Sagas & Legends
Egil's voyage to England.
King Eric ruled over Norway one year after the death of his father king Harold, before Hacon Athelstan's foster-son, another son of Harold, came out of the west from England; and in that same summer Egil Skallagrimsson went to Iceland. Hacon went northwards to Throndheim. He was there accepted as king. He and Eric were for the winter both king in Norway. But in the following spring each gathered an army. Hacon had by far the larger numbers; the reason of this was that he made it law in the land that every man should own his patrimony, where king Harold had enslaved all, rich and poor alike. Eric saw no other choice but to flee the land; so he went abroad with Gunnhilda his wife and their children. Lord Arinbjorn was king Eric's foster-brother, and foster-father of his son. Dear to the king was he above all his barons; the king had set him as ruler over all the Firth-folk. Arinbjorn was with the king when he left the land; they first went westwards over the main to the Orkneys. There Eric gave his daughter Ragnhildr in marriage to earl Arnfinn. After that he went south with his force along the coast of Scotland, and harried there; thence still south to England, and harried there. And when king Athelstan heard of this, he gathered force and went against Eric. But when they met, terms were proposed, and the terms were that king Athelstan gave to Eric the government of Northumberland; and he was to be for king Athelstan defender of the land against the Scots and Irish. Athelstan had made Scotland tributary under him after the death of king Olaf, but that people were constantly disloyal to him. The story goes that Gunnhilda had a spell worked, this spell being that Egil Skallagrimsson should find no rest in Iceland till she had seen him. But in that summer when Hacon and Eric had met and contended for Norway, all travel to any land from Norway was forbidden; so in that summer there came to Iceland from Norway neither ship nor tidings. Egil Skallagrimsson abode at his home.
But during the second winter that he was living at Borg after Skallagrim's death Egil became melancholy, and this was more marked as the winter wore on. And when summer came, Egil let it be known that he meant to make ready his ship for a voyage out in the summer. He then got a crew. He purposed to sail to England. They were thirty men on the ship. Asgerdr remained behind, and took charge of the house. Egil's purpose was to seek king Athelstan and look after the promise that he had made to Egil at their last parting.
It was late ere Egil was ready, and when he put to sea, the winds delayed him. Autumn then came on, and rough weather set in. They sailed past the north coast of the Orkneys. Egil would not put in there, for he thought king Eric's power would be supreme all over the islands. Then they sailed southwards past Scotland, and had great storms and cross winds. Weathering the Scotch coast they held on southwards along England; but on the evening of a day, as darkness came on, it blew a gale. Before they were aware, breakers were both seaward and ahead. There was nothing for it but to make for land, and this they did. Under sail they ran ashore, and came to land at Humber-mouth. All the men were saved, and most of the cargo, but as for the ship, that was broken to pieces.
When they found men to speak with, they learnt these tidings, which Egil thought good, that with king Athelstan all was well and with his kingdom: but other tidings were there which Egil thought dangerous, to wit, that king Eric Bloodaxe was there and Gunnhilda, and they had the government of the province, and Eric was but a short way up the country in the town of York. This also Egil learnt, that lord Arinbjorn was there with the king, and in great friendship with him.
And when Egil got to know these tidings, he resolved what to do. He thought he had little hope of escape, though he should try to conceal himself and to go disguised as long as he might till he were clear of Eric's dominions. For he was at that time easily known by such as should see him. He thought also it were a mean man's fate to be captured in such flight. So he took a bold heart, and resolved that at once, in that very night when they came there, he would get him a horse and ride to the town. He came there in the evening, and rode at once into the town. He had now a hood drawn over his helm, and was fully armed.
Egil inquired where in the town Arinbjorn was housed. It was told him. Thither he rode to the house. When he came to the hall-door, he dismounted from his horse, and found a man to speak to. It was told him that Arinbjorn sat at meat.
Egil said: 'I would fain, good fellow, you should go into the hall and ask Arinbjorn whether he will rather speak without or within to Egil Skallagrimsson.'
The man said: ''Tis but little trouble for me to do this errand.'
He went into the hall, and spoke quite loud: 'There is a man come here out before the door,' said he, 'big as a giant, and he begged me go in and ask whether thou wouldst rather without or within speak to Egil Skallagrimsson.'
Arinbjorn said: 'Go and beg him to bide without, nor shall he need to bide long.'
He did as Arinbjorn told him, went out and said what had been said to him.
Arinbjorn bade take up the tables; then went he out and all his house-carles with him.
And when Arinbjorn met Egil, he greeted him well, and asked why he was come there.
Egil in few words told him clearly of his journey: 'And now you shall see what counsel I ought to take, if you will give me any help.'
'Have you,' said Arinbjorn, 'before you came to this house met any men in the town who are likely to have known you?'
'None,' said Egil.
'Let men then take their weapons,' said Arinbjorn.
