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Cold Falls the Night

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Listen. Long ages ago, the Northmen say, when the earth was first raised and its roots made firm, when the sun first shone on the wakening shoots, the victorious gods drove back the giants and trolls to the far regions. Then they raised a bulwark to protect this middle-earth, to keep back the creatures that dwell in the darkness with hunger for men’s blood. God defend us all from such fiends! Yet when hatred stirs in men’s hearts, when blood spills into the earth from the sharpened steel, then those fell creatures stir and awaken. They rise from the shadows, from secret lairs beneath the earth or from salt-sea caves, their eyes burning in the darkness, their fangs eager for men’s flesh.

See, there across the water is the island where the raiders landed, Northmen eager for plunder. There too is the stone causeway, now covered by the sullen grey waves; and so it was then, the bridge buried too deep in the flood for any to cross it until the tide went out. Here stood the men of Essex, Beorhtnoth’s folk, and there across the water were their enemy. Though they could not yet join battle as they wished, it was not too far for a shout or an arrow to speed from one side to the other. Before bright swords or spears could be put to use, some fell slain by the swift arrows. Their blood eddied in the salt deep, their bodies fell lifeless to earth. Then with raucous cries the ravens circled above the bright helms of the warriors, and in the darkness hidden things stirred.

That day’s battle was fiercely fought; there Beorhtnoth fell defending his land, there Beorhtwold spoke out with brave words, there many men were slain, Saxons and the seamen from the North. At last that day’s fighting came to an end; as victors the Vikings went to their ships. Night fell over that field, held now only by the dead. Dark clouds hid the stars. From the sea and from the dark forest they came, fiends in troll-shape and hell-walkers, and from beneath the earth of unhallowed graves.

Where fell shapes slipped through the forest, on a branch there perched a proud-eyed hawk. Restlessly, she ruffled her feathers. She was unaccustomed to the dark of the wood, the rustling breezes and nightly noises. She missed her master’s voice and hand, he who sent her to hunt through the open sky. When she returned, faithful, he fed her tidbits and praised her prowess. But his well-known voice never again would call her, rejoicing, to dive from the airy height. When that young warrior, Offa’s kinsman, saw that Beorhtnoth’s mind was bent on battle, he loosed the beloved hawk from his hand, sent her away to the shadow of the wood’s branches. Grasping his spear, with bold spirit he stood firm in his place and scorned to flee. But his dear hawk lived wildling in the wood for the rest of her days and hunted alone, away from men’s sight. Since her master was slain, she would have no other.

High on her branch, the hawk was above the fiends’ grasp. Yet now they feasted their fill, sinking their teeth into the dead who lay on the earth, devouring their flesh and gnawing their cracked bones. Some of the bodies they tore apart where they were, some they dragged away to their caves, to make their meal on at leisure—a horrible feast! And since they loved better to sink their fangs in still-warm flesh and living blood, they listened closely for any step, any heartbeat in that place of the dead.

Two servants of Beorhtnoth came to that battlefield, Tídwald and Torhthelm; they were sent by the monks of Ely, who waited at Maldon for Beorhtnoth’s body, to give him seemly burial with prayers. They became separated in the darkness.

Then one of the hell-fiends caught Totta’s scent; it thought to tear him apart, eagerly drink the hot flowing blood from his veins. Totta turned, staring into the troll-fiend’s burning eyes. Witch-sighted he was, and could perceive what to others were only night-shades and shadows. Cold fear seized him, but he readied himself to fight. No coward was Totta, but not yet tried in battle. In time to come he would have his fill and more of fighting, when Æthelred the king, ill-counseled, could not keep the foe from his shores. Totta boldly gripped his knife in his hand, but no match was he for such an enemy. Then would he surely have met his death among the dead on that battlefield, if help had not come to him.

