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William Canton

At Strife with the Gods


Out of the summer sea heaved the rugged blue summits of Norway. The ships put in to Moster Haven, and Bishop Sigurd joyfully sang mass in the king's tent. Thori, however, grew anxious lest the news of Olaf's coming should stir the people to a sudden uprising against the earl, and he urged the king to act secretly and to hasten northward night and day. "Thy best chance," he said, "is to fall upon Hakon without warning. If thy name be noised abroad and thou give him time to gather his strength, little luck, I think, will go with thy venture." Crafty though this counsel was, no other could have served Olaf's turn better.

Again the bright sails bellied to the wind, and leaving the sheltered sea-way along the rocky walls of the coast, the ships skirted the outer isles of the broken chain of rocks and skerries which stretches away to the north.

Hour after hour Olaf watched in silent gladness the slowly changing outlines of the wild realm which he claimed for Christ. The long day declined, but the light of a setting sun which never wholly set flushed the restless sea and the hushed heavens with a slumbrous glow wherein the stern mountains, the jagged reefs, and the billows that broke upon them appeared transformed into a world overgrown with flowers. It was a world too in which there was no sound except the low murmuring of wind and water.

In the stillness and the strange beauty of that sun of the night, it seemed to Olaf for a moment as though he were sitting once more on the blue stone beside the sea in Wendland and that Geira had just died. All the radiance and joy of existence had gone out with the light of her eyes; but now for the first time since her death the earth was again clothed with magical colour and sweetness. Sorrow fell away from him. He felt no longer the ache of bereavement or the hopelessness of regret. His spirit sprang up young and confident, and with a mind free from care he stood at the beginning of a new life. "Thanks and praise to Christ," he said, "I am my own man again. Henceforth I fare onward without grief or misgiving."

One by one, through the glamour of the summer night, the six ships sailed northward, as silent as ships in a dream.

It was close upon midnight, and Bishop Sigurd stood at Olaf's side. Of the sunken sun only an arc remained, burning blood-red between the purple sea and a green sky dappled with dull crimson and gold; and a track of fire ran across the rolling waves.

"We stand between night and morning," said Olaf. "Another day begins, and another time."

"Pray God's blessing on it," rejoined the bishop, "for a mighty work lies before you, and more dangerous enemies oppose it than perchance you dream of."

As he uttered the words faint strains of an unearthly music floated to them from some unknown distance in sea or air. Olaf gazed intently and then pointed to the far heavens. Dimly visible at first, a strange wedge-shaped shadow passed among the softly coloured clouds. As it advanced it grew darker and vaster, but glimmerings of light played upon it, and the faint strains of music changed into clear trumpet-notes ringing down from the sky.

"It is the singing swans," said Olaf. "See how the great flock whitens as it comes nearer. Listen, and you will hear the strange beating of their wings."

"Domine Deus!" cried Sigurd, signing himself with the cross; "these are not swans; and their voices are singing human words."

"No," replied Olaf in awestruck tones; "they are Odin's maidens, the Choosers of the Slain. Thus, it is said, they sing their song of death as they hasten to some battle-field."

"Nay, son, this is but an illusion of the Spirit of Evil," said the bishop, as the spectral host swept overhead and their garments streamed in white and dusky folds with the speed of their flight.

"Look," exclaimed the king, "look at the sun!"

Near the blood-red arc and against the light of the green sky moved awful and colossal shapes, which were luminous at one moment and at the next seemed to be wild and menaceful shadows.

"I know not how I know," whispered Olaf, "but those are the ancient gods of the land."

The bishop did not answer, but his lips moved in prayer: "Adveniat regnum tuum—Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven."

Out of the distance came a fierce cry as of the wind in winter: "Return, return, ere we slay you, troublers of the land!"

But the ships sailed on in silence.

Then a great flash of lightning split the heavens with rifts of flame, and a peal of thunder rolled along the deep. Flash followed flash, and in the dazzling brightness the giant shapes of the old gods were seen to be in swift commotion, coming across the sea.


