The Path of the King/Chapter 1
When Biorn was a very little boy in his father's stead at Hightown he had a play of his own making for the long winter nights. At the back end of the hall, where the men sat at ale, was a chamber which the thralls used of a morning--a place which smelt of hams and meal and good provender. There a bed had been made for him when he forsook his cot in the women's quarters. When the door was shut it was black dark, save for a thin crack of light from the wood fire and torches of the hall. The crack made on the earthen floor a line like a golden river. Biorn, cuddled up on a bench in his little bear-skin, was drawn like a moth to that stream of light. With his heart beating fast he would creep to it and stand for a moment with his small body bathed in the radiance. The game was not to come back at once, but to foray into the farther darkness before returning to the sanctuary of bed. That took all the fortitude in Biorn's heart, and not till the thing was dared and done could he go happily to sleep.
One night Leif the Outborn watched him at his game. Sometimes the man was permitted to sleep there when he had been making sport for the housecarles.
"Behold an image of life!" he had said in his queer outland speech. "We pass from darkness to darkness with but an instant of light between. You are born for high deeds, princeling. Many would venture from the dark to the light, but it takes a stout breast to voyage into the farther dark."
And Biorn's small heart swelled, for he detected praise, though he did not know what Leif meant.
In the long winter the sun never topped Sunfell, and when the gales blew and the snow drifted there were lights in the hall the day long. In Biorn's first recollection the winters were spent by his mother's side, while she and her maids spun the wool of the last clipping. She was a fair woman out of the Western Isles, all brown and golden as it seemed to him, and her voice was softer than the hard ringing speech of the Wick folk. She told him island stories about gentle fairies and good-humoured elves who lived in a green windy country by summer seas, and her air would be wistful as if she thought of her lost home. And she sang him to sleep with crooning songs which had the sweetness of the west wind in them. But her maids were a rougher stock, and they stuck to the Wicking lullaby which ran something like this:
Hush thee, my bold one, a boat will I buy thee,
A boat and stout oars and a bright sword beside,
A helm of red gold and a thrall to be nigh thee,
When fair blows the wind at the next wicking-tide.
There was a second verse, but it was rude stuff, and the Queen had forbidden the maids to sing it.
As he grew older he was allowed to sit with the men in the hall, when bows were being stretched and bowstrings knotted and spear-hafts fitted. He would sit mum in a corner, listening with both ears to the talk of the old franklins, with their endless grumbles about lost cattle and ill neighbours. Better he liked the bragging of the young warriors, the Bearsarks, who were the spear-head in all the forays. At the great feasts of Yule-tide he was soon sent packing, for there were wild scenes when the ale flowed freely, though his father, King Ironbeard, ruled his hall with a strong hand. From the speech of his elders Biorn made his picture of the world beyond the firths. It was a world of gloom and terror, yet shot with a strange brightness. The High Gods might be met with in beggar's guise at any ferry, jovial fellows and good friends to brave men, for they themselves had to fight for their lives, and the End of All Things hung over them like a cloud. Yet till the day of Ragnarok there would be feasting and fine fighting and goodly fellowship, and a stout heart must live for the hour.
Leif the Outborn was his chief friend. The man was no warrior, being lame of a leg and lean and sharp as a heron. No one knew his begetting, for he had been found as a child on the high fells. Some said he was come of the Finns, and his ill-wishers would have it that his birthplace had been behind a foss, and that he had the blood of dwarves in him. Yet though he made sport for the company, he had respect from them, for he was wise in many things, a skilled leech, a maker of runes, and a crafty builder of ships. He was a master hand at riddles, and for hours the housecarles would puzzle their wits over his efforts. This was the manner of them. "Who," Leif would ask, "are the merry maids that glide above the land to the joy of their father; in winter they bear a white shield, but black in summer?" The answer was "Snowflakes and rain." Or "I saw a corpse sitting on a corpse, a blind one riding on a lifeless steed?" to which the reply was "A dead horse on an ice-floe." Biorn never guessed any of the riddles, but the cleverness of them he thought miraculous, and the others roared with glee at their own obtuseness.
