H. Rider Haggard
Part 4 out of 7
"Say, Eric," said the King, "have I not dealt well with thee?"
"Well, and overwell, lord."
"Why, then, wouldst thou leave me? I have this in my mind--to bring
thee to great honour. See, now, there is a fair lady in this court,
and in her veins runs blood that even an Iceland viking might be proud
to mate with. She has great lands, and, mayhap, she shall have more.
Canst thou not find a home on them, thinkest thou, Brighteyes?"
"In Iceland only I am at home, lord," said Eric.
Then the King was wroth, and bade him begone when it pleased him, and
Eric bowed before him and went out.
Two days afterwards, while Eric was walking in the Palace gardens he
met the Lady Elfrida face to face. She held white flowers in her hand,
and she was fair to see and pale as the flowers she bore.
He greeted her, and, after a while, she spoke to him in a gentle
voice: "They say that thou goest from England, Brighteyes?" she said.
"Yes, lady; I go," he answered.
She looked on him once and twice and then burst out weeping. "Why
goest thou hence to that cold land of thine?" she sobbed--"that
hateful land of snow and ice! Is not England good enough for thee?"
"I am at home there, lady, and there my mother waits me."
"'There thy mother waits thee,' Eric?--say, does a maid called Gudruda
the Fair wait thee there also?"
"There is such a maid in Iceland," said Eric.
"Yes; I know it--I know it all," she answered, drying her tears, and
of a sudden growing cold and proud; "Eric, thou art betrothed to this
Gudruda; and, for thy welfare, somewhat overfaithful to thy troth. For
hearken, Eric Brighteyes. I know this: that little luck shall come to
thee from the maid Gudruda. It would become me ill to say more;
nevertheless, this is true--that here, in England, good fortune waits
thy hand, and there in Iceland such fortune as men mete to their foes.
Knowest thou this?"
Eric looked at her and answered: "Lady," he said, "men are not born of
their own will, they live and do little that they will, they do and
go, perchance, whither they would not. Yet it may happen to a man that
one meets him whose hand he fain would hold, if it be but for an
hour's travel over icy ways; and it is better to hold that hand for
this short hour than to wend his life through at a stranger's side."
"Perhaps there is wisdom in thy folly," said the Lady Elfrida. "Still,
I tell thee this: that no good luck waits thee there in Iceland."
"It well may be," said Eric: "my days have been stormy, and the gale
is still brewing. But it is a poor heart that fears the storm. Better
to sink; for, coward or hero, all must sink at last."
"Say, Eric," said the lady, "if that hand thou dost desire to hold is
lost to thee, what then?"
"If that hand is cold in death, then henceforth I wend my ways alone."
"And if it be held of another hand than thine?"
"Then I will journey back to England, lady, and here in this fair
garden I may crave speech of thee again."
They looked one on another. "Fare thee well, Eric!" said the Lady
Elfrida. "Here in this garden we may talk again; and, if we talk no
more--why, fare thee well! Days come and go; the swallow takes flight
at winter, and lo! at spring it twitters round the eaves. And if it
come not again, then farewell to that swallow. The world is a great
house, Eric, and there is room for many swallows. But alas! for her
who is left desolate--alas, alas!" And she turned and went.
It is told of this lady Elfrida that she became very wealthy and was
much honoured for her gentleness and wisdom, and that, when she was
old, she built a great church and named it Ericskirk. It is also told
that, though many sought her in marriage, she wedded none.
HOW SWANHILD WALKED THE SEAS
Within two days afterwards, the Gudruda being bound for sea, Eric went
up to bid farewell to the King. But Edmund was so angry with him
because of his going that he would not see him. Thereon Eric took
horse and rode down sadly from the Palace to the river-bank where the
Gudruda lay. But when he was about to give the word to get out the
oars, the King himself rode up, and with him men bearing costly gifts.
Eric went ashore to speak with him.
"I am angry with thee, Brighteyes," said Edmund, "yet it is not in my
heart to let thee go without words and gifts of farewell. This only I
ask of thee now, that, if things go not well with thee there, out in
Iceland, thou wilt come back to me."
"I will--that I promise thee, King," said Eric, "for I shall never
find a better lord."
"Nor I a braver servant," said the King. Then he gave him the gifts
and kissed him before all men. To Skallagrim also he gave a good
byrnie of Welsh steel coloured black.
Then Eric went aboard again and dropped down the river with the tide.
For five days all went well with them, the sea being calm and the
winds light and favourable. But on the fifth night, as they sailed
slowly along the coasts of East Anglia over against Yarmouth sands,
the moon rose red and ringed and the sea fell dead calm.
"Yonder hangs a storm-lamp, lord," said Skallagrim, pointing to the
angry moon. "We shall soon be bailing, for the autumn gales draw
"Wait till they come, then speak," said Eric. "Thou croakest ever like
"And ravens croak before foul weather," answered Skallagrim, and just
as he spoke a sudden gust of wind came up from the south-east and laid
the Gudruda over. After this it came on to blow, and so fiercely that
for whole days and nights their clothes were scarcely dry. They ran
northwards before the storm and still northward, sighting no land and
seeing no stars. And ever as they scudded on the gale grew fiercer,
till at length the men were worn out with bailing and starved with wet
and cold. Three of their number also were washed away by the seas, and
all were in sorry plight.
It was the fourth night of the gale. Eric stood at the helm, and by
him Skallagrim. They were alone, for their comrades were spent and lay
beneath decks, waiting for death. The ship was half full of water, but
they had no more strength to bail. Eric seemed grim and gaunt in the
white light of the moon, and his long hair streamed about him wildly.
Grimmer yet was Skallagrim as he clung to the shield-rail and stared
across the deep.
"She rolls heavily, lord," he shouted, "and the water gains fast."
"Can the men bail no more?" asked Eric.
"Nay, they are outworn and wait for death."
"They need not wait long," said Eric. "What do they say of me?"
Then Eric groaned aloud. "It was my stubbornness that brought us to
this pass," he said; "I care little for myself, but it is ill that all
should die for one man's folly."
"Grieve not, lord," answered Skallagrim, "that is the world's way, and
there are worse things than to drown. Listen! methinks I hear the roar
of breakers yonder," and he pointed to the left.
"Breakers they surely are," said Eric. "Now the end is near. But see,
is not that land looming up on the right, or is it cloud?"
"It is land," said Skallagrim, "and I am sure of this, that we run
into a firth. Look, the seas boil like a hot spring. Hold on thy
course, lord, perchance we may yet steer between rocks and land.
Already the wind falls and the current lessens the seas."
"Ay," said Eric, "already the fog and rain come up," and he pointed
ahead where dense clouds gathered in the shape of a giant, whose head
reached to the skies and moved towards them, hiding the moon.
Skallagrim looked, then spoke: "Now here, it seems, is witchwork. Say,
lord, hast thou ever seen mist travel against wind as it travels now?"
"Never before," said Eric, and as he spoke the light of the moon went
Swanhild, Atli's wife, sat in beauty in her bower on Straumey Isle and
looked with wide eyes towards the sea. It was midnight. None stirred
in Atli's hall, but still Swanhild looked out towards the sea.
Now she turned and spoke into the darkness, for there was no light in
the bower save the light of her great eyes.
"Art thou there?" she said. "I have summoned thee thrice in the words
thou knowest. Say, Toad, art there?"
"Ay, Swanhild the Fatherless! Swanhild, Groa's daughter! Witch-
mother's witch-child! I am here. What is thy will with me?" piped a
thin voice like the voice of a dying babe.
Swanhild shuddered a little and her eyes grew brighter--as bright as
the eyes of a cat.
"This first," she said: "that thou show thyself. Hideous as thou art,
I had rather see thee, than speak with thee seeing thee not."
"Mock not my form, lady," answered the thin voice, "for it is as thou
dost fashion it in thy thought. To the good I am fair as day; to the
evil, foul as their heart. /Toad/ thou didst call me: look, now I come
as a toad!"
Swanhild looked, and behold! a ring of the darkness grew white with
light, and in it crouched a thing hideous to see. It was shaped as a
great spotted toad, and on it was set a hag's face, with white locks
hanging down on either side. Its eyes were blood-red and sunken, black
were its fangs, and its skin was dead yellow. It grinned horribly as
Swanhild shrank from it, then spoke again:
"/Grey Wolf/ thou didst call me once, Swanhild, when thou wouldst have
thrust Gudruda down Goldfoss gulf, and as a grey wolf I came, and gave
thee counsel that thou tookest but ill. /Rat/ didst thou call me once,
when thou wouldst save Brighteyes from the carles of Ospakar, and as a
rat I came and in thy shape I walked the seas. /Toad/ thou callest me
now, and as a toad I creep about thy feet. Name thy will, Swanhild,
and I will name my price. But be swift, for there are other fair
ladies whose wish I must do ere dawn."
"Thou art hideous to look on!" said Swanhild, placing her hand before
"Say not so, lady; say not so. Look at this face of mine. Knowest thou
it not? It is thy mother's--dead Groa lent it me. I took it from where
she lies; and my toad's skin I drew from thy spotted heart, Swanhild,
and more hideous than I am shalt thou be in a day to come, as once I
was more fair than thou art to-day."
Swanhild opened her lips to shriek, but no sound came.
"Troll," she whispered, "mock me not with lies, but hearken to my
bidding: where sails Eric now?"
"Look out into the night, lady, and thou shalt see."
Swanhild looked, and the ways of the darkness opened before her witch-
sight. There at the mouth of Pentland Firth the Gudruda laboured
heavily in the great seas, and by the tiller stood Eric, and with him
"Seest thou thy love?" asked the Familiar.
"Yea," she answered, "full clearly; he is worn with wind and sea, but
more glorious than aforetime, and his hair is long. Say, what shall
befall him if thou aidest not?"
"This, that he shall safely pass the Firth, for the gale falls, and
come safely to Fareys, and from Fareys isles to Gudruda's arms."
"And what canst thou do, Goblin?"
"This: I can lure Eric's ship to wreck, and give his comrades, all
save Skallagrim, to Ran's net, and bring him to thy arms, Swanhild,
She hearkened. Her breast heaved and her eyes flashed.
"And thy price, Toad?"
