Olaf the Viking
After the slaying of Tryggva, Queen Astrid fled with a small following; and Thorold, her foster-father, led her through the dark pine woods and the rocky tracts of the fells to an island in a lonely lake, where she might safely lie hidden for a time. There her babe was born; and Thorold sprinkled him with water in the old heathen fashion, and called him Olaf after his grandfather. And as soon as the danger of pursuit appeared to have gone by, her little band of defenders returned quietly to their homes.
All through the summer the fair young queen remained on the island, nursing her little son, and hoping for happier fortunes. But as the red leaves began to fall, and the days to shorten and grow cold, "It is time now," said Thorold, "to get to your father's before the first snow." So they set out, Astrid and the babe, with two hand-maids, and Thorold and his son Thorgils, a boy of six years; and travelling by starlight, and keeping away from the homesteads except when it was late and dark, they arrived at Olfrusted and were in comfort there with her father during the winter.
Yet it was not long before a rumour of Olaf's birth reached the wicked old queen, Gunhild, and scarcely had the spring gales cleared the ice from the fjords and the snow from the passes before spies and troops of horsemen were sent out in search of the babe. "A little seed, son Harald, will tumble a stone wall," said Gunhild; "see that no bantling of the Fair Hair breed lives to shove you from your seat."
Then began a long and perilous flight through the Norland wilds of rock and water and forest; but neither on the wolf-pack's highway, which is the heathland, nor on the troll-wife's byway, which is the precipice, did any ill befall them, and foster-father Thorold brought them safely through into Sweden to the homestead of Hakon the Old.
Even to that shelter the hatred of Gunhild pursued them, but the kindly old king, knowing she was as treacherous as ice of one night's frost, made no more account of her gifts and promises than of her threats. "If Astrid will go with you, or give you the boy," he said to her messengers, "so let it be. For the rest, my old house lacks not silver, nor yet gold; no, nor good iron to take care of both." And when the messengers began to bluster, a grim thrall, glaring through his tangled red hair, sprang out upon them and drove them from the steading with his dung-fork.
For two winters they dwelt there in Sweden, and as the child grew ruddy and stout upon his feet, the old king said to him, "Now, comrade, none too early can we fit ourselves for the sport and work of great earls and warriors. Play with the harp-strings and the making of songs," he went on, laughing, "will come to thee later; but what should hinder thee in the summer-time from riding and steering and swimming—ay, and from the handling of sword and javelin in thy small way? Then in the winter we shall have the skates and the chessmen. And I think it may happen that thou shalt show some skill in the eight arts of the heroes while thy body is still supple and thy wits nimble. What sayst thou, little king's son?"
"He says he thanks thee, King Hakon," answered Astrid, drawing the lad to her knee, and looking across him to the old man with her young eyes shining; "and his mother thanks thee too. Often indeed I wonder, when I think of all the goodness we have had from thee. No other in these lands, I warrant, would have been so bold to befriend us as thou hast been."
Still, from time to time, came disquieting signs of the hatred and watchfulness of Gunhild, so that Astrid bethought her that the safest place for the child would be with her brother Sigurd, who was held in great honour by King Valdamar of Garda in the Russian land. Olaf had completed his third year when she spoke of this matter to Hakon the Old.
"I will not say thee nay," replied the king, "for it may be this is the wisest course. But oh, small companion-in-arms, I had thought thou wouldst stay to lay me in my cairn, and perchance to sit in my high seat after me. But Weird, who spins our thread of life, will have it otherwise. Well, well! it is much to remember that you two have been to me here in this house as pleasant as the morning-star and the red of the summer dawn, so that for the most part I have forgotten how all things for me are now drawing nigh to the end. Nay, do not look sad. Let us take all that comes to us with a cheerful heart. Merrily you shall depart, and seemly too, as befits folk dear to Hakon the Old."
He presented them with kingly gifts, gave them men and women servants, and put them in care of a company of worthy merchants faring eastward beyond the Baltic. But Garda they never reached, for their ship was captured by sea-rovers and carried in to Eistland. There Olaf saw his mother sold for a bond-woman and led away sorrowful; but he and Thorold and the lad Thorgils fell to the lot of a black-haired, beetle-browed Eistlander.
