The bard stepped into the ring of illumination that the fire provided. Having made his entrance, he proceeded without further ado into his performance for the night. A silence fell over the crowd as they sat, seemingly mesmerized by his bardic voice.
"We people of the land between two seas are joined into a great confederation before which I am honored to speak. What a marvel we are, first in war and proud in peace! We have always lived in the land between two seas, thrusting out the unworthy Celts to lands that they were able to hold in the west and on Britannia. They fled before our might, as well they should. For who can stand against the might of the Angli, the cunning of the Eudoses, the valor of the Varini, the wisdom of the Reudigni, the goodness of the Aviones, or the wrath of the Nuithones and Suardones?" Eldred asked rhetorically as he named the ancient names of the tribes comprising the Anglican confederation. "Someday all the other tribes in the earth will tremble in fear and love like an anxious dog awaiting his master's word whenever the people who live between the seas choose to speak. For now they can live in their squalor, like pigs in mud."
Without further speech, Eldred told the story of how Woden had been tricked by his Lombard wife into fighting a dispute against the Vandals. Woden had brought the Anglican Confederation in on the Lombard's side of a boundary dispute. The Vandals had lost the war as a result of superior numbers against them. After the war ended, the Vandals started to move toward the south, toward where the Romans had settled their tamed federates and away from their Lombard enemies. Eldred finished the familiar poem and then took a different tack in his performance.
"But there was a time in our affiliated tribes' history when we worshipped another. I am referring to Nerthus or Mother Earth," Eldred suddenly said. "There was a struggle between the proponents of the old religion and the followers of the new one. The new religion eventually triumphed. Now our rulers are the descendants of Woden."
The normal small sounds of the listening crowd stilled. Coughing ceased. Mothers in the back shushed their children. King Wihtgils stiffened. King Angeltheow half closed one eye as he stared at the offending bard. King Offa shot him a sharp glance. Eldred had truth on his side, but it wouldn't do his hide much good if he offended three kings. This allusion was definitely not on the program for the night. The three kings proudly claimed descent from Woden.
Eldred continued as if he hadn't said anything out of the ordinary. If he was aware of any astonishment from the listening crowd he chose to blithely ignore it. He met King Offa's eye with a deadpan look, then spoke further.
"Every tribe or group of tribes has different religious customs. The Semnones gather together every nine years to a sacred grove, then sacrifice one of their leading men after choosing him by lot. The Saxons worship Irmisul's statue at Merseburg.
"We Angles worshipped Mother Earth on the fertile island of Zealand. Every nine years the leading men of our tribes would go to her shrine in a sacred grove next to a lake. Starting in November, when cattle and other livestock were slaughtered for the winter to provide food for the gods and men and after the harvest was in, Nerthus would be drawn about the island in a veiled cart drawn not by sterile oxen but by pregnant heifers. Her cart would be guided by her mortal husband, a high priest of highest birth chosen for life. There would be three festivals commencing with the first one on the full moon after the first frost. Then another festival would be held the week after the shortest day of the whole year, starting the new year. Finally, after spring had come and the fertility of the world was assured, Nerthus would tire of human company. The heifers were slaughtered and burned on her altar. Nerthus's drawn car, her draperies, even the goddess herself would be bathed by her female attendants in a secret ceremony supervised by the high priest. Then the female attendants, who were slaves, would be drowned in the sacred lake, ending the ceremonies for another nine years.
"This festival was one of the few times when the men, especially the leading men, were unarmed. No one was allowed to carry weapons. All bloodfeuds on Zealand and on the other lands held by the tribes were put into suspension until Nerthus withdrew to her isolation. Anyone caught violating this custom was quickly put to death. It was one of the few times our tribes lived in peace. This was the way we worshipped for centuries, as did the Swedes in their own way, until Woden came."
The bard stopped speaking for a moment. The three kings, especially Offa, waited to hear what Eldred would say about Woden. Angeltheow had been listening with ill-concealed annoyance, tapping and lashing his foot to and fro. Wihtgils listened with evident concern, his face in a frown. Offa had maintained a steady stare at Eldred throughout his speech about Nerthus and the coming of Woden.
"Eldred, you independent whore's son, King Offa thought. If you say anything that casts aspersion on Woden, you won't live long to enjoy the trouble you have cost. Tomorrow, after you have sang about my great deeds, I will finish with an appropriate sacrifice to Woden. Woden will enjoy a hanging stormcrow more than a burnt stallion. That is, if I let you finish. I have gotten where I am by patience. I will wait awhile and see what happens. Offa caught Angeltheow's eye and nodded to his son as if to counsel patience.
