Here and Beyond]]
copyright 1975, 2016 by asotir
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Table of Contents
THERE WAS A storm, and it was long ago. It gathered over shores where the sun burns the open sands, and it moved north. There the wind and waves were colder, and the water silver-gray, and through the water wove jagged islands all of ice, slick with streaming rain. And the storm drove deeper into the north. And there in its path beyond all lands, a land rose out of the depths of the sea, gleaming and dark; and that was Iceland.
Murkily, drawing from the sea, the storm drifted across the land: over pasture, rock, stream and sand. In the gray daylight much of the landscape could still be seen: reek of stream billowing from hot springs, yellowish pastures scarred by braiding streams, desolate choked expanses of black and moss-green lava, sand, gravel, ash. That was not a land of little men but of risen rock, volcanoes, falls, mountains and wastes: an all but empty land, unbounded in its carelessness.
The storm passed above upturned boats of fishermen shining like wooden whales stranded beyond the tide-marks; it passed above the rare, distant mounds of sod that were the farmers’ halls. It crossed the rocky wastes up to the high valleys. Heavily the storm hemmed in the hills and alpine fells beyond. Slowly the rain wet and laved the faces of those fells, basalt, granite, iceclad, as severe and as untrodden as the moon’s thin face. There across the highest peaks, over mountaintops, gorges and volcanoes alike, lay a mighty glacier, like a small kingdom. Land of frost-giants, not of men.
The rain gathered in gray pools upon the glacial ice, ice a hundred thousand years old; as old almost as the island itself. And the rainwater rose above the tops of the hollows and spilt down across the glacier’s steps, down past caves used by dying outlaws and runaway thralls, down to meet the braiding streams, down to run again into the cold dark sea.
* * *
FEW WENT ABROAD that even. Only one shape could be seen to move, tiny and weak-seeming from the heights. That was the shape of a man; and that man struggled to haul a small cart along a muddy, stony track out of the fells. The man’s legs gleamed all wet with mud, and his cloak was shabby. Nought of the face could be seen save for the braids of a long gray bear angling beneath the broad brim of his hat. The man’s form was stooped and twisted, and the hands that gripped the harness leads were cracked and spotted and misshapen. But still there showed between the swollen knuckles cordlike sinews that once had used great power.
The cart groaned and clattered as it rocked along behind him. On both of its ox-hide sides alongside a crude likeness of a raven were bound odd things of iron and bone, ladles and knives and charms of stone and amber and colored glass.
At length in the murk the old one halted and shrugged free of the harness. He straightened, and kneaded with cracked wet knuckles the small of his back. He had an old, old face, scarred and shattered like a ledge of rock between the tide-marks after too many hard winters. The broad nose was broken, and one eye was gone, but the wide mouth was turned in a sly grin.
The path there ran by a stream that cut deep and jagged through sand and stone. Upon the far side the stone rose sharply from the bubbling lips of the stream to a rude and unsafe peak some nine ells above the bank’s top. On one face of the basalt, down by the grass, some passing man once had scratched the sign of Thor’s hammer and a few faded runes: maybe it had been a curse, or maybe he had wanted to lure back lost luck. High above it, on the thin stone peak, was perched a lone and slender shape. And that was the shape of a woman.
She stood quite still upon the stone: and she looked skyward. Her long, nightdark hair, heavy with water, fell down her back and over the breast of her sodden gown. She wore no cloak. Her body was straight and her hands hung moveless at her flanks. She did not move, nor look down about her. It was as if she too were of stone, like the basalt growing out of the hem of her gown.
For awhile the old one did not speak; then, putting his hands to his face, he shouted up to the woman: and she answered. The old one shouted, but the woman answered in a low voice all but lost in the rain’s soft groan, as if she cared not whether he heard her.
‘Ho, mistress! Are you woman or shield-maiden up there so high?’
‘Where are you bound?’
‘I am looking for Hof. I seek Olaf, for he is said to be a godi with a good eye for the worth of things.’
‘Olaf is away.’
‘What of Olaf’s new wife, then? Men often look, but women often buy.’
‘What do you have?’
‘Oh, I have many goodly things. Goods for offerings, fair spears from abroad, sharp swords, and charms with Thor’s hammer.’
‘Go away. Gudruda will buy nought of that.’
‘This is a hard word of yours. Still, what of you, High One? Have you need of nothing?’
‘I have no pennies to spend. Go away, old man. Look to some other stead, there is no need of you at Hof.’
To this the old one had no word at first. Then in a lower voice he said, ‘You speak as though all the folk there are dead, mistress.’
She shrugged. ‘Soon enough, maybe.’
The old man stooped and gathered up the leads of his cart. The little cart rocked and groaned and clattered, but soon enough the sound was lost in the rain and the rushing of the stream. In time the old pedlar and his cart faded into the rainy darkness. Then it was night, and all that could be seen were the hills and fells black and shapeless against the dull dark sky.
For a long while afterward the woman stayed on the stone. The rain was soft and heavy, but chill. Had it flashed and roared and riven, then men would have said it was the sound of Thor’s hammer whenas it crushed the skulls of mountain giants; had it soothed and caressed, then would they have named it the seed of Frey; if it had moaned and wailed, then would they have called it Freyja’s tears. But this was only rain, and it fell down in the night.
The woman’s shoulders rose and fell. Had the winds been strong, then she would surely have been thrown off that slight, slippery perch and dashed upon the dark sharp rocks below. Slowly she bore out her arms to either side, palm-upwards, so that the water streamed off her sleeves. She stretched out her arms, stiff and shuddering, for she held them there long. Her face she bore back even farther, until it was into the very face of the starless night she stared, blinking as the raindrops pelted her eyes. Then she crouched down and took hold of the stone with both her hands and, very carefully, began to clamber down the far side.
A goodly pony was tied in the slight shelter of the rocks; its shaggy many was thick and wet as grass-roots. The woman stroked the pony’s long muzzle and climbed into the hide saddle, awkward against the gown’s sodden weight. She sat loosely in the saddle and let the reins trail from her wan thin fingers. Behind pony and rider the rocks fell away into the mountains and were lost. They went away from the stream, down away from the hills, and for awhile the woman rode aimlessly, as if she too were searching. In time though, she let the reins fall looselier, and the pony fared on as if it knew whither it should go.
Now it was not dark but black. Wayfarers passing within four steps of each other would not have been seen. The rain fell more heavily, and it did not groan but sang with a weighty rhythm. The woman rocked to and fro in the saddle, her head low, the long, wet hair swaying slowly forth and back. Then a voice called out in the darkness, and she raised her head.
She halted the pony and sat upright, listening. The rain fell. Then the voice called out again. The woman looked from side to side sharply.
Again the voice hailed the darkness. It was closer now, and the woman seemed to sigh, and she urged her pony to go toward the sound of the voice.
The shouts grew out of blindness. It was a high-pitched man’s voice. It called out, ‘Swanhild, Swanhild!’ It was very near now.
The woman rode on, and a dim shape broke from the rainy black. ‘I am here, Erik.’
There was only one man there. Swiftly he turned in his saddle: the song of the rain had hidden the sound of her pony’s approach.
‘Swanhild?’ he ventured, coming nearer. ‘Is it you? Where have you been?’
She smiled unwarmly. ‘Did you hunt me, then?’
‘Why else should I fare abroad on such a night? We were all worried at what might have befallen you. Gudruda asked about you.’
That was a young man, and a lean and strong, with the beginnings of a dirty yellow beard sprouting from his chin. Over his left shoulder he wore a big embroidered wool cloak: this he offered her, but she would not have it. She put her pony in beside his, and together they rode down the muddy trail. They rode awhiles in silence. Swanhild went ahead.
When they had come aways, Erik asked, somewhat warily, ‘What were you doing out here in the night, Swanhild? Did you look for your father?’
She looked back at him. ‘Has he come back?’
‘No, not when I set out. All the men speak of it. The womenfolk grow fearful. Five nights now have we looked for his homecoming. Do you think maybe this storm held him back?’
‘This rain would not hold Olaf up.’
‘So Thorgrim said. But he also said—’ Erik lowered his voice now, so that it was all but lost in the rain—‘he said it may have come to blows. He does not trust Njal to hold to his oath.’
‘Nor do I.’
‘Then do you think it might have run to fighting? While Thorold lived there was peace; now, if there is a feud—Do you think truly it might run to that, Swanhild?’
‘Whatever may come, you can be sure my father will be equal to any deeds of those men of Njal’s, Erik. You need not fear.’
‘I am not afraid. But I would not seek it either.’
‘That is the word of a wise man,’ she answered. ‘But Thorgrim I think is not so wise. This afternoon I watched him sharpen his axe and put a new nail in his spear: he was singing then. If only your beard were long enough to braid maybe you would be unwise too.’
He had nought to say to that.
At length they reached a cluster of long low masses: those grew out of the dark side of a hill. Side by side the halls grew out from the earth. Swanhild and Erik rode through a gate in the turf-covered stone home-fence and came into the muddy courtyard, or garth, between the buildings. They came to a halt before a storeshed and there hung up their bridles and hide saddles. The ponies they fed hay, then let wander free.
‘You know, Swanhild,’ offered Erik then, ‘My mother has been very worried over Olaf. She grows fearful lest some harm may have befallen him. You would not say aught to trouble her, would you? I hoped for this time to ask you, now we are alone. Could you say some words to her to cheer her? That would be great comfort to her, above all if you say them.’
She walked out of the shed and waited for him to close and tie the doors again. ‘Yes, I will do that, Erik.’
‘Yes. I promise.’
‘That is good, then. It is a kindly act.’ They walked along the stones set in the mud toward the door of the main hall. There Swanhild stopped.
‘I have just now remembered my need. Go you on in and I will follow in a moment.’
‘Yes, of course,’ he muttered. He stepped down into the stone well before the door and opened it. A swirl of lighted smoke and the buzz of many voices girt him and drew him in; and as swiftly ended with the shutting of the door.
Swanhild went past the hall: came to the stone wall of the pen. There she sat and stayed for some minutes, her head held low. Below her the hogs nestled deep in the mud against one another for warmth, scarcely in the shelter of the birchbark overhang. Swanhild sat and watched them, the chill rain streaming down her hair and the back of her gown. The wind shifted then, and she shivered. She stepped down off the wall and walked back to the hall. There, before her at the bottom of the stone steps leading into the ground, stood the main door on the threshold-stone.
That was a door deep-girthed and of solid oak, carved richly with shapes of beasts and warriors and patterns of mingling loops and horns and paws. It was old, that door: rare and prized in Iceland, where the only trees were stunted birch and willow unfit for building. Hardbein Oxen-Hand had let it be hewn and worked in Norway, in the North More. There Hardbein had lived as a landed man under King Hunthjof; but King Harald Hairfair slew King Hunthjof and laid the More-shires under him.
Hardbein Oxen-Hand then had that choice, to live under King Harald and be his man without odal-rights and pay the king a tax each year, or leave Norway. Hardbein chose to leave, and went west. Many others chose as Hardbein had; that was the founding of Iceland, and called the Age of Settlement.
Hardbein took all his goods in three broad ships, and sailed along the coast of the new land until he saw what pleased him: cast overboard this door and the highseat roof-trees, like as many others did. The highseat washed up at one spot, and the door at another. Hardbein Oxen-hand then had fire borne all about the land in between, and took it for his own. On the upward right corner the door still bore the blade-mark of that battle wherein Hardbein’s brother Sigurd had been slain, when King Harald’s men had come to More. Not alone had Sigurd died.
Swanhild took hold the ring with her chill wet hand and pushed her great-grandfather’s door inward on its great wooden hinges. The bluster of the night stepped into the hall with the young dark woman in its midst, and the draft blew up smoke from the open fires, making many blink and cough and curse. But then she swung the door close behind her, and they looked up and knew her.
A SHOUT SOUNDED when she entered, and a big bearlike man came nigh. He stood so tall his head seemed to duck beneath the rafters, and his face was ugly with the marks of years’ striving against stone, wave, wind and man. In his thickly-braided beard streaks of gray shone amongst the yellow-brown: a great-limbed, big-bellied, horn-in-hand man he was and had ever been, that wore his axe by his side even here in a friend’s hall. He was Thorgrim Thorleik’s son, and he was foremost of all of Olaf’s thingmen. He loomed over the blackhaired shivering woman, his great body shutting out the light and warmth of the open fire beyond.
‘If you were not your father’s daughter, it would go the worse for you,’ he growled. ‘Where are your manners, that you do not serve your father’s guests with mead? You have strange ways, Swanhild: that is the Finn’s-blood for sure. Saw you aught of your father out there?’
Swanhild shook her head; pushed gently past him to seek the fire’s warmth. The heavy, bitter smoke, ill-dispelled through the smoke-hole in the roof, stung the girl’s eyes to tears and blinkings.
‘Take you mead to fire your breast!’ Thorgrim said, but she shook her head. ‘Ah yes, I had forgotten: Olaf’s daughter will have no drink! Yet that was never Olaf’s way.’
He stood behind her and gazed into the ale-horn, an ornate and rune-wrought ox-horn. ‘Why did he not take me along with him,’ he grumbled. ‘I am not so old I could not have matched a few of those luckless wights. And where went you, if that is not too bold a question?’
She cast her eyes back at him briefly: dark slanting eyes with long curling lashes: Finn’s-eyes: the eyes of her mother. ‘Hrafnarroddar rode I: looked down on the Hrafn.’
Now Thorgrim pulled on his beard and gaped. ‘What foolishness! Know you not that the holes of Svinafell hold outlaws, and berserks and dead men’s ghosts besides? Only Odin astride Hlidskjalf could know what you might have run across.’
‘I met with nought,’ she answered, shuddering over the baking heat of red embers.
‘Ox with two legs, Thorgrim, will you stop badgering the girl and look upon her state? Her clothes are wet through. If she does not sicken of this to the death it will be through no deed of yours!’
That was a short broad woman, that had shouldered her way from the far side of the hall. Her gown was stained with flour and dried fish-stew; her braided yellow hair was mostly bound beneath a wimple. From her neck swung a small brass charm in the shape of a square cross, and at her waist swung the big bundle of the house-keys. That was Gudruda, the hall’s mistress and Olaf’s second wife. She hemmed in the slender Swanhild with her bulk, fussing over her state. Then the girl turned upon her, and Gudruda left off.
‘There my dear, you look wretched; even the braids of your hair have come undone,’ she muttered, somewhat warily. Over the girl’s thin shoulders she drew a thick woolen blanket. ‘I have just seen to Erik, but you are in even a worse state. Come along and we will see what can be done.—Rannveig, put a kettle of broth over the fire for Swanhild.’
Gudruda tugged at Swanhild’s arm: the girl yielded, and let herself be led down past the long-fire to the household beds beyond, that were built against the wood-covered walls, beneath the low-falling rafters. Gudruda sat Swanhild down upon the bed and drew the linen curtain: then began peeling off the girl’s sodden gown and undershifts. Those she gathered into a great dripping ball and handed to one of the maids, that she should hang them on the chains beside the open fire.
Swanhild made a tent of the large blanket and huddled wordless on the bed. Gudruda brought closer a lamp: iron bowl of fish-oil with a moss wick, set on a tapering iron rod of curling bands. She thrust the point into the earthen floor where it would give the best light. Rannveig came in softly with a bowl of hot broth, that the young woman took and drank. Gudruda put another blanket about her shoulders and rubbed her dry. Swanhild set the empty bowl onto the floor and sat still and yielding in her stepmother’s hands. Now Gudruda took the long, thick hair into her hands and gently wrung streams of water out of it. She took up another towel and began rubbing Swanhild’s head, halting every now and then to see how her work sped. Swanhild sat gazing at the weave of the linen curtain, her eyes black, giving back no light, like two cracks in the glaciers on the fells in the dim light of a new and frosty moon.
‘You are too thin, surely, stepdaughter. What man will sue for so thin a maid? And that you go abroad on such wild nights as this makes your looks no better. In this will I counsel you: so my mother bade me. Eat for a whole month fresh butter; eat for the second month pork; and in the third month eat you cream-cakes. Then will your form wax round and pleasing to a man. It is no mark of health, this thinness of yours.’
Sitting so, Swanhild in her nakedness seemed some stark thing from the barren fells, foreign and unsettling here within this hall filled with warm smoke, happy smell of burning wood and peat, and the richly rounded carvings of the wainscoting. Her flesh, deathly blue-white from the long winter’s lack of sun and the coldness of the rain, took on none of the golden glow of the lamp before her. That chill whiteness was broken only by the darkness about her eyes and her hair, deeper than night, and the untold riddle of the place crowded between her legs, whereof only a few of the curling strands might be seen.
There was little of womanly roundness about Swanhild’s body, as Gudruda well had said: no round folds of butter-fat, no heaviness of milk in those flat, peaked breasts, no wide rolling hips to bring forth many children. But even so that was a woman’s body, and no man would have gainsaid that. The boyishness about the hips and thin limbs only made the deeper femaleness lurking there all the more sharply felt and longed-for. Her leanness held the comeliness of the glacier’s ice. None would call her a handsome woman: but in the right light, holding her head and shoulders even so, she was lovely, dreadfully lovely. And yet that loveliness too, was pitiless, and made even those who liked her somewhat ill at ease. And as for suitors, she had had none since long years back.
‘How silly, to be abroad on such a night. Whatever put in you such wildness? We were worried to forgetfulness. As if your father’s being away were not enough for us to think on! What would he have done, had he been here to know of this?’
‘Understood,’ Swanhild said.
‘Yes, so speaks a wayward child. Thorgrim said you looked for your father. Did you—did you see aught of him?’
The older woman sighed. ‘Then you think all will be well?’
‘What do you mean? Oh Swanhild, do you think it came to blows?’
‘No,’ answered Swanhild, shaking her hair free. ‘I do not think that likely.’
‘Ah, I am so glad that you say that! You are a wise girl, Swanhild. You know your father best of us all. I have prayed many times for Olaf’s safekeeping: I am sure my words were heeded. After all, godi Njal Thoroldsson is said to be a man clever at law, not a fighter—and he holds to the Christ as well. If sheep are missing, then I hold it likeliest they were drowned by a burst of the Jokull or mired in the Skeidararsands rather than stolen. It is the hardness of our men, and that they are unknowing of the Christ. Olaf did not warrant those battles. He and Njal are two peacebearers, and I am sure they have agreed to atonement between them for the wounded and dead. Yes, maybe they hold now to a new friendship, like that one held before between Olaf and Thorold.’
The younger woman turned, looking from her slanting eyes into her stepmother’s simple broad face, that held the lines of all these nights’ worry. For his second wife Olaf Sigurdarson had picked a middle-aged, capable woman, one handsome enough to match his standing. Her first husband, Erik’s father, had been slain in a feud three winters earlier. When she had first come to the household early that winter, then there had been bickerings and bitter words between Gudruda and Swanhild: then Olaf had brought them to peace.
Folk spoke of Gudruda as a good cook, kindly mistress, and a capable handler of accounts, good with sums and people but not too close-handed with either. She was far-told for her open-handedness with guests, and most of all when wandering gangrel women came to the stead; with them she was kindliest of all, and was much praised for it. She also swore by the Christ, and that was as yet no common thing in Iceland.
Swanhild rose, shrugged off the blankets and let the long heavy braid of her hair fall down into the slight hollow between her breasts. Glossy and deep as night was that hair: for that reason she was sometimes called Swanhild the Black. She knelt and pulled out a chest from beneath the bed: drew forth an undershift of light blue linen, sea-borne stuff, very finely woven, and a dark purple dress.
‘Oh yes: I am sure you are right, stepmother,’ she said as she dressed. ‘Once my father told me of a time when he was young and someone had stolen one of his sheep. From what he told me, I think that was a sickly lamb not worth much: still, he went to see the man to see what sort of atonement he might get for it. He went alone, and took no men with him; but he bore along his sword and spear. Now the thief was the elder of two brethren: they had but come from the Hebrides, and both of them had the name of men who liked to have their own way in whatever they set their minds to.—Maybe you have heard the tale?—There had been three suits against these men, and two had been dropped because of flaws in the proceedings, and the third was uncollected. The elder was gift-named Gap-Tooth because of the tooth he lacked in the front of his mouth. To him my father went: but Gap-Tooth stood in his own field with his brother beside him. He would not gainsay the theft but rather boasted of it, and spoke of how sweet that lamb had tasted. Then he gave my father three pennies of bronze and said that was atonement enough.
‘My father took the coins, and was very mild about it. He agreed that that should be compensation enough. Then he gave two of the coins back to Gap-Tooth: who frowned and did not know the cause of that. Olaf my father said then, ‘These two are naming-gift from me to you, for I have a new name for you. No longer will you be called Gap-Tooth but instead Gap-Brow.’ With that he took out his spear and hurled it between the thief’s eyes; burst open his brains and killed him on the spot. Then said my father to the dead man’s brother, ‘I am sorry for that, but you can surely see I had no choice after he boasted how sweet my lamb tasted. But I am not a hard man, and will give you fair atonement for your brother’s life.’ Then he threw down the third penny in the dirt at the foot of Gap-Brow’s brother. Of course he had to kill him too, but there were no suits against my father for that; and greatly grew his standing by this deed. So you see, Gudruda stepmother, what sort of a man it is you have wedded,’ the girl ended, with a slight smile that showed her teeth. ‘There is nought you need worry over. Olaf was ever a man able to fend for himself: and those were hard men, mankillers; and these of Njal’s are only womanish Christ’s-men, after all.’
Thereat Swanhild pinned the second brooch to her purple gown and shoved the chest back beneath the bed with her shoe. She went out through the curtain to the warmth by the long-fire. Behind her Gudruda sat very still upon the bed; and the starkest look of dread spread over her face.
Round the long-fire and over the earthen floor ran the hall-benches, where sat most of the household and the guests. From the highseat to the northern gable and back to the main, or men’s door, the men were sitting; and they drank mead and told tales and verses. Thorgrim sat beside the highseat at chess with Skeggi Einarson, another of Olaf’s followers. On the soft leather board the ornate bone pieces were moved across squares of stitched hide. That was Thorgrim’s own set, that he bore rolled-up behind his saddle wherever he went. Now Thorgrim grinned and made a move: Skeggi looked down sharply, worry in his brow. The women sat beyond the highseat, on a raised flooring of wooden planks: some knitted, and others softly gossiped; one young woman held a bairn to her swollen breast. Quieter they all held themselves this night than was their wont. Between the groups of men and women the oaken highseat, crawling with carvings and rich-wrought runes, reared up big and empty.
Swanhild sat apart from the rest, on the red-and-black lava at the fireside. Below her the cinder-strewn rock hemmed in the long pit of the fire, warm to her feet; the ruddy glow of the low flames gave scant color to her face, sharp and bleak as bone. The men and women’s talk blended round her in a mild buzz. Among the men sat young Erik Gudrudarson, new-dressed in dry garb, watching the play of Thorgrim. When he glanced her way Swanhild looked away. The heat of the flames rose drowsily into her face, causing her to narrow the flattened slants of her eyes. They were strange hard eyes, that those who liked her not called, behind her back, ‘thief’s-eyes.’
A knot of children sat on the earth not far from her, clustered about the knees of Orvar-Odd. The old man sat with his back against the wall, swords and shields and axes pegged on one side, pots and kettles and ladles on the other. He was telling tales to the children, of witches and giants and trolls, and unhappy ghosts that rode the rafters in the winter-nights.
The air rose shuddering from the layers of coals and peat-squares, streaming upward with orange-red arms, to stroke the big, blackened soapstone cauldrons. Hung upon chains above the fire, Swanhild’s dripping shift and gown looked like two ill-formed, dream-wrought ravens: Odin’s ravens, Huginn and Muninn. The blue smoke rose to weave flickering mazy patterns upon the rafter-shadowed turf ceiling. So thick and snug was that turf, that it let in none of the cold or wind or wet from without: the lazy smoke twirled in answer only to those gusts that entered through the smoke-hole and the gable at the hall’s end. Old was this hall now: many years had gone by since Hardbein had built it here. The roots of the turf dangled through the roof-bark, and the rafters creaked with the weight of the rare winter snows. Soon it would need to be built anew, out of timber shipped from the high forests of Norway, and peat-bricks from the bogs nearby.
From time to time a man or woman would feel the urge and slip out the women’s-door at the back of the hall to go to the privy: then the silence washed like a sea-wave down the hall, and all eyes sought the shadows thrown across the main door. But it did not open. Then the talk began again, from the men on one side and the women on the other, and wove like drowsy land-winds over Olaf’s daughter’s head.
‘And did you know,’ said Orvar-Odd, ‘in the old nights men were not buried in the earth in howes? Then was there never need to wait until the ground was soft at winter’s end, as Njal had to wait to bury his father Thorold.’
‘Then how did they do their dead ones?’ asked one little girl. She played with the braided ends of her bright yellow hair as she lay on the floor.
‘With fire,’ answered Orvar-Odd. Gently he stroked the silver flax of his scanty beard. ‘Yes, and most of all was it done when a hero fell. Then it was a great thing. Then they should bear away his corpse from the wold-trough and lay it upon a bier. He should be new-garbed in armor and sea-borne robes of fine workmanship: they should comb out his hair and braid his beard, and put bright ribands in his hair above his brows. Beside him went food and drink, drinking-horn, shield, sword and axe. Even gold they laid there, the down-stuff of worms. And if his death were fair, and if he had been mighty in his life, then should they slay his favorite horse in offering to Odin, Lord of Hosts, and lay it there beside him. That was for the Hel-ride.
‘And all this was done on a ship or ship-wrought ring of stones nearby the waves. Thus could he cross the rivers too high to ford. And then they would pick out one of his concubines to die with him and give him company. Sometimes she went willingly; else they must pick her out by lot. And they dressed her in fine bright linens, and put rings on her arms and blossoms in her hair, and gave her ale that was spell-wrought and had no pain, and cut her throat there.
‘Then should they invoke all the gods, but most of all the king of the gallows: Odin, that has his pick of all those men fallen in battle or weapon-slain. Little he cared for us, old blind ones or weaklings dead of sickness. So the bier was set afire, and they made blood-offerings. And as high as the reek of that blaze rose into heaven, so great they said had been the heart of that man in his life.
‘Of course, that was long ago,’ said old Orvar-Odd to the little children—‘and far away as well, in Norway and the Swede-realm where forests grow as thick as grass. Here in Iceland we are too wood-poor to do any such thing. And anyway it went out of use long ago. Now they build up howes to hold a man down—you know of them, they are the grass mounds on the Svinafell. And it seems to me that few are the men nowanights that die seemly deaths for such an end. Only the lucky get what they want from life, children, and even they are far from happy. The life of a man starts shiny and bright from his mother, with a cry; but it ends in silence, dry and wrinkly and wormy.’
‘But what about the Valkyries?’ asked the little girl. ‘Yes, and the heroes!’ the others clamored, so that Orvar-Odd smiled, and let nod his head.
‘Yes, there were heroes, favored of the gods. And the greatest of these, outside of Sigurd Signison, were the champions of King Hrolf. Those men did not die in their beds, be sure! Their deeds are not unremembered; nor were they overlooked by the High Ones. They knew their ends, and faced them. And so in their last battle, fought they as they had never done in life before, and they great fighters all.
‘And above them, over feast-field of wolves and the fiery billow’s-steeds, would gather the Choosers: deathless maidens on winged mounts, byrnie-clad and shaft-wielding. They obeyed none but the Hanged One, old gray Odin himself: and so gave the win or withheld it, broke hosts and gave men battle-fury so that they knew not what they fought.
‘Of course, those fierce maids come not to Iceland. But long ago, in the firths of Norway, in the Dane-land, in the Swede-realm, they were common as pedlars. They gave luck to their heroes and at times, in troll-ridden forest glades, put on the guise of Swan-maidens, and bathed in icy pools at midnight. Then would they rise and put on again their mail, and fare to battle. An when a hero’s time was done, then would he be borne up heavenward by the maidens, over Bifrost the bridge from Middle-earth, into Asgard where the High Ones dwelt. And there would he feast with all the others, and eat boar-flesh, and do battle in hosts each day, and so be slain. Yet evenward they rose again, and came in fellowship again to Odin’s hall, Valhalla. Mighty kings and jarls led them: such as every hero you have ever heard the tale of. Nor was there pain there, though a thousand died each day. So it is said they took their pleasure at their lord’s command, and readied themselves for the last of all battles, the Battle of Vigrid’s Field…’
THE SOUND OF Orvar-Odd’s voice lingered between the high rafters of the hall amidst the smoke and fluttering moths. Even those children, usually so talkative, were still: for these were wondrous and impossible tales to them, of great battles and treasure-taking; and all they had known were sheep-shearing, and cow-milking, and taking in the hay in summer.
Raven-headed Swanhild lay back against the dark heavy stone, lifting her angular face toward the ceiling. The thick black braid fell in a curling loop down round her long slender throat, past the brooches over the front of her gown, moving quite slightly with the rise and play of her breasts. Her long eyes were slits, and through the curls of heat her face was seen to shudder; yet her lips were closed. Strangely still and calm had she borne herself that night: as if the soul of her had been drained out in the bleakness of the storm, and only the body come again to her father’s hall. Now her eyes were shut heavy, as if she slept: her head was fallen back and showed her nostrils, wide-seeming and dark. Then she sat bolt-upright and her eyes went open. A sudden heavy knocking sounded from the main door.
Three times the knock sounded, and leaped loudly down the hall’s length.
The men stood to their feet. Thorgrim laid his hands upon his axe-haft. Others also took down weapons from the wall. Rannveig, one of the thrall-women, gathered the children and took them grudging back deeper into the hall.
The great door swung outwards, and in leapt wind and chill and wet, blowing cinders and smoke from the firebed: and a great dark shape bundled in, manlike and fierce.
It stepped across the threshold-stone and pulled shut the door with a bang. The moan of the wind went out with that bang; so that, for a moment, there was quiet. The stranger stood bent over, face lowered, water dripping off his cloak and hair. Then he lifted up his head and looked them over there with a dark and angry eye.
‘Drink,’ he growled. ‘Drink and shelter from the storm!’
He was not tall, but he was broad: and that not all fat either. His dirty hair was dark with wet; his unbraided beard straggled down his chest. He shook himself, and the water flew from his hair and beard, as if he had been some fierce mongrel Dog upon two legs. He slapped his cloak upon the floor and stepped up to the long-fire. The men gave way for him, wordless at his boldness. The women stood far back, close together in a circle, the children peering out from between their skirts. Only Olaf’s daughter did not move at the stranger’s coming, but only sat, watching him with a faint wonder in her eyes.
The man leaned out his bulk over the ember-bed, wringing out his beard with two meaty hands. The water fell hissing in the fire, and waverings of steam swept up about his face. As he rubbed his hands and blew out breath he looked at Swanhild where she sat below him. She said nought, but met his look.
‘Hello, stranger,’ said Thorgrim behind, ‘if you are not an outlaw or enemy of this hall.’
The stranger threw back his hairy head. ‘Have you no ale?’ he asked. Big as Thorgrim was, he seemed a weakling beside the stranger. ‘Have you no mead to warm my belly? By the Christ, it is chill out there!’
Swanhild stood, went to the cask, and filled a cup. She bore it to the stranger: he took it and threw it back into his gaping mouth: smacked his lips, loosed a big belch.
