Erling the Bold Part 3

The presence of those conflicting feelings did not, however, interrupt or r.e.t.a.r.d the work of the field. It was a truly busy scene. Masters, unfreemen, and thralls, mistresses and maidens, were there, cutting and turning and piling up the precious crop with might and main; for they knew that the weather could not be trusted to, and the very lives of their cattle depended on the successful ingathering of the hay.

As we have here mentioned the three different cla.s.ses that existed in Norway, it may be well to explain that the masters were peasants or "bonders", but not by any means similar to peasants in other lands; on the contrary, they were the udal-born proprietors of the soil--the peasant-n.o.bility, so to speak, the Udallers, or freeholders, without any superior lord, and were ent.i.tled to attend and have a voice in the "Things" or a.s.semblies where the laws were enacted and public affairs regulated. The next cla.s.s was that of the "unfreemen". These were freed slaves who had wrought out or purchased their freedom, but who, although personally free, and at liberty to go where and serve whom they pleased, were not free to attend the legislative a.s.semblies. They were unfree of the Things, and hence their apparently contradictory designation. They, however, enjoyed the protection and civil rights imparted by the laws, and to their cla.s.s belonged all the cottars on the land paying a rent in work on the farm of the bonder or udaller, also the house-carles or freeborn indoormen, and the tradesmen, labourers, fishermen, etcetera, about villages and farms. Thralls were slaves taken in war, over whom the owners had absolute control. They might sell them, kill them, or do with them as they pleased. Thralls were permitted to purchase their freedom--and all the descendants of those freed thralls, or unfreemen, were free.

The clothing of the unfreemen was finer than that of the thralls. The legs and arms of nearly all were bare from the knees and elbows downward, though a few had swathed their limbs in bands of rough woollen cloth, while others used straw for this purpose. Nearly all the men wore shoes of untanned leather, and caps of the same material, or of rough homespun cloth, resembling in form the cap of modern fishermen.

The udallers, such as Haldor, Ulf, and their children, were clad in finer garments, which were looped and b.u.t.toned with brooches and pendants of gold and silver, the booty gathered on those viking cruises, against which Hilda inveighed so earnestly.

The work went on vigorously until the sun began to sink behind the mountain range that lay to the north-westward of the dale. By this time the hay was all cut, and that portion which was sufficiently dry piled up, so Ulf and Haldor left the work to be finished by the younger hands, and stood together in the centre of the field chatting and looking on.

Little change had taken place in the personal appearance of Ulf of Romsdal since the occasion of that memorable duel related in the first chapter of our story. Some of his elasticity, but none of his strength, was gone. There was perhaps a little more thought in his face, and a few more wrinkles on his swarthy brow, but his hair was still black and his figure straight as the blade of his good sword. His old enemy but now fast friend, Haldor the Fierce, had changed still less. True, his formerly smooth chin and cheeks were now thickly covered with luxuriant fair hair, but his broad forehead was still unwrinkled, and his clear blue eye was as bright as when, twenty years before, it gleamed in youthful fire at Ulf. Many a battle had Haldor fought since then, at home and abroad, and several scars on his countenance and shoulders gave evidence that he had not come out of these altogether scathless; but war had not soured him. His smile was as free, open, and honest, and his laugh as loud and hearty, as in days of yore. Erling was the counterpart of his father, only a trifle taller and stouter. At a short distance they might have been taken for twin brothers, and those who did not know them could scarcely have believed that they were father and son.

Close to the spot where the two friends stood, a st.u.r.dy thrall was engaged in piling up hay with an uncommon degree of energy. This man had been taken prisoner on the coast of Ireland by Ulf, during one of his sea-roving expeditions. He had a huge ma.s.sive frame, with a profusion of red hair on his head and face, and a peculiarly humorous twinkle in his eye. His name was Kettle Flatnose. We have reason to believe that the first part of this name had no connection with that domestic utensil which is intimately a.s.sociated with tea! It was a mere accidental resemblance of sound no doubt. As to the latter part, that is easily explained. In those days there were no surnames. In order to distinguish men of the same name from each other, it was usual to designate them by their complexions, or by some peculiarity of person or trait of character. A blow from a club in early life had destroyed the shape of Kettle's nose, and had disfigured an otherwise handsome and manly countenance. Hence his name. He was about thirty-five years of age, large-boned, broad-shouldered, and tall, but lean in flesh, and rather ungainly in his motions. Few men cared to grapple with the huge Irish slave, for he possessed a superabundant share of that fire and love of fight which are said to characterise his countrymen even at the present time. He was also gifted with a large share of their characteristic good humour and joviality; which qualities endeared him to many of his companions, especially to the boys of the neighbourhood.

