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The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI.

AN AMBUSCADE.

SIGURD was received with unbounded joy by King Olaf, for he had been given up for lost in the storm that swept the coast just before his departure. Halfdan stayed in Dublin for a week, then decided to return home without further delay.

Sigurd parted with Astrid sorrowfully, for they had become very dear to each other in their wanderings, and although Alfred and Sigrid remained with him, he knew that he would miss her greatly.

"Never mind," he said, as they walked down to the ships, "we will land in Norway this summer or fall, and be sure that I will turn up at the Danish court, or in Vendland, not long after."

"I'll be glad to see Vagn once more, when I get home," said Astrid. "It will seem almost as good as seeing you." Halfdan had told them of Vagn's safe arrival home, so that Jarl Eirik had evidently been true to his word.

Sigurd and Alfred, in the "Crane," accompanied Halfdan's ships for a few miles; then, with a last farewell to Astrid, the "Crane" was turned about, and sought Dublin again.

Sigurd's duties were light at the court. Olaf's Irish kingdom was not divided in districts, ruled by Jarls, as was Norway; so that Sigurd had little to do beyond commanding the courtmen. Alfred had not done homage to King Olaf, for he resolved to remain true to his own land; nevertheless, the King gave him a command, and Alfred bore himself well indeed.

With the beginning of summer Olaf took all his warships out of the water, scraped the bottoms, and gave them a thorough overhauling. Thorir Klakke was still in Dublin, and Sigurd found that he was urging the King to sail as soon as might be for Norway, saying that the bonders would flock to him on his arrival, so that he need not take so large a force. King Olaf, who thoroughly understood his treachery, did not undeceive him; but to Sigurd he said, one night after Thorir had left the hall:

"Jarl, if ever a man deserved hanging, there is one. While you were absent in England, two half-brothers of mine were driven from Norway by Jarl Hakon, and came to me here. Thorir tried to bribe them, and fortunately they let him think that they fell in with his plans, which he disclosed fully.

"Jarl Hakon, in truth, sent him here. Thorir will try to slay me on the voyage," the King smiled grimly, "but if he fails, he is to get me on shore at a certain point where Hakon will keep men in waiting day and night. These men are to fall on me and kill me."

Sigurd gave a cry of anger, and the priest, Thangbrand, growled out, "Let me attend to him, Olaf! I'll warrant he does not trouble you any more!"

Olaf laughed heartily. "Thangbrand, you are more fitted for a viking than for a priest! If I ever win Norway, I will send you to Iceland to convert that island to Christ."

The priest's face lit up. "Thanks, my King! It is a shame that so fair an island as that should have no church of Christ in all its length! It may be that I will meet resistance there, but methinks I can hold my own."

Sigurd laughed at this characteristic speech. Thangbrand was a strange mixture of priest and warrior. Driven from home for his quarrelsome disposition, he had joined himself to Olaf; but in reality the man was deeply religious, and he was, indeed, the ideal man to carry the Cross to heathen Iceland. In those days the Cross and sword went together, and the old gods of Norway knew many martyrs to their faith before Christianity was established in the land, in later years. Right or wrong, this was the spirit of the age, for men overlooked the fact that Christ's gospel was one of peace, and in their enthusiasm and religious fervor they spread it with fire and sword.

There was much irregular fighting around Dublin, for the Irish kings were ever striving to drive the Norsemen from their land. They fought bravely, but their men were ill-armed compared with the vikings, and Olaf had no trouble in preserving order for many miles around the city. His brother-in-law, Olaf Kvaran, was away on a trip to Iceland at this time.

"How would you like, Jarl," said Olaf to Sigurd one evening, "to visit King Brian Boroimhe? I am minded to make peace with him, for when I go to Norway I want to leave Dublin in security, and my brother is not to be relied on. A firm peace with King Brian for at least a year would be an excellent thing."

"I would be glad, indeed," replied Sigurd, "for I have heard so much about the interior of Ireland that I would fain see it."

