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Wulfric the Weapon Thane
by Charles W. Whistler
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So I told him how we had come, and at that he stared at me as our folk stared at Lodbrok, and started up, crying that he must go and see this staunch boat that had served me so well.

"Bide here and rest," he said, "and I will bring your comrade to you," and with that he swung out of the house, taking the dog with him. And at once the thought of leaving the hut and plunging into the forest came into my mind, but I knew not why I should do so, except that I would not see Beorn again. However, there was a third man now, and I would see what befell him.

Now I waited long, and had almost fallen asleep beside the warm fire, when I heard a horn away in the woods, and roused up to listen. Twice or thrice it sounded, and then I heard it answered from far off. So I supposed that there was a hunt going on.

Then I heard no more, and fell asleep in earnest; for I needed rest badly, as one might well suppose.

Something touched my hand and I awoke. It was the great dog, who came and thrust his nose against me, having made up his mind to be friendly altogether. So when his master came in I was fondling his head, and he looked puzzled.

"Say what men will," he said, "I know you are an honest man!"

"Do you hold that any will doubt it?" I asked, wondering what he meant; for he looked strangely at me.

"Aye; the jarl has found your boat, and has sent me back to keep you fast. Know you whose boat you have?"

"It belonged to Jarl Lodbrok, who came ashore in it, as I have come here—and he gave it me."

"Hammer of Thor!" said the man. "Is the jarl alive?"

"What know you of him?" I asked.

"He was our jarl—ours," he answered.

"Who is the other jarl you speak of?" I asked him, with a hope that Halfden had come home, for now I knew that we had indeed followed Lodbrok's track exactly.

"How should it be other than Ingvar Lodbroksson? for we have held that Lodbrok, his father, is dead this many a long day."

"Let me go to the jarl," I said, rising up. "I would speak with him," for I would, if possible, tell him the truth, before Beorn could frame lies that might work ill to both of us, or perhaps to me most of all. Yet I thought that I saw the shadow of judgment falling on the murderer.

"Bide quiet," said the man; "he will be here soon."

And then he said, looking from me to the dog, "Now I hold you as a true man, therefore I will tell you this—anger not the jarl when he speaks to you."

"Thanks, friend!" I answered heartily, "I think I shall not do that. Is he like his father?"

The man laughed shortly, only saying:

"Is darkness like daylight?"

"Then he is not like Jarl Halfden."

Now the honest man was going to ask in great wonder how I knew of him, when there came the quick trot of horses to the door, and a stern voice, which had in its tones somewhat familiar to me, called him:

"Raud, come forth!"

My host started up, and saying, "It is Jarl Ingvar," went to the door, while I too rose and followed him, for I would not seem to avoid meeting the son of Lodbrok, my friend.

"Where is this stranger?" said the jarl's voice; "bring him forth."

Raud turned to beckon me, but I was close to him, and came out of the hut unbidden.

There sat a great man, clad in light chain mail and helmed, with his double-headed axe slung to his saddle bow, but seeming to have come from hunting, for he carried a short, broad-pointed boar spear, and on the wrist of his bridle hand sat a hooded hawk like Lodbrok's. His face had in it a look both of his father and of Halfden, but it was hard and stern; and whereas they had brown hair, his was jet black as a raven's wing. Maybe he was ten years older than Halfden.

There were five or six other men, seemingly of rank, and on horseback also, behind him, but they wore no armour, and were in hunting gear only, and again there were footmen, leading hounds like the great one that stood by Raud and me. And two men there were who led between them Beorn, holding him lest he should fall, either from weakness or terror, close to the jarl.

So I stood before Ingvar the Jarl, and wondered how things would go, and what Beorn had said, though I had no fear of him. And as the jarl gazed at me I raised my hand, saying in the viking's greeting:

"Skoal to Jarl Ingvar!"

At that he half raised hand in answer, but checked himself, saying shortly:

"Who are you, and how come you by my father's boat?"

I was about to answer, but at that word it seemed that for the first time Beorn learnt into whose hands he had fallen, and he fell on his knees between his two guards, crying for mercy. I think that he was distraught with terror, for his words were thick and broken, and he had forgotten that none but I knew of his ill deed.

That made the jarl think that somewhat was amiss, and he bade his men bind us both.

"Bind them fast, and find my brother Hubba," he said, and men rode away into the forest. But I spoke to him boldly.

"Will you bind a man who bears these tokens, Jarl?"

And I held out my hand to him, showing him the rings that Lodbrok and Halfden had given me.

"My father's ring—and Halfden's!" he said, gripping my hand, as he looked closely at the runes upon them, so tightly that it was pain to me. "By Odin's beard, this grows yet stranger! Who are you, and whence, and how came you by these things?"

"I am Wulfric, son of Elfric, the Thane of Reedham, 'the merchant' as men call him. I have been Jarl Lodbrok's friend, and have fought by the side of Halfden, his son, as these tokens may tell you. As for the rest, that is for yourself alone, Jarl. For I have no good tidings, as I fear."

"Who is this man, then, and why cries he thus in terror?"

"Beorn, falconer to Eadmund, King of the East Angles," I said.

But I would not answer at once to the other question, and Ingvar seemed not to notice it.

Then there was silence while the great jarl sat on his horse very still, and looked hard at me and at Beorn; but when the men would have bound us he signed them back, letting Beorn go free. Whereupon his knees gave way, and he sank down against the house wall, while I leant against it and looked at the mighty Dane, somewhat dreading what I had to tell him, but meaning to go through all plainly.

Now the ring of men closed round us, staring at us, but in silence, save for the ringing of the horns that were blowing in the woods to call Hubba from his sport. And Jarl Ingvar sat still, as if carved in oak, and seemed to ponder, frowning heavily at us, though the look in his eyes went past me as it were.

Glad was I when a horseman or two rode up and reined in alongside Ingvar. I think that the foremost rider was the most goodly warrior to look on that I had ever seen, and one might know well that he was Lodbrok's son.

"Ho, brother!" he cried; "I thought you had harboured the greatest bear in all Jutland in Raud's hut. And it is naught but two strangers. What is the trouble with them?"

"Look at yon man's hand," said Ingvar.

I held out my hand, and Hubba looked at the rings, whereupon his face lit up as Halfden's had lighted, and he said:

"News of our father and brother! That is well; tell us, friend, all that you know."

"Stay," said Ingvar; "I took yon man from the boat we made for our father; he was half dead therein, and his wrists have the marks of cords on them; also when he heard my name he began to cry for mercy, and I like it not."

"This friend of our folk will tell us all," said Hubba.

"Aye," said I, "I will tell you, Jarls. But I would speak to you alone."

"Tell me," said Ingvar shortly; "came my father to your shores in yon boat alive?"

"Aye," I answered.

"And he died thereafter?"

"He died, Jarl," I said; and I said it sadly.

Then said Hubba:

"Almost had I a hope that he yet lived, as you live. But it was a poor hope. We have held him as dead for many a long day."

But Ingvar looked at Beorn fixedly, and the man shrank away from his gaze.

"How did he die, is what I would know?" he said sternly.

"Let the man to whom Halfden and Lodbrok gave these gifts tell us presently. We have enough ill news for the time. Surely we knew that the jarl was dead, and it is ours but to learn how;" said Hubba.

"How know you that these men slew not both?"

"Jarl Ingvar," I said; "I will tell you all you will, but I would do so in some less hurried way than this. For I have much to tell."

"Take the men home, brother," said Hubba; "then we can talk."

"Bind the men," said Ingvar again.

"Nay, brother, not the man who wears those rings," said Hubba quickly.

"Maybe, and it is likely, that they are ill come by, and he will make up some lie about them," answered Ingvar.

"It will be easily seen if he does," answered his brother; "wait till you know."

Ingvar reined his horse round and rode away without another word. Then Hubba bade the man Raud and his brother, a tall man who had come with the Jarl Ingvar, take charge of us until word should come from him, and then rode after Ingvar with the rest of the folk.

"Come into the house," said Raud to me. "I fear you have ill news enough, though only what we have expected."

So we went inside, and I sat in my old place beside the fire. Rolf, the brother, helped Beorn to rise, and set him on a seat in a corner where he could rest, and then we were all silent. The great dog came and sat by me, so that I stroked him and spoke to him, while he beat his tail on the floor in response.

"See you that," said one brother to the other.

"Aye; Vig says true, mostly."

"One may trust him," said Raud; telling of how Vig the dog had made friends with me at first, and he nodded in friendly wise to me, so that I would not seem to hold aloof, and spoke to him.

"That is Jarl Hubba, surely?"

"Aye, and the best warrior in all Denmark," said Raud. "We fear Ingvar, and we love Halfden; but Hubba is such a hero as was Ragnar himself."

And once set on that matter, the two honest men were unwearied in telling tales of the valour and skill of their master, so that I had no room for my own thoughts, which was as well.

Then came a man, riding swiftly, to say that the jarls had left their hunting, and that we were to be taken to the great house. Moreover, that Rolf and Raud were to be held answerable for our safe keeping. When I heard that I laughed.

"I will go willingly," I said, rising up.

"What of this man who sits silent here?" asked Rolf.

"Little trouble will be with him," said his brother.

And indeed Beorn almost needed carrying forth.



