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Erling the Bold

Erling the Bold

Robert Michael Ballantyne

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1 In Which the Tale Begins Somewhat Furiously.

  • By the early light of a bright summer morning, long, long ago, two small boat_ere seen to issue from one of the fiords or firths on the west coast o_orway, and row towards the skerries or low rocky islets that lay about a mil_istant from the mainland.
  • Although the morning was young, the sun was already high in the heavens, an_rought out in glowing colours the varied characteristics of a mountain scen_f unrivalled grandeur.
  • The two shallops moved swiftly towards the islands, their oars shivering th_iquid mirror of the sea, and producing almost the only sound that disturbe_he universal stillness, for at that early hour Nature herself seemed burie_n deep repose. A silvery mist hung over the water, through which th_nnumerable rocks and islands assumed fantastic shapes, and the more distan_mong them appeared as though they floated in air. A few seagulls ros_tartled from their nests, and sailed upwards with plaintive cries, as th_eels of the boats grated on the rocks, and the men stepped out and haule_hem up on the beach of one of the islets.
  • A wild uncouth crew were those Norsemen of old! All were armed, for in thei_ays the power and the means of self-defence were absolutely necessary t_elf-preservation.
  • Most of them wore portions of scale armour, or shirts of ring mail, an_eadpieces of steel, though a few among them appeared to have confidence i_he protection afforded by the thick hide of the wolf, which, converted int_ude, yet not ungraceful, garments, covered their broad shoulders. All,
  • without exception, carried sword or battle-axe and shield. They were goodl_talwart men every one, but silent and stern.
  • It might have been observed that the two boats, although bound for the sam_slet, did not row in company. They were beached as far from each other as th_ittle bay into which they ran would admit of, and the crews stood aloof i_wo distinct groups.
  • In the centre of each group stood a man who, from his aspect and bearing,
  • appeared to be superior to his fellows. One was in the prime of life, dark an_rave; the other in the first flush of manhood, full grown, though beardless,
  • fair, and ruddy. Both were taller and stouter than their comrades.
  • The two men had met there to fight, and the cause of their feud was—Love!
  • Both loved a fair Norse maiden in Horlingdal. The father of the maid favoure_he elder warrior; the maid herself preferred the younger.
  • In those days, barbarous though they undoubtedly were, law and justice wer_ore respected and more frequently appealed to in Norway than in almost an_ther country. Liberty, crushed elsewhere under the deadweight of feudalism,
  • found a home in the bleak North, and a rough but loving welcome from th_iratical, sea-roving! She did not, indeed, dwell altogether scathless amon_er demi-savage guardians, who, if their perceptions of right and wrong wer_omewhat confused, might have urged in excuse that their light was small. Sh_eceived many shocks and frequent insults from individuals, but liberty wa_incerely loved and fondly cherished by the body of the Norwegian people,
  • through all the period of those dark ages during which other nations scarc_ared to mention her name.
  • Nevertheless, it was sometimes deemed more convenient to settle disputes b_he summary method of an appeal to arms than to await the issue of a tediou_nd uncertain lawsuit such an appeal being perfectly competent to those wh_referred it, and the belief being strong among the fiery spirits of the ag_hat Odin, the god of war, would assuredly give victory to the right.
  • In the present instance it was not considered any infringement of the law o_iberty that the issue of the combat would be the disposal of a fair woman’_and, with or without her heart. Then, as now, women were often forced t_arry against their will.
  • Having gone to that island to fight—an island being a naturally circumscribe_attlefield whose limits could not conveniently be transgressed—the tw_hampions set to work at once with the cool businesslike promptitude of me_prung from a warlike race, and nurtured from their birth in the midst o_ar’s alarms.
  • Together, and without speaking, they ascended the rock, which was low an_lmost barren, with a small extent of turf in the centre, level, and admirabl_uited to their purpose. Here they faced each other; the one drew his sword,
  • the other raised his battle-axe.
  • There was no sentiment in that combat. The times and the men were extremel_atter-of-fact. The act of slaying gracefully had not yet been acquired; ye_here was much of manly grace displayed as each threw himself into th_osition that nature and experience had taught him was best suited to th_ielding of his peculiar weapon.
  • For one instant each gazed intently into the face of the other, as if to rea_here his premeditated plan of attack. At that moment the clear blue eye o_he younger man dilated, and, as his courage rose, the colour mounted to hi_heek. The swart brow of the other darkened as he marked the change; then,
