Chapter 3 Dark War-Clouds Lower, but Clear away without a Shower—Voices an_egs do Good Service.
“Up, carls, buckle on your war-gear!” cried Leif, rising hastily on hearin_he announcement with which the last chapter ended.
“Run, Thorward, call out our men,” whispered Karlsefin; “I will stay to lear_hat Leif means to do. Bring them all up to the door.”
Thorward was gone almost before the sentence was finished. Leif and his house- carls, of whom there were ten present at the time, did not take long to bus_hem for the fight. The Norse of old were born, bred, and buried—if the_scaped being killed and cut to pieces—in the midst of alarms. Their armou_as easily donned, and not very cumbrous. Even while Leif was giving the firs_rder to his men, Gudrid had run to the peg on which hung his sword an_elmet, and brought him these implements of war.
“My men and I shall be able to render you some service, Leif,” said Karlsefin; “what do you intend to do?”
“Do!” exclaimed Leif with a grim laugh, as he buckled on his sword, “why, _hall give the Skraelingers a tremendous fright, that is all. The rascals!
They knew well that we were short-handed just now, and thought to tak_dvantage of us; but hah! they do not seem to be aware that we chance to hav_tout visitors with us to-night. So, lads, follow me.”
Biarne, meanwhile, had darted out on the first alarm, and assembled all th_en in the settlement, so that when Leif, Karlsefin, and the housemen issue_ut of the cottage they found about a dozen men assembled, and others runnin_p every moment to join them. Before these were put in array most of the me_f Karlsefin’s ship, numbering forty, and those belonging to Thorward, numbering thirty, came up, so that when all were mustered they were little i_t all short of one hundred stout warriors.
The moon came out brightly at the time, and Leif chuckled as he watched Biarn_ut the men hastily into marching order.
“Methought you said that war was distasteful,” observed Karlsefin, in som_urprise.
“So it is, so it is, friend,” replied Leif, still laughing in a low tone; “bu_here will be no war to-night. Leave your bows behind you, lads,” he added, addressing the men; “you won’t want them; shield and sword will be enough. Fo_he matter of that, we might do without both. Now, lads, follow my leading, and do as I bid you; advance with as little noise as may be.”
So saying, Leif led the way out of the little hamlet towards the extremity o_he ridge or spur of the mountains that sheltered Ericsfiord from the north- west.
Towards that same extremity another band of men were hastening on the othe_ide of the ridge. It was a band of our hairy friends whom the Norsemen calle_kraelingers.
Truly there was something grand in the look and bearing of the tall man wit_he flat face, as he led his band to attack the warlike Norsemen, and ther_as something almost sublime in the savage, resolute aspect of the men wh_ollowed him—each being armed with a large walrus spear, and each being, moreover, an adept in the use of it.
Flatface (in default of a better, let that name stick to him) had ascertaine_eyond a doubt that the entire available force of Norsemen in Ericsfiord had, in consequence of fishing and other expeditions, been reduced to barely thirt_ighting men. He himself could muster a band of at least one hundred and fift_ood men and true—not to mention hairy, a hundred and fifty seals havin_nwillingly contributed their coats to cover these bloodthirsty Skraelingers.
The Norsemen, Flatface knew, were strong men and bold, besides being large, but he resolved to take them by surprise, and surely (he argued with himself) a hundred and fifty brave men with spears will be more than a match for thirt_leepy men unarmed and in bed!
Flatface had screwed himself up with such considerations; made a few mor_nflammatory speeches to his men, by way of screwing them up also, and then, _ittle before midnight, set forth on his expedition.
Now it chanced that there was a man among the Norsemen who was a great hunte_nd trapper. His name was Tyrker—the same Tyrker mentioned by Leif as bein_he man who had found grapes in Vinland. Leif said he was a German, but h_aid so on no better authority than the fact that he had originally come t_orway from the south of Europe. It is much more probable that he was a Turk, for, whereas the Germans are known to be a well-sized handsome race of fai_en, this Tyrker was an ugly little dark wiry fellow, with a high forehead, sharp eyes, and a small face; but he was extremely active, and, although a_lderly man, few of the youths in Ericsfiord could beat him at feats requirin_exterity.
But, whether German or Turk, Tyrker was an enthusiastic trapper of white, o_rctic foxes. These creatures being very numerous in that part of Greenland, he was wont to go out at all hours, late and early, to visit his traps. Henc_t happened that, on the night in question, Tyrker found himself in compan_ith two captured arctic foxes at, the extremity of the mountain spur befor_eferred to.
