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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesEric Brighteyes - Chapter V - HOW ERIC WON THE SWORD WHITEFIRE
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Eric Brighteyes - Chapter V - HOW ERIC WON THE SWORD WHITEFIRE Post by :tevinj Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :April 2011 Read :3723

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Eric Brighteyes - Chapter V - HOW ERIC WON THE SWORD WHITEFIRE

Now Asmund the priest bent down, and Eric saw him and spoke:

"Thou badest me to thy Yule-feast, lord, by yonder slippery road and I
have come. Dost thou welcome me well?"

"No man better," quoth Asmund. "Thou art a gallant man, though
foolhardy; and thou hast done a deed that shall be told of while
skalds sing and men live in Iceland."

"Make place, my father," said Gudruda, "for Eric bleeds." And she
loosed the kerchief from her neck and bound it about his wounded brow,
and, taking the rich cloak from her body, threw it on his shoulders,
and no man said her nay.

Then they led him to the hall, where Eric clothed himself and rested,
and he sent back the thrall Jon to Coldback, bidding him tell Saevuna,
Eric's mother, that he was safe. But he was somewhat weak all that
day, and the sound of waters roared in his ears.

Now Ospakar and Groa were ill pleased at the turn things had taken;
but all the others rejoiced much, for Eric was well loved of men and
they had grieved if the waters had prevailed against his might. But
Swanhild brooded bitterly, for Eric never turned to look on her.

The hour of the feast drew on and, according to custom, it was held in
the Temple, and thither went all men. When they were seated in the
nave of the Hof, the fat ox that had been made ready for sacrifice was
led in and dragged before the altar on which the holy fire burned. Now
Asmund the Priest slew it, amid silence, before the figures of the
Gods, and, catching its blood in the blood-bowl, sprinkled the altar
and all the worshippers with the blood-twigs. Then the ox was cut up,
and the figures of the almighty Gods were anointed with its molten fat
and wiped with fair linen. Next the flesh was boiled in the cauldrons
that were hung over fires lighted all down the nave, and the feast
began.

Now men ate, and drank much ale and mead, and all were merry. But
Ospakar Blacktooth grew not glad, though he drank much, for he saw
that the eyes of Gudruda ever watched Eric's face and that they smiled
on each other. He was wroth at this, for he knew that the bait must be
good and the line strong that should win this fair fish to his angle,
and as he sat, unknowingly his fingers loosed the peace-strings of his
sword Whitefire, and he half drew it, so that its brightness flamed in
the firelight.

"Thou hast a wondrous blade there, Ospakar!" said Asmund, "though this
is no place to draw it. Whence came it? Methinks no such swords are
fashioned now."

"Ay, Asmund, a wondrous blade indeed. There is no other such in the
world, for the dwarfs forged it of old, and he shall be unconquered
who holds it aloft. This was King Odin's sword, and it is named
Whitefire. Ralph the Red took it from King Eric's cairn in Norway, and
he strove long with the Barrow-Dweller(*) before he wrenched it from
his grasp. But my father won it and slew Ralph, though he had never
done this had Whitefire been aloft against him. But Ralph the Red,
being in drink when the ships met in battle, fought with an axe, and
was slain by my father, and since then Whitefire has been the last
light that many a chief's eyes have seen. Look at it, Asmund."

(*) The ghost in the cairn.

Now he drew the great sword, and men were astonished as it flashed
aloft. Its hilt was of gold, and blue stones were set therein. It
measured two ells and a half from crossbar to point, and so bright was
the broad blade that no one could look on it for long, and all down
its length ran runes.

"A wondrous weapon, truly!" said Asmund. "How read the runes?"

"I know not, nor any man--they are ancient."

"Let me look at them," said Groa, "I am skilled in runes." Now she
took the sword, and heaved it up, and looked at the runes and said, "A
strange writing truly."

"How runs it, housekeeper?" said Asmund.

"Thus, lord, if my skill is not at fault:--

"Whitefire is my name--Dwarf-folk forged me--
Odin's sword was I--Eric's sword was I--Eric's sword shall I be--
And where I fall there he must follow me."

