Showdown at the Strand
by P.S. Nolf
Axe versus whale rib. Sword versus blubber. “Showdown at the Strand” is a retelling of one of the Icelandic sagas using American Western motifs. P.S. Nolf wrote this story in honor of the heritage of her Icelandic horse Blessi. The author planned to re-enact hunting stranded whales in Iceland by horseback around 1020 AD. But something happened so she wrote this story instead.
This story is loosely based on episodes from The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Norse sayings are from Icelandic sagas and the Havamal. Verse at end adapted from The Saga of Grettir the Strong. Translated from Icelandic by G. A. Hight.
Ravens dark as death soared in the sky. The rancher, his sworn men, the former fighter, and the man of law rode south. Strung out behind, the mounted ranch hands led strings of packhorses. As the sun rose, their shadows stretched westward across the plain. To the northeast, smoke curled from the sleeping volcano. The riders splashed through creeks, milky with runoff from the glaciers. They pushed the horses hard over bogs and through rocky terrain.
I have a thirst for ale, thought Gunar the Half-Dane astride his yellow dun stallion. He had won Bitur, named for his fierce bite, in a gambling game. Gunar was guesting at the homestead of Thorgils Makson, a distant but wealthy relative in Iceland. The Half-Dane’s tales of fighting in the Vah-rahn-giahn Guard for the Byzantium emperor, kept his drinking horn full and his welcome fresh.
The summer season in Iceland had been short. Crops, including barley, had failed. Gunar rode with Thorgils to help gain a great prize, knowing his generous kinsman would award him shares. Without the treasure, they might be eating their horses this winter despite what the Christian priests forbade.
The group rode up a hillock to look over the strand. The ebb and flow of the waves had delivered the treasure to the beach. Theirs for the taking if they were powerful enough.
“What do you reckon?” Their leader Thorgils stood up in his stirrups to get a better look.
Sveh-rear Kuwg-son, the Sau-tar-min who often advocated legal matters for Thorgils, viewed the the head, fins, and throat of the huge creature. “It looks like a reydur to me. At least 80 fot.”
“The fisherman who found it didn’t tell us a fish tale about its size,” said Thorgils. “It’s a bonanza of a whale.”
The band rode down the bank onto the strand. Thorgils regularly patrolled the shore looking for stranded whales. His men were familiar with the routine. Some worked to secure the prize against incoming tides. Others gathered up the horses to lead them to water and grass. Gunar’s hammer-headed stallion managed to bite a chunk from a gelding. Bitur had earned a pile of silver for his master at the local horse fights.
Their leaders walked toward the whale for a closer look.
“Who owns shares in this whale according to the Grah-gahss laws?” Thorgils asked of Sveh-rear.
“The creature’s definitely on no-man’s land,” observed Sveh-rear. “Let’s see if it has a harpoon with a declared owner’s mark. You risk a charge of lesser outlawry if you ignore such a claim.”
Thorgils and Sveh-rear began to walk around the great beast, checking for a marked spear. Their talk about whale salvage rights continued as they drifted out of earshot.
These Icelanders and their laws for this and that, thought Gunar. A man could drink a large horn of ale before a Sau-tar-min finished reciting those parts of the laws concerning the ownership of stranded whales. With no king or enforcers of the law in Iceland, men often had to fight for their rights.
“This whale is on common driftlands. More scavengers are sure to come sniffing,” said Thorgils upon his return. “Start cutting.”
The ranchhands had stacked the old axes, knives, polearms, and cleavers near the whale. With bare feet, they selected their cutting tools. The named weapons, those with reputations, had remained at the homestead as too valuable to dull. Gunar had left behind his fine, riveted, mail shirt and waist-high battle axe named Hel. The wise words of Odin cautioned, ‘Never walk away from home ahead of your axe and sword. You can’t feel a battle in your bones or foresee a fight.’
He hoped Odin was wrong this once.
“I’ll make the first cut,” said Ah-dee, Thorgils’ sixteen-year old foster son. With a long polearm. Ah-dee approached the whale to determine the best place for the first cut. The men backed away. If enough putrefaction had occurred, the released gas could explode, tossing blubber, entrails, and long dead fish for a hundred paces. Men had died in such circumstances.
The lad chose a spot near the abdomen to start hacking through the blubber. The sixth blow punctured the stomach. With a massive noise like the fart of a burial mound troll, the reeking gas spewed out of the stomach cavity. It’s enough to put a man off his ale for a week, thought Gunar.
Thorgils grabbed his axe. “I’m going to hack through the skull to get the oil. With a whale this size, I should get enough to light up my longhouse through the winter.” He approached the head of the whale to cut steps into its side so he could scramble to the top.
His men cut whale steaks, reaping sinew and bone. Some flensed long strips of fat from the sides of the whale. The rolled up pieces were tied to the packhorses. Persuading the horses to carry the bloody packets was a dance with the devil. When all thirty packhorses were loaded up, mounted ranch hands led them back to the homestead.
“There’s a ship approaching,” shouted Ah-dee pointing with his bloody poleax.
Thorgils shook his head. “The fisherman sold his news to any willing ear.”
A small, wide-bodied trading knar-r approached. It flew a worn wool sail. Some overlapping planks in its lapstraked hull were warped. Ten men rowed while two armed men looked out over the prow.
“It’s the brothers Gay-slee Paunch and Ogmund the Evil,” said Sveh-rear. “They’re berserkers when fighting. The two have been outlawed throughout Norway for murder and theft. They shelter with their Halogand kin.”
“Best it is, for man’s words to seek peace when it is possible,” quoted Thorgils from the skaldic poems. “There’s plenty of whale to go around. Besides, many breakers of battle-axes are more brag than brains. But bring some weapons anyway.” He scrambled down from the head of the whale to walk towards the vessel being pulled onshore.
