William Morris Archive


Of Geirbald and Viglund the tale tells that they rode the woodland paths as speedily as they might.  They had not gone far, and were winding through a path amidst of a thicket mingled of the hornbeam and holly, betwixt the openings of which the bracken grew exceeding tall, when Viglund, who was very fine-eared, deemed that he heard a horse coming to meet them: so they lay as close as they might, and drew back their horses behind a great holly-bush lest it should be some one or more of the foes who had fled into the wood when the Romans were scattered in that first fight.  But as the sound drew nearer, and it was clearly the footsteps of a great horse, they deemed it would be some messenger from Thiodolf, as indeed it turned out: for as the new-comer fared on, somewhat unwarily, they saw a bright helm after the fashion of the Goths amidst of the trees, and then presently they knew by his attire that he was of the Bearings, and so at last they knew him to be Asbiorn of the said House, a doughty man; so they came forth to meet him and he drew rein when he saw armed men, but presently beholding their faces he knew them and laughed on them, and said:

“Hail fellows! what tidings are toward?”

“These,” said Viglund, “that thou art well met, since now shalt thou turn back and bring us to Thiodolf as speedily as may be.”

But Asbiorn laughed and said: “Nay rather turn about with me; or why are ye so grim of countenance?”

“Our errand is no light one,” said Geirbald, “but thou, why art thou so merry?”

“I have seen the Romans fall,” said he, “and belike shall soon see more of that game: for I am on an errand to Otter from Thiodolf: the War-duke, when he had questioned some of those whom we took on the Day of the Ridge, began to have a deeming that the Romans had beguiled us, and will fall on the Mark by the way of the south-east heaths: so now is he hastening to fetch a compass and follow that road either to overtake them or prevent them; and he biddeth Otter tarry not, but ride hard along the water to meet them if he may, or ever they have set their hands to the dwellings of my House.  And belike when I have done mine errand to Otter I shall ride with him to look on these burners and slayers once more; therefore am I merry.  Now for your tidings, fellows.”

Said Geirbald: “Our tidings are that both our errands are prevented, and come to nought: for Otter hath not tarried, but hath ridden with all his folk toward the stead of thine House.  So shalt thou indeed see these burners and slayers if thou ridest hard; since we have tidings that the Romans will by now be in Mid-mark.  And as for our errand, it is to bid Thiodolf do even as he hath done.  Hereby may we see how good a pair of War-dukes we have gotten, since each thinketh of the same wisdom.  Now take we counsel together as to what we shall do; whether we shall go back to Otter with thee, or thou go back to Thiodolf with us; or else each go the road ordained for us.”

Said Asbiorn: “To Otter will I ride as I was bidden, that I may look on the burning of our roof, and avenge me of the Romans afterwards; and I bid you, fellows, ride with me, since fewer men there are with Otter, and he must be the first to bide the brunt of battle.”

“Nay,” said Geirbald, “as for me ye must even lose a man’s aid; for to Thiodolf was I sent, and to Thiodolf will I go: and bethink thee if this be not best, since Thiodolf hath but a deeming of the ways of the Romans and we wot surely of them.  Our coming shall make him the speedier, and the less like to turn back if any alien band shall follow after him.  What sayest thou, Viglund?”

Said Viglund: “Even as thou, Geirbald: but for myself I deem I may well turn back with Asbiorn.  For I would serve the House in battle as soon as may be; and maybe we shall slaughter these kites of the cities, so that Thiodolf shall have no work to do when he cometh.”

Said Asbiorn; “Geirbald, knowest thou right well the ways through the wood and on the other side thereof, to the place where Thiodolf abideth? for ye see that night is at hand.”

“Nay, not over well,” said Geirbald.

Said Asbiorn: “Then I rede thee take Viglund with thee; for he knoweth them yard by yard, and where they be hard and where they be soft.  Moreover it were best indeed that ye meet Thiodolf betimes; for I deem not but that he wendeth leisurely, though always warily, because he deemeth not that Otter will ride before to-morrow morning.  Hearken, Viglund!  Thiodolf will rest to-night on the other side of the water, nigh to where the hills break off into the sheer cliffs that are called the Kites’ Nest, and the water runneth under them, coming from the east: and before him lieth the easy ground of the eastern heaths where he is minded to wend to-morrow betimes in the morning: and if ye do your best ye shall be there before he is upon the road, and sure it is that your tidings shall hasten him.”

“Thou sayest sooth,” saith Geirbald, “tarry we no longer; here sunder our ways; farewell!”

