Toward the end of the ninth century, many of the Viking clans living in Norway became unhappy with their rank and social position and began looking westward to the newly discovered island of Iceland. Among them was a man named Ulf Ketilsson, known throughout western Norway as a seafarer and warrior, and often called Kveldulf, or "evening wolf".
Kveldulf had two sons, the oldest named Grim, and the younger named Thorolf Kveldulfsson. Kveldulf and his sons made several trips to Iceland before finally deciding to move their families there permanently. Unfortunately, Kveldulf died on the final journey to their new home, but his sons and their families survived the journey and settled in a region called Borg, along the Borgafiord near the Naustaness. They supported their families there by farming and trading, supplemented by occasional raids on coastal towns in the Orkneys and in western Scotland.
Grim eventually moved farther south and founded a settlement near where the Lang river empties into Brakkar sound, which in time became known as Grimsholt. Like his father, he grew bald early in life, and came to be called Skallagrim, or Grim the Bald. In their day Skallagrim and Thorolf led many raiding parties down the English and Irish coasts, and were much feared in the Hebrides. Later, Skallagrim married and settled down to farming in Grimsholt, where he raised a family of his own. It is there that our story begins.
Scene 1: Midmorning, spring of the year 928. The Borgafiord region of western Iceland.
The sun struggles to rise above the gray horizon and low clouds that hang over the Borgafiord. In a narrow bay at Naustaness, several Viking longships lay at anchor, with others braced up for repair beyond the tide mark on the rocky shore. High above on a rocky plain that separates the fiords lies a small Viking settlement, with local folk going about their daily business. Farms of various sizes and shapes dot the brown fields surrounding the village, which consists of family houses, servant quarters, liveries and the like.
From the door of a large farmhouse two young men emerge, carrying heavy swords, halberds, leather armor, and two large sea chests. Servants load the baggage onto an oxcart while the two men bid their farewells to their family. This is the farm known as Grimsholt, the lands and holdings of Skallagrim, son of Kveldulf.
The two men climb aboard the oxcart and it begins to make its way down the narrow switchback trail that leads to the harbor below. Although they are brothers, they are very different in appearance. Thorolf, the eldest, is tall and well-built, with fair hair and blue eyes. He waves genially to the townsfolk who wish him a safe journey as the cart passes through the settlement. His brother, Egil, stares slently off into the distance toward the Borgafiord and the ships in the harbor below. Although he is 10 years younger than Thorolf, in his 18th year, he is taller and larger, with a broad back and a large frame. In marked contrast to his brother, he has long, coarse dark hair covering an enormous head, with black eyes framed by a broad face and flat nose. In the gray light that passes for daytime near the arctic circle, he looks almost lionlike.
As the oxcart disappears beyond the brow of the cliffs, the sun breaks through the low clouds and lights up the fiord below.
Scene 2: Later that morning.
A Viking longship is tied up on a rocky beach at the end of the narrow inlet. Weapons, provisions, and cargo are being loaded aboard the ship. From the north, off the narrow path leading from the top of the crag, an oxcart approaches. It clatters to a halt beneath the dragonhead at the prow of the ship.
Thorolf leaps from the cart, and is greeted by much backslapping and friendly jousting. This will be his third voyage, and many of the ships crew have sailed and fought with him before. Manservants begin offloading the oxcart and carrying Thorolf and Egil's belongings up a narrow gangplank and onto the ship. Thorolf motions Egil over to the group standing near the shore and introduces him to the crew. Although this will be his first voyage, he is already well known to some of the men from the village. Egil is the very image of his father Skallagrim in looks and personality -- sullen, sometimes brutish, and possessed of fearsome physical size and strength. Despite his youth, he is larger than any other man in the village. Some remember him as the boy who, at the age of six, killed an eleven year-old playmate who taunted him during a game.
A keg of mead has been hacked open with a shortaxe and is being passed among the men as the loading of the ship is completed. Soon, the 30-man crew is aboard and preparations are being made to cast off. Most of the men take their positions at the oars, seated upon their sea chests and facing aft with their backs to the fiord. Egil takes his place on the port side amidships, directly across from Thorolf. The low fog that has shrouded the fiord since dawn finally begins to lift as the ship casts off, with the chief oarsman beating out a rhythm on the cadence drum. Servants and onlookers bid farewell as the ship pulls steadily away from shore, the men chanting a rhythmic shanty in time to the drum. Soon the ship is lost in the thinning fog, leaving only fading drumbeats in the damp morning air.
