The Sorrow of Odin the Goth
by Poul Anderson
“Then I heard a voice in the world:
‘O woe for the broken troth,
And the heavy Need of the Niblungs,
and the Sorrow of Odin the Goth!’ ”
Wind gusted out of twilight as the door opened. Fires burning down the length of the hall flared in their trenches; flames wavered and streamed from stone lamps; smoke roiled bitter back from the roof-holes that should have let it out. The sudden brightness gleamed off spearheads, ax-heads, swordguards, shield bosses, where weapons rested near the entry. Men, crowding the great room, grew still and watchful, as did the women who had been bringing them horns of ale. It was the gods carved on the pillars that seemed to move amidst unrestful shadows, one-handed Father Tiwaz, Donar of the Ax, the Twin Horsemen—they, and the beasts and heroes and entwining branches graven into the wainscot. Whoo-oo said the wind, a noise as cold as itself.
Hathawulf and Solbern trod through. Their mother Ulrica strode between them, and the look upon her face was no less terrible than the look on theirs. The three of them halted for a heartbeat or two, a long time for those who awaited their word. Then Solbern shut the door while Hathawulf stepped forward and raised his right arm. Silence clamped down on the hall, save for the crackling of fires and seething of breath.
Yet it was Alawin who spoke first. Rising from his bench, his slim frame aquiver, he cried, “So we’ll take revenge!” His voice cracked; he had but fifteen winters.
The warrior beside him hauled at his sleeve and growled, “Sit. It is for the lord to tell us.” Alawin gulped, glared, obeyed.
A smile of sorts brought forth teeth in Hathawulf’s yellow beard. He had been in the world nine years longer than yon half-brother, four years more than his full brother Solbern, but he seemed older, and not only because of height, wide shoulders, wildcat gait; leadership had been his for the last five of those years, after his father Tharasmund’s death, and hastened the growth of his soul. There were those who whispered that Ulrica kept too strong a grip on him, but any who questioned his manhood would have had to meet him in a fight and been unlikely to walk away from it.
“Yes,” he said, without loudness, nevertheless heard from end to end of the building. “Bring forth the wine, wenches; drink well, all my men, make love to your wives, break out your war-gear; friends who have come hither offering help, take my deepest thanks: for tomorrow dawn we ride to slay my sister’s murderer.”
“Ermanaric,” uttered Solbern. He was shorter and darker than Hathawulf, more given to tending his farm and to shaping things with his hands than to war or the chase; but he spat forth the name as if it had been a foulness in his mouth.
A sigh, rather than a gasp, ran around the throng, though some of the women shrank back, or moved closer to husbands, brothers, fathers, youths whom they might have married someday. A few thanes growled, almost gladly, deep in their throats. Grimness came upon others.
Among the latter was Liuderis, who had quelled Alawin. He stood up on his bench, so as to be seen above heads. A stout, grizzled, scarred fellow, formerly Tharasmund’s trustiest man, he asked heavily: “You would fare against the king, to whom you gave your oath?”
“That oath became worthless when he had Swanhild trodden beneath the hoofs of horses,” answered Hathawulf.
“Yet he says Randwar plotted his death.”
“He says!” Ulrica shouted. She stalked forth until what light there was flickered more fully across her: a big woman, her coiled braids half gray and half still ruddy around a face whose lines had frozen into the sternness of Weard herself. Costly furs trimmed Ulrica’s cloak; the gown beneath was of Eastland silk; amber from the Northlands glowed around her neck: for she was the daughter of a king, who had married into the god-descended house of Tharasmund.
She halted, fists clenched, and flung at Liuderis and the rest: “Well might Randwar the Red have sought to overthrow Ermanaric. Too long have the Goths suffered from that hound. Yes, I call him hound, Ermanaric, unfit to live. Tell me not how he made us mighty and his sway reaches from the Baltic Sea to the Black. It is his sway, not ours, and it will not outlast him. Tell yourselves, rather, of scot well-nigh ruinous to pay, of wives and maidens dishonored, of lands unrightfully seized and folk driven from their homes, of men hewn down or burned in their surrounded dwellings merely because they dared speak against his deeds. Remember how he slew his nephews and their families when he did not get their treasure. Think how he had Randwar hanged, on nothing more than the word of Sibicho Mann-frithsson—Sibicho, that viper forever hissing in the king’s ear. And ask yourselves this. Even if Randwar had indeed become Ermanaric’s foe, betrayed before he could strike to avenge outrage upon his kin—even if this be so, why should Swanhild die too? She was only his wife.” Ulrica drew breath. “She was also the daughter of Tharasmund and myself, the sister of your chief Hathawulf and of Solbern his brother. They, who sprang from Wodan, shall send Ermanaric below to be her slave.”
“You talked to your sons alone for half a day, my lady,” said Liuderis. “How much of this is your will, not theirs?”
Hathawulf brought hand to sword. “You overspeak yourself,” he snapped.
“I meant no ill—” the warrior began.
“The earth is tearful with the blood of Swanhild the fair,” said Ulrica. “Will it bear for us ever again, if we do not wash it with the blood of her murderer?”
Solbern stayed more calm: “You Teurings know well how trouble has been waxing for years between the king and our tribe. Why else did you rally to us when you heard what happened? Do you not all think that belike this deed of his was done to test our mettle? If we sit quietly at our hearths—if Heorot takes whatever weregild he might deign to offer—he will know he is free to crush us altogether.”
Liuderis nodded, folded arms across breast, and answered steadily, “Well, you shall not fare to battle without my sons and me, while this old head remains above ground. I did but wonder if you and Hathawulf are being rash. Ermanaric is strong indeed. Would it not be better if we bide our time, make quite ready, gather men of neighbor tribes, before we strike?”
Hathawulf smiled afresh, a little more warmly than erstwhile. “We thought about that,” he said in a level tone. “If we give ourselves time, we give the king time, too. Nor do I believe we can raise very many spears against him. Not while the Huns prowl the marches, vassal folk are sullen about paying tribute, and the Romans might see, in a war of Goth upon Goth, a chance to enter and lay all beneath them. Besides, Ermanaric will not sit idle long before he moves to humble the Teurings. No, we must attack now, before he awaits us—catch him unawares, overwhelm his guardsmen—they do not much outnumber you who are here—slay Ermanaric in one quick, clean blow, and afterward call a folkmoot to pick a new king who shall be righteous.”
Liuderis nodded again. “I have spoken my mind, you have spoken yours. Now let us have an end of speaking. Tomorrow we ride.” He sat down.
“It is a risk,” Ulrica said. “These are my last living sons, and maybe they fare to their deaths. That is as Weard wills, who sets the doom of gods and men alike. But rather would I have my sons die boldly than kneel to their sister’s murderer. No luck would come of that.”
Young Alawin leaped anew to his feet on the bench. His knife flashed forth. “We won’t die!” he shouted. “Ermanaric will, and Hathawulf will be king of the Ostrogoths!”
A slow roar, like an incoming tide, lifted from the men.
Solbern the sober walked down the hall. The crowd made way for him. Strewn rushes rustled and the clay floor thudded beneath his boots. “Did I hear you say ‘we’?” he asked through the rumbling. “No, you’re a boy. You stay home.”
The downy cheeks reddened. “I am man enough to fight for my house!” Alawin shrilled.
Ulrica stiffened where she stood. Cruelty lashed from her: “ ‘Your’ house, by-blow?”
The growing din died away. Men traded uneasy stares. It did not bode well, such an unleashing of olden hatred at such an hour as this. Alawin’s mother Erelieva had not merely been a leman of Tharasmund’s, she had become the one woman for whom he really cared, and Ulrica had gloated almost openly when every child that Erelieva bore him, save for this firstborn, died small. After the chieftain himself went down hell-road, friends of hers had gotten her hastily married off to a yeoman who lived far from the hall. Alawin stayed, the seemly thing for a lord’s son to do, but Ulrica was always stinging him.
Eyes clashed through smoke and shadow-haunted firelight. “Yes, my house,” Alawin called, “and Swanhild m-m-my sister too.” His stammer made him bite his lip for shame.
“Easy, easy.” Hathawulf raised his arm again. “You have the right, lad, and do well to claim it. Yes, ride with us, come dawn.” His glance defied Ulrica. She twisted her mouth but said naught. Everybody guessed she was hoping the stripling would be killed.
Hathawulf strode toward the high seat at the middle of the hall. His words rang: “No more bickering! We’ll be merry this eventide. But first, Anslaug—” this to his wife—“come sit beside me, and together we’ll drink the beaker of Wodan.”
Feet stamped, fists pounded wood, knives lifted like torches. The women themselves began to yell with the men: “Hail, hail, hail!”
The door flew open.
Dusk had deepened fast, when autumn was on hand, so that the newcomer stood in the middle of blackness. Wind flapped the edges of his blue cloak, flung a few dead leaves in past him, whistled and chilled along the room. Folk turned to see who had come, drew a sharp breath, and those who had been seated now scrambled to stand. It was the Wanderer.
Tallest he stood among them, holding his spear more like a staff than a weapon, as if he had no need of iron. A broad-brimmed hat shaded his face, but not the wolf-gray hair and beard, nor the gleam of his gaze. Few of them here had ever seen him before, most had never happened to be nigh when he made his seldom showings; but none failed to know the forefather of the Teuring headmen.
Ulrica was first to muster hardihood. “Greeting, Wanderer, and welcome,” she said. “You honor our roof. Come, take the high seat, and I will bring you a horn of wine.”
“No, a goblet, a Roman goblet, the best we have,” said Solbern.
Hathawulf came back to the door, squared his shoulders, and stood before the Elder. “You know what is afoot,” he said. “What word have you for us?”
“This,” answered the Wanderer. His voice was deep, and did not sound like the southern Goths’, or like any’s whom they had met. Men supposed his mother tongue was the tongue of the gods. Tonight it fell heavily, as if grief weighted it. “You are bound upon vengeance, Hathawulf and Solbern, and that stands not to be altered; it is the will of Weard. But Alawin shall not go with you.” The youth shrank back, whitening. A near sob broke harsh from his throat.
The Wanderer’s look ranged down the hall to lay hold upon him. “This is needful,” he went on, word by slow word. “I lay no slur on you when I say that you are only half-grown, and would die bravely but uselessly. All who are men have first been boys. No, I tell you instead that yours shall be another task, more hard and strange than vengeance, for the welfare of that kindred which sprang from your father’s father’s mother Jorith—” did his tone waver the least bit?—“and myself. Abide, Alawin. Your time will come soon enough.”
“It… shall be done… as you will,” lord,” said Hathawulf out of a stiffened gullet. “But what does this mean… for those of us who ride forth?”
The Wanderer regarded for him for a while that grew very still before answering: “You do not wish to know. Be the word good or ill, you do not wish to know.”
Alawin sank to his bench, laid head in hands, and shuddered.
“Farewell,” said the Wanderer. His cloak swirled, his spear swung about, the door shut, he was gone.
I didn’t change clothes till my vehicle had brought me across space-time. Then, in a Patrol base which masqueraded as a warehouse, I shed the garb of the Dnieper basin, late fourth century, and donned that of the United States, middle twentieth century.
The basic patterns, shirts and trousers for men, gowns for women, were the same. Differences of detail were countless. Despite its coarse fabrics, the Gothic outfit was more comfortable than a tie and jacket. I stowed it in the baggage box of my hopper, along with such special items as the little gadget I’d used to listen in, from outside, on the proceedings in the hall of the Teuring sachem. Since my spear wouldn’t fit, I left it strapped to the side of the machine. I wouldn’t be going anyplace on that except back to the milieu where such weapons belonged.
The officer on duty today was in his early twenties—young by current standards; in most eras he’d long since have been an established family man—and somewhat in awe of me. True, my status as a member of the Time Patrol was almost as much a technicality as his. I had no part in policing the spatiotemporal lanes, rescuing travelers in distress, or anything glamorous like that. I was merely a scientist of sorts; “scholar” was probably more accurate. However, I did make trips on my own, which he was not qualified to do.
He peered at me as I emerged from the hangar to the nondescript office, allegedly of a construction company, which was our front in this town during these years. “Welcome home, Mr. Harness,” he said. “Uh, you had a pretty rough go-around, didn’t you?”
“What makes you think so?” I replied automatically.
“Your expression, sir. The way you walk.”
“I was in no danger,” I rapped. Not caring to talk about it, except to Laurie and maybe not her either for a while, I brushed past him and stepped out onto the street.
Here also it was fall, the kind of crisp and brilliant day New York often enjoyed until it became uninhabitable; this year chanced to be the one before I was born. Masonry and glass gleamed higher than high, up into a blueness where a few bits of cloud scudded along on the breeze that gave me its cool kiss. Cars were not so many that they put more than a tang into it, less than the aroma of the roast chestnut carts that were beginning to come out of estivation. I went over to Fifth Avenue and walked uptown past glamorous shops, among some of the most beautiful women in the world, as well as people from all the rich diversity of our planet.
My hope was that by going afoot to my place, I’d work out part of the tension and misery in me. The city could not only stimulate, it could heal, right? This was where Laurie and I had chosen to dwell, we who could have settled practically anywhere in the past or the future.
No, of course that isn’t quite correct. Like most couples, we wanted a nest in reasonably familiar surroundings, where we didn’t have to learn everything from scratch and stay always on guard. The ’30’s were a marvelous milieu if you were a white American, in good health and with money. What amenities were lacking, such as air conditioning, could be unobtrusively installed, not to be used when you had visitors who would never know that time travelers exist. Granted, the Roosevelt gang was in charge, but the conversion of the Republic to the Corporate State was not very far along as yet and didn’t affect Laurie’s and my private lives; the outright disintegration of this society wouldn’t become a fast and obvious process till (my opinion) after the 1964 election.
In the Middle West, where my mother was now carrying me, we’d have had to be annoyingly circumspect. But most New Yorkers were tolerant, or at least incurious. A beard down to my chest, and shoulder-length hair which I’d pulled into a queue while at the base, didn’t draw many stares, nor more than a few cries of “Beaver!” from little boys. To our landlord, our neighbors, and other contemporaries, we were a retired professor of Germanic philology and his wife, our oddities to be expected. It was no lie, either, as far as it went. Therefore my walk should have eased me somewhat, restored that perspective which Patrol agents must have, lest certain of the things they witness drive them mad. We must understand that what Pascal said is true of every human being in the whole of space-time, ourselves included: “The last act is tragic, however pleasant all the comedy of the other acts. A little earth on our heads, and all is done with forever.”—understand it in our bones, so that we can live with it calmly if not serenely. Why, those Goths of mine were getting off lightly compared to, say, millions of European Jews and Gypsies, less than ten years futureward, or millions of Russians at this very moment.
It was no good. They were my Goths. Their ghosts crowded around me till street, buildings, flesh and blood became the unreal, the half-remembered dream.
Blindly, I hastened my steps, toward whatever sanctuary Laurie could give.
We occupied a huge flat overlooking Central Park, where we liked to stroll on mild nights. The doorman at the apartment need not double as an armed guard. I hurt him today by the curtness with which I returned his greeting, and realized it when in the elevator, but then my regret was too late. To jump back through time and change the incident would have violated the Prime Directive of the Patrol. Not that something that trivial would have threatened the continuum; it’s flexible within limits, and the effects of alterations usually damp out fast. Indeed, there’s an interesting metaphysical question about the extent to which time travelers discover the past, versus the extent to which they create it. Schrodinger’s cat lurks in history as well as in its box. Yet the Patrol exists in order to assure that temporal traffic does not abort that scheme of events which will at last bring forth the Danellian superhu-mans who founded the Patrol when, in their own remote past, ordinary men learned how to travel temporally.
My thoughts had fled into this familiar territory while I stood caged in the elevator. It made the ghosts more distant, less clamorous. Nevertheless, when I let myself into our home, they followed.
A smell of turpentine drifted amidst the books which lined the living room. Laurie was winning somewhat of a name as a painter, here in the 1930’s when she was no longer the preoccupied faculty wife she had been later in our century. Offered a job in the Patrol, she had declined; she lacked the physical strength that a field agent—male or, especially, female—was bound to need upon occasion, while routine clerical or reference work didn’t interest her. To be sure, we’d shared vacations in mighty exotic milieus.
She heard me enter and ran from her studio to meet me. The sight lifted my spirits a tiny bit. In spattered smock, red hair tucked under a kerchief, she was still slender, supple, and handsome. The lines around her green eyes were too fine to notice until she got near enough to embrace me.
Our local acquaintances tended to envy me a wife who, besides being delightful, was far younger than myself. In fact, the difference in birthdates is a mere six years. I was in my mid-forties, and prematurely gray, when the Patrol recruited me, whereas she had kept most of her youthful looks. The antithanatic treatment that our organization provides will arrest the aging process but not reverse its effects.
Besides, she spent most of her life in ordinary time, sixty seconds to the minute. As a field agent, I’d go through days, weeks, or months between saying goodbye to her in the morning and returning for dinner—an interlude during which she could pursue her career without me underfoot. My cumulative age was approaching a hundred years.
Sometimes it felt like a thousand. That showed.
“Hi, there, Carl, darling!” Her lips pulsed against mine. I drew her close. If a dab of paint got onto my suit, what the hell? Then she stepped back, took both my hands, and sent her gaze across me and into me.
Her voice dropped low: “It’s hurt you, this trip.”
“I knew it would,” I answered out of my weariness.
“But you didn’t know how much… Were you gone long?”
“No. Tell you about it in a while, the details. I was lucky, though. Hit a key point, did what I needed to do, and got out again. A few hours of observation from concealment, a few minutes of action, and fini.”
“I suppose you might call it luck. Must you return soon?”
“In that era, yes, quite soon. But I want a while here to—to rest, get over what I saw was about to happen… Can you stand me around, brooding at you, for a week or two?”
“Sweetheart.” She came back to me.
“I have to work up my notes anyway,” I said into her ear, “but evenings we can go out to dinner, the theater, have fun together.”
“Oh, I hope you’ll be able to have fun. Don’t pretend for my sake.”
“Later, things will be easier,” I assured us. “I’ll simply be carrying out my original mission, recording the stories and songs they’ll make about this. It’s just… I’ve got to get through the reality first.”
“Yes. Not for scholarly purposes, no, I guess not. But those are my people. They are.”
She hugged me tighter. She knew.
What she did not know, I thought in an uprush of pain—what I hoped to God she did not know—was why I cared so greatly about yonder descendants of mine. Laurie wasn’t jealous. She’d never begrudged the while that Jorith and I had had. Laughing, she’d said it deprived her of nothing, while it gave me a position in the community I was studying which might well be unique in the annals of my profession. Afterward she’d done her best to console me.
What I could not bring myself to tell her was that Jorith was not simply a close friend who happened to be a woman. I could not say to her that I had loved one who lay dust these sixteen hundred years as much as I loved her, and still did, and maybe always would.
The home of Winnithar the Wisentslayer stood on a bluff above the River Vistula. It was a thorp, half a dozen houses clustered around a hall, with barns, sheds, cookhouse, smithy, brewery, and other workplaces nearby: for his family had long dwelt here, and waxed great among the Teurings. Westward reached meadows and croplands. Eastward, across the water, wilderness remained, though settlement was encroaching heavily upon it as the tribe grew in numbers.
They might have logged off the woods altogether, save that more and more of them were moving away. This was a time of unrest. Not only were plundering warbands on the trail; whole folk were pulling up stakes, and clashing when they met. Word drifted from afar that the Romans were often at each other’s throats too, while the mightiness which their forefathers had built crumbled. As yet, few Northerners had done anything bolder than to raid along the Imperial borders. But the southlands just outside those borders, warm, rich, scantily defended by their dwellers, beckoned many a Goth to come carve out a new home for himself.
Winnithar stayed where he was. However, that forced him to pass almost as much of each year in fighting—especially against Vandals, though sometimes against Gothic tribes, Greutungs or Taifals—as he passed in farming. As his sons neared manhood, they began to yearn elsewhere.
Thus matters stood when Carl arrived.
He came in winter, when hardly anybody traveled. On that account, men made strangers doubly welcome, who broke the sameness of their lives.
At first, spying him at a mile’s reach, they took him for a mere gangrel, since he fared alone and afoot. Nonetheless they knew their chief would want to see him.
He drew nigh, striding easily over the frozen ruts of the road, making a staff of his spear. His blue cloak was the only color in that landscape of snow-decked fields, stark trees, dull sky. Hounds bayed and growled at him; he showed no fear, and afterward the men came to understand that he could have stricken those dead that attacked him. Today they called the beasts to heel and met the newcomer with sudden respect—for it became plain that his garments were of the finest, and not the least way-stained, while he himself was awesome. Taller than the tallest here he loomed, lean but sinewy, a graybeard as lithe as a youth. What had those pale eyes of his beheld?
A warrior went ahead to greet him. “I hight Carl,” he said when asked: nothing further. “Fain would I guest you a while.” The Gothic words came readily from him, but their sound, and sometimes their order or endings, were not of any dialect known to the Teurings.
Winnithar had stayed in his hall. It would have been unseemly for him to gape like an underling. When Carl entered, Winnithar said from his high seat, “Be welcome if you come in peace and honesty. May Father Tiwaz ward you and Mother Frija bless you.”—as was the ancient custom of his house.
“My thanks,” Carl answered. “That was kindly spoken to a fellow you may well think is a beggar. I am not, and hope this gift will be found worthy.” He reached in the pouch at his belt and drew forth an arm-ring which he handed over to Winnithar. Gasps arose from those who had jostled close to watch, for the ring was heavy, of pure gold, cunningly wrought and set with gems.
The host kept his calmness, barely. “That is a gift a king might have given. Share my seat, Carl.” It was the place of honor. “Abide for as long as you wish.” He clapped his hands. “Ho,” he shouted, “bring mead for our guest, and for me that I may drink his health!” To the swains, wenches, and children milling about: “Back to your work, you. We can all hear whatever he chooses to tell us after the evening meal. Now he’s doubtless weary.”
