Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
Based on THE WANDERER’S NECKLACE by H. Rider Haggard
First Published 1914.
|NOTE BY THE EDITOR|
|THE WANDERER’S NECKLACE|
|BOOK I: AARHUS|
|CHAPTER I. THE BETROTHAL OF OLAF|
|CHAPTER II. THE SLAYING OF THE BEAR|
|CHAPTER III. THE WANDERER’S NECKLACE|
|CHAPTER IV. IDUNA WEARS THE NECKLACE|
|CHAPTER V. THE BATTLE UPON THE SEA|
|CHAPTER VI. HOW OLAF FOUGHT WITH ODIN|
|BOOK II: CONSTANTINOPLE|
|CHAPTER I. IRENE, EMPRESS OF THE EARTH|
|CHAPTER II. THE BLIND CAESAR|
|CHAPTER III. MOTHER AND SON|
|CHAPTER IV. OLAF OFFERS HIS SWORD|
|CHAPTER V. AVE POST SECULA|
|CHAPTER VI. HELIODORE|
|CHAPTER VII. VICTORY OR VALHALLA!|
|CHAPTER VIII. THE TRIAL OF OLAF|
|CHAPTER IX. THE HALL OF THE PIT OF SNAKES|
|CHAPTER X. OLAF GIVES JUDGMENT|
|BOOK III: EGYPT|
|CHAPTER I. TIDINGS FROM EGYPT|
|CHAPTER II. THE STATUES BY THE NILE|
|CHAPTER III. THE VALLEY OF THE DEAD KINGS|
|CHAPTER IV. THE CALIPH HARUN|
|CHAPTER V. IRENE’S PRAYER|
In memory of Oodnadatta and many wanderings oversea I offer these pictures from the past, my dear Vincent, to you, a lover of the present if an aspirant who can look upon the future with more of hope than fear. Your colleague,
H. Rider Haggard. To Sir Edgar Vincent, K.C.M.G.
NOTE BY THE EDITOR
It chances that I, the Editor of these pages—for, in truth, that is my humble function—have recovered a considerable knowledge of a bygone life of mine. This life ended in times that are comparatively recent, namely, early in the ninth century, as is fixed by the fact that the Roman Empress, Irene, plays a part in the story.
The narrative, it will be observed, is not absolutely consecutive; that is to say, all the details are not filled in. Indeed, it has returned to me in a series of scenes or pictures, and although each scene or picture has to do with every other, there are sometimes gaps between them. To take one example among several—the journey of Olaf (in those days my name was Olaf, or Michael after I was baptized) from the North to Constantinople is not recorded. The curtain drops at Aarhus in Jutland and rises again in Eastern Rome. Only those events which were of the most importance seem to have burned themselves into my subconscious memory; many minor details have vanished, or, at least, I cannot find them. This, however, does not appear to me to be a matter for regret. If every episode of a full and eventful life were painted in, the canvas would be overloaded and the eye that studied it bewildered.
I do not think that I have anything more to say. My tale must speak for itself. So I will but add that I hold it unnecessary to set out the exact method by which I have been able to dig it and others from the quarry of my past. It is a gift which, although small at first, I have been able gradually to develop. Therefore, as I wish to hide my present identity, I will only sign myself
Scale Model of Aarhus, Jutland, Denmark Circa 980 AD by Gardar Rurak
THE WANDERERS OF ODIN
BOOK I: AARHUS
CHAPTER I: THE BETROTHAL OF OLAF
Of my childhood in this Olaf life I can regain but little. There come to me, however, recollections of a house, surrounded by a moat, situated in a great plain near to seas or inland lakes, on which plain stood mounds that I connected with the dead. What the dead were I did not quite understand, but I gathered that they were people who, having once walked about and been awake, now laid themselves down in a bed of earth and slept. I remember looking at a big mound which was said to cover a chief known as “The Wanderer,” whom Freydisa, the wise woman, my nurse, told me had lived hundreds or thousands of years before, and thinking that so much earth over him must make him very hot at nights.
I remember also that the hall called Aar was a long house roofed with sods, on which grew grass and sometimes little white flowers, and that inside of it cows were tied up. We lived in a place beyond, that was separated off from the cows by balks of rough timber. I used to watch them being milked through a crack between two of the balks where a knot had fallen out, leaving a convenient eyehole about the height of a walking-stick from the floor.
One day my elder and only brother, Ragnar, who had very red hair, came and pulled me away from this eyehole because he wanted to look through it himself at a cow that always kicked the girl who milked it. I howled, and Steinar, my foster-brother, who had light-coloured hair and blue eyes, and was much bigger and stronger than I, came to my help, because we always loved each other. He fought Ragnar and made his nose bleed, after which my mother, the Lady Thora, who was very beautiful, boxed his ears. Then we all cried, and my father, Thorvald, a tall man, rather loosely made, who had come in from hunting, for he carried the skin of some animal of which the blood had run down on to his leggings, scolded us and told my mother to keep us quiet as he was tired and wanted to eat.
That is the only scene which returns to me of my infancy.
The next of which a vision has come to me is one of a somewhat similar house to our own in Aarhus, upon an island called Lesso, where we were all visiting a chief of the name of Athalbrand. He was a fierce-looking man with a great forked beard, from which he was called Athalbrand Fork-beard. One of his nostrils was larger than the other, and he had a droop in his left eye, both of which peculiarities came to him from some wound or wounds that he had received in war. In those days everybody was at war with everybody else, and it was quite uncommon for anyone to live until his hair turned grey.
The reason of our visit to this chief Athalbrand was that my elder brother, Ragnar, might be betrothed to his only surviving child, Iduna, all of whose brothers had been killed in some battle. I can see Iduna now as she was when she first appeared before us. We were sitting at table, and she entered through a door at the top of the hall. She was clothed in a blue robe, her long fair hair, whereof she had an abundance, was arranged in two plaits which hung almost to her knees, and about her neck and arms were massive gold rings that tinkled as she walked. She had a round face, coloured like a wild rose, and innocent blue eyes that took in everything, although she always seemed to look in front of her and see nothing. Her lips were very red and appeared to smile. Altogether I thought her the loveliest creature that ever I had looked on, and she walked like a deer and held her head proudly.
Still, she did not please Ragnar, who whispered to me that she was sly and would bring mischief on all that had to do with her. I, who at the time was about twenty-one years of age, wondered if he had gone mad to talk thus of this beautiful creature. Then I remembered that just before we had left home I had caught Ragnar kissing the daughter of one of our thralls behind the shed in which the calves were kept. She was a brown eyed girl, very well made, as her rough robe, fastened beneath her breasts with a strap, showed plainly, and she had big dark eyes with a sleepy look in them. Also, I never saw anyone kiss quite so hard as she did; Ragnar himself was surpassed. I think that is why even the great lady, Iduna ‘the Fair’, did not please him. All the while he was thinking of the brown-eyed girl in the russet robe. Still, it is true that, brown-eyed girl or no, he read Iduna aright.
Moreover, if Ragnar did not like Iduna, from the first Iduna hated Ragnar. So it came about that, although both my father, Thorvald, and Iduna’s father, Athalbrand, stormed and threatened, these two declared that they would have nothing to do with each other, and the project of their marriage came to an end.
On the night before we were to leave Lesso, whence Ragnar had already gone, Athalbrand saw me staring at Iduna. This, indeed, was not wonderful, as I could not take my eyes from her lovely face, and when she looked at me and smiled with those red lips of hers I became like a silly bird that is bewitched by a snake. At first I thought that he was going to be angry, but suddenly some idea seemed to strike him so that he called my father, Thorvald, outside the house. Afterwards I was sent for, and found the two of them seated on a three-cornered, flat stone, talking in the moonlight, for it was summertime, when everything looks blue at night and the sun and the moon ride in the sky together. Near by stood my mother, listening.
“Olaf,” said my father, “would you like to marry Iduna ‘the Fair’?”
“Like to marry Iduna?” I gasped. “Aye, more than to be High King of Denmark, for she is no woman, but a goddess.”
At this saying my mother laughed, and Athalbrand, who knew Iduna when she did not seem a goddess, called me a fool. Then they talked, while I stood trembling with hope and fear.
“He’s but a second son,” said Athalbrand.
“I have told you there is land enough for both of them, also the gold that came with his mother will be his, and that’s no small sum,” answered Thorvald.
“He’s no warrior, but a skald,” objected Athalbrand again; “a silly half-man who makes songs and plays upon the harp.”
“Songs are sometimes stronger than swords,” replied my father, “and, after all, it is wisdom that rules. One brain can govern many men; also, harps make merry music at a feast. Moreover, Olaf is brave enough. How can he be otherwise coming of the stock he does?”
“He is thin and weedy,” objected Athalbrand, a saying that made my mother angry.
“Nay, lord Athalbrand,” she said; “he is tall and straight as a dart, and will yet be the handsomest man in these parts.”
“Every duck thinks it has hatched out a swan,” grumbled Athalbrand, while with my eyes I implored my mother to be silent.
Then he thought for awhile, pulling at his long forked beard, and said at last:
“My heart tells me no good can come of such a marriage. Iduna, who is the only one left to me, could marry a man of more wealth and power than this rune-making stripling is ever likely to be. Yet just now I know none such whom I would wish to hold my place when I am gone. Moreover, it is spread far and wide throughout the land that my daughter is to be wed to Thorvald’s son, and it matters little to which son. At least, I will not have it said that she has been given the go-by. Therefore, let this Olaf take her, if she will have him. Only,” he added with a growl, “let him play no tricks like that red-headed cub, his brother Ragnar, if he would not taste of a spear through his liver. Now I go to learn Iduna’s mind.”
So he went; as did my father and mother, leaving me alone, thinking and thanking the gods for the chance that had come my way—yes, and blessing Ragnar and that brown-eyed wench who had thrown her spell over him.
Whilst I stood thus I heard a sound, and, turning, saw Iduna gliding towards me in the blue twilight, looking more lovely than a dream. At my side she stopped and said:
“My father tells me you wish to speak with me,” and she laughed a little softly and held me with her beautiful eyes.
After that I know not what happened till I saw Iduna bending towards me like a willow in the wind, and then—oh, joy of joys!—felt her kiss upon my lips. Now my speech was unsealed, and I told her the tale that lovers have always told. How that I was ready to die for her (to which she answered that she had rather that I lived, since ghosts were not good husbands); how that I was not worthy of her (to which she answered that I was young, with all my time before me, and might live to be greater than I thought, as she believed I should); and so forth.
Only one more thing comes back to me of that blissful hour. Foolishly I said what I had been thinking, namely, that I blessed Ragnar. At these words, of a sudden Iduna’s face grew stern and the lovelight in her eyes was changed to such as gleams from swords.
“I do not bless Ragnar,” she answered. “I hope one day to see Ragnar——” and she checked herself, adding: “Come, let us enter, Olaf. I hear my father calling me to mix his sleeping-cup.”
So we went into the house hand in hand, and when they saw us coming thus, all gathered there burst into shouts of laughter after their rude fashion. Moreover, beakers were thrust into our hands, and we were made to drink from them and swear some oath. Thus ended our betrothal.
I think it was on the next day that we sailed for home in my father’s largest ship of war, which was named the Swan. I went unwillingly enough, who desired to drink more of the delight of Iduna’s eyes. Still, go I must, since Athalbrand would have it so. The marriage, he said, should take place at Aar at the time of the spring feast, and not before. Meanwhile he held it best we should be apart that we might learn whether we still clung to each other in absence.
These were the reasons he gave, but I think that he was already somewhat sorry for what he had done, and reflected that between harvest and springtime he might find another husband for Iduna, who was more to his mind. For Athalbrand, as I learned afterwards, was a scheming and a false-hearted man. Moreover, he was of no high lineage, but one who had raised himself up by war and plunder, and therefore his blood did not compel him to honour.
The next scene which comes back to me of those early days is that of the hunting of the white northern bear, when I saved the life of Steinar, my foster-brother, and nearly lost my own.
It was on a day when the winter was merging into spring, but the coastline near Aar was still thick with pack ice and large floes which had floated in from the more northern seas. A certain fisherman who dwelt on this shore came to the hall to tell us that he had seen a great white bear on one of these floes, which, he believed, had swum from it to the land. He was a man with a clubfoot, and I can recall a vision of him limping across the snow towards the drawbridge of Aar, supporting himself by a staff on the top of which was cut the figure of some animal.
“Young lords,” he cried out, “there is a white bear on the land, such a bear as once I saw when I was a boy. Come out and kill the bear and win honour, but first give me a drink for my news.”
At that time I think my father, Thorvald, was away from home with most of the men, I do not know why; but Ragnar, Steinar and I were lingering about the stead with little or nothing to do, since the time of sowing was not yet. At the news of the clubfooted man, we ran for our spears, and one of us went to tell the only thrall who could be spared to make ready the horses and come with us. Thora, my mother, would have stopped us—she said she had heard from her father that such bears were very dangerous beasts—but Ragnar only thrust her aside, while I kissed her and told her not to fret.
Outside the hall I met Freydisa, a dark, quiet woman of middle age, one of the virgins of Odin, whom I loved and who loved me and, save one other, me only among men, for she had been my nurse.
“Whither now, young Olaf?” she asked me. “Has Iduna come here that you run so fast?”
“No,” I answered, “but a white bear has.”
“Oh! then things are better than I thought,” who feared lest it might be Iduna before her time. “Still, you go on an ill errand, from which I think you will return sadly.”
“Why do you say that, Freydisa?” I asked. “Is it just because you love to croak like a raven on a rock, or for some good reason?”
“I don’t know, Olaf,” she answered. “I say things because they come to me, and I must, that is all. I tell you that evil will be born of this bear hunt of yours, and you had better stop at home.”
“To be laughed at by my brethren, Freydisa? Moreover, you are foolish, for if evil is to be, how can I avoid it? Either your foresight is nothing or the evil must come.”
“That is so,” answered Freydisa. “From your childhood up you had the gift of reason which is more than is granted to most of these fools about us. Go, Olaf, and meet your fore-ordained evil. Still, kiss me before you go lest we should not see each other again for a while. If the bear kills you, at least you will be saved from Iduna.”
Now while she said these words I was kissing Freydisa, whom I loved dearly, but when I understood them I leapt back before she could kiss me again.
“What do you mean by your talk about Iduna?” I asked. “Iduna is my betrothed, and I’ll suffer no ill speech of her.”
“I know she is, Olaf. You’ve got Ragnar’s leavings. Although he is so hot-headed, Ragnar is a wise dog in some ways, who can tell what he should not eat. There, begone, you think me jealous of Iduna, as old women can be, but it’s not that, my dear. Oh! you’ll learn before all is done, if you live. Begone, begone! I’ll tell you no more. Hark, Ragnar is shouting to you,” and she pushed me away.