Though their spirits were bound for the bright regions, two yet lingered by their lord’s side: Ælfnoth and Wulfmær, Wulfstan’s son. When warlike Beorhtnoth was wounded in the battle, when his gold-hilted sword fell from his hand, these two it was who stood beside him and shielded him while their strength lasted. Struck down at last in the press of their foes, they fell together by their fallen lord. As in life they had always been dear companions, so now they kept the death-watch together, standing guard lest any ill thing should seek to defile their lord where he lay. No fiend from hell should feed on his body or harrow the heart that once beat so proudly. More, young Wulfmær vowed in his heart that the sword which knew his master’s hand should never be taken by any foe; no Dane should show it as a prize of war, or boast that he held Beorhtnoth’s famed blade.

Standing good watch, he was aware when the voices of Beorhtnoth’s servants sounded in the dark. They moved hesitantly, stumbling over the rough ground; they could not easily find their way in the night among so many dead. Then the boy grew impatient and darted to Totta’s side, thinking to bring him more quickly to the place where his lord lay.

He found Totta threatened by the hell-fiend. Wulfmær held in his ghostly hand the ghost-shape of his good spear, a stout shaft with a bitter point. Only such a weapon could harm the creature; its hide was too thick to be pierced by any sword or spear of man’s making. But the boy’s bright spirit shone in his spear-point, and the hell-fiend reluctantly drew back. It bared its fangs and snarled, retreating slowly. As a boar hemmed about by hounds and men’s weapons retreats unwillingly, step by step, tossing his head and threatening with his tusks, so that fiend slowly drew back and vanished from sight in the darkness.

Totta stood uncertain, asking himself if he had truly seen such a monster, or if his mind made imaginary hell-shapes to frighten him in that gruesome place. Then Wulfmær wished to complete his work, to carry out his task to the end and guide the two to Beorhtnoth. Though his voice had not yet a man’s deepness, that day he shouted shrill across the battlefield, defying the foe in the deadly fight. His voice that carried clearly while he was a living man, now was it only a whisper, and his strong hand that wielded the spear so well was ghostly, without substance. He sought to grasp Totta’s arm and lead him onward, but Totta felt only a light breeze pluck at his sleeve. He shivered and knew not why. Yet something he sensed, and let Wulfmær lead him to find his companion. They searched together, Totta and Tída, where the heaps of slain lay thickest. There they found their fallen master. Then Tída bowed his head and was silent; but Totta poured out his sorrow in a lament over his lord, where he lay lifeless on the hard ground. Hearing his grief, Wulfmær was content and grudged not that he should lift the gold-hilted sword, to bear it away with his lord’s body.

With toil Tídwald and Totta carried their master by where the Blackwater ran below them; they heard the river rushing in the darkness. They heaved his huge limbs into the cart. With their sorrowful burden, they made for Maldon where the monks were waiting. Wulfmær and Ælfnoth walked beside the wagon, one on each side, to left and right. Watchful, they guarded against any danger that might menace the body of their dear lord.

Dark was that night and eerie. The ghosts of so many slain men wailed in the dark with cries like owls’ voices, flitting and fluttering there like a white owl’s wings. As he walked, Ælfnoth sang a lament for his fallen lord and the woe that would come to their land. He could see the waves of war that would beat against Britain, the Danes held back by a fragile fence of gold; much sorrow would come to England’s folk in that time. And the voices of the dead joined with his. Drowsing, Totta heard them in dreams and murmured snatches of their song, words of foreboding: The world withers and the wind rises; the candles are quenched. Cold falls the night. So they passed onward, the living and the dead.

At Maldon, the monks met them, greeting Tídwald and Torhthelm with their sad burden. That morning, Beorhtnoth rode forth with his hearth-guard about him, byrnie-clad warriors with bristling spears; much different those who followed his body in the night with pious prayer and held their lanterns to guide the creaking cart onward to Ely.

There Tídwald and Totta lifted their lord from the cart and gave him over to the good abbot. They were glad to go warm their bones from the chill, beside the fire. Ælfnoth and Wulfmær saw it done, themselves unseen. They were content, their task accomplished. Then side by side they went to seek their lord, going fearlessly beyond the bounds of this earth. In the abbey the monks mourned over Beorhtnoth’s body, with sorrow singing their prayers for his soul: “Dirige, Domine, in conspectu tuo viam meam. Direct, O Lord, my way in thy sight.”