorkel appeared in the bow.
"He waves to us; there is something behind this," said Estein.
"Drunk," muttered Helgi. "I wager my gold-handled sword he is drunk. They have ale enough on board to float the ship."
"A sail!" Estein exclaimed, pointing to a promontory to seaward round which the low black hull and coloured sail of a warship were just appearing.
"Ay, and another!" said Ulf.
"Three-four-seven-eight!" Helgi cried.
"There come nine, and ten!" added Estein. "How many more?"
They watched the strange fleet in silence as one by one they turned and bore down upon them, ten ships in all, their oars rhythmically churning the sea, the strange monsters on the prows creeping gradually nearer.
"Orkney Vikings," muttered Ulf. "If I know one long ship from another, they are Orkney Vikings."
Meantime Thorkel's ship had drawn close alongside, and its captain hailed Estein.
"There is little time for talking now, son of Hakon!" he shouted. "What think you we should do?—run into the islands, or go to Odin where we are? These men, methinks, will show us little mercy."
"I seek mercy from no man," answered Estein. "We will bide where we are. We could not escape them if we would, and I would not if I could. Have you seen aught of the other ships?"
"We parted from Ketill yesterday, and I fear me he has gone to feed the fishes. I have seen nothing of Asgrim and the rest. I think with you, Estein, that the bottom here will make as soft a resting-place for us as elsewhere. Fill the beakers and serve the men! It is ill that a man should die thirsty."
The stout sea-rover turned with a gleam of grim humour in his eyes to the enjoyment of what he fully expected would be his last drink on earth, and on both ships men buckled on their armour and bestirred themselves for fight.
Vikings in those days preyed on one another as freely as on men of alien blood. They came out to fight, and better sport could generally be had from a crew of seasoned warriors like themselves than from the softer peoples of the south. Particularly were the Orkney and Shetland islands the stations for the freest of free lances, men so hostile to all semblance of law and order that the son of a Norwegian king would seem in their eyes a most desirable quarry. Many a load of hard-won spoil changed hands on its way home; and the shores of Norway itself were so harried by these island Vikings that some time later King Harald Harfagri descended and made a clean sweep of them in the interests of what he probably considered society.
The two vessels floated close together, the oars were shipped, and there, in the grey prosaic early morning light, they heaved gently on the North Sea swell, and awaited the approach of the ten. A few sea-birds circled and screamed above them; a faint pillar of smoke rose from some homestead on a distant shore; elsewhere there was no sign of life save in the ships to seaward.
Thorkel, leaning over the side of his vessel, told a tale of buffetings by night and day such as Estein and his crew had undergone. That morning he said they had descried Estein's ship just as the day broke, and almost immediately afterwards ten long ships were spied lying at anchor in an island bay. For a time they hoped to slip by them unseen. The fates, however, were against them. They were observed, and the strange Vikings awoke and gave chase like a swarm of bees incautiously aroused.
Apparently the strangers considered themselves hardly yet prepared for battle; for they slackened speed as they advanced, and those on Estein's ships could see that a hasty bustle of preparation was going on.
"What think you—friends or foes?" asked Helgi.
"To the Orkney Vikings all men are foes," replied Estein.
"Ay," said Thorkel with a laugh, "particularly when they are but two to ten."
By this time the strangers were within hailing distance, and in the leading ship a man in a red cloak came from the poop and stood before the others in the bow. In a loud tone he bade his men cease rowing, and then, clapping his hand to his mouth, asked in a voice that had a ring of scornful command what name the captain bore.
"Estein, the son of Hakon, King of Sogn; and who are you who ask my name?" came the reply across the water.
"Liot, the son of Skuli," answered the man in the red cloak. "With me sails Osmund Hooknose, the son of Hallward. We have here ten warships, as you see. Yield to us, Estein Hakonson, or we will take by force what you will not give us."
The man threw his left hand on his hip, drew himself up, and said something to his crew, accompanying the words by gestures with a spear. They answered with a loud shout, and then struck up a wild and monotonous chorus, the words of which were a refrain descriptive of the usual fate of those who ventured to stand in Liot Skulison's way. At the same time their oars churned the water, and their vessel was brought into line with the others.
"It is easily seen that our friend Liot is a valiant man," said Helgi with a short laugh. "He and his ill-looking crew make a mighty noise. Has any man heard of Liot Skulison or Osmund Hooknose before?"
"Ay," answered Ulf. "They call them the bairn-slayers, because they show no mercy even to children."
"They will meet with other than bairns to-day," said Helgi.
Estein and Thorkel had been employed in binding the two vessels together with grapnels. Then Estein turned to his men and said,—
"We are of one mind, are we not? We fight while we may, and then let Odin do with us what he wills."
Without waiting for the shout of approval that followed his words, he sprang to the bow, and raising his voice, cried,—
"We are ready for you, Liot and Osmund. When you get on board you can take what you find here."
From another ship a man shouted,—
"Then you will fight, little Estein? Remember that we are called the bairn-slayers."
Instantly Thorkel took up the challenge. Three beakers of ale had made him in his happiest and most warlike mood, and his eyes gleamed almost merrily as he answered,—
"I know you, Osmund the ugly, by that nose whereon men say you hang the bairns you catch. Little need have you to do aught save look at them. Here is a gift for you," and with that he hurled a spear with so true an aim that, if Osmund had not stooped like a flash, his share in the fight would have come to an end there and then. As it was, the missile struck another man between the shoulders and laid him on the deck.
"Forward! forward!" cried Liot. "Forward, Vikings! forward, the men of Liot and Osmund!"
The oars struck the water, the wild chorus swelled into a terrible and tuneless roar, and the ten ships bore down on the two. With a crash the bows met, and metal rang on metal with the noise of a hundred smithies; the unequal contest had begun.
Overpowering as such odds could hardly fail to prove in the long run, they told more slowly in a sea-fight. Till the men who manned the bulwarks were thinned, the sides were practically equal, and at first many of the Orkney Vikings were perforce mere spectators.
Gradually, as the men in front were thinned, they poured in from the other ships, fresh men always being pitted against tired, and keen swords meeting hacked.
Liot laid his own ship alongside Estein's, Osmund attacked Thorkel's, and the other vessels forced their bows forward wherever they saw an opening. The Norwegians manned their bulwarks shield to shield, and fought with the courage of despair. Twice Liot, backed by his boldest men, tried by a headlong rush to force himself on board, and twice he was beaten back. A third time he charged, and selecting a place where the defenders seemed thinnest, struck down a couple of men with two swinging blows of his axe, and sprang on to the deck. Three or four men had already followed him, a cry of victory rose from the Orkney Vikings, and for a moment the fate of the battle seemed decided, when a huge stone hurtled through the air, and falling on Liot's shield forced it down on his helmet and him to his knees. It was the work of Ulf, captain of the forecastle; and roaring like a bull, the old Viking followed his stone. Estein sprang from the poop and clove one man to the shoulders. Another fell to Ulf's sword. The half- stunned Liot was seized by one of his followers, and bundled back on board his ship; and for the time the day was saved.
"After them! after them, Ulf!" shouted Estein, and twenty bold Norwegians followed their leader in the wake of Liot's retreating boarding party. Their foes gave way right and left, the gangways round the sides were cleared, and, despite the threats of Liot, his men began to spring from forecastle and quarter-deck into the ships behind.
"Forward, king's men! forward, men of Estein!" roared Ulf.
"Wait for me, Liot!" cried Estein, charging the poop with his red shield before him." A bairn is after thee!"
Helgi, who had kept at his shoulder throughout, seized his arm.
"They are giving way on Thorkel's ship. Osmund is on board. If we return not, the ship is cleared."
With a gesture of despair Estein turned.
