Now Arnkel came back to the table and set his hands on it, for they shook, and stared at Gerda without finding a word in answer. The courtmen were looking at him now, and her name was passing among them in undertones. It was in Arnkel's power to make the best of the return if he would.
"Friends," said Gerda, "yonder man sent me to what he deemed my death in the ship which bore Thorwald to sea. Will you welcome me back, if he will not?"
Then there was a great shout from the men who loved her, and I thought that all was well. But suddenly that shout stilled, for Arnkel's voice came loud over it all.
"Hold, you fools," he cried. "Look at yon armed men. This is a trick of theirs. They have your lady captive, and now will win the place if you suffer them.
"Here, you great warrior, who are you?"
He pointed to me, and the colour was coming back to his face, while his eyes were fierce. He would make one bid for his power yet.
"I am Malcolm of Caithness, the jarl," I answered. "I am the champion of Queen Gerda, whom I and my comrade here saved from the ship in which you would have burned her.
"Listen, Thorwald's men. We took her, well nigh dead, from the chamber where your king was laid. See, what are these arms I wear? They will prove it, for they came thence, and are her gift."
"Aye," he sneered in a harsh voice, "you took them at the same time you took the girl.
"To your arms, men, and see that these robbers do not escape."
The courtmen sprang at their weapons, and there was uproar enough. For a moment I could not tell what might come, and my hand was on my sword hilt, though I would not draw the weapon yet. Then came Gerda's clear voice again.
"To me, Gerda's men," she cried, and her sword flashed out. "He lies, and you know it."
Three men led a rush down the hall to us, and one was lame. They were my Caithness men who had escaped from Asbiorn here. After and with them were a dozen older courtmen of Thorwald's. The women screamed and shrank back against the walls of the hall, hiding behind the tables. We had naught to fear from the thralls here, for they were shouting for Gerda.
One of Eric's men leaned over to Arnkel and spoke to him. Then he shook his head and scowled at him, and stood up and raised his hand.
"Here," he said, when a silence fell, "I am a stranger, and it seems to me that there is matter for a fight, unless somewhat is set straight. What is this tale brought up against your lord? I have heard how Thorwald was set to sea in his ship."
Then old Gorm answered in a voice which shook with wrath: "And with him, bound in the funeral chamber, with burning peat piled round it, Arnkel set the Lady Gerda to burn at sea, even as you see her. But for chance she had never stood in Arnkel's way more. She is Thorwald's heiress."
In the silence which followed Gerda spoke again. Men were doubting yet, and Arnkel's men had no mind to begin a fight which would be fell enough.
"You have said that I am a captive, Arnkel," she said calmly.
"Listen, friends, and say if so I am."
She half turned to me, and took my hand before them all, smiling.
"This is my promised husband," she said proudly, "Jarl Malcolm, who saved me. If I am captive, it is willingly.
"Now, Arnkel, I will let bygones be bygones. It shall be as it was before the day when the ship was set adrift. Only you shall go your way to the king, to be judged by him."
"Fair speech, Arnkel," said Eric's courtier. "Better listen to it. You have to deal with yon Scots jarl—and I ken the Scotsmen."
He sat down, watching the throng. He would take no hand in the matter, wherein he was wise. But those words of his came to Arnkel as a taunt, and his look at me was terrible.
"Ho, men," he shouted, "will you own an outland lord?"
"Aye, we will," said Gorm the Steward sturdily. "Sooner than listen to a coward and would-be murderer of women."
That ended the matter. The courtmen yelled, and one or two who tried to get to Arnkel's side were seized and hurled to the ground by the men who cheered for Gerda, and I knew that the day was won. But I watched Arnkel, for there was somewhat of madness in his look. His hand stole down to the long dirk in his belt, and then clutched it.
Like a flash the keen blade fled across the hall, straight at Gerda as she stood fearless before him, and I was only just in time. I stood on her right, and my left arm caught it. The blade went through the muscles of the forearm, and stayed there, but that was of no account. Gerda's light mail would hardly have stopped it.
She gave a little cry, and I set my arm behind me, smiling. But the men saw and roared, and there was not one on the side of the man who would do so evil a deed. They made a rush for the dais, overturning the tables, and hustling aside Eric's men, who were in their way, else there would have been an end of Arnkel.
Maybe in the long run it had been as well for him, but in the scuffle he opened the door behind him and rushed out. I heard a shout from outside, and then a trampling, and thereafter a silence.
Asbiorn was not far off. Afterwards I found that he had a ladder against the wall, and a man was watching through a high window all that went on, in case we needed help. Whereby it happened that Arnkel ran into his arms.