But Leif had different moods, for sometimes he would tell tales, and all were hushed in a pleasant awe. The fire on the hearth was suffered to die down, and men drew closer to each other, as Leif told of the tragic love of Helgi and Sigrun, or how Weyland outwitted King Nidad, or how Thor went as bride to Thrym in Giantland, and the old sad tale of how Sigurd Fafnirsbane, noblest of men, went down to death for the love of a queen not less noble. Leif told them well, so that his hearers were held fast with the spell of wonder and then spurred to memories of their own. Tongues would be loosened, and there would be wild recollections of battles among the skerries of the west, of huntings in the hills where strange sights greeted the benighted huntsman, and of voyaging far south into the lands of the sun where the poorest thrall wore linen and the cities were all gold and jewels. Biorn's head would be in such a whirl after a night of story-telling that he could get no sleep for picturing his own deeds when he was man enough to bear a sword and launch his ship. And sometimes in his excitement he would slip outside into the darkness, and hear far up in the frosty sky the whistle of the swans as they flew southward, and fancy them the shield-maids of Odin on their way to some lost battle.
His father, Thorwald Thorwaldson, was king over all the firths and wicks between Coldness in the south and Flatness and the mountain Rauma in the north, and inland over the Uplanders as far as the highest springs of the rivers. He was king by more than blood, for he was the tallest and strongest man in all the land, and the cunningest in battle. He was for ordinary somewhat grave and silent, a dark man with hair and beard the colour of molten iron, whence came his by-name. Yet in a fight no Bearsark could vie with him for fury, and his sword Tyrfing was famed in a thousand songs. On high days the tale of his descent would be sung in the hall--not by Leif, who was low-born and of no account, but by one or other of the chiefs of the Shield-ring. Biorn was happy on such occasions, for he himself came into the songs, since it was right to honour the gentle lady, the Queen. He heard how on the distaff side he was sprung from proud western earls, Thorwolf the Black, and Halfdan and Hallward Skullsplitter. But on the spear side he was of still loftier kin, for Odin was first in his pedigree, and after him the Volsung chiefs, and Gothfred the Proud, and--that no magnificence might be wanting--one Karlamagnus, whom Biorn had never heard of before, but who seemed from his doings to have been a puissant king.
On such occasions there would follow a braggingmatch among the warriors, for a recital of the past was meant as an augury for the future. The time was towards the close of the Wicking-tide, and the world was becoming hard for simple folk. There were endless bickerings with the Tronds in the north and the men of More in the south, and a certain Shockhead, an upsetting king in Norland, was making trouble with his neighbours. Likewise there was one Kristni, a king of the Romans, who sought to dispute with Odin himself. This Kristni was a magic-worker, who clad his followers in white linen instead of byrnies, and gave them runes in place of swords, and sprinkled them with witch water. Biorn did not like what he heard of the warlock, and longed for the day when his father Ironbeard would make an end of him.
Each year before the coming of spring there was a lean season in Hightown. Fish were scarce in the ice-holes, the stock of meal in the meal-ark grew low, and the deep snow made poor hunting in wood or on fell-side. Belts were tightened, and there were hollow cheeks among the thralls. And then one morning the wind would blow from the south, and a strange smell come into the air. The dogs left their lair by the fire and, led by the Garm the old blind patriarch, made a tour of inspection among the outhouses to the edge of the birch woods. Presently would come a rending of the ice on the firth, and patches of inky water would show between the floes. The snow would slip from the fell-side, and leave dripping rock and clammy bent, and the river would break its frosty silence and pour a mighty grey-green flood to the sea. The swans and geese began to fly northward, and the pipits woke among the birches. And at last one day the world put on a new dress, all steel-blue and misty green, and a thousand voices woke of flashing streams and nesting birds and tossing pines, and the dwellers in Hightown knew that spring had fairly come.
Then was Biorn the happy child. All through the long day, and through much of that twilight which is the darkness of a Norland summer, he was abroad on his own errands. With Grim the Hunter he adventured far up on the fells and ate cheese and bannocks in the tents of the wandering Skridfinns, or stalked the cailzie-cock with his arrows in the great pine forest, which in his own mind he called Mirkwood and feared exceedingly. Or he would go fishing with Egil the Fisherman, spearing salmon in the tails of the river pools. But best he loved to go up the firth in the boat which Leif had made him--a finished, clinker-built little model of a war galley, christened the Joy-maker--and catch the big sea fish. Monsters he caught sometimes in the deep water under the cliffs, till he thought he was destined to repeat the exploit of Thor when he went fishing with the giant Hymi, and hooked the Midgard Serpent, the brother of Fenris-wolf, whose coils encircle the earth.
