Read Chapter XVII. The Judgment of The Iron Voice of The Ward of King Canute, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

His power should
Every sagacious man
Use with discretion,
For he will find,
When among the bold he comes,
That no one alone is doughtiest.

Ha’vama’l.

Fold by fold, the sun’s golden fingers drew apart the mists that hid the valley. One by one, the red Severn cliffs were uncovered, and the wooded steeps on which the rival hosts were encamped. Brighter and brighter the river’s silver gleamed through its veilings. Finally the moment came when the last mist-wreath floated up like a curtain, and there lay open the shining water, and the rocky islet it seethed about, and the vision of two boats setting forth from the two shores amid the noise of shouting thousands. It was the hour of the royal duel, when the fate-thread of a nation, beaded with human destinies, lay between the fingers of two men. What a scattering of the beads if the cord should be cut!

Under the elms of the east bank, the daughter of Frode stood and watched the boats set out; and the hands that hung at her side opened and shut as though they were gasping for breath. For a moment she tortured herself with the thought that she knew not which side to pray for, since the victory of either would mean her beloved’s undoing; then she forgot Sebert’s future in her own present. Turning, she found herself facing a wall of stalwart bodies, a sea of coarse faces, and discovered, with a sudden tightening of her muscles, that all the eyes which were not following the boat were centred curiously upon herself.

Before she could take a step, the nearest warrior thrust out a hand and caught her by her black locks. “Stop a little, my Bold One,” he said gruffly. “Now that you have a moment to spare from the high-born folk, it is the wish of us churls to hear some of your news.”

A score of heavy voices seconded the demand, and the wall gradually curved into a circle around her. They were good-natured enough, even the grasp on her hair was roughly playful, but her heart seemed to stop in her as a swimmer’s might the first instant he lost sight of land and beheld only towering billows looming around him. She darted one swift glance at her knife, and another at an old willow-tree that overhung the bank, some thirty yards away. But even as she thought it, the hand left her hair and closed about her wrist.

“No cause for knife-play or leg-play either, my hawk,” the gruff voice rebuked her. “To no one are we more anxious to show friendship than to Canute’s ward; and you act like no true man if you cannot, when occasion requires, leave off your high-born ways and be a plain comrade among plain men.”

Again a murmur approved his words: “That is well spoken. Frode of Avalcomb would be the first to thank us for teaching it to you."... “He carried no such haughty head, young boy. I fought more than one battle at his heels."... “Come on, now!"... “Make haste! We want to get into place before they come to land.”

This time it was not a shadow but a sparkle of sunshine that mocked in Randalin’s ear: “You have not dared to be a woman, so you must dare to be a man.” She acknowledged the pitiless truth with a sigh of submission.

“Take your hands off me, and it shall be as you wish.” The big Swede released her wrist to catch her around the waist and toss her like a bone upon the platter of his shield, which four of them promptly raised between them and bore along, laughing uproariously at her sprawling efforts for dignity. When they came to a spot along the bank which was open enough to give them an unobstructed view of the island, they permitted her to scramble down and seat herself upon the grass, where they ringed themselves around her, twenty deep.

“Now for it! While they are waiting for Edmund to land; before there is anything to watch,” the Scar-Cheek commanded. “Tell what you told Canute with regard to the English King which made him so reckless as to agree to this bargain.”

There was nothing for it but obedience. A flower in a thicket of thistles, a lamb in the midst of wolves, she sat and watched the tipping of the scales that had her fortune among their weights.

A shout from the surging mass of English opposite told when the Ironside had landed; and as soon as it was seen whom he had chosen to accompany him as his witness, a buzz of excitement passed along the Danish line.

“Edric! by all the gods, Edric Jarl!”

“Now, for the first time, I believe that victory will follow Canute’s sword!” Brass Borgar ejaculated. “Since nothing less than the madness betokening death could cause Edmund to continue his trust in the Gainer, it is seen from this that he is a death-fated man.”

From the others there came a volley of epithets, so foul a flight that the girl’s knuckles whitened in her struggles to keep her hands down from her ears. A picture rose in her mind of Sebert’s dream-lady, passing her waiting-time among soft-voiced maids, and her heart turned sick within her.

