In this poem the scald gives only an outline of the great fight. Let us follow more closely the action of those in whom we are peculiarly interested.
For more than two hours the battle raged with unabated fury—victory inclining to neither side; but as the day advanced, the energy with which Solve Klofe pushed the right wing began to tell, and the King's men gave way a little at that part. Harald, however, was on the alert. He sent some of his loose ships to reinforce them, and so regained his position. A short time after that, some of Solve's ships were boarded, but at that moment Erling and Glumm chanced to pass in their cutters— for they kept always close together—and they gave such a shout, while they turned and pulled to the rescue, that the men, who were wavering, took heart again and drove the foe overboard. Just then the ship on the right of Solve Klofe's vessel was also boarded by the enemy. Seeing this, Erling called to Glumm that there was need of succour there, and they rowed swiftly to the spot.
"Art thou hard pressed, Solve?" asked Erling, as he ranged up to the stern of his friend's ship.
Solve was so furious that he could not answer, but pointed to the ship next his, and sprang on the edge of his own, intending to leap into that of the enemy, and get to the forefront. At the same time Eindrid, son of Mornef, stood up on the high foredeck of his ship with a large stone in his hand. He was a very powerful man, and hurled the stone with such force against Solve's shield that it battered him down, and he fell back into his own ship much stunned. Seeing this, Erling bade two of his men follow him, leaped into Solve's ship, and thence into the one where the fight was sharpest. Glumm followed him closely with his long two-handed sword, and these two fought so dreadfully that Eindrid's men were driven back into their own ship again. Then Erling ran to the place where the high stern was wedged between two of the enemy's ships, and sprang on the forecastle of Eindrid's ship.
"Thou art a bold man!" said Eindrid, turning on him.
"That may be as thou sayest," replied Erling, at the same time catching a thrust on his shield, which he returned with such interest with his axe that Eindrid's head was nearly severed from his body. At the same moment Glumm cut down a famous berserk who ran at him, and in a few minutes they had cleared the deck of the ship, and taken possession of it. But this was scarcely accomplished when a cry arose that the left wing under King Hakon was giving way.
At once Erling and Glumm ran back to their cutters, and made towards that part of the line, followed by several of the loose ships. Here they found that King Hakon was very hard pressed by Sigurd of Royer, so they pushed in among the ships, and soon Erling's well-known war-cry was heard, and his tall form was seen sweeping men down before him with his great axe, like a mower cutting grass. Glumm, however, did not keep close to him this time, but made direct for Hakon's ship, for he remembered that he was Ada's father, and thought he might do him some service.
As he was coming near he saw Swankie, a famous berserk, fighting furiously on board Hakon's ship, and roaring, as was the wont of berserkers sometimes, like a wild bull. Hakon's men had formed a shield-circle round their chief, and were defending him bravely; but the berserk was an uncommonly stout man, very brisk and active, and exceedingly furious, as well as dexterous with his weapons. He slew so many men that the shield-circle was broken, and he made at Hakon just as Glumm leaped into the ship at the stern. King Hakon was a stout man and brave, but he was getting old, and not so active as he used to be. Nevertheless he met Swankie like a man, and dealt him a blow on his helmet which made him stagger. The berserk uttered a fearful roar, and struck at Hakon so fiercely that he split the upper part of his shield and cut open his helmet. Hakon fell, but before he could repeat the blow Glumm was upon him.
"What! is it thou, Swankie?" he cried. "Dog, methought I had killed thee long ago!"
"That is yet to be done," cried the berserk, leaping upon Glumm with a sweeping blow of his sword. Glumm stooped quickly, and the blow passed over his head; then he fetched a sudden cut at Swankie, and split him down from the neck to the waist, saying, "It is done now, methinks," as he drew out his sword. Glumm did not go forward, but let his men drive back the foe, while he turned and kneeled beside Hakon.
"Has the dog hurt thee badly?" he asked, raising the old warrior's head on his knee, and speaking in a voice of almost womanly tenderness.
Hakon made an effort to speak, but for some time was unable to do so, and Glumm held his shield over him to keep off the stones and arrows which fell thickly around them. After a few moments Hakon wiped away the blood which flowed from a deep wound in his forehead, and looked up wildly in Glumm's face. He tried again to speak, and Glumm, misunderstanding the few words he muttered, said: "Thou art already avenged, King Hakon; Swankie the berserk is dead."
The dying man made another effort to speak, and was successful.
"That concerns me little, Glumm. Thou lovest Ada, I know. This ring— take it to her, say her father's last thoughts were of her. Be a good husband, Glumm. The brooch—see."
"Which?" asked Glumm, looking at several silver brooches with which the old warrior's armour was fastened—"this one on thy breast?"
"Aye, take it—it was—her mother's."
The warrior's spirit seemed to be relieved when he had said this. He sank down into a state resembling sleep. Once or twice afterwards he opened his eyes and gazed up into the bright sky with a doubtful yet earnest and enquiring gaze. Gradually the breathing became fainter, until it ceased altogether, and Glumm saw that the old man was dead.
Fastening the brooch on his own broad chest, and putting the ring on his finger, Glumm rose, seized his sword, and rushed again into the thick of the fight with tenfold more fury than he had yet displayed, and ere long the danger that threatened the left wing was for the time averted.
Meanwhile in the centre there was an equally uncertain and obstinate conflict—for the chiefs on either side were mighty men of valour. Wherever Old Guttorm's voice was heard, there victory inclined. Haldor, on the other hand, did not shout, but he laid about him with such wild ferocity that many men quailed at the very sight of him, and wherever he went he was victorious. It was some time before he managed to get alongside of King Harald Fairhair's ship, but when he did so the fight became sharp in the extreme.
All the men in King Harald's ship, except the berserks, were clad in coats of ring mail, and wore foreign helmets, and most of them had white shields. Besides, as has been said, each man was celebrated for personal strength and daring, so that none of those who were opposed to them could make head against them. The arrows and spears fell harmless from their shields, casques, and coats of mail, and it was only now and then—as when a shaft happened to enter a man's eye—that any fell. When Haldor's forecastle men attacked the berserkers on the high fore deck of the Dragon, the fighting was terrible, for the berserkers all roared aloud and fought with the wild fury of madmen, and so fierce was their onslaught that Haldor's men were forced at first to give back. But Thorer the Thick guarded himself warily, and being well armed escaped injury for a time. When he saw the berserkers beginning to flag, he leaped forward like a lion, and hewed them down right and left, so that his men drove the enemy back into the Dragon. Some of them slipped on the gun-wales, and so did some of Haldor's men, all of whom fell into the sea, and a few of them were drowned, while others were killed, but one or two escaped by swimming.
Ulf's ship was also pretty close to the Dragon, and he wished greatly to board it, but was so hard beset by the ship of Nicolas Skialdvarsson that he could not do so for a long time. Here Kettle Flatnose did prodigies of valour. He stood on the high fore-deck with his favourite weapon, the hook, and therewith pulled a great number of men off the enemy's deck into the sea. At last he got a footing on their gunwale, dropped his hook, drew his sword, and soon cleared his way aft. Ulf leaped after him, drove the men into the waist, and then the most of them were slain, and lay in heaps one upon another. After that it was not difficult to clear the poop. Skialdvarsson defended it well, but he could not stand before Ulf, who finally cut off his head, and so the ship was won.
This vessel lay alongside that of King Harald; and although the King was fully engaged with Haldor at the time, he observed the conquest of Skialdvarsson by Ulf, and also perceived that Ulf's men were crowding the side of the vessel, and throwing grappling-irons into his own ship with a view to board it; for there was a space between the ships a little too wide for men to leap. Springing to the side, the King cut the grappling-irons with a sweep of his sword.
"That was well tried," he said.
"It shall be tried again," cried Ulf, heaving another iron, which nearly struck the King, but Harald's sword flashed through the air, and again the iron was cut.
At that moment Kettle Flatnose stepped back a few paces, and with a mighty rush leaped right over the space in all his war gear, and alighted on the Dragon's deck within a yard of the King. It was a tremendous leap, and so nearly beyond the compass of Kettle's powers that he was scarcely able to retain his foothold, but stood for a moment on the edge of the vessel with shield and sword upheaved, as he staggered to regain his balance. Thus exposed, he might have easily been slain; but the King, instead of using his sword, stepped forward, and with his left hand pushed the Irishman overboard. The cheer which greeted his daring leap had scarcely ceased to ring when he fell heavily into the sea.
"A goodly man, and a bold attempt," said the King, with a smile, as he turned to Jarl Rongvold. "'Twould have been a pity to slay him outright. If he can swim he may yet live to fight another battle."
"True, sire," replied the jarl, who was looking over the side at the place where Kettle fell; "but methinks he has struck his head on an oar, and will never succeed in swimming towards a friendly hand."
This indeed seemed to be true; for Kettle lay with his arm over an oar, and his head hanging down in the water, like a dead man. Yet there was life in him, for his fingers moved. Ulf had witnessed all this, and was on the point of attempting to leap across to Harald's ship when Kettle fell. He paused, and, seeing that his comrade was apparently being drowned, at once dropped sword and shield, and sprang into the sea after him.