With Christ to aid me, I take up thy challenge Thor.

Olaf snatched his sword from its scabbard, caught it by the blade, and held the cross high above his head. The jewelled hilt and the white blade glittered in the lightning. Clear to see also were the gold helmet, the steel ring-shirt, and the crimson mantle of the king. Then in a pause of the thunder Olaf cried back his answer: "With Christ to aid me, I take up thy challenge, Thor!"

In an instant the tumult ceased. The dread shadows vanished. The red sun rose half out of the sea, and the slumbering glow quickened towards day.

Sigurd and the king gazed at each other in wonderment.

"Are these—things that we have seen?" asked Olaf; "or was it all a dream and phantasm of the night?"

"What we have seen, many have seen," replied the bishop, with a wide movement of his hand.

Then Olaf became aware of crowds of faces on the ships turned towards him in silent inquiry, for a great awe had fallen on the men, and they marvelled how the mighty gods of the ancient days had been abashed and scattered by the vision of the cross and the name of Christ.

When they had come to Agad Ness, Thori persuaded the king to abide there until he returned with tidings of the earl's movements and the temper of the people. "Thus," he said, "you will best choose the course that it will be wisest to follow." So they cast anchor and lay in quiet that day under the Ness in Drontheim Fjord.

Late in the evening the traitor came back in haste and called Jostein and Karlhead to him. "Things," he said, "have taken a turn that is little to my liking; we must do what we may to amend them." And when he had taken counsel with them he bade them bring Olaf ashore to confer with him in secret.

The two rowed to the king's ship, and as they came alongside the king was leaning on the rail as though he awaited them, and Vigi lay at his feet.

"Thori has returned," said Karlhead; "he has sent to ask thee if thou wilt come ashore and speak with him unobserved."

"Ay," said Olaf, and without more ado he went over the rail and dropped into the boat. The great dog tried to follow him, but Olaf bade him lie down and be still. He paid no heed, and ran to and fro whimpering and whining; and when the boat had been pushed off he uttered a woeful howl, and springing into the fjord began to swim after them.

They had not taken many strokes when Jostein cried, "Where is thy sword, king? How is it thou art weaponless?"

Olaf's hand moved quickly to his empty belt, and he shook his head with a smile. "Even the most careful forget at times," he answered.

"The king must not go unarmed," rejoined Jostein; "we will row back for thy sword."

"Give way, friends! Kings are ever armed," said Olaf. As the men sat motionless, hesitating what to do, Olaf's eyes rested on the eager face of the dog swimming. "Let us take the poor creature on board," he said. "'Tis hard to punish him for being faithful."

He stretched out his hand and patted his head before lifting him into the boat. "Good soul, thou hast a woman's love in thy shaggy body! Now, kinsmen, give way!"

But the two still rested on their oars, and the warm glow of the summer night tinged the island rocks, and the ruddy reflection of these lit up the waters of the fjord.

"Would it surprise thee, king," at last Karlhead asked slowly, "to hear that the yeomen have risen in arms against Hakon? The war-arrow with its twisted cord has been sent round. The dissolute old madman is in hiding among the hills, but all the countryside is searching for him. His ships are waiting for him in the creeks, but they will not be able to save him."

"These indeed are tidings!" cried Olaf. "Thori's counsel was wise. Why do we waste time here?"

"Listen to the end," said Jostein. "Do not think too hardly of us, sister's-son. It was not our good will to seek thee out in Dublin and lure thee hither. It was that, or death and torture, for us."

"How should you lure me?"

"Thori swore to bring thee and deliver thee to Hakon, or if that should fail, to slay thee off the earth."

"Ay? And that was Thori's thought. And what would Thori do now?"

"When we have landed he will hold thee in talk till three of his ship-folk have crept between thee and the sea. Then he will draw weapon and fall upon thee—and we too with him; that was his mind; but we stand by thee, as thou knowest."

"Nay," said Olaf, "I thank you for your good service, but you shall have no hand in this slaying."

