"Ha!" exclaimed the King, with a bitter smile. "Is it so? Thy father has met his desert, then, for he now lies at the bottom of the fiord."
Ada turned deadly pale, but made no reply.
"Know ye where Haldor the Fierce is, and his insolent son Erling?" asked the King.
Hilda flushed at this, and answered with some spirit that she did not know, and that if she did she would not tell.
"Of course not," said the King; "I might have guessed as much, and do but waste my time with ye.--Stand aside--bring forward yonder fellow."
The hermit was immediately led forward.
"Who art thou?" asked the King.
"An old wanderer on the face of the earth," replied Christian.
"That is easily seen," answered the King; "but not too old, it would seem, to do a little mischief when the chance falls in thy way."
"Methinks, sire," whispered Jarl Rongvold, "that this fellow is one of those strange madmen who have taken up with that new religion, which I do not profess to understand."
"Sayest thou so?" exclaimed Harald, "then will I test him.--Ho! fetch me a piece of horse flesh."
A piece of horse flesh was brought without delay, for some that had been sacrificed in the Drontheim temple had been packed up and carried off among other provisions when the expedition set forth.
"Here, old man, eat thou a portion of that," said Harald, holding the flesh towards him.
"I may not eat what has been sacrificed to idols," said the hermit.
"Ho! ho! then thou art not a worshipper of Odin? Say, dog, what art thou?"
"I am a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is my Saviour. To Him I live, and for Him I can die."
"Can He save you from _me_?" demanded Harald.
"He can," answered the hermit earnestly, "and will save you too, King Harald, from your sins, and all who now hear me, if they will but turn to Him."
"Now will I test him," said the King. "Stand forth, Hake of Hadeland, and hew me the old man's head from his body."
"Spare him! O spare him!" cried Hilda, throwing herself suddenly between Hake and his victim, who stood with the resigned air of a man who had made up his mind to die. "He has twice saved _my_ life, and has never done you evil in thought or deed."
"Stand aside, my pretty maid. Nay, then, if thou wilt not, I must grant thy request; but it is upon one condition: that this Saviour shall either come himself or send a champion to deliver the old man.--Come,"
he added, turning fiercely to the hermit, "pray that thy G.o.d shall send thee a champion now, for if He does not, as I live thou shalt die."
"I may not pray at thy bidding," said the hermit calmly; "besides, it needs not that I should, because I have already prayed--before dawn this morning--that He would grant me His blessing in the form that seemed best to Himself."
"And hast thou got it?"
"I have--in that I possess a quiet spirit, and do not fear to die, now that His time has come."
"'Tis something this, I admit," returned the King; "yet methinks 'tis but a poor blessing, after all, with death as the end of it."
"Death is not the end of it," said the hermit, with a kindling eye, "for after death is everlasting joy and glory with the Lord. Besides, King Harald, which were better, think you: to die with a willing spirit and bright hope, or to live full of restless ambition, disappointment, and rage, even although victorious and King of Norway?"
The King's countenance grew livid with anger as he turned to the berserk and said, in a voice of suppressed pa.s.sion--"Go forward, Hake, and slay him!"
"Now--the time has come," whispered Erling to Glumm.
"Get as near to Ada as thou canst; for the rest, may Christian's G.o.d be with us!"
As he spoke he sprang into the circle, sword in hand, and stood suddenly between the astonished Hake and the hermit.
There was a loud murmur of amazement at this unexpected apparition, and not a few of the spectators were awestricken, supposing that this was actually a champion sent from the spirit world.
"Harald," cried Erling, for the berserk had shrunk back dismayed, "I do now accept the challenge, and come here to champion the old man."
At the sound of his voice the King's face lighted up with intelligence.
"Ha!" he exclaimed suddenly; "has the old man's G.o.d sent Erling the Bold?"
"Truly I think he has," replied Erling; "at all events it was not for this purpose that I came hither to-day. But now that I have come, and of mine own free will put myself in thy power, I claim the right to do battle for my old friend with thy stoutest man--so set him forth, King Harald."
"What sayest thou, Hake?" said the King, turning to his berserk with a smile; "art willing to join issue with the Bold one?--bold enough, truly, and insolent as well."
Hake, who had recovered his self-possession the instant he recognised Erling's voice, and who was by no means wanting in courage, suddenly uttered one of his terrible roars, and rushed upon Erling like a thunderbolt.
Our hero was too well accustomed to the ways of his cla.s.s to be caught off his guard. Although Hake rained blows upon him so fast that it was almost impossible for the spectators to follow the motions of his flashing sword, Erling received them all on his shield, or parried them with his short sword--which, as being more manageable in a _melee_, he had selected for his present enterprise. The instant, however, that the berserk's furious onset began to slacken, Erling fetched him such a tremendous cut on the sword that the weapon was broken close off at the hilt. Disdaining to slay an unarmed foe, he leaped upon the berserk, and struck him a blow with the hilt of his sword, which drove the casque down upon his head and stretched him flat upon the sward.
