From the author: Based on a Danish ballad that is part of the Orpheus family of tales, this is one of my favourites of the many ballads I read while working on the stories for the original collection.
A Brief Foreword ...
These forays into the art of the literary fairy tale were originally published by Thistledown Press in 1998 as The Serpent Bride and Other Stories From Medieval Danish Ballads. They were inspired by the ballad collections and translations of Axel Olrik, E.M. Smith-Dampier, and R.C. Alexander Prior, all of which ultimately owe their existence to the work of Svend Grundtvig. They’re quite different from my usual writing for adults: light, romantic, and influenced far more by Eleanor Farjeon than by Tolkien, Glen Cook, and C.J. Cherryh.
The song was a sad one, and sweet as the first sparrow-song of spring. It seemed to Thordis that she felt her heart breaking, listening to it, and she turned to leave the orchard.
An orchard in May-time, snow-drifted with perfumed blossom, was no place to encounter a lover one intended to refuse. But, oh, the music ...
William had arrived at the farmstead last fall, striding long and lanky through the gate as though nothing were further from his mind than the looming thunderstorm, that piled black clouds over the hills and grumbled warning of rain to come. One of the squires who had been her father's, and then hers and her sisters' and who now served her alone, had run to fetch her from the dairy, where she was engaged in making cheese. Calm and unsmiling, as Thordis had always been, then, she had come. She felt no desire for music or storytelling, but it would please her ladies and squires to hear something new, to turn their minds away from family tragedy, to lighten their hearts with singing.
Her heart had been broken a long time, she thought, before William came, with his crooked nose and his crooked grin and tangled brown hair hanging in his eyes. And his long strong fingers and his harp.
He had made her heart whole, that it might break again.
William had played in the hall that night, a tune that took the thunder and the rain splattering beyond the open door, and made them serve the music. And the squires and maids and labouring men had seen their bronze-haired lady lean forward to listen, grey eyes rapt, and she had smiled, Thordis who had not smiled since her last sister was taken, three months before, on what had been her wedding day.
William's song shifted, and told of coming winter, of wind howling and snow piling to the eaves, of birds huddled in the depths of pines, feathers puffed to hold the heat of their racing hearts, of bears sleeping in caves and the grey wolves trotting over the snow, seeking, seeking, the deer and the sheep. And then the rain came back into it. Not the heavy, sullen rain of autumn, but a wild, joyous skirl of rain, hammering the drifts to slush, swelling the streams and the rivers, stripping the earth to show its flesh of mud and flat grey grass. Green spread through the music, with birdsong. Grass thrust up into glowing sunlight and the buds burst to new leaf. Fox cubs rolled down a hill, chasing beetles, and the fields of grain dipped their waves under a warm summer's wind. Harvest, and the scent of apples, and the songs of the reaping and threshing. Then, thunder, and the rains came, and faded to the rain beyond the door.
No-one, it seemed, dared breathe for fear of breaking the spell. William grinned, and touched the harp again. His deep voice offered a carol, made it a question, and with a sigh, a shudder and a laugh, the folk of the castle stirred. They took hands, two, three, six, a dozen, and the dancing and caroling began, awkward in the hall, but joyous, as had not been heard all that summer. Thordis laughed and clapped her hands, and William, catching her bright eye of a sudden, faltered a moment in his song, and flushed red.
They had been so careful, after that. They walked together in the orchard on crackling leaves, they played chess on the firelit winter nights and rode to the hunt and talked of the wide world William had seen and his faraway English home. Always, there was music, the battered harp sweeter than the birds or running water. And if sometimes his arm had found itself around her waist as they walked in the twilight, or if she had leaned into that arm as if it had a right to be there, they had never spoken of it, not until the snow had melted and the world had greened and the orchard was pink and white with bloom, sweet with perfume and loud with singing birds.
Last night they had walked there, in the long rose dusk. William had taken her hand swift as a hawk stooping and raised it to his lips. "Beautiful Thordis," he said, "I have to leave. I will lose my taste for wandering, if I stay."
"Oh," she had said, and all at once her heart blazed up in joy, as she knew what he was saying, and crashed down again into sodden ash like a fire drowned.
"You could give me a reason to stay," said William, and he had smiled, confident. Trusting in her. The harp he always kept by him had whispered to itself, an arpeggio of apprehension.
"Oh William," she had said, clutching his hand. "I wish ... give me a day. Please. Just a day."