It was little time that the pack gave her for revery, however; now it was Edric Jarl of whom they wanted to hear.

“While they are talking about the terms, there is nothing to look at; tell us how the Gainer pulled the net around King Edmund,” the rough voices demanded. And again she was obliged to bend her wits to their task.

But it came at last, the end that was the beginning. Suddenly a hand reached around her neck and shut over her mouth. “Stop! They are taking their places. Look!”

He need not have added that last word; from that moment for many thousands of eyes there was but one object in the world, the strip of rock-ribbed earth and the two figures that faced each other upon it.

As they fixed their gaze on their champion, the English yelled exultantly, and the Danes bravely rivalled them in noise; but it was more a cry of rage and grief than a cheer. Now that the royal duellists stood forth together, stripped of cloak and steel shirt, and wearing no other helm than the golden circlet of their rank, their inequality was even more glaring than alarmed fancy had painted it. The crown of Canute’s shining locks reached only to the chin of the mighty Ironside; and the width of nearly two palms was needed on his shoulders.

Borgar turned, with tears in his bleared eyes, and threw himself face-downward on the earth; and the fellow next to him, with the mien of a madman, thrust his mantle between his teeth and bit and tore at it like a dog. “It is murder,” he snarled, “murder.”

Of all the Northmen, the young King alone appeared serenely undisturbed. When he had saluted the Ironside with royal courtesy, he met his sword as though he were beginning a practising bout with his foster-brother. Smoothly, evenly, without haste or fury, the blades began to sing their wordless song to the listening banks.

After a time Borgar dared to raise his face from the grass. “Is he yet alive?” he whispered.

The men did not seem to hear him. Humped over the earth, with starting eyes and necks stretched to their uttermost, they were like so many boulders. Nor did Frode’s daughter seem to feel that the hand the Brass One had raised himself upon was crushing her foot; she did not even glance toward him as she answered: “Simpleton! Do you think the King does not know how to handle his weapon? If only his strength ”

Her sentence was not finished, and the man next to her drew in his breath with a great whistling rush. Canute’s weapon, playing with the lightness of a sun-beam, had evaded a stroke of the great flail and touched for an instant the shoulder of its wielder. Had he put a pound more force into the thrust A groan crept down the Danish line when the bright blade rose, as lightly as it had fallen, and continued its butterfly dance. It consoled them a little, however, that no cheer went up from the English, only a low buzz that was half of anger, half of astonishment.

Farther along the eastern bank, where Thorkel the Tall stood beside Ulf Jarl and Eric of Norway, there was not even a groan. The first rift came in the puzzled clouds of Eric’s face. “Here is the first happening that makes me hope!” he said. “If he has something more than his fencing accomplishment to support him, it may be that an unfavorable outcome need not be expected.”

The Tall One’s brows relaxed ever so little from their snarl of worry. “The boy has experienced good training, for all that he has at present the appearance of a great fool. If Rothgar’s warrior skill is in his arm, yet my caution should be in his head.”

Certainly there was no Berserk madness about the young Danishman; there was hardly even seriousness. Now his blade was a fleeing will-o’-the-wisp, keeping just out of reach of Edmund’s brand with apparently no thought but of flight. Now, when the Ironside’s increasing vehemence betrayed him into an instant’s rashness, it was a humming-bird darting into a flower-cup. But it always rose again as daintily as it had alighted.

The Danish bank was frantic with excitement. “It is the dance of the Northern Lights!” they cried. “Thor has sent him his own sword!”

The lines of English were wild with anger. “Crush him, the hornet, the wasp! Crush him, Edmund!” they roared.

In his exultation, the Scar-Cheek rolled himself over and over on the grass, and wound up by thrusting his shaggy head into the lap of the red-cloaked page. “I must do something for joy,” he panted; “and except for your hair you look near enough like a handsome woman. Do you bend down and kiss me every time Canute pricks him.”

His head fell to the ground with a thump as the child of Frode leaped to her feet.

