Read CHAPTER V - THE IRE OF A SHIELD-MAIDEN of The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

With insult or derision
Treat thou never
A guest or wayfarer;
They often little know,
Who sit within,
Of what race they are who come.

Ha’vama’l

Alwin was sitting on the ground in front of the provision-shed, grinding meal on a small stone hand-mill, when Editha came to seek him.

“If it please you, my lord ”

He broke into a bitter laugh. “By Saint George, that fits me well! ’If it please you,’ and ‘my lord,’ to a short-haired, callous-handed hound of a slave!”

Tears filled her eyes, but her gentle mouth was as obstinate as gentle mouths can often be. “Have they drawn Earl Edmund’s blood out of you? Until they have done that, you will be my lord. Your lady mother in heaven would curse me for a traitor if I denied your nobility.”

Alwin ground out a resigned sigh with his last handful of meal. “Go on then, if you must. We spoke enough of the matter last night. Only see to it that no one hears you. I warn you that I shall kill the first who laughs, and who could help laughing?”

She was too wise to answer that. Instead, she motioned over her shoulder toward the group of late-risen revellers who were lounging under the trees, breaking their fast with an early meal. “Tyrker bids you come and serve the food.”

“If it please me?”

“My dear lord, I pray you give over all bitterness. I pray you be prudent toward them. I have not been a shield-maiden’s thrall for nearly a year without learning something.”

“Poor little dove in a hawk’s nest! Certainly I think you have learned to weep!”

“You need not pity me thus, Lord Alwin. It is likely that my mistress even loves me in her own way. She has given me more ornaments than she keeps for herself. She would slay anyone who spoke harshly to me. What is it if now and then she herself strikes me? I have had many a blow from your mother’s nurse. I do not find that I am much worse than before. No, no; my trouble is all for you. My dearest lord, I implore you not to waken their anger. They have tempers so quick, and hands even quicker.”

Remembering his encounter with Egil the evening before, Alwin’s eyes flared up hotly. But he would make no promises, as he arose to answer the summons.

The little maid carried an anxious heart to her task of mending Helga’s torn kirtle.

No one seemed to notice the young thrall when he came among them and began to refill the empty cups. The older men, sprawling on the sun-flecked grass and over the rude benches, were still drowsy from too deep soundings in too many mead horns. The four young people were talking together. They sat a little apart in the shade of some birch trees which served as rests for their backs, Helga enthroned on a bit of rock, Rolf and Sigurd lounging on either side of her, the black-maned Egil stretched at her feet. Between them a pair of lean wolf-hounds wandered in and out, begging with glistening eyes and poking noses for each mouthful that was eaten, except when a motion of Helga’s hand toward a convenient riding-switch made them forget hunger for the moment.

“I wonder to hear that Leif was not at the feast last night,” Sigurd was saying, as he sipped his ale in the leisurely fashion which some of the old sea-rovers in the distance condemned as French and foolish.

Swallowing enough of the smoked meat in her mouth to make speaking practicable, Helga answered: “He will be away two days yet; did I not tell you? He has gone south with a band of guardsmen to convert a chief to Christianity.”

“Then Leif himself has turned Christian?” Sigurd exclaimed in astonishment. “The son of the pagan Eric a Christian! Now I understand how it is that he has such favor with King Olaf, for all that he comes of outlawed blood. In Wisby, men thought it a great wonder, and spoke of him as ‘Leif the Lucky,’ because he had managed to get rid of the curse of his race.”

Rolf the Wrestler shook his head behind his uplifted goblet. He was an odd-looking youth, with chest and shoulders like the forepart of an ox, and a face as mild and gently serious as a lamb’s. As he put down the curious gilded vessel, he said in the soft voice that matched his face so well and his body so ill: “If you have a boon to ask of your foster-father, comrade, it is my advice that you forget all such pagan errors as that story of the curse. Egil, here, came near being spitted on Leif’s sword for merely mentioning Skroppa’s name.”

Alwin recognized the name with a start. Egil scowled in answer to Sigurd’s curious glance.

“Odin’s ravens are not more fond of telling news, than you,” the Black One growled. “At meal-time I have other uses for my jaws than babbling. Thrall, bring me more fish.”

Alwin waited long enough to possess himself of a sharp bronze knife that lay among the dishes; then he advanced, alertly on his guard, and shovelled more herrings upon the flat piece of hard bread that served as a plate. Egil, however, noticed him no more than he did the flies buzzing around his food. Whatever the cause of their enmity, it was evidently a secret.

The English youth was retiring in surprise, when Rolf took it into his head to accost him. The wrestler pointed to a couple of large flat stones that he had placed, one on top of the other, beside him. “This is very tough bread that you have given me, thrall,” he said reproachfully.

Their likeness to bread was not great, and the jest struck Alwin as silly. He retorted angrily: “Do you suppose that my wits were cut off with my hair, so that I cannot tell stones from bread?”

Not a flicker stirred the seriousness of Rolf’s blue eyes. “Stones?” he said. “I do not know what you mean. Can they be stones that I am able to treat like this?” His fist arose in the air, doubled itself into the likeness of a sledge-hammer, and fell in a mighty blow. The upper stone lay in fragments.

Whereupon Alwin realized that it had all been a flourish to impress him. So, though unquestionably impressed, he refused to show it. A second time he was turning his back on them, when Helga stopped him.

“You must bring something that I want, first. In the northeast corner of the provision shed, was it not, Sigurd?”

Young Haraldsson was scrambling to his feet in futile grabs after one of the hounds that was making off with his herring, but he nodded back over his shoulder. Helga looked from one to the other of her companions with an ecstatic smack of her lips. “Honey,” she informed them. “Sigurd ran across a jar of it last night. That pig of an Olver yonder hid it on the highest shelf. Very likely the goldsmith’s daughter gave it to him and it was his intention to keep it all for himself. We will put a trick upon him. Bring it quickly, thrall. Yet have a care that he does not see it as you pass him. That is he with the bandaged head. If he looks sharply at you, hide the jar with your arm and it is likely he will think that you have been stealing some food for yourself, and be too sleepy to care.”

Lord Alwin of Northumbria lost sight of the lounging figures about him, lost sight of Sigurd chasing the circling hound, lost sight of everything save the imperious young person before him. He stared at her as though he could not believe his ears. She waved him away; but he did not move.

“Let him think that I am stealing!” he managed to gasp at last.

The grass around Helga’s foot stirred ominously.

“I have told you that he is too sleepy to care. If he threatens to flog you, I promise that I will interfere. Coward, what are you afraid of?”

She caught her breath at the blazing of his face. He said between his clenched teeth: “I will not let him think that I would steal so much as one dried herring, were I starving!”

The fire shot out of Helga’s beautiful eyes. Egil and the Wrestler sprang up with angry exclamations; but words would not suffice Helga. Leaping to her feet, she caught up the riding-whip from the grass beside her and lashed it across the thrall’s face with all her might. A bar of livid red was kindled like a flame along his cheek.

“You are cracking the face of Leif’s property,” Rolf murmured in mild remonstrance.

Egil laughed, a hateful gloating laugh, and settled himself against a tree to see the finish. As Helga’s arm was flung up the second time, the thrall leaped upon her and tore the whip from her grasp and broke it in pieces. He would that he might have broken her as well; he thirsted to, when he caught sight of the laughing Egil, and everything else was blotted out of his vision. Without a sound, but with the animal passion for killing upon his white face, he wheeled and leaped upon the Black One, crushing him, pinioning him against the tree, strangling him with the grip of his hands.