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   Chapter 1 CONCERNING ALREK OF THE VIKING CAMPS

The Thrall of Leif the Lucky: A Story of Viking Days By Ottilie A. Liljencrantz Characters: 9339

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


For four days the Wind-Raven had drifted blindfold in a fog, and now the fifth day had dawned with no prospect of release and the explorers were hard put to it for amusement. On the after-deck the helmsman had sought comfort in his ale horn; spread over the benches below, the two-score men of the crew were killing time with chess games; and the twenty-odd boys who completed the company had turned the forepart of the ship into a swimming beach around which they sported with the zest of young seals. On the murky waves their yellow heads bobbed like so many oranges. The forecastle swarmed with them as they chased one another across it, their wet bodies glimmering moth-like in the grayness. And the first two benches were covered with those whom lack of breath had induced to pause and burrow in the heaps of clothing scattered there.

The center of the group of loungers was a brown-haired brown-eyed brown-cheeked boy relating with a grin of appreciation a story of Viking horse-play. The laughter which applauded him ceased only when a lad with a sword approached and set the laughers to dodging thrusts.

"Your noses are as blue as Gudrid's eyes," the newcomer scoffed, sprinkling them with tosses of his dripping red mane. "Rouse up, Alrek of Norway, and have a bout with me to set your blood to moving."

The brown-eyed boy looked around without enthusiasm; and from the others rose a disparaging chorus:

"There are more chances that you will set your own blood to running--" "Hallad once had the same belief in--" "Perhaps the water has blurred the Red-Head's memory so he thinks it was he who won the dwarfs' sword last winter."

The Red-Haired became also the Red-Cheeked; he was overgrown and undisciplined and his temper appeared to be hung as loosely as his limbs. "If you allow him to think," he cried, "that we twenty Greenlanders are afraid to fight him because he was bred in a Viking camp while we are farm-reared, I will challenge him where I stand." He was swelling his chest as if to devote his next breath to defiance, when he was prevented by Alrek of Norway himself.

"I will not fight you, but you may have your way about fencing," the young Viking consented, rising leisurely and laying aside his cloak of soldier scarlet. Emerging from its folds, it could be seen that besides his brownness he was distinguished among his companions for the soldierly erectness with which he bore his broad-shouldered thin-flanked young body, and the compactness of the muscles that played under his burnished skin with the strong grace of a young tiger's.

While he dug up his dwarf-made weapon from the mound of his clothing, the Red One ran up to the forecastle and kicked clear of ropes and garments a space in the center; and the loungers hitched themselves around to face the deck, and joined in elbowing off the swimmers as they came splashing in to see the sport.

Sport it unquestionably was at the beginning, for the camp-bred boy set the tune to a tripping measure that made the graceful blades seem to be kissing each other. Back and forth and up and down they went as in a dance, parry answering thrust so evenly that the ear grew to anticipate the clash and keep time to it as to music. But presently this very forbearance nettled the farm-bred lad so that he broke the rhythm with an unexpected stroke. Passing Alrek's guard, it opened a red wound upon his brown breast. He accepted it with a grimace as good-humored as his fencing, but his opponent was unwise enough to let fly a cry of triumph. Alrek's expression changed. The next time the Greenlander made use of that thrust, his blade was met with a force that jarred his arm to the shoulder. Under the hurt of it, he struck spitefully. Alrek answered in kind. Slowly, the even beat gave way to jerks of short sharp clatter, separated by pauses during which the two worked around each other with squaring mouths and kindling eyes.

With the beginning of the clatter, a short old man called Grimkel One-Eye and a long young man known as Hjalmar Thick-Skull, sitting at chess behind the mast, had put down their pieces to listen. Now, the discord continuing, old Grimkel left his place and strolled forward to the forecastle steps. Spying blood spots on the Greenlander's white shoulders, he made Alrek of Norway a sign of warning. But the Viking boy did not even see him.

