Arthurian and Grail Poetry

The Death Of Horsa
By John Lesslie Hall

Six-Winters' time had the sweet, wavy-haired,
Curly-locked queen of Kent-land and Albion
Delighted her lord, lived with decorum
As wife of his bosom. War-mooded men, then,
Hot-hearted Kentmen, harassed the spirit
Of Rowena the winsome, well-lovèd, far-famed
Queen of the Kentmen; cruelly vexed her,
Said she had marred the metal and valor
Of the king of the Kentishmen; counselling Vortigern,
Urged that the excellent earls of the mainland,
Hengist and Horsa and henchmen unnumbered,
Be driven away to their wild, desolate
Dens o'er the ocean. Earls of the Kentmen,
Thanemen of Albion, angrily said
That the men of the Saxons minded to seize the
Whole of Albion, to own and to hold it
Forever and ever. Oft, liegemen-thanes
Vassals of Vortigern, with vehemence cried:
"The Scots and the Picts, scathers and foemen
Loathsome, horrible, are less to be dreaded
Than the artful, eager, ever-encroaching
Sons of the Saxons, the savage, grasping
Henchmen of Hengist, who hither came over
As friends and defenders, but foully have proved them
Treacherous traitors." They taunted the king,
Said that he loved the lady Rowena's
Outlandish kin, caring but little
For folk of his own. Early anon, then,
They chose as the king of Kent-land and Albion
The atheling Vortimer, Vortigern's son,
Wolf of the Kentmen. Wild, fierce-mooded,
Hot-hearted, cruel, the homes of the Anglians
He ruthlessly ravaged, rashing and lashing
The liegemen of Hengist, harried them fiercely,
Hacking, hewing them, hotly pursuing them,
Proudest of princes: at the play of the edges,
The meeting of spears, he spared few of them,
Doughtiest, mightiest man of that kindred,
Folk-leader fearless. Four great battles
He fought with the foreigners; would fain drive them from
Albion's isle and east o'er the flood-deeps,
Back to the lands they had left on the mainland,
O'er the home of the whale. Horsa was doomed, then,
Though brave in the battle, brother of Hengist;
He had lived the life-days' limit that Wyrd,
Spinster of fate, had spun for that hero,
Must bow in the battle. Bloody the field was,
Of fights fiercest: the flower of warriors
Fighting fell foremost. On the field of Aylesford,
Was bitterly fought the fiercest of hand-fights
The earlmen of Vortimer ever did wage with
Athelings of Anglia: then exulted the raven;
That battle-grim bird was blither on that day
Than ever before. The eagle was gladder,
The wolf merrier than for many a summer:
On the slain seized they, supping, lapping
The blood of the brave, biting, mouthing
The flesh of the fallen. The field of Aylesford
Reeked with the blood of the best of the heroes,
A river of red; ruthless, woful
And sudden the slaughter of sons of athelings,
Bitter the battle. Braver heroes,
Worthier war-smiths, ne'er went under helmet
The foeman to face. Far-famed Hengist
And Horsa his brother were hot for the battle,
Woden's great-grandsons were greedy of slaughter,
Mighty, raging, were racing and chasing
Earlmen of Albion; eager for conflict,
The excellent athelings would unaided, single
On the field find then a folk-lord of Albion,
Would gash him and slash him, slit him in slivers,
And call to the raven to come to the revel
With the wolf of the forest. Fierce-mooded Horsa,
Wihtgils's son, soon grappled with
The brave Catigern, brother of Vortimer,
Prince of the Kentmen. Proudly Horsa, then,
Sought for the struggle, said defiantly
Lifting his linden-shield: "I am liegeman-kinsman
Of Hengist the hero; Horsa my name is,
As well thou wottest. Would I might spare thee
The swipe of my sword as I swing it in battle:
For Rowena's dear sake I'd willingly grant thee
Thy life-joys longer." Loudly Catigern,
His shield shaking, shouted to Horsa:
"I ask thee no odds; on to the battle,
Horsa the Saxon. The sons of Vortigern
Have sworn by their sword-blades to sleep not, slumber not,
Till the tricky, treacherous troopers of Hengist
Are out on the ocean and off to their far-away
Cliffs and caverns. Come now and let me
Hurl thee to hellward." Horsa stepped forward,
The angry, earnest earl of the Anglians
