Read Chapter XXXI. The Twilight of The Gods of The Ward of King Canute, free online book, by Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, on ReadCentral.com.

Circumspect and reserved
Every man should be,
And wary in trusting friends;
Of the words
That a man says to another
He often pays the penalty.

Ha’vama’l.

Waking to tapestried walls and jewelled lanterns and a strange splendor of furnishings, Randalin experienced a moment of wild bewilderment. What had happened to the low-ceiled dormitory with its bare wall-spaces splotched with dampness? What had become of the row of white beds, with Dearwyn’s rosy face on the next pillow? And she herself why was she lying on the outside of the covers, with all her clothes on, a cramped aching heap? Rising on her elbow, she gazed wonderingly at the frowzy woman stretched near her on a pallet. It was not until the woman turned over, puffing out her fat cheeks in a long breath, that the girl on the bed recognized her and knew what room this was and remembered what had happened to separate to-day from all the yesterdays of her life. Falling down upon the pillows, she lay with her face hidden among them, living over with the swift sharpness of a renewed brain the scenes of the previous night.

As she had seen it from the gallery where the King’s soldiers had hidden her, she saw again the great stone hail, enshrining a feasting-table around which a throng of nobles in their gorgeous dresses and their jewels and their diadems made a glittering halo. At the farther end, the King sat in his shining gilded chair. Just below her, was Edric of Mercia with Norman Leofwinesson beside him. She could not see their faces for their backs were toward her, but now and again the Gainer’s velvet voice rose blandly, and each time she was seized with shuddering. How was it possible that he did not feel disaster in the air? To her it seemed that the very torch-flames hissed warnings above the merriment, while the occasional pauses were so heavy with doom that their weight was well-nigh unendurable; at each, she was forced to fight down a mad impulse to scream and scatter the hush.

Then the light from the taper which a page was holding behind Norman of Baddeby fell upon the gemmed collar that was his principal ornament, and the sight wrought a subtle change in her mood. The collar had been her father’s; she could not look at it without seeing again his ruddy old face with its grim mouth and faded kindly eyes. Beside this vision rose another, the vision of this beloved face dead in the moonlight, with Fridtjof’s near it, his brave smile frozen on his young lips. From that moment, softness and shrinking died out in her bearing as out of her heart, and her blood was turned to fire within her, the liquid fire of the North. Hour after hour, she sat in rigid waiting while the endless line of servants ran to and fro with their silver dishes and the merriment grew and spread and the clinking came faster and louder and the voices grew thicker and wilder.

When the wave of good-will and fellowship had reached its height, like one who would ride in upon its crest the Gainer rose to his feet and began speaking to the King. His manner was less smoothly deferential than when addressing Edmund, she noticed, affecting more the air of bluff frankness which one might who wished to disarm any suspicion of flattering; but she could not hear what he said because of the noise around him. The first words she heard distinctly were Canute’s, as he paused with upraised goblet to look at the Mercian. Like an arrow his voice cleft the uproar, so that here and there men checked the speech on their lips to look at him, and their neighbors, observing them, paused also, until the lull extended from corner to corner.

“Strangely do you ask,” he said. “Why should I give you more than Edmund gave you?”

She had no difficulty in hearing Edric this time. Aggressively honest, his words rang out with startling sharpness: “Because it was for you that I went against Edmund, and from faithfulness to you that I afterwards destroyed him.”

Out of the stillness that followed, a voice cried, “Are you mad?” and there was the grating of chairs thrust hastily back. But, after a great wrench, her heart stood still within her as through the madness she perceived the purpose. As well as Edric of Mercia she knew that the young Viking’s vulnerable point was his longing for his own self-esteem, a craving so unreckoning in its fervor that should he have the guilty consciousness the traitor counted on rather than endure his own reproach for cowardice he would be equal to the wild brazenness of flinging the avowal in the teeth of his assembled court. Her pulses began to pound in a furious dance as the same flash of intuition showed her the rock upon which the Gainer’s audacious steering was going to wreck him.

For no skulking guilt was in the face of the new King of England as he met the startled glances, but instead a kind of savage joy that widened his nostrils and drew his lips away from his teeth in a terrible smile.

“Now much do I thank whatever god has moved you to open speech,” he said, “for with every fibre of my body have I long wanted to requite you for that faithfulness. Knowing that you were coming to-night to ask it, I have the reward ready. Never was recompense given with a better will.” Leaping to his feet, he hurled the goblet in his hand against the opposite wall so that it was shattered on the stone behind the embroidered hangings. At the signal the tapestry was lifted, and in the light stood Eric of Norway, leaning on a mighty battle-axe. To him the King cried in a loud voice, all the irony gone from it, leaving it awful as the voice of Thor at Ragnarok. “Do your work where all can see you, Eric Jarl, that no man shall accuse me of being afraid to bear my deeds. And let Norman Leofwinesson die with his lord for the slaying of Frode of Avalcomb.”

