Erling the Bold.
by R.M. Ballantyne.
IN WHICH THE TALE BEGINS SOMEWHAT FURIOUSLY.
By the early light of a bright summer morning, long, long ago, two small boats were seen to issue from one of the fiords or firths on the west coast of Norway, and row towards the skerries or low rocky islets that lay about a mile distant from the mainland.
Although the morning was young, the sun was already high in the heavens, and brought out in glowing colours the varied characteristics of a mountain scene of unrivalled grandeur.
The two shallops moved swiftly towards the islands, their oars shivering the liquid mirror of the sea, and producing almost the only sound that disturbed the universal stillness, for at that early hour Nature herself seemed buried in deep repose. A silvery mist hung over the water, through which the innumerable rocks and islands a.s.sumed fantastic shapes, and the more distant among them appeared as though they floated in air. A few seagulls rose startled from their nests, and sailed upwards with plaintive cries, as the keels of the boats grated on the rocks, and the men stepped out and hauled them up on the beach of one of the islets.
A wild uncouth crew were those Nors.e.m.e.n of old! All were armed, for in their days the power and the means of self-defence were absolutely necessary to self-preservation.
Most of them wore portions of scale armour, or shirts of ring mail, and headpieces of steel, though a few among them appeared to have confidence in the protection afforded by the thick hide of the wolf, which, converted into rude, yet not ungraceful, garments, covered their broad shoulders. All, without exception, carried sword or battle-axe and shield. They were goodly stalwart men every one, but silent and stern.
It might have been observed that the two boats, although bound for the same islet, did not row in company. They were beached as far from each other as the little bay into which they ran would admit of, and the crews stood aloof in two distinct groups.
In the centre of each group stood a man who, from his aspect and bearing, appeared to be superior to his fellows. One was in the prime of life, dark and grave; the other in the first flush of manhood, full grown, though beardless, fair, and ruddy. Both were taller and stouter than their comrades.
The two men had met there to fight, and the cause of their feud was-- Love!
Both loved a fair Norse maiden in Horlingdal. The father of the maid favoured the elder warrior; the maid herself preferred the younger.
In those days, barbarous though they undoubtedly were, law and justice were more respected and more frequently appealed to in Norway than in almost any other country. Liberty, crushed elsewhere under the deadweight of feudalism, found a home in the bleak North, and a rough but loving welcome from the piratical, sea-roving! She did not, indeed, dwell altogether scathless among her demi-savage guardians, who, if their perceptions of right and wrong were somewhat confused, might have urged in excuse that their light was small. She received many shocks and frequent insults from individuals, but liberty was sincerely loved and fondly cherished by the body of the Norwegian people, through all the period of those dark ages during which other nations scarce dared to mention her name.
Nevertheless, it was sometimes deemed more convenient to settle disputes by the summary method of an appeal to arms than to await the issue of a tedious and uncertain lawsuit such an appeal being perfectly competent to those who preferred it, and the belief being strong among the fiery spirits of the age that Odin, the G.o.d of war, would a.s.suredly give victory to the right.
In the present instance it was not considered any infringement of the law of liberty that the issue of the combat would be the disposal of a fair woman's hand, with or without her heart. Then, as now, women were often forced to marry against their will.
Having gone to that island to fight--an island being a naturally circ.u.mscribed battlefield whose limits could not conveniently be transgressed--the two champions set to work at once with the cool businesslike prompt.i.tude of men sprung from a warlike race, and nurtured from their birth in the midst of war's alarms.
Together, and without speaking, they ascended the rock, which was low and almost barren, with a small extent of turf in the centre, level, and admirably suited to their purpose. Here they faced each other; the one drew his sword, the other raised his battle-axe.
There was no sentiment in that combat. The times and the men were extremely matter-of-fact. The act of slaying gracefully had not yet been acquired; yet there was much of manly grace displayed as each threw himself into the position that nature and experience had taught him was best suited to the wielding of his peculiar weapon.
For one instant each gazed intently into the face of the other, as if to read there his premeditated plan of attack. At that moment the clear blue eye of the younger man dilated, and, as his courage rose, the colour mounted to his cheek. The swart brow of the other darkened as he marked the change; then, with sudden spring and shout, the two fell upon each other and dealt their blows with incredible vigour and rapidity.
They were a well-matched pair. For nearly two hours did they toil and moil over the narrow limits of that sea-girt rock--yet victory leaned to neither side. Now the furious blows rained incessant on the sounding shields; anon the din of strife ceased, while the combatants moved round each other, shifting their position with elastic step, as, with wary motion and eagle glances, each sought to catch the other off his guard, and the clash of steel, as the weapons met in sudden onset, was mingled with the shout of anger or defiance. The sun glanced on whirling blade and axe, and sparkled on their coats of mail as if the lightning flash were playing round them; while screaming seamews flew and circled overhead, as though they regarded with intelligent interest and terror the mortal strife that was going on below.
