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- The Wanderer's Necklace - 3/53 -
"How do you know that?" asked Ragnar.
"Because I saw the slot of the second as we passed the birch wood yonder. It has a split claw on the left forefoot and the others are all worn by the ice."
"Then why in Odin's name did you not say so before?" exclaimed Ragnar angrily.
Now I was ashamed to confess that I had been dreaming, so I answered at hazard:
"Because I wished to look upon the sea and the floating ice. See what wondrous colours they take in this light!"
When he heard this, Steinar burst out laughing till tears came into his blue eyes and his broad shoulders shook. But Ragnar, who cared nothing for scenery or sunsets, did not laugh. On the contrary, as was usual with him when vexed, he lost his temper and swore by the more evil of the gods. Then he turned on me and said:
"Why not tell the truth at once, Olaf? You are afraid of this beast, and that's why you let us come on here when you knew it was in the wood. You hoped that before we got back there it would be too dark to hunt."
At this taunt I flushed and gripped the shaft of my long hunting spear, for among us Northmen to be told that he was afraid of anything was a deadly insult to a man.
"If you were not my brother----" I began, then checked myself, for I was by nature easy-tempered, and went on: "It is true, Ragnar, I am not so fond of hunting as you are. Still, I think that there will be time to fight this bear and kill or be killed by it, before it grows dark, and if not I will return alone to-morrow morning."
Then I pulled my horse round and rode ahead. As I went, my ears being very quick, I heard the other two talking together. At least, I suppose that I heard them; at any rate, I know what they said, although, strangely enough, nothing at all comes back to me of their tale of an attack upon a ship or of what then I did or did not do.
"It is not wise to jeer at Olaf," said Steinar, "for when he is stung with words he does mad things. Don't you remember what happened when your father called him 'niddering' last year because Olaf said it was not just to attack the ship of those British men who had been driven to our coast by weather, meaning us no harm?"
"Aye," answered Ragnar. "He leapt among them all alone as soon as our boat touched her side, and felled the steersman. Then the British men shouted out that they would not kill so brave a lad, and threw him into the sea. It cost us that ship, since by the time we had picked him up she had put about and hoisted her large sail. Oh, Olaf is brave enough, we all know that! Still, he ought to have been born a woman or a priest of Freya who only offers flowers. Also, he knows my tongue and bears no malice."
"Pray that we get him home safe," said Steinar uneasily, "for if not there will be trouble with your mother and every other woman in the land, to say nothing of Iduna the Fair."
"Iduna the Fair would live through it," answered Ragnar, with a hard laugh. "But you are right; and, what is more, there will be trouble among the men also, especially with my father and in my own heart. After all there is but one Olaf."
At this moment I held up my hand, and they stopped talking.
THE SLAYING OF THE BEAR
Leaping from their horses, Ragnar and Steinar came to where I stood, for already I had dismounted and was pointing to the ground, which just here had been swept clear of snow by the wind.
"I see nothing," said Ragnar.
"But I do, brother," I answered; "who study the ways of wild things while you think I am asleep. Look, that moss has been turned over; for it is frozen underneath and pressed up into little mounds between the bear's claws. Also that tiny pool has gathered in the slot of the paw; it is its very shape. The other footprints do not show because of the rock."
Then I went forward a few paces behind some bushes and called out: "Here runs the track, sure enough, and, as I thought, the brute has a split claw; the snow marks it well. Bid the thrall stay with the horses and come you."
They obeyed, and there on the white snow which lay beyond the bush we saw the track of the bear stamped as if in wax.
"A mighty beast," said Ragnar. "Never have I seen its like."
"Aye," exclaimed Steinar, "but an ill place to hunt it in," and he looked doubtfully at the rough gorge, covered with undergrowth, that some hundred yards farther on became dense birch forest. "I think it would be well to ride back to Aar, and return to-morrow morning with all whom we can gather. This is no task for three spears."
By this time I, Olaf, was springing from rock to rock up the gorge, following the bear's track. For my brother's taunts rankled in me and I was determined that I should kill this beast or die and thus show Ragnar that I feared no bear. So I called back to them over my shoulder:
"Aye, go home, it is wisest; but I go on for I have never yet seen one of these white ice-bears alive."