CHAPTER VIII. HOW WE FARED WITH INGVAR THE DANE.

We came to the shores of a haven at a river mouth, and there we saw the town clustering round a large hall that rose in the midst of the lesser houses, which were mostly low roofed and clay walled, like that of Raud, though some were better, and built of logs set upon stone foundations. The hall stood on higher ground than the rest of the houses, so that from the gate of the heavy timber stockade that went all round it one could see all the windings of the haven channel and the sea that lay some half mile or more away at its mouth. And all the town had a deep ditch and mound round it, as if there was ever fear of foes from shoreward, for these came down to the haven banks, and the only break they had was where a wharf and the ship garth were. There were several ships housed in their long sheds, as I could see.

All round the great hall and the buildings that belonged to it was a stockade of pointed logs, so that it stood in a wide courtyard on all four sides, and the great gate of the stockade was opposite the timber porch of the hall itself. There were other doors in the side of the hall, but they were high up, and reached by ladders; and there seemed to be only one more gate in the stockade, leading landward, and both were such as might not easily be broken down, when once they were closed and barred with the square logs that stood beside the entrances ready. And all the windows of the hall were very high up and narrow, and the roof was timbered, not thatched.

This was the strongest house that I had ever seen, and I said to Raud as I looked at it:

"This place is built to stand some fierce fighting. What need have you of such strength?"

He laughed, and answered:

"Why, much need indeed! For when the ships are gone a-viking we are weak in men, so needs must have strong walls to keep out all comers from over seas. And we have an ill neighbour or two, who would fain share in our booty. However, men know in Sweden, and Finmark, and Norway also, that it is ill meddling with Jarl Ingvar and his brothers."

We passed through the stockade gate, and went straight to the porch; all the woodwork of which was carved and gaily painted, and so were eaves and rafter ends and tie beams.

Two sturdy axemen stood at the doorway, and they spoke freely to the brothers, asking questions of us and of our tale.

Then roared the voice of Jarl Ingvar from within, bidding the men cease prating and bring us in, and so we entered.

A great fire burnt in the centre of the hall, and the smoke rose up and found its way out under the eaves; and there were skins and heads of wild beasts on the wall, amid which arms and armour hung everywhere, bright in the firelight. Yet the hall, though it was carved on wall, and rafter, and doorway, was not so bright as ours at Reedham, nor so pleasant.

Ingvar and Hubba sat on one side of the fire, where the smoke was driven away from them, and before them was set a long bench where we should be placed. There Hubba bade us sit down, telling the two men to go without and wait.

So we were left face to face with those two, and I saw that Ingvar's face was dark with doubt, but that Hubba seemed less troubled. Yet both looked long and sternly at us.

"Tell us this tale of yours," said Ingvar at last; "and lie not."

Now it seemed to me that it were well to get the worst over at once without beating about beforehand. And now that the jarls knew that Lodbrok was dead, the hardest was to tell them how he died, and why I was here thus.

"Well loved I Lodbrok the Jarl, and well do I love Halfden his son," I said. "Have patience with me while I tell all from the first."

"Go on," said Ingvar, knitting his brows.

"Safely came Jarl Lodbrok to the English shores," I went on; "steering his boat through the storm as I think no other man might. And my father and I, lying at anchor for tide in our coasting ship, took him from the breakers. Some of his craft taught he me, else had I not been here today. So he bided with us until I went to sea, and there I met Halfden, and went on a raid with him, coming back from the South Saxon shores to wait at our place for his coming to take Lodbrok home. But he came not last winter, and so we waited till this spring should bring him. For my ship was lost, and no other came."

"What!" said Ingvar; "he died not of stress of storm, but lived so long! Then he has been slain!" and he half started from his seat in rage.

But Hubba, though his teeth were set, drew him back.

"Hear all," he said.

I went on without bidding, not seeming to note these things.

"The jarl and I hunted together, and the chance of the day parted us, and he was slain; nor can I say by whom. But this man and I, being found with his body, were accused of the deed. And because there was no proof, our great earl, who loves even-handed justice, would have us cast adrift, even as was Lodbrok; that the guilty might suffer, and the innocent escape."

Then Ingvar rose up, white and shaking with wrath, and drew out his sword. Whereon Beorn yelled and fell on the floor, grovelling with uplifted hands and crying for mercy.

But the great jarl paid no heed to him, and hove up the sword with both hands over my head, saying in a hoarse voice:

"Say that you lie—he is not dead—or you slew him!"

Now I think the long struggle with the sea, or my full trust in the earl's words, or both, had taken away my fear of death, for I spoke without moving, though the great blade seemed about to fall, and the fierce Dane's eyes glared on mine.

"It were easy for me to have lied; I would that I did lie, for then Lodbrok would be living, and I beside him, waiting for Halfden my friend even yet."

"Odin!" shouted Ingvar; "you speak truth. Woe is me for my father, and woe to the land that has given him a grave thus foully."

With that he let his sword fall, and his passion having gone, he sat down and put his face in his hands, and wept tears of grief and rage. And I, as I watched him, was fain to weep also, for my thoughts were akin to his.

Now Hubba had sat very still, watching all this, and he kept his feelings better than did his fierce brother, though I might well see that he was moved as deeply. But now he spurned Beorn with his foot, bidding him get up and speak also. But Beorn only grovelled the more, and Hubba spurned him again, turning to me.

"I believe you speak truth," he said quietly, "and you are a brave man. There was no need for you to tell the accusation against yourself; and many are the lies you might have told us about the boat that would have been enough for us. We never thought to hear that our father had outlived the storm."

"I speak truth, Jarl," I said, sadly enough, "and Halfden will come to our haven, seeking us both, and will find neither—only this ill news instead of all we had planned of pleasure."

Then Hubba asked me plainly of Beorn, saying:

"What of this cur?"

"No more than I have told you, Jarl," I said.

"How came he into the forest?" asked Hubba, for he saw that there was more than he knew yet under Beorn's utter terror.

"Let me tell you that story from end to end," I answered.

And he nodded, so that I did so, from the time when I left the jarl until Ulfkytel sentenced us, giving all the words of the witnesses as nearly as I could. Then I said that I would leave them to judge, for I could not.

Now Ingvar, who had sat biting his nails and listening without a word, broke in, questioning me of Halfden's ship for long. At last he said:

"This man tells truth, and I will not harm him. He shall bide here till Halfden comes home, for he tells a plain story, and wears those rings. And he has spoken the ill of himself and little of this craven, who maybe knows more than he will say. I have a mind to find out what he does know," and he looked savagely at Beorn, who was sitting up and rocking himself to and fro, with his eyes looking far away.

"Do what you will with him he will lie," said Hubba.

"I can make him speak truth," said Ingvar grimly.

"What shall be done with this Wulfric?" asked Hubba.

"Let him go with Raud until I have spoken with Beorn," answered Ingvar, "then we shall be sure if he is friend or not."

Hubba nodded, and he and I rose up and went out to the porch, where Raud and Rolf waited with the two guards. We passed them and stood in the courtyard.

"I believe you, Wulfric," said Hubba, "for I know a true man when I see him."

"I thank you, Jarl," I answered him, taking the hand that he offered me.

I looked out over the sea, for the frank kindness moved me, and I would not show it. There was a heavy bank of clouds working up, and the wind came from the north, with a smell of snow in it. Then I saw a great hawk flying inland, and wondered to see it come over sea at this time of year. It flew so that it would pass over the house, and as it came it wheeled a little and called; and then it swept down and came straight towards me, so that I held out my hand and it perched on my wrist.

And lo! it was Lodbrok's gerfalcon; and pleased she was to see me once more, fluttering her wings and glancing at me while I smoothed and spoke to her.

But Hubba cried out in wonder, and the men and Ingvar came out to see what his call meant. Then they, too, were amazed, for they knew the bird and her ways well.

I had spoken of the falcon once or twice, telling the jarls how she had taken to me, and I think they had doubted it a little. Now the bird had got free in some way, and finding neither of her masters, had fled home, even as Lodbrok said she would.

"Now is your story proved to be true," said Hubba, smiling gravely at me, but speaking for Ingvar's ear.

"Aye, over true," answered his brother; "serve this man well, Raud and Rolf, for he has been a close friend of Jarl Lodbrok."

"Then should he be in Lodbrok's house as a guest," said Raud stoutly, and free of speech as Danes will ever be.

"Maybe he shall be so soon," said Ingvar.

"I will bide with my first hosts," I said, not being willing to speak much of this just now.

"That is well said," was Hubba's reply, and so we went to have the falcon—who would not leave me—hooded and confined; and then I went with the two men back to their hut, and there they vied with each other in kindness to me until night fell, and I gladly went to rest; for since that night within Caistor walls I had had no sleep that was worth considering. So my sleep was a long sleep, and nothing broke it until I woke of myself, and found only the great dog Vig in the hut, and breakfast ready set out for me, while outside the ground was white with snow.

I was glad to find that no watch was kept on me, for it seemed as if Hubba's words were indeed true, and that the jarls believed my story. And my dagger was left me also, hanging still on the wall at my head where I had slept. Then I thought that the great dog was maybe bidden to guard me, but he paid no heed when I went outside the hut to try if it were so.

Ere an hour had passed Raud came back, and he had news for me.

