An original historical novel in serial form, A World So Wide is about Ilse, a young woman who becomes entangled in a murderous feud between Princess Kriemhild of Burgonden and the powerful lord who tries to prevent both women from marrying the men they love. The story is based on the great epic tale of medieval Germany, Das Nibelungenlied, or The Song of the Nibelungs.
Back to Chapters 1-10
Chapter 17, Episode 1: The Road to Xanten
Chapter 17, Episode 2: Revelations
Chapter 17, Episode 3: Gossiping Creatures
Chapter 17, Episode 4: A Woman's Blood
Chapter 17, Episode 5: The Silver Mail
Chapter 17, Episode 6: The Charm
did not wake until the late forenoon. Mina was burrowed so deep under her coverlet I knew her only by the darkish blonde curls escaping into a ray of sun. Several maidens sat dressing each others' hair and chatting about the feast, but Janka was not among them. I dressed and came into the antechamber where Kriemhild, amid a cluster of her maidens, plucked dispiritedly upon a lute.
"Where is Janka?" I asked.
Kriemhild gave me a bitter smile. "Gone to a husband."
My mouth dropped open. If any lord had been courting Janka, she would have told me. "What husband?"
She sighed. "Gottfried, the cousin to Hagen of Tronege, who keeps order there while Lord Hagen serves here as seneschal."
"Happy news, is it not?" Anna said. "Worth more than a crimson rose, already faded." She must have been watching when Hans threw it to me. I knew she spoke out of spite, for I had not forgotten how Hans had let his fellows tie her ribbon to his helm.
"But how," I asked, "can Janka be wed so soon, when she was never betrothed. Or was she?"
"She is betrothed now." Sybilla looked as downcast as any of us. "She will be a wife within the week."
Kriemhild bent her head to her lute and plucked a sour note. There could be no festivities here with the marriage treading so close on the heels of the betrothal and the bride already on her way to Tronege. I was sure Hagen had arranged this, whether to punish Janka for spying or to keep her from telling what she saw, it mattered little. I bit my lip to keep from asking more questions. If Hagen knew Janka had told me what she saw, what would he do to me? But it was strange that all had been so hastily and shabbily done.
I sat down beside my lady. "I'm sorry she left in such haste."
"I will send her silks and jewels to show my favor. She will have no cause to think me mean."
But now Kriemhild could not lay the jewels sparkling into Janka's hands or watch as her seamstresses crafted a wonder on Janka's comely form. I wondered what manner of man Sir Gottfried was, whether he were young or old, whether he liked a jest as Janka did, or whether he were as grave in his mood and as sober in dress as Lord Hagen. I wondered, too, how long it would be before Janka let slip to her husband or some other that she had told me what she saw.
But I heard no whisper that Hagen was wroth with me.
he roses in the ladies' garden were heavy with bloom. Queen Uta had arranged for Kriemhild to meet there with Siegfried while we maidens kept her company. Prince and princess sat side by side on a bench. Most of the maidens withdrew to the far side of the garden, within sight but out of hearing, but Kriemhild bade Sybilla and me sit near them, on the bench opposite.
My lady looked into her lap and spoke of such light matters as the fair weather and the blooming roses. But Siegfried fixed his eyes upon her as though she were an opponent who might unhorse him the moment his attention faltered. He praised her beauty, likening her cheeks to the rose petals and her hair to the sun's rays. I could not help but think I had heard such comparisons in a hundred lays of wooing and lovesickness, and wondered that he could think of naught more particular to my lady's beauty, which was hers alone. After he praised her, he spoke of his royal lineage in Xanten and the wealth he held in the land of the Nibelungs. And when the sun faded and Kriemhild rose to go in, he stood to bar her path and reached into the purse at his waist. From it, he drew a rope of matched pearls the shade of pale rose that most pleased her.
"For you," he said. "I wished to give you a thing whose beauty was as perfect as your own, but I have failed. For your beauty is alive, and so surpasses that of the pearls, which are not." He held them out.
For a moment, she seemed unwilling to take them. But then she cupped her hands beneath them, looking down at the pearls rather than up into his eyes. I saw tears sparkling on her lashes and wondered whether Siegfried marked them.
She blinked and raised her face, unsmiling. When she spoke, her voice was steady. "I thank you. Truly, they are more perfect than any living thing, for they will be beauteous still when I and all my maidens are dust." Then she turned swiftly and left the garden.
I glanced through the corners of my eyes to see whether her answer had daunted him. But he only looked thoughtful, and seemed not offended by my lady's haste.
Kriemhild set the pearls away in a chest and did not wear them. But on the next Sabbath as we knelt in the balcony of the minster listening to the voices of the choir soar into the rafters, her eyes never left Siegfried's golden head. I supposed I knew what she felt, for my flame-haired Hans knelt among Siegfried's knights, and I will confess that my thoughts of God grew much confused.
After the worship was over, Queen Uta did not lead us at once into the keep as was her wont. When I, last among the maidens, stepped into the sunshine, the queen stood talking with Giselher in the courtyard while her ladies lingered in the mild air. Kriemhild stood with Siegfried, whose hands clasped hers. She spoke too softly for any but him to hear and kept her eyes modestly downcast. But once when he answered her, I saw a tide of blood rush into her cheeks. And then I saw no more of them, for Hans came to me. My knight with the Sommersprossen smiled as though I were the answer to his prayers, and not he to mine. He bowed and begged leave to ask my name.
"Ilse," I told him, as if that were all that mattered and none cared who my father and grandfathers were.
"Ilse," he repeated, as though he cared not a whit for my lineage. "Are you happy here?"
I smiled foolishly up at him. "O, yea!" I breathed and, like a goose, said no more.
"Your eyes are so blue. A man could drown in them." He closed his fingers about mine.
I had expected his hand, so much larger and stronger than my own, to feel rough and calloused like that of my brother and of the knight who had escorted me to the feast. And surely it was, but it was so much else besides, warm and cradling and confident, that it made him seem a breed apart from other men, and his touch an intimacy that should be kept for husband and wife after a priest's blessing made them one. I could not hear what he said, because I was telling myself I must take my hand from his. But I had not the strength. In the end, he released me himself, and the loss of his touch grieved me as though I had lost a part of my own body.
That night, Kriemhild wept, and I knew not how to console her. "Pray to the Blessed Virgin," I suggested. "They say she understands a maiden's heart, for she was a maiden herself."
"Do you think I have not, a thousand times over? He knows what I feel - can you not see it in his eyes? O, it is cruel of him to speak so sweetly!"
"How would you have him speak to you? Or would you like him better if he did not woo you at all?"
"Yea, much better. Or rather, I would not like him at all, and would be happier so."
But she had suffered over him before ever he came wooing. I did not understand her, for when Hans spoke to me, every word from his lips woke a fresh joy in my heart. If he had given me pearls, I would wear them close to my breast each day.
Toward dawn, she cried out, waking me. She said she had dreamed of the falcon, but would speak no word more. I had never thought to ask, through all the years I had sat listening to the tales of minstrels, why it was the falcon signified a woman's beloved. But now I considered that love had come like wings to bear me aloft. And to Kriemhild, it had come like a grip of talons. Did she fear love would devour her?
During the day, none of us dared speak of Prince Siegfried, but Sybilla told us that Sir Eckewart, the margrave, had begged leave to court her. And Anna said she did not care for red hair on a man. She said it boded ill, and she would be glad to see certain visitors go back to their own country.
I feared Kriemhild would be vexed, but she smiled and said, "The margrave must come to us in the rose garden, for he is a worthy knight. I will speak to my royal brother Gunther and arrange all."
I dared not so soon ask the same favor for Hans. Indeed, a part of me feared to meet with him, for my clumsy discourse would surely turn his eyes and the light of pleasure in them to some other maiden. But a few days after, Astrid, the lowest save me in order of precedence now that Janka was gone, asked whether she might invite another knight of Gunther's to join us in the rose garden. Kriemhild granted it, so I gathered my courage and asked whether Hans, too, might come to us.
"I will consider it," my lady said coolly. I supposed she did not wish to see my hopes dashed.
Abed that night, she whispered that I slighted myself to look so low as Hans. "For he has no titles of nobility."
I was too astonished to answer for some few moments. "But - only to look on him," I faltered, "is ... is to see ..."
"To see what? That his hair is an unfortunate color?"
"His lord relies upon his counsel. Any who watch them can see. He must be near a prince's rank himself, the son of a duke or a count, at the least."
"Nay. Xanten is no wide kingdom as Burgonden is, with duchies and counties of note within its fief. Your Hans is an adventurer like his prince, save that he has won no riches of his own and has only what it may please his prince to give him."
My mind could not altogether grasp this. For so long, I had believed Hans the son of some great lord. But it was neither his wealth nor his rank that I yearned after. "Nor do I have great riches," I told my lady. "My father is only a greater knight among lesser."
"You are comely and accomplished. And well-dowered for a maiden of your rank."
I must have made some noise, for she gripped my arm and said, "Nay, do not contradict me. I know what your father promised for your dowry. It must be all he could scrape aside since first you opened your eyes upon the world. You can look higher than Hans, and so you must. Your parents sent you here to meet men of nobility and wealth. What will they say, if I allow you to be courted by a mere knight?"
Her words gave me pause. But when last I had spoken with my mother, leaning from my horse for a farewell kiss, she had said to me with tears in her eyes, "I have been happy with your father, though it was not for happiness I wedded him. My dearest wish is that you, too, will be happy."
And so I said to Kriemhild, "My father, too, is a mere knight. But he is an honorable and good man, who gave my mother a happier life than the higher one she was born to." It surprised me to hear these words pass through my lips. All the while I had lived in my father's fortress, I had thought my mother's life cramped and hard. I knew, from words she let slip when she thought me not in hearing, that her parents had been disappointed in my father, for they had hoped he would reach a high position in my uncle's court. But when I thought of my mother now, I remembered how she ever wore a smile upon her lips and sang over her needlework and the making of ale, how she could make a song even of the counting of her household goods.
I said, and at that moment believed it, "My parents will see no shame in it, if I am courted by a knight who is honorable and good." And I said further, as though my father's example were not before me, "Please, dear Kriemhild. So fine and valiant he is, he must rise in his prince's service. If he is no high lord now, he yet will be."
She sighed. "Do you love him so much?"
"Truly, I do." Tears sprang in my eyes. "If I cannot wed him, I want no husband at all!"
"I will speak to my mother."
My heart leapt in gladness. And then sank. What would Queen Uta say? She had not my lady's quick passions, but calculated all according to the good or ill it might tally to her or Burgonden.
But some few days after, when we went to the rose garden, Kriemhild wore a sly smile upon her face and would not tell me why. I guessed it, though, and could scarce sit in one place or attend to the other maidens' discourse, until at last Prince Siegfried passed through the gate and I saw, over his shoulder, a head I knew. So tall he stood that a spray of crimson roses dangling off the top of the gateway tousled his flame-colored hair, and he put a hand up to smooth it. I grew hot and cold at once. My limbs felt weak as a newborn babe's.
Hans went first to Kriemhild, waiting until his prince had spoken and then bending over her hand in so courtly a manner that I burned with jealousy and almost found voice to cry his name and turn his attention from her to me. But he was wiser than I. Kriemhild was our benefactress. In another moment, she took him by the hand and led him to me, saying, "Here is lovely Ilse, the dearest and kindest of my maidens. Whosoever gains her love will be a fortunate man. And she is well born." She named my late grandfather and my uncle, and she named the little kingdom the one had passed to the other - all those names I should have given when Hans asked my name in the minster courtyard.
He seemed to look upon me now with a sudden awe. "Had I known you were a princess, royal lady, I would never have dared speak to you. I am but a knight, sworn to serve my prince so long as he has need of my strength."
I took his hand, all my shyness forgotten in my urgency to mend his mistake. "I am no princess! My father too is but a knight."
"With men who serve under him," Kriemhild added.
"And a daughter who holds him in the highest honor," I rushed to say, "just as ..." I stopped myself. I had almost spoken as a wanton.
"Just as he honors his daughter," Kriemhild said smoothly, "and will avenge any harm done her. He has given her into my keeping, and I take my charge most earnestly. But Prince Siegfried vouches for you as a worthy knight."
Hans looked into my eyes, and I looked back. His eyes were a deep, warm brown. I found myself caught within them as though in pools of burnt honey, the sweetest of quicksand.
"If I mean any harm to this lady," he said, "may God strike me dead where I stand, for I would deserve no better."
Kriemhild turned away satisfied, but a kind of panic rose in me. After such solemn words, how could I chatter about the warmth of the sun and the fragrance of the roses? But Hans saved me.
He led me to a bench and asked whether I had known a garden like this in my father's castle.
"It was not so fine as this." But I remembered the goatleaf vines that had clambered up the garden walls, with their pale blossoms I used to pluck and sip the nectar from. The path through it had been edged with chamomile where I had been wont to kneel so I might brush my hand into the ferny leaves and catch their scent upon my fingers. I loved Hans for making me remember a part of my father's fortress that had not been mean.
"There were not so many roses there," I told him, "as in this garden, but my mother planted one from a cutting her sister the abbess sent her. A white rose. On still days, a single open blossom might perfume the whole garden. Of course, that garden was not so large as this."
"What manner of lady is your mother?"
I looked down. My hands lay idle in my lap. They were not pretty. My fingers were short and the nails square rather than gracefully oval like Kriemhild's. My mother had forbidden me much work that she took upon herself, for she said she would not have my hands spoiled as hers were. "She has a noble heart," I said. "And she is kind." I bit my lip.
"And a single blossom of hers can perfume a whole garden." His voice was low and yet solemn, as though he meant his words to carry weight.
I looked at him, not understanding.
"Forgive me," he said. "I ... I spoke clumsily. I am no minstrel. Tell me more of the garden in your father's castle."
I should have corrected him for calling it a castle. Instead, I spoke of the goatleaf and the chamomile, and of the goldfinches who used to perch atop the wall and sing while I sat listening. I felt his attention on every word I spoke, as though naught else in life had so enchanted him. I fell to talking of my journey to Burgonden and what I had seen along the way, peeping from the curtains of my litter: forests and vineyards and the great expanse of the Rhine. Such sights were commonplace to knights, who rode oft abroad, but he listened as though they were wonders he had never known.
As Hans and I spoke, the time passed swiftly, so it astonished me when Kriemhild called us maidens to come in. The sun had crossed behind the walls, so we sat in shadow in the cooling air.
"Will you come again?" I asked.
"I will come so oft as you and your lady permit, fair Ilse."
Kriemhild gave me a stern look, and I flushed. I should not have asked him to come again, but rather waited until he begged me to allow it.
Prince Siegfried, standing at Kriemhild's side, smiled and leaned to her. "Would that you spoke to me as your pretty companion speaks to my knight. What must I do to win your heart as Hans has won this noble maiden's?"
She turned her face from his and did not answer. I was not so strong as she, and could not be so cold to Hans. But I knew Siegfried had captured her heart already. I understood the loss she felt. Before this day, I had been imperfect, but whole. Now, I knew that when Hans walked out of the garden, he would carry my heart away with him, and I would not have it back until he came again to my side. How would I live if he never came back?
ne sultry afternoon, we maidens gathered in our chamber instead of going to the garden, for the sky had filled with heavy clouds that promised a storm. Sybilla and Astrid and I, along with many of the others, were out of temper, for men could not come wooing into the maiden's wing of the castle. I had no hope of seeing Hans before vespers that evening, and might not see him there. Saving upon the Sabbath, he did not go oft to worship.
When a man's voice called my lady's name, I startled and looked up to see the young king Giselher. His voice had deepened over the past months until he sounded as manly as his brothers, though his beard had yet to grow. He stood glowering in the door, newly aware he was out of place among the maidens, but burning with some need of his sister's counsel.
"What is it, my noble brother?" Kriemhild asked.
I rose from my seat by her side, giving place. He did not sit, though, but stood before his sister in plain discomfort, his fingers twined behind his back, his right heel bouncing on the herb-strewn floor. "Did Gunther tell you?"
She set aside the glove she had been embroidering and folded her hands in her lap.
"There's to be an expedition to Eisland."
I could not then believe so wild a tale and thought Giselher must have misheard. For though the minstrel had said Brunnhild of Eisland was real, his tale had been filled with wonders.
But Giselher believed. "Gunther says I may not go! He says I am too young and it will be perilous, but it's not true. Not for me, at the least, and -"
Kriemhild raised a hand, hushing him. "When?"
"So soon as he can fit out a ship. He says he must go in high summer when the isle is not girt in ice. I want to see it, Kriemhild! Someone must act as squire to him. To feed and water his horse and to saddle it when he has need. To tend his armor and weapons. Please, noble sister, speak to him for me! My lady mother will not."