"Back, men, back! Thorkel needs all his friends, I fear," he cried; and to Helgi he said, "The day is lost. We can but sell our lives dearly now."
They came back too late. Already Thorkel's men were pouring on board Estein's ship, with Osmund of the Hooknose at their heels. Thorkel himself lay stark across the bulwarks, his face to his foes, and a great spear-head standing out of his back.
It was now but a question of time. With a single ship, surrounded on all sides, and weary with storm and battle, there could be only one fate for Estein's diminished band. Nevertheless, they stood their ground as stoutly and cheerfully as if the fray were just beginning. Finding that all efforts to board were useless, the Orkney Vikings confined themselves for some time to keeping up an incessant fire of darts and stones. One by one the defenders dropped at their posts, and at last, when widening gaps appeared in the line of shields, Liot and Osmund boarded together, each from his own side.
"Back to the poop, Helgi!" Estein cried. "To the poop, men! we cannot hold the gangways. One tired man cannot fight with five fresh."
Last of all his men, he stepped from the gangway that ran round the low and open waist of the ship, up to the decked poop, his red shield stuck with darts like a pincushion with pins.
In the forecastle, old Ulf still held his own, backed by some half-dozen stout survivors out of all those who had gone into battle with him in the morning.
"My hour is come at last, Thorolf," he said to the upland giant, who seemed to be disengaging something from his coat of ring-mail. "I shall have tales of a merry fight to tell to Odin tonight. But before I fall I shall slay me one of those two Vikings. Wilt thou follow me, Thorolf, to the gangways, and then to Valhalla?"
With a violent wrench the giant drew a spearhead from his side, and his blood spurted over Ulf, as he swayed on his feet.
"I go before," he said, and fell on the deck with a clatter of steel.
"There died a brave man! Now, comrades, after him to Odin!"
And with that the forecastle captain sprang down on the gangway, and knocking men off into the waist in his impetuous rush, swung his battle-axe round his head and aimed a terrific blow at Osmund Hooknose. Quick as lightning Osmund raised his shield and thrust at his foe with his sword. The point of the blade passed in at his breast and out between his shoulders, and at the same instant the battle-axe fell. The edge of the shield was cut through like paper, and the blade coming fair on the nape of the Hooknose's neck, the bodies of the two champions rolled together off the gangway.
Round the poop the last struggle raged. Spent and wounded as they were, Estein's little band showed a bold front to their foes, and around the red shield of their leader their lives were dearly sold.
Then for a few minutes came a lull in the fight, and men could breathe for a space.
"The next onset will be the last," said Estein grimly.
"Their ships are sheering off!" exclaimed one.
"'Tis we who are leaving them," said another.
"Look ahead!" cried Helgi; "we shall cheat them yet."
The men looked round them with astonished faces, for a strange thing had happened. They had drifted into one of the dreaded Orkney tideways, and all the time the fight was raging they were being borne at increasing speed past islands, holms, and skerries. The scene had completely changed; they were in a narrower sound, swinging like sea-fowl, helpless on the tide. Heather hills were close at hand, and right ahead was a great frothing and bubbling, out of which rose the black heads of sunken rocks.
The other vessels had been twisted off by the whirling eddies, and were now rapidly scattering, each striving to clear the reef. Only the four vessels bound together—Estein's, Thorkel's, Liot's, Osmund's—swept in an unresisting cluster towards the rocks.
Liot too saw the danger, and raised his voice in a great shout:—
"Let not man of mine touch an oar till Estein Hakonson lie dead on yonder deck. We have yet time to slay them. Forward, Liot's men!"
There was a wild and furious rush of men towards the poop. Down went man after man of the battle-worn defenders. Liot and Estein met sword to sword and face to face. The red shield was ripped from top to bottom by a sweep of the bairn-slayer's blade, and at the same moment Estein's descending sword was met by a Viking's battle-axe, and snapped at the hilt.
"Now, Estein, I have thee!" shouted his foe; but ere the words were well out of his mouth, Estein had hurled himself at his waist, dagger in hand, and brought him headlong to the deck. As they fell, the ships struck with a mighty crash that threw friend and foe alike on the bloody planks. Two vessels stuck fast; the other two broke loose, and plunging over the first line of reefs, settled down by the bows.
There was a rush to the bulwarks, a splashing of bodies in the water, and then the doomed and deserted ships, the attacker and the attacked, sank in the turmoil of the tide. Estein himself had been pitched clear of his foe into the waist, where he had fallen head first and half-stunned.
He felt a friendly hand dragging him to the side, and heard Helgi's voice saying,—
"Art thou able to swim for it?"
Then he had a confused recollection of being swept along by an irresistible current, clinging the while to what he afterwards found to be a friendly plank, and after that came oblivion.
THE HOLY ISLE.
With the first glimmer of consciousness, Estein became aware of an aching head and a bruised body. Next he felt that he was very wet and cold; and then he discovered that he was not alone. His head rested on something soft, and two hands chafed his temples.
"Helgi," he said.
A voice that was not Helgi's replied, "Thanks be to the saints! he is alive."
Estein started up, and his gaze met a pair of dark blue eyes. They and the hands belonged to a fair young girl, a maid of some seventeen summers, on whose knees his aching head had just been resting.
They were sitting on a shelving rock that jutted into the tideway, and at his feet his kindly plank bumped gently in an eddy of the current.
He looked at her so silently and intently that the blue eyes drooped and a faint blush rose to the maiden's cheeks.
"Are you wounded?" she asked. She spoke in the Norse tongue, but with a pretty, foreign accent, and she looked so fair and so kind that thoughts of sirens and mermaids passed through the Viking's mind.
"Wounded? Well, methinks I ought to be," he answered; "and yet I feel rather bruised than pierced. If I can stand—" and as he spoke he rose to his feet, and slipping on the seaweed, slid quietly into the water.
The girl screamed; and then, as he scrambled out none the worse and only a little the wetter, an irresistible inclination to laugh overcame her. Forgetful of his head, he laughed with her.
"Forgive me," she said; "I could not help laughing, though, to be sure, you seem in no laughing plight. I thought at first that you were drowned."
"'Tis your doing, I think, that I am not. Did you find me in the water?"
"Half in and half out; and it took much pulling to get you wholly out."
Estein impulsively drew a massive gold ring off his finger, and in the gift-giving spirit of the times handed it to his preserver.
"I know not your name, fair maiden," he said, "but this I know, that you have saved my life. Will you accept this Viking's gift from me? It is all that the sea has left me."
"Nay, keep such gifts for those who deserve them. It would have been an unchristian act to let you drown."
"You use a word that is strange to me; but I would that you might take this ring."
"No, no!" she cried decidedly; "it will be time enough to talk of gifts when I have earned them. Not," she added, a little proudly, "that it is my wish to earn gifts. But you are wet and wounded; come where I can give you shelter, poor though it be."
"Any shelter will seem good to me. Yet, ere I go, I would fain learn something of my comrades' fate."
He scanned the sound narrowly, and in all its long stretch there was not a sign of friend or foe. About a mile back the fatal reef, bared by the ebbing tide, showed its line of black heads high out of the water, but of ships there was no vestige to be seen. It was long past mid-day by the sun, and he knew that he must have been unconscious for some hours. In that time, such of the Vikings as had escaped the rocks had evidently sailed away, leaving only the dead in the sound.
"They are gone," he said, turning away, "friends and foes—gone, or drowned, as I should have been, fair maid, but for you."
They scrambled together up the rocks, and then struck a winding sheep-path that led them over the shoulder of a heath-clad hill.
At first they walked in silence, the girl in front, going at a great speed up the narrow track; and Estein watched the wind blow her fair hair about her neck in a waving tangle, and he saw that she was tall and slender. By-and-by, when they had crossed the hill and reached a less broken tract of ground, he came up to her side.