They were still standing on the quay when a yeoman came up, leading a fine goat. "What may be the price of the lads?" he asked the Viking. "Wilt thou take the goat in exchange for the two? The old man is of no use to me."
"A mouth to fill, and no use to any one," said the Eistlander; and raising his axe, he struck the old foster-father down, so that he fell dead into the wash of the sea.
"Friend, thou art quick," said the yeoman.
"Ay, 'twas ever word and blow with me," laughed the Viking. "Take the lads, and give me the goat."
But Olaf, with his little clenched fists crossed hard upon his breast, stood glaring at him.
"Wilt know me again?" said the Eistlander, scowling under his black brows.
"Ay," said Olaf, "that is not unlike."
So the lads passed from hand to hand in Eistland, till a farmer named Reas bought them. Olaf he never held for a thrall, but treated him as one of his own household, clad him handsomely, and reared him in all manly service. "Look at his long bright hair, wife," he said, "and his hands, and the fearless eyes and the proud bearing of him! A king's son he well may be, and at the lowest no less than some great earl's child."
"Clear enough it is to see," replied his wife gaily, "that there is nothing too good for him."
Now when Olaf had been for six years in the homestead with Reas, Sigurd, the brother of Queen Astrid, came west from Garda, collecting tribute for King Valdamar. As he rode into the garth at Reas-stead Olaf went forward to greet him and welcome his following. Sigurd gazed hard at the boy and asked him his name.
"My name is Olaf, son of Tryggva of Vikin."
"Then thy mother's name was Astrid, and so it chances that we are kinsmen," said Sigurd alighting; "for I am Sigurd, Astrid's brother."
"It was to thee then that we were sailing," said Olaf, "when the Vikings fell upon us;" and he told him of their evil fortune on sea and shore.
Then musing for a little while, Sigurd asked, "Wouldst thou be free and fare with me to Garda?"
"Ay, gladly enough, if Thorgils went free too."
"They are good lads," said Reas, when Sigurd questioned him, "and I had no thought to be rid of them; but if they wish to go with thee, thou shalt have them at a price and a promise."
"And what may that be?"
"For the elder a mark of gold is the price, but it is nine marks for this lad, for I will not say that I do not hold him dear."
"The more pleased am I to pay," replied Sigurd.
"And this is the promise," Reas went on; "thou shalt treat them well; they shall not be sold again; and if thou wouldst be rid of them thou shalt bring them back to me."
"That I think will not happen," said Sigurd, "for this is my sister's child."
With warm leave-taking and many a look backward the lads rode out from Reas-stead, and so with Sigurd to Holmgard, which is Great Novgorod in the Russian realm.
Now it happened on a day in Holmgard that as Olaf wandered among the folk at the fair there were men sitting by a stall, and as he passed them he heard one say, "Wise men think before they speak, but thou art as ready with thy hand as with thy tongue." "Ay," laughed another, "'twas ever word and blow with me!"
At the sound of the voice Olaf drew the axe from his belt, and for an instant he saw again, as if it were happening before him, the good old man fall dead into the wash of the sea. He turned about sharp. There sat the Eistlander, with the braggart laugh still on his brute mouth; and Olaf, springing forward, buried his axe between his beetling brows, and fled.
"I have slain a man," he panted, as he burst in upon Sigurd.
"Then, kinsman," said Sigurd drily, "it is like enough that thou wilt soon lose thy life."
"Thou wouldst have slain him thyself," cried Olaf; "'twas he that killed Thorold, thy sister's foster-father, as I told thee."
"Ay?" replied Sigurd; "then I will not say but that things might have been worse. We must away to the queen, and that quickly. It may be that she will, of her grace, stand between thee and the law."
Now when Queen Olga saw the fair lad and heard all that had befallen during his brief life, she laid her hand gently on his sunny head. "Pity it were," she said, "that one so young and comely, and a king's son, should lose his life in such a case." And summoning her guard, she gave him into their safe-keeping; and when the matter had been brought before King Valdamar, she paid his blood-fine for the slaying of the Eistlander. So Olaf laid his hands between the queen's and became her man.
Here now was he who had been bartered and sold for a thrall come at last to a great house, where the benches were wrought of walrus tusks, and the white swan smoked on the board, and the silver cups were crowned with sweet mead and green wine. So strangely up and down does Fortune turn her wheel!
