22 September 2007

The Hejlaggr Women

It may be Saturday night here on planet Earth - but in Zare, on the southeast coast of Erutrei, it's Sîan Barraj, the Dwarven sabbath. The smoke of cookfires hangs low over the town of Bymill, and windows are shuttered against the encroaching chill of autumn. Near the banks of the river, the Iron Caravel, one of the town's more disreputable beer-halls, crouches like a canker, and its benches and tables are full tonight. Atop one of the tables, seated crosslegged on a chaff-filled, burlap cushion, is Ian McLaren, Rhymer of the Iolan College, carefully tuning his vithelle - a magnificent instrument, given him by Ælyndarka Æyllian, Queen of the Elves, after a magisterial performance of the Evincum Rex Venificus, an ancient Elven ballad. He is preparing to lash out his signature piece. It's a mournful tale, about betrayal and murder that took place a little to the north, near the great city of Ellohyin, not so long ago. Ian usually tells it to soft music, in minor keys.
He usually tells it well. He should. After all, he was there.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you...Cantor McLaren.
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The Hejlaggr Women
as told by Ian McLaren, Rhymer of the Iolan College
(From the Tales of the Wyrm, Fifth Rune)

Well was it known throughout the Bjerglands that Ulrich, Count Bellehaine, was at feud with Paltač, Lord of Søby; and bitter was their quarrel, such that at the mere mention of their names, blades leapt from scabbards across the north country. For the wife of Bellehaine was one Marilys vel Tallysin, a woman of the Hejlaggr, one of the great beauties of Jarla; and she was wondrous fair, with hair like honey, and dark eyes, and a voice silk-soft. So captivating was she that Søby coveted her, and had sworn to have her; and therefore were he and Bellehaine at feud.

Each of the lords had many men under arms, and the bitterness of their dispute attracted many more, of reputation both fair and foul, according to their natures. Thus it was that the Knights of the Raven, noble and fell-handed, flocked to the banner of Bellehaine; while the treacherous hillmen of Locharnoch, the dell-wights, called the Landless, harkened unto the sigil and summons of Søby. And the red swords rang in the valleys and along the Drops, and the arrows sang, and the dirks drank deep. Plunder was met with plunder, and fire with fire, and murder with murder; and much ill was done. That was the way of it.

At long last, the feud was brought home to Bellehaine. Ulrich, returning from the hunt, was set upon by the men of Locharnoch; and though he gave good account of himself (for although gray and stiff of limb, he had been in youth a mighty man, and was still a hard man with the axe), the dell-wights were many, and well-armed; and at length, though nigh on a score of the landless lay dead, all of his ghillies had fallen in a butcher’s bight around him; and he stood at bay, bleeding from many wounds. And though he staggered, weak and with the wine of his life puddling at his feet, yet still he called out to his foes, damning them for cowards, and daring them to come them within reach of his hand, that he might settle them.

And at this one did come forward, a man hooded and cloaked; and beneath the hood was the grinning, tooth-rotted visage of his sworn enemy, Paltač, Lord Søby.

“I see thee, mine enemy, through the red mist of midnight,” quoth the Count. “Come thou and see me equal clear, traitor and coward, and let us dance the dance of life together.”

“Dog of Bellehaine,” replied his foe, “I would not stoop to answer thee in kind. Handstrokes are for the half-witted; only fools debate with swords when swords can be hired, and the lowest wretch of a bowman is made by his shaft the equal to a king. Fie on thy challenge; thou shalt die at the hands of the least of my men; and all thy kindliness and courage shall be as dust, and vain.”

“Courage lives on beyond death, and so death holds no horror for me,” retorted Bellehaine.
“Do me but one service, in gratitude for thy ill-won victory: take my body back to my wife, and leave her quits; for in spilling my blood, thou hast ended our quarrel.”

“Thinkst thou so, old man?” said Paltač, laughing. “Our quarrel is quits when thou and all thy kin are blood-drawn and bare-boned, and thy spirits wail despairing against the corundum confinement of the Long Hall. As for thy wife, happily will I grant thee thy dying wish. But in this wise only: thy trunkless head shall look on as I take her for my own; aye, and all my men too, before she joins thee in the pit.”

“Thou mayst kill me, foresworn wretch,” Bellehaine said in turn, “but if thou wouldst take council of a dying man, take mine: save thou thy life, and brave not my lady in her lair. For she is a woman of the Hejlaggr.”

“What care I?” quoth felon Søby. “She is yet a woman, and so shall bend, beg and break like any other. Die and be damned to you.” And at his word, the bows were bent; and the black shafts of Locharnoch sang, and bore Ulrich away. Then did dog Søby fall with his dirk upon his foeman’s corpse, and the foul deed was done. And Søby and the landless men mounted, and rode they hard for the manor of Bellehaine, and the lady who waited there, all unknowing that her lord dwelt no more upon the Earth, but had now his portion with the Master of the Long Halls. That was the way of it.

Thus it was that at nightfall, the landless men of Locharnoch and their craven paymaster came bloody-handed to the House of Bellehaine. Fell Søby stood wrapped deep in his cloak, for the people of the House, especially the Countess, knew his visage well; and he bore in his arms a cask, in which reposed, waxen and reeking, the head of his fallen foe. So rang they the bell, and were answered; for the hospitality of Count Bellehaine was wide-spoken, the wonder of the Bjerglands, and none of his household would betray or fail to uphold it, even after dark. Thus did the Seneschal conduct them who bore his master’s head unto the master’s great hall; and there they were met and welcomed by the Lady Marilys, Countess Bellehaine.