‘Oh, but that’s good!’ he groaned, turning so that his buttocks might get some portion of the warmth. Catching Thorgrim’s mistrustful stare, he barked a short laugh. ‘No, I’m no outlaw, if that’s what you’re so fearful of!—Not yet at least: after the Assembly this summer, well, then I’ll see if I’ve any luck left still! My name is Hrap: come from the West Firths, and before that the Hebrides saw my birth. Don’t ask my father’s name, for you know as much of him as I! Do you have dry linens, or is guest-kindliness not your way?’
He squatted down at the edge of the fire and held his arms forth flat in front of him. The glow of the embers made his skin all coppery and reddish, as if it had been scalded. From beneath his brows he stared at Swanhild. She held again her seat by the firebed, somewhat farther down.
‘I left my pony in your stables and gave him hay,’ he said: ‘I’ll work to pay it if you want. Have I missed my goal, or are you Olaf Sigurdarson?’
Thorgrim shook his head, and sat again beside the highseat. ‘Olaf is away. I am chief of his supporters: Thorgrim is my name. Yonder sits Olaf’s wife Gudruda.’
‘And she, the black proud one, who is she?’
Swanhild looked away.
‘That is Swanhild, Olaf’s-daughter. What did you come here, Hrap, to seek of Olaf?’
‘What do I want?’ The big man laughed mournfully. ‘Some would call it a small thing: only my life, that’s all. As for this night, well, I would have stopped before, had I found one who would shelter me. When will Olaf return?’
‘That we know not. Soon is my wish. What have you to do with him?’
‘Hrap shrugged. ‘You look a man to understand. From the tales they tell of Olaf Sigurdarson, I deemed him the sort of man that would offer me haven. And I guessed the East might be a place of better luck for me. I slew a man back there.’
‘That is serious.’ Thorgrim frowned. ‘Murder or manslaughter?’
‘It was no secret deed, if that is what you ask!’
‘Was he kin or foe?’
‘No kin of mine. I’ve no kin in this land; anyway, not yet.’
What name bore he? I mind me of one who spoke of a recent killing—a pedlar that came by here.’
‘Gisli was his name.’
Hrap nodded over the coals.
‘Aye, I recall it now,’ mused Thorgrim. ‘Fornald is a mighty chieftain in those parts, man. He is not often thwarted in his wishes. Wasn’t Gisli his only son?’
‘Two others has he, but bastard-born, and ill-liked.’
‘Aye, those are powerful folk. How was the killing done?’
‘Fairly and in equal battle. Gisli attacked me.’
‘Hm. That is not the tale I heard; but if it is true, then your course should be a simple one: dig up Gisli’s corpse and summon him in suit for the attack. Then Fornald will not have the right to sue you for compensation. Still, you ask for Olaf’s aid in this, not mine. You are welcome to stay here until he returns if Gudruda gives her leave.’
‘I do not give it!’
Gudruda had come down the longfire to where she might overhear their words: but at the saying of the intruder’s name she had stiffened. Now she stepped forth, picked the wet cloak up off the stone and held it out to Hrap.
‘Thorgrim, you may have forgotten who this man is, but I have not. Hrap he names himself, but I think he is better known as Killing-Hrap! Three poor men has he slain in the West Firths, and when Gisli Fornaldarson came to ask for atonement on behalf of the widows, Killing-Hrap gave him guest-cup, then slew him when he had put weapons aside! It is no wonder to me he might find shelter in no other hall. Go your way now, Killing-Hrap: you’ll find no shelter here!’
Hrap muttered, standing over Gudruda like a frost-giant above a dwarf. Then with one heavy hand he reached down and took up the little brass cross that hung from her neck. ‘By this sign I call upon you for help and shelter,’ he said. ‘Are we not all brethren?’
‘Were they your brethren you slew westaway, when you had stolen their wethers?’ Gudruda asked, and snatched back the charm. ‘What charity did you show their widows, Killing-Hrap?’
‘You will not call me by that name, goodwife.’
‘Beware that you threaten here,’ said Thorgrim, and held his axe in readiness. Hrap saw that look in his eye and stepped back a pace: put his hand down and fingered at the peace-strings that bound his sword in sheath. Gudruda stepped between them.
‘Thorgrim, this is not your hall,’ she said. ‘And now, Killing-Hrap, I shall call folk whatsoever I wish while I am in my husband’s hall; and until my husband should return, no one but I will choose who shall get guesting here. Now go, and take with you your murdering ways.’
But now Thorgrim drew Gudruda a ways apart, and muttered to her these words: ‘This were unseemly, to cast any man out, how vile he be soever, and above all on such a night as this. But a great-hearted man will offer meat to his bitterest foe, though that try his temper to the uttermost.’
But to that Gudruda answered in no small voice, ‘That I am not a man, and I will cast this one out, and above all on such a night as this. But there is a thing called righteousness, and I will try to cleave to that. Now put up all these words of yours, Thorgrim, for in this I’ll not be moved no whit.’
Before this fierceness, in so plump and mild-seeming a woman, Hrap stood unsure. The menfolk saw him waver and stepped in closer, weapons in hand. Then he shrugged; slung the dripping cloak across his sword side, and stepped backward to the door. But at the threshold he stopped and eyed them again. They stood, all the men and Gudruda, and the women far behind. But only one still sat, on the stones at the fireside.
‘You there, proud one,’ Killing-Hrap called. ‘It seems to me you have as much say here as any other. Now, many will say I was never a beggar-man, but you I will ask. Will you give me leave to abide here?’
Swanhild looked up at him, her eyes wide and dark. She looked to Gudruda, Thorgrim, and back to the stranger. She sat quite still, as if become stone, while all the others looked to her: and so a moment passed.
‘Be it thus then,’ Hrap growled. With a heavy shoe he kicked the door wide open behind him, letting in all the rain and wind. And he laughed gloomily, to see all the folk within a-shivering. ‘You have withheld from me shelter and peace,’ he said against them, ‘clean against all the uses of the land. Now you put me out on a night like this. But maybe, Gudruda Sharp-Tongue, there are others, and their ways are somewhat unlike these of yours: maybe too there will come some day when I may do you some other good turn.’
With that he strode out into the night, leaving the great door open behind him and the storm blowing in. Thorgrim stepped upon the threshold-stone and peered out into the blackness. ‘If this were a dry night we might soon have flame for our bedmate,’ he muttered. ‘Bjarni and Ulf, go you out and see that he does us no hurt. Sing out if he threaten, but beset him no more. But get him gone by all means.’
The two nodded, and took on cloaks with hoods to keep the rain off their heads. They took swords and shields, and stepped out after Hrap. Thorgrim drew the door shut after them and stood back in the hall.
‘Those were no fearful words, Gudruda,’ he said. ‘Olaf can be proud to have such a one for a wife.’
Gudruda nodded; her look still held fast to the door. Light and quick came her breath. ‘You do not deem he will give us trouble, do you?’ she asked.
‘Not this night.’ Thorgrim laughed. ‘Saw you his eyes whenas he left? We should name you Gudruda Hrap-Tamer after this!’
‘Please do not.’ She sighed, and drew her hand across her face. ‘I should never have done this were I not so fretful after Olaf. What can it be that holds him?’
Heavily she turned and went back to her seat. The others drew round her, praising her deed and toasting her with mead. Shortly Bjarni and Ulf came back in: did off their rain-cloaks and went among the rest. Swanhild sat where she had before, and held her gaze down into the fire.
But they had not long to wait. Now from the door sounded a heavy bang, and again it came, like a knocking, and quelled the words of praise. The men rose up, took swords and axes once more in hand: stood to ready. Gudruda looked up with great trouble upon her simple face. Swanhild half-smiled, but not for any cheer. Then the door swung out, and a great bristly shape showed, unformed against the darkness. It stepped across the threshold-stone: then all at once they knew him and raised a shout.
That man was Olaf Sigurdarson.
The godi, the hall’s master, had come back.
HE CAME INTO his home and hung up his cloak on a wall-peg. Behind and around him the door let in a bunch of men, shaggy, rain-wan, their eyes big from the night. Those were the house-carles who had gone with Olaf to the arvel-feast of Njal Thoroldsson at Breidamerk. With them was a stranger: that was a small man, and he took his first chance to break away from those others and chatter his teeth above the fire. But no one looked at him, unless maybe it was the black-haired girl nearby. The others saw only Olaf.
Tall he was, and strongly-made: taller even than Thorgrim; a man just leaving his prime, though of great strength still. His shoes and leggings were strewn with mud, and splatters of mud sprinkled tunic and arms. The folk clustered round him, like children seeking gifts. He nodded, and put one shoulder against a hall-post; and his back was bent, and his eyes lined. Thorgrim offered him drinking-horn, and that Olaf took with a thankful look, and drank slowly down. The voices of the folk rose from a murmuring round him, as he looked down and over them all. At the edge of the crowd stood Gudruda. Shy yet happy she seemed, and she offered no words but those of gentle greeting.
‘Well,’ said Olaf; and at that voice all others stilled. Rough was his voice from the drink and his age. ‘I am come back. Well was it said, ‘Land is good but hearth is better.” ’
‘And the Thoroldsson?’ asked Thorgrim.
‘Be calm, hunt-bear,’ answered Olaf, and smiled wearily. ‘The arvel went well, and afterward, whenas the other guests went homeward, we spoke long, Njal and I: and the word is peace. We have agreed to those same terms I had of his father, that whatever shall come between us, we will meet to agree to atonement between us. Hello, daughter.’
From across the reek of the fire Swanhild raised her witch-eyes, that seemed to see so much and tell so little. ‘Greetings, home-farer.’ He held her gaze, so that after a moment she let her head fall away, and the thick braid stirred and fell.
‘And there is truly peace?’ asked Gudruda.
‘There was no fighting,’ Olaf answered. He sighed, and refilled the horn, but did not leave the doorway, as if loth to take his place anew in the highseat. ‘Nor, wife, is there likely to be in nights to come. I have picked the peace-path.’ Now he came to the fire, and stood over the stranger that sat there.
‘This man I have taken to dwell here among us and teach us: and I would have you treat him with as much honor as you do me. From Irland in the Western Isles he is come: Kjartan is his name, and he is the priest of Christ, and we will take his ways now.’
There fell a silence athwart the hall then. Thorgrim was the first to speak then. ‘Are we to cast aside the old gods?’ he asked.
Olaf looked at him, but said no word.
‘How will you then rule over blood-offerings, Olaf, as it is your duty as our godi? Who will take in temple-tax and see to the holding of the temple, if you will not? I don’t much like this.’
Gudruda stood still, watching now her husband, now the priest, with speechless wonder: as if she feared to trust the truth of it.
‘There will be no more blood-offerings hereabouts,’ answered Olaf; ‘not if you will follow my lead. And the temple at Hof shall abide no more, but we will build there a church to stand in its stead. And then there will not be that cause of ill-will between us and the men of the Breidamerk, that they have these ways while we cling to the old.’
‘Now might we as well all don gowns!’ Thorgrim cried out woefully.
‘And when was the last time you went a-harrying?’ asked Orvar-Odd. At this Thorgrim waxed angry-red. It was well known he had never been out of sight of Iceland in all his life.
‘Thorgrim—all of you—you are good men, loyal and trustworthy,’ Olaf said, slowly, so that they might all catch and take hold of his words. ‘Yet if I am to be as good a godi as you are thingmen, then I must look ahead and work as I see best. Times change, folk change—only the land does not change. Our ways were good for our grandfathers and we should worship them. Yet think back and ask yourselves, When was there ever a time when we had peace? What has the Raven-Lord to do with peace? What was Thor but a buffoon? We gave them offerings, and got foxish tricks in answer. Odin has no use for peace; but maybe we do.’
At his words they were somewhat stilled, not knowing how to give him answer. He walked through them round the hall: stood before the highseat. They all followed him, muttering among themselves.
‘Now many of you will not abide by this rede,’ Olaf said loudly. ‘To them I say, fine and fare-well! You may choose another chieftain: to him you may give your loyalty. But for the rest of you, them that will honor me as heretofore, know that I will be a Cross-man, even if all men forsake me. And if you will not have it so, then stop me: but else will I sit again in this highseat and be again your godi.’
Then they were still, though some muttered softly, but knew not what word to give aloud. But Thorgrim said, ‘This smells of a woman’s bed-words to me—nor will I be taken for a woman in my ways. And it might still be said that of old, Olaf would not have spoken out the matter so, but would have said, I made up my mind, and so it will be. Those nights are past, it seems. But until the days of choosing come round, you are my godi.’
‘That is well, then,’ said Olaf: and stepped up in the highseat. ‘And will you take the water, and be sworn in Christ?’
Thorgrim looked down and about for a bit. Then he saw Olaf’s daughter where she sat alone by the fire, her head bent low. ‘Not I,’ he said.
‘Yes, you—and you and you and I,’ said Olaf. ‘That, or follow another in the things. This is my will, that all my kin and thralls and men take the water and learn the outland cult. Only then, it seems to me, will men ever have peace in Iceland.’
‘Olaf is right,’ said one of those men that had gone with him. ‘Thorgrim, what is this Odin you give offering to, but a trouble-making, fickle god? My father followed him over the seas, but he never saw the good of it: lost his foot, a hand, and in the end his life. What more has he granted any of you? You all have given many offerings, and our temple is a good one: but still it seems to me is the life hard; and the sheep still die in winter. Do they care for our sheep, or any more for us? That seems bad bargaining to me, that they should take so much and give back so little. I will seek peace with this outland god then, and see what he has to offer me!’
Then there was great clamoring, and some men held to one side and others to the other. Some were for going to take the water that very night; but the rest held back, and said they would never forsake the old gods. In the end Olaf called for peace, and Gudruda and the women went among them, and said the time had come for sleep. And that was the only thing agreed upon that night. The women looked to the men that had come with Olaf, and gave them meat and bread and clean dry linen. One by one the men lay down upon the benches round the long-fire and drew cloaks over them, and in time stillness settled over the hall again.
Then Gudruda went to where Olaf still sat. She came from speaking with the priest, and feeding him.
‘Husband,’ she said, softly and with brimming eyes—‘and is this really so?’
He looked on her, and his head fell a little, so that it was as if he nodded.
‘Husband, this is a fine thing you do. Greater was the bravery to try the other road. Only thus will we have peace. But you sit still in wet and muddy clothes, and are like to catch your death of cold from it. Will you not let me dress you in a goodly new tunic, that I have woven for you since you went to the arvel?’
Olaf lifted up his eyes and looked down on her. ‘No, wife,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow I will put on your new tunic. But for this night, these old clothes are good enough for me. Now go you to bed, and let me sit here in my seat awhiles.’
‘Yes, husband.’ She stepped up beside him, and kissed his brow. Then she went down round the big roof-trees of the highseat and into the shutbed they shared.
THE NIGHT WORE on, still and peaceful in the fire-warm hall. Only seldom would the moan of the wet wind without rise so that it might be heard. The lamps now were all snuffed, and the long hall dark. The ember-pit, four ells wide, fifty long, cast up a darkly-reddish glow upon the stones and the benches filled with sleeping men. At the middle the glow cast up like a sea-wave upon the roof-trees. Only the bottoms of them were in that glow: half-way up their lengths they were lost in the darkness. Between them was the highseat of Hardbein Oxen-Hand: a thing of red and black, carven and big and shadowy.
There sat Olaf, unmoving as stone, seeming larger for the blackness of his smoky shadow grown up behind him. Before him could be seen his shoes and leggings, all crusted over with the mud of that night’s ride: then a blackness, and above that his chest and heavy shoulders, arms and hands, beard and face. In the light his face seemed old, older far than Olaf was. But his great dark eyes cast back none of the ruddy gleamings of the fire below.
At his feet his daughter sat. One arm she had put about her father’s lower legs, and her cheek leaned against the mud-splashed thigh. With the other hand, unrestfully, she stroked and played with the thick black braid curling down around the wanness of her throat.
In his hand Olaf held the ale-horn: but it might have been Mjollnir for all he lifted it. The other hand sat thick as a bear’s paw upon his knee. In the wild tangle of his beard were spots of black: and they were clots of mud, thickening among the crinkled hairs. Sleepily Olaf looked down upon the black crown of his daughter’s hair.
She, as if stirred by that gaze, sat up and set to unbinding the muddy shoes. Those laces had been drawn tight by a man’s strength, and even tighter by mud and fire. She was a long time about it, even with her slender clever fingers.
‘I mind me of that first time you unbound my shoes,’ Olaf murmured. ‘Little were you then; and the knots looked bigger than your fists. How I laughed to see that you could undo them all!’
‘Yes,’ said the girl softly. ‘That was when my mother lived. I had to fight that I might unbind your shoes. Then there were many that wished for that honor.’
With a wrench Olaf lifted up the mead-cup and brought it to his lips. He moved his head, and the shadow grown behind him moved a bit, unclosing more of the carved runes of the seat. Olaf sighed, and shut fast his eyes: took a grip on his daughter’s hair. Slowly he let it slip between his rough horned fingers.
‘So, Swanhild, I have done it. Was it so wrong?’
The girl at his feet did not look up. The last knot pulled free, and she tugged off the shoe: knocked it against stone and set it over beside the other.
‘You are a good godi, father,’ she told the ember. ‘It is not for me to gainsay you. You know more of the world than I. I will not grumble.’
She bent and picked up a shoe again, and set it beside her own stockinged foot. ‘When I was a child, and my mother yet lived, then these shoes seemed great to me. The mud on them smelled oddly, of faroff fields. Sometimes there were flowers caught in the lacings: then I knew you had been up in the fells. Sometimes thorns pricked my fingers, and I tried hard not to let you see my tears. But you ever knew.’
‘What,’ he muttered, ‘you do not weep now? But no, you are too proud for that. You are too like your mother, little black swan: long-necked and graceful, but fierce withal. Shy to hand, to fight deadly. You are over-bloodthirsty, Swan: it was your name made you so. Swans are better seen from afar. If you had been born a hundred years ago, then you would have been a great lady like in the tales. Then you would have wed a mighty man, served mead and ale to all his battle-comrades; given birth to sons, decked yourself in gold, and seen wolves glutted on crimson fields…’
‘Yes, you mock me now,’ she said; ‘but earlier it seemed to me you let them argue it out as if you hoped they might shout down these plans of yours, and make you be again that Olaf you once were, in spite of you.’
‘And where then would have been that Olaf I once was?’ he asked, with a weary blitheness.
She was still. Then, very quietly, ‘Father, must it be this way?’
He took her hair and pulled round her head, firmly, gently, so that she must look up at him. ‘Daughter,’ he said to her; then halted. She pulled free her head and sat round with her back against the fire, and her arms curled round her knees. Olaf looked down at her, and saw the red light glinting through the backs of her eyes, so that in the shadow of her face two red slits blazed.
‘Daughter, there was a time when I should never have chosen this path: well you know it. When a man is young, he burns with Odin’s three fires. Poetry, mead, battle… Njal Thoroldsson asked me to give you to him as wife.’
Those red slits grew long. ‘What answer gave you?’
‘I said, that it would be called a good match by many: that his kin are fully the equal of ours, and that Njal himself is known to be a man clever at law and gaining wealth. I said that none would call it aught but gain to both our standings; but that I had vowed you a free hand in it, and must ask you your rede on it.’
‘Why did you not give it to him then, in place of all those words?’
‘Swan, he is a young man yet, and only now feels the highseat of his father. I would not hurt his pride.’
‘But father, weasels have no pride.’
Olaf was still for a moment: then burst out in a laugh, lusty and young. Men turned about and raised their arms where they lay sleeping down the hall. ‘Ah, Swan, thanks… It is long since I have laughed so. How far away seem the days of my youth now! They are laid in howe; and my middle days are far from well. Old Jarl Haakon is dead, and Norway’s King owns Christ for his lord. And I look only for peace in my oldness. What else would you have me do? Let Njal Long-Nose have his way. What care I for temples and wooden gods? We are not changed for that. The goats will still give milk, the winds will blow, and Vatnajokull will flood these dales. Enough, then: I have chosen. Now is that hay cut and stacked.’
The black-haired girl leaned on one arm, her hand flat upon the stones, and looked about the hall. That glow was darkling, and the forms of sleeping men fainter, bigger and more awesome. Half to herself she muttered, ‘I mind me of the tale of how the might of the Ynglings was ended in the Swede-realm. Ingjald the Ill-minded was then king at Uppsala, and his daughter Asa Ill-rede by his side: and twelve kings they slew by treachery and strength, and broadened their realm two-fold in every way. And King Ingjald wived his daughter to Gudrod, king over Skaney; but she set Gudrod to slay his brother, and then brought on Gudrod’s death—so she returned to Uppsala and her father. But then Ivor the Far-reaching, Gudrod’s brother’s son, went into Skaney, and with Odin’s aid raised a host and marched on Uppsala. And all King Ingjald’s men fled. Thereat the king went back into his hall with all his folk; and Asa served all men strong ale, but Ingjald let faggots be laid about the hall. And when the folk were all dead drunk, then the king rose up and laid fire to the hall: he took the highseat, and Asa sat in the guest-seat, and all there were burnt up: and men said that was the costliest funeral-bier…’
To that Olaf had no quick answer. After awhile he spoke lowly and said, ‘That was long ago, daughter: years and years before King Harald Hairfair’s first breath. Do not grieve that those nights are gone.’
‘You have said it, father: this thing is done. But still, in the patterns of these embers, I can see the lines of days to come: things beyond your seeing. And I must say it now for I have no choice: you shall have what you wish, but you will outlive me by many winters; and I will die young.’
THAT NIGHT SWANHILD lay abed in a fine bed-shift Olaf had won years before when he had gone over the seas eastaways. Beneath her the dry straw of the mattress crumpled softly. The curtain of her shutbed was drawn across, so that she was alone. Above the curtain-pole was the faintest glow, shifting and fading, of the embers off the smoke: it made the wooden walls, low-falling roof and curtain seem all the blacker and closer. Of a sudden, up swept Swanhild: put back the curtains all the way open. Then she lay back.
Through the opening gleamed the long red line of the fire and before it the huge black hulk of the highseat. There was a sound from the back of the hall of someone using a pot. Away somewhere else were whispering and rustling: one of the guests had beguiled a serving-girl. The sounds came to an end and there was silence—then they began again. One man groaned, dreaming. Ulf the house-dog padded by to find a spot closer to the fire. The embers of the longfire hissed somewhat when they fell apart.
The sounds crept slyly into the little room. Swanhild’s black eyes glinted with the glow. She put forth her arm as if she would draw the curtain back: then halted. She drew the blankets over her head. She threw them back again. She lay now upon her side, now her back, now the other side, while the hall-noise slowly lapsed. Far away, it seemed, the winds of the storm rose and fell, whispering and groaning through the old turf roof.
GUDRUDA WOKE ALONE. Her eyes were bright in a twinkling. She got out of bed and dressed herself hurriedly, not bothering to fetch a straw from the longfire to light a lamp. Softly she stepped to the women’s door and slipped out into the frost-edged air.
Still it was, with neither wind nor wet. The garth was yet black with night, but the deep blue sky above was laced with patterns of butter and copper and scarlet. Between them the last dim stars burned weakly. Gudruda could hear the animals shifting in the barn and sty. The air had become colder after the storm. Here and there in the dark ground were glimmers of ice.
Gudruda walked across the yard. Her shoes crunched in the frozen waves of mud. Her breath billowed about her red cheeks in little steamy clouds. She went round the hall, past the dunghill and the sheep-cote, out by the side-gate and up to the crown of the hill. There she was dark against the chalky sky. Behind her, beyond the fells, the light was already glinting from the distant peaks of the glacier. Some terns flew over Gudruda’s head, their little wings forming dark gray crosses in the sky.
At the top, Gudruda breathed heavily. So bright was it here that her features could be made out clearly. Rosy were her cheeks: her hair like fresh-churned butter: her eyes bright as tears. Awkwardly she bent to her knees in the stiff brittle grass. She faced south, down past the sloping fields, across the little bay, over the wide stretch of the blackly sluggish sea. There, like a gleaming, fire-hot-red iron blade unbearable to behold, the Sun burst over the line of the sea. Its fierce rays were like a host of cast spears. The terns were struck into pinkish white, pearly with shell-gleamings; the grass stalks grew so green they looked blue; the wave-tops glittered for a twinkling—and then all the sea fell into light and waxed all at once alive, metal, opaque, fiery, and weird. Away to Gudruda’s right the distant spears fell gleaming upon the pastures of empty Kirkjubaer, where Irish monks had lived and worshiped more than a century earlier, before the coming of the Easterlings that had slain them: and where no pagan had been able to live since.
For a while Gudruda could not move, awestruck with the holy fairness of the scene. Steam drifted from her nostrils; her shoulders quivered slightly with cold. Then she bowed her head: took the square brass cross in one hand, closed her eyes, and needfully began to pray.
* * *
GUDRUDA RAGNARSDOTTIR had been born thirty-five winters earlier, to a family of Freyr-worshipers, in Reydarfirth in the East Firths. Her father Ragnar was slain in a feud when she was still a child; her two brothers never deemed that the terms of payment had been enough, and sought to get blood-geld from the killers, though their godi would give them no backing. The younger was killed in that fight; the elder fled, but at the Althing was given lesser outlawry, and banished from Iceland for three winters. He got a seat on a ship bound for Norway, but must first pay back an insult put upon him at the Thing. He barred the doors of the halls of his foes one night and set it afire. His luck though did not return: storms held the ship at Hornafirth for a week, and his enemies broke open a door at the end of their hall and got out all living. They rode to the strand and hunted him from firth to firth. No skipper would give him a seat because his foes were such strong men, and among them two godar.
In the end he rode deep into the barren inland, up among the rocks and glaciers and lava-fields. In the holes of Surtshellir he found shelter. At the Thing he was given greater outlawry for trying to burn men in their hall. No man might shelter him nor give him food nor drink: any man might kill him and owe no payment.
The farm was taken. Half went to the suitors, half to the men of the district; and Gudruda went to live with kinfolk who lived nearby.
That winter was long and harsh, and her brother all but starved up in the fells. In the summer he lived off the kindnesses of some friends and kin, hiding in one farm after another, never staying long. But that next winter was all the harsher; and he went sneaking back to Reydarfirth to beg shelter of his sister. Gudruda was scared but hid him in the barn and fed him in darkness, but gave him none of the mead that had been his bane.
So it went for twenty-three nights. But there were many guests at that stead for yule; and after yule a mort of men came to the stead: broke into the barn and dragged forth Gudruda’s brother, clad only in a long shirt. They pinned him beneath a heap of stones on a bundle of twigs and driftwood, then set the pile alight. He fought against the stones but they only heaped them higher. Gudruda ran to help him but they held her back: thereafter she abode in the hall with her hands over her ears. She had then twelve winters.
Three winters later she was wed to Lambi Agnarson, a kindly man, not wealthy but with a good farm, three cows and some sheep. Gudruda was happy with him, and he never dealt ill with her. She bore him three sons, and all of them live; and she prayed and gave offerings to Freyr and to Freyja as theretofore. So some winters sped, and her sons were grown men and strong. Then their godi came by looking for men: there was a feud and some of the sheep had been stolen. Lambi and the two older boys went with the godi, and gave blood-offering to Odin at the district temple.
Erik, the youngest, did not go with them, though he was old enough, because Gudruda would not let him. The three men did not come back. She got a goodly milch-cow for an atonement.
With only one man about, the farm fell from bad to worse. There was some help from the godi and Gudruda’s kin, but that was another ill winter, and there was no great plenty of flour or of fish. Erik did all he might but he was yet only a boy. Gudruda fought and managed to keep them from starving; but toward that winter’s end they lived only by eating moss. They kept only the milch-cow, and had her in the main hall with them: but in the second winter they might not borrow enough hay for her, and the cow fell ill and died. Gudruda made offering after offering at the temple.
It was at the end of that winter she took the cross. There were priests sent from Norway, from the new King Olaf Trygvason: they were at the local Thing that spring, and were giving water to men. Gudruda heard their words: then and there forsook Freyr and all the home-gods. She vowed her life to the Christ if he would but save her family now. That summer she heard a voice in her prayers, and it told her to sell the farm and gather all goods and go to the Althing. She was awestruck at this: Freyr had never spoken to her. She did as the voice had bade her, though there was great fear in her heart of it; for if nought came of it, then she would have been homeless and must live as a gangrel woman, wandering from hall to hall, doing odd bits of work for meat, and living on the handouts of others: and that was the hardest living.
At the Althing she met Olaf Sigurdarson, the wealthy godi of Hof nearby Kirkjubaer: he wooed her, and as a widow, she said yes to him. That summer, in a great bidding, they were wed. In her wonder and the great readying for the feast, Gudruda forgot to be wed by a priest, and was wedded instead in the handfast way, hallowed by the hammer of Thor. And that had been a soreness in her heart ever since.
Gudruda rose, her knees stiff with the damp cold of the earth. As she brushed the dirt from the front of her skirts, she felt the warmth of the sun’s rays, beaming kindly on her face. She smiled. She would let no past sorrows sour the sweetness of this day. With a glance to the west, she went back down the hill. The north face, steeped in violet light, might now be seen: the turf-roofs of the farm buildings, the dark lava wall, the muddy garth. She saw it all now as if for the first time. The roofs of the buildings were like little ridges off the side of the hill, clustered about the level place of the garth where most of the stead’s outdoor work was done. The turf roofs, dark green and brown, gleamed with ice. Faint waves of heat rose through the hall’s smoke-hole into the sky. One of the swine grunted and rolled over happily. From the dairy crept forth the smells of cheeses and fresh-churned butter. There was lowing from the barn: the milch-cows yearned to be milked. The household was slow arising after the lateness of the night. Gudruda walked around the hall and looked up to the frontward gable, and thought how well it should look set with a cross.
She gathered some driftwood in her arms and slipped in through the small back door. For a moment she was sightless in the hall’s inner darkness. Softly she stepped to the cooking end of the longfire and laid in the wood. That crackled and hissed and caught fire, and Gudruda held herself over it, basking in the heat. She saw the sleeping forms stretched out round the walls of the hall. How late they were to rise! She went round the firebed fretfully, to begin the morn-meal’s cooking.
Someone sat in the highseat. Wondering, Gudruda went near: made out Olaf’s form. He had fallen asleep there, his hands upon his knees, his great head bent over his chest, the unbraided beard like a mantle drawn about his chest. He was filthy. All about him, the carvings on the highseat crawled like worms and adders. Then Olaf turned his head and snorted, as if in dream.
She stepped close to him and reached out with one hand. She tugged at his thick horned hand. ‘Olaf,’ she murmured, ‘Husband, awake!’
He stirred him in the seat, rolling his shoulders. ‘Witch-eyes,’ he muttered uneasily, ‘Is that truly you? Do you come to haunt me then?’
Gudruda let go the hand; went back to the wall and took down the cooking-things loudly. Olaf started and opened his eyes. He moved one hand over his brow and blinked, twisted back his neck painfully. He sat up yawning as Gudruda went before him.
‘Hello, good-wife,’ he said.
‘Good morning husband,’ she answered. She took out the stores and set to cooking. Olaf stood up, bent back his shoulders, sighed and sat again. All about the hall men were stirring.
‘Olaf,’ she said after a while. ‘Did you truly mean those words of yours last night? You will take the Cross?’
‘Yes, wife. I have sworn it. It was a part of the settlement with Njal.’
‘Yet was that all there was of it? Do you feel no love of the Christ in your heart?’
He shook his head. ‘Maybe that will come. This I can say to you in truth: I feel no fondness for our own gods.’
