Here Erling's spirit revived a little, and he began to realise the absurdity of the conduct of himself and his friend.
"Why, Glumm," he exclaimed at last, "a dumb spirit must have got hold of us! What possesses thee, man?"
"Truly it takes two to make a conversation," said Glumm sulkily.
"That is as thou sayest, friend, yet I am not aware that I refused to talk with thee," retorted Erling.
"Nor I with thee," said Glumm sharply, "and thy tongue was glib enough when ye talked with Ada in Horlingdal."
A light flashed upon Erling as his friend spoke.
"Why, Glumm," he said lightly, "a pretty girl will make most men's tongues wag whether they will or no."
Glumm remembered his own obstinate silence while walking with Hilda, and deeming this a studied insult he became furious, reined up and said:
"Come, Erling, if ye wish to settle this dispute at once we need fear no interruption, and here is a piece of level sward."
"Nay, man, be not so hot," said Erling, with a smile that still more exasperated his companion; "besides, is it fair to challenge me to fight with this light weapon while thou bearest a sword so long and deadly?"
"That shall be no bar," cried the other, unslinging his two-handed sword; "thou canst use it thyself, and I will content me with thine."
"And pray, how shall we give account of our mission," said Erling, "if you and I cut each other's heads off before fulfilling it?"
"That would then concern us little," said Glumm.
"Nay, thou art more selfish than I thought thee, friend. For my part, I would not that _she_ should think me so regardless of her welfare as to leave undelivered a message that may be the means of preventing the ruin of Horlingdal. My regard for Ada seems to sit more heavily on me than on thee."
At this Glumm became still more furious. He leaped off his horse, drew his sword, and flinging it down with the hilt towards Erling, cried in a voice of suppressed pa.s.sion:
"No longer will I submit to be trifled with by man or woman. Choose thy weapon, Erling. This matter shall be settled now and here, and the one who wins her shall prove him worthy of her by riding forth from this plain alone. If thou art bent on equal combat we can fall to with staves cut from yonder tree, or, for the matter of that, we can make shift to settle it with our knives. What! has woman's love unmanned thee?"
At this Erling leaped out of the saddle, and drew his sword.
"Take up thy weapon, Glumm, and guard thee. But before we begin, perhaps it would be well to ask for whose hand it is that we fight."
"Have we not been talking just now of Ada the Dark-eyed?" said Glumm sternly, as he took up his sword and threw himself into a posture of defence, with the energetic action of a man thoroughly in earnest.
"Then is our combat uncalled for," said Erling, lowering his point, "for I desire not the hand of Ada, though I would fight even to the death for her blue-eyed sister, could I hope thereby to win her love."
"Art thou in earnest?" demanded Glumm in surprise.
"I never was more so in my life," replied Erling; "would that Hilda regarded me with but half the favour that Ada shows to thee!"
"There thou judgest wrongly," said Glumm, from whose brow the frown of anger was pa.s.sing away like a thundercloud before the summer sun. "I don't pretend to understand a girl's thoughts, but I have wit enough to see what is very plainly revealed. When I walked with Hilda to-day I noticed that her eye followed thee unceasingly, and although she talked to me glibly enough, her thoughts were wandering, so that she uttered absolute nonsense at times--insomuch that I would have laughed had I not been jealous of what I deemed the mutual love of Ada and thee. No, Erling, thy suit will prosper, depend on't. It is I who have reason to despond, for Ada loves me not."
Erling, who heard all this with a certain degree of satisfaction, smiled, shook his head, and said:
"Nay, then, Glumm, thou too art mistaken. The dark-eyed Ada laughs at everyone, and besides, I have good reason to know that her interest in thee is so great that she consulted me to-day about--about--a--"
The promise of secrecy that he had made caused Erling to stammer and stop.
"About what?" asked Glumm.
"I may not tell thee, friend. She bound me over to secrecy, and I must hold by my promise; but this I may say, that thou hast fully greater cause for hope than I have."
"Then it is my opinion," said Glumm, "that we have nothing to do but shake hands and proceed on our journey."
Erling laughed heartily, sheathed his sword, and grasped his friend's hand, after which they remounted and rode forward; but they did not now ride in silence. Their tongues were effectually loosened, and for some time they discussed their respective prospects with all the warmth and enthusiasm of youthful confidants.
"But Ada perplexes me," suddenly exclaimed Glumm, in the midst of a brief pause; "I know not how to treat her."
"If thou wilt take my advice, Glumm, I will give it thee."
"What is that?" asked Glumm.
"There is nothing like fighting a woman with her own weapons."