"He cannot mean to challenge Brunnhild."
"O yea, and win her, too. Prince Siegfried has promised to help."
Her brows drew together, her mood darkening as visibly as the thunderclouds outside our windows. I will not have another woman's leavings, she had said. And though it was Gunther, not Siegfried, who had set his heart upon winning Queen Brunnhild, how would it be for my lady if such a creature appeared in Burgonden? I began to believe, if not that the isle was real, that its lady might in some form be so. I knotted my fingers together. Hans was Siegfried's man. Would he go, too? If the real Brunnhild was as ruthless as the lady in the tale, would he return alive?
Shadows came and went upon Kriemhild's face as she struggled for composure. "Listen to me, my royal brother. This expedition is ..." She caught herself, raising a hand to her mouth, then moved it to her throat. "It is more perilous than you imagine."
What had she stopped herself from saying? I could not know, but I knew what I might have said, if I dared. To seize and marry such a woman against her will - what could it bring but ill luck?
Disquiet replaced the urgency on Giselher's face. "Our lady mother says naught against it."
Kriemhild was silent for a moment. I had never heard her criticize one brother king to another, or even to us maidens. I thought she must be searching for the words to caution Giselher without speaking against Gunther's judgment. But when she spoke, though her voice sounded tight as a stretched lyre string, she spoke not of caution. "Who is meant to go?"
"Siegfried and Hagen. And Sir Dancwart, for his skill in handling a ship."
How quickly, I thought, Hagen had made himself part of this expedition. Dancwart was by no means the only knight in Burgonden who could sail a ship, but as Hagen's much younger half-brother, he might be counted upon to do Hagen's bidding and keep his secrets. What might befall Siegfried upon this expedition, or any man loyal to him? I drew a breath, thinking of Hans. At the sound I made, Giselher looked at me, his brows lifting. I was in a passion to know which knights each lord would bring to attend him, but I could not so boldly question a king, however young, however kind he had been to me.
Kriemhild was not so timid. "No other?"
"Only the four, so my lord brother says, but ..." He frowned.
I sighed again, light-hearted with relief to hear Hans would not go.
Giselher's frown deepened to a scowl. "They will need squires. Why can I not serve Gunther in the place of his squire? And who will tend the sails while Dancwart steers the ship?"
Kriemhild laughed. "Not you, lordling. What do you know of shipcraft?"
"As much as Gunther." He kicked at the leg of her bench.
I thought she would chide him, but she seemed scarcely to notice. She looked past him, past me, toward the still and lowering sky outside our windows. "Prince Siegfried is said to have sailed alone into the land of the Nibelungs."
It seemed King Gunther wanted secrecy more than squires, or Hagen did, and it pleased Prince Siegfried to oblige him. I understood little, save that Hagen was a subtle and dangerous man and that he bore no love for Siegfried. I moved past Gunther and leaned to Kriemhild's ear. I wanted to warn her. I knew not what to say, but began by whispering, "My lady ..."
She turned and looked at me, her eyes searching mine as though my counsel might be as sound as her lady mother's.
Alas, I knew not what to say. I hazarded only the words, "This seems a strange manner of journey," and closed my mouth, certain my lady had never had so clumsy a counselor.
"Indeed. And yet ..." She turned to Giselher. "If Hagen goes with them, all will be well. Hagen has traveled much in the world, from the time he was held captive among the wild Hungarians, unto this. He has some plan that will bring success. If it means they must travel without squires, you must be patient and not complain. Your time will come, dear brother. You will make your own adventures one day, and lead your own expeditions. Will that not be finer than playing squire to your brother?"
He sighed, but spoke no more of joining Gunther's expedition. Kriemhild, too, seemed comforted by her trust in Lord Hagen. That was well, I told myself, for if Uta could do naught to turn her son from this expedition, there was little that either Kriemhild or I might do.
After Giselher left us, the rainstorm finally broke. Servants rushed to set shutters in the windows, pull the tapestries close, and light tapers. But when all was made fast and the servants had withdrawn, Kriemhild slipped behind the tapestries. I heard the thump of a shutter dropping to the floor and, a moment later, a roll of thunder so near, it seemed to arise almost within the chamber. I had not feared thunder since I was small, but something in this storm distressed me.
I pushed past the weight of the woolen tapestries into the washed air that blustered through the window. Kriemhild stood motionless, staring into the storm. Except for her blowing hair, she might have been a carven image.
"Shall I leave you?" I asked.
She shook her head. "Stay, dear Ilse, if you will. They will come safely home. Hagen would not be part of it, if he thought it could not succeed."
"My lady, are you sure Lord Hagen wishes Prince Siegfried well?" I thought, at last, of a thing I might say without betraying secrets I had promised to keep. "Do you remember the tale he told on the day the prince first rode into Burgonden Castle? Of how the prince won the Nibelung gold?"
I dared not say to her that it showed Siegfried in a dishonorable light. However against her will, she loved him as desperately as I loved Hans. And if I loved the fiery color of my beloved's hair in spite of the proverb that warned me against it, just so would Kriemhild love all that I or any might tell her of Siegfried, in whatever light it placed him. But Hagen was not her heart's love.
"Do you think," I asked, "that Hagen told the tale truly or fairly? It seemed he meant to turn your heart away from the prince."
Kriemhild brushed the rain from her face. "Lord Hagen would tell no falsehoods to my mother or to me." She pressed the end of her sleeve to each of her eyes in turn, then looked at me, more tears already gathering against her lashes. "Why would Siegfried go to Eisland now? Gunther must have promised him a boon. I fear ... O Ilse!" She embraced me. Her cheek was cold against my face. "How Giselher torments me! In a few little years, he will be a man. He will ride where he wishes and take arms against whomsoever may threaten him. He will wed whomsoever he wishes, or not at all, if that is his will. A few little years, and he will be free. But I am a woman. I will never be free."
I felt her despair like the cold of winter blowing into my heart from hers. "You must not think such things. Siegfried loves you. Will you not take joy in that?"
"I cannot. I fear ..." She turned from me and leaned out the window, raising her face to the pelting rain, closing her eyes against it. "Do you remember the dream I told you of? How could I live if he were taken from me, as the falcon was in my dream?"
I laid my hand upon her shoulder. Her gown was damp and smelled wooly. "I had a kitten once that I made a pet of. Its fur was softer than sable. It seemed to know when I was sad, and it would come to sit in my lap and purr. One day, while it slept in the courtyard, a hawk took it. I cried for days. But I was not sorry I had made it my pet. It had oft comforted me when I might have gone comfortless. Would you live without love, only because it might be taken from you?"
She laughed. "I do not live without love. It is a fire within my breast. If only I might quench it and live peacefully." She straightened and turned from the window. "Do not betray my secrets. I tell them only to you."
"You know I will not. But why should it be a secret, if you love Siegfried? It is no shame to a woman if she loves. It is our fate."
She shook her head and whispered, more to herself than to me, "Fate can be cruel." Then, without calling a servant, she lifted the shutter back into the window herself and latched it.
The preparations for the expedition sped at a confounding pace. Within two weeks' time a neat, small ship stood at anchor waiting for the adventurers to board her and sail north with the Rhine's flow and into the sea toward Eisland, toward a future we could only guess at. Queen Uta had grown lax with us, and so we rode, maidens along with ladies, knights, squires and pages, down to the harbor to wave the four away and wish them success and a safe journey. The sun struck warm and bright against my face. Hans rode at my side, and my happiness would have overcome me altogether if I could have forgotten Kriemhild, riding ahead with her brothers. In the night, she had wept silently, ceaselessly, her tears wetting my shoulder.
But I was not myself that morn. The sun's keen rays and the strangeness of King Gunther's journey seemed to have transported me out of my true life and into a minstrel's tale. I dared ask Hans, "Has your prince been to Eisland before now?" When he turned to me, I asked further, "Has he seen Queen Brunnhild indeed?"
Hans grinned. "Has he been in her bedchamber, do you mean to ask?"
My cheeks heated. I swatted at his arm. Even in mock anger, it was a pleasure to touch him. I swatted him again.
He laughed. "If Prince Siegfried was in Eisland, it was before I entered his service. They say he was." His eyes flashed with mischief. "Would you have let him in your bedchamber, if you were Queen Brunnhild?"
The heat spread beyond my cheeks to my forehead and ears. Indeed, love was a fiery thing. I was always kindling and flaring when I was with Hans, but I was glad he rode by my side. "I am not Queen Brunnhild," I retorted. "There is but one man I would allow into my bedchamber, and ..." I recollected myself, astonished - indeed, even affrighted - to have spoken so freely. But since I had begun the speech, I must finish it. "And he is not Siegfried."
I had known, after I spoke, that Hans would ask. "That is my secret." I lifted my chin and looked at him as coolly as the blood in my cheeks allowed.
We reached the harbor and joined the crowd that had gathered to send the adventurers on their way. I could see but the tops of the masts and, fluttering along the rigging, the scarlet, blue and gold pennants. "Up anchor!" Gunther cried, and the tops of the masts shuddered and dipped. "Loose the moorings!" The masts rocked wildly, then began to drift. "Hoist the mainsail," came the next order, and the sail rose, white as a lady's new-laundered shift. The warm south wind bellied it out, and the crowd cheered. As the ship moved away from shore, its deck slid into view. King Gunther stood at the rails, waving, his arm stretched above his head. In that moment, he seemed as lithe and young as Giselher, and the ship small as a toy. I set my hand across my mouth so I could not open it or speak, in case some demon tempted me to say what I thought.
"Have no fear," Hans said. The teasing light had gone from his eyes. "My prince would not go with King Gunther, did he not believe he would win a bride for the king. They will return."
But I felt a great foreboding. I reined my mare close to Hans's gelding so that our legs were touching, knee to knee. I laid my hand flat on the part of his arm where his muscles were thickest, drawing strength from his strength. We had never been alone together, Hans and I. But in the crowd around us, all eyes were on the royal ship, and all voices cheered it on its way. For me, it was as though we two stood within the Tarnkappe of the tale, invisible to any but each other.
"What," I asked softly, "will happen if King Gunther dies?"
"King Gernot is the next eldest. He seems a man of sound judgment."
Did Hans, too, believe King Gunther's judgment less than sound?
"They will return." He stressed each word, as though disputing with one who doubted him. "King Gunther will marry and be happy. And my prince, too." He glanced toward me, flashing a smile, though he did not meet my eyes. "There will be many marriages in Burgonden. All who now hesitate, lest they reach for happiness in advance of their lords, will hesitate no more."
So Siegfried would wed, if Gunther did. What else could that mean, but that Gunther had promised his sister to Siegfried? My lady Kriemhild would fly into a fury when she learned this. But Hans had said more. Butterflies danced under my heart. His assurance that all would be happy made me, for that little moment, as bold as my lady. "Will you marry, too?"
He looked into my eyes now, his smile winning and steady. "I think my prince will allow it. Would you have me, if your lady and your father gave consent?"
"Yea," I answered. "O, yea!"
In all my life, so great a happiness had never come to me. It filled my heart with a turbulence near to pain. My mare, sensing it, danced under me. When I pulled on the reins to quiet her, she reared, almost tumbling me from her back. Hans grabbed for her bridle and forced her down. What a marvel he was! From this day forth, he would be my knight and protector in all things. I told myself I must learn to be easy and fear naught, for with Hans by my side, I would have naught to fear.
I had not dreamed Kriemhild's dream.
ittle more than two weeks can have passed when we maidens looked out from the castle to see coming toward us up the river the sails of a pair of ships, which then furled and disappeared. Kriemhild stretched farther out her window. "They are docking."
The masts spiked through the mists at the river's edge. A short time after, Burgonden's harbor messenger cantered through the gates, his scarlet-bordered banner flying above him. He would not ride at a fast canter to bring word of merchant ships and the toll they paid. Could this be King Gunther returning? But what of the second ship? Had he won Queen Brunnhild? Not daring yet to believe this, I looked to Kriemhild, but the play of moods upon her face told me only that she was as torn between doubt and wonder as I.
I burned for news. A part of me hoped Kriemhild would bid me rush with her to her mother's chamber. After the messenger had told his news to King Gernot, he would certainly appear there to tell the queen all he knew. But another, larger, part of me could not bear to leave the window. Here I would see the returning travelers with my own eyes. For though Queen Uta's chamber had a window, my lady would never make a show of her passion by leaning from it under her mother's eyes, as she did here. And I could not go to the window if my lady did not.
Whether King Gunther lived or no, Burgonden would yet have kings to rule it. But if Siegfried died, how would my lady live? She clutched the sill with whitening fingers. Only to me had she confessed her love. Before others, she held steadfast to her declaration that she would marry neither Siegfried nor any man.
I asked, "Do you think he has won her?"
"I am no prophet. Stay and watch." She pushed herself away from the window and stalked out the door, turning in the direction of her mother's chambers. The other maidens left the windows to watch her go, their faces solemn and fearful.
I stayed by the window, straining my eyes for a scrap of color or sign of movement near the anchored ships. I did not wait long. A flash of red showed, the scarlet edges of the Burgonden banner. Then I saw patches of darkness moving alongside the ship - horsemen, though they rode too close together for me to count. I began to think this could not be the king returning, for I saw carts, as of merchants bringing wares. But soon, as they fared higher above the river, snaking upward, turn upon turn, I saw more clearly a train of wagons and helmed riders. And when they neared the castle, I saw that some of the wagons held women crowded shoulder to shoulder, at least a score of them, wearing gowns tinted all the colors of the rainbow. Were these Brunnhild's maidens?
I prayed they might be. While Siegfried was away, Queen Uta had grown stern again, giving none of us leave to meet wooers in the ladies' garden, so I had not seen Hans these two weeks. I looked for a closed litter that might hold the queen, but the nearer wagons hid the farther turnings of the road.
At the head of the train, I now recognized Gunther's gold-crowned helm and the nodding head of his chestnut stallion. His visor covered his face, but his head lifted toward us maidens at our windows. He raised his arm in salute. Beside and a bit behind him, Hagen came riding. He held the reins short and lashed at the stallion's flanks so that it balked and danced skittishly from side to side. I set my hands upon the sill and leaned slightly forward, hoping to see Siegfried's red-gold helm under the third rider's banner. Instead, I recognized the plumes of Dancwart's helm. The wagons came after. Where was Siegfried?
The king and his knights came behind the rise of the wall, where I could not see them. The train lumbered nearer, and I saw several closed carts. One such might have been the queen's litter. As the heralds above the gates sounded their trumpets, the last of the wagons slipped from view behind the wall. And behind them I saw two more riders, whom I had not noticed before. They reined their horses aside as the gates opened for the others and sat in talk. Neither wore a helm, but I knew the one who kept gesturing toward the castle. His pale blond hair and the ruby glints in his horse's harness showed him to be Prince Siegfried, at last. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Who, I wondered, was the knight whose hand darted toward Siegfried in wrathful argument, and why had he come? He wore a sky-blue surcoat over a mail shirt. Covering his legs was a long, divided robe that reached to his ankles. I had never seen a man with such long, thick hair - black hair divided into plaits that draped over his shoulders, sword-belt and thighs to dangle beside his feet. He said somewhat that made Siegfried shrug and look away. A moment later, he reached to grasp Siegfried's arm. I leaned farther out the window, squinting to see better. Siegfried drew himself up. The knight dropped his arm, striking instead with a closed fist upon his own breast. A hiss of half-stifled chatter ran through the chamber. And then I felt quite foolish, for under the front of the surcoat's drape, just below that angry fist, I saw the swell of a woman's breasts. This could only be Queen Brunnhild.
Had King Gunther jousted with her? I could not make myself believe this, however knightly the lady appeared.
Sybilla came to my side and murmured, "Our lady must not be the last to learn Siegfried is alive. And you are the only one she will suffer to name him. Go and tell her."
I nodded, but did not move. How might I tell my lady that Siegfried rode with Queen Brunnhild? And rode with her in the wake of the wagons? Shared a private talk that had sent the queen into a passion? But how could I tell aught without telling these things? My lady would press for every detail.
Below, squires rushed out of the castle to hold their lords' bridles while King Gunther and Lord Hagen dismounted. Dancwart rode into the courtyard, and the first of the wagons appeared. The ladies' shrill accents carried to my window.
"Why do you wait?" Sybilla whispered. "Go."
