The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 15

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CHAPTER XV.

IN WINTER QUARTERS

NEXT morning Halfdan's men joined forces with the new arrivals, and got the two ships up on the shore, dismantling and unloading them, while parties of men hastened out to the surrounding woods, and returned with great quantities of firewood and timber, with which fresh huts were built.

This was finished by evening, for Halfdan had a hundred and fifty men, and many hands made light labor. For several days the Norsemen rested quietly, for they had many wounded, and some of the Saxons were still down with fever. Sigrid, however, was now almost well, and the jovial roughness of Halfdan amused her and brought the roses back to her cheeks.

Sigurd and Alfred wished to visit the town above, and if possible to take up their quarters there, but Halfdan discouraged them from doing so.

"King Idwal watches us sharp enough, for he has suspicions of every Northman within a hundred miles. One cannot blame him, either; the vikings have ravaged poor Bretland terribly, destroying monasteries and towns, and burning and plundering. Your own man Biorn is a sample; he was carried off in his youth.

"As for visiting the town, it is not worth while. 'There is nothing there save a great castle and a cluster of dirty little houses, and in any case Idwal has forbidden our men to enter the town. Once a week the country folk come down here with their market stuff, and Idwal sends us ale by the cask. Never fear, he will be down pretty soon to see for himself who these new vikings are."

For two weeks they remained in camp, seeing nothing of the Welsh king, but all were greatly interested in the people, who brought fresh meat and food into camp once a week. Indeed, the vikings' camp at these times assumed the appearance of a fair, for most of the men made small objects which the country people took in exchange, and many merchants set up permanent booths inside the camp. The Welsh people were smaller by far than the Norsemen or Danes, and their bright, quick eyes and black straight hair contrasted strangely with the Northmen and Saxons, most of whom were fair.

Sigurd and Alfred had at first feared that the Saxons and Danes, hereditary enemies, would not mingle well; but their fears proved to be unfounded. Halfdan discovered from the country people that in the forests to the west, only a few miles distant, wolves were a terrible scourge; so the men set to work and made skis for themselves, and even Sigrid learned to use the "snow-skates," as the Saxons called the long wooden runners. In the second week of their stay the four young people and Halfdan took a score of men, leaving the camp in charge of Biorn, and for three days went off on a wolf-hunt in the forest.

On their return Biorn told them that word had arrived in their absence from King Idwal, who intended to visit them on the following day, with all his court. Great preparations were made for his reception. Pine boughs were brought in from the forest, with which the huts were decorated gayly, and Halfdan's large hut was hung with tapestries and cloths, which Sigurd found in the cargo of the vessel which Biorn had captured.

All the men rubbed up their armor and weapons, and when in the morning the Welsh were seen winding down the hill,
 
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They were greeted by a loud burst from the horns of the vikings.

 
the force was drawn up in three divisions, the Danes, Norsemen and Saxons grouping themselves together under the standards of Halfdan, Sigurd and Alfred. Presently the Welsh arrived in the valley leading to the camp, and their coming was greeted by a loud burst from the horns of the vikings.

Leading the way came a troop of archers, behind whom, mounted on small shaggy ponies, rode the King and his court. Idwal was a larger man than most of his followers, with keen black eyes and firm features, shaved in the Danish fashion, with two long mustaches. As he came up Halfdan advanced and greeted him.

"Welcome, my lord King! It gives us pleasure to return the hospitality of your castle!"

Idwal smiled. "Truly, Jarl, I am glad that these men of yours are not minded to foray my borders! We would have a hard time of it to repel such a force as this. I heard that you had been joined by a fresh band of vikings, so came down to assure myself that we were in no danger."

At this Halfdan motioned Sigurd and his friends to advance and presented them to the King. The latter frowned as Alfred came forward, and swept his eye over the band of Saxons.

"It is many years since a Saxon has dared seek hospitality from the Cymry, my lad," he remarked. Then Alfred told his story, and the king's face cleared.

"Well, to be frank, I have small love for Saxons, but since you are enemies of Ethelred, that is another matter. Tell me, in case your father returned home and I joined with King Svein, would you be for or against me?"

