Read Chapter XXIX. The Ring of The Coiled Snake of The Ward of King Canute, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

He is happy
Who for himself obtains
Fame and kind words;
Less sure is that
Which a man must have
In another’s breast.

Ha’vama’l.

The murmur of the rain that was falling gently on the roses of the Abbey garden stole in through the open windows of Elfgiva’s bower and blended softly with the music of Candida’s lyre. Poring over the dingy scrolls spread out on the table before her, the Lady of Northampton yawned until she was moved to throw herself back among her cushions with a gesture of graceful surrender.

“It seems that the Saints are going to take pity on me and shorten one of these endless days with a nap. Nurse, have a care for these scrolls. And if it happen that the King’s Marshal comes Randalin! Where is Randalin?”

Beyond Leonorine’s embroidery frame and the stool where Candida bent over her lyre, the length of the room away, a figure in iris-blue turned from the window by which it stood.

“Here, lady. What is your need?”

To place the speaker Elfgiva raised her head slightly, laughing as she let it sink back. “Watching for him already, and the sun but little past noon? For shame, moppet! Come here.”

“So please you, I was watching the rain on the roses,” Randalin excused herself with a blush as she came forward.

A merry chorus mocked her: “Is it to watch the roses that you have put on the gown which matches your eyes, you sly one?"... “And the lilies in your hair, sweet? Is it to shelter them from the rain that you wear them?"... “Fie, Tata! Can you not fib yet without changing color?”

But Elfgiva raised an impatient hand. “Peace, chatterers!” she commanded; and drawing the girl to her, she spoke low and earnestly in her ear.

Randalin looked up in surprise. “You will not see him, lady? Not though he bring news of the doings in the Palace?”

“Heaven’s mercy!” Elfgiva shrugged with a touch of scorn. “What abundance of news he has found to bring since the day he fell in with you at even-song!” Then she consented to smile faintly as she settled her head among the cushions. “I would rather sleep, child. Comfort him as best you can, only not so well that you forget that which I enjoined you. If he fail us, I cannot tell what we shall do, now that the second scullion has been so foolish as to get himself killed in some way. Where bear you the ring?”

The girl touched the spot where the gold chain that encircled her neck crept into the breast of her gown. The lady shook her head.

“Never would you think of it again. Take it out and wear it on your finger.”

As she obeyed, Randalin laughed a little, for the ring was a man’s ring, a massive spiral whose two ends were finished with serpents’ heads, and her thickest finger was but a loose fit in its girth. But Elfgiva, when she had seen it on, closed her eyes with an air of satisfaction.

“To keep from losing it, will keep it in your mind,” she said. “Now leave me. Candida, more softly! And see to it that you do not stop the moment my eyes are closing. Leonorine, why are you industrious in singing only when it is not required of you?... That is better... Let no one wake me.”

They drew silence around her like a curtain through whose silken web the blended voices of rain and lyre and singer crept in soothing melody. To escape its ensnaring folds, Randalin stole back to the distant window beneath which Dearwyn sat on a little bench, weaving clover blossoms into a chain.

The little gentlewoman looked up with her soft pretty smile. “How mysterious you are, you two!” she whispered, as she swept the mass of rosy bloom to the floor to make room for her friend. “What with Teboen always seething ill-smelling herbs and Tata, I pray you to tell who has gifted you with such a monster?”

Waving the ring where the light might catch the serpents’ eyes, Randalin pursed her lips with so much mystery that her friend was tempted to catch the hand and hold it prisoner while she examined the ornament. After one look, however, she let it fall with an expression of awe upon her dimpled face.

“The ring Canute gave Elfgiva that he won from the giant Rothgar? Heaven forbid that I should press upon her secrets! My ears tingle yet from the cuff I got only for looking at yonder dirty scroll. Yet how long is it since you were taken into their councils, Tata? Yesterday you were no better able than I to say how things were with her.”

“How long?” Randalin repeated dreamily. Her gaze had gone back again to the rain, falling so softly that every pool in the sodden paths seemed to be full of lazily winking eyes. “Oh, there are many good chances that he will be here soon now. He is seldom later than the third hour after noon.”

After a bewildered gasp, Dearwyn stifled a burst of laughter in her garlands. “Oh, Tata, come to earth!” she admonished. “Come to earth!” And scooping up a handful of the fragrant bloom, she pelted the dreamer with rosy balls.