Scene 3: Dawn, three weeks later. A small village near the mouth of the Tyne river in northeastern England.
Daylight struggles over the low ridge that marks the eastern edge of the Tyne valley. The sleepy village slowly comes alive, with sheep and cattle being driven off to the pasture lands, and the shops and smithy beginning to stir. Several hundred yards to the north, on a bluff overlooking the river, stands the monastery of St. Augusta. The high bell tower that looms over the ragged cliff face to the north begins to catch the first rays of the morning sun.
A warning bell begins to clang from near the laundering rocks at the rivers edge. Above the clatter of geese and pigs, a fearsome cry goes out: "Northmen!" In the distance, a Viking longship can be seen sailing up the Tyne estuary toward the village. Suddenly, and with dizzying speed, two dozen heavily armed Viking warriors are cresting the eastern ridge, brandishing swords, spears, and axes and carrying shields of linden wood. Within seconds, they are upon the terrified villagers, hacking and looting and burning everything in sight. All the men who have not run off are quickly dispatched, while the women are gathered up and the children scatter.
A dozen or so Vikings break off from the main group and race up the hill toward the monastery, with Egil and Thorolf among them. Inside, the monks have heard the warning and seen the carnage below. The main door has been heavily barred, and the clergy have retreated to the chapel deep inside the abbey walls. As heavy swords and axes are falling upon the outer door, the monks begin to pray for deliverance.
Soon, a ram has been fashioned from a fallen oak and some strong ropes, and the Viking assault on the abbey door is in full force. Inside, those of the clergy whose faith has been overcome by fear are retreating to the bell tower on the far side of the monastery. Beyond this tower lies a sheer cliff face falling off steeply to the forest below. Some of the monks have fastened knotted lengths of cord to the end of the bell rope and cast it out the top of the tower and down the cliff side. As the pounding on the main door grows louder and louder, it is accompanied by the pealing of the tower bell as each of the monks goes down the side of the cliff on the bell rope.
Eventually, the door gives way in a shower of splinters and bent strapping. Viking swordsmen pour into the abbey and soon reach the inner chapel. One by one the monks fall, some deep in prayer, some screaming in fear. Egil is particularly savage in his assault, nearly halving men with great sweeps of his long sword Adder. His unparalleled violence takes everyone by surprise, even Thorolf. But, unknown to them both, beneath the bodies of two fallen clerics a single living witness plays dead, watching with horror through slitted eyes. And even as the chapel floor becomes littered with limp figures in bloodied sackcloth, the tower bell continues to chime.
Egil suddenly freezes, seeming to notice the bell for the first time. For a moment, he stands motionless, spattered with blood and drawing great breaths. Then, he and Einar the Berserker race off in the direction of the bell tower. On his way past a startled Thorolf, he snatches a large war axe from his hands.
At the top of the tower, only two monks remain. On the rope and descending are two more, spaced widely apart. Hearing the Vikings pounding up the stairway, both clerics seize the rope, swing out through the window, and begin scampering down the side in close formation. The bell peals loudly and groans noticeably in its mountings from the added weight on the rope. Einar and Egil reach the top of the tower too late to stop the terrified monks.
As Einar unsheathes his dagger to cut the rope, Egil begins hacking away at the bell mount with his war axe. With each swing of the heavy blade, the bell shudders ominously. Einar raises his sword and joins Egil in hacking away at the wooden cradle that supports the bell. The makeshift rope quivers with each blow, and the badly frightened monks find themselves faced with terror above and certain death below. Suddenly, the mounting gives way, and the bell is ripped from its cradle by the weight of the monks on the rope. It crashes through the window, narrowly missing Einar's head, and careens down the side of the tower, bouncing and crashing down the cliff and onto the monks below.
Scene 4: Later that same day.
