The rack or single foot or running walk (tölt) is the distinctive gait of the Icelandic horse, setting it apart from other European breeds. It is for taking it easy over smooth ground … The pace (skeid) is used for short stretches at high speed.
—Sigurður A. Magnússon, Gudmundur Ingólfsson, The Icelandic Horse
In the first century, the sagas say,
a king named Bladvald—known as The Impaler—
held all of Iceland under his savage sway.
Charts of the north sea warned the wandering sailor.
He wielded crushing force by force of habit,
speared whales for sport and could not get his fill,
no sooner saw a landmass but would grab it,
and from each glacier-side proclaimed his will.
Torches grew pale before his burning beard;
the palace mirrors swore he was immortal.
Next to his wrath his children chiefly feared
his jagged smile and fjord-blooded chortle.
Horses he’d stolen from his hapless foes
grew coarser coats and learned the alien grace
of two new gaits upon his native snows:
one called the tölt and one the flying pace.
Foaming with drink he ran down to attack
the mocking ocean, mad to overwhelm it
once and for all … The breakers beat him back
until his skull rang like an iron helmet.
His glittering eyes grew dark pits underneath;
his feet succumbed to bunions and to gout;
years of sweet mead at meals despoiled his teeth;
a hernia left him permanently stout.
Men of unmelting heart and glittering eye,
of mind berserk and confidence unbridled—
sure of who wounded them, and how, and why,
and to what world of vengeance they’re entitled—
all fall beneath the same wave, the same way.
One night the king lay snoring, and forthwith
his mildest-mannered son, the sagas say
(though who can chart where memory turns to myth),
crept to his room, forgave him with a dagger,
sped from the palace at the flying pace
astride a shaggy little steed named Bragr,
and fled across the snow without a trace.