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.
New episodes of the serial will appear on the blog about twice a week. If you missed the first part of the serial or a recent episode, want to refresh your memory about earlier episodes, or just prefer to let the episodes build up so you can read a chapter or more at a time, this page is for you.
t was on a Walpurgis Eve that the seeds of the misfortune began to germinate. I was a maiden of fourteen years, sent by my father in the summer past to be companion to the Princess Kriemhild of Burgonden. In that rich kingdom on the great and powerful Rhine, so he thought, I would soon tempt the eye and heart of some nobleman who might raise the fortunes of our family. I had not. On festival days and occasions of state when envoys from other kingdoms and principalities came to entreat with the three brother kings of Burgonden, we maidens were brought out like treasure to make a show of Burgonden's worth. What chance had I to draw admiration alongside the beauteous Kriemhild and her many companions? And save at these times, we maidens lived cloistered in the ladies' wing of the castle to preserve our purity.
But Kriemhild gave me her friendship, so it was from the eider-filled silks of her high, curtained bed that I crept when the nightmare woke me. Naught could I remember, save for the terror that still held me in its grip. I stood at the window, arms crossed for warmth over my shift, and gazed into the night. The darkness throbbed with the clamor of the Leibeigene, the unfree peasants bound to the land. Their bonfires cast a stain of yellow light into the sky above the castle wall. The noise that had penetrated my dreams, a snapping and crackling of burning logs, seemed to come from all directions at once, as though the fires had spilled and spread to cover the new-plowed earth surrounding the castle. It put me in mind of the marauders who had oft attacked my father's fortress.
From the nearest trundle bed, Janka laughed softly up at me. "Wakeful?" When I made no answer - was my presence at the window not answer enough? - she said, "The peasant lads are cracking whips to drive out the winter spirits."
"I know," I said quickly, lest she think me a fool. "They did it on my father's lands, too. They are more pagan than Christian."
"They will couple in the fields tonight. Like randy goats in the furrows."
I shuddered. Then I said, "Nay." For Janka delighted in teasing me.
"O, yea," she flung back. "The honeycakes you love are made from wheat grown in those fields. In earth drenched with the seed of the plowmen."
I set my hands over my ears and stared into the fire-stained darkness. But I could shut out Janka's laughter no more than I could root out the images she had thrust into my mind, of turned soil and turning, lewd bodies that gleamed under the light of moon and fire. Nor could I shut out the sudden cry from the bed I had left.
I dropped my hands.
"Ilse?" Kriemhild sounded more plaintive than peremptory. Her moods changed like quicksilver. She had been more eager than I, when the night first fell, for the coming morn and its adventures.
I swayed as the feather mattress gave under my knees. The side of her hand struck my forearm, patted me to get its bearings, then curled around my wrist. "Why are you so restless?"
I lay down and rolled to face her, though I could see naught. "The noise woke me. They are cracking whips for Walpurgis Eve."
She caught my hands and we twined fingers. "Such a frightful dream I had, of corpses and ... and blood."
"Was it the Saxons?"
"Nay," she said impatiently. "The Saxons will not threaten us again. But I dreamed of a battlefield, with I know not what dead men upon it, and wounded groaning all about me. O, it was ghastly!"
I had seen battle near enough to fear it and had dreamed of it oft enough, waking with the feeling that a demon had been crouching over my chest. Had such a dream awakened me this night? "Did you see a devil?" I asked, "come to collect the unshriven souls?"
"Nay, don't be a goose." She sighed as though to carry her heart up with her breath. "A falcon rose up from the midst of the fallen. A lovely creature he was! Clean-feathered and bright of eye. He came and sat sweetly upon my wrist. And then we flew together into the air. As though I, too, were a bird. His wings tilted so gracefully. I could see the shadings on his feathers, and the way the wind ruffled them. We left the battlefield far behind."
Relieved, I said, "The falcon signifies your beloved." There was neither minstrel nor minnesinger alive who did not have a tale of a falcon and a lady in his repertory. "Have you a secret love?" My lady had sent away many a high-born suitor who would have sent my father into transports of joy, had he offered for me. "Someone for whose sake you turned away all those others?"
She sniffed and burrowed her head into my neck. She made another sound, of breath catching in her throat.
"You ought not to weep over a dream so fine. Who is it? Does he bide here in - "
A snort of laughter broke through her tears. "Goose. I have no beloved."
"You soon will, I think."
"Ilse," she whispered, "there was a pair of eagles in the dream. Steinadler, stone-eagles."
"Are you sure they were not Kaiseradler?" I knew who the imperial Kaiseradler signified. But I had never heard a tale with a Steinadler in it, much less two.
"They were Steinadler. Clad all in murky, dark feathers, save for the gold on their heads. They dived at my falcon, turn upon turn, and the cruelest one caught him and plunged his great, sharp beak into my falcon's back, just between his lovely brown wings, and ..." Her breath caught into a sob.
I tightened my arm about her and felt how she shuddered. "It was not real." But when I thought again of the falcon rising from the heaps of dead and wounded, I wondered whether it were only the eagles who troubled her, and not the falcon, too.
alpurgis Morn dawned in a mist that clung to river, fields and forest, but soon burned to naught under a strong May sun. Enviously, I watched Kriemhild rise and shake out her bright hair as though she had dreamed of naught but pleasure during the long night. So fair she was, minstrels had spread word of her throughout our Holy Roman Empire. But her mother, Queen Uta, cautioned that a prize too easily won is little valued, while a prize withheld grows ever more tantalizing.
Indeed, it seemed the more suitors she turned away, the more and greater were those who came. Even now, there were princes in the courtyard. My lady called for a gown of palest rose and set a necklet of heavy gold studded with rubies about her throat. Before her hair was plaited and pinned away under a headcloth, she leaned from the window to survey her suitors while her maidens crowded round.
"Look at the hitch in that one's stride," she murmured to me. "He'd give more pain to his dancing partner than to an enemy knight." She sighed. "And the beard on that one! I would sooner kiss a gorse bush."
Anna, standing at her other side, laughed. By my shoulder, Janka said, "Laugh, but I wager you have kissed such a man." Anna let her mouth hang open in a show of wounded innocence, then belied it with a giggle. I could not imagine where she might have met and kissed someone.
We breakfasted lightly that morn, then went in a throng of ladies and maidens out the castle doors to mount our mares and follow Queen Uta and our knightly escort through the castle gates. I found it strange to wander thus outside the walls, on no greater errand than gathering May flowers. In my father's fortress, we had been too much menaced for ladies to leave the walls' protection, though I had passed more hours in the courtyard there than here.
As we rode through the gates I had to pinch my nose, for I had grown unused to the stink of such places. Some half dozen of miscreants' heads hung over us, and at the gateposts dangled the severed arms and legs of a Saxon messenger, much tattered by crows and ravens.
A month past, King Ludiger of Saxony had sent the messenger whose dismembered limbs now hung at the gateposts, threatening war if Burgonden's three young kings did not at once cede to him a disputed territory along their northern border. Our kings' seneschal and chief adviser, Lord Hagen of Tronege, had made short work of this messenger, sending his gory head back to King Ludiger in a box set with sapphires, along with a writing calling it the gift of the Kings Gunther, Gernot and Giselher to express the measure of their esteem for the King of Saxony. We had heard naught from the Saxons since. All in Burgonden, from my lady Kriemhild to Lord Hagen, pronounced the danger past. But I had a fearful nature.
A dozen knights rode at our head, with another dozen behind and yet more flanking us. Most were elder knights with grizzled mustaches and liver-spotted hands. Queen Uta would not trust the younger knights near us maidens. So with these for escort, we left the stinking gates behind. We passed through the village, where geese squawked at our horses' fetlocks, and merchants and craftsmen came to their doors to bow and do us honor. We rode past furrowed, brown fields that made me think of Janka's teasing and sent the blood rushing into my face. Past vineyards, orchards and flocks of sheep, we rode.
The air floated cool and fresh about my face. The heaven, unmarred by any cloud, seemed pure as the cloak of the Virgin in Princess Kriemhild's missal, though unbounded, as the figure in the book's cramped margin was not. And yet it was the very boundlessness of sky and land that frightened me, even the breeze that rustled through the trees and across the mead to drift wantonly down to trouble the half-furled sails of a ship waiting on the Rhine to pay its tithe and pass.
In a world so wide, anything might happen. A windstorm might whirl in from the north, carrying on its back thunderheads and battering hail. A pack of wolves might lunge from the woods to fall upon us with devouring jaws.
Or - though I knew Lord Hagen had set scouts upon the roads with trumpets to warn us if they saw aught amiss - might not a Saxon army shun the roads and creep, instead, through the woods to descend upon us unaware?
We reached a grassy mead dappled with yellow flowers and edged with birch saplings. Beyond loomed a taller, darker woods. We dismounted and left our horses to our escort. Baskets over our arms, maidens and ladies scattered across the mead to gather in the May. I was stooping to pluck my first cowslip blossom when the queen called Anna away from the woods' edge.
"But I was only going to gather woodruff and violets for a Maibowle."
"The wedded ladies will gather enough of such woodland blossoms."
"Come, Ilse," Kriemhild said, slipping her arm from Janka's to beckon me. While her mother chided Anna, she brushed past a hazel thicket and glided neatly through a break in the woods' bramble-clad edge to lead Janka downhill. I could see but little of them through the foliage - the spark of sunlight upon a jewel, the ripple of a sleeve like a ghostly spirit.
I turned to see what the queen would say, but she was chiding another maiden for the mud upon her shoes and had seen naught. A knight gave her his arm while another bent to help the maiden clean her shoe. A few knights guarded the track we had come by or looked after the horses. Most, though, had taken off their helms and mailed gloves to carry baskets for maidens and ladies. None, it seemed, had seen Kriemhild go, and none marked me, or they would surely have called me back. When I turned again to look for Kriemhild, I could see no trace of her or Janka, nor hear the murmur of their voices for the merriment of the maidens and ladies behind me. What if my companions met with danger in the woods, and with no knight by to help them? But if I called out to say where they had gone, Queen Uta would punish them.
I threaded my way through the brambles. Only a few paces from the mead, I seemed in another world. The ground sloped away from my feet. Rocks, black and shiny with dew, broke through the earth. Below, where Kriemhild and Janka had gone, the woods grew denser. Pines outnumbered the birches.
"My lady? Janka?"
I clutched at my skirts and hazarded a few steps downward. I saw a print in a drift of rotting leaves, but when I reached it, it looked to have been made by some rougher thing than my lady's foot, by a boar's snout, it might be, or a bear's paw.
A deer broke from cover and fled. My heart pounded. The pines and birches had closed around me, a confinement that seemed no less perilous than the vastness I had feared before. Laughter still came to my ears from the mead behind me, though. The ladies and their knights would hear me if I called out. And ahead, under the sigh of the wind, I thought I heard a voice that might belong to Princess Kriemhild, or to Janka.
I picked my way forward, not always by the straightest way, for there were rocky places too steep to lend my feet purchase. Wind gusted in the tops of the trees. The laughter from the mead grew fainter. The twitter of birds sounded louder in my ears, and eerie, for I had never heard such creatures in their own world, but only in garden courtyards where they came as frail and skittish visitors. Pushing my way through the pine branches, I came to the edge of a clearing filled with hyacinths more somberly blue than the sky, and beyond, a wood yet denser than the one I had passed through.
"Kriemhild?" I called.
A crow shrieked, so close above my head that I jumped and set a hand to my heart. I could no longer hear the ladies in the mead. I ought to have turned at once and made my way back while the earth still held the dents of my footprints. But I stood frozen, waiting for my heart to slow. The trees rustled, though the wind did not reach me. When it stilled, I heard a clink at the far side of the clearing that was not birdsong. I stared and saw a flash of gold and a prickle of red light, as from sunlit rubies.
"Kriemhild!" I called, and stepped into the pool of flowers.
But it was not my lady who came bounding out of the trees.
I stood stricken as a mailed and helmed knight on a monstrous white charger rose up in front of me. On one of the knight's boots, a sharp-edged swatch of road dust reached up from the heel, betraying how hastily, being squireless, he had wiped them himself. The stallion's legs were smutched, but across its back draped a caparison of spotless white samite edged with gold. A crosshatching of folds told me it must have lain in a saddlebag until this morn. The knight's mail and shield gleamed like the Rhine, if the river had carried a scatter of ruby light among the crystal. Some dozen other knights rode behind him. I might have fainted from fear had he not raised his visor, showing a young face with a pair of grave eyes near as blue as the hyacinths and a mustache as pale a blond as my lady's tresses.
"I bid you good day, Fraulein."
His accent carried a northerly music, as of minstrels from the marshes where the Rhine met the seacoast, or from Pomerania and ... Was he Saxon? I glanced to his shield, but saw only a blank and polished sheet of silver where he should have displayed the colors and device of his kingdom. The standard borne by the knight nearest him was a plain white pennon, the sort carried by landless knights unattached to any king's fief. But I could not believe this knight a simple wanderer seeking a lord. Were he and his men the vanguard of an army, sent ahead to learn where Burgonden's walls might be breached?
"Fraulein? May I make bold to ask what name you called as I rode this way?"
What should I say? What could I? I had betrayed my lady already, for I did not believe the knight had not heard. If I ran, he would be upon me in a moment.
The knight removed his helm, showing a broad forehead marked with red where it had rested and a flattened cap of sweat-damp blond hair. Tucking the helm under one arm, he swung out of the saddle, landing with a thump and a jangle, his feet crushing the flowers beneath. A huge sword hung at his side. The sheath was as rich as all else about him, but the sword's grip was strangely crude, a thing made for work, not show. It was crafted of iron and bound with a strip of worn, stained leather. A great, dull stone of murky green flecked with red jasper formed the pommel. Bloodstones, men called these. As I stared, the roan stallion of his standard bearer shifted restively and switched its tail.
The knight bowed and straightened. "If I am not mistaken, gentle maiden, I heard you call a name that belongs to the fairest and most beauteous princess in all this Empire. Will you not say whether I and my companions have come to the Kingdom of Burgonden, and what welcome I might find here?"
I shook my head. I took a step backward and stumbled over a tree root. The knight reached toward me. Like a fool, I turned, catching up my skirts, and ran.
rying "Knights! Stranger knights!" I reached the edge of the mead, where one of our knights caught the brambles aside for me. Never, I thought, had I seen so sweetly familiar a face, however lined and grizzled. The other ladies had already mounted, and a pair of knights were helping Kriemhild and Janka into their saddles. They must have circled round while I was picking my way downhill and come back to the mead without me.
A moment later, the rest of us were in our saddles, and we were away, our horses raising a dust about us, their hooves striking the road like the beating of oafish drummers who could not keep time with each other. I clung to my mare's neck, wishing I might go astride like a man, for I feared every moment to be thrown. But I came safely to the gates. The fleeting reek of Saxon limbs and miscreants' heads that met me was no unwelcome stink this time, but friendly, as though it were the outward sign of an enchantment barring passage to our enemies while admitting those who belonged to pass unharmed.
I was panting when I came at last up the stairway into the ladies' wing of the castle and hastened after Princess Kriemhild into the ladies' hall with its great, bright windows overlooking the courtyard and castle gates. Janka clung to my elbow asking question after question, each upon the tail of the last. "How many knights, Ilse? How near did you come to them? Could you see the device upon their shields?" I could not well have answered even had my mind been at peace. Mina hung at my other side, asking the same thing over and again, as though I would grasp it better the hundredth time than I had the first nine and ninety. "Was he Saxon, Ilse? Was he Saxon?"
"How can I know?" I protested.
Kriemhild dropped her empty basket by the door and strode past her companions, past all Queen Uta's murmuring ladies. Tugging at her disordered headcloth until it came loose and fell about her neck, she made for the center window. As she reached it, the cloth slid to the floor, so that she trod upon it as she gripped the sill and thrust her head and shoulders into the breeze.
"Come away," Queen Uta commanded. "What a show you make of yourself!"
Kriemhild straightened and took a half-step backward. "Thirteen riders, they are. Their leader carries a blank shield. But with a jeweled border."
So many maidens and ladies surged to the windows that, had the chamber been a ship, it must have foundered.
Queen Uta clicked her tongue. Wasplike, she twitched her head toward me, still standing by the chamber door. "Bring her away, Ilse. You are the only soul she will listen to."
"I? But ..." I pressed my lips together, shocked to find myself disputing with the queen. I gave her a hasty bob of courtesy and started for the windows. I wormed my way between the others to Kriemhild's side, where I took up her fallen headcloth, brushed at the smudges on it, and slid my arm through hers. "My lady," I murmured. "Will you not come away from the windows?"
Outside, chains rattled and timbers creaked as the gates opened. The riders could not be Saxons, or the gatekeeper would not have let them pass. "If you will, my lady," I pleaded. "Lest your lady mother fall into an apoplexy."
"Let her. Have you ever seen a knight so richly accoutered?"
The knight's helm, which he carried in his shield arm as he rode, flashed and sparkled like the rim of his shield. The crest that stood stiffly up from its crown was near as white as the caparison under his knees. "His sword is not rich," I said. "The hilt is of iron and bears only a single bloodstone for ornament. Come away, my lady, before he sees you here all uncovered."
She paid no heed, but took a step closer to the window, pulling me with her. How Queen Uta had formed so high an opinion of my powers, I knew not. Below, the knight's drying hair lifted in the breeze. From this distance, and knowing he was not of Saxony, I found him less fearsome. I watched with Kriemhild while the gatekeeper questioned him. We could not hear the questions from our window, but the knight's answer carried up, clear in every word.
"I ask King Gunther's hospitality for me and for my men. My business," he said with an arrogant thrust of his chin, "I will tell to King Gunther. Inform him, if you will, that I am here."
The gatekeeper conferred with one of our own knights, then sent a squire into the castle. Kriemhild slid her arm out of my grasp and rested her elbows on the sill.
"My lady," I murmured helplessly.
Beside the blond knight, the knight on the roan horse lowered his lord's standard and raised his hands to his helm. The sun gleamed through his crest of foxtails, and then through his hair, darker yet ruddier than the fox fur, but bright as flame where the sun caught it. I had oft heard the proverb, "No good can come of a red dog, a red horse, a red person." And yet the red hair of this knight was uncommonly fine to look upon. A smile rested lightly upon his lips. I wished he, too, had taken his helm off in the glade. Mayhap then I would not have run, but paused to ask questions of my own. Mayhap then, I would have learned from whence they came and why.
"Who is he?" I asked, meaning the red knight's lord.
Kriemhild shrugged. "How can any say, if he carries a blank shield and will tell neither his name nor his business?"
"He is no landless knight."
"Nay, indeed," said a maiden at Kriemhild's other side. It was Sybilla, the eldest of us, her headcloth so neatly in place that, but for the witness of the flower-filled basket over her arm, she might have been standing demurely here all the while we dallied in the mead. "He is too richly accoutered to be landless. I would wager he comes with the same purpose as so many others before him."
"O," I said, feeling foolish. "He comes to court you, my lady."
Kriemhild took a sudden step backward. She snatched the headcloth from my hands and covered her hair. "He, too, will fail. I like neither his guile nor his insolent manner."
"Come," I said. "Your lady mother--"
"Yea, let us sit with her, Ilse."
This was not what I wanted, but I could not gainsay it. I wished I had half my lady's courage.
"My lady mother will send to learn all that can be known of him. He makes too great a display to be honest." She brought me straight to the queen, paying no heed to her scowl, and said smiling, "Dear lady mother, I thank you for sending Ilse to fetch me away from the window. Better that we sit with you and learn what business this haughty knight thrusts upon us."
ueen Uta sent a page downstairs, bidding him fetch Lord Hagen the instant he was free. She ushered us into her chamber and closed the door. From a chest, she took a clean headcloth. Kriemhild gave me the smirched one and sat, quiet now as a tame dove, while I tucked the clean one about her head and shoulders.
"So." Uta lowered herself into a chair near the window. She reached for the large embroidery frame that stood near, rolled it closer, and took up a needle threaded with green wool. "It seems this rich lord bears a blank shield and standard, that he may impress us not with his name, but with his person and prowess." She pushed the needle through the stretched linen, reached under the frame to draw the stitch tight and start another, then came back to the front of her work. She looked at me. "They tell me you happened upon this knight in the woods."
I gripped the back of Kriemhild's chair. "Yea, my lady queen."
"And? Is he has richly accoutered as they say?"
I began with a stammer, answering neither yea nor nay, but describing how he and his men had burst from the trees where I had thought to find Kriemhild. Calming somewhat, for the queen did not interrupt, I described all I had seen of him, his white caparison and silver shield, his glittering mail and jeweled helm. Then I told of his sword. The queen pressed her lips together and frowned.
If once she had been as beauteous as her daughter, she was no longer. The creases between her brows had deepened as I spoke, but no mood of hers could erase them, so that she seemed in a perpetual temper. Her lower eyelids were fallen and red, the whites of her eyes tinged with a yellow like horse urine. The tip of her nose formed a drooping bulb that dripped in bad weather, so that even on a day as fair as this, I felt ever on edge with her, waiting for the moisture to form and fall. I wondered whether I would one day be as unpleasant to look upon as she, or whether it were a law of nature that only beauty could turn to such foulness.
"A bloodstone, you say?"
"Yea, my lady queen." I described it again, more closely, along with the hilt it ornamented, if so dull a stone could be called an ornament.
Her frown deepened. Then, of a sudden, she smiled. She gestured to a cushioned bench opposite her, where another embroidery frame waited. "Come, Ilse. Come, my daughter. Sit and stitch with me while we await Lord Hagen."
