by H. Rider Haggard
You have graciously conveyed to me the intelligence that during the weary weeks spent far from his home—in alternate hope and fear, in suffering and mortal trial—a Prince whose memory all men must reverence, the Emperor Frederick, found pleasure in the reading of my stories: that "they interested and fascinated him."
While the world was watching daily at the bedside of your Majesty's Imperial husband, while many were endeavouring to learn courage in our supremest need from the spectacle of that heroic patience, a distant writer little knew that it had been his fortune to bring to such a sufferer an hour's forgetfulness of sorrow and pain.
This knowledge, to an author, is far dearer than any praise, and it is in gratitude that, with your Majesty's permission, I venture to dedicate to you the tale of Eric Brighteyes.
The late Emperor, at heart a lover of peace, though by duty a soldier of soldiers, might perhaps have cared to interest himself in a warrior of long ago, a hero of our Northern stock, whose days were spent in strife, and whose latest desire was Rest. But it may not be; like the Golden Eric of this Saga, and after a nobler fashion, he has passed through the Hundred Gates into the Valhalla of Renown.
To you, then, Madam, I dedicate this book, a token, however slight and unworthy, of profound respect and sympathy.
I am, Madam,
Your Majesty's most obedient servant,
H. Rider Haggard.
November 17, 1889.
To H.I.M. Victoria, Empress Frederick of Germany.
"Eric Brighteyes" is a romance founded on the Icelandic Sagas. "What is a saga?" "Is it a fable or a true story?" The answer is not altogether simple. For such sagas as those of Burnt Njal and Grettir the Strong partake both of truth and fiction: historians dispute as to the proportions. This was the manner of the saga's growth: In the early days of the Iceland community—that republic of aristocrats—say, between the dates 900 and 1100 of our era, a quarrel would arise between two great families. As in the case of the Njal Saga, its cause, probably, was the ill doings of some noble woman. This quarrel would lead to manslaughter. Then blood called for blood, and a vendetta was set on foot that ended only with the death by violence of a majority of the actors in the drama and of large numbers of their adherents. In the course of the feud, men of heroic strength and mould would come to the front and perform deeds worthy of the iron age which bore them. Women also would help to fashion the tale, for good or ill, according to their natural gifts and characters. At last the tragedy was covered up by death and time, leaving only a few dinted shields and haunted cairns to tell of those who had played its leading parts.
But its fame lived on in the minds of men. From generation to generation skalds wandered through the winter snows, much as Homer may have wandered in his day across the Grecian vales and mountains, to find a welcome at every stead, because of the old-time story they had to tell. Here, night after night, they would sit in the ingle and while away the weariness of the dayless dark with histories of the times when men carried their lives in their hands, and thought them well lost if there might be a song in the ears of folk to come. To alter the tale was one of the greatest of crimes: the skald must repeat it as it came to him; but by degrees undoubtedly the sagas did suffer alteration. The facts remained the same indeed, but around them gathered a mist of miraculous occurrences and legends. To take a single instance: the account of the burning of Bergthorsknoll in the Njal Saga is not only a piece of descriptive writing that for vivid, simple force and insight is scarcely to be matched out of Homer and the Bible, it is also obviously true. We feel as we read, that no man could have invented that story, though some great skald threw it into shape. That the tale is true, the writer of "Eric" can testify, for, saga in hand, he has followed every act of the drama on its very site. There he who digs beneath the surface of the lonely mound that looks across plain and sea to Westman Isles may still find traces of the burning, and see what appears to be the black sand with which the hands of Bergthora and her women strewed the earthen floor some nine hundred years ago, and even the greasy and clotted remains of the whey that they threw upon the flame to quench it. He may discover the places where Fosi drew up his men, where Skarphedinn died, singing while his legs were burnt from off him, where Kari leapt from the flaming ruin, and the dell in which he laid down to rest—at every step, in short, the truth of the narrative becomes more obvious. And yet the tale has been added to, for, unless we may believe that some human beings are gifted with second sight, we cannot accept as true the prophetic vision that came to Runolf, Thorstein's son; or that of Njal who, on the evening of the onslaught, like Theoclymenus in the Odyssey, saw the whole board and the meats upon it "one gore of blood."
Thus, in the Norse romance now offered to the reader, the tale of Eric and his deeds would be true; but the dream of Asmund, the witchcraft of Swanhild, the incident of the speaking head, and the visions of Eric and Skallagrim, would owe their origin to the imagination of successive generations of skalds; and, finally, in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, the story would have been written down with all its supernatural additions.
The tendency of the human mind—and more especially of the Norse mind—is to supply uncommon and extraordinary reasons for actions and facts that are to be amply accounted for by the working of natural forces. Swanhild would have needed no "familiar" to instruct her in her evil schemes; Eric would have wanted no love-draught to bring about his overthrow. Our common experience of mankind as it is, in opposition to mankind as we fable it to be, is sufficient to teach us that the passion of one and the human weakness of the other would suffice to these ends. The natural magic, the beauty and inherent power of such a woman as Swanhild, are things more forceful than any spell magicians have invented, or any demon they are supposed to have summoned to their aid. But no saga would be complete without the intervention of such extraneous forces: the need of them was always felt, in order to throw up the acts of heroes and heroines, and to invest their persons with an added importance. Even Homer felt this need, and did not scruple to introduce not only second sight, but gods and goddesses, and to bring their supernatural agency to bear directly on the personages of his chant, and that far more freely than any Norse sagaman. A word may be added in explanation of the appearances of "familiars" in the shapes of animals, an instance of which will be found in this story. It was believed in Iceland, as now by the Finns and Eskimo, that the passions and desires of sorcerers took visible form in such creatures as wolves or rats. These were called "sendings," and there are many allusions to them in the Sagas.
Another peculiarity that may be briefly alluded to as eminently characteristic of the Sagas is their fatefulness. As we read we seem to hear the voice of Doom speaking continually. "Things will happen as they are fated": that is the keynote of them all. The Norse mind had little belief in free will, less even than we have to-day. Men and women were born with certain characters and tendencies, given to them in order that their lives should run in appointed channels, and their acts bring about an appointed end. They do not these things of their own desire, though their desires prompt them to the deeds: they do them because they must. The Norns, as they name Fate, have mapped out their path long and long ago; their feet are set therein, and they must tread it to the end. Such was the conclusion of our Scandinavian ancestors—a belief forced upon them by their intense realisation of the futility of human hopes and schemings, of the terror and the tragedy of life, the vanity of its desires, and the untravelled gloom or sleep, dreamless or dreamfull, which lies beyond its end.
Though the Sagas are entrancing, both as examples of literature of which there is but little in the world and because of their living interest, they are scarcely known to the English-speaking public. This is easy to account for: it is hard to persuade the nineteenth century world to interest itself in people who lived and events that happened a thousand years ago. Moreover, the Sagas are undoubtedly difficult reading. The archaic nature of the work, even in a translation; the multitude of its actors; the Norse sagaman's habit of interweaving endless side-plots, and the persistence with which he introduces the genealogy and adventures of the ancestors of every unimportant character, are none of them to the taste of the modern reader.
"Eric Brighteyes" therefore, is clipped of these peculiarities, and, to some extent, is cast in the form of the romance of our own day, archaisms being avoided as much as possible. The author will be gratified should he succeed in exciting interest in the troubled lives of our Norse forefathers, and still more so if his difficult experiment brings readers to the Sagas—to the prose epics of our own race. Too ample, too prolix, too crowded with detail, they cannot indeed vie in art with the epics of Greece; but in their pictures of life, simple and heroic, they fall beneath no literature in the world, save the Iliad and the Odyssey alone.
HOW ASMUND THE PRIEST FOUND GROA THE WITCH
There lived a man in the south, before Thangbrand, Wilibald's son, preached the White Christ in Iceland. He was named Eric Brighteyes, Thorgrimur's son, and in those days there was no man like him for strength, beauty and daring, for in all these things he was the first. But he was not the first in good-luck.
Two women lived in the south, not far from where the Westman Islands stand above the sea. Gudruda the Fair was the name of the one, and Swanhild, called the Fatherless, Groa's daughter, was the other. They were half-sisters, and there were none like them in those days, for they were the fairest of all women, though they had nothing in common except their blood and hate.
Now of Eric Brighteyes, of Gudruda the Fair and of Swanhild the Fatherless, there is a tale to tell.
These two fair women saw the light in the self-same hour. But Eric Brighteyes was their elder by five years. The father of Eric was Thorgrimur Iron-Toe. He had been a mighty man; but in fighting with a Baresark,[*] who fell upon him as he came up from sowing his wheat, his foot was hewn from him, so that afterwards he went upon a wooden leg shod with iron. Still, he slew the Baresark, standing on one leg and leaning against a rock, and for that deed people honoured him much. Thorgrimur was a wealthy yeoman, slow to wrath, just, and rich in friends. Somewhat late in life he took to wife Saevuna, Thorod's daughter. She was the best of women, strong in mind and second-sighted, and she could cover herself in her hair. But these two never loved each other overmuch, and they had but one child, Eric, who was born when Saevuna was well on in years.
[*] The Baresarks were men on whom a passing fury of battle came; they were usually outlawed.
The father of Gudruda was Asmund Asmundson, the Priest of Middalhof. He was the wisest and the wealthiest of all men who lived in the south of Iceland in those days, owning many farms and, also, two ships of merchandise and one long ship of war, and having much money out at interest. He had won his wealth by viking's work, robbing the English coasts, and black tales were told of his doings in his youth on the sea, for he was a "red-hand" viking. Asmund was a handsome man, with blue eyes and a large beard, and, moreover, was very skilled in matters of law. He loved money much, and was feared of all. Still, he had many friends, for as he aged he grew more kindly. He had in marriage Gudruda, the daughter of Bjoern, who was very sweet and kindly of nature, so that they called her Gudruda the Gentle. Of this marriage there were two children, Bjoern and Gudruda the Fair; but Bjoern grew up like his father in youth, strong and hard, and greedy of gain, while, except for her wonderful beauty, Gudruda was her mother's child alone.
The mother of Swanhild the Fatherless was Groa the Witch. She was a Finn, and it is told of her that the ship on which she sailed, trying to run under the lee of the Westman Isles in a great gale from the north-east, was dashed to pieces on a rock, and all those on board of her were caught in the net of Ran[*] and drowned, except Groa herself, who was saved by her magic art. This at the least is true, that, as Asmund the Priest rode down by the sea-shore on the morning after the gale, seeking for some strayed horses, he found a beautiful woman, who wore a purple cloak and a great girdle of gold, seated on a rock, combing her black hair and singing the while; and, at her feet, washing to and fro in a pool, was a dead man. He asked whence she came, and she answered:
"Out of the Swan's Bath."
