BETA

Two Sagas From Iceland.

I.

Gunnar’s Death.

After the Icelandic of Njals Saga.

[Gunnar, forced into quarrels by Hallgerda his wife, is outlawed. The avengesr
of blood set on him in force and slay him after a heroic defence. ]
Up started Gunnar from his sleep, as a weird and woeful sound1
Rang through the silence. “ ’Twas thy cry, my trusty guardian hound !2
Foul play, dear Sam, is on thee wrought : and ’twixt us twain, I ween,3
Will be short space ; who kill the dog to kill the master mean.”4
But wherefore then hath Gunnar foes, Gunnar the stout and strong,5
Yet kind and courteous past compare, no worker he of wrong ?6
Gunnar the pride of the country-side ?  A fair false ill-wed wife7
Drove him on bloodshed and on broils, and now will spill his life.8
Of deaths that he unwilling dealt (for none before him stood),9
He willing paid awarded fines and made atonement good :10
And for winters three by Thing’s decree he now abroad must stay,11
Or as outlawed wight with lawful right the slain men’s kin might slay.12
The ship lies freighted ; toward the bay Gunnar and Kolskegg ride,13
True brothers they, adown the dale, along the river side :14
When suddenly stumbles Gunnar’s steed, and throws him, that his eyes15
Turned upward gaze on the fell and the farm that at the fell foot lies.16
Fair shows the fell, as never yet ; white waves the corn, green glow17
Our new-mown meads. Back will I ride, nor wandering forth will go.”18
Much did his brother beseech him not thus his foes to please,19
Nor slight Njal’s warning words :  “ To thee this voyage beyond the
seas
20
Works honour, praise, and length of days ; but, an thy terms thou
break,
21
I do foresee swift death to thee, friends sorrowing for thy sake.”22
But Gunnar heard not. Then abroad fared Kolskegg, nevermore23
Fated to see his brother’s face, or tread dear Iceland’s shore.24
So wilful Gunnar sat at home. But his foeman gathered rede,25
And banded them, full forty men (nor of one less was need26
For such emprize), and to Lithe-end they took their stealthy way,27
And by a neighbour Thorkell’s help the hound they lure and slay.28
Forty they were : among them chief rode Gizur, named the white,29
With Geir the priest, and Thorleik’s sons, and Mord of guileful spite,30
Two Aununds, Thorgrim Easterling, and many more who burn31
For the fell deed, yet few thereout all scatheless should return.32
Wood-wrought was Gunnar’s hall ; clinched boards from roof-ridge
doubly sloped,
33
Where wall met roof, there window-slits with screening shutters oped :34
Above the ceiling of the hall were lofts : himself slept there,35
Hallgerda, and his mother—three. For his foes with coward care36
Learnt his farm-folk were all afield, nor, ere the hound was still,37
Two score upon one man dared come to work their wicked will.38
Gunnar awoke at the dog’s death-howl ; but his foemen nought could
hear,
39
Nor know for sure were he within : so Thorgrim drew anear40
To spy and list. He clomb the wall, and soon his kirtle red41
To Gunnar at a window showed. Forth lunged that weapon dread42
The bill, and smote him in the waist. Slipped Thorgrim’s feet, his
shield
43
Dropt loose, he tumbled from the eaves. With much ado he reeled44
To where with Gizur sat the rest.  “ Is he at home, our foe ?”45
They ask. Quoth Thorgrim,  “ ’Tis for you how that may be to know :46
This know I, that his bill’s at home.” Dead fell he speaking so.47
Upon the dead they looked not long. Sure of their prey within48
Trapped in his lair, right at the house they rushed, in hope to win49
Entrance by window, wall or door: when from the eaves forth came50
Arrow on arrow, wheresoe’er assailant showed, with aim51
Unerring. Nought their might avails. Some seek th’ outbuildings’
screen,
52
Thence safelier to attack ; but still e’en there the arrows keen53
Find them, nor doth their errand speed. And so with efforts vain54
They strive awhile, then draw they off to rest and charge again.55
With rage redoubled they return, shoot, batter, hew and climb ;56
But still the dread bow hurls its hail, until a second time57
They back recoil. Then Gizur cried, “ We must our onset make58
With wiser heed, or nothing we by this our ride shall take.”59
So again they fight with a steadier might and an onslaught tough and
long
,
60
But a third time cower from the arrowy shower of Gunnar stout and
strong
.
61
And haply now they had given o’er with wounds and labour spent,62
But for a chance that to their troop new heart and courage lent.63
Upon the ledge of wall without Gunnar an arrow spied.64
An arrow of theirs !  ’Twill shame them well,” so spake he in his
pride,
65
From their own shaft to suffer scathe.”  “ My son, nay do not so,66
Rouse not the slack,” his mother said ; “ they waver, let them go.”67
But Gunnar drew it in, and shot, and with an arrow keen68
Smote sorely Eylif Aunund’s son, yet did it not unseen.69
Ha !” Gizur cried, “ out came a hand a golden ring that wore,70
And plucked an arrow from the roof. If of such wood were store71
At home, it were not sought abroad. With hope renewed set on ;72
Not Gunnav’s self can hold us off when all his shafts are gone.”73