Without waiting an instant Erling flung down his shield and walked to the place where Hilda stood, took her by the hand, and whispered, "Courage! come with me and thou shalt be saved." At the same moment Glumm stepped to Ada's side, and took her right hand in his left. No sword was drawn, for Glumm had not drawn his, and no one present had the faintest idea of what the young men intended to attempt. Indeed, they were all so amazed at the sudden termination of the fight, that the men of the inner part of the ring actually stood aside to let them pa.s.s, before the King had time to shout:--
In other circ.u.mstances, at Harald's word a thousand swords would have been drawn, and the doom of Erling and his friends at once been sealed; but the natural ferocity of the tyrant's followers had been spellbound, and for the time paralysed by the calm bearing of old Christian and the prowess of his champion, whose opportune appearance had all the effect of a supernatural interposition, as it might well be deemed: and it will be readily believed that our hero and Glumm did not fail to use the advantage thus offered. Leading those whom they had come to rescue, and closely followed by the hermit, they pa.s.sed completely through the circle of men. But at the repet.i.tion, in a voice of thunder, of the royal mandate, some hundreds of the King's men surrounded them, and, notwithstanding their wondrous strength and skill, they were being gradually overpowered by numbers, when suddenly a tremendous shout was heard, and next moment Ulf with his fifty men in battle array rushed out of the forest.
King Harald endeavoured hastily to draw up his men in something like order. Hearing the cry in rear, the men in front of Erling and Glumm fell aside, so that they quickly cut down those who still stood in their way, and ran towards their friends, who opened their ranks to let them pa.s.s--then reclosed, and fell upon the King's men with incredible fury.
Although outnumbered by at least twenty to one, the disparity did not at first tell against them, owing to the confusion in the enemy's ranks, and the confined s.p.a.ce of ground on which they fought. They were thus enabled to act with great vigour, and, being animated by the spirit of desperate men, they actually for some time kept driving back the King's forces.
But the continual a.s.sault of fresh foes began to tell, and several of Ulf's men had already fallen, when Erling's voice was heard ringing high above the din of battle. Instantly every man turned on his heel and fled towards the river madly pursued by the whole of the King's host.
By this time Erling and Glumm had got the girls into the boat, and steered them safely down the rapid into the little bay, where they waited for their companions as patiently as they could.
Meanwhile Ulf's men reached the foot of the Crow Cliff and one by one sprang into the boiling rapid. Ulf was among the first there, but he stayed to see them all pa.s.s. Before the last could do so their enemies were upon them, but Ulf kept them at bay for a few moments; and when the last of his men took the water he retreated fighting, and leaped backwards into the flood. One or two of the King's men followed, but they failed to catch him, were carried down stream, and, being ignorant of the dangers of the place, were swept over the foss and killed. Most of the host, however, turned suddenly, and set off at full speed to cross the ridge and pursue their enemies, by the path to which we have already referred. Before they had crossed it, Erling and his men were far on their way down the valley; and when the pursuers reached the coast there was no sign of the fugitives anywhere.
On reaching the cave Erling found that his father had got everything in readiness to start; so, a.s.sembling the people together without delay, he divided them into two bands, one of which he sent into the Swan, the other into Glumm's vessel, the Crane.
Haldor also went in the Swan, along with Ulf of Romsdal, Th.o.r.er the Thick, Kettle Flatnose, Alric, and the hermit, besides Dames Herfrida and Astrid, and the widow Gunhild, Ingeborg, and all Haldor's younger children. With Glumm there were also several women besides Ada. Ivor the Old and Finn the One-eyed also went with him; but most of the old and crippled hangers-on of both families, as well as Glumm's mother, were taken by Erling into the Swan, as the accommodation there was better than on board the Crane.
"Now, Glumm," said Erling, when all were on board, "we must say farewell to Norway. Keep close in my wake. If they give chase we will do our best to escape, but if that may not be, we will fight and fall together." The friends shook hands; then, each getting into his ship, the stern ropes were cast off, the oars were dipped, and they shot out upon the blue fiord, which the sinking sun had left in a solemn subdued light, although his beams still glowed brightly on the snow-clad mountain peaks.
They had proceeded some distance down the fiord before their pursuers observed them. Then a mighty shout told that they were discovered; and the grinding of the heavy ships' keels was distinctly heard upon the sh.o.r.e, as they were pushed off into deep water. Immediately after, the splash of hundreds of oars warned them to make haste.
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