[*] The Norse goddess of the sea.
Next, he asked her where were her kin. But, pointing to the dead man, she said that this alone was left of them.
"Who was the man, then?" said Asmund the Priest.
She laughed again and sang this song:—
Groa sails up from the Swan's Bath, Death Gods grip the Dead Man's hand. Look where lies her luckless husband, Bolder sea-king ne'er swung sword! Asmund, keep the kirtle-wearer, For last night the Norns were crying, And Groa thought they told of thee: Yea, told of thee and babes unborn.
"How knowest thou my name?" asked Asmund.
"The sea-mews cried it as the ship sank, thine and others—and they shall be heard in story."
"Then that is the best of luck," quoth Asmund; "but I think that thou art fey."[*]
[*] I.e. subject to supernatural presentiments, generally connected with approaching doom.
"Ay," she answered, "fey and fair."
"True enough thou art fair. What shall we do with this dead man?"
"Leave him in the arms of Ran. So may all husbands lie."
They spoke no more with her at that time, seeing that she was a witchwoman. But Asmund took her up to Middalhof, and gave her a farm, and she lived there alone, and he profited much by her wisdom.
Now it chanced that Gudruda the Gentle was with child, and when her time came she gave a daughter birth—a very fair girl, with dark eyes. On the same day, Groa the witchwoman brought forth a girl-child, and men wondered who was its father, for Groa was no man's wife. It was women's talk that Asmund the Priest was the father of this child also; but when he heard it he was angry, and said that no witchwoman should bear a bairn of his, howsoever fair she was. Nevertheless, it was still said that the child was his, and it is certain that he loved it as a man loves his own; but of all things, this is the hardest to know. When Groa was questioned she laughed darkly, as was her fashion, and said that she knew nothing of it, never having seen the face of the child's father, who rose out of the sea at night. And for this cause some thought him to have been a wizard or the wraith of her dead husband; but others said that Groa lied, as many women have done on such matters. But of all this talk the child alone remained and she was named Swanhild.
Now, but an hour before the child of Gudruda the Gentle was born, Asmund went up from his house to the Temple, to tend the holy fire that burned night and day upon the altar. When he had tended the fire, he sat down upon the cross-benches before the shrine, and, gazing on the image of the Goddess Freya, he fell asleep and dreamed a very evil dream.
He dreamed that Gudruda the Gentle bore a dove most beautiful to see, for all its feathers were of silver; but that Groa the Witch bore a golden snake. And the snake and the dove dwelt together, and ever the snake sought to slay the dove. At length there came a great white swan flying over Coldback Fell, and its tongue was a sharp sword. Now the swan saw the dove and loved it, and the dove loved the swan; but the snake reared itself, and hissed, and sought to kill the dove. But the swan covered her with his wings, and beat the snake away. Then he, Asmund, came out and drove away the swan, as the swan had driven the snake, and it wheeled high into the air and flew south, and the snake swam away also through the sea. But the dove drooped and now it was blind. Then an eagle came from the north, and would have taken the dove, but it fled round and round, crying, and always the eagle drew nearer to it. At length, from the south the swan came back, flying heavily, and about its neck was twined the golden snake, and with it came a raven. And it saw the eagle and loud it trumpeted, and shook the snake from it so that it fell like a gleam of gold into the sea. Then the eagle and the swan met in battle, and the swan drove the eagle down and broke it with his wings, and, flying to the dove, comforted it. But those in the house ran out and shot at the swan with bows and drove it away, but now he, Asmund, was not with them. And once more the dove drooped. Again the swan came back, and with it the raven, and a great host were gathered against them, and, among them, all of Asmund's kith and kin, and the men of his quarter and some of his priesthood, and many whom he did not know by face. And the swan flew at Bjoern his son, and shot out the sword of its tongue and slew him, and many a man it slew thus. And the raven, with a beak and claws of steel, slew also many a man, so that Asmund's kindred fled and the swan slept by the dove. But as it slept the golden snake crawled out of the sea, and hissed in the ears of men, and they rose up to follow it. It came to the swan and twined itself about its neck. It struck at the dove and slew it. Then the swan awoke and the raven awoke, and they did battle till all who remained of Asmund's kindred and people were dead. But still the snake clung about the swan's neck, and presently snake and swan fell into the sea, and far out on the sea there burned a flame of fire. And Asmund awoke trembling and left the Temple.
Now as he went, a woman came running, and weeping as she ran.
"Haste, haste!" she cried; "a daughter is born to thee, and Gudruda thy wife is dying!"
"Is it so?" said Asmund; "after ill dreams ill tidings."
Now in the bed-closet off the great hall of Middalhof lay Gudruda the Gentle and she was dying.
"Art thou there, husband?" she said.
"Even so, wife."
"Thou comest in an evil hour, for it is my last. Now hearken. Take thou the new-born babe within thine arms and kiss it, and pour water over it, and name it with my name."
This Asmund did.
"Hearken, my husband. I have been a good wife to thee, though thou hast not been all good to me. But thus shalt thou atone: thou shalt swear that, though she is a girl, thou wilt not cast this bairn forth to perish, but wilt cherish and nurture her."
"I swear it," he said.
"And thou shalt swear that thou wilt not take the witchwoman Groa to wife, nor have anything to do with her, and this for thine own sake: for, if thou dost, she will be thy death. Dost thou swear?"
"I swear it," he said.
"It is well; but, husband, if thou dost break thine oath, either in the words or in the spirit of the words, evil shall overtake thee and all thy house. Now bid me farewell, for I die."
He bent over her and kissed her, and it is said that Asmund wept in that hour, for after his fashion he loved his wife.
"Give me the babe," she said, "that it may lie once upon my breast."
They gave her the babe and she looked upon its dark eyes and said:
"Fairest of women shalt thou be, Gudruda—fair as no woman in Iceland ever was before thee; and thou shalt love with a mighty love—and thou shalt lose—and, losing, thou shalt find again."
Now, it is said that, as she spoke these words, her face grew bright as a spirit's, and, having spoken them, she fell back dead. And they laid her in earth, but Asmund mourned her much.
But, when all was over and done, the dream that he had dreamed lay heavy on him. Now of all diviners of dreams Groa was the most skilled, and when Gudruda had been in earth seven full days, Asmund went to Groa, though doubtfully, because of his oath.
He came to the house and entered. On a couch in the chamber lay Groa, and her babe was on her breast and she was very fair to see.
"Greeting, lord!" she said. "What wouldest thou here?"
"I have dreamed a dream, and thou alone canst read it."
"That is as it may be," she answered. "It is true that I have some skill in dreams. At the least I will hear it."
Then he unfolded it to her every word.
"What wilt thou give me if I read thy dream?" she said.
"What dost thou ask? Methinks I have given thee much."
"Yea, lord," and she looked at the babe upon her breast. "I ask but a little thing: that thou shalt take this bairn in thy arms, pour water over it and name it."
"Men will talk if I do this, for it is the father's part."
"It is a little thing what men say: talk goes by as the wind. Moreover, thou shalt give them the lie in the child's name, for it shall be Swanhild the Fatherless. Nevertheless that is my price. Pay it if thou wilt."
"Read me the dream and I will name the child."
"Nay, first name thou the babe: for then no harm shall come to her at thy hands."
So Asmund took the child, poured water over her, and named her.
Then Groa spoke: "This lord, is the reading of thy dream, else my wisdom is at fault: The silver dove is thy daughter Gudruda, the golden snake is my daughter Swanhild, and these two shall hate one the other and strive against each other. But the swan is a mighty man whom both shall love, and, if he love not both, yet shall belong to both. And thou shalt send him away; but he shall return and bring bad luck to thee and thy house, and thy daughter shall be blind with love of him. And in the end he shall slay the eagle, a great lord from the north who shall seek to wed thy daughter, and many another shall he slay, by the help of that raven with the bill of steel who shall be with him. But Swanhild shall triumph over thy daughter Gudruda, and this man, and the two of them, shall die at her hands, and, for the rest, who can say? But this is true—that the mighty man shall bring all thy race to an end. See now, I have read thy rede."
Then Asmund was very wroth. "Thou wast wise to beguile me to name thy bastard brat," he said; "else had I been its death within this hour."
"This thou canst not do, lord, seeing that thou hast held it in thy arms," Groa answered, laughing. "Go rather and lay out Gudruda the Fair on Coldback Hill; so shalt thou make an end of the evil, for Gudruda shall be its very root. Learn this, moreover: that thy dream does not tell all, seeing that thou thyself must play a part in the fate. Go, send forth the babe Gudruda, and be at rest."
"That cannot be, for I have sworn to cherish it, and with an oath that may not be broken."
"It is well," laughed Groa. "Things will befall as they are fated; let them befall in their season. There is space for cairns on Coldback and the sea can shroud its dead!"
And Asmund went thence, angered at heart.
HOW ERIC TOLD HIS LOVE TO GUDRUDA IN THE SNOW ON COLDBACK
Now, it must be told that, five years before the day of the death of Gudruda the Gentle, Saevuna, the wife of Thorgrimur Iron-Toe, gave birth to a son, at Coldback in the Marsh, on Ran River, and when his father came to look upon the child he called out aloud:
"Here we have a wondrous bairn, for his hair is yellow like gold and his eyes shine bright as stars." And Thorgrimur named him Eric Brighteyes.
Now, Coldback is but an hour's ride from Middalhof, and it chanced, in after years, that Thorgrimur went up to Middalhof, to keep the Yule feast and worship in the Temple, for he was in the priesthood of Asmund Asmundson, bringing the boy Eric with him. There also was Groa with Swanhild, for now she dwelt at Middalhof; and the three fair children were set together in the hall to play, and men thought it great sport to see them. Now, Gudruda had a horse of wood and would ride it while Eric pushed the horse along. But Swanhild smote her from the horse and called to Eric to make it move; but he comforted Gudruda and would not, and at that Swanhild was angry and lisped out:
"Push thou must, if I will it, Eric."
Then he pushed sideways and with such good will that Swanhild fell almost into the fire of the hearth, and, leaping up, she snatched a brand and threw it at Gudruda, firing her clothes. Men laughed at this; but Groa, standing apart, frowned and muttered witch-words.
"Why lookest thou so darkly, housekeeper?" said Asmund; "the boy is bonny and high of heart."
