Saved by the Storm

Hardkoolbome – Bosveld,” 1944, by Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef

Khamy stitched a rabbit pelt cap using a bone needle and sinew thread. Across the hearth, Boubou ground away at a curving piece of driftwood.

The grinding stopped.

Khamy glanced up, then around to the doorway. There stood Autshumato, silent as a wisp of fog.

The standing man grinned. “Storm coming, heavy with rain! Are we ready?”

Boubou held out his handiwork, deeply cupped at one end. “Bailing bucket finished,” he wheezed.

Khamy uncovered two oars from their hiding spot. “Handles sanded.”

Autshumato took the wooden parts. Khamy shouldered a bundle, then pulled the cap on, sinew end still dangling. Boubou rose shakily, racked by a coughing fit.

“Count twenty twenties, then set it afire,” Autshumato said, laying a hand on Boubou’s shoulder. “Thank you, old friend. I’ll come back for  you if I can.”

“Hah! I’ll be dead long before you dare make the crossing again. Go on.”

Autshumato and Khamy took the long way down to the beach, skirting far around the stone building where three Dutchmen watched the horizon for ships seeking provisions, while keeping half an eye on the prisoners.

The Camp of Van Wow – Without visitors,” by Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957)

The two Khoikhoi found the hidden rowboat that had washed up during the last storm. They checked the cracks they’d tried to patch.

Khamy glanced at ominous swells racking the sea between Penguin Island and the mainland. Hoerikwaggo mountain, land of his ancestors, stood like a table to the south. Would the battered craft hold together that far?

Surly clouds swarmed from the northwest. Khamy could smell the weather-anger on the wind, matching the turmoil in his heart. Foreigners plowing up the grazing lands of the People – Autshumato’s protests falling on deaf ears – True People responding with cattle thefts from the Dutch interlopers – all resulting with the three of them, banished to this island for a year and a half.

detail from “Die Groot Trek,” 1938, by Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef

Well, Autshumato had plans. No one knew the Dutch like he did. He knew their weaknesses.

Shouting arose from up the island. Flames shot into the air, whipped by the wind. Their ramshackle cabin, set to burn, luring the Dutchmen’s gaze.

Autshumato and Khamy shoved the rowboat into the frigid water and leaped aboard just as the downpour began. Khamy set to rowing, hauling hard, hauling for their lives through the rough swell and rising wind.

A year’s worth of rain pelted his laboring shoulders, added to the water sloshing through leaks, drenched Autshumato while he bailed furiously. Khamy puzzled over why Autshumato had insisted on making their break during a rainstorm. Wouldn’t it put out the cabin blaze, end the distraction too soon?

It did. Khamy heard shouts from Dutchmen racing to the beach. He threw all his strength into his strokes. They weren’t yet out of range of musket fire.

Autshumato laughed as he bailed, laughed at the sight of those tall, crazy-eyed foreigners priming their muskets, aiming, firing.

Nothing happened.

“Wet powder,” Autshumato chuckled. “Muskets are useless in the rain.”

Penguin Island slowly shrank under the growling skies. Khamy grinned. They were going home.

© 2021 by Joyce Holt

“Watermill near Stellenbosch,” 1944, by Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef

In 1658 Autshumato was banished to Robben Island (also known as Seal or Penguin Island) for turning his loyalty back to his own people, the Khoikhoi. He’d been working as interpreter for Jan van Riebeeck (Commander of the Cape for the Dutch East India Company) and helping establish a supply route of cattle from the interior to the provisioning station that became Cape Town, South Africa. The Dutch commander had ignored Autshumato’s protests of unfair treatment of the Khoikhoi and of appropriating their grazing lands. In the First Khoikhoi-Dutch War, he would go on to use the rainstorm-and-wet-powder tactic to win battles against the foreigners.

Artwork by a descendant of the Dutch interlopers, Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef (1886-1957). (South African copyright law specifies works become public domain 50 years after creator’s death.)

Dah-di-dah-dit

Liza shuffled the hot pie, bunching the towel to spare her fingers while she listened beside the open window.

Eddy’s voice rose outside. “Gold, I tell you! That fellow from up north, he found gold!”

“On Foxfire Ridge?” came Al’s deeper voice. “Never heard of gold in these parts.”