"Now, wilt thou not go back and take thy arms?"

But Olaf answered with flashing eyes, "God giveth angels; I walk not alone. Have no fear for me, and let us hasten."

Without a word the brothers bent to their oars, and the boat surged through the bright waters. As they landed and drew it up on the beach, Olaf picked two round stones from the shingle, and laid them in a fold of his cloak. At some little distance from the shore, Thori, who had heard the sound of the oars, came down to meet them.

Olaf strode rapidly in advance, and as the two men approached each other the traitor saw such a look of stormy splendour on the king's face that his false heart failed him. He stopped suddenly with a sharp cry: "I see it blazing in thine eyes. Thy kinsmen have betrayed me."

"Thou hast betrayed thyself," said Olaf; "and now sudden death lays hands on thee."

With outstretched arm Olaf leaped forward to seize the dastard, but Thori, stricken with panic, turned and fled.

"Thou canst not flee from thy terror," cried the king, "nor can swiftness save thee from me. Bring him down, Vigi; slay him if thou wilt."

The great dog gave tongue, and bounded in pursuit of the fugitive. At the same moment the brothers raised a warning shout, and Olaf turned to see the three shipmen running in upon him with uplifted axes.

He took the stones from his cloak, poised them one in each hand above his head, and measured the distance with glittering eyes. Then, deadly as lightning, both stones were hurled at once; there was a dull crash, and two of his assailants fell headlong to the earth. In a twinkling his cloak was flung off and grasped in readiness, but the third man held back white and trembling.

"Put thine axe in thy belt," said Olaf.

The shipman obeyed.

"See if thy comrades are dead."

"They are dead, king," the man replied; "thou hast shattered—"

"Enough! Go to Thori yonder, and see if he still lives."

"Call back thy hound, king."

The deep baying of the dog had ceased, and at Olaf's whistle Vigi raced back to his side.

"Thori is dead," said the seaman; "the hound has strangled him."

"Get to thy ship. Earl Hakon lies yonder in the fjord. If thou and thy fellows would go to him, you are free. If you will be my men, come to me to-morrow."

That night, in the darkness of a noisome hiding-place, Hakon was slain while he slept by his thrall Kark, and the traitor, who was born on the same day as the earl and had been given him in childhood, hastened to Ladir with his grey dishonoured head.

Early in the dazzle of the morning the six ships rowed, with war-horns sounding, up the fjord to Ladir. Hakon's men came down to meet them, but they were daunted by the array and wild clamour of the onset, and heading for the nearest shore, they took to the hills.

Joyously Olaf landed on the crowded wharf. The mere sight of the young hero—his lofty stature and singular beauty, his bright friendly look, blue eyes, and long yellow hair—drew the hearts of the people to him and they thronged about him with cries of welcome. Talk of his strength and prowess and of the strange events that had happened during the voyage passed from mouth to mouth, so that folk would hear of nothing but his being chosen king.

In the midst of this excitement came Kark the thrall with Hakon's head. He told Olaf of their flight and his slaying of his master. "And now, king," he said, "I saw in a dream how I was here in Ladir, and you put a costly jewel about my neck."

"That shall be a blood-red ring," said Olaf. "Give him the reward of the traitor."

The wood in the forest and the iron in the hills rejoiced as the axe sundered soul from body. The two heads were hung side by side for the choughs on the gallows-mound in the doom-ring of Nidarholm. Thither went the folk crying up to them with curses, and hurling stones. So bitter was the hatred in the land that for long afterwards men avoided Hakon's name and never spoke of him except as the Wicked Earl.

Then a "Thing" or great council of the people was summoned, and Olaf was chosen by the eight shires of Drontheim to rule over them. Straightway he spoke to them of the true God in the heavens, and of his wish that they should forsake sorcery and sacrifices and heathen worship and believe in Him alone. "For this have I come among you, that giving up the evil things of the olden time, you should accept baptism and come to the faith of Christ." He warned them that no man should henceforth seek to bring in whales or shoals of fish by magic songs, or sit out at midnight on the cross-roads to hold commerce with spirits of darkness. Then pointing to the temple hard by, which Earl Hakon had restored, "Ye know," he cried, "who gave you this temple. Ye have seen his head in the doom-ring; come and behold the gods in whom he trusted."