"Ah, he is bonny as no child is, and he shall be bonny all his life-days. Nevertheless, she shall not stand against his ill luck. This I prophesy of him: that women shall bring him to his end, and he shall die a hero's death, but not at the hand of his foes."
And now the years went by peacefully. Groa dwelt with her daughter Swanhild up at Middalhof and was the love of Asmund Asmundson. But, though he forgot his oath thus far, yet he would never take her to wife. The witchwife was angered at this, and she schemed and plotted much to bring it about that Asmund should wed her. But still he would not, though in all things else she led him as it were by a halter.
Twenty full years had gone by since Gudruda the Gentle was laid in earth; and now Gudruda the Fair and Swanhild the Fatherless were women too. Eric, too, was a man of five-and-twenty years, and no such man had lived in Iceland. For he was strong and great of stature, his hair was yellow as gold, and his grey eyes shone with the light of swords. He was gentle and loving as a woman, and even as a lad his strength was the strength of two men; and there were none in all the quarter who could leap or swim or wrestle against Eric Brighteyes. Men held him in honour and spoke well of him, though as yet he had done no deeds, but lived at home on Coldback, managing the farm, for now Thorgrimur Iron-Toe, his father, was dead. But women loved him much, and that was his bane—for of all women he loved but one, Gudruda the Fair, Asmund's daughter. He loved her from a child, and her alone till his day of death, and she, too, loved him and him only. For now Gudruda was a maid of maids, most beautiful to see and sweet to hear. Her hair, like the hair of Eric, was golden, and she was white as the snow on Hecla; but her eyes were large and dark, and black lashes drooped above them. For the rest she was tall and strong and comely, merry of face, yet tender, and the most witty of women.
Swanhild also was very fair; she was slender, small of limb, and dark of hue, having eyes blue as the deep sea, and brown curling hair, enough to veil her to the knees, and a mind of which none knew the end, for, though she was open in her talk, her thoughts were dark and secret. This was her joy: to draw the hearts of men to her and then to mock them. She beguiled many in this fashion, for she was the cunningest girl in matters of love, and she knew well the arts of women, with which they bring men to nothing. Nevertheless she was cold at heart, and desired power and wealth greatly, and she studied magic much, of which her mother Groa also had a store. But Swanhild, too, loved a man, and that was the joint in her harness by which the shaft of Fate entered her heart, for that man was Eric Brighteyes, who loved her not. But she desired him so sorely that, without him, all the world was dark to her, and her soul but as a ship driven rudderless upon a winter night. Therefore she put out all her strength to win him, and bent her witcheries upon him, and they were not few nor small. Nevertheless they went by him like the wind, for he dreamed ever of Gudruda alone, and he saw no eyes but hers, though as yet they spoke no word of love one to the other.
But Swanhild in her wrath took counsel with her mother Groa, though there was little liking between them; and, when she had heard the maiden's tale, Groa laughed aloud:
"Dost think me blind, girl?" she said; "all of this I have seen, yea and foreseen, and I tell thee thou art mad. Let this yeoman Eric go and I will find thee finer fowl to fly at."
"Nay, that I will not," quoth Swanhild: "for I love this man alone, and I would win him; and Gudruda I hate, and I would overthrow her. Give me of thy counsel."
Groa laughed again. "Things must be as they are fated. This now is my rede: Asmund would turn Gudruda's beauty to account, and that man must be rich in friends and money who gets her to wife, and in this matter the mind of Bjoern is as the mind of his father. Now we will watch, and, when a good time chances, we will bear tales of Gudruda to Asmund and to her brother Bjoern, and swear that she oversteps her modesty with Eric. Then shall Asmund be wroth and drive Eric from Gudruda's side. Meanwhile, I will do this: In the north there dwells a man mighty in all things and blown up with pride. He is named Ospakar Blacktooth. His wife is but lately dead, and he has given out that he will wed the fairest maid in Iceland. Now, it is in my mind to send Koll the Half-witted, my thrall, whom Asmund gave to me, to Ospakar as though by chance. He is a great talker and very clever, for in his half-wits is more cunning than in the brains of most; and he shall so bepraise Gudruda's beauty that Ospakar will come hither to ask her in marriage; and in this fashion, if things go well, thou shalt be rid of thy rival, and I of one who looks scornfully upon me. But, if this fail, then there are two roads left on which strong feet may travel to their end; and of these, one is that thou shouldest win Eric away with thine own beauty, and that is not little. All men are frail, and I have a draught that will make the heart as wax; but yet the other path is surer."
"And what is that path, my mother?"
"It runs through blood to blackness. By thy side is a knife and in Gudruda's bosom beats a heart. Dead women are unmeet for love!"
Swanhild tossed her head and looked upon the dark face of Groa her mother.
"Methinks, with such an end to win, I should not fear to tread that path, if there be need, my mother."
"Now I see thou art indeed my daughter. Happiness is to the bold. To each it comes in uncertain shape. Some love power, some wealth, and some—a man. Take that which thou lovest—I say, cut thy path to it and take it; else shall thy life be but a weariness: for what does it serve to win the wealth and power when thou lovest a man alone, or the man when thou dost desire gold and the pride of place? This is wisdom: to satisfy the longing of thy youth; for age creeps on apace and beyond is darkness. Therefore, if thou seekest this man, and Gudruda blocks thy path, slay her, girl—by witchcraft or by steel—and take him, and in his arms forget that thine own are red. But first let us try the easier plan. Daughter, I too hate this proud girl, who scorns me as her father's light-of-love. I too long to see that bright head of hers dull with the dust of death, or, at the least, those proud eyes weeping tears of shame as the man she hates leads her hence as a bride. Were it not for her I should be Asmund's wife, and, when she is gone, with thy help—for he loves thee much and has cause to love thee—this I may be yet. So in this matter, if in no other, let us go hand in hand and match our wits against her innocence."
Now, Koll the Half-witted went upon his errand, and the time passed till it lacked but a month to Yule, and men sat indoors, for the season was dark and much snow fell. At length came frost, and with it a clear sky, and Gudruda, ceasing from her spinning in the hall, went to the woman's porch, and, looking out, saw that the snow was hard, and a great longing came upon her to breathe the fresh air, for there was still an hour of daylight. So she threw a cloak about her and walked forth, taking the road towards Coldback in the Marsh that is by Ran River. But Swanhild watched her till she was over the hill. Then she also took a cloak and followed on that path, for she always watched Gudruda.
Gudruda walked on for the half of an hour or so, when she became aware that the clouds gathered in the sky, and that the air was heavy with snow to come. Seeing this she turned homewards, and Swanhild hid herself to let her pass. Now flakes floated down as big and soft as fifa flowers. Quicker and more quick they came till all the plain was one white maze of mist, but through it Gudruda walked on, and after her crept Swanhild, like a shadow. And now the darkness gathered and the snow fell thick and fast, covering up the track of her footsteps and she wandered from the path, and after her wandered Swanhild, being loath to show herself. For an hour or more Gudruda wandered and then she called aloud and her voice fell heavily against the cloak of snow. At the last she grew weary and frightened, and sat down upon a shelving rock whence the snow had slipped away. Now, a little way behind was another rock and there Swanhild sat, for she wished to be unseen of Gudruda. So some time passed, and Swanhild grew heavy as though with sleep, when of a sudden a moving thing loomed upon the snowy darkness. Then Gudruda leapt to her feet and called. A man's voice answered:
"Who passes there?"
"I, Gudruda, Asmund's daughter."
The form came nearer; now Swanhild could hear the snorting of a horse, and now a man leapt from it, and that man was Eric Brighteyes.
"Is it thou indeed, Gudruda!" he said with a laugh, and his great shape showed darkly on the snow mist.
"Oh, is it thou, Eric?" she answered. "I was never more joyed to see thee; for of a truth thou dost come in a good hour. A little while and I had seen thee no more, for my eyes grow heavy with the death-sleep."
"Nay, say not so. Art lost, then? Why, so am I. I came out to seek three horses that are strayed, and was overtaken by the snow. May they dwell in Odin's stables, for they have led me to thee. Art thou cold, Gudruda?"
"But a little, Eric. Yea, there is place for thee here on the rock."
So he sat down by her on the stone, and Swanhild crept nearer; for now all weariness had left her. But still the snow fell thick.
"It comes into my mind that we two shall die here," said Gudruda presently.
"Thinkest thou so?" he answered. "Well, I will say this, that I ask no better end."
"It is a bad end for thee, Eric: to be choked in snow, and with all thy deeds to do."
"It is a good end, Gudruda, to die at thy side, for so I shall die happy; but I grieve for thee."
"Grieve not for me, Brighteyes, worse things might befall."
He drew nearer to her, and now he put his arms about her and clasped her to his bosom; nor did she say him nay. Swanhild saw and lifted herself up behind them, but for a while she heard nothing but the beating of her heart.
"Listen, Gudruda," Eric said at last. "Death draws near to us, and before it comes I would speak to thee, if speak I may."
"Speak on," she whispers from his breast.
"This I would say, then: that I love thee, and that I ask no better fate than to die in thy arms."
"First shalt thou see me die in thine, Eric."
"Be sure, if that is so, I shall not tarry for long. Oh! Gudruda, since I was a child I have loved thee with a mighty love, and now thou art all to me. Better to die thus than to live without thee. Speak, then, while there is time."
"I will not hide from thee, Eric, that thy words are sweet in my ears."
And now Gudruda sobs and the tears fall fast from her dark eyes.
"Nay, weep not. Dost thou, then, love me?"
"Ay, sure enough, Eric."
"Then kiss me before we pass. A man should not die thus, and yet men have died worse."
And so these two kissed, for the first time, out in the snow on Coldback, and that first kiss was long and sweet.
Swanhild heard and her blood seethed within her as water seethes in a boiling spring when the fires wake beneath. She put her hand to her kirtle and gripped the knife at her side. She half drew it, then drove it back.
"Cold kills as sure as steel," she said in her heart. "If I slay her I cannot save myself or him. Let us die in peace, and let the snow cover up our troubling." And once more she listened.
"Ah, sweet," said Eric, "even in the midst of death there is hope of life. Swear to me, then, that if by chance we live thou wilt love me always as thou lovest me now."
"Ay, Eric, I swear that and readily."
"And swear, come what may, that thou wilt wed no man but me."
"I swear, if thou dost remain true to me, that I will wed none but thee, Eric."
"Then I am sure of thee."
"Boast not overmuch, Eric: if thou dost live thy days are all before thee, and with times come trials."
Now the snow whirled down faster and more thick, till these two, clasped heart to heart, were but a heap of white, and all white was the horse, and Swanhild was nearly buried.
