I entered an original prose composition in Caid’s Pentathlon 2017. I created a series of letters from a fictional English Prioress writing in the 13th century. I constructed them for 21st century reader interest, but they are period in both text and story. (Be sure to check out the time that Abbess Euphemia tossed a would-be encyclical at a Bishop.) Please enjoy.
I finally worked my way through my linen stash, so before I buy more I promised myself that I’d use up my wool stash. I love warm clothes and winter time, so this is good — IF CAID ACTUALLY GETS COLD THIS YEAR.
Ahem. Sorry for yelling. Does anyone else look longingly at their warm wool layers and wish for a few icicles?
I wrote this poem in January 2015, just in time for early compositional entries for Caid’s Pentathlon 2015. The original prose story is found in the 14th century Orkneyinga Saga. I created the poem as a stanzaic fornyrðislag style.
Sigurd and the Raven Banner
Songs we sing of Odin’s messengers
Ravens black, bearers of the bright word
One-eye’s will flown into the world,
Sage-spells test men’s deeds.
Hlodver is heir to the Orkneys
Storm-clad center of the sea roads.
Dragonships dock midst their deadly passage
Soaring the sea to slay their foes.
Earl’s fame earns a queen Audna was her name.
Wed he Audna, wife and wyrd woman
Vowed to the vaunted lady victories brave,
No maid’s magic unmanfully asked.
On day Hlodver trod the Hel-path hale at dawn, dead at noontide.
Earl’s son Sigurd sat the high seat
Stout was he and strong, seemingly fearless.
He feared no fate but one – to fail that which he faced.
From the Scot’s land to the south sailed Earl Finnleik
Longships eleven in number left Skye ports.
Many strong men manned the oars
The Orkneys their aim, its harbors their prize.
Sigurd sighted them set his men to wait
To fall back before their foes till fief-lord returned.
Sigurd to Skidda-myre swiftly rode
The sorceress to see, sybil named Audra.
Earl’s own mother, augurer and spell-weaver.
Came he to the cave living cairn since her lord’s death.
Silently she signed for her son to approach.
The earl stood still, spoke of Finnleik’s army.
“Seven men to one of mine, your magic we need.
Witch us so we may wage war against the Scots.”
With scorn the sorceress her son’s eyes fixed.
“I would have warded you in my wool-basket
If I knew you feared the fall of the brave.
Do your duty and die if God wills.
But since you are set on a sager course
then this brave banner may bear your courage for you.
Victory it gives him afore it is carried
But is the bane of him who bears it.”
From a chest she shook a cloth that shone in the dimness
The weave woven by a wise woman.
Black bird soaring on bright banner
Wrought with strange spells sorcery gleaming.
“A goodly gift grants the raven
For he who fields the flag will fall and to Valhalla go.
But he who bears not the banner his bravery is forfeit
Huginn and Muninn will judge between them.”
Sigurd was wroth at her words for wicked he judged them.
Silently he snatched the banner and strode from her sight
If to Odin geld was owed then the Earl would pay,
But Finnleik would fall first on the field.
To Skidda-myre Sigurd rode the Scots to meet.
In battle array brawling men bore proud banners
Weapons glittered, warriors roared, war-surge meets
Glint of weapons, blood-glistened shields glaring at the foe.
Armies clashed, crashed together with clanging blades
Sigurd’s standard-bearer streamed the raven banner
Into the air aloft it flew all who fought Sigurd fell
and the banner bearer too was borne to the ground.
Three more brave bearers bore it across the field
Three more fighters to the fates fell that day
Ere the valiant for vanity’s sake his victory achieved
Warriors be wary of spell-wrought deeds.
Wind-blown banner whets blade woes
And bearer’s blood is its bounty.
Yet Orkneymen overlooked Earl’s lost honor
For the savage sacrifice satisfaction was deemed.
Twenty years of time then trod the earl
While the spell-wrought raven rested in shadows.
Then Máel Mórda monarch of Leinster
rose in revolt a rival for the high throne.
Brian Boru’s lawful brother by marriage
Blood’s brother to Gormflaith, Brian’s own queen.
Queen Gormlaith gained ground with allies
Her brother Mael Morda the chief man among them
Her son Sigtrygg despised his stepfather Brian
Kinship was naught to killers with a king to betray.
Sigurd gave Sigtrygg his assent to war
To punish the prince for his pride of high place.
Crooked conspirators to Clontarth would go
Felling Brian Boru the royal blood to spill.
Took the earl the wyrd-wrapped spell-weave
Set sail with his men south they bore
Orkney joining Ulster and Ui Neill
Ancient rights to recover a rule to end.
At Clontarth the companies clashed on the field.
Monarch’s heir Murchad the Irishmen led
Kerthialfad, king’s foster son cleaved the way
Fell warriors forced forward to Sigurd’s line.
Sailed the standard snapping in the wind
before many spears bore its bearer to the ground.
For honor another raised it a man with courage
His battle went badly overborne was he.
Standing with Sigurd still were his kin
Their sacrifice would stay certain defeat.
To Thorstein of Sida Sigurd cried
That he should bear the banner the battle to save.