They did so. But when all were armed, then went they to the king's house. And when they came to the hall, then Arinbjorn knocked at the door, asking them to open, and saying who was there. The door-keepers at once opened the door. The king was sitting at table.
Arinbjorn then bade that they should go in twelve in number, naming for this Egil and ten others. 'Now shall you, Egil, bring the king your head and clasp his foot, but I will be your spokesman.'
Then they went in. Arinbjorn went before the king and saluted him. The king received him, and asked what he would have.
Arinbjorn said: 'I lead hither one who has come a long way to seek thee in thy place, and to be reconciled to thee. Great is this honour to thee, my lord, when thine enemies travel of their own free will from other lands, and deem they cannot endure thy wrath though thou be nowhere near. Now show thyself princely to this man. Let him get of thee good terms, seeing that he hath so magnified thine honour, as thou now mayst see, by braving many seas and dangers to come hither from his own home. No compulsion drove him to this journey, nought but goodwill to thee.'
Then the king looked round, and saw over men's heads where Egil stood. The king knew him at once, and, darting a keen glance at him, said: 'How wert thou so bold, Egil, that thou daredst to come before me? Thy last parting from me was such that of life thou couldst have from me no hope.'
Then went Egil up to the table, and clasped the foot of the king. He then sang:
'With cross-winds far cruising
I came on my wave-horse,
Eric England's warder
Eager soon to see.
Now wielder of wound-flash,
Wight dauntless in daring,
That strong strand of Harold's
Stout lineage I meet.'
King Eric said: 'I need not to count the crimes on thy hands, for they are so many and great that each one might well warrant that thou go not hence alive. Thou hast nothing else to expect but that here thou must die. This thou mightest know before, that thou wouldst get no terms from me.'
Gunnhilda said: 'Why shall not Egil be slain at once? Rememberest thou no more, O king, what Egil hath done to thee—slain thy friends and kin, ay, even thine own son to boot, and cursed thyself? Where ever was it known that a king was thus dealt with?'
Arinbjorn said: 'If Egil have spoken evil of the king, for that he can now atone in words of praise that shall live for all time.'
Gunnhilda said: 'We will hear none of his praise. O king, bid Egil be led out and beheaded. I will neither hear his words nor see him.'
Then said Arinbjorn: 'The king will not let himself be egged on to all thy dastardly work. He will not have Egil slain by night, for night-slaying is murder.'
The king said: 'So shall it be, Arinbjorn, as thou demandest. Egil shall live this night. Take thou him home with thee, and bring him to me in the morning.'
Arinbjorn thanked the king for his words: 'We hope, my lord, that henceforth Egil's cause will take a better turn. And though Egil has done great wrong against thee, yet look thou on this, that he has suffered much from thee and thy kin. King Harold thy father took the life of Thorolf, a man of renown, Egil's father's brother, for the slander of bad men, for no crime at all. And thou, O king, didst break the law in Egil's case for the sake of Bergonund; nay further thou didst wish to doom his death, and didst slay his men, and plunder all his goods, and withal didst make him an outlaw and drive him from the land. And Egil is one who will stand no teasing. But in every cause under judgment one must look on the act with its reasons. I will now have Egil in keeping for the night.'
Then Arinbjorn and Egil went back to the house, and when they came in they two went into a small upper room and talked over this matter. Arinbjorn said: 'The king just now was very wroth, yet methought his mood rather softened before the end, and fortune will now decide what may be the upshot. I know that Gunnhilda will set all her mind on marring your cause. Now I would fain that we take this counsel: that you be awake through the night, and compose a song of praise about king Eric. I should think it had best be a poem of twenty stanzas, and you might recite it to-morrow when we come before the king. Thus did Bragi my kinsman, when he was under the wrath of Bjorn king of Sweden; he composed a poem of praise about him in one night, and for it received his head. Now may we also have the same luck with the king, that you may make your peace with him, if you can offer him the poem of praise.'
Egil said: 'I shall try this counsel that you wish, but 'twas the last thing I ever meant, to sing king Eric's praises.'
Arinbjorn bade him try.
Then Arinbjorn went away, and had food and drink carried to the upper room. Egil was there alone for the night. Arinbjorn went to his men, and they sate over drink till midnight. Then Arinbjorn and his men went to the sleeping chambers, but before undressing he went up to the room to Egil, and asked how he was getting on with the poem.
Egil said that nothing was done. 'Here,' said he, 'has sate a swallow by the window and twittered all night, so that I have never got rest for that same.'
Whereupon Arinbjorn went away and out by the door leading up to the house-roof, and he sate by the window of the upper room where the bird had before sate. He saw that something of a shape witch-possest moved away from the roof. Arinbjorn sate there by the window all night till dawn. But after Arinbjorn had come there, Egil composed all the poem, and got it so by heart that he could recite it in the morning when he met Arinbjorn. They watched for a fit time to go before the king.
Next: CHAPTER LXIII. Egil recites the poem.