The Red Romance Book, by Andrew Lang

The Death of Gunnar

Now of all the men gathered together at the Thing of the year 974, no man was handsomer or more splendidly clad than Gunnar. He was arrayed in the scarlet raiment given him by King Harald, and he bore on his arm a gold ring, given him by Hacon the Earl, and the horse he rode had a shining black skin.

A brave figure he made one morning as he left the Hill of Laws and passed out beyond the tents of the men of Mossfell. And as he went there came to meet him a woman whose dress was no less rich than his. She stopped as he drew near, and told him that she was Hallgerda, Hauskuld’s daughter, and that she knew well that he was Gunnar the traveller, and she wished to hear some of the wonders of the lands beyond the seas. So he sat down, and they two talked together for long, and they agreed well, and became friends. After a while he asked her if she had a husband.

‘No,’ she replied; men feared her, for they held that she brought them ill-luck; but at that Gunnar laughed, and said, ‘What would you answer if I asked you to marry me?’

‘Are you jesting?’ said Hallgerda.

‘No, of a sooth,’ replied Gunnar.

‘Then go and see what my father has to say to it,’ answered Hallgerda, and Gunnar went.

Hauskuld was inside his booth when Gunnar arrived. Hrut was there likewise, and bade him welcome. For a while the talk ran upon the business of the Thing, and then Gunnar turned and asked what answer Hauskuld would give if he offered to lay down money for Hallgerda.

‘What do you say, Hrut?’ inquired Hauskuld.

‘It ought not to be,’ replied Hrut. ‘No man has aught but good to say of you; no man has aught but ill to say of her. And this I must not hide from you.’

‘I thank you for your plain speech,’ said Gunnar; ‘but my soul is still set on wedding Hallgerda. And we have spoken together, and are agreed in this matter.’

But though Hrut knew that his words were vain, he told Gunnar all that had happened in respect of Hallgerda and her two husbands. And Gunnar weighed it for a while, and then he said, ‘You know the saying, “Forewarned is forearmed.” Doubtless it is true, all that you have told of Hallgerda, but I am strong, and have travelled far, and if we can make a bargain, so shall it be.’

So a messenger was sent for Hallgerda, and she betrothed herself, as she had done to Glum, and after that Gunnar rode over to Njal, and told him what things had happened.

‘Evil will come of it betwixt you and me,’ said Njal sadly.

‘No woman, or man either, shall ever work ill between us,’ answered Gunnar, who loved Njal more than his own father.

‘She works ill wherever she goes,’ replied Njal, ‘and you will never cease making atonements for her;’ but he said no more, for he was a wise man and wasted no words, and when Gunnar asked him to come to the wedding feast he gave his promise that he would be there.


The winter after Gunnar’s wedding, he and Hallgerda were bidden to a great feast at Njal’s house. Njal and his wife greeted them heartily, and by-and-by Helgi, Njal’s son, came, and with him Thorhalla his wife. Then Bergthora, Njal’s wife, went up to Hallgerda, and said, ‘Give place to Thorhalla,’ but Hallgerda would not, and she fell to quarrelling with Bergthora, and at last Bergthora taunted Hallgerda with having plotted to do Thorwald her husband to death. At that Hallgerda turned and said to Gunnar: ‘It is nothing to be married to the strongest man in Iceland, if you avenge not these insults, Gunnar.’

But Gunnar cried that he would take no part in women’s quarrels, least of all in Njal’s house, and bade Hallgerda come home with him.

‘We shall meet again, Bergthora,’ said Hallgerda as she mounted the sleigh. Then they rode back to Lithend and spent the rest of the winter there.

When the spring came, Gunnar went to the Thing, bidding Hallgerda take heed, and to give no cause of offence to his friends. But she would give no promise, and he set forth with a heavy heart.

By ill-fortune, Njal and Gunnar owned a wood between them, and when Njal and his sons departed to the Thing, Bergthora, Njal’s wife, ordered Swart her servant to cut her some branches for kindling fires from this very forest. These tidings reached the ears of Hallgerda, and she muttered with a grim face, ‘It is the last time that Swart shall steal my wood,’ and bade Kol, her bailiff, start early next morning and seek Swart.

