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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesEric Brighteyes - Chapter III - HOW ASMUND BADE ERIC TO HIS YULE-FEAST
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Eric Brighteyes - Chapter III - HOW ASMUND BADE ERIC TO HIS YULE-FEAST Post by :vdorazio Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :April 2011 Read :3016

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Eric Brighteyes - Chapter III - HOW ASMUND BADE ERIC TO HIS YULE-FEAST

Now it was supper-time and men sat at meat while the women waited upon
them. But as she went to and fro, Gudruda always looked at Eric, and
Swanhild watched them both. Supper being over, people gathered round
the hearth, and, having finished her service, Gudruda came and sat by
Eric, so that her sleeve might touch his. They spoke no word, but
there they sat and were happy. Swanhild saw and bit her lip. Now, she
was seated by Asmund and Björn his son.

"Look, foster-father," she said; "yonder sit a pretty pair!"

"That cannot be denied," answered Asmund. "One may ride many days to
see such another man as Eric Brighteyes, and no such maid as Gudruda
flowers between Middalhof and London town, unless it be thou,
Swanhild. Well, so her mother said that it should be, and without
doubt she was foresighted at her death."

"Nay, name me not with Gudruda, foster-father; I am but a grey goose
by thy white swan. But these shall be well wed and that will be a good
match for Eric."

"Let not thy tongue run on so fast," said Asmund sharply. "Who told
thee that Eric should have Gudruda?"

"None told me, but in truth, having eyes and ears, I grew certain of
it," said Swanhild. "Look at them now: surely lovers wear such faces."

Now it chanced that Gudruda had rested her chin on her hand, and was
gazing into Eric's eyes beneath the shadow of her hair.

"Methinks my sister will look higher than to wed a simple yeoman,
though he is large as two other men," said Björn with a sneer. Now
Björn was jealous of Eric's strength and beauty, and did not love him.

"Trust nothing that thou seest and little that thou hearest, girl,"
said Asmund, raising himself from thought: "so shall thy guesses be
good. Eric, come here and tell us how thou didst chance on Gudruda in
the snow."

"I was not so ill seated but that I could bear to stay," grumbled Eric
beneath his breath; but Gudruda said "Go."

So he went and told his tale; but not all of it, for he intended to
ask Gudruda in marriage on the morrow, though his heart prophesied no
luck in the matter, and therefore he was not overswift with it.

"In this thing thou hast done me and mine good service," said Asmund
coldly, searching Eric's face with his blue eyes. "It had been said if
my fair daughter had perished in the snow, for, know this: I would set
her high in marriage, for her honour and the honour of my house, and
so some rich and noble man had lost great joy. But take thou this gift
in memory of the deed, and Gudruda's husband shall give thee another
such upon the day that he makes her wife," and he drew a gold ring off
his arm.

Now Eric's knees trembled as he heard, and his heart grew faint as
though with fear. But he answered clear and straight:

"Thy gift had been better without thy words, ring-giver; but I pray
thee to take it back, for I have done nothing to win it, though
perhaps the time will come when I shall ask thee for a richer."

"My gifts have never been put away before," said Asmund, growing
angry.

"This wealthy farmer holds the good gold of little worth. It is
foolish to take fish to the sea, my father," sneered Björn.

"Nay, Björn, not so," Eric answered: "but, as thou sayest, I am but a
farmer, and since my father, Thorgrimur Iron-Toe, died things have not
gone too well on Ran River. But at the least I am a free man, and I
will take no gifts that I cannot repay worth for worth. Therefore I
will not have the ring."

"As thou wilt," said Asmund. "Pride is a good horse if thou ridest
wisely," and he thrust the ring back upon his arm.

Then people go to rest; but Swanhild seeks her mother, and tells her
all that has befallen her, nor does Groa fail to listen.

"Now I will make a plan," she says, "for these things have chanced
well and Asmund is in a ripe humour. Eric shall come no more to
Middalhof till Gudruda is gone hence, led by Ospakar Blacktooth."