"Shenandoah Valley," a painting by William Louis Sonntag, Sr
“Shenandoah Valley,” by William Louis Sonntag, Sr

“Look,” Eddy said. Paper rustled. “I jotted down the message. ‘Come prepared,’ he said, then a few words I didn’t catch, then, ‘it’s gold.'”

“‘Cave, Foxfire Ridge,'” Al read aloud. “‘Bring miners helmets.’ Did Mr. Sawyer know you were listening?”

“He doesn’t believe me. I keep telling him I’m good enough at Morse code to take messages when he’s out, but he says, ‘Go back to your primer.’ Primer, hah! Kids’ stuff.”

old illustration of a telegraph key, used for sending messages by Morse code
telegraph key

Al hummed a moment, “You may be right. That means we need to move fast, before out-of-towners flood the valley and up the ridge and take all the gold. It belongs to us as live here.”

“We’ll need lanterns, picks and shovels,” Eddy said.

“Gold pans, and bags to carry ore out for sluicing.”

“A basket of grub, and jugs of water,” Al said. “It’ll be a long day’s work.”

“That’ll weigh a ton. Hey, we can take Sleepy Sue to carry it all!”

Liza plunked her pie on the windowsill to cool, braced hands on either side of it, and leaned out. “Sleepy Sue won’t budge for anyone but me,” she told her brother and his friend. “And as mule driver, I get a third of the loot.”


detail from an etching: "The Two Mules," 1830, by Eugene Verboeckhoven
detail from “The Two Mules,” 1830, by Eugene Verboeckhoven

All the way up Foxfire Ridge, Al and Eddy grumbled at having a girl join their quest.

Liza just smiled. Sleepy Sue plodded along behind her, picks and shovels rattling in the panniers along with the hearty lunch she’d packed.

When Eddy had jabbed her about eavesdropping, she had thrust right back about telegram etiquette. The threat to tell his employer went unspoken.

The boys had tried to talk her down to one quarter the haul since she’d be doing none of the labor, but she changed to her old stained laundry-day dress and put on her field boots. “Who manured the whole garden last week while you were off hunting?” she asked.

They had rolled their eyes.

“Caved in, have you?” Liza had said with a grin.

They had groaned.

It took all morning for Al to track the northerner’s blundering trail up the steep wooded slopes. “A lousy hunter,” he said.

“Didn’t even have a rifle,” Eddy hooted.

“What was he looking for if not game?” Liza wondered.


"Scene in the White Mountains," a painting by William Louis Sontag, Jr, circa 1865
“Scene in the White Mountains,” by William Louis Sontag, Sr

“Stalactites and stalagmites,” the northerner told them when he found them wandering perplexed through the cave. “A magnificent limestone formation, isn’t it? My colleagues from the university will arrive tomorrow to map out the caverns.”

“But what about the gold?” Eddy asked.

“You’re the lad from the telegraph office, aren’t you? I said nothing about gold.” The bespectacled northerner knit his brows in thought. “I did mention the cold.”

Al and Liza glared at Eddy.

He shrugged and looked sheepish. “G and C are almost the same in Morse code.”

photo inside a limestone cavern with stalactites and flowstone, by Jed Owen on Unsplash
Photo by Jed Owen on Unsplash

Story: © 2021 by Joyce Holt

Public domain paintings by:

  • William Louis Sonntag, Sr.  (1822–1900)
  • Eugene Verboeckhoven (1798-1881)

Painting sources:

Miser Evan

detail from "A Country Scene," by David Cox (1783-1859)
detail from “A Country Scene,” by David Cox (1783-1859)

Hold on a moment, I’m coming! Ah, good evening! Are you seeking directions, my good sir?”

“No. I’ve come to see you, Evan Bach.”

“You know my name! Well, you have the advantage on me, but I’m always glad to make a new acquaintance. Come in! Have a seat here by the fire. Would you like a drink?”

"Cottage Interior," by David Cox
“Cottage Interior,” by David Cox

“No. I shan’t be long. I have several calls to make in this neighborhood.”

“You know the people hereabouts then?”

“Indeed I do.”

“How odd. I’d swear I’ve never seen you before.”

“You haven’t.”

“Well then, who are you, if I may be so bold?”

“Death.”

