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- Eric Brighteyes - 5/62 -
me once again."
"It was no dream, Eric, and ever I doubt me of Swanhild, for I think she loves thee also, and she is fair and my enemy," says Gudruda, laying her snow-cold lips on his lips. "Oh, Eric, awake! awake! See, the snow is done."
He stumbled to his feet and looked forth. Lo! out across the sky flared the wild Northern fires, throwing light upon the darkness.
"Now it seems that I know the land," said Eric. "Look: yonder are Golden Falls, though we did not hear them because of the snow; and there, out at sea, loom the Westmans; and that dark thing is the Temple Hof, and behind it stands the stead. We are saved, Gudruda, and thus far indeed thou wast fey. Now rise, ere thy limbs stiffen, and I will set thee on the horse, if he still can run, and lead thee down to Middalhof before the witchlights fail us."
"So it shall be, Eric."
Now he led Gudruda to the horse--that, seeing its master, snorted and shook the snow from its coat, for it was not frozen--and set her on the saddle, and put his arm about her waist, and they passed slowly through the deep snow. And Swanhild, too, crept from her place, for her burning rage had kept the life in her, and followed after them. Many times she fell, and once she was nearly swallowed in a drift of snow and cried out in her fear.
"Who called aloud?" said Eric, turning; "I thought I heard a voice."
"Nay," answers Gudruda, "it was but a night-hawk screaming."
Now Swanhild lay quiet in the drift, but she said in her heart:
"Ay, a night-hawk that shall tear out those dark eyes of thine, mine enemy!"
The two go on and at length they come to the banked roadway that runs past the Temple to Asmund's hall. Here Swanhild leaves them, and, climbing over the turf-wall into the home meadow, passes round the hall by the outbuildings and so comes to the west end of the house, and enters by the men's door unnoticed of any. For all the people, seeing a horse coming and a woman seated on it, were gathered in front of the hall. But Swanhild ran to that shut bed where she slept, and, closing the curtain, threw off her garments, shook the snow from her hair, and put on a linen kirtle. Then she rested a while, for she was weary, and, going to the kitchen, warmed herself at the fire.
Meanwhile Eric and Gudruda came to the house and there Asmund greeted them well, for he was troubled in his heart about his daughter, and very glad to know her living, seeing that men had but now begun to search for her, because of the snow and the darkness.
Now Gudruda told her tale, but not all of it, and Asmund bade Eric to the house. Then one asked about Swanhild, and Eric said that he had seen nothing of her, and Asmund was sad at this, for he loved Swanhild. But as he told all men to go and search, an old wife came and said that Swanhild was in the kitchen, and while the carline spoke she came into the hall, dressed in white, very pale, and with shining eyes and fair to see.
"Where hast thou been, Swanhild?" said Asmund. "I thought certainly thou wast perishing with Gudruda in the snow, and now all men go to seek thee while the witchlights burn."
"Nay, foster-father, I have been to the Temple," she answered, lying. "So Gudruda has but narrowly escaped the snow, thanks be to Brighteyes yonder! Surely I am glad of it, for we could ill spare our sweet sister," and, going up to her, she kissed her. But Gudruda saw that her eyes burned like fire and felt that her lips were cold as ice, and shrank back wondering.
HOW ASMUND BADE ERIC TO HIS YULE-FEAST
Now it was supper-time and men sat at meat while the women waited upon them. But as she went to and fro, Gudruda always looked at Eric, and Swanhild watched them both. Supper being over, people gathered round the hearth, and, having finished her service, Gudruda came and sat by Eric, so that her sleeve might touch his. They spoke no word, but there they sat and were happy. Swanhild saw and bit her lip. Now, she was seated by Asmund and Björn his son.
"Look, foster-father," she said; "yonder sit a pretty pair!"
"That cannot be denied," answered Asmund. "One may ride many days to see such another man as Eric Brighteyes, and no such maid as Gudruda flowers between Middalhof and London town, unless it be thou, Swanhild. Well, so her mother said that it should be, and without doubt she was foresighted at her death."
"Nay, name me not with Gudruda, foster-father; I am but a grey goose by thy white swan. But these shall be well wed and that will be a good match for Eric."
"Let not thy tongue run on so fast," said Asmund sharply. "Who told thee that Eric should have Gudruda?"