"Presently," I whispered back. For the two knights, male and female, had ended their talk and were even now riding toward the open gates. In another moment, they must ride through. Siegfried would deliver the queen to King Gunther. Only a moment must I linger, and then I might describe the queen's manner to Gunther and his to her. Then I need not tell how Siegfried and Brunnhild had hung back from the others. Rather, I might say how he had helped her from her mount and passed her hand to Gunther's, or how he had stood aside while she went on her own to Gunther, or howsoever the matter passed. And though Kriemhild would know Siegfried had ridden at the back with Brunnhild, it would seem a matter of no importance.
Below, the wagons passed through the gate. Dancwart shouted that the baggage must be driven to the back of the keep. At last, Brunnhild rode through, black braids dangling, the edges of her blue surcoat catching the sun and sparkling with jewels and silver. Siegfried followed, but already Brunnhild was swinging down from her mount. She strode toward Gunther. Her steps were long as a man's, but she did not move like a man. She might have been a third sex: broad shouldered, high breasted, flat in the belly, her hips swaying while she moved with strong purpose toward the man she would wed.
She said somewhat to Gunther that I could not hear, though they stood below my window. Gunther nodded and said somewhat in reply.
"Nay," she said loudly. "Do it now."
How had Gunther won her? Not, it seemed, by the usual arts of wooing. He called a page, who ran to them and bowed.
"Go, Ilse," Sybilla whispered.
I hurried from the chamber and ran to Queen Uta's door. I rapped harder and faster on the carved wood panels than I had meant to. I was still panting when her page boy opened to me.
Queen Uta and Princess Kriemhild looked up from their needlework. Kriemhild was pale. The lines between Queen Uta's brows were deeper than I had seen them, her fingers talonlike as they gripped her needle.
"All are safely home," I said. "King Gunther, Hagen, Dancwart, Siegfried."
At my first words, the queen's face smoothed. At the last, Kriemhild sighed, then looked away. Uta crossed herself. "God be praised."
I spoke quickly, trying to let no feeling show in my voice, whether of gladness, surprise or any other. "It seems they have won Queen Brunnhild."
Kriemhild sat still as a bedpost.
Queen Uta smiled. "Please join us, dear Ilse."
Queen Uta bade the page pour wine and water it for me. She motioned to a tray of sweetmeats by Kriemhild's chair. I took none, but sat on the bench opposite and accepted the cup of wine. I glanced at Kriemhild and saw tears brimming on her lower lashes. I dared not speak to her, lest they fall. The queen gave me a considering look, then sent the page boy to fetch another skein of blue thread. His path crossed in the doorway with that of Gunther's messenger, who got out no more than the words, "My lady," before Queen Uta finished the speech for him.
"My lord son is come home from Eisland with its queen for his bride."
"Forgive me, my lady," he stammered. "I came in all haste, but there is a great crowd below. It is as you say. Your lord son King Gunther would have his royal sister come to him in the -"
"In good time." Uta rose.
"But your lord son -"
"In good time." Uta stepped in front of Kriemhild, blocking her way to the door, though Kriemhild had not moved. "Now go," she told the messenger. "Go!" She slammed the door upon the man's heels. Then she turned to smile not at her daughter but at me. "I hear one of Prince Siegfried's men has been courting you."
"Yea, my lady queen." I wondered at her sudden transformation from storm to calm, but her knowledge of Hans did not surprise me. Without her leave, he could not have come to me in the rose garden. I took a sip of wine to cover my confusion.
"Would it please you to wed him?" She sat and smoothed her skirts, as though my fate were of greater interest than her son's.
"Yea, my lady queen." My heart quickened. I could not look at Kriemhild. Carefully, I set the goblet on the table near the tray of sweetmeats.
"I will send to your family," Uta said. "There will be many marriages in Burgonden this summer. I see no cause why yours should not be among them."
If Uta spoke on my behalf, would not my father find it hard to refuse? I pressed my lips together, fearing to show joy lest it distress my lady.
"I am happy for Ilse." The words burst from Kriemhild, though she did not look happy. "My maidens must wed whensoever they find proper husbands. They need not wait for me to wed first." She looked down at her hands, clenched together in her lap.
A smile crept onto my face in spite of my will to prevent it, so gladdened was my heart. And yet, I feared for my lady. Something within her seemed to vibrate like an overtaut lute string in the instant before it must break. I would not be the twist that wound the string tighter. I thanked the queen, keeping my voice low and hoping she would say no more of marriage.
She nodded serenely. "You will be fortunate in your husband. He is strong and valiant, a worthy knight, as are all those knights Prince Siegfried keeps at his side."
With a violent shove, Kriemhild upended her embroidery frame. It banged to the floor, catching the corner of the table where my goblet sat and pitching that over, too. Wine spattered on the white sleeve of the lady in the tapestry and across the hem of Queen Uta's gown. Dust and particles of dried herbs billowed up from the floor. Uta drew her skirts up. "What ails you, daughter? This is madness."
"Gunther had no right to promise me without my consent!" Kriemhild ran to the window as though she would fling herself out.
Uta and I started up at the same moment. I reached my lady first and took her by the shoulder, but she made no move to leap. She only stood panting and staring into the courtyard. Tears coursed down her cheeks.
"Your royal brother," Uta said, "thinks only to secure your honor and happiness."
"Then why did he not consult me?" Kriemhild said. "Why keep his promise a shameful secret until -"
"Tell me, Ilse, would you have felt slighted, had your parents arranged your marriage with Siegfried's Hans? Imagine Hans, too, had sailed, but had asked for your hand before he left. Imagine there had been no time to consult you, so I and your father considered his fine qualities and gave consent."
I linked my arm through Kriemhild's. I could feel the wrath and grief filling her like scent in a lily's throat. I said, "It would please me to wed Hans howsoever the marriage was arranged. But Hans knows I would wed him most joyfully."
Kriemhild drew her arm from mine and turned back to the window. "You see, my noble mother, how honorably she speaks. She has not a deceiving thought in her head. It is a lie that there was no time to consult me. My noble brother took care I should not hear of this before they sailed. That is why he bade you keep his shameful secret until this moment. If Brunnhild, too, was unwilling to wed, her betrothed is at least a king. Gunther dishonors me by choosing a vassal knight for my husband."
"A vassal knight!" Uta's hand flew to her throat.
"Does he not serve my brother?"
"He is an honored guest here, and no vassal, for he has taken no oath of fealty, as you well know."
"Oath or no, he bears himself as a vassal."
"Prince Siegfried is heir to Xanten. And already lord over the Nibelungs."
"The Nibelungs," Kriemhild repeated scornfully. "To be lord over those little men of the norther marshes is no matter for pride."
"They hold riches beyond imagining. And all those riches belong to Siegfried."
"My brothers have riches enough."
"I never thought to hear such foolish words from my daughter's lips. As long as you remain a maiden, you have no wealth of your own. Whatsoever it may please you to bestow upon the church or upon those knights you wish to honor or upon the poor of the land whose prayers rise to God, is bestowed by you only through the grace of your brothers. What loyalty you purchase thereby will be owed to your brothers, not to you. When you are a wife -"
"When I am a wife, it will be my husband's wealth. How is that different?"
"When you are wed, your brothers will dower you with property of your own, and your husband will give you a morning gift."
Kriemhild waved this aside. "You cannot call that wealth."
"When your husband dies, his riches will pass to you, to hold and use for the benefit of his sons until they are grown." Uta paused. "Look at me, princess. I am as powerful as any woman alive."
Kriemhild laughed. "Lord Hagen, who has not a drop of royal blood in his veins, holds more power than you. And Queen Brunnhild ruled Eisland as though she were a king."
"She, too, will marry."
Kriemhild seemed about to answer, but before she could speak, a rap sounded upon the door. Quickly, I went to the embroidery frame she had overturned, and righted it. It was barely in place when such a banging came that I feared it would mar the carving. I looked to Queen Uta to see whether I should answer. She nodded, so I hurried to raise the latch and swing the door open.
I hardly noticed Gunther's page cowering by the door, for Queen Brunnhild captured all my attention. Her hand clutched the hilt of her unsheathed sword, poised, pommel forward, to knock again. She was as tall as Hans, and her shoulders near as broad. But her skin was as white and smooth as cream, most especially upon her face and neck, framed by her shining black braids. Her glance pierced through me, then darted past to Queen Uta.
"Are you Gunther's mother?" Her voice was deep and strong. She spoke with an accent that seemed to pounce, catlike, upon her words. Sheathing her sword, she strode past me without waiting for Uta to answer. Uta stood staring, struck wordless for what I judged must be the first time in her life. The visitor's sword hilt clinked against the sheath's silver binding. Her mail jangled. "I am Queen Brunnhild of Eisland."
Queen Uta stepped forward to kiss her upon the cheek. "Welcome."
"Well come or badly come, I am come, and need lodging for myself and my maidens." Brunnhild stood with her feet planted apart on the floor. The chamber seemed to shrink around her.
I turned to see Kriemhild, too, staring. In her eyes was a look I had never seen in them before, like unto the one jealous Anna had turned upon me when she jeered at the rose Hans had thrown to me across the tables. But that, against the look in Kriemhild's eyes, was a candleflame to a bonfire.
"Ilse," said Queen Uta. "See that Queen Brunnhild's maidens are shown into the chamber where you gather. Have the servants bring water for bathing and the finest gowns for their comfort. I will send to you presently with orders on where they are to be lodged."
I bent my knees in courtesy and went to do her bidding. As I carefully closed the door behind me, she was saying to Brunnhild, "King Gunther's betrothed must be lodged in the finest chambers this castle has to offer."
A dent showed in the door that had not been there an hour ago. A rampant lion in one of the panels was missing a forepaw. Brunnhild's voice carried easily through the door. "I use only the best tapers of good beeswax. My eyes cannot bear smoky rushlights. And I sleep on the purest eiderdown, for I cannot abide feathers poking at me during the night."
I wondered at these demands, for she seemed sturdy as oak, and must be so if she had slain all those knights who sought to claim her, excepting only Gunther. Though tempted to stay and listen further, I turned to do Queen Uta's bidding. Brunnhild's voice followed me. "My maidens must be lodged near to hand. I cannot be parted from them. Also, I never rise before the sun is well up, nor do I take any food before noon, but only a small glass of wine, well-watered..."
I did not hear the end of these demands, nor what Queen Uta answered, for I reached the stairway and found Brunnhild's maidens trooping onto the landing, led by a blushing squire. Jewels circled their throats, as bright as any my lady wore, if less costly. But their gowns were edged with furs and fringes, and they wore fur-trimmed caps rather than headcloths. So thick were their accents and so quick their chatter that I understood barely a word in ten. Close behind them came Queen Uta's page with several skeins of variously tinted blue thread. I scolded him for his tardiness and told him to hurry to his lady. Then I sent the squire away and brought the maidens into the chamber where we gathered.
"Welcome to Burgonden." I wished I had known sooner that I would be given such a task, so I might have prepared some better speech. "You will be happy here, for it is a rich land. Queen Uta sees the castle supplied with every comfort." I came near to forgetting the most important matter, but remembered in time, only stumbling a bit in my speech. "Burgonden is defended by King Gunther and his brothers, who have so soundly defeated the powerful armies of the Saxon and Danes that none dare attack us now."
My conscience nipped, for it was Prince Siegfried, not King Gunther, who had won the victory. But was it not Gunther I must praise, above all, to his bride's companions?
I called a maidservant and bade her bring basins of heated water, as many as there were newly come maidens, and fresh gowns for all of the finest silk. Kriemhild's maidens had gathered close about us, and I named them one by one, in order of their rank. "This is Princess Sybilla, the third daughter of the King of Metz. This is Princess Anna, whose uncle is Bishop Pilgrim of Passau, our lady queen's brother." I named every maiden, down to Astrid. When I finished, I felt short of breath.
"And what is your name?" asked one of Brunnhild's maidens.
I flushed. I had remembered all but myself. "Ilse. King Otto of Niederberg was my grandfather."
She named her companions, but there were so many and their names so odd that they flitted through my memory like swallows past a window. I tried not to stare as they untied the laces of their furred caps. The servants came with the washwater. One of these drew the tapestries across the window while another lit tapers. All was confusion while the maidens doffed their gowns. Large as this chamber was, it offered little enough space for so many, and some of Brunnhild's companions were playful creatures who teased and splashed each other.
Over the noise, I heard a maiden refer to "that knight in the courtyard." I caught a shy smile upon her face. Another maiden laughed and nudged at her. I did not understand all she said, but a third maiden said clearly, "Red hair brings ill fortune," and my heart thudded upon my ribs.
I looked closer at the first maiden. Her hair was dark like her queen's and still wavy from braiding. She ran her fingers through it, stretching her back so the candlelight gleamed on her washed skin. Then her gaze crossed mine, and her smile faltered. I turned away. But some while later, an arm slithered through mine. The maiden, coifed and gowned, smelling of roses and of the lavender her gown had been stored in, leaned to my ear. She spoke with a heavier accent than the queen's, but slowly enough that I understood.
"Tell me, Ilse, for I think you know - who was the red-haired knight standing in the courtyard as we came through the castle gates? The knight with the Sommersprossen across his nose. Is he not one of Prince Siegfried's men?"
A hot and unfamiliar emotion coursed through me. The discomfiture I had felt when Anna threw her ribbon to Hans was nothing to this, because I had not thought him mine then. And Anna had made no claim on him since. With powerful kings and bishops among her kin, she well knew she would be given no leave to wed a mere knight such as Hans. But this maiden of Eisland seemed to think him hers for the taking. I clenched my hands and looked into her eyes. They were a purplish blue, strange and beauteous. But her nose was too short and her jaw too square.
I said, "That knight is not for you."
She arched her brows. "Is he wedded? Or betrothed? I would not have guessed it from his manner."
My fury mounted. How could his manner in the courtyard have told her such a thing? He had not been tossing roses into her lap, surely. Nonetheless, it pained me almost beyond bearing to know she had spoken with him this very day, when I had not since the day King Gunther had sailed. I forced a smile, hoping I looked calmer than I felt. "What manner do you mean?"
She shrugged as though it were a matter of no importance. "How can I say? He had a pleasing way about him."
I wanted to threaten her, to demand she tell all Hans had said in every detail, to describe in each particular every look he had given her. And yet I knew Hans to be loyal and true, did I not? Among Kriemhild's companions were many maidens fairer and more accomplished than I. If he meant to dally lightly with all who caught his fancy, would he not have done so before now? And would I not have seen it? For I saw and felt all Hans did when he was among us, to the slightest flicker of his reddish brown eyelashes.
This maiden would learn how true he was.
"His name is Hans," I told her. "He is indeed a knight of Prince Siegfried, his worthiest. Come to mass of a Sabbath Day, and you will see him again. Perhaps he will speak to you afterward, if you linger in the courtyard."
I did not like the gleam that appeared in her eyes, and could not stop myself from saying more than I ought. "You will see. He is not for you."
"Is he betrothed?" the black-haired maiden asked.
I flushed and could not speak. For though Queen Uta had as much as given her blessing, Hans must get Siegfried's leave before he might speak to King Gunther. When Gunther gave consent, as he surely would if his lady mother desired it, Hans must then send to my father for his blessing before we might consider ourselves betrothed. And my father was sure to refuse me.
"Well, then." The maiden smiled. Her teeth looked very white behind her rosy lips. "We shall see, shall we not?"
I did my best to match her smile. Then I showed my back to the hussy, turning instead to another of Queen Brunnhild's companions. "Let me," I said, taking the brush from her hands. "Such fair hair you have." In truth, it was a dull shade, neither blonde nor brown, but I liked it better, at that moment, than if it had been truly fair. "I'm such a goose," I said. "I've forgotten your name."
She gave me her name, and I forgot it again as quickly as she gave it me.
I pointed the brush at the black-haired maiden, who had crossed the chamber to talk with Mina. "And what is her name?"
That name I did not forget.
ans." I looked into his quicksand eyes and near forgot what I would say. All about us was a happy hum of maidens and their suitors, like bees in clover. I drew a breath. "Queen Uta has given us her blessing."
I had thought to see his face light with pleasure, but he only nodded gravely. "I have already spoken to my prince. He has given me leave to send to your father. I will write to him this day."
I, too, sobered. "Do not forget to say how high you stand in Prince Siegfried's favor. Have you not a captive of your own from the late wars, who will bring a fine ransom?"
"There will be some ransom. If we wed, I will make it over to you for your morning gift. But ..."
I set my finger over his lips. "Say no more, lest your words bring ill luck."
I feared my father rated my worth too high. Hans was the first to offer for my hand. How many rich princes had offered for Princess Kriemhild and been denied before her mother and brothers had given consent to Prince Siegfried? It would take more than a letter from Hans and the approval of Burgonden to persuade my father. I must send to him myself. Hans's messenger might carry my letter along with the others. And yet, if the royal letters did not persuade, who was I, a maiden of fifteen years, to offer my judgment? To set myself against my father's will would but prove the weakness of my youth and sex. My letter must be gentle, obedient, yet compellingly suasive.
