The Project Gutenberg eBook of Randvar the songsmith, by Ottilie Adelina Liljencrantz
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Title: Randvar the songsmith
Author: Ottilie Adelina Liljencrantz
Release Date: April 5, 2023 [eBook #70472]
Produced by: Richard Tonsing and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at https://www.pgdp.net (This file was produced from images generously made available by The Internet Archive)
*** START OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK RANDVAR THE SONGSMITH ***
The cover image was created by the transcriber and is placed in the public domain.
[See p. 131
“SHE KNELT DOWN BEFORE HIM.... THE WOMAN IN HER PLEADED AS BEFORE A LAWMAN”
Ottilie A. Liljencrantz
“The Thrall of Leif the Lucky” etc.
New York and London
Harper & Brothers Publishers
Copyright, 1906, by Harper & Brothers.
All rights reserved.
Published February, 1906.
“Yet onward still to ear and eye
The baffling marvel calls;
I fain would look before I die
On Norumbega’s walls.”
—John Greenleaf Whittier
The Skeleton in Armor
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
“Speak! speak! thou fearful guest!
Who, with thy hollow breast
Still in rude armor drest,
Comest to daunt me!
Wrapt not in Eastern balms,
But with thy fleshless palms
Stretched, as if asking alms,
Why dost thou haunt me?”
Then, from those cavernous eyes
Pale flashes seem to rise,
As when the Northern skies
Gleam in December;
And, like the water’s flow
Under December’s snow,
Came a dull voice of woe
From the heart’s chamber.
“I was a Viking old!
My deeds, though manifold,
No Skald in song has told,
No Saga taught thee!
Take heed, that in thy verse
Thou dost the tale rehearse,
Else dread a dead man’s curse;
For this I sought thee.
vi“Far in the Northern Land,
By the wild Baltic strand,
I, with my childish hand,
Tamed the gerfalcon;
And, with my skates fast-bound,
Skimmed the half-frozen Sound,
That the poor whimpering hound
Trembled to walk on.
“Oft to his frozen lair
Tracked I the grisly bear,
While from my path the hare
Fled like a shadow;
Oft through the forest dark
Followed the were-wolf’s bark,
Until the soaring lark
Sang from the meadow.
“But when I older grew,
Joining a corsair’s crew,
O’er the dark sea I flew
With the marauders.
Wild was the life we led;
Many the souls that sped;
Many the hearts that bled,
By our stern orders.
“Many a wassail-bout
Wore the long winter out;
Often our midnight shout
Set the cocks crowing,
As we the Berserk’s tale
Measured in cups of ale,
Draining the oaken pail,
Filled to o’erflowing.
“Once as I told in glee
Tales of the stormy sea,
Soft eyes did gaze on me,
Burning yet tender;
vii And as the white stars shine
On the dark Norway pine,
On that dark heart of mine
Fell their soft splendor.
“I wooed the blue-eyed maid,
Yielding, yet half afraid,
And in the forest’s shade,
Our vows were plighted.
Under its loosened vest
Fluttered her little breast,
Like birds within their nest
By the hawk frighted.
“Bright in her father’s hall
Shield gleamed upon the wall,
Loud sang the minstrels all,
Chanting his glory;
When of old Hildebrand
I asked his daughter’s hand,
Mute did the minstrels stand
To hear my story.
“While the brown ale he quaffed,
Loud then the champion laughed,
And as the wind-gusts waft
The sea-foam brightly,
So the loud laugh of scorn,
Out of those lips unshorn,
From the deep drinking-horn
Blew the foam lightly.
“She was a Prince’s child,
I but a Viking wild,
And though she blushed and smiled,
I was discarded!
Should not the dove so white
Follow the sea-mew’s flight,
Why did they leave that night
Her nest unguarded?
viii“Scarce had I put to sea,
Bearing the maid with me,—
Fairest of all was she
Among the Norsemen!—
When on the white sea-strand,
Waving his armed hand,
Saw we old Hildebrand,
With twenty horsemen.
“Then launched they to the blast,
Bent like a reed each mast,
Yet we were gaining fast,
When the wind failed us;
And with a sudden flaw
Came round the gusty Skaw
So that our foe we saw
Laugh as he hailed us.
“And as to catch the gale
Round veered the flapping sail,
Death! was the helmsman’s hail,
Death without quarter!
’Midships with iron keel
Struck we her ribs of steel;
Down her black hulk did reel
Through the black water!
“As with his wings aslant,
Sails the fierce cormorant,
Seeking some rocky haunt,
With his prey laden,
So toward the open main,
Beating to sea again,
Through the wild hurricane,
Bore I the maiden.
“Three weeks we westward bore
And when the storm was o’er,
Cloud-like we saw the shore
Stretching to leeward;
ix There for my lady’s bower
Built I the lofty tower,
Which, to this very hour,
Stands looking seaward.
“There lived we many years;
Time dried the maiden’s tears;
She had forgot her fears,
She was a mother;
Death closed her mild blue eyes,
Under that tower she lies;
Ne’er shall the sun arise
On such another!
“Still grew my bosom then,
Still as a stagnant fen!
Hateful to me were men,
The sunlight hateful!
In the vast forest here,
Clad in my warlike gear,
Fell I upon my spear,
O, death was grateful!
“Thus, seamed with many scars
Bursting these prison bars
Up to its native stars
My soul ascended!
There from the flowing bowl
Deep drinks the warrior’s soul,
Skoal! to the Northland! SKOAL!”
Thus the tale ended.
Randvar the Songsmith
“A man’s foes are those of his own house”
In the old world over the ocean thestorm of the Norman Conquest wasraging, but no rumble of it reachedacross the water to the new worldand that oasis in the wildernesswhich men call now the lost city of Norumbega,but which was known in those days as the Townof Starkad Jarl. There in the primeval forest thebreath of October was a silver elixir in the air, andthe morning breeze carried only the notes of hunting-horns.When half a dozen young Norsemencame galloping down a tree-arched aisle, their talkdealt with no greater matter than the latest freakof their Jarl’s freakish son.
“It is seen from the hoof-marks that he has2not turned aside. We need not wait long to overtake—”
“Suppose he should not want to turn back—”
“Heard I never of a jarl’s hunt that began byhunting the Jarl’s son!”
“He was quiet in riding out of the Town withus; what caused him to spur ahead?”
“Only that he had a whim to be alone, as he isapt.”
“I remember how he broke away once lastspring.”
“It may be that this fall he has done it once toooften. Starkad is wroth.”
So the talk ran on until the tall leader drewrein, signalling to those behind him to check theirpace.
“Slowly!” he said. “Yonder is his horse tethered.It would ill become us to ride upon Starkad’sson as though we were charging a boar.”
“Even though we shall be as ill-received as ifwe were,” the youngest of the horsemen addedwith a laugh of some uneasiness.
The leader smiled tolerantly. He wore on hislong body fine clothes of scarlet leather, and onhis thin lips the semblance of a perpetual smile.
“Everything grows big in your eyes,” he observed.“There! I think I see gray cloth amongthose green bushes. It were best to ride on until3we come where he may see that there are toomany of us to withstand; then one of us can dismountand approach him with the message.”
The youngest of the riders laughed again, thistime somewhat sarcastically. “No one is betterfitted to take that task on him than yourself, Olaf,Thorgrim’s son. For what else did you spendyour fosterhood in France but to get smooth mannersto use in rough places?”
“Yes, yes! By all means, Olaf is the man!”the others chorussed, a hint of malice in theirpromptness.
If Thorgrim’s French-reared son read the sign,it made no difference in the confidence of his bearing.He answered that if it was their wish hewould certainly undertake the errand, and immediatelyswung from his saddle as gaining thegreen bushes, they came into view of the wearerof the gray kirtle.
Prone on the earth’s broad bosom the youngnoble had thrown himself and lay with his headpillowed on his folded arms, a figure of utter abandon.Only at the clink of spur and bridle-chaindid he turn upon his side and fling back a mass ofblood-red hair from a face of startling pallor. Whatlook came into it when he beheld the horsemen,they were not near enough to tell. By the time Olafstood before him, his teeth were showing a snarl.
4“Well, dog, you have tracked your quarry,” hesaid. “No wonder your trainers set store by you!What is the rest of your master’s bidding?”
Olaf laughed lightly. “Certainly, Jarl’s son,you should be a scald; you speak so glibly in figures.Starkad sends you orders to turn back andtake your place again in the following.”
Starkad’s son drew himself slowly into a sittingposture. Then of a sudden his body was convulsedwith laughter,—laughter mocking as themirth of a devil.
“Who am I that I should stand in the way ofthe Jarl’s will?” he gasped between his paroxysms,and shaking with them rose to his feet.
But when he had come where the youngest ofthe riders was holding his horse in waiting, eitherthe young man’s ill-concealed uneasiness, or somereminder growing out of it, caused his mood tochange. With his foot in the stirrup he lingered,sobering until his face betrayed even the pinchinghand of dread. Vaulting into his saddle, he spoketo his attendant without looking at him.
“I see they have turned my hound Sam intothe pack, though the wound on his foot is still unhealed.Will you, Gunnar, do one thing for me?Separate him from the rest and bring him to mein a strong leash.”
“In this as in everything you have only to5speak to have your will,” Gunnar gave the prescribedanswer absently. It was not until he feltthe foot of a friend behind him that he awoke tothe mockery of the phrase, and glanced up appalled.
But the exasperation lightning at him did notstrike. Amid silence, breathless, storm-charged,the Jarl’s son took the reins from him, wheeled hishorse and rode back up the leafy path and out ofsight.
In a moment Olaf was spurring after Starkad’sson, but the remainder of the escort appeared tobe in no great haste to follow. First they waitedwhile Gunnar examined the buckle of his girth;then they turned to scrutinize two figures justemerging into the open from a brush-hidden traila few paces on their right.
Two young stags browsing the scarlet berriesunder the pines would scarcely have looked morenatural to the scene, for one was a savage of thatnew-world race which the early Norse explorerscalled Skraellings, with hair as black as freshlyturned leaf-mould, and a shining naked body ofthe hue of an oak-leaf in November; and the other,in the deerskin garb of a forester, with uncoveredlocks reflecting the sun, was a descendant of theVikings themselves and showed untamed blood inhis handsome face as he raised it to look ahead atthe horsemen.
6The red man the courtiers passed over indifferently,but on the white one they were beginningfavorable comment when the call of a distant horncut them short. Wheeling hastily, they gave theirhorses spur and rein, and passed up the shadedalley like a whirl of frost-tinted maple-leaves.
Upon them, the young forester made but oneremark. He and his companion had halted as at aparting of the ways, and his hands were busy detachinga deer’s-horn cup from his belt.
“I would travel a day’s journey to see a horserun like that,” he said. “Often I dream of feelingone between my knees, and waken because myenjoyment is too real for a vision.”
The young savage’s throat gave out a sound ofcomprehending, and his friend did not wait for alonger response. He had filled the horn from aflask of porcupine-skin that hung around his neck;now he raised it aloft.
“To you, comrade! May your arrows and yourswallows always go the right way. Skoal!” hetoasted, then refilled the cup and handed it to theother, who answered in the same Northern tongue,though haltingly.
“To my brother! May he drink much of hisenemies’ blood—as much as his friends have drunkof his wine. Skoal!”
It was not seen that the Northman made any7grimace. While his mouth showed no bloodthirstiness,its hard line bespoke one used to grimways. He said carelessly:
“My foster-mother has the gift of double sight,but even she has never seen that I have enemies.How came that notion into your head, brother?”
After the manner of his kind, the Skraelling wasdeliberate in answering, letting the purple juicetrickle slowly down his throat; but he finished atlast, and nodded in the direction of the departedcourtmen.
“There went some of the young men who followthe head of my brother’s people. They are morebright than white fire-bugs with the gifts they getfor their friendship. My brother is also young—awarrior—the son of a warrior—yet he lives apartin the forest, with a handful of women and oldmen—gets himself nothing. It must be that hehas enemies among his people.”
The young forester shrugged his broad shoulders.“No gifts would I buy at the price Starkad Jarlasks, comrade. My little foster-brother Eric ispage to his daughter; I know the lot of those whofollow him. When he gives the sign they go toroost, whether they are sleepy or not. When hispriest rings a bell they say their prayers, eventhough it break in at a time when cursing wouldcome more easily to them. It is not allowed them8to enjoy any sports that he sets his face against;and they drink no lower in the cup than he givesthem leave. May illness eat me if I would evertame myself to run with such a pack! That a manlike my father should have been willing to lie quietin a woman’s net is something I shall never beable to comprehend. I understand him betterwhen I see how he built the Tower with the lowerpart left open so that the wind could blow on himall the year round and help him to forget that hewas under a roof.”
Once more the Skraelling’s deliberate speech wasdelayed, this time by a baying of deep-voicedhounds rumbling up out of the distance likethunder. Following it, the pack streamed past—stragglersbursting from the brush behind them toskirt them with extended noses or jostle betweenthem, leaving froth-flecks on their sides—and hardafter the hounds rode the hunting party, led bya band of green-clad pages winding gilded horns.With the leisureliness of one whose pride forbidsa display of curiosity, the Skraelling set his eagleface again over his shoulder; and his companion,who had started to remark upon the scene, gaveup with a shrug the attempt to make himself heardagainst the blaring.
The din passed at last, and on its heels came acolorful train—stately old priests and chieftains9gravely discussing the hunts of their youth, high-bornmaidens with shining uncovered locks, andmatrons whose lace veils floated cloudily fromtheir moonlike faces, stocky young thralls bentunder hampers and wine-skins, and toweringleather-clad guardsmen bearing bright spears ontheir shoulders. With the hoof-beat of the prancinghorses deadened by the matted leaves, theywent by as lightly as shapes in a vision, each foran instant illumined as he passed where a shaft ofsunlight fell through a rift in the arching tree-tops.
As the first pair of the noble maidens reachedit, sitting gracefully erect in their saddles likegilded chairs, the forester motioned towards them.
“The one with her face turned away is the Jarl’sdaughter, Brynhild the Proud. It is said that sheis worth looking at, though it has never happenedto me to do so.”
If the Skraelling looked at her, that was all thenotice he vouchsafed. It was not until the lastmaiden had gone by that he was stirred to interest.
“That is the great sachem that the sun nowshines on?” he asked.
“That is Starkad Jarl,” the Northman confirmed;and even as he said it, the old man with the jawlike iron and the beard like steel had passed on intothe shade, and the light was playing on the comely10group that followed, revealing foppish secrets ofgay embroidery and golden buckle.
“Here are the battle-twigs we saw a while ago,”the young forester added. “I wish I knew if anyof them is Helvin, the Jarl’s son.”
The Skraelling answered but one word. “Blood!”he said; and while the young men remained insight his eyes rested on one in garments of gray,whose bowed head was hooded by hair of the veryshade of clotted blood.
Looking after the young courtmen, the foresterseemed to lose all who followed. When leaves hadblotted out the last guard’s broad brown back,and the music of the horns had dwindled to a silverspeck in the gray silence, he spoke musingly:
“Take Helvin, now, if you wish to judge whatmetal comes of Starkad’s forging. It is said thathe was born with the wanderlust upon him, sothat his every breath is a panting to take ship andtravel over the sea-king’s road wheresoever thewolf of the sail might choose to drive him. Butbecause the sons that came before him are dead,and the only other heir is a maiden, his sister, itis not allowed him to risk his life. It may be theywill find out that they have cherished the scabbardand rusted the blade,—they say that the firecased in his flesh has given him an unlucky disposition.”
11The savage’s black eyes gave forth a sympatheticflash, though his training in repression kept thefeeling out of his voice. He said calmly:
“A day will come when it will be over. Theold man cannot live forever. Already he haspassed so far beyond the timber-line that nothinggrows on his scalp.”
The Northman shook his head. “Starkad’sdeath will bring Helvin no nearer what lies at hisheart; he is oath-bound to take the rule after hisfather,—so full of fear are they lest quarrels overthe inheritance gnaw at the root of the Jarldom.But I will say that I think his rule will prove tobe a good thing for the Town, which is now indanger of becoming more lifeless than a bone-heap.From all I have heard of his dislike of making ashow of himself and his love of free ways, I havegood hopes of him. It has often been in my mindto take service under him when he shall get theleadership. For Starkad I have no respect whatever.It is told that when he was young he wascalled Starkad the Berserker, and had the mosthand in every Viking voyage and man-slaying; butnow that the sap has dried in him, and he has puton Olaf the Saint’s religion, he expects all men tolive like monks.”
The Skraelling gazed reflectively in the directionof the vanished cavalcade.
12“Truth to say, the young braves of my race donot feel much love for the white man,” he said,presently. “He comes among us as one whocomes among animals—driving them out to possesshimself of their feeding-ground—dealing withthem only when he wants profit out of their hides.The grayheads give us counsel to live in peacewith the settlers of Norumbega. On the fourtrading-days of the year when they let us into theirwalls, they trade us useful things for our furs.But those of us whose teeth are still firm in ourjaws do not like it to be led in as white men’s cowsare led in to be milked, then turned out to pasture,the bars put up behind them.”
Straightening, he stood a bronze image ofwounded pride. The young forester, as he bentto fasten one of his moccasin-strings, looked up athim understandingly. The softening feature ofthe Northman’s face was his eyes, deep blue as anevening sky, under level brows, broad and dark.When the thong was tied, he put out a hand andrested it on his companion’s bare shoulder.
“Judge not, brother, all of the white race fromthe behavior of one overbearing old man. Itseems to me as if your people and my people shoulddwell together like sons of one father. Our handsare equally open to a friend, and no less hard-clinchedagainst a foe; and you do not surpass us13much in freedom and fearing nothing. When ithas befallen the other white men to see the wonderof your woodcraft as I have seen it, and to besheltered and fed by your hospitality as I havebeen, there will be much awanting if they do nothold you as high in honor as I do.”
Unbending gravely, the born heir of the forestlaid his hand upon the breast of the forest’s adoptedson.
“I know good of you; I will try to believe goodof your people,” he said. “Come back with menow, brother. The lodge of the sachem, myfather, is open to you. Always open to you.”
A second time the Northman shook his head.“That cannot be, comrade, for I came up here tolearn a trap secret from an old huntsman, andhaving got it, I must hasten back and put it to usebefore I forget it. Do you on your side bear inmind, when next you paddle your bark-boat nearthe island, that the Tower will offer heartier welcometo none than to you.”
His hand fell from the bronze shoulder to thebronze palm, and with a strong clasp the two menparted,—the red man to melt into the russet shadesbeside them, the forester to go forward in thewake of the hunting party.
Had it blazed its path with axes, the cavalcadewould scarcely have left a plainer track. Wherever14foot and hoof had failed to print themselveson the path of leathery leaves, there was alwaysthe clew of a bruised lichen or a fern with a brokenspine. Swinging along easily, mile after mile, theforester devoted his superfluous breath to hummingscraps of melody and his alert eye to readingthe fantastic runes. Here a bleeding tangleof wild grape-vine stretched out plundered hands.Yonder a long golden hair, floating like fairy gossamerfrom a low-growing limb, showed how theforest had exacted weregeld. Still farther on, apatch of flattened moss and ploughed-up earthtold sly tales of a horseman brought low. Whenhe came at last to the place where his road branchedwestward from theirs, he yielded the rune-pagewith regret.
That he might overtake any of the company didnot occur to him. His attention was centred inhis song, gradually becoming articulate and risingmelodiously from under his breath. It brokea word in two when he caught the hoarse snarlof a hound in the thicket ahead.
As well as though he could see through the interveningleaves he knew the hideous landmarkthat lay before him,—a pond which the Skraellingscalled by a word meaning “the black pool,” becausesome sinister combination of soil and shadowgave its water the appearance of being dully15thickly black. Tradition added that rather thanenter it, a fleeing stag would let his pursuer killhim on the brink. If any hunted thing had beenbrought to bay there now, the finish might beworth seeing. Quickening his step, the youngNorthman leaped the stony channel of a deadbrook and swept aside the screening boughs.
Set amid frost-blasted bushes and leafless barklesstree-skeletons, the Black Pool met his gaze;but it was no four-footed creature that fought forlife at the black water’s edge. Above the brushrose the gray-clad shoulders of the young courtmanwith the blood-colored hair. Rearing as tallas he, one of the great hunting-dogs had sprungupon him; while one hand strove to draw his dagger,the other was struggling to hold foaming jawsfrom his throat.
To see his peril was to will to aid him; and withthe forester, to will was to act. But even as theimpulse thrilled him, a strange sensation blottedit out. With his first forward motion, he wasseized by a sudden whirling madness as thoughhe had stepped within the ring of a whirlpool andwas being sucked into a black abyss of horror.
It lasted but an instant. Battling against it,his fingers clutched instinctively at his knife-hilt,missed it and closed instead upon the blade, andthe smart of cut flesh brought him to himself.16But in the time that he hesitated, the courtman’shand had freed his weapon and plunged it intothe straining throat; there was a death howl,the hiss of spurting blood, and the danger wasover. The great body relaxed, stiffened, sankheavily out of sight between the bushes, and theyoung man stood wiping his blood-bathed faceupon his sleeve.
Bewilderment and shame claimed the forester.He with a lion’s strength in the girth of his chestand in his long sinewy limbs—he whose coolnesshad cheated Death a hundred times—he to falterwhen a man was in jeopardy of life before him!It was beyond belief.
He saw without caring that the courtman seemedall at once to become aware of another presence,and turned and espied him. He heard withoutheeding a peremptory order to approach. All thathe was conscious of was a desire to get away andfight it out with himself. Raising his hand inapology, he stepped backward, pushed betweentwo tall bushes, and let the wiry brush spring tolike doors behind him.
As he drew clear of the branches a silvered arrowsped above them, so well aimed that it severeda lock of his hair. He caught his breath with ashort laugh.
“I forgot that high-born men do not take it well17to be disregarded,” he muttered as he plungedinto the undergrowth.
What would he have said if the shaft could havewhispered as it whistled past that—back under thefrost-blasted bushes—Starkad Jarl lay murdered,and that he of the guilty blood-colored hair believedthe forester had witnessed his deed!
“No tree falls at the first stroke”
“One touch of a certain three-corneredleaf,” the forester reasonedas he moved along the windingtrail, “is able to make a man’sflesh change color and swell overhis eyes like a wild hog’s fat. More power lies inthe earth than simpletons think of. What wouldbe wonderful about it if such water should breeda vapor befogging to the wits? Not the wits ofall men, perhaps—it was seen that the courtmanhad his about him—but those of all who have notSigmund’s strength against poison.” Reasoningrelapsed into mortification. “It goes hard to betaught that I am one of the weaklings. Troll takethe Pool!” For a while his track over the soft leaf-mouldshowed that his heels ground deeply.
Presently he made an effort to crowd the incidentout of his thoughts by taking up the brokenthread of his song, and reeling it off with a doggedenergy that sent the words far through the silent19forest and set its echo-heart athrob. They werebrave words, telling the brave old tale of the wooingof Fridtjof the Bold; perhaps they would havecharmed away his ill-humor if they had not beencut short.
Parting like gold-embroidered tapestries, twoyellow-leaved bushes a little way ahead disclosedanother courtman from the hunting train, a youngman magnificent in scarlet leather clothes of distinctlyun-Norse make. After a critical survey ofthe figure in deerskin, he lifted the forefinger ofone gloved hand,—a gesture that had upon theforester the effect which the scarlet dress wouldhave had upon a bull.
“Fellow,” he said blandly, “I have to tell youthat your voice has had the good luck to please anoble maiden’s ears. Follow me that she maygratify her curiosity.”
Akin to the motion of his finger was a perpetualslight smile moulding his thin lips. The forestertook note of that also, and felt antagonism becomea deep satisfying force within him. Coming slowlyto a halt, he picked his answer with drawling deliberation.
“Fellow, if you had not the good luck to be foreignto the forest, I would make you unpleasingto a noble maiden’s eyes. As it is, I have to saythat to see me following you would be more apt20to provoke curiosity than to gratify it,—and youmay take that as best suits you!”
The stranger took it with the utmost quietness,observing as though to himself that it was surprisingthere should still be places where a churlthought he had the right to choose when he wascommanded; but while he was saying it he wasstepping from the bushes. Now he drew hissword from its jewelled sheath.
The gleam which the steel sent through the gladewas reflected in the forester’s face. He made cordialhaste to pluck forth his hunting-knife.
Glancing from that short blade to his own longone, the courtman hesitated an instant; then helaughed softly at himself.
“It is no lie about Norse habits that they stickto one like iron in frosty weather!” he murmured.“Almost I was in danger of treating the matter asa combat between equals.”
Having escaped that danger, he wasted no moretime on preliminaries, but delivered his first thrust.If his opponent had stood upon ceremony, he wouldhave been disabled by a pierced right arm.
Luckily it was the school of emergency that hadgiven the forester his training. Though a smotheredword betokened surprise, his instant leapbackward carried him lightly out of range, andyet not so far out of reach but that his knife was21able to strike up the other’s point and take advantageof the opening to land a stroke upon thetasselled breast. A buckle turned the blade away,but the profanity of the contact could not be denied.The courtman lowered his weapon for thepurpose of removing his gold-stitched gloves.
“I see now that I shall have to let off more ofyour hot blood than I thought,” he remarked ashe tucked the gloves under his belt. “Since youwill have it—”
Driving suddenly past the other’s guard, hedrove his sword into the deerskin shoulder,—wouldhave driven it through, indeed, if the bite of theknife into his wrist had not momentarily relaxedhis grasp.
The forester recovered his balance coolly.
“It will then be a fair bargain if I let off someof your breath,” he returned, and straightway assertedthe one advantage he had foreseen to offsetthe difference in blade-lengths by leading hisadversary a round of gnarled roots and hiddenhollows and tangles of creeping things.
As a trout knows the rapids, his feet knew thesnares; but to the stranger it was like walking infetters. What with the distraction of watchinghis footing and the difficulty of aiming, two out ofevery three thrusts went astray; while for everylunge that went home he got a wound in return.22Twice his foot twisted on a hidden stone and hemeasured his length on the ground, plastering pineneedlesand earth to every blood-stain. Twice hetripped over a root and fell headlong and almostinto the arms of his jeering opponent. That thecombat was between equals, there could now be noquestion.
That there could be any doubt of his ultimatevictory, however, did not appear to enter into thecourtman’s reckoning. After each fall he merelybecame a little more quietly determined, came onwith a little more glitter in his ice-blue eyes. Hisunshaken assurance exasperated the forester atlast; when he saw a chance to end it, he seized theopportunity promptly.
At the next lunge, instead of springing aside hetook advantage of a hollow behind him to ducksuddenly, so that the blade hissed like an outleapingflame above his head. Then, before theother could recover, he sprang upon him. Seizinghis sword-wrist in an iron grip, he forced it aside,tore his own right arm free from the clutching fingers,and raised it to strike.
His arm rose,—but it did not fall. In the veryinstant of aiming, a cloak flew between him andhis mark, enveloping him head and shoulders,smothering him head and face. Muscular handsfollowed the cloak, pinioning his elbows and dragging23him backward. Through the folds he caughta babel of exclamations; above them a girl’s anxiousvoice calling, “Is he wounded?” and a man’srough tones answering dryly, “Only enough tospot his clothes, Jarl’s daughter.”
Jarl’s daughter! The forester had left off struggling—heunderstood that it would be foolishnessin that grasp—now his wrath gave place to disgust.This was a pretty trick of the Fates, who hadalready snatched the fruit of victory from betweenhis teeth, to follow it up by delivering him overto the upbraidings of an hysterical girl! Sullenlyhe gazed before him when at last they plucked offthe cloak.
The first thing he saw was his little foster-brotherin his gay page’s livery, just picking upthe courtman’s plumed cap; but the sight didnot improve his temper for he found that theboy avoided his glance of greeting. His browsdrawing together, his gaze moved on over thepicture.
It was a maiden’s following, certainly. The ruggedmen-at-arms surrounding him were far outnumberedby the slim pages who made a greenhedge around the wounded favorite. Bright againstthe dark background, groups of maids and matronsrustled and fluttered. Only one figure in the24scene had composure, a girl standing a few pacesahead of the others, erect and motionless as astone column against tossing trees. It was herstillness that drew the forester’s attention to hercuriously; then, looking, he forgot curiosity, forgothis recognition of her for the Jarl’s daughter,felt only the thrill of her beauty.
Long of limb, long of throat, she was nobly tall,her eyes but little below the level of his own. Thehabit fitting close the flowing curves of her bodytrailed heavily behind her, and a velvet mantledragged from jewelled clasps; but her broad slopingshoulders bore their weight as lightly as herproudly poised head held up its great braids, hangingfar down the purple folds like cables of redgold. No power had the sight of bared blades andstruggling men to deepen or pale the exquisitecolor of her face, or shake the pride of her beautifulmouth. In their high spirit, her clear grayeyes were Valkyria’s eyes. Gazing at her, hisheart leaped in his breast; he understood, for thefirst time, why a sea-wolf of a Viking might liequiet in the net of a woman.
For the first time, also, he knew envy of his foe.Brushing aside the pages, the courtman advancednow, the long end of his mantle drawn up gracefullyover his shoulder to hide the stains of histunic. It was maddening to see how fit he looked25to bend before Brynhild the Proud and set to hislips the hand she gave him.
“I should be glad to know, madam, that I ampardoned for thus marring your pleasure withalarm,” he said. “Scarcely can I be easy in mymind until I hear that.”
To see such favor as hers squandered on suchas he was worse than maddening. She answeredmost kindly:
“No man should have a better right to mar mypleasure than you who have so often made it. Andit was bearing my message that became a misfortuneto you! Will you receive my necklace for weregeld?”Reminded by the law-term, she glancedfor the first time towards the prisoner, her whitelids drooping coldly. “Let Visbur lay bonds onthe fellow and take him where the lawmen candeal with him.”
It was not the tightening grip of the men thatwrung words from the forester’s silence; it was thepang of standing ill with her that caused him tospeak earnestly.
“One thing I wish, Jarl’s daughter, and that is thatyou yourself would hear how little I am to blame.”
Again she looked at him, this time squarely.
“You will have no cause to complain of the lawmen’sjustice,” she said.
“Then will they judge me innocent, and how26shall it be made up to me that I have endured thedisgrace of bonds, and been a gazing-stock for yourfollowers? Be as fair in your actions as you arefair in your face, noble one.”
The guards around gasped, but she did not belieher Valkyria eyes. As steel answers steel witha spark they answered the demand, even while herproud mouth resented his boldness in every curve.After a moment she turned back where a tree hadfallen across the glade, and seated herself upon themossy trunk.
“Will you lay it upon Norse custom and notupon me, my friend Olaf, if I think it necessary togrant the forester’s request?” she asked. “Andwill you support me further by feigning that thisis a law-place and telling me here what he did thatyou disliked?”
“Is it true that Norse custom is so childish?”Olaf queried, with rising shoulders. Then as shecontinued to look at him entreatingly, he yielded,smiling, to come forward with playful ceremonyand take up his stand before her.
While he was bowing, however, one of the guards—aburly ruddy-faced fellow—entered into the conversation,after the off-hand manner of Northernretainers. Hemming loudly, he held up the horn-handledknife which he had taken from the forester’sunresisting hold.
27“This can be told about the youth, Jarl’sdaughter,” he said, “that he is no better than acrazy Berserker. Behold with what a cheese-cutterhe met the flail of Thorgrim’s son!”
“And not alone met, but also mastered the flail!”a second guard chuckled; while a third, theirgrizzled old leader, vented a gruff laugh and openlypatted his prisoner on the back.
“I will hang you if Starkad’s daughter decidesthat way,” he declared, “but you may hang me ifI do not tell afterwards that you were a younghawk!” Whereupon a rumble of acquiescencecame from every point where a brass helmetgleamed amid the russet leaves.
At any other time the forester might have shownappreciation of their friendliness, but just now itwas the favor of the purple-robed judge upon whichhis heart was set. The silver-trunked birches behindher were not more impassive than her finelychiselled face, as she ignored all but the man shehad addressed.
When quiet was entirely restored, Olaf spokelightly: “Most gentle law-giver, if it is throughNorse eyes that we must look, I have to tell youthat the churl is in no way to blame. That heshould show rudeness is a result to be expectedfrom the barbarity in the land. That I who amFrench-bred should have a wish to civilize him28was no less to be expected. As has been pointedout, he had no more than a hunting-knife; whilemy feet are more used to paved roads than to fox-trails.It made a merry game, altogether toomerry to fall to the ground here. But for Norselaw, fairest law-woman, there is no handle to takehold of. Turn him loose, and forget that so unworthya happening ever quickened your fragrantbreath.” He ended with another bow, his lastwords almost lost amid the applauding murmursof the women and the pages.
With an unconscious gesture of relief, the Jarl’sdaughter rose quickly.
“Now as always, your broad-mindedness putsall other Norsemen to shame,” she said. “Fortaking it in this way and making my task easy, Ithank you much.” A second time she extendedher hand to him, while over her shoulder she spokecoldly to the prisoner: “I give you peace, woodsman.Go your way.”
“Come behind the bushes and tell us morenews about this fight,” the burly man-at-armsmuttered in the forester’s ear as he gave him backhis hunting-knife.
Pretending to hustle him along, they accompaniedhim eagerly, the gentlewomen making agreat show of getting out of his path as out of theway of a bear unchained. But after he had made29a dozen paces, the forester stopped, shook them offand turned back to Brynhild the Proud.
“This I will beg of you, Jarl’s daughter,” hesaid, “that you will tell me why you wanted tosee me.”
The guards gave him admonishing nudges. Theprettiest of the veil-bound matrons uttered a littlescream of derisive laughter. The Jarl’s daughterturned haughtily.
Of her alone he seemed to be conscious as headvanced. “You admit that I am not blameworthy,yet I see that I have your dislike. Is itbecause I appear to you no better than a savage?I beg you to believe that I am not one. I beg youto believe that if I had known it was you whowanted me, I would have been as glad in comingto you as the lark in rising to the sun.”
Her gaze moving up and down between hismoccasins and his mane of sun-burnished hair, shestudied him wonderingly; but she was bred toohigh to flout him. She said, at last, with an inclinationof her head:
“I owe you thanks for good-will. I will alsoconfess that I was made curious by the Song ofFridtjof you were singing. You are the forester—areyou not—whom men call the Songsmith? Ihave heard my brother tell of hearing you sing once,as he happened to be passing a hunter’s cabin. I30wished to ask why you sang words about Fridtjofthat my father’s minstrels do not sing.”
“That, and more, I will tell you,” he answered.“The end of the song, I made out of my ownimaginings. In the unsettled places where I live,one hears only those verses which the old peoplebrought over the ocean under the hatches of memory.I got a habit of finishing out such fragmentsin the way I thought likeliest to be right. Fromthat my nickname sprang. My foster-father, whohad worked at a forge in his youth, said that allthe skalds he had met with were like traders, whodo no more than pass on what other men havemade; but that a singer who melts scraps togetherand hammers them out in new shapes is a songsmith.”
The figure appealed to the guardsmen, drawingforth laughter and compliment; but that to theSongsmith was nothing beside the fact that in theexpression of their mistress curiosity had deepenedto interest.
“Why, that is no small thing to do!” she said.“Times out of number, when I have been listeningto my father’s skald, I have wished that he couldmake an ending which would be new even if itwere untrue, so that there might be something tokeep awake for.”
Calmly oblivious to maidens’ frowns and matrons’31murmurs, she let herself sink again uponthe tree-trunk, and made him a sign to comenearer.
“I want to know why you have not brought suchan accomplishment to market?” she inquired.“Where is your home?”
“It is not so easy to tell that, Jarl’s daughter,since it is unlikely that you have ever heard ofFreya’s Tower. But it stands south of here, onan island which a bridge links to this—”
For the first time, one of the court-maidens drewnear,—a slender spray of a girl, whose face was apink bud peeping from a wood of brown hair.
“I have heard of it!” she cried, eagerly. “Theskalds are not so bold as to sing songs about it;but no maiden but knows how the Swedish VikingRolf stole King Hildebrand’s daughter out of herfather’s court in Norway, and brought her tothese shores and built her a bower and—”
Her impulse would have carried her still furtherif the Jarl’s daughter had not laid a light hand onher arm.
“I also know of the place,” Brynhild said. “Isit there you live? A band of Rolf’s comrades stilllive there, I have been told—Yet are you too youngto have place among them! Will you tell me yourname and kin?”
As he started to reply, the Songsmith’s glance32fell upon the handsome little page who had refusedto recognize him, and who had now taken advantageof the delay to approach Olaf the Frenchand set about removing the débris of dead leavesfrom his gold fringes. The forester’s dark eyesgave out a glint of mischief.
“Willingly—and more than that—Jarl’s daughter,”he answered. “I will have one of yourown train name me to you, so that you may knowit is well done.” Stepping aside, he touched theboy on the shoulder. “Eric, look up here and tellyour mistress my name and kin.”
In a panic the youngster whirled, denial tremblingon his tongue. Then he met the unswervinggaze from under the level brows; his eyes fell andhis color rose. Seemingly without his consent,his lips formed the words:
“Randvar is his name; and he is the son of Rolfand Freya, King Hildebrand’s daughter.”
Brynhild rose from her seat. “The son of KingHildebrand’s daughter!” she repeated, and all hergentlewomen breathed it after her.
But it was Rolf’s name that the guardsmenechoed, closing in upon Rolf’s son to shake hishand and his shoulder.
“Rolf the Viking! A well-known name haveyou!”
“Now he was my shipmate for five years!”
33“My father harried England with him—”
“A better warrior never fed the ravens!”
“Small wonder his son measured a knifeagainst—”
“I take credit upon myself that I was the firstto clap you on the shoulder!”
But between the brass helmets Rolf’s son caughta glimpse of the Jarl’s daughter, and made thediscovery that in turning his low rank into a highone he had but turned the cheek of his offence.She said, when she could make herself heard:
“There seems to me to be two sides to this matter.For a churl to bear such a bold look beneathhis brows would be bad enough, but I find it farworse that a man of high birth should form himselfafter the manner of savages. Have you noregard for your King’s blood?” Again her glancetook stock of his deerskin husk and his untrimmedhair.
That she could not also take stock of the brandof temper with which the King and the Viking hadbequested him, was shown by the fact that, evenmore than her words, her look was a challenge. Inthe fillip of a finger perversity possessed him, andmoved him to answer:
“If my King’s blood cannot show itself througha layer of deerskin, daughter of jarls, I hold it fora spring that is run dry.”
34A wrinkle of displeasure marred the satin smoothnessof her forehead. “That speech would makeyour fortune with my brother. Pray keep suchword-flourishes for him. I would show you honorif I might. This empty forest life is unbecominga man of your birth. You are welcome to joinmy following and make new song-endings in myhousehold, if you like.”
His voice was more indifferent than formalityprescribed, his bow less deep.
“With all thankfulness, I should not like it,”he answered.
Her frown was more than a wrinkle as she askedhim, “Why not?”
“I do not lack reasons. One is that I think mylife more full than yours, that is laid out in straightlines like an old woman’s herb-garden and weededof all excitement. Another is that I do not thinka man adds any honor to himself by following awoman.”
Again she was the only quiet figure amid ahubbub, the women crying out, the guards themselvesgrowling remonstrance. She stood queenfullyquiet, though her face blazed.
“Even churls are apt to behave with respecttowards me,” she said, and the contempt in hervoice was keen enough to draw blood in his cheeks.He answered in kind.
35“I behave with respect when I give you thetruth. Are lies more to your mind?”
The tumult passed into the more alarming accompanimentof silence. The flash of her steelgrayeyes was as though they had drawn swords.From weapon-play Rolf’s son had never turnedback; he faced her readily, his look giving backwhatever it received.
So they fronted each other until there waskindled in Brynhild’s face a kind of fury, the rageof a Valkyria upon encountering her match. Justin time, the words on her lips were checked. Likea pebble into a pool, a page’s voice fell upon thepause.
“Ingolf comes seeking you, Jarl’s daughter.”
The spell was shattered. In less time than ittook the Songsmith to shift his weight, Brynhildhad shifted her expression, recalled to her wontedworld. Women and pages started up like a coveyof impatient birds. With his blandest smile, Olafstepped forward and claimed his own.