It was a long ride to where the bear was supposed to be. At first as we went we talked a great deal, and made a wager as to which of the three of us should first drive a spear into the beast’s body so deep that the blade was hidden, but afterwards I grew silent. Indeed, I was musing so much of Iduna and how the time drew near when once more I should see her sweet face, wondering also why Ragnar and Freydisa should think so ill of her who seemed a goddess rather than a woman, that I forgot all about the bear. So completely did I forget it that when, being by nature very observant, I saw the slot of such a beast as we passed a certain birch wood, I did not think to connect it with that which we were hunting or to point it out to the others who were riding ahead of me.
At length we came to the sea, and there, sure enough, saw a great icefloe, which now and again tilted as the surge caught its broad green flank. When it tilted towards us we perceived a track worn deep into the ice by the paws of the prisoned bear as it had marched endlessly round. Also we saw a big grinning skull, whereon sat a raven picking at the eyeholes, and some fragments of white fur.
“The bear is dead!” exclaimed Ragnar. “Odin’s curse be on that clubfooted fool who gave us this cold ride for nothing.”
“Yes, I suppose so,” said Steinar doubtfully. “Don’t you think that it is dead, Olaf?”
“What is the good of asking Olaf?” broke in Ragnar, with a loud laugh. “What does Olaf know about bears? He has been asleep for the last half-hour dreaming of Athalbrand’s blue-eyed daughter; or perhaps he is making up another poem.”
“Olaf sees farther when he seems asleep than some of us do when we are awake,” answered Steinar hotly.
“Oh yes,” replied Ragnar. “Sleeping or waking, Olaf is perfect in your eyes, for you’ve drunk the same milk, and that ties you tighter than a rope. Wake up, now, brother Olaf, and tell us: Is not the bear dead?”
Then I answered, “Why, of course, a bear is dead; see its skull, also pieces of its hide?”
“There!” exclaimed Ragnar. “Our family prophet has settled the matter. Let us go home.”
“Olaf said that a bear was dead,” answered Steinar, hesitating.
Ragnar, who had already swung himself round in his quick fashion, spoke back over his shoulder:
“Isn’t that enough for you? Do you want to hunt a skull or the raven sitting on it? Or is this, perchance, one of Olaf’s riddles? If so, I am too cold to guess riddles just now.”
“Yet I think there is one for you to guess, brother,” I said gently, “and it is: Where is the live bear hiding? Can’t you see that there were two bears on that icehead, and that one has killed and eaten the other?”
“How do you know that?” asked Ragnar.
“Because I saw the slot of the second as we passed the birch wood yonder. It has a split claw on the left forefoot and the others are all worn by the ice.”
“Then why in Odin’s name did you not say so before?” exclaimed Ragnar angrily.
Now I was ashamed to confess that I had been dreaming, so I answered at hazard:
“Because I wished to look upon the sea and the floating ice. See what wondrous colours they take in this light!”
When he heard this, Steinar burst out laughing till tears came into his blue eyes and his broad shoulders shook. But Ragnar, who cared nothing for scenery or sunsets, did not laugh. On the contrary, as was usual with him when vexed, he lost his temper and swore by the more evil of the gods. Then he turned on me and said:
“Why not tell the truth at once, Olaf? You are afraid of this beast, and that’s why you let us come on here when you knew it was in the wood. You hoped that before we got back there it would be too dark to hunt.”
At this taunt I flushed and gripped the shaft of my long hunting spear, for among us Northmen to be told that he was afraid of anything was a deadly insult to a man.
“If you were not my brother——” I began, then checked myself, for I was by nature easy-tempered, and went on: “It is true, Ragnar, I am not so fond of hunting as you are. Still, I think that there will be time to fight this bear and kill or be killed by it, before it grows dark, and if not I will return alone tomorrow morning.”
Then I pulled my horse round and rode ahead. As I went, my ears being very quick, I heard the other two talking together. At least, I suppose that I heard them; at any rate, I know what they said, although, strangely enough, nothing at all comes back to me of their tale of an attack upon a ship or of what then I did or did not do.
“It is not wise to jeer at Olaf,” said Steinar, “for when he is stung with words he does mad things. Don’t you remember what happened when your father called him ‘niddering’ last year because Olaf said it was not just to attack the ship of those British men who had been driven to our coast by weather, meaning us no harm?”
“Aye,” answered Ragnar. “He leapt among them all alone as soon as our boat touched her side, and felled the steersman. Then the British men shouted out that they would not kill so brave a lad, and threw him into the sea. It cost us that ship, since by the time we had picked him up she had put about and hoisted her large sail. Oh, Olaf is brave enough, we all know that! Still, he ought to have been born a woman or a priest of Freya who only offers flowers. Also, he knows my tongue and bears no malice.”
“Pray that we get him home safe,” said Steinar uneasily, “for if not there will be trouble with your mother and every other woman in the land, to say nothing of Iduna ‘the Fair’.”
“Iduna ‘the Fair’ would live through it,” answered Ragnar, with a hard laugh. “But you are right; and, what is more, there will be trouble among the men also, especially with my father and in my own heart. After all there is but one Olaf.”
At this moment I held up my hand, and they stopped talking.
Leaping from their horses, Ragnar and Steinar came to where I stood, for already I had dismounted and was pointing to the ground, which just here had been swept clear of snow by the wind.
“I see nothing,” said Ragnar.
“But I do, brother,” I answered; “who study the ways of wild things while you think I am asleep. Look, that moss has been turned over; for it is frozen underneath and pressed up into little mounds between the bear’s claws. Also that tiny pool has gathered in the slot of the paw; it is its very shape. The other footprints do not show because of the rock.”
Then I went forward a few paces behind some bushes and called out: “Here runs the track, sure enough, and, as I thought, the brute has a split claw; the snow marks it well. Bid the thrall stay with the horses and come you.”
They obeyed, and there on the white snow which lay beyond the bush we saw the track of the bear stamped as if in wax.
“A mighty beast,” said Ragnar. “Never have I seen its like.”
“Aye,” exclaimed Steinar, “but an ill place to hunt it in,” and he looked doubtfully at the rough gorge, covered with undergrowth, that some hundred yards farther on became dense birch forest. “I think it would be well to ride back to Aar, and return to-morrow morning with all whom we can gather. This is no task for three spears.”
By this time I, Olaf, was springing from rock to rock up the gorge, following the bear’s track. For my brother’s taunts rankled in me and I was determined that I should kill this beast or die and thus show Ragnar that I feared no bear. So I called back to them over my shoulder:
“Aye, go home, it is wisest; but I go on for I have never yet seen one of these white ice-bears alive.”
“Now it is Olaf who taunts in his turn,” said Ragnar with a laugh. Then they both sprang after me, but always I kept ahead of them.
For the half of a mile or more they followed me out of the scrub into the birch forest, where the snow, lying on the matted boughs of the trees and especially of some firs that were mingled with the birch, made the place gloomy in that low light. Always in front of me ran the huge slots of the bear till at length they brought me to a little forest glade, where some great whirling wind had torn up many trees which had but a poor roothold on a patch of almost soilless rock.
These trees lay in confusion, their tops, which had not yet rotted, being filled with frozen snow. On the edge of them I paused, having lost the track. Then I went forward again, casting wide as a hound does, while behind came Ragnar and Steinar, walking straight past the edge of the glade, and purposing to meet me at its head. This, indeed, Ragnar did, but Steinar halted because of a crunching sound that caught his ear, and then stepped to the right between two fallen birches to discover its cause. Next moment, as he told me afterwards, he stood frozen, for there behind the boughs of one of the trees was the huge white bear, eating some animal that it had killed. The beast saw him, and, mad with rage at being disturbed, for it was famished after its long journey on the floe, reared itself up on its hind legs, roaring till the air shook. High it towered, its hook-like claws outstretched.
Steinar tried to spring back, but caught his foot, and fell. Well for him was it that he did so, for otherwise the blow which the bear struck would have crushed him to a pulp. The brute did not seem to understand where he had gone—at any rate, it remained upreared and beating at the air. Then a doubt took it, its huge paws sank until it sat like a begging dog, sniffing the wind. At this moment Ragnar came back shouting, and hurled his spear. It stuck in the beast’s chest and hung there. The bear began to feel for it with its paws, and, catching the shaft, lifted it to its mouth and champed it, thus dragging the steel from its hide.
Then it bethought it of Steinar, and, sinking down, discovered him, and tore at the birch tree under which he had crept till the splinters flew from its trunk. Just then I reached it, having seen all. By now the bear had its teeth fixed in Steinar’s shoulder, or, rather, in his leathern garment, and was dragging him from under the tree. When it saw me it reared itself up again, lifting Steinar and holding him to its breast with one paw. I went mad at the sight, and charged it, driving my spear deep into its throat. With its other paw it struck the weapon from my hand, shivering the shaft. There it stood, towering over us like a white pillar, and roared with pain and fury, Steinar still pressed against it, Ragnar and I helpless.
“He’s done for!” gasped Ragnar.
I thought for a flash of time, and—oh! well do I remember that moment: the huge beast foaming at the jaws and Steinar held to its breast as a little girl holds a doll; the still, snow-laden trees, on the top of one of which sat a small bird spreading its tail in jerks; the red light of evening, and about us the great silences of the sky above and of the lonely forest beneath. It all comes back to me—I can see it now quite clearly; yes, even the bird flitting to another twig, and there again spreading its tail to some invisible mate. Then I made up my mind what to do.
“Not yet!” I cried. “Keep it in play,” and, drawing my short and heavy sword, I plunged through the birch boughs to get behind the bear. Ragnar understood. He threw his cap into the brute’s face, and then, after it had growled at him awhile, just as it dropped its great jaws to crunch Steinar, he found a bough and thrust it between them.
By now I was behind the bear, and, smiting at its right leg below the knee, severed the tendon. Down it came, still hugging Steinar. I smote again with all my strength, and cut into its spine above the tail, paralysing it. It was a great blow, as it needed to be to cleave the thick hair and hide, and my sword broke in the backbone, so that, like Ragnar, now I was weaponless. The forepart of the bear rolled about in the snow, although its after half was still.
Then once more it seemed to bethink itself of Steinar, who lay unmoving and senseless. Stretching out a paw, it dragged him towards its champing jaws. Ragnar leapt upon its back and struck at it with his knife, thereby only maddening it the more. I ran in and grasped Steinar, whom the bear was again hugging to its breast. Seeing me, it loosed Steinar, whom I dragged away and cast behind me, but in the effort I slipped and fell forward. The bear smote at me, and its mighty forearm—well for me that it was not its claws—struck me upon the side of the head and sent me crashing into a tree-top to the left. Five paces I flew before my body touched the boughs, and there I lay quiet.
I suppose that Ragnar told me what passed after this while I was senseless. At least, I know that the bear began to die, for my spear had pierced some artery in its throat, and all the talk which followed, as well as though I heard it with my ears. It roared and roared, vomiting blood and stretching out its claws after Steinar as Ragnar dragged him away. Then it laid its head flat upon the snow and died. Ragnar looked at it and muttered:
Then he walked to that top of the fallen tree in which I lay, and again muttered: “Dead! Well, Valhalla holds no braver man than Olaf ‘the Skald’.”
Next he went to Steinar and once again exclaimed, “Dead!”
For so he looked, indeed, smothered in the blood of the bear and with his garments half torn off him. Still, as the words passed Ragnar’s lips he sat up, rubbed his eyes and smiled as a child does when it awakes.
“Are you much hurt?” asked Ragnar.
“I think not,” he answered doubtfully, “save that I feel sore and my head swims. I have had a bad dream.” Then his eyes fell on the bear, and he added: “Oh, I remember now; it was no dream. Where is Olaf?”
“Supping with Odin,” answered Ragnar and pointed to me.
Steinar rose to his feet, staggered to where I lay, and stared at me stretched there as white as the snow, with a smile upon my face and in my hand a spray of some evergreen bush which I had grasped as I fell.
“Did he die to save me?” asked Steinar.
“Aye,” answered Ragnar, “and never did man walk that bridge in better fashion. You were right. Would that I had not mocked him.”
“Would that I had died and not he,” said Steinar with a sob. “It is borne in upon my heart that it were better I had died.”
“Then that may well be, for the heart does not lie at such a time. Also it is true that he was worth both of us. There was something more in him than there is in us, Steinar. Come, lift him to my back, and if you are strong enough, go on to the horses and bid the thrall bring one of them. I follow.”
Thus ended the fight with the great white bear.
Some four hours later, in the midst of a raging storm of wind and rain, I was brought at last to the bridge that spanned the moat of the Hall of Aar, laid like a corpse across the back of one of the horses. They had been searching for us at Aar, but in that darkness had found nothing. Only, at the head of the bridge was Freydisa, a torch in her hand. She glanced at me by the light of the torch.
“As my heart foretold, so it is,” she said. “Bring him in,” then turned and ran to the house.
They bore me up between the double ranks of stabled kine to where the great fire of turf and wood burned at the head of the hall, and laid me on a table.
“Is he dead?” asked Thorvald, my father, who had come home that night; “and if so, how?”
“Aye, father,” answered Ragnar, “and nobly. He dragged Steinar yonder from under the paws of the great white bear and slew it with his sword.”
“A mighty deed,” muttered my father. “Well, at least he comes home in honour.”
But my mother, whose favourite son I was, lifted up her voice and wept. Then they took the clothes from off me, and, while all watched, Freydisa, the skilled woman, examined my hurts. She felt my head and looked into my eyes, and laying her ear upon my breast, listened for the beating of my heart.
Presently she rose, and, turning, said slowly:
“Olaf is not dead, though near to death. His pulses flutter, the light of life still burns in his eyes, and though the blood runs from his ears, I think the skull is not broken.”
When she heard these words, Thora, my mother, whose heart was weak, fainted for joy, and my father, untwisting a gold ring from his arm, threw it to Freydisa.
“First the cure,” she said, thrusting it away with her foot. “Moreover, when I work for love I take no pay.”
Then they washed me, and, having dressed my hurts, laid me on a bed near the fire that warmth might come back to me. But Freydisa would not suffer them to give me anything save a little hot milk which she poured down my throat.
For three days I lay like one dead; indeed, all save my mother held Freydisa wrong and thought that I was dead. But on the fourth day I opened my eyes and took food, and after that fell into a natural sleep. On the morning of the sixth day I sat up and spoke many wild and wandering words, so that they believed I should only live as a madman.
“His mind is gone,” said my mother, and wept.
“Nay,” answered Freydisa, “he does but return from a land where they speak another tongue. Thorvald, bring hither the bearskin.”
It was brought and hung on a frame of poles at the end of the niche in which I slept, that, as was usual among northern people, opened out of the hall. I stared at it for a long while. Then my memory came back and I asked:
“Did the great beast kill Steinar?”
“No,” answered my mother, who sat by me. “Steinar was sore hurt, but escaped and now is well again.”