"/Thou/ art the price, lady," piped the goblin. "Thou shalt give
thyself to me when thy day is done, and merrily will we sisters dwell
in Hela's halls, and merrily for ever will we fare about the earth o'
nights, doing such tasks as this task of thine, Swanhild, and working
wicked woe till the last woe is worked on us. Art thou content?"
Swanhild thought. Twice her breath went from her lips in great sighs.
Then she stood, pale and silent.
"Safely shall he sail the Firth," piped the thin voice. "Safely shall
he sit in Fareys. Safely shall he lie in white Gudruda's arms--/hee!
hee!/ Think of it, lady!"
Then Swanhild shook like a birth-tree in the gale, and her face grew
"I am content," she said.
"/Hee! hee!/ Brave lady! She is content! Ah, we sisters shall be
merry. Hearken: if I aid thee thus I may do no more. Thrice has the
night-owl come at thy call--now it must wing away. Yet things will be
as I have said; thine own wisdom shall guide the rest. Ere morn
Brighteyes shall stand in Atli's hall, ere spring he will be thy love,
and ere autumn Gudruda shall sit on the high seat in the hall of
Middalhof the bride of Ospakar. Draw nigh, give me thine arm, sister,
that blood may seal our bargain."
Swanhild drew near the toad, and, shuddering, stretched out her arm,
and then and there the red blood ran, and there they sealed their
sisterhood. And as the nameless deed was wrought, it seemed to
Swanhild as though fire shot through her veins, and fire surged before
her eyes, and in the fire a shape passed up weeping.
"It is done, Blood-sister," piped the voice; "now I must away in thy
form to be about thy tasks. Seat thee here before me--so. Now lay thy
brow upon my brow--fear not, it was thy mother's--life on death!
curling locks on corpse hair! See, so we change--we change. Now thou
art the Death-toad and I am Swanhild, Atli's wife, who shall be Eric's
Then Swanhild knew that her beauty had entered into the foulness of
the toad, and the foulness of the toad into her beauty, for there
before her stood her own shape and here she crouched a toad upon the
"Away to work, away!" said a soft low voice, her own voice speaking
from her own body that stood before her, and lo! it was gone.
But Swanhild crouched, in the shape of a hag-headed toad, upon the
ground in her bower of Atli's hall, and felt wickedness and evil
longings and hate boil and seethe within her heart. She looked out
through her sunken horny eyes and she seemed to see strange sights.
She saw Atli, her lord, dead upon the grass. She saw a woman asleep,
and above her flashed a sword. She saw the hall of Middalhof red with
blood. She saw a great gulf in a mountain's heart, and men fell down
it. And, last, she saw a war-ship sailing fast out on the sea, afire,
and vanish there.
Now the witch-hag who wore Swanhild's loveliness stood upon the cliffs
of Straumey and tossed her white arms towards the north.
"Come, fog! come, sleet!" she cried. "Come, fog! come, sleet! Put out
the moon and blind the eyes of Eric!" And as she called, the fog rose
up like a giant and stretched his arms from shore to shore.
"Move, fog! beat, rain!" she cried. "Move and beat against the gale,
and blind the eyes of Eric!"
And the fog moved on against the wind, and with it sleet and rain.
"Now I am afeared," said Eric to Skallagrim, as they stood in darkness
upon the ship: "the gale blows from behind us, and yet the mist drives
fast in our faces. What comes now?"
"This is witch-work, lord," answered Skallagrim, "and in such things
no counsel can avail. Hold the tiller straight and drive on, say I.
Methinks the gale lessens more and more."
So they did for a little while, and all around them sounded the roar
of breakers. Darker grew the sky and darker yet, till at the last,
though they stood side by side, they could not see each other's
"This is strange sailing," said Eric. "I hear the roar of breakers as
it were beneath the prow."
"Lash the helm, lord, and let us go forward. If there are breakers,
perhaps we shall see their foam through the blackness," said
Eric did so, and they crept forward on the starboard board right to
the prow of the ship, and there Skallagrim peered into the fog and
"Lord," he whispered presently, and his voice shook strangely, "what
is that yonder on the waters? Seest thou aught?"
Eric stared and said, "By Odin! I see a shape of light like to the
shape of a woman; it walks upon the waters towards us and the mist
melts before it, and the sea grows calm beneath its feet."
"I see that also!" said Skallagrim.
"She comes nigh!" gasped Eric. "See how swift she comes! By the dead,
it is Swanhild's shape! Look, Skallagrim! look how her eyes flame!--
look how her hair streams upon the wind!"
"It is Swanhild, and we are fey!" quoth Skallagrim, and they ran back
to the helm, where Skallagrim sank upon the deck in fear.
"See, Skallagrim, she glides before the Gudruda's beak! she glides
backwards and she points yonder--there to the right! Shall I put the
helm down and follow her?"
"Nay, lord, nay; set no faith in witchcraft or evil will befall us."
As he spoke a great gust of wind shook the ship, the music of the
breakers roared in their ears, and the gleaming shape upon the waters
tossed its arms wildly and pointed to the right.
"The breakers call ahead," said Eric. "The shape points yonder, where
I hear no sound of sea. Once before, thou mindest, Swanhild walked the
waves to warn us and thereby saved us from the men of Ospakar. Ever
she swore she loved me; now she is surely come in love to save us and
all our comrades. Say, shall I put about? Look: once more she waves
her arms and points," and as he spoke he gripped the helm.
"I have no rede, lord," said Skallagrim, "and I love not witch-work.
We can die but once, and death is all around; be it as thou wilt."
Eric put down the helm with all his might. The good ship answered, and
her timbers groaned loudly, as though in woe, when the strain of the
sea struck her abeam. Then once more she flew fast across the waters,
and fast before her glided the wraith of Swanhild. Now it pointed here
and now there, and as it pointed so Eric shaped his course. For a
while the noise of breakers lessened, but now again came a thunder,
like the thunder of waves smiting on a cliff, and about the sides of
the Gudruda the waves hissed like snakes.
Suddenly the Shape threw up its arms and seemed to sink beneath the
waves, while a sound like the sound of a great laugh went up from sea
"Now here is the end," said Skallagrim, "and we are lured to doom."
Ere ever the words had passed his lips the ship struck, and so
fiercely that they were rolled upon the deck. Suddenly the sky grew
clear, the moon shone out, and before them were cliffs and rocks, and
behind them a great wave rushed on. From the hold of the ship there
came a cry, for now their comrades were awake and they knew that death
Eric gripped Skallagrim round the middle and looked aft. On rushed the
wave, no such wave had he ever seen. Now it struck and the Gudruda
burst asunder beneath the blow.
But Eric Brighteyes and Skallagrim Lambstail were lifted on its crest
and knew no more.
Swanhild, crouching in hideous guise upon the ground in the bower of
Atli's hall, looked upon the visions that passed before her. Suddenly
a woman's shape, her own shape, was there.
"It is done, Blood-sister," said a voice, her own voice. "Merrily I
walked the waves, and oh, merry was the cry of Eric's folk when Ran
caught them in her net! Be thyself, again, Blood-sister--be fair as
thou art foul; then arise, wake Atli thy lord, and go down to the
sea's lip by the southern cliffs and see what thou shalt find. We
shall meet no more till all this game is played and another game is
set," and the shape of Swanhild crouched upon the floor before the
hag-headed toad muttering "Pass! pass!"
Then Swanhild felt her flesh come back to her, and as it grew upon her
so the shape of the Death-headed toad faded away.
"Farewell, Blood-sister!" piped a voice; "make merry as thou mayest,
but merrier shall be our nights when thou hast gone a-sailing with
Eric on the sea. Farewell! farewell! /Were-wolf/ thou didst call me
once, and as a wolf I came. /Rat/ thou didst call me once, and as a
rat I came. /Toad/ didst thou call me once, and as a toad I came. Say,
at the last, what wilt thou call me and in what shape shall I come,
Blood-sister? Till then farewell!"
And all was gone and all was still.
HOW ASMUND THE PRIEST WEDDED UNNA, THOROD'S DAUGHTER
Now the story goes back to Iceland.
When Brighteyes was gone, for a while Gudruda the Fair moved sadly
about the stead, like one new-widowed. Then came tidings. Men told how
Ospakar Blacktooth had waylaid Eric on the seas with two long ships,
dragons of war, and how Eric had given him battle and sunk one dragon
with great loss to Ospakar. They told also how Blacktooth's other
dragon, the Raven, had sailed away before the wind, and Eric had
sailed after it in a rising gale. But of what befell these ships no
news came for many a month, and it was rumoured that this had befallen
them--that both had sunk in the gale, and that Eric was dead.
But Gudruda would not believe this. When Asmund the Priest, her
father, asked her why she did not believe it, she answered that, had
Eric been dead, her heart would surely have spoken to her of it. To
this Asmund said that it might be so.
Hay-harvest being done, Asmund made ready for his wedding with Unna,
Thorod's daughter and Eric's cousin.
Now it was agreed that the marriage-feast should be held at Middalhof;
for Asmund wished to ask a great company to the wedding, and there was
no place at Coldback to hold so many. Also some of the kin of Thorod,
Unna's father, were bidden to the feast from the east and north. At
length all was prepared and the guests came in great companies, for no
such feast had been made in this quarter for many years.
On the eve of the marriage Asmund spoke with Groa. The witch-wife had
borne herself humbly since she was recovered from her sickness. She
passed about the stead like a rat at night, speaking few words and
with downcast eyes. She was busy also making all things ready for the
Now as Asmund went up the hall seeing that everything was in order,
Groa drew near to him and touched him gently on the shoulder.
"Are things to thy mind, lord?" she said.
"Yes, Groa," he answered, "more to my mind than to thine I fear."
"Fear not, lord; thy will is my will."
"Say, Groa, is it thy wish to bide here in Middalhof when Unna is my
"It is my wish to serve thee as aforetime," she answered softly, "if
so be that Unna wills it."
"That is her desire," said Asmund and went his ways.
But Groa stood looking after him and her face was fierce and evil.
"While bane has virtue, while runes have power, and while hand has
cunning, never, Unna, shalt thou take my place at Asmund's side! Out
of the water I came to thee, Asmund; into the water I go again.
Unquiet shall I lie there--unquiet shall I wend through Hela's halls;
but Unna shall rest at Asmund's side--in Asmund's cairn!"