"Where go we when we die, Eric?" said Gudruda; "in Odin's house there is no place for maids, and how shall my feet fare without thee?"
"Nay, sweet, my May, Valhalla shuts its gates to me, a deedless man; up Bifrost's rainbow bridge I may not travel, for I do not die with byrnie on breast and sword aloft. To Hela shall we go, and hand in hand."
"Art thou sure, Eric, that men find these abodes? To say sooth, at times I misdoubt me of them."
"I am not so sure but that I also doubt. Still, I know this: that where thou goest there I shall be, Gudruda."
"Then things are well, and well work the Norns.[*] Still, Eric, of a sudden I grow fey: for it comes upon me that I shall not die to-night, but that, nevertheless, I shall die with thy arms about me, and at thy side. There, I see it on the snow! I lie by thee, sleeping, and one comes with hands outstretched and sleep falls from them like a mist—by Freya, it is Swanhild's self! Oh! it is gone."
[*] The Northern Fates.
"It was nothing, Gudruda, but a vision of the snow—an untimely dream that comes before the sleep. I grow cold and my eyes are heavy; kiss me once again."
"It was no dream, Eric, and ever I doubt me of Swanhild, for I think she loves thee also, and she is fair and my enemy," says Gudruda, laying her snow-cold lips on his lips. "Oh, Eric, awake! awake! See, the snow is done."
He stumbled to his feet and looked forth. Lo! out across the sky flared the wild Northern fires, throwing light upon the darkness.
"Now it seems that I know the land," said Eric. "Look: yonder are Golden Falls, though we did not hear them because of the snow; and there, out at sea, loom the Westmans; and that dark thing is the Temple Hof, and behind it stands the stead. We are saved, Gudruda, and thus far indeed thou wast fey. Now rise, ere thy limbs stiffen, and I will set thee on the horse, if he still can run, and lead thee down to Middalhof before the witchlights fail us."
"So it shall be, Eric."
Now he led Gudruda to the horse—that, seeing its master, snorted and shook the snow from its coat, for it was not frozen—and set her on the saddle, and put his arm about her waist, and they passed slowly through the deep snow. And Swanhild, too, crept from her place, for her burning rage had kept the life in her, and followed after them. Many times she fell, and once she was nearly swallowed in a drift of snow and cried out in her fear.
"Who called aloud?" said Eric, turning; "I thought I heard a voice."
"Nay," answers Gudruda, "it was but a night-hawk screaming."
Now Swanhild lay quiet in the drift, but she said in her heart:
"Ay, a night-hawk that shall tear out those dark eyes of thine, mine enemy!"
The two go on and at length they come to the banked roadway that runs past the Temple to Asmund's hall. Here Swanhild leaves them, and, climbing over the turf-wall into the home meadow, passes round the hall by the outbuildings and so comes to the west end of the house, and enters by the men's door unnoticed of any. For all the people, seeing a horse coming and a woman seated on it, were gathered in front of the hall. But Swanhild ran to that shut bed where she slept, and, closing the curtain, threw off her garments, shook the snow from her hair, and put on a linen kirtle. Then she rested a while, for she was weary, and, going to the kitchen, warmed herself at the fire.
Meanwhile Eric and Gudruda came to the house and there Asmund greeted them well, for he was troubled in his heart about his daughter, and very glad to know her living, seeing that men had but now begun to search for her, because of the snow and the darkness.
Now Gudruda told her tale, but not all of it, and Asmund bade Eric to the house. Then one asked about Swanhild, and Eric said that he had seen nothing of her, and Asmund was sad at this, for he loved Swanhild. But as he told all men to go and search, an old wife came and said that Swanhild was in the kitchen, and while the carline spoke she came into the hall, dressed in white, very pale, and with shining eyes and fair to see.
"Where hast thou been, Swanhild?" said Asmund. "I thought certainly thou wast perishing with Gudruda in the snow, and now all men go to seek thee while the witchlights burn."
"Nay, foster-father, I have been to the Temple," she answered, lying. "So Gudruda has but narrowly escaped the snow, thanks be to Brighteyes yonder! Surely I am glad of it, for we could ill spare our sweet sister," and, going up to her, she kissed her. But Gudruda saw that her eyes burned like fire and felt that her lips were cold as ice, and shrank back wondering.
HOW ASMUND BADE ERIC TO HIS YULE-FEAST
Now it was supper-time and men sat at meat while the women waited upon them. But as she went to and fro, Gudruda always looked at Eric, and Swanhild watched them both. Supper being over, people gathered round the hearth, and, having finished her service, Gudruda came and sat by Eric, so that her sleeve might touch his. They spoke no word, but there they sat and were happy. Swanhild saw and bit her lip. Now, she was seated by Asmund and Bjoern his son.
"Look, foster-father," she said; "yonder sit a pretty pair!"
"That cannot be denied," answered Asmund. "One may ride many days to see such another man as Eric Brighteyes, and no such maid as Gudruda flowers between Middalhof and London town, unless it be thou, Swanhild. Well, so her mother said that it should be, and without doubt she was foresighted at her death."
"Nay, name me not with Gudruda, foster-father; I am but a grey goose by thy white swan. But these shall be well wed and that will be a good match for Eric."
"Let not thy tongue run on so fast," said Asmund sharply. "Who told thee that Eric should have Gudruda?"
"None told me, but in truth, having eyes and ears, I grew certain of it," said Swanhild. "Look at them now: surely lovers wear such faces."
Now it chanced that Gudruda had rested her chin on her hand, and was gazing into Eric's eyes beneath the shadow of her hair.
"Methinks my sister will look higher than to wed a simple yeoman, though he is large as two other men," said Bjoern with a sneer. Now Bjoern was jealous of Eric's strength and beauty, and did not love him.
"Trust nothing that thou seest and little that thou hearest, girl," said Asmund, raising himself from thought: "so shall thy guesses be good. Eric, come here and tell us how thou didst chance on Gudruda in the snow."
"I was not so ill seated but that I could bear to stay," grumbled Eric beneath his breath; but Gudruda said "Go."
So he went and told his tale; but not all of it, for he intended to ask Gudruda in marriage on the morrow, though his heart prophesied no luck in the matter, and therefore he was not overswift with it.
"In this thing thou hast done me and mine good service," said Asmund coldly, searching Eric's face with his blue eyes. "It had been said if my fair daughter had perished in the snow, for, know this: I would set her high in marriage, for her honour and the honour of my house, and so some rich and noble man had lost great joy. But take thou this gift in memory of the deed, and Gudruda's husband shall give thee another such upon the day that he makes her wife," and he drew a gold ring off his arm.
Now Eric's knees trembled as he heard, and his heart grew faint as though with fear. But he answered clear and straight:
"Thy gift had been better without thy words, ring-giver; but I pray thee to take it back, for I have done nothing to win it, though perhaps the time will come when I shall ask thee for a richer."
"My gifts have never been put away before," said Asmund, growing angry.
"This wealthy farmer holds the good gold of little worth. It is foolish to take fish to the sea, my father," sneered Bjoern.
"Nay, Bjoern, not so," Eric answered: "but, as thou sayest, I am but a farmer, and since my father, Thorgrimur Iron-Toe, died things have not gone too well on Ran River. But at the least I am a free man, and I will take no gifts that I cannot repay worth for worth. Therefore I will not have the ring."
"As thou wilt," said Asmund. "Pride is a good horse if thou ridest wisely," and he thrust the ring back upon his arm.
Then people go to rest; but Swanhild seeks her mother, and tells her all that has befallen her, nor does Groa fail to listen.
"Now I will make a plan," she says, "for these things have chanced well and Asmund is in a ripe humour. Eric shall come no more to Middalhof till Gudruda is gone hence, led by Ospakar Blacktooth."
"And if Eric does not come here, how shall I see his face? for, mother, I long for the sight of it."
"That is thy matter, thou lovesick fool. Know this: that if Eric comes hither and gets speech with Gudruda, there is an end of thy hopes; for, fair as thou art, she is too fair for thee, and, strong as thou art, in a way she is too strong. Thou hast heard how these two love, and such loves mock at the will of fathers. Eric will win his desire or die beneath the swords of Asmund and Bjoern, if such men can prevail against his might. Nay, the wolf Eric must be fenced from the lamb till he grows hungry. Then let him search the fold and make spoil of thee, for, when the best is gone, he will desire the good."
"So be it, mother. As I sat crouched behind Gudruda in the snow at Coldback, I had half a mind to end her love-words with this knife, for so I should have been free of her."
"Yes, and fast in the doom-ring, thou wildcat. The gods help this Eric, if thou winnest him. Nay, choose thy time and, if thou must strike, strike secretly and home. Remember also that cunning is mightier than strength, that lies pierce further than swords, and that witchcraft wins where honesty must fail. Now I will go to Asmund, and he shall be an angry man before to-morrow comes."
Then Groa went to the shut bed where Asmund the Priest slept. He was sitting on the bed and asked her why she came.
"For love of thee, Asmund, and thy house, though thou dost treat me ill, who hast profited so much by me and my foresight. Say now: wilt thou that this daughter of thine, Gudruda the Fair, should be the light May of yonder long-legged yeoman?"
"That is not in my mind," said Asmund, stroking his beard.
"Knowest thou, then, that this very day your white Gudruda sat on Eric's lap in the snow, while he fondled her to his heart's content?"
"Most likely it was for warmth. Men do not dream on love in the hour of death. Who saw this?"
"Swanhild, who was behind, and hid herself for shame, and therefore she held that these two must soon be wed! Ah, thou art foolish now, Asmund. Young blood makes light of cold or death. Art thou blind, or dost thou not see that these two turn on each other like birds at nesting-time?"
"They might do worse," said Asmund, "for they are a proper pair, and it seems to me that each was born for each."
"Then all goes well. Still, it is a pity to see so fair a maid cast like rotten bait upon the waters to hook this troutlet of a yeoman. Thou hast enemies, Asmund; thou art too prosperous, and there are many who hate thee for thy state and wealth. Were it not wise to use this girl of thine to build a wall about thee against the evil day?"
"I have been more wont, housekeeper, to trust to my own arm than to bought friends. But tell me, for at the least thou art far-seeing, how may this be done? As things are, though I spoke roughly to him last night, I am inclined to let Eric Brighteyes take Gudruda. I have always loved the lad, and he will go far."
"Listen, Asmund! Surely thou hast heard of Ospakar Blacktooth—the priest who dwells in the north?"
"Ay, I have heard of him, and I know him; there is no man like him for ugliness, or strength, or wealth and power. We sailed together on a viking cruise many years ago, and he did things at which my blood turned, and in those days I had no chicken heart."
