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   Chapter 6 ABOUT THE STRANGE FIND ON KEEL CAPE

The Thrall of Leif the Lucky: A Story of Viking Days By Ottilie A. Liljencrantz Characters: 14276

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


"I would give much if he had not died until he had told us how he came hither," Gard remarked, presently.

"And what he was employing himself about in the north of Vinland when he set out to explore the country south of it!" Brand cried; while the Glib One added:

"Yes, and how it went with Hallad and the others he had with him!"

Then they became aware that Erlend's handsome brown face-three shades browner than his hair-was turned toward them in reproach. "It may be that Alrek will get the belief that a Greenlander's loyalty to his countrymen is somewhat shallow," he suggested.

In those days, disloyalty to a comrade was held a contemptible thing. Two of the three reddened; and Brand bent his tongue to apology.

"He knows that we care as much as any one. Eric of Brattahlid had the Huntsman for his steward, because they found pleasure in talking evil together about Christianity; but that was all the friend I ever heard of his having. It is understood that we will do him the favor to bury him, however."

Gard the Practical rubbed his ear. "That will not be easy unless we carry him far inland," he said. "If I am not much mistaken, this sand will move about like snow,-and I have heard that if dead men come uncovered and sleep cold, they are wont to get up and walk around to warm themselves."

A dozen of them crossed themselves involuntarily; and the Strong One squared his magnificent shoulders.

"Quickly will I proclaim my choice to carry him to the bay!"

"That would best be left unsaid until we see how heavy he is," Alrek advised. "Raise his other shoulder, Domar, and let us see how-One thing is that he is not yet stiff. Wait! What is this on his neck?" With his finger, he followed a cord running from the grizzled beard across the motionless breast to lose itself in the shelter of the rigidly clasped hands. "It is a deerskin bag."

"I know he did not have it on when he went south!" Harald Grettirsson cried, excitedly.

And a chorus added; "Here is something of importance!"-"Something of value!" "To think of it then-" "Yes, to grasp it when he was drowning!"

Sitting back on his heels, Alrek gazed down at the figure curiously. "He has grasped the bag too close to move, but it would be possible to pry a finger into the top and see what is inside,-if you would allow it? He is your countryman." He glanced inquiringly at them as they stooped around him, their hands grasping their knees.

The Greenlanders looked down at him; then around at one another; then Brand spoke under his breath; "If you dare--"

"Dare?" Alrek's mouth curved disdainfully. Picking out the cord-ends from between the chill palms, he undid the knot that fastened the mouth of the bag and inserted a thumb and forefinger. "A chain," he said as they closed upon something; then, as they began to draw it out, "What a chain!"

All echoed him: "What a chain!"

For it was of shining gold, set here and there with a rough-cut gem; while its girth was that of his largest finger, and it unfolded itself coil after coil to the length of his arm. What a keepsake to bring out of a waste peopled only by wild men! Devouring it with hungry eyes, they drew closer; and Rane Thin-Nose put out a hand to feel of it, at the same time sending an apologetic glance toward the rigid face.

As he did so, the drawn eyelids rose slowly and silently as curtains; and the Huntsman's small evil eyes looked back at him. Rane's hand was withdrawn as though it had encountered fire; and the circle fell back, screaming. Even the Sword-Bearer was startled enough to drop the chain, as the eyes rolled in his direction and remained turned on him in a baleful glare.

Through the blue lips came a voice, so faint that it seemed to be one of the smothered voices which cry through the roar of the surf; "You would rob me?"

At that the circle rallied indignantly, shouting, "We would not!" "It was our intention-" "You need not reproach us for-" "We thought--"

"Put it back."

Alrek hesitated, his face coloring with resentment. Then he asked himself of what use it was to argue with a piece of driftwood, and gave up justification with a shrug. While the rest spent their breath wrathfully, he complied in silence. When the last knot was tied-and not before-the eyes left him to roll around the circle.

"Swear-" the voice said faintly.

Before the glare they shrank in spite of themselves, fluttering like birds around a snake; until Erlend said, with quiet haughtiness:

"There is no need for us to swear that we will not rob you."

