Lay of Ælfwine

© 2003 Peter Wilkin

(First Section)
I


Beyond the boundless sea a land there lies,
Through time’s unremembered wreathing mist,
A land where born were legends leaving,
Echoes faint by fiery hearth and hall.

From hither land our hero hails,
Mid much turmoil and travail,
Of battles bloody, grief unbounded:
The clash of cruel cold iron cleaving.

From frosty firths and fjords of north,
On slave-manned long ships, mighty oréd,
Came the kin of cruel Viking men,
With lust for English land and loot.

His name of Ælfwine widely known,
Among the savage Saxon-folk,
Who came with him the coast to quell,
In peace to dwell in troubled times.

But on one dire and dreadful day,
Out to sea they saw the sails:
That spelled their doom. And to their shores,
The dragon-headed vessels veered.

Indeed it seemed a dismal dragon had descended,
It’s fearsome fire burned the bloodied bodies.
Such dire and dreadful destruction dealt they,
That scant a soul from sword they spared.

With fearful few Ælfwine fled,
To wait the dragon’s abating breath,
And bright revenge within them woke,
To slay those who had slaughtered so.

II
Then soon a group of grim men gathered,
Though despairing and desperate they deemed it well,
In spite of peril the pillagers pursue,
And swiftly and surely slay them all!

From many towns they mustered men,
And weapons gathered; club and claymore,
Sword and spear. To ship they went to shrive their dead,
And wond’rous was their wrathful speed.

With billowed sails a bright breeze bore them,
Past wrack and ruin of the Viking’s wrought,
And well deemed they their dread desire,
To lift this threat from their like kin.

On the eighth day even as evening set,
A new wind wreathed and rearing rose,
And it seemed to have a strange scent and sound;
An ominous omen: they deemed it ill.

A while their wills wavered and confidence cooled,
As if the wind their strength had sapped,
But lo! Looking, the masts they marked,
As fuel to fire their fury flared up.

But the woeful wind had borne a storm,
Lightning lurked in clouds concealed,
With fury it gathered and grew in strength,
The beating wind battered their boats.

Terrible though this tempest was,
Hatred had kindled: hearts were hardened.
Naught they thought, could thwart their vengeance,
And ever sought they their enemy’s end.

Wrathful roaring, heavens rivaling,
Shooting fire-shrouded shafts,
Lashed by rain the rivals surged,
Water washing wooded decks with blood.

With burnished brand and brandished blade,
Shimmering swords of steel unsheathed,
Without care or council, caution or concern,
The fearsome foes enjoined the fray.

Still the storm mightily mustered its strength,
Even as their raging anger rose,
The biting wind with fury bellowed,
And stirred the sea to hideous heights.  

But to Ælfwine our tale must turn.
Drawing night to Viking vessels,
He nocked arrow to bow: Three Norsemen he shot,
Dead they fell by those dreaded darts.

Now near enough they were to board,
One great dragon; grim and gruesome
The onset was. Their keening cries,
Echoed through the crashing waves, white-crested.

Ælfwine swiftly sprang aboard searching for foes,
And seeing what he sought, with sword drawn,
Slashed savagely and with upward thrust,
Slew the Viking swine full swiftly.

This first fight’s taste left victory lingering
When from behind, unknown and unseen,
To his helm a Viking hammer hurled,
And as to the depthless deep he descended.

But fate spared him for he fell back,
Over the side onto his own small ship;
There lay senseless, seeming like death,
So that surely slain they thought him.

Renewed in rage the storm rose high,
With lightning lashing, thunder rolling,
Wind racing, reeling wretched,
And rain dire: a dreadful deluge drenching all.

(Section Two)

When Ælfwine woke, he saw with wonder,
A silver mist shrouding his sight,
Of the other ships and the sea battle fought,
He saw not a sign.

And strange seemed these stars,
Many and marvelous, softly shimmering,
As though they had but late
In time’s long span begun to shine.

Lost and lonely, forsaken and forlorn,
He hoisted sail and headed whither
He knew not. But hark! See now ahead
A glimmering light: swiftly gaining, glowing softly.

A gull flies hither, though its span of wing,
Of greater size than mortal bird. And speaks he suddenly:
“Follow! Fare swiftly! For knowest thou not?
Thou art summoned by the Faerie King!”

