When Biorn was a very little boy in his father's stead at
Hightown he had a play of his own making for the long winter
nights. At the back end of the hall, where the men sat at ale, was
a chamber which the thralls used of a morning—a place which smelt
of hams and meal and good provender. There a bed had been made for
him when he forsook his cot in the women's quarters. When the door
was shut it was black dark, save for a thin crack of light from the
wood fire and torches of the hall. The crack made on the earthen
floor a line like a golden river. Biorn, cuddled up on a bench in
his little bear-skin, was drawn like a moth to that stream of
light. With his heart beating fast he would creep to it and stand
for a moment with his small body bathed in the radiance. The game
was not to come back at once, but to foray into the farther
darkness before returning to the sanctuary of bed. That took all
the fortitude in Biorn's heart, and not till the thing was dared
and done could he go happily to sleep.
One night Leif the Outborn watched him at his game. Sometimes
the man was permitted to sleep there when he had been making sport
for the housecarles.
"Behold an image of life!" he had said in his queer outland
speech. "We pass from darkness to darkness with but an instant of
light between. You are born for high deeds, princeling. Many would
venture from the dark to the light, but it takes a stout breast to
voyage into the farther dark."
And Biorn's small heart swelled, for he detected praise, though
he did not know what Leif meant.
In the long winter the sun never topped Sunfell, and when the
gales blew and the snow drifted there were lights in the hall the
day long. In Biorn's first recollection the winters were spent by
his mother's side, while she and her maids spun the wool of the
last clipping. She was a fair woman out of the Western Isles, all
brown and golden as it seemed to him, and her voice was softer than
the hard ringing speech of the Wick folk. She told him island
stories about gentle fairies and good-humoured elves who lived in a
green windy country by summer seas, and her air would be wistful as
if she thought of her lost home. And she sang him to sleep with
crooning songs which had the sweetness of the west wind in them.
But her maids were a rougher stock, and they stuck to the Wicking
lullaby which ran something like this:
Hush thee, my bold one, a boat will I buy thee, A boat and stout
oars and a bright sword beside, A helm of red gold and a thrall to
be nigh thee, When fair blows the wind at the next
There was a second verse, but it was rude stuff, and the Queen
had forbidden the maids to sing it.
As he grew older he was allowed to sit with the men in the hall,
when bows were being stretched and bowstrings knotted and
spear-hafts fitted. He would sit mum in a corner, listening with
both ears to the talk of the old franklins, with their endless
grumbles about lost cattle and ill neighbours. Better he liked the
bragging of the young warriors, the Bearsarks, who were the
spear-head in all the forays. At the great feasts of Yule-tide he
was soon sent packing, for there were wild scenes when the ale
flowed freely, though his father, King Ironbeard, ruled his hall
with a strong hand. From the speech of his elders Biorn made his
picture of the world beyond the firths. It was a world of gloom and
terror, yet shot with a strange brightness. The High Gods might be
met with in beggar's guise at any ferry, jovial fellows and good
friends to brave men, for they themselves had to fight for their
lives, and the End of All Things hung over them like a cloud. Yet
till the day of Ragnarok there would be feasting and fine fighting
and goodly fellowship, and a stout heart must live for the
Leif the Outborn was his chief friend. The man was no warrior,
being lame of a leg and lean and sharp as a heron. No one knew his
begetting, for he had been found as a child on the high fells. Some
said he was come of the Finns, and his ill-wishers would have it
that his birthplace had been behind a foss, and that he had the
blood of dwarves in him. Yet though he made sport for the company,
he had respect from them, for he was wise in many things, a skilled
leech, a maker of runes, and a crafty builder of ships. He was a
master hand at riddles, and for hours the housecarles would puzzle
their wits over his efforts. This was the manner of them. "Who,"
Leif would ask, "are the merry maids that glide above the land to
the joy of their father; in winter they bear a white shield, but
black in summer?" The answer was "Snowflakes and rain." Or "I saw a
corpse sitting on a corpse, a blind one riding on a lifeless
steed?" to which the reply was "A dead horse on an ice-floe." Biorn
never guessed any of the riddles, but the cleverness of them he
thought miraculous, and the others roared with glee at their own
But Leif had different moods, for sometimes he would tell tales,
and all were hushed in a pleasant awe. The fire on the hearth was
suffered to die down, and men drew closer to each other, as Leif
told of the tragic love of Helgi and Sigrun, or how Weyland
outwitted King Nidad, or how Thor went as bride to Thrym in
Giantland, and the old sad tale of how Sigurd Fafnirsbane, noblest
of men, went down to death for the love of a queen not less noble.
