Of my childhood in this Olaf life I can regain but little. There
come to me, however, recollections of a house, surrounded by a
moat, situated in a great plain near to seas or inland lakes, on
which plain stood mounds that I connected with the dead. What the
dead were I did not quite understand, but I gathered that they were
people who, having once walked about and been awake, now laid
themselves down in a bed of earth and slept. I remember looking at
a big mound which was said to cover a chief known as "The
Wanderer," whom Freydisa, the wise woman, my nurse, told me had
lived hundreds or thousands of years before, and thinking that so
much earth over him must make him very hot at nights.
I remember also that the hall called Aar was a long house roofed
with sods, on which grew grass and sometimes little white flowers,
and that inside of it cows were tied up. We lived in a place
beyond, that was separated off from the cows by balks of rough
timber. I used to watch them being milked through a crack between
two of the balks where a knot had fallen out, leaving a convenient
eyehole about the height of a walking-stick from the floor.
One day my elder and only brother, Ragnar, who had very red
hair, came and pulled me away from this eyehole because he wanted
to look through it himself at a cow that always kicked the girl who
milked it. I howled, and Steinar, my foster-brother, who had
light-coloured hair and blue eyes, and was much bigger and stronger
than I, came to my help, because we always loved each other. He
fought Ragnar and made his nose bleed, after which my mother, the
Lady Thora, who was very beautiful, boxed his ears. Then we all
cried, and my father, Thorvald, a tall man, rather loosely made,
who had come in from hunting, for he carried the skin of some
animal of which the blood had run down on to his leggings, scolded
us and told my mother to keep us quiet as he was tired and wanted
That is the only scene which returns to me of my infancy.
The next of which a vision has come to me is one of a somewhat
similar house to our own in Aar, upon an island called Lesso, where
we were all visiting a chief of the name of Athalbrand. He was a
fierce- looking man with a great forked beard, from which he was
called Athalbrand Fork-beard. One of his nostrils was larger than
the other, and he had a droop in his left eye, both of which
peculiarities came to him from some wound or wounds that he had
received in war. In those days everybody was at war with everybody
else, and it was quite uncommon for anyone to live until his hair
The reason of our visit to this chief Athalbrand was that my
elder brother, Ragnar, might be betrothed to his only surviving
child, Iduna, all of whose brothers had been killed in some battle.
I can see Iduna now as she was when she first appeared before us.
We were sitting at table, and she entered through a door at the top
of the hall. She was clothed in a blue robe, her long fair hair,
whereof she had an abundance, was arranged in two plaits which hung
almost to her knees, and about her neck and arms were massive gold
rings that tinkled as she walked. She had a round face, coloured
like a wild rose, and innocent blue eyes that took in everything,
although she always seemed to look in front of her and see nothing.
Her lips were very red and appeared to smile. Altogether I thought
her the loveliest creature that ever I had looked on, and she
walked like a deer and held her head proudly.
Still, she did not please Ragnar, who whispered to me that she
was sly and would bring mischief on all that had to do with her. I,
who at the time was about twenty-one years of age, wondered if he
had gone mad to talk thus of this beautiful creature. Then I
remembered that just before we had left home I had caught Ragnar
kissing the daughter of one of our thralls behind the shed in which
the calves were kept. She was a brown girl, very well made, as her
rough robe, fastened beneath her breast with a strap, showed
plainly, and she had big dark eyes with a sleepy look in them.
Also, I never saw anyone kiss quite so hard as she did; Ragnar
himself was outpassed. I think that is why even the great lady,
Iduna the Fair, did not please him. All the while he was thinking
of the brown-eyed girl in the russet robe. Still, it is true that,
brown-eyed girl or no, he read Iduna aright.
Moreover, if Ragnar did not like Iduna, from the first Iduna
hated Ragnar. So it came about that, although both my father,
Thorvald, and Iduna's father, Athalbrand, stormed and threatened,
these two declared that they would have nothing to do with each
other, and the project of their marriage came to an end.
