Sigurd the Volsung

Book IV, Pre-Kelmscott Edition, 1876, edited by Stuart Blersch

[In preparation]

V. Of the Battle in Atli's Hall

N

e shall know that in Atli's feast-hall on the side that joined the house

Were many carven doorways whose work was glorious

With marble stones and gold-work, and their doors of beaten brass :

Lo now, in the merry morning how the story cometh to pass !

— While the echoes of the trumpet yet fill the people's ears,

 

36o THE STORY OF SIGURD THE VOLSUNG.

And Hogni casts by the war-horn, and his Dwarf-wrought sword uprears.

All those doors aforesaid open, and in pour the streams of steel,

The best of the Eastland champions, the bold men of Atli's weal :

They raise no cry of battle nor cast forth threat of woe,

And their helmed and hidden faces from each other none may know :

Then a light in the hall ariseth, and the fire of battle runs

All adown the front of the Niblungs in the face of the mighty-ones ;

All e/ts are set upon them, hard drawn is every breath,

Ere the foremost points be mingled and death be blent with death.

— ^AU eyes save the eyes of Hogni ; but e'en as the edges meet,

He tumeth about for a moment to the gold of the kingly seat.

Then aback to the front of battle ; there then, as the lightning-flash

Through the dark night showeth the city when the clouds of heaven clash.

And the gazer shrinketh backward, yet he seeth from end to end

The street and the merry market, and the windows of his friend.

And the pavement where his footsteps yestre'en returning trod,

Now white and changed and dreadful 'neath the threatening voice of God ;

So Ii.ogni seeth Gudrun, and the face he used to know,

Unspeakable, unchanging, with white unknitted brow

With half-closed lips untrembling, with deedless hands and cold

Laid still on knees that stir not, and the linen's moveless fold.

Turned Hogni unto the spear-wall, and smote from where he stood, And hewed with his sword two-handed as the axe-man in a wood : Before his sword was a champion and the edges clave to the chin. And the first man fell in the feast-hall of those that should fall therein. Then man with man was dealing, and the Niblung host of war Was swept by the leaping iron, as the rock anigh the shore By the ice-cold waves of winter : yet a moment Gunnar stayed.

 

BOOK IV. GUDRUN. 361

As high in his hand unbloodied he shook his awful blade ; And he cried :

" O Eastland champions, do ye behold it here, The sword of the ancient Giuki ? Fall on and have no fear, But slay and be slain and be famous, if your master's will it be ! Yet are we the blameless Niblungs, and bidden guests are we : So forbear, if ye wander hood-winked, nor for nothing slay and be slain ; For I know not what to tell you of the dead that live again."

So he saith in the midst of the foemen with his war-flame reared on high,

But all about and around him goes up a bitter cry

From the iron men of Atli, and the bickering of the steel

Sends a roar up to the roof-ridge, and the Niblung war-ranks reel

Behind the steadfast Gunnar : but lo, have ye seen the com,

While yet men grind the sickle, by the wind-streak overborne

AVhen the sudden rain sweeps downward, and summer groweth black,

And the smitten wood-side roareth *neath the driving thunder-wrack ?

So before the wise-heart Hogni shrank the champions of the East

As his great voice shook the timbers in the hall of Atli's feast. [stopped ;

There he smote and beheld not the smitten, and by nought were his edges

He smote and the dead were thrust from him; a hand with its shield he lopped;

There met him Atli's marshal, and his arm at the shoulder he shred ;

Three swords were upreared against him of the best of the kin of the dead ;

And he struck off a head to the rightward, and his sword through a throat '

he thrust, But the third stroke fell on his helm-crest, and he stooped to the ruddy dust, And uprose as the ancient Giant, and both his hands were wet : Red then was the world to his eyen, as his hand to the labour he set; Swords shook and fell in his pathway, huge bodies leapt and fell,

 

362 THE STORY OF SIGURD THE VOLSUNG.

Harsh grided shield and war-helm like the tempest-smitten bell«

And the war-cries ran together, and no man his brother knew,

And the dead men loaded the living, as he went the war-wood through ;

And man 'gainst man was huddled, till no sword rose to smite,

And clear stood the glorious Hogni in an island of the fight,

And there ran a river of death 'twixt the Niblung and his foes

And therefrom the terror of men and the wrath of the Gods arose.

Now fell the sword of Gunnar and rose up red in the air,

And hearkened the song of the Niblung, as his voice rang glad and clear.

And rejoiced and leapt at the Eastmen, and cried as it met the rings

Of a giant of King Atli, and a murder-wolf of kings ;

But it quenched its thirst in his entrails, and knew the heart in his breast,

And hearkened the praise of Gunnar, and lingered not to rest,

But fell upon Atli's brother and stayed not in his brain ;

Then he fell and the King leapt over, and clave a neck atwain,

And leapt o'er the sweep of a pole-axe and thrust a lord in the throat.

