If any traveller had visited Iceland nearly a thousand years ago, he would have found the island full of busy, industrious people, who made the most of their short summer, and tilled the ground so well that they generally reaped a golden harvest. Many of the families were akin, and had fled some sixty years earlier from Norway and the islands of the sea because the king, Harald Fairhair, had introduced new laws, which displeased them. They were soon joined, for one reason and another, by dwellers in Orkney and Shetland and the Faroe Islands and the Hebrides, and, being men of one race, they easily adopted the same customs and obeyed the same laws.
Now the Northmen had many good qualities and many very troublesome ones. The father of every household had absolute power over all his children; he fixed the amount of money that should be paid in exchange for his daughter at her marriage, and the sum that was due for the wounded slave or ‘thrall’ as he was called, or even for his murdered son; or, if he thought better, he could refuse to take any money at all as the price of his injuries, and could then avenge blood by blood.
But once he had declared his purpose he was bound to abide by his word.
Fond though they were of fighting, the Northmen had their own notions of fair dealing. If you had killed a man, you had to confess it; if you slew him at night, or when he was sleeping, you were guilty of murder, and if you refused to throw gravel or sand over his body, thus denying your enemy the rights of burial, you were considered a dastard even by your friends.
Now in the valley or dale of the river Laxa dwelt two brothers, each in his own house. One was named Hauskuld, and the other Hrut. This Hrut was much younger than Hauskuld, and was handsome, brave, and, like so many of the Northmen, very gentle when not engaged in war. Like many of them also, the gift was given him of reading the future.
One day Hauskuld made a feast, and Hrut came with many of his kinsmen, and took his place next his brother Hauskuld. They were all seated in the great hall of the house and near the fire Hauskuld’s little daughter, Hallgerda, was playing with some other children. Fair and blue eyed were they all, but Hallgerda was taller and more beautiful than any, and her hair fell in long bright curls far below her waist. ‘Come hither,’ said Hauskuld, holding out his hand, and, taking her by the chin, he kissed her and bade her go back to her companions. Then, turning to his brother he asked:
‘Well, is she not fair to look upon?’ but Hrut held his peace. Again Hauskuld would know what was in the thoughts of Hrut concerning the maiden, and this time Hrut made answer:
‘Of a truth fair is the maid, and great will be the havoc wrought by her among men. But one thing I would know, which of our race has given her those thief’s eyes?’
At that Hauskuld waxed wroth, and bade Hrut begone to his own house.
After this some years went by. Hrut left Iceland and spent some time at the Court of Norway, and then he came back and married, and had much trouble with his wife, Unna. But after they had parted and she had gone back to her father, Hrut was a free man again, and he went to visit his brother Hauskuld, whose daughter Hallgerda had now become a woman. Tall and stately she was, and fair, but sly and greedy of gain, as in the days of her childhood, and more she loved Thiostolf, whose wife had brought her up, than Hauskuld her father, or Hrut her uncle.
When Hallgerda went back to Hauskuld her father, he saw that he must be looking out for a husband for her, as the fame of her beauty would go far. It was indeed not long before one came to her, Thorwald, son of Oswif, who, besides the broad lands which he possessed on the island, owned the Bear Isles out in the sea, where fish were to be had in abundance.
Oswif, Thorwald’s father, knew more about the maiden than did Thorwald, who had been on a journey, and he tried to turn his son’s thought to some other damsel, but Thorwald only answered, ‘Whatever you may say, she is the only woman I will marry;’ and Oswif made reply, ‘Well, after all, the risk is yours and not mine.’
So they two set out for Hauskuld’s house and he bade them welcome heartily. They wasted no time before telling him their business, and Hauskuld answered that for his part he could desire no more honourable match for his daughter, but he would not hide from them that her temper was hard and cruel.
‘That shall not stand between us,’ said Thorwald, ‘so tell me what I shall pay for her.’
And the bargain was made, and Thorwald rode home with his father, but Hallgerda was never asked if she wished to wed Thorwald or not.
When Hauskuld told his daughter that she was to be married to Thorwald, she was not pleased, and said that if her father had loved her as much as he pretended to do he would have consulted her in such a matter. Besides, she did not think that the match was in any way worthy of her.
But, grumble as she might, there was no getting out of it, and, as Hauskuld would listen to nothing, she sought for her foster-father, Thiostolf, who never had been known to say her nay. When she had told her story, he bade her be of good cheer, prophesying that Thorwald should not be her only husband, and that if she was not happy she had only to come to him and he would do her bidding, be it what it might, save as regarded Hauskuld and Hrut.