Grumblingly, they heeded. “Why say you that?” Carl asked him.
“The nearest dwelling where you might have spent last night is a goodly walk from this,” Winnithar replied.
“I was at none,” Carl said.
“You would be bound to find that out. I would not have you believe I lied to you.”
“But—” Winnithar peered at him, tugged his mustache, and said slowly: “You are not of these parts; aye, you must have fared far. Yet your garb is clean, though you carry no change of clothes, nor food or aught else that a traveler should. Who are you, whence have you come, and… how?”
Carl’s tone was mild, but those who listened heard what steel underlay it. “There are things I may not talk about. I do give you my oath—may Donar’s lightning smite me if it is false—that I am no outlaw, nor foe to your kindred, nor a sort whom it would shame you to have beneath your roof.”
“If honor demands that you keep certain secrets, none shall pry,” said Winnithar. “But you understand that we cannot help wondering—” Clear to see was the relief with which he broke off and exclaimed: “Ah, here comes the mead. That’s my wife Salvalindis who bears your horn to you, as befits a guest of rank.”
Carl hailed her courteously, though his gaze kept straying to the maiden at her side, who brought Winnithar his draught. She was sweetly formed and moved like a deer; unbound hair streamed golden past a face with fine bones, shyly smiling lips, eyes big and the hue of summer heaven.
Salvalindis noticed. “You meet our oldest child,” she told Carl, “our daughter Jorith.”
After basic training at the Patrol Academy, I returned to Laurie on the same day as I’d left her. I’d need a spell to rest and readapt; it was rather a shock transferring from the Oligocene period to a Pennsylvania college town. We must also set our mundane affairs in order. For my part, I should finish out the academic year before resigning “to take a better-paying job abroad.” Laurie saw to the sale of our house and the disposal of goods we didn’t want to keep—wherever and whenever else we were going to establish residence.
It wrenched us, bidding goodbye to the friends of years. We promised to make occasional visits, but knew that those would be few and far between, until they ceased entirely. The required lies were too great a strain. As was, we left an impression that my vaguely described new position was a cover for a post in the CIA.
Well, I had been warned at the beginning that a Time Patrol agent’s life becomes a series of farewells. I had yet to learn what that really meant.
We were still in the course of uprooting ourselves when I got a phone call. “Professor Farness? This is Manse Everard, Unattached operative. I wonder if we could meet for a talk, like maybe this weekend.”
My heart bounded. Unattached is about as high as you can get in the organization; throughout the million or more years that it guards, such personnel are rare. Normally a member, even if a police officer, works within a single milieu, so that he or she can get to know it inside out, and as part of a closely coordinated team. The Unattached may go anyplace they choose and do virtually anything they see fit, responsible only to their consciences, their peers, and the Danellians. “Uh, sure, certainly, sir,” I blurted. “Saturday would be fine. Do you want to come here? I guarantee you a good dinner.”
“Thanks, but I’d prefer it was my digs—the first time, anyway. Got my files and computer terminal and things like that handy. Just the two of us, please. Don’t worry about airline schedules. Find a spot, as it might be your basement, where nobody will see. You’ve been issued a locator, haven’t you?… Okay, read off the coordinates and call me back. I’ll pick you up on my hopper.”
I found out later that that was characteristic of him. Large, tough-looking, wielding more power than Caesar or Genghis ever dreamed of, he was as comfortable as an old shoe.
Me on the saddle behind his, we skipped through space, rather than time, to the current Patrol base in New York City. From there we walked to the apartment he maintained. He didn’t like dirt, disorder, and danger any better than I did. However, he felt he needed a pied-a-terre in the twentieth century, and had grown used to these lodgings before decay had advanced overly far.
“I was born in your state in 1924,” he explained. “Entered the Patrol at age thirty. That’s why I decided I should be the guy who interviewed you. We have pretty much the same background; we ought to understand each other.”
I took a steadying gulp of the whisky and soda he’d poured for us and said cautiously, “I’m not too sure, sir. Heard something about you at the school. Seems you led quite an adventurous life even before you joined. And afterward—Me, I’ve been a quiet, stick-in-the-mud type.”
“Not really.” Everard glanced at a sheet of notes he held. His left hand curled around a battered briar pipe. Once in a while he’d take a puff or a sip. “Let’s refresh my memory, shall we? You didn’t see combat during your Army hitch, but that was because you served your two years in what we laughingly call peacetime. You did, though, make top scores on the target range. You’ve always been an outdoorsman, mountaineering, skiing, sailing, swimming. In college, you played football and won your letter in spite of that lanky build. In grad school your hobbies included fencing and archery. You’ve traveled a fair amount, not always to the safe and standard places. Yes, I’d call you adventurous enough for our purposes. Possibly a tad too adventurous. That’s one thing I’m trying to sound you out about.”
Feeling awkward, I glanced again around the room. On a high floor, it was an oasis of quiet and cleanliness. Bookshelves lined the walls, save for three excellent pictures and a pair of Bronze Age spears. Else the only obvious souvenir was a polar bear rug that he had remarked was from tenth-century Greenland.
“You’ve been married twenty-three years, to the same lady,” Everard remarked. “These days, that indicates a stable character.”
There was no sign of femininity here. To be sure, he might well keep a wife, or wives, elsewhen. “No children,” Everard went on. “Hm, none of my business, but you do know, don’t you, that if you want, our medics can repair every cause of infertility this side of menopause? They can compensate for a late start on pregnancies, too.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Fallopian tubes—Yes, Laurie and I have discussed it. We may well take advantage someday. But we don’t think we’d be wise to begin parenthood and my new career simultaneously.” I formed a chuckle. “If simultaneity means anything to a Patroller.”
“A responsible attitude. I like that.” Everard nodded.
“Why this review, sir?” I ventured. “I wasn’t invited to enlist merely on the strength of Herbert Ganz’s recommendation. Your—people put me through a whole battery of far-future psych tests before they told me what it meant.”
They’d called it a set of scientific experiments. I’d cooperated because Ganz had asked me to, as a favor to a friend of his. It wasn’t his field; he was in Germanic languages and literature, the same as me. We’d met at a professional gathering, become drinking buddies, and corresponded quite a bit. He’d admired my papers on Deor and Widsith, I’d admired his on the Gothic Bible.
Naturally, I did not know then that it was his. It was published in Berlin in 1853. Later he was recruited into the Patrol, and eventually he came uptime under an alias, in search of fresh talent for his undertaking.
Everard leaned back. Across the pipe, his gaze probed at me. “Well,” he said, “the machines told us you and your wife are trustworthy, and would both be delighted by the truth. What they could not measure was how competent you’d be in the job for which you were proposed. Excuse me, no insult intended. Nobody is good at everything, and these missions will be tough, lonesome, delicate.” He paused. “Yes, delicate. The Goths may be barbarians, but that doesn’t mean they are stupid, or that they can’t be hurt as badly as you or me.”
“I understand,” I said. “But look, all you need do is read the reports I’ll have filed in my own personal future. If the early accounts show me bungling, why, just tell me to stay home and become a book researcher. The outfit needs those too, doesn’t it?”
Everard sighed. “I have inquired, and been told you performed—will perform—will have performed—satisfactorily. That isn’t enough. You don’t realize, because you haven’t experienced it, how overburdened the Patrol is, how ghastly thin we’re spread across history. We can’t examine every detail of what a field agent does. That’s especially true when he or she isn’t a cop like me, but a scientist like you, exploring a milieu poorly chronicled or not chronicled at all.” He treated himself to a swallow of his drink. “That’s why the Patrol does have a scientific branch. So it can get a slightly better idea of what the hell the events are that it is supposed to keep careless time travelers from changing.”
“Would it make a significant difference, in a situation as obscure as that?”
“It might. In due course, the Goths play an important role, don’t they? Who knows what a happening early on—a victory or a defeat, a rescue or a death, a certain individual getting born or not getting born—who knows what effect that could have, as its results propagate through the generations?”
“But I’m not even concerned with real events, except indirectly,” I argued. “My objective is to help recover various lost stories and poems, and unravel how they evolved and how they influenced later works.”
Everard grinned ruefully. “Yeah, I know. Ganz’s big deal. The Patrol has bought it because it is an opening wedge, the single such wedge we’ve found, to getting the history of that milieu recorded.”
He knocked back his drink and rose. “How about another?” he proposed. “And then we’ll have lunch. Meanwhile, I wish you’d tell me exactly what your project is.”
“Why, you must have talked to Herbert—to Professor Ganz,” I said, astonished. “Uh, thanks, I would like a refill.”
“Sure,” Everard said, pouring. “Retrieve Germanic literature of the Dark Ages. If ‘literature’ is the right word for stuff that was originally word of mouth, in illiterate societies. Mere chunks of it have survived on paper, and scholars don’t agree on how badly garbled those copies are. Ganz’s working on the, um-m, the Nibelung epic. What I’m vague about is where you fit in. That’s a story from the Rhineland. You want to go gallivanting solo away off in eastern Europe, in the fourth century.”
His manner did more than his whisky to put me at ease. “I hope to track down the Ermanaric part,” I told him. “It isn’t properly integral, but a connection did develop, and besides, it’s interesting in its own right.”
“Ermanaric? Who dat?” Everard gave me my glass and settled himself to listen.
“Maybe I better backtrack a little,” I said. “How familiar are you with the Nibelung-Volsung cycle?”
“Well, I’ve seen Wagner’s Ring operas. And when I had a mission once in Scandinavia, toward the close of the Viking period, I heard a yarn about Sigurd, who killed the dragon and woke the Valkyrie and afterward mucked everything up.”
“That’s a fraction of the whole story, sir.”
“ ‘Manse’ will do, Carl.”
“Oh, uh, thanks. I feel honored.” Not to grow fulsome, I hurried on in my best classroom style:
“The Icelandic Volsungasaga was written down later than the German Nibelungenlied, but contains an older, more primitive, and lengthier version of the story. The Elder and the Younger Edda have some of it too. Those are the sources that Wagner mainly borrowed from.
“You may recall that Sigurd the Volsung got tricked into marrying Gudrun the Gjuking instead of Brynhild the Valkyrie, and this led to jealousy between the women and at last to his getting killed. In German, those persons are called Siegfried, Kriemhild of Burgundy, Brunhild of Isenstein; and the pagan gods don’t appear; but no matter now. According to both stories, Gudrun, or Kriemhild, later married a king called Atli, or Etzel, who is none other than Attila the Hun.
“Then the versions really diverge. In the Nibelungenlied, Kriemhild lures her brothers to Etzel’s court and has them set on and destroyed, as her revenge for their murder of Siegfried. Theodoric the Great, the Ostrogoth who took over Italy, gets into that episode under the name of Dietrich of Bern, though in historical fact he flourished a generation later than Attila. A follower of his, Hildebrand, is so horrified at Kriemhild’s treachery and cruelty that he slays her. Hildebrand, by the way, has a legend of his own, in a ballad whose entirety Herb Ganz wants to find, as well as in derivative works. You see what a cat’s cradle of anachronisms this is.”
“Attila the Hun, eh?” Everard murmured. “Not a very nice man. But he operated in the middle fifth century, when those bully boys were already riding high in Europe. You’re going to the fourth.”
“Correct. Let me give you the Icelandic tale. Atli enticed Gudrun’s brothers to him because he wanted the Rhinegold. She tried to warn them, but they came anyway under pledge of safe conduct. When they wouldn’t surrender the hoard or tell Atli where it was, he had them put to death. Gudrun got even for that. She butchered the sons she’d borne him and served them to him as ordinary food. Later she stabbed him as he slept, set his hall afire, and left Hunland. With her she took Svanhild, her daughter by Sigurd.”
Everard frowned, concentrating. It couldn’t be easy to keep track of these characters.
“Gudrun came to the country of the Goths,” I said. “There she married again and had two sons, Hamther and Sorli. The king of the Goths is called Jormunrek in the saga and in the Eddie poems, but there is no doubt that he was Ermanaric, who is a real if shadowy figure around the middle and late fourth century. Accounts differ whether he married Svanhild and she was falsely accused of infidelity, or she married somebody else whom the king caught plotting against him and hanged. In either case, he had poor Svanhild trampled to death by horses.
“By this time, Gudrun’s boys, Hamther and Sorli, were young men. She egged them on to kill Jormunrek in vengeance for Svanhild. Along the way they met their half-brother Erp, who offered to accompany them. They cut him down. The manuscripts are vague as to the reason why. My guess is he was their father’s child by a concubine and there was bad blood between them and him.
“They proceeded to Jormunrek’s headquarters and the attack. They were two alone, but invulnerable to steel, so they slew men right and left, reached the king, and wounded him severely. Before they could finish the job, though, Hamther let slip that stones could hurt them. Or, according to the saga, Odin suddenly appeared, in the guise of an old man with one eye, and betrayed this information. Jormunrek called to his remaining warriors to stone the brothers, and that is how they died. There the tale ends.”
“Grim, hey?” said Everard. He pondered for a minute. “But it seems to me that whole last episode—Gudrun in Gothland—must’ve been tacked on at a much later date. The anachronisms have gotten completely out of hand.”
“Of course,” I agreed. “That very commonly happens in folklore. An important story will attract lesser ones to it. Even in trifling ways. For instance, it wasn’t W. C. Fields who said that a man who hates children and dogs can’t be all bad. It was somebody else, I forget who, introducing Fields at a banquet.”
Everard laughed. “Don’t tell me the Patrol should monitor Hollywood history!” He grew serious again. “If that sanguinary little yarn doesn’t really belong in the Nibelung canon, why do you want to trace it? Why does Ganz want you to?”
“Well, it did reach Scandinavia, where it did inspire a couple of pretty good poems—if those weren’t just redactions of something earlier—and did hook up to the Volsung saga. The connections, the whole evolution, interest us. Also, Ermanaric gets mention elsewhere—in certain Old English lays, for instance. So he must have figured in a lot of legend and bardic work that was since forgotten. He was powerful in his day, though apparently not a very nice man himself. The lost Ermanaric cycle might well be as important and brilliant as anything that has come down to us from the West and the North. It may have influenced Germanic literature in scores of unsuspected ways.”
“Do you intend to go straight to his court? I wouldn’t recommend that, Carl. Too many field agents get killed because they got careless.”
“Oh, no. Something horrible happened, from which stories sprang and traveled far, even reaching into historical chronicles. I think I can bracket when it happened, too, within about ten years. But I mean to familiarize myself thoroughly with the whole milieu before I venture into that episode.”
“Good. What is your plan?”
“I’ll take an electronic cram in the Gothic language. I can read it already, but want to speak it fluently, though doubtless my accent will be odd. I’ll also want a cram on what little is known about customs, beliefs, et cetera. That’ll be very little. The Ostrogoths, if not the Visigoths, were still on the bare fringes of Roman awareness. Surely they changed considerably before they moved west.
“So I’ll begin well downtime of my target dates; somewhat arbitrarily, I’m thinking of 300 AD. I’ll get acquainted with people. Next I’ll reappear at intervals and learn what’s been going on in my absence. In short, I’ll keep track of events as they march toward the event. When it finally comes, I shouldn’t be caught by surprise. Afterward I’ll drop in here and there, from time to time, and listen to the poets and storytellers, and get their words on a concealed recorder.”
Everard scowled. “Um-m, that kind of procedure—Well, we can discuss the possible complications. You’ll move around a fair amount geographically too, won’t you?”
“Yes. According to what traditions of theirs got written down in the Roman Empire, the Goths originated in what’s now central Sweden. I don’t believe that numerous a breed could have come from that limited an area, even allowing for natural increase, but it may have furnished leaders and organization, the way the Scandinavians did for the nascent Russian state in the ninth century.
“I’d say the bulk of the Goths started as dwellers along the southern Baltic littoral. They were the easternmost of the Germanic peoples. Not that they were ever a single nation. By the time they reached western Europe, they were separated into the Ostrogoths, who took over Italy, and the Visigoths, who took over Iberia. Gave those regions fairly good government, by the way, the best government they’d had for a long while. Eventually the invaders were overrun in their turn, and vanished into the general populations.”
“Historians make unclear mention of tribes. By 300 AD, Goths were firmly established along the Vistula, in the middle of what’s currently Poland. Before the end of that century, the Ostrogoths were in the Ukraine and the Visigoths just north of the Danube, the Roman frontier. A great folk migration, apparently, over the course of generations, because they seem at last to have abandoned the North entirely; there, Slavic tribes moved in. Ermanaric was an Ostrogoth, so that’s the branch I mean to follow.”
“Ambitious,” Everard said doubtfully. “And you a new chum.”
“I’ll gain experience as I go along, uh, Manse. You admitted yourself, the Patrol is shorthanded. Moreover, I’ll be acquiring a lot of that history which you want.”
He smiled. “You should, at that.” Rising: “Come on, finish your drink and let’s go eat. We’ll need a change of clothes, but it’ll be worth the trouble. I know a local saloon, back in the 1890’s, that sets out a magnificent free lunch.”
Winter descended and then slowly, in surges of wind, snow, icy rain, drew back. For those who dwelt in the thorp by the river, and soon for their neighbors, the dreariness of the season was lightened that year. Carl abode among them.
At first the mystery surrounding him roused fear in many; but they came to see that he bore neither ill will nor bad luck. The awe of him did not dwindle. Rather, it grew. From the beginning, Winnithar said that for such a guest to sleep on a bench, like a common thane, was unfitting, and turned a shut-bed over to him. He offered Carl the pick of the thrall women to warm it, but the stranger made refusal, in mannerly wise. He did accept food and drink, and he did bathe and seek the outhouse. However, the whisper went about that maybe these things were not needful for him, save as a show of being mortal.
Carl was soft-spoken and friendly, in a somewhat lofty way. He could laugh, crack a joke, tell a funny tale. He went forth afoot or ahorse, in company, to hunt or call on the nearer yeomen or join in offerings to the Anses and in the feasting that followed. He took part in contests such as shooting or wrestling, until it had become clear that no man could best him. When he played at knucklebones or board games, he did not always win, though the idea arose that this was because he chose not to make folk afraid of witchcraft. He would talk to anybody, from Winnithar to the lowliest thrall or littlest toddler, and listen with care; indeed, he drew them out, and was kindly toward underlings and animals.
But as for his own inward self, that remained hidden.
This did not mean that he sat sullen. No, he made words and music come forth asparkle as none had ever done before. Eager to hear songs, lays, stories, saws, everything that went about, he gave overflowing measure in return. For he seemed to know all the world, as if he had wandered it himself for longer than a lifetime.
He told of Rome, the mighty and troubled, of rts lord Diocletian, his wars and his stern laws. He answered questions about the new god, him of the Cross, of whom the Goths had heard a bit from traders or from slaves sold this far north. He told of the Romans’ great foes, the Persians, and what wonders they had wrought. Onward his words ranged, evening after evening—on southward to lands where it was always hot, and people had black skins, and beasts prowled that were akin to lynxes but the size of bears. Other beasts did he show them, drawing pictures in charcoal on slabs of wood, and they cried aloud in their astonishment; set beside an elephant, an aurochs or even a troll-steed was nothing! Near the ends of the East, he said, lay a realm larger, older, more marvelous than Rome or Persia. Its dwellers were of a hue like wan amber, and had eyes that appeared to be aslant. Plagued by wild tribes north of them, they had built a wall as long as a mountain range, and had since then been striking back out of that redoubt. This was why the Huns had come west. They, who had broken the Alans and were vexing the Goths, were only a rabble in the slanting gaze of Khitai. And all this vastness was not all there was. If you traveled westward till you had crossed the Roman holding called Gaul, you would come to the World Sea of which you had heard fables, and if there you took ship—but craft such as plied the rivers were not big enough—and sailed on and on, you would find the home of the wise and wealthy Mayas…
Tales Carl also had of men, women, and their deeds—Samson the strong, Deirdre the fair and unhappy, Crockett the hunter…
Jorith, daughter of Winnithar, forgot she was of age to be wedded. She would sit among the children on the floor, at Carl’s feet, and hearken while her eyes caught firelight and became suns.
He was not steadily on hand. Often he would say he must be by himself, and stride off out of sight. Once a lad, brash but skilled at stalking, followed him unseen, unless it was that Carl deigned not to heed him. The boy came back white and ashudder, to stammer forth that the graybeard had gone into Tiwaz’s Shaw. None went under those darkling pines save on Midwinter Eve, when three blood offerings—horse, hound, and slave—were made so that the Binder of the Wolf would bid darkness and cold begone. The boy’s father flogged him, and thereafter nobody spoke openly of it. If the gods allowed it to happen, best not ask into their reasons.
Carl would return in a few days, freshly clothed and bearing gifts. Those were small things, but beyond price, be it a knife whose steel held an edge uncommonly long, a scarf of lustrous foreign fabric, a mirror outdoing buffed brass or a still pond—the treasures arrived and arrived, until everybody of any standing, man or woman, had gotten at least one. About this he said merely, “I know the makers.”
Spring stole northward, snow melted, buds burst into leaf and flower, the river brawled in spate. Homebound birds filled heaven with wings and clamor. Lambs, calves, foals tottered across paddocks. Folk came forth, blinking in sudden brightness; they aired out their houses, garments, and souls. The Spring Queen drove Frija’s image from farm to farm to bless the plowing and sowing, while garlanded youths and maidens danced around her oxcart. Longings quickened.
Carl went away still, but now he would be back on the same evening. More and more were he and Jorith together. They would even stroll into woods, down blossoming lanes, over meadows, out of everybody else’s ken. She walked as though lost in dreams. Salvalindis her mother scolded her about unseemliness—did she care naught for her good name?—until Winnithar quelled his wife. The chieftain was a shrewd reckoner. As for Jorith’s brothers, they glowed.
At length Salvalindis took her daughter aside. They sought an outbuilding where the household’s women met to weave and sew when there was no other work for them. There was now, so that these two were alone in its dimness. Salvalindis put Jorith between herself and the broad, stone-weighted loom, as if to trap her, and asked bluntly, “Have you been less idle with that man Carl than you’ve become at home? Has he had you?”
