HotFreeBooks.com
A Sea Queen's Sailing
by Charles Whistler
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

I tired of the short walk to and fro presently, and I think that at last I forgot my fears of the dead king in my thoughts, for I went nearer the penthouse, and sat myself on the starboard boat on the deck. There had risen a light curling mist from the still sea now, as the air cooled, and it wrapped the ship round with its white folds, and hid the height of the drooping sails and the dragon head forward; and presently it seemed to me that out of the mist came the wraiths of those of whom I thought, and drew near me, and I had neither fear nor joy of their coming.

My father came and sat himself beside me, and he was as I had seen him last, dressed in his mail, but with a peace on his face instead of the war light. My brothers came, and they stood before us, not smiling, but grave and content. The courtmen whom I had loved came, and they ranged themselves across the deck, and I watched them, and felt no wonder that they should be here. Surely my longings had called them, and they came. So I and they all bided still for a little while; and then the courtmen raised their weapons toward me as in salute, and drifted from the deck into the white mists over the water, and were gone. Then those two mighty brethren of mine smiled on me, with a still smile, and so they, too, were gone, and only my father was left; and he, too, rose up, and stood before me where the brothers had been, and it seemed to me that he spoke to me.

"Now are you the last of our line, the line which goes back to Odin, my son; and on you it lies that no dishonour shall fall on that line, which has never yet been stained. And we trust you. So be strong, for there are deeds to be done yet in the days that lie before you."

Then he set his hand on my shoulder, and passed to join those others, and how I do not know. I was alone.

Then a longing to be with them again came over me, and I rose and stretched my hands to the place where I had seen them, but there was nothing—until I turned a little, looking for them; and then I knew that there was one who would speak to me yet.

The penthouse chamber was open, and it seemed to be filled with a white light and soft, and in the doorway stood the old king, beckoning to me, so that, for all my fears, I must needs go to him. Yet there was naught for me to fear in the look which he turned on me.

"Friend," he said, "the old sea which I love should be my grave. See to it that so it shall be. Then shall you do the bidding of the maiden whom I have loved, my son's daughter, and it shall be well with you, and with those friends of yours and of mine who sleep yonder."

Therewith he paused, and his glance went to the things which lay round the boats and in them—the things which had been set in the ship for the hero to take to Asgard with him.

"See these things," he said again. "They are hers, and not mine. There will be a time when she will have need of them. In the place where I shall be is no need of treasure, as I deemed before I knew. Nor of sword, or mail, or gear of war at all. And the ways of the peace of that place are the best."

Then I was alone on the deck, and the tall figure with the long white beard and hair was no longer before me. The chamber was closed, even as we had left it, and there was neither sign nor sound to tell me how that had been wrought. And with that a terror came on me, and I went backward toward where my comrades lay, crying to them by name, and my knees failed me, and I fell on the deck, unknowing if they heard.

Bertric leapt up and saw me falling, and ran to me.

"Poor lad!" he said, "poor lad! Here is he worn out by fighting and watching, and I would let him watch yet more—I, who am used to the long hours at sea, and have grown hard in ill usage."

With that he called to Dalfin, who was sitting up sleepily, being as worn out as myself, and they two hapt me in the sail, and made me drink of the wine—which I would not have done at all, if I had rightly known what I was about, considering whence it came—and presently I came to myself and thanked them, feeling foolish. But more than that I did not do, for the warmth took hold of me, and I fell asleep with the words on my lips. Nor did Dalfin need a second bidding before he lay down again alongside me and slept. And so Bertric went on watch silently, and I heeded nothing more, till the sun and the heave of the ship on a long swell that was setting from the north woke me.

In the sunlight those visions which I had seen seemed as if they had been but wrought of weariness and weakness, and of the long thoughts which I had been thinking. I would heed them as little as I might, therefore, lest they took hold of me again. But I had not forgotten the words which had been spoken to me, for they were good, and in no wise fanciful.

I said nothing of what had happened before I cried out and fell. There was no need, for both Bertric and Dalfin made little of the matter, saying that it was no wonder, and that maybe I had been more hurt when I was struck down than I felt at the time—which is likely enough. However, I had no more trouble in that way. Food and sleep and the rest on that quiet deck were all that I needed.

"There is wind coming directly, and enough of of it, if not too much for us," Bertric said. "There has been a gale somewhere far north, to judge by this swell. Now, I want breakfast before it comes, but I dare not rouse the lady by getting yon kettle."

As if she had heard him, from beyond the penthouse we saw the lady herself coming, and we rose up to greet her. Dalfin went quickly, and helped her over the slanting timbers of the house, where they blocked the way, and so she came aft to us. She had taken off her mail, and had put on a warm, blue kirtle over her white dress, and had made some differences otherwise, which are past my setting down. But now she looked fresh and bright after the rest, and the utmost of the trouble had gone from her face.

She greeted us as if we were old friends of her own household, and that was good. Then she sat on the steersman's bench, which we set for her, and asked of the sea and wind, and the chances of the day, brightly. And so at last Bertric said what was nearest to his mind.

"The wind will be here shortly, lady, and meanwhile we were thinking of our breakfast. Yesterday we had no scruple in helping ourselves, but today we are somewhat shy, maybe. But we would bring the great kettle from forward, if you will break your fast with us."

"Friend Bertric," she said, laughing, "we made a pact concerning equal shares of favour and hardship alike. Yet I do not rightly know—"

She looked grave for a little while, staying her words and thinking.

"Aye," she said at last, with a smile; "this ship was provisioned for a long voyage—for the longest of all, indeed. It seems that for part of the way we have to be her crew. Well, then, we may take what we will of her stores, and do no wrong. The great cauldron, too, holds but part of the funeral feast, and that was mine. Aye, fetch it. There are other things also which may be found, and you can take of them."

But we had no need to search further, for what we had found last night was more than enough. We brought the cauldron aft, and some of the oatcake; and as we ate, first grew and darkened a long blue line which crossed the sea to the eastward, and then came stray airs which lifted the loose folds of the sail uselessly.

Bertric and I went forward and got out two of the ship's long oars, and pulled her head round to the southward. The water dimpled alongside of us and the sail filled as the breeze came. We laid in the oars and went aft to the helm; and so in a few minutes the ship had gathered way, and was heeling a little to the wind, and the foam gathered round her bows and slid along her side aft as she headed southward with the wind on her beam.

"Now, Lady Gerda," said Bertric, "we are under way once more, and the question is, Whither? How far are we from the Norway coast?"

"I cannot tell," she answered. "It was a little before noon, however, when the ship was set afloat, as I have told you."

"We overhauled her at sunset," he said thoughtfully. "At that time she was not doing more than four knots. Maybe we are fifty miles from shore, for she may have done better than that, though I doubt it, seeing how wildly she sailed. Now we can hardly beat back there, for we are too few to work the sail."

"It is as well," she answered sadly. "There wait Arnkel and Heidrek."

"We think that Arnkel may have made an end of Heidrek's power," I said.

At that she shook her head.

"Arnkel has had old dealings with Heidrek. He has sailed with him, I know. It is more likely that after he had done with me, he made some sort of terms with him, finding out who the attackers were. We did not know at first, but I heard the men name Heidrek as the ship was fired."

"Well, then," Bertric said, after a little thought, "we must try to make the Shetlands or the Orkneys. Malcolm will find us friends there."

So, that being quite possible if the wind held, and I being sure of welcome for my father's sake, we set a course for Shetland as nearly as we could judge it. The ship sailed wonderfully well and swiftly, even under the shortened canvas, and Bertric was happy as he steered her. And at his side on the bench sat the Lady Gerda, silently looking ever eastward toward the home she had lost, while I and Dalfin well-nigh dozed in the sun on the warm deck amidships in all content, for things went well with us.

Presently Gerda rose up and came forward, as if she would go to her awning, and I went to help her over the timbers again.

"Come forward with me," she said; "I have something I must say to you."

I followed her, and she went to the gunwale, close to the penthouse, where she was screened from Dalfin, and leant on it.

"You are of my own folk," she said, "and of the old faith, and therefore I can tell you what is troubling me. These other two good friends are of the new faith I have heard of, for I saw them sign their holy sign ere they ate, and you signed Thor's hammer over the meat."

"They are Christians," I said; "but I have nothing ill to say of that faith, for I have known many of them in Scotland. I am Odin's man."

"I have heard nothing but ill," she said. "I was frightened when I knew that they were not Odin's men. Will they keep faith with me?"

"To the last," I answered. "Have no fear of that. It is one thing which the Christian folk are taught to do before all else."

"I think that I could not mistrust these two in any case," she said; "but all this is not what I would speak of, though it came uppermost. What I am troubling about is this which lies here," and she set her hand for a moment on the penthouse. "What shall be done? For now we cannot fire the ship."

"If we make the Shetland Islands," I answered, "there are Norsemen who will see that all is done rightly. There they will lay the king in mound as becomes a chief of our land."

"And if not?"

"We might in any case make the Danish shore."

"Where a Norse chief will find no honour. Better that he were sunk in the sea here. I would that this might be done, if we have any doubt as to reaching a land where your folk were known."

"It may be done, Lady Gerda," I answered, while into my mind came the words which the old chief seemed to have spoken to me in the night. "It may be the best thing in the end. But let us wait. Shall I speak of this to the others for you?"

"Aye, do so," she said. "What have they thought?—for you three must have spoken thereof already."

"It has been in the mind of all of us to take the chief back to some land where he will be honoured. We have spoken of naught else as yet. I will say that it has seemed to me that the Christian folk have more care for the honour of the dead than have we."

"That is all I needed to hear," she said simply. "I have feared lest it had been rather the other way."

Now I looked aft, and saw Bertric staring under his hand astern, and stepped to the other gunwale to see what it was at which he looked. But I could make out nothing. The sea was rising a little, but that was of course as the breeze freshened steadily. There was no sign of change or of heavier weather to come, and no dark line along the eastward sea warned me of a coming squall. Yet Bertric still turned from the helm and looked astern.

