“Could you not have warned us sooner?” said Estein.
“Thorar kept his plans secret so long that it was too late to do aught save what I have done. I sent Jomar to the feast, as thou knowest.”
Estein’s guide had been sitting before the fire, consuming a supper of cold meat, and paying little heed to the talk, but at the last words he rose, and throwing the bones on to the flames, said,—
“It was by no will of mine; I bear no love to the Norsemen.”
“Peace!” exclaimed Atli sternly. “Art thou too ungrateful for what I have done for thee, and fearless of what I can do?”
“Babble on with this Norseman. I am tired,” replied Jomar, and leaving the fire, he rolled himself in a bear-skin, lay down on the floor, and in a trice was fast asleep.
“Say now to me, Estein,” continued the old man, “that thou holdest me guiltless of all blame.”
“Of all, save the snatching of me away from the fate of Helgi,” replied Estein sadly. “Yet I remember that you yourself said that our ends should not be far apart, so I think you have but delayed my death a little while.”
“Nay, rather,” cried Atli enthusiastically, “believe that Helgi lives since thy life is safe! I tell thee, Estein, many fair years lie before thee. By my mouth, even by old Atli, the gods send a message to thee!”
His exalted tone, the animation of his face, and the flash of his pale eyes, impressed Estein strongly.
“By you?” he inquired with some wonder; “what then have you to do with me?”
With the same ringing voice the old man went on,—
“Even as over the windows of this poor house there hang those skins, so over my life hangs a curtain which may not yet be fully lifted—perchance the fates may decree that it shall ever hide me. A little, however, I may venture to raise it. Listen, Estein!”
As he said the last words Atli stooped, and lifting two large logs cast them on the fire. For a minute he watched them crackle and spit sparks, bending his brows as he deliberated how he should begin.
Then he turned to Estein and said,—
“When I saw thee by the shore at Hernersfiord, now some two years gone, didst thou think then that Atli was a stranger?”
“I thought so indeed,” replied Estein, “though some words you let fall pointed otherwise.”
“Yet, Estein,” the old man said, “when thou wert no higher than that bench whereon thou sittest, I dandled thee in mine arms, and those fingers that now clasp a sword hilt, and, if men say true, clasp it right firmly, played once with my beard. Less snow had fallen on it then, Estein. Thou canst not remember me?”
Estein looked at him closely before replying.
“Nay, Atli, my memory carries me not so far back.”
“So it was,” Atli continued; “but chiefly was I the friend of thine ill-fated brother Olaf.”