Proud and stirring days were these for Olaf among the queen's warriors, who took him for their comrade-in-arms and luck-bringer. Many a ringing song and wild tale set his heart beating and his eyes gleaming as he listened to their talk of adventure by land and sea. They told of Viking fights along the shores of the Baltic, and of rich spoil to be won in the green islands away sunsetward; of the leagues of black pine-forest and the tracks over which ships were hauled on wheels to the mighty rivers flowing into the South; but most of all he delighted to hear of the huge mysterious mounds on the steppe, where old Scythian kings were said to be buried between sheets of pure gold, and of the wondrous city Miklagard (Byzantium or Constantinople), where the wharves were of white marble, and great vessels rested their gilded prows against the houses while their sterns were afloat.
When Olaf was twelve years old and had grown very tall and strong, Queen Olga gave him three ships, and sent him forth on his first cruise against the lands and cities which had broken away from Garda and refused tribute. Goodly sailers they were, with scarlet hulls, and beaks carved in scarlet and gold, black oars, and gilt vanes, and white sails striped with blue and green. Since Olaf was in command and was of royal blood, he was called king, according to the custom in Garda; and nothing less than kingly was his bearing, in his mail-shirt of woven rings, with his long yellow hair clustering on his fringed red cloak, and the bright look of good fortune on his face. That autumn he brought home much tribute and plunder, gold and silver, fine raiment, and costly work in amber and jet, ivory, and precious stones.
So through the blithe summers Olaf went sea-faring, and ever as the moon of hunters rose red and ruddy over the forest, his ships drove into Holmgard laden with booty, and Queen Olga received him with a gracious welcome. King Valdamar soon made him war-lord of his frontiers, and the seers and wise men declared that guardian spirits, of a more shining aspect than any seen before, had come with the young stranger into the land.
But some of the great folk about the court were bitter with envy, and they tried to fill the king's mind with suspicions and fears. "It is easy," they said, "to make any man powerful, but when he is powerful, is it easy to keep him true?" "If a stranger mocks the old gods of any land, the evil may fall not upon him but upon the land that suffers him." But most of all they feared lest Olaf should sow division between their lord and the queen.
Sigurd heard rumours of these plots and warned Olaf, but when Valdamar looked into the lad's frank face his doubts and fears vanished. Of the ancient gods indeed Olaf took little heed, and when the king reproached him, he answered, "No great joy, I think, King Valdamar, comes to you of their worship; for as often as you visit them I see your look, which is kingly and gracious, grown dark and heavy with care. And let not dread of their anger trouble you, for being gods they must now know whither I shall ride or sail in the new spring;" and straightway he begged the king leave to depart, "though whether southward by the forests and Mother Dneiper to Miklagard, or westward to the great seas, I cannot tell."
And half relieved and half reluctant, Valdamar consented.
Upon a night when the spring was at hand and the sweet gales of a new time sang through the pine-woods and rocked the broken ice on the sea-ways, Olaf saw in a dream a pillar of stone that ascended into the heavens; and it was so notched with foot-holds that he began to climb. Ever upward he went until he had passed through the clouds, and beheld around him wide fields of summer flowers. The fragrance was more sweet than that of any earthly wind, and among the flowers walked joyful people clad in white. Beside him he heard the voices of two unseen who spoke concerning him: "He hath not bowed down to idols of wood and stone, and if he doth not worship Thee, it is that he hath not known Thee;" and the other answered, "In a little while the winds of the world shall bear him to the place where he shall know me, and he shall learn to strive after righteousness." Then as Olaf descended into the clouds, he heard the lamentation of men despairing; and far beneath, in the shadow of the nether fires, he saw the shapes of the ancient gods sitting in chains, and the wraiths of their worshippers—mighty chiefs of the cairns that overlook the sea, and forgotten kings who had been buried between sheets of gold. And he awoke trembling and in great awe.
Thus came the gallant days of Holmgard to an end; and all that summer Olaf raided fjord and bay, and chased the sails of viking and chapman to the westward; but when the weather broke he ran for safe anchorage under the lee of Wendland, where Geira, the daughter of King Burislaf, was queen. When she was told of his coming she sent messengers begging him to pass the winter with her. "Very willingly," said Olaf, and had his ships laid snug in a sheltered nook and tented over against wind and snow.