Brooked no delay: bitter, implacable,
Frantic his mood was. Forward he stepped, then,
Hot 'neath his helmet. High o'er his visor
The boar-image glistened; the good, trusty
Beast of the battle bravely guarded the
Head of the hero. His harness did sparkle,
His bright-shining battle-sark brilliantly glittered and
Shone with its sheen. From its sheath forth, then,
Flashed Felalaf1, faithful, dauntless
Brand of the hero, hankered for battle,
Was eager to bite through the bone of the hateful
Foeman of Horsa, freely would drink of
The blood of the Welshman. Brightly glimmered he,
Old, iron-made heirloom and jewel
Of Wihtgils's son, sword of the ancients,
Handwork of giants. The hot-mooded, fire-breathing
Horsa and Catigern clashed in the battle,
Lashing and slashing with sword-blades that rattled;
Fierce was their fury. Fire, then, glimmered,
Sword-sparks bright brilliantly shimmered;
Felalaf's1 eye flashed in his wrath, then,
Brave-hearted battle-sword. Bitterly fought the two
High-hearted heroes; I have heard never of
Earls angrier, eagerer to grapple
Each other in battle, uncle and stepson
Of lady Rowena: woe was her spirit,
Laughed she but little, when she learned eftsoones
Of that dreadful, direful, death-dealing struggle
'Twixt Saxon and Celt; herseemed that her heart would
Burst in her bosom. Bold-mooded Catigern
Was stout striking then, stood in the combat
More firmly far than his father had ever
Told him or taught him, turned not away
To flee from the foeman, foined with his war-blade
Eagerly, angrily. The excellent Horsa
Asked for no odds; his edges mighty were,
Keen were his cuts. Catigern had perished,
Liegeman of Vortimer, alone in that struggle,
Had not Wyrd the wise willed and determined
That both of the brave ones should bow in the battle,
Fall on the field: folk-troops and races
Bend to her bidding. The bold giants, then,
Together did grapple; gory the field was,
Red like a river. Rapidly whirled they
Blows on each other in onset of battle till
The brand of each earlman bit through his foeman's
Armor of iron and in to his bone-house
Dived down deeply, drank of his life-stream,
Blood-thirsty battle-blade. Both the good heroes
Fell to the earth, then; not either could longer
Live in his life-joys, must lie prone there
Shorn of his war-strength, sharing no more
The hall-glee of heroes, hearing no longer
The song of the singer as he sang, chanted
Of earlmen of old: off on their journey
Went the two warriors. Woful of mood,
Sad, heart-weary, was Hengist the atheling,
When he learned that his brother was biting the dust and
Lifeless was lying low on the battle-field,
Parted from earth-joys. The prince of the Anglians
Was woful of spirit, wide-famous leader:
He bent o'er his brother's bloody, lifeless
Soul-house forsaken, said mournfully
In rhythmical measures, lamenting and praising:
"Dead is Horsa, my dear-lovèd brother,
Eminent atheling. Not e'er under heaven
Was hero more hardy. The hand is now lifeless
That erstwhile did aid me in all my adventures
Afar and anear. There was never faithfuler,
Loyaler liegeman, liefest of comrades,
True-hearted counsellor, trusty adviser,
Shoulder-companion. We played in our boyhood
As fond-loving brothers in the far-away, sea-girdled
Land of our fathers. Alas! no more
Shall the hero behold it. Let henchmen lovingly
Lift the brave earl up from his slaughter-bed:
Let the bier be brought, and bear him from henceward
Off to his burning; let brave ones attend him
Hence to Valhalla. Hither summon ye
Harfeax2 the gleeman to rehearse the all-glorious
Deeds of the dead." 'T was done as he bade them;
And early thereafter the excellent minstrel,
The singer of Hengist, sought his dear liegelord,
Saw him then sadly sobbing, groaning,
Mourning and moaning, lamentingly bewailing
The fall of his famous, fond-lovèd brother,
Hengist for Horsa. His heart bitterly
Ached as he looked at the belovèd, faithful
Hero and leader, as he lay so helpless,
Lying so lifeless, loosened from earth-joys,
Reft of his war-strength: I wot he had rarely
So slept like a sluggard. Sad-hearted, mournful
