Heroes of the Olden Times: The Story of Siegfried
The War With the North Kings
So swiftly and so pleasantly the days went by, that weeks lengthened into months, and the springtime passed, and the summer came, and still Siegfried lingered in Burgundy with his kind friends. The time was spent in all manner of joyance, - in hunting the deer in the deep oak-woods, in riding over the daisied meadows or among the fields of corn, in manly games and sports, in music and dancing, in feasting and in pleasant talk. And of all the noble folk who had ever sat at Gunther's table, or hunted in the Burgundian woods, none were so worthy or so fair as the proud young lord of the Nibelungens.
One day in early autumn a party of strange knights rode up to the castle, and asked to speak with the Burgundian kings. They were led straightway into the great hall; and Gunther and his brothers welcomed them, as was their wont, right heartily, and asked them from what country they had come and what was their errand.
"We come," they answered, "from the North country; and we bring word from our lords and kings, Leudiger and Leudigast."
"And what would our kingly neighbors say to us?" asked Gunther.
Then the strangers said that their lords had become very angry with the Burgundian kings, and that they meant, within twelve weeks from that day, to come with a great army, and lay the country waste, and besiege their city and castle. All this they had sworn to do unless the Burgundians would make peace with them upon such terms as Leudiger and Leudigast should please to grant.
When Gunther and his brothers heard this, they were struck with dismay. But they ordered the messengers to be well cared for and handsomely entertained within the palace until the morrow, at which time they should have the Burgundians' answer. All the noblest knights and earl-folk were called together, and he matter was laid before them.
"What answer shall we send to our rude neighbors of the North?" asked Gunther.
Gernot and the young Giselher declared at once for war. Old Hagen and other knights, whose prudence was at least equal to their bravery, said but little. It was known, that, in the armies of the North-kings, there were at least forty thousand soldiers; but in Burgundy there were not more than thirty thousand fighting men, all told. The North-kings' forces were already equipped, and ready to march; but the Burgundians could by no means raise and arm any considerable body of men in the short space of twelve weeks. It would be the part of wisdom to delay, and to see what term could best be made with their enemies. Such were the prudent counsels of the older knights, but Gernot and the young chief Volker would not listen to such words.
"The Burgundians are not cowards," said they. "We have never been foiled in battle; never have we been the vassals of a stranger. Why, then, shall we cringe and cower before such men as Leudiger and Leudigast?"
Then Hagen answered, "Let us ask our friend and guest Siegfried. Let us learn what he thinks about this business. Everybody knows that he is as wise in council as he is brave in their field. We will abide by what he says."
But Gunther and Gernot and the young Giselher were unwilling to do this; for it was not their custom to annoy their guests with questions which should be allowed to trouble themselves alone. And the kings and their counselors went out of the council chamber, each to ponder in silence upon the troublesome question.
As Gunther, with downcast head and troubled brow, walked thoughtfully through the great hall, he unexpectedly met Siegfried.
"What evil tiding have you heard?" asked the prince, surprised at the strange mien of the king. "What has gone amiss, that should cause such looks of dark perplexity?"
"That is a matter which I can tell only to friends long tried and true," answered Gunther.
Siegfried was surprised and hurt by these words; and he cried out, -
"What more would Gunther ask of me that I might prove my friendship? Surely I have tried to merit his esteem and trust. Tell me what troubles you, and I will further show myself to be your friend both tried and true."
Then Gunther was ashamed of the words he had spoken to his guest; and he took Siegfried into his own chamber, and told him all; and he asked him what answer they should send on the morrow to the over-bearing North-kings.
"Tell them we will fight," answered Siegfried. "I myself will lead your warriors to the fray. Never shall it be said that my friends have suffered wrong, and I not tried to help them."
Then he and Gunther talked over the plans which they would follow. And the clouds fled at once from the brow of the king, and he was no longer troubled or doubtful; for he believed in Siegfried.
The next morning the heralds of the North-kings were brought again before Gunther and his brothers; and they were told to carry this word to their masters, "The Burgundians will fight. They will make no terms with their enemies, save as they make of their own free will."