Then Hallgerda was comforted, and went home to prepare the bridal feast, to which all their friends and kinsfolk were bidden. And when the marriage was over, she rode home with her husband Thorwald, and Thiostolf her foster-father was ever at her side, and she talked more to him than to Thorwald. And there he stayed all the winter.
Now, as time went on, Thorwald began to repent that he had not hearkened to the words of his father. His wife paid him scant attention, and she wasted his goods, and was noted among all the women of the dales for her skill in driving a hard bargain. And, beyond all that, folk whispered that she was not careful to ask whether the things she took were her own or someone else’s. This irked Thorwald sore; but worse was to follow. The spring came late that year, and Hallgerda told Thorwald that the storehouse was empty of meat and fish, and he must go out to the Bear Isles and fetch some more. At this Thorwald reproached her, saying that it was her fault if garners were not yet full, and on Hallgerda’s taunting him with being a miser, struck her such a blow in the face that blood spouted, and when he left her to row with his men to the islands, Hallgerda sat still, vowing vengeance.
It was not long in coming. Soon after, Thiostolf chanced to pass that way, and, seeing the blood on her face, asked whence it sprang.
‘From the hand of my husband Thorwald,’ answered she, and reproached Thiostolf for suffering such dealings.
‘I knew not of it,’ said Thiostolf, ‘but I will avenge it speedily;’ and he went to the shore, and put off in a boat, taking nothing but a great axe with him. He found Thorwald and his men on the beach of the biggest island, loading his vessel with meat and fish from the storehouses. Then he began to pick a quarrel with Thorwald and spoke words that vexed him more and more, till Thorwald bent forward to seize a knife which lay near him. This was the moment for which the other had been waiting. He lifted his axe and gave a blow at Hallgerda’s husband, and, though Thorwald tried to defend himself, a second stroke clove his skull.
‘Your axe is bloody,’ said Hallgerda, who was standing outside the door.
‘Yes; and this time you can choose your own husband,’ answered Thiostolf; but Hallgerda only asked calmly:
‘So Thorwald is dead?’ and as Thiostolf nodded she went on: ‘You must go northward, to Swan my kinsman; he will hide you from your enemies.’
After that she unlocked her chests and dismissed her maidens with gifts; then she mounted her horse and rode home to her father.
‘Where is Thorwald?’ asked Hrut, who had heard nothing.
‘He is dead,’ answered Hallgerda.
‘By the hand of Thiostolf?’ said her father.
‘By his hand, and by that of no other;’ and Hallgerda passed by them and entered the house.
As soon as Oswif, Thorwald’s father, had heard the tidings, he guessed that Thiostolf must have gone northward to Swan, and calling his men round him they all rode to the Bearfirth. But before they were in sight Swan cried to Thiostolf, ‘Oswif is coming, but we need fear nothing, they will never see us,’ and he took a goatskin and wrapped it round his head, and said to it: ‘Be thou darkness and fog, and fright and wonder, to those who seek us.’ And immediately a thick fog and black darkness fell over all things, and Oswif and his men lost their way, and tumbled off their horses and tripped over large stones, till Oswif resolved to give up seeking Thiostolf and Swan, and to go himself to Hauskuld.
Now Hauskuld was abiding at home, and with him was Hrut his brother. Oswif got off his horse, and, throwing its bridle over a stake driven into the ground, he said to Hauskuld: ‘I have come to ask atonement for my son’s life.’
‘It was not I who slew your son,’ answered Hauskuld; ‘but as he is slain, it is just that you should seek atonement from somebody.’
‘You have much need to give him what he asks,’ said Hrut, ‘for it is not well that evil tongues should be busy with your daughter’s name.’
‘Then give the judgment yourself,’ replied Hauskuld.
‘That will I do, in truth,’ said Hrut; ‘and be sure that I will not spare you, as I know it was Hallgerda wrought his death;’ so he offered his hand to Oswif, as a token that his award would be accepted, and that at the Great Council of the nation he would not summon Hauskuld for Thorwald’s murder. And Oswif took his hand, and Hauskuld’s, and Hrut bade his brother pay down two hundred pounds in silver to Oswif, while he himself gave him a stout cloak. And Oswif went away well pleased with the award.
For some time Hallgerda dwelt in her father’s house, and she brought with her a share of Thorwald’s goods, and was very rich. But men kept away from her, having heard tales of her evil ways. At length Glum, the youngest son of Olaf the Lame, told his brother that he would go no more trading in strange lands, but would remain at home, and meant to take to himself a wife, if the one on whom he had set his heart would come to him.