“Fair sirs,” quoth she, ignoring their dark raiment, and hooded visages, and bloody hands. “I welcome you, in the name of my lord husband, to this house. Would that he were here to greet you in his own person; but alas he is at hunt, and I know not when he is like to return.”

“Never under the Light of the Lantern,” said a hollow voice; and it was Søby that spoke from beneath his cowl. But the Countess seemed to hear it not.

“Be seated, gentlemen,” she said, “and I will return with thy supper.” And so they sat; and she departed the hall, to see to the viands.

And when they were alone, foul Søby opened the casket; and he set the head of the Count upon a silver tray that stood at the heart of the great table, before the bench of honour. And because he was a man of mad, cruel humor, he placed an apple in the dead man’s yawning mouth. And so they waited.

In a moment, the Countess returned, and they saw that she looked full upon the fell thing, open-eyed and staring, that adorned her table; but to their astonishment, she said nothing, but only smiled upon them, and sat down with them, and with her own hands gave them to drink. And her maidservants came in after, bearing trenchers laden with smoking joints, and hot bread, and fresh greens; and pitchers of foaming ale and silver cups of fine wine were set before the men of Locharnoch, and their cruel and craven paymaster.

And so they feasted, and laughed, and sang the songs of the hills in rough voices. They ate the lady’s food and drank the lady’s ale, toasting her absent lord with hands that reeked of his blood; and still the lady smiled, and sang with them, and laughed at their crude japes. And her guests whispered that it was not canny; and they wondered, does she not see the thing? But the pale head stood in full view of all, eyes wide and staring; and still she smiled. And so they smiled too, laughing at their base jest, and set upon her hospitality with a will. For there is nothing that so satisfies the landless, the dell-wights, as making free with the goods of others.
That was aye the way of it.

At length, while yet the ale flowed, she beckoned to her handmaiden; and the girl left the hall, and a moment later returned bearing an ancient lute. And this, the Countess took, and addressed it with nimble fingers. Fair music filled the night air, banishing shadow and sorrow; and even the cruel men of Locharnoch stayed their carousing, and fell silent to listen. Time passed, and the stars wheeled. The candles burned low, and the torches guttered, and at last, even canny Søby forgot his caution, and lowered his cowl, the better to hear the lilting glory of her voice. And the Lady Marilys looked upon his face, and she smiled softly upon him; and even his black heart was uplifted.

And while they listened, enraptured by her song, the doors of the great hall opened slow and silent; and through them stepped softly the Knights of the Raven, one man to each of the men of Locharnoch. As ghosts they strode to the table, and the soaring sibilance of song concealed the hiss of drawn daggers; and in a moment, there was a knife at each dell-wight’s dirty neck.
Seeing this, the Lady Marilys ended her song, and placed her lute upon the table. She smiled again upon her guests, and said, “I see that my man has come home at last, and has naught but an apple to eat. This is no fit feast, for peasant or lord, at the end of a long day’s labor. Therefore you men of Bellehaine, give your lord to drink: red wine, and warm.”
And at these words, the Knights of the Raven slew the landless men of Locharnoch; and the red wine flowed, fast and hot, and smoked upon the board.

But no knife laid open the throat of Paltač, Lord of Søby; for his captor held him fast, but harmed him not. The lady walked slowly to him, her own knife in her slender hand, and looked down upon him, held fast in the iron grip of the Raven.

“Fair Søby, rejoice,” quoth she. “I know that it was in thy mind to take the place of mine husband, and long hast thou hungered for my kiss. Behold, thy desire is granted; I give thee my kiss freely, in thanks for bringing my lord home to me.” And so saying, she bent to him, and kissed him full upon the mouth. And as she did so, she put her blade to his throat; and she tasted the wine that flowed forth, and savored its sweetness – yea, even until the cask was empty.

And when it was done, she sat again at table, and commanded her knights to raise their cups in homage to their departed lord. And when they had drunk, her captain knelt at her feet. “O, mistress,” he said, “how didst thou look upon that fell thing, and yet stay silent, and beguile those stark men? For though I am a man of arms, and accustomed to such things, the sight of it was like to set me to weeping.”

The lady smiled upon him, and laid her hand upon his cheek. And as her knights watched, her face changed; and her lips, red-stainèd and full, took a grim set; and her eyes glinted, as if rimmed with frost. And she said, “The day I cannot keep my countenance, and hold men in their place and work my will upon them; that, Captain, is a day you will never see.”

That was the way of it. That is a woman of the Hejlaggr for you.

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If this story sounds familiar, we may have similar tastes in literature. It's my homage to George McDonald Fraser, whom most readers know as the author of the interminable "Flashman" books. I prefer to honour him for his incomparable "McAuslan" trilogy. The last volume, entitled The Sheik and the Dustbin, ends with a fabulous yarn, "The Gordon Women". "The Hejlaggr Women" represents my take on how the tale of the women of Clan Gordon, which launches Fraser's story, would translate to Anuru.
"It is the tale, not he who tells it." - Stephen King