She sighed. ‘That is enough, I hope. I know I should not grumble. This is a big step you take: it should answer me. Yet—could you also do me one other favor? It may mean nought to you, yet for me it would be much.’
‘Of course, wife. What would you that I do?’
She paused. ‘Would you wed me again, in the right Christian way? Kjartan could enact it: and there need by no great feasting.’
‘Well,’ he answered at length. ‘It is only fitting, I gather. It can be done this very day after we take the water, if that pleases you.’
‘Greatly indeed does it please me.’ Gudruda stood up. In one hand she held an iron kettle: in the other a heavy ladle. She swung the ladle against the base of the kettle so that it rang.
‘Awake!’ she cried. ‘Awake!’
SOUTHAWAYS FROM HOF the land slopes down into a small shallow bay, whereof the bound and shield is the large hillock of green land, Ingolfshofdi. There Ingolf, the first settler of Iceland, stayed a winter while he searched for his pillar-seat. That next summer he found his pillar-seat far off to the west, and there he took land and settled, and left this land empty: so it remained until Hardbein came ashore here. Beyond the long hump of Ingolfshofdi was the sea.
Toward the mid-part of the day a horseman rode down toward that bay, and that was Erik Gudrudarson. He skirted the bay, went westaway above the shore, and brought his pony to a halt upon a grassy ridge. With his hand he shielded his eyes against the sun’s glare. Below him the long line of the strand stretched empty of life save for here and there a skua gull. Beyond that, farther to the west, was the beginning of the Skeidararsands: that was a waste of black mud flooded with rain and meltwater, a treacherous place, whose few tracks led into hungry bogs. Erik shuddered: new to the district, he liked that place little.
He looked back to the strand. Then he saw a lone dark figure moving between the sea-stones and the black sands. A pony trailed behind. Olaf’s daughter gathered in the driftage for her father’s hall.
The big waves, angry and storm-fed, broke like giants’ fists upon the shore. The girl faced those waves and threw back her head; the long black strands of her unbound hair gleamed like dark rainbows. She leapt from rock to rock, dancing in and out of the waves’ grasp. There was a piece of wood awash there in the salt: the girl did up her skirts about her hips and waded after it. She was in and out of the water between Dufa and Unn, the kindest waves of Ran’s nine daughters. Out she came with the driftwood proudly towed behind. Erik leaned forward in the saddle, his mouth agape. The girl’s long white legs shone against the dark sands like icicles in dawn-light.
When Erik reached the level of the strand, the girl had let down her skirts again, so that only her shoes might be seen. She had not seen him yet, nor heard him in the thunder of the waves. He waved, and bellowed her a greeting with all his lungs.
She stopped. Her head came round, quick as a bird’s: the long eyes widened. The shoulders went down somewhat. She came up toward him grudgingly.
Erik loped down to her and took the line in hand. He wound it round his fists and over his shoulder and pulled the heavy driftwood up beyond the tide-mark. ‘Is not this day fair?’ he shouted happily to her.
She went past him and sat upon a flat lava-rock. ‘More than fair enough for shepherds and swine-keepers,’ she said. She stood up and led her pony down the beach. Erik unbound the log and threw it easily onto that pile she had made, and followed.
They went down the shore as far as Olaf had driftage-rights, and gathered the wood together; but Swanhild said little. Nor did she dance before the waves nor lift her skirts again. Erik too soon fell into stillness. Now he was sorry he had come down from his watching-place.
It was noontide, and all the storm-wood was gathered up into neat piles above the tide-marks. Swanhild took a wood-axe and a whetstone from her pony’s bag. Erik wiped at his brow.
‘Surely you do not mean to cut the wood yourself?’ he asked. ‘Would you not wish a rest?’
She answered, ‘If you are weary, then rest.’ She stroked the blade with the stone and began chopping at the wood. Her slender arms and thin shoulders had little more than bird’s-thew in them: not for that flew the axe any the slowlier. Only the smaller branches she cut: the large would be cut up at the stead, and their chips used for kindling. The biggest would be adzed and used for building.
Erik drew an axe from his bag and joined her. He matched her stroke for stroke and more: and his blows cut deeper. Soon her blows struck the ground more than the wood, and he knew she grew weary. Then he said, ‘Swanhild, it is late, and I would rest.’
She stuck the axe in a big log and wiped at her brow with her sleeve. Erik went to his pony and got out a skin of goat’s-milk and a half-loaf of bread. These they shared: sat on a rock and ate. Swanhild looked out to sea, but Erik did not. The stiff breezes caught the long black hair and threw it about: a few strands hit Erik in the face and whipped past. He thought of the tales they told at Hof of the girl’s mother. She must have been an odd one! It was said the Finns were the most sorcerous and trollwise folk in the world. He wondered if the daughter knew any of the mother’s spells.
Below them, quite close, a few terns went skittering across the sand. The girl swept up the crumbs in her skirts and cast them out to the birds. The terns took fright at this, but soon came back to peck charily at the brown crumbs.
‘I saw you not this morn at meat,’ he said. ‘No one knew whither you had gone. Then your father told me it was likeliest you were here. He said that this was a chore you ever liked.’
She did not look back at him, but asked the waves, ‘What do they, back there?’
He shook his head. ‘They are still talking over your father’s plan, like as if it were a house-thing. Yet Gudruda readies matters for giving the water with the holy priest. Olaf says they will take the water this afternoon.’
The black-haired girl cast out more crumbs.
‘Was it not freezing cold there in the waves?’ he asked.
‘Colder than it will be for them this afternoon.’
‘You must love those birds greatly, Swanhild, you feed them so much.’
‘Oh yes,’ she gave answer. ‘Sometimes I love them so, I wish I might take them in my hands and break off their little heads. But they only titter and fly off, and next season return to mock me more.’
‘Swanhild! What do you mean, that you say such a thing?’
‘What I say.’ She wiped her hands, and stood. Her skirts caught the wind and billowed wide behind her. ‘I am no tern, Erik: call me skua rather.’ She went down to the water’s edge and gathered a handful of stones: cast them down into the maw of the waves. Erik had never seen a girl throw so well: she must have done this a great deal. Erik followed after her and sat above her in the sand.
‘It was said they might take out the fish-boat later, but the sea looks over-rough to me,’ he said over the billows’ roar. ‘I wonder what it is, that makes men sail out of sight of the land, where they cannot pick their days. What do they do in storms? That seems wondrous to me, and frightening.’
‘That seems wondrous to me, and thrilling,’ she mocked. ‘The land is dull,’ she said then, turning: ‘the sea will ever eat it whole. But those men that live upon the sea’s very face, and snatch livelihood from its jaws, they defy one greater. What are we here but clever beasts, little better than our flocks? But a sailor, be he chapman or rover…’ She caught his look and colored; turned again to the sea.
‘There was a sailor at Breidamerk, an Easterling,’ Erik said. ‘The men told his tidings this morn at meat. They told many of his tales.’
‘Yes?’ she asked carelessly. ‘And what man-gossip did he spread.’
Erik thought on it. ‘One tale he told, was how Jarl Haakon the Mighty died two summers ago.’
She looked to him, and he smiled. ‘Tell it me then, Erik: for ever did I love the tales of that great man, of how he battled Gunnhild’s sons and defied the kings of the Danes, shattered the Jomsvikings’ host, cast out the Cross priests and upheld the gods in all his ways, and gave the finest blood-offerings. That he died have we heard; of the true facts, none. No doubt he died in a manner seemly to his state.’
‘I knew not you put such store by him,’ Erik said. ‘Then this tale will please you ill; yet the Easterling knew of it firsthand, so we may well trust in it. He said, that Jarl Haakon took the wife of a man named Brynjulf for his bedmate; and when he had his fill of her, sent her back home with gold and gifts, as was his custom; and it was said she went unwillingly. But then had Haakon set his eye upon Gudrod: she was the wife of Orm Lyrgja; he was a mighty bonder.
‘Haakon sent men to Orm, and they bade Orm send his wife with them to the jarl. But Gudrun says she will not go unless Jarl Haakon sends Thora of Rimol to fetch her. Then Orm sent out the war-arrow; and Brynjulf met with him, and there was then such ill-will against the jarl from all these husbands that all the bonders rose up and went against the jarl. The jarl gets word of this: goes with his men into a deep dale, and there hides. Therefrom he sent his men to seek his son Erlend, that had the jarl’s ships.
‘But by then Olaf Trygvason was come to Norway, and he sought the kingdom: he fights against Erlend Haakonarson and slays him. Then came Olaf Trygvason before the bonders and he said, ‘Long have I harried in the Eastlands, and have great strength in Wendland and in England: from England have I come. And you may not know me now, but my father you knew, and he was King Trygvi Olafson: and my father’s grandfather you knew, and he was King Harald Hairfair the Mighty.’ The farmers took him for their king: and he bade them scour the lands and get for him Haakon the jarl.
‘Haakon lay now in the dale with but one man beside him, and that was his thrall Thormod Kark. One night Kark has a dream; and Haakon deemed the meaning of that dream was that his son Erlend was slain. Therewith he made his way a’nights to Rimol. There Haakon sent Thormod Kark in to Thora: she was foremost of the jarl’s mistresses. She came out and greeted the jarl with great show of happiness. She told him the bonders then met with Olaf Trygvason, but she would shelter him: but that that was a place they would soon come upon. She hid him then beneath her swine-sty. Over the cave-mouth Thora put boards and muck and drove swine over it, and none might know of it. Haakon abides there with Thormod Kark the thrall, and they had food and a lamp.
‘That next day Olaf Trygvason comes with his men to Rimol and looked in all those buildings, but found not the jarl. He gathered Thora’s servants in the garth, before the swine-sty, and told them he would reward with the greatest honor and wealth any man that slew Jarl Haakon or brought him to Hladir. Haakon and Thormod Kark lay in the swine-sty and heard Olaf’s words; then Haakon stood and called on Odin, and vowed him all for victory; for Haakon knew Olaf Trygvason for a follower of the Christ. But Odin gave the jarl no answer, no matter what he promised. Then Haakon sits again and was gloomy. Thormod Kark looked at him, and said no word.
‘That night Olaf Trygvason went from Rimol to Hladir. Thormod Kark awoke in the middle-night, and Jarl Haakon says to him, ‘Poor dreams have you had: for while you slept, your face was now white as whey and now black as earth.’ Thormod Kark said it was a thing of no matter: ‘Only I dreamt I was before King Olaf Trygvason in Hladir, and he put a gold necklet over my head.’ Jarl Haakon answered and said, ‘Olaf Trygvason will set a blood-red ring about your throat that time you come before him. We two were born of an hour: now you would not betray me?’ Kark said nay; but after that they lay both awake, and did not snuff the lamp.
‘At length Haakon the jarl fell asleep, and Kark watched him. The jarl twitched horribly in his sleep, and shrieked so that Kark waxed sick with terror: leaps up and draws his knife from his belt and sticks it in the jarl’s throat and cuts it out.
‘That even Thora came to the cave-mouth and called down to Haakon. Kark answered and said the jarl slept. ‘Why then does your voice quaver so?’ asked Thora: and straightway bids her men uncover the cave. Kark leaped out with the jarl’s head before him; and they all shrank back, even Thora. So Kark ran into the woods. The next day he reached Hladir, and there Olaf Trygvason had set himself as King and outlawed all those men yet faithful to Jarl Haakon. Thormod Kark gave the King Haakon’s head, and told him all that had gone on between Jarl Haakon and himself. The Easterling at Njal’s was there then: he heard this tale of Kark’s own mouth.’
Swanhild asked in a low voice, so that Erik was unsure he heard her rightly above the waves, ‘And what did young King Olaf Trygvason then?’
‘He bade his men take Kark away and strike off his head. And afterward he takes both heads to Nidarholm. That, they say, is an island where they hang thieves and mankillers of the Thrandlaw. King Olaf strung up the two heads, and all his men cast stones at them and made many a jest.’
‘And Thora of Rimol?’
‘She saw that the day had been lost for her, and bade all her folk go from Norway into the Swede-realm. But she had dug a great howe, and there lay with the body of Jarl Haakon and died. Later the bonders dug up the howe and drew out the jarl’s body and burned it; but Thora’s body they would not touch, for that they said she looked as though she only slept.’
‘That was a noble lady,’ said Swanhild. ‘Such an end befits her. Yet of this tale of the Easterling’s, I know not whether I would believe it.’
‘There were others at Breidamerk, they say,’ Erik told her. ‘And the skipper was there as well: and all held to that tale.’
The blackhaired girl shrugged, and put her face back to the sea. She took up another handful of stones and threw them singly into the waves. Now her arm threw harder and more awkwardly to Erik’s eye.
‘So much will I well believe,’ she said: ‘and that is what was said of that Christ-loving King. His deeds do not amaze me.’
‘He labors well for his god and faith. Now they say he has ordered that the home gods should be banished from his realm, and his armies tear down the temples and take the lands from all men that still give blood-offerings.’
Swanhild laughed. ‘So did King Haakon Athelstane’s-Fosterling, and King Harald Graypelt and those others of Gunnhild’s sons; yet little more will this new King win, I trow. Soon, Erik, I think the bonders will be little-pleased in their bargain, that they traded Jarl Haakon the Mighty for this Olaf Trygvason.’
‘Swanhild,’ Erik asked then, haltingly, ‘should I now follow the Christ?’
She looked at him, and straightway he rued asking. ‘I thought that was all set out.’
‘It is in my mother’s eyes. I took the water with her, and I bear a cross. But now I am a man. I must choose my path. So I ask your rede.’
‘You should not ask me that.’ Her manner now was odd, and Erik did not know how to understand her.
‘But why not? You are clever, Swanhild, more than I. You would not give me ill counsel.’
‘I never give aught but ill counsel. Ask my father that.’
‘But you seem to think so ill of it. And yet I have never seen you give an offering at the temple, either; and you will drink no mead nor ale. What then is so wrong with the Christ? Our ways are well, but they are more stories of dead men than of God. Did you ever see any of them, Odin or Thor or Freyr or Freyja or Frigga or any of them? Did you ever see land-sprites or Norn-women or elves or dwarfs or Valkyries?’
‘Then what is there in this, that you look down on it? Why does your father’s will wound you so? There are heathen in Norway and the Swede-realm, Iceland, and the new settlements on Greenland: nowhere else. All else in the world are Christ’s men. What strength can Odin have that he is unable to halt the priests? What good did it do for Jarl Haakon, that he so supported the temples?’
‘Erik, you ask no questions I do not.’
‘And doesn’t your father like this as well? Hasn’t he said so?’
‘He has said so.’
‘Then I don’t understand you. I know that you will never take the Cross; nor do I think that seemly. Yet—you have nought against the Christ?’
She sat beside him on the black sand and bent her head over her knees: and her hair fell like a cloak about her and covered the sand; only it was blacker than the sand.
‘Erik, you are a goodly young man, and you should make a home in this world. This outland cult will come: it came to the Dane-land, and it has come to Norway; now it reaches these shores. Ships bring it, and the chapmen. All the traders bow to it: even the men that vow by Thor and Niord will be prim-signed, so that they may trade with the southern kingdoms. Iceland will not stand against it: that I see plain, now my father has yielded. Would you put yourself apart, like Thorgrim or Orvar-Odd? They are old men, and will be forgiven old men’s ways. You, Erik, are young. Your mother would grieve if you went not her way: so too my father. And it would win you the love of none. So would it set you amongst men as if you rode a little boat far out to sea, and sought a land you would never reach to, for that the waves had already gulped it down. Would that be your wish?’
‘No,’ he said.
‘Well then.’ She lifted her head and put back the long strands of hair from her eyes. Down among the sands of the barrier-islands some skuas were fighting over fish-heads washed up by the storm.
She said, ‘Once I saw a whale upon this beach. Rare are they hereabouts. A storm drove him in, up over the sand-isles; yet then the tide slacked, and the whale might not swim back, and so he died in the sun. Then came my father and all the carles with axes, and hewed the meat and blubber off him in great chunks, like as if they cut peat. There were Easterlings in a boat, and a quarrel started; yet my father was their master, and made them take his leavings. In the end there was left nought but the bones, and them the skuas perched upon. But the carlines followed their husbands and gathered up the bones as well; and that is why our knives have all bone handles hereabouts. There his bones lay—there.’ And she pointed.
Erik saw the outline of her face, wan and bleak, bone-hued, set against the wind like a flat sail. She put her arms about her knees and stared out over the waves. All at once Erik felt a great sadness for her.
‘Swanhild,’ he said, ‘why do you ever gaze out to sea? Even from Hof you are scarce able to keep from looking that way. What hope you to find there? What is there to see?’
She smiled, but did not look at him. One arm stretched forth. ‘There.’
‘Where?’ He shaded his eyes and peered into the blue-gray glitter. Far, far out, a tiny red sail bobbed. ‘That is but a ship.’
‘Oh, yes. And I am but a woman, and the sea but water, and Odin but a god.’
He could not riddle her words, but feared to ask their meaning. He did not like her very much then. Away out on the horizon the ship went on, crossing to the west. It was likely she went to the West Firths; else maybe the storm had blown her northward, and she was bound for Greenland. Swanhild sat staring at it as if she had forgotten all about Erik.
‘Swanhild—guess what else the Easterling told.’
‘Is that a riddle, Erik?’ she asked after a bit. ‘I am unskillful at them.’
‘No, but it was why those men were at Breidamerk. They had come to give Njal this word, that Skarphedin abode in Norway, and sought passage back to Iceland.’
She turned and stared at him. He grinned, pleased.
‘Skarphedin the outlaw? Kalf-Back’s son?’
She shook her head. ‘Now I know those men for liars. Skarphedin was given the greater outlawry. It would mean his life to come back. There may be those outlaws that cannot get away; none such has ever returned. He has not been in Iceland for many years. He could not be so foolish. He would be slain.’
‘Ask your father. I am sure it was Skarphedin they named. But no skipper would give him a berth as yet.’
She stood and stepped to the waves’ reach. ‘Would he come on such a ship then, and easy as that, dare all men to kill him? He has no kin here I heard of. His wits are surely weak. Twenty years ago and more he was outlawed, when I was still a little girl. I can scarce remember it. Why should anyone want to come back?’ She shook her head wearily. ‘Come, Erik. They will look for us at home.’ She went to the woodpile.
Erik brushed the black sand from his knees. ‘I will swear by Christ, then,’ he said with firmness. ‘So a man believes in one, it little matters which. From faith come courage and mighty deeds. So Kjartan says. Yet Swanhild, this too I wish, that you might take the Cross too and be sprinkled with us.’
‘Think you I don’t wish that too?’ she asked. ‘Erik, if I might believe in a wave in the sea, and that it smiled or scowled at me, then you should never have known me here.’ She did not let him answer, but mounted her pony and rode on up the hill.
AT HOF THE hall was all astir, readying Olaf and Gudruda’s wedding. So busy was it there that Olaf, sitting moodily with both legs stretched out from the highseat, was in the way of all who went by. At length, after the third bondmaid had tripped over his feet, he stood, girt on his sword and a brown cloak and went into the day.
They slaughtered a swine there: in the sunlight the men and women shone in the plain white linen tunics of the newly-baptised. For a full week must they wear these, in a sign of steadfastness for their vows. Olaf let hitch the hay-cart: drove it with some down to the strand, and filled it with the driftage; but Swanhild and Erik had already gone from there. Against the black sands those men all seemed ghosts. When all the wood was in they drew it up to Hof.
In the garth Olaf could see new ponies tied and saddled: that meant more of his neighbors and thingmen had come to ask if the news were true. He shook his head, let the others bring down and stack the wood, and rode off to the north. On the top of a hill he went by the old temple that Hardbein Oxen-Hand had built up and upheld. The temple had given the stead its name: Olaf’s kin had been the leaders at offerings ever since. Olaf rode from there farther upland.
He rode by a tongue of the glacier, up beneath the Svinafell. Many streams, swollen by the rain, cut down the sides of the high fell. Skillfully Olaf led his pony through the scrub-woods. The trail cut back, and Olaf came out from the green up onto the upper reaches of the fell. The winds were stronger here; the airs brisker, chilled by the great glacier beyond. Before him rose a great broken cliff and ice-walls, gray and blue, hollowed out by many a low and darksome cave; behind him the land fell steeply off on all sides. A short ways before him a spread of grass rolled with big built-up mounds: they might have been the turf-roofs of round houses sunken in the risen earth-sea of the fell.
Olaf stepped down onto the grass. Thoughtlessly he stroked his pony’s muzzle, then let her roam. He walked up to the mound-field. Half-sunk in the ground was a lava-rock: there sat Olaf, his back to the faraway sea, and gazed upon the grassy knolls. His eyes were red and clouded, and he sneezed. He wiped at his nose with the back of his hand. A hawk flew overhead, and went into the fell.
A sound came from the wood below; half Olaf turned: saw who it was and turned back. Swanhild stepped down from her pony and walked up beside him. She was well dressed in a black-blue gown and deep red undershift. Her long hair was braided: the ends of the braids were bound with dark red ribands and tucked beneath her belt. That was a belt of goodly workmanship, cunningly wrought out of silver and gold, of beasts’ heads, jaws and tongues and looping leaf-work.
‘I knew I should find you here,’ she said.
‘It is maybe where I belong.’
She sank to her knees and sat upon her heels. ‘I like this place,’ she said. ‘This seems more truthful here. If I ever wed, it is here I will look for my husband.’
He laughed gloomily at that, and took her hand. ‘Little life will you find in him then. Yonder is where your mother lies.’
She frowned, and answered, ‘No, father. Do you not remember? There is Hardbein, there Sigurd, there Ragnhild, Bui, Grim, Glum. That one there is mother’s howe.’
He took the braids of his beard in hand and tugged at them. He shook his head. ‘You know them better than I,’ he muttered. He coughed and spat. ‘Swanhild, he said, ‘you know it is time and beyond you took yourself a husband. Many girls younger than you have children already afoot. And yet, it is not for want of asking.’
‘I have found no man that pleases me. And I liked the life at Hof.’
‘Yet now I have a new wife, you find it not so fair. Now you do not always get your way. Yet if you were wed, you would run your own household.’
‘Now you have a new wife,’ she said after him. ‘You went winters enough without a wife before: life was better then. Why did I not go to the Althing last summer? Orvar-Odd might have seen to those sheep.’
Olaf coughed again. The sun was wheeling down in the west, and the shadows grew and gathered up around them, stretching toward the cliff beyond. ‘You do not give Gudruda what you ought, Swanhild. Kindly she is and strong—stronger than I, though you will gainsay that. And when I saw her, then there was an Easterling preaching, and there was such a look in her eye… An old man gets cold in his bed a’nights, and needs a proper helpmeet.’
‘Was not Rannveig enough for you?’
‘Sweet is Rannveig, and warm-breasted: as fair now as when I first took her to bed. But she has no kin. And tell me then, if you deem her able to run the stead.’
‘It is true, she has no head for figures. Yet I did make up for all she lacked.’
‘You will not be with me always, daughter. Soon I hope will you meet a man comely and strong enough for your pride; then you will leave, and I will fare on alone. But now I have Gudruda, and need not fear that, and may hope for it as I ought. And who knows? She is still of a childbearing age.’
‘Father, tell me again of the first time you met her.’
He was still for a space, to show he knew it was not Gudruda she had meant. ‘That too is a tale you know better than I,’ he said. ‘I could not tell it fairly now: that is not my mood. Besides, it is not seemly. This is my wedding-eve.’
She let go his hand and fell still. Then lowly she bade him, ‘Tell me then of Skarphedin Kalfback’s-son.’
‘Ah.’ He looked down and took the hem of his tunic in his fist. ‘I feared you would hear of that. He will not come back. A man of such a heart would win great wealth in the courts of kings;—that, or death. What could he look for here?’ The girl said nought, waiting. ‘How much do you remember of him, daughter?’
‘Only the name. Nought else.’
‘Once he held you on his knee and gave you a field-flower he had plucked: then you blushed, and went to the far side of the fire. Then your mother was yet alive, and Skarphedin a wild, roistering lad. Well: I shall tell you the tale then. That will fit my mood well. You will like it: your mother has a part of it. So I will tell it you, even in the right saga style:
‘The beginning of it is that there was a man named Yngvar: he dwelt in Norway in the Uplands. He was a carle there; but his wife died and his herds sickened, and he had little luck withal. One summer he took all his land in fee and got faring to Iceland. That was in the rule of Haakon Athelstane’s-Fosterling; but in the next summer there fell King Haakon at Stord, when Gunnhild’s sons won again the kingdom of Harald Hairfair.’
‘Yes,’ said Swanhild, ‘that King I know: Harald bade the English King Athelstane foster him, and Athelstane must swallow that. Was not this Haakon a Cross-man, and would have nought to do with the gods? But then the bonders grumbled, and the men of the Thrandlaw slew the Christ-priests and made the King stand over all blood-offerings. Was he not this one?’
‘Yes,’ said Olaf shortly. ‘Yngvar came aland at the Hornfirth. He had cattle and timber but little silver; but he found all the land thereabouts was held.
‘Thorold Skeggison was then godi over the Breidamerkur, and was the greatest of landowners in the Side. He was a big man, great of strength and fame: and he harried as a youth all the sea-ways of Norway and the Western Isles, and got great fee therefrom. And Thorold takes in Yngvar for that winter with his kin. Thorold was an Odin’s-man, but Yngvar vowed by none but Thor.
‘Thorold was a man not to matched for strength: greatly he loved the glima. That winter he wrestles Yngvar on the ice-pond below the stead. Thorold was so great of bulk he was not to be moved; yet not for that might he budge Yngvar. Then Yngvar went somewhat slowly at Thorold, so the onlookers thought he held off, and called words at him. Then says Thorold, ‘That you should not go light-handed with me, Yngvar: for in nowise can such as you throw me. Never has any man had the putting-down of me, not even the champions of King Erik Bloodaxe.’
‘Then Yngvar wiped his nose, and huffs and puffs till his cheeks were all round and red. Then he grips Thorold about the waist, and takes him up and hurls him to the ice. Thereat was a great sound of cracking. But Thorold stood, albeit slowly: shook the snow from his head and owned Yngvar the win. Yngvar says that never had he a harder lifting than that, and it seemed to him his arms were loose in their joints. At that Thorold lightens his mood, and there was cheer again.
‘They held drinking-bout then, those next three nights: this was about the Yule. But here Yngvar was nowise an outstanding man, and Thorold drank off his horns quick as curds, and seemed nought the worse for it. Then they had sport with Yngvar, Thorold and his men; Yngvar smiled fondly and let them have their way. At the end of the feast Yngvar gives to Thorold a goodly cloak, of that stuff we call “crimson:” bound it was with a pin of gold-work, and fairer far than any Yngvar was seen to wear. Thorold took this, but said no more than was needful.
‘That summer Yngvar let gather his goods, to seek some place where the land was not all taken. But Thorold said that nowise would he let such a man go to another district: gave him land up beyond Breidamerkursfell beneath the Oraefajokull, and it looked over Jokulsa’s lake: that place Yngvar names, Jokullsknoll. Thereafter Yngvar and Thorold were the fastest of friends. Thorold gave Yngvar his son Njal to foster, in hope that Njal should grow up with goodly strength—thus Njal was reared in Yngvar’s hall with Yngvar’s son Skarphedin. And between these brethren too was fair friendship.
‘That summer Yngvar drove his cattle up to Jokullsknoll; and he came to a spot in the river where it was full so that the cattle durst not cross. Each time Yngvar drives them to it, then shy they away; then he gathers them again and drives them to it again, and again they shy away. Not Summer’s-day in the Finnmark should be long enough for this.
‘It happened Thorold rode by and watched Yngvar. Then Thorold rode down and spoke some words with Yngvar, and asks him how it was. Yngvar tells him. There was a low ford down the stream, but Thorold will not tell him that. “Well,” says he, “so it seemed to me last winter, Yngvar, that you were a stronger man than to be bettered by two cattle.”
‘Then Yngvar wiped his nose, and huffs and puffs, and lifted one of the cows in his arms. Then he walks to the stream and takes up the other cow: half over his back they were. Then he wades across the stream, and not even middle-stream is enough to halt his step. He sets the cattle on the far bank, prods them with his stick and went on to Jokullsknoll. And from this they called him Yngvar Kalf-back.
‘Skarphedin grew, and was every bit as strong of body as his father; but little work he did on the stead. Yngvar worked each day in the fields, for he had no man to help him. But Skarphedin slept to forenoon, and sat about the hall, and drank and played at draughts. Sometimes Njal went to help Yngvar in the field, but mostly he did as Skarphedin. Thorold called them two coal-biters; but Yngvar said nought.
‘One night they sat about the fire and a cow got in Skarphedin’s way. That was the Mother Night, and the snow fell in great dark drifts up on the fell. Skarphedin nudged the cow with his foot but the cow lay down and did not budge. Then Skarphedin put his arms about the cow’s legs and threw it over the fire at the door, so that its head struck against the door-stone and all its brains gushed out: and that was the death of that cow.
‘Skarphedin sat him down in place again, and Yngvar said no word. Only Njal said aloud, “It seems to me there will be less milk for us this winter.”
‘Then Yngvar did not hold his peace but said, “That was a hard throw, Skarphedin: but somewhat better would it be if you did more with your strength hereabouts than lift cows.”
‘Quoth Skarphedin, “Rare is son unlike his father.” But they spoke no more on that. There was the greatest wonder at Skarphedin’s strength, for he was not yet man-grown.
‘That winter they played ball on the ice-pond by Breidamerk. Skarphedin went against Raud, a thrall of Thorold’s and a big man: they were a good match for strength, and there the greatest interest lay. Njal was matched with Einar Four-fingers, a boy much the stronger: self-willful and nasty in anger. Njal was not so big nor strong, but quick and sharp-eyed, and clever at tricks.
‘It fell out that Raud hit the ball and Einar went fast to catch it on his bat; it was on this the game hung. But Njal strikes Einar’s bat with his and the ball goes past. Then Einar put down his bat and threw Njal down on the ice and says, “That was a sly trick, but needful. For had I caught the ball I’d have struck it so strongly none would have stopped it.”
‘ “You should not have struck it half so strong as this,” says Skarphedin, and smites him with his bat so hard his head broke off his body, and that is his death-sore.
‘Then Thorold laughed—I was there to see it—and gave Skarphedin a penny and a blue cloak. “Nor need you worry as to Einar’s kin, nor fines nor lawsuits,” says he, “but I will undertake your defense so that they will be dropped.” Then Njal came back from staring at the body, and Thorold sets them both on the seat opposite his, and toasts the boys thrice. Njal was somewhat pale, but Skarphedin drank his ale like a full man. So they go back to Jokullsknoll for the rest of winter.
‘Folk looked for great things from Skarphedin after this; but in the summer he showed no more willingness to work than theretofore. He went up walking on the fells a’nights, and that was thought no good thing. But that summer Njal went oftener out into the fields, and hung about Skarphedin less. Yngvar spoke thankfully to Njal for his help, but for Skarphedin had few words.
‘That was late in the hay-making, that a storm came off the glacier, dark and fearsome. Great was the hail and sodden the fields. When it was done, then comes Yngvar back into the hall and flings a mowing-axe at Skarphedin’s feet. Then says he, “The stack would be full high now if you but knew the use of this.”
‘Skarphedin took up the mowing-axe and put on his blue cloak; went out of the hall, but said no word.