‘And when I find him?’ asked Kol; but Hallgerda only turned away angrily.

‘You, the worst of men, ask that?’ said she. ‘Why, you shall kill him, of course.’

So Kol took his axe, though he was ill at ease, for he knew that evil would come of it, and he mounted one of Gunnar’s horses and fared to the wood.

He soon saw Swart and his men piling up bundles of firewood, so he left his horse in a hollow, and crouched down behind some bushes, till he heard Swart bid the men carry the wood to Njal’s house, as he himself had more work to do. He began to look about for a tall straight young stem with which to make himself a bow, when Kol sprang out of the bushes and dealt Swart such a stroke with his axe that he fell dead without a word. After that Kol went back and told Hallgerda.

And Hallgerda spoke cheering words, and said he need have no fear, for that she would protect him; but Kol’s heart was heavy.

Now Hallgerda had forced Kol to slay Swart, to bring about a quarrel between her husband and Njal, so she straightway sent a messenger to seek Gunnar at the Thing, and tell him what had befallen Swart. Gunnar listened in silence to the messenger’s tale; then he called his men around him, and they all went to Njal’s tent, and begged him to come out and speak to Gunnar.

‘Swart, your house servant has been killed by Hallgerda and Kol her man,’ said Gunnar gravely when Njal stood before him; and he told the tale as he had heard it from the messenger.

‘It is for you, Njal, to fix the atonement,’ he said at the end.

‘You will have work to atone for all Hallgerda’s misdoings,’ answered Njal, ‘and it will take all our old friendship to keep us from quarrelling now. But I have it in mind that at the last you shall win through, but after hard fighting. As to the atonement, as you are my friend and have no hand in this, I will fix it at twelve ounces of silver. And if it should come to be your turn to settle an award, I shall not expect to pay more than that.’

So Gunnar laid down the money and gave it to Bergthora his wife when he came home with his sons from the Thing. And Bergthora was content, but said to her husband that it should not be spent, as it would some day do to make atonement for Kol.

Although Hallgerda met her husband bravely and answered him boldly, in secret she trembled a little at his stern face and sharp words, as he told her that she was to remember that whatever quarrels she might choose to begin, the ending of them would always lie with him. But she pretended not to care, and went out among her neighbours as usual, telling all who would listen the tale of the killing of Swart. At length this reached the ears of Bergthora, and she was sore angered, but bided her time in silence.

When Njal and his sons went up to the pastures to see after the cattle, and the thralls were busy working in the fields, Bergthora the mistress was left alone in the house. On this day a man mounted on a black horse and armed with a spear and a short sword rode up to the door and asked her if she could find something for him to do. He was skilled in many things, he said, but his temper was hot, and had oftentimes been his bane.

‘I will give you work,’ answered Bergthora, ‘but you must do whatever I bid you, even though it should be to slay a man.’

‘You have plenty of other men whom you can better trust on such business,’ replied the man, as if he repented of his bargain; but Bergthora only told him that she expected her servants to do as they were bid, and sent the man to put his horse in the stable.

During that summer another Thing was held and Njal and his sons went to it, and likewise Gunnar. But Bergthora was left alone in the house with her servants.

Then she called Atli, the new man, and bade him seek out Kol, that he might slay him, so Atli took his horse and his sword and spear and departed.

He found Kol in the place where some men had shown him, and he spoke to Kol civilly, but only received rude tones in answer. So, without more ado, Atli thrust at him, and Kol, though wounded, swung his axe above his head; but his eyes had grown dim, and he could not see to aim, and he fell to the ground and rolled over.

Atli left the body where it was, and rode on till he came to some of Gunnar’s men, and bade them go and tell Hallgerda that Kol was dead.

‘Did you kill him?’ asked the man.

‘Well, I don’t expect Hallgerda will think that he dealt his own death-blow,’ answered Atli; and with that he rode back to Bergthora, who praised him for the swiftness with which he had done her bidding. But Atli did not seem content, and at last he said:

‘What will Njal think?’

