IN every society and in all periods the obligations of family affection and duty to kinsmen have been recognised as paramount. In the early European communities a man's first duty was to stand by his kinsman in strife and to avenge him in death, however unrighteous the kinsman's quarrel might be.
How pitiful is the aged Priam's lament that he must needs kiss the hands that slew his dear son Hector, and, kneeling, clasp the knees of his son's murderer! How sad is Cuchulain's plaint that his son Connla must go down to the grave unavenged, since his own father slew him, all unwitting! One remembers, too, Beowulf's words: "Better it is for every man that he avenge his friend than that he mourn him much!" Since, then, family affection, the laws of honour and duty, and every recognised standard of life demanded that a kinsman should obtain a full wergild (or money payment) for his relative's death, unless he chose to take up the blood-feud against the murderer's family, we can hardly wonder that some of the heroes of early European literature are heroes of vengeance. Orestes and Electra are Greek embodiments of the idea of the sacredness of vengeance for murdered kinsfolk, and similar feelings are revealed in Gudrun's revenge for the murder of Siegfried in the "Nibelungenlied." To the Teutonic or Celtic warrior there would be heroism of a noble type in a just vengeance fully accomplished, and this heroism would be more easily recognised when the wrongdoer was rich and powerful, the avenger old, poor, and friendless. While admitting that the hero of vengeance belongs to and represents only one side of the civilisation of a somewhat barbaric community, we
must allow that the elements of dogged perseverance, dauntless courage, and resolute loyalty in some degree redeemed the ferocity and cruelty of the blood-feud he waged against the ill-doer.
It is certain that in the popular Icelandic saga of "Howard the Halt" tradition has recorded with minute detail of approbation the story of a man and woman, old, weak, friendless, who, in spite of terrible odds, succeeded in obtaining a late but sufficing vengeance for the cruel slaughter of their only son, the murderer being the most powerful man of the region. The part here assigned to the woman indicates the firm hold which the blood-feud had gained on the imagination of the Norsemen.
The story possesses a further interest as revealing the unique character of the Icelandic ghost or phantom. In other literatures the spirit returned from the dead is a thin, immaterial, disembodied essence, a faint shadow of its former self; in Icelandic legend the spirit returns in full possession of its body, but more evil-disposed to mankind than before death. It fights and wrestles, pummels its adversary black and blue, it is huge and bloated and hideous, it tries to strangle men, and leaves finger-marks on their throats. If the ghosts are those of drowned men, they come home every night dripping with sea-water, and crowd the family from the fire and from the hall. Apparently they are evil spirits animating the dead body, and nothing but the utter destruction of the body avails to drive away the malignant spirit.
Thus runs the saga of "Howard the Halt ":
About the year 1000, when the Christian faith had
hardly yet been heard of in Iceland, there dwelt at Bathstead, on the shores of Icefirth, in that far-distant land, a mighty chieftain, of royal descent and great wealth, named Thorbiorn. Though not among the first settlers of Iceland, he had appropriated much unclaimed land, and was one of the leading men of the country-side, but was generally disliked for his arrogance and injustice. Thorkel, the lawman and arbitrator of Icefirth, was weak and easily cowed, so Thorbiorn's wrongdoing remained unchecked; many a maiden had he betrothed to himself, and afterwards rejected, and many a man had he ousted from his lands, yet no redress could be obtained, and no man was bold enough to attack so great a chieftain or resist his will. Thorbiorn's house at Bathstead was one of the best in the district, and his lands stretched down to the shores of the firth, where he had made a haven with a jetty for ships. His boathouse stood a little back above a ridge of shingle, and beside a deep pool or lagoon. The household of Thorbiorn included Sigrid, a fair maiden, young and wealthy, who was his housekeeper; Vakr, an ill-conditioned and malicious fellow, Thorbiorn's nephew; and a strong and trusted serving-man named Brand. Besides these there were house-caries in plenty, and labourers, all good fightingmen.
Not far from Bathstead, at Bluemire, dwelt an old Viking called Howard. He was of honourable descent, and had won fame in earlier Viking expeditions, but since he had returned lamed and nearly helpless from his last voyage he had aged greatly, and men called him Howard the Halt. His wife, Biargey, however, was an active and stirring woman, and their only son, Olaf, bade fair to become a redoubtable warrior. Though only fifteen, Olaf had reached full stature, was tall, fair, handsome, and stronger than most men. He wore his
fair hair long, and always went bareheaded, for his great bodily strength defied even the bitter winter cold of Iceland, and he faced the winds clad in summer raiment only. With all his strength and beauty, Olaf was a loving and obedient son to Howard and Biargey, and the couple loved him as the apple of their eye.