"Now it is Olaf who taunts in his turn," said Ragnar with a laugh. Then they both sprang after me, but always I kept ahead of them.
For the half of a mile or more they followed me out of the scrub into the birch forest, where the snow, lying on the matted boughs of the trees and especially of some firs that were mingled with the birch, made the place gloomy in that low light. Always in front of me ran the huge slots of the bear till at length they brought me to a little forest glade, where some great whirling wind had torn up many trees which had but a poor root-hold on a patch of almost soilless rock.
These trees lay in confusion, their tops, which had not yet rotted, being filled with frozen snow. On the edge of them I paused, having lost the track. Then I went forward again, casting wide as a hound does, while behind came Ragnar and Steinar, walking straight past the edge of the glade, and purposing to meet me at its head. This, indeed, Ragnar did, but Steinar halted because of a crunching sound that caught his ear, and then stepped to the right between two fallen birches to discover its cause. Next moment, as he told me afterwards, he stood frozen, for there behind the boughs of one of the trees was the huge white bear, eating some animal that it had killed. The beast saw him, and, mad with rage at being disturbed, for it was famished after its long journey on the floe, reared itself up on its hind legs, roaring till the air shook. High it towered, its hook-like claws outstretched.
Steinar tried to spring back, but caught his foot, and fell. Well for him was it that he did so, for otherwise the blow which the bear struck would have crushed him to a pulp. The brute did not seem to understand where he had gone--at any rate, it remained upreared and beating at the air. Then a doubt took it, its huge paws sank until it sat like a begging dog, sniffing the wind. At this moment Ragnar came back shouting, and hurled his spear. It stuck in the beast's chest and hung there. The bear began to feel for it with its paws, and, catching the shaft, lifted it to its mouth and champed it, thus dragging the steel from its hide.
Then it bethought it of Steinar, and, sinking down, discovered him, and tore at the birch tree under which he had crept till the splinters flew from its trunk. Just then I reached it, having seen all. By now the bear had its teeth fixed in Steinar's shoulder, or, rather, in his leathern garment, and was dragging him from under the tree. When it saw me it reared itself up again, lifting Steinar and holding him to its breast with one paw. I went mad at the sight, and charged it, driving my spear deep into its throat. With its other paw it struck the weapon from my hand, shivering the shaft. There it stood, towering over us like a white pillar, and roared with pain and fury, Steinar still pressed against it, Ragnar and I helpless.
"He's sped!" gasped Ragnar.
I thought for a flash of time, and--oh! well do I remember that moment: the huge beast foaming at the jaws and Steinar held to its breast as a little girl holds a doll; the still, snow-laden trees, on the top of one of which sat a small bird spreading its tail in jerks; the red light of evening, and about us the great silences of the sky above and of the lonely forest beneath. It all comes back to me--I can see it now quite clearly; yes, even the bird flitting to another twig, and there again spreading its tail to some invisible mate. Then I made up my mind what to do.
"Not yet!" I cried. "Keep it in play," and, drawing my short and heavy sword, I plunged through the birch boughs to get behind the bear. Ragnar understood. He threw his cap into the brute's face, and then, after it had growled at him awhile, just as it dropped its great jaws to crunch Steinar, he found a bough and thrust it between them.
By now I was behind the bear, and, smiting at its right leg below the knee, severed the tendon. Down it came, still hugging Steinar. I smote again with all my strength, and cut into its spine above the tail, paralysing it. It was a great blow, as it need to be to cleave the thick hair and hide, and my sword broke in the backbone, so that, like Ragnar, now I was weaponless. The forepart of the bear rolled about in the snow, although its after half was still.
Then once more it seemed to bethink itself of Steinar, who lay unmoving and senseless. Stretching out a paw, it dragged him towards its champing jaws. Ragnar leapt upon its back and struck at it with his knife, thereby only maddening it the more. I ran in and grasped Steinar, whom the bear was again hugging to its breast. Seeing me, it loosed Steinar, whom I dragged away and cast behind me, but in the effort I slipped and fell forward. The bear smote at me, and its mighty forearm--well for me that it was not its claws--struck me upon the side of the head and sent me crashing into a tree-top to the left. Five paces I flew before my body touched the boughs, and there I lay quiet.
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