He gazed keenly at Alfred, but the lad met the look squarely, though with a smile. "As to that, my lord King, I can only say that I would fight for my own land against the invader, whoever he was; yet if my father thinks it right to join King Svein, as well he may, I will be at his side."

Halfdan broke in with a laugh. "Don't be afraid, my lord, this Saxon will not have to be feared for some time to come! I dare say that if you make a foray against Ethelred this spring, he would stand as stoutly at your side as any of your nobles. But come into the camp, my lord."

The vikings opened a path between their ranks, and Idwal led his men through them. In an open space amid the huts, Halfdan had cleared away the snow and stretched a large sail over a number of long tables, while on either side blazed a dozen great fires.

"By my faith," cried King Idwal, "this is a right royal reception, Jarl! An open air banquet is far more to my liking than one inside these huts, and these fires would warm an army!"

So saying, the king tossed aside his fur cloak, and Sigurd saw that he wore a light suit of armor beneath it. In the king's train were some twoscore nobles, and a bishop, to whom Halfdan accorded the place of honor. Among the Welsh, bishops and priests were honored even above the king, and they found Bishop Dafydd a learned, kindly, and intensely religious man, who was at once interested in Astrid and Wulf, with both of whom he conversed at great length.

It was well, indeed, that Halfdan had been hunting for three days previously, for his stock of venison was heavily drawn upon. Great fish were brought in, newly taken from the river below, and to the delight of the Welshmen a huge boar's head, in the Saxon style, was placed before the king. The vikings spared no pains to make the feast a notable one, and to Sigurd's satisfaction the presence of Bishop Dafydd and his men prevented it from becoming a wild carouse, as the Norsemen were only too apt to make it.

Before the King left that evening there was an exchange of gifts, as was customary. Biorn and Jarl Halfdan, who were skillful smiths, had the week before made a beautiful byrnie, of woven gold rings, and this was presented to the king, who was delighted with it.

He presented Halfdan with a great boar-hound, and to Sigurd he gave a cloak, edged with fur, the scarlet cloth embroidered in silver thread. As he had been informed of the presence of the two girls, he had thoughtfully brought for them new outfits of garments suited to their rank.

Idwal returned to his castle that evening, and the bond between him and the vikings was firmly cemented. He assured Jarl Halfdan that as soon as King Svein landed in the east he would pour a flood of men over the West Saxon earldoms, and Halfdan had no doubt that the Danish king would fulfill the oath he had sworn at his accession feast.

After this the camp settled down for the remainder of the winter. Every week hunting parties, on skis, brought in fresh meat from the surrounding forests, while their arms were repaired and added to by the smiths. The chiefs of the Northmen were all trained armorers, and his work at the forge added greatly to Sigurd's strength and widened his shoulders immensely.

The two girls had a most enjoyable time, for every man in the camp worshiped them. They joined the hunting parties, and many a wolf fell before Astrid's bow, while Sigrid, though less warlike, took part with equal zest.

The time passed away rapidly, and in March the snows melted and the four ships were run out and overhauled. They were freshly pitched and calked, the masts were stepped, and at last they lay at anchor, fully ready for the sea.

King Idwal paid the camp a second visit, after which the chiefs returned to the castle with him for a few days. He sent down provisions of all kinds for the ships, and at the beginning of April, Sigurd took leave of Halfdan.

They gathered in the Jarl's hut on the evening before sailing.

"Now, Jarl," said Sigurd, "I suppose you will take Astrid home with you?"

"That depends," replied Halfdan, quizzically, "upon whether she wants to go or not! She seems to like wandering about the world, with a knight-errant to rescue her and guard her from harm!"

Astrid blushed, and cried, "That's not fair, uncle! I'm going home with you—but listen! Why can't you come with us to King Olaf, and go home by the north? It is just as short that way, and far less dangerous!"

The big Jarl leaped to his feet. "Hurrah! I never even thought of that; I thought to go home around the south of England, but in truth this way is as short, and I would fain see this King Olaf, whom you praise so highly."

It had been arranged that Halfdan was not to sail till the next week, so he at once dashed out and called his chiefs together. Telling them of the new plan, the men went to work, by torchlight, and finished loading his two ships, and by morning all was ready.

With a fair wind they reached out into the bay, and three mornings later, after coasting along the Irish shore, they came in sight of the towers of Dublin.