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   Chapter 3 RELATING HOW ONE WAS FOUND ON THE CAPE OF THE CROSSES

The Thrall of Leif the Lucky: A Story of Viking Days By Ottilie A. Liljencrantz Characters: 12277

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


A means to while away a long evening,-that was how the pair looked upon the trip as they rowed away from the ship's stem while the crew chatted over their ale horns in the torchlight of the stern. Dreamily enjoying the boat's motion and the rhythm of their oars, they swung through the dusk in contented silence; and only once did their thoughts reach the point of speech.

"He is knowing in all kinds of weird matters, your countryman the Huntsman," Alrek said, reminiscently. "Do you remember the time that he was lost in the unsettled places south of here, and, after looking for him far and wide, we found him lying flat upon a rock, mumbling at the sky? He said he was making stanzas to Thor, and that it was an answer when a whale came ashore the next day--"

"If that is the cheer which Thor has to offer, may I never eat at his house!" Gard grunted. "So starved was I that I ate a piece the size of my head, and-excepting the time of my first storm at sea-it has never happened to me before to be so sick! If Thor gives the Huntsman no better help where he is now, it is likely to go hard with him. It is said that the south country is more full of Skraellings than a goat of fleas. He was a headstrong fool to go there with no more than three men and one small boat."

Alrek lifted his shoulders indifferently. "If he never comes back, the sea will be no salter for my tears," he answered; and relapsed into silence which was not broken until their nearness to land obliged him to ask a question about the steering.

If there was a moon, it had stayed sulking somewhere behind something, leaving the world in a dusk which was equally far from light and from darkness. Through the gloom they had been able to steal off with the boat in chuckling security; now its glimmer was still sufficient to guide them to a landing-place upon the pebble-strewn sand, which ran like a shelf around the base of the seaward hill. Beaching their boat they clambered up the slope, tripping more than once over the fist-big stones which studded it, before they entered breathless and laughing into the grove that crowned the crest.

"Who cares about seeing, so long as he can feel earth under him!" Gard cried. And all at once he had dropped upon the leaf-covered ground and was rolling over and over like a horse just freed from a tight girth, while Alrek stretched his cramped muscles in a somersault.

Something in the fragrance of the damp leaf-mold seemed to intoxicate them. Presently, both were whirling on their hands; and from that they went to jumping, and from jumping to wrestling. The shadows had grown a finger's length before they sank down to get their breath.

As the grove was nowhere very thick and the sea gale had winnowed the leaves, they had not looked about them long before they made out the objects which gave the Cape its name,-the two rude crosses of dead bleached wood rising in the center of an open space by the sea. Around it, fanlike pine-boughs swayed heavily, and that was all there was of motion; and the only sound that broke its stillness was the splash of waves on the sand below. Between the Crosses, a low mound rounded black against the gray water. Their hearts gave a little throb as they distinguished it-Thorwald's grave! Amid a chattering throng out in the sunlight, those words had not conveyed much; but here-here they took on meaning. Rising silently, the lads groped their way between the pines until they stood beside it.

Into Gard's voice there came a note of awe. "Thorwald said this cape looked to be a fine place to live in; I wonder how he likes it to be dead here? Strangely still must it seem to him after the battle-din of his life! And strange feelings must have been in his men's minds when they sailed away and left him here, the only white man on this side of the ocean."

"He must have found it lonesome to lie here by himself for four winters," Alrek said very gently. "Surely, if he hears our voices, his heart must welcome the sound. I tell you, Gard, I think I should not be sorry if we found him sitting on his grave when we came back at midnight. If we should tell him that we are his comrades' sons and relate to him all the news, it may well be that he--"

Gard's hand fell on his arm. "Hush!" he entreated. "I do not care what any one says on shipboard, but here-! Suppose he should be listening and take you at your word! Brand says that sooner than go into a witch's den as Leif's Englishman did, he would allow his arm to be hewn off,-and a witch's temper is more to be depended upon than the temper of a dead man. I am not eager to grasp his bony hand, if you are. Let us go down to the beach-But first, I want to find that knife I dropped. Will you feel around that bush-clump where I came down at the last leap, while I look over the slope where I stumbled?"

"Certainly," Alrek consented; and picked his way over the uneven ground to the spot where a clump of sumacs fringed the edge of the hill-crown as it sloped down to the beach. Just before he stooped to feel for the knife, however, he paused to look around.

Seaward, on his left, shone the far-away torches of the ship, a streak of brightness on the gray. Below him stretched the beach, its farther end lost in the looming shadow of a tree-crowned hill-he blinked and leaned forward and blinked again. Out of that shadow, a light had seemed to open on him like an eye! It did not come from the ship; he glanced over his shoulder to reassure himself. It came from the hill across the beach, a dim unwinking eye which up to this time some obstacle had hidden.

For an instant he thought of ghost-fires, and cold trickled down his spine; then came a recollection that smote every nerve like a cry,-the Skraellings! Some had been trapped and had not yet escaped, and it was going to fall to him to get sight of them! To succeed where all the rest had failed! To be the one to give Karlsefne the information he wanted! What wonder that all recollection of the knife-even of Gard-was wiped off his brain like breath-mist off a shield; that he was obliged to press his nails deep into his f

lesh to get a grip on his excitement!