The voice was so faint that they barely made out the words; "Swear-to keep it secret. On the edge of your blades!"

"I suppose he has the right to ask it," Erlend gave judgment after a while. "It was his secret and we thrust ourselves in. It seems to me that it is his right?" He looked at the Sword-Bearer with questioning eyebrows.

No one ever disputed the decisions of the Amiable One in matters of honor. Alrek answered by unsheathing his sword, with another shrug of his shoulders.

Drawing each a knife from his belt, they grasped them by the blades so that the sharp edges cut red grooves in their bare palms. Holding the knives aloft thus, they spoke the oath together; the Huntsman's eyes telling them off, one by one. When he had come to the last-little Olaf the Fair twisting his face to keep back tears of pain-his eyes stopped and settled slowly into their unwinking stare; but that they were less dull than fish-eyes, his stark figure would have differed little from the myriad fish bodies strewed upon the sand.

Though they rattled their weapons blusteringly in putting them up, a kind of panic chill crept over the band. The stare was so awful in its dumb evilness; and the scene was so weirdly desolate,-the stretch of bleak sky, the sweep of naked shore, and the breakers' unending boom out of which stifled voices seemed trying vainly to call. The lad who was called the Hare-alike for fleetness and for timidity-voiced the feeling in a quavering outburst:

"Let us leave him! I do not believe he is alive at all. I believe a troll hides in him and uses his mouth to speak with. I know evil will come of this. Let us leave him." He plucked nervously at Alrek's coat. "Come on!"

Alrek was strung high enough to be irritated by the clutch. "Keep off!" he ordered, jerking himself free. "It is no lie about you that you are cowardly, if you would desert a shipmate!" Then regaining possession of his cloak, he regained possession of his temper, and spoke quietly; "If we get some big branches and make a litter with our mantles, it will not be difficult to get him to the bay. It seemed to me that you were all eager in having him alive to tell you news?"

If it had not been for that hope, it is doubtful if the twenty would have toiled to bring such a burden over the sand-hills; and it is certain that the sailors had this end in view as they rubbed the Huntsman's limbs and poured ale down his throat. Had they been polishing a knife or oiling a lock, they could scarcely have been more business-like or less tender.

"As soon as

he gets strength to talk he should be able to tell tidings worth hearing," they said to one another when at last they left him rolled in skins and went about their preparations for returning to the ship, a rift having come in the gray toward the west.

The main difference between their attitude and that of their juniors was that they felt merely dislike for the Huntsman, while for the one-and-twenty he had the fascination of fear. To them, his eyes were twin demons keeping guard from their cave doors over the treasure bag below. It is safe to say that they never lost him out of their minds through all the bustle of going on board and resettling themselves, as they awaited a surer sign of the Storm King's reformation.

With the sunset, the rift in the gray widened. Thrym, the giant who herds the clouds, drove the hulking masses northward, lagging from their own weight. In the clearing west, the sun dropped golden behind a jagged bar; and while the rosy glory of it was still in the southern sky, the moon looked out of the east. To a rousing cheer, the Wind-Raven shook out her storm-beaten plumage and skimmed away over the silvering waves. The change was so grateful that Alrek was able to shake off depression one time more; while the loungers on the benches were noisy with satisfaction.

"Never was there a better time to experience the Wonderstrands!" they jubilated afresh, as the curving stretch of shining dunes pushed itself into their vision.

Passing that curve was little less than an experience; for the bend of the shore made it ever appear as though a cape lay just ahead, yet the cape ever receded as they approached, a flying point that could never be caught.

"Certainly it makes the world seem a place of strange wonders!" Faste the Fat marveled, when they had sat a long time watching it in silent fascination. "It makes one curious about everything. If the Huntsman would only speak now and tell us what he has seen, this would be a good time to amuse ourselves with a tale."

"How do you know that he has seen anything?" sneered a harsh voice-harsh for all its faintness-from the pile of skins upon the forecastle.