‘There is an outlaw in the fells; Ketil Lambison was his name. He was outlawed for the killing of Flatnose Arnbjorn. Ketil wrote love-verses about Arnbjorn’s wife and Arnbjorn struck him; but Ketil lived from that, and Arnbjorn did not. In the law-court Ketil had no support, for Arnbjorn had been a kinsman of godi Yrsi; and besides, Arnbjorn’s blow was deemed proper after those verses. Afterward Ketil could get no faring out of Iceland, nor none durst shelter him, not even his half-brother. Then he went up into the fells, and he wrought much ill on the wethers and all travelers; and none had thought Ketil a good fighter until now. It was said he was berserk-gang and that no weapon would bite him, and he had offered-up his son to Odin. Yrsi put a price upon his head, of twenty-four ounces of silver, or three marks. And nine men did Ketil slay that went against him.
‘Skarphedin fared unto the cave and found him Ketil Lambison. Skarphedin had now twelve winters, but was of such growth you would have took him for a full man: all but his beard. Ketil saw him and laughed and said, “Do they send me women now, and I need not even write them love-verses?”
‘ “Yes,” says Skarphedin, “and here in my hands I hold your dowry.” Thereat he rushes upon him and deals him a blow with the mowing-axe, and that was the bane-wound of Ketil Lambison. Then Skarphedin dragged the corpse down to the strand and buried it below the tide-mark, beneath a cairn of stones. Then he went home.
‘Then there was peace in the East Firths, and none heard more of Ketil; whereat folk wondered. That was the end of summer, near the winter’s day offering, that a many men went up to the fells, and found the outlaw’s cave. Then one at length went in: he found no Ketil, only his goods. There on the floor was a field-axe, and it was brown with blood, and lay beneath runes upon the wall. So the stave went:
Weary I was with farm,
Work fit more for thralls.
Fared I to the earth-isles
Fit for more than hay-ties;
Met the ravens’ cook
Did mighty sea’s-bestrider
(The wound-flow would not halt):
The wand return this winter.
‘These were a riddle to them: they had not the wit to read the verses. They went to Thorold and spoke the stave to him. Thorold rises out of his seat and asks to see the field-axe. Straightway he knew it for one of Yngvar Kalfback’s and says, “I have no mind now but that Skarphedin slew Ketil. He it is who merits the fee.”
‘From this Skarphedin had great fame, and the greatest love Thorold showed any man. But when the word went to Yrsi he said, “It seems to me that men are grown big with pride, that are nought but the sons of poor men. Surely Skarphedin now will deem himself above all others and unmasterable. But it was the head of Ketil I vowed fee for, and where is that?” And nowise would he pay the silver to Skarphedin unless the body were shown or witnesses to the deed. But the crabs ate Ketil’s body, and so Skarphedin got nought. That next summer some verses went round, and all of them scathed Yrsi vilely; none knew who had made them, but it was thought it was Skarphedin. After this there was coldness between Skarphedin and the men of Yrsi’s district.
‘After this Yngvar died; Skarphedin and Njal went and dwelt with Thorold. Thorold set two thralls to work Jokullsknoll, and did not ask Skarphedin to do any work. Thorold tried to get the silver from Yrsi for Skarphedin, and there was a lawsuit; but Yrsi won that, and put sharp words on Thorold, and now is a harshness between the Breidamerkurs and the East Firthers. Afterward matters waxed no better. Skarphedin was the strongest and boldest of men, and a good friend to your mother and me: but still he was a man of short word and long deed. Three men of Yrsi’s he slew, but got off on all suits. Njal was now a clever lawyer, and defended his foster-brother most skillfully; and the end of that was, that those suits not undone on flaws in the proceedings were overcome by Njal’s shrewdness and the strength of his father’s following. But not for this went things any the more peacefully.
‘Yrsi had a son, and he was called Hoskuld, and by all men deemed the gentlest of men. One winter was both harsh and long, and many were like to starve. But Hoskuld gave out meal and hay to them. Yrsi betrothed him to Hallgerd, she was the daughter of Vemund Agnar’s son: she was the fairest of maids, and her brow could have matched Balder’s; but hard of heart, and overproud. This saying she laid down to Hoskuld: that he would never have the enjoyment of her until he had paid off these slights against his father. Hoskuld took an oath on it and sought Skarphedin.
‘Hoskuld came to Breidamerk, and with him went three men: and they all wore blue cloaks. They found Skarphedin before the door of the hall. Hoskuld held in his hand a birch-switch, and asked if Skarphedin would go apart with him. But Skarphedin laughed and said wolves need not fight hall-dogs without cause. Hoskuld leaned over and laid the switch up against Skarphedin’s cheek so that the blood spurted out. Then he asked whether this were cause enough. Quoth Skarphedin, “Only a slave takes vengeance right away; only a coward never. And I think I see a woman’s skirts behind this.” Now Hoskuld was unwilling to press the matter any further, so he must go back home and seem only the worse for it.
‘For three nights Skarphedin abode there at the hall, and seemed very restless. On the third night, Skarphedin takes three men, and rides in secret up to the East Firths. This was of a summer, and men were in the shielings. Hoskuld was there with them. Skarphedin came to the shieling so swift none was ware of him: then he and his men laid up stones against the doors and kept watch so none within might venture forth or reach the privy. Five nights Skarphedin held them so: then scattered their sheep and went back to Breidamerk. Hoskuld was not quick to venture down again; and when he did, then he was made the greatest mock of…’
* * *
FOR A SPACE Olaf was still. Then Swanhild asked, ‘Yet father, what of my mother in all this?’
‘Well,’ Olaf answered, ‘great was the friendship between those twain; and some said your mother thought up that prank for Skarphedin: she often gave him counsel. Then came time for the offering for a mild winter, and we bade Skarphedin to the guesting and he came. It fell out that a ship was in to the Hornfirth, and half the shares of it were mine, and half Thorold’s. So I went to bring in the lading and share it out with Thorold. Word of that went up to the East Firths and Yrsi. Hoskuld wastes no time but gathers straightway a great force of men and goes round Vatnajokull and so down by the sand road. But there was a man, Sigfus, and he knew them: came down to Hof and told where they lay. Skarphedin wanted to fare back to Breidamerk. Your mother too would go, and with her four men. Skarphedin said it was not his way to have a women for a shield; but your mother only said, “That you may think and say of this what you will: but I shall now go to Breidamerk and come back at my husband’s side. And there is little you may do about that.”
‘So off they go eastaways. When Hoskuld saw them he knew your mother right off: then he seemed unwilling to go on. But those others behind him muttered and said, “We knew Yrsi well enough, but the son ill. And like as not there is a saddle that must be cleaned when we are back to home.” Then Hoskuld waxed red down to the collarbone, and drove on his horse. They fought there, at that spot you know so well, because there your mother fell. Struck through with a lance and crooked in the rime, and cold: that was how I found her.
‘When Hoskuld saw that she was slain, then he lost all heart and turned back; his men went after him, and Skarphedin followed after them. He cut Hoskuld down out of the saddle, and scattered the others: but Skarphedin went onwards swiftly to Yrsi’s hall and laid a millstone up against the door. Then he set the hall afire and rode up into the fells where none might find him. That summer they gave notice of the suits: they sought the greater outlawry for Skarphedin. Yrsi offered me atonement for your mother; I took none of that. Then I waxed hot and cold, but might think of no deed harsh enough. Ah, that summer was cold, and too many storms rode in off the sea…’
Awhile the old man sat quiet on the lava-stone. The black-haired girl stared at the grave-howes, and did not look at her father.
‘And then?’ she asked at length.
Olaf coughed and scratched his beard.
‘Well, Thorold sent lesser men of his up into the fells, and they bore food and words to Skarphedin. And Njal saw to the defense of his brother. Thorold bade him so play the thing, that Skarphedin should get off with the lesser outlawry. Hoskuld was let fall with no atonement, for that blow and the death of your mother; that was deemed very shameful. But Skarphedin had few friends withal, and some say that Njal did not defend his brother so skillfully this once as he had theretofore. So Skarphedin got the greater outlawry, and he went abroad to work his quarrels: and that was nine years ago and more. Of what he has done in those years, scant tales only have come hither; none at all for some while now. Some said he harried in the Western Isles and died. And now daughter, do you know enough of Skarphedin the outlaw?’
‘No,’ she answered. She looked round, and saw gleams from her father’s eyes. Then she looked away and closed her face. ‘Only father, is that why they name my mother Unpaid-For?’
Olaf looked down as if he had been stuck. Then he coughed vilely and answered, ‘Yes. And do you call to mind how I bore her body into the hall and laid it down upon her bed? Or how I kept her body so all that winter, until the ground should be soft enough to dig up yonder great howe? Why else would you wear her belt now?
‘But if Skarphedin does come back to Iceland, then that is one man I will not be sad to see cut down to death before me. For I hold no other man so blameable for her death. Now chew on that hair, and I will wipe these tears I have no shame of. And as for me, I have wept and now shall be merry: for this turns out to be my wedding-feast.’
The old man stood and loomed over his daughter against the sunset and the last winkings of sunlight across the sea. One last sign he gave to the howe-mounds to hallow them: then clambered up on his old strong pony, and rode down off the fell.
His black-haired daughter watched him for a bit. Then she sat down on the worn stone in his stead.
THAT NIGHT ROSE cloud-flecked and cold. The moon was thin and sharp. Its light sprinkled the land like a chessboard, and it gleamed from off the frosty peaks and rippled valleys of the glacier Vatnajokull.
But at Hof torches burned about the garth; and the folk stood out, drank mead and laughed. Some were dressed in goodly garb, but many wore the white. By the door stood a tun of mead: therein they dipped their horns and bowls freely.
And within the hall the long fire leaped higher, bright and hotly cheering. In the highseat sat Olaf and Gudruda, and great seemed their happiness: so great there were little tears in the corners of Gudruda’s eyes.
Food was heavy on the boards, pork and meats, lamb, fish boiled and roasted, bread and goose, eggs, curds, sweet-cakes, ripe cheeses. Men and women filled their troughs and emptied them more than once that night: and this only the first night of that feast. Even Thorgrim, full of mead and belching loudly, was merry, in spite of those sour glances he cast now and then over at the beardless priest.
They were crowded in the hall, for many had come and more were hourly looked-for. The bright firelight and the many lamps glowed and sparkled hazy through the mist of smoke and risen dust: cast glowing crowns over their heads, the wimples of married women and temple-ribands of the men.
Of them all, only Erik Gudrudarson seemed unpleased. He wandered about the garth and through the hall twice over, asking after Olaf’s daughter; but none knew where she hid. He went then out to the barn to count the bridles. He came out blushing, for he had happened across a couple rolling in the hay, and been roundly cursed by the man and laughed at by the woman, who cast a love-glance after him as he left.
The night fell colder, and folk filled the hall and emptied the garth. The hollow tun was put aside, and the hall waxed hot with fires and sweating bodies. There were riddles told, verses and stories; and prophecies and jests for the bridal couple. All the people came round before the high seat to offer well-wishes and words of cheer to them.
Then the men’s door swung open and flooded the hall with a bitter cold breath, and Swanhild came in.
Those before her fell still: opened a path before her, and she walked between them cold and chill as a Norn’s child. She did not look at them, but her face was grim. Before the bridal couple she came, as if it were her turn. An ill look, and maybe some fear, fell athwart Gudruda’s face whenas she beheld her stepdaughter. Swanhild was garbed as she had been that even, before her mother’s howe-mound: but there was blood upon the blue-black gown, and blood upon the silver belt: sprinkled over her in little fiery drops: and all of them still wet.
Olaf looked down on his daughter’s face and frowned. ‘Daughter, where were you?’
And she answered, ‘In the temple: and offered up a sheep to Odin, Lord of Hosts. Then I had men singe the sheep’s head: now it is cooking: then you may eat it. And that is my gift to you this night.’
There was somewhat of silence after that. Only Thorgrim shouted drunkenly from the far side, ‘Now, that was well done!’
Gudruda reddened and took her cross in hand. ‘I call that a wicked shameless deed.’ Swanhild looked up at her from out her slanting Finn’s-eyes, and smiled, and showed her teeth points.
‘No good will come of it,’ Olaf muttered. It was then, in the silence, that hoofbeats sounded from the yard. Olaf half rose. ‘Go see who that is.’
They returned saying, ‘It is Ulf Haraldsson, and he would speak to you, Olaf, out in the garth.’ Ulf was one of those who had gone to Breidamerk with Olaf for the arvel-feast; he had stayed behind to be with his wife’s kin there.
‘Do not go, husband,’ said Gudruda. ‘Surely these tidings are not so needful that they cannot wait.’
‘I will not leave Ulf out in the night,’ Olaf said. ‘Nor will I flee what seeks me out.’ He stood, took from Rannveig a woolen cloak, and went out.
Swanhild stood by herself, deeper into the hall. Erik started to go to her, but stayed himself and turned aside. Then Thorgrim neared her with a bowl of mead.
‘Will you drink, Olaf’s-daughter?’
She looked up at him. ‘Do you not know by now I do not drink, Thorgrim? Or has that mead addled your old brain?’
He shrugged and sat beside her, supping at the mead himself. Then he said, ‘My thanks for what you did this night: more than one should have thought on it. In five days the blood-offering for strength and victory is due, and we shall make it, Westman priest or no. Will you be a ninth, and see the gods reddened? One of Hardbein’s kin ought to be there for it.’
But bitterly she answered him, ‘For what? Those are only poles of wood.’
* * *
IN THE YARD Olaf greeted Ulf and gave him a horn. That Ulf took thankfully and drank off at a swallow.
‘Now,’ said Olaf, ‘what is the word you bear, and is it well or ill?’
‘I see little enough of cheer in it,’ answered Ulf. ‘Njal Thoroldsson has granted shelter to Killer-Hrap. He vowed his help in the lawsuit, gave him a silver ring and has betrothed him to one of his cousins, Alof. Hrap grew drunk with this. He boasted then of his ill-will for this hall. And Njal sat there across from him, and nodded, and said never a word against him.’
Olaf went up and down before the halls, twisting at his beard. He had heard already of Hrap’s coming to his hall. ‘What time was this?’
‘Only this forenoon.’
‘Yet maybe Njal knew not my wife had thrown this fellow out.’
‘That I deem unlikely: Hrap himself told the tale, and Njal nodded when he heard. I know not how Hrap could have reached the Breidamerk so swiftly. I rode as hard as ever I might to give you warning. But sure enough, Njal was no slower with his favors than Hrap or I with a horse.’
Olaf nodded. There were no wet gleams from his eyes now, but they glinted from beneath his brows, like two swords whose peace-strings have burst. ‘Tell me then, what the priests at Breidamerk had to say of this.’
‘What should they say? Hrap holds to the cross, and Njal says he granted him mercy. The tale is, Hrap turned Christ-man grieving over all his slayings. But no necklet changes such a man.’
‘There we are of a mind.’
They went back into the hall. Olaf crossed through the folk and sat again in the carven highseat beside his bride. The dark woolen cloak fell across Olaf when he sat there, his face dark like night over the white shirt. Gudruda watched him with worry in her eyes. Olaf did not look at her.
‘Well,’ he said at length. ‘Now Njal has taken on Killer-Hrap as one of his kinsmen, the very day after we vowed there should be peace between us.’
‘You see, father?’ asked Swanhild. Some would have said she laughed.
Olaf scowled. For a space his waxing rage took the years from him: his eyes flashed like copper mallets now, and his face fell dark as blood. ‘Was this what you prayed for, daughter?’ he asked.
She said nought: but there was for a twinkling a spark of fear in her eyes, and she looked away. Then she looked back and gave her father stare for stare, until at last it was Olaf who looked away. Then the black-haired girl shrugged and stood and walked to the women’s door. She put a mantle about her shoulders, and went out once more into the night.
There comes a gap now in the manuscript, covering the events of early Summer of that year. This matter may now be lost forever.
From other accounts, however, and reasoning backward from what is told of in the later pages, it seems Swanhild went that summer to the Althing with her father—though Gudruda stayed home. The Althing was the annual gathering of chiefs and free steaders of Iceland, during which all national lawsuits would be argued and settled. And since this was the great coming-together of all Icelanders, the only one of its kind, the political parliament served also as a sort of fair, during which horses were raced, trades were made, old friends met, and marriages were settled.
Again Njal meets with Olaf, and Olaf tries to delve into just what the younger man’s intentions are, and why he has taken Killer-Hrap into his following. Njal meanwhile again seeks Swanhild’s hand in marriage, and Swanhild insults him and laughs at his anger and his pain; little she cares this time!
This year the Althing buzzes, for the outlaw Skarphedin has found passage home, and walks above the herders like a red-handed ghost of a grim past. He meets his foster-brother Njal heartily, and Njal seems almost embarrassed to feel also glad to see Skarphedin. Several chieftains call to Skarphedin across a gap in the ridges that overlook the Althing rift, and ask if he means harm in coming back, and whether he will not go back abroad in peace. Skarphedin says he wants peace, but that he will abide awhile in Iceland. None can guess at why he came back, and what he looks for.
When the chieftains, the godar, depart, little liking the answers they get, Swanhild watches Skarphedin across the gap. She likes the look of him, though he is nowise a handsome man, but big in body, with long arms that bear the marks of many scars, a weathered, battered face, and a skeptical sour turn of the mouth. But his eyes twinkle brightly whenas he answers the godar’s questions. And he seems to like the look of Swanhild in her blue dress with the silver belt. Skarphedin knows that belt, and the two talk somewhat on her mother, whom Skarphedin admired above all the other women in Iceland.
Also are told the first tales of Skarphedin’s wanderings and deeds abroad during his outlawry. Skarphedin had several run-ins with Jarl Haakon the mighty, and those two were foes; Skarphedin never wins a home, but he does wed Ingebjorg the Fair, and she bears him a son. But that goes bad, and mother and child both die, but the why of that is lost now. And Skarphedin had a brother-at-arms, Glam, who was a berserk, and died somewhere. Skarphedin in the end goes to Miklagarth, that was what the old Norse called Constantinople, and joins the Emperor (or King, as the vikings called him) of the Greeks as part of the Emperor’s Varangian Guard guard, antedating the famous Bolli Bollason.
Late that night Swanhild goes apart, and bathes in one of the hot springs that dot the region: for the Althing plain sits atop the rift that splits the Atlantic. It is very late, but midsummer in Iceland has no dark; the sun but dips below the horizon for an hour, then dusk brightens into dawn. Skarphedin finds her there, for he has kept an eye on this bold-eyed maid and followed her. He takes up her dress on his pike, and makes comment on how swan-maidens whose shifts are stolen, are beholden to the man who takes them, and must do as he bids them.
She tries to protest and send him away, but he has none of it, and rapes her in the bath. The rape is brutal, and she seriously fights against him, but he masters her.
The next morning she appears at her father’s booth, and he is at first cross, but when he sees her belt with the silver buckle broken, and the bruises on her cheek and wrist, he is concerned, and even angry. She relishes his anger for a moment, but then tells him who it was, and it shocks him. She asks her father if he is willing to fight and kill Skarphedin for the affront, but it seems clear Olaf is unwilling—mayhap even afraid. He seems then shocked when, next moment, she asks him to let Skarphedin have her in marriage. ‘Has he made an offer?’ he asks. She answers, ‘No, but it is in my mind that is likely.’ ‘We must hope he never does,’ Olaf says. ‘For that would be the worst of turns.’
That day the godar meet and talk over this matter of Skarphedin. Njal urges that his foster-brother be forgiven. Olaf seems grudging, but supports Njal. Others side with them, mostly for peace. Still there are those outspoken against Skarphedin, chief of them Sturla, the Speaker of the Law. But just when matters seem to be dividing evenly, and tempers rising, Sturla seems to change his mind. He proposes a middle course: let the judgment against Skarphedin stand to one side, for a space of three summers. If Skarphedin lives peacefully in that time, and does no man harm, then on the third Althing hence, the judgment against him will be undone, and he will be allowed to live in Iceland just as if Hoskuld still lived. Olaf wonders at this change of heart in Sturla, and suspects something; Njal likely sees the catch, but takes the deal—perhaps he would not seem hard-hearted. This way he has done his best, and much for Skarphedin, and the popular esteem for Njal will grow; and should Skarphedin play the bully and undo the agreement by violence, that will be lain on Skarphedin’s fate, and Njal will not be blamed.
Skarphedin meets with Njal, thanks him for what he has done, and asks him a further favor: to go with him to Olaf, and bargain for Swanhild as Skarphedin’s wife.
Meanwhile Hallgerd sits and stews. She is Hoskuld’s widow, and can never forget or forgive Skarphedin for killing her husband. In all these years she has lost no edge to her anger. Now she goes from booth to booth, seeking vengeance on Skarphedin. But no man seems eager to face him, unless it be Killer-Hrap, the only one who claims not to be cowed by the looks of the outlaw.
Swanhild meets with her father, and bullies him into accepting Skarphedin’s suit. Olaf is hard against it, for he knows it will bring only trouble, and maybe even ruin upon them all. But he cannot deny his daughter this thing, for he sees in her eyes such gladness as he has not beheld in all her grown-up nights, not since she was a girl. And he knows that, however perilous it might prove, this wedding is his daughter’s only chance at happiness.
And so Skarphedin arrives at Olaf’s booth, leading Njal behind. Njal has let his foster-brother talk him into suing for the hand of the girl he wanted to win himself; and clear enough is Njal’s hope that Olaf will turn down the suit. But Olaf agrees. And though Njal speaks gently, this turn of events clearly galls him. Now Olaf’s fears of a bad end rise accordingly. But Swanhild only laughs, for she has what she wanted, or thinks that she does…
SWANHILD AND SKARPHEDIN were wed in the long hall at Hof later that summer. Sixty guests were bidden there, and there was mead flowing with curds and meat and fish and cakes aplenty. Skarphedin sat across from Olaf, but Swanhild sat in a high seat on the cross-bench on the dais, amidst the other women. Gudruda, redfaced and muttering, served them. That was a handfast wedding: Swanhild took the Hammer on her knees and was blessed; and in the waxing strength of the mead, she almost felt the hand of the god upon her. There was gift-giving then, and Thorgrim’s bawdy jests and poor Erik’s pale whey-face. But to Swanhild the long hall stretching before her seemed shrouded in ice and snow through her veils; wherefore all at once she shuddered and asked for more mead.
Nine nights ran that feast. Mostly Swanhild and Skarphedin lay abed in the sleeping-booth set up for them hard by the hall; nor did Swanhild wear more than a bed-shift and flowers in all that time, and then but to steal out to the cook-room to gather them food. It was empty when she crept there, save for once: then she fell on Gudruda and Njal Thorold’s son, and Gudruda was saying something of the stuff they used to kill the hall-mice, of mushroom-dust Olaf had learnt from Swanhild’s mother. Those two fell still when they saw her, and just as softly she took up bread and meat and cheese, laughing aloud only when she fastened the booth-flaps shut behind her and tumbled again into the outlaw’s bed.
But when Skarphedin slept, then Swanhild lay wakeful beside him. She held up her hand and turned it. There was his bed-gift to her: that old ring of Thorold Skeggi’s son, that was said to grant good luck or long life. Fair was that ring upon her hand. Swanhild lay still and glanced up at the bowed-in canvas walls, her eyes all but shutting. And it seemed to Swanhild then that she might see outside the walls out to the long hall, to the hay-piles and swine-sty and sheep-cote, and all those places in the garth where she had seen all the winters of her life till then rise up and fall away. Then all at once she sat up and looked on the great tun of her husband’s warmarked body. She looked at him fiercely, with long narrowed eyes, so that for a while her mother’s seeming was strong upon her. Then she lay back against him, held him, and slept.
Olaf let flit their goods up to the shieling on the Skaftafell, on a grass-ridge over the Skeidar. There in that turf hut they would stay that summer, but in the winter move into a hall nearer the sea, that was yet a-building. Swanhild and some of the carlines made of that hut a fit home. Skarphedin set up an old waraxe of his over the door: Swanhild did not let him clean it even though he said its stains were nought but rust.
Beyond the hut their sheep grazed in a mead between the mountain-walls. Kol saw to them: his kin had a small stead below the fell, and Olaf paid his wages through that winter and the two after. Kol helped Skarphedin mend the roof; Swanhild watched them. Then she saw how Kol looked on Skarphedin, warily and with some fear. That pleased her better than if he had loved him.
And on their first morning there, Swanhild rose early, for that night she had not slept; and when she went out to fill the water-bucket, then a hawk was perched over the gable, and it screeched and rode the winds down out over the dun-hued hay-fields far below. From that she named the place Haukshofn, Hawk’s-Haven.
Skarphedin went east to fell wood in the Breidamerk. Swanhild milked the ewes; in that she had help from some girls from neighboring steads, but their names are not remembered. Swanhild too saw to bringing up the driftage and fish and meal. Some days Swanhild went down off the fell to help with the hay-mowing. There they made their hands rough with mowing and tying up the stacks; but the end of it was this, that the fields were smooth and wide and strewn with whitish hay-piles fair to behold. But Swanhild did not linger there long, but rode back up the Skaftafell when the sun swung to the north.
Some days Swanhild left the door open and looked out often down the fell. She went out into the rain, and came back in wet through, and spoke sharp words to Kol.
Then Gisli, that was Kol’s younger brother, ran one day up the fell and told Swanhild these tidings: that Skarphedin was come back from the Breidamerk and his guesting at Njal’s, and was then at their stead. Swanhild did not wait but rode down after him: found him by the door a-talking with Kjartan and some other carles. They laughed together as if they had been bairn-brothers, and Skarphedin seemed at home there. Swanhild scowled and spoke scathing words to him, and they rode to the shieling in silence.
Then for some nights Skarphedin abode at Haukshofn. Days he spent overseeing the building of their hall; nights they spent together. Swanhild bade Skarphedin tell her all there was to tell of his long farings: of his quarreling with Jarl Haakon the Mighty, of his fighting in Tyrkland for the King of the Greeks, and of poor Glam the Berserk and his end. Swanhild greatly loved these tales. All of them but greatened her wonder at those lands across the sea.
‘How I hate this little land,’ she said. ‘Anywhere else would be better.’
‘So your mother would say to Olaf, and in much the same way. But she had traveled far, and you have never been anywhere else.’
She answered, ‘Even so, I know my mind in this. And you must vow to me that one day you will take me away, and we will leave Iceland behind forever.’ But he would say nought to that, and there the matter lay.
Things still did not run all smoothly between the men of Hof and the Breidamerkurs. More sheep were missing; and Skarphedin had seen too much fleece caught in the bushes in the Breidamerk.
‘And if you found the thief, what then?’ Swanhild asked him.
‘Then I would see. But I would go to Njal first.’
‘Kill him,’ Swanhild answered. ‘Vow to me that you will kill him, Skarphedin, no matter what man it turns out has done it. Scatter his blood-mark about on the ground, and let me watch you do it.’ She spoke these words laughingly, but with a shortness of breath.
At that Skarphedin frowned. ‘Did you ever see a man slain? Then I would not be the one who shows you first.’
‘Then let the deed be hidden from my eyes, so long as you tell me all about it afterward.’
Then she took his beard in hand and kissed him deeply, and that was all they said about it.
ONE DAY OF a forenoon there came a knock on the shieling door, and the war-axe over the door leapt in its place.
Swanhild was then alone, and churning butter. She called out,
‘Skarphedin my husband is not to home, but has gone east to buy ponies. What will you of him?’
‘Not with your husband but with you, house-freyja, would I deal,’ said a voice from without. ‘I am a pedlar and have a cartload of goods.’
‘Go to another stead, old man: there is nought of yours I will buy today.’
‘You know not even what I have in hand,’ he answered. ‘What then if I buy goods of yours?’
‘I will sell nought that is mine,’ she said. ‘We have little enough here, old one: go down to Hof, and Gudruda will deal well with you.’
Thereupon she heard him laugh. ‘That is not the tale that I have heard,’ he said. ‘Well then, house-freyja, if you will not, then you will not. But will you give me no drink on this thirsty day?’
But now Swanhild chafed at the old man’s wheedling tone, though she had lost none of her misgivings, and she answered somewhat shortly, ‘That the water of the Skeidar is cold and good, and there is a bucket on the peg by the door.’
‘O woman, you know me ill,’ he answered, laughing still. ‘I will drink nought but mead. But I have tidings for your husband.’
‘What will you tell me, then?’
‘This: that you should tell Skarphedin Kalf-back’s son that there are some men that are awaiting him, and that they will welcome him well.’
‘What men are those?’ she asked sharply; but the old man answered only, ‘He knows them well enough; but good go with you, house-freyja, even if you will not go with it.’
Swanhild left off churning for awhile: heard the sound of wheels go creaking up the path. She looked to the door mistrustfully, but went back to churning. Soon enough that was done, and she set out the butter to shape it; but she took up a stave and unbarred the door and stepped out.
There was no one about. Bright was that day and blinding. Then down far below her on the path Swanhild saw three figures mounted on ponies. They did not ride but were still. On the midmost of the three the sunlight gleamed.
Swanhild did not call Kol but took up a bridle, caught her pony in the mead and saddled it with sheepskin. Then she rode down. She rode slowly, that her pony might be seen to go fairly down the path. Those others still stood waiting.
Now the middle one kicked horse and rode alone up the path toward Swanhild, and they met at a turn where there was a little break in the woods and the flowers sprang forth. She wore her long fair hair ungirt, and had on a new dress of white and scarlet, that shimmered in the sun; but Swanhild’s hair was bound in her wimple, and at her hip she had her bunch of house-keys, and she wore her daily dress and an apron, dusty and sweat-marked.
‘That was not my wish, that I should be seen upon this fell,’ said the woman: ‘but ‘luck will seldom be trained to hand.’ But now you have caught me, I guess you will have some words for me.’
Swanhild answered, ‘Only this would I know, Hallgerd: why it is you come through our lands by the high paths like a thief.’
‘My road led me hither. But I had no mind to take the hospitality of law-breakers. And you seem ill-turned out to greet any guests, welcome or not.’
Now Swanhild’s cheeks went red, then white. She answered, ‘Whither then are you bound? For it could be none too soon for me to learn that you had reached there.’
‘Yet a ways farther on than here.’ Hallgerd tossed her head. She was older than Swanhild by almost ten years, but even so had lost no whit of her loveliness, that had smitten hard so many men. ‘I was bound for the Breidamerk, but maybe now I will not get so far: I have heard tell there are murderers hereabouts, hall-burners and the like, and dirty cross-men besides; now I have met the daughter of one and the concubine of the other, and I think maybe my road will not be easy.’
Thereupon Swanhild smiled and answered her, ‘That I knew your errand lay not with us, for that you brought only two with you, and those dull fellows besides. I have heard that Hallgerd Vemund’s daughter is much sought-after: now I well believe it, for with so sharp a tongue you will make a fine fishwife. But so it seems to me, that when our men have met, mine had not the worse of it either time. What seek you at Breidamerk?’
Hallgerd laughed shortly, and she said, ‘That was ever the way of concubines and bed-thralls, that they ask after what is none of their business.’
‘This is surely my business, for my husband is Njal Thorold’s son’s foster-brother.’
‘I had not heard you were wedded,’ Hallgerd said. ‘Only that you were wish-wife to an outlaw. But you pester me and I have no fear to tell you: I am bound for Njal, and I will ask him to loose his hound Hrap, and rid this land of a wicked man. Oh, that man may sleep soundly henceforth, for if I have my will, then soon he will have a warmer bed by far.’