Now Gudruda looked at Eric Brighteyes wonderingly, and Ospakar saw it
and became very angry.

"Look not so, maiden," he said, "for it shall be another Eric than yon
flapper-duck who holds Whitefire aloft, though it may very well chance
that he shall feel its edge."

Now Gudruda bit her lip, and Eric burned red to the brow and spoke:

"It is ill, lord, to throw taunts like an angry woman. Thou art great
and strong, yet I may dare a deed with thee."

"Peace, boy! Thou canst climb a waterfall well, I gainsay it not; but
beware ere thou settest up thyself against my strength. Say now, what
game wilt thou play with Ospakar?"

"I will go on holmgang with thee, byrnie-clad or baresark,(*) and
fight thee with axe or sword, or I will wrestle with thee, and
Whitefire yonder shall be the winner's prize."

(*) To a duel, usually fought, in mail or without it, on an island
--"holm"--within a circle of hazel-twigs.

"Nay, I will have no bloodshed here at Middalhof," said Asmund
sternly. "Make play with fists, or wrestle if ye will, for that were
great sport to see; but weapons shall not be drawn."

Now Ospakar grew mad with anger and drink--and he grinned like a dog,
till men saw the red gums beneath his lips.

"Thou wilt wrestle with me, youngling--with /me/ whom no man has ever
so much as lifted from my feet? Good! I will lay thee on thy face and
whip thee, and Whitefire shall be the stake--I swear it on the holy
altar-ring; but what hast thou to set against the precious sword? Thy
poor hovel and its lot of land shall be all too little."

"I set my life on it; if I lose Whitefire let Whitefire slay me," said
Eric.

"Nay, that I will not have, and I am master here in this Temple," said
Asmund. "Bethink thee of some other stake, Ospakar, or let the game be
off."

Now Ospakar gnawed his lip with his black fang and thought. Then he
laughed aloud and spoke:

"Bright is Whitefire and thou art named Brighteyes. See now: I set the
great sword against thy right eye, and, if I win the match, it shall
be mine to tear it out. Wilt thou play this game with me? If thy heart
fails thee, let it go; but I will set no other stake against my good
sword."

"Eyes and limbs are a poor man's wealth," said Eric: "so be it. I
stake my right eye against the sword Whitefire, and we will try the
match to-morrow."

"And to-morrow night thou shalt be called Eric One-eye," said Ospakar
--at which some few of his thralls laughed.

But most of the men did not laugh, for they thought this an ill game
and a worst jest.

Now the feast went on, and Asmund rose from his high seat in the
centre of the nave, on the left hand looking down from the altar, and
gave out the holy toasts. First men drank a full horn to Odin, praying
for triumph on their foes. Then they drank to Frey, asking for plenty;
to Thor, for strength in battle; to Freya, Goddess of Love (and to her
Eric drank heartily); to the memory of the dead; and, last of all, to
Bragi, God of all delight. When this cup was drunk, Asmund rose again,
according to custom, and asked if none had an oath to swear as to some
deed that should be done.

For a while there was no answer, but presently Eric Brighteyes stood
up.

"Lord," he said, "I would swear an oath."

"Set forth the matter, then," said Asmund.

"It is this," quoth Eric. "On Mosfell mountain, over by Hecla, dwells
a Baresark of whom all men have ill knowledge, for there are few whom
he has not harmed. His name is Skallagrim; he is a mighty man and he
has wrought much mischief in the south country, and brought many to
their deaths and robbed more of their goods: for none can prevail
against him. Still, I swear this, that, when the days lengthen, I will
go up alone against him and challenge him to battle, and conquer him
or fall."

"Then, thou yellow-headed puppy-dog, thou shalt go with one eye
against a Baresark with two," growled Ospakar.

Men took no heed of his words, but shouted aloud, for Skallagrim had
plagued them long, and there were none who dared to fight with him any
more. Only Gudruda looked askance, for it seemed to her that Eric
swore too fast. Nevertheless he went up to the altar, and, taking hold
of the holy ring, he set his foot on the holy stone and swore his
oath, while the feasters applauded, striking their cups upon the
board.

