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Medieval and Classical Library


The Battle In Swordfirth.

Online Medieval and Classical Library Release #33

That summer, before the fight was in Swanfirth, a ship had come to Daymeal-ness, as is aforesaid. Now Steinthor of Ere had bought a ten-oarer at the ship; but when he was to bring it home there fell on him a great gale from the west, and they drave east past Thors-ness, and landed at Thinghall-ness, and laid the keel up in Gruflunaust, and went thence afoot over the necks to Bank, and thence fared home in a boat; but the ten-oarer he had not been able to go fetch through the autumn, so it lay still at Gruflunaust.

But one morning a little before Yule, Steinthor rose early, and said that he would go fetch his craft that lay east at Thinghall- ness; and there betook them to faring with him his brothers Bergthor and Thord Wall-eye, whose wound was by now pretty much healed, so that he was meet enow to carry weapons. Withal in Steinthor's company were two Eastmen, and they were eight in all.

So they were ferried over the firth into Dairyhead, and they went afoot in towards Bank, and thence came Thormod, their brother, who made the ninth of them. Now the ice stretched from Templesteadwick right up to Much Bank, and they went up along the ice, and so over the neck to Swordfirth, which lay all under ice. Such is the way of it, that when the sea ebbs, it leaves it all dry, and the ice lies on the mud at the ebb; but the skerries that were in the firth stood up above the ice, which was much broken about one of them, and the icefloes sloped down steeply from the skerry. Loose snow withal had fallen on the ice, and very slippery it was thereon.

Now Steinthor and his folk went to Thinghall-ness, and pushed out the boat from the boatstand, and took out of her both oars and deck, and laid them down on the ice, together with their clothes and the heaviest of their weapons. Then they dragged the craft in along the firth, and then west over the low neck to Templesteadwick, and right out to the edge of the ice; and then went after their clothes and the other matters. But as they went back into Swordfirth, they saw six men going from the south from Thinghall-ness, who went a great pace over the ice, and made for Holyfell. Then Steinthor and his men misdoubted them, that there would be going the sons of Thorbrand minded for the Yule-feast at Holyfell. Then Steinthor with his folk went swiftly out over the firth to the place where lay their clothes and weapons; and so it was as Steinthor had deemed, and these men were the sons of Thorbrand.

So when these beheld men running down the firth, they deemed they knew who they were, and thought the men of Ere were fain to meet them. So they fell to going at a great pace, and made for the skerry with the mind to make a stand there; and in this wise each came nigh to meeting the other, yet the sons of Thorbrand reached the skerry first. But as Steinthor and his folk came forth past the skerry, Thorleif Kimbi let drive a spear against their flock, and it smote Bergthor, son of Thorlak, in the midst, and straightway was he put out of the fight. Then he went away out on to the ice, and lay down, and Steinthor and his folk set on toward the skerry, but some went after their weapons. The sons of Thorbrand warded themselves well and in manly wise, and a good fighting-stead they had there, because the floes sloped steeply from the skerry and were wondrous slippery; thus wounding went slowly betwixt men, before those came back who had gone to fetch the weapons.

Steinthor and his men set on, six together, on the skerry, but the Eastmen went out on to the ice within bowshot, for they had bows, and there with they shot against those on the skerry, and gave many a wound.

Thorleif Kimbi cried out when he saw Steinthor draw his sword: "White hilts dost thou still wield aloft, Steinthor," says he; "but I wot not if thou raisest yet again a soft brand withal, as thou didst last autumn at Swanfirth."

Steinthor answers: "Ah! I will that thou prove ere we part whether I bear a soft brand or not."

Now slow work was the winning of the skerry, but when they had been thereat a long while, Thord Wall-eye made a dash at it, and would thrust at Thorleif Kimbi with a spear, for he was ever the foremost of his men. The thrust smote the shield of Thorleif, but even as Thord Wall-eye laboured over the blow his feet failed him on the slippery floe, and he fell on his back and slipped headforemost down from the skerry. Thorleif Kimbi leapt after him to smite him dead before he could get to his feet again, and Freystein Rascal followed Thorleif, and he had shoe-spikes on his feet. Then Steinthor ran thereto, and cast his shield over Thord even as Thorleif fetched a blow at him, and with the other hand he smote at Thorleif Kimbi, and smote the leg from him below the knee; and while that was a-doing Freystein Rascal thrust at Steinthor, aiming at his middle; and when Steinthor saw that, he leapt up aloft, and the thrust went between his legs, and these three things, whereof we have told even now, he did in one and the same nick of time. Then he ran to Freystein, and smote him on the neck with his sword, and loud was the clatter of that stroke. So he cried withal: "Art smitten, Rascal?"

"Smitten forsooth," said Freystein, "but yet no more than thou didst deem, for no wound have I therefrom." For in a hooded hat of felt was Freystein, with horn sewn into the neck thereof, and on that had the stroke fallen.

Then Freystein Rascal turned back skerryward, but Steinthor bade him run not, since he had no wound, and Freystein turned him round on the skerry, and now they made at each other hard and fast. Steinthor was in great risk of falling, for the floe was both steep and slippery, but Freystein stood firm on his spiked shoes, and smote both hard and oft; but such was the end of their dealings, that Steinthor brought his sword down on Freystein above his hips, and smote the man asunder in the midst.