"What is it?" asked Gerda. "Go and see, and call me if it is aught."

So I went aft again, and stood beside Bertric, asking him what had caught his eye.

"I cannot say for certain," he said; "but it seemed to me that for a moment somewhat like a sail lifted on the sea's rim off yonder."

He pointed off the port quarter, and turned to the helm again, leaving me to see if I could catch sight of what he had seen. Maybe it was but the dipping wing of a gull.

But it was not that. Presently I also saw the speck he meant, and it did not disappear again. It was the head of a square, brown sail, the ship herself to which it belonged being hull down, but holding the same course as ourselves, or thereabouts, so far as one could judge as yet. And before long a second hove up from astern the first.

"They are running a bit freer than we," Bertric said. "They have a shift of wind astern of them, whereby they are overhauling us."

"Two brown-sailed ships," said I. "They mind one too much of Heidrek to be pleasant, else one might welcome the coming of any honest Norsemen who would help us to do the right."

"Wait, and I will tell you," answered Bertric somewhat grimly. "I cannot mistake Heidrek's ships once I get a fair sight of them."

In half an hour or so he did tell me. They were undoubtedly Heidrek's, and were in chase of us. This ship was not to be mistaken even from a long distance.

"Heidrek has followed in the track this vessel must needs have taken, and now supposes that some stray fishers have picked her up and are trying to get away with her and the treasure. Well, that is near enough to the truth, too," said Bertric, laughing a short laugh. "No, let Dalfin and the lady rest in peace until we know if they outsail us. This is a wonderful little craft, but she needs her crew on board."



Chapter 6: A Sea Queen's Champions.

We were sailing with the easterly wind on our beam, and making maybe six knots on it, with the two reefs down. The full crew of such a ship as this for such a cruise without any warlike ending to it would be about twenty, or perhaps a few less. She pulled sixteen oars a side, and with a war crew on board would muster ninety-six men—three to an oar—with a few extra hands, as the helmsman and the chiefs, to make a total of a hundred. Her decks would be crowded, of course, but she would be down to her bearings, being built for war cruises, and in a breeze all her men would be sitting up to windward as shifting ballast, so to speak. It is not likely, therefore, that we could have done much better had we managed to shake out the reefs, seeing that the ship was light. Her pebble ballast had been taken out when she was drawn up for the last time on shore, and in the hurry it had been needless to replace it.

So the two pirate longships overhauled us fast, and presently their low, black hulls were plain to us. It was time we did somewhat if we were not to be taken without an effort to escape.

"See here," said Bertric suddenly, "I know somewhat too well how those ships can sail; but I think that this ship would beat them in a reach to windward. That, of course, would run us in toward the Norway shore, and I have ever heard that it is as dangerous as any. I do not know it, but the Lady Gerda may do so. If the worst came to the worst, it is in my mind that we might take to the boat and let the ship go her own way, if she is beyond our handling when we make the shore."

"If we can sight land, it is possible that we may be sighted also," said I. "It seems our only chance. I will call Gerda."

Bertric nodded, and I went forward and called her accordingly, rousing Dalfin, who slumbered in the sun under the lee of the boats amidships, as I passed him.

Gerda came quickly from her awning as she heard me, and saw the two ships at once. They were then some eight miles astern of us, and she looked at me with an unspoken question.

"They are Heidrek's ships," I said. "We have to try one last chance of outsailing them."

"Anything rather than that we should fall into such hands," she said at once.

Now Bertric told her what seemed to be our one plan, and she answered that she was well content to be guided by us. Neither she nor we knew rightly where we were, nor how far it might be to the coast. But she did know that everywhere that shore was belted by rocky islands, and sea-washed skerries.

"You may be able to steer into safety between them," she said. "You may split the ship on some half-sunk rock not far from the land, and so we ourselves may be saved in the boat. I think that is the best—for so may come a sea grave for my grandfather—and no enemy's hand shall touch him or his."

Then said Bertric, with set teeth, "If we may not outsail Heidrek, it will be my part to sink one of his ships with our own, if it may be done."

"Aye," she said. "Do so."

Therein I was altogether with them, and Dalfin smiled a strange smile in assent.

"You would steer this ship against the other?" he asked. "Then I suppose that over the bows here might go on board that other a man with an axe, and smite one blow or two before he is ended. It will be well enough if so."

"You shall have your chance," said I. "Maybe I will help."

Now we said no more. Bertric luffed, and we flattened in the sheet, Gerda hauling with us, laughing, and saying that it was not for the first time. Then Bertric's face cleared, for the ship went to windward like a swallow, her length helping her in spite of her lightness. We had to cut adrift our boat at this time, as she would hinder us. We had no more need of her.

Heidrek altered his course at once, sailing a point or two more free than we, either, as Bertric thought, because he could lie no closer to the wind, or else meaning to edge down on us. And, he being so far to windward, for a time it seemed as if he neared us fast.

In two hours we knew that we outsailed him, close hauled. Little by little we gained to windward, until he was three miles astern of us and losing still more rapidly, as he went to leeward. He could not look up to the wind any closer. One of his ships, indeed, was astern and to leeward of the other, so that if that one only had had to be counted with, we were safe.

Then he took to his oars, and Bertric and I knew that the worst was yet to come, as we saw the sun flash from the long row of rising and falling blades across the miles of sea.

"Some of them will be mighty tired yet before they overhaul us," I said. "A stern chase is a long chase."

Now I began to look restlessly for some sign of the high land of the Norway shore, but there was naught to be seen. Only to eastward the sky was dull and grayish, as it were with the loss of light in the sky over hill and forest. And Heidrek was gaining on us steadily if very slowly. We were very silent at this time.

Presently Gerda broke the silence.

"Friend Bertric," she said in a still voice, "how long have we?"

He glanced back at the ships, and answered her, after a moment's thought.

"Two hours—or maybe three, if the men who row tire—that is if the wind holds. If it freshens, we may beat them yet."

"I hear that you doubt that last," she said. "Now, is it still in your minds to die rather than fall into the hands of yon men?"

"Lady," said I, "we three would have no care for ourselves. We have to think of you."

"I will die, sooner," she answered, with set lips.

"Then," said Bertric simply, "it shall be as I have said. We will ram the pirate ship and sink with her."

Then Gerda rose up and looked at the three of us, and her face grew bright.

"Now I have one thing to ask you," she said, "and that is to let me arm you once more. It is not fitting that you three should fall and pass to Asgard all unlike warriors—in that thrall-like gear.

"Come with me, Malcolm, and bring what I shall find for you."

I followed her until she stayed at the entrance to the penthouse, and I half feared that she would bid me open and enter it. In truth, we had almost forgotten what lay there, but now I could not but remember, and the old dread came back to me. But she did not do so. She pointed to one of the great chests which had been stowed between the boats, and bade me open it. I had to tug at it to bring it forward, for it was heavy, and then threw the lid back.

It was full of mail, and with the close-knit ring shirts were helms, and some few short, heavy swords.

"War spoils of the old days before Harald Fairhair," she said. "When my grandfather had many foes, and knew how to guard himself. All these would have been rent and spoiled before they were laid in the ship mound—but at the last there was not time—thus."

Now she called to Dalfin, and he came eagerly, with a cry of delight on seeing the war gear.

"Lift them, and choose what you will for yourselves and Bertric," she said. "It will be strange if, among all, you do not find what will suit you."

Now there was no difficulty in finding suits of the best for the other two. There were seven in all in the chest, and we set two aside. Dalfin was tall and slight, and very active, and Bertric was square and sturdy, and maybe half a head shorter than either of us. But after the way of my forebears, both Norse and Scottish, I was somewhat bigger than most men whom I have met, though not so much in height as in breadth of shoulder. Maybe, however, I was taller than Dalfin, for I think he was not over six feet.

So it happened that as Dalfin, in all light-heartedness, as if no enemy was nearer than Ireland, took up suit after suit of the bright ring mail and stretched them across my shoulders, trying to fit me, not one of these would do by any means. Gerda stood by us, watching quietly.

"It does not matter," I said at last. "Let me have a weapon, and I shall not be the first of us who has fallen unmailed."

"No," said Gerda, "it is my fancy that my champions shall be well armed. Open the small chest yonder."

I did so, and in that lay a most beautiful byrnie and helm, if anything better than those we had been choosing from. It was the only suit here, and Gerda looked wistfully at it.

"Take that one, Malcolm," she said. "It will fit you. It was one of my father's—and I had a fancy that Thorwald would take it to him in Asgard, for he lies on the Swedish shore, and it might not be laid in the mound with him. Now you shall bear it to him, and he will greet you."

"I am not worthy to wear it," I stammered. "It is too sacred to you."

"No," she answered. "I ask you to do so, and I think you will not refuse."

Now I saw in the face of Dalfin that he thought it right that I should take the mail, and so I did. We went with the three suits and the helms back to Bertric, and so put them on, Gerda helping us, and I taking the tiller when it was Bertric's turn. Even in this little while one could see that Heidrek's leading ship had gained on us.

It was more than good to be in the mail of a free man and warrior once more. Dalfin shook himself, as a man will to settle his byrnie into place, and his eyes shone, and he leapt on the deck, crying:

"Now am I once more a prince of Maghera, and can look a foe—aye, and death, in the face joyfully. My thanks, dear lady, for this honour!"

Then he broke into a wild song in his own tongue, and paced the deck as if eager for the coming of Heidrek, and the promised crash of the meeting ships. And as suddenly he stopped, and looked at his hands.

"Faith," he said, "I thought the song went amiss. It is the song of the swinging swords—and never a sword have I—nor either of us."

Gerda laughed at him. It seemed that the pleasure of her champions, as she called us, in the war gear pleased her.

"Swords you shall have," she said at once. "I did but wait."

"For what, lady?" asked Dalfin.

She smiled and reddened somewhat, looking down on the deck.