Then out spake Mord amid them all, the man of guileful ways :74
Fire we the house, and at no cost burn Gunnar in the blaze.”75
No, by my honour,” Gizur said, “that deed shall never be76
Such craven work—not though my life lay on it. And for thee77
Some counsel that may serve our need ’twere easy sure to frame,78
So cunning as thou art ; or is thy cunning but in name ?”79
Awhile Mord pondered, till he marked where lay upon the ground80
Some coiled ropes, wherewith the house in strengthening bands they
bound
81
Ofttimes ; for joist and plank and beam such girding needed well,82
When whirling wind and furious storm drove sweeping down the fell.83
These ropes,” quoth Mord, “ o’er the jutting ends of the bearing beams
we’ll cast,
84
And to the sturdy rocks hard by the other ends make fast,85
Then with windlass strain and twist amain, until from off the hall86
Following perforce the tightened cord the yielding roof shall fall.”87
All praise the rede, all lend their hands ; and, ere the chief was ware,88
Off slid the roof, and to the skies the gaping lofts lay bare.89
Fierce then his foes on Gunnar swarm, not hidden as before,90
And climb and strike and hurl and shoot ; but still his arrows pour91
This way and that, where’er they charge, and, though each shift they
try,
92
Despite of numbers they are foiled and cannot come anigh.93
So doth the lordly boar at bay deal havoc ’mid the hounds,94
His lightning tusks full many a side gashing with gory wounds.95
Waste we not lives, but burn the hall, I said, and say again,”96
Quoth Mord ; but Gizur, much in wrath, “ Why thou what none are
fain
97
To follow bidst, I know not, I ; but this shall ne’er be done.”98
Just then upon the side roof leapt bold Thorbrand, Thorleik’s son ;99
Who, as with other aim averse Gunnar his string back drew,100
Reached from behind and deftly cut the tightened sinew through.101
Gunnar with both hands clutched his bill, turned quick, and Thorbrand
thrust
102
With such a forceful stroke that he down toppled in the dust.103
Asbrand, his brother, sprang to aid ; but from the wall was dashed104
With broken arms, as through his shield the bill resistless crashed.105
And now had Gunnar wounded eight, and two outright had slain,106
Himself received two wounds, but nought recked he of wounds or pain,107
Unflinching still through blows and ill, till treachery wrought his bane.108
Take of thy hair two locks ; therewith shalt thou and mother mine,”109
Thus Gunnar to Hallgerda spake, “ another bowstring twine.”110
Lies aught at stake on this ?” said she. But he, “ At stake my life ;111
For while my bow to reach them serves, to come to closer strife112
They’ll get no chance.” And she again, “ Remember now the blow113
Thou gav’st me once upon the cheek. As for thy life, I trow,114
I care not be it short or long.” Said Gunnar, “ Of his deed115
Each earns due glory ; for this boon with thee no more I plead.”116
But bitterly burst Rannveig out, “ And shall such hero die117
For a slap well dealt to a thievish slut in wrath at her thievery ?118
O wicked and unwifely thou !  Long shall endure thy shame,119
And Iceland’s children yet unborn shall curse Hallgerda’s name ! ”120
Then round him close his vengeful foes, yet still he wards them well,121
And he strook eight more with blows full sore and nigh to death, then
fell
122
Weary and worn. Their fallen foe they do not dare to smite,123
Who yet defends him and past hope prolongs a losing fight,124
Baffling each hand of the caitiff band, until at length that crew,125
Forty on one, with stroke on stroke the noble Gunnar slew.126
Thus Gunnar died ; but died not thus of Hamond’s son the fame,—127
Still lives it on the mouth of skalds, as lives Hallgerda’s shame.128
For in that arctic isle of ice, that world of wonders strange,129
Where frost and fire twin empire hold, and in contrasted change130
Drear Jökuls tower and frown above and meadows smile below,131
And over molten rocks and sand the snow-fed torrents go,132
There, long as Hecla nurses flame and bubbling geysers steam,133
And the white sheep dot the pastures, and the salmon leap in the
stream,
134
Of sturdy sires Icelandic bards shall ever love to tell135
Brave blow, fierce fight, rough ride, mad leap, wild feats by fiord and
fell.
136
A truer faith, a milder mood, now rules that northern land ;137
Vengeance then burned in every heart, vengeance armed every hand ;138
Blood blood-begotten blood begat, and broil was born of broil,139
And kindred feuds ran evil round in never-ending coil.140
Yet deeds of courtesy were there no less than deeds of rage ;141
And Gunnar peerless shone in all, and better than his age.142
So we, with kinder skies and laws in weaklier times who live,143
All honour due to the valour true of a ruder race may give.144
And still, when winter’s night is long beneath the circling Bear,145
And few are afield and many at home, and by the warm fire’s glare,146
The women weave or knit or spin, while to refresh the task147
The story and the song go round, oft will a maiden ask,148
Tell us the tale that never tires to ears Icelandic told,149
How Gunnar guarded well his hall, how dear his life he sold.”150