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- Vandrad the Viking - 4/28 -
water, and their vessel was brought into line with the others.
"It is easily seen that our friend Liot is a valiant man," said Helgi with a short laugh. "He and his ill-looking crew make a mighty noise. Has any man heard of Liot Skulison or Osmund Hooknose before?"
"Ay," answered Ulf. "They call them the bairn-slayers, because they show no mercy even to children."
"They will meet with other than bairns to-day," said Helgi.
Estein and Thorkel had been employed in binding the two vessels together with grapnels. Then Estein turned to his men and said,--
"We are of one mind, are we not? We fight while we may, and then let Odin do with us what he wills."
Without waiting for the shout of approval that followed his words, he sprang to the bow, and raising his voice, cried,--
"We are ready for you, Liot and Osmund. When you get on board you can take what you find here."
From another ship a man shouted,--
"Then you will fight, little Estein? Remember that we are called the bairn-slayers."
Instantly Thorkel took up the challenge. Three beakers of ale had made him in his happiest and most warlike mood, and his eyes gleamed almost merrily as he answered,--
"I know you, Osmund the ugly, by that nose whereon men say you hang the bairns you catch. Little need have you to do aught save look at them. Here is a gift for you," and with that he hurled a spear with so true an aim that, if Osmund had not stooped like a flash, his share in the fight would have come to an end there and then. As it was, the missile struck another man between the shoulders and laid him on the deck.
"Forward! forward!" cried Liot. "Forward, Vikings! forward, the men of Liot and Osmund!"
The oars struck the water, the wild chorus swelled into a terrible and tuneless roar, and the ten ships bore down on the two. With a crash the bows met, and metal rang on metal with the noise of a hundred smithies; the unequal contest had begun.
Overpowering as such odds could hardly fail to prove in the long run, they told more slowly in a sea-fight. Till the men who manned the bulwarks were thinned, the sides were practically equal, and at first many of the Orkney Vikings were perforce mere spectators.
Gradually, as the men in front were thinned, they poured in from the other ships, fresh men always being pitted against tired, and keen swords meeting hacked.
Liot laid his own ship alongside Estein's, Osmund attacked Thorkel's, and the other vessels forced their bows forward wherever they saw an opening. The Norwegians manned their bulwarks shield to shield, and fought with the courage of despair. Twice Liot, backed by his boldest men, tried by a headlong rush to force himself on board, and twice he was beaten back. A third time he charged, and selecting a place where the defenders seemed thinnest, struck down a couple of men with two swinging blows of his axe, and sprang on to the deck. Three or four men had already followed him, a cry of victory rose from the Orkney Vikings, and for a moment the fate of the battle seemed decided, when a huge stone hurtled through the air, and falling on Liot's shield forced it down on his helmet and him to his knees. It was the work of Ulf, captain of the forecastle; and roaring like a bull, the old Viking followed his stone. Estein sprang from the poop and clove one man to the shoulders. Another fell to Ulf's sword. The half- stunned Liot was seized by one of his followers, and bundled back on board his ship; and for the time the day was saved.
"After them! after them, Ulf!" shouted Estein, and twenty bold Norwegians followed their leader in the wake of Liot's retreating boarding party. Their foes gave way right and left, the gangways round the sides were cleared, and, despite the threats of Liot, his men began to spring from forecastle and quarter-deck into the ships behind.
"Forward, king's men! forward, men of Estein!" roared Ulf.
"Wait for me, Liot!" cried Estein, charging the poop with his red shield before him." A bairn is after thee!"
Helgi, who had kept at his shoulder throughout, seized his arm.
"They are giving way on Thorkel's ship. Osmund is on board. If we return not, the ship is cleared."
With a gesture of despair Estein turned.
"Back, men, back! Thorkel needs all his friends, I fear," he cried; and to Helgi he said, "The day is lost. We can but sell our lives dearly now."