"Now, friend Wulfric, I am to part with my guest, and not in the way that was yesterday's. The jarls bid me say that Wulfric of Reedham, Lodbrok's preserver, is a welcome guest in their hall, and they would see him there at once."

"Nevertheless," I answered, "Raud the forester was the first to shelter me, and I do not forget."

Whereat Raud was pleased, and together we went to the great house, and entered, unchallenged. Hubba came forward and held out his strong hand to me frankly, smiling a little, but gravely, and I took it.

"Beorn has told the truth," he said; "forgive me for doubt of you at any time."

"Aye, let that be forgotten," said Ingvar, coming from beyond the great fire, and I answered that I thought it not strange that they had doubted me.

"Now, therefore," said Hubba, "you yourself shall question Beorn, for there are things you want to know from him. And he will answer you truly enough."

"After that you shall slay him, if you will," said Ingvar, in his stern voice, "I wonder you did not do so in the boat. Better for him if you had."

"I wonder not," said Hubba. "The man is fit for naught; I could not lay hand on such a cur."

I had no answer to make after that, for the warrior spoke my own thoughts, and I held my peace as they took me to the further side of the hearth, past the fire, beyond which I had not yet been able to see.

Then I knew how Beorn had been made to speak the truth. They had tortured him, and there was no strength left in him at all, so that I almost started back from the cruel marks that he bore. Yet I had things to hear from him, now that he had no need to speak falsely, and I went to his side. The two jarls stood and looked at him unmoved.

"The justice of Ulfkytel is on you, Beorn," I said slowly; "there is no need to hide aught. Tell me how you slew Lodbrok, and why."

Then came a voice, so hollow that I should not have known it for the lusty falconer's of past days:

"Aye; justice is on me, and I am glad. I will tell you, but first say that you forgive me."

Then I could not but tell this poor creature that for all the harm he had done me I would surely forgive him; but that the deed of murder was not for me to forgive.

"Pray, therefore, that for it I may be forgiven hereafter," he said, and that I promised him.

Then he spoke faintly, so that Hubba bade Raud give him strong drink, and that brought his strength back a little.

"I took your arrows at Thetford, and I followed you to Reedham. There I dogged you, day by day, in the woods—five days I went through the woods as you hunted, and then you twain were far apart, and my chance had come. Lodbrok reined up to listen, and I marked where he would pass when he went back, hearing your horn. Then I shot, and the arrow went true; but I drew sword, being mad, and made more sure. That is all. Surely I thought I should escape, for I told no man what I would do, and all men thought me far away, with the king."

Then he stopped, and recovered his strength before he could go on.

"I hated Lodbrok because he had taken my place beside the king, and because his woodcraft was greater than mine, though I was first in that in all our land. And I feared that he would take the land the king offered him, for I longed for it."

Then Beorn closed his eyes, and I was turning away, for I need ask no more; but again he spoke:

"Blind was yon dotard Ulfkytel not to see all this; would that you had slain me in the woods at first—or that he had hanged me at Caistor—or that I had been drowned. But justice is done, and my life is ended."

Those were the last words that I heard Beorn, the falconer, speak, for I left him, and Raud gave him to drink again.

"Have you no more to ask?" said Ingvar gloomily, and frowning on Beorn, as he lay helpless beyond the hearth.

"Nothing, Jarl."

"What was the last word he said. I heard not."

"He said that justice was done," I answered.

"When I have done with him, it shall be so," growled Ingvar, and his hand clutched his sword hilt, so that I thought to see him slay the man on the spot.

"Has he told you all?" I asked of Hubba.

"All, and more than you have told of yourself," he answered; "for he told us that it was your hand saved my father, and for that we thank you. But one thing more he said at first, and that was that Eadmund the King set him on to slay the jarl."

On that I cried out that the good king loved Lodbrok too well, and in any case would suffer no such cowardly dealings.

"So ran his after words; but that was his first story, nevertheless."

"Then he lied, for you have just now heard him say that his own evil thoughts bade him do the deed."

"Aye—maybe he lied at first; but we shall see," said Ingvar.

Now I understood not that saying, but if a man lies once, who shall know where the lie's doings will stop? What came from this lie I must tell, but now it seemed to have passed for naught.

"Now shall you slay the man in what way you will, as I have said. There are weapons," and Ingvar pointed to the store on the walls.

"I will not touch him," I said, "and I think that he dies."

"Then shall you see the vengeance of Ingvar on his father's murderer," the jarl said savagely. "Call the men together into the courtyard, Raud, and let them bring the man there."

"Let him die, Jarl," I said boldly; "he has suffered already."

"I think that if you knew, Wulfric of Reedham, how near you have been to this yourself, through his doings, you would not hold your hand," answered Ingvar, scowling at Beorn again.

"Maybe, Jarl," I answered, "but though you may make a liar speak truth thus, you cannot make an honest man say more than he has to speak."

"One cannot well mistake an honest saying," said Ingvar. "And that is well for you, friend."

And so he turned and watched his courtmen, as the Danes called the housecarles, carry Beorn out. Then he went to the walls and began to handle axe after axe, taking down one by one, setting some on the great table, and putting others back, as if taking delight in choosing one fittest for some purpose.

Even as we watched him—Hubba sitting on the table's edge, and I standing by him—a leathern curtain that went across a door at the upper end of the hall was pulled aside, and a lady came into the place. Stately and tall, with wondrous black hair, was this maiden, and I knew that this must be that Osritha of whom the jarl was wont to speak to Eadgyth and my mother, and who wrought the raven banner that hung above the high place where she stood now. She was like Halfden and Hubba, though with Ingvar's hair, and if those three were handsome men among a thousand, this sister of theirs was more than worthy of them. She stood in the door, doubting, when she saw me. Sad she looked, and she wore no gold on arm or neck, doubtless because of the certainty of the great jarl's death; and when she saw that Hubba beckoned to her, she came towards us, and Ingvar set down the great axe whose edge he was feeling.

"Go back to your bower, sister," he said; "we have work on hand."

And he spoke sternly, but not harshly, to her. She shrank away a little, as if frightened at the jarl's dark face and stern words, but Hubba called her by name.

"Stay, Osritha; here is that friend of our father's from over seas, of whom you have heard."

Then she looked pityingly at me, as I thought, saying very kindly:

"You are welcome. Yet I fear you have suffered for your friendship to my father."

"I have suffered for not being near to help him, lady," I said.

"There is a thing that you know not yet," said Hubba. "This Wulfric was the man who took Father from the breakers."

Then the maiden smiled at me, though her eyes were full of tears, and she asked me:

"How will they bury him in your land? In honour?"

"I have a brother-in-law who will see to that," I said. "And, moreover, Eadmund the King, and Elfric, my father, will do him all honour."

"I will see to that," growled Ingvar, turning sharply from where he sought another weapon on the wall.

Not knowing all he meant, this pleased me, for I thought that we should sail together to Reedham for this, before very long. But Osritha, knowing his ways, looked long at him, till he turned away again, and would not meet her eyes.

"Now go back to your place, my sister," he said. "It is not well for you to bide here just now."

"Why not? Let our friend tell me of Father also," she said wilfully.

"Because I am going to do justice on Lodbrok's slayer," said Ingvar, in a great voice, swinging an axe again.

Then the maiden turned pale, and wrung her hands, looking at Ingvar, who would not meet her eyes; and then she went and laid her hands on his mighty arm, crying:

"Not that, my brother; not that!"

"Why not?" he asked; but he did not shake off her little hands.

"Because Father would not have men so treated, however ill they had done."

"Aye, brother; the girl is right," said Hubba. "Let him die; for you gave him to Wulfric, and that is his word."

"Well then," said Ingvar, setting back the axe at last, "I will not carve him into the eagle I meant to make of him. But slay him I must and will, if the life is yet in him."

"Let Odin have him," said Hubba; and I knew that he meant that the man should be hanged, for so, as Halfden's vikings told me, should he be Odin's thrall, unhonoured.

Then the maiden fled from the hall, glad to have gained even that for the man, instead of the terrible death that the Danes keep for traitors and cowards.

Now Ingvar put back the axes he had kept, saying that the girl ever stood in his way when he would punish as a man deserved. After that he stood for a while as if in thought, and broke out at length:

"We will see if this man can sing a death song as did Ragnar our forefather."

And with that he waited no more, but strode out into the courtyard, we following. And I feared what I should see; until I looked on Beorn, and though he was yet alive, I saw that he was past feeling aught.

They bore him out of the village to a place just inside the trenched enclosure, and there were old stone walls, such as were none elsewhere in the place, but as it might have been part of Burgh or Brancaster walls that the Romans made on our shores, so ancient that they were crumbling to decay. There they set him down, and raised a great flat stone, close to the greatest wall, which covered the mouth of a deep pit.

"Look therein," said Ingvar to me.

I looked, and saw that the pit was stone walled and deep, and that out of it was no way but this hole above. The walls and floor were damp and slimy; and when I looked closer, the dim light showed me bones in one corner, and also that over the floor crawled reptiles, countless.

"An adder is a small thing to sting a man," said Ingvar in his grim voice. "Nor will it always hurt him much. Yet if a man is so close among many that he must needs tread on one, and it bites him, and in fleeing that he must set foot on another, and again another, and then more—how will that end?"

I shuddered and turned away.

