“Who are you?” he asked, in Latin.
The Northman fetched a smile which did not relieve his face of its brutalism, and answered- “Barbarians.”
“This is the palace of Idernee. Whom seek you? Stand and answer.”
The words were spoken with earnestness. The strangers stopped, and in his turn the Northman asked, “Who are you?”
The giant laid his head back upon his shoulders.
“Ha, ha, ha! I have heard how a god once came from a cow licking a salted stone; but not even a god can make a Roman of a Jew.”
The laugh over, he spoke to his companion again, and they moved nearer.
“Hold!” said Ben-Hur, quitting the pillar. “One word.”
They stopped again.
“A word!” replied the Saxon, folding his immense arms across his breast, and relaxing the menace beginning to blacken his face. “A word! Speak.”
“You are Thord the Northman.”
The giant opened his blue eyes.
“You were lanista in Rome.”
“I was your scholar.”
“No,” said Thord, shaking his head. “By the beard of Irmin, I had never a Jew to make a fighting-man of.”
“But I will prove my saying.”
“You came here to kill me.”
“That is true.”
“Then let this man fight me singly, and I will make the proof on his body.”
A gleam of humour shone in the Northman’s face. He spoke to his companion, who made answer; then he replied with the naivete of a diverted child- “Wait till I say begin.”
By repeated touches of his foot, he pushed a couch out on the floor, and proceeded leisurely to stretch his burly form upon it; when perfectly at ease, he said, simply, “Now begin.”
Without ado, Ben-Hur walked to his antagonist.
“Defend thyself,” he said.
The man, nothing loath, put up his hands.
As the two thus confronted each other in approved position, there was no discernible inequality between them; on the contrary, they were as like as brothers. To the stranger’s confident smile Ben-Hur opposed an earnestness which, had his skill been known, would have been accepted fair warning of danger. Both knew the combat was to be mortal.
Ben-Hur feinted with his right hand. The stranger warded, slightly advancing his left arm! Ere he could return to guard, Ben-Hur caught him by the wrist in a grip which years at the oar had made terrible as a vise. The surprise was complete, and no time given. To throw himself forward; to push the arm across the man’s throat and over his right shoulder, and turn him left side front; to strike surely with the ready left hand; to strike the bare neck under the ear- were but petty divisions of the same act. No need of a second blow. The myrmidon fell heavily, and without a cry, and lay still.