Kriemhild sighed and moved to the bench. As I settled myself beside her, the queen turned her friendliest glare upon me. "He spoke with an accent of the north, you say?"
"Yea, my lady queen. It is why I thought he might be of Saxony. That was foolish, I know."
"Besser ist besser," she said, which is to say, better to be safe than sorry.
I nodded, looking down at the half-begun needlework. Sketched upon the linen ground in an upper corner, partly obscured by the frame, were the toes of a lady's slippers and the folds of the gown that fell around them. The rest, brightened by a few spots of embroidery, was meant to be a flowery mead. Kriemhild had taken up a blue-threaded needle and begun to form an elegant cup at the end of a stem already stitched into the cloth. I took up a needle and the queen passed me her basket of yarns. When I had found a skein of the same green she was using and cut off a length, I looked up to see that she had shifted her gaze to her daughter. Her smile had widened. She looked like a cat with feathers caught in the corner of its mouth.
"Soon or late, my royal daughter, you must wed."
Kriemhild started, dropping her needle to suck at her finger. She whimpered something I could not well understand, then took her finger from her mouth. "You have ever said we must wait. That a prize too easily won--"
"Yea, so I have said. Surely you could not imagine I meant you must never wed."
"But we know naught of--"
A knock sounded at the chamber door. "Come," Uta called.
A page announced Lord Hagen while the seneschal himself strode into the chamber. I had not oft seen him so near. He was a big man - bigger, it might even be, than the knight who had towered over me in the birch glade. But he was neither so young nor so richly dressed. His hair was coarse and brown with no strand of gray, though time had carved lines into his brow and on either side of his mustache, whose drooping ends cast shadows echoed by the folds of sun-darkened flesh beside them. His leather jerkin was finely made and fitted to his great shoulders, and his stockings of silk were dyed a costly black, for the kings of Burgonden were not tight-fisted with their vassals. But he wore no gold about his person, save for the ring that signified his rank, and the gems he wore were few and somber. If Hagen had appetites, they lay elsewhere.
"So kind of you to come."
Uta's tone may have been rather too purring, for Hagen gave her no warm look. Did he know it would have pleased her to see him banished outside the Empire? I had learned that the queen's influence, when the king her husband had been alive, had been greater than Hagen's. I no longer wondered at this. Though Hagen affrighted me, Queen Uta affrighted me no less. But her power had waned after the old king died and left his kingdom to his three sons.
She pointed to a large chair with a padded seat and bade the page move it closer. "Shall I have wine brought?"
"Nay, my lady queen, I thank you." He bowed to her. Then he bowed to Kriemhild and me. Behind his back Uta flapped her hand to dismiss the page, who fled, closing the door behind him.
Hagen sat. He laid his bulky arms over the arms of the chair, gripping the carved rams' heads at their ends. "You are wise," he said, "to express interest in the visitors below. Though they announce neither their names nor their lineages, it is not hard to guess their leader's rank. The richness of his adornments and the quality of his mount betray him."
"Indeed." Uta pursed her lips.
Kriemhild sat and stitched, showing a patience foreign to her nature. I wondered how long she could keep herself in check.
The knights speak a Rhenish German," Hagen said, "with a flavor of the north in their words and manner of speech."
Would he tell of the sword which, when I mentioned it, had made the queen so suddenly, strangely welcoming? Whatsoever it meant to her, it must mean more to a man so shrewd and widely traveled. But Hagen only sat, gazing mildly upon her.
"So," she said finally. "Will they make trouble for my sons?"
Kriemhild blazed up. "They will make trouble! You should not--"
Hagen looked at her, and she set her lips together. In the shadow of his mustache, a smile flickered. Then he was grave again.
"Lord Hagen?" the queen prompted.
He turned back to her. His voice was lazy, but his hands flexed about the chair arms, raising sinews between his knuckles and his wrists. "I think you know the story of the Nibelung gold."
If the queen did, I did not. I was glad to know I had not, after all, heard every tale in minstrelsy. For though my father's fortress was not visited by the great minstrels who came to courts such as this, I had passed near a year in Burgonden, long enough to hear the best of them and to grow weary of some tales, once new to me, but repeated too oft over the long winter.
"It cannot be true," Kriemhild muttered. "Such tales are ever magnified and filled with invention."
"My royal daughter is wise," Uta said.
Kriemhild rolled her needle between her fingers and gave Hagen a doubtful glance. "Mayhap I do not well remember it. I heard the tale but once or twice."
Uta smiled. "And little Ilse, if I may judge from the look upon her face, has not heard it at all."
I straightened, surprised to be spoken of. And then I froze, for Lord Hagen's eyes were upon me, and they were not friendly. Within them stirred a calculation, wary and cold, that a maiden such as me could hardly have provoked. Indeed, his glance met mine for only a moment before it passed into the distance and kindled into a passion I might have called wrathful, had it suited our talk. What, I wondered, was the Nibelung gold?
"Little Ilse," Hagen said softly. His gaze shifted to Kriemhild, but Kriemhild only stitched more intently on a blossom's flaring rim. His eyes burned into me. "It is said the princess shows you favor, that you are dearest to her of all her companions."
Kriemhild reached for my hand. "Yea, she is most dear to me."
Uta said, "She is virtuous."
He nodded, his eyes never leaving me. "She is a fair maiden."
I flushed, for he might as well have called me plain. If I were fair, he would have called me beauteous, and if I were beauteous, he would have said I shone like the moon next to my lady, the sun of beauteousness. It was courtly to praise women above their merits.
"You will find a good husband here."
I ought to have thanked him, but my voice would not obey.
He moved one of his hands to scratch lightly at the other. Spiderlike hairs sprouted from the backs of his fingers. His eyes left me, and I breathed more easily. "In the swampy lands near the mouth of the Rhine," he said, "there is a hill they call a mountain. On its crest stands the fortress of the Nibelungs. The Nibelungs have stretched a great chain across the mouth of the Rhine and will give no ships leave to pass, save those which pay whatsoever fee they ask from the cargos within their holds."
I saw naught strange in this. There was a chain across the Rhine at Burgonden, too, which was not lifted until a ship paid the duty demanded by the Burgonden kings. I knew the Nibelungs must have great wealth, for ships came to them from the sea itself, before they had passed other kingdoms along the Rhine, and therefore tithed from full holds. But if the knights below were Nibelungs, why did Hagen not say so directly?
"Are the visitors Nibelungs?" Kriemhild's voice dripped scorn.
He turned his eyes on her. She seemed not to suffer under their gaze as I had. She let go of my hand to feed a thread of pale green through the eye of her needle. When she was finished she looked into his face and repeated her question. "Are they Nibelungs?"
"The Nibelungs are short and pale, with eyes like seaweed, and they are hasty of temper."
"Not Nibelungs, then." Kriemhild shrugged and bent to her work.
"It is Prince Siegfried of Xanten."
She cried out and dropped her needle.
"Do not bleed upon the linen," Queen Uta said.
I gave my lady the soiled headcloth, and she pressed her fingers into its wadded folds. Never until this day had I seen her prick herself while sewing, and now she had done it twice.
"Nay," she said, "This knight cannot be Prince Siegfried. Or if he is, I cannot look favorably upon him. I had a dream last night, full of ominous portent."
"Rubbish." Uta grimaced, curling her lip so the bulb at the end of her nose dipped over it.
Hagen gave her a look of distaste. But it was a dry day, and no glisten hung from the queen's nose. He cleared his throat. "It is said that men are wise to heed such dreams."
"That is pagan nonsense. Have you no priests in your land of Tronege?" She raised her voice, chiding him as though he were the youngest of her sons. "Or is this some heretical notion you took up as a youth, when you were held captive in Hungary?"
I kept my eyes upon my work, though my fingers trembled so, I could take no stitch.
"My lady mother," Kriemhild murmured, "you go too far."
She raised her brows. "I am still queen here. However bereaved. And this is a Christian kingdom. Is it not?"
"I beg forgiveness, my lady queen, if I have offended." Hagen's voice was silky. "Shall I tell the tale?"
"If you please."
He bent toward her in a half bow, then turned to Kriemhild and me.
ome years ago, beauteous and most royal maidens, old King Nibelunc of the Nibelungs desired to relieve himself of the cares of kingship and divide his holdings between his two sons, Nibelunc the Younger and his brother Schilbunc."
I sighed in relief to hear Hagen speak so peaceably. I picked up my needle again and settled myself to stitch the grass about the flowers while I listened.
"The old king hesitated. He did not wish his sons, each of whom was equally dear to him, to quarrel over the division of property. In especial, he did not wish them to quarrel over who should receive the most valuable object among all those riches. That was the sword Balmunc."
I must have made some sound, for he paused to look at me. I flushed and bent my head over the tapestry, fumbling with my needle and, I fear, placing a stitch awry. But he spoke on and I breathed easier.
"There was and is but one Balmunc in the world, whose singular property is that no man may withstand its force. For whensoever that sword is unsheathed, it slays any and all who oppose its bearer. King Nibelunc feared, above all, that if he gave Balmunc to one of his sons, that son, in a fit of anger, might draw the sword from its sheath to slay the other, and thus take sole possession of the Nibelung hoard."
He tapped on the rams' horns carved into his chair. "It was King Nibelunc's ill fortune that, traveling then through the nether lands of the Rhine was the only son of King Sigmund and Queen Siglinda of Xanten, Prince Siegfried. The prince stopped overnight in the Nibelung fortress as King Nibelunc's guest. Thinking the timing fortunate, the king asked young Siegfried whether he might be persuaded to fairly divide the Nibelung wealth between his sons. As payment, he offered the sword Balmunc. A clever solution, he thought. If his sons disputed the division, they would blame Siegfried, not their father, and if perchance their dispute grew heated, neither would have access to the sword Balmunc and its power."
Hagen leaned toward me, and I looked up despite myself. "Picture it, little Ilse. Old King Nibelunc's green eyes glow over his long, white beard. He leads Siegfried and the two Nibelung heirs into the great storage chamber dug into the earth beneath the fortress. The torchlight shines on the long-hidden treasure, showing trails of slime and animal droppings across the gold. And then -"
Queen Uta's voice cut sharply over his. "The torchlight shone, my royal daughter, on mounds of gold and silver so high and wide that a hundred ox-carts could not hold it all. Jewels flashed there, ruby-red and emerald-green. And from every corner and cranny, there burst the rainbow fire of diamonds big as sparrows' eggs. You cannot conceive of it my dear one."
"You speak as though you were present," Kriemhild said scornfully.
"I know what I speak of. You would do well to listen and consider."
"Yea," said Hagen dryly. "Siegfried's mouth must have watered. But all was the property of King Nibelunc, property he meant to pass undiminished, save for the perilous sword, to his sons. A generous father, he was, and his sons loyal. Wise, he was not. Watch with me, maidens, while the old, green-eyed king unbuckles the sword Balmunc from his side. Bowing slightly, king to prince, he presents the sword to Siegfried - a sword of great worth, but without beauty. For its hilt is of neither silver nor gold, but of iron, with a piece of old leather stretched about the grip."
I drew a breath.
"And the pommel bears no sparkling gemstone, but a ball of dark green chalcedon brightened only by the flakes of scarlet jasper trapped within."
I bit my lip at Hagen's words, for I had seen the sword he described. It had carried no air of enchantment about it. But Balmunc was a tool for killing. Why should it be beauteous?
"It is an old sword," he said, "and should have been buried with the lord it first served. Watch, royal maidens, and see how Siegfried reaches for it. See how he closes his hand about the hilt, his fingers crawling to find their best grip. Swift as lightning, he strikes."
I gasped and pulled a stitch too tight. I had not seen the end coming. I bend over to pick at the stitch, so I did not see Hagen smile, but I heard it in his voice.
"So witless an old man deserved the end he was dealt, did he not?"
"As would we," Kriemhild burst out, "if -" She snapped her mouth shut.
Hagen leaned back in his chair. I looked up and saw his glance travel to Queen Uta, sitting stiffly upright, and then back to Kriemhild. "As would we, if we gave him so unquestioning a welcome."
"Only a fool would believe such a tale," Queen Uta said. "Many knights have passed through Burgonden, bearing many swords. I have yet to see one with more than mortal power."
"Being a lady, your royal highness has little experience of the wider world. If you had traveled as far as I, you would have seen many wonders." He looked at me. The wrath in his eyes had cooled, or he had masked it better. "Have you ever seen such a wonder, little Ilse?"
If I had dared speak, I might have answered yea. Had I not, but an hour before, seen the very sword hanging from the stranger-knight's side? Just so had I seen it in my mind when Hagen told how Siegfried raised it over the necks of the royal Nibelungs and brought it down. If it had been my choice, I would have pictured no such cruelties, but I had listened to him as though to a minstrel, and he had invited me to see the king's green eyes and white beard, to see the two sons waiting at his side. In my mind, I had seen them near as clearly as I saw the sword Balmunc. So, too, I saw the blood spurting and flowing over the treasure, like a pig's blood at slaughter time. I shuddered.
"Prince Siegfried is wonderfully wealthy," Queen Uta said.
"His wealth carries ill fortune," Hagen replied.
Uta spoke on, as though she had not heard. "He is twice royal, for he has made himself king in his own right over the Nibelungs."
"We cannot know if it is he below stairs in my brothers' hall." Kriemhild turned to Hagen. "Have you seen him before this day, to know his face?"
Hagen shrugged. "Nay."
If Kriemhild had seen the sword, she would not have doubted. And after hearing the tale, I thought that I, too, might fear to be courted by so treacherous and bloody a knight. I wondered where the knight of the foxtails had been when Siegfried traveled to the land of the Nibelungs. A red dog, a red horse, a red person... But Siegfried's hair was blond.
"Does he say what business he comes on?" Queen Uta asked.
"He wishes to see the many lands of the Empire. So he says. He boasts that if he is ill-treated here, he fears not to overcome us by force and take Burgonden for his own."
Kriemhild's fingers whitened about her needle. Uta shook her head and seemed on the brink of adding a word, but Hagen spoke on before she could utter it.
"He proposed, indeed, that the kings of Burgonden should strive against him, three to one, and whosoever proved victorious should be lord over both inheritances, Burgonden and his own."
"Fiend!" Kriemhild jabbed her needle into the center of the newly stitched flower as though it were an enemy's heart. As for myself, I knew not whether to feel alarmed or amazed. Was what I had feared from the Saxon and Danish armies to befall us, instead, at the hands of a single knight? But the smile of his standard-bearer had been so tender.
"Siegfried is young," Uta said. "He speaks boastfully to impress us with his valor. How did my lordly sons answer?"
"King Gernot," Lord Hagen reported, "cried that he would hear no disrespectful talk from any knight's lips, howsoever royal he might be. But his elder brother King Gunther spoke peaceably, describing Burgonden as a rich and worthy land and saying they coveted no further fiefdoms. There was much talk back and forth, my lady queen, and I will confess that hot words crossed my own tongue before it came to a conclusion. But King Gunther smoothed all over, and the end of it is that Siegfried - for he answers to that name - is invited to be our guest in Burgonden Castle so long as he may wish to stay." He stretched his lips into a smile as false as the flower under Kriemhild's needle.
But Queen Uta smiled upon Kriemhild as truly as I had yet seen her smile. "I thank you, Lord Hagen, for the splendid information you have brought. I wonder, sometimes, whether there is a thing in the world you do not know."
Hagen's lips parted, but Kriemhild spoke first.
"Gunther should have held his tongue."
Hagen's smile grew less false. "King Gunther, too, is young."
Uta frowned. "My lordly son is wise to make peace."
"Mayhap," Hagen replied. "He has ordered a jousting tourney for the morrow, and after the joust, a feast of welcome. We shall see how Prince Siegfried acquits himself. I have counseled the kings to be watchful, for we know not what the prince intends. It may be naught but friendship - though his first words to my lords suggest otherwise - or he may mean to serve us as he served the Nibelungs."
"My sons," Uta snapped, "are not such fools as Old King Nibelunc."
"Indeed, my lady queen." Hagen opened his hands in a gesture that belied his words. "Being your sons, they are most wise."
Uta studied his face. She pursed her lips. At last, she said, "You may go."
Hagen rose. He made a deep bow to the queen and then a shallower one to Kriemhild and me. Unhurried, he went to the door, opened it without calling for the page who should have been waiting outside, and left us.
Kriemhild darted a look at me, then took my hand. "May we go, lady mother?"
Uta waved in dismissal, but when Kriemhild and I rose, she said, "When you sit at your window to watch the jousting, you need not wear a headcloth. See to it, though, that your hair is properly dressed and well adorned." She glanced my way. "I count on you, Ilse, to know what is right."
I nodded, though knowing what was right and regulating my lady's behavior were two things. And a part of me envied the freedom of Kriemhild's manner.
Uta frowned at her. "Bear yourself to command respect, my royal daughter, and watch closely. For if I am not mistaken, the stranger-knight will joust."
"Yea, my lady mother."
Uta lifted a finger. "And if Lord Hagen is not mistaken, he will joust well. Consider why we have waited all this while and turned away so many suitors. Not to lock you away in a convent. Nor to see you grow long in the tooth while the flocks of suitors at our gates grow less eager and finally dwindle away. You are the greatest treasure in Burgonden's keeping. Your brothers and I have a duty to spend you well. Watch the jousting, my royal daughter, and consider whom you want for your lord and husband: the victorious knight, or the knight in a heap upon the ground. For there can be no mistake in one thing. You must and shall wed."
ong before the tourney began, we maidens clustered in our windows, pointing and chattering, giggling behind our hands and saying who we thought would joust well or poorly. We gathered in Kriemhild's antechamber, for there was not room enough at the windows in the ladies' hall for both us and all Queen Uta's ladies, nor would our spirits have been so buoyant in her company. I, too, caught the spirit of play as I gazed down at the courtyard, full of knights testing their weapons and of squires adjusting their masters' stirrups or dashing about on one errand or another. Working under the strong sun of early summer, the knights gleamed from the tops of their helms to the silver and gold fringes of the surcoats that hung over their mail.
"Whom do you like best?" I asked Anna, and saw the red rise in her cheeks.
She giggled and swatted my arm.
"Look!" Janka pointed toward the racks of lances. I followed her finger and saw, standing to one side, the prince with the bristly beard whom Kriemhild had refused three days past. He took off one of his jeweled gloves, slapped it against his knee, put it on, took it fumblingly off again and dropped it. As he knelt to fetch it back, he glanced up at my lady and grew so befuddled that he missed the glove and put his hand into a horse dropping instead.
Janka laughed and nudged Kriemhild's elbow, but Kriemhild heeded neither her nor the hapless prince. She leaned to my ear. "There," she whispered, flicking her little finger toward a corner of the wall, deep in the shadow of the battlements. "That is him, is it not?"
I caught a glimpse of pale hair before he covered it with his helm. How had she sorted him from the hundred or more knights milling through the courtyard? Most walked in the sun where their armor flashed and drew our eyes. But the knight in the shadows was indeed the one who had affrighted me in the glade. I knew him by the stiff, white crest on his helm. And by the foxtails on the knight beside him.
"Yea," I murmured.
"He is a beast." She drew her tongue across her upper lip. "Do you think -" But she closed her mouth when she saw how intently Janka and Anna listened.
The trumpets sounded. The rattle of armor and beat of hooves stilled. Our three kings climbed to the top of the battlements. King Gunther, the eldest and tallest, took his place between his younger brothers and raised his hand to silence a lingering murmur. "We bid welcome to all friends of Burgonden who come to joust with us. And we extend to those vassal knights who have served Burgonden well and faithfully, both in our father's time and our own, our warmest thanks and most grateful favor."
They were the same words he had spoken before every tourney in the summer past. He repeated the usual rules of knightly tourneys, as though they might be unknown to any here: So soon as a knight was unhorsed, his opponent must dismount and ask whether or no he yielded; so soon as a knight cried, "yield," no hand might be raised against him, but he must be helped with all courtesy to rise; and so further and further, until I feared we would fall into a stupor, knights and watching ladies alike. But at last he said words he had not spoken before, and I listened with new attention.
"We have with us this day a stranger knight bearing an unmarked shield, who begs to prove his valor. Ours is no mean and grudging kingdom, but the greatest upon the Rhine, wherefore I and my royal brothers have bidden him hearty welcome and extended to him all rights of guest-friendship. And further to fulfill his wish, we grant him the right of challenger so that he may ride first in our tourney. Defending Burgonden's honor will be Sir Eckewart, one of our finest knights."
It surprised me that King Gunther would choose Eckewart, a knight nearer Hagen's age than his own, and not a younger man with a more powerful arm, or even Hagen himself, still one of the worthiest jousters in Burgonden. But if Eckewart was not the strongest of Burgonden's knights, he was no weakling. He oft had bested a younger knight, for he was sound of mettle and had a quick eye. There was a chance, mayhap a good one, that he would unhorse Siegfried. And yet if Eckewart were unhorsed, there would be no shame in it, and the next knight to challenge Siegfried would ride against a knight no longer fresh. Indeed, if our best and strongest knight were defeated in the first joust, it would cast a pall of failure over the entire tourney.
"Sybilla," Kriemhild said, "Give Sir Eckewart some token of your favor."
Sybilla's cheeks colored. Eckewart, margrave over an estate in the southernmost of Burgonden, was a widower but had made no move to court any of us maidens, much less Sybilla, who had passed her eighteenth year without any man of suitable rank offering for her. A maiden put a rose into her hand, and Sybilla bent her face to the flower as though it might hide her.
