The Northern Way

Angliad

6. OFFA

Wihtlæg had two sons. The elder, Wærmund, succeeded his father as king of the Angles, while the younger was Wehta, whose descendants later became kings of Kent. It was a quiet and prosperous time for the Angles, and Wærmund reigned long over a peaceful land.

In his prime, he had no children, but in old age he had a son named Offa, who surpassed everyone else in stature, but from his youth he never spoke or laughed, never played or made merry. His father pitied him, and got him for wife the daughter of Freawine, a descendant of Brand son of Bældæg, who was under-king of the Wærnas. Wærmund thought that this alliance would ensure that Offa would have help in ruling the kingdom. Freawine had two sons, Cedd and Wig, excellent youths who Wærmund hoped would assist his son in later years when he ascended the throne.
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In those days, the King of the Myrgings, a people who lived south of Angeln, across the River Eider, was Eadgils. He had defeated many neighbouring nations, and was still a great warrior. One of his customs was to walk alone clad in full armour, partly to keep himself permanently in practice, partly for the glory this gave him. In search of further glory, he led his war-bands into the north, and challenged Freawine to battle at the border of his territories.

The battle was long and bloody. In the midst of the fighting, the two leader met to fight in person. Eadgils slew Freawine, and his armies put those of the Angles to flight. Now Eadgils returned to the land of the Myrgings, and bragged out of measure concerning his exploit.

Wærmund raised Freawine's sons to their father's rank, and when Eadgils heard of this, he set out for the Wærna-lands immediately to harry them once more, having in his host the greatest warriors of his realm.

Cedd, son of Freawine, sent his chief thane Folca to inform Wærmund of Eadgils' return. Folca found Wærmund feasting in his hall, and gave his message.

'Here is the long-hoped for chance of war at hand,' he told the king, 'for now you have the chance of honourable victory on the field. Eadgils comes with his full host, sure of victory. Doubtless he would prefer death to flight, so now you may avenge the death of Freawine.'

Wærmund nodded approvingly at the words.

'You have spoken this message boldly,' he said. 'Join us at the board,' he added, inviting him to sit at the feast. 'You must be weary after your journey.'

I have no time to eat,' replied Folca, 'but I would ask of you a drink to quench my thirst.' Wærmund gave him a drink in a golden cup.

'And you may keep the cup,' he told the messenger. 'Men weary from travel find it better to use a cup for drinking than the hand.'

'I would drink as much of my own blood,' Folca replied proudly, 'before you will see me turn and flee!'

Wærmund thought that he was well repaid with this vow.

When battle began, Folca met Eadgils in the fray, and they fought together for a long time, until the Myrgings began to retreat. Folca had wounded Eadgils, and the Myrging king joined the general rout. When Folca, dazed with his wounds, ceased pursuing the enemy, he caught his own blood in his helmet, and drank it, thus repaying the king's gift. Wærmund, who saw this, praised him for fulfilling his vow.

'A warrior should perform a noble vow to the end,' Folca replied, showing as much approval of his own deed as Wærmund had.
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Eadgils fled back to the Myrgings, bragging of the killing of Freawine to salve the wound caused by his ignominious flight. When they heard of this, Cedd and Wig were greatly angered, and they swore a vow to unite in avenging their father. But since they thought it unlikely that they could do this in open war, they went to the land of the Myrgings with no companions.

They came to the wood where they had heard that Eadgils walked, hid their weapons, and found the king nearby. He asked them who they were.

'Deserters,' they replied. 'We come from the land of the Wærnas, and left our country for a killing.'

The king assumed that this meant they had been banished for former misdeeds, when they really referred to their intent to kill him.

'I would like to know who the Angles think slew Freawine,' Eadgils said.

'People are in doubt over this,' said Cedd. 'He died in battle, so the identity of his killer is uncertain.'

'It is vain to think so,' replied Eadgils, 'for it was I alone who slew him in single combat!' he went on to ask if Freawine was survived by any offspring.