"One can hardly be mistaken as to whether a man is used to war gear," she said. "Now I see you three—prince, jarl, and thane—as I might have known you to be at first. Forgive me for the little doubt."

Seeing what sort of scarecrows we must have been, we did not wonder at all that she had doubted. And, after all, not every day are three men of rank of different lands to be found adrift in an open boat, simply as it had come about in our case.

"It would have been a wonder if you had not doubted," said Bertric. "We have naught to forgive, and, indeed, have held ourselves honoured that you took our words as you did. In all truth, I do feel myself again in mail, and so must Malcolm."

I did, and said so. There are thoughts knit up in the steel ringwork which are good for a man.

"The swords are in yon chamber," Gerda said quickly, not being very willing, mayhap, to speak more in this wise. "I will ask Malcolm, for he is a Norseman, to come and choose them."

That was the last thing I wished, but would not say so. Without a word I went forward with her to the penthouse, and took down the three loose timbers again. The dim chamber seemed very still, and across its dimness the shafts of sunlight—which came through the chinks in the rough timbering of walls and roofs—shifted and glanced as if alive, as the ship swayed. One golden ray lit on the still face of the old king, and it was almost as if he smiled as we stood in the doorway. Gerda saw it, and spoke softly, stepping to the side of the bier.

"It shall please you to arm these warriors who will seek Valhalla with you, my grandfather. You were wont to arm the friends who would be ready to fall at your side."

A wave lifted the ship and swung her, and the shaft of light swayed across the chamber, sparkling on the arms which hung from the timbers. It lit up the hilt of a gold-runed sword for a moment, and then was gone.

"That is for you, Malcolm the Jarl," Gerda said. "Take it. Then choose for the others."

Then I unhelmed and stooped and went into the chamber, and took down the sword which the sunbeam had shown me. It hung from its own baldric with an axe and a round shield. Gerda bade me take the shield also, and I did so. Now I could see well enough to choose for the others, for the dimness was but the change from the sunshine outside on deck. I took a lighter weapon for Dalfin, and a heavy, short sword for Bertric, and with them shields. No long choice was needed, for not one of the weapons but was of the best. So I turned, and came forth from the chamber, and gave the weapons to Gerda, while I closed it once more. I think she bade the king farewell at that time.

"You have my father's sword also," she said to me softly. "I think that if you have but a little time to wear these things which he loved, you will not dishonour them."

She gave me no time to say more, and I do not know what I could have answered, save that I hoped that I might be worthy. Little chance of much fighting were we likely to have—and yet there was just a hope that we might fall in a ring of foes on the deck of the pirate.

Gerda buckled on those weapons for us. And then Dalfin must end his song, and it was good to see and hear him, if only he and myself understood the words. But Heidrek crept up to us all the time, if we forgot him for the moment under the spell of the wild song.

The clear voice ceased, for the song was ended. A dimness crept across the decks, and the sail shivered and filled again. Bertric looked up at the sky and out to windward, and his face changed.

"What is it?" asked Gerda anxiously.

"Running into a fog bank," he said. "Look ahead."

One could not see it. Only it was as if the ring of sea to windward had of a sudden grown smaller. Heidrek was not a mile astern of us, and still his ships were in bright sunshine. Even as we watched them, a grayness fell on them, and then they grew dim.

Then the fog closed in on us, and swallowed us up, and drifted across the decks so thickly that we could barely see from gunwale to gunwale, damp, and chilling. Still, the wind did not fail us, hurrying the fog before it.

"We must hold on until we know if this is but a bank of fog, or if it is everywhere," Bertric said. "What say you, Malcolm?"

I thought a while, knowing the cold sea fogs of the north pretty well.

"Heidrek will be in it by this time," I said. "Fog bank or more, I would about ship and run back past him with the wind. If it is a bank, we shall go with it, and he must lose us. If it is more, we can get on our southward course in it shortly, and if he sights us again, he will have all his work to catch us, for his men will be tired of rowing."

"What if the fog lifts directly?"

"We shall be little worse off than now—and we shall be heading down on Heidrek before he knows it."

"Aye," he answered, "with way enough on us to sink him offhand, and maybe take this ship clear through his. Get to the sheets, you and Dalfin, and we will chance it."

Bertric luffed, and we hauled the tack amidships. Then he paid off to the wind, and we slacked off the sheet with the help of a turn of its fall round the great cleat of the backstay. The wash of the waves round the bows ceased, and there was only the little hiss of the water as the sea broke alongside of us. It always seems very silent for a little while when one puts about for a run after beating to windward.

"Listen," said Bertric under his breath, "we shall hear Heidrek directly on the starboard bow somewhere. Pray Heaven he has not changed his course, or we shall hit him! He will not have luffed any more, for certain."

"Suppose he thinks that we have tried some such trick as this?" said Dalfin.

Bertric shook his head.

"He thinks we shall go on as we steered, making for the Norway shore. It is likely that he will think that we may have paid off a bit, for the sake of speed. Even if he did think we were likely to do this, what could he do? He cannot tell, and to put about and run on the chance would be to give away his advantage if we had held on after all. Listen!"

"I hear him," said Gerda, who was leaning on the gunwale with parted lips, intent on catching any sound.

The sound she had heard came nearer and nearer as we slid silently through the water into the blinding fog. It was like a dull rumble at first, and then as a trampling, until the roll and click of the long, steadily pulled oars was plain to us. The ship was passing us, and not more than an arrow flight from us. It seemed almost impossible that we should not see her.

Suddenly, there came a sharp whistle, and the roll of the oars ceased. Gerda started away from the gunwale and looked at us, and Dalfin set his hand on his sword hilt. It was just as if they had spied us, and I half expected to see the tall stemhead of the ship come towering through the thickness over our rail. There was nothing to tell us how fast we were going through the water, and we seemed still. I saw Bertric smiling.

"Shift of rowers," he said in a whisper, and Gerda's pale face brightened. Then I heard Heidrek rating someone, and I heard, too, the tramp and rattle of the men who left and came to the oars; but by the time the steady pull began again we had passed the ship by a long way, and lost the sound almost as soon as it came. Then there was silence once more, and the strain was past. Our course would take us clear of the other ship by a mile or more.

So we held on for half an hour, and the fog grew no thinner. Overhead, the sun tried to shine through it, but we could not see him, and still the wind drifted us and the fog together, and the decks grew wet and the air chill with the damp which clung round us.

Gerda sat very still for a long time after the last sounds were heard. But at last she rose up and shivered.

"Let me go to my awning," she said unsteadily. "I have seen three brave men look death in the face, and they have not flinched—I will never wear mail or sword again."

Then she fled forward, and something held us back from so much as helping her to cross that barrier. We knew that she was near to breaking down, and no wonder.

There fell an uneasy silence on us when she was within the shelter of the awning and its folds closed after her. Dalfin broke it at last.

"Well," he said, "I suppose that you two seamen know which way you are steering in the fog—but it passes me to know how."

Bertric and I laughed, and were glad of the excuse to do so. We told him that we steered by the wind, which had not changed. But now we had only one course before us. We must needs head south and try to make the Shetlands. Eastward we might not sail for fear of Heidrek, and westward lay the open ocean, Still, we held on for half an hour, and then, still shrouded in the white folds of the fog, headed south as nearly as we might judge.

In an hour the wind fell. The fog darkened round us as the sun wore to the westward, and the sea went down until only the long ocean swell was left, lifting the ship easily and slowly without breaking round her. There was naught to be done; but, at least Heidrek could not find us.

"There may be days to come like this," Bertric said, with a sort of groan. "What is to be planned for him who lies yonder?"

Now, I told them what Gerda had said to me, and I could see that Bertric was relieved to hear her thought of a sea burial.

"I had thought of the same," he said at once. "It is not fitting that here the old warrior should be drifted to and fro, well nigh at the mercy of the wind, with the chances of a lee shore or of folk who make prey of hapless seafarers presently. A sea burial such as many a good man of our kin has found will be best. I could ask no more for myself."

"And what of the treasure?" I asked. "Shall that go with him?"

"It is Gerda's, and she must say," he answered. "Yet she will need it."

Then Dalfin said:

"It will be hard to tell her so, but she must not part with it. It stands between her and want, if it may be saved for her. Yet, if it was the will of the old king that it should be set in his grave, I do not know how we can persuade her to keep it. He is not here to say that he does not need it; for he has learnt that now."

I glanced at the penthouse with the thought of that strange vision of mine. I could not tell my comrades of it, but I thought that, if need was, I might tell Gerda presently. I said in answer to Dalfin that he was right, and that we must set the matter thus before Gerda.

"The sooner the better," said Bertric. "Do you go and speak with her. We must not let the night pass without this being done, as I think"



Chapter 7: The Treasure Of The King.

Gerda heard me coming, and met me at the same spot where we had first spoken of this matter. She saw that I had come to tell her what we had said thereof.

"What of the others?" she asked anxiously.

"They have spoken in all thought for you, even as I knew they would," I answered. "We are at one in thinking that the sea grave is most fitting."

She asked me why, as if to satisfy some doubts which she yet had, and I must needs tell her therefore what our own dangers were, though I made as light of them as I could. I told of the perils of a lee shore to this under-manned ship; of the chance of meeting another ship at any time here on the Norway coast; of crews and of wreckers who would hold naught sacred; of the chance of our drifting thus idly for many days in this summer weather—all chances which were more likely than the quiet coming to the islands where my father's name was known and honoured enough for us to find help. From these chances it was best to save the king, who was our care, and at once. She heard me very bravely to the end.

"So let it be," she said, sighing. "You will suffer the treasure to go with him?"

"That is as you will, lady," I said; "it is yours. Was it the wish of Thorwald that it should pass to the mound with him?"

She glanced at me, half proudly and half as in some rebuke.

"Thorwald would ask for naught but his arms," she said. "The treasure was mine, for he did but hoard to give. I would set him forth as became Odin's champion. He was no gold lover."