The men of Icefirth were wont to drive their sheep into the mountains during the summer, leave them there till autumn, and then, collecting the scattered flocks, to restore to each man his own branded sheep. One autumn the flocks were wild and shy, and it was found that many sheep had strayed in the hills. When those that had been gathered were divided Thorbiorn had lost at least sixty wethers, and was greatly vexed. Some weeks later Olaf Howardson went alone into the hills, and returned with all the lost sheep, having sought them with great toil and danger. Olaf drove the rest of the sheep home to their grateful owners, and then took Thorbiorn's to Bathstead. Reaching the house at noonday, he knocked on the door, and as all men sat at their noontide meal, the housekeeper, the fair Sigrid, went forth herself and saw Olaf.
She greeted him courteously and asked his business, and he replied, "I have brought home Thorbiorn's wethers which strayed this autumn," and then the two talked together for a short time. Now Thorbiorn was curious to know what the business might be, and sent his nephew Vakr to see who was there; he went secretly and listened to the conversation between Sigrid and Olaf, but heard little, for Olaf was just saying, "Then I need not go in to Thorbiorn; thou, Sigrid, canst as well tell him where his sheep are now"; then he simply bade her farewell and turned away.
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Olaf and Sigrid
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''Howard leaves the house of Thorbiorn''
Vakr ran back into the hall, shouting and laughing, till Thorbiorn asked: "How now, nephew! Why makest thou such outcry? Who is there?"
"It was Olaf Howardson, the great booby of Blue-mire, bringing back the sheep thou didst lose in the autumn."
"That was a neighbourly deed," said Thorbiorn.
"Ah! but there was another reason for his coming, I think," said Vakr. "He and Sigrid had a long talk together, and I saw her put her arms round his neck; she seemed well pleased to greet him."
"Olaf may be a brave man, but it is rash of him to anger me thus, by trying to steal away my housekeeper," said Thorbiorn, scowling heavily. Olaf had no thanks for his kindness, and was ill received whenever he came; yet he came often to see Sigrid, for he loved her, and tried to persuade her to wed him. Thorbiorn hated him the more for his open wooing, which he could not forbid.
The next year, when harvest was over, and the sheep were brought home, again most of the missing sheep belonged to Thorbiorn, and again Olaf went to the mountains alone and brought back the stray ones. All thanked him, except the master of Bathstead, to whom Olaf drove back sixty wethers. Thorbiorn had grown daily more enraged at Olaf's popularity, his strength and beauty, and his evident love for Sigrid, and now chose this opportunity of insulting the bold youth who rivalled him in fame and in public esteem.
Olaf reached Bathstead at noon, and seeing that all men were in the hall, he entered, and made his way to the daïs where Thorbiorn sat; there he leaned on his axe, and gazed steadily at the master, who gave him no
single word of greeting. Then every one kept silence, watching them both.
At last Olaf broke the stillness by asking: "Why are you all dumb? There is no honour to those who say naught. I have stood here long enough and had no word of courteous greeting. Master Thorbiorn, I have brought home thy missing sheep."
Vakr answered spitefully: "Yes, we all know that thou hast become the Icefirth sheep-drover; and we all know that thou hast come to claim some share of the sheep, as any other beggar might. Kinsman Thorbiorn, thou hadst better give him some little alms to satisfy him!"
Olaf flushed angrily as he answered: "Nay, it is not for that I came; but, Thorbiorn, I will not seek thy lost sheep a third time." And as he turned and strode indignantly from the hall Vakr mocked and jeered at him. Yet Olaf passed forth in silence.
The third year Olaf found and brought home all men's sheep but Thorbiorn's; and then Vakr spread the rumour that Olaf had stolen them, since he could not otherwise obtain a share of them. This rumour came at last to Howard's ears, and he upbraided Olaf, saying, when his son praised their mutton, "Yes, it is good, and it is really ours, not Thorbiorn's. It is terrible that we have to bear such injustice."