Breaking into the sacred enclosure, he and his sea-wolves hewed down the portals of the temple, and wrenched away the carved ring of massive gold with which Hakon had adorned it. With his own battle-axe Olaf dashed Thor from his high place, and the images of the other gods and goddesses were shattered to fragments. Then when the building had been despoiled of its rich hangings and its splendour of gold and silver, it was set on fire.

"Now you have seen with your own eyes," said the king, "what power these gods have to help themselves or any man. Wherefore I pray you heed my counsel, which is that you become Christ's men even as you are the king's."

When the winter drew to a close Olaf went out through the south country, imposing his kingship and declaring the true faith. Hakon's son, Earl Erik, had thought to make a stand with his kith and kin, but when he heard how the great lords and yeomen everywhere swore allegiance to the king, they escaped through the wild ways into Sweden. In the springtime Olaf reached Vikin, the old realm of his father Tryggva, and there he found, with great joy after so many years, his mother Astrid, and brothers and sisters, and many doughty men and fair women of his stock.

"Of all the folk in Norway," said he, "ye are dearest to me because of our blood. And, as is right, to you I look first for fellowship and help, for be sure of this that one of two things will happen, either that I make Norway a Christian land or lose my life."

"That last shall not happen to thee if we may hinder it," said Thorgeir, his half brother; "but we also look to thee, Olaf, for something, and that is favour and gentleness."

"Well you may," replied the king; "and who shall gainsay you? Powerful men I shall make you, if you will share in my labour. Fain, indeed, would I win all men by gentleness and peace to what is for their great good, both now and hereafter. But if there be stark and wayward fellows who would make head against the king, what choice is left for the king but to break them to his will? Have the folk of Norway forgotten how Hakon drove iron harrows over them in an evil cause? And shall I not be wrathful if they resist me when I would rid the land of wickedness and the rule of devils?"

So great was the love that went out to the high heart and brave presence of the king that everywhere in Vikin the images of the gods were overthrown and their temples destroyed. In many other places Bishop Sigurd went forth teaching and baptizing, though many consented through fear and against their liking. In Hordaland and Rogaland, however the yeomen were hardy and proud, and they prepared to stand by the dark worship of old days. When Olaf landed among them he invited the chief men to a feast, and after they had had much friendly talk together, he reproached them with the cruel blood-offerings which they made to Frey. They would neither deny their shame nor confess it.

"Then," said the king, "if you have been un- justly accused, it will be easy for you to obey me, and destroy Frey's image."

"That we shall never do. We have served him long, and well has he repaid us."

"Much I fear then that you are blood-guilty. Now listen to me. To-morrow we shall meet at the Thing. Frey shall be there. I shall question him and judge him. He shall make good his cause, else I will surely slay him, and teach you the good way which the High God has taught me."

In the grey of the morning, then, the king rowed to the great temple in the fjord. In the green meadows were Frey's stud horses; and Olaf, who had the horseman's word, called the sacred white stallion, which came whinnying to him. It was shod with silver, and its mane and tail were plaited with ribbons and gold thread. Olaf mounted it, and his men took the geldings, and they rode to the temple.

Alighting, Olaf went in and struck the idols down from their altars, but Frey he carried off unharmed to his ship. Long before the others he and his men got to the place of the Thing, and hid the image in his tent, and when the meeting had assembled he spoke to them for some time of the well-being of the land, the observance of good laws, and the duty of kings to have constant care for the peace and happy estate of their people.

"Enemies and evil-doers shall a true king bring to fair trial and sharp justice. What say you—shall a rich man or a mighty escape this law?"

"No, none," cried many voices in the crowd.

"No, none," rejoined the king, "not even though he be a god. Bring Frey to judgment; let him come freely if he will; if not, lay hands upon him."

