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The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 4

CHAPTER IV.

THE RESCUE IN THE BAY.

THAT you sha'n't," replied Vagn. "We may be blown out to sea or captured by Eirik or Hakon; there is no telling. You are safe here."

Astrid's eyes flashed, and she cried, angrily, "I say I will go! If we are taken, I will be just as safe; and you two can handle a small boat in any sea."

But, Astrid," objected Sigurd, in dismay, "at best it will take us three days, and—"

"So much the more need of another person. Now say no more." She set her mouth determinedly, and Vagn's opposition vanished in a peal of laughter.

"Come on," he cried gayly; "I would rather fight a dozen Norsemen than try to oppose you! We'll go down to the harbor now and see about a boat."

"You seem to think it is no more than a matter of picking out a boat and raising the sail," laughed Sigurd, as they left the hall.

"No," returned Vagn, "but there's no use thinking about obstacles before they appear."

The streets were thronged with men from the countryside roundabout, and the armorers seemed to be doing a thriving business. No one paid any attention to the three, and they soon made their way to the waterside.

As they walked slowly along, looking at the ships in the harbor, Sigurd suddenly stopped.

"Hurrah! I believe that I have a better plan still!" he cried. "Do you see that ship over there with the yellow eyes painted in her prow?"

"What of her?" asked Vagn.

"Don't you remember? She was in Jomsborg a month since, and her captain is an old friend of Jarl Sigvald's. Why can't we get him to take us down below Hiorunga Bay to meet the fleet?"

"The very thing!" Astrid clapped her hands in delight. "I confess that it seemed well-nigh hopeless to make our way in a small boat without being captured or blown far out to sea. But suppose he won't take us?"

"He will," returned Vagn, "I remember his name—Ulf Ringsson, and he will be glad to help Sigvald. How shall we see him?"

"Do you take Astrid back to the hall, and I will row out in a small boat," replied Sigurd. "If any are watching us, we will throw them off that way."

So Astrid and Vagn turned back, and Sigurd sauntered about for a time, as if watching the shipping. Presently he wandered down to a boatman.

"Lend me your boat for an hour or two, my friend," he said, handing the man a coin.

"Willingly," responded the man, pushing out his craft and putting the oars into it. "Business is not so good these days; I fear that I may have to go with Jarl Eirik if I want to make money!"

"Better not," laughed Sigurd, "you might meet Jomsborg steel, and that would be bad luck."

The man chuckled as he shoved Sigurd off. "No danger, my lord! If I'm not here when you return, just pull the boat up and leave her."

Sigurd nodded, and pulled slowly from the shore. He did not head straight out to the ship, but visited other craft first, asking questions of their crews and appearing simply curious. After a little he reached the side of Ulf's ship, and slipping under the side opposite the shore, clambered over the rail.

As he set foot on the deck, a tall man rose and faced him. "Who are you and what do you want?"

Sigurd smiled and took off his fur cap. "I want Ulf Ringsson, and I am Sigurd Buisson of Bornholm."

Ulf grasped his hand with a cry of surprise, and led him to the cabin.

"The crew is ashore, but it is best to take no chances. Now what are you doing here? I heard you had been taken by Hakon."

The boy swiftly outlined his adventures, told of the trap that was to be laid for the Jomsborg fleet, and asked Ulf to help them.

"Of course, Sigurd, of course! I can stow you two and the Lady Astrid away comfortably, but if we are overhauled—well, my men are no fighters, you know!"

"We'll take our chance of that," replied Sigurd, thanking him warmly for his aid. "Now, when can you sail? Every minute counts."

"I know, but I can't possibly start sooner than the morning of the third day from now. Say midnight of the second night after this. My cargo is not all in, and it would look too suspicious altogether. But the 'Otter' is a fast ship, and we will get down the coast much faster than will Eirik with his warships."

"You can expect us then," said Sigurd. "Will you meet us on shore?"

"It will be better so," replied Ulf. "I will get the 'Otter' farther out before nightfall, and will wait for you opposite here with a small boat."

