"I tell thee, Ulf," said Haldor, "thou wilt do wrong to fare to the Thing with men fully armed when the token was one of peace. The King is in no mood just now to brook opposition. If we would save our independence we must speak him smoothly."
"I care not," replied Ulf gruffly; "this is no time to go about unarmed."
"Nay, I did not advise thee to go unarmed, but surely a short sword might suffice, and--"
At this moment Erling entered, and Ulf burst into a loud laugh as he interrupted his friend: "Aye, a short sword--something like that," he said, pointing to the huge hilt which rose over the youth's shoulder.
"Hey! lad," exclaimed his father, "art going to fight with an axe in one hand and a sword in the other?"
"The sword is for Glumm, father. I owe him one after this morning's work. Here, friend Glumm, buckle it on thy shoulder. The best wish that thou and I can exchange is, that thy sword and my axe may never kiss each other."
"Truly, if they ever do, I know which will fare worst," said Haldor, taking the axe and examining it, "Thou art fond of a weary arm, my lad, else ye would not have forged so weighty a weapon. Take my advice and leave it behind thee."
"Come, come," interrupted Ulf; "see, the tables are spread; let us use our jaws on food and drink, and not on words, for we shall need both to fit us for the work before us, and perchance we may have no longer need of either before many days go by. We can talk our fill at the Thing, an it so please us."
"That will depend on the King's pleasure," replied Haldor, laughing.
"So much the more reason for taking our arms with us, in order that we may have the means of talking the King's pleasure," retorted Ulf with a frown; "but sit ye down at my right hand, Haldor, and Hilda will wait upon thee. Come, my men all--let us fall to."
It is scarcely necessary to say that this invitation was accepted with alacrity. In a few minutes about fifty pairs of jaws were actively employed in the manner which Ulf recommended.
Meanwhile Erling the Bold seated himself at the lower end of one of the tables, in such a position that he could keep his eye on the outer door, and, if need be, steal away un.o.bserved. He calculated that his little brother must soon return from his flying journey, and he expected to hear from him some news of the vikings. In this expectation he was right; but when Alric did come, Erling saw and heard more than he looked for.
The meal was about half concluded, and Ulf was in the act of pledging, not absent, but defunct, friends, when the door opened slowly, and Alric thrust his head cautiously in. His hair, dripping and tangled, bore evidence that his head at least had been recently immersed in water.
He caught sight of Erling, and the head was at once withdrawn. Next moment Erling stood outside of the house.
"How now, Alric, what has befallen thee? Hey! thou art soaking all over!"
"Come here; I'll show you a fellow who will tell you all about it."
In great excitement the boy seized his brother's hand and dragged rather than led him round the end of the house, where the first object that met his view was a man whose face was covered with blood, which oozed from a wound in his forehead, while the heaving of his chest, and an occasional gasp, seemed to indicate that he had run far and swiftly.
THE VIKING RAID--ALRIC'S ADVENTURE WITH THE DANE--ERLING'S CUTTER, AND THE BATTLE IN THE Pa.s.s.
"Whom have we here?" exclaimed Erling, looking close into the face of the wounded man. "What! Swart of the Springs!"
Erling said this sternly, for he had no liking for Swart, who was a notorious character, belonging to one of the neighbouring fiords--a wild reckless fellow, and, if report said truly, a thief.
"That recent mischief has cost thee a cracked crown?" asked Erling, a little more gently, as he observed the exhausted condition of the man.
"Mischief enough," said Swart, rising from the stone on which he had seated himself, and wiping the blood, dust, and sweat from his haggard face, while his eyes gleamed like coals of fire; "Skarpedin the Dane has landed in the fiord, my house is a smoking pile, my children and most of the people in the stede are burned, and the Springs run blood!"
There was something terrible in the hoa.r.s.e whisper in which this was hissed out between the man's teeth. Erling's tone changed instantly as he laid his hand on Swart's shoulder.
"Can this be true?" he answered anxiously; "are we too late? are _all_ gone?"
"_All_," answered Swart, "save the few fighting men that gained the fells." The man then proceeded to give a confused and disjointed account of the raid, of which the following is the substance.
Skarpedin, a Danish viking, noted for his daring, cruelty, and success, had taken it into his head to visit the neighbourhood of Horlingdal, and repay in kind a visit which he had received in Denmark the previous summer from a party of Nors.e.m.e.n, on which occasion his crops had been burned, his cattle slaughtered, and his lands "herried", while he chanced to be absent from home.
It must be observed that this deed of the Northmen was not deemed unusually wicked. It was their custom, and the custom also of their enemies, to go out every summer on viking cruise to plunder and ravage the coasts of Denmark, Sweden, Britain, and France, carrying off all the booty they could lay hold of, and as many prisoners as they wanted or could obtain. Then, returning home, they made slaves or "thralls" of their prisoners, often married the women, and spent the winter in the enjoyment of their plunder.
Among many other simple little habits peculiar to the times was that called "Strandhug". It consisted in a viking, when in want of provisions, landing with his men on any coast--whether that of an enemy or a countryman--and driving as many cattle as he required to the sh.o.r.e, where they were immediately slaughtered and put on board without leave asked or received!
Skarpedin was influenced both by cupidity and revenge. Swart had been one of the chief leaders of the expedition which had done him so much damage. To the Springs therefore he directed his course with six "longships", or ships of war, and about five hundred men.
