The Northern Way


5. AMLUTH - Page 1

Amluth was one who put no credence in his uncle's claims. But fearing Feng might suspect him, he feigned madness.

Every day he lay by the hearth of his mother's house, rolling in the dirt. Nothing that he said was anything other than madness. At other times he would sit over the fire, fashioning wooden crooks, hardening them in the fire and shaping barbs at their ends to make them hold more tightly.

Someone asked him what he was doing.

'I am preparing sharp javelins to avenge my father,' was his crazy reply. Everyone scoffed at this; but it helped him afterwards.

But these words made some of Feng's thanes suspect a cunning mind beneath the mad behaviour.

'His skill suggests he has the hidden talent of a craftsman,' said one of them to the king.

'His mind is quick enough,' said another, 'and he only acts the fool to hide some other intentions.'

'Can you prove his deceitfulness?' asked Feng thoughtfully.

'We would, my lord,' said a thane, 'if we put a beautiful woman in his way, in some secluded place, and tempt him to acts of love. All men are too blind in love to be cunning.'
So Feng sent his thanes to take the young man to a remote part of the forest, and do all that they thought necessary.

Among them was Amluth's foster-brother, who did not want to trap Amluth, but decided to warn him if he could. He could see that Amluth would suffer the most if he behaved sanely, and if he made love to the girl openly. But Amluth was aware of this also. When the men asked him to mount his horse, he sat upon it backwards, putting the reins on the tail. They rode on, and a wolf crossed Amluth's path through the thicket.

'A young colt has met you,' said one of the thanes, laughing at his own wit.

'In Feng's stud there are too few of that king fighting,' said Amluth. There were some frowns at this, which seemed to them a wittier answer than they had expected.

'Your answer is cunning,' said the first thane, ruefully.

'I speak nothing but truth,' replied Amluth. He had no wish to be seen to lie about anything, and he mingled truth with wit to reveal nothing about the matter or about himself.

They came to the beach, where the thanes found the steering-oar of a wrecked ship.

'Look, Amluth,' said one, 'we have found a huge knife!'

'Then it was the right thing to carve so big a ham,' Amluth replied. There was laughter at this, but in fact he meant the sea, which matched the steering-oar in vastness.

As they rode past the dunes, one said;

'Look at this meal!' referring the sand.

'The tempests of the ocean have ground it small,' Amluth replied.

'That's not the answer of a fool,' said the thane accusingly.

'I spoke it wittingly,' replied Amluth.
Then the thanes left him, so he could pluck up the courage for love-making. In a dark place he encountered his foster-sister, who was the woman Feng had sent to tempt him. He took her, and would have slept with her immediately, had her brother not given him some idea that this was a trap. For the man had attached a straw to the tail of a gadfly, which he had sent in Amluth's direction, and Amluth guessed from this that it was a secret warning to beware treachery. So he dragged the maid off to a distant fen, where they made love. Before they did so, Amluth secretly laid down three objects he had gathered during the journey. Once they had lain together, he asked her earnestly to tell no one. She agreed in view of their long friendship.

When he returned home, the thanes were waiting for him.

'Did you give way?' asked one slyly.

'Why, I ravished the maid,' he replied.

'Where did you do it?' asked another. 'And what was your pillow?'

'I rested on the hoof of a donkey, a cockscomb, and a ceiling,' replied Amluth, and all laughed at the mad reply, but in truth, it had been fragments of these three objects that Amluth had laid down on the ground before sleeping with his foster-sister.

'Is what this madman says true?' they asked the girl.

'He did no such thing!' she replied firmly. Also Amluth's escort agreed that it would have been impossible.

Then Amluth's foster-brother said;

'Latterly, I have been singly devoted to you, brother.'

In reply, Amluth said;

'I saw a certain thing bearing a straw flit by suddenly, wearing a stalk of chaff fixed to its hind parts.' Although the others laughed, his foster brother rejoiced.
So none of them had succeeded in tricking Amluth. But one of Feng's thanes, in council, said;

'No simple plot can prove Amluth's cunning. 'His obstinacy is great, and his wiliness is many-sided.'

'Then what do you suggest?' asked the king.

'I have thought of a better way, which will certainly help us learn what we wish. My lord, you must leave the palace, claiming that affairs of state take you elsewhere. Closet Amluth alone with his mother in her chamber, but first place a man in hiding in the room to listen to their speech. If Amluth has any wits he will not hesitate to trust his mother.'

Feng nodded approvingly.
Feng left the court claiming to be on a long journey. His thane went secretly to Garthryth's chamber, and hid himself in the straw. But Amluth was ready for any treachery. Afraid of eavesdroppers, he crowed like a noisy cock on entering the room, flapping his arms as if they were wings. Then he began to jump up and down on the straw to see if anything lurked there. Feeling a lump under his feet, he drove his sword in, and impaled the thane. Then he dragged the man from hiding and slew him. After that he hacked the body into pieces, seethed them in boiling water, and flung them into an open sewer for the pigs to eat.

Now he returned to his mother's chamber, where she lamented his madness. But he reproached her for her conduct, and tore her heart with his words.

When Feng returned, he could find his thane nowhere. Jokingly, he asked Amluth, among others, if he had seen him.

'Your thane went to the sewer, but he fell in and drowned in filth,' Amluth replied with a wild grin. 'Then the swine ate him.'