‘Burning folk will bring greater outlawry.’
‘That seems no longer true. But that was never the law, that any man should be held to account if he slay an outlaw.’
‘Njal will never work so against Skarphedin,’ Swanhild said. ‘This is an empty errand of yours, and you were better off at home weaving.’
‘That I shall see. But maybe Hrap is man more than hound, and needs not Njal’s unleashing. Then I shall see if I cannot offer him something that will please him.’
‘Go back westaway and take again your wimple, Hallgerd: get you some other dull husband and grow fat. You will not soon find a man on this land to match my husband. Nor will it be tomorrow when Hoskuld will make you love-songs and follow you with his lamb’s-eyes.’
‘I think instead I will go on, unless you will bar my way with weightier things than your beseechings. I have still a ways to go, and would not sleep this night without walls and men between my back and all hall-burners.’
‘Go then, Hogni’s-freyja, but first I will give you a last word, and it is this: that had Hoskuld lived, then it seems likelier to me that he should have been called a “cunt-coward” before ever your husband. And it seems unlikely to me that you will get much good out of all your wanderings; but I think the worst we will have to fear is that you will put on gored breeches, like a man’s, and do a bit of Aud of Saurby’s work. Now that is all I have to say to you.’ But Swanhild laughed out loud, seeing the look that came over Hallgerd’s face.
Now Hallgerd sat in silence, but not for want of trying to speak. Sweat broke out on her brow, and red flecks showed on her cheeks; her eyes bulged out and her tongue stuck out of her mouth; and she was not so lovely then. She cast a glance down the hill, to where her men waited; then at length she was able to say,
‘That maybe was one word too many, concubine: for that, time will tell. But at any rate, I wish that you will not forget it soon, for I never will.’
Thereat she pulled hard on the leads and rode down and away eastaways so swiftly that her men might scarcely overtake her. Swanhild watched them go until they were out of sight. Then she sat down on a stone and leaned against her knees. Her eyes were wide and her mouth open, and her flanks heaved as if she had had a hard run.
After some while she bethought herself of the butter and led her pony back up the path. Above her, through the trees on either hand, she could see the walls of Vatnajokull gleaming.
SKARPHEDIN CAME BACK that even from fishing with the men of Hof. Swanhild told him of those words of the pedlar’s, but she spoke no word to him about Hallgerd. She did ask quietly of the carles and carlines whether any of them had met with Vemund’s daughter. No one had seen her, but the word from the east was unsure.
Then it was toward the end of middle-summer, when Skarphedin went once more to fell wood in the Breidamerk. It was not long before he came back. There was then a hard look in his eyes. He grinned to Swanhild’s greeting and set to sharpening his waraxe on a stone beside the doorway. Kol happened to be nearby. He went to the shieling’s corner and leaned against it, but said no word.
‘What does this mean?’ Swanhild asked.
‘An end to sheep-stealing,’ quoth Skarphedin.
‘Do you call to mind my words on it?’ he asked. She nodded. ‘Yesterday too I saw the marks: a trail of them, and it led where none of our sheep should rightly go. I followed it up into the Breidamerk, far from where I was felling wood.
‘There is a mead there between the glacier-tongues: that was sheep-full, and those sheep bore your father’s mark on their horns. There were no men thereabouts. I fared down into the wood again and came upon a clearing, and there was the greatest reek in the air: some men were making charcoal.
‘I went to them all mildly and asked them what they knew of the sheep. They pale then and mutter, and one says it was no business of mine, for none of my sheep had been taken. Then he would give me their friendship and a share if I would keep still: “for we know of that settlement about you, that the godar made,” he said: “for three winters you have no rights, and will get them in the end only if you be good. So you must take what any man will give you, though once men spoke big words of your briskness.”
‘I answered, that I knew the law over me as well as any man, but that they need not press it on me so sharply. At that they laughed, and that is the way with foolish boys and sheep-drivers. But it was none of my mind to be cross with them, for I would know what man stood behind them. This they took wrongly, and did not hold back their taunts: then my face waxed hot and cold and I heard a roaring in my ears. But for all that I held my peace, though that was the hardest task.’
‘What then?’ Swanhild asked.
Skarphedin shook his head. ‘It will not please you.’
‘Speak on,’ she said. ‘Would you have others tell me what you will not?’
He would not tell her at first. But she bade him to it again, so that at length he said, ‘they fell next to praising me, and told me what a good match I had made.’
‘What then did they ask you, Skarphedin?’
‘Kol should not be here,’ he said.
‘No, but I will not hide it from any man,’ Swanhild answered, reddening, ‘so let Kol stay and hear it all.’
Skarphedin took up the axe and turned it in his hand. ‘Well then, one said to me how he had heard tell of the ways of Finn-women; and some men claim that all things run true in close kin and among women most of all. Then he bade me tell him the truth, since I should know, being now bedwise both of the mother and the daughter.’
Swanhild held her tongue awhile. Then, ‘What was your answer?’ she asked.
Then Skarphedin grinned. ‘Why, then it seemed easier to me. I took up a stone that was neither light nor dull, and weighed it in hand. I said then I might not end their quarrel, but held their friendship in high measure, as they knew I must, since they knew so well the godar’s’ words. “So I will not scathe you as I ought for your filthiness, but rather I will honor you above common men, as I would Thor himself.” Thereupon I threw the stone so that it drove into his brow and he fell down dead. The others took fright and fled fast away; but one I caught and killed. I put out the fire and went to the nearest neighbor and gave notice of the killings. So here I am.’
Then Swanhild looked over to where the Skeidar leapt whitely: and it seemed to her her heart leapt likewise, and she all but laughed. ‘And did you tell Njal of this?’
‘No,’ he answered: ‘that went clean out of my head; all I thought of was to come back so we may gather men to take back the sheep.’
‘But were they not Njal’s men?’
‘That is my mind. Now I will go to Hof and lay this out before your father, for he is godi here and they are his sheep.’
Swanhild took off her apron. ‘I will go too: Kol, you will see to matters hereabouts. Maybe this will rouse him at last!’
They went to Hof, and found there many men in the garth. Thorgrim was there too, and greeted Swanhild thankfully. ‘It’s good you come now,’ he said. ‘If anyone might bring us back the old Olaf, it will be you. Else our choice of godi this year will not be so simple as it has been.’
‘Why, who else seeks it?’ Swanhild asked.
‘There is no one yet so bold, or else it might be his already.’
‘You would not forsake him, Thorgrim?’
‘Didn’t he forsake us? What of his seaborne god, then? It would be one thing if he upheld it strongly himself. But how are we to take up a thing that has made such a woman out of him? Gudruda and the Westerling rule Hof now. And what about our sheep?’
‘We come about those sheep,’ Skarphedin said. ‘They are found.’
‘Rare is good tidings! Where are they?’
‘In the Breidamerk.’
Thorgrim scowled. ‘But that was no more than I looked for.’
‘I will take the doom-ring and vow Njal knew nought of this.’
‘There is no doom-ring hereabouts, Skarphedin, nor at Breidamerk either. That was cast out and broken when they tore down and burnt the temple. And what is Hof without a temple? No blood-offering has been made since winter’s end. Now the catches are less this summer; and I am not the first to say so.’
‘How bad are those catches?’ Swanhild asked. ‘Do any starve hereabouts? Is the hay less this year, or more? Thorgrim, I took you for a wiser man than that.’
‘Well, but it was ever my mind that all things else were fitter than this, to come to utter worthlessness and lie bed-ridden. And Swanhild, I didn’t think you were a Christ-lover.’
‘Then you thought rightly. Now this much needs to be done: you must gather men, go to the Breidamerk and bring back the sheep. Appoint witnesses to show that you find them on Njal’s lands; bear your weapons and be unsparing in your blows. So all may yet turn out well.’
‘If we are lucky, maybe we will find the stuff to make your offering, Thorgrim,’ said Skarphedin; and he grinned.
Now all those men rode off eastaways, following after Skarphedin. But Swanhild went apart from them up to the long hall. That seemed very big to her than. Home it had been; now it was odd. Up over Hardbein Oxen-Hand’s old scarred door a new-wrought rood-cross had been set upon the gable. The door opened wide and the Irish priest stepped out: smiled to her and greeted her and held the door for her. Somewhat less mild Skarphedin had been when he had picked up the stone in the Breidamerk.
It was gloomridden in the hall, hushed and nearly empty. Daylight shone through the gable window and the smoke-hole, on the smoke that was whitish. Therein the highseat stood, still and barren save for its old carvings. All the window-slits beneath the roof-beams were shut up and dark. Most of the folk were out in the fields, on errands or gone fishing. An old woman, Thorkatla, sat weaving on a loom in the back. Orvar-Odd sat with some children by the door. He looked on Swanhild as she went in. Swanhild halted on the fire-stones, turned and looked him in the eye.
Then one of the children ran in and whispered to the others: they clapped their hands, whooped, and went out to see the war-party set forth.
At the sound Gudruda came out from behind the highseat. She was frowning and fingering her house-keys. She saw Swanhild, and her frown shifted. ‘Weary and weak is your father,’ she said. There was weariness in her voice as well. ‘Can’t this errand of yours wait?’
‘No.’ Swanhild stood fair and hard before the older woman. ‘Where is he?’
Shouts and hoofbeats sounded through the open doorway, and the boys’ high shouts. Gudruda scowled and shut the door.
‘My husband lies abed.’ She went into the hall, beyond the highseat, toward the cook-room. ‘Mind you be still in this hall, and don’t upset him with wicked talk.’
Swanhild’s eyes flashed, but she said nought. She went behind the highseat to her father’s shutbed. The hangings were drawn to. It was black beyond. Swanhild stood agape at it, until Gudruda came back beside her.
‘How long has he been like this?’ Swanhild’s words were almost a whisper.
‘Nine nights now,’ Gudruda answered. ‘It isn’t a big thing, but it isn’t quick to leave. I don’t think he has been fully well since that night when he came back from the Breidamerk. He sat up all the night long, his trousers all wet and his shoes muddy. Ah, I should have seen to it that he put on dry garb. And he waxes old.’
‘He is fifty-three,’ Swanhild said angrily.
‘I know,’ Gudruda agreed, fingering her keys. She took up a lamp and lighted it with a straw. Beyond the open hangings little could be seen. ‘Olaf, my dear,’ Gudruda murmured. ‘Are you awake?’
Warily she thrust the lamp in deeper. Over the bed a mound of blankets rose in great lumps. The shadows of the roof-roots moved weirdly with the lamplight. Something gleamed brightly on the wall over the bed. Beneath that, at one end of the blanket-mound, was a wan face, that bore little seeming to Olaf Sigurd’s son’s. The lamplight shone off two eyes and the spittle that ran out of one end of the mouth. The old man looked up then, and greeted his daughter.
Swanhild stepped in before him. She looked up, away, down and back. But she said no word.
‘Yes, I’m me,’ he said. He smiled. ‘this is where Gudruda has put me. Wife, will you warm fish-broth for me? That I think should help.’ The light shone off his upper lip below the nose-holes: his nose was runny.
‘Swanhild, mind you don’t upset him.’ Gudruda went out, and those two listened to the sound of her keys jangling. Then all at once Swanhild stooped and put out the lamp. She moved again as though to sit, or leave: awkwardly she stayed standing.
‘Father,’ she said, but her voice fell away dismally.
‘Now,’ Olaf said; his tone was almost his own. ‘What tidings do you bear?’
She shook her head: lifted her hands and did off her wimple and the copper pins binding her hair. That she shook out free; but still she stood oddly, like a guest in an odd unfriendly hall. ‘It seems years since I was last here,’ she said softly.
‘Swan,’ the old man said, ‘what has befallen you?’
‘Oh,’ she answered, ‘I know of nought newer than this, that the Breidamerkurs have stolen many of your flocks.’
Then Olaf was still. ‘A hard thing to prove,’ he said.
‘Skarphedin found sheep up beyond the woods, and they bore your marks on their horns. Nearby men made charcoal: Skarphedin went and asked them what they knew.’
‘What answer did they give? And what did Skarphedin do then?’
Swanhild told him.
Olaf mulled the matter over in his mind. Then he said, ‘Tell me of that first man Skarphedin slew.’
‘Skarphedin tells that he was short, with a wry black beard: his arms were knotty, and one eye was bigger than the other. Over his shoulders he wore a cloak, that was brown and lined with red. His shoes were sealskin.’
‘That might be many a man,’ said Olaf.
‘Father, you know that man well: that was Trygvi Kari’s son, and Njal’s own grieve. Now, he did not come to my wedding, when all men were here: and I wonder why?’
‘Well, that is what I thought,’ Olaf said after a bit. ‘Did Skarphedin give notice for the killings?’
‘Straightway, to the nearest neighbor, all in line with the law.’
‘Then he will never have his rights again. Old Sturla is clever enough, I ween. Njal will ask no small atonement for Trygvi, and I must pay it. Your husband has cost me money now.’
Just then Gudruda came back in: sat on the bedside and spooned the fish-broth into her husband’s open mouth. When that was done, Olaf thanked her, and said, ‘Now I would sleep once more.’ He coughed, and spat up stuff.
Swanhild stood at the door as if she would go. Her breath came and went in quick little gasps, and her hands shook: it was as if she might not go, neither might she stay. Then she cast up her eyes toward that thing gleaming over the bed: that was Olaf’s old sword. He had won that sword and used it in his youth across the sea, and it was said that Swanhild’s mother had sung a spell into that iron, that it should sing out when foes were near or death close at hand. Now Swanhild pushed past Gudruda, took down the sword, drew off its scabbard and thrust it into the blankets near Olaf’s face, so that he must reach up and take its handle in his hand.
‘Now,’ said Swanhild, ‘do a man’s work.’
Gudruda stood back against the wall. Outrage leapt in her eyes; her mouth was gaping. Olaf frowned at Swanhild, but said no word and did nothing.
Swanhild fell back to the doorway. Pale was her face, and she might not keep still. She laughed shortly. Then she left.
‘I can’t believe the child!’ Gudruda said.
‘Her birth lies behind it,’ Olaf said. ‘Make your peace with her, Gudruda: that is my will. But I think she dreams no true dreams.’
Now Gudruda straightened the blankets and kissed Olaf’s brow. She asked if there were aught else he wished of her: he answered, no. So she took up the bowl and the sword and scabbard and went out. She pulled the hangings shut behind her. She gave the bowl to Thorkatla, but the sword and scabbard she locked up in the back of the highseat, hastily, as if they burned her hands. Softly then she crept back into the shutbed and sat in silence on a chest by the bed. The blackness there closed round her like a hand, and she shuddered.
Gudruda ran the farm now, as well as the household; and this was the busiest time of the year. Harder than any thrall she worked, all day long and long into the night. It was starting to show in her face and eyes. She had lost weight and her skin was slack. Willfully, almost endlessly, would she pray for the farm, for Olaf and for her faith; she was hard-hearted to any show of pagan ways; and yet all seemed to be slipping backward out of her grasp. Kjartan the priest was now her only strength, and the sight of the new church they were building.
When the carles had first told her of the missing sheep, she had flatly forbade them the roughness they had used against the Breidamerkurs last winter. But she had sent Kjartan to Njal with her words, spoken as if they came from Olaf. The priest had come back with this word: that Njal knew of no stealing but should find out the truth, and grant Olaf all the untrouble Olaf had granted him aforetime. That had soothed her somewhat, but not fully. In truth she did not know what to make of Njal, whether to trust him or not, even though he was so worshipful a follower of the Christ and Kjartan spoke highly of him.
Now in the smoky shutbed her eyes were closing, and she could feel herself sliding wonderfully off to sleep—then she started guiltfully and stood. There was no time for her to be resting, there was still work. As she shut the curtains behind her, she noticed Olaf’s daughter sitting on the edge of the fire-pit with Orvar-Odd. Gudruda thought to herself then, that she ought to go to the girl and soothe her. She wanted to do as Olaf had asked; and it was her duty to put down all unfriendliness she felt for others. But something held her back for a moment; and then fear of Swanhild’s sharp tongue, as she told herself, made it seem a task unbearable. She turned away, and told herself she would give Erik a message for the girl later.
The thought of Erik helped uphold her. He grew up a goodly young man, and was foremost in learning. Now he was out fishing with the other young men. Gudruda touched the cross around her neck as she went out through the women’s-door into the bright cloudy day, and gave another little prayer for her son’s good luck.
* * *
THERE IN THE long hall the clouds left it nearly dark as night. Orvar-Odd and the black-haired daughter of Olaf sat together and spoke long of matters of the district and the household, and of Olaf’s sickness. But soon Swanhild lost what words to say.
So she rose up and went a little ways away from the old man, and sat before the highseat. She seemed small. She bent over her knees so that the unbound black hair streamed over her face and hands and knees and swept the floor about her shoes. She did not go in to her father again. But when Erik Gudrudason came back with the fish-catch and all the other folk came crowding in, then softly Swanhild rose and crept out by the women’s door. She stood in a corner of the garth by the end of one of the sheds, near the swine-sty. There Erik found her.
He had grown that summer: his shoulders were big, and his beard was sprouting, and he was said to be an outstanding fisherman who had the strongest sight. He stood by Swanhild at the sty, but at first he had nought to say.
‘Well, Swanhild,’ he said at last, ‘this is surely the finest of summers, though it looks to rain this even. And we had a fine fish-catch today.’
‘May the sun burn your face and make you dizzy,’ she said, ‘and twice-bad to your doltish mother for all her work!’
At that Erik blushed and stammered, and at length went back into the hall, seeming not so big as he had when he had come out.
Thereafter, late in the even, the men came back: they had rounded up all the sheep, and named witnesses, all as was set forth in the law. But they had met no men there, and there had been no blows. Swanhild went to greet her husband: the men there saw her without her wimple, and some held their breath to look on her, whereat Thorgrim waxed somewhat angry. But Skarphedin only grinned, so that those others soon went on about their business.
Already the winds whipped up and drops of rain were scattering across the garth. ‘Now let us hasten back to Skaftafell,’ Swanhild said.
‘And what of your father?’ Skarphedin asked. ‘Was he well?’
‘That is a tale I will tell you another night,’ she said. He might scarcely hear her words. He watched her as they rode: saw a thing glisten on her cheek. ‘Wife, what means this?’
‘It is nought,’ she gave answer, and looked away. Far off the west stretched the dark wastes of the Skeidar sands, where already the rain was heavy. ‘That was a drop of rain, and no more. Only, he should have died or given death, nine years ago and more.’
That even, when they lay abed together, it was she who went atop of him, and put her knees on either side of his chest, and held his arms down with her hands; and she let her hair sweep like rain across his chest and face. Nor did she leave off until she was all in a sweat, and her limbs were trembling, so tired were they, and her face was drawn in and gray. Then she lay upon and against him, clutching at him; and all about the the rain fell and the Skeidar roared.
But not even then would Swanhild weep.
MEN LOOKED FOR big things after this, but little seemed to come of it. Many spoke of Skarphedin’s killing of Trygvi, and what should be the outcome of it at the next Althing, whether Skarphedin should be given back full rights or not. But Njal asked no atonement for Trygvi, nor did the men of Olaf’s district summon Njal for the sheep-theft: Olaf still lay abed, and there was no lawyer among them clever enough to counsel them against the likes of Njal. So there the matter lay. And the days ran on for the most part bright and fair, though the nights grew longer apace, and the chill came back in the air a’nights.
Now one day Skarphedin went up the Skaftafell to tend to the sheep: and that was a day of wild weather, wet and windy and dark on the fell. Skarphedin came home late, and then it was full dark. ‘Husband, what is it?’ Swanhild asked as soon as ever she saw him.
Then Skarphedin answered, that just as he had begun to come down off the fell, he heard a bleating: went and found a lamb caught in a hole between the rocks. ‘So I reached in and loosed it, and stroked its leg and set it right; then I made ready to come down home again. Then again I heard a bleating, went and found the same lamb caught in the same place. Then I set it right as before; but when I started to come down home the third time, then I heard the same bleating as before. “This is enough and more for me,” I said, and went to the rock: but that time the lamb was nowhere to be seen. But the shape of a man stood on the rock, and he seemed tall, and well-on in years, with great arms and a noble bearing, but all cut and marked as if new-come from some great battle that had gone on all the day long. And that man bore the greatest likeness to Thorold Fornaldson, that was Njal’s father.
‘I hailed Thorold and asked him what he would with me. He raised his hand and said, ”I give you good greeting, Skarphedin: but warmer welcome will you win of me, by and by: and you will be very glad of it.” Then he stepped back into the rock, and the wind comes up, and I saw him no more. So I came back home.’
Swanhild shuddered, though the shieling was fast and the fire there merry; and she said, ‘I will not tell what I think of that. But it stabs my heart like ice.’
THERE WAS A man named Otkell, dwelt in the Rangriver plain. He was a big man, not wealthy, but strong and quarrelsome. He was little-liked, and had long been at odds with Vemund Agnar’s son over many matters little and large. Otkell stood out in one thing, and that was that he was said to have the finest horses, both for riding and for fighting too, that were ever to be found in Iceland. Otkell had gone once or twice overseas, to Norway and the Daneland. Now, near the end of the Althing, Otkell had bidden Skarphedin into his booth, and there they had drunk ale and spoken of their farings. They had got on well together, and the end of it was this, that Otkell bid Skarphedin come guest with him that summer, and he would give him one of his horses. And often that summer, whenever Otkell knew of any man going eastaway toward the Side, he had that man bear well-wishes to Skarphedin and urge him come guest with him.
Now Skarphedin had felled many a bit of wood, and made up his mind to go to Otkell’s, and he would be gone two weeks. But Swanhild called that foolhardy, and bid him not go, ‘for this, that if you go on this errand, then we two shall never meet again.’
‘That will be as it must,’ answered Skarphedin. ‘But I said I will go; and if you keep me to home for this, will you then lay me abed for a cold?’
‘Maybe so,’ she said. She went apart from him, and was very angry. ‘And yet if you go to Otkell, then he will boast it to all comers, for a spite to Vemund; and then Hallgerd will egg men on against you and do her utmost to give you what hurt she may.’
‘These carlines and gangrel women have long remembrances and sharper tongues,’ he said. ‘But it seems to me few of them are sung of.’
Then he put on his helmet, set the butt of his spear against the earth, and threw himself onto his horse. He wore a red kirtle girt with a wide belt, and a chain shirt, and at his side his waraxe. He looked so warlike then, that all at once it seemed to Swanhild that she smelled fear and gore in the air, and she was so smitten with love for him that her heart beat fast, the breath caught in her chest, and she might think of nought further to say against his going. So he went.
Swanhild dwelt then alone at the shieling for some days, with only Kol to be with her.
But when one week was gone, then Swanhild took to going up on the fell and looking out westaway. Four days Swanhild did likewise: but on the fifth she gave the keeping of Haukshofn wholly into Kol’s hands, got herself ready and made off westaway.
Now, the weather was warm enough, but fickle and cloudy, with showers. The ways were muddy, so that Swanhild met with many halts, and had to ford streams ever so high. Then mistrust waxed in her mind, for she had been put far from her way.
But when she was almost within sight of Lithend, where Gunnar had lived, then Swanhild sees a man come riding along the road and leading another horse behind him. That was Skarphedin. Then Swanhild cried out and rode to greet him, and they fell a-talking one with the other.
‘So, husband,’ said Swanhild, ‘and how went your guesting?’
‘Well and good, with nought of ill about it,’ he answered. ‘Otkell took my horse and gave me these, that are the boldest of steeds, and like brothers besides, for they will always go together, one with the other, and that is deemed a wonder. But they will make the best stud-horses.’
‘All the better,’ said Swanhild, ‘for my horse is weary. Now let us hasten on homeward; I have heard ill things on the road.’
Now they went on together. Swanhild rode that other horse Otkell had given, and Skarphedin led Swanhild’s pony behind. Swanhild looked on her husband, and he did not seem as she remembered. He was somewhat fatter, not so strong, and rather less wolflike. But then she looked him over a second time, and all at once rode close beside him and kissed him, even on the open road as they were. And she said, ‘But you are so unlovely, my Skarphedin.’ That she said smiling; but her voice quavered.
They came to Markar River, and there were some gangrel women standing at the river’s edge. ‘Bear us across,’ they begged, ‘and we will tell you tidings that strike near to you: there are those about here that would fain meet with you, Skarphedin.’
‘You may keep all your tidings,’ Skarphedin said. ‘But we will bear you across right enough.’ So that they did, and Swanhild kept still.
SOON THERE WAS the greatest rainfall: they rode on apace and found shelter under a high ness. Shortly afterward the rain slacked, and they went on. They went slowlier now, for Swanhild’s pony was very weary, and seemed lame. When they had come in sight of the Skaftafell, then Swanhild looked back once again behind them, and she said,
‘There are men riding after us.’
Swanhild was the sharper-sighted. ‘Will they be friends, think you?’ Skarphedin asked.
‘More like Hallgerd’s friends, I ween.’
‘Don’t be so downcast, Swanhild: this may turn out to be good sport. You go on to Haukshofn, but I will run on beyond to the Svinafell.’
‘Will you mock me now?’ she asked.
‘No, nor will I fight all those on an open field. Three will I face, and five if they be not overstrong; but seven is unlucky.’ Then he grinned, and showed her all his crooked teeth.
Then Swanhild looked down and shook her head. ‘Over my heart there is a lump of ice,’ she said: ‘tell me, is this how a man feels when he is fey? But I will go where you go and bear what you bear. I will not leave you.’
‘So your mother did, and what was her end?’
Swanhild smiled at that, and looked at him sideways. ‘Well, but there is no time to undo my saddle, and you know these horses will not be put asunder.’
Then Skarphedin laughed, and called that well-said.
By then the men were less than a mile off. The sun bursts out from a gap in the clouds and glints off their helms and bright blue cloaks. Swanhild and Skarphedin rode down round below the woods on the Skaftafell, and so swift were their horses that the other men were left far behind. Skarphedin loosed Swanhild’s pony thereabouts. There below them is one man riding: Swanhild says that is Thorgrim Thorleik’s son. Swanhild waves to him: Thorgrim waves back to her, and then he sees those others. He stays still on his horse until they have all gone by; then he turns and rides back homeward.
‘I looked for better things from him,’ Swanhild said: ‘and who is he to mock my father?’
Now they went up the Svinafell and among the woods there, and might see no more of their followers.
‘Do you know this place?’ Skarphedin asked.
‘Yes: the howe-yard of my kinfolk lies down below.’
She rode foremost, up beyond the woods and over the ridge. The glacier broke out before them, a wall of ice all scarred and weird, and broken here and there by dark holes. One cave was some three fathoms above the sand and gravel of the ridge; leading up to it there was a thin tongue of ice, that was smooth and slick after the rain.
Skarphedin pulls in his reins and jumps aground. Swanhild likewise gets down: she went up into the cave, but Skarphedin swatted the horses so that they went down the hill’s far side. Then he takes up shield and spear and follows after Swanhild into the ice-cave.
It was cold there, of an ill half-light. Swanhild was shivering. Skarphedin took off his red kirtle and laid it over her; his chain-shirt he kept on.
Soon enough they heard horses out below.
Skarphedin grunted. His eyes were bright and his cheeks ruddy; he blew on his hands and went down on his belly so that his head lay just at the cave-mouth.
‘What do you see there,’ Swanhild asks.
‘Seven men there, and one I know.’
‘Is that one Hogni?’
‘Hogni it is.’
‘Tell me of those others.’
‘Two stand together: one is tall and fair, and wears a gold ring on his arm; the other stands somewhat behind him, is shorter but broad, with a dark shiny beard. In all other things these two are unlike, but there is a likeness about them in the eyes.’
‘That will be Beigath and Svipdag Nurlason: both good fighters, but eager like boys, and it is my mind that if one of those falls, then the other will lose heart. What of those others?’
‘There are three dressed much alike: big men with fair hair bound with ribands. One is very handsome, and I would call him a peacock; but his hands look the hardest of them all, and his look is very grim.’
‘That will be Bothvar Baugson. Those two with him I guess are Hvitserk and Hjalti, Orm’s sons and Bothvar’s kinsmen. They will lay on blows together and fight harder when they ought to weary. What of that last one?’
‘He is a man older-seeming than the others. There is gray in his beard and a scar on his cheek, and he walks with a limp. He holds his spear well, and I would guess he has swum in these waters before now.’
Swanhild frowned. ‘Does he wear a red-hued helmet, that has a dent on one side, so that the steel shows through?’
Skarphedin answered that he did.
‘That was my greatest fear,’ Swanhild said, ‘and it is with him that you will be most-tried. That is Starulf, Hogni’s friend; some call him “the Gray” for his slyness. I would not blame him for trickery, nor trollcraft either; nor would I call him the most upstanding of men. But whatever side Starulf finds himself on, things seem to happen to fall out so that that side ever wins.’
‘Now Starulf talks with Hogni, and they all eye these holes warily. They see the tracks of our horses, but will not go on, and that is cleverer than I looked for from Hogni. Now Odin, lord of warriors, wizards and the dead, you have not been unfriendly with me before now. Give me the win here, Old One, and goodly blood offerings I will give you, three for every man I slay!’
So Skarphedin vowed softly in his beard to the sky. But Swanhild bent her head down upon her knees and sat huddled behind him on the ice. Her hands were blue against the kirtle. She glanced up at him dark-eyed, and her teeth shook somewhat from the cold. ‘What now?’ she asked.
‘Now I will go out and greet them,’ Skarphedin answered. Then he laughed softly. ‘I know now what looks they wear: they mind me of that time I hunted bear with Gunnlaug. One by one they look into these caves, and wax more fearful with each new try.’
‘Then let them look on, and maybe they will give it over before them come here.’
‘And let them slander me with verses afterward?’ He slipped back beside her, took her chin in hand and kissed her on the mouth. He was grinning, and there was laughter and wild hope in his eyes: something had come over him then, but to Swanhild he seemed somewhat foolish.
He crawled back to the cave-mouth. ‘Ah! They are here already!’
Two men were walking up the ice-tongue; Swanhild could see their heads. Beigath went before and Svipdag behind him: the others were looking in the other caves. Now Beigath stooped down before the hole and squinted. Skarphedin leapt out and thrust at him with his spear; the spear-point caught Beigath’s cloak-pin and threw him back. Beigath fell heavily down off the ice: Svipdag yelled: the others shouted at the sight.
‘Now, lords who scatter Ocean’s fire,’ Skarphedin says, ‘ere you cross this bridge, you must pay me a toll. What have you that I might wish for?’
‘Well, we do have these,’ says Bothvar, and brandishes his sword: ‘but you will not find it easy to make change.’
At the foot of the ice-wall Beigath crawled to his feet. His arms were bloody and his eyes dazzled, but that was all the hurt he had come to. Now Svipdag takes his spear and goes at Skarphedin. Skarphedin pushes aside that blow and thrust back: drives his spear right through Svipdag’s shield. Splinters and spearpoint cut Svipdag’s arm and blood gushed out. Skarphedin twirled his axe and drove it deep into Svipdag’s side: then Svipdag howled and fell and landed on the far side of the ice-tongue from Beigath. He was dead. There was a long smear of red to mark his path.
Skarphedin leaned on his spear. ‘You are far from friendly wanderers,’ he said.