"Should it not be, then, as he would have wished?" I said. "Let him pass to the depths with his war gear, and so through Aegir's halls to the place of Odin, as a warrior, and unburdened with the gold he loved not at all."

She looked sharply at me, and shrank away a little, half turning from me.

"Is the treasure so dear to you men after all?" she asked coldly.

That angered me for the moment, and I felt my face flush red, but I held myself in.

"No," I answered as coldly. "These arms you have given us are all the treasure we need or could ask. They are a warrior's treasure, and mayhap we hold them as dear as did Thorwald. What else may lie in those chests we do not know or care, save only for one reason."

"What is that?" she asked, glancing at me again as if she knew that she had spoken unkindly.

"That if it goes into the sea depths it leaves you, Lady Gerda, helpless. When you were at home, with your folk round you, the hoarded spoils might be spent in all honour to their winner without thought of why he had kept them thus. Now, in the power they have for you lies your comfort, and maybe the regaining of your home. Doubtless, the king hoarded at last for you, and we cannot see your wealth pass from you without a word to bid you think twice of what you do here and as things are."

"Aye," she said bitterly, "I am helpless—beholden to you three strangers," and she turned away swiftly, going to the gunwale and leaning her arms and head on it as in a storm of grief.

Hard words indeed those seemed; but I knew well enough that they were meant in no unkindness. They came from the depths of her utter loneliness. Only a day or two ago she had been the queen in her little realm, and now—well, I did not wonder at her. Few women in her place would have kept the brave heart she did before us, and this weakness would pass. But it was a long while before she turned to me again, so that I began to fear that in some way I had set things too bluntly before her, and wished that Dalfin had been sent to manage better in his courtly way. Yet, I had only spoken the truth in the best manner I could. At last she straightened herself, and looked once more at me. There was the light of a wan smile on her face, too, though she had been weeping.

"Forgive me, jarl," she said softly. "I have wronged you and those good friends of ours by my foolish words. Indeed, I hardly knew what I said, for I was hard pressed with the thoughts of what had been. I do believe that you three have not a thought of yourselves in this matter."

She set her hand on my arm pleadingly, and I raised it and kissed it in answer, having no word at all to say. After all, I do not know that any was needed.

"Then I am forgiven?" she said more brightly. "Now, tell me what may be done if I keep the treasure. I must needs hear good reasons."

Good reasons enough there were, and they needed no long setting into words. If she had not enough to raise men and so win back her home from Arnkel, at least there must be sufficient to keep her in comfort in any land until she could find a passage back to Norway, and claim guardianship and help from Thorwald's friends. We could and would help her in either way. She heard me to the end, and then sighed a little, and said that I was altogether right.

"Whether aught of these plans may come to pass is a matter which the Norns {1} have in their hands," she said. "We shall see. But now I am sure that I may not lightly part with the treasure as I had meant, though it is hard for me to forego what I had set my heart on. It is true that all was hoarded for me—at least since my father died. It is well that Thorwald never knew the sore need there would be for what he could set by for me."

Then I tried to tell her that all our wish was to lighten the trouble as much as we might, but she stayed me, laughing as if well content.

"Nay; but you shall mind that pact which we made at the first, neither more nor less."

She signed to me to go to the others and set all in readiness for what must be done; but as I bowed and turned to go, she stayed me.

"For us Norse folk," she said, "there is one word needed, perhaps. I heard my men cry the last farewell to Thorwald as the ship left the shore. The temple rites were long over. All that was due to a son of Odin has been done."

Now, it is needless for me to say that I could not tell all that had passed. All I had to say was that Gerda was content with our plan, and all three of us were somewhat more easy in our minds. It had been by no means so certain that she would be so.

Now we made no more delay, but quietly and reverently Bertric showed us how to make all ready for such a sea burial as he had many a time seen before. So it was not long before the old king lay with his feet toward the sea on the fathom of planking which we had lowered from where it was made to unship for a gangway amidships for shore-going and the like. We had set him so that it needed but to raise the inboard end of this planking when the time came that he should pass from his ship to his last resting in the quiet water; and he was still in all his arms, with his hands clasped on the hilt of his sword beneath the shield which covered his breast, but now shrouded in the new sail of one of his boats in the seaman's way.

At this time the fog was thinning somewhat, and the low sun seemed likely to break through it now and then. It was very still all round us, for there was no sound of ripple at the bows or wash of water alongside, and the swell which lifted us did not break. Only there was the little creaking of the yard and the light beating of the idle sail against the mast as the ship rolled and swung to the swell. Some little draught of wind, or the send of the waves, had set her bows to it, and she rode the water like a sea bird at rest.

Gerda came at a word when all was ready, and stood beside us with clasped hands. And so for a little time we four stood with a space between us and the head of that rough sea bier, and over against us beyond it the open gangway and the heaving, gray water, which now and then rose slowly and evenly almost to the deck level and again sank away. It was almost as if, when the end had come, that we waited for some signal which there was none to give.

What those two of the other faith had said to one another I do not know; but for a little time they stood with bare, bent heads as in one accord, and I saw them make their holy sign on their breasts before they moved. Then Bertric signed to me that I should help him lift the inboard end of the planking, and we stepped forward together and bent to do so. Even as my hands touched the wood there came a sudden rushing, and I felt a new lift of the ship, and into the open gangway poured the head of a great, still wave, flooding the deck around our feet, and hiding in its smother of white foam and green water that which lay before us, so that we must needs start back hastily. The ship lurched and righted herself, and the wave was gone. Gone, too, was the old king—without help of ours. The sea he loved had taken him, drawing him softly to itself with the ebb of the water from the deck, and covering the place alongside, where I had feared for Gerda to see the dull splash and eddy of the end, with a pall of snow-white foam.

For a long moment we stood motionless, half terrified. Neither before this had any sea come on board since we lowered the gunwale nor did any come afterward. Gerda clutched my arm, swaying with the ship, and then she cried in a strange voice:

"It is Aegir! Aegir himself who has taken him!"

That was in my mind also, and no wonder. The happening seemed plainly beyond the natural. I turned to Gerda, fearing lest she should be over terrified, and saw her staring with wide eyes into the mists across that sea grave, wondering; and then of a sudden she pointed, and cried once more:

"Look! what is yonder? Look!"

Then we all saw what she gazed at. As it were about a ship's length from us sailed another ship, tall and shadowy and gray, holding the same course as ourselves, and keeping place with us exactly, rising and falling over the hills of water as we rose and fell. And we could see that she had the same high dragon stem and stern as our ship, and on her decks we could make out forms of men amidships, dim and misty as the ship herself. Yet though we could see her thus, in no wise could we make out the sea on which she rode—so thick was the curling fog everywhere, though the sun was trying to find a way through it, changing its hue from gray to pearly white. Now, Bertric started from the stillness which held us, and hailed the ship loudly.

"Ahoy! what ship is that?"

The hail rang, and seemed to echo strangely in the fog, but there came no answer. Nor was there any when he hailed again and for the third time. I thought that the outline of the strange sail grew more dim at the first cry, and again that it was plainer, for the mist across the sun drifted, though we could feel no breeze.

"It is Aegir's ship," whispered Gerda, still clinging to me. "Thorwald is therein," and she raised her hand as if to wave a farewell, hardly knowing what she did.

At that, one of the shadowy forms on the strange deck lifted its arm with the same gesture, and at the same moment. Still no sound came to us, close as the ship must surely be—so close that we might have heard even a foot fall on her deck in the stillness that weighed on us.

Gerda's hand sank to her side, and she swayed against me so that I had to support her hastily, for she was fainting. I do not know what my face was like as I saw that ghostly greeting, but Dalfin's was white and amazed, and he crossed himself, muttering I know not what prayers.

But for all that I heard what was like a half laugh come from Bertric, and he went quickly aft to the sternpost and rested his hand on it for a moment, still watching the ship. And as he went, one of that ghostly crew went also, and stood as he stood, with outstretched arm set on the dim sternpost. Then the fog turned dusky and gray again, and the ship alongside us was gone as it came, suddenly, and in silence, and Bertric came back to us.

Gerda's faintness was passing, for she was but overwrought, though she still leaned against me.

"What is it?" she asked. "What does it mean?"

"There is no harm in it, lady," answered Bertric. "I have seen it once or twice before, and naught came thereof."

"It is the ship of ghosts," said Dalfin. "I have heard tell of it. It comes from the blessed isles which holy Brendan sought."

"Nay," said Gerda; "it is Aegir's ship, and it came for my grandsire."

"Maybe," answered Dalfin. "I ken not who Aegir is of whom you speak. But the ship may indeed have come for Thorwald to take him to some land, like those isles, beyond our ken."

"Aye, to Valhalla," said Gerda. "Take me to my place now, for I am weary, and would be alone. I have no fear of aught more."

I helped her forward, and she thanked me, saying that now she would be at rest in her mind. And, indeed, so were we all, for that penthouse, and its awesome tenant, had weighed on us more than we had cared to say. We would clear the decks of it all in the morning.

All that night long we floated on a windless sea, and the fog hemmed us round until it began to thin and lift with the first rays of the rising sun. But the night had no more visions for me, and with the morning I was fresh and fit for aught, after a great swim in the still water, and breakfast.

Then we set to work and cleared away the penthouse, stowing its heavy timbers beneath the deck along the keel, for they would in some degree take the place of the ballast which the little ship needed. There was some water in her bilge from the great wave, and that we baled out easily, but she was well framed and almost new. It was good to see the run of the decks clear again from that unhandy barrier.

I think that Gerda waited till all was gone, and we were wondering how best to stow all the goods which lumbered the deck. Then she came to us, looking brighter and content, with words of good morrow in all comradeship, which were pleasant to hear, and so stood and looked at the things we were busied with.

"I have seen our men take things from below the decks," she said. "Is it not possible to stow all, or nearly all, there? For it may be as well that folk whom we may meet with shall not see that we have these chests on board."

