Read Chapter XIX. The Gift of The Elves of The Ward of King Canute, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

Fair shall speak
And money offer,
Who would obtain a woman’s love.
Ha’vama’l.

It was the edge of a forest pool, and a slender dark-haired girl bending from the brink to see herself in the water. Looking, she smiled, and small wonder!

Below her, framed in green rushes, was the reflection of a high-born maiden dressed according to her rank. Clinging silk and jewelled girdle lent new grace to her lithesome form, while the mossy green of her velvet mantle brought out the rich coloring of her face as leaves bring out the glowing splendor of a rose. Gold was in the embroidery that stiffened her trailing skirts; gold was sewn into her gloves, and golden chains twined in her lustrous hair added to the spirited poise of her head a touch of stateliness. No wonder that her mouth curved into a smile as she gazed.

“It cannot be denied that I look woman-like now,” she murmured. “It is a great boon for me that he likes my hair.”

Then the water lost both the reflection and the face above it as a sweet voice sounded up the bank, calling, “Randalin! Randalin!”

Picking up the branchful of scarlet berries which she had dropped, Frode’s daughter moved toward the voice. “Are they about to go, Dearwyn?” she asked the little gentlewoman who came toward her around a hawthorn bush, lifting her silken skirts daintily.

Dearwyn shook her head. “My lady wishes to try on you the wreath she has made. She thinks your dark locks will set it off better than our light ones.”

“I was on my way thither,” Randalin said, quickening her steps.

With timid friendliness in her pretty face, Dearwyn waited, and the Danish girl gave her a shy smile when at last they stood side by side; but their acquaintanceship did not appear to have reached the point of conversation, for they walked back in silence to the spot where the Lady Elfgiva’s train had halted on its journey for a noonday meal and rest.

Along the bank of a pebbly stream, between pickets of mounted guards, the troop of holiday-folk was strung in scattered groups. Yonder, a body of the King’s huntsmen struggled with braces of leashed hounds. Here were gathered together the falconers bearing the King’s birds. Nearer, a band of grooms led the King’s blooded horses to the water. And nearer yet, where the sun lay warm on a leafy glade, the King’s beautiful “Danish wife” took her nooning amid her following of maids and of pages, of ribboned wenches and baggage-laden slaves.

As her glance fell upon this last picture, Randalin drew a quick breath of admiration. While they waited for the bondwomen to restore to the hampers the crystal goblets and gold-fringed napkins that even in the wood wastes must minister to such delicate lips, one merry little lady was launching fleets of beech-nut rinds down the stream; another, armed with a rush-spear, was making bold attack on the slumbers of some woodland creature which she had spied out basking on the sunny side of a stump; and in the centre of the open, the Lady Elfgiva was amusing herself with the treasures of red and gold leaves which silk-clad pages were bringing from the thicket.

Gazing at her, Randalin’s admiration mounted to wistfulness. “Were I like that, I should be sure of his feeling toward me,” she sighed.

Certainly, as she looked to-day sitting under the towering trees, it was easy to understand why the King’s wife had been named “the gift of the elves.” Every lovely thing in Nature had been robbed to make her, and only fairy fingers could have woven the sun’s gold into such tresses, or made such eyes from a scrap of June sky and a spark of opal fire. From the crown of her jewelled hair to the toe of her little red shoe, there was not one line misplaced, one curve forgotten, while her motions were as graceful as blowing willows.

When the pair came toward her over the carpet of leather-hued leaves, she put out a white hand in beckoning. “Come here, my Valkyria, and let me try if I can make you look still more like a gay bird from over the East Sea.”

“You have made me look a very splendid bird, lady,” Randalin said gratefully, as she knelt to receive the woodland crown.

Elfgiva patted the brown cheeks in acknowledgment, and also in delight at the effect of her handiwork. “You are an honor to my art. Do you know that the night before you came to me I dreamed I held a burning candle in my hand, and that is known by everybody to be a sign of good. A hundred plans are in my mind against the time that this peace shall be over, and we are obliged to return to that loathful house where we suffer so much with dulness that the quarrels of my little brats are the only excitement we have.”

Still kneeling for the white fingers to pat and pull at her head-dress, Randalin looked up wonderingly. “Is it your belief that King Canute will not carry out his intention, lady, that you say ’when the peace is over’? I know for certain that it is expected to last forever.”

“Forever?” The lady’s voice was an echo of sweet mockery. “Take half a kingdom when a whole lies almost within his reach? Now I will not deny that the King is sometimes boyish of mood, but rarely that foolish.” She seemed to toss the idea from her with the leaves she shook from her robe as she rose and moved back a step to see the wreath from a new point. “Turn your head this way, child. Yes, there is still one thing wanting on this side; berries if I have them, or grasses if I have not, here are more berries! Oh, yes, I declare that I expect to be very merry through your spirits! You shall have the rule over my pages and devise games and junketings without end.”

Humming gayly, she began to weave in the bright berries; and it struck Randalin that here was a good opportunity to make the plea she had in her mind. She said gravely, “I shall be thankful if you are able to manage it, lady, so that I may go back with you.”

Pausing in her work, Elfgiva looked down in surprise. “Now what should prevent?” she asked.

The girl colored a little as she answered: “It was in the King’s mind once, lady, that a good way to dispose of Randalin, Frode’s daughter, would be to marry her to the son of Lodbrok. If he should still keep that opinion I would prefer to die!” she ended abruptly.

