The Cross and the Hammer/Chapter 3

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CHAPTER III

JARL HAKON OF NORWAY.

"WELL enough," replied Vagn, "what is it?"

"I suppose you see that you cannot hold out for ever; but it would be needless trouble for my men to batter in the door. To-morrow we will meet Jarl Hakon, and if you give yourselves up in peace I will not bind you."

"What shall we do?" whispered Vagn. "It is true that we cannot hold out here."

"Do!" exclaimed Astrid. "Would you trust your father's betrayer? Wait till we meet Hakon, that will be time enough to give up!"

Vagn raised his voice. "We wish nought to do with traitors, Thorkel. Let Jarl Hakon speak with us; till then we will bide."

Thorkel made no answer, and they heard him move away. The three captives ate some of the food, drank a little stale water, and with nightfall the boys took watch and watch, leaving the single couch to Astrid.

Toward morning, however, the latter awoke and insisted on doing her share of the watching; so Sigurd, dead tired, yielded up his watch and dropped off to sleep. The boys were now suffering from their wounds, but they had refused to let Astrid bind them up, as this was strictly against the laws of the Jomsvikings.

These fierce men were trained with the greatest strictness, indeed, and death was the penalty for the slightest infraction of their laws. Wounds might not be bound up, and no pain might be complained of; for suffering was only part of the long training that made the Jomsborg brotherhood the most terrible fighters in the world.

Both boys were wakened by a jar that shook the ship, and they found the sun well up. "What was that shock?" they cried, in alarm.

"Another ship," replied Astrid. "I can see nothing, but I heard the sound of oars and voices."

Springing to the loopholes, they found that they could see nothing; but the sound of excited talking came to them, and in a few moments steps advanced quickly to the door.

"Ho, Vagn Akison! Astrid of Vendland! Open!"

Astrid seized Vagn's arm. "It is Jarl Hakon! I know his voice well!"

Without hesitation, Sigurd, sheathing his sword, threw open the door. There in the sunlight stood a man of lofty stature, magnificently armed and with beard and hair as sunny as that of Sigurd; but his face was gloomy, and his eyes quick and shifty.

"Do you yield to me?" he asked quietly.

Astrid laughed. "So you war against girls, Jarl? Well, I suppose I must surrender!"

The Jarl smiled, and laid his hand on her hair. "Keep the bow, child; you have done nobly and well. Come to my own ship."

As they followed him down the ladder and over the side, Sigurd saw that Hakon's hair was streaked with gray, and that he walked stiffly as from old wounds. Beside Thorkel's ship lay another, a splendid warship, and as they climbed over the bulwarks the two ships were cast apart. Hakon led the way to his cabin, and said, kindly:

"Sit you down and fear not. Thorkel has told me the tale of the vows, especially that of yours, Vagn Akison. By the hammer of Thor, your comrades will have tough work if they think to take Norway from me!" He smiled grimly.

"Jarl," exclaimed Astrid, "was it by your orders that we have been attacked? Remember that Svein is my uncle!"

Hakon nodded. "I am sorry, indeed, that you were taken; you will be returned unharmed later, with whatever scat Svein thinks just. But who are you, Fairhair?"

Sigurd laughed. "That is truly what men call me, Jarl; my name is Sigurd Buisson."

Hakon whistled in surprise. "So! Then I have two good hostages! All the better; I will take you up to Thrandheim with me, but have no fear, for you will be well treated—at least for the present."

With this Hakon left the cabin, giving it up to them, and the voyage began. The boys were indeed treated well, their weapons were left them, and had it not been for the surrounding circumstances they would have enjoyed themselves immensely.

That night they made the southern end of Norway, for the ship was pushed on with all speed, both of sail and oars. Jarl Hakon was racing for his kingdom now, and no effort was spared to reach Thrandheim, Norway's capital, as soon as might be.

Next morning they landed at Howes, and Hakon sent speedy messengers north over the mountains to his son Jarl Eirik, who was in Raumarike; and splitting up war arrows, dispatched them to all the chiefs near by as a token to gather men at once. Then, with fresh rowers, the ship hastened on as never ship had hastened before, for the realm of Norway was at stake.

The following evening they stopped at Raumsdale to send out the war-arrow and get new rowers; but they pushed on quickly, and on the third day sped up the Thrandheim Firth and reached the city just after sunset.

An immense crowd greeted them, for the news had sped fast, and they landed amid a great shouting and clash of arms. Jarl Hakon kept the boys with him, and sent Astrid to the King's Hall, where she would be given waiting-women and cared for as became her rank. Then, without going thither himself, he turned aside, followed by all the multitude, and proceeded to the great temple of Thor, the War-god.

Jarl Hakon was a pagan, believing firmly in the old gods of Norway, as indeed most of his subjects did. The Thrandheim temple was the greatest in the land, and Jarl Hakon, as ruler of the country, was the high-priest.

As they passed beneath the great stone doorway Sigurd Fairhair shivered, and Vagn whispered to him, "Firm, Sigurd, hold firm!"