Marveling Ælfwine made after the gull
And turned the tiller; ship gliding swiftly
Over starlit seas he saw land yonder,
A distant glimmer in darkness glowing.

Faithful followed the breeze behind,
The gull as his guide, he kept his course,
And crossing over enchanted waves he came,
Finally to the Faerie shore.

Not of sand was the blessed beach,
But of diamond-dust and glittering gems.
The green of grass and trees, an emerald hue,
Majestic, marvelous, with statures great.

For fair indeed was Faerie-Home:
For mortal mind unimaginable,
Yet no soul was to be seen,
Save our hero’s winged companion.

Wondering he walked with thoughtful gaze,
Along the hallowed shore, hearing
The soft break of the shimmering sea,
And a whispering wind through tree-leaves winding.

But for all the bountiful beauty about,
He felt a hidden sorrow heavy,
An aching regret, a defilement dreadful,
And this perception puzzled him greatly.

Now in a clearing by a calm stream clear,
A light mist settled silver shivering,
From out of the cloud a figure appeared,
An old man with a beard, silver-shot. 

His bearing was of a noble lord, straight of back,
Tall in stature and fair of face,
He fixed upon Ælfwine a thoughtful gaze,
And spake in a voice, melodious and mild.

“A thousand welcomes to thee then, child
Of mortal man. Many marvels shalt thou behold,
For thou art come to Tir Nan Og,
Once a fruitful land though less fair of late.”

With that he produced a porphyry pouch,
And opening offered it to the other,
Whence straight away a silk-fine dust,
About Ælfwine arose and lo!

Mortal blindness was removed:
Gazing about he beheld a barren land,
Bleak and broken, bereft of beauty.
Revealed was the Faerie Realm to Ælfwine truly.

But looking again Ælfwine beheld
A host of the fairie-folk drawn close about their king,
Their garments gleaming, both man and maiden,
Noble lords and ladies thus arrayed.

Lithe of limb, though stronger still
Than any mortal were the men,
Their features fine, tall in form,
Even like their lord, Finvarra.

In beauty the maidens bore no less,
Long locks flowing, tresses trailing,
Stern they looked yet sad to see,
Save one whose limpid look lingered long.

Then spake Finvarra: “Seest thou
The wrack and ruin wrought in this realm,
And the ghastly grief writ on our hearts?
Great woe has befallen. Beleaguered we are in a torrent of troubles.
 
For it came to pass ages ago,
A nobleman, Nehemath was his name,
A trusted friend, though false when tried,
Became possessed with passion for my power.

By this desire, deceit descended,
And conceit consumed and overcame him.
Therefore he assembled all his allies:
Against the rightful ruler he wrongfully made war.

Untold anguish was of that fray!
Yet through terrible slaughter in time we triumphed, 
And drove them duly from this land,
But imprisoned the plotter, Nehemath.

By use of great enchantments, I ensnared
The wretch’s rotten soul in stone,
There to lament and languish long,
For the hideous hurt his cruelty caused.

Thus once more did peace prevail,
And trust bloomed in our troubled hearts.
It seemed to some that mercy should be mete
Upon Nehemath though he wrong had wrought.

We took the soul and released his soul,
And his physical form he found again,
Kneeling, Nehemath his pardon received,
And swore his loyalty, long and lasting.

Is not mercy more mighty than wrath?
To forgive a friend and friendship renew?
To set grievance aside and gain an ally?
Ha! Folly it is and foolishness – do not I know it?

For the serpent ever sees friend for foe,
And mercy moves him not.
Wrath and woe is all he knows,
For in him that fire flares hot.

With all appearance of abject apology,
Feigned repentance and false words,
The traitor took his leave,
And went whither we knew not.

Thence he dwelt in a desolate place,
And in the gloom gathered his servants,
Fell beasts, fallen faeries, great and grevious,
Aye, even demons of eternal fire.

But far worse was to follow!
For putting forth all the power he possessed,
From hell he summoned an ancient horror,
The Leviathan, dreadful dweller of the deep.

The might of this monster was unmatched,
And far over our strength was he the stronger,
With a cursed command, full of fury,
The terrible traitor sent it forth.