Laden with religious artifacts, golden chalices, and silver candlesticks, as well as provisions and goods from the village, the longship sets sail from the mouth of the Tyne, heading south along the coast. For the next several months and through the summer, the Viking raiders lay siege to many towns along the eastern coast of England, rolling like a juggernaut through village after village. Egil distinguishes himself as a fearsome warrior, earning the awe and respect of every man in the crew. In more peaceful moments, and quite surprisingly to most, he also turns out to be a great teller of stories and chronicles many of his and the crew's adventures in skalds, or verses. By the fall of that year, he has distinguished himself as a unique blend of intellectual and poet, and has earned a reputation as one of the most feared of the northern marauders ever to ravage the English countryside.
Scene 5: September, 934. A farmhouse near Grimsholt, at dusk.
An early fall descends on the Borgafiord, bringing with it earlier evenings and longer nights. As the sun sinks beyond the western ridge, lamps and fires are being lit all over the settlement. A Viking woman is hanging an oil lamp from a post just outside the farmhouse door. She looks anxiously out toward the gathering gloom over Brakkar sound, and slowly retreats inside.
Several small children are being readied for bed and settled down for the night on straw mattresses in a corner of the house. Aesgerd, wife of Thorolf Skallagrimsson, sits in a chair by the fire and begins to sew up a tattered tunic. After a time she stops, and stares wistfully across the dimness of the small room. She goes to a window and strains to see through the blackness outside. Then, returning to the fire, she takes up the tunic again, but is soon distracted by the dancing flames in the hearth.
She reminisces about times that she and Thorolf spent together in Borg before he went to sea again. They have been married but two years, and she finds herself wondering where he is tonight, and whether he is safe and well. As do many sea wives, she often spends evenings such as these worrying whether she will ever see him again. Many wives have waited years for their husbands or sons or fathers to return from their voyages, only to be greeted with a few personal possessions and a tale of glorious death when the longships arrive.
In the quiet of her home, she softly whispers a prayer to Sigrd, the Goddess of Viking wives:
Sigrd, if you hear my plea, Lead him safely home to me. Keep him ever in your sight -- Guide him through the endless night To the watchfire's light, And the heart that kindles it bright. And I hope, if he's journeyed to thee, That a watchlight will be burning for me. And I hold this place Til our next embrace, And I wait for him...
Outside, a cold and moonless night has covered the settlement, broken only by the watchlights that hang outside every door.
Scene 6: The forests of northern England on a September afternoon.
A band of Nordic hunters have ventured into the deep northern forests in pursuit of English deer. They are armed with bows and spears, and are somewhat drunkenly crashing their way through the thick undergrowth on English plow horses. From their casual behavior, it is clear that they are more interested in the pleasure of the hunt itself than in the prey they are stalking.
Near the middle of the group, Egil's mount staggers through the wood under the combined weight of Egil and an enormous cask of English ale. He occasionally stops to bellow directions to the lead hunters, who are equally inebriated. Finally, the group bursts out into a sunlit meadow, and the men dismount, resting on a rocky outcropping and proceeding to lighten Egil's load by emptying the cask of ale.
After a time, a lone deer appears at the far edge of the glade. Egil hushes the rowdy crew, wipes the ale from his beard with a dirty sleeve, and takes up a spear. He slowly and purposefully begins moving across the clearing toward the deer, who is eyeing him curiously. The combination of his large stature, long shaggy hair, and thick beard makes Egil look almost like some type of bear in a Viking tunic, with the possible exception of the late summer sun gleaming off his bald head. Still, the deer continues to watch as Egil draws closer and closer. At thirty yards, Egil reckons that he can move in no closer. Slowly, he raises the spear to his shoulder. The deer continues to stand motionless. As Egil readies his throw, rising up like some great furry statue, he can faintly hear the laughter of his men behind him.
With a blood curdling roar, Egil charges toward the animal and gives the spear a mighty thrust. Just as the weapon is leaving his huge hand, his foot catches on a half-buried root and he pitches wildly forward, landing face first in the tall grass. The startled deer has disappeared into the forest long before the spear buries itself to the shaft in an ash tree at the edge of the clearing. Somewhere behind him, Egil's comrades are beside themselves with laughter.
Staggering across the meadow with the horses, the Vikings labor mightily to bring Egil to his feet. With their assistance, and after several tries, Egil is remounted and the mighty hunters begin to make their way back to camp, despite Egil's insistence that they bring the ash tree back as a trophy.