And after that the feast went merrily, till all men were drunk, except
Asmund and Eric.

Now Eric went to rest, but first he rubbed his limbs with the fat of
seals, for he was still sore with the beating of the waters, and they
must needs be supple on the morrow if he would keep his eye. Then he
slept sound, and rose strong and well, and going to the stream behind
the stead, bathed, and anointed his limbs afresh. But Ospakar did not
sleep well, because of the ale that he had drunk. Now as Eric came
back from bathing, in the dark of the morning, he met Gudruda, who
watched for his coming, and, there being none to see, he kissed her
often; but she chided him because of the match that he had made with
Ospakar and the oath that he had sworn.

"Surely," she said, "thou wilt lose thine eye, for this Ospakar is a
giant, and strong as a troll; also he is merciless. Still, thou art a
mighty man, and I shall love thee as well with one eye as with two.
Oh! Eric, methought I should have died yesterday when thou didst leap
from Wolf's Fang! My heart seemed to stop within me."

"Yet I came safely to shore, sweetheart, and well does this kiss pay
for all I did. And as for Ospakar, if but once I get these arms about
him, I fear him little, or any man, and I covet that sword of his
greatly. But we can talk more certainly of these things to-morrow."

Now Gudruda clung to him and told him all that had befallen, and of
the doings and words of Swanhild.

"She honours me beyond my worth," he said, "who am in no way set on
her, but on thee only, Gudruda."

"Art thou so sure of that, Eric? Swanhild is fair and wise."

"Ay and evil. When I love Swanhild, then thou mayest love Ospakar."

"It is a bargain," she said, laughing. "Good luck go with thee in the
wrestling," and with a kiss she left him, fearing lest she should be
seen.

Eric went back to the hall, and sat down by the centre hearth, for all
men slept, being still heavy with drink, and presently Swanhild glided
up to him, and greeted him.

"Thou art greedy of deeds, Eric," she said. "Yesterday thou camest
here by a path that no man has travelled, to-day thou dost wrestle
with a giant for thine eye, and presently thou goest up against
Skallagrim!"

"It seems that this is true," said Eric.

"Now all this thou doest for a woman who is the betrothed of another
man."

"All this I do for fame's sake, Swanhild. Moreover, Gudruda is
betrothed to none."

"Before another Yule-feast is spread, Gudruda shall be the wife of
Ospakar."

"That is yet to be seen, Swanhild."

Now Swanhild stood silent for a while and then spoke: "Thou art a
fool, Eric--yes, drunk with folly. Nothing but evil shall come to thee
from this madness of thine. Forget it and pluck that which lies to
thine hand," and she looked sweetly at him.

"They call thee Swanhild the Fatherless," he answered, "but I think
that Loki, the God of Guile, was thy father, for there is none to
match thee in craft and evil-doing, and in beauty one only. I know thy
plots well and all the sorrow that thou hast brought upon us. Still,
each seeks honour after his own manner, so seek thou as thou wilt; but
thou shalt find bitterness and empty days, and thy plots shall come
back on thine own head--yes, even though they bring Gudruda and me to
sorrow and death."

Swanhild laughed. "A day shall dawn, Eric, when thou who dost hate me
shalt hold me dear, and this I promise thee. Another thing I promise
thee also: that Gudruda shall never call thee husband."

But Eric did not answer, fearing lest in his anger he should say words
that were better unspoken.

Now men rose and sat down to meat, and all talked of the wrestling
that should be. But in the morning Ospakar repented of the match, for
it is truly said that /ale is another man/, and men do not like that
in the morning which seemed well enough on yester eve. He remembered
that he held Whitefire dear above all things, and that Eric's eye had
no worth to him, except that the loss of it would spoil his beauty, so
that perhaps Gudruda would turn from him. It would be very ill if he
should chance to lose the play--though of this he had no fear, for he
was held the strongest man in Iceland and the most skilled in all
feats of strength--and, at the best, no fame is to be won from the
overthrow of a deedless man, and the plucking out of his eye. Thus it
came to pass that when he saw Eric he called to him in a big voice:

"Hearken, thou Eric."