But the King’s wife laughed her rippling laughter that had in it all the music of falling waters. “Shed no tears over that, ladybird! Would I be apt to let such an odious bear as Rothgar Lodbroksson rob me of my newest plaything? Whence to my dulness a pastime but for your help? Though he were the King’s blood-brother, he should tell for naught. You do not guess half the entertainment your wild ways will be to me. I expect it will be more pleasant for me to have you than that Norman ape which Canute sent me at the beginning of the summer, which is dead now, unfortunately, because Harald would insist upon shooting his arrows into it. There! Now my work could not be improved upon.” Again she moved back, her beautiful head tilted in birdlike examination. Randalin arose slowly and stood before her with widening eyes.

But it was not long that the Lady of Northampton had for her or for the wreath. Now her attention was attracted to the farthest group of guards and huntsmen, whose motions and shouting seemed to indicate some unusual commotion. Bending, she peered curiously under the branches. “I wonder if it has happened that the King has sent someone to meet us?” she exclaimed. “I see a gleam of scarlet, lady,” the maiden of the riverbank came to tell her eagerly.

But even as Elfgiva was turning to despatch a page for news, the throng of moving figures parted, and from it two horsemen emerged and rode toward them. One was the mighty son of Lodbrok, clad in the scarlet mantle and gilded mail of the King’s guard. The other, who wore no armor at all, only feasting-clothes of purple velvet, was the King himself.

The whole troop of butterfly pages rushed forward to take possession of the horses; the little gentlewomen made a fluttering group behind their mistress; and Elfgiva, laughing in sweetest mockery, swept back her rosy robes in a lowly reverence.

“Hail, lord of half a kingdom but of the whole of my heart!” she greeted him.

Canute seemed to drink in her fairness like wine; his face was boyish in its radiance as he leaped from his horse before her. “What! The first word a gibe?” he cried, then caught her in his arms and stilled her silvery laughter with his lips.

It was so charming a picture that Randalin smiled in sympathy, where she stood a little way behind the young wife, awaiting the moment when the King should have leisure to discover her. Not the faintest doubt of his friendliness was in her mind. She was still smiling, when at last he raised his head and looked at her over Elfgiva’s shoulder.

Then alas, the smile died, murdered, on her lips. Turning, Canute beckoned to the son of Lodbrok, who was enduring the scene with the same stolid resignation which he displayed toward his chief’s other follies. “Foster-brother, how comes it that you do not follow my example and embrace the bride that I have given you?”

As ice breaks and reveals sullen waters underneath, so stolidity broke in Rothgar’s face. With a harsh laugh, he strode forward.

Perhaps it was to follow the King’s suggestion, perhaps it was only to vent his reproaches; but Randalin did not wait to see. Before she knew how she got there, she was at Elfgiva’s side, clutching at her mantle.

“Lady! You promised me ” she cried.

And for all her chiming laughter, Elfgiva’s silken arm was stretched out like a bar. “No further, good Giant!” she said gayly. “The King gave what was not his, for this toy has become mine.” She turned to Canute with a little play of smiling pouts, very bewitching on such lips. “Fie, my lord! Be pleased to call your wolves off my lambs.”

Plainly, Canute’s frown was unable to withstand such witcheries. Despite himself he laughed, and his voice was more persuasive than commanding. “Now he will not rob you of the girl, my Shining One. Once he has wedded her, you may keep her until you tire. It was only because ”

But there he stopped, for all at once a mist had come over the heavenly eyes, and the smiling lips had drawn themselves into a trembling bunch. The sweet voice too was subtly tremulous.

“It is because you are to a greater degree anxious to please him than me, though it is a whole year that I have pined away, day and night, in the utmost loneliness. Wel-a-way! What! Why have you troubled to send for me, if you hold my happiness so lightly that you will not comply with me in so small a matter?” Bridling softly, she was turning away, when the young King threw up his hands in good-humored surrender.

“To this I will quickly reply that my shield does not secure me against tears! If it is not to your wish we will not speak of it. Give back, foster-brother, and choose two of the others to be your drinking-companions. Look up, my fair one, and admit that I am the most obedient of your thralls. Never, on former days or since, have I so much as kicked one of your little yelping dogs, though I hate them as Stark Otter hated bells.”

Sunshine through the mist, Elfgiva laughed. “Nay, but you have them drowned when I am not looking,” she retorted.

He did not take the trouble to deny it; indeed he laughed as though the accusation was especially apt. “Have I ever wounded you more deeply than a trinket would cure?” he demanded.

And behold, she had already forgotten the matter, to catch at the huge arm-ring which was slipping up and down his sleeve, so loose a fit was it. “What Grendel’s neck did you take it from! If it had but an opening, I could use it for a belt.”

Smiling, the King looked down on his monster bracelet. “That,” he said, “does not altogether do me credit, for it shows the difference in girth between me and Edmund Ironside. When we set the peace between us, we exchanged ornaments and weapons. Think if we had followed the custom in every respect and exchanged garments likewise!”

Elf-fires were in Elfgiva’s blue eyes when she raised them to his. “Rule your words so that no one else hears you say that, bright Lord of the Danes,” she murmured, “lest they think you mean by it that the English crown would fit you as loosely, and forget that you are a boy who will grow.” The King’s mouth sobered.

“Nay, a man, who has got his growth.”

Her little hand spurned the ring that the instant before it had caressed. “Not a man, but a King!” she reminded him, and drew herself up proudly before him, a queen in beauty, crowned with the sun’s gold.

His eyes devoured her; his breath seemed to come faster as he looked. All at once he caught her hands and crushed them against his lips. “Neither man nor king,” he cried, “but the lover who has adored you since he came to plunder but stayed to woo! Do you know that when I came upon you to-day, my heart burst into flower as a tree blooms in the spring-time? Had I a harp in my hand, my lips would blossom into song. Get me one from your minstrels, and I will sing to you as we ride, and we will forget that a day has passed since the time when first we roved together through the Northampton meadows.”

Forgetful of all the world beside, he led her away toward the horses.