Scene 7: June, 937. A clear and moonlit night in the country of central England.
Accompanied by a small group of mercenaries, among them Egil Skallagrimsson, a weary contingent of King Athelstan's army has made camp in a clearing. Nearby stands a ragged row of large standing stones carved with rough patterns and markings.
These men have come from a great battle with the Scots at Vin Moor, in the English highlands. It was there, 2 days earlier, that Thorolf Skallagrimsson had fallen in battle. The English forces had been overrun badly, and many of the dead had been looted and stripped of their weapons. Egil had washed the body of his brother and provided as proper a Viking burial as could be managed. Now, he sits by the fire staring into the night, trying to overcome the mental image of his beloved brother buried alone in a shallow grave in a foreign land. In his tunic he carries Thorolf's ring and the magic rune charms he carried for luck. They are all he has to bring home to Thorolf's wife and young daughter.
Trying to ease Egil's painful reverie, one of his mercenary comrades attempts to engage him in conversation. He cautiously inquires if Egil plans to compose a verse in honor of his fallen brother. Egil pays no attention, continuing to stare off into the darkness until he is finally, gratefully left alone. As the others scatter to their sleeping areas, Egil rises and walks up a low hill toward the standing stones. Being a clear night with a brilliant moon, he takes no torch to guide his way, preferring to be alone in the dark with his grief.
The stones cast eerie moonshadows along the hillside, and the air becomes very still as he approaches the monuments. Running a rough hand over the weathered granite, he composes a verse:
Who can remember, generations ago, When the people who lived here Raised these stones? After thousands of seasons, After hundreds of years, Who can remember? We seek the future in the casting of Runes, But what can their magic guarantee? Just a name in a story, or a face in a past Than no one remembers. Ghosts of the ancients walking these hills Often disturb my sleep. What are the secrets they whisper to us That stones in silence keep? When all our footprints have melted away, When we are dead and gone, How will our deeds have enlightened the way For sons to carry on? When the swords of their fathers Have all turned into rust, Who will remember how they shone? When the fires of our families Have all burned into dust, Who will remember...Us?
After Thorolf's death, Egil sought and received just compensation for his family's loss from Athelstan, king of Northumbria. He stayed in England for some time, fighting many battles in the service of Athelstan. After two years, he returned to Norway, where Thorolf had moved his family some years before.
Remaining for a time in Norway, Egil grew fond of Aesgerd and delighted in his young niece, Thordis. After seeking the advice of the runes, and careful counsel from Aesgerd's family, Egil married his brother's widow. For a time, they were very happy, and it seemed that Egil might even settle into the life of the local gentry. Then, in a foolish dispute, Egil killed the son of Erik Bloodaxe, the ruthless heir to the Norwegian throne. Egil was declared an outlaw, and a sizeable sum was placed on his head by Prince Erik. Taking Aesgerd and his family, Egil fled Norway for the western fiords of Iceland.
After some years trying his hand at farming and other peaceful pursuits at Borg, Egil grew restless for adventure. Longing to once again serve Odin in the ways he new best, he had a longship built, hired a crew, and set out once again for England.
Scene 1: Early October, 948. A port on the eastern coast of England, south of York.
Egil's two longships are being provisioned for the journey back to Iceland. After 3 years of raiding in the British Isles, he is anxious to return home. In recent months, he has heard rumors that his old nemesis Erik Bloodaxe has been driven out of Norway, and has set up a kingdom in exile at York, just to the north. With his crew tired from fighting and his ships badly in need of refitting, Egil wants no part of a quarrel with Erik at the moment. Although he would normally hug the coast north to Scotland, he decides to risk sailing northeast, well off the English coast until he reaches friendlier lands in Northumbria.
The ships depart with the morning tide and are soon well out to sea. Guided only by the sun and stars, they track north-northeast through rougher and rougher seas. Although the going is slow, and autumn is fast approaching, the crew is looking forward to seeing their families and friends again.
Scene 2: That evening. The North Sea.
Heavy gray clouds have been building along the horizon, and Egil has been eyeing them with concern. A late summer storm is blowing in fast from the northeast, and Egil turns his ships northwest, tacking across the wind in an attempt to either skirt along the edge of the storm or make a safe landfall to tie up and ride it out.
