Erling the Bold Part 11

"Hold thy peace, Ivor," said Hilda quickly. "This man has saved my life once, as thou knowest, and well a.s.sured am I that what he undertakes to do he will accomplish."

"Now thanks to thee, Hilda, for that," said the hermit heartily; "not that I boast of being sure to accomplish what I undertake, yet I never offer to attempt what I have not some reasonable hope of being able to do. But it is not strange that this old warrior should doubt of the courage or capacity of one who preaches the gospel of peace.

Nevertheless, when I was a youth I fought in the army of the great Thorfin, and was somewhat expert in the use of the bow. It is possible that some of my ancient skill may remain, and I am willing to use it in a good cause. I pray thee, therefore, let us not waste more time in useless talk, but fetch me a bow and quiver, and show me the window in the roof."

Ivor went at once to the place where the armour was kept, and brought out the desired weapons, which he placed in the hands of the hermit, and watched his mode of handling them with some curiosity. Christian, unconscious of the look, strung the bow and examined one of the arrows with the air of a man who was thoroughly accustomed to such weapons.

Ivor regarded him with increased respect as he conducted him to the loft, and opened the window.

The hermit at once stepped out, and was instantly observed by the Danes, who of course seized the opportunity and let fly several arrows at him, which grazed him or stuck quivering in the roof close to the spot where he stood. He was not slow to reply. One of the vikings, who was approaching the house at the moment with a bundle of f.a.ggots on his back, received a shaft in his shoulder, which caused him to drop his bundle and fly to the woods, where he took shelter behind a tree.

Almost before that shaft had reached its mark another was on the string, and, in another instant, transfixed the biceps muscle of the right arm of one of the vikings who was preparing to discharge an arrow. He also sought shelter behind a tree, and called to a comrade to come and a.s.sist him to extract the shaft.

"Mine ancient skill," said the hermit in an undertone, as if the remark were made half to himself and half to Ivor, whose head appeared at the window, and whose old countenance was wrinkled with a grin of delight at this unexpected display of prowess; "mine ancient skill, it would seem, has not deserted me, for which I am thankful, for it is an awful thing, Ivor, more awful than thou thinkest, to send a human being into eternity unforgiven. I am glad, therefore, to be able thus to render our a.s.sailants unfit for war without taking away their lives--ha! that was better aimed than usual," he added, as an arrow pa.s.sed through his jerkin, and stuck deep into the roof. "The man shoots well, he would soon end the fight if I did not--stop--that."

At the second-last word the hermit bent his bow; at the last, which was uttered with emphasis, he let the arrow fly, and sent it through the left hand of his adversary, who instantly dropped his bow. At the same moment it seemed as though the whole band of vikings had become suddenly convinced that they stood exposed to the shafts of a man who could use them with unerring certainty, for they turned with one consent and fled into the woods--each man seeking shelter behind the nearest tree.

Here they called to one another to stand forth and shoot at the hermit.

"Go thou, Arne," cried the leader; "thine aim is true. Surely one old man is not to keep us all at bay. If my left hand were unscathed I would not trouble thee to do it, thou knowest."

"I have no desire to get an arrow in mine eye," cried Arne; "see, I did but show the tip of my right elbow just now, and the skin of it is cut up as though the crows had pecked it."

In the excess of his wrath Arne extended his clenched fist and shook it at the hermit, who instantly transfixed it with an arrow, causing the foolish man to howl with pain and pa.s.sion.

"I have always held and acted on the opinion," said Christian to Ivor, who was now joined by his comrade Finn, "that whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well. Thou seest," he continued, wiping his brow with the sleeve of his coat, "it is only by being expert in the use of this weapon that I have succeeded in driving bark the Danes without the loss of life. There is indeed a pa.s.sage in the Book of G.o.d (which I hope to be spared to tell thee more about in time to come), where this principle of thoroughness in all things is implied, if not absolutely taught--namely, `Whatever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.'"

"A just maxim," said Finn, shading his one eye with his hands and gazing earnestly into the woods, "and if acted upon, makes a man fit for every duty that falls upon him; but it seems to me that while we are talking here, there is some movement going on. See, Christian (since that is thy name), they are retiring in haste, and exposing themselves. Now, I pray thee, as thine eye is so sure, do drop a shaft on the nape of yonder fellow's neck, that we may have something to show of this night's work."

"I told thee, Finn, that my desire is to avoid taking life."

"Humph," said Finn testily, "whatever thy desire may be matters little now, for he is beyond range. Hark! That shout accounts for the flight of the Danes. Ulf must have returned."