Then they went on to the skerry, and stayed not till all Thorbrand's sons were fallen. Then cried out Thord Wall-eye that they should go betwixt head and trunk of all the sons of Thorbrand, but Steinthor said he had no will to bear weapons on men who lay alow.

So they came down from the skerry, and went to where Bergthor lay, who scarce had might to speak. So they brought him with them in over the ice, and so over the neck to the boat, and rowed in the boat out to Bank in the evening.

Now a shepherd of Snorri's had been at Oxbrents that day, and saw thence the fight at Swordfirth. So he went home straightway, and told Snorri the Priest how there had been a meeting that day at Swordfirth nowise friendly. So Snorri and his folk took their weapons, and went into the firth nine in company; but when they came there, Steinthor and his men had gone their ways and come aboard off the ice (1) of the firth.

Then Snorri looked to the wounded men, and there was none slain save Freystein Rascal, but they were all nigh wounded to death.

Thorleif Kimbi cried out to Snorri, bidding go after Steinthor and his folk, and let no one of them escape. So Snorri the Priest went there whereas Bergthor had lain, and saw there great gouts of blood. Then he took up in his hand together blood and snow, (2) and crushed it up, and put it in his mouth, and asked who had bled there. And Thorleif said it was Bergthor who had bled. Then Snorri said it was life-blood. "Like enow," said Thorleif; "from a spear it came."

"Methinks," says Snorri, "that is the blood of a doomed man; so we will not follow after them."

Then were Thorbrand's sons brought home to Holyfell and their wounds bound up. Thorod Thorbrandson had so great a wound in the back of his neck that he might not hold his head straight; he had on hose-breeches withal, and they were all wet with blood. A home-man of Snorri the Priest was about pulling them off; but when he fell to stripping them he could not get them off. Then he said: "No lie is that concerning you sons of Thorbrand, when folk say ye are showy men, whereas ye wear clothes so tight that they may not come off you."

Thorod said: "Belike thou pullest slovenly." And therewith the home-man set his feet against the bed-stock and pulled with all his might, but yet gat them off none the more.

Then Snorri the Priest went thereto, and felt along his leg, and found a spear stuck through his leg between the hough sinew and the leg bone, that had nailed together the leg and the breeches. Then said Snorri that the thrall was a measureless fool not to have thought of such a thing.

Snorri Thorbrandson was the briskest of those brothers, and he sat at table beside his namesake that evening. Curds and cheese they had to meat, but Snorri noted that his namesake made but little play with the cheese, and asked why he eat so slowly.

Snorri Thorbrandson answered that lambs found it the hardest to eat when they were first gagged.

Then Snorri the Priest drew his hand down his throat, and found an arrow sticking athwart his gullet and the roots of the tongue. Then Snorri the Priest took drawing-tongs and pulled out the arrow, and then Snorri Thorbrandson fell to his meat.

Then Snorri the Priest healed all the sons of Thorbrand. But when Thorod's neck grew together his head sat somewhat drawn backwards on his trunk, and he said that Snorri would heal him into a maimed man. Snorri said that he deemed the head would come straight when the sinews were knit together; but Thorod would have nought but that the wound should be torn open again, and the head set straighter. But all went as Snorri had guessed, and as soon as the sinews were knit together the head came right; yet little might Thord lout ever after. Thorleif Kimbi thenceforth went mostly with wooden leg.

(1)  "Steinthor and his men had gone their ways and and aboard
     off the ice," read: and come off the ice up at the bottom of
     the bay -- "komnir inn af fjartharisnum".  The situation was
     this: Swordfirth cuts into Thorsness from east to west;
     between it and Templesteadwick, which cuts from west to east
     into the ness, is a narrow low neck of land.  The Ere-
     dwellers had drawn their ten-oarer out of its stand in
     Swordfirth, and all the way up to the bottom of it, and then
     over the neck and on to the ice of Templesteadwick, even to
     the very edge of it.  Then they went from the west again to
     fetch the outfit of the boat which had been left behind,
     together with their clothes and heavy weapons, and then rail
     up against the Thorbrandsons coming from the south and
     crossing Sword firth in the direction of Holyfell.  When
     Snorri appeared on the field of deed the Ere-dwellers had
     evidently had time after the close of the battle to gather
     together what they had come to fetch, and to carry it all,
     together with the wounded Bergthor, as far as where the ice
     on Sword firth ceased and the above-mentioned narrow neck

(2)  "Then he took up in his hand together blood and snow," etc.
     This is the only instance we know of blood being tasted in
     order to ascertain whether it be vital blood or not.  Snorri
     declares it to be "hol-bloth", blood from the hollow or
     abdominal part of the body, "life-blood", for Bergthor was
     struck in the "middle".  That would then mean black blood,
     which had not come in contact with the air in the lungs.
     Medical men assure us that there is no difference in taste
     between the black and red blood.  Snorri knew probably that
     the man was mortally wounded, and on the strength of that
     knowledge gave out his declaration.