Leif told them well, so that his hearers were held fast with the
spell of wonder and then spurred to memories of their own. Tongues
would be loosened, and there would be wild recollections of battles
among the skerries of the west, of huntings in the hills where
strange sights greeted the benighted huntsman, and of voyaging far
south into the lands of the sun where the poorest thrall wore linen
and the cities were all gold and jewels. Biorn's head would be in
such a whirl after a night of story-telling that he could get no
sleep for picturing his own deeds when he was man enough to bear a
sword and launch his ship. And sometimes in his excitement he would
slip outside into the darkness, and hear far up in the frosty sky
the whistle of the swans as they flew southward, and fancy them the
shield-maids of Odin on their way to some lost battle.
His father, Thorwald Thorwaldson, was king over all the firths
and wicks between Coldness in the south and Flatness and the
mountain Rauma in the north, and inland over the Uplanders as far
as the highest springs of the rivers. He was king by more than
blood, for he was the tallest and strongest man in all the land,
and the cunningest in battle. He was for ordinary somewhat grave
and silent, a dark man with hair and beard the colour of molten
iron, whence came his by-name. Yet in a fight no Bearsark could vie
with him for fury, and his sword Tyrfing was famed in a thousand
songs. On high days the tale of his descent would be sung in the
hall—not by Leif, who was low-born and of no account, but by one or
other of the chiefs of the Shield-ring. Biorn was happy on such
occasions, for he himself came into the songs, since it was right
to honour the gentle lady, the Queen. He heard how on the distaff
side he was sprung from proud western earls, Thorwolf the Black,
and Halfdan and Hallward Skullsplitter. But on the spear side he
was of still loftier kin, for Odin was first in his pedigree, and
after him the Volsung chiefs, and Gothfred the Proud, and—that no
magnificence might be wanting—one Karlamagnus, whom Biorn had never
heard of before, but who seemed from his doings to have been a
On such occasions there would follow a braggingmatch among the
warriors, for a recital of the past was meant as an augury for the
future. The time was towards the close of the Wicking-tide, and the
world was becoming hard for simple folk. There were endless
bickerings with the Tronds in the north and the men of More in the
south, and a certain Shockhead, an upsetting king in Norland, was
making trouble with his neighbours. Likewise there was one Kristni,
a king of the Romans, who sought to dispute with Odin himself. This
Kristni was a magic-worker, who clad his followers in white linen
instead of byrnies, and gave them runes in place of swords, and
sprinkled them with witch water. Biorn did not like what he heard
of the warlock, and longed for the day when his father Ironbeard
would make an end of him.
Each year before the coming of spring there was a lean season in
Hightown. Fish were scarce in the ice-holes, the stock of meal in
the meal-ark grew low, and the deep snow made poor hunting in wood
or on fell-side. Belts were tightened, and there were hollow cheeks
among the thralls. And then one morning the wind would blow from
the south, and a strange smell come into the air. The dogs left
their lair by the fire and, led by the Garm the old blind
patriarch, made a tour of inspection among the outhouses to the
edge of the birch woods. Presently would come a rending of the ice
on the firth, and patches of inky water would show between the
floes. The snow would slip from the fell-side, and leave dripping
rock and clammy bent, and the river would break its frosty silence
and pour a mighty grey-green flood to the sea. The swans and geese
began to fly northward, and the pipits woke among the birches. And
at last one day the world put on a new dress, all steel-blue and
misty green, and a thousand voices woke of flashing streams and
nesting birds and tossing pines, and the dwellers in Hightown knew
that spring had fairly come.