‘Oh, never fear him,’ replied Bergthora, ‘for he took with him the money of the atonement for the slaying of Swart, and now he can pay it over for Kol. But in spite of the atonement, beware of Hallgerda, who knows nought of promises.’

When Hallgerda heard of Kol’s slaying, she bade a messenger ride to Gunnar at the Thing, and Gunnar sent to seek out Njal and Skarphedinn his son. They came to his tent, and he greeted them, and then Njal said that Bergthora his wife had done great wrong in breaking the atonement, and that Gunnar must now fix the award for Kol.

‘Let it be the same as that which I paid for Swart,’ said Gunnar; and Njal laid down the money and they parted, and no ill blood was between them, though their wives were still resolved to do each other all the ill they could.

Njal was too wise a man not to know that Hallgerda would seek revenge on Atli for the slaying of Kol, and he begged Atli would take service far away to the east, so that Hallgerda might not reach him. But Atli told Njal that he would sooner be slain in his service than live free in the service of another master, and he would gladly stay where he was if Njal would grant him the atonement due to a free man.

This Njal granted, and Atli remained in his house.

Hallgerda soon came to know what had happened, and she sent messengers both to Bergthora and to Gunnar at the Thing to tell them about it.


‘Hallgerda my wife has caused Atli to be slain!’ said Gunnar to Njal and to Skarphedinn his son. ‘What atonement must I make for him?’

‘The atonement will be heavy, for he was no thrall, but a freeman, and I fear it may cause strife between us,’ replied Njal; but Gunnar stretched out his hand and said that no woman should sow strife betwixt him and Njal. Then Njal fixed a hundred ounces of silver, and Gunnar laid it down before him.

‘Hallgerda does not let our servants die of old age,’ said Skarphedinn, as they rode home from the Thing.


Now the words came true, that Gunnar had spoken, and ‘blow for blow’ grew to be the rule between Hallgerda and Bergthora; but for all that there was no quarrel between Njal and Gunnar.

So the years went by, and many Things had been held, and much blood-money had been paid, when one spring there was a great dearth of hay throughout all Iceland, and much cattle died. Gunnar, who was wise as well as rich, had seen what was coming and had laid up stores of both dried meat and of hay. As long as they lasted, he shared them with his neighbours, but when his barns were empty he called Kolskegg his brother and two of his friends, and they all fared to Kirkby, where dwelt Otkell the son of Skarf.

This Otkell owned many flocks and herds and wide pastures, and Gunnar hoped that his barns might yet be full.

‘I have come to buy meat and hay, if there is any in your storehouses, for mine are empty!’ said Gunnar.

‘I have yet many storehouses untouched,’ answered Otkell, ‘but I will sell you nothing.

‘Will you give me them, then?’ asked Gunnar, ‘and I will pay you back some time in what you will.’

‘I will neither give nor sell,’ said Otkell.

‘Let us take what we want and leave the money,’ said Thrain, who had come with Gunnar, but Gunnar answered: ‘I am no robber!’ and was turning to go when Otkell stopped him.

‘Will you buy a thrall from me? He is a good thrall,’ said Otkell, ‘but I have no need of him.’

And Gunnar bought the thrall, and they all went home to Lithend together.

When Njal heard that Otkell would not sell to Gunnar, he was very wroth and rode up into the hills with all his sons, and took meat from his storehouses and bound it upon five horses, and hay from his barns and bound it upon ten horses, and they drove them all to Lithend, which was Gunnar’s house.

‘Never ask another man for aught when you can ask me,’ said Njal, and Gunnar answered:

‘Your gifts are great, but truly your love is greater.’

In a few weeks the summer began, and, as was his custom, Gunnar rode to the Thing, leaving Hallgerda in the house at Lithend.

The day after he had ridden away with his men Hallgerda sent for Malcolm the thrall, and said to him:

‘I have somewhat for you to do! Take with you two horses besides the one you ride, and go to Kirkby and steal meat enough to load the two horses, and butter and cheese as well. But take heed, when all is done, to set the storehouses on fire, so that none can trace that the goods have vanished.’

Malcolm the thrall lifted his head and looked at her.

‘I have never been a thief, in spite of all my ill-deeds,’ said he.

But Hallgerda only laughed and made sport of him.

