Englishman the wife of flanders eyes of youth the maid the wood of life eaucourt by the waters the hidden city the regicide 10. The marplot




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"What will be, will be," he said gravely. "We abide by our purpose and will take what Thor sends with a stout heart. How say you, my brave ones?" And all shouted to go forward, for the sight of a new country had fired their blood. Leif sat huddled by the bulwarks, with a white face and a gasp in his throat, like one coming out of a swoon. They went ashore at a bend of the stream where was a sandy cape, beached the galleys, felled trees from the neighbouring forest and built them a stockade. The dying sun flushed water and wood with angry crimson, and Biorn observed that the men wrought as it were in a world of blood. "That is the meaning of Leif's whimsies," he thought, and so comforted himself. That night the Northmen slept in peace, but the scouts brought back word of a desert country, no men or cattle, and ashes where once had been dwellings. "Our kinsfolk have been here before us," said King Ironbeard grimly. He did not love the Danes, though he had fought by their side. Half the force was left as a guard by the ships, and next day the rest went forward up the valley at a slant from the river's course. For that way, ran the tale, lay a great Roman house, a palace of King Kristni, where much gold was to be had for the lifting. By midday they were among pleasant meadows, but the raiders had been there, for the houses were fired and the orchards hacked down. Then came a shout and, turning back, they saw a flame spring to the pale autumn skies. "The ships!" rose the cry, and the lightest of foot were sent back for news. They returned with a sorry tale. Of the ships and the stockade nothing remained but hot cinders. Half the guard were dead, and old Arnwulf, the captain, lay blood-eagled on the edge of the tide. The others had gone they knew not where, but doubtless into the forests. "Our kinsfolks' handiwork," said Ironbeard. "We are indeed forestalled, my heroes." A council was held and it was resolved to make a camp by the stream and defend it against all comers, till such time as under Leif's guidance new ships could be built. "Axes will never ring on them," said Leif under his breath. He walked now like a man who was fey and his face was that of another world. He spoke truth, for as they moved towards the riverbank, just before the darkening, in a glade between two forests Fate met them. There was barely time to form the Shield-ring ere their enemies were upon them--a mass of wild men in wolves' skins and at their head mounted warriors in byrnies, with long swords that flashed and fell. Biorn saw little of the battle, wedged in the heart of the Shield-ring. He heard the shouts of the enemy, and the clangour of blows, and the sharp intake of breath, but chiefly he heard the beating of his own heart. The ring swayed and moved as it gave before the onset or pressed to an attack of its own, and Biorn found himself stumbling over the dead. "I am Biorn, and my father is King," he repeated to himself, the spell he had so often used when on the fells or the firths he had met fear. Night came and a young moon, and still the fight continued. But the Shield-ring was growing ragged, for the men of Hightown were fighting one to eight, and these are odds that cannot last. Sometimes it would waver, and an enemy would slip inside, and before he sank dead would have sorely wounded one of Ironbeard's company. And now Biorn could see his father, larger than human, it seemed, in the dim light, swinging his sword Tyrfing, and crooning to himself as he laid low his antagonists. At the sight a madness rose in the boy's heart. Behind in the sky clouds were banking, dark clouds like horses, with one ahead white and moontipped, the very riders he had watched with Leif from the firth shore. The Walkyries were come for the chosen, and he would fain be one of them. All fear had gone from him. His passion was to be by his father's side and strike his small blow, beside those mighty ones which Thor could not have bettered. But even as he was thus uplifted the end came. Thorwald Thorwaldson tottered and went down, for a hurled axe had cleft him between helm and byrnie. With him fell the last hope of Hightown and the famished clan under Sunfell. The Shield-ring was no more. Biorn found himself swept back as the press of numbers overbore the little knot of sorely wounded men. Someone caught him by the arm and snatched him from the mellay into the cover of a thicket. He saw dimly that it was Leif. He was giddy and retching from weariness, and something inside him was cold as ice, though his head burned. It was not rage or grief, but awe, for his father had fallen and the end of the world had come. The noise of the battle died, as the two pushed through the undergrowth and came into the open spaces of the wood. It was growing very dark, but still Leif dragged him onwards. Then suddenly he fell forward on his face, and Biorn, as he stumbled over him. found his hands wet with blood. "I am for death," Leif whispered. "Put your ear close, prince. I am Leif the Outborn and I know the hidden things.... You are the heir of Thorwald Thorwaldson and you will not die.... I see a long road, but at the end a great kingdom. Farewell, little Biorn. We have been good comrades, you and I. Katla from Sigg spoke the true word. . . " And when Biorn fetched water in his horn from a woodland pool he found Leif with a cold