Eldred then recited the poem concerning King Sceaf, King Offa's earliest known ancestor.
Sceaf had appeared in a small boat as an infant off the coast of Zealand and was carefully nurtured by the people of that country. He was a beautiful child, and well-born, as evidenced by the weapons around his small water craft. A bronze shield served as his bassinet. A large sword and well-made sax-knife were at the child's side. Ring armor, as made by the best Celtic smiths, was at the child's feet. The priestess that drew him out of the water, by the richness of the weapons, knew that he was either a child provided by the gods or that he at least was gently born. Lacking a name for the child, she noticed that the child's head was pillowed by a sheaf of wheat. So she named him Sceaf, meaning "sheaf." Being Nerthus's priestess, and therefore the mortal wife of the male gods in that area, she knew she wouldn't have a chance to give birth to her own son. So she adopted the little gift that had come from the gods.
The priestess eventually became the high priestess. She provided the best education in the manly arts for her son. When the last male of the current inbred dynasty died, she used her influence to have Sceaf declared king. He ruled on a town on the mainland that was called Slaswic, but he changed the name to Hedeby.
Sceaf had been found in dire straits, but in his prime he ended up ruling over most of the islands and the peninsula that jutted out into the ocean. In his early years he relied on his mother's influence. Later he used the sword that had been found in his foundling boat to extend his dominion. He forced the neighboring chieftains to recognize his sovereignty. Anyone who refused his will lost his chieftainship and was replaced by a more compliant relative.
Sceaf fathered many sons. He gave his kingdom to his eldest son Bedwig when he grew old. Before his death he gave some unusual directions to Bedwig.
"From Ocean I came, to Ocean I return," Sceaf said. He gave instructions to Bedwig to place his body in a boat, with his sword, knife, armor and shield, the weapons of his birth, and push it out into the ocean for the winds and currents to take. Bedwig did as his father bade after Sceaf's death, adding many coats of mail, other weapons, and a gold standard set upon his head. The boat was launched and never seen again by mortal men.
Eldred had recited the story using a form of verse that usually rhymed at the end of each phase, but not always. It had a constant rhythm that didn't change throughout the poem. He used a few archaic words, but everyone seemed to understand the meaning of what was said.
The audience cheered. It had been a masterful performance, full of tradition; but the story seemed fresh.
The three kings were somewhat grudging in their applause. Eldred had made it obvious that the beneficent priestess who had saved their ancestor had been Nerthus's priestess, but he hadn't rubbed that fact in their noses or commented on Woden's later ingratitude to the cult.
Eldred took the applause and shouts of pleasure as his perfectly natural due. His apprentice came up to him and handed him a horn of the white mead that made an ordinary man a poet and a gifted poet like Eldred superlative. Eldred sipped the first half of the horn, then finished off the rest with a few gulps. He handed the horn to his apprentice, who went back into the crowd. Eldred got off of the pile of firewood he had been sitting on since he began the poem about King Sceaf. He threw a small log on the bonfire, replenishing it, then sat down again.
"Bedwig Scoffing was able to hold on to all of his father's territory. Learning something from the previous dynasty's failure due to inbreeding, Bedwig instituted a policy of marrying his surplus sons and daughters to whatever tribe was the strongest threat to the Angli. His nine sons married princesses of noble blood among the Saxons, Goths, Geats, Vandals, Norwegians, Frisians, and one son was even married to a princess from far-off Dacia on the Danube. He married his daughters to anyone of wealth and power who would pledge to support him. He married his heir, Hwala, to the Jutish chieftain's oldest daughter, the Jutes being restive even in those days. In that way, along with waging wars whenever there was something to be gained, did the House of Sceaf maintain the rank of first among equals in the peninsula and the isles.
"These kings maintained their kingdoms in a fit fashion. They were recognized as god-kings, the representatives of the gods on earth. They acted well, and thus were blessed with bountiful harvests. Both gods and men found them just, and the lands of the Anglican Confederation prospered. Although the tribal alliance wasn't called then by that name even though the Angli were the foremost members.
"Bedwig begat Hwala, Hwala begat Hadra. During Hadra's rule a great flood from the ocean came over the land, despoiling the grass and silting the land. This great flood
drove much of the surplus population south to Rome, where they were killed or enslaved. As a result of that flood, the people knew that the gods were displeased, so rule passed to Itermon Hadring.
"Itermon fathered Heremod, Heremod begat Sceldwea. Sceldwea was known as 'The Shield,' for the way he protected his people.
"Sceldwea begat Beaw. Beaw was an uncommonly warlike king. He heeded Hermann's call for all of Germany to unite and keep the Romans on their side of the Rhine, so he went himself to fight, taking his hundred best warriors. They wiped out three of Rome's best legions, then went back home to bask in their hard-earned glory. Later in Beaw's reign, he killed a dragon that had been troubling the people. Beaw died soon after that great battle.
"Beaw begat Taetwa, Teatwa begat Geat, who was the child of a Geatish princess. Geat was greatly beloved whenever he chose to visit the Geats.
"Geat begat Godwulf, a great warrior, as cunning and as ferocious as a hungry wolf. It was his boast that "Be a man friend or enemy, I will repay in full whatever debt I owe him." He died among friends, having killed all of his enemies.
"Finn begat Frithuwulf, who in turn begat Frealaf. Frealaf begat Frithuwald. Great men all." Eldred abruptly stopped speaking. He got to his feet and began pacing the fire, scanning the crowd.