“Ah. I would have expected rather a different appearance—”

“Cloak and scythe, perhaps? Like this?”

“Eeee! Farmer’s tweeds will do instead, if you please.”

“No matter. I am in a hurry, and you must come with me.”

“Isn’t it a bit soon? I’m only sixty, and able to do a good many things before I’m eighty!”

“That may be, but I have set my mind on having a man of your age tonight.”

“There’s Billy James down in Newton. He’s just gone sixty. And now I do come to think of it, Billy’ll be glad to go. He’s had rheumaticks since he was forty.”

“No. I want a healthy man.”

“Well, to be sure, I can tell you of a fellow sound in wind and limb, just the thing for you. Dewi Mawr of Pyle. He can walk forty miles without feeling tired. Come now, isn’t that likely to suit? No? There are plenty riper than me down this way. There’s Ned of Merthyr Mawr, and Jack o’Connelly, and old Uncle Dick o’ Newton, and all of ’em over eighty.”

“Too old for me just now.”

“Supposing I was to give you all my savings, a big lump, too. Nearly three thousand pounds!”

“Money is of no use to me. But for once I will break my rule, if you are prepared to make a bargain with me.”

“Dear Anwyl, I will do anything you like!”

“You must take a new path in life, Miser Evan. My terms are these: You must support your old aunt Molly, who’s barely surviving on a pittance from the parish. You must give a new fishing boat to your nephew who is soon to be married. And you must give more to the poorbox and the collections in the parish church.”

“To be sure, yes indeed, all you say!”

“If you fail in these things, I shall come for you.”

“Otherwise I shall live forever?”

“Nay, but you shall see your ninety-ninth year.”


"A Ship," 1851, by David Cox
“A Ship,” 1851, by David Cox

“Hold on a moment, I’m coming! Oh. It’s you.”

“Good evening, Evan Bach. Your time has come.”

“But I’m only ninety-three! I have six more years!”

“You haven’t kept your part of the bargain.”

“I did for a good long while! I took in Aunt Molly, but she’s dead now, surely you know that. And my nephew has a fortune of his own. He hasn’t needed help from me for five-and-ten years now!”

“What about the poorbox and the collections plate?”

“Well, ah, you see, once I turned ninety it seemed rather frivolous—”

“Come, Miser Evan. He who values hoarded wealth more than life loses both.”


folktale from Glamorgan, Wales, popular in the early 1800’s

retold by Joyce Holt, copyright 2021

"Twilight, View of Harlech Castle," by David Cox
“Twilight, View of Harlech Castle,” by David Cox

Sources of public-domain 19th-century paintings:

Safe Tonight

   Written and narrated by Joyce Holt © 2020

   Achim felt around in the darkness. He had dropped his waterskin at the first blaze of light in the heavens, and now, eyes blinded by the glory of it, he couldn’t see a thing.

He heard the footsteps of his companions pattering away downhill.  He heard scuffling hoofsteps from the sheep nearby. And he thought he still heard echoes of that incredible music that had washed over the slopes in interweaving peals of joy and beauty. 

Holt – detail from “Suddenly,” 2016

    The air smelled of lightning after a storm, though nothing but breezes wafted across the land.  Calm.  Peaceful.  Silent.

    Achim’s fingers scrabbled through scrub, pebbles and dust, at last finding the cool, pliable waterskin.  He swept it up and turned after his fellows.

    The landscape shimmered back to view under the touch of starlight as Achim’s eyes adjusted.  He saw his last companion vanish around a turn of the path far below.

    And he saw a movement close at hand.

    On a shelf of rock above the encampment, a tawny head turned from staring at the heavens to meet Achim’s gaze.  A lioness crouched there, regal as a sphinx.  Her pupils, still widening from the slits that served in bright surroundings, took in his presence but she showed neither fear nor fury.

Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) – detail from “Lioness Reclining,” 1855

    The tip of her tail twitched.  She let out a breathy sigh.  Still holding Achim’s gaze, she gave a long slow blink that for some reason filled him with warmth.

    The lioness glanced at the sheep still clustered and milling below the path.  She sniffed, rose, turned away, vanished uphill like a shadow among the scrub.

    Achim clutched his waterskin tight to his chest and let out a breathy sigh of his own.  The flock would be safe without its guardians this wondrous silent night.  He set out, like his companions, for Bethlehem.