"With time men change their temper. Unless I am mistaken, this Ospakar wishes above all to have Gudruda in marriage, for, now that everything is his, this alone is left for him to ask—the fairest woman in Iceland as a housewife. Think then, with Ospakar for a son-in-law, who is there that can stand against thee?"
"I am not so sure of this matter, nor do I altogether trust thee, Groa. Of a truth it seems to me that thou hast some stake upon the race. This Ospakar is evil and hideous. It were a shame to give Gudruda over to him when she looks elsewhere. Knowest thou that I swore to love and cherish her, and how runs this with my oath? If Eric is not too rich, yet he is of good birth and kin, and, moreover, a man of men. If he take her good will come of it."
"It is like thee, Asmund, always to mistrust those who spend their days in plotting for thy weal. Do as thou wilt: let Eric take this treasure of thine—for whom earls would give their state—and live to rue it. But I say this: if he have thy leave to roam here with his dove the matter will soon grow, for these two sicken each to each, and young blood is hot and ill at waiting, and it is not always snow-time. So betroth her or let him go. And now I have said."
"Thy tongue runs too fast. The man is quite unproved and I will try him. To-morrow I will warn him from my door; then things shall go as they are fated. And now peace, for I weary of thy talk, and, moreover, it is false; for thou lackest one thing—a little honesty to season all thy craft. What fee has Ospakar paid thee, I wonder. Thou at least hadst never refused the gold ring to-night, for thou wouldst do much for gold."
"And more for love, and most of all for hate," Groa said, and laughed aloud; nor did they speak more on this matter that night.
Now, early in the morning Asmund rose, and, going to the hall, awoke Eric, who slept by the centre hearth, saying that he would talk with him without. Then Eric followed him to the back of the hall.
"Say now, Eric," he said, when they stood in the grey light outside the house, "who was it taught thee that kisses keep out the cold on snowy days?"
Now Eric reddened to his yellow hair, but he answered: "Who was it told thee, lord, that I tried this medicine?"
"The snow hides much, but there are eyes that can pierce the snow. Nay, more, thou wast seen, and there's an end. Now know this—I like thee well, but Gudruda is not for thee; she is far above thee, who art but a deedless yeoman."
"Then I love to no end," said Eric; "I long for one thing only, and that is Gudruda. It was in my mind to ask her in marriage of thee to-day."
"Then, lad, thou hast thy answer before thou askest. Be sure of one thing: if but once again I find thee alone with Gudruda, it is my axe shall kiss thee and not her lips."
"That may yet be put to the proof, lord," said Eric, and turned to seek his horse, when suddenly Gudruda came and stood between them, and his heart leapt at the sight of her.
"Listen, Gudruda," Eric said. "This is thy father's word: that we two speak together no more."
"Then it is an ill saying for us," said Gudruda, laying her hand upon her breast.
"Saying good or ill, so it surely is, girl," answered Asmund. "No more shalt thou go a-kissing, in the snow or in the flowers."
"Now I seem to hear Swanhild's voice," she said. "Well, such things have happened to better folk, and a father's wish is to a maid what the wind is to the grass. Still, the sun is behind the cloud and it will shine again some day. Till then, Eric, fare thee well!"
"It is not thy will, lord," said Eric, "that I should come to thy Yule-feast as thou hast asked me these ten years past?"
Now Asmund grew wroth, and pointed with his hand towards the great Golden Falls that thunder down the mountain named Stonefell that is behind Middalhof, and there are no greater water-falls in Iceland.
"A man may take two roads, Eric, from Coldback to Middalhof, one by the bridle-path over Coldback and the other down Golden Falls; but I never knew traveller to choose this way. Now, I bid thee to my feast by the path over Golden Falls; and, if thou comest that way, I promise thee this: if thou livest I will greet thee well, and if I find thee dead in the great pool I will bind on thy Hell-shoes and lay thee to earth neighbourly fashion. But if thou comest by any other path, then my thralls shall cut thee down at my door." And he stroked his beard and laughed.
Now Asmund spoke thus mockingly because he did not think it possible that any man should try the path of the Golden Falls.
Eric smiled and said, "I hold thee to thy word, lord; perhaps I shall be thy guest at Yule."
But Gudruda heard the thunder of the mighty Falls as the wind turned, and cried "Nay, nay—it were thy death!"
Then Eric finds his horse and rides away across the snow.
Now it must be told of Koll the Half-witted that at length he came to Swinefell in the north, having journeyed hard across the snow. Here Ospakar Blacktooth had his great hall, in which day by day a hundred men sat down to meat. Now Koll entered the hall when Ospakar was at supper, and looked at him with big eyes, for he had never seen so wonderful a man. He was huge in stature—his hair was black, and black his beard, and on his lower lip there lay a great black fang. His eyes were small and narrow, but his cheekbones were set wide apart and high, like those of a horse. Koll thought him an ill man to deal with and half a troll,[*] and grew afraid of his errand, since in Koll's half-wittedness there was much cunning—for it was a cloak in which he wrapped himself. But as Ospakar sat in the high seat, clothed in a purple robe, with his sword Whitefire on his knee, he saw Koll, and called out in a great voice:
[*] An able-bodied Goblin.
"Who is this red fox that creeps into my earth?"
For, to look at, Koll was very like a fox.
"My name is Koll the Half-witted, Groa's thrall, lord. Am I welcome here?" he answered.
"That is as it may be. Why do they call thee half-witted?"
"Because I love not work overmuch, lord."
"Then all my thralls are fellow to thee. Say, what brings thee here?"
"This lord. It was told among men down in the south that thou wouldst give a good gift to him who should discover to thee the fairest maid in Iceland. So I asked leave of my mistress to come on a journey and tell thee of her."
"Then a lie was told thee. Still, I love to hear of fair maids, and seek one for a wife if she be but fair enough. So speak on, Koll the Fox, and lie not to me, I warn thee, else I will knock what wits are left there from that red head of thine."
So Koll took up the tale and greatly bepraised Gudruda's beauty; nor in truth, for all his talk, could he praise it too much. He told of her dark eyes and the whiteness of her skin, of the nobleness of her shape and the gold of her hair, of her wit and gentleness, till at length Ospakar grew afire to see this flower of maids.
"By Thor, thou Koll," he said, "if the girl be but half of what thou sayest, her luck is good, for she shall be wife to Ospakar. But if thou hast lied to me about her, beware! for soon there shall be a knave the less in Iceland."
Now a man rose in the hall and said that Koll spoke truth, for he had seen Gudruda the Fair, Asmund's daughter, and there was no maid like her in Iceland.
"I will do this now," said Blacktooth. "To-morrow I will send a messenger to Middalhof, saying to Asmund the Priest that I purpose to visit him at the time of the Yule-feast; then I shall see if the girl pleases me. Meanwhile, Koll, take thou a seat among the thralls, and here is something for thy pains," and he took off the purple cloak and threw it to him.
"Thanks to thee, Gold-scatterer," said Koll. "It is wise to go soon to Middalhof, for such a bloom as this maid does not lack a bee. There is a youngling in the south, named Eric Brighteyes, who loves Gudruda, and she, I think, loves him, though he is but a yeoman of small wealth and is only twenty-five years old."
"Ho! ho!" laughed great Ospakar, "and I am forty-five. But let not this suckling cross my desire, lest men call him Eric Holloweyes!"
Now the messenger of Ospakar came to Middalhof, and his words pleased Asmund and he made ready a great feast. And Swanhild smiled, but Gudruda was afraid.
HOW ERIC CAME DOWN GOLDEN FALLS
Now Ospakar rode up to Middalhof on the day before the Yule-feast. He was splendidly apparelled, and with him came his two sons, Gizur the Lawman and Mord, young men of promise, and many armed thralls and servants. Gudruda, watching at the women's door, saw his face in the moonlight and loathed him.
"What thinkest thou of him who comes to seek thee in marriage, foster-sister?" asked Swanhild, watching at her side.
"I think he is like a troll, and that, seek as he will, he shall not find me. I had rather lie in the pool beneath Golden Falls than in Ospakar's hall."
"That shall be proved," said Swanhild. "At the least he is rich and noble, and the greatest of men in size. It would go hard with Eric were those arms about him."
"I am not so sure of that," said Gudruda; "but it is not likely to be known."
"Comes Eric to the feast by the road of Golden Falls, Gudruda?"
"Nay, no man may try that path and live."
"Then he will die, for Eric will risk it."
Now Gudruda thought, and a great fire burned in her heart and shone through her eyes. "If Eric dies," she said, "on thee be his blood, Swanhild—on thee and that dark mother of thine, for ye have plotted to bring this evil on us. How have I harmed thee that thou shouldst deal thus with me?"
Swanhild turned white and wicked-looking, for passion mastered her, and she gazed into Gudruda's face and answered: "How hast thou harmed me? Surely I will tell thee. Thy beauty has robbed me of Eric's love."
"It would be better to prate of Eric's love when he had told it thee, Swanhild."
"Thou hast robbed me and therefore I hate thee, and therefore I will deliver thee to Ospakar, whom thou dost loath—ay and yet win Brighteyes to myself. Am I not also fair and can I not also love, and shall I see thee snatch my joy? By the Gods, never! I will see thee dead, and Eric with thee, ere it shall be so! but first I will see thee shamed!"
"Thy words are ill-suited to a maiden's lips, Swanhild! But of this be sure: I fear thee not, and shall never fear thee. And one thing I know well that, whether thou or I prevail, in the end thou shalt harvest the greatest shame, and in times to come men shall speak of thee with hatred and name thee by ill names. Moreover, Eric shall never love thee; from year to year he shall hate thee with a deeper hate, though it may well be that thou wilt bring ruin on him. And now I thank thee that thou hast told me all thy mind, showing me what indeed thou art!" And Gudruda turned scornfully upon her heel and walked away.
Now Asmund the Priest went out into the courtyard, and meeting Ospakar Blacktooth, greeted him heartily, though he did not like his looks, and took him by the hand and led him to the hall, that was bravely decked with tapestries, and seated him by his side on the high seat. And Ospakar's thralls brought good gifts for Asmund, who thanked the giver well.
Now it was supper time, and Gudruda came in, and after her walked Swanhild. Ospakar gazed hard at Gudruda and a great desire entered into him to make her his wife. But she passed coldly by, nor looked on him at all.
"This, then, is that maid of thine of whom I have heard tell, Asmund? I will say this: fairer was never born of woman."