“Let me see him with my own eyes,” I said.
So he was brought, and I looked on him. “I am glad you live, my brother,” I said, “for know in this long sleep of mine I have dreamed that you were dead”; and I stretched out my wasted arms towards him, for I loved Steinar better than any other man.
He came and kissed me on the brow, saying:
“Aye, thanks to you, Olaf, I live to be your brother and your thrall till the end.”
“My brother always, not my thrall,” I muttered, for I was growing tired. Then I went to sleep again.
Three days later, when my strength began to return, I sent for Steinar and said:
“Brother, Iduna ‘the Fair’, whom you have never seen, my betrothed, must wonder how it fares with me, for the tale of this hurt of mine will have reached Lesso. Now, as there are reasons why Ragnar cannot go, and as I would send no mean man, I pray you to do me a favour. It is that you will take a boat and sail to Lesso, carrying with you as a present from me to Athalbrand’s daughter the skin of that white bear, which I trust will serve her and me as a bedcovering in winter for many a year to come. Tell her, thanks be to the gods and to the skill of Freydisa, my nurse, I live who all thought must die, and that I trust to be strong and well for our marriage at the spring feast which draws on. Say also, that through all my sickness I have dreamed of none but her, as I trust that sometimes she may have dreamed of me.”
“Aye, I’ll go,” answered Steinar, “fast as horses’ legs and sails can carry me,” adding with his pleasant laugh, “Long have I desired to see this Iduna of yours, and to learn whether she is as beautiful as you say, and also what it is in her that Ragnar hates.”
“Be careful that you do not find her too beautiful,” broke in Freydisa, who, as ever, was at my side.
“How can I if she is for Olaf?” answered Steinar, smiling, as he left the place to make ready for his journey to Lesso.
“What did you mean by those words, Freydisa?” I asked when he was gone.
“Little or much,” she replied, shrugging her shoulders. “Iduna is lovely, is she not, and Steinar is handsome, is he not, and of an age when man seeks woman, and what is brotherhood when man seeks woman and woman beguiles man?”
“Peace to your riddles, Freydisa. You forget that Iduna is my betrothed and that Steinar was fostered with me. Why, I’d trust them for a week at sea alone.”
“Doubtless, Olaf, being young and foolish, as you are; also that is your nature. Now here is the broth. Drink it, and I, whom some call a wise woman and others a witch, say that tomorrow you may rise from this bed and sit in the sun, if there is any.”
“Freydisa,” I said when I had swallowed the broth, “why do folk call you a witch?”
“I think because I am a little less of a fool than other women, Olaf. Also because it has not pleased me to marry, as it is held natural that all women should do if they have the chance.”
“Why are you wiser, and why have you not married?”
“I am wiser because I have questioned things more than most, and to those who question, answers come at last. And I am not married because another woman took the only man I wanted before I met him. That was my bad luck. Still, it taught me a great lesson, namely, how to wait and meanwhile to acquire understanding.”
“What understanding have you acquired, Freydisa? For instance, does it tell you that our gods of wood and stone are true gods which rule the world? Or are they but wood and stone, as sometimes I have thought?”
“Then think no more, Olaf, for such thoughts are dangerous. If Leif, your uncle, Odin’s high priest, heard them, what might he not say or do? Remember that whether the gods live or no, certainly the priest lives, and on the gods, and if the gods went, where would the priest be? Also, as regards these gods—well, whatever they may or may not be, at least they are the voices that in our day speak to us from that land whence we came and whither we go. The world has known millions of days, and each day has its god—or its voice—and all the voices speak truth to those who can hear them. Meanwhile, you are a fool to have sent Steinar bearing your gift to Iduna. Or perhaps you are very wise. I cannot say as yet. When I learn I will tell you.”
Then again she shrugged her shoulders and left me wondering what she meant by her dark sayings. I can see her going now, a wooden bowl in her hand, and in it a horn spoon of which the handle was cracked longways, and thus in my mind ends all the scene of my sickness after the slaying of the white bear.
The next thing that I remember is the coming of the men of Agger. This cannot have been very long after Steinar went to Lesso, for he had not yet returned. Being still weak from my great illness, I was seated in the sun in the shelter of the house, wrapped up in a cloak of deerskins—for the northern wind blew bitter. By me stood my father, who was in a happy mood now he knew that I should live and be strong again.
“Steinar should be back by now,” I said to him. “I trust that he has come by no ill.”
“Oh no,” answered my father carelessly. “For seven days the wind has been high, and doubtless Athalbrand fears to let him sail from Lesso.”
“Or perhaps Steinar finds Athalbrand’s hall a pleasant place to bide in,” suggested Ragnar, who had joined us, a spear in his hand, for he had come in from hunting. “There are good drink and bright eyes there.”
I was about to answer sharply, since Ragnar stung me with his bitter talk of Steinar, of whom I knew him to be somewhat jealous, because he thought I loved my foster-brother more than I did him, my brother. Just then, however, three men appeared through trees that grew about the hall, and came towards the bridge, whereon Ragnar’s great wolfhounds, knowing them for strangers, set up a furious baying and sprang forward to tear them. By the time the beasts were caught and quelled, these men, aged persons of presence, had crossed the bridge and were greeting us.
“This is the hall of Thorvald of Aar, is it not? And a certain Steinar dwells here with him, does he not?” asked their spokesman.
“It is, and I am Thorvald,” answered my father. “Also Steinar has dwelt here from his birth up, but is now away from home on a visit to the lord Athalbrand of Lesso. Who are you, and what would you of Steinar, my fosterling”
“When you have told us the story of Steinar we will tell you who we are and what we seek,” answered the man, adding: “Fear not, we mean him no harm, but rather good if he is the man we think.”
“Wife,” called my father, “come hither. Here are men who would know the story of Steinar, and say that they mean him good.”
So my mother came, and the men bowed to her.
“The story of Steinar is short, sirs,” she said. “His mother, Steingerdi, who was my cousin and the friend of my childhood, married the great chief Hakon, of Agger, two and twenty summers gone. A year later, just before Steinar was born, she fled to me here, asking shelter of my lord. Her tale was that she had quarrelled with Hakon because another woman had crept into her place. Finding that this tale was true, and that Hakon had treated her ill indeed, we gave her shelter, and here her son Steinar was born, in giving birth to whom she died—of a broken heart, as I think, for she was mad with grief and jealousy. I nursed him with my son Olaf yonder, and since, although he had news of his birth, Hakon never claimed him, with us he has dwelt as a son ever since. That is all the tale. Now what would you with Steinar?”
“This, Lady: The lord Hakon and his three sons and wife, for after Steingerdi’s death, he married her, were drowned in making harbour on the night of the great gale eighteen days ago.”
“That is the day when the bear nearly killed Steinar,” I interrupted.
“Well for him, then, young sir, that he escaped this bear, for now, as it seems to us, he is the lord of all Hakon’s lands and people, being the only male left living of his issue. This, by the wish of the head men of Agger, where is Hakon’s hall, we have come to tell him, if he still lives, since by report he is a goodly man and brave—one well fitted to sit in Hakon’s place.
“Is the heritage great?” asked my father.
“Aye, very great, Lord. In all Jutland there was no richer man than Hakon.”
“By Odin!” exclaimed my father, “it seems that Steinar is in Fortune’s favour. Well, men of Agger, enter and rest you. After you have eaten we will talk further of these matters.”
It was just then that, appearing between the trees on the road that ran to Fladstrand and to the sea, I saw a company mounted upon horses. In front was a young woman, wrapped in a coat of furs, talking eagerly to a man who rode by her. Behind, clad in armour, with a battle-axe girt about him, rode another man, big and fork-bearded, who stared about him gloomily, and behind him again ten or twelve thralls and seamen.
One glance was enough for me. Then I sprang up, crying:
“Iduna’s self, and with her my brother Steinar, the lord Athalbrand and his folk. A happy sight indeed!” And I would have run forward to meet them.
“Yes, yes,” said my mother; “but await them here, I pray you. You are not yet strong, my son.” And she flung her arms about me and held me.
Presently they were at the bridge, and Steinar, springing from his horse, lifted Iduna from her saddle, a sight at which I saw my mother frown. Then I would no longer be restrained, but ran forward, crying greetings as I came, and, seizing Iduna’s hand, I kissed it. Indeed, I would have kissed her cheek also, but she shrank back, saying:
“Not before all these folk, Olaf.”
“As you will,” I answered, though just then a chill struck me, which, I thought to myself, came doubtless from the cold wind. “It will be the sweeter afterwards,” I added as gaily as I could.
“Yes,” she said hurriedly. “But, Olaf, how white and thin you are. I had hoped to find you well again, though, not knowing how it fared with you, I came to see with my own eyes.”
“That is good of you,” I muttered as I turned to grasp Steinar’s hand, adding: “I know well who it was that brought you here.”
“Nay, nay,” she said. “I came of myself. But my father waits you, Olaf.”
So I went to where the lord Athalbrand Fork-beard was dismounting, and greeted him, lifting my cap.
“What!” grumbled Athalbrand, who seemed to be in an ill temper, “are you Olaf? I should scarcely have known you again, lad, for you look more like a wisp of hay tied on a stick than a man. Now that the flesh is off you I see you lack bone, unlike some others,” and he glanced at the broad-shouldered Steinar. “Greeting to you, Thorvald. We are come here through a sea that nearly drowned us, somewhat before the appointed time, because—well, because, on the whole, I thought it best to come. I pray Odin that you are more glad to see us than I am to see you.”
“If so, friend Athalbrand, why did you not stop away?” asked my father, firing up, then adding quickly: “Nay, no offence; you are welcome here, whatever your humour, and you too, my daughter that is to be, and you, Steinar, my fosterling, who, as it chances, are come in a good hour.”
“How’s that, Lord?” asked Steinar absently, for he was looking at Iduna.
“Thus, Steinar: These men”—and he pointed to the three messengers—“have but just arrived from Agger with the news that your father, Hakon, and your half-brothers are all drowned. They say also that the folk of Agger have named you Hakon’s heir, as, indeed, you are by right of blood.”
“Is that so?” exclaimed Steinar, bewildered. “Well, as I never saw my father or my brothers, and they treated me but ill, I cannot weep for them.”
“Hakon!” broke in Athalbrand. “Why, I knew him well, for in my youth we were comrades in war. He was the wealthiest man in Jutland in cattle, lands, thralls and stored gold. Young friend, your luck is great,” and he stared first at Steinar, then at Iduna, pulling his forked beard and muttering words to himself that I could not catch.
“Steinar gets the fortune he deserves,” I exclaimed, embracing him. “Not for nothing did I save you from the bear, Steinar. Come, wish my foster-brother joy, Iduna.”
“Aye, that I do with all my heart,” she said. “Joy and long life to you, and with them rule and greatness, Steinar, Lord of Agger,” and she curtsied to him, her blue eyes fixed upon his face.
But Steinar turned away, making no answer. Only Ragnar, who stood by, burst into a loud laugh. Then, putting his arm through mine, he led me into the hall, saying:
“This wind is over cold for you, Olaf. Nay, trouble not about Iduna. Steinar, Lord of Agger, will care for her, I think.”
That night there was a feast at Aar, and I sat at it with Iduna by my side. Beautiful she was indeed in her garment of blue, over which streamed her yellow hair, bright as the gold rings that tinkled on her rounded arms. She was kind to me also, and bade me tell her the story of the slaying of the bear, which I did as best I could, though afterwards Ragnar told it otherwise, and more fully. Only Steinar said little or nothing, for he seemed to be lost in dreams.
I thought that this was because he felt sad at the news of the death of his father and brethren, since, although he had never known them, blood still calls to blood; and so, I believe, did most there present. At any rate my father and mother tried to cheer him and in the end bade the men of Agger draw near to tell him the tale of his heritage.
They obeyed, and set out all their case, of which the sum was that Steinar must now be one of the wealthiest and most powerful men of the northern lands.
“It seems that we should all take off our caps to you, young lord,” said Athalbrand when he heard this tale of rule and riches. “Why did you not ask me for my fair daughter?” he added with a half-drunken laugh, for all the liquor he had swallowed had got a hold of his brain. Recovering himself, he went on: “It is my will, Thorvald, that Iduna and this snipe of an Olaf of yours should be wed as soon as possible. I say that they shall be wed as soon as possible, since otherwise I know not what may happen.”
Then his head fell forward on the table and he sank to sleep.
On the morrow early I lay awake, for how could I sleep when Iduna rested beneath the same roof with me—Iduna, who, as her father had decreed, was to become my wife sooner than I had hoped? I was thinking how beautiful she looked, and how much I loved her; also of other things that were not so pleasant. For instance, why did not everybody see her with my eyes? I could not hide from myself that Ragnar went near to hating her; more than once she had almost been the cause of a quarrel between us. Freydisa, too, my nurse, who loved me, looked on her sourly, and even my mother, although she tried to like her for my sake, had not yet learned to do so, or thus it appeared to me.
When I asked her why, she replied that she feared the maid was somewhat selfish, also too fond of drawing the eyes of men, and of the adornment of her beauty. Of those who were dearest to me, indeed, only Steinar seemed to think Iduna as perfect as I did myself. This, so far as it went, was well; but, then, Steinar and I had always thought alike, which robbed his judgment of something of its worth.
Whilst I was pondering over these things, although it was still so early that my father and Athalbrand were yet in bed sleeping off the fumes of the liquor they had drunk, I heard Steinar himself talking to the messengers from Agger in the hall. They asked him humbly whether he would be pleased to return with them that day and take possession of his inheritance, since they must get back forthwith to Agger with their tidings. He replied that if they would send some or come themselves to escort him on the tenth day from that on which they spoke, he would go to Agger with them, but that until then he could not do so.
“Ten days! In ten days who knows what may happen?” said their spokesman. “Such a heritage as yours will not lack for claimants, Lord, especially as Hakon has left nephews behind him.”
“I know not what will or will not happen,” answered Steinar, “but until then I cannot come. Go now, I pray you, if you must, and bear my words and greetings to the men of Agger, whom soon I hope to meet myself.”
So they went, as I thought, heavily enough. A while afterwards my father rose and came into the hall, where from my bed I could see Steinar seated on a stool by the fire brooding. He asked where the men of Agger were, and Steinar told him what he had done.
“Are you mad, Steinar?” he asked, “that you have sent them away with such an answer? Why did you not consult me first?”
“Because you were asleep, Foster-father, and the messengers said they must catch the tide. Also I could not leave Aar until I had seen Olaf and Iduna married.”
“Iduna and Olaf can marry without your help. It takes two to make a marriage, not three. I see well that you owe love and loyalty to Olaf, who is your foster-brother and saved your life, but you owe something to yourself also. I pray Odin that this folly may not have cost you your lordship. Fortune is a wench who will not bear slighting.”
“I know it,” answered Steinar, and there was something strange in his voice. “Believe me, I do not slight fortune; I follow her in my own fashion.”
