Read CHAPTER IV - IN A VIKING LAIR of The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

Leaving in the field his arms,
Let no man go
A fool’s length forward:
For it is hard to know
When, on his way,
A man may need his weapon.

Ha’vama’l

The camp lay red in the sunset light, and the twilight hush had fallen upon it so that one could hear the sleepy bird-calls in the woods around, and the drowsy murmur of the river. Sigurd lay on his back under a tree, staring up into the rustling greenery. From the booth set apart for her, Helga came out dressed for the feast. She had replaced her scarlet kirtle and hose by garments of azure-blue silk, and changed her silver helmet for a golden diadem such as high-born maidens wore on state occasions; but that was her only ornament, and her skirt was no longer than before. Sigurd looked at her critically.

“It does not appear to me that you are very well dressed for a feast,” said he. “Where are the bracelets and gold laces suitable to your rank? It looks ill for Leif’s generosity, if that is the finest kirtle you own.”

“That is unfairly spoken,” Helga answered quickly. “He would dress me in gold if I wished it; it is I who will not have it so. Have you forgotten my hatred against clothes so fine that one must be careful of them? But this was to be expected,” she added, flushing with displeasure; “since the Jarl’s son has lived in Normandy, a maiden from a Greenland farm must needs look mean to him.”

She was turning away, but he leaped up and caught her by her shoulders and shook her good-naturedly. “Now are you as womanish as your bondmaid. You know that all the gold on all the women in Normandy is not so beautiful as one lock of this hair of yours.”

At least Helga was womanish enough to smile at this. “Now I understand why it is that men call you Sigurd Silver-Tongue,” she laughed. Suddenly she was all earnestness again. “Nay, but, Sigurd, tell me this, I do not care how you scold about my dress, tell me that you do not despise me for it, or for being unlike other maidens.”

Sigurd’s grasp slipped from her shoulders down to her hands, and shook them warmly. “Despise you, Helga my sister? Despise you for being the bravest comrade and the truest friend a man ever had?”

She grew rosy red with pleasure. “If that is your feeling, I am well content.”

She took a step toward the place where her horse was tethered, and looked back regretfully. “It seems inhospitable to leave you like this. Will you not come with us, after all?”

Sigurd threw himself down again with an emphatic gesture of refusal. “I like better to be left so than to be left in a mound with my head cut off, which is what would happen were an outlaw to visit the King uninvited.”

“I shall not deny that that would be disagreeable,” Helga assented. “But do not let your mishap stand in the way of your joy. Leif has great favor with King Olaf; there is no doubt in my mind that he will be able to plead successfully for you.”

“I hope so, with all my heart,” Sigurd murmured. “When all brave men are fighting abroad or serving the King at home, it is great shame for me to be idling here.” And he sighed heavily as Helga passed out of hearing.

As she went by the largest of the booths, which was the sleeping-house of the steersman Valbrand and more than half the crew, Alwin came out of the door and stood looking listlessly about. He had spent the afternoon scouring helmets amid a babble of directions and fault-finding, accented by blows. Helga did not see him; but he gazed after her, wondering idly what sort of a mistress she was to the young bond-girl who was running after her with the cloak she had forgotten, wondering also what there was in the girl’s brown braids that reminded him of his mother’s little Saxon waiting-maid Editha.

The sound of a deep-drawn breath made him turn, to find himself face to face with a young mail-clad Viking, in whose shaggy black locks he recognized the Egil Olafsson whom Helga had that morning ’pointed out. But it was not the surprise of the meeting that made Alwin leap suddenly backward into the shelter of the doorway; it was the look that he caught in the other’s dark face, a look so full of hate and menace that, instead of being strangers meeting for the first time, one would have supposed them lifelong enemies.

Still eying him, Egil said slowly in a voice that trembled with passion: “So you are the English thrall, and looking after her already! It seems that Skroppa spoke some truth ” He broke off abruptly, and stood glaring, his hand moving upward to his belt.

For once Alwin was fairly dazed. “Either this fellow has gotten out of his wits,” he muttered, crossing himself, “or else he has mistaken me for some ”

He had not time to finish his sentence. Young Olafsson’s fingers had closed upon the haft of his knife; he drew it with a fierce cry: “But I will make the rest of it a lie!” Throwing himself upon Alwin, he bore him over backwards across the threshold.

It is likely that that moment would have seen the end of Alwin, if it had not happened that Valbrand the steersman was in the booth, arraying himself for the feast. He was a gigantic warrior, with a face seamed with scars and as hard as the battle-axe at his side. He caught Egil’s uplifted arm and wrested the blade from his grasp.

“It is not likely that I will allow Leif’s property to be damaged, Egil the Black. Would you choke him? Loose him, or I will send you to the Troll, body and bones!”

Egil rose reluctantly. Alwin leaped up like a spring released from a weight.

“What has he done,” demanded Valbrand, “that you should so far forget the law as to attack another man’s thrall?”

Instead of bursting into the tirade Alwin expected, Egil flushed and looked away. “It is enough that I am not pleased with his looks,” he said sullenly.

Valbrand tossed him his knife with a scornful grunt. “Go and get sense! Is he yours, that you may slay him because you dislike the tilt of his nose? Go dress yourself. And you,” he added, with a nod over his shoulder at Alwin, “do you take yourself out of his sight somewhere. It is unwisdom to tempt a hungry dog with meat that one would keep.”

“If I had so much as a hunting-knife,” Alwin cried furiously, “I swear by all the saints of England, I would not stir ”

Valbrand wasted no time in argument. He seized Alwin and threw him out of the door, with energy enough to roll him far down the slope.