Who might set down the words? I thought first to go to a palace scribe. But I burned with shame to think a stranger should hear all my argument and mayhap laugh over it when I left him. Then I thought I should go to Hans, for Hans could write, though he said not well. But I bethought myself that a letter in my suitor's hand might awaken my father's suspicion and give him to wonder whether my true thoughts were set within, or only a deceiver's blandishments.
At last, with a lightening of my heart, I thought of Giselher. I knew he wrote a fair Latin, for his tutors had praised him to Queen Uta. And while he was a king of Burgonden and thus too honorable for my father to doubt, he was so young yet and withal so friendly that I did not fear to ask for his help. He agreed readily when Kriemhild sent to him. The three of us met in Kriemhild's privy chamber that very afternoon.
"The most loving greetings to my most dear and honored father from his daughter Ilse in the Kingdom of Burgonden," I began.
Giselher set the words down, dipping the nib of his goose quill several times into the ink pot before he was done.
I looked at Kriemhild.
"Praise Hans," she said.
I thought a moment, then said, "I am courted by a knight who stands high in the service of Prince Siegfried of Xanten." I paused, knowing I should say naught of his fox-flame hair or the Sommersprossen across his nose. Hans had many fine qualities, but now I came to the writing of a letter, I found they were so twined together, I knew not how to separate one from the other and lay them out, all orderly, for my father's inspection. Then I saw that Giselher had written no more beyond the greeting.
"Why do you not write?" Kriemhild said. "I am courted by a knight..."
Giselher shrugged. "It would not work with my brothers. Whensoever I tell them straightaway what I want, they close their ears and will not listen."
"What should she say, then? Tell us, in your wisdom." Kriemhild gave me a look, as though she thought her brother a fool.
But I said to Giselher, "Yes, tell us your thoughts. I am in great need of counsel, for I know naught of how letters are written or men persuaded."
Kriemhild looked heavenward.
Giselher paid her no mind. "I find that if I speak first of a family matter, my brothers will talk with me. Then, if I lead the talk to another matter, they are more likely to listen."
"When did you grow so crafty?" Kriemhild asked.
But I nodded, feeling as though I had been given a light to find my way out of a dark and winding passageway. It seemed plain, now, how I must begin my letter. "Set this down, if you will."
Giselher dipped the nib of his quill into the ink pot.
"How does my lady mother? I think oft upon her and pray for her, hoping she is well recovered from the cold that kept you and her from coming to Burgonden for the victory feast. I hope, too, that you and my dear brother are well. I do treasure the brooch of diamond and pearl that you sent me, for though I have seen richer jewels here in Burgonden, I know of no finer hearts than those who gifted it to me, and I think of them each time I set eyes upon the brooch."
"It is very long," Kriemhild said, as her brother's quill rasped along the parchment.
But I said, "Let it stand. It is from my heart. Though, indeed, I should think of my family ofter than I do." I watched the glistening black marks march along the page, drying as the quill moved on, like footprints on damp ground. I remembered how my mother had cried with me when my kitten died. I remembered how hard my father's chest was when he hugged me and how well I trusted him to protect us, so well that I feared no marauders while he and his men stood guard upon the walls.
Giselher read the words back to me, and I found naught to change. "Write, if you will, that I could have no finer family if they were lords over the wealthiest lands in Araby and commanded the multitudinous legions of Rome."
Kriemhild shook her head. "Multitudinous legions?"
"I think it is very dear of her," Giselher said, writing it down. After a moment, he added, "In Latin, it sounds quite well."
Kriemhild's scorn did not trouble me. I saw, now, how my argument must go, and I was in a fever to have it set down before I lost it again. "I have received an offer of marriage the like of which my father cannot approve upon its face, for Prince Siegfried's Hans is a landless knight, though in valor and honorable bearing none can exceed him. But I know my dear father will look not only upon the face of this offer, but deeper to its heart, for he knows how great his own worth has been to my dear lady mother, though he bear no such great titles as her lord father once believed he would. And he knows her worth to him. Of Sir Hans, I will say only this: If he comes to me bearing less treasure in his hands than some might, yet the worth of him as man and knight exceeds that of many who seek to wed maidens of far higher rank than mine. And his royal lord, Prince Siegfried of Xanten, is the most honorable of princes and will suffer none in his service to be dishonored or to go in want when there is booty of war to be divided, most especially Sir Hans, who stands highest in his service. If you give consent, I will cleave to Sir Hans with that same joy with which my lady mother has cleaved to the husband whose worth is greater to her than all the treasure the world holds."
Kriemhild blinked and looked away.
Giselher set my words onto the parchment. "Most fitting," he pronounced them. He wrote my name and showed me where to set my mark. "Make two crossing strokes," he said.
I took the quill in my hand, trembling now, despite the certainty I had felt a moment before, and set it to the parchment so firmly the ink blotted.
"No matter," Giselher said. "Now make a crossing mark over that."
I did. This time the ink did not blot, but flowed smoothly from the nib, which made a scratching sound like unto those Giselher had made as he set my words down. What a miracle it was that fleeting speech could be made visible and imperishable in this way.
Giselher folded the parchment and held it flat with one hand while he brought a bar of red wax to the candle flame with the other. When the wax softened, he pressed a gobbet to the letter and sealed it with his own seal ring. He held the letter another moment while the wax hardened, then gave it me.
"Thank you, my lord king." I held the letter to my breast. "I will not forget your kindness."
In the rose garden the next morn, Hans drew me into the shadows near the turret door where we might be apart from the others. I was on the point of giving him my letter when a great pounding came at the door. Though it stood wide enough for any lady to pass through, it would not open wider for the rust on its hinges. Hans turned from me to pull at the door. Across the garden Siegfried, too, dropped Kriemhild's hand to come and wrench at it.
"In my castle of Eisenstein," came Brunnhild's voice, pouncing from the turret's darkness, "the servants do not neglect to oil the doors."
"Stand away," Siegfried said to Hans and me. When we were clear, he gave the door a series of lusty kicks until it stood agape against the castle wall.
Brunnhild stepped into the garden, her ladies spilling after her. She was bare-headed, and her black braids hung like serpents along the white surcoat over her crimson gown. Across the surcoat's breast was blazoned the emblem of Eisland, flames rising out of a cupped hand. A collar of silver chain mail studded with garnets encircled her neck. At her hip hung a dagger so long and heavy, it pulled the scarlet-dyed leather of her girdle a handsbreadth lower on the dagger side, so she seemed to stand with one hip cocked above the other.
Grethe was not so brightly dressed as her queen, but I marked how the tops of her breasts swelled above the tight lacing of her blue gown. A kerchief dangled from her hand, white as a cloud against the gown. Her glance traveled past me to Hans. I smiled at her, for I knew he was mine, while her queen stretched a hand toward Siegfried.
He bowed over it.
"I thank you," Brunnhild said. "Indeed, I hope, Sir, that you will hold to your word and bide so long in Burgonden as you may."
Kriemhild came toward us, holding her skirts away from a rose cane strayed from its pinions. I knew well that she felt less certain of Siegfried than I of Hans. I murmured to him, "My lady needs me," and stepped to her side.
"Who," Brunnhild said to Siegfried, "has so many friends in this world that she would gladly lose one?"
"Come and smell the blossoms," I said in Kriemhild's ear, but she brushed past me without a word.
Brunnhild was taller than Kriemhild and had a way of lifting her head and pointing her gaze downward that seemed to widen the distance between them. "So this is the princess. It gladdens me to learn Sir Siegfried has found so compliant a maiden to console him."
Kriemhild blushed. Siegfried, too, reddened. Brunnhild had compassed a host of offenses in her short speech, hinting not only that Kriemhild had given too much of herself too soon, but that she came second in Siegfried's affection. And "Sir" was too low a title for a prince.
Kriemhild's fist tightened around the folds of her skirt. She turned to Siegfried. "Do you think me compliant?"
"Compliant? Yea, for ... for you have promised to wed me. And that, in so fair and royally born a maiden is such great compliance that my heart brims with joy." He reached for her hand as though he would kiss it, but she did not move, so he set his hand to his heart and bowed.
Siegfried turned from my lady to her. A warning note came into his voice. "I have ever admired discretion in a lady."
Brunnhild's right hand moved to her hip. From the heat in her gaze, I thought she would touch the hilt of her dagger, as so many knights did when angered. But her hand dropped lower and fell upon the length of the dagger's sheath. She stroked it. Slowly, her eyelids fell to cover the top of her gaze.
Kriemhild's nostrils flared. I tugged at her arm. "Please, my lady ..." But she shook me off as she might a buzzing fly. I tugged again and raised my voice. "My lady, I beg you. Will you not bid Sir Hans take my letter, and send it with yours to my father?"
She showed me the back of her hand. I glanced swiftly for Hans, but did not see him.
"My lady ..."
At last, Kriemhild turned. "Beware you open not your heart too freely, before all this company. A maiden of your rank must bear herself proudly."
"Yea, my lady." I thought myself in less danger than she.
But when I turned again to seek for Hans, I saw Grethe twining her hand through his elbow. The strings of her fur-edged cap dangled loose below the shoulders of her gown, and the cap had slipped back to show a handsbreadth of her sleek, black hair. She leaned her breast upon his arm and simpered past me to her lady. "They grow men uncommonly big in Xanten, do they not?"
I bit my lip. I know not what I meant to stop myself from saying, for of a sudden I felt as wroth as my lady had been, too wroth for words.
Kriemhild drew herself up. "You little harlot. You are no better than-"
"Than you ought to be," I cried, drowning what my lady would have said, for I feared that in the next instant she would have named Queen Brunnhild. "He cares naught for you! Can you not see it?"
Hans shifted his weight, leaning away from Grethe even as her eyes widened and she clung tighter to his arm. She blinked up at him. "Are you betrothed?"
Hans took a step. She had to step with him to keep her hold upon his arm. The kerchief fluttered in her hand. He cleared his throat. "My heart is given, whether or no ..." He unthreaded his arm from hers and set his hands upon her shoulders, holding her where she was as he backed away. Why had he let her hang so long upon his arm, and set her aside only after my lady challenged him?
Brunnhild strode toward the bench under the plum tree. "Where is my kerchief, Grethe!"
"Your lady calls," Hans said.
Grethe hesitated, gazing up at Hans a moment longer. But when Brunnhild called again, she went.
I drew the letter out of my sleeve, hesitating where an hour ago I would have pressed it eagerly into his hand.
Hans gave me a troubled look. "To your lord father?"
I nodded. The flood of certainty I had felt while composing it had faded long ago.
"We cannot be sure of his consent. Your beauty and charm will soon draw offers better than mine."
Did he regret his offer? For good or ill, I wanted to know, but Kriemhild had warned me not to open my heart. I glanced around and saw her whispering furiously to Siegfried.
"Do not flatter me," I murmured.
"Ilse, be not ... I know my praise of you is clumsy."
It was not his praise I minded. I sighed. I would not sully our time together with talk of Grethe.
"Give me the letter," he said.
I gave it into his hands, wishing I had a small measure of Grethe's boldness. I would not rub myself shamelessly upon his arm, but only lean a bit. His touch would have comforted me. I watched his hands, so wide and graceful. But then his thumb closed over the gobbet of red sealing wax. Like spilled blood it was - spilled and half-congealed. A sudden, unnatural fear rose into my heart and would not be tamed. I tried to cover it with a smile, but I could not help but shudder. Hans marked it, for I saw the light darken within his eyes.
He laid my letter within the breast of his doublet and pressed his hand to the place. "God speed it."
las, God did not speed my letter.
I knew I must allow time for it to travel to my father, and then for him to consider it and write an answer, and for his letter to travel back to me. But two long weeks passed. And then days upon end - three, four, five. And all this while, the castle was in a ferment, preparing for not one but two royal weddings. King Gunther's impatience to wed seemed to mount ever higher as his bride grew less eager. Siegfried, in turn, spoke oft of his resolve to wed Kriemhild upon the very day Gunther and Brunnhild were joined, though it meant his parents, King Sigmund and Queen Siglinda, would not be present, for they could not so soon travel from Xanten. Caught between joy and anguish, my lady did not mark how forgetful and clumsy I had grown. But she marked well how Brunnhild and one or two of her ladies had slipped ahead of her into the minster one morn before matins and then again one Sabbath, for she stared as though her eyes would burn holes in the queen's back.
On her wedding morn, Kriemhild rose early and could scarcely let me dress her hair for the fever of impatience that seized her. "Hurry," she said as my fingers pinned and smoothed her finely woven linen headcloth. "Until the ceremony is over and we are wed, my rank here is higher than Brunnhild's. She must not precede me into the minster."
I knew the matter of precedence was fretted and schemed over by all the noble men and women in the court, however high or low they fell in rank, but in my own worry over Hans, I could not help but find hers of small merit. "Does the King of Burgonden's sister rank higher than the Queen of Eisland?"
"In Eisland, it may be. This is Burgonden." Kriemhild moved her head impatiently, untucking a fold in her headcloth and nearly dislodging the diamond-studded chain looped over her brow. I had not secured it as well as I might. She frowned into the mirror while I sought to undo the damage.
"But must not your brother the king precede the Prince of Xanten, whether in Xanten or here? Should not the wife's precedence be like unto her husband's?"
"I am not yet wife!" She moved again, and the chain, which I had nearly set right, pulled askew.
I sighed. There had been no weddings celebrated in Burgonden since the last of Queen Uta's companions were wedded, many years before I came here. In my father's fortress, we had not made churchly ceremonies of betrothals and weddings. Here, all seemed to think the prayers as important as the feast, or very nearly, the consummation.
"Will you never have done?" Kriemhild complained.
I secured a last fold, hoping headcloth and diamonds would not tumble about her shoulders so soon as she bent her head to pray. But I was weary of her peevishness. "I've done."
She rose, beckoning to Sybilla, highest in rank among her companions, and walked briskly from the chamber while we maidens hurried to fall into line behind her. I followed last, so as we started down the stairs I had a clear view when, hearing a door close in the passageway, I glanced behind to see Brunnhild and her maidens striding after us.
I nudged Astrid. "Pick up your skirts and make haste," I whispered. "Tell the others."
Behind us, feet thumped on the steps. Silks whipped and hissed. When we reached the oaken doors that led to the courtyard, maidens of Eisland and Burgonden mingled in a hasty crush and squeezed out together. Brunnhild's gown, a violent shade of new-dyed purple, thrashed about her legs. I caught an elbow in my ribs and looked up in time to see Grethe's sneer as she pushed past me.
Outside, the last of Queen Uta's ladies were entering the minster. Kriemhild picked up her skirts and ran. We ran, too, as fast as our feet would carry us. I passed Grethe. Like Brunnhild, she disdained to run outright, but lengthened her stride so her skirts strained like hobbles around her ankles. Had I breath enough, I might have laughed at this rush across the courtyard while all strove in despite of it to keep their dignity.
Kriemhild and Brunnhild reached the minster door together.
"Let me pass!" Brunnhild's neck tendons pushed against the purple ribbon at her throat. A clear stone glittered there, big as a robin's egg and ten times the size of any diamond on my lady's brow.
"Nay!" Kriemhild retorted. "You have no rank here."
Brunnhild towered over her, fists clenched, neck bulging so that I feared the ribbon must choke her. "I am Queen!"
"This is not Eisland!" Kriemhild was like a brave spaniel, yapping displeasure at a mastiff. Her diamonds sparked like prodded coals. I hoped the chain would hold. When I pinned it, I had not bargained on a race to the minster.
Brunnhild reached to set her out of the way, but Kriemhild darted under her arm and entered first. Brunnhild pushed after her. I stood aside as the other maidens shoved and strove, for who would care or even mark whether the last of Kriemhild's maidens entered ahead or behind the last of Brunnhild's? Though if Grethe had been last in Brunnhild's company, I cannot say what I would have done, for I would have loved, most dearly, to tread upon her toes.
We climbed the stairs, came to our places, and sank flushed and panting to our knees. Queen Uta raised her head from her devotions, frowning at our noise. It was early yet, and the men had not begun to fill the gallery below. Only a young acolyte moved within the sanctuary, lighting candles and genuflecting as he passed the altar. Kriemhild leaned to Sybilla and said in a loud whisper that the gem upon the Lady of Eisland's neck was not diamond but crystal. If I heard, Brunnhild, too, must have heard. But she said naught, only knelt and set her hands together in an attitude of prayer. When my lady saw, she hurried to do the same, raising her voice to God in the instant that Brunnhild, too, began to pray.