John H. Vanderpoel (1857-1911) – (angel sketch)

Also in the video:

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859-1937) – The Good Shepherd (1902-1903)
Antonio de Pereda (1611-1678) – detail from Study of Angels

Music track by: Fesliyan Studios – “Beautiful Village”

Cargo and Koh-Lum-Boh

“Jamaica,” by Frederic Edwin Church, 1855? – photoshopped to remove signs of European settlement

Caribbean Sea, AD 1502

Mazatl paddled madly for shore. The wind blowing astern toyed with him, for it gave greater aid to the vessel in pursuit– a great shell skimming the waves with white wings outspread to catch the tiniest breeze.

He saw no break in the wall of jungle ahead, no river mouth to give shelter. He veered his dugout to seek haven northwards.

The wind-blown ship cut across his path.

His dugout collided with its massive flank. Mazatl huddled amid- ships, trying to tame his fearful heart.

Faces peered down at him from the rail above, faces pale as the wings that now folded beyond them. A vessel of ghosts!

Ropes came whipping out. Ghosts slid down to land with solid thumps in the dugout. One held a silvery blade to Mazatl’s throat, though the paddler had no thought of fight. Every muscle clenched in terror.

The other figures– not ghosts after all, not the way they made the dugout wallow with their weight– they rummaged through Mazatl’s belongings. Food for the journey, waterskins, a cloak. They found his cargo.

They chattered at him then, like monkeys with deep voices, holding out the bags, demanding.

Mazatl could do nothing but shake in fear.

They went back up the ropes like spiders, taking his cargo. The last one lashed a rope around Mazatl’s chest, and the ones above hauled him aboard, banging against wooden planks all the way up.

No mistaking the chief of the ghosts, garbed in cloth of rich colors, glinting with silver. Mazatl bowed before the white-skinned personage, addressed by the others as Koh-Lum-Boh, a tall man with hair the color of maize and eyes as blue as the sea. The chief and his warriors showed no intent to devour Mazatl, as he had first feared. He dared to hope he might survive this encounter.

The chief ordered the cargo bags opened.

Mazatl’s terror subsided. Merely thieves, these ghosts were! Somehow they had known the valuable cargo he carried and meant to–

No, they looked puzzled. The chief took a handful from the bag, rolled in his fingers, sniffed, eyed the nuggets closely, then turned his gaze on his captive.

More chattering Mazatl couldn’t understand. He shrugged his bafflement.

One cacao bean dropped to the deck and rolled aside.

On impulse Mazatl grabbed for the kernel, worth a tomato or tamale in the market at Yucatan.

The chief narrowed his eyes at Mazatl’s clenched fist. He drizzled the remaining beans back into the bag and barked orders. His men hauled the bags away.

The chief regarded Mazatl a moment longer, then waved at the ship’s rail. His men hoisted the captive to his feet and dumped him overboard.

Mazatl surfaced, sputtering, and watched the vessel’s wings spread once more. The great ship surged ahead and plowed through the waves, shrinking in his sight as he hauled himself aboard his dugout.      

No use going to Yucatan. The treasure he had just lost would have bought him a flock of turkeys and set him on the path to wealth. He turned and headed home with his life, one cacao bean and a tale beyond belief.

(c) 2020 Joyce Holt

Champions on the Pampas

~ SPORTS SECTION ~

DATELINE AD 605: PATAGONIA, ARGENTINA–

It’s midsummer on the pampas, realm of the Tehuelche [“fierce people”]. Unending high winds drive waves across the grassy landscape. The bough-and-hide summer homes of the Heron Clan once more stand in their hereditary spots high up the banks of the Murky River [Rio Turbio], in the shadow of the snow-capped cordillera.

Midsummer calls for feast and festivities. High spirits attend the gathering as the clan, seventy-five strong, celebrate the end of their spring trek along the Murky River from the coast to the mountains.

Early this morning they held a solemn moment at the sacred cliff-side where long ago the ancestors of the Tehuelche carved glyphs into the rock face. Now every succeeding generation will be able to see their heritage preserved for all time in the pale figures of big-footed humans hunting wild sheep and llama-like guanaco.