"Good Sir Eckewart," Kriemhild called. "Will you set a flower upon your helm as a token of favor from a maiden of Burgonden who wishes you well?"
Eckwart raised his lance in salute, no doubt believing Kriemhild herself meant to throw the flower down. And so when Sybilla threw, he saw too late. The rose tumbled against his horse's neck and from thence to the ground. His squire started toward it, but at that moment the trumpets sounded for the jousters to take their places, so the blossom lay where it had fallen.
Once more, the trumpets blared. The jousters hurtled toward each other, lances aimed. In another moment, it was over. Eckewart lay upon the ground clutching at his shoulder, crying, "Yield!"
Siegfried threw down his lance and dismounted. He gave his hand. None might have called him discourteous. But I marked how Eckewart struggled, even so, to rise. And I thought that Siegfried might, without shame, have knelt to offer better help.
"My lords!" a knight called to the kings. "I beg leave to challenge."
Gunther granted it. Another maiden threw down a rose. This time, the knight caught it and fastened it atop his helm. Alas, it brought him little better fortune than Eckewart had found. On the first pass, Siegfried's lance cut a gash in the blue and gold stripes upon his shield. A chorus of groans broke from us maidens. The knight swayed but kept his seat, and we cheered him. Then, on the second pass, the lance drove straight toward his heart. It caught his shield square in the center and tossed him over his horse's rump with no more ceremony than if he had been a sack of meal. At the last moment before his stallion trampled the knight, Siegfried reined aside and dismounted. The lance he cast aside has been dashed into splinters so far down the point that it would be good, now, only for firewood. He set his hand upon his sword hilt and bellowed, "Do you yield?"
Our fallen knight must have had the breath knocked out of him, for he did not at once answer. Siegfried drew his sword halfway from its scabbard and asked him again to yield. And now we maidens were silent while the knights of Burgonden bellowed so loud naught else might be heard. Our knight must have found breath to yield, because Siegfried turned, letting his sword drop back into its sheath. The knight of the foxtails caught his horse and brought it to him, while a clamor of knights begged leave to challenge.
Kriemhild leaned to my ear. "He is not made of iron entirely, I see."
Siegfried had raised his visor and stood leaning toward his fellow much as Kriemhild leaned to me, but with his right hand extended. The knight of the foxtails drew off his lord's glove and took Siegfried's hand between his own, massaging the heel. What, I wondered, must such a knight's hand feel like? It would be horny and rough from handling weapons. And strong. My thoughts drifted from Siegfried's hand to the hands of the other. Even from the window I could see how wide they were and how skilled. Siegfried said a word, and the knight laughed. He held the glove for Siegfried to slide his hand into. Then he held the stallion's bridle while Siegfried mounted, doing a squire's service though it was clear he was no squire.
"Look there," Janka said.
I raised my head and saw her pointing beyond the wall. On the road that led to the castle, riders had stirred up a dust cloud. The kings, too, had seen it. Gunther called for silence.
"Another suitor?" Janka asked.
But Kriemhild hushed her. We watched Gunther walk along the battlements to confer with the gatekeeper. The rider came at a fast gallop, and soon we could see a scarlet banner rising above the dust. Then they were close enough to count. Three ... five ... ten riders in all.
"The banner of Saxony is scarlet," murmured a maiden.
But as the riders neared, I saw a device upon the banner, a silver viol. These were knights from the castle of Alzey.
"Neither suitors nor enemies," Kriemhild said, her voice more cheerful than the news warranted, "but knights coming late for the tourney."
King Gunther called for a pause. "Let us make these knights welcome and refresh ourselves. We will joust again after midday."
A noise of plaint rose from the maidens around me, loud enough that Gunther raised a hand toward us. "I see we disappoint my royal sister and her noble companions."
"Not I," Kriemhild muttered as a rumble of knightly laughter rose from the courtyard. Many of the knights turned their faces to our windows, but Siegfried had bent from his horse to confer with his knight of the foxtails. Though his visor was up, his head was down, and we could not see his face.
Kriemhild set her hands upon the sill and leaned from the window. "My lord brother!" she called. "Will you not order a general combat, that my maidens may watch all those knights they most admire in action upon the field?"
The maidens murmured again, though more softly. We had but little excitement in our lives, and though none of us would cheer for a stranger knight over our own knights of Burgonden, these first jousts of the day had offered more to enliven our spirits than the whole season's jousting of the summer past. If Kriemhild thought to please us by putting so many at once upon the field, though, she was mistaken. It was ever easier to follow a single combat than a confusion of knights pitching and rearing through the width and breadth of the courtyard. And the general combat was oft more dangerous. Last summer, a knight had died in one such.
But the knights of Burgonden raised their voices in a cheer. Siegfried's head lifted, and still we saw only the back of his helm, for it was to Gunther, not Kriemhild, that he looked. Gernot spoke some few words to Gunther. Then he turned. "What say you, Giselher?" Giselher nodded. Though a king in name, he was yet beardless and would profit nothing by gainsaying his elder brothers.
"Then let it be so," Gunther cried.
Janka pouted. "The next knight would have beaten him."
"Nay," said Kriemhild. "By midday, he would be rested again. I cannot abide the show he makes of himself."
The gates were opening now, and the party of newcomers riding through. To my pleasure, I saw riding alongside the knight of Alzey a man who was no knight, but surely a minstrel, for strapped to his saddle was a bundle of much the same shape as the viol upon the knight's banner.
I pointed. "Look. A minstrel! Do you think he brings new tales? Tales we have not heard? He will have news from Alzey, at the least."
"My lord brother!" Kriemhild called. "Will you not send the minstrel to the ladies hall?"
But this time, King Gunther did not turn to our windows. He seemed not to hear, even when Kriemhild called again, more loudly. He and his brother kings climbed down from the battlements. They greeted the knights and disappeared with them inside the castle.
"Come, Ilse." Kriemhild strode to the chamber door. "Come, all of you. Let us join the queen my mother and her ladies. On a day when knights think only of hurling each other out of their saddles, the minstrel knows he will find more favor among the ladies."
And so we joined them. Uta's ladies, too, had drifted from their windows. They sat at frames where different parts of her tapestry had been stretched, which when all were done would be stitched together into one great curtain for the wall in her bedchamber. In a corner, one of our own court musicians played upon a lute, since the wandering minstrels who had wintered with us had traveled on. Kriemhild and I sat by a part of the tapestry that was naught but grass and flowers with a small, white rabbit in the lower corner of the frame. Kriemhild settled herself to work on the rabbit. The flowers were already filled in, so there was naught left for me to do but thread my needle with the green wool that seemed my eternal fate.
She put a stitch into the rabbit's eye, then looked up. "There is a minstrel come with the knights of Alzey. Did you see, my lady mother?"
"I saw," Queen Uta said.
"Will you not send for him to entertain us?"
"Your royal brothers must hear what news he brings."
"Yea. But when they have heard it?"
"In good time." Uta's needle came and went, came and went.
"Such lovely grass you make," one of Uta's ladies said to me. "None of us do it so well as you."
"Thank you," I murmured. In my father's fortress I had not only stitched tapestries, but sketched in the designs. And though the tapestries in Burgonden Castle were more elegant than those my mother and I had made, I was not unskilled with a needle. At that very moment, Kriemhild was stitching the rabbit's eye askew, so that it seemed to be glancing over its shoulder as it leapt. I was sure I could have done it more neatly. But I had become so practiced at stitching grass since I came to Burgonden that it seemed the ladies here imagined I preferred it to flowers or beasts.
After she finished stitching the rabbit's eye, Kriemhild filled in the arcs of its front legs, caught in mid-leap. She started on the body, but then changed the white thread in her needle for blue and began to stitch a neglected blossom near the rabbit's paws. When the lutanist played the same passage twice over, her brows drew together. I wondered how long she could hold her tongue before she burst into angry speech. Three more stitches, I thought - she can hold it no longer. But she had finished only the second when she stabbed her needle into the rabbit's paw and flung up her head.
"All the news in the Empire must surely have been exhausted by now! Will you not send to my brothers or to Lord Hagen and - "
She did not finish her sentence, for young Giselher dashed into the chamber. "Mami!" he cried, "I am king, too."
Uta smiled on him. "Of course you are, Liebling."
I had seen and spoken with Giselher more oft than I had his brothers. Being not yet a knight's age, he might still come to his mother and sister without formality. He was perhaps half a year younger than I, but the difference between us seemed more. Boys of that age do not wax tall as girls do, and I had surpassed him in the year since I came to Burgonden. He came into the chamber capless, his white-blond hair ruffled, his cheeks as rosy as if the tourney had only now been interrupted. And yet, there was no look of play about him. I could see the knight in his face - indeed, the king - that would one day drive out the child utterly.
"I must speak with you, my lady mother. Privily."
Uta raised her brows. "What high business is this? Can you not speak in front of my ladies?"
He gave her a pained look.
She pushed her embroidery frame aside and held her arms open. "Come, my lordling. Whisper in my ear, if you are too shy to speak aloud." Her face changed when she looked on this, her youngest child, softening so that she looked near as tender-hearted as my own mother.
He came to her, but stopped short of her reach, frowning and clasping his hands behind his back in a way I had seen King Gunther do when he rose to address a feast where important envoys were gathered. "I am king, too. I should be part of my brothers' councils."
Queen Uta folded her hands in her lap. "Why sit in councils that will make your head ache?" she asked her youngest son. But the softness in her face gave way to a more thoughtful expression.
"Send to my brothers, Mami," Giselher insisted. "It is not right that they shut me out."
Uta rose. "Come. We will talk of this." She picked up her skirts and swept toward the door at the back. Then she paused. "Come, Kriemhild. You, too, must learn these things. You will be a queen one day."
Kriemhild leapt up so hastily I had to catch at the frame to keep it from pitching over.
Uta had been on the point of moving on, but now she hesitated, frowning at her daughter and then at me. "Ilse, I would have you with us, for you know when to hold your tongue."
She was not thinking of my tongue, I knew, but of my lady Kriemhild's. I rose and followed them, though if Kriemhld chose to talk, there was little I could do to stop her. I, too, longed to hear the minstrel and all the fresh tales he must bring, though I was less eager to sit closeted with Queen Uta. She closed the door behind us, sat on a bench and patted the cushion beside her. "Come, Giselher." He sat stiffly while Kriemhild and I settled ourselves in chairs.
"Now." Uta turned a mild gaze upon her son. "What trouble could distress you so? Why should you yearn after councils?"
"It was my father's will that the kingdom not be divided. We were all three to rule as one. But my brothers have shut me out of their councils, as though I had no rights there."
"Have you not fine clothes, the best of horses, all the gold and jewels you wish?"
"I would do a king's work. My brothers -"
Uta raised her hand. "Patience, my lordling. You have all the profit of kingship and none of the care. All too soon, you will share your brothers' troubles."
"But when? I have the understanding to take my part in their deliberations."
"Nay, my son. If your two brothers were slain in battle, I must be regent, for you are beardless yet."
He raised a hand to his chin, but before his fingers touched it, he dropped the hand to his knee and closed it into a fist.
"Tell me," Uta said. "What is this council they turned you out of?"
Giselher looked at the fist upon his knee, clenching it harder. "A minstrel is come, who spent the winter in Magdeburg on the Saxon border. He says the king of the Danes is dead, and a new king raised to the throne."
Fear bit into my heart. Even Uta looked unsettled for a moment.
"What king?" Kriemhild asked.
"Mami, why will she question me? She is no king, nor any king's counselor. I should be with my brothers."
"She may be a king's most valued counselor after she weds." Uta leaned closer to her son. "What king has been raised over the Danes?"
She sucked in a breath. "King Ludiger of Saxony's brother?"
"I suppose so."
"When was he crowned? How did this come to be?"
"I cannot say. I know only what I might learn listening at a closed door, which is beneath my dignity as king."
He had heard enough, it seemed to me. If naught had come of the threat last spring, it was only because Burgonden's army was stronger than Saxony's. Though King Ludiger must have boiled with fury when he opened the sapphire-studded box and saw the head of his messenger within, he had little chance of overwhelming the army of Burgonden, young though its kings might be. But with Ludiger's brother now king over the Danes, he had a strong ally. If these two kingdoms combined to attack Burgonden, what chance had we?
Before I came to Burgonden, I had oft stood by with a pitcher of wine to serve my father and his knights when they made plans to waylay a band of merchants on the road or sell their fighting strength to some rich prince with a quarrel against another. I had even done my part to defend our little fortress, stoking a fire and boiling lard for defense against the knaves who battered at our gates, and then stopping my ears against their screams when our knights poured the hot grease down their necks. But the bands of ruffians who attacked my father each summer were but troublesome insects compared with the armies of thousands who stood at the service of kingdoms like Burgonden, Saxony and Danemark.
What would happen to me if Burgonden fell? Would I be carried off and wed to some lord who troubled neither to ask my father's leave nor to show me the honor due a lady? Or worse?
"Mami?" Giselher touched his mother's arm.
She reached to draw him close. He held back for an instant, then leaned his head against her shoulder.
"Leave these worries to your brothers, my lordling."
Kriemhild sighed impatiently. "What is it to us, if the king of the Danes has died?"
Uta looked at her daughter. Then she looked into my eyes. There was a glisten at the end of her nose, but for once I did not mind it. We two had understood a thing the other two had not. The thought discomforted me, for I could not imagine myself her equal. Her lips parted, but she only shook her head slightly and told Kriemhild, "Go, my royal daughter. Take your maidens and enjoy the rest of the tourney."
I was not sorry to go.
If I were a minstrel, I could say much of the afternoon's jousting. I could count the number of lances dashed into splinters and the number of shields dented beyond mending. I would praise the valor of knights bested and, yet more, the worth of those who had bested them. Enough to say that when the light failed and there were but a handful of knights remaining upon the field, Siegfried was one and the red-haired knight with the foxtails on his helm another. I can say, too, that there were but a handful of maidens who stood so late at the windows watching while the squires helped unsaddle their knights' horses and lift the heavy mail over their knights' heads. Page boys hunted through the grass for lost jewels.
I leant my head on my lady Kriemhild's shoulder and sighed. "I thought our knights of Burgonden the best in all the Empire. Nay, in the world." I watched how the red-haired knight's skillful hands gathered up the mail from his lord's narrow hips and broad chest. The sun having passed behind the castle wall, their armor now looked dark and cold as thunderclouds. I no longer wondered at the challenge he had offered our three kings, to strive alone against all of them, with his kingdom and theirs at hazard.
"They have no squires." Kriemhild watched as intently as I, however tart her words. "What knight with any measure of pride would go squireless? They must do all for themselves."
They did not look prideless to me. Indeed, Siegfried had better help than any half-grown squire might give, for the red knight easily lifted the mail over his head and turned to lay it lightly over a mounting block. Then the red knight raised his arms, and Siegfried did him the same service.
"See," Kriemhild said, "how he does a squire's service for his vassal. And my mother would have me wed the knave?"
"All the same ..." I murmured, captivated by the sight of them below our windows.
The red knight's armor was off. He untied the laces of the quilted jerkin that had lain beneath and stripped it off unaided. His white linen shirt was soaked through with sweat. It clung to every ripple of muscle upon his breast. Siegfried turned his back to us, attending to his horse.
Kriemhild sighed. "He cannot mean to court me. What suitor would make so coarse a show of himself under his lady's windows?"
Almost as though he had heard her, Siegfried draped his mail over his arm and took hold of his horse's bridle, clucking to lead it away to the stables. But when he had turned it, he did not lead it directly away. He stopped, commanding it with a steady arm, and lifted his head to gaze straight upon my lady.
Kriemhild stiffened and took two sharp, backward steps, raising a hand over her breasts as though he had uncovered them. I withdrew behind the folds of the tapestry. But Kriemhild stared back at him, still as a mouse surprised by a cat. He gazed a moment longer. Then, followed by his twelve knights, he led his horse around the castle keep and out of sight.
I thought we would be called to the feast that night, and so did many of the maidens, for there was much talk of gowns and jewels. I would have been glad to hear the new minstrel, and in truth, to see the red knight at a closer distance. But Queen Uta sent word we were to dine in the ladies' hall while she and the married ladies joined the men below, "for she would not have him think her daughter too easily won."
"We might have joined them, if that was her purpose," Kriemhild grumbled. "I would not have him win me at all."
That summer it seemed as though an imp were at Siegfried's beck and call, spying among us and coming again to whisper in his ear, for he seemed to guess my lady's thoughts. Or it might be that some friendly knight had warned him of Hagen's enmity. For though he jousted oft in the courtyard that summer, no word came to us that he had gone to any of the kings to beg leave to court my lady.
Once, when Kriemhild was not in hearing, Janka questioned Giselher, who shrugged and said, "The prince never speaks of her." And then his eyes lit, and he told again how Siegfried had won his most recent joust. "Would I were no king and might serve as his squire! Is he not the greatest knight who ever lived?"
Had Kriemhild been standing near, not even Janka would have dared ask after Siegfried. Indeed, my lady's companions would sooner speak to her of the Saxons, for as time passed, her wrath grew, as though he had come to Burgonden with no other purpose than that of vexing her. As for Siegfried, he gave no sign of his purpose. He did not so much as glance toward my lady again, and many months would pass before any of us saw him - or the knight of the foxtails - at any closer distance than from our windows to the courtyard.
ummer cooled to autumn and autumn froze into winter, and in all this time, the Saxons did not come. Burgonden was safe for another season. For this, Kriemhild credited Hagen's wisdom and said that King Ludiger, with or without his Danish brother's army, would never dare to trouble us again, lest Hagen send him another gory present. But I wondered. My father had ever said that surprise was the handmaiden of victory and one ought not use the same trick twice upon the same enemy. Other maidens whispered that it was the knight with the unmarked shield whose prowess had struck fear into our enemies' hearts. But a knight and his twelve companions did not make an army.
One morn, by command of Queen Uta, Kriemhild and I sat with her and her ladies, stitching on the tapestry while the minstrel who had brought the news of the Danes played to us. He had traveled south to Lombardy, coming back in the fall to winter with us, bringing much news of the quarrel between Pope and Kaiser. It was weighty news, but of no greater import to us than he had brought in May. Now, at the queen's bidding, he sang of a white dove that carried messages between a lady of the Lombards and her beloved, locked in a Saracen dungeon. The song was not new to me, but as I sat thigh-to-thigh for warmth with Kriemhild in the frigid light from the windows, pausing in my stitching to blow and chafe at my fingers, I listened with pleasure. Had we sat in Kriemhild's chambers, she would have fallen into a temper if he struck even one chord of a minnesang, and for me, the pleasure of the song came near to balancing the tedium of the needlework and the discomfort of the unshuttered windows.
In Queen Uta's frame, the lady's head and shoulders had taken color and form, surrounded by most of a halo of fluttering goldfinches. The part where Kriemhild and I worked showed the lady's hand and the drape of her long sleeve with, behind, a group of hunters bearing a stag trussed upon a pole, its legs rather unnaturally crossed. Within our frame, all was filled in save for the bottom of the lady's sleeve and the grass which awaited me endlessly in the spaces between the heartsease and the hedge mustard.
Kriemhild tied off the end of a thread but made no move to cut another for her needle. "I tire of these weakly plaints. May we not have a tune more cheering to the heart?"
"Very well." Uta halted the minstrel's song with a gesture. "Let us hear 'The Wedding of Hildegarde and Karl the Great.'"
"Nay, my lady mother. She died young. Let us rather hear of the time the great Karl beheaded four thousand Saxons all in the same day."
I wasted no regret upon the tale of the dove, for the tale of Hildegarde's wedding had ever pleased me, and it had been long since I had heard the song of the four thousand Saxons. I looked up, eager to hear whatsoever the minstrel might play.
He rose and bowed, viol in one hand, bow in the other. "If you will permit, noble ladies, I know a song of the great Karl's fifth and last wife, who grew so peeved by the wine stains in his lordly and otherwise snowy beard that she ordered his vineyard replanted with only the palest of white grapes."
The ladies tittered behind their hands. Uta raised her brows. But Kriemhild bade him play. While she threaded her needle, my own sat idle and forgotten, for this song was entirely new to me.
"The Emperor Karl the Great, King of the Franks, Lord of the Holy Romans, wore a beard as long as a prophet's . . ."
I was stretching my neck to see past a cluster of ladies in front of the minstrel when Uta rapped at the edge of our embroidery frame. I startled and bent at once to my work, so flustered I almost set a stitch awry. But she had not meant to chide me, or even to speak to me. It was toward her daughter she leaned and spoke very low. " Have you not had any love-missives?"
Kriemhild shrugged. "Nay, my lady mother."
Uta looked at me. I shook my head. For though such a missive had indeed come to my lady in the summer, it had come from the prince with the limp, who interested the queen no more than a turnip. Kriemhild had shown me the scrap of parchment and told me who had sent it, and though I could read naught of it, I believed her. She might keep secrets from her lady mother, but it was her nature that if something weighed upon her heart, she must speak of it to someone or die, and that someone was most oft myself.
Uta frowned. "A love-token, then? You know of whom I speak."
Uta looked at me. Once again I shook my head.
Queen Uta sank back in her chair, her brow set in lines of displeasure, while the minstrel sang of the sweet white grapes of Corton. I had missed several verses while Uta questioned her daughter, and now the ladies between us and the minstrel laughed, smothering the next line. Kriemhild stitched at the hem of the lady's sleeve. Uta wrapped the end of her own sleeve about her fingers and dabbed at her nose. I looked down, trying not to glance across to the whiter sleeve Kriemhild was stitching. Ladies in tapestries neither sniffled nor wept nor bled, though in the minster there was one who squeezed milk from her breast into the waiting mouth of her babe. But that was the Holy Virgin.
