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The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 13

CHAPTER XIII.

ALFRED OF MERCIA.

THEY dashed down the hill, and in a few minutes were through the trees and on the river bank. They found Biorn drawing up his men.

"Why, what's the matter, Biorn?"

"I am not sure, Jarl, but look up the ice yonder."

He pointed up the frozen bed of the little river, and Sigurd saw a large party of armed men, pulling a sledge, running toward them. Sigurd examined them for a minute.

"I don't think they mean to attack us, Biorn, or they would not have that sledge. They look like Saxons, so best be ready."

By this time more men had arrived from the ships, and as the Saxons approached, Sigurd saw that there were some fifty men in the party. Finding the Northmen waiting, they stopped running, and one, better dressed than the rest, in a bearskin mantle and helmet, hastened on.

As he came near, Astrid said, "Why, Sigurd, he isn't any older than you are! And you were afraid of him!"

Sigurd made no reply save a smile, for, indeed, the Saxon was only a youth, but a noble-looking one. Nearly as tall as Sigurd, he was not so broad, but his face was frank,, and attracted the young Jarl at once.

"Are you Danes or Norsemen?" called the stranger.

"Norsemen," answered Sigurd, "and you are Saxons, I take it."

"Right you are," laughed the boy, with a glance over his shoulder. "Are you plundering the country?"

"Nay," answered Sigurd. "We are Christians. Bid your men stand back, for our arrows lie loosely on the strings."

The boy laughed again, as if it were a good joke, and turning, waved to his men, who halted.

"Let me explain," he said. "I am Alfred, son of Jarl Alfric of Mercia, and with me is Sigrid my sister. Briefly, we are flying from the men of King Ethelred; will you assist us?"

Sigurd, suspecting a trap, looked keenly at the boy; but his gaze was met squarely, and Sigurd's suspicions vanished. "Where is your sister, and your pursuers?" he asked.

Alfred pointed to the sledge. "My sister is ill, and we have to carry her." His face suddenly became serious. "Hasten your reply, sir Norseman, for God's sake! The King's men are not half a mile behind, and there are nigh three score of them, while half of mine are wounded or sick."

Sigurd stepped out and gripped his hand. "No time for talking, then! Take your sister and the sick or wounded men out to my ships, and let all your fighting men join mine. Take charge of him, Astrid, and use the boats quickly."

The boy called up his men, dividing them as Sigurd had ordered, and joining the Norsemen with twenty Saxons.

"We will give Ethelred's men a sharp lesson, Biorn. Do you post the men as you see fit."

A hundred yards up the river was a bend, and running toward this, Biorn motioned the men to hide behind the dry bushes that stood along the banks, while he ran forward to reconnoiter. A minute later he returned at full speed.

"Here they are," he cried. "Pass the word to wait till they come opposite, then loose arrows and at them with axes."

Barely had Biorn sunk out of sight when the pursuing party appeared, three-score Saxons under two leaders. "Pick off the leaders, men," whispered Sigurd, and as the party came between the two bands of Norsemen, Biorn's horn sounded, and a cloud of arrows poured into the compact body of Saxons. At the same time the vikings seized their swords and axes and ran forward.

The Saxons resisted bravely, but their leaders had fallen at the first fire, and after a minute of sharp hand-to-hand fighting they broke and fled.

Sigurd had headed his men, engaging a tall Saxon in single combat. The other wounded Sigurd badly in the shoulder at the first exchange of blows; and, dropping his shield, Sigurd grasped his great sword in both hands and rushed his foe. At the first blow the other's shield-arm fell, numb with the shock; at the second his sword flew from his hand and he slipped on the ice, falling heavily.

Seeing that the enemy had broken, Sigurd paused and shouted:

"Back, men, back! We only want to give them a lesson, not to slaughter them!"

His own men obeyed, but Alfred's Saxons drove on after the fugitives, and Sigurd could hardly blame them. Then he turned to his foe; the man lay looking up, awaiting the death stroke.

"Get up," exclaimed Sigurd with a laugh, "I am no murderer!"

With an amazed expression, the Saxon slowly got up, and then, seizing Sigurd's hand in his, knelt and kissed it. "Thanks, lord," he said, you are the first who ever bested Wulf at the sword, and if you will take him, he will serve you right well!"

Sigurd smiled, but faintly; and Biorn was just in time to catch him in his arms. The wounded shoulder was streaming with blood, and he had suddenly turned faint.

While Biorn held him and the other men crowded around, Wulf tore off his woolen tunic and deftly bound up the wound, Biorn watching him suspiciously; then, taking Sigurd's feet while Biorn tenderly held his body, the two carried him back to the shore.