Then was Biorn the happy child. All through the long day, and
through much of that twilight which is the darkness of a Norland
summer, he was abroad on his own errands. With Grim the Hunter he
adventured far up on the fells and ate cheese and bannocks in the
tents of the wandering Skridfinns, or stalked the cailzie-cock with
his arrows in the great pine forest, which in his own mind he
called Mirkwood and feared exceedingly. Or he would go fishing with
Egil the Fisherman, spearing salmon in the tails of the river
pools. But best he loved to go up the firth in the boat which Leif
had made him—a finished, clinker-built little model of a war
galley, christened the Joy-maker—and catch the big sea fish.
Monsters he caught sometimes in the deep water under the cliffs,
till he thought he was destined to repeat the exploit of Thor when
he went fishing with the giant Hymi, and hooked the Midgard
Serpent, the brother of Fenris-wolf, whose coils encircle the
Nor was his education neglected. Arnwulf the Bearsark taught him
axe-play and sword-play, and he had a small buckler of his own, not
of linden-wood like those of the Wick folk, but of wickerwork after
the fashion of his mother's people. He learned to wrestle toughly
with the lads of his own age, and to throw a light spear truly at a
mark. He was fleet of foot and scoured the fells like a goat, and
he could breast the tide in the pool of the great foss up to the
very edge of the white water where the trolls lived.
There was a wise woman dwelt on the bay of Sigg. Katla was her
name, a woman still black-browed though she was very old, and
clever at mending hunters' scars. To her house Biorn went with
Leif; and when they had made a meal of her barley-cakes and sour
milk, and passed the news of the coast, Leif would fall to probing
her craft and get but surly answers. To the boy's question she was
kinder. "Let the dead things be, prince," she said. "There's small
profit from foreknowledge. Better to take fates as they come sudden
round a turn of the road than be watching them with an anxious
heart all the way down the hill. The time will come soon enough
when you must stand by the Howe of the Dead and call on the
But Leif coaxed and Biorn harped on the thing, as boys do, and
one night about the midsummer time her hour came upon Katla and she
spoke without their seeking. There in the dim hut with the
apple-green twilight dimming the fells Biorn stood trembling on the
brink of the half-world, the woman huddled on the floor, her hand
shading her eyes as if she were looking to a far horizon. Her body
shook with gusts of passion, and the voice that came from her was
not her own. Never so long as he lived did Biorn forget the
terrible hour when that voice from beyond the world spoke things he
could not understand. "I have been snowed on with snow," it said,
"I have been beaten with the rain, I have been drenched with the
dew, long have I been dead." It spoke of kings whose names he had
never heard, and of the darkness gathering about the Norland, and
famine and awe stalking upon the earth.
Then came a whisper from Leif asking the fortune of the young
prince of Hightown.
"Death," said the weird-wife, "death—but not yet. The shears of
the Norns are still blunt for him, and Skuld has him in
There was silence for a space, for the fit was passing from
Katla. But the voice came again in broken syllables. "His thread
runs westward—beyond the Far Isles … not he but the seed of
his loins shall win great kingdoms … beyond the sea-walls… .
The All-Father dreams… . Nay, he wakes … he wakes … "
There was a horrible choking sound, and the next Biorn knew was
that Leif had fetched water and was dashing it on Katla's face.
It was nearly a week before Biorn recovered his spirits after
this adventure, and it was noticeable that neither Leif nor he
spoke a word to each other on the matter. But the boy thought much,
and from that night he had a new purpose. It seemed that he was
fated to travel far, and his fancy forsook the homely life of his
own wicks and fells and reached to that outworld of which he had
heard in the winter's talk by the hall fire.