"I shall wreck the chance if I go about it hotly," he admonished himself. "It was Karlsefne's strong command that we do nothing to offend them. I must steer it so that I see them without their seeing me,-and it is unadvisable to be too slow in acting, either, or they will have made their escape!" He put his body in motion even while his mind was debating, but it did not render him less cautious. He did not let a finger of him stray beyond the shadow of the pines, nor did he venture upon the beach until he saw his way clear before him.

The only objects that offered shelter were the low hummocks, crested with tufts of wiry grass, that stretched in a broken chain between the heights. From link to link of this he crawled, unobtrusive as a serpent; and when the links were wanting and gaps of glimmering sand lay before him, he ran crouching with the light swiftness of a fox, holding his breath in expectation of arrows hissing about his ears. None came, however, and at last the shadow of the second knoll and its spreading tree-crown fell over him like a canopy. There he paused to listen.

Once, an owl wailed tremulously from a distant tree; and once, it seemed to him that he heard brush crackle as under a stealthy tread; then all was silence and the swish of breaking waves. Laying hold of a gnarled root that reached down like a writhen arm, he drew himself noiselessly up the slope. Where it flattened to the crest, a clump of sassafras shoots made a fragrant screen. When he had listened and found the quiet still unbroken, he ventured to peer between the sprouts.

So long did he remain there without moving that the insects he had startled began walking over him in restored confidence. The little nook was empty. Except the patch of embers and a litter of clam shells, there was no sign to prove that living things had ever been there. As a final test, he hung his helmet upon his sword and showed it cautiously above the bushes, and the decoy drew no arrows from the thicket beyond the fire; the spot appeared to be genuinely deserted.

It is not too much to say that his disappointment brought him near to tears. "They must have run away as soon as darkness fell," he muttered. And pushing into the open, he sent the shells flying before a savage kick. "What Troll's luck!"

As the words left his lips, the flying shells uncovered a peculiar bowl-shaped basket woven of reeds. He stooped to it curiously; then, even as his fingers closed on the rim, he took another step forward, staring at the bushes that hedged the further side of the open space.

"It appears that some one has plunged through here in a hurry," he told himself. "The branches are bent as if-Odin!"

There was no need of finishing his thought. His eyes had the answer before them, a shaggy figure crouching among the bushes, so motionless that it might have passed for one of them. An instant he also stood motionless, staring back at the eyes that he could feel without seeing; then Viking training flashed two thoughts to his brain,-that the creature was aiming at him from the darkness, and that he must lose no time in advancing. Clutching his sword-hilt, he sprang forward.

After that there was no chance for reflection. For a second the blade stuck; and in the delay a copper-colored arm shot out and fastened on his wrist, while the other copper-colored arm brandished a stone hatchet over his head. With his left hand he caught that arm and held it off; and they swayed, panting, in the firelight that gave him his first glimpse of the foe all sailors yarned about,-the bristling black hair and wide-rimmed beast-bright eyes, and the skin of unearthly hue showing under the animal hides of the covering. Under the copper-colored skin, the muscles were like copper wire. Strong as he was, Alrek could not twist aside that wrist above his head. He gave up trying, presently, and limited his efforts to freeing his sword-arm. Putting all his force into the wrench, he succeeded at last in loosing it and shooting forth his weapon-and that was all that he had to do! At the bare sight of it, darting glittering from its sheath like lightning from a cloud, the Skraelling uttered a yell of terror, dropped the hatchet from his hand and his hands from their hold, and flung himself backward into the darkness. There was a crackling of brush, the spat of bare feet upon sand, and then-silence.

Gradually the Sword-Bearer's amazement gave way to amusement. "He thought it was magic,-here is a joke of the Fates!" he breathed. "If Thorwald had but shown them steel, it is likely that he could have put the whole host to flight! Never could I have wrested the hatchet from him. Now it is likely that my kinswoman Gudrid will open her eyes when I show her this!" Bending over the embers, he examined the weapon with deep interest; the edge was knife-sharp. "It would have cleft me as if it cut cheese!" he muttered; and was laughing in somewhat unsteady congratulation when the sound of feet scrambling up the slope straightened him to greet Gard.

For a space the Ugly One stared about him, blinking in the firelight; then the eagerness of his swarthy face gave way to bitterest reproach.

"You scared them away before I had a chance to see them?" he cried. "Slipped away, because my back was turned, and got all the sport for yourself? Never would I have believed it of you! Never--"

Alrek threw up his hands in honest compunction. "Gard, I beg of you to forgive me! It is the truth that when I saw the light, I forgot that you were alive. And I feared the Skraellings would get away before I could see them. I intended only to creep up and look, without-" He broke off and stood with his mouth open, staring at the other.

Involuntarily, Gard whirled to dart a glance over his shoulder; and finding nothing, cried out, sharply; "What ails you? Have you got out of your wits?"

Alrek regained his self-control with a short laugh. "I think I have," he answered. "Do you know another thing besides yourself that I forgot? I forgot Karlsefne's command to keep the peace."

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