On the night before we were to leave Lesso, whence Ragnar had
already gone, Athalbrand saw me staring at Iduna. This, indeed, was
not wonderful, as I could not take my eyes from her lovely face,
and when she looked at me and smiled with those red lips of hers I
became like a silly bird that is bewitched by a snake. At first I
thought that he was going to be angry, but suddenly some idea
seemed to strike him so that he called my father, Thorvald, outside
the house. Afterwards I was sent for, and found the two of them
seated on a three-cornered, flat stone, talking in the moonlight,
for it was summer-time, when everything looks blue at night and the
sun and the moon ride in the sky together. Near by stood my mother,
"Olaf," said my father, "would you like to marry Iduna the
"Like to marry Iduna?" I gasped. "Aye, more than to be High King
of Denmark, for she is no woman, but a goddess."
At this saying my mother laughed, and Athalbrand, who knew Iduna
when she did not seem a goddess, called me a fool. Then they
talked, while I stood trembling with hope and fear.
"He's but a second son," said Athalbrand.
"I have told you there is land enough for both of them, also the
gold that came with his mother will be his, and that's no small
sum," answered Thorvald.
"He's no warrior, but a skald," objected Athalbrand again; "a
silly half-man who makes songs and plays upon the harp."
"Songs are sometimes stronger than swords," replied my father,
"and, after all, it is wisdom that rules. One brain can govern many
men; also, harps make merry music at a feast. Moreover, Olaf is
brave enough. How can he be otherwise coming of the stock he
"He is thin and weedy," objected Athalbrand, a saying that made
my mother angry.
"Nay, lord Athalbrand," she said; "he is tall and straight as a
dart, and will yet be the handsomest man in these parts."
"Every duck thinks it has hatched out a swan," grumbled
Athalbrand, while with my eyes I implored my mother to be
Then he thought for awhile, pulling at his long forked beard,
and said at last:
"My heart tells me no good of such a marriage. Iduna, who is the
only one left to me, could marry a man of more wealth and power
than this rune-making stripling is ever likely to be. Yet just now
I know none such whom I would wish to hold my place when I am gone.
Moreover, it is spread far and wide throughout the land that my
daughter is to be wed to Thorvald's son, and it matters little to
which son. At least, I will not have it said that she has been
given the go-by. Therefore, let this Olaf take her, if she will
have him. Only," he added with a growl, "let him play no tricks
like that red-headed cub, his brother Ragnar, if he would not taste
of a spear through his liver. Now I go to learn Iduna's mind."
So he went; as did my father and mother, leaving me alone,
thinking and thanking the gods for the chance that had come my
way—yes, and blessing Ragnar and that brown-eyed wench who had
thrown her spell over him.
Whilst I stood thus I heard a sound, and, turning, saw Iduna
gliding towards me in the blue twilight, looking more lovely than a
dream. At my side she stopped and said:
"My father tells me you wish to speak with me," and she laughed
a little softly and held me with her beautiful eyes.
After that I know not what happened till I saw Iduna bending
towards me like a willow in the wind, and then—oh, joy of
joys!—felt her kiss upon my lips. Now my speech was unsealed, and I
told her the tale that lovers have always told. How that I was
ready to die for her (to which she answered that she had rather
that I lived, since ghosts were no good husbands); how that I was
not worthy of her (to which she answered that I was young, with all
my time before me, and might live to be greater than I thought, as
she believed I should); and so forth.
Only one more thing comes back to me of that blissful hour.
Foolishly I said what I had been thinking, namely, that I blessed
Ragnar. At these words, of a sudden Iduna's face grew stern and the
lovelight in her eyes was changed to such as gleams from
"I do not bless Ragnar," she answered. "I hope one day to see
Ragnar——" and she checked herself, adding: "Come, let us enter,
Olaf. I hear my father calling me to mix his sleeping-cup."
So we went into the house hand in hand, and when they saw us
coming thus, all gathered there burst into shouts of laughter after
their rude fashion. Moreover, beakers were thrust into our hands,
and we were made to drink from them and swear some oath. Thus ended
I think it was on the next day that we sailed for home in my
father's largest ship of war, which was named the Swan. I
went unwillingly enough, who desired to drink more of the delight
of Iduna's eyes. Still, go I must, since Athalbrand would have it
so. The marriage, he said, should take place at Aar at the time of
the Spring feast, and not before. Meanwhile he held it best we
should be apart that we might learn whether we still clung to each
other in absence.
