Read Chapter XX. A Royal Reckoning of The Ward of King Canute, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

A tale is always half told if only one man tells it.
GRETTI’S saga.

Whether from policy or necessity, the guest-house of Gloucester Abbey was surrendered to the royal band with open-armed hospitality. Every comfort the place afforded was heaped together to soften the bare rooms for the accommodation of the noble ladies; every delicacy the epicurean abbot could obtain loaded the table; and what little grass the frost had left in the cloister garth was sacrificed to the swarm of pages and henchmen, minstrels and tumblers. Now a tournament of games in the riverside meadows took up the day, now a pageant up the river itself; again, a ride with the hawks or a run after the hounds, and the nights were one long revel. Time slipped by like a song off the lips of a harper.

To-day it was to chase a boar over the wooded hills that the holiday troop was awake and stirring at sunrise. The silvery bell-notes that called the monks to morning prayer were jostled in mid-air by the blare of hunters’ horns. Stamping iron-shod hoofs and the baying of deep-voiced hounds broke the stillness of the cloister, and threescore merry voices laughed out of memory the Benedictine vow of silence.

Voices and horns made a joyous uproar when the King led forth his lady and her fair following; and he smiled with pleasure at the welcome and the picturesque beauty of the gay throng between the gray old walls.

“Now how could I come upon a better sight if I were the King of a hundred islands?” he demanded of Elfgiva.

But he did not wait for her answer; instead, he stepped forward as though to avoid it and put a question to one of his huntsmen. And his wife turned and spoke sharply to the blond maiden behind her, whose more than usual fairness had given her the name of Candida, or “the white one.”

“Where is Randalin? I sent the garments to her an hour ago. She stands in need of a taste of Teboen’s rod to teach her promptness.”

Little Dearwyn, watching the doorway with fluttering color, cried out eagerly, “Here she is, lady!”

There she was, in truth, standing on the threshold with crimson cheeks and flashing eyes. At the sight of her every huntsman uttered a whistle of amazement, then settled into an admiring stare; and Canute, glancing over his shoulder, laughed outright.

“What!” he said. “Have you tired of woman’s clothes already?”

For, once more, Frode’s daughter was attired in a man’s short tunic and long silken hose. It was a suit much richer than the old one, since silver embroidery banded the blue, and precious furs lined the cloak; but that fact was evidently of little comfort to her, as her eyes were full of angry tears, and she deigned the King no answer whatever.

“I am obliged to pay dearly for your amusement, lady,” she said bitterly.

Elfgiva chimed her bell-like laughter. “I will not deny that you pay liberally for my trouble, sweet. Does it not add spice to her stories, maidens, to see her habited thus? She looks like one of the fairy lords Teboen is wont to sing of.”

“She holds her head like Emma of Normandy,” the King said absently.

In wide-eyed surprise, Elfgiva looked up at him. “Ethelred’s widow? Never did I hear that you had seen her! Why has this been passed over in silence? I have abundance of questions to ask about her garments and her appearance. When saw you her? And where?”

Canute stirred uneasily. “It is not worth a hearing. I spoke but a few words with her, about ransoms, the time that I sat before London. And I remember only that her bearing was noble and her countenance most handsome, such as I had never seen before, nor did I think that there could be any woman so queenlike.” Because he did not choose to say more, or because some wrinkle in Elfgiva’s satin brow warned him off, he turned hastily to another topic. “Foolishly do we linger, when we have none too much time to get to covert. Do you still want your way about accompanying us? I have warned you that a boar hunt is little like hawking; nor do Northmen stand in one spot and wait for game to come to them.”

“I hold to it with both hands,” the lady returned with a gayety which had in it a touch of defiance. “Nor will I consent to do anything except that alone. We will partake in the excitement of your sport, and each of these brave heroes of yours shall answer for the safety of one of us.” A gesture of her hand included Thorkel the Tall, the two Northern jarls, and the King’s foster-brother.

“And is it your belief that a man can at the same time chase a boar and talk fine words to a woman?” Canute demanded between amusement and impatience. “Call it a ride, if you will, but leave the boar out for reason’s sake, as he would leave us out ere we were so much as on his track.”