"And if Eric does not come here, how shall I see his face? for,
mother, I long for the sight of it."

"That is thy matter, thou lovesick fool. Know this: that if Eric comes
hither and gets speech with Gudruda, there is an end of thy hopes;
for, fair as thou art, she is too fair for thee, and, strong as thou
art, in a way she is too strong. Thou hast heard how these two love,
and such loves mock at the will of fathers. Eric will win his desire
or die beneath the swords of Asmund and Björn, if such men can prevail
against his might. Nay, the wolf Eric must be fenced from the lamb
till he grows hungry. Then let him search the fold and make spoil of
thee, for, when the best is gone, he will desire the good."

"So be it, mother. As I sat crouched behind Gudruda in the snow at
Coldback, I had half a mind to end her love-words with this knife, for
so I should have been free of her."

"Yes, and fast in the doom-ring, thou wildcat. The gods help this
Eric, if thou winnest him. Nay, choose thy time and, if thou must
strike, strike secretly and home. Remember also that cunning is
mightier than strength, that lies pierce further than swords, and that
witchcraft wins where honesty must fail. Now I will go to Asmund, and
he shall be an angry man before to-morrow comes."

Then Groa went to the shut bed where Asmund the Priest slept. He was
sitting on the bed and asked her why she came.

"For love of thee, Asmund, and thy house, though thou dost treat me
ill, who hast profited so much by me and my foresight. Say now: wilt
thou that this daughter of thine, Gudruda the Fair, should be the
light May of yonder long-legged yeoman?"

"That is not in my mind," said Asmund, stroking his beard.

"Knowest thou, then, that this very day your white Gudruda sat on
Eric's lap in the snow, while he fondled her to his heart's content?"

"Most likely it was for warmth. Men do not dream on love in the hour
of death. Who saw this?"

"Swanhild, who was behind, and hid herself for shame, and therefore
she held that these two must soon be wed! Ah, thou art foolish now,
Asmund. Young blood makes light of cold or death. Art thou blind, or
dost thou not see that these two turn on each other like birds at
nesting-time?"

"They might do worse," said Asmund, "for they are a proper pair, and
it seems to me that each was born for each."

"Then all goes well. Still, it is a pity to see so fair a maid cast
like rotten bait upon the waters to hook this troutlet of a yeoman.
Thou hast enemies, Asmund; thou art too prosperous, and there are many
who hate thee for thy state and wealth. Were it not wise to use this
girl of thine to build a wall about thee against the evil day?"

"I have been more wont, housekeeper, to trust to my own arm than to
bought friends. But tell me, for at the least thou art far-seeing, how
may this be done? As things are, though I spoke roughly to him last
night, I am inclined to let Eric Brighteyes take Gudruda. I have
always loved the lad, and he will go far."

"Listen, Asmund! Surely thou hast heard of Ospakar Blacktooth--the
priest who dwells in the north?"

"Ay, I have heard of him, and I know him; there is no man like him for
ugliness, or strength, or wealth and power. We sailed together on a
viking cruise many years ago, and he did things at which my blood
turned, and in those days I had no chicken heart."

"With time men change their temper. Unless I am mistaken, this Ospakar
wishes above all to have Gudruda in marriage, for, now that everything
is his, this alone is left for him to ask--the fairest woman in
Iceland as a housewife. Think then, with Ospakar for a son-in-law, who
is there that can stand against thee?"

"I am not so sure of this matter, nor do I altogether trust thee,
Groa. Of a truth it seems to me that thou hast some stake upon the
race. This Ospakar is evil and hideous. It were a shame to give
Gudruda over to him when she looks elsewhere. Knowest thou that I
swore to love and cherish her, and how runs this with my oath? If Eric
is not too rich, yet he is of good birth and kin, and, moreover, a man
of men. If he take her good will come of it."

"It is like thee, Asmund, always to mistrust those who spend their
days in plotting for thy weal. Do as thou wilt: let Eric take this
treasure of thine--for whom earls would give their state--and live to
rue it. But I say this: if he have thy leave to roam here with his
dove the matter will soon grow, for these two sicken each to each, and
young blood is hot and ill at waiting, and it is not always snow-time.
So betroth her or let him go. And now I have said."