At that moment a number of the King's boldest and best armed men observed that the two ships had drawn a little nearer to each other. In a moment they leaped across the intervening space, took their opponents by surprise, and quickly regained the ship.
While this had been going on at the poop, the fight on the forecastle had raged with extreme fury, for Haldor the Fierce had gained a footing on the Dragon's deck, and was engaged in mortal combat with Hake the berserk, whom he was slowly but surely driving back. His son Erling the Bold, who observed what was going on, had run his cutter along the stern of his father's ship, and was hastening to his aid, when King Harald became aware that his men were giving way, and rushed to their support. He went forward raging with anger, and as he ran he picked up a huge stone, which he hurled before him. Haldor was at the moment in the act of fetching a deadly cut at Hake, whom he had disarmed. The stone struck him full in the chest, and he fell backward just as Erling reached his side.
A great cheer arose at this time on the right; for there the wing of the Southland men was broken, and everywhere King Harald's men were victorious.
"Hold thou them in check, Glumm," cried Erling to his friend, as he quickly raised his father in his arms and bore him away to his cutter.
Glumm, who had followed his friend like his shadow, sprang forward and engaged Hake, who had recovered his sword, and who found this new enemy little, if at all, less formidable than the other.
Erling placed his father carefully in the cutter.
"Here, Thorer," he said, "do thou guard my father, and hold thyself and the carles in readiness to push off. The day is lost, I see. I go to slay the King, and will return presently."
He leaped away as he spoke, and regained the foredeck of the Dragon, where Glumm and his men were still engaged with the berserkers, just as the King came to the front. The instant he saw Erling he leaped upon him with a fierce shout, and shook back his shaggy flaxen locks as a lion might shake his mane. Erling was not a whit behind him in anxiety to meet. He sprang upon him with a crashing blow of his great pole-axe, which rang loudly on the King's shield, but did him no hurt. They were a well-matched pair. Harald was fully as stout, though not quite so tall as his opponent, whose fine silky hair was almost as bushy as that of the King, though neither so long nor so tangled.
Men drew back and stood aside when they heard the shock and shout of their onset, and suspended the fight around them, while they gazed on in silent awe. For a time it seemed doubtful which was the better man; for the King's blade whirled incessantly around his head like flashing light, and rang on Erling's shield, which was ever upraised to meet it. At the same time the axe of our hero, if not so swift in its gyrations, was more tremendous in its action; more than once the King was seen to stagger beneath its thundering blows, and once he was beaten down on one knee. How long this might have lasted it is impossible to tell; but, seeing that the King was likely to get the worst of it, one of his men crept round by the outside of the ship, and coming suddenly up behind Erling, put out his hand and caught him by the leg, causing him to stagger backwards, so that he fell overboard. In falling our hero caught the man by the throat, and both fell into the sea together.
It was seen that Erling dived with his foe and dragged him down as if to force him to perish along with him, and everyone looked for a few moments at the water, expecting to see them rise. Glumm gazed among the rest; and he had leaped down into Haldor's ship to be ready to lend a hand. But Erling did not rise again. Seeing this, Glumm sprang up with sudden fury and dashed at the enemy, but by this time they had recovered from their surprise, and now poured into the ship in such overwhelming numbers that the men were driven back and slain, or they leaped overboard and trusted to escape by swimming.
Meanwhile Erling the Bold having choked off his antagonist, dived under his father's ship and came up at the stern of his own cutter, into which he speedily clambered by means of a rope which hung over the side. He found that his father was seated on the poop with his head resting on the gunwale, recovering consciousness slowly, and Thorer was engaged in the difficult task of preventing the men from leaving the vessel to succour their comrades.
"Keep back, men," cried Erling in a voice which none dared to disobey. "Stay where ye are and get out the oars.—Come, Thorer, follow me with a stout man, and keep them back while I rescue Glumm."
He jumped into Haldor's ship, and ran to the fore part of the poop, where Glumm was fighting against overwhelming odds, with the blind desperation of a man who has resolved to sell his life as dearly as he can. Thorer and a tall stout man followed him, and instantly assailed King Harald's men with such fury that they gave back a little. At the same moment Erling seized Glumm by the neck; almost strangled him; dragged him violently to the stern, and half sprang, half tumbled with him into the cutter, where, despite his frantic struggles to rise, he held him down.
"Now, my brisk lads," shouted Erling, who was gasping by this time, "come back and jump in! Push off an ell or so. Steady!"
Thorer and the other man heard the shout, and, turning at once, ran to the stern and leaped into the cutter, which was instantly thrust off, so that one or two of their opponents who ventured to jump after them were left floundering in the sea.
By this time King Harald's victory was complete. Both wings had been beaten for some time, and now the centre had given way—only one or two of the more desperate leaders were still keeping up the fight.
As Erling rowed towards the shore he could see that all the loose vessels of the fleet were flying up the fiord, pursued by a few of the loose vessels of the enemy. But the greater part of both fleets being tied together, could take no part in the chase until they were cut asunder.
"The day is lost, father," said Erling, as he stood by the steering oar.
"I know it, my son," replied Haldor, who was now able to sit up and look about him; "Norway is henceforth enthralled."
He said this in a tone of such deep sadness that Erling forbore to continue the subject.
"They are cutting asunder the fleet," observed Glumm, who had recovered self-possession, and stood looking back at the scene of the recent conflict; "surely some of them are trying to escape."
As he spoke, one of the large vessels shot out from among the others, and rowed rapidly away. There was desperate fighting on board of it for a few minutes, and then a number of men were pushed or thrown overboard, and a loud cheer of victory arose.
"Well done, Solve Klofe!" cried Erling with enthusiasm. "That is his shout. I should know it among a thousand. He at least is bent on being free!"
Several of Harald's ships, which had been also cut loose, immediately gave chase, but Solve's men pulled so well that they soon left them behind, and hoisting their sail to a light breeze which was blowing just off the mouth of the fiord, soon doubled the point and bore away to the south.
"Is that someone swimming in the water?" asked Erling, pointing as he spoke to an object which moved forward among the debris of oars, portions of clothing, and wreck, which was floating about everywhere.
One of the men at the bow oar stood up, and after a short glance, said that he thought it was a man.
"Look out on the starboard bow. Mind your oars and be ready, someone, to lean over the waist and catch hold of him."
As he spoke, the cutter ranged up to the object, which appeared to be the dishevelled and blood-bespattered head of a man. He suddenly gave vent to a wild shout—"Come on, thou tyrant! Down with ye, dog—huzza!" At the last shout a pair of arms were swung wildly in the air, and the next moment the man's voice was stifled in the water as he sank, while another head appeared beside him.
"That is the voice of Kettle Flatnose, or his wraith," exclaimed Erling; "pull gently, lads; hold water."
"Why, Ulf, is it thou?"
"Truly," exclaimed Ulf, grasping the extended hand of Glumm, "I don't feel quite sure! Haul gently, Glumm. I've got Kettle here. Another hand or two. Now then, heave together!"
Several stout men leaned over the side, and, acting in accordance with these instructions, hauled Ulf and Kettle out of the sea; the former in a state of great exhaustion, the latter almost dead, for his last dip had well-nigh choked him.
"It has been a long swim," said Ulf, sitting down and leaning languidly against the bulwarks, while Glumm and Haldor proceeded to chafe the Irishman into a state of consciousness. "Once or twice I sank under him, for he was very wild when he came to himself, after I got hold of him, and struggled to be up and fight the King; but I held him fast. Yet methought once or twice," added Ulf, with a smile, "that I had at last got into Valhalla."
A horn of ale refreshed Ulf, and another of the same was shortly after given to Kettle, by which his wandering faculties were soon restored.
By this time they were drawing near the bay at Ulfstede, and Erling urged on the rowers, for they could see that Harald's ships were now cast loose, and giving chase to those that endeavoured to escape, while several of the largest, including the Dragon, made direct for the land.
"Our whole effort now," said Haldor, "must be to rescue the women."
"That will not be easy," observed Ulf gloomily.
"But it is not impossible," said Erling with decision. "We shall have time to get into the woods, and so round to the cave. By the way, does anyone know aught of Hakon of Drontheim?"
"He is dead," said Glumm.
At that moment Haldor started up with a wild exclamation, and pointed towards the spot on which his own dwelling stood, where, above the trees, there arose a cloud of dense black smoke. The truth was soon all too plain, for, on rounding the point which had hitherto concealed the bay from their view, several of the enemy's largest ships were seen with their bows on the shore. It was evident that part of the left wing of the enemy, which was first victorious, had, unobserved by them, made for the shore, and landed a large force of men, who had hastened to Ulfstede, and, finding it deserted, had pushed on to Haldorstede, which they had set on fire.
"Now indeed would death be welcome!" cried Haldor, stamping fiercely on the deck, while every feature of his face blazed with wrath.