"I hear thee, thou Ospakar," said Eric, mocking him, and people
laughed; while Ospakar grinned angrily and said, "Thou must learn
manners, puppy. Still, I shall find no honour in teaching thee in this
wise. Last night we made a match in our cups, and I staked my sword
Whitefire and thou thine eye. It would be bad that either of us should
lose sword or eye; therefore, what sayest thou, shall we let it pass?"

"Ay, Blacktooth, if thou fearest; but first pay thou forfeit of the
sword."

Now Ospakar grew very mad and shouted, "Thou wilt indeed stand against
me in the ring! I will break thy back anon, youngster, and afterwards
tear out thine eye before thou diest."

"It may so befall," answered Eric, "but big words do not make big
deeds."

Presently the light came and thralls went out with spades and cleared
away the snow in a circle two rods across, and brought dry sand and
sprinkled it on the frozen turf, so that the wrestlers should not
slip. And they piled the snow in a wall around the ring.

But Groa came up to Ospakar and spoke to him apart.

"Knowest thou, lord," she said, "that my heart bodes ill of this
match? Eric is a mighty man, and, great though thou art, I think that
thou shalt lout low before him."

"It will be a bad business if I am overthrown by an untried man," said
Ospakar, and was troubled in his mind, "and it would be evil moreover
to lose the sword. For no price would I have it so."

"What wilt thou give me, lord, if I bring thee victory?"

"I will give thee two hundred in silver."

"Ask no questions and it shall be so," said Groa.

Now Eric was without, taking note of the ground in the ring, and
presently Groa called to her the thrall Koll the Half-witted, whom she
had sent to Swinefell.

"See," she said, "yonder by the wall stand the wrestling shoes of Eric
Brighteyes. Haste thee now and take grease, and rub the soles with it,
then hold them in the heat of the fire, so that the fat sinks in. Do
this swiftly and secretly, and I will give thee three pennies."

Koll grinned, and did as he was bid, setting back the shoes just as
they were before. Scarcely was the deed done when Eric came in, and
made himself ready for the game, binding the greased shoes upon his
feet, for he feared no trick.

Now everybody went out to the ring, and Ospakar and Eric stripped for
wrestling. They were clad in tight woollen jerkins and hose, and
sheep-skin shoes were on their feet.

They named Asmund master of the game, and his word must be law to both
of them. Eric claimed that Asmund should hold the sword Whitefire that
was at stake, but Ospakar gainsaid him, saying that if he gave
Whitefire into Asmund's keeping, Eric must also give his eye--and
about this they debated hotly. Now the matter was brought before
Asmund as umpire, and he gave judgment for Eric, "for," he said, "if
Eric yield up his eye into my hand, I can return it to his head no
more if he should win; but if Ospakar gives me the good sword and
conquers, it is easy for me to pass it back to him unharmed."

Men said that this was a good judgment.

Thus then was the arm-game set. Ospakar and Eric must wrestle thrice,
and between each bout there would be a space while men could count a
thousand. They might strike no blow at one another with hand, or head,
or elbow, foot or knee; and it should be counted no fall if the haunch
and the head of the fallen were not on the ground at the self-same
time. He who suffered two falls should be adjudged conquered and lose
his stake.

Asmund called these rules aloud in the presence of witnesses, and
Ospakar and Eric said that should bind them. Ospakar drew a small
knife and gave it to his son Gizur to hold.

"Thou shalt soon know, youngling, how steel tastes in the eyeball," he
said.

"We shall soon know many things," Eric answered.

Now they drew off their cloaks and stood in the ring. Ospakar was
great beyond the bigness of men and his arms were clothed with black
hair like the limbs of a goat. Beneath the shoulder joint they were
almost as thick as a girl's thigh. His legs also were mighty, and the
muscles stood out upon him in knotty lumps. He seemed a very giant,
and fierce as a Baresark, but still somewhat round about the body and
heavy in movement.

From him men looked at Eric.

