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Boyhood in Norway(12)

2006-09-07 22:15

  SONDS III

  The Sons of the Vikings were much troubled. Every heroic deed which they plotted had this little disadvantage, that they were in danger of going to jail for it. They could not steal cattle and horses, because they did not know what to do with them when they had got them; they could not sail away over the briny deep in search of fortune or glory, because they had no ships; and sail-boats were scarcely big enough for daring voyages to the blooming South which their ancestors had ravaged. The precious vacation was slipping away, and as yet they had accomplished nothing that could at all be called heroic. It was while the brotherhood was lamenting this fact that Wolf-in-the-Temple had a brilliant idea. He procured his father's permission to invite his eleven companions to spend a day and a night at the Ronning saeter, or mountain dairy, far up in the highlands. The only condition Mr. Ronning made was that they were to be accompanied by his man, Brumle-Knute, who was to be responsible for their safety. But the boys determined privately to make Brumle-Knute their prisoner, in case he showed any disposition to spoil their sport. To spend a day and a night in the woods, to imagine themselves Vikings, and behave as they imagined Vikings would behave, was a prospect which no one could contemplate without the most delightful excitement. There, far away from sheriffs and pastors and maternal supervision, they might perhaps find the long-desired chance of performing their heroic deed.

  It was a beautiful morning early in August that the boys started from Strandholm, Mr. Ronning's estate, accompanied by Brumle-Knute. The latter was a middle-aged, round-shouldered peasant, who had the habit of always talking to himself. To look at him you would have supposed that he was a rough and stupid fellow who would have quite enough to do in looking after himself. But the fact was, that Brumle-Knute was the best shot, the best climber——and altogether the most keen-eyed hunter in the whole valley. It was a saying that he could scent game so well that he never needed a dog; and that he could imitate to perfection the call of every game bird that inhabited the mountain glens. Sweet-tempered he was not; but so reliable, skilful, and vigilant, and moreover so thorough a woodsman, that the boys could well afford to put up with his gruff temper.

  The Sons of the Vikings were all mounted on ponies; and Wolf-in-the-Temple, who had been elected chieftain, led the troop. At his side rode Skull-Splitter, who was yet a trifle pale after his blood-letting, but brimming over with ambition to distinguish himself. They had all tied their trousers to their legs with leather thongs, in order to be perfectly "Old Norse;" and some of them had turned their plaids and summer overcoats inside out, displaying the gorgeous colors of the lining. Loosely attached about their necks and flying in the wind, these could easily serve for scarlet or purple cloaks wrought on Syrian looms. Most of the boys carried also wooden swords and shields, and the chief had a long loor or Alpine horn. Only the valiant Ironbeard, whose father was a military man, had a real sword and a real scabbard into the bargain. Wolf-in-the-Temple, and Erling the Lop-Sided, had each an old fowling-piece; and Brumle-Knute carried a double-barrelled rifle. This, to be sure, was not; quite historically correct; but firearms are so useful in the woods, even if they are not correct, that it was resolved not to notice the irregularity; for there were boars in the mountains, besides wolves and foxes and no end of smaller game.

  For an hour or more the procession rode, single file, up the steep and rugged mountain-paths; but the boys were all in high spirits and enjoyed themselves hugely. The mere fact that they were Vikings, on a daring foraging expedition into a neighboring kingdom, imparted a wonderful zest to everything they did and said. It might be foolish, but it was on that account none the less delightful. They sent out scouts to watch for the approach of an imaginary enemy; they had secret pass-words and signs; they swore (Viking style) by Thor's hammer and by Odin's eye. They talked appalling nonsense to each other with a delicious sentiment of its awful blood-curdling character. It was about noon when they reached the Strandholm saeter, which consisted of three turf-thatched log-cabins or chalets, surrounded by a green inclosure of half a dozen acres. The wide highland plain, eight or ten miles long, was bounded on the north and west by throngs of snow-hooded mountain peaks, which rose, one behind another, in glittering grandeur; and in the middle of the plain there were two lakes or tarns, connected by a river which was milky white where it entered the lakes and clear as crystal where it escaped.

  "Now, Vikings," cried Wolf-in-the-Temple, when the boys had done justice to their dinner, "it behooves us to do valiant deeds, and to prove ourselves worthy of our fathers."

  "Hear, hear," shouted Ironbeard, who was fourteen years old and had a shadow of a moustache, "I am in for great deeds, hip, hip, hurrah!"

  "Hold your tongue when you hear me speak," commanded the chieftain, loftily; "we will lie in wait at the ford, between the two tarns, and capture the travellers who pass that way. If perchance a princess from the neighboring kingdom pass, on the way to her dominions, we will hold her captive until her father, the king, comes to ransom her with heaps of gold in rings and fine garments and precious weapons."

  "But what are we to do with her when we have caught her?" asked the Skull-Splitter, innocently.

  "We will keep her imprisoned in the empty saeter hut," Wolf-in-the-Temple responded. "Now, are you ready? We'll leave the horses here on the croft, until our return."