He could see round the corner of the spur into the country beyond, but as th_ountry there was not attractive, even at its best, he paid no attention t_t. He chanced, however, to cast upon it one glance after setting his traps, just as he was about to return home. That glance called forth a steady look, which was followed by a stare of surprise, and the deep guttural utterance o_he word “zz-grandimaghowl!” which, no doubt, was Turkish, at that ancien_ate, for “hallo!”
It was the band of hairy creatures that had met his astonished sight. Tyrke_hrank behind the spur and peeped round it for a few seconds to make quit_ure. Then, turning and creeping fairly out of sight, he rose and bounded bac_o the hamlet, as though he had been a youth of twenty. As we have seen, h_rrived, gasping, in time to warn his friends.
Between the hamlet and the spur where Tyrker’s traps were set there wer_everal promontories, or projections from the cliffs, all of which had to b_assed before the spur came in view. Leif led his men past the first an_econd of these at a run. Then, believing that he had gone far enough, h_rdered his band to draw close up under the cliffs, where the shadow wa_eepest, saying that he would go alone in advance to reconnoitre.
“And mark me, lads,” he said, “when I give a loud sneeze, do you give vent t_ roar that will only stop short of splitting your lungs; then give chase, an_ell to your hearts’ content as you run; but see to it that ye keep togethe_nd that no man runs past _me_. There is plenty of moonlight to let you se_hat you’re about. If any man tries to overshoot me in the race I’ll hew of_is head.”
This last remark was no figure of speech. In those days men were but too wel_ccustomed to hewing off heads. Leif meant to have his orders attended to, an_he men understood him.
On reaching the second projection of cliff after leaving his men, Leif peepe_ound cautiously and beheld the advancing Skraelingers several hundred yard_ff. He returned at once to his men and took up a position at their head i_he deep shadow of the cliffs.
Although absolutely invisible themselves, the Norsemen could see th_kraelingers quite plainly in the moonlight, as they came slowly and wit_reat caution round each turn of the footpath that led to the hamlet. Ther_as something quite awe-inspiring in the manner of their approach. Evidentl_latface dreaded a surprise, for he put each leg very slowly in advance of th_ther, and went on tiptoe, glancing quickly on either side between each step.
His followers—in a compact body, in deep silence and with bate_reath—followed his steps and his example.
When they came to the place where the men crouched in ambush, Leif took up _arge stone and cast it high over their heads. So quietly was this done tha_one even of his own party heard him move or saw the stone, though they hear_t fall with a _thud_ on the sand beyond.
The Skraelingers heard it too, and stopped abruptly—each man on one leg, wit_he other leg and his arms more or less extended, just as if he had bee_uddenly petrified. So in truth he had been—with horror!
To meet an open enemy, however powerful, would have been a pleasure compare_ith that slow nervous advance in the midst of such dead silence! As nothin_ollowed the sound, however, the suspended legs began to descend slowly agai_owards the ground, when Leif sneezed!
If Greenland’s icy mountains had become one monstrous polar bear, whose power_f voice, frozen for prolonged ages, had at last found vent that night in on_oncentrated roar, the noise could scarcely have excelled that which instantl_xploded from the Norsemen.
The effect on the Skraelingers was almost miraculous. A bomb-shell bursting i_he midst of a hundred and fifty Kilkenny cats could not have been mor_ffective, and the result would certainly have borne some marks o_esemblance. Each hairy creature sprang nearly his own height into the air, and wriggled while there, as if impatient to turn and fly before reaching th_round. Earth regained, the more active among them overshot and overturned th_lumsy, whereby fifty or sixty were instantly cast down, but these rose agai_ike spring-jacks and fled, followed by a roar of laughter from their foes, which, mingled as it was with howls and yells, did infinitely more to appa_he Skraelingers than the most savage war-cry could have done.
But they were followed by more than laughter. The Norsemen immediately gav_hase—still yelling and roaring as they ran, for Leif set the example, and hi_ollowers remembered his threat.
Karlsefin and Biarne kept one on each side of Leif, about a pace behind him.
“If they fight as well as they run,” observed the former, “they must b_roublesome neighbours.”
“They are not bad fighters,” replied Leif; “but sometimes they deem it wise t_un.”
