LETHE’S CUP AND THE WHITE SWORD–Part 1



LETHE’S CUP AND THE WHITE SWORD, by Cullen Groves

 

Was in the green of spring, Love walked the land

And bent her great black bow in mighty hand;

Dost think her smooth of skin and fair of face?

But she was born of that long ancient race,

Those giants who defied the gods of yore,

Who mountains broke, and Heaven filled with war;

She, terrible in arms, of grim disport,

Like huge Orion leading Hell’s cohort

While striding through the stream of Ocean’s tide

With shoulders scraping Heaven’s highest height,

And like Orion, girt with bow and greaves,

Did Freyja stalk of old, and like the leaves

Of Autumn falling, fell her foes divine,

Struck down by shafts sped by her fell design.

And though the earth was wracked by bloody fields

Not god nor giant to the other yielded

‘Til by Freyja’s hand rebellion ended

Elf-wife to a god, her will unbended

Promised by her tribe to end the strife,

In Heaven captive, held a hostage wife;

And though by eons’ time the hate she felt

Dissolved through gifts of gold and gilded belt,

Still, she remembered having gods defied;

And hunting in the trackless woods descried

A knight; and gladly sent her poisoned dart

Of honeyed barbs from bow to pierce his heart,

Encreased the realm of Sorrow by one thrall,

Then laughed, returning to her captive hall.

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Was in the summer, underneath a bright

Blue sky, the pagans came, in corselets dight,

Out from the eastern forests cold and stark

Where Elves still ruled in sunless pine-groves dark;

Was in the summer, underneath a sky

Of blue, the Christian knights went forth to die,

The paladins of Empire, proud in war,

Against the pagans rode, returned no more.

Not few the rolls of fallen heroes’ names

There trampled into dust and stripped of fame:

There Sigivald the Giant-Killer fell,

And Boemund the Younger had his knell;

There Fulk the Red, his sword-arm dripping blood

Was pierced by lance and thrown into the mud,

And Walther, hero of so many songs

Cut down when stood alone against the throngs;

But by his valiant stand a few at least

Were saved from joining in the ravens’ feast,

And fled to Gereburg, a fortress near,

To gather strength of living peers;

There Conrad Ormesbane’s banner flew

To draw all men to whom old oaths were true.

And there, of all the Empire’s swords unsheathed

In Christendom’s defense upon the heath,

Was missing Freydegar’s white blade,

Enchanted Scathnung, its edge by Weyland made;

And Freydegar was Conrad’s sister-son,

A knight of great renown for battles won

In Sicily against the pagans there,

And whose bright sword gave victory when bared;

Now he was sought throughout the Empire’s lands

As one who’d hold the line by strength of hands;

Nor in some distant fastness of the Realm

Was found, but near the battleground; his helm

Unlaced and on the floor, his mail still bright,

Unrent by war, as if from battle turned to flight;

Yea, on a chapel floor he trembling laid,

Discovered there when Anslech went and prayed:

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–That Anslech who was Conrad’s loyal page–

And finding Freyedgar, turned white with rage:

‘How can you lie there on the Waldkirch floor

While pagans crowd about the Empire’s door?

Your friends lie dead; how long have you here lain,

You, sister-son of Conrad Dragonsbane?

I looked for you when riding in the van

For Scathnung looked, defending Carloman

With flashing blade like bolt of lightning’s stroke

–If freed, had drove the foe before it, broke

The pagan power, defied the darksome hour

When wounded few were fled to Gere’s tower;

And lo! we formed beneath a bright blue vault,

While from the holt came Saxon, Dane, and Balt

And Wulfings led by Wulfgar’s massive frame,

The Wends by Dagomar, and others famed,

All dight for war in mail with nodding plumes;

But last the Ingaevonings came, with dooms

Upon their pagan lips, gave voice to spells

Learned from their Elfin masters, damned of hell,

And by their cant the wide blue skies were rent;

A wind arose that soughed in pines and sent

Its ill-born storm to crowd out sun or light

Until the sky was black, with lightnings bright,

And while the crows gave voice their raucous hopes

The pagans crossed the field with wolfish lopes;

And seven hundred Elves came out the wood

Grim-eyed and cold of sword–before them stood

No man, adread by Elfin magic, fled,

And all was rout and Christian valor dead.

But you, with Scathnung freed and in your hand

Had saved ten thousand men and saved the land!

Will you still turn and languish in your bed,

Or will you raise your hand and lift your head?’

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Now Freydegar his lengthy silence broke,

To Anslech turned his face and softly spoke:

‘I heard the horns of war from mine own hall,

I girded sword in answer to the call,

My men I gathered to me, knights and chiefs

And they, to ride to gloried war, were lief.

A thousand strong for pagan deaths we came

–But o! I cannot bear to speak my shame!–

Was I not first to charge and first to knock

My shield against the pagan shield, and shock

And shiver lance in foeman’s breast, to rive

His bone and burst his mail, or mercy give

To him, who wounded on the muddy ground,

Cried out for quarter ere I ran him down?