‘Do you think men have kept silent about your misdeeds?’ she asked. ‘Hie hence when I bid you, or you shall not see the new moon rise!’

And Malcolm the thrall knew that she spoke no jesting words, and he did her bidding; and none would have known of the thing had he not dropped his knife when he was trying to mend the thong of his shoe, and his belt also.

A few days after that Gunnar and his men returned home, and many guests with him. The table was set by Hallgerda herself, and besides meat there were also great cheeses and jars of butter. Well Gunnar knew that Njal had not sent these, and he asked Hallgerda whence they came.

‘It beseems a man to eat what is before him and not to trouble himself further,’ answered Hallgerda; but Gunnar cried out:

‘I will have no part in food that is ill come by,’ and with that he gave her a buffet on the cheek.

‘I shall remember that,’ said Hallgerda, and she got up and went out.


The next morning, Skamkell, Otkell’s friend, was riding to bring in some sheep, when he saw something bright on the side of the path. He got off his horse to see what it was, and found the belt and knife which Malcolm had dropped, and he took them straight to Kirkby.

‘Did you ever see these things before?’ asked Skamkell.

‘Yes, often,’ answered Otkell; ‘they are the knife and belt of Malcolm the thrall. And they asked many men the same question, and they all knew them likewise. Then they went toward Mord the son of Valgard and took counsel with him, how to charge Gunnar’s thrall with the theft and the burning; for they feared Gunnar, the mighty man of war. At last, for three silver marks Mord agreed to give them his help, and bade them follow out his plan.

It was this. That they should send women over the country with goods of housekeeping use, and mark what was given them in exchange. ‘Take heed that you note carefully,’ said Mord, ‘because no man will keep in his house the things that he has stolen, if he has a chance of getting rid of them. Set therefore apart whatever you get from each house, and bring it to me.’

And it was done exactly as Mord commanded, and in fourteen days the women came back, all bearing large bundles.

‘Who gave you the most?’ asked Mord, and one woman answered:

‘Hallgerda, the wife of Gunnar; she gave us a cheese cut into great slices.’

‘I will keep that cheese,’ said Mord.

When the women had gone, Mord rode away to Otkell’s farm, and bade him fetch the cheese-mould of Thorgerda his wife. And when it was brought, Mord took the slices and laid them in it, and they filled up the mould.

After this they all saw that Hallgerda had stolen the cheese, and, now that Mord had found the thief, he went back to his own house.

The tidings soon spread far and wide, and reached the ears of Kolskegg, who rode over to Lithend, so that he might speak with Gunnar.

‘Know you that it is said by every man that it was Hallgerda who caused the fire at Kirkby, that she might steal the cheese and butter?’ asked he.

‘I have thought before that it must be so, but how can I set it right?’ answered Gunnar.

‘You must make atonement to Otkell, and it is better there should be no delay,’ replied Kolskegg.

‘I will do your bidding,’ said Gunnar; and, mounting his horse, he took eleven with him, beside Thrain and Lambi his friends, and they all fared to Kirkby. There, Otkell came out to greet them, and with him were Skamkell and two other men, Hallkell and Hallbjorm.

‘I am here,’ said Gunnar, ‘to offer atonement for the misdeed of my wife and the thrall you sold me, for it was they who caused the fire and stole the cheeses. And, if it pleases you, let the award be fixed by the best of the men round!’

‘That sounds fairer than it is, Gunnar,’ put in Skamkell, ‘for you are a man of many things, whereas Otkell has few.’

‘Well,’ said Gunnar, ‘then I will offer atonement of twice the value of all that Otkell lost;’ but again it was Skamkell and not Otkell who replied:

‘Beware, Otkell, of giving him the right of making the award when it belongs to you.’

And Otkell answered: ‘I will fix the award myself, Gunnar.’

‘Then fix it,’ said Gunnar, who was waxing wroth at this delay; but once more Otkell turned to Skamkell, and asked what he should answer.

‘Let the award be made by Gizur the white and Geir the priest,’ and this saying pleased Otkell.

‘Do you as you will,’ replied Gunnar, ‘but do not think that men will speak well of your refusing the choices that I gave you.’