As he spoke, a loud cry, as if of men in conflict, arose from the fiord.

Immediately after, the vikings who had not already taken to flight left their places of shelter and dashed into the underwood. The hermit let them go without moving a hand; but Alric, who was actuated by no merciful principles, suddenly opened the north door, sprang out, and let fly an arrow with so true an aim that it struck one of the Danes between the shoulders. Fortunately for him, the Dane had, in accordance with the usual custom of the time, hung his shield on his back when he took to flight, so that the shaft rebounded from it and fell harmless to the ground.

By this time the hermit had descended from the roof. Running out he seized Alric, and, dragging him into the house, reclosed the door.

"Ye know not, foolish boy, whether or not this is Ulf whom we hear."

As he spoke, the tramp of approaching footsteps and the voices of excited men were heard outside. The door flew open, and Ulf, Erling, and Haldor, with a number of the house-carles, strode into the hall and flung down their arms.

"Not much too soon, it would seem," said Ulf, with a look of stern joy.

"Thou wouldst have been altogether too late, Ulf," said Astrid, "had not Christian been here to save us."

"How so?" exclaimed Ulf, turning with an enquiring look to the hermit; "hast turned warrior after all thy preaching of peace? But thou art pale. Ho! fetch a horn of ale here; fighting has disagreed with thy stomach, old man."

"I think," said Christian, pressing his hand to his side, "that one of these arrows must have--"

He paused suddenly, and would have fallen to the ground had not Erling caught him. Letting him gently down at full length, our hero raised his head on his knee, while Hilda came forward with a horn of ale. As she kneeled by the old man's side she glanced anxiously at her lover's face, which was covered with blood and dust, and presented anything but an attractive appearance.

"Hast thou been wounded?" whispered Hilda.

"No, not wounded," muttered Erling, "but--"

"Not wounded!" exclaimed Ulf, who overheard the words, but misunderstood their application, "not wounded! Why, Erling, where have thy wits gone?

The man is wellnigh dead from loss of blood. See, his jerkin is soaking. Bring hither bandages; come, let me see the wound. If the old man has indeed saved Ulfstede this day, eternal disgrace would be our due did we let his life slip out under our roof-tree for want of proper care. And hark'ee; get ready all the dressings thou hast, for wounded men enough will be here ere long, and let the boards be spread with the best of meat and ale, for we have gone through hard work to-day, and there is harder yet in store for us, I trow."

Thus admonished, the women went to make preparation for the reception of the wounded, and the entertainment of those who had been more fortunate in the recent conflict. Meanwhile the hermit was conveyed to Ulf's own bed, and his wound, which proved to be less serious than had been feared, was carefully dressed by Hilda, to whom Erling, in the most attentive and disinterested manner, acted the part of a.s.sistant-surgeon.



Scant was the time allowed the men of Horlingdal for refreshment and rest after the battle of the Springs, for the a.s.sembling of Thingsmen armed to the teeth, as well as the news that King Harald threatened a descent on them, rendered it necessary that a District Thing or Council should be held without delay.

Accordingly, after brief repose, Haldor the Fierce, who had returned with Erling to his own house up the dale, arose and ordered the horn to be sounded for a Thing.

Several hundreds of men had by that time a.s.sembled, and when they all came together they formed an imposing band of warriors, whom any wise king would have deemed it advisable to hold converse with, if possible, on friendly terms.

When the Thing was seated Haldor rose, and, amid profound silence, said:

"Men of Horlingdal, King Harald Haarf.a.ger has sent round the message-token for a Thing to be held at the Springs. The token sent was one of peace. The token of war was sent round instead, as ye know.

Whether this was wise or not does not much concern us now, as ye have seen with your own eyes that there was good fortune in the change; for we knew not, when the token was forwarded, of the urgent need that should arise at the Springs for our weapons. But, now that the Danes have been sent home--excepting that goodly number who have gone to Valhalla's halls to keep company with Odin and departed warriors--it seems to me that we should meet the King in the manner which he desires until he shall give us occasion to a.s.sume arms in defence of our laws.

And I would here remind you that Harald is our rightful King, udal-born to the Kingdom of Norway, his t.i.tle having been stated and proved at all the District Things, beginning with the Ore Thing of Drontheim, and having been approved by all the people of Norway. I therefore counsel pacific measures, and that we should go to the Springs unarmed."

When Haldor sat down there was a slight murmur of a.s.sent, but most of those present remained silent, wishing to hear more.

Then up started Ulf, and spoke with great heat.