"Lo! Baldur and the Troll!" said Swanhild, and everybody laughed,
since so it was indeed; for, if Ospakar was black and hideous as a
troll, Eric was beautiful as Baldur, the loveliest of the Gods. He was
taller than Ospakar by the half of a hand and as broad in the chest.
Still, he was not yet come to his greatest strength, and, though his
limbs were well knit, they seemed but as a child's against the limbs
of Ospakar. But he was quick as a cat and lithe, his neck and arms
were white as whey, and beneath his golden hair his bright eyes shone
like spears.

Now they stood face to face, with arms outstretched, waiting the word
of Asmund. He gave it and they circled round each other with arms held
low. Presently Ospakar made a rush and, seizing Eric about the middle,
tried to lift him, but with no avail. Thrice he strove and failed,
then Eric moved his foot and lo! it slipped upon the sanded turf.
Again Eric moved and again he slipped, a third time and he slipped a
third time, and before he could recover himself he was full on his
back and fairly thrown.

Gudruda saw and was sad at heart, and those around her said that it
was easy to know how the game would end.

"What said I?" quoth Swanhild, "that it would go badly with Eric were
Ospakar's arms about him."

"All is not done yet," answered Gudruda. "Methinks Eric's feet slipped
most strangely, as though he stood on ice."

But Eric was very sore at heart and could make nothing of this matter
--for he was not overthrown by strength.

He sat on the snow and Ospakar and his sons mocked him. But Gudruda
drew near and whispered to him to be of good cheer, for fortune might
yet change.

"I think that I am bewitched," said Eric sadly: "my feet have no hold
of the ground."

Gudruda covered her eyes with her hand and thought. Presently she
looked up quickly. "I seem to see guile here," she said. "Now look
narrowly on thy shoes."

He heard, and, loosening his shoe-string, drew a shoe from his foot
and looked at the sole. The cold of the snow had hardened the fat, and
there it was, all white upon the leather.

Now Eric rose in wrath. "Methought," he cried, "that I dealt with men
of honourable mind, not with cheating tricksters. See now! it is
little wonder that I slipped, for grease has been set upon my shoes--
and, by Thor! I will cleave the man who did it to the chin," and as he
said it his eyes blazed so dreadfully that folk fell back from him.
Asmund took the shoes and looked at them. Then he spoke:

"Brighteyes tells the truth, and we have a sorry knave among us.
Ospakar, canst thou clear thyself of this ill deed?"

"I will swear on the holy ring that I know nothing of it, and if any
man in my company has had a hand therein he shall die," said Ospakar.

"That we will swear also," cried his sons Gizur and Mord.

"This is more like a woman's work," said Gudruda, and she looked at
Swanhild.

"It is no work of mine," quoth Swanhild.

"Then go and ask thy mother of it," answered Gudruda.

Now all men cried aloud that this was the greatest shame, and that the
match must be set afresh; only Ospakar bethought him of that two
hundred in silver which he had promised to Groa, and looked around,
but she was not there. Still, he gainsaid Eric in the matter of the
match being set afresh.

Then Eric cried out in his anger that he would let the game stand as
it was, since Ospakar swore himself free of the shameful deed. Men
thought this a mad saying, but Asmund said it should be so. Still, he
swore in his heart that, even if he were worsted, Eric should not lose
his eye--no not if swords were held aloft to take it. For of all
tricks this seemed to him the very worst.

Now Ospakar and Eric faced each other again in the ring, but this time
the feet of Eric were bare.

Ospakar rushed to get the upper hold, but Eric was too swift for him
and sprang aside. Again he rushed, but Eric dropped and gripped him
round the middle. Now they were face to face, hugging each other like
bears, but moving little. For a time things went thus, while Ospakar
strove to lift Eric, but in nowise could he stir him. Then of a sudden
Eric put out his strength, and they staggered round the ring, tearing
at each other till their jerkins were rent from them, leaving them
almost bare to the waist. Suddenly, Eric seemed to give, and Ospakar
put out his foot to trip him. But Brighteyes was watching. He caught
the foot in the crook of his left leg, and threw his weight forward on
the chest of Blacktooth. Backward he went, falling with the thud of a
tree on snow, and there he lay on the ground, and Eric over him.