Sigurd pressed his hand in reply. As they saw whither they were going, the boys had resolved not to take part in the worship of the heathen gods, for both were Christians. The temple was high and gloomy, and the torches lit it very poorly; but around the sides they could see statues of Odin the one-eyed, Freya the beautiful, and the other gods. At the end, opposite the doorway, stood a high altar before the golden statue of Thor, and Hakon slowly ascended the steps.

As he did so, the vikings, bonders, and townfolk fell on their knees, and beyond the altar Sigurd noticed the priests bringing in a white bull for sacrifice. Looking around, he saw that he and Vagn were the only ones standing; others saw it, too, and an angry mutter ran through the vast building, like the low gathering of a storm.

The two boys paled, but stood firm and erect, as Jarl Hakon uttered a short prayer to the war god. When his voice ceased, the mutter behind him swelled into a roar, with fierce shouts of "Kneel!" "Kneel!" "Death to the Christians!"

Hakon turned and raised his hand, the roar dying away at once. When he saw the cause of the tumult his face darkened.

"To your knees, to your knees! Would you insult Thor in his own temple?"

"We kneel to none save the white Christ," spoke out Sigurd boldly, though his heart beat fast.

Hakon's hand flew to his sword, and the crowd surged forward; then the Jarl's hand dropped, and he motioned to one of his men.

"Harald, take these two to the King's Hall and see that no harm comes to them, on your life. Go!"

Without a word the boys followed the man as he led the way out, their heads high and their hands on their swords. The Norsemen made way for them with muttered threats, but gaining the open air, their guide led them through the dark streets, and in a few minutes stopped at the Hall.

They were led to a room, and the door was bolted. At the rasp of the bolt Vagn broke silence.

"Whew! That was a close shave for us, old man! I was scared stiff when you answered Hakon!"

"So was I," admitted Sigurd, smiling. "But we are too valuable as hostages, so it didn't take much bravery. See here, are we going to stay with Hakon?"

"Not if we can help it," laughed Vagn. "I suppose we'll be watched closely, though, and then we must look out for Astrid."

Sigurd nodded. "Well, we'll see her in the morning. She is not in danger for the present, anyway."

Sigurd was mistaken, however, for they did not see Astrid for a week. They were closely confined to their room, and only on the sixth day following were they allowed to leave it. Their warder was the same who had led them from the temple the first night. As he came in on the sixth morning, he left the door open, and said:

"You are free of the town, but do not leave it. Jarl Hakon has gone, so you had best be watchful, as I am responsible for you."

"Where has Hakon gone? Is the Lady Astrid here?" asked Vagn.

"I know nothing of any Lady Astrid, but Jarl Hakon has gone south to More to raise men, and will return to meet Jarl Eirik, mayhap."

The two boys did not wait to learn more, but hastened out to the great hall, and there they found a woman who directed them to Astrid's room. Making their way thither, Astrid came to the door with a cry of joy.

"Oh, I thought you were dead! I saw Jarl Hakon once, but he was terribly busy and would tell me nothing. Where have you been?"

Vagn outlined their adventure at the temple, and told of their subsequent imprisonment in a few words.

"I never would have dared do that!" exclaimed Astrid as he finished. "To brave all those men that way! But come over here to this window and speak low; there are women in the next room."

Making sure that the door was fast, Sigurd and Vagn joined her at the window.

"Last night I heard two men talking out in the hall, and I listened. Jarl Eirik has gathered a great force of men from Raumadale and Halogaland and Thrandheim, and is fitting out an immense fleet in the greatest haste. Hakon is raising men in North and South More. Two nights ago, just before Hakon left, a messenger came from Eirik.

"Here is their plan. When Hakon has raised all the men he can, he will come north to meet Eirik, who is making his way south. They expect to have at least 150 longships when they combine forces, and intend to wait for your fleet in Hiorunga Bay and take them in a trap."

"A trap!" cried Sigurd. "With that great force?"

"Yes, because they are afraid of the men of Jomsborg, even with the numbers three to one. The peasants are to tell Jarl Sigvald that Hakon is in Hiorunga Bay with only one or two ships, and Sigvald and Bui will hurry in to capture him, thus falling among the whole fleet. "Do you see?"

Sigurd's eyes flashed. "So Hakon is a traitor still! This is terrible, Vagn; in a trap like that no one will escape!"

"I am afraid not, Fairhair," Vagn shook his head sadly. "Sigvald will fall into it, for he is impetuous and hasty, as is your father also. I see only one thing to do."

"What is that?" cried the others, as he paused.

"That is for you, Sigurd, and me to steal a boat here in the harbor and sail out south. We have a bare chance of reaching Sigvald in time. Has Eirik reached Thrandheim yet?" He turned to Astrid.

"Not yet, but he is expected at any time."

"Then we may make it!" broke in Sigurd, excitedly.

Here Astrid drew herself up, and said, in a determined voice, "Wait a minute! If you go I go, too; you needn't think you can leave me behind!"