Olaf said nothing, but, seizing the leg of mutton, flung it across the room; and Howard smiled at the wrath which his son could no longer suppress; perhaps, too, Howard longed to see Olaf in conflict with Thorbiorn.
While Howard was still upbraiding Olaf a widow entered, who had come to ask for help in a difficult matter. Her dead husband (a reputed wizard) returned
to his house night after night as a dreadful ghost, and no man would live in the house. Would Howard come and break the spell and drive away the dreadful nightly visitant?
"Alas!" replied Howard, "I am no longer young and strong. Why do you not ask Thorbiorn? He accounts himself to be chief here, and a chieftain should protect those in his country-side."
"Nay," said the widow. "I am only too glad if Thorbiorn lets me alone. I will not meddle with him."
Then said Olaf: "Father, I will go and try my strength with this ghost, for I am young and stronger than most, and I deem such a matter good sport."
Accordingly Olaf went back with the widow, and slept in the hall that night, with a skin rug over him. At nightfall the dead wizard came in, ghastly, evil-looking, and terrible, and tore the skin from over Olaf; but the youth sprang up and wrestled with the evil creature, who seemed to have more than mortal strength. They fought grimly till the lights died out, and the struggle raged in the darkness up and down the hall, and finally out of doors. In the yard round the house the dead wizard fell, and Olaf knelt upon him and broke his back, and thought him safe from doing any mischief again. When Olaf returned to the hall men had rekindled the lights, and all made much of him, and tended his bruises and wounds, and counted him a hero indeed. His fame spread through the whole district, and he was greatly beloved by all men; but Thorbiorn hated him more than ever.
Soon another quarrel arose, when a stranded whale, which came ashore on Howard's land, was adjudged to Thorbiorn. The lawman, Thorkel, was summoned to decide to whom the whale belonged, and came to view it. "It is manifestly theirs," said he falteringly, for he
dreaded Thorbiorn's wrath. "Whose saidst thou?" cried Thorbiorn, coming to him menacingly, with drawn sword. "Thine," said Thorkel, with downcast eyes; and Thorbiorn triumphantly claimed and took the whale, though the. injustice of the decree was evident. Yet Olaf felt no ill-will to Thorbiorn, for Sigrid's sake, but contrived to render him another service.
Brand the Strong, Thorbiorn's shepherd, could not drive his sheep one day. Olaf met him trying to get his frightened wethers home: it seemed an impossible task, because an uncanny human form, with waving arms, stood in a narrow bend of the path and drove them back and scattered them. Brand told Olaf all the tale, and when the two went to look, Olaf saw that the enemy was the ghost of the dead wizard whom he had fought before. "Which wilt thou do," said Olaf, "fight the wizard or gather thy sheep?"
"I have no wish to fight the ghost; I will find my scattered sheep," said Brand; "that is the easier task."
Then Olaf ran at the ghost, who awaited him at the top of a high bank, and he and the wizard wrestled again with each other till they fell from the bank into a snowdrift, and so down to the seashore. There Olaf, whose strength had been tried to the utmost, had the upper hand, and again broke the back of the dead wizard; but, seeing that that had been of no avail before, he took the body, swam out to sea with it, and sank it deep in the firth. Ever after men believed that this part of the coast was dangerous to ships.
Brand thanked the youth much for his help, and when he reached Bathstead related what Olaf had done for him. Thorbiorn said nothing, but Vakr sneered, and called Brand a coward for asking help of Olaf.
[paragraph continues] The strife grew keen between them, almost to blows, and was only settled by Thorbiorn, who forbade Brand to praise Olaf or to accept help from him. His ill-will grew so evident to all men that Howard the Halt decided, in spite of Olaf's reluctance, to, remove to a homestead on the other side of the firth, away from Thorbiorn's neighbourhood.
That summer Thorbiorn decided to marry. He wooed a maiden who was sister of the wise Guest, who dwelt at the Mead, and Guest agreed to the match, on condition that Thorbiorn should renounce his injustice and evil ways; to this Thorbiorn assented, and the wedding was held shortly after. Thorbiorn had said nothing to his household of his proposed marriage, and Sigrid first heard of it when the wedding was over, and the bridal party would soon be riding home to Bathstead. Sigrid was very wroth that she must give up her control of the household to another, and refused to stay to serve under Thorbiorn's wife; accordingly she withdrew from Bathstead to a kinsman's house, taking all her goods with her. Thorbiorn raged furiously on his return, when he found that she was gone, for her wealth made a great difference to his comfort, and threatened dire punishment to all who had helped her. Olaf continued his wooing of Sigrid, and went to see her often in her kinsman's abode, and they loved each other greatly.