And King Atli's banner-bearer through shield and hauberk smote ;

Then he laughed on the huddled East-folk, and against their war-shields drave

While the white swords tossed about him, and that archer's skull he clave

AVhom Atli had bought in the Southlands for many a pound of gold ;

And the dark-skinned fell upon Gunnar and over his war-shield rolled

And cumbered his sword for a season, and the many blades fell on.

And sheared the cloudy helm-crest and rents in his hauberk won,

And the red blood ran from Gunnar ; till that Giuki's sword outburst.

As the fire-tongue from the smoulder that the leafy heap hath nursed.

And unshielded smote King Gunnar, and sent the Niblung song

Through the quaking stems of battle in the hall of Atli's wrong :

Then he rent the knitted war-hedge till by Hogni's side he stood.

 

BOOK IV. GUDRUN. 363

And kissed him amidst of the spear-hail, and their cheeks were wet with blood.

Then on came the Niblung bucklers, and they drave the East-folk home As the bows of the oar-driven long-ship beat off the waves in foam : They leave their dead behind them, and they come to the doors and the wall, And a few last spears from the fleeing amidst their shield-hedge fall : But the doors clash to in their faces, as the fleeing rout they drive, And fain would follow after; and none is left alive In the feast-hall of King Atli, save those fishes of the net, And the white and silent woman above the slaughter set

Then biddeth the heart-wise Hogni, and men to the windows climb, And uplift the war-grey corpses, dead drift of the stormy time, And cast them adown to their people : thence they come aback and say That scatce shall ye see the houses, and no whit the wheel-worn way For the spears and shields of the Eastlands that the merchant city throng ; And back to the Niblung buig-gate the way seemed weary-long.

Yet passeth hour on hour, and the doors they watch and ward But a long while hear no mail-clash, nor the ringing of the sword ; Tlven droop the Niblung children, and their wounds are waxen chill, And they think of the Burg by the river, and the builded holy hill. And their eyes are set on Gudrun as of men who would beseech ; But unlearned are they in craving and know not dastard's speech. Then doth Giuki's first-begotten a deed most fair to be told, For his fair harp Gunnar taketh, and the warp of silver and gold ; With the hand of a cunning harper he dealeth widi the strings. And his voice in their midst goeth upward, as of ancient days he sings, . Of the days before the Niblungs, and the days that shall be yet ; . . .

 

364 THE STORY OF SIGURD THE VOLSUNG.

Till the hour of toil and smiting the wanior hearts forget, * Nor hear the gathering foemen, nor the sound of swords aloof: Then clear the song of Gunnar goes up to the dusky roof, And the coming spear-host tarries, and the bearers of the woe Through the cloisters of King Atli with lingering footsteps go.

But Hogni looketh on Gudrun, and no change in her face he sees. And no stir in her folded linen and the deedless hands on her knees : Then from Gunnar's side he hasteneth ; and lo, the open door, And a foeman treadeth the pavement, and his lips are on Atli's floor, For Hogni is death in the doorway : then the Niblungs turn on the foe, And the hosts are mingled together, and blow cries out on blow.

Still the song goeth up from Gunnar, though his harp to earth be laid ;

But he fighteth exceeding wisely, and is many a warrior's aid.

And he shieldeth and delivereth, and his eyes search through the hall,

And woe is he for his fellows, as his battle-brethren fall ;

For the turmoil hideth little from that glorious folk-king's eyes,

And o'er all he beholdeth Gudrun, and his soul is waxen wise.

And he saiih : We shall look on Sigurd, and Sigmund of old days.

And see the boughs of the Branstock o'er the ancient Volsung's praise.

Woe's me for the wrath of Hogni ! From the door he giveth aback

That the Eastland slayers may enter to the murder and the wrack :

Then he rageth and driveth the battle to the golden kingly seat,

And the last of the foes he slayeth by Gudrun's very feet,

That the red blood splasheth her raiment ; and his own blood therewithal

He casteth aloft before her, and the drops on her white hands fall :

But nought she seeth or heedeth, and again he turns to the fight,

 

BOOK IV. GUDRUN. 365

Nor heedeth stroke nor wounding so he a foe may smite : Then the battle opens before him, and the Niblungs draw to his side ; As Death in the world first fashioned, through the feast-hall doth he stride. And so once more do the Niblungs sweep that murder-flood of men From the hall of toils and treason, and the doors swing to again. Then again is there peace for a little within the fateful fold ; But the Niblungs look about them, and but few folk they behold Upright on their feet for the battle : now they climb aloft no more. Nor cast the dead from the windows ; but they raise a rampart of war. And its stones are the fallen East-folk, and no lowly wall is that.