These were the reasons he gave, but I think that he was already
somewhat sorry for what he had done, and reflected that between
harvest and springtime he might find another husband for Iduna, who
was more to his mind. For Athalbrand, as I learned afterwards, was
a scheming and a false-hearted man. Moreover, he was of no high
lineage, but one who had raised himself up by war and plunder, and
therefore his blood did not compel him to honour.
The next scene which comes back to me of those early days is
that of the hunting of the white northern bear, when I saved the
life of Steinar, my foster-brother, and nearly lost my own.
It was on a day when the winter was merging into spring, but the
coast-line near Aar was still thick with pack ice and large floes
which had floated in from the more northern seas. A certain
fisherman who dwelt on this shore came to the hall to tell us that
he had seen a great white bear on one of these floes, which, he
believed, had swum from it to the land. He was a man with a
club-foot, and I can recall a vision of him limping across the snow
towards the drawbridge of Aar, supporting himself by a staff on the
top of which was cut the figure of some animal.
"Young lords," he cried out, "there is a white bear on the land,
such a bear as once I saw when I was a boy. Come out and kill the
bear and win honour, but first give me a drink for my news."
At that time I think my father, Thorvald, was away from home
with most of the men, I do not know why; but Ragnar, Steinar and I
were lingering about the stead with little or nothing to do, since
the time of sowing was not yet. At the news of the club-footed man,
we ran for our spears, and one of us went to tell the only thrall
who could be spared to make ready the horses and come with us.
Thora, my mother, would have stopped us—she said she had heard from
her father that such bears were very dangerous beasts—but Ragnar
only thrust her aside, while I kissed her and told her not to
Outside the hall I met Freydisa, a dark, quiet woman of middle
age, one of the virgins of Odin, whom I loved and who loved me and,
save one other, me only among men, for she had been my nurse.
"Whither now, young Olaf?" she asked me. "Has Iduna come here
that you run so fast?"
"No," I answered, "but a white bear has."
"Oh! then things are better than I thought, who feared lest it
might be Iduna before her time. Still, you go on an ill errand,
from which I think you will return sadly."
"Why do you say that, Freydisa?" I asked. "Is it just because
you love to croak like a raven on a rock, or for some good
"I don't know, Olaf," she answered. "I say things because they
come to me, and I must, that is all. I tell you that evil will be
born of this bear hunt of yours, and you had better stop at
"To be laughed at by my brethren, Freydisa? Moreover, you are
foolish, for if evil is to be, how can I avoid it? Either your
foresight is nothing or the evil must come."
"That is so," answered Freydisa. "From your childhood up you had
the gift of reason which is more than is granted to most of these
fools about us. Go, Olaf, and meet your fore-ordained evil. Still,
kiss me before you go lest we should not see each other again for a
while. If the bear kills you, at least you will be saved from
Now while she said these words I was kissing Freydisa, whom I
loved dearly, but when I understood them I leapt back before she
could kiss me again.
"What do you mean by your talk about Iduna?" I asked. "Iduna is
my betrothed, and I'll suffer no ill speech of her."
"I know she is, Olaf. You've got Ragnar's leavings. Although he
is so hot-headed, Ragnar is a wise dog in some ways, who can tell
what he should not eat. There, begone, you think me jealous of
Iduna, as old women can be, but it's not that, my dear. Oh! you'll
learn before all is done, if you live. Begone, begone! I'll tell
you no more. Hark, Ragnar is shouting to you," and she pushed me
It was a long ride to where the bear was supposed to be. At
first as we went we talked a great deal, and made a wager as to
which of the three of us should first drive a spear into the
beast's body so deep that the blade was hidden, but afterwards I
grew silent. Indeed, I was musing so much of Iduna and how the time
drew near when once more I should see her sweet face, wondering
also why Ragnar and Freydisa should think so ill of her who seemed
a goddess rather than a woman, that I forgot all about the bear. So
completely did I forget it that when, being by nature very
observant, I saw the slot of such a beast as we passed a certain
birch wood, I did not think to connect it with that which we were
hunting or to point it out to the others who were riding ahead of
At length we came to the sea, and there, sure enough, saw a
great ice- floe, which now and again tilted as the surge caught its
broad green flank. When it tilted towards us we perceived a track
worn deep into the ice by the paws of the prisoned bear as it had
marched endlessly round. Also we saw a big grinning skull, whereon
sat a raven picking at the eye-holes, and some fragments of white
"The bear is dead!" exclaimed Ragnar. "Odin's curse be on that
club- footed fool who gave us this cold ride for nothing."
