Read CHAPTER VI - THE SONG OF SMITING STEEL of The Thrall of Leif the Lucky, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

To his friend
A man should be a friend,
To him and to his friend;
But no man
Should be the friend
Of his foe’s friend.

Ha’vama’l

In the madness of his rush, Alwin blundered. Springing upon Egil from the left, he left his enemy’s right arm free. Instantly this arm began forcing and jamming its way downward across Egil’s body. Should it find what it sought !

Alwin saw what was coming. He set his teeth and struggled desperately; but he could not prevent it. Another moment, and the Black One’s fingers had closed upon his sword-hilt; the blade hissed into the air. Only an instant wrenching away, and a lightning leap aside, saved the thrall from being run through. His short bronze knife was no match for a sword. He gave himself up for lost, and stiffened himself to die bravely, as became Earl Edmund’s son. He had yet to learn that there are crueler things than sword-thrusts.

As Egil advanced with a jeering laugh, Helga caught his sleeve; and Rolf laid an iron hand upon his shoulder.

“Think what you do!” the Wrestler admonished. “This will make the third of Leif’s thralls that you have slain; and you have no blood-money to pay him.”

“Shame on you, Egil Olafsson!” cried Helga. “Would you stain your honorable sword with a thing so foul as thrall-blood?”

Rolf’s grip brought Egil to a standstill. The contempt in Helga’s words was reflected in his face. He sheathed his sword with a scornful gesture.

“You speak truth. I do not know how it was that I thought to do a thing so unworthy of me. I will leave Valbrand to draw the fellow’s blood with a stirrup leather.”

He turned away, and the others followed. Those of the crew who had raised their muddled heads to see what the trouble was, laid them down again with grunts of disappointment. Alwin was left alone, untouched.

Yet truly his anguish would not have been greater had they cut him in pieces. Without knowing what he did, he sprang after them, crying hoarsely: “Cowards! Churls! What know you of my blood? Give me a weapon and prove me. Or cast yours aside, man to man.” His voice broke with his passion and the violence of his heart-beats.

But the mocking laughter that burst out died in a sudden hush. A moment before, Sigurd had concluded his pursuit of the thieving hound and rejoined the group, in time to gather something of what had passed. The instant Alwin ceased, he stepped out and placed himself at the young thrall’s side. He was no longer either the courteous Sigurd Silver-Tongue or Sigurd the merry comrade; his handsome head was thrown up with an air of authority which reminded all present that Sigurd, the son of the famous Jarl Harald, was the highest-born in the camp.

He said sternly: “It seems to me that you act like fools in this matter. Can you not see that he is no more thrall-born than you are? Or do you think that ill luck can change a jarl’s son into a dog? He shall have a chance to prove his skill. I myself will strive against him, to any length he chooses. And what I have thought it worth while to do, let no one else dare scorn!”

He unbuckled his own gold-mounted weapon and forced it into Alwin’s hands, then turned authoritatively to the Wrestler: “Rolf, if you count yourself my friend, lend me your sword.”

It was yielded him silently; and they stepped out face to face, the young noble and the young thrall. But before their steel had more than clashed, Egil came between and knocked up their blades with his own.

“It is enough,” he said gruffly. “What Sigurd Haraldsson will do, I will not disdain. I will meet you honorably, thrall. But you need not sue for mercy.” A gleam of that strange groundless hatred played over his savage face.

It did not daunt Alwin; it only helped to warm his blood. “This steel shall melt sooner than I ask for quarter!” he cried defiantly, springing at his enemy.

Whish-clash! The song of smiting steel rang through the little valley. The spectators drew back out of the way. Again the half-drunken loungers rose upon their elbows.

They were well matched, the two. If Alwin lacked any of the Black One’s strength, he made it up in skill and quickness. The bright steel began to fly fast and faster, until its swish was like the venomous hiss of serpents. The color came and went in Helga’s cheek; her mouth worked nervously. Sigurd’s eyes were fixed upon the two like glowing lamps, as to and fro they went with vengeful fury. In all the valley there was no sound but the fierce clash and clatter of the swords. The very trees seemed to hold their breath to listen.

Egil uttered a panting gasp of triumph; his, blade had bitten flesh. A widening circle of red stained the shoulder of Alwin’s white tunic. The thrall’s lips set in a harder line; his blows became more furious, as if pain and despair gave him an added strength. Heaving his sword high in the air, he brought it down with mighty force on Egil’s blade. The next instant the Black One held a useless weapon, broken within a finger of the hilt.

A murmur rose from the three watchers. Helga’s hand moved toward her knife.

Rolf shook his head gently. “Fair play,” he reminded her; and she fell back.

Tossing away his broken blade, Egil folded his arms across his breast and waited in scornful silence; but in a moment Alwin also was empty-handed.

“I do no murder,” he panted. “Man to man we will finish it.”

With lowered heads and watchful eyes, like beasts crouching for a spring, they moved slowly around the circle. Then, like angry bears, they grappled; each grasping the other below the shoulder, and striving by sheer strength of arm to throw his enemy.

Only the blood that mounted to their faces, the veins that swelled out on their bare arms, told of the strain and struggle. So evenly were they matched, that from a little distance it looked as if they were braced motionless. Their heels ground deep into the soft sod. Their breath began to come in labored gasps. It could not last much longer; already the great drops stood on Alwin’s forehead. Only a spurt of fury could save him.

Suddenly, in changing his hold, Egil grasped the other’s wounded shoulder. The grip was torture, a spur to a fainting horse. The blood surged into Alwin’s eyes; his muscles stiffened into iron. Egil swayed, staggered, and fell headlong, crashing.

