The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 19
AT KING SVEIN'S COURT.
ASTRID and Halfdan had a safe and quiet voyage home to Denmark, but when they arrived there they found that many changes had taken place during the winter. The pale, quiet, religious Queen Gunhild had died, and as she alone had restrained King Svein from his wild and warlike impulses, the King was gathering great forces for his descent on England.
Astrid took up her abode in the castle as formerly, but the life was a lonely one. Her parents had died when she was a child, and only her Uncle Halfdan was near her. She disliked King Svein, who, although he always treated her well and kindly, was a moody and irritable man, with no thought for anything save his selfish ambitions. Soon after Astrid's return he placed in her care his two sons, Harald and Canute, and she took great interest in the education and care of the two lonely boys, little thinking that in after days the younger was to prove a great and worthy king of England, thanks to her early teachings.
So the summer passed, while men assembled and were sent on to the Danish settlements in the north of England to wait the arrival of Svein in the fall. Jarl Halfdan was sent in command of one of these detachments, and after his departure Astrid felt her loneliness more than ever.
One day King Svein sent for her. Wondering at the summons, Astrid proceeded to the hall, where she found the king surrounded by his chiefs.
"Lady Astrid," he said abruptly, "prepare your belongings for a journey. Your hand has been asked in marriage by the son of King Vladimir of Russia, and needless to say, I have accepted the offer, for besides being a great honor, this will bring to my army a number of ships from Russia."
Astrid was overwhelmed, but answered the King bravely. "You have no right to dispose of my hand. King Svein, in this fashion! It is unjust to me, for I am not your vassal. My lands lie in Vendland, and if necessary I shall appeal to King Burislaf for protection against this outrage!"
The King's face darkened. "You will do as I order!" he exclaimed angrily. "King Burislaf also will do whatever I order him, and this is a thing unheard of, that a girl should decide her own marriage!"
A murmur of assent went up from the chiefs, and Astrid gazed hopelessly around the circle of fierce faces, finding no hope in them. How she longed for her good uncle to stand at her side! But as the King said, a girl in those days could rarely indeed marry whom she liked; her parents or guardian settled that without consulting her, and Astrid felt that she was helpless.
"This is a noble marriage," continued the King, more calmly, "so let me hear no more of these protests. You will leave here in two weeks for Gardarike, Vladimir's capital, with a fitting escort."
With that the girl was dismissed to her apartments. Young Canute, hearing of the matter, tried to comfort her, but the boy was of course as helpless as she. So, although Astrid resolved that the marriage should never take place, even though she had to fly from home, the packing of her effects proceeded.
A week later, as she was sitting sewing in the garden, she heard a great noise from the harbor, shouts and war-horns mingling with the clash of arms. She sent Canute to see what it was about, and presently the boy came running back, his eyes bright and his cheeks flushed with excitement.
"Oh, Astrid!" he cried, "we have visitors! Two great ships just sailed into the harbor, from far over the sea—the strangest ships! They didn't have any dragon in the bow, but instead was a big gilded cross! All the men on board had shields with red crosses on them, and I saw them as they landed—great warriors, all of of them!"
Astrid's cheek paled suddenly. What ships could these be, sailing under the Cross, unless—? Canute continued hastily:
"And, Astrid, you ought to see the chiefs! There is one old viking, so fierce and brave-looking, and a beautiful girl with bright yellow hair, and a boy who must be her brother; but greatest of all was a young man with hair like sunlight, streaming over his shoulders, and a great golden helmet—"
Astrid did not wait to hear the rest. Dropping her work, she ran to her rooms, her heart beating wildly. Swiftly calling her women, she attired herself, and descended to the hall, which was empty. She hastened out, and leaving the castle, went down to the harbor.
There all the townfolk and the men from the castle were crowded about the market place, and as they made way for her respectfully, Astrid saw King Svein talking to a number of people, whom she could not see for the crowd. As she made her way through the press, a well-known voice fell on her ear; and then, with flushed cheek, she found herself face to face with Sigurd Fairhair!
He gave a cry of delight as he saw her, and gripped her hands until they hurt.
"Why, Sigurd!" she replied, noting how he had grown, "what a big man you have become already! Oh, how glad I am to see you—and how I need you, too!" she added in a lower tone.
