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The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV.

THE WRESTLING MATCH.

OLAF at once went to the great hall, and there the fugitives came before him and told their story. The two Northern chieftains had taken advantage of the unexampled spell of warm weather to raise a fleet and sail down the coast, thinking to come upon the King just as he had come upon Jarl Hakon.

Olaf quickly consulted with Sigurd, the Bishop, and his other leaders, and their opinion was that not a minute was to be lost. If the King embarked that night and sailed out of the Firth, he would reach the entrance by morning, and could wait for the heathen fleet there.

The King agreed to this plan, and at once sent word to his men to return on board the ships. The Thrandheim chiefs now proved their loyalty by refusing to return to their homes.

"No, King," said they, "you have dealt with us fairly and honorably, and we are sensible of it. We and our men will be of use if it comes to a battle, and the enemy may lose heart when they see us, for evidently they count on our forces joining them. So set up our standards on your ships, and we will gladly accompany you."

At this decision the King was overjoyed, for with these men were several hundred warriors in all, who had gathered at the Moeri Assembly. So a few hours later Olaf and Sigurd left Nidaros again, with a dozen ships, while more would follow as soon as they had been taken ofif their winter dry-docks.

The ships rowed down the Firth all night, while Olaf and Sigurd rested. The day had been a terribly hard one on both, and they were glad to get what sleep they could before meeting the advancing foes.

The week of warm weather seemed a wonderful thing to all the men, and not a few ascribed it to the favor of heaven upon Olaf. It was only barely past Yule-tide, and although no one expected the warm weather to last, few of the oldest men could remember a winter when Thrandheim Firth had remained open, or had opened before April.

By morning they were outside the cape of Agdaness, where the traitor Thorkel had been executed. The King ordered the ships to be hove to here, in order to wait for the six other ships which were following from Nidaros. All day long they waited, seeing nothing of the rebels. Two or three small ships, bearing more fugitives, came down the coast, and gave Olaf the news that Raud and Thori were only fifteen miles to the north, that they had landed at Theksdale, and were summoning men to join them from all the country.

That afternoon the reënforcements came up from Nidaros, and the King held a council on his ship the "Crane."

"First," he said, "I am resolved that if it can possibly be avoided there shall be no bloodshed in this matter. Now let me have your council on how we shall act to gain these rebels over, if that can be done."

Sigurd spoke first. "It may be that you did not note it. King Olaf, but old Biorn, my forecastle man, is strongly of the opinion that to-night a heavy frost will set in. This warm weather has not been natural at all; even this afternoon the sun has been growing somewhat colder.

"Now, if a frost returns to-night, it will be no light one, and Biorn says that the Firth will again be closed to us. In this case, it seems to me that any ships lying along the shore would be frozen fast, especially if they were in such a narrow bay as that at Theksdale. I think that Raud and Thori will give little heed to their ships, drawing them on shore carelessly, or perhaps anchoring them near by; and if this is the case, and we come upon them suddenly, they will probably be so disheartened at the loss of their ships, and at being left so far from home without means of retreat, that they will give in."

A cry of delight broke from the King and the others. "That is the very solution of it!" exclaimed Olaf. "But—it depends on whether or not a frost sets in. In any case we will leave the land, so as not to be frozen in ourselves."

The chiefs separated to their respective vessels, and all sailed out two or three miles to sea, where they lay tossing quietly. At sunset Bishop Sigurd, who was aboard the "Crane," conducted a solemn service, during which he offered a solemn prayer that God would favor their enterprise; as the men on all the ships joined in the responses, it seemed to Sigurd Fairhair that never had he witnessed a more impressive sight than this. Eighteen ships, all crowded with men, a large portion of whom had only a few days before been worshipers of idols, lay grouped together in the sunset glow, while from them arose a devout and heartfelt prayer to the White Christ.

No sooner had the sun set and darkness fallen upon the ocean, than the night turned bitterly cold. Many of the men, not expecting this, had left off their furs and cloaks, so that the others divided theirs among all. In some of the ships were bales of merchandise, and at the King's order these were opened by torchlight and all the men without cloaks were furnished with them.