There were plenty of folk in Hightown to satisfy his curiosity.
There were the Bearsarks, who would spin tales of the rich Frankish
lands and the green isles of the Gael. From the Skridfinns he heard
of the bitter country in the north where the Jotuns dwelt, and the
sun was not and the frost split the rocks to dust, while far
underground before great fires the dwarves were hammering gold. But
these were only old wives' tales, and he liked better the talk of
the sea-going franklins, who would sail in the summer time on
trading ventures and pushed farther than any galleys of war. The
old sailor, Othere Cranesfoot, was but now back from a voyage which
had taken him to Snowland, or, as we say, Iceland. He could tell of
the Curdled Sea, like milk set apart for cheese-making, which
flowed as fast as a river, and brought down ghoulish beasts and
great dragons in its tide. He told, too, of the Sea-walls which
were the end of the world, waves higher than any mountain, which
ringed the whole ocean. He had seen them, blue and terrible one
dawn, before he had swung his helm round and fled southwards. And
in Snowland and the ports of the Isles this Othere had heard talk
from others of a fine land beyond the sunset, where corn grew
unsown like grass, and the capes looked like crusted cow-pats they
were so thick with deer, and the dew of the night was honey-dew, so
that of a morning a man might breakfast delicately off the face of
Full of such marvels, Biorn sought Leif and poured out his heart
to him. For the first time he spoke of the weird-wife's spaeing. If
his fortune lay in the west, there was the goal to seek. He would
find the happy country and reign over it. But Leif shook his head,
for he had heard the story before. "To get there you will have to
ride over Bilrost, the Rainbow Bridge, like the Gods. I know of the
place. It is called Gundbiorn's Reef and it is beyond the
All this befell in Biorn's eleventh summer. The winter which
followed brought ill luck to Hightown and notably to Ironbeard the
King. For in the autumn the Queen, that gentle lady, fell sick,
and, though leeches were sought for far and near, and spells and
runes were prepared by all who had skill of them, her life ebbed
fast and ere Yule she was laid in the Howe of the Dead. The loss of
her made Thorwald grimmer and more silent than before, and there
was no feasting at the Yule high-tide and but little at the spring
merry-making. As for Biorn he sorrowed bitterly for a week, and
then, boylike, forgot his grief in the wonder of living.
But that winter brought death in another form. Storms never
ceased, and in the New Year the land lay in the stricture of a
black frost which froze the beasts in the byres and made Biorn
shiver all the night through, though in ordinary winter weather he
was hardy enough to dive in the ice-holes. The stock of meal fell
low, and when spring tarried famine drew very near. Such a spring
no man living remembered. The snow lay deep on the shore till far
into May. And when the winds broke they were cold sunless gales
which nipped the young life in the earth. The ploughing was
backward, and the seed-time was a month too late. The new-born
lambs died on the fells and there fell a wasting sickness among the
cattle. Few salmon ran up the streams, and the sea-fish seemed to
have gone on a journey. Even in summer, the pleasant time, food was
scarce, for the grass in the pastures was poor and the cows gave
little milk, and the children died. It foreboded a black
harvest-time and a blacker winter.
With these misfortunes a fever rose in the blood of the men of
Hightown. Such things had happened before for the Norland was never
more than one stage distant from famine; and in the old days there
had been but a single remedy. Food and wealth must be won from a
foray overseas. It was years since Ironbeard had ridden Egir's road
to the rich lowlands, and the Bearsarks were growing soft from
idleness. Ironbeard himself was willing, for his hall was hateful
to him since the Queen's death. Moreover, there was no other way.
Food must be found for the winter or the folk would perish.