And after that he rode home with his men.

Then Hallbjorm spoke to Otkell, saying: ‘Ill was it to refuse the offers of Gunnar, which were good offers, as you know well. Can it be that you think yourself a match for Gunnar in fight, when he has proved himself better than any man in the island? But go and see Gizur the white and Geir the priest at once, and see if the offers of Gunnar do not seem good to them! For he is a just and gentle-hearted man, and perchance he will still hearken to you, if you accept them.’

So Otkell, who ever listened to the last speaker, bade, them bring out his horse and set forth, Skamkell walking by his side. In a little while, when they had gone a mile or two, Skamkell said: ‘You have much to look to at Kirkby, and no one but yourself can see after the men. Get home, therefore, and let me ride to Gizur the white and Geir the priest instead of you.

‘Go, then,’ answered Otkell, who was lazy and never took the trouble to think for himself; ‘but see you do not tell them lies, as you are wont to do.’

‘I will lie no more than I can help, master,’ answered Skamkell, jumping on Otkell’s horse.

Otkell fared home and found Hallbjorm in front of the house.

‘Has anything befallen you that you have returned on foot?’ asked he; and Otkell, who feared him, said hurriedly:

‘I had many men to look over, and much work to do, so I sent Skamkell in my stead,’ But Hallbjorm held his peace and eyed him scornfully.

‘He who makes a thrall his friend rues it ever more,’ he answered at last. ‘And it is ill done when men’s lives are at stake to send the biggest liar in Iceland on such an errand.’

‘If you are afraid now, what would you be if Gunnar’s bill were singing,’ asked Otkell, who was always brave when there were none to slay, and whose courage always waxed great when there were none to fight.

Hallbjorm laughed as he heard him.

‘Who can tell who will fear most at the sound of that singing? But this you know well, that when the fight has begun Gunnar does not give his bill much time to sing!’

Now when Skamkell reached Mossfell, he told truly to Gizur the white the offers Gunnar had made.

‘Why did not Otkell accept them?’ asked Gizur, ‘they were generous and noble, as Gunnar’s offers are.’

‘Otkell wished to do you honour,’ replied Skamkell; but Gizur for all answer bade Geir the priest be sent for, and next morning, as soon as he arrived, Gizur told him the story, and after he had finished he said:

‘Let Skamkell tell it again, for I misdoubt him greatly.’

So Skamkell was called in, but he was wary, and he told his tale the second time as he had done the first, and though Gizur still misdoubted him he could find no fault.

‘Mayhap you speak the truth,’ he said; ‘but I know the wickedness of your deeds, and if you die in your bed your face belies you.’

And after a little more talking Skamkell rode home to Kirkby.

‘Gizur and Geir greet you,’ said Skamkell, ‘and they wish that this matter should have a peaceful ending. They will that Gunnar shall be summoned as having received and eaten the goods, likewise Hallgerda for stealing them!’

So Otkell followed this counsel, and five days before the opening of the Althing he rode with his brother and Skamkell and a great following to Lithend.

When Gunnar heard what errand they were on, he was very wroth, and after Otkell had read the summons, and departed with his men, he went away to seek Njal.

But Njal told him not to trouble, as before the Thing was over he should be held in greater honour than before.

Gizur the white rode to the Thing also, and he spoke to Otkell, and asked why he had summoned Gunnar to the Thing. Otkell listened in amaze and then answered that he had done so because of the counsel that Gizur himself and Geir the priest had told Skamkell.

‘He lied, then,’ replied Gizur; ‘we gave no such counsel;’ and Gunnar and his friends were called, and Gizur stood forth and bade Gunnar make his own award. At first Gunnar refused, but at length, after Gizur and Geir the priest swore that what Skamkell had said was false, he agreed to do it. And his award was this: that atonement in full should be made for the burnt storehouses and for the stolen food. ‘But for the thrall,’ said Gunnar, ‘I will give nothing, for you knew what he was when you sold him to me. Therefore I will restore him to you. On the other hand, the ill-words which you have spoken of me, and the way in which you sought to put me to shame, I count to be worth full as great an atonement as the burning of a few sheds, of the stealing of a few cheeses. So that for money we stand equal. One thing more I would say, Beware lest you seek again to do me evil.’