Then again she moved about the hall, making all things ready for the
feast. But at midnight, when the light was low and folk slept, Groa
rose, and, veiled in a black robe, with a basket in her hand, passed
like a shadow through the mists that hang about the river's edge, and
in silence, always looking behind her, like one who fears a hidden
foe, culled flowers of noisome plants that grow in the marsh. Her
basket being filled, she passed round the stead to a hidden dell upon
the mountain side. Here a man stood waiting, and near him burned a
fire of turf. In his hand he held an iron-pot. It was Koll the Half-
witted, Groa's thrall.
"Are all things ready, Koll?" she said.
"Yes," he answered; "but I like not these tasks of thine, mistress.
Say now, what wouldst thou do with the fire and the pot?"
"This, then, Koll. I would brew a love-potion for Asmund the Priest as
he has bidden me to do."
"I have done many an ill deed for thee, mistress, but of all of them I
love this the least," said the thrall, doubtfully.
"I have done many a good deed for thee, Koll. It was I who saved thee
from the Doom-stone, seeming to prove thee innocent--ay, even when thy
back was stretched on it, because thou hadst slain a man in his sleep.
Is it not so?"
"And yet thou wast guilty, Koll. And I have given thee many good
gifts, is it not so?"
"Yes, it is so."
"Listen then: serve me this once and I will give thee one last gift--
thy freedom, and with it two hundred in silver."
Koll's eyes glistened. "What must I do, mistress?"
"To-day at the wedding-feast it will be thy part to pour the cups
while Asmund calls the toasts. Last of all, when men are merry, thou
wilt mix that cup in which Asmund shall pledge Unna his wife and Unna
must pledge Asmund. Now, when thou hast poured, thou shalt pass the
cup to me, as I stand at the foot of the high seat, waiting to give
the bride greeting on behalf of the serving-women of the household.
Thou shalt hand the cup to me as though in error, and that is but a
little thing to ask of thee."
"A little thing indeed," said Koll, staring at her, and pulling with
his hand at his red hair, "yet I like it not. What if I say no,
"Say no or speak of this and I will promise thee one thing only, thou
knave, and it is, before winter comes, that the crows shall pick thy
bones! Now, brave me, if thou darest," and straightway Groa began to
mutter some witch-words.
"Nay," said Koll, holding up his hand as though to ward away a blow.
"Curse me not: I will do as thou wilt. But when shall I touch the two
hundred in silver?"
"I will give thee half before the feast begins, and half when it is
ended, and with it freedom to go where thou wilt. And now leave me,
and on thy life see that thou fail me not."
"I have never failed thee yet," said Koll, and went his ways.
Now Groa set the pot upon the fire, and, placing in it the herbs that
she had gathered, poured water on them. Presently they began to boil
and as they boiled she stirred them with a peeled stick and muttered
spells over them. For long she sat in that dim and lonely place
stirring the pot and muttering spells, till at length the brew was
She lifted the pot from the fire and smelt at it. Then drawing a phial
from her robe she poured out the liquor and held it to the sky. The
witch-water was white as milk, but presently it grew clear. She looked
at it, then smiled evilly.
"Here is a love-draught for a queen--ah, a love-draught for a queen!"
she said, and, still smiling, she placed the phial in her breast.
Then, having scattered the fire with her foot, Groa took the pot and
threw it into a deep pool of water, where it could not be found
readily, and crept back to the stead before men were awake.
Now the day wore on and all the company were gathered at the marriage-
feast to the number of nearly two hundred. Unna sat in the high seat,
and men thought her a bonny bride, and by her side sat Asmund the
Priest. He was a hale, strong man to look on, though he had seen some
three-score winters; but his mien was sad, and his heart heavy. He
drank cup after cup to cheer him, but all without avail. For his
thought sped back across the years and once more he seemed to see the
face of Gudruda the Gentle as she lay dying, and to hear her voice
when she foretold evil to him if he had aught to do with Groa the
Witch-wife. And now it seemed to him that the evil was at hand, though
whence it should come he knew not. He looked up. There Groa moved
along the hall, ministering to the guests; but he saw as she moved
that her eyes were always fixed, now on him and now on Unna. He
remembered that curse also which Groa had called down upon him when he
had told her that he was betrothed to Unna, and his heart grew cold
with fear. "Now I will change my counsel," Asmund said to himself:
"Groa shall not stay here in this stead, for I will look no longer on
that dark face of hers. She goes hence to-morrow."
Not far from Asmund sat Björn, his son. As Gudruda the Fair, his
sister, brought him mead he caught her by the sleeve, whispering in
her ear. "Methinks our father is sad. What weighs upon his heart?"
"I know not," said Gudruda, but as she spoke she looked first on
Asmund, then at Groa.
"It is ill that Groa should stop here," whispered Björn again.
"It is ill," answered Gudruda, and glided away.
Asmund saw their talk and guessed its purport. Rousing himself he
laughed aloud and called to Koll the Half-witted to pour the cups that
he might name the toasts.
Koll filled, and, as Asmund called the toasts one by one, Koll handed
the cups to him. Asmund drank deep of each, till at length his sorrow
passed from him, and, together with all who sat there, he grew merry.
Last of all came the toast of the bride's cup. But before Asmund
called it, the women of the household drew near the high seat to
welcome Unna, when she should have drunk. Gudruda stood foremost, and
Groa was next to her.
Now Koll filled as before, and it was a great cup of gold that he
Asmund rose to call the toast, and with him all who were in the hall.
Koll brought up the cup, and handed it, not to Asmund, but to Groa;
but there were few who noted this, for all were listening to Asmund's
toast and most of the guests were somewhat drunken.
"The cup," cried Asmund--"give me the cup that I may drink."
Then Groa started forward, and as she did so she seemed to stumble, so
that for a moment her robe covered up the great bride-cup. Then she
gathered herself together slowly, and, smiling, passed up the cup.
Asmund lifted it to his lips and drank deep. Then he turned and gave
it to Unna his wife, but before she drank he kissed her on the lips.
Now while all men shouted such a welcome that the hall shook, and as
Unna, smiling, drank from the cup, the eyes of Asmund fell upon Groa
who stood beneath him, and lo! her eyes seemed to flame and her face
was hideous as the face of a troll.
Asmund grew white and put his hand to his head, as though to think,
then cried aloud:
"Drink not, Unna! the draught is drugged!" and he struck at the vessel
with his hand.
He smote it indeed, and so hard that it flew from her hand far down
But Unna had already drunk deep.
"The draught is drugged!" Asmund cried, and pointed to Groa, while all
men stood silent, not knowing what to do.
"The draught is drugged!" he cried a third time, "and that witch has
drugged it!" And he began to tear at his breast.
Then Groa laughed so shrilly that men trembled to hear her.
"Yes, lord," she screamed, "the draught is drugged, and Groa the
Witch-wife hath drugged it! Ay, tear thy heart out, Asmund, and Unna,
grow thou white as snow--soon, if my medicine has virtue, thou shalt
be whiter yet! Hearken all men. Asmund the Priest is Swanhild's
father, and for many a year I have been Asmund's mate. What did I tell
thee, lord?--that I would see the two of you dead ere Unna should take
my place!--ay, and on Gudruda the Fair, thy daughter, and Björn thy
son, and Eric Brighteyes, Gudruda's love, and many another man--on
them too shall my curse fall! Tear thy heart out, Asmund! Unna, grow
thou white as snow! The draught is drugged and Groa, Ran's gift! Groa
the Witch-Wife! Groa, Asmund's love! hath drugged it!"
And ere ever a man might lift a hand to stay her Groa glided past the
high seat and was gone.
For a space all stood silent. Asmund ceased clutching at his breast.
Rising he spoke heavily:
"Now I learn that sin is a stone to smite him who hurled it. Gudruda
the Gentle spoke sooth when she warned me against this woman. /New
wed, new dead!/ Unna, fare thee well!"
And straightway Asmund fell down and died there by the high seat in
his own hall.
Unna gazed at him with ashen face. Then, plucking at her bosom she
sprang from the dais and rushed along the hall, screaming. Men made
way for her, and at the door she also fell dead.
This then was the end of Asmund Asmundson the Priest, and Unna,
Thorod's daughter, Eric's cousin, his new-made wife.
For a moment there was silence in the hall. But before the echoes of
Unna's screams had died away, Björn cried aloud:
"The witch! where is the witch?"
Then with a yell of rage, men leaped to their feet, seizing their
weapons, and rushed from the stead. Out they ran. There, on the hill-
side far above them, a black shape climbed and leapt swiftly. They
gave tongue like dogs set upon a wolf and sped up the hill.
They gained the crest of the hill, and now they were at Goldfoss
brink. Lo! the witch-wife had crossed the bed of the torrent, for
little rain had fallen and the river was low. She stood on Sheep-
saddle, the water running from her robes. On Sheep-saddle she stood
and cursed them.
Björn took a bow and set a shaft upon the string. He drew it and the
arrow sung through the air and smote her, speeding through her heart.
With a cry Groa threw up her arms.
Then down she plunged. She fell on Wolf's Fang, where Eric once had
stood and, bouncing thence, rushed to the boiling deeps below and was
no more seen for ever.
Thus, then, did Asmund the Priest wed Unna, Thorod's daughter, and
this was the end of the feasting.
Thereafter Björn, Asmund's son, ruled at Middalhof, and was Priest in
his place. He sought for Koll the Half-witted to kill him, but Koll
took the fells, and after many months he found passage in a ship that
was bound for Scotland.
Now Björn was a hard man and a greedy. He was no friend to Eric
Brighteyes, and always pressed it on Gudruda that she should wed
Ospakar Blacktooth. But to this counsel Gudruda would not listen, for
day and night she thought upon her love. Next summer there came
tidings that Eric was safe in Ireland, and men spoke of his deeds, and
of how he and Skallagrim had swept the ship of Ospakar single-handed.
Now after these tidings, for a while Gudruda walked singing through
the meads, and no flower that grew in them was half so fair as she.
That summer also Ospakar Blacktooth met Björn, Asmund's son, at the
Thing, and they talked much together in secret.
HOW EARL ATLI FOUND ERIC AND SKALLAGRIM ON THE
SOUTHERN ROCKS OF STRAUMEY ISLE
Swanhild, robed in white, as though new risen from sleep, stood,
candle in hand, by the bed of Atli the Earl, her lord, crying "Awake!"