In the afternoon of a calm day he reached the fiord at the head of which were the Springs and Swart's dwelling. There was a small hamlet at the place, and upon this the vikings descended. So prompt and silent were they, that the men of the place had barely time to seize their arms and defend their homes. They fought like lions, for well they knew that there was no hope of mercy if they should be beaten. But the odds against them were overwhelming. They fell in heaps, with many of their foes underneath them. The few who remained to the last retreated fighting, step by step, each man towards his own dwelling, where he fell dead on its threshold. Swart himself, with a few of the bravest, had driven back that part of the enemy's line which they attacked. Thus they were separated for a time from their less successful comrades, and it was not till the smoke of their burning homesteads rose up in dense clouds that they became aware of the true state of the fight. At once they turned and ran to the rescue of their families, but their retreat was cut off by a party of the enemy, and the roar of the conflagration told them that they were too late. They drew together, therefore, and, making a last desperate onset, hewed their way right through the ranks of their enemies, and made for the mountains. All were more or less wounded in the _melee_, and only one or two succeeded in effecting their escape. Swart dashed past his own dwelling in his flight, and found it already down on the ground in a blazing ruin. He killed several of the men who were about it, and then, bounding up the mountain side, sought refuge in a ravine.
Here he lay down to rest a few moments. During the brief period of his stay he saw several of his captured friends have their hands and feet chopped off by the marauders, while a terrible shriek that arose once or twice told him all too plainly that on a few of them had been perpetrated the not uncommon cruelty of putting out the eyes.
Swart did not remain many moments inactive. He descended by a circuitous path to the sh.o.r.e, and, keeping carefully out of sight, set off in the direction of Horlingdal. The distance between the two places was little more than nine or ten miles, but being separated from each other by a ridge of almost inaccessible mountains, that rose to a height of above five thousand feet, neither sight nor sound of the terrible tragedy enacted at the Springs could reach the eyes or ears of the inhabitants of Ulfstede. Swart ran round by the coast, and made such good use of his legs that he reached the valley in little more than an hour. Before arriving at Ulfstede his attention was attracted and his step arrested by the sight of a warship creeping along the fiord close under the shadow of the precipitous cliffs. He at once conjectured that this was one of the Danish vessels which had been dispatched to reconnoitre Horlingdal. He knew by its small size (having only about twenty oars) that it could not be there for the purpose of attack. He crouched, therefore, among the rocks to escape observation.
Now, it happened at this very time that Erling's brother Alric, having executed his commission by handing the war-token to the next messenger, whose duty it was to pa.s.s it on, came whistling gaily down a neighbouring gorge, slashing the bushes as he went with a stout stick, which in the lad's eyes represented the broadsword or battle-axe he hoped one day to wield, in similar fashion, on the heads of his foes.
Those who knew Erling well could have traced his likeness in every act and gesture of the boy. The vikings happened to observe Alric before he saw them, as was not to be wondered at, considering the noise he made.
They therefore rowed close in to the rocks, and their leader, a stout red-haired fellow, leaped on sh.o.r.e, ascended the cliffs by a narrow ledge or natural footpath, and came to a spot which overhung the sea, and round which the boy must needs pa.s.s. Here the man paused, and leaning on the haft of his battle-axe, awaited his coming up.
It is no disparagement to Alric to say that, when he found himself suddenly face to face with this man, his mouth opened as wide as did his eyes, that the colour fled from his cheeks, that his heart fluttered like a bird in a cage, and that his lips and tongue became uncommonly dry! Well did the little fellow know that one of the Danish vikings was before him, for many a time had he heard the men in Haldorstede describe their dress and arms minutely; and well did he know also that mercy was only to be purchased at the price of becoming an informer as to the state of affairs in Horlingdal--perhaps a guide to his father's house.
Besides this, Alric had never up to that time beheld a _real_ foe, even at a distance! He would have been more than mortal, therefore, had he shown no sign of trepidation.
"Thou art light of heart, lad," said the Dane with a grim smile.
Alric would perhaps have replied that his heart was the reverse of light at that moment, but his tongue refused to fulfil its office, so he sighed deeply, and tried to lick his parched lips instead.
"Thou art on thy way to Ulfstede or Haldorstede, I suppose?" said the man.
Alric nodded by way of reply.
"To which?" demanded the Dane sternly.
"Ha!" interrupted the man. "I see. I am in want of a guide thither.
Wilt guide me, lad?"
At this the truant blood rushed back to Alric's cheeks. He attempted to say no, and to shake his head, but the tongue was still rebellious, and the head would not move--at least not in that way--so the poor boy glanced slightly aside, as if meditating flight. The Dane, without altering his position, just moved his foot on the stones, which act had the effect of causing the boy's eyes to turn full on him again with that species of activity which cats are wont to display when expecting an immediate a.s.sault.
"Escape is impossible," said the Dane, with another grim smile.
Alric glanced at the precipice on his left, full thirty feet deep, with the sea below; at the precipice on his right, which rose an unknown height above; at the steep rugged path behind, and at the wild rugged man in front, who could have clutched him with one bound; and admitted in his heart that escape _was_ impossible.
"Now, lad," continued the viking, "thou wilt go with me and point out the way to Ulfstede and Haldorstede; if not with a good will, torture shall cause thee to do it against thy will; and after we have plundered and burnt both, we will give thee a cruise to Denmark, and teach thee the use of the pitchfork and reaping-hook."
This remark touched a chord in Alric's breast which at once turned his thoughts from himself, and allowed his native courage to rise. During the foregoing dialogue his left hand had been nervously twitching the little elm bow which it carried. It now grasped the bow firmly as he replied:
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