And in that swirling chaos I descried

A fearsome knight in armor black, astride

No mortal steed, but on an Elf-horse fell;

This knight, borne from the burning womb of Hell,

I saw with sword upraised ride down Sir Logres,

Cracked his skull with thews belike an ogre’s;

Many others by this knight were killed,

A charnel house he made where blood was spilled

And splashed on mail, with elbows dripping wet;

Nor none survived where once with him were met.

I shouted challenge, lifting high my lance,

And with the sword’s salute the knight advanced:

Beneath the thunder and the darksome sky,

Across the fields of bodies piled high,

Toward each other tilting, lances glinting bright,

We crashed together with a flash of light

Behind my eyes as I was knocked to earth

But I was on my feet again, a man of worth,

My hand upon my hilts, my sword to draw,

When looking, ceased, and died at what I saw:

My stroke had ripped the visored helm away,

Revealed the massy ringlets of a virgin may,

Her face, enshrouded in her golden hair,

A breeze discovered; none was ever fairer

Than this creature clad in corselet dark

With Venus’ face denuded, bright and stark.

While lightnings flashed against the stormy skies

She turned to me her terrible blue eyes,

Defeated me before another blow was struck,

For in her glance had ended all my luck.

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‘Yea, I had seen her maiden’s face before

When in the darkling wood I hunted boar

And I, while riding through the groves of spring,

Drew rein to hear a voice upraised and singing

Lays of ancient days and deed-songs old

A voice as clear as any morning gold;

Through pines I sought, through meadows filled with flowers

Until I came beneath the Elf-King’s tower,

And in a clearing bounded by the tall

Grim pines, the pagan daughter of the hall

I saw, fair Heide, golden hair let free

While she reclined beneath the chestnut tree

Half-elf they call her, daughter of that Elf,

The Alder-King, who rules with pagan pelf

And stole a Christian woman as his bride;

But seeing Heide, I had nearly died;

Three times I came before her, sought her hand,

Swung down and knelt to promise golden band:

Yea, I would cherish thee as wedded wife

Would I give up my freedom and my life?

My arms around thee, coudst thou freedom want?

Of mine own arms you nothing know nor vaunt!

Thou pagan princess, wilt thou join with me,

One flesh with Him from Hell who sets us free?

How shall I turn me from my father’s faith?

Begone before your words incur my wrath!

So she with haughty laughter each advance

Refused, made me to suffer venomed glance

As when Medusa turns her flashing eyes

And stills the wretched heart that she despises;

Yea, did you think the Gorgons fulsome beasts

With snakes for hair and fangs for grisly feasts?

But Faustus told me of Walpurgis Night

Where devils walk in witch-fire’s fulsome light

And there Medusa veiled and deathless calls,

Released ’til dawn from Sorrow’s timeless halls,

Her face unending rapture to behold

She shows it once, forevermore withholds–

Who glimpses that immortal face is stone,

Not through his flesh, but in his heart and bones

One vision of those curs’d enchanting eyes

Pales other beauty into wretched lies,

And all that once before excited lust

Is seen as nothing more than ash and dust …

So I have suffered, so I lay me down,

And weeping, give myself to Sorrow’s crown.

This was the face on which I looked once more

And walked away in daze, forgetting war

Or battle’s din–and never lost to fear!

Still I would sigh, and lie forever here;

Nor can I muster strength against my love,

Nor can I care to fight for what’s above

If Heide’s doom is mere eternal rest …

Despair is in my heart and fills my breast

And nothing will I eat but ash and dust.

To die is all I wish–or sate of lust!’

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Now Anslech bent above him and his eyes

Still burned with ire, fire for the guise

Of Venus’ wretchedness that made him wrack,

Laid low so great a knight for loving’s lack;

He took him by the hand and raised him up

To Freydegar said, ‘Bitter is thy cup,

Poured from the jar where Sorrow mixes gall

Into his wine, where wormwood wreathes his hall;

Nor water’s poured into the mixing bowl

To ease its tasting by thy thirsting soul,

But vinegar is added, and the brine

Of shame for cowards drinking deep his wine.

I would that you the very dregs should drain,

To see you weeping drunk on shame I’m fain–

But in your hand is hard-edged Scathnung bright,

Whose sunglint fills the pagan heart with fright,

On whose white blade thy vassals’ oaths were made,

Each kneeling sware him yours, and rose as bade,

A new man, Empire’s knight to keep the pale

Against the foes that walk the night and scale

The walls of Christendom with howling calls–

Each of those men-at-arms who from your halls

Came riding, when they looked and found you nor

Upon the field of war, nor none who bore

Up Scathnung’s edge of white, they turned away

No more to harry pagan host, nor fey.

Therefore, though it may give me grief, Hear this, that I to cure your ails am lief,

And liefer know I one who memory

Can tame, and thee from that foul beast can free.’

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So Anslech Freydegar thence led away

From Waldkirch’s chapel through the dying day,

Through forests fulsome with the growing dark,

Where men to pagan horn again must hark;

Away they rode on narrow woodland trails

To her whose lore and simples might avail:

Orana, at the edge of Christendom.