“In all likelihood, madam, the messenger bringsword that your noble father is ready to take hismeal, and seeks you at the spot where he left you.Will you allow me so much happiness?” Baringhis head, he extended his hand.
She laid hers upon it immediately, motioningEric to take up the grape-purple train. All at36once she seemed to the forester to have withdrawnherself an immeasurable distance beyond his ken.Across the space her voice came to him coldly.
“I would have shown you friendliness, Freya’sson, but it may be that this way is better. Thetruth grows in me that you would hardly knowhow to behave in a court. It is likely you havechosen your life wisely. I wish you good luck init, and bid you farewell.”
She bent her head; her women dropped himawe-struck courtesies. Under cover of a salute,Olaf’s hard blue eyes held him long enough to remindhim that their quarrel was by no means atan end. Then, leaning on the courtman’s arm, theJarl’s daughter turned and left, nor looked back,though Rolf’s son watched as long as he couldcatch any gleam of her bright hair.
When the band had crossed the glade and gainedthe trees, they met the helmeted figure; and followingthe instant of meeting, it seemed to theforester that the breeze brought him a sound ofshrieks. But whatever their cause, it did notdelay the departure. Soon the many-coloredtroop had become blended with the many-coloredleaves, and forest solitude closed again aroundhim.
“Nose is next of kin to eyes”
With signs of the day’s ruffling influencestill visible at his mouth-corners,Randvar, Rolf’s son, putaside the cables of wild grape-vinethat drooped curtain-like over the endof the home-trail, and paused to look before him.
“Poor and mean must this have seemed in mymother’s sight,” he mused.
A few steps ahead the path broadened into anopen grassy space, in whose middle rose a lowround tower, touched by the last rays of the settingsun. Built of gray stones held together by graymortar, it stood out coldly amid the green andgarnet and golden maples that walled it round;and among branching trees and wreathing vinesits outline was as stark as the outline of an Icelandrock. No spire sprouted from its flat top; nobalconies rounded out beneath the windows ofits upper story, and its lower part was no morethan eight gray pillars standing in a circle. On38one of them now a tangle of fish-nets was hanging;against another leaned a frame on which a wild-catskin had been stretched to dry, and before a thirdstood a herring-keg and a barrel of wild-grape wine.Between the pillars, eight wide archways gaveplain view into the round ground-room, in whosecentre a fire was burning under a kettle. A flaxen-hairedgirl moved back and forth before the fire,and under one of the arches a tall, muscular womanstood looking out and wiping her heated face uponher homespun apron.
Understanding that her watch was for him,Randvar raised his hand in greeting; but his gazeremained on the small deep-set window high upon the Tower’s seaward side, where he had oftenseen his mother’s face looking out over the greenwastes of trees and the blue wastes of water thatstretched between her and the home she had left.It seemed to him now that he could see her again,flower-fair and crowned with hair like winter’s palesunshine. The contrast between her delicacy andthe rough setting came home to him with new force.In the bubbling caldron of his mind, awe came uppermost.
“It was a wondrous thing, my mother’s love,”he murmured as he moved slowly forward.
The greeting of the woman in the archwaybrought him back to the present. She was a39weather-beaten woman, almost as severe in outlineas the Tower itself, and with but little morecolor; yet proof remained that she had once beenas freshly blooming as her daughter, and her work-roughenedhand had a gentle touch as she laid iton his arm. She spoke quickly, regarding himwith keen eyes.
“There is a new stain on your kirtle, foster-son,and a cut in the middle of it. What have youbeen doing to yourself?” As she talked, she wasunfastening a buckle, and now laid bare his blood-soakedshirt.
He looked down at it with surprised recognition.“Did the courtman do all that? I had altogetherforgotten it.”
“Courtman! Have you seen someone from theJarl’s Town?” The girl caught him up and left herbroth-stirring eagerly, but her mother motioned heraway.
“Go up and get one of his linen shirts out ofmy chest, and fetch down the ointment,” sheordered her; then to her foster-son: “Bring in thewater-pail and pull off those things and sit downhere. Some day your carelessness will bring itto pass that you bleed to death, and it will not bea brave end, but a foolish one.”
“None the less is it pleasant to realize what statethe French One’s fine clothes must be in,” Randvar40chuckled, as he allowed himself to be pusheddown on a bench by the fire.
The girl, returning headlong down the ladder-likestairs, repeated her entreaty for news; so whilehis foster-mother washed his wound, and his foster-sisterrolled bandages for him, he related his adventure.
They listened without interruption until hecame to the appearance of Brynhild and her following,when both stayed their hands to questionhim eagerly.
“Was Eric with her?”
“How did he look?”
“What did he say?”
“Did he send us a message?”
The first warm color came into the cheeks ofErna, the woman; her eyes shone hungrily.
Regarding her, her foster-son began deliberatelyto parry. “What did he say? Snowfrid, you area simpleton! Do you suppose that folks gabblelike wild turkeys while a noblewoman and herfrippery are standing around? As for his looks,I can tell you that a red-headed woodpecker wouldget bashful beside him, all in green cloth from topto toe, with his hair cut like the Jarl’s. I did notwonder at all that the maiden wanted him for apage only from seeing him pick up her necklace inthe road.”
41The thin lips of Eric’s mother relaxed unconsciouslyinto a smile, as her hands took up the lastbandage; but Eric’s sister gave her flaxen braidsa toss.
“I think he would not have been hindered fromasking about us if he had wished,” she said. “Itis my belief that the young one is puffed up withpride. Three times has the trading-ship on whichhe went up to see the wonders of the Town beenback without bringing him for so much as a visit.It is my belief that he was ashamed to speak toRand—” She was startled into swallowing therest of the word by the sharpness with which Ernaturned upon her.
“I know that he was not,” his mother said,sternly. “That his wits get dizzy from living withhigh people may well be. I was foolish myself aboutcourt ways when I came to be bowermaid to KingHildebrand’s daughter; but that he should everfall off so much as to be ungrateful is not likely.I know that he remembered what is due to Freya’sson, and greeted him with respect.”
Randvar’s face was hidden by the shirt he wasdrawing on, but from its linen depths he chuckled.
“Never fear but what he greeted me! Andnamed me to his mistress besides, else might shehave thought me some shaggy beast.”
“There!” said Erna; and Snowfrid, somewhat42abashed, turned her attention to dishing up theevening meal of venison broth and bread.
After the meal was under way, however, it occurredto her to ask concerning the appearance ofBrynhild the Proud.
The power which the mere mention of thatname had to upset his peace of mind amazedRandvar, even while he curtly denied any recollectionof her whatever. It was a relief when atlast eating was over, and Snowfrid had gone offto carry a jug of broth to the cabinful of old men,who were all that was left of Rolf’s lusty crew.Erna took up her knitting, then, and retired intoher wonted silence and to her wonted seat on theother side of the fire; and he was free to stretchhimself upon the floor of cedar boughs, and yieldunreservedly to the strange turmoil of his thoughts.
Gazing out where the moon was steering betweenwhite cloud-reefs towards the open blue,he spoke dreamily: “Foster-mother, you knew theturns of Freya’s mind as a forester knows hishome-trail—tell me how she took this life here.”
Without lessening the click of her needles, Ernaglanced over at him. “I suppose you were madecurious by seeing for the first time what kind ofthings a high-born maiden is accustomed to. It isthe truth, however, that Freya took it well. Outof everything she made a jest. She used to look43at the leaf-walls around the Tower, and say thatno queen had such an elf-woven tapestry, orchanged her hangings so often. She was alwayssmiling.”
“Her lips were always smiling,” Randvar saiddoubtfully, “but her eyes? It may be that I donot remember aright, since I was but a child inage when she died, yet it seems to me now thather eyes were always sorrowful.”
To that, Freya’s bowerwoman made no answer.The pause lasted so long unbroken by anythingsave the rattling of her wooden needles and thechirping of the crickets under the stone hearththat presently her foster-son threw a twig at her.
“Wake up, foster-mother! Are you going tohave a weird spell, that you drowse and do nothear me?”
“Do your words need an answer, foster-son?”Erna returned. “As well as I, you should knowthat Freya’s nature was not such that she couldbe altogether happy in a life that sprang from thedeath of her kin.”
“I had forgotten that,” Randvar admitted.
She looked at him again across the fire. “Thisis where you show Rolf’s breed. I think he nevereven guessed it. Yet always the memory thathe was the slayer of her father lay between themlike a blade that no tenderness could sheathe. She44loved him in spite of it, but I speak no more thanthe truth when I say that it was the effort of doingso which wore her out before half her life was lived.”
Supporting himself on his hand, Rolf’s son satup and gazed at her earnestly. “The strangewonder is that she could feel any love towards him!Until to-day, what I could not get through myhead was how my father could gentle himself toso weak a thing as a woman; but now I regard itas the greatest wonder that so proud and fine andwonderful a thing as a high-born maiden shouldgive herself to a rough-minded brawling—”
“You need not take it upon yourself to speakin that manner of Rolf,” Erna interrupted himwith some sternness. “All the fineness that was possibleto his nature he gave her. For Freya, he whohad never handled aught but a sword, toiled andsweat like a thrall to build this Tower; and afterwardshe made his drinking-bouts as mild as awoman’s, lest she be touched with fear. And whenshe died, he slew himself from grief, as not manymen have done before him. It is true that yourmind is higher than his, through having her bloodin your veins; but enough of his rough temper isin you, and his heedlessness about clothes andpolite ways, to make any girl but a forest-bredwench like Snowfrid turn her eyes from you asfrom a bear.”
45Wincing, Randvar dropped again to his elbow,averted his crimsoning face from the firelight. Itcame as a welcome diversion that at that momentSnowfrid’s voice was heard out in the darkness.
But Snowfrid’s half-frightened giggle, as sheanswered the questions of some one coming afterher, was a surprise. It was not after that fashionthat she conversed with Lame Farsek or his half-dozendecrepit old mates. Her mother and herfoster-brother bestirred themselves to look out.
Erna’s surprise was not lessened to see herdaughter emerge from the bush-shadows followedby a strapping fellow in the brass helmet andleather clothes of the Jarl’s guard; and Randvar’sastonishment increased as he recognized in thevisitor the guardsman who had first spoken upfor him in his adventure with Olaf and the Jarl’sdaughter. While Erna rose hastily, smoothingdown her apron, he leaped to his feet with a thumpingheart. If by any possibility Brynhild shouldhave sent him a message!
Even more than in the morning, the man-at-armslooked the soul of bluff good-fellowship asSnowfrid led him up to them, naming him asBolverk of the Jarl’s guard, and explaining stammeringlythat she had found him beating about ina berry-tangle in search of the path. He added awink for her to his jovial recognition of the Songsmith,46vowed that if the soldiers of the Jarl’s Townhad but dreamed to what that path led, it wouldhave been beaten broad enough to need no huntingfor. Snowfrid relapsed into a blushing examinationof her braids which struck her foster-brotheras particularly ill-timed and foolish. Hesaid with impatient politeness:
“It is to be regretted that the path failed yourneed, Guardsman Bolverk, for it must needs beurgent to bring you here at this hour.”
The guardsman made an effort to pull his roundface to a solemn length. “Certainly it is no lighterrand that keeps me abroad, though my beinghere springs from a whim of Helvin, Jarl’s son—Ishould say, Helvin Jarl, for Starkad, his father,is dead. Saints grant him as much rest as he willaccept of!”
After the manner of people hearing news, allthree cried the word after him, “Dead!” ThenErna murmured, “Thus the old leaves drop off,one by one!” And Snowfrid cried impulsively:“Now will the young man take some comfort?”And Randvar smote his knee.
“No longer ago than this morning was I talkingabout Helvin, and how his father’s death wouldbut free him from one trap to spring another onhim.”
Bolverk’s ruddy face relaxed into its wonted47curves. “So you all know what manner of manhe was? Then I need not pretend to shed tearsfor him, though I should think it sinful to wishany but an enemy such a death.”
Even while they drew near together, the womenquestioned him with their eyes. Randvar put itinto words.
“In what manner did he come to his death? Isaw him ride past to the hunt,—I suppose it wascaused by a fall from his horse?”
The guardsman shook his head ponderously.“No such quiet end for Starkad the Berserker.One of the hunting-dogs sprang on him and torehis throat to pieces. Ingolf brought the tidingsjust after we parted from you. The place whereit happened was on the brink of as hideous a pondas a bad dream ever painted. I went and looked atit afterwards. I give you my word that the waterwas as black as—”
“The Black Pool!” cried Erna and Snowfridtogether. Randvar had become as motionless asthe bench on which his foot was resting.
Bolverk nodded. “Naught else should it becalled; any dead branch sticking out of it gets thelook of a bleached bone. You may imagine whata sight it was to come upon,—Starkad sprawlingon the brink, and Helvin leaning against a tree,more white than a halter-corpse, except—”
48“Helvin!” This time the echo came fromRandvar.
Drawing a step nearer, Bolverk lowered hisvoice.
“I will not be so mean as to draw the cup backafter you have had one swallow. Only I ask youto forget who brought the tidings hither. Thehound was Helvin’s. He had taken it out of thepack and kept it with him because of a wound inits foot, and it is thought that it did not attackthe Jarl without cause. Father and son had manywords about something before they set forth thismorning. When Helvin dashed ahead by himself,the Jarl sent men after him to fetch him back.And when at last they came to the point where theparty broke up, and the women went aside to thewaiting-place and each man struck out for himself,Starkad forced Helvin to ride apart with him,though it was seen by every one that the youngman had the greatest dread of accompanying him.What passed between them Helvin does not tell,and no one dares ask, but it is guessed that Starkadworked himself into a Berserk rage and fell uponhim—”
“Odin!” gasped Erna, and at the same timecrossed herself.
“And that the dog broke loose to protect itsmaster. And many believe that the taste of blood49maddened it so that it went so far as to attackHelvin when he dragged it off the Jarl, for theclaws had torn the silver lace on his sleeves, andone of the proofs that he must have been grapplingwith it when he slew it is that his kirtle is all onegore of blood—What do you say?”
But Randvar would not repeat the curse thathad been wrung from him; and Bolverk, encounteringSnowfrid’s horrified gaze, became divertedby the amiable desire to recall her blushing smile.
“And that,” he went on, “is the beginning ofthe reason why this bright-haired maiden of victoryfound me battling with thorns and led me to Valhalla.When a move was made to go back to theTown, Helvin seemed to come crazy out of hisblack silence. He vowed that he would have onenight of freedom before the rule came on him, andforbade any to follow, and broke from us into theforest—It is likely you know, also, that he hasdreaded the rule more than most men dread Hel!But old Mord, who was the first of Starkad’s advice-givers,counselled us to follow at a distance,that we might be within call in case danger threatenedhim from Skraellings or other wild animals.In the moonlight we kept him in sight almost tothe head of your Island, but there it happened thatwe lost him. The rest declared that he had turnedaside, and I declared that he had not; so I set out50alone, and finding so plain a path, kept on out ofadventuresomeness. It is possible that I shall haveto stand some banter, and yet I cannot find it inmy heart to be sorry about my blunder.” Again hewinked at Snowfrid over the huge fist caressinghis yellow mustache, then drew himself up witha prodigious sigh. “My one regret is that I mustnow return to my duty. Will you not guide meback as far as the cabin, my fair one? I cannotseem to remember the way at all between here andthere.”
Snowfrid’s eyes answered him delightedly, buther lips waited bashfully for her mother. She ranno risk in doing so, however, for under Erna’s apparentsternness there lay as much Norse simplicityas Norse kindness.
She said, “Go, child, of course,” and pouredBolverk so excellent a stirrup-cup, and shook hishand so warmly at parting, that he went awaywithout even observing that the master of theTower had bidden him no farewell, but still stoodwith his foot on the bench and his eyes on the fire.
Erna looked at him curiously when she had resumedher seat and her knitting. At last she spoke:
“Hard tidings are these and great to hear; yet Icannot see, foster-son, that they touch us so nearlyas you appear to feel.”
“You will see when I tell you what spell some51troll laid upon me,” he retorted. Straightening,he went and threw himself down in his favoriteplace upon the fragrant mat, and began to pourout wrathfully the story of his adventure at theBlack Pool.
“There you have it all before you,” he wound up.“I was made to behave in an unfavorable mannerbefore the man with whom, above all others, Iwould wish to stand well. I thought, first, it wassome poison from the Pool that beset me; but sinceit worked no harm to any one else, I know it was acurse turned on me alone—Hel take the luck! Heltake it, I say!”
When she had let her suspended breath go fromher in a yawn, murmuring, “That was a strangehappening—a strange happening,” she answeredgravely: “You throw blame undeservedly. It isyour guardian spirit that has given you power tofeel it better than others when an evil deed is in theair. I have often heard of people who had such agift—”
He flung up his arms to snap the fingers sharply.“Take my share of such white-livered gifts!Power? I call that a weakness which makes mea stick in the hands of something stronger than I!If I knew what part of me it had root in, it shouldnot last long.”
“You will bring punishment upon yourself for52your ungratefulness,” she said, but said it withoutforce, seeming to wander among her thoughts.His scorn held the field.
“I should be glad to hear what I am to be gratefulfor! Nothing could make Helvin believe nowthat I am any better than a coward. It showswhat a cur he took me for that his first impulsewas to send an arrow after me. I am as muchoutlawed from his following as though a lawmanhad laid a ban upon me.”
She had no answer to that, or else the heat ofthe fire was making her drowsy. Leaning forward,she sat blinking at it, her arms folded on her knees.
Breaking up twigs with one hand to jerk theminto the flames with the other, he went on pilingup causes for bitterness, though he no longer spokethem aloud,—they came from too near his heartfor that.
“I should have helped him, if I had acted outmy own nature, and he would have done me honorin return. I should have left this emptiness ofbeasts and trees to measure myself against men.It would go hard with me if I could not prove myselfmore than that grinning French-broken ape.She showed him favor; she would have shown memore.... She might... in time... she mighteven.... More unlikely things happened to myfather!”
“Where I see the ears, I expect the wolf”
Neither of them paid any attentionto Snowfrid on her return, and thegirl on her side seemed to find herthoughts quite as interesting as conversation.After a few minutes, shesaid that she was going to bed, and lighted a splinterat the embers. The firelight, as she bent, showedher bashful mouth to be smiling with the memoryof kisses. She seemed to be walking in a blissfuldream as she went lightly up the stairs.
What aroused Randvar, finally, was the consciousnessthat his foster-mother was moving withunnatural deliberation. Sitting up to look at her,he found that her gaze had become fixed uponthe space beyond the fire, and she was lifting herarm from her knee to stretch it out in that direction.
“Look at that wolf yonder,” she said.
“A wolf?” He rose to his feet, bent to pick upa brand. Then as his gaze followed her finger,54he dropped the wood impatiently. “It is the firedazzling you. There is no wolf there.”
Yawning, Erna lifted both her arms to stretchthem above her head. “I forgot that I was seeingwith the eyes of my mind, instead of with the eyesof my body,” she said. “It stood yonder, wherethe moonlight ends and the firelight begins. Therewas a goldlike glow to its fur, and its eyes were asbright embers. It must have been the Other Shapeof Helvin Jarl.”
The voice in which he repeated the name was insuch contrast to her monotone that it startled himself;he went on with stern restraint: “Do you intendto tell me that Helvin Jarl’s wanderings willlead him here, where I shall have to face him andexplain what ailed me to-day?”
She would not curtail the yawn that was stretchingher jaws, but she nodded.
Randvar made no attempt to hide his impulse,snatching his coat down from the antler-rack forinstant flight.
“It is a good thing that you can do the honorswithout me,” he said. “I shall spend the nightwith the birds in Fenrir’s Jaws.”
But Erna’s mouth was again practicable for talking,and she was using it drowsily. “Yes, I knowfor certain that he will come by here. And I amaltogether too sleepy to remember anything about55manners. I will lose no time in getting out ofyour way.” Rubbing her eyes with one hand, shegathered up her knitting with the other, as obliviousto his position as though she had neverunderstood it.
It came back to her foster-son, then, that mentalnumbness follows as well as precedes the use ofdouble sight. There was nothing to do but throwthe cloak upon the floor and himself into a sulk,while she moved through the routine of her nightlytasks, making sure that Snowfrid had covered thejar of venison broth, letting down against the freshnight wind two or three of the bearskin curtainswith which the arches were provided.
“If I should ever get so dulled by wine as sheby this,” he fumed inwardly, “I should smart forit while her tongue could wag; yet how much betteris she than drunk?”
When she had climbed stiffly up the stairs, andthe light of her torch-splinter had been swallowedby the upper darkness, his resentment overflowedhis lips.
“Again I declare my belief that weird powersare an accursed hindrance. What avail is it towarn a man of coming evil if no way is shown himto ward it off?” He emphasized his words by akick at the great log just before him.
The sudden flare of flames and flight of sparks56and jarring of charred parts asunder seemed toafford him some relief; while regarding them, hebethought him of a loop-hole.
“After all, I do not know how we make it outthat the visitor must be Helvin! A wolf is theanimal-spirit that runs before many a valiant man.Nine chances to one, it will be no more than theFrench Olaf in search of him.”
The possibility made his alarm seem senseless.Snapping his fingers at the world beyond the brightring, he gave the log a second kick, this time offriendly correction.
“Comes the Devil himself, he must have nofault to find with the hospitality of Freya’s Tower,”he said, and set to work to replenish thefire.
Tearing the great saplings free from the pileand breaking them resoundingly under his heel,he worked too vigorously for a while to leave anyspace for brooding, and he had no opportunity totake it up again when the task was finished.Even as he rose from laying on the last boughand turned again to the outer dusk, he saw thegrape-vine thrust aside from the head of the path—sawa man appear in the opening and stand there—apeculiarly proportioned man whose breadth ofshoulder and length of arm suggested that he hadbeen formed for towering tallness, and that it was57blasting mischance which had stopped him atmedium height.
Randvar’s panic took the form of obstinate unbelief.Even when the apparition quitted its holdon the vine and came slowly towards him over thegrass, he doggedly refused to believe that the Fateswould be so contrary.
But on the spot where the moonlight ended andthe firelight began, the visitor came to a stand-still;the red glow meeting him eagerly illuminedhim from head to foot. There was no mistakingthe gray garments, blood-drenched and torn; therewas no mistaking the mass of blood-red hair; andlooking at the haggard face in the sinister frame,the Songsmith’s own figure came back to him,“fire cased in flesh.” In the ash-gray eyes, liveembers were glowing. Suddenly something elsecame to Randvar,—a consciousness that murderoushatred was looking at him out of those eyes.
Scorn he had been prepared for, but this—thisamazed him. It was instinct that acted to stiffenhim alertly as he made salute, saying, “I give youwelcome, Helvin Jarl.”
Whatever his temper, Starkad’s son had a Jarl’sdignity of bearing. He answered grimly:
“I hold that welcome for true which is told bythe face as well as by the tongue. I think you didnot expect to see me so soon?”
58That seemed so easy to answer that Randvarhad said “No,” before he recollected the truth,when he amended it with “Yes,” and stopped shortin angry confusion. His embarrassment was notlessened by the inevitable next question:
“Why did you run away when I called toyou?”
He said desperately, at last: “Jarl, I do notknow how to put it into words. You can believethat I went mad.”
He had braced himself to meet jeering laughter,to endure it without strangling the jeerer. It tookhim a breath’s space to realize that Helvin’s mindwas no longer on him. The arm by which he hadbeen steadying himself against the pillar haddoubled under him like a broken reed; now heswung forward against the stone, and would havepitched into the fire if Randvar had not leapedthe flames and caught him.
When he had lowered him upon a bench with hisback against a support, the next move was naturallyto fill a horn at the wine-cask and bring it tohim. Remembering only his old feeling towardsthe Jarl’s son, Rolf’s son performed the servicewith swift good-will. He was recalled to theirpresent relations by Helvin’s lifting a hand in refusalof his hospitality.
It obliged him to fall back a step and hesitate,59balancing the rejected cup, but it emboldened himpresently to protest.
“Jarl, it does not seem to me that this matteris going according to good sense. That I havedone nothing to earn friendship, I own; but I denythat I have done aught to call for ill will. If youthink me a milksop, I cannot come to words withyou about that; but it is the truth that I wouldhave been eager in joining you.”
Leaning back with closed eyes, Helvin’s facewas yet drawn awry by mocking laughter.
“Eager!” he murmured. “Eager!” Then, “Itmay be that if I had not come here to-night, youreagerness would have urged you to seek me outin the Town?”
“Surely not. I did not say that I had the wishto be thrown out of your hall.”
“More likely would you have been carried out,”Helvin answered dryly.
Despite his resentment, Randvar had a feelingof admiration for a man who dared say such athing to him,—a man whose exhausted body wouldhave been a rag in the forester’s hands. He said,as he turned and threw the untasted wine into thefire:
“If you have set your heart on hating me, haveit your own way. It must be because your temperhas been tried to-day. I will only say that I60am sorry, for I have always felt a liking towardsyou.”
Though his head continued to lean heavilyagainst the pillar, the Jarl’s eyes opened to flashat him. “Excepting once to-day and once lastseason, when you sang in a hunter’s cabin, I donot know that I have ever seen you.”
“I mean that I have been so told about you—”Randvar was beginning, but was checked as muchby his own sense of intrusion as by a flame fromthe smouldering eyes.
The young Jarl went on haughtily: “It hadcome to my mind, before, that my affairs must bea juicy mouthful for gabblers to chew over thefire; but I did not know that the things they saidwere the kind to attract friends to me, and therewill be much awanting before I believe it.”
Randvar gave up then; shrugging, he said only:“Believe whatever you like about it; yet I wishI had a chance to prove my good-will.”
Again he expected the jeering laughter, andagain he missed his foretelling. A long time Starkad’sson sat staring out at the darkness, strangeexpressions playing over his white face like flickeringsof his inner fire; then, at last, his thoughtsformed themselves into slow-spoken words:
“Never could it happen that my look encounteredyou without recalling how I saw you this61morning,—yet what else is to be done? To holdenmity against a man who offers me good-will—This,at least, you have never heard of me, Songsmith,that I am low-minded! Only one way isopen to me.” He stretched out his hand for thehorn. “I will accept it from you now,” he said,and drained gratefully the second draught his hostbrought him, the rich juice imparting some of itsown warm life to his ghastly face. He drew himselferect as he gave back the cup. “There shallbe peace between us, only I make it a condition thatyou shall enter my following.”
Once or twice before the conversation had takenturns unexpected to Randvar, but nothing to comparewith this.
“You make that a condition!” he repeated.
Helvin’s finely marked brows drew nearer together.“You should not take it ill, if you haveas much mind to serve me as you said a while ago.You shall have the honorable post of my song-maker,—myfather’s skald is years overdue in Valhalla.”
To imagine such an offer in his day-dreams hadseemed to the Songsmith as natural as eating; buthearing it now in his waking ears, he wondered ifhe were not asleep. He said, “I give you thanks,”but so dazedly that like lightning playing over adistant peak, a flash of that devil-mockery flickeredover Helvin’s face.
62“What now! Does your brisk friendship getweak in the knees when it comes to trusting yourselfin my power?”
Flushing, Rolf’s son swallowed a boast andanswered only: “Why should I be afraid, Jarl?You have given me your word that this happeningshall not weigh against me.”
Again it struck him as odd the way Helvinleaned forward and scrutinized him, long and incredulously.
“I did not mean because of this matter,” he said,at last. “I meant because you might feel somedoubts about the turn of temper I have.” Thestrange mockery of the smile in which his lipsdrew away from his white teeth, as he said that,was made stranger still by the awful intentness ofhis eyes.
So much strangeness began to tell upon Randvar’sstock of patience. He said bluntly:
“Jarl, if the truth must be told, I have nodoubts whatever about your temper, for I haveseen plainly that you have a very bad one. Butneither have I been used to lamblike men. Willinglywill I strike a bargain on these terms, if Ihave the choice.”
After they were out, the words struck him asbeing a trifle unceremonious; he did not wondermuch that Starkad’s son should sit staring like63one dumfounded. But that scorn should graduallygrow up in his face!
“Behold, I believe you!” the young Jarl saidwith biting slowness. “I believe you have theDevil’s boldness to match against my Devil’s nature,—andat the back of that, the ambition ofLucifer! Now, it is told that the closeness of acourt breeds rottenness; but what shall be said ofsuch foulness as this, out in the forest’s untaintedair? When such as I go before, a worse is not tobe looked for behind; and this man knows it; andstill is he willing to sell his manhood for my miserablegifts!”
It was not only his voice and his words that bit,but his look as well. Rolf’s son winced under thesmart, and spoke between his teeth.
“Such wrong you do me, Helvin, Jarl’s son, thatit will be hard work for you to atone for it. IfI had been willing to sell my manhood for gifts,would I not have put on your father’s yoke? ThatI want to become your man is because I expectthat you will make following you an honor. Theevil I know of you I think no more your fault thanI think it blame to an oak that a poison vine isthrown around its branches. Now, as things stand,I believe you will shake it off, and the oak strengthin your breast will send your mind up oak-highand oak-broad to be a strong pillar to other men.”
64He had got his temper back by the time he finished.From under his level brows, his eyes lookedsteadfast as sunlight into the face of his lord. Asthe sun draws a tree upward, so the young Jarl wasdrawn upright by the look.
“All my life,” he breathed, “have I believedthat of myself, but never did I think to find anotherwho would believe it—who could believe it!Does not some troll mock me?”
The Songsmith answered: “I think you knowthat I speak the truth.”
Looking into his eyes, it seemed that Helvin didknow it. It seemed that he was opening his lips tosay so, when into the stillness was dropped a soundlike the distant clink of spur against stone. In thebeat of a pulse, his face had become distorted bythat hatred which springs from fear. He droppedback upon the bench, his words slipping out disjointedly.
“Let us see who has dared to follow me—whohas dared! Mind this—that you make it appearas if I lingered to hear you sing. Go yonder toyour harp, if that be a harp!”
Though of home-make and rude shape, it was aharp that hung on the pillar above the bed of fox-skins.Laying it on his breast, the Songsmithplayed as he was bidden,—random chords that fellabsently from the ends of his fingers. Standing65there in the shelter of the bearskin that had beendrawn across the arch, he could not longer seethe head of the path; but he knew when the pursueremerged from the bushes by Helvin’s smotheredcry:
Gripping the edge of the seat, the Jarl leanedthere gazing out with distended eyes. “He is thelikeliest man to find it out and follow.... Since theday of my birth he has hounded me.... He followedme into the world by an hour, but I think he willgo out of it before me.”... His voice died away inmurmur,—ceased at last so that between the harp-chordscould be heard the soft rustle of footstepsthrough grass. Soon after that, the imposing formof Olaf the French came into the range of theSongsmith’s vision.
Not to Randvar either had it occurred that Olafcould be seeking any but the Jarl. It amazed him,also, that at sight of the gray-clad figure leaningon the bench Thorgrim’s son showed unmistakablesurprise.
“Lord!” he said. Then, with the suavest gesturein his stock of French graces: “Lord, I wouldgive much if I had not this appearance of havingso little regard for your orders as to come pryingupon your grief. Believe me—”
“My grief!” Helvin repeated. “My—” A quiver66of terrible laughter undermined his voice and it fell;then, in the drawing of a breath it rose defiantly.“Since this matter has been spoken of, let me makeit plain to you that you may make it plain toothers, and tongue need never be laid to it again.I have no grief. Nor to save any one’s feelings willI make pretence of any. Let no man urge it onme, if his ears would go unscathed!”
Olaf made no attempt to urge it, certainly. Asin toleration of some noble whim, he smiled blandlyand bowed acquiescence. After a moment theJarl resumed curtly:
“If it was not to seek me that you came hither,what may it be that you want?”
That it might be to finish their interrupted duelhad already occurred to Randvar; but if he imaginedthat Olaf would have any difficulty in presentingtheir quarrel in a light favorable to himself,his estimate fell short. The French One answeredwithout hesitation:
“It so happens that I am in this neighborhood,Jarl, because your men have made a night-campnear the head of the Island. And I am come tothe Tower to fulfil a task I have set myself, whichis to avenge on this fellow his insolence towardsyour sister.”
“My sister!” the young noble repeated, sittingerect.
67“In this wise will I answer you, lord, as is thevery truth. This morning the gold-adorned maidenchanced upon him in the forest; and after thefashion of damsels with things that are new tothem, she showed interest in his jingling accomplishments.Word followed word until, on discoveringthat there was gentle blood in him, shehad gone so far as to honor him with an invitationto join her following. You would say that if hehad one good strain in him he would have shownthankfulness for her favor. Instead of that, however,he answered her even with ill-temper, jeeredat the life she offered him, ended the talk by informingher that he did not think her service goodenough for him. If you think I am making it outworse than it is, I shall not blame you,—only askhim to deny it.”
It is strange how different one’s own sentimentscan seem when echoed by another’s mouth, andafter time has allayed the irritation from whichthey sprang. The song-maker had enough gentleblood to dye his face at the recollection of hisquarrel with the beautiful Brynhild; nor could hemeet the glance the Jarl bent on him, but stoodgrinding the cedar twigs under his heel and wishingthat they were some portion of the FrenchOne’s comely body.
But Helvin Jarl spoke tranquilly. With the68passing of his belief that Olaf was in pursuit ofhim, fierceness like a storm wind had passed fromhis bearing and left him jarlfully poised.
“That is to be said of his fault, beausire, thatit needs mending; but hardly are you the man todo it. This one thing is enough to hinder it, thatyou are known to be the most jealous of all mysister’s suitors. Think only how spiteful tonguesmight slander you, and say that instead of resentingrudeness you were in truth avenging it on theSongsmith that Starkad’s daughter showed himsuch great kindness! Better that you hand it overto me, beausire, since, besides being her brother, Iam also answerable for this man. For I may aswell take this time to make it known that theSongsmith has consented to enter my household,and make for me the songs which, even before Istrayed here to-night, I found pleasure in. Whatneeds be said, I will say, beausire, and overtakeyou shortly.”
Rising, he made a gesture of dismissal which,if it lacked French grace, had at least Norse decision.Before it Thorgrim’s bland son was forcedto bow, and, bowing, to back out of the circle ofthe firelight. When he had become a dark shapein the moonshine, the Jarl turned to where hisnew follower was waiting in keen discomfort.
“Do not imagine,” he said, “that I am going69to pretend to be surprised that you lost your temperwith my sister. So has her haughtiness grown,that what I wonder at is that some man is notdriven to slay her. Only for your own sake do Iremind you—as so often I have been reminded—thatgood manners are like a coat of mail in thatevery breach of them opens a hole for the thrustof your enemies.”
Of reproof it was the mildest. In his self-dissatisfaction,the song-maker was even moved tooutdo it, and muttered with another kick at thelog in front of him:
“You say less than you might if you wanted topush the matter. It is seen that your sister thinksme no better than a boor.”
“I should be two-faced to say more,” Helvinreturned, “for to me the happening is even of service.Now, when I no longer have before me thehonestness of your face to make me believe in you,it will stand me in some stead to be able to tellmyself that I know you spoke the truth aboutscorning court ways and preferring my serviceover that of another, as has not been the casebefore. Do not take it ill that I need proof. Thishappens to me for the first time that I trust anyone. Yet I wish it were possible for you to fareback with me to-night.”
Remembering the crops that must be talked70over with Erna, the traps that must be explainedto the old Vikings, the young master of the Towerhesitated; but the instant the Jarl read his difficulty,he ended it courteously.
“I see, however, that you have needful businessto arrange. Take two days to attend to it, andjoin me on the third day at sunset. Only assureme that you will not fail me on that day.”
Rather an appeal than a command did it becomein the gentleness of his voice, the friendlinessof the hand he stretched out. Taking the hand inboth of his, the Songsmith answered from the sincerityof his heart:
“May my luck fail me if I fail you either in thisor in greater things! For all it is worth you havemy loyalty, I take oath on it.”
Returning the pressure of the Songsmith’s warmclasp, the Jarl’s gaze held him long and strangely.
“I believe you,” he said. “For whatever it isworth, I swear you my friendship—for whateverit is worth!”
On that they parted.
“His hands are clean who warns another”
“Wait a moment,” Erna commanded,quickening her descent of the stairs.
Wrapped in his cloak of russethomespun, Randvar had just comein from his morning swim, and washastening where his heap of clothing waited bythe fire. He quieted the chattering of his teethto look at her inquiringly.
Two days and three nights had passed since thestrain of using her double sight had numbed herwits; once more she was her capable keen-eyedself. Yet there was a quiver of unusual emotionin her stern face as she came up and laid her handupon his arm.
“I want to find out whether you are in dangerof sinking by swords,” she said with her customaryterseness, and her grasp tightened determinedlyas he started to move away.
“I have declared, foster-mother, that I will endureno more magic though my life lies on it!”
72“What magic is it that my palms, like those ofmany another witchcraft-knowing woman, havethe power to feel where steel is going to pierce avital part, and to strengthen that part? I tell youto let me have my will. I dreamed last night thatI saw a wounded eagle, which may well be yourOther Shape.”
“Foster-mother, I tell you that any more ofthis spell-work is going to put me into a bad temper;and it is my wish to behave well towards youthe last morning we are together.” Involuntarily,his voice softened.
Though usually she disdained them, she was notwithout a knowledge of woman’s weapons. Sheassumed them rather than lose her point.
“Maybe so, but you behave all the other wayto set your self-will against my peace of mind.Do you think I could bear Eric’s absence if I hadnot the assurance of my hands that his body issound?”
Wondering whether she had also tested thesoundness of Eric’s head tempted the Songsmithto a chuckle. The discovery that half the fiercebrightness of her eyes was due to tears finished hisdisarming. Half sighing, half growling, he let hiscloak slip off his shoulders.
“When did I ever get my will against you,—afterI got out of swaddling-bands? I ask, however,73that you do not keep me feeling foolish herelonger than is necessary.”
Probably it was the same to her as though hewere still in swaddling-bands, when once she hadclosed her eyes that all her forces might be concentratedin her sense of touch. The palms shepressed upon his firm cool flesh—polished satin-smoothby the water, glistening satin-fair in thefirelight—moved as tenderly as though the sinewyframe were still the soft child-body that she hadtended in its helplessness. Each time his glancefell upon her worn face with its mouth hard-setin anxiety for him, he swallowed his impatienceone time more; and when the waxing light madedelay no longer possible, his efforts to free himselfwere begun with all gentleness.
“Foster-mother, be good enough to rememberthat I cannot start later than sunrise, if I am toreach there by sunset.”
She clutched him with one hand, while the otherpressed hard upon his left side.
“I thought I felt a place—stand still!—over yourheart. It would be a death wound, indeed. There!Cold! A spot as cold as Hel’s mouth!” Sheopened eyes dilated with excitement in a face thathad become ashen pale.
An involuntary shiver passed over him, coolinghis impatience. He watched thoughtfully while74she began to knead his flesh with her warm andtingling finger-balls. After a time he said:
“It cannot be gainsaid that this is a betterplace to give a thrust than to take one. I admitthat I expect to meet some unexpected things inthe path I am entering. Not a little overgrowthhides it. Although I cannot tell why, much thatthe Jarl said that night came to me as a surprise.I suppose that the strangeness of his temper isthe explanation of it.... Yet there is one thing thatI can find no answer to,—why should he act as ifit were important to him to have an unknownman like me in his following?”
Instead of answering, she began to rub at whatshe considered a vulnerable place in his discretion.“Never make the mistake of belittling yourselflike that, and least of all where strangers can hearyou. The result might be that they would takeyou at your word and believe you to be a man ofno mark.”
He stirred impatiently. “Brisk enough am I,and many shall give place to me; but this I knownot,—why it should matter to the Jarl of New Norwaywhere I spend my days.”
Neither did she know, when she came to thinkit over. She soon gave up the attempt to fall backupon what she did know.
“It will be all the same in the end. I have done75all I can in protecting your vitals. Safe into thefray you will go; safe out of the fray you willcome,—if you do not let your flesh get cut so thatyou bleed to death. Stand still that I may seeif I have brought back the life-warmth.... Yes...yes, the cold is entirely gone.” When she hadpulled herself up stiffly by his arm, she releasedhim. “Scant time will you have to jump into yourclothes. The sun is not far away when the topof that chestnut-tree stands out so boldly.”