"I agree not with Haldor," he said sternly. "Who does not know that Harald is rightful King of Norway; that he is descended in a direct line from the G.o.dars who came over from the east with Odin, and has been fairly elected King of Norway? But who does not know also, that our laws are above our King, that Harald is at this time trampling on these laws, and is everywhere setting at defiance the small kings, who are as truly udal-born to their rights and t.i.tles as himself?"

At this point Ulf's indignation became so great that he found he could not talk connectedly, so he concluded by counselling that they should go to the Springs fully armed, and ready to brave the worst. There was a loud shout of approval, and then Erling started up. His manner and tone were subdued, but his face was flushed; and men could see, as he went on, that he was keeping down his wrath and his energy.

"I like it ill," he said, "to disagree on this point with my father; but Ulf is right. We all know that Harald is King of Norway by _law_, and we do not meet here to dispute his t.i.tle; but we also know that kings are not G.o.ds. Men create a law and place it over their own heads, so that the lawmakers as well as those for whom it is made must bow before it; but when it is found that the law works unfairly, the lawmaker may repeal it, and cast it aside as useless or unworthy. So kings were created for the sole purpose of guiding nations and administering laws, in order that national welfare might be advanced. The moment they cease to act their part, that moment they cease to be worthy kings, and become useless. But if, in addition to this, they dare to ignore and break the laws of the land, then do they become criminal; they deserve not only to be cast aside, but punished. If, in defence of our rights, we find it necessary to dethrone the King, we cannot be charged with disloyalty, because the King has already dethroned himself!"

Erling paused a moment at this point, and a murmur of approval ran through the circle of his auditors.

"When Harald Haarf.a.ger's father," he resumed, "Halfdan the Black, ruled over Norway, he made laws which were approved by the people. He obeyed them himself, and obliged others to observe them; and, that violence should not come in the place of the laws, he himself fixed the number of criminal acts in law, and the compensations, mulcts, or penalties, for each case, according to everyone's birth and dignity, from the King downwards; so that when disputes were settled at the Things the utmost fair play prevailed--death for death, wound for wound; or, if the parties chose, matters could be adjusted by payments in money--each injury being valued at a fixed scale; or matters might be settled and put right by single combat. All this, ye know full well, Halfdan the Black compa.s.sed and settled in a _legal manner_, and the good that has flowed from his wise and legal measures (for I hold that a king is not ent.i.tled to pa.s.s even wise laws illegally) has been apparent to us ever since. But now all this is to be overturned--with or without the consent of the Things--because a foolish woman, forsooth, has the power to stir up the vanity of a foolish king! Shall this be so? Is our manhood to be thus riven from us, and shall we stand aloof and see it done, or, worse still, be consenting unto it? Let death be our portion first! It has been rumoured that the people of southern lands have done this--that they have sold themselves to their kings, so that one man's voice is law, and paid troops of military slaves are kept up in order that this one man may have his full swing, while his favourites and his soldier-slaves bask in his sunshine and fatten on the people of the land! It is impossible for us of Norway to understand the feelings or ideas of the men who have thus sold themselves--for we have never known such tyranny--having, as the scalds tell us, enjoyed our privileges, held our Things, and governed ourselves by means of the collective wisdom of the people ever since our forefathers came from the East; but I warn ye that if this man, Harald Haarf.a.ger, is allowed to have his will, our inst.i.tutions shall be swept away, our privileges will depart, our rights will be crushed, and the time will come when it shall be said of Nors.e.m.e.n that they have utterly forgotten that they once were free!

Again I ask, shall we tamely stand aside and suffer this to be? Shall our children ever have it in their power to say, `There was a time when our mean-spirited forefathers might have easily stopped the leak that caused the flood by which we are now borne irresistibly downward?' I repeat, let us rather perish! Let us go armed to the Springs and tell the King that he--equally with ourselves--is subject to the laws of the land!"

Erling delivered the last sentence in a voice of thunder, and with a fierce wave of the hand, that drew forth shouts of enthusiastic applause.

Instantly Glumm started up, forgetful, in the heat of the moment, of the jealousy that had so recently sprung up between him and his friend.

"I am not a speaker," he shouted gruffly, "but poor is the man who cannot back up and egg on his friend. Erling speaks the truth; and all I have to suggest is that he should be sent by us to tell all this to King Harald Haarf.a.ger's face!"

Glumm sat down with the prompt decision of a man who has thoroughly delivered himself of all that he intends to say; and many in the a.s.sembly testified their approval of his sentiments.

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