It took him but a moment to turn the alternatives over in his mind, and then he suddenly hit upon a plan. His shield was one of the long, heart-shaped kind, coming to a point at the lower end, and covering him down to the knee as he stood upright. He raised it high, and driving the point hard into the ground, dropped on one knee behind it. As he stooped a third arrow sang close above his head and sped into the gloaming. Leaning to one side he fired again, and an instant later a fourth shaft rang on his shield. Then came a brief pause in the hostilities, and, looking round the edge of his fort, Estein could see his foe standing motionless close under a tree. He soon tired of waiting, however, and presently an arrow, aimed evidently at what he could see of Estein’s legs, passed within six inches of one knee and buried itself in the snow beside him.
“He shoots too well,” muttered Estein. “If this goes on I must try a desperate ruse. I shall have one other shot.”
He rose almost to his full height, fired his arrow, and quickly stooped again. His enemy was evidently on the watch for such an opening, for the two bowstrings twanged together, and while Estein’s shaft struck something with a soft thud, the other hit the Viking hard on the headpiece.
Throwing up his arms, he reeled and fell flat upon his back. Yet, as he lay for all the world like a man struck dead, a smile stole over his face, and he quietly and gently drew his sword.
“Can my shaft have gone home?” he wondered. Apparently not, for his foeman left the shelter of the wood, and he could see him walk slowly across the open. He was clad in a loose and almost grotesquely ill-fitting garment, seemingly of sheep-skin, and held an arrow on his bow ready to shoot on a sign of movement. When he had come within ten or fifteen yards, he suddenly dropped his bow, drew his sword, and stepped quickly forward. At the same instant Estein jumped to his feet, and with a shout sprang at him. The blades were on the point of crossing, when his enemy stopped short, dropped his point, and then burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter.
“Estein, by the beard of Thor!” he gasped.
“Helgi!” cried his quondam foe.
They looked each other in the face for an instant, and then simultaneously broke out into another fit of mirth.
“By my faith, Estein, that was a plan worthy of yourself!” cried Helgi. “But ’tis lucky I fired not at you on the ground, as I had some thoughts of doing, knowing the trickery of these Jemtlanders.”
“Two things I feared,” replied Estein. “One that you might do that; the other, that a troop of as villainous-looking knaves as you now are yourself might hive out of the wood behind you. But how did you escape last night, and how came you here?”
“Those are the questions I would ask of you,” said Helgi; “but one story at a time, and shortly this is mine—a tale, Estein, that for credit to its teller, yoked with truthfulness, I will freely back against yours or ever I hear it.”