"Thy tongue runs too fast. The man is quite unproved and I will try
him. To-morrow I will warn him from my door; then things shall go as
they are fated. And now peace, for I weary of thy talk, and, moreover,
it is false; for thou lackest one thing--a little honesty to season
all thy craft. What fee has Ospakar paid thee, I wonder. Thou at least
hadst never refused the gold ring to-night, for thou wouldst do much
for gold."

"And more for love, and most of all for hate," Groa said, and laughed
aloud; nor did they speak more on this matter that night.

Now, early in the morning Asmund rose, and, going to the hall, awoke
Eric, who slept by the centre hearth, saying that he would talk with
him without. Then Eric followed him to the back of the hall.

"Say now, Eric," he said, when they stood in the grey light outside
the house, "who was it taught thee that kisses keep out the cold on
snowy days?"

Now Eric reddened to his yellow hair, but he answered: "Who was it
told thee, lord, that I tried this medicine?"

"The snow hides much, but there are eyes that can pierce the snow.
Nay, more, thou wast seen, and there's an end. Now know this--I like
thee well, but Gudruda is not for thee; she is far above thee, who art
but a deedless yeoman."

"Then I love to no end," said Eric; "I long for one thing only, and
that is Gudruda. It was in my mind to ask her in marriage of thee
to-day."

"Then, lad, thou hast thy answer before thou askest. Be sure of one
thing: if but once again I find thee alone with Gudruda, it is my axe
shall kiss thee and not her lips."

"That may yet be put to the proof, lord," said Eric, and turned to
seek his horse, when suddenly Gudruda came and stood between them, and
his heart leapt at the sight of her.

"Listen, Gudruda," Eric said. "This is thy father's word: that we two
speak together no more."

"Then it is an ill saying for us," said Gudruda, laying her hand upon
her breast.

"Saying good or ill, so it surely is, girl," answered Asmund. "No more
shalt thou go a-kissing, in the snow or in the flowers."

"Now I seem to hear Swanhild's voice," she said. "Well, such things
have happened to better folk, and a father's wish is to a maid what
the wind is to the grass. Still, the sun is behind the cloud and it
will shine again some day. Till then, Eric, fare thee well!"

"It is not thy will, lord," said Eric, "that I should come to thy
Yule-feast as thou hast asked me these ten years past?"

Now Asmund grew wroth, and pointed with his hand towards the great
Golden Falls that thunder down the mountain named Stonefell that is
behind Middalhof, and there are no greater water-falls in Iceland.

"A man may take two roads, Eric, from Coldback to Middalhof, one by
the bridle-path over Coldback and the other down Golden Falls; but I
never knew traveller to choose this way. Now, I bid thee to my feast
by the path over Golden Falls; and, if thou comest that way, I promise
thee this: if thou livest I will greet thee well, and if I find thee
dead in the great pool I will bind on thy Hell-shoes and lay thee to
earth neighbourly fashion. But if thou comest by any other path, then
my thralls shall cut thee down at my door." And he stroked his beard
and laughed.

Now Asmund spoke thus mockingly because he did not think it possible
that any man should try the path of the Golden Falls.

Eric smiled and said, "I hold thee to thy word, lord; perhaps I shall
be thy guest at Yule."

But Gudruda heard the thunder of the mighty Falls as the wind turned,
and cried "Nay, nay--it were thy death!"

Then Eric finds his horse and rides away across the snow.

Now it must be told of Koll the Half-witted that at length he came to
Swinefell in the north, having journeyed hard across the snow. Here
Ospakar Blacktooth had his great hall, in which day by day a hundred
men sat down to meat. Now Koll entered the hall when Ospakar was at
supper, and looked at him with big eyes, for he had never seen so
wonderful a man. He was huge in stature--his hair was black, and black
his beard, and on his lower lip there lay a great black fang. His eyes
were small and narrow, but his cheekbones were set wide apart and
high, like those of a horse. Koll thought him an ill man to deal with
and half a troll,(*) and grew afraid of his errand, since in Koll's
half-wittedness there was much cunning--for it was a cloak in which he
wrapped himself. But as Ospakar sat in the high seat, clothed in a
purple robe, with his sword Whitefire on his knee, he saw Koll, and
called out in a great voice:

(*) An able-bodied Goblin.