Fear. She couldn't do it. But she must. The necessity had loomed behind her, like the coming thunder the day he arrived, ever since she had looked into his eyes and seen her heart there. Fear, knowing that having given her heart she would have to break it. Selfishly, she hadn't considered, until last night in the orchard, that she would be breaking his too.
Now she had to tell him that she could not marry him.
William saw her turning back from the orchard, and abandoned his music to lope after her, the small, battered harp tucked under an arm.
"You asked me for a day," he said, and smiled, lopsided, but there was a wariness behind his hazel eyes, which had not been there yesterday evening. "Beautiful Thordis, has it been a day? May I have my answer?"
She nodded, afraid even to look at him, looking at his feet, instead, at the fine new boots her wore, her gift, and the golden dandelions bright in the grass between them.
He tilted her face up, and her heart leapt, as it had at the first brushed hand in the dance, the first twilit arm around the waist. And fell again. William took his hand away, backed away even, a step, as was more proper between a foreign harper of no kin and a landed knight's daughter.
"So," he said, and the spark she had seen kindled in his hazel eyes, the first time she had turned her hand to his touch and laced her fingers through his own, that spark was gone, and he was as unknown as when he first walked through her gate, the entertainer's mask. The harp sighed, wearily. Perhaps the wind ran over its strings.
"So, they have persuaded you against it, your people. I had not thought they would, but ... it is sense. I have utterly nothing to offer you, and you ..." He waved a hand that took in the fenced castle and village fields and the red gold at her throat. "In a few months we will both have forgotten it."
"William," said Thordis. "Oh William, no." She could not help the tears, two of them, that trembled and dropped, leaving a shining trace down either cheek. "No, William, don't think that. Never think that. Any woman should be proud, to call you her husband."
"And if any woman, why not Thordis?"
She shook her head. "If you knew, you would not want to wed me. So I will spare us both that, for love of you, and let you go, now, so that I may continue to care for my father's people as I promised him."
"Thordis," said William, and he caught a tear on the tip of one long finger. The spark was back in his eyes and the smile blossomed crookedly. "Beautiful Thordis, never give a bard a hint of a story; you will not be rid of him until he has heard it all and remade the ending to his own satisfaction. Tell me, as you love me and trust me."
And he sat down in the rich grass and pulled her to his side, where she fit, very nicely, hip to hip and her head over his heart.
"I forbade the people to speak of it, ever, else you would have heard stories before," Thordis said finally, and she reached out a hand and rubbed the scarred wood of his harp where it sat on the grass. The strings shivered, shining gold in the last arrow of sun. "There was a troll in the river, yonder, when my sister Thorunn and I were little girls, and Thora was just a baby. My father studied runes and carved them on the bridge and drove the troll away. But two years ago my father died. At the time Thora was betrothed to the knight who holds the next valley, and his cousin in the next valley but one was courting Thorunn. Thora and her knight were to be married in the fall ..."
They had not put mourning aside, not entirely, but they had not put off the wedding, either. Her father would not have wished it. There was a feast prepared, but no dancing. Sir Brand had ridden over with his squires and his cousin Hans, Thora had dressed in scarlet and gold, and gaily, they had all set out to ride to the little stone church across the river, where they would be married at the church door and hear a mass before returning to the feasting.
Thordis had ridden first, as befitted the head of the family, with two of her squires gallantly repressing the urge to sing, one on either side. Her bronze-chestnut mare, the colour of her hair, had pranced, snapping at blowing leaves, as they rode onto the stone bridge, the hooves ringing hollowly. Behind Thordis had ridden the bride and groom. Thora was shy and blushing, her pale-gold palfrey a shade lighter than her hair, and Sir Brand of the golden beard was likewise shy, smiling proud whenever he caught Thora's eye. Young, both of them. Thordis had smiled, looking back to see them. Handsome children they would have, and so would red-haired Thorunn, chattering like a starling to silent, worshipful Hans behind. Thordis looked forward to a crowd of nieces and nephews within a few years. She would have a few of them to foster, to care for her valley and its people after her, because she felt no urge towards love herself, and certainly had no desire to marry for any other cause. The years ahead looked good. Her father would be happy for them all.
Then she saw the runes her father had carved on the parapet. They were crumbling, eaten away as though sandstone a thousand years weathered. Illegible. And if the runes were gone, so was the power they held.
The troll was huge. It could have carried off a horse. It contented himself with the bride, dragging Thora from the saddle with algae-slimed claws digging into her waist. The muddy water soaked dark through her dress and she screamed and twisted and kicked as the troll squatted on the bridgerail. It scratched at the last of the runes with its free hand, grinning at Thordis with a mouth full of tusks.