"Woden was born of royal Anglican stock, even though the Saxons and Frisians are busily making up a genealogy claiming this demi-god as their own."
Eldred paused and glanced at Gida, who was sitting on a back bench next to a Geatish chieftain. Gida was taking in every word, but when he noticed Eldred's attention, he smiled an insolent grin as if he found the rascality of men beyond his understanding. Other than the insolent grin, Gida said nothing. Finding only slippery opposition from that quarter, Eldred went on.
"Since he was the second son of Frithuwald Frealafsson, Woden was given as a hostage to the Romans. There he learned many a new thing while he lived among the decadent Romans, the most important being improved military ways. When Frithuwald's oldest son Finn died, Woden was summoned back to rule the kingdom. Woden brought all the northern tribes together, essentially ruling the Anglican confederation, the Saxons, the Lombards, the Franks, and the Frisians. He brought the tribes together by using warfare, arranged marriages to each tribe, and sometimes by sorcery.
"Woden had a long and prosperous reign. The land gave forth good harvests and people began to question as to why they should worship Nerthus. Even more so than today, people knew that their king was the direct representative of the gods as well as being overchief of all the clans. So towards the end of his reign, Woden refused to attend the Nerthus ceremonies when the proper time arrived. He also refused to let the tribal chieftains, on pain of his extreme displeasure, to attend. The Nerthus cult suffered from a great blow to their prestige when none of the notables attended and an even greater loss of tribal faith when the next harvest season was no less plentiful than usual. Woden then didn't even bother to close the festivities to the faithful followers of Nerthus, he merely proclaimed that his sworn men couldn't follow both Nerthus and himself. All the chieftains chose Woden's part."
Eldred paused for a breath, noting that he still had most of the people listening intently. The three kings were still annoyed at him. King Offa's stare continued. King Wihtgils's and Angeltheow's displeasure was still evident, as measured by their frowns. Eldred let out a small sigh. The kings were going to be hard to persuade back to his side. They still were annoyed at his remembrances of the old religion and by his saying that Woden had mortal parents as well as mortal children. Now it was time to reaffirm Woden's divinity.
"Then, as now, people didn't like paying something for nothing. People gave up the cult of Nerthus, since by following Woden they could get good crops without paying the Zealand temple. With good harvests assured, they didn't have to worry about want for the winter if they took the reasonable precautions of good agriculture. So the question was raised again as to what happened to people when they died. And Woden revealed to our peoples the answer." Eldred paused for a second. What he was going to say probably would be disbelieved by some of the harder-headed Angles, but it did have the virtue of being supported by current dogma.
"We know what happens to people when they die. They are put on the pyre and burn to scattered ashes or put in the ground as a fit meal for worms. But Woden informed our people that if they fought bravely, they would be selected by the gods to fight against evil beasts such as trolls, giants, or dragons. They will be taken care of, along with Woden in the Great Hall of the Gods known as Valhalla. So take care, fight bravely, and you all can live in Valhalla! Otherwise, a wet, cold, miserable hole in Hel awaits, where cowardly men are hunted and eaten by trolls and other dark, fell beasts.
"Woden fought many a battle, loved many a fair woman, when his earthly existence came to an end. He was lecturing many of the leading tribesmen in his capital town of Leire, in Zealand, where he had overthrown the old goddess Nerthus; telling them about the glory of Valhalla when a great mist came from the sea. The lightning and thunder complimented his words. Never before had such a great mist arisen so quickly, followed by such a great storm! For the gods of sea, land, and air had come to claim their demi-god son! The storm drove many of the people inside, except for Woden's specially trained guard, who stood like statues beside their god-king and were taken up with Woden to Valhalla. After the storm had ceased, an hour later, no trace of Woden or his retinue could be seen. For they had ascended to their reward. Valhalla!"
Eldred sneaked a glance to where King Offa and King Angeltheow sat. His toeing the official line regarding Woden had soothed them considerably. Angeltheow was no longer moving his right knee up and down; his heel was firmly placed on the throne dais. King Offa still stared at Eldred, but his gaze was no longer as ominous.
Eldred glanced over the majority of his audience. "You folks have came to hear the old traditions and not my interpretations of them. So I will quickly get on with singing about the glory of Woden and the great deeds of his ancestors." Eldred said.