Then men ate and Ospakar drank much ale, but all the while he stared at Gudruda and listened for her voice. But as yet he said nothing of what he came to seek, though all knew his errand. And his two sons, Gizur and Mord, stared also at Gudruda, for they thought her most wonderfully fair. But Gizur found Swanhild also fair.
And so the night wore on till it was time to sleep.
On this same day Eric rode up from his farm on Ran River and took his road along the brow of Coldback till he came to Stonefell. Now all along Coldback and Stonefell is a steep cliff facing to the south, that grows ever higher till it comes to that point where Golden River falls over it and, parting its waters below, runs east and west—the branch to the east being called Ran River and that to the west Laxa—for these two streams girdle round the rich plain of Middalhof, till at length they reach the sea. But in the midst of Golden River, on the edge of the cliff, a mass of rock juts up called Sheep-saddle, dividing the waters of the fall, and over this the spray flies, and in winter the ice gathers, but the river does not cover it. The great fall is thirty fathoms deep, and shaped like a horseshoe, of which the points lie towards Middalhof. Yet if he could but gain the Sheep-saddle rock that divides the midst of the waters, a strong and hardy man might climb down some fifteen fathoms of this depth and scarcely wet his feet.
Now here at the foot of Sheep-saddle rock the double arches of waters meet, and fall in one torrent into the bottomless pool below. But, some three fathoms from this point of the meeting waters, and beneath it, just where the curve is deepest, a single crag, as large as a drinking-table and no larger, juts through the foam, and, if a man could reach it, he might leap from it some twelve fathoms, sheer into the spray-hidden pit beneath, there to sink or swim as it might befall. This crag is called Wolf's Fang.
Now Eric stood for a long while on the edge of the fall and looked, measuring every thing with his eye. Then he went up above, where the river swirls down to the precipice, and looked again, for it is from this bank that the dividing island-rock Sheep-saddle must be reached.
"A man may hardly do this thing; yet I will try it," he said to himself at last. "My honour shall be great for the feat, if I chance to live, and if I die—well, there is an end of troubling after maids and all other things."
So he went home and sat silent that evening. Now, since Thorgrimur Iron-Toe's death, his housewife, Saevuna, Eric's mother, had grown dim of sight, and, though she peered and peered again from her seat in the ingle nook, she could not see the face of her son.
"What ails thee, Eric, that thou sittest so silent? Was not the meat, then, to thy mind at supper?"
"Yes, mother, the meat was well enough, though a little undersmoked."
"Now I see that thou art not thyself, son, for thou hadst no meat, but only stock-fish—and I never knew a man forget his supper on the night of its eating, except he was distraught or deep in love."
"Was it so?" said Brighteyes.
"What troubles thee, Eric?—that sweet lass yonder?"
"Ay, somewhat, mother."
"What more, then?"
"This, that I go down Golden Falls to-morrow, and I do not know how I may come from Sheep-saddle rock to Wolf's Fang crag and keep my life whole in me; and now, I pray thee, weary me not with words, for my brain is slow, and I must use it."
When she heard this Saevuna screamed aloud, and threw herself before Eric, praying him to forgo his mad venture. But he would not listen to her, for he was slow to make up his mind, but, that being made up, nothing could change it. Then, when she learned that it was to get sight of Gudruda that he purposed thus to throw his life away, she was very angry and cursed her and all her kith and kin.
"It is likely enough that thou wilt have cause to use such words before all this tale is told," said Eric; "nevertheless, mother, forbear to curse Gudruda, who is in no way to blame for these matters."
"Thou art a faithless son," Saevuna said, "who wilt slay thyself striving to win speech with thy May, and leave thy mother childless."
Eric said that it seemed so indeed, but he was plighted to it and the feat must be tried. Then he kissed her, and she sought her bed, weeping.
Now it was the day of the Yule-feast, and there was no sun till one hour before noon. But Eric, having kissed his mother and bidden her farewell, called a thrall, Jon by name, and giving him a sealskin bag full of his best apparel, bade him ride to Middalhof and tell Asmund the Priest that Eric Brighteyes would come down Golden Falls an hour after mid-day, to join his feast; and thence go to the foot of the Golden Falls, to await him there. And the man went, wondering, for he thought his master mad.
Then Eric took a good rope, and a staff tipped with iron, and, so soon as the light served, mounted his horse, forded Ran River, and rode along Coldback till he came to the lip of Golden Falls. Here he stayed a while till at length he saw many people streaming up the snow from Middalhof far beneath, and, among them, two women who by their stature should be Gudruda and Swanhild, and, near to them, a great man whom he did not know. Then he showed himself for a space on the brink of the gulf and turned his horse up stream. The sun shone bright upon the edge of the sky, but the frost bit like a sword. Still, he must strip off his garments, so that nothing remained on him except his sheepskin shoes, shirt and hose, and take the water. Now here the river runs mightily, and he must cross full thirty fathoms of the swirling water before he can reach Sheep-saddle, and woe to him if his foot slip on the boulders, for certainly he must be swept over the brink.
Eric rested the staff against the stony bottom and, leaning his weight on it, took the stream, and he was so strong that it could not prevail against him till at length he was rather more than half-way across and the water swept above his shoulders. Now he was lifted from his feet and, letting the staff float, he swam for his life, and with such mighty strokes that he felt little of that icy cold. Down he was swept—now the lip of the fall was but three fathoms away on his left, and already the green water boiled beneath him. A fathom from him was the corner of Sheep-saddle. If he may grasp it, all is well; if not, he dies.
Three great strokes and he held it. His feet were swept out over the brink of the fall, but he clung on grimly, and by the strength of his arms drew himself on to the rock and rested a while. Presently he stood up, for the cold began to nip him, and the people below became aware that he had swum the river above the fall and raised a shout, for the deed was great. Now Eric must begin to clamber down Sheep-saddle, and this was no easy task, for the rock is almost sheer, and slippery with ice, and on either side the waters rushed and thundered, throwing their blinding spray about him as they leapt to the depths beneath. He looked down, studying the rock; then, feeling that he grew afraid, made an end of doubt and, grasping a point with both hands, swung himself down his own length and more. Now for many minutes he climbed down Sheep-saddle, and the task was hard, for he was bewildered with the booming of the waters that bent out on either side of him like the arc of a bow, and the rock was very steep and slippery. Still, he came down all those fifteen fathoms and fell not, though twice he was near to falling, and the watchers below marvelled greatly at his hardihood.
"He will be dashed to pieces where the waters meet," said Ospakar, "he can never gain Wolf's Fang crag beneath; and, if so it be that he come there and leaps to the pool, the weight of water will drive him down and drown him."
"It is certainly so," quoth Asmund, "and it grieves me much; for it was my jest that drove him to this perilous adventure, and we cannot spare such a man as Eric Brighteyes."
Now Swanhild turned white as death; but Gudruda said: "If great heart and strength and skill may avail at all, then Eric shall come safely down the waters."
"Thou fool!" whispered Swanhild in her ear, "how can these help him? No troll could live in yonder cauldron. Dead is Eric, and thou art the bait that lured him to his death!"
"Spare thy words," she answered; "as the Norns have ordered so it shall be."
Now Eric stood at the foot of Sheep-saddle, and within an arm's length the mighty waters met, tossing their yellow waves and seething furiously as they leapt to the mist-hid gulf beneath. He bent over and looked through the spray. Three fathoms under him the rock Wolf's Fang split the waters, and thence, if he can come thither, he may leap sheer into the pool below. Now he unwound the rope that was about his middle, and made one end fast to a knob of rock—and this was difficult, for his hands were stiff with cold—and the other end he passed through his leathern girdle. Then Eric looked again, and his heart sank within him. How might he give himself to this boiling flood and not be shattered? But as he looked, lo! a rainbow grew upon the face of the water, and one end of it lit upon him, and the other, like a glory from the Gods, fell full upon Gudruda as she stood a little way apart, watching at the foot of Golden Falls.
"Seest thou that," said Asmund to Groa, who was at his side, "the Gods build their Bifrost bridge between these two. Who now shall keep them asunder?"
"Read the portent thus," she answered: "they shall be united, but not here. Yon is a Spirit bridge, and, see: the waters of Death foam and fall between them!"
Eric, too, saw the omen and it seemed good to him, and all fear left his heart. Round about him the waters thundered, but amidst their roar he dreamed that he heard a voice calling:
"Be of good cheer, Eric Brighteyes; for thou shalt live to do mightier deeds than this, and in guerdon thou shalt win Gudruda."
So he paused no longer, but, shortening up the rope, pulled on it with all his strength, and then leapt out upon the arch of waters. They struck him and he was dashed out like a stone from a sling; again he fell against them and again was dashed away, so that his girdle burst. Eric felt it go and clung wildly to the rope and lo! with the inward swing, he fell on Wolf's Fang, where never a man has stood before and never a man shall stand again. Eric lay a little while on the rock till his breath came back to him, and he listened to the roar of the waters. Then, rising on his hands and knees, he crept to its point, for he could scarcely stand because of the trembling of the stone beneath the shock of the fall; and when the people below saw that he was not dead, they raised a great shout, and the sound of their voices came to him through the noise of the waters.
Now, twelve fathoms beneath him was the surface of the pool; but he could not see it because of the wreaths of spray. Nevertheless, he must leap and that swiftly, for he grew cold. So of a sudden Eric stood up to his full height, and, with a loud cry and a mighty spring, bounded out from the point of Wolf's Fang far into the air, beyond the reach of the falling flood, and rushed headlong towards the gulf beneath. Now all men watching held their breath as his body travelled, and so great is the place and so high the leap that through the mist Eric seemed but as a big white stone hurled down the face of the arching waters.
He was gone, and the watchers rushed down to the foot of the pool, for there, if he rose at all, he must pass to the shallows. Swanhild could look no more, but sank upon the ground. The face of Gudruda was set like a stone with doubt and anguish. Ospakar saw and read the meaning, and he said to himself: "Now Odin grant that this youngling rise not again! for the maid loves him dearly, and he is too much a man to be lightly swept aside."
Eric struck the pool. Down he sank, and down and down—for the water falling from so far must almost reach the bottom of the pool before it can rise again—and he with it. Now he touched the bottom, but very gently, and slowly began to rise, and, as he rose, was carried along by the stream. But it was long before he could breathe, and it seemed to him that his lungs would burst. Still, he struggled up, striking great strokes with his legs.
"Farewell to Eric," said Asmund, "he will rise no more now."