“Then it is a mad fashion,” grumbled my father, and walked away.
It comes back to me that it was some days after this that I saw the ghost of the Wanderer standing on his grave mound. It happened thus. On a certain afternoon I had been riding alone with Iduna, which was a great joy to me, though I would sooner have walked, for then I could have held her hand, and perhaps, if she had suffered it, kissed her. I had recited to her a poem which I had made comparing her to the goddess Iduna, the wife of Bragi, she who guarded the apples of immortal youth whereof the gods must eat or die, she whose garment was the spring, woven of the flowers that she put on when she escaped from winter’s giant grasp. I think that it was a very good poem of its own sort, but Iduna seemed to have small taste for poetry and to know little of the lovely goddess and her apples, although she smiled sweetly and thanked me for my verses.
Then she began to talk of other matters, especially of how, after we were wed, her father wished to make war upon another chieftain and to seize his land. She said that it was for this reason that he had been so anxious to form an alliance with my father, Thorvald, as such an alliance would make him sure of victory. Before that time, she told me that he, Athalbrand, had purposed to marry her to another lord for this very reason, but unhappily this lord had been killed in battle.
“Nay, happily for us, Iduna,” I said.
“Perhaps,” she answered with a sigh. “Who knows? At any rate, your House will be able to give us more ships and men than he who is dead could have done.”
“Yet I love peace, not war,” I broke in, “I who hate the slaying of those who have never harmed me, and do not seek to die on the swords of men whom I have no desire to harm. Of what good is war when one has enough? I would be no widow-maker, Iduna, nor do I wish that others should make you a widow.”
Iduna looked at me with her steady blue eyes.
“You talk strangely, Olaf,” she said, “and were it not known to be otherwise, some might hold that you are a coward. Yet it was no coward who leapt alone on board the warship, or who slew the great white bear to save Steinar’s life. I do not understand you, Olaf, you who have doubts as to the killing of men. How does a man grow great except upon the blood of others? It is that which fats him. How does the wolf live? How does the kite live? How does Odin fill Valhalla? By death, always by death.”
“I cannot answer you,” I said; “yet I hold that somewhere there is an answer which I do not know, since wrong can never be the right.”
Then, as she did not seem to understand, I began to talk of other things, but from that moment I felt as though a veil swung between me and Iduna. Her beauty held my flesh, but some other part in me turned away from her. We were different.
When we reached the hall we met Steinar, who was lingering near the door. He ran forward and helped Iduna to dismount, then said:
“Olaf, I know that you must not overtire yourself as yet, but your lady has told me that she desires to see the sunset from Odin’s Mount. Have I your leave to take her there?”
“I do not yet need Olaf’s leave to walk abroad, though some few days hence it may be different,” broke in Iduna, with a merry laugh, before I could answer. “Come, lord Steinar, let us go and see this sunset whereof you talk so much.”
“Yes, go,” I said, “only do not stay too long, for I think a storm comes up. But go, for who was it but me that taught Steinar to love sunsets?”
So they went, and before they had been gone an hour the storm broke as I had foreseen. First came wind, and with it hail, and after that thunder and great darkness, lit up from time to time by pulsing lightning.
“Steinar and Iduna do not return. I am afraid for them,” I said at last to Freydisa.
“Then why do you not go to seek them?” she asked with a little laugh.
“I think I will,” I said.
“If so, I will come with you, Olaf, for you still need a nurse, though, for my part, I hold that the lord Steinar and the lady Iduna can guard themselves as well as most folk. No, I am wrong. I mean that the lady Iduna can guard herself and the lord Steinar. Now, be not angry. Here’s your cloak.”
So we started, for I was urged to this foolish journey by some impulse that I could not master. There were two ways of reaching Odin’s Mount; one, the shorter, over the rocks and through the forest land. The other, the longer, ran across the open plain, between the many earth tombs of the dead who had lived thousands of years before, and past the great mound in which it was said that a warrior of long ago, who was named the Wanderer, lay buried. Because of the darkness we chose this latter road, and presently found ourselves beneath the great mass of the Wanderer’s Mount. Now the darkness was intense, and the lightning grew rare, for the hail and rain had ceased and the storm was rolling away.
“My counsel is,” said Freydisa, “that we wait here until the moon rises, which it should do soon. When the wind has driven away the clouds it will show us our path, but if we go on in this darkness we shall fall into some pit. It is not cold tonight, and you will take no harm.”
“No, indeed,” I answered, “for now I am as strong again as ever I was.”
So we stayed till the lightning, flashing for the last time, showed us a man and a woman standing quite close to us, although we had not heard them because of the wind. They were Steinar and Iduna, talking together eagerly, with their faces very near to each other. At the same moment they saw us. Steinar said nothing, for he seemed confused, but Iduna ran to us and said:
“Thanks be to the gods who send you, Olaf. The great storm caught us at Odin’s temple, where we were forced to shelter. Then, fearing that you would grow frightened, we started, and lost our way.”
“Is it so?” I answered. “Surely Steinar would have known this road even in the dark. But what matter, since I have found you?”
“Aye, he knew as soon as we saw this grave mound. But Steinar was telling me that some ghost haunts it, and I begged him to stay awhile, since there is nothing I desire so much as to see a ghost, who believe little in such things. So he stayed, though he says he fears the dead more than the living. Freydisa, they tell me that you are very wise. Cannot you show me this ghost?”
“The spirit does not ask my leave to appear, lady,” answered Freydisa in her quiet voice. “Still, at times it does appear, for I have seen it twice. So let us bide here a little on the chance.”
Then she went forward a few steps and began to mutter to herself.
Some minutes later the clouds broke and the great moon was seen riding low down in a clear sky, illumining the grave mound and all the plain, save where we stood in the shadow of the mount.
“Do you see aught?” asked Freydisa presently. “If not, let us be gone, for when the Wanderer comes at all it is at the rising of the moon.”
Steinar and Iduna answered, “No,” but I, who did see something, said:
“Look yonder among the shadows. Mayhap it is a wolf stirring. Nay, it is a man. Look, Iduna.”
“I look and find nothing,” she answered.
“Look again,” I said. “He reaches the top of the mount and stands there staring towards the south. Oh! now he turns, and the moonlight shines upon his face.”
“You dream, Olaf,” said Steinar. “If you do not dream, tell us of the likeness of this spirit.”
“Its likeness,” I answered, “is that of a tall and noble man, worn as though with years and sorrows. He wears strange rich armour that is dinted and soiled; on his head is a cap of mail with two long cheekpieces, beneath which appears his brown hair lined with grey. He holds a red-coloured sword which is handled with a cross of gold. He points the sword at you, Steinar. It is as though he were angry with you, or warned you.”
Now, when Steinar heard these words he shook and groaned, as I remembered afterwards. But of this I took no note at the time, for just then Iduna cried out:
“Say, Olaf, does the man wear a necklace? I see a necklace hanging in the air above the mount, but naught else.”
“Yes, Iduna, he wears a necklace above his mail. How does it appear to you?”
“Oh, beautiful, beautiful!” she answered. “A chain of pale gold, and hanging from it golden shells inlaid with blue, and between them green jewels that hold the moon.”
“That is what I see also,” I said, as indeed I did. “There! All is gone.”
Freydisa returned and there was a strange smile on her dark face, for she had heard all our talk.
“Who sleeps in that mound, Freydisa?” asked Iduna.
“How can I tell, Lady, seeing that he was laid there a thousand years ago, or mayhap more? Yet a story, true or false, remains of him that I have heard. It is that he was a king of these parts, who followed a dream to the south. The dream was of a necklace, and of one who wore it. For many years he wandered, and at length returned again to this place, which had been his home, wearing the necklace. But when he saw its shore from the sea he fell down and his spirit left him. What happened to him in his wanderings none know, for the tale is lost. Only it is said that his people buried him in yonder mound still wearing his armour and the necklace he had won. There, as Olaf has seen, or thinks that he has seen but now, he stands at moonrise ere trouble comes to any of his race, and stares towards the south—always towards the south.”
“Is the necklace yet in the mound?” asked Iduna eagerly.
“Without doubt, Lady. Who would dare to touch the holy thing and bring on him the curse of the Wanderer and his gods, and with it his own death? No man that ever sailed the seas, I think.”
“Not so, Freydisa, for I am sure I know one who would dare it for my sake. Olaf, if you love me, bring me that necklace as a marriage gift. I tell you that, having once seen it, I want it more than anything in all the world.”
“Did you hear what Freydisa said?” I asked. “That he who wrought this sacrilege would bring upon himself evil and death?”
“Yes, I heard; but it is folly, for who need fear dead bones? As for the shape you saw, why, it is strengthless for good or ill, a shadow drawn from what has been by the magic moon, or perchance by Freydisa’s witchery. Olaf, Olaf, get me that necklace or I will never kiss you more.”
“That means you will not marry me, Iduna?”
“That means I will only marry the man who gives me that necklace. If you fear the deed, perhaps there are some others by whom it might be tried.”
Now when I heard these words a sudden rage seized me. Was I to be taunted thus by the fair woman whom I loved?
“Fear is an ill word to use to me,” I said sternly. “Know, Iduna, that if it is put to me thus I fear nothing in life or death. You shall have the necklace if it can be found in yonder earth, chance what may to the searcher. Nay, no more words. Steinar will lead you home; I must talk of this matter with Freydisa.”
It was midnight, I know not on what day, since all these things come back to me in vivid scenes, as flashes of lightning show a landscape, but are separated from each other by dense darkness. Freydisa and I stood by the Wanderer’s grave, and at our feet lay digging tools, two lamps, and tinder to light them. We were setting about our grim task at dead of night, for fear lest the priests should stay us. Also, I did not wish the people to know that I had done this thing.
“Here is work for a month,” I said doubtfully, looking up at the great mass of the mound.
“Nay,” replied Freydisa, “since I can show you the door of the grave, and perchance the passage still stands. Yet, will you really enter there?”
“Why not, Freydisa? Must I bear to be taunted by the woman I am to wed? Surely it would be better to die and have done. Let the ghost slay me if he will. It comes upon me that if so I shall be spared trouble.”
“No bridegroom’s talk,” said Freydisa, “however true it may be. Yet, young Olaf, do you take heart, since I think that this ghost has no desire for your blood. I am wise in my own fashion, Olaf, and much of the past comes to me, if little of the future, and I believe that this Wanderer and you have more to do with each other than we can guess. It may be even that this task is appointed to you and that all these happenings, which are but begun, work to an end unseen. At the least, try your fortune, and if you die—why, I who was your nurse from your mother’s knee, love you well enough to die with you. Together we’ll descend to Hela’s halls, there to seek out the Wanderer and learn his story.”
Then, throwing her arms about my neck, she drew me to her and kissed me on the brow.
“I was not your mother, Olaf,” she went on, “but, to be honest, I would have been could I have had my fancy though, strangely enough, I never felt thus towards Ragnar, your brother. Now, why do you make me talk foolishness? Come hither, and I will show you the entrance to the grave; it is where the sun first strikes upon it.”
Then she led me to the east of the mound, where, not more than eight or ten feet from its base, grew a patch of bushes. Among these bushes was a little hollow, as though at this spot the earth had sunk in. Here, at her bidding, I began to dig, and with her help worked for the half of an hour or more in silence, till at length my spade struck against a stone.
“It is the door stone,” said Freydisa. “Dig round it.”
So I dug till I made a hole at the edge of the stone large enough for a man to creep through. After this we paused to rest a while and to allow the air within the mound to purify.
“Now,” she said, “if you are not afraid, we will enter.”
“I am afraid,” I answered. Indeed, the terror which struck me then returns, so that even as I write I feel fear of the dead man who lay, and for aught I know still lies, within that grave. “Yet,” I added, “never will I face Iduna more without the necklace, if it can be found.”
So we struck sparks on to the tinder, and from them lit the two lamps of seal oil. Then I crept into the hole, Freydisa following me, to find myself in a narrow passage built of rough stones and roofed with flat slabs of water-worn rock. This tunnel, save for a little dry soil that had sifted into it through the cracks between the stones, was quite clear. We crawled along it without difficulty till we came to the tomb chamber, which was in the centre of the mound, but at a higher level than the entrance. For the passage sloped upwards, doubtless to allow for drainage. The huge stones with which it was lined and roofed over, were not less than ten feet high and set on end side by side. One of these upright stones was that designed for the door. Had it been in place, we could not have entered the chamber without great labour and the help of many men; but, as it chanced, either it had never been set up after the burial, or this was done so hastily that it had fallen.
“We are in luck’s way,” said Freydisa, when she noticed this. “No, I will go first, who know more of ghosts than you do, Olaf. If the Wanderer strikes, let him strike me,” and she clambered over the fallen slab.
Presently she called back, saying:
“Come; all is quiet here, as it should be in such a place.”
I followed her, and sliding down the end of the stone—which I remember scratched my elbow and made it bleed—found myself in a little room about twelve feet square. In this place there was but one thing to be seen: what appeared to be the trunk of a great oak tree, some nine feet in length, and, standing on it, side by side, two figures of bronze under a foot in height.
“The coffin in which the Wanderer lies and the gods he worshipped,” said Freydisa.
Then she took up first one and next the other of the bronze figures and we examined them in the light of the lamps, although I feared to touch them. They were statues of a man and a woman.
The man, who wore a long and formal beard, was wrapped in what seemed to be a shroud, through an opening in which appeared his hands. In the right hand was a scourge with a handle, and in the left a crook such as a shepherd might use, only shorter. On his head was what I took to be a helmet, a tall peaked cap ending in a knob, having on either side of it a stiff feather of bronze, and in front, above the forehead, a snake, also of bronze.
The woman was clad in a straight and narrow robe, cut low beneath her breast. Her face was mild and beautiful, and in her right hand she held a looped sceptre. Her hair descended in many long plaits on to her shoulders. For head-dress she wore two horns, supporting between them a burnished disc of gold like to that of the moon when it is full.
“Strange gods!” I muttered.
“Aye,” answered Freydisa, “yet maybe true ones to those who worship them. But we will talk of these later; now for their servant.”
Then she dropped the figures into a pouch at her side, and began to examine the trunk of the oak tree, of which the outer sap wood had been turned to tinder by age, leaving the heart still hard as iron.
“See,” she said, pointing to a line about four inches from the top, “the tree has been sawn in two length-ways and the lid laid on. Come, help.”
Then she took an iron-shod staff which we had brought with us, and worked its sharp point into the crack, after which we both rested our weight upon the staff. The lid of the coffin lifted quite easily, for it was not pegged down, and slid of its own weight over the side of the tree. In the cavity beneath was a form covered with a purple cloak stained as though by salt water. Freydisa lifted the cloak, and there lay the Wanderer as he had been placed a thousand or more of years before our time, as perfect as he had been in the hour of his death, for the tannin from the new-felled tree in which he was buried had preserved him.