But the storm is increasing in speed and intensity, and within mere hours it is upon them. The ships become separated in the rain and heavy seas, and navigation becomes impossible. There is nothing that can be done save to tie down the cargo and provisions and ride it out. The storm reaches its peak intensity as darkness falls, and some of the men begin to fear the worst. Egil lashes himself to the tiller and prays silently to Odin.
Soon after nightfall, the storm lightens, but the winds continue to toss the ship on heavy seas. Egil dozes off, and with the breaking of dawn finds his battered longship taking on water, its rigging destroyed and many of the oars lost. He guides the boat to a landfall and beaches it, uncertain of his location or the condition of his other ship. As the sun begins to climb over a calming sea, a wary Egil sets off inland with a small contingent of men to scout for timber to repair his ship, as well as for food and shelter for his crew.
Climbing a small promontory, Egil sights a monastery to the south, on a bluff overlooking a narrow bay. Several small boats are tied up on the shore, and no one is about. Before long, the Vikings have reached the monastery, where they attract the attention of several monks in the garden near the main wall. Realizing that his forces are too weak for a full assault, Egil demands to be taken to the Abbot, and is led into the abbey despite his refusal to disarm himself or his men.
In the chambers of the Abbot, Egil demands food and supplies, and announces his intention to make off with the small boats in the harbor as well. Although he is far better at fighting than bargaining, he tries bluffing the Abbot into believing that two longships lay at anchor beyond the promontory, and threatens to lay waste to the monastery if his demands are not met. The Abbot offers no resistance, and promises food and shelter in the stables and storehouses nearby. Accepting the cleric's offer, Egil dispatches a man back to the ship with instructions for the remaining crew, and orders him to return before dark.
After Egil and his men have left for the storehouses, the Abbot summons two young clerics and sends them away on important missions. The first man is instructed to make his way through the catacombs that lead into caves beneath the abbey and down to the shore. From there he is to skirt up the coast and verify the existence of the two Viking longships. The second man is sent with a sealed note southwest through the forest to a nearby castle. He tells neither of these couriers that he recognizes the leader of the Vikings who will soon be emptying the abbey storehouse, for he has seen him once before. Some twenty years earlier, while a novice cleric, the Abbot had witnessed Egil's savagery during a Viking raid near a village on the the Tyne, where the frightened monk had survived by feigning death beneath the bodies of his fallen brothers.
Scene 3: That same afternoon.
The two clerics have returned and reported to the Abbot. The first monk reports that the two Viking longships were a ruse -- there is only one, and not a seaworthy one at that. This confirms the Abbot's suspicions -- after all, with a force that strong, why would these Vikings issue a set of demands instead of simply raiding the abbey and seizing what they needed? And why would they need the small boats in the harbor if they had two fully manned warships already? The second cleric returns with a sealed response from the castle. As the Abbot reads it, a crooked smile forms on his lips.
At the storehouse some hundred yards beyond the main gate, Egil is supervising the systematic looting of the monastery stores. Late in the afternoon, his man returning from the ship reports that riders are approaching from the southwest and appear to be heavily armed. Egil orders all his men back into the monastery. But at the main gate, he is met by the Abbot, who has barred the door, stubbornly refusing to permit armed conflict on holy ground. He explains, however, that there are subterranean passages beneath the monastery that connect with ancient sea caves leading down to the shore, where an escape could be made. Egil is no better at retreating than he is at bargaining, but his choices are very limited. Hearing distant hoofbeats approaching the abbey, he reluctantly agrees.
As Egil and his men are led down a dark and narrow stairway from the cloisters to the underground chambers, he can already hear the pounding of sword pommels on the monastery's main door, accompanied by demands for entry.
Scene 4: The catacombs beneath the monastery.
Egil and his men are being led through shallow passageways that weave their way like a maze down to the sea caves. He follows the monks closely, wary of any trap or false steps, his large frame stooped over in the shallow tunnels.
The walls of these narrow and damp passages are inset with holy relics and the decaying remains of dead clerics. In the dim and flickering light cast by the torches, grinning skulls stare back at them through deep, empty sockets. Occasionally, the passage opens up into a larger chamber where wine or oil has been stored in large barrels. The whole place smells remotely like a grave, and Egil doesn't like it at all.