Right glad of each other were these two when they met, for although Geira was a widow, there was no woman more beautiful in Wendland, and she and Olaf were of one age. Before Yule-tide came they were married; and in the stately house with them was Astrid, her young sister, who loved Olaf dearly. Speedily he brought the realm to peace and strong rule, harrying robber-holds and quelling lawless towns, which had set the queen at nought in the days of her widowhood.
For three winters Olaf abode in Wendland, and near the close of the third it happened that they sat in hall upon a night when snow drifted and the wind blew keen through cranny and crevice. The tapestry shook along the walls; and as the light of the pine-logs flickered over it, and the figures wrought in it seemed to be alive, Gizur the poet touched his harp and made songs of the pictures—merry songs and mournful, songs of yesterday and of long ago, love songs and sword songs and songs of ships sinking. But after he had ceased Geira sat buried in thought; and when Olaf asked why she was so silent, "Once," she answered, "these men and women were as happy as we, and as glad to be living; but now they are all dead, and scarce remembered. Of all their dear lives there is left but a working in coloured threads, and little we think of it, except as a screen to keep the wind away."
It was not long thereafter that Geira fell sick and died. When she was gone, it was as though the sun had set in darkness in midsummer, and no warm glow lingered through the night on the brown lakes and the pine-forest. He went out and sat on a blue stone, gazing blindly across the green nesses and the grey seas; and Astrid knelt in front of him, and held his hand between hers. And when he rose up, roaring with the dumb pain of his heart, she stood beside him, but spoke no word, for she knew that sorrow lay heavy upon him. Then he looked at her, and put his arms about her head: "Little girl, there is no delight now in Wendland!"
And going down to the shore, he bade the men make the ships ready for sea.
About this time Lodin, a rich merchant of Vikin, came to a place in Eistland where a fair was being held, and among the thralls who stood for sale he saw a woman, and though she was meanly clad and wasted and wan, he recognised her for the wife of King Tryggva. He questioned her, and when she had told him all the ills that had befallen her, "Take heart again, lady," he said. "Thy little son, as I have heard, has grown to a name renowned among kingly men, and I wot he has long looked for thee in vain. But come now, wilt thou not plight me thy troth and let me take thee back with me to thine own land?" The poor queen's heart was full, and she bowed her head in consent; and this was the end of her sorrows.
But Olaf sailed westward, with never a glance thrown back to Wendland. So widely had his fame spread that as he swept into Eyra-sound, Sweyn of the Forked-beard, gathering his crews for the summer raiding, would not suffer him to pass, but must needs have him for his guest. When their friendship had somewhat grown, "What blither sea-ranging would you have," asked the Dane, "than to put your ships to mine, and share with me this harrying of England?" "None blither, perchance," said Olaf; "and if you would have it so, you should find me no laggard." So, with a humming wind in the shrouds, the summer-host of the kings goes churning the bath of the wild swans.
Now we are in England; and the sea-warden on the cliffs, and the fisher in the bay, and the shepherd on the links see the ships go by—ninety sail and three; and a flock of ravens follows them in the sunset. Riders and runners speed along the coast, and at dusk signal-fires break out on the hill-tops. But where the Vikings land they find few in thorp or farmstead to withstand them, until they came to Maldon Blackwater.
Swiftly they crowded into the bay; and, ship after ship, their coloured sails dropped as the keels grounded on the long low isle in the midst of the Panta river. From Maldon town on the ridge Earl Brytnoth rode down with the men of Essex to meet them; but the tide was at the flood and the water ran deep between the two hosts. Then to the further side of the stream came a herald from the ships, and cried with a mighty voice, "Hail and hearken; these are the words of the sea-rovers. Hasten, men of the land, with the price of your safety. Better that silver and gold should defend you than that we should meet in the rush of spears. If you, lord and leader, will agree to redeem your people, the Vikings will give you friendship; peace they will make with you, and taking the tribute on board, turn again seaward."
Brandishing his lance aloft, Brytnoth sent his words ringing across the water: "Take back the answer of this people. Here stand we for the king and the realm, for homestead and kinsfolk. Take back the answer of Brytnoth. Look well at the tribute we bring. For gold you shall have spear-heads, and the keen edges of swords for silver. Thus far have you come unfought, but you go unfought no further."