"In such a place did Ella of Northumbria put my forebear, Ragnar Lodbrok; and there he sang the song {xiii} we hold most wondrous of all. There he was set because he was feared, and Northumbria knows what I thought of that matter. But Beorn goes here for reasons which you know. And East Anglia shall know what my thoughts are of those reasons."

Then two men seized Beorn and cast him into that foul pit, stripped of all things, and the stone fell.

But Beorn moved not nor cried out, and I think that even as Ulfkytel had boded, stripped of life itself was he before the bottom of the pit was reached.

So the justice of Ulfkytel the Earl came to pass. But the lies spoken by Beorn were not yet paid for.



CHAPTER IX. JARL HALFDEN'S HOMECOMING.

From the time when Beorn was made to speak the truth, I was a welcome guest in the hall that had been Lodbrok's, to Hubba at least, and we were good friends. As for Ingvar, he was friendly enough also, and would listen when I spoke with his more frank and open brother of my days with Halfden and his father. But he took little pleasure in my company, going silent and moody about the place, for the snow that began on the day after I landed was the first of a great storm, fiercer and colder than any we knew in England, and beyond the courtyard of the great house men could scarcely stir for a time.

This storm I had but just escaped, and it seemed to me, and still seems, that the terror and pain thereof was held back while I was on the sea, for those nights and days had had no winter sting in them.

Hubba and I would wrestle and practise arms in the hall or courtyard during that time, and he was even beyond his father, my teacher, in the matter of weapon play; so that it is no wonder that now, as all men know, he is held the most famous warrior of his time.

These sports Ingvar watched, and took part in now and then when his mood was lighter, but it was seldom. Yet he was skilful, though not as his brother.

Then at night was the fire of pine logs high heaped, and we feasted while the scalds, as they call their gleemen, sang the deeds of the heroes of old. And some of those of whom they sang were men of the Angles of the old country; and one was my own forefather, and for that I gave the scald my gold bracelet, and thereafter he sang lustily in my praise as Lodbrok's rescuer.

Very pleasant it was in Ingvar's hall while the wind howled over the roof, and the roar of the sea was always in our ears. And these Danes drank less than our people, if they ate more largely. But Ingvar would sit and take pleasure in none of the sport, being ever silent and thoughtful.

But to me, best of all were the times when I might see and speak with Osritha, and soon the days seemed heavy to me if by chance I had no word with her. And she was always glad to speak of her father and Halfden; for she was the youngest of all Lodbrok's children, and Halfden, her brother, was but a year older than herself, so that she loved him best of all, and longed to see him home again.

So longed I, grieving for the news he must hear when he came to Reedham, but yet thinking that he would be glad to find me at least living and waiting for him.

Now, as the snow grew deeper and the cold strengthened, the wolves began to come at night into the village, and at last grew very daring. So one night a man ran in to say that a pack was round a cottage where a child would not cease crying, and must be driven off, or they would surely tear the clay walls down.

Then Hubba and I would go; but Ingvar laughed at us, saying that a few firebrands would settle the matter by fraying the beasts away. However, the man was urgent, and we went out with Raud and his brother, and some twenty men, armed with spears and axes.

The night was very dark, and the snow whirled every way, and the end of it was that Raud and I and two more men, with the dog Vig, lost the rest, and before we found them we had the pack on us, and we must fight for our lives. And that fight was a hard fight, for there must have been a score of gaunt wolves, half starved and ravenous.

And I think we should have fared badly, for at last I was standing over Raud, who was down, dragged to the earth by two wolves, of which the dog slew one and I the other, while the other two men were back to back with me, and the wolves bayed all round us. But Hubba and his party heard our shouts in time and came up, and so ended the matter.

Now Raud must have it that I had saved his life, though I thought the good dog had a share in it, and both he and the dog were a little hurt. However, my shoulder was badly torn by a wolf that leapt at me while my spear was cumbered with another, and I for my part never wished it had not been so.

For Osritha, who was very skilful in leech craft, tended my hurt; and I saw much of her, for the hurts were a long time before they healed, as wolf bites are apt to be, and we grew very friendly. So that, day by day, I began to long to see the maiden who cared for my wound so gently, before the time came.

Now Raud must needs make me a spear from a tough ashen sapling that he had treasured for a long time, because that which I had used in the wolf hunt was sprung by the weight of one of the beasts, and while his hurts kept him away at his own house he wrought it, and at last brought it up to the hall to give to me.

When I looked at it—and it was a very good one, and had carved work where the hand grips the shaft, and a carved end—I saw that the head was one of Jarl Ingvar's best spearheads, and asked Raud where he got it.

"Why," he said, "a good ash shaft deserves a good head, and so I asked the jarl for one. And when he knew for whom it was, he gave me this, saying it was the best he had."

Now I was pleased with this gift, both because I liked the man Raud, who was both brave and simple minded, and because it showed that the surly jarl had some liking for me. Yet I would that he showed this openly, and telling Osritha of the gift, I dared say so.

Then she sighed and rose up, saying that she would show me another spear on the further wall, so taking me out of hearing of her maidens, who sat by the fire busied over their spinning and the like.

There she spoke to me of Jarl Ingvar.

"Moody and silent beyond his wont has he been since we have heard all about our father's death, and I fear that he plans some terrible revenge for it, even as he took revenge on the Northumbrian coasts for the long-ago slaying of Ragnar."

Then I remembered the story of the burnt town, Streoneshalch, and knew what Ingvar's revenge was like. But as yet I could not think that he would avenge Beorn's deed further than I had seen already.

"But he has no enmity with you, our friend," she went on; "though he speaks little to you, he listens as you talk to us. But there has grown up in his heart a hatred of all men in your land, save of yourself alone. And once he said that he would that you were a Dane, and his comrade as you had been Halfden's."

Then I told Osritha of how Halfden had let me go from him rather than have me fight against my own land. I had said nothing of this to the jarls, for there was no reason. And this was the first time that I had had private speech with Osritha.

"That is Halfden's way," she said, "he is ever generous."

"I would that he were back," I answered, and so we ceased speaking.

Yet after this, many were the chances I found of the like talk alone with Osritha before the weather broke, and we could once more get into the woods, hunting, and the men began to work in the ship garths on a great ship that was being built.

Now we had good hunting in the forests, and on the borders of the great mosses of Ingvar's lands. But there were many more folk in this land than in ours, and I thought that they were ill off in many ways. In those days of hunting, Ingvar, seeing me ride with the carven spear that was partly his gift, and with Lodbrok's hawk on my wrist, would speak more often with me, though now and again some chance word of mine spoken in the way of my own folk would seem to turn him gloomy and sullen, so that he would spur his horse and leave me. But Hubba was ever the same, and I liked him well, though I could not have made a friend of him as of Halfden.

In March messengers began to come and go, and though I asked nothing and was told nothing, I knew well that Ingvar was gathering a mighty host to him that he might sail in the May time across the seas for plunder—or for revenge. The hammers went all day long in the ship garths, where the air was full of the wholesome scent of tar; and in their houses the women spun busily, making rope and weaving canvas that should carry the jarl's men "over the swan's bath;" while in the hall the courtmen sat after dark and feathered arrows and twined bowstrings, and mended mail. And now and then some chief would ride into the town, feasting that night, and riding away in the morning after long talk with the jarls. And some, Bagsac and Guthrum, Sidrac and his son, and a tall man named Osbern, came very often as the days lengthened.

I would ask nothing of this matter, even of Osritha, having my own thoughts thereon, and not being willing to press her on things she might have been bidden to keep from me. She would ask me of my mother and Eadgyth, as they would ask the jarl of her, and I told her all I could, though that was not much, for a man hardly notes things as a woman will. Then she would laugh at me; until one day I said that I would she could come over to Reedham and see for herself.

At that I thought that I had offended her, for her face grew red, and she left me. Nor could I find a chance of speaking to her again for many days, which was strange to me, and grieved me sorely.

Now the southwest wind shifted at last to the west and north, and that shift brought home him whom I most wished to see, my comrade, Halfden. And it chanced that I was the first to see his sail from the higher land along the coast, south of the haven, where I was riding with my falcon and the great dog Vig, which Raud and his brother would have me take for my own after the wolf hunt.

Gladly I rode hack with my news to find Ingvar in the ship garth, and there I told him who came.

"A ship, maybe. How know you she is Halfden's?" he said carelessly.

"Why, how does any sailor know his own ship?" I asked in surprise.

Then he turned at once, and smiled at me fairly for the first time.

"I had forgotten," he said. "Come, let us look at her again."

And I was not mistaken, though the jarl was not so sure as I for half an hour or more. When he was certain, he said:

"Come, let us make what welcome for Halfden that we may."

And we went back to the hall, and at once was the great horn blown to assemble the men; and the news went round quickly, so that everywhere men and women alike put aside their work, and hurried down to the wharf side. And in Ingvar's house the thralls wrought to prepare a great feast in honour of Jarl Halfden's homecoming.

Soon I stood with the jarls and Osritha at the landing place, and behind us were the courtmen in their best array. And as we came to the place where we would wait, Halfden's ship came past the bar into the haven's mouth.

All men's faces were bright with the thought of welcome, but heavy were my thoughts, and with reason. For Halfden's ship came from the sea on no course that should have borne him from Reedham, and I feared that it was I who must tell him all. Yet he might have been drawn from his course by some passing vessel.