“Farewell,” said he, “and thou, Viglund, take this word in parting, that belike thou shalt yet see the Romans, and strike a stroke, and maybe be smitten.  For indeed they be most mighty warriors.”

Then made they no delay but rode their ways either side.  And Geirbald and Viglund rode over rough and smooth all night, and were out of the thick wood by day-dawn: and whereas they rode hard, and Viglund knew the ways well, they came to Mirkwood-water before the day was old, and saw that the host was stirring, but not yet on the way.  And or ever they came to the water’s edge, they were met by Wolfkettle of the Wolfings, and Hiarandi of the Elkings, and three others who were but just come from the place where the hurt men lay down in a dale near the Great Ridge; there had Wolfkettle and Hiarandi been tending Toti of the Beamings, their fellow-in-arms, who had been sorely hurt in the battle, but was doing well, and was like to live.  So when they saw the messengers, they came up to them and hailed them, and asked them if the tidings were good or evil.

“That is as it may be,” said Geirbald, “but they are short to tell; the Romans are in Mid-mark, and Otter rideth on the spur to meet them, and sendeth us to bid Thiodolf wend the heaths to fall in on them also.  Nor may we tarry one minute ere we have seen Thiodolf.”

Said Wolfkettle, “We will lead you to him; he is on the east side of the water, with all his host, and they are hard on departing.”

So they went down the ford, which was not very deep; and Wolfkettle rode the ford behind Geirbald, and another man behind Viglund; but Hiarandi went afoot with the others beside the horses, for he was a very tall man.

But as they rode amidst the clear water Wolfkettle lifted up his voice and sang:

“White horse, with what are ye laden as ye wade the shallows warm,
But with tidings of the battle, and the fear of the fateful storm?
What loureth now behind us, what pileth clouds before,
On either hand what gathereth save the stormy tide of war?
Now grows midsummer mirky, and fallow falls the morn,
And dusketh the Moon’s Sister, and the trees look overworn;
God’s Ash tree shakes and shivers, and the sheer cliff standeth white
As the bones of the giants’ father when the Gods first fared to fight.”

And indeed the morning had grown mirky and grey and threatening, and from far away the thunder growled, and the face of the Kite’s Nest showed pale and awful against a dark steely cloud; and a few drops of rain pattered into the smooth water before them from a rag of the cloud-flock right over head.  They were in mid stream now, for the water was wide there; on the eastern bank were the warriors gathering, for they had beheld the faring of those men, and the voice of Wolfkettle came to them across the water, so they deemed that great tidings were toward, and would fain know on what errand those were come.

Then the waters of the ford deepened till Hiarandi was wading more than waist-deep, and the water flowed over Geirbald’s saddle; then Wolfkettle laughed, and turning as he sat, dragged out his sword, and waved it from east to west and sang:

“O sun, pale up in heaven, shrink from us if thou wilt,
And turn thy face from beholding the shock of guilt with guilt!
Stand still, O blood of summer! and let the harvest fade,
Till there be nought but fallow where once was bloom and blade!
O day, give out but a glimmer of all thy flood of light,
If it be but enough for our eyen to see the road of fight!
Forget all else and slumber, if still ye let us wake,
And our mouths shall make the thunder, and our swords shall the lightening make,
And we shall be the storm-wind and drive the ruddy rain,
Till the joy of our hearts in battle bring back the day again.”

As he spake that word they came up through the shallow water dripping on to the bank, and they and the men who abode them on the bank shouted together for joy of fellowship, and all tossed aloft their weapons.  The man who had ridden behind Viglund slipped off on to the ground; but Wolfkettle abode in his place behind Geirbald.

So the messengers passed on, and the others closed up round about them, and all the throng went up to where Thiodolf was sitting on a rock beneath a sole ash-tree, the face of the Kite’s Nest rising behind him on the other side of a bight of the river.  There he sat unhelmed with the dwarf-wrought hauberk about him, holding Throng-plough in its sheath across his knees, while he gave word to this and that man concerning the order of the host.

So when they were come thither, the throng opened that the messengers might come forward; for by this time had many more drawn near to hearken what was toward.  There they sat on their horses, the white and the grey, and Wolfkettle stood by Geirbald’s bridle rein, for he had now lighted down; and a little behind him, his head towering over the others, stood Hiarandi great and gaunt.  The ragged cloud had drifted down south-east now and the rain fell no more, but the sun was still pale and clouded.

Then Thiodolf looked gravely on them, and spake:

“What do ye sons of the War-shield? what tale is there to tell?
Is the kindred fallen tangled in the grasp of the fallow Hell?
Crows the red cock over the homesteads, have we met the foe too late?
For meseems your brows are heavy with the shadowing o’er of fate.”