So one day a company of the men, with Glum and Thorarin his brother at their head, rode into the Dales to the door of Hauskuld’s dwelling. Hauskuld greeted them heartily and begged them to stay all night, sending secretly for Hrut, whose counsel he always asked when any matter of importance was talked over.
‘Do you know what they want?’ said Hrut next morning, when his brother met him on the road.
‘No,’ replied Hauskuld, ‘they have not spoken to me of any business.’
‘Then I will tell you,’ answered Hrut. ‘They have come to ask Hallgerda in marriage.’
‘And what shall I do?’ said Hauskuld.
‘Tell them you would like the match,’ replied Hrut, ‘but hide nothing. Let them know all there is of good and evil concerning her.’
They reached the house as he spoke, and the guests came out, and Thorarin opened his business by entreating Hauskuld to give his daughter Hallgerda to Glum his brother. ‘You know,’ he added, ‘that he is rich and strong, and thought well of by all men.’
‘Yes, I know that,’ answered Hauskuld; ‘but once before I chose a husband for my daughter, and matters turned out ill for all of us.’
‘That will be no hindrance,’ replied Thorarin, ‘for the lot of one man is not the lot of all men. And things might have fared better had it not been for the meddling of Thiostolf.’
‘You speak truth,’ said Hrut, who had listened to their talk in silence; ‘and the marriage may yet turn out well if you will do as I tell you. See that you suffer not Thiostolf to ride with her to Glum’s house, and that he never sleeps in the house for more than three nights running, without Glum’s leave, on pain of outlawry and death by Glum himself. And if Glum will hearken to my counsel, leave to stay he will never give. But it is time to let Hallgerda know of the matter, and she shall say whether Glum is to her mind.’
And Thorarin agreed, and Hauskuld sent to summon his daughter.
Now, though nothing had been said to Hallgerda as to the business which brought all these men to her father’s house, perhaps she may have guessed something, for when she appeared she was attended by her two women, and clad in her festal garments. She wore a dress of scarlet, girdled by a silver belt, and over it a mantle of soft dark blue, while her thick yellow hair was unbound, and fell almost to her knees. She smiled and spoke kindly to the visitors, then sat herself down between her father and uncle. After that Glum spoke.
‘Your father and Thorarin my brother have had talk about a marriage betwixt you and me, Hallgerda. Is it your will, as it is theirs? Tell me all that is in your heart. For, if you like me not, I will straightway ride back again.’
‘The match is to my liking,’ answered Hallgerda, ‘and better suited to my condition than what my father made for me before. And you are to my liking also, if our tempers do not fall out.’
‘Let Hallgerda betroth herself,’ said Hrut, when they had told her what terms had been arranged, and that Glum should bring goods or money to an equal value to Hallgerda’s, and that they two should divide the whole.
After that the betrothal ceremony took place, and Glum went away, and returned no more till his wedding.
There was a great company in Hauskuld’s hall to witness Hallgerda’s marriage, and when the feast began Thiostolf might have been seen stalking about holding his axe aloft; but, as the guests pretended not to know he was there, no harm came of it.
For some time Glum and his wife lived happily together, though Hallgerda proved herself the same greedy yet wasteful woman she had been before. At the end of a year a daughter was born to her, whom she named Thorgerda, and the child grew up to be as beautiful as her mother. But by-and-by trouble came to them through Thiostolf, who had been driven away by Hauskuld for beating one of his thralls. Thiostolf vowed vengeance in his heart, and rode south to Glum’s house.
Hallgerda was pleased to see him, but when she heard his tale she said she could not give him shelter without the consent of Glum. So when her husband came in she ran quickly to greet him, and, putting her arms round his neck, she asked if he would agree to something she wished very much.
‘If it is anything I can do in honour,’ answered Glum, ‘do it I will of a surety.’
Then she told him how her father had cast out Thiostolf, and that he had come to her for shelter, and she wished him to remain, if it was Glum’s will. And Glum answered that, if she wished it greatly, Thiostolf should remain, unless he betook himself to evil courses.
For a while Thiostolf went warily, and no fault did Glum find with him; then he fell to marring everything, as he had done in Thorwald’s time, and to no one would he listen save to Hallgerda only. In vain Thorarin warned Glum that things would have an ill ending, but Glum only smiled, and let Hallgerda have her way.
When autumn came, and the days grew short and cold, the men went to bring their flocks home from the pastures where they had been feeding all the summer. It was hard work, for the sheep often strayed far, and, besides, the flocks got mixed up, and needed to be separated one from the other. One day, when the shepherds had brought tidings that many of Glum’s sheep were missing, Glum bade Thiostolf go into the hills and see if he could find those that were lost.
