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- Vandrad the Viking - 3/28 -
a frowning brow.
The wind had been dropping off for some time, and along the eastern horizon the settled sky was giving place to heavy clouds. For a short time Estein hesitated, but as the outlook grew more threatening and the wind beat in flaws and gusts, now from one quarter, now from another, the Vikings changed their course and ran under oars and sails for the shelter of the land. Little shelter it promised as they drew nearer: a dark, inhospitable line of precipices stretched north and south as far as the eye could reach, and even from a long distance they could see white flashes breaking at the cliff foot. Again they changed their course; and then, with a dull hum of approaching rain, a south-easterly storm broke over them, and there was nothing for it but to turn and run before the gale.
"I read the stars too well," said Estein grimly between his teeth, clinging to the straining tiller, and watching the rollers rising higher. "And the first part of Atli's prophecy has come true."
"Winds, war, and women make a Viking's luck," replied Helgi; "this is but the first part of the rede."
At night the gale increased, the fleet was scattered over the North Sea, and next morning from Estein's ship only two other black hulls could be seen running before the tempest. Another wild day passed, and it was not till the evening that the weather moderated. Little by little the great seas began to calm, and the drifts of stinging rain ceased. In their wake the stars struggled through the cloud wrack, and towards morning the wind sank altogether.
At earliest dawn eyes were strained to catch a glimpse of something that might tell them where they were. None of the men on Estein's ship had been in those seas more than two or three times at most, and the vaguest conjectures were rife when, as the light was slowly gaining, Ulf raised a cry of land ahead.
"Land to the right!" cried Helgi, a moment later.
"Land to the left!" exclaimed Estein; "and we are close on it, methinks."
When the morning fully broke they found themselves lying off a wide-mouthed sound, that bent and narrowed among low, lonely- looking islands. Only on the more distant land to the right were heather hills of any height to be seen, and those, so far as they could judge, were uninhabited. A heavy swell was running in from the open sea, and a canopy of grey clouds hung over all.
"I like not this country," said Ulf. "What think you is it?"
"The Hjaltland islands, I should think, from what men tell of them," Estein suggested.
"The Orkneys more likely," said Thorolf, who had sailed in those seas before.
Far astern one other vessel was making towards them.
"Which ship is that, Ulf?" asked Estein. "One of our fleet, think you?"
"Ay, it is Thorkel Sigurdson's," replied the shaggy forecastle man, after a long, frowning look.
"By the hammer of Thor, she seems in haste," said Helgi. "They must have broached the ale over-night."
"Perchance Thorkel feels cold," suggested Thorolf with a laugh.
"They have taken the shields from the sides," Estein exclaimed as the ship drew nearer. "Can there be an enemy, think you?"
Again Ulf's hairy face gathered into a heavy frown. "No man can say I fear a foeman," he said, "but I should like ill to fight after two sleepless nights."
"Bah! Thorkel is drunk as usual, and thinks we are chapmen," [Footnote: Merchants.] said Helgi. "They are doubtless making ready to board us."
The ship drew so near that they could plainly see the men on board, and conspicuous among them the tall form of Thorkel appeared in the bow.
"He waves to us; there is something behind this," said Estein.
"Drunk," muttered Helgi. "I wager my gold-handled sword he is drunk. They have ale enough on board to float the ship."
"A sail!" Estein exclaimed, pointing to a promontory to seaward round which the low black hull and coloured sail of a warship were just appearing.
"Ay, and another!" said Ulf.
"Three-four-seven-eight!" Helgi cried.
"There come nine, and ten!" added Estein. "How many more?"
They watched the strange fleet in silence as one by one they turned and bore down upon them, ten ships in all, their oars rhythmically churning the sea, the strange monsters on the prows creeping gradually nearer.
"Orkney Vikings," muttered Ulf. "If I know one long ship from another, they are Orkney Vikings."
Meantime Thorkel's ship had drawn close alongside, and its captain hailed Estein.
"There is little time for talking now, son of Hakon!" he shouted. "What think you we should do?--run into the islands, or go to Odin where we are? These men, methinks, will show us little mercy."
"I seek mercy from no man," answered Estein. "We will bide where we are. We could not escape them if we would, and I would not if I could. Have you seen aught of the other ships?"
"We parted from Ketill yesterday, and I fear me he has gone to feed the fishes. I have seen nothing of Asgrim and the rest. I think with you, Estein, that the bottom here will make as soft a resting-place for us as elsewhere. Fill the beakers and serve the men! It is ill that a man should die thirsty."
The stout sea-rover turned with a gleam of grim humour in his eyes to the enjoyment of what he fully expected would be his last drink on earth, and on both ships men buckled on their armour and bestirred themselves for fight.
Vikings in those days preyed on one another as freely as on men of alien blood. They came out to fight, and better sport could generally be had from a crew of seasoned warriors like themselves than from the softer peoples of the south. Particularly were the Orkney and Shetland islands the stations for the freest of free lances, men so hostile to all semblance of law and order that the son of a Norwegian king would seem in their eyes a most desirable quarry. Many a load of hard-won spoil changed hands on its way home; and the shores of Norway itself were so harried by these island Vikings that some time later King Harald Harfagri descended and made a clean sweep of them in the interests of what he probably considered society.
The two vessels floated close together, the oars were shipped, and there, in the grey prosaic early morning light, they heaved gently on the North Sea swell, and awaited the approach of the ten. A few sea-birds circled and screamed above them; a faint pillar of smoke rose from some homestead on a distant shore; elsewhere there was no sign of life save in the ships to seaward.
Thorkel, leaning over the side of his vessel, told a tale of buffetings by night and day such as Estein and his crew had undergone. That morning he said they had descried Estein's ship just as the day broke, and almost immediately afterwards ten long ships were spied lying at anchor in an island bay. For a time they hoped to slip by them unseen. The fates, however, were against them. They were observed, and the strange Vikings awoke and gave chase like a swarm of bees incautiously aroused.
Apparently the strangers considered themselves hardly yet prepared for battle; for they slackened speed as they advanced, and those on Estein's ships could see that a hasty bustle of preparation was going on.
"What think you--friends or foes?" asked Helgi.
"To the Orkney Vikings all men are foes," replied Estein.
"Ay," said Thorkel with a laugh, "particularly when they are but two to ten."
By this time the strangers were within hailing distance, and in the leading ship a man in a red cloak came from the poop and stood before the others in the bow. In a loud tone he bade his men cease rowing, and then, clapping his hand to his mouth, asked in a voice that had a ring of scornful command what name the captain bore.
"Estein, the son of Hakon, King of Sogn; and who are you who ask my name?" came the reply across the water.
"Liot, the son of Skuli," answered the man in the red cloak. "With me sails Osmund Hooknose, the son of Hallward. We have here ten warships, as you see. Yield to us, Estein Hakonson, or we will take by force what you will not give us."
The man threw his left hand on his hip, drew himself up, and said something to his crew, accompanying the words by gestures with a spear. They answered with a loud shout, and then struck up a wild and monotonous chorus, the words of which were a refrain descriptive of the usual fate of those who ventured to stand in Liot Skulison's way. At the same time their oars churned the
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