One day when Olaf had been seeking some lost sheep he made his way to Sigrid's house, to talk with her as usual. As they stood near the house together and talked Sigrid looked suddenly anxious and said:
"I see Thorbiorn and Vakr coming in a boat over the firth with weapons beside them, and I see the gleam
of Thorbiorn's great sword Warflame. I fear they have done, or will do, some evil deed, and therefore I pray thee, Olaf, not to stay and meet them. He has hated thee for a long time, and the help thou didst give me to leave Bathstead did not mend matters. Go thy way now, and do not fall in with them."
"I am not afraid," said Olaf. "I have done Thorbiorn no wrong, and I will not flee before him. He is only one man, as I am."
"Alas!" Sigrid replied, "how canst thou, a stripling of eighteen, hope to stand before a grown man, a mighty champion, armed with a magic sword? Thy words and thoughts are brave, as thou thyself art, but the odds are too great for thee: they are two to one, since Vakr, ever spiteful and malicious, will not stand idle while thou art in combat with Thorbiorn."
"Well," said Olaf, "I will not avoid them, but I will not seek a contest. If it must be so, I will fight bravely; thou shalt hear of my deeds."
"No, that will never be; I will not live after thee to ask of them," said Sigrid.
"Farewell now; live long and happily!" said Olaf; and so they bade each other farewell, and Olaf left her there, and went down to the shore where his sheep lay. Thorbiorn and Vakr had just landed, and they greeted each other, and Olaf asked them their errand. "We go to my mother," said Vakr.
"Let us go together," replied Olaf, "for my way is the same in part. But I am sorry that I must needs drive my sheep home, for Icefirth sheep-drovers will become proud if a great man like thee should join the trade, Thorbiorn."
"Nay, I do not mind that," said Thorbiorn; so they all went on together; and as he went Olaf caught up a crooked cudgel with which to herd his sheep; he noticed,
too, that Thorbiorn and Vakr kept trying to lag behind him, and he took care that they all walked abreast.
When the three came near the house of Thordis, Vakr's mother, where the ways divided, Thorbiorn said: "Now, nephew Vakr, we need no longer delay what we would do." And then Olaf knew that he had fallen into their snare. He ran up a bank beside the road, and the two set on him from below, and he defended himself at first manfully with the crooked cudgel; but Thorbiorn's sword Warflame sliced this like a stalk of flax, and Olaf had to betake himself to his axe, and the fight went on for long.
The noise of the fray reached the ears of Thordis, Vakr's mother, in her house, so that she sent a boy to learn the cause, and when he told her that Olaf Howardson was fighting against Thorbiorn and Vakr she bade her second son go to the help of his kinsfolk.
"I will not go," said he. "I would rather fight for Olaf than for them. It is a shame for two to set on one man, and they such great champions too. I will not be the third; I will not go."
"Now I know that thou art a coward," sneered his mother. "Daughter, not son, thou art, too timid to help thy kinsfolk. I will show thee that I am a braver daughter than thou a son!"
By these words Thordis so enraged her son that he seized his axe and rushed from the house down the hill towards Olaf, who could not see the new-corner, because he stood with his back to the house. Coming close to
[paragraph continues] Olaf, the new assailant drove the axe in deep between his shoulders, and when Olaf felt the blow he turned, and with a mighty stroke slew his last enemy. Thereupon Thorbiorn thrust Olaf through with the sword Warflame, and he died. Then Thorbiorn took Olaf's teeth, which he smote from his jaw, wrapped them in a cloth, and carried them home.
The news of the slaughter was at once told by Thorbiorn (for so long as homicide was not concealed it was not considered murder), and told fairly, so that all men praised Olaf for his brave defence, and lamented his death. But when men sought for the fair Sigrid she could not be found, and was seen no more from that day. She had loved Olaf greatly, had seen him fall, and could not live when he was dead; but no man knew where she died or was buried.
The terrible news of Olaf's death came to Howard, and he sighed heavily and took to his bed for grief, and remained bedridden for twelve months, leaving his wife Biargey to manage the daily fishing and the farm. Men thought that Olaf would be for ever unavenged, because Howard was too feeble, and his adversary too mighty and too unjust.