That was good counsel; and though there is not much stowage room on such a ship as this, it could be done. Still the wind did not come, and there was time. Far off, toward where the land should be, the fog still hung in banks, and doubtless Heidrek was still wrapped in it. Not that we had much fear of him now, though it was certain that he would not care to lose us without a search.

Now we raised some of the deck planking aft, and found a floor laid in one place for stowage on either side of the keel. It would take all we wished to get out of sight from off the deck.

"Now let me show you what is in these chests," Gerda said brightly. "Then you will know how to set them."

I think she had a sort of sad pleasure in going through these things. One by one, as we brought them to the open place, she lifted the lids of the chests, and in them was treasure more than I had ever heard of. Maybe it was only a small hoard for one who had been a king in more than name in his time, but there was enough to make Gerda a rich woman in any land where she might care to make a home, if only we could save it for her. One chest held bags of silver coin, stamped with the heads of many kings, and won from many lands, though most came from the English shores, where the burgesses of coast towns would pay ransom for their safety when the longships sailed into their havens with the menace of fire and sword. In another smaller chest, hardly more than a casket, was gold—rings and links and chains of the sort with which men trade by weight, and withal, some coined money from the East and from the British land.

Jewels there were also, brooches of gold and silver and gilded bronze, set with gems and bright with enamel, and arm rings and torques of gold. Women's jewels there were, necklaces and bracelets, hung with the round golden plates, coin-like, with the face of Thor stamped on them, and written runes. Two bales there were also of wondrous stuffs from the looms of eastern lands, gold inwoven and shining, bought in far-off Gardariki, where the great fair is, or won from hall and palace in the wars of Harald Fairhair. And not the least part of the treasure lay in the arms, which were almost beyond our pricing, so good were they, whether mail or helm or weapon. Yet none were better than those Gerda had given us yesterday in our need.

"It is no small treasure which you have made me keep," Gerda said somewhat sadly, as we set the last of the chests in their hiding.

"You will find a use for it, dear lady," Dalfin said cheerfully. "It is a great thing to have somewhat of the sort to fall back on."

She sighed a little, and turned to a big plain chest which she had bidden us leave on deck.

"You three fall back on that," she said, laughing. "It is no part of the treasure, and is here by mistake. Yet I know what it holds, and you may be glad thereof."

Dalfin threw it open, and laughed also. It was full of the holiday clothes of some half-dozen of the head courtmen of the old king; blue and brown jerkins, and white and blue hose, short red cloaks, and fair linen underwear. They had brought it for the feasting after the mound was made, and had forgotten it in the onset of Heidrek. I have seen men of some rank wear no better. Thorwald's men were in good case.

"You have made new men of us from head to foot," said Dalfin gleefully. "In very truth we have sore need of change."

Now we went to replace the deck planking, and she bethought herself.

"Let us keep the little chest with the gold where we can reach it easily," she said. "Supposing we are wrecked it will be well to have it at hand."

That was wise, and we set it on deck again. It was not more than one could carry easily, though heavy, having iron rings at either end as handles. I took it aft out of the way, and set it by the steering bench. And then we ended our work, and things were shipshape once more.

It was very hot as the sun rose higher. There was a feeling of thunder in the air, and Gerda was glad to seek the shelter of her awning from the heat and glare from sea and sky. The ship swayed gently to the dying swell, and the sail flapped idly against the mast, while ever we looked to see the longships of Heidrek coming in the offing in search of us.

Once I climbed the mast, and was glad to see no sign of his sails. Though we must have baffled him for the time, we could not have sailed far ere the wind failed. Presently, in the shelter of the boats, we fitted ourselves out afresh from the courtman's chest, and felt more like ourselves again. We set the mail we needed no longer for the time in the chest, and that done, longed for the wind which did not come. It was breathless.

The awning grew stifling, and Gerda left it for our midday meal, coming to the after deck, and sitting there with us. Presently she looked at our dress and smiled, jesting a little. Then she set her hand on the little chest of gold which stood on the deck by her and opened it.

"I am going to ask you to wear some of these things," she said, half shyly. "I have a fancy to see you three as you should be, with the things which belong to your rank on you."

Bertric shook his head at that. "No, lady," he said. "What need?"

"Maybe I would see my friends as they should be," she answered. "Maybe I would fain for once give the gifts a queen may give, if never again. And maybe it is as well that some of these treasures should be shared among us because we know not what may come."

"Well," said Bertric, laughing, "maybe they will not be so likely to go overboard without us."

Now, I cannot tell all that was in her mind, but so she would have it; and as it was true enough that if we were wrecked we were more likely to save somewhat if it was on us, we let her have her way. So in the end she chose out the heavy golden bracelets which Bertric and I should wear, and then asked Dalfin, laughing, what was the token of the rank of a prince in his land. It was the torque which Heidrek's men had taken from him, and I told her so.

Whereon she took from the casket a wonderful, twisted torque, the like of which I had never seen, for it was not of Norse work, and gave it to him. He took it and looked at it curiously, and his face lighted up. It had some strange writings on it, and he read them. Then he turned to Gerda, and it was plain that somewhat had pleased him mightily.

"Queen," he said, "this is a greater gift to me than you ken. It is strange that this torque should come to me here, for there is a song of it which I have known since I was able to learn aught. It is the song of its losing."

"Thorwald, my grandfather, won it on the high seas from Danish Vikings," she answered eagerly. "What is the story?"

"It is the royal torque of our house," he said. "It was lost when my kinsman, Dubhtach of the Spearshafts, fell at Howth. In the song are the names of Danish princes who fell ere it was won from us, and they are not a few. Now your folk have avenged the loss, and the luck of the O'Neills has come back. And, faith, it was time it did, for mighty little luck have we had since it went from us."

Then he bent his knee in princely fashion, and kissed the hand of the giver, and so set the torque on his neck. It bent easily, and fastened with hooked ends. Plain enough it was that he felt that he had recovered a treasure.

"See," said Bertric, "here is wind coming."

There were thunder clouds working up from the north and east, and a haze was gathering overhead. Soon, in the stillness, the thunder rumbled across the sea, and the heavy drops of the first rain fell, bringing with them cold draughts of wind, which filled the sail for a moment, uselessly, and were gone.

Then across the northern sea grew and spread a line of white which swept down on us swiftly, and with a roar the squall, which came before the wall of rain, was on us. Something lifted forward and fled downwind like a broken-winged red and white bird. Gerda's awning had gone; and Dalfin shouted. But we could not heed that. We were wrestling with the helm, for the wind was heavy and unsteady, and the thunder rolled round us and above us, while the lightning shot in jagged streaks from cloud to sea incessantly. The rain came in torrents, whitening the sea; but Gerda stood with her arm round the high sternpost, with her yellow hair flying and the water streaming from her, seeming to enjoy the turmoil.

The rain swept past, and the wind fell suddenly, as it had come. For a few minutes the sail hung and flapped, and then the worst happened. I heard Bertric cry to us to hold on, and a fresh squall was on us. It came out of the south as if hurled at us, taking the sail aback. The forestay parted, and then with a crash and rending of broken timber the mast went some six feet from the deck, falling aft and to port, and taking with it half the length of the gunwale from amidships.

After that crash we stood and looked at one another, each fearing that there must be some hurt. But there was none. We had been well aft, and the falling masthead and yard had not reached us, though it had been too near to be pleasant. Maybe the end of the yard, as it fell, missed me by a foot or so.

But though Gerda's face was pale, and her eyes wide with the terror of the wreck, she never screamed or let go her hold of the sternpost to which she had been clinging. She was a sea king's daughter.



Chapter 8: Storm And Salvage.

The ship took a heavy list, and some sea broke on board, but though it was rising fast, there was not yet enough to do much harm. The floating bights of canvas hove us round broadside to the run of the waves, and needs must that we cleared away the wreck as soon as might be.

There were two axes slung at the foot of the mast in case of such chances as this, and with them we cut the mast adrift from the shattered gunwale, and got it overboard, so that the ship recovered herself somewhat. The yard lay half on deck, and I climbed out on it, and cleared it from the mast without much trouble, cutting away all the rigging at the masthead, and letting the mast itself go to leeward as the waves would take it.

After that we had some hard work in getting the sail on board again, but it was done at last, and by that time the squall was over, while the wind had flown back to its old quarter—the northeast—and seemed likely to bide there. Overhead the scud was flying with more wind than we could feel, and we had cause to be anxious. The sea would get up, and unless we could set some sort of sail which would at least serve to keep her head to it, we should fare badly. Moreover, it was likely enough that the ship was strained with the wrench of the falling mast.

There was no spare sail on board which we could use in the way of storm canvas, and the sails of the boat were too small to be of any use. Nor was there a spar which we could use as mast, save the yard itself. It must be that or nothing, and time pressed.

I suppose that we might have done better had we the chance, but what we did now in the haste which the rising sea forced on us, was to lash the forward end of the yard to the stump of the mast, without unbending the sail from it. Then we set it up as best we might with the running rigging, and so had a mightily unhandy three-cornered sail of doubled canvas. But when we cast off the lashings which had kept the sail furled while we worked, and sheeted it home, it brought the ship's head to the wind, and for a time we rode easily enough.

Then we baled out the water we had shipped, and sought for any leak there might be. There was none of any account, though the upper planking of the ship was strained, and the wash of the sea found its way through the seams now and then. We could keep that under by baling now and again if it grew no worse.

But in about an hour it was plain that a gale was setting in from the northeast, and the sea was rising. We must run before it whether we would or no, and the sooner we put about the better, crippled as we were. We must go as the gale drove us, and make what landfall we might, though where that would be we could not tell, for there was no knowing how far we were from the Norway shore, or whither we had drifted in the fog.

So we put the ship about, shipping a sea or two as we did so, and then, with our unhandy canvas full and boomed out as best we could with two oars lashed together, we fled into the unknown seas to south and west, well-nigh hopeless, save that of food and water was plenty.