Blood ere long began to flow freely on both sides; the vigour of the blows began to abate, the steps to falter. The youthful cheek grew pale; the dark warrior's brow grew darker, while heaving chests, labouring breath, and an occasional gasp, betokened the approaching termination of the struggle. Suddenly the youth, as if under the influence of a new impulse, dropped his shield, sprang forward, raised himself to his full height, grasped his axe with both hands, and, throwing it aloft (thus recklessly exposing his person), brought it down with terrific violence on the shield of his adversary.
The action was so sudden that the other, already much exhausted, was for the moment paralysed, and failed to take advantage of his opportunity.
He met but failed to arrest the blow with his shield. It was crushed down upon his head, and in another moment the swarthy warrior lay stretched upon the turf.
Sternly the men conveyed their fallen chief to his boat, and rowed him to the mainland, and many a week pa.s.sed by ere he recovered from the effects of the blow that felled him. His conqueror returned to have his wounds dressed by the bride for whom he had fought so long and so valiantly on that bright summer morning.
Thus it was that King Haldor of Horlingdal, surnamed the Fierce, conquered King Ulf of Romsdal, acquired his distinctive appellation, and won Herfrida the Soft-eyed for his bride.
It must not be supposed that these warriors were kings in the ordinary acceptation of that term. They belonged to the cla.s.s of "small" or petty kings, of whom there were great numbers in Norway in those days, and were merely rich and powerful free-landholders or udallers.
Haldor the Fierce had a large family of sons and daughters. They were all fair, strong, and extremely handsome, like himself.
Ulf of Romsdal did not die of his wounds, neither did he die of love.
Disappointed love was then, as now, a terrible disease, but not necessarily fatal. Northmen were very st.u.r.dy in the olden time. They almost always recovered from that disease sooner or later. When his wounds were healed, Ulf married a fair girl of the Horlingdal district, and went to reside there, but his change of abode did not alter his t.i.tle. He was always spoken of as Ulf of Romsdal. He and his old enemy Haldor the Fierce speedily became fast friends; and so was it with their wives, Astrid and Herfrida, who also took mightily to each other. They span, and carded wool, and sewed together oftentimes, and discussed the affairs of Horlingdal, no doubt with mutual advantage and satisfaction.
Twenty years pa.s.sed away, and Haldor's eldest son, Erling, grew to be a man. He was very like his father--almost a giant in size; fair, very strong, and remarkably handsome. His silken yellow hair fell in heavy curls on a pair of the broadest shoulders in the dale. Although so young, he already had a thick short beard, which was very soft and curly. His limbs were ma.s.sive, but they were so well proportioned, and his movements so lithe, that his great size and strength were not fully appreciated until one stood close by his side or fell into his powerful grasp.
Erling was lion-like, yet he was by nature gentle and retiring. He had a kindly smile, a hearty laugh, and bright blue eyes. Had he lived in modern days he would undoubtedly have been a man of peace. But he lived "long long ago"--therefore he was a man of war. Being unusually fearless, his companions of the valley called him Erling the Bold. He was, moreover, extremely fond of the sea, and often went on viking cruises in his own ships, whence he was also styled Erling the Sea-king, although he did not at that time possess a foot of land over which to exercise kingly authority.
Now, it must be explained here that the words Sea-king and Viking do not denote the same thing. One is apt to be misled by the termination of the latter word, which has no reference whatever to the royal t.i.tle king. A viking was merely a piratical rover on the sea, the sea-warrior of the period, but a Sea-king was a leader and commander of vikings.
Every Sea-king was a viking, but every viking was not a Sea-king; just as every Admiral is a sailor, but every sailor is not an Admiral. When it is said that Erling was a Sea-king, it is much as if we had said he was an admiral in a small way.
INTRODUCES, AMONG OTHERS, THE HERO AND HEROINE, AND OPENS UP A VIEW OF NORSE LIFE IN THE OLDEN TIME.
Ulf of Romsdal had a daughter named Hilda. She was fair, and extremely pretty.
The young men said that her brow was the habitation of the lily, her eye the mirror of the heavens, her cheek the dwelling-place of the rose.
True, in the ardour of their feelings and strength of their imaginations they used strong language; nevertheless it was impossible to overpraise the Norse maiden. Her nut-brown hair fell in luxuriant ma.s.ses over her shapely shoulders, reaching far below the waist; her skin was fair, and her manners engaging. Hilda was undoubtedly blue-eyed and beautiful.
She was just seventeen at this time. Those who loved her (and there were few who did not) styled her the sunbeam.
Erling and Hilda had dwelt near each other from infancy. They had been playmates, and for many years were as brother and sister to each other.
Erling's affection had gradually grown into a stronger pa.s.sion, but he never mentioned the fact to anyone, being exceedingly shamefaced and shy in regard to love. He would have given his ears to have known that his love was returned, but he dared not to ask. He was very stupid on this point. In regard to other things he was sharp-witted above his fellows.