"Yes, I suppose so," said Steinar doubtfully. "Don't you think
that it is dead, Olaf?"
"What is the good of asking Olaf?" broke in Ragnar, with a loud
laugh. "What does Olaf know about bears? He has been asleep for the
last half-hour dreaming of Athalbrand's blue-eyed daughter; or
perhaps he is making up another poem."
"Olaf sees farther when he seems asleep than some of us do when
we are awake," answered Steinar hotly.
"Oh yes," replied Ragnar. "Sleeping or waking, Olaf is perfect
in your eyes, for you've drunk the same milk, and that ties you
tighter than a rope. Wake up, now, brother Olaf, and tell us: Is
not the bear dead?"
Then I answered, "Why, of course, a bear is dead; see its skull,
also pieces of its hide?"
"There!" exclaimed Ragnar. "Our family prophet has settled the
matter. Let us go home."
"Olaf said that a bear was dead," answered Steinar,
Ragnar, who had already swung himself round in his quick
fashion, spoke back over his shoulder:
"Isn't that enough for you? Do you want to hunt a skull or the
raven sitting on it? Or is this, perchance, one of Olaf's riddles?
If so, I am too cold to guess riddles just now."
"Yet I think there is one for you to guess, brother," I said
gently, "and it is: Where is the live bear hiding? Can't you see
that there were two bears on that ice-head, and that one has killed
and eaten the other?"
"How do you know that?" asked Ragnar.
"Because I saw the slot of the second as we passed the birch
wood yonder. It has a split claw on the left forefoot and the
others are all worn by the ice."
"Then why in Odin's name did you not say so before?" exclaimed
Now I was ashamed to confess that I had been dreaming, so I
answered at hazard:
"Because I wished to look upon the sea and the floating ice. See
what wondrous colours they take in this light!"
When he heard this, Steinar burst out laughing till tears came
into his blue eyes and his broad shoulders shook. But Ragnar, who
cared nothing for scenery or sunsets, did not laugh. On the
contrary, as was usual with him when vexed, he lost his temper and
swore by the more evil of the gods. Then he turned on me and
"Why not tell the truth at once, Olaf? You are afraid of this
beast, and that's why you let us come on here when you knew it was
in the wood. You hoped that before we got back there it would be
too dark to hunt."
At this taunt I flushed and gripped the shaft of my long hunting
spear, for among us Northmen to be told that he was afraid of
anything was a deadly insult to a man.
"If you were not my brother——" I began, then checked myself, for
I was by nature easy-tempered, and went on: "It is true, Ragnar, I
am not so fond of hunting as you are. Still, I think that there
will be time to fight this bear and kill or be killed by it, before
it grows dark, and if not I will return alone to-morrow
Then I pulled my horse round and rode ahead. As I went, my ears
being very quick, I heard the other two talking together. At least,
I suppose that I heard them; at any rate, I know what they said,
although, strangely enough, nothing at all comes back to me of
their tale of an attack upon a ship or of what then I did or did
"It is not wise to jeer at Olaf," said Steinar, "for when he is
stung with words he does mad things. Don't you remember what
happened when your father called him 'niddering' last year because
Olaf said it was not just to attack the ship of those British men
who had been driven to our coast by weather, meaning us no
"Aye," answered Ragnar. "He leapt among them all alone as soon
as our boat touched her side, and felled the steersman. Then the
British men shouted out that they would not kill so brave a lad,
and threw him into the sea. It cost us that ship, since by the time
we had picked him up she had put about and hoisted her large sail.
Oh, Olaf is brave enough, we all know that! Still, he ought to have
been born a woman or a priest of Freya who only offers flowers.
Also, he knows my tongue and bears no malice."
"Pray that we get him home safe," said Steinar uneasily, "for if
not there will be trouble with your mother and every other woman in
the land, to say nothing of Iduna the Fair."
"Iduna the Fair would live through it," answered Ragnar, with a
hard laugh. "But you are right; and, what is more, there will be
trouble among the men also, especially with my father and in my own
heart. After all there is but one Olaf."
At this moment I held up my hand, and they stopped talking.