"Foolish," it said, in a voice like an old boar given speech. "Foolish writings. Gone now. I back. Three sons. Three brides." And it laughed like a cauldron of pigs' turnips on the boil.
Brand drew his sword and struck valiantly, but the troll sneered and swung a back-handed blow that swept the young knight from the saddle. His horse squealed and bolted, and every man there drew sword or gripped cudgel and advanced. The troll gurgled laughter again and dove, and the river closed over Thora's shrieks.
They rode home, the men silent, the women weeping, except for Thordis who stared straight between the red mare's ears and heard nothing but Thora's last despairing cry.
Sir Brand lay senseless a week in Thordis' castle, and rode home after white and grim.
The priest from the little stone church blessed the bridge, but no-one expected it to have much effect; the priest could not quite bring himself to believe in trolls, they being an older order of belief in the north.
In the spring Brand's cousin, Sir Hans, came to ask Thordis to let him and Thorunn wed.
"I will not," Thordis said. "You heard the troll. Three sons, three brides. It has Thora, I will not give it Thorunn."
"But I have thought and thought and sought out the wise men in the town," said Hans. "And they tell me, if I shoe her horse with gold, the troll will not be able to touch her. Ask Thorunn. She is willing."
"Are you?" asked Thordis.
Thorunn nodded, speechless for once.
She could not deny her sister. Sir Hans spent the spring at the blacksmith's forge, learning his art. He hammered the shoes himself, of the purest gold, and made the nails, and trimmed the hooves of Thorunn's cream-coloured palfrey, and fitted the shoes, and nailed them on, and bent over the ends of the nails as the blacksmith did. Better Hans had let the smith do it, perhaps.
The bridal party rode out without song, and every man bore sword or spear in hand, except Brand, who carried his father's great battleaxe.
The horses snorted and laid their ears back, at the bridge.
"I go first," said Thordis, and touched heels to her mare, who skittered up the arch. Brand clattered after her, and sat his horse at the crest watching the water. In a crowd of armed squires, Hans leading her horse close to his own, Thorunn rode onto the bridge.
The cream-coloured palfrey stumbled on a rough stone and rolled his eyes in fear, and they all heard a golden nail chiming loose.
"Run!" cried Hans, and slapped the cream-coloured neck. The troll swung itself over the parapet and roared, and the horses went mad, spinning, kicking, racing for home, riders clinging as best they could or rolling on the bridge, scrambling from hooves. The troll caught Thorunn's bridle and swung the horse to a skittering, scrabbling halt, plucked her from the saddle and tucked her under its arm. It kicked Brand in the belly and his axe went flying into the river; it crashed a fist into Hans and knocked him flat; and it laughed its thick-boiling-cauldron laugh at Thordis, who fought her bronze mare into staying on the bridge.
"Three sons," it said. "Three brides. Now have two."
And Thorunn twisting under its arm stabbed it with a gold-hilted dagger.
The troll's blood was black and tarry as it spurted smoking over Thorunn's blue dress. The troll yelled horribly and shook her. The dagger went into the water after Brand's axe and Thorunn herself flopped limp as a kitten.
"One more," the troll said. A promise. And it dove off the bridge, holding Thorunn close.
The squires regained control over their horses and came back to the bridge. They carried Hans and Brand both to the castle, and put them to bed for a week. Then the cousins rode home, bruised and sick and grim.
Thordis settled in to manage her father's lands and believed she had no intention of ever marrying.
"... and then you came," she said. "I cannot be happy without you, William, but you see I cannot agree to marry, and so give the troll the last of my father's daughters."
The harp chimed indignation.
"No," said William. "I do not see. It seems to me quite the opposite. If you love me, and would dare to marry me in despite of my lack of lands or name, it should also be in despite of this troll and any claim it thinks it has."
Thordis sat up and looked at him, and saw that he was quite serious.
"But even Brand and his battleaxe were not enough to stand against the troll, William. It will take me, as it took my sisters, and then who will govern this valley? And William, it said ... think of my sisters. Once it has the three of us, we will be forced to wed its sons. I do not ... I cannot bear the thought ... to have such a thing touch me ..."
"Hush," said William. "Beautiful Thordis, hush." He cupped her face in his two long hands. "Do you love me, Thordis?"
She blinked at him, and saw again her heart in his hazel eyes.
"I do, William."
"Do you trust me, Thordis? That is harder, I know."
She bit her lip until she tasted blood, and let one sob escape.
"I do, William."