So spake Gunnar, and no man said him nay. But after a little Gizur asked that Gunnar might forgive the wrongs Otkell had done him, and hold him his friend. At this Gunnar laughed out in scorn and answered:

‘Let Skamkell be his friend. It is to him Otkell looks for counsel. They are fitting mates. But one piece of counsel I will give him, and that is to take shelter with his kinsfolk, for if he stays in this country his end will be speedy.’

For a while Gunnar rested in peace at home and there was no more quarrelling. He gathered in his harvest and tended his cattle, ploughed his fields, and so the autumn and winter passed away and the spring came.

One day when the sun was shining Gunnar took his small axe, and a bag of corn, and set out to sow seed. And while he was stooping to do this, Otkell galloped past, on a wild horse that carried him faster than he would, and he did not see Gunnar. As ill-chance would have it, Gunnar raised himself at that moment from stooping over the furrow, and Otkell’s spur tore his ear, and he was very wroth.

‘You summon me first, and then you ride over me,’ he said, and, as was his wont, Skamkell made answer:

A man about to throw a stone at another man riding away on horseback

‘The wound might have been far sorer, but your anger was greater at the Thing, when you judged the atonement and clenched your bill in your fist.’

‘When we next meet my bill shall have something to say to you,’ said Gunnar, and went on sowing his corn.

The corn was all sown, and Gunnar was beginning to think of other work, when one morning his shepherd came riding fast.

‘I passed eight men in Markfleet,’ said he; ‘their faces were set this way, and Skamkell was with them. He ever speaks ill of you, and I have heard him tell how you shed tears when Otkell rode over you.’

‘It does not do to mind words,’ answered Gunnar; ‘but for the warning you have given me you shall henceforth do the work that pleases you. Now go to sleep.’

So the shepherd slept, and Gunnar took the saddle off his horse, and laid his own saddle on it; he fetched his shield, and buckled on his sword, and then he took his bill, and as his hand touched it it sang loudly. Rannveig his mother heard the sound, and came out from the door to the place where Gunnar was fastening on his helmet.

‘Never have I seen you so full of wrath,’ said she. But Gunnar answered her nothing and rode quickly away.

Rannveig went back to the sitting-room, where many men were talking, and, looking at them, she said:

‘Loud is your talk, but the bill sang louder when Gunnar rode away.’

When Kolskegg heard that, he saddled his horse and hasted after Gunnar.


Gunnar’s horse was swift and steady, and he never drew rein till he reached the ford which he knew Otkell’s men must pass. There he tied up his horse, and awaited them on foot. When Otkell’s men came up, they, too, sprang to the ground, and Hallbjorm strode towards Gunnar.

‘Keep back,’ said Gunnar, ‘I have no quarrel with brave men like you,’ but Hallbjorm answered:

‘I cannot for shame stand by while you kill my brother;’ and he smote with his spear at Gunnar. While they were fighting, Skamkell struck at Gunnar’s back with his axe, but Gunnar turned round, and, with his bill caught the axe from beneath, so that it fell out of Skamkell’s hands. A second thrust with the bill stretched Skamkell on the ground, and after him Otkell and three others. They slew eight men in all, Kolskegg aiding.

After that they rode home, and as they went Gunnar said: ‘I wonder if I am less base than others because I kill men less willingly than they.’


The first thing Gunnar did was to seek counsel of Njal, who bid him take care never to break the peace which was made between him and his foes, and never to slay more than one man of the same race, ‘else your life will be but short.’

‘Do you know the death you yourself will die?’ he asked.

‘Yes, I know it,’ answered Njal.

‘And what is it?’ asked Gunnar once more.

‘One that none could guess,’ replied Njal, and Gunnar went away.

Now at the next Thing there was great dispute over this suit, but in the end it was settled to Gunnar’s honour, and Gizur the white and Geir the priest gave pledges that they would keep the peace. But there were other men who thought they had been wronged by Gunnar, and laid plots to anger him, so that he might be outlawed and forced to leave the country.