The maiden flushed, twisted fingers together, stared downward. “No,” she breathed. “He can, whenever he wants. How I wish he would. But we’ve only held hands, kissed a little, and—and—”
“Talked. Sung songs. Laughed. Been grave. Oh, mother, he’s not aloof. With me, he’s kinder and, and sweeter than… than I knew a man could be. He talks to me as he would to somebody who can think, not just be a wife—”
Salvalindis’ lips pinched. “I never stopped thinking when I married. Your father may see a powerful ally in Carl. But I see in him a man without land or kin, belike a warlock but rootless, rootless. What gain can our house have of linking with him? Goods, aye; knowledge; but what use are those when foemen threaten? What would he leave to his sons? What would bind him to you after the freshness is gone? Girl, you’re being a fool.”
Jorith clenched her fists, stamped her foot, and yelled through tears that were more of rage than woe: “Hold your tongue, old crone!” At once she shrank back, as aghast as Salvalindis.
“You speak thus to your mother?” the latter said. “Aye, a warlock he is, who’s cast a spell on you. Throw that brooch he gave you into the river, do you hear?” She turned and left the room. Her skirts made an angry rustling.
Jorith wept, but did not obey.
And soon everything changed.
On a day when rain blew like spears, while Donar’s wagon boomed aloft and the flash of his ax blinded heaven, a man galloped into the thorp. He sagged in the saddle, and his horse was near falling from weariness. Nevertheless he shook an arrow on high and shrilled to those who had come out through the mud to meet him: “War! The Vandals draw nigh!”
Brought into the hall, he said before Winnithar: “My word is from my father, Aefli of Staghorn Dale. He had it from a man of Dagalaif Nevittas-son, who fled the slaughter at Elkford so as to carry warning. But already we at Aefli’s had marked a ruddiness on the skyline, where surely farmsteads were afire.”
“Two bands of them, then,” Winnithar muttered. “At least. Belike more. They’re out early this year, and in strength.”
“How could they leave their grounds untended in seeding time?” asked a son of his.
Winnithar gusted a sigh. “They’ve bred more hands than they need for work. Besides, I hear of a King Hildaric, who’s brought their clans beneath him. Thus they can field greater hosts than erstwhile, which move faster and under a better plan than we’re able. Aye, could be Hildaric means to rid these lands of us, for the good of his own overflowing realm.”
“What shall we do?” an iron-steady old warrior wanted to know.
“Gather the neighborhood men and go to meet as many others as time allows, like Aefli’s, if he hasn’t already been overrun. At the Rock of the Twin Horsemen as aforetime, eh? It may be that, together, we’ll not hit a Vandal troop too big for us.”
Carl stirred where he sat. “But what of your homes?” he asked. “Raiders could outflank you, unbeknownst, and fall on steadings like yours.” He left the rest unspoken: plunder, burning, women in their best years borne off, everybody else cut down.
“We must risk that. Else we’ll be whipped piecemeal.” Winnithar grew silent. The longfires leaped and flickered. Outside, wind hooted and rain dashed against walls. His gaze sought Carl’s. “We have no helmet or mail that would fit you. Maybe you can fetch gear for yourself from” wherever you get things.”
The outsider sat stiff. Lines deepened in his face.
Winnithar’s shoulders slumped. “Well, this is no fight of yours, is it?” he sighed. “You’re no Teuring.”
“Carl, oh, Carl!” Jorith came out from among the women.
For a while that reached onward, she and the gray man looked at each other. Then he shook himself, turned to Winnithar, and said: “Fear not. I’ll abide by my friends. But it must be in my own way, and you must follow my redes, whether or not you understand them. Are you willing to that?”
Nobody cheered. A sound like the wind passed down the shadowy length of the hall.
Winnithar mustered heart. “Yes,” he said. “Now let riders of ours take war-arrows around. But the rest of us shall feast.”
—What happened in the next few weeks was never really known. Men fared, pitched camp, fought, came home afterward or did not. Those who did, which was most of them, often had wild tales to tell. They spoke of a blue-cloaked spearman who rode through the sky on a mount that was not a horse. They spoke of dreadful monsters charging at Vandal ranks, and eerie lights in the dark, and blind fear coming upon the foe, until he cast his weapons from him and fled screaming. They spoke of somehow always finding a Vandal gang before it had quite reached a Gothic thorp, and putting it to flight, making sheer lack of loot cause clan after clan to give up and trek off. They spoke of victory.
Their chiefs could say slightly more. It was the Wanderer who had told them where to go, what to await, how best to form array for battle. It was he who outsped the gale as he brought warning and summons, he who got Greutung and Taifal and Amaling help, he who overawed the haughty till they worked side by side as he ordered.
These stories faded away in the course of the following lifetime or two. They were so strange. Rather, they sank back among the older stories of their kind. Anses, Wanes, trolls, wizards, ghosts, had not such beings again and again joined the quarrels of men? What mattered was that for a half-score years, the Goths along the upper Vistula knew peace. Let us get on with the harvest, said they: or whatever else they wanted to do with their lives.
But Carl came back to Jorith as the rescuer.
—He could not really wed her. He had no acknowledged kin. Yet men who could afford it had always taken lemans; the Goths held that to be no shame, if the man provided well for woman and children. Besides, Carl was no mere swain, thane, or king. Salvalindis herself brought Jorith to him, where he waited in a flower-decked loft-room, after a feast at which splendid gifts passed to and fro.
Winnithar had timber cut and ferried across the river, and a goodly house raised for the two. Carl wanted some odd things in the building, such as a bedroom by itself. There was also another room, kept locked save when he went in alone. He was never there long, and no more did he go off to Tiwaz’s Shaw.
Men said between themselves that he made far too much of Jorith. They were apt to swap looks, or walk away from others, like some fuzz-cheeked boy and a thrall girl. However… she ran her home well enough, and anyway, who dared mock at him?
He himself left most of a husband’s tasks to a steward. He did bring in the goods that the household needed, or the wherewithal to trade for them. And he became a great trader. These years of peace were not years of listlessness. No, they brought more chapmen than ever before, carrying amber, furs, honey, tallow from the North, wine, glass, metalwork, cloth, fine pottery from the South and West. Ever eager to meet somebody new, Carl guested passersby lavishly, and went to the fairs as well as the folkmoots.
In those moots he, who was not a tribesman, only watched; but after the day’s talk, things would get lively around his booth.
Nonetheless, men wondered, and women too. Word trickled back that a man, gray but hale, whom nobody formerly knew, was often seen among other Gothic tribes…
It may be that those absences of his were the reason why Jorith was not at once with child; or it may be that she was rather young, just sixteen winters, when she came to his bed. A year had gone by before the signs were unmistakable.
Although her sicknesses grew harsh, joy shone from her. Again his behavior was strange, for he seemed to care less about his get” that she bore than about her own well-being. He even oversaw what she ate, providing her with things like out-land fruits regardless of season though forbidding her as much salt as she was wont to. She obeyed gladly, saying this showed he loved her.
Meanwhile life went on in the neighborhood, and death. At the burials and grave-ales, nobody made bold to speak freely with Carl; he was too close to the unknown. On the other hand, the heads of household who had chosen him were taken aback when he refused the honor of being the man hereabouts who would swive the next Spring Queen.
Remembering what else he had done and was doing on their behalf, they got over that.
Warmth; harvest; bleakness; rebirth; summer again; and Jorith was brought to her childbed.
Long was her toil. She suffered the pains bravely, but the women who attended her became very glum.
The elves would not have liked it had a man seen her during that time. Bad enough how Carl had demanded unheard-of cleanliness. They could only hope that he knew what he was about.
He waited it out in the main room of his house. When callers came, he had mead and drink set forth as was right, but stayed curt in his speech.
When they left at nightfall, he did not sleep but sat alone in the dark until sunrise. Now and then the midwife or a helper would shuffle out to tell him how the birth was going. By the light of the lamp she bore, she saw how his glance sought the door he kept locked.
Late in the second day, the midwife found him among his friends. Silence fell upon them. Then that which she bore in her arms let out a wail—and Winnithar a shout. Carl rose, his nostrils white.
The woman knelt before him, unfolded the blanket, and on the earthen floor, at the father’s feet, laid a man-child, still bloody but lustily sprattling and crying. If Carl did not take the babe up onto his knee, she would carry it into the woods and leave it for the wolves. He never stopped to see if aught might be wrong with it. He snatched the wee form to him while he croaked, “Jorith, how fares Jorith?”
“Weak,” said the midwife. “Go to her now if you will.”
Carl gave her back his son and hastened to the bedroom. The women who were there stood aside. He bent over Jorith. She lay white, sweat-clammy, hollowed out. But when she saw her man, she reached feebly upward and smiled the ghost of a smile. “Dagobert,” she whispered. That was the name, old in her family, that she had wished for, were this a boy.
“Dagobert, yes,” Carl said low. Unseemly though it was in sight of the rest, he bent to kiss her.
She lowered her lids and sank back onto the straw. “Thank you,” came from her throat, barely to be heard. “The son of a god.”
Suddenly Jorith shuddered. For a moment she clutched at her brow. Her eyes opened again. The pupils were fixed and wide. She grew bonelessly limp. Breath rattled in and out.
Carl straightened, whirled, and sped from the room. At the locked door, he took forth his key and went inside. It banged behind him.
Salvalindis moved to her daughter’s side. “She is dying,” she said flatly. “Can his witchcraft save her? Should it?”
The forbidden door swung back. Carl came out, and another. He forgot to close it. Men glimpsed a thing of metal. Some remembered what he had ridden who flew above the battlefields. They huddled close, gripped amulets or drew signs in the air.
Carl’s companion was a woman, though clad in rainbow-shimmery breeks and tunic. Her countenance was of a kind never seen before—broad and high in the cheekbones like a Hun’s, but short of nose, coppery-golden of hue, beneath straight blue-black hair. She held a box by its handle.
The two dashed to the bedroom. “Out, out!” Carl roared, and chased the Gothic women before him like leaves before a storm.
He followed them, and now remembered to shut the door on his steed. Turning around, he saw how everybody stared at him, while they shrank away. “Be not afraid,” he said thickly. “No harm is here. I have but fetched a wise-woman to help Jorith.”
For a while they all stood in stillness and gathering murk.
The stranger trod forth and beckoned to Carl. There was that about her which drew a groan from him. He stumbled to her, and she led him by the elbow into the bedroom. Silence welled out of it.
After another while folk heard voices, his full of fury and anguish, hers calm and ruthless. Nobody understood that tongue.
They returned. Carl’s face looked aged. “She is sped,” he told the others. “I have closed her eyes. Make ready her burial and feast, Winnithar. I will be back for that.”
He and the wise-woman entered the secret room. From the midwife’s arms, Dagobert howled.
I’d flitted uptime to 1930’s New York, because I knew that base and its personnel. The young fellow on duty tried to make a fuss about regulations, but him I could browbeat. He put through an emergency call for a top-flight medic. It happened to be Kwei-fei Mendoza who had the opportunity to respond, though we’d never met. She asked no more questions than were needful before she joined me on my hopper and we were off to Gothland. Later, however, she wanted us both at her hospital, on the moon in the twenty-fourth century. I was in no shape to protest.
She had me take a kettle-hot bath and sent me to bed. An electronic skullcap gave me many hours of sleep.
Eventually I received clean clothes, something to eat (I didn’t notice what), and guidance to her office. Seated behind an enormous desk, she waved me to take a chair. Neither of us spoke for a minute or three.
Evading hers, my gaze shifted around. The artificial gravity that kept my weight as usual did nothing to make the place homelike for me. Not that it wasn’t quite beautiful, in its fashion. The air bore a tinge of roses and new-mown hay. The carpet was a deep violet in which star-points twinkled. Subtle colors swirled over the walls. A big window, if window it was, showed the grandeur of mountains, a craterscape in the distance, heaven black but reigned over by an Earth nearly full. I lost myself in the sight of that glorious white-swirled blueness. Jorith had lost herself there, two thousand years ago.
“Well, Agent Farness,” Mendoza said at length in Temporal, the Patrol language, “how do you feel?”
“Dazed but clear-headed,” I muttered. “No. Like a murderer.”
“You should certainly have left that child alone.” I forced my attention toward her and replied, “She wasn’t a child. Not in her society, or in most throughout history. The relationship helped me a lot in getting the trust of the community, therefore in furthering my mission. Not that I was cold-blooded about it, please believe me. We were in love.”
“What has your wife to say on that subject? Or did you never tell her?”
My defense had left me too exhausted to resent what might else have seemed nosiness. “Yes, I did. I… asked her if she’d mind. She thought it over and decided not. We’d spent our younger days in the 1960’s and ’70’s, remember… No, you’d scarcely have heard, but that was a period of revolution in sexual mores.”
Mendoza smiled rather grimly. “Fashions come and go.”
“We’d stayed monogamous, my wife and I, but more out of preference than principle. And look, I always kept visiting her. I love her, I really do.”
“And she doubtless reckoned it best to let you have your middle-aged fling,” Mendoza snapped.
That stung. “It wasn’t! I tell you, I loved Jorith, the Gothic girl, I loved her too.” Grief took me by the throat. “Was there absolutely nothing you could do?”
Mendoza shook her head. Her hands rested quietly on the desk. Her tone softened. “I told you already. I’ll tell you in detail if you wish. The instruments—no matter how they work, but they showed an aneurysm of the anterior cerebral artery. It hadn’t been bad enough to produce symptoms, but the stress of a long and difficult primiparous labor caused it to rupture. No kindness to revive her, after such extensive brain damage.”
“You couldn’t repair that?”
“Well, we could have brought the body uptime, restarted the heart and lungs, and used neuron cloning techniques to produce a person that resembled her, but who would have had to learn almost everything over from the beginning. My corps does not do that sort of operation, Agent Farness. It isn’t that we lack compassion, it’s simply that we have too many calls on us already, to help Patrol personnel and their… proper families. If ever we started making exceptions, we’d be swamped. Nor would you have gotten your sweetheart back, you realize. She would not have gotten herself back.”
I rallied what force of will was left me. “Suppose we went downtime of her pregnancy,” I said. “We could bring her here, fix that artery, blank her memories of the whole trip, and return her to—live out a healthy life.”
“That’s your wishfulness speaking. The Patrol does not change what has been. It preserves it.” I sank deeper into my chair. Variable contours sought in vain to comfort me.
Mendoza relented. “But don’t feel too much guilt, you,” she said. “You couldn’t have known. If the girl had married somebody else, as she surely would have, the end would have been the same. I get the impression you made her happier than most females of her era.”
Her tone gathered strength: “You, though, you’ve given yourself a wound that will take long to scar over. It never will, unless you resist the supreme temptation—to keep going back to her lifetime, seeing her, being with her. That is forbidden, under severe penalties, and not only because of the risks it might pose to the time-stream. You’d wreck your spirit, even your mind. And we need you. Your wife needs you.”
“Yes,” I achieved saying.
“Hard enough will be watching your descendants and hers endure what they must. I wonder if you should not transfer entirely from your project.”
“Why not?” she flung at me. “Because I—I can’t just abandon them—as if Jorith had lived and died for nothing.”
“That will be for your superiors to decide. You’ll get a stiff reprimand at the very least, as close to the black hole as you’ve orbited. Never again may you interfere to the degree you did.” Mendoza paused, glanced from me, stroked her chin, and murmured, “Unless certain actions prove necessary to restore equilibrium… But that is not my province.”
Her look returned to my misery. Abruptly she leaned forward over the desk, made a reaching gesture, and said:
“Listen, Carl Farness. I’m going to be asked for my opinion of your case. That’s why I brought you here, and why I want to keep you a week or two—to get a better idea. But already—you’re not unique, my friend, in a million years of Patrol operations!—already I’ve begun to see you as a decent sort, who may have blundered but largely through inexperience.
“It happens, has happened, will happen, over and over. Isolation, in spite of furloughs at home and liaisons with prosaic fellow members like me. Bewilderment, in spite of advance preparation; culture shock; human shock. You witnessed what to you were wretchedness, poverty, squalor, ignorance, needless tragedy—worse, callousness, brutality, injustice, wanton manslaughter—You couldn’t encounter that without it hurting you. You had to assure yourself that your Goths were no worse than you are, merely different; and you had to seek past that difference to the underlying identity; and then you had to try to help, and if along the way you suddenly found a door open on something dear and wonderful—
“Yes, inevitably, time travelers, including Patrollers—many of them form ties. They perform actions, and sometimes those are intimate. It doesn’t normally pose a threat. What matters the precise, the obscure and remote, ancestry of even a key figure? The continuum yields but rebounds. If its stress limits aren’t exceeded, why, the question becomes unanswerable, meaningless, whether such minor doings change the past, or have ‘always’ been a part of it.
“Do not feel too guilty, Farness,” she ended, most quietly. “I would also like to start you recovering from that, and from your grief. You are a field agent of the Time Patrol; this is not the last mourning you will ever have reason to do.”
Carl kept his word. Stone-silent, he leaned on his spear and watched while her kinfolk laid Jorith in the earth and heaped a barrow above her. Afterward he and her father honored her by an arval to which they bade the whole neighborhood come, and which lasted three days. There he spoke only when spoken to, though at those times polite enough in his lordly way. While he did not seek to dampen anybody’s merriment, that feast was quieter than most.
When guests had departed, and Carl sat alone by his hearth save for Winnithar, he told the chieftain: “Tomorrow I go too. You will not see me often again.”
“Have you then done whatever you came for?”
“No, not yet.”
Winnithar did not ask what it was. Carl sighed and added: “As far as Weard allows, I mean to watch over your house. But that may not be so far.”
At dawn he bade farewell and strode off. Mists lay heavy and chill, soon hiding him from the sight of men.
In years that followed, tales grew. Some thought they had glimpsed his tall form by twilight, entering the grave-mound as if by a door. Others said no; he had led her away by the hand. Their memories of him slowly lost humanness.
Dagobert’s grandparents took the babe in, found a wet nurse, and raised him like their own. Despite his uncanny begetting, he was not shunned nor let run wild. Instead, folk reckoned his friendship well worth having, for he must be destined to mighty deeds—on which account, he should learn honor and seemly ways, as well as the skills of a warrior, hunter, and husbandman. Children of gods were not unheard of. They became heroes, or women passing wise and fair, but were nonetheless mortal.
After three years, Carl came briefly calling. As he watched his son, he murmured, “How he does look like his mother.”
“Aye, in the face,” Winnithar agreed, “but he’ll not lack manliness; that’s already plain to see, Carl.”
None else made bold any more to bespeak the Wanderer by that name—nor by the name they supposed was right. At drinking time they did as he wished, saying forth what tales and verses they had lately heard. He asked whence those sprang, and they could tell him of a bard or two, whom he said he would visit. He did, later, and the makers reckoned themselves lucky to have his notice. For his part, he told spellbinding things as of yore. However, now he was shortly gone again, not to return for years.
Meanwhile Dagobert grew apace, a lad brisk, merry, handsome, and well-liked. He was but twelve when he accompanied his half-brothers, Winnithar’s two oldest sons, on a trip south with a crew of traders. They wintered there, and came back in spring brimful of wonders. Yes, yonder were lands for the taking, rich, wide, watered by a Dnieper River that made this Vistula seem a brook. The northern valleys there were thickly wooded but farther south the countryside lay open, pastureland for herds and flocks, bride-like awaiting the farmer’s plow. Whoever held it would also sit astride a flow of goods through the Black Sea ports.
As yet, not many Goths had moved thither. It was the westerly tribes that had made the really great trek, into the lands north of the Danube. There they were at the Roman frontier, which meant a spate of barter. On the bad side, should it come to war, the Romans remained formidable—especially if they could put an end to their civil strife.
The Dnieper flowed safely far from the Empire. True, Heruls had come from the North and settled along the Azov shore: wild men, who would doubtless give trouble. Yet because they were such wolfish beings, who scorned to wear mail or fight in ranks, they were less fearsome than the Vandals. Likewise true, north and east of them laired the Huns, horsemen, stockbreeders, akin to trolls in their ugliness, filth, and bloodlust. They were said to be the direst warriors in the world. But the more glory in beating them if they attacked; and a Gothic league could beat them, for they were split into clans and tribes, likelier to fight each other than to raid farms and towns.
Dagobert was ablaze to be off, and his brothers eager. Winnithar urged caution. Let them learn more ere making a move that could not be unmade. Besides, come the time, they should go not as a few families, prey to reavers, but in force. It looked as though that would soon be possible.
For these were the days when Geberic of the Greutung tribe was drawing the eastern Goths together. Some he fought and broke to his will, others he won over by talk, whether threat or promise. Among the latter were the Teurings, who in Dagobert’s fifteenth year hailed Geberic their king.
This meant that they paid scot to him, which was not heavy; sent men to fight for him when he wanted, unless it was the season of sowing or harvest; and heeded such laws as the Great Moot made for the whole realm. In return, they need no longer beware of fellow. Goths who had joined him, but rather had the help of these against common foes; trade bloomed; and they themselves had men at each year’s Great Moot, to speak and to vote.
Dagobert did well in the king’s wars. In between, he would fare south, as a captain of guards for the chapmen’s bands. There he went around and learned much.
Somehow, the rare visits of his father always took place when he was at home. The Wanderer gave him fine gifts and sage counsel, but talk between them was awkward, for what can a young fellow say to one like that?
Dagobert did lead in making sacrifice at a shrine which Winnithar had built where the house formerly stood in which the boy was born. That house Winnithar had burned, for her to have whose howe stood behind it. Strangely, at this halidom the Wanderer forbade bloodshed. Only first fruits of the earth might be offered. The story arose that apples cast in the fire before the stone became the Apples of Life.
When Dagobert was full grown, Winnithar sought a good wife for him. This became Waluburg, a maiden strong and comely, daughter of Optaris at Staghorn Dale, who was the second most powerful man among the Teurings. The Wanderer blessed the wedding by his presence.