Sigurd gave her a quick, anxious look, then turned. "Here, Alfred, Sigrid!" he shouted, and the next minute the two girls were in each other's arms, while the crowd looked on, amazed. Sigurd told King Svein something of their tale, then the king ordered all to follow him to the castle.
"We can talk in peace there," he said. "Do you come up at once. My men will attend to your ships, so bring your warriors ashore and let them be entertained at the barracks."
Sigurd left this to Biorn, and the four young people followed Svein to the castle, where they seated themselves in the hall, below the high-seat.
"Now, how do you come to be here, of all places?" asked King Svein, who remembered Sigurd well. In return Sigurd told him about the rescue of Alfred and Sigrid. Svein nodded.
"I know the story. Jarl Alfwic is even now with my army in England. Go on."
"King Olaf," continued Sigurd, "sent Alfred and his sister to you asking that you take them with you to their father; or, if you could not do this, to see that they received a pilot to take them safely to Flanders. However, since you are going to England before long yourself, that is settled."
"Right glad will I be," replied the King, "to have the son of Jarl Alfwic with me. They will be safely delivered to the Jarl, have no fear."
"As to myself," said Sigurd, "that is another matter. King Olaf has sailed for Norway to take the kingdom from Jarl Hakon, and—"
He was interrupted by a cry of amazement from the Danes.
"What say you?" shouted Svein, leaping up, "King Olaf has sailed for Norway? Skoal! Skoal!" The chiefs roundabout echoed the cheer.
"He sent me to you, King Svein, to ask that if possible you will send him ships and men; or, if you cannot do this, that at least you will not aid Jarl Hakon and Jarl Eirik."
"As to the first request, I cannot do that," replied Svein, "for I need every man I can raise. Be sure, however, that Olaf need fear no attack from me; I will be joyful, indeed, when the traitor Hakon is driven from Norway!"
"That will be good news for Olaf," rejoined Sigurd, "for an attack in the rear would be fatal. He has but five ships, of which mine is one, and his success will depend entirely on his being able to surprise Hakon."Sigurd then told of how Olaf had Christianized the Orkneys, and how he had dispatched him immediately on this journey. Olaf was to remain three weeks in the islands, baptizing the people, and had arranged to meet Sigurd at Moster, an island on the west coast of Norway, for which Olaf would direct his course.
Sigurd had no opportunity to speak with Astrid till the evening, and he was puzzled by her words of that morning. Not till Alfred, Sigrid and he went to her apartments in the evening did he receive an explanation. Then Astrid told them about Svein's plans for her marriage.
"It is a shame!" exclaimed Sigrid. "Why, in England a girl must yield obedience to her father's wishes, but she is not forced into marrying in this way!"
Sigurd was silent, his brows knitted. "I am in a bad position," he said at last. "Of course, the simplest way out of it would be for you to come on board the 'Crane,' and for us to join King Olaf; but I am on a mission here that I must not neglect. I cannot anger Svein against Olaf, as such an action would do; not that I care for my own sake, but it might mean ruin to my King."
Alfred agreed with him. "Yes, you must consider your duty to Olaf; and yet there are two sides to it—"
"No," broke in Sigurd, "there are not. At any cost must Svein's finger be kept out of Olaf's pie, for Svein is liable to abandon his English trip and turn all his forces against Norway in a sudden fit of rage. That would be fatal to Olaf at present."
"I think I have a plan," remarked Sigrid after a moment. "As long as you do not appear in Astrid's escape, it will be all right, won't it?"
"Well then, give Wulf a few men and that cutter that is on the 'Snake,' let them take Astrid on board, and wait for you at some place along the coast. You must leave to-morrow or next day to rejoin Olaf, so you can pick them up as you go, and King Svein will think Astrid has fled of her own will."
"Good!" cried Sigurd. "What say you to the plan, Astrid?"
"I think it is a good one, too," replied the girl, her dark eyes sparkling, "but all my things are packed up, and I don't want to meet King Olaf looking like this!"
She blushed as a peal of laughter went up from the rest.
"Never mind, Astrid," laughed Sigrid, "I will put a chest aboard the 'Crane' to-night; my things will fit you pretty well, and King Olaf gave me a whole shipload of dresses."
"Better put it in the cutter," said Alfred, "for when Svein finds his ward gone, he will search our ships first thing."
So it was arranged, that the next night Wulf, who had firmly attached himself to the young Jarl, should wait at the dock for Astrid, who insisted on making her way down to the harbor alone.