So a hosting was decreed at harvest-tide, for few men would be
needed to win the blasted crops; and there began a jointing of
shields and a burnishing of weapons, and the getting ready of the
big ships. Also there was a great sortilege-making. Whither to
steer, that was the question. There were the rich coasts of
England, but they were well guarded, and many of the Norland race
were along the wardens. The isles of the Gael were in like case,
and, though they were the easier prey, there was less to be had
from them. There were soon two parties in the hall, one urging
Ironbeard to follow the old track of his kin westward, another
looking south to the Frankish shore. The King himself, after the
sacrifice of a black heifer, cast the sacred twigs, and they seemed
to point to Frankland. Old Arnwulf was deputed on a certain day to
hallow three ravens and take their guidance, but, though he said
three times the Ravens' spell, he got no clear counsel from the
wise birds. Last of all, the weird-wife Katla came from Sigg, and
for the space of three days sat in the hall with her head shrouded,
taking no meat or drink. When at last she spoke she prophesied ill.
She saw a red cloud and it descended on the heads of the warriors,
yea of the King himself. As for Hightown she saw it frozen deep in
snow like Jotunheim, and rime lay on it like a place long dead. But
she bade Ironbeard go to Frankland, for it was so written. "A great
kingdom waits," she said—"not for you, but for the seed of your
loins." And Biorn shuddered, for they were the words spoken in her
hut on that unforgotten midsummer night.
The boy was in an agony lest he should be left behind. But his
father decreed that he should go. "These are times when manhood
must come fast," he said. "He can bide within the Shield-ring when
blows are going. He will be safe enough if it holds. If it breaks,
he will sup like the rest of us with Odin."
Then came days of bustle and preparation. Biorn was agog with
excitement and yet solemnised, for there was strange work afoot in
Hightown. The King made a great festival in the Gods' House, the
dark hall near the Howe of the Dead, where no one ventured except
in high noon. Cattle were slain in honour of Thor, the God who
watched over forays, and likewise a great boar for Frey. The blood
was caught up in the sacred bowls, from which the people were
sprinkled, and smeared on the altar of blackened fir. Then came the
oath-taking, when Ironbeard and his Bearsarks swore brotherhood in
battle upon the ship's bulwarks, and the shield's rim, and the
horse's shoulder, and the brand's edge. There followed the mixing
of blood in the same footprint, a rite to which Biorn was admitted,
and a lesser oath for all the people on the great gold ring which
lay on the altar. But most solemn of all was the vow the King made
to his folk, warriors and franklins alike, when he swore by the
dew, the eagle's path, and the valour of Thor.
Then it was Biorn's turn. He was presented to the High Gods as
the prince and heir.
Old Arnwulf hammered on his left arm a torque of rough gold,
which he must wear always, in life and in death.
"I bring ye the boy, Biorn Thorwaldson When the Gods call for
Thorwald it will be his part to lead the launchings and the
seafarings and be first when blows are going. Do ye accept him,
people of Hightown?"
There was a swelling cry of assent and a beating of hafts on
shields. Biorn's heart was lifted with pride, but out of a corner
of his eye he saw his father's face. It was very grave, and his
gaze was on vacancy.
Though it was a time of bustle, there was no joy in it, as there
had been at other hostings. The folk were too hungry, the need was
too desperate, and there was something else, a shadow of fate,
which lay over Hightown. In the dark of night men had seen the
bale-fires burning on the Howe of the Dead. A grey seal had been
heard speaking with tongues off Siggness, and speaking ill words,
said the fishermen who saw the beast. A white reindeer had appeared
on Sunfell, and the hunter who followed it had not been seen again.
By day, too, there was a brooding of hawks on the tide's edge,
which was strange at that season. Worst portent of all, the floods
of August were followed by high north-east winds that swept the
clouds before them, so that all day the sky was a scurrying sea of
vapour, and at night the moon showed wild grey shapes moving ever
to the west. The dullest could not mistake their meaning; these
were the dark horses, and their riders, the Helmed Maidens,
mustering for the battle to which Hightown was faring.
As Biorn stared one night at the thronged heavens, he found Leif
by his elbow. In front of the dark company of the sky a white cloud
was scudding, tinged with the pale moon. Leif quoted from the
speech of the Giant-wife Rimegerd to Helgi in the song:
"Three nines of maiden, ride, But one rides before them, A white
maid helmed: >From their manes the steeds shake Dew into the
deep dales, Hail upon the high woods."