Nor was his education neglected. Arnwulf the Bearsark taught him axe-play and sword-play, and he had a small buckler of his own, not of linden-wood like those of the Wick folk, but of wickerwork after the fashion of his mother's people. He learned to wrestle toughly with the lads of his own age, and to throw a light spear truly at a mark. He was fleet of foot and scoured the fells like a goat, and he could breast the tide in the pool of the great foss up to the very edge of the white water where the trolls lived.
There was a wise woman dwelt on the bay of Sigg. Katla was her name, a woman still black-browed though she was very old, and clever at mending hunters' scars. To her house Biorn went with Leif; and when they had made a meal of her barley-cakes and sour milk, and passed the news of the coast, Leif would fall to probing her craft and get but surly answers. To the boy's question she was kinder. "Let the dead things be, prince," she said. "There's small profit from foreknowledge. Better to take fates as they come sudden round a turn of the road than be watching them with an anxious heart all the way down the hill. The time will come soon enough when you must stand by the Howe of the Dead and call on the ghost-folk."
But Leif coaxed and Biorn harped on the thing, as boys do, and one night about the midsummer time her hour came upon Katla and she spoke without their seeking. There in the dim hut with the apple-green twilight dimming the fells Biorn stood trembling on the brink of the half-world, the woman huddled on the floor, her hand shading her eyes as if she were looking to a far horizon. Her body shook with gusts of passion, and the voice that came from her was not her own. Never so long as he lived did Biorn forget the terrible hour when that voice from beyond the world spoke things he could not understand. "I have been snowed on with snow," it said, "I have been beaten with the rain, I have been drenched with the dew, long have I been dead." It spoke of kings whose names he had never heard, and of the darkness gathering about the Norland, and famine and awe stalking upon the earth.
Then came a whisper from Leif asking the fortune of the young prince of Hightown.
"Death," said the weird-wife, "death--but not yet. The shears of the Norns are still blunt for him, and Skuld has him in keeping."
There was silence for a space, for the fit was passing from Katla. But the voice came again in broken syllables. "His thread runs westward--beyond the Far Isles... not he but the seed of his loins shall win great kingdoms... beyond the sea-walls... The All-Father dreams... Nay, he wakes... he wakes..."
There was a horrible choking sound, and the next Biorn knew was that Leif had fetched water and was dashing it on Katla's face.
It was nearly a week before Biorn recovered his spirits after this adventure, and it was noticeable that neither Leif nor he spoke a word to each other on the matter. But the boy thought much, and from that night he had a new purpose. It seemed that he was fated to travel far, and his fancy forsook the homely life of his own wicks and fells and reached to that outworld of which he had heard in the winter's talk by the hall fire.
There were plenty of folk in Hightown to satisfy his curiosity. There were the Bearsarks, who would spin tales of the rich Frankish lands and the green isles of the Gael. From the Skridfinns he heard of the bitter country in the north where the Jotuns dwelt, and the sun was not and the frost split the rocks to dust, while far underground before great fires the dwarves were hammering gold. But these were only old wives' tales, and he liked better the talk of the sea-going franklins, who would sail in the summer time on trading ventures and pushed farther than any galleys of war. The old sailor, Othere Cranesfoot, was but now back from a voyage which had taken him to Snowland, or, as we say, Iceland. He could tell of the Curdled Sea, like milk set apart for cheese-making, which flowed as fast as a river, and brought down ghoulish beasts and great dragons in its tide. He told, too, of the Sea-walls which were the end of the world, waves higher than any mountain, which ringed the whole ocean. He had seen them, blue and terrible one dawn, before he had swung his helm round and fled southwards. And in Snowland and the ports of the Isles this Othere had heard talk from others of a fine land beyond the sunset, where corn grew unsown like grass, and the capes looked like crusted cow-pats they were so thick with deer, and the dew of the night was honey-dew, so that of a morning a man might breakfast delicately off the face of the meadows.
Full of such marvels, Biorn sought Leif and poured out his heart to him. For the first time he spoke of the weird-wife's spaeing. If his fortune lay in the west, there was the goal to seek. He would find the happy country and reign over it. But Leif shook his head, for he had heard the story before. "To get there you will have to ride over Bilrost, the Rainbow Bridge, like the Gods. I know of the place. It is called Gundbiorn's Reef and it is beyond the world."
