Erling the Bold Part 6

"Ulfstede and Haldorstede may burn, but thou shalt not live to see it."

With that he plucked an arrow from his quiver, fitted it to the string, and discharged it full at the Dane's throat. Quick as thought the man of war sprang aside, but the shaft had been well and quickly aimed. It pa.s.sed through his neck between the skin and the flesh.

A cry of anger burst from him as he leaped on the boy and caught him by the throat. He hastily felt for the hilt of his dagger, and in the heat of his rage would a.s.suredly have ended the career of poor Alric then and there; but, missing the hilt at the first grasp, he suddenly changed his mind, lifted the boy as if he had been a little dog, and flung him over the precipice into the sea.

A fall of thirty feet, even though water should be the recipient of the shock, is not a trifle by any means, but Alric was one of those vigorous little fellows--of whom there are fortunately many in this world--who train themselves to feats of strength and daring. Many a time had he, when bathing, leaped off that identical cliff into the sea for his own amus.e.m.e.nt, and to the admiration and envy of many of his companions, and, now that he felt himself tumbling in the air against his will, the sensation, although modified, was nothing new. He straightened himself out after the manner of a bad child that does not wish to sit on nurse's knee, and went into the blue fiord, head foremost, like a javelin.

He struck the water close to the vessel of his enemies, and on rising to the surface one of them made a plunge at him with an oar, which, had it taken effect, would have killed him on the spot; but he missed his aim, and before he could repeat it, the boy had dived.

The Dane was sensible of his error the instant he had tossed Alric away from him, so he hastened to his boat, leaped into it, and ordered the men to pull to the rocks near to which Alric had dived; but before they could obey the order a loud ringing cheer burst from the cliffs, and in another moment the form of Swart was seen on a ledge, high above, in the act of hurling a huge ma.s.s of rock down on the boat. The ma.s.s struck the cliff in its descent, burst into fragments, and fell in a shower upon the Danes.

At the same time Swart waved his hand as if to someone behind him, and shouted with stentorian voice:

"This way, men! Come on! Down into the boats and give chase! huzza!"

The enemy did not await the result of the order, but pulled out into the fiord as fast as possible, while Swart ran down to the edge of the water and a.s.sisted Alric to land. It was not until they heard both man and boy utter a cheer of defiance, and burst into a fit of laughter, and saw them hastening at full speed towards Horlingdal, that the vikings knew they had been duped. It was too late, however, to remedy the evil.

They knew, also, that they might now expect an immediate attack, so, bending to the oars with all their might, they hastened off to warn their comrades at the Springs.

"Now, Swart," said Erling, after hearing this tale to its conclusion, "if ye are not too much exhausted to--"

"Exhausted!" cried Swart, springing up as though he had but risen from a refreshing slumber.

"Well, I see thou art still fit for the fight. Revenge, like love, is a powerful stirrer of the blood. Come along then; I will lead the way, and do thou tread softly and keep silence. Follow us, Alric, I have yet more work for thee, lad."

Taking one of the numerous narrow paths that ran from Ulfstede to the sh.o.r.es of the fiord, Erling led his companions to a gra.s.sy mound which crowned the top of a beetling cliff whose base was laved by deep water.

Although the night was young--probably two hours short of midnight--the sun was still high in the heavens, for in most parts of Norway that luminary, during the height of summer, sinks but a short way below the horizon--they have daylight all night for some time. In the higher lat.i.tudes the sun, for a brief period, shines all the twenty-four hours round. Erling could therefore see far and wide over the fiord, as well as if it were the hour of noon.

"Nothing in sight!" he exclaimed in a tone of chagrin. "I was a fool to let thee talk so long, Swart; but there is still a chance of catching the boat before it rounds the ness. Come along."

Saying this hurriedly, the youth descended into what appeared to be a hole in the ground. A rude zigzag stair cut in the rock conducted them into a subterranean cavern, which at first seemed to be perfectly dark; but in a few seconds their eyes became accustomed to the dim light, and as they advanced rapidly over a bed of pebbles, Swart, who had never been there before, discovered that he was in an ocean-made cave, for the sound of breaking ripples fell softly on his ears. On turning round a corner of rock the opening of the cave towards the sea suddenly appeared with a dazzling light like a great white gem.

But another beautiful sight met his astonished gaze. This was Erling's ship of war, the Swan, which, with its figurehead erect, as though it were a living thing, sat gracefully on the water, above its own reflected image.

