LETHE’S CUP AND THE WHITE SWORD–Part 2



LETHE’S CUP AND THE WHITE SWORD–Part 2, by Cullen Groves  (click here for Part 1)

The Argument:

Upon the Empire’s pale, a dreadful battle
Had broken Christian knights, for all their mettle;
Retreating thence to Gereburg’s high castle,
Surrounded by the pagan spears a-bristle,
They looked for Freydegar, who Scathnung wielded,
The White Sword, Scathnung, to which all foes yielded;
They found him pining for a pagan maiden,
Fair Heide, who on battlefield came laden
In mail and shield, who Freydegar had smitten
With her blue eyes, so Freydegar had flitten
Away from battle’s fray; thence he was offered
A cup of Lethe’s water, drunk when proffered,
And thus forgetting for a while the stinging
Of Love’s fell dart, did Freydegar go winging
To Gereburg, and found his uncle wondering|
Just how to save his knights from pagan sundering;
The council argued that a pair go riding
To spy that night; to prove him not a nithing,
Young Freydegar was sent with Wolfram Minstrel,
A poet-knight; and going forth, like kestrels
They found and fell upon a camp of sleeping,
Unguarded pagans, got much wealth for keeping
–But riding back unto the Christian tower,
Fair Heide’d heard their deed, and from her bower,
She rode to challenge them; disguised as a pagan,
Bold Freydegar turned to meet her, and again
He saw her face, was overcome by beauty,
And offered Scathnung, derelicting duty
For merest chance that he might win a lover
In Heide, fierce, who’d never loved another.

 

‘What hell befalls us!’ Wolfram heavy sighed,

‘Would God that coward Freydegar had died

Before this fulsome night, in far off wars,

Than give away his sword to pagan whores!

A circle ’round us now is drawn, and we

Beset by every foul calamity;

Yea, we few paladins in fortress crouched

Are all who yet remain with lances couched

Against the menace panting at the pale–

And Scathnung our last hope that we’d not fail!’

So saying, Wolfram turned and sped away

‘Neath nighted cedar bough and black pines swaying,

Anslech coming after, bearing leads

For Baltic horses, Bolverk’s mighty steeds;

They went like coursing hounds, while all around

The pagan horns the forest filled with sound,

And clamor of their voices, calling to

And fro with ugly phrases, hating who

Had Bolverk and his tribe caught sleeping, slain

A score of men in silence where they’d lain;

So all the woods alive with shouting were

When Wolfram and good Anslech eased the spur

Beneath the heights of Gereburg, with calls

To watchmen on the crenellated walls,

‘Ope wide the gate! Ope wide and let us through!

We bear both honor won and evil news!’

And looking ’round, the guards above them saw

Beyond, in night-black woods, through brake and shaw,

The burning of a thousand torches swarming,

Like the sparks thrown off by firestorm,

Held up by heathen hands with heathen shouts,

And quick threw wide the gate to aid the rout

Of those beneath who’d dared the darkened paths,

Now fleeing nighted forest full of wrath;

So Wolfram, Anslech, and the horses, fleetly

Entered, followed by gate’s closing beat;

Then Wolfram, momently at Conrad’s side,

Had told him how his nephew Christ defied,

And Conrad groaned to hear it, laid him there

Upon the floor and wept with heart laid bare,

Awash in sea of tears and wrack of woes,

Nor spoke that night, his mouth in grief was closed,

And only in the light of dawn arose

With sterner mouth set firm against his foes.

 

#

 

But ere the dawn had come, still Freydegar

Rode out in darkling wood beneath the stars,

Behind unerring Heide’s eastward ride

Beneath tall pines that in the nightwind sighed,

Where Freydegar heard naught but groaning boughs

And creaking trees, the breath that darksome soughs

With lightning’s flash and thunder’s cough of nights

In restless summers; rode where never knights

Of Christendom had come, and ever sped

Before him Heide’s form as if she fled

On horseback where Hippolyta had raced

On foot; and after her, he restless chased

Nor knew not what the troubled trees had spake

While they his face with branches tried to rake;

But Heide heard, whose blood half-elfin flowed,

Must listen, will she, nil she, while she rode

To every rumor in the nervous leaves,

And every sigh that in the treetops heaved;

For she had learned of old the speech of trees,

The verse of beech, of elm, or pine in breeze,

From father, whom the alders loved the most;

And first, she heard it asked, if she her helm

Should set aside for paltry love, by elms;

While massive cedars asked her if a sword

Was worth dominion under Christian lord;

And passing through the tall black pines’ lament

She heard them shake in shame that she were bent

To suffer at a man’s desire; the fir

Rose up and asked if it not better were

That she the sword should cast aside, deny

Desires of a man and freely fly

As ever Heide had before; and lo!

Above the tumbling stream where ancient grow

The weeping willows, Heide heard them weep

That she no more among their roots should sleep;

But she tossed up her head and laughed to hear

The trees ashudder in the night drafts fear

Her fall; her heart was hardened to the their call

That they the felling of Thor’s Oak recalled;

And swift she went beneath their bending limbs,

And heedless bent her head until the limn

Of Alfheim stood before, marked off by wardens

Tall and strong: the pair of oaks that guard

The way from mortal realm to Elf-land far

Away across the road of heath; with starlight

In their crowns they stood, resplendant, tall,

And proud, and shook their limbs in challenge-call;

But Heide laughed with lifted head and spoke

The watchword to the oaks that vigil broke;

And did they part? It seemed they swept their boughs

Apart and ushered her between with bows,

Without the stillness breaking; looking there,

Between the pillars of the oaken pair,

Into the land of Elves and Alder-King

Did “Skanir” tremble, nor himself could bring

To pass the silent oaks; but Heide took

His hand, and drew him on with honeyed look,

To Alfheim’s land of lofty halls and towers,

Where mortal moments draw out into hours.