When a year had passed away Biargey came to Howard where he lay in his bed, and bade him arise and go to Bathstead. Said she:
"I would have thee claim wergild for our son, since a man that can no longer fight may well prove his valour by word of mouth, and if Thorbiorn should show any sign of justice thou shalt not claim too much."
Howard replied: "I know it is a bootless errand to ask justice from Thorbiorn, but I will do thy will in this matter."
So Howard went heavily, walking as an old man, to Bathstead, and, after the usual greetings, said:
"I have come to thee, Thorbiorn, on a great matter--to claim wergild for my dead son Olaf, whom thou didst slay guiltless."
Thorbiorn answered: "I have never yet paid a wergild, though I have slain many men--some say innocent men. But I am sorry for thee, since thou hast lost a brave son, and I will at least give thee something. There is an old horse named Dodderer out in the pastures, grey with age, sore-backed, too old to work; but thou canst take him home, and perhaps he will be some good, when thou hast fed him up."
Now Howard was angered beyond speech. He reddened and turned straight to the door; and as he went down the hall Vakr shouted and jeered; but Howard said no word, good or bad. He returned home, and took to his bed for another year.
In the second year Biargey again urged Howard to try for a wergild. She suggested that he should follow Thorbiorn to the Thing and try to obtain justice, for men loathed Thorbiorn's evil ways, and Howard would be sure to have many sympathizers. Howard was loath to go. "Thorbiorn, my son's slayer, has mocked me once; shall he mock me again where all the chieftains are assembled? I will not go to endure such shame!"
To his surprise, Biargey urged her will, saying: "Thou wilt have friends, I know, since Guest will be there, and he is a just man, and will strive to bring about peace between thee and Thorbiorn. And hearken to me, and heed my words, husband! If Thorbiorn is condemned to pay thee money, and there is a large ring of assessors, it may be that when thou and he are
in the ring together he will do something to grieve thee sorely. Then look thou well to it! If thy heart be light, make thou no peace; I am somewhat foresighted, and I know that then Olaf shall be avenged. But if thou be heavy-hearted, then do thou be reconciled to Thorbiorn, for I know that Olaf shall lie unatoned for."
Howard replied: "Wife, I understand thee not, nor thy words, but this I know: I would do and bear all things if I might but obtain due vengeance for Olaf's death."
At last Howard, impressed by his wife's half-prophetic words, roused himself, and rode away to the Thing; here he found shelter with a great chieftain, Steinthor of Ere, who was kind to the old man, and gave Howard a place in his booth. Steinthor praised Olaf's courage and manful defence, and bade his followers cherish the old man, and not arouse his grief for his dead son.
As the days wore on Howard did nothing towards obtaining compensation for his great loss, until Steinthor asked him why he took no action in the matter. Howard replied that he felt helpless against Thorbiorn's evil words and deeds; but Steinthor bade him try to win Guest to his side--then he would succeed. Howard took heart, and set off for the booth which Thorbiorn shared with Guest; but unhappily Guest was not there when Howard came. Thorbiorn greeted him and asked what matter had brought him, and Howard replied:
"My grief for Olaf is yet deep in my heart; still I remember his death; and now again I come to claim a wergild for him."
Thorbiorn answered: "Come to me at home in my
own country, and I may do somewhat for thee, but I will not have thee whining against me here."
Howard said: "If thou wilt do nothing here, I have proved that thou wilt do still less in thine own country; but I had hoped for help from other chieftains."
Thorbiorn burst out wrathfully: "See! He will stir up other men against me! Get thee gone, old man, or thou shalt not escape a beating."
Now Howard was greatly angered, and said: "Yes, old I am--too old and feeble to win respect; but the days have been when I would not have endured such wrong; yea, and if Olaf were still alive thou wouldst not have flouted me thus." As he left Thorbiorn's sight his grief and anger were so great that he did not notice Guest returning, but went heavily to Steinthor's booth, where he told all Thorbiorn's injustice, and won much sympathy.
When Guest had entered the booth he sat down beside Thorbiorn and said:
"Who was the man whom I met leaving the booth just now?"
"A wise question for a wise man to ask! How can I tell? So many come and go," said Thorbiorn.
