“Go out by the far door, and await me outside the court on the farthest side from the entrance.”
Helgi lay still for a minute, and then rising to his feet, muttered something about “strong ale and fresh air,” and staggered down the hall with a well-feigned semblance of drunkenness.
Thorar was sitting opposite, touched with drink a little, but still alert and sober enough. He glanced sharply at Estein; but the Viking, looking him full in the face, laughed noisily and cried,—
“Helgi’s head seems hardly so strong as his hand, Thorar!”
For once the lawman was overreached, and with a laugh he drained his horn and answered,—
“I had thought better of you Norsemen.”
The hardest part of the business now remained. To go out in the same way he knew would excite suspicion; if he delayed too long, search would be made for Helgi; and there sat Thorar facing him. He knew that if he could once get rid of him, he had little to fear from any of the others; and as he thought hard for a plan, the king, who had for some time been fast asleep, suddenly solved the difficulty. He woke with a start, saw that the drink was coming to an end, and cried with drunken ardour,—
“More ale, more ale, Thorar! Estein drinks not!”
Thorar glanced round and saw that no one but himself was capable of going on the errand. Twice he called aloud on servants by their names, but there came no answer. Then with a frown he rose and walked down the hall.
The high table at which they sat was lit by two great torches set on stands. While Thorar was still going down the room, Estein, with a deliberately clumsy movement, upset and extinguished the one nearest him. Casting a look over his shoulder, he saw the lawman leave the hall at the far end; and then he rose to his feet, and making an affectation of relighting the extinguished torch from the other, put the second out, and in the sudden half-darkness that ensued, slipped under the board, and ran on his hands and feet for the door at that end of the hall. No one about seemed to notice his departure, but just as he carefully opened the door he thought he saw with the corner of his eye a man slip out at the far end.
The house in the forest.
Coming from the warmth and light of the hall, the night outside struck sharp and bitterly cold. A thin cloud hid the moon, but there was quite light enough to see that the snow-covered court was deserted. Only in the shadows of the paling and the end of the house was it possible for a man to be concealed, and before he stepped away from the door Estein ran his eye carefully along both. He could see nothing, and had just stepped forward a pace, when noiselessly as a phantom a dark form appeared round the corner of the hall, and without pausing an instant came straight up to him. He saw only that the man was small, and wrapped in a cloak of fur; his sword flashed, and he was almost in the act of striking when the figure held up a hand and stopped.