They came back too late. Already Thorkel's men were pouring on board Estein's ship, with Osmund of the Hooknose at their heels. Thorkel himself lay stark across the bulwarks, his face to his foes, and a great spear-head standing out of his back.
It was now but a question of time. With a single ship, surrounded on all sides, and weary with storm and battle, there could be only one fate for Estein's diminished band. Nevertheless, they stood their ground as stoutly and cheerfully as if the fray were just beginning. Finding that all efforts to board were useless, the Orkney Vikings confined themselves for some time to keeping up an incessant fire of darts and stones. One by one the defenders dropped at their posts, and at last, when widening gaps appeared in the line of shields, Liot and Osmund boarded together, each from his own side.
"Back to the poop, Helgi!" Estein cried. "To the poop, men! we cannot hold the gangways. One tired man cannot fight with five fresh."
Last of all his men, he stepped from the gangway that ran round the low and open waist of the ship, up to the decked poop, his red shield stuck with darts like a pincushion with pins.
In the forecastle, old Ulf still held his own, backed by some half-dozen stout survivors out of all those who had gone into battle with him in the morning.
"My hour is come at last, Thorolf," he said to the upland giant, who seemed to be disengaging something from his coat of ring-mail. "I shall have tales of a merry fight to tell to Odin tonight. But before I fall I shall slay me one of those two Vikings. Wilt thou follow me, Thorolf, to the gangways, and then to Valhalla?"
With a violent wrench the giant drew a spearhead from his side, and his blood spurted over Ulf, as he swayed on his feet.
"I go before," he said, and fell on the deck with a clatter of steel.
"There died a brave man! Now, comrades, after him to Odin!"
And with that the forecastle captain sprang down on the gangway, and knocking men off into the waist in his impetuous rush, swung his battle-axe round his head and aimed a terrific blow at Osmund Hooknose. Quick as lightning Osmund raised his shield and thrust at his foe with his sword. The point of the blade passed in at his breast and out between his shoulders, and at the same instant the battle-axe fell. The edge of the shield was cut through like paper, and the blade coming fair on the nape of the Hooknose's neck, the bodies of the two champions rolled together off the gangway.
Round the poop the last struggle raged. Spent and wounded as they were, Estein's little band showed a bold front to their foes, and around the red shield of their leader their lives were dearly sold.
Then for a few minutes came a lull in the fight, and men could breathe for a space.
"The next onset will be the last," said Estein grimly.
"Their ships are sheering off!" exclaimed one.
"'Tis we who are leaving them," said another.
"Look ahead!" cried Helgi; "we shall cheat them yet."
The men looked round them with astonished faces, for a strange thing had happened. They had drifted into one of the dreaded Orkney tideways, and all the time the fight was raging they were being borne at increasing speed past islands, holms, and skerries. The scene had completely changed; they were in a narrower sound, swinging like sea-fowl, helpless on the tide. Heather hills were close at hand, and right ahead was a great frothing and bubbling, out of which rose the black heads of sunken rocks.
The other vessels had been twisted off by the whirling eddies, and were now rapidly scattering, each striving to clear the reef. Only the four vessels bound together--Estein's, Thorkel's, Liot's, Osmund's--swept in an unresisting cluster towards the rocks.
Liot too saw the danger, and raised his voice in a great shout:--
"Let not man of mine touch an oar till Estein Hakonson lie dead on yonder deck. We have yet time to slay them. Forward, Liot's men!"
There was a wild and furious rush of men towards the poop. Down went man after man of the battle-worn defenders. Liot and Estein met sword to sword and face to face. The red shield was ripped from top to bottom by a sweep of the bairn-slayer's blade, and at the same moment Estein's descending sword was met by a Viking's battle-axe, and snapped at the hilt.
"Now, Estein, I have thee!" shouted his foe; but ere the words were well out of his mouth, Estein had hurled himself at his waist, dagger in hand, and brought him headlong to the deck. As they fell, the ships struck with a mighty crash that threw friend and foe alike on the bloody planks. Two vessels stuck fast; the
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