The long ship flew up the channel, and now we could see that all her rail was hung with the red and yellow shields that they use for show as well as to make the gunwale higher against the arrows, and to hinder boarders in a fight. And she was gaily decked with flags, and shone with new paint and gilding in all sea bravery. Not idle had her crew been in the place where they had wintered, and one might know that they had had a good voyage, which to a Dane means plunder enough for all. But surely if Halfden had been to Reedham, the long pennon had been half masted.

It were long to tell how the people cheered, and how they were answered from the ship, and how I spied Halfden on the fore deck, and Thormod at the helm, as ever. And when Osritha saw Halfden's gay arms and cloak and all the bright trim of the ship and men, she said to me, speaking low and quickly:

"They have not been to Reedham, or it would not have been thus."

And it was true, for there would have been no sign of joy among those who had heard the news that waited them there.

I knew not how to bear this meeting, but I was not alone in my trouble, for nearer me crept Osritha, saying to me alone, while the people cheered and shouted:

"How shall we tell Halfden?"

The two jarls were busy at the mooring place, and I could only answer her that I could look to her alone for help. Now at that I knew what had sprung up in my heart for Osritha, and that not in this only should I look for help from her and find it, but if it might be, all my life through. For now in my trouble she looked at me with a new look, answering:

"I will help you, whatever betide."

I might say no more then, nor were words needed, for I knew all that she meant. And so my heart was lightened, for now I held that I was repaid for all that had gone before, and save for that which had brought me here, gladly would I take my perilous voyage over again to find this land and the treasure it now held for me.

At last the ship's keel grated on the sand, and the men sprang from shore waist deep in water, to take her the mighty cables that should haul her into her berth; and then the long gangplank was run out, and Halfden came striding along it, looking bright and handsome—and halfway over, he stopped where none could throng him, and lifting his hand for silence cried for all to hear.

"Hearken all to good news! Lodbrok our Jarl lives!"

Then, alas! instead of the great cheer that should have broken from the lips of all that throng, was at first a silence, and then a groan—low and pitiful as of a mourning people who wail for the dead and the sorrowful living—and at that sound Halfden paled, and stayed no more, hurrying ashore and to where his brothers stood.

"What is this?" he said, and his voice was low, and yet clear in the silence that had fallen, for all his men behind him had stopped as if turned to stone where they stood.

Then from my side sprang Osritha before any could answer, meeting him first of all, and she threw her arms round his neck, saying:

"Dead is Lodbrok our father, and nigh to death for his sake has been Wulfric, your friend. Yet he at least is well, and here to speak with you and tell you all."

Then for the great and terrible sorrow that came at the end of the joyous homeward sailing, down on the hard sand Halfden the Jarl threw himself, and there lay weeping as these wild Danes can weep, for their sorrow is as terrible as their rage, and they will put no bounds to the way of grief of which there is no need for shame. Nor have they the hope that bids us sorrow not as they.

And while he lay there, all men held their peace, looking in one another's faces, and only the jarls and Osritha and myself stood near him.

Very suddenly he raised himself up, and was once more calm; then he kissed the maiden, and grasped his brothers' hands, and then held out both hands to me, holding mine and looking in my face.

"Other was the meeting I had planned for you and me, Wulfric, my brother-in-arms. Yet you are most welcome, for you at least are here to tell me of the days that are past."

"It is an ill telling," said Ingvar.

"That must needs be, seeing what is to be told," Hubba said quickly.

But those wise words of Osritha's had made things easier for me, for now Halfden knew that into the story of the jarl's death, I and my doings must come, so Ingvar's words meant little to him.

"You went not to Reedham?" I said, for now the men were at work again, and all was noise and bustle round us.

"I have come here first by Orkneys from Waterford, where we wintered," he answered. "And I have been over sure that no mishap might be in a long six months."

"What of the voyage?—let us speak of this hereafter," said Hubba.

And Halfden, wearily, as one who had lost all interest in his own doings, told him that it had been good, and that Thormod would give him the full tale of plunder.

Then came a chief from the ship whose face I knew, though he was not of our crew. It was that Rorik whose ship the Bosham bell had sunk, and who had been saved by Halfden's boats. He knew me, after scanning me idly for a moment, and greeted me, asking why I was not at Reedham to make that feast of which Halfden was ever speaking, and so passed on.

So we went up to the great hall in silence, sorely cast down; and that was Halfden's homecoming.

Little joy was there on the high place at the feast that night, though at the lower tables the men of our crew (for so I must ever think of those whose leader I had been for a little while, with Halfden) held high revelling with their comrades. Many were the tales they told, and when a tale of fight and victory was done, the scald would sing it in verse that should be kept and sung by the winter fire till new deeds brought new songs to take its place.

Presently Halfden rose up, after the welcome cup had gone round and feasting was done, and the ale and mead began to flow, and he beckoned me to come with him. Hubba would have come also, but Ingvar held him back.

"Let Wulfric have his say first," he growled; and I thanked him in my mind for his thought.

So we went to the inner chamber, where Osritha would sit with her maidens, and Halfden said:

"This matter is filling all my thoughts so that I am but a gloomy comrade at the board. Tell me all, and then what is done is done. One may not fight against the Norn maidens {xiv}."

There I told him all my story, and he remembered how I had told him, laughing, of Beorn's jealousy at first. And when my tale was nearly done Osritha crept from her bower and came and sat beside Halfden, pushing her hand into his, and resting her head on his shoulder.

Then I ended quickly, saying that Ingvar had done justice on Beorn. And at that remembrance the maiden shivered, and Halfden's face showed that he knew what the man's fate was like to have been at the great jarl's hands.

"So, brother," he said, when I left off speaking, "had I gone to Reedham there would have been burnt houses in East Anglia."

"In Reedham?" said I.

"Wherever this Beorn had a house; and at Caistor where that old fool Ulfkytel lives, and maybe at one or two other places on the way thither. And I think your father and Egfrid your brother would have helped me, or I them."

So he doubted me not at all, any more than I should have doubted his tale, were he in my place and I in his.

Then I said that I myself had no grudge against Earl Ulfkytel, for he had sent me here.

"Why then, no more have I," answered Halfden; "for he is a wiseacre and an honest one, and maybe meant kindly. Ingvar would have slain both guilty and innocent, and told them to take their wrangle elsewhere, to Hela or Asgard as the way might lead them."

Now as he said that, I, who looked ever on the face of her whom I loved, saw that a new fear had come into Osritha's heart, and that she feared somewhat for me. Nor could I tell what it was. But Halfden and I went on talking, and at last she could not forbear a little sob, and at that Halfden asked what ailed her.

"May I speak to you, my brother, very plainly, of one thing that I dread?" she asked, drawing closer to him.

"Aye, surely," he answered in surprise.

"Remember you the words that Ingvar said to the priest of the White Christ who came from Ansgar at Hedeby {xv}, while our father was away in the ships?"

"Why, they were like words. He bade him go and settle the matter with Odin whom he would not reverence, and so slew him."

"Aye, brother. And he said that so he would do to any man who would not honour the gods."

"Why do you remember that, Osritha?"

"Because—because there will be the great sacrifice tomorrow, and Wulfric, your friend, is not of our faith."

Then Halfden was silent, looking across at me, and all at once I knew that here was a danger greater than any I had yet been through. Fire I had passed through, and water, and now it was like to be trial by steel. And the first had tried my courage, and the next my endurance, as I thought; but this would try both, and my faith as well.

"That is naught," said Halfden, lightly. "It is but the signing of Thor's hammer, and I have seen Wulfric do that many a time, only not quite in our way, thus;" and he signed our holy sign all unknowing, or caring not. "And to eat of the horse that is sacrificed—why, you and I, Wulfric, did eat horse on the Frankish shores; and you thought it good, being nigh starved—you remember?"

I remembered, but that was different; for that we did because the shores were so well watched that we ran short of food, and had to take what we could under cover of night at one time. But this of which Osritha spoke was that which Holy Writ will by no means suffer us to do—to eat of a sacrifice to idols knowingly, for that would be to take part therein. Nor might I pretend that the holy sign was as the signing of Thor's Hammer.

"Halfden," I said, having full trust in him, "I may not do this. I may not honour the old gods, for so should I dishonour the White Christ whom I serve."

"This is more than I can trouble about in my mind," said Halfden; "but if it troubles you, I will help you somehow, brother Wulfric. But you must needs come to the sacrifice."

"Cannot I go hunting?"

"Why, no; all men must be present. And to be away would but make things worse, for there would be question."

Then I strengthened myself, and said that I must even go through with the matter, and so would have no more talk about it. But Osritha kept on looking sadly at me, and I knew that she was in fear for me.

Now presently we began to talk of my home and how they would mourn me as surely lost. And I said that this mourning would be likely to hinder my sister's wedding for a while. And then, to make a little more cheerful thought, I told Halfden what his father had said about his wishing that he had been earlier with us.

"Why, so do I," said my comrade, laughing a little; "for many reasons," he added more sadly, thinking how that all things would have been different had he sailed back at once.

Then he must needs go back to the question of the sacrifice.