She gave him a sidelong glimpse of her wonderful eyes, and drooped her head like a lily grown heavy on its stem. “Would that be so great a misfortune then?” she murmured. “Do you think it unpleasant to be passing your time at my side?”

Smiling, he watched the play of her long silken lashes, yet shook his head. “Nay, when I hunt, I hunt,” he said. “I would have idled in your bower if you had chosen it, but you urged me to this, and now if it happens that you cannot keep up, you must bear your deed.”

As one casts aside an ill-fitting glove, she threw aside her pouts, looking up at him with a flash of dainty mimicry. “Hear the fiery Thor! Take notice that I shall bear all down before me like a man mowing ripe corn. You cannot guess how much warlikeness I have caught from my Valkyria.” She glanced back where the girl in the short tunic stood drawing on her gloves, a picture of stormy beauty.

Amused, the King’s eyes followed hers, then lighted with sudden purpose. “As you will,” he laughed, “and I will give your Valkyria a steed that shall match her appearance.” Advancing again, he spoke to a groom; and the signal set the whole party in motion.

Randalin heard his words, but at the moment she was too deep in angry embarrassment to heed them. It seemed to her that every eye in the throng was fastened upon her as she walked forward, that every mouth buzzed comment behind her. It was not until she was in the saddle that his intention reached her understanding.

The powerful black charger, which a groom led toward her, had been pawing and arching his glossy neck impatiently since the first horn set his blood-drops dancing; at the touch of her foot upon the stirrup, he snorted satisfaction through his wide-flaring nostrils and would have leaped forward like a stone from a sling, if the man had not hung himself upon the bit. The girl awoke to surprise as she barely managed to reach her seat by the most agile of springs.

“This is not the horse I ride, Dudda! He must belong to one of the nobles.”

“He is the horse that King Canute said you should take,” the man panted, as he struggled to keep his footing. “He said to fetch Praise Odin!” For at that moment, Canute’s silver horn gave the signal, and he was free to leap aside.

Randalin’s trained hand upon the reins was as firm as it was light, and her trained eye was keenly alert to every motion of the black ears, but in her brain all was whirling confusion, and no longer any thought of her tunic. What was the King’s purpose in making this change? Certainly he was in no mood to honor her, what could he have in his mind? While her tongue answered mechanically to Ulf Jarl’s observations concerning the weather and the fair farmland they were riding through, her eyes were furtively examining her companions’ steeds. No fiery ambitions disturbed their easy gait, spirited though they were. Indeed, Elfgiva, looking back at this moment, singled her out with a rippling laugh.

“By the blessed Ethelberga, you have a horse in all respects befitting your spirit, my shield-maiden! I hope it is not the King’s intention to punish you by frightening you.”

Could it be possible that he should stoop to so unworthy an action, the girl asked herself? And yet it was as understandable as any of his behavior during the last fortnight. Suddenly it seemed that a hand had awakened the Viking blood which slumbered in her veins; it fired her cheeks and flashed from under her lashes. She answered clearly, “I hope it is not, lady, for he would experience disappointment.”

From all sides laughter went up, but there was no time for more, for now a hunter one of the men who had brought news of the lair galloped up, dust-choked and breathless.

“He has broken cover, King!” he gasped. “He is moving windward loose the hounds or you will miss him ”

Canute’s horn was at his lips before the last broken phrase was out. “Forward!” he shouted with a blast. “The hounds, and forward!” A whirlwind seemed to strike the ambling train and sweep them over the ground like autumn leaves.

Over stubble fields and leaf-carpeted lanes, with half frightened smiles upon their parted lips, Elfgiva and her fair ones kept up bravely; then across a stream into a thicket, over hollows and fallen logs, under low-hanging boughs, through brush and brier and bramble, leaping, dodging, tearing, crashing. Leonorine the Timid uttered a cry, as her horse slid down a bank with his feet bunched under him; and the Lady Elfgiva dropped her reins to press her hand where a thorn had scratched her cheek.

“Stop!” she commanded. “Stop! We will turn back and wait until he strikes across a field.”

