The Northern Way

The Story of the Ere-Dwellers

(The Eyrbyggja Saga)

Chapter 18

Men Will Ransack At Mewlithe: Thorarin Falls To Fight.

That summer died Thorgrim Kiallakson, whereon Vermund the Slender, his son, took the homestead at Bearhaven; he was a wise man, and marvellous wholesome of redes. Stir also had by then dwelt for some time at Lava, up from Bearhaven; he was a wise man and a hardy. He had to wife Thorbiorg, daughter of Thorstein Windy-Nose. Thorstein and Hall were their sons; Asdis was the name of their daughter, a manly-souled woman, and somewhat high-minded. Stir was a masterful man in the countryside, and had a many folk about him; he was held guilty at many men's hands, for that he wrought many slayings and booted none.

That summer came out a ship to the Salteremouth: half of it was owned by Northmen, and their skipper was called Biorn; he went to dwell at Ere with Steinthor. The other half was owned by South- islanders, and Alfgeir was their skipper; he went to dwell at Mewlithe with Thorarin the Swart, and with him a fellow of his who was called Nail, a big man, and swift of foot; he was Scotch of kin.

Now Thorarin had a good fighting horse up in the fells; and Thorbiorn the Thick withal had many stud horses together, which he kept on the fell-pastures, and he was wont to choose out of them in autumn horses for slaughter. But in the autumn it befell that Thorbiorn's horses were not to be found, though they were searched for far and wide: and that autumn the weather was somewhat hard.

In the beginning of winter Thorbiorn sent Odd Katlason south over the heath to a stead called Under-the-Lava, where there dwelt a man called Cunning-Gils, a foreseeing man, and a great man for spying after thefts and such like other matters as he was wistful to pry into. Odd asked whether it was outland men or out-parish men or neighbours who had stolen Thorbiorn's horses.

Cunning-Gils, answered: "Say thou to Thorbiorn even as I say, that I deem that those horses will not have gone far away from their pastures; but risky it is to tell of men's names, and it is better to lose one's own than that great troubles should arise therefrom."

Now when Odd came to Frodis-water, Thorbiorn deemed that Cunning- Gils had made a thrust at the Mewlithers in that matter. Odd said too that he had said as much as that they were the likeliest for the horse-stealing who were themselves penniless, and yet had lately got them increase of servants more than was their wont. In these words Thorbiorn thought that the Mewlithers were clearly meant.

After that rode Thorbiorn from home with eleven men. Hallstein, his son, was in that journey, but Ketil the Champion, another son of his, was then abroad; there was Thorir, the son of Ern of Ernknoll, a neighbour of Thorbiorn's and the briskest of men; Odd Katlason, too, was in this journey; but when they came to Holt to Katla, she did on Odd her son an earth-brown kirtle, which she had then newly made.

Thereafter they fared to Mewlithe, and there stood Thorarin and the home men out in the door when they saw the men coming.

Then they greeted Thorbiorn and asked for tidings. Thorbiorn said: "This is our errand here, Thorarin," says he, "that we are seeking after the horses which were stolen from me in the autumn; therefore we claim to ransack thine house."

Thorarin answered: "Is this ransacking taken up according to law; or have ye called any lawful law-seers (1) to search into this case; or will ye handsel truce to us in this ransacking; or have ye sought further otherwhere for the doing of this ransacking?"

Thorbiorn answered: "We deem not that any ransacking need be pushed further."

Thorarin answered: "Then will we flatly refuse this ransacking, if ye begin and carry on the search lawlessly."

Said Thorbiorn: "Then shall we take that for sooth, that thou wilt be found proven guilty, if thou wilt not have the matter thrust off thee by the ransacking."

"Ye may do as ye please," said Thorarin.

Thereafter Thorbiorn made a door-doom, (2) and named six men for that doom; and then Thorbiorn gave forth the case at Thorarin's hands for the horse-stealing.

Then came Geirrid out to the door, and saw what betid, and said: "Overtrue is that which men say, Thorarin, that thou hast more of the mind of a woman than a man, when thou bearest from Thorbiorn the Thick all shame soever; nor wot I why I have such a son."

Then said Alfgeir the Skipper, "We will give thee aid in whatsoever thou wilt bestir thyself."