Now against him went both Bothvar and Hjalti. Bothvar swung his sword up against Skarphedin’s shield and cut a big chunk out of it, but Hjalti aimed a blow at him with a wood-axe. Skarphedin slips his axe over to his left hand and sheared off Hjalti’s wood-axe at the handle; then he swings back the axe and smites with the hammer Bothvar’s shield and knocks him head over heels. Hjalti fled then, and Bothvar crawled after. Starulf and Hvitserk came up in their turn; Skarphedin picked up his spear again and met them gladly and the blows fell fast.
Then those Icelanders got many wounds, but Skarphedin few. There was only room for two to come at him at a time on the ice-tongue. Then they fell back. They grumbled at Hogni: in all that time he had not fought but had hung back, and his face was grim. ‘This is an ill thing we do,’ he said: ‘but there is no turning from it now.’ Then he went forth and put one foot on the ice.
‘Outlaw, Skarphedin!’ Hogni called. ‘Why have you come back to Iceland?’
‘For this, that I may gather in your tolls.’ Skarphedin was standing before the low cave-mouth. His arms and chain shirt were grimy with sweat and men’s blood. Swanhild crept closer to the cave-mouth, so that she could smell the reek on him.
Hogni took another step up the ice, and Swanhild turned back deeper in the cave.
‘Dire oaths we have taken, to drive you out of Iceland,’ Hogni said. ‘But we did not say what road we would put you on. Swear by the son of Earth that you will leave Iceland before winter: then we will let you live.’
Skarphedin laughed. ‘That was never the way of men hereabouts, that they should set to treating once blows had fallen.’
‘If you will not swear, then we shall have your head.’
‘Have it, then. But I have two heads here: let me pick the one you will get.’ Thereat he rushed forward and dealt Hogni such a blow with his axe-head that it staved in his shield and staggered him.
‘My curse upon that woman,’ Hogni mutters, and sets to.
For half an hour they were at strokes. It was then late in the afternoon. Both men were strewn with blood. Hogni’s breath was harsh. Skarphedin was the better of those two, but Hogni was the quicker, and he would not draw back. Hogni’s strokes waxed wilder. Skarphedin dodged them then or caught them on his axe. Then Skarphedin struck back: Hogni slips it with his shield; but Skarphedin swung back the axe ever so quickly. The hammer struck Hogni square in the chest, and stove in some ribs.
Hogni looked down and laughed horribly. There was a bubbling in his voice. Red showed on his teeth. Once more he struck at Skarphedin, wildly: and Skarphedin struck back. Then loud was the sound of the axe biting through flesh and bone; Hogni made a wry face but did not cry out.
He came back down the ice-tongue then.
‘Well?’ asks Hjalti. ‘What was the outcome of that fight?’
‘I think maybe I was not the winner,’ said Hogni; then he fell dead.
* * *
ALL THIS WHILE Swanhild heard the blows and shouts, but she did not look, and might not make out what went on there. She hugged her knees up close to her chest and let her hair fall athwart her face, and she licked her lips gently. Her nose was runny and her cheeks burned from the ice: she was cold there, hungry, weary and afraid. After Hogni fell, Skarphedin sat at the cave-mouth and sharpened his weapons. He called back to Swanhild but she did not answer him and let him take it that she slept. But her thoughts ran on to Hof and the longfire and her bed beneath the old roof there, as if that place were still her home.
* * *
NOW THE SUN dropped behind the fell and the wood below was dark, though the ice on high was yet bright. Four of the Icelanders still lived: Svipdag Nurlason, Hogni Harald’s son, and Hvitserk Orm’s son lay dead. Beigath was lamed so that he might scarcely stand; his face was wan. Hjalti had lost his right hand, and the stump still bled; also he was sorely cut about the head. Bothvar was very badly cut about the middle, and some of his guts were hanging out. Starulf had few wounds, so that he might have been called unscathed. These four then sat about the stones and took counsel.
Bothvar said, ‘At nightfall we may go at him unawares.’
‘So he can come at us,’ answered Starulf. ‘And darkness does not widen ice.’
‘He is penned there now,’ said Hjalti. ‘Let us hold him there, and then one of us can ride for help.’
‘Will his wife’s kinfolk hereabouts give help to us or him?’ asked Starulf. ‘Ere the dawn break he will come at us. There is this, too: this place is famed for an outlaw-hole. There may be others about.’
‘And outlaws not the worst,’ said Beigath.
‘What then is your counsel,’ says Bothvar to Starulf.
‘You will little like the sound of it.’
‘We may not back down now,’ said Hjalti. ‘And now I think it unlikely we will get the better of him by arms alone.’
‘Well then, wait here,’ said Starulf. He went into the wood. Shortly he came back: in his arms he bore dead branches and twigs. It had not rained much on the fell, and the wood was dry.
The others looked on that, but said nought.
‘Now you see what I have in mind,’ Starulf said, and dropped the wood at their feet.
‘This is a shameful deed,’ said Beigath.
‘Is it less shameful, think you, to die at an outlaw’s hands and leave your brother unavenged? Or was it a greater deed of Skarphedin’s, when he burnt down Yrsi’s hall? Now maybe you, Beigath, will wish to go back to Hallgerd and tell her that we were too timid to go against the outlaw after Hogni’s death, but I would rather not do that.’
‘Well, but who need know of this?’ asked Hjalti. ‘If we light these at the cave-mouth, then the smoke will blind Skarphedin and drive him out: maybe the fire will melt some of the ice and he will fall off the tongue. Then we may set on him and slay him; and who is there to hear if we do not tell it?’
But Beigath scorned them. ‘There is a woman there, Swanhild Swart. I saw her in the cave, and she combed her long black hair. She would tell this tale both far and wide, and her tongue is a match for Hallgerd’s. I would sooner die than do anything so shameful.’
‘Go on, then,’ said Starulf. ‘I think that I could pick an abler fighter than from the halt in any case.’
Then Beigath’s face ran dark as blood, but he held himself in hand. Then he leaned on Svipdag’s spear and stood. He looked on Bothvar and Hjalti, but those two looked down on the branches and said nought. Beigath crawled onto his pony. With the spear-point he picked up Hogni’s cloak off the ground, and that cloak was all bloody, so that it seemed then more red than blue. Then he bade them bind Svipdag’s body on his pony for him: that they did. Beigath rode down into the wood, leading his brother’s body. The others were still awhile.
‘Now one of us must get a load of embers from the nearest neighbor,’ said Starulf; he bade Hjalti do it; so off rode Hjalti. It got darker then. When Hjalti came back the stars were out.
‘Who will bear it up to him?’ asked Bothvar. They had some words on this. That was the end of it, that they should all go up, first Starulf with the wood, then Bothvar with the coals, and then Hjalti. Now they take out their weapons and make ready, and creep up the ice-tongue softly as they might.
Bothvar frowns. The starlight gleams off the ice wall, but even so they can see little. ‘Where is he?’
‘He couldn’t have gone,’ Starulf says. ‘We should have heard him. Likely he is weary and has fallen asleep.’
‘Let’s get on with it,’ says Hjalti.
They crept up to the cave-mouth on hands and knees. Hjalti stood behind; he had bound a shield on his right arm and held his spear awkwardly in his left hand. Starulf laid down the wood softly as ever he might; Bothvar handed over the pot; Starulf blew on the coals till they were bright. Then he dumped them over the wood. It was so dark now that nought might be seen save for the coals and the fire starting, and blue gleams off the ice.
The fire spread. Starulf and Bothvar scrambled to their feet and drew their weapons. Laughter came forth from the cave-mouth: there was Skarphedin, his bloody chest all orange in the firelight. The Icelanders started back before him. Skarphedin stooped and swept up the wood in his arms and ran at them. He cast the fire over their heads beyond them, drew his axe and set on them.
Starulf and Bothvar raised their weapons, but Hjalti was there too and there was not room enough. They stumbled on the wood. Hjalti fell off the ice, and died first, then Bothvar lost his head and Skarphedin drove his axe deep into Starulf’s neck and chest. That was their end.
He leaned on his axe-haft, breathing and grinning.
Then from the cave-mouth came words: ‘Are they all dead now? Is it ended?’
‘I think henceforth they will have little use for their ponies,’ Skarphedin said.
Warily Swanhild came forth and found footing on the ice. The burning twigs crackled softly, but outside of that the dire stillness of the ice had come back. Skarphedin wiped his axe clean on Starulf’s cloak. The fire was waning, but in its light Swanhild saw her husband’s body, and that was all piebald with iron and flesh and blood and burns. She sucked in her breath and asked him,
‘Does it give you great pain?’
‘Not so much as it gives you,’ Skarphedin answered. He took her hair in one hand, pulled up her face and kissed her. His eyes were wild. ‘Surely, this is my best day since Glam’s death!’
‘Let’s go back to the shieling,’ she said.
They gathered the four ponies. Skarphedin donned his kirtle and a cloak, and they heaped up stones over the dead Icelanders. Then Swanhild mounted and Skarphedin leapt into the saddle; but he swayed to one side and all but fell. Swanhild gave out a little cry: Skarphedin shook his head and bade her keep still.
‘Tomorrow I will go to Breidamerk and talk with Njal,’ he said.
‘Your wounds are too great,’ she said.
‘I tell you I will go!’
In the night’s gloom he seemed big as a bear and burdensome as a troll. He spoke as if he had drunk deeply of mead, but Swanhild was sober unto death. She looked over the stones and ice and on those lopsided cairns wherein were caught the bodies of the slain, that were all cut-open and cold. Blue and ghastly seemed the night; and it stank. The ice wall was high over them all, and the cold air swept down off it over them. From far away arose the sound of the wind cutting over the ice-peaks high up on Vatnajokull. Then Swanhild muttered and said,
‘This is an ill abode, and I am sick at heart.’
‘It will need more than these to be my bane,’ Skarphedin said.
‘There will be more now,’ she answered.
They went back to the shieling. Kol had a fire lit. Swanhild washed Skarphedin and spread grease over his wounds, as her mother had taught her. They sat up together, and Skarphedin drank mead until morning. Then all that forenoon they slept, but in the afternoon Skarphedin set forth. He gave notice of the killings as was set down by law. Then he went on to the Breidamerk.
NOW AS FOR those two goodly horses, they fared back to Otkell all on their own. Otkell, as soon as he heard what had befallen, sent word to Skarphedin and asked how he should send them back. That was Skarphedin’s answer, that they had done him a good turn, and now Otkell might have them back if he would. But Otkell answered, that what he had given, that would he never take back. Skarphedin then let those horses be brought to Njal’s in Breidamerk, for by that time there were other plans afoot.
One night one of the thralls came into Vemund’s hall seeking Hallgerd. She was then in her bower. That was her wont, that she had many men and women about her, and they were drinking and gossiping and very merry. The thrall went to Hallgerd and said that there was a man without, and would speak with her. ‘But there is this too, lady: that man would not give out his name, nor do I know him. But he is the grimmest of men: don’t go out, but send some men out to him. It were safer thus.’
‘You are a fool,’ Hallgerd said. ‘I fear no thieves or hall-burners.’ She pulled a mantle about her shoulders, and in the firelight her hair glimmered like red gold. The menfolk put on their hats and took their weapons from the wall and went out after her, warily.
The lone horseman was dark against the night sky. His steed was weary and his garb grim and foul. He let his spear rest on his horse’s rump: over that spear was draped a linen, like a King’s standard.
Then Hallgerd said, ‘Now behold Beigath Nurla’s son come back from his errand in the east. What tidings does he bring?’
The rider shifts somewhat in his saddle, but says nought. Slowly he lets down his spear, so that the linen hangs before Hallgerd’s face. And that was a cloak all rent and dirtied with muck and men’s blood. It was blue beneath, of a goodly weave, and round its hem were worked threads of crimson and of gold. It was such a cloak, that there were not many thereabouts to match it. Hallgerd looked on it but said nought. But neither would Beigath move. Hallgerd takes it then into her hands, and in the lamplight her face seems somewhat hard.
‘And Skarphedin?’ she asks.
‘The word is, he lives still.’
‘Then how is it that you are still alive?’
Thereat some of those men with her muttered, and one of them, Hogni’s kinsman Orm, said, ‘Woman, what way is this of yours? Did you send your husband to his death, and will not grant him the least tear?’
She turned on them and they fell still. ‘But if there were one man among you, and you were not all fools and weaklings,’ she said, ‘then he would be even now planning his revenge. But Beigath, now you will tell us how many others like you ran off before the work was done.’
‘You need not lie awake nights a-fretting over that score, Hallgerd. But I will let some other tell that tale.’ He took rein then and rode away.
Those others went back inside the hall, but Hallgerd stayed out. She was then deep in thought. ‘Now that makes four families must seek atonement from the outlaw,’ she said. Silently on the rents and bloodstains of the cloak she toted up the strength of menfolk that might mean. And in the east the moon climbed over the hills.
At length she broke off and said, ‘So many, so many: but not a bold man among them, but all sheep-drivers, chapmen and carles.’
The moon had then something less than a quarter, and was what folk called a ‘cutting moon.’ Hallgerd called within and brought out her man Garm once more: him she bade fetch her pony and a pair of rams, ‘for I would make a blood-offering on the fell tonight.’
Garm shook his head, and set about that matter.
IT DID NOT always rain in Iceland, nor was it always cloudy there, but sometimes the sky was fair; and then the sunset was lovely to behold from the high fells. Now it was upon such an even that Swanhild and Skarphedin took their meat early, and went among the sheep in the meads above Haukshofn. Skarphedin had come back from Njal frowning, and had answered none of Swanhild’s questions; but tonight he was all smiles and mildness.
The grass where they walked was short, and the sheep chewed the bark on the few trees that still grew there. Kol gave them good greeting and had words with Skarphedin while Swanhild walked on. Some of the sheep bleated and brushed against her skirts. A great gentleness seemed to well up out of the earth and swallow them all.
Swanhild called to Skarphedin. ‘Let’s follow the stream up and sit beside the Svartifoss.’
They went up higher on the fell. The winds had fallen. They lay down in a little mossy hollow by the rapids. The great black rocks stood like fingers in the river’s flow. Some hawks flew by: there were many a hawk on the fells, and even more skuas below. Swanhild lay against Skarphedin’s chest, let down her apron and spilled out those flowers she had gathered. They might have been lovers, in another land.
One by one Swanhild took the flowers up: and some she bound in Skarphedin’s red beard, and the rest set to weave into a necklet. Skarphedin let his head fall back onto the moss. After awhile he began to sing verses; but Swanhild let a flower fall between his lips and stilled him. After that they were still as the shadows grew.
When she had done with the necklet, then Swanhild held it up to the sky; but all at once she shuddered, and the crown fell off her fingers.
‘What is amiss?’ Skarphedin asked. His voice was sleepy.
‘Nought: all is well here,’ Swanhild answered: ‘so why then does this deep fear dance around my heart, as if I had seen fetches? There seems no surety in the world nor peace.’
‘Do your thoughts run still on that small quarrel on Svinafell?’
‘No, no … all the same, I am glad that few fights are so ugly.’
‘Why,’ he answered, ‘that was very blithesome when stood against others I have seen.’ More he might have said, but that she laid her fingers softly over his lips and said,
‘Skarphedin, don’t kill me.’
Once more they were still. Skarphedin watched her out the corner of his eyes, and seemed as though he waited. Then Swanhild sighed a deep sigh and said, ‘My father was not always so. And Hardbein Oxen-Hand would not let go a whit of his rights, not to any man, not even to King Harald the mighty. Then in those winters, only weaklings and thrall-born men ever lived on in shame. Then were all the nights and winters fair. Jarl Haakon was right that he picked this time to die. There is nowhere left in the world for high-mindedness when such a man could come to so shameful a death.’
Skarphedin said, ‘These fells here have not lessened any since before King Harald the Mighty’s first breath.’
A light grew in Swanhild’s eye. ‘Do you deem these great? In the north are others twelvefold their height. I was a girl when I saw them. That was the sport that day, that all the young men made trial of the cliff beside the falls: that was named the Æsirs’ Bridge, for that no man had yet climbed them from below. That day many tried it: two fell and one got his death of it, and that was the first man’s death I ever saw. But none won the peak. My mother laughed and chid my father, that he did not try it.
‘At first he would not. He was older and greater of girth than any of those others. Then my mother spoke him soft sweet words: he stripped bare and set to the climb. I was afraid and I cried out that he should not; my mother cuffed me and bade me not shame him. Then I was still, but I shut my eyes. I heard a shouting then: I looked and saw him: he stood on the rocks above the falls, and laughed…’
‘I too knew him in those days,’ Skarphedin said. ‘Only Thorold Skeggi’s son might then have been called his match of all the men of the side. But he should not have left your mother unpaid-for.’
Then Swanhild shut her eyes, and spoke very softly, and said, ‘Only, do not die, Skarphedin, and leave me as my father was left.’
‘That will fall as things will fall,’ he answered. ‘But I could ask the same of you, and get no better answer.’
She looked upon him. ‘And would you stay on here after I died?’
‘Maybe so. But maybe I would go.’
‘There is what marks you and me apart,’ she said. ‘You might go, but I must stay.’
She looked away. She seemed forlorn. Then he sat up and tugged at her dress. ‘In Saxland and Wendland, across the seas,’ he said, ‘the folk tell another tale than ours. There they say the Swan-maiden shall abide as the thrall to the thief that took her Swan-shift, until a Knight shall come and rescue her.’
She did not look back. But she answered, ‘That what you have stolen, that no man may give back to me; nor would I have it back.’ He laughed, but she said,
‘Skarphedin, take me away from Iceland.’
‘There will be time and more to talk of that this winter.’
‘No. Don’t take me next summer. Take me now.’
‘The storms will come soon. Few ships will be leaving; and we would need a twofold share of luck to fare across safely.’
‘That will fall as things will fall. But it must be now or it will never be.’
‘Whither then would you lead me, Swan-witch?’
‘In Greenland men are said to have holdings open still, and Killing-Erik will never take to any of these sea-borne gods. Or else, the Swede-realm is said to uphold the home-gods still, though they own one King over all the rest.’
‘I have not gone much into that land. But I know men there at King Olaf’s court. The winters there are hard, though, and there is more snow-fall. The wolves do not go hungry long; and Kings were ever fickle and untrustworthy.’
‘I will take that gladly. Well? Will you?’
For awhile he would only look at her, and said nought. Then at length he said, ‘You are very eager for this thing now. What of your father?’
‘Don’t ask me all this! This is my wish, that this summer we fare from Iceland and come back never again.’ She leaned over his chest, and laid one hand into his thick beard: her lips were a little agape, and her eyes narrowed: there was a shadow about her face from the black blue hair. Her breasts swelled and fell against his side. ‘Won’t you take me, Skarphedin? Yes. You will: for I will have it so.’
He stirred in his place. There was an odd look in his face. ‘You are very like your mother now,’ he said. His words were low and thick. ‘And yet, this thing might still be done. Njal has a ship, and has offered it to me ere now. If he help us, we might yet go this summer.’
‘Shall it hang from that milk-beard, then? Skarphedin, I dreamed a dream one night I never told you. That was the way of that dream, that a skua flew round about me; and it held a fish very fair to behold. Then a hawk came down out of the fells, and flew likewise about me; and at first it seemed as though those two birds had flown together; but when he saw that I would have that fish, then the hawk slew the skua and put down that fish at my feet.’
‘Then you dreamed ill.’ Skarphedin scowled, and his words came out like growls: Swanhild had never seen a man so angry. ‘This is not the first time you have made as though to put Njal and me apart, but this will fare no better than any of those others. Now you will hear me on this: Njal is my foster-brother. And that is a thing that runs deeper and faster than any husband’s love. Together we grew up; together we were men; and we swore it too, before the gods on a felltop.’
Swanhild drew back from him, wan more for fear than anger. There was a wildness in her eyes and bearing. She was lovely for all that, but also mournful and unsafe. ‘Njal no longer swears by those gods, Skarphedin. He has forsworn them and you.’ But Skarphedin said nought.
‘Once I dreamed of gods,’ she said. ‘Often my mother sang to me of them. Sometimes I feared my mother, but never then: never when she sang to me. And later on I dreamed of the gods, when my blood first ran: Rannveig, that was my father’s wish-wife, taught me the meaning of that. But I grew up and my father grew gray: no gods came and no heroes, but only sheep and sheep’s men. Then one night I stood out on a rock in the rain and spoke to those gods. I had no more trust in temples. I would have of them a token, and vowed I would give them nought more if they did not mend their ways. That night went away with no taken but an ill one: that day my father took the sea-borne gods. But that night I gave them an offering even so.’ Then she smiled, a bleak ill smile.
‘Well,’ said Skarphedin, ‘now you sound much like those others I have heard, who were first to cast aside the home gods for others. That was ever the way of the gods, that they minded men ill. What should the gods care for common men? Odin is sly and fickle-hearted, Thor not the cleverest, and the rest little better. It is fitting that a man should call on them in time of need and give them good offerings if they help him. But he should trust more in his own strength and cunning.’
‘But there are the tales-of-old such as my mother sang. Shouldn’t the gods wax wrothful that their temples are brought down and outland gods upheld instead? Have they forsaken us, or were those tales nought but lies?’
‘Swanhild, who can answer such riddles? Why then bother over them?’
She looked at him for a space. Then she said, heavily, ‘Skarphedin, you are a man born, and may fare abroad and winter in Kings’ courts. But what shall a woman do but sit and churn and milk and weave and brood, and grow old over her children and suchlike riddles as these? Little enough of fame do we get, and much of that is ill. “Man needs strength, but woman’s needs are skill and thoughtfulness.” A woman may wed a mighty man; she will still be caught.’
She stood away from him, and he sat up on a stone on the moss, frowning: but her arms flew about and her words ran on ever so quickly. He answered, slowly,
‘That may be as you say, but that is the way of things. But at all ends, you will not set me against Njal. He may not be all that I would wish, but old is the saying, “Bare is back without brother.” That will never be, that he and I should be set at odds. Sooner than that we both would die.’
Swanhild shook her head. There were plainly more words on her lips, but she stilled them, turned and went away.
Skarphedin sat frowning by the stream for awhile. The wind arose, and the air waxed chill. In the end he rose and went looking for her; and therein he seemed drawn willing or not.
* * *
SHE STOOD ATOP a moss-knoll and looked down off the fell. She seemed unaware of him yet; Skarphedin halted and watched her.
She had unbound her wimple, and the wind caught at her hair and tugged it round her shoulders and long white throat. Her arms were raised. Night was coming down: she, the tall thin woman, seemed to beckon it. Something had come over her. It seemed as though she listened. She did not look back. Out beyond the fell the green fields were spread, and the flat black Skeidar sands; and far, far off, there might be seen a small silver line a-gleaming: and that line was the sea, the Swans’-Path.
‘Skarphedin,’ she asked, ‘for what did you come back to Iceland?’
He went to her and set the flower-necklet round her throat like a torque, over the black, black hair. ‘For you,’ he said. ‘But I looked for a redheaded girl.’ She drew in closer to him. All their bickering was done then.
SWANHILD AWOKE. She was cold. No-one lay beside her.
The fire had fallen to blue coals buried in the ash. All the shieling was dark: night’s blackness and cold had come in by the smoke-hole. Swanhild drew her hair from her eyes and sat up in her bed-shift. She listened, but she heard no more than the rush of the wind from far away up on the ice. She was alone.
She lighted a lamp with a straw. Orange-red gleamings danced about the wooden walls, floor and rafters, roof-tree and bed. The shadow of her nakedness showed through the thin bed-shift. All the weapons abided in their places; the fair Greek shirt, his trousers and cloak were gone.
Swanhild slung a cloak across her shoulders and went out. For a moment the door stuck as she opened it, and the old waraxe stirred above the frame.
That was a night of portents. The sky was mostly clear, but ragged clouds went across the stars, silver and gray, thrown on by the winds. The fell rose up and up and went into the black night. White was the Skeidar: Swanhild heard it now. White stars fell across the sky, flashed and were gone.
The wind came down off the ice and snatched the flame from the lamp. In the darkness, Swanhild peered into the night.
Between the clouds the stars shone fairly in the black blue of Ymir’s skull.
There was a shape on the rocks above the shieling. Dark and huge it was, troll-like; then all at once Swanhild was minded of Hallgerd’s words and said aloud,
‘What are you, and what do you want of me?’
The shape shifted somewhat, and seemed to look down at her from a great height. Then it surged upward and stepped off the rock. She knew him then.
‘It was the cross-boy,’ Skarphedin said. ‘Did his pony wake you?’
‘Erik?’ she asked. There seemed no sense in it. She wondered if she dreamed.
‘Aye. At first he would not give his word but to you. I said you slept and lay naked: then he waxed red as a grape. He would not stay.’
‘But for what did Erik ride here in the middle night?’
Had it been another man, it might have been said he wavered.
‘Swan, your father lies dead this night.’
She asked, ‘Was he set upon, then?’
‘No. It was that sickness.’
‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘I see why Erik must hasten and give me the tidings straightway. Skarphedin, are you not cold out here?’
‘I am better-garbed than you.’ He took her shoulders in his hands. ‘You are cold as ice,’ he said. ‘And your feet are bare.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Colder than ice.’
‘Come in then,’ he said, ‘and I will put branches on the coals and make you warm before the fire.’
‘No, you will not do that,’ she answered. ‘I will need that wood later this winter.’
NOW THOSE TWO go in, and now that night is left alone to the sea and stars and ice.
Well-named was the Skaftafell: for very like a shaft it rose up between two great bergs of the glacier, darkly a-gleam a’nights. Through Skaftafell’s wooded waist wound the white Skeidar. Below the fell the stream split, curled and shifted across the low land, and at length lost its way in the choking, sandy marshes of the Skeidar sands, where the skuas nested. But there among the fell-rocks the river’s road was steady and fast. Woods of willow, birch and mountain-ash girded it: and they were deemed good growth for Iceland. Then in the trees’ night-shadows were goodly flower-fields: Balder’s Brow, pansies, pink and white cow parsnips; sticky butterwort too. Above the shieling was the sheep-mead, dark, dotted cloudlike by those slumbering sheep.
On up, on up ran the Skeidar, up to Svartifoss the Black Falls, where smoky meltwater poured through those black masts of frozen lava.
Beyond the Svartifoss the fell’s crown stood naked in the sky. The land there was dry and chill. Bitter heath took the place of grass. Sparser waxed that heath, and clumps of rock and sand got bigger: then the fell ended in a great wall of the glacier. Wall seamed and shattered, the lip of a great ice-sea bowled and penned among those upswept alpine peaks, as if stilled by time, but slowly, slowly, spilling down. There a ridge of black rocks broke out of the ice like jagged teeth gaping, wherefore was it well-named by some men, Fenris’ Jaw. But that was beyond the sight of most men, and only scant few had beheld it.
And even there, and even beyond there, deep in boundless Vatnajokull, hidden lakes steamed and bubbled beneath their lids of age-old ice. And among them was the only open one: and that was Grimsvotn, Grim’s Lake, where the mask of Odin lay. And there, at last, the waters of the Skeidar had their beginning.
ICE HIGH OVER grass-fields, past the heath upon the hills, the glacier Vatnajokull bent the fells beneath it.
Ice upon ice had built Vatnajokull; for ages had Vatnajokull grown. Now it was higher than the fells and deep as a sea, unfathomable. And Vatnajokull was still growing. Winter by winter the ice crept a little farther down the hills, swallowing heath and grass.
In the summer sun, Vatnajokull was blinding; in the winter nights, when the air was sharp and the stars burned cold, then Vatnajokull seemed to give off its own light, blue and baleful. But very often Vatnajokull went behind clouds, and those clouds waxed gray and ice-flecked: then mists fell on the dales, and drizzling rain, and that was the bitterest weather: even the sheep waxed cold and suffered, and men and old women fell sick and died. That weather might come even on summer days. Then the hay went moldy and there was little of it; men toted up their cattle and sheep, and it was in their minds that they must slaughter more than they had wished: and even then the long winter looked unsure. But Vatnajokull fattened in the wintertimes, and fed upon the storms.
Now and then the lads tending to the sheep would hear a sound as of a branch snapping from far away: then they knew the ice had riven and cracked, somewhere miles away up on Vatnajokull. Or else an ice-cliff would crash down onto an ice-field there, up beyond the highest fells: and then the sound would be of thunder.
Few birds flew over Vatnajokull; no foxes ran that way; men did no more than skirt its lowest stretches, leading their ponies by the bridle, leaving tracks across the snow. They did not last long.
The first Icelanders that went along those trails thought they saw in the ice huge faces, man-long noses, eyes and great rippling beards half-swallowed in the crags. These they deemed ice-giants felled by Thor. Did like shapes break slumbering from the vast fields of ice higher up, or were those shapes there yet greater and more ghastly? There were stretches on Vatnajokull where no man had ever walked: no man had seen them: no man ever would, not for a thousand years until the world’s end. There were many tales told of the glacier and they grew with the years. No man knew the truth. What cannot be seen must then be dreamed.
Now the snow and ice glint gray and blue in the dawn’s light. The cold mists part and the clouds rise unwillingly. Day reaches the glacier, long hours after it comes to the green-blue dales below.
Deep beneath the ice lurk those volcanoes that have built up the fells and all the land. When one of them erupts, then even this vast ice, in part, must melt; and then the gush of meltwater floods the dales and pastures southaways, leaving twisting streams and fields buried beneath black sand, muck and stones. Even sleeping, these volcanoes boil their hotwater lakes in caverns deep-hollowed beneath the ice. And the greatest of these is called Grimsvotn, where the mask of Odin lies: a ghastly place and an ill for any wanderers.
The length and breadth of that ice is great as many a King’s rule, and all unchallenged save by one stretch of sharp and lonely peaks: Hvannadalshnukur. And that is the highest spot in all Iceland, and rises more than one thousand, one hundred fathoms above the waves of the faroff sea.
All else is ice. Ice, and snow, and wind: wind like spears, snow hard as stone, ice stepped and waved like blue rivers, pools and firths. And now and again groans sound thereabouts, shrieks and squeals from no living throats: for the glacial ice does move, though it be slower than any mortal man’s eye might tell. Slowly and dreadfully the ice crushes itself and grinds downhill beneath its own undreamt-of weight: down the fell-sides, down out over the hills of men.
And the sun rises, and in the strong light the snows glint, though not as though they melt: even the sunlight here is unwarm. And the sun wheels round and falls. Then clouds come, for they are never far off here: on the northern slopes mist-clouds roll over the black cliffs and spill into the valleys: the water-droplets stiffen into ice and fall like gems onto the bed-snow. Only now, in the gathering twilight, do those ice ramparts and towers seem to come into their own, alone, lifeless, unseen, daunting even to ravens. The ice stretches on all sides farther than the eye might see, melting only into darkness. For miles and miles it runs beneath the night, rising, falling; rippled, cracked and rounded; in spires, in broken cliffs and in sluggish, bowl-like vales.
That is Vatnajokull, the Water-Glacier, and that is Vatnajokull’s world; and in the stars’ cold light with winter’s onset not far off, Vatnajokull sits, spellbinding and ill, waiting, waiting.
* * *
FAR BELOW THE glacier on its southward side, set in a hill over the fields, was Hof. A lamp burned outside the men’s door of the main hall, but there were no folk in the home-field. Only one small figure walked outside the wall, going round it against the sun’s path.
Swanhild stopped at the front fence and said, ‘Nine.’ Then she settled her cloak upon her shoulders and went in.