Breathless with wonder, we bent down and examined him by the light of the lamps. He was a tall, spare man, to all appearance of between fifty and sixty years of age. His face was thin and fine; he wore a short, grizzled beard; his hair, so far as it could be seen beneath his helmet, was brown and lightly tinged with grey.
“Does he call anyone to your mind?” asked Freydisa.
“Yes, I think so, a little,” I replied. “Who is it, now? Oh! I know, my mother.”
“That is strange, Olaf, since to me he seems much like what you might become should you live to his years. Yet it was through your mother’s line that Aar came to your race many generations gone, for this much is known. Well, study him hard, for, look you, now that the air has got to him, he melts away.”
Melt he did, indeed, till presently there was nothing left save a skull patched here and there with skin and hair. Yet I never forgot that face; indeed, to this hour I see it quite clearly. When at length it had crumbled, we turned to other things, knowing that our time in the grave must be measured by the oil in the simple lamps we had. Freydisa lifted a cloth from beneath the chin, revealing a dinted breastplate of rich armour, different from any of our day and land, and, lying on it, such a necklace as we had seen upon the ghost, a beauteous thing of inlaid golden shells and emerald stones shaped like beetles.
“Take it for your Iduna,” said Freydisa, “since it is for her sake that we break in upon this great man’s rest.”
I seized the precious thing and tugged at it, but the chain was stout and would not part. Again I tugged, and now it was the neck of the Wanderer that broke, for the head rolled from the body, and the gold chain came loose between the two.
“Let us be going,” said Freydisa, as I hid away the necklace. “The oil in the lamps burns low, and even I do not care to be left here in the dark with this mighty one whom we have robbed.”
“There’s his armour,” I said. “I’d have that armour; it is wonderful.”
“Then stop and get it by yourself,” she answered, “for my lamp dies.”
“At least, I will take the sword,” I exclaimed, and snatched at the belt by which it was girt about the body. The leather had rotted, and it came away in my hand.
Holding it, I clambered over the stone after Freydisa, and followed her down the passage. Before we reached the end of it the lamps went out, so that we had to finish our journey in the dark. Thankful enough were both of us when we found ourselves safe in the open air beneath the familiar stars.
“Now, how comes it, Freydisa,” I asked, when we had got our breath again, “that this Wanderer, who showed himself so threateningly upon the crest of his grave, lies patient as a dead sheep within it while we rob his bones?”
“Because we were meant to take it, as I think, Olaf. Now, help me to fill in the mouth of that hole roughly—I will return to finish this to-morrow—and let us away to the hall. I am weary, and I tell you, Olaf, that the weight of things to come lies heavy on my soul. I think wisdom dwells with that Wanderer’s bones. Yes, and foresight of the future and memories of the past.”
I lay sleeping in my bed at Aar, the sword of the Wanderer by my side and his necklace beneath my pillow. In my sleep there came to me a very strange and vivid dream. I dreamed that I was the Wanderer, no other man, and here I, who write this history in these modern days, will say that the dream was true.
Once in the far past I, who afterwards was born as Olaf, and who am now—well, never mind my name—lived in the shape of that man who in Olaf’s time was by tradition known as the Wanderer. Of that Wanderer’s life, however, for some reason which I cannot explain, I am able to recover but few memories. Other earlier lives come back to me much more clearly, but at present the details of this particular existence escape me. For the purpose of the history which I am setting down this matters little, since, although I know enough to be sure that the persons concerned in the Olaf life were for the most part the same as those concerned in the Wanderer’s life, their stories remain quite distinct.
Therefore, I propose to leave that of the Wanderer, so far as I know it, untold, wild and romantic as it seems to have been. For he must have been a great man, this Wanderer, who in the early ages of the northern world, drawn by the magnet of some previous Egyptian incarnation, broke back to those southern lands with which his informing spirit was already so familiar, and thence won home again to the place where he was born, only to die. In considering this dream which Olaf dreamed, let it be remembered, then, that although a thousand, or maybe fifteen hundred, of our earthly years separated us from each other, the Wanderer, into whose tomb I broke at the goading of Iduna, and I, Olaf, were really the same being clothed in different shapes of flesh.
To return to my dream: I, Olaf, or, rather, my spirit, dwelling in the Wanderer’s body, that body which I had just seen lying in the grave, stood at night in a great columned building, which I knew to be the temple of some god. At my feet lay a basin of clear water; the moonlight, which was almost as bright as that of day, showed me my reflection in the water. It was like to that of the Wanderer as I had seen him lying in his oak coffin in the mound, only younger than he had seemed to be in the coffin. Moreover, he wore the same armour that the man in the coffin wore, and at his side hung the red, cross-handled sword. There he stood in the temple alone, and looked across a plain, green with crops, on which sat two mighty images as high as tall pines, looked to a great river on whose banks grew trees such as I had never beheld: tall, straight trees, surmounted by a stiff crown of leaves. Beyond this river lay a white, flat-roofed city, and in it were other great columned temples.
The man in whom I, Olaf the Dane, seemed to dwell in my dream turned, and behind him saw a range of naked hills of brown rock, and in them the mouth of a desolate valley where was no green thing. Presently he became aware that he was no longer alone. At his side stood a woman. She was a very beautiful woman, unlike anyone I, Olaf, had ever seen. Her shape was tall and slender, her eyes were large, dark and soft as a deer’s, her features were small and straight, save the mouth, of which the lips were somewhat full. The face, which was dark-hued, like her hair and eyes, was sad, but wore a sweet and haunting smile. It was much such a face as that upon the statue of the goddess which we had found in the Wanderer’s tomb, and the dress she wore beneath her cloak was like to the dress of the goddess. She was speaking earnestly.
“My love, my only love,” she said, “you must begone this very night; indeed, the boat awaits you that shall take you down the river to the sea. All is discovered. My waiting-lady, the priestess, but now has told me that my father, the king, purposes to seize and throw you into prison tomorrow, and thereafter to put you on your trial for being beloved by a daughter of the royal blood, of which, as you are a foreign man, however noble you may be, the punishment is death. Moreover, if you are condemned, your doom will be my own. There is but one way in which to save my life, and that is by your flight, for if you fly it has been whispered to me that all will be forgotten.”
Now, in my dream, he who wore the Wanderer’s shape reasoned with her, saying at length that it was better they both should die, to live on in the world of spirits, rather than part for ever. She hid her face on his breast and answered,
“I cannot die. I would stay to look upon the sun, not for my own sake, but because of our child that will be born. Nor can I fly with you, since then your boat will be stopped. But if you go alone, the guards will let it pass. They have their commands.”
After this for a while they wept in each other’s arms, for their hearts were broken.
“Give me some token,” he murmured; “let me wear something that you have worn until my death.”
She opened her cloak, and there upon her breast hung that necklace which had lain upon the breast of the Wanderer in his tomb, the necklace of gold and inlaid shells and emerald beetles, only there were two rows of shells and emeralds, not one. One row she unclasped and clasped it again round his neck, breaking the little gold threads that bound the two strands together.
“Take this,” she said, “and I will wear the half which is left of it even in my grave, as you also shall wear your half in life and death. Now something comes upon me. It is that when the severed parts of this necklace are once more joined together, then we two shall meet again upon the earth.”
“What chance is there that I shall return from my northern home, if ever I win so far, back to this southern land?”
“None,” she answered. “In this life we shall kiss no more. Yet there are other lives to come, or so I think and have learned through the wisdom of my people. Begone, begone, ere my heart breaks on yours; but never let this necklace of mine, which was that of those who were long before me, lie upon another woman’s breast, for if so it will bring sorrow to the giver, and to her to whom it is given no good fortune.”
“How long must I wait before we meet again?” he asked.
“I do not know, but I think that when all that jewel once more grows warm above my immortal heart, this temple which they call eternal will be but a time-eaten ruin. Hark, the priestess calls. Farewell, you man who have come out of the north to be my glory and my shame. Farewell, until the purpose of our lives declares itself and the seed that we have sown in sorrow shall blossom into an everlasting flower. Farewell. Farewell!”
Then a woman appeared in the background beckoning, and all my dream vanished away. Yet to my mind came the thought that it was to the lady who gave the necklace that Death stood near, rather than to him to whom it was given. For surely death was written in her sad and longing eyes.
So that dream ended. When I, Olaf, awoke in the morning, it was to find that already everyone was astir, for I had overslept myself. In the hall were gathered Ragnar, Steinar, Iduna and Freydisa; the elders were talking together elsewhere on the subject of the forthcoming marriage. I went to Iduna to embrace her, and she proffered me her cheek, speaking all the while over her shoulder to Ragnar.
“Where were you last night, brother, that you came in near the dawn, all covered with mud?” asked Ragnar, turning his back on Iduna, without making any answer to her words.
“Digging in the Wanderer’s grave, brother, as Iduna challenged me to do.”
Now all three of them turned on me eagerly, save Freydisa, who stood by the fire listening, and with one voice asked if I had found anything.
“Aye,” I replied. “I found the Wanderer, a very noble-looking man,” and I began to describe him.
“Peace to this dead Wanderer,” broke in Iduna. “Did you find the necklace?”
“Yes, I found the necklace. Here it is!” And I laid the splendid thing upon the board.
Then suddenly I lost my speech, since now for the first time I saw that, twisted round the chain of it, were three broken wires of gold. I remembered how in my dream I had seen the beautiful woman break such wires ere she gave half of the jewel to the man in whose breast I had seemed to dwell, and for a moment grew so frightened that I could say no more.
“Oh!” exclaimed Iduna, “it is beautiful, beautiful! Oh! Olaf, I thank you,” and she flung her arms about me and kissed me, this time in earnest.
Then she seized the necklace and fastened it round her throat.
“Stay,” I said, awaking. “I think you had best not touch those gems. Iduna, I have dreamed that they will bring no luck to you or to any woman, save one.”
Here the dark-faced Freydisa looked up at me, then dropped her eyes again, and stood listening.
“You have dreamed!” exclaimed Iduna. “I care little what you have dreamed. It is for the necklace I care, and not all the ill-luck in the world shall stay me from the keeping of it.”
Here again Freydisa looked up, but Steinar looked down.
“Did you find aught else?” asked Ragnar, interrupting.
“Aye, brother, this!” and from under my cloak I produced the Wanderer’s sword.
“A wondrous weapon,” said Ragnar when he had examined it, “though somewhat heavy for its length, and of bronze, after the fashion of those that are buried in the grave mounds. It has seen much wear also, and, I should say, has loosed many a spirit. Look at the gold work of the handle. Truly a wondrous weapon, worth all the necklaces in the world. But tell us your story.”
So I told them, and when I came to the images that we had found standing on the coffin, Iduna, who was paying little heed, stopped from her fondling of the necklace and asked where they were.
“Freydisa has them,” I answered. “Show them the Wanderer’s gods, Freydisa.”
“So Freydisa was with you, was she?” said Iduna.
Then she glanced at the gods, laughed a little at their fashion and raiment, and again fell to fingering the necklace, which was more to her than any gods.
Afterwards Freydisa asked me what was the dream of which I had spoken, and I told it to her, every word.
“It is a strange story,” said Freydisa. “What do you make of it, Olaf?”
“Nothing save that it was a dream. And yet those three broken wires that are twisted round the chain, which I had never noted till I saw the necklace in Iduna’s hand! They fit well with my dream.”
“Aye, Olaf, and the dream fits well with other things. Have you ever heard, Olaf, that there are those who say that men live more than once upon this earth?”
“No,” I answered, laughing. “Yet why should they not do so, as they live at all? If so, perhaps I am that Wanderer, in whose body I seemed to be, only then I am sure that the lady with the golden shells was not Iduna.” And again I laughed.
“No, Olaf, she was not Iduna, though perchance there was an Iduna, all the same. Tell me, did you see aught of that priestess who was with the lady?”
“Only that she was tall and dark, one of middle age. But why waste words on this midnight madness? Yet that royal woman haunts me. I would that I could see her again, if only in a dream. Also, Freydisa, I would that Iduna had not taken the necklace. I fear lest it should bring misfortune. Where is she now? I will tell her again.”
“Wandering with Steinar, I think, and wearing the necklace. Oh! Olaf, like you I fear it will bring woe. I cannot read your dream—as yet.”
It was the day before that of my marriage. I see them moving about, the shapes of all those long-forgotten men and women, arrayed in their bravest garments and rude ornaments of gold and silver, for a great company had been bidden, many of whom came from far. I see my uncle, Leif, the dark-browed priest of Odin, passing between the hall and the temple where on the morrow he must celebrate the marriage rites in such a fashion as would do honour to the god. I see Iduna, Athalbrand and Steinar talking together apart. I see myself watching all this life and stir like one who is mazed, and I know that since I had entered the Wanderer’s grave all things had seemed unreal to me. Iduna, whom I loved, was about to become my wife, and yet between me and Iduna continually was thrust a vision of the woman of my dream. At times I thought that the blow from the bear’s paw had hurt my brain; that I must be going mad. I prayed to the gods that this might not be so, and when my prayers availed me nothing I sought the counsel of Freydisa.
She listened to my story, then said briefly,
“Let be. Things will go as they are fated. You are no madder than the rest of men. I can say no more.”
It was the custom of that time and land that, if possible, the wife to be should not pass the night before her marriage under the same roof as her future husband. Therefore Athalbrand, whose mood had been strange of late, went with Iduna to sleep in his beached ship. At my request Steinar went with them, in order that he might see that they were brought back in good time in the morning.
“You will not fail me in this, Steinar?” I said, clasping his hand.
He tried to answer something, but the words seemed to choke in his throat and he turned away, leaving them unspoken.
“Why,” I exclaimed, “one might think you were going to be married, not I.”
“Aye,” broke in Iduna hurriedly. “The truth is that Steinar is jealous of me. How is it that you can make us all love you so much, Olaf?”
“Would that I were more worthy of your love,” I answered, smiling, “as in years to come I hope to show myself.”
Athalbrand, who was watching, tugged at his forked beard and muttered something that sounded like an oath. Then he rode off, kicking his horse savagely and not noting my outstretched hand, or so it seemed. Of this, however, I took little heed, for I was engaged in kissing Iduna in farewell.
“Be not sad,” she said, as she kissed me back on the lips. “Remember that we part for the last time.” Again she kissed me and went, laughing happily.
The morning came. All was prepared. From far and near the guests were gathered, waiting to do honour to the marriage feast. Even some of the men of Agger were there, who had come to pay homage to their new lord. The spring sun shone brightly, as it should upon a marriage morn, and without the doors the trumpeters blew blasts with their curved horns. In the temple the altar of Odin was decorated with flowers, and by it, also decorated with flowers, the offering awaited sacrifice. My mother, in her finest robe, the same, in truth, in which she herself had been wed, stood by the door of the hall, which was cleared of the kine, the cattle, and set with tables, giving and returning greetings. Her arm was round me, who, as bridegroom, was clothed in new garments of woven wool through which ran a purple streak, the best that could be made in all the land. Ragnar came up.
