The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 1

The Cross and the Hammer

A Tale of the Days of the Vikings




THE great hall of the Danish kings at Leira was filled to overflowing on this autumn evening of the year 994, for King Harald Gormson had fallen in battle some weeks before, and his son Svein Twyskiegge, of Forkbeard, was celebrating his accession feast in the hall of his fathers.

Around the town lay a whole city of tents and brush huts, for besides the Danish lords present, sixty ships had come from Jomsborg, bearing the noblest of the famous Viking brotherhood, under their chiefs Jarl Sigvald and Bui the Thick. Visitors and Danes were clad in their bravest array, and both town and camp presented a scene of the gayest festivity.

Within, the hall was hung with ancient arms and trophies of the chase, the floor was strewn with a thick layer of fresh rushes, and the long tables were heaped high with dishes. At one end of the hall sat King Svein, with his chiefs and the Jomsborg nobles, while above them towered the high-seat or throne of the king; along the hall were ranged the vikings and men of Denmark, with Queen Gunhild and her ladies sitting at the far end.

Servants flitted in and out, bearing food and horns of ale, while in the center of the hall, between the tables and before the seat of the king, sat two skalds, singing to the music of their harps the great deeds of King Harald and of his son, the new king. Presently, as the hunger of the throng was somewhat appeased, all began to wonder what vow the king would make, for it was the custom that at the heirship feast the new king should make a vow to do some great and noble deed.

Seated near Queen Gunhild as guests of honor were two boys, one fair and ruddy-cheeked, the other darker and with very quick, bold eyes. The latter, Vagn Akison, was a nephew of Bui, the Jomsborg chief, and grandson of Palnatoki, the founder of the viking brotherhood; although he was only seventeen, he and his cousin Sigurd were already well known for the prowess.

Sigurd Fairhair, who was a year younger than Vagn, was in high spirits to-night, for a little before King Svein had given him a very fine sword, and he was proud of it.

Glancing over at him with a smile, Queen Gunhild said, "Sigurd, have you shown Astrid your new sword?"

"Of course he has," replied Astrid, her niece, who sat beside Sigurd, and her dark eyes gleamed with fun. "He is going to try its edge on the big pine tree near the harbor to-morrow!"

At this sally a laugh went up, and Vagn cried, "Be careful not to bring down the tree into the harbor, Sigurd! It would be a pity to sink all our best ships!"

Sigurd reddened, and retorted, "Well, I never aroused the whole camp just because a pig was wandering around in the bushes!"

This turned the laugh on his cousin, who had wakened the camp the night before, mistaking a pig for a spy, and even the Queen joined heartily in the merriment.

Suddenly a silence fell on the tables, for King Svein had arisen and was holding in both hands a great silver bowl. Amid a dead hush he drained it, handed it to an attendant, and stepped to the high-seat. Grasping an arm of this, the king turned.

"Here, as I ascend the throne of my father Harald, I vow that with the help of God I will lead my fleet to the land of England, and ere three winters have passed I will chase King Ethelred from the land and sit in his throne!"

As King Svein took his seat a low murmur of astonishment ran around the hall, followed by a tremendous shout of "Skoal! Skoal!" for this was a great vow to be fulfilled.

"See how pale the Queen is," whispered Astrid to Sigurd. "The vow must have surprised her also."

Indeed, Queen Gunhild had turned white, for the King's vow meant that a great war would be undertaken, and how it would end no man could tell. Before Sigurd could reply, Jarl Sigvald arose and called for silence.

"Men of Denmark and Jomsborg," he said slowly, in his deep voice, the light glinting on his dark, strong face and black eyes, "I also would make a vow, and no light one. As you all know, Jarl Hakon, a heathen man and doubly a traitor, rules Norway while the rightful king, Tryggvee's son, is a wanderer or mayhap dead. This then is my vow: that I go to Norway ere three winters pass, take the rule from the hands of Jarl Hakon, and drive him from the land."

Sigvald sat down, amid a dead hush of amazement; but it was broken by a shout from young Vagn Akison.

"Skoal, Jarl Sigvald, skoal!"

