The Last Sea-Fight
Ruthless as he was in spreading the true faith, no such king as Olaf had ever before been seen in Norway. The people loved him for his shining manliness. The most great-hearted, the blithest, the most impetuous of men was he; open-handed, and delighting in splendour. They forgave his violence for his justice, and his masterful spirit for his kindliness to the lowly.
Of his skill and strength his sea-wolves never tired of bragging; as swimmer, rock-climber, ski-man he had no rival. He could split an arrow with an arrow, and cast two spears at a time, right hand and left. Kiartan's ship he saved by main force when the cable parted; and when Eindridi saw him walk on the oars over the water while the rowers were rowing, and keep three daggers at play in the air, "Thine angels," he said, "help thee to do this, and I cannot contend against them."
Now when the king had slain Raud the Strong he brought away Raud's dragon-ship with him. Larger it was by far than the Crane; indeed there was no nobler ship in Norway, with the dragon's head and the coils of the tail overlaid with gold, and its sail which spread like a dragon's wing. Olaf himself steered it.
Sailing down by the steep coast, he saw a stranger standing upon a rock, and as the ship veered in so as well-nigh to graze it, the stranger climbed on board and saluted the king. He was young to look at, tall and handsome, red-bearded, and clad in green. He talked and laughed merrily with the seamen, and fell to wrestling with them, but the strongest there could not hold his own against him. Then he tolde them old-world tales of wonder. "In those times he said, "the folk of these fells and fjords were mighty friendly with me. In their need they called upon me for help, and I slew the giants for them. Friendly they would have been to this day had they not been mishandled in a way which may not altogether escape vengeance." Glancing sideways at Olaf, he uttered a jeering laugh and plunged overboard. Then the seamen knew that they had spoken face to face with Thor of the Thunder-hammer.
Not once or twice did trolls and creatures of darkness lurk in the forest or among the rocks of the shore to mock and fleer at the king, but their power of evil had passed from them. It was in these days that Hall and Thorhall the Seer were on the hillside, and as they sat silent Thorhall smiled. "Why are you smiling?" asked Hall. "I am smiling," said the Seer, "at the sight of so many of the doors of the hills wide open, and the little people bundling their wallets for a long wayfaring."
So well pleased was the king with Raud's dragon-ship that he laid the keel of another still larger and goodlier, and his own he called the Long Serpent and Raud's the Short. He was yet busied with this work when a sail put in to Ladir, and it bore Thyra, the sister of Sweyn the Forked-beard. Sorely against her will Sweyn had given her to Burislaf, the old heathen King of Wendland; but with him she would not stay, neither would she eat or drink, and at last, under cloud of night, she fled through the wilds with her foster-father, and took ship to Olaf for refuge and counsel. She was fair and young, and of the king's faith, and he saw not how he might mend her fortunes so well as by sharing his throne with her.
Now it was not long after their marriage that Thyra began to fret over the fair estates which she owned in Wendland, and urged Olaf to claim their revenues for her. "So good a friend of thine is Burislaf that he will readily grant whatever thou may'st ask, and these lands I hold in my own right." "Hast thou not all thou canst desire?" asked Olaf. "Why should such thoughts trouble thee?"
Still she repined, and often during that winter she was in tears over her grievance. The king spoke of the matter with his secret counsellors, but they besought him to wait for change and chance, and not to waste the lives of tall men by stirring in so doubtful a cause. In the early spring it chanced upon the Sunday of Palms that Olaf saw a man with fragrant sprays of angelica, and gaily carried some to Thyra. She was in a petulant mood, and put them from her with graceless words:
"It is easy to see that I am but a beggarly queen when thou thinkest angelica leaves should please me. A pity Sweyn should so daunt thee that I may not enjoy what is my own!"
Olaf flushed red with anger: "God's splendour, what an asp may lurk in a rosy mouth! Better all thy revenues were at the bottom of the deep sea than the bones of but a score of my ship-folk. But no man shall ever say that thy brother Sweyn could make me go in fear of him."
Then, as the rhymes of the old song go,
he left her, and she was sorry enough that she had angered him. He had the Long Serpent finished and launched from the slips, and that summer he manned her as never war-ship had been manned in those seas. Red Wulf guarded the king's banner at the prow, and in that peerless company were Kolbiorn, called King's Shadow, because he was so like the king, Thorstein the White, Hyrning and Thorgeir, Olaf's half-brothers, and heroes as many more than can be named. No man among them had more than sixty or less than twenty years to his age except Einar the Archer. He was in his eighteenth summer, but he drew the strongest bow and shot the surest arrow in Norway.
