“Have you withstood?” she said. “Then, truly, you are in the way of victory and have less to fear from woman than I thought. All things are ready as you commanded, my lord Olaf, and there remains but to say farewell, which you had best do quickly, for they plot your death yonder.”
“Freydisa,” I answered, “I go, but perchance I shall return again. Meanwhile, all I have is yours, with this charge. Guard you yonder woman, and see her safe to her home, or wherever she would go, and to Steinar here give honourable burial.”
Then the darkness of oblivion falls, and I remember no more save the white face of Iduna, her brow stained with Steinar’s life-blood, watching me as I went.
IRENE, EMPRESS OF THE EARTH
A gulf of blackness and the curtain lifts again upon a very different Olaf from the young northern lord who parted from Iduna at the place of sacrifice at Aar.
I see myself standing upon a terrace that overlooks a stretch of quiet water, which I now know was the Bosphorus. Behind me are a great palace and the lights of a vast city; in front, upon the sea and upon the farther shore, are other lights. The moon shines bright above me, and, having naught else to do, I study my reflection in my own burnished shield. It shows a man of early middle life; he may be thirty or five-and-thirty years of age; the same Olaf, yet much changed. For now my frame is tall and well-knit, though still somewhat slender; my face is bronzed by southern suns; I wear a short beard; there is a scar across my cheek, got in some battle; my eyes are quiet, and have lost the first liveliness of youth. I know that I am the captain of the Northern Guard of the Empress Irene, widow of the dead emperor, Leo the Fourth, and joint ruler of the Eastern Empire with her young son, Constantine, the sixth of that name.
How I came to fill this place, however, I do not know. The story of my journey from Jutland to Byzantium is lost to me. Doubtless it must have taken years, and after these more years of humble service, before I rose to be the captain of Irene’s Northern Guard that she kept ever about her person, because she would not trust her Grecian soldiers.
My armour was very rich, yet I noted about myself two things that were with me in my youth. One was the necklace of golden shells, divided from each other by beetles of emeralds, that I had taken from the Wanderer’s grave at Aar, and the other the cross-hilted bronze sword with which this same Wanderer had been girded in his grave. I know now that because of this weapon, which was of a metal and shape strange to that land, I had the byname of Olaf Red-Sword, and I know also that none wished to feel the weight of this same ancient blade.
When I had finished looking at myself in the shield, I leaned upon the parapet staring at the sea and wondering how the plains of Aar looked that night beneath this selfsame moon, and whether Freydisa were dead by now, and whom Iduna had married, and if she ever thought of me, or if Steinar came to haunt her sleep.