"It bodes well," said Biorn. "They ride to choose those whom we
slay. There will be high doings ere Yule."
"Not so well," said Leif. "They come from the Norland, and it is
our folk they go to choose. I fear me Hightown will soon be full of
At last came the day of sailing. The six galleys of war were
brought down from their sheds, and on the rollers for the launching
he-goats were bound so that the keels slid blood-stained into the
sea. This was the 'roller-reddening,' a custom bequeathed from
their forefathers, though the old men of the place muttered darkly
that the ritual had been departed from, and that in the great days
it was the blood not of goats, but of captive foemen that had
reddened the galleys and the tide.
The thralls sat at the thwarts, for there was no breeze that day
in the narrow firth. Then came the chief warriors in short fur
jackets, splendid in glittering helms and byrnies, and each with
his thrall bearing his battle-axe. Followed the fighting commonalty
with axe and spear. Last came Ironbeard, stern as ever, and Biorn
with his heart torn between eagerness and regret. Only the
children, the women, and the old men were left in Hightown, and
they stood on the shingle watching till the last galley had passed
out of sight beyond Siggness, and was swallowed up in the brume
that cloaked the west. There were no tears in that grim
leave-taking. Hightown had faced the like before with a heavy
heart, but with dry eyes and a proud head. Leif, though a cripple,
went with the Wickings, for he had great skill of the sea.
There was not a breath of wind for three days and three nights,
as they coasted southward, with the peaks of the Norland on their
port, and to starboard the skerries that kept guard on the firths.
Through the haze they could now and then see to landward trees and
cliffs, but never a human face. Once there was an alarm of another
fleet, and the shields were slung outboard, but it proved to be
only a wedding-party passing from wick to wick, and they gave it
greeting and sailed on. These were eerie cheerless days. The
thralls sweated in shifts at the oars, and the betterborn talked
low among themselves, as if the air were full of ears. "Ran is
heating her ovens," said Leif, as he watched the warm fog mingle
with the oarthresh.
On the fourth morning there came a break in the clouds, and the
sight of a high hill gave Leif the clue for his reckoning. The
prows swung seaward, and the galleys steered for the broad ocean.
That afternoon there sprang up the north-east wind for which they
had been waiting. Sails were hoisted on the short masts, oars were
shipped and lashed under the bulwarks, and the thralls clustered in
the prows to rest their weary limbs and dice with knucklebones. The
spirits of all lightened, and there was loud talk in the sterns
among the Bearsarks. In the night the wind freshened, and the long
shallow boats rolled filthily so that the teeth shook in a man's
head, and over the swish of the waves and the creaking of the
sheets there was a perpetual din of arms clashing. Biorn was
miserably ill for some hours, and made sport for the seasoned
"It will not hold," Leif prophesied. "I smell rime ahead and
He had spoken truly, for the sixth day the wind fell and they
moved once more over still, misty waters. The thralls returned to
their oars and the voices of the well-born fell low again These
were ghoulish days for Biorn, who had been accustomed to the clear
lights and the clear darkness of his own land. Only once in four
days they saw the sun, and then it was as red as blood, so that his
On the eleventh day Ironbeard summoned Leif and asked his skill
of the voyage. "I know not," was the answer. "I cannot steer a
course except under clean skies. We ran well with the wind aback,
but now I am blind and the Gods are pilots. Some day soon we must
make landfall, but I know not whether on English or Frankish
After that Leif would sit in long spells of brooding, for he had
a sense in him of direction to which he sought to give free play—a
sense built up from old voyages over these very seas. The result of
his meditations was that he swung more to the south, and events
proved him wise. For on the fifteenth day came a lift in the fog
and with it the noise of tides washing near at hand on a rough
coast. Suddenly almost overhead they were aware of a great white
headland, on the summit of which the sun shone on grass.
