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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesEric Brighteyes - Chapter XXV - HOW THE FEAST ENDED
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Eric Brighteyes - Chapter XXV - HOW THE FEAST ENDED Post by :ram133 Category :Long Stories Author :H. Rider Haggard Date :April 2011 Read :2939

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Eric Brighteyes - Chapter XXV - HOW THE FEAST ENDED

For a moment there was silence in the hall, for men had known no such
fight as this.

"Why, then, do ye gape?" laughed Skallagrim, pointing with the spear.
"Dead is Ospakar!--slain by the swordless man! Eric Brighteyes hath
slain Ospakar Blacktooth!"

Then there went up such a shout as never was heard in the hall of
Middalhof.

Now when Gudruda knew that Ospakar was sped, she looked at Eric as he
rested, leaning on his sword, and her heart was filled with awe and
love. She sprang from her seat, and, coming to where Brighteyes stood,
she greeted him.

"Welcome to Iceland, Eric!" she said. "Welcome, thou glory of the
south!"

Now Swanhild grew wild, for she saw that Eric was about to take
Gudruda in his arms and kiss her before all men.

"Say, Björn," she cried; "wilt thou suffer that this outlaw, having
slain Ospakar, should lead Gudruda hence as wife?"

"He shall never do so while I live," cried Björn, nearly mad with
rage. "This is my command, sister: that thou dost see Eric no more."

"Say, Björn," answered Gudruda, "did I dream, or did I indeed see thee
thrust the broken buckler before Eric's feet, so that he stumbled on
it and fell?"

"That thou sawest, lady," said Skallagrim; "for I saw it also."

Now Björn grew white in his anger. He did not answer Gudruda, but
called aloud to his men to slay Eric and Skallagrim. Gizur called also
to the folk of Ospakar, and Swanhild to those who came with her.

Then Gudruda fled back to her seat.

But Eric cried aloud also: "Ye who love me, cleave to me. Suffer it
not that Brighteyes be cut down of northerners and outland men. Hear
me, Atli's folk; hear me, carles of Coldback and of Middalhof!"

And so greatly did many love Eric that half of the thralls of Björn,
and almost all of the company of Swanhild who had been Atli's shield-
men and Brighteyes' comrades, drew swords, shouting "Eric! Eric!" But
the carles of Ospakar came on to make an end of him.

Björn saw, and, drawing sword, smote at Brighteyes, taking him
unawares. But Skallagrim caught the blow upon his axe, and before
Björn could smite again Whitefire was aloft and down fell Björn, dead!

That was the end of Björn, Asmund's son.

"Thou hast squeaked thy last, rat! What did I tell thee?" cried
Skallagrim. "Take Björn's shield and back to back, lord, for here come
foes."

"There goes one," answered Eric, pointing to the door.

Now Hall of Lithdale slunk through the doorway--Hall, the liar, who
cut the grapnel-chain--for he wished to see the last of Skallagrim.
But the Baresark still held Eric's spear in his hand. He whirled it
aloft, and it hissed through the air. The aim was good, for, as he
crept away, the spear struck Hall between neck and shoulder, pinning
him to the doorpost, and there the liar died.

"Now the weasel is nailed to the beam," said Skallagrim. "Hall of
Lithdale, what did I promise thee?"

"Guard thy head and my back," quoth Eric; "blows fall!"

Now men smote at Eric and Skallagrim, nor did they spare to smite in
turn. And as foes fell before him, Eric stepped one pace forward
towards the door, and Skallagrim, who, back to back with him, held off
those who pressed behind, took one step rearwards. Thus, a foe for
every step, they won their way down the long hall. Fierce raged the
fray around them, for, made with hate and drink and the lust of fight,
Swanhild's folk--Eric's friends--remembering the words of Atli, fell
on Ospakar's; and the people of Björn fell on each other, brother on
brother, and father on son--nor might the fray be stayed. The boards
were overthrown, dead men lay among the meats and mead, and the blood
of freeman, lord and thrall ran adown the floor. Everywhere through
the dusky hall glittered the sheen of flashing swords and rose the
clang of war. Darts clove the air like tongues of flame, and the
clamour of battle beat against the roof.

