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- Eric Brighteyes - 4/62 -
half-wits is more cunning than in the brains of most; and he shall so bepraise Gudruda's beauty that Ospakar will come hither to ask her in marriage; and in this fashion, if things go well, thou shalt be rid of thy rival, and I of one who looks scornfully upon me. But, if this fail, then there are two roads left on which strong feet may travel to their end; and of these, one is that thou shouldest win Eric away with thine own beauty, and that is not little. All men are frail, and I have a draught that will make the heart as wax; but yet the other path is surer."
"And what is that path, my mother?"
"It runs through blood to blackness. By thy side is a knife and in Gudruda's bosom beats a heart. Dead women are unmeet for love!"
Swanhild tossed her head and looked upon the dark face of Groa her mother.
"Methinks, with such an end to win, I should not fear to tread that path, if there be need, my mother."
"Now I see thou art indeed my daughter. Happiness is to the bold. To each it comes in uncertain shape. Some love power, some wealth, and some--a man. Take that which thou lovest--I say, cut thy path to it and take it; else shall thy life be but a weariness: for what does it serve to win the wealth and power when thou lovest a man alone, or the man when thou dost desire gold and the pride of place? This is wisdom: to satisfy the longing of thy youth; for age creeps on apace and beyond is darkness. Therefore, if thou seekest this man, and Gudruda blocks thy path, slay her, girl--by witchcraft or by steel--and take him, and in his arms forget that thine own are red. But first let us try the easier plan. Daughter, I too hate this proud girl, who scorns me as her father's light-of-love. I too long to see that bright head of hers dull with the dust of death, or, at the least, those proud eyes weeping tears of shame as the man she hates leads her hence as a bride. Were it not for her I should be Asmund's wife, and, when she is gone, with thy help--for he loves thee much and has cause to love thee --this I may be yet. So in this matter, if in no other, let us go hand in hand and match our wits against her innocence."
Now, Koll the Half-witted went upon his errand, and the time passed till it lacked but a month to Yule, and men sat indoors, for the season was dark and much snow fell. At length came frost, and with it a clear sky, and Gudruda, ceasing from her spinning in the hall, went to the woman's porch, and, looking out, saw that the snow was hard, and a great longing came upon her to breathe the fresh air, for there was still an hour of daylight. So she threw a cloak about her and walked forth, taking the road towards Coldback in the Marsh that is by Ran River. But Swanhild watched her till she was over the hill. Then she also took a cloak and followed on that path, for she always watched Gudruda.
Gudruda walked on for the half of an hour or so, when she became aware that the clouds gathered in the sky, and that the air was heavy with snow to come. Seeing this she turned homewards, and Swanhild hid herself to let her pass. Now flakes floated down as big and soft as fifa flowers. Quicker and more quick they came till all the plain was one white maze of mist, but through it Gudruda walked on, and after her crept Swanhild, like a shadow. And now the darkness gathered and the snow fell thick and fast, covering up the track of her footsteps and she wandered from the path, and after her wandered Swanhild, being loath to show herself. For an hour or more Gudruda wandered and then she called aloud and her voice fell heavily against the cloak of snow. At the last she grew weary and frightened, and sat down upon a shelving rock whence the snow had slipped away. Now, a little way behind was another rock and there Swanhild sat, for she wished to be unseen of Gudruda. So some time passed, and Swanhild grew heavy as though with sleep, when of a sudden a moving thing loomed upon the snowy darkness. Then Gudruda leapt to her feet and called. A man's voice answered:
"Who passes there?"
"I, Gudruda, Asmund's daughter."
The form came nearer; now Swanhild could hear the snorting of a horse, and now a man leapt from it, and that man was Eric Brighteyes.
"Is it thou indeed, Gudruda!" he said with a laugh, and his great shape showed darkly on the snow mist.
"Oh, is it thou, Eric?" she answered. "I was never more joyed to see thee; for of a truth thou dost come in a good hour. A little while and I had seen thee no more, for my eyes grow heavy with the death-sleep."