This afternoon, the mood turned merry. The menfolk vied for title of champion hunter of the clan. The chieftain’s brother-in-law Cangapol won the men’s moving-target bola throw, felling the prey on his first cast in spite of the gusting winds. He received the prize of a quanaco hide painted in the traditional handprint pattern.

In the boys’ contest, thirteen-year-old Limay won a quiver of cane arrows with bone tips. The runner-up received a stone-headed mallet and right off ran around pounding the house stakes even deeper. Everyone laughed, remembering last summer when one tent-house blew away in a gale.

Dice made from the bones of the huemul deer went to the winner of the children’s round.

The chieftain’s mother-in-law, matriarch of the clan, presided over the stew cook-off. She presented to the winner (her own grand-niece) a set of birk playing cards–squares of quanaco rawhide decorated with stylized red and black herons.

The true champions of the pampas, though, will show their colors tomorrow with the first hunt of the summer season. Put in a good word for young Limay. He’s still trying to persuade the elders he’s skilled enough to join the hunters.

Notice the bolas hanging upper left in this fun artwork of Tehuelches in camp,
  found at: http://galgosyotrasyerbas.blogspot.com/2013/01/gente-de-la-tierra.html

~ Sporting Insert ~

Overheard: a wise elder teaching the youngsters…

Bolas are high-tech hunting tools made of leather and stones used to capture small game. Remember this: they are much more effective than the primitive hand-thrown stone.

bolas

The bola is usually made up of three strips of leather; two of equal length and one longer than the other two.

Stones or other weighted objects are tied to the ends of the leather strips; two of equal weight on the equal lengths and a lighter one on the longer strap.

The bola must be thrown in such a way as to allow the stones to spread out in the air evenly. If thrown correctly, the bola’s straps will wrap around its target and ensnare it.

  • Hold the bola by the longer length with the lighter stone.
  • Swing the bola overhead until you have gathered enough momentum.
  • Throw the smaller stone at the target when the two larger stones are parallel to each other.
  • Follow through with your throw.

wise elder found at: http://www.ehow.com/how_8085475_throw-bola.html

Turquoise and cacao

Dateline AD 605: Teotihuacán, Mexico—

Last evening, sentries intercepted and escorted to the city a string of footsore travelers who state they left their northern homeland more than four score days ago. They certainly bore the dust of a long trek. The guard has taken into keeping their spears and atlatls for the duration of the visit.

This morning at the palace, the traders presented our nobility with lavish gifts of turquoise–gems of a brighter sky-blue than any seen in our wide lands.

To show their delight and appreciation, the nobility held a chokola’j ceremony, honoring the foreigners with cups of steaming, foaming chocol’ha.

The simple northern folk found our Mayan delicacy not much to their liking, according to one member of the palace staff who was not authorized to speak publicly on the topic and spoke on condition of anonymity. One visitor appeared to have burned his tongue and two grimaced at the bitter flavor, revealing their lack of taste for fine cuisine.

In the early afternoon, the rustic folk from the north offered more of their amazing skystone goods at the market. To the astonishment of all, they had no interest in the cacao bean exchange but asked instead for parrots.

Our local correspondent, a former fashion editor, took a dim view of their leader’s garb–a brown-tone turkey-feather cloak. “How drab!” she told another member of the press. “A splash of parrot-feather reds and blues would certainly liven up the color scheme.”

One enterprising merchant noted the copper ornaments worn by several of the foreigners, and smooth-talked his way into a trade of common seashells for the valuable metal. The northerner seemed pleased at the absurd exchange.

The traders say they farm beside the Yota’vayu river [San Juan River] which cuts through a massive, arid tableland. They call themselves Hopi, “the peaceful and civilized.” It is expected their stay at Teotihuacán will show our guests the true measure of civilization.

In welcome to our grand city, queen of all the Mayan states, they are invited to attend a game of pitz in the eastern ballcourt this evening. One of our local pranksters showed them a rubber ball, and made as if to hand it over for closer inspection. He let it slip, and the poor Hopi dashed about in alarm as the ball bounced around their feet.

The northerners, of course, had never seen rubber before, since the rubber tree grows only in humid lowlands to the south where midday sunlight streams down from directly overhead. The cacao tree, slightly more hardy, also prefers a high sun.

