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The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 17

CHAPTER XVII.

KETIL TURNS UP.

FAR behind them sounded a few faint shouts and horns, as the men reached the spot where the two leaders had been ambushed; then these died away into silence. Sigurd saw that they were carried by a band of two dozen Irish, who were hastening north through the forest. He started to speak to the priest, who was borne at his side, but one of the men struck him roughly on the mouth, with a sharp command in Irish, and he ceased.

At nightfall the band halted beside a stream, and Sigurd judged they had traveled several miles from the scene of their capture. A blazing fire was built, over which the men cooked their meal, the two captives being flung down beneath a large tree.

"What fools we were to leave the guide!" growled Thangbrand into his thick black beard. "I wish they would give us somewhat to eat."

His wish was gratified immediately, for the leader of the band approached, cut the ropes that bound their hands, and gave them bread and meat, and a horn of water from the stream. After this they were ound again.

"They seem to be expecting someone," exclaimed Sigurd, "did you note that the leader had sent men out in all directions?"

This had indeed been done as soon as they arrived, and an hour later there was a shout, and into the firelight came a second body of men. As they saw them, Sigurd gave a cry of amazement, for at their head was Ketil Gormson, whom he had left in London the winter before!

The new arrivals were also Irish, Ketil being the only foreigner. The leader of the first party greeted him, and Ketil put into his hand a bag that clinked pleasantly. Then he stepped forward to Sigurd's side.

"So I have you at last, my lord Jarl!" he cried, an evil light in his dark eyes. "It is a far cry from London to Ireland, but I have watched and waited patiently."

"It is a pity that I didn't strike harder that night!" replied Sigurd. "What is your object in this attack?"

Ketil laughed shortly. "You go with me to Jarl Hakon, my fine fellow, and as for this follower of the white Christ, I think I will turn him over to these good friends of mine in the morning."

Sigurd turned pale, for he knew that any Norsemen who fell into the hands of the Irish obtained short shrift. Thangbrand, however, roared out:

"Loose my hands, you traitor, and face me with drawn blade!"

"So," sneered Ketil, "I thought that priests of your God were meek and humble men, willing to die for their faith!"

Thangbrand flushed under the reproof, and fell silent. Ketil turned away, set a guard over the captives, and in a few minutes the band lay sleeping in their cloaks beneath the trees.

The Norsemen's weapons had not been taken from them, but as they were bound firmly they were of no use. Sigurd, however, saw that the peace-bands had been torn from his sword in the hasty flight through the forest.

An hour after this he felt Thangbrand's hands touch his. The two captives lay side by side, and their guard was sitting a few feet away, nodding sleepily. Turning by inches, Sigurd looked at the priest, and saw him motion toward the unbound sword.

Sigurd, very slowly and cautiously, rolled over on his face, bringing the weapon within reach of Thangbrand, who at the same time turned his back. Thus his hands, after a little vain searching, met the hilt of the weapon and slowly drew it forth. An instant later their guard straightened up and strolled over to them.

Sigurd lay on his face, and with a quick movement Thangbrand had thrust the drawn blade beneath him. The guard, thinking that both were asleep, turned away, humming an air, and Sigurd caught a faint rasping noise as the sword blade cut through the priest's bonds.

Soon the guard returned, and stooped over Sigurd, who lay nearer him, to assure himself that his bonds were right. As he did so, Thangbrand drew him down to the earth, his hands about the man's throat.

The struggle was brief and noiseless. In a few seconds the man relaxed, and the priest quickly bound and gagged him; then he cut Sigurd's bonds, whispering:

"If my hands were not so stiff I would have done better."

Indeed, Sigurd found that his hands and feet were too stiff to move, for he had been tightly bound. They both sat for a moment rubbing their limbs, then arose.

"Which way, Jarl?"

"West, Thangbrand. Once we strike men belonging to King Brian we will be all right, for his bracelet here will be known, and you are a priest, too."

Without a word more they stepped away, each picking up a light shield from beside the sleeping men as they went. The forest was dark, but as the moon was just rising Sigurd knew that their way would soon be light enough to travel fast.