Southward with a great host of sail they fared for Wendland, and in one place and another along the coast the king landed to cheer and strengthen the folk in their new faith. Strange things happened in those glowing summer nights, for while deep slumber lay on the ships and guards kept watch on shore, the king would suddenly come upon them from inland when they thought him sleeping. No one had seen him go ashore; none knew whence he came; there was no trace of footsteps on sand or dewy grass.
All this greatly troubled Thorkel, who wondered whether indeed the king went thus abroad in the dead night season, or if it were some spirit of evil which assumed the king's likeness. Wherefore, upon a night when he knew that Olaf was on board, he set himself to watch at the foot of the gangway between ship and shore. Slowly passed the hours of the dreamy twilight; the breeze of the morning began to blow cold, and Thorkel had just thought, "This night at least he has slept sound," when iron arms were cast about him, and he was flung into the sea.
"That for meddling!"
At the sound of the king's voice Thorkel feared he was angry, but Olaf threw him a rope, and laughed as he hauled him on board.
"I did not mean to vex thee," said Thorkel.
"Thou, of all men, art never like to vex me," replied Olaf, and indeed the man was his bosom-friend and counsellor; "but when I saw thee standing there, I could not keep my hands from making sport of thee."
"Thou hast made sport of my cloak," said Thorkel. "Let not that grieve thee to the soul; thou shalt have another cloak."
"And if thy enemies, men or devils, lie in wait for thee, and fall upon thee and spoil thee, wilt thou give us another Olaf?" asked Thorkel. "What folly is this in a great chief, to wander far away from his ships, unarmed and alone!"
"Dear man, have no care for me," replied the king; "no evil can befall me whither I go."
On the following night the king touched Thorkel's feet to awake him, and signed to him to dress; and they went ashore together, and passed near the watchers, but these paid no heed to them.
"Dost thou see?" asked Olaf. "While my arm is in thine, no one is aware of thee or me. Now, if thou wilt, thou shalt fare with me whither I fare, but thou shalt swear never to speak of this night's doings so long as I am king."
Inland they went till they came to a pine-wood, and in the clearing of the trees there stood a fair house.
"Abide here till I return," said Olaf; and he entered, but did not quite close the door; and Thorkel saw that the house was dazzling with light, and filled with a fragrance which took away all feeling of care or sorrow, or of weight or weariness. In the midst knelt the king with his arms raised to heaven; and out of the great light came stately and gracious beings in white robes, and they blessed the king and raised him to his feet. Then out of the fragrance came a throng of little children singing, and they too were in white raiment bordered with gold, and rosebuds and green leaves were woven in their bright hair.
Then Olaf came forth, and the house fell into darkness within; but the king brought with him an after-glow of the light and a lingering of the fragrance. And as they returned through the pine-wood Thorkel looked back, but the fair house had vanished from the clearing.
One other thing there is to tell of this sea-faring. While they lay off Hildsholm one of the shipmen made a wager to climb the great rock, Smalsar Horn. A perilous place it is beyond most, springing high and sheer out of the sea, and its sharp spit of stone stands solitary in the heavens. When this man had gone far up, he came to such a pass that he could neither ascend higher nor yet get down again. Then the king, laughing with a lad's glee, slung his shield over his shoulders, and went up the rock, calling to the man, "Bide there till I come." Right to the top of the Horn he won, and fastened his shield to the spit, so that it glittered like a star. As he made it fast, his dream of the stone pillar in Garda rose up in his mind; and for a moment he seemed to behold around him once more fields of summer flowers and the fair white company of happy souls. And he wondered within himself, "Is this a sign? Yet shall it give me neither fear nor misgiving." And descending swift and light-hearted, he took the shipman under his mighty arm, and brought him down to a safe place.
Along the Danish shores and down through Eyra Sound they fared without hindrance, and came at length to Wendland, where with great friendliness King Burislaf gave them welcome. He was the father of Geira whom Olaf first loved; and when they came to speak of Thyra's claims the old king readily granted all that was right and seemly, and that trouble was brought to a happy close.