We need scarcely say that the hearts of all had sunk within them, but Erling said—"Death would be unwelcome yet, father. The men, no doubt, are killed, but be sure they will not hurt the women while King Harald is on his way to the stede. We may yet die in defending them, if we cannot save them."
"True, my son," said Haldor, clasping his hands, and looking upwards with a solemnity of expression that was in strong contrast with his recent burst of passion; "we may perchance save them, as thou sayest; but woe is me for poor Alric!"
"Alric is safe, I am certain," said Erling energetically, as he turned a meaning glance on Glumm.
"How knowest thou that?" asked Haldor.
Erling hesitated to reply, not wishing to raise hopes that after all might prove to be fallacious.
Before the question could be repeated the cutter's keel grated on the sand of a small bay which was close to the large one, and concealed from it by a small rocky islet. Here they all jumped ashore—all except Kettle Flatnose, who, on attempting to rise, found himself so weak that he fell down again, and nearly fainted.
"This is bad," said Erling. "But come, we have no time to waste. Give me the chief command of our men, father; I have a plan in my head."
"Do as thou wilt," said Haldor, with a strange mixture of despair, resignation, and ferocity in his tone.
"Come then, form up, men, and follow me!"
So saying, Erling lifted Kettle in his arms, and hurried away with him as if he had been no heavier than a little boy! He led the way to the secret entrance to the cave, where, true as steel to his trust, little Alric was found with a few men guarding the two warships of Erling and Glumm.
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE.
THE END OF AN OLD SEA-KING.
Haldor the Fierce said nothing when he heard Alric's blithe voice in the cavern, but he caught him up in his arms, and gave him a hug that almost made him cry out.
"Why, father, what ails thee?" asked the boy in surprise, when Haldor set him free.
"Never mind, lad," interposed Erling, "but lend a hand to keep Kettle in order. He is a little wild just now, and as I intend to leave him in thy charge we must restrain him a bit. Hand me that rope."
The boy obeyed in silence, but with much wonder depicted on his face while Erling lashed Kettle's hands together, and, lifting him in a half-unconscious state into his ship, bound him in as comfortable a position as he could, to one of the rowers' banks.
"Now, Alric, come aside with me, quick! I have only time for a few words. It is enough to tell thee that the day is lost. I go with our father and the men to save our mother and the other women, or to die. Thou wilt stay here with a few men to guard the ships, and be ready to cast off at a moment's notice. If we return not before night, do thou creep out and try to ascertain what has become of us, and if ye have reason to think we are killed, cut Kettle's bonds and let him do what he will, poor fellow. At present his head has got a knock that renders him a dangerous comrade, so he must remain tied. Of course, if the cave is attacked thou wilt set him free at once. There is a little boat at the stern of my Swan. Escape if thou canst. But be watchful. We may return in a few hours. If so, all shall yet be well. Dost understand me, boy?"
"I do, but methinks ill luck awaits us."
Erling made no reply, but, kissing Alric's forehead, he returned to his men, of whom there were about sixty, and led them out of the cave, leaving six with his little brother to guard the ships.
While our hero is thus hastening to the rescue, let us turn aside for a little to follow the course of Guttorm Stoutheart. That brave old Sea-king had escaped scathless throughout the whole of the disastrous day until near the end, when he received his death-wound from a javelin which pierced his thigh, and cut some important blood vessel, to stanch which defied the skill of his attendants. He immediately ordered his ship to be cut loose, and his was among the first to escape round the southern point of the fiord, just before the battle ended.
At first the men pulled as if their lives depended on it. So great was their haste that they did not take time to throw their dead comrades overboard, but left them lying in a ghastly heap on the lower deck. When, however, they got round the next point, and found that no pursuit was made, they slackened speed and began to heave out the dead, when Guttorm, who reclined near the helm, steering the vessel, ordered them to desist.
"My men," said he, in a voice which had already lost much of its deep richness of tone, "we will land on the next point. My days are run out. I go to Odin's halls, and I am glad, for it becomes not an old warrior to die in his bed, which I had begun to fear was going to be my fate; besides, now that Norway is to be no longer a free land, it is time that the small kings should be going home. Ye will carry me to the top of yonder headland cliff, and leave me where I can see the setting sun, and the fords and fells of my native land. Would that my bones might have been burned, as those of my fathers were! but this may not be. Ye can lay beside me the comrades who have gone before, and then push off and leave me with the dead."
There was a low murmur among the men as they again dipped their oars, but not a word was spoken in reply. Just as they reached the point a vessel came in sight behind them under sail.
"Too late!" muttered Guttorm bitterly, as he looked back; "we are pursued, and must hold on."
"Not so," answered one of his chief men; "that is Solve Klofe's ship."
"Is that so?" cried Guttorm, while the colour mounted to his pale cheek, and the fire shone in his old eyes; "then have I better luck than I had looked for. Quick, get to land! The breeze that brings Solve down will reach us soon. Get out your arms, and go hail Solve as he passes. Ye shall sail with him to-night. I will hie me out upon the sea."
He spoke somewhat like his former self for a moment, but soon his voice sank, for the life-blood was draining fast away.
Ere many minutes had passed, the breeze freshened into a squall of considerable force. It came off the land, and swept down the fiord, lashing its waters into seething waves. Solve answered the hail of Guttorm's men, and landed.
"What news?" he asked: "there is but short space for converse."
The men told him that old Guttorm was dying in his ship. He walked up the plank that lay from the shore to the gunwale, and found the old warrior lying on the poop beside the helm, wrapped in his mantle, and giving directions to his men, who were piling brushwood on the deck.
"This is an ill sight," said Solve, with much feeling, as he knelt beside the dying chief, who received him with a smile, and held out his hand.
"Ha! Solve, I am glad thou art here. My last battle has been fought, and it has been a good one, though we did get the tooth-ache. If it had only been a victory, I had recked little of this wound."
"Can nothing be done for thee?" asked Solve. "Perchance I may be able to stop the bleeding."
Guttorm shook his head, and pointed to the blood which had already flowed from him, and lay in a deep pool in the sides of the ship.
"No, no, Solve, my fighting days are over, and, as I have said, the last fight has been a good one! Ye see what I am about, and understand how to carry out my will. Go, relieve me of the trouble, and see that it is done well. I would rest now."
Solve pressed the hand of his friend in silence, and then went forward to assist actively in the preparations already referred to. The men heaped up the funeral pile round the mast, fastened the stern ropes to the shore, plied the dead upon the deck, and, when all was ready, hoisted sail. The squall had increased so that the mast bent, and the ship strained at her stern ropes like an impatient charger. Then the men went on shore, and Solve, turning to Guttorm, bent over him, and spoke a few words in a low, earnest tone, but the old man's strength was almost gone. He could only utter the single word "Farewell", and wave his hand as if he wished to be left alone. Solve rose at once, and, applying a light to the pile, leaped ashore. Next moment the cables were cut; the brushwood crackled with a fierce noise as the fire leaped up and the "ocean steed" bounded away over the dark blue sea. Guttorm was still seated by the helm, his face pale as death, but with a placid smile on his mouth, and a strange, almost unearthly, fire in his eyes.
The longship rushed over the waves with the foam dashing on her bows, a long white track in her wake, and a dense black cloud curling overhead. Suddenly the cloud was rent by a fork of flame, which was as suddenly quenched, but again it burst upwards, and at last triumphed; shooting up into the sky with a mighty roar, while below there glowed a fierce fiery furnace, against which was strongly depicted the form of the grand old Sea-king, still sitting motionless at the helm. Swiftly the blazing craft dashed over the waves, getting more and more enveloped in smoke and flame. Ere long it could be seen in the far distance, a rushing ball of fire. Gradually it receded, becoming less and less, until at last it vanished, like a setting star, into the unknown waste of the great western sea.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR.
HOPES AND FEARS—THE BURNING OF HALDORSTEDE, AND ESCAPE OF THE FAMILY.
Meanwhile the family at Haldorstede had made a narrow escape, and some members of it were still in great peril. When Hilda and Ada were sent thither, with the females of Ulfstede, under the charge of Christian the hermit, as already related, they found Dame Herfrida and her maidens busily engaged in making preparations for a great feast.
"I prithee," said Dame Astrid, in some surprise, "who are to be thy guests to-night?"
"Who should be," replied Herfrida, with a smile, "but the stout fellows who back my husband in the fight to-day! Among them thine own goodman, Dame Astrid, and his house-carles; for if no one is left at Ulfstede there can be no supper there for them; and as the poor lads are likely to be well worn out, we must have something wherewith to cheer them."
"But what if ill luck betide us?" suggested Astrid.
"Ill luck never betides us," replied Herfrida, with an expression of bland assurance on her handsome face. "Besides, if it does, we shall be none the worse for having done our part."
"Some people are always forecasting evil," muttered Ingeborg, with a sour look, as she kneaded viciously a lump of dough which was destined to form cakes.
"And some other people are always forecasting good," retorted Ada, with a smile, "so that things are pretty well balanced after all. Come now, Ingeborg, don't be cross, but leave the dough, and let us go to thy room, for I want to have a little gossip with thee alone."