To her through blackest pine-groves they must come;

They found her sitting at her threshold, proud

And ancient, like an Elf in eild; aloud

She sang her songs of when the gods

The world fashioned from the giant’s bod,

And maggots in the flesh the dwarfs became,

While Elves in starlight down from Elf-home came;

As Anslech neared, with Freydegar behind,

Orana watched, and wondered thus to find

A pair of paladins approaching nigh

–Her, shunned by Elf and Godly man alike–

So, ‘Wherefore come?’ she asked the knightly twain;

‘We come for sorrow’s ease, surcease of pain,’

Anslech returned, and Freydegar explained

His woes, and wept, while on his cheeks there rained

His tears; and all around the raindrops fell

From grey-made skies that rang with thunder’s bell;

Orana listened, and her heart was not of flint,

She bade them come in from the storm nor stinted

Mead she made with honey from her bees

And with the forest’s fruits her hand was free.

Yea, she had known the hurts of Freydegar

Of old, when once she was a maiden, starry-

Eyed for Huldrich, that bright paladin

Who came to free the pagan from his sin;

She was a heathen then, and sang great spells,

And spoke with water-maidens in their wells,

All that she might great Huldrich to her snare;

But all availed her nothing til she sware

To him to leave off all her lore and pagan ways

And come as Christian wife beneath his sway;

Alas! Their happiness was only brief,

For Huldrich left Orana to her grief,

To sleep out on the field beneath the boughs

Made black by clouds of carrion-hungry crows.

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‘Yea, then was all the world black before

Me, in my heart was wrack, as if a boar

Had ripped my belly out. It was a beast

Untamed, my sorrow, and my heart its feast;

I lay abed and could not drink but tears,

And stayed there like one dead upon a bier;

But slowly sense returned, and with it lore,

And I had heard of Helen and her war,

Unfaithful Helen, Alexander’s whore

And Menelaus’ wife; on Egypt’s shore,

With burning Troy behind them over seas,

That Spartan bitch her husband put at ease

With waters got from deepsome Lethe’s stream,

Made him her sins forget as if a dream–

So now: into this mead a drug I cast,

Can shake the hold of memory at last,

And he who takes a cup of this and drinks,

Upon his rage or grief no more can think,

And not a tear from his grey eye will fall,

Not even if his mother dies withal,

No nor if brother by the sword is slain

Nor if his son in burial mound is lain;

Such is the lore come down from Egypt-land,

That kingdom on the Nile’s winding strand

Made rich with grain and every growing thing,

Where herbs for every drug from that soil spring;

The gods are older there than anywhere,

They walked the world before the rainbow stair

Was made, before the Elves came down, before

The gods and giants shook the world with war;

And jealously, they keep their secret lore,

But gave to certain mortals of their store,

So Polydamna, wife of Thon the king,

Had learned the use of herbs and how to sing

Their proper names, and this to Helen gave,

That she her marriage-hearth might save,

And told her also where that spring to find

Of Lethe that erases memories from mind;

Together these to Menelaus gave rest,

And coming down to me soothed my own breast

Of sorrow’s ache; O! knight wilt not thou slake

Thy thirst on this, and thy own sorrow break?’

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So Freydegar took up the cup and drank;

All memory of Heide swiftly sank

Away, her form and face which ever swam

Behind his eyes were gone when that sweet dram

Had passed his lips; and when his eyes had cleared

He wondered at Orana’s hut and feared

To miss the contest with the pagan foes,

Nor thought he any longer of his woes;

‘Up, knight!’ he cried, ‘Up, Anslech, loyal page;

Up, Scathnung, faithful blade: let loose thy rage!’

He leapt up from his seat beside the door

And cast himself out ‘neath the thunder’s roar

Out in the gloaming underneath the storm,

And Anslech dragged from hearthside where was warm;

‘What haste is this?’ that faithful Anslech cried;

‘Too late! Thy friends on pagan lance have died

Already, and thy vassals all have fled

The field where they feared Freydegar was dead;

But come, if sense to thee is true returned,

To Gereburg, where Christian watchfires are burned

Against the pagan host that holds the field

–For Conrad never shall to heathen yield!’

So they rose up together, and they went

From that poor hut where Freydegar was shent

By Anslech’s words and by Orana’s draught;

Through rain they rode away, and after laughed

Orana when she cast her runes divining

Fate of Freydegar in Heav’n’s design.

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The storm grew black and terrible on high

And crowded out the lanterns of the sky;

Its lightnings broke on Gereburg and flashed

Against false night, and over pennants lashed

By howling winds: the banners of the chiefs

Of gathered Christendom were come to grief

Upon the towers where the watchmen heard

On storm winds howling evil-canted words,

While on the booming thunder’s voice, the knells

Of doom, like pealing of the Elf-lords’ spells;

There, in the violence of the storm was ripped

The red hawk banner of the Ormesbane, gripped

And borne aloft by fell and fearsome breath,

An omen evil of the coming death

Of Conrad, surely, and of all his ilk;

It flew away, a flag of tattered silk,

And ere the red hawk fluttered out of sight,

Reynard went down to Conrad, told its plight

To all those seated in the castle’s hall

With shaking voice and face of whited pall:

‘The storm above has torn the red hawk down;

The pagan hosts will break the Empire’s crown;

No balm of hope is here for us, but doomed

We sit and tremble where we shall be tombed.