Some of Asbiorn's men came in as soon as that was done, and the courtmen huddled back at the sight of these newcomers, whose swords were out. Gerda called to them that these were friends, and bade our men sheathe their weapons.
There was quiet then, and Gerda looked round to me. Phelim had taken charge of my arm at once, and the long blade was out, and a scarf, which some girl who had not lost her senses had handed him, was round the wound.
"Not much harm done," he said, smiling at Gerda, who thanked him in words and me with a look.
Now the folk crowded round us with great shouts of welcome, and the men came to thrust forward the hilts of their weapons that she should touch them, in token of homage given and accepted. The women were trying to reach her also, with words of joy and praise. So I took her through them all to the high place, and set her there in Thorwald's chair, and Gorm the Steward passed round some word, and came himself with a silver cup full of mead, and set it in her hand, and whispered to her.
Whereon she smiled and rose up, and held the cup high, and cried to her folk:
"Skoal, friends, and thanks!"
And all down the hall, from her own folk and from Hakon's, and even from those strangers, Eric's men, came the answer:
"Skoal to Gerda the Queen, and welcome!"
And then one lifted his voice and cried:
"Skoal to Jarl Malcolm!"
Men took that up, and it was good to hear them.
Gerda gave me the cup her lips had just touched, and I drank "skoal" to them in turn, and so Gerda the Queen had come home.
Gerda passed to the bower presently, and left us in the hall. The men still made merry with shout and song, and Gorm was preparing the guest hall for us. Asbiorn had come in with the rest of his men, grim and silent, and I asked him if he had Arnkel safe. He nodded and reached for a horn of ale, and sat down at the end of the high place, for at the time Bertric and I were talking with Eric's men, and trying to settle matters with them, for we could not let them go back to their master.
One was a jarl from the south, and the others men of less note, and they had looked to gather men to Eric hence. Now they were fairly thunderstruck to hear of the coming of Hakon, and as it seemed to us not altogether displeased. There would be nothing but turmoil in the land so long as Eric reigned.
In the end these men passed their word not to try to escape, or to plot here for Eric, until they went back with the ship to Thrandheim, and so we had no more trouble with them. Thereafter two joined Hakon, as I have heard, and the others were glad to bide quietly and at least not hinder him; so we did well for the young king.
When we had arranged thus with these men, I went to Asbiorn to learn how he had bestowed Arnkel.
"He is down at the wharf," he answered. "Aye, on board the ship. Maybe you had better come and see him."
"I do not know that I have aught to say to him," said I. "The man is not worth a word. What do the townsfolk say of him?"
"They had a good deal to say," he answered. "Not what one would call good words, either. There is no party on his side here, and you will have naught but welcome on all hands. Nevertheless, come down to the ship before you go to the guest house for the night. I sleep on board."
"The people cannot hold you as in league with Arnkel now," I said. "They will not molest you."
"They know that there is no league between us now, at all events," he answered, with a short laugh. "No, there will be no trouble of any kind."
Bertric and I rose up and bade Eric's men go to the guest hall, and so we two went out of the great door with Asbiorn. With us came Phelim and my Caithness men, and Gorm the Steward, and a dozen of the others of the place. It was a still, frosty night, and overhead wavered and flickered across the stars the red and golden shafts and waves of the northern lights, very brightly, so that all the sky seemed to burn with them, and it was well nigh as light as day with their weird brightness. Under them the still fjord glowed in answer, silent and peaceful, as the fires burned up and faded.
We went to the stockade gate, and down the little street to the wharf. Only a few men were about, but they were not armed, and the houses were dark now. There was no sign of unrest in all the place, as there well might have been had things gone awry for us.
"Have a care, Asbiorn," said Bertric. "There may be some gathering to rescue Arnkel, for all the quiet."
He laughed again, and his laugh was hard.
"There will be none," he said, and pointed.
The mast of the ship had been stepped again, but the sail was still on deck. Only a spare yard had been hoisted half-mast high across the ship. And at the outboard end of it swung, black against the red fires of the sky, the body of the man who had wrought the trouble. He had found the death which he deserved.
"Hakon's word," said Asbiorn quietly. "You mind what he said."
I remembered, and it came to me that Asbiorn had done right. I do not know what else could have been done with such a man. And in this matter neither I nor Gerda had any hand.
"The townsfolk judged him," said Asbiorn again, "and we did Hakon's bidding. Else they had hewn him in pieces."
Suddenly the red wildfires sank, and it was very dark. In the darkness there came from seaward a sound which swelled up, nearer and nearer, as it were the cry of some mighty pack of hounds, and with the wild baying, the yell of hunters and the clang of their horns. It swept over us, and passed toward the mountains while we stood motionless, listening.
