The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 10



BIORN and the vikings crowded around, as he deciphered the scratches, for they were unable to read Runic, which was more like shorthand than anything else. A cry of dismay burst from Sigurd.

"Listen, men! 'Ketil bears me to England! Rescue, Sigurd!' Come, men, to the palace!"

"To the palace! To the palace!" They echoed his words, and the terrible Jomsborg battle-yell startled the sleeping town, and pealed up to the castle.

"Bring Thorir Klakke, but harm him not," commanded Sigurd, "while I arouse the king."

Olaf, however, was already up, wakened by the tumult. Sword in hand, he entered the great hall just as Sigurd burst in at the other end.

"What means this uproar?" roared Olaf, his eyes blazing with anger.

"Justice and vengeance, King!" panted Sigurd, as he handed Olaf the bit of wood. Sheathing his weapon with a frown, Olaf took the object, and by the light of the torches read the message.

"What means it?"

"Astrid of Vendland is kidnaped, Olaf, and I was set upon by three men in the streets. One I killed, and he was a man of Thorir Klakke's—stay, here is Thorir now."

Biorn and two vikings entered the hall behind Sigurd, leading the terrified Thorir. Olaf, grasping the whole situation, strode up and thundered in the merchant's ear:

"What means this night's work? Where is your brother?"

Thorir stammered out, "Indeed, my lord, I know not. Is he not in his rooms?" Then, growing bolder, "Am I accountable for Ketil's doings, Olaf? What mean you?"

Olaf looked into the man's eyes a moment, and before that terrible gaze Thorir squirmed helplessly, but did not weaken. "Begone to your rooms!" said the King, contemptuously, and turned abruptly to Sigurd.

"Now tell me the tale in full."

Sigurd told him of the attack, of the flight of the ship, and of Astrid's cry, in a few words. "I sent men to her rooms," he concluded. "Here they come now."

Close on his words the men entered, with them Queen Gyda and some of her ladies. Queen Gyda, who had learned the cause of the tumult from the vikings, told how a messenger had summonded Astrid an hour before, saying that Sigurd was hurt in a brawl, and how the girl had run out hastily.

"Come with me, quickly," ordered the King, and Sigurd followed him to the ramparts of the castle. The dawn was just breaking, and far out at sea they saw a speck of white.

"With Thorir I will deal later, for we have no proof against him as yet," said the King, but that man yonder has dishonored me, and shall die. Fairhair, take what men you will from my courtmen, and the 'Crane,' the fastest longship in the harbor. Ketel has taken his brother's ship, so you should soon come up with him. The 'Crane' is in the water, and is well provisioned; so hasten—be off within the hour."

"Thanks, Olaf!" replied Sigurd. "I was about to ask this very thing of you. I will take my own men and thirty of yours. Thanks, for all your kindness, and above all for your friendship, Olaf!"

The King smiled sadly. "I have few friends, Sigurd, and methinks you are the most faithful of them, though the newest. No, go with God, and forget him not, for it is still the season of storms."

As Sigurd turned away, the King stopped him with a sudden impulse.

"Stay! Give me your hands." Wondering, Sigurd put his hands between Olaf's. "Now swear again your oath to me, Jarl Sigurd!"

The boy, overcome by this unexpected title and honor, stumbled through the oath, and rose with tears in his eyes.

"I need no oath to be faithful. King Olaf! When you have won Norway, the title of friend is all I want."

Quick tears sprang to Olaf's eyes also, and unbuckling his sword-belt, he threw it over Sigurd's shoulders, saying, "I have no earldoms yet, but here is my Jarl-gift, my friend. Farewell!"

Sigurd wrung the King's hand, then turned and ran down the stairway to the courtyard. Hastily assembling his men, and choosing thirty from Olaf's followers, he sent them down to the "Crane" with Biorn, and followed them himself a few minutes later, after bidding Ulf farewell. The captain would have accompanied him, but Olaf was sending him on a mission to an Irish king in the interior.

The "Crane," as Olaf had said, was well stocked with all things needful for a voyage; so, weighing anchor, the sail was run up and the voyage begun. As they left the harbor, Sigurd told his men of his advancement, and it was greeted with a shout of satisfaction; for the Jomsvikings were proud of their young leader, and the other men had heard many tales of his bravery. Indeed, even though the title carried no lands, it was the ambition of every chief of good birth to be made Jarl, or Earl, for the Jarls were second only to the King.