Ingeborg was fond of Ada, and particularly fond of a little gossip, either public or private. She condescended, therefore, to smile, as it were under protest, and, rubbing the dough from her fingers, accompanied her friend to her chamber, while the others broke into several groups, and chatted more or less energetically as they worked, or idled about the house.
"Is there any fear of our men losing the day?" asked Hilda of the hermit, who stood looking out of a window which commanded a view of the fiord, where the ships of the opposing fleets could be seen engaged in the battle, that had just begun.
Poor Hilda asked the question with a look of perplexity in her face; for hitherto she had been so much accustomed to success attending the expeditions of her warlike father and friends, that she had never given much thought to the idea of defeat and its consequences.
"It is not easy to answer that question," replied the hermit; "for the success or failure of thy father's host depends on many things with which I am not acquainted. If the forces on both sides are about equal in numbers, the chances are in his favour; for he is a mighty man of valour, as well as his son, and also thy father. Besides, there are many of his men who are not far behind them in strength and courage; but they may be greatly outnumbered. If so, defeat is possible. I would say it is probable, did I not know that the Ruler of events can, if He will, give victory to the weak and disaster to the strong. Thy father deems his cause a righteous one—perhaps it is so."
"Well, then," said Hilda, "will not God, who, you say, is just and good, give victory to the righteous cause?"
"He may be pleased to do so; but He does not always do so. For His own good and wise ends He sometimes permits the righteous to suffer defeat, and wrongdoers to gain the victory. This only do I know for certain, that good shall come out of all things to His people, whether these things be grievous or joyful; for it is written, 'All things work together for good to them that love God, to them that are the called, according to His purpose.' This is my consolation when I am surrounded by darkness which I cannot understand, and which seems all against me. That things often pass my understanding does not surprise me; for it is written, 'His ways are wonderful—past finding out.'"
"Past finding out indeed!" said Hilda thoughtfully. "Would that I had faith like thine, Christian; for it seems to enable thee to trust and rejoice in darkness as well as in sunshine."
"Thou mayst have it, daughter," answered the hermit earnestly, "if thou wilt condescend to ask it in the name of Jesus; for it is written, 'Faith is the gift of God;' and again it is written, 'Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, He will give it you.' One of our chief sins consists in our desire to produce, by means of our own will, that faith which God tells us we cannot attain to by striving after, but which He is willing to bestow as a free gift on those who ask."
The conversation was interrupted here by the old house-carle Finn the One-eyed, who said in passing that he was going down to the cliffs to see and hear what was doing, and would return ere long to report progress. For an hour after that, the people at Haldorstede continued to watch the fight with intense interest; but although they could see the motion of the ships on the fiord, and could hear the shout of war, as it came floating down on the breeze like a faint murmur, the distance was too great to permit of their distinguishing the individual combatants, or observing the progress of the fight. That it was likely to go ill with their friends, however, was soon made known by Finn, who returned in hot haste to warn them to prepare for flight.
"Be sure," said Dame Herfrida, "that there is no need to flee until Haldor or Erling come to tell us to get ready."
"That may be so," said Finn; "but if Haldor and Erling should chance to be slain, ill will it be for you if ye are not ready to fly."
"Now it seems to me," said Dame Astrid, who was of an anxious temperament, "that thou art too confident, Herfrida. It would be wise at all events to get ready."
"Does anyone know where Alric is?" asked Ingeborg.
As everyone professed ignorance on this point, his mother said that she had no doubt he was safe enough; for he was a bold little man, and quite able to take care of himself.
"If he has had his own way," observed Ivor the Old, who came in at that moment, "he is in the fleet for he is a true chip of the old tree; but we are not like to see him again, methinks, for I have seen the fleet giving back on the right wing, and hasted hither to tell ye."
This report had the effect of shaking Herfrida's confidence to the extent of inducing her to give up her preparations for the feast, and assist the others in making arrangements for a hasty flight with such household valuables as could be easily carried about the person. Some time after they had begun this work, a young man, who was a cripple, and therefore a non-combatant, hobbled into the hall, and announced the fact that Haldor's fleet was routed everywhere, and fleeing. He had seen it from the cliff behind the stede, and indeed it could partly be seen from the hall window.
"Now," cried Finn the One-eyed bitterly, "all is lost, and I must carry out Erling's last instructions. He told me, if the fight went against us, and the King's men gained the day, I was to lead ye down by the forest path to the cave behind Ulfstede, where there is a ship big enough to carry the whole household. If alive, he and his friends are to meet us there. Come, we must make haste; some of the ships are already on the beach, and if they be the King's men we shall soon see them here."
Everyone was now so thoroughly convinced of their desperate case that without reply each went to complete arrangements as fast as possible.
"Wilt thou go with us?" said Finn to the hermit, when all were assembled in front of the house at the edge of the forest.
"I will, since God seems to order it so," said the hermit; "but first I go to my hut for the rolls of the Book. As ye have to pass the bottom of the cliff on which my dwelling is perched, I will easily overtake you."
"Let us go with him," said Hilda to Ada. "There is a roll in the hut which Erling and I have been trying to copy; Christian may not be able to find it, as I hid it carefully away—and," she continued, blushing slightly, "I should not like to lose it."
"You had better go with us," said Finn gravely.
"We will do what seems best to ourselves," replied Ada; "go on, Christian, we follow."
The hermit advised the girls to go with Finn, but as they were self-willed he was fain to conduct them up the steep and narrow path that led to his hut upon the cliff, while Finn put himself at the head of a sad band of women, children, and aged retainers, who could advance but slowly along the rugged and intricate path which he thought it necessary to take through the forest.
Not twenty minutes after they had left Haldorstede the first band of King Harald's men came rushing up the banks of the river, enraged at having found Ulfstede deserted, and thirsting for plunder. They ran tumultuously into the house, sword in hand, and a yell of disappointment followed when they discovered that the inmates had fled. There is no doubt that they would have rushed out again and searched the woods, had not the feast which Herfrida had been preparing proved too attractive. The cold salmon and huge tankards of ale proved irresistible to the tired and thirsty warriors, who forthwith put the goblets to their bearded lips and quaffed the generous fluid so deeply that in a short time many of them were reeling, and one, who seemed to be more full of mischief than his fellows, set the house on fire by way of a joke.
It was the smoke which arose after the perpetration of this wanton act that had attracted the attention of Haldor and his friends, when they were making for the shore after the battle.
Of course the hermit and the two girls heard the shouts of the marauders, and knew that it was now too late to escape along with the baud under Finn, for the only practicable path by which they could join them passed in full view of Haldorstede, and it was so hemmed in by a precipice that there was no other way of getting into the wood—at least without the certainty of being seen. Their retreat up the river was also cut off, for the hermit, in selecting the spot for his dwelling, had chosen a path which ascended along the rugged face of a precipice, so that, with a precipice above and another below, it was not possible to get to the bank of the river without returning on their track. There was no alternative, therefore, but to ascend to the hut, and there wait patiently until the shades of night should favour their escape.
Finn pushed on as fast as was possible with a band in which there were so many almost helpless ones. He carried one of the youngest children in his arms, and Ivor the Old brought up the rear with a very old woman leaning on his arm. They were a long time in descending the valley, for the route Finn had chosen was circuitous, and the first part of it was extremely trying to the cripples, running as it did over a somewhat high spur of the mountain which extended down from the main ridge to the river. Gradually, however, they drew near to the coast, and Finn was in the act of encouraging them with the assurance that they had now only a short way to go, when the hearts of all sank within them at the sight of a band of armed men who suddenly made their appearance in their path.
The wail of despair which burst from some of them at sight of these, was, however, changed into an exclamation of joy when four of the band ran hastily towards them, and were recognised to be Haldor, Erling, Ulf, and Glumm!
"Now thanks be to the gods," said Haldor, stooping to print a kiss on his wife's lips. "But—but—where are Hilda and Ada?"
Erling and Glumm, glancing quickly round the group with looks of intense disappointment and alarm, had already put this question to Finn, who explained the cause of their absence.
"Now this is the worst luck of all," cried Glumm, grinding his teeth together in passion, and looking at Finn with a dark scowl.
Erling did not speak for a few minutes, but his heaving chest and dilated nostrils told of the storm that raged within him.
"Art thou sure they went to the hermit's hut?" asked Ulf in a stern voice.
"Quite sure," replied Finn. "I cautioned them not to go, but—"
"Enough," cried Erling. "Father, wilt thou go back to the cave with the women, and a few of the men to guard them?"
"I will, my son, and then will I rejoin thee."
"That do, an it please thee. It matters little. Death must come sooner or later to all.—Come, men, we will now teach this tyrant that though he may conquer our bodies he cannot subdue our spirits. Up! and if we fail to rescue the girls, everlasting disgrace be to him who leaves this vale alive!"