The force with which he struck inclined Alwin to stay where he was for a while; and gradually the coolness and the quietness about him soothed him into a more reasonable temper. Egil Olafsson was mad; there could be no question of that. Undoubtedly it was best to follow Valbrand’s advice and keep out of his way, at least until he could secure a weapon with which to defend himself. He stretched himself comfortably in the soft, dewy grass and waited until the revellers, splendid in shining mail and gay-hued mantles, clanked out to their horses and rode away. When the last of them shouted his farewell to Sigurd and disappeared amid the shadows of the wood-path, Alwin arose and walked slowly back to the deserted camp.

Even the sunset light had left it now; a soft grayness shut it in, away from the world. The air was full of night-noises; and high in the pines a breeze was whispering softly. Very softly and sweetly, from somewhere among the booths, the voice of the bond-girl arose in a plaintive English ballad.

Alwin recognized the melody with a throb that was half of pleasure, half of pain. In the old days, Editha had sung that song. Poor little gentle-hearted Editha! The last time he had seen her, she had been borne past him, white and unconscious, in the arms of one of the marauding Danes. He shook himself fiercely to drive off the memory. Turning the corner of Helga’s booth, he came suddenly upon the singer, a slender white-robed figure leaning in the shadow of the doorway. Sigurd still lounged under the trees, half dozing, half listening.

As the thrall stepped out of the shadow into the moonlight, the singer sprang to her feet, and the song merged into a great cry.

“My lord Alwin!”

It was Editha herself. Running to meet him, she dropped on her knees before him and began to kiss his hands and cry over them. “Oh, my dear lord,” she sobbed, “you are so changed! And your hair your beautiful hair! Oh, it is well that Earl Edmund and your lady mother are dead, it would break their hearts, as it does mine!” Forgetting her own plight, she wept bitterly over his, though he tried with every gentle word to soothe her.

It was a sad meeting; it could not be otherwise. The memory of their last terrible parting, the bondage in which they found each other, the shameful, hopeless future that stretched before them, it was all full of bitterness. When Editha went in at last, her poor little throat was bursting with sobs. Alwin sank down on the trunk of a fallen tree and buried his head in his hands, and the first groan that his troubles had wrung from him was forced now from his brave lips.

He had forgotten Sigurd’s presence. In their preoccupation, neither of them had noticed the young Viking watching them curiously. Now Alwin started like a colt when a hand fell lightly on his shoulder. “It appears to me,” came in Sigurd’s voice, “that a man should be merry when he has just found a friend.”

Alwin looked up at him with eyes full of savage despair.

“Merry! Would you be merry, had you found Helga the drudge of an English camp?” He shook off the other’s hand with a fierce motion.

But Sigurd answering instantly, “No, I would look even blacker than you, if that were possible,” the thrall was half appeased.

The young Viking dropped down beside him, and for a while they sat in silence, staring away where the moonlit river showed between the trees. At last Sigurd said dreamily: “It came to my mind, while you two were talking, how unevenly the Fates deal things. It appears, from what the maiden said, that you are the son of an English jarl who has often fought the Northmen. Now I am the son of a Norwegian jarl who has not a few times met the English in battle. It would have been no more unlikely than what has happened had I been the captive and you the victor.”

“That is true,” said Alwin slowly. He did not say more, but in some odd way the idea comforted and softened him. Neither of the young men turned his eyes from the river toward the other, yet in some way something friendly crept into their silence.

After a while Sigurd said, still without looking around, “It seems to me that the right-minded thing for me in this matter is to do what I should desire you to do if you were in my place; therefore I offer you my friendship.”

Something blurred the bright river for an instant from Alwin’s sight. “I give you thanks,” he said huskily. “Save Editha, I have not a friend in the world.”

He hesitated a while; then slowly, bit by bit, he set forth the story that he had never expected to unfold to Northern ears. “The Danes set fire to my father’s castle, and he was burned with many of my kinsmen. The robbers came in the night, and a Danish churl opened the gates to them, though he had been my father’s man for four seasons. It was from him that I learned to speak the Northern tongue. They took me while I slept, bound me, and carried me out to their boats. They carried out also the young maidens who attended my mother, Editha among them, and not a few of the youth of the household, all that they chose for captives. They took out all the valuables that they wanted. After that, they threw great bales of hay into the hall, and set fire to them, and ”

“The bloody wolves!” Sigurd burst out. “Did they not offer your mother to go out in safety?”

“Nay, they had the most hatred against her.” The bearing of his head grew more haughty. “My mother was a princess of the blood of Alfred.”

It happened that Sigurd had heard of that great monarch. His face kindled with enthusiasm.

“Alfred! He who got the victory over the Danes? Small wonder they did not love his kin after they had known his cunning! I know a fine song about him, how he went alone into the Danish camp, though they were hunting him to kill him; and while they thought him a simple minded minstrel, he learned all their secrets. By my troth, that is good blood to have in one’s veins! Were I English, I would rather be his kinsman than Ethelred’s.”

He stared at Alwin with glowing eyes; they were facing each other now. Suddenly he stretched out his hand.

“It is naught but a piece of bad luck that you are Leif’s thrall. It might just as easily have happened that I were in your place. Now I will make a bargain with you that hereafter I will remember this, and never hold your thraldom against you.”

Such a concession as that, few of the proud Viking race were generous enough to make. Alwin could not but be moved by it. He took the outstretched hand in a hard grip.

“Will you do that?” he said; and it seemed for a time as though he could not find words to answer. At last he spoke: “If you will do that, I promise on my side that I will forgive your Northern blood and your lordship over me, and love you as my own brother.”