Eventually, the passage opens up into a cave cut into the hillside by the ocean waves over thousands of years. The tunnel is wider and taller, but the floor is uneven and difficult to traverse. In the distance, the sea can be heard faintly echoing through the cave. At last the mouth of the tunnel appears, and the party slows. The tide is low, and a considerable distance lies between the Vikings and the boats, which are beached beyond the high water mark, sitting at odd angles on the tidal plain. Egil decides to keep the clerics as hostages until the boats are reached and they are safely away. But it is nearly dusk, and there is some discussion over whether to immediately depart or to wait for darkness. Finally, Egil decides they cannot wait, and leads the men out over the tidal plain.
The Vikings are no more than thirty paces from the mouth of the cave when the thunder of horses pours down from the hillside and onto the rocky beach. A quick glance reveals that they have been swiftly surrounded by nearly a hundred armed men, some soldiers armed with spears and bows, some villagers carrying scythes and hammers. Egil's party numbers less than twelve, and they are badly outflanked. Seizing an opportunity, the hostages break away, scurrying back into the cave past the armed soldiers now guarding the opening. In the fading light, Egil can make out the figure of the Abbot standing on the hillside above the cave. Overcome with rage, he is ready to spring for the cleric, determined to die with his hands firmly around the old man's neck, but he is brought up short by the weight of a halberd rested gently on his shoulder. He turns slowly toward the weapon, and finds himself staring up at a helmeted warrior on horseback. A voice from the helmet speaks to him in Norwegian, bidding him welcome to the kingdom of York. The voice belongs to Erik Bloodaxe.
Scene 5: That evening. The court of Erik Bloodaxe in the York Woulds.
The Vikings have been marched several miles to Erik's castle. Egil now stands in chains before the exiled king's court, accused of the murder of Erik's son several years before in Norway. Egil says nothing, but stares defiantly at Bloodaxe as he is sentenced to be executed immediately.
Risking the king's wrath, a member of the court named Arinbjorn steps forward. He reminds his liege that according to Viking tradition, executions can only be carried out in daylight, so the dead man's soul can find its way to Valhalla. Irritated by his oath as a Norwegian nobleman to uphold such traditions, Erik angrily questions why Arinbjorn would come to the defense of this man. Arinbjorn quickly explains that he is cousin to Aesgerd, Thorolf's widow and now Egil's wife, which makes him her kinsman. For the sake of his family's honor, Arinbjorn offers to hold Egil in custody at his lodgings until dawn when the sentence can be carried out. With great reluctance, and against the vehement wishes of his wife Gunhild, Erik agrees.
His chains removed, Egil goes with Arinbjorn to his house, knowing that to flee would bring dishonor to his wife's family as well as certain death to his men. Arinbjorn tells Egil about a man he once knew who, condemned to death, successfully bargained for his release by composing a poem honoring his captors. Arinbjorn suggests to Egil that he compose a verse honoring the greatness of Erik Bloodaxe, and that he recite the poem as his last statement before execution. He knows his king well, and hopes that Erik's giant ego may be so stimulated by the verse that he may reconsider putting Egil to death. Although filled with hatred for Bloodaxe and his like, Egil agrees to try, and labors throughout the night on his poem.
The next day at dawn, Egil is brought before the court and granted the traditional last statement before the execution is carried out. He stands alone in the center of the great hall, surrounded by Erik's soldiers and courtiers. He looks strangely out of proportion with his surroundings, standing nearly a head taller than any man in the room, his wild beard and black eyes forming a sharp contrast with the smoothness of his bald head. He proceeds to pace about the room, seemingly addressing everyone in turn, and begins reciting his verse:
By sun and moon I journeyed west, My sea-borne tune from Odin's breast, My song-ship packed with poet's art To crack the frozen heart. And when I feed with English kings To English mead I'll word-mead bring: Your praise my task, my song your fame, But ask -- I sound your name. These praises, king, won't cost you dear That I shall sing if you will hear: Who beat and blazed your trail of red Till Odin's trumpet sounded. The warlord weaves his web of fear, Each man receives his fated share: A blood-red sun the warrior's shield, And blood to feed the war field. Break not the spell but silent be, To you I'll tell their bravery: At clash of kings on carrion-field The red blade stains the shield. The ravens dined upon this fare The bloody wind, the deadly air; The Scotsmen's foes fed wolves with meat And dealt their woes defeat. Valkyries keep the troops awake -- There's little sleep when shield-walls shake, When arrows fly from taut bow-string To lie among the dying. The peace is torn by flying spears, When bows are drawn, wolves prick their ears. The yew-bows shrill, the edges bite, And Erik wins the war-fight. I praise the king throughout his land And keenly sing his open hand, His hand so free with golden spoil, But vise-like with his soil. Upon his arm the bright shield brings, To foes, his harm; to friends, his rings; His fame's a feast of glorious war That sounds from shore to shore. And now, my lord, you've listened long As word on word I've built this song Your source is war, your streams are blood, With springs that pour from Odin. To praise my lord this tight mouth broke, The word-flood poured, the still tongue spoke, From poet's breast these words took wing For all the rest to sing.