Haldor had already selected a small detachment of men, and turned back with the women and others, while Erling and his men went on as fast as they could run. A short time sufficed to bring them to the edge of the wood near Haldorstede. The old place was now a smoking ruin, with swarms of men around it, most of whom were busily engaged in trying to put out the fire, and save as much as possible from its fury. The man who had kindled it had already paid dearly for his jest with his life. His body was seen swinging to the limb of a neighbouring tree. Harald Fairhair himself, having just arrived, was directing operations.
There were by that time one or two thousand of the King's men on the ground, while others were arriving every moment in troops—all bloodstained, and covered with marks of the recent conflict—and Erling saw at once he had no chance whatever of accomplishing his aim by an open attack with only fifty men. He therefore led his force silently by a path that he well knew to an adjacent cliff, over the edge of which they could see all that went on below, while they were themselves well concealed. Here the three leaders held a consultation.
"What dost thou advise, Ulf?" asked Erling.
"My advice," interposed Glumm fiercely, "is that we should make a sudden assault without delay, kill the King, and then sell our lives dearly."
"And thus," observed Ulf, with something like a sneer, "leave the girls without protectors, and without a chance of deliverance. No," he continued, turning to our hero, "my advice is to wait here as patiently as we can until we ascertain where the girls are. Few, perhaps none, of our men are known to Harald's men; one of them we can send down to mingle with the enemy as a spy. Whatever we do must be done cautiously, for the sake of the girls."
"That is good advice," said a voice behind them, which was that of the hermit, who had crept towards them on his hands and knees.
"Why, Christian, whence comest thou?" said Ulf.
"From my own hut," replied the hermit, raising himself, "where I have just left Hilda and Ada safe and well. We had deemed ourselves prisoners there till night should set us free; but necessity sharpens the wit even of an old man, and I have discovered a path through the woods, which, although difficult, may be traversed without much chance of our being seen, if done carefully. I have just passed along it in safety, and was on the point of returning to the hut when I came upon you here."
"Lead us to them at once," cried Glumm, starting up.
"Nay," said the hermit, laying his hand on the youth's arm, "restrain thine ardour. It would be easier to bring the girls hither, than to lead a band of armed men by that path without their being discovered. If ye will take the advice of one who was a warrior in his youth, there is some hope that, God permitting, we may all escape. Ye know the Crow Cliff? Well, the small boat is lying there. It is well known that men dare not swim down the rapid, unless they are acquainted with the run of the water and the formation of the rock. Thy men know it well, the King's men know it not. With a boat the maidens may descend in safety. The men can leap into the river and escape before the enemy could come at them by the hill road."
"Excellently planned," exclaimed Erling in an eager tone; "but, hermit, how dost thou propose to fetch the maidens hither?"
"By going and conducting them. There is much risk, no doubt, but their case is desperate, for their retreat is certain to be discovered."
"Away then," said Ulf, "minutes are precious. We will await thee here, and, at the worst, if they should be captured, we can but die in attempting their rescue."
Without uttering another word the hermit rose, re-entered the underwood, sank down on his hands and knees, and disappeared with a cat-like quietness that had been worthy of one of the red warriors of America.
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.
IN WHICH IS DESCRIBED A DESPERATE ATTEMPT AT RESCUE, A BOLD LEAP FOR FREEDOM, AND A TRIUMPHANT ESCAPE.
The Crow Cliff, to which Christian had referred, was a high precipitous rock that jutted out into the river just below Haldorstede. It was the termination of the high ridge on the face of which Erling had posted his men, and could be easily reached from the spot where they lay concealed, as well as from the stede itself, but there was no possibility of passing down the river in that direction by land, owing to the precipitous nature of the ground. The ordinary path down the valley, which elsewhere followed the curvatures of the river, made at this point a wide detour into the woods, went in a zigzag form up the steep ascent of the ridge, descended similarly on the other side, and did not rejoin the river for nearly half a mile below. The waters were so pent up by the Crow Cliff that they rushed along its base in a furious rapid, which, a hundred yards down, descended in a perpendicular fall of about fifteen feet in depth. The descent of this rapid by a boat was quite possible, for there was a little bay at the lower end of Crow Cliff, just above the foss, into which it could be steered by a dexterous rower; but this mode of descent was attended with the imminent risk of being swept over the fall and dashed to pieces, so that none except the daring young spirits of the glen ever attempted it, while all the rest were content to cross the ridge by the longer and more laborious, but safe, path which we have just described. To descend this rapid by swimming was one of the feats which the youths of the place delighted to venture, and often had Erling and Glumm dared it together, while not a few of their companions had lost their lives in the attempt.
A few words from Erling gave the men to understand what was expected of them. It was arranged that while he, Ulf, Glumm, and the hermit should put the girls into the little boat and guide them down the rapid, the men were to leap into the water and swim down. All were to land in the little bay, and then make for the cave on the coast in a body, and fight their way thither, if need be; but it was believed there would be no occasion for that, because before the plan was carried out most of the King's men would probably be assembled above the Crow Cliff at the stede. A few who could not swim were sent off at once by the track to warn Haldor. All these well-laid plans, however, were suddenly frustrated, for, while Erling was still consulting with Ulf and Glumm as to details, and peeping through the underwood, they beheld a sight which caused their hearts almost to stand still.
From the elevated spot where they lay they could see the hermit advancing rapidly towards them in a crouching attitude, closely followed by the maidens, while at the same time there advanced from the stede a large band of men under a chief, who was evidently commissioned to execute some order of the King. Erling and his friends could clearly see these two parties unwittingly approaching each other, at right angles, each making for a point where the two paths crossed, and where they were certain to meet. They could see their friends quietly but swiftly gliding towards the very fate they sought to avoid, and experienced all the agony of being unable to give a shout of warning, or to prevent the foe from capturing them; for, even if there had been time to rush upon them before the meeting, which there was not, Erling by so doing would have been obliged to place the whole of Harald's host between him and the boat at Crow Cliff. This consideration, however, would not have deterred him, but another idea had flashed upon his mind. What that was shall be seen presently.
Before the two parties met, the ears of the hermit, albeit somewhat dulled by age, became aware of the tramp of armed men, and at once he drew the girls hastily aside into the bushes; but the bushes at that part happened to be not very thick, and part of Ada's dress, which was a gay one with a good deal of scarlet about it, caught the attention of a sharp-eyed warrior. The man uttered a shout and sprang towards them; several others joined in the pursuit, a loud scream from one of the girls was heard, and next moment the fugitives were captured!
"Up and at them!" cried Glumm, endeavouring to rise, but he found himself pinned to the earth by Erling's powerful arms.
"Stay, Glumm, be quiet, I beseech thee," entreated Erling, as his comrade struggled violently but fruitlessly to escape from his powerful embrace.—"Do listen, Ulf; ye will spoil all by inconsiderate haste. I have a plan: listen—these men are not devils, but Norsemen, and will not hurt the girls; they will take them before the King. Hear me, and they shall yet be rescued!"
While the power of Erling's muscles restrained Glumm, the deep-toned impassioned earnestness of his voice held back Ulf, who had leaped up and drawn his sword; but it was with evident reluctance that he paused and listened.
"Now hear me," cried Erling; "I and Glumm will go down and mingle with Harald's men. Our faces are doubtless not known to any of them; besides, we are so bespattered with the blood and dust of battle that even friends might fail to recognise us. We will go boldly about among the men, and keep near to the girls until a fitting opportunity offers, when we will seize them and bear them off. This will not be so difficult as ye may think."
"Difficult!" cried Glumm, grinding his teeth; "I think nothing difficult except sitting still!"
"Because," continued Erling, "the King's men will be taken by surprise, and we shall be through the most of them before they are aware that there is need to draw their blades. But (and on this everything will depend) thou must be ready, Ulf, with all the men, to rush, in the twinkling of an eye, to our aid, the moment my shout is heard, for, if this be not done, we cannot fail to be overpowered by numbers. If thou dost but keep them well in play while we make for the boat, and then follow and leap into the river, we shall all escape."
"Come along, then," cried Glumm, in desperate impatience.
"Does the plan like thee, Ulf?" asked Erling.
"Not much," he replied, shaking his head, "but it is the only chance left, so get thee gone. I will not fail thee in the moment of need— away! See, the girls are already being led before the King."
Erling and Glumm instantly pulled their helmets well down on their brows, wrapped their mantles round them so as to conceal their figures as much as possible, then entered the wood and disappeared.
Meanwhile, on the open space in front of Haldor's ruined dwelling, King Harald Haarfager stood surrounded by his court men. He was still bespattered with the blood and dust of battle, and furiously angry at the escape of Haldor and the burning of the stede. His gilt helmet restrained the exuberance of his shaggy locks, and he stood on the top of a slight elevation or mound, from the base of which his men extended in a dense ring in front of him, eager to ascertain who it was that had been so unexpectedly captured. Erling and Glumm mingled with the crowd unnoticed, for so many of the men assembled there had been collected from various districts, that, to each, strange faces were the rule instead of the exception.