So the king's men bore the great image from the tent, and placed it upright beside Olaf.

"Does any one know this respondent?"

"He is Frey, king, as thou knowest, our fathers' god and ours."

"How comes it you needs must worship him?"

"Very mighty we have thought him till now. Often aforetime has he spoken with us, and has given us fair seasons and plenty by sea and by land."

"Is he then less mighty now?"

"Not less mighty, but he is angered against us because of thee and the talk of thy God."

Olaf shook his head. "Never has he spoken to you, though it may be the Spirit of Darkness has spoken through his mouth. Witness now how I shall put him to fair trial."

Grasping his axe in his right hand, the king turned to the statue: "Frey, god of this people of mine speak now, if thou canst speak, some word in thy defence."

Frey was silent.

"Let the Evil then speak, which perchance is within thee, and which has long misled this people."

The Thing-folk held their breath to listen; in the stillness was heard the cry of the plover on the fell-side; but never a word came from Frey.

"If there be any strength or greatness in thee, Frey, or power to harm or spell to blight, use it now and spare not, for my hand is raised up against thee. If thou slumberest, awake; awake, for I am upon thee."

Olaf swung his axe aloft, but Frey did not move. He shore away his hand, but Frey heeded not. Then he smote him and clove him asunder.

"O you brave folk, whom I would have my friends, how shall I reason with you if your own eyes will not convince you? Hear, then, the choice I give you; receive the baptism of the living God, or do battle with me."

Happily the people submitted, and Olaf sailed away northward to the great council which had been called at Frosta. But the chiefs had sent out war-arrows, and the yeomen had come in arms—a great host who cried out in tumult against him when he spoke of change.

"When thou camest among us first," said Iron-beard of Yriar, "we thought it was heaven, and we rejoiced in thee as a man beloved of the gods; but thou hast deceived us. If it be still thy purpose to spoil us of our freedom, to burn our temples, and to send thy priest with the ram's-horn staff to wash us, we will drive thee out like Athelstan's foster-son."

Seeing that he could neither quell them nor persuade them at that time, the king answered graciously: "Truly, I would still have you think it heaven as when I came, and I would bind you to me in loyal fellowship. Thus far, therefore, I will make agreement with you. I will come to you again when you hold your great sacrifice, either at midsummer or at Yule-tide, and it may happen that my blood-offerings shall not be less than yours. Then we shall see together to be of one mind in the matter of our worship."

With this promise the people were well pleased, and Olaf returned to Vikin. Now at this time Sigrid the Haughty was Queen of Sweden, and she was a widow; and the thought came to Olaf that if he married her, all that great land of the north from sea to sea might be brought under the rule of Christ. The queen was not unwilling, and all went pleasantly with his suit until Olaf spoke of her christening.

"Oh, fair friend," said Sigrid, "in this I cannot yield to your wishes. You shall follow what faith you will, as indeed it becomes a king; but it would ill befit me who am queen of this realm to forsake lightly the worship of my fathers."

"Have you led me so far but to fool and flout me?" asked Olaf, rising hastily. "You knew well, I think, that I would wed no heathen woman." And as he spoke he shook his gloves in his vexation, and by ill chance the tips touched her cheek.

Then, too, Sigrid rose, with a dark flush on her face: "Little love, it appears, would have been lost between us; but this shame which you have done me may one day be your downfall."

So they parted suddenly in anger, and afterwards Olaf had cause to remember her words.

Now when the leaf was golden on the silver birch, Olaf spread sail again for the north, and when it was drawing towards Yule he invited the foremost men from all the country round to a feast. After they had made merry together, "You mind," he said, "how mad the folk were with me at the Frosta Thing and threatened to drive me out, and how we came to agreement. Now if the gods be as wroth with me as the folk were—and I will not deny the grievous despite I have done them—it will not be any small blood-offering that will appease them. They will look for as noble a sacrifice as king can make. No wretched thrall, robber, or broken man shall I dare to offer them, but it shall be men worthy of them, the noblest and best in the inlands and outlands. Here are their names."