He was also there when Waluburg bore her first child, a boy whom they named Tharasmund. In the same year was born the first son of King Geberic that lived to manhood, Ermanaric.
Waluburg throve, giving her man healthy children. Dagobert stayed unrestful, though; folk said that was the blood of his father in him, and that he heard the wind at the edge of the world forever calling. When he came back from his next trip south, he brought news that a Roman lord hight Constantine had finally put down his rivals and become master of the whole Empire.
It may be that this fired Geberic, however forcefully the king had already gone forth. He spent a few more years rallying the East Goths; then he summoned them to follow him and make an end of the Vandal pest.
Dagobert had by now decided he would indeed move south. The Wanderer had told him that that would not be unwise; it was the fate of the Goths, and he might as well be early and get a better pick of holdings. He went about talking this over with yeomen great and small, for he knew his grandfather was right about going in strength. Yet when the war arrow came, in honor he could not but heed. He rode off at the head of better than a hundred men.
That was a grim struggle, ending in a battle which fattened wolves and ravens. There fell the Vandal King Visimar. There too died the older sons of Winnithar, who had hoped to be off with Dagobert. He himself lived, not even badly wounded, and won ringing fame by his doughtiness. Some said that the Wanderer had warded him on the field, spearing foemen, but this he denied. “My father was there, yes, to be with me on the night before the last clash—naught else. We spoke of many and strange things. I asked him not to demean me by doing my fighting for me, and he said that was not the will of Weard.”
The upshot was that the Vandals were routed, overrun, and forced to depart their lands. After scouring to and fro for several years beyond the River Danube, dangerous but wretched, they besought the Emperor Constantine for leave to settle in his realm. Not loth to have fresh warriors guarding his marches, he let them cross into Pannonia.
Meanwhile Dagobert found himself the leader of the Teurings, through his marriage, his inheritance, and the name he had won. He spent a time making them ready, and thereupon took them south.
Few stayed behind, so glittering was the hope. Among those who did were old Winnithar and Salvalindis.
When the wagons had creaked away, the Wanderer sought those two out, one last time, and was kind to them, for the sake of what had been and of her who slept by the River Vistula.
Manse Everard was not the officer who raked me over the coals for my recklessness, and barely agreed to let me continue in the mission—largely, he grumbled, at Herbert Ganz’s urging, because there was nobody to replace me. Everard had his reasons for holding back. Those eventually became evident, as did the fact he’d been studying my reports.
Between the fourth century and the twentieth, I’d passed about two years of personal lifespan since losing Jorith. My grief had dwindled to wistfulness—if only she could have had more of the life she loved and made lovely!—except once in a while when it rose in full force and struck again. In her quiet way, Laurie had helped me toward acceptance. Never before had I understood in full what a wonderful person she was.
I was at home on furlough, New York, 1932, when Everard called and asked for another conference. “Just a few questions, a couple hours’ bullshooting,” he said, “and afterward we can go out on the town. Your wife too, of course. Ever see Lola Montez in her heyday? I’ve got tickets, Paris, 1843.”
Winter had fallen uptime. Snow tumbled past the windows of his apartment, making a cave of white stillness for us. He gave me a toddy and inquired what I particularly liked in the way of music. We agreed on a koto performance, by a player in medieval Japan whose name the chronicles have forgotten but who was the finest that ever lived. Time travel has its rewards as well as its pains.
Everard made a production of stuffing and lighting his pipe. “You never filed an account of your relationship to Jorith,” he said in a tone almost casual. “It only came out in the course of the inquiry, after you’d sent for Mendoza. Why?”
“It was… personal,” I answered. “Didn’t see that it was anybody else’s business. Oh, they cautioned us about that sort of thing at the Academy, but regs don’t actually forbid it.”
Looking at his dark, bowed head, I had the eerie knowledge that he must have read everything I would write. He knew my personal future as I did not—as I would not until I had been through it. The rule is very seldom waived that keeps an agent from learning his or her destiny; a causal loop is the least undesirable thing that could all too easily result.
“Well, I don’t aim to repeat a scolding you’ve already had,” Everard said. “In fact, between the two of us, I feel that Coordinator Abdullah got needlessly stuffy. Operatives must have discretion, or they’d never get their jobs done, and plenty of them have sailed closer to the wind than you did.”
He spent a minute kindling his tobacco before he went on, through the blue haze: “However, I would like to ask you about a couple of details. More to get your reaction than on any deep philosophical grounds—though I admit to being curious, too. You see, on that basis, maybe I can give you a few useful procedural suggestions. I’m not a scientist myself, but I have kicked around history, prehistory, and even posthistory, quite a lot.”
“You have that,” I agreed with enormous respect. “Well, okay, for openers, the most obvious. Early on, you intervened in a war between Goths and Vandals. How do you justify that?”
“I answered that question at the inquiry, sir… Manse. I knew better than to kill anybody, since my own life was never in jeopardy. I helped organize, I collected intelligence, I inspired fear in the enemy—flying around on antigrav, throwing illusions, projecting subsonic beams. If anything, by making them panic, I saved lives on both sides. But my essential reason was that I’d spent a lot of effort—Patrol effort—establishing a base in the society I was supposed to study, and the Vandals threatened to destroy that base.”
“You weren’t afraid of touching off a change in uptime events?”
“No. Oh, perhaps I should have thought it over more carefully, and gotten expert opinions, before acting. But it did look like almost a textbook case. That was merely a large-scale raid the Vandals were mounting. Nowhere did history record it. The outcome either way was insignificant… except to individuals, certain of whom were important to my mission as well as me. And as for the lives of those individuals—and the line of descent that I started myself, back yonder—why, those are minor statistical fluctuations in the gene pool. They soon average out.”
Everard scowled. “You’re giving me the standard arguments, Carl, same as you did the board of inquiry. They got you off the hook there. But don’t bother today. What I’m trying to make you know, not in your forebrain but in your marrow, is that reality never conforms very well to the textbooks, and sometimes it doesn’t conform at all.”
“I believe I am beginning to see that.” My humility was genuine. “In the lives I’ve been following downtime. We have no right to take people over, do we?”
Everard smiled, and I felt free to savor a long draught from my glass. “Good. Let’s drop generalities and get into the details of what you’re actually after. For instance, you gave your Goths things they’d never have had without you. The physical presents are not to worry about; those’ll rust or rot or be lost quickly enough. But accounts of the world and stories from foreign cultures.”
“I had to make myself interesting, didn’t I? Why else should they recite old, familiar stuff for me?”
“M-m, yeah, sure. But look, wouldn’t whatever you told them get into their folklore, alter the very matter you went to study?”
I allowed myself a chuckle. “No. There I did have a psychosocial calculation run in advance, and used it for a guide. Turns out that societies of this kind have highly selective collective memories. Remember, they’re illiterate, and they live in a mental world where marvels are commonplace.
What I said about, say, the Romans merely added detail to information they already had from travelers; and those details would shortly be garbled down to the general noise level of their concepts of Rome. As for more exotic material, well, what was somebody like Cuchulainn but one more foredoomed hero, such as they’d heard scores of yarns about? What was the Han Empire but one more fabulous country beyond the horizon? My immediate listeners were impressed; but afterward they passed it on to others, who merged everything into their existing sagas.”
Everard nodded. “M-m-m-hm.” He smoked for a bit. Abruptly: “What about yourself? You’re not a clutch of words; you’re a concrete and enigmatic person who keeps appearing among them. You propose to do it for generations. Are you setting up in business as a god?”
That was the hard question, for which I’d spent considerable time preparing. I let another swallow of my drink glow down my throat and warm my stomach before I replied, slowly: “Yes, I’m afraid so. Not that I intended it or want it, but it does seem to have happened.”
Everard scarcely stirred. Lazily as a lion, he drawled, “And you maintain that doesn’t make a historical difference?”
“I do. Please listen. I’ve never claimed to be a god, or demanded divine prerogatives, or anything like that. Nor do I propose to. It’s just come about. In the nature of the case, I arrived alone, dressed like a wayfarer but not like a bum. I carried a spear because that’s the normal weapon for a man on foot. Being of the twentieth century, I’m taller than the average for the fourth, even among Nordic types. My hair and beard are gray. I told stories, described distant places, and, yes, I did fly through the air and strike terror into enemies—It couldn’t be helped. But I did not, repeat not establish a new god. I merely fitted an image they’d long worshipped, and in the course of time, a generation or so, they came to assume I must be him.”
“What’s his name?”
“Wodan, among the Goths. Cognate to western German Wotan, English Woden, Frisian Wons, et cetera. The late Scandinavian version is best known: Odin.”
I was surprised to see Everard surprised. Well, of course the reports I filed with the guardian branch of the Patrol were much less detailed than the notes I was compiling for Ganz. “Hm? Odin? But he was one-eyed, and the boss god, which I gather you are not.… Or are you?”
“No.” How soothing it was to get back into lecture gear. “You’re thinking of the Eddie, the Viking Odin. But he belongs to a different era, centuries later and hundreds of miles northwestward.
“For my Goths, the boss god, as you put it, is Tiwaz. He goes straight back to the old Indo-European pantheon, along with the other Anses, as opposed to aboriginal chthonic deities like the Wanes. The Romans identified Tiwaz with Mars, because he was the war god, but he was much else as well.
“The Romans thought Donar, whom the Scandinavians called Thor, must be the same as Jupiter, because he ruled over weather; but to the Goths, he was a son of Tiwaz. Likewise for Wodan, whom the Romans identified with Mercury.”
“So mythology evolved as time passed, eh?” Everard prompted.
“Right,” I said. “Tiwaz dwindled to the Tyr of Asgard. Little memory of him was left, except that it was he who’d lost a hand in binding the Wolf that shall destroy the world. However, ‘tyr’ as a common noun is a synonym in Old Norse for ‘god.’
“Meanwhile Wodan, or Odin, gained importance, till he became the father of the rest. I think—though this is something we have to investigate someday—I think that was because the Scandinavians grew extremely warlike. A psycho-pomp, who’d also acquired shamanistic traits through Finnish influence, was a natural for a cult among aristocratic warriors; he brought them to Valhalla. At that, Odin was most popular in Denmark and maybe Sweden. In Norway and its Icelandic colony, Thor loomed larger.”
“Fascinating.” Everard gusted a sigh. “So much more to know than any of us will ever live to learn… Well, but tell me about your Wodan figure in fourth-century eastern Europe.”
“He still has two eyes,” I explained, “but he already has the hat, the cloak, and the spear, which is really a staff. You see, he’s the Wanderer. That’s why the Romans thought he must be Mercury under a different name, same as they thought the Greek god Hermes must be. It all goes back to the earliest Indo-European traditions. You can find hints of it in India, Persia, the Celtic and Slavic myths—but those last are even more poorly chronicled. Eventually, my service will—
“Anyhow. Wodan-Mercury-Hermes is the Wanderer because he’s the god of the wind. This leads to his becoming the patron of travelers and traders. Faring as widely as he does, he must have learned a great deal, so he likewise becomes associated with wisdom, poetry… and magic. Those attributes join with the idea of the dead riding on the night wind—they join to make him the Psycho-pomp, the conductor of the dead down to the Afterworld.”
Everard blew a smoke ring. His gaze followed it, as if some symbol were in its twistings. “You’ve gotten latched onto a pretty strong figure, seems,” he said low.
“Yes,” I agreed. “Repeat, it was none of my intention. If anything, it complicates my mission without end. And I’ll certainly be careful. But… it is a myth which already existed. There were countless stories about Wodan’s appearances among men. That most were fable, while a few reflected events that really happened—what difference does it make?”
Everard drew hard on his pipe. “I dunno. In spite of my study of this episode, as far as it’s gone, I don’t know. Maybe nothing, no difference. And yet I’ve learned to be wary of archetypes. They have more power than any science in history has measured. That’s why I’ve been quizzing you like this, about stuff that should be obvious to me. It isn’t, down underneath.”
He did not so much shrug as shake his shoulders. “Well,” he growled, “never mind the metaphysics. Let’s settle a couple of practical matters, and then get hold of your wife and my date and go have fun.”
Throughout that day, battle had raged. Again and again had the Huns dashed themselves over the Gothic ranks, like storm-waves that break on a cliff. Their arrows darkened the sky ere lances lowered, banners streamed, earth shook to the thunder of hoofs, and the horsemen charged. Fighters on foot, the Goths stood fast in their arrays. Pikes slanted forward, swords and axes and bills gleamed at the ready, bows twanged and slingstones flew, horns brayed. When the shock came, deep-throated shouts made answer to the yelping Hunnish war-cries.
Thereafter it was hew, stab, pant, sweat, kill, die. When men fell, feet as well as hoofs crushed rib cages and trampled flesh to red ruin. Iron dinned on helmets, rattled on ringmail, banged the wood of shields and the hardened leather of breastplates. Horses wallowed and shrieked, throats pierced or hocks hamstrung. Wounded men snarled and sought to thrust or grapple. Seldom was anybody sure whom he had struck or who had smitten him. Madness filled him, took him unto itself, whirled black through his world.
Once had the Huns broken an enemy line. They yelled their glee as they reined mounts around to butcher from behind. But as if out of nowhere, a fresh Gothic troop rolled upon them, and now it was they who were trapped. Few escaped. Otherwise, Hunnish captains who saw a charge fail would sound the retreat. Those riders were well drilled; they pulled out of bowshot, and for a while the hosts breathed hard, slaked thirst, cared for their hurt, glared across the ground between.
The sun sank westward, blood-red in a greenish heaven. Its light glimmered on the river and on the wings of carrion fowl awheel overhead. Shadows ran long down slopes of silvery grass, welled upward in dales, turned clumps of trees black and shapeless. A breeze flitted cold across gore-muddied earth, ruffled the hair of the corpses that lay in windrows, whistled as if to call them hence.
Drums thuttered. The Huns drew into squadrons. A last trumpet shrilled, and they made their last onslaught.
Bone-weary though they were, the Goths cast it back, and reaped men by the hundreds. Well and truly had Dagobert sprung his trap. When first he heard of an invader army—slaying, raping, looting, burning—he called for his folk to gather beneath a single standard. Not only the Teurings, but kindred settlers heeded. He lured the Huns into this hollow that led down to the Dnieper, where cavalry was cramped, before his main body poured over the ridges on either side and barred retreat.
His small round shield lay gnawed to splinters. His helmet was battered, his mail ragged, sword blunt, body a single bruise. Yet he stood in the forefront of the Gothic center, and his banner flew above him. When the attack came, he moved like a wildcat.
A horse reared huge. He glimpsed the man in the saddle: short but broad, clad in stenchful skins beneath what armor he had, head shaven save for a pigtail, thin beard braided in twain, big-nosed face made hideous by patterned scars.
The Hun wielded a singlehand ax. Dagobert stepped aside while the hoofs crashed down. He struck, and met the other weapon on its way. Steel rang. Sparks showered athwart dusk. Dagobert slewed his blade around and raked it over the rider’s thigh. That would have been a deadly slash had the edge still been sharp. As was, blood runneled forth. The Hun yammered and smote anew. He hit the Gothic helmet full on. Dagobert staggered. He regained his feet—and his enemy was gone, swept off in the whirlwind of struggle.
From another horse, suddenly there, a lance struck forward. Dagobert, half dazed, took it between neck and shoulder. The Hun saw him sink, and pressed ahead at the hole opened in the Gothic line. From the ground, Dagobert threw his sword. It hit the Hun’s arm and shook loose the spear. Dagobert’s nearest fellow hacked with a bill. The Hun toppled. His body dragged from a stirrup.
All at once, there was no fight. Broken, snatched by terror, those of the foe that lived fled. Not as a host, but each for himself, they stampeded.
“After them,” Dagobert gasped where he lay. “Let none go free—avenge our dead, make safety for our land—” Weakly, he slapped the ankle of his standard bearer. The man bore the banner forward, and the Goths followed, slaying and slaying. Few indeed were the Huns that returned home.
Dagobert pawed at his neck. The point had gone in on the right. Blood pumped forth. The racket of war moved off. Nearer were the cries of the crippled, man and horse, and of the ravens that circled low. Those also grew dim in his hearing. His eyes sought the last glimpse of sun.
Air shimmered and stirred. The Wanderer had arrived.
He dismounted from his eldritch steed, knelt in the muck, sent hands across the wound in his son. “Father,” Dagobert whispered, a gurgle through the blood that filled his mouth.
Anguish went over the face that he remembered as stern and aloof. “I cannot save—I may not—they would not—” the Wanderer mumbled.
“Have… we… won?”
“Yes. We’ll be rid of the Huns for many a year. Your doing.”
The Goth smiled. “Good. Now take me away, father—”
Carl held Dagobert in his arms till death had come, and for a long while afterward.
“Hush, darling. It was to be.”
“My son, my son!”
“Come close. Don’t be afraid to cry.”
“But he was so young, Laurie.”
“A man grown, just the same. You won’t forsake his children, your grandchildren. Will you?”
“No, never. Though what can I do? Tell me what I can do for them. They’re doomed, Jorith’s d-d-descendants will die, I may not change that, how can 1 help them?”
“We’ll think about it later, dear. First, please rest, be quiet, sleep.”
Tharasmund was in his thirteenth winter when his father Dagobert fell. Nonetheless, after they had buried their leader in a hill-high barrow, the Teurings hailed the lad their chieftain. A stripling he was, but full of promise, and they would have no other house than his over them.
Besides, after the battle on the Dnieper, they awaited no danger in the morrow. That had been an alliance of several Hunnish tribes which they smashed. The rest would not be hasty to move on Goths, nor would the Heruls. Whatever warfare got waged would likeliest be afar, and not in defense but on behalf of King Geberic. Tharasmund should have time in which to grow and learn. Moreover, would he not have the favor and counsel of Wodan?
Waluburg his mother married again, a man named Ansgar. He was of lesser station than she, but well-to-do, able, not greedy for power. He and she ruled well over their holdings and gave good leadership to their folk until Tharasmund came of age. If they stayed on thus somewhat beyond that year, before withdrawing to live quietly, it was at his wish. The restlessness of his line was in him too, and he wanted freedom to travel.
This was well, for in those days many changes passed through the world. A chieftain must know them before he could hope to deal with them.
Rome lay once more at peace with itself, though before he died Constantine had divided rule of the Empire between East and West. For the Eastern seat of lordship he had chosen the city Byzantium, renaming it after himself. It waxed swiftly in size and wealth. After clashes in which they took a drubbing, the Visigoths made treaty with Rome, and traffic became brisk across the River Danube.
Constantine had declared Christ the single god of the state. Spokesmen for that faith went far and wide. More and more of the West Goths hearkened. Those who stayed by Tiwaz and Frija misliked that greatly. Not only might the old gods grow angry and bring woe to a thankless people; to take the new one opened a way for Constantinople to win mastery, slowly but without ever a sword being drawn. The Christians said this counted for less than salvation; besides, from a worldly standpoint, it was better to be in the Empire than out. Year by year, embitterment crept between the factions.
At their distance, the Ostrogoths were slow to become much aware of these matters. Christians among them were mostly slaves brought from western parts. There was a church at Olbia, but it was for the use of Roman traders—wooden, small and shabby when set against the ancient marble temples, emptily though those now echoed. However, as the trade grew, dwellers inland also began to meet Christians, some of them priests. Here and there, free women took baptism, and a few men.
The Teurings would have none of this. Their gods were doing well by them, as by all the East Goths. Broad acres yielded riches; likewise did barter north and south, and their share of tribute paid by folk whom the king had overcome.
Waluburg and Ansgar built a new hall that would be worthy of Dagobert’s son. On the right bank of the Dnieper it rose, upon a height overlooking the river’s gleam, ripple of wind through grass and croplands, stands of timber where birds nested in flocks to becloud heaven. Carven dragons reared over its gables; horns of elk and aurochs above the doors were gilded; pillars within bore the images of gods—save for Wodan, who had a richly bedecked halidom nearby. Outbuildings sprang up around it, and lesser homes, until the thorp could almost be called a village. Life boomed about, men, women, children, horses, hounds, wagons, weapons, sounds of talk, laughter, song, footfalls on cobblestones, hammer, saw, wheels, fire, oaths, or now and then somebody weeping. A shed down by the water held a ship, when it was not faring abroad, and the wharf often welcomed vessels that plied the stream with their wonderful cargoes.
Heorot, they named the hall, because the Wanderer, wryly smiling, had said that was the name of a famous dwelling in the North. He came by every few years, for a few days at a time, to hear what there was to hear.
Tharasmund grew up darker than his father, brown-haired, heavier of bone and features and soul. That was not bad, thought the Teurings. Let him burn off his lust for adventure early, and gain knowledge as he did; then he ought to settle down and steer them soberly. They felt they were going to need a steadfast man at their head. Stories had reached them of a king who was hauling the Huns together as Geberic had done the Ostrogoths. Word from the northern mother country was that Geberic’s son and likely heir, Ermanaric, was a cruel and overbearing sort. Moreover, the odds were that erelong the royal house would move south, out of the swamps and damps, down to these sunny lands where the bulk of the nation was now found. The Teurings wanted a leader who could stand up for their rights.
The last journey that Tharasmund made began when he was of seventeen winters, and lasted for three years. It took him through the Black Sea to Constantinople itself. Thence his ship returned; that was the only news his kin had of him. Yet they did not fear—because the Wanderer had offered to accompany his grandson throughout.
Afterward Tharasmund and his men had stories to brighten evenings for as long as they lived. Following their stay in New Rome—marvel upon marvel, happening upon happening—they went overland, across the province of Moesia and thus to the Danube. On its far side they settled down among the Visigoths for a year. The Wanderer had insisted on that, saying that Tharasmund must form friendships with them.
And indeed it came to pass that the youth met Ulrica, a daughter of King Athanaric. That mighty man still offered to the old gods; and the Wanderer had sometimes appeared in his realm too. He was glad to make an alliance with a chieftainly house in the East. As for the young ones, they got along. Already Ulrica was haughty and hard, but she bade fare to run her household well, bear sound children, and uphold her man in his doings.