None knew better than he how to guide the "warship" through the intricate mazes of the island-studded coast of Norway; none equalled him in deeds of arms; no one excelled him in speed of foot, in scaling the fells, or in tracking the wolf and bear to their dens; but all beat him in love-making! He was wondrously slow and obtuse at that, and could by no means discover whether or not Hilda regarded him as a lover or a brother. As uncertainty on this point continued, Erling became jealous of all the young men who approached her, and in proportion as this feeling increased his natural disposition changed, and his chafing spirit struggled fiercely within him. But his native good sense and modesty enabled him pretty well to conceal his feelings. As for Hilda, no one knew the state of her mind. It is probable that at this time she herself had not a very distinct idea on the point.
Hilda had a foster-sister named Ada, who was also very beautiful. She was unusually dark for a Norse maiden. Her akin indeed was fair, but her hair and eyes were black like the raven's wing. Her father was King Hakon of Drontheim.
It was the custom in those warlike days for parents to send out some of their children to be fostered by others--in order, no doubt, to render next to impossible the total extirpation of their families at a time when sudden descents upon households were common. By thus scattering their children the chances of family annihilation were lessened, and the probability that some members might be left alive to take revenge was greatly increased.
Hilda and Ada were warmly attached. Having been brought up together, they loved each other as sisters--all the more, perhaps, that in character they were somewhat opposed. Hilda was grave, thoughtful, almost pensive. Ada was full of vivacity and mirth, fond of fun, and by no means averse to a little of what she styled harmless mischief.
Now there was a man in Horlingdal called Glumm, surnamed the Gruff, who loved Ada fervently. He was a stout, handsome man, of ruddy complexion, and second only to Erling in personal strength and prowess. But by nature he was morose and gloomy. Nothing worse, however, could be said of him. In other respects he was esteemed a brave, excellent man.
Glumm was too proud to show his love to Ada very plainly; but she had wit enough to discover it, though no one else did, and she resolved to punish him for his pride by keeping him in suspense.
Horlingdal, where Ulf and Haldor and their families dwelt was, like nearly all the vales on the west of Norway, hemmed in by steep mountains of great height, which were covered with dark pines and birch trees. To the level pastures high up on mountain tops the inhabitants were wont to send their cattle to feed in summer--the small crops of hay in the valleys being carefully gathered and housed for winter use.
Every morning, before the birds began to twitter, Hilda set out, with her pail and her wooden box, to climb the mountain to the upland dairy or "saeter", and fetch the milk and b.u.t.ter required by the family during the day. Although the maid was of n.o.ble birth--Ulf claiming descent from one of those who are said to have come over with Odin and his twelve G.o.dars or priests from Asia--this was not deemed an inappropriate occupation. Among the Nors.e.m.e.n labour was the lot of high and low. He was esteemed the best man who could fight most valiantly in battle and labour most actively in the field or with the tools of the smith and carpenter. Ulf of Romsdal, although styled king in virtue of his descent, was not too proud, in the busy summertime, to throw off his coat and toss the hay in his own fields in the midst of his thralls [slaves taken in war] and house-carles. Neither he, nor Haldor, nor any of the small kings, although they were the chief men of the districts in which they resided, thought it beneath their dignity to forge their own spearheads and anchors, or to mend their own doors. As it was with the men, so was it with the women. Hilda the Sunbeam was not despised because she climbed the mountainside to fetch milk and b.u.t.ter for the family.
One morning, in returning from the fell, Hilda heard the loud clatter of the anvil at Haldorstede. Having learned that morning that Danish vikings had been seen prowling among the islands near the fiord, she turned aside to enquire the news.
Haldorstede lay about a mile up the valley, and Hilda pa.s.sed it every morning on her way to and from the saeter. Ulfstede lay near the sh.o.r.e of the fiord. Turning into the smithy, she found Erling busily engaged in hammering a huge ma.s.s of stubborn red-hot metal. So intent was the young man on his occupation that he failed to observe the entrance of his fair visitor, who set down her milk pail, and stood for a few minutes with her hands folded and her eyes fixed demurely on her lover.
Erling had thrown off his jerkin and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt of coa.r.s.e homespun fabric, in order to give his thick muscular arms unimpeded play in wielding the hammer and turning the ma.s.s of glowing metal on the anvil. He wore woollen breeches and hose, both of which had been fashioned by the fingers of his buxom mother, Herfrida. A pair of neatly formed shoes of untanned hide--his own workmanship--protected his feet, and his waist was encircled by a broad leathern girdle, from one side of which depended a short hunting-knife, and from the other a flap, with a slit in it, to support his sword. The latter weapon--a heavy double-edged blade--stood leaning against the forge chimney, along with a huge battle-axe, within reach of his hand. The collar of his shirt was thrown well back, exposing to view a neck and chest whose muscles denoted extraordinary power, and the whiteness of which contrasted strikingly with the ruddy hue of his deeply bronzed countenance.
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