“They should be here,” he said. “The hour is over past.”
“Doubtless the fair bride has been long in decking herself,” answered my father, looking at the sun. “She will come presently.”
Still time went on, and the company began to murmur, while a strange, cold fear seemed to grip my heart. At length a man was seen riding towards the hall, and one cried,
“At last! Here comes the herald!”
Another answered: “For a messenger of love he rides slowly and sadly.” And a silence fell on all that heard him.
The man, a stranger to us, arrived and said:
“I have a message for the lord Thorvald from the lord Athalbrand, which I was charged to deliver at this hour, neither before nor after. It is that he sailed for Lesso at the rising of the moon last night, there purposing to celebrate the marriage of his daughter, the lady Iduna, with Steinar, lord of Agger, and is therefore grieved that he and the lady Iduna cannot be present at your feast this day.”
Now, when I heard these words I felt as though a spear had been thrust through me. “Steinar! Oh! surely not with my brother Steinar,” I gasped, and staggered against the door-post, where I stood like one who has been struck helpless.
Ragnar sprang at the messenger, and, dragging him from his horse, would have killed him had not some stayed his hand. My father, Thorvald, remained silent, but his half-brother, the dark-browed priest of Odin, lifted his hands to heaven and called down the curse of Odin upon the troth-breakers. The company drew swords and shouted for vengeance, demanding to be led against the false Athalbrand. At length my father called for silence.
“Athalbrand is a man without shame,” he said. “Steinar is a viper whom I have nursed in my breast, a viper that has bitten the hand which saved him from death; aye, you men of Agger, you have a viper for your lord. Iduna is a light-of-love upon whom all honest women should spit, who has broken her oath and sold herself for Steinar’s wealth and rule. I swear by Thor that, with your help, my friends and neighbours, I will be avenged upon all three of these. But for such vengeance preparations must be made, since Athalbrand and Steinar are strong. Moreover, they lie in an island, and can only be attacked by sea. Further, there is no haste, since the mischief is done, and by now Steinar the Snake and Iduna the Light-of-love will have drunk their marriage-cup. Come, eat, my friends, and not too sadly, seeing that if my house has suffered shame, it has escaped worse shame, that of welcoming a false woman as a bride of one of us. Doubtless, when his bitterness is past, Olaf, my son, will find a better wife.”
So they sat down and ate the marriage feast. Only the seats of the bride and bridegroom were empty, for I could not take part in that feast, but went alone to my sleeping-place and drew the curtains. My mother also was so overcome that she departed to her own chamber. Alone I sat upon my bed and listened to the sounds of that marriage feast, which more resembled such a one as is given at arvals. When it was finished I heard my father and Ragnar and the head men and chiefs of the company take counsel together, after which all departed to their homes.
So soon as they were gone Freydisa came to me, bringing food and drink.
“I am a shamed man, Freydisa,” I said, “and can no longer stay in this land where I have been made one for children to mock at.”
“It is not you who are shamed,” answered Freydisa hotly. “It is Steinar and that little bitch,” and she used the harshest word she could bear to upon Iduna. “Oh! I saw it coming, and yet I dared not warn you. I feared lest I might be wrong and put doubts into your heart against your foster-brother and your wife without cause. May Odin destroy them both!”
“Speak not so roughly, Freydisa,” I said. “Ragnar was right about Iduna. Her beauty never blinded him as it did me, and he read her truly. Well, she did but follow her nature; and as for Steinar, she fooled him as she has the power to do by any man, save Ragnar. Doubtless he will repent bitterly ere all is done. Also I think that necklace from the grave is an evil magic.”
“It is like you, Olaf, to find excuse even for sin that cannot be forgiven. Not but what I hold with you that Steinar has been led away against his will, for I read it in his face. Well, his life must pay the price of it, for surely he shall bleed on Odin’s altar. Now, be a man. Come out and face your trouble. You are not the first that a woman has fooled, nor will you be the last. Forget love and dream of vengeance.”
“I cannot forget love, and I do not wish for vengeance, especially against Steinar, who is my foster-brother,” I answered wearily.
On the morrow Thorvald, my father, sent messengers to the head men of Agger, telling them of all that he and his House had suffered at the hands of Steinar, whereof those of their folk who had been present at the feast could bear witness. He added that if they stood by Steinar in his wickedness and treachery, thenceforward he and the men of the North would be their foes and work them mischief by land and sea.
In due course these messengers returned with the tale that the head men of Agger had met together and deposed Steinar from his lordship over them, electing another man, a nephew of Steinar’s father. Also they sent a present of gold rings in atonement for the wrong which had been done to the house of Thorvald by one of their blood, and prayed that Thorvald and the northern men would bear them no ill will for that in which they were blameless.
Cheered by this answer, which halved the number of their foes, my father, Thorvald of Aar, and those Over-men of whom he was the High Lord, began to make their preparations to attack Athalbrand on his Island of Lesso. Of all these things Athalbrand learned by his spies, and later, when the warships were being prepared and manned, two messengers came from him, old men of repute, and demanded to see my father. This was the substance of his message, which was delivered in my hearing.
That he, Athalbrand, was little to blame for what had happened, which was due to the mad passions of two young people who had blinded and misled him. That no marriage had taken place between Steinar and his daughter, Iduna, as he was prepared and able to prove, since he had refused to allow any such marriage. That, therefore, he was ready to outlaw Steinar, who only dwelt with him as an unwelcome guest, and to return his daughter, Iduna, to me, Olaf, and with her a fine in gold rings as compensation for the wrong done, of which the amount was to be ascertained by judges to be agreed upon.
My father entertained the messengers, but would give them no answer till he had summoned a council of the Under-lords who stood with him in this business. At that council, where I was present, some said that the insult could only be washed out with blood. At length I was called upon to speak as the man most concerned. While all listened I rose and said:
“These are my words. After what has chanced, not for all the wealth in Denmark would I take Iduna ‘the Fair’ to be my wife. Let her stay with Steinar, whom she has chosen. Still, I do not wish to cause the blood of innocent men to be spent because of my private wrong. Neither do I wish to wreak vengeance upon Steinar, who for many years was my brother, and who has been led away by a woman, as may chance to any one of us and has chanced to many. Therefore I say that my father should accept Athalbrand’s fine in satisfaction of the insult to our House, and let all this matter be forgotten. As for myself, I purpose to leave my home, where I have been put to shame, and to seek my fortune in other lands.”
Now, the most of those present thought this a wise saying and were ready to abide by it. Yet, unluckily enough, it was made of no account by what had slipped from my lips at its end. Although many held me strange and fey, all men loved me because I had a kind heart and gentleness, also because of the wrongs that I had suffered and for something which they saw in me, which they believed would one day make of me a great skald and a wise leader. When she heard me announce thus publicly that I was determined to leave them, Thora, my mother, whispered in the ears of Thorvald, my father, and Ragnar and others also said to each other that this might not be. It was Ragnar, the headlong, who sprang up and spoke the first.
“Is my brother to be driven from us and his home like a thrall caught in theft because a traitor and a false woman have put him to shame?” he said. “I say that I ask Athalbrand’s blood to wash away that stain, not his gold, and that if need be I will seek it alone and die upon his spears. Also I say that if Olaf, my brother, turns his back upon this vengeance, I name him niddering.”
“No man shall name me that,” I said, flushing, “and least of all Ragnar.”
So, amidst shouts, for there had been long peace in the land, and all the fighting men sighed for battle, it was agreed that war should be declared on Athalbrand, those present pledging themselves and their dependents to follow it to the end.
“Go back to the troth-breaker, Athalbrand,” said my father to the messengers. “Tell him that we will not accept his fine of gold, who come to take all his wealth, and with it his land and his life. Tell him also that the young lord Olaf refuses his daughter, Iduna, since it has not been the fashion of our House to wed with drabs. Tell Steinar, the woman-thief, that he would do well to slay himself, or to be sure that he is killed in battle, since if we take him living he shall be cast into a pit of vipers or sacrificed to Odin, the god of honour. Begone!”
“We go,” answered the spokesman of the messengers; “yet before we go, Thorvald, we would say to you that you and your folk are mad. Some wrong has been done to your son, though perhaps not so much as you may think. For that wrong full atonement has been offered, and with it the hand of friendship on which you spit. Know then that the mighty lord Athalbrand does not fear war, since for every man you can gather he numbers two, all pledged to him until the death. Also he has consulted the oracle, and its answer is that if you fight with him, but one of your House will be left living.”
“Begone!” thundered my father, “lest presently you should stay here dead.”
So they went.
That day my heart was very heavy, and I sought Freydisa to take counsel with her.
“Trouble hovers over me like a croaking raven,” I said. “I do not like this war for a woman who is worth nothing, although she has hurt me sorely. I fear the future, that it may prove even worse than the past has been.”
“Then come to learn it, Olaf, for what is known need no more be feared.”
“I am not so sure of that,” I said. “But how can the future be learned?”
“Through the voice of the god, Olaf. Am I not one of Odin’s virgins, who know something of the mysteries? Yonder in his temple mayhap he will speak through me, if you dare to listen.”
“Aye, I dare. I should like to hear the god speak, true words or false.”
“Then come and hear them, Olaf.”
So we went up to the temple, and Freydisa, who had the right of entry, unlocked its door. We passed in and lit a lamp in front of the seated wooden image of Odin, that for unnumbered generations had rested there behind the altar. I stood by the altar and Freydisa crouched herself before the image, her forehead laid upon its feet, and muttered runic verse. After a while she grew silent, and fear took hold of me. The place was large, and the feeble light of the lamp scarcely reached to the arched roof; all about me were great formless shadows. I felt that there were two worlds, one of the flesh and one of the spirit, and that I stood between the two. Freydisa seemed to go to sleep; I could no longer hear her breathing. Then she sighed heavily and turned her head, and by the light of the lamp I noted that her face was white and ghastly.
“What do you seek?” her lips asked, for I saw them moving. Yet the voice that issued from them was not her own voice, but that of a deep-throated man, who spoke with a strange accent.
Next came the answer in the voice of Freydisa.
“I, your virgin, seek to know the fate of him who stands by the altar, one whom I love.”
For a while there was quiet; then the first voice spoke, still through the lips of Freydisa. Of this I was sure, for those of the statue remained immovable. It was what it had always been—a thing of wood.
“Olaf, the son of Thorvald,” said the deep voice, “is an enemy of us the gods, as was his forefather whose grave he robbed. As his forefather’s fate was, so shall his be, for in both of them dwells the same spirit. He shall worship that which is upon the hilt of the sword he stole from the dead, and in this sign shall conquer, since it prevails against us and makes our curse of no effect. Great sorrow shall he taste, and great joy. He shall throw away a sceptre for a woman’s kiss, and yet gain a greater sceptre. Olaf, whom we curse, shall be Olaf the Blessed. Yet in the end shall we prevail against his flesh and that of those who cling to him preaching that which is upon the sword but not with the sword, among whom thou shalt be numbered, woman—thou, and another, who hast done him wrong.”
The voice died away, and was followed by a silence so deep that at length I could bear it no more.
“Ask of the war,” I said, “and of what shall happen.”
“It is too late,” answered the voice of Freydisa. “I sought to know of you, Olaf, and you alone, and now the spirit has left me.”
Then came another long silence, after which Freydisa sighed thrice and awoke. We went out of the temple, I bearing the lamp and she resting on my arm. Near the door I turned and looked back, and it seemed to me that the image of the god glared upon me wrathfully.
“What has chanced?” asked Freydisa when we stood beneath the light of the friendly stars. “I know nothing; my mind is a blackness.”
I told her word for word what had been spoken, and when I had finished she said,
“Give me the Wanderer’s sword.”
I gave it to her, and she held it against the sky by the naked blade.
“The hilt is a cross,” she said; “but how can a man worship a cross and preach it and conquer thereby? I cannot interpret this rede, yet I do not doubt but that it shall all come true, and that you, Olaf, and I are doomed to be joined in the same fate, whatever it may be, and with us some other who has wronged you, Steinar perchance, or Iduna herself. Well, of this at least I am glad, for if I have loved the father, I think that I love the son still more, though otherwise.” And, leaning forward, she kissed me solemnly upon the brow.
After Freydisa and I had sought the oracle of Odin, three long ships of war sailed by the light of the moon from Fladstrand for Athalbrand’s Isle of Lesso. I do not know when we sailed, but in my mind I can still see those ships creeping out to sea. In command of the first was Thorvald, my father; of the second, Ragnar, my brother; and of the third myself, Olaf; and on each of these ships were fifty men, all of them stout fighters.
The parting with Thora, my mother, had been sad, for her heart foreboded ill of this war, and her face could not hide what her heart told her. Indeed, she wept bitterly, and cursed the name of Iduna ‘the Fair’, who had brought this trouble on her House. Freydisa was sad also. Yet, watching for her opportunity, she glided up to me just before I embarked and whispered to me,
“Be of good cheer, for you will return, whoever is left behind.”
“It will give me little comfort to return if certain others are left behind,” I answered. “Oh, that the folk had hearkened to me and made peace!”
“Too late to talk of that now,” said Freydisa, and we parted.
This was our plan: To sail for Lesso by the moonlight, and when the moon went down to creep silently towards the shores of the island. Then, just at the first break of dawn, we proposed to beach the ships on a sandy strand we knew, and rush to attack Athalbrand’s hall, which we hoped to carry before men were well awake. It was a bold scheme and one full of dangers, yet we trusted that its very boldness would cause it to succeed, especially as we had put it about that, owing to the unreadiness of our ships, no attack would be made until the coming of the next moon.
Doubtless all might have gone well with us but for a strange chance. As it happened, Athalbrand, a brave and skilful captain, who from his youth had seen much war by sea and land, had a design of his own which brought ours to nothing. It was that he and his people should sail to Fladstrand, burn the ships of Thorvald, my father, that he knew were fitting out upon the beach, which he hoped to find unguarded, or at most only watched by a few men, and then return to Lesso before he could be fallen upon. By ill luck he had chosen this very night for his enterprise. So it came about that just as the moon was sinking our watchmen caught sight of four other ships, which by the shields that hung over their bulwarks they knew must be vessels of war, gliding towards them over the quiet sea.
“Athalbrand comes to meet us!” cried one, and in a minute every man was looking to his arms. There was no time for plans, since in that low light and mist the vessels were almost bow to bow before we saw each other. My father’s ship ran in between two of Athalbrand’s that were sailing abreast, while mine and that of Ragnar found themselves almost alongside of the others. On both sides the sails were let down, for none had any thought of flight. Some rushed to the oars and got enough of them out to work the ships. Others ran to the grappling irons, and the rest began to shoot with their bows. Before one could count two hundred from the time of sighting, the war cry of “Valhalla! Valhalla! Victory or Valhalla!” broke upon the silence of the night and the battle had begun.
