"These are words," said the hermit, carefully spreading out a roll of parchment, on which a few lines were written.
Erling and Hilda regarded the strange characters with much interest.
Indeed, the young man's look almost amounted to one of awe, for he had never seen the scroll before, although Hilda, to whom it had several times been shown and explained, had told him about it.
"These marks convey thoughts," said Christian, laying his forefinger on the characters.
"Can they convey intricate thoughts," asked Erling, "such as are difficult to express?"
"Aye; there is no thought which can quit the tongue of one man and enter the understanding of another which may not be expressed by these letters in different combinations."
"Dim ideas of this have been in my mind," said Erling, "since I went on viking cruise to the south, when first I heard of such a power being known to and used by many, but I believed it not. If this be as thou sayest, and these letters convey thy thoughts, then, though absent, thy thoughts might be known to me--if I did but understand the tracing of them."
"Most true," returned the hermit; "and more than that, there be some who, though dead, yet speak to their fellows, and will continue to do so as long as the records are preserved and the power to comprehend them be maintained."
"Mysterious power," said Erling; "I should like much to possess it."
"If thou wilt come to my poor abode on the cliff I will teach it thee.
A few months, or less, will suffice. Even Hilda knows the names of the separate signs, and she has applied herself to it for little more than a few days."
Hilda's face became scarlet when Erling looked at her in surprise, but the un.o.bservant hermit went on to descant upon the immense value of written language, until Hilda reminded him that he had consented to sit in judgment on a knotty point.
"True, I had forgotten.--Come now, Erling, let me hear it."
The youth at once began, and in a few minutes had so interested his hearers that they gazed in his face and hung upon his words with rapt attention, while he detailed the incidents of the combats with a degree of fluency and fervour that would have thrown the oratory of Glumm and Kettle quite into the shade had it been told in the hall.
While Erling was thus engaged, his friend Glumm, having finished the recital of his adventures for the twentieth time, and at the same time eaten a good supper, was advised by his companions to have the wound in his head looked to.
"What! hast thou not had it dressed yet?" asked Ulf; "why, that is very foolish. Knowest thou not that a neglected wound may compa.s.s thy death?
Come hither, Ada; thy fingers are skilled in such offices. Take Glumm to an inner chamber, and see if thou canst put his head to rights."
"Methinks," cried Guttorm Stoutheart, with a laugh, "that she is more likely to put his heart wrong than his head right with these wicked black eyes of hers. Have a care, Glumm: they pierce deeper than the sword of the berserk."
Ada pretended not to hear this, but she appeared by no means displeased, as she led Glumm to an inner chamber, whither they were followed by Alric, whose pugnacious soul had been quite fascinated by the story of the recent fight, and who was never tired of putting questions as to minute points.
As Glumm sat down on a low stool to enable Ada to get at his head, she said (for she was very proud of her lover's prowess, and her heart chanced to be in a melting mood that night), "Thou hast done well to-day, it would seem?"
"It is well thou thinkest so," replied Glumm curtly, remembering Erling's advice.--"No, boy," he added, in reply to Alric, "I did not kill the one with the black helmet; it was Erling who gave him his deathblow."
"Did Hake the berserk look _dreadfully_ fierce?" asked Alric.
"He made a few strange faces," replied Glumm.
"The wound is but slight," observed Ada, in a tone that indicated a little displeasure at the apparent indifference of her lover.
"It might have been worse," replied Glumm.
"Do tell me all about it again," entreated Alric.
"Not now," said Glumm; "I'll repeat it when Hilda is by; she has not heard it yet--methinks she would like to hear it."
"Hilda like to hear it!" cried the lad, with a shout of laughter; "why, she detests fighting almost as much as the hermit does, though, I must say, for a man who hates it, he can do it wonderfully well himself! But do tell me, Glumm, what was the cut that Erling gave when he brought down that second man, you know--the big one--"
"Which? the man whose head he chopped off, with half of the left shoulder?"
"No; that was the fourth. I mean the other one, with--"
"Oh, the one he split the nose of by accident before battering down with--"
"No, no," cried Alric, "I mean the one with the black beard."
"Ha!" exclaimed Glumm, "that wasn't the second man; his fall was much further on in the fight, just after Erling had got hold of the battle-axe. He whirled the axe round his head, brought it from over the left down on Blackbeard's right shoulder, and split him to the waist."
"Now, that is finished," said Ada sharply, as she put away the things that she had used in the dressing of the wound. "I hope that every foe thou hast to deal with in future may let thee off as well."
