The Story of Grettir the Strong, by William Morris

Chap. xiv.

Of Grettir as a child, and his froward ways with his father.

Asmund the Greyhaired kept house at Biarg; great and proud was his household, and many men he had about him, and was a man much beloved. These were the children of him and Asdis. Atli was the eldest son; a man yielding and soft-natured, easy, and meek withal, and all men liked him well: another son they had called Grettir; he was very froward in his childhood; of few words, and rough; worrying both in word and deed. Little fondness he got from his father Asmund, but his mother loved him right well.

Grettir Asmundson was fair to look on, broad-faced, short-faced, red-haired, and much freckled; not of quick growth in his childhood.

Thordis was a daughter of Asmund, whom Glum, the son of Uspak, the son of Kiarlak of Skridinsenni, afterwards had to wife. Ranveig was another daughter of Asmund; she was the wife of Gamli, the son of Thorhal, the son of the Vendlander; they kept house at Meals in Ramfirth; their son was Grim. The son of Glum and Thordis, the daughter of Asmund, was Uspak, who quarrelled with Odd, the son of Ufeigh, as is told in the Bandamanna Saga.

Grettir grew up at Biarg till he was ten years old; then he began to get on a little; but Asmund bade him do some work; Grettir answered that work was not right meet for him, but asked what he should do.

Says Asmund, "Thou shalt watch my home-geese."

Grettir answered and said, "A mean work, a milksop's work."

Asmund said, "Turn it well out of hand, and then matters shall get better between us."

Then Grettir betook himself to watching the home-geese; fifty of them there were, with many goslings; but no long time went by before he found them a troublesome drove, and the goslings slow-paced withal. Thereat he got sore worried, for little did he keep his temper in hand. So some time after this, wayfaring men found the goslings strewn about dead, and the home-geese broken-winged; and this was in autumn. Asmund was mightily vexed hereat, and asked if Grettir had killed the fowl: he sneered mockingly, and answered —

"Surely as winter comes, shall I

Twist the goslings' necks awry.

If in like case are the geese,

I have finished each of these."

"Thou shalt kill them no more," said Asmund.

"Well, a friend should warn a friend of ill," said Grettir.

"Another work shall be found for thee then," said Asmund.

"More one knows the more one tries," said Grettir; "and what shall I do now?"

Asmund answered, "Thou shalt rub my back at the fire, as I have been wont to have it done."

"Hot for the hand, truly," said Grettir; "but still a milksop's work."

Now Grettir went on with this work for a while; but autumn came on, and Asmund became very fain of heat, and he spurs Grettir on to rub his back briskly. Now, in those times there were wont to be large fire-halls at the homesteads, wherein men sat at long fires in the evenings; boards were set before the men there, and afterwards folk slept out sideways from the fires; there also women worked at the wool in the daytime. Now, one evening, when Grettir had to rub Asmund's back, the old carle said —

"Now thou wilt have to put away thy sloth, thou milk-sop."

Says Grettir, "Ill is it to goad the foolhardy."

Asmund answers, "Thou wilt ever be a good-for-nought."

Now Grettir sees where, in one of the seats stood wool-combs: one of these he caught up, and let it go all down Asmund's back. He sprang up, and was mad wroth thereat; and was going to smite Grettir with his staff, but he ran off. Then came the housewife, and asked what was this to-do betwixt them. Then Grettir answered by this ditty —

"This jewel-strewer, O ground of gold,

(His counsels I deem over bold),

On both these hands that trouble sow,

(Ah bitter pain) will burn me now;

Therefore with wool-comb's nails unshorn

Somewhat ring-strewer's back is torn:

The hook-clawed bird that wrought his wound —

Lo, now I see it on the ground."

Hereupon was his mother sore vexed, that he should have taken to a trick like this; she said he would never fail to be the most reckless of men. All this nowise bettered matters between Asmund and Grettir.

Now, some time after this, Asmund had a talk with Grettir, that he should watch his horses. Grettir said this was more to his mind than the back-rubbing.

"Then shalt thou do as I bid thee," said Asmund. "I have a dun mare, which I call Keingala; she is so wise as to shifts of weather, thaws, and the like, that rough weather will never fail to follow, when she will not go out on grazing. At such times thou shalt lock the horses up under cover; but keep them to grazing on the mountain neck yonder, when winter comes on. Now I shall deem it needful that thou turn this work out of hand better than the two I have set thee to already."

Grettir answered, "This is a cold work and a manly, but I deem it ill to trust in the mare, for I know none who has done it yet."

Now Grettir took to the horse-watching, and so the time went on till past Yule-time; then came on much cold weather with snow, that made grazing hard to come at. Now Grettir was ill clad, and as yet little hardened, and he began to be starved by the cold; but Keingala grazed away in the windiest place she could find, let the weather be as rough as it would. Early as she might go to the pasture, never would she go back to stable before nightfall. Now Grettir deemed that he must think of some scurvy trick or other, that Keingala might be paid in full for her way of grazing: so, one morning early, he comes to the horse-stable, opens it, and finds Keingala standing all along before the crib; for, whatever food was given to the horses with her, it was her way to get it all to herself. Grettir got on her back, and had a sharp knife in his hand, and drew it right across Keingala's shoulder, and then all along both sides of the back. Thereat the mare, being both fat and shy, gave a mad bound, and kicked so fiercely, that her hooves clattered against the wall. Grettir fell off; but, getting on his legs, strove to mount her again. Now their struggle is of the sharpest, but the end of it is, that he flays off the whole of the strip along the back to the loins. Thereafter he drove the horses out on grazing; Keingala would bite but at her back, and when noon was barely past, she started off, and ran back to the house. Grettir now locks the stable and goes home. Asmund asked Grettir where the horses were. He said that he had stabled them as he was wont. Asmund said that rough weather was like to be at hand, as the horses would not keep at their grazing in such good weather as now it was.

Grettir said, "Oft fail in wisdom folk of better trust."

Now the night goes by, but no rough weather came on. Grettir drove off the horses, but Keingala cannot bear the grazing. This seemed strange to Asmund, as the weather changed in nowise from what it had been theretofore. The third morning Asmund went to the horses, and, coming to Keingala, said —

"I must needs deem these horses to be in sorry case, good as the winter has been, but thy sides will scarce lack flesh, my dun."

"Things boded will happen," said Grettir, "but so will things unboded."

Asmund stroked the back of the mare, and, lo, the hide came off beneath his hand; he wondered how this could have happened, and said it was likely to be Grettir's doing. Grettir sneered mockingly, but said nought. Now goodman Asmund went home talking as one mad; he went straight to the fire-hall, and as he came heard the good wife say, "It were good indeed if the horse-keeping of my kinsman had gone off well."

Then Asmund sang this stave —

"Grettir has in such wise played,

That Keingala has he flayed,

Whose trustiness would be my boast

(Proudest women talk the most);

So the cunning lad has wrought,

Thinking thereby to do nought

Of my biddings any more.

In thy mind turn these words o'er."

The housewife answered, "I know not which is least to my mind, that thou shouldst ever be bidding him work, or that he should turn out all his work in one wise."

"That too we will make an end of," said Asmund, "but he shall fare the worse therefor."

Then Grettir said, "Well, let neither make words about it to the other."

So things went on awhile, and Asmund had Keingala killed; and many other scurvy tricks did Grettir in his childhood whereof the story says nought. But he grew great of body, though his strength was not well known, for he was unskilled in wrestling; he would make ditties and rhymes, but was somewhat scurrilous therein. He had no will to lie anight in the fire-hall and was mostly of few words.

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 22:07