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- Eric Brighteyes - 60/62 -


crew of the Raven who had perished upon the sea-path. Even as the man died, so did each ghost come. Some had been drowned and their harness dripped water! Some had died of spear-thrusts and the spears were yet fixed in their breasts! Some had fallen beneath the flash of Whitefire and the weight of the axe of Skallagrim, and there they sat, looking on their wide wounds!

Then came more and more. There were those whom Eric and Skallagrim had slain upon the seas, those who had fallen before them in the English wars, and all that company who had been drowned in the waters of the Pentland Firth when the witchcraft of Swanhild had brought the Gudruda to her wreck.

"Now here we have a goodly crew," said Eric at length. "Is it done, thinkest thou, or will Mosfell send forth more dead?"

As he spoke the wraith of a grey-headed man drew near. He had but one arm, for the other was hewn from him, and the byrnie on his left side was red with blood.

"Welcome, Earl Atli!" cried Eric. "Sit thou over against me, who to-morrow shall be with thee."

The ghost of the Earl seated itself and looked on Eric with sad eyes, but it spake never a word.

Then came another company, and at their head stalked black Ospakar.

"These be they who died at Middalhof," cried Eric. "Welcome, Ospakar! that marriage-feast of thine went ill!"

"Now methinks we are overdone with trolls," said Skallagrim; "but see! here come more."

As he spoke, Hall of Lithdale came, and with him Koll the Half-witted, and others. And so it went on till all the men whom Eric and Skallagrim had slain, or who had died because of them, or at their side, were gathered in deep ranks before them.

"Now it is surely done," said Eric.

"There is yet a space," said Skallagrim, pointing to the other side of the fire, "and Hell holds many dead."

Even as the words left his lips there came a noise of the galloping of horse's hoofs, and one clad in white rode up. It was a woman, for her golden hair flowed down about her white arms. Then she slid from the horse and stood in the light of the fire, and behold! her white robe was red with blood, a great sword was set in her heart, and the face and eyes were the face and eyes of Gudruda the Fair, and the horse she rode was Blackmane, that Eric had slain.

Now when Brighteyes saw her he gave a great cry.

"Greeting, sweet!" he said. "I am no longer afraid, since thou comest to bear me company. Thou art dear to my sight--ay even in yon death- sheet. Greeting, sweet, my May! I laid thee stiff and cold in the earth at Middalhof, but, like a loving wife, thou hast burst thy bonds, and art come to save me from the grip of trolls. Thou art welcome, Gudruda, Asmund's daughter! Come, wife, sit thou at my side."

The ghost of Gudruda spake no word. She walked through the fire towards him, and the flames went out beneath her feet, to burn up again when she had passed. Then she sat down over against Eric and looked on him with wide and tender eyes. Thrice he stretched out his arms to clasp her, but thrice their strength left them and they fell back to his side. It was as though they struck a wall of ice and were numbed by the bitter cold.

"Look, here are more," groaned Skallagrim.

Then Eric looked, and lo! the empty space to the left of the fire was filled with shadowy shapes like shapes of mist. Amongst them was Gizur, Ospakar's son, and many a man of his company. There, too, was Swanhild, Groa's daughter, and a toad nestled in her breast. She looked with wide eyes upon the eyes of dead Gudruda's ghost, that seemed not to see her, and a stare of fear was set on her lovely face. Nor was this all; for there, before that shadowy throng, stood two great shapes clad in their harness, and one was the shape of Eric and one the shape of Skallagrim.

Thus, being yet alive, did these two look upon their own wraiths!

Then Eric and Skallagrim cried out aloud and their brains swam and their senses left them, so that they swooned.

When they opened their eyes and life came back to them the fire was dead, and it was day. Nor was there any sign of that company which had been gathered on the rock before them.

"Skallagrim," quoth Eric, "it seems that I have dreamed a strange dream--a most strange dream of Norns and trolls!"

"Tell me thy dream, lord," said Skallagrim.

So Eric told all the vision, and the Baresark listened in silence.

