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THE SAGA OF GISLI
THIS is the beginning of the saga, that King Hacon, Athelstan’s1 foster-son, was ruling over Norway; and the greater part of his days was over.
There was a man named Thorkel; he was called Skerauki. He lived in Surnadale and was a hersir2 in rank. He had a wife, who was named Isgerd, and three children, all sons. One was called Ari; another, Gisli; and the third, Thorbiorn. This last was the youngest of them. They all grew up there at home.
There was another man named Isi. He lived on the fjord called Fibuli, in Nordmöre. His wife's name was Ingigerd and his daughter's, Ingibiorg.
An, the son of Thorkel from Surnadale, asked the daughter in marriage, and she was given to him along with a great wedding-fee. Kol was the name of her thrall, who went along with her.
There was a man called Biorn the Black. He was a berserk. He fared about the land and challenged men to the holmgang,3 if they would not do his bidding. He came during the winter to Thorkel's. An, the son, was ruling there over the household. Biorn gave An choice of two things and asked whether he would rather fight with him on the holm which lay near by in Surnadale and was called Stockholm, or hand over his wife. An chose quickly to the end that he would rather fight than that either of them should be put to shame, he or his wife. The meeting was to be at a time when three nights had interposed delay. Now it drew near to the time of the holmgang, and they fought, and it so ended that An fell to the ground and lost his life. Biorn then thought he had won lands and the woman, but Gisli vowed that he would rather lose his life than that this should come to pass and himself wished to go to the island with Biorn. Then took Ingibiorg to speaking: "Not for this was I given in marriage to Ari, that I did not at all wish thee to have a family. Kol, my thrall, owns a sword, which is called Graysides, and thou shalt ask of him that he lend it to thee because it ever follows this sword, that he shall have victory who carries it into battle."
Gisli asked the thrall for the sword, and it seemed a good deal to him to lend it.
Gisli made ready for the holmgang, and they fought together. And it so ended that Biorn fell. Gisli now thought that he had won a great victory, and it is said that he asked the hand of Ingibiorg, for he wished not to let the good woman go out of the family. So he took her. Likewise he came into all her goods and became a great man in his own right. Shortly thereafter his father died and Gisli took all the property he left behind. And all those who followed after Biorn, he caused to be put to death.
The thrall claimed his sword, but Gisli would not let it go and offered him money for it. But the thrall would have nothing but the weapon, and so he got nothing. Kol took it ill and cut at Gisli. That was a great wound. Gisli in turn struck the thrall's head so hard with Graysides that the sword broke, and his skull was crushed. And so each of them came to his death.
Thereafter Thorbiorn came into all the wealth which his family had, his father and two brothers. He set up his home at Stock in Surnadale. He sought in marriage a woman of that place who was called Thora. She was Red's daughter from Fridarey. And he married her. Their faring together was good, and it was not long before they came to have children. Their daughter was named Thordis; she was the oldest of them. Thorkel was the name of one son, the oldest;, another was Gisli; and the youngest, An. They all grew up there at home. Nor were there better men of their own age found in the country roundabout. An found fostering with Styrkari, his mother's brother, but the other two, Thorkel and Gisli, both stayed at home.
Bardi was the name of a man. He dwelt there in Surnadale. He was a young man and had newly taken his father's inheritance.
Kolbiorn was the name of another man. He lived at Helli in Surnadale. He, too, was a young man and had just come into the goods of his father.
It was said by some men that Bardi had betrayed Thordis, Thorbiorn's daughter. She was both fair and wise. This deed went not well with Thorbiorn, and he said he expected that, if An were at home, these things might not prove to be so good.
Bardi muttered something about a worthless old dotard4 and added, "Go on I shall, as before." Thorkel and Bardi were good friends, and Thorkel gave him a helping hand, 5 but Gisli was angered with their talk, as was his father.
It was said that one time Gisli went riding with Bardi and Thorkel. He fared half way to Granaskid; so was the place called where Bardi dwelt. And when Bardi least expected, Gisli hewed him his death-stroke. Thorkel grew wroth and said that Gisli had done ill, but Gisli told his brother to calm himself. "And let us two exchange swords and have thou that which bites the better," he began, half jesting with him. Then Thorkel calmed himself and sat down near Bardi, but Gisli fared homeward and told his father, and the news pleased him well.
There was never the same friendship between the two brothers thereafter, but Thorkel did not choose the exchange of weapons; nor did he wish longer to stay there at home but went away to the house of Holmgang-Skeggi on the island of Saxi. Skeggi was much bound to Bardi, and he, in turn, to Skeggi. Thorkel was ever egging Skeggi on to avenge Bardi, his friend, and urged him to go lay claim to Thordis, his sister. So they fared to Stock, twenty men in all, and when they had come to the farmstead, Skeggi made known his wish for kinship by marriage with Thorbiorn, "and for a traveling together with Thordis, thy daughter."
But Thorbiorn did not wish to give the girl in marriage to him. This answer was given, that a man named Kolbiorn was in love with Thordis and had kept tryst with her.