“Not unlike to other people in that respect,” said Biarne; “but it seems to m_hat we might overhaul them if we were to push on.”
He shot up to Leif as he spoke, but the latter checked him.
“Hold back, Biarne; I mean them no harm, and wish no bloodshed—only they mus_ave a good fright. The lads, no doubt, would like to run in and make shor_ork of them; but I intend to breathe the lads, which will in the end do jus_s well as fighting to relieve their feelings.—Enough. It is ill talking an_unning.”
They were silent after that, and ran thus for fully an hour, at nearly the to_f their speed. But Leif sometimes checked his men, and sometimes urged the_n, so that they fancied he was chasing with full intent to run th_kraelingers down. When the fugitives showed signs of flagging, he uttered _remendous roar, and his men echoed it, sending such a thrill to the hearts o_he Skraelingers that they seemed to recover fresh wind and strength; then h_ushed after them harder than ever, and so managed that, without catching o_illing one, he terrified them almost out of their wits, and ran them nearl_o death.
At last they came to a place where there was an abrupt bend in the mountains.
Here Leif resolved to let them go. When they were pretty near the cliff roun_hich the path turned, he put on what, in modern sporting phraseology, i_ermed a spurt, and came up so close with the flying band that those in rea_egan to glance despairingly over their shoulders. Suddenly Leif gave vent t_ roar, into which he threw all his remaining strength. It was taken up an_rolonged by his men. The horror-struck Skraelingers shrieked in reply, swep_ike a torrent round the projecting cliff, and disappeared!
Leif stopped at once, and held up his hand. All his men stopped short also, and though they heard the Skraelingers still howling as they fled, no on_ollowed them any farther. Indeed, most of the Norsemen were pantin_ehemently, and rather glad than otherwise to be allowed to halt.
There were, however, two young men among them—tall, strong-boned, and thin, but with broad shoulders, and grave, earnest, though not exactly handsom_ountenances—who appeared to be perfectly cool and in good wind after thei_ong run. Leif noticed them at once.
“Yonder youths seem to think little of this sort of thing,” he said t_arlsefin.
“You are right, Leif; it is mere child’s play to them. These are the tw_cots—the famous runners—whom I was charged by King Olaf to present to you.
Why, these men, I’ll engage to say, could overtake the Skraelingers even yet, if they chose.”
“Say you so?” cried Leif. “Do they speak Norse?”
“Yes; excellently well.”
“The one is Heika, the other Hake.”
“Ho! Hake and Heika, come hither,” cried Leif, beckoning to the men, an_astening round the point, where the Skraelingers could be seen nearly a mil_ff, and still running as if all the evil spirits of the North were afte_hem.
“See there, carls; think you that ye could overtake these rascals?”
The Scots looked at each other, nodded, smiled, and said they thought the_ould.
“Do it, then. Let them see how you can use your legs, and give them a shout a_ou draw near; but have a care: do them no hurt, and see that they do n_njury to you. Take no arms; your legs must suffice on this occasion.”
The Scots looked again at each other, and laughed, as if they enjoyed th_oke; then they started off like a couple of deer at a pace which no Norsema_egs had ever before equalled, or even approached.
Leif, Biarne, and the men gazed in speechless wonder, much to the amusement o_arlsefin and Thorward, while Hake and Heika made straight for the flying ban_nd came up with them. They shouted wildly as they drew near. The Skraelinger_ooked back, and seeing only two unarmed men, stopped to receive them.
“As the saying goes,” remarked Biarne, “a stern chase is a long one; but to- night proves the truth of that other saying, that there is no rule without a_xception.”
“What are they doing now?” cried Leif, laughing. “See—they are mad!”
Truly it seemed as if they were; for, after separating and coursing twic_ompletely round the astonished natives, the two Scots performed a species o_ar-dance before them, which had a sort of fling about it, more easil_onceived than described. In the middle of this they made a dart at the grou_o sudden and swift that Hake managed to overturn Flatface with a tremendou_uffet, and Heika did the same to his second in command with an energeti_uff. The Skraelingers were taken so thoroughly by surprise that the Scots ha_heered off and got out of reach before a spear could be thrown.
Of course a furious rush was made at them, but the hairy men might as wel_ave chased the wind. After tormenting and tantalising them a little longer, the Scots returned at full speed to their friends, and the Skraelingers, gla_o be rid of them, hastened to seek the shelter of the gloomy gorge from whic_hey had originally issued, “like a wolf on the fold.”