"But this was an old man, large of stature, lame in one knee; yet he looked a brave warrior, and he was so wrathful that he did not know where he went. He seemed a man likely to be lucky, too, and not one to be lightly wronged."
"That must have been old Howard the Halt," said Thorbiorn. "He is a man from my district, who has come after me to the Thing."
"Ah! Was it his brave son Olaf whom thou didst slay guiltless?"
"Yes, certainly," returned Thorbiorn.
"How hast thou kept the promise of better ways which thou didst make when thou didst marry my sister?" he asked; and Thorbiorn sat silent. "This wrong must be amended," said Guest, and serf an honourable man to bring Howard to him. Howard at first refused to face Thorbiorn again, but at last reluctantly consented to meet Guest, and when the latter had greeted him in friendly and honourable fashion he told the whole story, from the time of Thorbiorn's first jealousy of Olaf.
Guest was horrified. "Heard ever man such injustice!" he cried. "Now, Thorbiorn, choose one of two things: either my sister shall no longer be thy wife, or thou shalt allow me to give judgment between Howard and thee."
Thorbiorn agreed to leave the matter in Guest's hands, and many men were called to make a ring as assessors, that all might be legally done, and Thorbiorn and Howard stood together in the ring. Then Guest gave judgment: "Thorbiorn, I cannot condemn thee to pay Howard all thou owest--with all thy wealth, thou hast not money enough for that; but for slaying Olaf thou shalt pay a threefold wergild. For the other wrongs thou hast done him, I, thy brother-in-law, will try to atone by gifts, and friendship, and all honour in my power, as long as we both live; and if he will come home to stay with me he shall be right welcome."
Thorbiorn agreed to the award, saying carelessly: "I will pay him at home in my own country, if he will come to me when I have more leisure."
"No," said Guest, who distrusted Thorbiorn, "thou shalt pay here, and now, fully; and I myself will pay
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''The silver rolled in all directions from his cloak''
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''Thorbiorn lifted the huge stone''
one wergild, to help thee in atonement." When this was agreed Howard sat down in the ring, and Guest gave him the one wergild (a hundred of silver), which Howard received in the skirt of his cloak; and then Thorbiorn paid one wergild slowly, coin by coin, and said he had no more money; but Guest bade him pay it all.
Then Thorbiorn drew out a cloth and untied it, saying, "He will surely count himself paid in full if I give him this!" and he flung into the old man's face, as he sat on the ground, the teeth of the dead Olaf, saying, "Here are thy son's teeth!"
Howard sprang up, bleeding, mad with rage and grief. The silver rolled in all directions from his cloak as he came to his feet, but he heeded it not at all. Blinded with blood, and furious, he broke through the ring of assessors, dashed one of them to earth, and rushed away like a young man; but when he came to Steinthor's booth he lay as if dead, and spoke to no man.
Guest would have no more to do with Thorbiorn. "Thou hast no equal for cruelty and evil; thou shalt surely repent it," he said; and he rode to Bathstead, took his sister away, with all her wealth, and broke off his alliance with Thorbiorn, caring nothing for the shame he put upon so unjust a man.
Howard went home, told Biargey all that had happened, and took to his bed again, a poor, old, helpless, miserable man; but his wife, who saw her presage beginning to come true, kept up her courage, rowed out fishing every day, and guided the household for yet another year.
That summer, one day, as Biargey was rowed out to the fishing as usual, she saw Thorbiorn's boat coming
up the firth, and bade her man take up the lines and go to meet him, and row round the cutter, while she talked with Thorbiorn. As Biargey's little boat approached the cutter Thorbiorn stopped his vessel, for he saw that she would speak with him, and her boat circled round the cutter while she asked his business, and learnt that he was going with Vakr to meet a brother and nephew of his, to bring them to Bathstead, and that he expected to be away from home for a week. The little skiff had now passed completely round the motionless cutter, and Olaf's mother, having learnt all she wanted, bade her rower quit Thorbiorn; the little boat shot swiftly and suddenly away, leaving Thorbiorn with an uneasy sense of witchcraft. So disquieted did he feel that he would have pursued her and drowned "the old hag," as he called her, had he not been prevented by Brand the Strong, who had been helped in his need by Olaf.
As the little craft shot away Biargey smiled mysteriously, and said to her rower: "Now I feel sure that Olaf my son will be avenged. I have work to do: let us not go home yet."