"None told me, but in truth, having eyes and ears, I grew certain of it," said Swanhild. "Look at them now: surely lovers wear such faces."
Now it chanced that Gudruda had rested her chin on her hand, and was gazing into Eric's eyes beneath the shadow of her hair.
"Methinks my sister will look higher than to wed a simple yeoman, though he is large as two other men," said Björn with a sneer. Now Björn was jealous of Eric's strength and beauty, and did not love him.
"Trust nothing that thou seest and little that thou hearest, girl," said Asmund, raising himself from thought: "so shall thy guesses be good. Eric, come here and tell us how thou didst chance on Gudruda in the snow."
"I was not so ill seated but that I could bear to stay," grumbled Eric beneath his breath; but Gudruda said "Go."
So he went and told his tale; but not all of it, for he intended to ask Gudruda in marriage on the morrow, though his heart prophesied no luck in the matter, and therefore he was not overswift with it.
"In this thing thou hast done me and mine good service," said Asmund coldly, searching Eric's face with his blue eyes. "It had been said if my fair daughter had perished in the snow, for, know this: I would set her high in marriage, for her honour and the honour of my house, and so some rich and noble man had lost great joy. But take thou this gift in memory of the deed, and Gudruda's husband shall give thee another such upon the day that he makes her wife," and he drew a gold ring off his arm.
Now Eric's knees trembled as he heard, and his heart grew faint as though with fear. But he answered clear and straight:
"Thy gift had been better without thy words, ring-giver; but I pray thee to take it back, for I have done nothing to win it, though perhaps the time will come when I shall ask thee for a richer."
"My gifts have never been put away before," said Asmund, growing angry.
"This wealthy farmer holds the good gold of little worth. It is foolish to take fish to the sea, my father," sneered Björn.
"Nay, Björn, not so," Eric answered: "but, as thou sayest, I am but a farmer, and since my father, Thorgrimur Iron-Toe, died things have not gone too well on Ran River. But at the least I am a free man, and I will take no gifts that I cannot repay worth for worth. Therefore I will not have the ring."
"As thou wilt," said Asmund. "Pride is a good horse if thou ridest wisely," and he thrust the ring back upon his arm.
Then people go to rest; but Swanhild seeks her mother, and tells her all that has befallen her, nor does Groa fail to listen.
"Now I will make a plan," she says, "for these things have chanced well and Asmund is in a ripe humour. Eric shall come no more to Middalhof till Gudruda is gone hence, led by Ospakar Blacktooth."
"And if Eric does not come here, how shall I see his face? for, mother, I long for the sight of it."
"That is thy matter, thou lovesick fool. Know this: that if Eric comes hither and gets speech with Gudruda, there is an end of thy hopes; for, fair as thou art, she is too fair for thee, and, strong as thou art, in a way she is too strong. Thou hast heard how these two love, and such loves mock at the will of fathers. Eric will win his desire or die beneath the swords of Asmund and Björn, if such men can prevail against his might. Nay, the wolf Eric must be fenced from the lamb till he grows hungry. Then let him search the fold and make spoil of thee, for, when the best is gone, he will desire the good."
"So be it, mother. As I sat crouched behind Gudruda in the snow at Coldback, I had half a mind to end her love-words with this knife, for so I should have been free of her."
"Yes, and fast in the doom-ring, thou wildcat. The gods help this Eric, if thou winnest him. Nay, choose thy time and, if thou must strike, strike secretly and home. Remember also that cunning is mightier than strength, that lies pierce further than swords, and that witchcraft wins where honesty must fail. Now I will go to Asmund, and he shall be an angry man before to-morrow comes."
Then Groa went to the shut bed where Asmund the Priest slept. He was sitting on the bed and asked her why she came.
"For love of thee, Asmund, and thy house, though thou dost treat me ill, who hast profited so much by me and my foresight. Say now: wilt thou that this daughter of thine, Gudruda the Fair, should be the light May of yonder long-legged yeoman?"
"That is not in my mind," said Asmund, stroking his beard.
"Knowest thou, then, that this very day your white Gudruda sat on Eric's lap in the snow, while he fondled her to his heart's content?"
"Most likely it was for warmth. Men do not dream on love in the hour of death. Who saw this?"
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