 

#

 

In Elf-land there, the eerie Elf-fires danced

And night lit up with faerie-light where glanced

The wondered eyes of Freydegar; the trees

Stood tall and graceful-limbed, grown where were free

From hand or axe or any work of man,

While glitt’ring streams of silver water ran

Among their roots, reflecting to the night

Illumined rivulets in which the trees were dight;

And in the midst of all those wondrous sights,

Erlsaale stood, a hall of many heights,

Of gilded roof, its pillars living trees,

And beams all sturdy boughs upthrust in lees

Of walls with carven images and deeds

Heroic, painted bright, from ancient lieds;

Here Heide strode, unto the heavy door

That golden Gullinbursti’s visage bore,

And looking on that great boar’s tusken grin

Was Freydegar afrighted by the din

Of howling hounds, and at his heels they snapped,

Three massive hunting mastiffs that had napped

About the door, a guard of loyal beasts

Discharging duty for the scraps of feasts;

But Heide laughed again, and soothed their breasts,

And patting each, sent them again to rest;

So now, she opened wide the doors, and becked

That “Skanir” follow her, wherein he recked

A long and vasty hall, with cookfires’ trench

Along the center, at its sides the benches

That a host of thousands easily

Might hold on days when their great lord was free

With mead and feasting’s clamors bright,

But now in lonely dust and dark was dight;

And yet, the red coals sprang at once to flame

When Heide entered, showing off the fame

Erlsaale’s lord had won, in gold-lit glim;

And at the head of that wide hall, sat grim-faced

Ingvir, Alder-King, and at his side

The Christian woman Elsbeth, sword-won bride,

Revealed by flames together in the seat

Of honor; ‘Welcome, daughter–drink and eat!’

The Elf-lord cried, and beckoned with his hand;

And with the other, tapped a rune-carved wand

Against the table, with a spell’s weird cant,

And there was brought forth anything that want

Could banish: venison, or salmon red,

Or boars sewn back into their hides with thread

Of gold; and Rhenish wine, and casks of beer,

Red draughts from Italy, mead golden clear;

All borne to board by servants lightly clad

In air and faerie-fire, singing glad;

Now Ingvir over Heide bent, on her

Bestowed a welcome-kiss; then said, ‘I were

An evil host to welcome not a friend;

So welcome, stranger, let my servants tend

Your wants, and raise with me a cup of mead

In friendlywise, thou whom my daughter leads!’

Then to his right, he beckoned daughter glad

And Heide sat, still in her corselet clad;

While “Skanir” took the siege at Elsbeth’s left,

Where he a brimming horn of mead took heft

From her white hands; its gold he deeply drank,

Ambrosial gold for which he sighed great thanks.

 

#

 

Now, it was strange that Heide from that womb

Had sprung, from Elsbeth and her hair of gloom,

From that dark dam of night, a daughter fair:

For Heide was a girl of golden hair,

Her tresses flashing like the sun, her eyes

As brightly wide and blue as open skies,

And all her aspect summery and warm;

But Elsbeth, dark of hair, was like the storm

That stirs on summer wind to shake the eaves

And rattle roof until the black sky heaves,

And Elsbeth’s glance like lightning flashed, and seemed

That thunder’s peal must follow; still there gleamed

Resemblance in their faces’ beauty strong,

So daughter to her mother’s branch belonged;

But where the mother only vague appeared

As Heide’s dam, the father’s blood was clear:

That Elf-lord clept the Alder-King was blue

Of eye and gold of hair, and at his thigh

The brother-sword of Heide’s Naglind hung,

The dread sword Dranglind, whose keen iron tongue

Had raged and wracked through mortal ages long

And loosed the blood of feuds for ancient wrongs:

‘I’ve seen the errant tides of Men,’ he cried,

‘The ebb and flow of wealth and war, the ride

Of Time unending; I, sprung forth of old,

An Elf-lord, walked with gods in deed-songs bold

Forgotten now, but ancient told before

The White Christ came, destroying all our lore!

I Hrothgar saw, who Danes made great until

Beset by Grendel, breathing horror’s ill;

And I the youth of Beowulf recall

When he made Grendel groan in Hrothgar’s hall,

Unto that troll’s demise; and laden down

With gifts of woven mail and gilded crowns,

Did Edgetho’s son win wide renown as king

Over the Geats; but now the poets sing

How in his eild, a worm destroyed him in

Its breath, and in his death, the Geats for sins

Against their neighbors, Franks and Swedes, were laid

Beneath Time’s barrows by their foes’ bright blades;

And I was here when Boniface came nigh

To promise pagan men they would not die

If they but gave themselves unto the god

Who on the tree of sacrifice his bod

Gave up in offering to right all wrongs,

And justice grant the weak, and cull the strong;

I laughed to hear this foolishness–a weak

And witless god allowed his foes to wreak

His death and torture, all to save the meek

And give to them the gift their betters seek:

Eternal life! But in the course of all

These words, did Boniface the Aesir call

Mere demons, contradicting Him above;

Then, praying for the White Christ’s boundless love,

That Boniface took up an axe and struck

The blesséd oak that burgeoned by Thor’s luck,

Yea Donar’s Oak with axe’s senseless blade

From reaching heights to earth, he eager laid,

And all who gathered there were awed because

He lived, though he defied the gods’ high laws,

Nor was he struck by Mjolnir’s thunderbolt,

But brazen stood, untouched within the holt,

As if some higher God His hand stretched out

And Thor pressed back into a weakling rout,

Whom only Time before had overcome

In wrestling bout in Utgard-Loki’s home

Where Elli, that old woman held him fast

And laughed to see him ebb; nor could he last,

With all the strength of gauntlet, god, and belt,

But in her grasp, defeat he finally felt;

Then she cast off her cloak, and Thor saw Time

Before him naked, from the hoar-frost’s rime

In Chaos’ night, to Muspel’s fires bright,

And bowed, a god defeated by her might;

But even I was mazed to see the works

Of Boniface, and hear him and his clerks’

Philosophy, I wondered, and I sought

A Christian wife to untie for me that knot

Of wisdom; that she speak and tell of ruth,

And I might sound her for the depths of truth.’