"Where, then, shall we go?" asked the man.
"To my brother Valbrand."
Now Valbrand was an old man who had been a mighty warrior in his youth, but had now settled down to a life of quiet and peace; he had, however, two promising sons, well-grown and manly youths. When Valbrand saw his sister he came to meet her, saying:
"Welcome, sister! Seldom it is that we see thee. Wilt thou abide with us this night, or is thine errand one that craves haste?"
"I must he home to-night," she replied, and added
mysteriously: "But there is help I would fain ask of thee. Wilt thou lend me thy seal-nets? We have not enough to catch such fish as we need."
Valbrand answered: "Willingly, and thou shalt choose for thyself. Here are three, one old and worn out, two new and untried; which wilt thou take?"
"I will have the new ones, but I do not need them yet; keep them ready for the day when I shall send and ask for them," Biargey replied, and bade Valbrand farewell, and rowed away to her next brother.
When Howard's wife came to her brother Thorbrand she was well received by him and his two sons, and here she asked for the loan of a trout-net, since she had not enough to catch the fish. Thorbrand offered her her choice--one old and worn out, or two new and untried nets; and again Biargey chose the new ones, and bade them be ready when the messenger came.
From her third brother, Asbrand, who had only one son, Biargey asked a turf-cutter, as hers was not keen enough to cut all she wanted; again she was offered her choice, and chose the new, untried cutter, instead of the old, rusty, notched one. Then Biargey bade farewell to Asbrand, refusing his offer of hospitality, and went home to Howard, and told him of her quests and the promises she had received. The old couple knew what the promises meant, but they said nothing to each other about it.
When seven days had passed Biargey came to Howard, saying: "Arise now, and play the man, if thou wilt ever win vengeance for Olaf. Thou must do it
now or never, since now the opportunity has come. Knowest thou not that to-day Thorbiorn returns to Bathstead, and thou must meet him to-day? And have I not found helpers for thee in my nephews? Thou wilt not need to face the strife alone."
Hereupon Howard sprang up joyfully from his bed, and was no longer lame or halt, nor looked like an old man, but moved briskly, clad himself in good armour, and seemed a mighty warrior. His joy broke forth in words, and he chanted songs of gladness in vengeance, and joy in strife, and evil omen to the death-doomed foe. Thus gladly, with spear in hand, he went forth to find his enemy and avenge his son; but he turned and kissed his brave wife farewell, for he said: "It may well be that we shall not meet again." Biargey said:
Nay, we shall meet again, for I know that thou bearest a bold heart and a strong arm, and wilt do valiantly."
Howard and one fighting-man took their boat and rowed to Valbrand's house., and saw him and his sons making hay. Valbrand greeted Howard well, for he had not seen him for long, and begged him to stay there, but Howard would not. "I am in haste, and have come to fetch the two new seal-nets thou didst lend to my wife," he said; and Valbrand understood him well. He called to his sons, "Come hither, lads; here is your kinsman Howard, with mighty work on hand," and the two youths ran up hastily, leaving their hay-making. Valbrand went to the house, and returned bearing good weapons, which he gave to his sons, bidding them follow their kinsman Howard and help in his vengeance.
They three went down to the boat, took their
seats beside Howard's man, and rowed to Asbrand's house. There Howard asked for the promised new turf-cutter, and Asbrand's son, a tall and manly youth, joined the party. At their next visit, to Thorbrand's house, Howard asked for the two trout-nets, and Thorbrand's two sons, with one stout fighting-man, came gladly with their kinsman.
As they rowed away together one of the youths asked: "Why is it that thou hast no sword or axe, Uncle Howard?" Howard replied: "It may be that we shall meet Thorbiorn, and when the meeting is over I shall not be a swordless man, but it is likely that I shall have Warflame, that mighty weapon, the best of swords; and here I have a good spear."
These words seemed to them all a good omen, and as they rowed towards Bathstead they saw a flock of ravens, which encouraged them yet more, since the raven was the bird of Odin, the haunter of fields of strife and bloodshed.
When they reached Bathstead they sprang on the jetty, carried their boat over the ridge of shingle to the quiet pool by the boathouse, and hid themselves where they could see, but remain themselves unseen. Howard took command, and appointed their places, bidding them be wary, and not stir till he gave the word.