What are we hundreds to the pagan hordes

Of tens of thousands with their bloodied swords?

The Saxons, Wulfings, Danes, and Balts encamp

With Wends and Ingaevonings, and their tramp

Of multitudes sounds like the stirring throngs

Of Hellish demons mouthing fulsome songs

In perverse praise of darkness’ prince below,

Whose only joy delights in mankind’s woe;

Yea, those who gird our tower walls in siege

Are like the vassals of old Persia’s liege,

Great Xerxes, godling over Asia’s plains,

Whose arrows blackened skies in deadly rains;

Did Leonidas’ knights, three hundred leal,

Find aught but death when facing the ordeal

Of fierce Immortals’ onslaught from the East?

Not one gave not his corpse to ravens’ feast.’

This all the gathered knights trembled to hear,

So saying, Reynard stirred the hall to fear.

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But scarcely had Reynard these words let fall

Than knock was heard at threshold of the hall,

Like hammer blows against the great oak gate,

Thrice struck, thrice seemed the bellowing of Fate,

As if the pagan rams already spake

Against the heavy gate that they would break.

But Conrad rose, disdaining faces pale,

Threw wide the door, expecting thundrous gale,

And if a hundred thousand pagans came,

He, sword in hand, at least would carve some fame;

Yet Freydegar he found, Anslech behind,

While over both had died the groaning wind;

And Conrad laughed to see his sister’s son

Returned, but gave a shout as gleaming sun

Revealed a miracle of scarlet charms

Raised up by Freydegar upon his arms:

The hawk of red so recently made wrack,

Returned ere Conrad rode beneath its lack!

The rustling in that hall was of the spring

When flowers bloom anew and silent sing

Their paeans to the glory of the sun;

All fears like those aborned in Night’s broad dun

Forgot as if the morning light now broke;

For Freydegar had come, and now he spoke:

‘Thy banner, Conrad, came to me on high,

And where it drifted silence filled the sky

That just before the wild storm had rent,

As if a scarlet sign from Heaven sent.

Dost know that I was from the battle driven,

Cast about by storms of Love and riven,

Not by any sword or force of arms,

But by the dread of wondrous maiden’s charms?

Yet now that I have drunken things Lethean,

Burned by shame, forgetfulness made free,

I’ll Scathnung bare against the pagan knights

Until its white edge stirs them into fright!

Thy banner, Conrad, was the morrow’s sign,

That God looks on from Heaven’s throne divine

And sets His face against the pagans’ lands,

While stretching over us his strong right hand;

So by His Word the storm above is stilled:

And, “Peace!” he cried, so peace th’ Empire will fill.’

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Now gladsome Conrad Freydegar embraced,

And there was great rejoicing in that place,

While out beyond the massy castle walls

The night grew calmer at the stormwind’s fall;

Yet in the growing quiet there, without

Was heard the beat of drums and warhorns’ shouts:

The muster of the elves and pagan hordes,

Their laughter over fallen Christian lords,

The knocking of their swords and shields a din

Beat forth, all foul cacophony of sin;

While gathered all at Gereburg within,

The knights of Empire, hearing, blanched again;

And they, with Freydegar returned, a feast

Now laid, with all the store therein: the beasts

Of venery in cookfires roasted rare,

Poured freely, red wine’s fragrance filled the air

And drifted through the donjon’s tapestries,

While underneath, what joy he could was seized

By every man-at-arms in that wide hall

That could have seated thrice their count withal;

For every bench had comrades’ empty seats,

While those who lived remembered pagan feats

And feared their deaths; and lonelier became,

Recalling how the maids had fled the same,

So there were none to cut their meats, or smile,

And smiling, turn their minds from death a while;

So each man raising mead or wine in cheers

Within his breast was racked by silent fears

And Freydegar looked out and trouble saw

In troubled eyes and set of faces drawn

‘O! Uncle,’ cried he then, ‘We cannot bide,

We cannot meekly eat while pagans stride

The night, and moving in their lungs is breath

Of war that drives them on to seek our death!

I have returned with Scathnung in my hand —

Is it not time to rise and rid the land

Around of all these vipers? Though they stung

Our hand, our heel shall crush them and our tongue

Of Him above and victory will sing

Until the deed is done and peace we bring!’

He wept hot fury’s tears with eyes all bright;

And Conrad heard, and to the dais did light.

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His grey eyes glinting strife like edge of steel,

He trembled hand and foot, ashamed to feel

That he had turned to eat and drink while round

About a siege’s noose the pagans wound:

‘Come all ye lords of Christendom, arise!’

He cried, resplendant with his gleaming eyes;

‘Enough of fear’s and terror’s gnawing fangs

That rip our bellies out with cowards’ pangs!

Are we not knights? Is not Reynard a skilled

And deadly swordsman? Many graves he’s filled;

Is Huldbrand young? But he is bolder so,

As I was bold when I the worm laid low!

Or shall we die? But here is Wolfram, young,

A poet learned of subtle voice and tongue,

And in our glory we will make a song

For him to sing for all the ages long!

