~ Heathen Stories and New Myths ~
Some twelve hundred years ago in the Dane Mark to Horsa and Gerd were born twin sons, Halfdan and Ragnar. Bold in battle, strong in limb, the two were soon sword thanes and huscarls to King Godefrid. While Halfdan was grim and silent, Ragnar was laughing and mirthful. In battle Halfdan was feared as the Battle-glad had gifted him with the Berserking, and no man save Ragnar could stand within reach of his sword and be safe. Ragnar was given the Victory-Fatherís wit, and his eye could read the patterns of the shield din as if pieces on a southerner's game board.
In battle against the Frankish Charlemagne and Obdurites the two brothers warded the King's own person when the Frankish heavy horses sought to force the shield wall and fell the king, only to fall like wheat before Danish great axes. Had they fallen in this battle, the sons of Horsa and Gerd would not be named in the Cowardís saga, but the glories of the past are nothing, as of light and dark both are all men made, and in every battle must a manís courage face the test.
It was a time when monks from Frankish lands sought to win folk from the old gods with promises of freedom from oaths and obligations, where Charlemagne sought with gold and favour to topple the small kingdoms bordering his empire, pitting brother against brother in endless civil war. Sword age, axe age, wolf age; in a land where foreign gods and foreign gold bought treachery into every royal house, it was easy for men to lose their way, and even their courage.
In the huscarls of Godefrid was one Hermond who was much taken with the southern Monkís and their foreign ways. Promised forgiveness and freedom from oaths, he took baptism and felt himself no longer Godefridís man. Believing that Charlemagne was sent by the Christ to conquer the world, he took the Frankish lords gold as he had taken his oath-lord King Godefridís, and rode into battle with a psalm on his lips and treachery in his heart.
King Godefrid was a great friend to the Saxon, and upheld them against the Franks and their Obdurite puppets. When the Frisians too made war on Saxony, Godefrid sailed with his men and horse to meet them. In the heart of battle, when Ragnar and Halfdan warded their King from the front, the sword of Hermond sought him from the rear. On his own thaneís sword did the good king fall. While Halfdane raged and made slaughter against the traitor, the courage of Ragnar broke.
"The king is dead! All is lost!" cried Ragnar
The battle hung in the balance, with both lines holding firm, but the cry of Ragnar broke the will of the Danish line, and the shield wall waivered. Many fell upon the field before the Danes could win back the body of their lord, held hard by the raging Haldan. After the battle, the golden arm ring, fine sword and mail that were King-gifts of Godefrid were found, but beside the war-gear of Ragnar was found no body, no blood.
Halfdan looked at the body of his dead king, and fallen comrades. For his king he had exacted blood price, but the men who fell when the line broke were a debt for the sons of Horsa, felled by the cowardice of Ragnar. Placing his own arm ring on the body of his fallen lord as death-offering, he wiped the arm ring of his brother in the fallen kings blood:
"By the Feeder of Ravens, on this Godefridís gift, with Godefridís blood does the son of Horsa vow to bathe this ring in the blood of the Coward, and cleanse the house of Horsa of its shame."
Thus was Ragnar stripped of his name before his ancestors, named Coward before gods and men. Far from the battlefield, a weeping Ragnar felt the shame of his failure, felt the judgement of his ancestors; knowing he could never face his dead grandfather who taught him the sword, nor his mother Gerd, only two years in the barrow who would surely bring the Disirís wrath against a coward born of her blessed womb.
"Coward I was," Ragnar raged, "Coward I am!" he named himself, unconsciously echoing the curse of his twin brother.
South rode Ragnar for many months. With bow he hunted game, with his axe warned off any bandits. In the foreign lands with foreign gods he thought he could outrun the wrath of the gods and scorn of his ancestors for his broken oaths for as long as he clung to life. Ragnar did not know that for months Halfdan and those of the Huscarls who sought to avoid the civil war that rocked the Dane Mark rode south after him, seeking blood-price for the battle slain.
In the lowlands of the River Spree, Coward came upon a burning wagon, gathered around the wagon were men in matching gear, with a dozen of them having cut down four of their number and a number of free men, and commencing to rape and loot those they had been protecting. When Coward rode into sight with his great axe, two of the guards had confronted him. In broken Latin they spoke to him.
"Ho Northman! This is none of your business. The ladies brother has decided that he should inherit their fatherís land, not her husband. He paid us better to kill her than she did to guard, and we get to have a little sport with her too!"
Coward saw his future written in their deeds. He had broken faith with his lord, had taken salt and gold, shared fire and board with him, and let his courage fail him and his Royal house when Godefrid died. This was what he left to happen to his own lands. The shame of it burned in him like bile.
"What is your name, Northman" asked the guard growing nervous at the huge hard-eyed red beard whose hands were growing white-knuckled on his horse-killing axe.
"My name is Coward" said the nameless son of Horsa
Not knowing the Latin word for Coward, the guard took it for a name.
"Well Coward, would you like a turn? The old chief wonít be having any when we are done, so you can have his share!" While the oath-broken guards thought offering a chance to rape a noble-woman would be a gift, it was the final shame that broke the cowardís heart a second time.
Of light and dark both are men made, and in each battle must a man find the courage to face his end, to stand true to his oaths, or break as a coward. Sometimes a man stands where no oath compels him, where only the teachings of his ancestors and the wisdom of gods can guide them. When alone, without armour against a dozen men in armour, in foreign lands, in defense of a foreign noble, the Coward who ran spoke thus:
". On the hillside drear | the fir-tree dies, All bootless its needles and bark; It is like a man | whom no one loves,-- Why should his life be long?