Late that evening, just before dusk, Thorbiorn and Vakr came home, bringing their kinsmen with them, a party of ten in all. They had no suspicion of any ambush, and Thorbiorn said to Vakr: "It is a fine night, and dry, Vakr; we will leave the boat here--she will take no hurt through the night--and thou shalt carry our swords and spears up to the boathouse."
Vakr obeyed, and bore all the weapons to the boat-house. Howard's men would have slain him then, but Howard forbade, and let him return to the jetty for more armour. When Vakr had gone back Howard sent to the boathouse for the magic sword, Warflame; drawing it, he gripped it hard and brandished it, for he would fain avenge Olaf with the weapon which had slain him. When Vakr came towards the ambush a second time he was laden with shields and helmets. Howard's men sprang up to take him, and he turned to flee as he saw and heard them. But his foot slipped, and he fell into the pool, and lay there weighed down by all the armour, till he died miserably--a fitting end for one so ignoble and cruel.
Howard's men shouted and waved their weapons, and ran down to the beach to attack their enemies; but Thorbiorn, seeing them, flung himself into the sea, swimming towards a small rocky islet. When Howard saw this he took Warflame between his teeth, and, old as he was, plunged into the waves and pursued Thorbiorn. The latter had, however, a considerable start, and was both younger and stronger than his adversary, so that he was already on the rock and prepared to dash a huge stone at Howard, when the old man reached the islet. Now there seemed no hope for Howard, but still he clung fiercely to the rock and strove to draw himself up on the land. Thorbiorn lifted the huge stone to cast at his foe, but his foot slipped on the wet rocks, and he fell backward; before he could recover his footing Howard rushed forward and slew him with his own sword Warflame, striking out his teeth, as Thorbiorn had done to Olaf.
When Howard swam back to Bathstead, and they
told him that in all six of Thorbiorn's men were dead, while he had only lost one serving-man, he rejoiced greatly; but his vengeance was not satisfied until he had slain yet another brother of Thorbiorn's.
Then, with the news of this great revenge to be told, Howard and his kinsmen took refuge with that Steinthor who had given him help and shelter during the Thing.
"Who are ye, and what tidings do ye bring?" asked Steinthor as the little party of seven entered his hall.
"I am Howard, and these are my kinsmen," said Howard. "We tell the slaying of Thorbiorn and his brothers, his nephews and his house-caries, eight in all."
Steinthor exclaimed in surprise: "Art thou that Howard, old and bedridden, who didst seem like to die last year at the Thing, and hast thou done these mighty deeds with only these youths to aid thee? This is a great marvel, nearly as wondrous as thy restoration to youth and health. Great enmity will ye have aroused against you!"
Said Howard: "Bethink thee that thou didst promise me thy help if I should ever need it. Therefore have I come to thee now, because I have some little need of aid."
Steinthor laughed. "A little help! When dost thou think thou wilt need much, if this be not the time? But bide ye all here in honour, and I will set the matter right, since thou and these thy helpers have done so valiantly."
Howard and his kinsmen abode long with their host, until the Thing met again; then Steinthor rode away, leaving the uncle and nephews under good safeguard.
[paragraph continues] It was a great meeting, with many cases to judge. When the matter of the death of Thorbiorn's family was brought up Steinthor spoke on Howard's behalf, and offered to let Guest again give judgment, since he had done so before. This offer was accepted by Thorbiorn's surviving kinsfolk, and Guest, as before, gave a fair award.
Since a threefold wergild was still due to Howard for the slaying of Olaf, three of the eight dead need not be paid for. Thorbiorn, Vakr, and that brother of his slain by Olaf should continue unatoned for, because they were evildoers, and fell in an unrighteous quarrel of their own seeking; moreover, the slaying of Howard's serving-man cancelled one wergild; there remained, therefore, but one wergild for Howard to pay--one hundred of silver--which was paid out of hand. In addition to this, Howard must change his dwelling, and his nephews must travel abroad for some years. This sentence pleased all men greatly, and they broke up the Thing in great content, and Howard rode home at the head of a goodly company to his stout-hearted wife Biargey, who had kept his house and lands in good order all this time. They made a great feast, and gave rich gifts to all their friends and kinsmen; then when the farewells were over the exiles went abroad and did valiantly in Norway; but Howard sold his lands and moved to another part of the island. There he prospered greatly; and when he died his memory was handed down as that of a mighty warrior and a valiant and prudent man.