THE LAY OF CUTHRED KING



THE LAY OF CUTHRED KING, by Joshua Hampton

Now told is the tale of
Cuthred King of Keenland,
East away, across field, fen and whale-road,
where none dare pass in these grim years.
From his castle keep, all timbered tall
of aged oak and elm,
he ruled with wit and wisdom
bolstered by his cruel-edged axe,
and loved was he
by lords and laborers the same.

But as winter waned
late in his reign’s reach,
a bad wind from the West did whisper
war was nigh as an army approached
from Ath Aluin,
with purpose to pillage and plunder
Fair Keenland, City of Peace.
And as the legions loomed close,
a herald did come,
mouth and messenger for Mak’Langral,
Lord of the curs’ed clan of Clad’ach,
barbarians, brutal as bold.

‘What says your King?’ asked Cuthred,
thoughtful of the threat to his throne.
And the herald spoke,
‘Send out your sons
to stand against my army,
one against one,
sword against sword.
And as long as they live
we’ll not breach your guarded gates.
A fair and fit offer, if I may say,
to save your city from the slaughter-block.’

The king paused
to ponder all put before him,
and though he had him three sons,
his honored heirs,
precious princes,
Cuthred would not
send them to their ends.
For the eldest called Ulster
was in recent weeks wed,
his wife full with child and ailing,
The next was Norward, second son and scholar,
with a will not for war but wisdom,
and last was Einbran, but a boy,
barely age enough to brandish
ballock or buckler.

And so Cuthred decreed
none would do battle but for himself,
for if any were to fail and fall
it should be he who holds the rod in hand,
and though those in Keenland
did offer to him their own sons
to stand in stead
Cuthred would not hear it.
‘As I love my children,
I love yours,’ said he,
‘And so it must be me alone
who meets with our enemies.’

Word went then to
Mak’Langral of Clad’ach who gladly agreed,
And that night in Keenland
was made a banquet of boar
and ale for all to eat of.
‘Victor’s Eve,’ Cuthred cried,
‘so shall this night be known.
for no matter what befalls me,
my triumph will be in your safety.
So dine and drink you now,
for dawn soon brings a new day.’

It was then
to him his people presented
a favor fashioned of their own hands,
hammered at the anvil of Hofannon,
a hero’s helm three moons in the making,
rightly wrought of iron
delved from the deepest dens,
a casque of cunning,
all jeweled, garnished and gilded,
masterfully made,
and forged to fit their king beloved.
And he thanked them
not with wasted words
but one tear, the only in life he’d shed,
and the sky swelled then with stars
as the moon made itself plain among them.

By morn the moors
were white with snow,
the trees feathered with frost.
The Clad’ach army had amassed,
calling for the King
to make good all agreed.
And to the field he stepped,
surrounded by six thousand soldiers
who sought to slay him,
yet still he stood steadfast and undaunted.

‘Cuthred they call me, King of Keenland,
Frayne and Freeman,’ said he,
‘And last night did I feast
on the finest meat and mead,
and I laid with my Queen,
and soundly we slept,
so this day I am well rested
and ready for ruin.’
He donned then his helm,
and took in hand his twibill,
named Engron, death-dealer,
its august edges keen and cutting,
and called for the first to face him.
And just as was pledged
forth to fray came just one Clad’ach warrior,
yet a titan tall as ten men,
his mace made of black marble stone.
And Cuthred did charge his challenger,
and handily hewed off his head
with but one steady stroke.

Again and again
he bid come his foes,
And each one he fleetly felled,
and as he fought, his kith and kin
crept from Keenland to the mountains,
haven-place for the exiled and outcast.
But many more did not depart,
staying to stand for their hero-king,
with faith yet for his hopeless triumph.

And though his fight was fierce,
still with every man Cuthred matched
he was made more wearied and wounded,
until at last, after ten times twenty against him,
a spear did sorely pierce his side,
and blood freely wept from the gash.
And as he gasped in anguish
so too did his people together in grief,
for their Lord laid hurt,
his doughty days all but done.

And wept did they
with tender tears that flooded the field,
and soaked the soil beneath their King,
and in such sorrow Cuthred swelled
with sudden strength,
his wounds wondrous made well.
And as his wicked rival
brought down his bloodied blade,
he met with Engron’s edge to die.
Cuthred, Axe-King of Keenland,
though sword-struck and pierced by pike,
arose to lay him low,
for the fealty of his flock
had so charmed his handsome helm that
none could hand him harm.
And for eight days after
he warred with each who dared to duel,
while beside him grew a great hillock
heaped with the heads and halberds
of each he dealt defeat.

And when at last all who opposed him
were dead or done,
he drove Engron in the dirt,
and dared declare his rightful rule.
‘Leave these lands, Mak’Langral,’ said he,
all bathed in Clad’ach blood,
‘Perished are your armies,
felled by but one Frayne-axe.
So fly you to your false throne,
your lonely hall,
and live your life in lament.’

And once Mak’Langral went again
to his dole-plagued place
Cuthred doffed his helm
to look openly upon his people.
When he did his wounds again began to bleed,
his mail-suit seeped sanguine,
and he lost his legs beneath him.
A weakness rippled warm across his heart,
and he kent his kingly days were done.

‘Mourn me not,’ spoke he in parting,
‘for this day is not mine.
‘Twas you who made mighty my axe,
who hexed my helm to have me as hero.
So now it is you who rightly will reap
as I rest, and no other way would I want it.’

And just as his laud left his lips,
so passed Cuthred, Frayne and Freeman.
For many moons burned his
funeral fire, hot and heaven-high,
made tall with drinking horns,
helms and heaters.
And at last as its flicker faded,
fleeting like mirrored breath,
all men of bail and barrow,
sword and shield,
did speak his name.
‘Cuthred King,’ said they,
‘never shall his match be born,
and with every seed sewn so shall he
be rightfully remembered
for his life he gave graciously
that we may live!’

And for ever on
he who donned the kingly casque
was hardened by its hero’s gift,
now kept in Dunstable, the Rose City,
awaiting a warrior of such worth
as he for whom it was first forged,
Cuthred King of Keenland,
East away, where none dare pass
in these grim years.

_________________________________________________________

By day Joshua Hampton is a mild-mannered associate creative director at an advertising agency in Louisville, Kentucky. By night he’s a fantasy writer who finds his muse in everything from Anglo-Saxon epic poetry to French New Wave cinema. Joshua is also a featured writer for the English football club Chelsea’s stateside newsletter.


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