“If you lay finger on me again,” she whispered, “I will caress you with this!” and for an instant a knife-blade glittered before the bulging eyes. Snorri rolled back with alacrity and an oath; and after a moment Frode’s daughter dropped down again and hid her face in her hands. If the King should be slain and she be left adrift in this foul sea! She might as well have screamed as moaned, for all that they would have noticed.

About this time Canute’s blade appeared to have become in earnest. Ceasing its airy defence, it took on the aggressive. Instead of a flitting sunbeam, it became a shaft from a burning glass; instead of one merry humming-bird, it became a whole swarm of skimming, swooping, darting swallows, waging war on a bewildered owl. Before the sudden fury of the onslaught, Edmund gave back a pace. And either because his anger made him reckless or his great bulk was against him, he presently was forced to draw back another step. Wildest cheers went up from the North-men. It seemed as though they would wade in a body across the river.

Only Eric of Norway stamped with uneasiness; and the overhanging brows of Thorkel the Tall were as lowering hoods above his eyes. “Well has he hoarded his strength,” he muttered. “Well has he saved it, yet yet ”

At that moment such a roar went up from Northern throats as might well have startled the wolf’s shadow off the face of the sun; for Edmund Ironside had retreated a third step, and the Dane’s point appeared to lie at the Englishman’s heart. Then the uproar died somewhere in mid-air, for in what seemed the very act of thrusting, Canute had leaped backward and lowered his blade. So deep was the hush on either side the river that the whir of a bird’s wing sounded as loud as a flight of arrows. Bending forward, with strained ears and starting eyes, the spectators saw that the Northern King was speaking, eagerly, with now and then an impulsive gesture, while the English King listened motionless.

“Has he got out of his wits?” the Scar-Cheek roared, fairly dancing with impatience.

In Randalin’s face a flash of memory was struggling with bewilderment. “Other weapons than those which dwell in sheaths.” Had he meant “the sword of speech,” his tongue?

With the deliberate grace which characterized his every motion, the Ironside slid his sword back to its case, and they saw him take a slow step forward and slowly extend his hand. Then they saw Canute spring to meet him, and their palms touch in a long grasp.

From the English shore there went up a joyful shout of “Peace!” And a deafening clamor rose in answer from the Danish bank. But what sentiment predominated in that, it would be difficult to say. Blended with rejoicing over their King’s safety, were cries of bitter disappointment, the cries of thirsty men who have seen wine dashed from their lips.

In their retreat, the two Northern jarls and the young monarch’s foster-father faced each other uncertainly. “Here is mystery!” Eric of Norway said at last. “I should be thankful if you would tell me whether he thought it unwise to kill the Englishman before the face of his army; or whether he is in truth struck with love toward him, as the fools seem to believe?”

“Or whether he had reached the exact limit of his strength so that he was obliged to save himself by some trick of words?” Ulf Jarl suggested.

The Tall One shook his head slowly. “Now, as always, it is he alone who can altogether explain his actions. It might easily be that in his mad impatience he overvalued his strength, so that he was obliged to stop short to keep within bounds. But I think you will find that there is still some trick which is not open to our sight. His man-wit is deepening very fast; I will not be so bold as to say that I can always fathom it.”

“Perhaps he thinks a short peace would be useful to the host,” the Norwegian said, and laughed. “Such a truce is as comfortable as a cloak when the weather is stark, and as easy to get rid of when the sun comes out.”

By their faces, the others appeared to agree with him; but before they could express themselves, a swimmer rose like a dripping seal out of the water at their feet.

“Peace and division again!” he cried breathlessly. “And it is the King’s will that you get into a boat and come to him at once.”

The rush of the crowd to the water-side to question the messenger gave Randalin her chance for freedom; and she was not slow in taking it. A moment more, and she was in the very top of the willow-tree, clasping her hands and wringing them in alternate thanksgiving and terror.

“Whatever it bring upon me, I will get back to my woman’s clothes,” she vowed to herself over and over. “Though it become a hindrance to me, though it be the cause of my death, I will be a woman always. Odin forgive me that I thought I had courage enough to be a man!”