The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV.

IN BRETLAND.

THE morning broke dark and gloomy, with no land in sight. Sigurd, concluding that they had been driven below the Thames, if not below the end of England, ordered the helmsman to steer due west, and while he was unable to communicate with the "Snake," he saw Biorn follow his example at once, and knew that he understood.

The gale had now lessened to a steady wind from the northeast, interspersed with flurries of snow, and both ships drove steadily along under half-canvas.

For two days they held this course, and then Sigurd held a shouted conference with Biorn. It seemed evident that they had been carried south of England, so the prows were turned north, and the next morning land appeared. Alfred had found his sea-legs by this time, while Sigrid was rapidly gaining strength and color from the salt sea-air, which drove the marsh fever out of her. She was a very pretty girl, indeed, with her blue eyes and long flaxen hair, and she and Astrid were firm friends from the start.

Wulf, who was now more a friend than a captive, was a great favorite with all on board, even with Alfred's Saxons. On the morning that land was sighted, he drew Sigurd aside.

"Jarl, we must have fresh water at once. Three of the casks were loosened by the storm and have run out; there is only a cask or two of ale left."

Sigurd made a wry face. "Well, that will keep us from thirst, and the men like it well enough, though I have little taste for it; but perhaps we can get water from some river along the coast here, or from the 'Snake.'"

Wulf disagreed. "All Ethelred's Jarls and Thanes will be looking for us, you may be sure, and as soon as we are sighted the housecarls will be poured down wherever we land."

Sigurd thought it over, and finally signaled the "Snake." Biorn drew alongside, but when Sigurd mentioned the shortness of water, the old viking gave a cry of dismay.

"Why, we thought to get some from you! Never mind, we are drawing into the coast, and I will make a landing and find out where we are. We cannot be very far from South Wales, and once there it will be plain sailing, for the people there are of my own race, and I have not forgotten the language of the Cymry."

So they steered toward the shore, which was high and rocky. After coasting along for two or three hours, a large bay was revealed, half frozen over, with a hamlet nestling on the cliffs above.

"They are fishing folk, most like," said Alfred, "but there is no sign of a river hereabouts. We may have to melt up some of that ice!"

Biorn's ship now drew carefully in, and broke through the thin outer edge of ice. When the "Snake" would go no farther, Biorn leaped out after testing the ice with oars, and a dozen men followed him to the shore. They found the hamlet in great consternation, dreading the forays of the pirates, but Biorn soon appeased their fears, buying a goodly quantity of fish from them, and returned to the ships.

The "Snake" drew alongside the "Crane." "No fresh water, Jarl," reported Biorn. "Everything is frozen fast, and these people melt ice for their needs. They say there is a river half a mile inland, but we dare not risk it."

"I would advise that if possible we bear around South Wales and reach up for the Northern Kingdom. It will only be a day's difference, and we won't find much help among the people on this coast. We might take in some ice-cakes, in case the ale gives out."

"How long does it take to reach North Wales?" asked Sigurd.

"We ought to get there to-morrow night, or the next day at latest," replied Biorn, and Sigurd waved assent. The ships were rowed up to the ice and a supply of this was taken on board each ship; then the sails were hoisted, half the oars put out, and at full speed they passed along the coast, for Sigurd was determined not to be caught in another tempest.

Next morning, however, the Land's End was reached, and the prows turned north. By nightfall the land was in sight ahead, and early next morning they drew close into shore.

"I know where we are," shouted Biorn to Sigurd. "Do you follow me, Jarl, and we will speedily come to an open river, unless I am greatly mistaken."

Before noon, indeed, a great shout of joy went up from the men, for there before them was a bay, with an open river flowing down. True, the channel was narrow and dangerous for ships, for the ice nearly met on either side; but the "Crane" followed the "Snake " closely, and they entered the channel. Half a mile from the mouth this widened out and turned suddenly; as the "Snake" reached the bend Sigurd heard Biorn's war-horn, and saw his men arming themselves in haste.

"To arms, men!" he shouted, "and be ready for whatever may befall!" Alfred quickly donned his armor and stood by Sigurd in the prow. As they in turn came around the bend, they saw the reason for Biorn's preparations; there before them lay two large ships, moored for the winter on shore, with a camp close by. From their appearance they were Danes, and high above, on a neighboring knoll, could be seen the roofs of a town of goodly size.

As the "Crane" came alongside the "Snake," Sigurd saw that the vikings on shore were also arming and assembling around their two ships.