But Thiostolf grew angry, and answered rudely:
‘I am not your slave, and it is not my work to bring in sheep. If you mean to go yourself, perhaps I will consent to go with you.’
At this Glum was greatly angered, and, seeking Hallgerda, he told her what had happened, adding as he did so:
‘I will not have Thiostolf here any longer.’
Then Hallgerda waxed very wrathful, and she upheld Thiostolf in his ill doing.
At last the patience of Glum gave way, and he struck her a blow in the face, and crying, ‘Words are wasted on you,’ went off to his own business. Hallgerda, who loved him much in spite of her unruly tongue, wept bitterly at the thought of what had happened, and, as evil fate would have it, Thiostolf heard her, and saw the red mark across her cheek.
‘It shall not be there again,’ he said, but Hallgerda answered:
‘It is not for you to come between Glum and me.’
When he heard this, Thiostolf only smiled and said nothing, but got ready to go with Glum and his men, to seek after the sheep. After long searchings they found many of those that were missing, and he sent some of his men one way and some another, till at length by chance he and Thiostolf were left alone. They soon came upon a flock of wild sheep, and tried to drive them down the steep side of a hill towards Glum’s house, but it was of no use, and as fast as the sheep were collected together they all scattered again. Very soon, Glum and Thiostolf grew tired and ill-tempered, and each told the other he was stupid and lazy. At length, Glum taunted Thiostolf with being a thrall, and from that blows quickly followed. Both men drew their axes, but Thiostolf struck so hard at Glum that he rolled dead upon the ground.
At the sight of Glum lying dead at his feet, Thiostolf’s wrath cooled somewhat. He stooped and covered Glum’s body with stones, and took a gold ring from his finger. After that he took the road back to Varmalek, and found Hallgerda sitting in front of the door. Her eyes fell instantly on the bloody axe, and Thiostolf saw this and said hastily:
‘Glum, your husband, is slain.’
‘Then it is by your hand,’ she answered.
‘Yes, it is,’ said Thiostolf, and added after a moment’s pause: ‘What is best to be done now?’
‘Go to Hrut, and ask him,’ replied Hallgerda, and Thiostolf went.
‘Glum is slain’ said Thiostolf to Hrut, who had come down to the door in answer to Thiostolf’s knock.
‘Who slew him?’ asked Hrut.
‘I slew him,’ answered Thiostolf.
‘Why did you come here?’ asked Hrut again.
‘Because Hallgerda sent me,’ answered Thiostolf.
‘Then Hallgerda had no part in his slaying,’ said Hrut, with a sound of relief in his voice; but as he spoke he drew his sword, which Thiostolf saw, and thrust at Hrut with his axe. Hrut, too, saw, and sprang quickly aside, knocking up as he did so the handle of the axe, so that it fell full on the ground. Turning himself swiftly, Hrut dealt Thiostolf a blow which brought him to his knees, and a stab in the heart finished the work.
After that Hrut’s house-carles laid stones on Thiostolf’s body, while he himself rode away to tell Hauskuld all that had befallen. And soon after Thorarin, Glum’s brother, came there too, with eleven men at his back. He asked Hauskuld what atonement he would make for Glum, but Hauskuld answered that it was neither he nor his daughter who had slain Glum, and that Hrut had avenged himself on Thiostolf. To this Thorarin said nothing, but Hrut offered to give him gifts, and so peace lay between them.
Now, Hrut’s wife, Unna, was of kin to two brothers, Gunnar and Kolskegg. Both were tall, brave men, but there was not Gunnar’s like in all the country round for beauty, and for skill in shooting, jumping, and swimming. And, besides this, he was beautiful and gentle, faithful to the friends he made, but not making them readily. His chief friend was Njal, from whom he ever sought counsel, for Njal was a wise man and could see far into the future.
Having a mind to see something of the world, Gunnar set sail for Norway, where he stayed some time, and had many adventures. It was early in the summer when he and Kolskegg sailed home to Iceland, where men were assembling for the great Council, or Thing.
Gunnar’s first act was to ride off to Njal’s house, and Gunnar asked if he would be present at the Thing. ‘No, truly,’ answered Njal; ‘stay you at home or bad will come of it.’
And Gunnar! What evil was likely to befall him, who wished to live at peace with everyone? But Njal only shook his head and said slowly:
‘I remain in my own house, and if I had my way you should do so also.’
But Gunnar would not listen, and rode straight off to the Thing.
What happened to him when he got there will be told in another story.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11