Skeggi liked it not when he was not able to get the match, and he went to see Kolbiorn and dared him to battle on the island of Saxi. Kolbiorn said he would go and added that he himself was not worthy to have Thordis if he dared not fight with Skeggi. So those two, Thorkel and Skeggi, went back to Saxi and waited there with one and twenty men for the time of the meeting on the island.
And when three nights had passed, Gisli sought out and came upon Kolbiorn and asked him whether he was ready for the fight. Kolbiorn answered and asked whether he had to do that to prove himself worthy of the match.
"Thou shouldst not speak such things," said Gisli. Kolbiorn made answer: "Thus seems it to me, that I am not ready to do this thing, to hold battle with Skeggi."
Gisli bade him call himself the lowest and most craven of men, "and though thou shouldst come full to thy shame," he added, "yet shall I go now in thy place." So Gisli made his way with twelve men toward the island of Saxi.
Skeggi came to the isle and declared at an end the laws of the holmgange and challenged Kolbiorn to a pitched battle. But he saw that Kolbiorn had not come there, nor anyone else who was to go to the island in his stead.
Ref was the name of a man; he was Skeggi's smith. Skeggi bade him make two man-likenesses after Gisli and Kolbiorn "and one shall stand somewhat farther back than the other,7 and this insult shall remain always to their shame."
Now Gisli was listening in the wood hard by and made answer: "Another thing will thy house-carles be doing, and more useful; 8 here thou mightest see him who dares to do battle with thee."
Then they went to the island and fought. Each held his shield before him. Skeggi had the sword named Battle-flame. He cut at Gisli with it, and it screamed aloud. Then sang Skeggi:
Screamed aloud Battle-flame;
Sport was on Saxi.
Gisli in turn with his weapon cut off the lower part of Skeggi's shield and a foot with it; then he taunted him in verse:
Slid off his harmless sword; 9
Then struck I back at Skeggi.
Skeggi bought himself off the island and went ever thereafter with a wooden leg. But Thorkel now fared home with Gisli his brother. All was now very well in respect to their friendship, and Gisli seemed to have gained much in name and renown from this affair.
Two brothers are mentioned: one named Einar; the other Armi, sons of Skeggi from Saxi. They lived at Flydruness, north of Throndheim. They strengthened themselves in men during the fall and the following spring, and went to Surnadale, to the home of Kolbiorn. They offered him choice of two things: whether he would rather go with them and burn Thorbiorn and his sons to death in their own house; or lose then and there his own life. He chose rather to go.
They set out thence, sixty men in all, and came to Stock at night, and set fire to the house. But the people were all asleep in a small building set apart – Thorbiorn, his sons, and Thordis. Inside there, in the house, were two tubs of sour milk. Now Gisli and the rest took two goat-skins and dipped them into the whey, and so shielded themselves against the fire. Three times they put out the blaze there before them, and then they battered down a wall and fled thus away, ten of them together. They followed the smoke to the mountain and so came far away from barking dogs.10 But twelve men were burned alive there in the building. Those who had come there thought that everybody within had burned to death.
Gisli and the rest journeyed until they came to Styrk on Fridarey. They strengthened themselves with forty men and fell unawares upon Kolbiorn and burned him inside his own house along with twelve men. They then sold his land and bought themselves a ship. There were in all between fifty and sixty men, and they sailed away with all they owned and came to the islands near by, which were called the Æsundi. There they lay ready to put to sea.
Then they set out thence in two boats, forty men in all, and came northwards to Flydruness. The brothers there, sons of Skeggi, had just finished, with the help of nine men, collecting their land-rents. Gisli and his men met them and killed them all. Gisli handled three of them and Thorkel, two. After that they went to the farmhouse and took away many goods from it. Gisli hewed off the head of Holmgang Skeggi, who was living there at that time with his sons.
1. Athelstan (c. 894-940), King of England, grandson of King Alfred the Great. The Heimskringla records the fact that Athelstan placed Hacon on his knee, by that act becoming the boy's foster-father and acknowledging unwittingly the overlordship of the Norwegian king. Hacon ruled over Norway c. 935-961.
2. A chief in the earliest age in Norway before the settlement of Iceland.
3. Literally, `a going to the holm': a duel, or wager of battle, on an island, or holm, a grim place for men to fight it out to the death, unseen and unmolested.
4. The original is an alliterated, elliptical speech, containing a noun signifying 'one incapable of self-maintenance'; and an adjective meaning 'empty' or 'worthless.'
5. In the argument over the matter, Thorkel made light of his sister's seduction and sided with Bardi.
6. Holmgang duels were usually fought with great attention to ceremony and ritual, such as laying out the hazel sticks which described the limits, etc. But this was to be a fight to the death, not to be decided as usually by one man's retreat from the narrow limits of the single hide that was spread out and on which the combatants stood to exchange their blows; nor by a single drop of blood spilled upon it.
7. As the following clause implies, this procedure constituted an obscene jibe at Gisli and Kolbiorn. It is perhaps not difficult to imagine some significance.
8. I.e., than making insulting effigies. Gisli suggests that they might soon be working for someone else or taking care of their crippled master.
9. The original here means 'Frankish corpse,' or 'dead body.' 'Frankish' bespeaks the origin of Skeggi's sword and 'corpse,' its worthlessness, in Gisli's estimation.
10. Too far away to be scented.