brow. Blind with sorrow and fatigue, the boy stumbled on, without purpose. He was lonely in the wide world, many miles from his home, and all his kin were slain. Rain blew from the south-west and beat in his face, the brambles tore his legs, but he was dead to all things. Would that the Shield Maids had chosen him to go with that brave company to the bright hall of Odin! But he was only a boy and they did not choose striplings. Suddenly in a clearing a pin-point of light pricked the darkness. The desire for human companionship came over him, even though it were that of enemy or outcast. He staggered to the door and beat on it feebly. A voice spoke from within, but he did not hear what it said. Again he beat and again the voice came. And now his knocking grew feebler, for he was at the end of his strength. Then the bar was suddenly withdrawn and he was looking inside a poor hut, smoky from the woodfire in the midst of it. An old woman sat by it with a bowl in her hand, and an oldish man with a cudgel stood before him. He did not understand their speech, but he gathered he was being asked his errand. "I am Biorn," he said, "and my father was Ironbeard, the King." They shook their heads, but since they saw only a weary, tattered boy they lost their fears. They invited him indoors, and their voices were kindly. Nodding with exhaustion, he was given a stool to sit on and a bowl of coarse porridge was put into his hands. They plied him with questions, but he could make nothing of their tongue. Then the thrall rose, yawned, and dropped the bar over the door. The sound was to the boy like the clanging of iron gates on his old happy world. For a moment he was on the brink of tears. But he set his teeth and stiffened his drooping neck. "I am Biorn," he said aloud, "and my father was a king." They nodded to each other and smiled. They though his words were a grace before meat. CHAPTER 2. THE ENGLISHMAN Part 1 The little hut among the oak trees was dim in the October twilight on the evening of St. Callixtus' Day. It had been used by swineherds, for the earthen floor was puddled by the feet of generations of hogs, and in the corner lay piles of rotting acorns. Outside the mist had filled the forest, and the ways were muffled with fallen leaves, so that the four men who approached the place came as stealthily as shades. They reconnoitred a moment at the entrance, for it was a country of war. "Quarters for the night," said one, and put his shoulder to the door of oak-toppings hinged on strips of cowhide. But he had not taken a step inside before he hastily withdrew. "There is something there," he cried--"something that breathes. A light, Gil." One of the four lit a lantern from his flint and poked it within. It revealed the foul floor and the rotting acorns, and in the far corner, on a bed of withered boughs, something dark which might be a man. They stood still and listened. There was the sound of painful breathing, and then the gasp with which a sick man wakens. A figure disengaged itself from the shadows. Seeing it was but one man, the four pushed inside, and the last pulled the door to behind him. "What have we here?" the leader cried. A man had dragged himself to his feet, a short, square fellow who held himself erect with a grip on a side-post. His eyes were vacant, dazzled by the light and also by pain. He seemed to have had hard usage that day, for his shaggy locks were matted with blood from a sword-cut above his forehead, one arm hung limp, and his tunic was torn and gashed. He had no weapons but a knife which he held blade upwards in the hollow of his big hand. The four who confronted him were as ill-looking a quartet as Duke William's motley host could show. One, the leader, was an unfrocked priest of Rouen; one was a hedge-robber from the western marches who had followed Alan of Brittany; a third had the olive cheeks and the long nose of the south; and the fourth was a heavy German from beyond the Rhine. They were the kites that batten on the offal of war, and the great battle on the seashore having been won by better men, were creeping into the conquered land for the firstfruits of its plunder. An English porker," cried the leader. "We will have the tusks off him." Indeed, in the wild light the wounded man, with his flat face and forked beard, had the look of a boar cornered by hounds. "'Ware his teeth," said the one they called Gil. "He has a knife in his trotter." The evil faces of the four were growing merry. They were worthless soldiers, but adepts in murder. Loot was their first thought, but after that furtive slaying. There seemed nothing to rob here, but there was weak flesh to make sport of. Gil warily crept on one side, where he held his spear ready. The ex-priest, who had picked up somewhere a round English buckler, gave the orders. "I will run in on him, and take his stroke, so you be ready to close. There is nothing to be feared from the swine. See, he is blooded and faints." The lantern had been set on the ground by the door and revealed only the lower limbs of the four. Their heads were murky in shadow. Their speech was foreign to the wounded man, but he saw their purpose. He was clearly foredone with pain, but his vacant eyes kindled to slow anger, and he shook back his hair so that the bleeding broke out again on his forehead. He was as silent as an old tusker at bay. The ex-priest gave the word and the four closed in on him. He defeated their plan by hurling himself on the leader's shield, so that his weight bore him backwards and he could not use his