Come all ye lords of Christendom arise,

Come let us see our foe with our own eyes.’

A shout gave voice the chord that Conrad struck,

A roar that banished fear: ‘Montjoy for luck!’

The captains stood and followed Conrad forth

To climb the tower stair; then, facing north

From battlements descried the Danish camp,

Alive with drumming’s thunder and the tramp

Of fighting-men; then looked they to the east,

Where, rising from the forests like a beast

One mighty engine stood above the rest

And poised, the walls of Gereburg to test;

The eastern Balts had learned this fearsome art

From Saxons, who had contact with the heart

Of elder ages; from the Danube’s mouth

To Baltic shore their empire stretched, and south

They held, the Saxons under Ludegast,

A camp that sprawled like sleeping giant vast;

And to the west, the circle was complete

For Wulfgar’s Wulfings circled, fleet

On foot as any horse; their squires raced

Along beside their knights with greater haste,

And all that tribe had come about to close

The noose of siege, therein to starve their foes.

But where the dreadsome Ingaevonings lay

Their host of pagan captains none could say;

Each stretched his gaze in vain over the siege

Nor Heide’s banner saw, nor pagan liege.

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When each had looked his fill and seen the host

That lay about the keep and all hopes lost,

Straining his eyes against the storm’s false night

While evening cast his cloak over the light;

When each had seen the gathered enemies

Grown thicker in the forest than the trees,

They left that sight of doom and went below,

The chapel sought, where love made light of woe,

And there the captains in war council came:

First Conrad; Freydegar was next in fame;

Reynard, with fox’s cunning, counseled there,

And youthful Huldbrand, though his face was bare;

There Wolfram also spoke, his voice was clear,

And Tancred also; Boemund was near;

Yea, every captain crowded on the stones

Beneath the shrine where Boniface’s bones

Were laid, and flick’ring candlelight made tall

Their shadows where they danced on painted walls.

Now Conrad spoke, from breast heaved up these words:

‘You’ve seen how we are girt about by swords,

As if a belt of death surrounds our waist,

Nor can we turn or act without blood’s waste;

Think deeply now, what counsel can you give

That we this doom might loose; that we might live?’

Reynard, his eyes agleam, in low voice spake,

Said, ‘Think ye that if we their captains take,

Hold hostage here, or send to halls below,

Then will they break; and easy overthrow

Their ranks our charges will; but only send

An olive branch and herald who can bend

His speech in goodly forms–and offer peace,

That prince to prince might speak of war’s surcease,

And while this talk of terms in circles race

In neutral glade, our men in nearby chase

We hide with swords to charge in, capture lords,

While they beguiled are by pleasant words.’

He said this; then by Freydegar reproached:

‘What, shall we knights be blamed that we have poached

Our honor, Victory in woodland caught

While nighted by beguiling’s darkness fraught

With shame, like churls in the forest creeping,

Harts with arrows killed while king lies sleeping,

Never boasting of the hunt? Not I!

No, I in open venery will fly,

The hart ride down in open daylight proud,

And sing of Victory to all aloud!

Rise up! Come, let us in a sortie ride,

For pagans cannot Scathnung’s edge abide!’

He drew the blade then, narrow, gleaming white,

And held aloft, it shed a brilliant light

As if the sun had come to glare in full

And enemies of Christendom to gladly cull.

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Now all the gathered fighting men in shouting

Answered him, as if they meant to rout

The pagans by their of spirits’ heights alone;

But one this recklessness did not condone:

The poet Wolfram lifted up his eyes

And from his lips let drop through all the cries

His honeyed voice: ‘Yea, all here know that brand

When drawn and wielded by a worthy hand

Is like a charm for victory, a wand

Of grace that beat both Arian and Thrond;

Perhaps I better know, I versed in deed

Songs old, how Weyland forged it when the breed

Of giants num’rous walked, and pagan kings

Ruled all these lands with feuds and clam’rous things;

How Weyland forged the blade with mighty spells,

And into Glamir’s hands he gave the knells

That fell from its dark edges; yea, the blade

Was black when forged, and blacker as it laid

The veins of foemen open to a bath

Of blood, delighting in the pagan wrath;

But Boniface was come into the lands

Nearby where Glamir ruled, and gathered bands

Into the fold of Christ; and Glamir went,

And heard how Christ forgave, and he was shent,

So knelt himself before that saint revered,

Received the chrism from his hand and cleared

Himself of sin; nor was he happy ere

The blade was also baptised, set it bare

Before the saint and bade him wash its length;

Then Boniface devoted it to strength

Of Christ, annointed it with oil of ruth,

Condemned it evermore as sword of truth,

And all the black and blood were washed away

And white it shone, “And evermore will stay

The pagan tide, this blade, laid bare between

The bed of Bride and pagan groom, I ween,

As if Himself God bends unto my ear,”

So said the saint; so now the pagans fear

The consecrated edge of Scathnung white;

But hold, before we waste our strength to-night,

Though Freydegar with Scathnung raised on high

Might drive the foe before, still we might die–

Shall we not rather send a man to walk

The night, and in its shadows safely stalk,

Like furies dread, to listen where he might

Or capture there alone some heathen knight, And either way some pagan weakness glean

From questioning or what he’s silent seen?

