The Tale of the Three Burdens 

by Hector of the Black Height

Not so long ago, when the land was as old as old and the wisdom of the North whispered in the wind, the Prince of Ealdormere gathered his warriors beneath the summer shade of the great maple by the Inland Sea. He said, "Our King commands and we shall obey, and the time has come to cross the Inland Sea yet again". The boats were waiting and the women cried but a little as the warriors of the Northlands once more did their duty and went on campaign.

As any but the young and the foolish know, in any battle there must be a loser (though sometimes victory escapes all). So it was that day, and the King of the Middle found his line swept away by a tide of foes. In such a defeat our Prince and his Northmen were pushed aside by the ebb and flow of battle and stranded in a copse atop a hill, where they waited for an onslaught that did not come, even as the night fell.

By their little fires the warriors of the North bound their wounds and debated the options that lay open to them. Some saw their plan as plain as the dawn to come; they would form their shield-wall in the morning, unfurl the scarlet banner of Ealdormere in the sunlight, march down from the hill-top and offer battle to all the foes there assembled. The Prince heard this, and said nothing.

Others saw another plan. They looked down from the copse and saw the night fires blazing in the foe's camp. They knew the foe was as tired as they, and would be unprepared for defence. Now was the time, they argued, for a swift attack into the heart of the enemy's camp. They would be able to fight their way to the pavilion of the victorious King and draw a blood-price worthy of the day's disappointment. After that, several said, one field is as good as another for falling. The Prince heard this, and said nothing.

The two factions argued quietly but fiercely, and the copse hummed with hushed but harsh words. Finally the tired survivors ran out of arguments and looked to their Prince for direction. The Prince stood, his banner propped against the tree behind him and the hawk-sword Gwailor in his tired hand. He looked at the warriors assembled around him, and beckoned to his gallant squire and faithful chamberlain.

"We must prepare," said the Prince, "for we shall be moving shortly." The dawn was still hours away, and those who espoused a night attack seemed well pleased. To his chamberlain and squire the Prince muttered a few words, and with new burdens they slipped into the darkness. The warriors of the North gathered their arms and armour and kicked dirt over embers. All then assembled in a circle, for their Prince beckoned.

"Hear me well," the Prince began, "for once we begin there can be no stopping and no questions. Each Knight and overlord must see to his own men, each Baron to the warriors of his lands, and all must follow me carefully for if you lose sight of me we will not find each other thereafter." At his word of command each man rubbed earth and ashes across armour and blades. In the darkness their scarlet livery seemed black, and, as ordered, men bound their armour with rags and scraps to keep lames from clanking together. Finally all was ready and the Prince beckoned to his squire and chamberlain. They came to his side, and the army of the North marched into the darkness.

Down from the copse they marched in silence, through deep brush and then into gullies and draws. As cautioned, all the warriors kept sight of their Prince before them in the gloom and none became lost. The path turned and meandered, but the Prince's stride was long and determined. Finally the first blue rays of dawn were seen and the warriors were able to look around them.

The warriors who had advocated a night attack were disappointed, for they were not within the foe's encampment. The others were confused, for as they climbed to the hill-crest before them they saw only an empty field, not the tents of the enemy awaiting a challenge. The Prince turned and addressed his men.

"Noble friends, we have borne two grievous burdens since last we saw the sun rise. We stood in the line as dutiful warriors facing a mighty foe, and we then were swept aside and forced to watch in defeat, as others fought and fell. You offered me your swords again last night, that we might win revenge or glory." The Prince motioned to his squire and his chamberlain, who each opened their cloaks. Beneath the squire's cloak all could see the mighty sword Gwailor in its sheath, and beneath his cloak the chamberlain carried the scarlet banner of Ealdormere, furled and tied.

"The sword is a heavy burden, and defeat is heavier still. I ask you to know a third burden, that of the Coronet. Revenge is sweet and glory is sweeter, but they are selfish prizes. At my bidding we now march to the sea and our ships, to sail home. We will bring less booty than victors, less glory than if we formed the shield-ring and fell back to back. Yet if we do not return, who will gather the crops and plant next Spring? Who will hold the land and guard our kin? My faithful men bear my sword and my banner away from battle, as I did command them to do. As they obey, so do I ask you to obey; as you did follow me into battle, I ask you follow me away from it. I charge each of you to bear home your arms, that I may bid you draw them again. I charge you to bear home living names, that I may call you forth once more. I charge you to bear home proud hearts, heavy though they may be, that your sons may learn from you for another year and make the North stronger for that knowledge." Some made to protest, but the Prince checked them with a cold eye and not a word was spoken. The Prince turned away and again stepped off, heading North for home, and without a word his warriors followed.

The column marched toward the Inland Sea, away from a battle that could not be won, and not a man turned back toward the foe. Axes and shields were heavy and tired backs ached under armour's weight, yet none complained. Before the army of the North marched their Prince, bearing on his brows the greatest burden of all. No skald would sing lays of that grim march but no man there present would forget the lesson a sunrise offered, nor the weight which none in the column could help bear, of their Prince's third and greatest burden.

First published in Equinox.

Copyright A. McLean 1995, 1998. All rights reserved.

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