Did God and his angels care who preceded whom into their Kingdom? Had not my lady's pride, I wondered, goaded her to unseemly display? But then I chided myself, for the priests held that St. Michael was first among the archangels and that our Heavenly King kept such order in his realm as our earthly kings were charged to keep within this world. In Heaven, the angels surely knew their places and gave no challenge to those who outranked them.
I put my palms together and bent my head, resting my chin on my fingers and letting my eyelids droop until all I saw were my hands and forearms. All else lay in a restful darkness beyond my lashes. I prayed to the Holy Mother, for she was both maiden and wife and would understand my heart, though I whispered in my own tongue and not the stately Latin of the priests. "Let Hans be for me," I prayed, "and only for me. Strengthen his heart, that he turn not to a seductress." I struggled with the temptation to pray for Grethe's ruin, for a leprosy to eat away her nose and fingers. But I resisted. Sighing, I prayed, "Blessed Mary, make me worthy of Hans, who is too good for me, truly."
I raised my head and saw him enter, his back straight, his head bright as a beacon fire. He knelt behind Prince Siegfried, who knelt in a place of honor at King Gunther's left. So fine Hans was. How could I doubt him?
The priest raised his voice and prayed God to bless the union between King Gunther and Queen Brunnhild and to give them healthy heirs. My eyes fell upon the back of Hagen's head. What must he think of these weddings? If Queen Uta had been his greatest rival, thrusting herself ever into her sons' decisions, Queen Brunnhild would surely prove yet greater.
How strange, I thought, that the woman who felt no love - for I was sure Brunnhild did not - should make no protest at the marriage thrust upon her. Stranger yet that the woman who loved most passionately should be so passionately vexed over the marriage she should have welcomed. If I knew I were to wed Hans this night, I would have been filled with such joy my heart could not contain it.
When would my father answer?
e maidens ate apart in the ladies' hall that night. Wedding feasts, with their bawdy jests and songs, were not fare for maidens. Nor was a wedding night, and so Queen Uta banished us from Kriemhild's chambers while she and her ladies prepared the bride, and then after, when a raucous train of knights brought the husband in to his wife. Servants brought trundle beds, and we bedded down in the hall.
I felt low in my spirits, for not only was I banished from my lady's side, I still had no word from my father. I felt better upon the morn when my lady called me to dress her hair, for she told me her heart had not changed merely because she was wedded, and my place in it was certain.
But by the next day, and then the day after, when my father still had not sent to me, I bethought myself that he might have written to Hans, saying him nay, and Hans had not the heart to tell me. The thought preyed upon me as I sat by the windows in my lady's antechamber, gazing down into the empty courtyard. O, it was not altogether empty, for there were squires about, and the odd pair of knights exercising their sword arms, but my Hans was not there.
At last I called a page to me and whispered that he should bid Hans meet me in the rose garden after the bell for vespers rang. Because neither ladies nor maidens were wont to pass that hour in the garden, we might speak privily. Beyond asking whether he had heard from my father, I cannot tell what I meant to say to Hans, but I thought if I could not have him, I must enter a convent or perish of lovesickness. I wished he would declare that he would take me with or without my father's blessing, but he was too honorable a man for that. As for me, I was not so brazen that I could ask for such a thing.
By late afternoon, my mind was in a turmoil. Hans had appeared in the courtyard, but he did not look up to my window, and I could not bear to watch him thus hopelessly. I moved away, thinking I must send again and tell him I could not come to the rose garden, despite my earlier message. Well-born maidens did not meet knights in secret, and thus I would save myself from the shame of waiting there while he never came. He was too honorable for such dealings. And yet, I yearned to see him.
So deep in thought I was, I did not at first mark that the other maidens had gone to the windows.
"What can so old a knight want in Burgonden?" Mina wondered.
I went to her side, glad of a distraction, and saw that a party of knights had come through the gates. The one in the lead had taken off his helm, and I looked down on a head so gray and shoulders so stooped I did not at first know them for my father's. I knew the horse he rode, though, and I knew the men who rode beside him. He dismounted clumsily, as though in pain from a wound. But he would not ride the distance to Burgonden if he were wounded. My heart chilled. He had come to deny me Hans. But such a duty would not gray his hair. My heart grew colder yet with a fear I could not name.
"Go," I told a page. "Take the knight to the rose garden, and bid him await me there. It is my father."
The maidens exclaimed, and Kriemhild came to my side. "That old man is never your father."
"Some trouble has come upon him. He is ill, mayhap."
"Shall I come to the garden with you?" she offered.
It would be a comfort to have her beside me. And my father would not, surely, break my heart in front of my lady - for after my letter, he must know that to deny me Hans would break my heart indeed. But there was little use delaying an answer he must give, late or soon. And I must know what his other trouble was. "I think I must see him privily," I said. "He may speak more easily thus of his trouble."
Kriemhild nodded. "Go, then."
I went, hurrying down the turret staircase. I pushed open the door to the garden, and a gust of warm air met me. My father had not come yet, so I was quite alone. The roses had fallen, save for two or three unseasonable blooms. Gillyflowers flopped over the pathways, their foliage ragged and yellowing. It had not rained in some days, and the sun had burnt the fringes of their petals.
What had happened to my father? He had ever been strong and hale. I sat on a shaded bench, but could find no peace there, and so got to my feet and walked to and fro along the path. It seemed an eternity until, at last, I heard the click of the gate latch and turned to see the page usher him - gray-haired and deeply lined, but comfortingly familiar withal - into the garden.
"Dear Ilse!" my father cried.
"Papa!" I burst into tears.
"What's this, love? Have you heard already?"
I shook my head, vexed that I had so lost command of myself and shown my sorrow at the change in him. "What should I have heard?"
He turned away, looking, as I supposed, for the page to thank him, for my father was ever courteous to those who served him, but the page had gone. So he gestured to the nearest bench, and we sat mutely, side by side.
Finally I could bear the silence no longer. "What is it, Papa? What has happened?"
He cleared his throat. "Your mother has been taken from us." So swift and low he spoke that his words outpaced my understanding. "She did not recover from the cold she took in the spring. It settled in her lungs. In the early summer's mildness, she seemed to rally. She went about her work, and her cheer gladdened us. But in the heat of midsummer, she failed. She died just after Lammastide."
My father stopped speaking, but I was yet grasping at words I could not believe. "After Lammastide?" It could not be true. How could my mother have been dead all this time, and my own life have gone on just as before?
I remembered the day I parted from her. Serene and smiling she had been, as ever. I felt eager and skittish by turns, longing for the adventure of my trip to Burgonden, and yet fearing how I should fare in a land I had never seen. My mother went to her chair by the south window where the light was best for needlework. She gestured to a footrest she never used. "Come, Kindchen, sit with me for a time before you leave." She smiled. "I hope you will find happiness in your life."
I tried to answer her smile, but I was blinking away tears. She spoke as though we were parting forever.
"Remember," she said. "The world is never any bigger than the place where you stand, and the greatest king within it was once a babe who cried for a breast."
I did not want to hear this. Was it not the greatness of Burgonden that drew me? In place of my father's cramped fortress and stinking courtyard, Burgonden would be like a minstrel's airy tale transformed into diamonds, silks and spices.
And so it was. Yet her words had stayed with me.
Sitting now among the faded roses and ragged gillyflowers, I bent my head as I had not before, weeping because my mother would never comfort me again.
"I meant to write to you," my father said, "however poorly. Indeed, I would have, when I had strength to set down such terrible words. But then Prince Siegfried's messenger came, and I knew I must come to you myself. I knew not, until your mother had gone, how I had leaned upon her for a hundred duties about my stronghold. And yet I cannot bear to wed again. Your brother must find one who can take her place as lady of my estates. And I must settle your fate, too."
I lifted my head and saw no solace in my father's eyes, but only a reluctance to speak as duty bade him. Must I lose both my mother and Hans at once? What might I plead, that I had not pled in my letter?
He rubbed at the bunched flesh between his brows. "So young you seemed, when I sent you here. I wished you to have the pleasures of maidenhood in a rich castle such as this, before I bound you to a husband."
My heart seemed to stop. Had he chosen for me already? "Papa," I faltered.
He raised a hand. "This world is a chancy place. Before I die, I would see you wed to one who can give you a better life than I could give your mother." He drew a breath. "Ilse, I cannot say yea to this man ..."
My ears closed to him. I pressed my head into my hands. And at that moment, the gate opened, silencing my father, who rose from the bench where we sat. I looked up and through my tears saw Hans, his jerkin stained and torn from swordplay, his red hair tousled.
He looked at our faces. He straightened, gathering a dignity beyond even that of his prince, a dignity I had not seen in him before. "I have always known," he said to my father, "that I am not worthy of Ilse's love."
I leapt to my feet. "Hush, Hans," I cried. "My mother is dead!"
All the stiffness in him fell away. He came past my father to gather me within his arms. "Ach, Liebling. It grieves me to see you in such sorrow. How you must have loved her, who made your enchanted garden."
I leaned my head against the sweat-damp breast of his jerkin and sobbed. For I had, indeed, loved her. How tenderly she had stroked my brow if I woke affrighted from a dream. In the winter, when all was gray and gloomy, she would cheer me with jests and tales as fine as a minstrel's.
"If she is no longer in the world," Hans said, "she is yet in your heart, and will ever be."
He stroked his hand across my head, and his touch gave me comfort. My world shrank to the size my mother had said all worlds were, to the place where I stood within the circle of my beloved's arms. I could not think beyond this moment and would not exchange him for the greatest king on earth.
"Ilse." My father's voice was choked. "I meant to say ... I could not say yea to the man until I had seen him. And now I have."
The vesper bells began to ring, strong and sweet. I turned my head from Hans's shoulder and wiped away my tears, so I could see my father's face. A burden seemed to have fallen away from him.
"Sir Hans," he said, "you have my blessing."
Early the next morn, my father spoke at length with Hans before calling me in to set my mark upon the marriage charter. He told me the terms, and I marveled at the size of my dowry. He must have been putting gold aside since the day of my birth, for I knew not that he had so great a sum in all his coffers. A part of it would be mine outright if I were widowed. I did not like to think of that, so I set it out of my mind. Siegfried had promised Hans lands in Xanten after he was king, and my father professed himself well satisfied. I was to have a morning from from Hans, too, the ransom we had spoken of: three pieces of gold and twenty of silver, which would be mine so soon as our union was consummated and my maidenhood proved.
It seemed a cold and merchant-like beginning. I watched my bridegroom's hand as he inked his name onto the parchment. Two upright strokes and one to cross them, two leaning strokes, then another crossing those ... He knew how to read the meaning in all he set his name to. What might have befallen me if I were fatherless, like him, and had no close kin to haggle over the charter and read its terms before I set down my mark and sealed my fate? Hans gave me the quill, and I scratched my poor X below his name.
Then we were cheered and toasted and surrounded by all who wished us well - and some, I supposed, who did not. Grethe, her cap securely tied this morn, kissed me on both cheeks and then murmured into my ear, "I would never have wedded a landless knight."
Kriemhild had already kissed me, but she came again after that, and I was glad, for her good wishes covered over Grethe's baleful words. And then Prince Siegfried bent over my hand, his blond mustache tickling my skin. He was high in honor then. With his marriage, he stood next after the kings of Burgonden in the line of succession, until Brunnhild bore a son. And if Gunther and Gernot fell in battle or met their deaths some other way, he would rule as regent until Giselher reached an age to bear power. He had bettered Kriemhild's lot, as well, for as his morning gift, he had made over to her the whole of the Nibelung treasure hoard. All were in awe - most especially Queen Uta - at such generosity. Of course, my lady would not have the management of these riches while he lived, and they would rest in the land of the Nibelungs. Nevertheless, the gift made her at once a great lady in her own right, for no matter what misfortune might befall him, she would have wealth in abundance.
She bade me come up to her chambers, where she wished to present me with a gift of her own. And so, having asked leave of Hans and my father, I went, with all her maidens following after us. She gave me a little wooden casket which she had filled with such gems as suited the daily wear of a knight's lady - lapis, onyx, green tourmaline, and the like. And then she filled my arms with rich samites and linens and deep-dyed woolens.
"You must have new gowns to replace your old," she said. "Just so will your life as a wedded lady replace your life as a maiden."
I looked down at the pile of stuffs within my arms, wondrously rich crimsons and blues. I even saw, peeping from between two lengths of white samite, a corner of what could only be cloth-of-gold. "My lady," I stammered, "these are too fine."
"Not for my dear Ilse! You know well that I think you a goose not to marry higher." The maidens about us chorused agreement, and she smiled and spoke on. "Truly, you might have married a prince and been queen of a small kingdom one day. And yet I am not sorry you have pledged yourself to Hans. For he is pledged to my Siegfried, so you and I will be companions all our days."
I hugged the bundle to my breast. "I am happy, my lady."
I knew my happiness tempered, though I tried to hide it before others. Indeed, I was happy, and trusted to be happier yet upon the morn. But I could not help wondering where I would pass the winter. King Gunther had urged Siegfried to stay in Burgonden so long as his duties in Xanten and the land of the Nibelungs did not command his presence. And thought Siegfried had neither accepted nor rejected the invitation, he seemed content to lodge with my lady in her chamber and pass his days among the Burgonden knights as he had before. Kriemhild, I knew, wished to stay. But if Siegfried returned to Xanten, she must go with him, as must Hans and all his knights, and I with Hans. Even if we stayed in Burgonden, I would lose many of the companions who stood about us this day, for the rush of betrothals Queen Uta predicted had come to pass. I could not suppress a single, quick-drawn breath that was not a sob, but yet akin to it.
"Still mourning your lady mother?" Kriemhild asked. "You must put an end to that. She is with the angels."
The other maidens chimed agreement.
I wiped my tears. "Will Prince Siegfried go to Xanten?"
"Indeed not," she said merrily. "I am determined he shall stay in Burgonden. He is not needed there, but does much good here, for our enemies dare not attack us so long as he bides."
"He is heir to Xanten," Sybilla said doubtfully. "Sir Eckewart says he came here only to win you, and now Burgonden must lose him, for he must attend to his own affairs."
"O hush!" Kriemhild stamped her foot. "Are not my affairs his? Is it not his own concern, and mine, whether he stays or goes? What is all this whispering about the castle, that I ought to be an obedient wife and follow my husband? Anyone would think I was no longer welcome in my own homeland."
I had not heard such whispering. Indeed, many of the Burgonden knights had told Hans they would be greatly pleased if Siegfried stayed and they hoped his lady would persuade him. Who had been telling Kriemhild otherwise?
Sybilla shrugged. A fortnight from now, she would wed the Margrave Eckewart and go back with him to his marches, so it could be no great matter to her where Kriemhild wintered.
"Burgonden," Kriemhild said, "is a greater kingdom than Xanten. Until Siegfried is king, it will be greater glory to him to stay in Burgonden as first knight and commander of the army."
"Do you not wish to see the land of the Nibelungs?" Mina asked. "If that treasure were mine, I would want to see it."
Kriemhild's upper lip curled as if she had tasted spoiled meat. "My lord knows I'll not set foot in those nasty marshes. And the treasure is safe enough."
"Well," I said firmly, "I will be glad to stay in Burgonden. For I have been happy here, and if my lord and lady go, then Hans and I must go, too." Setting Kriemhild's gifts aside, I reached for Mina's hand and, at my other side, for Sybilla's. "I cannot bear for us all to be scattered like autumn leaves upon the wind." Mina was being courted by a prince who would rule some share of his grandfather's kingdom in time to come. And I had heard that a greater prince had asked for Anna. She had been going about with eyes swollen and red, for it was the prince with the limp whom Kriemhild had rejected, and Anna liked him no better than her lady had.
But it seemed settled that we would stay the winter, at least.
That same hour, a page called me to King Gunther's audience chamber, saying the king wished to honor Hans and me with a gift. Feeling honored indeed, to be so remembered, I went, and found a small company gathered about him and Queen Brunnhild, along with King Gernot and the young King Giselher. Hagen, too, was in attendance and, of course, my father and my dear Hans. A blaze of torches warmed and brightened the chamber. The torches were needed, for in the days after the two great marriages, the sun had weakened. A high, thin scrim of clouds had crept across the sky like Schimmel, like mildew, and today had covered over the last shreds of blue. A drizzle dampened the window sills and some of the floor tiles beneath.
King Gunther took my hand most courteously. It was the first time I had stood so close to him, and I could not speak for awe. Every gem in his crown glittered at me. He wore the same cloth-of-gold surcoat he had been married in, so crusted from breast to hip with gems and gold embroidery that only now could I clearly see the gold of the cloth itself. These trappings seemed to eclipse almost to lifelessness the man who wore them. But when I dared glance at his face, I saw the twitch of a muscle under the smooth-combed yellow of his beard. For an instant, his eyes shifted toward Queen Brunnhild, and she dipped her head as though giving him leave to speak.