Myself, I’ll be the first to go at my

Own risk and honor thereby prove or die.’

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No shouting greeted this, but silence stark

That one should lonely step into the dark,

And yet the wisdom of the words was seen,

For Wolfram’s voice was clear and mind was keen;

And as the prudence of his argument

Broke through and murmured acquiescence bent

T’ acceptance that it better was to chance

The loss of few to save the many lances

By success that otherwise were doomed

In final sortie’s charge to enter tombs;

All, doomed to death one way or other both,

Though they to put off martyrs’ glory loath,

Agreed, and soon each knight put forth his claim

To Wolfram join, and share his death or fame;

But Freydegar the loudest cried that he

Must go, himself from battle’s shame to free.

And Conrad bent his head, and all agreed

That Freydegar would follow Wolfram’s lead,

So they the servants sent to saddle steeds,

While pages armed their knights to raidings’ needs,

And Anslech tied on Freydegar’s vambrace

While Dietrich set a helm on Wolfram’s face.

How curious that at that moment yet

The pagans planned themselves the same, and set

Two of their own most celebrated knights

To circle Gereburg and try its heights

For weakest points, the quicker they might storm

Its keep, that they might after Empire swarm;

So as bold Wolfram rode through postern gate

With Dietrich aft’ and Freydegar to sate

With Anslech all the anger at himself

For fighting’s lack, the pagans seeking pelf

Of castle’s sack came from beneath the pines

Where Ingaevonings had their pennons’ signs.

&&

#

&&

Skomantas of Sudovia rode out

With Warmian Glabbe, followed by the shout

Of Balt and Ingaevoning throats raised up

In praise of them, and louder for the cups

Of mead each clutched in circle of his hand;

Skomantas, who had summoned Baltic lands

Against Teutonic threat from German kings,

Renownéd was, and even yet skalds sing

Of his high deeds; and Glabbe’s Warmian Balts

Were those who learned to look for fortress’ faults,

And engines build to break the massy walls

Like breaking honeycomb to enter halls

Where Christians stored up men and wealth and gold

Like honey sweet, and Glabbe was most bold

To reach his hand therein with brandished sword,

And steal the chapels’ wealth from Christian lords;

These two rode forth with lance-tips gleaming grey

In moonlight as they circled, seeking fray

Beneath the walls of Gereburg’s high keep

While other men themselves laid by to sleep.

They reached the fortress, nor two men could breach

The battlements; but quietly a man might reach

The top by climbing stone by stone; yet then,

Ere Glabbe swung him down, the pair did ken

The postern gate swing open and there through

Came Wolfram, Freydegar, and pages two.

Each knight appraised the other pair, on high

Lifted his lance and gave the challenge-cry:

So Wolfram’s eyes met Glabbe’s darksome glance,

While Freydegar against Skomantas’ lance

Rode hard, his spurs into his horse’s sides

He drove with spear couched under arm to ride

And with the point that seemed so lightly pressed

Around the other’s guard where lightly dressed

In mail; thus Freydegar his foe impaled,

While other’s lance against his armor failed;

And Wolfram’s headlong charge had only just

Begun, his spear through Glabbe meant to thrust,

When frighted by Skomantas’ death, the Balt

Drew up his reins into a hasty halt

And turned to flee; but Anslech after spurred

With war cries as his heart to battle stirred

And Glabbe caught, and dragged him from his horse;

With reaching hands and fury’s giant force,

That page of Conrad’s threw the pagan down

Into the mud to wear a dusty crown

Beneath the moon; and breath came fast to him,

A coward’s breath, and he was struck by rim

Of Anslech’s shield so from his mouth he bled;

But Wolfram came and Anslech thrust behind

Him, crying, ‘Will you kill this man whom luck

Has laid before us ere we’d farther struck

Into the night?’ And he swung off his steed

And grasped that Glabbe, trembling like a reed,

Stripped off the pagan’s arms, unlaced his helm,

Threw down the man whom he would overwhelm.

&&

#

&&

‘Speak now!’ cried Wolfram to the Baltic earl;

‘Tell me, before I thee to hellfires hurl,

How you have laid your camps; how many men

Have gathered here beneath your banners? When

Will they arise, the walls to wash, like tide

Against the headland rocks? And where do hide,

The Ingaevoning lords who drive you on

By oaths of vassalage against the Son?’

So Wolfram cried and held an iron knife

Against the throat of Glabbe, whose own life

He saved by gabbling: ‘First, a thousand carls

Have come from every tribe, and every jarl

Has brought his bodyguard and his berserks,

Until our lands are empty of the works

Of able-bodies, while the old and young,

And frail and sick remain; and when are sung

The battle chants that Odin taught to those

Who long for blood and company of crows,

Then shall the pagan hosts arise as one;

And where the Ingaevonings lay, the sun

Of morning guides you there, for they love most

The Balts who longest with their fearsome hosts

Will Christendom defy; and all have come

At their behest, left far behind our homes

To answer beck of Alder-King, and Queen

Half-elfin, Heide, fairest woman seen;

And we great oaths have sworn to fight and die,

To Heide, sworn to fight until we lie

With ravens over us; but will you kill

Me now, unarmed, a captive of your skill?

