(updated to explain historical misconceptions)
never intended to join the Birkebeiners in their struggle against our rulers, though I shared their disdain for the hypocrisy of the powerful Norse Church and its Bagler party. I did not feel personally oppressed, and the good land of Skotmyr Farm had always provided for my needs ... until the need arose to know whom I was. I've never had the heart for violent conquest, nor a need for power, nor wealth, nor greatness; but these things are in my blood, and now forever in my memory.
I am remembered by some as a heroic Norseman ... the Birkebeiner who saved the infant Prince Haakon Haakonsson from the murderers who desired his throne. Yet conscience reminds me that I am a man afraid to face my destiny. I have hidden from it as my father did, living a lie for which I am neither proud nor ashamed. Though they know it not, our lie touched all the peoples of Norge and saved many lives.
I first heard of the Birkebeiners as a child in 1170 at our farm in Sorlandet, the southern tip of Norge. My father, Olav Redfist, expressed concern that this band of birch-legged robbers might take the throne. As a wealthy landholder, he had much to lose.
Still, there was no hiding my father's hatred of the ruling child-King Magnus IV's pompous church henchmen. He considered them all puppets of Denmark and a heavy burden for the farmers of Norge to bare.
In the north, Oystein III had already been acclaimed King by the Birkebeiners at Trondelag when my father died in 1176. Soon after this, we received a visitor ... a man claiming to be my father's half brother.
He arrived covered in snow on a brutal winter's night, introducing himself as Berek Redfist of Orkney. He strongly asserted our relation and abruptly asked to see my hands. A warm smile came over his red crusted face as he beheld them. It was then I noticed his hands: the right one stained with blood and hardened by life, the left hand, smooth as a priest's.
My heart pounded with wonder; I thought of my late father's insistence that I always keep my strong hand exposed to the elements as he had done.
My new found uncle proceeded to tell me of a heritage I'd never been allowed to know. I trembled as I stared into Berek's wild, blue, truthful eyes as he spoke of my paternal grandfather, Magnus Bareleg (Magnus II), who was the ruler of Norge only 70 years earlier, and was the great grandfather of the current child king.
Magnus Bareleg had gone to fight in the Norse colony in Ireland in 1090 on behalf of his father, King Harold Hardrade. Here in the North Sea Islands, he encountered a beautiful woman from the colony, Lillian Massey. He took her as his wife in a secret marriage and she gave him a son, Olaf Magnusson, my father.
Magnus Bareleg left the colony in 1093 to claim the Norge throne. He instructed his wife that his child should always bare his strong hand to the elements so that Magnus could know his son in the future by his strong red fist. Once Magnus II was crowned King, he took another wife who bore him three sons. By Norge law they became three illegitimate heirs to the throne.
Berek Redfist left me that same strange night, saying only that the truth must be known. From that moment on, his tale dominated my thoughts and I often pondered the secret marriage.
I spoke no opinion when, three years later, Magnus IV fell to the Birkebeiners' new pretender to the throne, Sverre Sigurdsson. For the next 22 years, Sverre's reign brought wealth and power to a new aristocracy of former outcasts, but these Birkebeiners did little to help my struggling neighbors. However, King Sverre had broken the oppressive grip of the Danes and their insatiable church bishops.
I heard of Sverre's death in 1202 from a Norman voyager who happened upon Skotmyr Farm. Lawrence the Berge, a wandering soldier-for-hire, was travelling to Sverre's fortress in Bergen to witness the crowning of Sverre's son, Haakon III. The news of Sverre's death made me uneasy; I feared the return of Danish influence, and with it, the return of power to the church's Bagler party.
I chose to ski with Lawrence, northward to see for myself what the future held. I could no longer hope to enjoy a peaceful life at Skotmyr Farm. There is no peace for a man with a secret.
To my surprise, I remained in Bergen for nearly three years, learning the ways of kings and pretenders. In time, Lawrence (who now called himself Skjervald Skrukka, so that his Norman ancestry might be concealed) and I found employment as hirdsmen (guards) at Haakon's court in Bergen. When Haakon III died mysteriously in 1204, the tension around Bergen grew thick.
Weeks later, when Sverre's four-year-old son, Guttorm Siguurdsson, was proclaimed King, Lawrence and I were sent as part of a small force accompanying members of the royal family to Lillehammer. It was here we heard from a messenger that young Guttorm had been removed from power in Bergen, succeeded by 19-year-old Ingi Baardsson, the son of King Sverre's sister.
Ingi's claim to the thrown through the sister's line was clearly against Norge laws of succession, but the dignity (if ever it existed) of the bloodline had been spoiled for generations, and the outcry of the farmers was easily quelled by the military leaders of Denmark.
More than ever, it pained me to think of my grandfather's secret marriage. If this marriage existed, my father, and thus I, were true blood heirs to this bloody throne. But what right did such simple farmers have to rule?
I had little time to ponder these thoughts, as our lodge began filling with smoke. The sounds of battle could be heard outside. It was obvious now that the Baglers intended to kill off Sverre's remaining heir and his family.
The Prince, Haakon Haakonsson, lay sleeping in the room above me. Lawrence fought the fire as I approached the royal family's chambers. Before I reached the door it swung violently open, the 18-month-old Prince was pushed into my arms by his terrified mother, Inga. I knew what had to be done:
Gathering our weapons, we broke through a crumbling wall into the dark battle raging outside. Attaching our skis, we fled north through the mountains toward the Osterdalen valley in the hopes that a sanctuary could be found. We eluded our pursuers ... and many cold, exhausting hours later, delivered the Prince to a safe haven, a farm near Rena.
It was here that I looked upon the infants face for the first time. I saw in his eyes a distant relative, and an heir to a throne I was too intimidated to sit upon. I thought of the expectations that awaited him if he survived ... of the greatness expected of him. I pitied him, and at that moment, placed all my hopes in him, and loved him for what he would do.
Fearing for my safety, should my lineage be revealed, I assumed the name of Torstein Skevla, a Birkebeiner killed in the battle at Lillehammer. Days later I delivered the Prince to loyal Birkebeiners in the north. I did not hear of him again for 12 years, when news of his coronation reached me at Skotmyr Farm.
That day marked the beginning of a reign of peace for myself and for all of Norge, which has lasted some thirty years. The Prince is now called "King Haakon the Old." This makes me feel very old indeed.
King Haakon has fulfilled all the hopes I placed in him so many years ago, and I pay him, in full, the tributes deserved of a good and legitimate King of a great people.
Proclaimed as truth, this day, February 26, 1247.
Eric Redfist of Skotmyr