Wednesday, 15 April 2015

The Otter's Well Gleaming

Icelanders were welcome in Norway. The affection ran deep with the court of King Harald Greycloak and his son Erik. King Harald was known as Harald Greycloak (or sometimes Greyskin) because he once bought grey pelts of Icelandic traders lying unsold on the wharf. When he started to wear the skins all his subjects followed his example to the delight and profit of the Icelanders.

Back at her homestead at Iceland, the woman Steingerd had heard the stories of men returning from adventures, and was determined to experience the excitement for herself.

Steingerd persuaded her hearth-partner, Thorvald the Tinker, to equip a ship to travel to Norway. Thorvald knew of Steingerd's affection for Kormak and opposed it. His opposition was to no avail. Steingerd told him, as she told Kormak, that she alone would make a choice as to how she spent her time. Still Thorvald made his objection plain and litigation followed. The litigation included a series of legal duels although Thorvald's brother fought on his behalf, as Thorvald was reluctant to take to the field.

Kormak, her one-time love, prepared his own ship as well. Thorgils, his brother agreed to come. Thorgils was called Scardi because of a scar on his face. Kormak named the Viking settlement at Scarborough on the coast of England in honor of his brother.

So it was some misgivings that Thorvald sailed. As captains, Thorvald and Kormak steered their ships using a tiller - an oar strapped to the back of the boat. Steingerd took turns with Thorvald, and she became very competent at steering at sea.

On arrival, they were met by King Harald and Kormak was welcomed into his court as a courtier. The other Icelanders took up separate lodgings in the town. Thorvald commenced a trade in making and repairing metal goods and established a small forge at the back of a two story stone house.

A couple of weeks after they arrived, Kormak came to visit.

Steingerd was spinning thread from wool using a drop spindle.  The spindle, a straight stick 3 hand lengths long, and weighed by a stone whorl, already had a yard of thread tied around it. With her right hand she drew out some hands-length of wool fibers from her left hand. When happy with the thickness of the fibers, she set the whorl moving, twisting the fiber into yarn. The newly spun yarn then was wound with the rest onto the spindle and she started to draw the fibers down again.

Kormak watched for a moment, then fixed his eyes on the other women-folk and motioned them to leave.

Steingerd asked him, "So you have come to learn spinning?"

Kormak thought for a moment, "You are very slow. Perhaps I could show you how to spin faster."

Steingerd's eyes flashed, "Don’t be foolish, the fleece is coarse and..."

Then she saw a smile at the corners of his mouth. Too late she started to rise, spindle and fibre still in hand. He stepped behind her and pulled her onto him, matching his body to hers. He reached up and caught her two hands at the wrist.

Kormak said, "Let me be your bench."

Steingerd laughed, "But my feet cannot reach the ground".

Kormak said, "Neither did your spindle".

Steingerd smiled and twisted her bare feet around his ankles, she said, "Caught you".

Steingerd relaxed a little into him, warning, "My hearth-partner is nearby. One of the girls will fetch him. "

Kormak said, "Yes. He will come, shouting and panting up the stairs.  But you are simply showing me how to spin. Or I am showing you how to spin faster. I cannot remember. Please continue, don’t let me interfere."

Steingerd started to draw the fibers back into form, feeling his arms become light, following her movements.

Kormak said, close to her left ear, "Anyway, the tinker is in my debt and we will not come to blows because his brother remains home".

Steingerd felt a thrill of electricity and spun the whorl low and fast.

Kormak said, "I will tell him you are simply spinning the thread for a shirt for me."

Steingerd frowned, "This thread is not for you. It is for the witch Gunhild, the new wife of the king's son, Eric. She has been sitting here with me."

Kormak's hands tensed, "What have you been speaking of?"

Steingerd said, "Gunhild and I have exchanged life stories. I have told her of your pursuit of me. She told me how she rescued Eric by the white sea one past summer. And how she bewitched him with her eyes."

Kormak became more direct and quieter, "Has she spoken of the king?"

Steingerd said, "Gunhild told me you need have no fear of the King. Both the King and her Erik trust you. He is minded to make you a captain when we raid."

Kormak asked "We?"

Steingerd felt his breath on her neck.

Steingerd said, "Gunhild has persuaded Eric to take her back to the White Sea, with the King. And me."

She spun her head around and looked into his eyes, and then found his lips with hers. She kissed him deeply, feeling his momentary confusion quickly replaced with fire. She pulled back a little, "Do you know why I just kissed you?"

He released her wrists, encircling her waist instead, and she leaned back into him.

Kormak said, "No. I don’t care". And this time he kissed her as deeply as he held her.

Steingerd said, "Gunhild is preparing me a potion, which will let me bewitch you with my eyes."

She disentangled herself from him and carefully put down the spindle. Then she turned to face him. She walked over to him and sat on his knees facing him.

Steingerd took his face in her hands and gave him one more deep kiss. She pulled back to find his eyes closed with tears.