All this befell in Biorn's eleventh summer. The winter which followed brought ill luck to Hightown and notably to Ironbeard the King. For in the autumn the Queen, that gentle lady, fell sick, and, though leeches were sought for far and near, and spells and runes were prepared by all who had skill of them, her life ebbed fast and ere Yule she was laid in the Howe of the Dead. The loss of her made Thorwald grimmer and more silent than before, and there was no feasting at the Yule high-tide and but little at the spring merry-making. As for Biorn he sorrowed bitterly for a week, and then, boylike, forgot his grief in the wonder of living.
But that winter brought death in another form. Storms never ceased, and in the New Year the land lay in the stricture of a black frost which froze the beasts in the byres and made Biorn shiver all the night through, though in ordinary winter weather he was hardy enough to dive in the ice-holes. The stock of meal fell low, and when spring tarried famine drew very near. Such a spring no man living remembered. The snow lay deep on the shore till far into May. And when the winds broke they were cold sunless gales which nipped the young life in the earth. The ploughing was backward, and the seed-time was a month too late. The new-born lambs died on the fells and there fell a wasting sickness among the cattle. Few salmon ran up the streams, and the sea-fish seemed to have gone on a journey. Even in summer, the pleasant time, food was scarce, for the grass in the pastures was poor and the cows gave little milk, and the children died. It foreboded a black harvest-time and a blacker winter.
With these misfortunes a fever rose in the blood of the men of Hightown. Such things had happened before for the Norland was never more than one stage distant from famine; and in the old days there had been but a single remedy. Food and wealth must be won from a foray overseas. It was years since Ironbeard had ridden Egir's road to the rich lowlands, and the Bearsarks were growing soft from idleness. Ironbeard himself was willing, for his hall was hateful to him since the Queen's death. Moreover, there was no other way. Food must be found for the winter or the folk would perish.
So a hosting was decreed at harvest-tide, for few men would be needed to win the blasted crops; and there began a jointing of shields and a burnishing of weapons, and the getting ready of the big ships. Also there was a great sortilege-making. Whither to steer, that was the question. There were the rich coasts of England, but they were well guarded, and many of the Norland race were along the wardens. The isles of the Gael were in like case, and, though they were the easier prey, there was less to be had from them. There were soon two parties in the hall, one urging Ironbeard to follow the old track of his kin westward, another looking south to the Frankish shore. The King himself, after the sacrifice of a black heifer, cast the sacred twigs, and they seemed to point to Frankland. Old Arnwulf was deputed on a certain day to hallow three ravens and take their guidance, but, though he said three times the Ravens' spell, he got no clear counsel from the wise birds. Last of all, the weird-wife Katla came from Sigg, and for the space of three days sat in the hall with her head shrouded, taking no meat or drink. When at last she spoke she prophesied ill. She saw a red cloud and it descended on the heads of the warriors, yea of the King himself. As for Hightown she saw it frozen deep in snow like Jotunheim, and rime lay on it like a place long dead. But she bade Ironbeard go to Frankland, for it was so written. "A great kingdom waits," she said--"not for you, but for the seed of your loins." And Biorn shuddered, for they were the words spoken in her hut on that unforgotten midsummer night.
The boy was in an agony lest he should be left behind. But his father decreed that he should go. "These are times when manhood must come fast," he said. "He can bide within the Shield-ring when blows are going. He will be safe enough if it holds. If it breaks, he will sup like the rest of us with Odin."
Then came days of bustle and preparation. Biorn was agog with excitement and yet solemnised, for there was strange work afoot in Hightown. The King made a great festival in the Gods' House, the dark hall near the Howe of the Dead, where no one ventured except in high noon. Cattle were slain in honour of Thor, the God who watched over forays, and likewise a great boar for Frey. The blood was caught up in the sacred bowls, from which the people were sprinkled, and smeared on the altar of blackened fir. Then came the oath-taking, when Ironbeard and his Bearsarks swore brotherhood in battle upon the ship's bulwarks, and the shield's rim, and the horse's shoulder, and the brand's edge. There followed the mixing of blood in the same footprint, a rite to which Biorn was admitted, and a lesser oath for all the people on the great gold ring which lay on the altar. But most solemn of all was the vow the King made to his folk, warriors and franklins alike, when he swore by the dew, the eagle's path, and the valour of Thor.
Then it was Biorn's turn. He was presented to the High Gods as the prince and heir.