Then the heralds were loaded with costly presents, and a company of knights and warriors went with them to the border-line of Burgundy; and, filled with wonder at what they had seen, they hastened back to their liege lords, and told all that had happened to them. And Leudiger and Leudigast were very wroth when they heard the answer which the Burgundians had sent to them; but, when they learned that the noble Siegfried was at Gunther's castle, they shook their heads, and seemed to feel more doubtful of success.
Many and busy were the preparations for war, and in a very few days all things were in readiness for the march northwards. It was settled that Siegfried with his twelve Nibelungen chiefs, and a thousand picked men, should go forth to battle against their boastful enemies. The dark-browed Hagen, as he had always done, rode at the head of the company, and by his side was Siegfried on the noble horse Greyfell. Next came Gernot and the bold chief Volker, bearing the standard, upon which a golden dragon was engraved; then followed Dankwart and Ortwin, and the twelve worthy comrades of Siegfried; and then the thousand warriors, the bravest in all Rhineland, mounted on impatient steeds, and clad in bright steel armor, with broad shields, and plumed helmets, and burnished swords, and sharp-pointed spears. And all rode proudly out through the great castle gate. And Gunther and the young Giselher and all the fair ladies of the court bade them God-speed.
The little army passed through the forest, and went northwards, until, on the fifth day, they reached the boundaries of Saxon Land. And Siegfried gave spur to his horse Greyfell, and, leaving the little army behind him, hastened forward to see where the enemy was encamped. As he reached the top of a high hill, he saw the armies of the North-kings resting carelessly in the valley beyond. Knights, mounted on their horses, rode hither and thither: the soldiers sauntered lazily among the trees, or slept upon the grass; arms were thrown about in great disorder, or stacked in piles near the smoking camp fires. No one dreamed of danger; but all supposed that the Burgundians were still at home, and would never dare to attack a foe so numerous and so strong.
For it was, indeed, a mighty army which Siegfried saw before him. Full forty thousand men were there; and they not only filled the valley, but spread over the hills beyond, and far to the right and left.
While he stood at the top of the hills, and gazed upon this sight, a warrior, who had spied him from below, rode up, and paused before him. Like two black thunder clouds, with lightning flashing between, the two knights stood facing each other, and casting wrathful glances from beneath their visors. Then each spurred his horse, and charged with fury upon the other; and the heavy lances of both were broken in shivers upon the opposing shields. Then, quick as thought, they turned and drew their swords, and hand to hand they fought. But soon Siegfried, by an unlooked-for stroke, sent his enemy's sword flying from him, broken in a dozen pieces, and by a sudden movement he threw him from his horse. The heavy shield of the fallen knight was no hindrance to the quick strokes of Siegfried's sword; and his glittering armor, soiled by the mud into which he had been thrown, held him down. He threw up his hands, and begged for mercy.
"I am Leudigast the king!" he cried. "Spare my life. I am your prisoner."
Siegfried heard the prayer of the discomfited king; and, lifting him from the ground, he helped him to remount his charger. But, while he was doing this, thirty warriors, who had seen the combat from below, came dashing up the hill to the rescue of their leigelord. Siegfried faced about with his horse Greyfell, and quietly waited for their onset. But, as they drew near, they were so awed by the noble bearing and grand proportions of the hero, and so astonished at sight of the sunbeam mane of Greyfell, and the cold glitter of the blade Balmung, that in sudden fright they stopped, then turned, and fled in dismay down the sloping hillside, nor paused until they were safe among their friends.
In the mean while Leudiger, the other
king, seeing what was going on at the top of the hill, had caused an alarm
to be sounded; and all his hosts had hastily arranged themselves in battle
array. At the same time Hagen and Gernot, and their little army of heroes,
hove in sight, and came quickly to Siegfried's help, and the dragon banner
was planted upon the crest of the hill. The captive king, Leudigast, was
taken to the rear, and a guard was placed over him. The champions of the
Rhine formed in line, and faced their foes. The great army of the North-kings
moved boldly up the hill; and, when they saw how few were the Burgundians,
they laughed and cheered most, lustily; for they felt that the odds were
in their favor - and forty to one is no small odds.