I have no mind to tell of the next three days. They were alike in gray discomfort, in the ceaseless wash of the waves that followed us, and in the fall of the rain. We made terribly heavy weather of it, though the gale was not enough to have been in any way perilous for a well-found ship. We had to bale every four hours or so, and at that time we learned that Gerda knew how to steer. Very brave and bright was she through it all, and maybe that is the one pleasant thing to look back on in all that voyage. We rigged the sail of the boat across the sharp, high gunwales of the stern as some sort of shelter for her, and she was content.

It was on the morning of the fourth day when we had at last a sight of land. Right ahead of us, across the tumbling seas, showed the dim, green tops of mountains, half lost in the drifting rain. We thought they might be the hills of the western islands of Scotland, but could not tell, so utterly had we lost all reckoning.

Whatever the land might be we had to find out presently, for in no way could we escape from a lee shore. Nor was it long before we found that here was no island before us, such an we expected, but a long range of coast, which stretched from east to west, as far as we could see, in a chain of hills. All I could say for certain was that these hills were none which I knew, and so could not be those of the northern Scottish coasts, which I had sailed past many a time.

There was more sun this morning, for the clouds were breaking. Once or twice the light fell on the far hilltops, bringing them close to us, as it were, and then passing. Out to seaward astern of us it gleamed on the white wavetops, hurried after us, and cheered us for a time, and so swept on to the land that waited our coming, with what welcome we could not say. Presently a gleam lit on a small steady patch of white far astern of us, which did not toss with the nearer waves, and did not shift along the skyline. It was the first sail we had seen since we had lost sight of Heidrek, and it, too, cheered us in a way, for the restless, gray and white sea was no longer so lonely. Yet we could look for no help from her, even if she sighted us and was on the same course. We could not heave to and wait her, and by the time she overhauled us, we were likely to be somewhat too near the shore for safety.

For the mountains hove up from the sea very fast now. Some current had us in its grip, setting us shoreward swiftly. Soon we could see the lower hills along the coast, with sheer, black cliffs, and a fringe of climbing foam at their feet, which was disquieting enough as we headed straight for them. We forgot the other ship in that sight, as we looked in vain for some gap in the long wall which stretched across our course. Only in one place, right ahead, the breakers seemed nearer, and as if there might be shelving shore on which they ran, rather than shattering cliffs on which they beat. And presently we knew that between us and the shore lay an island, low and long, rising to a green hill toward the mainland, but seeming to end to the seaward in a beach which might have less dangers for us than the foot of the cliffs beyond. So far as we could make out from the deck, the strait between this island and the mainland might be two miles wide, or a little less.

"If only we could get under the lee of that island we were safe," said Bertric to me. "It would be calm enough to anchor."

"We can but try it," I answered.

And with that we luffed a little, getting the island on our port bow, but it was of no use. The unhandy canvas set us to leeward, and, moreover, the water gained quickly as the strained upper planking was hove down with the new list of the ship. I went to the open space amidships whence we baled, and watched for a few minutes, and saw that we could do nothing but run, unless the other tack would serve us.

That we tried, but now we were too far from the eastern end of the island, and it was hopeless to try to escape from the breakers.

"Stem on it must be, and take the chances," said my comrade. "It does seem as if the water were deep up to the beach, and we may not fare so badly. Well, there is one good point about these gifts which Gerda has given us, and that is that we shall have withal to buy hospitality. There are folk on the island."

"I saw a wisp of smoke a while ago," I said; "but I took it that it was on the mainland. There is no sign of a house."

"That may lie in some hollow out of the wind," he said. "I am sure of its being here."

Then I said that if we were to get on shore safely, which by the look of the beach as we lifted on the waves seemed possible, it might be better that we were armed.

"Aye, and if not, and we are to be drowned, it were better," he said grimly. "One would die as a warrior, anywise."

Now, all this while Dalfin sat with Gerda under the shelter of the boats forward, having stayed there to watch the water in the hold after we had tried to weather the island. Now and again Dalfin rose up and slipped into the bilge and baled fiercely, while Gerda watched the shore and the green hills, which looked so steady above the tumbling seas, wistfully.

I went to them and told them that we must needs face the end of the voyage in an hour or so, and that we would arm ourselves in case the shore folk gave trouble.

"They will do no harm," he said; "but it may be as well."

"One cannot be too sure of that," I answered; but saying no more, as I would not alarm Gerda with talk of wreckers.

"Bad for them if they do," he said. "We will not leave one alive to talk of it."

I laughed, for he spoke as if he had a host at his heels.

"No laughing matter," he said, rising up; "but it is not to be thought of that a prince of Maghera should be harmed in his own land."

"What is that? Your own land?"

"Of course," he said, staring at me. "Will you tell me that you two seamen did not know that yonder lies Ireland? Why, that hill is—"

I cannot mind the names, but he pointed to two or three peaks which he knew well, and I had to believe him. He said that we were some way to the westward of a terrible place which he called the Giant's Causeway, too far off for us to see.

"Why did you not tell us this before?" I asked, as we took the mail from the courtmen's chest where we had laid it.

"You never asked me, and therefore I supposed you knew," he answered gaily. "Now, where you suppose you are going to find a haven I cannot say, but I hope there is one of which I never heard."

Then I told him of our case, and he listened, unmoved, arming himself the while. Only, he said that it would be hard to be drowned with the luck of the O'Neills round his neck, and therefore did not believe that we should be so. But he knew nothing of the island, nor whether it was inhabited. He had seen it from the hills yonder once or twice, when he was hunting, and the chase had led him to the shore.

I think that in his joy at seeing his own land again he was going to tell me some story of a hunt on those hills; but I left him and bade him help Bertric to arm while I took the helm. The shore was not two miles from us at that time, and Bertric hastened, whistling a long whistle in answer to me, when I told him Dalfin's news. Then Gerda came aft and stood by me.

"Is there danger ahead, Malcolm?" she asked very quietly.

"We hope, little; but there is a great deal of risk. We may be able to beach the ship safely, though she will be of no use thereafter."

"And if not?"

"She must break up, and all we can hope for is that she will not be far from shore. We shall have to take to the boat or swim."

"I can swim well," she said. "I have heard you laugh at the prince because he cannot do so. What of him?"

But those two joined us at this time, and I did not answer, at least directly. Only, I told Dalfin that he had better get hold of somewhat, which might stand him in as good stead as had Heidrek's steersman's bench, in case it was wanted. Whereon he laughed, and said that the luck of the O'Neills would be all that he needed, while Bertric went without a word and cut the lashing of the ship's oars, and set two handy on the after deck.

Now we could see the beach and the white ranks of breakers which lay between us and it. Bertric looked long as we neared the first line of them, and counted them, and his face brightened.

"Look at the beach," he said to me. "It is high water, and spring tide, moreover. There will be water enough for our light draught. Get Gerda forward, for the sea will break over the stern the moment we touch the ground."

I looked at him, and he nodded and smiled.

"It will be nothing," he said, knowing what I meant. "One is sheltered here under this high stern. I shall take no harm. Nay, I am ship master, and I bid you care for the lady. There are no signs of rocks."

For I hesitated, not altogether liking not to stand by him at the last. However, he was right, and I went forward with Gerda, bidding Dalfin get one of the oars and follow us.

Now, what that beach may have been like in a winter gale I can only guess. Even now the breakers were terrible enough, as we watched them from the high bows, though the wind was, as I have said, not what one would trouble about much in the open sea, in a well-found ship. But naught save dire necessity would make a seaman try to beach his ship here at any time, least of all when half a gale was piling the seas one over the other across the shallows. Only, we could see that no jagged reef waited us under the surges.

Gerda stood with her arm round the dragon head which stared forward. I minded at that moment how I had ever heard that one should unship the dragon as the shore was neared, lest the gentle spirits of the land, the Landvaettnir, should be feared. But that was too late now, and I do not think that I should have troubled concerning it in any wise, on a foreign coast. The thought came and went from me, but I set Gerda's cloak round her loosely, so that if need was it would fall from her at once; and I belted my mail close, and tried to think how I might save her, if we must take to the water perforce. I could swim in the mail well enough, and she could swim also. There might be a chance for her. I feared more for Dalfin.

Now we flew down on the first line of breakers, lifted on the crest, half blinded with the foam, and plunged across it. I held my breath as the bows swooped downward into the hollow of the wave, fearing to feel the crash of the ship's striking, but she lifted again to the next roller, while the white foam covered the decks as the broken gunwale aft lurched amid it. So we passed four great surges safely, and we were not an arrow flight from land. The water was deep enough for us so far. Then we rose on the back of the fifth roller, and it set us far before we overtook its crest and passed it. The sharp bows leapt through the broken water into the air, and hung for a long moment over the hollow, until the stern lifted and they were flung forward and downward. Then came a sharp grating and a little shock, gone almost as it was felt, but it told of worse to come, maybe. We had felt the ground.

But the next roller hove us forward swiftly, and we hardly overran it, so that it carried us safely. Now we were so near the shore that a stone would have reached it, and but two ranks of breakers were to be passed. I bade my two companions hold on for their lives, and set my arm round Gerda before the crash should come, and we lifted to the first of them, but it was almost as swift as we, and it carried us onward bravely.

Then the keel grated on the ground, and we lost way. The surge overtook us and drove us forward, crashing on the stones of the beach, but hardly striking with any force. The bows lifted, and I saw the rattling pebbles beneath us as the sea sucked them back. A great sea rolled in, hissing and roaring round the high stern, and breaking clear over it and Bertric as he stood at the helm, and it lifted us once more as if we were but a tangle of seaweed, and hurled us upward on the stony slope, canting the stern round as it reached us. We were ashore and safely beached, and the danger was past. The ship took the ground on her whole length as the wave went back.

Out of the smother of water and foam astern, as the next wave broke over the ship, Bertric struggled forward to us, laughing as he came. The sea ran along the deck knee deep round him as far as the foot of the mast, but it did not reach us here in the bows, though the spray flew over us, and our ears were full of the thunder of the surf on the beach. But the sharp bows were firmly bedded in the shingle, and we were in no danger of broaching to as wave after wave hurled itself after us.