"How did you come to be down where you found me?" he asked.
"I was on the hill," she answered, "when I saw ships in the sound rowing hard to escape the current, and then I saw that some had been wrecked. Wreckage was floating by, and I espied, for my eyes are good, a man clinging to a plank; and presently he drifted upon a rock, and I thought that perhaps I might save a life. So I went down to the shore—and you yourself know the rest."
"I know, indeed, that I have to thank you for my life, such as it is. And I know further that every girl would not have been so kind."
She smiled, and her smile was one of those that illuminate a face.
"Thank rather the tide, which so kindly brought you ashore, for I had done little if you had been in the middle of the sound. But you have not yet told me how you came to be wrecked."
Estein told her of the storm at sea and the fight with the Vikings; how they had fallen man by man, and how he too would have been numbered amongst the dead but for the tideway and the rocks.
As she listened, her eyes betrayed her interest in the tale, and when he had finished, she said,—
"I have heard of Liot and Osmund. They are the most pitiless of all the robbers in these seas. Give thanks that you escaped them."
He asked her name, and she told him it was Osla, daughter of a Norse leader who had fought in the Irish seas, and had finally settled in Ireland. There his daughter was born and passed her early girlhood; and it was a trace of the Irish accent that Estein had noticed in her speech. In one fatal battle her two brothers fell, her father was forced to fly from the land, and Osla had left her Irish home with him and come to reside in Orkney.
"He is a holy Christian man," she said. "Once he was a famous Viking, and his name was well known in the west seas. Now, he would even have his name forgotten, and he is only known as Andreas, which was the name of one of the blessed apostles; and here we two live in a little lonely island, keeping aloof from all men, and striving to live as did the early fathers."
"That must be a quiet life for you," said Estein.
"I sometimes think so myself," she answered with a smile. "And what do men call you?"
For an instant Estein hesitated. The thought passed through his mind, "She must not know me as son to the King of Sogn till I have done some deed more worthy of a prince of Yngve's line than lose a battle with two Orkney Vikings." Then he said, "I am called Vandrad; [Footnote: The Unlucky.] from my youth up I have been a sea-rover, and I fear I may prove ill suited to your father's company."
"My father has met sea-rovers before," she said, with a smile in her eye.
By this time they had nearly crossed the island, and Estein saw before them another long sound. On the far side of this lay a large and hilly island that stretched to his left hand as far as his eye could reach, and on the right broke down at the end of the strait into a precipitous headland, beyond which sparkled the open sea. In the middle of the sound a small green islet basked like a sea monster in the evening sunshine.
As they stood on the top of the descent that ran steeply to the sea, he cast his eyes around for any signs of life on sea or on shore. Below him, and much to the left, a cluster of small houses round a larger drinking-hall marked the residence of a chieftain of position; on the island across the water lay a few scattered farms; and on the little islet his eye could just discern a faint wreath of smoke. The seas were deserted, and the atmosphere seemed charged with an air of calm loneliness.
"That is my home," said Osla, pointing to the little green island. "The early fathers called it the Holy Isle. Our house is an anchorite's cell, and our lands, as you see, are of the smallest. Are you content to come to such a place?"
Estein smiled. "If you dwell there, I am content," he said.
Osla tossed her head with what quite failed to be an air of impatience.
"Such things are easy to say now," she said. "If you say them again after you have lived on a hermit's fare for one whole day, I may begin to believe you."
They descended the hill, and in a little creek on the shore came upon a skiff.
"This is our long ship," said Osla. "If you wish to show your gratitude, you may assist me to launch her."
"Now," she said, when Estein had run the boat into the water, "you can rest while I row you across."
"It has never been my custom to let a girl row me," he replied, taking the oars.
"But your wounds?"
"If I have any I have forgotten them."
"Well, I will let you row, for the tide is at the turn, and you will not need to watch the currents. There is a great roost here when the tide is running."
Estein laughed. "I see that I am with a skilful helmsman," he said.
"And I, that I am with an over-confident crew," she answered.
Only a distant corncrake broke the silence of the lonely channel, its note sounding more faintly as they left the land behind. The sun set slowly between the headlands to seaward, and by the time they reached the shore of the islet the stillness was absolute, and the northern air was growing chill. Osla led the Viking up a slope of short sea-turf, and presently crossing the crest of the land, they came upon a settlement so strange and primitive that it could scarcely, he thought, have been designed by mortal men.
Facing the land-locked end of the sound, and looking upon a little bay, a cluster of monastic cells marked the northern limits of the Christian church. From this outpost it had for the time receded, and all save two of the rude stone dwellings looked deserted and forlorn. A thin thread of smoke rose straight heavenward in the still air, and before the entrance of the cell whence it issued stood an old and venerable man. Despite a slight stoop, he was still much beyond the common height of men. His brows were shaggy, and his grey beard reached well down over his breast; a long and voluminous cloak, much discoloured by the weather, was bound round his waist by a rope, and in his hand he carried a great staff.
As Estein approached, his brows bent in an expression of displeased surprise, but he waited in silence till his daughter spoke.
"I have brought a shipwrecked seafarer, father," she said. "He is wounded, I fear, and certainly he is both wet and hungry. I have told him we would give him shelter and food, and such tending as his wounds may require."
"Whence came he?" asked the old man.
"From the sound beyond the island; at least, he was in the sound when I first saw him."
"And I have to thank your daughter that I am not there now," Estein added.
"What is your name?"
"I am known as Vandrad, the son of a noble landowner in Norway."
The old man looked for a moment as though he would have questioned him further on his family. Instead, he asked,—
"And why came you to these islands?"
"For that, the wind and not I is answerable. Orkney was the last place I had thought of visiting."
"You were wrecked?"
"Wrecked, and wellnigh drowned."
In a more courteous tone the old man said, "While you are here you are welcome to such cheer as we can give you. This cell is all my dwelling, but since you have come to this island, enter and rest you in peace."
Stooping low in the doorway, Estein entered the abode of Andreas the hermit. Lit only by a small window and the gleam of a driftwood fire, the rude apartment was dusky and dim; yet there seemed nothing there that should make the sea-king pause at the threshold. Was it but a smoke wreath that he saw, and did the wind rise with a sudden gust out of the stillness of the evening? It seemed to him a face that appeared and then vanished, and a far- off voice that whispered a warning in his ear.
"Be not dismayed at our poverty; there is no worse foeman within," said Osla, with a touch of raillery, as he stood for a moment irresolute.
Estein made no answer, but stepped quickly into the room. Had he indeed heard a voice from beyond the grave, or was it but the fancy of a wounded head? The impression lingered so vividly that he stood in a reverie, and the words of his hosts fell unheeded on his ears. He knew the face, he had heard the voice of old, but in the kaleidoscope of memory he could see no name to fit them, no incident wherewith they might be linked.
He was aroused by the voice of Osla.
"Let us give him food and drink quickly, father. He is faint, and hears us not."
The tumultuous stir of battle was forgotten as they brought him supper and gently bound his wounds. A kettle sang a drowsy song and seemed to lay a languid spell upon him, and, as in a dream, he heard the hermit offer up an evening prayer. The petitions, eloquent and brief in his northern tongue, rose above the throbbing of the roost outside, and died away into a prayerful silence; and then, in the pleasant nicker of the firelight, they parted till the morrow.
Estein and the hermit stepped out into the cool night.
"They who visit the Holy Isle must rest content with hard pillows," said Andreas. "Here in this cell you will find a blanket and a couch of stone. May Christ be with you through the night;" and as he spoke he turned into his own bare apartment.