As well have tried to call off the hounds after they had caught the scent and doubled themselves over the trail! It is unlikely that any man so much as heard her. For one flash of time she beheld them seesawing in the air before her, as their horses rose over the brush; then there was nothing but the distant crashing of dry timber and the echo of Canute’s jubilant horn.

“And the Valkyria has gone also!” the lady ejaculated, when her injured gaze was able to come sufficiently close to earth.

And so the Valkyria had, though with as little of free will as on that day when her runaway steed carried her out of the press of the fleeing army. At the first call of the horn, Black Ymer had taken the bronze bit between his teeth and followed, and his rider’s one concern in life became not the guiding of him but the staying on. Before they left the first thicket her mantle was torn from her shoulders, and she was lying along his neck, now on this side, now on that, to escape the whipping twigs that lashed at her, threatening to cut out her eyes. From the thicket out into the open, where it seemed as if the wind that rushed against her would blow not only the clothes from her body but the flesh from her bones!

Far ahead, where the little valley ended and the wood began again, she caught a fleeting glimpse of the boar as it burst covert with the yelping pack at its heels and was for one instant revealed, snarling, bare-tusked, and flecked with bloody foam. Then it dived again under cover and was gone in a new direction. Canute’s horn sounded a recall, and one by one the hunters checked their onward rush and wheeled.

Black Ymer’s rider also tried to obey, but all the strength of her body was not enough to sway him by a hair’s breadth. On he shot into the thicket.

“He will have enough sense to stop when he finds out that he is alone,” was her despairing thought.

But he continued to forge ahead like a race horse, in uneven leaps as though some sound from behind were urging him on. Suddenly, through the roaring of her ears, it broke upon her that he was not alone, that at least one horse was following. Its approaching tread was like thunder in the stillness. If it could but get ahead of her, all would be well. Her heart beat hopefully as the jar sounded nearer and nearer. When the snorting nostrils seemed at the Black One’s very flank, at the risk of her neck she turned her head.

Looking, she understood why a steed had been given her which should carry her out of Elfgiva’s reach, for the horseman who was even now stretching his gauntleted hand toward her rein was the King himself. No one followed, and the forest around them was silent as a vault. At last, he was free to speak his mind.

Under the drag of his hand, the horse came slowly to a halt and stood panting and trembling in the middle of a little dell. For a while, she could do no more than cling to the saddle-bow, sick with dizziness.

Still holding her rein, her royal guardian sat regarding her critically. “Now it seems to me that your boasting is less than before,” he said. “And you were mistaken in supposing that I would have given this animal to you if I had not known you could ride him.” When she made no reply, he shook the rein impatiently. “Is it still the horse that makes you heavy in your breathing? Or perhaps you scarcely dare to face my justice? I warn you that I shall not take it well if you begin to weep.”

A spark was drawn out of her by that. With an effort, she raised her head and shot him a glance from bright angry eyes. “No such intention have I, Lord King. Certainly I do not fear your justice. Why should I?”

“Since I have little time to spend upon your freaks, I will tell you why,” he said sternly. “Because you have betrayed one of my people for the sake of an Englishman.”

With surprise, her glance wavered. “I did not know you knew that,” she said slowly. But, as he expected her to droop, she bristled instead. “Nor was it to be expected, Lord King, that you would be the one to blame me for using craft.”

His eyes kindled; if she had stopped there it might have gone hard with her, but she spoke on swiftly, her head indignantly erect. “If Rothgar Lodbroksson thinks he should have indemnity because he was too stupid to see through a trick, let him have Avalcomb, when you get it back from the English, and feel that he has got more than he deserves; but your anger ” she broke off abruptly and sat with her lips pressed tight as though keeping back a sob. “In the beginning, I got great kindness at your hands, Lord King,” she said at last, “and your anger hurts me!”

On the point of softening, the King’s face hardened, and he averted his head. “You value my favor rather late in the day, Frode’s daughter. It would have been better if you had shown honor to it when you came in to me at Scoerstan, by giving me truth in return for friendship.”