Agreement was reached: Tharasmund would proceed home, gifts and pledges would go back and forth, in a year or so his bride would come to him.
The Wanderer stayed but a single night at Heorot before he said farewell. Of him, Tharasmund and the rest related little other than that he had led them wisely, albeit he often disappeared for a while. He was too strange for them to chatter about.
Once, though, years later, when Erelieva lay at his side, Tharasmund told her: “I opened my heart to him. He wanted that, and heard me out, and somehow it was as if love and pain dwelt together behind his eyes.”
Unlike most Patrol agents above the rank of routineer, Herbert Ganz had not abandoned his former surroundings. Middle-aged when recruited, and a confirmed bachelor, he liked being Herr Professor at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. As a rule, he would come back from his time trips within five minutes of departure to resume an orderly, slightly pompous academic existence. For that matter, his jaunts were seldom to anywhere but a superbly equipped office centuries uptime, and scarcely ever to the early Germanic milieus which were his field of research. “They are unsuitable for a peaceful old scholar,” he had said when I asked why. “And vice versa. I would make a fool of myself, earn contempt, arouse suspicion, perhaps get killed. No, my usefulness is in study, organization, analysis, hypothesis. Let me enjoy my life in these decades that suit me. Too soon will they end. Yes, of course, before Western civilization begins self-destruction in earnest, I must needs have aged my appearance, until I simulate my death… What next? Who knows? I will inquire. Perhaps I should simply start over elsewhere: exempli gratia, post-Napoleonic Bonn or Heidelberg.”
He felt it incumbent on him to give hospitality to field operatives when they reported in person. For the fifth time in my lifespan thus far, he and I followed a gargantuan midday meal by a nap and a stroll along Unter den Linden. We came back to his house through a summer twilight. Trees breathed fragrance, horsedrawn vehicles clop-clopped past, gentlemen raised their tall hats to ladies of their acquaintance whom they met, a nightingale sang in a rose garden. Occasionally a uniformed Prussian officer strode by, but his shoulders did not obviously carry the future.
The house was spacious, though books and bric-a-brac tended to disguise that fact. Ganz led me to the library and rang for a maid, who entered arustle in black dress, white cap and apron. “We shall have coffee and cakes,” he directed. “And, yes, put on the tray a bottle of cognac, with glasses. Thereafter we are not to be disturbed.”
When she had left on her errand, he lowered his portly form onto a sofa. “Emma is a good girl,” he remarked while he polished his pince-nez. Patrol medics could easily have corrected his eyeballs, but he’d have had trouble explaining why he no longer required lenses, and declared it made no particular difference. “Of a poor peasant family—ach, they breed fast, but the nature of life is that it overflows, not true? I take an interest in her. Avuncular only, I assure you. She is to leave my service in three years because she marries a fine young man. I will provide a modest dowry in the guise of a wedding present, and stand godfather to their firstborn.” Trouble crossed the ruddy, jowly visage. “She dies of tuberculosis at the age of forty-one.” He ran a hand over his bare scalp. “I am allowed to do nothing about that except provide some medicines that make her comfortable. We dare not mourn, we of the Patrol: certainly not beforehand. I should save pity, sense of guilt, for my poor unwitting friends and colleagues, the brothers Grimm. Emma’s life is better than most of mankind will ever have known.”
I made no reply. Our privacy being assured, I got more intent than necessary on setting up the apparatus I’d brought in my luggage. (Here I passed for a visiting British scholar. I’d practiced my accent. An American would have been pestered with too many questions about Red Indians and slavery.) While Tharasmund and I were among the Visigoths, we’d met Ulfilas. I’d recorded that event, as I did all of special interest. Surely Ganz would want a look at Constantinople’s chief missionary, the Apostle to the Goths, whose translation of the Bible was virtually the sole source of information about their language which survived until time travel came along.
The hologram sprang into being. Suddenly the room—chandelier, bookshelves, up-to-date furniture which I knew as Empire, busts, framed etchings and oils, crockery, Chinese-motif wallpaper, maroon drapes—became the mystery, darkness around a campfire. Yet I was not there, in my own skull: for it was myself on whom I looked, and he was the Wanderer.
(The recorders are tiny, operating on the molecular level, self-directing as they collect full sensory input. Mine, one of several I took along, was hidden in the spear that I had leaned against a tree. Wanting to encounter Ulfilas informally, I’d laid out the route of my party to intercept that of his as we both traveled through what the Romans had known as Dacia before they withdrew from it, and I in my day knew as Rumania. After mutual avowals of peaceful intentions, my Ostrogoths and his Byzantines pitched tents and shared a meal.)
Trees walled the forest meadow in gloom. Flame-lit smoke rose to hide stars. An owl hooted, over and over. The night was still mild, but dew had begun chilling the grass. Men sat cross-legged near the coals, save for Ulfilas and me. He had stood up in his zeal, and I could not let myself be dominated before the others. They stared, listened, furtively drew signs of Ax or Cross.
Despite his name—Wulfila, originally—he was short, thick-set, fleshy-nosed; for he took after Cappadocian grandparents, carried off in the Gothic raid of 264. In accordance with the treaty of 332, he had gone to Constantinople as both hostage and envoy. Eventually he returned to the Visigoths as missionary. The creed he preached was not that of the Nicean Council, but the austere doctrine of Arius, which it had rejected as heresy. Nonetheless he moved in the vanguard of Christendom, the morrow.
“—No, we should not merely trade stories of our farings,” he said. “How can those be sundered from our faiths?” His tone was soft and reasonable, but keen was the gaze he leveled at me. “You are no ordinary man, Carl. That I see plain upon you, and in the eyes of your followers. Let none take offense if I wonder whether you are entirely human.”
“I am no evil demon,” I said. Was it truly me looming over him, lean, gray, cloaked, doomed and resigned to foreknowledge—yon figure out of darkness and the wind? On this night, one and a half thousand years after that night, I felt as if it were somebody else, Wodan indeed, the forever homeless.
Ulfilas’ fervor burned at him: “Then you will not fear to debate.”
“What use, priest? You know well that the Goths are not a people of the Book. They would offer to Christ in his lands; they often do. But you never offer to Tiwaz in his.”
“No, for God has forbidden that we bow down to any save him. It is only God the Father who may be worshipped. To the Son, let men give due reverence, yes; but the nature of Christ—” And Ulfilas was off on a sermon.
It was not a rant. He knew better. He spoke calmly, sensibly, even good-humoredly. He did not hesitate to employ pagan imagery, nor did he try to lay more than a groundwork of ideas before he let conversation go elsewhere. I saw men of mine nodding thoughtfully. Arianism better fitted their traditions and temperament than did a Catholicism of which they had no knowledge anyway. It would be the form of Christianity that all Goths finally took; and from this would spring centuries of trouble.
I had not made a particularly good showing. But then, how could I in honesty have argued for a heathenism in which I had no belief and which I knew was going under? For that matter, how could I in honesty have argued for Christ?
My eyes, 1858, sought Tharasmund. Much lingered in his young countenance of Jorith’s dear features…
—“And how goes the literary research?” Ganz asked when my scene was done.
“Quite well.” I escaped into facts. “New poems; lines in them that definitely look ancestral to lines in Widsith and Walt here. To be specific, since the battle at Dnieper side—” That hurt, but I brought forth my notes and recordings, and plowed ahead.
In the same year that Tharasmund returned to Heorot and took up chieftainship over the Teurings, Geberic died in the hall of his fathers, on a peak of the High Tatra. His son Ermanaric became king of the Ostrogoths.
Late in the next year Ulrica, daughter of Visi-gothic Athanaric, came to her betrothed Tharasmund, at the head of a great and rich retinue. Their marriage was a feast long remembered, a week where food, drink, gifts, games, merriment, and brags went unstinted for hundreds of guests.
Because his grandson had asked him to, the Wanderer himself hallowed the pair, and by torchlight led the bride to the loft where the groom awaited her.
There were those, not of the Teuring tribe, who muttered that Tharasmund seemed overweening, as though he would fain be more than his king’s handfast man.
Shortly after the wedding he must hasten off. The Heruls were out and the marches aflame. To beat them back and lay waste some of their own country became a winter’s work. No sooner was it done but Ermanaric sent word that he wanted all heads of tribes to meet with him in the motherland.
This proved worthwhile. Plans got hammered out for conquests and other things that needed doing. Ermanaric shifted his court south to where the bulk of his people were. Besides many of his Greutungs, the tribal chiefs and their warriors went along. It was a splendid trek, on which bards lavished words that the Wanderer soon heard chanted.
Therefore Ulrica was late in becoming fruitful. However, after Tharasmund met her again, he soon filled her belly for her, and mightily well. She said to her women that of course it would be a man-child, and live to become as renowned as his forebears.
She gave him birth one winter night—some said easily, some said scornful of any pains. Heorot rejoiced. The father sent word around that he would hold a naming feast.
This was a welcome break in the season’s murk, added to the Yuletide gatherings. People flocked thither. Among them were men who thought it might be a chance to draw Tharasmund aside for a word or two. They bore grudges against King Ermanaric.
The hall was bedight with evergreen boughs, weavings, burnished metal, Roman glass. Though day reigned yet over snowfields outside, lamps brightened the long room. Clad in their best, the leading yeomen and wives among the Teurings ringed the high seat, where rested crib and babe. Lesser folk, children, hounds crowded along the walls. Sweetness of pine and mead filled air and heads.
Tharasmund stepped forth. In his hand was a holy ax, to hold above his son while he called down Donar’s blessing. From her side Ulrica bore water out of Frija’s well. None there had witnessed anything like this erenow, save for the firstborn of a royal house.
“We are met—” Tharasmund broke off. All eyes swung doorward, and breath went like a wave. “Oh, I hoped! Be welcome!”
Spear slowly thumping floor, the Wanderer neared. He bent his grayness over the child.
“Will you, lord, bestow his name?” Tharasmund asked.
“What shall it be?”
“From his mother’s kin, to bind us closer to the West Goths, Hathawulf.”
The Wanderer stood altogether still for a while that went on and on. At last he lifted his head. The hatbrim shadowed his face. “Hathawulf,” he said low, as if to himself. “Oh, yes. I understand now.” A little louder: “Weard will have it so. Well, then, so be it. I will give him his name.”
I came out of the New York base into the cold and early darkness of December, and went uptown afoot. Lights and window displays threw Christmas at me, but shoppers were not many. On street corners in the wind, Salvation Army musicians blatted or Santa Clauses rang bells at their kettles for charity, while sad vendors offered this or that. They didn’t have a Depression among the Goths, I thought. But the Goths had less to lose. Materially, anyway. Spiritually—who could tell? Not I, no matter how much history I had seen or would ever see.
Laurie heard my tread on the landing and flung our apartment door wide. We had set the date beforehand for my latest return, after she’d be back from Chicago, where she had a show. She embraced me hard.
As we went on inside, her joy dimmed. We stopped in the middle of the living room. She took both my hands in hers, regarded me for a mute spell, and asked low, “What stabbed you… this trip?”
“Nothing I shouldn’t have foreseen,” I answered, hearing my voice as dull as my soul. “Uh, how’d the exhibition go?”
“Fine,” she replied efficiently. “In fact, two pictures have already sold for a nice sum.” Concern welled forth: “With that out of the way, sit down. Let me bring you a drink. God, you look blackjacked.”
“I’m all right. No need to wait on me.”
“Maybe I feel a need to. Ever think of that?” Laurie hustled me into my usual armchair. I slumped down in it and stared out the window. Lights afar made a hectic glimmer along the sill, at the feet of night. The radio was tuned to a program of carols. “O little town of Bethlehem—”
“Kick off your shoes,” Laurie advised from the kitchen. I did, and it was as if that were the real act of homecoming, like a Goth unbuckling his sword belt.
She brought in a pair of stiff Scotch-and-lemons, and brushed lips across my brow before settling herself in the chair opposite. “Welcome,” she said. “Welcome always.” We raised glasses and drank.
She waited quietly for me to be ready.
I got it out in a rush: “Hamther has been born.”
“Hamther. He and his brother Sorli died trying to avenge their sister.”
“I know,” she whispered. “Oh, Carl, darling.”
“First child of Tharasmund and Ulrica. The name is actually Hathawulf, but it’s easy to see how that got elided to Hamther as the story flowed north over centuries. And they want to call their next son Solbern. The timing is right, too. Those will be young men—will have been—when—” I couldn’t go on.
She leaned forward just long enough that a touch of her hand reached my awareness.
Afterward, her tone stark, she said: “You don’t have to go through with this. Do you, Carl?”
“What?” Astonishment made me stop hurting for an instant. “Of course I do. My job, my duty.”
“Your job is to trace out whatever people put into verses and stories. Not what they actually did. Skip forward, dear. Let… Hathawulf be safely dead when next you return there.”
I realized I’d shouted, took a deep and warming draught, made myself confront her and state levelly: “I’ve thought about that. Believe me, I have. And I can’t. Can’t abandon them.”
“Can’t help them, either. It’s predestined, everything.”
“We don’t know just what will… did happen. Or how I might be able to—No, Laurie, please don’t say any more about that.”
She sighed. “Well, I can understand. You’ve been with generations of them, as they grew and lived and suffered and died; but to you it hasn’t been so long.” To you, she did not say, Jorith is a very near memory. “Yes, do what you must, Carl, while you must.”
I had no words, because I could feel her own pain.
She smiled shakily. “You’ve got a furlough now, though,” she said. “Put your work aside. I went out today and brought back a small Christmas tree. How’d you like if we trimmed it this evening, after I’ve fixed a gourmet dinner?”
“ ‘Peace on the earth, good will to men, From Heav’n’s all-gracious King—’ ”
Athanaric, king of the West Goths, hated Christ. Besides holding fast to the gods of his fathers, he feared the Church as a sly agent of the Empire. Let it gnaw away long enough, he said, and folk would find themselves bending the knee to Roman overlords. Therefore he egged men on against it, thwarted the kin of murdered Christians when they sought weregild, at last rammed laws through his Great Moot that left them open to wholesale slaughter as soon as some happening made tempers flare. Or so he thought. For their part, the baptized Goths, who by now were not few, drew together and spoke of letting the Lord God of Hosts decide the outcome.
Bishop Ulfilas called them unwise. Martyrs became saints, he agreed, but it was the body of the faithful that kept the Word alive on earth. He sought and obtained permission from Emperor Constantius for his flock to move into Moesia. Leading them across the Danube, he saw them settled under the Haemus Mountains. There they became a peaceable lot of herdsmen and farmers.
When this news reached Heorot, Ulrica laughed aloud. “Then my father is rid of them!”
She cried that too soon. For the next thirty years and more, Ulfilas worked on in his vineyard. Not every Christian Visigoth had followed him south. Some remained, among them chieftains strong enough to protect themselves and their underlings. These received missionaries, whose labors bore fruit. Athanaric’s persecutions caused the Christians to seek a leader of their own. They found one in Frithigern, also of the royal house. While it never came to open war between the factions, there were clashes aplenty. Younger, soon wealthier than his rival because of being favored by traders from the Empire, Frithigern brought many West Goths to join the Church as the years wore on, merely because that seemed a promising thing to do.
It touched the Ostrogoths little. The number of Christians among them did swell, but slowly and without rousing undue trouble. King Ermanaric cared naught about gods of any sort or about the next world. He was too busy seizing as much as he could of this one.
Up and down eastern Europe his wars raged. In several seasons’ fierce campaigning he broke the Heruls. Those who did not submit moved off to join westerly tribes bearing the same name. Aestii and Vendi were easier prey for Ermanaric. Unsated, he took his armies north, beyond the lands that his father had made tributary. In the end, a sweep of earth from the Elbe River to the Dnieper mouth acknowledged him overlord.
In these farings Tharasmund gained renown and booty. Yet he liked not the king’s harshness. Often in the moots he stood up not only for his own tribe but for others, on behalf of their ancient rights. Then Ermanaric must needs back down, however sullenly. The Teurings were as yet too powerful, or he not powerful enough, for him to make foemen of. This was the more true since many Goths would have feared to draw blade against a house whose strange forebear still guested it from time to time.
The Wanderer was there when they gave name to the third child of Tharasmund and Ulrica, Solbern. The second had died in its crib, but Solbern, like his brother, grew up strong and handsome. The fourth child was a girl, whom they called Swanhild. For her, too, the Wanderer appeared, but fleetingly, and thereafter he was not seen for years. Swanhild became very fair to look upon, and of a sweet and merry nature.
Ulrica bore three more children. They were far apart and none lived long. Tharasmund was mostly away from home, fighting, trading, taking counsel with men of worth, leading his Teurings in their common business. Upon his returns he was apt to sleep with Erelieva, the leman he had taken soon after Swanhild’s birth.
She was neither slave nor base-born, but the daughter of a well-to-do yeoman. Indeed, on the distaff side she too descended from Winnithar and Salvalindis. Tharasmund met her while he rode about among the tribesfolk, as was his yearly wont when he was abroad, to hear whatever they had on their minds. He lengthened his stay at that home, and they two were much in each other’s company. Later he sent messengers to ask if she would come to him. They brought rich gifts for her parents, as well as promises of honor for her and bonds between the families. This was no offer to refuse lightly, and the lass was eager, so erelong she went off with Tharasmund’s men.
He kept his word and cherished her. When she bore him a son, Alawin, he gave as lavish a feast as he had done for Hatljawulf and Solbern. She had few further children, and sickness took them away early on, but he did not care for her the less.
Ulrica grew bitter. It was not that Tharasmund kept another woman. Most men who could afford it did that, and he had gone through more than his share. What galled Ulrica was the standing he gave Erelieva—second only to her own in the household, and above it in his heart. She was too proud to start a fight she would be bound to lose, but her feelings were plain. Toward Tharasmund she became cold, even when he sought her bed. This made him do so seldom, and merely in hopes of more offspring.
During his lengthy absences, Ulrica went out of her way to scorn Erelieva and say barbed words about her. The younger woman flushed but bore it quietly. She had won her friends. It was Ulrica the overbearing who grew lonely. Therefore she gave much heed to her sons; they grew closely bound to her.
Withal, they were mettlesome lads, quick to learn everything that beseemed a man, well-liked wherever they fared. They were unlike, Hathawulf the hotter, Solbern the more thoughtful, but fondness linked them. As for their sister Swanhild, all the Teurings—Erelieva and Alawin among them—loved her.
Throughout that time, years passed between visits by the Wanderer, and then they were short. This brought folk still more into awe of him. When his craggy form came striding over the hills, men blew a call on horns, and from Heorot riders galloped forth to greet and escort him. He was even quieter than of yore. It was as if some secret grief weighed upon him, though none dared ask what. This showed most sharply whenever Swanhild passed by in her budding loveliness, or came prideful and atremble if her mother had allowed her to bring the guest his wine, or sat among the other youngsters at his feet while he told tales and uttered wise sayings. Once he sighed to her father, “She is like her great-grandmother.” The hardy warrior shivered a little in his coat. How long had that woman lain dead?
At an earlier guesting the Wanderer showed surprise. Since his last appearance, Erelieva had come to Heorot and had borne her son. Shyly, she brought the babe to show the Elder. He sat unspeaking for many heartbeats before he asked, “What is his name?”
“Alawin, lord,” she answered.
“Alawin!” The Wanderer laid hand over brow. “Alawin?” After another while, almost in a whisper: “But you are Erelieva. Erelieva—Erp—yes, maybe that’s how you’ll be remembered, my dear.” Nobody understood what he meant.
—The years blew by. Throughout, the might of King Ermanaric waxed. Likewise did his greed and cruelty.
When he and Tharasmund were in their fortieth winter, the Wanderer called again. Those who met him were grim of face and curt of speech. Heorot was aswarm with armed men. Tharasmund greeted the guest in a bleak gladness. “Forefather and lord, have you come to our help—you who once drove the Vandals from olden Gothland?”
The Wanderer stood as if graven in stone. “Best you tell me from the beginning what this is about,” he said at last.
“So that we may make it clear in our own heads? But it is. Well… your will be done.” Tharasmund pondered. “Let me send for two more.”
Those proved an odd pair. Liuderis, stout and grizzled, was the chieftain’s trustiest man. He served as steward of Tharasmund’s lands and as captain of fighters when Tharasmund was not there himself. The second was a red-haired youth of fifteen, beardless but strong, with a wrath beyond his years in the green eyes. Tharasmund named him as Randwar, son of Guthric, not a Teuring but a Greutung.
The four withdrew to a loftroom where they could talk unheard. A short winter day was drawing to its close. Lamps gave light to see by and a brazier some warmth, though men sat wrapped in furs and their breath smoked white through gloominess. It was a room richly furnished, with Roman chairs and a table where mother-of-pearl was inlaid. Tapestries hung on walls and carvings were on the shutters across the windows. Servants had brought a flagon of wine and glass goblets from which to drink it. Sounds of the life everywhere around boomed up through an oak floor. Well had the son and the grandson of the Wanderer done for themselves.
Yet Tharasmund scowled, shifted about in his seat, ran fingers through unkempt brown locks and over close-cropped beard, before he could turn to his visitor and rasp: “We ride to the king, five hundred strong. His latest outrage is more than anyone may bear. We will have justice for the slain, or else the red cock shall crow on his roof.”
He meant fire—uprising, war of Goth upon Goth, overthrow and death.
None could tell whether the Wanderer’s face stirred. Shadows did, across the furrows therein, as lamps flickered and murk prowled. “Tell me what he has done,” he said.
Tharasmund nodded stiffly at Randwar. “You tell, lad, as you told us.”