By ill-fortune the words which Njal had spoken when he bade Gunnar never to slay more than one man of the same race were noised abroad, and his enemies made a plan by which Gunnar should be forced to fight Thorgeir, son of Otkell, so that his doom might come upon him.

A man about to stab another man on the ground with a spear. Other men fighting in the background
How Gunnar slew Thorgeir, Otkell’s son.

Thus matters stood for a while, and then Gunnar rode down to the isles to see what his thralls were doing, and his foes heard of it, and resolved to lie in wait for him at the Rang river.

But when Gunnar returned he was not alone, as they expected he would be, for Kolskegg his brother was at his side, and carried the short sword which some of them knew well, while Gunnar was armed with his sword and his bill.

The two were yet far from the Rang river when the bill which Gunnar bore in his hand sweated with blood, and Kolskegg, who had not yet seen this sight, grew cold with terror.

‘This has some dreadful meaning,’ said he; and Gunnar nodded.

‘It only happens before a great fight,’ he answered, ‘and they are called “wound drops” in other lands. So beware. Let us not be taken unawares;’ and they looked well about them, till they saw some men lying hidden on the banks on the other side of the ford.

Long it were to tell of that fierce fight, and of the men that were slain by Kolskegg and Gunnar. At last Thorgeir, Otkell’s son, forced his way to the front and swung his sword at Gunnar. The blow would have been deadly had it fallen, but, leaping aside, he thrust his bill through Thorgeir’s body, and flung him far into the river.

At that the other men turned and fled away.

‘Our money-chests will be emptied for atonement for these men,’ said Gunnar as they drew near Lithend, and when they told their mother, Rannveig shook her head.

‘I fear lest ill should come of it,’ said she.

And ill did come of it.

Njal’s heart was sore when Gunnar told him of the fight by the Rang river, for he said:

‘You have gone against my counsel, and have slain two men of the same race. So take heed, if you break the award, your life will pay forfeit. But whatever befalls I am always your friend.’

Soon the Thing was held, and upon the Hill of Laws Gizur the white summoned Gunnar, for manslaughter of Thorgeir, Otkell’s son, and demanded that his goods should be forfeited and his body outlawed, and that no man should help or harbour him.

After this there was much talking, but at last the award was given by twelve men.

And this was it.

Money was to be paid down for the men slain, and Gunnar and Kolskegg were to depart from Iceland and not return for three winters. But if Gunnar should break the settlement and stay at home, any man might slay him as he would.

Gunnar promised to keep the award, but he did not hold it a just one.

Then Kolskegg began to inquire of the vessels that were sailing that summer, and he settled that he would go on board the ship of Armfin of the Bay, and Gunnar his brother would go with him.

They sent down to the shore those things that they might need in foreign lands, and then Gunnar bade farewell to Njal and his men, and thanked his friends for the help they had given him.

At the last he took leave of the thralls at Lithend, and of his mother, and told them that, since his own country had outlawed him, he would never return to it. Then he threw his arms round every man, and without looking back sprang into the saddle.

As they rode along the Mark fleet, his horse stumbled, and Gunnar fell to the ground. When he got up he did not mount at once, but stood and looked round him for a while. Suddenly he turned and said to Kolskegg: ‘Never has my home seemed to me so fair as now when the corn is ripe and ready for cutting. Come what may, I will not leave it.’

‘Do not let your foes triumph over you,’ answered Kolskegg. ‘For if you should break your atonement, any man may deal with you as he will.’

‘I will go no whither,’ repeated Gunnar, ‘and I would that you would stay with me.

‘I cannot do this thing,’ answered Kolskegg; ‘but if you go back, tell my mother and my kindred that I bid them farewell for ever, for you will soon be dead, and I shall have naught to bind me to Iceland.’

Hallgerda’s heart was filled with joy when Gunnar came under the doorway, but Rannveig said nothing, for her heart was sad.

All that winter Gunnar sat fast at Lithend and would not be prevailed on to leave it, and when the winter had gone and the Thing had met, Gizur the white proclaimed Gunnar an outlaw for having broken his atonement. Then he called together all his foes, and they planned together how that they should ride to Lithend and slay him. But Njal heard what they had been saying, and he warned Gunnar.

