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- The Wanderer's Necklace - 4/53 -
I suppose that Ragnar told me what passed after this while I was senseless. At least, I know that the bear began to die, for my spear had pierced some artery in its throat, and all the talk which followed, as well as though I heard it with my ears. It roared and roared, vomiting blood and stretching out its claws after Steinar as Ragnar dragged him away. Then it laid its head flat upon the snow and died. Ragnar looked at it and muttered:
Then he walked to that top of the fallen tree in which I lay, and again muttered: "Dead! Well, Valhalla holds no braver man than Olaf the Skald."
Next he went to Steinar and once again exclaimed, "Dead!"
For so he looked, indeed, smothered in the blood of the bear and with his garments half torn off him. Still, as the words passed Ragnar's lips he sat up, rubbed his eyes and smiled as a child does when it awakes.
"Are you much hurt?" asked Ragnar.
"I think not," he answered doubtfully, "save that I feel sore and my head swims. I have had a bad dream." Then his eyes fell on the bear, and he added: "Oh, I remember now; it was no dream. Where is Olaf?"
"Supping with Odin," answered Ragnar and pointed to me.
Steinar rose to his feet, staggered to where I lay, and stared at me stretched there as white as the snow, with a smile upon my face and in my hand a spray of some evergreen bush which I had grasped as I fell.
"Did he die to save me?" asked Steinar.
"Aye," answered Ragnar, "and never did man walk that bridge in better fashion. You were right. Would that I had not mocked him."
"Would that I had died and not he," said Steinar with a sob. "It is borne in upon my heart that it were better I had died."
"Then that may well be, for the heart does not lie at such a time. Also it is true that he was worth both of us. There was something more in him than there is in us, Steinar. Come, lift him to my back, and if you are strong enough, go on to the horses and bid the thrall bring one of them. I follow."
Thus ended the fight with the great white bear.
Some four hours later, in the midst of a raging storm of wind and rain, I was brought at last to the bridge that spanned the moat of the Hall of Aar, laid like a corpse across the back of one of the horses. They had been searching for us at Aar, but in that darkness had found nothing. Only, at the head of the bridge was Freydisa, a torch in her hand. She glanced at me by the light of the torch.
"As my heart foretold, so it is," she said. "Bring him in," then turned and ran to the house.
They bore me up between the double ranks of stabled kine to where the great fire of turf and wood burned at the head of the hall, and laid me on a table.
"Is he dead?" asked Thorvald, my father, who had come home that night; "and if so, how?"
"Aye, father," answered Ragnar, "and nobly. He dragged Steinar yonder from under the paws of the great white bear and slew it with his sword."
"A mighty deed," muttered my father. "Well, at least he comes home in honour."
But my mother, whose favourite son I was, lifted up her voice and wept. Then they took the clothes from off me, and, while all watched, Freydisa, the skilled woman, examined my hurts. She felt my head and looked into my eyes, and laying her ear upon my breast, listened for the beating of my heart.
Presently she rose, and, turning, said slowly:
"Olaf is not dead, though near to death. His pulses flutter, the light of life still burns in his eyes, and though the blood runs from his ears, I think the skull is not broken."
When she heard these words, Thora, my mother, whose heart was weak, fainted for joy, and my father, untwisting a gold ring from his arm, threw it to Freydisa.
"First the cure," she said, thrusting it away with her foot. "Moreover, when I work for love I take no pay."
Then they washed me, and, having dressed my hurts, laid me on a bed near the fire that warmth might come back to me. But Freydisa would not suffer them to give me anything save a little hot milk which she poured down my throat.
For three days I lay like one dead; indeed, all save my mother held Freydisa wrong and thought that I was dead. But on the fourth day I opened my eyes and took food, and after that fell into a natural sleep. On the morning of the sixth day I sat up and spoke many wild and wandering words, so that they believed I should only live as a madman.
"His mind is gone," said my mother, and wept.
"Nay," answered Freydisa, "he does but return from a land where they speak another tongue. Thorvald, bring hither the bear-skin."
It was brought and hung on a frame of poles at the end of the niche in which I slept, that, as was usual among northern people, opened out of the hall. I stared at it for a long while. Then my memory came back and I asked:
"Did the great beast kill Steinar?"
"No," answered my mother, who sat by me. "Steinar was sore hurt, but escaped and now is well again."
"Let me see him with my own eyes," I said.
So he was brought, and I looked on him. "I am glad you live, my brother," I said, "for know in this long sleep of mine I have dreamed that you were dead"; and I stretched out my wasted arms towards him, for I loved Steinar better than any other man.
He came and kissed me on the brow, saying:
"Aye, thanks to you, Olaf, I live to be your brother and your thrall till the end."
"My brother always, not my thrall," I muttered, for I was growing tired. Then I went to sleep again.
Three days later, when my strength began to return, I sent for Steinar and said:
"Brother, Iduna the Fair, whom you have never seen, my betrothed, must wonder how it fares with me, for the tale of this hurt of mine will have reached Lesso. Now, as there are reasons why Ragnar cannot go, and as I would send no mean man, I pray you to do me a favour. It is that you will take a boat and sail to Lesso, carrying with you as a present from me to Athalbrand's daughter the skin of that white bear, which I trust will serve her and me as a bed-covering in winter for many a year to come. Tell her, thanks be to the gods and to the skill of Freydisa, my nurse, I live who all thought must die, and that I trust to be strong and well for our marriage at the Spring feast which draws on. Say also that through all my sickness I have dreamed of none but her, as I trust that sometimes she may have dreamed of me."
"Aye, I'll go," answered Steinar, "fast as horses' legs and sails can carry me," adding with his pleasant laugh: "Long have I desired to see this Iduna of yours, and to learn whether she is as beautiful as you say; also what it is in her that Ragnar hates."
"Be careful that you do not find her too beautiful," broke in Freydisa, who, as ever, was at my side.
"How can I if she is for Olaf?" answered Steinar, smiling, as he left the place to make ready for his journey to Lesso.
"What did you mean by those words, Freydisa?" I asked when he was gone.
"Little or much," she replied, shrugging her shoulders. "Iduna is lovely, is she not, and Steinar is handsome, is he not, and of an age when man seeks woman, and what is brotherhood when man seeks woman and woman beguiles man?"
"Peace to your riddles, Freydisa. You forget that Iduna is my betrothed and that Steinar was fostered with me. Why, I'd trust them for a week at sea alone."
"Doubtless, Olaf, being young and foolish, as you are; also that is your nature. Now here is the broth. Drink it, and I, whom some call a wise woman and others a witch, say that to-morrow you may rise from this bed and sit in the sun, if there is any."
"Freydisa," I said when I had swallowed the broth, "why do folk call you a witch?"
"I think because I am a little less of a fool than other women, Olaf. Also because it has not pleased me to marry, as it is held natural that all women should do if they have the chance."
"Why are you wiser, and why have you not married, Freydisa?"
"I am wiser because I have questioned things more than most, and to those who question answers come at last. And I am not married because another woman took the only man I wanted before I met him. That was my bad luck. Still, it taught me a great lesson, namely, how to wait and meanwhile to acquire understanding."
"What understanding have you acquired, Freydisa? For instance, does it tell you that our gods of wood and stone are true gods which rule the world? Or are they but wood and stone, as sometimes I have thought?"
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