"This is the town of Neath, Jarl," cried Biorn, as he leaped on board the "Crane," "and it was here that I was born. What ships these are I know not; shall we draw in and hail them?"

"That would be best," replied Sigurd. "Doubtless they are some vikings who are wintering here, but it is strange, indeed, that they are allowed to remain so near a town, unless they came on a peaceful errand."

Sigurd ordered the men to row as close to shore as they could. The ship stopped two or three hundred yards from it, for it was impossible to break through the ice, and Sigurd blew a loud blast on a peace-horn. In answer came one from the camp, and a dozen men left the two ships and started over the ice toward the "Crane."

As these came near, Astrid uttered a little cry and caught Sigurd's arm. "Oh, Fairhair, look at that big man in front! That is Halfdan, the brother of Queen Gunhild, and my own uncle!"

Sigurd looked closely at the man, remembered him well, for he had seen him often while the Jomsborg men were at King Svein's court. Halfdan stopped just beyond spear-cast of the "Crane."

"Who are you, and do you come in peace or war?" he called.

"Good-morning!" laughed Sigurd, "don't you know your friends, Jarl?"

The other started, looked keenly at the ship, and ran forward. "Surely, it is Sigurd Fairhair!" he cried, as he came near. "And by the eye of Odin! Am I dreaming or is this Astrid?"

"Astrid it is, uncle!" laughed the girl, jumping down on the ice and throwing her arms around his neck. The Jarl struggled to disengage himself, and cried in mock dismay:

"Help; help, are you trying to make me captive? Let loose! Respect my dignity!"

Sigurd followed Astrid to the ice, and clasped Halfdan's hand. "Be careful, uncle," laughed Astrid, "Sigurd is your equal in dignity now!"

Sigurd nodded at the surprised look of the Dane. "Yes, I am one of Olaf Tryggveson's men now, Jarl, and he made me a Jarl lately, although I am altogether too young for such an honor."

"Nonsense, nonsense!" replied Halfdan, his merry eyes gleaming with happiness, "you are the handsomest Jarl I ever saw in my life, upon my word! But come up to the camp."

"Wait," said Sigurd, turning to his ships. "Alfred, do you and Sigrid join US. Wulf, you and Biorn take charge of the ships and lay them up on shore, there beside the others. We are with friends."

As Alfred and Sigrid climbed down to the ice, the young Jarl presented them to Halfdan, who greeted them heartily.

"I have heard of your father's misfortune," he exclaimed, "and I was sorry, indeed, for I fought against him three or four years ago, and he was a noble foeman. However, he is safe in Flanders now, and is like to return before long."

"Why, what do you mean?" cried Alfred, in surprise.

"Come along to the camp and I'll tell you." Halfdan led the way to the shore. It's too cold to be standing out here talking.

As they entered the camp, the news spread that a party of Jomsvikings were among the arrivals, and a loud blast went up from the horns, while the Danes met them with shouts of joy, for the men of Jomsborg were prime favorites with King Svein's men. Sigurd found several whom he knew, while Astrid was met with fresh cheers. As they entered the large hut of Halfdan, the Jarl drove the men off.

"Get out of here!" he cried, "Go down and help stow the ships up on land beside ours. We have much to talk over here, and would be left in peace."

With a last cheer, the men vanished, and Halfdan closed the door.

"Here is food and water, friends, if you are hungry."

"We have plenty of food, but a drink of water would not be amiss," answered Sigurd. "And now, how come you here, in Wales?"

"First make yourselves comfortable." Halfdan piled furs along the wall, for Astrid and Sigrid, while he and the two boys sat on the long wooden bench. "Well, of course you remember the oath that Svein made that night? He wasn't in such a hurry as you Jomsvikings were, but he has been making big preparations. He sent me here right after the news of Hiorunga Bay arrived, for he had counted on your men making a descent on Ethelred from the west as well as from Northumbria, where he himself will land in the spring or summer.

"I arrived here a month or two ago, and have arranged matters with Idwal ap Meirig, the King of North Wales. What barbarous names these Welsh people have!"

"Probably they think ours just as bad," laughed Sigrid, "for they hate everything Saxon; and as for your Norse names, I am sure they used to sound harsh, even to us!"

"Well, in any case, King Idwal is up in the town yonder, has agreed to join us, and we see him nearly every day. Now, tell me something about yourself, Sigurd."

It was late when Sigurd finished his tale, so Halfdan, who had given orders meanwhile, showed the two girls to a hut that had been hastily fitted up for them, and shared his own with the boys for the night.