Estein looked upward at the stars shining as calmly on him here as on the sea-king who lately paced his long ship's deck; he listened for a moment to the roost rising higher and moaning more uneasily; and then above both he saw a pair of dark blue eyes, and heard a voice with just a touch of raillery in it. As he bent his head and entered his cell, he smiled to himself at the pleasantness of the vision.
THE ISLAND SPELL.
The Holy Isle was bathed in morning sunshine, shadows of light clouds chased each other over the hills across the sound, and out beyond the headlands the blue sea glimmered restfully.
On a bank of turf sloping to the rocks Estein sat with Osla, drinking in the freshness of the air. She had milked their solitary cow, baked cakes enough for the day's fare, and now, her simple housekeeping over, she was free to entertain her guest.
"My father, I fear, is in a black mood," she said. "His moods come and go, I know not why or when. To-day and perhaps to-morrow, and it may be for four days or more, he will sit in his cell or on the grass before the door, speaking never a word, and hardly answering when I talk to him. Pay no heed to him; he means no inhospitality."
"I fear he likes me not," said Estein. "He came here to escape men, you say, and now he has to entertain a stranger and a Viking."
"It is not that," she said. "The black moods come when we are alone; they come sometimes with the rising storm, sometimes when the sun shines brightest. I cannot tell when the gloom will fall, nor when he will be himself again. When his mind is well, he will talk to me for hours, and instruct me in many things."
"Has he instructed you in this religion he professes? Know you what gods he worships?"
Osla opened her eyes in perplexed surprise; she hardly felt herself equal to the task of converting this pagan, and yet it were a pity not to try. So she told him, with a woman's enthusiastic inaccuracy, of this new creed of love, then being so strikingly illustrated in troubled, warlike Christian Europe.
"And what of the gods I and my ancestors have worshipped for so long? What place have they in the Valhalla of the white Christ?"
"There are no other gods."
"No Odin, no Thor, no Freya of the fair seasons, no Valhalla for the souls of the brave? Nay, Osla, leave me my gods, and I will leave you yours. Mine is the religion of my kinsmen, of my father, of my ancestors. And," he continued, "would you say that Christian men are better than worshippers of Odin? Are they braver, are their swords keener, are they more faithful to their friends?"
"We want not keen swords. Warfare is your only thought. You live but to pillage and to fight. Have you known what it is to lose home and brothers all in one battle? Have you fled from a smoking roof-tree? Have you had mercy refused you? Have you had wife or child borne away to slavery? That is your creed—tell me, is it not?"
"I have thought of these things, Osla," said Estein gravely. "I have thought of them at night when the stars shone and the wind sighed in the trees. When I look upon my home and see the reapers in the fields, and hear the maidens singing at their work, I would sometimes be willing to turn hermit like your father, and sit in the sun for ever.
"But," he went on, and his voice rose to a clear, stirring note, "I could not rest long so. The sea calls us Northmen, and we cannot bide at home. Unrest seizes us like a giant and hurls us forth. We must be men; we must seek adventure on sea or on shore; there are foemen to be met, and we long to meet them; and if we bear us bravely, never striking sail though the wind blow high, and never flinching from the greatest odds, we know that the gods will smile, and, if they will, we die happy. We are not all bairn- slayers. I have been taught to spare where there was nothing worthy of my steel, and no maid or mother has yet suffered wrong at my hands. Yet must I sail the seas, Osla, and fight where I find a foe; for I feel that the gods bid me, and a man cannot struggle with his fate."
While he spoke Osla's gaze was fixed on the turning tide, but her eyes, had he seen them, were lit by the fire of his words. She sprang to her feet as he finished, and said,—
"I, too, have the Norse blood in me; the sea calls me as it calls you; and if I were a man, I fear I should make a bad hermit. Yet"- -and she held up a warning finger to stay the impetuous words on Estein's tongue—"yet I know I should be wrong. What is this feeling but the hunger of wolves, and what are your gods but names for it? Wolves, too, go out to slay; and if they had speech, doubtless they would say that Thor called them."
"Is a Viking not different from a wolf, then, in your eyes?"
"By too little," she answered, "if they hold the same creed."
"A wolf, then, I am," he replied; "and I can but try to keep my lips drawn over my fangs and bit on my hind legs, and practise manliness as best I may."
"A very hungry manliness," she retorted. But despite herself she smiled, and then lightly turned the talk to other things.
From day to day the quiet island life went on with few incidents and pleasant monotony. With only one family was there any intercourse, and that almost entirely on Osla's part. On the shore of the great island to the west, which men called Hrossey, dwelt a large farmer, named Margad, and from his household such supplies as they needed were obtained. He was an honest, peaceable man, as the times went, with a kindly wife, Gudrun by name, and they both took a friendly interest in the hermit's daughter. Estein would fain have lived in her society all day, listening to her talk and watching the wind play with her hair, and every day he noticed, with a sense of growing disappointment, that he saw her more seldom. Sometimes they would have long talks, and then, abruptly as it seemed to him, she would have to leave him, and he would spend his time in fishing from a boat, or would cross with her to Hrossey, and while she went to see Dame Gudrun he pursued the roe- deer and moor-fowl.
With bow and arrow, and by dint of long and arduous stalks, he brought home scanty but well-earned spoil, and then, either by himself, or more often with Osla in the stern, he would cross the sound as the day faded, to a welcome supper and an evening spent in the firelit cell, or to a peaceful night beside the swirl of the tideway under a sky so pale and clear that only the brightest stars were ever seen.
He knew that he was in love, hopelessly in love. Why else should he stay in the Holy Isle after his wounds were healed, and when nothing bade him remain? Far away and faint sounded the echoes of war and the shouts of revelry. Like memories of another life, thoughts of his father, of Helgi, of friends and kinsmen, came to him, pricked him for a moment, and faded into a pair of dark-blue eyes and a tall and slender figure. He still talked to Osla of voyages and battles, and caught her sometimes taking more interest than she would own in some old tale of derring-do, or a story of his own adventures. Yet the actual memories of these things grew fainter, and he talked like an old man telling of his youth.
"I am under a spell," he would say to himself, and stride more quickly over the heather, and then catch himself smiling at the thought of some word or look of Osla's.
The hermit's black mood passed away, and was followed by an attitude of grave distance towards his guest. He spoke little, but always courteously, and seemed to treat him at first merely as an addition to the live stock of the island.
One night Estein, after the manner of the skalds, sang a poem of his own as they sat round the fire. He called it the "King's War Song."
"On high the raven banner Invites the hungry kites, Red glares the sun at noon-tide, Wild gleam the Northern lights; The war-horn brays its summons, And from each rock-bound fiord Come the sea-kings of Norway, To follow Norway's lord.
"The cloven arrow speeding, Fraught with war's alarms, Calls the ravens to their feast, The Udallers to arms. See that your helms be burnished, See that your blades be ground, When he of Yngve's kindred Sends the war token round!"
"Skoal, [Footnote: The Norse drinking salutation.] Vandrad! skoal!" cried the hermit.
His hearers looked at him in amazement. His eyes flashed, his lips twitched, the whole man was transformed for the moment into the Viking of the western seas.
"Once I was a skald myself," he said. "You have quickened what I thought was dead." And he rose and walked out into the night.
For a minute they were too surprised to speak. Then Osla said softly,—
"Your magic is too strong, Vandrad." She threw him one glance that lived long in his memory, and quickly followed her father.
For more than an hour afterwards he could dimly see them pacing the shore in silence, her arm within the hermit's.
Next day the old man was more silent and reserved than before, but every now and then Estein saw that his eyes followed him, and the few words he spoke were couched in a kindlier manner.
