The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 6
fORWARD!" Jarl Sigvald's war-horn rang out its command, and the fleet pressed on to support their rash chief. Sigurd gave a groan of dismay, but Vagn encouraged him.
"He won't be taken, Fairhair, but will return when he sees the trap. Nevertheless, we have fallen into it, for Sigvald cannot back out now with honor; we must go forward and fight like Jomsborg men!"
Bui's ships disappeared around the north end of Hod Island; then, as Sigvald got his fleet into battle array, with each half-dozen ships lashed side by side, they came back into sight, with lowered sails and oars lashing the waters to spray.
The ship of Bui was the first to reach the fleet, and as he stood in the forecastle and shouted of his discovery, Sigvald checked him, and ordered him to form his battle-line behind the fleet. Bui rowed past Vagn's ship, and as he did so Sigurd sprang on the rail, with a shout.
There was no time for stopping, so his father only waved his hand in passing, and called out, in joy and surprise, "Skoal, Sigurd! Use your best weapons to-day!" It was the last word Sigurd ever had with his father, Bui of Bornholm.
As the fleet moved forward slowly, one by one the ships of Bui straggled back and formed behind Sigvald's line. The Jomsborg men might have fled still, but they scorned to do that, and it was against their laws. The day was clouding up now, and as they turned the headland into the bay, the wind suddenly changed and blew dead against them—and there, moving on them, lay the Norse fleet!
Spreading out like a great crescent, glittering with oars and steel, Hakon's fleet moved forward, while Sigvald broke his array into three parts. Vagn Akison, by virtue of his father's place and his own renown, commanded a third part of the ships; beside his vessels lay those of Bui, while Sigvald commanded the last twenty.
"Look, Vagn!" cried Sigurd, as they watched the Norsemen, still a half-mile distant, "they are breaking up likewise!"
"Yes," replied Vagn bitterly, "but there must be nearly two hundred ships there, crowded with men. That means sixty or seventy against each of our divisions of twenty!"
Then, leaping into the waist, Vagn distributed the byrnies, or shirts of woven steel rings, and opened several chests of swords and axes, so that the men could get at them. He and Sigurd were fully armed, and naught remained but to await the attack.
It was not long in coming. Jarl Hakon's banners were suddenly raised, with a great burst of war-horns, and a flight of stones and arrows fell among the Jomsborg ships. Sigvald's banner was run up likewise, and his men replied, but the Norsemen had the advantage, for the wind was with them, and fast rising to a gale. Nevertheless, the Jomsvikings shot well, and occasioned great confusion among their foes, for their long, sharp shafts pierced shield, byrnie and body.
As the two fleets drew together, most of the bows were flung aside, and the spear-racks were emptied. Sigurd and Vagn, standing on the high forecastle with their chosen men, plied their weapons fast; but a minute later, with a crash that nearly threw them to the deck, the fleets came together.
"Concentrate on the ship against us!" shouted Sigurd, and a hail of spears poured into the large ship whose prow ground into that of Vagn's. The Norsemen strove to board, but a terrible burst of weapons met them, and an instant later Sigurd gave a cry of joy.
"Hurrah! We will win yet!" Vagn echoed the cry, for their attacker was slowly withdrawing.
"Cast a grapnel on them!" ordered Vagn, and as the Norse ship was secured he leaped into her, followed by Sigurd and his forecastle men. The Norsemen gave way, but as the Jomsvikings pressed forward a new burst of horns arose, and into the press sailed a dozen fresh ships.
"Back for your lives!" called Sigurd, as he saw a crowd of the enemy pouring aboard. "Back to our ship!"
They could see nothing of the battle on either hand, for they were surrounded by the Norse ships; but as they gained the deck of their own vessel they heard a wild shout from Bui's ships, and again the Norse line shrank backward. As Sigurd looked around, he saw Jarl Hakon's ship just behind their own.
"Look there, Vagn! Order the men to turn their spears on Hakon!"
Vagn did so, and a storm of spears and arrows poured upon the Jarl's ship. He stood proudly in the forecastle, and for a moment the rain of weapons almost hid him; then he reappeared, smiling, but his armor was ripped to pieces, and he shook himself free of it.
Now a fresh burst of foemen bore down on Vagn's division, and only the higher sides of the vikings' ships saved them. Men were falling fast, but as yet the vikings had not suffered nearly so much as had the enemy. The fighting had not yet become hand to hand, and in the thickly crowded Norse ships not a Jomsborg spear failed of its mark, and the trained skill of the vikings told heavily against the unskilled levies of Hakon.
Suddenly Sigurd laughed, and staggered. "What means the laugh, Fairhair?" called Vagn, who was directing his men in the waist.
"An arrow, but in the arm only," replied Sigurd. A shaft had pierced his arm, just above the elbow, but he snapped off the barb and drew it through the wound, and continued fighting. The next moment, however, another arrow flew past his head and was buried in the rail behind him; a third followed it, glancing from his helmet.