It was a very fierce battle, and one that the gathering darkness made more grim. Each ship fought without heed to the others, for as the fray went on they drifted apart, grappled to their foes. My father, Thorvald’s, vessel fared the worst, since it had an enemy on either bulwark. He boarded one and cleared it, losing many men. Then the crew of the other rushed on to him as he regained his own ship. The end of it was that my father and all his folk were killed, but only after they had slain the most of their foes, for they died fighting very bravely.
Between Ragnar’s ship and that of Athalbrand himself the fray was more even. Ragnar boarded Athalbrand and was driven back. Athalbrand boarded Ragnar and was driven back. Then for the second time Ragnar boarded Athalbrand with those men who were left to him. In the narrow waist of Athalbrand’s ship a mighty battle was fought, and here at last Ragnar and Athalbrand found themselves face to face.
They hacked at each other with their axes, till at length Ragnar, with a fearful blow, drove in Athalbrand’s helmet and clove his skull in two, so that he died. But even as he fell, a man, it may have been friend or foe, for the moon was sinking and the darkness grew dense, thrust a spear into Ragnar’s back, and he was carried, dying, to his own vessel by those who remained to him.
Then that fight ceased, for all Athalbrand’s people were dead or wounded to the death. Meanwhile, on the right, I was fighting the ship that was commanded by Steinar, for it was fated that we two should be thrown together. Here also the struggle was desperate. Steinar and his company boarded at the prow, but I and my men, charging up both boards, drove them back again. In that charge it is true that I, Olaf, fighting madly, as was my wont when roused, killed three of the Lesso folk with the Wanderer’s sword. Still I see them falling one by one. Followed by six of my people, I sprang on to the raised prow of Steinar’s ship. Just then the grapnels parted, and there we were left, defending ourselves as best we could. My mates got their oars and once more brought our boat alongside. Grapple they could not, because the irons were lost. Therefore, in obedience to the order which I shouted to them from the high prow of the enemy’s ship, they began to hurl their ballast stones into her, and thus stove out her bottom, so that in the end she filled and sank.
Even while she was down the fray went on. Nearly all my people were down; indeed but two remained to me when Steinar, not knowing who I was, rushed up and, having lost his sword, gripped me round the middle. We wrestled, but Steinar, who was the stronger, forced me back to the bulwarks and so overboard. Into the sea we went together just as the ship sank, drawing us down after her. When we rose Steinar was senseless, but still clinging to me as I caught a rope that was thrown to me with my right hand, to which the Wanderer’s sword was hanging by a leathern loop.
The end of it was that I and the senseless Steinar were both drawn back to my own ship just as the darkness closed in.
An hour later came the dawn, showing a sad sight. My father, Thorvald’s, ship and one of Athalbrand’s lay helpless, for all, or nearly all, their crews were dead, while the other had drifted off and was now half a mile away.
Ragnar’s ship was still grappled to its foe. My own was perhaps in the best case, for here over twenty men were left unhurt, and another ten whose wounds were light. The rest were dead or dying.
I sat on a bench in the waist of the ship, and at my feet lay the man who had been dragged from the sea with me. I thought that this man was dead till the first red rays of dawn lit upon his face, whereon he sat up, and I saw that he was Steinar.
“Thus we meet again, my brother,” I said in a quiet voice. “Well, Steinar, look upon your work.” And I pointed to the dead and dying and to the ships around, whence came the sound of groans.
Steinar stared at me and asked in a thick voice:
“Was it with you, Olaf, that I fell into the sea?”
“Even so, Steinar.”
“I knew it not in the darkness, Olaf. If I had known, never would I have lifted sword against you.”
“What did that matter, Steinar, when you had already pierced my heart, though not with a sword?”
At these words Steinar moaned aloud, then said:
“For the second time you have saved my life.”
“Aye, Steinar; but who knows whether I can do so for a third time? Yet take comfort, for if I may I will, for thus shall I be best avenged.”
“A white vengeance,” said Steinar. “Oh, this is not to be borne.” And drawing a knife he wore at his girdle, he strove to kill himself.
But I, who was watching, snatched it away, then gave an order.
“Bind this man and keep him safe. Also bring him drink and a cloak to cover him.”
“Best kill the dog,” grumbled the captain, to whom I spoke.
“I kill that one who lays a finger on him,” I replied.
Someone whispered into the captain’s ear, whereon he nodded and laughed savagely.
“Ah!” he exclaimed, “I am a thickhead. I had forgotten Odin and his sacrifice. Yes, yes, we’ll keep the traitor safe.”
So they bound Steinar to one of the benches and gave him ale and covered him with a blood-stained cloak taken from a dead man.
I also drank of the ale and drew a cloak about me, for the air was keen. Then I said,
“Let us go to the other ships and see what has chanced there.”
They got out the oars and rowed to Ragnar’s vessel, where we saw men stirring.
“How went it with you?” I asked of one who stood upon the prow.
“Not so ill, Olaf,” he answered. “We won, and but now, with the new light, have finished the game. They are all quiet yonder,” he added, nodding at the vessel of Athalbrand, to which they were still grappled.
“Where is Ragnar?” I asked.
“Come on board and see,” answered the man.
A plank was thrust out and I ran across it, fear gripping at my heart. Resting against the mast sat Ragnar, dying.
“Good morrow to you, Olaf,” he gasped. “I am glad you live, that there may be one left to sit at Aar.”
“What do you mean, my brother?”
“I mean, Olaf, that our father, Thorvald, is dead. They called it to us from yonder.” And he pointed with his red sword to our father’s ship, that lay side by side with one of Athalbrand’s. “Athalbrand is dead, for I slew him, and ere the sun is well clear of the sea I also shall be dead. Oh, weep not, Olaf; we have won a great fight, and I travel to Valhalla with a glorious company of friends and foes, there to await you. I say that had I lived to be old, never could I have found a better death, who then at last might have died like a cow. Get the ships to Fladstrand, Olaf, and gather more men to put all Lesso to the sword. Give us good burial, Olaf, and build a great mound over us, that we may stand thereon at moonrise and mock the men of Lesso as they row past, till Valhalla is full and the world dies. Is Steinar dead? Tell me that Steinar is dead, for then I’ll speak with him presently.”
“No, Ragnar, I have taken Steinar captive.”
“Captive! Why captive? Oh, I understand; that he may lie on Odin’s altar. Friends, swear to me that Steinar shall lie on Odin’s altar, Steinar, the bride-thief, Steinar the traitor. Swear it, for I do not trust this brother of mine, who has woman’s milk in his breasts. By Thor, he might spare him if he had his way. Swear it, or I’ll haunt your beds o’ nights and bring the other heroes with me. Swift now, while my ears are open.”
Then from both ships rose the cry of:
“We swear it! Fear not, Ragnar, we swear it.”
“That’s well,” said Ragnar. “Kiss me now, Olaf. Oh! what is it that I see in your eyes? A new light, a strange light! Olaf, you are not one of us. This time is not your time, nor this place your place. You travel to the end by another road. Well, who knows? At that end we may meet again. At least I love you.”
Then he burst into a wild war song of blood and vengeance, and so singing sank down and died.
Afterwards, with much labour, I and the men who were left roped together our vessels, and to them those that we had captured, and when a favouring wind arose, sailed back for Fladstrand. Here a multitude awaited us, for a fishing-boat had brought tidings of the great sea battle. Of the hundred and fifty men who had sailed in my father, Thorvald’s, ships, sixty were dead and many others wounded, some of them to death. Athalbrand’s people had fared even worse, since those of Thorvald had slain their wounded, only one of his vessels having escaped back to Lesso, there to tell the people of that island and Iduna all that had happened. Now it was a land of widows and orphans, so that no man need go wooing there for long, and of Aar and the country round the same song was sung. Indeed, for generations the folk of those parts must have told of the Battle of Lesso, when the chiefs, Thorvald and Athalbrand, slew each other upon the seas at night because of a quarrel about a woman who was known as Iduna ‘the Fair’.
On the sands of Fladstrand my mother, the lady Thora, waited with the others, for she had moved thither before the sailing of the ships. When mine, the first of them, was beached, I leapt from it, and running to her, knelt down and kissed her hand.
“I see you, my son Olaf,” she said, “but where are your father and brother?”
“Yonder, mother,” I answered, pointing to the ships, and could say no more.
“Then why do they tarry, my son?”
“Alas! mother, because they sleep and will never wake again.”
Now Thora wailed aloud and fell down senseless. Three days later she died, for her heart, which was weak, could not bear this woe. Once only did she speak before she died, and then it was to bless me and pray that we might meet again, and to curse Iduna. Folk noted that of Steinar she said nothing, either good or ill, although she knew that he lived and was a prisoner.
Thus it came about that I, Olaf, was left alone in the world and inherited the lordship of Aar and its subject lands. No one remained save my dark-browed uncle, Leif, the priest of Odin, Freydisa, the wise woman, my nurse, and Steinar, my captive foster-brother, who had been the cause of all this war.
The dying words of Ragnar had been noised abroad. The priest of Odin had laid them before the oracle of the gods, and this oracle declared that they must be fulfilled without change.
So all the folk of that land met together at my bidding—yes, even the women and the children. First we laid the dead in the largest of Athalbrand’s ships, his people and Athalbrand himself being set under-most. Then on them we set the dead of Thorvald, Thorvald, my father, and his son Ragnar, my brother, bound to the mast upon their feet. This done, with great labour we dragged the ship on to high ground, and above it built a mighty mound of earth. For twenty days we toiled at the task, till at last it was finished and the dead were hidden beneath it for ever. Then we separated to our homes and mourned a while.
But Steinar was carried to the temple of Odin at Aar, and there kept in the prison of the temple.
It was the eve of the Spring Feast of Odin. It comes back to me that at this feast it was the custom to sacrifice some beast to Odin and to lay flowers and other offerings upon the altars of certain other gods that they might be pleased to grant a fruitful season. On this day, however, the sacrifice was to be of no beast, but of a man—Steinar the traitor.
That night I, Olaf, by the help of Freydisa, the priestess of the god, won entrance to the dungeon where Steinar lay awaiting his doom. This was not easy to do. Indeed, I remember that it was only after I had sworn a great oath to Leif and the other priests that I would attempt no rescue of the victim, nor aid him to escape from his prison, that I was admitted there, while armed men stood without to see that I did not break my word. For my love of Steinar was known, and in this matter none trusted me.
That dungeon was a dreadful place. I see it now. In the floor of the temple was a trapdoor, which, when lifted, revealed a flight of steps. At the foot of these steps was another massive door of oak, bolted and barred. It was opened and closed behind me, who found myself in a darksome den built of rough stone, to which air came only through an opening in the roof, so small that not even a child could pass it. In the far corner of this hole, bound to the wall by an iron chain fastened round his middle, Steinar lay upon a bed of rushes, while on a stool beside him stood food and water. When I entered, bearing a lamp, Steinar sat up blinking his eyes, for the light, feeble as it was, hurt them, and I saw that his face was white and drawn, and the hand he held to shade his eyes was wasted. I looked at him and my heart swelled with pity, so that I could not speak.
“Why have you come here, Olaf?” asked Steinar when he knew me. “Is it to take my life? If so, never were you more welcome.”
“No, Steinar, it is to bid you farewell, since tomorrow at the feast you die, and I am helpless to save you. In all things else men will obey me, but not in this.”
“And would you save me if you could?”
“Aye, Steinar. Why not? Surely you must suffer enough with so much blood and evil on your hands.”
“Yes, I suffer enough, Olaf. So much that I shall be glad to die. But if you are not come to kill me, then it is that you may scourge me with your tongue.”
“Not so, Steinar. It is as I have said, only to bid you farewell and to ask you a question, if it pleases you to answer me. Why did you do this thing which has brought about such misery and loss, which has sent my father, my brother, and a host of brave men to the grave, and with them my mother, whose breasts nursed you?”
“Is she dead also, Olaf? Oh! my cup is full.” He hid his eyes in his thin hands and sobbed, then went on: “Why did I do it? Olaf, I did not do it, but some spirit that entered into me and made me mad—mad for the lips of Iduna ‘the Fair’. Olaf, I would speak no ill of her, since her sin is mine, but yet it is true that when I hung back she drew me on, nor could I find the strength to say her nay. Do you pray the gods, Olaf, that no woman may ever draw you on to such shame as mine. Hearken now to the great reward that I have won. I was never wed to Iduna, Olaf. Athalbrand would not suffer it till he was sure of the matter of the lordship of Agger. Then, when he knew that this was gone from me, he would suffer it still less, and Iduna herself seemed to grow cold. In truth, I believe he thought of killing me and sending my head as a present to your father Thorvald. But this Iduna forbade, whether because she loved me or for other reasons, I cannot say. Olaf, you know the rest.”
“Aye, Steinar, I know the rest. Iduna is lost to me, and for that perhaps I should thank you, although such a thrust as this leaves the heart sore for life. My father, my mother, my brother—all are lost to me, and you, too, who were as my twin, are about to be lost. Night has you all, and with you a hundred other men, because of the madness that was bred in you by the eyes of Iduna ‘the Fair’, who also is lost to both of us. Steinar, I do not blame you, for I know yours was a madness which, for their own ends, the gods send upon men, naming it love. I forgive you, Steinar, if I have aught to forgive, and I tell you, so weary am I of this world, which I feel holds little that is good, that, if I might, I’d yield up my life instead of yours, and go to seek the others, though I doubt whether I should find them, since I think that our roads are different. Hark! the priests call me. Steinar, there’s no need to bid you to be brave, for who of our Northern race is not? That’s our one heritage: the courage of a bull. Yet it seems to me that there are other sorts of courage which we lack: to tread the dark ways of death with eyes fixed on things gentler and better than we know. Pray to our gods, Steinar, since they are the best we have to pray to, though dark and bloody in their ways; pray that we may meet again, where priests and swords are not and women work no ruin, where we may love as we once loved in childhood and there is no more sin. Fare you well, my brother Steinar, yet not forever, for sure I am that here we did not begin and here we shall not end. Oh! Steinar, Steinar, who could have dreamed that this would be the last of all our happy fellowship?”
When I had spoken such words as these to him, I flung my arms about him, and we embraced each other. Then that picture fades.
It was the hour of sacrifice. The victim lay bound upon the stone in the presence of the statue of the god, but outside of the doors of the little temple, that all who were gathered there might see the offering.
The ceremonies were ended. Leif, the head priest, in his robe of office, had prayed and drunk the cup before the god, dedicating to him the blood that was about to fall, and narrating in a chant the crimes for which it was offered up and all the tale of woe that these had brought about. Then, in the midst of an utter silence, he drew the sacrificial sword and held it to the lips of Odin that the god might breathe upon it and make it holy.