When the girls were led into the ring there was a murmur of admiration, and many complimentary remarks were made about them. The old hermit was dragged in after them, and excited a little attention for a few moments. He had experienced rough handling from his captors. His grey hair was dishevelled and his face bloodstained, for, although he had offered no resistance, some of the men who seized him were so much out of humour in consequence of the burning of the stede and the escape of its inmates, that they were glad to vent their anger on anyone.
"Good-looking girls, both of them," remarked the King to Jarl Rongvold, as they were being led forward.—"Who are ye?" he added, addressing them.
Ada looked round on the circle of men with a frightened glance, and cast down her eyes, but did not reply, while Hilda raised her eyes timidly to the King's face, but lacked courage to speak.
"Come," said the King sternly, "let us have no false modesty. Ye are before Norway's King, therefore speak, and to the point. Who art thou?"
He addressed himself to Hilda, who replied—
"I am Hilda, daughter of Ulf of Romsdal."
"And thou?" he added, turning to her companion.
"My name is Ada. My father is Hakon of Drontheim."
"Ha!" exclaimed the King, with a bitter smile. "Is it so? Thy father has met his desert, then, for he now lies at the bottom of the fiord."
Ada turned deadly pale, but made no reply.
"Know ye where Haldor the Fierce is, and his insolent son Erling?" asked the King.
Hilda flushed at this, and answered with some spirit that she did not know, and that if she did she would not tell.
"Of course not," said the King; "I might have guessed as much, and do but waste my time with ye.—Stand aside—bring forward yonder fellow."
The hermit was immediately led forward.
"Who art thou?" asked the King.
"An old wanderer on the face of the earth," replied Christian.
"That is easily seen," answered the King; "but not too old, it would seem, to do a little mischief when the chance falls in thy way."
"Methinks, sire," whispered Jarl Rongvold, "that this fellow is one of those strange madmen who have taken up with that new religion, which I do not profess to understand."
"Sayest thou so?" exclaimed Harald, "then will I test him.—Ho! fetch me a piece of horse flesh."
A piece of horse flesh was brought without delay, for some that had been sacrificed in the Drontheim temple had been packed up and carried off among other provisions when the expedition set forth.
"Here, old man, eat thou a portion of that," said Harald, holding the flesh towards him.
"I may not eat what has been sacrificed to idols," said the hermit.
"Ho! ho! then thou art not a worshipper of Odin? Say, dog, what art thou?"
"I am a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is my Saviour. To Him I live, and for Him I can die."
"Can He save you from me?" demanded Harald.
"He can," answered the hermit earnestly, "and will save you too, King Harald, from your sins, and all who now hear me, if they will but turn to Him."
"Now will I test him," said the King. "Stand forth, Hake of Hadeland, and hew me the old man's head from his body."
"Spare him! O spare him!" cried Hilda, throwing herself suddenly between Hake and his victim, who stood with the resigned air of a man who had made up his mind to die. "He has twice saved my life, and has never done you evil in thought or deed."
"Stand aside, my pretty maid. Nay, then, if thou wilt not, I must grant thy request; but it is upon one condition: that this Saviour shall either come himself or send a champion to deliver the old man.—Come," he added, turning fiercely to the hermit, "pray that thy God shall send thee a champion now, for if He does not, as I live thou shalt die."
"I may not pray at thy bidding," said the hermit calmly; "besides, it needs not that I should, because I have already prayed—before dawn this morning—that He would grant me His blessing in the form that seemed best to Himself."
"And hast thou got it?"
"I have—in that I possess a quiet spirit, and do not fear to die, now that His time has come."
"'Tis something this, I admit," returned the King; "yet methinks 'tis but a poor blessing, after all, with death as the end of it."
"Death is not the end of it," said the hermit, with a kindling eye, "for after death is everlasting joy and glory with the Lord. Besides, King Harald, which were better, think you: to die with a willing spirit and bright hope, or to live full of restless ambition, disappointment, and rage, even although victorious and King of Norway?"
The King's countenance grew livid with anger as he turned to the berserk and said, in a voice of suppressed passion—"Go forward, Hake, and slay him!"
"Now—the time has come," whispered Erling to Glumm.
"Get as near to Ada as thou canst; for the rest, may Christian's God be with us!"
As he spoke he sprang into the circle, sword in hand, and stood suddenly between the astonished Hake and the hermit.
There was a loud murmur of amazement at this unexpected apparition, and not a few of the spectators were awestricken, supposing that this was actually a champion sent from the spirit world.
"Harald," cried Erling, for the berserk had shrunk back dismayed, "I do now accept the challenge, and come here to champion the old man."
At the sound of his voice the King's face lighted up with intelligence.
"Ha!" he exclaimed suddenly; "has the old man's God sent Erling the Bold?"
"Truly I think he has," replied Erling; "at all events it was not for this purpose that I came hither to-day. But now that I have come, and of mine own free will put myself in thy power, I claim the right to do battle for my old friend with thy stoutest man—so set him forth, King Harald."
"What sayest thou, Hake?" said the King, turning to his berserk with a smile; "art willing to join issue with the Bold one?—bold enough, truly, and insolent as well."
Hake, who had recovered his self-possession the instant he recognised Erling's voice, and who was by no means wanting in courage, suddenly uttered one of his terrible roars, and rushed upon Erling like a thunderbolt.
Our hero was too well accustomed to the ways of his class to be caught off his guard. Although Hake rained blows upon him so fast that it was almost impossible for the spectators to follow the motions of his flashing sword, Erling received them all on his shield, or parried them with his short sword—which, as being more manageable in a melee, he had selected for his present enterprise. The instant, however, that the berserk's furious onset began to slacken, Erling fetched him such a tremendous cut on the sword that the weapon was broken close off at the hilt. Disdaining to slay an unarmed foe, he leaped upon the berserk, and struck him a blow with the hilt of his sword, which drove the casque down upon his head and stretched him flat upon the sward.
Without waiting an instant Erling flung down his shield and walked to the place where Hilda stood, took her by the hand, and whispered, "Courage! come with me and thou shalt be saved." At the same moment Glumm stepped to Ada's side, and took her right hand in his left. No sword was drawn, for Glumm had not drawn his, and no one present had the faintest idea of what the young men intended to attempt. Indeed, they were all so amazed at the sudden termination of the fight, that the men of the inner part of the ring actually stood aside to let them pass, before the King had time to shout:—
In other circumstances, at Harald's word a thousand swords would have been drawn, and the doom of Erling and his friends at once been sealed; but the natural ferocity of the tyrant's followers had been spellbound, and for the time paralysed by the calm bearing of old Christian and the prowess of his champion, whose opportune appearance had all the effect of a supernatural interposition, as it might well be deemed: and it will be readily believed that our hero and Glumm did not fail to use the advantage thus offered. Leading those whom they had come to rescue, and closely followed by the hermit, they passed completely through the circle of men. But at the repetition, in a voice of thunder, of the royal mandate, some hundreds of the King's men surrounded them, and, notwithstanding their wondrous strength and skill, they were being gradually overpowered by numbers, when suddenly a tremendous shout was heard, and next moment Ulf with his fifty men in battle array rushed out of the forest.
King Harald endeavoured hastily to draw up his men in something like order. Hearing the cry in rear, the men in front of Erling and Glumm fell aside, so that they quickly cut down those who still stood in their way, and ran towards their friends, who opened their ranks to let them pass—then reclosed, and fell upon the King's men with incredible fury. Although outnumbered by at least twenty to one, the disparity did not at first tell against them, owing to the confusion in the enemy's ranks, and the confined space of ground on which they fought. They were thus enabled to act with great vigour, and, being animated by the spirit of desperate men, they actually for some time kept driving back the King's forces.
But the continual assault of fresh foes began to tell, and several of Ulf's men had already fallen, when Erling's voice was heard ringing high above the din of battle. Instantly every man turned on his heel and fled towards the river madly pursued by the whole of the King's host.
By this time Erling and Glumm had got the girls into the boat, and steered them safely down the rapid into the little bay, where they waited for their companions as patiently as they could.
Meanwhile Ulf's men reached the foot of the Crow Cliff and one by one sprang into the boiling rapid. Ulf was among the first there, but he stayed to see them all pass. Before the last could do so their enemies were upon them, but Ulf kept them at bay for a few moments; and when the last of his men took the water he retreated fighting, and leaped backwards into the flood. One or two of the King's men followed, but they failed to catch him, were carried down stream, and, being ignorant of the dangers of the place, were swept over the foss and killed. Most of the host, however, turned suddenly, and set off at full speed to cross the ridge and pursue their enemies, by the path to which we have already referred. Before they had crossed it, Erling and his men were far on their way down the valley; and when the pursuers reached the coast there was no sign of the fugitives anywhere.
On reaching the cave Erling found that his father had got everything in readiness to start; so, assembling the people together without delay, he divided them into two bands, one of which he sent into the Swan, the other into Glumm's vessel, the Crane.