In short, there was not a better fellow in the dale than Kettle Flatnose.

"Thy labour is not light, Kettle," observed Ulf to the thrall as he paused for a few moments in the midst of his work to wipe his heated brow.

"Ill would it become me, master," replied the man, "to take my work easy when my freedom is so nearly gained."

"Right, quite right," replied Ulf with an approving nod, as the thrall set to work again with redoubled energy.

"That man," he added, turning to Haldor, "will work himself free in a few weeks hence. He is one of my best thralls. I give my slaves, as thou knowest, leave to work after hours to purchase their freedom, and Kettle labours so hard that he is almost a free man already, though he has been with me little more than two years and a half. I fear the fellow will not remain with me after he is free, for he is an unsettled spirit. He was a chief in his own land, it seems, and left a bride behind him, I am told. If he goes, I lose a man equal to two, he is so strong and willing.--Ho! Kettle," continued Ulf, turning to the man, who had just finished the job on which he had been engaged, "toss me yonder stone and let my friend Haldor see what thou art made of."

Kettle obeyed with alacrity. He seized a round stone as large as his own head, and, with an unwieldy action of his great frame, cast it violently through the air about a dozen yards in advance of him.

"Well cast, well cast!" cried Haldor, while a murmur of applause rose from the throng of labourers who had been instantly attracted to the spot. "Come, I will try my own hand against thee."

Haldor advanced, and, lifting the stone, balanced it for a few moments in his right hand, then, with a graceful motion and an apparently slight effort, hurled it forward. It fell a foot beyond Kettle's mark.

Seeing this the thrall leaped forward, seized the stone, ran back to the line, bent his body almost to the ground, and, exerting himself to the utmost, threw it into the same hollow from which he had lifted it.

"Equal!" cried Ulf. "Come, Haldor, try again."

"Nay, I will not try until he beats me," replied Haldor with a good-natured laugh. "But do thou take a cast, Ulf. Thine arm is powerful, as I can tell from experience."

"Not so," replied Ulf. "It becomes men who are past their prime to reserve their strength for the sword and battle-axe. Try it once more, Kettle. Mayhap thou wilt pa.s.s the mark next time."

Kettle tried again and again, but without gaining a hair's-breadth on Haldor's throw. The stalwart thrall had indeed put forth greater force in his efforts than Haldor, but he did not possess his skill.

"Will no young man make trial of his strength and skill?" said Haldor, looking round upon the eager faces of the crowd.

"Glumm is no doubt anxious to try his hand," said Erling, who stood close to the line, with his arms resting on the head of his long-hafted battle-axe. "The shining of the Sunbeam will doubtless warm thy heart and nerve thine arm."

Erling muttered the latter part of his speech in a somewhat bitter tone, alluding to Hilda's smiles; but the jealous and sulky Glumm could appreciate no sunbeams save those that flashed from Ada's dark eyes. He understood the remark as a triumphant and ironical taunt, and, leaping fiercely into the ring formed by the spectators, exclaimed:

"I will cast the stone, but I must have a better man than thou, Kettle, to strive with. If Erling the Bold will throw--"

"I will not balk thee," interrupted the other quickly, as he laid down his axe and stepped up to the line.

Glumm now made a cast. Everyone knew well enough that he was one of the best throwers of the stone in all the dale, and confidently antic.i.p.ated an easy victory over the thrall. But the unusual tumult of conflicting feelings in the young man's breast rendered him at the time incapable of exerting his powers to the utmost in a feat, to excel in which requires the union of skill with strength. At his first throw the stone fell short about an inch!

At this Ada's face became grave, and her heart began to flutter with anxiety; for although willing enough to torment her lover a little herself, she could not brook the idea of his failing in a feat of strength before his comrades.

Furious with disappointment and jealousy, and attributing Ada's expression to anxiety lest he should succeed, Glumm cast again with pa.s.sionate energy, and sent the stone just an inch beyond the thrall's mark. There was a dispute on the point, however, which did not tend to soothe the youth's feelings, but it was ultimately decided in his favour.

Erling now stood forth; and as he raised his tall form to its full height, and elevated the stone above his head, he seemed (especially to Hilda) the _beau-ideal_ of manly strength and beauty.

He was grieved, however, at Glumm's failure, for he knew him to be capable of doing better than he had done. He remembered their old friendship too, and pity for his friend's loss of credit caused the recently implanted jealousy for a moment to abate. He resolved, therefore, to exert himself just sufficiently to maintain his credit.