"What passes now?" said Atli, lifting himself upon his arm. "What
passes, Swanhild, and why dost thou ever wander alone at nights,
looking so strangely? I love not thy dark witch-ways, Swanhild, and I
was wed to thee in an ill hour, wife who art no wife."
"In an ill hour indeed, Earl Atli," she answered, "an ill hour for
thee and me, for, as thou hast said, eld and youth are strange
yokefellows and pull different paths. Arise now, Earl, for I have
dreamed a dream."
"Tell it to me on the morrow, then," quoth Atli; "there is small
joyousness in thy dreams, that always point to evil, and I must bear
enough evil of late."
"Nay, lord, my rede may not be put aside so. Listen now: I have
dreamed that a great dragon of war has been cast away upon Straumey's
south-western rocks. The cries of those who drowned rang in my ears.
But I thought that some came living to the shore, and lie there
senseless, to perish of the cold. Arise, therefore, take men and go
down to the rocks."
"I will go at daybreak," said Atli, letting his head fall upon the
pillow. "I have little faith in such visions, and it is too late for
ships of war to try the passage of the Firth."
"Arise, I say," answered Swanhild sternly, "and do my bidding, else I
will myself go to search the rocks."
Then Atli rose grumbling, and shook the heavy sleep from his eyes: for
of all living folk he most feared Swanhild his wife. He donned his
garments, threw a thick cloak about him, and, going to the hall where
men snored around the dying fires, for the night was bitter, he awoke
some of them. Now among those men whom he called was Hall of Lithdale,
Hall the mate who had cut the grapnel-chain. For this Hall, fearing to
return to Iceland, had come hither saying that he had been wounded off
Fareys, in the great fight between Eric and Ospakar's men, and left
there to grow well of his hurt or die. Then Atli, not knowing that the
carle lied, had bid him welcome for Eric's sake, for he still loved
Eric above all men.
But Hall loved not labour and nightfarings to search for shipwrecked
men of whom the Lady Swanhild had chanced to dream. So he turned
himself upon his side and slept again. Still, certain of Atli's folk
rose at his bidding, and they went together down to the south-western
But Swanhild, a cloak thrown over her night-gear, sat herself in the
high seat of the hall and fixing her eyes, now upon the dying fires
and now upon the blood-marks in her arm, waited in silence. The night
was cold and windy, but the moon shone bright, and by its light Atli
and his people made their way to the south-western rocks, on which the
sea beat madly.
"What lies yonder?" said Atli, pointing to some black things that lay
beneath them upon the rock, cast there by the waves. A man climbed
down the cliff's side that is here as though it were cut in steps, and
then cried aloud:
"A ship's mast, new broken, lord."
"It seems that Swanhild dreams true," muttered Atli; "but I am sure of
this: that none have come ashore alive in such a sea."
Presently the man who searched the rocks below cried aloud again:
"Here lie two great men, locked in each other's arms. They seem to be
Now all the men climb down the slippery rocks as best they may, though
the spray wets them, and with them goes Atli. The Earl is a brisk man,
though old in years, and he comes first to where the two lie. He who
was undermost lay upon his back, but his face is hid by the thick
golden hair that flowed across it.
"Man's body indeed, but woman's locks," said Atli as he put out his
hand and drew the hair away, so that the light of the moon fell on the
He looked, then staggered back against the rock.
"By Thor!" he cried, "here lies the corpse of Eric Brighteyes!" and
Atli wrung his hands and wept, for he loved Eric much.
"Be not so sure that the men are dead, Earl," said one, "I thought I
saw yon great carle move but now."
"He is Skallagrim Lambstail, Eric's Death-shadow," said Atli again.
"Up with them, lads--see, yonder lies a plank--and away to the hall. I
will give twenty in silver to each of you if Eric lives," and he
unclasped his cloak and threw it over both of them.
Then with much labour they loosed the grip of the two men one from the
other, and they set Skallagrim on the plank. But eight men bore Eric
up the cliff between them, and the task was not light, though the Earl
held his head, from which the golden hair hung like seaweed from a
At length they came to the hall and carried them in. Swanhild, seeing
them come, moved down from the high seat.
"Bring lamps, and pile up the fires," cried Atli. "A strange thing has
come to pass, Swanhild, and thou dost dream wisely, indeed, for here
we have Eric Brighteyes and Skallagrim Lambstail. They were locked
like lovers in each other's arms, but I know not if they are dead or
Now Swanhild started and came on swiftly. Had the Familiar tricked her
and had she paid the price for nothing? Was Eric taken from Gudruda
and given to her indeed--but given dead? She bent over him, gazing
keenly on his face. Then she spoke.
"He is not dead but senseless. Bring dry clothes, and make water hot,"
and, kneeling down, she loosed Eric's helm and harness and ungirded
Whitefire from his side.
For long Swanhild and Atli tended Eric at one fire, and the serving
women tended Skallagrim at the other. Presently there came a cry that
Skallagrim stirred, and Atli with others ran to see. At this moment
also the eyes of Eric were unsealed, and Swanhild saw them looking at
her dimly from beneath. Moved to it by her passion and her joy that he
yet lived, Swanhild let her face fall till his was hidden in her
unbound hair, and kissed him upon the lips. Eric shut his eyes again,
sighing heavily, and presently he was asleep. They bore him to a bed
and heaped warm wrappings upon him. At daybreak he woke, and Atli, who
sat watching at his side, gave him hot mead to drink.
"Do I dream?" said Eric, "or is it Earl Atli who tends me, and did I
but now see the face of Swanhild bending over me?"
"It is no dream, Eric, but the truth. Thou hast been cast away here on
my isle of Straumey."
"And Skallagrim--where is Skallagrim?"
"Skallagrim lives--fear not!"
"And my comrades, how went it with them?"
"But ill, Eric. Ran has them all. Now sleep!"
Eric groaned aloud. "I had rather died also than live to hear such
heavy tidings," he said. "Witch-work! witch-work! and that fair witch-
face wrought it." And once again he slept, nor did he wake till the
sun was high. But Atli could make nothing of his words.
When Swanhild left the side of Eric she met Hall of Lithdale face to
face and his looks were troubled.
"Say, lady," he asked, "will Brighteyes live?"
"Grieve not, Hall," she answered, "Eric will surely live and he will
be glad to find a messmate here to greet him, having left so many
yonder," and she pointed to the sea.
"I shall not be glad," said Hall, letting his eyes fall.
"Why not, Hall? Fearest thou Skallagrim? or hast thou done ill by
"Ay, lady, I fear Skallagrim, for he swore to slay me, and that kind
of promise he ever keeps. Also, if the truth must out, I have not
dealt altogether well with Eric, and of all men I least wish to talk
"Speak on," she said.
Then, being forced to it, Hall told her something of the tale of the
cutting of the cable, being careful to put another colour on it.
"Now it seems that thou art a coward, Hall," Swanhild said when he had
done, "and I scarcely looked for that in thee," for she had not been
deceived by the glozing of his speech. "It will be bad for thee to
meet Eric and Skallagrim, and this is my counsel: that thou goest
hence before they wake, for they will sit this winter here in Atli's
"And whither shall I go, lady?"
Swanhild gazed on him, and as she did so a dark thought came into her
heart: here was a knave who might serve her ends.
"Hall," she said, "thou art an Icelander, and I have known of thee
from a child, and therefore I wish to serve thee in thy strait, though
thou deservest it little. See now, Atli the Earl has a farm on the
mainland not two hours' ride from the sea. Thither thou shalt go, if
thou art wise, and thou shalt sit there this winter and be hidden from
Eric and Skallagrim. Nay, thank me not, but listen: it may chance that
I shall have a service for thee to do before spring is come."
"Lady, I shall wait upon thy word," said Hall.
"Good. Now, so soon as it is light, I will find a man to sail with
thee across the Firth, for the sea falls, and bear my message to the
steward at Atli's farm. Also if thou needest faring-money thou shalt
have it. Farewell."
Thus then did Hall fly before Eric and Skallagrim.
On the morrow Eric and Skallagrim arose, sick and bruised indeed, but
not at all harmed, and went down to the shore. There they found many
dead men of their company, but never a one in whom the breath of life
Skallagrim looked at Eric and spoke: "Last night the mist came up
against the wind: last night we saw Swanhild's wraith upon the waves,
and there is the path it showed, and there"--and he pointed to the
dead men--"is the witch-seed's flower. Now to-day we sit in Atli's
hall and here we must stay this winter at Swanhild's side, and in all
this there lies a riddle that I cannot read."
But Eric shook his head, making no answer. Then, leaving Skallagrim
with the dead, he turned, and striding back alone towards the hall,
sat down on a rock in the home meadows and, covering his face with his
hands, wept for his comrades.
As he wept Swanhild came to him, for she had seen him from afar, and
touched him gently on the arm.
"Why weepest thou, Eric?" she said.
"I weep for the dead, Swanhild," he answered.
"Weep not for the dead--they are at peace; if thou must weep, weep for
the living. Nay, weep not at all; rejoice rather that thou art here to
mourn. Hast thou no word of greeting for me who have not heard thy
voice these many months?"
"How shall I greet thee, Swanhild, who would never have seen thy face
again if I might have had my will? Knowest thou that yesternight, as
we laboured in yonder Firth, we saw a shape walking the waters to lead
us to our doom? How shall I greet thee, Swanhild, who art a witch and
"And knowest thou, Eric, that yesternight I woke from sleep, having
dreamed that thou didst lie upon the shore, and thus I saved thee
alive, as perchance I have saved thee aforetime? If thou didst see a
shape walking the waters it was that shape which led thee here. Hadst
thou sailed on, not only those thou mournest, but Skallagrim and thou
thyself had now been numbered with the lost."
"Better so than thus," said Brighteyes. "Knowest thou also, Swanhild,
that when last night my life came back again in Atli's hall, methought
that Atli's wife leaned over me and kissed me on the lips? That was an
ill dream, Swanhild."
