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The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 2

CHAPTER II.

THE SHOOTING-MATCH.

EARLY next morning the boys were afoot, and after a hasty breakfast beside a camp fire they took their bows and quivers and started for town.

Astrid lived with Queen Gunhild at the Kings' Hall, and thither they directed their steps. Early as it was, the place was thronged with servants, who were laying fresh rushes in the hall and putting the place in order for the day. Seeing a house-carl pass, with his clipped hair and golden collar, Sigurd called him and sent him to ask if the Lady Astrid was ready.

Five minutes later Astrid herself appeared, bearing bow and quiver, and joined them with a cheery, "Good-morning, my vikings! Has your rash resolution cooled off yet?"

"Small chance of that," replied Vagn, his half-grave, half-humorous eyes lighting up in a quick smile.

"My falcon is ready to change owners," added Sigurd, but then there is no chance for that to-day, of course."

"Oh, indeed!" Astrid's dark eyes flashed gayly. "That remains to be seen, my lord of Jomsborg and Bornholm!"

Talking and laughing, they started off, leaving the town behind and cutting across the fields to the harbor. There, as they came to the brow of the hill, they paused. Far below lay the great fleet, the sixty Jomsborg ships and those of the assembled Danish lords, their shield-rims glittering in the morning sun, their dragon-prows and high carved sterns gilded or painted in bright array.

Astrid caught her breath in admiration. "Oh, how wonderful it is to be a viking! I wish I were a boy!"

The other two laughed. "It is not so very wonderful," smiled Sigurd. "I think it is hard work. Every morning the drilling and practice in arms, the weapons to be rubbed up—and the rowing! Whew, my back hurts even to think of those low, heavy oars!"

"There's our ship, with the gilded prow," pointed Vagn, to a large long-ship apart from the rest. "Sigurd talks a lot about work, but he is equal to any man in the fleet with sword and shield, save his father, or the Jarl—"

"Or yourself," broke in his cousin quickly. "However, let's get on; I'm anxious to decide the fate of my falcon."

They left the road, and after walking two or three miles, came out on a lonely stretch of shore, wild and rocky. Vagn had brought an old wooden shield with him, and he set this up as target on a large rock a hundred feet distant.

"Do you shoot first," ordered Astrid. "I'll go next, then Vagn."

Sigurd nodded, and selected an arrow. Stringing his bow, he laid the shaft and pulled the string to his ear. Twang! The arrow was buried deep in the shield, just above the center boss of iron.

"Good enough!" cried Vagn, running forward, but Astrid only smiled and raised her bow. The string twanged, and an answering echo came back as the arrow glanced off and the shield fell backward.

"Hurrah!" cried Vagn, picking it up. "Full on the iron boss! But you can't do it again!"

Sigurd ran forward to see also, and as they examined the shield, a sudden cry startled them. Turning, they saw Astrid struggling with three men, while more appeared coming from behind a corner of the cliff.

"Norsemen and spies!" exclaimed Sigurd, and without an instant's hesitation he picked up Astrid's arrow and ran forward, fitting it to his bow.

"Your sword!" called Vagn, tearing the peace-bands from his own weapon as he ran. A shout answered him, and the Norseman ran forward to meet Sigurd. A spear whizzed by his head, and he loosed the bow.

The foremast viking fell with a clash, and as the others paused Sigurd tore the peace-bands from his sword. Next instant he was surrounded, struggling, striking, and he realized that more and more men had appeared from behind the cliff.

Now a blade gleamed beside him, and Vagn's voice sounded in his ear. One man was down—two; but others filled their places, and a heavy axe was poised over Sigurd. As it fell the boy darted in beneath the blow, and his sword fell on the viking's shoulder; but at that instant something crashed on his light steel cap, and he knew no more.

Sigurd awoke with a dull pain in his head, to find his arms tightly bound and the midday sun beating down on him. Raising his head, Fairhair saw that he lay on the forecastle of a small ship, with Vagn beside him, wounded in the shoulder and unconscious.

He saw nothing of Astrid, and a burning thirst consumed him; with a great effort he rose to a sitting position and looked around. They were out at sea, and the land lay far behind them; in the stern and waist of the ship were fifteen or twenty Norsemen.

"That was a stiff crack I gave you, lad, but the steel cap saved your skull," sounded a voice, and Sigurd twisted around. Behind him stood a dark man with an unpleasant face and straw-colored hair; evidently he was the leader, for he had just come out of the cabin.

Sigurd tried to speak, but his tongue was dry, and the man laughed. "Here, Thord," he called, "bring a horn of water."