Yet Asmund the White warned of woe to come
Thorstein heeded his words and hasted away.
Sigurd roared at Hrafn the Red to raise the banner
But Hrafn denied and dared him “Your own devil bear!”
Sigurd spat his command scarce heed gave Hrafn
Earl-kin gave no ground no glory in magecraft.
Sigurd snatched up the cloth the sigil to take.
“Mayhap the beggar should bear his own bag.”
From its pole he plucked it placed it in his cloak
Clasping it close to a coward’s heart
When a spear pierced Sigurd slicing also the raven.
Fell was his passing and evil his fate.
This same fate failed his men and fast they fled
Swiftly taking sail upon the gray sea.
Killed was the high king and of his kin many fell
Fallen too was Mael Morda much mourned was he.
Irish and Ui Neill and Ulstermen united in uneasy peace.
Far Skidda-myre saw Sigurd’s fall
The weird women of Caithness the war-weave cut.
Singing their song of Earl’s ending
So fell the savage sigil the seer of deeds.
I told this story last Saturday on March 14 for Caid’s wonderful every-two-year Pentathlon event. I always change the narrative during performance to make it mine; this is the bones of the story. I tookthe original story from the 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of Britain), translated by Robert Vermaat. However, I changed the name of the boy to follow Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain).
“Merlinus and Vortigern”
King Vortigern called his twelve wise men to consult with him. They told him, “Retire to the remote boundaries of your kingdom and build a stronghold there to defend yourself. The Saxons that you have received mean to betray you and take the countries you have conquered.” The king was pleased with this advice and departed with his wise men.
He travelled through many parts of his territories in search of a place where he could build a mighty citadel. They travelled far and wide before they came to a province called Gwynedd and the tall mountains of Heremus. There upon a high summit they decided to construct the citadel. The wise men told the king, “Build the city here, for it will always be secure against the barbarians and their attacks.” So the king sent for artificers, carpenters, and stone-masons, and all the materials they would need to build. But after all the construction supplies arrived, the materials simply disappeared during the night. Nothing was left behind. The king had more materials procured another time and again another, but they vanished as did the first one. Meanwhile the skilled laborers were idle. Vortigern asked his wise men why this was happening. They consulted and told him, “You must find a child born without a father, put him to death, and sprinkle the citadel’s ground with his blood. Otherwise it will never be built.”
At this the king sent messengers throughout Britain, in search of a child born without a father. The messengers searched all of the provinces until they came to the field of Aelecti, in the district of Glywysing, where some boys were playing ball. Two of the boys were quarrelling, and one said to the other, “You bastard, you boy with no father, nothing good will ever happen to you.” When they heard this, the messengers found the mother and asked her and the other boys if this son had a father. The mother said he did not. “I do not know how he was conceived because I was, and am still, a virgin.”
And so her son was taken from her and brought to Vortigern the king the very next day. The boy was outspoken said to the king, “Why have your servants brought me here?”
“To put you to death,” said the cruel king, “and take your blood and sprinkle it on the ground of my citadel. It is the only way in which I can build it.”
“Who,” said the boy, “told you to do this?”
“My wise men,” answered the king.
“Order them here,” said the boy. When the twelve wise men stood before him, the boy questioned them: “How did you know that the citadel could not be built, unless you sprinkled the grounds with my blood? Tell me truthfully.” Then he turned to the king and said, “I will explain everything myself,” he said, “but first I want to question your wise men. I would like them to tell you what is hidden under this pavement.” But the wise men had to admit they did not know. The boy said, “There is a pool. Come and dig and you will see it.” And so they dug, and found the pool.
“Now,” said the boy, “tell me what is in the pool.” But the wise men were ashamed for they could not. They remained silent. “I,” said the boy, “know what is in it. There are two vases there. Go and look.” And they did and brought up two vases from the pool. “Now, what is in the vases?” Again they did not know and were silent. “There is a tent in them,” said the boy. “Break the vases and you will find it.” The king commanded the wise men to break the vases as the boy had said, and there was a folded tent.
The boy then asked the wise men what was in the tent? But they did not know. “There are,” said he, “two serpents, one white and the other red. Unfold the tent.” They obeyed, and revealed two sleeping serpents.
“Watch closely,” said the boy, “at what they are doing.” The serpents began to fight with each other; and the white one, raising himself up, threw down the other into the middle of the tent and then drove it to the tent’s edge; and this it did three times. But then the red one, which had seemed the weaker of the two, recovered its strength and threw the white one from the tent; and chased it through the pool where the white serpent disappeared.
Then the boy asked the wise men what this miraculous omen meant, but they did not know. So the boy said to the king, “I will tell you now the meaning of this mystery. The pool is a symbol of this world, and the tent is your kingdom. The two serpents are two dragons; the red serpent is the beast of Briton but the white serpent is the dragon of the Saxons who have overrun our shores and nearly rule from sea to sea. But one day our people shall rise and drive away the Saxon race from beyond the sea, back to where they came from. But you will leave this place for you are not permitted to build a citadel here. Instead I will live here and built a mansion. You must build your fortress in another place.”