As the poem concludes, Egil resumes his position at the center of the great hall. Erik, seated at the throne, is stroking his beard thoughtfully and staring back at Egil. He demands of Arinbjorn what trickery this verse portends. Arinbjorn calmly points out that Egil has done the king a great honor, perhaps in equal measure to the dishonor done by the death of Erik's son. He further expresses his sorrow that Egil's masterful tribute to the great Erik Bloodaxe will certainly die along with him instead of being sung by generations to come.
There is a long silence in the great hall. Finally, Erik rises and approaches Egil. In return for his verse, Egil is granted a reprieve for his misdeeds, and he and his men are granted their freedom. However, Egil is still an outlaw, and must depart immediately, never again to cross paths with the Bloodaxe clan in England or in Norway.
Egil and his men are escorted by Arinbjorn and a contingent of soldiers back to the harbor near the monastery, where they board several of the small boats and prepare to set off. As they bid good-bye, Arinbjorn presents Egil with a gift -- the great sword, called Dragvendil, that had belonged to Egil's brother Thorolf. This sword had been handed down to Thorolf from old Skallagrim, who had received it from his brother Thorolf Kveldulfsson. The sword had been taken by Arinbjorn during a raid on a Scot outpost some months before.
Egil called the verse he wrote that day the "Head Ransom", and wrote later of it:
That juggler of justice, That gift-lord of jackals, Let the black-brow boast Of his boon to Egil: My wife's kinsman's courage Came to my aid, In spite of that sword-king I keep my old skull.
Six years later, at the battle of Steinmore, Erik Bloodaxe would be sent to Valhalla by the great sword Dragvendil, wielded in the hands of Egil Skallagrimsson.
Scene 6: May, 974. The farm of Grim of Mosfell, Egil's son-in-law, in western Iceland.
Depressed by the untimely death of his two oldest sons, followed not long after by the death of his wife Aesgerd, Egil has turned his holdings over to his ungrateful son Thorstein and moved south to Mosfell, where he lives with Thorolf's daughter Thordis and her husband, Grim of Mosfell.
Egil, now in his mid-sixties and stooped over with age, requires more and more help simply to just get around. He is gradually going blind, and his adopted daughter Thordis, whom he loves more than his own children, dotes over him constantly. The two are walking back to the farm from the rocky beach where Egil has watched his son-in-law's longship depart for a voyage to Norway. After seven voyages abroad in his prime, along with countless shorter journeys to Norway, Egil has become the elder advisor for the local seafarers. Although he is growing increasingly infirm and can no longer travel easily, he still feels a part of those voyages by overseeing the outfitting of the ships.
As they approach the farm, an icy rain begins to fall. Thordis wraps Egil in her shawl to ward off the chill and the dampness. When they reach an outcropping overlooking the fiord, Egil pauses, gazing out over the water. He knows that soon his sight will fail completely, and even this small pleasure will be denied him. Although he looks forward to the coming and going of the longships, he also realizes that a warrior who can no longer serve Odin in battle is of little use.
His thoughts go back to Thorolf, now little more than frozen bones in some distant land, and yet holding an honored place in Odin's great banquet hall at Valhalla. While death promises great honors for fallen heroes, old age promises none, not even for a warrior made invincible in battle by Odin. This was the bargain Egil had stuck early on with the Allfather -- invincibility in battle in return for unswerving loyalty to Odin. Although it is said that the Gods do not bargain with mortals, for Egil this is not so. This bargain was honored, by both the man and the God, but at a high cost to the man, a debt not yet fully paid by the son of Skallagrim.