Mad with pain, Alwin knelt on his heaving breast. “If I had a sword,” he gasped; “if I had a sword!”

Shaken and stunned, Egil still laughed scornfully. “What prevents you from getting your sword? I shall not run away. Do you think it matters to me how soon my death-day comes?”

Alwin was still crazy with pain. He snatched the bronze knife from his belt and laid it against Egil’s throat. Sigurd’s brow darkened, but no one spoke or moved, least of all, Egil; his black eyes looked back unshrinkingly.

It was their calmness that brought Alwin to himself. As he felt their clear gaze, it came back to him what it meant to take a human life, to change a living breathing body like his own into a heap of still, dead clay. His hand wavered and fell away. The passion died out of his heart, and he arose.

“Sigurd Haraldsson,” he said, “for what you have done for me, I give you your friend’s life.”

Sigurd’s fine face cleared.

“Only,” Alwin added, “I think it right that he should explain the cause of his enmity toward me, and ”

Egil leaped to his feet; his proud indifference flamed into sudden fury. “That I will never do, though you tear out my tongue-roots!” he shouted.

Even his comrades regarded him in amazement.

Alwin tried a sneer. “It is my belief that you fear to speak of Skroppa.”

“Skroppa?” a chorus of astonishment repeated. But only two scarlet spots on Egil’s cheeks showed that he heard them. He gave Alwin a long, lowering look. “You should know by this time that I fear nothing.”

Helga made an unfortunate attempt. “I think it is no more than honorable, Egil, to tell him why you are his enemy.”

Unconsciously she spoke of the thrall now as of an equal. He noticed it; Egil also saw it. It seemed to enrage him beyond bearing.

“If you speak in his favor,” he thundered, seizing her wrist, “I will sheathe my knife in you!” But even before she had freed herself, and Rolf and Sigurd had turned upon him, he realized that he had gone too far. Leaving them abruptly, he went and stood a little way off with his back toward them, his head bowed, his hands clenched, struggling with himself.

For a long time no one spoke. Sigurd questioned with his eyes, and Rolf answered by a shrug. Once, as Helga offered to approach the Black One, Sigurd made a warning gesture. They waited in dead silence. While the voices of the other men came to them faintly, and the insects chirped about their feet, and the birds called in the trees above them.

At last Egil came slowly back, sullen-eyed and grim-mouthed. He held a branch in his hands and was bending and breaking it fiercely. “It is shame enough,” he began after a while, “that any man should have had it in his power to spare me. I wonder that I do not die of the disgrace! But it would be a still fouler shame if, after he had spared my life, I let myself keep a wolf’s mind toward him.” His eyes suddenly blazed out at Alwin, but he controlled himself and went on. “The reason for my enmity I will not tell; wild steers should not tear it out of me. But, ” He stopped and drew a hard breath, and set his teeth afresh; “but I will forego that enmity. It is more than my life is worth. It is worth a dozen lives to him, ” his voice broke with rage, “yet because it is honorable, I will do it. If you, Sigurd Haraldsson, and you, Rolf, will pledge your friendship to this man, I will swear him mine.” It was well that he had reached the end, for he could not have spoken another syllable.

Bewilderment tied Alwin’s tongue. Sigurd was the first to speak.

“That seems to me a fair offer; and half the condition is already fulfilled. I clasped his hand last night.”

Rolf answered with less promptness. “I say nothing against the Englishman’s courage or his skill; yet I will not conceal it even in payment for a comrade’s life, I do not like to give my friendship to one of thrall-birth.”

That loosened Alwin’s tongue. “In my own country,” he said haughtily, “you would be done honor by a look from me. Editha will tell you that my father was Earl of Northumbria, and my mother a princess of the royal blood of Alfred.”

Helga uttered an exclamation of surprise and interest; but he would not deign to look at her. For a while longer Rolf hesitated, looking long and strangely at Egil, and long and keenly at Sigurd. But at last he put forth his huge paw.

“Alwin of England,” he said slowly, “though you little know how much it means, I offer you my hand and my friendship.”

Alwin took it a little coldly. “I will not give you thanks for a forced gift; yet I pledge you my faith in return.”

Though his face still worked with passion, Egil’s hand was next extended. “However much I hate you, I swear that I will always act as your friend.”

In his secret heart Alwin murmured, “The Fiend take me if ever I turn my back on your knife!” But aloud he merely repeated his former compact.

When it was finished, Sigurd laid an affectionate hand upon his shoulder. “We cannot bind our friend-ship closer, but it is my advice that you do not leave Helga out of the bargain. Truer friend man never had.”

The bar across Alwin’s cheek grew fiery with his redder flush. He stood before her, rigid and speechless. Helga too blushed deeply; but there was nothing of a girl’s shyness about her. Her beautiful eyes looked frankly back into his.

“I will not offer you my friendship,” she said simply, “because I read in your face that you have not forgiven the foul wrong I put upon you, not knowing that you were brave, high-born and accomplished. I can understand your anger. Were I a man, and a woman should do such a thing to me, it is likely that I should kill her on the spot. But it may be that, in time to come, the memory will fade out of your mind, even as the scar will fade from your face. Then, if you have seen that my friendship is worth having, do you come and ask me for it, and I will give it to you.”

Before Alwin had time to think of an answer that would say neither more nor less than he meant, she had walked away with Sigurd. He looked after her with a scowl, because he saw Egil watching him. But it surprised him that, search as he would, he could nowhere find that great soul-stirring rage which he had first felt against her.