"Lady Ilse," he said. "You are most dear to the princess my sister, and therefore to me."
I courtesied low. He kept hold of my hand, steadying me a bit as I rose.
"I thank you, my lord king."
"Am I your lord?" He smiled, but something cold in his eyes told me I had spoken amiss. He gestured toward Hans. "I think, indeed, it is this knight who must command that honor."
I puzzled a moment longer, for surely when a woman married, it did not release her from her duty to her king. And then I flushed. Kriemhild would have laughed and called me "goose." For Hans's lord was Siegfried, not Gunther. My innocent words may have struck ill in Gunther's ears, for Siegfried had sworn no fealty to the Kings of Burgonden, and would never do so. From the moment I married, Siegfried would be my lord. But why should this anger Gunther? It was he who had given his sister away.
I spoke no more, knowing not what to say. Gunther took my hand and led me to Hans, who took my hand from his.
Hans bowed. "My betrothed and I are most grateful for your hospitality, as is my lord Siegfried."
I courtesied again, feeling a rush of love for Hans, who seemed to know how to say all that must be said.
Gunther beckoned to a squire who stood holding a bundle wrapped in red cloth - wool or linen, for it had not the sheen of samite. The squire came forward. Gunther took the bundle from him and gave it to Hans. Hans unwrapped the cloth, revealing a pair of sturdy boots of a fawn-colored leather, thick-soled and high in the calf to protect a rider's legs. The leather was beautifully tooled and painted. Upon each toe reared a dragon with a spear in its breast.
Hans ran his fingers across the leather. "Lord Gunther, I thank you." He touched the dragon. "My lord Siegfried will be near as pleased as I when I show him this." All in Burgonden had heard Siegfried's claim to have slain a dragon. The design upon the boots honored him. I, too, was pleased, and smiled upon Hans.
Gunther beckoned to another squire. This one carried a small casket of carved wood, which bore a like dragon design. Gunther took the chest and proffered it to me. I accepted it, expecting a weight like that of the casket Kriemhild had given me, but my hands lifted as though it were hollow. "I thank you, Lord Gunther," I said, and raised the lid. Within was a headcloth of snowy white linen.
"You will be a wife soon," Gunther said, "and must cover your head and obey your husband in all things."
I nodded, but could not help glancing through my lashes to see what Queen Brunnhild thought of his words. Her head was well-covered, of course, in a headcloth the twin of mine, with a ruby-studded gold crown set upon it. A corner of her mouth twitched, but when she saw me looking, her eyes hardened.
I dropped my gaze, flushing, and thanked Gunther once again.
"I believe," he said, "there are others here who wish to honor you."
There were gifts from Gernot and Giselher, of which I treasured most the small book of hours Giselher presented me, beautifully illustrated with vines and flowers and little dancing figures, and on the frontispiece a sly joke of a minstrel distracting a king while a thief goes creeping into the treasure house behind his back. Servants brought wine and sweetmeats. I began to feel I had misunderstood Gunther, for he seemed a friend to me and Hans, and how could he be that, if he were not also a friend to Prince Siegfried?
Hagen came to my side and beckoned to the servant who carried the sweetmeats. "Will you not take a morsel of almond paste? A bride should eat as many sweets as she may, to sweeten her mood for her husband."
His voice was kindly, but all at once, the cozening tone of it put me in mind of his counsel to Gunther, to rid the kingdom of Siegfried. I took a sweet, but had no stomach for it, and so held it awkwardly between fingers and thumb.
"So dear a companion you are to the Princess Kriemhild," Hagen said. "Her dearest, she has oft said. I could not let you go to your husband without a gift from me. It is a trifle, but mayhap it will give you and your lady cause to think of me betimes." He lifted his closed right hand between us, and I drew back, for the dark hairs upon his knuckles made me think of spiders' legs. He smiled, though with his mouth alone. "What do you think I have for you? Can you guess?"
I shook my head, too frightened to speak.
"Nay?" He opened his fingers. A flawless ruby sparkled in the palm of his hand. I was no judge of gems, but I thought it must, in itself, be worth more than all the lesser gems, together, that lay in the casket Kriemhild had given me.
"Red as a knight's blood, is it not?" Hagen said.
Had there been a trace of threat in his voice? I glanced to his face, but found no answer in his bland expression.
"Do you like it? Take it, Ilse."
"It is too fine for a mere knight's lady." I held the sweetmeat in my right hand still, and I still could not eat the thing. My throat was dry, my stomach knotted.
"But your knight will rise in rank, and you with him, when Siegfried is lord of Xanten." Hagen moved his hand closer. "I can see you want it. Take it." His voice had a tone of command, so firm I dared not refuse.
I moved the sweetmeat to my left hand and reached with my right to take the ruby. I shuddered when my fingers grazed Hagen's flesh, and I knew he marked it. But he did not seem displeased. I held the jewel between finger and thumb, wondering when I might excuse myself without offense.
Hagen touched his palm where the ruby had lain. "Your fingers are sticky." He lowered his voice. "You should eat your sweet. Or leave it on a tray. You must not cling to what you do not want. Nor should others." He lowered his voice yet more, until he spoke in a near whisper, and yet I heard him as clearly as I had heard him through the door to the dusty chamber where he and Gunther had plotted. "Tell your lady that Prince Siegfried does not belong in Burgonden. She must be a good wife, an obedient wife, and go with him to the lands that are his. Will you tell her?"
So close he stood, I could see threads of gray in his mustache that I had never marked before, and an old, faint scar upon his chin. I could feel his breath, hot and humid, moving against my brow. I wanted to drop both the sweet and the jewel, but they clung to my fingers as if he had glued them there.
His hand shot out and gripped my left wrist, twisting and squeezing until I thought I must cry out from pain. I looked beyond him to find Hans, but Hans was talking with King Gunther and had his back turned. I saw my father standing uncomfortably by the chamber door, talking with Queen Uta. Would he change his mind, if he thought me threatened, and take me home instead of giving me to Hans?
"Prince Siegfried must not stay," Hagen said. "Do you understand?"
I nodded, tears in my eyes.
He dropped my wrist, and I almost sobbed with relief.
"Eat your sweet, Ilse." He called to the boy with the tray and, when the boy came, took a honeyed tidbit for himself. "Eat your sweet and take another, dear lady." The tidbit disappeared into his mouth. He licked the honey from his fingers.
I unstuck the ball of almond paste from my hand and pushed it onto the tray until it stuck there. Then I fled to Hans. A few moments later, the audience was over, and we were free. I rinsed my hands in a basin of rosewater. Then I said a few words to my father while Hans sent a servant upstairs with our gifts from the king and queen. I ought to have sent the ruby with them, but I was not ready to speak of it, so I kept it hidden inside my fist. Even Gunther's presents were less welcome to me now. For if Hagen's gift bore a message, so did his: Riding boots for Hans, so he would ride away from Burgonden. A wife's headcloth for me, so I would ride obediently with him.
Hans took my hand within the crook of his arm and led me toward the hall where the candles were already being lit for our wedding feast. If he marked my closed fist, he said naught of it, but only, "It was kind of King Gunther to be so generous."
I clung to his arm. "Does your prince truly wish to stay in Burgonden, or does he mean only to please my lady Kriemhild?"
He frowned. "That can be no affair of ours."
Never before had he rebuked me. My face flamed, and I bent my head so he would not see. And if I showed him the ruby? Being a courtly knight, Hans would say that it was red indeed, red as his heart's blood that beat for me alone, and that so rare a gift was a sign of Lord Hagen's friendship and surpassing generosity.
"What troubles you?" he asked. "Why do you tremble so?"
I forced a smile. "What could trouble me on our wedding night? It's only love that makes me tremble."
He put an arm round me. We stopped where we were while he kissed me tenderly, first upon my brow and then upon my lips. In another few moments, I was indeed trembling out of love for him.
undreds of candles burned in the hall, the half-used tapers of fine beeswax left from last week's royal marriages, so many that their heat, amid the general damp, seemed to thicken the air. The kings were already seated as we came in, but rose to cheer us, which was great honor. An unfamiliar joy whirled within my heart, strangely mingled with my fear of Hagen and my grief over my mother. We sat this night in a place of honor at Siegfried and Kriemhild's table, Hans by my lady, then I by him, and my father at my left. When the cheers subsided and the squires had served us, I opened my fist at last and let the ruby sparkle in the candlelight.
"A rich jewel," my father said.
"Who gave it you?" asked Hans. He glanced to my lady, seated at his other side. Her look of interest made it plain it had not been she.
When I said it had been Lord Hagen, I was surprised to see Hans frown. "I like him not," I said softly. "What am I to do with it?"
But Kriemhild smiled at Hagen's name and spoke across my words. "Even from here, I can see how fine it is. I will have my jeweler set it into a ring for you. Or would you have it in a necklet?" She reached across Hans, but I closed my hand.
"I have no wish to wear it. It is ... too fine for me." I glanced to where Hagen sat at the kings' table. He was speaking to King Gunther, but I feared his eyes were on me. "I will keep it in my jewel box."
Hans looked toward Hagen. Deliberately, he set his palm to his chest and gave a nod that was a form of bow. Hagen nodded gravely back, and then looked at me, a message, but one I knew not how to answer. When he looked away at last, I set the jewel carefully to one side, took up my wine goblet and swallowed a deep draught. It set me to coughing, for I was not wont to drink my wine unwatered.
Siegfried gave me a smile. "Yea, drink deep, little maiden. Your lord will have his way with you this night. When you see how big ..."
But Hans, laughing now, set his hands over my ears, so I did not hear the rest. As I leant into his embrace, I saw how the knights at the near tables laughed with him, and some of their ladies, too. And so I shook off my dread and laughed, too, less for the jest than from pleasure in my lord's touch. Hans fed me tidbits from his plate. And after the wine came round again, he took me upon his lap to cheers that seemed to set the hall afloat.
His hands pressed at my waist, then crept higher. When he reached my breasts, my face heated to the tips of my ears. I knew not where to look, for when I bowed my head from shyness, I saw the play of his hands upon my body and the way my breasts rose with my breathing to meet him. At the next table, Siegfried's knights of Xanten called for more wine, then rose as one to cheer us. Because they stood between us and Hagen, like a living wall, I breathed easier - and yet more lustily, for Hans sent a warmth coursing through my body. Of a sudden, he wrapped me in a close embrace and, to a roar of friendly laughter, kissed me more vigorously than ever he had. A moment later, he gentled his kiss - mayhap he feared I would draw back from his passion. But like a minstrel bowing a viol, he had awakened some chord in me that set my own passions vibrating. I could not help myself, but clung more tightly, finding his lips a finer feast than any of the rich dishes laid before us.
One of his fellows called out, "She's a lusty one!"
"Yea," called another. "You must keep her under lock and key!"
This angered me, for it was Hans and only Hans who gave me this pleasure. I closed my lips.
"Do not heed them," he said into my ear. "I know a better way to keep you."
"To bed, to bed!" they called, the whole company taking up the chant, minstrels keeping time with their timbrels. Hans lifted me from his lap, and Prince Siegfried and Princess Kriemhild led us to our new chamber. There we found a bed hung with curtains of deep-dyed green, piled high with fresh, white bedding strewn with the last blossoms of the season, mallow, clove-scented gillyflowers, and spikes of dried lavender. The company made a great noise in the doorway, timbrels chiming, knights and squires singing bawdily and off tune.
"Big as a horse, the bridegroom was," someone sang, and I was suddenly affrighted. I knew women bled when first they were bedded. But I had not heard these bawdy songs, nor seen the bloody sheets brandished on the wedding morn as proof of the bride's virtue and requisite for the payment of her morning gift. I had seen stallions, though, with their mares in the field, and marveled at the great, dark tool they carried at the root of their bellies. I had seen tomcats biting the scruff of their mates' necks, who howled as if spirits possessed them. How could I make Hans's sweetness one with these animal things?
But it was. If I had not known before, I knew it with his kiss.
The women chased him and the other knights from the chamber. I heard them jesting somewhere down the passageway. Kriemhild and Uta changed my gown for a silken nightshift and laid me among the flowers.
"Be still," Uta said, "and let him do as he wills. Soon it will be over."
"Do not fear," Kriemhild said. "The second time is not so bad as the first." She exchanged a glance with a lady behind her, and the lady tittered.
It was a great honor to have the queen herself undress me, but I had never felt at ease by her. I lay among the flowers, feeling like a hen trussed for roasting. The men's voices rose, nearing the door, and the clash of the timbrels grew louder. The women led in my bridegroom, clothed in a tunic of white samite that hung short of his knees, and in naught else. The other men crowded the doorway, laughing and jesting.
And then Hans closed the door upon them, and we were alone. Never before had he affrighted me. He laid himself alongside me and whispered in my ear, "You are my rose, my gillyflower." He set kisses upon my brow and against my neck, tickling and confusing my senses, so that when the pain came, I hardly noticed amid the curious pleasure that also came to me. Always, when I heard songs praising love's delights, I had imagined the delights of children, sweet words and ticklings and kisses. Never had I imagined the truth. So when Hans shivered inside me and lay still, I tugged at him, trying to make him start again.
"It will not hurt so much the second time," he whispered. "And after some few days, not at all."
So sure of himself he was, I realized he must have done this thing before. I tried not to think of this.
"It did not hurt much," I said. Foolish maiden to speak so cheerlessly! Nay, foolish lady, for I was no more a maiden. In truth, I was greatly cheered. The part that had affrighted me was over, and there had been more pleasure than pain. I drew a breath. Feeling bold as a camp woman, I brushed back the lock of hair that fell over his brow. "Why did you stop?"
He smiled. "Did you like it, my gilly, my love?"
I could only flush. Such a pleasure was impossible to speak of.
He slid his fingers through my hair, making me shiver. "Did you like it, truly?"
He ran a hand over the thin silk of my nightdress. His hand was not like the women's hands that had touched me earlier. It was calloused, hard and strong. And withal, his touch was gentler than that of the women. "Give me a moment to recover my strength, and we'll do it again, shall we?"
I slept deeply that night and woke to Hans's love, and a greater wonder came to me than had come the night before. Of that, I cannot tell. I had thought him so dear to me that neither he nor any other could be dearer. Now, gazing into his eyes, a soft, animal brown, I marveled at how much dearer he was to me this morn than he had been before. I remembered Hagen's threat, and my heart grew sick. If Hans were taken from me, how would I live?
My hand trembled as I touched his cheeks, his lips. Hans caught it and kissed it. "Why do you tremble, my gilly?"
"For love," I said quickly. But a loving wife would strive to take her husband out of Hagen's reach. "Will we go to Xanten with your lord?" I dared ask.
He gave me no ungentle nay, but said, "Are you so eager to see the northlands? The winters there are cold."
"Does Prince Siegfried have no duties in his own kingdom?"
His smile dimmed. "What wheedling is this? Your lady would spend the coming winter in Burgonden. Will you set yourself against her?"
"Nay, Hans. You know I would not. But Hagen ..."
"Enough, my gilly. You are my wife and must do as I command."
I closed my mouth, for I knew a wife's place, though I wondered whether a wife should not press farther in such a case.
But Hans spoke on. "For my part, I must do as my lord Prince Siegfried commands. Lord Hagen serves Burgonden and is no master to any of us. Indeed, he owes obedience to King Gunther, who has entreated my lord to remain in Burgonden so long as he may, for his presence gives heart to the knights here." He frowned. "Would you set your judgment against all these? And against me, the first morn we are man and wife?"
Tears sprang in my eyes. I could not bear to be so chided, just when my love had grown so great. "Nay, my dear lord."
"Enough of these matters, then." He kissed my brow. "I have a morning gift for you. Would you see it?"
"Yea, my lord."
He crossed the chamber and took up a leather purse from the table where I had left my jewel box. When I was sitting upon the edge of the bed, he said, "Hold out your hands." Into them, he poured the contents of the purse.
I had seen coins before, ransoms passing across my father's table, gold and silver discs piled in stacks for counting. But I would have offended if I had leaned close to study them. My morning gift fell cool and chattering into my hands. The gold pieces gleamed, and some of the silver was so new minted, it shone near as white as my shift. Others bore heads and figures rubbed pale against the tarnish beyond. Stamped upon the coins were crosses, castles, kings, and bishops with their crosiers. I had heard from somewhere that the weight of silver or gold in each piece was measured, so that each piece of a like size had a known value, and I wondered at this, for coins had no use as tools or weapons, nor could they be eaten or ridden from place to place as animal wealth might be. Neither were they made for display, though they might be melted down and formed into ornaments if I desired. Would Hans think that reckless? And yet, this handful of metal had ransomed a knight's life.