Was the thaneman-harper; he thought tenderly
Of far-away fatherland, how a fair, beautiful
Boy in the borough was brave, yet gentle,
Meek and yet manly. Mourned he for Horsa,
Well-lovèd warrior. The woe-mooded scop3,
Harfeax2, the heart-weary harper and minstrel,
Wakened the chords, calling forth music
Sad yet triumphant, would sing the story
Of Horsa and his glory. The good old minstrel
Touched then his strings with tremulous, quivering
Fingers that faltered, fondly lamenting:
"Low lies Horsa, belovèd, dauntless
Offspring of Wihtgils, my excellent, well-lovèd
Liegelord of yore. I yet can remember
Those long-gone days in the land of my fathers
And home of great heroes. Happy, joyous
Were Wihtgils's earlmen; the ale-building mighty
Was thronged with thanemen; thousands of jewels
Glistened and glittered. Good was the liegelord,
Niggardly never. It is known of all races
How bairns of his body were born in his manor,
Hengist and Horsa, handsome, belovèd,
Beautiful boys. Blessèd be Odin
That I was ever an honored and welcome
Guest in that gift-hall! Goodly, noble,
The beautiful bairns burst into manhood
Soon on my sight; I saw them before me,
A pair of great princes. I am pained, woe-stricken
That one of them lieth lifeless, unwarlike,
Down in the dust, dead in his armor,
Shorn of his hand-strength. A handsome, fair-haired,
Beautiful boy was the brave young Horsa,
Stately of stature, straight as an ash-spear,
Manly of mien, yet meek in his spirit,
Tender and true. He turned unto warfare
Early in youth; his excellent father
Let his brave earlmen take him off on the seas
To the northward and southward. None was hardier,
More dauntless, intrepid. The two great brothers
Filled with their fame the fjörds and the rivers
And oceans and seas; and all of the northland
Rang with their deeds, and the deeps did resound
With the praise of their prowess. Prone in the dust now
The dear one is lying: dead is Horsa,
Our fond-lovèd friend-lord: Fate hath offsnatched him,
Wyrd is supreme. I ween, friends will soon
Build him a barrow broad, uptowering,
High under heaven, as heroes and leaders
Are wont to enjoy. Well merits he
That forever and ever honor be paid him
'Mid all the races that ocean encircleth
As he kisseth the cliffs: come, hero-thanes,
Lift the dear liegelord." The lay then was ended,
Sad yet triumphant song of the gleeman,
Mood-weary minstrel. Men of the Anglians
Brought, then, the bier, bare the dear hero,
Atheling of earlmen, off from the field
Where low he was lying. They looked on him tenderly
(Sad were their spirits); he saw not the good ones,
Gave them no answer to all they were saying
Of him so kindly. They quickly lifted him,
And laid him away where the wolf and the raven
And the dewy-winged eagle not ever might touch him,
Where the birds of the battle and beasts of the carnage
Might never annoy him, noble, distinguished
Earlman, atheling. The excellent hero
Must climb on the pyre to the clutch of the fire,
Must hence to Valhalla. Henchmen-kinsmen
Of the battle-famed brothers would burn the good hero,
Give to the flame the famed, eminent
Kinsman of Hengist; high on his pyre
Would aloft lift then their liegelord-chieftain,
The man so lamented. Many good earlmen
Fetched for the fire fagots and twigs
And logs of the largest, laid them together
High 'neath the welkin: the wood-heap was early
Built for the burning. There were brought thitherward,
On the heap hung then, helmets, byrnies,
Arms and armor and all such war-gear
As their lord when alive delighted to gaze on,
Or bear to the battle. Beautiful gems,
Of rings richest and rarest of treasures,
Were flung on the fire: the flame devoured them,
Ate them greedily, gulping, swallowing them,
Hungriest of heroes. Henchmen-kinsmen
Of Wihtgils's bairns brought his good charger,
The horse of the hero: the high-bred steed
Was led to the pyre and laid thereon then
To burn with the brave one. Bright were his trappings,
Gleaming, golden; the gear of the war-horse
Was shining, sheen, would shame not his rider when
In the halls of Valhalla the hero all-mounted
Passed to his place in the palace of Odin.