The youth gulped. Fury rose through the bash-fulness he had felt in this presence. Fist smote knee, over and over, while he related roughly:
“Know, lord—though I think you already know—that King Ermanaric had two nephews, Embrica and Fritla. They were sons of a brother of his, Aiulf, who fell in war upon the Angles in the North. Ever did Embrica and Fritla fight well themselves. Here in the South, two years ago, they led a troop eastward against the Alanic allies of the Huns. They bore home a mighty booty, for they had sacked a place where the Huns kept tribute wrung from many a region. Ermanaric heard of it and declared it was his, as king. His nephews said no, for they had carried out that raid on their own. He asked them to come talk the matter over. They did, but first they hid the treasure away. Although he had plighted their safety, Ermanaric had them seized. When they would not tell him where the hoard was, he first had them tortured, then put to death. Thereafter he sent men to scour their lands for it. Those failed; but they ravaged widely about, burned the homes of Aiulf’s sons, cut down their families—to teach obedience, he said. My lord,” Randwar screamed, “was that rightful?”
“It is apt to be the way of kings.” The Wanderer’s tone was like iron given a voice. “What is your part in the business?”
“My… my father was also a son of Aiulf, who died young. My uncle Embrica and his wife raised me. I’d been on a long hunting trip. When I came back, the steading was an ash heap. Folk told me how Ermanaric’s men had had their way with my foster mother before they slit her throat. She… was kin to this house: I sought hither.”
He sank back in his chair, struggled not to sob, tossed off his beaker of wine.
“Aye,” Tharasmund said heavily, “she, Matha-swentha was my cousin. You know that high families often marry across tribal lines. Randwar here is more distant kin to me; nonetheless, we share some of that blood which has been spilt. Also, he knows where the treasure is, sunken beneath the Dnieper. It is well that Weard sent him off just then and so spared him from capture. That gold would buy the king too much might.”
Liuderis shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he muttered. “After everything I’ve heard, I still don’t. Why does Ermanaric behave thus? Has a fiend possessed him? Or is he only mad?”
“I think he is neither,” Tharasmund said. “I think in some measure his counselor Sibicho—not even a Goth, but a Vandal in his service—Sibicho has hissed evil into his ear. But Ermanaric was always ready to listen, oh, yes.” To the Wanderer: “For years has he been raising the scot we must pay, and calling free-born women to his bed whether they will or no, and otherwise riding roughshod over the folk. I think he means to break the will of those chieftains who have withstood him. If we yield to this latest thing, we will be the readier to yield to the next.”
The Wanderer nodded. “Yes, you’re doubtless right. I would say, besides, that Ermanaric envies the power of the Roman Emperor, and wants the same for himself over the Ostrogoths. Moreover, he hears of Frithigern rising to oppose Athanaric among the Visigoths, and means to scotch any such rival in his kingdom.”
“We ride to demand justice,” Tharasmund said. “He must pay double weregild, and at the Great Moot vow upon the Stone of Tiwaz to abide henceforward by olden law and right. Else I will raise the whole country against him.”
“He has many on his side,” the Wanderer warned: “some for troth given him, some for greed or fear, some who feel you must have a strong king to keep your borders, now when the Huns are gathering themselves together like a snake coiling to strike.”
“Yes, but that king need not be Ermanaric!” blazed from Randwar.
Hope kindled in Tharasmund. “Lord,” he said to the Wanderer, “you who smote the Vandals, will you stand by your kindred again?”
Trouble freighted the answer. “I… cannot fight in your battles. Weard will not have it so.”
Tharasmund was mute for a space. At last he asked, “Will you at least come with us? Surely the king will heed you.”
The Wanderer was wordless longer, until there dragged from him: “Yes, I will see what I can do. But I make no promises. Do you hear me? I make no promises.”
And thus he fared off beside the others, at the head of the band.
Ermanaric kept dwellings throughout the realm. He and his guards, wisemen, servants traveled between them. News was that soon after the killings he had boldly moved to within three days’ ride, of Heorot.
Those were three days of scant cheer. Snow lay in a crust over the lands. It creaked beneath hoofs. The sky was low and flat gray, the air still and raw. Houses huddled under thatch. Trees stood bare, save where firs made a gloom. Nobody said much or sang at all, not even around the campfire before crawling into sleeping bags. But when they saw their goal, Tharasmund winded his horn and they arrived at a full gallop. Cobblestones rang, horses neighed as the Teurings drew rein in the royal courtyard. Guards to about the same number stood ranked before the hall, spearheads agleam though pennons adroop. “We will have speech with your master!” Tharasmund roared.
That was a chosen insult, a word used as if yonder men were not free but kept to heel like hounds or Romans. The captain flushed before he snapped, “A few of you may get leave to enter, but the rest must first pull back.”
“Yes, do,” Tharasmund murmured to Liuderis. The elder warrior growled aloud, “Oh, we will, since we make you troopers uneasy—but not far, nor idle for long before we get knowledge that our leaders are safe from treachery.”
“We have come to talk,” said the Wanderer in haste.
He, Tharasmund, and Randwar dismounted. Doorkeepers stood aside for them and they passed through. More guardsmen filled the benches within. Against common usage, they were armed. At the middle of the east wall, flanked by his courtiers, Ermanaric sat waiting.
He was a big man who bore himself unbendingly. Black locks and spade beard ringed a stern, lined face. In splendor was he attired, golden bands heavy over brow and wrists; flamelight shimmered across the metal. His clothes were of foreign dyed stuffs, trimmed with marten and ermine. In his hand was a wine goblet, not glass but cut crystal; and rubies sparkled on his fingers.
Silent he abided until the three wayworn, mud-splashed newcomers reached his high seat. A time longer did he glower at them before he said, “Well, Tharasmund, you go in unusual company.”
“You know who these are,” answered the Teuring chief, “and what our errand must be.”
A scrawny, ash-pale man on the king’s right, Sibicho the Vandal, whispered in his ear. Ermanaric nodded. “Sit down, then,” he said. “We will drink and eat.”
“No,” Tharasmund told him. “We will take no salt or stoup of you before you have made peace with us.”
“You talk over-boldly, you.”
The Wanderer lifted his spear on high. A hush fell, which made the longfires seem to crackle the louder. “If you are wise, king, you will hear this man out,” he said. “Your land lies bleeding. Wash that wound and bind on herbs ere it swells and sickens.”
Ermanaric met his gaze and replied, “I do not brook mockery, old one. I will listen if he keeps watch on his tongue. Tell me in few words what you want, Tharasmund.”
That was like a slap on the cheek. The Teuring must swallow thrice before he could bark out his demands.
“I thought you would want some such,” Ermanaric said. “Know that Embrica and Fritla fell on their own deeds. They withheld from their king what was rightly his. Thieves and foresworn men are outlaw.
However, I am forgiving. I am willing to pay weregild for their families and holdings… after that hoard has been turned over to me.”
“What?” yelled Randwar. “You dare speak thus, you murderer?”
The guardsmen rumbled. Tharasmund laid a warning hand on the boy’s arm. To Ermanaric he said: “We call for double weregild as an acknowledgment of the wrong you did. No less can we take and still keep our honor. But as for the ownership of the treasure, let the Great Moot decide; and whatever it decides, let all of us handsel peace.”
“I do not haggle,” Ermanaric answered in a frosty voice. “Take my offer and begone—or refuse it and begone, lest I make you sorry for your insolence.”
The Wanderer trod forth. Again he raised his spear to bring silence. The hat shadowed his face, making him twice uncanny to behold; the blue cloak fell from his shoulders like wings. “Hear me,” he said. “The gods are righteous. Whoso flouts the law and grinds down the helpless, him will they bring to doom. Ermanaric, hearken before it is too late. Hearken before your kingdom is rent asunder.”
A mumble and rustle went along the hall. Men stirred, made signs, gripped hafts as though for comfort. Eyeballs rolled white amidst smoke and dimness. This was the Wanderer who spoke.
Sibicho tugged the king’s sleeve and muttered something. Ermanaric nodded. He leaned forward, his forefinger stabbed like a knife, and he said so that it rang back from the rafters:
“You have guested houses of mine erenow, old one. Ill does it become you to threaten me. And unwise you are, whatever children and crones and doddering gaffers may babble of you—unwise you are, if you think I fear you. Yes, they tell that you’re Wodan himself. What care I? I trust in no wispy gods, but in the strength that is mine.”
He sprang to his feet. His sword whirred forth and gleamed aloft. “Do you care to meet me in fight, old gangrel?” he cried. “We can go stake out a ground this very hour. Meet me there, man to man, and I’ll cleave that spear of yours in twain and drive you howling hence!”
The Wanderer did not stir; his weapon shuddered a bit. “Weard will not have that,” he well-nigh whispered. “But I warn you most gravely, for the sake of every Goth, make peace with these men you have aggrieved.”
“I will make peace if they will,” Ermanaric said, grinning. “You have heard my offer, Tharasmund. Do you take it?”
The Teuring braced himself, while Randwar snarled like a wolf at bay, the Wanderer stood as if he were only an idol, and Sibicho leered from the bench. “No,” he croaked. “I cannot.”
“Then go, the lot of you, before I have you whipped back to your kennels.”
At that, Randwar drew blade. Tharasmund and Liuderis snatched for theirs; iron flashed everywhere. The Wanderer said aloud: “We will go, but only for the sake of the Goths. Bethink you again, king, while yet you are a king.”
He urged his companions away. Ermanaric began to laugh. His laughter hounded them down the length of the hall.
Laurie and I went walking in Central Park. March gusted boisterous around us. A few patches of snow lingered, otherwise grass had started to green. Shrubs and trees were in bud. Beyond those boughs, the city towers gleamed newly washed by weather, on into a blueness where some clouds held a regatta. The chill was just enough to make blood tingle.
Lost in my private winter, I scarcely noticed. She gripped my hand. “You shouldn’t have, Carl.” I felt how she shared the pain, as far as she was able.
“What else could I do?” I replied out of the dark. “Tharasmund asked me to come along, I told you. How could I refuse, and ever sleep easy again?”
“Do you now?” She dropped that question fast. “Okay, maybe it was all right, allowable, to lend whatever consolation there might be in your presence. But you spoke up. You tried to head off the conflict.”
“Blessed are the peacemakers, they taught me in Sunday school.”
“That clash is inescapable. Isn’t it? In the selfsame tales and poems you went back to study.”
I shrugged. “Tales. Poems. How much fact is in them? Oh, yes, history knows what became of Ermanaric at the end. But did Swanhild, Hatha-wulf, Solbern die as the saga says? If anything of the kind ever happened—if it isn’t just a romantic imaginihg, centuries later, that a chronicler chanced to take seriously—did it necessarily happen to them?” I cleared my stiffened throat. “My job in the Patrol is to help discover what the events really were that it exists to preserve.”
“Dearest, dearest,” she sighed, “you’re hurting so much. It’s twisting your judgment. Think. I’ve thought—oh, but I’ve thought—and of course I haven’t been there myself, but maybe that’s given me a perspective you… you’ve chosen not to have. Everything you’ve reported, throughout this whole affair, everything shows events driving toward a single goal. If you, as a god, could have bluffed the king into reconciliation, you would have, surely. But no, that isn’t the shape of the continuum.”
“It flexes, though! What difference can a few barbarians’ lives make?”
“You’re raving, Carl, and you know it. I… lie awake a lot myself, afraid of what you might blunder into. You’re too close again to what is forbidden. Maybe you’ve already crossed the threshold.”
“The time lines would adjust. They always do.”
“If that were true, we wouldn’t need a Patrol. You must understand the risk you’ve been running.”
I did. I made myself confront it. Nexus points do occur, where it matters how the dice fell. They aren’t oftenest the obvious ones, either.
An example bobbed into my memory, like a drowned corpse rising to the surface. An instructor at the Academy had given it as being suitable for cadets out of my milieu.
Enormous consequences flowed from the Second World War. Foremost was that it left the Soviets in control of half Europe. (Nuclear weapons were indirect; they would have come into being at approximately that time regardless, since the principles were known.) Ultimately, that military-political situation led to happenings which affected the destiny of humankind for hundreds of years afterward—therefore forever, because those centuries had their own nexuses.
And yet Winston Churchill was right when he called the struggle of 1939-1945 “the Unnecessary War.” The weakness of the democracies was important in bringing it on, true. Nonetheless, there would not have been a threat to make them quail, had Nazism not taken control of Germany. And that movement, originally small and scoffed at, later chastised (though far too mildly) by the Weimar authorities—that movement would not, could not have come to power in the country of Bach and Goethe, except through the unique genius of Adolf Hitler. And Hitler’s father had been born as Alois Schicklgruber, illegitimate, result of a chance affair between an Austrian bourgeois and a housemaid of his…
But if you headed off that liaison, which you could easily have done without harming anybody, then you aborted all history that followed. By 1935, say, the world would already be different. Maybe it would become better than the original (in some respects; for a while) or maybe it would become worse. I could imagine, for example, that humans never got into space. Surely they would not have done it anywhere near as soon; it might well have occurred too late to rescue a gutted Earth. I could not imagine that any peaceful Utopia would have resulted.
No matter. If things back in Roman times changed significantly because of me, I’d still be there; but when I returned to this year, my whole civilization would never have existed. Laurie would never have.
“I… don’t agree I was taking risks,” I argued. “My superiors read my reports, honest reports they are. They’ll let me know if I’m going off the track.”
Honest? I wondered. Well, yes, they related what I observed and did, without any lies or concealment, though in spare style. But the Patrol didn’t want emotional breastbeating, did it? And I wasn’t expected to render every last trivial detail, was I? Impossible to do, anyway.
I drew breath. “Look,” I said, “I know my place. I’m simply a literary and linguistic scholar. But wherever I can help—wherever I safely can—I’ve got to. Don’t I?”
“You’re you, Carl.”
We walked on. Presently she exclaimed, “Hey, man, you’re on furlough, vacation, remember? We’re supposed to relax and enjoy life. I’ve been making plans for us. Just listen.”
I saw tears in her eyes, and did my best to return the cheerfulness she laid over them.
Tharasmund led his men back to Heorot. There they disbanded and sought their own homes. The Wanderer bade farewell. “Do not rush into action,” was his counsel. “Bide your time. Who knows what may happen?”
“I think you do,” said Tharasmund.
“I am no god.”
“You have told me that more than once, but naught else. What are you, then?”
“I may not unhood it. But if this house owes me anything for what I have done over the years, I claim the debt now, and lay upon you that you gang slowly and warily.”
Tharasmund nodded. “I would in any case. It will take time and skill to bring enough men into a brotherhood that Ermanaric cannot stand against. After all, most would rather sit on their farms and hope trouble passes them by, whoever else it may strike. Meanwhile, the king will likeliest not risk an open breach before he feels he is ready. I must keep ahead of him, but I know full well that a man can walk farther than he can run.”
The Wanderer took his hand, made as if to speak, but blinked hard, wheeled, strode off. The last sight Tharasmund had of him was his hat, cloak, and spear, away down the winter road.
Randwar settled into Heorot, a living remembrance of wrongs. Yet he was too young and full of life to brood very long. Soon he, Hathawulf, and Solbern were fast friends, together in hunt, sports, games, every kind of merriment. He likewise saw much of their sister Swanhild.
Equinox brought melting ice, bud, blossom, and leaf. During the cold season Tharasmund had gone widely around among the Teurings and beyond, to speak in private with leading men. In spring he stayed home and busied himself with work upon his lands; and every night he and Erelieva had joy of each other.
The day came when he cried cheerily: “We’ve plowed and sown, cleaned and rebuilt, midwifed our kine and sent them to pasture. Let’s be free for a while! Tomorrow we hunt.”
On that dawn he kissed Erelieva in front of all the men who were going with him, before he sprang to the saddle and led them off. Hounds bayed, horses whinnied, hoofs thudded, horns lowed. At the edge of sight, where the road swung around a shaw, he turned about to wave at her.
She saw him again that eventide, but then he was a reddened lich.
The men who bore him indoors, on a litter made of a cloak lashed to two spearshafts, told in dulled voices what had happened. Entering the forest that began several miles hence, they found the trace of a wild boar and set off after it. Long was the chase before they caught up to the beast. It was a mighty one, silvery-bristled, tusks like curved daggerblades. Tharasmund roared his glee. But the heart in this swine was as great as its body. It did not stand while some hunters got down and others goaded it to charge. At once it attacked. Tharasmund’s horse screamed, knocked off its feet, belly gashed open. The chief fell heavily. The boar saw, and was upon him. Tusks ripped, amidst monstrous grunts. Blood spurted.
Though the men did soon kill the brute, they muttered that it might well have been a demon, or bewitched—a sending of Ermanaric’s, or of his cunning counselor Sibicho? However that was, Tharasmund’s wounds were too deep to stanch. He had barely time to reach up and take the hands of his sons.
Women keened in the hall and the lesser houses—save for Ulrica, who kept stony, and Erelieva, who went off to weep alone.
While the first of them washed and laid out the corpse, as was her wifely right, friends of the second hustled her elsewhere. Not much later they got her married off to a yeoman, a widower whose children needed a stepmother and who dwelt well away from Heorot. Although only ten years of age, her son Alawin did the manly thing and stayed. Hathawulf, Solbern, and Swanhild fended the worst of their mother’s spite off him, thereby winning his utter love.
Meanwhile the news of their father’s death had flown widely about. Folk had flocked to the hall, where Ulrica did her man and herself honor. The body was brought forth from an icehouse where it had rested, richly attired. Liuderis led those warriors who laid it down in a grave-chamber of logs, together with sword, spear, shield, helm, ring-byrnie, treasures of gold, silver, amber, glass, and Roman coins. Hathawulf, son of the house, killed the horse and the hounds that would follow Tharasmund down hell-road. A fire roared at the shrine of Wodan as men heaped earth over the tomb until the howe stood high. Thereafter they rode around and around it, clanging blade on shield and howling the wolf-howl.
An arval followed that went for three days. On the last of these, the Wanderer appeared.
Hathawulf yielded the high seat to him. Ulrica brought him wine. In a hush that had fallen through the whole glimmering dimness, he drank to the ghost, to Mother Frija, and to the well-being of the house. Else he said little. Presently he beckoned Ulrica to him and whispered. They two left the hall and sought the women’s bower.
Dusk was closing in, blue-gray in the open windows, murky in the room. Coolness bore smells of leaf and soil, trill of nightingale, but those seemed distant, not quite real, to Ulrica. She stared a while at the half-finished cloth in the loom. “What next does Weard weave?” she asked low.
“A shroud,” said the Wanderer, “unless you send the shuttle on a new path.”
She turned to face him and replied, almost as if in mockery, “I? But I am only a woman. It is my son Hathawulf who steers the Teurings.”
“Your son. He is young, and has seen less of the world than his father had at that age. You, Ulrica, Athanaric’s daughter, Tharasmund’s wife, have both knowledge and strength, as well as the patience that women must learn. You can give Hathawulf wise redes if you choose. And… he is used to listening to you.”
“What if I marry again? His pride will raise a wall between us.”
“Somehow I do not think you will.”
Ulrica gazed out at the gloaming. “It is not my wish, no. I’ve had my fill of that.” She turned back to the shadowy countenance. “You bid me stay here and keep whatever sway I have over him and his brother. Well, what shall I tell them, Wanderer?”
“Speak wisdom. Hard will it be for you to swallow your own pride and not pursue vengeance on Ermanaric. Harder still will it be for Hathawulf. Yet surely you understand, Ulrica, that without Tharasmund to lead, the feud can have only one end. Make your sons see that unless they come to terms with the king, this family is doomed.”
Ulrica was long mute. At last she said, “You are right, and I will try.” Anew her eyes sought his through the deepening dark. “But it will be out of need, not wish. If ever the chance should come for us to work Ermanaric harm, I will be the first to urge that we take it. And never will we bow down to that troll, nor meekly suffer fresh ills at his hands.” Her words struck like a stooping hawk: “You know that. Your blood is in my sons.”
“I have said what I must,” the Wanderer sighed. “Now do what you can.”
They returned to the feast. In the morning he departed.
Ulrica took his counsel to heart, however bitterly. She had no light task, making Hathawulf and Solbern agree. They yelled about honor and their good names. She told them that boldness was not the same as foolishness. Young, untried, without skill in leadership, they simply had no hope of talking enough Goths into rebellion. Liuderis, whom she called in, unwillingly bore her out. Ulrica told her sons that they had no right to bring down destruction upon the house of their father.
Instead let them bargain, she urged. Let them bring the case before the Great Moot, and abide by its decision if the king did too. Those who had been wronged were no very close kin; the heirs could better use the weregild that had been offered than they could use somebody else’s revenge; many a chief and yeoman would be glad that Tharasmund’s sons had held back from splitting the realm, and in years to come would heed them with respect.
“But you recall what Father feared,” Hathawulf said. “If we give way to him, Ermanaric will but press us the harder.”
Ulrica’s lips tightened. “I did not say you should allow that,” she answered. “No, if he tries, then by the Wolf that Tiwaz bound, he’ll know he was in a fight! But my hope is that he’s too shrewd. He’ll hold off.”
“Until he has the might to overwhelm us.”
“Oh, that will take time, and meanwhile, of course, we shall be quietly building our own strength. Remember, you are young. If naught else happens, you will outlive him. But it may well be you need not wait that long. As he grows older-”
Thus day by day, week by week, Ulrica wore her sons down, until they yielded to her wishes.
Randwar raged at them for treacherous cravens. It well-nigh came to blows. Swanhild cast herself between her brothers and him. “You are friends!” she cried. They could not but grumble their way toward a kind of calm.
Later Swanhild soothed Randwar the more. She and he walked together down a lane where blackberries grew, trees soughed and caught sunlight, birds sang. Her hair flowed golden, her eyes were big and heaven-blue in the fine-boned face, she moved like a deer. “Need you always mourn?” she asked. “This day is too lovely for it.”
“But they who, who fostered me,” he stammered, “they lie unavenged.”
“Surely they know you’ll see about that as soon as you can, and are patient. They have till the end of the world, don’t they? You’re going to win a name that will make theirs remembered too; just you wait and see—Look, look! Those butterflies! A sunset come alive!”
Though Randwar never again told Hathawulf and Solbern everything that was in his heart, he grew easy enough with them. After all, they were Swanhild’s brothers.