By midnight it was evident that the intense cold would close the Firth, and as Sigurd had foreseen, would also hold the enemy helpless. Amid a shout of rejoicing from all the men, the prows were turned north, and the ships rowed swiftly toward Theksdale, for there was not a breath of wind, and every minute the cold seemed to increase.

With sunrise the pilots announced that they were not far from their goal, and an hour later they rounded the islands outside Theksdale Bay. There, however, they were stopped by a ragged line of ice, nearly a foot thick, which had formed during the night.

In all haste, for as yet they had not come around the headland into the bay itself, the crews disembarked without mishap, and gained the shore, leaving men on board the ships to keep them safe. They made their way, under guidance of men who knew the coast, across the headland; and there before them lay the army of revolt, their fleet fast-bound in fetters of ice along the shore!

"Come," exclaimed Olaf to his nearest leaders, "we must lose no time, for, see, they are cutting the ships out of the ice!"

So, leading the way, he dashed over the rocks of the shore, and as the first shouts of alarm went up from the heathen army, Olaf and part of his men stood between them and their ships, while over the brow of the hill poured the remainder of his forces.

The rebel camp seethed and boiled with men, but seeing that Olaf made no move to attack them, their haste quieted somewhat, and in a few minutes two well-appareled chiefs left the tents and with a dozen men approached the King.

"Have we safe conduct, King Olaf?" shouted one.

"Have no fear," replied Olaf, "come in peace."

As they approached, men who knew them whispered to the King that these were Raud the Strong and Thori Hart. Both were of lofty stature and magnificently built, with strong, vigorous features. They stopped a dozen paces from the King.

"From your appearance you are Olaf Triggveson," said one. "I am Raud the Strong, and this is Thori Hart. Have you come in peace or in war, oh, King?"

A smile ran around Olaf's men, and he himself laughed outright.

"That is a strange question, Raud, when you have attacked my people and declared your intention of driving me from the land!"

The other two flushed, and Raud's face darkened. "You have caught me," he cried angrily, "by fault of the Ice King, where my men can ill defend themselves, and I see that you have many more warriors than I looked for; yet you will not find me the last to cross swords with you, Olaf!"

"Hold, Raud," answered Olaf, "I mean not to attack you. Now see, I have your ships yonder, I have a much larger force than you, and yet if you will not yield willingly to me you shall depart in peace to your homes, on condition simply that you abandon the revolt against my rule."

"Why," cried Thori Hart in wonder, "we thought that you made choice of the Cross or the sword to your subjects! Mean you that we will not be forced to baptism?"

Olaf smiled sadly. "You will not, Thori. All the chiefs in the Thrandheim districts have been baptized, but willingly, as those with me here can testify. Now, what is your decision?"

The two whispered together for a minute, until finally Raud spoke up, advancing toward the King.

"You have fairly overcome us, King Olaf, and we thank you for our lives. Still, I am not ready to accept your faith. I am a great priest of Thor in the north, and you seem to be the champion of the White Christ, so I propose that you and I pray to our gods, and after that we indulge in a wrestling match. The winner, he who first throws the other to earth, shall bestow his faith on all the men of the loser. This Thori and I agree to, if you will also."

Olaf, without hesitation, replied, "I will accept the trial, here and now, trusting to the mercy of Almighty God that he will nerve my arm against your power and that of your false gods!

"But one condition I would make, Raud; that is, that whoever loses this contest shall forfeit his life with it."

The viking joyfully agreed, and then returned to his camp. The men of King Olaf had all arrived, and as word of the challenge passed through the army, more than one covert smile was seen, for already men said that Olaf was the strongest man in all the land.

It was so bitterly cold that a great fire was built, and on one side of the space, scraped clear of snow, marked out for the match, grouped Olaf's men; on the other side the heathen followers of Raud stood, full of confidence in their leader, for he was very strong, whence his name, and skilled in wrestling.

Stepping into the open space between the two armies, Olaf and Raud threw off their helmets and armor, and took hold of each other.