Uta made a rattling sniff and leaned toward Kriemhild. "Why does he not beg leave to court you? Do you give him sour looks when he gazes to your window? Or -"
"He never gazes to my window!"
So loud and sudden did my lady speak that a moment's silence opened in the chamber. Even the minstrel missed a beat before playing on. The queen pursed her lips. I wished she would make an end to her questions. Kriemhild might scorn Siegfried, but it cannot have pleased her to think he took so little note of her. But when the song continued and the ladies began to murmur again among themselves, Uta tapped at my side of the frame. "Is it true?"
I lowered my eyes. "Yes, my lady queen."
She sank back, frowning in discontent.
"And withal the lady returned to his bed," sang the minstrel. "His beard was white as the driven snow, pure as the great lord's heart."
Uta rose and went to the minstrel. "I thank you." She fished a silver coin out of the purse at her waist and held it to him between thumb and forefinger. "My poor daughter has so many suitors, she has become as hard to court as the fabled Queen Brunnhild of Eisland." She tittered, and one or two of the nearest ladies joined her. I wondered who Queen Brunnhild was. It seemed the world held a wealth of tales that I, so long closed away in my father's fortress, had never heard.
The minstrel took the coin and bowed. "It is no marvel suitors flock to Burgonden. The merest glimpse of the princess at her window is rich recompense for their travel."
"Indeed." Uta's voice turned as chill as the air that came through the windows in lieu of the prince's gaze. The minstrel had displeased her, I saw, echoing the matter we had spoken of while he should have been attending to his music. But she warmed her tone. "So frolicsome a song as this of the Emperor Karl and his beard should be more oft heard. Go and sing it for my royal daughter's companions."
He bowed more deeply and left the chamber.
Uta gave a sudden shove to the embroidery frame I shared with Kriemhild. I had barely time to lay down my needle before she rolled the frame out of the way. She took her daughter's chin in her hand. Around us, heads swiftly bent over the tapestry.
Uta spoke low through her teeth. "Will you never learn to control your tongue? He will spread the tale, from one side of the Empire to the other, that the Princess of Burgonden's latest suitor had only to see her at her window for his ardor to cool."
Kriemhild flushed and twisted out of her mother's grasp. "It was not I who insisted upon this talk of suitors."
I wished I might go and join the other maidens, but I dared not leave until she dismissed me. I rose and moved to the window. Tucking my fingers under my arms, I stared at the snow-covered courtyard. My breath misted. Icicles made a lace that dripped down the battlements. From somewhere near the keep came a piercing squeal, a swine crying in protest against the knife. I sighed, envying even this poor creature, because until this hour it had been free to roam the courtyard.
In my father's fortress, I would not have been closed indoors all winter with naught to occupy me save the eternal laying down of green wool on white linen. During the slaughter season, my mother and I oversaw the making of sausages and salting of meats. Further, we must see that the sauerkraut, wines and winter ale were fermenting properly, and keep a careful watch over the measure of goods in the storehouses--for the servants would steal our grain and meats and pickles if we did not. But in Burgonden, there were higher servants to oversee the lower, and Queen Uta kept a severe watch over all, so we maidens had no place in the stockyards and kitchens.
I raised my eyes and saw through the window a mottle of color beyond the walls. Below a limp scarlet banner, a party of horsemen in scarlet hoods and black fur mantles moved toward the castle. A blue shadow snaked through the snow behind them. If my eyes did not lie, the lead horseman, smaller than the others, wore a golden circlet over his hood. Now and again, a streak of cold light seemed to race across his brow.
"Riders." My voice quavered.
The quarrel behind me ended. Queen Uta came to the window, and I gave place. Kriemhild squeezed in between us. "Who can they be, in this season? Messengers? Not knights, for they wear no armor."
"Of course they wear armor," Uta said. "It is under their mantles. They have only taken their helms off, for the cold, and tied them at the back of their saddles."
"The one in front has no helm upon his saddle."
Queen Uta did not answer. This should have gladdened me, for it seemed to confirm that one rider, at least, was no enemy knight. If he was not, how could the others be? And yet a dread struck into my heart. If these men came to us over the icy roads, who could not? Scarlet, I remembered, was the Saxon color.
But when at last Uta spoke, it was to say firmly, "Another suitor for you. And a most eager one, to come by winter. You and your maidens will appear in the hall tonight. See that you show a gladsome face and look on him with welcome."
"But he is a child!" Kriemhild protested. "Look."
I raised myself on my toe tips to peer between their shoulders. It was true. As the party neared the gates, I could see that the smallest of them, the one in the lead who wore the circlet, was as beardless as Giselher.
"Lads grow to men," Uta said. "His father may be a great lord. If that be so, his suit may be most welcome. If not, it does no harm to show others that time sits still for no man, and the maiden who is unwedded today may be out of reach tomorrow."
She turned abruptly from the window and began to speak of silver-bordered gowns and ruby necklets. "You and your maidens," she told Kriemhild, "need wear no headcloths this eve." The queen's ladies crowded round, each offering her own thoughts on how the princess's hair should be dressed.
I wondered whether this would be my chance to catch some minor lord's eye. Ought I to wear the rope of gold beads and river pearls my father had given me? I tried to remember how my mother had shown me to wind it about my braids and, in turn, to wind my braids about my brow, so that all showed to best advantage. I felt a pang. Before I came to Burgonden, I had thought her more graceless than a lady ought to be. Her fingers were reddened from toils she would not let me share, and all but her two best gowns were so faded from daily wear, they should have been stripped of their jewels and given to the servants. But she had never blotted her nose with her sleeve, as was Queen Uta's habit, and she had chided me only in the gentlest of tones.
The queen and her ladies dined with the kings that night, but despite her expectation, no call came for us maidens to go down. We heard, through the servants who laid a meal for us in the ladies' hall, that though the young prince had spent much time closeted with the two eldest kings and their seneschal, no place was laid for him or his escort in the hall. This troubled me, for Uta's judgment was rarely mistaken. As we rose from the tables, one of the minstrels who had been playing in the hall below came to the door, beckoning for Janka and me. I looked to my lady Kriemhild, who shrugged and said, "Go and ask his business. If my lady mother wants me, tell her I am not dressed. It is surely too late for her to parade me before this princeling. Such a child must have been abed long since."
But it was not Kriemhild's attendance Queen Uta had sent to command. The minstrel made sure of our names, then bade Janka and me go to the end of the passage where the narrow servants' stairway led down to the kitchens. There, Queen Uta herself stood waiting for us. She held a taper in her hand, since the torch above her head had been doused. It flickered strangely over her face, lighting her chin and the end of her nose and casting unnatural shadows across her lips and eyes.
"At the bottom of these stairs," Queen Uta whispered, "is the break in the tapestry behind the great hall. The meats have been brought back to the kitchen, and the last of the wine has been poured. The kings and their knights linger only to talk of state business, so there will be few servants about. When there are none by, slip between the tapestry and the wall, where you will not be seen. Take care not to touch the back of the tapestry, lest you betray your presence."
My mouth fell open as I listened. But Janka nodded and smiled as though she heard such commands every day.
I slid my arm out of hers. "Both of us, lady queen?" My mouth felt dry. I licked my lips, which helped not at all. I could not imagine she thought me suited for such an errand. "Do you mean me to go, too?"
Uta raised her brows. The taper's light in the hollows above her eyes magnified her look of astonishment. "You especially, my dear. I have marked that you listen well and keep your own counsel. Tell no one, and certainly not the Princess Kriemhild, what you hear, but come directly to me, however late the hour, and tell me all the kings and their knights have said."
I liked neither the thought of being secret witness to the kings' talk nor of hiding it from my lady Kriemhild. But if I defied the queen, she would not think twice before packing me back to my father in disgrace. The kings need never know I had listened. And in truth, my lady did not keep so close a guard over her tongue as she might. So I nodded and murmured obedience. Janka started to move down the passageway, but I held back.
"What shall we do if someone sees us?"
I thought a corner of the queen's mouth quirked up for an instant, but so strangely did the light jump and hover about her face, I may have imagined it.
"Tell them you were looking for the kitchenmaids' privy closet and lost your way. They would never believe it of me. But the two least in rank among my daughter's companions might well lose patience awaiting their turn and seek a more humble place to empty their bladders."
I hoped we would not be challenged. What could I do, but nod once again and give my assent?
"Hasten, now, lest you miss somewhat of weight."
And so we hastened.
s Janka and I started down the servants' dark staircase, we met a maidservant coming up with a bundle of linens. I feared she would wonder at us, so out of place here, but she only turned her face to the wall and flattened to one side as we passed. When we reached the bottom, we saw no others. From the hall came the low rustle of knights handling knives and wine goblets and shifting on their benches. Two voices near the tapestry spoke, their words pitched for each others' hearing alone. I supposed this must be one of the kings conferring with Hagen or some other. The torch nearest the kitchens had been doused, as though an order had gone out that no further service was wanted. The only light shone through the narrow break in the tapestries, from which we kept well away.
One of the murmuring voices rose, and I knew it for King Gunther's. "Do you know what we did with the last messenger your father sent?"
Janka clasped my hand and tugged me toward the space between tapestry and wall. But Gunther's question and the tone of threat within it had transfixed me. He would not speak thus to a suitor for Kriemhild's hand. Janka tugged again. I slipped with her into the space, hugging the wall with my back and stepping as silently as I might.
"Yea, sire," piped a voice that might have belonged to a maiden or a page boy.
"Behold the knights who sit at my board," Gunther said. "Men of might and power. Do you imagine they will tremble before any threat such a one as you might bring?"
I caught my breath. A threat?
"It is not my place to say, sire," the boy squeaked.
There was a rumble of laughter. Gunther's was the last to fade. "Yet," he said, "you think it your place to threaten them."
"Sire, I speak as my father commanded me."
I tightened my clasp on Janka's hand. She squeezed back. The boy must be a son of King Ludiger's. And he had brought some threat. Had we come too late to learn what it was?
"Tell these knights," Gunther said, "what you have told to me."
"My father bids me say . . ." There was a moment's pause in which I supposed the lad drew breath, but mine was louder. I could hear even the beat of my heart, so strong I half feared we would be discovered. Then the princeling's words spilled forth, shrill and fast, in rote clumps that did not suit their meaning.
"King Ludiger of the Saxons and King Ludegast of - the Danes have made compact to join - their armies as one for they are brothers of the same womb and each has pledged to aid and defend the other. Burgonden has insulted Saxony and therefore - Danemark, too, is wounded. There can be no remedy, saving only if the Kings - of Burgonden vow fealty to Saxony, ceding -"
A howl of outrage burst from the council of knights. "Devil's whelp!" Gunther cried, and the boy fell silent.
But Gunther must have raised his hand then, for the noise halted. The boy faltered on. "Fealty to Saxony, ceding - ceding the kingdom entire into Saxony's protection, command and power and acknowledging King Ludiger of Saxony their lord and sovereign."
Gernot swore, and the princeling fell into a confused muttering. "Within twelve weeks - twelve weeks -"
Janka's clasp pressed the blood from my fingers. Within twelve weeks, I knew, the snows and ice would be gone and could bar no army's passage.
"Speak, child," Gunther said.
"Yea, sire, I am only trying to remember." He repeated the message from the beginning, running one word into the next, while the knights muttered impatiently. When he reached the place where he had halted, he spoke yet faster, as though he feared the words would escape him if he paused for breath.
"Within twelve weeks, if the Kings of Burgonden have not appeared before King Ludiger to do fealty, the armies of Saxony and Danemark will lay waste to their kingdom, enter the castle by force and slay all, no matter their age, rank or sex, who do not renounce allegiance to the Kings of Burgonden and swear fealty to the King of Saxony."
Such a message, in a child's mouth! Though I feared the Saxons, I had never dreamed knights of so great a kingdom might lay rough hands upon maidens and children. My father, of whom I had heard it said that he was no more than a robber knight who made his fortune by waylaying merchants upon the road, would not have done such. Indeed, he had ever warned his knights that he would slay upon the spot any one of them he witnessed striking or mishandling a woman or child, whether high-born or low.
By the time the prince of Saxony finished speaking, I could no longer hear my heartbeat for the surge of voices on the other side of the tapestry. But the child's terror pierced through all. "Sire! Sire! They are my father's words, not mine! Nay, put me down!"
What would Gunther do to him?
"Sire!" he cried. "Where will they take me? I am a prince of the Empire!"
His voice came ever more distantly until I heard it no more. The Saxons affrighted me, but this was a child. According to my father's precept, not a hair of his head must be harmed. And yet, my father had never been threatened thus. Why should our kings spare a child who had proclaimed a death sentence upon the women and children of Burgonden?
The knights shouted their loyalty to Burgonden and its kings, their clamor ordering itself, little by little, into a chant. "King Gunther, King Gernot, King Giselher! For Burgonden! By God in Heaven, to the death!"
As they roared it out, the power of their voices lent comfort to my spirit. When the chant died, I thought to hear King Gunther speak more strongly still. But it was Lord Hagen who spoke.
"King Ludiger sends a child to threaten us."
"Send him the boy's head!" someone cried. Shouts of acclaim answered him.
"How fearsome can his armies be," Hagen cried, "when he sends so weak a messenger?"
"For Burgonden!" The shouts came again. "By God, to the death!"
Nearer the tapestry, though, another voice spoke. If I had not stood so close, I could not have heard. "But Gernot - inside twelve weeks? The roads are all ice." It was Giselher. Less than an hour since, he must have counted himself fortunate not to be sent away with the ladies. "The Saxons and Danes will have gathered their armies in the fall," he said.
Gernot did not answer for a time, which gave me a moment to work out Giselher's meaning. The journey from Saxony to Burgonden, which by summer might cost a week's ride, must by winter mean a slow struggle over treacherous roads. To reach us this day, King Ludiger's son must have set out well before Christmas. Whatsoever messengers the Kings of Burgonden now sent to their allies would travel just as slowly. Weeks would pass before our nearest allies learned of our plight, and more would pass while they considered how to answer. In twelve weeks, Burgonden had not time to gather an army of a size to face both the Saxons and Danes at once.
I understood our plight, for my father had oft received pleas from neighboring kings praying his help against a foe and offering pay. It was never his habit to respond in haste. He must weigh what he knew of the strength of each army and judge how to value the offered reward against the risk to himself, and to his family if he were injured or lost. Betimes he might send to the opposing king to ask whether that king, too, sought knights, and what he might offer as reward. The answer showed not only which king offered the better reward, but also who might be the more desperate for aid, and therefore the less likely to prevail. It was better, always, to fight with a victorious army.
I strained for Giselher's voice under the clamor of the knights. "Ought we to cede the northern marches they wanted last spring?" he said. "The Saxon army is some twenty thousand strong. And the Danes - "
But Gernot hushed him. "You have no experience in these matters."
"For Burgonden, by God in Heaven!" the knights cried, and then someone stilled them, save for a last scatter of voices.
"From my land of Tronege," Hagen said, "I pledge fifty knights and three hundred Leibeigene under the command of my cousin, Sir Gottfried."
A silence answered him. I knew the lords in the hall were only counting what knights they might send without leaving their fiefdoms bare of protection and how many peasants they might spare without risking the next year's harvest. Hagen had already heard the Saxon message and counted up the number he might send, or he could not so quickly have made his pledge. But the lingering silence did not sound well. Someone near the tapestry - King Gunther, I thought - cleared his throat.
Before he spoke, a lord called, "Five and twenty knights from my march, with a hundred Leibeigene." Since he spoke of a march, the borderland at the edge of a kingdom, this must be a margrave - Sir Eckewart, it might be, though I was not sure of his voice.
"Fifty knights from Alzey," called another. "With five hundreds of Leibeigene to fight until the planting season, and half so many thereafter."
I expected Hagen to chide this lord, for the planting season could be no more than twelve weeks away. What good were those five hundreds of peasant soldiers before battle was joined? But Hagen said only, "How many from Metz?"
"Two score," came the answer. After a pause, the knight added, "A hundred fifty Leibeigene until the planting season."
After that, all the Leibeigene were pledged until the planting season only. I kept a reckoning in my head as the numbers were called out, for though I could neither read nor write, my mother had taught me to keep close count of our kitchen stores by means of an abacus. With such round numbers as the lords gave, I had no need of the instrument itself. After some dozen more lords had pledged, my tally came to seven hundred knights and something over five thousand Leibeigene, if battle could be joined before the planting season. Beside this, some hundreds of knights and a great many peasants were attached to Burgonden Castle itself.
To a maiden who had grown up in a fortress guarded by two or three score of knights, depending on how rich the merchant trains passing through our lands had lately been, this seemed a prodigious army. But if Giselher spoke truly, the Saxons had twenty thousand. He meant knights and peasants together, but even so it was plain to see that our army was greatly overmatched, even without the Danes joining the war.
I wondered when Prince Siegfried would speak. All the past summer, and for most of this winter, he and his twelve companions had enjoyed the guest-friendship of the Burgonden kings. Did he owe naught in return? Though I knew his pledge could not bind his father's knights of Xanten, he might surely send to his father on our behalf. And if he could not bind Xanten, he was lord of the Nibelungs in his own right and might pledge their army.
But he said naught, and Hagen did not prompt him as he had prompted other lords. I heard a rustle as the kings rose from their seats. The knights cheered again, and King Gunther made a speech of thanks. Then I heard a low murmur and the shuffle of feet as groups of them rose to leave the hall. I stole a glance at Janka. My eyes had grown used to the weak light, and I could see the fear upon her face, where lately I had seen only jesting and, betimes, a flash of temper.
anka's lips parted in a soundless sigh. She leaned to my ear and whispered, "I must find the kitchen maids' closet, or make water where I stand."
I clutched at her. "Nay," I whispered back. "Wait for the kings to leave."
"I cannot." She tugged against my grasp.
Fearing the movement would betray us, I let go and pressed myself to the wall while she slid past. Then she was gone. I held my breath. The tapestry hung still, and I heard no more sound from the other side. I, too, needed the privy closet. I was about to follow after Janka when a voice spoke so close to my ear that my heart nearly stopped.
"To bed, Giselher." It was Gunther. So close he stood, I feared I must be discovered. His bootsole scraped on the floor. A moment later, I heard other footsteps that may or may not have been Giselher obeying the command. The tapestry swayed, though not from any movement of mine. I had hardly dared breathe since Gunther startled me. He or some other must have made a gesture large enough to disturb the air. He said, "What do you think Siegfried wants for his Nibelungs?"
Slowly, I let out my breath.
"He wants Burgonden," Hagen said.
"Nay," Gernot said. "He knows better than to covet what he cannot have. I think he wants our lady sister."
"He has never asked leave to court her," Gunther said.
"Because he would not have you deny him."
I wished Janka had not gone. Knowing she was emptying her bladder made me feel my own need the more desperately. I wondered whether she knew where to go or whether she were blundering about in the passageway. If so, she blundered silently. I moved my feet closer together and crossed one thigh over the other.
"Did you hear somewhat?" Gernot asked.
I thought I was discovered, but Gunther only gave a bark of laughter. "Jumping at shadows? If he wants Kriemhild, why not let him have her? Our lady mother is hot to bring the Nibelung treasure into the family."
My own face grew hot at the thought that I must repeat such words to Queen Uta - though she would be glad, after so many months, to know Siegfried had shown Gernot, at the least, a sign of desire for her daughter. And to know Gunther would not object.
"My lords," Hagen said, "It would be well to remember that whomsoever weds your royal sister will stand fourth in line to the kingship until one of you weds and has a son."
Gunther gave an ill-tempered grunt. "I cannot think of wedding until this crisis with the Saxons has passed."
"Nor I," Gernot added.
"That is wise," Hagen said. "But to give your sister to such a husband before you have heirs . . . My lords, forgive me if I speak too straightly, but I fear it would place him in the way of temptation."
A silence fell. What would Hagen do if he knew I stood listening?
He said again, "My lords, forgive me."
"Nay, good seneschal," Gunther said. "We thank you for standing ever between our royal persons and whatsoever danger may threaten. We would have you speak thus straightly at all times when your wisdom commends it."
"I am your faithful servant, my lords." After a moment, Hagen said, "What would you have me do with the Saxon princeling?" He lowered his voice. "He is the eighth of King Ludiger's many sons, if I remember rightly, or it may hap, the ninth. The lad is valiant, but I mark his father did not hazard a nearer heir."
"What is your counsel?" Gunther's voice came unsteadily, though until now he had spoken with the assurance natural in a king. "Shall we . . . do the same as with the last such messenger?"
"I wonder . . ."
I wished I might stop my ears against this talk. Though none of them would speak plainly, what they talked of was killing the child.
Hagen's voice came softly, consideringly. "The last token we sent them was meant as warning, and they took it as such. But . . . to send them the head of one of their princes . . . So to inflame the anger of the Saxon knights and fire them with a lust for vengeance - this may be King Ludiger's very purpose in sending the child. It would be my counsel to hold him, for now, in as much safety and comfort as you would hold any princeling who might bring a fair ransom."
"This was my own thought." Gunther spoke steadily once again.
I breathed a stealthy sigh of relief and remembered the urgent need I had forgotten while Hagen was speaking. I pressed my thighs together. Where was Janka?
"We will talk more of this in the morn," Gunther said.
"I am your servant to command," Hagen answered.
At long last, their footsteps moved away. When I could hear them no more, I waited another moment, then hurried into the passageway where Janka had disappeared. Someone caught my elbow, startling me into a cry I quickly stifled. "This is no matter for jesting," I whispered.