'Two of his sons still live,' Cedd replied.

'I would like to know their age and stature,' said Eadgils.

'They are much of the same size, age and height as we two,' said Cedd.

'If they had the courage of their father, it would go badly for me,' replied Eadgils. 'Do they speak at all about avenging their father?'

'It is idle to talk and talk about something irremediable,' replied Cedd.
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When Cedd saw that the king's solitary walks were a frequent custom, he took his weapons, with his brother beside him, followed the king through the wood. When Eadgils saw them, he stood his ground.

'We will take vengeance for your slaying of Freawine,' said Cedd, 'especially in view of your arrogant boasts.'

'Beware,' replied Eadgils, 'lest I slay you both! It would be greater glory if you accepted wergild for your father than that you fight me and I slay you.'

But Cedd scorned this offer.

'Come forward and fight me in single combat,' he said. 'We will not set upon you two to one.'

'Attack at once,' Eadgils told them. 'If I cannot persuade you to take the peaceful course, then let me grant you all the advantage you possess.'

'I would rather die,' replied Cedd. 'A battle on such terms would be no more than a reproach.'

He attacked Eadgils alone, and the king defended himself well, but made no attempt to kill the lad.

'Let your brother join the battle,' Eadgils urged. 'Make use of another hand, since your efforts alone are useless. But if you refuse this, I will not spare you.' Now he attacked with all his might.

But Cedd gave him so strong a stroke of his sword that he split the king's helmet. But Eadgils retaliated by driving Cedd to his knees. Now Wig, seeing his brother near defeat, put all thoughts of honour aside and attacked Eadgils and slew him.

The two brothers cut off the king's head, hung his body over a horse, and left the wood. Coming to the nearest village, they handed all this over to the villagers, telling them that the sons of Freawine had taken vengeance on Eadgils, King of the Myrgings, for his slaying of their father.

When they returned to the kingdom of the Angles, Wærmund received them with the highest honours, willing to discount the shameful killing in his joy at the death of an enemy. It became a saying among foreigners, however, that the death of the king had broken down the ancient principle of combat.
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When Wærmund was beginning to go blind, the King of the Swæfe sent envoys to him, commanding that he give up his kingdom since he no longer had the strength to rule it.

'If you refuse this,' said the king's envoys, 'then send your son to fight with our atheling, and let the winner rule this land. If you do not accept either offer, then we shall come with all the men at our disposal and take your lands from you by force.'

Wærmund sighed deeply.

'It is insolent of your king to taunt me for my age,' he replied. 'In youth I was no coward. It is unfair to cast my blindness in my teeth; many men of my age are blind. If anyone is at fault it is your king, who should at least have waited for my death before laying claim to my lands. I would rather fight this duel with my own hand than give up my freedom to another.'

'Our king will not fight a blind man,' replied the envoys, 'since this would bring him more shame than honour. It would be better if your son was to fight.'

The king was at a loss for a reply, but then a voice came from the back of the hall.

'I ask my father's leave to speak.'

'Who spoke?' asked Wærmund.

The thanes exchanged glances. One leaned forward.

'Sire, it was your son,' he said.

Wærmund shook his head.

'If it is not enough that foreigners jeer at my misfortune,' he said, 'that my own retainers should tell such lies. All know my son is dumb.' 'My lord king,' said another thane, 'it is true. Your son spoke.' The other thanes agreed. Finally, Wærmund said;

'He is free, whoever he is, to speak his mind.'

'It is futile for the Swæfe king to covet a realm as strong as ours,' said Offa. 'What is more, our king does not lack an heir. I shall willingly fight not just the Swæfe atheling, but any man the atheling wishes to take as his comrade.'

The envoys laughed at this.

'We agree!' they replied, and set a time for the duel. But the Angles were astounded by the events, both by the fact of Offa's speech, or his words themselves.

