“Drink little, and watch!” he whispered.
“Have you then seen him too?” Helgi replied, in the same anxious tone. Estein looked at him in surprise, and Helgi, coming close beside him, added rapidly,—
“The last torch-bearer but one was the man we captured in the forest and freed this morning, and methinks I see another of our prisoners even now. King Bue’s hird-men [Footnote: Bodyguard.] both, sent—” he had to turn away abruptly, and Estein finished the sentence under his breath,—
“Sent to trap us.”
He took his seat, and glancing round the hall saw his twenty followers scattered here and there among the crowd of guests.
“Fool!” he thought, “I have walked into the trap like a child in arms. The whole country has been prepared against our coming, the people told to leave their houses, and the king’s own hird-men set as decoys in our path. Can this be the meaning of the Runes?”
Yet there was no actual proof of treachery, and he could only watch and listen. And certainly there was noise enough to be heard. Never among the most hardened drinkers of their own country had the foster-brothers seen such an orgie. The king, a foolish-looking old man, evidently completely under Thorar’s influence, became very soon in a maudlin condition; man after man around them grew rapidly more and more drunk; and all the time they themselves were plied with ale so assiduously that their suspicions grew stronger. So far as his followers were concerned, Estein was helpless. He glanced round the hall now and then, and could see them quickly succumbing to the Jemtland hospitality. Personally he found it hard to refuse to pledge the frequent toasts shouted at him, but at last, when the men near him had got in such a state that their observation was dulled, he placed his drinking-horn on his lap and thrust his dagger through the bottom. Then, by keeping it always off the table, he was able to let the liquor run through as fast as it was filled, and always drain an empty cup. Helgi had adopted a different device. His head lay on his arms, and in reply to all calls to drink he merely uttered incoherent shouts, while every now and then Estein could see that he would shake with laughter.
Suspicious though he was, it came as a shock to Estein to hear his worst fears suddenly confirmed. Tongues had been freely loosed, and listening carefully to what was said, he heard the mutterings of the chief next him take a coherent form.
“Ay, little they know,” he was saying to himself. “Let them drink, let them drink. Dogs of Norsemen, they came hither to harry our country, and here they shall stay. Ay, they shall never drink again, and King Hakon shall look for his son in vain.”
Then the man lost his balance, and rolled off his seat under the board. He had been placed between Estein and Helgi, and now Estein was able to lean over to his foster-brother, and, under pretence of trying to make him drink, whispered in his ear,—