Erling the Bold Part 16

This interchange of sentiment seemed to break down the barriers of diffidence which had hitherto existed between the two, for from that moment their talk was earnest and confidential. Erling tried to get Rolf to desert the King's cause and join his opponents, but the latter shook his head, and said that they had no chance of success; and that it was of no use joining a hopeless cause, even although he had strong sympathy with it. While they were conversing, Jarl Rongvold came out and summoned Erling to the presence of the King.

This was the first and last interview that our hero had with that Rolf Ganger, whose name--although not much celebrated at that time--was destined to appear in the pages of history as that of the conqueror of Normandy, and the progenitor of line of English kings.

"I have sent for thee, Erling," said the King, in a voice so soft, yet so constrained, that Erling could not avoid seeing that it was forced, "to tell thee thou art at liberty to return to thy dalesmen with this message--King Harald respects the opinions of the men of Horlingdal, and he will hold a Thing at the Springs for the purpose of hearing their views more fully, stating his own, and consulting with them about the whole matter.--Art satisfied with that?" he asked, almost sternly.

"I will convey your message," said Erling.

"And the sooner the better," said the King. "By the way, there are two roads leading to the Springs, I am told; is it so?" he added.

"There are," said Erling; "one goes by the uplands over the fells, the other through the forest."

"Which would you recommend me to follow when I fare to the Springs?"

"The forest road is the best."

"It is that which thou wilt follow, I suppose?"

"It is," replied Erling.

"Well, get thee to horse, and make the most of thy time; my berserk here will guide thee past the guards."

As he spoke, a man who had stood behind the King motionless as a statue advanced towards the door. He was one of a peculiar cla.s.s of men who formed part of the bodyguard of the King. On his head there was a plain steel helmet, but he wore no "serk", or shirt of mail (hence the name of berserk, or bare of serk), and he was, like the rest of his comrades, noted for being capable of working himself up into such a fury of madness while in action, that few people of ordinary powers could stand before his terrible onset. He was called Hake, the berserk of Hadeland, and was comparatively short in stature, but looked shorter than he really was, in consequence of the unnatural breadth and bulk of his chest and shoulders. Hake led Erling out to the door of the house, where they found Glumm waiting with two horses ready for the road.

"Thou art sharp this morning, Glumm."

"Better to be too sharp than too blunt," replied his friend. "It seemed to me that whatever should be the result of the talk with the King to-day, it were well to be ready for the road in good time. What is yonder big-shouldered fellow doing?"

"Hush, Glumm," said Erling, with a smile, "thou must be respectful if thou wouldst keep thy head on thy shoulders. That is Hake of Hadeland, King Harald's famous berserk. He is to conduct us past the guards. I only hope he may not have been commissioned to cut off our heads on the way. But I think that perchance you and I might manage him together, if our courage did not fail us!"

Glumm replied with that expression of contempt which is usually styled turning up one's nose, and Erling laughed as he mounted his horse and rode off at the heels of the berserk. He had good reason to look grave, however, as he found out a few moments later. Just as they were about to enter the forest, a voice was heard shouting behind, and Jarl Rongvold was seen running after them.

"Ho! stay, kinsman, go not away without bidding us farewell. A safe and speedy journey, lad, and give my good wishes to the old folk at Haldorstede. Say that I trust things may yet be happily arranged between the men of Horlingdal and the King."

As he spoke the jarl managed to move so that Erling's horse came between him and the berserk; then he said quickly, in a low but earnest whisper:

"The King means to play thee false, Erling. I cannot explain, but do thou be sure to take _the road by the fells_, and let not the berserk know. Thy life depends on it. I am ordered to send this berserk with a troop of nineteen men to waylay thee. They are to go _by the forest road_.--There, thou canst not doubt my friendship for thee, for now my life is in thy hands! Haste, thou hast no chance against such odds.

Farewell, Glumm," he added aloud; "give my respects to Ulf, when next ye see him."

Jarl Rongvold waved his hand as he turned round and left his friends to pursue their way.

They soon reached the point where they had met the two guards on the previous day. After riding a little farther, so as to make sure of being beyond the outmost patrol, the berserk reined up.

"Here I leave you to guard yourselves," he said.

"Truly we are indebted to thee for thy guidance thus far," said Erling.

"If you should still chance to meet with any of the guards, they will let you pa.s.s, no doubt."

"No doubt," replied Erling, with a laugh, "and, should they object, we have that which will persuade them."

