The west sea sailing.
Long after King Estein had joined his fathers on the little holm beyond Hernersfiord, and Helgi, Earl of Askland, had become but a warlike memory, the skalds of Sogn still sang this tale of Vandrad the Viking. It contained much wonderful magic, and some astonishingly hard strokes, as they told it; but reading between their lines, the magic bears a strong resemblance to many spells cast even at this day, and as for the sword strokes, there was need for them to be hard in Norway then. For that was the age of the making of many kingdoms, and the North was beginning to do its share.
One May morning, more than a thousand years ago, so the story runs, an old man came slowly along a woodland track that uncoiled itself from the mountain passes and snow-crowned inlands of Norway. Presently the trees grew thinner, and grass and wild flowers spread on either hand, and at last, just where the path dipped down to the water-side at Hernersfiord, the traveller stopped. For a while he remained there in the morning sunshine, watching the scene below, and now and then speaking out his thoughts absently in the rapt manner of a visionary.
Though his clothes were old and weather-stained, and bare of any ornament, his face and bearing were such as strike the mind at once and stay in the memory. He was tall and powerfully framed, and bore his years and the white volume of his beard in an altogether stately fashion; but his eyes were most indelible, pale blue and singularly cold in repose, very bright and keen and searching when his face was animated.
They saw much to stir them that morning. On the slope above Hernersfiord stood the royal hall of Hakonstad, the seat of the kings of Sogn; and all about the house, and right down to the water’s edge, there was a great bustle and movement of men. From the upland valley at the fiord head, warriors trooped down to the ships that lay by the long stone pier. The morning sun glanced on their helmets and coats of mail, and in the still air the clash of preparation rang far up the pine-clad hillside. He could see some bringing weapons and provisions down to the shore, and others busily lading the ships. Women mingled in the crowd, and every here and there a gay cloak and gilded helm marked a leader of rank.
“Ay, the season has come for Vikings to put to sea again,” he said. “Brave and gay are the warriors of Sogn, and lightly they leave. When a man is young, all roads are pleasant, and all lead home again. Many have I seen set sail these last sixty years, and their sailing led them—where?”
And then again, as the stir increased, and he could see the men beginning to troop on board the long ships,—
“This voyage shall be as the falling of snowflakes into the sea; but what man can escape his fate?”
Meanwhile a party of men had just left the woods, and were coming down the path to the fiord, ten or twelve in all, headed by an exceedingly broad, black-bearded man, clad in a leather coat closely covered all over with steel scales, and bearing on his shoulder a ponderous halberd.