With a parting handshake Sigurd slipped over the side again, and rowed slowly through the shipping on his way back. As he passed a large ship, he saw that the sailors were making a clumsy effort to raise the sail. Indeed, from their looks he took them for newly raised levies from the country on their way to join Hakon, as the ship was a war vessel. He rested a moment, watching them with a smile; then it died away as he saw an officer, whose back was turned toward him, standing directly beneath the heavy spar that the men were hoisting.

"He'd better look out," thought Sigurd, "if those fellows lost their grip on the rope—ah, I thought so!"

For, even as the thought flashed through his mind, the rope had slipped loose from the men, and the yard fell, striking the officer a glancing blow and knocking him overboard.

With a shout Sigurd drove his oars into the water and reached the place where the man had gone down before the confused men on the ship could put out a boat. He could see nothing of the man, so, quickly throwing off his fur cap and cloak and unbuckling his sword-belt, Sigurd took a long breath and dived from the boat's side.

For an instant the ice-cold water paralyzed him; then, opening his eyes, the boy struck down. There, just beneath him, was the senseless face of—Thorkel Leira!

Sigurd checked his stroke. Why not leave this traitor and villain to his fate, so richly deserved? Why risk his own life for that of a worthless fellow such as Thorkel? But he only hesitated an instant; hastily gripping the man's hair, he made for the surface.

Although Sigurd was a good swimmer, he reached the air with a great sigh of relief, for he had been under water nearly a minute, and the water was too cold for comfort. Thorkel had been struck senseless and made no resistance.

As he emerged, a shout sounded in his ear, and there beside him was a small boat. His own skiff was not far, and after the men at his side hauled up Thorkel, he struck out for his own boat. Sigurd realized only too well that he did not want to be questioned, for any mishap now would ruin their plans of escape; so, paying no heed to the shouts of the Norsemen, he clambered over the stern of his craft, donned his fur coat hastily, and made for the shore.

He pulled up the boat and made off at once. His dripping clothes had already frozen, and the cloak hid most of them, so that he regained the hall without question. As he entered his room, Vagn greeted him with a cry of amazement when he threw off the cloak.

"What on earth—" he began, but Sigurd interrupted with a laugh.

"Water, rather, Vagn. Help me get these wet things off first."

Jarl Hakon had sent them a goodly supply of garments, and when Sigurd had changed to dry clothes he recounted the adventure to his cousin.

"Good for you, old man!" cried Vagn, as he finished. "I don't think that I would have resisted the temptation to let him drown and get rid of the wretch. Did any recognize you?"

Sigurd shook his head. "I got away too quickly, and Thorkel was senseless. The yard struck him on the shoulder, so I suppose he wasn't very badly hurt. Don't say anything to Astrid about it."

"Why not?" asked Vagn, in surprise.

"Well," Sigurd hesitated, "she would make a fuss about it, and—well, I really wish you wouldn't, old fellow!"

Seeing that Sigurd really wished it so, Vagn agreed, and they went to Astrid's room to tell her of their plans with Ulf.

Astrid greeted them with a laugh. "You changed pretty quickly, Sigurd," she said.

"Why, what do you mean?" Both boys stared at her.

"Oh, one of my maids just ran in and told me how some yellow-haired stranger rescued our old friend Thorkel down in the harbor, and ran off before they could find out who he was. So I knew that it must be Fairhair, here!"

"So it was, Astrid!" cried out Vagn. "If I'd been there I would have let the scoundrel drown!"

"No you wouldn't, Vagn," protested Sigurd. "You might kill him in fair fight, but you wouldn't let him drown without trying to save him!"

"Never mind," declared Astrid, looking at Sigurd, it was a noble thing to do, Fairhair, and I am proud of you for it."

Sigurd blushed rosily, and hastily turned the conversation by describing his meeting with Ulf.

"By the way," added Vagn, "I found out something. At night our doors are locked and a man sleeps outside in the hall, before them. Hakon must think we are worth keeping!"

Sigurd thought it over. "The only way I can see is to entice our guard inside and tie him up, then go to Astrid's room and seize her guard before he can cry out. Any way, Astrid, be ready on the second night from this, about midnight, and we will get you somehow."

"We had best not be seen together in the meantime," cautioned the girl, "or someone may become suspicious."

Vagn nodded. "That's right. Well, we won't see you till we come for you, then!"

"All right," laughed Astrid, as they left. "Good-by, till then!"