"It was no dream, lord," said Skallagrim, "for I myself have seen the same things. Now this is in my mind, that yonder sun is the last that we shall see, for we have beheld the death-shadows. All those who were gathered here last night wait to welcome us on Bifrost Bridge. And the mist-shapes who sat there, amongst whom our wraiths were numbered, are the shapes of those who shall die in the great fight to-day. For days are fled and we are sped!"

"I would not have it otherwise," said Eric. "We have been greatly honoured of the Gods, and of the ghost-kind that are around us and above us. Now let us make ready to die as becomes men who have never turned back to blow, for the end of the story should fit the beginning, and of us there is a tale to tell."

"A good word, lord," answered Skallagrim: "I have struck few strokes to be shamed of, and I do not fear to tread Bifrost Bridge in thy company. Now we will wash ourselves and eat, so that our strength may be whole in us."

So they washed themselves with water, and ate merrily, and for the first time for many months Eric was merry. For now that the end was at hand his heart grew light within him. And when they had put the desire of food from them, and buckled on their harness, they looked out from their mountain height, and saw a cloud of dust rise in the desert plain of black sand beneath, and through it the sheen of spears.

"Here come those of whom, if there is truth in visions, some few shall never go back again," said Eric. "Now, what counsel hast thou, Skallagrim? Where shall we meet them? Here on the space of rock, or yonder in the deep way of the cliff?"

"My counsel is that we meet them here," said Skallagrim, "and cut them down one by one as they try to turn the rock. They can scarcely come at us to slay us here so long as our arms have strength to smite."

"Yet they will come, though I know not how," answered Eric, "for I am sure of this, that our death lies before us. Here, then, we will meet them."

Now the cloud of dust drew nearer, and they saw that this was a great company which came up against them. At the foot of the fell the men stayed and rested a while, and it was not till afternoon that they began to climb the mountain.

"Night will be at hand before the game is played," said Skallagrim. "See, they climb slowly, saving their strength, and yonder among them is Swanhild in a purple cloak."

"Ay, night will be at hand, Skallagrim--a last long night! A hundred to two--the odds are heavy; yet some shall wish them heavier. Now let us bind on our helms."

Meanwhile Gizur and his folk crept up the paths from below. Now that thrall who knew the secret way had gone on with six chosen men, and already they climbed the watercourse and drew near to the flat crest of the fell. But Eric and Skallagrim knew nothing of this. So they sat down by the turning place that is over the gulf and waited, singing of the taking of the Raven and of the slaying in the stead at Middalhof, and telling tales of deeds that they had done. And the thrall and his six men climbed on till at length they gained the crest of the fell, and, looking over, saw Eric and Skallagrim beneath them.

"The birds are in the snare, and hark! they sing," said the thrall; "now bring rocks and be silent."

But Gizur and his people, having learned that Eric and Skallagrim were alone upon the mountain, pushed on.

"We have not much to fear from two men," said Gizur.

"That we shall learn presently," answered Swanhild. "I tell thee this, that I saw strange sights last night, though I did not sleep. I may sleep little now that Gudruda is dead, for that which I saw in her eyes haunts me."

Then they went on, and the face of Gizur grew white with fear.

XXXIII

HOW ERIC AND SKALLAGRIM FOUGHT THEIR LAST GREAT FIGHT

Now the thrall and those with him on the crest of the fell heard the murmur of the company of Gizur and Swanhild as they won the mountain side, though they could not see them because of the rocks.

"Now it is time to begin and knock these birds from their perch," said the thrall, "for that is an awkward corner for our folk to turn with Whitefire and the axe of Skallagrim waiting on the farther side."

So he balanced a great stone, as heavy as three men could lift, on the brow of the rock, and aimed it. Then he pushed and let it go. It smote the platform beneath with a crash, two fathoms behind the spot where Eric and Skallagrim sat. Then it flew into the air, and, just as Brighteyes turned at the sound, it struck the wings of his helm, and, bursting the straps, tore the golden helm-piece from his head and carried it away into the gulf beneath.


Eric Brighteyes - 60/62

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