If she had laughed as though recalling the jest in that scene, it is possible that he would have struck her with his glove. It was fortunate that her sense of humor was no more than a bubble on the foam of her high spirits. Her eyes were dark with earnestness as they sought his.

“Lord King, I was hindered by necessity. Your camp was it a place for women? And did not your own mouth tell me that Randalin, Frode’s daughter, should wed the son of Lodbrok if she were alive?”

He struck his knee a ringing slap. “I confess that it is not easy to be a match for you! But I can tell you one thing which you will not be able to explain, as heretofore, and it is a thing which has made me get bitterest against you. If you had kept your confidence from all it might have passed for discreetness, but that you should keep it from me to give it to an Englishman ”

“But I did not give it to the Englishman,” she interrupted. For an instant he stared at her; directly after he burst into a loud laugh. “Now that is the best thing that has occurred yet! Where you cannot crawl through, you break through!” He laughed again, and was opening his mouth to repeat some of the suspicions he had shared with Rothgar when something about her stopped him, whether it was the way she bore her head or something in her deep eyes. Dropping his derision, he spoke bluntly: “What reason in the world could cause you to behave thus if it is not that he is your lover?”

The color gathered and spread over her face in maiden shame, until her tunic became the cruelest of mockeries.

“Short is the reason to tell, Lord King,” she said, “it is because I love him.” As he sat regarding her, she put out her hand and played with a tendril of wild grapevine that hung from the tree beside her, her eyes following her fingers. “I do not know why I should be ashamed of the state of my feelings. I should not be able to stand alive before you if he had not been a better lord to me than you are to English captives; and he is more gentle and high-minded than any man I ever heard sung of. Sometimes I think I should have more to be ashamed of if I did not feel love toward him.” A little defiantly, she raised her eyes to his, only to drop them back to the spray. “But he does not love me. He knows me only as the boy he was kind to. I have given him the high-seat in my heart, but I sit only within the door of his.”

The forest seemed very still when she had done, the only sound the clanking of the bits as the horses cropped the withered grass. Then suddenly the King gathered up his lines with a jerk.

“I cannot believe it,” he said harshly. “You are all alike, you women, with your cat-like purrings and tricksy eyes that surpass most other things in deceit. I do not deny both that you know well how to feign and that I would like to believe you, but you must prove it first before I do.”

“How can I do that, lord?” she said helplessly; but shrank, the next moment, as she saw that already he had a plan in his mind. Moving his horse a step nearer, he bent toward her triumphantly. “I will send for the Englishman, in your name or the name you wore and you shall meet him in my presence, and I shall be able to tell from his manner whether or not you have spoken truthfully.”

Send for him! At the very thought her face was ecstatic with happiness. Then she clasped her hands in dismay. “But not if I must continue in these garments, lord! You can decide over my fate, but I will never face him again in anything but woman’s weeds.”

The King frowned. “Strangely do you speak; as if I did not know what is befitting a Danish woman that I would allow one who is noble-born in all her kindred to be treated disgracefully after I had taken her into my wardership!”

A while longer he sat there, watching her changeful face with its lovely mouth and the eyes that some trick of light and shade had deepened to the purple of an iris petal’s markings; and the sight seemed to gentle his mood.

“I should like to reconcile myself to you,” he said slowly. “Since first you came before me and showed by your entreaty that you thought me something besides an animal, I have felt friendliness toward you. And I should like to believe that some woman loves some man as you say you love this Englishman.” Out of the very wishfulness of his voice, a terrible menace spoke: “I should like it so much that I shall neither spare you in word nor deed if you have deceived me!” Then once more his manner softened. “Yet my mind feels a kind of faith toward you. I shall try you, to make sure, but until you have proved that you are unworthy of it, I will not keep you out of my friendship.” Drawing off his glove, he stretched forth his hand. “You may find that a man’s harshness is little worse than a woman’s guile,” he said bitterly.

Dimly guessing what was in his mind, she dared not trust herself to words but told her gratitude with her eyes, as she returned his clasp. Then he sent her back by the one semblance of a path which ran through the forest, and himself rode on to his hunters.