Shaking them from robe and clustering hair, Randalin turned back, smiling. But her lips sobered almost to wistfulness as she sank down upon the seat beside her friend. “It seems that I must do that against my will,” she said. “Dearwyn, do you get afraid when you are happy? Sometimes, when I stand here watching for him and think how different all has happened from what I supposed, I am so happy,” she paused, and it was as though the sun had caught the iris flowers in her eyes, until a cloud came between and the blue petals purpled darkly “so happy that it causes fear to me, lest it be no more than a dream or in some way not true.”

Her cheek, as she ended, was softly pale, but Dearwyn brushed it pink with sweeps of the long-stemmed blossom in her hand.

“Sweet, it is the waxing of the moon. I pray you be blithe in your spirits. Small wonder your lover bears himself as gravely as a stone man on a tomb if you talk such ”

“Dearwyn, the same thought has overtaken us both!” Randalin broke in anxiously, and now she was all awake and staying the other’s busy fingers to ensure her attention. “Not a few times it has seemed to me that he looks weary of heart, as though some struggle were sapping his strength. He swears it is not so, yet I think the rebellion of his pride against king-serving ”

“If you want to know my belief, it is that he carries trouble in his breast about you,” Dearwyn interrupted.

“About me?” So much hurt surprise was in Randalin’s manner that the little maid begged forgiveness with caresses of the swaying clover.

“Be not vexed, honey, but in truth he is overcome by the oddest look whensoever he watches you without your seeing, as though he were not sure of you, in some way, and yet Oh, I cannot explain it! Only tell me this, does he not ask you, many times and oft, if you love him, or if others love you, or such like?”

In the midst of shaking her head, Randalin paused and her mouth became as round as her eyes. “Foolishly do I recall it! As if he would! And yet Dearwyn, he has asked me four times if any Danes visit us here. Would you think that he could be ”

“Jealous?” Dearwyn dropped her flowers to clap her hands softly. “Tata, I have guessed his distemper rightly. Let no one say that I am not a witch for cleverness! Ah, you can have the best fun that ever any maid could have! If you could but make him believe something about that Danishman that Teboen saw last winter!”

“Last winter?” Randalin repeated. “Oh! I had altogether forgotten him. It seems that it has not been truthfully spoken when ”

The little Angle smothered the rest in her rapturous embrace. “The ring, Tata, that would be the cream of all! Let him think that Rothgar gave it to you, that he is your lover! I would give many kirtles to see his face.” “Rothgar?” Randalin’s voice was light with scorn. “As likely would! be to think him love-struck for the serving-wench who sparkled her eyes at him, as he to think that Rothgar Lodbroksson could count for aught with me! Yet I say nothing against the fun it would be. It may be that if he take notice of the thing and question me just to see how he would look ” She broke off discreetly, but the one elf which the Abbot had not exorcised crept out and danced in the dimple of her cheek.

Dearwyn shook her floral rod with an assumption of severity. “I trust he will be sorely disquieted,” she said. “He deserves no otherwise for his behavior last winter. Are you so soft of heart, Tata, that you are never going to reckon with him for that?”

The dimple-elf took wing and all the mischief in the girl’s eyes seemed to go with him. “Those days are buried,” she said. “Let the earth grow green above them.” And suddenly she leaned forward and hid her face on the other’s shoulder. “Bring them not before me, Dearwyn, my friend, until I am a little surer of my happiness. It is so new yet, Dearwyn, so new! And it came to me so suddenly that sometimes it almost seems as if it might depart as suddenly from me.” A while they nestled together without speaking, the little maid’s cheek resting lovingly on her friend’s dark hair.

It was a page thrusting aside the arras that broke the spell. Opening his mouth to make a flourishing announcement, the words were checked on his tongue by four white hands motioning stern commands for silence.

“It is the King’s Marshal,” he framed with protesting lips. But even that failed to gain him admittance.

Rising, flushed and smiling, the girl with the blue lilies in her hair tiptoed toward him. “I have orders to receive the Marshal,” she whispered. “Where is he?”

“He is in the Old Room,” the page answered rather resentfully, but resigned himself as he remembered that, however this curtailed his importance, it left open a prompter return to his game of leap-frog along the passage.