“That is true!” he assented, and cleared at abound the distance between himself and his clothing.
For a while there were no other sounds to beheard save the simmering of the kettle and thesong of Snowfrid overhead, sweet as the lilt of ameadow-lark in a field of golden grain.
As he rose from swallowing his last mouthfulof broth, the girl came clattering down the stairs,waving over her head a great sword whose hiltwas of iron inlaid with silver, and whose sheathwas made from a rattlesnake-skin.
“I knew that though you should forget to sayfarewell to me, you would remember to wait forthis,” she said. “I took it up-stairs last night andpolished it a long time after you were all asleep.Does it not look well?”
“I did not remember it,” Randvar admitted,“so little used am I to anything more than a hunting-knife.”76Taking it from her as she unsheathedit, he felt its edges critically, and feigned to testthem on one of her yellow braids. “The hiltcleaves to my hand like the palm of a friend.I shall feel more self-respecting to go amongstrangers with my father’s sword at my side.Perhaps some of his good-fortune will come fromit to me.” His brown face reddened, and heturned it away suddenly to watch the girl’s nimblefingers fastening at his hip the sword-beltwhich she had drawn across his shoulder.
But Snowfrid jumped up with her usual liveliness,crying, “If your luck is most good, it mayeven happen that the Jarl will make you a guardsmanlike Bolverk,” and he bestirred himself totease her as usual.
“Pooh! If he cannot do any more for me thanthat, I shall come home again!”
The emphasis with which her hands plantedthemselves upon her hips boded ill for him, butErna came between them to make sure that thestrap which held his harp to his back was alsosecure. When that had been seen to, there wasno further excuse for lingering.
Stretching out his arms to his foster-mother,he said: “Live as well as you can, and do not worryabout Eric or me. Your luck will take care ofme, and I will take care of him.”
77She clasped him around the neck, and kissedhim with passionate fierceness.
“If you owe me anything, pay it to Eric,” shewhispered in his ear, and then turned away andbegan violently to stir the soup.
At that, Snowfrid took a hand from her hip todraw the back of the wrist across her eyes, andsignified that she was going to see him off by slippingout ahead into the gray light.
Though the darkness had melted from the air,there lingered in it yet that chill of unreality whichmakes earth and trees and even rocks seem butphantoms of themselves. As they crossed thegrass, Randvar said, “It has the look of a deadworld that is waiting for the sun to bring it tolife,” and the girl shivered assent and drewcloser to him.
At the entrance to the path she stopped, and heturned for a parting look at the dwelling that hisfather’s gentled strength had built and his mother’scourageous love had hallowed. In the graynessit loomed as remote and unreal as all therest, the firelight that showed wanly through thearchways only adding to its shadowy strangeness.
“It seems to me that life is only just beginningfor me, too,” he said slowly as he gazed.
“You ought not to feel so,” the girl cried reproachfully.78“You ought to feel that you aregoing away from your father and mother.”
He shook his head. “I feel instead that I amcoming closer to them. It was my father’s lotbefore me to leave his home and go forth to trywhat the gods would grant him.” As standingon the same spot he had lifted his hand in greetingto Erna, so now he raised it in farewell to thehome scene. “It was a good dream while it lasted,but I am glad to be awake at last.”
Snowfrid burst into tears on his shoulder. “Itis a wicked thing that men must grow up and goaway!”
Times there were when she would have beenshaken off with severity; even now he put herfrom him hastily, though he bent and kissed her,bantering.
“What foolishness is here! If a guardsman hadnot grown up and gone away from his home, wherewould your fun have come in?”
Rain clouds were not so thick in her blue eyesbut that sun shone through at that. Tiptoeing toreach his ear, she whispered, “Remind him of me,sometimes!” Then hiding her face, she fled backto the Tower; and he set forth laughing.
A silvery haze veiled all but the path just beforehis feet, so that he appeared to be ever advancingfrom mystery to mystery. He would have79been less than a song-maker if it had not seemedto him a symbol of the unknown life into whichhe was entering, if he had not given himself unreservedlyto musing on his hopes and fears. Hisfeet travelled the trails by instinct that day, andby instinct forded the streams and threaded themarshes; his mind was travelling the roads of theJarl’s Town, fording the deeps of Brynhild’s pride,threading the maze of Helvin’s temper.
Burning its way through the grayness, the suncame out. Like a ball of fire, it rolled up theeastern slope of the heavens. Like a ball of fire,it rolled down the sky’s western side. Still hewalked in a dream, conscious only of the light ofhis visions. It was not until the hills showed likenicks in the fire-ball’s rim, and he had reached thelast knoll rising between him and the sight of theJarl’s Town, that he was recalled to the present.
Half-way to the crest loomed a mass of cinder-huedrusty-veined rock. Rounding this broughthim suddenly upon Eric the Page, squatted on hisheels beside a patch of the wintergreen berrieswhich the youth of New Norway valued next tohoney. In the process of adjusting his attentionto this abrupt demand, the Songsmith stood gazingat him; but the youngster scrambled up withan involuntary “Odin!” which was as much a prayeras an exclamation. When, presently, Randvar80put out a hand and lifted him by his embroideredcollar, he began to talk much more like asmall boy caught robbing a trap than the haughtypage of a Jarl’s daughter.
“Now, foster-brother! I have not done anything.I did your bidding with her. I have notdone anything, foster-brother.”
“Plain enough you have it before your mindwhat I ought to do,” Randvar said with his shortlaugh. Then he gave him a slight shake and lethim go. “Have it even as you have chosen. Itmay be that I shall not find it harder to forgetyou than you found it to forget me.” While hisone hand quitted the gay collar, his other tooktoll from the berry-laden cap, and he passed on.
That he should not be allowed to forget, however,he was able to guess. It was no surprise when theboy’s voice sounded again at his elbow, in thewheedling tone that was as familiar as the gleamof his curly head.
“Foster-brother, what is the need of taking itin that way, either? I could explain it with amouthful of words if you would listen.”
As the Songsmith could not deny some curiosityto hear the explanation, he allowed his pace toslacken. Eric read the sign quickly.
“You need not think it was lack of friendliness.As well as you, I know that because I have been81able to get honor and fine manners for myself isthe more reason why I ought to protect and helplesser men, and I have the intention to do so.But the truth is that in these clothes you look solike a dead tree that has got out of a moss-bedand walked in from the forest, that I became tooembarrassed at the thought of any one’s rememberingthat I used to be like you to be able tothink of aught else. It was not until afterwardsthat it crossed my mind that you might feel hurt,and I got ashamed of myself.”
Of a sudden, Randvar began to laugh and pulledthe boy up to him and hugged him; and then ofa sudden he frowned and held him off at arm’s-length.
“I suppose,” he said, “that is also the explanationwhy you have not been home to see your kinswomensince the Jarl’s sister picked you out forher page three seasons ago,—not because you donot have love towards them, but because you disliketo be put in mind of the poor way in whichyou used to live?”
Eric did not answer immediately, but walkeda while making embarrassed snatches at the flamingsumacs they were passing.
“I have so little time,” he muttered at last.
The Songsmith looked down at him severely.“Whether your dignity takes it well or not,” he82said, “I am going to tell you that I think you ina worse way than the man in the were-wolf story.Every ninth night it happened to him to changehis man’s shape for a wolf’s body, but never didhe lose his man’s nature. Even when his appetiteforced him to prey upon cattle, his man’s eyeslooked out of the wolf’s sockets in loathing. Youhave shed your forest ways for these mincingcourt manners, but you have changed your manfulnature also, that used to have honesty in it,and love of kin. I foresee that as time goes onthere will be a harder nut to crack than this whichwe two have just had a hand in.”
Enough honesty remained in the boy so thathe showed himself abashed. Again his voice cajoled,when it came after a long interval of silentplodding.
“I have got love towards my kin. I was goingto send good gifts to them the next time a trading-shipwent that way. I will send some back byyou now, if you are willing to take them. I supposeyou fared hither to see Starkad set adrift?”
“To see what?” Randvar repeated, losing sternnessin surprise.
A change of subject appeared to be much toEric’s taste. He launched forth eagerly:
“They are going to set him adrift on the river,of course. Is it possible that you have not heard83of it? Saint Olaf was disposed of in that way, becauseafter the battle his foes would for no sakeallow him to be buried on Norwegian ground. Hisfriends put his body on a boat and sent it out tosea; and so bound was old Starkad to follow himin everything, he gave orders long ago that thisshould be his end also. It will happen as soonas the sun sets, and it will be a great sight to see.I came over here myself to look at it, since Brynhildhas little need of pages while she sits mourningin her bower.”
Randvar made no answer, for they came justthen to the top of the ridge and saw below themthe broad river, uncoiled through the land like aMidgard serpent of glittering gold, and saw beyondit the spreading grain-fields and vine-clad slopesof the Jarl’s Town, its light streaks of stone wallswinding between dark tree-trunks, its clusters ofbrown roofs blotting the gay autumn foliage, itsclouds of gray smoke drifting across the brightface of the sky.
Around every group of roofs circled broad acresof farm-land and pasture-land, for the settlementwas no straggling line of cabins, no huddle oftented booths, but a typical Norse town almost asprosperous as Nidaros itself. From the Jarl’s domain,the scores upon scores of great estates radiatedlike spokes from a hub, separated from it and from84one another by stretches of wood and grassy common,and bound together by tree-arched lanes andbroad white roads, and by the shining highway ofthe river with its stone wharves and anchored ships.
Truly it was a wonderful sight to come upon inthe midst of the new-world wilderness. The twoon the ridge lingered to gaze at it, and Randvar’sair-castles paled beside the deeper interest ofreality.
He said thoughtfully: “It is a testing-place ofmen’s mettle. They alone will get fame here ofwhom it can be said that they are well-tempered....Only by many accomplished men coming to a spotat one time, with all their wealth on their backs,could such a stronghold be built inside the spaceof two-score years. Do you know, young one, howmany people make up the Town?”
“While I cannot say for certain,” Eric answered,“I think I have heard it reckoned that there aretwo thousand, counting in women and thralls; forit is said that every one brought all his kin and hisproperty with him. That was not a little to takeout of Norway at one time. Starkad was wont tosay that if Saint Olaf’s foes did get a great gainover him in the battle in which they slew him, yetwas it some loss to them when so many of his followingpreferred rather to go into exile than tobear the new rule—”
85Randvar’s uplifted hand checked him. “Hush!I heard a horn,” he said, and they held theirbreath in listening.
For the first time they noticed that the soundsof the day had waned with its light, which wasnow almost gone, no more of the sun’s fiery ballremaining than would have served for a signal-lighton the hill-top. Already the eastern side ofthe trees was sombre with shadow; and the lazysplash of the river seemed to fill the world until,faint and sweet, the funeral music was brought tothem by the breeze. Growing momently strongerwith the emerging of the train of sable-garbedhorsemen from the little wood through which theroad ran, the dirge throbbed solemnly in theirears.
Upon Eric the Page it seemed to be borne insuddenly that he was in charge of a grand spectaclewith which to amaze and delight his forest-bredcompanion. He assumed the responsibility willingly.
“Now am I well pleased,” he said, “that youare going to get so good a chance to see somethingof court ways. That is the black bearskin thatthey are carrying the corpse on. Those men ridingbeside it are the priests. The tall haughtyone is the Bishop. The name given him is MagnusFire-and-Sword, because he has the custom of86burning and slaying all who do not believe as hedoes. The clumsy one coming last men call theShepherd Priest, because it was his lot to herdsheep on a Swedish dairy-farm before it came intohis head to be a holy man. The leather-clad fellowswho ride after him with bags at their saddle-bowsare guards bearing the treasures thatare to go with Starkad,—his armor and his weaponsand his jewelled ornaments, even the gold circlethe wore on his head. The new Jarl wouldhave it so; he would not keep so much as a—Thatis he—Helvin, Starkad’s son—with the redhair—riding a black horse—do you see?”
Randvar nodded absently; since first the blackhorse came into view, his eyes had been fixed uponits rider.
“He bears himself as stark as the dead man,”he muttered, then finding that he was speakingaloud, shook himself back to attention.
Wading waist-deep into the water, the eightbearers of the litter had placed their burden uponthe black-draped boat waiting on the darkeningwaves. Now the contents of the treasure-bagswere handed to them, piece by piece, and theybuilt with it a glittering bulwark around themoundlike form. Then the oldest of the advice-givers,an old man gnarled and bald as an ancientoak, came stiffly down the bank with a lighted87torch in his hand, and laid the flame against therope of plaited straw that held the boat to theshore.
Leaping out hungrily, the yellow tongues lickedup the morsel and reached out for the food thatlay beyond, while the loosened boat swung gentlyfrom the land. With the rush of wind, the firerose crackling and hissing, and gradually the sunsetlight was lost in the new glare that filled theriver valley. Rising as it rose, and quivering likeit, rose the voice of the dead Jarl’s skald, chantinghis death-song.
In the red glare the boat slipped seaward. As itdrifted past them, the man and the boy on the knollcould see every firelit jewel sparkling and flashingin a ring of splendor around the form under theblack pall. Then it drifted farther, and once morethe sunset glory became visible around it. By-and-byit was no more than a star in the gatheringdusk; and the old skald’s voice—strained thin andhigh in the effort to send his song after the departingvoyager—cracked and broke, and there was silenceon both sides of the river.
On the side opposite the Town it was Eric whobroke the pause, rousing-himself with a yawn anda stretch.
“I declare this to be the best entertainmentStarkad ever gave me,” he remarked. “But one88cannot be always enjoying himself. I suppose youwill pass the night at the hostelry before goingback?” He brushed a leaf from his tunic withOlaf’s own elegance of gesture, then made use ofOlaf’s own oath as he glimpsed his companion’sface. “By Saint Michael! you look as solemn asthough you were going to be buried yourself.”
Straightening from the cramped attitude of thewatcher, the Songsmith shook off the mood thathad held him and became quietly purposeful. Hesaid briefly:
“I go neither back to the Tower nor forward tothe hostelry, but to join the Jarl’s following. Doesit lie within your knowledge whether it is the customto go directly to him? Or should I speak firstto one of those around him?”
Whether or not the knowledge lay in Eric, hismouth was blocked by amazement; only horrorcould leak through.
“Go to Helvin Jarl in those clothes! He wouldorder his dogs set on you! You look more like astag than a man.”
It is likely that he went on at some length, butRandvar gave him no further attention. Makinghis way down the hill and across the bridge, hecame into the crowd just beginning to disperse.His final decision was to submit the question ofetiquette to Bolverk, whose burly figure had come89into sight in the throng; but before he could reachthe guardsman, his glance encountered Helvin’s.
Rigidly erect rode the young Jarl in his sablemourning clothes, his face an ivory mask to hidewhat lay beneath it; but into his eyes there leapednow such a look as a man gnawed by torturingfear might give the man who brought him relief.What the look meant, the Songsmith did not askhimself; he knew only that response to it rose inhim as rises a river in flood-time. Like a woodenbridge before a freshet, etiquette was swept out ofhis thoughts.
Pushing between the courtmen, he made his wayto the Jarl. Without speaking, Helvin put out ahand and gripped the deerskin shoulder, and sorode holding to it as Rolf’s son walked beside him.
“Ill luck is the end of ill redes”
It was three weeks later. A groupof old fur-traders stood in the porchof the Jarl’s feasting-hall, answeringin chorus the remark of one oftheir number:
“A favorite so soon? Time is not allowed togo to seed when a young man gets the rule!”
“Ah, the good old days of peace and order!”
“More than ever, now, the doubt works in mewhether it is Helvin’s good training or his badtemper that will be uppermost.”
“It is not to be looked for that he will get tamecounsel from his new friend,” returned the manwho had spoken first. “My son, who brought thetidings home last week, says that already theforester has fought with Olaf, Thorgrim’s son, andso won his way to great love with the young courtmen,who are all jealous of Olaf’s favor with Starkad’sdaughter.”
91The chorus interrupted him, growling in theirbeards.
“Though he came off with honor from theyoung men, still it is not settled that he will farein the same way with us!”
“No man has brought back such accomplishmentsas Olaf the French—”
“It is plain in everything that little good-willcome from this sea-rover’s son—”
“I am getting curious to see him.”
“You will not have to wait long—”
“As soon as this pine-mast of a hunter gets outof the road—”
That was not very soon for a great throng wasahead of the hunter, and no hurrying or strugglingcompetition marked their progress, since the courseof a river between its banks is not more fixed thanwas the place of each. Dropping out or pushingon, they settled leisurely into orderly rows uponthe long benches against the wainscot—advice-giversand courtmen and guards along the southernwall, priests and lawmen and land-owners alongthe northern, the eastern cross-bench for womenguests, the western for the women of the court,such small-fry as armorers and harpers and tumblersfilling the draughty corners by the doors.The time came at last, however, when the hunter’stow head brushed under the lintel; and pushing92after him, the traders came into the cheer of theheir’s inheritance feast.
Gone was the darkness and coldness and silenceof mourning that for three Norse weeks had broodedover the mighty pillared hall. Once more, thelight of fragrant juniper torches played upon picturedtapestry and garlanded column. Once more,the round gilded shields hanging above the bencheswere turned into so many suns by the ruddy glowof fires leaping on the stone hearths down themiddle of the long nave. At the white-spreadtables that formed an oblong around the fires, thegorgeous feasting dresses of the court-folk madestreaks of rainbow color through the brightness.
Running his eye up the line of the southern wall,the trader who had spoken last said over hisshoulder: “Yonder he is, on Helvin’s left, as wasto be expected.”
He might have done better to say, “on the leftof the high-seat,” whose towering carven postsmarked plainly its place midway the length of thehall, for the heir was in no way conspicuous in theline of his guests as he sat on the footstool of theruler’s seat, awaiting the ceremony which shouldelevate him to its empty cushions. But thetraders found the spot at once where the new facelooked out over the scene, and they studied itcritically as they moved forward.
93What they saw was a superbly proportionedyoung fellow of four-and-twenty, rising as erectlytall beside the guardsmen as a pine-tree besideoaks. Level as pine branches was the line of histhick dark brows, and no gold but the sun’s glowingburnish was on the mass of hair that shadowedhis sun-ripened face. Of the might of the primevalwastes and of the wilderness’s virile beauty, he wasexpressive. One of the old men spoke for themall when he said:
“Since Helvin, Starkad’s son, has been likened toa captive eagle, it would not be amiss to call thisfellow an eagle of the forest that has come to perchbeside him because of a kinship between theirnatures. The Fates alone can tell what will comeof such a partnership!” Doubt was heavy in thewagging of their heads as they turned away tofollow the overseer of guests to the seats appointedthem.
Following after them went the eyes of Randvarthe Songsmith. Though their words had not carriedacross the fire, their scrutiny had, so that graduallyhis mouth took on a satirical twist. Presentlyhe spoke to the heir on the footstool—spokewithout having been spoken to—to the indignationof the old counsellors on the right of the high-seat.
“Lord, when I see how your people stare at me94as at a black Jotun, I realize it is not a dream thatI am in your court. Other times it seems to meas if I must be lying on the cedar branches by theTower fire and imagining what I should wish tohappen.”
To the added displeasure of the old chieftains,Helvin justified the familiarity by returning it.He had been sitting with his chin on his hand, afigure of weary splendor in his furred and jewelleddress of state; now he straightened and resting hiselbow on the seat-cushion, entered into conversationwith the son of the sea-rover,—it was fortunatethat the old men could not also hear his frankremarks.
“Your luck is great, Songsmith, that you canget interest out of this. Just before you spoke, Iwas thinking that though I were blindfolded, Ishould still be able to describe every tapestry onthe walls, put every man, woman, and thrall inplace, count up every dish and goblet and knife onthe table. At times, when I sat where you sitnow, I used to amuse myself by rearranging thepeople in my imagination, beginning by puttingyonder fat-chopped buffoon in the proud priest’splace. I can tell you that it came the nearest tomaking sport of anything I have had in this hall.”
The song-maker’s smile came readily as heglanced across at the high-seat of the northern95wall, which had been held during Starkad’s timeby that warrior-bishop of Saint Olaf who wasknown as Magnus Fire-and-Sword, but which nowawaited in emptiness the pleasure of the newruler.
“It will be rearranging them in earnest thistime, Jarl. Lord, is it possible that you do notfeel the excitement in the air as every person heredraws breath with hope or fear of your rule? Theforce of their eyes upon you is like the beat ofwaves upon the shore.”
As brand from brand, the face of the Jarl’s sonkindled; but before he was ready to reply, the Songsmith’sglance had flown past him and lighted onthe eastern door.
Through the broad portal was advancing a trainof court-women, walking far apart because of thetrailing length of their silken robes, stately matronswith towering head-dresses, and white-armed maidenswhose bright tresses fell free from golden bands,and moving before them—the jewel for whom alltheir splendor was but a setting—Brynhild theProud, bending now her queenly head to the greetingof some old warrior, now yielding a smile tosome young courtman’s eager salute.
It was the first glimpse Randvar had had of hersince that day in the forest, so rigidly had mourningcustom secluded her in her bower. As a man96who has lived long on a memory, he drank thirstilyof the wine of her beauty, felt it course hotlythrough his veins. He was still leaning forwardwhen he felt the Jarl’s gaze upon him, and knewthat his face had betrayed him. In confusion hedropped his eyes.
Helvin said dryly: “It is seen that you did notreject my sister’s favor because you did not findher good to look upon, Songsmith.”
Randvar overcame enough of his embarrassmentto mutter that no one could find her otherwise.
The Jarl’s son shook his head as he watched hissister advance. “Here you may see how muchman differs from man. To Olaf, Thorgrim’s son,yonder, she looks like the goddess Sif after thedwarfs wove her hair of red gold, as no doubt heis telling her now with his smile. To me”—heturned wearily as her approach made rising incumbent—“tome she looks only like a runestanding for a life I hate.” Rising, he faced herwith cold civility.
Splendid in her feasting dress of shining goldcolor, she came towards them, bent in a deepcourtesy before the high-seat, mocked the lowlinessof the salutation by the loftiness to which she rose.
“Brother,” she said, “will you grant me a boonwhich I would beg of you?”
He answered: “Grant it I would before it were97asked if I were not desirous to hear how you wouldbeg; but what is it you wish?”
Her white lids drooped haughtily. “It is knownfar and wide, brother, how you hate formalities,so it is not to be expected that you will hold tothem now that you can do what you like abouteverything. What I want is your leave to retirewith my women as soon as the amusements begin.I dislike brawling freedom.”
Curling like the petals of a rose, her beautifullips curved disdainfully. Helvin’s smoke-grayeyes showed a spark as they rested on her.
“It is well that my face is not set against whatyou ask, kinswoman,” he said, “for your way ofentreating would be unlikely to move a man tomuch gentleness. This I grant you willingly, thatyou may leave as soon as any brawling begins.”
She thanked him in the formal phrase, and mockinghim again with the bend of courtly submission,made as though she would have passed on. Then,seemingly for the first time, she saw the deerskin-cladfigure leaning on the arm of the high-seat,and paused to look him up and down in displeasure.
“Greeting, Randvar, Rolf’s son, and welcome toyou!” she said. “Yet I think, after all, you wouldhave done better to take service with me, if mybrother’s generosity towards you is to be measuredby the clothes you wear.”
98Deep in the cave of his breast, Randvar felt histemper stir like a sleeping bear; but craving asmile from her starry eyes, he made an attempt atconciliation.
“I had thought you would guess, gold-brightmaiden, that it is the Jarl’s forbearance which letsme be slow in shedding my bark.”
The tilt of her chin showed how little his deprecationhad helped him.
“An economical virtue is the Jarl’s forbearance,”she said, “and Freya’s son is more thanexpectedly dull at learning what beseems him.”
The bear awoke then with a snarl. Randvargasped afterwards at remembering what he wouldhave answered if Helvin had not taken the word,laying a hand on his shoulder.
“Do not grudge me one plain man, my kinswoman,while you have so many gay ones at yourbeck. It is at my desire he has kept on the woodlandgarb; that seeing how different the outside ofhim is from all around me, I may ever be remindedhow much of new interest I have found inside him.”
Too courtly was she bred to dispute a ruler’swhim; to that she gave prompt if haughty acquiescence.
“In this as in everything, it must be done asyou wish, brother, only I take it upon me to urgeyou to show us the inside of him as soon as you99can,” she made answer. Then she passed on; andher women went rustling by, moving to laughteras to music.
Randvar’s bitter reflections were interrupted bythe pressure of Helvin’s hand upon his shoulder.
“If I had not taken the word out of your mouth,my friend,” the Jarl said in his ear, “your hothead would have got you into further difficulties;but I like you none the worse for that. I liked itless when I thought that after the manner of allother men, you were going to fall on your kneesto her only because she is beautiful of face. Itwould have been the first matter in which ourminds did not match as blade matches sheath.So long as you have manfulness enough to resenther pride, I forgive it to you that her fairness hasbewitched your eyes.”
Again embarrassment left the song-maker speechless.Under the Jarl’s hand he stood so constrainedlythat the old men who were watching imaginedhim to be cast down by some rebuke, and experienceda sense of satisfaction. And their relief wasno greater than his when the duties of the heir’sstation put an end to further confidences.
Bearing the baton of state, two pages advancedand took their place before the Jarl’s son. Whileone received his sword from him with many flourishes,the other delivered to him the gilded wand.100Stretching it forth, a bar of light, he gave the signalfor the feasting to begin.
Like white-robed statues called to life, thethralls waiting at the doors moved forward withtheir burdens of gilded flagons and silver chargers.Through the fragrance of the juniper torches andthe pine-tips of the floor-covering rose the savorof roasted meats and the spicy aroma of mead andwine. To the hum of blended voices was addedthe clink of silver-rimmed horns. The oftener theresounding salute rang out, the louder the humarose, the merrier the laughter that burst forthwhere groups of young men were scattered amongthe old ones like poppies among wheat.
No higher note of noisy revelry was left to strikewhen at last the moment came for the old advice-giver,Mord, to lead the heir up into his father’sseat and put in his hands the sacred horn that hemight make his inheritance-vow. From highmirth they passed to deep feeling, as each manrose holding his shining horn above his head. Excitementshook some of the young hands so thattheir wine was spilled—excitement and exultationat the spectacle of a young ruler in the high-seat!—andto some of the old eyes tears came unconsciously,so that they seemed to look througha mist at the figure of their old leader’s son.
Noble in splendor was Helvin Jarl as the firelight101caught the golden embroideries and jewelledclasps of his sweeping robes; and noble in purposewas his pale finely cut face under the mass ofblood-red hair when he raised the great horn andspoke so that all could hear him.
“I drink the toast to the old gods and to thenew,” he said, “and to those who have gone beforeme; but the vow I make is no vow that I shall begreat. What I promise is that I shall make noother man small. I take oath that under my ruleevery man shall live a free life in all such mattersas concern himself, nor shall any be forced intoways against which his mind rebels. I take Heavenand all of you as witnesses!” Putting the horn tohis lips, he drank.
Mechanically, the ranks of standing men imitatedthe motion, their eyes continuing to stareat him over their cup rims. But before thedraught was down, the call of free blood to freeblood had been heard. From young courtmenand young guardsmen went up ringing cheers. Itcounted for little that some of the lawmen murmured,and Magnus Fire-and-Sword spoke to hisneighbor from under a frown.
Only the Jarl noticed that, and noticing, smiledmockingly. When the tumult had sunk oncemore he spoke, the smile dwindling to a droop ofhis mouth-corner.
102“The first thing that I must try my hand on isthe filling of the other high-seat with the man Ihold highest in honor. That would be to take agreat deal on my hands if custom did not say thathe must be a holy man, which makes the choiceeasy.”
He paused to clear his throat with a swallow ofwine, and perhaps to note how the arrogant faceof Magnus was losing some of its displeasure.Then he went on, his voice so cool and keen thatit bit like a blade:
“As for you, priests, I know only one of youfor whom I have any honor at all. I have heardmany talk of the mercy of Christ, whose hands hadcut blood-eagles in other men only for being unableto believe as they did. I have heard not afew talk of Christ’s humbleness whose temperswere so overbearing that men would have risenup and slain them if they had not held up theirholy names for shields. I have seen many Odinmenwho put on the Christ-faith like a kirtle, butI have seen only one who made it a part of hisnature and showed it forth in his acts. He is theSwede whom men call the Shepherd Priest. It ismy offer and will that he shall come forward andtake the place opposite me.”
At the eastern end of the room, in the lowliestseat by the door, a man rose hastily—an ungainly103old man in rusty robes—and lifted a hand in protest;and in the same instant the stately velvet-drapedform of Magnus became wrathfully erectbefore his place.
“This—this is sacrilege!” he thundered. “Icall all Christian men to resist this mockery—this—”
“Sacrilege?” The young Jarl’s voice pierced likea spear, scorn-barbed. “This I have often said,that it was a sacrilege that you should give reinto a devil’s nature in the name of Christ! That Ihonor the cause by honoring the man who standsmost truly for it—be he king-born or thrall-born—thatis honesty. Had you any love of your faithamid your self-love, you would see it.”
If the rage-purpled face of the Fire-and-Swordhad not been the face of a bishop, they might havethought it the face of a Berserker. The nameswhich he called his godson were the names thatfighting-men use when their tempers pressed hardestfor relief. Upon the openest-minded of theold counsellors was forced slowly a doubt whetherthere really was much holiness about him; and theyoung men broke loose and drowned his voice inhisses.
But Helvin Jarl rose in his high-seat, his glancelike the outleaping of flame.
“I am all that which you call me, and more,”104he said, “and it is because I am—because I needonly to bring forward the straits I have fallen into prove what kind of harvests spring from yoursowing—that I vow you shall never sow again whilemy rule is in New Norway. In the spring, shipsshall take you back whence you came; meanwhile,come you no more before my face, hypocrite thatyou are to your marrow!”
Starkad’s own inexorableness in the gesture,he levelled his baton at the door; then before theaghast silence could give rise to any sign, he turnedwhere the Shepherd Priest waited and spoke tohim respectfully and yet sternly.
“You whose sincereness has won my honor,bear in mind that cowardice no less than arroganceis love of self. If your faith is indeed firstwith you, remember that I offer you a chanceto do great work for it, and forget any lesserthing.”
With the ceasing of his voice there was againsilence, but the Shepherd Priest made no attemptto use it for his protests. After a time he liftedhis bent head, and his rugged face was as amean lantern through which a light is shining.Amid breathless stillness, the velvet-clad form ofMagnus stalked out of the western door, and theungainly form in rusty black walked slowly to thenorthern high-seat, walking uncertainly like a man105in the dark, holding to his crucifix as to a guidinghand.
Again the Jarl forestalled an outburst, speakingonce more with the graciousness of a noble heir onhis inheritance-night.
“One thing more I wish to tell you, then I willno longer hinder you from your amusements. Ithas to do with the Skraellings. Always it hasseemed to me that much good might come ofhaving them for partners in this business of settlingthe new lands, and now I have heard thatof them which makes me want them also forfriends. So have I sent a message to their lordwhich asks him to meet me ten days hence at somemiddle point between our abodes, and over afeast talk about how we can get good from eachother. That is the end of my speaking.”
It was the beginning of uproar. All at oncethe half-dozen old traders, who had entered thehall in such doubting humor, rose to their feet,swung their horns above their heads and criedas with one voice:
“I drink to Helvin Jarl!”
Then: “Young blood for gainfulness!”
“New ways for new—”
“Down with old boundaries—”
“Spread out! Spread out!”
“Luck to the new rule!”
106The new step being approved by such undoubtedauthorities, the other old men joined for the firsttime in the applause; while the young men werebrought to the point of handling their cups likegavels, and one whose wine did not sit well uponhis wits clambered upon the seat and began touse shields from the wall for cymbals. Even tothe women’s cross-bench it sped. Eagerly Yrsathe Lovely spoke to her young mistress by whomshe sat.
“Jarl’s sister, do you call to mind how fair andfine we thought that bead-embroidery we sawlast trading-day? Now we can get a Skraellingwoman to teach us how to do it,—if so be there arewomen among them,” she added doubtfully.
It seemed that Brynhild spoke because she hadbeen addressed rather than because she heededwhat was said to her. Fingering her jewelled necklace,she continued frowning at the fire.
“Never saw I aught to equal it,” she said.“That Magnus should behave so boorishly—Andyet that we should have a thrall-born bishop—Andyet it seems to me that Helvin behaved well—Itmust be that the earth is coming loose from itsmoorings!”
From her place farther down the line, the prettymatron who had laughed at the forester bent forwardurgently. “Jarl’s sister, is it your will that107we should take our leave now? The amusementsare beginning. Yonder deerskin fellow has justbeckoned to the harp-bearer.” She motioned withher lace-crowned head. Brynhild’s gaze, however,did not follow the motion, but remained upon her,gathering displeasure.
“Deerskin fellow!” she repeated. “Is it in thatmanner, Sigrid, that you speak of Freya’s son?However he forgets it himself, it behooves you toremember that he has king’s blood in him.” Arrangingher gold-colored draperies about her andsettling to formal attention, she finished severely:“Had he no blood at all, a song-maker has theright to courteous treatment. I expect that youwill, all of you, leave off chattering and give him theattention due a man of accomplishments.” Whenshe had seen her orders carried out, she fixed hereyes calmly upon the spot where Randvar stoodbeside the towering gilded harp of the court-skald.
The Songsmith’s heart leaped and tried to stranglehim as he met her gaze, yet it was not longthat his hands swept aimlessly across the strings.In him had awakened a desire to interpret to thesefolk of Norse blood the lives of the forest men,whose creed was so like theirs in strong simplicity.
Soon he struck a chord and sang with a voiceas untaught as a bird’s, and as full of unconsciousecstasy, the story of the Skraelling chief who gave108his life to save his followers from the wrath of theiroffended god.
Singing, he forgot that he sang among strangers.Listening, they forgot that he told a stranger’sstory; as at the deeds of a brother, their mindsquickened with understanding. A stillness gatheredover the room that lasted even after the songwas ended, and was broken only when cries formore rose from every direction.
But it was not their applause that was thecrown of his success. It was turning to find littleEric standing beside him—bewildered and ruffled—holdingout an arm-ring of golden filigree, sayingas one repeating a lesson:
“Starkad’s daughter bids you cover some of thedeerskin with this.”
“The tongue is the bane of the head”
It was a fantastic scene, the wilds ofa forest river-bank turned into aguest-house for court-folk. Athwartthe living green of the pines, camp-firessent their spirals of blue smoke,and groups of thralls made white rings around theblaze as they roasted the game and heated thewine with which pages skimmed to and fro. Downby the sparkling water, knots of old chieftains andyoung courtmen divided their time between eatingand gazing across the stream at the Skraellings’encampment of the opposite shore. Back amongthe trees, where the drifted leaves had been heapedinto cushions of russet and gold, groups of gentlewomenchatted as merrily amid the great stillnessas though they were among the whirring wheels oftheir own bower. Still farther up the brown slopeand deeper in the grove, Helvin Jarl, in his splendidriding dress of gold-embroidered green, sat upona heap of bowlders over which red wolfskins had110been thrown, his song-maker lounging beside him,wild-locked and wild-garbed as a creature of thewood, except for the harp at his back.
Randvar had finished eating and was staringcontentedly at nothing. Over the forest lay thehush of that strange season which falls like abreathless pause in the brisk round of the autumn.Dropped suddenly motionless were the winds thathad been lashing the trees like mighty flails; andas a conjuror changes knives to roses, so had thekeen cold of the morning been changed to balmywarmth by the red noon sun. A fancy came tohim that the golden haze veiling the end of everytree-aisle was the visible shape of a dream in theair.
“It feels like noon-spell in harvest-time,” hesaid aloud. “I think the earth has worked sohard that it has fallen asleep and dreams now ofthe summer.”
“Say the same thing later on when the day isat an end,” Helvin answered. “To me it feelslike a devil’s fit of repentance. After his spitehas been for weeks like a rasp in the air, and hisfury has torn all within reach, he tires of his rage—fora day or two—holds his peace and puts on awatery smile.”
Even while the song-making part of Randvarsmiled approval of the figure, his woodsman’s111alertness detected something odd about the voicein which the words were uttered. Sideways hesent a glance at his lord.
It seemed to him that there was also somethingodd about Helvin’s expression; but he had nochance to scrutinize it for on the instant it wasgone, while the Jarl caught his look and challengedit.
“Why do you stare as if you saw a hedge-rider?”
“Lord, your voice sounded as though it camehard for you to breathe,” Randvar answered aftera moment.
Helvin’s words leaped out like tigers from acage. “Why should it not? in this smotheringstillness where even the trees are holding theirbreath to listen for something. Oh, for the plains!the plains! where the wind blows, and a man cansee all around him, and not so much as a ghostcan creep on him unawares! It is a trap, thisforest of yours; and every rank of trees is a wallto shut one tighter in with his thoughts. Had Ian axe ready to my hand, and the might in myarm—”
Even as it seemed that his body would be wrungby a violent gesture, he caught himself; and hisvoice slackened to a mocking drawl.
“What a good thing it is that I have three wisemindedold ravens to make sport for me! Hither112they wing their way now to give me final advicein this treaty-making. Odin be thanked, it willnot be long before we are on the move! Yondermy kinswoman’s hand sends a summons to you,Songsmith. Go, sting Olaf’s jealousy again. Theentertainment I have in torturing him, teaches mefor the first time why Starkad had delight in bear-baiting.”
In words now as well as voice, he was strange tohis song-maker. Randvar mused on it as he descendedthe slope; again the feeling that he waswakening from a dream came over him.
“Seldom have I experienced such strange thingsin my sleep as I have done since that day at theBlack Pool,” he murmured; then as his wanderinggaze fell upon the group before him, he finishedcontentedly: “But if it be a dream, it must be saidthat it is a good one.”
Surrounded by her band of comely women, withthe elegant Olaf outstretched before her, the Jarl’ssister sat enthroned on the slope at the foot of anancient oak. The masses of bronze foliage stillclinging around the base of the mighty limbs, spreadlike a canopy above her. The huge trunk was asa background for her rounded form in its kirtleof wine-red, gold-embroidered; against the blackbark, her hair was as a spot of golden fire. Thesong-maker saw neither Yrsa’s pretty smile of113welcome nor the shrug of Thorgrim’s son whentheir mistress greeted him graciously.
“Make me a song in tune with the forest, Songsmith,”she requested. “Olaf’s French balladsthat chime so well with my bower sound in thisplace like the tinkling of bells, though I would notseem thankless in saying so.”
Olaf rose and acknowledged playfully the apologeticgesture she made him.
“Be in no fear of hurting my feelings, madam,by preferring his songs over mine,” he said. “Ihave amusement in trifling with the singing-craft,as becomes a high-born man; but to do such workseriously is the portion of churls.”
She took back the conciliating hand to fold iton the other in her lap, and spoke a trifle haughtily.“In France, it may be so, beausire. Among Norsemen,skaldship has always been held in honor. Ifthe truth must be told, I am in best tune with Norseways.”
“Then will I take away the discordant note ofmy presence,” he said, and smiled at her quizzicallyas he turned. But he was not so unscathedthat his eyes could pass the Songsmith as theyencountered him; there, with his will or withoutit, they froze. “Unless,” he added, “the foresterhas the wish to make some reply to me.”
Time was when the forester would have replied114with the tongue of his snake-skin scabbard, buthe was not dull in learning new ways. Almost hissmile was a match for Olaf’s as he answered:
“To what end should I do that, courtman? Itis not for the contented moon to bark at thejealous dog.”
It was not only Thorgrim’s son who drew breathquickly, then; every maiden of the group caughthers with a little scream. The Jarl’s sister roseswiftly, standing erect as a red lily.
“This thing comes ill to pass that you forget meas well as yourselves,” she said.
After a moment, Olaf lowered his glitteringeyes and finished his withdrawal; when Brynhildsank again to her place among the mossyroots, and settled herself as one preparing for atreat.
“Sing, I pray you,” she said to the Songsmith.