Haldor also went in the Swan, along with Ulf of Romsdal, Thorer the Thick, Kettle Flatnose, Alric, and the hermit, besides Dames Herfrida and Astrid, and the widow Gunhild, Ingeborg, and all Haldor's younger children. With Glumm there were also several women besides Ada. Ivor the Old and Finn the One-eyed also went with him; but most of the old and crippled hangers-on of both families, as well as Glumm's mother, were taken by Erling into the Swan, as the accommodation there was better than on board the Crane.
"Now, Glumm," said Erling, when all were on board, "we must say farewell to Norway. Keep close in my wake. If they give chase we will do our best to escape, but if that may not be, we will fight and fall together." The friends shook hands; then, each getting into his ship, the stern ropes were cast off, the oars were dipped, and they shot out upon the blue fiord, which the sinking sun had left in a solemn subdued light, although his beams still glowed brightly on the snow-clad mountain peaks.
They had proceeded some distance down the fiord before their pursuers observed them. Then a mighty shout told that they were discovered; and the grinding of the heavy ships' keels was distinctly heard upon the shore, as they were pushed off into deep water. Immediately after, the splash of hundreds of oars warned them to make haste.
"Pull, my lads,—pull with heart," cried Erling; "and let these slaves see how freemen can make their ocean steeds leap across the sea! Pull! I see a breeze just off the mouth of the fiord. If we reach that, we may laugh at the tyrant King."
"What may yonder line on the water be?" said Haldor, with an anxious look, as he pointed towards the mouth of the fiord.
Erling caught his breath, and the blood rushed to his temples as he gazed for a moment in silence.
"'Tis a boom," cried Kettle, who had recovered by this time, and who now leaped towards the fore deck with terrible energy.
"All is lost!" exclaimed Ulf, in a tone of bitterness which words cannot express.
"Are ye sure it is a boom?" cried Erling quickly. Everyone looked with intense earnestness at the black line that stretched completely across the mouth of the fiord, and each gave it as his opinion that it was a boom. There could not indeed be any doubt on the point. King Harald's berserk, although somewhat tardy, had fulfilled his orders but too well; and now a succession of huge logs, or tree trunks, joined together by thick iron chains, completely barred their progress seaward.
"Surely we can burst through," suggested Kettle, returning to the poop, his huge frame quivering with contending emotions.
"Impossible," said Haldor; "I have tried it before, and failed. Of course we must make the attempt, but I have no hope except in this," he added, touching his sword, "and not much in that either, now."
"But I have tried it before, and did not fail, and I'll try it again," cried Erling heartily. "Come aft, men, quick, all of ye; every man except the rowers. Women, children, and cripples, get ye into the waist. The stoutest men to the oars—jump!"
These orders were obeyed at once. All the best men in the ship seized the oars, Erling himself, Kettle, and Haldor setting the example, while Thorer took the helm, and, hailing Glumm, bade him do as they did.
The effect of this was that the stern of the Swan was so weighed down with the weight of people on the poop, that her bows and a third of her keel were raised high out of the water, while the men, straining with every fibre of their muscles at the oars, sent her careering forward with trebled speed, and the foam rolled in milky billows in her wake.
"When I give the word 'Forward,'" cried Erling, "leap like lightning, all of ye, to the fore deck."
The pursuers, elated by this time with the certainty of success, pulled also with unwonted energy.
When the Swan came within about twenty yards of the boom, which floated almost on a level with the water, Thorer gave the word—
"One stroke for freedom!"
"Ho! ho!" shouted Erling and Haldor, straining until their oars cracked again. The foam hissed from the blades, and the Swan rushed as if she had been suddenly endued with true vitality.
Next moment she stuck fast—with the boom amidships beneath her!
"Forward!" shouted Erling.
All the unengaged men sprang instantly to the forecastle, and their weight sank it slowly down, but it seemed inclined for a moment to remain balanced on the boom. Hereupon the men at the oars jumped up and also ran forward. The bow dipped at once, the good ship slid over with a plunge, and glided out upon the sea!
A great shout or yell told that this had been noticed by their foes, who still rowed madly after them; but heedless of this, Erling backed water and waited for Glumm, who had made similar preparations, and was now close on the boom. His vessel went fairly on, and stuck halfway, as the other had done; but when she was balanced and about to turn over, there was a terrible rending sound in the hull, then a crash, and the Crane broke in two, throwing half of her crew into the sea on the inner side of the boom, and the other half outside.
Well was it for them all then that the Swan had waited! She was at once backed towards the scene of disaster, and as many as possible were picked up. Among the rescued was Glumm, with Ada in his arms. But many were drowned, and a few stuck to the boom, refusing to let go, or to make any attempt to reach the Swan.
Erling knew, however, that these were sure to be picked up by the King's ships, so he once more ordered the rowers to give way, and the vessel sprang forth on her voyage some time before the pursuers reached the boom. When these did so, most of them attempted to leap it as the fugitives had done—for none of the Norsemen there lacked spirit. Some, however, failed to get on to it at all, others got on a short way and stuck fast, while two or three ships broke their backs, as Glumm's had done, and threw their crews into the water—but not one got over.
The men then leaped on the boom, and the sound of axes was heard as they laboured to cut it through, or to dash away its iron fastenings. It was, however, a thoroughly well-executed piece of work, and for a long time resisted their utmost efforts. When at length it did give way, and the King's ships passed through, the Swan was beyond pursuit—far away on the horizon, with all sail set, and running before a stiff breeze, while the shades of evening were closing in around her!
That night there was silence in the Norsemen's little ship as she ploughed her adventurous course over the northern sea, for the thoughts of all were very sad at being thus rudely driven from their native land to seek a home where best they might in the wide world. Yet in the hearts of some of them there was also much happiness.
Hilda's sanguine mind pictured many sweet and peaceful abodes, far from the haunts of warlike men. Alric was happy, because he was beginning, as he fondly hoped, a life of wild adventure. So was Kettle Flatnose, for he was now sailing westward, and he knew that Ireland was somewhere in that direction. But Glumm the Gruff was perhaps the happiest of all on board, for, besides the delight of having at last got possession of his bride, he enjoyed, for the first time in his life, the pleasure of comforting a woman in distress!
Ada's wild spirit was—we dare not say eradicated, but—thoroughly subdued at last. When she thought of her father she laid her head on Glumm's broad chest and wept bitterly.
Thus did those Sea-kings sail away from and forsake the land of Norway. On their voyage westward they fell in with many ships from other quarters containing countrymen, Sea-kings and vikings like themselves, who had also left their native land to seek new homes in Shetland, Orkney, and the other isles north of Scotland, rather than submit to the yoke of Harald Haarfager.
They joined company with these, and all sailed westward together.
Among them was a man named Frode, who was celebrated for daring and wisdom, especially for his knowledge of the stars, and his power of navigating the unknown ocean of the west. To this man was assigned the direction of the fleet, and all submitted to his guidance; but the Sea-kings invariably assembled together in council when it was intended to decide, what they should do or to what part of the world they should steer.
"My advice is," said Kettle Flatnose, the first time they assembled thus in council, "that we steer first to Ireland, where I can promise ye all a hearty welcome, for it is well known that the Irish are a hospitable people, and my father is a great man there."
"I fall in with that," said Glumm, glancing at Ada, whose eyes had now become his guiding stars!
"The advice is good," said Erling, "for, wherever we may finally come to an anchor, we will be none the worse of getting some provisions on the way."
As Haldor, Ulf, Frode, and all the rest were of one mind on this point, the ships were steered to Ireland; and when they reached that country they put ashore in a small bay not far from Dublin, where was a log hut. To this Kettle went up with Erling and Glumm, and asked the man of the house how things were going on in Ireland.
"As ill as can be in this district," said the man; "there is nothing but vengeance in the hearts of the people."
"That is a bad state," said Kettle, with a look of anxiety; "what may be the cause of discontent? Is the old King hard on ye?"
"Thou must have been long away to ask that. The old King is dead," said the man.
At this Kettle uttered a great and bitter cry; but, restraining himself, asked eagerly if the old Queen were alive. The man replied that she was. Then Kettle asked how the King met his death.
With a dark frown the man replied that Haabrok the Black had murdered him and seized the throne. On hearing this Kettle became pale, but was very calm, and listened attentively while the man went on to say that Haabrok was such a tyrant that the whole district was ready to start up as one man and dethrone him, if they had only someone who was fit to lead them.
"That they shall not long want for," said Kettle.
After some more earnest conversation he turned away, and went down to the shore.
"Now, Erling and Glumm," said he, "we must do a little fighting before I can offer ye the hospitality I spoke of. Will ye aid me in a venture I have in my mind?"
"That will we," they replied heartily.
Kettle thereupon explained his views, and said that he had learned from the man that his wife was still alive and well, but in the hands of the king of the district, who was a regicide and a tyrant. It was then arranged that the Swan should be rowed quietly up towards the town, and the men landed in the night at a spot where they could be ready to answer the summons of Kettle, Erling, Glumm, and Ulf, who were to go up unattended to the King's house in Dublin, with no other arms than their short swords.