But just as he spoke Gudruda pointed to something that gleamed, white and golden, beneath the surface of the current, and lo! the bright hair of Eric rose from the water, and he drew a great breath, shaking his head like a seal, and, though but feebly, struck out for the shallows that are at the foot of the pool. Now he found footing, but was swept over by the fierce current, and cut his forehead, and he carried that scar till his death. Again he rose, and with a rush gained the bank unaided and fell upon the snow.
Now people gathered about him in silence and wondering, for none had known so great a deed. And presently Eric opened his eyes and looked up, and found the eyes of Gudruda fixed on his, and there was that in them which made him glad he had dared the path of Golden Falls.
HOW ERIC WON THE SWORD WHITEFIRE
Now Asmund the priest bent down, and Eric saw him and spoke:
"Thou badest me to thy Yule-feast, lord, by yonder slippery road and I have come. Dost thou welcome me well?"
"No man better," quoth Asmund. "Thou art a gallant man, though foolhardy; and thou hast done a deed that shall be told of while skalds sing and men live in Iceland."
"Make place, my father," said Gudruda, "for Eric bleeds." And she loosed the kerchief from her neck and bound it about his wounded brow, and, taking the rich cloak from her body, threw it on his shoulders, and no man said her nay.
Then they led him to the hall, where Eric clothed himself and rested, and he sent back the thrall Jon to Coldback, bidding him tell Saevuna, Eric's mother, that he was safe. But he was somewhat weak all that day, and the sound of waters roared in his ears.
Now Ospakar and Groa were ill pleased at the turn things had taken; but all the others rejoiced much, for Eric was well loved of men and they had grieved if the waters had prevailed against his might. But Swanhild brooded bitterly, for Eric never turned to look on her.
The hour of the feast drew on and, according to custom, it was held in the Temple, and thither went all men. When they were seated in the nave of the Hof, the fat ox that had been made ready for sacrifice was led in and dragged before the altar on which the holy fire burned. Now Asmund the Priest slew it, amid silence, before the figures of the Gods, and, catching its blood in the blood-bowl, sprinkled the altar and all the worshippers with the blood-twigs. Then the ox was cut up, and the figures of the almighty Gods were anointed with its molten fat and wiped with fair linen. Next the flesh was boiled in the cauldrons that were hung over fires lighted all down the nave, and the feast began.
Now men ate, and drank much ale and mead, and all were merry. But Ospakar Blacktooth grew not glad, though he drank much, for he saw that the eyes of Gudruda ever watched Eric's face and that they smiled on each other. He was wroth at this, for he knew that the bait must be good and the line strong that should win this fair fish to his angle, and as he sat, unknowingly his fingers loosed the peace-strings of his sword Whitefire, and he half drew it, so that its brightness flamed in the firelight.
"Thou hast a wondrous blade there, Ospakar!" said Asmund, "though this is no place to draw it. Whence came it? Methinks no such swords are fashioned now."
"Ay, Asmund, a wondrous blade indeed. There is no other such in the world, for the dwarfs forged it of old, and he shall be unconquered who holds it aloft. This was King Odin's sword, and it is named Whitefire. Ralph the Red took it from King Eric's cairn in Norway, and he strove long with the Barrow-Dweller[*] before he wrenched it from his grasp. But my father won it and slew Ralph, though he had never done this had Whitefire been aloft against him. But Ralph the Red, being in drink when the ships met in battle, fought with an axe, and was slain by my father, and since then Whitefire has been the last light that many a chief's eyes have seen. Look at it, Asmund."
[*] The ghost in the cairn.
Now he drew the great sword, and men were astonished as it flashed aloft. Its hilt was of gold, and blue stones were set therein. It measured two ells and a half from crossbar to point, and so bright was the broad blade that no one could look on it for long, and all down its length ran runes.
"A wondrous weapon, truly!" said Asmund. "How read the runes?"
"I know not, nor any man—they are ancient."
"Let me look at them," said Groa, "I am skilled in runes." Now she took the sword, and heaved it up, and looked at the runes and said, "A strange writing truly."
"How runs it, housekeeper?" said Asmund.
"Thus, lord, if my skill is not at fault:—
"Whitefire is my name— Dwarf-folk forged me— Odin's sword was I— Eric's sword was I— Eric's sword shall I be— And where I fall there he must follow me."
Now Gudruda looked at Eric Brighteyes wonderingly, and Ospakar saw it and became very angry.
"Look not so, maiden," he said, "for it shall be another Eric than yon flapper-duck who holds Whitefire aloft, though it may very well chance that he shall feel its edge."
Now Gudruda bit her lip, and Eric burned red to the brow and spoke:
"It is ill, lord, to throw taunts like an angry woman. Thou art great and strong, yet I may dare a deed with thee."
"Peace, boy! Thou canst climb a waterfall well, I gainsay it not; but beware ere thou settest up thyself against my strength. Say now, what game wilt thou play with Ospakar?"
"I will go on holmgang with thee, byrnie-clad or baresark,[*] and fight thee with axe or sword, or I will wrestle with thee, and Whitefire yonder shall be the winner's prize."
[*] To a duel, usually fought, in mail or without it, on an island—"holm"—within a circle of hazel-twigs.
"Nay, I will have no bloodshed here at Middalhof," said Asmund sternly. "Make play with fists, or wrestle if ye will, for that were great sport to see; but weapons shall not be drawn."
Now Ospakar grew mad with anger and drink—and he grinned like a dog, till men saw the red gums beneath his lips.
"Thou wilt wrestle with me, youngling—with me whom no man has ever so much as lifted from my feet? Good! I will lay thee on thy face and whip thee, and Whitefire shall be the stake—I swear it on the holy altar-ring; but what hast thou to set against the precious sword? Thy poor hovel and its lot of land shall be all too little."
"I set my life on it; if I lose Whitefire let Whitefire slay me," said Eric.
"Nay, that I will not have, and I am master here in this Temple," said Asmund. "Bethink thee of some other stake, Ospakar, or let the game be off."
Now Ospakar gnawed his lip with his black fang and thought. Then he laughed aloud and spoke:
"Bright is Whitefire and thou art named Brighteyes. See now: I set the great sword against thy right eye, and, if I win the match, it shall be mine to tear it out. Wilt thou play this game with me? If thy heart fails thee, let it go; but I will set no other stake against my good sword."
"Eyes and limbs are a poor man's wealth," said Eric: "so be it. I stake my right eye against the sword Whitefire, and we will try the match to-morrow."
"And to-morrow night thou shalt be called Eric One-eye," said Ospakar—at which some few of his thralls laughed.
But most of the men did not laugh, for they thought this an ill game and a worst jest.
Now the feast went on, and Asmund rose from his high seat in the centre of the nave, on the left hand looking down from the altar, and gave out the holy toasts. First men drank a full horn to Odin, praying for triumph on their foes. Then they drank to Frey, asking for plenty; to Thor, for strength in battle; to Freya, Goddess of Love (and to her Eric drank heartily); to the memory of the dead; and, last of all, to Bragi, God of all delight. When this cup was drunk, Asmund rose again, according to custom, and asked if none had an oath to swear as to some deed that should be done.
For a while there was no answer, but presently Eric Brighteyes stood up.
"Lord," he said, "I would swear an oath."
"Set forth the matter, then," said Asmund.
"It is this," quoth Eric. "On Mosfell mountain, over by Hecla, dwells a Baresark of whom all men have ill knowledge, for there are few whom he has not harmed. His name is Skallagrim; he is a mighty man and he has wrought much mischief in the south country, and brought many to their deaths and robbed more of their goods: for none can prevail against him. Still, I swear this, that, when the days lengthen, I will go up alone against him and challenge him to battle, and conquer him or fall."
"Then, thou yellow-headed puppy-dog, thou shalt go with one eye against a Baresark with two," growled Ospakar.
Men took no heed of his words, but shouted aloud, for Skallagrim had plagued them long, and there were none who dared to fight with him any more. Only Gudruda looked askance, for it seemed to her that Eric swore too fast. Nevertheless he went up to the altar, and, taking hold of the holy ring, he set his foot on the holy stone and swore his oath, while the feasters applauded, striking their cups upon the board.
And after that the feast went merrily, till all men were drunk, except Asmund and Eric.
Now Eric went to rest, but first he rubbed his limbs with the fat of seals, for he was still sore with the beating of the waters, and they must needs be supple on the morrow if he would keep his eye. Then he slept sound, and rose strong and well, and going to the stream behind the stead, bathed, and anointed his limbs afresh. But Ospakar did not sleep well, because of the ale that he had drunk. Now as Eric came back from bathing, in the dark of the morning, he met Gudruda, who watched for his coming, and, there being none to see, he kissed her often; but she chided him because of the match that he had made with Ospakar and the oath that he had sworn.
"Surely," she said, "thou wilt lose thine eye, for this Ospakar is a giant, and strong as a troll; also he is merciless. Still, thou art a mighty man, and I shall love thee as well with one eye as with two. Oh! Eric, methought I should have died yesterday when thou didst leap from Wolf's Fang! My heart seemed to stop within me."
"Yet I came safely to shore, sweetheart, and well does this kiss pay for all I did. And as for Ospakar, if but once I get these arms about him, I fear him little, or any man, and I covet that sword of his greatly. But we can talk more certainly of these things to-morrow."
Now Gudruda clung to him and told him all that had befallen, and of the doings and words of Swanhild.
"She honours me beyond my worth," he said, "who am in no way set on her, but on thee only, Gudruda."
"Art thou so sure of that, Eric? Swanhild is fair and wise."
"Ay and evil. When I love Swanhild, then thou mayest love Ospakar."
"It is a bargain," she said, laughing. "Good luck go with thee in the wrestling," and with a kiss she left him, fearing lest she should be seen.
Eric went back to the hall, and sat down by the centre hearth, for all men slept, being still heavy with drink, and presently Swanhild glided up to him, and greeted him.
"Thou art greedy of deeds, Eric," she said. "Yesterday thou camest here by a path that no man has travelled, to-day thou dost wrestle with a giant for thine eye, and presently thou goest up against Skallagrim!"
"It seems that this is true," said Eric.
"Now all this thou doest for a woman who is the betrothed of another man."
"All this I do for fame's sake, Swanhild. Moreover, Gudruda is betrothed to none."
"Before another Yule-feast is spread, Gudruda shall be the wife of Ospakar."
"That is yet to be seen, Swanhild."
Now Swanhild stood silent for a while and then spoke: "Thou art a fool, Eric—yes, drunk with folly. Nothing but evil shall come to thee from this madness of thine. Forget it and pluck that which lies to thine hand," and she looked sweetly at him.
