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Allen French

Of the Lighting of the Beacon

I N the time after Iceland had become Christian, and after the burning of Njal, but before the deaths of Snorri the Priest and Grettir the Outlaw, there lived at Cragness above Broadfirth a man named Hiarandi, called the Unlucky. And well was he so named, for he got a poor inheritance from his father, but he left a poorer to his son.

Now the farm of Cragness was a fertile fell, standing above the land round about, and girt with crags. Below lay Broadfirth, great and wide, and Cragness jutted out into it, a danger to ships. It had no harbor, but a little cove among the rocks, where Hiarandi kept his boat; and many ships were wrecked on the headland, bringing fortune to the owners of Cragness, both in goods and firewood. And all the land about once belonged to the farm. Rich, therefore, would have been the dwellers at Cragness, but for the doings of Hiarandi's father.

He would always be striving at the law, and he was of ill judgment or ill luck, for what he gained at the farm he always lost. The older he grew, the more quarrelsome he became; and judgments heaped heavy on him, until at last he was so hard put that he must sell all his outlying lands. So the farm, from a wide estate, became only the land of Cragness itself, and another holding of a few acres, lying inland on the uplands, within sight of Cragness and the sea.

In the time when Hiarandi was young, Iceland was still heathen. He sought his fortune in a trading voyage, and sailed West-over-the-Sea, trading in the South Isles as a chapman, trafficking in goods of all kinds. And he made money there, so that at last when he sailed again for home he counted on a fair future. But the ship was wrecked in a storm, and few of the men came ashore; and Hiarandi himself was saved by means of a maid who dwelt at the place, who dragged him from the surf. So Hiarandi came home on foot, his clothes in tatters, having lost money rather than gained it. Then his father, whose losses pressed heavy on him, struggled no more with the world, but went to his bed and died. And in that summer when all Iceland took to the new faith, Hiarandi became master at Cragness.

Hiarandi was a silent man, not neighborly, but hard-working. An unworldly choice he made of a wife, for he took that woman who had saved him from the waves; she was the daughter of a small farmer and brought neither dowry nor kinship of any power. So men said that Hiarandi had no wish to rise in the world. He lived upon his farm, with two thralls and a bondservant; and husbanding his goods well, by little and little he made money which he put out at call, and so bade fair to do better than his father, for all his poor start in life. And a loving spouse he had in Asdis, his wife, who one day bore him a son.

They named the lad Rolf, and he grew to be well knit; he was not powerful, but straight and supple, and of great craft in his hands. And from delight in the boy Hiarandi changed his ways, and became more gay, going to fairs and meetings for the sake of Rolf. And Hiarandi taught the lad all he knew of weapon-craft, which was not a little. The lad was swift of foot; he was skilled in the use of the sword and javelin, but most he delighted in the use of the bow.

And that was natural, for upon the cliffs sea-birds lived in thousands, hard to catch. The boy went down to their nests with ropes, and took eggs in their season, or the young before they could fly, and both for food. So skilled was he in this that he was called Craggeir, the Cragsman; and no man could surpass him, whether in daring or skill. But there were times when there were no eggs nor fledglings, and from his earliest boyhood Rolf practised in shooting with his bow at the birds, and he kept the larder ever full.

Happy was Hiarandi watching his son, and his pride in him was great. As the lad grew stronger, the father made for him stronger bows and heavier arrows, until at the age of fourteen Rolf used the bow of a man. Then one winter they went down together into the valley, father and son, and watched the sports and games on the frozen mere.

There the men of the place played at ball, and great was the laughter or deep was the feeling. Now Hiarandi would not let Rolf play, for often matters carne to blows, and he would not have his son maimed. But when it came to shooting with the bow, Hiarandi put Rolf forward, and it was seen who was the best at that play. For though the men shot, Rolf surpassed them all, not in distance but in skill. He hit the smallest mark at the greatest distance; and when Hiarandi brought a pigeon and freed it, then Rolf brought it down. No one there had seen such shooting. Then those who were not envious named the lad Rolf the Bowman.

