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- Vandrad the Viking - 5/28 -
other two broke loose, and plunging over the first line of reefs, settled down by the bows.
There was a rush to the bulwarks, a splashing of bodies in the water, and then the doomed and deserted ships, the attacker and the attacked, sank in the turmoil of the tide. Estein himself had been pitched clear of his foe into the waist, where he had fallen head first and half-stunned.
He felt a friendly hand dragging him to the side, and heard Helgi's voice saying,--
"Art thou able to swim for it?"
Then he had a confused recollection of being swept along by an irresistible current, clinging the while to what he afterwards found to be a friendly plank, and after that came oblivion.
THE HOLY ISLE.
With the first glimmer of consciousness, Estein became aware of an aching head and a bruised body. Next he felt that he was very wet and cold; and then he discovered that he was not alone. His head rested on something soft, and two hands chafed his temples.
"Helgi," he said.
A voice that was not Helgi's replied, "Thanks be to the saints! he is alive."
Estein started up, and his gaze met a pair of dark blue eyes. They and the hands belonged to a fair young girl, a maid of some seventeen summers, on whose knees his aching head had just been resting.
They were sitting on a shelving rock that jutted into the tideway, and at his feet his kindly plank bumped gently in an eddy of the current.
He looked at her so silently and intently that the blue eyes drooped and a faint blush rose to the maiden's cheeks.
"Are you wounded?" she asked. She spoke in the Norse tongue, but with a pretty, foreign accent, and she looked so fair and so kind that thoughts of sirens and mermaids passed through the Viking's mind.
"Wounded? Well, methinks I ought to be," he answered; "and yet I feel rather bruised than pierced. If I can stand--" and as he spoke he rose to his feet, and slipping on the seaweed, slid quietly into the water.
The girl screamed; and then, as he scrambled out none the worse and only a little the wetter, an irresistible inclination to laugh overcame her. Forgetful of his head, he laughed with her.
"Forgive me," she said; "I could not help laughing, though, to be sure, you seem in no laughing plight. I thought at first that you were drowned."
"'Tis your doing, I think, that I am not. Did you find me in the water?"
"Half in and half out; and it took much pulling to get you wholly out."
Estein impulsively drew a massive gold ring off his finger, and in the gift-giving spirit of the times handed it to his preserver.
"I know not your name, fair maiden," he said, "but this I know, that you have saved my life. Will you accept this Viking's gift from me? It is all that the sea has left me."
"Nay, keep such gifts for those who deserve them. It would have been an unchristian act to let you drown."
"You use a word that is strange to me; but I would that you might take this ring."
"No, no!" she cried decidedly; "it will be time enough to talk of gifts when I have earned them. Not," she added, a little proudly, "that it is my wish to earn gifts. But you are wet and wounded; come where I can give you shelter, poor though it be."
"Any shelter will seem good to me. Yet, ere I go, I would fain learn something of my comrades' fate."
He scanned the sound narrowly, and in all its long stretch there was not a sign of friend or foe. About a mile back the fatal reef, bared by the ebbing tide, showed its line of black heads high out of the water, but of ships there was no vestige to be seen. It was long past mid-day by the sun, and he knew that he must have been unconscious for some hours. In that time, such of the Vikings as had escaped the rocks had evidently sailed away, leaving only the dead in the sound.
"They are gone," he said, turning away, "friends and foes--gone, or drowned, as I should have been, fair maid, but for you."
They scrambled together up the rocks, and then struck a winding sheep-path that led them over the shoulder of a heath-clad hill.
At first they walked in silence, the girl in front, going at a great speed up the narrow track; and Estein watched the wind blow her fair hair about her neck in a waving tangle, and he saw that she was tall and slender. By-and-by, when they had crossed the hill and reached a less broken tract of ground, he came up to her side.
"How did you come to be down where you found me?" he asked.
"I was on the hill," she answered, "when I saw ships in the sound rowing hard to escape the current, and then I saw that some had been wrecked. Wreckage was floating by, and I espied, for my eyes are good, a man clinging to a plank; and presently he drifted upon a rock, and I thought that perhaps I might save a life. So I went down to the shore--and you yourself know the rest."
"I know, indeed, that I have to thank you for my life, such as it is. And I know further that every girl would not have been so kind."
She smiled, and her smile was one of those that illuminate a face.
"Thank rather the tide, which so kindly brought you ashore, for I had done little if you had been in the middle of the sound. But you have not yet told me how you came to be wrecked."
Estein told her of the storm at sea and the fight with the Vikings; how they had fallen man by man, and how he too would have been numbered amongst the dead but for the tideway and the rocks.
As she listened, her eyes betrayed her interest in the tale, and when he had finished, she said,--
"I have heard of Liot and Osmund. They are the most pitiless of all the robbers in these seas. Give thanks that you escaped them."
He asked her name, and she told him it was Osla, daughter of a Norse leader who had fought in the Irish seas, and had finally settled in Ireland. There his daughter was born and passed her early girlhood; and it was a trace of the Irish accent that Estein had noticed in her speech. In one fatal battle her two brothers fell, her father was forced to fly from the land, and Osla had left her Irish home with him and come to reside in Orkney.
"He is a holy Christian man," she said. "Once he was a famous Viking, and his name was well known in the west seas. Now, he would even have his name forgotten, and he is only known as Andreas, which was the name of one of the blessed apostles; and here we two live in a little lonely island, keeping aloof from all men, and striving to live as did the early fathers."
"That must be a quiet life for you," said Estein.
"I sometimes think so myself," she answered with a smile. "And what do men call you?"
For an instant Estein hesitated. The thought passed through his mind, "She must not know me as son to the King of Sogn till I have done some deed more worthy of a prince of Yngve's line than lose a battle with two Orkney Vikings." Then he said, "I am called Vandrad; [Footnote: The Unlucky.] from my youth up I have been a sea-rover, and I fear I may prove ill suited to your father's company."
"My father has met sea-rovers before," she said, with a smile in her eye.
By this time they had nearly crossed the island, and Estein saw before them another long sound. On the far side of this lay a large and hilly island that stretched to his left hand as far as his eye could reach, and on the right broke down at the end of the strait into a precipitous headland, beyond which sparkled the open sea. In the middle of the sound a small green islet basked like a sea monster in the evening sunshine.
As they stood on the top of the descent that ran steeply to the sea, he cast his eyes around for any signs of life on sea or on shore. Below him, and much to the left, a cluster of small houses round a larger drinking-hall marked the residence of a chieftain of position; on the island across the water lay a few scattered farms; and on the little islet his eye could just discern a faint wreath of smoke. The seas were deserted, and the atmosphere seemed charged with an air of calm loneliness.
"That is my home," said Osla, pointing to the little green island. "The early fathers called it the Holy Isle. Our house is an anchorite's cell, and our lands, as you see, are of the smallest. Are you content to come to such a place?"
Estein smiled. "If you dwell there, I am content," he said.
Osla tossed her head with what quite failed to be an air of
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