In half an hour they were well away from the camp, and both broke into a swift trot, threading their way among the trees, and as far as they were able heading west. The trees were roughly barked on the north, and this guided them somewhat, for both men were accustomed, at home in Norway, to finding their way through the forest by such signs.

"Hold up, lad," panted Thangbrand, after an hour's running.

Sigurd slackened his pace, for the ground was too uneven and rough to keep it up longer, and for a time they walked swiftly onward.

"Pray heaven that we strike no bog or morass," said Thangbrand, "for if we do we are lost."

"I wonder if we will be pursued?"

"If we are, I do not propose to fall into their hands alive," answered the priest, stoutly. "They are evidently some wandering band, who have been hired by that villain Ketil. I'd like to get him within reach of my sword!"

They kept onward till dawn, walking and running by turns. As the gray light broke through the trees, they found that the forest was thinning out somewhat, and Thangbrand flung himself down for a brief rest.

"I think we must be getting near the cultivated fields in that broad plain we crossed yesterday," conjectured Sigurd. "If we can once get to Brian he will protect us, for I have heard that no one could be more jealous of his word than he."

Ten minutes later they continued their way. The sun was just rising now, and as they stood on the top of a small hill, vainly endeavoring to see some signs of habitation, a faint yell arose from the forest behind them.

"Come on, Thangbrand," exclaimed Sigurd, breaking into a run. "It is a matter of speed now."

For half an hour they kept up a brisk trot, but could hear the yells rising from time to time behind them, each louder than the last. Finally Thangbrand stopped short.

"Go on, Fairhair. I am clean winded, and your life is worth more than mine to Olaf. Do you go on, while I hold them here as long as may be."

"One of the Jomsborg oaths," replied Sigurd, quietly, "is to never desert a comrade—"

"Out upon your Jomsborg oaths!" roared Thangbrand. "Get you gone, and lose no time!"

"Listen!" cried Sigurd quickly. "Isn't that a horn?"

Far off toward the west they heard the faint notes of a war-horn, while from behind them a loud shout arose, as their pursuers came in sight.

"Hasten, Fairhair," cried the priest, unsheathing his sword. "Go yonder and bring help while I hold them here!"

Sigurd smiled and unsheathed his own weapon, as he looked around.

"Cease this nonsense," he said, though not without a thrill at thought of the generosity of the big man. "Let us stand beneath this big oak, where we can swing our swords without being struck in the back."

They took position on either side of a large oak tree, and five minutes later the first of their pursuers appeared. He halted at seeing them, and sent up a yell; as his comrades came up, they spread out, enclosing the tree in a circle.

To do him justice, Ketil was brave enough. When he appeared, he led a dozen men straight at the tree, and in a second the two were fighting furiously. The Irish crowded around, striking with their long knives, but speedily recoiled before the terrible sweep of Thangbrand's huge sword, and the more scientific, but no less deadly, blows of the young Jarl. As they retired, their chief yelled an order, and the arrows began to whizz past.

The first Sigurd caught with his shield, the second he cut in two as it flew. A shout of amazement went up from the Irish as Thangbrand did the same, for, unacquainted as they were with the exercises and training of the Norsemen, this skill seemed little less than magical. Again and again the two men repeated the trick, but it was impossible to ward off more than one or two shafts at a time, and soon both Thangbrand and Sigurd were wounded. Suddenly Ketil sprang at Sigurd with a shout of impatience.

The Irish circled around, watching the combat with eager eyes, forgetful of all else, while Thangbrand guarded Sigurd's back. Thrice Ketil's steel met that of Sigurd, then seeing an opening, the latter struck; but his feet slipped on the dew-wet grass, and he fell headfirst.

Thangbrand was instantly bestriding his body, facing Ketil, At this the Irish came in behind him, watching eagerly for a chance to use their long knives, while the priest crossed swords with Ketil. Suddenly the latter threw up his arms as something flew past Thangbrand, and fell with a spear through his body as a yell of terror went up from his band.

Looking about as he raised Sigurd to his feet, Thangbrand saw King Brian Boroimhe behind him, sword in hand, while his men pursued the fleeing band in all directions, cutting them down without mercy.