"Then love me, and trust me, and believe me. I will let no harm come to you, on this earth or beneath its waters. Will you ride with me to church, to be made my wife?"
Her voice was little more than a whisper, and it trembled as did her whole body, but she said, "I will, William."
"Beautiful Thordis," he said, and kissed her. The harp rang, a single clear note.
Her people thought she had gone mad. They had said it was a winter's love, that would fade away in spring when the harper left, and they were not happy, to be proved wrong. He was a good-hearted man, they granted, if homely, and he could play the birds off the trees and a teething baby to sleep, but he was foreign and had neither kin nor land nor wealth to recommend him. And though they might have forgiven all that, for the light in Thordis' eyes when she looked at him, there was the troll, and Thordis, when she gave orders to invite their neighbours Sir Brand and Sir Hans and to send word to the priest, was as pale as a woman arranging her own funeral.
William did not come into the hall that night, but sat in the orchard hugging his harp to him, eyes following the moon.
Praying, the ladies and squires said, and joined their prayers to his, but the old woman who kept the hens said she did not think it was any Christian saint he prayed to, not with that look in his eye and the moon such an old wild thing.
On the day of her wedding Thordis dressed in dark crimson and gold, and the saddleskirts of the red-bronze mare brushed the ground. William she mounted on a fine black warhorse that twitched an ear sweet-temperedly at an unfamiliar rider and walked softly. William was, he said, far more used to his own two feet.
"If you will be a knight of the land, you must learn to master a horse," Thordis said, gently pretending a lightness her heart did not feel, and she straightened the crimson cloak he wore.
"It's not the mastering, it's the staying on," he assured her with great solemnity, but his eyes laughed and the black horse shook his mane and seemed to share his humour.
William refused to wear a sword or carry a spear. "I go to wed a bride, not to steal one," he told Hans and Brand. The knights shook their heads grimly and rode before Thordis to the bridge, broad spear-heads glinting. But in a sack over his shoulder William carried his harp. "We will want music at the wedding," he said.
No-one said, if there is a wedding. They rode somber as a funeral procession or as an army on the march in enemy territory. When Thordis' mare's first foot rang on the stones of the bridge, the water of the river began to heave and bubble, and the troll scrambled up the under-curve of the arch and sat at the peak of the span, leering.
"Three sons," it said. "Three brides now."
Brand and Hans as one man set spurs to horse and rode at it, spears couched. The troll dropped below the parapet with a gleeful whoop, and the spears shattered on stone. It bounded up again, a swipe with one taloned paw, a swipe with the other. The two knights lay stretched on the cold bridge stone and their horses clattered away, running for the church.
William did nothing, and Thordis' eyes never left his as the troll curled one great paw around her waist and lifted her away. Trust me, she thought she saw in his eyes, and she bit her lip again and shut her own eyes tightly, that William might be the last thing she saw, as the troll dove and the dark waters closed over her head. Down and down and down.
The squires stared at William, and the ladies stared, and the men and women who held land of Thordis stared, and their eyes were all hard and accusing alike. William did not see them. He took his battered harp out of its sack and stroked its scarred wood as though it were Thordis' face, touched the plain bone pegs but did not adjust them, and brushed the strings lightly, once. The old woman who looked after the poultry nodded her head with satisfaction and said to her daughter, "You'll have seen that harp is never in need of tuning." But the daughter was looking her anger at William and did not hear.
Without a word spoken or a hand on the reins the black stallion walked on over the bridge and off the road to the soft green bank. He waded out until he stood in the gravelled shallows, facing into the shadow under the bridge, ears pricked. The red mare stood on the bank, head hanging, as though she had done something shameful in losing her mistress. No-one else followed.
Then William began to play.
His music described the river, bright and sparkling in the sunlight, running swift and guileless to the sea, and then a layer of sound the listeners on the bridge had thought they were unaware of grew, pushing up, putting the lie to the open innocence of the water, speaking of dark places, of deep holes and hidden currents and shadows in the water that moved with nothing to cast them. It spoke of crushing ice and grinding rock and the deadly, heavy weight of water, of the secrets that lie on the riverbottom, the swords and the skulls and the gashed helmets, the spines with rusting arrowheads lodged within them, the rings and the cups and jewels, the keels hairy with choking weed.