"Now I would that you would turn good Dane and Thor's man, and bide here with us; and then maybe—"

But Osritha rose up quickly and said that she must begone, and so bade us goodnight and went her way into the upper story of that end of the great hall where her own place was. Whereat Halfden laughed quietly, looking at me, and when she was quite gone, and the heavy deerskins fell over the doorway, said, still smiling:

"How is this? It is in my mind that my father's wish might easily come to pass in another way not very unlike."

That was plain speaking, nor would I hesitate to meet the kindly look and smile, but said that indeed I had come to long that it might be so. But I said that the jarl, his father, had himself shown me that no man should leave his old faith but for better reasons than those of gain, however longed for. For that is what he had answered Eadmund the king when the land was offered him, and he was asked to become a Christian.

"Yet if such a thing might be," said Halfden, "gladly would I hail you as brother in very truth."

So we sat without speaking for a while, and then Halfden said that were I to stand among the crowd of men on the morrow there would surely be no notice taken of me.

Yet as I lay on my wolf skins at the head of the great hall, and prayed silently—as was my wont among these heathen—I asked for that same help that had been given to men of old time who were in the same sore strait as I must very likely be in tomorrow.

Then came to me the thought: "What matters if outwardly I reverence Thor and Odin while I inwardly deny them?" and that excuse had nigh got the better of me. But I minded what our king had told me many a time: how that in the first christening of our people it had ever been held to be a denying of our faith to taste the heathen sacrifices, or to bow the head in honour, even but outward, of the idols, so that many had died rather than do so. And he had praised those who thus gave up their life.

Then, too, I remembered the words of the Prior of Bosham concerning martyrs. And we had been led to speak of them by this very question as to sacrifice to the Danish gods. So I made up my mind that if I might escape notice, I would do so—and if not, then would I bear the worst.

So I fell asleep at last. And what it may have been I know not—unless the wind as it eddied through the high windows clashed some weapon against shield on the walls with a clear ringing sound—but I woke with the voice of Bosham bell in my ears—and Rorik and Halfden each in his place started also, and Rorik muttered a curse before he lay down again, for he sat up, looking wildly.

But greatly cheered with that token was I, for I knew that help was not far from me, and after that I had no more fear, but slept peacefully, though I thought it was like to be my last night on earth.



CHAPTER X. WHAT BEFELL AT THE GREAT SACRIFICE.

Very early in the gray morning Halfden woke me, and he was fully armed, while at the lower end of the hall the courtmen were rising and arming themselves also, for Vikings must greet Odin as warriors ready to do battle for him when Ragnaroek {xvi} and the last great fight shall come.

"Rise and arm yourself," he said; "here are the arms in which you fought well in your first fight, and axe and sword beside. Now you shall stand with our crew, and so none of them will heed you, for they love you, and know your ways are not as ours. So will all be well."

Then I thanked him, for I surely thought it would be so; and I armed myself, and that man who had been my own shield man when I led the midship gang helped me. One thing only I wished, and that was that I had the axe which Lodbrok made for me, for then, I told the man, I should feel as a Viking again, and that pleased him.

"However," he said, "I think I have found an axe that is as near like your own as may be."

And he had done so, having had that kindly thought for me. Then we went out, for the horns were blowing outside the town in the ash grove where the Ve, as they call the temple of Odin and Thor and the other gods, was. And overhead, high and unseen in the air, croaked the ravens, Odin's birds, scared from their resting places by the tramp of men, yet knowing that their share in the feast was to come.

I shivered, but the sound of the war horns, and the weight and clank of the well-known arms, stirred my blood at last, and when we fell in for our short march, Halfden and Thormod, Rorik and myself leading our crew, I was ready for all that might come, if need for a brave heart should be.

Silently we filed through the bare trunks of the ashes, the trees of Thor, where many a twisted branch and dead trunk showed that the lightning had been at work, until we came to the place of the Ve in its clearing.

There stood the sanctuary, a little hut—hardly more—built of ash-tree logs set endwise on a stone footing, and roofed with logs of ash, and closed with heavy doors made of iron-bolted ash timber also. This temple stood under the mightiest ash tree of all, and there was a clear circle of grass, tree bordered, for a hundred yards all round it, and all that circle was lined with men, armed and silent.

Before the temple was a fire-reddened stone, the altar. And on it were graven runes, and symbols so strange that neither I nor any man could read them, so old were they, for some men said that stone and runes alike were older than the worship of Odin himself, having been an altar to gods that were before him. And a pile of wood was ready on the altar.

Beside it stood Ingvar, clad in golden shining scale armour, and with a gilded horned helm and scarlet cloak that hung from shoulders to heel; for as his forefathers had been before him, beyond the time when the Danes and Angles came from their far eastern home {xvii}, led by Odin himself, he was the "godar", the priest of the great gods of Asgard, and his it was to offer the sacrifice now that Lodbrok his father was dead.

Now, as I stood there I thought how my father had told me that our own family had been the godars of our race in the old days, so that he and I in turn should have taken our place at such an offering as Ingvar was about to make. And straightway I seemed to be back in the long dead past, when on these same shores my forbears had worshipped thus before seeking the new lands that they won beyond the seas. And that was a strange thought, yet now I should know from what our faith had brought us.

In a little while all Ingvar's following had come, and there were many chiefs whose faces I had seen of late as they came to plan the great raid that was to be when the season came. And the men with them were very many, far more than we could have gathered to a levy on so short notice; and all were well armed, and stood in good order as trained and hardened warriors. No longer could I wonder at all I had heard of the numbers of the Danish hosts who came to our shores, and were even now in Northumbria, unchecked.

There was silence in all the great ring of men; and only the rustle of the wind in the thick-standing ash trees around us—that seemed to hem us in like a gray wall round the clearing—and the quick croak and flap of broad wings as the ravens wheeled ever nearer overhead, broke the stillness.

We of the crew for whose good voyage and safe return the offering was made stood foremost, facing the altar stone and the sanctuary door, and I, with Halfden and Thormod before me, and men of the crew to right and left, stood in the centre of our line, so that I could see all that went on.

Then, seeing that all was ready, Ingvar swung back the heavy door of the shrine, and I saw before me a great image of Thor the mighty, glaring with sightless eyes across the space at me. It was carved in wood, and the god stood holding in one hand Mioelner, his great hammer, and in the other the head of the Midgaard serpent, whose tailed curled round his legs, as though it were vainly trying to struggle free.

Then Ingvar turned and lighted the altar fire, and the smoke rose straight up and hung in the heavy morning air in a cloud over the Ve; and that seemed to be of good omen, for the men shouted joyfully once, and were again silent.

From behind the sanctuary two armed men led the horse for the sacrifice that should be feasted on thereafter; and it was a splendid colt, black and faultless, so that to me it seemed a grievous thing that its life should thus be spilt for naught. Yet I was the only one there who deemed it wasted.

Then Ingvar chanted words to which I would not listen, lest my heart should seem to echo them, so taking part in the heathen prayer. Over the horse he signed Thor's hammer, and slew it with Thor's weapon, and the two men flayed and divided it skilfully, laying certain portions before the jarl, the godar.

He sprinkled the blood upon doorway and statue, and then again chanting, laid those portions upon the altar fire, and the black smoke rose up from them, while all the host watched for what omens might follow.

The smoke rose, wavered, and went up, and then some breath of wind took it and drifted it gently into the open temple, winding it round the head of Thor's image and filling all the little building. And at that the men shouted again.

Then Ingvar turned slowly towards the shrine, and drawing his sword, lifted up the broad shining blade as if in salute, crying as he turned the point north and east and south and west:

"Skoal, ye mighty Ones!"

And at once, as one man all the host, save myself only, lifted their weapons in salute, crying in a voice that rolled back from the trees like an answering war shout:

"Skoal to the mighty Ones!"

But as for me, I stirred not, save that as by nature, and because I fixed my thoughts on the One Sacrifice of our own faith, I signed myself with the sign of the cross, only knowing this, that Thor and Odin I would not worship.

Suddenly, even as the echo of the shout died away, and while the weapons were yet upraised, the thick cloud of smoke rolled back and down, wrapping round Ingvar the godar as he stood between shrine and altar, and across the reek glared the sightless eyes of the idol again, cold and heedless.

Now of all omens that was the worst, for it must needs betoken that the sacrifice was not pleasing; and at that a low groan as of fear went round the host. Then back started Ingvar, and I saw his face through the smoke, looking white as ashes. For a long time, as it seemed to me, there was silence, until the smoke rose up straight again and was lost in the treetops. Even the ravens, scared maybe by the great shout, were gone, and all was very still.

At last Ingvar turned slowly to us and faced our crew.

"The sacrifice is yours," he said, "and if it is not accepted the fault is yours also. We are clear of blame who have bided at home."

Then Halfden answered for his men and himself:

"I know not what blame is to us."

But from close behind me Rorik lifted his voice:

"No blame to the crew—but here is one, a stranger, who does no honour to the gods, neither lifting sword or hailing them as is right, even before Thor's image."

Then I knew that the worst was come, and prepared to meet it. But Halfden spoke.

"All men's customs are not alike, and a stranger has his own ways."

But Ingvar's face was black with rage, and not heeding Halfden, he shouted:

"Set the man before me."

No man stirred, for indeed I think that most of our crew knew not who was meant, and those near me would, as Halfden told me, say nought.