A roar of hideous sound a confusion of overturned lights, of screeching servants, of writhing struggling bodies above it all, the vision of that glittering axe poised in the air then flashing downward, Randalin’s recollections blurred, ran together, and faded out in broken snatches.

She recalled a brief space of something like sleep-walking as the soldiers led her through branching corridors to this room, and fetched for her attendant the only woman available, a wench they had taken from trencher-washing in the royal kitchen. She remembered irritably rejecting the woman’s clumsy services and sending her to sleep on her pallet, while she herself walked to and fro with her surging thoughts until sheer physical exhaustion forced her to throw herself upon the bed. After that she remembered nothing.

“I am glad that I did not disgrace my kin by screaming or fainting,” she reflected now, as she raised herself stiffly. “I am glad I did that much credit to my name.” She flushed as her hand, touching the pillow, found it wet, and for an instant the bearing of her head was less erect. “I do not remember what I dreamed,” she murmured, “but full well I know that it was not because Norman Leofwinesson is slain that I shed tears in my sleep.” For a while she drooped there, her eyes on the open window, outside of which a robin was singing blithely among the cherries. But all at once she seized the pillow with a kind of fierceness, and turned it over and piled the others on top of it, crying under her breath, “How dared he! How dared he! I will shed no tears for him while I am awake. I will remember only that I am my father’s daughter and the Lady of Avalcomb.”

Proudly as became an odal-woman, she followed the page when he came at last to call her to the royal presence. The great stone hall in which the King awaited the arrival of his Norman bride was the same room in which he had feasted the night before, but tables and dishes now were gone, gold-weighted tapestries hung once more over the door by which Eric of Norway had made his entrance, and a rich-hued rug from an Eastern loom lay over the spot where she had seen the axe rise and fall. Crossing the threshold, the commonplaceness of it all clashed so discordantly with the scene in her memory that for an instant she grew faint and clung to the curtains between which she was passing. That death should leave so little trace, that the spot which one night was occupied by a headsman, the next, should hold a bride, made her fancy reel with horror even while she pulled herself together sternly.

“This is life as in truth it is,” she said. “It is well that I understand at last how terrible everything really is, and how little anything matters.” Forcing herself to tread the rug with steady step, she came where the King stood by an open window. He was as changed as the room, though in honor of his bride he wore again state robes of silk and cloth-of-gold, for the fire of the Northern lights was gone out of his face, leaving it dull and lustreless. In the garden below, a minstrel was making hay in the sun of the royal glance by a rapid improvising of flattering verses which he was shouting lustily to his twanging harp, but now the King’s hand rose curtly.

“Your imagination has no small power, friend, yet save some virtues in case you should want to sing to me again,” he advised as he tossed down a coin and turned away.

His ward courtesied deeply before him. “For your justice, King Canute, I give you thanks drawn from the bottom of my heart,” she said.

“I welcome you to your own, Lady of Avalcomb,” he answered as he returned her salutation. Leaning against the window frame he stood a long while looking at her in silence, so long that she was startled when at last he spoke. “Yet for the good of the realm, I must lay on your odal one burden, Frode’s daughter.”

“What is that, King?”

“It is that before the year is out you take a husband who shall be able to defend your land in time of need.”

Her white cheeks went very red before him and then grew very pale again, while her breast rose and fell convulsively. But she clasped her hands over it as though to still its protest and, suddenly, she flung up her head in a kind of trembling defiance. “What does it matter? King, I know what a Danish woman owes her race. Choose you the man and this shall, like other things, be as you wish.”

It was evident that her answer took him by surprise, for he bent from the wall to observe her. “I choose!” he repeated. “Have you then no choice?”

She tried to say “No”; she tried desperately to say it; but already her courage was crumbling under her. All at once she took her hands from her breast to hold them out pleadingly, and her voice was broken: “Lord, let me go back to Avalcomb now to-day!”

