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Shores of Northumbria;
He wrathfull as thunder."
Said Eric: "Let me not hear a word in exculpation of your deeds towards me, for exculpation is impossible. They have been so many and so serious, that I shall not suffer you to leave my presence alive. You might well have reckoned on this or ever you set foot in my realm.”
Then Gunnhild, the queen, who sat by the king, spoke : "Let him be put to death instantly. Have you forgotten all the offences committed by this fellow against you. He has killed your kinsmen, even your own son, and he has mocked us, and launched a bitter curse against you to drive you out of your kingdom.”
Arinbjörn now spoke up: "If Egill has uttered word of ill of the king, he will atone for it by singing a lay in his praise, that will be remembered so long as the world lasts."
Gunnhild answered: "We have no wish to hear his song of praise. Sire! have Egill taken out of the hall at once, and hewn asunder. I hate even the sight of him, and will not listen to his voice."
Then said Arinbjörn : "Do not suffer yourself, O king, to be egged on to perpetrate a work of infamy. If Egill be killed to-night it will be murder, vile, and all men will so esteem it, and so speak of it, as he has not defied you, but has come to your feet seeking reconciliation."
Then said Eric: "Well, then, be it so, Arinbjörn. He shall live this night, but no longer. And I commit him to your safe custody. Remember, however, that I charge you, on your honour, to bring him before me in the morning."
Arinbjörn thanked Eric Bloodaxe, and said: "It is quite true, Sire, that Egill has trespassed heavily against you. But consider what wrongs he and his have endured from your family. Harald, your father, put to death his uncle, Thorolf, a man of the highest probity and loyalty, simply because he was maligned by personal enemies, and you, king, violated justice towards Egill, in favour of Berg Onund; moreover, you have repeatedly endeavoured to have Egill assassinated; you robbed him of his property in Norway, have outlawed him, and set a price 1 To execute a criminal between sundown and sunrise was regarded as illegal and infamous.
on his head. Weigh your wrongs against his wrongs, and see on which side the scale declines."
Then Arinbjörn led Egill to his own quarters, and brought him to a loft in which he was to spend the night, and said: “The king is highly incensed against you, but I think he cooled down a bit when I spoke my mind freely. The difficulty lies mainly with Gunnhild, who is implacable in her hatred, and remorseless in her cruelties. She will do everything in her power to effect your death. Now adopt my advice, spend the night in composing a lay in honour of the king. Flatter him to his heart's content, and have your composition ready by the morning."
Egill replied: "I will follow your suggestion as far as I may; but, on my conscience, I protest that I can say little good of Eric."
During the night Arinbjörn became uneasy, and leaving the hall went in quest of his friend, and asked how he had progressed.
Egill replied that he had not composed a single strophe. A tiresome swallow had seated itself in his window hole, and by its incessant twittering had distracted his mind, and prevented him from collecting his thoughts. Arinbjörn went forth, and as he left the building fancied he saw a figure glide away and disappear in the darkness. Then it came into his head that Queen Gunnhild was credited with magical powers, and he suspected that she had sent the swallow to disturb Egill. Accordingly, he seated himself under Egill's window, resolved to drive away the swallow should it return.
By next morning the lay was finished, and committed to
Arinbjörn now armed all his men, and went with them and Egill's men, who were also in full harness, to the king's house. He left one-half of his retainers outside and entered at the head of the other half. Eric saluted him, and Arinbjörn said: "Here is Egill. He has made no attempt to escape during the night. Now, Sire! we desire to know what is to be his fate. I trust that my intercession on his behalf will not be in vain, for I lay great stress on the saving of Egill. Remember the fidelity wherewith I have ever served you. How that I have followed you in exile, when constrained to quit Norway, forfeiting thereby all my landed estates, and being separated from my kindred."
Gunnhild burst forth with: "Hold your tongue, Arinbjörn, and make no brag of your services. We know what they
have been, and how very richly they have been repaid. You owe greater obligations to King Eric than you do to Egill, and it is unseemly that you should take up so hotly the cause of such a man of violence."
Then said Arinbjörn: "If you, Sire and Gunnhild, have made up your minds not to receive any atonement from Egill for wrongs by him committed, then, at least, give him a week's law, that he may seek safety, remembering that he came here voluntarily, and for a pacific purpose."
Gunnhild broke in with: "It is clear as daylight that you hold Egill in higher esteem than you do Eric."
Arinbjörn proceeded, without noticing her interruption : Allow Egill a week, and he will go to King Athelstan. It will in no way conduce to your credit, Sire! to kill in cold blood a bonder's son, who came from beyond the seas with words of good will in his mouth seeking your forgiveness. And this, I let you and Gunnhild plainly understand, that I make the cause of Egill my own. It will cost you a heavy price, Sire! to take his head; for I and my men, as well as those of Egill, will fight for his life till the last of us falls."