But a man named Einar stood by, and he lived on the land which Hiarandi's father had sold. He was rich but covetous, and fond of show, and fond of praise. There lived with him one named Ondott, an Eastfirther who had left his district and come west, a man without property. He stood with Einar and watched the games.

"See," said Einar, "how proud is Hiarandi of his son!"

"Thou hast a son as well," said Ondott. "How he will shine among these churls when he returns from his fostering in the South Isles!"

"Aye," answered Einar. "Like an Earl will he be, and no farmer of these parts will compare with him."

"And as for the shooting of this lad," remarked Ondott, "it is not so fine after all."

"In the Orkneys," said Einar aloud, so that others should hear him, "they are better bowmen than here, and the Earl will have my son taught everything."

Now some who stood by brought Hiarandi this tale. "Have a care," said they. "Thy neighbor Einar sets himself above thee."

"Then he must set himself high," answered Hiarandi with a laugh, "for his land lies far lower than mine."

Then others carried that tale to Einar, and he laid it up in his mind; but Hiarandi forgot all that had been said, nor did he remember to tell of it to Asdis when they had returned from the games.

Then the winter passed on with severe storms, and ships were wrecked on Cragness rocks, but no men reached shore. And Einar envied the more the riches that came to Hiarandi from the wrecks, in firewood, timber, and merchandise. And once a whale came ashore, and that was great fortune. But one evening, as those at Cragness sat within the hall, Asdis came and stood beside her husband, and said, "Listen to the wind."

"There is no need to listen," said Hiarandi. "The wind howls for a storm, and this night will be bad."

Then Thurid the bondservant, who sat by the fire, looked up and said, "Ships are off the land."

"Hearest thou that?" asked Asdis in a low voice. "The woman is strange, but she forecasts well."

"Aye," answered Hiarandi, "it is likely that ships will be on the rocks by morning."

"Now," asked Asdis, "dost thou remember the time thou camest ashore, these many years ago?"

"How should I forget it?" responded Hiarandi.

"But no one can rush into the water here," said Asdis, "to save those who are wrecked."

"That is true," quoth Hiarandi. "I am sorry for the mariners, yet how is one to help?"

Then the bondservant raised her head and sang this song:

"The sea brings money;

Money is bonny.

Bless then the sea

Which brings good to thee."

After that she sat silent and sunken as before.

"Hear the hag," said Asdis, shuddering. "But we prosper through the misfortunes of others."

"What is to be done?" asked Hiarandi.

"It is in my mind," said Asdis, "that if we made a fire-beacon, people could steer from shore and so into safe harbor farther up the firth."

"Now," quoth Hiarandi, "that might be done."

"Wilt thou do it?" asked Asdis.

Then the woman raised her head and sang again:

"He is a fool

Who leaves old rule.

Set heart 'gainst head,

How then butter thy bread?"

Then Hiarandi said to Asdis: "No man has ever yet set beacons against shipwreck. All men agree to take the fortune of the sea; and what is cast on a man's beaches, that is his by old custom."

"Thinkest thou that is right?" asked Asdis.

"Moreover," went on Hiarandi, "the sea is but giving me again what it took away."

"Never can the sea," answered Asdis, "give thee true happiness through other men's misfortunes."

"Remember the boy," said Hiarandi. "Shall I leave him with nothing to begin the world with? For my own earnings bring me at most a mark of silver in the year."

"For all that," replied Asdis, "it is in my mind that to do otherwise were to do better. Now canst thou have the heart that men should die longer on our rocks, and we not do our best to save them?"

Then Hiarandi, answering nothing, rose and paced up and down before the fire. And the carline sang once more:

"Take what is given.

No man is wise

Who asketh twice

If earth or heaven

Sends him his prize."

But Asdis stood upright, and she sang:

"Suffer not wrong

To happen long,

Lest punishment

From heaven be sent."

Now in Iceland all men loved the singing of skalds; but though Hiarandi had heard the carline sing many times before, never had he heard rhymes from his wife. So he stood astonished.

Then the bondservant sang again:

"Ill will attend

The beacon's lighting.