Then said Ingvar to Rorik: "Point the man to me."

Then Rorik pointed to me. So I stood forth of my own accord, not looking at him, but at Ingvar.

"So," said the jarl, harshly, "you dare to dishonour Thor?"

I answered boldly, feeling very strong in the matter.

"I dishonour no man's religion, Jarl, neither yours nor my own."

"You did no honour to the Asir," he said sternly.

"Thor and Odin are not the gods I worship," I answered.

"I know. You are one of those who have left the gods of your fathers."

Then one of our men, who had stood next to me, spoke for me, as he thought.

"I saw Wulfric sign Thor's hammer even now. What more does any man want from a Saxon?"

Thereat Ingvar scowled, knowing, as I think, what this was.

"You claim to be truth teller," he said; "did you sign Thor's hammer?"

"I did not," I answered.

Then Halfden came to my side.

"Let Wulfric go his own way, brother. What matters it what gods he worships so long as he is good warrior and true man, as I and my men know him to be?"

So he looked round on the faces of my comrades, and they answered in many ways that this was so. And several cried:

"Let it be, Jarl. What is one man to Thor and Odin?"

Now I think that Ingvar would have let the matter pass thus, for the word of the host is not lightly to be disregarded. But Rorik would not suffer it.

"What of the wrath of the gods, Godar?" he said. "How will you put that aside?"

Then was a murmur that they must be appeased, but it came not from our crew; and Ingvar stood frowning, but not looking at me for a space, for he was pulled two ways. As godar he must not pass by the dishonour to the gods, yet as the son of the man whom I had saved, how could he harm me? And Rorik, seeing this, cried:

"I hold that this man should live no longer."

"Why, what dishonour has he done the gods?" said Halfden. "If he had scoffed, or said aught against them—that were a different thing. And what does Thor there care if one man pays no heed to him? Surely he can keep his own honour—leave it to him."

"It is dishonour to Thor not to hail him," said Rorik.

Now Ingvar spoke again to me:

"Why do you no honour to the gods?"

"My fathers honoured them, for the godarship was theirs, and would have been my father's and mine, even as it is yours, Jarl Ingvar. For good reason they left that honour and chose another way and a better. And to that way I cleave. I have done despite to no man's faith—neither to yours nor my own."

At that Rorik lost patience, and lifting his axe, ground his teeth and said savagely:

"I will even make you honour Thor yonder."

Now at that Halfden saw a chance for me, and at once stayed Rorik's hand, saying in a loud voice:

"Ho! this is well. Let Wulfric and Rorik fight out this question—and then the life of him who is slain will surely appease the gods."

That pleased our crew well, for they had no great love for Rorik, who had taken too much command on him, for a stranger on board. Now, too, Ingvar's brows cleared, for he cared nothing for the life of either of us, so that the gods were satisfied with blood. And he said:

"So shall it be. Take axes and make short work of it. If Wulfric can slay Rorik, we know that he is innocent of aught to dishonour the gods. But if he is slain—then on his head is the blame."

Then he looked round and added:

"Let Guthrum and Hubba see fair play."

Now came Hubba, pleased enough, for he knew my axe play, and that chief whom they called Guthrum, a square, dark man with a pleasant, wise face, and took four spears, setting them up at the corners of a twelve-pace square, between the line of our crew and the altar.

So now it seemed to me that I must fight for our faith, for truth against falsehood, darkness against light. And I was confident, knowing this, that the death of one for the faith is often the greatest victory. So I said:

"I thank you, Jarl. I will fight willingly for my faith."

"Fight for what you like," said Ingvar, "but make haste over it."

Then Hubba and Guthrum placed me at one side of the square, and Rorik at the opposite. And I faced the image of Thor, so that under the very eyes of the idol I hated I must prove my faith.

Then came a longing into my mind to lift my axe in Thor's face and defy him, but I put it away, for how should an idol know of threat or defiance? Surely that would be to own some power of his.

When we were ready, Hubba and Guthrum, each with drawn swords, stood on either side of the spear-marked square, and signed to Ingvar to give the word. At once he did so.

Then I strode forward five paces and waited, but Rorik edged round me, trying to gain some vantage of light, and I watched him closely.

And all the host stood silent, holding breath, and the altar smoke rose up over our heads, and the ravens croaked in the trees, and over all stared the great statue of Thor, seeing naught.

Then like a wolf Rorik sprang at me, smiting at my left shoulder where no shield was to guard me. And that was Rorik's last stroke, for even as I had parried Thormod's stroke in sport, the man's wrist lit on the keen edge of my axe, so that hand and weapon flew far beyond me with the force of his stroke. Then flashed my axe, and Rorik fell with his helm cleft in twain.

Then roared our crew, cheering me:

"Skoal to the axeman! Ahoy!"

But I looked at Ingvar, and said:

"Short work have I made, Jarl."

Whereat he laughed a grim laugh, only answering:

"Aye, short enough. The gods are appeased."

Then I went back to my place beside Halfden, and our men patted my back, praising me, roughly and heartily, for it is not a viking's way to blame a man for slaying a comrade in fair fight and for good reason.

Now Ingvar stood before the shrine, and called to the gods to be heedful of the blood spilt to purge whatever dishonour or wrong had been done. And he hung up the weapons of the slain man in the shrine, and after that closed its doors and barred them; and we marched from the Ve silently and swiftly, leaving the body of Rorik alone for a feast to the birds of Odin before the dying altar fire.

Now was I light hearted, thinking that the worst was past, and so also thought Halfden, so that we went back and sought Osritha, who waited, pale and anxious, to know how things should go with me, and when we found her I saw that she had been weeping.

"Why, my sister," said Halfden, "hardly would you have wept for my danger—or weeping you would be from my sailing to return."

But she answered not a word, and turned away, for his saying made her tears come afresh.

"Now am I a blunderer," said Halfden. "If there is one thing that I fear it is a weeping maiden."

And with that he went from the room, leaving me.

Then I took upon me to comfort Osritha, nor was that a hard task. And again I would have gone through this new danger I had faced, for it had brought the one I loved to my arms.

Not long might we be together, for now the feasting began, and I must go to Halfden and his brothers in the great hall. And then came remembrance to me. For now must I refuse to eat of the horse sacrifice, and maybe there would be danger in that. Yet I thought that no man would trouble more about me and my ways, so that I said naught of it to Osritha.

So I sat between Halfden and Thormod at the high place, and the whole hall was full of men seated at the long tables that ran from end to end, and across the wide floor. The womenfolk and thralls went busily up and down serving, and it was a gay show enough to look on, for all were in their best array.

Yet it seemed to me that the men were silent beyond their wont, surly even in their talk, for the fear of the omen of that eddying smoke was yet on them. And presently I felt and saw that many eyes were watching me, and those in no very friendly wise. Some of the men who watched were strangers to me, but as they sat among our crew, they must be the rest of the saved from Rorik's following. Others were men from beyond the village walls, and as Rorik's men had some reason and the others knew me not, I thought little of their unfriendly looks.

At last they brought round great cauldrons, in which were flesh hooks; to every man in turn, and first of all to Ingvar himself. He thrust the hook in, and brought up a great piece of meat, cutting for himself therefrom, and at once every man before whom a cauldron waited, did likewise, and it passed on. They signed Thor's hammer over the meat and began to eat.

Now after Ingvar had helped himself, the cauldron came to Guthrum, and then to Halfden, and then it must come to me, and I had heaped food before me that I might pass it by more easily, knowing that this was the sacrificed meat of which I might not eat. But the men stayed before me, and I made a sign to them to pass by, and honest Thormod leaned across me to take his share quickly, and they passed to him, wondering at me a little, but maybe thinking nothing of it. They were but thralls, and had not been at the Ve.

But Rorik's men had their eyes on me, and when the cauldron passed Thormod, and I had not taken thereout, one rose up and said, pointing to me:

"Lo! this Saxon will not eat of the sacrifice."

At that was a growl of wrath from the company, and Ingvar rose, looking over the heads of my comrades, saying:

"Have a care, thou fool; go not too far with me."

Then Guthrum laughed and said:

"This is foolishness to mind him; moreover, he has fought for and won his right to please himself in the matter."

So too said Halfden and Thormod, but against their voices were now many raised, saying that ill luck would be with the host for long enough, if this were suffered openly.

Now a Dane or Norseman takes no heed of the religion of other folk unless the matter is brought forward in this way, too plainly to be overlooked. But then, being jealous for his own gods, whom he knows to be losing ground, he must needs show that he is so. Nor do I blame him, for it is but natural.

So to these voices Ingvar the godar must needs pay heed, even if his own patience were not gone, so that he might not suffer that one should sit at the board of Thor and Odin, untasting and unacknowledging.

He called to two of his courtmen.

"Take this man away," he said, very sternly, "and put him in ward till tomorrow. Today is the feast, and we have had enough trouble over the business already."

The two men came towards me, and all men were hushed, waiting to see if I would fight. As they came I rose from my place, and they thought I would resist, for they shifted their sword hilts to the front, ready to hand. But I unbuckled my sword belt, and cast the weapon down, following them quietly, for it was of no good to fight hopelessly for freedom in a strange land.