So Olaf tarried long in Wendland, forgathering with old friends, and the time fleeted by in revelry and good-fellowship. Most of all he was glad at heart to meet once more with Astrid, Geira's young sister, who was now the wife of Sigvald, Earl of the Jomsvikings. Yet, could he have foreseen it, this joy and remembrance of early love were but the last bright threads running through the dark with which the picture of his life was being woven.
Now before these things had happened, when the first rumour of the king's sailing reached Denmark, Sigrid the Haughty was queen of that land, for she had married Sweyn Forked-beard; and she cast about in her subtle mind how she might turn this venture to Olaf's undoing. She had never forgiven him, and when she thought of the slight he had put upon her, the flick of his glove seemed still burning on her cheek. She let slip no chance of stirring up strife between Sweyn and his old Viking comrade, and when all other means failed she burst into angry tears:
"Woe's the day I listened to a king who dare not avenge my wrongs! Yet, poor man, why should I upbraid thee with my shame, when thou canst not avenge thy own? When Olaf took thy sister Thyra, was it with leave asked of thee? And now, they say, he is to raid Wendland for revenues that by right are no longer hers. Had thy father, old Harald Blue-tooth, been alive, would he have put up meekly with these affronts?"
She so fretted and stung him with her taunts that he too flared out in wrath: "True it is also I might to-day have been King in England had he not broken faith and made peace with Ethelred."
Then Queen Sigrid spun out webs of craft to close about Olaf and bring him to his death in the Baltic sea-ways.
"Alone," she said, "thou canst not cope with him on water, but the Jomsvikings will join thee; my son shall aid thee with the power of Sweden; and who but Earl Erik will be keen of this chance to lay hold on Norway, and pay Olaf back for his father's head on the gallows-tree? To Wendland Olaf shall fare with a proud heart; what his home-coming shall be lies in thy hand."
So kings and earls were leagued together, but Sigvald, the leader of the Jomsvikings, would have no hand in the plot, except that he consented to keep Olaf in Wendland long enough for the hostile fleets to gather. Out of Sweden and Denmark they came in vast numbers, and masking themselves with green boughs they lay under Hiddensee on the Svold, which is the Race of the sea near Rugen Isle.
For all their care the plotters could not keep their secret, and rumours spread to Wendland of a mighty thronging of ships in the western narrows, and many surmised that this could mean no less than war. Already the Northmen were wishing for home, and they pressed the king to return. "Free you are to go at any time," replied Olaf, "but I shall think those most friendly who tarry for me." None would leave him, and, disquieted and impatient, the Northmen waited until it was his pleasure to depart.
On the eve of their sailing, Astrid came at night to warn him of his danger, and to join forces with him if he would accept her aid; but Olaf answered cheerily: "More ways than one I see out of this peril, little sister, but never shall I shrink from the challenge of my foes. And why should I embroil thee with thy neighbours, dear heart? Nay, the issue is in God's hands, all-powerful to keep my kingdom mine or to give it to another."
"Yet I shall sail with thee," said Astrid. "Do but throw back thy head for a sign, and thou shalt have what service I can do thee."
As the king held her hand at parting, "Dost thou mind, little sister," he asked, "how long ago we sat in hall and Gizur made songs of the folk in the tapestry?"
"I mind it well," said Astrid, leaning closer to him. "Ay, and Geira said, how these folk, once happy and glad to be alive, were all now dead and half forgotten, and served but to keep out the cold wind?" Astrid inclined her head silently.
"So perchance it may be with us, and minstrels by the winter fire may make songs of our images. But we knew not then that the end of all was otherwise. Hence we shall fare when our earthly day is done; but in the high halls of the Lord God we shall be, not as dead folk in pictures, but living men and women still. Sleep light of heart, sister; He that keeps us will not slumber."
Early on the morrow "All aboard!" was sounded, and hawsers were cast loose, and all put out to sea—sixty of the king's ships and eleven under Sigvald. Westward they bore, the small sail drawing away in the light wind, and the great warships moving more slowly. And ever there was a Wendish skeid—nearer at one time and further off at another—which hung within hail of the Long Serpent.