They weighed heavier, of a sudden, in my hands. I held them out to Hans. "Keep them safe for me, will you?" As he slid them back into the purse, I had another thought. "And the ruby Hagen gave me. Keep that for me, too, I beg you. It is of great worth. Better to hold it for a time of need than to wear it lightly upon my person."
"That is wise," he said, and took up the ruby from the top of my jewel box, where I had left it rather than let it mingle with my lady's gift.
His praise filled me with pleasure. I felt, of a sudden, that I might indeed trust him to keep both the jewel and himself safe. Was he not, after his lord Siegfried, the finest knight in Christendom?
And was Hagen not old? Lines scored his face. His mustache was threaded with gray. In truth, he had never said I should speak to Hans. Tell your lady, he had said. So surpassing was her beauty and charm, she might tell Siegfried what I could not tell Hans. And so, after he dressed and left to attend to some knightly matter, I went to her chamber.
I found Kriemhild sitting with her nose in a blossom from the spray of white roses upon her dressing table. I felt happier the instant I saw her.
"Did your prince give you those?"
She smiled. "He awakened me with them."
Hans had not awakened me with flowers. O, but with a much finer pleasure! I flushed at the thought. "Why," I asked, "did you not tell me what lovely things husbands do with their wives?"
Her brows lifted. "So it is true. Some women are pleased by such doings. I would not have thought it of you."
I flushed deeper, for she made my pleasure seem shameful. And yet it surprised me she did not like it. "Do you not love Prince Siegfried? I thought -"
"I do!" she answered hotly. "His kisses are meat and drink to me. But that other, that happens below the waist, is different." She made a face. "To be crushed so, like a calf in the slaughter season - I bear it only because a wife must, and because it's the way to get a child. So soon as I am bearing, I will make him stop until after the babe comes and I am well recovered."
Her easy trust in the future gave me a pang. If she and Siegfried stayed in Burgonden, would he live long enough to make a child? Would Hans? How fragile was my confidence. It had not lasted an hour. I touched the roses, so white and pure. A petal fell, and I snatched my hand away. "Why do you not go to Xanten with Prince Siegfried?"
She stiffened. "I do not stop him from going where he wills. It pleases him to stay in Burgonden."
"Because it pleases you. All know you would rather pass the winter in Burgonden than travel north. But if -"
"Why should he not wish to please me? I am his wife."
"And he is your husband and lord. Should you not seek to please him first?" Quickly, lest she have some answer, I added, "Surely your great love for him must desire naught but his highest good, and he must take up his own work in his own land."
"He is needed here." Her brows contracted. "I might almost think the Saxon king or his brother had been whispering into your ear. Did Hans set you upon this track?"
"Hans is his lord's loyal servant and will bide wheresoever his lord bides. But -"
"Then you must bide wheresoever your husband and his lord and lady choose to bide, and be content."
This was what Hans had said to me. And when I spoke Lord Hagen's name, he had chided me for seeking to obey the wrong lord. But what other argument was left me? "Lord Hagen says you must go!" I blurted clumsily.
She scowled. "What business is it of yours, what Lord Hagen advises?"
I bit my lip, realizing he must have spoken to her already. Indeed, he had surely done so long before he spoke to me. Would he have troubled himself with one such as me if he had not already failed to persuade Kriemhild? But he would not have dared threaten my lady. "You have ever thought him wise," I murmured.
"Mayhap, but he is neither Siegfried's master nor mine. Nor are you."
I knew it was wrong to dispute with her. But I was cold with fear for both my husband and hers. "Red as a knight's blood," he said of the ruby he gave me.
"And so it is. Too fine for a knight's lady. Hagen does not understand the worth of such things. Baubles, he calls them. Do you remember the tale he told of my Siegfried? As if there were aught shameful in seeking lordship over a folk as rich as the Nibelungs!"
I had never seen her so wroth with Hagen. Mayhap, in this mood, she would believe me. "It was a threat, what he said of the ruby. He said you and Prince Siegfried must leave Burgonden, or -"
She slapped me, and I stepped back, pressing a hand to my stinging cheek. But only a coward would quail from a slap when her husband's life lay at hazard. "My lady, what did Lord Hagen say, to set you in such distress?"
She looked at me silently for a moment, her cheeks red and her eyes smoldering. Then the words burst from her as water through a broken cistern. "What he says is not so! My brothers are not weaker, but stronger with Siegfried here. For if Siegfried goes, the Saxons and Danes will return. And next time, the end will not be so happy. Gunther himself has asked Siegfried to stay."
"He must. Out of friendship." I did not understand how Siegfried's presence might weaken Gunther, but if the charge troubled Kriemhild so, something must be at the root of it. One thing I did understand. "Prince Siegfried himself must be stronger in Xanten, where he will one day rule, than in any kingdom not his own."
"Siegfried is nowhere weak!"
My heart pounded. Never had I disputed so long with any, much less my lady. But I thought of Hans and pressed on. "What does Prince Siegfried say?"
"That he wishes to please me in all things." Kriemhild pressed her lips together for a moment, then blurted, "He says Gunther is a feeble king, and Gernot and Giselher too young to redeem this. He says if he were lord in Burgonden, as in days to come ..." She silenced herself, laying a hand over her lips.
I flushed to hear such a thing spoken aloud. To call a king feeble! It was no great surprise, though, to learn of Siegfried's ambition. So easily, he had made himself master of the Nibelungs. Had he begun to think Burgonden, too, was an apple meant to drop into his hand?
I spoke low, though there was no need when only Kriemhild and I stood in the chamber. "You know I'll not repeat your secrets. Siegfried is my lord, too. And if he were not, you are yet my lady and will ever be, for I am your most true and loyal servant and have been since first I set foot in Burgonden Castle."
She sighed. "Siegfried is right, Ilse. Gunther is unsteady."
"But Lord Hagen is not, and Lord Hagen advises him." I stood at the brink of an untruth, for I seemed to say I admired Hagen's wisdom. But I must persuade her to leave Burgonden, as Hagen wished. I began to fear I could not succeed without possessing a rare skill I could never have. I moved to the window and gripped the sill with both hands. Siegfried and Hans stood below, in earnest conversation over a lamed horse.
Kriemhild followed me, and we spent some moments looking silently down at them.
"How," she said softly, "can I believe my Siegfried would do aught to harm my brothers? Truly, he thinks only of the kingdom's good. Hagen does not understand. It is not he who must choose whether to go or stay." Tears glittered in her eyes. "I have not your experience of the world, for I have never traveled out of Burgonden. What will Siegfried's kin think of me? I am not wise like my mother, nor temperate like you."
Her praise moved me. It touched me more to learn she felt as skittish and unsure of her welcome in Xanten as I had once felt of my welcome in Burgonden. "But you are so winning!"
"Here in Burgonden, it may be, for Burgonden is my home. What do I know of Xanten, or Xanten of me? I fear ... I fear the king and queen may wish to be rid of me, when they see the creature their son has married."
"Dear lady!" I cried, astonished. "You are the fairest and most enchanting princess that ever was. All in Xanten will adore you!" I set a kiss upon her cheek.
She bent her head against mine. "Do you think so, truly?"
"Truly, I know so, for how could any think otherwise? Would you rob your prince of the joy of presenting his bride to his parents?"
"And yet ... if they do not give their blessing ..."
"Can you imagine they would not give their blessing? It is the talk of Burgonden, how Prince Siegfried heard rumor of your surpassing beauty and grace, and came here with the steadfast purpose of making you his wife. King Sigmund and Queen Siglinda must have approved his purpose before ever you saw him ride through the gates below."
"How could they, before they had seen me?"
"How could they not? All those suitors you have refused and every minstrel that has passed through Burgonden has carried tales of you to the farthest corners of the Empire. Did not your brother King Gunther sail north to win Queen Brunnhild on the strength of a tale?"
At the mention of Queen Brunnhild's name, a frown flitted across her brow.
"And you," I said, "are much more lovely than she. For they say she would have wedded Siegfried, had he wished it. But he did not, for his heart was filled with the hope of winning you."
Kriemhild smiled. She sighed. She hugged me. "You must be right. O Ilse, you are a true friend." She laughed unsteadily. "Do you think we should go, indeed? If we do, you and Hans, too, must leave all that is pleasant in Burgonden."
"There may be much in Xanten that is pleasant. If I had never left my father's fortress, I would never have seen Burgonden or become your companion. That would have been great sorrow to me."
"And to me. I will speak to Siegfried."
How I rejoiced, to feel the burden of fear slide from my heart!
Speak to him, she did. When next I saw her, she told me I must hurry to begin packing my goods, for Siegfried was eager to bring her to Xanten and show her to his lord father and lady mother. So astonished I was to have persuaded her and to learn how readily Siegfried had turned his own mind, once she had turned hers, that I feared for some days they would waver, and I would fall into my lady's displeasure for cozening her into a choice she had not wanted.
But if my lady chided me in the next weeks, it was for dawdling over my preparations. The castle seemed to be turned inner side out and topside down in a frenzy to fit and provision the wagons that would carry us. All must be done in haste, for winter was nigh, and we must be in Xanten before ice and snow made the roads treacherous. A thousand knights must be chosen to accompany us, both to protect us from robbery along the way and to do honor to Prince Siegfried and his bride. It would take days to bake bread enough to sustain so large a company, and to salt away the meats that would supplement our hunting on the road. As for me, I must pack for both myself and Hans, but with little wifely experience to set in order such bulky things and the padded tunics he wore beneath his mail. His surcoats were easier, being of a squarer cut than my gowns. And in truth, I loved handling anything that had been close to his body.
One afternoon while I stood lost in dreams over a hunting surcoat of his, ornamented with a pair of darkling emeralds and scented elusively with his body, my lady snapped her fingers in my face.
"Have you fallen into a fit? I have been asking you all this while to go to my sister-in-law's chambers and find what has become of the gilt-edged headcloth my brother gave me."
"To ... to Queen Brunnhild's chambers?"
"Yea, to Queen Brunnhild's chambers, you silly goose. You need not speak to the queen herself. But ask one of her companions. I will not go without my brother's gift, and who other would have dared take it?"
I could only nod, for the thought of confronting either the queen or any of her maidens robbed me of breath. As I passed through the busy chambers between my lady's and the queen's, my lips silently tried word after foolhardy word, none of which I could imagine lending voice to. What could Brunnhild want with my lady's headcloth? Kriemhild had most likely left it in the garden. Even as a wedded wife, she oft let it slip forgotten to her shoulders, and from thence down her back to wheresoever it might fall.
I passed silently into the first of the queen's chambers, hoping to call no notice to myself. Brunnhild's maidens sat about a minstrel, their voices rising over his as they gossiped and lamented the heat. Most were stitching at gowns in the Burgonden style, for here we did not wear the heavy woolens and furs they had brought from Eisland. Maidservants came and went, replacing broken needles and fetching fresh linens or silks. I saw the back of Grethe's uncovered head and thanked God she did not see me. The corner of a half-hemmed headcloth trailed from her lap.
I turned to go back another way, for I thought to search the garden before I made a fool of myself and my lady here. But in the next chamber, I passed a curtained alcove and heard, issuing from it, a lady's low laugh, ending in a gasp. The door beyond was closed and barred. Turning again, I heard distinctly through the curtain the murmur of my lord Siegfried's voice.
"You are a fool, to send me away."
The lady hissed. "Keep doing that." Her voice had the lilt of Eisland in it, and a will that could only be Queen Brunnhild's. She panted. "We shall see ... who is the greater fool."
I left, not daring to hear more, and took the longer way to the garden. My lady's headcloth was not there, but I did not go again to Brunnhild's chambers. I kept out of my lady's way the rest of that afternoon, my mind circling about the things I had heard. What would I have done if it had been Hans and Grethe murmuring behind the curtain? But it had not been. I thanked God Hans did not do as his lord. What choice did a wife have but to bear such things? I would say naught to my lady. Prince Siegfried had wedded her, not Brunnhild, however he sported in secret. To tell what I had heard could do no good and would only cause her hurt.
The next morn, I found her headcloth jumbled in with some lengths of uncut linen she had not yet packed. I folded it into the chest with the others.
e said our goodbyes in the courtyard. My father took my hands in his and said he had spoken much with Hans that morn and had no fear he would prove aught but a good husband. I said I would not trade my beloved for any other. And indeed, I would not, even to have my mother alive and in my arms again. But my father clung so long to my hands that I burst into tears, finally. I knew not when I might see him again, and feared that, as with my mother, it might be never again upon this earth. But I said naught of this. Who knew what mischievous spirits might be listening, to call down the very ill-fortune I dreaded?
When I dried my eyes, I saw that Brunnhild had been watching us. She looked quickly away, scowling, and said somewhat to Hagen, who stood by her. But he only shrugged. He stood with his arms crossed over his sober jerkin, his eyes on Prince Siegfried all the while. I gave me a chill to see him so, but soon we would be away and my worry ended.
In another moment, Hans called out the order for us to mount. My father lifted me to my mare's back, and we said our last farewells. The gates opened. Siegfried and Hans were first to ride out and, with them, a knight bearing a magnificent banner. No longer did Siegfried play the role of unknown knight, but displayed his rank for all to see. The ground of his banner was a dark crimson. Stitched onto it was a great, golden dragon, its breast pierced by a silver spear. Bright crimson stitching ran down the spear to blend with the crimson ground. I wondered at it, but some moments later, I had much more to wonder at. Our wagons rumbled out, and I was on my way to Xanten.
What a lightening of spirit I felt, to leave my fears behind! They seemed closed inside the walls of Burgonden Castle with Lord Hagen, and I looked upon the wide lands outside the walls with greater interest than ever I had. On the first journey of my life, when I came to Burgonden, I had kept to my litter and trembled for fear of robber knights. But with Siegfried and Hans riding at our head, who had bested the Saxons and Danes, what terrors could this world hold? And so, though our litters were fitted with cushioned benches for comfort and thick damask curtains against the dust, I rode in the open air and gazed about with childish wonder.
The morn was cool and sunny. It had rained in the night, enough to settle the dust on the roads but not to make mud of it. As we passed the village, the land stretched before us wore the green of vineyards and lofty forests, while the Rhine bounded it like a girdle of diamonds. We turned and rode northward along the river. How wide it was, far wider than any river in my uncle's kingdom. In the glitter of sunlight, it seemed all surface, and yet I knew fathoms of water lay beneath, deep enough to swallow ships. I had oft eaten trout and eels from this river and once seen a salmon great as a young ox brought to the kitchens. I had heard it said, too, that untold riches of gold lay in the river's bed, unclaimable, for they lay too deep for sunlight, so deep a swimmer must drown before he might bring any up. What monsters roamed those sunless waters? I shuddered. But enough gold lay scattered in flakes along the shores to busy the jewelers of Burgonden, so none need trouble themselves with realms so unfriendly.
I looked away from the river to where Hans rode in splendor at the head of our company. Siegfried conferred with him over every matter of importance. That very morn, when we heard horses overtaking us at a gallop, Siegfried turned first to Hans, who listened soberly and answered with some few words, whereupon Siegfried nodded and Hans turned to cry orders to the other knights to keep their weapons at ready but drive the wagons to the side of the road so the others might pass between us and the river. All obeyed as they would have obeyed Siegfried himself, and the other party galloped past with a friendly salute and no trouble.
By afternoon, the road narrowed. Mountains rose to our right, and the Rhine's shore dropped sharply into deep water, leaving no room for other riders to pass. As the road dried, a mist of dust rose about us, and I pulled the drape of my headcloth to cover my nose and mouth. Vineyards clung to every fertile cranny of these rocky slopes, down to the road's edge. In the vines hung grapes so purple and heavy they seemed ready to burst with sweetness. I tilted my head to see higher, to the clifftops and the mist that spilled softly over them. Then, blinking against the dust, I turned to peer upriver, where I thought I saw the white of a sail.
Kriemhild called from her litter. "How can you breathe, Ilse? Do you not tire of riding?"
Her questions had an air of command. So I slid from my mare and only marked the cramp in my leg when my feet touched the ground. If ladies might ride astride like men, I thought I should ride at ease all day. I gave my reins to a squire and clambered into the stuffy darkness with Kriemhild and Mina.
Kriemhild sighed. "We may never see Burgonden again."
"We will surely visit," Mina said, "when there is a jousting tourney or a christening."
"But all will be different. Brunnhild is lady there now. My mother says ..." Her voice quavered, and she set her lips together.