 

#

 

The Alder-King cried on, ‘And O! I’d make

A song of songs to sing of that wife-taking,

Tell how Nottfax carried me across

The lands a-gallop with an easy toss

Of head as if ’twere just a simple walk

To speed more swiftly than a falling hawk;

To sing of Francia, where Christian kings

Already long had given out gold rings,

Where I to see a lovely maid had chanced,

And straightaway to there I swiftly lanced;

And her of Odocar, a duke there, sprung,

In towers raised where Christ’s strange idols hung;

O! I might sing of them that I made wrack:

Of Notcar, Einhard, Clothis; of the sack

And plunder of the brightest treasure kept

By Odocar in his great hall: and clept

Her Elsbeth; how I stole her from her bed,

I’d sing, how riding under silver head

Of moon, she clutched me from the saddlebow,

Her dark hair streaming in the silver glow;

But lo! I think it is another’s song

I’ll hear tonight, a lay of passions strong;

Another song of taking-wife, or why

Should fearless Heide from her battles fly,

And bring a man unto my hall alone?’

So Ingvir ended, on his golden throne; Then Heide laughed, without the shame to blush,

And told of “Skanir’s” exploits while a flush

Crept slowly up her cheeks to burn there red

Against the whiteness of her skin; her head

She proudly held while speaking as she told

How Freydegar was slain by “Skanir” bold,

And how he wrested Christian hope from those

Dead hands: the White Sword! Scathnung! dread to foes;

She “Skanir” bade to draw and lay it on

The table; looking on it, Heide shone,

And Alder-King was wondered there to look

Upon the blade that “Skanir” seeming took;

But wondered more was he to hear her bare

Her heart, as seemed, and hear her blithe declare:

‘Yea, for this peerless bride-price, I have sworn

That even yet, tonight, I will adorn

My maiden locks beneath a marriage veil,

If thou this prince will bless, whose strength avails

Against the greatest Christians; Father, nod

Thy head and Scathnung take, and like a rod

Of iron we the Christian host can break

On world’s floor, if thou that sword wilt take!’

So Heide said; and Ingvir, in the fire

Illumined, asked, ‘Is this, then, thy desire?

O! Daughter wilt thou take this man as lord

And happy be? For I would never sword

Accept, whatever victories it brings,

If thus were cursed to never hear thee sing

Again in happiness.’ But Heide tossed

Her head and cried,’ Without him, I’ll be lost!’

And Ingvir then agreed would all be blest

By him, but only after his own test;

‘So go now daughter; take her hence, my wife,

Make Heide ready for another life;

Take off the heavy mail about her breast,

Remove the helm and let her tresses rest

Like coiled gold on naked creamy shoulders,

Bathed to rosy hues in waters cold;

And wipe the iron rust from her bright eyes,

Strip off the warbelt, gird on maiden’s guise,

Of virgin bright, with flowers in her hair;

Go on, then, daughter, quickly up the stair!’

To kiss both wife and daughter then he bent,

As they arose and to his bidding went.

 

#

 

Now “Skanir” stood alone with Ingvir grim,

Whose pale blue eyes with scorn began to brim

To look on such an one as thought to take

His daughter from her home in elfin brake;

The Alder-King led “Skanir” to a spire,

A tower rising from Erlsaale, higher

Than any other roof of Alfheim’s halls

So high and cold that breath in rime-mist falls,

And at its apex stood a lofty chair;

Then Ingvir bade, ‘Sit there, and if you care

For Heide truly, if your heart desires

Her joy and hap, we’ll see it from this spire,’

But by the throne, the knight stood hesitating;

Ingvir laughed, said, ‘Do not think your fate

Upon that siege is perilous!’ The rime

Of hoar frost “Skanir” wiped away and climbed

Between the gilded arms of that huge throne

Where with himself a man must sit alone,

While casting gaze across the world, his sight

Encompassing all, under sun or night,

To any corner of the earth, from Ind

In East’s extremity, to Afric’s windblown

Sands in southern Nubia, and west

To Moors’ Iberia, and farther, blest

And lovely Avalon upon the tides

Of outer Ocean; and even north, where ride

The Lapland wizards through the bitter snow;

And over this, and anything between, might throw

His gaze, who sits that chair, it Hlidskialf called

After the seat that stood in Odin’s hall;

Nor only doings on the world’s face,

But even sights from where Time’s current races

On ahead to mouth and end, or from

Outpourings at its head, to Hlidskialf come;

Now “Skanir” sat there long and stared away

Into the distant dark beneath night’s sway,

But finally, he shook himself and rose

And trembled head to hands in little throes

While hollow seemed the gaze that glanced around;

‘So, tell me what you saw, and I will sound

Your soul,’ the Alder-King declared, and turned,

Regarding Freydegar with eyes that burned;

Said he, ‘I Heide saw, a maiden clad,

Through blossoms dancing in a bower and glad;

Around her swirled a skirt more bright

Than any rose or flower, and she was dight

Like maidens, putting off her armored mail

More fit for mournful war and battle’s wail,

And in her golden hair, she flowers twined;

But in her hand she held the sword Naglind,

While singing silvery the ancient lieds

Of tragic fates and dark heroic deeds,

She scraped it keener on a whetstone dark;

While all around to growing winds I harked,

And ’round her joy, I saw a growing black

As of the night, and feared for what she lacked,

Half-Elf and only half immune to Time,

She will dissolve like foam on Ocean’s brine

At last; no sword, against Time can prevail,

Just one thing life eternal can avail;

Just this I saw, nor could I look away,

Not even back unto the battle’s fray.’