Men who knew how to speak softly went between Heorot and the king. Ermanaric surprised them by granting more than hitherto. It was as if he felt, once his opponent Tharasmund was gone, he could afford a little mildness. He would not pay double weregild, because that would be to admit wrongdoing. However, he said, if those who knew where the treasure lay hidden would bring it to the next Great Moot, he would let the assembly settle its ownership.
Thus was agreement made. But while the chaffering went on, Hathawulf, guided by Ulrica, had other men going around; and he himself spoke to many householders. This kept on until the gathering after autumnal equinox.
There the king set forth his claim to the hoard. It was usage from of old, he said, that whatever of high value a handfast man might gain while fighting in the service of his lord should go to that lord, who would deal the booty out as gifts to those who deserved it or whose goodwill he needed. Else warfare would become each trooper for himself; the strength of the host would be blunted, since greed counted for more than glory; quarrels over loot would rive the ranks. Embrica and Fritla knew this well, but chose not to heed the law.
Thereupon spokesmen whom Ulrica had picked took the word, to the king’s astonishment. He had not expected such a number of them. In their different ways, they brought the same thought forward. Yes, the Huns and their Alanic vassals were foemen to the Goths. But Ermanaric had not been fighting them that year. The raid was a deed that Embrica and Fritla carried out by and for themselves, as they would have a trading venture. They had fairly won the treasure and it was theirs.
Long and heated went the wrangling, both in council and around the booths set up at the field. Here was more than a question of law; it was a matter of whose will should prevail. Ulrica’s words, in the mouths of her sons and their messengers, had convinced enough men that even though Tharasmund was gone—yes, because Tharasmund was gone—best for them would be if the king was chastened.
Not everybody agreed, or dared admit he agreed. Hence the Goths finally voted to split the hoard in three equal shares, one for Ermanaric, one each for the sons of Embrica and Fritla. The king’s men having slain those, the two-thirds fell to Randwar the fosterling. Overnight he became wealthy.
Ermanaric rode livid and mum from the meeting. It was long before anyone got the courage to speak to him. Sibicho was the first. He drew him aside and they talked for hours. What they said, nobody else heard; but thereafter Ermanaric was in a better mood.
When word of this reached Heorot, Randwar muttered that if yonder weasel was happy, it boded ill for all birds. Yet the rest of the year passed quietly.
A strange thing happened in the following summer, which had also been peaceful. The Wanderer appeared on the road from the west, as ever he did. Liuderis led men forth to welcome and escort him. “How fare Tharasmund and his kin?” the newcomer hailed.
“What?” replied Liuderis, astounded. “Tharasmund is dead, lord. Have you forgotten? You yourself were at the grave-ale.”
The Gray One stood leaning on his spear like a man stunned. Suddenly, to the others, the day felt less warm and sunny than before. “Indeed,” he said at last, well-nigh too low to be heard. “I misspoke me.” He shook his shoulders, looked up at the horsemen, and went on louder, faster: “There has been much on my mind. Forgive me, but I find I cannot guest you this time after all. Give them my greetings. I will see you later.” He swung around and strode back the way he had come.
Men stared, wondered, drew signs against evil. A while afterward, a cowherd came home and told that the Wanderer had met him in a meadow and asked him at length about Tharasmund’s death. Nobody knew what any of this portended, though a Christian serving-woman at the hall said it showed how the old gods were failing and fading.
Nonetheless, the sons of Tharasmund received the Wanderer with deference when he returned in the autumn. They did not venture to ask what had been the trouble earlier. For his part, he was more outgoing than erstwhile, and instead of a day or two, he stayed a pair of weeks. Folk marked how much heed he paid to the younger siblings, Swanhild and Alawin.
Of course, it was with Hathawulf and Solbern that he talked in earnest. He urged that either or both fare west next year, as their father had done in his youth. “It will pay you well to get to know the Roman countries, and to cultivate friendship with your kin among the Visigoths,” he said. “I myself can be along to guide, counsel, and interpret.”
“I fear we cannot,” Hathawulf answered heavily. “Not as yet. The Huns wax ever stronger and bolder. They’ve begun reaving our marches again. Little though we like him, we must agree that King Ermanaric is right when he calls for war, come summer; and Solbern and I would not be laggards therein.”
“No,” said his brother, “and not only for honor’s sake. Thus far the king has stayed his hand, but it’s no secret that he loves us not. If we get the name of cowards or sluggards, and then a threat arises, who will dare or care to stand beside us?”
The Wanderer seemed more grieved by this than might have been awaited. Finally he said, “Well, Alawin will be twelve—too young to go with you, but old enough to go with me. Let him.”
They allowed that, and Alawin went wild for joy. Watching him cartwheel over the ground, the Wanderer shook his head and murmured, “How like Jorith he still looks. But then, his descent on both sides is close to her.” Sharply, to Hathawulf: “How well do you and Solbern and he get along?”
“Why, very well indeed,” said the chieftain, taken aback. “He’s a good lad.”
“There is never a quarrel between you and him?”
“Oh, no more than his brashness brings on every once in a while.” Hathawulf stroked his youthfully silky beard. “Yes, our mother has ill will toward him. She was ever one for nursing grudges. But regardless of what some fools babble, she keeps no bridle on her sons. If her rede seems wise to us, we follow it. If not, then not.”
“Cleave fast to the kindness you have for each other.” The Wanderer seemed to plead, rather than advise or command. “Such is all too rare in this world.”
—True to his word, he came back in spring. Hathawulf had furnished Alawin a proper outfit, horses, followers, gold as well as furs to trade. The Wanderer showed forth the precious gifts he carried, which should help win good understanding abroad. Taking his leave, he hugged both brothers and their sister to him.
They stood long watching the caravan trek off. Alawin seemed so small, and his fluttering hair so bright, against the gray and blue that rode at his side. They did not utter the thought that was in them: how yonder sight recalled that Wodan was the god who led away the souls of the dead.
—Yet after a whole year everyone returned safely. Alawin’s limbs were lengthened, his voice deepened, he himself ablaze with what he had seen and heard and done.
Hathawulf and Solbern bore news less heartening. The war against the Huns had not gone well last summer. Always made terrible mounted fighters by their skill and stirrups, the plainsmen had now learned to move under the taut control of canny leadership. They had not overrun the Goths in any of the pitched battles that took place, but they had inflicted heavy losses, and one could not say they had suffered defeat. Gnawed down by sneak attacks, hungry, bootyless, Ermanaric’s host must at length trudge home over the endless grasslands. He would not try afresh this year; he could not.
It was thus a relief to listen to Alawin, evening after evening when folk were gathered over drink. The fabled realms of Rome awakened dreams. Nonetheless, some of what he told brought a frown to the brows of Hathawulf and Solbern, puzzlement to Randwar and Swanhild, an angry sneer to Ulrica. Why had the Wanderer fared as he did?
He had not taken his band first by sea to Constantinople, as with Tharasmund. Instead, he brought them overland to the Visigoths, where they abode for months. They paid their respects to heathen Athanaric, but were more at the court of Christian Frithigern. True, the latter was not only younger but by now had greater numbers at his beck than did the former, even though Athanaric still harried Christians in the parts over which he ruled.
When at last the Wanderer got leave to enter the Empire and crossed the Danube into Moesia, again he lingered among Christian Goths, Ulfilas’ settlement, and encouraged Alawin to make friends here too. Later the group did visit Constantinople, but not for very long. The Wanderer spent much of that time explaining Roman ways to the youth. They went north again late in the autumn, and wintered at Frithigern’s court. The Visigoth wanted them to take baptism, and Alawin might have done so, after the churches and other majesties he had seen along the Golden Horn. In the end he refused, but politely, explaining that he must not set himself at odds with his brothers. Frithigern took that well enough, saying merely, “Let the day be soon when things are otherwise for you.” Come spring, mire having dried in the roads, the Wanderer brought the youngster and their men home. He did not remain there.
That summer Hathawulf married Anslaug, daughter of the Taifal chief. Ermanaric had tried to forestall this linking.
Shortly after, Randwar sought Hathawulf out and asked if they two could talk alone. They saddled horses and went for a ride through the pastures. It was a windy day, aboom and aripple across miles of tawny grass. Clouds scudded dazzling white through the deeps above; their shadows raced over the world. Cattle grazed ruddy, in far-scattered herds. Game birds burst from underfoot, and high overhead a hawk was at hover. The coolness of the wind was veined with a smell of sun-baked earth and of growth.
“I can guess what you want,” Hathawulf said shrewdly.
Randwar passed a hand through his red mane. “Yes. Swanhild for my wife.”
“Hm. She does seem glad of your nearness.”
“We will have each other!” Randwar cried. He checked himself. “It would be well for you. I am rich; and broad acres lie fallow, awaiting me, in the Greutung land.”
Hathawulf scowled. “That’s rather far hence. Here we can stand together.”
“Plenty of yeomen there will welcome me. You’ll not lose a comrade, you’ll gain an ally.”
Still Hathawulf hung back, until Randwar blurted: “It’ll happen regardless. Our hearts will have it so. Best you go along with Weard.”
“You’ve ever been rash,” said the chieftain, not unkindly though trouble weighted his tones. “Your belief that mere feelings between man and woman are enough to make a sound marriage—it speaks ill of your judgment. Left to yourself, what might you undertake of unwisdom?”
Rand war gasped—Before he had time to grow angry, Hathawulf laid a hand on his shoulder and went on, smiling a bit sadly: “I meant no insult there. I only want to make you think twice. That’s not your wont, I know, but I ask that you try. For Swanhild.”
Randwar showed he could hold his tongue.
When they came back, Swanhild sped into the courtyard. She caught her brother’s knee. Her eagerness tumbled upward: “Oh, Hathawulf, it’s all right, isn’t it? You said yes, I know you did. Never have you made me happier.”
The upshot was that a huge wedding feast swirled and shouted through Heorot that autumn. For Swanhild there was but one shadow upon it, that the Wanderer was elsewhere. She had taken it for given that he would hallow her and her man. Was he not the Watcher over this family?
In the meantime Randwar had sent men east to his holdings. They raised a new home where Embrica’s had been and staffed it well. The young couple journeyed thither in a splendid company, Swanhild carried over the threshold those evergreen boughs that called on Frija’s blessing, Randwar gave a feast for the neighborhood, and there they were.
Soon, however, much though he loved his bride, he was often away for days on end. He rode around the Greutung countryside, getting to know the dwellers. When a man seemed of the right mind, Randwar would take him aside and they would talk about other matters than kine, trade, or even the Huns.
On a dark day before solstice, when a few snowflakes drifted down onto frozen earth, hounds barked outside the hall. Randwar took a spear at the doorway and stepped forth to see what this was. Two burly farmhands came after, likewise armed. But when he spied the tall form that strode into his courtyard, Randwar grounded his weapon and cried, “Hail! Welcome!”
Hearing that no danger threatened, Swanhild hurried out too. Her eyes and hair, beneath a wife’s kerchief, and the white gown that hugged her litheness were the only things bright, anywhere around. Joy lilted from her: “Oh, Wanderer, dear Wanderer, yes, welcome!”
He trod nigh until she could see beneath the shadowing hat. She raised hand to parted lips. “But you are full of woe,” she breathed. “Are you not? What’s wrong?”
“I am sorry,” he answered in words that fell like stones. “Some things must stay secret. I kept away from your wedding because I would not cast gloom over it. Now—Well, Randwar, I have traveled a troublous road. Let me rest before we speak of this. Let us drink something hot and remember earlier times.”
A little of his olden interest kindled that eventide, when a man chanted a lay about the last campaign into Hunland. In return he told new stories, though in less lively wise than of yore, as if he must flog himself to do it. Swanhild sighed happily. “I cannot wait till my children sit and hear you,” she said, albeit she did not yet have any on the way. She was the least bit frightened to see him flinch.
Next day he led Rand war off. They spent hours by themselves. Later the Greutung told his woman:
“He warned me over and over of what hatred Ermanaric bears us. Here we are in the king’s own tribal country, he said, our strength not firm while our wealth is a glittering lure. He wanted us to pull up stakes and move away—far away, clear to West Gothland—soon. Of course I would have none of that. Whatever the Wanderer is, right and honor are mightier. Then he said he knew I’d already been sounding men out about getting together against the king, to withstand his overbearingness and, if need be, fight. The Wanderer said I could not hope to keep this hidden, and it was madness.”
“What did you answer to that?” she asked half fearfully.
“Why, I said free Goths have the right to open their minds to each other. And I said my foster parents never have been avenged. If the gods will not do justice, men must.”
“You should hearken to him. He knows more than we ever will.”
“Well, I’m not about to try anything reckless. I’ll watch for my chance. More may not be needful. Men often die untimely; if good men like Tharasmund, why not evil ones like Ermanaric? No, my darling, never will we skulk off from these our lands, that belong to our unborn sons. Therefore we must make ready to defend them; true?” Randwar drew Swanhild to him. “Come,” he laughed, “let’s begin by doing something about those children.”
The Wanderer could not move him, and after a few more days said farewell. “When will we see you again?” Swanhild asked as they stood in the doorway.
“I think-” he faltered. “I can’t—Oh, girl who is like Jorith!” He embraced her, kissed her, let her go, and hurried off. Shocked, folk heard him weeping.
Yet back among the Teurings he was steely. Much was he there in the months that followed, both at Heorot and widely among yeomen, chapmen, or common fieldhands, workers, sailors.
Even coming from him, that which he urged upon them was naught they were quick to agree to. He wanted them to make closer ties with the West. They did not merely stand to gain from heightened trade. If woe came upon them here—carried, say, by the Huns—then they would have a place to go. Next summer, let them send men and goods to Frithigern, who would safeguard those; and let them keep ships, wagons, gear, food standing by; and let many of them learn about the lands in between and how to get through unharmed.
The Ostrogoths wondered and muttered. They were doubtful about a fast growth of trade across such distances, therefore unwilling to gamble work or wealth. As for leaving their homes, that was unthinkable. Did the Wanderer speak sooth? What was he, anyhow? He was often called a god, and did seem to have been around for a very long time; but he made no claims for himself. He might be a troll, a black wizard, or—said the Christians—a devil sent to lure men astray. Or he might simply be getting foolish at his high age.
The Wanderer kept on. Some who listened found his words worth further thought; and some, young, he kindled. Foremost among the latter was Alawin at Heorot—though Hathawulf grew wistful, while Solbern hung back.
To and fro the Wanderer went on earth, talking, scheming, ordering. By autumnal equinox he had gotten a skeleton of what he wanted. Gold, goods, men to attend these were now at Frithigern’s seat in the West; Alawin would go there the following year to push for more trade, regardless of how young he was; at Heorot and numerous other households, dwellers could depart on short notice, should the need arise.
“You have worn yourself out for us,” Hathawulf said to him at the end of his last stay in the hall. “If you are of the Anses, then they are not tireless.”
“No,” sighed the Wanderer. “They too shall perish in the wreck of the world.”
“But that is far off in time, surely.”
“World after world has gone down in ruin erenow, my son, and will in the years and thousands of years to come. I have done for you what I was able.”
Hathawulf’s wife Anslaug entered, to say her own farewell. At her breast she suckled their first-born. The Wanderer gazed long upon the babe. “There lies tomorrow,” he whispered. Nobody understood what he meant. Soon he was walking off, he and his spear-staff, down a road where lately fallen leaves flew on a chill blast.
And soon after that, the terrible news came to Heorot.
Ermanaric the king had given out that he intended a foray into Hunland. This would not be an outright war, such as had failed before. Hence he did not call up a levy, but only his full troop of guards, several hundred warriors well-known and faithful to him. The Huns had been wasting the borders again. He would punish them. A swift, hard strike should at the least kill off many of their cattle. With luck, it might surprise a camp or three of theirs. Goths nodded when that word reached their steadings. Fatten ravens in the East, and the filthy landloupers of the steppe might slouch back to wherever their forebears had spawned them.
But when his troop had gathered, Ermanaric did not lead it so far. Suddenly, there it was at Randwar’s hall, while the homes of Randwar’s friends stood afire from horizon to horizon.
Scant was the fighting, as great a strength as the king had brought against an unwarned young man. Shoved along, hands tied behind his back, Randwar stumbled forth into his courtyard. Blood trickled and clotted over his scalp. He had killed three of those who set on him, but their orders were to take him alive, and they wielded clubs and spearbutts until he sank.
This was a bleak evening, where wind shrilled. Tatters of smoke mingled with scudding wrack. Sunset smoldered. A few slain defenders sprawled on the cobbles. Swanhild stood dumb in the grip of two warriors, near Ermanaric on his horse. It was as if she did not understand what had happened, as if nothing was real save the child that bulged her belly.
The king’s men brought Randwar before him. He peered downward at the prisoner. “Well,” he greeted, “what have to say for yourself?”
Randwar spoke thickly, though he held his battered head aloft: “That I did not fall by stealth on one who had done me no wrong.”
“Well, now.” Ermanaric’s fingers combed a beard turning white. “Well, now. Is it right to plot against your lord? Is it right to slink about heelbiting?”
“I… did none of that.… I would but ward the honor and freedom… of the Goths—” Rand-war’s dried throat could get no more out.
“Traitor!” screamed Ermanaric, and launched into a long tirade. Randwar stood, hunched, belike not hearing much of it.
When he saw that, Ermanaric stopped. “Enough,” he said. “Hang him by the neck and leave him for the crows, like any thief.”
Swanhild shrieked and struggled. Randwar threw her a blurred look before he turned it on the king and answered, “If you hang me, I go to Wodan my forefather. He… will avenge—”
Ermanaric shot forth a foot and kicked Randwar in the mouth. “Up with him!”
A haylift beam jutted from a barn. Men had already thrown a rope over it. They put the noose about Randwar’s neck, hauled him aloft, and made the rope fast. He struggled long before he swung free in the wind.
“Yes, the Wanderer will have you, Ermanaric!” Swanhild yelled. “I lay the widow’s curse on you, murderer, and I call Wodan against you! Wanderer, lead him down to the coldest cave in hell!”
Greutungs shuddered, drew signs or clutched at talismans. Ermanaric himself showed unease. Sibicho, perched on horseback beside him, yelped: “She calls on her witchy ancestor? Suffer her not to live! Let earth purify itself of that blood she bears!”
“Aye,” Ermanaric said in an uprush of will. He rapped forth his command.
Fear more than aught else gave haste to the men. Those who had held Swanhild cuffed her till she staggered, and booted her out into the middle of the yard. She lay stunned on the stones. Riders crowded around, forcing their horses, which neighed and reared. When they withdrew, nothing was left but red mush and white splinters. Night fell. Ermanaric led his troop into Rand-war’s hall for a victory feast. In the morning they found the treasure and took it back with them. The rope creaked where Randwar swung above that which had been Swanhild.
Such was the news that men bore to Heorot. They had hastily buried the dead. Most dared do no more than that, but a few Greutungs felt vengeful, as did all Teurings.
Rage and grief overwhelmed the brothers of Swanhild. Ulrica was colder, locked into herself. Yet when they wondered what they could do, even though tribesmen of theirs had swarmed to them from widely about… she drew her sons aside, and they talked until the restless darkness fell.
Those three entered the hall. They said they had decided. Best to strike back at once. True, the king would be wary of that, and keep his guard on hand for a while. However, by the accounts of witnesses who had seen it ride past, it was hardly larger than the band which crowded this building tonight. A surprise onslaught by brave men could vanquish it. To wait would give Ermanaric time he needed and was doubtless counting on—time to crush every last East Goth who would be free.
Men bellowed their willingness. Young Alawin joined them. But suddenly the door opened, and there was the Wanderer. Sternly, he bade Tharasmund’s last-born son abide here, before he went back into the night and the wind.
Undaunted, Hathawulf, Solbern, and their men rode forth at dawn.
I had fled home to Laurie. But next day, when I let myself into our place after a long walk, she was not waiting. Instead, Manse Everard rose from my armchair. His pipe had made the air hazed and acrid.
“Huh?” I could only exclaim.
He stalked close. I felt his footfalls. As tall as I and heavier-boned, he seemed to loom. His face was expressionless. The window at his back framed him in sky.
“Laurie’s okay,” he said like a machine. “I asked her to absent herself. This’ll be plenty rough on you without watching her get shocked and hurt.”
He took my elbow. “Sit down, Carl. You’ve been through the wringer, plain to see. Figured you’d take a vacation, did you?”
I slumped into my seat and stared down at the rug. “Got to,” I mumbled. “Oh, I’ll make sure of any loose ends, but first—God, it’s been ghastly—”
“What?” I lifted my gaze. He stood above me, feet apart, fists on hips, overshadowing. “I tell you, I can’t.”
“Can and will,” he growled. “You’ll come back with me to base. Right away. You’ve had a night’s sleep. Well, that’s all you’ll get till this is over. No tranquilizers, either. You’ll have to feel everything to the hilt as it happens. You’ll need full alertness. Besides, there’s nothing like pain for driving a lesson in permanently. Most important, maybe—if you don’t let that pain go through you, the way nature intended, you’ll never really be rid of it. You’ll be a haunted man. The Patrol deserves better. So does Laurie. And even you yourself.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked while the horror rose in a tide around me.
“You’ve got to finish the business you started. The sooner the better, for you above all. What kind of vacation could you have if you knew that duty lay ahead? It’d destroy you. No, do the job at once, get it behind you on your world line; then you can rest and start recovering.”
I shook my head, not in negation but in bewilderment. “Did I go wrong? How? I filed my reports regularly. If I was straying off the reservation again, why didn’t some officer call me in and explain?”
“That’s what I’m doing, Carl.” A ghost of gentleness passed into Everard’s voice. He sat down opposite me and busied his hands with his pipe.
“Causal loops are often very subtle things,” he said. Despite the soft tone, that phrase shocked me to full awareness. He nodded. “Yeah. We’ve got one here. The time traveler becomes a cause of the selfsame events he set out to study or otherwise deal with.”
“But—no, Manse, how?” I protested. “I’ve not forgotten the principles. I never did forget them, in the field or anywhere, anywhen else. Sure, I became part of the past, but a part that fitted into what was already there. We went through this at the inquiry and—and I corrected what mistakes I had been making.”