Then, to and fro, whistled flights of arrows until the ebbing tide ran shallow upon the ford, which went on a narrow ridge of rock through the deep waters of the Patna stream. The Vikings thronged down to the bank, with eager shouts to press forward; but Brytnoth bade Wulfstan hold the passage with Elfhere and Maccus, and the rovers who ventured out upon that sunken bridge fared on a longer journey than they had thought to take.
When the ship-folk saw how warily the track was guarded, they challenged Brytnoth with scoffing cries: "Meet us as heroes meet, hand to hand on open ground. Come over to us here on the isle, or give us way to you across the ford." The proud earl drew back his defence, and answered scornfully, "Take your passage without toll, and here is room on the shore for many graves!"
Too much English earth did the great-heart that day in his disdain give away to strangers.
Then flew the ravens in circles over the rush of spears, and Dane and Saxon closed in the crimson fight of Maldon Blackwater.
For many a year afterwards gleemen sang of it, and round the bivouac fire and in the thegn's hall men's hearts leaped to the battle-cry, "Stand fast for king and country!" Never doubt that Olaf and the Forked-beard were in the forefront of that onset, but the maker of the old song had no care for the names of any but his own English folk.
Struck by a rover's spear, Brytnoth snapped the shaft with his shield, and thrust his foeman through the throat. With a second deadly cut he rent another's ring-mail asunder, and, laughing for gladness, thanked God for the good day's work He had given him to do. This way and that swayed the fight as young men and veterans fell; and now the Danes gave way, and now the Saxon ranks were borne backward.
In one fierce charge the earl was pierced through with an assagai—such was the name of the keen outland weapon. A stripling who fought by his side drew it from the gushing wound, and hurling it back, slew the sender. "A gallant cast, son of Wulfstan!" cried Brytnoth, unsheathing his axe as a tall fair-haired Viking pressed in upon him; but before the old hero could strike, a sea-wolf hewed down his arm. The broad brown axe dropped from his grasp; he could hold it no longer. Still his voice rang out cheerily, "Stand fast, East Saxons, stand fast!" And at length when he felt his feet failing under him, he looked up to heaven and prayed aloud: "Lord of all folk, from a full heart I thank Thee for all the delight I have had in this world, for the love of woman and the bliss of little children, for the fellowship of true men, for home and gear, for service and honour, for long life and the strong arm, for this goodly land and glad sea, for all the fair world of Thy making. And not least I thank Thee for this seemly death. Now, Lord of clemency, grant my spirit grace in my need; take it, Lord of angels, in peace to Thy safe-keeping."
Scarcely had he ceased when the heathen smote him to the earth, and spoiled him of his arms and bracelets; and at his side fell the stripling Wulfmer, son of Wulfstan the ford-warden.
The hedge of shields was broken. Dastards turned and fled; but the great-hearts of Essex—Edward the Long, Elfwine, Offa, and many another—fought shoulder to shoulder, and died about the body of Brytnoth.
"Too old am I for wayfaring," said Brytwold the hoary; "here I stay, and to-night I think to sleep beside the lord and comrade I loved."
Escferth, the Northumbrian hostage, said nothing, but listened well-pleased to the creaking of his great bow as he sped arrow after arrow into the pack of the sea-wolves.
Thus the old hero-song leaves them fighting by the Panta stream, below the grey earthworks of Maldon; the last page of it has been lost; how the Saxon gleeman brought it to a close has long been forgotten.
Through the deep woods and along the reedy water-lanes of the Fens the body of Brytnoth was borne by the monks to the minster at Ely. Far across marsh and mere floated their dirge-music as they laid it to rest before the high altar in the choir.
"Above all men I have known," said the abbot, "this lord was strong and gracious. Great-hearted he was and glad-hearted, a true thegn of Christ, courteous and loyal to the humblest. Long shall I bear in mind his last message to me, 'Tell my Lord Abbot that I cannot dine without my men, because I cannot fight without them.' Such an earl we cannot look to have again."
But a coward fear of the sea-rovers fell upon King Ethelred and his councillors. They kissed the hand that smote them; they fed the marauders who pillaged them; they bought a shameful peace. Ten thousand pounds of silver was weighed out from the treasure chests and taken down in waggons to the ships.
When the kings had divided the spoil, Sweyn bore away to Denmark, but Olaf, as you shall hear, spread his white sails striped with blue and green down the track of the westering sun.