When Ingvir looked on Freydegar, it seemed

His eyes could pierce the young man’s soul and dreams,

And “Skanir” quailed beneath the pale blue gaze

That beat intense as summer sun’s bright rays;

But Ingvir nodded slowly, and a cloud

Came o’er his eyes, until he seemed less proud;

In quiet voice, said, ‘It is strange to me

That you and I the same dread vision see

When in that seat.’ This said, his blue eyes cleared,

And he more boldly said: ‘Because you feared

What I have, saw what I have seen, I’ll grant

You, daughter’s guest-friend, what you greatly want,

I’ll bow me down to Heide’s new behest:

Her hand to you as father I bequest.’

 

#

 

That night, the messengers went forth, to east

And west, to south and north, to tell of feast

At every garth, the feast of Heide’s troth;

On Elf-steeds rode, with word returned, that loth

Were none to come pay court; and all by dawn

Had spread the word, and ere the sun was gone

Again, would Heide be a bride, and all

The maids and matrons, wide Erlsaale’s hall

Would fill, and those too young, and those of eild,

Those Elves and pagans left behind the field

Of war; so swiftly went the night and morn For servants who Erlsaale must adorn

With wreaths, and spread the rushes on the floor;

And quickly also for the guests, the more

Because they must in finery themselves

Array, and soon; to honor bride with pelf

Adorning skirts, that in the swirling dance

Before her night, the bride might only glance

On Beauty bright; so flew the night and morn

For some, but for those hopeful or forlorn

Dragged on but momently: so, Heide stood

In wedding dress, and shone as when a hood

Is lifted off a lantern in the night,

And all the light pours out in brilliance bright:

Before a silver looking glass she preened

While Elsbeth fretted over her she’d weaned

And proudly seen grown into womanhood;

And Freydegar beneath the star-vault stood,

Alone beneath the dark, and often paced,

With prayers upon his lips, and felt how raced

His heart and hoped that Heide’s also leapt

To think the same of him, but feared she wept,

‘Til overcome by fears, he prayerful sank

Unto his knees, and looked to Heaven, drank

Of hope, but would have drunk a draught of ale

In thanks if he could know how Heide paled

In want of him; but Freydegar was not

Alone in prayer that night upon his knees,

For Gereburg was full of prayers to free

Those gathered there from plight of pagan sword,

Beleagured lips that murmured to the Lord

To ask deliverance, to beg they might

Not die, but somehow carry on the fight,

The holy Empire of believers keep

From pagan hands and from eternal sleep;

Then came the dawn, and Freydegar lay down,

He trembling from his fingers to his crown

While venom of Love’s arrow coursed his veins;

And Heide laid her down in beauty vain,

To rest an hour or so, with her belief

Secure of victory as made her lief

To easy sleep; but Gereburg so far

Behind, when gone was every fading star

Of night before the daystar bright, alive

Became, more active than a swarming hive,

By Freydegar forgot, by Heide hated,

Conrad still strove on against hard fate,

And every hand set to the works of war,

To oiling arms and armor, filling store

Of wrath against that hour when battle came

And each must ride and win himself a name.

 

#

 

The halls were glad with garlands brightly hung,

And filled with chatter of excited tongues:

The maidens of the pagan kingdoms, left

Behind by war, of heathen knights bereft,

In their bright dresses filled but half the hall;

The other, elf-lords took, at Ingvir’s call

They came, proud princes and their noble wives:

Great Oberon and fair Titania came,

And Gloriana, faerie-queen of fame,

With dryads and hamadryads as handmaids,

They led a train of Elves as yet unfaded

From the woods, the lovely laurel sprites,

And myrtle-maids, all led by Daphne bright;

From forest mere, from darksome tarn, from brook

And laughing stream, those nymphs who Hylas took,

Nereids and naiads dight in watered gems

Came from their strands with water at their hems;

All these were come, and many more, a crowd

Of dwarfs and Elves spilled in the door to proud

Erlsaale’s hall; while Gereburg was with

The din of shouting men then filled, the smiths

A cadence hammered as they made repairs,

While squires whetstones worked, and knights prepared

The place for war; so Wolfram oversaw

The drills of footmen in the court, ’til raw

His voice became, once clear for verse and song,

Devoted now to war; above the throng,

On towertop, Reynard watched all the lands,

To east and west, to north and south, his hands

Around a battle horn with mighty voice

Like Olifaunt, that he a blast might noise

When came the enemy; and Conrad walked

The walls, inspecting every knight, he stalked

With Furies in his shadow, as he spake

To each, and something followed in his wake,

So when he bade, ‘Be ready!’ to a knight,

The man’s heart burst the bonds of clutching fright;

And Conrad, once he’d made these rounds to shore

Up walls of courage, sought the little door

Into the silent chapel, turned his face

And knelt before the bones of Boniface,

Alone upon the stones to silent pray;

So each hall spent the waiting of the day.