"Nay, say not so. Art lost, then? Why, so am I. I came out to seek three horses that are strayed, and was overtaken by the snow. May they dwell in Odin's stables, for they have led me to thee. Art thou cold, Gudruda?"
"But a little, Eric. Yea, there is place for thee here on the rock."
So he sat down by her on the stone, and Swanhild crept nearer; for now all weariness had left her. But still the snow fell thick.
"It comes into my mind that we two shall die here," said Gudruda presently.
"Thinkest thou so?" he answered. "Well, I will say this, that I ask no better end."
"It is a bad end for thee, Eric: to be choked in snow, and with all thy deeds to do."
"It is a good end, Gudruda, to die at thy side, for so I shall die happy; but I grieve for thee."
"Grieve not for me, Brighteyes, worse things might befall."
He drew nearer to her, and now he put his arms about her and clasped her to his bosom; nor did she say him nay. Swanhild saw and lifted herself up behind them, but for a while she heard nothing but the beating of her heart.
"Listen, Gudruda," Eric said at last. "Death draws near to us, and before it comes I would speak to thee, if speak I may."
"Speak on," she whispers from his breast.
"This I would say, then: that I love thee, and that I ask no better fate than to die in thy arms."
"First shalt thou see me die in thine, Eric."
"Be sure, if that is so, I shall not tarry for long. Oh! Gudruda, since I was a child I have loved thee with a mighty love, and now thou art all to me. Better to die thus than to live without thee. Speak, then, while there is time."
"I will not hide from thee, Eric, that thy words are sweet in my ears."
And now Gudruda sobs and the tears fall fast from her dark eyes.
"Nay, weep not. Dost thou, then, love me?"
"Ay, sure enough, Eric."
"Then kiss me before we pass. A man should not die thus, and yet men have died worse."
And so these two kissed, for the first time, out in the snow on Coldback, and that first kiss was long and sweet.
Swanhild heard and her blood seethed within her as water seethes in a boiling spring when the fires wake beneath. She put her hand to her kirtle and gripped the knife at her side. She half drew it, then drove it back.
"Cold kills as sure as steel," she said in her heart. "If I slay her I cannot save myself or him. Let us die in peace, and let the snow cover up our troubling." And once more she listened.
"Ah, sweet," said Eric, "even in the midst of death there is hope of life. Swear to me, then, that if by chance we live thou wilt love me always as thou lovest me now."
"Ay, Eric, I swear that and readily."
"And swear, come what may, that thou wilt wed no man but me."
"I swear, if thou dost remain true to me, that I will wed none but thee, Eric."
"Then I am sure of thee."
"Boast not overmuch, Eric: if thou dost live thy days are all before thee, and with times come trials."
Now the snow whirled down faster and more thick, till these two, clasped heart to heart, were but a heap of white, and all white was the horse, and Swanhild was nearly buried.
"Where go we when we die, Eric?" said Gudruda; "in Odin's house there is no place for maids, and how shall my feet fare without thee?"
"Nay, sweet, my May, Valhalla shuts its gates to me, a deedless man; up Bifrost's rainbow bridge I may not travel, for I do not die with byrnie on breast and sword aloft. To Hela shall we go, and hand in hand."
"Art thou sure, Eric, that men find these abodes? To say sooth, at times I misdoubt me of them."
"I am not so sure but that I also doubt. Still, I know this: that where thou goest there I shall be, Gudruda."
"Then things are well, and well work the Norns.[*] Still, Eric, of a sudden I grow fey: for it comes upon me that I shall not die to-night, but that, nevertheless, I shall die with thy arms about me, and at thy side. There, I see it on the snow! I lie by thee, sleeping, and one comes with hands outstretched and sleep falls from them like a mist-- by Freya, it is Swanhild's self! Oh! it is gone."
[*] The Northern Fates.
"It was nothing, Gudruda, but a vision of the snow--an untimely dream that comes before the sleep. I grow cold and my eyes are heavy; kiss
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