"Some had found it none so ill, Eric," she made answer, looking on him
strangely. "Still, it was but a dream. Thou didst dream that Atli's
wife breathed back the breath of life into thy pale lips--be sure of
it thou didst but dream. Ah, Eric, fear me no more; forget the evil
that I have wrought in the blindness and folly of my youth. Now things
are otherwise with me. Now I am a wedded wife and faithful hearted to
my lord. Now, if I still love thee, it is with a sister's love.
Therefore forget my sins, remember only that as children we played
upon the Iceland fells. Remember that, as boy and girl, we rode along
the marshes, while the sea-mews clamoured round our heads. The world
is cold, Eric, and few are the friends we find in it; many are already
gone, and soon the friendless dark draws near. So put me not away, my
brother and my friend; but, for a little space, whilst thou art here
in Atli's hall, let us walk hand in hand as we walked long years ago
in Iceland, gathering up the fifa-bloom, and watching the midnight
shadows creep up the icy jökul's crest."
Thus Swanhild spoke to him most sweetly, in a low voice of music,
while the tears gathered in her eyes, talking ever of Iceland that he
loved, and of days long dead, till Eric's heart softened in him.
"Almost do I believe thee, Swanhild," he said, stretching out his
hand; "but I know thus: that thou art never twice in the same mood,
and that is beyond my measuring. Thou hast done much evil and thou
hast striven to do more; also I love not those who seem to walk the
seas o' nights. Still, hold thou to this last saying of thine and
there shall be peace between us while I bide here."
She touched his hand humbly and turned to go. But as she went Eric
spoke again: "Say, Swanhild, hast thou tidings from Iceland yonder? I
have heard no word of Asmund or of Gudruda for two long years and
She stood still, and a dark shadow that he could not see flitted
across her face.
"I have few tidings, Eric," she said, turning, "and those few, if I
may trust them, bad enough. For this is the rumour that I have heard:
that Asmund the Priest, my father, is dead; that Groa, my mother, is
dead--how, I know not; and, lastly, that Gudruda the Fair, thy love,
is betrothed to Ospakar Blacktooth and weds him in the spring."
Now Eric sprang up with an oath and grasped the hilt of Whitefire.
Then he sat down again upon the stone and covered his face with his
"Grieve not, Eric," she said gently; "I put no faith in this news, for
rumour, like the black-backed gull, often changes colour in its flight
across the seas. Also I had it but at fifth hand. I am sure of this,
at least, that Gudruda will never forsake thee without a cause."
"It shall go ill with Ospakar if this be true," said Eric, smiling
grimly, "for Whitefire is yet left me and with it one true friend."
"Run not to meet the evil, Eric. Thou shalt come to Iceland with the
summer flowers and find Gudruda faithful and yet fairer than of yore.
Knowest thou that Hall of Lithdale, who was thy mate, has sat here
these two months? He is gone but this morning, I know not whither,
leaving a message that he returns no more."
"He did well to go," said Eric, and he told her how Hall had cut the
"Ay, well indeed," answered Swanhild. "Had Atli known this he would
have scourged Hall hence with rods of seaweed. And now, Eric, I desire
to ask thee one more thing: why wearest thou thy hair long like a
woman's? Indeed, few women have such hair as thine is now."
"For this cause, Swanhild: I swore to Gudruda that none should cut my
hair till she cut it once more. It is a great burden to me surely, for
never did hair grow so fast and strong as mine, and once in a fray I
was held fast by it and went near to the losing of my life. Still, I
will keep the oath even if it grows on to my feet," and he laughed a
little and shook back his golden locks.
Swanhild smiled also and, turning, went. But when her face was hidden
from him she smiled no more.
"As I live," she said in her heart, "before spring rains fall I again
will cause thee to break this oath, Eric. Ay, I will cut a lock of
that bright hair of thine and send it for a love-token to Gudruda."
But Eric still sat upon the rock thinking. Swanhild had set an evil
seed of doubt in his heart, and already it put forth roots. What if
the tale were true? What if Gudruda had given herself to Ospakar?
Well, if so--she should soon be a widow, that he swore.
Then he rose, and stalked grimly towards the hall.
HOW KOLL THE HALF-WITTED BROUGHT TIDINGS FROM ICELAND
Presently as Eric walked he met Atli the Earl seeking him. Atli
"I have seen strange things, Eric," he said, "but none more strange
than this coming of thine and the manner of it. Swanhild is
foresighted, and that was a doom-dream of hers."
"I think her foresighted also," said Eric. "And now, Earl, knowest
thou this: that little good can come to thee at the hands of one whom
thou hast saved from the sea."
"I set no faith in such old wives' tales," answered Atli. "Here thou
art come, and it is my will that thou shouldest sit here. At the
least, I will give thee no help to go hence."
"Then we must bide in Straumey, it seems," said Eric: "for of all my
goods and gear this alone is left me," and he looked at Whitefire.
"Thou hast still a gold ring or two upon thy arm," answered the Earl,
laughing. "But surely, Eric, thou wouldst not begone?"
"I know not, Earl. Listen: it is well that I should be plain with
thee. Once, before thou didst wed Swanhild, she had another mind."
"I have heard something of that, and I have guessed more, Brighteyes;
but methinks Swanhild is little given to gadding now. She is as cold
as ice, and no good wife for any man," and Atli sighed, "'Snow melts
not if sun shines not,' so runs the saw. Thou art an honest man, Eric,
and no whisperer in the ears of others' wives."
"I am not minded indeed to do thee such harm, Earl, but this thou
knowest: that woman's guile and beauty are swords few shields can
brook. Now I have spoken--and they are hard words to speak--be it as
"It is my will that thou shouldest sit here this winter, Eric. Had I
my way, indeed, never wouldest thou sit elsewhere. Listen: things have
not gone well with me of late. Age hath a grip of me, and foes rise up
against one who has no sons. That was an ill marriage, too, which I
made with Swanhild yonder: for she loves me not, and I have found no
luck since first I saw her face. Moreover, it is in my mind that my
days are almost sped. Swanhild has already foretold my death, and, as
thou knowest well, she is foresighted. So I pray thee, Eric, bide thou
here while thou mayest, for I would have thee at my side."
"It shall be as thou wilt, Earl," said Eric.
So Eric Brighteyes and Skallagrim Lambstail sat that winter in the
hall of Atli the Earl at Straumey. For many weeks all things went well
and Eric forgot his fears. Swanhild was gentle to him and kindly. She
loved much to talk with him, even of Gudruda her rival; but no word of
love passed her lips. Nevertheless, she did but bide her time, for
when she struck she determined to strike home. Atli and Eric were ever
side by side, and Eric gave the Earl much good counsel. He promised to
do this also, for now, being simple-minded, his doubts had passed and
he had no more fear of Swanhild. On the mainland lived a certain chief
who had seized large lands of Atli's, and held them for a year or
more. Now Eric gave his word that, before he sailed for Iceland in the
early summer, he would go up against this man and drive him from the
lands, if he could. For Brighteyes might not come to Iceland till hard
upon midsummer, when his three years of outlawry were spent.
The winter wore away and the spring came. Then Atli gathered his men
and went with Eric in boats to where the chief dwelt who held his
lands. There they fell on him and there was a fierce fight. But in the
end the man was slain by Skallagrim, and Eric did great deeds, as was
his wont. Now in this fray Eric was wounded in the foot by a spear, so
that he must be borne back to Straumey, and he lay there in the hall
for many days. Swanhild nursed him, and most days he sat talking with
her in her bower.
When Eric was nearly healed of his hurt, the Earl went with all his
people to a certain island of the Orkneys to gather scat[*] that was
unpaid, and Skallagrim went with him. But Eric did not go, because of
his hurt, fearing lest the wound should open if he walked overmuch.
Thus it came to pass that, except for some women, he was left almost
alone with Swanhild.
Now, when Atli had been gone three days, it chanced on an afternoon
that Swanhild heard how a man from Iceland sought speech with her. She
bade them bring him in to where she was alone in her bower, for Eric
was not there, having gone down to the sea to fish.
The man came and she knew him at once for Koll the Half-witted, who
had been her mother Groa's thrall. On his shoulders was the cloak that
Ospakar Blacktooth had given him; it was much torn now, and he had a
worn and hungry look.
"Whence comest thou, Koll?" she asked, "and what are thy tidings?"
"From Scotland last, lady, where I sat this winter; before that, from
Iceland. As for my tidings, they are heavy, if thou hast not heard
them. Asmund the Priest is dead, and dead is Unna his wife, poisoned
by thy mother, Groa, at their marriage-feast. Dead, too, is thy
mother, Groa. Björn, Asmund's son, shot her with an arrow, and she
lies in Goldfoss pool."
Now Swanhild hid her face for a while in her hands. Then she lifted it
and it was white to see. "Speakest thou truth, fox? If thou liest,
this I swear to thee--thy tongue shall be dragged from thee by the
"I speak the truth, lady," he answered. But still he spoke not all the
truth, for he said nothing of the part which he had played in the
deaths of Asmund and Unna. Then he told her of the manner of their
Swanhild listened silently--then said:
"What news of Gudruda, Asmund's daughter? Is she wed?"
"Nay, lady. Folk spoke of her and Ospakar, that was all."
"Hearken, Koll," said Swanhild, "bearing such heavy tidings, canst
thou not weight the ship a little more? Eric Brighteyes is here. Canst
thou not swear to him that, when thou didst leave Iceland it was said
without question that Gudruda had betrothed herself to Ospakar, and
that the wedding-feast was set for this last Yule? Thou hast a hungry
look, Koll, and methinks that things have not gone altogether well
with thee of late. Now, if thou canst so charge thy memory, thou shalt
lose little by it. But, if thou canst not, then thou goest hence from
Straumey with never a luck-penny in thy purse, and never a sup to stay
thy stomach with."
Now of all things Koll least desired to be sent from Straumey; for,
though Swanhild did not know it, he was sought for on the mainland as
"That I may do, lady," he said, looking at her cunningly. "Now I
remember that Gudruda the Fair charged me with a certain message for
Eric Brighteyes, if I should chance to see him as I journeyed."
Then Swanhild, Atli's wife, and Koll the Half-witted talked long and
At nightfall Eric came in from his fishing. His heart was light, for
the time drew near when he should sail for home, and he did not think
on evil. For now he feared Swanhild no longer, and, no fresh tidings
having come from Iceland about Ospakar and Gudruda, he had almost put
the matter from his mind. On he walked to the hall, limping somewhat
from his wound, but singing as he came, and bearing his fish slung
upon a pole.