 

#

 

And all those knights in Gereburg had naught

To drink but water from the well, and thought

But little of the bread they ate while fear

Came worrying their minds like hounds to deer;

While beer and honey-wine flowed fast and free

Beneath Erlsaale’s beams of living trees,

Deep drinking horns by Elves and maidens raised

To cheers and drained, and filled again, ’til dazed

In drunkenness and happy warmth of wine,

The guests with laughter groaned like soughing pines;

Now Heinrich, bishop of the Ostwald see

Came ’round to bless the knights on bended knee,

And holy water shook over their brows

With murmured prayers, reminding them the vows

Of knightly valor, while they raised their brands’

Crossed hilts for blessings from the bishop’s hands,

Those blades that soon in battle must be drawn;

And Freydegar now Scathnung drew to pawn

Away, a bride-price to the Alder-King,

The white blade he had yearned in war to swing

Now proferred to the pagan, offered hilts

To Elf-lord, yearning more for ringlets gilt,

And dreaming of the bed beneath the wreath

Where he and Heide might the bare sword sheathe

That heretofore had laid between the Bride

And he who in his yearning Christ defied;

The bells of Gereburg began to knell

To call the knights to Mass, and there they fell

Upon their knees, in chapel where the saint

Looked on them as they lifted prayers’ refrains,

And each his soul to Him above confided,

Knowing death must come in battle’s tide,

When lifting chalice to his trembling lips

And blood of God partook in meager sips;

But Freydegar and Heide, hand in hand,

Like different natures meeting on the strand,

Were bound together, earth to water tied

By Ingvir as they stood there, side by side,

Made one as he bound up their hands with cords

And draughts of ale were drunk by elfin lords

In witness to the union; then the feast

Began in earnest, nor the drinking ceased

Until the evening donned her cloak, and Night

Came after, kept at bay by torches’ light;

But Freydegar saw naught the feast, a daze

Was over him, nor could he wrench his gaze

From Heide, where she shared his seat, a smile

Playing at her lips and laughing all the while,

Nor drank he any draught of mead or beer,

But drank the joy that in her eyes shone clear;

And finally, a lull came o’er the hall,

A silence broken by the drunken call

To rise and on their shoulders lift the pair

Unto the bed that henceforth they might share:

So Oberon and all the Elf-lords hied

To carry Heide, laughing and confiding

To her blush how she might “Skanir” please;

And Freydegar was quick to seek that ease,

But forced to dally as the Elf-queens caught

His hands and fluttered lashes that had brought

A host of knights unto their knees for just

A kiss, and whispered to him deeds of lust

That Heide might inflame, and “Skanir” flushed

To hear; and at the door, he fairly rushed

Unto the bed to seek the sweet embrace

For which he hellfires hot had fearless faced.

 

#

 

Now in the night, the two were left alone

Without a brand or glim, and there was sown

By kisses, shy but eager, and by hands’

Fair touches, seeds of love in fertile lands;

‘My lover is a stag upon the heights

With antlers proud, a prince o’er woodland knights

–A horned king over every hart and doe,

In course so swift t’ avoid the darts of bows,

He stands, an emperor in cedar halls

With antlered crown–me his belovéd calls!’

So Heide softly sang as she unclasped

The cloak around her lover; then they grasped

Each other in embraces fierce, and toward

The marriage bed, the lady led her lord;

And glad she was that “Skanir” she could claim,

But only glad until he bared his name,

As if without his cloak, his naked corse

Demanded opening the horn-made doors:

‘My dear, I’ve lied; I am a Christian knight

Of Conrad’s train, and Freydegar am hight,’

He said, and as the words like venom dripped

Into her ears from what were honeyed lips

A moment past, she lay as if one dead,

So still and cold she seemed a cast of lead;

But just a moment passed before she leapt

Unto her feet, and wailed, and angry wept,

And swore, ‘Before the night is done, you’ll die

At my own hand and Naglind’s edge, for lying

With a serpent’s cunning into this,

A bed of falsehood with a poisoned kiss!’

 

#

 

In darkness there a contest was begun

As Heide’s sudden wrath flowed through the dun;

She cast aside her dress in shamelessness,

Like peltasts tied back cloaks in battle’s press

For freedom of their limbs, and then she seized

His wrists in iron hands, no longer pleased

To feel his fingers’ soft caress; like her

Of Iceland–Brynhild!–did her war-heart stir

As she her thews that had so many knights

Laid dead in barrows with her bending might

Against false Freydegar now loosed; the man

Pressed back as if like army’s vaunted van,

Until the two made wrack of halls as they

Together fell as if into the fray

Of battle, wrestling ’til Erlsaale shook

From roots to beams, and every strength it took

Of Freydegar to Heide hold, for she

Was skilled in fighting arts, and twisted free

Like subtle serpent seething in his grasp;

Like Alcides and Antaeus they clasped

And threw each other while the great hall creaked,

While laughed the guests to hear the battle wreaked,

Until the living pillars shook and groaned,

And Elves expected that fair Heide’d moaned

–They drank, and counted it a goodly match,

While Heide thought she had a peerless catch,

She who had slaughtered knights and warriors brave

Could not now wrestle Freydegar to grave;

So freeing him from the shackles of her hands,

She sprang aside and sought her own fierce brand,

And Freydegar as swiftly sprang alight

While Heide through the black of fallen night

Her dark sword Naglind seized and wrathful drew,

Its edges brandished by her naked thews,

And gave a warshout, lunging through the gloom

To plunge in Freydegar its thirsting doom.

 

#

 

Yea, Freydegar was on his feet when she

Came on with cry of rage, his sprite to free

From mortal coil, and lightly fell away

Before her wrath and rush, the toil of the day

Unready to forgo just when desire

Was stoked from hopeful coals to leaping fire:

‘Peace, peace!’ he begged, ‘I meant no evil in

Deceit, I beg forgiveness of my sin,

And anything I’ll do if thou forgive

Me, anything if I could peaceful live

Beside thee evermore: already I

Gave up my sword, my faith, with you to lie!’