"I thank thee, Ada, both for the dressing and the good wish," said Glumm gravely, as he rose and walked into the hall, followed by his persevering and insatiable little friend.
Ada retired hastily to her own chamber, where she stood for a moment motionless, then twice stamped her little foot, after which she sat down on a stool, and, covering her face with both hands, burst into a pa.s.sionate flood of tears.
IN WHICH ALRIC BOASTS A LITTLE, DISCOVERS SECRETS, CONFESSES A LITTLE, AND DISTINGUISHES HIMSELF GREATLY.
Next day there was great bustle at Ulfstede, and along the sh.o.r.es of the fiord, for the men of Horlingdal were busy launching their ships and making preparations to go to the Springs to meet and hold council with King Harald Haarf.a.ger.
It had been finally resolved, without a dissentient voice, that the whole district should go forth to meet him in arms, and thus ensure fair play at the deliberations of the Thing. Even Haldor no longer objected; but, on the contrary, when he heard his son's account of his meeting with the King, and of the dastardly attempt that had been made to a.s.sa.s.sinate him and his friend, there shot across his face a gleam of that wild ferocity which had procured him his t.i.tle. It pa.s.sed quickly away, however, and gave place to a look of sad resignation, which a.s.sured those who knew him that he regarded their chance of opposing the King successfully to be very small indeed.
The fleet that left the fiord consisted of the longships of Ulf, Haldor, Erling, Glumm, and Guttorm, besides an innumerable flotilla of smaller crafts and boats. Many of the men were well armed, not only with first-rate weapons, but with complete suits of excellent mail of the kinds peculiar to the period--such as shirts of leather, with steel rings sewed thickly over them, and others covered with steel scales-- while of the poorer bonders and the thralls some wore portions of defensive armour, and some trusted to the thick hides of the wolf, which were more serviceable against a sword-cut than many people might suppose. All had shields, however, and carried either swords, bills, spears, javelins, axes, or bows and arrows, so that, numbering as they did, about a thousand men, they composed a formidable host.
While these rowed away over the fiord to the Springs to make war or peace--as the case might be--with King Harald, a disappointed spirit was left behind in Horlingdal.
"I'm sure I cannot see why I should not be allowed to go too," said little Alric, on returning to Haldorstede, after seeing the fleet set forth. "Of course I cannot fight so well as Erling _yet_, but I can do _something_ in that way; and can even face up to a full-grown man when occasion serves, as that red-haired Dane knows full well, methinks, if he has got any power of feeling in his neck!"
This was said to Herfrida, who was in the great hall spreading the board for the midday meal, and surrounded by her maidens, some of whom were engaged in spinning or carding wool, while others wove and sewed, or busied themselves about household matters.
"Have patience, my son," said Herfrida. "Thou art not yet strong enough to go forth to battle. Doubtless, in three or four years--"
"Three or four years!" exclaimed Alric, to whom such a s.p.a.ce of time appeared an age. "Why, there will be no more fighting left to be done at the end of three or four years. Does not father say that if the King succeeds in his illegal plans all the independence of the small kings will be gone for ever, and--and--of course I am old enough to see that if the small kings are not allowed to do as they please, there will be no more occasion for war--nothing but a dull time of constant peace!"
Herfrida laughed lightly, while her warlike son strutted up and down the ancestral hall like a bantam c.o.c.k, frowning and grunting indignantly, as he brooded over the dark prospects of peace that threatened his native land, and thought of his own incapacity, on account of youth, to make glorious hay while yet the sun of war was shining.
"Mother," he said, stopping suddenly, and crossing his arms, as he stood with his feet planted pretty wide apart, after the fashion of those who desire to be thought very resolute--"mother, I had a dream last night."
"Tell it me, my son," said Herfrida, sitting down on a low stool beside the lad.
Now, it must be known that in those days the Northmen believed in dreams and omens and warnings--indeed, they were altogether a very superst.i.tious people, having perfect faith in giants, good and bad; elves, dark and bright; wraiths, and fetches, and guardian spirits-- insomuch that there was scarcely one among the grown-up people who had not seen some of these fabulous creatures, or who had not seen some other people who had either seen them themselves or had seen individuals who _said_ they had seen them! There were also many "clear-sighted" or "fore-sighted" old men and women, who not only saw goblins and supernatural appearances occasionally, and, as it were, accidentally, like ordinary folk, but who also had the gift--so it is said--of seeing such things when they pleased--enjoyed, as it were, an unenviable privilege in that way. It was therefore with unusual interest that Herfrida asked about her son's dream.
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