Such talk was fruitless, so I turned the subject, asking after Siegfried's banner. "Is it only an emblem, or did he slay a dragon, truly?"
Kriemhild brightened. "It may be that he did. He is mighty enough, is he not? And they say there are dragons yet, lingering in hills and hollows where men do not oft go." She leaned toward me. "Some of my lord's knights say the Nibelung treasure was guarded, time out of mind, by the dragon Fafnir, a beast who could be killed by the sword Balmunc and no other. They say that when Siegfried slew the Nibelung King and his sons to make himself lord over the Nibelungs, he slew the dragon Fafnir as well, for he would have no creature greater than himself to guard his treasure. They say, too, that the blood of Fafnir had this property, that whosoever bathed in it could not be pierced by a blade forged by man."
This seemed a wonder to me, beyond even the tale of Balmunc. "How could that be so? Did it harden his skin?" Perhaps, I thought, that was why Kriemhild took no pleasure in his nightly caresses.
"Little goose." Kriemhild laughed. "I am only repeating the tale his men tell. I did not say it was so."
"Hans has not told me such a thing."
"I suppose you have not asked him."
And in truth, I had not, for I had never seen the banner until this morn.
"But how can they tell such a tale," Mina asked, "if it carries no shred of truth within it? Will it not tempt some knight to strike at the prince, to test the tale?"
Kriemhild parted the drapes with one finger and peered out. Then she let them fall closed. She lowered her voice and said, "He has a shirt of silver chain mail, very finely made by a smith in the Nibelung country, that he wears under his clothing. He wore it even on our wedding night, for the mail is so fine, none but I might guess he wore aught but his own skin under his bedclothes. If any man strikes at him to test the tale, they will believe it, for the mail will turn back the blade from his skin."
I thought I would rather lie with a hard-skinned man than with one who wore chain-mail, however fine, under his nightshirt. I wondered ever after, when I saw Siegfried, whether he wore it even under his outer mail, which looked no different from the mail Hans or any other knight wore. And I wondered, too, whether Siegfried would be angered that Kriemhild had told his secret. But neither Mina nor I would be foolish enough to speak of it, and Kriemhild would surely tell none but the most trusted of her companions.
We met with no trouble on that or any other day to test Siegfried's curious armor. As we traveled ever northward, the mountains gentled to hills, the hills flattened to plains, and the occasional rains softened and thickened into a perpetual mist. Then, some three weeks after we set out, the mist lifted as though by a spell. The air grew crisp and chill. I was riding my mare that day and looked up into a light of frost that paled the heavens from the early morn's gloom to an airier, though withal more threatening iciness. I expected, at any moment, to see the first flakes of winter snow.
But we reached Xanten Castle in safety. The village at its feet was a smoky, brooding place. Behind the castle walls, we could see only the tops of the highest turrets, like browned teeth in an old peasant's jaw. But the cheerful blast of a trumpet greeted us, the gates opened, and the castle showed a more welcoming mien. Soon we crowded into a tapestried hall with hearths ablaze at every wall. King Sigmund and Queen Siglinda welcomed us in the most courtly manner, he tall and grave with a look of Siegfried about the eyes, and she fair and slender, her golden hair shot through with silver-white. Sigmund clapped his son upon the shoulder. Siglinda extended her hand for his kiss, then turned to Kriemhild. "Welcome, princess. You are as lovely as fame pronounced you, a worthy bride for Xanten's heir."
King Sigmund spoke somewhat through his nose, which in him sounded most lordly. "You have done well, my son. You vowed you would win the lady if you must pull Burgonden Castle about her ears to do it. And win her you have."
Kriemhild smiled at that.
I was content. I thought then that all the rest of my life would pass in perfect happiness. Alas, I knew little of the world. I fear I expected much that was possible only in Paradise.
Queen Siglinda gave us a wing of the castle for our own, double so many chambers as my lady had in Burgonden. There would be children soon, Siglinda said, and we would need space for them and their nursemaids. Hans and I slept in a great bed of our own alongside our lord and lady's bed. Oft of an evening, Siegfried and Hans would sit together over beakers of foamy ale, talking of battles past and future, or deliberating on the affairs of Xanten - for King Sigmund was no longer young and entrusted his son with many of the cares of kingship. Though Kriemhild joined their talk betimes, I kept my lips together, for my mother had not schooled me in statecraft.
But each night when Hans and I lay alone together in our bed, my happiness overflowed the chambers of my heart like the foam on the ale. In the dark of night, I spoke with Hans as confidingly as once I had spoken with Kriemhild. One night, I told him the tale she had told of Siegfried and the dragon. I confessed I had at first believed it. "Was that not folly?"
"Nay." His voice was so deep, it seemed to vibrate in my chest as well as his own. "Many here in Xanten believe it."
"By cause of the chain mail, I suppose."
"What mail?" His voice grew deeper yet. A tone came into it that I had not heard before, save in his gravest talks with his prince.
"Does he not wear a tunic of fine silver mail inside his clothing?" I could not believe Hans would not know such a thing, so close he was in his lord's confidence.
"Who told you that?"
He sighed. "Did she tell any other?"
"Mina. Mina will not speak of it."
Hans felt for my hand and laced his fingers with mine. "Women are said to be gossiping creatures. But you are not, are you?"
"Nay." I wrapped my arm about him. "I am glad you have no such fearsome enemies as your lord, that you must wear mail to bed. Does ..." I stopped myself. I had been near to asking whether Siegfried wore his mail even in Xanten among his kin, but it was better neither to ask nor to know. "How my poor lady must suffer in his embraces. His skin must be everywhere as calloused and hard as his sword hand."
"I think he wears a linen undertunic." Hans was silent a moment. "I will tell you another part of the tale, for you can do no harm by repeating it. All here know it. So ought you."
Something in his voice made me want to turn the knowledge aside, but if Hans thought I must know it, then I must. So I said, "What is it?"
"They say that as Prince Siegfried bathed in the dragon's blood, a leaf fell from the linden tree above and fell to a certain place upon his back. It clung there, for his skin was damp with sweat after the work of slaying Fafnir. And so, in that one spot, the dragon's blood did not cover him. Everywhere else, his skin is invulnerable, and he cannot be slain by sword or spear or any blade made of man, unless it pierce him where the linden leaf fell. So they say."
"It is only a tale," I said.
"A tale that does not displease him, for like the tale of Balmunc, it gives heart to those who follow him and robs it from those who wish him ill."
"That is well," I said. But to me, it proved unlucky, for being a tale of blood, it prompted my courses to start during the night.
When I called a maidservant the next morn to change the bed linens, Kriemhild teased me. "Not breeding yet? Soon, you will be through with such messes until your first babe comes."
She seemed to hint she had conceived. I waited for her to say more, but when she did not, I sighed and said, "Men would not love blood so much if they bled with each new moon."
Deep within my belly, the familiar ache dragged at me. I knew that, in some manner, this woman's blood mixed with a man's juices to form a babe. I had thought this would happen within me so soon as Hans and I were married. But now, for the second time since then, my courses had come. Perhaps I had not enough blood, or there was some barrier within my womb that kept our fluids from mixing in the proper way. But I turned the thought aside, for it was like a knife in my heart.
I retired to clean myself and bind cloths between my thighs. Then I lay for a time on a pallet in the little side chamber, for the ache made me weary. I did not mean to sleep, but I woke later with a beam of sunlight stabbing into my eyes and rolled away from it. My womb no longer ached. It might be, I thought, that Hans and I must lie together a certain number of nights without let. The journey to Burgonden had kept us many nights apart, but here in Xanten we would have no trouble fulfilling such a condition, so long as no war arose. My lady seemed in no doubt I would soon conceive.
Feeling better, I rose and started back to the bedchamber. But I found the door barred against me. "Go away," Kriemhild called.
Astonished, I took a step backward. "It is me. Ilse."
There was a silence. I was about to do as she said when the door finally opened, but no more than a hand's breadth. "Come in quickly."
I slipped in. She reached to shut the door behind me, shielding her face behind a curtain of loose hair. Between its shining strands, her face was a mottled purple. Her left eye was swollen shut. Her lips on that side were twice their normal size.
"How did this happen?" I whispered.
The undamaged side of her mouth quirked up. "Goose," she said. "My husband beat me. It will happen to you, soon enough."
I did not believe her, but I did not say so. "Why would he do so?" To cover the boldness of my question, I added, "You must put a paste of arnica flowers on the bruise." This was the remedy my mother had used on my brother, who oft came in battered head to foot after playing at sword fighting. "The skin is not broken?"
She shook her head.
I opened the door and called a maidservant to bring a jar of dried arnica flowers and a pot of boiling water.
"You must go," Kriemhild said, "and make my excuses to my ladies and to Queen Siglinda and hers. I cannot show so ugly a face in company."
"So soon as I have tended you." I wanted to weep, looking at her. When she turned her head, the unbeaten side of her face was as beautiful as ever. Her hair, streaming past her cheek and over her shoulder, was like a waterfall suffused with sunlight. I did not understand Siegfried and could not quell another angry question. "How could he treat you so roughly?"
"He says I gossip too much. He'll not do it again before the babe is born. I told him I am bearing, and he said I should have told him sooner. He'll do naught to injure his child."
Her news ought to have gladdened me, but her hurts and my own disappointment numbed my heart. I feared I might be at fault in telling Hans what I knew of Siegfried's mail. Alas, what was done was done. I drew a breath. "Are you bearing, truly?"
"I think I must be. I have not bled since before my wedding day."
"Would that I were," I murmured.
She touched my shoulder. "You will get a child soon."
That she would comfort me thus in the midst of her own trouble brought tears to my eyes. "What is wrong with me?" I asked.
"Have no fear. It is too soon after your wedding to imagine yourself barren. If you were, there are yet charms to quicken the most stubborn womb. I will give you one to put under your pillow."
"Are they not wicked?"
"Why should they be? They are no more than roots and herbs, such as you sent the maid to fetch."
When the maidservant returned, I thought upon this. I took the arnica flowers and the pot of water through the half-open door, so even the servants should not know how my lady's face had been marred. I measured the herbs, sliding them between my fingers and thinking of the power in them. How could such be for aught but good? And if the charm my lady offered would heal my barrenness, how could that be wicked? I steeped the arnica flowers in the water and beseeched Kriemhild to show her other bruises. Her arms and her ribs had begun to purple, but it lightened my worry to see her belly white and untouched.
"You are too new a bride to be hurt thus," I said. "He should have known you might be bearing."
"It was my own folly."
When I would have lifted her elbows to bind a poultice about her ribs, she said, "Leave that - it doesn't show."
"But it pains you. I will tend your face presently." In truth, I needed time to think how best to poultice it, for though arnica was the finest remedy I knew to heal a bruise, it carried a poison if it entered the body, whether through a tear in the skin or through the lips. Would there be poisons in the fertility charm she had offered me? "He ought not beat you," I said, "if he thinks you need correction, but only speak chidingly, as Hans does to me. I hope ... it was naught that Hans said?"
"Nay. I only asked whether I should not send for a smith to mend the rent in his silver mail. He set his fist to my face, saying he would do worse if I spoke any word of the matter again."
I sighed, comforted to know it was not Hans who had spoken of the mail. "But if it is rent, and his squire does not look after it, is it not your duty as wife to look to the matter?" I touched the bruise on her arm, to be sure that her skin was whole. She winced.
"He would not have a smith learn of the mail, to spread news of it throughout the kingdom and beyond. You'll not speak of it, Ilse, will you? It was wicked of me to tell you and Mina. I ought not speak of it even now."
"I will not speak of it." I bound a poultice to her arm and blotted the drips. "But should it not be mended?"
"He says none but the Nibelung smith who made it can mend it, for it was crafted with a magic no other has mastered, nor can."
I did not ask where the rent was. But I thought of the linden leaf. "Can he not send it to the Nibelungs? Or does he fear to be without it, even in Xanten?" Then I said, "Nay, do not answer. Best not speak of this, even between ourselves."
But she said, "He never wears it in Xanten."
I wished I had not asked.
She said, "He told me the smith who made it is dead, and none now have the magic to mend such a thing. Do not speak of this to anyone."
"I will not. Not even to Hans." I began to understand Siegfried's anger, if not that he could raise a hand to my lady. She was too free with her tongue. "Lie back," I said, "and I will poultice your face."
I squeezed out the poultice until it was no more than damp, then shaped it to fit her cheek. I bound it with a strip of linen that passed from her chin over the top of her head, and then went to spend an hour with the ladies of the court, giving out that she was troubled with queasiness. Afterward, I came back so she need not pass the time in loneliness, and found her stitching at a tapestry for the window of her bedchamber. It showed the mountain hall of the Nibelungs and the treasure hoard within, with Fafnir the dragon guarding all.
Within the week, Kriemhild kept her promise and gave me a packet of herbs sewn into a square of fine linen. When I handled it, a scent of roses and myrrh wafted up and, behind those sweeter scents, something sharp and sour. I could feel the twisting shapes of roots among the dried leaves within. She told me a charm to say before I undressed each night: "Maria, Jesu, Josef, bless our union, for three is the holy number."
The charm could not be wicked, invoking such holy names.
"If it does not work," my lady said, "tell me, and I will try to get a blessed host from the chapel. Queen Siglinda's priest is old and sleepy. It would be no great matter to slip past him and take one."
I sucked my breath in. "But that would be truly wicked - to steal from God!"
"It is the most sovereign remedy for any ill that may trouble a person." Her face was no longer swollen, and her bruises had faded. She was beautiful again. Only a yellowish cast across her cheek, like the haze of sunlight on a distant and brewing storm, hinted at what she had suffered.
I pressed the packet of herbs to my heart. "This will work. I am sure of it." Some words are easier to speak than to believe.
Indeed, the winter passed, and then the spring, and still I did not conceive.
Kriemhild's belly grew ever greater. She was short-tempered, complaining of pains in her back and hips, and yelping when the babe kicked. Queen Siglinda counseled good cheer and said she would bear a strong and lusty boy, saying it had been just so with her when she carried Siegfried. But this counsel made no change in my lady's temper.
One morn, a terrible shrieking awakened Hans and me. My first thought was a foolish one, for I imagined Prince Siegfried had broken his promise not to beat my lady before her time had come. Then I knew her time must be upon her. I threw on a morning gown and ran to her chamber, pausing but an instant after I knocked before throwing the door open. My lord Siegfried sat upon the bed at her side. He had been holding her hand while she screamed, and most tenderly withal. I felt ashamed for what I had imagined.
When he saw me, he dropped her hand and stood. "Take care of her, Lady Ilse." He fled past me.
I knew naught of how to bring a babe into the world, but in another moment, Siglinda and her ladies had rushed into the chamber, crowding around us.
The queen sat on the bed. "Hush, now." She was a milk-skinned lady with the palest of blue eyes, and I thought her not half so commanding as Queen Uta. But Kriemhild hushed upon the instant, her eyes round and shiny with tears.
Siglinda directed servants to bring water and linens and knives. She told some of the ladies to draw the tapestries away from the windows, others to search the chamber for knots and see that all were untied, lest they bind the babe in the womb and hinder the birth. She knew all that must be done.
It was sunset before the babe struggled its way into the world. I was holding Kriemhild when it happened. She gave a last shriek, then shuddered in my arms. First the babe's head came out, a wet, dark-furred ball between Kriemhild's legs. I felt I should look away, but my eyes were strangely compelled. After the head came the neck and shoulders, which Siglinda grasped with steady hands. The babe wriggled out, slowly at first, and then with quicksilver speed, like a fish. Shining red, he was, with a voice as loud as his mother's. I could not help but feel a pang at the sight of him, for my courses had come and gone again a week past.
"A boy," Siglinda announced. "Did I not say so?" She plunged him into the basin and began to wash the red from him. "What is his name?"
Kriemhild lay back in my arms. "Gunther, for my royal brother." She closed her eyes.
"Gunther," Siglinda cooed, "little Prince Gunther." She dried him and bound him in linen swaddling bands. She beckoned to a woman I had not marked before, a round-faced peasant woman who opened the front of her dress as she came forward, baring a breast. The peasant took the babe and began to nurse him.
"Kriemhild," I said, "do you not wish to look upon your babe?"
"Nay, let me sleep," she answered. "I have done my duty."
God forgive me. Envy clawed at my heart. I wanted to drop my lady and take her babe for my own, but instead I laid her upon her pillows, taking every care to do it as gently as I might. By the time I turned, the ladies had clustered so thickly about the wetnurse that I could not see little Gunther. Siglinda dipped a clean cloth into a basin of rosewater. I took it and bathed Kriemhild's face.
Coming next: Chapter 17, Episode 7: Black as a Demon's Tooth
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