Mayan art: cacao tree and parrot

We must excuse our guests for their ignorance of matters outside their realm where the sun never approaches the zenith, or so they say.

Let us raise our cups of chocol’ha to toast this new trade agreement, bartering our common Mayan shells and parrots for precious copper and turquoise from the lands of the Hopi!

Painted bowl showing woman grinding cacao; metate used in grinding

Culinary Insert: How to make chocol’ha

Crack open cacao pods and scoop out the seeds. Ferment the seeds, then dry them.

Toast cacao beans on your clay comal (griddle) over an open fire.

Crack cacao bean shells to get at the nibs inside.

Grind the nibs in your metate (stone grinder) until a stream of liquid trickles off its edge into a clay bowl. Mix that paste with water; add spices such as chili peppers, cornmeal, and dried flower petals.

Heat the chocol’ha to steaming, then pour it back and forth between two bowls until it brims with a pleasing foam. Sweeten with honey or flower nectar.

Third Knot

A folktale from Rolfstorp, Sweden, retold by Joyce Holt

Rask rowed into the chop of Kattegat, the shallow sea off Sweden’s coast. His sloop wallowed low, weighed down by twenty-four bushels of rye. Not a breath of wind stirred to aid him on his way.

Rask would gladly row all day, clear to the shores of Denmark, with such a sight to feast upon as the one perched in the stern.

The loveliest woman he’d ever seen sat daintily atop her cargo of rye. Skin pure as pearls, eyes the color of evening sky, a brow like seafoam. Silvery hair billowed, though no wind blew. Her gown shimmered with blue-green hues, bright as fish scales.

line art by author Joyce Holt

Rask’s heart beat giddy with delight. He grinned like an idiot, pulled at the oars, ignored one wise corner of his mind. She had promised a fine fare, but had never said how much.

“Here,” the woman said at last. “We’ve come to my home. Please unload.”

Rask glanced around at the smooth silky billows. No land in sight. “Unload?”

“Yes. Just toss them overboard.”

That wise corner of his mind shouted warning, but Rask heard none of it over the happy thrumming of his heart. One by one he hoisted the barrels over the sloop’s edge to plummet into the depths.

The woman stood amidships, smiling at Rask. “For your payment, come with me. Take my hand and jump.”

“Fool!” screamed the tiny voice of sense.

Rask jumped.

Without even a splash, he found himself, still at the woman’s side, in a great hall beneath the sea.

“Is that you, Daughter?” queried a huge old man sitting upon a whalebone chair. His eyes stared — blank, sightless.

“I’m home with the rye, Father,” she answered.

The blind man’s nostrils flared. “I smell the blood of a Christian,” he grumbled. “Come over here, man. Let me finger wrestle with you.”

The woman whispered to Rask, “Hand over an anchor hook instead of your finger.”

Rask did as told, and barely managed to hang onto the anchor with both hands as the fellow wrenched with a giant’s strength. The old man chuckled in defeat. “Not bad, not bad at all. Daughter, pay this fine skipper his due.”

The lovely woman gave Rask a handkerchief in which three knots had been tied. “When you get into a lull,” she told him, “you can open one knot. And if you want to go really fast, untie two knots, but never untie the third.”

Rask found himself back in his sloop, handkerchief in hand. A breeze tugged at the sails and soon swept him home where he told the tale to any and all.

Not long after, he found himself becalmed with a heavy load of wares and an urge to hasten home. Rask untied one knot in the handkerchief.

The sail filled with wind.

He opened the second, and the sloop sped so fast it made the water hiss.

He must have opened the third knot too, for nobody ever saw him again.

Between the Waves, by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1898: https://www.wikiart.org/en/ivan-aivazovsky/between-the-waves-1898

“Third Knot” appears in Holt’s anthology Spun Again: Old Tales Retold available on Amazon.com

Learn more about anthologies and novels by Joyce Holt

copyright 2020 by author/artist Joyce Holt

Outwait

Flash fiction set in Anglo-Saxon England

    Alfgifu pointed through the underbrush. “I see a hazel tree.”

    “Not just one.” Rothmund ran ahead, lugging his bucket. “A whole grove! We’ll find plenty of nuts here.”

    “What story shall I tell while we gather?”

    “Beowulf!”

