Armed men they are, too, and the boat is new and handsome, graceful with the beautiful lines of a northern shipwright’s designing. She has mast and sail and one steering oar, but neither rowlocks nor other oars to fit in them. One of the men is pacing quietly up and down the sand, as if on the quarterdeck of a ship, and the other rests against the boat’s gunwale.
“Nigh time,” says one, glancing at the fringe of weed which the tide is beginning to leave.
“Ay, nigh, and I would it were past and over. It is a hard doom.”
“No harder than is deserved. The doom ring and the great stone had been the end in days which I can remember. That was the old Danish way.”
The other man nods.
“But the jarl is merciful, as ever.”
“When one finds a coiled adder, one slays it. One does not say, ‘Bide alive, because I saw you too soon to be harmed by you.’ Mercy to the beast that might be, but not to the child who shall some day set his hand on it.”
“Eh, well! The wind is off shore, and it is a far cry to succour, and Ran waits the drowning.”
“I know not that Ran cares for women.”
“Maybe a witch like herself. They are coming!”
Now through a winding gap in the line of dunes comes from inland a little company of men and women, swiftly and in silence. The two men range themselves on either bow of the boat, and stand at attention as the newcomers near them, and so wait. Maybe there are two-score people, led by a man and woman, who walk side by side without word or look passing between them. The man is tall and handsome, armed in the close-knit ring-mail shirt of the Dane, with gemmed sword hilt and golden mountings to scabbard and dirk, and his steel helm and iron-gray hair seem the same colour in the shadowless light of the dull sky overhead. One would set his age at about sixty years.
But the woman at his side is young and wonderfully lovely. She is dressed in white and gold, and her hair is golden as the coiled necklace and armlets she wears, and hangs in two long plaits far below her knees, though it is looped in the golden girdle round her waist. Fastened to the girdle hangs the sheath of a little dagger, but there is no blade in it. She is plainly of high rank, and unwedded. Now her fair face is set and hard, and it would almost seem that despair was written on it.
After those two the other folk seem hardly worth a glance, though they are richly dressed, and the men are as well armed as the jarl their leader. Nor do they seem to have eyes for any but those two at their head, and no word passes among them. Their faces also are set and hard, as if they had somewhat heavy to see to, and would fain carry it through to the end unflinching.
So they come to the edge of the sea, where the boat waits them, and there halt; and the tall jarl faces the girl at his side, and speaks to her in a dull voice, while the people slowly make a half circle round them, listening.