The hall within was still, even with its many guests. For the even-meal only cold curds were given out, with a bit of bread in each trough beside the bowl. The guests sat about on the benches round the walls, with little talk. There was no great cheer there that night. Gudruda had bidden the thralls heap wood on the fire. The flames cast black shapes against the walls, over the hangings and carven wainscotting; and men’s shadows danced there like an army of trolls, big-limbed and mis-shapen. In the midst of the hall the highseat, all carven over with scenes of the old gods’ tales, stood empty.
They had buried Olaf that day.
Early that morning, Swanhild had ridden with Skarphedin up on Svinafell. The hay there was bending and bowing beneath a strong south wind. Rank was that hay, unmown and ungrazed: that was the howe-yard of Olaf’s kin. The hilltop rose up beneath the hay in round mounds. Beyond the mounds the upper heights of Svinafell’s bleak face covered half the sky.
‘My father often brought me here,’ Swanhild said. ‘Then my mother’s mound was new; and my father would say, that no ghost ever wholly leaves its howe. And old Orvar-Odd told me that if I should put my ear to the ground here a’nights, then I should hear them all a-drinking, putting cups together and boasting. That was a windy night and my hair blew all about, when I came here: but I heard the wind and not a voice from there. Since then I learned, that the earth is still as any corpse.’
She went among the mounds; but Skarphedin stayed on his pony outside the yard.
Swanhild pointed: ‘There is Sigurd, my father’s father: he was wounded on the holm by Odd the Strong, and brought back here to die. There is Olaf, my father’s father’s father: he was so stout that he might not fit in the highseat; he was put here with two horses and a cart, that he should not be too wearied on the Hel-Ride. That one there, that is the best: it holds Hardbein Oxen-Hand; and he would rather be a free man here than a lord in Norway, and King Harald’s lackey. He fell, burned to death in his first hall here. Olaf the Stout and his brothers Kari and Thorleif, along with their mother’s brother Thjodolf Nine-Fingers, paid back his killing and built the hall below. But the door and the highseat did not burn: they still show the smoke.’
Then she stopped and said, ‘Here will we lay my father: with Olaf his grandfather to one side and my mother to the other. He must have meant this, that he left such space between the two. His horse will lie here, and there we will put his best-loved meat and drink.’ She smiled then, and then Swanhild was lovely, so that there was not another woman in Iceland, maybe, who was fairer. She seemed happier then than she had while her father yet lived.
She walked about there somewhat more. Her gown’s hem was dark with the rank grasses’ dew, and the stuff of it was heavy and burdensome, so that once she all but stumbled. Then she halted, and stood before the broadest mound, and beneath it somewhere was Hardbein Oxen-Hand with all that they had lain away beside him, and him face down atop his sword. Swanhild stooped and took hold of the grass, like some child that tugs his grandfather’s beard.
‘Old one,’ she muttered, ‘I go now hence much like you came hither. But I saw none of my father’s luck walk up to me that night when he died. Send me yours instead.’
But all those plans came to nought, for Gudruda buried Olaf in the graveyard beside her new church, in spite of all Swanhild’s sharp words.
‘It was my father’s will that he should lie in howe alongside his kinfolk up by the Svinafell,’ she said: ‘he picked the spot himself.’
‘Long ago, maybe,’ answered Gudruda: ‘but this year, I seem to mind that he was baptised into the one true faith. He scorned the false heathen ways you cling to. And as for your folk, I have heard little good of them, save that they spent their days killing men.’
So the thralls dug a hole nearby the church before all men: narrow and little it was, two ells long and one wide, and a fathom deep into the darkness. Some there stood silent, but others pointed at the shiny new church and spoke lowly. And there were all the friends and household supporters of Olaf Sigurd’s son in that quarter, but Njal Thorold’s son had not come, nor had Thorgrim Thorleik’s son.
Gudruda stood at the head of the hole, flanked by the priest and Erik her son. Deep and grim were Gudruda’s eyes, and her cheeks were all puffy and sore. Erik’s eyes were very bright; still, it could not be said he wept. Apart to one side, well away from all those others, stood Swanhild. She was so dressed, that she had on a scarlet kirtle, a coal-blue dress, and her mother’s silver. She wore no wimple, but let her braids hang down to where she had them tucked into her belt. She was smiling, but that was no kindly smile.
The thralls wrapped the body in sailcloth and put it into the hole; and after that filled in the hole, tramping down on the dirt until it was almost of a level with the ground thereabout. The priest said some words none of them could understand, and then led them up into Gudruda’s church, and there was much singing there.
But Swanhild rode with Skarphedin by that place where the old temple had been. There was little left of that place now: only some stones to mark the corners, and holes where the posts had been pulled from the ground.
Swanhild looked about that place sadly.
To that side before where the doors had been, there was the blood-well, deep as the waist of a big man, and set with stone. In the middle of that was the blood-stone; and that was stained brown, and not even all the rains might wash that clear again. Midways of the temple were deep holes: there the gods had stood, Odin to one side, Frey to the other, and Thor in between, with a bright nail in his forehead. And there had the doom-ring been kept, that the godi should wear, and whereon all binding oaths must be vowed. And there had been the blood-sprinkler, to spray the gods and walls with blood; and there had been that fire, that should never once be let go out, come cold or wind or hardest rain. Now it was told that the last worshipers made secret offerings up by Svinafell, as though that were a shameful deed.
Swanhild said, ‘That that was my mother’s saying, that Odin and Thor had taken Freyja and the Norns’ rule over, and that in spite of that their rule should not last long.’
She knelt then beside the blood-well and stretched out her arm to touch the blood-stone. She touched it, but straightway a shudder took her and she stood up straight as though burned. ‘This is now a luckless place,’ she moaned, and cast her eyes about. ‘Skarphedin, what would the gods think if they saw us here.’
But Skarphedin shrugged: ruins he had seen aplenty. ‘The gods think what they like,’ he answered.
Then Swanhild looked upon the stones and sang a stave:
‘I longed for some thing once
Some thing once I trowed I had
Some thing once I looked to have
Some thing I deemed was owed to me.
‘Then that thing I did not have
Then that thing I did not see
Then that thing I did not find
Then that thing I did not know
Then that thing I doubted me
And black and bitter ran my blood.
‘Then that thing I knew again
Then that thing I found.
Then that thing I saw once more
Then that thing once I had.
‘But too swiftly now draws the year to winter,
And no offering has yet been made,
And I wonder, and I wonder still.’
Thereat Skarphedin had looked somewhat askance at her. ‘That runs like some Finn’s-song, and not like skald-work at all.’
She had looked up at him long, but she answered him no word.
* * *
THAT NIGHT THE priest stood up before the empty highseat, and he seemed cheerful enough. ‘So it seems good to me, that we should speak words of Olaf, about the good deeds he did in life,’ he said. ‘So we may entrust his soul cheerfully to God. Surely, Olaf’s soul is near us even now: maybe he will hear our words and smile on us. Gudruda, won’t you start?’
‘All right, father,’ Gudruda said. She rubbed at her eyes with the inside of her apron. ‘I mind me of that time Olaf first came to decide to disown the heathen gods. We had been wed then but a short time, and I was praying before bed. My husband looked at me strangely but said no word. Later that night he asked me if he had not done many things in his life God would not approve of. I answered, so have we all, being only mortals, and fallen. Then he bade me tell him what should gain him the Christ’s good grace. I answered, “There is but one way, and that is you must take the Cross; yet if you shall not, then never will you be saved.” Then he asked me much about Hell, and I told him all I knew of it. My husband misunderstood this a long while, and kept asking me what offerings should be most pleasing to God. Yet later he became a devout Christian, and thought only of his salvation, the peace of the land, and the welfare of others.’
‘That is well said, Gudruda,’ said the priest. ‘Now Erik, what have you to say?’
Erik looked at the highseat. ‘I would speak of the time when we first came to Hof. Then was my mother unsure of her skills, for that this is so large a household. I also was fearful, for our folk were not outstanding, and this was a well-known man’s hall. But Olaf was kinder than any might have hoped: greatly he heartened my mother. And to me he was ever kind and generous. He dealt with me as though I were his own son: taught me the use of sword and fishing-spear. He always saved a smile for me, and I did all I might to pay back his kindnesses.’
Orvar-Odd was the next to speak; he blinked his dim eyes and shook his head. ‘Now I know not of Olaf’s good deeds: it seems to me that what goes for good is not what it was whenas I was a lad. Yet Olaf was ever open-handed and helpful to his neighbors; and in the winters when the hay ran short he always had plenty, and shared out his meal also. By anyone’s reckoning he was a good godi, and what I would say is what a shame he left no sons behind him, not even baseborn. Not so long ago it seems to me that Fat Olaf, Kari and Thorlief were strong men in this land; and now all that is left of Godi Hardbein’s kin is little Swanhild here, and some folk in Norway. That such a mighty family should have dwindled so is beyond my understanding; but Odin was ever a fickle one, and what he gave with one hand he was as like to take back with a grin with the other. That is all I would say.’ Then he leaned back and scratched his head.
The priest said with a gentle smile, ‘Very good, grandfather. Now Swanhild, you surely knew your father best. Can’t you remember some good thing he did, and would have wanted known after us death?’
‘Yes, I do,’ she answered. She looked about her, and her long eyes were dark in the bright glare of the firelight. She seemed very mild, and unlike herself.
‘What my tale tells I did not witness; but my father told me it many times when I was younger. Once he told me I knew it even better than he himself. He was a younger man then, and went abroad: to the Finnmark, for furs and whale-meat. But this was against the orders of the King. Thorold Skeggi’s son went along with him; but they lost each other in the wood.
‘My father saw a white deer, and it was both fair and fine: he chased it with his bow. All the morning he followed its trail, and all the afternoon. Then it was nigh to even, and he came into a clearing, and there the trail ended. But there was a maiden there, and she was bound to a tree-stump with white rope.
‘Lovely was the maiden to behold: unbraided was her hair, and it hung like a black net over her body; and her skin was like fresh cream. She told him she was a princess, and was captive to the two master-wizards of the Finns: they were teaching her their craft, and would come back to the glade at sunset. “Now,” she said, “if you will slay these two for me, than I will lie with you and glut you with sweetness such as you have never known heretofore of any woman.”
‘My father hid behind a tree, and that night slew both those wizards: the maiden thwarted their spells. Then he cut her free, and she fulfilled all her vows to him.
‘The next day they went down to ship: great was Thorold’s cheer, for he had deemed my father dead. They sailed to the maiden’s home, and my father called forth the king from his hall. Then he told him, “Sir, I’ve just raped your daughter and saved her from those troll-wise men: give her to me to wive or I’ll make her my concubine and slander you with verses.” The Finnish king waxed wrothful at this, and set his board-men on my father; but Olaf slew them all.
‘ “Well,’ he said then to the king, “for that I will want more dowry. Three men of yours have I slain, and more I might, but that should be a waste: these were fine fighters.” At that the king grumbles, but yields, so those twain are wed; then was the wedding right by law, and my father got a fortune out of it. He bore her away to Iceland after three years’ time, and that woman was my mother, and the woman my father loved best in his life.’
There were few words when Swanhild ended. Gudruda sat and stared, and made the Cross; Erik’s eyes were big, and the priest might not stop gaping.
Skarphedin grinned. ‘He was a good man in his day,’ he said mildly.
After awhile Erik arose and looked warily at his mother out of the corner of his eye. ‘Let it be known,’ he said, ‘that I shall hold the arvel, the inheritance-feast, upon the first days of summer. Then I will drink the memory-cup to Olaf, and sit upon the highseat. Then too will the land be shared out: let any owed money by Olaf come then, and they shall get their goods. Not hard-handed will I be at that feast: I mean to bid all of you and all the other great men of the quarter; and the mead will flow then somewhat quicklier than honey.’ The guests were heartened at this, and praised Erik’s words.
* * *
THEY DID NOT sit awake that night long, but lay down on the benches and drew their cloaks over them early. Ale will keep a man awake, but the want of it makes a dull night. Swanhild sat long before the fire at the foot of the highseat: she was alone there, and her thinness made her seem almost a child. Now the smile was gone from her lips, and she seemed woeful and lost.
Rannveig came to sit beside her: she had been Olaf’s concubine in the years before he had taken Gudruda to wife. She was broad-shouldered and comely, and her hair was hay-hued and her hands very lovely, but she was a simple woman for all that. She and Swanhild had always got on well.
Rannveig took the younger woman’s hand, and they fell a-talking about Olaf. At first the words came out swift and easy, but then they spoke more slowly, and the words were heavy.
They fell silent a long while. Rannveig crept up on the stones, a little into the highseat’s shadow: the fire’s heat made her skin all red. But Swanhild stayed as she had been. Then all at once they heard a soft ringing, waxing and waning, in the air.
‘What is that?’ Swanhild asked.
‘I know what that is,’ said Rannveig. ‘That is your father’s old sword singing. Gudruda locked it up in the highseat, and there it lies.’
‘It should not sing save to speak of foes or death.’
‘Maybe it mourns your father.’
‘Maybe. But still, he ever told me that sword looked only forward.’
The ringing fell away then, and Swanhild looked about the hall from door to gable: saw the shutbed where she had been born, and the corner where she had played, and the dais where she had wedded Skarphedin. Then she said hastily, ‘I am glad that he is dead. Glad, glad!’
‘Swanhild! How can you say such a thing?’
But the blackhaired woman only shrugged her thin shoulders and stared into the fire.
‘Swan,’ said Rannveig, ‘I have a boon to ask of you: but I know not how to go about it.’
Swanhild turned and touched Rannveig’s knee. ‘Ask it, Rann,’ she said. ‘If it lies in my hand, you’ll have it.’
‘Well then,’ said Rannveig—‘well then: would you let me abide with you and Skarphedin?’
‘Why do you ask that? Does this place now seem hateful to you, too, so that if it fell burning you would only laugh?’
‘Oh, no: Swan, the things you say! But I must leave, and know not where to go. I have spent my life here, and all my thoughts are in this place. But if you will not take me, would you then see if some other would?’
‘Why must you leave?’
‘Oh, that is no great thing. Only, it’s Gudruda, you know. Since your father died, her ways have changed somewhat. Now she threatens me, and calls me a harlot and a strumpet, and shameless, and bids me go. Only, I don’t understand: I always did my best here, and how can she bear me such ill-will because your father found me to his liking? But we did not lie abed together overmuch after he took Gudruda to wife. And now I know not where to go: only I minded me of the happiness I had with the children here, even you when you were little, and I was like your older sister. So I thought, soon you will be bearing, and I could tend things for you and watch over your children.’
Then Swanhild thought awhile; and she said, ‘Rann, few things would I like better than that: but have you not heard that we are leaving Iceland?’
‘Well, there has been some talk of it, but that is all.’
‘That was kept hidden for this, so that Hallgerd should have no warning. But already Skarphedin has been to his foster-brother, and Njal has vowed us a ship: and we will sail from Iceland as soon as ever that ship is “boun:” and tomorrow will we set out for the meeting-place.’
At that Rannveig frowned, and she thought, but she only shook her head. So Swanhild said, ‘But surely we can find room for you on-board, if you will come with us.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘That I care not, so long as it is far from here. To the Swede-realm for this winter: to the Uplands on the Keel.’
‘That is far, Swan, it seems to me: across the sea, far into the east. But I don’t want to leave Iceland: that thought fills me with fear.’
‘Then I will see what I can do for you here. Go to bed now, Rann: take heart and rest. I will see to it that you are not left homeless. But tell me, is no man looking after you?’
Now Rannveig’s cheeks burned a bit more brightly, and she said, ‘Well, Flosi Thorgeir’s son has set his heart on me, and we have lain abed together once or twice since your father died. But he is a poor man, and dwells with his sister Thorhild and her husband Ospak Asgrim’s son. But already they speak harshly of his staying on there with them.’
‘And he is a guest here this night. Does he wait for you then?’ Rannveig nodded. ‘So why do you sit here with me? Go on, and meet me in the morning.’
So Rannveig rose, greatly cheered: bade Swanhild good-night and went to her lover. But Olaf’s daughter sat still beneath the highseat, and bent over her knees, and stared into the fire. The sword set to singing once more; and no man might have guessed what went through Swanhild’s mind then. Her thin face, framed by the black hair, waxed almost holy in its hardness.
Now another came to her while she was musing, and that was Erik Gudruda’s son. He was then on his way to bed. He knelt down on the warm stones and greeted her; she stared still into the flames. Then after awhile he spoke softly and said, ‘He filled that seat well, your father. Now it seems to me that I will be like a child there. Whenever I put my hand to a thing, then I will bear your father in mind.’
But she did not answer.
So he tried again and said, ‘Swanhild, it seems to me now we should agree on how the land should be shared out.’
‘That is little in my mind, Erik, for I will not long be here.’
He looked at her. ‘Then it is true, what men say: that you are leaving Iceland?’
‘I heard that Skarphedin went to Breidamerk,’ he said. ‘Will Njal help you, then?’
She looked down. ‘Njal says that he will help us. But that is his wish, that his help be hidden.’
‘Much of Njal is hidden,’ Erik said. He looked about. His mouth opened, but he shut it. Then he said, ‘Even so, I would not have it said that I set out your father’s lands unfairly while you were abroad.’
She looked at him. The long slits of her eyes were almost shut, and the eyes looked strangely from the fire. Then Erik started somewhat, and there was fear and wonder in his face.
‘You will not be unfair, Erik,’ she said; but that voice seemed not her own. ‘I leave it in your hands. I do not know how the law lies, only a stepson and daughter left: and my wedding might not be deemed lawful. But I believe you are the lawful heir, since you are the head of your mother’s family. We will give you no trouble.’
Erik still looked doubtful, but he said, ‘I have been thinking, Swanhild. A part of the wedding-pact between your father and my mother was that Olaf should buy back our old farm. Then I should have a place to go when I wived. It is not big, but it is better than a shieling. Take you that farm to live on when you come back.’
‘I will not come back, Erik. This night will be the last you will ever see of me. But if this farm is not dear to you, then give it to Rannveig and Flosi Thorgeir’s son to dwell on. That should please me.’
‘Then that I will do. Swanhild, I wish you would not go.’
‘If I do not go, then there will be many killings hereabouts, Erik. Would you wish that? Your saying as to the arvel was a goodly one, quite manly. You will be a fine man one day, if you do not pay too much heed to your mother.’
Then Erik muttered a word of thanks, and looked again into the fire.
Then he said, ‘How odd it is: I had thought our next meeting should be very different: you a wedded woman, and I am not a man. But here we are a-talking by the fire just as we did last winter. Maybe it is true after all, that we do not really change at all.’
At that word a shudder took the blackhaired woman, and she answered, ‘Ah, Erik, and your own words belie you: for I never would have looked for such meanness from you.’
‘Swanhild, I meant no meanness. But if you ever should divorce that man, or if he die, then I wish you to know that you will always have a home here. That I vow before God.’
‘Do not trouble yourself so, Erik. If Skarphedin should die, likelier far it is that I should put his knife to my throat and follow after him, like as queens are said to have done in the old nights.’
Then he paled. ‘Swanhild, surely you would not do that?’
She smiled at him, and her long black eyes were scornful. Then he left her to climb up to his bed; or it might even be said he fled: but she rose, and opened her arms to the fire. Then she went round the fire to where the big outlaw sat alone and had watched them two. And Erik, peeking back from the edge of the loft, saw her stoop to kiss her husband’s open mouth before she sat beside him.
‘Now, husband,’ she said softly to him, ‘this is my will, that you tell me that tale you have ever withheld from me, and that is of what your deeds were, when you won free of Miklagarth and Greekland.’
They two alone were left waking. All around them in the hall the other guests and thralls lay upon their benches sleeping beneath cloaks and blankets: some turned and snored, and others lay still as sacks of lading.
And Skarphedin told her, and said, ‘North I went, into the Rus-land, and there hunted for a winter and sold pelts for gold. Men I knew, and women I had: there is the greatest slave-trade along those rivers. And I heard tell of Erik, Jarl Haakon’s son, how he fought battles there, being cast out from his father’s lands.
‘But I went north again, by the East-way; but all the realms were not then as they had been. Young King Svein Forkbeard gathered men and spoke of harrying the Western Isles, but my heart was not in that. I minded me of Ingebjorg the Fair, and went up north into the Trond-law once again. There I put on old shabby dress and a wide-brimmed hat, and a rag over one eye, like Odin whenas he walks among men. Then none knew me, and I wandered as I would.
‘There too all was changed: old Jarl Haakon was dead—and that was no fit death for him, that had snubbed his nose at Harald Gorm’s son the King. And the young King Olaf had the land between his palms. I told tales of young Jarl Erik and of how he fought in Gardarik, and stirred up folk against the King. Up and down the land the King went, and tore down the temples and put the cross to men. And those that would not take his seaborne gods, them he put to the sword and gave their holdings to his followers. I saw Geitir Aslakson, and he did not know me: he was a king’s-man, and wore the cross on his chest. I saw Aslak’s mound, and Ingebjorg’s, and my son’s. Then I went about the land after the King and at length had words with him. He took me for an old bonder, and gave me questions, and we spoke through the night. But in the morning I went away and filled his kettles with horse-flesh. Ha! That was a trick fit for the High One indeed!
‘I knew not then what I should do, but went into the berg. And there was a woman there, a seeress; and I gave her a coin. She fixed my eye and said, that “there shall the sea-rover go, where he first started; and he shall find there what he looked for once.”
‘I walked before the ships at harbor. One there was with a raven astride its prow: and the bird lifted its wings and screeched and flew off. I asked a man, what ship was that; and he told me it was Thormund Geir’s son’s, and was bound for Iceland. I went to Thormund and had tidings from him. He told me then how Thorold Skeggison was dead, and Njal his son a godi. Then I deemed I had small choice in the matter: so I sought a passage home.’
‘Skarphedin,’ Swanhild asked, ‘did you truly not know the death-rite of the Christ’s-men, that you asked so many questions today? And you have seen so many lands across the seas.’
He grinned. ‘But I deemed it not right that they should treat old Olaf so, and none give them a word of shame.’
Thereat Swanhild laughed out loud: and that was a most unseemly laugh.
They did not sleep in Swanhild’s old shutbed, for the priest had that, and Gudruda bade him stay there. But Swanhild and Skarphedin lay down together on the long bench across from the highseat, like all the other guests. The long-fire’s ruddy gleamings set all the inside of the hall gloomily alight: Swanhild in that light gazed upon her husband’s face and kissed him over and over again. And she murmured in his ear of how she had put herself to sleep here in the years since her mother’s death.
‘The day was aching to me,’ she said, ‘but I was not slow during the night. Then all the world slept, but I waked and knew that all was mine. And I would lie awake until the death-hour, unless I took care.
‘So I devised dreams to lull me: and in the first years I set myself dreaming of my father’s doings in the lands across the seas, such as my mother had told me of; and those tales mingled with the tales of past times, so that some nights I wondered whether my father had indeed been one of King Hrolf Kraki’s champions. Then in my middle years I set myself dreaming of what should befall if all my father’s foes ringed the hall, and piled stones against the doors, and shot arrows through the smoke-holes, and set brands hard up on the walls: what my father would do, and how many of them he would slay before they brought him down: and how I would help him, and make a new string for his bow with locks of my hair. And then in my last years I dreamt only of storms, and how the wind should catch at the turf and tear asunder the roof, so that all the cold, dark night should pour in with the rain, and the long-fire should hiss and go black, and men should shout and curse, but all for nought.’
‘There was a kindly, mild-hearted girl,’ Skarphedin said. ‘Still, it could be said that we are well-suited for each other, you and I. But now I do not wonder, that you had so small a share of suitors out of these lads hereabouts.’ And he grinned.
Then Swanhild’s eyes waxed long, like slits, and her red, thin face looked hungry. ‘There Erik will sit, in the highseat of Olaf and Hardbein and Sigurd: but now I think that seat was not made for such as him, but rather for such as you. And this is my wish, that before we leave here you will make it less easy for Erik to sit there.’
‘Now it seems to me that you have not been sparing of mead-drinking this night.’
‘Oh, husband,’ she answered, sighing, ‘I spoke that only in play. But if I went hence to Svinafell, I need not ride a horse.’
At that he took her face in his big rough hands and let his fingers bend into the thick black crown of her hair. ‘Lovely you are in the firelight,’ he said. ‘Lovelier even than your mother at her fairest.’
Then all at once she fell to kissing him again; and their bodies folded together as though they had called out to each other, in a tongue that was all their own. But Swanhild let roam her hands over her husband’s body, and set to undressing him. Nor did he seem unwilling; but even so he said, ‘That this is unseemly, to be so merry on your father’s burial-day.’
‘Oh, I am wild and feckless as the north wind,’ she said softly into his ear; ‘and I must have you inside me even now, this very moment: else I will scream and waken all the household.’
So he let her have her way, for that was his will too: and they were not quiet about it.
* * *
GUDRUDA’S EARS BURNED, hearing those two up to their tricks: shame filled her breast, and anger. All at once she rose up out of bed and made as if to open the curtains; but then she stopped. Staying there, listening to those sounds, she seemed already older than the day before. Her broad back was bent, and her shoulders low, and her heavy bosom fallen. Nor might even that dying firelight take away from her all the care-lines on her face.
Gudruda sat upon the bedside, and looked down at the floor. She shook her head, she shuddered. There seemed to be no heart left in her.
Then she looked up, over the curtains and walls of the shutbed, to where the red firelight set the roof-beams glowing, and the turf-roots dangled through the birchbark of the roof. Truly it seemed to her than that she was dead and sent under the earth to the fiery Hell for all her sins. With that thought, she might stay there no longer, but stood and put a mantle over her shoulders, and softly went behind the highseat and out through the women’s door.
But that night was all beclouded, with neither moon nor star to light her way: only the faint, dull light of the longfire gleaming murkily out the smoke-hole. It was windy, and all the window-slits were shut.
For a while Gudruda felt her way about the garth; and how small she seemed, and lost, there in the dark night’s hugeness.
Once she went and stood before the gate, as though to go up on the hilltop; but she dared not leave the garth. And in the end she shivered and waxed so cold that she went back in again, back to the shutbed where she would sleep alone.
She lay down again, and drew the covers over her: still, she was not quick to get warm. There she lay unsleeping and staring at the rafters. The fire now had fallen into embers, and there was no sound in the hall save for the love-grunts of her stepdaughter.
It was some time later, and Gudruda rose out of bed and knelt upon the floor. Then she began her prayer, and called on her god and the white Jesus, and begged them for their help: ‘for I have worked so hard, and hoped for so much, but now things go from bad to worse, and I see nought but trouble; but I cannot learn my error or my sin. Teach me then, and let me uncover it. Where, where am I wanting? Only a few months ago, all my prayers seemed answered: now Olaf is dead, and the men still swear by Thor and cast their runes, and will not leave off their devils’ ways, even though they kneel each Sunday and sing the mass. Help me, O Lord God, for You are as great as any King of the south-lands, and all men must do as you shall wish. I am weary now, and lone, and need help and charity. O Lord, I do not doubt you, I only ask that this trial of mine be ended shortly: for the day is coming, when all men will gladly do your bidding. And then all the dead will waken from their graves, and stand into the east, and praise the sun. There will be no trials then, nor labor nor toil, nor death nor sickness, but all will dwell together in peace and cheer, and winter and night and wickedness will be known no more.’
And so Gudruda wiped away her tears and got once more into her bed. Nor was it long afterward that she let close her eyes and slept, and seemed happy.
* * *
THAT MORNING, VERY early, Erik bestirred himself, and dressed in a new tunic Gudruda had woven for him that summer. Now, Erik slept in a loft under the hall’s deep gable, far from the men’s door. When he came to the ladder and looked down over the hall, all was gloomy and gray: the fire had burned down to its coals, but the sun was not yet risen. Even so it seemed to Erik that everyone lay even as they had when he had gone up abed: he thought he must be the day’s first riser and was very glad of it. But when he crept down the ladder and went along the warm firepit, then he saw the bench empty where Swanhild and Skarphedin had lain.
Straightway he went out into the garth and looked in the barns and outbuildings, but he found no one. Shivering, he went back indoors. The sleeping bodies stirred at the cold new air that swept in at his back, but none got up. Erik knelt before the highseat and looked down on the stones. There seemed great sadness in his face. And after a long space he said to himself, aloud, ‘So, I will see her never again.’
At that he fell a-shivering, and it seemed to him that the stones gave him no warmth: he went back up the ladder, undressed and fell into bed. Even so he might not warm himself, but curled up into a ball underneath the covers, unsleeping.
Slowly the gray cloak of the twilight was lifted from off the hall, and the cream-hued dawn light fell in through the smoke-hole. Sounds came up from below: folk were rising and going out to piss. Others raked the ashes for coals and set to building the fire for the morn-meal. Loud was the hall with all those guests: there was talk of the last hay-fields to be mown, the sheep, and the outlook for the winter. But Erik lay still abed, until at last his mother called up to him from the foot of the ladder and summoned him to eat. Then Erik got up again, and put on an old shirt and his trousers and shoes, and went to bid the guests goodbye.
* * *
EARLIER BY FAR had Swanhild and Skarphedin risen and left that hall. Swanhild had some low words with Rannveig; then they whistled down their ponies, and when they were all ‘boun,’ then they set out.
But Swanhild halted by the home-field gate and looked back to the low turf halls, that were huddled in rows snug into the hillside, and seemed asleep. Her mouth gaped in her thin face, not like to cry out but like to say somewhat. But she said never a word, but only shut up her mouth again.
So those two went out of the garth and left Hof of the Side behind them.
That day they crossed the Skeidar-sands. They went briskly enough. The sky was cloudy and a few drops fell, but no real rain. Swanhild went foremost across the bogs and marshes; skuas swarmed about them in the hundreds, and made great cry.
They came out from the Sands that afternoon and went on westaway. They came under a dark hall, and that was Sigfus Bjarni’s son’s. Then they were going into the monks’ lands. The first settlers, foremost of the Land-naming-men, had slain those Irish monks a hundred years before; since then men said that none but Christ’s-men had been able to abide in those lands. They bated their horses in a dale below Kirkjubaer-cluster, some time before mid-even; and then a great slumber came over them.
* * *
GRAY WAS THE morning air when they awoke, thick with mist. They had somewhat to eat, then readied the ponies: there among the goods was the small box, copper-bound, wherein lay all Swanhild’s mother’s songs and spells. They set forth, but still for awhile stillness ran between them, like the fog.
Then said Skarphedin, ‘An ill night you had of it: you twitched and turned, and cried out so that you woke me.’
Swanhild shuddered. ‘A dream took me,’ she answered. Then she said: ‘There were men after us, and we went up on the jokull to flee them. Over the rocks we went, through snow, across ice. Nights the moon lighted up our path; and at length we made Grimsvotn, and went up on its rocks.
‘Green and ghastly the ice-peaks stood to the sky; from deep below the waters called and laughed, like a hundred throats howling. A week went by, and we ate snow and boiled moss for our meat. On the far side we came down off the jokull, and followed the sand-tracks, where no grass grows and no moss thrives, but all is waste. Mists came down the ice after us and hemmed us in, and I knew those men still followed after us: I called to you, but you had gone.’
Skarphedin muttered, ‘That was no happy dream.’
‘What then of you?’ she asked. ‘How ran your dreams?’
‘Nay, I had none,’ he answered.
‘Something less than truth lies in that word,’ she said.
But he answered, ‘Now it seems you are unhappy: tell me then, is this rather your wish, that you fared back homeward? But I will go on.’