    Alfgifu launched into the tale while they scuffed through duff beneath the trees, hunting for hazelnuts. “News spread far and wide about the troubles of King Hrothgar of the Dane-Mark. Every night a horrid monster rose from the marshes, broke into the king’s hall, and carried off a warrior to devour. None could stand against Grendel the terrible.”

    “I bet I could have!” Rothmund tossed another handful of nuts into his bucket.

    “Perhaps when you’re full grown.” Alfgifu went on with the tale about the young hero from across the channel who came to the aid of his father’s friend. When Grendel next attacked, Beowulf fought the monster. By incredible strength the unarmed hero ripped Grendel’s arm from his body. Now who was unarmed?

The monster fled back to the swamps, gushing its lifeblood with every step. It plunged into the mire and never rose again.

    “Hrothgar’s hall rang with celebration for three days,” Alfgifu said. “The monster’s arm hung from the rafters, a gory trophy. Everyone thought their troubles were over. But the next night–” She broke off, turned, listened.

    “You can’t scare me, sister!” Rothmund said. “I know what comes next. Grendel’s mother!”

    Alfgifu cried out, “Danger! Up the tree, now!” She pushed him toward the sturdiest of the hazel trees.

    He giggled as he climbed. “She was a huge, big monster. How high must we climb to get out of her reach?”

    “This is high enough. Look!”

Horde de sangliers, 1921, by Georges Frédéric Rötig http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2015/08/rotigs-wild-boars.html

A mob of wild boars burst from the brush, jostled, snorted, rooted in the duff.

    “Hey! We weren’t done! They’re going to get our nuts.” Rothmund started down.

    Alfgifu grabbed his arm. “Remember the scar on Papa’s leg? These Grendels might be small as calves, but they’re vicious, and you don’t even have a boar-spear.”

    “I’ve got a knife!”

    “So do the boars. See their tusks? They’d rip you open, like Beowulf ripped Grendel’s mother!”

    “When will it be my turn to fight a monster? I want to be a hero, too!”

    “You don’t have your man’s strength yet, Rothmund! And when a young hero-to-be doesn’t have might, he must use wits instead. Now be wise. Sit down. Want to hear about Beowulf and the dragon?”

    “No.” He pouted.

    “Or about Hengist and Horsa with their sleek longships, bringing the first Angle-kin here to Englaland?”

    “No! Boring.”

Down below, two pigs scuffled, squealed, fought over a nut. Rothmund’s eyes widened at the sight of blood spilling.

    “How about this.” Alfgifu showed him how to carve his name. While he worked, she kept an eye on the boars below, teaching him more runes from time to time.

    The boars finally went on their way. Alfgifu stretched. “Now we can climb down and hurry home! Papa and Mama will be wondering where we are.”

    “Read this first.” Grinning, he pointed at the runes carved in the bark.

    “Here Rothmund outwaited seven Grendels and their mother.”

    “No, no,” the boy sputtered. “That’s not ‘outwaited’ — it’s ‘outwitted’!”

    “By outwaiting, you outwitted. Very good, my wise young hero!”


Life in an Anglo-Saxon settlement

Pronunciation of Alfgifu: Stress the first syllable; say the next two syllables lightly and quickly. The unstressed i and u are short vowels. The g is like y in yet. Each f is almost a v.

Yesterday, a Dragon

A tale from the Mabinogion; from “The Lady of the Fountain,” found in the Red Book of Hergest (c. 1400)

Retold by Joyce Holt

Owain spurred his horse up the steep trail. The dapple grey tossed its head as they made the last turn, and whinnied in alarm when they broke out of the forest into a gloomy clearing.

    At first the knight could see no threat, but he heeded his mount and reined to a halt. Nothing moved in the glade.

    Then the shadowy figure of a lion appeared from the depths of a cave. Owain ap Urien drew his sword.

    The beast paced side to side, limping. Owain could see its ribs, its pelt matted with blood, its ragged ears flicking as if in fear. The lion gazed at horse and rider but not with a hunter’s thirst for blood. Despair shone in that glance. Wariness. Perhaps even a plea for help.

    Owain shook his head at the foolish thought. He backed his horse, for he saw the lion gathering to spring into the open.

    At the same moment the beast made one bound forward, a massive shape spewed from a crevice near the cave mouth. A monstrous serpent rammed the lion, knocking it back into its prison.