But when I turned to throw off Janka's grasp, I saw another's face where I had thought to see hers. I bend my knees into as deep a courtesy as my bladder would allow. "My lord Giselher. I . . . I lost my way in the dark. I am in sore need of . . . of the kitchenmaids' privy closet." It was no lie, but rather the desperate truth, if not the whole truth.
He raised me, saying, "Be not affrighted. I will tell none where I found you, if you will tell me what you heard."
He was king. Did that not give his command precedence over the queen's? But he was king in name only, and I had given the queen my word. I feigned not to understand. "What I heard, my lord king? What should I have heard?"
"You should have heard what the lord seneschal said in answer to my royal brother Gunther's questions about the Saxon prince. Be not affrighted, fair maiden. Princess Ilse, is that your name?"
"I am no princess, Sire."
"Lady Ilse, then. I know you were listening; so was I. I suppose my mother set you here."
I courtesied again to give myself a moment for thought, but Giselher kept a firm grip upon my arm and raised me before I had done more than flutter at the knees.
"It is kind of you," he said, "to grant me the esteem due a true king, when my brothers grant me none. But I would rather you told me what the Saxon prince's fate is to be. I did not stand so close as you, and when Lord Hagen dropped his voice, I could not hear."
I wanted to tell him. But what if one of the other kings, or Hagen, found us here? In truth, I was more affrighted of Hagen than of any other. And when Queen Uta made me promise to tell none save her what I heard, surely it was Hagen and the two elder kings, more than any others, she meant not to know. At last I said, "I gave your lady mother my word, Sire. Would you have me break it?"
"A valiant and honorable lady you are, Ilse," said Giselher, sighing that I would not break my promise to his mother. "Only tell me this. Is there need for one such as me to creep into the dungeons before morn and save the prince from a monstrous death?"
"Nay," I said. "Not before morn, at the least."
In the light shining through the space in the tapestry, he smiled so winningly that I smiled back, forgetting for an instant his royal state. He pointed down the passageway. "Past the door to the kitchens and round the next corner. You need not worry about my royal brothers or the lord seneschal. They went the other way, and would not go near the kitchens, in any case."
He let go of my elbow. I gave a bob of courtesy, but dared no more lest I embarrass myself. I found Janka waiting for me out of sight, and the privy closet several steps farther, just where he had said. After, to my profound comfort, I had fulfilled my need, I asked Janka, "How does King Giselher know where the kitchenmaids' closet is?"
"I suppose he is diddling one of them."
"A kitchenmaid? But he is a king! And too young for such things."
She laughed. "His cheeks may be downy yet, but his voice has changed. And kings and queens have the same urges as other mortals. Do you think Queen Uta has never felt the joy you feel to empty your bladder?"
"You should not speak so!"
She shrugged. "What did he want of you?"
I hesitated, biting my lip, then said, "Only to know I had not been listening where I should not."
"What did you tell him?" She giggled. "Did you let him have a kiss?"
"Nay, he did not ask for one! He was most courtly. And I said only what the queen told us to say. Your love of mischief will be your undoing, Janka, if you do not take care. These are grave matters. Your delight is unseemly."
She sobered. "We do no more than the queen's bidding. And we had best tell her what we know before she wonders why we dally so long away."
listened while Janka repeated to Queen Uta the Saxon prince's message, and thought what a fine royal messenger she would make, were she only a man. She spoke with the very accent of Saxony and with the princeling's awkward pauses. Had I closed my eyes, I might have believed the boy himself in the chamber with us - or risked dropping into a havey sleep, for it was no longer the deep of night. The moon had set and the morning star was already rising over the top of the castle wall. But my eyes had been open so long, my lids seemed glued to the tops of their sockets.
When the tale came to the numbers of knights and peasants pledged for Burgonden's army, Janka's memory faltered.
Uta pounced. "Five hundred Leibeigene from Tronege? They have not so many."
"Three hundred," I said, my heart jumping.
She turned her gimlet eyes upon me, and I wished I had not spoken.
"It is more than they can spare."
I swallowed. "It is . . . is what Lord Hagen pledged, my lady queen. Fifty knights and three hundred Leibeigene. Under the command, he said, of his cousin, Sir Gottfried."
She grunted. "How many from Alzey?"
"Fifty knights," I said. "And five hundred -"
"Three hundred, I think you mean."
Had I heard wrong? But nay, I remembered my astonishment when the lord so quickly cut off the feet from under his generosity. "I beg pardon, my lady queen, but he said five hundred. He pledges them until the planting season only, with half so many thereafter."
She frowned. A moment passed in silence. Then she snapped, "Go on child. What of the others?"
And so I told the tally from all the vassal lands of Burgonden, giving the names of the lords who pledged them where I could, and regretting I had not learned more of Burgonden and its lords in the time I had passed here, that I might know and give every name. I finished by giving the sum of seven hundred knights and five thousand Leibeigene pledged until the planting season. And there I stopped, thinking of the size of the Saxon army. I sighed.
"Despair is a sin, my child." Uta leaned forward, narrowing her eyes at me. She was dressed in her night shift and naught else. Her unbound hair, the sickly gray of a rising storm, straggled over her shoulders and down the front of her shift. A more unpriestly figure I had never seen, and yet I was near to kneeling and owning my fault, as though a bishop had passed judgment upon me.
"You did not say how many Prince Siegfried pledged from Xanten and the Nibelung country."
"None," Janka said, while I was still mustering my courage. "For when the lords rose and left the hall, Prince Siegfried had not spoken. And Lord Hagen, who prompted many, said naught to jog him."
Uta grunted. She drew the sleeve of her shift across her nose. She frowned down at the yellowed silk. "This is not well," she answered. "Someone has displeased him. Warned him away from my lady daughter."
That she would speak so in front of us showed the measure of her distress. I knew I must tell all I had learned, though I feared her anger. How might I temper Hagen's blunt accusation that Siegfried coveted her sons' kingdom? Or smooth over Gunther's disrespectful words about his own mother? Now I stood before her, I dared not say he thought her "very hot" for the Nibelung treasure. And how convey Lord Hagen's scandalous hint that Prince Siegfried meant to murder the kings after he had won and wedded their sister? Howsoever delicately I worded this, it could only provoke the queen's outrage. Ought I to abandon any attempt at delicacy, throw myself upon my knees, and repeat the words as plainly - or rather, as insinuatingly - as they had been spoken? Before I could reach a decision, Janka leapt into speech.
"It was a near thing, lady queen, to keep our trust with you and tell none other what we heard. For King Giselher found Lady Ilse lingering behind when I went to the privy. She was forced to tell him the tale you crafted for us. How she blushed to speak of privy closets before a king!"
At once, I blushed hot as fire, though in truth, I had not blushed then. And if I had, Janka could not have seen me color in the dim light.
Queen Uta chuckled, then began to cough. When she had cleared her throat, she dabbed at her eyes and the end of her nose. "I hope my youngest son, king though he is, does not mean to meddle in affairs of which he has no understanding."
Hoping to spare him a chiding, I said, "Nay my lady queen. He was only troubled over the Saxon princeling's fate, which they spoke of at the end, after Janka had gone to the privy. But Lord Hagen counseled them to spare him. For a time, at least. And that eased your royal son's mind."
"Did it so?" She pursed her lips. "Give me Lord Hagen's words. As he spoke them, if you please."
So severe was the look the queen gave me, it drove all the words out of my head for a moment. I looked away and then, haltingly, repeated Lord Hagen's words as best I might. "'The last token we sent them' - being the Danes," I added, "'was meant as warning.'" I did not have Janka's facility to speak in another person's very tone and manner. In truth, the words made me cringe. I was just reaching the "lust for vengeance" part when someone pounded upon the door, and I forgot everything again.
"Lady mother! Are you awake?"
"If I were not before," Uta said, "I would be now."
And her ladies with her, I could not help but think. My heart was still racing with fright.
Gunther flung the door open, but checked when he saw Janka and me. "Forgive me, my lady mother. I thought you would be alone."
"They saw a party of riders at the gates this morn and have been atremble all this while, fearing they must be Saxons." Uta gave him a sly smile. "Was I mistaken to tell them it is surely another suitor come to court your lady sister?"
"I would have thought it beneath your royal dignity to spread such gossip," he grumbled. "Will you not send these maidens to their beds? It ill befits them to sit wakeful so long into the night. What lords would want to take such idle, meddlesome chits for their wives?"
I truly could say no word more. My throat had closed from shame. I rose and made a deep courtesy to him and another to Queen Uta. Janka did the same, and when the queen nodded and bade us go, we fled. And so I told not a word of the kings' and Hagen's discourse upon Siegfried.
In Kriemhild's chambers, we stumbled in the dark, waking maidens who then abused us for our clumsiness. Only one bed stood empty, a low trundle in the coldest corner, with one leg shorter than the others. Janka and I crept into it, huddling together for warmth while the bed wobbled under us. Though I fell into sleep almost at once, it was no restful sleep. As the dawn rose, seeping through my eyelids, I dreamed of strange alarms, of a headless child in a field whose furrows ran with blood. In a dim corner behind a tapestry, a shadowy figure wielded a sword with a great bloodstone for its pommel. But the hand seemed wrong for the sword. And I knew that hand, with its spidery, black hairs. It was not the one that belonged on the sword Balmunc's hilt. The sword reared, and the man leapt from the shadows. I bolted awake.
I was alone in the trundle bed. Janka must have laid an extra coverlet over me when she woke, which was kind of her, but with the smoky fire that burned in the corner, it was overhot. A few maidens lingered at the far side of the chamber, searching through clothes chests and jewel boxes. From the next chamber came the sound of merry voices. I rose, went to the nearest basin and splashed my face with the bit of water left in the bottom. Only slightly refreshed, I walked into the next chamber.
"There she is, the lazy goose!" Kriemhild was all cheer that morn, having escaped the threat of another suitor. "Make haste to dress, or you will miss the swordplay. Is it not wonderful? They are to fight in the snow!"
And so they did.
All that season, our knights battered upon each other with hay-girt swords, while we maidens braved the chill at our windows to watch them. They wrestled in the churned ice and jousted in the muddy slush. Rain melted the last icicle from the battlements, and the horses sank to their fetlocks in mire. But the frenzy continued. The squires who kept their masters' armor polished must have been wearied into numbness. Even Siegfried and his knights, who had come squireless, were served now by young squires of Burgonden. I wondered whether this meant he had made some agreement with the kings.
Messengers came and went daily, and though King Gunther thought the news they brought unfitted for the ears of maidens, we heard all manner of rumors. Wedded knights could not be kept from whispering with their lady wives in bed. These ladies compared the tidbits they had heard, careless of whether we maidens sat listening. And then we maidens speculated upon all we heard and much we had not.
We maidens, I say, though I took care, myself, to keep my lips together. I burned to know whether a messenger had been sent to my own father along with the others, and to know what answer he sent back, but I feared to join the talk. I knew not, otherwise, how I might keep from some slip of the tongue that would betray all I had heard the night I listened behind the tapestry. Janka spoke as freely as any of the ladies of the message the Saxon prince had brought - in the end, not a single word of it had not slipped out to one lady or another. But Janka did not know all that I knew. And if Giselher had spoken to any living soul of what he had heard that night, the news of it did not come to the women of the court.
We counted the weeks as they slipped past. Ten - nine - six. The meager season of Lent began when we could eat no meat, though at Kriemhild's bidding, plump Mina oft stole to the kitchens for a tray of cheese pastries to make our fasting less grim. And if, in addition to the pastries, a fat sausage appeared from under a napkin, who among us would betray it to Queen Uta? Not I. Yet I was pious enough to hold back from eating what God and his priests forbade, though it came hard when the scent of smoked pork wafted into my nose.
Five weeks - three. Janka's uncle, the great knight Walther of Spain, rode through the gates with twenty companions at his back. Sybilla's brother came with seventeen more. High above the crash and rattle of the courtyard, swallows built nests in the eaves. The earliest flowers sprang and opened under the walls, under the racks of lances, and wheresoever a knight on horseback could not trample them out of life. Soon, the roses in the ladies' garden would put leaves on their thorny stems. Mint and lavender would wax thick in the spaces between the paving stones, and the days would be warm enough for us maidens to walk out of doors.
Anna, or so it was whispered, kept a love-token tucked into her bodice from a knight who begged her to meet him in the garden. But her father, we knew, had forbidden her to give hope to any man below a duke's rank, and none of us had seen her slip out to meet this knight or any other, whether by dawn, by dusk, or broad light of day. And none of us dared speak of such matters within Kriemhild's hearing. For if we let slip so much as a word to do with love and courtship - or worse, the name Siegfried or any word to do with Xanten or the Nibelungs, she flew into such a temper that none could sweeten her for days. Or, which troubled me more, she sank into so cheerless a state that she would not taste the fattest and most forbidden sausage, but sat in the corner nearest the fire, sighing and plucking at a lute she had no ear for.
"I should have wed the prince with the limp," Kriemhild told me once, when the bedcurtains were closed about us and all the other maidens slept. "He had a castle built all of stone in the mountains of Swabia. I have heard his sisters oft went hawking with him. Ugly as he was, he would have striven with his whole heart to merit my love." And then she fell to weeping, though she tried to hide it. "O, Ilse," she whispered, "what will become of us? A wife must do as her husband bids her and has no will of her own. We will be no different than Leibeigene."
And yet, though she would not have Prince Siegfried spoken of, and whether her gaze was turned to the windows or no, she seemed to sense by some uncanny means the moment when Siegfried came out to the courtyard each day. And whether she looked his way or no, she seemed to know from one moment to the next in which part of the courtyard he stood. Once, while I stood by her, leaning my elbows as she did on the oaken sill, Siegfried said some word into the ear of his knight of the foxtails, and that worthy knight glanced to our window. Upon the instant, she turned her head to the farthest side of the courtyard, as though the squire sharpening his knight's sword there held a near claim upon her attention.
The knight of the foxtails raised his visor and called up, "I pray you, throw me down a ribbon you have worn in your hair."
Could he dare so to address my lady? If so, his rank was higher than I had imagined. I looked upon him more closely, and saw that it was not my lady he meant. Indeed, thrown into confusion for a moment, I believed it was me. Then the maiden at my other side - it was Anna - drew a faded ribbon from her hair and let the breeze take it. He chased after it and caught it before it touched the ground. Holding his visor steady with his free hand, he bowed to her. I felt a fool.
Prince Siegfried laughed aloud, and the knight gave him some retort. I did not hear all his words, but they were to do with the ribbon. And now another knight called out, "The princess looks upon you, my lord!"
Kriemhild startled and made a move to draw back. But then she leaned to my ear, saying, "Do not move. Or they will imagine I was indeed looking upon their lord." Her cheek gave off a heat like the glow of banked coals.
Siegfried, alone among his men, did not raise his head.
The knight of the foxtails called up, "Fair princess, may I not know the name of the maiden whose ribbon this is?"
Anna pressed toward Kriemhild, so that I must take a step backward from the window. "Nay, do not tell," she said. But she leaned so eagerly upon the sill I could not believe she meant it. She called boldly down, "If you would know my name, Sir, you must not shout for it, unseemly, where all may hear. Send to my lady in courtly wise. If she thinks it fitting, you will learn all you wish."
Kriemhild's hand twitched as though she would slap Anna. But then she clasped both her hands behind her back. I could not forbear peeking over her shoulder to see what the knight of the foxtails thought of Anna's boldness. He grinned and stood for a moment without answering, passing the ribbon through his gloved fingers. I wondered he did not kiss it or, at the least, tie it to the top of his helm. At last, one of his fellows took the ribbon and tied it among the foxtails. I could not help thinking of the ages-old caution. A red dog, a red horse, a red person . . .
I could watch no longer. I whispered in Kriemhild's ear, "My lady, come away from this foolishness. Let us walk in the garden."
"Nay," she murmured. "I would not have them think they have driven me away."
I turned and caught Anna's arm. "Come," I said. I slanted my eyes toward Kriemhild and raised my brows. Anna must surely know she had offended.
But she clung stubbornly to the sill. "How can I leave, when the knight is wearing my token? He may do some feat of jousting."
I appealed to Janka and Mina and the others, but all said it was too dreary out of doors. "There will be naught but mud underfoot," Janka said, "and thorns above ground. Even the leaves on the roses will not be out of bud yet."
I thought myself quite unloved, which roused my spite. Though I did not imagine I had charms to excite the admiration of any knight so worthy as Siegfried's knight of the foxtails, I surely merited the friendship of one or two, at least, of these maidens. And we had, all of us, spent the long winter prisoned within doors. I was sure that if Janka or Sybilla or some other had proposed a turn in the garden, the other maidens would be clamoring to join her.
Squaring my shoulders, I lifted my chin. "I will visit the garden alone, then."
"It is not seemly," Mina said, glancing at Sybilla.
But Sybilla, too, was gazing into the courtyard and took no note of her. How could it be unseemly of me to wander in the garden, when no knight would come there? Not a knight in the castle, whether prince or duke or lone wanderer, coveted my favors.
"Goose," someone called after me, but I feigned not to hear.
I walked through the chambers where Queen Uta's ladies sat and stitched or stood at the windows watching their husbands below and, betimes, calling out some jest or sally. Too timid to ask any of these wedded ladies to join me, but too stubborn to set aside my purpose, I reached the west end of the castle where a staircase inside a turret spiraled down to the ground floor. Inside, the only light was the narrow glimmer from the arrow slits at the top, where the knights might stand to defend the keep if the outer walls were breached. The back of my neck began to prickle. Why had I come here? I crossed myself for comfort. But I did not turn back.
I groped my way down the stars, winding until I lost my sense of direction. At the bottom were two narrow doors, one at my right hand and the other two turning steps beyond it on the opposite wall. Both were formed alike of close-set wooden planks, warped and seamed with age. And now I could not remember which opened into the garden and which into the ground floor of the castle. It had been long since I had come this way, and I had never marked which door the ladies took. I chose one, raised the latch, and shoved it open.
I found myself gazing into a chamber as desolate, empty and cold as the turret. One of the hangings had fallen into a heap at the base of a window little wider than an arrow slit, for the windows on the ground floor were constructed to keep enemies out. A bar of cold light traveled across the fallen tapestry, the floor and the hunched forms beyond, all muffled in dust. It pointed to a row of still shapes along the base of the inner wall - cradles, I realized, which had not swayed to lullabies in five years or more, for Queen Uta and her ladies were past bearing, and we younger maidens were all, like Kriemhild, unwed. To the left of a closed door at the far side of the chamber, a pair of carved horses faced each other as in a joust, but stood frozen, caparisoned in dust. Abandoned, they were, in this forgotten storeroom - or so I thought until I noticed the marks of bootsoles in the dust beside them. Who would come here? Secret lovers? Pages escaping from their chores? But the prints seemed too large for women or children to have made them, and did not reach near enough to my turret door to have been made by anyone passing through the unused chamber to the garden. Whosoever had made them, it was none of my affair. I backed out and pulled the door closed.
The garden door's hinges had rusted over the winter, but I heaved, and at last they grated open wide enough to let me slip through. I left the door standing open for my return and stepped into the garden. Drawing in a great breath of the clean, cold air, I felt a rush of pleasure to be free of the smoky, musty castle. But as Janka had warned, there were neither flowers here nor any comfort. Bare twigs and wilted vines draped the walls like cobwebs abandoned by a giant spider, exposing the weathered planks that flowers and foliage had covered in summer. The flower beds were bare earth, interrupted only by the twisting latticework of rose canes and the molehills half washed away over the stone paths.
I lifted my face to the sun. If I stood motionless, I could sense its warmth cutting through the chill. But the silence was stark and eerie. I wished Kriemhild had come with me. Though she feigned to scorn Prince Siegfried, it seemed she could not leave her window when he was below.
Janka and Mina and any of the other maidens might have come with me, I thought. The garden would not have seemed so barren if the walls had echoed with their jesting.
For a moment, I amused myself by imagining the red-haired knight might come through the opposite gate, find me here, and court me. Had I believed it possible, I would have felt more alarm than pleasure, for I knew naught of the maidenly wiles that drew a man's love while holding his corporeal self at a distance. Nonetheless, it pleased me to conjure in my mind the color of the knight's hair and imagine the touch of his calloused hands.
A plum tree stood at the center of the garden, its branches lumpy with swelling flower buds. Kriemhild would have smiled to see them. In the summer, she used to stand with her face in a drooping cluster of roses and cry, "Ah, come and smell, Ilse! Can any jewel compare with the glory of a new-opened rose blossom?" But she was not here now. I turned back and stepped along the mud-washed path to the open turret door.
The turret was like midnight after my spell of sun. I turned to close the door behind me. But before I touched it, I heard men's voices through the door to the disused chamber. I had no cause, of yet, to feel a trespasser's shame. The way I had taken was used only by us women, and naught but the dreary weather and barrenness of the garden kept us from using it, for we used it oft during fair weather. But alone as I was, something in the low, grim tones of the voices put me in mind of the night I had listened behind the tapestry. And when I thought of the dust that lay over the fallen curtains and the abandoned cradles, and of the prints I had seen, I knew no man would come here, save to speak words he would have no others hear. I shivered, knowing I ought to leave at once. Even the queen would not have bade me listen here.
And yet, as though the voices were a lure I had no power to resist, a temptation more tantalizing and sinful than the sausages Mina smuggled from the kitchen despite the Lenten fast, I crept closer. Closer yet. I stepped silently on the stone flags, placing my heel first and shifting my weight carefully forward. So close I came that when at last I stopped and turned my head to one side, my ear was no more than a hand's breadth from a crack in the wooden door.
