Grimnir “The Varangian”

GRIMNIR “THE VARANGIAN” 

What remains of Grímnirs saga Þórbrandssonar is fragmentary at best.  Most of the saga takes place before the dark days of Fimbulwinter.  These years saw him grow from a young man into a seasoned warrior.  Unfortunately, most of these chapters are lost to us. 

  We know he adventured far afield.  From Norway to Sweden, from Sweden to Russia and finally he found himself in the Emperor’s service in Constantinople.  It is from this time that he became known as “the Varangian.” 

   Most of what we have left detail his travels home and his attempt to reunite with his family in Iceland once Fimbulwinter descended.  Who does not recall the famed names of his colorful companions on that fabled odyssey? Sigurd Spirit-Speaker, Thorvald the Undertaker, Ragnar the Wanderer, and Ǽstrid the Many-Faced are some of literature’s greatest figures.

  But theirs is the end of the tale.  Our saga opens on Grímnir’s coming of age in Iceland…

Chapter 1: Of Þórbrand and his sons.

In the fallow years after Harald Fairhair’s reign, Norway fell upon dark days.  Harald united Norway, and his sons tore it asunder.  It was during the days of Hákon Aðalsteinsfóstri, whom some hight Haakon the Good, that a young jarl who refused to worship Haakon’s crucified god fled Norway for the freedom of Iceland.

He was hight Þórbrand Grímsson.  Iceland he found fairly settled.  There he took to him a wife whose father worshiped in the Old Ways.  This man was hight Kettil Asbjornsson, and had been a neighboring jarl in Norway, whom Erik Bloodaxe had earlier expelled from the land.

Þórbrand Grímsson and Svanhild Kettilsdóttir had three sons and two daughters who survived childhood.  The eldest son was hight Hrafn, the second son Grímnir, and the baby brother was hight Bjorn.  Their sisters were hight Refdis and Álfdis.

Þórbrand and Svanhild settled along the Þjorsa, under the angry eye of Hekla.  Kettil kept his farm along the Laxa, not far away.  It is in the sixteenth summer of the second son that our story truly starts.  Kettil was aged and his claim as goði contested by a man hight Þorkell.

   Now, Bera Þorkellsdóttir was a beauty and Hrafn was be-smitten.  Hrafn’s wooing won her heart, and secretly the lovers stole away along the Laxa.  Bera’s brother Bard followed them in their flight as far afield as Flói.  Within sight of the sea, Bard slew Hrafn and dragged Bera, beating her until she was barely breathing, back to their homestead.

   Þorkell henceforth forbade Bera from leaving the homestead.  But Bera had a handmaid, a thrall hight Ljota.  This slave she sent to Þórbrand that he might know what became of Hrafn.  On her arrival at Þórbrandsstaðir, Ljota first found Grímnir without.  He recognized her at once and ushered her in that she might tell her tale to Þórbrand.

     When Þórbrand heard how his eldest had died his big heart broke and beat no more.  Thus it fell to Grímnir to avenge his dead and to defend his family’s honor.   From above the door he took his father’s war-axes: one bright hightStjarna, the other black-hafted hight Sveðja.

    Hot-headed from youth and heartbreak, Grímnir gathered to him only those thralls that were near and set off for Þorkellsvatn where Þorkell made his home.  As the sun set, Grímnir’s band spied Bard alone on the road alongside the river Hvita, headed home.  Quickly they caught up to him and Grímnir called Bard out.

   Grímnir challenged Bard to hólmgang three days hence where the road to Þingvellir met the road from Mosfell.  Bard boasted that he could beat Grímnir and his band of thralls on the spot, so why wait?  But Grímnir would not be baited and bade Bard goodbye.

  Thrice Sköll chased Sól across the sky and thrice Hati sought Máni.  On the third day, at the appointed time and place, Grímnir stood awaiting Bard.  His little brother Bjorn was there to hand him his shields.  In all twenty men, friends, cousins and thralls, stood witness.

   The greater part of the day passed and Bard did not show.  Just as the party was coming to believe that Bard must be declared niðingr, an outlaw and a coward, Bard band was seen cresting a hill to the east.  Bard had brought some forty of his father’s men to bear witness of the hólmgang.

   According to custom, Grímnir recited the rules of the hólmgang.  The two laid their cloaks down and the lines were drawn around them.  The hazels were posted and each man stood upon his cloak.  Grímnir held Stjarna in his right hand and Sveðja dangled from his left wrist, as that hand held his shield.

   Swart Bard had brought a mighty brand, a sword sharp and keen.  He too held a hólmgang shield, and bade Grímnir begin.  Fair Grímnir reminded Bard that as Grímnir had issued the challenge, the first blow belonged to Bard.

   Bard swung his sword across and down and sheared half of Grímnir’s soft shield away.  Bard smiled and taunted the youth, but Bjorn was there with Grímnir’s new shield and it was Bard’s turn to nurse a numb hand.  Stjarna stopped the braggart cold, almost knocking him from off his cloak.

    Bard’s next blow shattered Grímnir’s shield, but Grímnir kept his footing.  Grímnir waited not for Bjorn, but brought his axe up and under catching the crotch and splitting asunder his foeman’s stomach.  Bard’s kinsmen gathered him up and bore him home, his corpse to bury.

   Grímnir thought justice served and to Þórbrandsstaðir he returned.  Mighty Hekla grumbled, and Grímnir knew Hel had new company.  Now Kettil Asbjornsson, Grímnir’s grandfather was an ancient man and he died before that summer’s Alþing, leaving young Grímnir head of his family.

   Grímnir was no goði, and Þorkell had an axe to grind.  On the road to the Alþing, Þorkell waylayed Grímnir’s men, killing many of his freemen and scattering those who remained.  When Grímnir arrived, he had but the boy Bjorn and a batch of thralls.  None of whom could stand for him in court and counter the complaint that Þorkell brought against him.

   Grímnir was accused of ambushing Bard and murdering him maliciously.  Þorkell was a powerful man, and no one dared put lie to his outrageous tale.  But try as he might, Þorkell could not have Grímnir declared full outlaw.  Instead Grímnir was made fjörbaugsgarður (a lesser outlaw) and forced to flee from Iceland for three years.

   Grímnir put Þórbrandsstaðir, his mother Svanhild, brother Bjorn, and sisters Refdis and Álfdis in the care of his young cousin Kari Kettilsson and left upon a longship for Norway.

   A number of subsequent pages of the Heimsvallabók (our only source of the chapters that preceed Fimbulwinter) were torn from the book in ancient days for reasons that do not come down to us.

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