"Sing to him again," whispered Osla in the evening, and night after night the young skald sang and the hermit and his daughter listened. Sometimes when he was finished the old Viking would talk on various themes. Brief glimpses of his earlier days, snatches of religious converse, his travels, and the strange peoples he had seen, he would touch upon before the evening prayer.
And so the time passed away, till Estein had spent six weeks in the Holy Isle. All the while he had made no open love to Osla. She seemed merely friendly, and he was distracted between a wild desire to break down the barriers between them and a strange and numbing feeling of warning that held him back, he knew not why. So strong was it at times that he fancied two spells cast upon him, one by the island maiden, the other by some unknown spirit.
One morning he found her wandering by the cliffs that formed the seaward barrier of the isle.
"Let us sit here, Osla," he said. "I have a new song to sing you."
"I must bake my cakes," she answered. "Can you not sing it to us to-night?"
"It concerns only you. Sit here but for a moment; it is not long, and you can escape from me when I have done."
"Very well," she said, with a smile and an air of resignation. "I will listen, but do not keep me long."
"If it will tire you, I can wait."
"You can try me."
"I must leave the Holy Isle soon, Osla; I have been too long away from my kinsfolk and my country. It is hard to part, but it must come some day, and these verses are my parting song."
She was silent, and seemed intently plucking sea pinks.
"I cannot tell you why," he went on, "but to-day I feel that my hour has come to rove again. I would that I might live here for ever, but I know it is not fated so."
Then he sang his farewell song:—
"Canst thou spare a sigh, fair Osla? It is fated I must go. Wilt thou think of Vandrad ever When the sea winds hoarsely blow, Or will the memory of my love With absence fainter grow?
"Canst thou spare a tear, sweet Osla, When I sail from this fair land? Wilt thou dream of Vandrad sometimes When the waves boom on the strand? Can visions of a pleasant hour The march of time withstand?
"Osla, when I bear me bravely, 'Midst the lightning of the sword, And the armies meet like torrents When the mountain snows have thawed The thought of thine approving smile Shall be my sole reward.
"Fare thee well, sweet blue-eyed Osla! The sea-king must not stay, E'en for tresses rich as summer And for smile as bright as May; But one hope I cannot part from—We may meet again some day!"
"Then are you going?" she said, more softly than he had ever heard her speak before.
"Do you wish me to stay?"
"Not if you wish to rove the seas again, and fight and plunder, as a brave man should," she cried with a flash of raillery. "If it is your fate to go, why should I stand in the way? Am I anything to you?"
She gave him no time to answer, but rose and ran lightly away.
ANDREAS THE HERMIT.
The same day Estein rowed across alone to Hrossey, and started over the hills with his bow and arrows. He walked for some miles through moorland ground, and paused at length on the top of a range of hills, whence he had a wide view over the inland country. There he sat down and mused for long. Below him he saw a valley opening out into a sweep of low-lying land, watered by many lochs, and bounded by heather hills. All round, in glimpses between the highest hill-tops, and in wide, unbroken stretches over the lower ranges, the open sea girdled the island. Gradually the stillness of the place and the freshness of the air told upon him, and at length he fell asleep. He began to dream, at first of confused events and hurrying faces, and then more distinctly and vividly. He had landed, he thought, on the Holy Isle. It was dark, but he seemed to see plainly a figure, wrapped in a long cloak, walking before him towards the cells. It was neither Andreas nor his daughter, and with some wonder he quickened his steps and overtook it just as it was about to enter the hermit's cell. Then all at once it seemed to flash upon him that this was no mortal visitor, and with a sudden thrill of fear he stopped. At that instant the figure turned a shrouded face on him, and said sternly, and so clearly that the words were ringing in his ears when he woke,—
"What doest THOU here, Estein Hakonson?"
He came to himself with a start, the sweat standing on his forehead. It was the second time he had heard the voice. Once before it had warned him when he first entered the hermit's cell, but now as then he could find neither name nor circumstance to fit it.
All at once the prophecy of Atli came into his mind—"You will be warned, but you will heed not," and in spite of himself a feeling of gloom settled over his mind.
A herd of deer browsed unheeded on a distant slope, the hours passed, and the sun sank low in the west, while he sat there alone.
At last he rose and retraced his steps back to the shore. The tide was running strongly, he had a long and stiff pull to win his way across, and the summer dusk that never reaches darkness in the north was gathering when he landed.
He looked round as though he expected to see a cloaked figure start up out of the gloaming, but the island was deserted and still. Before the cell he paused for an instant. "You will not heed the warning," he repeated. "Yet what is fated must be," and then he entered.
The hermit was alone. Farmer Margad had come for Osla, for his wife was unwell, and the credulous people thought the daughter of the wizard, as they deemed Father Andreas, might have some healing influence. Estein sat down and took his supper; and all the time he was eating, Andreas paced the floor saying nothing aloud, but muttering continually under his breath. Legends of shape-changing and black magic came into the young Viking's mind. As he watched the old man pass to and fro in the firelight, and the huge, distorted shadow sweep across and across the cell, he fancied once or twice that he could see the beginnings of some horrid transformation.
All of a sudden the hermit stopped and looked at him earnestly.
"Sing to me a song of battle!" he cried; and Estein saw that a change had indeed taken place. A fit of gloom had given way to a period of strange excitement, and the spirit of the sea-rover was returned.
Estein composed his mind, and sang the song of the Battle of Dunheath, beginning:—
"Many the chiefs who drank the mead As the sun rose over the plain, But small the band who bound their wounds When the heath was dark again."
As the last words died away the hermit began to talk excitedly and volubly, and in a strain new to his guest.
"I once sang such songs," he said. "I sailed the seas in my long ship, and men feared my name—feared me, Andreas, the man of God. I was a heathen then, as thou art; I worshipped the gods of the North, and the hammer of Thor was my symbol on the ocean. I spared none who stood in my way. These hands have dripped with the blood of my foes, and many a widow have I left desolate."
He paused, and a tongue of flame shot suddenly from the fire and cast a bright light in the cell.
"Fire!" cried the old man—"fire like that have I brought on my foes! I have burned them like rats; I have left their homesteads smouldering! Listen, Vandrad, and I shall tell thee of a deed that made my name known throughout all the Northland. Now," he added, "I am a Christian man, and my soul is safe with Christ.
"Once I received an injury I swore I should avenge. Hakon, King of Sogn, a proud man and a stern, banished my brother Kolskegg for manslaughter. The deed was but an act of justice on one who had beguiled our kinswoman; but the dead man had many friends, and the king hearkened neither to Kolskegg's offers of atonement nor to my petitions—to mine, who had never asked aught of mortal man before! My brother was a dear friend of the king, foster-father even to his eldest son Olaf, and he weakly bowed his head and left the land. When I heard that he had gone, I pressed my sword-hilt so tightly in my rage that the blood dripped from my nails, and I cursed him aloud for idly suffering such insult to our house to pass without revenge. Our race is as old and proud as the kings of Sogn themselves, and I vowed that Hakon should rue that day. I was a heathen then, Vandrad."
He said these last words with a gleam in his eyes and a tightening of his lips, as if he gloated over the memory of his bygone faith. With the same grim reminiscent pleasure, he went on: "I and two others sent the cloven arrow through the dales, and gathered armed men enough to fill three ships. Ay, the sailing of Thord the Tall, Snaekol Gunnarson, and Thorfin of Skapstead is not forgotten yet in Norway. We went to Laxafiord, for there dwelt Olaf, son of Hakon. You have heard the tale?" he cried suddenly, "you know of the burning?"
"Go on," said Estein, in a hard, dry voice; "I am listening," and all the while his right hand sought his side.