Once the envoys had gone, Wærmund looked round blindly.

'Whoever spoke is a brave man,' he said, 'for challenging two men. I would sooner leave my kingdom to such a man than to my foe.'

'Sire,' said a thane. 'He who spoke is without a doubt your own son.'

Wærmund looked troubled.

'Come nearer,' he told Offa, 'so I may touch your face, and determine your identity.' He did so, and the king found that it was indeed his son. 'But why have you never spoken before?' the king asked, amazed.

'Before, I was satisfied with your protection,' said Offa. 'I had no need to speak, until I saw my land hard pressed by foreigners.'

'I see,' said Wærmund. 'But why, then, did you challenge two men rather than one?'

'I hope by this to redeem the shame of King Eadgils' death,' said Offa. 'The glory this will win us will make good the shame we have known.'

'You have judged matters well, my son,' said Wærmund. 'But now you must learn the use of weapons, since you have had little experience of them before.'

They offered Offa coats of mail, but each one was too tight for his wide chest, and he split the links. In the end Wærmund commanded that they cut his coat of mail away on the left side and patch it with a buckle.

Next they gave Offa swords to try, but Offa shattered each of them, one after the other.

'Where will we find a sword strong enough?' lamented the thanes.

Wærmund looked blindly at them.

'I had a sword of great strength in my youth,' he said. 'Screp was its name, and it would cut through any obstacle in a blow, and never was its blade notched.'

'Where is it, father?' asked Offa.

'I buried it deep in the ground to stop others from using it,' Wærmund replied. 'Since at that time I had no hope in you. If only I can find the spot...'

He asked them to lead him to a field, and questioned them again and again over the ground. Finally, he realised they were at the right point, and drew the sword Screp out of its hole, and handed it to his son.

Offa looked at the blade. It was frail and covered in rust from its long burial.

'Must I prove this one like the others?' he asked.

'If mere brandishing shatters the sword, there are none that could serve for your strength, my boy.'
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With the sword untested, they went to the island in the Eider where the duel was to be fought. Offa crossed to the island alone, while a famous champion accompanied the Swæfe atheling. Dense crowds lined the banks on either side. Wærmund stood at one end of the bridge, ready to fling himself in the waters if his son was beaten.

Both warriors attacked Offa, but he parried their blows with his shield, trying to establish which of them was the better fighter, so he might slay him with one stroke of Screp. Hearing that his son hung back, Wærmund dragged himself to the edge of the bridge, sure that Offa was doomed.

'Attack me more briskly,' Offa told the atheling tauntingly. 'Do some deed worthy of your tribe, in case your thane seem braver than you.' Then he turned to the champion, and said; 'Repay your lord's trust by fighting, not skulking at his heels!'

The champion attacked, and Offa hacked at him with his sword.

Wærmund heard the sound.

'I hear the sword of my son!' he cried. 'Whereabouts did he deal the blow?'

'It went straight through the champion!' replied the thanes.

At this, Wærmund drew back from the edge of the bridge.

'Come, atheling!' Offa cried then. 'Your thane did well by you - now sacrifice yourself on my blade to his ghost!'

He turned the thick edge of his blade towards the front, thinking the cutting edge to frail for his strength. Then he thrust the blade through the atheling's body.

'I hear Screp again,' said Wærmund.

'Your son has killed both foes,' said one of the thanes, and Wærmund wept tears of joy.
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While the Swæfe, their honour trampled in the dirt, bore off the bodies of their champion and the heir to their throne, the Angles welcomed Offa with shouts of triumph.

And no longer did the Angles hear taunts about the murder of Eadgils from Myrgings or Swæfe or any of the nations of the North Sea coast. The kingdom of the Swæfe came under the dominion of the Angles, and after his father's death, Offa ruled it alongside his own land, placing his cousin Witta as under-king. Now Offa, once thought incapable of ruling one realm, reigned over the broadest of kingdoms.
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