Therein was Gunnar the mighty : on the shields of men he sat. And the sons of his people hearkened, for his hand through the harp-strings ran, { And he sang in the hall of his foeman of the Gods and the making of man, • And how season was sundered from season in the days of the fashioning, ' And became the Summer and Autumn, and became the Winter and Spring ; He sang of men's hunger and labour, and their love and their breeding of broil, And their hope that is fostered of famine, and their rest that is fashioned of toil : Fame then and the sword he sang of, and the hour of the hardy and wise. When the last of the living shall perish, and the first of the dead shall arise. And the torch shall be lit in the daylight, and God unto man shall pray. And the heart shall cry out for the hand in the fight of the uttermost day.

Bo he sang, and beheld not Gudrun, save as long ago he saw

His sister, the little maiden of the face without a flaw :

But wearily Hogni beheld her, and no change in her face there was,

And long thereon gazed Hogni, and set his brows as the brass.

Though the hands of the King were weary, and weak his knees were grown,

 

366 THE STORY OF SIGURD THE VOLSUNG. And he felt as a man unholpen in a waste land wending alone.

Now the noon was long passed over when again the rumour arose,

And through the doors cast open flowed in the river of foes :

They flooded the hall of the murder, and surged round that rampart of dead :

No war-duke ran before them, no lord to the onset led.

But the thralls shot spears at adventure, and shot out shafts from afar.

Till the misty hall was blinded with the bitter drift of W3i :

Few and faint were the Niblung children, and their wounds were waxen acold,

And they saw the Hell-gates open as they stood in their grimly hold :

Yet thrice stormed out King Hogni, thrice stormed out Gunnar the King,

Thrice fell they aback yet living to the heart of the fated ring ;

And they looked and their band was little, and no man but was wounded sore,

And the hall seemed growing greater, such hosts of foes it bore,

So tossed the iron harvest from wall to gilded wall ;

And they looked and the white-clad Gudrun sat silent over all.

Then the churls and thralls of the Eastland howled out as wolves accurst, \ But oil gaped the Niblungs voiceless, for they choked with anger and thirst; ' And the hall grew hot as a furnace, and men drank their flowing blood,

1

\ Men laughed and gnawed on their shield-rims, men knew not where they \ And saw not what was before them ; as in the dark men smote, [stood. Men died heart-broken, unsmitten ; men wept with the cry in the throat, Men lived on full of war-shafts, men cast their shields aside And caught the spears to their bosoms ; men rushed with none beside, (And fell unarmed on the foemen, and tore and slew in death :

And still down rained the arrows as the rain across the heath ;

«

iStill proud o'er all the turmoil stood the Kings of Giuki bom, Nor knit were the brows of Gunnar, nor his song-speech overworn ;

 

/

 

BOOK IV. GUDRUN. 367

But Hogni's mouth kept silence, and oft his heart went forth

To the long^ long day of the darkness, and the end of worldly worth. .

Loud rose the roar of the East-folk, and the end was coming at last ;

Now the foremost locked their shield-rims and the hindmost over them cast,

And nigher they drew and nigher, and their fear was fading away,

For every man of the Niblungs on the shaft-strewn pavement lay,

Save Gunnar the King and Hogni : still the glorious King up-bore

The cloudy shield of the Niblungs set full of shafts of war;

But Hogni's hands had fainted, and his shield had sunk adown,

So thick with the Eastland spearwood was that rampart of renown ;

And hacked and dull were the edges that had rent the wall of foes :

Yet he stood upright by Gunnar before that shielded close,

Nor looked on the foemen's faces as their wild eyes drew anear.

And their faltering shield-rims clattered with the remnant of their fear ;

But he gazed on the Niblung woman, and the daughter of his folk,

Who sat o'er all unchanging ere the war-cloud over them broke.

Now nothing might men hearken in the house of Atli's weal.

Save the feet slow tramping onward, and the rattling of the steel,

And the song of the glorious Gunnar, that rang as clearly now

As the speckled storm-cock singeth from the scant-leaved hawthorn-bough.

When the sun is dusking over and the March snow pelts the land.

There stood the mighty Gunnar with sword and shield in hand,

There stood the shieldless Hogni with set unangry eyes,

And watched the wall of war-shields o'er the dead men's rampart rise.

And the white blades flickering nigher, and the quavering points of war.

Then the heavy air of the feast-hall was rent with a fearful roar.

And the turmoil came and the tangle, as the wall together ran :

 

368 THE STORY. OF SIGURD THE VOLSUNG.

But aloft yet towered the Niblungs, and man toppled over man.

And leapt and struggled to tear them ; as whiles amidst the sea

The doomed ship strives its utmost with mid-ocean's mastery,

And the tall masts whip the cordage, while the welter whirls and leaps,

And they rise and reel and waver, and sink amid the deeps :

So before the little-hearted in King Atli's murder-hall

Did the glorious sons of Giuki 'neath the shielded onrush fall :

Sore wounded, bound and helpless, but living yet, they lie

Till the afternoon and the even in the first of night shall die.

 

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