Old Arnwulf hammered on his left arm a torque of rough gold, which he must wear always, in life and in death.
"I bring ye the boy, Biorn Thorwaldson When the Gods call for Thorwald it will be his part to lead the launchings and the seafarings and be first when blows are going. Do ye accept him, people of Hightown?"
There was a swelling cry of assent and a beating of hafts on shields. Biorn's heart was lifted with pride, but out of a corner of his eye he saw his father's face. It was very grave, and his gaze was on vacancy.
Though it was a time of bustle, there was no joy in it, as there had been at other hostings. The folk were too hungry, the need was too desperate, and there was something else, a shadow of fate, which lay over Hightown. In the dark of night men had seen the bale-fires burning on the Howe of the Dead. A grey seal had been heard speaking with tongues off Siggness, and speaking ill words, said the fishermen who saw the beast. A white reindeer had appeared on Sunfell, and the hunter who followed it had not been seen again. By day, too, there was a brooding of hawks on the tide's edge, which was strange at that season. Worst portent of all, the floods of August were followed by high north-east winds that swept the clouds before them, so that all day the sky was a scurrying sea of vapour, and at night the moon showed wild grey shapes moving ever to the west. The dullest could not mistake their meaning; these were the dark horses, and their riders, the Helmed Maidens, mustering for the battle to which Hightown was faring.
As Biorn stared one night at the thronged heavens, he found Leif by his elbow. In front of the dark company of the sky a white cloud was scudding, tinged with the pale moon. Leif quoted from the speech of the Giant-wife Rimegerd to Helgi in the song:
"Three nines of maiden, ride,
But one rides before them,
A white maid helmed:
From their manes the steeds shake
Dew into the deep dales,
Hail upon the high woods."
"It bodes well," said Biorn. "They ride to choose those whom we slay. There will be high doings ere Yule."
"Not so well," said Leif. "They come from the Norland, and it is our folk they go to choose. I fear me Hightown will soon be full of widow women."
At last came the day of sailing. The six galleys of war were brought down from their sheds, and on the rollers for the launching he-goats were bound so that the keels slid blood-stained into the sea. This was the 'roller-reddening,' a custom bequeathed from their forefathers, though the old men of the place muttered darkly that the ritual had been departed from, and that in the great days it was the blood not of goats, but of captive foemen that had reddened the galleys and the tide.
The thralls sat at the thwarts, for there was no breeze that day in the narrow firth. Then came the chief warriors in short fur jackets, splendid in glittering helms and byrnies, and each with his thrall bearing his battle-axe. Followed the fighting commonalty with axe and spear. Last came Ironbeard, stern as ever, and Biorn with his heart torn between eagerness and regret. Only the children, the women, and the old men were left in Hightown, and they stood on the shingle watching till the last galley had passed out of sight beyond Siggness, and was swallowed up in the brume that cloaked the west. There were no tears in that grim leave-taking. Hightown had faced the like before with a heavy heart, but with dry eyes and a proud head. Leif, though a cripple, went with the Wickings, for he had great skill of the sea.
There was not a breath of wind for three days and three nights, as they coasted southward, with the peaks of the Norland on their port, and to starboard the skerries that kept guard on the firths. Through the haze they could now and then see to landward trees and cliffs, but never a human face. Once there was an alarm of another fleet, and the shields were slung outboard, but it proved to be only a wedding-party passing from wick to wick, and they gave it greeting and sailed on. These were eerie cheerless days. The thralls sweated in shifts at the oars, and the betterborn talked low among themselves, as if the air were full of ears. "Ran is heating her ovens," said Leif, as he watched the warm fog mingle with the oarthresh.
On the fourth morning there came a break in the clouds, and the sight of a high hill gave Leif the clue for his reckoning. The prows swung seaward, and the galleys steered for the broad ocean. That afternoon there sprang up the north-east wind for which they had been waiting. Sails were hoisted on the short masts, oars were shipped and lashed under the bulwarks, and the thralls clustered in the prows to rest their weary limbs and dice with knucklebones. The spirits of all lightened, and there was loud talk in the sterns among the Bearsarks. In the night the wind freshened, and the long shallow boats rolled filthily so that the teeth shook in a man's head, and over the swish of the waves and the creaking of the sheets there was a perpetual din of arms clashing. Biorn was miserably ill for some hours, and made sport for the seasoned voyagers.