Everard’s lighter cast a startling snap through the room. “I said they can be very subtle,” he repeated. “I looked deeper into your case mainly because of a hunch, an uneasy feeling that something wasn’t right. It involved a lot more than reading your reports—which, by the way, are satisfactory. They’re simply insufficient. No blame to you for that. Even with a long experience under your belt, you’d probably have missed the implications, as closely involved in the events as you’ve been. Me, I had to steep myself in knowledge of that milieu, and rove it from end to end, over and over, before the situation was clear to me.”
He drew hard on his pipe. “Never mind technical details,” he went on. “Basically, your Wanderer became stronger than you realized. It turns out that poems, stories, traditions which flowed on for centuries, transmuting, cross-breeding, influential on people—a number of those had their sources in him. Not the mythical Wodan, but the physically present person, you yourself.”
I had seen this coming and mustered my defense. “A calculated risk from the outset,” I said. “Not uncommon. If feedback like that occurs, it’s no disaster. What my team is tracing are simply the words, oral and literary. Their original inspirations are beside the point. Nor does it make any difference to subsequent history… whether or not, for a while, a man was there whom certain individuals took for one of their gods… as long as the man didn’t abuse his position.” I hesitated. “True?”
He dashed my wan hope. “Not necessarily. Not in this instance, for sure. An incipient causal loop is always dangerous, you know. It can set up a resonance, and the changes of history that that produces can multiply catastrophically. The single way to make it safe is to close it. When the Worm Ouroboros is biting his own tail, he can’t devour anything else.”
“But… Manse, I left Hathawulf and Solbern bound off to their deaths… Okay, I confess attempting to prevent it, not supposing it was of any importance to mankind as a whole. I failed. Even in something that minor, the continuum was too rigid.”
“How do you know you failed? Your presence through the generations, the veritable Wodan, did more than put genes of yours into the family. It heartened the members, inspired them to become great. Now at the end—the battle against Ermanaric looks like touch and go. Given the conviction that Wodan is on their side, the rebels may very well carry the day.”
“What? Do you mean—-Oh, Manse!”
“They mustn’t,” he said.
Agony surged higher still. “Why not? Who’ll care after a few decades, let alone a millennium and a half?”
“Why, you will, you and your colleagues,” the pitying, implacable voice declared. “You set out to investigate the roots of a specific story about Hamther and Sorli, remember? Not to mention the Eddie poets and saga writers before you, and God knows how many tellers before them, affected in small ways that could add up to a big final sum. Mainly, though, Ermanaric is a historical figure, prominent in his era. The date and manner of his death are a matter of record. What came immediately afterward shook the world.
“No, this is no slight ripple in the time-stream. This is a maelstrom abuilding. We’ve got to damp it out, and the only way to do that is to complete the causal loop, close the ring.”
My lips formed the useless, needless “How?” which throat and tongue could not.
Everard pronounced sentence on me: “I’m sorrier than you imagine, Carl. But the Volsungasaga relates that Hamther and Sorli were almost victorious, when for unknown reasons Odin appeared and betrayed them. And he was you. He could be nobody else but you.”
Night had lately fallen. The moon, while little past the full, was not yet up. Stars threw a dimness over hills and shaws, where shadows laired. Dew had begun to gleam on stones. The air was cold, quiet save for a drumroll of many galloping hoofs. Helmets and spearheads shimmered, rose and sank like waves under a storm.
In the greatest of his halls, King Ermanaric sat at drink with his sons and most of his warriors. The fires flared, hissed, crackled in their trenches.
Lamplight glowed through smoke. Antlers, furs, tapestries, carvings seemed to move along walls and pillars, as the darknesses did. Gold gleamed on arms and around necks, beakers clashed together, voices dinned hoarsely. Thralls scuttled about, attending. Overhead, murk crouched on the rafters and filled the roof peak.
Ermanaric would fain be merry. Sibicho pestered him: “—Lord, we should not dawdle. 1 grant you, a straightforward raid on the Teurings’ chieftain would be dangerous, but we can start work at once to undermine his standing among them.”
“Tomorrow, tomorrow,” said the king impatiently. “Do you never weary of plots and tricks, you? Tonight is for that toothsome slave maiden I bought—”
Horns clamored outside. A man staggered in through the entryroom that this building had. Blood smeared his face. “Foemen—attack—” An uproar drowned his cry.
“At this hour?” Sibicho wailed. “And by surprise? They must have killed horses traveling hither—yes, and cut down everybody along the way who might have outsped them—”
Men boiled off the benches and went for their mail and weapons. Those being stacked in the entryroom, there was a sudden jam of bodies. Oaths lifted, fists flailed. The guards who had stayed equipped sprang to make a bulwark in front of the king and his nearest. He always kept a score of them full-armed.
In the courtyard, royal warriors spent their lives on time for their comrades within to make ready. The newcomers bore against them in overwhelming numbers. Axes thundered, swords clanged, knives and spears bit deep. In that press, slain men did not always fall down at once; wounded who dropped never got up again.
At the head of the onslaught, a big young man shouted, “Wodan with us! Wodan, Wodan! Haa!” His blade flew murderous.
Hastily outfitted defenders took stance at the front door. The big young man was first to shock upon them. Right and left, his followers broke through, smote, stabbed, kicked, shoved, burst the line and stamped in over the pieces of it.
As their van pierced through to the main room, the unarmored troopers beyond stumbled back. The attackers halted, panting, when their leader called, “Wait for the rest of us!” The racket of battle died away inside, though outside it still raged.
Ermanaric sprang onto his high seat and looked across the helmets of his bodyguards. Even in the dancing gloom, he saw who stood at the door. “Hathawulf Tharasmundsson, what new misdeed would you wreak?” he flung through the lodge.
The Teuring lifted his dripping sword on high. “We have come to cleanse the earth of you,” rang from him.
“Beware. The gods hate traitors.”
“Yes,” answered Solbern at his brother’s shoulder, “this night Wodan fetches you, oathbreaker, and ill is that house to which he will take you.”
More invaders poured through; Liuderis pushed them into ragged ranks. “Onward!” Hathawulf bawled.
Ermanaric had been giving his own orders. His men might mostly lack helmet, byrnie, shield, long weapon. But each bore a knife, at least. Nor did the Teurings have much iron to wear. They were mainly yeomen, who could afford little more than a metal cap and a coat of stiffened leather, and who went to battle only when the king raised a levy. Those whom Ermanaric had gathered were warriors by trade; any of them might have a farm or a ship or the like, but he was first and foremost a warrior. He was well drilled in standing side by side with his fellows.
The king’s troopers snatched at trestles and the boards that had lain on top. These they used to ward themselves. Those that had axes, having retreated before the inroad, chopped cudgels for their fellows out of wainscots and pillars. Besides a knife, a stag’s tine off the wall, the narrow end of a drinking horn, a broken Roman goblet, a brand from the firetrenches made a deadly weapon. As tightly wedged as the struggle became—flesh against flesh, friend in the way of friend, pushing, stumbling, slipping in blood and sweat—sword or ax was of scant more help. Spears and bills were useless, save that from their stance on the benches by the high seat, the armored guards could strike downward.
Thus the fight became formless, blind, a fury as of the Wolf unbound.
Yet Hathawulf, Solbern, and their best men beat a path onward, pushed, rammed, hewed, slashed, stabbed, amidst bellow and shriek, thud and clash, onward, living stormwinds—until at last they came to their mark.
There they set shield against shield, loosed steel upon steel, they and the king’s household troopers. Ermanaric was not in that front line, but he boldly stood above on the seat, before the gaze of all, and wielded a spear. Often did he trade a look with Hathawulf or Solbern, and then each grinned his hatred.
It was old Liuderis who broke through the line. His lifeblood spurted from thigh and forearm, but his ax beat right and left, he won as far as the bench and clove the skull of Sibicho. Dying, he rasped, “One snake the less.”
Hathawulf and Solbern passed over his body. A son of Ermanaric threw himself before his father. Solbern cut the boy down. Hathawulf struck beyond. Ermanaric’s spearshaft cracked across. Hathawulf struck again. The king reeled back against the wall. His right arm dangled half severed. Solbern slashed low, at the left leg, and hamstrung him. He crumpled, still snarling. The brothers moved in for the kill. Their followers strove to keep the last of the royal guard off their backs.
A stop to the fighting spread through the hall like the wave when a rock falls in a pool. Men stood agape and agasp. Through the unrestful gloom, made the thicker by their crowding, they barely saw what hovered above the high seat.
On a skeletal horse, whose bones were of metal, sat a tall graybearded man. Hat and cloak hid any real sight of him. In his right hand he bore a spear. Its head, above every other weapon and limned against the night under the roof, caught fire-glow—a comet, a harbinger of woe?
Hathawulf and Solbern let their blades sink. “Forefather,” the elder breathed into the sudden hush. “Have you come to our help?”
The answer rolled forth unhumanly deep, loud, and ruthless: “Brothers, your doom is upon you. Meet it well and your names will live.
“Ermanaric, this is not yet your time. Send your men out the rear and take the Teurings from behind.
“Go, all of you here, to wherever Weard will have you go.”
He was not there.
Hathawulf and Solbern stood stunned.
Crippled, bleeding, Ermanaric could nonetheless shout: “Heed! Stand fast where you’re up against the foe—the rest of you take the hinder door, swing around—heed the word of Wodan!”
His bodyguards were the first to understand. They yelled their glee and fell on their enemies. These lurched back, aghast, into the reborn turmoil. Solbern stayed behind, sprawled under the high seat in a pool of blood.
King’s men streamed through the small postern. They hastened past the building to the front. Most of the Teurings had gotten inside. Greutungs overran those in the yard. Had they no better weapons, they ripped cobblestones out of the earth and cast them. A risen moon gave light enough.
Howling, the warriors next cleared the entry-room. They outfitted themselves and fell on the invaders both fore and aft.
Grim was that battle. Knowing they would die whatever happened, the Teurings fought till they dropped. Hathawulf alone heaped a wall of slain before him. When he fell, few were left to be glad of it.
The king himself would not have been among them, had not folk of his been quick to stanch his wounds. As was, they bore him, barely aware, out of a hall where none but the dead then dwelt.
Morning brought rain. Driven on a hooting wind, hail-cold, hail-hard, it hid everything but the thorp that huddled beneath it, as if the rest of the world had gone down in wreck. The roar on the roof resounded through hollow Heorot.
Darkness within seemed deepened by emptiness. Fires burned, lamps shone well-nigh for naught amidst the shadows. The air was raw.
Three stood near the middle. That of which they spoke would not let them sit. Breath puffed ghost-white out of their lips.
“Slain?” mumbled Alawin numbly. “Every last one of them?”
The Wanderer nodded. “Yes,” he told them again, “though there will be as much sorrow among Greutungs as Teurings. Ermanaric lives, but maimed and lamed, and poorer by two sons.”
Ulrica gave him a whetted look. “If this happened last night,” she said, “you have ridden no earthly horse to bring us the tale.”
“You know who I am,” he answered.
“Do I?” She lifted fingers toward him that were crooked like talons. Her voice grew shrill. “If you are indeed Wodan, he is a wretched god, who could not or would not help my sons in their need.”
“Hold, hold,” Alawin begged her, while he cast an abashed glance at the Wanderer.
The latter said softly: “I mourn with you. But the will of Weard stands not to be altered. As the story of what happened drifts west, belike you will hear that I was there, and even that it was Ermanaric whom I saved. Know that against time the gods themselves are powerless. I did what I was doomed to do. Remember that in meeting the end that was set for them, Hathawulf and Solbern redeemed the honor of their house, and won a name for themselves that shall abide as long as their race does.”
“But Ermanaric remains above ground,” Ulrica snapped. “Alawin, the duty of vengeance has passed to you.”
“No!” said the Wanderer. “His task is more than that. It is to save the blood of the family, the life of the clan. This is why I have come.”
He turned to the youth, who stared wide-eyed. “Alawin,” he went on, “foreknowledge is mine, and a heavy load that is. Yet I may sometimes use it to fend off harm. Listen well, for this is the last time you will ever hear me.”
“Wanderer, no!” Alawin cried. Breath hissed between Ulrica’s teeth.
The Gray One lifted the hand that did not hold his spear. “Winter will soon be upon you,” he said, “but spring and summer follow. The tree of your kindred stands bereft of leaves, but its roots slumber in strength, and it shall be green anew—if an ax does not hew it down.
“Hasten. Hurt though he is, Ermanaric will seek to make an end, once for all, of your troublesome breed. You cannot raise as much force as he can. If you stay here, you will die.
“Think. You have readiness to fare west, and a welcome awaiting you among the Visigoths. It will be the warmer for the rout Athanaric suffered this year from the Huns at the River Dnestr; they all need fresh and hopeful souls. Within a few days, you can be leading the trek. Ermanaric’s men, when they come, will find nothing but the ashes of this hall, which you set afire to keep from him and be a balefire in honor of your brothers.
“You will not be fleeing. No, you will be off to forge a mighty morrow. Alawin, you now keep the blood of your fathers. Ward it well.”
Wrath twisted Ulrica’s face. “Yes, you’ve always dealt in smooth words,” shuddered out of her. “Heed not his slyness, Alawin. Hold fast. Avenge my sons—the sons of Tharasmund.”
The youth swallowed hard. “Would you really… have me go… while the murderer of Swanhild, Randwar, Hathawulf, Solbern—while he lives?” he stammered.
“You must not stay,” said the Wanderer gravely. “If you do, you will give up the last life that was in your father—give it up to the king, along with Hathawulf’s son and wife, and your own mother. There is no dishonor—in withdrawal when outnumbered.”
“Y-yes.… I could hire a Visigothic host—”
“You will have no call to. Hearken. Within three years, you will hear word about Ermanaric that will gladden you. The justice of the gods shall fall upon him. On this I give you my oath.”
“What is that worth?” fleered Ulrica.
Alawin filled his lungs, straightened his shoulders, stood for a while and then said quietly, “Stepmother, be still. I am the man of the house. We will follow the Wanderer’s rede.”
The boy in him burst through for a moment: “Oh, but lord, forebear—will we indeed never see you again? Do not forsake us!”
“I must,” answered the Gray One. “It is needful for you.” Suddenly: “Yes, best I go at once. Farewell. Fare ever well.”
He strode through the shadows, out the door, into the rain and the wind.
Here and there amidst the ages, the Time Patrol keeps places where its members may rest. Among them is Hawaii before the Polynesians arrived. Although that resort exists through thousands of years, Laurie and I counted ourselves lucky to get a cottage for a month. In fact, we suspected Manse Everard had pulled a string or two on our behalf.
He made no mention of that when he visited us late in our stay. He was simply affable, went picnicking and surfing in our company, afterward tucked into Laurie’s dinner with the gusto it deserved. Not till later did he speak of what lay behind us and before us on our world lines.
We sat on a deck which abutted the building.
Dusk gathered cool and blue in the garden, across the flowering forest beyond. Eastward, land dropped steeply to where the sea glimmered quicksilver; westward, the evening star trembled above Mauna Kea. A brook chimed. Here was the peace that heals.
“So you feel ready to return?” Everard inquired.
“Yes,” I said. “And it’ll be a lot easier, too. The groundwork has been laid, the basic information collected and assimilated. I just have to record the songs and stories as they are composed and evolve.”
“Just!” exclaimed Laurie. Her mockery was tender, and became solace as she laid a hand over mine. “Well, at least you are free of your grief.”
Everard’s voice dropped low: “Are you sure of that, Carl?”
I could be calm as I replied, “Yes. Oh, there will always be memories that hurt, but isn’t that the common fate of man? There are more that are good, and I’m able to draw on them once again.”
“You realize, of course, you mustn’t get obsessed the way you were. That’s a hazard which claims many of us—” Did his tone stumble, ever so slightly? It grew brisk. “When it does, the victim has to overcome it and recover.”
“I know,” I said, and chuckled a bit. “Don’t you know I know?”
Everard puffed on his pipe. “Not exactly. Since the rest of your career seems free of any more disarray than is normal for a field agent, I couldn’t justify spending lifespan and Patrol resources on further investigation. This isn’t official business. I’m here as a friend, who’d simply like to find out how you’re doing. Don’t tell me anything you don’t care to.”
“You’re a sweet old bear, you are,” Laurie said to him.
I could not stay entirely comfortable, but a sip of my rum collins soothed. “Well, sure, you’re welcome to the information,” I began. “I did assure myself that Alawin would be all right.” Everard stirred. “How?” he demanded. “Not to worry, Manse. I proceeded cautiously, for the most part indirectly. Different identities on different occasions. The few times he glimpsed me, he recognized nothing.” My fingers passed over a smooth-shaven chin—Roman style, like my close-cropped hair; and when the need arises, a Patrolman has advanced disguise technology at his service. “Oh, yes, I’ve laid the Wanderer to rest.”
“Good!” Everard relaxed back into his chair. “What did become of that lad?”
“Alawin, you mean? Well, he led a fair-sized group, including his mother Erelieva and her household, he led them west to join Frithigern.” (He would lead them, three centuries hence. But we were talking our native English. The Temporal language has appropriate tenses.) “He enjoyed favor there, especially after he was baptized. That by itself was reason for letting the Wanderer fade away, you understand. How could a Christian stay close to a heathen god?”
“Hm. I wonder what he thought about those experiences, later.”
“I get the impression he kept his mouth shut. Naturally, if his descendants—he married well—if his descendants preserved any tradition about it, they’d suppose that some kind of spook had been running around in the old country.”
“The old country? Oh, yes. Alawin never got back to the Ukraine, did he?”
“No, hardly. Would you like me to sketch the history for you?”
“Please. I did study it somewhat, in connection with your case, but not much of the aftermath. Besides, that was quite a spell ago, on my world line.”
And plenty must have happened to you since, I thought. Aloud: “Well, in 374 Frithigern’s people crossed the Danube, by permission, and settled in Thrace. Athanaric’s soon followed, although into Transylvania. Hunnish pressure had gotten too severe.
“The Roman officials abused and exploited the Goths—in other words, were a government—for several years. Finally the Goths decided they’d had a bellyful, and revolted. The Huns had given them the idea and technique of developing cavalry, which they made heavy; at the battle of Adrianople in 378 it rode the Romans down. Alawin distinguished himself there, by the way, which started him toward the prominence he achieved. A new Emperor, Theodosius, made peace with the Goths in 381, and most of their warriors entered the Roman service as foederati: allies, we’d say.
“Afterward came renewed conflicts, battles, migrations—the Volkerwanderung was under way. I’ll sum it up for my Alawin by saying that after a turbulent but basically happy life, he died, at a ripe old age, in the kingdom which by then the Visigoths had carved out for themselves in southern Gaul. Descendants of his took a leading part in founding the Spanish nation. “So you see how I can let that family go from me, and get on with my work.”
Laurie’s hand closed hard around mine.
Twilight was becoming night. Stars blinked forth. A coal in Everard’s pipe made its own red twinkle. He himself was a darkling bulk, like the mountain that lifted above the western horizon.
“Yes,” he mused, “it comes back to me, sort of. But you’ve been speaking about the Visigoths. The Ostrogoths, Alawin’s original countrymen—didn’t they take over in Italy?”
“Eventually,” I said. “First they had dreadful things to undergo.” I paused. What I was about to utter would touch wounds that were not fully scarred over. “The Wanderer spoke truth. There was vengeance for Swanhild.”
Ermanaric sat alone beneath the stars. Wind whimpered. From afar he heard wolves howl.
After the messengers had brought their news, he could soon endure no more of the terror and the gabble that followed. At his command, two warriors had helped him up the stairs to the flat roof of this blockhouse. They set him down on a bench by the parapet and wrapped a fur cloak about his hunched shoulders. “Go!” he barked, and they went, fear upon them.
He had watched sunset smolder away in the west, while thunderheads gathered blue-black in the east. Those clouds now loomed across a fourth of heaven. Lightnings played through their caverns.
Before dawn, the storm would be here. As yet, though, only its forerunner wind had arrived, winter-cold in the middle of summer. Elsewhere the stars still shone in their hordes.
They were small and strange and without pity. Ermanaric’s gaze tried to flee the sight of Wodan’s Wain, where it wheeled around the Eye of Tiwaz that forever watches from the north. But always the sign of the Wanderer drew him back. “I did not heed you, gods,” he mumbled once. “I trusted in my own strength. You are more tricky and cruel than I knew.”
Here he sat, he the mighty, lame of hand and foot, able to do naught but hear how the foe had crossed the river and smashed underhoof the army that sought to stay them. He should be thinking what next to try, giving his orders, rallying his folk. They were not undone, if they got the right leadership. But the king’s head felt hollow.
Hollow, not empty. Dead men filled that hall of bone, the men who fell with Hathawulf and Solbern, the flower of the East Goths. Had they been alive during these past days, together they would have hurled back the Huns, Ermanaric at their forefront. But Ermanaric had died too, in the same slaughter. Nothing was left but a cripple, whose endless pains gnawed holes in his mind.
Naught could he do for his kingdom but let go of it, in hopes that his oldest living son might be worthier, might be victorious. Ermanaric bared teeth at the stars. Too well did he know how that hope lied. Before the Ostrogoths lay defeat, rapine, butchery, subjection. If ever they became free again, it would be long after he had moldered back into the earth.
He—how blessed that would be—or merely his flesh? What waited for him beyond the dark?
He drew his knife. Starlight and lightninglight shimmered on the steel. For a while it trembled in his hand. The wind whittered.
“Have done!” he screamed. He ruffled his beard aside and brought the point under the right corner of his jaw. Eyes lifted anew, as if of themselves, to the Wain. Something white flickered yonder—a scrap of cloud, or Swanhild riding behind the Wanderer? Ermanaric called forth all the courage that remained to him. He thrust the knife inward and hauled it across.
Blood spurted from the slashed throat. He sagged and fell to the deck. The last thing he heard was thunder. It sounded like the hoofs of horses bearing westward the Hunnish midnight.