Leif gave a shout. "My skill has riot failed me," he cried. "We
enter the Frankish firth. See, there is the butt of England!"
After that the helms were swung round, and a course laid south
by west. And then the mist came again, but this time it was less of
a shroud, for birds hovered about their wake, so that they were
always conscious of land. Because of the strength of the tides the
rowers made slow progress, and it was not till the late afternoon
of the seventeenth day that Leif approached Ironbeard with a proud
head and spoke a word. The King nodded, and Leif took his stand in
the prow with the lead in his hand. The sea mirroring the mist was
leaden dull, but the old pilot smelt shoal water.
Warily he sounded, till suddenly out of the gloom a spit of land
rose on the port, and it was clear that they were entering the
mouth of a river. The six galleys jolted across the sandbar, Leif
in the foremost peering ahead and shouting every now and then an
order. It was fine weather for a surprise landing. Biorn saw only
low sand-dunes green with coarse grasses and, somewhere behind, the
darkness of a forest. But he could not tear his eyes from it, for
it was the long-dreamed-of Roman land.
Then a strange thing befell. A madness seemed to come on Leif.
He left his pilot's stand and rushed to the stern where the King
stood. Flinging himself on his knees, he clasped Ironbeard's legs
and poured out supplications.
"Return!" he cried. "While there is yet time, return. Seek
England, Gael-land, anywhere, but not this place. I see blood in
the stream and blood on the strand. Our blood, your blood, my King!
There is doom for the folk of Thorwald by this river!"
The King's face did not change. "What will be, will be," he said
gravely. "We abide by our purpose and will take what Thor sends
with a stout heart. How say you, my brave ones?"
And all shouted to go forward, for the sight of a new country
had fired their blood. Leif sat huddled by the bulwarks, with a
white face and a gasp in his throat, like one coming out of a
They went ashore at a bend of the stream where was a sandy cape,
beached the galleys, felled trees from the neighbouring forest and
built them a stockade. The dying sun flushed water and wood with
angry crimson, and Biorn observed that the men wrought as it were
in a world of blood. "That is the meaning of Leif's whimsies," he
thought, and so comforted himself.
That night the Northmen slept in peace, but the scouts brought
back word of a desert country, no men or cattle, and ashes where
once had been dwellings.
"Our kinsfolk have been here before us," said King Ironbeard
grimly. He did not love the Danes, though he had fought by their
Half the force was left as a guard by the ships, and next day
the rest went forward up the valley at a slant from the river's
course. For that way, ran the tale, lay a great Roman house, a
palace of King Kristni, where much gold was to be had for the
lifting. By midday they were among pleasant meadows, but the
raiders had been there, for the houses were fired and the orchards
hacked down. Then came a shout and, turning back, they saw a flame
spring to the pale autumn skies. "The ships!" rose the cry, and the
lightest of foot were sent back for news.
They returned with a sorry tale. Of the ships and the stockade
nothing remained but hot cinders. Half the guard were dead, and old
Arnwulf, the captain, lay blood-eagled on the edge of the tide. The
others had gone they knew not where, but doubtless into the
"Our kinsfolks' handiwork," said Ironbeard. "We are indeed
forestalled, my heroes."
A council was held and it was resolved to make a camp by the
stream and defend it against all comers, till such time as under
Leif's guidance new ships could be built.
"Axes will never ring on them," said Leif under his breath. He
walked now like a man who was fey and his face was that of another
He spoke truth, for as they moved towards the riverbank, just
before the darkening, in a glade between two forests Fate met them.
There was barely time to form the Shield-ring ere their enemies
were upon them—a mass of wild men in wolves' skins and at their
head mounted warriors in byrnies, with long swords that flashed and
Biorn saw little of the battle, wedged in the heart of the
Shield-ring. He heard the shouts of the enemy, and the clangour of
blows, and the sharp intake of breath, but chiefly he heard the
beating of his own heart. The ring swayed and moved as it gave
before the onset or pressed to an attack of its own, and Biorn
found himself stumbling over the dead. "I am Biorn, and my father
is King," he repeated to himself, the spell he had so often used
when on the fells or the firths he had met fear.