"It was a deed," said the hermit, "that made all Norway ring. We landed in the night time, and saw the lights of the hall between the pine trees. They were feasting, and they heard not our approach. We made a ring round the house and heaped faggots against the walls, and still they heard us not. It was a dark night, Vandrad, very dark, till we lit a fire that was seen by men in the outer islands. Then they heard us, they smelt the smoke, and they ran to the doors. The first man who came out I clove to the waist, for none in Norway had greater skill at arms than I. Then we drove them in and closed the door. Sometimes at night I hear them shriek even now. There was never such a burning in Norway; we spared not one soul, not one.
"They asked us to let the women out, but we had come there to slay and not to spare. They shrieked, Vandrad; they cried till the roof fell in, and then they died. My soul is safe with God, and they are in outer darkness. There they will shriek for ever."
He paused for a moment, and then went on in the same strain of high excitement,—
"Now you know me. I am Thord the Tall, the burner of Olaf Hakonson."
"And where are Snaekol Gunnarson and Thorfin of Skapstead?" Estein spoke with difficulty, and his right hand had closed on something in his belt.
"Both are dead. They died heathens, and their souls are as hopelessly lost as the soul of Olaf Hakonson. I am the last of the burners."
The voice of Thord the Tall died away. Estein bent forward, his hand left his side, and something in it gleamed in the firelight.
Suddenly the hermit started.
"Osla! I hear Osla!" he said.
Estein thrust his dagger into its sheath, and bending in the doorway stepped out into the night. Below the cell he saw a boat leaving the land, and right before him, in the clear, cool twilight, the form of Osla.
"Have you tired of my father's company?" she asked, with a smile.
"I would be alone," he answered, and walked quickly past her.
Now he knew the twice-heard voice, and remembered the fleeting face.
"You came to warn me, Olaf, and I knew you not!" he cried. "I know you now—too late!"
He paced the turf with hurried steps. The sacred duty of revenge called him with a vehemence we cannot now realize. He had sworn to let slip no chance of taking vengeance on the burners of his brother. Often he had sought news of them, and often renewed his resolution; and now that he had found his foe, was he to idly suffer him to escape?
Yet he had been this man's guest; he had eaten of his bread, and slept in his dwelling. And his hands were tied by a stronger chain. "Osla, Osla," he cried, "for your sake I am faithless to my vows, and forgetful of my duty to my kindred!"
Then the memory of Thord the Tall, telling of the burning, rose fresh and strong, and again his hand sought his side, and his breath came fast, till the vision of Osla swept aside all other thoughts.
The time went by until the hour was hard on midnight. Gradually his mind grew more composed.
"I am in the hands of destiny," he said to himself. "Let fate do with me what it will."
All the northern sky was still red with the afterglow of sunset, creeping slowly eastwards against the dawn; land and sea lay clear and yet dim, for the light was ghostly as a phosphorescent chamber; the tide was slack, and lapped softly on the rocks; and everything in the world seemed tranquil.
"The end has come," he said.
All at once, on the sheen of the sound, he spied a curious black mark, far out and vague. Gradually it seemed to steal nearer, till Estein, looking at it keenly, forgot his thoughts in a rising curiosity. Then it took shape, and faintly across the water came the splash of oars and the voices of men. As they drew nearer, he crouched below a bank and watched their approach with growing wonder and something too of awe.
"The gods have sent for me," he thought.
They were being carried by the current towards the place where he stood, and presently they made a landing on the rocks. There followed a consultation in low tones, and then one man left the boat and came up the bank. He stood out clearly in the transparent dusk—a tall, mail-clad figure, walking with a confident carriage.
Estein waited till he was opposite him, and then sprang up, dagger in hand.
"Who art thou?" he demanded.
The man's hand went straight to his sword, but at the sound of Estein's voice it fell again.
"Estein, my foster-brother!" he cried.
Helgi opened his arms and embraced him tenderly, speaking with an emotion he made no effort to control. "Estein, my brother, I thought thou wert in truth in Valhalla. I have wept for thee, Estein; I have mourned thee as dead. Tell me that this is thy very self, and not some island ghost come to mock me."
The friendly voice and grasp, coming in this his hour of trouble, touched Estein to the heart.
"It is I, indeed, Helgi," he said; "and never have I felt more glad to see a face and clasp a hand. How came you here? I thought I had parted from my friends for ever. I have been so long alone that they had begun to seem like dream-men."
Helgi told him briefly how he had swum ashore to another island, and there been picked up by Ketill, the black-bearded captain of one of Estein's scattered ships; how, giving up all hope, they had sailed for the south, and after meeting head winds and little luck, returned to the Orkneys, where, from a man who had been with Margad, news of the stranger on the Holy Isle had reached their ears.
"They say, Estein, that your hermit has a fair daughter. Methinks she would like to see your foster-brother; would she not?"
"Nay, Helgi, ask me no more questions, but take me quickly away. I am spell-bound here, and I dare not trust myself to stay one moment longer."
"I know these spells, Estein; they have been cast on men by other maids before now. Better take your sorceress with you. It is unlucky to break such spells so rudely."
"Laugh not, Helgi," said Estein, taking his arm and hurrying him down to the shore. "This spell has meant more to me than you can guess."
"By the hammer of Thor!" exclaimed Helgi, stopping suddenly, "there surely is the witch herself."
Estein looked round, and standing against the sky he saw the slender form he knew so well.
"Wait for me, Helgi," he said, "the spell is on me still," and starting away suddenly he ran up the bank again.
"Osla!" he cried, and stopped abruptly.
"What means this, Vandrad?" she asked.
Her eyes were wide open with troubled surprise, and looking into her upturned face he thought she never was so fair before.
"They have come for me, Osla, and I must go. Farewell! remember me not."
"Do you leave us in this way—without saying farewell, or telling us you were going?"
"I knew not myself when they would come. I told you I must leave you and seek the sea again. It has come true sooner than I expected."
He took her hands.
"Farewell!" he said again.
She turned her face away.
"I feared you would tire of us," she said, her voice sinking very low.
"Never, Osla, never! but fate has been too strong for me. They wait for me now, and I must leave you."
"Farewell, Vandrad!" she said, looking up, and he saw that her eyes were filled with tears.
"Osla!" he cried, drawing her towards him. She yielded an instant, and then suddenly broke free and started away.
"Farewell!" she said again, and her voice sounded like a sob.
He did not trust himself to answer, but turned and hurried to the boat.
They pushed off in silence, the oars dipped in the quiet sound, and Estein left the Holy Isle.
THE HALL OF LIOT.
All through the small hours of the morning Estein sat on the poop in silence. Helgi, wrapped in his cloak, threw himself on the deck beside him and fell asleep with a lightened heart, while the long ship, slipping down the sound with the tide, turned westwards into the swell of the Atlantic.
Gloom had settled over Estein's mind. The pleasantest memories were distorted by the ghost of that old blood feud; his murdered brother called aloud for vengeance; in the wash of the waves and the creaking of the timbers he heard the hermit recite again the story of the burning, and through it all a voice cried, "Farewell! farewell!"
The sun at that season rises early. With it the breeze freshened, and one by one the sleeping figures in the waist woke, and began to stir about the ship. Still their leader sat silent.
Helgi at length sat up with a start, and rubbed his eyes. He looked at Estein, and smiled.
"Very much in love methinks," he said to himself.
At last Estein saw he was observed, and passing his hand across his brow as if to sweep away his thoughts, asked wearily,—
"Where do we go now, Helgi?"
"Your spell needs a violent remedy, and I have that on my mind that may cure it. What say you to letting Liot Skulison know that he did not slay us all? There are here two others besides ourselves who escaped the fate of Thorkel and our comrades, and they think they owe Liot something. Does revenge seem sweet?"
"Then Liot is alive?"
