They were gradually approaching a dark forest, which stretched from the edge of the lake inland, and latish in the afternoon they entered it by a narrow, rutty road. Darkness closed in fast as they wound their way through the wood. The air grew colder and colder, till their hands and faces tingled with the frost. Silence fell upon them, and for some time nothing could be heard but the occasional clash of steel and the continual creaking of snow and breaking of dead branches under foot. Then a hum of voices came to them fitfully, and at last the path opened into a wide glade.
“We are almost there,” said Thorar. “Smile not, Estein, at our rude hospitality; or, if you do, let our welcome make amends.”
A young moon had just risen above the trees, and by its pale light they saw a small village at the end of the glade. Many lights flashed, and a babel of voices chattered and shouted as they approached.
“All King Bue’s men have not fled, it seems,” Helgi said in a low voice.
Estein made no reply, but the two foster-brothers fell back, and placing themselves at the head of their twenty followers, entered the little village. They found that it consisted of a few mean houses clustered outside a high wooden stockade. Thorar led them up to a gateway in this fence, and crying, “Welcome, Estein!” stood aside to let the Norsemen file in.
The scene as they entered was strange and stirring. Immediately before them lay a wide courtyard, in the centre of which stood King Bue’s hall, high and long, and studded with bright windows. Men were ranged in a line from the gateway to the hall, bearing great torches. The smoky flames flashed on snow-covered ground and wild faces, and the branches of black pines outside, making the night above seem dark as a great vault. All round them rose a clamour of voices, and a throng of skin-coated figures crowded the gate to catch a glimpse of the strangers.
Estein walked first, and just as he came into the court a man, pushed apparently by the surging crowd, stumbled against him.
“Make way, there!” cried Thorar sternly, from behind; “give room for the king’s guests to pass!”
The man hastily stepped back, but not before he had found time to whisper,—
“Beware, Estein! Drink not too deep!”
As he walked along the line of torch-bearers to the door of the king’s hall, the peril of their situation, supposing treachery were really intended, came suddenly home to Estein’s mind. It was too late to turn back, even had his pride allowed him to think of taking such a course. He could only resolve to warn his men, and, so far as he could, keep them together and near him. Even as he was still turning the matter over in his mind, he found himself at the hall door, where an officer of the court, dressed with barbaric splendour, ushered him into the drinking-room. A discordant chorus of outlandish voices, raised by a hundred guests or more, bade him welcome. He walked up to his seat by the king, and on the spur of the moment could hit on no plan of communicating with his men. Helgi followed him to the dais, and with him he just found time to exchange a word.