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The Thrall of Leif the Lucky: A Story of Viking Days By Ottilie A. Liljencrantz Characters: 10635

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

A stooping black shape against the sunshine, Hjalmar Thick-Skull came through the doorway and began to paw over bales and boxes in search of extra oars.

"Your luck is great, young one," he remarked. "You would not be sitting quiet if you were outside. Perhaps you think, because you see sun through the door, that the whole sky is like that; but you should see the clouds ahead of us! The only thing equally black is the Weathercock's face since he finds that he must put into the Keel harbor after all. And on top of it the wind has failed, and he has commanded all hands to the oars--"

Rising to his fettered feet, Alrek held out his bound hands. "Here are mine! Take your knife to the knots."

The Thick-Skulled gaped over his shoulder. "Why-why-he did not mean you."

"Have I not hands?" the Sword-Bearer demanded. "With a troll's strength in them this morning! Certainly he meant me."

He strove to speak carelessly while his fingers were twitching, but some breathlessness must have betrayed him. Scratching his tow mane and staring as he scratched, Hjalmar began slowly to grin. After a little, Alrek laughed also and spoke in frank appeal:

"Do me this good turn, shipmate, that I may stretch myself some while. If he did not mean me, yet might you easily have mistaken him. You can tell him so when he makes a fuss,-it is not likely that he will notice me until the storm is over. You know it is a saying that 'the wolf allays the strife of the swine.'"

After a while, the Thick-Skulled stooped, grinning, and laid his knife against the thongs. "Behold what a good thing it is to have a reputation for dulness!" he said. "But see to it that you bear me out by giving good service at the oar."

The Sword-Bearer stretched his arms with a sigh of relief. "Only let me get at it!" he breathed, and plunged into the air like a fish into the water.

True enough! Though sunshine lay bright on the Wind-Raven's decks and blue sky was above her, before her-like the entrance to another world-sagged a canopy of slate-colored clouds. Swollen with rain, they hung low over the shore-line of forest and dune and darkened all the distant water save where, here and there, streaks of white gleamed like monsters' bared teeth. Full of ominous warning was the calm that had fallen on land and sea, robbing the sail so that it hung like a live thing gasping for breath.

"If he did not put into the harbor he would be likely to share the fate of Thorwald Ericsson, and be cast ashore in the same place, and likewise with a broken keel," Alrek commented after a look at the sky; then laid hold of his oar and bent himself almost to the bottom of the boat in the relief of spending his energy.

Perhaps his appreciation of a small favor touched the Fates in their woman hearts, for presently they extended it. When the Wind-Raven's brood had brought her safely behind the wooded bar that lay across the harbor mouth like a screen in front of a door, the helmsman gave out word that since they were plainly storm-bound for the night, at least, they would not deny themselves the comfort of a camp on land, but would proceed immediately ashore. Ashore! the Sword-Bearer could scarcely believe his good fortune, until Brand dared to lean over and poke him in congratulation.

"I knew the Old One would take care not to have his fat jolted," he whispered; "and he can not leave you behind. Your luck will last until we come back again."

"Until we come back again!" Alrek repeated as though it were a toast, and threw himself resolutely into the work of the hour.

There was field for action. They had barely reached the shore and found refuge in a hollow below a wooded knoll when the tempest burst upon them, rushing through the forest with a swelling roar that rose above the thunder of the breakers. After that every minute of the day was a battle-a fight over the tent canvas which the wind threatened to pick up and carry off like a kerchief with all of them hanging to it in a fringe; a skirmish for fuel through forests into which sand from the dunes beyond was rushing like yellow swarms with biting mouths; a contest over the fire, blown out or struck out with lances of glittering rain; a struggle to hear or be heard through the thundering downpour, to see the very food in their hands through the suddenly fallen darkness-a battle between giants and pygmies!

Exhausted yet exhilarated, as after a day at the sword-game, the band fell over from eating to sleeping. When the lightning tore apart the darkness and disclosed the deserted ship reeling in terror upon the twisting black water, they only laughed and burrowed deeper, falling asleep to the thunder of breakers booming along the shore as to a lullaby from a mother's lips.

The ocean was still booming when they awoke, late the next day, and the wind was still blustering in the tree tops. The leader, with his mind reaching out toward Vinland fires and Vinland fare, cursed peevishly; but the juniors of his following greeted the delay with open rejoicing.