As they approached, Astrid ran up.

"Sigurd! Is Sigurd hurt?"

"It is nothing," replied Biorn, "only a wound in the shoulder. He'll be all right in ten minutes."

Wulf, who had wounded the boy, now surprised Biorn by his tenderness. Setting the boy with his back to an ice-hummock, he bathed his face with snow, and Sigurd opened his eyes.

"Keep quiet," growled Biorn, as he struggled to rise, "I will attend to the embarking, and you can rest for a space."

By the time the water casks were aboard Alfred and the Saxons had returned, and the Saxon boy seemed genuinely sorry for his rescuer's mishap. All then embarked, and Biorn divided the men between the two ships.

On the "Crane" he took the Jomsvikings, Olaf's courtmen, and a dozen Saxons; the Norse prisoners and thirty Saxons went on board the other ship. In an hour the sails were hoisted, and the ships bore away from the land, heading east.

Sigurd sat on the forecastle of the "Crane," Astrid and the two Saxons near him. "Now tell me your story," said Sigurd, giving his own name and Astrid's. "Our father was the Jarl of Mercia," began Alfred, "but King Ethelred has always been jealous of his popularity, and has persecuted him unceasingly. Three weeks since a party of armed men appeared to seize our father, but he fled to a Danish ship on the coast, and she took him off. My elder brother Alfgar was taken and blinded."

Astrid and Sigurd gave a cry of horror, but Alfred smiled sadly. "You do not know of what Ethelred is capable, my friends. In his present condition Alfgar is unfit to become Jarl, thus being as good as dead in the King's opinion.

"My father had barely time to send a man to warn us at Lincoln, and we fled from home just in time to get to the fens and escape. Some fourscore men, all devoted servants of my father, fled with us. Twice Ethelred's men came upon us, and we beat them off, but wounds and sickness thinned my men, and these are all I have left. Last week Sigrid came down with fever, and we had to fly again; but this time, thanks to you, we are safe. We will never forget that we owe our lives to you, Jarl Sigurd!"

Astrid immediately took charge of the sick girl. Thanks to his temperate life, Sigurd's wound promised to heal rapidly, and the man Wulf proved invaluable. He had been educated in a monastery, and was skilled in leech-craft, and seemed devoted to the boy Jarl.

"I thought to be killed at once," he told Sigurd, who had summoned him. "You are the best swordsman, as well as the only merciful viking, whom I ever met. My life is yours, Jarl, if so you will have it." The man's words were so sincere that Sigurd accepted his offer gladly, for he was an expert swordsman as well as leech, and could both read and write, which was no small accomplishment.

A council was now held on the "Crane's" forecastle, to decide on what course they should pursue. They finally came to the conclusion that they would run south and cross to Flanders, where Alfred and Sigrid would probably find their father. As soon as this course was fixed on, Biorn took charge of the "Snake," as the other vessel was named, transferring to her that evening.

It proved well, indeed, that he did so, for during the night a gale swept down out of the northeast, and bore them helplessly before it. The Saxons on the "Snake," most of whom had never been to sea before, were of little use, and even Alfred was sick, though Sigrid escaped; but there was nothing to do save to keep the ships before the wind. It was bitterly cold, but as the Norsemen did not mind this much, and the girls were well wrapped up, no one suffered greatly.

Sigurd had no fears for the two ships, for both were new and rode the waves easily. The ships of the vikings could only sail with a fair or a side wind, and as they would be driven far past Flanders unless the gale broke up soon, the four discussed the situation that evening in the "Crane's" cabin.

"We are certainly getting all the storms we want," laughed Sigurd to Astrid, as he came in and shook off the snow. "Shall we take the chances and head around for the southern end of England?"

"No!" cried Alfred. "Cannot we make for Normandy? There are many vikings there, and it is settled by Norsemen."

Sigurd shook his head. "Not unless the wind shifts."

"I see," broke in Astrid, "that you are thinking about getting me back home. I admit that I would like to see Vendland again, but why don't you just take the simplest course, Sigurd, run before the wind, then around England and back to King Olaf?"

"It sounds easy," laughed Sigurd, "and that is what I would do if I were alone. But with you and Sigrid on board I don't like to take unnecessary risks."

Sigrid laughed as Alfred, in the throes of seasickness, seized his cloak and left the cabin. "Don't mind us, Jarl; head for Ireland by all means!"

"Well," responded Sigurd, "we'll see how things look in the morning. I'm going to turn in now and get some sleep."