Open main menu

The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 11

CHAPTER XI.

AT ETHELRED'S COURT

SIGURD flung his hand up and sheathed his sword. The Saxons paused, and one of their number stepped forward.

"You will get little plunder here, vikings, and many hard knocks," he called, "so you had best put to sea again."

"We are no vikings or sea-wolves," answered Sigurd. "I am Jarl Sigurd Buisson, one of King Olaf's men from Dublin, and am in pursuit of these men who fled up to the town. Two days since they abducted a noble lady from Olaf's own castle, whom I seek to rescue."

The Saxon leader gave an exclamation of astonishment, and at this moment Sigurd's men ran up and joined him. The Saxon bows were raised, but the leader checked them.

"You look over-young to be a Jarl," he declared, "but if your story is true we have indeed done ill. The leader of those men said he was pursued by sea-robbers, and that he was on his way to King Ethelred; so, although he was a Northman, we gave him safe conduct. What proof have you of your tale?"

Sigurd, who was in despair at this unexpected check, knew that it was necessary to win the Saxon over. "Does my ship look like a viking dragon?" he said calmly. "Were we vikings, we would not be abroad this time of year. See, I wear the Cross, and my men are from Olaf's courtmen, as you may see from their shields and weapons. We are Christians all, and no followers of Thor."

At this the Saxon stepped up and shook his hand heartily. "Your pardon, Jarl, but I am warden of the coast, and must do my utmost to defend it from sea-rovers. I am Jarl Edmund, and now I recall that in the other party was a woman, or rather girl."

"She is a noble lady of Denmark," said Sigurd, not thinking it wise to tell Astrid's real position. "Now, cannot we follow these men to the town?"

Jarl Edmund turned. "Of course, but they told us they were on the King's business, and I sent a man with them to get them horses at once, I am indeed sorry for this, Jarl."

"You but did your duty," replied Sigurd, "and there is no help for it." He looked at Biorn: "What is your counsel, old friend?"

"Ketil will push forward to London," replied Biorn, "so I think you had best follow him with the Jomsborg men, and try to catch him. I will take the others and the 'Crane,' and proceed by sea to London."

"Good!" Sigurd turned to Edmund again. "I suppose we can procure horses in the town yonder?"

"Yes," replied the Saxon, eager to repair his mistake, "I will myself go with you."

Sigurd picked out his old Jomsborg men, and saying farewell to Biorn, made all haste to reach the town. As they entered, Edmund dispatched several men, one of whom returned with the news that Ketil's party had left ten minutes before. At this Edmund made a gesture of dismay.

"I fear you will not come up with them, Jarl Sigurd, for they took the best horses to be found. However, we will see what we can do."

In half an hour Sigurd and his men were riding east, Edmund having furnished them with a guide. They pushed on for many days, but found that Ketil kept well ahead, commandeering the best horses as he went, on the plea of the King's business. At Malmesbury and Wantage, Sigurd and his men were surprised at the size of the cities and the splendid civilization they found there, which was far ahead of any that the north could boast of. Wessex and Sussex had not been ravaged by the Danes for many years, and the country amazed them by its beauty and fertility.

"If these Saxons had kings like ours," remarked Sigurd to his men, "King Svein would have a hard time indeed before he could take the throne of England."

At Reading they found that Ketil was only half a day ahead of them so they pushed on to London with all speed, reaching it in the evening. Next morning Sigurd took his way to the palace.

Here he gave his name and title to the chamberlain, and was shown into the great hall, around which ran a buzz of astonishment as he appeared. Sigurd had filled out amazingly in the last few months, and was large for his age; he wore his golden helm, a blue cloth kirtle and waist, and the great sword that Olaf had given him, its hilt wound with gold and the scabbard thick with carved ivory. As he walked up the hall, he removed his helm and let his long golden hair stream over his shoulders.

The chamberlain led him to the high-seat, and Sigurd knelt a moment before King Ethelred, then rose. The king was a pale, crafty-looking man, and as Sigurd looked around his heart sank for an instant, for among the courtiers he beheld the mocking face of Ketil.

After the chamberlain announced his name and title, the King arose. "Greeting, Jarl Sigurd! The men of King Olaf are ever welcome at our court, and we look forward to another visit from himself. Well I remember Olaf, who spent a year or two with us, and I would fain see him again. You look young to hold a Jarlship under so great a man!"

Sigurd answered fittingly, then said, "My lord King, I ask your aid. Among your men I see a certain Norseman, Ketil Gormson, who not long since abducted a lady from the castle of King Olaf. I have followed him closely, and since he is here, the Lady Astrid is not far away."

King Ethelred looked surprised. "Why, what is this? The man Ketil is a peaceful trader, and arrived here only yesterday. He has told me nothing of any lady!"

"Nevertheless," replied Sigurd firmly, "she is with him, and King Olaf sent me to rescue her. I must crave your help. King Ethelred."