"Here is our chance to see the land!" Brand cried, shaking out his ruddy locks like fiery banners. "Let us take it before anything gets it away from us. I will wager a ring that I will beat any one to the top of this steep!"

So promptly did they respond that

although he won his wager, the next boy was only a step behind; and none of the twenty was more than a pace in the rear. Once on the crest, they streamed, whooping, into the grove of oak and pine and sassafras which they had seen from the water, lying along the bay shore like a ragged rich-hued mat.

Raggedness showed more plainly than richness, upon a nearer approach, though nothing could take away the beauty of coloring where pines spread their ever-living green over the windy crests and the oak trees on the slopes had turned yellow and russet and red without losing a leaf. But it was no such forest as Vinland boasted; compared with Vinland trees the growth was stunted and there was not enough underbrush to give it even the wildness of a thicket,-only tangles of rose briar and berry bramble where the ridges sank into hollows cupping reed-fringed ponds. Perhaps the best that could be said for it was that its endless undulations kept curiosity awake. Passing over them was like breasting billows; one gained a height only to behold another deep.

After a while, it stirred Alrek to restlessness. When it was suggested that they should stop at one of the ponds for a duck hunt, he objected.

"Who knows what the next ridge may be hiding?" he said obstinately. "Let us find out first what lies before us."

"What but the ocean?" Erlend asked in surprise. "That can not be far away now; the sand wastes between the trees are getting much wider."

But Alrek was already moving on, dealing blows of his hatchet at the trees on either side of him. "Do as you like," he answered over his shoulder. "I shall not stop until I come to the end."

Erlend sent him a glance of surprise; but the others had caught the fever of his mood so that they dashed after him in a cheering charge.

Their run did not keep up long, however, for the walking was momently becoming harder. In the next hollow the pond had been smothered beneath a sand blanket, and the bushes were strangling in sand. In the next there were no bushes at all, only mats and tufts of wiry grass. On the slopes the trees became fewer, the sand piled between them like drifted snow; in one place it had buried a clump so that only their tops showed, bush-like, above the creamy surface.

"There you can see what kind of place this would be to set up a landmark," Njal of Greenland observed, pointing at them. "In twenty years more it is likely the whole forest will be covered and the man who comes then will say that we lied because we told of trees being here. I doubt if we would be able to find much of the keel that Thorwald set up--"

"Then do not let us spend time looking for it," Alrek finished. And so completely had his mood taken possession of them, that they consented without argument; plodding on doggedly over the dunes that had become like yellow snow-banks, bare of a single tree, rounding in absolute baldness against the gray of the sky.

Gradually, feverish expectancy grew in them all. It was as though the vast shifting mass were a living monster, whose depredations they had seen, whose lair they were now approaching. They stopped in a hushed group when the last dune revealed the beach sweeping down to the water. The scarred and furrowed ocean was another monster, still growling and showing his tusks at the wind giant.

Northward, the ocean was all they saw. Westward, they saw it over a yellow waste as the dunes sloped down to the Cape point. Southward, lay the land over which they had come; beyond it, the bay in which their ship rode at anchor. Eastward, unbroken drifts, unspotted beach-their silence ended in a cry:

"Yonder! Yonder is something washed ashore!"

All saw it, so plainly did it show against the sand,-something dark and motionless which the waves had flung up there out of their way. So large did it loom in the strange light that, as they went plunging and floundering toward it, some declared it to be a whale; and others, an overturned boat.

Neither sound nor motion was on his blue lips.

But the light on the Wonderstrand is a wondrous light. When they had raced over some hundred yards of beach, the dark object-instead of growing larger-dwindled suddenly from whale size and boat size to the size of a human body. Involuntarily, they slackened their pace and a whisper went around: "It is one of the Skraellings, overtaken by the storm!"

Only Alrek shook his head and pressed forward. "That is no animal hide wrapping him," he said.

A dozen yards more brought him to the side of the stark form; he bent over it-and remained bent as though petrified with astonishment. When the others had reached him and looked, their voices went from them in a cry of amazement:

"The Huntsman!"

And the Huntsman's gigantic figure it was, sea-drenched and wave-battered, kelp snarled about his feet, starfish tangled in his hair. As he had lain upon the rock that winter day, so he lay here upon the sand,-flat on his back with his hands clasped over his breast; though now his eyes were closed, and neither sound nor motion was on his blue lips.

Doubting their senses, the explorers stared at him and then up and down the shore. Never was scene more yawningly empty; between the sweep of sand and the stretch of water he lay as though fallen from the sky.

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