While the two guards held his bridle and looked confused, Cowards axe carved Dagaz in the air, cleaving head from neck left and right. Kicking free of his saddle, Coward raised the old cry, and gave himself to the Battleglad. Screaming Odinís name, he raged among the rapists and looters like a bear amidst snow-bound deer, making red slaughter. No longer the precision of a trained axeman, his blows struck hip-deep through mail, causing him to hurl the bodies of the slain from his axe, plaing Koob with the dying. Seeking only death and the cleansing of his name, the gods would not grant it to him. As he raged among them, the Sorbs broke in terror, for the only tales they had of the Northmen were those of the Greek Emperors guard against whom no man could stand.
Collapsing at last to the ground, having not only slain the living guards, but hacked at the bodies until he could lift his axe no more, Coward lay mindless and panting like a spent beast. Only one among the surviving women dared approach him, the princess. No young woman, she was a mother herself, and had thought her last sight on earth to be her own daughter being raped before her eyes. Having seen this strangerís axe free her from the fate her kinsmen had paid for, and avenge her husband who fell in her defense, she accepted responsibility for this northmanís fate. With wineskin and cloth she approached him. First in Greek, for she took him for a Varangian, then the Latin still spoken in the west she asked his name.
"Coward" he replied. Sitting in the wreckage of his rage, it struck her as ironic that so fearless a warrior should have a name that sounded like coward in the tongue of the fallen Romans. She asked if he would take service to her, as her own guards had broken faith with her. In a mix of broken Latin and Dane, he tried to tell his tale, but she caught only pieces of it. While he swore he was unfit to take oath, as he was a coward proven, she only understood that he was reluctant to take service.
She begged of him his protection, as she was miles from her home city, and with rich trade wagons to protect from bandits. Promising rich rewards, she offered him fine armour, as the price of such was the province of Kings and merchants, and coins of fine silver, rich food and board. Coward swore he would take no armour, nor bear a shield again, nor take coin or price beyond food from her, but he would see her returned home, and the one who bought treason laid dead at her feet.
Her own lands being filled with Christ-monks, she had seen holy men who forgo the pleasures of women and the material world for their god, and had heard from these same monks how the heathens of the north lived only for slaughter and their own gods. She recalled dim tales of the berserkyr, the bare-shirts, or holy warriors of the hanged god of the north and thought Coward was some sort of Heathen warrior monk. Far from the truth, he was not a man sure of the blessings of the Victory-Father, but one who feared himself forever nithling in his sight.
A single guard was not enough to keep off the bandits of the Sorb lands, yet the one blood soaked northman with a dozen severed heads hanging from his saddle rode unchallenged through the lands, with ravens circling about his steed, even as the flies covered its grisly cargo.
Riding to the her citidel amidst the growing crowd of whispering townmen, the noblewoman raised her voice to challenge her brother.
"It is your sister Slavna who calls you, traitor. From the steed of my champion, Coward, hang the heads of the men you paid to murder my husband, your chieftain, your sister, and your own niece."
The guards at the gate had opened to her approach, but now they milled in confusion to see their comradesí heads hanging from the Northmanís saddle and to hear her brother accused of hiring the death of their lord. Her brother and his bought men, knew they must end this now, for he was accused openly. Screaming
"Kill her now" he grabbed a bow from a guardsman and tried to slay her himself. With a roar Coward drove his horse before hers, taking the arrow meant for her into his own side. Seeing him strike out at her himself, many of the guards drew against the traitor, and through the confusion charged the Coward. All his rage at bought treason filled him, and heedless of the blows struck against him, he waded through, finally cornering the fleeing noble against a horse pen in the courtyard. With a single blow he severed the traitorís knee, and when he fell, picked him up by the hair. Filled with rage and shame, he gripped his great axe near the head, and stove in the traitors ribs at the back. Casting aside his axe, he ripped the traitorís lungs from his body, throwing them over his chest to desperately flap as he breathed his last in the Blood Eagle.
"Thus perish all traitors! I cut the Blood-Eagle on this oathbreaker, and any man of his that still holds steel will fly the Blood Eagle"
Coward could not hear the sound of the traitor guards weapons hitting the ground, he could hear only the sound of his own heart pumping out the last of his life-blood upon the stones, and the call of the ravens at the bounty of the feast. He sunk down across the traitorís body, and thought that this time he got it right.
Halfdan Horsaís son rode into town with a company of Godefridís huscarls. Seeking a Coward run from the north they were treated to tale after tale of a fearless giant, of a bare-sark Northman who brought justice for their slain chieftain, and secured the throne for his widow. Halfdan could not believe his brother the coward had found such an end. Seeking the citadel himself, he gained entry when he said he sought his brother the Coward.
Met by Lady Slavna herself, he was brought to the pyre. While disapproving monks muttered in the background, the surviving loyal guards had made a pyre under Cowards corpse. Dressed in fine tunic, with his axe in his hand, loaves of fine bread, flask of wine, and a ring of good gold bent onto his sword arm, he lay on a pyre with twelve fly blown heads, with a thirteenth standing atop a pole at his feet. Hearing the tale from Lady Slavna and her breathless daughter, Haldan came to believe the coward he had come to kill was not the Coward that fell.
Redeeming his oath to his slain comrades, he bent Ragnarís arm ring closed around one of his many wounds. He had sought a coward that shamed his family, but found only Coward that didnít. The Lady Slavna asked if there were any Heathen prayers that should be offered before they lit his pyre, and Halfdan struggled to find the words that came so swift to his fallen brother.
"Cattle die, | and kinsmen die, And so one dies one's self; One thing now | that never dies, The fame of a dead man's deeds"
So was lit the pyre that burned the body of Coward, even as his deeds would see the name burn bright long after the pyreís ashes were forgotten.
- This story is in the
and may be freely distributed
Kindertales: Stories Old and New for the Children of the Folk -
Book 2 by John T Mainer, Freydis Heimdallson, and