Two well-lovèd kinsmen, Wiglaf and Guthmond,
Mindful of duty, mounted the fire
To go with the atheling off on his journey
To Valhalla on high: the horse he would ride on
(The kinsmen were comrades) when he came in his glory
To the heaven of heroes. Heart-weary thanes,
Wailing, disconsolate kinsmen and vassals
Of Hengist and Horsa, hymning their sorrows,
In mournful measures lamented their leader,
In rhythm and rime: "Red is the fire,
Bitter the bite of the blaze as it burneth,
And the flame as it fluttereth. Fare thee well, Horsa,
Leader of liegemen, belovèd, lamented
Earl of the Anglians. Honor attend thee
In Valhalla, the heaven of heroes and warriors
And all good athelings. Thy earlmen will ever
Remember thy mighty muscle and valor
And deeds of great daring. Dear-lovèd Horsa,
Ride thou in splendor the spacious, lofty
Halls of Valhalla. Here, soon will we
Build thee a barrow, a broad-fashioned, high-towering
Memory-mound, that men of all eras
Ever may honor the excellent name
And far-reaching fame of the faithful, dauntless
Liegelord and leader, belovèd, trusty
Brother of Hengist." The burning was over,
The flame flickered, flaring but little,
All in ashes the atheling Horsa
And battle-steed brave; burnt, molten, then,
Were treasures and gems. The troopers of Hengist
Delayed not long, liegemen bereavèd,
A-building the barrow; battle-thanes reared it
High under heaven on hill-top alofty
Nigh unto Aylesford. With earth and with rock
They sadly, proudly piled it heavenward,
Mournful, exultant, till upward there rose a
Memorial mound-hill, to mark and to honor
The passing of Horsa, prince of the vikings,
Who had laid down his life for liegemen and kinsmen.
They with flint faced it, that, firm on the summit,
It stout and strong might stand on the hill-top
For ever and aye. The excellent heroes
Wished then but little the waters of heaven,
Whether rippling in rain or rushing in rivers,
Should wash away ever the well-lovèd atheling's
Broad-stretching barrow: they built it so firmly,
With stones stayed it, to stand there forever
As a memory-mark to the man who had gladly
Laid down his life that his liegemen-kinsmen
Might have and might hold the homesteads and land-rights
The gods had given them. Goodly, lofty
The barrow uprose, ready to hold the
Atheling's dear ashes; up tow'rds the welkin
The hill-mound of heroes a-high towered then,
That farers from far-lands might fail not to know it
As Horsa the hero's high-rising, spacious
Memory-mound. A many of jewels
Bright and beautiful, bracelets, collars,
Brooches and rings, richest of treasures,
Were brought to the barrow. The bright-shining helm,
Armor of iron and all good weapons,
Swords and lances, that liegemen and heroes
Love in their life-days were laid in the mound-hill
With atheling Horsa's ashes and bones,
His troopers twain, and the trusty, faithful
Horse of the hero. Valhalla received them
Early thereafter: they entered proudly
The spacious and splendid expanses that span the
Halls of Valhalla. Then the heart-wretched troopers,
Mourning shield-bearers, mounted their steeds
And rode round the broad-stretching barrow of Horsa
Sadly, slowly; singing his praises
Mournfully in measure; remembering with pleasure
His deeds of daring, his dauntless, fearless,
Adventuresome valor; vowing and declaring
That, through all the ages, forever and ever,
Their children's children should cherish and honor
His name and fame, never forgetting
How Horsa with Hengist hither had led them
To the isle of Albion, ever-belovèd,
Peerless and precious pearl of the ocean;
How, to win for his folk this fairest of places,
He sought and fought the fiercest and bravest
Of all men of Albion, and eagerly hastened
To lay down his life for land-folk and kindred.

1 Felalaf The first a in this word, in the original text, has a macron above it.
2 Harfeax The final a in this word, in the original text, has a macron above it.
3 scop The o in this word, in the original text, has a macron above it.