Chapter 4 Describes Warlike Preparations, and a Norse Hall in the Olde_ime—Tells also of a Surprise.
Instead of returning to Ulfstede, Erling directed his steps homeward at _risk pace, and in a short space of time reached the door of his forge. Her_e met one of his father’s thralls.
“Ho! fellow,” said he, “is thy mistress at home?”
“Yes, master, she is in the hall getting supper ready against your father’_eturn.”
“Go tell her there will be no men to eat supper in the hall to-night,” sai_rling, unfastening the door of the forge. “Say that I am in the forge, an_ill presently be in to speak with her. Go also to Thorer, and tell him to ge_he house-carles busked for war. When they are ready let him come hither t_e; and, harkee, use thine utmost speed; there may be bloody work for us al_o do this night before the birds are on the wing. Away!”
The man turned and ran to the house, while Erling blew up the smouldering fir_f the forge. Throwing off his jerkin, he rolled up his sleeves, and seizin_he axe on which he had been engaged when Hilda interrupted him, he wrought s_igorously at the stubborn metal with the great forehammer that in the cours_f half an hour it was ready to fit on the haft. There was a bundle of haft_n a corner of the workshop. One of these, a tough thick one without knot o_law, and about five feet long, he fitted to the iron head with great neatnes_nd skill. The polishing of this formidable weapon he deferred to a period o_reater leisure. Having completed this piece of work, Erling next turned t_nother corner of the forge and took up the huge two-handed sword which he ha_ade for his friend Glumm.
The weapon was beautifully executed, and being highly polished, the blad_littered with a flashing light in the ruddy glare of the forge fire. Th_oung giant sat down on his anvil and put a few finishing touches to th_word, regarding it the while with a grim smile, as if he speculated on th_robability of his having formed a weapon wherewith his own skull was destine_o be cloven asunder. While he was thus engaged his mother Herfrida entered.
The soft-eyed dame could scarcely be called a matronly personage. Havin_arried when about sixteen, she was now just thirty-eight years of age; an_hough the bloom of maidenhood was gone, the beauty of a well-favoured an_ealthy woman still remained. She wore a cloak of rich blue wool, and under i_ scarlet kirtle with a silver girdle.
“How now, my son,” she said; “why these warlike preparations?”
“Because there is rumour of war; I’m sure that is neither strange nor new t_ou, mother.”
“Truly no; and well do I know that where war is, there my husband and my so_ill be found.”
Herfrida said this with a feeling of pride, for, like most of the women o_hat time and country, she esteemed most highly the men who were boldest an_ould use their weapons best.
“’Twere well if we were less noted in that way, and more given to peace,” sai_rling half-jestingly. “For my own part, I have no liking for war, but yo_omen will be for ever egging us on!”
Herfrida laughed. She was well aware of what she was pleased to term her son’_eakness, namely, an idea that he loved peace, while he was constantly provin_o the world that he was just cut out for war. Had he ever shown a spark o_owardice she would have regarded those speeches of his with much anxiety, bu_s it was she only laughed at them.
“Erling, my boy,” she said suddenly, as her eye fell on the axe at hi_ide,—“what terrible weapon is this? Surely thou must have purchased Thor’_ammer. Can ye wield such a thing?”
“I hope so, mother,” said Erling curtly; “if not, I shall soon be i_alhalla’s halls.”
“What are these rumours of war that are abroad just now?” asked Herfrida.
Erling replied by giving his mother an account of King Harald’s recent deeds, and told her of the calling of the Thing, and of the appearance of the Danis_ikings off the coast.
“May good spirits attend thee, my son!” she said, kissing the youth’s forehea_ervently, as a natural gush of tenderness and womanly anxiety filled he_reast for a moment. But the feeling passed away as quickly as it came; fo_omen who are born and nurtured in warlike times become accustomed an_omparatively indifferent to danger, whether it threatens themselves or thos_ost dear to them.
While mother and son were conversing, Thorer entered the smithy, bearin_rling’s armour.
“Are the lads all a-boun?” (armed and ready) enquired Erling as he rose.
“Aye, master; and I have brought your war-gear.”
The man who thus spoke was Haldor’s chief house-carle. He was a very short an_xtremely powerful man of about forty-five years of age, and so sturdy an_uscular as to have acquired the title of Thorer the Thick. He wore a shirt o_cale armour, rather rusty, and somewhat the worse of having figured in many _ough battle by land and sea. A triangular shield hung at his back, and hi_eadpiece was a simple peaked helmet of iron, with a prolongation in fron_hat guarded his nose. Thorer’s offensive armour consisted of a short straigh_word, a javelin and a bow, with a quiver of arrows.
“How many men hast thou assembled, Thorer?” asked Erling as he donned hi_rmour.
“Seventy-five, master; the rest are up on the fells, on what errand I kno_ot.”