“Wherefore to-day?” he asked. “I had thought you would remain here for a while and get honor from Queen Emma.” A moment he looked away from her, out of the window at the drifting clouds. “I can tell you, Frode’s daughter, that while she is noble in her birth, she is still nobler in her mind,” he said gravely. “Little would there be in her service for you to take ill. I think it possible that she might be highly helpful to you. There is that about her which makes the good in one come out and bask like a snake in the sun, while the evil slinks away shadow-like ”

She interrupted him with a cry that was half a sob. “Lord King, I cannot bear it to see more people that are strange to me! Since I left my father’s house I have felt the starkness of strangers, and now now I can endure it no longer. My heart within me is as though it were bruised black and blue. Let me go back where all know me, where none will hold me off at arm’s length to challenge me with his eyes, but all love me and place faith in me because they know me. Lord, give me leave to go home, I pray it of you! Beseech it of you!” Entreating, she would have fallen at his feet if he had not caught her hands and stayed her.

He did not release them immediately but tightened his grasp as his eyes, grown suddenly keen, searched her face. His voice dropped low. “Randalin, it is very unlikely that Elfgiva’s scratches have brought you to this. Do you stand in need of reminding that any man who has angered you has angered me? That my sword lies under your hand?”

Her face seemed to have become glass before him, through which he looked into the innermost chambers of her mind. Terror-stricken, she snatched her hands away to cover it. “No, no!” she cried wildly. “I am angry with no one. I have found fault with no one. Draw no sword for me only let me go!”

Again he turned from her and stood looking out at the clouds; but when at last he spoke, his voice was the gentlest she had ever heard it. “You are wise in this, as in other things, Frode’s daughter,” he said, “and you shall certainly have your way. I take it that I am your guardian to protect you from harm, not to force you into things you do not want. Soldiers I can trust shall go with you, in case there be danger from Norman’s people, and for women ”

She spoke up eagerly, “There is an old nun at Saint Mildred’s, King, who loves me. I think she would come to me until others could be found.”

“Go then,” he granted. “Thorkel shall see to it that men and horses are ready when you are.” He held out his hand, but when she took it in both of hers and would have saluted it reverently, he would not let her but instead raised her fingers to his lips. An odd note was in his voice. “Heavy is it for my tongue to say farewell to you, Frode’s daughter,” he said, “for your friendship has surpassed most other things in pleasantness to me.”

Frank liking mingled with gratitude and reverence as she looked up at him. “I have got great kindness and favor from you, King Canute; I pray that you will be very happy with your Queen.”

A moment he pressed his lips to her hand; then gently set it free. “I give you thanks,” he returned, “but happiness is for me to wish you. The best you can ask for me is that sometime I shall become what you believed me to be the day you came to me at Scoerstan.”

She tried to tell him that she believed him that now, but something in her forbade the untruth. She could do no more than leave him, with a mute gesture of farewell.

Perhaps her gaze was not quite clear as she crossed the room, for she did not see that the door-curtains were moving until she was close upon them, when they were thrust apart to admit the form of Rothgar Lodbroksson. Stifling a gasp, she shrank behind a tall chair.

He did not see her, however, for his eyes were fastened upon the King, who had turned back to the window. He had cast aside the splendor of the royal guards, wearing over his steel shirt a kirtle of blue that made his florid face seem redder and gave to his fiery hair a hotter glow. Two sentinels carrying shining pikes had followed him in, uncertainly, and now one plucked at his arm. But the Jotun shook him off to stride forward, clanking his heels with intentional noisiness upon the stone floor.

At the clatter the King looked around, and the tone in which he spoke his friend’s name had in it more of passion than all the lover’s phrases he had ever paid Elfgiva’s ears. At the same time, he made a sharp sign to the two sentinels. “Get back to your posts,” he said.

Hesitating they saluted and unwilling they wheeled, while one spoke bluntly over his shoulder. “It would be better to let us stay, King, if you please. You are weaponless.”

“Go,” Canute repeated. In a moment the doors beyond the curtain had closed behind them, and the two men were alone save for the girl hiding forgotten in the shadow of the chair.

Rothgar laughed jarringly. “Whatever has been told about you, you have not yet been accounted a coward. But I do not see how you know I shall not kill you. I have dreamed of it not a few times.”

Something like a veil seemed to fall over the King’s face; from behind it he spoke slowly as he moved away to the dais upon which his throne-chair stood, and mounted the steps. “The same dream has come to me, but never has it occurred to me to seek you out to tell you of it.”

“No such purpose had I,” the Jotun said with a touch of surliness. Pulling a bag from under his belt, he shook out of it upon the floor a mane of matted yellow hair. “If you want to know my errand, it is to bring you this. Yesterday it came to my ears that one of my men was suspected of having tried to give you poison through your wife’s British thrall. I got them before me and questioned them, and the Scar-Cheek boasted of having done it. This is his hair. If you remember anything about the fellow, you understand that he was not alive when I took it from him.”