"They call thee Swanhild the Fatherless," he answered, "but I think that Loki, the God of Guile, was thy father, for there is none to match thee in craft and evil-doing, and in beauty one only. I know thy plots well and all the sorrow that thou hast brought upon us. Still, each seeks honour after his own manner, so seek thou as thou wilt; but thou shalt find bitterness and empty days, and thy plots shall come back on thine own head—yes, even though they bring Gudruda and me to sorrow and death."
Swanhild laughed. "A day shall dawn, Eric, when thou who dost hate me shalt hold me dear, and this I promise thee. Another thing I promise thee also: that Gudruda shall never call thee husband."
But Eric did not answer, fearing lest in his anger he should say words that were better unspoken.
Now men rose and sat down to meat, and all talked of the wrestling that should be. But in the morning Ospakar repented of the match, for it is truly said that ale is another man, and men do not like that in the morning which seemed well enough on yester eve. He remembered that he held Whitefire dear above all things, and that Eric's eye had no worth to him, except that the loss of it would spoil his beauty, so that perhaps Gudruda would turn from him. It would be very ill if he should chance to lose the play—though of this he had no fear, for he was held the strongest man in Iceland and the most skilled in all feats of strength—and, at the best, no fame is to be won from the overthrow of a deedless man, and the plucking out of his eye. Thus it came to pass that when he saw Eric he called to him in a big voice:
"Hearken, thou Eric."
"I hear thee, thou Ospakar," said Eric, mocking him, and people laughed; while Ospakar grinned angrily and said, "Thou must learn manners, puppy. Still, I shall find no honour in teaching thee in this wise. Last night we made a match in our cups, and I staked my sword Whitefire and thou thine eye. It would be bad that either of us should lose sword or eye; therefore, what sayest thou, shall we let it pass?"
"Ay, Blacktooth, if thou fearest; but first pay thou forfeit of the sword."
Now Ospakar grew very mad and shouted, "Thou wilt indeed stand against me in the ring! I will break thy back anon, youngster, and afterwards tear out thine eye before thou diest."
"It may so befall," answered Eric, "but big words do not make big deeds."
Presently the light came and thralls went out with spades and cleared away the snow in a circle two rods across, and brought dry sand and sprinkled it on the frozen turf, so that the wrestlers should not slip. And they piled the snow in a wall around the ring.
But Groa came up to Ospakar and spoke to him apart.
"Knowest thou, lord," she said, "that my heart bodes ill of this match? Eric is a mighty man, and, great though thou art, I think that thou shalt lout low before him."
"It will be a bad business if I am overthrown by an untried man," said Ospakar, and was troubled in his mind, "and it would be evil moreover to lose the sword. For no price would I have it so."
"What wilt thou give me, lord, if I bring thee victory?"
"I will give thee two hundred in silver."
"Ask no questions and it shall be so," said Groa.
Now Eric was without, taking note of the ground in the ring, and presently Groa called to her the thrall Koll the Half-witted, whom she had sent to Swinefell.
"See," she said, "yonder by the wall stand the wrestling shoes of Eric Brighteyes. Haste thee now and take grease, and rub the soles with it, then hold them in the heat of the fire, so that the fat sinks in. Do this swiftly and secretly, and I will give thee three pennies."
Koll grinned, and did as he was bid, setting back the shoes just as they were before. Scarcely was the deed done when Eric came in, and made himself ready for the game, binding the greased shoes upon his feet, for he feared no trick.
Now everybody went out to the ring, and Ospakar and Eric stripped for wrestling. They were clad in tight woollen jerkins and hose, and sheep-skin shoes were on their feet.
They named Asmund master of the game, and his word must be law to both of them. Eric claimed that Asmund should hold the sword Whitefire that was at stake, but Ospakar gainsaid him, saying that if he gave Whitefire into Asmund's keeping, Eric must also give his eye—and about this they debated hotly. Now the matter was brought before Asmund as umpire, and he gave judgment for Eric, "for," he said, "if Eric yield up his eye into my hand, I can return it to his head no more if he should win; but if Ospakar gives me the good sword and conquers, it is easy for me to pass it back to him unharmed."
Men said that this was a good judgment.
Thus then was the arm-game set. Ospakar and Eric must wrestle thrice, and between each bout there would be a space while men could count a thousand. They might strike no blow at one another with hand, or head, or elbow, foot or knee; and it should be counted no fall if the haunch and the head of the fallen were not on the ground at the self-same time. He who suffered two falls should be adjudged conquered and lose his stake.
Asmund called these rules aloud in the presence of witnesses, and Ospakar and Eric said that should bind them. Ospakar drew a small knife and gave it to his son Gizur to hold.
"Thou shalt soon know, youngling, how steel tastes in the eyeball," he said.
"We shall soon know many things," Eric answered.
Now they drew off their cloaks and stood in the ring. Ospakar was great beyond the bigness of men and his arms were clothed with black hair like the limbs of a goat. Beneath the shoulder joint they were almost as thick as a girl's thigh. His legs also were mighty, and the muscles stood out upon him in knotty lumps. He seemed a very giant, and fierce as a Baresark, but still somewhat round about the body and heavy in movement.
From him men looked at Eric.
"Lo! Baldur and the Troll!" said Swanhild, and everybody laughed, since so it was indeed; for, if Ospakar was black and hideous as a troll, Eric was beautiful as Baldur, the loveliest of the Gods. He was taller than Ospakar by the half of a hand and as broad in the chest. Still, he was not yet come to his greatest strength, and, though his limbs were well knit, they seemed but as a child's against the limbs of Ospakar. But he was quick as a cat and lithe, his neck and arms were white as whey, and beneath his golden hair his bright eyes shone like spears.
Now they stood face to face, with arms outstretched, waiting the word of Asmund. He gave it and they circled round each other with arms held low. Presently Ospakar made a rush and, seizing Eric about the middle, tried to lift him, but with no avail. Thrice he strove and failed, then Eric moved his foot and lo! it slipped upon the sanded turf. Again Eric moved and again he slipped, a third time and he slipped a third time, and before he could recover himself he was full on his back and fairly thrown.
Gudruda saw and was sad at heart, and those around her said that it was easy to know how the game would end.
"What said I?" quoth Swanhild, "that it would go badly with Eric were Ospakar's arms about him."
"All is not done yet," answered Gudruda. "Methinks Eric's feet slipped most strangely, as though he stood on ice."
But Eric was very sore at heart and could make nothing of this matter—for he was not overthrown by strength.
He sat on the snow and Ospakar and his sons mocked him. But Gudruda drew near and whispered to him to be of good cheer, for fortune might yet change.
"I think that I am bewitched," said Eric sadly: "my feet have no hold of the ground."
Gudruda covered her eyes with her hand and thought. Presently she looked up quickly. "I seem to see guile here," she said. "Now look narrowly on thy shoes."
He heard, and, loosening his shoe-string, drew a shoe from his foot and looked at the sole. The cold of the snow had hardened the fat, and there it was, all white upon the leather.
Now Eric rose in wrath. "Methought," he cried, "that I dealt with men of honourable mind, not with cheating tricksters. See now! it is little wonder that I slipped, for grease has been set upon my shoes—and, by Thor! I will cleave the man who did it to the chin," and as he said it his eyes blazed so dreadfully that folk fell back from him. Asmund took the shoes and looked at them. Then he spoke:
"Brighteyes tells the truth, and we have a sorry knave among us. Ospakar, canst thou clear thyself of this ill deed?"
"I will swear on the holy ring that I know nothing of it, and if any man in my company has had a hand therein he shall die," said Ospakar.
"That we will swear also," cried his sons Gizur and Mord.
"This is more like a woman's work," said Gudruda, and she looked at Swanhild.
"It is no work of mine," quoth Swanhild.
"Then go and ask thy mother of it," answered Gudruda.
Now all men cried aloud that this was the greatest shame, and that the match must be set afresh; only Ospakar bethought him of that two hundred in silver which he had promised to Groa, and looked around, but she was not there. Still, he gainsaid Eric in the matter of the match being set afresh.
Then Eric cried out in his anger that he would let the game stand as it was, since Ospakar swore himself free of the shameful deed. Men thought this a mad saying, but Asmund said it should be so. Still, he swore in his heart that, even if he were worsted, Eric should not lose his eye—no not if swords were held aloft to take it. For of all tricks this seemed to him the very worst.
Now Ospakar and Eric faced each other again in the ring, but this time the feet of Eric were bare.
Ospakar rushed to get the upper hold, but Eric was too swift for him and sprang aside. Again he rushed, but Eric dropped and gripped him round the middle. Now they were face to face, hugging each other like bears, but moving little. For a time things went thus, while Ospakar strove to lift Eric, but in nowise could he stir him. Then of a sudden Eric put out his strength, and they staggered round the ring, tearing at each other till their jerkins were rent from them, leaving them almost bare to the waist. Suddenly, Eric seemed to give, and Ospakar put out his foot to trip him. But Brighteyes was watching. He caught the foot in the crook of his left leg, and threw his weight forward on the chest of Blacktooth. Backward he went, falling with the thud of a tree on snow, and there he lay on the ground, and Eric over him.
Then men shouted "A fall! a fair fall!" and were very glad, for the fight seemed most uneven to them, and the wrestlers rolled asunder, breathing heavily.
Gudruda threw a cloak over Eric's naked shoulders.
"That was well done, Brighteyes," she said.
"The game is still to play, sweet," he gasped, "and Ospakar is a mighty man. I threw him by skill, not by strength. Next time it must be by strength or not at all."
Now breathing-time was done, and once more the two were face to face. Thrice Ospakar rushed, and thrice did Eric slip away, for he would waste Blacktooth's strength. Again Ospakar rushed, roaring like a bear, and fire seemed to come from his eyes, and the steam went up from him and hung upon the frosty air like the steam of a horse. This time Eric could not get away, but was swept up into that great grip, for Ospakar had the lower hold.
"Now there is an end of Eric," said Swanhild.
"The arrow is yet on the bow," answered Gudruda.
Blacktooth put out his might and reeled round and round the ring, dragging Eric with him. This way and that he twisted, and time on time Eric's leg was lifted from the ground, but so he might not be thrown. Now they stood almost still, while men shouted madly, for no such wrestling had been known in the southlands. Grimly they hugged and strove: forsooth it was a mighty sight to see. Grimly they hugged, and their muscles strained and cracked, but they could stir each other no inch.
Ospakar grew fearful, for he could make no play with this youngling. Black rage swelled in his heart. He ground his fangs, and thought on guile. By his foot gleamed the naked foot of Eric. Suddenly he stamped on it so fiercely that the skin burst.