The Ward of King Canute; a Romance of the Danish Conquest

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Author: Ottilie A. Liljencrantz

Chapter VII the Game of Swords

It is better for the brave man
Than for the coward
To join in the battle.
It is better for the glad
Than for the sorrowing
In all circumstances.
Fafnisma’l.

It would have been a dull soul that would not have been stirred by a sight of Danish camp. The host was like a forest of mighty trees tossing and swaying before the approach of a storm. Lines of moving shot lightning flashes through the dusk of the shady grove; while the hundreds of jubilant voices blended into rumbling thunder. Through the tumult, the blaring horns thrilled like pulse-beats.

Flaring crimson under her brown skin, Randalin’s Viking blood leaped to answer the call. For Rothgar’s shout she gave another, and laughed out of sheer delight when he tossed her upon the back of a pawing horse. Away with woman’s fears! The world was a grand brave place, and men a race of heroes. To ride by their sides, and share their mighty deeds, and see their glory,—what keener joy had life to offer? Away with fear, with foreboding! The present was all-glorious, and there would be no to-morrow.

Shrill and clear from the opposite hill came the notes of the English horns, as down the green slope moved the ranks of English bowmen. The hum of Danish voices sank in a breathless hush; through the stillness, Tovi, the royal bannerman, galloped to his post. A rustle, a boom, and the great standard was unfurled, giving to the breeze the dread Raven of Denmark. Anxious eyes scanned its mien; should it hang motionless, drooping—but no, it soared like a living bird! Exultation burst from a thousand throats.

Down the line came the young King upon his white war-horse, clad for the battle as for a feast. The sun at noonday is not more fiercely bright than was his face. His long locks flowed behind him on the wind like tongues of yellow flame; and like northern lights in a blue northern sky, the leader’s fire flashed in his eyes. So Balder the Beautiful might have come among the Jotuns. So the brawny sweating hard-breathing giants might have jostled and crowded toward him, expectant, adoring.

As he came, he was calling out terrible reminders: words that were to the ears of his champing host what the smell of blood is to the nostrils of wolves.

"Free men, true men, remember that ye face oath-breakers! Remember how they have spoken fine words to us of plighted faith...and when we have believed them and laid down our arms...they have stolen upon us in our sleep..and murdered our comrades! And our kinswomen whom they had taken to be their wives! Remember Saint Brice’s day! Remember our murdered kin!"

On he went down the line; and like a trail in his wake, rose an answering chorus of growls and clashing steel. Down some of the battered old faces tears of excitement began to flow, like the water out of the riven rock; while the delirium of others took the form of mirth, so that they sent forth wild terrible laughter to swell the uproar.

Above the tumult his voice rang like a bell: "Heroes and sons of heroes, remember you fight cowards! Remember that, since the days of our fathers, they have made gold do the work of steel. To get gold to buy peace, they will sell their children into slavery. Sooner than look our swords in the face, they will yield us their daughters to be our thralls! Oath-breakers, nithings! Will you be beaten by such? Vikings, Odinmen, forward!"

His answer was the bursting roar of the Danish battle-cry. Like an avalanche loosed from its moorings, they swept down the hillside upon the English bow-men. From that moment, Randalin rode in a dream.

At first it was a glorious dream. On, on, over the green plain, with the wind fresh in her face and the music of the horns in her ears. The son of Lodbrok was beside her, singing as he went, and tossing his great battle-axe in the air to catch it again by the handle. In front of them rode Canute the King; in his hand his gleaming blade, whose thin edge he tried now and again on a lock of his floating hair, while he laughed with boyish delight. Once he turned his bright face back over his shoulder to call gayly to the Jotun:

"Brother, you were right in despising craft. When the battle-madness fills a man, he becomes a god!" On, till the bowmen’s faces were plain before them; then suddenly it began to hail,—"the hail of the string." Arrows! One hissed by the girl’s ear, and one bit her cloak, to hang there quivering with impotent fury. The man on her right made a terrible gurgling sound and put up his hand to tear a shaft from his throat. Would they be slain before— Canute rose in his stirrups with a great shout. The horns echoed it; the trot became a gallop, and the gallop a run. On, on, into the very heart of the hail-cloud. How the stones rattled on the armor! And hissed! There! a man was deathdoomed; he was falling.

Her cry was cut short by the flashing of a blade before her. They had passed through the hail and reached the lightning! Throwing up her sword, she swerved to one side and escaped the bolt. Another faced her in this direction. The air was shot with bright flashes. Swish—clash! they sounded behind her; then a sickening jar, as Rothgar’s terrible axe fell. A yell of agony rent the air. Swish—clash! the blows came faster; her ear could no longer separate them. The thud of the falling axes became one continuous pound. Faster and faster, heavier and heavier,—they blended into a discordant roar that closed around her like a wall. Here and there and to and fro, Rothgar’s great charger followed the King; and here and there and to and fro, on her foam-flecked horse, Randalin followed the son of Lodbrok, staring, dazed, stunned.