One of the men in the waist took a horn and filled it from the cask beside the mast, handing it up to the leader, who put it to the boy's lips. Sigurd drank greedily, and then the other threw a few drops over Vagn, who opened his eyes.

He struggled to rise, with a sharp cry.

"Thorkel Leira! I—" The effort was too much for him, and he fell back again. Their captor smiled sneeringly.

"He is in a bad way to fulfill his vow, eh?" This was the man whom Vagn had sworn to kill, the betrayer of his father! As he realized this, Sigurd's head cleared.

"Why have you attacked us? Who are you?" he asked indignantly.

Thorkel laughed again. "Vagn, there, seemed to know my face! You two and the girl, whom I take to be Gunhild's niece, will make a nice gift to Jarl Hakon! Great boasts, great boasts!"

Sigurd flushed. As he looked at the viking, his heart gave a sudden leap, for, framed in the cabin doorway behind, he saw the face of Astrid, her finger on her lips. Making no sign, he answered the leader calmly.

"In that case, leave us alone till we get to Thrandheim." As he said this, Sigurd lay down again, turning his back on Thorkel. The latter sneered, and stepped to the edge of the forecastle, above the ship's waist. Sigurd opened his eyes, and saw Astrid making signs, and holding in her hand his sword.

Sigurd comprehended the plan instantly. He silently drew his feet up and gathered his muscles; Thorkel was giving orders, a few paces away, and paid no heed to him. The boy slowly rose to one knee; he saw Astrid run toward him, and at the same instant he threw himself headfirst at Thorkel, striking him fairly in the waist.

The viking fell forward with a cry, and lay motionless on the deck beneath. Sigurd would have followed him over the low rail, but for a hand that gripped his bound arms and stayed him; then he felt the bonds cut and a sword pushed into his hand.

"Hold the ladder," panted the girl, while I arouse Vagn."

Sigurd sprang to the top of the narrow ladder that led up from the deck below just as the surprised men seized their weapons. An arrow tore through his hair; another followed, but Sigurd parried it with his blade, and another after it. This was an old viking exercise, and the boy felt no fear; but with a cry of dismay Astrid ran to the cabin, quickly returning with a shield.

"Here, this will help you!" Sigurd grasped it just in time to ward off a spear, and now the first man was on the ladder. He held a shield above his head, but Sigurd swung his sword and brought it down with all his might. The keen weapon sheared through the tough bull's hide, and the man fell back among his comrades.

Thord, who had brought the water, now made a dash, coming up the ladder three steps at a time, and wielding an axe. As he reached the tou Sigurd drove his sword, but too late; the axe descended on his shield and bore him to his knees. Again the weapon whirled above him, and Thord staggered backward with a hoarse cry, clearing the ladder in his fall.

Springing up, Sigurd saw Astrid behind him, bow in hand, and Vagn, pale but determined, stepped to his side. Those below drew back, and the boys saw them reviving Thorkel, who was stunned by his fall. Sigurd leaned on his sword.

"Look here, Vagn, we can't keep this up all day; one or two good showers of arrows will finish us."

Vagn pointed to the cabin. "We can hold that against them all, and Astrid says hat food and water are inside."

Sigurd laughed. "You look like, a Valkyrie, Astrid! I owe you thanks for my life, too—but what is Thorkel up to?"

"Back—back to the cabin!" cried Astrid. "They are climbing around the bow to take us from behind!"

A glance showed them half a dozen men climbing through the bow under the dragon's head up to the forecastle. It was useless to try to hold the whole fore-deck, so the two boys and Astrid ran to the cabin, shut the heavy door, and bolted it securely. There was no window, and only one or two high loop-holes gave fresh air to those within.

"What chance have we of rescue?" asked Astrid, sitting down on a pile of furs.

"Little enough," replied Vagn, moodily, while Sigurd threw himself down beside her. "No one knows where we went, and we won't be missed till noon. It must be about three hours past that now."

The Norsemen, realizing the futility of trying to break in, made no sign; and the afternoon slowly wore away. The ship was bearing north under full sail, and all three captives realized that it was only a matter of time before they would have to give up.

Evidently the Norsemen had been spying on the Danes. Vagn had been struck down by a glancing blow, and all three had been taken to the ship, which left the land at once. Astrid had been left unbound, and had taken advantage of the opportunity as soon as Sigurd became conscious.

Toward evening a rap sounded on the door, and the voice of Thorkel called to them:

"Vagn Akison! Can you hear me?"