Nor Heide ceased the press of sword to list’

These words, nor but of fury could she wist,

And Naglind raised, that in the darkness flashed,

Until, awakened by the shout and clash

Came Ingvir from his sleep to threshold dark:

‘Peace, daughter! Put aside thy blade and hark–

Will you this hall to everlasting shame

Condemn by murder of the one whose claim

Of love but hours before was welcome joy?

Will you your father’s hall so quick destroy?’

And Heide groaned to hear her father speak

Of hospitality, the laws that seeking

Odin dared not break; ‘But he has lied!

He is that hateful Freydegar!’ she cried;

‘And yet, I knew he was a Christian knight,

Though like a pagan come, barbaric dight,’

Said Ingvir to her rage; ‘On Hlidskialf he

Saw what, when sitting there, I ever see:

That lest thee for the Christ’s salvation craved,

Thou from the final Death shalt not be saved;

Wilt thee now downward draw thy brows?

But I believe it’s good to hear that vows

Of Christendom might stave away the night

That I have seen about the world alight,

Or why else should I have a Christian wife,

And hope her memory might grant me life,

However fleeting, in Eternity,

Where she is bound, while soulless, I must dree

The world’s end? I’ve in that seat seen more:

I’ve seen the deaths of gods in final war

Against the giants’ march from Muspelheim

And white Hrimvangar’s breath of winter’s rime;

I’ve seen the ship of nails on corpse-winds sailing,

Heard Valhalla’s trump o’er Hel’s bleak wailing,

Seen the serpent from the seas unwinding,

Heard Heimdalar Gjallarhorn go winding;

Fenrir scrapes the earth and skies with jaws

That swallow sun and moon in gaping maw,

And in the darkness, all the gods are slain:

So swordless Freyr by Surt is lifeless lain,

While Thor the world-worm with hammer kills,

But by its venomed breath at last is stilled,

And Odin, Battle-Father, lord of crows,

Into the Wolf’s devouring belly goes;

Then all is night; I’ve seen this, as a dream,

In Hlidskialf seated; afterward there gleams

A secret hope that Boniface was right

To put his trust into the Christ-God white;

And daughter, I for thee this hope have craved

That thou from final Death might yet be saved,

Half-Eelf, thou hast a soul as I have not;

Wilt waste the chance t’ improve thy hopeless lot

Embodied in this knight who burns with love

For thee, as bright as golden sun above?’

So Ingvir said, and hearing what he’d spoken

Heide cried out, and her heart was broken.

 

#

 

Far away at Gereburg the shout

And din of battle long since had about

The castle raged, while wedding feast enjoyed,

The war burst forth again with battle joined:

At noon the pagans stirred, began to chant

Their songs of war, and marching to the cant

Came on against the high walls of the keep

Like tides that flow in from dark Ocean’s deeps,

And dragged along behind their engines dread,

The walls to break and topple over heads

Of Conrad and his cohorts where they crouched

Behind the battlements; the huge host slouched

Along like some vast, dark and fulsome beast

With many heads all clamoring to feast

On slaughtered flesh; the heathen meant to crack

The walls, and in the tumbled ruins wrack

Those Christians left alive and bloodlust sate;

But Conrad led a sortie through the gate

Before the Balts could break the tower, the knights

Rode out in strength the engines to alight,

For in their hands, held brands of burning pitch,

And storming through, hurled torch to engines, which

Caught fire, and meanwhile with their swords and spears,

Drove off the pagans and their engineers;

But Herkus Monte, Baltic hero, thrown

Into command of hosts while Heide’d gone,

His own best knights he gathered, charging led

Against the Christians, Herkus at the head,

With Varislav, and bold Tivanus, named

After that god who lost his hand for fame

When thrust into the fangs of gaping wolf;

These broke the Christian band, and with them Hrolf,

Berserk from Norway come for battle’s joy

Cut swathes down with his axe, alone destroyed

The knights of Burgundy, good Ortwin slew,

And Dancwart, Rumold, even Elsung true,

He laughing cut them down with his long axe

And led his troop across their bloody backs,

Nor ceased the killing ’til himself lay dead

When Boemund with sword split ope’ his head,

Who met his end on Ingaevoning lance

Thrust by Tivanus through the battle’s dance;

So went the slaughter in the shining blaze

Of engines burning; fought until the day’s

End came; and Conrad held great Herkus off,

Two mighty swordsmen, nor could either doff

The other’s head; they circled while around

Were heaped up bodies on the bloody ground,

But finally the press of numbers told,

The paladins of Empire, fighting bold,

Were forced from field back to besiegéd tower

Well after Phoebus blazed his final hour

And disappeared into the west with Night

Behind, who piteously hid the sight

Of that dark charnel house of corpses cast

About the field in wrack and bloody waste.