"Well, I will have letters written in the Irish tongue," said the King, "and do you take what men you will, together with an interpreter. Be ready to start next Monday, and I think you will find the King at Kells, a large place some thirty miles to the west. However, I will provide a reliable guide."

Thangbrand, the priest, hearing of the embassy, eagerly sought leave to accompany Sigurd, which Olaf willingly granted. So, on the following Monday, Sigurd, the priest, and a score of men left Dublin. Their weapons were all in peace-bands, and an Irish captive was taken as guide and interpreter, having promised to lead them to Kells in exchange for his liberty.

Sigurd laughed when Thangbrand joined the party. The huge priest wore a byrnie under his gown, a light steel cap on his head, and at his saddle-bow was shield and sword.

"No one knows what may happen," he replied stoutly, to the boy's peal of laughter, "we may be waylaid by these Irish thieves, or this guide may lead us astray, and it is best to be prepared for anything."

Kells was only a good day's march away, so they set forward briskly. After reaching the bounds of Olaf's territory the road lay through woods and swamps for a dozen miles; but toward evening they emerged on an open plain, partly cultivated, and saw in the distance the spires and towers of a large city. Several times they had been stopped by bands of Irish, but their guide served them faithfully.

Sigurd was amazed at sight of Kells. "Why, this is wonderful!" he said. "I had no idea that there was such civilization so near to Dublin!"

Thangbrand smiled. "Kells has seldom been ravaged by vikings, for many years; it is a strong place, with a great monastery in the town. I have been here once before, and found that the land is beautiful enough in times of peace, but in war-time it would be well-nigh impossible to reach the city."

Sigurd saw that this was so, as they approached, for on either side of the road were defenses, and several stone castles came in sight. Just at sunset they entered the gates of the town, and their guide spurred ahead to find quarters for the men.

As they passed through the streets they met with sour looks and loud curses from the Irish, who hated the Northmen bitterly, with only too much reason. The vikings had ravaged the fairest vales of Erin, had destroyed her monasteries and splendid civilization, and but for the strong hand of King Brian would have overrun the country utterly. That night they took their quarters in a large inn, and the next morning visited the court.

The King's palace was far beyond anything Sigurd had ever seen, even in London. It was built of stone, and the great hall within was a blaze of arms and tapestries. The nobles who thronged the hall were clad much as were the Northmen, but their golden bracelets and cloak-pins were richly wrought, and the precious metal seemed abundant.

Sigurd led his men to the high-seat, and bowed low to King Brian, the famous chieftain. The latter was a powerful, stern-faced man of some sixty years, and he opened and read the letters of Olaf with a frown, afterwards handing them to a monk who stood at his side.

"Sir Jarl," he said, without rising, fixing his gray eyes on Sigurd, "I will have an answer written at once. For the present you and your men will be quartered in my palace here. King Olaf is a brave and worthy man, and I am glad to conclude a year's truce with him; were other Northmen like him, Erin would be a happier land."

The monk translated the King's words, and bowing low, Sigurd retired. Thangbrand at once visited the monastery, taking Sigurd with him; and although the good monks were somewhat surprised at the warlike appearance of the priest, they entertained their visitors well, and showed them over the buildings.

Next morning Sigurd had another audience with King Brian, who handed him a parchment for King Olaf, and presented him with a heavy golden arm-ring; after which the Norsemen left the city at once on their return journey.

They rode along at a good pace, and as they came near the boundaries of Olaf's territory S guard and Thangbrand rode somewhat ahead of the party; for Thangbrand, who was an adept at horsemanship, of which the young Jarl knew little, was showing Sigurd how to make his steed curvet and prance, and thus they insensibly drew ahead of the rest.

They turned a bend in the road, which wound along beneath thick trees; and as they did so a number of men sprang to their horses' heads, and others sprang at Sigurd and Thangbrand, striving to pull them from their saddles. At the same instant, before they could grasp their weapons, men dropped on them from the branches overhead, and a minute later the two Norsemen, bound hand and foot, were being hurried away through the forest depths.