I held myself still and listened.
he voices came muffled through the wooden planks, but I knew them. The deeper one belonged to Hagen of Tronege, the younger one to King Gunther. The sound of their talk rose and fell. If I listened hard, I found I could understand snatches of it.
"... offered his help," King Gunther said, "but I mislike ..."
Hagen's voice was firmer and clearer. "... army of Xanten ... eight or nine thousand ... commands the Nibelungs himself ..."
They could be talking only of Siegfried. If he could bring us an army of eight or nine thousand from Xanten, it would swell our forces to near twenty thousand. I could not guess how many knights the Nibelungs might muster, but if they, too, could send so many, our army might be evenly matched against that of the Saxons and Danes. Queen Uta would want to know this, but how I might dare to tell her, I knew not.
"I mislike depending on him." Gunther's voice rose angrily. "... betrays weakness to ask ... even if ... Can you have forgotten his boasts? ... to fight, himself alone against ... and so win Burgonden ..."
Hagen spoke placatingly, something I did not well hear. Then he said, "Better to seem weak and prevail than to be truly weak and lose your kingdom."
Queen Uta would surely rejoice at such wisdom, even coming from Lord Hagen.
I listened to hear how Gunther would answer, but their footsteps moved away. The scrape of their bootheels carried louder through the stone flags of the floor than their voices through the wooden door. I wondered, of a sudden, whether my stiff-soled slippers would be as easily heard on the other side. I should go, I thought, for I had heard enough to ease my fears. But I stood hesitating by the door too long. The men came pacing back. They must have stood, this time, with their faces closer to the crevice where I listened, for though they spoke lower than before, I heard all, almost as though no barrier stood between us.
"Have you not seen him in the tourneys?" Gunther said. "He will be a hero. I cannot abide that."
And Hagen said, "Arrange the order of battle so that after the tide is turned and victory assured, you may press him to where the fighting is heaviest and withdraw to let him be surrounded. Even the power of the sword Balmunc cannot protect him against so many. A dead hero is easier to abide than a living."
I caught my breath. How many times had I heard my father say that a true knight pledged himself to guard all guests within his walls - whether travelers, knights errant, or hostages - so diligently as he would his own companions? I had been shocked when it seemed Gunther might order the Saxon princeling killed, but guest or no, and child though he was, he was Burgonden's enemy and carried a fearsome message. Siegfried, though, had been our guest through the winter without offering harm to any here. If he had pledged to fight for Burgonden, then he could be no enemy, but rather the truest of friends. And what would become of his knights, fighting at his side, if he were pushed like Bathsheba's husband into the foremost of the battle? Or of the red-haired knight, who wore Anna's ribbon in his helm and stood so close in his prince's confidence?
Expecting an angry outburst from King Gunther, I waited, hardly daring to breathe. Would he banish Hagen for his wickedness? In truth, I knew more to make me fear the loss of Hagen than that of Siegfried or any of his men.
Gunther said slowly, "You are wise, Lord Hagen. I will speak to the prince."
It was as though the castle's foundation stones had cracked open beneath me. Their footsteps moved away, and I fled up the stairs.
When I came back to the chamber where the maidens gathered, I felt as though I had been away for days. But in the chamber, naught had changed. All might have been preserved by some enchantment while my own life rolled unmercifully onward. Kriemhild gazed out the window. Anna stood on one side of her and Janka on the other, giggling and chattering. The tray of sweetmeats we had nibbled on that morn was still on the table by the door, the half-eaten remains no more diminished than when I had left. A minstrel sat plucking at his lute, attended by none.
My secret burned in my breast. But to speak of it before all would be to accuse King Gunther and Lord Hagen of plotting murder. Might I have misunderstood? I had heard but fragments of their speech. And yet what other meaning could I place upon Hagen's words? A dead hero is easier to abide than a living. I wished Queen Uta might learn of their talk. She would surely guide her son back onto the knightly and honorable path. But I dared not burst in upon her to accuse him. Might I tell Kriemhild and let her consider whether and how to speak? I must broach the matter carefully and privily, away from the other maidens.
I went to her side, my heart thumping. "Come to the garden with me." My voice sounded strange and wavering.
Janka laughed. "What pleasures could draw the princess there, that could not hold you?"
"The plum tree is in bud."
But Kriemhild said, "It was sleety yesternight. The benches will be wet."
Better, I thought, to speak when we were abed.
But that night, as I lay by her in the great, warm bed with its tapestry hangings, I heard the others whispering in their trundle beds beyond and feared they would hear. Kriemhild fell asleep, and I lay with the secret gnawing at me.
The next day, when I reminded her she had said she might join me in the garden, Janka was suddenly all eagerness to come with us.
"But you scorned the place yesterday," I said.
Kriemhild gave me a look. I had sounded as though I were slighting Janka.
I lowered my voice, though short of whispering into Kriemhild's ear, I could not prevent Janka or those nearest us from hearing. "There is a thing I would tell you."
Janka ducked her head and looked mockingly up from below her lashes. She leaned to Anna. "There is a thing I would tell you."
The maidens laughed.
Kriemhild put an arm about me. "I have no secrets from my companions. Tell me here."
I tried to think of a thing that would sound like a secret and yet not reveal what I dared speak of before none but her. Finally I blurted, "They are saying the northerner has come to woo you."
Kriemhild dropped her arm from my shoulders. "Do you mock at me? How do you dare?"
"Nay, I ..." How might I excuse myself? "It is why I asked to speak with you privily. I thought you would wish to know."
"Why should I wish to hear such rubbish?"
That night Janka slept in Kriemhild's big bed while I slept in the lumpy, warped bed in the antechamber. A week and some days passed before Kriemhild's anger thawed. Meanwhile, the temper of the knights' play beneath our windows changed. So fiercely did they slash at each other with their hay-girt swords that I feared some would perish despite the blunted edges. It was but two weeks before the twelve would be ended. I stewed, knowing that if I spoke too late, the army would be on the march, and naught could be done. But if I spoke again too soon, Kriemhild still would not listen, and I would only be longer out of her graces.
At last my chance came.
We had no music that morn, for the weather had warmed and the traveling minstrels and minnesingers had begun leaving the castle to carry their songs and news, stale here, to other lords and castles where they would be fresh and welcome. Kriemhild watched the knights in the courtyard for a time, but grew restless, for there was no jousting today, only knights and their squires milling about, sharpening swords, mending dented shields, and burnishing armor. When King Gunther walked out and clapped an arm about Siegfried's shoulders, she scowled and turned away from the window.
"Go and fetch my lute," she told me. She was no great musician, but had been taught enough to amuse herself.
I went from chamber to chamber, trying to remember where I had last seen it, but it had been long since she had played. I opened chests and spied into curtained alcoves, one after the other, until I glimpsed the tuning pegs peeping from behind a cushioned bench in her bedchamber. As I bent to free the lute, Kriemhild came in. I knew I must speak now, if I were ever to speak. My heart hammered, and my mouth grew dry.
"Leave the lute," she said. "I don't want it."
"Kriemhild," I stammered, but so softly she paid no heed.
"Help me change my gown." She gathered up her skirt. "I want the rosy samite ... no, better the crimson today ... and I'll wear my ruby necklet."
I took the crimson gown from the chest, thinking all the while of how I might begin what I meant to tell her. If I spoke of Gunther's jealousy of Prince Siegfried, she would close her ears at the first syllable of the prince's name. I watched her strip off her faded woolen morning gown. I might have wondered why she felt so hasty a need for one of her best gowns, but my mind was too full of fears to spare a thought for aught else.
"I have heard a strange thing," I said when she was free of the old gown.
Her brows drew together. "I will listen to no -"
"This is different. It has naught to do with you. But I must tell someone." I lifted the crimson samite over her head and fell silent while she thrust her arms through the sleeves.
"You ought not listen to gossip." Her voice came muffled through the cloth. "And I have no time for it now."
Was it gossip, what I had heard? I considered, adjusting the gown so it would settle properly about her shoulders. I said, "It is not gossip. Lord Hagen -"
"That is different." Her frown eased. "We should thank God every day for Lord Hagen's good counsel." She took up a pair of gold ribbons and gave them to me to twine about her braids. "Our knights ride out this morn. If my brothers had not Hagen to advise them, they would be riding to certain disaster." She sighed. "I rely on you not to repeat that. But you know it is true."
My heart sank. I had known the men were preparing for war, but had not thought it would come so soon. And though I had heard many rumors about Siegfried and the armies at his and his father's disposal, I had heard of no messenger come from Xanten or the land of the Nibelungs. Had Siegfried somehow learned, or guessed, what Gunther and Hagen plotted, and refused his aid? Or had he sent word to his armies that they should meet him on the way?
I tied off the second ribbon. Kriemhild raised the lid of her jewelry chest, took up the ruby necklet, and bade me fasten it about her throat. "Tell me quickly, what you have heard of Hagen. I would wave a farewell to cheer our knights upon their way."
It was too late for even Queen Uta to stop what had been set in motion. If I spoke an ill word against the king and his seneschal now, and some other came to hear it, the news might spread and cause such a stir that our knights would lose heart for the battles they must fight. What tale might I spin instead?
"Wear your primrose samite," Kriemhild said. "And the gold necklet. Leave your headcloth aside. We must give our men splendor to gaze upon before they go into battle."
I stripped off my gown and began to dress myself as she bade me.
"What of Lord Hagen?" she asked. "Can you tell me later, after the knights ride?"
I nodded. "Yea, later." I knew her well enough to know she would forget to ask again.
She hurried from the chamber.
Quickly, I finished dressing and followed her. The maidens stood clustered at the windows. I joined Kriemhild while she smiled and waved to the knights below. I lifted my hand and tried to smile. I could not help seeking for Siegfried's knight of the foxtails. So loyal he was, I could not imagine him leaving his lord's side. If Siegfried were pressed to the thick of the fighting, the knight of the foxtails would be at his side. He would die with his lord.
The temper of the preparations had changed. The gates were open. Mounted knights gathered both within and without the courtyard. Squires ran here and there, fetching whatsoever their knights called for. Horses whinnied and stamped their feet. Men shouted, half in ill temper, half in excitement. It was like and not like the last moments before a jousting tourney, with all in more disorder than I had yet seen. I found Siegfried's helm at last, with its stiff, white crest and, nearby, the other helm with its crest of ruddy foxtails. Siegfried pointed and gave orders in a manner that made it clear he had command of a company.
I looked for Gunther and Hagen then, but could see only Hagen in his black-plumed helm. He rode to Siegfried's side, and they conferred with their heads together. Siegfried gestured toward a banner on the far side of the courtyard. Hagen nodded and set a hand on Siegfried's shoulder. I had surely been mistaken. No man could bear himself in such friendly wise to one he meant to murder.
Kriemhild gasped and stepped backward, away from the window.
I turned, wondering at her distress. "What is it?"
"Gunther is not armed." She spoke in a shocked whisper. "Who will command the troops?"
I looked again, gazing downward as she had been, and saw near the entrance to the keep King Gunther's sand-colored hair and the jeweled circlet that marked him as king. It was true he wore no armor, though his brother Gernot, with crowned helm in the crook of his elbow, stood fully armed beside him. Gunther was speaking to the knights, but over the clatter of their armor and the hum of their voices as the closer knights passed his words to the more distant, I could hear naught clearly. Would he give the command over to Gernot? But why? Gernot was even younger and less experienced than he.
Gunther made a great sweep of his arm, gesturing toward Siegfried. Startled, I clapped a hand to my mouth.
Kriemhild clutched at me. "What have you seen?"
"He's given the command to Prince Siegfried," I said, forgetting in my astonishment not to let his name cross my tongue.
"Nay!" she cried. "He cannot!"
But he held his arm outstretched toward Siegfried, who had dismounted and was climbing the stairs to the battlements.
"Would he not arm himself if he meant to lead his knights into battle?" I said. "He would speak to them from atop the wall, rousing their will to fight. Would he not?"
Kriemhild stared, her mouth open.
I felt a glimmer of hope, though it troubled me still that Siegfried's armies had not gathered to join us. I felt sure, now, that I had misheard King Gunther and his seneschal, for who would plot wickedness against a knight he trusted to command his army? I realized further, thinking upon things I had heard my father say after serving in one war or another, that it was well Gunther had not armed himself. I leaned to my lady's ear. "He cannot ride with the army if he's given over the command to some other. The knights wold look first to their king for every order, and all would be confusion."
But she was no longer looking at her brother.
"Men of Burgonden!" cried a clear, strong voice. Siegfried stood on the battlements, from which high place he might address the knights both within and without the courtyard. "You all know me," he called down. "I am Prince Siegfried, son of King Sigmund of Xanten. I have commanded armies, fought dragons, and conquered the Nibelungs."
Fought dragons? Could it be true? Or did the word dragon signify some manner of knight or army, such that his fellow knights would understand his meaning, though I did not? My gaze drifted to the foxtailed helm. The knight who wore it lifted his arm and pumped his fist. A cheer rose from the cluster of knights about him. But their voices sounded all the more lonesome against the silence elsewhere. The knights of Burgonden had expected King Gunther to lead them.
Siegfried spoke on. "You know me as a worthy opponent in a joust. Is there a knight of Burgonden I have not unhorsed?"
Discontent rumbled through the mass of men. I thought Siegfried foolish to brag of besting those whose hearts and trust he must win in order to bring them alive through battle. And I worried that Gunther had been foolish in his choice of commander. But I was no counselor of kings. What did I know of such high wars as this?
"Among my friends," Siegfried said, "I am fierce but fair. When I come among enemies, I am only fierce. Did I not win my lordship over the Nibelungs by a trick?"
I heard a louder mutter and a scatter of cheers from the knights.
"We are ten thousand men at arms!" Siegfried called from the battlements, and now I knew he had sent for neither his Nibelungs nor his father's army out of Xanten. Was his arrogance so great he would satisfy it by marching our knights to their doom? A sick feeling grew in my breast.
He was telling them the number of the armies of Saxony and Danemark. "Knights of Burgonden, do you call that a fair fight?"
Some of the knights cried, "Nay!"
He cupped a hand to one ear. "A fair fight, you say?"
"Nay!" they called back, louder now. I could hear the anger in their shout and felt the same anger within my breast. For it was not fair to send so many against so few, nor to fight so early in the season, giving Burgonden no chance to gather more troops to its side. But I was near as angry at Siegfried as at our enemies.
"Nay!" Siegfried shouted. "A fight most foul. But I have a bag of tricks I can show them that will make the foulest of fighters cry for mercy!"
"Yea!" cried the men.
He pulled his sword from its sheath and raised it high in the air. Its blade was shining and bright, brighter than any other I had seen, and suddenly I believed in its power. So confident was Siegfried, I knew he must have tricks fouler and more deadly than even Hagen might imagine, to defeat the enemies of Burgonden. I began to feel a hope, not only that Siegfried might lead the army to victory, but that he might also evade whatsoever trap Hagen and Gunther between them might have set and baited. It would not matter, then, what I had heard.
"Balmunc!" shouted someone below. More voices took up the cry, repeating the name of that shining, ruthless and magical sword. "Balmunc! Balmunc!" It seemed Prince Siegfried had won them.
When the shouts thinned enough for his voice to be heard, he spoke on. "King Gunther has entrusted me with your hearts and your lives, and I have vowed to cover you in glory. Will you fight for me, men of Burgonden?"
And the shouts came back, "Yea! Yea!"
"Poor Gunther," Kriemhild sighed into my ear. "This will be bitter for him."
I cared not. As Hagen had said: Better to prevail.
"We will fight!" Siegfried cried. "And return victorious!" He spread his arms wide, holding the sword Balmunc uplifted, while the cheers rose around him.
Then, for only the second time in that year's span, he looked to Kriemhild where she stood beside me in the window. This was no flirting glance such as men cast up to us betimes before they rode at joust, but a direct, clear gaze, with such force within it as he had given his speech to the knights. Pressed up close to Kriemhild, I felt her tremble under its power, but she did not flinch away. Rather, she returned his gaze, for the briefest of moments. Then she lowered her head toward the knights in the courtyard, leaned farther out of the window, and drew from her hair one of the gold ribbons I had twined into it. She lifted her arm in a gesture that might have been the twin of Siegfried's when he unsheathed Balmunc. She held the ribbon into the breeze. It fluttered and gleamed there for a long moment. Then she pressed it to her lips and flung it to the knights below. They scuffled.
I did not look for the helm with the foxtails then. I pinned my eyes on the knights vying for her token, almost fearing to glimpse the red brushes by chance. What did I fear? Mayhap that he, like Siegfried, would take the helm from his russet head and stare into our window, into my eyes. Did I fear because the proverb had taught me to, or would I fear him the same if his hair were as bleached and bright as Siegfried's? Mayhap I feared only that I would tremble as my lady had, and that the battles to come would then swallow him.
She stood smiling as a knight achieved her ribbon and then lifted his visor, raised his face to her, and kissed the strip of gold before tying it to the spike atop his helm. I wondered at her calm. Not once, now, did she glance toward Siegfried. But his eyes stayed on her until the ceremony of the ribbon was fulfilled and the time came for him to lead the army of Burgonden toward its goal. Then he climbed down from the battlements, mounted his horse, and rode out. The knights parted before him like the Red Sea for Moses.
ome weeks after our army marched away, the fires and whips of Walpurgis Eve drove out whatsoever of winter might still have lingered in the fields and vineyards about Burgonden Castle. The pelting rains of spring had long melted the last traces of snow and ice. We had salad on our board again, tangy sorrel, bitter dandelion and pungent watercress. On Walpurgis Day, I rode out with Kriemhild and all her maidens behind Queen Uta and her ladies, resolved to keep close and not stray into the woods, whatsoever my lady Kriemhild might do. But she stayed by her mother, and though the cowslip blossoms sprang more thickly than I remembered from the year past, the ladies were less diligent in their gathering. At every rustle in the beeches, every call of a crow, they started with fear. There were no jests or contests as in the year past by ladies striving to fill their baskets first. And so, when we returned to the castle, they made plaint at the poor taking and sighed that we would have but little cowslip wine to ease our spirits in the next winter.
Some weeks later, the first of the May roses opened in the ladies' garden, and Queen Uta led us down the turret stairs and into the sunshine. I was not, I supposed, the only lady who felt safer in this walled enclosure. Though the roses bloomed more sparsely here than the cowslips in the mead, we sought them more avidly. Kriemhild cupped her hands about the blossom nearest the door and breathed as though sighing backwards. I slipped past a group of maidens and an elder lady leaning upon her cane, for I had glimpsed a half-hidden blush of red on the far side of the garden where no other had seen it. I reached for the branch, clasping it lightly so the thorns would not prick, and drew the cluster of blooms toward my nose. Ah, the scent was like wine, turning my mind from all the fears that swam within.
I heard, as though it were an echo from a distant shore, how Kriemhild scolded a maiden for her roughness. Trying to move closer to the wall of roses, I set my foot by mischance into a clump of daisies. Penitent, I stepped back, but in my concern for the plants under my feet, I forgot the spray of blossoms in my hand. The thorns sank into my fingers. I cried out and opened my hand. The spray of blossoms flew back and hit the wall. Petals rained to the ground, leaving none upon the plant, save the tight-folded truss in a partly opened bud.
Almost weeping at my clumsiness, I turned to see Kriemhild slap Janka for a like offense and burst into tears. "You are ruining all!" she cried.
"I only touched the one," Janka protested. "It was old. The next breeze would have done the same!"
Queen Uta took Kriemhild's elbow. "Control yourself, Princess! What example do you show your maidens?"
"But look what they've done to the roses!"
"There are others here, and more will bloom upon the morrow. Why these tears, over so small a thing? This is unlike you."
Tears burst from my own eyes. I ran to Kriemhild and embraced her. "O my lady, we meant no harm! Forgive us, I beg you."
She clung to me, weeping louder.
Anna, too, began to weep, and then Mina. One of Uta's ladies joined them, then another and another, until half the ladies in the garden and all the maidens save Sybilla and Janka were sniffling and sobbing.
Janka plumped herself down on a bench. "I care not, I tell you! In a week there will be more blooms than leaves here. But our men will not come back, and I'll die a maiden!" Then she, too, put her hands to her face and keened.
"Hush this foolishness!" Uta turned to me then, taking hold of my sleeve and tugging so sharply I had to step away from Kriemhild lest we both lose our balance together. "Dry your eyes, Ilse, or in another moment I will box your ears."
My tears stopped welling. I took a kerchief out of my sleeve and blotted my cheeks.
"We've heard naught to give us cause for despair," Uta said. "Until we do, we must hope for the best and show cheerful faces."
"But it's been near two months since they marched." Kriemhild stared wet-cheeked defiance at her mother. "And we've heard naught. What do we know of Prince Siegfried to win our trust? He may have marched our army into a trap and -"
Uta's face went white. "That is quite enough!"
Many of the ladies' faces had turned as white as hers. Even Kriemhild paled. Never before had she expressed such a thought - though it was true that as the weeks passed and we heard no news, our confidence had waned.
"I did not mean it," she whispered.
But the words had passed over her tongue and into our ears. They could no more be unsaid or unheard than the fallen rose petals could be restored to their stems.
"Pray," Uta said, "and keep faith."
