Ay, good Latin enough, and French, and Irish too, what is more. And now, because I love you and because you I will serve, willy nilly, I will tell you all the secrets I have, as long as my breath lasts, for my tongue is rather stiff after that long story about the bell-wether. I was born in Ireland, in Waterford town. My mother was an English slave, one of those that Earl Godwins wifenot this one that is now, Gyda, but the old oneused to sell out of England by the score, tied together with ropes, boys and girls from Bristol town. Her master, my father that was (I shall know him again), got tired of her, and wanted to give her away to one of his kernes. She would not have that; so he hung her up hand and foot, and beat her that she died. There was an abbey hard by, and the Church laid on him a penanceall that they dared get out of himthat he should give me to the monks, being then a seven years boy. Well, I grew up in that abbey; they taught me my fa fa mi fa; but I liked better conning ballads and hearing stories of ghosts and enchanters, such as I used to tell you. Ill tell you plenty more whenever youre tired. Then they made me work, and that I never could abide at all. Then they beat me every day, and that I could abide still less; but always I stuck to my book, for one thing I sawthat learning is power, my lord; and that the reason why the monks are masters of the land is, they are scholars, and you fighting men are none. Then I fell in love (as young blood will) with an Irish lass, when I was full seventeen years old; and when they found out that, they held me down on the floor and beat me till I was well-nigh dead. They put me in prison for a month; and between bread and water and darkness I went nigh foolish. They let me out, thinking I could do no more harm to man or lass; and when I found out how profitable folly was, foolish I remained, at least as foolish as seemed good to me. But one night I got into the abbey church, stole therefrom that which I have with me now, and which shall serve you and me in good stead yetout and away aboard a ship among the buscarles, and off into the Norway sea. But after a voyage or two, so it befel, I was wrecked in the Wash by Botulfston Deeps, and begging my way inland, met with your father, and took service with him, as I have taken service now with you.
I had run away from a monastery; so had you. I hated the monks; so did you. I liked to tell storiessince I found good to shut my mouth I tell them to myself all day long, sometimes all night too. When I found out you liked to hear them, I loved you all the more. Then they told me not to speak to you; I held my tongue. I bided my time. I knew you would be outlawed some day. I knew you would turn Viking and kemperyman and kill giants and enchanters, and win yourself honour and glory; and I knew I should have my share in it. I knew you would need me some day; and you need me now, and here I am; and if you try to cut me down with your sword, I will dodge you, and follow you, and dodge you again, till I force you to let me be your man. I never loved you as I do now. You let me take that letter safe, like a true hero. You let yourself be outlawed, like a true hero. You made up your mind to see the world, like a true hero. You are the master for me, and with you I will live and die. And now I can talk no more.
Martin Lightfoot took his hand, kissed it, licked it almost, as a dog would have done. I am your man, he said, amen; and true man I will prove to you, if you will prove true to me. And he dropped quietly back behind Herewards horse, as if the business of his life was settled, and his mind utterly at rest.
There is one more likeness between us, said Hereward, after a few minutes thought. If I have robbed a church, thou hast robbed one too. What is this precious spoil which is to serve me and thee in such mighty stead?
Martin drew from inside his shirt and under his waistband a small battle-axe, and handed it up to Hereward. It was a tool the like of which in shape Hereward had seldom seen, and never its equal in beauty. The handle was some fifteen inches long, made of thick strips of black whalebone, curiously bound with silver, and butted with narwhal ivory. This handle was evidently the work of some cunning Norseman of old. But who had been the maker of the blade? It was some eight inches long with a sharp edge on one side, a sharp crooked pick on the other: of the finest steel, inlaid with strange characters in gold, the work probably of some Circassian, Tartar, or Persian; such a battle-axe as Rustum or Tohrab may have wielded in fight upon the banks of Oxus; one of those magic weapons, brought, men knew not how, out of the magic East, which were hereditary in many a Norse family, and sung of in many a Norse saga.
Look at it, said Martin Lightfoot. There is magic in it. It must bring us luck. Whoever holds that must kill his man. It will pick a lock of steel. It will crack a mail corselet as a nuthatch cracks a nut. It will hew a lance in two at a single blow. Devils and spirits forged itI know that; Virgilius the Enchanter, perhaps, or Solomon the Great, or whosevers name is on it, graven there in letters of gold. Handle it, feel its balance; but nodo not handle it too much. There is a devil in it who would make you kill me. Whenever I play with it I long to kill a man. It would be so easyso easy. Give it me back, my lord, give it me back, lest the devil come through the handle into your palm, and possess you.