    The wingless dragon pulled back into its lair, vanishing from sight.

    The dapple grey snorted and shimmied and shied, tensing for flight, nostrils flaring at the stench of the monster. Owain dismounted, tied the reins to a stout branch, then approached on foot, sword still drawn.

    The lion, he could see from nearby, raised itself on trembling limbs, licked at a bloody flank, panted in fear. Once again those golden eyes fixed upon Owain, begging, pleading.

    The knight edged up to the crevice. He raised his sword, then waited for the next rush to freedom.

    The beast came to the cave entrance, gathered itself, burst forth.

Lion and Python, by Antoine-Louis Barye, ca. 1863

    Once more the great serpent struck at its prisoner, but Owain struck all the harder. He sliced right through the monster’s sinuous neck.

    The dragon’s head rolled across the stony ground. Its neck crashed among the rocks.

    Tail lashing, the lion rose from a crouch, edged up to the carcass, sniffed at its tormentor.

    Owain wiped clean his sword blade. “My kill is all yours,” he told the lion. “I don’t fancy dragon for dinner.” He strode back to his fidgeting horse, keeping an eye on the great cat until he could mount and ride away.

    When twilight descended, Owain made camp further off in the forest. The knight was crouching by his fire when the undergrowth rustled. He rose, reaching for his sword hilt as the lion shouldered its way out of the brush, dragging a freshly killed deer. The beast dropped the carcass, stepped away a pace, sank to its haunches, and set to licking its wounded flank.

    “Ah. Well. Thank you most kindly,” Owain told the lion. “Did you eat your fill earlier, I wonder?”

    The great cat yawned, displaying an imposing set of fangs, then settled to its belly, curling its tail like an enormous housecat, a contented look in the golden eyes.

    The lion dozed while Owain butchered the deer and roasted a haunch. The dappled grey looked on in disapproval, but its ears soon stilled from their nervous flicking.

* * *

    When Owain mounted in the morning and continued on his quest, the gaunt and grateful lion trotted alongside like a well-trained greyhound.

    They sheltered one night at the castle of an earl. While Owain settled his horse in the stable and brushed it down, the lion took the manger for a bed. It woke and followed when Owain finished and headed for the hall, and no one dared shoo it away. The great cat settled under the table, at his feet, and feasted on every scrap he dropped while the earl’s hounds slunk into hiding.

    The castle servants had welcomed the wandering knight and spread out a feast in gloomy silence. The earl picked at his food. His lovely daughter sat still, her face white, her eyes downcast. When the first course was finished and etiquette allowed conversation to begin, Owain asked what troubled his host.

    “Ah, Chieftain,” the earl said. “My two sons went hunting in the mountains yesterday morning, but they became the prey. A giant seized them, and sent word that he will slay them before my eyes tomorrow if I do not deliver up to him my daughter.” His voice broke with sorrow. “Which do I sacrifice? The beloved youths or the beloved maiden?”

    “Neither,” said Owain. “I am a knight of Arthur’s court, and no man can stand against me in battle.”

    “This is no man! It’s a monster!”

    “Yesterday, a dragon. Tomorrow, a giant.”

    Next morning the whole castle woke to a thundering clamor outside the walls: trompings and thrashings and a howling voice calling the earl to come out and witness the death of his sons. The giant had arrived.

    Owain donned his armor and went out to meet the threat, the lion pacing at his side. Together they charged into battle.

    “Some hero you are,” the giant snarled at Owain. “Who’s doing the real fighting here, you or your beast?”

    The knight led the lion to the castle courtyard, shut him in, then leaped back into the fray.

    When the lion heard the clash of weapons, though, it roared in frustration. It leaped to the top of a shed, to the top of the stable, to the top of the hall, and from there to the ramparts. It sprang to freedom and raced back to Owain’s side.

    In a raging battle-fury, the lion slashed with wicked claws — and gashed the monster open from shoulder to hip, ripping through his bulging heart. The giant crashed to the ground, dead.

* * *

    Owain’s quest took many more twists before it ended back at Arthur’s court. Much to the chagrin of one dapple grey, a faithful lion loped ever at its side, in service to the greatest knight of Albion.

Lancelot and Guinevere, by Herbert James Draper
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, 1890’s