Under Hidden's Island lay Sweyn and the Swede king and Earl Erik, and at the first glimmer of the coming sails they went up with numbers of their men to the wooded hill, and watched the small ships of the Northmen go to the open sea. Fair was the wind, and brightly the September sun shone over the Svold, and when the larger ships drove in from the offing, first one and then another was taken for the king's great dragon. Again and yet again men cried out in wonder, "Here it comes!" but Erik laughed, "Many more splendid ships has King Olaf than these; let them go!" So, sail after sail, more than half of the great fleet swept through the narrows, and no one suspected the foe lying in ambush.
Then out of the east came the cruisers of the Jomsvikings, and with them three stately vessels. One of these was the Crane and another the Short Serpent of Raud. And Sweyn cried out joyfully, "Aboard, aboard! High shall the Long Serpent carry me before sunset, and this hand shall wind her larboard and starboard at my will."
"Even this ship," rejoined Earl Erik testily, "thou couldst scarce wrest from him with thy Danes alone; but King Olaf has a better."
And as they went down from the hill they saw yet a fourth great vessel. Its prow was a grim dragon's head blazing in gold over the sea, and its strong sides were in their height and their length such an amazement that silence and fear fell upon the enemy as they got to their ships.
Thus far had all gone prosperously with the Northmen, and there was no sign of Queen Sigrid's guile; but as these large ships entered the Svold the Jomsvikings suddenly dropped sail and rowed closer in to the island.
"Here will I await King Olaf," said Sigvald. "It seems to me there is a great crowd of folk on the island and that peril lies ahead."
The captains of the Crane and the Short Serpent, astonished by this strange shift and uncertain what it might mean, lowered their sails also. So did the other ships, and all lay-to for Olaf to come up to them. But scarcely had the Great Dragon stood in to windward when the leagued fleets shot out from their ambush and swarmed over the Race.
"Bear on, king," Thorkel cried to Olaf; "drive out to the open sea; the odds here are too heavy for thee."
"Strike sails! Out oars!" Olaf answered with a ringing cry. "Let no man here think of flight. God look to my life, I shall fight blithely in this place. Lash ships together!"
The war-horns sounded the signals, and the Norse ships gathered about the Great Dragon—the Crane to weatherward, the Short Serpent to lee, and the rest four deep on either side. Eleven ships in all, and they were lashed gunwale to gunwale. So vast was the length of the Long Serpent that her forecastle lay out alone far forward of the others.
"If we lie in this way," said Red Wulf, "we shall have wild weather behind these bulwarks."
"Ay?" said Olaf. "It was ever my intent that the Dragon should be in the forefront; I thought not to have a craven to ward my banner."
Red Wulf flung back a scornful gibe, and Olaf, snatching his bow, set an arrow to the string.
"Shoot at thy foes, king. Belike thou wilt not have too many men by the sun goes down."
Then came the Wendish skeid under the Dragon's quarter, and a man at the prow spoke to the king in a strange tongue, and Olaf answered him cheerily. "This is one of our Wendish friends," he said, as the skeid passed astern, and rowing near to the shore came to anchor. Afterwards it was in the minds of many that the Lady Astrid might have been on board that ship.
From the poop of the Dragon Olaf looked out over the sea, and as he beheld the throng of his foes, he thought with a twinge of regret of the many goodly ships that had fared out to the open sea. Yet his words were gay and proud-hearted. "That banner over against us is King Sweyn's," he said with a laugh. "Danes do not beat Northmen. Leave them out of the reckoning. Who is yonder?"
"Thy namesake, Olaf the Swede."
"Home were a better place for the Lap-King! And those tall ships to windward?"
"That is Earl Erik Hakonson."
"Northmen like ourselves. The earl will look to us for a battle of giants to-day."
Then the horns sounded onset, and with the hoarse whoop of war sixty Danish ships swooped down on the Great Dragon in a storm of arrows. The Northmen grappled them with hooks, and shot down upon them from their high decks; and all they grappled they cleared of men and cast adrift. King Sweyn fell back in confusion, and the Lap-King fell upon the Dragon with fifteen ships. They too were grappled with steel, and the decks reddened with slaughter.
Meanwhile, on the flank of the fierce fighting, came Erik in Ironbeard, which bristled with spikes from prow to sea, and attacked the outer ships. Many fell upon both sides, but Olaf's men were driven inward from vessel to vessel, and as each was cleared the lashings were sundered and the next was boarded. Danes and Swedes thronged about Ironbeard and made good Erik's losses, but every Northman that fell left Olaf the weaker. At last all the king's ships were ravaged and cut adrift, and on the decks of the Great Dragon were crowded all the fighting men of Norway.