Blinded of the Norns who brought these things to pass, men sought no
mercy and they gave none, but smote and slew till few were left to
slay.

And still Gudruda sat in her bride-seat, and, with eyes fixed in
horror, watched the waxing of the war. Near to her stood Swanhild,
marking all things with a fierce-set face, and calling down curses on
her folk, who one and all cried "Eric! Eric!" and swept the thralls of
Ospakar as corn is swept of the sickle.

And there, nigh to the door, pale of face and beautiful to see, golden
Eric clove his way, and with him went black Skallagrim. Terrible was
the flare of Whitefire as he flicked aloft like the levin in the
cloud. Terrible was the flare of Whitefire; but more terrible was the
light of Eric's eyes, for they seemed to flame in his head, and
wherever that fire fell it lighted men the way to death. Whitefire
sung and flickered, and crashed the axe of Skallagrim, and still
through the press of war they won their way. Now Gizur stands before
them, spear aloft, and Whitefire leaps up to meet him. Lo! he turns
and flies. The coward son of Ospakar does not seek the fate of
Ospakar!

The door is won. They stand without but little harmed, while women
wail aloud.

"To horse!" cried Skallagrim; "to horse, ere our luck fail us!"

"There is no luck in this," gasped Eric; "for I have slain many men,
and among them is Björn, the brother of her whom I would make my
bride."

"Better one such fight than many brides," said Skallagrim, shaking his
red axe. "We have won great glory this day, Brighteyes, and Ospakar is
dead--slain by a swordless man!"

 

Now Eric and Skallagrim ran to their horses, none hindering them, and,
mounting, rode towards Mosfell.

All that evening and all the night they rode, and at morning they came
across the black sand to Mosfell slopes that are by the Hecla. Here
they rested, and, taking off their armour, washed themselves in the
stream: for they were very weary and foul with blood and wounds. When
they had finished washing and had buckled on their harness again,
Skallagrim, peering across the plain with his hawk's eyes, saw men
riding fast towards them.

"Foes are soon afoot, lord," he said. "I thought we had stayed their
hunger for a while."

"Would that I might stay mine," quoth Eric. "I am weary, and unfit for
fight."

"I have still strength for one or two," said Skallagrim, "and then
good-night! But these are no foes. They are of the Coldback folk. The
carline has kept her word."

Then Eric was glad, and presently six men, headed by Jon his thrall,
the same man who had watched on Mosfell when Eric went up to slay the
Baresark, rode to them and greeted them. "Beggar women," said Jon,
"whom they met at Ran River, had told them of the death of Ospakar,
and of the great slaying at Middalhof, and they would know if the
tidings were true."

"It is true, Jon," said Eric; "but first give us food, if ye have it,
for we are hungered and spent. When we have eaten we will speak."

So they led up a pack-horse and from it took stockfish and smoked
meat, of which Eric and Skallagrim ate heartily, till their strength
came back to them.

Then Eric spoke. "Comrades," he said, "I am an outlawed man, and,
though I have not sought it, much blood is on my head. Atli is dead at
my hand; Ospakar is dead at my hand; Björn the Priest, Asmund's son,
is dead at my hand, and with them many another man. Nor may the matter
stay here, for Gizur, Blacktooth's son, yet lives, and Björn has kin
in the south, and Swanhild will buy friends with gold, and all of
these will set on me to slay me, so that at the last I die by the
sword."

"No need for that," said Skallagrim. "Our vengeance is wrought, and
now, as before, the sea is open, and I think that a welcome awaits us
in London."

"Now Gudruda is widowed before she was fully wed," said Eric,
"therefore I bide an outlawed man here in Iceland. I go hence no more,
though it be death to stay, unless indeed Gudruda the Fair goes with
me."