"Ay, Thor has spared him for us. The Orkney-man who led us to you has an ancient feud against the bairn-slayers, and he tells me Liot and his men are feasting at his dwelling. Shall we fall upon them to-night?"
"You are a good physician, Helgi. Battle and storm are the best cures for such as I."
"I cannot give you a storm, I fear," laughed Helgi, "but you can have fighting enough to-night. Liot keeps two hundred men and more about him, and we have here some seventy all told."
"We have faced greater odds together, Helgi. Life does not seem so fair to me now that I should shrink from odds of three to one. Let us seek Liot wherever he is, and when we have found him, tell him to arm as many men as he can muster. Then let our destiny weave its web for us."
Helgi laughed again.
"That would be a good revenge—to let Liot slay the men of Estein, a shipload at a time. If Odin wishes us to die, I shall try to meet my fate stoutly, but I shall not help him in the slaying. Nay, Estein, I can devise a better plan than yours."
Estein smiled for the first time since he had come on board.
"So long as it gives me a good fight with stout foes, and with you at my side, I care not what plan you propose."
"There speaks yourself again!" cried Helgi; "and I think that ere long you will meddle with my schemes. I will call Ketill and the Orkneyman, and we four will hold council here."
Ketill, the broad-beamed captain of the ship—the same whose path had been stopped by Atli—a man of few words and stout deeds, and Grim, the Orkneyman, came up to the poop. There they deliberated for long. Helgi was all for fire.
"Let us hear how the men of Liot will sing when they are warm."
Ketill gave a short laugh.
"I, too, am for burning," he said.
"We must catch them when they are drinking," said Grim. "When Liot's feasts are over many men go to sleep in outhouses round the hall, and we have not force enough here to surround them all at once."
"I will have no more burnings," said Estein.
"When had we our last?" asked Helgi. "You speak as though we had done naught but burn foes all our lives. We have never had a burning before, Estein, and it is better to begin as the burners than the burned."
"I have lately heard tell of another. It is no work for brave men."
Helgi shrugged his shoulders.
"Let us drown them then," he said.
Ketill gave another short, gruff laugh.
"Nay, Ketill, I am not jesting; in truth I am in little humour for that. If seventy brave men cannot clear a hall of two hundred drinkers, what virtue lies in stout hearts and sharp swords? We will enter the hall, you from one end and I from the other, and I think the men of Liot Skulison will not have to complain of too peaceful an evening."
"We must catch them, then, while they are feasting. Afterwards it will be too late, with only seventy men," the wary Grim replied.
"We can choose our hour," said Estein; "and whatever plan we fall on, it seems we must be in time."
Helgi laughed lightly.
"I thought you would leave us little say, Estein, when once you were aroused," he said. "'Tis all the same to me. Fire, sword, or water—choose what you will, you will always find me by your side; and if you must go to Valhalla, why, I will blithely bear you company."
"Fire were better," said Ketill, shaking his head.
The day was still young when the council of war came to an end, and as they had more than sufficient time to reach the hall of Liot before night, the bows were turned to the open sea, that they might better escape observation. Once they had got some miles from land they turned southwards, and striking the sail, to make as little mark as they could, moved slowly under oars alone. All day the long ship rolled in a great ground-swell, the western cliffs of Orkney now hidden by a wall of water, and now glinting in the sunshine as they rose from trough to crest, and right ahead the distant Scottish coast drawing gradually nearer. As the afternoon wore on they turned landwards again, and towards evening found themselves coasting a mountainous island lying to the south of Hrossey.
"What do men call this?" asked Helgi.
"They call it Haey, the high island, and it is on a bay to the south of it that Liot Skulison dwells," answered Grim, their pilot for the time.
They drew closer and closer to the land, until a towering line of cliffs rose for more than a thousand feet right above their heads. It was a stern and sombre coast, unbroken by any bays or inland glimpses, and gloomy and terrible in the fading light. The great oily swell broke into spouts of foam at the cliff-foot, and all along the face of the precipice they could see innumerable sea- fowl clinging to the rock.
Gradually, as they sailed along this hostile land, a light sea-fog began to gather. The leaders of the hazardous expedition watched it closing in upon them with growing apprehension.
"What say you, Grim?" said Helgi; "can you take us to Liot in this mist?"
Grim looked round him doubtfully.
"Methinks I can take you there," he said, "but I fear we shall be too late, we can move but slowly; and with only seventy men, I doubt we shall do little when the men of Liot have left the feast."
Estein had been standing in silence near the tiller. At these words he turned and cried fiercely,—
"Who talks of doing little? Liot or I shall fall to-night, though the blackness of death were round us. Think you I have come to sit here idly in a fog? Tell your men to row like valiant Vikings, Ketill, and not like timorous women."
The respect due to rank in Norway was little more than the proud Norseman chose to pay, and it was with small deference to his prince that Ketill answered,—
"You are fey, I think, Estein. I shall not lose my ship that you may the sooner feed the fishes."
"Are you, too, afraid? By the hammer of Thor! I think you are in league with Liot. I shall make these cravens row."
"That you will not," replied Ketill.
In an instant both swords were half-drawn. The men within earshot were too much surprised at this sudden change from Estein's usual manner to his followers to do more than look in astonishment at the dispute, and in another instant the blades would have clashed, when Helgi rushed between them.
"What is this?" he cried. "Are you possessed of evil spirits, that you would quarrel on the eve of battle? Remember, Ketill, that Estein is your prince; and Estein, my brother, what ails you? You are under a spell indeed. Would that I had slain the witch ere you parted. You can gain nothing by wrecking the ship, and this fog is too dense to row a race off such a coast as this."
Perhaps it was the allusion to the "witch" that brought Estein to his senses, for his eyes suddenly softened.
"I was wrong, Ketill," he said. "The wrath of the gods is upon me, and I am not myself."
He turned away abruptly, and gazed moodily into the fog; while Ketill, with the look of one who is dealing with a madman, left the poop.
"It is ill sailing with a bewitched leader," he muttered.
The idea that Estein was under a spell took rapid hold of the superstitious crew. They told each other that this was no earthly mist that had fallen on them, and listening to the break of the sea on the cliffs, they talked low of wizards and sea-monsters, and heard strange voices in the sound of the surge. Then they became afraid to row at more than a snail's pace, and sometimes almost stopped altogether. In vain Helgi went amongst them, and urged that Grim knew these waters so well that there was little danger, in vain he pointed to the hope of booty and revenge ahead; even as he spoke there was a momentary break in the mist, and they saw the towering cliff so close above them that his words were wasted.
"There is witchcraft here," they said; and Ketill was as obstinate as the rest. The ship crept under the cliffs with hardly any way on at all, and Helgi, in despair, saw the golden hour slipping by.
"Oh, for two more good ships," he thought: "then we could wait till daylight, and fall upon them when we pleased."
Estein had again fallen a prey to his thoughts. In his gloomy fatalism he thought that the wrath of the gods pursued him for the neglect of his duty to his murdered brother, and he submitted to the failure of this adventure as the beginning of his punishment. The fighting fire died out, the longing for action was choked, and in their place what was as nearly a spell as can fall on mortal men had fallen on him. His devoted friend fumed impatiently beside him as the fog grew denser and the hours went slowly by, and bitterly he cursed the enchantress of the Holy Isle.
"He talks of the gods," he said to himself. "This is no work of theirs; it is the magic of that island witch, may the trolls take her!"
"The fog lifts!" cried Grim from his post at the tiller.
The men heard the cry, and ceasing their awestruck talk, looked eagerly at the fast-widening rifts in the white shroud. Ghost-like wreaths detached themselves, flitted by the ship, and then dissipated in thin air. The summer night sky with its pale stars appeared in lakes above, and below, the fog rose from the water like steam. Presently the great cliffs came out clear and terrible in the midnight dusk, and the men cried that the spell was broken.