In all probability his nimble departure saved him from a scolding for, as she tripped after him down the corridor, a little frown was forming between Randalin’s brows. “I think it is not well-mannered of the fellow to say ‘the King’s Marshal’ as though my lord were Canute’s thane,” she was reflecting, “and I shall put an end to it. Whatever others say, one never needs to tell me that Sebert is not suffering in his service.”

With this thought in her mind, she raised the moth-eaten tapestry and stood looking at him with a face full of generous indignation. Except for the noble’s embroidered belt and gold-hilted sword, his dress now differed in no way from that of the hundreds and hundreds of red-cloaked guards who were spread over the country like sparks after a conflagration. As he turned at the end of the beat he was pacing and came slowly toward her, she could see that in its gravity his face was as soldier-like as his clothes. Always she found it so when she came upon him unawares; and always, when she spoke to him She held her breath as his eyes rose to her, and let it go with a little sigh of happiness as she saw gloom drop from him like a mask at the sight of her.

“Randalin!” he cried joyously, and made a step toward her, then stopped to laugh in gay wonder. “Now no poet would call you ‘a weaver of peace’ as you stand there, for you look rather like an elf of battle. What is it, my raven?”

Her lips smiled back at him, but a mist was over her eyes. “It is your King that I am angry with, lord. He is not worthy that a man like you should serve him.”

Moving toward her again, he held himself a little straighter. “I serve not the King, dear heart,” he said gently, “but the State of England, in whose service the highest is none too good to bend.”

She yielded him her hands but not her point. “That does not change the fact that it is his overbearingness which makes your path as though you trod on nettles, for certainly I know it is so, though you will not say it!”

Neither would he admit it now, but laughed lightly as he drew her to him. “Now may he not give me thorns who gives me also the sweetest rose in his king-dom? I tell you he is the kingliest king ever I had to deal with, and the chief I would soonest trust England to. Be no Danish rebel, shield-maiden, or as the King’s officer I will mulct your lips for every word of treason.”

She showed no rebellion against his authority, at all events; and her hands remained in his clasp until of his own accord he opened his fingers with an exclamation. “Do you wear bracelets for rings, my fair, or what? What!” From the monstrous bauble in his palm, he raised his eyes to hers, and if she had seen their look she might have answered differently. But her gaze was still on the ring; and as she felt him start, that impish dimple peeped out of her cheek.

“Is it not a handsome thing?” she said. “It looks to be a ring to belong to a giant.”

“Is it Rothgar’s?”

The dimple deepened as she heard his tone. For all its absurdity, there must be some truth in Dearwyn’s witch-skill. She was obliged to droop her lashes very low to hide the mischief in her eyes. “It is not his now,” she murmured. “It has been given me to keep me in mind of something.” But after that her amusement grew too strong to be repressed, and she looked up at him with over-brimming laughter. “There will soon be too much of this! Sweetheart mine, are you in truth so easy to plague?”

Laughing she looked up at him, but, even as his face was clearing, something in it struck her so strangely that her laughter died and she bent toward him in sudden gravity. “Lord! It is not possible for you to believe that I could love Rothgar!” Her manner of uttering that one word made it speak more scorn than volumes might have done.

For a while he only looked at her, that strange radiance growing in his face; but suddenly he caught her to him and kissed her so passionately that he hurt her, and his voice was as passionate as his caress. “No,” he told her over and over. “Would I have offered you my love had I believed that? No! No!”

Satisfied, she made no more resistance but clung to him with her arms as she had clung to him with her heart since the first hour he came into her life. Only, when at last he released her, she took the ring from her finger and thrust it into his hand with a little gesture of distaste. “I shall be thankful if I do not have to see it again. It is Elfgiva’s, that Canute gave her after he had won it from Rothgar in some wager. It is her wish that you bring it to the King again by slipping it into his broth or his wine where he will come upon it after he has finished feeding and is therefore amiable ” She stopped to laugh merrily in his face. “See how the very naming of the King turns you grave again! When one gets a Marshalship, one becomes more and more stark.” Grown mischievous again in her happiness, she mocked him with courtesies.

But it was only very faintly that he smiled at her fooling, as he held the spiral against the light and shook it beside his ear. “Is there no more to the message,” he said slowly. “Am I to know nothing of her object? Or why I am chosen of all others?”