It would seem that the god did breathe; at least, that side of the sword which had been bright grew dull. Leif turned it to the people, crying in the ancient words:
“Odin takes; who dare deny?”
All eyes were fixed upon him, standing in his black robe, and holding aloft the gleaming sword that had grown dull. Yes, even the patient eyes of Steinar, bound upon the stone.
Then it was that some spirit stirred in my heart which drove me on to step between the priest and his prey. Standing in the doorway of the chapel, a tall, young shape against the gloom behind, I said in a steady voice:
“I dare deny!”
A gasp of wonderment went up from all who heard, and Steinar, lifting himself a little from the stone, stared at me, shook his head as if in dissent, then let it fall again, and listened.
“Hearken, friends,” I said. “This man, my foster-brother, has committed a sin against me and my House. My House is dead—I alone remain; and on behalf of the dead and of myself I forgive him his sin, which, indeed, was less his than another’s. Is there any man among you who at some time has not been led aside by woman, or who has not again and again desired to be so led aside? If such a one there be, let him say that he has no forgiveness in his heart for Steinar, the son of Hakon. Let him come forward and say it.”
None stirred; even the women drooped their heads and were silent.
“Then, if this is so,” I went on, “and you can forgive, as I do, how much more should a god forgive? What is a god? Is he not one greater than man, who must know all the weakness of man, which, for his own ends, he has bred into the flesh of man? How, then, can he do otherwise than be pitiful to what he has created? If this be so, how can the god refuse that which men are willing to grant, and what sacrifice can please him better than the foregoing of his own vengeance? Would a god wish to be outdone by a man? If I, Olaf, the man can forgive, who have been wronged, how much more can Odin the god forgive, who has suffered no wrong save that of the breaking of those laws which will ever be broken by men who are as it has pleased him to fashion them? On Odin’s behalf, therefore, and speaking as he would speak, could he have voice among us, I demand that you set this victim free, leaving it to his own heart to punish him.”
Now, some whom my simple words had touched, I suppose because there was truth in them, although in those days and in that land none understood such truths, and others, because they had known and loved the open-handed Steinar, who would have given the cloak from his back to the meanest of them, cried:
“Aye, let him go free. There has been enough of death through this Iduna.”
But more stood silent, lost in doubt at this new doctrine. Only Leif, my uncle, did not stand silent. His dark face began to work as though a devil possessed him, as, indeed, I think one did. His eyes rolled; he champed his jaws like an angry hog, and screamed:
“Surely the lord Olaf is mad, for no sane man would talk thus. Man may forgive while it is within his power; but this traitor has been dedicated to Odin, and can a god forgive? Can a god spare when his nostrils are opened for the smell of blood? If so, of what use is it to be a god? How is he happier than a man if he must spare? Moreover, would ye bring the curse of Odin upon you all? I say to you—steal his sacrifice, and you yourselves shall be sacrificed, you, your wives, your children, aye, and even your cattle and the fruit of your fields.”
When they heard this, the people groaned and shouted out:
“Let Steinar die! Kill him! Kill him that Odin may be fed!”
“Aye,” answered Leif, “Steinar shall die. See, he dies!”
Then, with a leap like to that of a hungry wolf, he sprang upon the bound man and slew him.
I see it now. The rude temple, the glaring statue of the god, the gathered crowd, open mouthed and eyed, the spring sunshine shining quietly over all, and, running past the place, a ewe calling to the lamb that it had lost; I see the dying Steinar turn his white face, and smile a farewell to me with his fading eyes; I see Leif getting to his horrible rites that he might learn the omen, and lastly I see the red sword of the Wanderer appear suddenly between me and him, and in my hand. I think that my purpose was to cut him down. Only a thought arose within me.
This priest was not to blame. He did no more than he had been taught. Who taught him? The god he served, through whom he gained honour and livelihood. So the god was to blame, the god that drank the blood of men, as a thrall drinks ale, to satisfy his filthy appetite. Could such a monster be a god? Nay, he must be a devil, and why should free men serve devils? At least, I would not. I would cast him off, and let him avenge himself upon me if he could. I, Olaf, would match myself against this god—or devil.
I strode past Leif and the altar to where the statue of Odin sat within the temple.
“Hearken!” I said in such a voice that all lifted their eyes from the scene of butchery to me. “You believe in Odin, do you not?”
They answered “Aye.”
“Then you believe that he can revenge himself upon one who rejects and affronts him?”
“Aye,” they answered again.
“If this be so,” I went on, “will you swear to leave the matter between Odin and me, Olaf, to be settled according to the law of single combat, and give peace to the victor, with promise from all harm save at the hands of his foe?”
“Aye,” they answered, yet scarcely understanding what they said.
“Good!” I cried. “Now, God Odin, I, Olaf, a man, challenge you to single combat. Strike you first, you, Odin, whom I name Devil and Wolf of the skies, but no god. Strike you first, bloody murderer, and kill me, if you can, who await your stroke!”
Then I folded my arms and stared at the statue’s stony eyes, which stared back at me, while all the people gasped.
For a full minute I waited thus, but all that happened was that a wren settled on the head of Odin and twittered there, then flew off to its nest in the thatch.
“Now,” I cried, “you have had your turn, and mine comes.”
I drew the Wanderer’s sword, and sprang at Odin. My first stroke sunk up to the hilt in his hollow belly; my next cut the sceptre from his hand; my third—a great one—hewed the head from off him. It came rattling down, and out of it crawled a viper, which reared itself up and hissed. I set my heel upon the reptile’s head and crushed it, and slowly it writhed itself to death.
“Now, good folk,” I cried, “what say you of your god Odin?”
They answered nothing, for all of them were in flight. Yes, even Leif fled, cursing me over his shoulder as he went.
Presently I was alone with the dead Steinar and the shattered god, and in that loneliness strange visions came to me, for I felt that I had done a mighty deed, one that made me happy. Round the wall of the temple crept a figure; it was that of Freydisa, whose face was white and scared.
“You are a great man, Olaf,” she said; “but how will it end?”
“I do not know,” I answered. “I have done what my heart told me, neither more nor less, and I bide the issue. Odin shall have his chance, for here I stay till dark, and then, if I live, I leave this land. Go, get me all the gold that is mine from the hall, and bring it here to me by moonrise, and with it some garments and my armour. Bring me also my best horse.”
“You leave this land?” she said. “That means that you leave me, who love you, to go forth as the Wanderer went—following a dream to the South. Well, it is best that you should go get whatever they have promised you, for now, it is sure that the priests will kill you, even if you escape the vengeance of the god.” And she looked askance at the shattered statue which had sat in its place for so many generations that none knew who had set it there, or when.
“I have killed the god,” I answered, pointing to the crushed viper.
“Not quite, Olaf, for, see, its tail still moves.”
Then she went, leaving me alone. I sat myself down by the murdered Steinar, and stared at him. Could he be really dead, I wondered, or did he live on elsewhere? My faith had taught me of a place called Valhalla where brave men went, but in that faith and its gods I believed no more. This Valhalla was but a child’s tale, invented by a bloody-minded folk who loved slaughter. Wherever Steinar and the others were, it was not in Valhalla. Then, perhaps, they slept like the beasts do after these have been butchered. Perhaps death was the end of all. It might be so, and yet I did not believe it. There were other gods besides Odin and his company, for what were those which we had found in the Wanderer’s tomb? I longed to know.
Yes, I would go south, as the Wanderer went, and search for them. Perhaps there in the South I should learn the secret truth—and other things.
I grew weary of these thoughts of gods who could not be found, or who, if found, were but devils. My mind went back to my childhood’s days, when Steinar and I played together on the meads, before any woman had come to wreck our lives. I remembered how we used to play until we were weary, and how at nights I would tell him tales that I had learned or woven, until at length we sank to sleep, our arms about each other’s necks. My heart grew full of sorrow that in the end broke from my eyes in tears. Yes, I wept over Steinar, my brother Steinar, and kissed his cold and gory lips.
The evening gathered, the twilight grew, and, one by one, the stars sprang out in the quiet sky, till the moon appeared and gathered all their radiance to herself. I heard the sound of a woman’s dress, and looked up, thinking to see Freydisa. But this woman was not Freydisa; it was Iduna! Yes, Iduna’s self!
I rose to my feet and stood still. She also stood still, on the farther side of the stone of sacrifice whereon that which had been Steinar was stretched between us. Then came a struggle of silence, in which she won at last.
“Have you come to save him?” I asked. “If so, it is too late. Woman, behold your work.”
She shook her beautiful head and answered, almost in a whisper:
“Nay, Olaf, I am come to beg a boon of you: that you will slay me, here and now.”
“Am I a butcher—or a priest?” I muttered.
“Oh, slay me, slay me, Olaf!” she went on, throwing herself upon her knees before me, and rending open her blue robe that her young breast might take the sword. “Thus, perchance, I, who love life, may pay some of the price of sin, who, if I slew myself, would but multiply the debt, which in truth I dare not do.”
Still I shook my head, and once more she spoke:
“Olaf, in this way or in that, doubtless my end will find me, for, if you refuse this office, there are others of sterner stuff. The knife that smote Steinar is not blunted. Yet, before I die, who am come here but to die, I pray you hear the truth, that my memory may be somewhat less vile to you in the after years. Olaf, you think me the falsest of the false, yet I am not altogether so. Hark you now! At the time that Steinar sought me, some madness took him. So soon as we were alone together, his first words were: ‘I am bewitched. I love you.’
“Olaf, I’ll not deny that his worship stirred my blood, for he was goodly—well, and different to you, with your dreaming eyes and thoughts that are too deep for me. And yet, by my breath, I swear that I meant no harm. When we rode together to the ship, it was my purpose to return upon the morrow and be made your wife. But there upon the ship my father compelled me. It was his fancy that I should break with you and be wed to Steinar, who had become so great a lord and who pleased him better than you did, Olaf. And, as for Steinar—why, have I not told you that he was mad for me?”
“Steinar’s tale was otherwise, Iduna. He said that you went first, and that he followed.”
“Were those his words, Olaf? For, if so, how can I give the dead the lie, and one who died through me? It seems unholy. Yet in this matter Steinar had no reason left to him and, whether you believe me or no, I tell the truth. Oh! hear me out, for who knows when they will come to take me, who have walked into this nest of foes that I may be taken? Pray as I would, the ship was run out, and we sailed for Lesso. There, in my father’s hall, upon my knees, I entreated him to hold his hand. I told him what was true: that, of you twain, it was you I loved, not Steinar. I told him that if he forced this marriage, war would come of it that might mean all our deaths. But these things moved him nothing. Then I told him that such a deed of shame would mean the loss of Steinar’s lordship, so that by it he would gain no profit. At last he listened, for this touched him near. You know the rest. Thorvald, your father, and Ragnar, who ever hated me, pressed on the war despite all our offerings of peace. So the ships met, and Hela had her fill.”
“Aye, Iduna, whatever else is false, this is true, that Hela had her fill.”
“Olaf, I have but one thing more to say. It is this: Only once did those dead lips touch mine, and then it was against my will. Aye, although it is shameful, you must learn the truth. My father held me, Olaf, while I took the betrothal kiss, because I must. But, as you know, there was no marriage.”
“Aye, I know that,” I said, “because Steinar told me so.”
“And, save for that one kiss, Olaf, I am still the maid whom once you loved so well.”
Now I stared at her. Could this woman lie so blackly over dead Steinar’s corpse? When all was said and done, was it not possible that she spoke the truth, and that we had been but playthings in the hands of an evil Fate? Save for some trifling error, which might be forgiven to one who, as she said, loved the worship that was her beauty’s due, what if she were innocent, after all?
Perhaps my face showed the thoughts that were passing through my mind. At the least, she who knew me well found skill to read them. She crept towards me, still on her knees; she cast her arms about me, and, resting her weight upon me, drew herself to her feet.
“Olaf,” she whispered, “I love you, I love you well, as I have always done, though I may have erred a little, as women wayward and still unwed are apt to do. Olaf, they told me yonder how you had matched yourself against the god, with his priests for judges, and smitten him, and I thought this the greatest deed that ever I have known. I used to think you something of a weakling, Olaf, not in your body but in your mind, one lost in music and in runes, who feared to put things to the touch of war; but you have shown me otherwise. You slew the bear; you overcame Steinar, who was so much stronger than you are, in the battle of the ships; and now you have bearded Odin, the All-father. Look, his head lies there, hewn off by you for the sake of one who, after all, had done you wrong. Olaf, such a deed as that touches a woman’s heart, and he who does it is the man she would wish to lie upon her breast and be her lord. Olaf, all this evil past may yet be forgotten. We might go and live elsewhere for awhile, or always, for with your wisdom and my beauty joined together what could we not conquer? Olaf, I love you now as I have never loved before, cannot you love me again?”
Her arms clung about me; her beautiful blue eyes, shimmering with moonlit tears, held my eyes, and my heart melted beneath her breath as winter snows melt in the winds of spring. She saw, she understood; she cast herself upon me, shaking her long hair over both of us, and seeking my lips. Almost she had found them, when, feeling something hard between me and her, something that hurt me, I looked down. Her cloak had slipped or been thrown aside, and my eye caught the glint of gold and jewels. In an instant I remembered—the Wanderer’s necklace and the dream—and with those memories my heart froze again.
“Nay, Iduna,” I said, “I loved you well; there’s no man will ever love you more, and you are very fair. Whether you speak true words or false, I do not know; it is between you and your own spirit. But this I do know: that betwixt us runs the river of Steinar’s blood, aye, and the blood of Thorvald, my father, of Thora, my mother, of Ragnar, my brother, and of many another man who clung to us, and that is a stream which I cannot cross. Find you another husband, Iduna ‘the Fair’, since never will I call you wife.”
She loosed her arms from round me, and, lifting them again, unclasped the Wanderer’s necklace from about her breast.
“This it is,” she said, “which has brought all these evils on me. Take it back again, and, when you find her, give it to that one for whom it is meant, that one whom you love truly, as, whatever you may have thought, you never have loved me.”
Then she sank upon the ground, and resting her golden head upon dead Steinar’s breast, she wept.
I think it was then that Freydisa returned; at least, I recall her tall form standing near the stone of sacrifice, gazing at us both, a strange smile on her face.
“Have you withstood?” she said. “Then, truly, you are in the way of victory and have less to fear from woman than I thought. All things are ready as you commanded, my lord Olaf, and there remains but to say farewell, which you had best do quickly, for they plot your death yonder.”
“Freydisa,” I answered, “I go, but perchance I shall return again. Meanwhile, all I have is yours, with this charge. Guard you yonder woman, and see her safe to her home, or wherever she would go, and to Steinar here give honourable burial.”
Then the darkness of oblivion falls, and I remember no more save the white face of Iduna, her brow stained with Steinar’s lifeblood, watching me as I went.