Night came and a young moon, and still the fight continued. But
the Shield-ring was growing ragged, for the men of Hightown were
fighting one to eight, and these are odds that cannot last.
Sometimes it would waver, and an enemy would slip inside, and
before he sank dead would have sorely wounded one of Ironbeard's
And now Biorn could see his father, larger than human, it
seemed, in the dim light, swinging his sword Tyrfing, and crooning
to himself as he laid low his antagonists. At the sight a madness
rose in the boy's heart. Behind in the sky clouds were banking,
dark clouds like horses, with one ahead white and moontipped, the
very riders he had watched with Leif from the firth shore. The
Walkyries were come for the chosen, and he would fain be one of
them. All fear had gone from him. His passion was to be by his
father's side and strike his small blow, beside those mighty ones
which Thor could not have bettered.
But even as he was thus uplifted the end came. Thorwald
Thorwaldson tottered and went down, for a hurled axe had cleft him
between helm and byrnie. With him fell the last hope of Hightown
and the famished clan under Sunfell. The Shield-ring was no more.
Biorn found himself swept back as the press of numbers overbore the
little knot of sorely wounded men. Someone caught him by the arm
and snatched him from the mellay into the cover of a thicket. He
saw dimly that it was Leif.
He was giddy and retching from weariness, and something inside
him was cold as ice, though his head burned. It was not rage or
grief, but awe, for his father had fallen and the end of the world
had come. The noise of the battle died, as the two pushed through
the undergrowth and came into the open spaces of the wood. It was
growing very dark, but still Leif dragged him onwards. Then
suddenly he fell forward on his face, and Biorn, as he stumbled
over him. found his hands wet with blood.
"I am for death," Leif whispered. "Put your ear close, prince. I
am Leif the Outborn and I know the hidden things… . You are the
heir of Thorwald Thorwaldson and you will not die… . I see a long
road, but at the end a great kingdom. Farewell, little Biorn. We
have been good comrades, you and I. Katla from Sigg spoke the true
And when Biorn fetched water in his horn from a woodland pool he
found Leif with a cold brow.
Blind with sorrow and fatigue, the boy stumbled on, without
purpose. He was lonely in the wide world, many miles from his home,
and all his kin were slain. Rain blew from the south-west and beat
in his face, the brambles tore his legs, but he was dead to all
things. Would that the Shield Maids had chosen him to go with that
brave company to the bright hall of Odin! But he was only a boy and
they did not choose striplings.
Suddenly in a clearing a pin-point of light pricked the
The desire for human companionship came over him, even though it
were that of enemy or outcast. He staggered to the door and beat on
it feebly. A voice spoke from within, but he did not hear what it
Again he beat and again the voice came. And now his knocking
grew feebler, for he was at the end of his strength.
Then the bar was suddenly withdrawn and he was looking inside a
poor hut, smoky from the wood-fire in the midst of it. An old woman
sat by it with a bowl in her hand, and an oldish man with a cudgel
stood before him. He did not understand their speech, but he
gathered he was being asked his errand.
"I am Biorn," he said, "and my father was Ironbeard, the
They shook their heads, but since they saw only a weary,
tattered boy they lost their fears. They invited him indoors, and
their voices were kindly. Nodding with exhaustion, he was given a
stool to sit on and a bowl of coarse porridge was put into his
hands. They plied him with questions, but he could make nothing of
Then the thrall rose, yawned, and dropped the bar over the door.
The sound was to the boy like the clanging of iron gates on his old
happy world. For a moment he was on the brink of tears. But he set
his teeth and stiffened his drooping neck.
"I am Biorn," he said aloud, "and my father was a king."
They nodded to each other and smiled. They though his words were
a grace before meat.