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The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, 1939

You Will Remember

page 27

You Will Remember

Why did you look so strangely at that man we passed just now? We both knew him once, centuries ago, when his name was Hradmar, and he came as a guest to the king your father with seventy fighting-men and a gift of wonderful otter-skins from the Gotland rivers. I should have one of those skins, just to feel the firm, fine texture, so unlike our shaggy bear and wild-cat. But after the fighting, when Hradmar was dead, you would not do anything expect look out over the ruins of the hall to the dark white plains, that went on and on, perhaps to Tartary and the end of the world.

Don't you remember how excited you were, the night they came? They were dark, but taller than our people, and they moved about in the dusk looking like the giant Trolls who dig in earth for iron and silver. The king, your father, was kind to them, as he always was to strangers, but your mother was silent, only watching us lay straw for their rest in the great hall. And you were watching Hradmar, all the time.

People said afterwards that this man was no stranger, and that your mother had had great cause for hate towards him in the early days, long before she came to be queen in the north-east kingdom. They talked of a man from the west, strong and fair and a prince in his own right; of intrigue and women's jealousy, dark as storm in winter; and of death that might have been mischance dressing the frozen ox-flesh and the old men heated spear-heads for new shaftings—there had so many broken.

The sleeping-hall that night was alien was ground. Awe and curiosity joined hands about it, making a fence you could not see, while yet another feeling breathed in the gusts of air and ran across the open spaces and lay on its belly in the shadows of trees, till men grew silent and dogs and cattle restless and even the pine-trees moved uneasily; till only the moon saw down aloof between the shoulders of piling clouds. I saw the stack for weapons in the centre of the yard; there was one gaping shield remaining I saw the queen, her eyes like blue steel.

We would never have got out that night if I hadn't stolen the key, but there was only one place for us—at the north end of the hall, where the sun had pulled the logs apart enough for us to see through. Inside, torches were flickering; shadows of the heavy beams moved to and fro across the sarking. Hardmar was over by the door, leaning back, his head in two big hands; I don't think you saw any of the others. They were lying about on the straw, some cleaning their steel from flecks of mud and rust, others talking in the western dialect that was so hard to follow. One spoke of a had met in the Prussian woods: soon they were all listening. "He told me, You will cross the Vistula three times, Posen last winter; the Dvina, I think, was the river we crossed last night."

After that no one spoke; the rushlights cowered and fell, sank to points of light, till in the gloom it was hard to see. Each tried to sleep, but disquiet was a heavy blanket that by its chafing made rest impossible. They lay as straining every nerve to hear or see, these men who had crossed the Baltic and made their way inland against river and weariness and storm; till one near drew out a flute and began to play. It was an air as old as the sea, that the men of the herring-fleets used to sing. returning up the river low-keeled from the summer harvests. One after one the notes rose in the darkness calling to sleep, rose and died as they touched her sleeve; and at last sleep descended, folding their fear away inside her gown. So at least they had a half-hour's dreambefore the clouds broke apart and you sceamed, to see the moonlight fall on shining spears.

page 28

Up in your room you fainted clean away; I had to bring water burning pine-needles. meanwhile they had set fire to the hall, and the fight was raging, seventy against four hundred. Shouts and the clash of weapons, steel against steel and on tough bulls-hide; rush of feet that ended suddenly, shrieking and the tumult of cattle in the stalls, crackle of flames that danced to the crazy fiddling, thunder of falling beams, roar of the wind that, roused, sprang out forest, seized great armfuls of smoke and rushed up skywards, thick pine-smoke that drove into every hole and crevice, stinging, blinding, choking and, at last, obliterating... The smell of smoke was in the air the next morning, when they brought your mother the ring that Hradmar had carried. We had lost forty-eight of our best men, and your father was much annoyed over that, and the loss of his honour and his great hall.

But that was how they died, the men from Gotland; it is strange you have forgotten, or so nearly forgotten. But if we pass that man again in the street, I think you will remember.