“Easy is it to tell that,” she laughed. “You were not chosen without a reason, and that is because no one else is to be had, since the scullion who formerly served her has gotten himself killed in some way and the man who stepped into his shoes, out of some spite, has refused Teboen’s gold. And as for her object I wonder at you, lord of my heart! What kind of a lover are you that you cannot guess that?” Feigning to flout him, she drew away; then feigning to relent, turned back and laughed it into his ear. “It is a love-token! To hold him to the fair promises he made at its giving, and to remind him of her, and to win her a crown, and to do so many strange wonders that no tongue can number them! Are you not ashamed to have failed on so easy a riddle?”

To her surprise, his gravity deepened almost to horror. “Love-token!” he repeated; and suddenly he laid his hands on her shoulders and forced her gently to give him eye for eye. “Randalin, if I comply with you in this matter, will you answer me a question? Answer with such care as though your life nay, as though my life depended on it?”

“Willingly; more than one,” she consented; but forgot to wait for it as a memory, wakened by his words, stirred in her. “Now it is time for me to remember that there is one thing I have not been altogether truthful about, through forgetting, about the Danes we have seen. I recall now that last winter Teboen often saw one when she was gathering herbs in the wood. She spoke with him of the magic things she brews to make Elfgiva sleep, and he gave her herbs which she thought so useful that she has been fretful because she has not seen him since ”

Unconsciously, the young soldier’s hands tightened on her shoulders until she winced. “You know with certainty that she has never seen him since?” he demanded, “that Danes had naught to do with the last token Elfgiva sent through the scullion? You can swear to it?”

“Certainly, if they speak the truth, I know it,” she answered wonderingly. “How should Danes why, Sebert, what ails you?”

For he had let go her shoulders as abruptly as he had seized them, and walked away to the window that looked out upon the rain-washed garden. After a moment’s hesitation, she stole after him. “Sebert, my love, what is it? Trouble is in your mind, there is little use to deny it. Dearwyn says it concerns me, but I know that it is no less than the King. Dear one, it seems strange that you cannot disclose your mind to me as well as to Fridtjof.”

It was the first time, in their brief meetings together, that she had spoken that name, and his smile answered. Even while his lips admitted a trouble, his manner put it aside. “You are right that it concerns the King, my elf. Sometimes the work he assigns me is neither easy nor pleasant to accomplish. Yet without any blame to him, most warlike maiden, for ”

But she would not be prevented from saying stern things of her royal guardian, so at last he let her finish the subject, and stood pressing her hands upon his breast, his eyes resting dreamily on her face.

When she had finished, he said slowly, “Sweeting, because my mind is laboring under so many burdens that my wits are even duller than they are wont, will you not have the patience to answer one question that is not clear to me? Do you think it troublesome to tell me why it was that you said, that day in the garden Now shake off that look, dearest; never will we speak of it again if it is not to your wish! Tell me what you meant by saying that you came into Canute’s camp because you had too much faith in Rothgar, if you despise him since you despise him so?”

Her eyes met his wonderingly. “By no means could I have said that, lord. When I left home, I knew not that Rothgar lived. The one in whom I had too much faith was the King. Because I was young and little experienced, I thought him a god; and when I came to his camp and found him a man, I thought only to escape from him. That was why I wore those clothes, Sebert not because I liked so wild a life. That is clear to you, is it not?”

He did not appear to hear her last words at all. He was repeating over and over, “The King, the King!” Suddenly he said, “Then I got that right, that it was he who summoned me to Gloucester to make sure that you had kept your secret from me also? that he was angry with you for deceiving him?”

“Yes,” she said. But as he opened his lips to put another question, she laid her finger-tip beseechingly upon them, “Sebert, my love, I beg of you let us talk no more of those days. Sometime, when we have a long time to be together, I will tell you everything that I have had in my breast and you shall show me everything that you have had in yours, but but let us wait, sweetheart, until our happiness seems more real than our sorrow. Even yet I do not like the thought of the ’sun-browned boy-bred wench.’” She laughed a little unsteadily at the sudden crimsoning of his face. “And I am still ashamed and ashamed of being ashamed that I showed you so plainly what my heart held for you... Elfgiva’s tongue has stabbed me sore... Beloved, can you not be content, for now, with knowing that I have loved no man before you and shall love none after you?”

Bending, he kissed her lips with the utmost tenderness. “I am well content,” he said. And after that they spoke only of the future, when the first period of his Marshalship should be over and he should be free to take his bride back to the fields and woods of Ivarsdale, and the gray old Tower on the hill.