Erling the Bold Part 29

"After this," continued Kettle, "old Guttorm became like a wolf. He snarled at everyone who came near him for some time, but his pa.s.sion never lasted long. He soon fell upon another plan.

"There was a small river which ran at the foot of the mound on which the castle stood, and there were mudbanks on the side next to it, One night we were all ordered to go to the mudbanks as quiet as mice, with shovels and picks in our hands, and dig a tunnel under the castle. We did so, and the first night advanced a long way, but we had to stop a good while before day to let the dirt wash away and the water get clear again, so that they might not suspect what we were about. The next night we got under the castle wall, and on the fifth night had got well under the great hall, for we could hear the men singing and shouting as they sat at meat above us. We had then to work very carefully for fear of making a noise, and when we thought it ready for the a.s.sault we took our swords and shields with us, and Guttorm led the way. His chief house-carle was appointed to drive through the floor, while Guttorm and I stood ready to egg him on and back him up.

"We heard the men above singing and feasting as usual, when suddenly there was a great silence, for one of the big stones over our heads was loosened, and they had evidently felt or seen it. Now was the time come; so, while the house-carle shovelled off the earth, some of us got our fingers in about the edge of the stone, and pulled with all our force. Suddenly down it came and a man along with it. We knocked him on the head at once, and gave a loud huzza as the house-carle sprang up through the hole, caught a shower of blows on his shield, and began to lay about him fiercely. Guttorm was very mad at the carle for going up before him, but the carle was light and the old man was heavy, so he could not help it. I was about to follow, when a man cut at my head with a great axe as I looked up through the hole. I caught the blow on my shield, and thrust my sword up into his leg, which made him give back; but just at that moment the earth gave way under our feet, and a great ma.s.s of stones and rubbish fell down on us, driving us all back into the pa.s.sage through which we had come, except the house-carle, who had been caught by the enemy and dragged up into the hall. As soon as we could get on our feet we tried to make for the hole again, but it was so filled with earth and stones that we could not get forward a step.

Knowing, therefore, that it was useless to stay longer there, we ran back to the entrance of the tunnel, but here we found a body of men who had been sent out of the castle to cut off our retreat. We made short work of these. Disappointment and anger had made every man of us equal to two, so we hewed our way right through them, and got back to the camp with the loss of only two men besides the house-carle.

"Next morning when it was daylight, the enemy brought the poor prisoner to the top of the castle wall, where they lopped off his head, and, having cut his body into four pieces, they cast them down to us with shouts of contempt.

"After this Guttorm Stoutheart appeared to lose all his fire and spirit.

He sent for his chief men, and said that he was going to die, and that it was his wish to be left to do so undisturbed. Then he went into his tent, and no one was allowed after that to go near him except his nephew.

"A week later we were told that Guttorm was dying, and that he wanted to be buried inside the castle; for we had discovered that the people were what they called Christians, and that they had consecrated ground there.

"When this was made known to the priests in the castle they were much pleased, and agreed to bury our chief in their ground, if we would bring his body to a spot near the front gateway, and there leave it and retire to a safe distance from the walls. There was some objection to this at first, hit it was finally agreed to--only a request was made that two of the next of kin to Guttorm might be allowed to accompany the body to the burial-place, as it would be considered a lasting disgrace to the family if it were buried by strange hands when friends were near. This request was granted on the understanding that the two relations were to go into the castle unarmed.

"On the day of the funeral I was summoned to Guttorm's tent to help to put him into his coffin, which had been made for him after the pattern of the coffins used in that part of the country. When I entered I found the nephew standing by the side of the coffin, and the old Sea-king himself sitting on the foot of it.

"`Thou art not quite dead yet?' says I, looking hard in his face.

"`Not yet,' says he, `and I don't expect to be for some time.'

"`Are we to put you into the coffin?' I asked.

"`Yes,' says he, `and see that my good axe lies ready to my hand. Put thy sword on my left side, nephew, that thou mayst catch it readily.

They bury me in consecrated ground to-day, Kettle; and thou, being one of my nearest of kin, must attend me to the grave! Thou must go unarmed too, but that matters little, for thy sword can be placed on the top of my coffin, along with thy shield, to do duty as the weapons of the dead.

When to use them I leave to thy well-known discretion. Dost understand?'

"`Your speech is not difficult for the understanding to take in,' says I.

"`Ha! especially the understanding of an Irishman,' says he, with a smile. `Well, help me to get into this box, and see that thou dost not run it carelessly against gate-posts; for it is not made to be roughly handled!'

"With that old Guttorm lay back in the coffin, and we packed in the nephew's sword and shield with him, and his own axe and shield at his right side. Then we fastened down the lid, and two men were called to a.s.sist us in carrying it to the appointed place.

"As we walked slowly forward I saw that our men were drawn up in a line at some distance from the castle wall, with their heads hanging down, as if they were in deep grief,--and so they were, for only a _few_ were aware of what was going to be done; yet all were armed, and ready for instant action. The appointed spot being reached, we put the coffin on the ground, and ordered the two men, who were armed, to retire.