The King looked immovably at the yellow mass. “You have behaved in a chieftain-like way and I thank you for it,” he said. “But I would have liked it better if you had come to me about the judgment that raised this wall between us ”

Rothgar’s throat gave out a savage sound. “Tempt me not! I am no sluggish wolf.”

But Canute spoke on: “What I expected that day was that you would come to me, as friend comes to friend, and with my loose property I would redeem from you every stick and stone which my kingship had forced me to hold back. Not more than they have called me coward, have men ever called me stingy ”

“And when have men called me greedy?” the Jotun bellowed. “Your thoughts have got a bad habit of lying about me if they say that it was greed for land which made me take your judgment angrily. Except for the honor of my stock, what want I with land while I have a ship to bear me? I tell you, now as heretofore, that it was your treachery which unsheathed a sword between us.”

“Rothgar my brother, ” the veil was rent from the King’s face and he had stepped from the dais and seized the other by the shoulders as though he would wrestle bodily with him, “by the Holy Ring, I swear that I have never betrayed you! If you grudge not the land to the Englishman, you have no cause to grudge him anything under Ymer’s skull. Can a man change his blood? for so much a part of me is my friendship for you. Time never was when it was not there, and it would be as possible to fill my veins with Thames water as to put an Englishman into your place. Can you not understand ”

But Rothgar’s hand had fallen upon the other’s breast and pushed him backward so that he was forced to catch at the chair-arm to save himself from falling. “Never get afraid about that,” he sneered. “Since we slept in one cradle, I have been a thick-headed Thrym and your Loke’s wit has fooled me into doing your bidding and fighting your battles and giving you my toil and my limbs and my faith, but wisdom has grown in me at last. You undertake too steep a climb when you try to make me believe in your love while before my eyes you give to the man I hate my lands and the woman you had promised me and my place above your men ” His rage choked him so that he was obliged to break off and stand drawing his sword from his sheath and slamming it back with a sharp sound. His voice came back in a hoarse roar. “When I reckon up the debt against you, I know that the only thing to wipe it out would be your life. Not taken by poison nor underhandedly, but torn out of your deceitful body as we stand face to face. If I could do that, it might be that my anger would be quenched.” Again he drew his blade half out, and this time he did not shove it back. His huge body seemed to draw itself together, crouching, as he leaned forward. “Why do you stand there looking as though you thought you were Odin? Do you think to blunt my weapon with your eyes? Why do you tempt me?”

The King had not moved away from the chair against which he had staggered, and the prints of his nails were on its arm. He was as though he had hardened to stone. “To show you that I am stronger than you, though I face you with bare hands,” he said. “To show you that you dare not kill me.”

“Dare not!” Rothgar’s laughter was a hideous thing as he cleared at a bound the space between them. His sword was full-drawn now. “Shout for your guards! It may be that they will get here in time.”

But the King neither gave back nor raised his voice. “I will not,” he said, “nor will I lift hand against you. Never shall you have it to say that I forgot you had endangered your life for mine. On your head it shall be to break the blood-oath.”

Now they were breast to breast. In her mind, the girl in the shadow flung open the doors and shrieked to the sentinels and roused the Palace; in her body, she stood spellbound, voiceless, breathless.

Still Rothgar did not strike. It was the King who spoke this time also. “Among the sayings of men in Norway,” he said coldly, “there is one they tell of a traitor who carried a sword of death against his King, but lacked the boldness to use it before the King’s face. So he begged his lord to wrap a cloak around his head that he might get the courage to ask a boon. When that had been done, he stabbed. Do you want me to cover my eyes?”

With a hoarse cry, Rothgar flung his sword back to his sheath, recoiling, there was even a kind of fear in his manner: “A fool would I be, to set your ghost free to follow me with that look on its face! Keep your life and instead I will torture every Angle I can get under my grip, for it is they who have turned a great hero into a nithing may they despise you as you have despised your people for their sakes!” Invoking the curse with a sweep of his handless arm, he strode from the room.

Randalin did not see when he passed her, for her eyes were on the King as he stood looking after his foster-brother.

“Ah, God, what a terrible world hast Thou made!” she murmured, as she put up her hands to ease the swelling agony in her throat. “No longer will I try to live in it. I will go to the Sisters and remain with them always.”

Through the doors opening before the Jotun there came in a sudden buzz of laughing voices, while a breeze brought through the window a ringing of bells and a clarioning of approaching horns. Upon the girl in the shadow and the King on the dais, the sounds fell like the dissolving of a spell. She ran swiftly to the little door behind the tapestry and let herself out unseen, unheard. The King mounted the throne he had won and sat there in regal state, facing the throng of splendid courtiers trooping in to give him their wedding greetings.