The raging beast ravished our realm,
Great was the ghastly ruin and wreck,
So many slain, others sought hiding,
Such grievous gifts were of his giving.

Yet though out courage is counted great,
Skilled are we in secret ways,
Thus though the doleful destruction and death,
Here have we found a haven, to tarry in our time of woe.

Now Nehamath, knowing of our defeat,
And the terror and tragedy he himself brought,
Sits now in his seat supreme,
And laughs loud at the woe which he has wrought.

But though my head be bowed in sorrow,
In exile, I have not been idle,
And delving deep in lore have leant,
A way in which we may be saved.

For fearing the fate he fared before,
With mighty magics his soul he wove,
Such that none of Faerie may find or vanquish it,
But from mortal man he sought not to guard.

As destiny decrees, so art thou summoned!

For thy fate it is to fare to his fortress,
And there through stealth and secrecy,
Lay hold of his soul and by thy hand,
Destroy it completely, dooming it eternally.”

Now all this Ælfwine marveled at,
And trembled at such a terrible task.
Dire despair and dread descended,
As the weight of the world rested on him.

But seeing then the stern and sorry people,
That for all their finery were yet bereft,
Ælfwine resolved to help them against their foe,
Since he had no care or fear for his own fate.

Then spake Ælfwine firmly:
“This task I will do, careless of the cost.
Little hope is left in life for me,
But bitter sorrow, despair and death”.

At Ælfwine’s words Finvarra smiled.
“There thou speakest falsely for
Life’s cup carries more than thou canst drink,
Though my heart hearkens to hear thy resolve.

But before thou undertake this task,
Here wilt thou shortly rest a while,
For I will aid thee in all that I have,
And there are things that must be prepared!

When all was done, Finvarra approached,
And with him all his court had come.
“The time is night to try thy quest,
And against our foe prevail or perish.

Now for thee we have done these things.
Thy ship is shattered and shall not last,
So I give thee a boat of enchanted timber built,
Stout she is and shall bear thee swiftly.

Second to thee this gem I give.
There is power inside and though seemingly of little use,
My heart tells me that thou wilt need it,
When thou feel all else has failed.

Lastly this stout sword I give thee,
Swift it slayeth, keep it safe.
Faerie-wrought and by Fionn wielded,
May the might of its master serve thee surely.

That is all I have to hand thee,
With our gifts we, our blessings give thee.
When hope has withered and faith has failed,
May courage, strength, and valour avail!

Now about thy ship a spell is spun,
Of stealth and secrecy, hiding from sight,
Invisible shalt thou be to enemy eyes,
But be wary the wile of his wicked enchantments.

(Section three)

Then of a sudden a steady breeze blew,
With sails swelling, tiller trembling,
The bow bent to the distant dark,
Ælfwine set off with swiftest sailing.

As days drew on, the darkening sky
In malice increased; the malevolent sea
With angry waves arose to strive
And overcome Ælfwine’s vessel.

Now behold! A black shape far ahead!
Darker than the darkness about,
For there the cursed castle was,
And with dread Ælfwine his doom beheld.

Then strangely the wind ceased its shrieking,
And the angry sea abated about him,
But with the calm came creeping fear,
And he felt a lurking horror hidden.

Now hark! Ahead a figure of shadow formed,
Under it the wrathful waves arose,
As an approaching gust of wind,
It sped with fearful speed towards him.

In an instant the horror-wind had assailed him,
Woefully wailing, shrieking savagely,
Wind-clad fists smote hard his ship,
With fearful force and might unmatched.

Now this terrible thing was a servant summoned,
From an evil enchantment that Nehemath evoked.
It shaped itself into a gale of great power,
And guarded its master’s grim abode.

The stout spells spun by the faeries shielded Ælfwine
From imminent death though he was to deck knocked down,
He helplessly watched the horror wind,
Roar in ever rising rage.

Now higher it swirled and swiftly grew,
As it spun and circled, shuddering and shrieking,
Pounding and pummeling, growing greater,
With fearsome fury the fiend fiercely fought.

With sudden fright Ælfwine felt,
The enchantment about him flicker and fade,
Then with a flash the faerie spell failed,
The fiend the vulnerable vessel enveloped.

The ship was splintered. About him he swept
His weathered cloak and closed his eyes,
Thinking death had finally taken him, but unbeknowing,
He was blown to the sorcerer’s bleak and barren isle.