The oars were run out, for the wind was light, and under all speed the "Crane" ran southward. Ketil's ship was out of sight, but his goal was known, and Sigurd was confident that he would overtake the other ship before night.

"Why, think you, is he heading for England instead of for Norway?" Sigurd asked old Biorn.

The latter paused a moment. "Well, Jarl Sigurd, it is in my mind that Ketil is a cunning man. If he took Astrid to Norway, he would make nothing; but by taking her to England, much. King Ethelred would pay high for such a hostage from King Svein of Denmark."

"Oh, I see! Then she will not be harmed?"

"Assuredly not, Jarl, at least till she reaches England, which I trust will never be. Ethelred is as treacherous as Hakon himself, and if she once falls into his clutches it would be a bad business."

They did not come up with Ketil's ship so soon as Sigurd expected, for not till mid-afternoon did the helmsman give a shout, and Sigurd, running to the forecastle, saw a white speck far ahead.

"Lower the sail," he ordered, "and get out all the oars," for until then only half the oars had been going, to save the men's strength. "We cannot come up with them to-day," he explained, "so it were best to let Ketil think himself safe."

So the sail was lowered and the "Crane" proceeded under her oars till nightfall, when the sail was hoisted again and the oars taken in. The wind freshened toward midnight, when Sigurd relinquished the watch to Biorn, and at dawn he was aroused by the old viking.

"Come, Jarl! A squall from the west has broken on us, and it is daybreak."

Sigurd followed him to the deck. There he found the sail close-reefed, and the "Crane" running before a squall of wind and driving snow. There was nothing to be done, however, save to await the sunrise.

As full day broke, but dark and gloomy, with flurries of snow, a shout went up, for not half a mile distant lay Ketil's ship, also running before the wind.

"Shake out the reefs, men! We may as well take chances, and make sure of her."

Biorn stopped him, however, and pointing ahead, showed Sigurd a dull gray line. "England, Jarl, or Wales, rather! It would be useless to try to board Ketil in this heavy sea; the ships would be smashed to kindling-wood."

Sigurd reluctantly acknowledged that the old viking was right, so he contented himself with following the other ship, while with every hour the Welsh coast grew plainer ahead of them. The sky cleared off, but the sea was still running too high for any attempt at boarding.

"I know where we are, Jarl," called out the helmsman. "Do you remember that great headland, Biorn?"

"That I do," exclaimed the viking. "See how the coast falls away there, Sigurd? That is Wales, where live my own people, and we are entering a great firth which goes far up into the country, and on the right is the Saxon kingdom of Wessex. I recall it well. Six years ago we sailed up and plundered a town they call Bristol. It must be that Ketil means to land along the Saxon coast."

Sigurd gazed with interest on the lofty cliffs, but soon they turned the last headland, and Ketil pointed his ship due east. Sigurd saw that they were indeed in a great firth; the "Crane" easily held her own with the fleeing ship, but did not approach closer.

"If they succeed in getting ashore, whither would they take the Lady Astrid, think you?" inquired Sigurd.

"To King Ethelred, doubtless," answered Biorn, "at London, in the east. However, they cannot escape us now."

"Arm yourselves, men!" ordered Sigurd, a little later, "the sea is falling fast, and we will run aboard."

Ketil, however, saw this also, and evidently resolved to take no chances, for he turned in toward the coast, plying his oars desperately. The two ships, a quarter of a mile apart, drew into the coast and ran along the low shores.

Suddenly Biorn gave a cry of fury. "He will escape us yet!" Ketil's ship, just beyond a headland, was turned in toward the shore. The helmsman turned the "Crane" and the sail was run down as the other ship disappeared. Under all her oars, the "Crane" darted ahead, and there before them lay the ship of Ketil, while the crew were leaping out. A band of armed men from the town above ran down and met Ketil.

Sigurd did not wait to see the meeting, but as the "Crane" scraped on the sand and ice he leaped overboard, followed by Biorn, and waded ashore. Amid Ketil's party Sigurd had seen the flutter of a dress, and he knew there was little use searching the other ship, so he dashed up the hill. Suddenly, however, a flight of arrows fell among Sigurd's men, and the shout rose of "Death to the sea-wolves!"

Sigurd, with Biorn and another man, was far ahead of the rest, running at top speed. As the sudden attack was made, a number of Saxons sprang out from ambush and surrounded the three.