"All ready?" asked Erling, as a man stepped up to him.

"All ready," replied Th.o.r.er.

"Get on board, Swart," said Erling; "we will teach these Danes a lesson they will not forget as long as the Springs flow. Here, Alric--where are ye, lad?"

Now, unfortunately for himself, as well as for his friend, Alric was almost too self-reliant in his nature. His active mind was too apt to exert itself in independent thought in circ.u.mstances where it would have been wiser to listen and obey. Erling had turned with the intention of telling his little brother that he had started thus quietly in order that he might have the pleasure of capturing the scouting boat, and of beginning the fight at the Springs with a small band of tried men, thus keeping the enemy in play until reinforcements should arrive; for he shrewdly suspected that if the whole valley were to go out at once against the vikings, they would decline the combat and make off. He had intended, therefore, to have warned Alric to watch the Swan past a certain point before sounding the alarm at Ulfstede. But Alric had already formed his own opinions on the subject, and resolved to act on them.

He suspected that Erling, in his thirst for glory, meant to have all the fun to himself, and to attack the Danes with his single boat's crew of fifty or sixty men. He knew enough of war to be aware that sixty men against six hundred would have very small chance of success--in fact, that the thing was sheer madness--so he resolved to balk, and by so doing to save, his headstrong brother.

When Erling turned, as we have said, he beheld Alric running into the cave at full speed. Instantly suspecting the truth, he dashed after him, but the boy was fleet, and Erling was heavily armed. The result was, that the former escaped, while the latter returned to the beach and embarked in the Swan in a most unenviable state of mind.

Erling's "longship" was one of the smaller-sized war vessels of the period. It pulled twenty oars--ten on each side--and belonged to the cla.s.s named Snekiars, or cutters, which usually had from ten to twenty rowers on a side. To each oar three men were apportioned--one to row, one to shield the rower, and one to throw missiles and fight, so that her crew numbered over sixty men. The forecastle and p.o.o.p were very high, and the appearance of height was still further increased by the figurehead--the neck and head of a swan--and by a tail that rose from the stern-post, over the steersman's head. Both head and tail were richly gilt; indeed, the whole vessel was gaudily painted. All round the gunwales, from stem to stern, hung a row of shining red and white shields, which resembled the scaly sides of some fabulous creature, so that when the oars, which gave it motion, and not inaptly represented legs, were dipped, the vessel glided swiftly out of the cavern, like some antediluvian monster issuing from its den and crawling away over the dark blue sea. A tall heavy mast rose from the centre of the ship.

Its top was also gilded, as well as the tips of the heavy yard attached to it. On this they hoisted a huge square sail, which was composed of alternate stripes of red, white, and blue cloth.

It need scarcely be said that Erling's crew pulled with a will, and that the waters of the fiord curled white upon the breast of the Swan that night; but the vikings' boat had got too long a start of them, so that, when they doubled the ness and pulled towards the Springs, they discovered the enemy hurrying into their ships and preparing to push off from the land.

Now, this did not fall in with Erling's purpose at all, for he was well aware that his little Swan could do nothing against such an overwhelming force, so he directed his course towards the mouth of a small stream, beside which there was a spit of sand, and, just behind it, a piece of level land, of a few acres in extent, covered with short gra.s.s. The river was deep at its mouth. About a hundred yards upstream it flowed out of a rugged pa.s.s in the mountains or cliffs which hemmed in the fiord. Into this dark spot the Northman rowed his vessel and landed with his men.

The vikings were much surprised at this manoeuvre, and seemed at a loss how to act, for they immediately ceased their hurried embarkation and held a consultation.

"Methinks they are mad," said Skarpedin, on witnessing the movements of the Swan. "But we will give them occasion to make use of all the spirit that is in them. I had thought there were more men in the dale, but if they be few they seem to be bold. They have wisely chosen their ground.

Rocks, however, will not avail them against a host like ours. Methinks some of us will be in Valhalla to-night."

Saying this Skarpedin drew up his men in order of battle on the little plain before referred to, and advanced to the attack. Erling, on the other hand, posted his men among the rocks in such a way that they could command the approach to the pa.s.s, which their leader with a few picked men defended.

On perceiving the intention of the Danes to attack him, Erling's heart was glad, because he now felt sure that to some extent he had them in his power. If they had, on his first appearance, taken to their ships, they might have easily escaped, or some of the smaller vessels might have pulled up the river and attacked his ship, which, in that case, would have had to meet them on unequal terms; but, now that they were about to attack him on land, he knew that he could keep them in play as long as he pleased, and that if they should, on the appearance of reinforcements, again make for their ships, he could effectively hara.s.s them, and r.e.t.a.r.d their embarkation.