All that day the youngest of them, Einar the Archer, had plied his bow doughtily, and twice had Erik felt the wind of his arrows.
"Shoot me that tall young man," cried the earl to Finn of Herland.
"That man bears a charmed life to-day, lord," replied Finn, "yet I may mar his shooting."
Now Finn had fashioned Einar's bow, and as Einar bent it against the earl for the third time, Finn sent a bolt which snapped it in his grasp.
"What was it that broke?" asked Olaf as he heard the sound.
"Norway from thy hand, king," said Einar.
"More noise would have come of so great a breaking," replied Olaf. "Norway does not hang on thy bow. Take mine!"
Einar took it and drew the horns till the length of the arrow came short of the stretch. "Too weak a bow for so mighty a king!" he said, and throwing it aside he caught up his shield and joined the slayers.
Once did the earl board the Long Serpent, but the king's men stoutly drove him back. "A bold feat!" exclaimed Olaf; "but the earl, I think, will not clear the Dragon while Thor is his shipmate"—for on prow of Ironbeard dwelt a golden idol of Thor.
After that Erik put in to land with his wounded and slain, and he bade Danes and Swedes pluck up courage and make another onset, if they would not be shamefully vanquished by a single ship. Then once again the Wendish skeid came out to Olaf: "Our men will fight for you, will gladly die or win with you, whichever way fortune goes." But the king would not take their help. "Yet you may be of good service to me," he said, "if you will stay upon the spot where you have been all day."
So the skeid returned to anchor; and Ironbeard came again to the attack, and all about Dane and Swede darted and stung like a host of hornets. Great logs were hoisted and dropped on board the Dragon till she took a heavy list to weatherward, and Erik's men swarmed over the bulwarks.
Thrice did Olaf hurl his spears, double-handed, at the earl, but Erik stood unscathed. "Little wonder!" said Olaf when he perceived that the dweller of the prow had been changed, and in the place of Thor a gold cross stood on Ironbeard.
The forecastle was abandoned, and the Northmen, drunk with the joy of battle, slowly yielded foot by foot as they drew aft. In that last heroic stand were Hyrning and Thorgeir, Red Wulf and Einar, and Kolbiorn King's Shadow, who had dressed so like the king as to fill men's minds with uncertainty which was which.
High on the poop stood Olaf in gilded helm, with his shield glittering on his arm, and over his sark of ring-mail he wore a sleeveless coat of scarlet silk. When Kolbiorn went up and stood beside him, it seemed as though there were two kings.
As the earl's horde made a fierce rush a blaze of splendour came from the setting sun, so that the figures on the poop seemed to vanish in its brightness. And when that wondrous light abated there was no one seen in Olaf's place, and the last of the stalwart men of the Great Dragon plunged into the sea.
A frantic clamour of victory rose from the allied fleets. In the swarms of skiffs and cutters chasing the Northmen who had gone overboard the seamen joined in the exultant cry, and ceased from slaying. Treacherous friends and craven foes, the Jomsvikings rowed cheering into the tossing field of conflict.
In the midst of the wild commotion, the oars of the Wendish skeid flashed through the water, and racing eastward for home, that gallant little ship disappeared in the shades of the twilight.
Of the last defenders of the Dragon, Kolbiorn and Einar the Archer and Thorkel were saved; and Earl Erik steered the peerless ship to Vikin, and they sailed with him. When they had moored to the quay, Einar spoke to Vigi, who had lain on the poop all through the fight: "All is over now, Vigi, and we are masterless men."
Springing to his feet, the great dog flung up his head, howling with anguish, and followed Einar ashore. Hard by the haven was a green howe looking over the sea, and Vigi ran to the top of it, and laid him low with tears running down his face. Kindly folk brought him food, but never again did he eat or drink; and there they found him dead.
So, in the splendour of the setting sun, the armed figure of the king vanished from Norway. For many a winter the people talked of the swift Wendish skeid rowing hard into the shadows of the September twilight, and foretold that Olaf would surely come again. The wild swans sang in the summer night; angelica stalks were fragrant in the early spring; but never more was the king seen in Norway.
The folk lamented him, and they most who knew him best, and long afterwards was remembered the song which Halfred the Skald made of him.