  • with sudden spring and shout, the two fell upon each other and dealt thei_lows with incredible vigour and rapidity.
  • They were a well-matched pair. For nearly two hours did they toil and moi_ver the narrow limits of that sea-girt rock—yet victory leaned to neithe_ide. Now the furious blows rained incessant on the sounding shields; anon th_in of strife ceased, while the combatants moved round each other, shiftin_heir position with elastic step, as, with wary motion and eagle glances, eac_ought to catch the other off his guard, and the clash of steel, as th_eapons met in sudden onset, was mingled with the shout of anger or defiance.
  • The sun glanced on whirling blade and axe, and sparkled on their coats of mai_s if the lightning flash were playing round them; while screaming seamew_lew and circled overhead, as though they regarded with intelligent interes_nd terror the mortal strife that was going on below.
  • Blood ere long began to flow freely on both sides; the vigour of the blow_egan to abate, the steps to falter. The youthful cheek grew pale; the dar_arrior’s brow grew darker, while heaving chests, labouring breath, and a_ccasional gasp, betokened the approaching termination of the struggle.
  • Suddenly the youth, as if under the influence of a new impulse, dropped hi_hield, sprang forward, raised himself to his full height, grasped his ax_ith both hands, and, throwing it aloft (thus recklessly exposing his person),
  • brought it down with terrific violence on the shield of his adversary.
  • The action was so sudden that the other, already much exhausted, was for th_oment paralysed, and failed to take advantage of his opportunity. He met bu_ailed to arrest the blow with his shield. It was crushed down upon his head,
  • and in another moment the swarthy warrior lay stretched upon the turf.
  • Sternly the men conveyed their fallen chief to his boat, and rowed him to th_ainland, and many a week passed by ere he recovered from the effects of th_low that felled him. His conqueror returned to have his wounds dressed by th_ride for whom he had fought so long and so valiantly on that bright summe_orning.
  • Thus it was that King Haldor of Horlingdal, surnamed the Fierce, conquere_ing Ulf of Romsdal, acquired his distinctive appellation, and won Herfrid_he Soft-eyed for his bride.
  • It must not be supposed that these warriors were kings in the ordinar_cceptation of that term. They belonged to the class of “small” or pett_ings, of whom there were great numbers in Norway in those days, and wer_erely rich and powerful free-landholders or udallers.
  • Haldor the Fierce had a large family of sons and daughters. They were al_air, strong, and extremely handsome, like himself.
  • Ulf of Romsdal did not die of his wounds, neither did he die of love.
  • Disappointed love was then, as now, a terrible disease, but not necessaril_atal. Northmen were very sturdy in the olden time. They almost alway_ecovered from that disease sooner or later. When his wounds were healed, Ul_arried a fair girl of the Horlingdal district, and went to reside there, bu_is change of abode did not alter his title. He was always spoken of as Ulf o_omsdal. He and his old enemy Haldor the Fierce speedily became fast friends;
  • and so was it with their wives, Astrid and Herfrida, who also took mightily t_ach other. They span, and carded wool, and sewed together oftentimes, an_iscussed the affairs of Horlingdal, no doubt with mutual advantage an_atisfaction.
  • Twenty years passed away, and Haldor’s eldest son, Erling, grew to be a man.
  • He was very like his father—almost a giant in size; fair, very strong, an_emarkably handsome. His silken yellow hair fell in heavy curls on a pair o_he broadest shoulders in the dale. Although so young, he already had a thic_hort beard, which was very soft and curly. His limbs were massive, but the_ere so well proportioned, and his movements so lithe, that his great size an_trength were not fully appreciated until one stood close by his side or fel_nto his powerful grasp.
  • Erling was lion-like, yet he was by nature gentle and retiring. He had _indly smile, a hearty laugh, and bright blue eyes. Had he lived in moder_ays he would undoubtedly have been a man of peace. But he lived “long lon_go”—therefore he was a man of war. Being unusually fearless, his companion_f the valley called him Erling the Bold. He was, moreover, extremely fond o_he sea, and often went on viking cruises in his own ships, whence he was als_tyled Erling the Sea-king, although he did not at that time possess a foot o_and over which to exercise kingly authority.
  • Now, it must be explained here that the words Sea-king and Viking do no_enote the same thing. One is apt to be misled by the termination of th_atter word, which has no reference whatever to the royal title king. A vikin_as merely a piratical rover on the sea, the sea-warrior of the period, but _ea-king was a leader and commander of vikings. Every Sea-king was a viking,
  • but every viking was not a Sea-king; just as every Admiral is a sailor, bu_very sailor is not an Admiral. When it is said that Erling was a Sea-king, i_s much as if we had said he was an admiral in a small way.