“Seventy-five will do. Haste thee, carle, and lead them to my longship th_wan. Methinks we will skate upon the ocean to-night. (Longships, or war- vessels, were sometimes called ocean-skates.) I will follow thee. Let ever_an be at his post, and quit not the shore till I come on board. Now fare awa_s swiftly as may be, and see that everything be done stealthily; above all, keep well out of sight of Ulfstede.”
Thus admonished, Thorer quickly left the forge; and a few seconds later th_lanking tread of armed men was heard as Erling’s followers took their way t_he fiord.
“Now I will to the hall, my son, and pray that thou mayst fare well,” sai_erfrida, once more kissing the forehead which the youth lowered to receiv_he parting salute. The mother retired, and left her son standing in the forg_azing pensively at the fire, the dying flames of which shot up fitfully no_nd then, and gleamed on his shining mail.
If Erling the Bold was a splendid specimen of a man in his ordinary costume, when clad in the full panoply of war he was truly magnificent. The rude bu_ot ungraceful armour of the period was admirably fitted to display t_dvantage the elegant proportions of his gigantic figure. A shirt or tunic o_eather, covered with steel rings, hung loosely—yet, owing to its weight, closely—on his shoulders. This was gathered in at the waist by a broa_eathern belt, studded with silver ornaments, from which hung a short dagger.
A cross belt of somewhat similar make hung from his right shoulder, an_upported a two-edged sword of immense weight, which was quite as strong, though not nearly so long, as that which he had forged for Glumm. It wa_ntended for a single-handed weapon, though men of smaller size might hav_een constrained, in attempting to wield it, to make use of both hands. Th_outh’s lower limbs were clothed in closely-fitting leather leggings, and _air of untanned leather shoes, laced with a single thong, protected his feet.
On his head he wore a small skull-cap, or helmet, of burnished steel, from th_op of which rose a pair of hawk’s wings expanded, as if in the act of flight.
No gloves or gauntlets covered his hands, but on his left arm hung a larg_hield, shaped somewhat like an elongated heart, with a sharp point at it_ower end. Its top touched his shoulder, and the lower part reached to hi_nee.
This shield was made of several plies of thick bull-hide, with an outer coa_f iron—the whole being riveted firmly together with iron studs. It wa_ainted pure white, without device of any kind, but there was a band of azur_lue round it, near the margin—the rim itself being of polished steel. I_ddition to his enormous axe, sword, and dagger, Erling carried at his back _hort bow and a quiver full of arrows.
The whole of this war gear bore evidence of being cherished with the utmos_are and solicitude. Every ring on the tunic was polished as highly as th_etal would admit of, so that the light appeared to trickle over it as it_earer moved. The helmet shone like a globe of quicksilver, and lines of ligh_leamed on the burnished edge of the shield, or sparkled on the ornamenta_oints of the more precious metals with which the various parts of his armou_ere decorated. Above all hung a loose mantle or cloak of dark-blue cloth, which was fastened on the right shoulder with a large circular brooch o_ilver.
The weight of this panoply was enormous, but long habit had so inured th_oung Norseman to the burthen of his armour that he moved under it as lightl_s if it had been no heavier than his ordinary habiliments. Indeed, so littl_id it impede his movements that he could spring over chasms and mountai_treams almost as well with as without it; and it was one of the boasts of hi_dmiring friends that “he could leap his own height with all his war gear on!”
We have already referred to Erling’s partiality for the axe as an offensiv_eapon. This preference was in truth—strange though the assertion ma_ppear—owing to the peculiar adaptation of that instrument to the preservatio_f life as well as the taking of it!
There are exceptions to all rules. The rule among the Northmen in former year_as to slay and spare not. Erling’s tendency, and occasionally his practice, was to spare and not to slay, if he could do so with propriety. Fro_xperience he found that, by a slight motion of his wrist, the edge of his ax_ould be turned aside, and the blow which was delivered by its flat side wa_nvariably sufficient, without killing, to render the recipient utterl_ncapable of continuing or renewing the combat—at least for a few days. Wit_he sword this delicate manoeuvre could not be so easily accomplished, for _low from the flat of a sword was not sufficiently crushing, and if delivere_ith great force the weapon was apt to break. Besides, Erling was a blunt, downright, straightforward man, and it harmonised more with his feelings, an_he energy of his character, to beat down sword and shield and headpiece wit_ne tremendous blow, than to waste time in fencing with a lighter weapon.
Having completed his toilet and concluded his meditations—which latter fille_im with much perplexity, if one might judge from the frequency with which h_hook his head—Erling the Bold hung Glumm’s long sword at his back, laid hi_uge axe on his shoulder, and, emerging from the smithy, strode rapidly alon_he bridle path that led to the residence of Ulf of Romsdal.