Wrapped in his grey cloack completely,
As sea-wreck on shore, disdainfully strewn,
Ælfwine was cast on the cruel crags,
And entering the nightmare again awoke.

Before him the battlements, black and baleful,
Grotesquely leaning, leering mocked him.
A whistling wind in sorrow sighed,
Round jagged rocks jutting rudely.

But dreading the danger of detection,
Ælfwine roused his weary form.
He regained again resolve to try
And locate a way that would lead inside.

This he found with time and trouble,
And like a lithesome shadow little,
Through a dim-lit passage passed,
With fear ever mounting more.

Secretly stepping, seldom safe Ælfwine,
With great peril proceeded, pursuing his quest.
At every turn a lingering shadow lurked,
Even the forsaken shadows Ælfwine feared.

Terrible too were the evil sounds that echoed
Horribly through the halls: hideous howls,
Shrieks and cries that chilled him to the very core:
Bravely Ælfwine clutched to quailing courage.

At long last a huge and hazy library he discovered,
Resting, sighed, and saw the rows of ancient, time worn tomes.
But between the shelves a white statue stood, the shape of a man,
Though twisted and tortured; in its hand a cruel edged sword held.

Nigh the statue stood a stand of armour,
Which rusting rested, near it hung a horn,
Its shape contorted and crookedly twisted,
The bending bone to Ælfwine beckoned.

He felt a strange compulsion to sound its call,
Against his will, his hand reached out about it clutched.
He blew its baleful, gnawing note, silence dispelling,
With horror he heard its dreadful dissonance hovering.

But worse, from behind Ælfwine heard,
A woeful voice, wicked and willful.
He turning beheld with foreboding fear,
The sinister sorcerer, Nehemath himself!

Drawing his sword in dire despair,
Nehemath merely leering laughed:
“Dost thou the truly believe brave fool,
That with weapons weak, thou canst wound me?

Thou reckoneth not my power unrivaled,
Boundless from end to end of the earth!”
First sought the sorcerer his enemy to slay
And, so wishing, weaved a spell of slaying.

Chanted he then of despairing death,
The evil ending of life and hope,
The decay of time, death’s lasting grasp,
And the laying down of love of life.

But wondering within Ælfwine a power welled,
And a spell he sung that was not his own:
Of valiance and hidden strength unseen,
Of youthful life, and the love of living.

Surprised at the strength of Ælfwine’s spell,
The sorcerer ceased and to his cruel thought came,
Instead a cause to keep him captive,
To interrogate and, for pleasure, torture.

For Ælfwine’s spell had sapped his strength,
And lifeless on the floor he lay.
Roughly was he taken to a dungeon dank,
Far beneath the fortress’ black foundations.

He painfully awoke in the absence of light,
And saw about him only blackness.
But in the shadows a shape appeared,
Broken and bent, malformed and misfigured.

Astonished, Ælfwine beheld what had once had been a man.
“For long years unnumbered I’ve languished here,
Imprisoned indefinitely by the sorcerer in servitude,
Though once of Finvarra’s folk I was, in freedom I lived in that fair land.

Once on a raid to ravish our realm,
The wizard killed my companions; I was wounded,
And for his pleasure a prisoner taken,
Here shall we both our doom in anguish await. 

But then the old man suddenly stopped,
“Lo! A strange power I perceive about thee”.
Then Ælfwine produced the gem, carefully concealed:
Over the aged man’s face flashed hidden hope.

“With this, said he, thou canst be saved,
And by my aid prevail perhaps, just enough
Strength do I possess to unlock the orb’s power,
Though likely I will lose my life thereby.

Now come closer and listen carefully:
One spell will I weave for thee,
That thou might escape unmolestedm
And hence to the highest hall run swiftly.

Thence a mirror wilt thou see there standing,
Wherein the soul-stone lieth guarded,
Though the sorcerer’s soul be snared,
Vulnerable will he be, but not yet vanquished.

Then he slowly started chanting softly,
The bars before him brittle bent,
As his voice grew with greater light the globe glimmered,
They crashing broke and cluttering fell.

But the old man in his spell was spent,
As the remnants of his remaining strength receded,
And last he said; “Farewell fair friend, thou hast my blessing”,
And sighing sadly his life laid down.