When the bells rang for matins the next morn, we trooped into the minster. Queen Uta and Princess Kriemhild led us through the doors and up the stairs, though only the most pious of us maidens had been wont to rise so early, save on the Sabbath when the kings and all their knights attended mass. I followed last, as ever, for if I were Kriemhild's favorite, I nevertheless stood lowest in courtly precedence. I tried not to look down from the ladies' balcony as I took my place. It was too dispiriting to see the handful of grizzled knights and the fringe of ragged peasant women where our splendid young knights had once filled the wide space below the altar, and crowds of artisans and Leibeigene had pressed together at the back. Once, I fear, we had been more eager to gaze upon the knights than raise our prayers to heaven.
Gunther and Giselher stood below in their jeweled crowns, enough space beween them for a knight to pass through without grazing their elbows. We wasted no sighs on them, for none of us might wed so high. And while we would not use the word "coward" of those few knights Gunther kept behind to guard the castle - most would have gone with Prince Siegfried, had they been allowed to choose - they did not make our hearts flutter as did those knights who might soon perish for our sake. The ladies' balcony, too, had grown emptier of late. It was easy to neglect a duty that no longer beguiled us with the usual lures.
But that morn, we were devout. We prayed with hearty voices for a Burgonden victory. And I think I was not the only one who whispered, so that only God might hear, a plea that he preserve Prince Siegfried's loyalty to Burgonden, or, if it were no longer a matter of preservation, that he reawaken such loyalty in the prince's heart.
The men left first, as always. We ladies knelt longer in our prayers, though of habit we would have risen to watch the men, for we had the best view of their faces as they turned to leave. Some of the bolder maidens had tried betimes to catch the eyes of those who most pleased them. But this morn, we kept our heads bowed, then rose pious from our prayers and followed the others out to the courtyard, while the minster bells pealed.
There seemed little need for caution with the most savory of the knights away, but Queen Uta, aided by her ladies, shepherded Kriemhild and us maidens past the small cluster of men lingering in the courtyard. I had no sooner passed from the shade into the sun's glare when a blast of trumpets sounded beyond the walls, ringing dissonant and harsh against the bells. The maidens about me halted, and I rose on my toes to see over Janka's shoulder. Even Queen Uta stood speechless as the gates opened and a party of some half-dozen knights rode through, bearing the banner of Burgonden with its canted blue and gold stripes and scarlet border. I cried out, knowing not whether I cried for joy or fear, my own small voice drowned in the cries of the maidens and ladies about me.
I pushed between Janka and Mina, courtesy giving way to my need to see whether a clutch of foxtails dangled from any of these six helms. Ladies began to cry out their husbands' names, begging for news. The six knights' surcoats were stained and torn, their armor smudged with dirt and blood. They looked neither right nor left, heeding none of the ladies' cries, and carried themselves with an upright bearing, though whether of wounded vanity in defeat or pride in a victory, I could not say. I feared the former, and wondered what I should do if it were so. Alas, my knight of the foxtails was not among them. I bit my lip to stop its trembling. I had no claim, whether of kinship or friendship, upon him. If he were dead, I would be mocked if I wept for him.
King Gunther called to the knight in the lead, summoning him to the royal audience chamber. As though waking from an enchantment, Queen Uta slapped her page between the shoulders, bidding him to summon another knight to herself, then turned to cry, "Come ladies, maidens. We shall await their news in our chambers." In a lower voice, she added, "Let us show the forbearance proper to our rank." Kriemhild did not at once follow, but pointed her own page toward a third knight. I knew the knight's face, though not his name. He was a tall Burgonden who kept his seat longer than many others when he jousted against Siegfried's knights.
"Bring that knight to my chambers," Kriemhild told the page, "so soon as he has slaked his thirst and washed his face and hands. My own chambers, do you understand?"
When the boy said yea, she hastened into the keep, and we maidens followed. In her chambers, she clutched at my hand. She bade me tidy her headcloth. Then she seated herself, and I stood beside her. Her breast rose and fell. Her flushed cheeks paled as we waited. Someone at the back murmured, and Sybilla hushed her. The little time stretched to what seemed an eternity, though it can have been no more than some few moments before her page came to us. But the knight he announced was not the one she had bade him bring. This one wore a plain surcoat of white samite, marred with the foulness of battle but unmarked with any device, whether of Burgonden or any land. Thus I knew him for one of Siegfried's men.
He knelt at my lady's feet, setting his hand against his heart. "Most royal maiden."
Frowning a bit, she glanced at her page, but said naught. She drew a long breath, wringing her hands together. Her lips parted, trembling, but then she closed them again and laid her hands flat upon her knees. She bade the knight rise. "You come in answer to our prayers, good sir." She smiled at him and leaned slightly forward, and I thought the questions would burst from her lips all at once, as water from a broken pot. But her composure held. I marveled at it, for I was burning, myself, to know who had won the victory.
"I will give you gold for your message," she said, "whether it be happy or doleful. Speak honestly, and ... and hold naught back. Does my brother Gernot live? What of the other knights?" She named those who stood highest in her brothers' favor and asked their fate. She did not ask whether Siegfried lived.
"There are no cowards in the army of Burgonden," said the messenger.
Had I been Kriemhild, I would have slapped him. Any fool must know what we craved to learn. And surely, after he said whether we had won or lost, he might tell us who lived and who did not, and only then, to lighten our mourning, tell us we might be proud of our knights' daring. But he was Siegfried's man, not Burgonden's. He had his own purposes to fulfill.
So steadily did he gaze upon Kriemhild's face that it must, in any case but this, have offended. "Since you ask for honest speech," he said gravely, "I must report that Prince Siegfried ..." He paused.
She let out a squeak, too quickly cut off to be called a whimper. I leaned to her and set my hand upon her shoulder, fearing she would faint away, but she only swayed against my hip. I felt suddenly certain that Siegfried was dead or had betrayed us. Which I feared most, I knew not.
The knight's lips moved in a faint smile. "Prince Siegfried," he said, "was a lion upon the field."
Now it was I who must clutch at Kriemhild to keep myself steady. She cried out. I alone knew it was from the pain of my fingers pressing into her shoulder, and not for joy at the messenger's news - he seemed to think it happy. Quickly, I released her. Instead of chiding me, she took my hand and twined her fingers with mine.
"No man," the messenger said, "fought so valorously as he. I cannot count the number of Saxon and Danish ladies who will be bathed in tears when they hear the news from this battle. Number upon number of their dear ones lie in the cold earth and will never return. Again and again, he raised his great sword Balmunc, swinging it in an arc so it opened wounds wheresoever it passed, and the blood sprang in a circle about him."
"We had the victory?" Kriemhild's hand tightened on mine. I knew she feared this happy news would be snatched away.
"It was Prince Siegfried who took the victory, royal maiden."
She drew a breath. "And did my royal brother Gernot acquit himself well?"
"He emptied many saddles. Lord Hagen of Tronege did much damage, too. You may be proud of your royal brother and of Lord Hagen and of every knight of Burgonden. Prince Siegfried declared them worthy men. He said it did him honor to ride at their head."
Siegfried had not betrayed us. He had led our army to a great victory. Nor had he been slain, as Gunther and Hagen had plotted. I yearned to know how my knight of the foxtails had fared. O, he was not my knight - I knew that well. But it would do no harm for this knight to say whether he lived or no. His eyes were merry. Could they be so merry if one of his fellows had fallen?
"Siegfried brings prisoners with him," the knight said. "Rich prisoners, who have pledged to pay for their freedom."
"Ludiger of Saxony?" Kriemhild asked.
"Yea, most royal and lovely princess. And his brother Ludegast of Danemark, also."
"How?" she whispered.
He gave her a broad smile. "Shall I tell it from the beginning?"
"Yea, if it please you."
"The first order Siegfried gave was to burn and pillage those lands we passed through, so neither snail nor beetle could find the smallest blade of grass nor kernel of grain to devour. We would drive our enemies to hunger if they dared march so close to Burgonden. In the second week, for the pillaging slowed us, we reached the Saxon border and made camp. Prince Siegfried himself went to scout our enemy's position, taking but one of his men to serve as messenger if he were captured."
I knew which one that must be. The knight of the foxtails was ever closest to his side.
"He found their camp," the knight said, "and saw it was larger than we had expected, though the Dane had not yet joined his brother. There was but one royal tent and one royal pennant displayed, and that the Saxon colors. Full forty thousand troops, my lord saw before him."
Some of the maidens gasped at this, but my father had told me never to believe reports of enemy strength - they grow ever larger in memory.
"Many a man's spirit must have quailed before such numbers. But Siegfried's held undaunted. And God gave him good fortune, for as he rode the forested hills about the camp, he came upon King Ludiger riding ahead of his companions. Ludiger shouted for his knights, but Siegfried's sword was already out. Before any could ride to their king's aid, sparks flew from the royal blades. Balmunc proved the better of the two swords, and Siegfried the better of the two men - as he must, for what knight in this world could surpass him in skill or valor or any knightly virtue whatsoever?"
Kriemhild's brows drew together. I thought the knight would have been wiser to temper his praise, but her frown seemed not to trouble him.
"When the Saxon knights arrived - thirty heard his cries and rode to him - Ludiger was already on the ground, bleeding from three great wounds in leg, shoulder and head. The point of Siegfried's sword was at his throat. Thus Siegfried won the surrender of the Saxon army."
"So," Kriemhild said. "But you gave us to know there was a battle?"
"Yea, Princess," answered the messenger knight, "for when King Ludegast of Danemark learnt his brother's fate, he marched against us. And not a man of us was sorry, for Prince Siegfried had roused our temper to such a pitch that we thirsted for enemy blood and would have thought ourselves sore deprived to ride so far and never unsheathe our swords, save only to threaten peasants. Great deeds were done that day, most royal maiden, and Siegfried was ever first among the fighters. He took many prisoners, both whole and wounded, as you will see. And King Ludegast of Danemark was among them. O, most royal lady, if you could have been there to see my lord! We grew wearied all, in that battle, but never did his strong arm falter."
He watched Kriemhild closely as he spoke, and I realized of a sudden why he, and not the knight my lady had asked for, must have come. On the heels of so great a victory, Prince Siegfried must have thought the time ripe, at last, to press his suit. He had surely charged this knight to carry praise of him to the princess.
But when the knight bgan to speak once more of his prince, her voice rode over his. "My royal brother Gernot fought well?"
"Very gallantly, most royal -"
"How many dead have we?"
"Some three and twenty, if all the injured mend."
He meant knights, not Leibeigene. It was few enough in an army of seven hundred.
"God and his angels will give them joyous welcome." Kriemhild crossed herself. "When shall we expect the army of Burgonden to return, and Prince Siegfried with his many prisoners?"
"They ride but an hour or so behind us messengers."
"I am glad - indeed overjoyed - to learn of this victory, and I thank you heartily." She rose and crossed to one of her chests, which she unlocked with the key at her waist. She counted out ten gold pieces from the store there and put them in the messenger knight's hand. "I will see, too, that you are rewarded with rich clothes. You shall have a new surcoat, and robes of pure white samite sewn with pearls, so that all who see you at the victory feast will know how I prize your service to me and your faithfulness in reporting all that you saw and heard upon the battlefield."
Though she said more to the messenger knight, it was such courtly talk as flattered much but meant little if one came to reflect upon it. We maidens could scarce hold ourselves from rushing to the windows before she was well finished, for the messenger had spoken long, and our army might at any moment reach our gates. But at last, Kriemhild had flattered him sufficiently. She dismissed him, and we were free. I started toward the windows with the others, but she called me back.
"Watch with me, Ilse, from the little window in my bedchamber. The knights will not look for us to be standing there. I cannot bear the thought of so many eyes upon me."
It was the first time ever I knew her to mind such a thing. But I took her hand and went with her to the window in her bedchamber. She drew the tapestry partly aside and stood half hidden in its folds while I leaned more openly upon the sill. Beyond the walls rose a haze, dust stirred by the hooves of many hundreds of war chargers.
Had God heard our prayers and answered them? It had been a strange thing to emerge from my newly fervent devotions to hear all at once the trumpets blaring amid the bells of worship. But I reflected now that the victory had been won weeks earlier, at a time when our devotions had fallen into neglect. A priest might have said that God, knowing all, had known already that we would receive the happy news while the bells of our renewed devotion were yet pealing. I smiled, only half believing my imagined priest.
The first of our victorious company rode through the gates, beauteous in their plumed helms and shining mail. Even the stains and dust upon their surcoats could sully naught. I knew Prince Siegfried from his white-crested helm and King Gernot from his helm with the jeweled coronet. I even saw, to my great and foolish joy, a helm with a crest of foxtails that bounced jauntily with the pacing of its knight's roan stallion. Below us, Queen Uta's ladies spilled from the doors of the keep to greet their husbands, but Kriemhild kept behind her little window, staring until the last group of knights, prancing about Siegfried like peasant girls about a maypole, passed from our view, leaving the courtyard empty.
"Will there be a feast?" I asked.
She laughed, suddenly merry. "Goose, of course there will be! And we maidens will be there. Do you think my brothers would keep us hidden from knights who have won so splendid a victory?"
ll came to pass as my lady Kriemhild said. King Gunther sent messengers to the kings and high nobility in the surrounding lands - my mother and father among them - to come to Burgonden at Pentecost for a grand jousting tourney and feast. The weeks seemed long, yet merry, as we waited for the messengers to carry the news throughout the Empire and for our guests to arrive. Meanwhile, the minster was again full of knights and our delight in them. Queen Uta did not rush us so swiftly through the courtyard after church, but let us slow almost to a saunter. Many maidens cast bold eyes at those who pleased them, and she labored to keep all seemly. But Kriemhild gave her no cause to chide, keeping her eyes lowered, and glancing neither right nor left. Nor did I dare raise my eyes, and thus I knew not whether Prince Siegfried or his knight of the foxtails lingered in the courtyard on any of those days.
Alas, my parents could not come to the feast, but sent my brother to represent them. How fine it was to see one, at least, of my own kin. I spoke to him in the rose garden amid a crush of other maidens and their kin. He said my mother was ailing with a summer cold and my father would not burden her with the care of the fortress at such a time. For, as so oft happened, petty jealousies and disagreements had arisen among my father's knights and their ladies, and he must mediate these with a strong hand. So I swallowed my disappointment and told my brother how happy I was in my lady Kriemhild's favor.
And yet my brother, who so oft had teased me and snatched at my braids, seemed a stranger. He stood taller than I remembered. His beard had grown denser. He spoke soberly of a murrain among the cattle and a good tithe from a band of merchants who traveled the road past my father's fortress. A year ago, I would have found these matters as weighty as he found them, but now I could only feign interest, which troubled me. He gave me a large brooch of gold set with a single diamond surrounded by pearls. It must have been the finest ornament the merchants carried, so I told him it pleased me. But I could see, since Kriemhild had taught me to look for such things, that the gold was corrupted with brass, the diamond flawed, and the pearls mismatched. For a moment, I wished I had never come to Burgonden to learn such things.
He frowned, my brother, and scraped his toe across the stone flag where he stood. He spoke low, without looking at me. "We have had no offers for your hand. Nor heard word that any knight has courted you."
My face heated. "We maidens are kept apart. And who would offer for me, when he might wed one of the others?"
"They will show you at the victory feast. Wear this brooch upon your bosom where all can see and marvel at it."
Neither the brooch nor my bosom were fit to marvel at, but I said naught.
"Father bids me remind you to keep your voice low and sweet, and speak no word before you are bidden, for he says no lord will wed a lady with a cross tongue."
"I will remember." To what lord did my father imagine me speaking thus crossly?
"And see you cast no simpering looks at any knight of low rank. Father would have you wed a duke or count or some such lord high in princely service."
I sighed and nodded. "Does our mother send me no word?"
"She was abed when we set out, so -"
"You said it was a summer cold! She never - "
"Do not forget what Father said of your voice. I set out early that morn. He would not have her risk her health in the morning mists, for he says she is not so young as she was. You should not think only of yourself, Ilse. We were in much confusion then, for one of the knights said another had insulted his lady, and all took sides, as you know they do. I counted myself fortunate to pass through the gates with none of my escort coming to blows."
It shamed me to come from a place of such turmoil. I said no more, and begged my brother's pardon that I had raised my voice.
My brother dared joust in the tourney the next day, and I forgot how he had vexed me. I knew he could not win, even before he drew for his opponent the knight of the foxtails. I wished only that he would not disgrace himself and me with him, so I watched with my heart in my throat as he chose the worst lance in the racks, swung gracelessly about to face his opponent, and on the trumpet's signal spurred his horse. It was quickly over. My brother must have neglected to fasten his helm properly, for it flew halfway across the courtyard with the first shock. He landed helmless and lay like a dead man. I was too stunned to weep at first, and then he stirred, rose, and gave the knight his hand in earnest of goodwill, so I only wiped a few tears of relief from my eyes.
How generously the red knight took his hand! He clapped my brother upon the back and said a word that brought a smile flashing across his face. It was brave of my brother to ride against a knight he knew would best him, and I was truly proud when I thought of this. Even so, when the two parted, I gave him no second glance, but my eyes followed the knight of the foxtails wheresoever he moved, even when Prince Siegfried jousted. And so, beyond this, I can tell but little of the jousting, for I saw but little.
But of the feast that night, I have much to tell.
A cloud of heat and fragrance rose to greet us maidens as we descended the staircase into the feasting hall. Each of us rested her hand upon the arm of a knightly escort. I did not dare look about to see who was there. Indeed, so awed was I by the knight who led me that I could scarce speak without stammering. His hand was twice the size of my own and hard with calluses. When I stole a sideways glance at him, I saw his shoulder where I had thought to see his face, and I was too shy to look longer, so it was like walking with one of the lords of the forest - bear or stag. But in truth, all the forest creatures present had been roasted, and in great abundance.
The servants bore in silver platters of venison, both the dainty roe deer and the Edelhirsch, the noble, great-antlered red stag. They brought heads of boar with apples in their cruel-tusked jaws, and roasted haunches of the same beast spiced with truffles and juniper berries. They served hares and rabbits and stuffed birds of all kinds: partridges and pheasants and songbirds, cooked with precious spices from the east. The scent rose up to us amid the gleam of candles numberless as stars and golden as the sun. Queen Uta's ladies were already seated beside their husbands. Maidservants rushed about the tables, pouring wine, ladling gravies, eluding men's hands.
One table stood on a raised dais. Here, Queen Uta and the kings of Burgonden sat, along with Hagen of Tronege and such invited kings and princes as ranked with King Gunther and his brothers in importance. I thought to see Prince Siegfried with them, but I did not, and was too dazzled to look for him elsewhere. Below the high table were two others, laden with flowers and fruit, and kept empty for us maidens with our escorts.
We were on display that night, a reward for the victors. As heavily laden as the boards, but with gold and jewels in the stead of foodstuffs, we stood in a wide half-circle at the front of the hall where all might see us. I felt hot from the very thought of so many eyes beaming upon us. Kriemhild herself had twined a chain of bright and heavy gold about my neck and lent me a pair of garnet and emerald brooches, each twice the size of the one my father had sent, so that I need not wear so flawed an ornament.
Lowest in rank among the maidens, I stood farthest from the high table, and thus in the best place of any to see both it and all those lower ones that filled the hall. My brother sat at one of the lowest, licking his mustache like a peasant. I looked away. I followed King Gunther's satisfied gaze and saw a man sitting at the head of a nearer table. He wore a gold circlet tilted away from the half-healed welt that began on the left side of his forehead, cut through his brow, and continued over the crest of his cheekbone through his reddish-blond mustache to the point of his chin. Beside him sat a beardless youth of princely bearing. He looked up at the wounded man, who did not look back, but rather turned to the man at his other side, likewise crowned. Thus I saw the unscarred side of his face, and saw how like they were, and like the youth. These could only be Ludiger of Saxony and Ludegast of Danemark with Ludiger's son whom I had last seen riding through the snow with his father's baneful message. The ransoms these kings and their knights must pay for their freedom would multiply Burgonden's wealth. Gold for lives. Had Ludiger truly meant his son, as Hagen guessed, to be slain and so rouse his army?
I shuddered, and my escort squeezed my hand. "They are toothless now," he whispered, "and can do no harm to any here."
King Gunther said a word to his mother. Then he stood and raised his arms for silence.
"Friends. Honored guests. Knights of Burgonden. Most charming and celestially beautiful ladies. Worthy opponents without whose daring and valor our own knights could not have so covered themselves in glory. I bid you the heartiest and most cordial welcome to our celebration!"
King Gunther shifted his gaze from the defeated kings to the near side of the hall. At last, I saw Siegfried's pale hair, strong brow and unsmiling eyes. He sat at the head of the table below and to the right of King Gunther's seat, with his knights below, a position that honored him above any other in the hall, save only those who sat with the kings of Burgonden. But as Prince of Xanten and the commander who had led our army to victory, should not he, too, have been seated at the high table? I wondered whether the slight angered him.
Glimpsing a head of red hair and a pair of magnificently broad shoulders near the prince, I froze, fixing my eyes on Siegfried lest I fall into a confusion. I felt as exposed here at the front of the hall as though I stood naked before all this crowd. What if the red-haired knight looked back at me, and our eyes met? I would be sure to embarrass myself.
I could not say whether Siegfried felt slighted by the place he had been given. He had taken a spray of crimson blossoms from the wreath before him and clasped it so tightly, the petals seemed to bleed from his fingers. But his eyes were not on the flowers. He had lifted his gaze to our half-circle of maidens and watched Kriemhild with an intensity that brought the color flooding into her cheeks.
Gunther's face, too, was red. I could not remember whether it had already been so, mayhap from the heat in the hall, or whether he had colored as he turned toward Siegfried. But his voice rang out strongly. "Most especially, I welcome that brave commander and victorious hero, Prince Siegfried of Xanten."