Bertric had stayed to take the casket of gold from the place in the stern where we had set it.

"I had no mind to see the stern go to pieces and take this with it," he said, setting the load at his feet. "The tide has not reached its height yet, and she will be roughly handled. We had best get ashore while we can. We may do it between the breakers."

I watched the next that came roaring past us. It ran twenty yards up the shelving beach, and then went back with a rush and rattle of pebbles, leaving us nearly dry around the bows. We might have three feet of water to struggle through at first for a few paces, but that was nothing. Even Gerda could be no wetter than she was, and the one fear was that one might lose foothold when the next wave came. It did not take long to decide what we had to do, therefore.

A wave came in, spent itself in rushing foam, and drew back. I was over the bows with its first sign of ebb, and dropped into the water when it seemed well-nigh at its lowest, finding it neck-deep for the moment. It sank to my waist, and Dalfin was alongside me, spluttering. Then Bertric helped Gerda over the gunwale, and I took her in my arms, holding her as high as I could, and turning at once shoreward. I tried to hurry, but I could not go fast, for the water sucked me back, while Dalfin waded close behind me. Then I heard Bertric shout, and I knew what was coming. The knee-deep water gathered again as the next roller stayed its ebb, swirled and deepened round me, and then with a sudden rush and thunder the wave came in, broke, and for a moment I was buried in the head of it, and driven forward by its weight. I felt Gerda clutch me more tightly, and Dalfin was thrown against me, gasping, and he steadied me.

It passed, and I could see again, and struggled on. Then the outward flow began again, and wrestled with me so that I could not stem it, and together Dalfin and I, he with one arm round my shoulder, and in the other hand the oar which he held and used as a staff, fought against it until it was spent. The rounded pebbles slipped and rolled under my feet as they were torn back to the sea, but the worst was past. Up the long slope through the yeasty foam we went, knee deep, and then ankle deep, ever more swiftly with every pace, and the next wave broke far behind us, and its swirl of swift water round my waist only helped me. Through it we climbed to the dry stretches of the beach, and were safe.

I heard Gerda speak breathless words of thanks as I set her down, and then I looked round for Bertric. He was two waves behind us, as one may say, and I was just in time to see a breaker catch him up, smite his broad shoulders, and send him down on his face with whirling arms into its hollow, where the foam hid him as it curled over. He, too, had an oar for support, but it had failed him, and as he fell I caught the flash of somewhat red slung like a sack across his back.

Gerda cried out as she saw him disappear, but Dalfin and I laughed as one will laugh at the like mishap when one is bathing. That was for the moment only, however, for he did not rise as soon as he might, and then I knew what had kept him so far behind us, and what was in the red cloak I had seen. He had stayed to bring the gold and jewels in their casket, and now their weight was holding him down. So I went in and reached him through a wave, and set him on his feet again, gasping, and trying to laugh, and we went back to shore safely enough. I grumbled at the risk he had run, but he said that his burden was not so heavy as mine had been.

For a few minutes we sat on the beach and found our breath again, Gerda trying to tell us what she felt concerning what we had done, and then giving up, because, I suppose, she could not find the right words; which was a relief, for she made too much of it all. Then the four of us went up the beach to the shelter of the low, grassy sand hills above it, and there Dalfin turned and faced us with a courtly bow, saying gravely:

"Welcome to Ireland, Queen Gerda, and you two good comrades. There would have been a better welcome had we come in less hurry, but no more hearty one. The luck of the O'Neills has stood us in good stead."

"If it had not been for the skill of these two friends, it seems to me that even the luck of the torque had been little," said Gerda quietly. "You must not forget that."

"It is part of the said luck that they have been here," answered Dalfin, with his eyes twinkling as he bowed to us. "All praise to their seamanship."

Then he sat down suddenly as if his knees had given way, and looked up as if bewildered.

"Is this silly island also afloat?" he asked, "for it feels more like a ship than any other dry land I was ever on.

"It will do so for a time," I said. "Wait till you lose the swing of the decks and find your shore legs again."

"Look yonder," Bertric said. "There is the other ship."

We had forgotten her for a time in our own perils. She had followed our course, though for what reason we could not tell. Now she had borne up and was heading away westward, some four miles from shore, and sailing well and swiftly, being a great longship. Soon a gray wall of rain swept over her and hid her, and when it cleared in half an hour's time she was beyond our sight.

It seemed pretty certain by this time that there could be no people on this side of the island at least, or they would have been here. We climbed to the highest of the sand hills, and looked over what we could see of the place, but there was no sign of hut or man. Beyond the sand hills there was a stretch of open moorland, which rose to the hill across by the strait between us and the mainland, and both hill and moor were alike green and fresh—or seemed so to us after the long days at sea. It was not a bad island, and Dalfin said that there should be fishers here, though he was in no way certain. All round us the sea birds flitted, scolding us for our nearness to their nests among the hills and on the edge of the moor, and they were very tame, as if unused to the sight of man. I thought we could make out some goats feeding on the hill side, but that was all. So far as we could judge, the island may have been a mile long, or less, and a half mile across.

We went back to the lee of the sand hills after seeing that there was no better shelter at hand. There it seemed warm after the long days on the open sea, but we were very wet. So we found a sheltered hollow whence we could look across the beach to the ship, and there gathered a great pile of driftwood and lit a fire, starting it with dry grass and the tinder which Bertric kept, seamanlike, with his flint and steel in his leathern pouch, secure from even the sea. Then we sat round it and dried ourselves more or less, while the tide reached its full, left the bare timbers of the ship's stem standing stark and swept clean of the planking, and having done its worst, sank swiftly, leaving her dry at its lowest.

So soon as we could, Bertric and I climbed on board over the bows, and took what food we could find unspoiled by the water, ashore.

"Neither of the boats is harmed," we told Gerda. "And presently we can leave this island for the mainland. And we can save all the goods we stowed amidships before the tide rises again. But your good little ship will never sail the seas more."

"It is as well," she answered sadly. "This should have been her last voyage in another way than this, and her time had come. I do not think that it had been fitting for her to have carried any other passenger, after he who lies in the sea depths had done with her."

Bertric shook his head as one who doubts, being sore at the loss of a vessel under his command, though there was no blame to him therein. But I knew what Gerda felt, and thought with her.

By the great fire we made our first meal ashore since we left my home in Caithness eight long days ago. Nor can I say that it was a dismal feast by any means, for we had won through the many perils we had foreseen, and were in safety and unhurt; and young enough, moreover, to take things lightly as they came, making the best of them.



Chapter 9: The Isle Of Hermits.

As may be supposed, we were worn out, and the warmth may have made us drowsy. The roar of the sea, and the singing of the wind in the stiff grass of the sand hills was in our ears, unnoticed, and we had made up our minds that there was no man on the island and that we need fear no meddling with the ship until the sea calmed, and men might come from the mainland to see what they could take from the wreck. Presently we ourselves would get what was worth aught to us and hide it here.

So it came to pass that when from out of the hills round us came a small, rough brown dog which barked wildly at us, we leapt to our feet with our hands on our swords as if Heidrek himself had come. But no man came with him, and suddenly he turned and fled as if he had heard a call. I was about to follow him to the top of the sand hill to see what his coming meant, when the pebbles rattled on the near beach, and I halted. There were sounds as of a bare foot among them.

Into the little cleft between the dunes, out of which we looked over the sea, came a short man, dressed in a long, brown robe which was girt to him with a cord, and had a hood which framed his pleasant, red face. Black-haired and gray-eyed he was, and his hands were those of one who works hard in the fields. There was a carved, black wooden cross on the end of his cord girdle, and a string of beads hung from it. At his heels was the brown dog, and in his hand a long, shepherd's crook.

He came carelessly into the opening, looking from side to side as he walked as if seeking the men he knew must be shipwrecked, and stayed suddenly when he came on us. His face paled, and he half started back, as if he was terrified. Then he recovered himself, looked once more, started anew, and fairly turned and ran, the dog leaping and barking round him. After him went Dalfin, laughing.

"Father," he cried in his own tongue, "father! Stay—we are Irish—at least some of us are. I am. We are friends."

The man stopped at that and turned round, and without more ado Dalfin the Prince unhelmed and bent his knee before him, saying something which I did not catch. Whereon the man lifted his hand and made the sign of the Cross over him, repeating some words in a tongue which was strange to me. I could not catch them.

Dalfin rose up and called to me, and I went toward them, leaving Gerda and Bertric to wait for what might happen.

"This is Malcolm of Caithness, a good Scot," said he.

"Malcolm, we are in luck again, for it seems that we have fallen into the hands of some good fathers, which is more than I expected, for I never heard that there was a monastery here."

I made some answer in the Gaelic, more for the comfort of the Irish stranger than for the sense of what I spoke. And as he heard he smiled and did as he had done to Dalfin, signing and saying words I could not understand. I had no doubt that it was a welcome, so I bowed, and he smiled at me.

"I was sorely terrified, my sons," he said. "I thought you some of these heathen Danes—or Norse men, rather, from your arms. But I pray you do not think that I fled from martyrdom."

"You fled from somewhat, father," said Dalfin dryly; "what was it?"

The father pointed and smiled uneasily.

"My son," he said slowly, "I came to this place to be free from the sight of—of aught but holy men. If there were none but men among you, even were you the Lochlann I took you for—and small wonder that I did—I had not fled. By no means."

"Why," said Dalfin, with a great laugh, "it must be Gerda whom he fears! Nay, father, the lady is all kindness, and you need fear her not at all."

"I may not look on the face of a lady," said the father solemnly.

"Well, you have done it unawares, and so you may as well make the best of it, as I think," answered Dalfin. "But, without jesting, the poor lady is in sore need of shelter and hospitality, and I think you cannot refuse that. Will you not take us to the monastery?"

"Monastery, my son? There is none here."