Over the spectators such stillness had fallen that the scuffle and slap of the bare feet upon the boards sounded with sickening distinctness. The in-drawn breaths made a hiss when, more swiftly than eye could follow, Alrek's blade described a new curve which the other's sword could not meet.

To save himself from being spitted, the Greenlander was forced to leap backward. Leaping, his back came against the gunwale with a crash which told that further retreat would be impossible. From the watchers burst a cry, but no recollection relaxed the terrible intentness of the young Viking's eyes as a second time he drew back his arm to speed that lightning stroke. The Red One's rashness would have been his bane if the old man had not sprung upon the deck and caught Alrek's elbow.

"Do you remember that you are playing?" he growled.

If he needed an answer he had it in the savage force with which the boy tore himself free, and the fierceness with which he whirled, before the meaning of the words came home to him so that he lowered his point.

"You guess well," he muttered. "I had altogether forgotten." Half angrily he turned back to the Greenlander. "Why, in the Fiend's name, did you not remind me?"

Though much blood from his scratches was on the Red One's body and little was in his cheeks, he still tried to swagger. "I am no coward," he proclaimed. But on the last word his voice broke so hysterically that Grimkel thought it the part of kindness to interfere, and did so, his kindness masking as usual under gruff severity.

"You are a fool, which is worse," the old man snapped, pushing him roughly down the steps, while with his head he motioned those below to disperse. "Go put on sense with your clothes. Get dressed, all of you. If you do not do as I tell you, you will feel it." When he had shaken his fist at them once or twice and finally seen himself obeyed, he turned back where Alrek stood drying his weapon on a cloak he had thrown around him. "You! Listen! I have a warning I want to speak to you."

"You would do better to warn the Red-Head against stirring me up again," the young Viking returned, still half angrily; but the One-Eyed heard him as a rock hears a wave-splash.

"Before now, I have reminded you that your father was an outlaw--"

"That you have!" Alrek assented. "Six times have I heard the tale since I touched Greenland, though I lived eight years in the camps without hearing it once! In Norway, men remember only that my father was the bravest of the Earl's Vikings."

"In Iceland, they remember that before he became a Viking he was an outlaw," the old man went on imperturbably, "and so like your father are you in looks that every eye is watching to find his unruliness in you. Now what I would tell you is that if you do not bridle this Viking fierceness, you will ruin yourself with Karlsefne."

The boy uttered a sudden short laugh. "Is it possible that I could get less honor with him?" he jeered; and polished awhile in tight-lipped silence. At last he straightened to meet the other's gaze and his eyes showed fire, while his voice was deep with resentment. "I am Karlsefne's brother's son, but I get less praise from him than his thralls. He notices his dogs more often than he notices me. It is difficult to know what he expects of me. I believe that he hated my father."

Grimkel rubbed his bristly chin upon his palm. "It cannot be said that Karlsefne has a fondness for outlaws. So great is his love for the law that he was called 'the Lawman' before ever the chiefs who came with him on this expedition chose him to be over-chief in Vinland. Yet neither can it be said that he hated his brother. While they were young their love was great toward each other; and when Ingolf, your father, broke the Iceland law, Karlsefne gave half his property to pay the fine. And when Ingolf died, Karlsefne brought you into his following--"

"Where he shows every day that he holds me in dishonor for being his brother's son," Alrek finished.

The old man spat over the gunwale with explosive impatience. "Simpleton! He holds you neither in honor nor dishonor-yet. He but waits to see which you will earn."

Slowly, understanding dawned in the boy's face; turning away he stood kicking at a pile of walrus-hide thongs coiled on the deck before him.

Grimkel concluded his plea earnestly; "You cannot say that this is unfair. It lies with you to take whichever you want. For my part, I believe that you will do him credit in every respect. It is because I believe this, and because I loved your father in the days when he was your height and I taught him spear-throwing, that I speak."

After a while, Alrek said gravely, "I take it as very friendly of you."

He said nothing further, finishing his rubbing in silence and in silence descending the steps, but his advice-giver needed no more than one eye to see that at last he understood the difficulties of his position.

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