For him, Olaf ceased to exist. Unslinging hisrude harp, he leaned easily against a tree beforeher and sang her a Skraelling love-song, a songmade of murmuring brook-sounds, of the calls ofmating birds, of the wild note of the blast in thetree-tops, a song that tuned well with the hushand the haze of the autumn forest. In a silkentangle of interlocked arms, the women made arapt circle around him; and the Jarl’s sister wasdrawn forward on her moss-cushion. She freed a115long breath when the last note had died away amongthe leafless branches above them.
“It seems to me,” she said slowly, “that thework which interpreters do between men of differenttongues is the work that song-makers do betweenpeople of different ranks. When I hear yousing, creatures who have seemed to me no morethan beasts become human like myself. If therewere enough singers to interpret people to oneanother, perhaps there would be no strife in theworld.”
Pleasure so deepened the color in the Songsmith’sface that he was glad to shake his long hairover it by bowing low; he was saved the necessityof answering for after a little Brynhild spoke again,sinking back in her seat to regard him thoughtfully.
“The first time that ever it happened to me tohear your voice was also in the forest, as you sangthe Song of Fridtjof the way you would have likedit to happen. Ever since then I have wonderedwhat kind of ending you gave to it. It seems tome that this would be a good time to sing it, ifyou are willing that we should get further goodfrom your gift of song.”
“The best time!” cried Yrsa, clapping her hands;while urgent murmurs came from all the rest, fromSigrid, the haughtiest of the matrons, down to theshyest of the maids.
116Once Randvar would have struck up withoutfurther consideration; now he fingered the harp-stringshesitatingly before he answered.
“Jarl’s sister, we have not quarrelled for twoweeks, and I confess that the friendliness has beenworth much to me. I beg you not to urge me todo that which will set us against each other again.”
Her eyebrows went down with displeasure, thenup in wonder.
“I do not know what you mean,” she said.
“The ending I have made would offend yourpride, noble one; and then your scorn would treadon the heel of my temper. When plenty of pathsopen before us, why choose one that we know leadsto bad walking?”
Why, indeed? Unless because she was a woman?Her gray Valkyria eyes lighted as at a challenge,for all that she remained leaning againsther tree.
“You make a mistake, Songsmith,” she told him,“to think that I would be offended with you fordoing a thing which I asked you to do. Give mea chance, I pray, to show that I am not so withoutsense.”
Randvar drew his harp up higher upon hisbreast, then lowered it until it rested upon theground.
“My singing-mood has passed,” he said shortly,117“but I will tell you the ending, since you will haveyour way. My story branches from your skald’ssong where Fridtjof comes to ask Ingeborg of herbrother Helge. Your song has it that when Helgerefuses to make the match, because Fridtjof hasno more than a freeman’s rank while Ingeborg isking-born, she takes it quietly and marries the oldKing Ring and sees no more of the man she loves,until Ring gets so old as to be tired of living andgives her to the young man, with his crown andthe other things he is through with. Bah!” TheSongsmith warmed in spite of himself, flung backhis sun-burnished mane with the fierce grace of astallion. “A man of spirit, your Fridtjof! Minewould have laughed in her face. My Fridtjof takesher in the teeth of Helge’s refusal; and she comesto him willingly, as befits a woman of brave kin;and he wrests Ring’s kingdom from him in battle.That is the way I end it.”
“That is the best way!” cried two little pageswho had come up with cups of hot spiced wine,and their shrill enthusiasm changed the women’sbreathless listening into laughter.
The Jarl’s sister laughed too, turning aside tobeckon her favorite, Eric, to bring her own particularcup.
“Have thanks for the telling, Songsmith,” shesaid, and swung the horn lightly aloft in the graceful118gesture of drinking to him. “Would it be toyour mind now to tell us some tale of forest adventure?”
No word of comment! It was in accordancewith her promise not to be offended, but Randvardiscovered of a sudden that he would rather shehad quarrelled with him. He did not answer herquestion, but busied himself drinking the winethat was offered him. When he had given the cupback, he said abruptly:
“It is to my mind to see first how this matterstands. Maybe you believe that because she wasking-born, Ingeborg would marry Ring even thoughshe had love towards Fridtjof?”
“I do not believe that she would have had lovetowards Fridtjof,” Brynhild answered calmly.
He felt himself growing angry as he asked herwhy not.
Her shapely shoulders rose. “For one thing,his manners would not be at all after her taste.He would think it big and manful to be carelessabout his clothes and his hair and such matters,and she would think it disgusting.”
A moment Rolf’s son was dumb, marvelling thata word-arrow could sting so; then, as blood to awound, his temper surged into his face, till Ericthought it an imposing thing to step in front of hismistress. Immediately after, he was picking himself119out of a briar-patch, a dozen steps away; andRandvar faced the Jarl’s sister, his voice deepwith ire.
“Have you the intention to tell me,” he demanded,“that it is a woman’s turn of mind to care onlyabout the cut of a man’s garments or the lengthof his hair? That a great love could not lay holdof her as a hurricane lays hold of an oak and shakedown all little matters like acorns?” He foldedhis arms tightly across his breast as he waited forher answer, conscious that if she should shrug hershoulders at him again he would be tempted toshake her.
But she yawned instead.
“I dare say it might befall a bondmaid to getcarried out of herself,” she assented. “Rulers’daughters learn to rule themselves, and noblewomentake everything coldly.”
He unfolded his arms, then, and began to laugh.“Coldly! It were good had I a shield to showyou yourself in as you say that, Starkad’s daughter!Through every fibre of your beauty, from thelight in your eyes to the ruddy gold of your hair,runs the color of flame. The red of your lips isthe fiery blood of the North that no ice can cool;and every motion of your slim hand kindles firein the breasts of the men who look on you. Jarl’ssister, when that fire shall break out against your120rule, it will blaze as much higher than a bondmaid’spassion as your spirit is stronger than hers.Coldly!” He laughed again, as he stepped backto swing his harp over his shoulder.
It seemed that his laughter pressed her pridehard; she rose suddenly, her hand crushing amottled eagle-feather she had picked up; but shedid not quite lose the composure she had pledged.After a moment she tossed the feather aside,smiling haughtily.
“Behold how you are so bent on a quarrel thatyou try to make one all by yourself,” she said.“Let us talk about something else. I wish youwould tell me whether it is because the Skraellingscannot say the word ‘Norway’ that they call theTown by that queer name of ‘Norumbega’—But,listen! Is it as it seems, that I hear my kinsmancalling you?”
Randvar hoped that she did, realizing that hishumor made a change of scene advisable. Hewelcomed the sound of his name shouted peremptorilyfrom the group around the bowlders. Amuttered word and a hasty bow, and he was inretreat, trampling savagely every creeping greenthing he encountered.
The temper of the group into which he camematched well his own. The three old counsellorswere growling like three dogs over a bone; and like121a bone picked almost bare of endurance, the Jarlheld his rigid place among them. He turnedsharply as the song-maker approached, and Randvarwas startled to see how in that short time thefleeting expression had become fixed upon him.Fierceness unmistakable it showed now. In thestruggle to hold it under, he had bitten his lipsbloody.
“Songsmith,” he said, “you know best whyyou gave me the counsel to fare across the riverwith but few men, and trust myself unarmed inthe Skraelling camp. If any power lies at yourtongue-roots, make the reason clear to theseMimir-heads. I have tried until my tongue foamslike a goaded horse, but it seems that I do notspeak their language.”
Sigvat Smooth-Speech made him a gesture thatwas half deprecating, half paternal. “There isnothing new in that, lord, that to the ears of agethe fancies of youth sound like a forgotten language.To talk of trusting a wild man that he may trustyou—Jarl, the Fenrir-wolf will be let loose beforegood-will come of that!”
“To talk of trusting wild beasts because theyhave the shape of men!” snorted the adviser whostood beside Sigvat.
And Mord the Grim frowned at the son of Rolf,as he stroked the grizzled beard that clung to his122chin like foliage to an oak’s lower branches afterits poll is bare.
“Jarl, it will never answer our end that youshould give yourself into the guidance of a rawwoodsman. That the youth is skilled in woodcraft,no one gainsays,—let him rule your hunting,then. Since he has the singing-gift, hand overyour entertainments to him. But when it comesto a matter in which one may so act that men’slives hang on it—lord, leave that to us!”
“Leave that to us!” the others echoed.
Helvin made no reply. He had flung himselfback upon the wolfskins and was gazing far awayinto the haze, his blood-streaked lip held betweenhis white teeth. It was left for Randvar to answer.
Long enough to conquer the itch to bandy wordswith them, the forester stood pushing about a stalkof orange-splotched fungus with his moccasinedfoot. Then he spoke curtly:
“To this I will reply that because you are rawin knowledge of the Skraellings, you could not followthe track of my reasoning. But like enoughyou will believe that I am not guessing if I provehow sure of it I am. On what I have said, I willlay down my life. Say, then, that the Jarl shallleave me bound in your hands to suffer death forany harm that befalls him.”
The stillness seemed to deepen around them as123the three old chiefs drew nearer to him. It wasMord who broke the silence.
“That you would bear yourself boldly was to belooked for, but it will not stand to your good ifyour dream-spinning has made you over-trustful.Though there be no guile behind it, and your mistakebe the most excusable that man was evertricked into, you should not come off with yourlife.”
“I shall make no mistake,” Randvar answered.
Again the stillness settled, as the Grim One’seyes probed from their beetling ambush. But hemoved at last with a curt gesture.
“So be it,” he assented, and laid a light handon the young Jarl’s knee. “Lord, all is in readiness.”
As though the touch were fire, Helvin startedup. “Too long have we waited as it is! Songsmith,I forgot to listen to your pleading, but itmust have been all-powerful. Thorbiorn, be goodenough to call those whom I have chosen to accompanyme,—I have warned you openly thatno old men shall have part there. Such suspicionas cries from your wrinkles would breed murderin a lamb’s heart! Call Bolverk and five guardsmen,and Gunnar and—” He broke off at thespectacle of Randvar delivering his sword into thekeeping of Mord. “What is the meaning of this?”
124When Mord had told him in a few words, heburst out angrily.
“That shall not be! He is my friend. The riskis mine. How is any peace-talk to be made withouthim? Who else can speak enough of theSkraelling tongue?”
“It is no less your people’s risk,” the old counsellormade him stern reminder; and Randvarreassured him briefly:
“Lord, when I learned the Skraelling tongue ofthe sachem’s son, as I told you, he learned Norseof me in return.”
It would seem that all objections had been met,but Helvin did not yield with his usual reasonableness.Instead, he stood scowling at the tree besidehim, his hands picking and tearing at a graylichen plastered on the bark. Finally, while theywaited perplexed around him, he turned his headand looked at the Songsmith.
Meeting the look, Randvar stiffened and spokeamazedly: “Lord, what have I done?”
In words, Helvin made him no answer; but forthe space of a heart-beat murder glared from hismurky eyes. Then, flinging a sign towards thewaiting escort, he strode down to the point wherethe horses waited at the fording-place, hailed eagerlyby the idling groups.
Mord’s tap on the song-maker’s shoulder reminded125him of his share in the bargain. Going aside withthe three old men to the prison-chamber they hadselected, he submitted his body to be bound to atree with ropes of walrus-hide.
A wall of evergreens hid the water from hisview, but he could follow the progress of the peaceparty only by interpreting the outbursts of thethrong. A farewell of cheers marked the Jarl’sdeparture from this bank; a babel of commentshowed when his dark-skinned hosts had receivedhim on the other. Then a waning of interest betokenedthat he had passed beyond the spectators’range of vision as the Skraelling ranks closed abouthim to conduct him to the council-fire.
With the suspension of the amusement, thecrowd on the shore broke up and came strollingback; sound dwindled to the buzz of the gossips,the occasional shouts of the dice-throwers. Outof the lull there came again to the Songsmith thefeeling that he was wakening from a dream, andthis time the sensation remained with him.
Slowly, amid the chaos of his mind, thoughttook shape like this: “When a man is asleep, ahundred strange tokens are of no account; but toomany of them in waking life should be taken heedof. I cannot see wherein I have done aught todeserve anger.... Once before has he been wrothwithout enough cause,—the night he came to the126Tower.... Surely I must have been dreaming thesefive weeks to have so seldom thought of the strangethings which took place that night!... Now I beginto understand why he harped upon his temperwhen he offered me to join his following. Offered?Commanded! Here is a riddle that isnot solved yet! Why should he force the skaldshipon me as though it were the penalty for somecrime against him, instead of an honor for whichevery mouth is watering? Unless, indeed, he feelsthat his fretfulness makes it more a peril thana pleasure.... Certainly to follow a chief who forno cause whatever shifts from a friendly mood toa murderous one—Now that is not possible! Ihave ever found him the highest-minded man.Some hidden reason must lie under this. It mustbe that I have stumbled into some misdeed withoutknowing it. But what?... What?”
Slowly his thoughts lost shape, resolved intochaos again. He stood staring down abstractedlyat the billowing leaves.
“Courage is better than sword-strength”
Once, as time dragged by, the song-makerhad a vague impression thatOlaf was looking at him over a bush;but he was too absorbed to carewhether it was so or not. He didnot come out of his meditations until the darkhemlock tapestry before him was put aside by awhite hand and between the gloomy branchesthere appeared the bright figure of the Jarl’s sister,the trailing riches of her gown up-gathered on herarm as she strolled forth to explore the recessesof the new guest-house.
At sight of him bound to a pine and staked inby three stark old chiefs looking like three shell-barkedhickories in their sombre robes, she cameto a stand-still, stood with shining head aloft asone who has caught the note of a distant battle-horn.At sight of her, the blood rose in a hot waveto the roots of his hair, and he muttered a prayerto the nearest of his keepers.
128“Be kind enough to tell her that I have no man’sblame for anything,—that I put on these bonds ofmy own free will.”
It chanced that the man appealed to was Mordthe Grim; the old counsellor justified the nicknameby the look he bent on Rolf’s son.
“Are you forward in this direction, also?” heinquired. “Starkad’s daughter will not think thatnews so much worth having.”
Brynhild drew a step nearer and answered forherself: “I should think it a sad story if I did notwant news about a brave man’s fate. To comefrom a circle of merrymakers into a group of suchmenace—Though it were no more than a thrallthat was bound here, I should wish to know whatthis betided him! I beg you to tell me as quickas you can.”
Like a nurse who would scare away an inquisitivechild, Mord made his voice ominous. “Youguess well that we are not in play, young maiden.The fellow has given himself as a hostage for theSkraellings’ good faith. If he has made any falsestep in truthfulness or judgment—” A motiontowards the sword at his side completed the meaning.“I warn you that you will get sorry sporthere. Be pleased to return to your playmates.”
With peremptoriness thinly disguised as courtesy,he stepped forward and swung back the branches129that she might pass out of the prison-chamber.From the other side of the hemlock wall came likean invitation the rippling laughter of the gossips,the shouts of the dice-throwers. For an instant itwas as though she stood on the threshold betweentwo worlds.
It did not take her more than an instant tochoose between them. Even disdainfully, she putaside Mord and the merrymakers.
“Do you think me fit only to watch throws forlight stakes? I prefer to watch your game withthe Fates,” she said, and joined the sinister groupunder the pine.
In his bound wrists, Randvar’s pulses leaped;but the three advice-givers raised a chorus of protest,of entreaty, of command. What would haveresulted is doubtful if there had not come suddenlyfrom the river-bank sounds that struck themdumb,—an outburst of voices rising high abovethe hum of the slope, a clangor of weapons, apiercing cry:
“The Jarl is attacked!”
In the wink-long hush that followed the outbreakthere was discernible a distant noise ofsavage whoops and yells.
Forgetting his helplessness, the Songsmith triedto leap forward, so that the thongs that held himstrained and creaked; and at the same instant the130three old chiefs turned upon him such faces thatBrynhild stepped in front of him as though theirknotted hands on their hilts had already drawntheir weapons.
“Make sure of it, first!” she demanded. “Itmay be no more than one of their hideous dancesof entertainment. It is said that they sound asbad as battles.”
Disputing, their voices rose shrilly; but Randvarrelaxed in his bonds, and bent his head to wipe offon his shoulder the cold drops that had sprung tohis upper lip.
“You have a cool wit, Jarl’s sister!” he breathed.“That is the only thing it can be.” He spokecurtly to his keepers: “Why do you spend yourforce on me? There will be time enough for thathereafter. I advise you to see to it that your ownpeople do not imperil Helvin by breaking the peacewithout cause.”
It seemed that that danger had already occurredto the old chieftains, as well it might with suchuproar of voice and weapon coming from the river-bank.Before Randvar ceased speaking, Thorbiornand Sigvat had plunged through the hemlocks intothe seething caldron below. Now, cursing and brandishinghis weapon, Mord flung himself after them,his voice distinguishable above the tumult until thedin gradually sank and he occupied the air alone.
131Far removed from the turmoil of the bank seemedthe stillness of the hemlock nook where Rolf’sson stood worshipping Starkad’s daughter. Muchas he had claimed to know of the spirit under herpride, he gathered wonder with gazing at her now.As Northern skies by Northern Lights, so wereher gray eyes fired; and measured constraint hadmelted like ice from her motions. Swallow-swift,she had slipped through the branches and comeback again, bearing in her white fingers a glowingbrand from one of the deserted camp-fires.
He looked at her somewhat blankly, then, askingin wonder: “Are you going to light my funeralpyre?”
“I am going to set you free,” she answered, “sothat you may have more chances for life thanMord’s mercy will grant you if it should prove thatthe Skraellings are not dancing.”
Her silken robes sweeping the leaves, she kneltdown before him. Almost she had the fire laid tothe ankle-thongs before he could speak.
“No, no! What is coming to me, I must abidehere, as I have sworn.”
In her upturned face, Valkyria’s honor foughtwith woman’s pity. Yet though she took thebrand away, she did not rise; the woman in herpleaded as before a lawman.
“Death is too hard an atonement for a mistake.132Forfeit your post, your hopes of fame, but notyour life. I admit that you must pay some fine,—butnot your life!” Again she stretched forth theburning wood, desperately, this time, as one whodreads interference.
Strong as a hand, his voice overtook her. “No.I should get the greatest shame.”
The purpose failed in her face before her armyielded; but at last she rose and cast the brandfrom her, and stood with hands pressed hard uponher breast.
He had seen in his visions that she would betrue to a friend, but he saw now for the first timethat she could suffer for one. His love fed on herdistress, even while he hastened to reassure her.
“Let it not worry you a jot, sunbright maiden.No likelihood at all is there that I shall come toharm. As I know the temper of my sword, I knowthe trustworthiness of the men I am leaning on.”
She took her hands from her bosom to wringthem. “How can you be certain of that? Yourmind is shapen altogether like a dream-spinner’s,that believes good of every one—of savages whomothers hold no better than beasts—of Helvin,whom every one else thinks—Ah!” A suddenthought seemed to arrest her. “Now is that likely?That Helvin would be so foolish as to let themdance when he knows what lies upon it for you?133As easily believe that he wishes your death! Imust find out what is happening now.” Heedlessof her trailing skirts, she was gone over stubble andstone, her step more light and free than the treadof Odin’s shield-maidens in the high halls of hischosen, as she climbed farther up the hill to aledge of rock which had pushed through the soiland risen in a watch-tower.
When he could no longer catch any gleam ofher glowing robes, the song-maker stood with hishead leaning back against the tree as if his hopewould mount to the sky. He wandered amongsinging stars until his attention was graduallydrawn earthward by a stealthy crackling of thebrush on his left.
Between the interlacing twigs, he made out presentlya patch of such blue fabric as Thorgrim’sson’s cloak was fashioned of; but it did notseem reasonable to him that the French Oneshould have strayed so far from the scene of excitement.He could not understand it until Olafglided into the open and moved towards him, anunsheathed knife glittering against his blue sleeve.
No impulse to call for help came to Randvar—thatinstinct his life of solitude had blunted—buthe put forth all his strength against his bonds,swelling out his chest, hardening the sinews of hislimbs, until the thongs that withstood him were134as iron sawing the flesh. When he found thatthey would not yield, he became as motionless asthe tree behind him; his mouth twisted sardonicallyas he wondered in what way Erna’s provingof his heart against steel was going to serve himnow.
As their eyes held each other it is unlikely thateither man realized that any but his foe was inthe world. Upon their tense nerves it vibratedlike a blow when the voice of the Jarl’s sisterrang out behind them:
The surprise of it seemed to paralyze Olaf sothat for an instant he did stand, remaining poisedin the air. Then the curve of his parted lips lostall resemblance to a smile.
“Bright Brynhild, this hand shall show you Helvinavenged!” he said, and cleared the remainingspace at a stride, his arm uplifted.
In the draught of a breath she was before him,her slim hands locked about his wrist in the effortto pull it down.
“I bid you stop! Helvin is safe! Do you hearme?”
Perhaps his mind really did not hear her. Witheach word, his eyes froze faster to the Songsmith.Without so much as glancing at her, he put up hissinewy left hand and pried loose her grasp. The135bound man cried out to her to give way and leavethem,—so little even he knew her Valkyria spirit.
Thunder-strong it gathered in her, lightning-swiftit struck. Swooping on the sword whichOlaf’s move left exposed at his side, she tore it free.With its upward sweep, she struck the knife fromhis hold. With its downward stroke she levelled athis breast. He leaped back just in time to savehis life, if the rigidness of her arm told the truth.
“Do you think I am as poor-spirited as you aredastardly?” she said.
At a bound his mind was brought back to her,then; and once back, it would have been a dullmind not to see that his suit was in even greaterdanger than his body. In a trice he had doffedpassion, donned reproach.
“Brynhild! Is it really as it seems, that becausemy loyalty runs away with my manners, you speakso to me?”
“I know not why you will talk of manners,” sheretorted, “when what your passion ran away withwas your honor, that ought to have taught evena thrall better than to fall upon a fettered man.”
“A thrall?” He spread out his hands in indignantprotest. “Little shall a thrall know of ahigh-born man’s wrath over the slaying of hischief! Am I not, before all else, a free Norseman?Only this morning, maiden, did you upbraid me136because my French rearing had underlaid my Norsetemper! Now, behold, when my Northern bloodbreaks out in its native wildness you stab me witheyes, words!—oh, use the sword! The steel wouldbe more kind.”
Gracefully he sank on his knee before her, makingas though he would bare his breast for the stroke.Perhaps a maid of France would have shrunk orswooned. Perhaps it took him by surprise thatshe stood with unshaken hand, studying him asone studies an unfamiliar object.
“I do not know that I have the wish to be kindto you,” she said slowly. “I do not know how Ifeel towards you, for you are not the man I thoughtI knew. Perhaps you should not have blame, sinceyou believed Helvin slain, yet—”
Her voice quickened as a chorus soundingthrough the trees heralded the old counsellors’return. She shifted the sword with an imperiousgesture.
“Rise up! It will happen to you to be seen inthat foolish position! I cannot tell whether I shallever have liking towards you again or not. Riseup, and go away from me until I find out.”
He had risen while she was speaking, but whetherhe would obey her last command was for an instantuncertain. Turning from her, his eyes rested againon the Songsmith; his empty hands began to open137and shut at his sides. Only the grim voice of Mord,falling on the pause, seemed to catch and hold him.Even as he gave way step by step, his vultureeyes clung to the song-maker until the bushes roselike walls between them.
While the branches that closed behind Olaf werestill aquiver, the hemlock boughs opened uponMord and his associates. Filing in stiffly, they satthem down heavily upon bowlder and hummock.
“A man of my years,” Mord panted, “does nottake it lightly to have his heart turned over inhim because some red apes choose to hop aroundin mock warfare. Get what enjoyment you canout of it, Rolf’s son, that so far your savages havenot belied you. When their foolishness was over,the Jarl let so much news out as to send a messengerover to tell us that he was safe and getting all thefavors he asked for,—after we had spent that muchtime in doubt and endangered as many lives as thereare bodies among us! May Hel take fools andleave knaves, if she have not room for both! Jarl’ssister, even you seem to have lost your wits, togo about flourishing a sword, with cheeks as redto look at as your kirtle. I thought you made ityour boast to take things coldly.”
Coldly! For the first time Randvar recalledtheir dispute of the morning, looked at the firebreathingValkyria, and smiled in spite of himself.
138At the same breath, she darted him a glance thatwas half startled and half menacing. The flamingof her color was not more marked than the stiffeningof her spine as she caught his expression.
He sobered in haste. “Jarl’s sister, no faintestintention had I of making mockery!”
She deigned him no answer whatever. With awfulprecision she planted the sword in the earthbeside her, with awful deliberation gathered upher silken skirts, without a backward glance sweptfrom the prison-chamber. Twice he called afterher without avail,—so disastrous may a victory be!
Like a fog, sullen rage settled upon him then.When the old chiefs asked him what Starkad’sdaughter was doing with the sword, he clippedhis answer as close as might be:
“Olaf, Thorgrim’s son, lent it to her to cut hisluck-thread with.”
When they questioned him about her displeasure,he conceded no more than an ungracious movementof his shoulders. Old Mord was impelled atlast to scowl at him over the cloak-end with whichhe was mopping his face.
“Olaf the French,” he observed, “was fosteredin a land where they have the good custom ofteaching manners as well as courage. Sure am Ithat such a training would have bettered you,Rolf’s son, more than you think. I have, however,139a good hope that even as autumn thunder ripensthe grain, this tempest may have ripened yourgreen judgment; so that hereafter you will beless quick to sneer at the caution of old men, andmore slow to stake your all on any belief. Thoughthe Skraellings keep faith with you, rememberthis—that you came near losing your life throughyour lord’s folly, who accepted such entertainmentwithout any regard to the effect it might have uponyour state. If you had offended him so that hehad the wish to murder you, he could not havegone about it better.”
Mopping his face, he continued to speak at intervalsin praise of discretion; but Rolf’s son lostwhat followed by reason of the ringing of that onesentence in his ears—“If you had offended him sothat he had the wish to murder you, he could nothave gone about it better.”... It seemed thatHelvin had thought himself offended... thatmurder had looked out of his eyes....
His head falling forward upon his breast, Randvarstood as one listening to an evil voice withinhim.
“Gift always looks to recompense”
Through the dusk, the Skraellingfires across the river made no moreshowing than a cluster of glowwormson a log; but—true to thesaying that “Famine-pinched stomachsare the greatest gluttons”—the Norse fire-buildershad heaped wood on blaze until theirforest guest-house revelled in a brightness as ofnoonday.
The peace party had been back for the spaceof three candle-burnings, long enough for the firsttumult of greeting to have subsided, and yet notso long but that the aroma of the new intereststill flavored the air. In complacent beard-strokinggroups, the old chiefs stood about the bank,congratulating one another upon the advantageswhich the alliance would secure to the fur-trafficand the trade in massur-wood. Trying on shellnecklaces and quill-embroidered shoes, Brynhild’swomen were turning the leaf-carpeted slope into141a bower. In the hemlock nook which had beenthe prison-chamber, two guardsmen were givingan imitation of an Indian war-dance which sentthe pages rolling on the earth in convulsions ofmerriment; and near by, another gathering watchedwith breathless interest while Gunnar the Merryexperimented with the trophy which he hadbrought back,—a strange smoke-producing implementmade up of a long reed, a big stone thimble,and a pinch of strangely smelling leaves.
Of none of these groups, however, was the Jarlor his song-maker a part. Still farther up therising ground, on the very edge of the shadow-breedingwood, a mighty pine had toppled overand lay head downward, its huge clod of rootsand soil upturned like a dead giant’s feet. There,skulking wolf-like in the shade, Helvin leanedagainst the writhen mass, bending and tearing thetough fibres with his restless hands; while along thehuge trunk below him, as a panther along a bough,the deerskin-clad figure of Rolf’s son lay stretchedout.
Now and again, from the fireside groups cameup snatches of song or a merry outburst of voices.But none of it moved the Jarl to speech, and foronce the Songsmith chose to remain under coverof custom and wait until he was addressed.
Now and again, a largess of dead leaves caused142a grateful dancing of the flames that stretched thecircle of ruddy light even to the timber’s edge.Gazing upward, Randvar had a fleeting glimpseof the brooding white face on which that strange,evil expression had deepened to a stain. But alwaysbefore he had a chance to study it, the lightfailed.
Convinced at last that he fronted the unknown,he waited tense as a bowstring, alert as an arrow.Almost he shot from his place when low laughterburst from Starkad’s son,—laughter so devil-likethat a wave of coldness started at his neck andrippled down to his heels.
“You think yourself a sly fox as you lie therewatching me!” Helvin said, “but you need nottake so much trouble. I have got over the wishto kill you.”
It seemed to Randvar as if the rippling wavemust have frozen, so rigid did he become.
“Is it even so, then, that you tried to betrayme?” he asked slowly.
“I hope you did not look for anything betterfrom me,” Helvin returned, and laughed again.
So unbearable was the low sound that Randvarsat up sharply, and spoke with anger: “I didthough! I expected that even if your wrath roselike a sea-wall against me, you would vent it insome honorable way.”
143“You know better now,” Helvin answeredgrimly.
“That is certain,” Randvar assented with equalcurtness; and for a space there was silence betweenthem, save for the sound of Helvin’s hands tearingthe root-fibres.
In the low choked voice of one holding under afearful force, Helvin broke out at last. “I neversaw a greater blockhead! and I treated you betterthan you deserved. It mattered not that youwere quick to mark the change in my manner,—stillyou could not guess that from the time thetrees closed around me, I saw nothing but the oldtroll’s twisted face in every shadow, heard nothingbut his cursed ghost gibbering vengeance in myear! Never did I so need that you should closelystand by me with your fearless mind; and whatdid you do, instead, but bungle it so that I had toleave you behind! I can tell you that death waslikelier than life as you stood then. I wonder Idid not become the fiend you saw at the Pool.”
“The fiend I saw at the Pool!” Randvar repeated,and the impulse to face standing whatevermight lie before him made him start to rise to hisfeet. But at the first motion, Helvin’s hand fellupon his shoulder with the weight of a lion’s pawand crushed him back upon his seat.
“Now are you hot-headed,” he snarled, “and144there is rashness in your actions, and that is foolishin a cool-witted man like you. It is not enoughthat you have made the bargain to go throughTorment with me; you have got to go quietly.Quietly! do you understand that or not? Ah!You are not going to be so great a fool as to struggle.—Bearin mind what it means to thwart me!”
But it was not the gripping hand that Randvarwas struggling against, though the fingers hadsunk into his flesh like iron hooks. It was againstthat awful dizzy madness that had come againupon him at the touch of Starkad’s son. In thesame flash of time he knew two things—that his“gift” was making him aware of a terrible presence,and that he resented that gift with everyfibre of his forest-bred body. Doubly racked, hebattled for the space of a heart-beat, then reachedinstinctively for the sharp medicine of his blade.
Even as his flesh tasted it and his disorderpassed, the fire leaped redly, revealing the blazingeyes of rage above him, disclosing his horror-twistedmouth to the Jarl. With a stifled cry, Starkad’sson quitted his hold.
“Why do you look at me like that? Oh God,do the marks show on me? I thought I shouldescape—escape—”
His voice lost the semblance of a voice, becamean inarticulate wail; and to it was added the sound145of rending cloth as he started up in his lair. Infrantic haste he strove to disentangle his cloakand draw it up over his breast and around him in ahood; but he only tangled it harder and pulled thefolds awry and lost the end from between hisnumb fingers. Giving up the attempt, finally, hecast it over his head and flung himself down uponthe earth, moaning a single word over and overlike a wounded bird of one note.
More like was it to a sound of bird or beast thanto human speech. Every nerve strained in theendeavor to comprehend, every sense baffled, thesong-maker stood staring down at him. At lasthe bent, speaking desperately:
“Either you are dumb or I am deaf! Make mea sign.”
Plunging and reeling, the black shape reareditself from the ground; though even in the shadowit would not uncover its face. From the cloak-foldscame forth a shaking hand, which fell on theSongsmith’s arm and groped its way to his shoulder.Brushing his cheek, it left the skin wet,though its touch was the touch of fire. From hisshoulder, it passed over to the harp at his backand put all its force into smiting the strings intoone discordant cry, before it fell back into thecloak-folds, and the cloaked form fell prone uponthe earth.
146Randvar understood then that he was to sing;and before he was erect, the harp was off his back.Like the voice of a night-bird pouring out its soulto the listening forest, his voice rang from theshadow.
Down on the firelit slope, the merry groupsceased their sports and gave him joyous hearing;and the echoes in the hills across the splashingriver awoke and answered him sleepily; but ofwhat he sang he had no consciousness, nor everafterwards could recall it. Like a dead thinglay the mound at his feet; and as flies around thedead, his thoughts buzzed around its secret.
Slowly understanding came.... The troll-temperof the father had descended upon the son.... Deniedthe vent of battle-fury, it had taken someuglier shape, some monstrous shape that galledthe Jarl’s pride to own!... It had possessed himthat day at the Pool, and he believed that the foresterhad seen its degrading marks.... Its marks!Shrinking, Randvar’s memory groped among themyriad tales he had heard of men accursed...yelping teeth-gnashing Berserkers with frothingdistorted mouths... souls doomed to raven inbrutes’ bodies... wits to sleep in the bestial formsof swinish cinder-biters....
Like a strain falling from Valhalla to the Worldof the Dead, the voice of Yrsa the Lovely fell presently147on his ear, calling out a merry good-nightas she went away with the rustling train of womento the booths that had been erected for them. Amoment his gaze wandered to follow out of sightthe head of fiery gold that moved before them, butstill he sang on.
Above the trees, presently, Night raised hersilver bow and shot bright arrows through theleafless branches. Watching the shafts strike andmelt into pools of moonshine at his feet, his eyeslost their alertness; his song grew dreamy, slackenedand sank low as the note of a dreaming bird.But still he kept on.
Breathing the melody rather than singing it,he saw unheeding how the bright beams reachedto the cloak-wrapped form and groped like handsalong it; he was slow in realizing that one of thepale spots in the shadow was not moonlight, buta wan face upturned. His song ended in a gasp,when the truth did come home to him. Sometimehe stood motionless before he dared speak and ask:
“Lord, how is it with you?”
The answer came out of the shadow, “It is wellwith me,” but no minor chord ever made thesong-maker’s heart swell in his breast as did thevoice in which the words were spoken. It becamenothing to him what mask the tortured facemight be wearing. Kneeling beside the prostrate148body, he raised it up until the mass of blood-redhair rested even on his shoulder.
As a drowned man rises out of the deeps, so theJarl seemed to rise out of the shadow into themoonlight. And as the face of one who hasknown the agony of buffeting waves, so was hisface blanched and drawn; but no other mark wasupon him. Only infinite weariness was on thefinely cut mouth; in the sea-gray eyes, only infinitesadness. The swelling of the song-maker’sheart became a sharp pain in his throat.
But the Jarl said gently: “Once when I hadfallen into such a strait as this, I would not acceptyour help. See now how I lean on you! There willever be most help in you when there is most needof it. My true friend, for this—this!—what shallrequite you?” He put up his hand; and becauseRandvar could not speak, he wrung it in silence.
Then gradually Helvin’s strength came back tohim, so that he put out his other hand and takinghold of a branch, drew himself to his feet, andstood supported half by the tree, half by theshoulder of the Songsmith.
“Soon are my powers renewed in me,” he said.“Even as David did for Saul, you cast the devilout; and before he had gone his length—God!the length he goes! Can you raise before yourmind what my state was that day, when I turned149and espied a man watching me from the bushes?When my arrow missed him, and I knew that mysecret was loose in the world? Ah! I do notwant to remember that! Wine! Give me wine!”
Randvar’s hand unfastened the flask from hisneck without the knowledge of his wits, that werelike thunder in his ears, roaring explanation of allthat had puzzled him. Out of the tumult, hespoke earnestly:
“Jarl, I am five weeks too slow in telling youthat a great mistake has been made. It is thetruth that horror drove me mad that day, but nothorror of you,—never of you! Listen! Even as Istepped from the bushes and saw the Pool and sawyou—”
On the Songsmith’s lips, Helvin’s hand fell lightly.Wincing, he had turned away.
“Let not that be put into words which inthought alone is more than I can bear!” he said.“Besides, to what end is it? I know that it wasnot from me that you shrank, but from the devilthat uses my body; and for any hatred you feeltowards that, or harm you do it—if ever you cometogether, which God avert!—you need have no remorse.Though all your power were bent upon it,you could never hate it—abhor—”
A shuddering fit shook him, so that words becamebut bubbles of sound bursting idly on his150lips. When he spoke again, his voice was verylow.
“Bitter is it to speak of! For love’s sake, spareme the need. I know now that—even with thatvision before your eyes—your song-maker’s spiritwas able to separate me from the Thing whichFate has linked me to. Had not myself experiencedit, I would not have believed any manbrave enough to make that separation. Timesthere are when I cannot make it; when I loathemyself as Satan never loathed himself, else wouldhis heart change and the world be sinless! I callyour help no more than it is when I tell you thatI should die of self-horror if I could not look atyou and say, ‘I am not beyond the pale, for hereis a man who gives me friendship and honor evenwhile knowing the worst of me!’” His voice,which had sunk to an unsteady breath, was smotheredout as he pressed his face against the roughbark of the tree.
The Songsmith did not use the opportunity,however, to finish the explanation he had begun.Instead, he stood staring down at the sleepingcamp and weighing the possibility of seeming tohave this knowledge, foreseeing the blind maze heshould enter on, the sword he should hang overhis life, the horror to which he should bind himself.
It was Helvin who ended the pause, as he had151made it. Turning, he laid both hands on Randvar’sshoulders, and as he spoke, looked lovinglyinto his face.
“Good is your singing and your service, but yourfriendship is worth still more! Such it is, that noreward can match it,—the joy of giving must beits own reward. Only can I tell you what it hasmeant to me that never hoped to know the supportof a friend. When my dreams were brightest,I dreamed only of getting good-will by hidingthe truth. What makeshift would that have been!What peace is this! Greater loss to me than toyou would it have been if you had lost your lifeto-day. My friend, I do not ask that this may beforgiven me, for that would be to own that it wasI who sought to work you harm, and that fiendwas not I. Yet this I will say, that I should thinkit the best gift I ever got if you could tell me witha whole heart that this has not caused any breachto rise in our friendship.”
After a little, the Songsmith raised his bowedhead and met the gray eyes steadily.
“My love is great, lord, towards many men,”he said, “but towards none so much as you. Tillmy death-day, I will hold to my faithfulness toyou.”
“It must be worse before it gets better”
His ruddy face thrice ruddy withcold, Bolverk, the guardsman, camestamping into the great trading-booth,kicked the door shut uponthe ice-bound out-of-doors and letgo a shivering breath of appreciation at the sightof the fur-littered weapon-hung room, down whosemiddle fires were leaping, and along whose wall-benchesshaggy-maned hunters and sleek-lockedSkraellings sat consuming hot drink in the intervalsof bargaining.
“Hail, friends!” he greeted the company. “Nowdoes the bread of life seem to be buttered on bothsides! Here are you on the inside, as snug as fleason a goat; and outside, I just met a young onemerry because his breath froze in such clouds thathe had only to stick a knob-ended root betweenhis lips to have the appearance of smoking like aSkraelling.”
The double row of faces that had turned towards153him answered variously by grins or jests or grunts,but the trader’s headman looked up from the heapof beaver skins that thralls were sorting beforehim to wave a cordial hand.
“Now this day seems to have been set for thereturn of long-absent people! Welcome to you,Bolverk the Bold! Not so much as a hair have Iseen of you for three months and more.”
“That is easily true,” the guardsman assented,“for since Treaty Day I have camped as far southas Freya’s Tower. And I have worn out my shoesthere, as you may see. How long would it bebefore you could look me up another pair? Fromthe appearance of your benches, I should not saythat the lack of my custom had caused sufferingto you.”
“Nay, it is your company that we have sufferedfor,” the trader’s man answered, as became atrader’s man. “But I need not keep you waitingif you will give to Eldir, here, one of your old shoesfor a sample.”
He beckoned a bondsman to attend on theguard, while with his head he signed anotherthrall to bring forward the smoking ale; and Bolverksuccumbed contentedly into a seat.