Siegfried blinked. He dropped the garland and brushed the crimson petals from his hands.
Gunther smiled at him. "Rise, Prince Siegfried. Accept our gratitude and the most loving greeting of our sister, the Princess Kriemhild."
Kriemhild must have expected this, for she did not startle. She stood motionless, waiting to perform the greeting imposed upon her, as Siegfried rose and walked her way. He did not hasten. Nor did his measured stride show any trace of hesitation. Just before he reached her, he stopped, bowed, then straightened and stood silently looking into her face. There remained an arm's distance or more to separate them.
A flicker of uncertainty seemed to pass over Kriemhild's face. Her knight escort released her hand and stepped back. She took a step forward, as she must, to reach Siegfried's hand. When she took it, his pale cheeks flushed. Her voice was low and sweet. "Be welcome, Prince Siegfried, noble and valorous knight." I heard, faintly, what she said. There must have been many in the hall who did not.
She dropped his hand and took another half-step toward him. Leaning forward and tilting her face upward, she touched her closed lips to his, briefly and chastely, according to courtly custom. I must, myself, have flushed as red as Siegfried, thinking of that touch of lip upon lip. He smiled. Then he spoke to her. What words these were, none but Kriemhild heard. She paled, but her eyes never left him.
Siegfried returned to his seat, and our escorts brought us to ours. I was able to look full upon the face of my knight escort. He sat opposite and served me most attentively, selecting the tenderest tidbits of partridge and venison and spiced apple for my pleasure. He asked whether my life in Burgonden Castle pleased me, and he listened to my answer as thought it interested him, which it surely did not.
Our conversation turned to Siegfried, as it must on such a day. Without thinking, I looked again to the table next our own, where he sat. Foolish Ilse! For it was not Siegfried my eyes fell upon, but a man with flame-red hair whose shoulders were broad and finely made, whose powerful chest tapered toward his waist, hidden behind the table. His eyes were grave, seeming to contemplate affairs of war and other such serious matters as concerned men - what could I know of the mind in back of those eyes? His face was strong, a countenance formed to impress enemies and friends alike. But across the bridge of his nose he wore a sprinkle of Sommersprossen, little red-gold freckles that delighted and disarmed me, for they made him mortal.
He saw me looking upon him, and his gravity lifted. His eyes sparkled. He broke off a rose from the wreath nearest him and bent over it for a moment. Then he threw the flower so it flew across the tables and landed in my lap. I started as though it had been a wild bird felled by a hunter's arrow, plummeting by sheerest chance to where I sat. My heart banged upon my ribs, whether from joy or fear, I knew not. But I looked down at my skirt and saw the rose lying innocently, sweetly, its inner petals still trembling from their flight. When I dared examine it, I saw the largest petal had been marked with gently curving scores, which he must have set there with his fingernail. They took the shape of some four letters, I thought, though I could not read them.
"Can you read?" I asked my knight escort.
"A little," he said, puffing himself up.
I gave him the flower and pointed to the marks on it.
He frowned over them for a moment, his lips moving. Then he spoke aloud. "'Hans,' it says." He returned the flower to me and clasped a hand to his chest. "You pierce me to the heart, noble maiden. Can you prefer some other?"
My face heated. "He is one of Prince Siegfried's men."
"Alas." He heaved a great sigh, rather too great to be honest. "Then I have no chance."
I laughed at him, as he surely meant me to. Indeed, I liked him very well. But he was not of a rank my father would have approved. And moreover, if there were a piece of my heart Hans had not already claimed, he had won it now entirely, thought I dared not glance to him again. How long must I wait, before the feast was ended and I could spill my tale to Kriemhild? She would know what I must do and how I might win him to please both myself and my father. In matters such as these, I had not a glimmer of understanding. I sat in a daze, as one bewitched.
he servants brought out platter after platter of sweets: brandied plum cakes, marzipan fruits, and nutcakes dripping with honey. The songs of war gave way to songs of courtship. And in the end, one of the minstrels told a tale I had not heard before, and I think King Gunther had not heard it either, for he leaned forward with his sleeve falling in a platter of marzipan and listened with rapt attention.
"Beyond the mouth of the Rhine and across the North Sea lies Eisland. Here rises Eisenstein Castle, and here rules the coldest-hearted maiden in the world, the queen Brunnhild. Her arms are as strong and her weapons as keen as her heart is cold, and no man may wed her, except he subdue her in single combat. Many have tried. There came a day in the Easter season - it fell early that year - and a prince of the Nether Lands determined to win her."
A sly smile crossed the minstrel's mouth. He turned to Prince Siegfried. "You knew him, my lord. It has been said that the man was as near to you as any kin. And you knew the fair maiden, too, if I have been told truly. But I will say no more of that."
Siegfried colored. I wondered what my lady Kriemhild thought of this, but was afraid to look about, lest I draw my red-haired knight's notice once more. I folded my hands over the rose he had given me and listened in silence, as we all did.
"There is a penalty for each suitor who tries and fails to win the lady. So cold-hearted she is, she flinches not from slaying those who challenge her. Well may a man think twice before setting out on such an adventure. She is rich, but not over-rich, for Eisland is a barren country, all rocks and ice, warmed only by a single mountain that smokes and spits a flame as unfriendly as the ice upon its flanks. But, ah, the queen is beauteous. Her skin is as pale and flawless as new-fallen snow. Her hair is long and glossy, black as a raven's wing. Her lips are red as the fruit of the rose. If a man might make her smile, such a smile would be worth any risk.
"The prince I speak of was no weakling, and he had, moreover, a treasure won in another contest, a treasure he judged would give him some advantage over the lady. It was a long, hooded cloak, finely woven of black wool and stitched with stars that twinkled as though they had been plucked from the night sky.
"Even the twinkling stars upon this cloak were not half the wonder of it, for when the prince drew it about himself and pulled the hood close over his face, he vanished to the sight of any watcher, as completely as if both he and the cloak had been formed of air. A Tarnkappe it was, a cloak of invisibility. Thus he might, all unknown, enter the bedchamber of the queen and win her before she knew the contest had been joined.
"And so he took ship and sailed, steering ever northward. At last, he reached the shore he sought and anchored his ship in a hidden fjord. Then he donned his cloak, pulled the hood over his head, and made off through the snow for Eisenstein Castle. What a sight that must have been, had there been any to see it! The snow gave way where no boot might be seen to tread upon it, and here and there as he passed, an Osterblume that had raised its blue blossoms amid the snow suddenly crushed itself flat within a footprint no foot could be seen to have made.
"He approached the castle from the back, then walked close to the walls, where the snow had melted away, so he would make no prints as he neared the gates. He waited in the cold until evening, when two of Queen Brunnhild's knights returned. Then he slipped in behind them before the gates closed. He followed them across the courtyard, waited while they left their horses in the stables, and came with them into the castle keep.
"Like a ghost, unseen though not always unheard, he wandered through the castle. Up the stairs he went to the ladies' wing. It was some time before he found Brunnhild's bedchamber, but find it he did, and walked through the door with the queen's maidservant. Brunnhild sat at her dressing table. She wore a sleeved tunic and trousers, for she had vanquished another suitor that day and could wear no gown under her armor. His blood lingered on the hem of her sleeve. She leaned her head back into her maidservant's hands. The maid pulled out her bone hairpins, releasing her black braids to fall past her shoulders, past the maid's hands, reaching to the floor. Slowly, carefully, the maid combed the long tresses while the queen sighed about her day's work.
"'Will they never stop coming? I have no wish to marry and bend my will to a husband's. Why should I? My sisters have children to rule after me.'
"'They say a man's love is sweet,' purred the maid.
"'Sweet? To be poked and prodded and kept from my sleep? Sleep is sweet.'"
"The prince stood in a corner by the queen's bed, hot with impatience as he watched the masses of hair slither through the comb. When at last her hair was braided up again, the maid unlaced the queen's tunic and trousers and stripped them from her body. A pleasant sight that was, and yet surpassing strange. For though the lady's breasts were as milk-white and softly rounded as any lusty man might wish, her waist was laddered with muscle. And the black hair that hid the gate of her maidenhood was guarded by a pair of sinewy thighs as firm as the prince's own."
At this, a chorus of ribaldry erupted from the knights in the hall, though my escort kept his lips together and glanced uneasily toward Siegfried's table. But the knight who sat opposite Janka grinned at the bosom of her gown. He said a word that made her shout with glee and then slap at the back of his hand. I envied her bold laughter, but the minstrel's talk of hair and sinew had set me into such a mortification that I wished the earth might open and swallow me. The minstrel plucked at his lute, but I could hear naught of its music until the hall quieted. Then he smiled and spoke of matters more pleasing to modest ladies.
"The maidservant covered the queen's body with a nightdress of shining white samite and tied it fast about her waist with an embroidered girdle. Never before had the prince seen a girdle the like of hers. Blue Osterblumen mingled on it with yellow Roshuf blossoms, so cunningly stitched that the living flowers seemed to spring from the snowy field of her gown. Bloodthirsty the lady might be, but pure as the flowers upon her girdle.
"At last, she lay abed with the coverlet drawn to her chin. The maidservant doused the lamp and left. The chamber door closed. Stealthily, the prince crept to the side of the bed. He waited until the queen's even breathing told him she slept. Stealthily, he lifted the coverlet and crept in beside her. But as he reached, ever so stealthily, to untie her girdle, she awakened.
"What a tumult followed! For though the queen scorned to call for help, she was far from helpless alone. The cloak that had made him invisible to all eyes by daylight could not hide him by darkness from her angry fists. She beat him; she thrashed him; she threw him against the floor and against the chamber walls, until she had pummeled him within a hairsbreadth of his life. Then she hoisted him by the collar and hung him on a hook by the chamber door, like a gutted stag awaiting the cook's attention. And there he stayed dangling and furious until morning."
Laughter burst out, and the minstrel played a teasing rill upon his lute.
"Um Gottes Willen!" cried Gunther. "What a lady!"
I glanced down the table to where Janka sat, and she caught my eye. Bubbling with mirth, we covered our mouths with our hands.
Finally, the hall stilled and the minstrel continued his story.
"Queen Brunnhild slept peacefully through the rest of that night. But when the morning sun awakened her, an eerie sight greeted her eyes. A bruised and bloodied head - yet a most handsome head with shining blond hair - hung living, though seemingly without a body, on the wall by her door.
"'Will you not lift me down, fair queen?' asked the prince.
"'I will not,' said Queen Brunnhild. But she stepped cautiously toward him and touched the bruises on his face. 'I thought you were dead when I hung you here. What happened to your body?'
"'Lift me down, and I will show you.'"
The minstrel grinned, raising his eyebrows, and more laughter sounded from some of the tables. I could not help glancing again at Siegfried. And when I did, my gaze slid toward Hans. He frowned slightly, while Siegfried sat red-faced and still. I sobered. But Hagen, at King Gunther's side, smiled like a man who had finished a good day's work.
The minstrel raised his voice. "'Nay,' said Queen Brunnhild. 'I will not lift you down. I am no fool.'"
"'Indeed you are,' answered the prince's head on its hook, 'and a coward, too, if you fear a legless, armless, strengthless head.'
"This roused the queen's anger, so she took the prince's head by its ears and lifted it from the hook, astonished to discover how heavy it was, as heavy as though a body were still attached. She meant to fling it onto the bed, but no sooner had her hands left its ears than the head vanished away like an eclipsed moon. She called servants to search her chambers, but the prince was gone. Indeed, he was fortunate to escape with his life.
"The lady remains, beautiful and cold-hearted as always, and all who dare to woo her have been slain - save one. Does she think of him? If she does, she does not speak of him. Does he think of her? He will not say, for he woos another lady now, but it may be that he will return one day. He alone, of all men, knows the secrets of Queen Brunnhild's bedchamber and might advise another how to win her." With a flourish on his harp, the minstrel ended his tale.
King Gunther leaned eagerly forward, heedless of the remains of his dinner. "Does this lady truly live? Is she real?"
Hagen, his smile replaced by a frown, scratched at the back of his left hand.
But the minstrel seemed pleased by the effect of his story. "As real as you or I, most worthy lord."
"And the Tarnkappe?"
"As to that mysterious cloak of invisibility, I cannot say. It makes a fair tale, does it not? But Queen Brunnhild and her challenge are real." The minstrel glanced toward Prince Siegfried, a tentative smile upon his lips. But I thought I saw a flicker of fear, too, in his eyes.
At every table, the knights and ladies turned toward Siegfried. But Siegfried kept silence. His cheeks were flushed, his lips pressed tight. If he meant to court my lady Kriemhild, as her mother supposed, this tale would be of little help. Once the minstrel spoke that riddling phrase, as near to you as any kin, we all knew the prince in the tale, fanciful though it might be, was meant to signify Siegfried himself.
Queen Uta sat pursing her lips and frowning at the marzipan on her trencher as though it had turned to gall. I could not see Kriemhild's face from where I sat, though I knew she must be seething. But Gunther seemed not unpleased by the minstrel's tale. He gazed upon Siegfried with a speculative air. And Hagen, who had seemed, at first, as amused as any in the hall, no longer seemed so.
I had been amused, too, so long as I thought the tale no more than a tale. But since the minstrel had avowed its truth, it began to trouble me. Why should Queen Brunnhild marry if she had no wish to? Unlike Kriemhild, she was a queen in her own right, and the tale found no fault with her rule that a husband's power should replace hers. Though it would have been kinder of her to send her suitors away than to slay them, it was not she who insisted upon challenging them. Rather, they challenged her, knowing well what fate they were like to meet. Was it not unknightly of the prince to force his way, uninvited, into her bedchamber and into her bed? Would my red-haired knight do such a thing?
The feast was at an end, at least for us maidens. Clutching my rose, I set my other hand upon the arm of my knight escort and followed the others upstairs. After our escorts left us, I passed through a chamber where I found Janka lagging behind the others, mischief in her face.
"That minstrel is a fool," I said, glad to have somewhat to talk of beside the rose in my hand. "How could he tell such a tale in front of Prince Siegfried?"
Janka looked right and left but, save for us, the chamber was empty. She grinned and moved closer. "I know a thing you do not."
She shook her head. "If I tell, you will tell Kriemhild."
Though I wanted to know, my conscience pricked me. "I cannot keep secrets from my lady. Nor should you."
"We have all kept secrets from her. You and I bigger secrets than most."
I had to grant this was true.
"And this," Janka said, "has to do with Prince Siegfried."
I sighed. "I will not tell."
Janka grinned. Then she leaned against my arm, speaking low into my ear. "It was Lord Hagen who bade the minstrel tell that tale."
"Nay. Why would he?"
"How would I know? But he and the minstrel were whispering together before the feast, and he put a stack of coins into the minstrel's hand."
"You saw this? Has the queen set you to spying again?"
"Nay. I only ran to the kitchenmaids' privy closet before the feast, because our own was full."
"To spy what you ought not."
She crossed herself. "Nay, Ilse. I go there oft, since I learned how near it is. If I hear somewhat betimes, that is not what I go for."
"Did they see you?"
She hesitated. "What if they did?"
I felt affrighted for Janka, but then I thought myself a goose. She had heard no death plots, but only seen a man paying a minstrel for a song. "Did they ... did Hagen say aught to you?"
She shook her head. "He gave me a look that froze my bones, but then he bowed to me, and I climbed the stairs. I supposed that he thought I shamed myself, to use the servants' part of the castle. But was he not lingering there, himself, with the minstrel? It was when I heard the tale that I knew what he had paid for. But why would he make a joke of Prince Siegfried? At the feast where all should have praised him?"
If Janka could not see that Hagen had never liked Siegfried, I would not be the one to tell her. Having failed to arrange Siegfried's death, Hagen was, at the least, determined he should not wed Princess Kriemhild. Queen Uta made no secret of her own hopes. She had influence with her sons yet and would keep it if she could. But which of them was wiser? Siegfried had betrayed the Nibelung king and his sons, and may have done some injury to the Queen of Eisland. Why should Kriemhild wed such a man?
But it seemed the weapon had twisted in Lord Hagen's hand. For it was clear that the minstrel's final flourish, when he suggested Siegfried might advise another how to win the lady of Eisland, and King Gunther's delight in that, had been less than pleasing to Hagen. Perhaps the minstrel had meant thereby to put a softer point on his lance. Few would wish to make an enemy of Prince Siegfried of Xanten.
"I fear," I told Janka, "that this minstrel has offended not only Prince Siegfried, but Lord Hagen as well."
"It may be."
"Kriemhild should know of this."
Janka gripped my arm. "Nay! Do not tell Kriemhild. She would be wroth."
"We ought not meddle," Janka insisted, "in affairs of which we have no understanding."
I had to own she was right. But I said, "You have already meddled, by spying in places where Hagen thought he would not be seen." So had I, at the queen's bidding, and also at no one's bidding but my own.
Janka must have felt me shiver, for she said, "Say naught of what I saw. To any. I ought not have told you."
"I will say naught." I crossed myself, and saw only then how in my worry over Hagen and his plotting, I had crushed Hans's rose within my fist. When I opened my hand to show it to Janka, two of its petals fluttered to the floor. "From the red-haired knight of Prince Siegfried's company. Have you heard aught of him? His name is Hans."
"What is his rank?"
"I know not, but ... it is surely high, for he stands close in the prince's favor." So crushed and scored was the poor blossom, I could not find the place where Hans had imprinted his name. There had been barely room upon the petal for that, so he could not have told his rank or given his father's name with his own, as he must have in a more formal introduction. I gathered up the fallen petals, but could see no letter upon these either. They made me think of the Osterblume under the nameless prince's invisible foot, and then of Queen Brunnhild's embroidered girdle. I wondered what had become of it during her struggle with the prince. The minstrel had not said.
"With this victory," Janka said, "the kings and their knights will turn from thoughts of war to thoughts of wedding. It seems you have a suitor already."
I flushed, and Janka laughed. I could not bear her jesting, so I went away quickly to my lady. Kriemhld chided me for a laggard. She bade me undress and come to bed, for she was so sleepy she could not bear to lie wakeful one moment longer. I obeyed, setting the wilted rose aside with my jewels. But when I crawled under the coverlets, and the servants drew the bedcurtains closed, she seemed most wakeful.
She turned to me, hissing with rage, and whispered, "Gunther dishonors only himself!"
Her fury baffled me. "Gunther? What do you mean?"
"Have you no eyes? Prince Siegfried is lord of the Nibelungs and will be king of Xanten after his father. He should have sat at the table with my brothers."
"O," I said. I remembered I had thought the same when first I went into the hall.
"He looks a fool, to make a show of his jealousy. He should have heaped him with honors. Every honor he showed Siegfried would have added to his own."
"He bade you give the prince a kiss of welcome, though, and you did it most beauteously."
"Ach, I had naught to say in that matter. Gunther threatened me, before the feast, that if I did not do it with grace, he would give me no share of the tax from the next ship that passes through Burgonden. As though I knew not how to behave! But there would have been no need for such a show if the prince had been properly seated. Gunther made him appear as a vassal knight. And Siegfried ..." She choked upon his name, and the bed shivered under us. Then I heard her sniffle and knew she wept.
She overlooked, in her anger, that it could only have been Hagen who had advised her brother where to seat the prince. But I feared coming too near Janka's tale of the coins if I spoke of this. I wanted to console my lady, but the other maidens still chattered beyond the curtains. She would not thank me for ill-timed comfort that made her weep louder, so all might hear. I lay quietly until she recovered herself and spoke again.
"Did you see," she whispered, "how Siegfried stopped short of me, so I must step toward him to give him that welcome kiss?"
"I suppose he misjudged the distance."
"Would so great a warrior misjudge the distance between himself and another? If such were his habit, an enemy would have little to fear from his sword. Nay, he knew where he stopped. He had sent his messenger to make me think him dead, and to watch to see whether I blanched or cried out. And I betrayed myself. Upon that ground, he dared make a show of my passion. Forcing me to step toward him. So all might see how it was I who went to him, not he to me, to deliver my kiss. I hate him, Ilse, I hate him!"
"You make too much of a small thing."
"Would he do it, if it were a small thing? Nay, he wished all to see how eagerly ..." She bit off the last word.
I hid my surprise. She had not looked eager. Had she felt so? She had oft spoken as though she despised him. But I remembered her dream of the falcon, and I remembered how on the day he first came to us and gazed up at her from the courtyard, she had drawn breath and run swiftly to her lady mother to learn all she might of him.
"You did not look eager. And yet the prince is a well-made man, and a powerful champion in war. Many a maiden would not blush to show herself glad of such a knight. And if he wanted you ..."
"Do you think he wants me?" My lady's voice sounded brittle.
"Yea, truly," I said. "Did you not mark how he reddened when you took his hand? So surpassing beauteous you are, any man might miss his judgment when he stands before you." I wanted to ask what he had said to her after she kissed him, but I dared not.
"Am I beauteous?" she whispered.
"The most beauteous maiden in the world!"
"Not more so than Queen Brunnhild."
"In such tales, all maidens are called beauteous. But you are no tale. There can be no maiden more truly beauteous than you - everyone says so, not only me."
"You are a dear child. But I fear you are wrong. It was Brunnhild whom Siegfried first wanted. When he could not win her, he came to me. I will not have another woman's leavings."
And so, if I had judged Hagen's purpose aright, he had not failed.
"I will never marry," Kriemhild said. "Neither Prince Siegfried, nor any man."
But if she did not want him, why did she torture herself over the tale and over the step he had not taken?
It seemed the wrong time, then, to speak to her of Hans.
Forward to Chapter 11
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