"It will not hold," Leif prophesied. "I smell rime ahead and quiet seas."
He had spoken truly, for the sixth day the wind fell and they moved once more over still, misty waters. The thralls returned to their oars and the voices of the well-born fell low again These were ghoulish days for Biorn, who had been accustomed to the clear lights and the clear darkness of his own land. Only once in four days they saw the sun, and then it was as red as blood, so that his heart trembled.
On the eleventh day Ironbeard summoned Leif and asked his skill of the voyage. "I know not," was the answer. "I cannot steer a course except under clean skies. We ran well with the wind aback, but now I am blind and the Gods are pilots. Some day soon we must make landfall, but I know not whether on English or Frankish shores."
After that Leif would sit in long spells of brooding, for he had a sense in him of direction to which he sought to give free play--a sense built up from old voyages over these very seas. The result of his meditations was that he swung more to the south, and events proved him wise. For on the fifteenth day came a lift in the fog and with it the noise of tides washing near at hand on a rough coast. Suddenly almost overhead they were aware of a great white headland, on the summit of which the sun shone on grass.
Leif gave a shout. "My skill has riot failed me," he cried. "We enter the Frankish firth. See, there is the butt of England!"
After that the helms were swung round, and a course laid south by west. And then the mist came again, but this time it was less of a shroud, for birds hovered about their wake, so that they were always conscious of land. Because of the strength of the tides the rowers made slow progress, and it was not till the late afternoon of the seventeenth day that Leif approached Ironbeard with a proud head and spoke a word. The King nodded, and Leif took his stand in the prow with the lead in his hand. The sea mirroring the mist was leaden dull, but the old pilot smelt shoal water.
Warily he sounded, till suddenly out of the gloom a spit of land rose on the port, and it was clear that they were entering the mouth of a river. The six galleys jolted across the sandbar, Leif in the foremost peering ahead and shouting every now and then an order. It was fine weather for a surprise landing. Biorn saw only low sand-dunes green with coarse grasses and, somewhere behind, the darkness of a forest. But he could not tear his eyes from it, for it was the long-dreamed-of Roman land.
Then a strange thing befell. A madness seemed to come on Leif. He left his pilot's stand and rushed to the stern where the King stood. Flinging himself on his knees, he clasped Ironbeard's legs and poured out supplications.
"Return!" he cried. "While there is yet time, return. Seek England, Gael-land, anywhere, but not this place. I see blood in the stream and blood on the strand. Our blood, your blood, my King! There is doom for the folk of Thorwald by this river!"
The King's face did not change. "What will be, will be," he said gravely. "We abide by our purpose and will take what Thor sends with a stout heart. How say you, my brave ones?"
And all shouted to go forward, for the sight of a new country had fired their blood. Leif sat huddled by the bulwarks, with a white face and a gasp in his throat, like one coming out of a swoon.
They went ashore at a bend of the stream where was a sandy cape, beached the galleys, felled trees from the neighbouring forest and built them a stockade. The dying sun flushed water and wood with angry crimson, and Biorn observed that the men wrought as it were in a world of blood. "That is the meaning of Leif's whimsies," he thought, and so comforted himself.
That night the Northmen slept in peace, but the scouts brought back word of a desert country, no men or cattle, and ashes where once had been dwellings.
"Our kinsfolk have been here before us," said King Ironbeard grimly. He did not love the Danes, though he had fought by their side.
Half the force was left as a guard by the ships, and next day the rest went forward up the valley at a slant from the river's course. For that way, ran the tale, lay a great Roman house, a palace of King Kristni, where much gold was to be had for the lifting. By midday they were among pleasant meadows, but the raiders had been there, for the houses were fired and the orchards hacked down. Then came a shout and, turning back, they saw a flame spring to the pale autumn skies. "The ships!" rose the cry, and the lightest of foot were sent back for news.
They returned with a sorry tale. Of the ships and the stockade nothing remained but hot cinders. Half the guard were dead, and old Arnwulf, the captain, lay blood-eagled on the edge of the tide. The others had gone they knew not where, but doubtless into the forests.
"Our kinsfolks' handiwork," said Ironbeard. "We are indeed forestalled, my heroes."
A council was held and it was resolved to make a camp by the stream and defend it against all comers, till such time as under Leif's guidance new ships could be built.
"Axes will never ring on them," said Leif under his breath. He walked now like a man who was fey and his face was that of another world.