He touched the hilt of his sword, and nodded good-humouredly to the berserk, who did not appear to relish the jest at all.

"Your road lies through the forest, I believe?" said Hake, pausing and looking back as he was about to ride away.

"That depends on circ.u.mstances," said Erling. "If the sun troubles me, I may go by the forest,--if not, I may go by the fells. But I never can tell beforehand which way my fancy may lead, and I always follow it."

So saying he put spurs to his horse and galloped away.

The berserk did the same, but it was evident that he was ill at ease, for he grumbled very much, and complained a good deal of his ill luck.

He did not, however, slacken his pace on that account, but rather increased it, until he reached Rongvoldstede, where he hastily summoned nineteen armed men, mounted a fresh horse, and, ordering them to follow, dashed back into the forest at full speed.

For some time he rode in silence by the side of a stout man who was his subordinate officer.

"Krake," he said at length, "I cannot make up my mind which road this Erling and his comrade are likely to have taken, so, as we must not miss our men, the King's commands being very positive, I intend to send thee by the mountain road with nine of the men, and go myself by the forest with the other nine. We will ride each at full speed, and will be sure to overtake them before they reach the split rock on the fells, or the double-stemmed pine in the forest. If thou shalt fall in with them, keep them in play till I come up, for I will hasten to join thee without delay after reaching the double pine. If I meet them I will give the attack at once, and thou wilt hasten to join me after pa.s.sing the split rock. Now, away, for here our roads part."

In accordance with this plan the troop was divided, and each portion rode off at full speed.

Meanwhile Erling and Glumm pursued their way, chatting as they rode along, and pausing occasionally to breathe their horses.

"What ails thee, Erling?" said Glumm abruptly. "One would fancy that the fair Hilda was behind thee, so often hast thou looked back since the berserk left us."

"It is because the fair Hilda is before me that I look so often over my shoulder, for I suspect that there are those behind us who will one day cause her grief," replied Erling sadly; then, a.s.suming a gay air, he added--"Come, friend Glumm, I wish to know thy mind in regard to a matter of some importance. How wouldst thou like to engage, single handed, with ten men?"

Glumm smiled grimly, as he was wont to do when amused by anything-- which, to say truth, was not often.

"Truly," said he, "my answer to that must depend on thine answer to this--Am I supposed to have my back against a cliff, or to be surrounded by the ten?"

"With thy back guarded, of course."

"In that case I should not refuse the fight, but I would prefer to be more equally matched," said Glumm, "Two to one, now, is a common chance of war, as thou knowest full well. I myself have had four against me at one time--and when one is in good spirits this is not a serious difficulty, unless there chance to be a berserk amongst them; even in that case, by the use of a little activity of limb, one can separate them, and so kill them in detail. But ten are almost too many for one man, however bold, big, or skilful he may be."

"Then what--wouldst thou say to twenty against two?" asked Erling, giving a peculiar glance at his friend.

"That were better than ten to one, because two stout fellows back to back are not easily overcome, if the fight be fair with sword and axe, and arrows or spears be not allowed. Thou and I, Erling, might make a good stand together against twenty, for we can use our weapons, and are not small men. Nevertheless, I think that it would be our last fight, though I make no doubt we should thin their number somewhat. But why ask such questions?"

"Because I have taken a fancy to know to what extent I might count on thee in case of surprise."

"To what extent!" said Glumm, flushing, and looking his friend full in the face. "Hast known me so long to such small purpose, that ye should doubt my willingness to stand by thee to the death, if need be, against any odds?"

"Nay, be not so hasty, Glumm. I doubt not thy courage nor thy regard for me, but I had a fancy to know what amount of odds thou wouldst deem serious, for I may tell thee that our powers are likely to be put to the proof to-day. My kinsman, Jarl Rongvold, told me at parting that twenty men--and among them Hake the berserk--are to be sent after us, and are doubtless even now upon our track."

"Then why this easy pace?" said Glumm, in a tone of great surprise.

"Surely there is no reason why we should abide the issue of such a combat when nothing is to be gained by it and much to be lost; for if we are killed, who will prepare the men of Horlingdal for the King's approach, and tell of his intentions?"

"That is wisely spoken, Glumm; nevertheless I feel disposed to meet King Harald's men."

"This spirit accords ill with the a.s.sertion that thou art not fond of war," returned Glumm, with a smile.

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