Amid looks of dismay he read out a list of famous names, and at a sign from the king armed men stood with bare axes beside these chosen guests.

"These are the men I have honoured, and eager will they be to have the gods receive them and reward their faithful service."

"What," cried Olaf when loud murmurs rose from all sides of the hall, "do you misdoubt the power and goodness of the gods?" and making a long pause, he looked silently from face to face. "Why then will you not rather turn to Him who has made the heavens and the earth, who is as gracious as He is mighty, in whose thoughts there is no evil, and who will welcome you with no less love in your old age than when you are young?"

So the king got the better of these idolaters, and when the chief men had given hostages for their baptism he went up to Moere for the Yule sacrifice. Kolbiorn and Kiartan the Icelander and Halfred the Skald went with him, and they found a vast gathering of yeomen from the eight shires. Ironbeard their leader stood forth, and braved the king with loud words: "All we are of the same mind as we were at Frosta."

"What I promised at Frosta, that I hold to," replied Olaf. "I have come to enter into the temple with you."

In all the land of Norway there was no goodlier temple than this of Moere. The cross-beams were covered with plates of silver; the hangings were of sea-purple, and a gold chain was looped round the walls. There were many carved images of the gods, and Thor was in the midst, glittering with gold in a splendid chariot, and two he-goats were yoked to the chariot with a rope of twisted silver about their horns.

When Olaf had looked at Thor he raised his staff and struck him from his place. His companions flung down the other idols, and at the sound of their breaking, his men fell upon Ironbeard and slew him in the porch. Little gain had the yeomen from this Thing, for no one desired Olaf's blood-offerings, and the loss of their leader left them hopeless of victory. Wherefore they made their peace with the king.

Ironbeard was laid in his grave-mound, and a blood-fine for his slaying was awarded against the king's men, but Olaf offered as an atonement to take his daughter Gudrun for his queen. With great joy the dead man's kinsfolk came to their bridal, hoping for friendship and quiet days.

But that night, when all the palace lay in the stillness of sleep, Olaf awoke from a warning dream and saw Gudrun leaning over him. In her uplifted hand a dagger gleamed in the moonlight. She stood spell-bound before his calm gaze, and he arose, and taking the weapon from her, called her women. The moon had scarcely changed its place in heaven when the young queen and her company were riding to her home in Yriar. So bride and bridegroom parted without a word, never to meet again.

In this masterful fashion for the most part Olaf preached the Gospel to the rude and hardy race of a barbaric age. He bound the wizards to a reef at low-water, and the surf of the rising tide swept over the Skerry of Shrieks, and made an end of sorcery in Norway. Fugitives were run down like wolves. Rebels were burnt in their homesteads.

Raud the Strong was the last of the turbulent pagans who set him at defiance. When he heard that Olaf was bearing up to God's Isle in search of him, the fearless chief entered his temple, and called upon Thor: "Blow mightily in thy red beard, thou lord of the old land, and lift up thy storm-cry against this king!" The winds rose and came down in booming gusts from the hills. All that day the king's ships were stayed at the mouth of Salten Fjord; all that night they plunged and strained at their cables; and day broke in an angry glare of tempest.

Then Bishop Sigurd robed himself in white alb and gold-wrought cope, and raising aloft the cross, he set it on the prow of Olaf's ship. On either side he lit the sacred candles, and the flames burnt clear, with never a flicker in the still air; and still water lay about the bows. The rowers ran to their benches; the bishop intoned a hymn; the great ship felt the pull of forty oars, and as it sprang forward, a lane of glassy sea opened through the midst of the storm. But on either side, beyond the sweep of the oar-blades, the waves tossed up their white caps and the flying spindrift hid the shape of the hills.

Thus through the gales of Thor Olaf won to God's Isle, and Raud was surprised and taken. But though the sturdy pagan renounced his old creed—"Never again shall I bend to him who has betrayed me!"—he refused to believe in Christ, and died in torture.