He spoke truth, for as they moved towards the riverbank, just before the darkening, in a glade between two forests Fate met them. There was barely time to form the Shield-ring ere their enemies were upon them--a mass of wild men in wolves' skins and at their head mounted warriors in byrnies, with long swords that flashed and fell.
Biorn saw little of the battle, wedged in the heart of the Shield-ring. He heard the shouts of the enemy, and the clangour of blows, and the sharp intake of breath, but chiefly he heard the beating of his own heart. The ring swayed and moved as it gave before the onset or pressed to an attack of its own, and Biorn found himself stumbling over the dead. "I am Biorn, and my father is King," he repeated to himself, the spell he had so often used when on the fells or the firths he had met fear.
Night came and a young moon, and still the fight continued. But the Shield-ring was growing ragged, for the men of Hightown were fighting one to eight, and these are odds that cannot last. Sometimes it would waver, and an enemy would slip inside, and before he sank dead would have sorely wounded one of Ironbeard's company.
And now Biorn could see his father, larger than human, it seemed, in the dim light, swinging his sword Tyrfing, and crooning to himself as he laid low his antagonists. At the sight a madness rose in the boy's heart. Behind in the sky clouds were banking, dark clouds like horses, with one ahead white and moontipped, the very riders he had watched with Leif from the firth shore. The Walkyries were come for the chosen, and he would fain be one of them. All fear had gone from him. His passion was to be by his father's side and strike his small blow, beside those mighty ones which Thor could not have bettered.
But even as he was thus uplifted the end came. Thorwald Thorwaldson tottered and went down, for a hurled axe had cleft him between helm and byrnie. With him fell the last hope of Hightown and the famished clan under Sunfell. The Shield-ring was no more. Biorn found himself swept back as the press of numbers overbore the little knot of sorely wounded men. Someone caught him by the arm and snatched him from the mellay into the cover of a thicket. He saw dimly that it was Leif.
He was giddy and retching from weariness, and something inside him was cold as ice, though his head burned. It was not rage or grief, but awe, for his father had fallen and the end of the world had come. The noise of the battle died, as the two pushed through the undergrowth and came into the open spaces of the wood. It was growing very dark, but still Leif dragged him onwards. Then suddenly he fell forward on his face, and Biorn, as he stumbled over him. found his hands wet with blood.
"I am for death," Leif whispered. "Put your ear close, prince. I am Leif the Outborn and I know the hidden things.... You are the heir of Thorwald Thorwaldson and you will not die.... I see a long road, but at the end a great kingdom. Farewell, little Biorn. We have been good comrades, you and I. Katla from Sigg spoke the true word. . . "
And when Biorn fetched water in his horn from a woodland pool he found Leif with a cold brow.
Blind with sorrow and fatigue, the boy stumbled on, without purpose. He was lonely in the wide world, many miles from his home, and all his kin were slain. Rain blew from the south-west and beat in his face, the brambles tore his legs, but he was dead to all things. Would that the Shield Maids had chosen him to go with that brave company to the bright hall of Odin! But he was only a boy and they did not choose striplings.
Suddenly in a clearing a pin-point of light pricked the darkness.
The desire for human companionship came over him, even though it were that of enemy or outcast. He staggered to the door and beat on it feebly. A voice spoke from within, but he did not hear what it said.
Again he beat and again the voice came. And now his knocking grew feebler, for he was at the end of his strength.
Then the bar was suddenly withdrawn and he was looking inside a poor hut, smoky from the wood-fire in the midst of it. An old woman sat by it with a bowl in her hand, and an oldish man with a cudgel stood before him. He did not understand their speech, but he gathered he was being asked his errand.
"I am Biorn," he said, "and my father was Ironbeard, the King."
They shook their heads, but since they saw only a weary, tattered boy they lost their fears. They invited him indoors, and their voices were kindly. Nodding with exhaustion, he was given a stool to sit on and a bowl of coarse porridge was put into his hands. They plied him with questions, but he could make nothing of their tongue.
Then the thrall rose, yawned, and dropped the bar over the door. The sound was to the boy like the clanging of iron gates on his old happy world. For a moment he was on the brink of tears. But he set his teeth and stiffened his drooping neck.
"I am Biorn," he said aloud, "and my father was a king."
They nodded to each other and smiled. They though his words were a grace before meat.