"It will be death, then," said Skallagrim, "and the swords are forged
that we shall feel. The odds are too heavy, lord."

"Mayhap," answered Eric. "No man may flee his fate, and I shall not
altogether grieve when mine finds me. Hearken, comrades: I go up to
Mosfell height, and there I stay, till those be found who can drag me
from my hole. But this is my counsel to you: that ye leave me to my
doom, for I am an unlucky man who always chooses the wrong road."

"That will not I," said Skallagrim.

"Nor we," said Eric's folk; "Swanhild holds Coldback, and we are
driven to the fells. To the fells then we will go with thee, Eric
Brighteyes, and become cave-dwellers and outlaws for thy sake. Fear
not, thou shalt still find many friends."

"I did not look for such a thing at your hands," said Eric; "but
stormy waters show how the boat is built. May no bad luck come to you
from your good fellowship. And now let us to our nest."

Then they caught the horses, and rode with Brighteyes up the steep
side of Mosfell, till at length they came to that secret dell which
Skallagrim had once shown to Eric. Here they turned the horses loose
to feed, and, going forward on foot, reached the dark and narrow pass
that Brighteyes had trod when he sought for the Baresark foe.
Skallagrim led the way along it, then came Eric and the rest. One by
one they stepped on to the giddy point of rock, and, catching at the
birch-bush, entered the hole. So they gained the platform and the
great cave beyond; and they found that no man had set foot there since
the day when Eric had striven with Skallagrim. For there on the rock,
rotten with the weather, lay that haft of wood which Brighteyes had
hewed from the axe of Skallagrim, and in the cave were many things
beside as the Baresark had left them.

So they took up their dwelling in the cave, Eric, Skallagrim, and the
six Coldback men, and there they dwelt many months. But Eric sent out
his men, one at a time, and got together food and a store of
sheepskins, and other needful things. For he knew this well: that
Gizur and Swanhild would before long come up against them, and, if
they could not take them by force, would set themselves to watch the
mountain-path and starve them out.

 

When Eric and Skallagrim rode away from Middalhof the fight still
raged fiercely in the hall, and nothing but death might stay it. The
minds of men were mad, and they smote one another, and slew each
other, till at length of all that marriage company few were left
unharmed, except Gizur, Swanhild, and Gudruda. For the serving thralls
and womenfolk had fled the hall, and with them some peaceful men.

Then Gudruda spoke as one in a dream.

"Saevuna's prophecy was true," she said, "red was the marriage-feast
of Asmund my father, redder has been the marriage-feast of Ospakar!
She saw the hall of Middalhof one gore of blood, and lo! it is so.
look upon thy work, Swanhild," and she pointed to the piled-up dead--
"look upon thy work, witch-sister, and grow fearful: for all this
death is on thy head!"

Swanhild laughed aloud. "I think it a merry sight," she cried. "The
marriage-feast of Asmund our father was red, and thy marriage-feast,
Gudruda, has been redder. Would that thy blood and the blood of Eric
ran with the blood of Björn and Ospakar! That tale must yet be told,
Gudruda. There shall be binding on of Hell-shoes at Middalhof, but I
bind them not. My task is still to come: for I will live to fasten the
Hell-shoes on the feet of Eric, and on thy feet, Gudruda! At the
least, I have brought about this much, that thou canst scarcely wed
Eric the outlaw: for with his own hand he slew Björn our brother, and
because of this I count all that death as nothing. Thou canst not mate
with Brighteyes, lest the wide wounds of Björn thy brother should take
tongues and cry thy shame from sea to sea!"

Gudruda made no answer, but sat as one carved in stone. Then Swanhild
spoke again:

"Let us away to the north, Gizur; there to gather strength to make an
end of Eric. Say, wilt thou help us, Gudruda? The blood-feud for the
death of Björn is thine."