weapon. The spears on the flanks failed for the same reason, and the two men posted there had wellnigh been the death of each other. The fourth, the one from the south, whose business it had been to support the priest, tripped and fell sprawling beside the lantern. The Englishman had one arm round the priest's neck and was squeezing the breath out of him. But the blood of the four was kindling, and they had vengeance instead of sport to seek. Mouthing curses, the three of them went to the rescue of the leader, and a weaponless and sore-wounded man cannot strive with such odds. They overpowered him, bending his arms viciously back and kicking his broken head. Their oaths filled the hut with an ugly clamour, but no sound came from their victim. Suddenly a gust of air set the lantern flickering, and a new-comer stood in the doorway. He picked up the light and looked down on the struggle. He was a tall, very lean man, smooth faced, and black haired, helmetless and shieldless, but wearing the plated hauberk of the soldier. There was no scabbard on his left side, but his right hand held a long bright sword. For a second he lifted the light high, while he took in the scene. His eyes were dark and dancing, like the ripples on a peat stream. "So-ho!" he said softly. "Murder! And by our own vermin!" He appeared to brood for a second, and then he acted. For he set the light very carefully in the crook of a joist so that it illumined the whole hut. Then he reached out a hand, plucked the ex-priest from his quarry, and, swinging him in both arms, tossed him through the door into the darkness. It would seem that he fell hard, for there was a groan and then silence. "One less," he said softly. The three had turned to face him, warned by Gil's exclamation, and found themselves looking at the ominous bar of light which was his sword. Cornered like rats, they took small comfort from the odds. They were ready to surrender, still readier to run, and they stood on their defence with no fight in their faces, whining in their several patois. All but the man from the south. He was creeping round in the darkness by the walls, and had in his hands a knife. No mailed hauberk protected the interloper's back and there was a space there for steel to quiver between his shoulder blades. The newcomer did not see, but the eyes of the wounded man seemed to have been cleared by the scuffle. He was now free, and from the floor he snatched the round shield which the ex-priest had carried, and hurled it straight at the creeping miscreant. It was a heavy oaken thing with rim and boss of iron, and it caught him fairly above the ear, so that he dropped like a poled ox. The stranger turned his head to see what was happening. "A lucky shot, friend," he cried. "I thank you." And he addressed himself to the two pitiful bandits who remained. But their eyes were looking beyond him to the door, and their jaws had dropped in terror. For from outside came the sound of horses' hooves and bridles, and two riders had dismounted and were peering into the hut. The first was a very mountain of a man, whose conical helmet surmounted a vast pale face, on which blond moustaches hung like the teeth of a walrus. The said helmet was grievously battered, and the nose-piece was awry as if from some fierce blow, but there was no scar on the skin. His long hauberk was wrought in scales of steel and silver, and the fillets which bound his great legs were of fine red leather. Behind him came a grizzled squire, bearing a kite-shaped shield painted with the cognisance of a dove. "What have we here?" said the knight in a reedy voice like a boy's. His pale eyes contemplated the figures--the wounded man, now faint again with pain and half-fallen on the litter of branches; his deliverer, tall and grim, but with laughing face; the two murderers cringing in their fear; in a corner the huddled body of the man from the south half hidden by the shield. "Speak, fellow," and he addressed the soldier. "What work has been toward? Have you not had your bellyfull of battles that you must scrabble like rats in this hovel? What are you called, and whence come you?" The soldier lifted his brow, looked his questioner full in the face, and, as if liking what he found there, bowed his head in respect. The huge man had the air of one to be obeyed. "I am of the Duke's army," he said, "and was sent on to reconnoitre the forest roads I stumbled on this hut and found four men about to slay a wounded English. One lies outside where I flung him, another is there with a cracked skull, and you have before you the remnant." The knight seemed to consider. "And why should a soldier of the Duke's be so careful of English lives?" he asked. "I would help my lord Duke to conquer this land," was the answer. "We have broken their army and the way is straight before us. We shall have to fight other armies, but we cannot be fighting all our days, and we do not conquer England till England accepts us. I have heard enough of that stubborn people to know that the way to win them is not by murder. At fair fight, and then honest dealing and mercy, say I." The knight laughed. "A Solomon in judgment," he cried. "But who are you that bear a sword and wear gold on your finger?" The old squire broke in. "My lord Count, I know the man. He is a hunter of the Lord Odo's, and has a name for valour. He wrought mightily this morning on the hill. They call him Jehan the Hunter, and sometimes Jehan the Outborn, for no man knows his comings.
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