Meditating on these things the young Norseman stood in front of his men leaning on his battle-axe, and calmly surveying the approaching foe until they were within a few yards of him.

"Th.o.r.er," he said at length, raising his weapon slowly to his shoulder, "take thou the man with the black beard, and leave yonder fellow with the red hair to me."

Th.o.r.er drew his sword and glanced along its bright blade without replying. Indeed, there was scarce time for reply. Next moment the combatants uttered a loud shout and met with a dire crash. For some time the clash of steel, the yells of maddened men, the shrieks of the wounded, and the wails of the dying, resounded in horrible commotion among the echoing cliffs. The wisdom of Erling's tactics soon became apparent. It was not until the onset was made, and the battle fairly begun, that the men whom he had placed among the rocks above the approach to the pa.s.s began to act. These now sent down such a shower of huge stones and ma.s.ses of rock that many of the foe were killed, and by degrees a gap was made, so that those who were on the plain dared not advance to the succour of those who were fighting in the pa.s.s.

Seeing this, Erling uttered his war-cry, and, collecting his men together, acted on the offensive. Wherever his battle-axe swung, or Th.o.r.er's sword gleamed, there men fell, and others gave way, till at last they were driven completely out of the pa.s.s and partly across the plain. Erling took care, however, not to advance too far, although Skarpedin, by retreating, endeavoured to entice him to do so; but drew off his men by sound of horn, and returned to his old position--one man only having been killed and a few wounded.

Skarpedin now held a council of war with his chiefs, and from the length of time they were about it, Erling was led to suspect that they did not intend to renew the attack at the same point or in the same manner. He therefore sent men to points of vantage on the cliffs to observe the more distant movements of the enemy, while he remained to guard the pa.s.s, and often gazed anxiously towards the ness, round which he expected every minute to see sweeping the longships of Ulf and his father.

CHAPTER SIX.

EVENING IN THE HALL--THE SCALD TELLS OF GUNDALF'S WOOING--THE FEAST INTERRUPTED AND THE WAR CLOUDS THICKEN.

It is necessary now that we should turn backwards a little in our story, to that point where Erling left the hall at Ulfstede to listen to the sad tale of Swart.

Ulf and his friends, not dreaming of the troubles that were hanging over them, continued to enjoy their evening meal and listen to the songs and stories of the Scald, or to comment upon the doings of King Harald Haarf.a.ger, and the prospects of good or evil to Norway that were likely to result therefrom.

At the point where we return to the hall, Ulf wore a very clouded brow as he sat with compressed lips beside his princ.i.p.al guest. He grasped the arm of his rude chair with his left hand, while his right held a large and ma.s.sive silver tankard. Haldor, on the other hand, was all smiles and good humour. He appeared to have been attempting to soothe the spirit of his fiery neighbour.

"I tell thee, Ulf, that I have as little desire to see King Harald succeed in subduing all Norway as thou hast, but in this world wise men will act not according to what they wish so much, as according to what is best. Already the King has won over or conquered most of the small kings, and it seems to me that the rest will have to follow, whether they like it or no. Common sense teaches submission where conquest cannot be."

"And does not patriotism teach that men may die?" said Ulf sternly.

"Aye, when by warring with that end in view anything is to be gained for one's country; but where the result would be, first, the embroiling of one's district in prolonged b.l.o.o.d.y and hopeless warfare, and, after that, the depriving one's family of its head and of the King's favour, patriotism says that to die would be folly, not wisdom."

"Tush, man; folk will learn to call thee Haldor the Mild. Surely years are telling on thee. Was there ever anything in this world worth having gained without a struggle?"

"Thou knowest, Ulf, that I am not wont to be far from the front wherever or whenever a struggle is thought needful, but I doubt the propriety of it in the present case. The subject, however, is open to discussion.

The question is, whether it would be better for Norway that the kings of Horlingdal should submit to the conqueror for the sake of the general good, or buckle on the sword in the hope of retrieving what is lost.

Peace or war--that is the question."

"I say war!" cried Ulf, striking the board so violently with his clenched fist that the tankards and platters leaped and rang again.

At this a murmur of applause ran round the benches of the friends and hous.e.m.e.n.

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