“What is your name?” asked the king.
“Merlinus Ambrosius is my name.”
And the great and bitter king withdrew, and he gave over to Merlinus this great city that was to be and all the western provinces of Britain, for he feared the boy. And although the king left and went far away, and built a city called Cair Guorthegirn or the fortress of Vortigern, he did not prosper there or anywhere. But Merlinus grew and thrived in wisdom deep, and secret.
Delivered for the first time last Saturday, March 14 for Caid’s amazing, incredible, and inspiring every-two-year Pentathlon. The poem is taken from the 13th century Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervör and Heidrek). On a personal note, I cannot BELIEVE that I was able to memorize the thing! It was hard!
“The Waking of Angantyr”
A young maiden met a herdsman
as the sun set on the haunted Isle of Samsey.
The herdsman said:
“Why have you come alone to the island?
You must find shelter soon from the night.”
“I will not seek shelter tonight;
no one I know lives on the island.
I ask that you tell me only this:
where does Hjorvard lie in his grave?”
The herdsman said:
“You are not wise to ask the way;
traveler, you’ve come to a place of terror.
As fast as our feet can take us, let’s leave!
To all who live here loathsome is night.”
“I’ll give you this necklace for what I want to know —
a warrior’s friend is hard to frighten.”
The herdsman said:
“There is no trinket, no treasure,
costly enough to keep me here.
“Only a fool would want to linger,
wander alone through the wilds of night.
The corpse fires are rising, graves gape open,
fens and the high lands flame – let us flee!”
“There is no reason to run
Though roaring fires fill the whole island!
Wait a while! Dead warriors
are not enough to make us afraid.”
Swift to the forest the herdsman fled
to hear no more of that maiden’s words,
but the brave heart in Hervor’s breast
proved its courage braving perils.
Now she saw the fire from the grave mounds and the living dead standing outside. She went toward them and was not frightened, passing through the fire as if it were smoke until she came to the berserkers’ grave.
Then she said:
” Angantyr, wake! I am Hervor,
Tofa’s child, your only daughter. Give me from your grave the great swift sword
that once the dwarfs forged for Svafrlami!
“Hervard, Hjorvard, Hrani, Angantyr!
Wake up, all of you underneath the tree roots,
helmed and with battle gear, keen swift blades,
ring-mail and shields and bright red spears.
“Much have you dwindled, Arngrim’s sons,
a mighty kindred surrendered to dust,
when not one of Eyfura’s sons
will speak to me on the Isle of Samsey!
“May you writhe within your ribs,
your barrow an anthill where you rot,
if you deny me Dvalin’s sword —
ghosts should not wield costly weapons.”
Then Angantyr, father’s ghost answered:
“Hervor, my daughter,
you do wrong to call down evils upon us all.
You must be mad, out of your mind,
your wits are wandering when you wake the dead!
A flame rose high above the open graves. Angantyr said:
“The gate of Hel is down, graves begin to open,
all the island is now aflame;
awesome it is to look outside.
Don’t stay here, maiden! Make haste to your ships!”
“Do not fight the darkness with flame —
not for all your fires will Hervor fear you!
It would take more to make me tremble
than the sight of a dead man standing at his door.”
Then Angantyr said:
“Listen to me, Hervor, let me tell you,
daughter of princes, what will come to pass:
maiden, you will doom all your descendants;
if you trust Tyrfing, all will be destroyed.
“Over you all I’ll lay a spell
so that forever your dead flesh will lie
bound with your ghosts to rot in the grave!
Now from your barrow yield me the blade
forged by dwarfs! It’s futile to hide it.”
“You seem to me no mortal maiden,
daring to come in the dark of night,
helmed. and in war gear, spear in hand,
to bring dead warriors out of their barrow.”
“No one ever thought me immortal
before I came here to seek you in your halls.
Yield me the sword that slices mail,
the shield-breaker, Hjalmar’s bane!”
“Under my back lies Hjalmar’s bane,
sheathed in fire, rimmed with flame;
no woman in all the world would
set her hands to such a sword!”
“Grant me the sword, and I will grasp it,
have in my keeping, that keen blade.
I do not fear the ghostly fire —
I look at flames and they sink low!”
“You are foolish, Hervor; your brave heart
flings you, open-eyed, into fire,
forces me to give you the sword from the grave —
what can a man deny such a maiden!”
“You did well, son of warriors,
when you gave me the sword from the grave;
I would prefer to have this prize,
prince, than to own all of Norway.”
“Maiden, you don’t know what this means,
what you have won, luckless woman!
You will doom all your descendants,
trust your prize, they all will perish.”
“Now I will sail across the sea
with your gift to gladden my heart,
little caring, son of kings,
how my children choose to quarrel later.”
“You have the sword, but keep it sheathed;
may Hjalmar’s bane long make you happy!
“Farewell, daughter! Gladly would I give you
the life of the twelve men here in this mound,
all the strength and the stubborn spirit
death has stripped from Arngrim’s sons.”
“Hail, warriors! I’ll make haste
to go my way, wishing you well.
Now I have walked between the worlds;
I have seen the fires circling.”