Her wits were like a flock of birds loosed from the cage of her will, alighting here, upstarting there, without let or hindrance. Sometimes they stooped to so foolish a thing as a notch on her horse’s ear, and spent whole minutes questioning dully whether the teeth of another horse had made the wound or whether a sword had nicked it in battle. Sometimes they followed the notes of the horns, as the ringing tones passed the order along. From the blaring blast at her ear, the sound was drawn out on either side of her as fine as silver wire, far, far away toward the hills. It gave her no conscious impression of the vastness of the hosts, but it brought a vague sense of wandering, of helplessness, that caused her fluttering wits to turn back, startled, and set to watching the pictures that showed through rifts in the swirling dust clouds,—an Englishman falling from his saddle, his fingers widespread upon the air; a Danish bowman wiping blood from his eyes that he might see to aim his shaft; yonder, the figure of Leofwinesson himself, leaping forward with swift-stabbing sword. But whether they were English who fell or Danes who stood, she had no thought, no care; they meant no more to her than rune figures carved in wood.

The sun rose higher in the heavens, till it stood directly overhead, and sweat mingled with the blood. Suddenly, the girl awoke to find that Rothgar’s singing had changed into cursing.

"Heed him not, King," he was bellowing over his horse’s head. "We have no need of trick-bought victories. We bear the highest shields; warrior-skill will win. We need not his snake-wisdom."

To the other side of the young leader, Thorkel the Tall was spurring, bending urgently from his saddle. "Craft, my King! Craft! It will take till nightfall to decide the game. Why spill so much good blood? Listen to Edric the Gainer—"

Canute’s furious curse cut him short. "To the Troll with your craft! Swords shall make us, or swords shall mar us. Use your blade, or I will sheathe it in you."

Only the wind that took it from his lips heard the Tall One’s answer; for at that moment his horse reared and sheered away before a spear-prick, and into the rift a handful of English rushed with shouts of triumph.

There were no more than half-a-dozen of them, and all were on foot, the two whose gold-hilted swords proclaimed their nobility of birth sharing the lot of their lesser comrades according to the old Saxon war-custom; but it needed not the daring of the attack to mark them as the very flower of English chivalry. The young noble, who hovered around his chief much as Rothgar circled about Canute, would have been lordly in a serf’s tunic; and the leader’s royal bearing distinguished him even more than his mighty frame.

At the sight of him, Rothgar uttered a great cry of "Edmund!" and moved forward, swinging his uplifted axe. But the Ironside caught it on his shield and delivered a sword-thrust in return that dropped the Dane’s arm by his side. As it fell, Rothgar’s left hand plucked forth his blade, but the English king had pressed past him toward his master.

Canute’s weapon had need to dart like a northern light. The noble and one of the soldiers had forced their way to the side from which Thorkel had been riven, and a third threatened him from the rear. Three blades stabbed at him as with one motion.

It was a strange thing that saved him,—Randalin could explain it least of all. But in a lightning flash it was burnt into her mind that, while her King’s sword was a match for the two in front of him, the one behind was going to deal him his death. And even as she thought it, she found that she had thrown herself across her horse’s neck and thrust out her sword-arm,—out with the force of frenzy and down into the shoulder of the Englishman. In a kind of dazed wonder, she saw his blade fall from his grasp and his eyes roll up at her, as he staggered backwards.

Canute laughed out, "Well done, Berserker!" and redoubled his play against those before him.

A turn of his wrist disarmed the soldier, and his point touched the young noble’s breast; but before he could lunge, the mighty figure of Edmund rose close at hand, his blade heaved high above his head.

For such a stroke there was no parry. A kingdom seemed to be passing. Canute threw his shield before him, while his spur caused his horse to swerve violently; but the blade cleft wood and iron and golden plating like parchment, and falling on the horse’s neck, bit it to the bone. Rearing and plunging with pain, the animal crashed into those behind him, missed his footing and fell, entangling his rider in the trappings. Bending over him, the Ironside struck again.

But the son of Lodbrok had still his left arm. Bearing his shield, it shot out over the body of his King. The falling brand bit this screen also, and lopped off the hand that held it, but the respite was sufficient. In a flash Canute was on his feet, both hands grasping the hilt of his high-flung sword.

It was a mighty blow, but it fell harmless. A sudden surge in the tide of struggling bodies swept the Ironside out of reach and engulfed him in a whirlpool of Danish swords. He laid about him like mad, and was like to have cleared a passage back, when a second wave carried him completely from view.

Canute cursed at the anxious faces that surrounded him. "What means it, this swaying? What is herding them? Who are flying? Fools! Can you not tell a retreat? Bid the horns blow—"

"The English!" bellowed Rothgar. "The English are flying—Edmund’s head! Yonder!"

Frode’s daughter had Viking blood, but she hid her face with a cry. There it was, high upon a spear-point, dripping, ghastly. Could the sun shine upon such a thing?

Ay, and men could rejoice at it. Above the panic scream she heard cries of savage joy. But Canute sat motionless, on the new horse they had brought him. "It is not possible," he muttered. "The flight began while he still faced me. It was their crowding that saved him."