Sigurd realized that someone was aiming at him steadily, and marking the direction from which the arrows came, he saw the face of Thorkel Leira in one of the ships below. The man was just aiming a fourth shaft, half covered by the shield of a follower.
Catching the arrow on his shield, Sigurd flung a spear in reply, with all his force. The weapon struck full on the shield that covered Thorkel, pierced it, and Thorkel staggered back. A fresh attack drew Sigurd's attention, however, and when he looked for Thorkel again, his ship had withdrawn. Now there happened a strange and terrible thing.
The day had steadily grown darker, with a rising wind. Suddenly a blaze of lightning fell athwart the sky, and Jarl Hakon's ship stood forth in the sight of all, wrapped in lambent flame, the Jarl himself standing triumphantly in the stern, grasping a hammer like that of Thor.
A cry of horror arose from the Jomsvikings, who took the figure for that of the war god; and the lightning was followed by a thick hail, the stones as large as eggs, which burst full in the faces of the Jomsborg men.
"Thor with us! The gods fight for us!" An exultant shout pealed upward from the Norse host, who pressed onward with renewed vigor. All at once a cry broke from Vagn, a cry of anger and dismay.
"Sigurd! Look yonder!"
There behind them Jarl Sigvald had cut the lashings of his ships and was fleeing! The Jomsborg men seemed wild with terror, for now they thought that Hakon was right, that Thor and Odin were in truth fighting for him, and they lost heart. Sigvald's ship cut through the press close behind that of Vagn, and as it passed the boy called out:
"Sigvald! Turn and fight! Turn and fight
But Sigvald only urged his men to greater efforts, and the sail was run up. At this Vagn seized a spear from the deck, and with a curse hurled it at the fleeing Jarl. The spear missed him, but struck down the helmsman at his side, and the ship was gone from sight in a moment.
Louder and louder pealed the war-horns of Hakon, as ship after ship followed Sigvald in his flight. Vagn's men gave one angry yell, then fought on in silence. Presently their attackers drew back for breathing-space, and as they did so the boys saw Bui's ships close at hand.
Bui was without hope, but he was true to his vows, and fought on stoutly. The Norse ships gave way before his onset, and with a shout of triumph Bui's men cut their lashings to pursue. It was a fatal error; for even as they did so fresh Norse ships drove down on them, broke their solid front, surrounded them and began to pour in boarders.
Sigurd, watching helplessly, saw the Norsemen sweep aboard and slowly clear the deck; Bui retreated to the forecastle with a few of his men, but he was surrounded now, and his foes closed in. The old warrior fought on steadily; Sigurd caught a glimpse of his father in single combat with a gigantic Norseman, wielding an axe. Bui slipped, and the axe whirled above him and fell on his helmet, wounding him terribly; but recovering, Bui cut down his foe, then leaped to the rail.
"Overboard, all Bui's men!" rang out his voice, loudly. Just then the fight closed in on Vagn afresh, but Sigurd caught a flash of armor, and knew that his father had died as a viking should, beneath the waves.
The Jomsborg ships broke up now, each fighting desperately to the last. One by one they were boarded and swept clean of men, and at length it came the turn of Vagn's ship.
Then, as the Norsemen swept over the side, the vikings put sword and axe in play for the first time, the boys at their head. Time after time the flood poured across the bulwarks, and time after time the Jomsborg steel stemmed the tide and drove it back. At last a wild yell arose behind them, and those of the crew who were left retreated slowly to the forecastle, fighting desperately.
A very handsome man, of lofty stature, swept over the prow with his men, and cut his way to Vagn. The two met with a clash of swords, and the tall man, evidently a leader of note, fell beneath Vagn's blows; he was up again, however, and his men swiftly closed around Vagn. Sigurd gave a shout of rage, and sprang to his friend's side, but too late.
The sea of fierce faces swept down on him, but recoiled before the Jomsborg axes. Vagn lay motionless, and Sigurd, bestriding his body, faced the handsome leader, axe in hand. The other's sword flashed, and for a moment Sigurd was hard put to it to ward off the storm of blows; then his axe fell on the other's helm, and the man staggered back. Before he could follow up his advantage, Sigurd slipped in a pool of blood—he saw a sword whirled above him, gave his battle-cry once more—and sank across the body of Vagn.
With the fall of Vagn and Sigurd, the battle was over. Thirty-five ships had fled with Sigvald, twenty-five had remained with Bui and Vagn. One by one they were boarded and cleared, for Jarl Hakon gave no quarter; one by one they floated out of the whirl, empty but for dying and dead. The vikings died beneath sword and spear, or followed Bui's example and plunged beneath the waves, while far in the distance the white sails of Sigvald glittered awhile and then vanished to the south.