“Mind this, that you get me a pair that iseasy across the toes,” he admonished the slavekneeling before him. Then he stretched out his154hand to take the offering of the one standing besidehim, and questioned lazily as he sipped: “Whoare the rest of the long-absent people who havearrived?”
“Some score of them you may see before you;and in that end room yonder, among the goldthings, is Olaf, Thorgrim’s son,—the most open-handedman! Since Treaty Day, for some reason,he has turned his back on the court and dwelt atthe house of Mord the Grim, and only—”
Bolverk left off sipping to interrupt joyfully:“Now I wonder if it is going to happen that thereis a fight? As I turned in here, I looked down alane and saw Randvar the Songsmith headed inthis direction.”
The row of hunters straightened, some of themrolling on their tongues the word “fight”; someraising their horns with shouts of “The Songsmith!”but the trader’s man shook his head abovethe furs to which he had turned back.
“They cannot lock horns. The lawmen havebound them to peace, on pain of outlawry to theone who breaks it. On the way home from thetreaty-making, it befell that the Songsmith flewat Olaf, and would have given him a swift deathif men had not come between them. They donot dare to do aught else than be good. It isunlikely, moreover, that the Songsmith has the155slightest intention of coming hither. So long ashe has that deerskin husk and that battered sword,no use has he for a trading-booth.”
Disapproval was in the headman’s gesture ashe kicked aside the fur heap he had finished examining.But Bolverk shook his helmed head indisapproval of him.
“It is your traders’ thrift that talks now, comrade,not your Norse spirit,” he said. “Some badhabits the Fates allot every man at his birth; andhe should be considered lucky who uses up hisallowance of them on clothes, and keeps his mindhigh and his courage without stain, as Randvar,Rolf’s son, has done.”
“Yes, yes!” chorussed the fur-clad hunters, bangingthe benches with their fists. And the youngestof them brought his drink-drenched bodyupright with a jerk, and tried to look severelythrough sleepy eyes.
“Whosoever says aught slighting of Rolf’s songives offence to me,” he made announcement. “Il-ove him because he wears clothes like mine. Il-l-ove him because he is poor. I l-l-l—”
“Poor!” The trader’s man laughed impatiently.“Good Bend-the-Bow, are you too drunkto understand that I am talking about the Jarl’sfavorite, whose shabby belt-pouch is fuller ofgold than your head of wits,—even when you156are sober and they are all at home? If he werestill a ringless forester, who would stir tongueabout his habits? It is because he has gold tospend but is too careless to do it, that he hasmy blame; and I would lay my purse on it thatthis is a part of the cause why he has lost creditwith the Jarl’s sister, as gossips say he has. Yetyou need not think that I undervalue what is insidehis shell. Far and wide, it is known that hebrought this treaty to pass which is going to sendsuch ship-loads to Norway in the spring as neverleft port before. For that, all traders lift theirhorns to him; and I should dislike to have it cometo his ears that I—”
“Then hold your peace for here he comes!” theguardsman interrupted, and stood up with a genialbellow to pitch at the opening door one of the shoeswhich a thrall had just handed him.
It was a rash act since the new-comer mightjust as easily have been the Jarl as the Jarl’s song-maker—thetrading-house standing at the junctionof many paths—but it came to no bad end for thedoorway actually did frame the tall sinewy formof Randvar, Rolf’s son, his harp occupying a cloak’splace at his back. At sight of him, even the Skraellingschanged from bronze images into men with cordialeyes; while the hunters swung up their hornswith a burst of cheers. Barely they gave him time157to hand over his broken harp to the trader’s manbefore they forced him into the place they hadmade for him, plied him with drink, with toasts,with questions and banter. Bolverk was obligedto limp over in one shoe to get a seat beside him,and get his attention for the confidences withwhich he was bursting.
They seemed to be of a nature more absorbingto the teller than to the listener for even while hegave one ear to them, Randvar left the other opento the hunter’s chaff, and broke out restlessly,now and again, to gibe back or to answer in theirown tongue some inquiries from his Skraellingfriends. But he did not fail to make the requiredpromise to go down to the wedding-feast in thespring, and aroused himself with proper enthusiasmwhen the lover came at last to an exultingclimax.
“There! If you can anywhere see a better lookoutthan that, I shall say your eyesight is keenerthan Erna’s.”
“Nothing but the sun’s can equal it in brightness!I call upon every man who hears my voiceto drink to your luck at my expense,” the Songsmithanswered promptly, and drew a handful ofsilver rings from his shabby pouch.
If cup-wishes count, never was bride more richlydowered than Snowfrid of Freya’s Tower. When158it was over, the beaming Bolverk slapped his prospectivefoster-kinsman affectionately upon theback.
“Nowhere have I found a better comrade thanyou! To talk one’s affairs over with you is agood help. Now let me show as much friendshipand hear how matters have fared with you, thesethree months. I can see one thing that you havenot done, and that is to get fat.”
An old trapper clad in bear’s fur uttered a bear-likegrunt.
“Huh! See the gainfulness of having youngeyes! As soon as the boy came into the room, Isaw that there were lines between his eyebrowslike a wagon’s ruts,—and not an empty wagon,either! Better take to the forest again, Rolf’sson, if it weighs so heavily upon your spirit to bea Jarl’s favorite.”
“Better come back to the forest than bear anyharness!” the young hunter who sat next to theSongsmith cried scornfully; and a chorus rose afterhim:
“Never did I think you would stand it, whohate rules as a bear hates a chain!”
“You are a fool to stay in it—”
“Sooner should the Troll take me than I shouldfollow a man who behaved overbearingly, as oneof Starkad’s breed must needs—”
159“It is not possible that you can be contented inhis service—”
“What is the jest?”
“What is the cause of your grinning?”
The song-maker’s smile ended in his short laugh.
“You,” he answered. “It crossed my mind tofancy myself listening to a pack of wild wolvesyelping at a tame one, who had found love for aman and followed him home and broken himself tohouse-ways. But I will give you a better answerthan that to your foolishness.”
He leaned forward where all could see him, thefire showing his thin face to be unmistakablyearnest.
“For what you said about Helvin’s behaviortowards me, I will tell you the first half of a sayingthe courtmen have made, which is altogethertruthful, and which is this: ‘If the Jarl’s song-makershould want the Jarl’s crown for a dog-collar,he would have to do no more than ask forit.’ And now, for what you said about my likinghis service, I will give you the rest of the saying,which is even more true than what went before:‘And if it should happen to the Jarl to want theSongsmith’s head for a hand-ball, he would haveto do no more than ask for that.’ Is it clear toyou now or not?”
160The hunters had no opportunity to answer.While they were still adjusting their minds to theamazing conviction that their one time comradehad meant what he said, the door was flung openwith a flourish. In all his bravery of embroideredcloak and silver-spurred riding-boots, Eric the Pageappeared and proclaimed in his young treble:
“Way for the Jarl’s sister!”
It was the first time the woodsmen had seenthis woodland sprig in his splendor. To assail himwith familiar greetings and ironical comment becameinstantly their sole object in life, carried onunder their breath even after the Jarl’s sister hadentered, and they had scrambled to their feet inrough homage. Randvar was able to step unobservedbehind a smoke-blackened pillar and gazewith what bitterness he would upon the face thathis pride had come to curse by day while his lovestarved for it in his dreams.
“I would give all I own in the world had I notknown how to smile!” his heart cried out in suddensharp wretchedness. Then he cursed himselffor a fool, cursed her vanity for a curse worse thanHelvin’s, and wore the rut deeper between hisheavy brows with scowling at her as she passed.
Of rich purple, fur-edged, was the mantle thathung from her fine shoulders; and purple was thevelvet hood that lay like an evening cloud upon161the sunset glory of her hair; but it needed not theroyal coloring to betoken the loftiness of her temper.Even more than its wonted haughtinesswas in the carriage of her head as she moved upthe long room and passed into the inner chamber,which was the shrine of the jewelled ornamentsand gold things.
Bolverk shut one eye expressively, when the fox-skincurtain had fallen behind her and her page.
“Every man to his taste!” he said. “Yet I forone feel no envy of Olaf, Thorgrim’s son, that he iskissing her fingers at this moment. Give me Snowfridwith the kissable mouth!” He was reachingfor his horn to seal the sentiment when Randvar’shand closed on his arm.
“Is Olaf, Thorgrim’s son, in there?” the Songsmithasked in his ear.
The man-at-arms regarded him admonishingly.
“Why, I think they say he is. But they say alsothat the one of you two who begins a fight will getoutlawed.”
Randvar made no answer; his gaze had gone backto the door-curtain. If the French One should remainthere after she entered, it would be a signthat his disfavor was at an end, that she had takenhim back into her friendship—He broke off towatch with suspended breath.
Dashing the fox-skins aside, Mord the Grim162stamped through the door; and after him Olafbacked into the room, bowing ceremoniously beforethe presence he was leaving. If further proofwere needed that the greeting of the Jarl’s sisterhad not been cordial, that proof was furnished ashe turned on the threshold and espied his rivalwatching him. Seizing his sword-hilt, regardlessof Mord’s shrill expostulations, he strode towardsthe Songsmith.
They seemed for once to have changed placesfor Randvar made no more motion to attack thanto evade, only stood smiling at him in unconcealedmalicious enjoyment. When Thorgrim’s son waswithin a pace of him, he took off his fur cap andswept him a salute mockingly elaborate, thenfolded his arms upon his breast in the formal signof peace.
White on purple showed the veins of Olaf’s forehead,as he came to a stand-still before the exasperatingfigure. Perhaps even at the price ofbanishment he would have purchased revenge, ifhis friends had not saved him from the rash bargain.To the utter disgust of the by-standers,three of the traders’ men seized upon him nowand with respectful words but peremptory hands,dragged him past temptation and out of the door.
Raising a chorus of disappointment, the loungersclosed again around the laughing Songsmith, scolding163him, some of them, for not preferring banishmentto a life of such restraint; others chaffing himfor his decline in spirit; while the Skraellings becamealmost urgent in their desire to understandwhy two men should start to fight each other andstop before either was killed.
Lingering to buckle his many mantles, old Mordwatched the group. When at last he was muffledfor his ride, he halted on his way out to look atthe jesting song-maker from under an arch ofbristling brows.
“Since I see what a man you are to get friendsbehind you,” he said, “my wonder grows less atthe boldness you showed at the treaty-making.Soon, instead of the favorite of the Jarl, you willbe calling yourself the favorite of New Norway.”
Over the ring of tow manes surrounding him,Randvar gave back his look carelessly, wonderingwhat new fuel his fiery prejudice had chanced upon.He found out when Mord had reached the door and,opening it, flung this parting shot over his shoulder.
“A most beloved man you appear to be,—I bidyou only beware how you carry it too far. Thesagas do not lack instances of king-born men whosebane came out of their boldness. It would be unluckyif some one should whisper to the Jarl thatyou are ambitious to get more popularity thanhe has.”
164The Songsmith doffed his merry mood at that,his eyes narrowing dangerously. Then they widenedin dismay as darting past Mord to the threshold,they encountered the gray-clad form of the Jarlhimself, silhouetted against the white glare of thesunlit snow.
In the pause that followed, Starkad’s son appearedto be the only one at ease. Inclining hishead in acknowledgment of the advice-giver’s saluteand the hunters’ uncertain murmur, he cameslowly forward, drawing off his furred gloves.
“That is rightly said,” he assented, “that if sucha whisper should come to my ears it would be veryunlucky. The prophecy is wrong only in hintingthat it is for the song-maker that the bad luckwould come in.” He answered with a reproachfullook Randvar’s look of relief.
What Mord answered could not be heard for thecheers that the hunters let forth for Helvin Jarl.Only the slamming of the door behind the advice-givermade a faint jar.
The Jarl thanked them graciously when theracket was over, then addressed himself to hisfriend:
“So long was your harp-string in mending thatit pleased me to come on here and look for anarrow-ornament to take the place of the one I lost.Let us betake ourselves now to the search. It is165likely to be in the inner chamber among the goldthings.” Laying a hand upon Randvar’s shoulder,he moved him forward, speaking carelessly of thisor that weapon on the wall.
But only so long as they were within ear-shotof the groups on the benches did the Songsmithyield to the pressure. Fire-color had flamed inhis face. By main force he came at last to astand-still, and spoke without looking at his companion:
“I think, lord, that I will not go in with you.I am not used to so much heat—and the smell ofthe furs—I will await you under the oak. I findthat—I am not well. By your leave!”
But the tightening of his lord’s hand upon hisshoulder showed that he did not have his leave.
“Not well? What nonsense is here! It wason my tongue to say that not since Treaty Dayhave I seen you wear such a merry face. Formore than two months have you moped like acaptive hawk, with sullen temper and feathersadroop, but now—Why, it was the first thingI marked when I looked through the door andsaw you bantering with your hunter friends!Comrade, swear to me that your mind-sicknessis not homesickness. If I should think that thefetters of my service were eating into your braveheart—”
166“I swear I have no homesickness.”
“God is to be thanked for that! Take oath alsothat I would have no power to straighten thethreads if you should tell me what the snarl is.”
The song-maker flung back his hair restlesslyfrom his face of fierce unhappiness. “Jarl, itstings my pride that I have not been able to hidefrom you the soreness of my mind. Let it passfor the spring sap working in me. I take oaththat no man alive can give me aught I want. Bepleased, lord, since it is your will!” As with onehand he put the matter aside, with the other heput aside the fox-skin curtain. After a moment,Helvin yielded and entered.
It was plainly indifferent to the Jarl that Brynhildthe Proud should chance to be coming fromthe iron-bound chests, preceded by a walking heapof rainbow silks. He returned her reverence witha courtly greeting, then turned and made a kindlymotion towards the figure drawn up rigid as aspear-shaft in the shadow of the doorway.
“We have seen little of you, my kinswoman,since you made the winter weather an excuse forstaying away from our feasts,” he added, “yet donot lose us your remembrance. Will you not givea greeting to my song-maker here? It is not unlikelythat he has felt the lack of your presence asmuch as you have missed his songs.”
167Perforce, the Songsmith plucked the cap fromhis head and advanced. Perforce, her gaze wasturned upon him.
“Oh, is it your song-maker?” she said indifferently.“I thought one of the woodsmen had followedyou in to get some hunting-gear.” Deliberatelyshe looked him up and down, her grayeyes more forbidding than a gray ice-waste underNorthern skies. With a shrug she turned fromhim at last.
“If you please, brother, I think I would rathernot greet him,” she said. “Better that we shouldlook on it as though he were a woodsman after all,who might mistake my condescension and becomeforward.”
Courtesying as low as her manner was high, sheswept past the Jarl and through the door, beyondwhich the silk-laden page was awaiting her.
“A wise man’s guess is a prophecy”
Out in the long trading-hall there wasa confusion of shuffling feet, as thecompany rose to show respect tothe Jarl’s kinswoman; but over theinner chamber such silence reignedthat the rows of rich garments hanging aroundthe walls took on the semblance of listening figures.Rooted where his sister had left him, theJarl stood gazing incredulously at his friend, andthe song-maker’s head was bowed over the cap hewas tearing in strips.
Helvin said at last: “Songsmith, you took oaththat no man could give you aught,—is it as itwould seem, that what you desire is a woman’shelp?”
The Songsmith made no other answer than amovement of his bent shoulders, but that wasanswer enough. Starkad’s son said disgustedly:
“This is how it is, then,—you have sulked andchafed for lack of my sister’s favor, even though169you have my friendship and every honor thatfriendship can devise. There is more shame inyour falling before her than of all men else. Iwonder not that you were ashamed to own it tome. To confess that after all your boasted wildnessyou had put on her yoke as tamely as anymincing courtman among them! Tamely? Cravenly!How does this hang together, that you havea man’s pride yet like any whipped hound give lovein return for abuse!”
“Trolls, lord!” the song-maker gasped, flinginghis cap on the floor.
Helvin made a change from scorn to sternness.Placing his foot upon an iron-bound chest, he sethis elbow on his knee in an attitude of exhortation.
“Curse and stamp as much as suits you,—Ishould do no friend’s part if I did not deal severelywith you. You go not hence until I have givenyou such a bitter dose as shall cure your mind ofthat sickness while life lasts in you. So takebreath to swallow—”
Randvar let breath go, instead, in desperateprotest. “It needs not, lord! I am cured. Couldyou give me anything to equal her look in bitterness?I am cured from this day forth. Give meleave to go.”
But the Jarl’s outstretched arm made a baracross the path to the door.
170“Too sudden is your recovery; it suggests that ofa child who sees the medicine-bowl coming his way.It has come to this, that I shall be convinced onlywhen we have talked the matter out at lengthand—What! wincing already? Is that a signof sound flesh? Face about, there! You maymake up your mind to one of two things: eitherto answer my questions and so disgust yourselfwith your folly, or else to listen while I drag yourweakness forth into such bright light as—”
“I will answer,” Randvar said between his teeth,and set them hard.
“Begin then by telling me what I think I knowalready, that she had no reason for believing herdignity trod upon.”
“Who shall say what looks like reason to awoman? If you must know, she had this muchcause that on Treaty Day we disputed togetherabout a matter and in an evil hour it happenedthat I was proved to be right, and when I saw it,I smiled,—no more than a twitching back of thelips, lord! In the same breath I asked her to excuseit! But she left me without a word, refusedme admittance when I went to her hall, floutedme when I accosted her—slighted—scorned—Onlythe Devil who made them knows why womendo anything!” He gave the cap a vicious kick ashe started to pace the floor.
171But Helvin added severely: “And only the Lordwho made men knows why they hanker after suchcreatures! Behold how your own mouth has convictedyou of the greatest folly!”
That was all, perhaps, that the song-maker wasable to behold, even though his gaze halted hereand there upon garments and weapons as hemoved restlessly to and fro. At last he cried outfor mercy.
“I will confess myself the greatest fool aliveif it will save me from your tongue! I know nowwhat I have always suspected, that King Helgein the song wasted his time in avenging it onFridtjof that he loved the boneless Ingeborg.That love alone was punishment enough—” Likeone struck by a new thought, he stopped beforethe Jarl.
“It occurs to me, lord,” he said, “that you arenot carrying out your share of that song! Heream I, a man of no more than free birth—since noone gets his rank from his mother—who havedared to love a ruler’s daughter. Why do younot rage against it, as is to be expected? I swearan oath that I would rather endure your wrath formy boldness than continue this talk about myweakness.”
“That choice is less hero-like than it sounds,my friend,” Helvin answered gravely. “You do172yourself wrong if you do not know that sinceTime’s morning a man whom Odin has led intothe high-seat of skaldship has been held the equalof any blood. And you do me wrong to thinkthat I should forget the nobleness of your mind,whatever your rank. Is it not even because I loveyou as the very eyes in my head that I cannotbear to see you bend your neck to a pride-crazedwoman?”
He took his foot down from the coffer to facethe song-maker fairly.
“Oh my comrade, what shall I do to ease you?”he said. “Will you that I should grapple withyou and pluck out the barb, though your heart-rootscome with it? Or are there any kindly servicesI might do to heal the flesh and let the thingremain imbedded and forgotten? Do you prescribenow for my love,—I swear no dose shall betoo bitter. Though that course be not so good,I would still go to her myself on your behalf, werethere hope that she had a heart in her bosom toanswer when one knocked.”
“It is not that she has not a heart, lord. It isthat I am not high enough to reach the bolt uponits door,” Randvar answered sadly. He wrungthe hand that had clasped his, then threw himselfdown upon the chest and buried his face in hispalms. His words came disjointedly.
173“Think only what her love would be like, whois so steadfast in her friendship! Had you seenher that day of the Treaty when she came uponme in my bonds—! Why do I rail at her pride,when I would not have her bright head held onejot lower? When Mord turned upon me, I hadher as my shield—Lord, when Olaf came againstme with his knife, she closed with him! Her slimfingers twined vinelike around the great hole ofhis wrist. And one of her long braids flew outas she whirled and brushed like a bird’s wingacross my lips! Likely it is the last time they willever feel it.” He got up suddenly and resumedhis walking, too deep in wretchedness to heed thequiver of mocking laughter to which Helvin wasstirred.
“Think only what her love of her brother mustbe like, who was so cool-witted while she thoughthe was being slaughtered!” Starkad’s son murmured.
As swiftly as the mood came, so swiftly it passed.Stepping forward, he began to move beside hisfriend, speaking indulgently:
“Be of good cheer, comrade,—I foresee now thatyou shall even kiss her lips if you will.”
Randvar came to himself with a start, andstopped short in anger. “Lord, there are someremedies that even you may not try upon me.174If this is done to deride—” His manner changedas he met the gentleness of the gray eyes. “Bearwith me! I know you mean me only good. ButI cannot see your cheer.”
“It is not to the man down in the thick of thefight, but to the man up in the crow’s-nest, thatit is given to see which way the battle is going.You see only the fury of your foe. I see that sheis putting that fury forward to hide the weaknessthat lies behind it.”
Again the song-maker checked his pacing, but thistime to ask wonderingly: “Lord, what mean you?”
“My meaning is that she has found out that herbreast holds love for you.”
“What else, my friend, would make Brynhildthe Cold forget her estate and show openly—toMord—to Olaf—to whomsoever chose to look—thestore she set by your safety?”
So lightning-bright grew the radiance in Randvar’sface that it could last only lightning-long,then flickered and died in gloom.
“Lord, how dare I believe that? It might havebeen no more than friendliness, or woman’s pity.”
Through the mass of dark hair from which hehad plucked off his jewelled cap, the Jarl ran hiswhite hands, throwing back his head with a movementof impatience.
175“Why is it that it comes so much easier to believein Hel than in Valhalla? Is it because theearth-clods we are made of weigh us down whenwe try to mount? If I cannot prove her love toyou through her gentleness, then will I prove itthrough her hardness. No ball leaps up high thathas not gone down hard,—had she stooped nolower than pity, she had never risen so high ashate. Now I can make a guess that the mostsurprised person to whom Brynhild betrayed herlove was Brynhild herself! One thing I hope,—thatit was not this moment which a banteringfate took to make you smile?”
“What other time should it have been, lord?It was not until the excitement was over that Icalled to mind how she had boasted that nothingcould shake her coldness. When I saw her—swordin hand—eyes ablaze—Odin himself would havedrawn back his lips!”
“Then would Odin himself have gone behindthe clouds for a while,” Helvin said; and one ofhis rare smiles, faint as a glimmer of arctic sunshine,touched the curves of his mouth. “Thinkof the firebrand it hurled into her pride, when shethought that this love which she herself had justdiscovered had been betrayed to you, and that youwere triumphing—”
The Songsmith cried out the word “Triumphing!”176with such bitterness in his voice that, tohide a smile, the Jarl turned away and feigned tobe absorbed in a kirtle on the wall, nor lookedaround again until Randvar appealed to him.Dropped heavily upon the chest, the Songsmithsat frowning desperately at the floor.
“If you, lord, would but do one thing which iseasy to you?” he said. “Furnish me with someerrand that will bring me into her presence, evenagainst her will. I mean so to act that it willbe made evident to her that she misjudged infearing I should become forward.”
Again the Jarl set his foot upon the coffer andhis elbow on his knee, but the look he bent on hisfriend now had a hint of amiable amusement.
“True it is that much lies on that! You mightfeign sickness and be taken into the guest-chamberoff the women’s hall, where it is the customfor sick men to—But the ill luck might befall youthat unless you seemed balancing on the grave-edge,she would leave you to her women. Betterwould it be to make up some errand concerningthe dress of state which she and her maids arecovering with needlework for my wear—Yetthat is not certain, either, for I have some fearthat she might hear your message and then dismissyou before you could get out your conciliatingwords.”
177Some diffidence had come into the Songsmith’smanner, as if he foresaw chaff for what he wasabout to say. Yet now he said it:
“One plan came to me, lord, by which I couldshow without words that I had a desire to pleaseher. You heard how she spoke of woodsmen?...More than once has she upbraided me for wearingclothes unbefitting the son of Freya, the king-born.For myself, I prefer to be the son of Rolfthe Viking, but for her sake—to show that I willdo all in my power to deserve the honor she doesme—I would go so far as to change—”
He broke off in embarrassment, for even as hehad feared, the Jarl’s whimsical amusement increased.Laying hold of the shoulder before him,Helvin shook it banteringly.
“Let us hope it will not be with you as thepriest’s story says it was with Samson and Delilah!And I will forbear reminding you that incasting off your forest garb you cast off my livery,and confess that I no longer stand first in yourallegiance— Nay, I said that I would forbearreminding you of that, so never stir your tongueto protest. Now that I see that you have notthrown your dice for a worthless stake, I begin tofind interest in the game. Call the trader in toset forth his goods. You shall go to her at once,while her heart is still at war with her temper for178having ill-treated you. There is no good strivingagainst me! I say you shall. Call Asgrim—Nay,if you will not, I will do it myself—Ah,that is better! Since I have staked my reputationas a foretelling man, I am going to see that thegame is played properly.”
“The mind rules one-half of the victory”
“Jarl, it is not fitting that you shouldeven seem to attend on me! Let meaccompany you to your hall as becomesme, and afterwards go myway alone—”
“And rob me of a chance to see the horses comeup to the post in a race I have wagered on?” theJarl interrupted. “Out upon your idea of fitness!I am not sure that I shall not even go upon thatslope behind the women’s house and watch youthrough a broken window I know of. Would it notgive you a sense of being supported to feel my eyesupon you?” He walked on as one serenely unawarethat his companion had stopped short in dismay.
He did not go so far as to carry out his threat,however. When—by snow-banked roads and snow-buriedlanes, dim in the early gloaming—they hadcome to the court-yard and the looming pile of thewomen’s house, Helvin halted in the shadow of atree.
180“I think I will go no farther,” he said. “If ithappen as I expect, they will not close the doorsafter you immediately, as after one whose welcomeis certain. I shall be able to see some of the sportfrom here, before the banging of them in my facetells me that my foretelling has come true.”
“It is for you to decide,” Randvar made use ofthe proper phrase. And he had made a strideforward when—like the jerk of a cord suddenlystretched—an impulse turned him back.
“Lord,” he said, almost with fierceness, “tellme that you were jesting when you accused me offorsaking my allegiance to you. Say that youdo not hold me for a deserter, or my foot shallwither before ever it makes a move to leaveyou!”
Out of the shadow in which he stood, Helvin’svoice sounded presently like a harp strain withone minor chord.
“We must take this, comrade, as it is. It wasa jest,—and it was the truth. You could no morehold back than I could stay you, and I would notkeep you if I could. All that man can give to man,you have given me,—I ask not woman’s share besides.Go, and good go with you for your love!”
Down in the shadow, their hands met and clasped;then the song-maker turned and once morewent forward towards the dark mass. After some181delay the broad doors opened before him, and—ashad been foretold—did not close after him.
Through the ruddy gap, the Jarl’s gaze followedhis song-maker into a fire-bright hall whose wall-bencheswere aflower with women in kirtles of deepred and dull yellow and corn-flower blue. Likegreen beads from a broken necklace, pages werescattered over the floor playing a game of ball;and dodging between them and stumbling overthem, swarthy thrall-men were bringing in tablesfor the evening meal. A fancy came to amuse theJarl that it was like the arrival of a war-arrow ina peace-camp when his messenger stepped intothe ring of the firelight. From chess-board andbead-stringing and gossip, the women turned withsmothered exclamations; while the purple-robedgirl in the high-seat sat like one stricken motionless,her hand still holding out the silk ball she waswinding from the skein which a page held apartbefore her.
Splendid in raiment now was the son of Freya,the king-born. As sun-burnished waves shone hisnewly trimmed hair, and his garments were all ofvelvet banded with fine sable, and sable lined thecloak that fell from his mighty shoulders. Regardinghim, another fancy brought a smile to theJarl.
“He put on fine clothes as a man puts on armor,182and like a flight of arrows are the glances shotagainst him. I would lay down my life on it thathe would sooner go against arrows.”
If that were so, still no one could tell from thesong-maker’s bearing whether desperation or confidenceruled in his mind. Passing between thefires, he came before the footstool of Brynhild theProud. When he had made salute, he stood waitingin the attitude of courtly submission, one handon his hilt and one on his breast, an attitude thattook on new meaning because proud strength spokefrom every line of his virile face and his sinewybody.
Motionless, she sat gazing at him, whether inspeechless displeasure or speechless amazement,no one could tell from her expression. Signingthe petrified page to withdraw out of ear-shot, shesaid at last:
“This behavior seems to me so bold that I havenever seen any act so bold as this. What is yourerrand with me?”
“I will speak it aloud and not mutter about it,”he answered. “I have two. The first, which I carethe most about, is to reconcile myself to you. Theother is a message from the Jarl, which I hold asa shield against an unfavorable reception.”
She drew back to the extreme limit of her high-seat,her face set like a cameo against the dark183wood. The best she could do was to observe presently,with haughtiness:
“To me it would seem more becoming to carryout your lord’s business first.”
“Becoming it might be, but more imprudentthan to lay aside a shield in unequal combat.”
“Unequal?” She managed to curl her flowerlikelips. “Hear a wonder! On Treaty Day, youclaimed the victory over me.”
“Said I that I got the victory over you? Herenow I do confess that you have me at your pleasure.If you bid me leave you, I can do nothingagainst it. If you refuse me your friendship, nopower is strong enough to get it for me; thoughno man on earth will lack joy more than I, if thatmust be.”
One swift look she sent round to make sure thatno one else could hear the low-voiced words, thensat tapping the chair arm with her jewelled fingers,her bosom rising and falling like a white billowunder the lace of her kerchief. Out of the stormydeeps, passionate words rose at last.
“I do not wish that you should value me likethat, any more than I want to feel the way youmake me feel. Do you not know that your offenceagainst me was heavier even than Olaf’s? Hepushed my hands away, and recked little what Isaid; but you—though you stood with bound hands—you184laid hold of my mind and moulded it to yourwill! You made of me—of me—a screamingshield-maiden, ready to slay my childhood’s friend!And then you stood there and laughed in yourtriumph!”
He said slowly: “True enough I laughed—forone breath’s space—and that passed for an offence;but for three months you have made me the soberestman in the New Lands. Is not that atonement?”
A glance she flashed to challenge his sincerity,but her eyes could not withstand his eyes’ steadywooing. She spoke without looking at him:
“If that were all! But you have done more.There is that which survives even that madness.Some door you have opened in my mind throughwhich all my peace and pride have gone. ThingsI have never wanted before, now look good to me;and all I have seems as nothing, and the heavensreel around me, and I do not know one day what Iam going to want the next. You have made me athrall-woman in my own eyes, in proving to methat the passions that shake such base creaturescan also shake me—that I can fear like them—hatelike them—sin like them—love like them! Onlyif this be love, I tell you this,—that I will neveryield to it! I will not love you!”
Her gaze was meeting his now with all a Valkyria’s185weapon-play. It was he who lowered hiseyes, lest their fire offend her.
“Why you should love me, I know no reason atall,” he said. “I hope for it only as a priest hopesfor a miracle. This alone I know,—that I love you,so that to waken in the morning and look forwardto the hope of speaking with you is to sit in aGreenland winter and look forward to the summer.Will you not grant me the boon I beg because toyou it means so little, and to me it means so much?”
“I will not say that it meant little to hear yoursongs and your adventures,” she answered presently,with courtesy. Soon after that, in the gloamingof her eyes a light flickered starlike. “Anymore than I can deny that Freya’s son can be acourtman when he chooses,” she added. Then hermouth became as grave as it was gracious. “Itmay be that if you will give me your promisenever to talk to me about—miracles—”
“So shall it be that I will take banishment fromyou as from a lawman, if once I break the agreement!”
After a moment she rose with queenful composure,stretching out her hand to the group aroundthe entrance.
“Why do you allow the doors to remain open?”she called. “Our guest will not leave until he haspartaken of our hospitality.”
186With a crash, the great doors swung to, startlingthe Jarl where he stood in the darkness of thecourt-yard. At first he smiled whimsically, andmade a gesture of drinking to his companionwithin. Then, as he turned to go back alone,the smile faded. The face he lifted to the starsseemed to be asking a bitter question of the planetthat had stood over his birth.
“Mix hops with honey when thou mead wilt brew”
Stirring before the great awakening,the southern slopes had thrownoff their coverings of snow, andbared their brown bosoms to thefresh wind. The pools of the muddyroad gave back unclouded blue, and blithe as thecall of the robins in the sunny meadows were thevoices of the young courtmen who had met at acrossing of the ways. Winter maintained its holdonly on the face of Mord the Grim, as looking backfrom the crest of the hill he was riding over, hesaw that the centre of the group was the Jarl’s tallsong-maker.
Some of the young nobles had set forth to shootducks from the broken ice of the river, and wereunfolding their plans to the forester’s sympatheticear. Some were seeking ground for a horse-race,when the sod should be firm enough, and were demandingof the favorite that he use his influencewith the Jarl to have a feast given in honor of the188sport. And others, who knew that Rolf’s son wasnow on his way home to the Tower to take part inthe wedding-feast of his foster-sister, were chaffinghim about the effect his fine clothes of buff leatherwould have upon such Skraellings as he might encounter.The chatter came to an end only whenthe hoof-beat of two horses was heard on a roadnear by; and one youth surmised that it must bethe bridegroom and the priest, whom Randvar waswaiting to join; and another stepped out to lookaround the curve, vowing that if Bolverk’s dresswas too fine it should be subdued by a rain of mud.The youth stepped back, however, with a shrug.
“Only Brynhild’s pet page; and behind him,Olaf the French. Tighten the peace-bands on yoursword, Songsmith!”
A third gave Randvar’s ribs a nudge with hiselbow.
“No better than wasted breath is that warning!”he laughed. “As though the Songsmith had anycause now to be jealous of Olaf, Thorgrim’s son!”So the laughter and chaff went up boisterously.
The Songsmith who had stood quietly listening,save for an occasional word of comment or banter,became yet more silent, and gave his entire attentionto remedying a mistake in the lacing ofone of his high Cordovan boots.
On his bent head, half the hail of jests continued189to fall; and the other half flew on to meet the boyjust turning into the road, fresh as a sproutinggrass blade in his green livery.
“Lucky Bolverk, to be allying himself with suchsplendor!”
“Picture the cub doing the honors from thehigh-seat!”
“Are you going to give the bride away, youngone?”
“Oh, why give your sister to an every-day bodylike a guardsman, Eric?”
“Nobody less than the Jarl himself—”
“Ay, the Jarl, by all means! Has it not beenproved that jarls’ sisters take well to forest-bredmen?” Again a shout of laughter went up, andthe song-maker gravely addressed himself to therelacing of his other boot.
Because Randvar remained stooping, the page onhis arrival did not notice him; disdainfully he answeredthe merry group before which he had drawnrein.
“No intention have I to break through the brushto any wedding-feast. My errand hither is to tellthe Songsmith that my mind has changed aboutgoing,—only I shall tell him that it is becauseBrynhild cannot spare me. He is to meet Bolverkhere and go with him; but they must get alongwithout me. It is to be seen that he left the Tower190too late to outgrow his fondness for moose-hump!Much better would you save your banter for hisbackwoods’ ways.”
Like the impudent red-breasted bird now struttingon a stone wall across the road, Eric thrustout his chest with an air. Laughing and nudging,the young courtmen made a semicircle aroundhim.
“Oh, a well-bred man is what you are, that isclear as day!”
“Small wonder you have no admiration for thatlout of a song-maker!”
“Tell us what you think of the showy clothes hehas begun to—”
“Yes, give us your opinion of his habits!” theychorussed.
Still like the bright-eyed bird on the wall, Ericcocked his handsome little head knowingly; buteven as they waited in laughing expectation, Olafthe French came cantering around the bend, andEric’s censure gave way to eulogy as he turnedand recognized the new-comer.
“I will tell you a man I have got admiration for,and that is the one who comes riding hither! WhenI have my growth, I shall be as near like him aspossible; and I am going to France with him wheneverhe goes back,—am I not, Olaf?”
“So it shall be,” Thorgrim’s son assented benignly,191as he returned with inimitable grace the rathercareless greetings of the group.
Importance swelled in Eric’s chest until it burstout of his lips as ecstatically as the red-breastedbird’s song.
“That will be the finest part of my life! I shallwipe this little town of cabins off my mind as completelyas I have wiped off that old Tower,—andthat is as much gone from remembrance as thoughit had never been. Do you know, masters, it looksto me sometimes as though I could never havebeen born there? What seems likeliest is thatsome great chief of Norumbega had one child toomany, so that he gave it to thralls to carry intothe forest; and then Erna came along and found itand called it hers, so much nobler is my naturethan my moth—” He left the word unfinished ashis rapt gaze came down for the first time to theSongsmith, where he had risen and stood besideGunnar the Merry. “By that I do not mean thatshe is not a worthy woman,” he added hastily.
His foster-brother answered not a word. Steppingto the head of Eric’s horse, he said briefly:
It did not appear that the page liked the toneovermuch, but neither did he seem willing to triflewith it. He made a parade of stretching in hissaddle.
192“You need not say it as though I meant to keepon,” he retorted. “I have been waiting until youcame, as every one here knows, to get down andtalk to you.” Slowly he dismounted, taking greatpains to keep his bright spurs out of the puddles.
“Give me now that chain off your neck, as agift for your sister.”
The page muttered something about meaningto give her a better gift, when he should have hadtime to visit the trading-booth; but his foster-brother’shand remained before him, immovable asa stone cup. He dropped the chain into it at last,and watched ruefully the stowing away of thetrinket in the pouch of buff leather. Then theowner of the pouch made another demand:
“Now give me a message to go with it. Say,‘I send therewith my hearty greeting.’”
At that, Eric so far forgot his finery as to stampand spatter it with mud. But after a second lookfrom under the heavy brows, he said the words,rebelling only when the circle of grinning courtmensent up a roar of laughter at the contrast betweenthe sentiment and the tone in which it was uttered.
“In meddling in private affairs you show badmanners,” he told them, and sent Rolf’s son aglance that was half sulky, half coaxing. “Nordo I think you have any right to scold me after Ihave made atonement.”
193Far from scolding, his foster-brother turnedto one of the courtmen who had come from ahorse-fight and borrowed his riding-rod of twistedleather.
“You have made atonement for slighting Snowfrid,”he said, “but for the way you behaved aboutErna, you cannot redeem yourself from stripes.Pluck off your kirtle and stand forth.”
“Foster-brother! If you will listen while I explain—”
“Already you have talked enough. Stand forth.”
“In a word, you will take it or run.”
“That is a good hint, young one,” laughed Gunnarthe Merry. “Pick up your heels.” Then helaughed again at the glare that Eric turned onhim.
“Will you keep your nose out of this?” the smallViking demanded. “If you think I am afraid tobear a flogging—!”
The end of the sentence was that his gay tuniclay on the ground and he stood forth in his shirtof fine linen, his arms locked upon his sturdychest. From that attitude he did not flinch whenthe lashes fell, though they were neither light norfew. When it was over, the young men gave himgood-humored applause.
Gratification pulled at his mouth-corners as he194looked at them out of the corner of his eye; butenough vanity had been taken out of him so thatwhen his gaze passed on to his stern foster-kinsman,he showed only as a shamefaced little boy,now humbly desirous of being restored to favor.
“If you think it will give my kinswomen a greatdeal of pleasure, I will go to the feast with you,”he offered, when he was clothed again and lingeredshaping mud-balls with the toe of his boot.
“If I have my way, you will not be allowed togo back until it will give you so much pleasurethat you cannot stay away,” the Songsmith returnedseverely, rejecting utterly the blandishmentsof the rosy coaxing face. The culprit gaveup the attempt, after a while. Climbing into hissaddle he rode back up the highway—his sleevein suspicious proximity to his eyes—and vanishedinto a brush-walled lane.
Watching the dejected withdrawal seemed tosuggest to Olaf the French a welcome thought. Hemoved his horse a step forward, and broke in uponthe scattered chatter.
“Surely,” he said, “if you, Rolf’s son, choose toattack a young friend of mine, and I choose toavenge the boy on you, that should be sufficientto excuse me in challenging you?”
Over his shoulder, Randvar looked at him withhis short laugh,—he had stepped aside to whistle195back his horse from the meadow in which it hadstrayed to browse.