"At that price," answered the king, after a pause for consideration, "I would not wittingly buy Egill's blood, although he has richly deserved death."
Suddenly, when the king had finished speaking, Egill began the recitation of his poem, in a clear sonorous voice; and instantly silence ensued in the hall.
In the song are twenty-one stanzas, and but three can be given here as a sample of the style of poetry in vogue in the tenth century among the northern people. Such poetry consisted in alliteration, and, above all, in never calling anything by its name, but employing periphrases in its place. As for poetical ideas, as we understand them, there are none.
2 The gift of poetry.
3 In the spring.
"Westward I sail'd o'er the sea,
Vithar1 himself gave to me
The ichor of his breast.2
And with joy I roamed
When riven the ice-floes,3
And learned it by heart.
A ship, i.e. the song launched like a ship.
5 The fancy.
Listen to me, Sire!
Bold, without fear;
For the world wotteth
How thou hast slaughtered
Men, gladding Odin,
Rent was the buckler,
Red-dyed the sword-blade,
As it dripped blood;
Laughed the Valkyrie
Lo! the small streams ran
Like to a river,
Far o'er the fields rang
Loud the steeds' clangour."
Eric sat immovable while Egill recited his poem, watching him narrowly. When the song was concluded, he said: "The lay is very good indeed, and I have considered what I will do, for Arinbjörn's sake. Thou, Egill, shalt depart hence unharmed, because I will do nothing dastardly such as it might be esteemed if I killed a man who had voluntarily placed himself in my power. But from the moment that thou leavest the hall, thou shalt never come before my eyes again, or before those of my sons. And remember, this is no reconciliation between me and my kinsfolk and thee."
Thus Egill bought his head by a song, and that song is, therefore, called the Höfudlausn, or the head ransom. Then Arinbjörn accompanied Egill south, with a hundred and twenty men, and they parted with much affection, and Egill went to King Athelstan.
Eric Bloodaxe remained as viceroy in York little more than a year after his appointment. But, on the other hand, Snorri Sturlason, in the Heimskringla, says that Eric left shortly after the death of Athelstan, which occurred in 941. During the time he was viceroy in York, as Snorri tells us, " as he had little land, he went on a cruise every summer, and plundered in Shetland, the Hebrides, Ireland, and Wales, by which he gathered wealth." On the death of Athelstan, according to the same authority, when Edmund came to the throne, Eric finding that
1 There is less need for giving the whole of this poem, as it is given, with translation, in the Corpus Poeticum
Boreale of Vigussen and Powell, Oxford, 1883.
The Icelandic 100 always means the full 120.
he was in no favour with Edmund, and suspecting that the English king intended to dispossess him, "set off on a viking cruise to the westward; and from the Orkneys took with him. the Earls Arnkell and Erlend, sons of Earl Torf Einarr. Then he sailed to the Hebrides, where there were many vikings and kings, collecting men, and these joined their forces to his. With all this host he steered to Ireland first, whence he drew all the men he could, and sailed thereafter south to England, and maurauded there as elsewhere. The people fled before him wherever he appeared."
Edmund died in 946, and was succeeded by his brother Edred, who almost at once proceeded to Northumbria, where he received the homage of Archbishop Wulfotan, of York, and the principal men of the country, in 947. But soon after this, the Chronicle informs us that the Northumbrians recalled Eric and elected him king. He answered the call, and went to York, along with Gunnhild and his sons.
Edred immediately marched into Northumbria and burnt the monastery of Ripon, 948, "and as the king went homewards, then the army of York overtook him; the rear of the king's forces was at Chesterford, and there they made great slaughter. Then was the king so wrath that he would have marched his forces in again, and wholly destroyed the land. When the Northumbrian Witan understood that, they forsook Eric, and made composition for the deed with King Edred."
The Chronicle goes on to say: "949. This year Aulaf (Olaf) Cuaran came to Northumberland," and in 952, "This year the Northumbrians expelled King Aulaf, and received Eric, Harald's son (Bloodaxe)." "954. This year the Northumbrians expelled Eric, and Edred obtained the kingdom of the Northumbrians." There is a mistake in the date. Matthew of Westminster would seem to have had some independent source of information, for he enters into particulars not found in the Chronicle, and places not the expulsion only, but the death of Eric in 950. "King Eilric, with his son Henry and his brother Reginald, were treacherously slain in a desolate place called Stanmore, through the treachery of Count Osulf, and by the hand of the Commander, Mace; after that, Edred reigned over these provinces." In Henry the son and Reginald the brother we recognise Harek and Rögnvald, stated in the Heimskringla to have fallen with Eric. Those who fell, according to Snorri, were Guthorm and his two sons Ivar and Harek,