But, unhappily for the successful issue of this effort of self-denial, Erling happened to cast his eye towards the spot where Hilda stood. The tender-hearted maiden chanced at that moment to be regarding Glumm with a look of genuine pity. Of course Erling misconstrued the look! Next moment the huge stone went singing through the air, and fell with a crash full two yards beyond Glumm's mark. Happening to alight on a piece of rock, it sprang onward, pa.s.sed over the edge of the hill or brae on the summit of which the field lay, and gathering additional impetus in its descent, went bounding down the slope, tearing through everything in its way, until it found rest at last on the sea beach below.

A perfect storm of laughter and applause greeted this unexpected feat, but high above the din rose the voice of Glumm, who, now in a towering pa.s.sion, seized his double-handed sword, and shouting--

"Guard thee, Erling!" made a furious blow at his conqueror's head.

Erling had fortunately picked up his axe after throwing the stone. He immediately whirled the heavy head so violently against the descending sword that the blade broke off close to the hilt, and Glumm stood before him, disarmed and helpless, gazing in speechless astonishment at the hilt which remained in his hands.

"My good sword!" he exclaimed, in a tone of deep despondency.

At this Erling burst into a hearty fit of laughter. "My bad sword, thou must mean," said he. "How often have I told thee, Glumm, that there was a flaw in the metal! I have advised thee more than once to prove the blade, and now that thou hast consented to do so, behold the result!

But be not so cast down, man; I have forged another blade specially for thyself, friend Glumm, but did not think to give it thee so soon."

Glumm stood abashed, and had not a word to reply. Fortunately his feelings were relieved by the attention of the whole party being attracted at that moment to the figure of a man on the opposite side of the valley, who ran towards them at full speed, leaping over almost every obstacle that presented itself in his course. In a few minutes he rushed, panting, into the midst of the throng, and presented a baton or short piece of wood to Ulf, at the same time exclaiming: "Haste! King Harald holds a Thing at the Springs. Speed on the token."

The import of this message and signal were well understood by the men of Horlingdal. When an a.s.sembly or Thing was to be convened for discussing civil matters a wooden truncheon was sent round from place to place by fleet messengers, each of whom ran a certain distance, and then delivered over his "message-token" to another runner, who carried it forward to a third, and so on. In this manner the whole country could be roused and its chief men a.s.sembled in a comparatively short time.

When, however, the Thing was to be a.s.sembled for the discussion of affairs pertaining to war, an arrow split in four parts was the message-token. When the split arrow pa.s.sed through the land men were expected to a.s.semble armed to the teeth, but when the baton went round it was intended that they should meet without the full panoply of war.

As soon as the token was presented, Ulf looked about for a fleet man to carry forward the message. Several of the youths at once stepped forward offering their services. Foremost among them was a stout, deep-chested active boy of about twelve years of age, with long flaxen curls, a round sunburnt face, a bold yet not forward look, a merry smile, and a pair of laughing blue eyes. This was Erling's little brother Alric--a lad whose bosom was kept in a perpetual state of stormy agitation by the conflict carried on therein between a powerful tendency to fun and mischief, and a strong sense of the obedience due to parents.

"I will go," said the boy eagerly, holding out his hand for the token.

"Thou, my son?" said Haldor, regarding him with a look of ill-suppressed pride. "Go to thy mother's bower, boy. What if a fox, or mayhap even a wolf, met thee on the fell?"

"Have I not my good bow of elm?" replied Alric, touching the weapon, which, with a quiver full of arrows, was slung across his back.

"Tush! boy; go pop at the squirrels till thou be grown big enough to warrant thy boasting."

"Father," said Alric with a look of glee, "I'm sure I did not boast. I did but point to my poor weapons. Besides, I have good legs. If I cannot fight, methinks I can run."

"Out upon thee--"

"Nay, Haldor," said Ulf, interrupting the discussion, "thou art too hard on the lad. Can he run well?"

"I'll answer for that," said Erling, laying his large hand on his brother's flaxen head. "I doubt if there is a fleeter foot in all the dale."

"Away then," cried Ulf, handing the token to Alric, "and see that ye deserve all this praise. And now, sirs, let us fare to the hall to sup and prepare for our journey to the Springs."

The crowd at once broke up and hurried away to Ulfstede in separate groups, discussing eagerly as they went, and stepping out like men who had some pressing business on hand. Alric had already darted away like a hunted deer.

Erling turned hastily aside and went away alone. As soon as he reached a spot where the rugged nature of the ground concealed him from his late companions, he started up the valley at his utmost speed, directing his course so as to enable him to overshoot and intercept his brother. He pa.s.sed a gorge ahead of the boy; and then, turning suddenly to the left, bore down upon him. So well did he calculate the distance, that on turning round the edge of a jutting cliff he met him face to face, and the two ran somewhat violently into each other's arms.

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