Thorarin answered:" No longer will I stand here;" and therewith Thorarin and his folk ran out and would break up the court. They were seven in all, and therewithal both sides rushed into the fight. Thorarin slew a house-carle of Thorbiorn's, and Alfgeir another, and there fell also a housecarle of Thorarin's; but no weapons would bite on Odd Katlason. ,

Now the goodwife Aud calls out on her women to part them, and they cast clothes over the weapons.

Thereafter Thorarin and his men went in, but Thorbiorn rode off with his folk, and they put off the case to the Thorsness Thing. They rode up along the Creeks, and bound up their wounds under a stackyard that is called Combe-Garth.

But in the home-field at Mewlithe men found a hand whereas they had fought, and it was shown to Thorarin; he saw that it was a woman's hand, and asked where Aud was; it was told him that she lay in bed. Then he went to her, and asked whether she were wounded; she bade him pay no heed to that, but he was ware withal that her hand had been hewn off. Then he called to his mother, and bade her bind up the wound.

Then Thorarin rushed out with his fellows and ran after those of Thorbiorn, and when they were but a little from the garth they heard the babble of Thorbiorn and his folk; and Hallstein took up the word and said:

"Thorarin has thrust off from him the reproach of cowardice to-day."

"Boldly he fought," said Thorbiorn; "yet many become brave when brought to bay, but natheless are not over-brave between whiles."

Then said Odd: "Thorarin must needs be the bravest of men, but luckless will it be deemed that he so wrought as to cut off his wife's hand."

"Is that sure?" said Thorbiorn.

"Sure as day," says Odd. With that they jumped up, and made great shouting and laughter thereover.

In that very nick of time came up Thorarin and his folk, and Nail was the foremost; but when he saw them threaten with their weapons, he blenched and ran forth and up into the fell, and there became one witless with fear. (3) But Thorarin rushed at Thorbiorn and smote his sword into his head, and clave it down to the jaw-teeth. Then Thorir Ernson with two others set on Thorarin, and Hallstein and another on Alfgeir. Odd Katlason with another man gat on to a fellow of Alfgeir's, and three of Thorbiorn's fellows on two of Thorarin's folk; and the fight was joined both fierce and fell. But so their dealings ended, that Thorarin cut the leg from Thorir at the thickest of the calf, and slew both his fellows. Hallstein fell before Alfgeir wounded to death; but when Thorarin was free, Odd Katlason fled with two men; he was not wounded, because no weapon might bite on his kirtle; all their other fellows lay on the field; and there too were slain two housecarles of Thorarin.

Then Thorarin and his men took the horses of Thorbiorn and his folk and rode home; and then they saw where Nail was running along the upper hill-side. And when they came to the home-field, they see that Nail had passed by the garth and made inward towards Buland's-head. There he found two thralls of Thorarin, who were driving their sheep from the Head; he told them of the meeting, and what odds in number of men there was; he said he knew for sure that Thorarin and his men were slain; and therewithal they see how men ride away from the homestead over the field.

Then Thorarin and his folk took to galopping in order to help Nail, that he might not run into the sea or over the cliffs; but he and those others, when they saw men riding eagerly, deemed that there must Thorbiorn be going. Then they all betook themselves to running afresh up on to the Head, till they came to that place which is now called Thrall-scree, and there Thorarin and his folk got Nail taken, because he had well-nigh broken his wind, but the thralls leapt over from the Head and were lost, as was like to be, because the Head is so high, that whatsoever leaps thereover must perish.

Thereafter Thorarin and his men rode home, and there was Geirrid in the door, and she asked how they had fared; but Thorarin sang this stave:

"The word of a woman wherewith I was wited Have I warded away now where war dared the warrior, He who slayeth the fire-flaught flaming in fight: (The share of the eagle was corpse-meat new slaughtered.) No yielding forsooth did I bear about yonder, Where, amidst of the corpse-worms I met him, The praiser manly the prayer of War-god beworshipped, Not often I boast me of deeds of my doing."

Geirrid answered: "Do ye tell of the slaying of Thorbiorn?" Thorarin sang:

"The sharp-shearing sword found a place for abiding Neath the hat of the God's son, the deft of the song. There was reeking the corpse-flood around, and arising About him, the seeker of onrush of anger. Blood fell over the ears of the singer a-fighting, When the bane of the battle-tent drew near at hand, And the doom-hall of dooms whence the spoken word falleth With the red blood moreover was full in the fight."

"So then the whetting of you has gone home," said Geirrid, "but now go ye within and bind up your wounds;" and so they did.