“Surely! If you, Thorgrim’s son, believe thatyou could get that excuse accepted,—in case youwere alive to offer it!” he consented.
But three of the young courtmen spoke in thesame breath: “Far from it, Olaf! Unless you werethe boy’s master.”
Rolf’s son said nothing, only stood waiting withhis bridle in his hand.
But gradually Olaf settled back in his saddle,and sat thoughtfully stroking his short mustaches.“Ill might it be, then, since I lack a lawful claim.I should kill you, and then if I could not savemyself from outlawry, I should get no good fromyour death.”
“This I take the ring-oath on, that I would domy best to keep you from being put in that unsatisfyingposition,” Randvar retorted.
It seemed to Gunnar the Merry that the conversationhad gone as far as was advisable; and hesaid so, good-naturedly, several others secondinghim. And while they debated, their cause drewstrength from another source.
Standing farthest out in the road, where he couldsee around the curve, a youth named Aslak calledout that the bridegroom and the priest were comingat last. With that announcement, all seriousness196was put to rout; it was not even noticed thaton a sudden impulse, Thorgrim’s son wheeled andgalloped back up the highway and disappearedinto the lane whose bush-whiskered mouth had alreadyswallowed up the crestfallen page.
Around the bend bowled the wedding party, thegorgeous bridegroom explaining at the top of hislungs how mistakes in the coming home of hismarriage clothes had detained him. At sight ofhim, such cheers and chaff arose that he shoutedhimself hoarse with trying to repay a quarter ofit, gave it up finally and set spurs to his horse andfled, followed by the ruddy-cheeked priest, cursinggenially at the unwonted jolting of his fat sides.After them galloped the laughing song-maker, dividinghis gibes between the group behind and thepair before.
What could have suited his wild blood betterthan to wander through the wonder-world ofawakening forest? What could taste sweeter thana wedding-feast to a man who was watching hisown hope grow with every day of spring shine andspring storm?
“More than all winter can one spring day yield”
The third month of spring was comeupon the year when the Songsmithrode back through the forest fromhis visit at Freya’s Tower; and thespirit of spring was come upon him,so that his blood worked in his veins like sap ina tree.
Sometimes the billowy clouds above him partedover tender blue, and let through bursts of radiantsunshine that tiled his path with gold and golden-lightedthe dim aisle stretching out before him.Sometimes they drew together in a lowering massof gray, and let fall snow-flakes to lie daisy-likeupon the patches of springing green. Sometimesit was bright streaks of rain that fell, meeting hischeek like so many soft mouths, changing with thereturning sun into laughing eyes winking fromevery leaf. Whatever came, he took as joyouslyas the teeming earth.
The thrill that the earth must have known when198it looked up at the first rainbow, the Songsmithknew when he came at last to the cross-roads and,through a bushy lattice, glimpsed bright-coloredmantles and divined that Brynhild had ridden outto meet him.
Feigning that she had checked her horse onlyto give her pages more time to search the soddenthickets for flowers, she was lingering between thebudding walls of the lane, herself very like a springflower in her wrappings of leaf-green. When thehorseman appeared at the head of the lane, herfirst impulse was plainly to wheel and ride awayfrom him; her second, to draw her queenful selferect and flash such lightnings from her eyes’ graysky as should strike dead any presumptuousthought.
But he had no need to tame his joy for it hadmounted to that height where it was changed intoa delicious terror. Almost was it beyond hispower to salute her, to answer becomingly themerry welcome of her women. When at last hehad reached her side and dismounted to receive hergreeting, the touch of her white hand lighting birdlikeon his brown one made his fingers tremble sothat she could not fail to mark it.
A moment it seemed as though the blissful panicwould even fall on her, so speechless she sat beforehim, the wild-rose color blowing in her cheeks.199But even at the first hint of a surprised pause inthe women’s chatter, she recovered herself, andspoke with gracious composure.
“The weeks have seemed long without yoursongs, my friend. They say my brother has begunto suffer in his temper through missing you andthem. Tell us if you gained enough pleasure bythe visit to make up his loss; and tell us about thebride, and how her mother likes her strapping newson.”
She said “us,” but after a little space of politepretence it became doubtful how much interesther maidens had in the telling. As if enamouredof the song-maker’s sleek black horse, they gatheredaround it to caress its arching neck whilethey listened. From that, they drew off to the sideof the path to pluck up young grass spears for itsrefreshment; then still farther off to the hedge oflilac bushes, gemmed with long green buds. Thetime came at last when all who had not slippedthrough the hedge had vanished around it, intothe road, whence the murmur of their voices cameback sweetly, blending softly with the tinkle of abrook flowing somewhere through the thicket.
It did not appear that their mistress knewwhether they stayed or went, save that she seemedto feel more freedom now in allowing her eyes tofollow their inclination to droop and rest on the200trailing sprays of fragrant buds with which thepages had filled her lap. Her lover neither knewnor cared. He rambled on without even knowingwhat he was saying, more than that it was somethingwhich held her listening while his eyes dranktheir fill of her exquisite face. He would havestood there gazing at her in silence, when he hadfinished telling of the feast, if she had not rousedherself hastily to end the pause.
“It has the sound of a song come true,” shesaid. “I wish I had better tidings to give in returnthan this which you will think bad, that yourlittle foster-brother has deserted my service forOlaf’s, Thorgrim’s son.”
“For Olaf’s!” he repeated in surprise. “Whatpossessed the cub?”
“It surprised me also,” she assented, “for sincehe came to me, we have never been apart either inword or deed. Yet Olaf looks grand in his eyes,and lavishes on him a great store of gifts andprivileges. I am afraid he will get spoiled by it.”
His straight brows joining, the Songsmith gazedbefore him reflectively.
“I wonder if it would have been better had Itaken him with me?” he mused. “Yet would ithave been to Erna a lasting sorrow to see thechange in him.... And it would have made himset greater store by himself to see their mean201clothes....” His musing branched unconsciously.“It is a poor place, the Tower, yet I would nottrade it for the Jarl’s house to be born in.”
“Tell me how it appeared to you now?” sheasked him, smiling. “The Tower that let the windblow in all the year around! Did it stir your wildblood so that it became a hardship for you tocome back to walls?”
It seemed that she saw the danger of such aquestion as soon as she had given it voice, for shehalf put out her hand to snatch it back. But heread the meaning of the gesture and obeyed it.
“It was no hardship to come back, Jarl’s sister.... Yetthe place had never seemed to me so fair.When I came home to it, that day after it hadhappened to me to meet you in the forest, I sawonly its bareness and its poverty. Now it wasas a song, every stone a word to tell of my father’slove. I never knew a greater love among allmen upon earth. Night after night, while theothers slept, I walked before the gray pile and readits runes. Great bowlders are there that must havechallenged his strength to wrest from their bedsin the earth, which yet he wrestled with rejoicingly,since even so ingloriously he was conqueringsomething for his beloved one. The fragments overthe archways—— Could you but see, Jarl’s sister,the patient labor of their fitting! Never monk202toiled more devoutly with his brush! Night afternight, it was as though Rolf walked beside mepouring out his mind, so could I enter into hisjoy that knew his love returned. Knowing that,what was it to fight Hildebrand and twenty—forty—horsemen!Here I, his son, may not evenend where he began. I—”
He broke off because her hand had risen to forbidhim, and stood awhile with head bent andturned aside, his breath coming fast. But shedid not call her women as he had feared; he hadtime to master himself and begin again.
“The stones Rolf placed were the words of thesong; the memory of my mother was the music.When I said the Tower was poverty stricken, Iwas blind. More rich than an altar-shrine I thinkit, now that I know what a woman’s love maymean. Jarl’s sister, you could not even dreamsuch visions as my memory gave me to see inthe moonlight there!... Visions of my king-bornmother watering linen on the grass before theTower... bringing drink to Rolf as he rested fromhis labor... standing waiting to bear back thecup when he should have finished, the leaf-shadowsplaying on the soft masses of her hair....Waiting before him, Freya, the king-born! As Ilive, it looks to me now as if it must have been adream! Here, I cannot myself believe it.”
203“I can,” the Jarl’s sister said dreamily, thenstarted awake as she saw passion flame up in hisface past any checking. As a straw, it burnedaway the barrier she sought to raise.
“Brynhild! If you had aught to give me, itcannot be that you would hold it back! I willawait your pleasure. I will wrestle with theroughness in me even as Rolf wrestled with thebowlders, till I have made my mind a place moreworthy of your dwelling. But even as Freyacheered with her love the man who loved her,give me some token that in time your pride willyield! Some sign!”
“What would you?” she murmured. “Myhands—”
He seized them both, crushed them against hislips. But he stayed not at the arm’s-length shewould have kept him. Holding her hands, heleaned nearer; and the mystic might of springthrobbing in his veins purpled his eyes and heldher like a spell.
“Your mouth!” he prayed. “Olaf—Gunnar—fiftyothers—have had your hands. Your mouth!”
He knew not that he drew her towards him;doubtless she knew not that she yielded. Only,each knew that her lips were there before his, andhe had gathered their perfect flower.
“Bare is back without brother behind it”
The waning light falling into the Jarl’sbedchamber from its one small windowunder the eaves disclosed dimlythe figures of the priest and thecounsellor and the courtman, as theywaited in the middle of the floor, but showed littlemore than the mass of the high curtained bedthat stood under the window against the wall.The old advice-giver, declaiming before it, had thefeeling that he was talking into space, even whilehe knew that somewhere in the gloom beneath thehangings the young ruler must lounge listeningto him.
“Whether you take it well or not, you shall notkeep on in a false step for want of my foresight.Long ago I told you that the son of Freya, theking-born, was trying to get friends behind him.Now I tell you that he has got them. Courtmentag at his heels. Traders and guardsmen clinkhorns at the sound of his name; while the saying205runs that hunters show fight if they think that somuch as his cloak-hem has been trod on. In ayear more, he will have wormed his way into thehigh-seat. I foretell it.”
Mord’s voice rose to a wrathful climax; and thegesture of his knotted hands, when it looked asthough the silence of the bed was going to continueunmoved, suggested that he would like touse them on the sullen shoulders.
But the Jarl’s voice sounded presently in measuredaccents: “Has it come to your ears that menare speaking against my rule?”
Slightly appeased, Mord’s hands relaxed tosmooth his beard. “I do not mean that, Starkad’sson. You mistake me if you think I meanthat the fellow has yet power enough to get youdisliked. Well spoken of over all the land is yourrule. Only—”
Measured and relentless as the boom of surf,the Jarl’s voice sounded through his. “When ithappens that they do find fault, come and tell meof it; and I will listen patiently. Only about aughtwhich belongs to my life as a free man—”
A moment it seemed as though his controlweakened, as if measure might be lost in fury; buthe recovered himself and beat it out slowly to theend.
“Witness, priest! and Olaf as well! I know how206well-beloved the Songsmith is; and I know alsohow little loved I am. Plain as you, I see howproud my sister is; nor do I forget that she is myheir. Yet I have given leave to the son of Freya,the king-born, to woo and wed her and join hispower to her ambition. Judge from that how Itrust him, and take other counsel than to slanderhim to my ears again.”
Deeper than ever seemed the stillness when hehad ceased. All that stirred it was the gratingof iron hinges, as Mord jerked open the door whichled from the alcove-chamber out into the greatliving-room of the body-guard.
The action let in a rush of ruddy firelight thatillumined the counsellor’s bent figure from headto foot, made a leap at the silver rosary of theblack-robed priest behind him, a snatch at theshining lute in the hand of Olaf the French, andcame to a halt only at the edge of the curtainedbed. Gradually, amid tumbled cushions andblankets of fur, Helvin’s brooding recumbent figurebecame visible. Frowning at it, Mord paused.
“So, I suppose, it must be; but never yet haveI thought your behavior more untoward. I thinknow that it would have been good counsel if Starkadhad given you a voice in things here, so thatyou might have found out the danger in it.”
As one expecting an explosion, the priest involuntarily207shrank into himself; but what cameinstead was a sly chuckle.
“It has crossed my thoughts also that Starkadmight have managed some things better,” Helvin’svoice drawled. “I wonder how it looks to the oldtroll himself now.”
The advice-giver turned on the threshold to saywith sternness: “Young lord, is it in that manneryou speak of the honored dead?”
For all answer, there came from the bed a pealof mocking laughter.
Like one who dares trust himself no longer,Mord made a swift stride through the door andaway; and the Shepherd Priest spoke soothingly:
“Most dear lord!”
It could be seen that the Jarl lowered one of thefists propping his chin and turned and looked athim. He said presently, with ominous slowness:
“Are you going to take the text now, priest,and edify me with exhortations about honoringthe dead? If so, pray begin by explaining why aman should be honored only because he changesfrom serving the Devil on earth to serving himin—”
The priest lifted a gentle hand. Brawny shepherd’shand though it was, it had no lack of dignity.
“My lord and son, turn not your good gift of208speech to your own ill. I would in no way vexyou. That you were sorely tried under Starkad’srule was before all eyes. How should I who havenot felt the burden chide you that your back isweary? Only I would beseech of you that fairnesstowards him which we show to you, when inyour less worthy turns of mind we still rememberhow noble is your nature. Old sayings have it thatmen are wolves and bears in their Other Shapes,—itis but a turn of the cloak to hold with the Christ-faiththat the blackest-hearted man has a betterself within him. Believe of your father that he hada gentler spirit somewhere hid, that his life boundhim as yours binds you. Believe, and pardon.”
From resting on his elbow, Starkad’s son startedpassionately upright.
“Pardon,—and give up my hate that is as meatto my teeth! Priest, are you Northern born andknow not that such satisfaction comes from hatinga foe as makes the joy of loving a friend look likepale moonshine by red fire? My foe was what hewas—doubly my foe in that he owed me help—andblow shall go for blow between us. Pardonthat I may be pardoned? Rather than forgivehim one jot of his punishment would I share historture and count it gain! Rather would I burnby his side until that spirit which cannot be subduedby Norway’s rocks or Greenland’s snowwastes209or Iceland’s belching mountains has burnedout of both of us, and left no more than two deadcinders! Nor will I bear rebuke!”
“Nay, how should I do aught else than sorrowfor you who choose for yourself so hard a way?”the old priest said sadly. “Methinks my heartwould break over you if I did not know that evenat the goal of that road, at the end of that torture,One will stand waiting for you beside whose lovemine is but a taper to a star. His mercy be uponyou and save you from yourself!”
As a star through the night, shone his soulthrough his swarthy face; but Starkad’s son avertedhis eyes that he might not see it.
“Everything bides its time. When I feel desirefor that goal, it may be that I shall believe in it.You are an honest man,—do what you can amongmy people. For my malady, your medicine is toomild.”
With a hand raised in dismissal, he met the handraised in benediction and flung himself back on hiscushions, speaking curtly to Olaf, Thorgrim’s son.
“Do you sing, until I decide whether yourjingling or my humor makes the worst discord inmy ears.”
As a man wakened out of deep abstraction, thecourtman came to himself with a start. Thoughhe sought to cover it with his graceful bow, and210set his shapely fingers instantly to their task onthe lute-strings, his customary tactfulness waslacking. In the middle of the first verse of hisballad, the Jarl’s hand—that had come out intothe firelight and begun to pick and tear at thegold-embroidered flowers of the bed-hangings—flewup irritably.
“What the devil! Have you nothing but tinklinglove-tunes in stock? Do they rear their menin the women’s house in France? Some song ofmight—fire—you milksop!”
Murmuring apologies, Olaf tried plainly to regainhis wonted poise; but before he had got outso much as the first couplet of the battle-song hehad struck into, the hand had leaped from the embroidery,snatched his instrument from his holdand dashed it against the opposite wall.
“Fool! I have warned you that battle-songsare my love-songs,” Helvin’s voice rose in thunder.“To sing them to me when I am doomed to inactionis to heat the fever in my veins to madness!Oh, where in the Troll’s name is the Songsmith?The three weeks leave I gave him was up whenthe candle of the sun marked noon to-day; andhere the sun is burned out, and he has not come.What can he mean by it?”
Olaf laughed, neither mirthfully nor yet perfunctorily,but with the frank discordance of his mind.
211“Lord, who shall take it on him to say whatany one means at this court? If it were in France,now, I could interpret your relations well enough;but here—here you go not by any rules I know. Igive up the riddle.” With a gesture of less thanusual grace and more than usual feeling, he wentover to pick up his lute.
But Helvin spoke with unusual softness from thedarkness of the bed-curtains: “How would youinterpret our relations if you were in France,beausire?”
“Nay, noble one, it has no meaning here,” Thorgrim’sson answered almost impatiently, “herewhere no house reaches underground, and womencount for naught. There, men would say thatthe fellow had some secret of yours in his powerand you took insolence from him because youfeared to resent it.”
That he was aiming a shaft is unlikely for hedid not look up to see if the shot told, but wenton examining the broken strings, his mouth workinglike that of a man who is trying also to menda rift in his damaged composure. It was notuntil the stillness behind the curtains had lastedso long as to become ominous that he started asthough struck by a possibility, lowered the luteslowly, and slowly turned his gaze towards the recumbentfigure.
212Even the restless hand had been drawn in fromthe light now; crouching as for a spring, Starkad’sson loomed in the dimness. Like vultures hoveringover their prey, Olaf’s eyes settled on him,tearing their way in as though they would reachthe inmost places of his heart.
So they faced each other until they were startledby an outburst of jovial voices in the guard-roomwithout, shouting the name of Rolf’s son withwords of noisy welcome.
Straightening, then, Olaf made a salute of studiedmockery.
“Lord,” he said, “I will give place to your—confidant.”
The Jarl stretched out an arm grown strangelyunsteady, and spoke in a voice become strangelybreathless. “Wait! You think that I am afraidto make him smart for an offence? Wait a little.”
Surprise took some of the assurance from Olaf’sbearing, as he resumed his place at the bed-foot;then, in expectant malice, he folded his arms andleaned against the carven post to watch throughthe open door the song-maker’s buoyant approach.
Delayed by the questions rained on him, bythe hands thrust out to clasp his, Randvar waslong in making his passage through the hall; butthe alcove doorway framed him at last, a visionof light and of life as the fire-glow touched his213burnished hair and the new happiness in him rangin his voice of greeting.
The Jarl’s grim tone sounded doubly grim bycontrast. “However wroth I was before, now I amhalf as wroth again. What befits you, lazy-goer, ishumblest explanation.”
Accustoming his light-filled eyes to the gloom,the Songsmith had lingered on the threshold; nowas he was about to advance he stopped once more,attuning his harmony-filled ears to this discord.
“Lord!” he said in amazement. “Lord, whatshould I explain?” then, incredulously, “This cannotbe because I am a half-day late! No stresswas laid upon the time—no need of haste—” Hebroke off as his clearer vision separated Olaf’sblue-and-gold figure from the blue-and-gold curtains.“You here! Now is it likely that any lyingtale of yours could have worked this—Yetit is not possible, lord, that you would have listenedto him! That—”
Again he broke off; but this time with a smotheredcry as, turning, he beheld the face that Helvinthrust into the light. Gnawed and blood-streakedlips, it showed; while bright as the ruddy light inthe dusky room flickered devil-fire in the murkyeyes. They turned to keep watch of Thorgrim’sson, even while the tongue belonging to them addressedthe song-maker.
214“Is it not possible, boor that you are, that youcould have leaned too heavily on my favor? Olafsays justly that one would think I feared you hadsome secret knowledge of me, so forbearing haveI been. What! because out of my service I spareyou three weeks’ time—ill spare it—must youtake a half-day more? Without a word—a sign—andthen defend your fault with noisy voice andrampant head? Let me see you tame it. Speakme humbly if you would not push my temper tothe uttermost.”
And yet Rolf’s son did not throttle him,—onlystood looking at him with head lowered and thrustforward like a bull moose at bay. The hand Olafhad laid on his hilt, in the hope of being called uponto defend his lord, fell paralyzed. He doubted theears that brought him Randvar’s low answer:
“Lord, I entreat you to hold down your anger.Remember that we are not alone, and—”
“Call you that humbleness which would commandme where and before whom I shall rebukeyou?” Starkad’s son snarled. “Now do you standso stubborn as to think that I will hold back frompunishing you? Bend lower—low as your knee!”
Again Olaf made a hopeful move towards hissword. Again his arm fell benumbed. Rigidlyas a man of iron, Rolf’s son had knelt, his sinewy,brown hands gripping each other behind his back.
215Who was the stillest for a while it would havebeen hard to say—the Songsmith or the gapingcourtman or the young ruler, who stood wipinggreat drops from his forehead while his devil-likeeyes watched Olaf from under his palm.
“Are your French courtmen better broken?”he sneered at last.
Out of his trance Olaf came slowly. Drawinghis shapely form erect, he laughed mellowly in hisenjoyment.
“Jarl, I make you a hundred compliments! Theproudest king in France had not dared say one-halfas much to his meanest lackey. I make youa thousand apologies for my stupidity! I seenow that what makes the forester a comfort toyou is not his boldness but his meekness. I giveyou ten thousand thanks for the merry lesson youhave taught me!”
Bowing almost at the song-maker’s side, helaughed almost in the song-maker’s ear, and laughingbowed himself gracefully out of the room.
Swiftly as well as gracefully it must have been,for while the sound of the soft mirth was still in theair, the Jarl rushed forward with the snarl of a wolfrobbed of its bone, yet Randvar had time to leapahead of him. On Olaf’s heels, the song-makershut the door with a thunderous crash, and set hisback against it.
“He that guesseth, often goes wrong”
In the sudden darkness that shutdown upon them, the Songsmithfelt Helvin’s body dash against his,heard Helvin’s hiss at his ear:
“Let me after him,—do you hear?”
“Let you betray your state to all men? Lord,I have saved your secret—”
“I will kill him only for coming so near to guessingit!”
“Has all sense left you?”
“Off, or he will reach the hall-door before I cancatch him! Would you turn my wrath upon yourself?”
“Keep your wrath within bounds, lord, as Ikept mine. Do you suppose that after strippingoff my pride to wrap it about your cursed secret, Ishall allow your folly to undo—”
“Allow? Mother of Heaven! do you know whatyou are defying?”
217“Do you forget that I am not the rabbit-heartedthing I feigned to be—”
“Out of the way!”
Short as the word was, it was cut in two by theslam of the great doors at the guard-room’s fartherend. One breath Randvar let out in relief, thendrew in one in dread and braced himself for thegrapple.
But nothing came.
No use to strain his eyes, for darkness was nowso thick upon them that it carried a sense ofsmothering with it. He strained his woodsman’sear, trained to catch the lightest bending of a twigbeneath a fox’s foot, but not so much as the soundof a faintly drawn breath rewarded him. Delicatelyas a butterfly uses its feelers, he put out a finger,then, and found that the spot where Helvin hadstood was empty. More silent than the stealthiestwind that tries to creep unnoted through theforest, he had withdrawn to some quarter of thedarkness.
From his head to his feet, shuddering shook thesong-maker as his mind strove to follow thatwithdrawal to its goal, to picture him who stoodhidden there. The temptation to let in the firelightto show what thing he faced was so torture-strongthat he took his hands off the door-panels218on which they were spread out and locked thembefore him, and gave himself the relief of speakingHelvin’s name in a low voice, entreating, soothing.
No answer came. A windless cavern in themarrow of the earth’s bones had not been stiller.From the living-room without came the rattle ofknife and trencher, as the evening meal wore on;the clink of horns with the arrival of drinking-time;by-and-by, snatches of maudlin song. Eventhe shuffling patter of the thralls the Songsmithcaught through the oaken panels, but in the roomwhere he kept vigil, only the thundering echo ofhis heart throbbing in his ears.
Perhaps its pealing was enough to blunt hishearing. Though he detected no rustle of approach,his cheek was touched of a sudden by afiery breath, which like a poisonous vapor broughtwith it dizzy horror. The torture of two handsfalling stealthily upon his shoulders—tighteningswift to the grip of claws—recalled him for an instantto himself; then again his brain whirled, asa bushy thing that he knew for the mass of Helvin’sblood-red hair was pressed against his face.
Back from it he strained with all his might,fought it off with all the power of his toughenedsinews; but with a strength beyond the strengthof man, the hands drew him slowly steadily downward.
219Suddenly, to his mounting madness, it was nolonger Helvin with whom he struggled. It wassome being from another world, some namelessThing against which his gorge rose up in loathinghate. Twice he gasped out warning, then loosenedhis grasp on the bushy hair, wrenched out hissword and stabbed downward.
With the sinking of blade in flesh, a sharp unhumanscream rang out; the clutch on his shouldersloosened. Even before he could tear off thedragging weight and hurl it from him, it had fallenheavily, shaking the timbered floor.
Like an echo came cries from the guard-roomwithout, thunder of feet, clangor of weapons.Randvar was sent staggering across the room asthe door behind him was burst open by a dozenbrawny shoulders. On the threshold appearedVisbur, the grizzled old leader; behind him, two-scoreexcited faces.
On the threshold they paused, staring at thesight the inrushing firelight revealed,—Helvin Jarllying in a pool of blood; beyond him the figure ofhis song-maker, bristling-haired, a bloody swordin his hand. Half wrathful, half incredulous, theirvoices rose:
“Rolf’s son a traitor!”
But no thought had the Songsmith for them.On the face upturned from the blood pool his gaze220was riveted. It was Helvin’s face, unmarred, unchanged;in the gray eyes only unutterable anguish;anguish unutterable on the finely cut mouth thatwas trying vainly to form and send forth words.It was Helvin, his friend, that his madness hadlaid low. With a hoarse cry, he flung the weaponfrom him, and turned and buried his head in thebed-curtains.
As from a distance, he heard the scuffling of feetstaggering under a heavy burden, and felt the jar ofthe bed as they lowered their load upon it; but hecame back to consciousness only when stern handslaid hold of him and drew him from his shelter.He realized, then, the consequences of his deed ashe met the awful reproach of the looks bent onhim and saw the barrier of crossed spears that hadbeen set before him.
Visbur said: “Chief, there is no need for us towait for lawmen. Say only whether he is to beshot or hanged.”
Pushing off those who were trying to cut awayhis robe and find his wound, the Jarl dragged himselfup by the bed-draperies, turning a ghastly faceupon the room.
“Free him,” his lips made out to shape.
After a bewildered pause, the old warrior saidslowly: “I suppose what you are trying to orderis, ‘Slay him,’ not understanding that I said it221should be done before the clots on his blade weredry. All I ask, chief, is in what manner he is tosuffer death?”
With as much force as his half-swoon left him,the Jarl shook his head, repeating the words sothat there was no mistaking them: “Free him—andlet him to me.”
But even as the Songsmith turned, speaking hisfriend’s name unsteadily, Visbur made his mena sign; and the spear-wall remained.
“Hold him and take him forth,” the leadercommanded. “Starkad’s son has gone astray outof his wits. I will answer for the act when he issane again.”
“You will answer—with your life,” the Jarlsaid between gasping breaths. “While I live—Ishall have my way. And my luck is not so goodthat I am dying. It is no more than a flesh-wound.I swooned from—from my rage. Let himto me.”
This time he stretched out a shaking hand, andthe spears fell. In a moment the Songsmith waskneeling beside the bed, the arm that had so nearlymastered him lying around his neck.
“Tell them—enough. Enough to clear yourself,”Helvin murmured.
Around the circle of hard old faces that untilnow had met his glance so cordially, Rolf’s son222sent a beseeching look, then dropped his eyes indespair.
“Jarl, I could never say so much as to makethem believe me; before them I stand proved atraitor who has turned blade against his lord.And how shall I speak against the truth of thatjudgment? I am every man’s dastard. Lord, Iwould as lief go out with them.” His voice broke,and he did not seek to mend it.
But Helvin spoke as curtly as his faintness allowed,“Raise me up,” and when that was done,“Bring me wine.” From the beaker, he lifted a facepitched to determination.
“Let all listen to my words, that I need notspeak twice. He bore from me more than any ofyou would have borne. He lost his temper onlywhen I drove him to frenzy. He struck only tosave his life.”
“To save his life, chief? And you with barehands!” old Visbur said slowly.
Of a sudden, sick shuddering seized upon theJarl, so that his head drooped and sank. Buteven as they started towards him, he raised it—raisedhimself with the force of his passion.
“Now damnation take such loyalty!” he cried.“I have told you that he is not guilty as you think,—Iwill lower myself to no more explaining. Hegoes free because I will it. And if any man reports223this happening outside, so that even in people’sthoughts my friend be held up to reproach,that man shall be outlawed, and have my wrathbesides. Bear that in mind—and leave me nowto him—whose support I have always found best.”
Upon the song-maker’s shoulder he fell, spent;and the guard who went last from the room heardhis moan:
“My friend, my friend, this is that one thingthat could tear us asunder! It will be your lifeor mine.”
The man had passed out of hearing when Randvaranswered slowly: “If that be true, lord, thenmine is the life that will end. I know now whichwould be the easier to bear.”
“Cold are the counsels of women”
Blinded by the change from thehall’s unbroken shade to the court-yard’suntempered light, Randvarlingered on the threshold. As uponhelpless prey, the unsparing sunshineof the spring morning fastened on him and pointedout that his leather tunic had been dragged openat the throat and his sleeves torn out at the shoulders,that his face was haggard and his eyes bloodshot.The thralls, hurrying to and from the buildingswith fresh water and clean straw, laughedindulgently as they glanced at him, and murmuredone to another: “Behold a man who drank deeplast night!”
No more than if he had been wine-deadened washe conscious of their comments or their presence.He had drunk of misery as of a heady liquor, andlike a drunkard’s thirst for water was his longingfor the presence of the woman he loved. Seekingher—conscious only of his need of her—he made225his way across the glaring stretch of the court-yard,through the dim length of the women’s hall,to the shrine of her alcove bower.
Before he reached it, its open door gave himview of tapestried walls in whose dusky east amirror of silver-gilt hung like a rising sun, of white-robedtirewomen moving now and again acrossit, of the girl who stood before it while they finisheddressing her, her exquisite head agleamagainst the dark hangings like a jewel in its casket.His sense of beauty stirred through his heaviness,and quickened song-makers’ fancies in hismind.
“The web of her hair glows as the dragon’streasure glowed in the gloom of his den.... Asa pearl from a setting of red gold shines her facefrom her tresses.... As rare as a jewel is Brynhildthe Proud... as unbending... as untender....”
Into his longing crept something akin to wistfulness.He stood gazing at her in silence as—encounteringhis eyes in the mirror—she raised herhead with a motion of surprise. He wondered whyshe did not turn when he advanced, but remainedregarding his reflection and spoke as to the manin the bright oval.
“Has Freya’s son lost sight of my dignity, aswell as of his own, that he comes in disorder intomy presence?”
226“Disorder?” he repeated, looking for the firsttime at his reflection.
An instant he stood abashed before it, so didit jar upon the stately harmony; then the grimscene that had brought him to that conditioncame back and dwarfed everything else. With agesture of passionate scorn, he turned from themirror.
“Jarl’s sister, if ever it happen to you to reachthe sap of the Tree of Life, such things as clotheswill seem less important than cobwebs blowingfrom its branches!” he said, and whirling on hisheel, he turned and stood in the door, staring awaywith unseeing eyes.
Yrsa the Lovely, fastening a velvet pouch toher mistress’s girdle of filigree, let it fall with asoft thud; but that was all the sound there was inthe room until the Jarl’s sister began to speakcoldly to the other maids:
“I want to wear the silver neck-chain—No, notthat one—the one to match this girdle. Yes, that.And, Nanna, I wish you would bring me the kerchiefs,—allthat have a silver fringe.” As lightfootsteps answered her, and the rustle of silk, shegave other low-voiced orders.
Gradually, the calm routine brought the Songsmithback into touch with the world about him.Staring away over the whirring wheels, he told227himself that it must look to her as though he hadcome unsobered from a night’s carousal,—that itwas even better she should think so than guessthe true reason for his dulled wits. Girding uphis patience for this new trial, he turned backwearily.
“It is fair and right, Jarl’s sister, that I shouldhave blame for showing you aught but the brightside of my manners, which are tarnished enoughat best. I will take my leave now, and come backonly when the wine-clouds have cleared from mymind.” He was crossing the threshold when heroutstretched hand stayed him.
“I would rather you would remain, if you havenothing against it,” she said, then spoke over hershoulder to the kneeling tirewomen, who were makingthe arrangement of her train an excuse forlingering. “Maidens, you have done enough workon those folds. Go out now to your spinning,—exceptingonly Yrsa. Foster-sister, do you takeyour quill embroidery to that stool under the window,yonder.”
When she had seen them obey her, she turnedback to her lover a face whose expression he couldnot understand.
“I will begin by saying outright that you neednot try to hide the truth under the pretence thatit is wine instead of trouble which ails you. I228should know better than that even if Thorgrim’sson had not taken pains to let me hear how youwere likely to pass the night.”
In his mind he repeated the name of Thorgrim’sson, at first wonderingly, then vengefully; butaloud he said nothing, only continued to look ather in haggard suspense.
A moment her high pride wavered, her beautifulmouth seeming to struggle against tenderness.Coming up to him, she touched her fingers lightlyto his rent sleeves, his torn collar, the furrow betweenhis dark brows.
“It is seen that Helvin went even further, afterOlaf left! Do you think that his being my brotherholds me back from hating him?”
Two emotions the song-maker suddenly knew,—reliefthat the whole truth was still unknown toher, and a desire to delay those caressing fingers.Capturing them, he held them against his cheekwhile he asked her what had been said to makeher think the Jarl was behaving badly towardshim.
At that, her mouth surrendered to indignation.
“Enough was said—and more! I liked it wellto have Olaf fetch such news,—Olaf, whom I castoff in your favor! And he brought it around soartfully that I could not stop him until it was out.He said that because you had lingered that little229while in the lane, Helvin dared to upbraid you, tothreaten you—Now, I will not put it into words!He said that the Jarl spoke to you as a man darenot speak to his thrall, lest the slave turn,—andthat you did not turn!” She plucked her handsfrom his hold, drew herself away from him. “Hesaid that you took it submissively—that when hecame away, you were on your knees!”
No longer was she pearl-pale, but crimson withthe blood of her scourged pride. An instant herpassion reacted on him, so that his face reflectedher flush. He muttered that Thorgrim’s son wentheavily into debt for a creature that had only onelife with which to pay. Then the emotion passed,too slight really to stir his heaviness.
“Yes, I submitted to him,—” he said, “as a wellman puts up with the fretfulness of a sick one.Would you have a whole man contend against acripple? For that is what Helvin is when he speakstemper-trying words, a man crippled in his mind.What difference does it make? since you must knowthat cowardice could have nothing to do with mybehavior. I can think of much pleasanter thingsto speak of.”
Again a certain wistfulness came into his eyes,and he drew nearer to her.
“Let me feel that I have a peace land in yourheart, though all other ports are war-bound. If230I were in a death-swoon, the sound of your voicewould trickle into my ears like cordial and spreadhealing through me. Give me of its balm now—ofyour smile—your love.”
Another step he made towards her—then stoppedshort. For it was not as a minister of healing shefaced him, but as a Valkyria of battle, armoredin pride. Like spears she threw her words athim.
“As soon would I that you were a coward as achurl! Churl’s blood—Rolf’s blood—that mustbe what it is! Freya’s stock would have struckthe words from his lips though he were thrice ajarl. Now better be a coward than a clod, toobase to know it when you are insulted.”
This time the color that rose to his face remainedthere, a darkling shade. From under lowering lidshe stood looking at her.
“If you would not have me show churl’s bloodby losing temper with you,” he said presently,“I ask you to stop talking about this happening.So soon as Helvin got himself in hand again, hemade atonement; and that is an end to the matter.What lies on you, who say you love me, is to havefaith in my manfulness. And I ask you, moreover,to remember that you are fretting a churlwho has already been galled to the quick.”
She greeted the warning as a Valkyria might231greet a sign that her opponent is aroused. In hergoverned voice was the thrill of a trumpet.
“Lose your temper, then, as fast as you may,—andso find your pride! Half-way, I think it isgood-nature that makes you bend to him; andhalf-way, gratefulness for the favors you havetaken from him; though you have long knownwhat my wish is, that you should never look toany one else than to me when you stand in needof anything.”
Her satin-shod foot stirred with an angry impulse.“A fine atonement that is given in secret,while he chose that time when you were under theeyes of your enemy to put shame upon you! Canyou not understand, Rolf’s son, that you drag medown in your disgrace, since I have done you thehonor to promise to wed you? If you have nopride for yourself—for Freya’s name—make somefor me, that it be not told around that the manI hold highest in honor is a man Starkad’s son useslike a thrall!”
The Songsmith opened his compressed lips wideenough to let a question through: “Is this a sampleof the honor you hold me in?”
“It is the kindest treatment you will ever receivefrom me until you have wiped out this stain,”she told him.
Then because he did not reply to her, but folding232his arms across his breast, turned as though toleave her, she blazed out at him:
“The end of this shall be that you take yourchoice of two things! Either you go to him andrenounce his service, or else you go from me andrenounce the hope that I shall ever call you husband.”
He answered her then, his arms outflung likestones from a volcano’s crest, though his voice onlydeepened.
“May my tongue wither if ever I ask to callmyself your thrall! A bad bargain would that beto throw off a man’s rule to be commanded by awoman! Not though she be as fair as you, andI love her as I love you! I have sworn an oath toHelvin Jarl to stand by him as by a brother, andnever shall you egg me on to break it. If yourlover’s love is not enough, and you must have hisfreedom also, seek out a lesser man for your favor;for as God lives, my pride that you have scorned—beit king-born or churl-born—will never stoopto your rule!”
With the last word, the door closed behind him.
“But a short while is hand fain of blow”
Over field and fallow, through woodand meadow, up hill and down, on—on—on—thesong-maker strode, nogoal before him, only driving revoltwithin him.
Whenever road or lane made a turn towardsthe east, the glaring May sunshine struck him inthe face. Fending it off with his bended arm, heconceived a hatred of its stare, of the garish bluesky it fell from, of the bustling sounds it calledforth. On all sides they rose in a strident chorus,chattering birds in the hedges, screaming cocks inthe barn-yards, racketing children on every green,shrill-laughing women washing clothes at everypond,—even the shouts of distant ploughmen wereadded by the breeze.
In fitful gusts the warm dry wind went withhim like some romping oaf, now rushing aheaddown the road to beat up the dust with clumsyglee, now lying in wait around some corner to234pounce upon him with snorts of mirth and buffethim and wind his hair across his face. Strugglingwith it, his fury rose as against some boorish jester.He shouted in its teeth:
“If you had but a body that hands could layhold of—!”
The craving for combat—like fire it was fannedin him by the dry gusts. He drew breath sharplywhen following a narrow wood-trail brought himsuddenly into the highway and face to face withGunnar and half a dozen of the young courtmen.If they would but jostle him in their careless mood—somuch as kick up the dust about him—give himany excuse whatsoever— His mouth watered atthe thought of what would follow! Disappointmentincreased his rage when—after one look athim—they toned their familiar hails down to punctilioussalutes, and picked their way around himas around a fire.
His head set low, he was standing looking afterthem, when another wayfarer came canteringaround the bend behind him and almost rode himdown. He had seized the horse by its bridle andforced it back upon its haunches before he realizedthat the befringed and befeathered rider in blue-and-silverwas no other than his small foster-brother.
Releasing the bronze chain, he stepped asidewith a smothered oath.
235“You elf!” he said. “Erna’s luck will not lastyou long if you draw on it often in this way. Takeyourself on.”
Undeniably, the elf’s first impulse was towardsobedience. He had drawn in his chin and let hishorse carry him by, before he remembered his newdignity and pulled rein alike on steed and inclination.Like one adjusting new garments, he thrustout his chest and stiffened his spine as he turned.
“I must ask you not to call me by familiarnames as though we were still on good terms,” hesaid. “I find that it concerns my honor, while Iam page to the noble Olaf, to stand up for myrights with point and edge.”
The Songsmith’s impulse towards laughter wasstrong enough to send a note beyond his unmirthfullips. Then, as the splendid personage begansolemnly to clamber to the ground, he shook himselfirritably.