But Geirbald answered:

“Still cold with dew in the morning the Shielding Roof-ridge stands,
Nor yet hath grey Hell bounden the Shielding warriors’ hands;
But lo, the swords, O War-duke, how thick in the wind they shake,
Because we bear the message that the battle-road ye take,
Nor tarry for the thunder or the coming on of rain,
Or the windy cloudy night-tide, lest your battle be but vain.
And this is the word that Otter yestre’en hath set in my mouth;
Seek thou the trail of the Aliens of the Cities of the South,
And thou shalt find it leading o’er the heaths to the beechen-wood,
And thence to the stony places where the foxes find their food;
And thence to the tangled thicket where the folkway cleaves it through,
To the eastern edge of Mid-mark where the Bearings deal and do.”

Then said Thiodolf in a cold voice, “What then hath befallen Otter?”

Said Geirbald:

“When last I looked upon Otter, all armed he rode the plain,
With his whole host clattering round him like the rush of the summer rain;
To the right or the left they looked not but they rode through the dusk and the dark
Beholding nought before them but the dream of the foes in the Mark.
So he went; but his word fled from him and on my horse it rode,
And again it saith, O War-duke seek thou the Bear’s abode,
And tarry never a moment for ought that seems of worth,
For there shall ye find the sword-edge and the flame of the foes of the earth.

“Tarry not, Thiodolf, nor turn aback though a new foe followeth on thine heels.  No need to question me more; I have no more to tell, save that a woman brought these tidings to us, whom the Hall-Sun had sent with others to watch the ways: and some of them had seen the Romans, who are a great host and no band stealing forth to lift the herds.”

Now all those round about him heard his words, for he spake with a loud voice; and they knew what the bidding of the War-duke would be; so they loitered not, but each man went about his business of looking to his war-gear and gathering to the appointed place of his kindred.  And even while Geirbald had been speaking, had Hiarandi brought up the man who bore the great horn, who when Thiodolf leapt to his feet to find him, was close at hand.  So he bade him blow the war-blast, and all men knew the meaning of that voice of the horn, and every man armed him in haste, and they who had horses (and these were but the Bearings and the Warnings), saddled them, and mounted, and from mouth to mouth went the word that the Romans were gotten into Mid-mark, and were burning the Bearing abodes.  So speedily was the whole host ready for the way, the Wolfings at the head of all.  Then came forth Thiodolf from the midst of his kindred, and they raised him upon a great war-shield upheld by many men, and he stood thereon and spake:

“O sons of Tyr, ye have vanquished, and sore hath been your pain;
But he that smiteth in battle must ever smite again;
And thus with you it fareth, and the day abideth yet
When ye shall hold the Aliens as the fishes in the net.
On the Ridge ye slew a many; but there came a many more
From their strongholds by the water to their new-built garth of war,
And all these have been led by dastards o’er the way our feet must tread
Through the eastern heaths and the beech-wood to the door of the Bearing stead,
Now e’en yesterday I deemed it, but I durst not haste away
Ere the word was borne to Otter and ’tis he bids haste to-day;
So now by day and by night-tide it behoveth us to wend
And wind the reel of battle and weave its web to end.
Had ye deemed my eyes foreseeing, I would tell you of my sight,
How I see the folk delivered and the Aliens turned to flight,
While my own feet wend them onwards to the ancient Father’s Home.
But belike these are but the visions that to many a man shall come
When he goeth adown to the battle, and before him riseth high
The wall of valiant foemen to hide all things anigh.
But indeed I know full surely that no work that we may win
To-morrow or the next day shall quench the Markmen’s kin.
On many a day hereafter shall their warriors carry shield;
On many a day their maidens shall drive the kine afield,
On many a day their reapers bear sickle in the wheat
When the golden wind-wrought ripple stirs round the feast-hall’s feet.
Lo, now is the day’s work easy—to live and overcome,
Or to die and yet to conquer on the threshold of the Home.”

And therewith he gat him down and went a-foot to the head of the Wolfing band, a great shout going with him, which was mingled with the voice of the war-horn that bade away.

So fell the whole host into due array, and they were somewhat over three thousand warriors, all good and tried men and meet to face the uttermost of battle in the open field; so they went their ways with all the speed that footmen may, and in fair order; and the sky cleared above their heads, but the distant thunder still growled about the world.  Geirbald and Viglund joined themselves to the Wolfings and went a-foot along with Wolfkettle; but Hiarandi went with his kindred who were second in the array.

Continue to Chapter 20

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