To stare before him, Rothgar let the blood pour unheeded from his wounded arm. "Yonder Edmund rides now!" he gasped. "You can tell him by his size— Yonder! Now he is tearing off his helmet—" Nor was he mistaken; within spear-throw the mighty frame of the Ironside towered above his struggling guard. As he bared his head, they could even distinguish his face with its large elegantlyformed features and Ethelred’s prominent chin. Brandishing his sword, shouting words of reassurance, exposing his person without a thought of the darts aimed at him, he was making a heroic effort to check the rush of his panic-stricken host. There was no question both that he was alive and that he knew who was belying him; even as they looked he hurled his spear, with a cry of rage, at the form of Edric Jarl.

Missing the Mercian, it struck down a man at his side; and high above the voice of the ill-fated King rose the shrill alarms of the traitor’s heralds.

"Fly, ye men of Dorsetshire and Devon! Fly and save yourselves! Here is your Edmund’s head!"

Randalin stared about her, doubting her senses. But light had begun to dawn on Canute. He wheeled sharply, as Thorkel pushed his horse to their sides.

"Whose head was that?" he demanded.

Thorkel’s face was a lineless mask. "I believe his name was Osmaer," he answered without emotion.

"It was unheard-of good fortune that he should be so like Edmund in looks."

The young King’s face was suffused with bitterness. "Good fortune!" he cried sharply. "Good fortune! Am I a fool or a coward that I am never to win except by craft or good fortune? Had you let me alone—" His voice broke, so bitter was his disappointment.

His foster-father regarded him from under lowered lids.

"Would you have won without them to-day?" he inquired.

"Yes!" Canute cried savagely, "had you given me time. Yes!"

But what else he answered, Randalin never knew. Some unseen obstacle turned in their direction the stream of rushing horsemen. In an instant the torrent had caught them in its whirling eddies, and they were so many separate atoms borne along on the flood. To hold back was to be thrown down; to fall was to be trampled into rags. The battle had changed into a hunt.

Thundering hoof-beats, crashing blows, shrieks and groans and falling bodies, —a sense of being caught in a wolf pack took possession of the girl; and the feeling grew with every sidelong glance she had of the savage sweating dust-grimed faces, in their jungles of blood-clotted hair. The battle-madness was upon them, and they were no longer men, but beasts of prey. Amid the chaos of her mind, a new idea shaped itself like a new world. If she could but work her way to the edge of the herd, she might escape down one of those green aisles opening before them. If she only could! Every fibre in her became intent upon it.

A little opening showed on her right. Though she could not see the ground before her, she took the risk and swung her horse into the breach. His forefeet came down upon the body of a fallen man, but it was too late to draw back. Gripping her lip in her teeth, she spurred him on. The man turned over with a yell, and used his one unbroken arm to thrust upward his broken sword. The blade cut her leg to the bone, and she shrieked with the pain; but her startled horse had no thought of stopping. Making his way with plunges and leaps, he carried her out of the press sooner than she could have guided him out. Once on the edge, he broke into a run. The agony of the shaken wound was unbearable. Shrieking and moaning, she twisted her hands in the lines and tried to stop him. But her strength was ebbing from her with her blood. By and by she dropped the rein altogether and clung to the saddle-bow.

They reached the woods at last, cool and sweet and hushed in holy peace. The frantic horse plunged into one of the arching lanes, and the din of the hunt died behind her; silence fell like a curtain at their heels; even the thudding hoof-beats were softened on the leafy ground. Randalin lay along the horse’s neck now, and her senses had begun to slip away from her like the tide from the shore. It occurred to her that she was dying, and that the Valkyrias could not find her if she should be carried too far away from the battle-field. Trying to hold them back, she stretched a feeble hand toward the trees; and it seemed to her that they did not glide past quite so rapidly. And the green river that had been rushing toward her, that passed under her more slowly too. Sometimes she could even make out violets amid the waves. But the waves were rising strangely, she thought,—rising, rising—

At last, she felt their cool touch upon her fore-head. They had risen and stopped her. Somewhere, there was the soft thud of a falling body; then the cool greenness closed around her and held her tenderly, a crumpled leaf that the whirlwind had dropped from its sport.

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Chicago: Ottilie A. Liljencrantz, "Chapter VII the Game of Swords," The Ward of King Canute; a Romance of the Danish Conquest, ed. Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934 in The Ward of King Canute; a Romance of the Danish Conquest (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1897), Original Sources, accessed September 25, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CQF1YHN1455VHAS.

MLA: Liljencrantz, Ottilie A. "Chapter VII the Game of Swords." The Ward of King Canute; a Romance of the Danish Conquest, edited by Hawthorne, Julian, 1846-1934, in The Ward of King Canute; a Romance of the Danish Conquest, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1897, Original Sources. 25 Sep. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CQF1YHN1455VHAS.

Harvard: Liljencrantz, OA, 'Chapter VII the Game of Swords' in The Ward of King Canute; a Romance of the Danish Conquest, ed. . cited in 1897, The Ward of King Canute; a Romance of the Danish Conquest, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 25 September 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CQF1YHN1455VHAS.