“Eric, you are not wont to be a fool—with me—andthis is a bad time to begin. Stay in yoursaddle and ride along.”
Either Eric’s flowery phrases felt the blight ofcontempt, or else no more of them had taken rootunder his curly hair. In silence he came on, hisrosy mouth screwed up to the point of his resolve,and planted himself before his foster-brother.
“You have got to do one of two things—either236make atonement for the blows I received at yourhand, or else cross swords with me,” he issuedhis ultimatum, with a circling sweep of his armtowards the longer of the two silver-ornamentedsheaths that were a part of his new attire.
Again the song-maker wavered between laughterand irritation, looking down at the manful swaggerin which the small legs were spread apart.
“Be good enough to say what use you could beput to after I had crossed swords with you?” heinquired.
The boy pushed back his curls eagerly.
“I told Olaf that I believed you would not beslow in understanding honorable ways!” he cried.“It is not my meaning that we should really fighteach other. Only that you shall draw your weaponand let me make some thrusts at you, andthen you can make some passes at me—easy ones—andafter that I will declare myself satisfiedand—”
“So that is the kind of stuff your new master isfilling your head with,” his foster-brother’s voicecrossed his. “If I were not afraid of losing mytemper with you, I would use the flat of my bladeon your back in a way that would not increaseyour dignity, but rather—” Of a sudden, whatpatience he had deserted him; he flung out hisarms in a gesture before which the small warrior237scuttled involuntarily. “Trolls, am I to be plaguedby a gnat when I am in the mood to attack giants?Keep away from me if you would not run the riskas to how it turns out.”
Pressing his fingers to his ears to shut out anotherburst of French-made eloquence, he strodeon, and stopped only to save himself from stumblingover the youngster, who had again thrownhimself in the way, dancing gnatlike.
“You have got to fight me,” he was shrieking.“I shall lose my credit with Olaf unless you do.I will cut your kirtle with my knife,—do you hear?I will cut off one of your buttons.”
Whether or not Rolf’s son heard the threats orthe grating of the steel against the gold, he felt thesharp jerk at his sleeve, and exasperation rose inhim. Before he well knew what he was about, hehad reached out and seized the boy by a leg andan arm and swung him high in the air. Only thathe realized what a toy the body was to his strengthsaved him from dashing it head foremost againstthe stones of the road-side wall, and recalled himto himself so that he tumbled it lightly on thegrass instead.
“Well that it was no worse! Do you want to bekilled that you try me so?” he cried under hisbreath, and turned to flee temptation before theblue-and-silver heap could right itself.
238Turning, he found himself within a dozen pacesof Olaf, Thorgrim’s son, who had followed his pageround the curve and sat in his saddle awaiting theboy’s fate with keen interest.
Not soon enough could Olaf hide the disappointmentthat had convulsed him on seeing Ericdropped unscathed. The Songsmith caught theexpression and read it and understood at last thesnare that had been set for him. Scorn broughthis rage to that point of white heat where hisvoice sounded curiously still.
“You—dastard!” he said. “So that is whatyou were plotting, that I should be fretted intoslaying the young one, and furnish you with theexcuse of avenging him. That is why you beguiledhim into your service—poisoned his mindagainst me—set him on me when you suspectedthat my temper would be raw.”
No answer came from Olaf’s parted curvinglips; only he leaped expectant from his horse andstood looking at his enemy, the glitter of his eyesheightened to a white glare. As metal bars underwhite heat, Randvar’s prudence lost shape andran. In the relief from its restraint, he ventedhis short laugh, plucking the cap from his headwith a fantastic flourish before he tossed it aside.
“Behold, how much needless trouble you took!”he cried. “Here have I walked the roads all morning239only in the hope of meeting you, caring nevera whit whether you gave me a new excuse or not!At any price would the joy of slaying you bea bargain. Shall I make it plain that I challenge?”
As a bolt from a bow shot his fist from hisshoulder, landing fair and square on the smilingmouth he hated. At sight of its marred line, itsstarting blood, he laughed again and drew backand unsheathed his sword.
Olaf’s curse cut the short laugh shorter, as hisbrand flashed forth. The next sound was curterstill, the jarring clash of steel on steel.
Far as sound could carry, it bore the news thatmortal enemies had met. Catching no more thana faint echo, Gunnar and his mates—far down theroad—whirled, crying, “The Songsmith!” and,“Thorgrim’s son!” and then, as with one voice,“Randvar is not his match!” and after that cameloping back, their eyes agleam. Sweeter thanharp-music, it filled the ears of the men wieldingthe swords.
Fierce is the thirst for water, but fiercer stillthe thirst for life. Parching his veins, it spreadthrough Rolf’s son. Now it seemed appeased ashe felt the parting of flesh under his blade, saw redwater rise in the well he had digged. Now he knewthe fiery pang of Olaf’s point entering his own flesh,240and the thirst consumed him anew. Kill! kill!kill! it roared in his ears above the clashing.
Olaf’s greater skill against his charmed body—itwas a fair game. To leave his heart unguardedthat Thorgrim’s son might lunge at the openingand in the act of lunging leave himself exposed—thatwas the way to play it; and he played withall his might, drove home each thrust with laughter.
Round the road-bend Gunnar came panting, followedby Aslak, and behind him, the others. Atthe ghastly glimpse they caught, through swirl-dust-clouds,of the song-maker laughing like amadman while blood oozed through every slit inhis slashed garments, they uttered cries of dismay;but he paid them back with jests shouted hoarselyabove the clatter. How could they know whatwild joy it was, unhampered as the sweeping furyof a storm! He would have wished never to endit, had he not feared betrayal by that oozing blood.If his strength were to fail before his vengeancewas complete—!
To the friends watching him, it was a welcomerelief when laughter left his face, and it set insteadin the stony lines of one rallying all his forces.Gripping his sword in both hands, he abandonedall pretence of defending himself, bent all hismight on beating down Olaf’s guard. Twice, theysaw the French One’s blade reach him and open241crimson gaps; but he seemed not to feel it. Stepby step, he drove his enemy backward until he hadhim at bay against a tree—until it wanted but onethrust to pin him there—
Why he did not give that thrust, the on-lookersknew first, who saw Eric spring forward with ashrill cry and strike his foster-brother on thebreast, plunging into his heart a knife he held.Then their wrath was lost in wonder that theSongsmith did not fall, only staggered backagainst the low stone wall and leaned there, passinghis hand before his eyes as a man trying toclear mist from his vision.
“Eric! It was never you?” he said.
But even as he said it, his glance fell to the reddenedblade in the boy’s hand; while Olaf jeeredhim over the heads of those who were holding himback, telling him that the fight was finished:
“You need not to stare at him. It is even asyou see; he has betrayed you.”
No more effort the Songsmith made to maintainhis weakening hold upon his sword. Slipping,swaying, staggering, he sank, nor struggled againstit. If friends had not been there to care for him,his life had surely passed out through his wounds’open gates.
“By bending most, the truest sword is known”
Across the court-yard came the Jarl’ssister and her following of white-armedmaids and graceful pages,and the evening breeze went beforeher like a herald. With sleepy sighs,the budding fruit-trees dreaming in the starlightbestirred themselves to offer tribute of fragrantbloom, made the earth fair for her treading, madethe air sweet for her breathing. Floating downupon her bosom, the roseate petals blended withit as flower with flower. Drifting down upon herhair, they lay like unmelting flakes amid its goldenfire. So wondrous lovely was she thus crownedthat Yrsa walking beside her had an impulse ofadmiring affection, and slipped a caressing handinto hers.
Immediately after she would have withdrawn it,making excuses for her boldness, but that Brynhild’sgray eyes came down to her as serene asthe starlit sky. Gathering up the timid fingers243with her own firm supple ones, she drew her foster-sister’sarm around her; and so they movedon together to the women’s house that awaitedwith open doors their return from evening service.Gaining the light that came through the dusk tomeet them like a golden welcome, the Jarl’s sisterpaused to look back and raise a warning finger.
“Keep in mind our guest,” she cautioned.
Soft as the rippling chat and laughter had been,it smoothed out now to waveless quiet. Withonly the swish of trailing silk, the rustle of feetthrough grass, they went up the bright path tothe door.
On the threshold they were met by the statelyold stewardess, who was mother to Yrsa and thefoster-mother of Brynhild the Proud. Cheerily theJarl’s sister accosted her:
“If he has changed by so much as the set of aneyelash, good Thorgerda, I expect you to tell mewithout delay,” she said. Then she took herhand from Yrsa’s, took a swift step forward, asfrom the lace lappings of the head-dress the oldface looked towards her somewhat soberly. “Itis not possible that you are going to tell me thathis heart-wound is serious after all! That thesaints would let it be so, when I have been dailyto their altars praising them for the miracle bywhich they saved him!”
244“By no means,” Thorgerda answered hastily.“Just after you left, I looked at it again; and ithas knit together as by a miracle during the sleepwhich has held him so strangely. But as I wasputting the bandages back, he came out of hissleep.”
“Ah!” Brynhild said softly, and put an uncertainfinger to her lips. “What was his mood?”she asked at last.
“I wish I were altogether sure, foster-daughter.If I tell the truth of him, I must say that thereis a squareness to his mouth which I—But youshall hear—But, first, be pleased to come in andtake your seat. It is not fitting—”
“I will not take time to put one foot over thethreshold until I hear what lies so near my happiness,”the Jarl’s sister interrupted her. Her foster-motherbegan without preamble.
“Thus it was, then. The first thing I knew, hehad put up his eyelids like a man putting off blankets,and was gazing at the embroideries on the bed-curtains.Then he saw me, where I stood nearthe head, and asked me slowly what place he wasin. I said it was the room in the women’s housewhither it was the Jarl’s custom to send sickcourtmen to be taken care of,—I thought itunadvisable to be hasty in speaking your name.And then—”
245The Jarl’s sister crossed the threshold to getnearer to her. “And then?”
“For a while his expression told me nothing.He lay so long staring ahead of him that I thoughthe was falling asleep again, and turned to leave.He has more strength than you would think likelyin a man so drained of blood. A rustle made meturn back to find that he had pulled himself upand was looking about for his clothes.”
A sound that was half a laugh and half a sobcame from Brynhild’s round throat. “His clothes!Those slashed and slitted—blood-sponges! Yetwhat said he when he saw what garments we hadprepared?”
“Nothing, foster-daughter. As yet, stained andtattered leather and gold-embroidered fabric areall one to him. I pointed out where they hung,and did not even tell him that they were uselessto him. As I had expected, he was not long infinding it out. With his first motion to rise, hefell back on his pillows, nor even argued with mewhen I proved to him how foolish he was to attemptto move. Yet if I know anything about theset of a man’s mouth, he will not do our biddinglong,” the old dame ended somewhat unexpectedly.
The Jarl’s sister made Yrsa a sign to help heroff with the lace scarf that lay around her shoulders,like a mist about a rose.
246“I will go to him,” was all she said.
If Thorgerda had any thought of dissuading her,it was abandoned upon a second glance. She spokeonly a word of admonishment as Starkad’s daughterturned towards the foot of the hall.
“So it shall be, then. Still it is good counselto tread softly. It may be that he is sleeping. Iadvised him to do so when I left.”
The girl nodded her bright head impatiently,then shook it at the thralls who sprang forwardfrom the benches at her approach. Hushing withher hands the rustling of her skirts, she hasteneddown the hall to the western guest-chamber, andgently pushed open the door.
The song-maker was not sleeping. Instead, hehad risen and dressed himself in the garments ofgrape-purple,—as the sheen on ungathered grapesthe precious embroideries were sparkling withevery move he made in the flickering torch-light.Under one of the fragrant juniper wall-candles,he stood buckling the last buckle of the tunic.From the task he did not look up as the hingescreaked, but seemed to take for granted that itwas Thorgerda returned.
“I beg that you will come in and close thedoor behind you before you make any fuss,” hesaid.
She came in and closed the door behind her,247without making any fuss; and he went on, his eyesstill aiding his fingers.
“While it is altogether unlikely that the Jarl’ssister would raise any objections to my departure,yet because Helvin sent me here it might be thatshe would think it her duty to make some protests;so I beg of you that you will not say anythingto her about my going.”
Again from the fountain of Brynhild’s whitethroat welled up a sound that was half of laughter,half of weeping.
“I will promise you that,” she answered.
He looked up, then; and from bloodless white,his face went blood-red. After a moment, hemade her the most ceremonious salutation at hiscommand.
“I ask you to understand that I mistook youfor your stewardess,” he said. “She was with mebut a short while ago, when I came back to mywits. It may be you know that I have beenout of them these days, or I would have gonebefore.”
To grope along the walls for the weapon that wasmissing from his belt, he turned away. She had astrange feeling that his mind was so far from heras scarcely to realize that she was there. Sheoffered the feeble commonplaces she might haveoffered a stranger.
248“Why should you leave? It is the custom forJarl’s men to be taken care of here.”
From his eyes that were like dark caves in theside of a snow-mountain came forth a flash as heglanced round at her. “That you have a pooropinion of me I know, but I did not know youthought me capable of making Helvin’s order anexcuse for quartering myself upon you.”
Feeling with his hands where the sword leanedin a corner, he brought it forth, and stood gazingat the highly polished blade. Once more she hadthe sensation of being forgotten.
“It is cleaner than it was the last time I saw it,”he said, “but I liked it better then. What is Olaf’sfate?”
She answered mechanically: “It is told that hestill keeps his bed at Mord’s house.”
“Is that true?” he asked wonderingly, and asmile that had no connection with her widenedhis nostrils. When he had laboriously buckledon the sword, he came unsteadily towards her.“All the thanks that are due to your women I pay,—orat least I pay all I have. If you will allow meto pass now, I will take the task off their hands.”
Some of her sense of strangeness was lost, then,in alarm. But even before she could tell him ofhis weakness, he was forced to catch at a chair’shigh back to save himself from falling.
249“And bid one of your servants give me hisshoulder across the court-yard,” he murmured.
“I will bid two of them take you by force andput you back in bed where you belong,” she saidindignantly, and turned to throw open the door.
Though he remained leaning heavily on thechair, he spoke slowly: “If you do—I swear to you—thatI will struggle against them—until everywound on me starts open.”
She took her hand from the door, but only tomake of her rounded arms a bar across it, defyinghim:
“You would not struggle against me.”
Holding to the chair-back he stood looking ather, at first in surprise, then with weary patience.
“I should have remembered,” he said, “that itwould be a part of your high breeding not to let mefeel that I had been a burden on your hospitality.”
Of one color were her cheeks and her rose-redkirtle, as she shaped her unskilled lips to pleading.“It was not Helvin who ordered them tobring you here. It was I who asked it.... Ishared the care of you with my women... andfound it... no burden.”
Lowered for the first time was the lofty bannerof her head. His gaze rested on it wistfully evenwhile he continued his slow progress towards thedoor.
250“My wounds have made you wondrous kind,”he said. “I have heard it told that such crimsonmouths, for all that they are tongueless, are fullof eloquence for women. But you see that theyare healing fast. It would not last much longeranyway. Let me go while I can.”
Pain sharpened his voice, yet his hand was inevery way gentle when he put aside the living barthat dared not tempt his weakness by overmuchresistance.
Almost in fear she looked up at him. “Randvar!Has it happened that this has slain yourlove for me?”
He touched with his lips the wrist he had taken.“I wish it had done so; then I should dare to stayand sun myself, and take it easily when, to-morrowor the day after, the skies change and youstorm me forth with hard words—”
“Never, my loved one! Never again!” Aprilfaced,she leaned towards him. “It will alwaysbe good weather for you now. Always! You asong-maker, and doubt the summer because of astorm or two!”
“It must be because I am a song-maker thatI have had faith in so many things,” he answered.“It is mercy I am asking of you, Brynhild. Youhave so much for my body,—have a little for mymind, that since first I saw you has been a leaf in251the wind of your moods. Let me go while I can,before your fairness knits the net once morearound me.”
As gently as might be, he gathered her otherwrist into his clasp, and holding the two in onehand, laid the other on the door. She dared notstruggle with him. But one way was left her.Light as the apple-blossoms float down, she driftedto her knees.
“My friend, you prayed me once to let you staybecause to you it meant so much and to me—youthought—it meant so little. I beg the boon backfrom you. Stay, because it will be easy to youwho are so generous in giving, and to me it wouldbe so hard to give you up.”
As he had done that day in the road, he passedhis hands before his eyes to clear them.
“This—and my blood on Eric’s blade—are thetwo last sights that ever I thought to see,” hemurmured. “Yet since that one was true, itmay be that this other is.” Looking down at her,a faint smile touched his mouth. “What dream-mockeryto see you so,—you who twist me betweenyour fingers like any willow out of the forest!But your work will seem better to you if you haveyour way in this. Until your mind changes, then!”
Releasing her, he sat down on the stool besidethe door, his elbows on his knees, his head on his252hands. From kneeling, she sank into a sittingposture on the rush-strewn floor beside him, gladperhaps to hide her face against his sleeve. Itwas he who kept their footing against the swayingshimmering dream-river that seemed to riseabout them, and forded it at last to the shore ofreality.
“Yet what right have I to a place in your hall,who have made myself an outlaw?”
Stifling a sigh, she walked on land again.
“It is unlikely that you will be banished. Inthe teeth of all the lawmen, Helvin has refused it.And while it may not turn out to your honor withthe advice-givers, I think the Jarl will push itthrough by boldness. To-day, he rode out himselfto seek counsel from Flokki of Iceland, whois the greatest man for bending the law to hiswishes. I might be tempted to reproach you fordoing this joy to your foe, my friend, if I did notguess that I have some blame for your temper.”
Perhaps she wanted to lure him into taking herpart against herself, but he did not even see thebait. Through the hands still supporting his head,he spoke absently.
“You had not the most share in the matter,Jarl’s sister. For the hardships he dragged meunder with Helvin, I should have followed upOlaf; and on top of that, there was the trap he253baited with Eric. Eric! Who would have believeda false heart grew in the boy!”
Looking up through his hands, she saw howbitter his mouth had become. Of a sudden sherose and pressed her lips to it, as one who woulddraw poison from a wound.
“The little viper! Never think of him!” shebreathed.
Whether it changed his look she did not see, foreven more quickly she dropped back and hid hereyes upon his arm. Only she knew that he sat along time looking down at her.
“At least you cannot take the memory of thatfrom me. Give you thanks for that!” he said atlast, and for an instant she felt the touch of hislips upon her hair. But he ventured no furthercaress. When he spoke again, she knew that hisgaze had gone back to the rush-strewn floor.
“What I should do is to be grateful that I washindered from killing the boy. To have had thatnews come to Erna’s ears—” She felt the musclesharden in his arm with the clinching of his fist.Then he went on somewhat anxiously: “Yet shewould like his deed little better. I hope there isno likelihood of her hearing of it. It seems thathe has not fled to the forest, since you say he wasbefore the lawmen. I suppose Olaf has taken himunder his safeguard?”
254She shook her head without raising it. “Youdo not know Thorgrim’s son, if you think hetroubles himself about a tool after it has servedhis purpose. In the first place, he prevented theboy from running away that he might send himas a witness before the lawmen. Then, when thathad been accomplished, he resigned him willinglyto Helvin’s demand. Nothing has been done tohim as yet, for it was not until to-day that theherb-woman would say how it was like to go withyour life—so has your heart-wound puzzled everyone—butto-morrow they are to take him out andhew off his hand—” She broke off in a gasp, asthe Songsmith’s fingers crushed her arm unknowingly.
“Ill will it be, then! Do they forget that he isbut a child?”
The eyes which she lifted to his were Valkyria’seyes, that would look without flinching on thetorture of a friend’s foe.
“Now you argue like the goddess Frigg when,because it was young, she allowed the mistletoe-bushto become the shaft which killed Balder theBeautiful. If you had got your death from theboy, Helvin would have had him slain,—and itwould have been rightly done!”
The song-maker’s broad shoulders shrugged asonce more he leaned forward upon his knees.
255“Though it may sound less well to your ears,Jarl’s sister,” he said dryly, “the true reasonwhy Helvin is set against the boy is because theyoung one was the hinderance in the way of mykilling Olaf. Is it also out of love towards methat Eric’s friends have failed to help him? Oris it another reason that no one dares to go againstthe Jarl’s pleasure?”
“It might be that and yet be no shame totheir manhood,” she answered suddenly, and putback the clustering masses of her hair to lookat him with earnestness. “An unheard-of thingis his temper becoming, Randvar! The eveningafter the duel, he rode out to Mord’s houseand went in where Olaf lay and stood for thespace of two candle-burnings staring down at him,without speaking, only tearing his mantle betweenhis teeth. And yesterday when he was here, heput to me the most unexpected question. Heasked me if ever I saw our father in my sleep, orin dark corners. And when I said, ‘By no means,’he laughed—cold trickled over me at the sound!—andmuttered that Starkad showed favoritism ingiving all the visits to him. Heard you ever anythingto equal that in strangeness?”
“Never,” the song-maker assented. But hesaid no more, nor moved so much as his bentshoulders. After a glance up at him, she began256studying his face from the ambush of her hair, andsank so deep in musing that she started when hespoke.
“Where have they caged the cub?”
“In that storehouse loft, which has been thoughtbad enough to be a prison since a guard killedanother one there by pushing him through thefloor-hole so that he drowned in the beer-vat below.”She came further out of her study to slipher hand into his, where it hung between his knees.“Laugh if you will, my friend, still I shall hold itfor true that no one has freed the little snake becauseno man will lift a finger for one who hasinjured you. Only bolts keep the door—no guardstands watch there—any could have helped himif they had a mind.”
He did laugh, shortly and suddenly; then pressingher hand, he released it and stood up.
“By this time, the Jarl will have returned fromFlokki’s; and I will go to him.” As she rose swiftly,he lifted one of her silken braids and laid itlightly across her lips. “Noble maiden, I am awild hawk that has been caged over-long. Let mestretch my wings, and I shall come back all themore gladly,—if so be your kind mood lasts untilto-morrow.”
Above the shining bar of her hair, her colorflamed so brightly that she was fain to extinguish257it upon his breast. Her words came to himfaintly:
“Will you believe, when I tell you that I havemade this plan,—that to-morrow shall be our wedding-day?”
He stood a long time looking down at her, thensaid slowly: “If—after this—you fail me, I shalllose the wish to live.”
“If ever I fail you again, I give you leave todie,” she answered.
Then she let him take from her mouth a kiss offarewell; she clasped behind her the hands thatwished to hold him back, and let him go forth intothe starlit night.
“Need proves a friend”
Steep as the way to Heaven seemedthe steps of the prison loft as Randvardragged himself up them; yet hedared not pause on the unshelteredlanding, but goaded his nervelessfingers on to their task of drawing the bolts.Whining, the rusty bars yielded, and he staggeredinto the musty gloom. Closing the door behindhim, he leaned against it to recover his breath.
Across every corner of the huge one-windowedroom, the spider Night had woven dense shadows.Like a small blue fly in the meshes of a black web,Eric was curled upon the straw-littered floor,—aforlorn and crumpled fly with limp legs and gaudywings adroop. To stare at the opening door, hestarted up; but recognizing the Songsmith in thewink of time that the tall form was silhouettedagainst the starlight, he tipped over again, hidinghis face upon the straw as though he would burrowinto it, while his voice rose in a muffled wail:
259“Oh, foster-brother, do not be angry with me!Do not be angry with me!”
“Come here—and give me your shoulder—tothat bench yonder,” Randvar commanded betweenbreaths.
When it had been twice repeated, the boy obeyedshrinkingly. As soon as he felt the weight lightenon his shoulder, he would have drawn back intothe darkness again if the hand had not slippeddown his arm to his wrist and held him. Hecurved his other arm before his face, then, and beganto wail anew.
“I beseech you not to scold me! I have had allthe blame that I can stand!”
“I am not going to scold you,” the song-makersaid wearily. His head had fallen back heavilyagainst the wall behind him, and his eyes wereshut. “It has happened to older people than youto think that the man who gives them hard wordsis their foe and the man who smiles on them istheir friend. If you have not found out yet thatyou behaved badly, no good is to be had from talkingabout it.”
The boy burrowed further into the bend of hisarm.
“I hate Olaf,” he sobbed.
“It is likely that you do now, since he hasstopped making much of you,” the Songsmith260returned sternly, “still it should be rememberedfor a while longer that you thought enough of himonce to try to take my life for his sake.”
Wriggling, the culprit tried hard to pull away.“Now you are scolding me, though you said youwould not. You know I did not mean to stabyou.”
His foster-brother shook the arm he held.“Never lie to me, Eric!”
“I am not lying to you,” Eric lifted up his voiceand wept. “Never did I lie to you in my life,—noteven though I had meddled with your skin-boatand you were trimming a willow switch asyou asked me about it. If you had any sense, youwould guess that it had gone out of my mind thatI was holding a knife. I thought I was strikingyou with my fist,—and for that you cannot throwblame on me for you have told me yourself thata man must be loyal to the lord he has chosen, andOlaf says the Devil gets all pages who do not fightfor their masters. I thought that if I attackedyou, you would turn on me, and he would get achance to recover himself and—”
The Songsmith brought him nearer by the wristhe held, and drew down with his other hand thearm shielding the woe-begone face.
“Say that over again, Eric, while I look in youreyes.”
261They were swollen eyes, and now resentful andnow beseeching, but clear as blue lakes to show whatlay under them. Before the explanation was halfrepeated, his foster-brother showed that he acceptedit by drawing him into a close embraceand holding him so. Feeling the encircling armchange from a shackle to a caress, the boy subsidedon the broad shoulder and wept there unrestrainedly.
“Tell them that you do not blame me, so theywill not look at me the way they did. You cannotimagine how they behaved! When I metsome of my best friends out of Brynhild’s house,not a maiden of them would speak to me. Andold Visbur said that the forest bred traitors likeacorns, and that they ought to hang like acornson the trees; and his eyes—you could not bringbefore your mind how his eyes looked!”
“I wish I could not!” the song-maker muttered,and shook himself as though he were a baited bearand his memories sharp-toothed hounds. But theboy pressed harder against him.
“You must not go until you promise me yourhelp. The guards will act in any way you say,—tellthem to let me go back to the Tower. If youknew how much I want to see my mother andSnowfrid!—and Lame Farsek and the others—wholook at me as if they thought well of me. I262cannot bear to be looked at the other way. Myheart will break if I have to see one of these hatefulcourt-people again. Until I get to be a man,when I shall come back and kill Olaf and—Foster-brother,you are not going to refuse me?”
He abandoned vengeance to press his facecoaxingly against the Songsmith’s, and try to forestallthe answer he read there.
“I beg it of you! You wanted me to go backto see Erna,—and now I will do everything sheasks of me. Foster-brother, listen! I will not onceforget to chop the wood or fetch the water. I—Listen!If I do, she can tell you and you can—”
“What I am trying to say,” the Songsmithmade himself heard at last, “is that my wordswould have no weight at all with the guards.Even the Jarl’s favor I dare not lean on this time—Standstill! I am not saying it to frighten you,only to show you that carefulness is necessary.The worst part of your bad fortune is past, for Ihave already planned it that you are to slip awayto-night. Yonder is the door with the boltsdrawn, and beyond the court lies an open road tothe forest. Some starlight is in the court-yard,but there are also many trees; and you havelearned Skraelling tricks of skulking. The nighthas only just passed its noon, so you are unlikelyto see any one,—but a beggar snoring on263the steps of the women’s house. You can avoidthe sentinels at the gates by getting over the wallwhere the Jarl’s stable shadows it. After you areonce in the road, you know what to do as well asI. Luck go with you!”
Before the last word was out, the boy hadreached the door; but the impulse was not quitestrong enough to carry him through it. Digginghis boot-toe into the straw, he hesitated, squirmingin evident anguish of mind.
“Are you going to stay here and be their prisonerinstead of me?” he faltered.
A light that was not starlight made the Songsmith’swhite face bright as he turned it towardshim. “You show in this that you have a goodheart, little comrade; but you need not troubleyourself. I do not intend that any one shall knowthat I have been here. As soon as you have hadtime to get clear of the court-yard, I shall go backand lie down under a tree, and pretend that I havebeen swooning there all night.”
Again the boy laid a hand on the door; thenagain he turned,—and this time he came all theway back and threw his arms about his foster-brother’sneck in a strangling hug. From somewhereunder the curly mop came the broken whisper:
“Say that you think as much of me as ever.”
264Tousling the yellow head in the old familiarcaress, his foster-brother gave him the desiredassurance and tried to disengage himself; but Ericclung burrlike.
“Never did I love Olaf one-half as well as you,—maythe Giant take me if I did! When are youcoming back to the Tower? Olaf says that theJarl behaves so badly towards you that one ofyou will surely kill the other, if you do not runaway.”
“If I were not unwilling to pay compliments toOlaf, I should say that truth came out of hismouth,” the song-maker muttered; then he putthe boy from him firmly. “Do you want to lingerso long that the thralls will be waking up andcoming out to catch you?”
Eric made one dash at his foster-brother’s cheek,flattening his face against it, and was gone throughthe narrowest opening of the door.
Like the patter of spring rain, the tap of his feeton the steps came back to the Songsmith. Smilingfaintly he followed him with his fancy, picturedhim holding himself down to creep across the court,then letting himself out as he reached the shelteredlane, snuffing in freedom until he broke and ran—ran—ranlike a homeward-turned horse.
“It will be some time before I shall be able torun,” he reflected ruefully, and began to realize265how exhausted he was now that excitement likea prop had fallen from under him. He shook hisknees irritably.
“Troll take a man’s legs, that will go back uponhim at such a time as this!” he muttered. “If Ido not look out, I shall founder here.... He hashad time now to gain the lane.... I wish I knewif the room is really darkening, as it seems, or ifit is only a trick of my eyes!” He tried in vainwith groping hands to sweep the shadows frombefore him, then to shake off the heaviness settlingon him.
“A grim jest that would be, to be caught withinthree strides of an unbarred door!” he told himselfwith an impulse of anger. Again he shookoff the heaviness, desperately; summoning all hisstrength, he rose to his feet.
One step he made, and part of another; thenhis knees sank under him as under a crushingweight; his body sank until his head rested on thefloor,—then it seemed that the floor began to sink!After that, he let the Fates have their way.
“What must be is sure to happen”
Coming back to his senses, the Songsmithlay awhile adjusting his memory....Once, he had fallen asleepon bloody grass and wakened amidthe silken fragrance of the women’shouse.... Here was another change.... Cobwebbedrafters and bare walls and heavy air asclose as the grave. He snuffed up a resentfulbreath of it—then forgot to exhale in the suddenlyadded consciousness that some one was gazingat him. Turning his head, his eyes met gray eyesstaring at him from a jungle of blood-colored hair.
On the bench to which the song-maker had beenhelped the night before, Helvin Jarl was now sitting,his elbows on his knees, his hands dropped betweento hold the sword with which he was stirring andprodding the straw of the floor. He laid the flatof the blade against Randvar’s breast as the Songsmithstarted up, forcing him gently back.
“Lie still. No one is looking to see whether267we go through with the foolish rules which somesimpleton has laid down. I have sent the guardsbelow.” He took the blade away as he felt thesong-maker yield to its pressure, sheathing it ashe went on: “Their state was laughable, betweennot knowing whether they should get my wrathbecause they had not at once carried you out ofhere, or because they had not at once slain you.See how they have tried to trim both sides of theirsail to the wind, by making you comfortable andat the same time holding you prisoner.”
He nodded floorward, and Randvar noticed forthe first time that a charger of food and drinkstood within reach of his hand, that a cushion hadbeen put under his head and a cloak spread overhim. At another time he might have smiled.Now his gaze came back with unrelieved gravityto the Jarl’s face that in some way was strange tohim.
“Which kind of behavior is most to your mind,lord?” he asked.
Clasping his hands behind his head, Helvin leanedback against the wall and returned his look sombrely.
“I am only just getting to know surely, comrade.When they brought me word this morningthat you had set free the brat who stepped betweenOlaf and death, there was a spell when my fingers268itched for your throat. You can see that I cameto you straight out of the hands of my shoe-boy.”He lifted one of his legs to show that the silk bandswhich should have been wound around it were stillhanging. “If the sight of your peaceful sleep hadnot fallen coolingly upon my hot humor, there isa likelihood that... that....” Though his eyesremained upon the song-maker, they set in avacant stare. “You would be lying there like anempty wine-skin... and I should be raving besideyou, trying to put back the wine I had spilled... seeing it creep away towards the cracks...feeling it slip slimy through my fingers.... Ah!”
The hand that had gone out groping before himhe dashed against his eyes as though to break thespell that bound them, springing to his feet witha wild cry.
“Why do I torture myself with what is not true?I have not slain you. You are alive, for all thatyou have the color of a dead man. Speak to me!Drive away this madness!”
White as the dead the song-maker was, as muchfrom increasing alarm as from the weakness ofhis blood-drained body; yet he managed to lift himselfto his knees and then to his feet, to standsteadying himself against the wall. Only hisvoice failed to obey his summons, so that he wasglad to have the pause filled by the thundering269tread of a man hurrying up the steps. In thedoorway appeared a guard, his spear gripped inhis hand.
“Jarl, was it for help you cried out?” he demanded.
A moment Starkad’s son held his breath, asthough the nethermost deeps of his mind must bedredged for adequate words,—then all words seemedto prove inadequate. Snatching a wine-flagonfrom the tray, he hurled it at the intruder’s head.The force with which it crashed against the doorframesuggested what it would have done to themark that it missed.
How the guardsman took his leave, Randvardid not see. Dropping down upon the bench, heburst into high-keyed laughter.
“Help—against—me!” he gasped, and leanedthere laughing until Helvin’s hand fell upon hisshoulder and shook him with friendly severity.
“Stop! That is the end of such laughter thatweeping follows it. Stop! Drink this.”
The pressure of a cup against his lip compelledobedience, and the draught brought some of hisstrength back to him; but the Jarl’s remained thedominating spirit.
“More of that is needed, and food in your stomach.I will be your dish-bearer for a change,” hesaid, and himself dropped down cross-legged on270the straw beside the charger that he might passup its contents.
Patient as the hand of a woman, his hand thathad sped the missile ministered now to his friend.Now and again, over crust or bone, Randvar metin the gray eyes a brooding tenderness that tightenedthe muscles around his heart.
It was a relief when Helvin’s mind began toturn away to musing, drawing him over upon hiselbow to lie staring into the empty cup he held,like a wizard reading fortunes in the wine-dregs.Dreamy as the note of droning bees, his voicesounded when presently he began to muse aloud.
“I only wish I could have found some excuseto give drink to Olaf.... Every moment I stood byhim, I was wondering if there was not some way....It would not have been necessary to kill him.One drop of the right herb-juice would be enoughto addle his wits until he could pass for mad.Whatever he betrayed, I should have only to shrugmy shoulders and tap my head. Conceive of hisrage! It would have been sport for a king!”
As a dog over a sweet bone, he put out thetip of his tongue and noiselessly licked his lips.Wincing, Randvar spoke hastily:
“Jarl, this is an unprofitable mood! Recall itto your mind that Olaf knows nothing to betray.”
From the folds of strange craftiness that had271been drawing over them, Helvin’s eyes looked updazedly. Then—slowly—the gaze that he metsteadied the flickering torch of his reason.
“Why, that is true,” he admitted. “I forgotthat he had not yet found the carrion which hisvulture-scent warned him of.... Still in the Fates’hands is that happening.... Only I can see it coming... slipping through their bony fingers....”In a mutter his voice died away. Stretched atfull length he lay in brooding reverie, so sombre afigure that the cup of dregs took on new suggestiveness.
The song-maker began to speak quietly, gazingout through the open door where the rosy snowof blossoming crab-trees was banked against theblue sky, and sun like golden wine steeped all thenoonday world.
“It befell me once to see a place far west ofhere where the earth had shaken and rent a rockin twain, and out of the chasm had leaped a brookof sweet water. So I think this happening withEric must have shaken me; for like a well of water,a song rose in my mind while I slept,—a songthat never had place there before.”
In the black morass of his musing the Jarl turned,lured by the will-o’-the-wisp curiosity.
“Never have I heard of a song coming in thatmanner,” he said. “Even you have always hammered272them out before. Has it risen as far as yourlips so that any of it could brim over into words?”
Though he continued to gaze out at the blowingtrees, the song-maker bent all his energies uponhis story-weaving.
“Little of it has yet got so high as that. Butit will be a song about the good which is in a maneven though his actions appear to be evil.... PerhapsI shall say that he had Thor’s wrath for turningto the Christ-faith; and the Thunderer cursedhim so that he had no other choice than to dothree nithing deeds, even though his mind wasnoble.... He will have a friend—perhaps it willbe a maiden—who is brave enough to believe in hishonorable mind in spite of the unworthiness ofhis actions.... I do not know yet what thosecrimes will be... except that the first must bethat he slays a kinsman—”
“Are—you—mad?” Starkad’s son said slowly.
With a start, Randvar turned. That the Jarlhad risen gradually from his place on the straw hehad realized, but he had taken it for interest.Now for the first time he looked at him. Looking,he sprang to his feet.
“What ails you?”
“Are you mad?”—Helvin repeated his slowquestion—“that you dare to make my life intoa song and tell it to my face?”
273“Your life!” the Songsmith breathed. Then,even angrily, he swept the suspicion aside withhis arm. “Lord, this is an unbecoming jest!You must know that such a song would be trueof any man in the world.”
Futile as the dash of waves against a rock, thewords fell down unheeded. Unmoved as a rock,Helvin stood gazing at him.
“Has your swooning so dulled your wits thatyou really cannot see that to sing that song inany one’s hearing would be to tell him that yousaw me murder my father?”
It was too late to check the words, though Randvar’sarm had shot out in the attempt. Then hestood with his head gripped in his hands, like aman into whose mind a terrible truth is eating.As though he had forgotten he was not alone, hestarted when Helvin’s hand fell upon his breastand pressed him back upon the bench.
A strange softness had come into the voice ofStarkad’s son,—a softness from which the ear recoiledas the hand recoils from the softness of decayedfruit.
“Now I see by your dismay at finding how nearyou had come to betraying me that it was neithermadness nor treachery that prompted you, butthe awful knowledge working in you as the awfulguilt has worked in me. Of no avail to remind274myself that he brought it on his own head—thatI tried to keep away from him when I felt it comingbut he forced me aside with him, goaded meuntil I could no more keep hold of myself thanmy shaking hands could keep hold of the leash—Itmay well be forgiven you that you shudder! Imight have known that soon or late the horrormust work out of you. Yet am I glad that Itrusted you as long as was possible. Bear thatin mind about me, even though it must come hereto an end.”
With quick light step he went and shut the door.The sound of its closing fell ominously on the song-maker’sears, even as a sense of smothering fellon him with the passing of the glimpse of sky.He asked slowly:
“Is it my death-warning that you give me?”
Still with gentleness, Starkad’s son shook hishead. “Only what my safety has need of I take,—yourliberty. I will give you the comforts andamusements you may choose yourself—”
“Amusements!” Rough scorn was in the gesturewith which the Songsmith sprang up. “Whydo you talk thus, or what do you think of me?Do you forget that I am bred to no lower roof thanthe tent of the sun? Better might you cage aneagle and bid him be content with a branch wherebefore he had ranged the forest! But I belie you275in thinking it! Your sane self could never deal sowrongfully with me,—and you must be sane! Youmust be sane! No marks of the curse are on you.If you are whole-minded, listen to me! For thissong, I take the Cross-oath that it shall never passmy lips—even in solitude. Nay, I will dash it outof my memory! By your love, believe me!”
To take his hand and press and stroke it, theJarl came all the way from the door.
“Do I not believe you?” he said caressingly.“On your good intentions I would lay down mylife. It is luck that I dare not trust so much to.Did I not for a dozen years hide my curse so thatnot even my own kin dreamed it was there, onlyto have it burst out like smouldering fire at last?So would your uttermost effort be set at naughtwith such a secret pressing for outlet—”
Almost with repulsion, Randvar freed himselffrom the fondling hands, and pushed the otheraway that he might front him squarely.