They wheeled so eagerly that the ship rocked under them. "Are you ready to tell the tidings you have seen?" "Will you tell us about-?" "Tell about the south country, Huntsman." "Did you see any Skraellings?" "No, tell us first how you came here-" "Yes, your adventure-" "Yes, yes!" "We beg of you-" "Go on! Go on!"

They were all speaking at once now, boys and men, and their greed proved their downfall. For, the clamor reaching the helmsman on the after-deck, he descended with unusual agility and waddled toward them.

"If you are going to talk to any one, you talk to me, your chief," he commanded; "and tell me what you have done with the boat and the men I lent you."

The Huntsman's manners gained little at sight of his superior. "I do not see that I have done anything with them," he answered sullenly, "because the boat went to pieces on a sand-bar and Rann drew Svipdag and Black Thord down to her. It is seen that I saved you the best man of the three."

"Four men were in the boat when you started out on that foolish trip," the helmsman caught him up. "Biorn's foster-son is worth speaking about; what have you done with him?"

The blood settled in the Huntsman's sunken cheeks as water in a hollow. "Is the boy of so much importance that I must carve his rune on a separate stick?" he snarled. "What else could he be than drowned? Is it likely that Valkyrias came down for him? I think you are a fool. If Freydis, Eric's daughter, had not married you for your wealth and sent you out here after more, you would never have had manhood to set foot on a ship. You my chief! You can think what you like; I will not answer you another word." He flung himself over on his face in one of the black sulks no man had ever yet sounded; his officer's threats might as well have been addressed to the mast.

At last the fat helmsman was forced to pause to take in breath, standing puffing and glaring and tugging at his belt. And it was this unpropitious moment which his roving eyes took to remind him of Alrek's existence. The Sword-Bearer felt the gaze when it fell, and shut one eye in an expressive wink at Brand; nor were his forebodings without foundation.

The helmsman let his recovered breath go from him in a snort. "You! What are you doing here? Did I not order that you should be shut up for the rest of the voyage?"

Alrek unclosed his eye to gaze out of the pair in respectful surprise. "I?" he inquired. "Was it not your intention to free me when you ordered all hands to the oars?"

Before the Weathercock found adequate words he had stamped three times in uncouth capers of rage; when he did find them, however, they came with such force that they burst the buckle off his belt.

"Go back!" he wound up in a bellow. "Go back, and do not dare come forth again until I haul you before Karlsefne. If I were your chief, I would hang you!"

For once, exasperation got the better of Alrek's soldier training. He looked the fat figure up and down as he arose. "You would not need to take the trouble," he retorted. "If you were my chief, I would hang myself."

He heard applauding laughter from his mates as he walked away, simultaneously with a roar from the helmsman, and after that a confusion of sounds; but his mind was too full of bitterness to leave any room for curiosity. It roused him with a start when the solitude in which Fat Faste was reinstalling him was disturbed by a second consignment of captives,-Brand with torn clothes and flashing eyes; at his heels, little Olaf striving to quench a bleeding nose as he panted with unquenched partizanship; back of him Gard the Ugly, made uglier by a swollen lip; and behind the three, Strong Domar, a purple lump on his forehead and breathless delight in his voice as he shouted the explanation over the others' heads:

"I knocked him down, Alrek, as sure as I stand here! He tried to cuff Brand for laughing at you, and I laid him flat before Lodin could lay hold of me,-and he will have to come before Karlsefne with a black eye! Think of it!"

Apparently Alrek did think of it, for he stared for the space of a minute before he spoke. "You struck your chief!" he repeated at last.

The Strong One chortled with relish. "And blacked his eye! It will be shut tight, I know it will,-and he thinks so much about making a fine appearance before the Lawman! And maybe his nose will swell also, and-" He broke off abruptly as the meaning of Alrek's expression came home to him; and his freckled face reddened. "Now I forgot that you are soldier-bred. I suppose that in the Earl's camp they would not call it a jest to knock down a chief?"

The Sword-Bearer leaned back on his bale of fur with a long-drawn yawn. "They would not be likely to call it anything," he said drily, "for it could not happen there at all."

As he said nothing more in congratulation, it was rather a sulky group that the torches left to darkness when the last walrus-hide knot was tied.

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