Or must I more reveal? Hold fast your blade:

The Baltic tribes are in a crescent laid,

Natangians against the northeast mount,

Then Sambians, impossible to count,

Sudovians lie next in thickest holt

While my own Warmians are by the stream’s revolt

In marshy swamp where Memel overruns

Its banks; but in the nearby brakes and duns

Newcome is Bolverk, to the battle late,

Who leads Nadruvians, their greed to sate

In Burgundy; and only just arrived,

Their camp without a watch is poor contrived,

And Bolverk’s steeds are of the line long bred

From Sleipnir in the halls of heroes dead,

For only sons of such a stallion king

Could carry Bolverk’s frame from thing to thing.’

&&

#

&&

Now Glabbe silent fell; but ’twas enough,

And Wolfram bade his squire, ‘Be not rough,

But take him hostage into Gere’s walls

While these their horses lead into our stalls.’

Then Freydegar Skomantas’ body stripped

And ’round his shoulders swung the wolf-pelt ripped

Therefrom, while Wolfram took the helm and shield

Described with Glabbe’s boar and to him yielded;

Hastily as pagans thus disguised,

The pair set out to see what might be prised

From Bolverk’s rumored camp; Anslech behind,

They rode through groaning pines more swift than wind

And soon they saw the cookfires’ glowing coals,

Dull red before them through the night like trolls’

Eyes; here a troop of pagans sleeping lay

Where Glabbe said they would be, and the way

Between was clear of any watch or guard

As those two knights came on like hunting pards;

But rather than a guard by Bolverk set,

A stranger thing the Christians’ vision met

Upon the pale of the Nadruvian camp

–A towering, ancient oak, its long roots damp

With black of blood that dripped incessantly

From sacrifices to old memory;

Its limbs with evil fruit were heavy hung,

Nine men and horses nine alike were strung

On creaking ropes from oaken limbs, their bellies

Pierced by spear wounds, whence the dark blood fell,

And Night’s cold breath, the bodies set to sway,

The hanged ones, hanging as in ancient days

Was honored Odin’s hanging from the tree,

Yggdrasil, which for rune-lore was the fee;

And seeing this, the ancient pagan rite

Of death, of hanged men swaying in the night,

The breath of Anslech and of Freydegar

Grew hot within their breasts, ready for war;

So they two, like a pair of leopards cruel,

Which beasts in night deny their prey a duel,

Afoot through shadowed night on silent feet

Fell on the sleeping men like helpless sheep,

And with their fangs of gleaming swords they dragged

A score into the night of death with ragged

Cough like hunting pards; and Freydegar

This gruesome work made short beneath the stars,

His dripping sword he thrust into their hearts

While clasping closed their mouths with gauntlet hard;

A dozen men had he thus silent slain

When Bolverk found, who in a tent had lain,

Stretched out, a giant on a sheepskin bed

And snoring off the feast on which he’d fed

Anticipating victory; and at

His side, a gilded panoply was set,

So massive it could gird a rearing bear,

So broad that Bolverk’s giant frame could wear it;

Into this giant’s brain was deadly slipped

White Scathnung’s point and Bolverk silent stripped

Of life; and Freydegar the panoply

Heaved up as proof of easy victory,

And stepping forth, found Wolfram with the reins

Of Sleipnir’s stallion-sons in hand and fain

To Gereburg returnéd be with deeds

Accomplished, and with prize of Odin’s steeds.

&&

#

&&

So they two on their horses leapt and streaked

Away into the night with carnage wreaked

Behind, and plunder from the night in hand;

But scarcely had they set out through the land

Benighted than a clamor rose amid

The Baltic camps about, the trumpeted

War shout of warhorns blaring their alarms

And summoning the pagan knights to arms:

For Radvast the Nadruvian had waked

In that dark night while thirsty Scathnung slaked

And glutted its hard length in sleeping breasts

And bore away companions’ strength while resting;

Paralyzed by terror at the sight

Of that dread sword that severed wight from sprite,

Lay Radvast silent in the wrack as though

Asleep and trembled there while ’round him flowed

Bright life’s blood from a dozen death wounds dread;

But both passed over him as if one dead,

And when the pair into the night had gone

Again, then Radvast rose and went alone

On foot to seek the Ingaevonings’ moot

Where they had laid a camp at oaken roots

In ancient grove devoted once to Thor;

There Heide had her tent, and heard the lore

That whisp’ring went between the trees in groaning

Boughs, recalling days before the throne

Of Christ had banished god and Elf beyond

The pale; and there upon a rooted mound

He found her, and recounted Bolverk’s death

By knights, the stillness where before was breath,

And how both Freydegar and Wolfram raced

Away to vanish under Night’s dark face;

Then Heide stood, her face was stern, she cried

And gathered heathen captains to her side:

The Ingaevonings sent to blow the horns,

While she her mail shrugged on, against the thorns

Of Christian weapons proof; and unafraid

Of Freydegar, uncowed by his white blade,

She swung up on her horse and swiftly rode

Through columned trees as if on Roman road

While all around she heard the warhorns sound

Between the trees resounding, from the mound

Of Stahlsberg north unto the Memel’s streams;

Nor mortal horse her bore, but born of dreams

And Elf-spells was the steed, a beast of Hell,

He Nottfax called, a nightmare’s foal–he fell

More swift than any falcon as it dove

Against a dove, so as his muscles strove

Between her thighs, they swiftly caught

The pair of knights; and she her helm disdained

To wear, until the battle’s hour attained,

But tucked it underneath her arm, allowed

Her hair to fly; around her golden flowed

The molten rivers of her tresses bright

In rivulets of gold beneath moonlight;

She soon caught up the pair of knights and cried

A challenge to their backs to honor bide,

And Freydegar told Wolfram ‘Go! And take

This, Bolverk’s armor, while I lightly break

That woman playing knight!’ drew rein and turned

And Scathnung raised while in its own light burned

Its blade; ‘Stand thou and fight if Christian art!’

Cried Heide, coming swifter than a hart;

And Nottfax leapt into the glade where he,

The sister-son of Conrad, victory

Expected; but he looked and saw her face, Nor summoned words when heart began to race,

For looking on her, felt as if a lance

Ran through his heart in blue stab of her glance;

But Heide, seeing wolf-pelt round him thrown

On shoulders broad saw but a pagan lone,

Ashamed before his half-Elf mistress dread;

But Scathnung recognizing, raised her head,

Said, ‘What is this that thou, a pagan knight,

Hast in thy hand–that sword with edges white?

Speak thou and tell, is Freydegar now dead?

Why hast his sword and not his bloody head?’

&&

#

&&

Now just a little way had Wolfram gone,

While Anslech at his side was also drawn,

But he, that loyal page, now held him back

To see if Freydegar should end in wrack;

So, quiet through the forest rode him near

The confrontation in benighted clearing,

Under pines saw how the knight defied

Christ’s will, defected to the pagans’ side;

For Freydegar, forgetting Love’s hot ails

By Lethe’s waters, cured not Love’s travails,

But looking now as if on Heide new

Felt all the white hot flames of love renewed:

‘Yea, I am Skanir hight,’ said Freydegar,

‘And I was in that camp beneath the star

Of death when Christian knights came in,

So many laid in Hades’ halls therein;

Before I saw the flashing of that blade,

Made famous by the heathen barrows laid,

I leapt from sleep and Freydegar I grasped,

As careful as a man who grips an asp

And venom fears, and wrestled him while fled

His comrades, bore him down ’til he lay dead;

Then to the marsh’s waste, his corpse I cast,

While I this sword had won from off his waist;

The only horse was his, there left behind,

And I got up and chased the other, hind

Before my hunting horn; so here am I,

Who after other Christian deaths now fly;

But O! so beautiful of face, to you

I’d gladly grant this sword if I could woo

Thee by a gift of plundered Christian brand,

If by its giving, I could win thy hand!’

Now Heide laughed to hear of the defeat

Of Freydegar, to hear this “Skanir’s” treat

For her, she laughed and reached for what he bore,

But “Skanir” held it back with eyes imploring

‘Til she laughed again, her blue eyes bright,

And cried, ‘How can I wed another knight

Than he who Freydegar laid dead, share life

With any less than who can make a wife

Of me by prowess great? I’d be ashamed

To bind myself to any lesser famed

Than I; but thou hast proved thy worth in this,

And, by my father’s will, I’ll grant my kiss

To thee; so come, to Alder-King we’ll grant

The sword, and he will offer what you want,

A wedding-night with me, and I will marry

Thee, and I no more a virgin tarry!’

“Skanir” trembled limb to limb to hear

That honey he’d forgotten in his ear,

Nor Lethe’s waters new-love could erase,

But only memories’ high battlements could raze,

While in the heart, foundations laid remained

Untouched; nor Freydegar could have refrained,

Nor any man into those blue eyes gazing

Come away in any but Love’s daze;

Now Heide eastward to the forest turned,

Secure with Scathnung close behind she spurned

To care for other Christians’ plights, but knew

The fate of Christendom, in edges true,

Was held; she went, and “Skanir” followed close,

His sword to give away in loving’s throes

To him, the elf-king, greatest enemy

Of Christ; and all around beneath the trees,

The blaring warhorns of the Baltic camps,

To Anslech sounded like the thund’rous tramps

Of doom; and he to Wolfram quick returned,

And pallid told how Freydegar had burned

For just a kiss from pagan lips, betrayed

All Christendom by promising the blade

Of Scathnung under Heide’s bright blue eyes

To marry serpent in a maiden’s guise.

 

To be continued in Part II!

______________________________________________

Cullen Groves lives in Moscow, Idaho, trying to hack it as a writer while still bumming around where he graduated from the University of Idaho with a degree in philosophy. He has had poetry published by Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and Apex Magazine, and both prose and poetry published by Heroic Fantasy Quarterly in several issues (“Harrowed Hall”, “Madness of the Mansa“).

 


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