Gunar followed Thorgils, Sveh-rear, and Ah-dee. Old, wise sayings weren’t always wise—just old. The brothers’ ship may not have been well maintained but their weapons shone in the sunlight. He wished to Hel he had his good mail shirt and fighting ax.
Gay-slee and Ogmund left their comrades at the water’s edge to walk toward the whale. The two groups met halfway.
“Hail, Gay-slee and Ogmund, sons of Skapi, son of Bjarni. I heeg-t Sveh-rear Kuwg-son, advocate for Thorgils Makson, owner of the homestead Brookmeet.”
“We came for the whale.” Gay-slee Paunch’s identity was obvious due to his roundness.
“There’s plenty for all.” Thorgils pointed at the huge beast. “We can share the uncut carcass.”
“No. We want the whole whale.”
“All the cut pieces too.” His brother Ogmund touched the hilt of his sword. “We’ll duel you for it.”
“The hólmganga is banned in Iceland,” Sveh-rear said. “By law, you can no longer claim land or women by fighting. Perhaps Gunar Thórvérson, recently of the Vah-rahn-giahn Guard, will discuss the matter with you.”
Gay-slee and Ogmund glanced nervously at each other at the mention of the Vah-rahn-giahn Guard.
“The Gern’s too small to take the whole whale,” Gay-slee said. “We’ll cut our own meat to make sure it fits into our ship.”
“The Paunch and his brother would neigh, if their balls weren’t cut off,” muttered Ah-dee.
Gunar touched his Mjölnir amulet. He prayed to Odin, Thor, and the Jesus that the brothers had not heard the insult.
The rancher and his men returned to the carcass. Thorgils climbed back on the head to smash at the skull. Gunar went back to his place at mid spine—high ground was easier to defend.
Gay-slee and Ogmund returned to the ship to speak with their men. The brothers discarded their cloaks but kept their swords. They returned to the reydur in a spread out group. Hiding an ax by his side, Ogmund walked to the whale’s head. He suddenly ran up the steps cut by Thorgils.
“I gift you a sharp sword,” screamed Ogmund at Thorgils’ back. With one great swing, he cut off Thorgils’ head, which rolled down the side of the whale and bounced down the strand. The body remained standing for a heartbeat before it followed.
So the melee began.
Whale ribs parried sword and ax strokes. Steaks and piles of stinking guts became missiles. Those wearing shoes were more likely to fall in bloody, offal covered sand. Inexperienced but wild with youthful enthusiasm, Ah-dee bashed about his rusty pole ax.
Gunar’s chance to overview the action was short. Ogmund charged, slipping and sliding, down the backbone of the whale. Gunar noticed he sported leg wrappings. Bound carelessly, one fastener had come undone.
“Your left leg wrapping is untied.” Even a dimwitted troll deserved a warning if he sits naked by a fire. As the man looked down, Gunar grabbed the right wrapping. He yanked hard, pulling his foe off his feet. Osmund spun down to the ground, landing with a crunch of a broken leg. Gunar was trying to avoid killing blows since his purse would not extend to paying large amounts of weregild.
Gunar noticed Bitur had broken loose. Upset by the commotion, he was running up and down the strand kicking and biting. The stallion took chunks of flesh out of whatever parts—human or horse—he could reach. Butts were a favorite target.
Gay-slee turned berserker. He tried to climb the whale to get to Gunar but kept sliding down in his leather boots. Gay-slee managed to scramble up high enough to anchor his sword in the whale muscle. Gunar was armed with only the knife he had been using to cut blubber strips. As an offensive weapon, it was sore lacking but ‘he with a short knife must try, try again.’ Gunar rammed his knife tightly between two touching spinal discs. He jumped off the whale and kicked the nose on Gay-slee’s upturned face. Another satisfying crunch. Gay-slee’s weight dragged his sword downward, cutting through hide and muscle.
Nobody had noticed the rising tide was carrying Thorgils’ head out to sea.
Sveh-rear shouted, “For the sweet love of Jesus, somebody grab that head.” His voice shattered the bloodlust. Dazed, bruised, and bloody, the men came back to their senses. A ranch hand retrieved the head for Sveh-rear.
“Gather your weapons. Tie Thorgils’ body to his horse. We’re riding for home.”
Gay-slee and Ogmund were rolling in pain at the belly line of the carcass. Cradling his nose, Gay-slee snuffled, “Whunt abut de whalll?”
“It’s yours. But as Sau-tar-min, let me tell you the law. You stand at the Althing to take responsibility for your killing and pay the weregild. Or you will be declared greater outlaws, whom no man can feed or shelter. That’s a cruel death in these long Icelandic winters.”
Bloody and stinking, Thorgil’s men mounted up to begin the long ride to escort his corpse to his family. Gunar rode up to Sveh-rear’s horse.
“I’m riding west. Widow Solveig Hah-kon-ar-doe-tir asked me to be overseer of her homestead.” Gunar remembered the smile in Solveig’s eyes seemed to promise more than a job. “I’ll be back to testify in Thorgils’ bloodsuit.”
Sveh-rear nodded his agreement. Ah-dee saluted him with his poleax.
Gunar and Bitur rode north. They made their own path across bogs, over grasslands, and through birch forests. Iceland was an island without roads or towns. Gunar guested at isolated homesteads. Everywhere he went, he heard the verse some wihdt had written about the fight.
“Hard were the blows which were dealt at the Strand;
no weapons they had but steaks of the whale.
They belabored each other with rotten blubber.
Unseemly methinks is such warfare for men.” *
He wondered if he still had time to join Freydis, daughter of Leif Erikson, in her expedition to Vinland. Perhaps it was distant enough to outrun the scurrilous words. Surely a country with Vin in its name had alcohol for a thirsty man.