Feng shook his head in disgust at this apparent nonsense.
Now Feng was certain that his stepson was full of guile and treachery, and he wished to slay him, but did not dare do this openly for fear of his wife. Instead, he decided to ask his old friend the King of Britain to kill him, so that he could claim ignorance of the deed.

Before Amluth went, he went to his mother in secret.

'Hang the hall with woven knots,' he told her enigmatically. 'And if I do not return after a year, perform obsequies for me. Then will I return.'

Two of Feng's thanes went with him, taking with them a runic message to the King of Britain, asking him to execute their charge. On board ship, while his two companions were sleeping, Amluth searched them, found the message, and read the runes. Then he scratched clean the stave, and cut his own message to the effect that his companions should be put to death, not he. In a postscript he asked that the King of Britain give his daughter in marriage to "a youth of great judgement" who he was sending. He signed it with his uncle's signature.

When they reached Britain, the envoys went to the ruler, and gave him the rune-stave. The king read it, then gave them good entertainment. But when Amluth had the meat and drink of the feast placed before him, he rejected it.

'How incredible,' people were heard to murmur, 'that a foreign lad should turn his nose up at the dainties of the royal table as if it were some peasant's stew.'

When the feast was over, and the king was bidding goodnight to his friends, he sent a man to the quarters assigned to Amluth and his companions to listen to their speech.

'Why did you act as if the king's meat was poisoned?' asked one of the thanes.

'Blood flecked the bread,' replied Amluth. 'Did you not see it? And there was a tang of iron in the mead. As for the meat, it smelled like rotting flesh. Besides, the king has the eyes of a thrall, and in three ways the queen acted like a bondmaid.'

His companions jeered at him for his words.

Meanwhile, the king heard all this from his spy.

'He who could say such things,' the king remarked, 'must possess either more than mortal wisdom, or more than mortal folly.'

He summoned his reeve, and asked him where he the bread came from.

'It was made by your own baker, my lord,' replied the reeve.

'Where did the corn of which it was made grow?' asked the king. 'Are there any signs of carnage in the vicinity?'

The reeve replied.

'Nearby is a field where men fought in former days,' he said. 'I planted this field with grain in spring, thinking it more fruitful than the others.' He shrugged. 'Maybe this affected the bread's flavour.'

Hearing this, the king assumed that Amluth had spoken truly.

'And where did the meat come from?

'My pigs strayed from their keeper,' the reeve admitted. 'and they were found eating the corpse of a robber. Perhaps it was this that the youth could taste.'

'And of what liquor did you mix the mead?'

'It was brewed of water and meal,' replied the reeve. 'I could show you the spring from which the water came.'

He did so, and when the king had it dug deep down, he found there several rusted swords.

After this, the king went to speak with his mother.

'Who was my real father?' he asked.

'I submitted to no man but the king your father,' she replied.

He threatened to have the truth out of her with a trial, and she relented.

'Very well,' she replied. 'If you must know, your real father was a thrall.'

By this, the king understood Amluth's words. Although ashamed of his lowly origins, the king was so amazed by Amluth's cleverness that he asked him to his face why he had said the queen behaved like a bondmaid. But then he found that her mother had indeed been a thrall.

Amluth told the king that he had seen three faults in her behaviour.

'To begin with,' he said, 'she muffles her head in her mantle like a handmaid. Secondly, she picks up her gown when she walks. Thirdly, I saw her pick a piece of food from her teeth and then eat it.' He went on to say that the king's mother had been enslaved after captivity, in case she might seem servile only in her habits, rather than her birth.

The king praised Amluth's wisdom as if it was inspired, and in accordance with the message from Feng, gave him his daughter as wife. On the next day, to fulfil the rest of the message, he had Amluth's companions hanged. Amluth feigned anger at this, and the king gave him gold in wergild, which he melted in the fire, and poured into two hollowed-out sticks.
After spending a year with the king, he asked leave to make a journey, and sailed back to his own land, taking with him only the sticks containing the gold. When he reached Jutland, he dressed again in his old rags, and entered the banquet hall covered in filth. Here he found the people holding his wake, and he struck them aghast, since all believed him to be dead. But in the end, their terror turned to laughter. The guests jeered and taunted each other.

'That Amluth should turn up at his own funeral!'

'Where are the men who went with you?' someone asked.

Amluth pointed to the sticks he bore.

'Here they are,' he replied, to the laughter of all. Then he jollied the cupbearers, asking them to ply more drink. Next he girdled his sword on his side, then drew it several times, and cut himself with it. To protect him from himself, the king's thanes had sword and scabbard riveted with iron nails. Then Amluth plied the thanes with horn after horn of mead, until all were drunk. They fell asleep one by one in the hall itself.

Now Amluth took from his rags the wooden crooks he had fashioned so long ago, then cut down the hanging his mother had made, which covered both the inner and the outer walls of the hall. Flinging this over the sleeping thanes, the then applied the crooked stakes, knotting and binding them so none could rise. Then he set fire to the hall.

As the fire spread, he went to Feng's chamber, where he took his uncle's sword from where it hung over the bed, and replaced it with his own. Then he woke Feng

'Your men are dying in flames,' he said. 'And here am I, Amluth, armed with my crooks to help me, athirst for long overdue vengeance, for my father's murder.'

On hearing this, Feng leapt from his couch and tried to draw the sword that hung over his bed. But Amluth cut him down as he struggled to unsheathe the weapon.

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