"Why, then, whence come you? Are you weather bound here also?"

"Aye, by the storms of the world, my son. We are what men call hermits."

Dalfin looked at me with a rueful face when he heard that. What a hermit might be I did not at all know, and it meant nothing to me. I was glad enough to think that there was a roof of any sort for Gerda.

"Why, father," said my comrade, "you do not sleep on the bare ground, surely?"

"Not at all, my son. There are six of us, and each has his cell."

"Cannot you find shelter for one shipwrecked lady? It will not be for long, as we will go hence with the first chance. We have our boats."

Now all this while the hermit had his eye on Dalfin's splendid torque, and at last he spoke of it, hesitatingly.

"My son, it is not good for a man to show idle curiosity—but it is no foolish question if I ask who you are that you wear the torque of the O'Neills which was lost."

"I am Dalfin of Maghera, father. The torque has come back to me, for Dubhtach is avenged."

At that the hermit gave somewhat like a smothered shout, and his stately way fell from him altogether. He went on his knee before Dalfin, and seized his hand and kissed it again and again, crying words of welcome.

"My prince, my prince," he said, with tears of joy running down his cheeks. "It was told me that you had gone across the seas—but I did not know it was for this."

Dalfin reddened, and raised the hermit from the sand.

"Father," he said quickly, "I am not the avenger. It is a long tale—but the lady, who is a queen in Norway, shipwrecked with us here by a strange fate, has to do with the winning back of the torque."

"A queen!" said the hermit quickly. "Then the rule of which I spoke must needs be broken; nay, not broken, but set aside. Now, where are your men?"

"Never a man have we. There is Malcolm here, and Bertric, a Saxon thane, who is my friend also and a good Christian, and the poor young queen, and no more."

The hermit threw up his hands.

"All drowned!" he cried. "Alack, alack! May their souls rest in peace!"

"We sailed without them, father. There were none, and so they are all safe at home."

"Good luck to them—for if they had been here they were drowned, every man of them," said the hermit with much content, looking at me with some wonder when I laughed.

"They would not be the first by many a score whom we have buried here," he said in reproof. "Aye, heathen Lochlann and Christian Scot, and homely Erse yonder. It is good to see even a few who have escaped from this shore."

He bowed his head for a moment, and his lips moved. Then he turned to Dalfin as a councillor might turn to his prince, and asked what he would have the brothers do for him.

"Come and ask the lady," answered Dalfin, and so we went to the fire, where Gerda and Bertric rose up to meet us.

Now the hermit had set aside his fear of the lady, if he had any beyond his rules, and welcomed her in Erse, which I had to translate. Also he told her that what shelter he and his brethren could give was hers, if she would be content with poor housing.

"Thank him, and tell him that any roof will be welcome after the ship's deck," she said, smiling at the hermit.

"Ask him to send men and help us get our stores ashore and out of the way of the fisher folk, who will be here as soon as they see the wreck," said Bertric. "No need to tell him that the stores are treasure for the most part."

"Tell him it is treasure, and it will be all the safer," Dalfin said. "These are holy monks, of a sort who care for poverty more than wealth. This man was well born, as you may guess from his speech."

I told the hermit what Bertric needed, and he laughed, saying that the whole brotherhood would come and help at once. And then he bade us follow him. We went across the moorland for about half a mile, to the foot of the hill or nearly, and then came on a little valley amid the rising ground, where trees grew, low and wind twisted, but green and pleasant; and there I saw a cluster of little stone huts for all the world like straw beehives, built of stones most cunningly, mortarless, but fitting into one another perfectly.

The huts were set in a rough circle, and each had its door toward the sun, and a little square window alongside that, and a smoke-blackened hole in the top of the roof. Doubtless it was from one of these that Bertric had seen the smoke from the sea, though there was none now. From the hill and down the valley across the space between the huts ran a little brook, crossed in two or three places by wandering paths, some with a stepping stone, and others with only a muddy jumping place. The stream was dammed into a deep, stone-walled pool in the midst of the space, and close to the brink of this stood a tall, black stone cross, which was carved most wonderfully with interlacing patterns, and had a circle round its arms.

We saw no men at first. Pigs there were, fat and contented, which rooted idly or wallowed along the stream, and fowls strolled among the huts. I saw one peer into an open door, raise one claw slowly as if she was going in, and then turn and fly, cackling wildly, as if some inmate had thrown something at her.

"That is brother Fergus," said our guide. "The more he throws things at the hens, the more they pester him. It is half a loaf this time. See."

The hen had gone back into the doorway in a hurry, and now retired behind the hut with the bread, to be joined there by hurrying friends.

"The pigs will come in a minute," our hermit said, chuckling and rubbing his hands together. "They know that Fergus hurls what comes first without heed of what it may be."

He half stayed to watch, and then remembered that he was not alone or with some of his brethren. We had been silent as we came, and he had gone before us with the dog in front of him, musing. I think that he had forgotten us.

"Pardon, prince," he said. "Year in and year out in this place we have naught but these little haps to lighten our thoughts. We watch for them, and are disappointed if we miss them. Ah, well, tonight at least we shall have somewhat more wonderful of which to talk. I only pray that you, with your breath of the outer world—warfare and wreck, victory and vengeance—may not leave us unsettled."

He sighed, and turned back to the way once more with bent head. He seemed a young man to be in this desolate place of his own free will, for his black beard and hair were hardly grizzled with the passing years yet.

There was a low wall round the gathering of huts, the gate being closed with a wattled hurdle, lest the pigs should wander. Here the hermit stopped, and before he opened the gate lifted his voice and cried loudly in the tongue which I did not know.

There was a stir then in the peaceful enclosure. Out of the huts came in all haste men clad like our guide, speaking to one another fast, with eager faces and gestures. At that time I counted nine huts, and thought that we need turn out none of these strange hosts of ours.

P Again our hermit cried out, for the rest did not come to meet us. I saw Dalfin smiling, and asked what it all meant in a low voice.

"I have more than half forgotten the little Latin they taught me at Monasterboice long ago," he answered; "but he is telling them that here we have not a lady merely, but a queen. It is the first trouble again."

Now the brethren consulted, still standing in the hut doors, and at last, being thereto exhorted once more by our friend, they came toward us slowly, as if wishing to show that they had no longing for things outside their island cares. Five out of these six were old men, our guide being the youngest, and two of them were very old, with long, white beards. One of these two came forward as they neared us, and spoke for the rest, greeting Dalfin first, as their prince, with all respect, though not at all in the humble way in which he had first been hailed.

"It is our good fortune," he said, "that we are able to shelter you. It has been our sorrow that up till this time those strangers who have come from the sea have needed nothing from us but the last rites. We are all unused to guests, and you will forgive us if we know not how to treat them rightly. But what we can do we will."

He waved his hands toward the huts, and said no more. Dalfin thanked him, and after he had heard, he paid no more heed to us, but turned to our guide.

"Brother Phelim," he said wearily, "see you to all that may be done. The care must be yours, as was the first welcome. I do not know why you wandered so far at this hour."

"Because I thought there might be poor folk in need, father," said Phelim meekly. "Moreover, I am shepherd today."

The old man waved his hand as if to say that the excuse was enough, and with that turned and went his way, leaning on the arm of the other ancient brother, the three who had stood behind them making way reverently.

"He is our superior," whispered Phelim. "He has been here for forty years. He will forget that he has seen you presently. Now, come, and we will see how we may best bestow you."

"Concerning what is on board the ship," said Bertric, staying him. "It is needful that we get it ashore before the tide turns. It is but half an hour's hard work, at the most, if you folk help."

Phelim stared, for Bertric spoke in the Dansk tongue we had been using. I had to translate for him, and Phelim nodded.

"Tell the sea captain that all will be well. We will return at once. We do but find a house for the queen."

So we went on to the central green amid the huts, and there stood and looked round, while Phelim and Fergus deliberated for a time. It seemed that the pigs had one empty hut, and the fowls another. The largest was the chapel, and so there was not one vacant. I think that they each wished for the honour of turning out for us.

"Father Phelim," I said at last, for Bertric waxed impatient, "let one good brother leave his cell for that of another, leaving it free for the queen, and then we can shift for ourselves. We do not at all mind sleeping in the open, for so we have fared for the last week and more."

But they would not have that, and in the end Phelim himself led Gerda with much pride to his own cell and handed it over to her, while another brother left his cell to us three, it being a large one, which, indeed, is not saying much for the rest. We were likely to be warm enough in it; but the cells were clean and dry, each with a bed of heather and a stone table and stool, and some little store of rough crockery and the like household things. There were blankets, too, and rugs for hanging across the doors, which seemed in some abundance. Afterwards, I found that they were washed ashore from wrecks at different times.

Then we went back to the shore in all haste. I had doubts as to whether Gerda would care to be left alone in this strange place, but she laughed, and said that there was naught to fear. The two old brothers had gone their way to their own cells, and would not come forth again till vesper time, as Phelim told us. She had the little village, if one may call it so, to herself, therefore, till we returned. But Phelim set his crook against the hut wall as he went.

"The pigs need a stick at times," he said; "it may be handy."

The tide had ebbed far when we reached the place of the wreck again, and had bared a long, black reef, which, with never an opening in it, reached as far as we could see along the shore. It was only the chance of the high spring tide, driven yet higher than its wont by the wind on the shore, which had suffered us to clear it. It was that which we touched slightly as we came in among the first breakers. We had had a narrow escape.

In an hour we had all that was worth taking ashore saved. The chests of arms, and those of the bales which the sea had not reached, and the chest of silver, were all on the beach, and we got the larger of the two boats over the side, and ran her up into safety, with her fittings. And then, for there was yet time, Dalfin would have us save the wonderful carved wagon which was on the deck unhurt, and that, too, we took ashore, and with it some of the casks of food stores which had been so lavishly stored for that strange voyage. We should not burden the good brothers with this to help feed us.

Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5     Next Part
Home - Random Browse