"It is the wild hunt," said old Gorm, gripping my arm. "It is Odin who chases the wraith of Arnkel hence."
But Phelim looked up to where against the dark cliff the cross stood out bright above the hall.
"If it is Odin," he said, "he flies before the might of yonder sign. This place is his no longer."
The others did not heed him, but I would that what he said was the very truth. I had ever heard that one who died as did Arnkel was the quarry of Odin's hunters for evermore, and the sounds scared me.
The clamour of that wild hunt died away, and we breathed more freely. Soon the wild lights burned up across the north again, and then Bertric spoke.
"Sink yonder thing in the fjord, Asbiorn. Gerda should not see it thus."
Therewith we went back to the guest hall, and there was naught to disturb the quiet of the night. Asbiorn saw to that matter straightway.
Men say now that when the northern fires light the sky, across the fjord drifts the wraith of Arnkel, and that ever the wild hunt comes up from the sea and hounds him hence. I have heard the bay of those terrible hounds more than once indeed, but I have seen naught, and round our hall is no unrest.
In the sunshine of next day Gerda would hear what had become of Arnkel, supposing that he was kept safely somewhere. I think that the hurt to me, small as it was, angered her against him more than the wrongs he had done to herself.
"He is dead," I told her. "He died at the hand of Asbiorn and the men of the place, in all justice. He may be forgotten."
She did not ask more, for the way in which he ended she would not wish to hear. Only she sighed, and said:
"Let us forget him then. I would have forgiven him. He tried to take even my life from me indeed, but instead he has given me all I could long for. He sent me to meet you, Malcolm, on the sea."
Then she laid her hand on my bound arm gently, and smiled at me.
"This is the second time you have saved my life," she said. "Nor was there one to share the deed this time. You cannot bring in Bertric and Dalfin now."
Which seemed to please her in a way which I will not try to fathom. That sort of thing makes a man feel how little worth he is in truth.
Then on that morning she must needs take me to see all the place and the folk. My father's old ship lay in the fjord, ready to sail to Eric, and she must hear how we escaped from her again. There were more pleasant doings also, but I need not tell of them.
For now it seems to me that the story is done, if there must be told one or two more things, seeing that Gerda had come home, and all was well. I have no words to tell of the wedding that was before Bertric must needs go back to Hakon, for none but a lady could compass that. But I will say that it was a goodly gathering thereat, for word went quickly round, and the good people came in to grace it from far and wide. Bertric gave away the bride, as the friend of Hakon, who was her guardian; and after the wedding in the old Norse way, Phelim blessed us after the manner of the new faith which he and his had taught us to love, though he might not do more for us, as yet unbaptized.
Thereafter was feasting and rejoicing enough to please all, if the notice had been short; and then Bertric must go his way, promising to see us again as soon as might be. So we watched the ship pass down the fjord and into the narrow seaward channel, and he waved to us, and we to him, and the men cheered for Hakon, and so we turned back to the new life of peace that lay before us.
There was not much fighting ere Hakon came to the throne in earnest. Eric fled the land as man after man rose for his rival, and at last took to the Viking path, and thereafter made friends with Athelstane of England, and held Northumbria for him as under-king. So he troubled Norway no more.
But for the spreading of the new faith Hakon would have had no man against him; but therein he had unrest enough. Maybe it was to be expected, as he went to work with too high a hand in that matter in his zeal; for here we had no trouble. Phelim and Gerda won the folk with ways and words of love, and before two years had passed all were working to frame a church here with much pride in the building, giving time and labour for naught but the honour of the faith.
Hakon came to the consecrating of that church, and with him were Bertric and Dalfin, and then those good friends of ours stood sponsors for us at the first christenings that were therein.
Thereafter Bertric went home to England, and we have seen him no more. Only we know that he is high in honour with his king, and happily wedded in his Dorset home. Dalfin is still in Norway, and high in honour with Hakon, and here he will bide, being wedded, and holding himself to be a very Norseman. There might be worse than he, in all truth. And Asbiorn is with Hakon, as the head of his courtmen, silent and ready, and well liked by all. Those two we see when Hakon goes on progress through the land, and comes in turn to us, as he ever will, or else when we go to the court, when that is near us.
Still over the hall against the black cliff glows the bright cross at times, clear and steady. Men say that it does but come from some unseen openings in the roof of the hall when the lights are set in some unheeded way—but I cannot tell. However it comes, it has been a portent of good, and minds me of that night when we brought home at last my sea queen, Gerda. Surely it is a token of the peace which has come to us and to her folk, under the wise rule of Norway's first Christian king, Hakon the Good.
1. The Norns were the Fates of the old Norse mythology.
2. Thrandheim, now Trondhjem, the ancient capital of Norway.