"`But don't go far away, lads,' says I; `for we have work for ye to do.'

"They went back only fifty ells or so, and then turned to look on.

"At the same time the gate of the castle opened, and twelve priests came out dressed in long black robes, and carrying a cross before them. One of them, who understood the Norse language, said, as they came forward--

"`What meaneth the sword and shield?'

"I told him that it was our custom to bury a warrior's arms along with him. He seemed inclined to object to this at first, but thinking better of it, he ordered four of his men to take up the coffin, which they did, shoulder high, and marched back to the castle, closely followed by the two chief mourners.

"No sooner had we entered the gateway, which was crowded with warriors, than I stumbled against the coffin, and drove it heavily against one of the posts, and, pretending to stretch out my hands to support it, I seized my sword and shield. At the same moment the lid of the coffin flew into the air, the sides burst out, and old Guttorm dropped to the ground, embracing two of the priests so fervently in his descent that they fell on the top of him. I had only time to observe that the nephew caught up his sword and shield as they fell among the wreck, when a shower of blows from all directions called for the most rapid action of eye and limb. Before Guttorm could regain his feet and utter his war-cry, I had lopped off two heads, and the nephew's sword was whirling round him like lightning flashes, but of course I could not see what he did. The defenders fought bravely, and in the first rush we were almost borne back; but in another moment the two men who had helped us to carry the coffin were alongside of us; and now, having a front of five stout men, we began to feel confident of success. This was turned into certainty when we heard, a minute later, a great rushing sound behind us, and knew that our men were coming on. Old Guttorm swung his battle-axe as if it had been a toy, and, uttering a tremendous roar, cut his way right into the middle of the castle. We all closed in behind him; the foe wavered--they gave way--at last they turned and fled; for remembering, no doubt, how they had treated the poor house-carle, they knew they had no right to expect mercy. In a quarter of an hour the place was cleared, and the castle was ours."

"And what didst thou do with it?" asked Alric, in much excitement.

"Do with it? Of course we feasted in it till we were tired; then we put as much of its valuables into our ships as they could carry, after which we set the place on fire and returned to Norway."

"'Twas well done, and a lucky venture," observed Solve Klofe.

Alric appeared to meditate for a few minutes, and then said with a smile--

"If Christian the hermit were here he would say it was ill done, and an unlucky venture for the men of the castle."

"The hermit is a fool," said Solve.

"That he is not," cried the boy, reddening. "A braver and better man never drew bow. But he has queer thoughts in his head."

"That may be so. It matters naught to me," retorted Solve, rising and going forward to the high prow of the ship, whence he looked out upon the island-studded sea.--"Come, lads, change hands again, and pull with a will. Methinks a breeze will fill our sails after we pa.s.s yonder point, and if so, we shall sleep to-night in Horlingdal."

CHAPTER TWENTY.

IN WHICH THE SKY AGAIN BECOMES OVERCAST--THE WAR-TOKEN IS SENT OUT-- ALRIC GETS A SURPRISE, AND A BERSERK CATCHES A TARTAR.

Erling the Bold was very fond of salmon-fishing, and it was his wont, when the weather suited, and nothing of greater importance claimed his attention, to sally forth with a three-p.r.o.nged spear to fish in the Horlingdal river, which swarmed with salmon in the summer season of the year.

One evening he left Haldorstede with his fishing-spear on his shoulder, and went up to the river, accompanied by one of the house-carles. They both wore shirts of mail, and carried shield and sword, for these were not times in which men could venture to go about unarmed. On reaching a place where the stream ran shallow among rocks, our hero waded in, and at the first dart of his spear struck a fish of about fifteen pounds weight, which he cast, like a bar of burnished silver, on the gra.s.sy bank.

"That will be our supper to-night," observed the carle, as he disengaged the spear.

Erling made no reply, but in a few minutes he pulled out another fish, and said, as he threw it down--

"That will do for a friend, should one chance to turn in to us to-night."

After that he tried again, but struck no more, although he changed his ground frequently; so he cast his eyes upwards as if to judge of the time of evening, and appeared to doubt whether or not he should persevere any longer.

"Try the foss," suggested the house-carle; "you seldom fail to get one there."

"Well, I will try it. Do thou leave the fish under that bush, and follow me. It needs three big fish to make a good feast for my father's household."

"Besides," said the carle, "there is luck in an odd number, as Kettle Flatnose is fond of telling us."

They were about to ascend the bank to the track which led to the waterfall, about half a mile farther up the river, when their attention was arrested by a shout; looking down the stream in the direction whence it came, they saw a figure approaching them at full speed.

"That must be my brother Alric," said Erling, on hearing the shout repeated.

"It looks like him," said the carle.

All doubt on the point was quickly set at rest by the lad, who ran at a pace which soon brought him near. Waving his cap above his head he shouted--

"News! news! good news!"

"Out with thy news, then," said Erling, as Alric stood before him, panting violently, "though I dare say the best news thou hast to give is that thou hast come back to us safe and well."

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