Then men shouted "A fall! a fair fall!" and were very glad, for the
fight seemed most uneven to them, and the wrestlers rolled asunder,
breathing heavily.

Gudruda threw a cloak over Eric's naked shoulders.

"That was well done, Brighteyes," she said.

"The game is still to play, sweet," he gasped, "and Ospakar is a
mighty man. I threw him by skill, not by strength. Next time it must
be by strength or not at all."

Now breathing-time was done, and once more the two were face to face.
Thrice Ospakar rushed, and thrice did Eric slip away, for he would
waste Blacktooth's strength. Again Ospakar rushed, roaring like a
bear, and fire seemed to come from his eyes, and the steam went up
from him and hung upon the frosty air like the steam of a horse. This
time Eric could not get away, but was swept up into that great grip,
for Ospakar had the lower hold.

"Now there is an end of Eric," said Swanhild.

"The arrow is yet on the bow," answered Gudruda.

Blacktooth put out his might and reeled round and round the ring,
dragging Eric with him. This way and that he twisted, and time on time
Eric's leg was lifted from the ground, but so he might not be thrown.
Now they stood almost still, while men shouted madly, for no such
wrestling had been known in the southlands. Grimly they hugged and
strove: forsooth it was a mighty sight to see. Grimly they hugged, and
their muscles strained and cracked, but they could stir each other no
inch.

Ospakar grew fearful, for he could make no play with this youngling.
Black rage swelled in his heart. He ground his fangs, and thought on
guile. By his foot gleamed the naked foot of Eric. Suddenly he stamped
on it so fiercely that the skin burst.

"Ill done! ill done!" folk cried; but in his pain Eric moved his foot.

Lo! he was down, but not altogether down, for he did but sit upon his
haunches, and still he clung to Blacktooth's thighs, and twined his
legs about his ankles. Now with all his strength Ospakar strove to
force the head of Brighteyes to the ground, but still he could not,
for Eric clung to him like a creeper to a tree.

"A losing game for Eric," said Asmund, and as he spoke Brighteyes was
pressed back till his yellow hair almost swept the sand.

Then the folk of Ospakar shouted in triumph, but Gudruda cried aloud:

"Be not overthrown, Eric; loose thee and spring aside."

Eric heard, and of a sudden loosed all his grip. He fell on his
outspread hand, then, with a swing sideways and a bound, once more he
stood upon his feet. Ospakar came at him like a bull made mad with
goading, but he could no longer roar aloud. They closed and this time
Eric had the better hold. For a while they struggled round and round
till their feet tore the frozen turf, then once more they stood face
to face. Now the two were almost spent; yet Blacktooth gathered up his
strength and swung Eric from his feet, but he found them again. He
grew mad with rage, and hugged him till Brighteyes was nearly pressed
to death, and black bruises sprang upon the whiteness of his flesh.
Ospakar grew mad, and madder yet, till at length in his fury he fixed
his fangs in Eric's shoulder and bit till the blood spurted.

"Ill kissed, thou rat!" gasped Eric, and with the pain and rush of
blood, his strength came back to him. He shifted his grip swiftly, now
his right hand was beneath the fork of Blacktooth's thigh and his left
on the hollow of Blacktooth's back. Twice he lifted--twice the bulk of
Ospakar rose from the ground--a third mighty lift--so mighty that the
wrapping on Eric's forehead burst, and the blood streamed down his
face--and lo! great Blacktooth flew in air. Up he flew, and backward
he fell into the bank of snow, and was buried there almost to the
knees.

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For a moment there was silence, for all that company was wonderstruckat the greatness of the deed. Then they cheered and cheered again, andto Eric it seemed that he slept, and the sound of shouting reached himbut faintly, as though he heard through snow. Suddenly he woke and sawa man rush at him with axe aloft. It was Mord, Ospakar's son, mad athis father's overthrow. Eric sprang aside, or the blow had been hisbane, and, as he sprang, smote with his fist, and it struck heavily onthe head of Mord above the ear, so that the axe flew from his hand,and
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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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