‘You have always dealt truly and kindly with me,’ said Gunnar, when Njal had finished speaking, ‘and if ill befall me, take heed, I pray you, of my son and Hogni. As for Grani, he has an evil nature, and there is no turning him from bad deeds.’

It was in the autumn that Mord, the son of Valgard, sent word to Gunnar’s foes that the time had come to make the attack upon Lithend, as all his men had gone to the haymaking on the isles of the sea. So they set forth secretly, but stopped first at the farm nearest to Lithend, where they seized the farmer, and warned him that unless he came with them and put to death the hound Sam which had guarded Gunnar ever since Olaf the Peacock had bestowed him as a gift, his own life should be forfeit. Thorkell the farmer was sore at heart when he heard what was required of him, but he took his axe and went with the rest. It was easy to entice Sam the hound into a hollow dell; but when he saw the crowd of men behind Thorkell he knew that evil was afoot, and sprang on Thorkell and tore open his throat. Then Aumond of Witchwood smote him on the head with his axe, and Sam gave a howl which was not the utterance of any mortal dog, and rolled over.

A woman standing on a table, looking up at the man carrying weapons on the beam abover her

Gunnar, who was sleeping in the narrow space above his great wooden hall, heard the awful sound, and said to himself: ‘So they have killed thee, Sam, my fosterling. Well, I will follow thee soon;’ and, taking his bill in his hand, he went up into the roof of the hall, where among the beams were little slits for windows. In the winter there were shutters fastened over these little slits, but now they were left open.

From the beam on which he was crouching Gunnar saw a red tunic slipping by the window, and he thrust swiftly out his bill. In a moment a man’s body fell upon the ground below.

‘Well, is Gunnar at home?’ said Gizur, and Thorgrim the Easterling answered: ‘Go and see for yourselves; but if Gunnar is not at home, his bill is,’ and those were his last words, for the thrust had been mortal.

It hardly seemed possible that one man could keep such a force at bay, but wherever they went Gunnar’s arrows followed them. Three times they came on, and three times they fell back, and Gunnar’s heart beat high, for he thought that perchance their courage might fail, and that they would return whither they had come.

‘One of their own arrows sticks outside the window,’ he said, laughing loud in his glee; ‘I will send it to kill its master.’ But his mother answered: ‘It is ill to waken a sleeping dog, my son.’

Her words were wise, but Gunnar would not listen to them. He shot the arrow into the midst of the men gathered beneath him, and knew not that it had dealt a death-blow, or that Gizur the white had been watching its course.

‘The arm that drew in that shaft had a ring on it — a gold ring such as Gunnar wears,’ said he, ‘and if they had not shot away their own arrows they would not be needing ours;’ and with that he urged them to make a fresh attack.

‘Let us set the house on fire,’ said Mord, but Gizur answered him hotly, and bade him find out some other plan.

Now Mord was a man of many thoughts, and great skill in planning, so he looked about him to see if there was aught else he could do. Lying near were some ropes, and as soon as he saw them he cried out, ‘If we can twist one end of the ropes round the beams, and the other round this rock, we can twist them tight, and pull the roof off the hall.’

And this was done; and when the roof fell down they beheld Gunnar standing on the beam, shooting arrows at his enemies.

At this Mord cried once more that the house should be burned, but the rest called shame on him, and then Thorbrand crept up on one side and cut Gunnar’s bowstring with his axe. But before he could reach the ground again Gunnar had seized his bill, and driven it through his body.

Then, without looking round, Gunnar said swiftly to Hallgerda his wife: ‘Let you and my mother cut off two locks of hair from your heads, and twist them into my bowstring, so that I may shoot at them once more.’

‘Does aught depend on it?’ she asked. ‘My life,’ he said; and Hallgerda made answer: ‘Do you remember that time when you struck me in the face?’ said she; ‘well, now you shall die for it.’


For many a day men sang of the fight which Gunnar made for his life and the numbers that he slew before he himself was struck down and slain.

‘We have laid low a great chief,’ said Gizur, ‘and many hearts will be sore because of his slaying. But, though his body is dead, his name shall live for ever.’


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57