He found with his tune the darker places yet, the blackness under banks and between the layers of the earth's bones, where the water ran forgetting the sun, and in such a black cavern he found the troll and described it, the horror of its sudden appearance over the bridge, the flight of frightened horses and men. His music told of its ugliness, its cruelty, its greed, and it showed the listeners on the bridge the three sons of the troll, so like their parent. Into that began to weave a lighter song, a hint of thunder that mocked itself, the flutter of leaves in an orchard, the song of nesting birds, and Hans and Brand, picking themselves up off the stones, thought they heard for a moment the happy chatter of Thorunn and Thora's golden laugh. The music left the cave and passed into treacherous river water again, but the orchard leaves were with it still, and the troll's grasping heart.
Up towards the light the melody carried its themes, fighting the hidden currents like the silver salmon, twisting through them, turning their force to its own. The priest came down from the stone church, leading the bolted horses of the knights, and back over in the village a man who had said for months he lay on his death-bed climbed out and came hobbling in his long gown, an ancient dog beside him, to listen at the river's bank. A woman in a distant shepherd's hut, in struggling childbirth the midwife despaired of, sighed and gave up her twin sons to the light with a smile to welcome them, and the forest wolfpack came down from the hills and the shepherd's flock followed them, to listen.
And the river's surface heaved again and bubbled, and reluctant, dragging the weight of its bones, the troll came to the shore. It wallowed in the shallows, churning the clear water to mud, and whined. Thorunn and Thora it held close to its scaly breast with one massive arm; Thordis it still clutched as it had grabbed her, claws digging holes in her gown. Behind it, three scaly heads, smaller, broke the surface.
"Take bride," it said. "Take back. Let troll go."
"No," said William.
"Yes," said the troll. "Take bride, noble man. Take gold. Gift for bride. Much gold, fine red gold."
"No," said William.
"Yes," said the troll. "Noble, cruel man. Take brides, three brides. Troll keep river."
"No," said William, and the harp hissed the old cold anger of steel. "I will take my bride, and her sisters, and you and your sons will leave this land and these waters, and never return."
"Never?" the troll moaned. "Never? Ever? Never to come back to beautiful river? Nooo."
And the three troll sons all moaned in chorus, "Nooo."
"Yes," said William. "You will give me Thordis, and Thorunn and Thora, and you will leave and not come back, for ever and a day longer."
The harp sang of fire drying up the river, baking mud to stone, bone to ash, troll-flesh to acrid dust. The troll flung the women at the bank and howled, writhing in the water as though it felt the flames.
"Yes yes yes," it howled. "Trolls go. Cruel man, trolls go. Forever and forever, yes."
The troll and its three sons scrambled on to shore, moving slow and clumsy now, none of the agility it had shown in clambering over the bridge. The priest crossed himself as they shambled by, leaving a trail of slimy mud. A cloud flitted over the sun, shadowing the green fields, and when it passed the trolls were gone.
William's harp trilled, birdsong greeting the new day, and the women lying still on the bank stirred.
Thordis was the first to open her eyes, blinking, the first to get to her feet.
"William!" she cried. "Oh William!" She leapt splashing out into the water to meet him and he slid down into her arms.
With the ending of the music, the household crowded on the bridge were free. They came hurrying down, and the black warhorse placed itself between them and the slow-waking sisters, so they had time to think, and remember, and let the bruised and battered knights walk forward to the brides they had thought lost.
"So tired," said Thorunn, and yawned. "Didn't mean to sleep in. You didn't need to empty the pitcher on me, Thordis."
"Such a horrible dream," said Thora, and took Brand's hand to get to her feet, wobbling. "Brand? Where ... oh!"
And "Oh!" said Thorunn, and leaned on Hans. "Oh Hans, I never thought that I would see you again."
She looked at Thordis and William in the water, clasped far more tightly together than was proper, especially given the soaked and clinging state of Thordis' gown. "Thordis? Who is that?"
Thordis splashed out of the river leading William by the hand, not bothering even to blush.
"This is William," she said simply. "He saved us all."
William, tucking his harp away in its sack again, did blush, even his ears.
"We have a wedding still, do we?" he asked, and lifted Thordis again to the red mare's saddle.
"Three weddings," said Thordis.
William looked up at the black stallion's height, and patted his nose, and went to walk at the red mare's side, a hand on Thordis' knee. The black horse grumbled, or chuckled, and strode after, breathing down William's neck like an overgrown dog.
The priest coughed delicately, and led forward the knights' horses. They helped the sisters to the saddle and set out for the churchyard with the so-often disrupted bridal procession following behind, and the old man and his dog and the wolves and the sheep as well. The priest whispered to a page and was boosted into a pony's saddle to gallop ahead.
He had it in mind to set the churchbells pealing.
This story originally appeared in The Serpent Bride and Other Stories from Medieval Danish Ballads.