Ælfwine beheld the battered body,
Of the friend who had saved through such sacrifice,
He bowed his head, stepping silently,
He covered the corpse in the custom of his kin.

Though his grief was great Ælfwine was glad
That from such horror he had escaped.
Retrieving his sword he wound his way,
Through many halls up to the top-most chamber.

There in the center sat a simple mirror,
Before its gleaming glass Ælfwine stood,
And beheld his brittle mortal body,
Reflected fully, his weakness revealed.

Then a crack from side to side the mirror rent,
And quivering smashed with silver shards strewn all about.
There from the ruined mirror’s midst a fire sprung,
Flames flaring high and forming, with raging roar, a dreadful demon!

But crying out with rage renewed,
Sword in hand, Ælfwine sprung,
With biting blows and savage strokes,
His sword shone circling all about him.

And though recalled by the wielder’s rigour,
A blinding light blazed forth, from the blade,
And the might of Fionn’s fighting fervour,
Filled Ælfwine, as faerie hero he fought.

In spite of this, the demon’s dreadful might,
Haled from the very halls of hell,
With fiendish fury flaring fought.
Grim indeed was that great combat!

Now the hellish creature held the mastery,
Now Ælfwine with valiant might:
Each with grave wounds wounded other,
Long the brutal battle lasted.

Finally, though almost finished himself
And spent in strength, Ælfwine struck
The death blow, dooming the devilish creature
To banishment, back to it’s burning abode.

The mirror’s flame withered and went,
And in the empty space a small stone lay.
Then as the gem was in his grasp,
A gloomy darkness gathered about.

From its midst appeared the sorcerer,
And his wrath was wondrous to behold,
His hate-filled glare at Ælfwine fixed,
Though not without a little fear.

“I should have considered thee with greater care,
And slain thee surely when the chance was there.
Now thou hast banished my summoned servant
By some trickery, thou skulking scoundrel!

But know this: thy efforts are naught,
For though in thy hand my power thou holdest,
By one means only canst thou destroy me,
And that is truly beyond thy knowledge.

The only injury thou canst inflict on me
Is banishment, and thence I shall return,
Mightier still and ever stronger.
Be sure that I will ever seek my revenge.”

But within Ælfwine a voice awoke,
Which he knew not and said he thus:
“For all the ruin thou hast wrought,
The destruction and death thou hast wrongfully dealt,

Thy cruel crimes condemn thee, wizard.
Just would I be to slay thee thus,
But in spite of the hideous hurt thou hast caused,
I grant thee mercy, full and final!”

And in so doing he destroyed the spell,
That bound the soul within the stone.
Realizing his foolishness and folly,
Nehemath found his final end.

Crying in anguish, his power crumbled,
And his great and hideous form was humbled,
With a sigh his wanton spirit withered,
And formless fled in fear and loathing.

Thus Ælfwine’s quest had been completed,
The sorcerer’s servant’s quailing quivered,
And were banished back to whence they came,
Since their master’s power was no more.

His errand over, Ælfwine now sought a ship,
For his own had dismally been destroyed.
He came across a sea-skiff keening,
And thus sailed back to Tir Nan Og,

Whence from the faerie shore they saw,
A sail appear on the far horizon.
Ælfwine stepped once more on faerie sand,
And found Finvarra with his court about him.

With joy and jubilation they welcomed him,
And stepping forth Finvarra said,
“Truly thy quest has been accomplished,
And ever thou hast earned our thanks.”

What rich reward is right for thee?
For naught have I of worth at hand.
Yet perhaps a reward thou hast already,
Though not yet thou knowest what it may be.

For wielding that weapons against the enemy,
A power thou evoked even as thou fought,
The spirit of faerie realm hath filled thee,
And it is plain to me it remaineth still.

So mortal man thou art no more,
But one of Faerie, of our fair folk,
And joy unbounded overcame Ælfwine,
For new hope of life and happiness filled him.

And so by great and marvelous deeds,
Ælfwine alone of mortals escaped,
The sorrows and circles of mortal men,
In faerie to live his lasting life. 

Rested he long from his lengthy deeds
And felt he would face no new adventures –
Until one day, walking on the western shore
He met a maid of bright beauty blazing.


 

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