Bad spirit's guiding

Will bring false friend."

But Asdis sang with great vehemence:

"Let God decide

What fate shall ride

Upon the wind.

Be thou not blind

To duty's hest.

My rede is best.

List to the storm!

Go! Save from harm

The mariner

Whose fate is near.

To others do

As I did once to you."

And it seemed to Hiarandi as if she commanded him. Moreover, as he listened, the storm roared louder. Then he seized his cloak, and cried to his thralls, "Up, and out with me to make a beacon!"

Though they dared not disobey, they grumbled, and they got their cloaks slowly. For they saw slipping away from them the fine pickings from the wreck, which brought them warm clothes and handsome. Out they went with Hiarandi into the storm, and kindled a great fire at the edge of the cliff. And Rolf toiled too; but Asdis did best of all, for she brought out in a kettle great strips of whale's blubber, and flung them on the fire. Then the flames flared high and wide, as bright as day. And Rolf sprang to the edge of the cliffs and gazed upon the water. Then, pointing, he cried, "Look!"

Down below was a ship; its sail flapped in rags, and the crew were laboring mightily at the oars to save themselves, looking with dread at the white breakers and the looming rocks. Now in the strength of their fear they held the vessel where she was; and by the broad light of the fire every man of them was visible to the Cragness-dwellers. To Rolf that was a dreadful sight. But the bit of a sail was set, and men ran to the steering-oar to hold the vessel stiff; and behold, she moved forward, staggered past the rocks, made clearer water, and wore slowly out into the firth. Even the thralls shouted at the sight.

Then Hiarandi left one of the thralls to keep the fire, and went back to the hall with those others. There the carline still sat.

"So he is safe past the rocks?" she asked, yet speaking as if she knew.

"Aye, safe," answered Hiarandi.

"Now," said she, "thou hast brought thy evil fortune on thyself, and it will be hard to avoid the extreme of it."

"I care not," answered Hiarandi, "even though I suffer for a good deed."

"Nevertheless," said the carline, "the future may be safe, though without riches, if thou wilt be guided by me. Wilt thou follow my redes?"

"No advices of thine do I follow," replied Hiarandi. "For methinks thou still servest the old gods, and canst work witchcraft. Speak no more of this matter in my house; and practise not thy sorcery before my eyes, for the law gives death as punishment."

"Now," answered the woman, "like a foolish man, thou rushest on thy fate. And I see clearly that thou art not he who was spoken of in the prophecy. Not a fortunate Soursop art thou."

"Since the slaying of Kol, who put the curse on all our stock," answered Hiarandi, "has but one of the Soursops prospered. How then should I be fortunate?"

"Two were to prosper," the woman replied. "And each was to put an end to the curse in his branch of thy race. Snorri the Priest is one of those two, as all men know. But thou art not the other; and I believe that thou art doomed to fail, even as thy father was."

"So I have long believed," said Hiarandi calmly.

Then the carline rose, and her eyes were strange, as if they saw beyond that upon which she looked. "More misfortune is coming than thou deemest," she said. "Outlawry. Mayhap even death. Be warned!"

"Thou art a heathen and a witch," said her master. "Be still!"

But she said: "I will not abide the curse. Hiarandi, I have worked long in thy house. Give me now my freedom and let me go."

"Thou hast long been free to go," he replied. "Take thy croaking to another man's board! But this little prophecy I give to thee, that no man will believe thine ill-speaking."

"No great foresight hast thou in that," she answered. "Never have I been believed." Then she drew on her cloak and hooded her face.

"Thou wilt not go in the storm?" asked Asdis.

"All times are alike," the woman said. "Heed thou this, Hiarandi. Beware the man who came in the ship thou didst save!"

"He is one," answered Hiarandi, "whom I fear not at all."

"Beware suits at law," said the carline again, and she turned to go.

"It needs no great wisdom to say that," retorted Hiarandi upon her." But stay! I send not people from my door penniless. Nothing is owing from me to thee, yet I will give a piece of money."

"Soon," answered Thurid, "thou wilt need all thou hast." And she went out into the night.