At the men's door of the hall a woman stood waiting. She told Eric
that the lady Swanhild would speak with him in her bower. Thither he
went and knocked. Getting no answer he knocked again, then entered.
Swanhild sat on a couch. She was weeping, and her hair fell about her
"What now, Swanhild?" he said.
She looked up heavily. "Ill news for thee and me, Eric. Koll, who was
my mother's thrall, has come hither from Iceland, and these are his
tidings: that Asmund is dead, and Unna, thy cousin, Thorod of
Greenfell's daughter, is dead, and my mother Groa is dead also."
"Heavy tidings, truly!" said Eric; "and what of Gudruda, is she also
"Nay, Eric she is wed--wed to Ospakar."
Now Eric reeled against the wall, clutching it, and for a space all
things swam round him. "Where is this Koll?" he gasped. "Send me Koll
Presently he came, and Eric questioned him coldly and calmly. But Koll
could lie full well. It is said that in his day there was no one in
Iceland who could lie so well as Koll the Half-witted. He told Eric
how it was said that Gudruda was plighted to Ospakar, and how the
match had been agreed on at the Althing in the summer that was gone
(and indeed there had been some such talk), and how that the feast was
to be at Middalhof on last Yule Day.
"Is that all thy tidings?" said Eric. "If so, I give no heed to them:
for ever, Koll, I have known thee for a liar!"
"Nay, Eric, it is not all," answered Koll. "As it chanced, two days
before the ship in which I sailed was bound, I saw Gudruda the Fair.
Then she asked me whither I was going, and I told her that I would
journey to London, where men said thou wert, and asked her if she
would send a message. Then she alighted from her horse, Blackmane, and
spoke with me apart. 'Koll,' she said, 'it well may happen that thou
wilt see Eric Brighteyes in London town. Now, if thou seest him, I
charge thee straightly tell him this. Tell him that my father is dead,
and my brother Björn, who rules in his place, is a hard man, and has
ever urged me on to wed Ospakar, till at last, having no choice, I
have consented to it. And say to Eric that I grieve much and sorely,
and that, though we twain should never meet more, yet I shall always
hold his memory dear.'"
"It is not like Gudruda to speak thus," said Eric: "she had ever a
stout heart and these are craven words. Koll, I hold that thou liest;
and, if indeed I find it so, I'll wring the head from off thee!"
"Nay, Eric, I lie not. Wherefore should I lie? Hearken: thou hast not
heard all my tale. When the lady Gudruda had made an end of speaking
she drew something from her breast and gave it me, saying: 'Give this
to Eric, in witness of my words.'"
"Show me the token," said Eric.
Now, many years ago, when they were yet boy and girl, it chanced that
Eric had given to Gudruda the half of an ancient gold piece that he
had found upon the shore. He had given her half, and half he had kept,
wearing it next his heart. But he knew not this, for she feared to
tell him, that Gudruda had lost her half. Nor indeed had she lost it,
for Swanhild had taken the love-token and hidden it away. Now she
brought it forth for Koll to build his lies upon.
Then Koll drew out the half-piece from a leather purse and passed it
to him. Eric plunged his hand into his breast and found his half. He
placed the two side by side, while Swanhild watched him. Lo! they
Then Eric laughed aloud, a hard and bitter laugh. "There will be
slaying," he cried, "before all this tale is told. Take thy fee and
begone, thou messenger of ill," and he cast the broken piece at Koll.
"For once thou hast spoken the truth."
Koll stooped, found the gold and went, leaving Brighteyes and Swanhild
face to face.
He hid his brow in his arms and groaned aloud. Softly Swanhild crept
up to him--softly she drew his hands away, holding them between her
"Heavy tidings, Eric," she said, "heavy tidings for thee and me! She
is a murderess who gave me birth and she has slain my own father--my
father and thy cousin Unna also. Gudruda is a traitress, a traitress
fair and false. I did ill to be born of such a woman; thou didst ill
to put thy faith in such a woman. Together let us weep, for our woe is
"Ay, let us weep together," Eric answered. "Nay, why should we weep?
Together let us be merry, for we know the worst. All words are said--
all hopes are sped! Let us be merry, then, for now we have no more
tidings to fear."
"Ay," Swanhild answered, looking on him darkly, "we will be merry and
laugh our sorrows down. Ah! thou foolish Eric, under what unlucky star
wast thou born that thou knewest not true from false?" and she called
the serving-women, bidding them bring food and wine.
Now Eric sat alone with Swanhild in her bower and made pretence to
eat. But he could eat little, though he drank deep of the southern
wine. Close beside him sat Swanhild, filling his cup. She was wondrous
fair that night, and it seemed to Eric that her eyes gleamed like
stars. Sweetly she spoke also and wisely. She told strange tales and
she sang strange songs, and ever her eyes shone more and more, and
ever she crept closer to him. Eric's brain was afire, though his heart
was cold and dead. He laughed loud and mightily, he told great tales
of deeds that he had done, growing boastful in his folly, and still
Swanhild's eyes shone more and more, and still she crept closer,
wooing him in many ways.
Now of a sudden Eric thought of his friend, Earl Atli, and his mind
"This may not be, Swanhild," he said. "Yet I would that I had loved
thee from the first, and not the false Gudruda: for, with all thy dark
ways, at least thou art better than she."
"Thou speakest wisely, Eric," Swanhild answered, though she meant not
that he should go. "The Norns have appointed us an evil fate, giving
me as wife to an old man whom I do not love, and thee for a lover to a
woman who has betrayed thee. Ah, Eric Brighteyes, thou foolish Eric!
why knewest thou not the false from the true while yet there was time?
Now are all words said and all things done--nor can they be undone. Go
hence, Eric, ere ill come of it; but, before thou goest, drink one cup
of parting, and then farewell."
And she slipped from him and filled the cup, mixing in it a certain
love-portion that she had made ready.
"Give it me that I may swear an oath on it," said Eric.
Swanhild gave him the cup and stood before him, watching him.
"Hearken," he said: "I swear this, that before snow falls again in
Iceland I will see Ospakar dead at my feet or lie dead at the feet of
"Well spoken, Eric," Swanhild answered. "Now, before thou drinkest,
grant me one little boon. It is but a woman's fancy, and thou canst
scarce deny me. The years will be long when thou art gone, for from
this night it is best that we should meet no more, and I would keep
something of thee to call back thy memory and the memories of our
youth when thou hast passed away and I grow old."
"What wouldst have then, Swanhild? I have nothing left to give, except
"I do not ask Whitefire, Eric, though Whitefire shall kiss the gift. I
ask nothing but one tress of that golden hair of thine."
"Once I swore that none should touch my hair again except Gudruda's
"It will grow long, then, Eric, for now Gudruda tends black locks and
thinks little on golden. Broken are all oaths."
Eric groaned. "All oaths are broken in sooth," he said. "Have then thy
will;" and, loosing the peace-strings, he drew Whitefire from its
sheath and gave her the great war-sword.
Swanhild took it by the hilt, and, lifting a tress of Eric's yellow
hair, she shore through it deftly with Whitefire's razor-edge, smiling
as she shore. With the same war-blade on which Eric and Gudruda had
pledged their troth, did Swanhild cut the locks that Eric had sworn no
hand should clip except Gudruda's.
He took back the sword and sheathed it, and, knotting the long tress,
Swanhild hid it in her bosom.
"Now drink the cup, Eric," she said--"pledge me and go."
Eric drank to the dregs and cast the cup down, and lo! all things
changed to him, for his blood was afire, and seas seemed to roll
within his brain. Only before him stood Swanhild like a shape of light
and glory, and he thought that she sang softly over him, always
drawing nearer, and that with her came a scent of flowers like the
scent of the Iceland meads in May.
"All oaths are broken, Eric," she murmured, "all oaths are broken
indeed, and now must new oaths be sworn. For cut is thy golden hair,
Brighteyes, and not by Gudruda's hand!"
HOW ERIC WAS NAMED ANEW
Eric dreamed. He dreamed that Gudruda stood by him looking at him with
soft, sad eyes, while with her hand she pointed to his hair, and
"Thou hast done ill, Eric," she seemed to say. "Thou hast done ill to
doubt me; and now thou art for ever shamed, for thou hast betrayed
Atli, thy friend. Thou hast broken thy oath, and therefore hast thou
fallen into this pit; for when Swanhild shore that lock of thine, my
watching Spirit passed, leaving thee to Swanhild and thy fate. Now, I
tell thee this: that shame shall lead to shame, and many lives shall
pay forfeit for thy sin, Eric."
Eric awoke, thinking that this was indeed an evil dream which he had
dreamed. He woke, and lo! by him was Swanhild, Atli's wife. He looked
upon her beauty, and fear and shame crept into his heart, for now he
knew that it was no dream, but he was lost indeed. He looked again at
Swanhild, and hatred and loathing of her shook him. She had overcome
him by her arts; that cup was drugged which he had drunk, and he was
mad with grief. Yes, she had played upon his woe like a harper on a
harp, and now he was ashamed--now he had betrayed his friend who loved
him! Had Whitefire been to his hand at that moment, Eric had surely
slain himself. But the great sword was not there, for it hung in
Swanhild's bower. Eric groaned aloud, and Swanhild turned at the
sound. But he sprang away and stood over her, cursing her.
"Thou witch!" he cried, "what hast thou done? What didst thou mix in
that cup yestre'en? Thou hast brought me to this that I have betrayed
Atli, my friend--Atli, thy lord, who left thee in my keeping!"
He seemed so terrible in his woe and rage that Swanhild shrank from
him, and, throwing her hair about her face, peeped at him through its
meshes as once she had peeped at Asmund.
"It is like a man," she said, gathering up her courage and her wit;
"'tis like a man, having won my love, now to turn upon me and upbraid
me. Fie upon thee, Eric! thou hast dealt ill with me to bring me to
Now Eric ceased his raving, and spoke more calmly.
"Well thou knowest the truth, Swanhild," he said.
"Hearken, Eric," she answered. "Let this be secret between us. Atli is
old, and methinks that not for long shall he bide here in Straumey.
