Hereward, the Last of the English (Hereward the Wake), by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 37.

How Hereward Lost Sword Brain-biter.

“On account of which,” says the chronicler, “many troubles came to Hereward: because Torfrida was most wise, and of great counsel in need. For afterwards, as he himself confessed, things went not so well with him as they did in her time.”

And the first thing that went ill was this. He was riding through the Bruneswald, and behind him Geri, Wenoch, and Matelgar, these three. And there met him in an open glade a knight, the biggest man he had ever seen, on the biggest horse, and five knights behind him. He was an Englishman, and not a Frenchman, by his dress; and Hereward spoke courteously enough to him. But who he was, and what his business was in the Bruneswald, Hereward thought that he had a right to ask.

“Tell me who thou art, who askest, before I tell thee who I am who am asked, riding here on common land,” quoth the knight, surlily enough.

“I am Hereward, without whose leave no man has ridden the Bruneswald for many a day.”

“And I am Letwold the Englishman, who rides whither he will in merry England, without care for any Frenchman upon earth.”

“Frenchman? Why callest thou me Frenchman, man? I am Hereward.”

“Then thou art, if tales be true, as French as Ivo Taillebois. I hear that thou hast left thy true lady, like a fool and a churl, and goest to London, or Winchester, or the nether pit — I care not which — to make thy peace with the Mamzer.”

The man was a surly brute: but what he said was so true, that Hereward’s wrath arose. He had promised Torfrida many a time, never to quarrel with an Englishman, but to endure all things. Now, out of very spite to Torfrida’s counsel, because it was Torfrida’s, and he had promised to obey it, he took up the quarrel.

“If I am a fool and a churl, thou art a greater fool, to provoke thine own death; and a greater —”

“Spare your breath,” said the big man, “and let me try Hereward, as I have many another.”

Whereon they dropped their lance-points, and rode at each other like two mad bulls. And, by the contagion of folly common in the middle age, at each other rode Hereward’s three knights and Letwold’s five. The two leaders found themselves both rolling on the ground; jumped up, drew their swords, and hewed away at each other. Geri unhorsed his man at the first charge, and left him stunned. Then he turned on another, and did the same by him. Wenoch and Matelgar each upset their man. The fifth of Letwold’s knights threw up his lance-point, not liking his new company. Geri and the other two rode in on the two chiefs, who were fighting hard, each under shield.

“Stand back!” roared Hereward, “and give the knight fair play! When did any one of us want a man to help him? Kill or die single, has been our rule, and shall be.”

They threw up their lance-points, and stood round to see that great fight. Letwold’s knight rode in among them, and stood likewise; and friend and foe looked on, as they might at a pair of game-cocks.

Hereward had, to his own surprise and that of his fellows, met his match. The sparks flew, the iron clanged; but so heavy were the stranger’s strokes, that Hereward reeled again and again. So sure was the guard of his shield, that Hereward could not wound him, hit where he would. At last he dealt a furious blow on the stranger’s head.

“If that does not bring your master down!” quoth Geri. “By — Brain-biter is gone!”

It was too true. Sword Brain-biter’s end was come. The Ogre’s magic blade had snapt off short by the handle.

“Your master is a true Englishman, by the hardness of his brains,” quoth Wenoch, as the stranger, reeling for a moment, lifted up his head, and stared at Hereward in the face, doubtful what to do.

“Will you yield, or fight on?” cried he.

“Yield?” shouted Hereward, rushing upon him, as a mastiff might on a lion, and striking at his helm, though shorter than him by a head and shoulders, such swift and terrible blows with the broken hilt, as staggered the tall stranger.

“What are you at, forgetting what you have at your side?” roared Geri.

Hereward sprang back. He had, as was his custom, a second sword on his right thigh.

“I forget everything now,” said he to himself angrily.

And that was too true. But he drew the second sword, and sprang at his man once more.

The stranger tried, according to the chronicler, who probably had it from one of the three by-standers, a blow which has cost many a brave man his life. He struck right down on Hereward’s head. Hereward raised his shield, warding the stroke, and threw in that coup de jarret, which there is no guarding, after the downright blow has been given. The stranger dropped upon his wounded knee.

“Yield,” cried Hereward in his turn.

“That is not my fashion.” And the stranger fought on, upon his stumps, like Witherington in Chevy Chase.

Hereward, mad with the sight of blood, struck at him four or five times. The stranger’s shield was so quick that he could not hit him, even on his knee. He held his hand, and drew back, looking at his new rival.

“What the murrain are we two fighting about?” said he at last.

“I know not; neither care,” said the other, with a grim chuckle. “But if any man will fight me, him I fight, ever since I had beard to my chin.”

“Thou art the best man that ever I faced.”

“That is like enough.”

“What wilt thou take, if I give thee thy life?”

“My way on which I was going. For I turn back for no man alive on land.”

“Then thou hast not had enough of me?”

“Not by another hour.”

“Thou must be born of fiend, and not of man.”

“Very like. It is a wise son knows his own father.”

Hereward burst out laughing.

“Would to heaven I had had thee for my man this three years since.”

“Perhaps I would not have been thy man.”

“Why not?”

“Because I have been my own man ever since I was born, and am well content with myself for my master.”

“Shall I bind up thy leg?” asked Hereward, having no more to say, and not wishing to kill the man.

“No. It will grow again, like a crab’s claw.”

“Thou art a fiend.” And Hereward turned away, sulky, and half afraid.

“Very like. No man knows what a devil he is, till he tries.”

“What dost mean?” and Hereward turned angrily back.

“Fiends we are all, till God’s grace comes.”

“Little grace has come to thee yet, by thy ungracious tongue.”

“Rough to men, may be gracious to women.”

“What hast thou to do with women’?” asked Hereward, fiercely.

“I have a wife, and I love her.”

“Thou art not like to get back to her today.”

“I fear not, with this paltry scratch. I had looked for a cut from thee, would have saved me all fighting henceforth.”

“What dost mean?” asked Hereward, with an oath.

“That my wife is in heaven, and I would needs follow her.”

Hereward got on his horse, and rode away. Never could he find out who that Sir Letwold was, or how he came into the Bruneswald. All he knew was, that he never had had such a fight since he wore beard; and that he had lost sword Brainbiter: from which his evil conscience augured that his luck had turned, and that he should lose many things beside.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:56