Now must it be said of Odd Katlason that he fared away till he came to Frodis-water, and told the tidings there. Thurid the goodwife let gather men to fetch the bodies and bring the wounded home. Thorbiorn was laid in cairn, but Hallstein his son was healed, and so was Thorir of Ernknoll, and he went thereafter on a wooden leg, therefore was he called Wooden-leg ever after. He had to wife Thorgrima the Witch-face; their sons were Ern and Val, manly men.


(1) "Law-seers" (1ogsjaendr) seem here to be in a case in which they are not met with in Gragas, according to which they were called in either to decide whether a proffered medium of payment was good in law, or as eye-witnesses of a committed manslaughter. But here their business was expected to be, to decide whether Thorbiorn the Thick had a case that justified him in law to proceed to such a serious infringement of a free house-holder's right, as a domiciliary search for stolen goods involved. In fact, they are here looked upon as legal advisers, or counsel on behalf of the plaintiff. Back

(2) "Door-doom" (dura-domr) was a special institution of Norwegian law; it is not mentioned in the Gragas, nor in the sagas of Iceland proper, except here and in "Landnama" ii 9, where this very case is referred to. In the Older Gulathing's-law (Norges gamle Love, i., sect. 37), the occasion of this kind of court is stated, and its procedure minutely detailed at great length. It was called into operation for the recovery of disputed debts, to the contraction of which there had been no witnesses. It must be holden in front of the debtor's doors, "not at the back of his house," i.e. not at the "back-door", so far away from it, that the debtor should have space enough for the holding of a counter-court of his own, with room enough left between this court and the door for a waggon loaded with wood to pass easily. How a court of this description could be extended to the case here in question we are not informed. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in the statement (Chapter XV), that "Thorbiorn was over-bearing and reckless with men lesser than he." Back

(3) "And there became one witless with fear" -- varth thar at gjalti. The description of the blind fear of the thralls here, as well as that in the case of Ufeig, Arnkel's slave (Chapter XXXVII), have for their basis the old popular tales which centred round the phrase, "at vertha at gjalti", to become utterly mad with sudden fright. The word "gjalti" itself, which only occurs in this phrase, and consequently is only known in the dative governed by the prep. "at", the "i" being the dat. termination, is an Irish loan-word, meaning "mad, wild". That the old Scandinavians looked both upon the word and what it betokened as distinctly Irish is made clear by the Speculum Regale (Konungs skuggsja). In that work chapters x. and xi. are devoted to the description of Ireland. As one of the marvels of that country the author 'brings in the kind of men there who are called "gelt", and immediately turns off to explain what is meant by the phrase, "at vertha at gelti" (var. gialti). Thereof, he says, _"this is the cause, that where two armies meet, and the two ranks on either side raise an exceeding wild war-whoop,_ it may often happen to soft youths, who have not served in an army before, that they lose their wits from that awe and terror which then seizes them, so that they run away into woods from other folk, where they feed like beasts, and shun the meeting with man even as wild things do," etc. -- Konungs skuggsja (p. 27). Comparing this statement with the description of the terror that seized the young prince, Suibhne, the son of Colman Cuar, at the battle of Magh Rath, we are left no longer in doubt as to whence the tradition about those who "vertha at gjalti" originally came. "Fits of giddiness", says the Irish record, "came over him at the sight of the horrors, grimness, and rapidity of the Gaels; at the looks, brilliance, and irksomeness of the foreigners; _at the rebounding furious shouts and bellowings of the various embattled tribes on both sides, rushing against and coming into collision with one another."_ The relation between the two statements amounts almost to a literal translation on the part of the Norwegian author, as the italicized passages (*) in both statements show. Both the Norwegian record, and particularly that of Suibhne, are too long, highly interesting though they are, to be inserted here. It is enough to state that Suibhne acquired the historical sobriquet of "Geilt" = maniac, in the songs of his own country, a fragment of one of which is preserved in a MS. of St. Paul's monastery, near Unterdrauberg, in Carinthia, sign. sec. xxv d., fol. 8^2; see Windisch, Altirische texte, p. 318. An Irish romance detailing the Buile Suibhne, madness of Suibhne, is still in existence; see O'Donovan's edition of "The Battle of Magh Rath", p. 236, footnote 9. For the whole description of Suibhne's madness, which, though overlaid with adjectives _ad nauseam_, is perhaps the most acutely conceived analysis of physical terror that exists in any language, we must refer the reader to O'Donovan's above-quoted edition of "The Battle of Magh Rath", pp. 231-37. Back

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