“Jarl, as God hears me, I would sooner that youshould rage! It is not sound, this softness! Faceme like a man—or a devil—or anything but this!Listen, and I will lay the truth before you so thatno room shall be left for doubt to stand betweenus. If it rouse you to anger, so much the better!Lord, I never knew your secret,—only I let youthink so because in no other way would you believe276in my love. Of that hard happening at thePool, I saw no more than your struggle with thehound. That you loosed him on Starkad, I becomeaware for the first time—”
He broke off because it was plain that Helvinwas no longer listening. He stood gazing at hissong-maker, his eyes retreating deeper and deeperbetween crafty folds.
He said as to himself: “Love of life! Howstrong it must be in a mightful man like you!...Doubly strong since you have the love of themaiden that is dear to you.... It is not strangethat it should be strong enough to make you lieto me—”
“Jarl!” the Songsmith broke in fiercely,—butstopped, conscious that his voice could not carryacross the chasm that had opened between them.Only he could see across it the expression withwhich Helvin was regarding him; and more awfulthan the slyness of his half-shut eyes was the gazein which they were widening, the rapt gaze of onewho sees beyond the veil.
“Behold, what weird powers are allotted to me!”he said under his breath. “As through a key-hole,I can see through this lie into the hall of What IsTo Come. The next time fear pricked you, youwould lie again.... And then to keep off fear, youwould begin to act lies.... And after that it would277seem so natural that you would be thinking lies...lies... lies... till, like a worm-riddled boat, onlyyour fair shape would be left. You who were themost unlying and bravest-hearted of men! Ratherthan you shall come to that pass, I will slay youin your prime.” From the tangled mass of blood-coloredhair, his wide eyes turned slowly to thesong-maker, fired with crazy purpose.
Then at last Randvar understood that the torchof his friend’s reason—so often flickering, so oftenburned low—had been extinguished forever. Toshut out the sight of the ghastly ruin it left, hehurled himself against the wall and flattened his faceagainst the rough boards. Unreal as the mouthingof a vision, the caressing voice came to him.
“Does your heart speak so heavily about dying?Try if you cannot bring your mind to the mountain-topon which my mind stands. Then shall yousee that what looks to be a storm-sky is but acloud over one valley, while sun hallows all therest. I kill you when life holds much for you, yetsee this! I keep you from sin. I save your memoryfair for those who love you. Above all, I preserveour friendship from the first tremble of dissolution.A nobler tree than our friendship neversprang from man-clay. Would you rather see itwithered and decayed than laid low in all its gloryby one axe-stroke?”
278As from a man on the rack, a cry was wrungfrom the song-maker: “Oh, Powers of Might, mustit indeed end so?”
Yet softer grew the voice of Starkad’s son, tillit was hushed to the unearthly stillness of a forest-deep.
“Alas, how has the love of woman clouded youreyes, that were once so clear to see the truth! Yetthink not I blame the weakness of your flesh. Soshrinking is my own that, plain as I see the goodnessof the deed, I could not do it as we stand. Itis the working of fate that when my Other Shapepossesses me, I know no qualms. Until I come inthat guise, then! Yet before we part, press myhand once more in love. Friends clasp when theyseparate for a day,—shall souls sunder forever andsay no farewell?”
It was a strange embrace; for in the eyes ofStarkad’s son, the doomed man was as one dead;and to the mind of the song-maker, his friend hadceased to live. Like the sound of a clod upon acoffin-lid was the sound of the door closing for thelast time between them.
“Those live long who are slain by words alone”
In a black tide night had risen, submergingthe farther windowless endof the great loft, blotting out thesides and corners of this end. Likea raft of light afloat upon a sea ofdarkness was the bright square which the moonlet fall from the window under the eaves; and nowand again, like a shipwrecked mariner, the song-makerrose out of the engulfing blackness andstood in the light, reviving himself with the sightof the infinite wind-swept sky. Deeper and deeperinto his spirit cut the thongs of the trap thathad caught him. Ranging his prison up anddown—up and down—his step was the ceaselesshurried tread of a caged tiger. Higher and higherrose the frenzy of impulse to hurl himself againstthe walls and batter them with hands and feetand head till they or he gave way.
It bent him at last to a thing he scorned, drove280him against his will to the door, wrung from hima hoarse appeal.
“Visbur! I cannot meet death like a fox in hisearth! Let me fight my way out against yoursword. It will come to the same in the end!”
At first it was only the clang of a spear on thelanding outside that answered, so slow was theold guard’s voice of irony.
“Why do you talk of dying, Rolf’s son? Surelyyou heard the Jarl say that you are only held hereto appease the lawmen who want your punishmentfor challenging Olaf.”
Upon the cross-bar of the door, Randvar’s handclinched. He had forgotten that the Jarl wouldcloak his purpose in that excuse. After a momentVisbur spoke again, this time with biting contempt:
“You need not think, however, that I put morebelief than you do in that reason. A witless thingwould Helvin’s justice be, to forgive you two attacksupon his life and then imprison you only forchallenging your foe or loosing a worthless cub.Likely he is afraid to take open vengeance becauseso many people are fooled by you as to stand yourfriends; and therefore—even to me—he makes thispoor excuse, and adds an order that no others ofhis household shall even know that you are here,but believe that it is still Eric that I hold prisoner.281He might make himself easy that no guardsmanwho saw you as you stood over your chief’s woundedbody, with a bloody sword in your grip, wouldlift a finger to save you from torture.”
The song-maker’s voice sounded strange to himselfas it came out of the darkness in which hestood: “Only grant me to die a man’s death! Youcan say that you looked in to see how it wentwith me, and I tried to force my way out, and youslew me. Only that, as you were Rolf’s friend!”
The force with which Visbur’s spear came downupon the landing made up for the low key in whichhe was obliged to pitch his voice.
“Do you know how I could find it in my heartto behave because I was Rolf’s friend? Becauseyou have stained an honorable name with traitor’sdeeds, I could see you hanged like a dog. Nevermake so bold as to speak my name again.” Suddenlyhis feet went thundering down the steps,and his spear could be heard striking against theside of the house as he took up a new post below.
As suddenly, Randvar moved away from thedoor; and with his coming into the moonlight itcould be seen that he held his sword naked in hishand. When he had stood awhile looking downat it, he set its point against his heart; and then hestood for another space with musing eyes fixed onthe gleaming blade.
282To slay one’s self, to run away from the fight—howcould that be aught but the act of a coward?And yet to die in a fit of mad terror—with shakinglimbs and blanched cheeks and reason overthrown—wasthat a death for a brave man? Muscle bymuscle, his grip on his sword tightened; and thenmuscle by muscle it relaxed; and he stood arguingit over and over.
Deaf to all but that inner strife, he heard neithervoices at the foot of the steps nor the tread of feetascending. The sound which he had been dreadingcame at last and even that he did not know.Like the rattling of the casement in some wanderingbreeze it befell at first, and then slowly it revealeditself for the fumbling of unsteady fingersupon a bolt. Only when a river of moonlightstreamed across the floor at his feet did he startawake and turn his head.
On the threshold, dark against the silver night,stood the man who had drawn the bolts. A hoodconcealed his face, but massive shoulders showedunder his cloak; and over one of them could beseen the mailed form of Visbur drawn up in respectfulsalute. Though it was but a flash of timebefore the door had closed behind the muffled figure,merging its dark drapery into the darkness ofthe wall, the song-maker felt no doubt of thevisitor’s identity. Indeed, almost the only thing283he felt—amid the sudden stiffening of his musclesand chilling of his blood—was wild relief that foronce his wits stood firm. Pitched to utter recklessness,he flung his sword from him as at sight ofthe bare blade a smothered cry came from theother’s wrappings.
“Have no fear that that was meant for you!”he said, and his strained voice vibrated as withdiscordant laughter. “Easier were it to be slainby you than to bear the burden of being yourslayer. Have your will with—”
Like over-strained wire his voice snapped, andhe did not gather up the ends. Only in passingthrough that strip of shadow, the man had becomeanother man; and it was the Shepherd Priest whostood revealed in the moonlight.
“I bring you life and not death, my son,” hesaid gently. “Nor was it in my head that Helvinmeant to push the matter so far, even though hissister told me that it had stirred his unreasoningwrath against you that you set the boy free. Godis to be twice thanked that I can at once save mylord a crime and you a wrong! Yet no long spaceis given me to do it in.”
Moving on up the room, he bent and swept thestraw away from the middle of the floor. Acrossthe long cracks of the boarding showed dimly thelines of the wooden hatch that had been set in284the hole through which—in the days when theprison loft had been a store-chamber—the hugevat below had been refilled each brewing season.Easily as one pries the head out of a barrel, hepried up the clumsy door and laid it back fromthe opening.
Like a half-hanged man whose body has beencut down in time but whose emotions have goneon out of the world of the living, the Songsmithremained gazing at him.
“Even if it had happened to me to rememberthat place,” he said slowly, “I should have beenso sure that it was fastened on the under side thatI would not have thought it worth while to try it.”
“It was fastened by bolts on every corner untilI drew them,” the Shepherd Priest answered.
Dusting his hands upon his cloak in an unconscioushabit from his youth, he came back to themoonlight and began to give further directionsfor the carrying out of the plan he had made, hisquiet tones as well-fitted to seem the voice of apriest preparing a sinner for death as the voiceof a man guiding a brother man to life.
“For much talking I have now no time, buteverything lies on your understanding this much.Listen then, my son! So soon as the door closesupon me, let yourself down through the opening,—Iwill keep the guard in talk to cover any noise285you may make. The door at the back you willfind ajar, and an oak’s shadow screens the entrancefrom without. That oak clump, and theshadow of the wall, will make it easy for you toreach the western gate, where a man stands guardwhose love for you has got in his eyes so that hewill not be able to see you as you pass. Whenyou reach the lane outside—But it will turn outthat I reach that before you do, since my roadneed not be so roundabout—”
Upon his speech fell the sound of Visbur’s greatfist on the door. He broke off to lay hands uponthe song-maker’s shoulders and press him downupon his knees. It was a benediction that hewas saying over the prisoner when the door openedand the brass-bound head was thrust in. Itsowner said gruffly:
“Good luck go with your prayers, since for loveof my soul I let you up to him! But I love mybody also, father; and the risk to that gets greaterthe longer you stay.”
“I was even now coming,” the priest answered,turning; and Visbur lost no time in fastening upbehind him.
As one trying to rouse himself out of a stupor,Randvar arose and stood shaking back his hairand opening and shutting his hands. As onein a dream, he heard the old man’s unsteady steps286following the guard’s rapid descent, heard thegentle voice pleading with the gruff one. Thenof a sudden his wandering glance fell upon theblack gap in the floor—the loop-hole in what hadseemed a dead wall. Like the leap of flame throughsmoke leapt his blood through his dulness, parchinghis throat, roaring in his ears. Now it wasto restrain frantic eagerness that he crushed hislip between his teeth as he swung himself swiftlythrough the opening.
A fur-bale that had been placed at the bottomof the now empty vat received him without noise.Drawing himself up to the top of the wall whichthe vat’s side made, he balanced there until onthe darkness shrouding him he had found thethread of silver light. Using hands, then, in placeof eyes, he climbed out and groped his way betweenbales and boxes and barrels to the doorthat had been set ajar, drew it open and steppedthrough it into the moonlight, and then steppedaside into the shadow of a giant oak that grewthere.
Lifting the damp hair on his forehead, the nightwind met him freshly. As to meet the lips of awoman, he lifted his burning face and spreadwide his arms. For that long a space, his heartsang a song of wild exulting.
For that long—but for no longer. Around the287great bole of the oak, looming dark beyond a silversea, he glimpsed the silent mass of Brynhild’sbower. Brynhild! And this should have beentheir wedding-day!
His hands tearing at his collar to relieve theswelling agony of his throat, he had taken a dozenblind steps towards the silent pile before his sensescame back to him, before he thought to ask himselfwhat good would come of it even should hesucceed in making his way to her. She armoredin pride, and he an outlawed man! Like a sailwhich the breeze has deserted, his head sank; hestood becalmed.
When he looked up again, the lines of his whiteface had hardened as iron settling in a mould.
“Once in his lifetime it is well for a man to tellhimself the truth,” he said. “To lose me will strikeas near her heart as though she had lost a jewelfrom her ring—no nearer. Once she might lookfor it, once frown over the loss, once speak regretfullyof it,—and that is soon over! The memoryof my arms around her, the fire of her lips on mine,the dream of possessing her—what more could Ihope for? For the dreamer, a dream-bride! It iswell-befitting!”
A smile curled his lips that was new and ill tosee, as he looked his last upon the shrine of her heloved. Then he turned and walked on rapidly288over the tree-guarded path that led eventually tothe shadow of the wall and the western gate.
From a distance he glimpsed again the gray-cloakedbeggar, outstretched as if in slumber; buthe saw no other living thing until he saw the black-robedpriest move across the bright court and passout of the gate ahead, the sentinel making himreverent salute. Even though it had been foretoldhim, it deepened his sense of belonging no more to theliving world that when he himself reached the exitthe man remained gazing fixedly at the sky, and hedared neither greet nor touch him as he passed.
The gate gained and left behind, his instructionswere exhausted; and he would have halted to planfurther but that out in the radiant lane he foundthe Shepherd Priest awaiting him, his heavy shockof hair turned into a silver glory around his swarthyface. Moving down the dewy path beside him,the old man began at once to speak:
“One thing I think needful to say, my son; andthat is that I should not be less afraid of takingthis second step than of taking the first one, ifGod had not given me to see most plainly whatHis will is. I want you to know that one weekago He moved the Jarl’s heart to speak and callme as witness that he had solemnly consented inyour espousal of his sister.”
Randvar could not have replied if he would.
289His gaze had gone ahead to a blossoming crab-treethat leaned over the low stone wall and canopiedhalf the lane. Masses of snowy bloom wereits branches, and snowed over with petals was theearth beneath it, but that white shape movingbefore it—was that only another branch blowingin the soft night wind? Coming to meet them, itlooked like a girl in a thrall’s robe of white wool;but the queenful poise of the head—the glint ofred-gold hair as the light fell upon it—He putout a hand and gripped the old priest’s shoulder.
“Tell me how much this means?” he demanded.
She answered for herself, the girl in the bondmaid’skirtle, as she stopped before them; and in voiceas well as face she was Brynhild, the Jarl’s sister.
“I should have thought there was more risk ofa man’s forgetting anything than his wedding-day,”she said with lips that smiled through trembling.
Even then he dared not believe it, but stood gazingfrom her to the pair of saddled horses tetheredin the shelter of a spreading tree. Drawing yetnearer, she held out her hands, her gray eyes meetinghis as steadfast as the gray North star.
“It means,” she said, “that even as Freya followedRolf, your wife follows you into banishment—Love,what is it?”
For he had flung himself on his knees before herand was kissing the hem of her coarse robe.
“Once must every man die”
It was a radiant earth that kindledinto color with the coming of thelight. Dipping from a hill-top intoa little valley abrim with the yellowof hickory buds and the new greenof maples and the red-and-pink of budding oakleaves, the girl on the roan horse spoke dreamily:
“Once you told me that trees put on their brightesthues in the autumn as warriors go bravest cladto battle. Now it seems to me as if the springworld had put on its showiest garments to welcomeyou and me to a new life.”
“May that become a true omen!” the man whorode behind her responded absently.
To turn and scan from under his hand the countrythey had passed over, he had drawn rein upon thecrest. On the gray anxiety of his face confidencedawned as slowly as rosy day upon gray night.
Smiling, the girl looked around at him. “Whatare you doing back there where I cannot see you,291my friend? Since daybreak have you made mego first, even when the path was broad enough fortwo. What masterfulness is that for a man butsix hours wed!”
“It must be looked for that a man would betempted to make the trial of mastering you,” heanswered as lightly as he could. “What I amdoing back here is to watch the haughtiness ofyour head making derision of your thrall-garb.”
“I think thorns are making derision of the finewedding clothes I sewed for you,” she laughed.“It was quite another place that I expected youwould wear them in. Yet it pleases me also thatyou should go fine while I go plain, for in the realmof the forest are you not lord and I the most lowlyof followers? Saw you ever a raw man newly cometo the body-guard that bent his neck better toorders?”
A note of laughter was silvering her voice, butpassionate earnestness was in his as he spurredabreast of her and leaned over to murmur at herear:
“Never did woman so stoop to man since theValkyria came down to Sigurd! How ill do I deservesuch love who doubted that love!”
The smile with which she had welcomed himdeepened into laughter as tender as the murmurof the brook flowing beside them. “My dear one,292if you but knew how warm it lies at my heart—myvictory over your doubt! For the first time,I feel myself worthy of your love.”
She pressed her face to his, and so they rode awhile, cheek to cheek. His arm tightened aroundher with feeling how she drooped against him inthe weariness she was too proud to own. He saidunder his breath:
“I would give all I hope to possess in the worldto spare you this. My one fear is that you willcome to repent the choice you have made.”
She said without lifting her drooping lids:“Freya came to Rolf over the bodies of slaughteredkin, yet she did not repent it; and between youand me there is no shadow.”
He was thankful then that her eyes were closed.Before she could open them and catch the dreadwhich he felt drawing at his mouth, he had madethe narrowing of the trail an excuse to draw awayand rein back to his post in the rear.
Narrowing to a thread between leaf-walls, thetrail wound through a copse of thorn-trees in blossom.The blending of her kirtle with their woollybranches seemed to give Brynhild’s thoughts anew turn. Over her shoulder, she opened conversationagain:
“It would not be difficult for me to hide amongthese trees. For another reason I am pleased with293myself for thinking of this disguise. Without it,I should never have been able to pass out of thehall unmarked. For two days now there has beena gray-cloaked beggar hanging around the doorstep,—afellow too ill-natured to speak even to thewomen who gave him food, but so prying of eyethat I have felt his gaze from under his hat-brimevery time I went out or in. Why, even you couldnot pass last night without arousing his curiosity!He was staring out of the western gate after you,as you and the good father came up the lane towardsme—”
“Staring after me?” Curt as man’s to man wasthe Songsmith’s voice. “And you have not toldme of it before!”
She started at the change of tone. Then shesaid gently:
“I forgot him in—in the other things we spokeof when we met, my friend. And it did not seemin any wise important to me. A wandering beggarcould not know you for a prisoner escaped.”
He did not tell her that a suspicion had risen inhim that the beggar was not a beggar. He didnot tell her anything for a space, but rode staringfixedly between his horse’s ears. Her question wastwice repeated before it reached him:
“What harm could spring from it, Randvar?”
He said, slowly, then: “You saw the fellow more294than I, though I have seen him twice. Did it evercross your mind that he might be Olaf, Thorgrim’sson, lying in wait for me when I should come healedout of your bower?”
She cried out in mingled amazement and assent:“Olaf! Then he carried his news straight to theJarl! Before we had crossed the first hill, guardswere spurring after us!”
The whiteness of her face, as she peered backbetween the flowery branches, brought him out ofhis musing. Pressing forward, he took the handshe had involuntarily put out.
“Never will Helvin Jarl send guards after me,that I have reason to know for certain. Havefaith in my assurance, and no fear.”
To get his eyes away from hers, he bent over herhand and touched it with his lips. Whether or notshe read his secret dread that Helvin himself wouldbe the pursuer, he could not tell. She made noother answer than to give back his hand-claspfirmly, then turned and urged her tired horse forward.
Falling on the velvet sod, the hoofs broughtforth no sound. With the ceasing of their voices,silence like a great sea closed about them. Wheneverit was rippled by the splash of wind in the topsof the pines or by the soft trill of a bird, the song-makerknew a sense of relief. Nerve and sinew, he295was strained forward towards the moment whenthey should have won through this scented andsmothering stillness to some elevation from whichhe could look back over their track.
So gradually the slope arose that he might nothave known when they reached the crest if he hadnot seen the bright head before him beginning todescend, sunlike. His nails sinking into the leatherof his saddle from the force with which he grippedit, he turned and looked back.
Nothing to be seen amid the white drifts of thethorn-trees. Nothing among the furry gray willowsbordering the brook. His eye leaped on downto the bottom of the hollow, carpeted with thewhite flowers of wild berry vines,—and leaping,lost a moving dark shape even as they caught it,a moving slinking shape. It might have beena skulking wolf,—and it might have been aman!
The girl riding ahead heard his voice just behindher, speaking with chill quietness:
“As soon as ever you come to that black-buddedbush, turn to the left. I remember that a trailbegins there. It does not matter where it leadsto. It is not a beaten track; hood your head andbend low, if twigs catch at you.”
If she wondered why he did not go first to breakthe road, she did not say so. “Yes,” she answered296as quietly as he had spoken, and obeyed him as sheanswered.
Even before the leaves closed on her bravelycarried head, his eyes had lost her through the mistthat gathered in them. “For her sake!” his heartcried out a prayer to the old gods and the new.Then he had plunged into the thicket behind her,his hand clinched in agony upon his empty sheath.Riding with one ear set over his shoulder, he stillkept on telling himself that it was impossible thatit should be a man; that no man without the scentof a beast could have followed their trail, even ifhuman limbs could be strong enough to overtakethem.
Because his attention was held so fast by whatlay behind them, he gave no heed to the sinisterroad they were flying over, to its blasted bushesand the bone-white trench of a dead brook thatcut again and again across it. He leaped in hissaddle at a sharp cry from Brynhild before him.
“Randvar! What place are we coming to?”
So like a bolt it fell upon him that he had pushedinto the open after her, and checked his horse besidehers, before he himself realized to what goalthe unused trail led. Even then it was not he whoput it into words, but she, with her distended eyesupon the pond of murky water in the ring of graytree-skeletons.
297“The Black Pool! Where my father got hisdeath! It is an omen!”
He spoke no word either of denial or of comfort.Throwing himself from his horse, he snatched herfrom her saddle, half carried, half dragged her towhere a pile of bowlders rose like a cairn amid thedead trees. Upon the earth behind it, he pushedher down.
“Hide there!” he told her hoarsely. “Whateverhappens, hide there,—and keep your face covered!He comes now whom I would die sooner than thatyou should see.”
The warning came too late. While he was stillspeaking, he heard the horses behind him snortand run, saw her eyes flash past him. With ashrill cry, she staggered from her knees to her feetand stood as one frozen there, one rigid arm thrustout in pointing. As an echo to her cry came fromthe blasted bushes of the trail a note of low laughter,deepening suddenly to a throaty gurgle that wasof neither man nor beast.
To that whirlpool of horror, the Songsmith’s mindwas drawn in. Reeling with its madness, he plungedforward, bruising his fists on the trees in the effortto rouse himself out of it, dashing his hands againsthis eyes to break the spell of that blind dizziness.As through rents in a veil of blindness, he sawStarkad’s son creeping towards them, saw wolf298eyes glaring above a frothing mouth. With a finaldespairing effort, he brought his fist down wherethe jagged stump of a branch stuck out before him;and pain broke the spell. The strength of desperationon him, he leaped forward and closedwith the rearing form.
But even as they grappled, the curse-ridden mansought to free himself, loosing a sudden cry thatwas half a pealing laugh and half the bark of a wolf.Hurling the song-maker from him upon the earth,he was gone on a bound to some dearer prey beyond.
Struggling to his elbow, Randvar stared afterhim. Among the trees beside the black waterhad come in sight a horseman wearing the graycloak of a beggar but the livid face of Olaf theFrench,—livid, sweating, from the haste with whichhe was spurring Towerward by the only path heknew. Now creeping, now bounding, the madmanhad reached him. Springing upon him withoutflung claw-barbed hands, he had dragged himfighting from his saddle and flung him upon theground. Snarling, he dropped upon him andburied his teeth in the upturned throat. An instantof gurgling gasping noises, and he was upand gone into the forest, sounding his terrible cry;and Olaf lay dead even as Starkad Jarl had died,from the fangs of the demon wolf that was theOther Shape of Starkad’s son.
“He is happy who gets himself fame while living”
It was two Norse weeks after thedeath of Olaf, and it was nearly two-scoremiles south of the Black Pool.Filtering through the dark forest, along ray of sun lay on Freya’s Towerand revealed it as a sanctuary embattled. Here,from the lengthening shadows, the bright beampicked out a circle of shaggy deerskin-clad forestershammering arrow-heads at a forge made of bowlders.There, in touching the earth, the slantingray touched another brawny group squatted atknife-sharpening. Yonder, the light streaminggolden down a tree-aisle broke over a deerskin-garbedsentinel pacing to and fro. Now the murmurof blended heavy voices and heavier laughterswelled like the noise of the breakers,—until someone’s exuberance betrayed him into a burst ofover-facetious song, when he was silenced bynudges and missiles and thumbs pointing Towerward.Now the lull that followed was broken by300scattered hails and chaff, as a Skraelling burdenedwith a double string of glistening fish came like ashadow up the path of sunshine.
Making his way gravely between the jovialgroups, the red man gravely evaded the jestinghands stretched out towards his treasure, andstalked on to the Tower. At the foot of one ofthe gray columns, he lowered the silvery mass tothe earth and stood awaiting a chance for speechwith his white brother’s new wife.
In the dim ground-room there was the flutter ofa blue robe—the glint of red-gold hair—and she hadappeared in one of the rude archways. Against itsgray gloom, the glowing beauty of her face was likea fire; while the stark pillars were a foil for herbody’s soft and flowing curves. Without speaking,the savage stood gazing at her,—even as everywoodsman within eyeshot had stopped short inspeech or work to gaze. It was she who spoke,composedly, giving him thanks for his gift, thenwent and poured him a horn of wild-grape wineand brought it to him.
Even while his mouth busied itself with thedrink, his eyes stared at her over the silver rim.But as he gave the horn back, he spoke in brokenNorse:
“Say to the white chief that the men of thestone-axe race have set up their houses around301him. Say to him that they turn their weaponswhither he points. Say to him that they willbring him the white sachem’s red scalp wheneverhe gives the sign.”
The hand of the white sachem’s sister made aconvulsive movement that lost her the horn, buther brave gray eyes continued to meet his steadily.
“I will tell him,” she answered. “His heartwill be thankful towards his friends.”
Though his face remained set in her direction,the Skraelling turned the rest of him and movedaway as he had come, until his dusky shape waslost in the dusky wood.
Gazing after him with unseeing eyes, she stayeda moment in the archway, while—mute and motionlessas so many bowlders—the foresters stayedgazing furtively at her. Then a curly-headed boyin a page’s ragged dress of blue came out of theTower and broke in upon her thoughts, as he bentto pick up the forgotten cup.
“How clumsy in their manners such creaturesmust look to you, Jarl’s sister, it is easy for me tounderstand, for in former days they went againstmy taste also. But when your experience of lifehas been as broad as mine has, sooner will youchoose their ugly worth than the fair falseness ofthe Town-people. I say it, though I am hard toplease!”
302A note of unsteady laughter shook the longbreath with which the Jarl’s sister straightened;but her arm lay lightly around the boy’s neck asthey went back in-doors, and he expanded underthe caress as a bantam that is about to crow.
“It is my wish that you should always lean uponme! I told my mother this noon—when she askedme to fetch you the fowl and the loaf—that it wasin my mind to visit you as often as I could findtime. And I told her that I meant always towear these fine clothes so that you should feel athome with me, and not feel that I had grownsavage and terrible like the others around you.And perhaps it will also help you to lose it out ofyour thoughts for a while that you are poor, withno one to wait on you.”
Though she laughed again, the sound was moresoft than a caress.
“Poor?” she repeated. “Listen, little Viking!Once I was poor, when I thought there was nomore to the world than the few hedged roads Iknew, and my life was but an empty round thatothers marked out for me, and I had nothing butring-bought gifts to give my friends. But now!Now when each hour some wondrous path undreamedof is opened to me—Now that my life isa fabric I weave myself till from the roots of myhair to the soles of my feet I thrill with the joy of303the work—Now that my breast is so full of lovethat ofttimes it aches with the burden and yearnsfor a worldful of folk to lavish it upon—”
Her ecstasy mounted higher than her wordscould follow. While it soared, she stood silent.When, because it was of earth, it sank again earthward,she spoke under her breath:
“Only shall I be poor, Eric, if the Fates takefrom me the man who has wrought this change inmy nature. If it happen to him to meet with—withmy kin—some day—and the same overtakehim that overtook Olaf—”
Her hand gripped the boy’s shoulder so that hewould have cried out if he had not guessed fromthe whitening of her lips how much harder Dreadwas clutching at her heart. Gritting his teeth, hesupported her manfully.
“There is no man like Randvar in all the newlands,” he panted, “and I would fight for none asI would fight for him.”
Loosening their hold, the fingers rose and swepthis cheek fondly, and the Jarl’s sister moved awayand bent over the smouldering fire to stir it.Though she did not turn again, her voice came tohim with its wonted gracious composure.
“Have thanks for your friendship, little friend!And give my thanks to your mother for her goodgifts; and tell her that if she does not come oftener304to visit me I shall take it as a sign that becauseshe has gone to live in Snowfrid’s booth, she feelsthat I have crowded her out of her home. Willyou bear that in mind?”
For the fourth time since he had begun to thinkof tearing himself away, Eric picked up his featheredblue cap.
“Naught shall be forgotten, Jarl’s sister,” hereassured her. “And now I fear that I must intruth take leave of you. With Bolverk so oftenaway on hunts, I find that the wants of Snowfridand my mother put not a little care on my shoulders;and my intention is that they shall neverlack for anything now that I have come home totake care of them. Jarl’s sister, I bid you farewelluntil to-morrow.”
The purpose of the plumed cap became apparentas by its aid he added elaborate flourishes to hisbow. Then fixing the bauble upon his curly head,he went away hurriedly, as became one weightedwith responsibility; and as became one torn betweenlove and fear, the Jarl’s sister went up theladder-like stairs with a hand pressed to her heart,and crossing the strange little fur-hung bower,dropped down beside Freya’s window to watch asFreya before her had watched.
Higher and higher slanted the long rays, untilonly the tree-tops knew their golden glory. The305horizon became as a band of red fire behind theblack net-work of the woods. The lower that fireburned, the farther the great outside world seemedto fall away from the little world of the Tower. Asthough to make a stand against impending isolation,the foresters drew their circle closer andbeaconed it with cheery fires. Over the youngwife’s vigil crept a spell of awe, so that though sheleaned wide-eyed upon the sill she did not see theone for whom she watched when presently he cameup a twilit trail, a spear gleaming on his shoulder,Bolverk’s brawny bulk looming beside him.
It was he who espied her—her bright head likea star hung low in the gloaming—and slackenedhis pace to stand looking at her.
Following his friend’s gaze, Bolverk spoke withhis buoyant laugh: “Small wonder you stare, comrade,at seeing Freya’s ghost filling Freya’s bluekirtle!”
The song-maker roused himself with a deepbreath that was like a sigh. When he moved forwardagain, the springiness was gone from hisstep.
“Would that I did not see the ghost of Freyawhenever I looked at my wife!” he said. “Likegoblin-bells they start out of space and clang inmy ear, the words Erna spoke that night by theTower fire,—‘Freya loved Rolf in spite of all, but306it was the effort of doing so that wore her out beforehalf her life was lived.’”
A second time Randvar came to a stand-still; andas the sun from the wood, so had the light fledfrom his face and left it a place of shadowy dread.
“Suppose,” he said, “that my quarrel with—theJarl—come to no round end one way or the otherbut, as oftenest happens, drag on and on in uncertainty....Suppose the Jarl’s sister wearing outyear after year between these walls of solitude...eating into her memory, the murder of her father... burning into her eyes, the thing we saw at thePool... gnawing at her heart, her fear for me....Suppose it should not be her love that gave way—”
“Nor her life!” Bolverk finished hastily. “Norher life!”
But the weight did not lift from the Songsmith’sbent shoulders. He said slowly: “When grislythoughts had dwelt long enough in her brother’smind, it was not his body that they killed, but hisreason.”
Gasping a dread word, Bolverk caught him bythe arm. In heavy silence they walked the restof the distance that lay between them and thecordon of fires.
Giving them greeting and at the same time demandingtheir news, a score of voices broke in upontheir reverie. In a moment, the song-maker was307the centre of a cordial group that listened eagerlywhile he told how the Skraelling chief had receivedhim, and approved boisterously the new tradingtreaty which the chief had granted to the newcolony at the Tower.
“No better pleader than you was Njal of Iceland!”growled the veteran in bearskin. “Nextspring we shall send to Nidaros a richer ship thanever sailed from Norumbega; and no less a manthan you shall stand by the steering-oar.”
“Yes! Yes!” the chorus gave jovial approbation,and made a jesting onslaught as though theywould have raised him to their shoulders. Buthis expression grew in grimness as he motionedthem back.
“A ship that had a corpse on board would getbetter luck than one that had me at the steering-oar,”he said. “I have told you without deceitthat I stand so with most Northmen that my nameand the word traitor has the same meaning. Nevermake the mistake of thinking that I shall let youput me forward where I should draw down hatredand failure on your heads. When you have lentme your weapons to guard my wife, you have doneme as great a service as a man can do another, andI have reaped all the good of your love that I canbear. Never can I repay you as it is!”
He broke off abruptly. Perhaps they were glad308that he did not wait for them to answer, but leavingthem strode on towards the Tower. Yet itwould have been no unworthy response if they hadput into words what spoke from their hard facesas they watched him gain the firelit archway andtake his young bride in his arms. To search withpassionate anxiety the eyes she lifted to his, heheld her there, forgetful of all the world beside;while her hands betrayed a passionate eagernessto clasp his hands, to cling to his deerskin-sleeve,to feel him safe and whole.
It may be that when life is at its fullest, the needof words falls away like a husk that is shed. By-and-bywhen the two had gone in to their rudehearth, tongue-speech grew less and less frequentbetween them, less and less until—like candle-lightinto sunshine—it faded into the perfect communionof silence.
Bringing the fowl from its bed in the hot ashes,the bread from its birch basket, the wine from itscask, the young mistress of the Tower moved toand fro in the firelight. Resting on a fur-heapedbench in the shadow, the young master followedher every motion with worshipful eyes. Sometimes,as their gaze met, the gracious gravity of herdemeanor sparkled into a moment’s playful mimicryof some pompous servitor they had known inthe pageantry of the Jarl’s house, and their laughter,309bass and treble, blended in a full chord. Sometimesit was his hand that encountered hers, andclosing on it with an inarticulate cry, put it to hislips in place of wine, and pressed it there while forthem both Time ceased to be.
And then again, a moment came when for himall jest went out of her service, when to see herwaiting before him in Freya’s faded robe of bluewas a thing he could not bear. Rising, he tookhorn and trencher from her hands and flung themaside, and almost roughly placed her on the cushion-heapedbench, and placed himself on the cedarmat at her feet.
“One high-seat you shall have, and one thrall!”he said fiercely; and drawing his harp towards him,he played for her as he had never played for himselfnor yet for the Jarl in all the splendor of hisfeast-hall.
She made but one alteration, stretching out herhand that it might thread his hair as his headleaned against her knee; then with eyes softlyclosed and lips softly parted, she rested listening.
Floating through Paradise on the wings of themusic, she knew nothing of it when the circles ofthe outlying camp-fires were thrown into commotionas reeds by an incoming wave. Onlywhen Randvar plucked a twanging discord from310the harp-strings, and then flung the instrumentfrom him, did she start awake.
One hand stretched behind him to grasp herrobe, and one hand thrust across him to clutch hisknife-hilt, he had risen to his knee before her. Overhis shoulder she saw what he saw—a brass helmetglowing in the firelight where the path gave uponthe open, more brass helmets glinting like fire-fliesfar up the dusk of the trail. Now four figuresseparated themselves from the throng, and pushingthrough the wavering rank of foresters, cameTowerward,—two figures in dark robes and onewearing the plumed cap of a courtman and oneclad in shining mail.
“Mord—and the Shepherd Priest! Gunnar—Visbur!”the Songsmith told them off mechanically.
The arms Brynhild had locked around his necktightened as she whispered at his ear: “God bepraised, Helvin is not there! Love, if they meantus ill, they would not have fetched Gunnar andthe Priest, who are our friends.”
But Randvar’s voice was harsh as he loosenedher hands that he might rise. “If they mean uswell, why do they come with a troop of armedmen at their heels?” Never quitting his grip onhis hilt, he strode forward and stood a pace beyondhis threshold, awaiting them.
Glancing down at her poor attire, it seemed for311an instant as though the Jarl’s sister would haveshrunk back into the shadow; and then as onewould catch up a deserter she caught herself, andholding her head high, moved forward until shestood at her husband’s side.
At sight of the Songsmith, the sentinel of thepath cried out earnestly: “We let them through,Rolf’s son, only because they pledged you peace.If they have spoken false—”
He did not finish, but it was not needful thathe should. Around the ring of hunters, like thelight of a moonbeam, sped the glint of steel. Andstill beyond that, where wood encompassed theopen, there passed of a sudden a noiseless stir, asif from every tree-shadow there had glided a litheand dusky body. Joining soundlessly as shadowsblend, the dark mass drew nearer, until here thefirelight was reflected in rows of glittering eyes,there through the gloaming gleamed the paleshapes of stone axes uplifted. It is no shame tothe courage of Gunnar the Merry that his handsomeface blanched as his glance made the circuit.Mord spoke sternly when they came to a halt beforethe young master of the Tower.
“What right have you to speak of peacefulness,Randvar, Rolf’s son, that surround yourself withoutlaws and savages of the wood, ready to domurder at your bidding?”
312Even in the twilight it could be seen how theblood mounted in the Songsmith’s brown face,but there was no wavering in his mouth’s steadyline as he answered.
“I take friendship and help where I find themfreest and truest, and I expect evil from the quarterwhence evil has risen against me before.Though you come in the name of the Jarl, to whomyou hold me traitor, I shall not yield a whit more.Your blood be on your heads if you heed me not!”
From the gathering circle of foresters came backa sound like an ominous echo; and the murmur wastaken up in the wood beyond, till it rose like theroar of the wind in the trees. But all at once Visburmade a long stride forward and held out hishuge hand.
“Never look at me with that look on your facecomrade!” he said gruffly. “I know now that youwere no traitor to Starkad’s son, and Rolf’s selfwould not be gladder of the knowledge. Take nowmy hand as a token that you will accept atonementfrom me.”
The Songsmith and his young wife spoke in onebreath: “You know—?”
“From him who alone had the right to tell it,”Visbur answered briefly. “While the day wasstill young, we came upon Starkad’s son in theforest near the Town, with Olaf’s blood yet on313him. Because his wits were not in him, he mistookus for Shapes risen to torment him, and stoodand shouted his secret at us in defiance. And thenhis strength went from him; and he fell down tothe earth; and death came to him where he fell.”
“And it was on your name that he called as hedied,” the gentle voice of the Shepherd Priestsounded amid the stillness that had spread. “BecauseI was the first to reach him and raise hishead to my breast, it is likely he thought it wasyou, for he spoke your name in a tone of love; andthat was his last breath.”
No longer was there steadiness in Randvar’svoice as he tried to speak. Of a sudden it broke,and he turned away from the eyes upon him andstood with his face in the shadow, his clinchinghand still holding his young wife to his side. Whatshe said softly in his ear—whether of grief for herkin or gratitude for her loved one’s safety—nonecould hear.
Then it was Mord the Grim who spoke with ceremony:“Now the end of it is that Helvin Jarl hasbeen five days dead and five days buried, and wehave come to offer the rule to you, Starkad’sdaughter, who are the next of kin—” He lifted hishand as, turning, Starkad’s daughter would haveinterrupted him, indignantly. “To you and toyour husband, who is of all men most beloved314by the folk of the new lands. To you two together.”
What Brynhild cried out, as she stretched herhands towards them, could not be heard for the acclamationsthat burst from the listening foresters.Then, drowning even that, rose the clangor of theguardsmen’s shields as they pounded on them withtheir swords.
Once more the Songsmith’s lips became unsteady,so that he dared not trust his voice tothem; but presently he turned and made theshouting throng a gesture of acceptance of theirhonor and of thankfulness for their love, and allunderstood him.
- Silently corrected obvious typographical errors and variations in spelling.
- Retained archaic, non-standard, and uncertain spellings as printed.
*** END OF THE PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK RANDVAR THE SONGSMITH ***
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