Then what a cheer went up! Ere it subsided, Sigvald's brother, Thorkel the Tall, leaped to his feet and swore to follow the Jarl; Bui the Thick joined him, and amid fresh cheers, Vagn, from the other end of the hall, cried:

"I, too! And ere I return I will slay Thorkel Leira, the villian who betrayed my father to his death!"

"Skoal!" shouted Sigurd, excitedly, "I'm with you, Vagn!"

As the tumult subsided, the Queen looked at Vagn and Sigurd sadly. "You are rash boys, you two! Do you realize what blood and tears these oaths will cost?"

Sigurd answered her respectfully. "Noble Gunhild, that may well be; yet Jarl Hakon is an evil man and a pagan, as is Thorkel. At any rate, I won't have to try my new sword on the tree, now!" His keen gray eyes twinkled.

The Queen made no reply, however, and sat watching King Svein; but Astrid whispered:

"I think that was splendid! I wish I could go, too!"

Vagn laughed. "You'd be a fine one! Why, the first war-horn would send you down below trembling!"

"It wouldn't either!" retorted the girl indignantly. "I can shoot better than you or Sigurd, either of you!"

"Good! I challenge you to a match to-morrow," cried Sigurd. "We'll go over to the shore beyond the harbor, where no one will interrupt, and if you best either of us I'll give you my trained falcon from France!"

"Then look out," laughed Astrid, "because I'm going to win the bird to-morrow morning!"

With this she arose and followed the Queen, who was leaving. The two boys, not wishing to join in the carouse that most of the vikings would keep up for the better part of the night, also left the hall and proceeded to their own tent.

"What think you of these vows, Sigurd?" asked Vagn, as they went along.

"Well, now that we have cooled down,
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"I will lead my fleet to the land of England."

it looks rather different," replied Sigurd, thoughtfully. "It is one thing for King Svein to conquer England, with the resources of a realm at his command, and another for Sigvald to conquer Norway with only the brother of Jomsborg behind him."

But remember, Fairhair, we are Christians, while Hakon is a pagan and a traitor; that will make some difference, surely! My own vow was no hasty thing; I must avenge my father's death or else be disgraced forever."

Sigurd nodded thoughtfully, for he well knew that the fierce vikings would yield small obedience to a man who appeared unable to avenge the betrayal of his father. As they turned in at their tent, a man ran up, and Vagn recognized one of Bui's men in the moonlight.

"Hello, Egil, what is it?"

"You and Sigurd are wanted at council in Jarl Sigvald's big tent," panted the man.

Without delay, the boys followed him to the large tent of the Jarl. Here they found all the Jomsborg leaders assembled, and took their places beside Bui of Bornholm, who was speaking as they entered.

"It was a rash vow, Sigvald, but we cannot back out, and it may well be that we shall win great honor in the effort, win or lose. Our vikings are the best warriors in the world to-day, and we will at least give a hard battle to Hakon and his son Eirik."

A murmur of assent ran around the tent, and Sigvald arose.

"Brothers, I was over-hasty in the vow, but it cannot be helped. This is my counsel; that since the attempt must be made, we make it without delay, send for the rest of our men, and strike at Norway's capital without delay. What think you?"

Vagn stepped forward. "I will answer for my father's ships and men. Let us strike before Hakon can meet us; we have the pick of our men here, with most of our ships. We can leave here at the end of the week, wait at Limafiord for the rest of our men, then sweep up to Thrandheim."

"Good for you, Vagn!" cried his uncle. "Men say that I am somewhat stout, but my friends never complain of my weight in battle!" Everyone laughed, for although Bui deserved his nickname, he was one of the greatest warriors of the day. "I'll let Sigurd here go with you, if you want him," he continued, and the boy's heart leaped with joy, for this was indeed just what he did want.

Jarl Sigvald smiled. "Then is it agreed that we go from here to Limafiord on the fourth day?"

"Yes!" The answer was accompanied by a clash of weapons, as the chiefs struck sword and spear on shield, and the council was over, although most of the leaders remained to talk over details and despatch a messenger to Jomsborg at once.

The boys returned to their tent, however, and as they dropped off to sleep the shouts of "Skoal! Skoal!" drifted faintly to them from the town, and they knew that the vikings and the Danes were still making vows, some of which they would bitterly repent in the morning.