On drawing near, these four found the hall of the King's house brilliantly lighted, for great festivities were going on there. No one interfered with them, because none guessed that so small a party would dare to go up half-armed for any other than peaceful purposes. They therefore went through the streets unmolested, and easily passed the guards, because Kettle plied them with a good deal of that which has since come to be known by the name of "blarney."
When they got into the hall, Kettle went straight up to the high seat or throne on which Haabrok the Black was seated.
"Ye are presumptuous knaves," said the tyrant, eyeing the strangers sternly; "is it thus that ye have been taught to approach the King? What is your errand?"
"For the matter of that, thou well-named villain," said Kettle, "our errand will but add to our presumption, for we have come to slay thee."
With that Kettle whipped out his sword and cut off Haabrok's head, so that it went rolling over the floor, while the body fell back and spouted blood all over the horrified court men!
Instantly every man drew his sword; but Erling, Ulf, and Glumm leaped on the low platform of the throne, and presented such a bold front, that the bravest men there hesitated to attack them. At the same moment Kettle raised his sword and shouted, "If there be yet a true man in this hall who loves his country and reveres the memory of the good old King whom this dead dog slew, let him come hither. It is the voice of the King's son that calls!"
"Sure, 'tis Kettle; I'd know his red head anywhere!" exclaimed a shrivelled old woman near the throne.
"Aye, nurse, it is Kettle himself—come back again," he said, glancing towards the old woman with a kindly smile.
A ringing cheer burst from the crowd and filled the hall; again and again it rose, as nearly all the men present rushed round the throne and waved their swords frantically over their heads, or strove to shake hands with the son of their old King. In the midst of the tumult a wild shriek was heard; and the crowd, opening up, allowed a beautiful dark-eyed woman to rush towards Kettle, with a stalwart boy of about five years of age clinging to her skirts.
We need scarcely pause to say who these were, nor who the handsome matron was who afterwards went and clung round Kettle's neck, and heaped fervent blessings on the head of her long-lost son. It is sufficient to say that the feast of that night was not interrupted; that, on the contrary, it was prolonged into the morning, and extended into every loyal home in the city; and that Kettle Flatnose entertained his Norse friends right royally for several days, after which he sent them away laden with gifts and benedictions. They did not quit Ireland, however, until they had seen him happily and securely seated on the throne of Dublin.
Sailing northward, the fleet touched at the Orkney and Shetland Islands, where they found that a number of the expatriated Sea-kings had comfortably settled themselves. Here some of Haldor's people would fain have remained, but Frode, who was a man of enterprise, resolved to penetrate farther into the great unknown sea, to lands which rumour said did certainly exist there. Accordingly they left Shetland, and went on until they came to the Faroe Islands. Here they thought of settling, but on landing they found that a few of the Sea-kings had taken up their abode there before them.
"Now," said Frode, "it is my great desire to break new ground. Shall we go and search farther to the west for that new island which has been lately discovered by Ingoll?"
To this Haldor and Ulf said they were agreed. Hilda plucked Erling by the sleeve, and whispered in his ear, after which he said that he too was agreed. Glumm glanced at Ada, who, with a little blush and smile, nodded. A nod was as good as a word to Glumm, so he also said he was agreed, and as no one else made objection, the ships' prows were again turned towards the setting sun.
North-westward they sailed over the world of waters, until they came one fine morning in sight of land. As they drew near they saw that it was very beautiful, consisting partly of snow-capped mountains, with green fertile valleys here and there, and streams flowing through them. They ran the vessels into a bay and landed, and the country looked so peaceful, and withal so desirable, that it was at once resolved they should make this place their abode. Accordingly, while most of the men set themselves to work to land the goods, put up the tents, and make the women and children comfortable, a select band, well armed, prepared to go on an expedition into the country, to ascertain whether or not it was inhabited. Before these set out, however, Christian the hermit stood up on a rising ground, and, raising his eyes and hands to heaven, prayed for God's blessing on their enterprise.
Thereafter plots of land were marked out, houses were built, "Things" were held, a regular government was established, and the island—for such it proved to be—was regularly taken possession of.
The exploring party found that this was indeed the island which they were in search of. It had been discovered about the middle of the ninth century, and a settlement had been made on it by Ingoll in the year 874; but the band of immigrants under Frode and Haldor was by far the most important that had landed on it up to that time.
In this manner, and under these circumstances, was Iceland colonised by expatriated Norsemen about the beginning of the tenth century!
Good reader, our tale is told. Gladly would we follow, step by step, the subsequent career of Erling and Glumm, for the lives of such men, from first to last, are always fraught with interest and instruction; but this may not be. We have brought them, with the other chief actors in this little tale, to a happy point in their adventurous career, and there we feel that we ought to leave them in peace. Yet we would fain touch on one or two prominent points in their subsequent history before bidding them a final farewell.
Let it be recorded, then, that many years after the date of the closing scene of our tale, there might have been seen in Iceland, at the head of a small bay, two pretty cottages, from the doors of which there was a magnificent view of as sweet a valley as ever filled the eye or gladdened the heart of man, with a distant glimpse of the great ocean beyond. On the sward before these cottages was assembled a large party of young men and maidens, the latter of whom were conspicuous for the sparkle of their blue eyes and the silky gloss of their fair hair, while the former were notable because of the great size and handsome proportions of their figures; some, however, of the men and maidens were dark and ruddy. The youths were engaged in putting the stone and throwing the hammer; the maidens looked on with interest—as maidens were wont to do on manly pastimes in days of old, and as they are not unwilling to do occasionally, even in modern times. Around these romped a host of children of all ages, sizes, and shades.
These were the descendants of Erling the Bold and Glumm the Gruff. The two families had, as it were, fused into one grand compound, which was quite natural, for their natures were diverse yet sympathetic; besides, Glumm was dark, Erling fair; and it is well known that black and white always go hand in hand, producing that sweet-toned grey, which Nature would seem to cherish with a love quite as powerful as the abhorrence with which she is supposed to regard a vacuum.
Beside each other, leaning against a tree, and admiring the prowess of the young men, stood Erling and Glumm, old, it is true, and past the time when men delight to exercise their muscles, but straight and stalwart, and still noble specimens of manhood. The most interesting group, however, was to be seen seated on a rustic bench near the door. There, sometimes conversing gravely with a silver-haired old man at his side, or stooping with a quiet smile to caress the head of a child that had rushed from its playmates for a little to be fondled by the "old one"—sat Haldor the Fierce, with Christian the hermit on one side, and Ulf of Romsdal on the other. Their heads were pure white, and their frames somewhat bent, but health still mantled on the sunburnt cheeks, and sparkled in the eyes of the old Norse Sea-kings.
Within the house might have been seen two exceedingly handsome matrons— such as one may see in Norway at the present time—who called each other Hilda and Ada, and who vied with a younger Hilda and Ada in their attentions upon two frail but cheery old women whom they called "Granny Heff" and "Granny Ast". How very unlike—and yet how like—were these to the Herfrida and Astrid of former days!
Between the old dames there sat on a low stool a man of gigantic proportions, who had scarcely reached middle age, and who was still overflowing with the fun and fire of youth. He employed himself in alternately fondling and "chaffing" the two old women, and he was such an exact counterpart of what Erling the Bold was at the age of thirty, that his own mother was constantly getting confused, and had to be reminded that he was Alric, and not Erling!
Alric's wife, a daughter of Glumm, was with the young people on the lawn, and his six riotous children were among the chief tormentors of old Haldor.
Ingeborg was there too, sharp as ever, but not quite so sour. She was not a spinster. There were few spinsters in those days! She had married a man of the neighbouring valley, whom she loved to distraction, and whom she led the life of a dog! But it was her nature to be cross-grained. She could not help it, and the poor man appeared to grow fonder of her the more she worried him!
As for Ivor the Old and Finn the One-eyed, they, with most of their contemporaries, had long been gathered to their fathers, and their bones reposed on the grassy slopes of Laxriverdale.
As for the other personages of our tale, we have only space to remark that King Harald Haarfager succeeded in his wish to obtain the undivided sovereignty of Norway, but he failed to perpetuate the change; for the kingdom was, after his death, redivided amongst his sons. The last heard of Hake the berserk was, that he had been seen in the midst of a great battle to have both his legs cut off at one sweep, and that he died fighting on his stumps! Jarl Rongvold was burnt by King Harald's sons, but his stout son, Rolf Ganger, left his native land, and conquered Normandy, whence his celebrated descendant, William the Conqueror, came across the Channel and conquered England.
Yes, there is perhaps more of Norse blood in your veins than you wot of, reader, whether you be English or Scotch; for those sturdy sea rovers invaded our lands from north, south, east, and west many a time in days gone by, and held it in possession for centuries at a time, leaving a lasting and beneficial impress on our customs and characters. We have good reason to regard their memory with respect and gratitude, despite their faults and sins, for much of what is good and true in our laws and social customs, much manly and vigorous in the British Constitution, of our intense love of freedom and fairplay, are pith, pluck, enterprise, and sense of justice that dwelt in the breasts of the rugged old Sea-kings of Norway!