  The question now was to elude Brumle-Knute's vigilance; for the Sons of the Vikings had good reasons for fearing that he might interfere with their enterprise. They therefore waited until Brumle-Knute was invited by the dairymaid to sit down to dinner. No sooner had the door closed upon his stooping figure, than they stole out through a hole in the fence, crept on all-fours among the tangled dwarf-birches and the big gray boulders, and following close in the track of their leader, reached the ford between the lakes. There they observed two enormous heaps of stones known as the Parson and the Deacon; for it had been the custom from immemorial times for every traveller to fling a big stone as a "sacrifice" for good luck upon the Parson's heap and a small stone upon the Deacon's. Behind these piles of stone the boys hid themselves, keeping a watchful eye on the road and waiting for their chief's signal to pounce upon unwary travellers. They lay for about fifteen minutes in expectant silence, and were on the point of losing their patience.

  "Look here, Wolf-in-the-Temple," cried Erling the Lop-Sided, "you may think this is fun, but I don't. Let us take the raft there and go fishing. The tarn is simply crowded with perch and bass."

  "Hold your disrespectful tongue," whispered the chief, warningly, "or I'll discipline you so you'll remember it till your dying day."

  "Ho, ho!" laughed the rebel, jeeringly; "big words and fat pork don't stick in the throat. Wait till I get you alone and we shall see who'll be disciplined."

  Erling had risen and was about to emerge from his hiding-place, when suddenly hoof-beats were heard, and a horse was seen approaching, carrying on its back a stalwart peasant lass, in whose lap a pretty little girl of twelve or thirteen was sitting.

  The former was clad in scarlet bodice, a black embroidered skirt, and a snowy-white kerchief was tied about her head. Her blonde hair hung in golden profusion down over her back and shoulders. The little girl was city-clad, and had a sweet and appealing face. She was chattering guilelessly with her companion, asking more questions than she could possibly expect to have answered. Nearer and nearer they came to the great stone heaps, dreaming of no harm.

  "And, Gunbjor," the Skull-Splitter heard the little girl say, "you don't really believe that there are trolds and fairies in the mountains, do you?"

  "Them as are wiser than I am have believed that," was Gunbjor's answer; "but we don't hear so much about the trolds nowadays as they did when my granny was young. Then they took young girls into the mountain and——"

  Here came a wild, piercing yell, as the Sons of the Vikings rushed forward from behind the rocks, and with a terrible war-whoop swooped down upon the road. Wolf-in-the-Temple, who led the band, seized the horse by the bridle, and flourishing his sword threateningly, addressed the frightened peasant lass.

  "Is this, perchance, the Princess Kunigunde, the heir to the throne of my good friend, King Bjorn the Victorious?" he asked, with a magnificent air, seizing the trembling little girl by the wrist.

  "Nay," Gunbjor answered, as soon as she could find her voice, "this is the Deacon's Maggie, as is going to the saeter with me to spend Sunday."

  "She cannot proceed on her way," said the chieftain, decisively, "she is my prisoner."

  Gunbjor, who had been frightened out of her wits by the small red- and blue-cloaked men, swarming among the stones, taking them to be trolds or fairies, now gradually recovered her senses. She recognized in Erling the Lop-Sided the well-known features of the parson's son; and as soon as she had made this discovery she had no great difficulty in identifying the rest. "Never you fear, pet," she said to the child in her lap, "these be bad boys as want to frighten us. I'll give them a switching if they don't look out."

  "The Princess Kunigunde is my prisoner until it please her noble father to ransom her for ten pounds of silver," repeated Wolf-in-the-Temple, putting his arm about little Maggie's waist and trying to lift her from the saddle.

  "You keep yer hands off the child, or I'll give you ten pounds of thrashing," cried Gunbjor, angrily.

  "She shall be treated with the respect due to her rank," Wolf-in-the-Temple proceeded, loftily. "I give King Bjorn the Victorious three moons in which to bring me the ransom."

  "And I'll give you three boxes on the ear, and a cut with my whip, into the bargain, if you don't let the horse alone, and take yer hands off the child."

  "Vikings!" cried the chief, "lay hands on her! Tear her from the saddle! She has defied us! She deserves no mercy."

  With a tremendous yell the boys rushed forward, brandishing their swords above their heads, and pulled Gunbjor from the saddle. But she held on to her charge with a vigorous clutch, and as soon as her feet touched the ground she began with her disengaged hand to lay about her, with her whip, in a way that proved extremely unpleasant. Wolf-in-the-Temple, against whom her assault was especially directed, received some bad cuts across his face, and Ironbeard was driven backward into the ford, where he fell, full length, and rose dripping wet and mortified. Thore the Hound got a thump in his head from Gunbjor's stalwart elbows, and Skull-Splitter, who had more courage than discretion, was pitched into the water with no more ceremony than if he had been a superfluous kitten. The fact was——I cannot disguise it——within five minutes the whole valiant band of the Sons of the Vikings were routed by that terrible switch, wielded by the intrepid Gunbjor. When the last of her foes had bitten the dust, she calmly remounted her pony, and with the Deacon's Maggie in her lap rode, at a leisurely pace, across the ford.

  "Good-by, lads," she said, nodding her head at them over her shoulder; "ye needn't be afraid. I won't tell on you."

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