Thordis tugs gently at Egil's sleeve, urging him toward the farmhouse and the warmth of the fire. For a moment he stares gratefully into her eyes. She has shown him more love than any of his own children, but he regrets the burden he has become. And yet the eyes that meet his reflect nothing but care and concern for her foster father, for his comfort and dignity.
The ice rain makes a soft sound upon the cold ground as they make their way back to the farm.
Scene 7: Late September, 990. A small room off the main chamber of the Mosfell farmhouse.
The morning sun rises later and later as autumn falls across Iceland. In the dark room, the light of the fire casts dancing shadows along the earthen walls. In a corner near the fire stands the great sword Dragvendil, unsheathed and leaning against the wall. Drawing closer, one can faintly make out scenes of past glory reflected in its ancient steel, the battles fought by Kveldulf, the first journey made by Skallagrim to Iceland, and the wars waged by Thorolf the Elder and Thorolf Skallagrimsson.
Fierce raids can be seen reflected on the blade, of the assault on the monastery near the Tyne river so many years before. A moment in a hunt for English deer passes by, as well as one recalling a great storm off the coast of York, and the Head Ransom in the court of Erik Bloodaxe. Gradually, the images fade and disappear entirely, leaving only the cold steel glinting in the firelight.
Scene 8: Another corner of the room.
An old man sits hunched over in a soft chair near the fire, wrapped in blankets. In his eightieth year, Egil Skallagrimsson is now completely blind and can only speak with difficulty. His great head, seeming impossibly large in proportion the rest of his body, bobs and sags under its own considerable weight. Slowly, the old man opens his eyes, and stares into the distance as if experiencing a vision. Silently, he composes a verse to himself:
A leaden weight lies on my tongue, I cannot speak or sing. The ravages of time have stripped My soul of everything That once was mine -- a father, brother, Even sons and wives. Now, only ugly Egil still survives. The fever of my arrogance Has burned away my youth, And though my eyes failed long ago, At last I see the truth -- The price of Odin's favor Is a heavy price to pay: To linger on while living melts away, Cruelly denied The Valkyries' ride Taking me home to Odin. A thousand men, or more, I sent To Odin's holy place. Their names are lost to me, But I remember every face... Around the fires of countless camps My name was roundly cursed, And countless deeds immortalized in verse. I gave my life to Odin As the keeper of his flame, And were those choices mine once more, I'd make them all the same. Save but for this -- for eighty years Is far too long to last When everything you were is in the past. Fate was, for me, A dark mystery -- Why did the Runes not show this? But, none of that will matter now, For time is growing late. The keeper of my destiny Upon the headland waits. And yet it is with grateful heart I sail to meet my kin -- At last, the final voyage can begin...
The old man's eyes close, and he grows still. In the hearth, the fire begins to die out.
Egil was buried at Mosfell in a traditional Viking grave surrounded by stones arranged in the shape of a longship and covered with a ceremonial mound. Buried along with him were his finest clothes and armor, many of his treasures brought back from far off lands, and the great sword Dragvendil.
In the year 1000, ten years after Egil's death, Iceland converted to Christianity, and the ways of Odin were honored no more. Grim of Mosfell had a chapel built on the Mosfell farm, and Egil's remains were reinterred beneath the altar. In the mid twelfth century, Egil's descendants built a larger chapel a half kilometer from the original site. When razing the old structure, Egil's bones and other artifacts were uncovered from beneath the altar, and were reburied in a place of honor beneath the floor of the new church. Also interred with him was the pagan marker stone from the original burial mound. On this stone was an inscription carved in the old runic Futhark, bearing these words:
Here lies Egil, Son of Skallagrim. He stands tall in the prow, And steers the vessel well, Holding ever for harbor And home.
Original lyrics for "Watchlights", "Who Can Remember?", and "The Price" by Gary Poisson.
Lyrics for "Head Ransom" adapted from "Head Ransom" by Egil Skallagrimsson, translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards.
All material © Copyright 1996 by Gary Poisson, All rights Reserved.