Kormak said, "I would stay with you from now if you agreed. You do not need a potion to bewitch me. That is not the problem."

For the fourth time she kissed him, this time starting with his eyes. Steingerd asked, "And what is our problem, man that I used to love?"

Kormak looked at her and said, "Your love changes with the weather".

Steingerd gasped and hit at him as Thorvald burst up the stairs. Despite all of Kormak's predictions, Thorvald drew his sword. Suddenly the room was full of women-folk who rushed in to part them. Steingerd smiled and walked to her window. She signaled Gunhild to send word to King Harald Greycoat.

King Harald Greycoat arrived shaking his head.  He said to Thorvald and Kormak, "You are very troublesome people to keep in order. You may settle this peacefully according to your law, or you may agree to allow me settle this matter between you".

Thorvald and Kormak agreed to the King making an order and attended him in his hall. Erik and Gunhild stood next to the King as he spoke.

King Harald Greycoat said, "I have heard of your past disputes. I would have this settled now because I have need of you all."

He continued, "One kiss shall be atoned for by this, that Kormak helped you Thorvald to get safely to land. The next kiss is Kormak's because he once saved Steingerd from rogues. For the other two he shall pay two ounces of gold."

Later that night, in the King's Mead Hall, Kormak sang a poem to mark the King's decision.

Here is gold of the otter's well gleaming
In guerdon for this one and that one,
Here is treasure of Fafnir the fire-drake
In fee for the kiss of my lady.
Never wearer of ring, never wielder
Of weapon has made such atonement;
Never dearer were deeply-drawn kisses -
And the dream of my bliss is betrayed."

There was some peace then between Thorvald and Kormak, although Steingerd refused to be seen in Kormak's private company.

Winter fell and the company withdrew to the Kings Halls, playing games, listening to stories eating and drinking. Finally, the snow stopped.  As the days became longer and the Northern ice melted, Harald Greycloak finalised plans to travel into the west. There was great interest in the venture, and he attracted a host of ships to the White Sea which was rich in ivory, skins and amber. The king appointed Kormak as a captain in that host, and Thorvald also came, each man in charge of his own long boat.

On their way to the way to the White Sea, Thorvald sailed very close to Kormak while they were navigating a narrow sound. Upset, Kormak swung his steering-oar and hit Thorvald. Thorvald collapsed and fell to the floor of the deck. However, Kormak's move had upset the balance of his own boat, and he struggled to get control of it again.

Steingerd, who had been on the deck sitting beside Thorvald, now took his place holding the tiller. With a glint in her eye, she turned her ship and ran down Kormak's ship, capsizing it and tipping all aboard into the water.

No loss of life occurred, and the ship was refloated with no loss of time.  Steingerd, emptied a bladder of water over Thorvald, bringing him back to a semblance of health.

As before, the king offered to settle the matter between them. With a grim smile he gave judgment that Thorvald's hurt was atoned for by Kormak's upset.

In the evening they went ashore and set up their tents for the night.  Thovald retired immediately, still unwell.  As the host sat down to eat their nightly meal, Kormak offered Steingerd a drink of mead from his cup.

Steingerd looked at him and asked, "And what of the weather today?"

Kormak looked at her. Standing on the soft-grey of the rock platform that ran next to the bay. The western sun setting the night sky on fire. Reflecting in the still water of the great sea. He said, "You confuse me more than ever".

She said, "I can fix that."

She withdraw the small flask Gunhild had given her and drank it.

Peter Quinton
April 2015


This is my retelling of part of the story of the Icelandic saga concerning Steingerd and the warrior Kormac more than a thousand years ago. Kormak was a real person - but we do not know if the story of his life-long failed love of Steingerd is fact or fiction.

As with earlier parts, those familiar with the saga may wonder about the provenance of the interpolated material and my choice of plot direction - in this story the story of the four kisses and the intertwined references to Erik and Gunhild. My approach is simple. I take the poetry of Kormak to be the best source - the saga writer seems to have guessed some of the connecting material and had their own source for some bits and pieces. I take it that the histories of the northern kings (Sturlason's Heimskringla) is the next best source. 

I have had a particular difficulty in describing the relationship between Steingerd and Thorvald. While this is conventionally described as a marriage, it would appear a very strange form of marriage if all the legal incidents were described to the reader. To avoid misconceptions that might flow, I have chosen to describe it as a "hearth partnership", essentially a domestic relationship that could be terminated lawfully by either at any stage and which involved no emotional commitment (but was beset by challenges to honor). In contrast I have retained the word marriage to describe the relationship between Erik and the young witch Gunhild - because this falls more within the conventional use of the word.

I have written about Kormac and Steingerd elsewhere. An index is here.

The spinning wheel had not been invested at the time of this story ~950AD. An interesting article on the relative cost of medieval spinning is at - via +AdmiralLadyPaula Rizzuto

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