 

#

 

So fell the night, and with it fell the tears

Of those in Gereburg entrapped with fears

And with the grief for all their fallen friends

That rolling down their cheeks, a hot rain sends;

And in the nighted forest there without

Their fastness ranged the heathens, howling shouts,

Like jackals prowling circles round the stones

That held them back from cracking Christian bones;

A watch was set in every turret tall

To ward off any trial of the walls,

And Conrad gathered every other man

Of able body to him under wan

Moonlight, there in the bailey’s open court

The paladins of Empire to exhort:

‘O! what a day of blood was suffered here

A day of broken sword and shattered spear;

So many brothers in the dust are lain,

So many dead, and yet we few remain;

Yea we our arms retain, and while we live

With sword in hand might still the pagan rive

Before to Christendom he penetrates

Unto the heart, our wives’ and daughters’ fates

To end in death or slavery; and think,

Before to grief and fear of death you sink,

That all our comrades fallen in the fray

Are martyrs in defense of faith, and they

Will rise again on Judgment Day in hap

Eternal, as shall you if you Death’s tap

Should on your shoulder feel in melee pressed;

So rise again, and let your wounds be dressed,

Nor heed the least distress, but arm again

And wipe away your hot tears’ bitter rain:

Arise, arise, O! Empire’s paladins,

Fell deeds await when battle new begins

Let every lance be shaken, splinter shields,

‘Til last of us lie dead, or foeman yields,

Yea, let it be a night of swords, a night

Of death, a night of blood before the light

Returns; a victory in battle won,

A victory in dying, let the sun

By dawn, upon our victory look down,

If battle’s field is ours–or martyrs’ crowns!’

 

#

 

And hearing Conrad’s words, they boldly cried,

Their fear and grievous hurts they laid aside

And limbs weighed down by weariness became

As light as if no armor girt their frames

And every knight, though wretched in his corse,

Leapt up, and each, despite his saddle-sores

Stood in his stirrups, donning shield and helm,

A hundred men who thousands meant to whelm

Or die, and every man of them must die,

And still they answered pagan howls with cry

Of warshouts brazen, widely threw the doors,

And into night of wrath and battle poured;

That was a desperate fight, through darkness swirled,

And knights by lances from their saddles hurled

Were trampled into dust unseen through gloom,

No ransoms sought, but only meted dooms;

And through the gloaming melee, roving bands

Went ’round beneath the light of burning brands,

Knights shouting in their native tongues their peers

To rally through confusion, where so many spears

Were couched in single duels, like errants bold

Adventuring alone in darksome wold;

And thus did Radvast, the Nadruvian

Survivor, come on Wolfram through the wan

Of pallid moon, behind him came, recalled

The sight of Wolfram’s blade whose flashing fall

Broke wide the skull of pagan Irnfried in

The dun, that blade that slew Nadruvians;

So Radvast couched his spear and spurred his steed

To seek revenge in Wolfram’s back, a deed

Dishonored in each camp; but Dietrich broke

Between his master and the fatal stroke,

He’d seen the pagan charging from the back,

But warning gave the moment of his wrack,

The lance broke in his breast, he dying cried,

And Wolfram came about, with bare sword hied

On Radvast ere the pagan drew his blade,

And last Nadruvian to dust was laid;

Then Wolfram turned unto his squire and wept,

The dying Dietrich who somehow had kept

His seat, and for his squire sang lament,

He tore his hair, his face he bloody rent,

And tapped the shoulders of the youth with sword

To make a knight of him before the Lord;

Such was the night, a slaughter through the gloom

That many a howe-grave filled, and many a tomb,

And Conrad, with his red-hawk banner went

Withal, and gathered to him those not sent

Beyond just yet, that they might greet the day

With one last charge there in the dawn mists grey;

Perhaps a banneret were underneath

His oriflamme, and ’round them chaos seethed,

When over eastern edge the dawnlight broke

And there, it seemed, now fell the final stroke

Against the Christian remnant: Heide gleamed

There in the dawn’s grey light like evil dream,

And Freydegar was at her side, and hung

At Heide’s saddlebow, the White Sword’s tongue.

white-sword-2

 

#

 

The pagans now gave forth a mighty shout,

And Herkus Monte laughed to see the rout

Of Christendom, he circled on his horse,

His sword in circles flashing o’er his corse,

And cried out, ‘Let them choke on their black blood,

And let us trample them into the mud,

Let Christ be broken here again! Ride, ride!

Nor cease until the last of them has died!

For Heide ride, who laid her oaths as yoke

About your shoulders, she who Scathnung broke,

For Heide, queen of heathendom, we ride!’

white-sword-1

 

And all their host came on, nor could abide

The Christian few with Conrad gathered close,

Where for each knight came on a hundred foes,

And with their overlapping shields they made

A wall, but bucklers riddled through, bent blades,

And shivered hafts were little good against

The press of enemies that round them fenced;

So Aldrian was by Tivanus slain,

And Eckewart into the dust was lain

By Varislav, who also Nantwin killed

When each the other charged in deadly tilt,

And Varislav’s bright mail undamaged was

Where rending swords had Nantwin’s turned to dross;

Now Conrad in the center held the line,

Reynard was at his side, and battle’s wine

Was in his head, he frothed against the rush,

To Conrad cried, ‘Your nephew I will crush

Beneath my heel for how he has betrayed

Us, giving to his slut that sacred blade,

Defying knightly oaths and Christian faith:

Bare handed from his bod, I’ll drive his wraith!’

For in his hand, Reynard a blunt and bended

Blade now held, and made a worthy end

Despite, as throwing it aside, he dove

Under the pagan push of pike, and strove

With but a dagger through the Wulfings toward

The traitor Freydegar without a sword;

But in that press, the chieftain Wulfgar reared

Alike some giant o’er Reynard come leering,

Fell together in the melee thick,

And Wulfgar crushed the knight, but felt the prick

Of cold steel dagger sink into his heart,

So as he died, Reynard the Wulfing parted

From his life, and moment’s respite gave

To Conrad and his band; but then the sea

Of foes broke over them, nor any lee

Could save them from that storm, and in the host

The banner of the hawk was almost lost

When Anslech, standard-bearer, Conrad’s page

Was set upon by Ludegast enraged,

The Saxon king, with Rudeger to right

And Ramung left, his bodyguards, all dight

In wolf-pelts, bearing ancient swords on high;

They fell on Anslech, almost wrenched the staff

From him ere Conrad came with ragged wrath

And Ludegast cut down in one fell sweep,

While Anslech Rudeger to final sleep

With lullaby of lance-tip sent, while fled

Was Ramung, from the sword of Conrad sped.