Soon he will die; it is upon my mind that he soon will die, and, being
childless, his lands and goods pass to me. Then, Eric, thou shalt sit
in Atli's hall, and in all honour shall Atli's wife become thy bride."
Eric listened coldly. "I can well believe," he said, "that thou hast
it in mind to slay thy lord, for all evil is in thy heart, Swanhild.
Now know this: that if in honour or dishonour my lips touch that fair
face of thine again, may the limbs rot from thy trunk, and may I lie a
log for ever in the halls of Hela! If ever my eyes of their own will
look again upon thy beauty, may I go blind and beg my meat from
homestead to homestead! If ever my tongue whisper word of love into
thy ears, may dumbness seize it, and may it wither to the root!"
Swanhild heard and sank upon the ground before him, her head bowed
almost to her feet.
"Now, Swanhild, fare thee well," said Eric. "Living or dead, may I
never see thy face again!"
She gazed up through her falling hair; her face was wild and white,
and her eyes glowed in it as live embers glow in the ashes of burnt
"We are not so easily parted, Eric," she said. "Not for this came I to
witchcraft and to sin. Thou fool! hast thou never heard that, of all
the foes a man may have, none is so terrible as the woman he has
scorned? Thou shalt learn this lesson, Eric Brighteyes, Thorgrimur's
son: for here we have but the beginning of the tale. For its end, I
will write it in runes of blood."
"Write on," said Eric. "Thou canst do no worse than thou hast done,"
and he passed thence.
For a while Swanhild crouched upon the ground, brooding in silence.
Then she rose, and, throwing up her arms, wept aloud.
"Is it for this that I have sold my soul to the Hell-hag?" she cried.
"Is it for this that I have become a witch, and sunk so low as I sank
last night--to be scorned, to be hated, to be betrayed? Now Eric will
go to Atli and tell this tale. Nay, there I will be beforehand with
him, and with another story--an ancient wile of women truly, but one
that never yet has failed them, nor ever will. And then for vengeance!
I will see thee dead, Eric, and dead will I see Gudruda at thy side!
Afterwards let darkness come--ay, though the horror rides it! Swift!--
I must be swift!"
Eric passed into Swanhild's bower, and, finding Whitefire, bore it
thence. On the table was food. He took it. Then, going to the place
where he was wont to sleep, he armed himself, girding his byrnie on
his breast and his golden helm upon his head, and taking shield and
spear in his hand. Then he passed out. By the men's door he found some
women spreading fish in the sun. Eric greeted them, saying that when
the Earl came back, for he was to come on that morning, he would find
him on the south-western rocks nigh to where the Gudruda sank. This he
begged of them to tell Atli, for he desired speech with him.
The women wondered that Brighteyes should go forth thus and fully
armed, but, holding that he had some deed to do, they said nothing.
Eric came to the rocks, and there he sat all day long looking on the
sea, and grieving so bitterly that he thought his heart would burst
within him. For of all the days of Eric's life this was the heaviest,
except one other only.
But Swanhild, going to her bower, caused Koll the Half-witted to be
summoned. To him she spoke long and earnestly, and they made a
shameful plot together. Then she bade Koll watch for Atli's coming
and, when he saw the Earl leave his boats, to run to him and say that
she would speak with him.
After this Swanhild sent a man across the firth to the stead where
Hall of Lithdale sat, bidding him to come to her at speed.
When the afternoon grew towards the evening, Koll, watching, saw the
boats of Atli draw to the landing-place. Then he went down, and, going
to the Earl, bowed before him:
"What wouldst thou, fellow, and who art thou?" asked Atli.
"I am a man from Iceland; perchance, lord, thou sawest me in Asmund's
hall at Middalhof. I am sent here by the Lady Swanhild to say that she
desires speech with thee, and that at once." Then, seeing Skallagrim,
Koll fled back to the house, for he feared Skallagrim.
Now Atli was uneasy in his mind, and, saying nothing, he hurried up to
the hall, and through it into Swanhild's bower.
There she sat on a couch, her eyes red with weeping, and her curling
"What now, Swanhild?" he asked. "Why lookest thou thus?"
"Why look I thus, my lord?" she answered heavily. "Because I have to
tell thee that which I cannot find words to fit," and she ceased.
"Speak on," he said. "Is aught wrong with Eric?"
Then Swanhild drew near and told him a false tale.
When it was done for a moment or so Atli stood still, and grew white
beneath his ruddy skin, white as his beard. Then he staggered back
against the wainscoting of the bower.
"Woman, thou liest!" he said. "Never will I believe so vile a thing of
Eric Brighteyes, whom I have loved."
"Would that I could not believe it!" she answered. "Would that I could
think it was but an evil dream! But alas! Nay, I will prove it. Suffer
that I summon Koll, the Icelander, who was my mother's thrall--Groa
who now is dead, for I have that tidings also. He saw something of
this thing, and he will bear me witness."
"Call the man," said Atli sternly.
So Koll was summoned, and told his lies with a bold face. He was so
well taught, and so closely did his story tally with that of Swanhild,
that Atli could find no flaw in it.
"Now I am sure, Swanhild, that thou speakest truth," said the Earl
when Koll had gone. "And now also I have somewhat to say to this Eric.
For thee, rest thyself; that which cannot be mended must be borne,"
and he went out.
Now, when Skallagrim came to the house he asked for Eric. The women
told him that Brighteyes had gone down to the sea, fully armed, in the
morning, and had not returned.
"Then there must be fighting toward, and that I am loth to miss," said
Skallagrim, and, axe aloft, he started for the south-western rocks at
a run. Skallagrim came to the rocks. There he found Eric, sitting in
his harness, looking out across the sea. The evening was wet and
windy; the rain beat upon him as he sat, but Eric took no heed.
"What seekest thou, lord?" asked the Baresark.
"Rest," said Eric, "and I find none."
"Thou seekest rest helm on head and sword in hand? This is a strange
"Stranger things have been Skallagrim. Wouldst thou hear a tale?" and
he told him all.
"What said I?" asked Skallagrim. "We had fared better in London town.
Flying from the dove thou hast found the falcon."
"I have found the falcon, comrade, and she has pecked out my eyes. Now
I would speak with Atli, and then I go hence."
"Hence go the twain of us, lord. The Earl will be here presently and
rough words will fly in this rough weather. Is Whitefire sharp,
"Whitefire was sharp enough to shear my hair, Skallagrim; but if Atli
would strike let him lay on. Whitefire will not be aloft for him."
"That we shall see," said Skallagrim. "At least, if thou art harmed
because of this loose quean, my axe will be aloft."
"Keep thou thine axe in its place," said Eric, and as he spoke Atli
came, and with him many men.
Eric rose and turned to meet the Earl, looking on him with sad eyes.
For Atli, his face was as the face of a trapped wolf, for he was mad
with rage at the shame that had been put upon him and the ill tale
that Swanhild had told of Eric's dealings with her.
"It seems that the Earl has heard of these tidings," said Skallagrim.
"Then I shall be spared the telling of them," answered Eric.
Now they stood face to face; Atli leaned upon his drawn sword, and his
wrath was so fierce that for a while he could not speak. At length he
"See ye that man, comrades?" he said, pointing at Eric with the sword.
"He has been my guest these many months. He has sat in my hall and
eaten of my bread, and I have loved him as a son. And wot ye how he
has repaid me? He has put me to the greatest shame, me and my wife the
Lady Swanhild, whom I left in his guard--to such shame, indeed, that I
cannot speak it."
"True words, Earl," said Eric, while folk murmured and handled their
"True, but not all the truth," growled Skallagrim. "Methinks the Earl
has heard a garbled tale."
"True words, thyself thou sayest it," went on Atli "thou hound that I
saved from the sea! 'Ran's gift, Hela's gift,' so runs the saw, and
now from Ran to Hela thou shalt go, thou mishandler of defenceless
"Here is somewhat of which I know nothing," said Eric.
"And here is something of which thou shalt know," answered Atli, and
he shook his sword before Eric's eyes. "Guard thyself!"
"Nay, Earl; thou art old, and I have done the wrong--I may not fight
"Art thou a coward also?" said the Earl.
"Some have deemed otherwise," said Eric, "but it is true that heavy
heart makes weak hand. Nevertheless this is my rede. With thee are ten
men. Stand thou aside and let them fall on me till I am slain."
"The odds are too heavy even for thee," said Skallagrim. "Back to
back, lord, as we have stood aforetime, and let us play this game
"Not so," cried Atli, "this shame is mine, and I have sworn to
Swanhild that I will wipe it out in Eric's blood. Stand thou before me
Then Eric drew Whitefire and raised his shield. Atli the Earl rushed
at him and smote a great two-handed blow. Eric caught it on his shield
and suffered no harm; but he would not smite back.
Atli dropped his point. "Niddering art thou, and coward to the last!"
he cried. "See, men, Eric Brighteyes fears to fight. I am not come to
this that I will cut down a man who is too faint-hearted to give blow
for blow. This is my word: take ye your spear-shafts and push this
coward to the shore. Then put him in a boat and drive him hence."
Now Eric grew red as the red light of sunset, for his manhood might
not bear this.
"Take shield," he said, "and, Earl, on thine own head be thy blood,
for none shall live to call Eric niddering and coward."
Atli laughed in his folly and his rage. He took a shield, and, once
more springing on Brighteyes, struck a great blow.
Eric parried, then whirled Whitefire on high and smote--once and once
only! Down rushed the bright blade like a star through the night.
Sword and shield did Atli lift to catch the blow. Through shield it
sheared, and arm that held the shield, through byrnie mail and deep
into Earl Atli's side. He fell prone to earth, while men held their
breath, wondering at the greatness of that stroke.
But Eric leaned on Whitefire and looked at the old Earl upon the rock.
"Now, Atli, thou hast had thy way," he said, "and methinks things are
worse than they were before. But I will say this: would that I lay
there and thou stoodest to watch me die, for as lief would I have
slain my father as thee, Earl Atli. There lies Swanhild's work!"
Atli gazed upwards into Eric's sad eyes and, while he gazed so, his
rage left him, and of a sudden a light brake upon his mind, as even
then the light of the setting sun brake through the driving mist.
"Eric," he said, "draw near and speak with me ere I am sped. Methinks
that I have been beguiled and that thou didst not do this thing that
Swanhild said and Koll bore witness to."