Over Estein came the greatest change. As the fog lifted, the light returned to his eye, and he turned eagerly to Grim.
"Where are we now? Have we yet time to catch Liot at his feast?"
The pilot shook his head.
"It will take us full two hours to reach the bay where Liot dwells, and the feast, I fear, will have ended even now, for the hour is late."
Helgi's face fell, and he muttered a deep imprecation as he turned to Estein.
"What think you?" he asked; "shall we run for some distant bay, and return to-morrow night?"
"I have come to meet Liot to-night," Estein replied, and turning away he paced the deck in deep thought.
Helgi's cheerfulness returned in an instant. He hummed an air, and leaning against the bulwark awaited the march of events with his usual careless philosophy.
"The men were right," he thought; "it was a magic mist. The spell has lifted with the fog. It wants but a brisk fight now to cure him."
A grim smile stole over Estein's face, and presently he stopped beside Grim, and said,—
"Know you where Liot sleeps in this hall of his?"
"Ay; I was forced to follow him for two years, and I know well his sleeping chamber."
"Can you lead us to it in the dark?"
Grim looked at him doubtfully before answering.
"I think so," he said at length.
"But are you sure?"
The pilot looked round him.
"The night is light," said he, "and there will still be some fire in the hall. But it will be a dangerous venture."
Estein turned impatiently.
"Methinks you have little feud with Liot," he said, and went over to where Helgi stood.
"Well?" asked Helgi.
"I have a plan."
"Have you resolved on a burning? This cursed fog has made me cold, and a fire would like me well."
"You have heard my rede on burnings, Helgi. My scheme is to carry off Liot in his sleep. They will keep no watch. The very dogs will be drunk, and I think it will not be so difficult as it seems. Will you come with me into Liot's hall?"
Helgi's blue eyes opened wide, and he laughed as he said,—
"There has never been your match for enterprise in the north, Estein. Your plans seem all so chosen that your foes may have the greatest chance to slay you. Are we to leave you in Liot's place?"
"I asked if you would follow me."
"You know the answer to that already. But why trouble with Liot's carcass? Surely it were easier to slay him where he lies."
"I like not a midnight murder, and Liot and I have not yet decided who is the better man. That is a trial which I would fain make, and then we can see what the gods would do with me."
"To fight an enemy and capture him afterwards is common enough, but to capture him first and then fight him seems the act of a madman," answered Helgi.
"Then I am a madman," replied Estein, and with that he turned away and walked forward to consult Ketill.
He was impelled by his creed of morbid fatalism to seek this test, whereby his fate might be sharply decided. He longed, too, for action, and the idea, once held, fascinated him. But to all others on board he seemed merely the victim of some insidious magic. That he was under a spell Helgi had no manner of doubt.
"A fair fight," he thought, "is always manlier than a secret slaying, but not Odin himself would fly away with the foe who had slain two shiploads of his followers, and afterwards challenge him to single combat. It is as if he should catch a thief who had stolen half his goods, and then throw dice with him for the rest. But all spells act most banefully at night, they say; doubtless in the morning Estein will rest content with giving him a fitting burial—if he catches him."
And at the thought he laughed aloud.
"May I die in bed like a woman," he said to himself, "if this be not the strangest way of fishing for a Viking!"
Ketill was at first for stoutly refusing the adventure; but Helgi, whose convictions sat lightly on him compared with his attachment to Estein, persuaded him to consent.
"Are you afraid?" he asked, and that question left no room for the proud Viking to hesitate.
It was about two hours after midnight when the long ship, stealing under the shadow of the cliffs, turned into a small bay. It lay open to the south, guarded on either side by a precipitous headland, and withdrawn from the tideway and the swell of the western ocean. In the weird grey light of that June night the men could see a valley opening out of great inland hills on to a more level strip of moorland at the head of the bay. On a spit of sandy beach lay three warships, and on the slope of the hill to the left stood a small township of low buildings, clustering round the higher drinking-hall of Liot Skulison.
In dead silence they hugged the shore as closely as their pilot dared.
"We are as close inshore as we can win," he said at length in a low voice.
The boat was stealthily launched, and into it as many men as it would hold were crowded.
"Keep the rowers on their benches, we may have little time to get away," said Ketill in a gruff whisper to his forecastle man, whom he left in command of the ship.
"We have little wish to be caught."
"Push off, men, and remember he who speaks above a whisper I shall think is tired of life."
The oars dipped and the boat crept slowly landwards.
"You know the landing, Grim?"
Grim, who sat at the tiller, merely nodded; and presently the bows grated on a strip of gravel beach.
"The trolls take you!" muttered Ketill. "Could you not have told us to slacken speed? The dead could hear a landing like this."
"'Tis all right yet, Ketill," whispered Estein. "We are too far from the hall."
"By the hammer of Thor!" growled the black-bearded captain, whose temper was ever of the shortest, "these men splash like cattle."
One by one they stepped ashore, and then the party was divided. One man was left in charge of the boat; Ketill with three others went round to where the long ships lay; while Estein, Helgi, and Grim, with six picked men, cautiously approached the hall.
They crossed a strip of rising heather and struck a sharp slope of turf. Close above them loomed a dark mass of building, and the silence was unbroken save by the stealthy fall of their footsteps. Grim led the way, then came Estein, then Helgi, and the others followed in single file.
Warily they came up to the end of the hall, and under the door there was a brief pause. Estein gave his final instructions in a whisper, and then quickly pushing open the door, he stepped in. Helgi, Grim, and one man followed, while the other five waited outside with their weapons in their hands.
These old Norse drinking-halls were long and high rooms, with great fires down the middle, and beside them long lines of benches for the guests. All down the sides the sleeping chambers opened, and over these hung the arms of the warriors.
The hall of Liot was very dark and still. A ghostly flicker of light struggled through the narrow windows, and on the fires the embers slowly died. Beside the benches slumbered the forms of some of the heaviest drinkers, and once or twice they nearly stumbled over these. Grim came up beside Estein and led him about half-way down the hall. There he stopped and pointed to a door. There were no words; the others closed up and loosened their daggers in their sheaths. Estein stepped back softly to the fire and lifted up a log, one end of which still glowed brightly, and then he pushed open the door. The chamber was dark as a wolf's mouth as he groped for the bed. So cautiously he stepped that the heavy breathing of the sleeper only broke the silence, and very carefully he went forward and thrust the log so close to the unconscious slumberer that he could clearly read his features. Then he placed it against the wall, and gave one whispered order. In an instant a mantle was twisted round Liot's mouth, his hands and feet were bound, and ere he was thoroughly awake, he was mounted on the shoulders of his foes, forming one of a singular procession that hurried through the hall of Liot Skulison.
Grim, who walked first, had almost reached the door, when from the blackest of the shadows a man stepped suddenly across his path. For an instant the pilot's heart stood still. Then he saw that he had only to deal with a half-awakened drinker, and as his mouth was framing a question, Grim's dagger flashed, and with a cry the man fell heavily on the floor. Instantly there arose such a chorus of barking as might have wakened the dead.
"The dogs are sobering," said Helgi.
"Hasten!" cried Estein. "The men will be on us."
They hurried through the door, and bearing their captive on their shoulders, the whole party broke into a run.
"The dogs are after us!" cried one.
"Turn and kill them," said Estein.
Three men stopped, and with a few sweeping sword slashes scattered the yelping crowd; but even as they were driving them off, they could see that men were coming out of the hall and outhouses.
"Where is Ketill?" cried Estein, as they reached the boat.
The man in charge had seen nothing of him.
"May werewolves seize him!" exclaimed Helgi. "He has had time enough to tear the long ships plank from plank."