"Who is this red fox that creeps into my earth?"

For, to look at, Koll was very like a fox.

"My name is Koll the Half-witted, Groa's thrall, lord. Am I welcome
here?" he answered.

"That is as it may be. Why do they call thee half-witted?"

"Because I love not work overmuch, lord."

"Then all my thralls are fellow to thee. Say, what brings thee here?"

"This lord. It was told among men down in the south that thou wouldst
give a good gift to him who should discover to thee the fairest maid
in Iceland. So I asked leave of my mistress to come on a journey and
tell thee of her."

"Then a lie was told thee. Still, I love to hear of fair maids, and
seek one for a wife if she be but fair enough. So speak on, Koll the
Fox, and lie not to me, I warn thee, else I will knock what wits are
left there from that red head of thine."

So Koll took up the tale and greatly bepraised Gudruda's beauty; nor
in truth, for all his talk, could he praise it too much. He told of
her dark eyes and the whiteness of her skin, of the nobleness of her
shape and the gold of her hair, of her wit and gentleness, till at
length Ospakar grew afire to see this flower of maids.

"By Thor, thou Koll," he said, "if the girl be but half of what thou
sayest, her luck is good, for she shall be wife to Ospakar. But if
thou hast lied to me about her, beware! for soon there shall be a
knave the less in Iceland."

Now a man rose in the hall and said that Koll spoke truth, for he had
seen Gudruda the Fair, Asmund's daughter, and there was no maid like
her in Iceland.

"I will do this now," said Blacktooth. "To-morrow I will send a
messenger to Middalhof, saying to Asmund the Priest that I purpose to
visit him at the time of the Yule-feast; then I shall see if the girl
pleases me. Meanwhile, Koll, take thou a seat among the thralls, and
here is something for thy pains," and he took off the purple cloak and
threw it to him.

"Thanks to thee, Gold-scatterer," said Koll. "It is wise to go soon to
Middalhof, for such a bloom as this maid does not lack a bee. There is
a youngling in the south, named Eric Brighteyes, who loves Gudruda,
and she, I think, loves him, though he is but a yeoman of small wealth
and is only twenty-five years old."

"Ho! ho!" laughed great Ospakar, "and I am forty-five. But let not
this suckling cross my desire, lest men call him Eric Holloweyes!"

 

Now the messenger of Ospakar came to Middalhof, and his words pleased
Asmund and he made ready a great feast. And Swanhild smiled, but
Gudruda was afraid.

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Now Ospakar rode up to Middalhof on the day before the Yule-feast. Hewas splendidly apparelled, and with him came his two sons, Gizur theLawman and Mord, young men of promise, and many armed thralls andservants. Gudruda, watching at the women's door, saw his face in themoonlight and loathed him."What thinkest thou of him who comes to seek thee in marriage, foster-sister?" asked Swanhild, watching at her side."I think he is like a troll, and that, seek as he will, he shall notfind me. I had rather lie in the pool beneath Golden Falls than inOspakar's hall.""That shall be proved," said Swanhild.
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Now, it must be told that, five years before the day of the death ofGudruda the Gentle, Saevuna, the wife of Thorgrimur Iron-Toe, gavebirth to a son, at Coldback in the Marsh, on Ran River, and when hisfather came to look upon the child he called out aloud:"Here we have a wondrous bairn, for his hair is yellow like gold andhis eyes shine bright as stars." And Thorgrimur named him EricBrighteyes.Now, Coldback is but an hour's ride from Middalhof, and it chanced, inafter years, that Thorgrimur went up to Middalhof, to keep the Yulefeast and worship in the Temple, for he
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