"Ye are enough to bring about the fall of one unfriended man," Gudruda
said. "Go, and leave me with my sorrow and the dead. Nay! before thou
goest, listen, Swanhild, for there is that in my heart which tells me
I shall never look again upon thy face. From evil to evil thou hast
ever gone, Swanhild, and from evil to evil thou wilt go. It may well
chance that thy wickedness will win. It may well chance that thou wilt
crown thy crimes with my slaying and the slaying of the man who loves
me. But I tell thee this, traitress--murderess, as thou art--that here
the tale ends not. Not by death, Swanhild, shalt thou escape the deeds
of life! /There/ they shall rise up against thee, and /there/ every
shame that thou hast worked, every sin that thou hast sinned, and
every soul that thou hast brought to Hela's halls, shall come to haunt
thee and to drive thee on from age to age! That witchcraft which thou
lovest shall mesh thee. Shadows shall bewilder thee; from the bowl of
empty longings thou shalt drink and drink, and not be satisfied. Yea!
lusts shall mock and madden thee. Thou shalt ride the winds, thou
shalt sail the seas, but thou shalt find no harbour, and never shalt
thou set foot upon a shore of peace.

"Go on, Swanhild--dye those hands in blood--wade through the river of
shame! Seek thy desire, and finding, lose! Work thy evil, and winning,
fail! I yet shall triumph--I yet shall trample thee; and, in a place
to come, with Eric at my side, I shall make a mock of Swanhild the
murderess! Swanhild the liar, and the wanton, and the witch! Now get
thee gone!"

Swanhild heard. She looked up at Gudruda's face and it was alight as
with a fire. She strove to answer, but no words came. Then Groa's
daughter turned and went, and with her went Gizur.

 

Now women and thralls came in and drew out the wounded and those who
still breathed from among the dead, taking them to the temple. They
bore away the body of Ospakar also, but they left the rest.

 

All night long Gudruda sat in the bride's seat. There she sat in the
silver summer midnight, looking on the slain who were strewn about the
great hall. All night she sat alone in the bride's seat thinking--ever
thinking.

How, then, would it end? There her brother Björn lay a-cold--Björn the
justly slain of Brighteyes; yet how could she wed the man who slew her
brother? From Ospakar she was divorced by death; from Eric she was
divorced by the blood of Björn her brother! How might she unravel this
tangled skein and float to weal upon this sea of death? All things
went amiss! The doom was on her! She had lived to an ill purpose--her
love had wrought evil! What availed it to have been born to be fair
among women and to have desired that which might not be? And she
herself had brought these things to pass--she had loosed the rock
which crushed her! Why had she hearkened to that false tale?

Gudruda sat on high in the bride's seat, asking wisdom of the piled-up
dead, while the cold blue shadows of the nightless night gathered over
her and them--gathered, and waned, and grew at last to the glare of
day.

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Gizur went north to Swinefell, and Swanhild went with him. For nowthat Ospakar was dead at Eric's hand, Gizur ruled in his place atSwinefell, and was the greatest lord in all the north. He lovedSwanhild, and desired to make her his wife; but she played with him,talking darkly of what might be. Swanhild was not minded to be thewife of any man, except of Eric; to all others she was cold as thewinter earth. Still, she fooled Gizur as she had fooled Atli the Good,and he grew blind with love of her. For still the beauty of Swanhildwaxed as the moon
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"Hearken all men!" said Eric."Thrust him out!" quoth Björn."Nay, cut him down!" said Ospakar, "he is an outlawed man.""Words first, then deeds," answered Skallagrim. "Thou shalt have thyfill of both, Blacktooth, before day is done.""Let Eric say his say," said Gudruda, lifting her head. "He has beendoomed unheard, and it is my will that he shall say his say.""What hast thou to do with Eric?" snarled Ospakar."The bride-cup is not yet drunk, lord," she answered."To thee, then, I will speak, lady," quoth Eric. "How comes it that,being betrothed to me, thou dost sit there the bride of Ospakar?""Ask of Swanhild," said
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