With a violent wrench the giant drew a spearhead from his side, and his blood spurted over Ulf, as he swayed on his feet.
“I go before,” he said, and fell on the deck with a clatter of steel.
“There died a brave man! Now, comrades, after him to Odin!”
And with that the forecastle captain sprang down on the gangway, and knocking men off into the waist in his impetuous rush, swung his battle-axe round his head and aimed a terrific blow at Osmund Hooknose. Quick as lightning Osmund raised his shield and thrust at his foe with his sword. The point of the blade passed in at his breast and out between his shoulders, and at the same instant the battle-axe fell. The edge of the shield was cut through like paper, and the blade coming fair on the nape of the Hooknose’s neck, the bodies of the two champions rolled together off the gangway.
Round the poop the last struggle raged. Spent and wounded as they were, Estein’s little band showed a bold front to their foes, and around the red shield of their leader their lives were dearly sold.
Then for a few minutes came a lull in the fight, and men could breathe for a space.
“The next onset will be the last,” said Estein grimly.
“Their ships are sheering off!” exclaimed one.
“’Tis we who are leaving them,” said another.
“Look ahead!” cried Helgi; “we shall cheat them yet.”
The men looked round them with astonished faces, for a strange thing had happened. They had drifted into one of the dreaded Orkney tideways, and all the time the fight was raging they were being borne at increasing speed past islands, holms, and skerries. The scene had completely changed; they were in a narrower sound, swinging like sea-fowl, helpless on the tide. Heather hills were close at hand, and right ahead was a great frothing and bubbling, out of which rose the black heads of sunken rocks.
The other vessels had been twisted off by the whirling eddies, and were now rapidly scattering, each striving to clear the reef. Only the four vessels bound together—Estein’s, Thorkel’s, Liot’s, Osmund’s—swept in an unresisting cluster towards the rocks.
Liot too saw the danger, and raised his voice in a great shout:—
“Let not man of mine touch an oar till Estein Hakonson lie dead on yonder deck. We have yet time to slay them. Forward, Liot’s men!”
There was a wild and furious rush of men towards the poop. Down went man after man of the battle-worn defenders. Liot and Estein met sword to sword and face to face. The red shield was ripped from top to bottom by a sweep of the bairn-slayer’s blade, and at the same moment Estein’s descending sword was met by a Viking’s battle-axe, and snapped at the hilt.
“Now, Estein, I have thee!” shouted his foe; but ere the words were well out of his mouth, Estein had hurled himself at his waist, dagger in hand, and brought him headlong to the deck. As they fell, the ships struck with a mighty crash that threw friend and foe alike on the bloody planks. Two vessels stuck fast; the other two broke loose, and plunging over the first line of reefs, settled down by the bows.