 

#

 

Now, through the tumult of the battle rode

The newly wedded pair as if a road

Were laid beneath their horses’ hooves, so free

They came between the pagan lines, a sea

That parted where they went, for each man bowed

Before fair Heide, fearsome pagans cowed

By her to whom great dooms were ancient sworn,

And wondered at her passing in that morn;

For Freydegar was at her side, that lord

Of Christendom, and at her hip the sword

That pagans dread by Naglind hung, as if

Belonged there, ere to knight was she made wife;

They came unto the battle’s very edge,

And seemed to step into abyss from ledge

Of precipice when to the Christian lines

They came and with an olive branch made sign

Of peace; and every eye was mazed to see

How Heide bowed her head, who once was free

With laughter and with tossing hair, demure

To Conrad bent, as if a virgin pure

Of that stark faith of Christ; and now a lull

Fell over battlefield, as if to cull

What Heide meant by bowing to that knight

Who’d struggled long against the pagan night:

She whispered then, ‘I’ve come for sake of peace,

That we this war should either side surcease,

I’ve come because I fear the final night

That no man staves away, however bright

His honor, lest eternal it may be,

And by Him granted who would Mankind free

Of sin; I’ve come to ask that I be shrived,

Who ever yet in license free had lived,

And in that freedom, railed against the bounds

And limits set against where Loki sounds

His trickster words that better yet to rule

In Hell than Heaven serve, enslaved a fool;

Forgive me! Please forgive me all my hate!

To not forgive sows seeds of blood-feuds’ fate!’

She sank her down upon the night-maned neck

Of Nottfax then, where every eye could reck;

She bowed to Conrad Dragonsbane, herself

Threw down before his mercy, she, Half-Elf,

Whose call had war begun; and Freydegar

Leaned close to uncle’s ear, and begged that war

Might cease, who under Elf-land’s burning stars

Had Heide wedded, and from Ingvir got

An oath that Elf no more had Christian fought,

A peace between Empire and Alfheim bought

So long as Scathnung no more pagans sought;

And more he told, that sister-son, but drowned

He was when Herkus Monte spurred around,

And to the silent pagan hosts cried out

His fury, rallying men with his war-shout:

‘Arise and ride, for Heide ride, nor break

Your oaths; a spell is on her by that rake,

Remember fealty’s troth!’ so Herkus cried,

But answered him the host, ‘Our oaths to Heide

Break when she they break!’ — ‘Nor her alone,

But oaths to Ingaevonings’ wild thrones

You also swore, the Prus and Danes, the Balts,

The Wulfings, Saxons, underneath the vaults

Of stars eternal, swore to Christians kill

Until the missions of their lands are still!’

 

#

 

And in this exhortation’s midst came he

Who Elsa from the clutching worm made free,

A lance was in his hand, and in his eyes

Was wrath that in Goliath saw no size,

But only death, and Conrad thrust his lance

In Herkus Monte for the pagans’ glance,

And though that giant strove against his foe

With flashing blade, had Conrad come below

His guard and burst the mail that kept his breast,

And Conrad fought until came final rest;

The Ingaevonings cried aloud, their spells

They canted to the endless elvish hells,

But all who had before come forth remained

Behind at Alder-King’s behest, retained

In Alfheim’s pale of North-wind raised, and as

The Vanir, vain, held back by spell of Aes,

Came not, the Ingaevonings closed their ranks

And charged against the Christian shield-wall’s banks,

Undone by magics’ fickleness they came

At last and placed their trust in spear-won fame,

But bold Tivanus met the reaching end

Of Wolfram’s lance who would his love forfend

At Saengersturm, and who lamented yet

In song over his squire, Dietrich’s death;

And Varislav now Wolfbrand overthrew,

But dawn’s grey light saw him among the few

Remaining, and the grief of Death he spurned

As he on Tancred couched his lance and turned

In fearlessness against his death when thrown

By that young knight who’d never coward flown

Before the battle’s press; but now, with all

The pagan captains thrown before the walls

Of Gereburg into the dust, the hosts

Of heathendom into retreat were lost,

Though they a thousand to each Christian knight

Might be, when Herkus Monte to the blade

Of Conrad fell, each to his safety bade

And fled away; and each his brother damned,

By turning with his shield his friends condemned

To death, for each relied upon the right

To hold his shield up ere eternal night

Came down in flash of Christian blade; retreat

Became a slaughter, as the rout was beat

And broken by the paladins who came

To venge on them their broken fame,

And Heide wept for all her friends who died,

While Freydegar, lamenting his own friends, cried …

 

#

 

Was in the fall, when all the trees were yellow,

And the lands knew no more war, but mellow

Laid, the harvest over them, the wheat

Of gold that in the winds went waving, beat

By scythe into a happy hall; then Love

Went walking, down from Aesirs’ hall above,

The Elf-maid Freyja, captive in Valhal,

Fenced in where she before had wandered walds, And looked again where she the poisoned dart

Had sent from her black bow into the heart,

Of errant knight in Spring before; and she

A love saw sprung, as if a mighty tree,

Where she a weed had thought might grow, an oak That from the wedding grew, and growing broke

When Heide in baptism’s white came bright

With hope that she might worthy prove the light;

And seeing this, a smile grew that Love Could not forfend, but in her hall above

The union blessed, and hoped that she might yet

Her pains in final Night’s long black forget.

 

_______________________________________________

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.


banner ad


Comments are closed.