"What did Swanhild say, then, Earl Atli?"
The Earl told him.
"It was to be looked for from her," said Eric, "though I never thought
of it. Now hearken!" and he told him all.
Atli groaned aloud. "I know this now, Eric," he said: "that thou
speakest truth, and once more I have been deceived. Eric, I forgive
thee all, for no man may fight against woman's witchcraft, and witch's
wine. Swanhild is evil to the heart. Yet, Eric, I lay this doom upon
thee--I do not lay it of my own will, for I would not harm thee, whom
I love, but because of the words that the Norns put in my mouth, for
now I am fey in this the hour of my death. Thou hast sinned, and that
thou didst sin against thy will shall avail thee nothing, for of thy
sin fate shall fashion a handle to the spear which pierces thee.
Henceforth thou art accursed. For I tell thee that this wicked woman
Swanhild shall drag thee down to death, and worse than death, and with
thee those thou lovest. By witchcraft she brought thee to Straumey, by
lies she laid me here before thee. Now by hate and might and cruel
deeds shall she bring thee to lie more low than I do. For, Eric, thou
art bound to her, and thou shalt never loose the bond!"
Atli ceased a while, then spoke again more faintly:
"Hearken, comrades," he cried; "my strength is well-nigh spent. Ye
shall swear four things to me--that ye will give Eric Brighteyes and
Skallagrim Lambstail safe passage from Straumey. That ye will tell
Swanhild the Fatherless, Groa's daughter and Atli's wife, that, at
last, I know her for what she is--a murderess, a harlot, a witch and a
liar; and that I forgive Eric whom she tricked, but that her I hate
and spit upon. That ye will slay Koll the Half-witted, Groa's thrall,
who came hither about two days gone, since by his lies he hath set an
edge upon this sword of falsehood. That ye will raise no blood-feud
against Eric for this my slaying, for I goaded him to the deed. Do ye
"We swear," said the men.
"Then farewell! And to thee farewell, also, Eric Brighteyes! Now take
my hand and hold it while I die. Behold! I give thee a new name, and
by that name thou shalt be called in story. I name thee /Eric the
Unlucky/. Of all tales that are told, thine shall be the greatest. A
mighty stroke that was of thine--a mighty stroke! Farewell!"
Then his head fell back upon the rock and Earl Atli died. And as he
died the last rays of light went out of the sky.
HOW HALL OF LITHDALE TOOK TIDINGS TO ICELAND
Now on the same night that Atli died at the hand of Eric, Swanhild
spake with Hall of Lithdale, whom she had summoned from the mainland.
She bade him do this: take passage in a certain ship that should sail
for Iceland on the morrow from the island that is called Westra, and
there tell all these tidings of the ill-doings of Eric and of the
slaying of Atli by his hand.
"Thou shalt say this," she went on, "that Eric had been my love for
long, but that at length the matter came to the ears of Atli, the
Earl. Then, holding this the greatest shame, he went on holmgang with
Eric and was slain by him. This shalt thou add to thy tale also, that
presently Eric and I will wed, and that Eric shall rule as Earl in
Orkneys. Now these tidings must soon come to the ears of Gudruda the
Fair, and she will send for thee, and question thee straightly
concerning them, and thou shalt tell her the tale as thou toldest it
at first. Then thou shalt give Gudruda this packet, which I send her
as a gift, saying, that I bade her remember a certain oath which Eric
took as to the cutting of his hair. And when she sees that which is
within the packet is somewhat stained, tell her that is but the blood
of Atli that is upon it, as his blood is upon Eric's hands. Now
remember thou this, Hall, that if thou fail in the errand thy life
shall pay forfeit, for presently I will also come to Iceland and hear
how thou hast sped."
Then Swanhild gave him faring-money and gifts of wadmal and gold
rings, promising that he should have so much again when she came to
Hall said that he would do all these things, and went at once; nor did
he fail in his tasks.
Atli being dead, Eric loosed his hand and called to the men to take up
his body and bear it to the hall. This they did. Eric stood and
watched them till they were lost in the darkness.
"Whither now, lord?" said Skallagrim.
"It matters little," said Eric. "What is thy counsel?"
"This is my counsel. That we take ship and sail back to the King in
London. There we will tell all this tale. It is a far cry from
Straumey to London town, and there we shall sit in peace, for the King
will think little of the slaying of an Orkney Earl in a brawl about a
woman. Mayhap, too, the Lady Elfrida will not set great store by it.
Therefore, I say, let us fare back to London."
"In but one place am I at home, and that is Iceland," said Eric.
"Thither I will go, Skallagrim, though it be but to miss friend from
stead and bride from bed. At the least I shall find Ospakar there."
"Listen, lord!" said Skallagrim. "Was it not my rede that we should
bide this winter through in London? Thou wouldst none of it, and what
came about? Our ship is sunk, gone are our comrades, thine honour is
tarnished, and dead is thy host at thine own hand. Yet I say all is
not lost. Let us hence south, and see no more of Swanhild, of Gudruda,
of Björn and Ospakar. So shall we break the spell. But if thou goest
to Iceland, I am sure of this: that the evil fate which Atli foretold
will fall on thee, and the days to come shall be even more unlucky
than the days that have been."
"It may be so," said Eric. "Methinks, indeed, it will be so.
Henceforth I am Eric the Unlucky. I will go back to Iceland and there
play out the game. I care little if I live or am slain--I have no more
joy in my life. I stand alone, like a fir upon a mountain-top, and
every wind from heaven and every storm of hail and snow beats upon my
head. But I say to thee, Skallagrim: go thy road, and leave a luckless
man to his ill fate. Otherwise it shall be thine also. Good friend
hast thou been to me; now let us part and wend south and north. The
King will be glad to greet thee yonder in London, Lambstail."
"But one severing shall we know, lord," said Skallagrim, "and that
shall be sword's work, nor will it be for long. It is ill to speak
such words as these of the parting of lord and thrall. Bethink thee of
the oath I swore on Mosfell. Let us go north, since it is thy will: in
fifty years it will count for little which way we wended from the
So they went together down to the shore, and, finding a boat and men
who as yet knew nothing of what had chanced to Atli, they sailed
across the firth at the rising of the moon.
Two days afterwards they found a ship at Wick that was bound for
Fareys, and sailed in her, Eric buying a passage with the half of a
gold ring that the King had given him in London.
Here at Fareys they sat a month or more; but not in the Earl's hall as
when Eric came with honour in the Gudruda, but in a farmer's stead.
For the tale of Eric's dealings with Atli and Atli's wife had reached
Fareys, and the Earl there had been a friend of Atli's. Moreover, Eric
was now a poor man, having neither ship nor goods, nor friends.
Therefore all looked coldly on him, though they wondered at his beauty
and his might. Still, they dared not to speak ill or make a mock of
him; for, two men having done so, were nearly slain of Skallagrim, who
seized the twain by the throat, one in either hand, and dashed their
heads together. After that men said little.
They sat there a month, till at length a chapman put in at Fareys,
bound for Iceland, and they took passage with him, Eric paying the
other half of his gold ring for ship-room. The chapman was not willing
to give them place at first, for he, too, had heard the tale; but
Skallagrim offered him choice, either to do so or to go on holmgang
with him. Then the chapman gave them passage.
Now it is told that when his thralls and house-carles bore the corpse
of Atli the Earl to his hall in Straumey, Swanhild met it and wept
over it. And when the spokesman among them stood forward and told her
those words that Atli had bidden them to say to her, sparing none, she
"My lord was distraught and weak with loss of blood when he spoke
thus. The tale I told him was true, and now Eric has added to his sin
by shedding the blood of him whom he wronged so sorely."
And thereafter she spoke so sweetly and with so much gentleness,
craft, and wisdom that, though they still doubted them, all men held
her words weighty. For Swanhild had this art, that she could make the
false sound true in the ears of men and the true sound false.
Still, being mindful of their oath, they hunted for Koll and found
him. And when the thrall knew that they would slay him he ran thence
screaming. Nor did Swanhild lift a hand to save his life, for she
desired that Koll should die, lest he should bear witness against her.
Away he ran towards the cliffs, and after him sped Atli's house-
carles, till he came to the great cliffs that edge in the sea. Now
they were close upon him and their swords were aloft. Then, sooner
than know the kiss of steel, the liar leapt from the cliffs and was
crushed, dying miserably on the rocks below. This was the end of Koll
the Half-witted, Groa's thrall.
Swanhild sat in Straumey for a while, and took all Atli's heritage
into her keeping, for he had no male kin; nor did any say her nay.
Also she called in the moneys that he had out at interest, and that
was a great sum, for Atli was a careful and a wealthy man. Then
Swanhild made ready to go to Iceland. Atli had a great dragon of war,
and she manned that ship and filled it with stores and all things
needful. This done, she set stewards and grieves over the Orkney lands
and farms, and, when the Earl was six weeks dead, she sailed for
Iceland, giving out that she went thither to set a blood-suit on foot
against Eric for the death of Atli, her lord. There she came in safety
just as folk rode to the Thing.
Now Hall of Lithdale came to Iceland and told his tale of the doings
of Eric and the death of Atli. Oft and loud he told it, and soon
people gossiped of it in field and fair and stead. Björn, Asmund's
son, heard this talk and sent for Hall. To him also Hall told the
"Now," said Björn, "we will go to my sister Gudruda the Fair, and
learn how she takes these tidings."
So they went in to where Gudruda sat spinning in the hall, singing as
"Greeting, Gudruda," said Björn; "say, hast thou tidings of Eric
Brighteyes, thy betrothed?"
"I have no tidings," said Gudruda.
"Then here is one who brings them."
Now for the first time Gudruda the Fair saw Hall of Lithdale. Up she
sprang. "Thou hast tidings of Eric, Hall? Ah! thou art welcome, for no
tidings have come of him for many a month. Speak on," and she pressed
her hand against her heart and leaned towards him.
"My tidings are ill, lady."
"Is Eric dead? Say not that my love is dead!"
"He is worse than dead," said Hall. "He is shamed."
"There thou liest, Hall," she answered. "Shame and Eric are things
"Mayst thou think so when thou hast heard my tale, lady," said Hall,
"for I am sad at heart to speak it of one who was my mate."
"Speak on, I say," answered Gudruda, in such a voice that Hall shrank
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