Suddenly it occurred to him that he had not yet tried the temper of his ne_eapon, so he stopped abruptly before a small pine tree, about as thick as _an’s arm. It stood on the edge of a precipice along the margin of which th_rack skirted. Swaying the axe once round his head, he brought it forcibl_own on the stem, through which it passed as if it had been a willow wand, an_he tree went crashing into the ravine below. The youth looked earnestly a_is weapon, and nodded his head once or twice as if the result wer_atisfactory. A benignant smile played on his countenance as he replaced it o_is shoulder and continued on his way.
A brisk walk of half an hour brought him to Ulfstede, where he found the me_f the family making active preparations for the impending journey to th_hing. In the great hall of the house, his father held earnest discussion wit_lf. The house-carles busied themselves in burnishing their mail an_harpening their weapons, while Ada and Hilda assisted Dame Astrid, Ulf’_ife, to spread the board for the evening meal.
Everything in the hall was suggestive of rude wealth and barbarous warlik_imes. The hall itself was unusually large—capable of feasting at least tw_undred men. At one end a raised hearth sustained a fire of wood that wa_arge enough to have roasted an ox. The smoke from this, in default of _himney, found an exit through a hole in the roof. The rafters were, o_ourse, smoked to a deep rich coffee colour, and from the same cause the wall_lso partook not a little of that hue. All round these walls hung, in grea_rofusion, shields, spears, swords, bows, skins, horns, and such lik_mplements and trophies of war and the chase. The centre of the hall was open, but down each side ran two long tables, which were at this time groaning wit_reat haunches of venison, legs of mutton, and trenchers of salmon, interspersed with platters of wild fowl, and flanked by tankards and horns o_ead and ale. Most of the drinking cups were of horn, but many of these wer_dged with a rim of silver, and, opposite the raised seats of honour, in th_entre of each table, the tankards were of solid silver, richly though rudel_hased—square, sturdy, and massive, like the stout warriors who were wont t_uaff their foaming contents.
“I tell thee, Ulf,” said Haldor, “thou wilt do wrong to fare to the Thing wit_en fully armed when the token was one of peace. The King is in no mood jus_ow to brook opposition. If we would save our independence we must speak hi_moothly.”
“I care not,” replied Ulf gruffly; “this is no time to go about unarmed.”
“Nay, I did not advise thee to go unarmed, but surely a short sword migh_uffice, and—”
At this moment Erling entered, and Ulf burst into a loud laugh as h_nterrupted his friend: “Aye, a short sword—something like that,” he said, pointing to the huge hilt which rose over the youth’s shoulder.
“Hey! lad,” exclaimed his father, “art going to fight with an axe in one han_nd a sword in the other?”
“The sword is for Glumm, father. I owe him one after this morning’s work.
Here, friend Glumm, buckle it on thy shoulder. The best wish that thou and _an exchange is, that thy sword and my axe may never kiss each other.”
“Truly, if they ever do, I know which will fare worst,” said Haldor, takin_he axe and examining it, “Thou art fond of a weary arm, my lad, else ye woul_ot have forged so weighty a weapon. Take my advice and leave it behind thee.”
“Come, come,” interrupted Ulf; “see, the tables are spread; let us use ou_aws on food and drink, and not on words, for we shall need both to fit us fo_he work before us, and perchance we may have no longer need of either befor_any days go by. We can talk our fill at the Thing, an it so please us.”
“That will depend on the King’s pleasure,” replied Haldor, laughing.
“So much the more reason for taking our arms with us, in order that we ma_ave the means of talking the King’s pleasure,” retorted Ulf with a frown; “but sit ye down at my right hand, Haldor, and Hilda will wait upon thee.
Come, my men all—let us fall to.”
It is scarcely necessary to say that this invitation was accepted wit_lacrity. In a few minutes about fifty pairs of jaws were actively employed i_he manner which Ulf recommended.
Meanwhile Erling the Bold seated himself at the lower end of one of th_ables, in such a position that he could keep his eye on the outer door, and, if need be, steal away unobserved. He calculated that his little brother mus_oon return from his flying journey, and he expected to hear from him som_ews of the vikings. In this expectation he was right; but when Alric di_ome, Erling saw and heard more than he looked for.
The meal was about half concluded, and Ulf was in the act of pledging, no_bsent, but defunct, friends, when the door opened slowly, and Alric thrus_is head cautiously in. His hair, dripping and tangled, bore evidence that hi_ead at least had been recently immersed in water.
He caught sight of Erling, and the head was at once withdrawn. Next momen_rling stood outside of the house.
“How now, Alric, what has befallen thee? Hey! thou art soaking all over!”
“Come here; I’ll show you a fellow who will tell you all about it.”
In great excitement the boy seized his brother’s hand and dragged rather tha_ed him round the end of the house, where the first object that met his vie_as a man whose face was covered with blood, which oozed from a wound in hi_orehead, while the heaving of his chest, and an occasional gasp, seemed t_ndicate that he had run far and swiftly.