‘Never would I go back there. You are my home, Skarphedin.’
* * *
TOWARD MID-DAY THE mists began to rise, so that they rolled above their heads like ship-awnings. Then Swanhild bade Skarphedin tell her of what life was like there in those lands overseas, in the Dane-land and the Swede-realm. So he told her, but she minded him ill.
Then all at once she spoke up and bade him, ‘Tell me again how it will be.’
‘Twice now I have told you,’ he said. ‘Njal gives me two ships and lading, and the men to handle them: one ship’s lading I will sell for him, but the other is ours. I saw the ships: even now they lie at Hofn in the Hornfirth and await us.’
‘Then why do we go west?’
‘For this, that Njal’s bonders bear ill-will toward me; also, that none of the Westfirth men may know our path. Njal would see this done peacefully, and for his sake I left it so. By Dyraholae the Door-hole, at Reynisdrangar, there is a man, Holmstein Codcatcher. Mostly he gets his living from fishing and catching driftage; but Njal has money out with him. Now, some of Njal’s men wait there for us with a skiff, and they will ferry us round to hornfirth. And none knows the whole of this but Njal and these men, and you and I.’
‘And you trust in Njal now to keep to his word?’
‘He is my foster-brother.’
‘What you say is well enough. But I wish Thorold Skeggi’s son still lived; and as for this Njal, I do not trust his fairest deeds.’
‘Now you sound like that old witch, hangs about Njal’s hall: old Ragnhild the Foul, and few deserve that giftname more. She cursed Njal when I was there, and said something of silver owed her. But if he shall be good enough to keep such an old foul bitch about him, and she a bitter unfriend of his, why should he prove stingy with his brother?’
‘You hold Thorold’s axe,’ she said, ‘and his ring.’
He said nought to that. But after awhile he asked her what went wrong with her.
‘I shiver,’ she answered. ‘It seemed to me then that I rode in a long cave under the earth to a damp beclouded strand, and the cold of the ice all around reached out to clasp me.’
‘It will be colder still, in the Swede-realm.’
‘Skarphedin, is it long upon the sea? And do the waves rock the ship harshly?’
‘Not long, nor are the swells overstrong.’
‘Skarphedin, where should we go in the Swede-realm? Have you comrades there? Will the new King be kind to us?’
‘He will be kind enough, I ween. Swanhild, again it seems you are unhappy: tell me then, is this rather your wish, that you fared homeward?’
‘No,’ she answered after a bit; ‘but where you go, there will I follow after.’
All that afternoon there were clouds, but toward even the sun came out before it fell. Then sunlight poured through the rack: all the land burst into colors against the gray and pink-hued sky. They looked up northward, and there rose the Myrdaljokull, and Katla, the kettle: and the volcano’s reek billowed to the clouds, like as it ever did, and never stopping. The ice of the glacier shone like thick cream, and the green fields glowed, and even the rocks seemed fair and beckoning. Swanhild looked upon that, and for a long while said nought. And now the sun fell closer into the hills, and the light waxed all the more beguiling and weird; and as they fared onward their shadows raced ahead of them a long way.
Then Swanhild spoke in a small girl’s voice, and she said, ‘That never before did I see this land so wondrous or so fair. Only, tell me one thing, husband, and that is this: why then does the ice on those fells run with blood?’
Skarphedin looked at her and saw her face. Then he said to her, ‘Once more it seems you are unhappy: tell me then, is this not rather your wish, that you fared homeward?’
She looked at him glancingly: shook her head. ‘But are you not glad to be going, Skarphedin?’
‘That much I will tell you,’ he answered, ‘when I am gone.’
So they fared onward.
Now they went along above the strand-line and the Sands there, and the terns there hunted fish, and the skuas hunted terns. Hard and gleaming ran the sea. Deep was the tang of salt in the air. And now at a distance out to sea they might make out Reynisdrangar, the Rowan-Stacks. But all the land there, bogs and waste, was thick with gloom, though in the sky the clouds glowed like ember-piles, and the sea cast back that light. Very mild was the air; the winds were very tame.
And soon enough they had crossed all the Sands and reached Dyraholae the Door-Hole, that rose like an isle of good pasture out of the Sands’ waste; and there on the west side Holmstein Codcatcher had his fish-hut.
That hut was midway up the hill, above the boat-sheds. a short garth ran before the hut, but by the hut’s door a torch was burning. On the wall before the garth sat one of Holmstein’s fish-boys. Skarphedin rode before him and bade him call Holmstein out.
Then the boy went in, and soon a man came out and he gave them good greeting.
‘Do you know me, then?’ asked Skarphedin.
‘Well enough,’ answered Holmstein, for that was he: ‘you are Skarphedin the outlaw.’ Then he asked if they would alight there?
‘That I would gladly,’ answered Skarphedin. ‘But first I would ask this of you, Holmstein, what kind of welcome will we get here, fair or foul?’
Holmstein said he had no grudge against them. ‘But it is the way of this household to give good guesting to any man, so that he works me no ill. Still, I had little looked to find you at my doorstone.’
‘That is well, then,’ said Skarphedin. ‘But tell me further this, whether you have any other guests to home?’
‘You will have seen their boat. Four others are here; they reached here yestereve, from Bergthorsknoll, but before that from the east, from the Hornfirth. But I will let them tell their own tale. How of you, Skarphedin? What errand brings you this way?’
‘We are bound for the Westfirths, to find a ship for the Swede-realm,’ Skarphedin answered. He alighted, and then helped Swanhild down.
The red gleam of the torchlight lighted in his hair and turned it all fiery, like to red gold; but there was a sudden fear in her black eyes, and she caught at him.
Now of Holmstein Codcatcher there is this to be told, that he was the most famous of men for fishing, though a man of few kin. To him men from all the neighboring districts would send their sons, to man his boats and learn how to beguile the fish. Then there were two score or so such boys dwelling with Holmstein, and many of them were come out into the garth to gawk upon Skarphedin. These now Holmstein set to looking after their horses and gear; but Skarphedin and Swanhild he brought to the door.
Now they went in and cast their eyes about the hut. That was a small low hut, and over all the walls and from the cross-beams were hung nets and tackle and hooks, boat oars, fish-knives, and whale-spears. The boards were set with meat and bowls, and over the fire kettles boiled with broth, for the household had even then sat down to table. Along one side of the boards, where the highseat was, the benches were empty, but on the other side the benches were half-full, where the guests sat.
There were four of them, as Holmstein had said. Swanhild knew them all for Njal’s men. But in the midst of them was Killer-Hrap, and he sat facing the highseat, in the seat of honor.
Then Holmstein Codcatcher looked about, and seemed not to know how to go on; ‘for here it seems to me no easy way, that I have two doughty guests here, but a fitting seat for only one; and it seems unlikely either will wish to give way to the other.’
‘Few riddles yield no answer,’ said Skarphedin, grinning. Then he went along the boards on the house-side. A stout pine mast saved from the billows, and planking from a cheaping-ship’s broad side: that was Holmstein Codcatcher’s highseat. There were barnacles over all its back, like dried-up stars, and it smelled strongly of the sea. There Skarphedin sat, and seated Swanhild alongside him.
Now, as soon as ever he had lighted eyes on Skarphedin, Hrap’s brow had come down, and his mouth bent to one side, and he seemed all eagerness to see what they would do. Now he laughed aloud; but Skarphedin only smiled, and showed him all his teeth, that were big and ugly as never before. Then Hrap did not laugh.
Swanhild stared into the fire. She would not look at Hrap nor at his men. But she held her husband’s arm fast, and laid her head against his shoulder.
But Holmstein said that that was well, and sat himself farther up the board, past Swanhild on the house-side. So they set to table.
Nine women dwelt with Holmstein there, and these were their names: Himingloefa, Dufa, Blodughadda, Hefring, Unn, Hronn, Bylgja, Bara, and Kolga. Those were not their birth-names, but gift-names Holmstein gave them, for a joke: those also were the names that Rann, the wild goddess over sea-storms, gave unto her waves.
Holmstein’s nine were the best of boat-women and fish-wives, and were garbed in costly ornaments and sea-borne raiment fetched from shipwrecks thereabouts. They had been mending the fish-nets whenas Skarphedin and Swanhild came in, but now they went back and forth and served all those to table.
For awhile there was no talk for eating. But after awhile Hrap spoke up, and he said, ‘Long has it been now since we two saw each other, Skarphedin, for I was not with Njal when you came a-guesting. Still, I have a boon to thank you for: you slew Trygvi Kari’s son, and since then Njal made me his grieve.’
‘Twice I was with Njal, and no man spoke of you either time,’ said Skarphedin; ‘still, “askers seldom like answers.” But maybe you went the rounds of the district, and toted up all the old men you happened on. And yet I spoke long with Njal, and he said nought of you being his grieve.’
‘It was never my kinsman’s way to tell all to every comer,’ answered Hrap.
‘How comes it then that we find you here?’
Now Hrap smiled, and he said, ‘For this, that Njal sent us west in his boat to Bergthorsknoll, there to trade goods before winter’s onset. So we have done, and now go back east to the Hornfirth. And you, Skarphedin, what has brought you this way?’
‘We are bound for the Westfirths, to find a ship for the Swede-realm,’ Skarphedin answered. His voice was steady, and his eyes sharp on the other man’s face. Indeed it was the way between the looks of those two, like to men circling each other in a grappling-bout.
‘That seems unlikely, that you will have great luck there, for Yrsi has kinsmen thereabouts. But now our boat is light enough. Why don’t you come away east with us? For there are many ships at Hornfirth, and it seems to me Njal would deny you nought, for the sake of that close kinship that runs between you two.’ And when he said that, Killer-Hrap’s upper lip curled in a great sneer.
Then Skarphedin said, ‘that was spoken fair enough, and I will take your offer. But will Holmstein Codcatcher tend to our horses, and see them sent back safe to Hof?’
Holmstein said he would be glad to do so.
Now they cleared the boards, and Holmstein’s women went to and fro among them and served them mead. Skarphedin and Hrap watched each other through the smoke and reek of the bubbling kettles; but all this while Swanhild sat dumb at her place.
Then Holmstein and his fisher-boys and Njal’s men waxed merry, and they fell a-toasting one another, and long ran that drinking-bout into the night. Then all at once Hrap half-roused himself up out of his seat; Swanhild started, and looked upon him, and his eyes gleamed big and bright.
‘So,’ said he, looking her in the eye, ‘now it runs somewhat otherwise than when we met, you and I. But now we both are guests, and you can’t cast me out into the cold.’
Then Skarphedin grinned, and raised aloft his horn, and bade them all drink to Thor. There were glad answers to that, and all drank; but Njal’s men grumbled, and Hrap would not drink. Then Hrap called for a toast to the Christ.
‘Are you turned priest now, and will hallow us all?’ Skarphedin asked. ‘But that is odd, for you are still dressed like a man.’
‘Man enough, I ween,’ Hrap answered. ‘But what is that Thor you drank to? a trunk of wood, and nought else! But my god is King over all the lands of men, seas below and skies above; and here is his sign, whereby I will be spared. But you heathen all will be swallowed up by the earth and die, and that time is but a few years hence, for his thousandth year is hard upon us.’ And at that he brandished the brass cross he wore upon his necklet.
‘That was the last man I saw to wear such a thing, Trygvi Kari’s son, your foregoer. I met him in the wood, and then he was stealing sheep. He did not wander far from our meeting-spot, nor did his cross then help him very much. Still, it seems to me you would know far more of such things than I.’
Then Hrap scowled and muttered. But Holmstein bade his women go among them, and he patched it up with fair words, and so they waxed merry once more.
During all that drinking, one of Njal’s men, him that was on Hrap’s leftward side, leaned over and spoke into Hrap’s ear. They spoke in low tones, and over the clatter of the troughs their words did not go far. But Swanhild watched them as they spoke, and though she might not hear their words, even so she was sure of what they said.
‘Now, when shall it be?’ Hrap’s man mouthed.
Hrap scowled and answered, ‘Not now, but in the morning, so mind you be sharp and ready. And look for me to strike the first blow—that will be strongest, and our surest course.’
When she read those words from their mouths, Swanhild’s face waxed very pale, but she said no word then to her husband.
Soon thereafter the men began to nod off, and a stillness fell down over all that motley household. The dogs fell asleep, and then Holmstein’s fisher-boys, Holmstein and Njal’s men, and last of all Hrap: mead shut fast his eyes and his head lolled to one side, but his mouth fell agape and he snouked and snored, swine-drunk.
Then Skarphedin very mildly spoke on how short that evening’s sport had run; ‘but in Norway and in the halls of jarls, there the folk serve somewhat stronger stuff than this.’
Then the women saw to Holmstein and his boys: undressed them and bore them to bed. But those others, Njal’s men, they let lie on the benches on their cloaks. The women took back the horns and closed over the kettles, and then went off to bed. But Swanhild did not sleep that night a whit, nor Skarphedin.
For a long while they did not speak. Swanhild looked into the fire and watched the coals there as they fell. Her shoulders were drawn up and her eyes were slits, like as they had been most of that even; but she had touched none of the food those women had set before her.
There was a wind about the hall, and through the gables and the smoke-hole came the breaking of the sea.
Then at last Swanhild spoke, and she said, ‘I knew that this would be how it must fall out. When my father took Gudruda again to wife, and when Njal won that man’s lawsuit, and when you slew the sheep-thief, then I knew that it must end so. I knew it. I did. And you, Skarphedin, how ran your dreams last night?’
‘Peace, wife,’ he answered. ‘What the gods give, that I take.’
‘Will you die, then?’
‘ “Death is a hall with a hundred doors.” ’
‘Aye, so men say—but now, here, you will die, you, Skarphedin. And there is baseness here and betrayal.’
‘That may well be. But even so I will hear nought from you about Njal.’
‘Skarphedin,’ she said, and now her words seemed whispers, ‘Thrice before now you asked me a thing, and each time I refused it. Now I would take back my words. Let us slip out of this hut so that they may not hear us, let us take our ponies, let us turn our backs to these. Anywhere I will go with you, and you will lead and I will follow after, but for here and now. But now I beg you, give way to me on this. Thrice you offered, but now I will accept.’
But he answered, ‘That what I offered you before, that I cannot offer now. But neither will you go out of here, nor bridle the ponies, nor turn your back to these: but you will stay, and see all done that will be needful.’
‘Is this what men speak of, when they say a man is fey?’ she asked, and her words came from deep in her throat like groaning. ‘So you will die then, and forsake me. Oh, I will say no words against Njal Long-Nose,’ she added, unsweetly, ‘But I do curse myself for all my moods.’
Now for awhile that night wore on. Then it seemed very soon that the hall brightened and the dawn came.
NJAL’S MEN AND fisher-boys laded the boat on the strand while the others ate. And when they came back into the hut, then everyone went out and down the strand. There was heavy mist off the waves that morn.
Swanhild walked alongside Skarphedin, and they went foremost. He wore a helmet on his head, and a byrnie of ring-mail over his kirtle, and that was scarlet. He wore also bright hose, and a goodly belt, and his hair was bound by a riband; over his shoulder he had a blue cloak, and at his belt he had a short sword and his axe.
Swanhild wore a coal-blue dress of fine seaborne stuff, and it shimmered as she walked: down the front it was cut so low it showed most of her breast. Round the hem, just over where the undershift came out, bands of crimson and purple were woven onto it. She wore a purple cloak over her shoulders, and its hood showed crimson. She wore too her mother’s silver belt, and a wimple.
Now Swanhild spoke to Skarphedin in a low voice: ‘Let us go somewhat apart from these, or else behind them. Then we may watch them that they work us no tricks.’
‘That I will never do,’ answered Skarphedin. ‘But I will not follow on such men’s heels, but go aboard that boat and to my brother.’
Now Hrap spoke up from behind them, very near: ‘Little sailing you will do, forest-man: but I think you will fall not far from here.’ With that he drew his sax and smote Skarphedin with it, a fell blow: the byrnie’s rings burst under it, and the weapon cut into the back. Swanhild fell aside, but Skarphedin stepped forward briskly, so the blade did not bite deep.
Skarphedin grinned, and held aloft his axe. ‘That is not the oar you were meant to pull at,’ he said to Hrap. ‘Still, what else but back-blows might be looked for from such a thing as you?’
Then they fell to. Njal’s men fought alongside Hrap.
Swanhild sat on her heels in the sand, and lay her hands upon her knees and looked on. There was a stillness about her body but no peace. Her eyes grew like slits and she leaned forward, into the wind, and her mouth was a little agape, and her look was far away.
One of the Breidamerkers went at Skarphedin, but Skarphedin caught the blow on his shield: he struck back and the axe cut through the lower part of the Breidamerker’s shield and bit into his leg so that it was taken right off. That man fell and died there.
A second struck at Skarphedin, but Skarphedin spun about on one heel. Then in one blow he cut away all that man’s shield: with a second hewed off his head.
The third man threw his shield in the way, but that was an ill cast, and now two are slain, and the third taken to his heels. Skarphedin laughed.
Hrap had hung back a ways, but now he stepped forward, then stopped; Skarphedin moved, and Hrap stepped back. But Hrap took up a spear and threw that. Skarphedin caught it in the air and cast it back, and the spear drove through Hrap’s shield and came out of his back. Hrap fell and was dead at once.
* * *
WHEN HRAP FELL there was peace, but Swanhild did not stir.
Now Skarphedin turned and wiped his brow; his mouth opened, as if to say some thing. Then he stopped. He blinked, and frowned.
‘Now I feel a very weakling,’ he said. ‘My hands sweat and my knees shake; and yet that was no great wound I got.’ Then he drew off his helm and sat down in the sand, and his face was riddled.
Then Swanhild spoke. ‘Now you are slain, husband. And it was Njal that bade that blow.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘That I will not trust.’
‘It was Njal. What is this weakness in you? Why do you sweat and shiver? I will tell you. That was on our wedding-feast, that I went from the booth to the kitchen, and would fetch us meat and drink. But there were Gudruda and Njal, and she told him of the poison we used at Hof against the mice. And I have seen those mice die of it. Now Njal has used this in water, and dipped Hrap’s blade in it, held it over fire, and dipped again.’
Skarphedin shook his head. He shut his eyes. He was leaning on his hands, and there was much blood draining down his back.
She went on then, and her voice was as steady now as it had wavered the night before: ‘And belike Ragnhild had some hand in this as well. I ween this was the cause of their quarrel, that Njal promised her coins, and she thought he paid too little, for her help in such a thing as this. How much should a man pay, to send his brother on his Hel-ride?’
‘Now your words are envenomed as that blade,’ he said.
Swanhild went over to him and sat beside him, and took him in her arms. Later he lay back, and he held his head upon her lap.
Some skuas, smelling the blood, screeched, flew over the strand, and lighted round those other corpses. They were ugly birds, not all white, and their beaks were ill, their necks not long, their feathers not fair. Swanhild stared at them.
Skarphedin grinned, and showed his teeth.
‘You are so unlovely, my Skarphedin.’
Now she looked away, and out to sea. The mist had risen somewhat, and showed gaps here and there. Very bright it was upon the waves, and glaring. Far off rose the Reynisdrangar, the Rowan-Stacks: and those were pillars of stone, thin and high and weird, and some said they were giants once, and bigger than whales, but had been caught by dawnlight when they went back to their sea-lair, and so smitten into stone. But some thing moved upon the peak of the foremost of them, flew there and lighted. But so far away was it that Swanhild’s eyes were too weak, and she might see only a black spot there.
Skarphedin said, ‘That was my wish, that I should fall by weapon; but then a shield-maid should come take me. And she should be no common woman, but tall and lithe, like an ash tree on a fell-top. She rides a war-horse, very mighty, but she needs no saddle nor cloth. And she wears not woman’s weeds but man’s armor, helm and sword and ring-byrnie: and that clasps her skin so close, it is as if it has grown together with the flesh.’
‘Hush, husband,’ said Swanhild. She opened her lips to say more, but only a choking sound came forth. But Skarphedin looked across the waves, and said,
‘And I see there are rings on her arms, and one about her throat, and they are of red gold. In her hand she holds a spear. There is a coal-blue cloak over her shoulders. All her weapons are shining white, like steel chased with silver. And her hair there is long and red, red as coals, red as blood, red as scarlet cloth.’
* * *
AFTER THAT HE died and these gathered at the strand: Holmstein Codcatcher, his boys, and the nine women from the hut. Swanhild dragged herself out from beneath the body and stood. She did that weakly: her limbs shook. She went before Holmstein Codcatcher and said,
‘Now I know not what hand you had in all this. But I have felt in my hands and in my lap how the life broke out of Skarphedin’s body: there he lies slain, and so that blood-debt is paid. Now this I would know, if you will help see to him.’
Holmstein answers that he would see a cairn raised over the body at whatever spot she thought best.
‘No cairn will cover him,’ Swanhild said, ‘nor will this land hold him. But this is my will, that we put him aboard that boat of Njal’s and give his body back to Rann.’
‘That is the loss of a good boat,’ says Holmstein.
‘Then will you get no peace here nights,’ answered Swanhild, ‘for he will ride your roof-ridge, and I will noise it about the district that Njal gave you silver to betray him.’ And that was the end of it, that Holmstein went back into his hut and shut himself up in there; but he bade his women and the boys do all that Swanhild would.
Now they readied the boat and all things thereto. They laid Skarphedin’s body amidships, and put his arms over his chest, and in his hands they put that axe. They wrapped his body in his cloak; but first Swanhild put upon his finger Thorold’s ring. And the women stripped Hrap’s body and Njal’s man’s, and laid their goods in alongside Skarphedin; and the boys lay in driftage alongside, and straw as well. But the naked bodies of Hrap and those other two they cast out amidst the rocks for the birds and crabs.
And now a fair breeze sprang up. The boys washed the sail in the waves, then hoisted it up on the boat. The women brought Swanhild a pot of coals. These she cast over the straw and driftage. The fisher-boys put the boat into the waves. The steering-oar they tied with rope, but the sail they held with a stick.
So the breeze took the boat out, and it went up and down over the waves, and the fire sprang sickly up from it, but the smoke-reek blew out before it. The boat waxed littler and littler, and then it went beneath the brae of a swell and was lost. They saw the reek, though, for some while afterward.
Swanhild said, ‘Now he will not come back ever again.’
Then one of the women spoke a stave, and her voice croaked and crooned out across the waves.
‘Ale in Hall the hero-king
Was served by Maidens ’neath Sword-woven roof:
Sought he then the sea-wide plain.
Dawn to dusk (then dead arise),
Rings the steel, and rain the spears:
Fight Einharjar in endless war,
And Odin sits, and over-sees them,
And fat grow Huginn’s feast, and Muninn.’
The clouds broke beneath the wind; the blue sky shone through. Northaways the mist rose off the jokull and all of Katla might be seen. The air was full of the smell of the grass when the wind blew. But then, when there came a lull, the smell of the strand and the sea washed back upon the sands: and that was a strong smell and an ill.
All overhead the skuas flew in great swarms, now this way and now that, for they saw the corpses there below and took them, maybe, for fishes; but as yet they feared to alight. Their cries filled the air. Only a few clouds were yet in the sky, and they were soft and high. The sun shone down off the billows and the black, volcanic sands, that glittered like glass. Beyond the sand the sea stretched out unending, like a waste.
* * *
THAT SAME MORNING at Breidamerk Ragnhild stayed long abed. She was then very old: she had looked after Thorold when he was still a babe. Now men went out of the hall soon after the morn meal, for none could abide Ragnhild’s groanings. But Njal Thorold’s son went to her shutbed. He stood by the curtains and watched her.
Now Ragnhild shrieked and straightway sat up in bed.
‘What will you have seen,’ asks Njal.
‘More then enough to please you,’ she answered, ‘but less, maybe, than is right. Now it seems to me you will be the happiest of men: Skarphedin Kalfback’s son is dead, and Hrap too, and two of the others.’
Then Njal nodded and made as though to go, but her fingers clawed at his sleeve, and he did not go.
‘What gift will you give me for these tidings?’ Ragnhild asked. But Njal said never a word.
‘A winter too early you bade men come feast with you,’ Ragnhild said: ‘for it seems to me only now, that the time has come for you to hold your arvel-feast.’
‘Now you will shut up that foul mouth, hel-hag,’ Njal said shortly. ‘What went on between my foster-brother and me was outside your understanding. Had Skarphedin won here, then I would have greeted him with both hands; but it was God’s will that he be given a final trial, and God doomed that he should die there.’
‘Does he weep then, the milkbeard?’ she asked. ‘Then will men see wondrous tears from you soon enough, for this day’s deeds are not all told, and it may be you will smart for them.’
Thereat Njal went out of the hall. His face was white as milk. He went to his church. There the mass was sung, for it was Sunday, and a holy day as well. All that day Njal abode in church and knelt at prayer; nor would he let any man go near him, nor touched he any bit of food. And it was strong on all men’s tongues, how holy Njal was, and how that should soon bring God’s blessings over them all.
Then they praised God.
But late in that day Swanhild went up from the strand, but she did not get her horse at Holmstein Codcatcher’s. Instead she walked up across the sands, away from Dyraholae.
* * *
NOW FIVE DAYS are told. Now all the folk of the Side know of Skarphedin’s death. Erik Gudruda’s son sends men out to look after Swanhild. But Erik finds her himself.
That even he rode upland from Hof, and went up on the Skaftafell. But the shieling there was dark and none were in it, for Kol slept at his own home. Then Erik rode up on the Swine-fell; he found Swanhild there.
She was sitting on a stone before the howe-yard of her kin. She looked at him.
He looked at her, and saw all the blood over her dress: saw too how weak she was with fasting and weariness. He knew her will. She would that some men might lay open one of those howes and lay her face-down alongside some one of her kin. It seemed to him very odd then, that men had ever deemed her fair. And he shivered under his shirts and his wool cloak.
‘Swanhild,’ he called. ‘Swanhild, now you must come back with me. You must take meat and drink. You must live on afterward.’
She looked at him, and he shuddered.
Again he called to her, and again. At length she stood. Then her thin arms seemed to him like bird’s legs, and very frail. Erik went down off his horse to offer it to her; she would not have this, but still, he would not go back on horseback while she went afoot.
So side by side, the young man and woman walked that black night off the Swine-fell and down again to the hall of Hardbein Oxen-Hand.
THESE THINGS BEFELL at summer’s end in the year 996 of our age. But at the Althing four years later, under pressure from the Norwegian crown, Iceland became Christian. Then it was the law that all men should be baptised as Christians and refrain from heathen practices. Thingvallavatn was too cold, so the baptisms took place in nearby Laugarvatn, on the way home. If a man should eat horseflesh or give offerings to the home gods in secret then it was allowed; only if done openly was it punishable. Child-exposure and slavery were also forbidden, though they lingered long after. It was a heathen, Thorgeir Tjorfi’s son, of Lightwater, who made that law; and the conversion was handled without bloodshed.
That same summer, young King Olaf Trygvi’s son was attacked at Svold off the Danish coast by the armies of King Svein of Denmark, King Olaf of Sweden, along with Jarl Erik Haakon’s son. And there King Olaf Trygvi’s son lost his rule and, some say, his life. But some say the King got off with his life out of that battle and made his way to the Thrand-law in northern Norway. But the bonders there heard of the King’s defeat and cast out the Christian priests; and they would not let the king back into the land. Therewith King Olaf Trygvi’s son sailed off and was never seen or heard from again, though some said he went east.
King Svein Forkbeard shared out Norway with Jarl Erik, and Jarl Erik ruled in Thrandheim as Jarl Haakon his father had done before him, and built up the old temples and blood-offerings. Later Jarl Erik went with King Knut the Mighty of Denmark when he put under him England: that was in 1016. Jarl Erik was there when they took London, and was made jarl of Northumberland; but he died there of excessive blood-letting.
Fourteen years later a second Olaf, the Saint and King, came from raiding in the East and took the cross back to Norway with his armies. He was the fourth king in sixty years to try to convert Norway, and this time the old ways did not linger. That was the end of the Viking Age.
A time of peace and wealth followed throughout the North, and lasted from 1030 to 1170. The Icelanders, shepherds and fishermen, put behind them their little feuds. A small number of the greater chieftains won for themselves much of the wealth of the island; much more land was willed to the Church, and it became the greatest landowner. Men worked its lands as tenants, and the bishops and greater chieftains grew very rich, so that a greater gap opened between the wealthy and the poor than ever had before.
Then the land grew crowded, and national warfare, hitherto unknown, swept the republic for ninety years. Individual chieftains schemed for greater power and sought the help of the Norwegian crown: that was the end of it, that in 1262 Iceland was made to render tribute to King Haakon IV of Norway. In 1387 Denmark subdued Norway, and took with Norway Iceland; in 1602 the Danish royal house instigated a commercial monopoly over the island. Iceland did not win back her independence until June 17, 1944.
Vemund sued Njal for outlawry for having sheltered Skarphedin, an outlaw; but Njal reversed the suit on a flaw in Vemund’s proceedings, and had Vemund outlawed, though later they were atoned. From this Njal won more honor than ever, and afterward many came to him and paid him for advice and suit-counsel. At the Conversion of Iceland, Njal’s fame and influence grew even greater than before, so that he was said to be the third greatest lawyer in the land.
But at the Yule-feast after the Conversion, even at his wedding-feast, then Njal fell sick, lay long abed, and in the end died. And swart was his corpse, and when men went to move it, then the flesh opened up, and all manner of worms and flies burst out of it: the stink of it drove all men out of the hall for three nights, and that was the end of it, that there was scarcely anything left to bury. So it was the thought of all men that he had been poisoned. So it was found: at the spring Thing they bound a bag over the head of Ragnhild the Foul and drowned her for the crime. And that was the ninth season, summer and winter, since Skarphedin’s death.
Swanhild Olaf’s daughter lived on to a very great age. Erik Gudruda’s son sheltered her at Hof as one of his dependents. Rannveig offered Swanhild shelter at Gudruda’s old farm because things went so ill between Swanhild and Gudruda; but Swanhild would not have that. But every summer she went up to live in the shieling, wherefore she was sometimes called the Skaftafell Witch. The hall men had been building for Swanhild and Skarphedin was let fall away to rot; but years later a new hall was built on those foundations, and there dwelt one of Erik’s sons. From Erik many well-known folk were descended.
Swanhild still lived when Erik’s grandson Olaf was born; and before she died she saw the installment of Isleif, Gizur the White’s son, in Skalholt as the first native-born Bishop of Iceland. That fell out in 1056. The little children came to fear her, and named her Swanhild the Foul. She was never wed again. Her corpse was given sacrament and buried in the cemetery of Gudruda’s church, a few plots away from where her father and Gudruda lay together.
But in the summer after Skarphedin’s death, Swanhild was delivered of a beautiful child, of blue eyes and red hair. In the minds of many there was a question of the bairn’s rights, since Skarphedin had been unable to enter on any lawful agreement when he wed Swanhild, but that was never fully settled on. The day after giving birth, so soon as ever she got back her strength, Swanhild went up the Skaftafell, over the heath and under the wall of Vatnajokull, and left her daughter there to die.
The Viking Age is ending. In Iceland, Swanhild longs for those old and bloody days. But the farmsteaders around her have no such longing, and the kings and reavers of the Danelaw, Sweden, and Norway, are voyages away. Her longing seems to be answered when Skarphedin, outlawed years ago, returns to the island. But the man's reasons for returning are shadowy, his enemies implacable, and trouble follows where he goes.