It was a strange time. Life full of opposites.
We loved the festivities, the feasts, and celebrations of holy days, Christian or Pagan, it made no matter. We gathered friends and enemies and for a brief time we shed the cloaks of our opposition, dropped shields, left weapons at the door, at least those that could be seen. We feasted and drank and found common bond in our shared struggles. We complained about the clans that weren’t there to celebrate; how stupid, banal, cruel, or insidious they were. I often thought they must make the same complaints of us when we were not present to defend our honor or make unkind jest of them in return.
Yet we were just as ready to argue and take up arms, the next day or day after celebrating once our heads had cleared of the mead and strong wine. It made no difference how sophisticated or clever our poems were or how strong a case that may have been made while drunk, for the banishment of a dishonest neighbour.
Sturlungar; Haukdaelir; Asbirningar; Seldaelir; Vatnsfirdiggar; Oddaverjar; and Svinfellingar. These seven clans made civil disputes most common. These seven clans had the most outspoken chieftains, though we, the Sturlungar, held the most might because we controlled great territory on the west, from Hvamm to Reykholt and a brother Sturlungar clan claimed territory on the east of our Iceland, so we could pinch any opposition between us, like a sea crab might pinch its prey before consuming it.
Though you would have thought so, there wasn’t really any true loyalty between most of us. Brother, cousin, loyal friend, neighbor. Really, we were all in it for whatever fortune it would bring to ourselves. Alliances were fleeting and shifting.
We were false friends pretending to be brothers in arms, some decrying the influence of Norway and the obvious desire Hakon and Skuli had to possess us, to be able to make claim for tribute and taxes from our small island. Some said it would be far better to make alliance and come under their authority, for protection and the benefit of trade among a larger body. But we already made trade, and that trade just as often resulted in conflict and even death. I was seduced by this. Lured by the magnetism of power, to be close to it, so that some of it might rub itself upon me and enhance my own power. Such a strong enticement that it could easily make you betray friend and kin alike. I feel shame in that weakness now, but it didn’t stop me or others, like my son-in-law Gissur, from kissing Hakon’s feet and doing his bidding. It made us war among ourselves, just as the lust for power and wealth made the Norwegians war among themselves. Stupid and brutal, I shamefully admit it now.
I could not help resenting my brother Sighvat sneaking behind my back arranging a marriage between his son Sturla and the young Solveig, when I had plans of my own germinating. I was not even invited to their wedding feast. The thought of it festered like a black cloud spreading over me. This meant that Solveig’s plentiful inheritance slipped from my fingers and became Sturla’s bounty. Treachery from my own brother. It is true that we were not always kind to each other and that we always carried our own interests higher than others. These betrayals are very difficult to forgive and forget, even with the pretense that all is well.
Solveig’s guardian, at the death of her husband Bjorn, was Thorvald of Vatnsfjord. Sighvat arranged for his son Sturla to marry Solveig with Thorvald’s agreement. But I got back at them all by giving my young daughter Thordis to Thorvald in marriage and Thorvald agreed to allow the rich young widow Hallveig, also his ward, to live in my house and become my partner.
I felt more pride and pleasure in my skill as a poet and historian than anything else. But I was addicted to power and control and the luxury of wealth, like a curse. It was inevitable that I was like this, the others were so simple, so easily manipulated, connived, so easily led around like sheep. You could tell them anything, they would believe anything, you could command them to do anything and they would do it. They were so gullible, so easy. After a while it didn’t seem wrong to make them do my bidding. But it made me furious, gave me uncommon anger when I was defied, cheated, spoken against. I could not abide such things and that is what made me such a treacherous bastard. I resented their betrayals because it took my mind away from the things that gave me most pleasure, the history of our kings, the complex beauty in our verses. We weren’t kind people. Family feuds and clashes between clans was our common way of life. We were brutal and violent, though sometimes our violence was cloaked in subterfuge and deceit.
I sniffed my food and wine and sometimes had the dog sample it before eating or drinking. Not that I was suspicious, but I was in no hurry to send myself to the stars before my time. Yet when I lay in my Snorralaug, under a night sky, the stars didn’t seem to speak to me as Gods might speak nor did they seem alive as a person or god might be alive. What the stars said to me was that all those that had succumbed to my treachery would one day absorb me into their bosom and everything that was separate and individual would become one and all that I had done to others would visit upon me.
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