The king ordered Ketil to stand forth, which he did, a sly smile upon his face. Ethelred asked him what he knew of Sigurd's tale.

"Nothing, my lord; I have no woman with me, and have but just arrived by slow stages from the west coast where I was trading."

Ethelred looked at Sigurd, and then the latter knew that he was being made a mock of. No doubt the king had Astrid hid away, intending to hold her for a hostage.

"You see, Jarl Sigurd," said the king softly, "you must have been mistaken in this man, who is a kind-hearted fellow indeed. Anything that I can do to aid you will be done at once. Bring your men to the palace, and you shall be given quarters here."

At these words, and Ketil's mocking smile, Sigurd lost his temper. Taking a step forward, he cried angrily: "There is no mistake. King Ethelred, and well you know it! Think not that you will escape the heavy hand of Olaf by smooth words, when he hears of this. As for you, Ketil," Sigurd turned on the man, who shrank back at his blazing eyes, "take heed to yourself! If I meet you outside the palace I will slay you like the dog you are!"

"You forget yourself, Jarl Sigurd," spoke out the king, sternly. "I have promised you assistance in this matter, so bring your men to the palace at once, and we will have search made for the lady."

Sigurd rejoined his men with dismay in his heart. He knew only too well that the King's command meant that he would be watched closely, and he saw no way of rescuing Astrid. When he told the men the result of his visit to court, they were as angry as he; but there was no help for it, and in the afternoon they took up their quarters in the palace.

Ketil took good care to keep out of Sigurd's way. The Jomsvikings wandered freely about the city, staring wonderingly in the shops, and Sigurd bade them keep a sharp lookout for Astrid. The days passed away, and Ethelred tried to soothe his visitors by a pretended search of the city, and by soft words, but at last Sigurd determined to take matters into his own hands. It was now the middle of February, and Sigurd was impatient to return to King Olaf.

Calling his men together after the evening meal, he said, "Men, if we are to find Lady Astrid we must do it ourselves. I believe she is held here in the palace, in the woman's wing; do you therefore hang about that side, pretending to look in the shops. I myself will do the same, and mayhap the Lady Astrid will either see us, or we will light on some clue."

Sigurd was treated with great honor, but when he went abroad he knew that he was spied upon closely. The next day he visited the shops near the women's quarters of the palace, and as he sauntered along one of his men strolled up.

"Come with me, Jarl," he whispered. Sigurd accompanied him, talking and laughing, and the man said, "Look at the third window from the end."

Sigurd did so, and his heart gave a leap of joy. There, hanging from a corner of the window, was a scrap of blue and gold cloth that he knew had been taken from Astrid's scarf. As he looked up, a face appeared, but at a quick sign of warning from him, it vanished.

"Hurrah!" he cried, when he had regained his room, "we have found her, sure enough! And now to rescue her."

That same evening he heard a wild shout go up from his men, in the next room, and a moment later Biorn strode into his room. Sigurd greeted him with unbounded joy, then seeing Biorn's face half covered with bandages, cried:

"What is this? Wounded, Biorn?"

The old viking smiled. "We met a Danish ship four days ago, Jarl, and she stopped to talk with us."

"Up to your old tricks, sea-wolf!" laughed Sigurd. "What did you talk about?"

"The price of swords, mainly," answered Skarde. "The Danes finally decided that ours were better, so we gave them Ketil's old trading ship and brought in the Dane with us; she is brand new, and as fast as the 'Crane.' It was hard work, though, for I had only thirty men, and they were double that. We lost ten killed, and half of us are wounded; but that is no matter. Now for your story."

Sigurd quickly outlined the position of himself and Astrid. When he concluded, Biorn was silent for some time.

"It is no light matter, Sigurd, to brave Ethelred; but I think we had best carry off
 
Pg 49--The Cross and the Hammer.jpg

"As for you, Ketil, take heed to yourself!"

 
the Lady Astrid. Once aboard the 'Crane,' we would be safe. But how to do the business?"

"By craft only, Biorn. Astrid saw me to-day, and knows we are here. How to get a message to her?"

"That is easy enough. Do you write it, and I will shoot an arrow into her window to-night."

"Good! I never thought of that." Sigurd procured a bit of parchment, and in a few minutes the message was ready. "I told her that to-morrow night we would wait beneath her window. She must contrive to let herself down, and if necessary we will fight our way down to the 'Crane.' Is she below the bridge or above it?"

"Below. I will go down to-morrow and bid the men be ready to receive us. We must get some fresh water on board, too."

An hour later Biorn returned. "The arrow flew straight, Jarl. I waited a few minutes and saw a light cross her shutter thrice."

Sigurd nodded. "Then she understands. Get the 'Crane' ready to-morrow, and return by nightfall. Better have a boat or two at the water-stairs, just at the end of this street."

"Trust me, Jarl," said the old viking, and returned to the ship.