Many men scowled at me as I passed, and more than one cried out on me. But Halfden and Thormod and Hubba, and more than were angry, seemed glad that this was all the harm that came to me just now. And Ingvar leaned back in his great chair and did not look at me, though his face was dark.

They put me into a cell, oak walled and strong, and there left me, unfettered, but with a heavily-barred door between me and freedom; and if I could get out, all Denmark and the sea around me held me prisoner.

Yet I despaired not altogether, for already I had gone through much danger, and my strength had not failed me.

Now, how I spent the daylight hours of that imprisonment any Christian man may know, seeing that I looked for naught but death. And at last, when darkness fell, I heard low voices talking outside for a little while, and I supposed that a watch was set, for the cell door opened to the courtyard from the back of the great house.

Now I thought I would try to sleep, for the darkness was very great, and just as I lay down in a corner the barring of the door was moved, and the door opened gently.

"Do you sleep, Wulfric?" said Halfden's voice, speaking very low.

"What is it, brother?" I asked in as low a voice, for I had not been a viking for naught.

I saw his form darken the gray square of the doorway, and he came in and swung to the door after him; then his hand sought my shoulder, and I heard a clank of arms on the floor.

"See here, Wulfric," he said, "you are in evil case; for all Rorik's men and the men from outside are calling for your death; they say that Rorik had no luck against you because the Asir are angry, and that so it will be with all the host until you have paid penalty."

"What say you and our crew?"

"Why, we had good luck with you on board, and hold that Rorik had done somewhat which set Thor against him, for he got shipwrecked, and now is killed. So we know that your ways do not matter to Thor or Odin or any one of the Asir, who love a good fighter. But we know not why you are so obstinate; still that is your business, not ours."

"What says Ingvar?" I asked.

"Naught; but he is godar."

"Aye," said I. "So I must die, that is all. What said Ragnar Lodbrok about that?"

And I spoke to him the brave words that his forefather sang as he died, and which he loved:

"Whether in weapon play Under the war cloud, Full in the face of Death Fearless he fronts him, Death is the bane of The man who is bravest, He loveth life best who Furthest from danger lives. Sooth is the saying that Strongest the Norns are. Lo! at my life's end I laugh—and I die."

"Nay, my brother," said Halfden earnestly; "think of me, and of Osritha, and seem to bow at least."

That word spoken by my friend was the hardest I ever had to bear, for now I was drawn by the love that had been so newly given me. And I put my hands before my face and thought, while he went on:

"If I were asked to give up these gods of ours, who, as it seems to me, pay mighty little heed to us—and I knew that good exchange was offered me—well then—I should—"

I ended that word for him.

"You would do even as your father, and say that unless for better reason than gain—aye, however longed for—you would not."

"Aye—maybe I would, after all," he answered, and was silent.

Then he said, "Guthrum and I spoke just now, and he said that your faith must be worth more than he knew, to set you so fixedly on it."

Now I would have told him that it was so, but there came a little sound at the door, and Halfden went and opened it. Across its half darkness came a woman's form, and Osritha spoke in her soft voice.

"Brother, are you here yet?"

"Aye, sister, both of us—come and persuade this foolish Wulfric."

Then I spoke quickly, for it seemed to me that if Osritha spoke and urged me, I should surely give way.

"Nay, but you must not persuade me—would you have had us Christians bid your father choose between death and gain for the sake of winning him to our faith?"

Then said Halfden, "That would I not."

But in the dark Osritha came to my side and clung to me, so that I was between those two whom I loved and must lose, for Halfden held my right hand, and Osritha my left, and she was weeping silently for me.

"Listen," I said, for the speaking must be mine lest they should prevail. "Should I die willingly for one who has given His life for me?"

"Aye, surely—if that might be," said Halfden.

"Now it comes into my mind that hereafter you will know that I do not die for naught. For He whom I worship died for me. Nor may I refuse to spend life in His honour."

Then they were silent, until Osritha found her voice and said:

"We knew not that. I will not be the one to hold you from what is right."

At that Halfden rose up, for he had found a seat of logs and sat by me on it, sighing a long sigh, but saying:

"Well, this is even as I thought, and I will not blame you, my brother. Fain would I have kept you here, and sorely will Osritha pine when you are gone. But you shall not die, else will the justice of Ulfkytel come to naught."

Then I heard again the clank of arms, and Halfden bent down, as I might feel.

"Can you arm yourself in the dark?" he said.

"Why, surely! It is not for the first time," I answered.

He thrust my mail shirt against me, and laid a sword in my hand, and set my helm on my head, all awry because of the darkness.

"Quickly," he said.

Then a new hope that came to me made me clasp Osritha's hand and kiss it before I must see to arming myself; but she clung to me yet, and I kissed her gently, then turning away sorely troubled went to work.

Soon I was ready for Halfden's word, and Osritha buckled on my sword for me, for she had felt and taken it. Halfden opened the door and went out into the night, speaking low to one whom I could not see; and so I bade farewell to her whom I loved so dearly, not knowing if I should ever look on her again.

But she bade me hope ever, for nor she nor I knew what the days to come might bring us.

"Ready," said Halfden; "follow me as if you were a courtman till we come to the outer gate."

Then with Osritha's handclasp still warm on mine I went out and followed him, and she sought the maiden who waited beside the door, and was gone.

When we came to the great gates, they were shut. The sounds of feasting went on in the hall, and the red light glared from the high windows. Forgotten was all but revelling—and the guard who kept the gate was Raud the forester, my friend. He opened the gates a little, and we three slipped out and stood for a moment together. The night was very dark, and the wind howled and sang through the stockading, and none seemed to be about the place.

There Halfden took my hand and bade me farewell very sadly.

"This is the best I may do for you, my brother. Go with Raud to his house, and thence he and Rolf and Thoralf your shield man, who all love you, will take you even to Hedeby, where there are Christian folk who will help you to the sea and find passage to England. And fare you well, my brother, for the days we longed for in your land will never be—"

"Come in the ship to England, that so there may be good times even yet," I said.

"Aye, to England I shall surely come—not to seek you, but at Ingvar's bidding. Yet to East Anglia for your sake I will not come."

Then he grasped my hand again in farewell, and he went inside the gates and closed them, and Raud and I went quickly to his place.

There we found those two other good friends of mine waiting, and they told me that all was well prepared to save them from the wrath of Ingvar, for they had been bidden to carry messages, and other men of the crew who lived far off would do this for them, for I feared for their lives also when the flight was known.

Long was the way to Hedeby, where Ansgar the Bishop had built the first church in all Denmark. But we won there at last and in safety. And there Ansgar's folk received me well, and I parted from my three comrades, not without grief, so that I asked them to take service with us in England. Almost they consented, but Rolf and Thoralf had wives and children, and Raud would by no means leave his brother.

Now in a few days, a company of merchants went from Hedeby with goods for England, and with them I went; and in no long time I came into Ingild's house by London Bridge, and was once more at home as the second week in May began.



CHAPTER XI. THE COMING OF INGVAR'S HOST.

Aught but joy did I look for in my homecoming, but it was all too like that of Halfden, my friend.

No need to say how my kind godfather met me as one come back from the dead, nor how I sent gifts back to Ansgar's people, who sorely needed help in those days.

But very gently the old man told me that Elfric my father was dead, passing suddenly but a month since, while by his side sat Ulfkytel the Earl, blaming himself for his blindness and for his haste in not waiting for the king's judgment, and yet bidding my father take heart, for he had never known his ways of justice fail. And he asked forgiveness also, for there had been a deadly feud concerning this between him and my people, so that but for Eadmund the King there would have been fighting. Yet when one told Ulfkytel that men held that my father's heart broke at my loss, the great earl had made haste to come and see him, and to say these things. So they made peace at last.

When I knew this it seemed to me that I had lost all, and for long I cared for nothing, going about listless, so that Ingild feared that I too should grow sick and die. But I was young and strong, and this could not last, and at length I grew reconciled to things as they were, and Ingild would speak with me of all that I had seen in Denmark.

Now when I told him what I feared of the coming of Ingvar's host he grew grave, and asked many things about it.

"Ethelred the King is at Reading," he said; "let us go and speak to him of this matter."

So we rode thither, and that ride through the pleasant Thames-side country was good for me. And when we came to the great house where the king lay, we had no trouble in finding the way to him, for Ingild was well known, and one of the great Witan {xviii} also.

I told Ethelred the king of England all that I had learned, and he was troubled. Only we three were in his council chamber, and to us he spoke freely.

"What can I do? Much I fear that East Anglia must fight her own battles at this time. Pressed am I on the west by Welsh and Dane, and my Wessex men have their hands full with watching both. And it is hard to get men of one kingdom to fight alongside those of another, even yet. And this I know full well, that until a host lands I can gather no levy, for our men will not wait for a foe that may never come."

I knew that his words were true, and could say nothing. Only I thought that it had been better if we had held to our Mercian overlords in Ecgberht's time than fight for this Wessex sovereign who was far from us; for that unhealed feud with Mercia seemed to leave us alone now.

"Yet," said Ethelred, "these men are not such great chiefs, as it seems. Maybe their threats will come to naught."

But I told him of that great gathering at the sacrifice, and said also that I thought that needs must those crowded folks seek riches elsewhere than at home. Then he asked me many things of the corn and cattle and richness of the land; and when I told him what I had seen, he looked at me and Ingild.

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