"A pretty speech," said Glumm, "to come from the lips of a man who never regards the weapons of his foes, and can scarce be prevailed on to carry anything but a beloved battle-axe."
"The case is entirely the reverse when one fights with woman," replied Erling. "In war I confess that I like everything to be straightforward and downright, because when things come to the worst a man can either hew his way by main force through thick and thin, or die. Truly, I would that it were possible to act thus in matters of love also, but this being impossible--seeing that women will not have it so, and insist on dallying--the next best thing to be done is to act on their own principles. Fight them with their own weapons. If a woman is outspoken and straightforward, a man should be the same--and rejoice, moreover, that he has found a gem so precious. But if she _will_ play fast and loose, let a man--if he does not give her up at once--do the same. Give Ada a little taste of indifference, Glumm, and thou wilt soon bring her down. Laugh at her as well as with her. Show not quite so much attention to her as has been thy wont; and be more attentive to the other girls in the dale--"
"To Hilda, for instance," said Glumm slyly.
"Aye, even so, an it please thee," rejoined Erling; "but rest a.s.sured thou wilt receive no encouragement in that quarter; for Hilda the Sunbeam is the very soul of innocence, truth, and straightforwardness."
"Not less so is Ada," said Glumm, firing up at the implied contrast.
Erling made a sharp rejoinder, to which Glumm made a fierce reply; and it is probable that these hot-blooded youths, having quarrelled because of a misunderstanding in regard to their mistresses, would have come to blows about their comparative excellence, had they not come suddenly upon a sight which, for the time, banished all other thoughts from their minds.
During the discussion they had been descending the valley which terminated in the plain where the recent battle of the Springs had been fought. Here, as they galloped across the field, which was still strewn with the bodies of the slain, they came upon the blackened ruins of a hut, around which an old hag was moving, actively engaged, apparently, in raking among the ashes with a forked stick for anything that she could draw forth.
Near to her a woman, who had not yet reached middle age, was seated on the burnt earth, with her hands tightly clasped, and her bloodshot eyes gazing with a stony stare at a blackened heap which lay on her lap. As the young men rode up they saw that part of the head and face of a child lay in the midst of the charred heap, with a few other portions of the little one that had been only partially consumed in the fire.
The Northmen did not require to be told the cause of what they saw. The story was too plainly written in everything around them to admit of uncertainty, had they even been ignorant of the recent fight and its consequences. These were two of the few survivors of that terrible night, who had ventured to creep forth from the mountains and search among the ashes for the remains of those whose smiles and voices had once made the sunshine of their lives. The terrible silence of these voices and the sight of these hideous remains had driven the grandmother of the household raving mad, and she continued to rake among the still smouldering embers of the old house, utterly regardless of the two warriors, and only complaining, in a querulous tone now and then, that her daughter should sit there like a stone and leave her unaided to do the work of trying to save at least some of the household from the flames. But the daughter neither heard nor cared for her. She had found what was left of her idol--her youngest child--once a ruddy, fearless boy, with curly flaxen hair, who had already begun to carve model longships and wooden swords, and to talk with a joyous smile and flashing eye of war! but now--the fair hair gone, and nothing left save a blackened skull and a small portion of his face, scarcely enough--yet to a mother far more than enough--to recognise him by.
Erling and Glumm dismounted and approached the young woman, but received no glance of recognition. To a remark made by Erling no reply was given. He therefore went close to her, and, bending down, laid his large hand on her head, and gently smoothed her flaxen hair, while he spoke soothingly to her. Still the stricken woman took no notice of him until a large hot tear, which the youth could not restrain, dropped upon her forehead, and coursed down her cheek. She then looked suddenly up in Erling's face and uttered a low wail of agony.
"Would ye slay her too?" shrieked the old woman at that moment, coming forward with the pole with which she had been raking in the ashes, as if she were going to attack them.
Glumm turned aside the point of the pole, and gently caught the old woman by the arm.
"Oh! spare her," she cried, falling on her knees and clasping her withered hands; "spare her, she is the last left--the last. I tried to save the others--but, but, they are gone--all gone. Will ye not spare _her_?"
"They won't harm us, mother," said the younger woman huskily. "They are friends. I _know_ they are friends. Come, sit by me, mother."
The old woman, who appeared to have been subdued by exhaustion, crept on her hands and knees to her side, and laying her head on her daughter's breast, moaned piteously.
"We cannot stay to aid thee," said Erling kindly; "but that matters not because those will soon be here who will do their best for thee. Yet if thou canst travel a few leagues, I will give thee a token which will ensure a good reception in my father's house. Knowest thou Haldorstede in Horlingdal?"
« Previous My Bookmarks Chapters Next»