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- Vandrad the Viking - 10/28 -
"We have faced greater odds together, Helgi. Life does not seem so fair to me now that I should shrink from odds of three to one. Let us seek Liot wherever he is, and when we have found him, tell him to arm as many men as he can muster. Then let our destiny weave its web for us."
Helgi laughed again.
"That would be a good revenge--to let Liot slay the men of Estein, a shipload at a time. If Odin wishes us to die, I shall try to meet my fate stoutly, but I shall not help him in the slaying. Nay, Estein, I can devise a better plan than yours."
Estein smiled for the first time since he had come on board.
"So long as it gives me a good fight with stout foes, and with you at my side, I care not what plan you propose."
"There speaks yourself again!" cried Helgi; "and I think that ere long you will meddle with my schemes. I will call Ketill and the Orkneyman, and we four will hold council here."
Ketill, the broad-beamed captain of the ship--the same whose path had been stopped by Atli--a man of few words and stout deeds, and Grim, the Orkneyman, came up to the poop. There they deliberated for long. Helgi was all for fire.
"Let us hear how the men of Liot will sing when they are warm."
Ketill gave a short laugh.
"I, too, am for burning," he said.
"We must catch them when they are drinking," said Grim. "When Liot's feasts are over many men go to sleep in outhouses round the hall, and we have not force enough here to surround them all at once."
"I will have no more burnings," said Estein.
"When had we our last?" asked Helgi. "You speak as though we had done naught but burn foes all our lives. We have never had a burning before, Estein, and it is better to begin as the burners than the burned."
"I have lately heard tell of another. It is no work for brave men."
Helgi shrugged his shoulders.
"Let us drown them then," he said.
Ketill gave another short, gruff laugh.
"Nay, Ketill, I am not jesting; in truth I am in little humour for that. If seventy brave men cannot clear a hall of two hundred drinkers, what virtue lies in stout hearts and sharp swords? We will enter the hall, you from one end and I from the other, and I think the men of Liot Skulison will not have to complain of too peaceful an evening."
"We must catch them, then, while they are feasting. Afterwards it will be too late, with only seventy men," the wary Grim replied.
"We can choose our hour," said Estein; "and whatever plan we fall on, it seems we must be in time."
Helgi laughed lightly.
"I thought you would leave us little say, Estein, when once you were aroused," he said. "'Tis all the same to me. Fire, sword, or water--choose what you will, you will always find me by your side; and if you must go to Valhalla, why, I will blithely bear you company."
"Fire were better," said Ketill, shaking his head.
The day was still young when the council of war came to an end, and as they had more than sufficient time to reach the hall of Liot before night, the bows were turned to the open sea, that they might better escape observation. Once they had got some miles from land they turned southwards, and striking the sail, to make as little mark as they could, moved slowly under oars alone. All day the long ship rolled in a great ground-swell, the western cliffs of Orkney now hidden by a wall of water, and now glinting in the sunshine as they rose from trough to crest, and right ahead the distant Scottish coast drawing gradually nearer. As the afternoon wore on they turned landwards again, and towards evening found themselves coasting a mountainous island lying to the south of Hrossey.
"What do men call this?" asked Helgi.
"They call it Haey, the high island, and it is on a bay to the south of it that Liot Skulison dwells," answered Grim, their pilot for the time.
They drew closer and closer to the land, until a towering line of cliffs rose for more than a thousand feet right above their heads. It was a stern and sombre coast, unbroken by any bays or inland glimpses, and gloomy and terrible in the fading light. The great oily swell broke into spouts of foam at the cliff-foot, and all along the face of the precipice they could see innumerable sea- fowl clinging to the rock.
Gradually, as they sailed along this hostile land, a light sea-fog began to gather. The leaders of the hazardous expedition watched it closing in upon them with growing apprehension.
"What say you, Grim?" said Helgi; "can you take us to Liot in this mist?"
Grim looked round him doubtfully.
"Methinks I can take you there," he said, "but I fear we shall be too late, we can move but slowly; and with only seventy men, I doubt we shall do little when the men of Liot have left the feast."
Estein had been standing in silence near the tiller. At these words he turned and cried fiercely,--
"Who talks of doing little? Liot or I shall fall to-night, though the blackness of death were round us. Think you I have come to sit here idly in a fog? Tell your men to row like valiant Vikings, Ketill, and not like timorous women."
The respect due to rank in Norway was little more than the proud Norseman chose to pay, and it was with small deference to his prince that Ketill answered,--
"You are fey, I think, Estein. I shall not lose my ship that you may the sooner feed the fishes."
"Are you, too, afraid? By the hammer of Thor! I think you are in league with Liot. I shall make these cravens row."
"That you will not," replied Ketill.
In an instant both swords were half-drawn. The men within earshot were too much surprised at this sudden change from Estein's usual manner to his followers to do more than look in astonishment at the dispute, and in another instant the blades would have clashed, when Helgi rushed between them.
"What is this?" he cried. "Are you possessed of evil spirits, that you would quarrel on the eve of battle? Remember, Ketill, that Estein is your prince; and Estein, my brother, what ails you? You are under a spell indeed. Would that I had slain the witch ere you parted. You can gain nothing by wrecking the ship, and this fog is too dense to row a race off such a coast as this."
Perhaps it was the allusion to the "witch" that brought Estein to his senses, for his eyes suddenly softened.
"I was wrong, Ketill," he said. "The wrath of the gods is upon me, and I am not myself."
He turned away abruptly, and gazed moodily into the fog; while Ketill, with the look of one who is dealing with a madman, left the poop.
"It is ill sailing with a bewitched leader," he muttered.
The idea that Estein was under a spell took rapid hold of the superstitious crew. They told each other that this was no earthly mist that had fallen on them, and listening to the break of the sea on the cliffs, they talked low of wizards and sea-monsters, and heard strange voices in the sound of the surge. Then they became afraid to row at more than a snail's pace, and sometimes almost stopped altogether. In vain Helgi went amongst them, and urged that Grim knew these waters so well that there was little danger, in vain he pointed to the hope of booty and revenge ahead; even as he spoke there was a momentary break in the mist, and they saw the towering cliff so close above them that his words were wasted.
"There is witchcraft here," they said; and Ketill was as obstinate as the rest. The ship crept under the cliffs with hardly any way on at all, and Helgi, in despair, saw the golden hour slipping by.
"Oh, for two more good ships," he thought: "then we could wait till daylight, and fall upon them when we pleased."
Estein had again fallen a prey to his thoughts. In his gloomy fatalism he thought that the wrath of the gods pursued him for the neglect of his duty to his murdered brother, and he submitted to the failure of this adventure as the beginning of his punishment. The fighting fire died out, the longing for action was choked, and in their place what was as nearly a spell as can fall on mortal men had fallen on him. His devoted friend fumed impatiently beside him as the fog grew denser and the hours went slowly by, and bitterly he cursed the enchantress of the Holy Isle.
"He talks of the gods," he said to himself. "This is no work of theirs; it is the magic of that island witch, may the trolls take her!"
"The fog lifts!" cried Grim from his post at the tiller.
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