"That sneaky Frisian rascal, King Folc, has named his sons Finn and Frithuwald. He claims that Woden was a Frisian and his ancestor. Well, maybe Woden was indeed Folc's ancestor. Woden loved fighting, drinking, and womanizing, in that close order. Woden passed more than a few times through Frisia. So I will grant his claim to Woden as an ancestor. But to say that Woden was Frisian born is the height of untruth. I am tempted to beat the next Frisian I meet and tell him to pass the same message on through to the mangy rascal that he has for a king! After tomorrow's performance, of course."
Everyone knew what Eldred was speaking about. Usually the Frisians, a kindred people that lived on the coast west of the Saxons and spoke a similar tongue, didn't usually have much in the way of kings. The Frisian people tended not to let their kings rule widely over them, even less than the Angles and Saxons did. But a few years ago, a new king had come to power. A vain man, allegedly descended from Woden, he called himself King Folcwalda, "King Folc the Ruler", and claimed rulership over all the coastline lands between the Franks and Saxons, although he lacked the retainers to make his claims valid. In the face of foreign ridicule at his pretensions, he steadfastly named his sons Finn and Frithuwald in order to cement his claims to right of rule as a descendant of Woden.
Having expressed his professional opinion of King Folc's attempt at creative genealogy, Eldred resumed his speech. "Frealaf begat Woden. Now I will recite the well-known tale of how Woden lost his eye in his search for wisdom. After which there will be a slight pause so that those with children can put them to bed and so that I will have a refreshed, comfortable audience to tell the history of our great confederation and the story of Woden's successors up until King Offa's father's time."
Wihtgils glanced down at his feet where Hengist and Horsa were curled up, each using his foot as a pillow. His feet were numb, but he wasn't about to disturb the boys. Hengist had been pretty well behaved, for Hengist. He had been about to ask one of his many questions, but Wihtgils had forestalled him by pinching his leg and hissing lightly to ensure silence. Horsa had seen his brother's treatment and hadn't wanted to experience similar discomfort. The boys had fidgeted a little bit, until they had heard the story of King Sceaf. They had sat entranced until about halfway through. Then they had decided that they were sleepy and had curled up at their father's feet, like well-behaved puppies. Wihtgils wished that Eldred hadn't mentioned the need for refreshment. His bladder was uncomfortably full. He wished that he hadn't drank so much beer before sitting down. He knew the tale of how Woden had lost his eye well. He could use an intermission now. "By Great-great-great-Grandpa Woden's name, do I have to piss! Now if only that old windbag Eldred would hurry up! "
Wihtgil's earlier fury directed at Eldred had been displaced by simple irritation that the bard was keeping him from a call of nature. Wihtgils glanced around. More than a few of the great men were wiggling in their seats.
Eldred sat down and began to recite the familiar poem about Woden's search for wisdom and knowledge of what the future held at the sacred spring that flowed into Nerthus's holy lake. At the reminder of Nerthus's name again, Wihtgils remembered his early fury at Eldred.
"He has been summoned here because he is the most skilled in reciting the old traditions. Can I really blame him for telling the whole truth, as he learned it? After all, he did need to explain about the old cult so that our traditions would make sense.
"But he didn't have to be so bald about it. He could have used more tact if he wanted to. But he is a tough old bastard at the end of his life. We kings don't much power over such a man. He will say what he wants and what kings think be damned."
Wihtgils glanced at Angeltheow. King Angeltheow was tapping his heel again and glaring at Eldred, but now more in irritation rather than fury.
"Looks like Angeltheow needs to piss too. He is holding it in as best he can. We descendants of the demi-gods are really a tame bunch. I wonder if what Woden would have done? Would he have courageously have whipped it out and gone? Or would his interests in proving godhood have made him act like we do? That Eldred is a sharp character. He has replaced fury with irritation. We won't look kingly if we sentence him to hang tomorrow and then rush to the nearest bush. People would think us petulant and small. And that is where us kings are cowards. We really must care what the people think. Although Angeltheow is cold-tempered enough to say, "I shall have you hung as a gift to Woden tomorrow. Excuse me, I must piss."
"But King Offa still rules here. I wonder what he will do?"
Wihtgils glanced at King Offa. Wihtgils had often glanced at Offa throughout Eldred's performance, but he hadn't been ready to decipher King Offa's body language until now. King Offa's concentration had never wavered from Eldred's performance. King Offa's deep, blue eyes, so deep blue that they seemed to verge on the purple, never seemed to blink. When Eldred had first discussed Nerthus, King Offa had stared at him with the offhand, tense ease of a cat moving up on a bird, awaiting the time to pounce and kill and tear and rend. Now his attitude was still relaxed, but no longer predatory. But like a cat, his eyes still didn't blink. Wihtgils admired Offa's control. He would have envied his great-uncle if he wasn't very much aware that they were two very different men and that throughout the world there wasn't another of Offa's like.
Eldred finished the last of his song. There was a smattering of applause, less than the performance deserved, but Eldred didn't seem annoyed.
"Take a break. Take care of business. I resume singing when this log is burnt through," Eldred said, pointing to a stick as thick as a man's forearm that was burning on the fire. It was well charred, but would take over a quarter hour to burn through.
Wihtgils looked at King Offa, who got up out of his throne. King Angeltheow looked at his father, who nodded his head sideways a few times. Angeltheow shrugged, then headed off towards some trenches dug specifically for the business that he had in mind. Since King Offa seemed to have matters well in hand, Wihtgils pulled his feet out from under his son's heads. They mewled a little bit at the disturbance to their sleep, so Wihtgils began to shake them while blood began to seep back into his numb feet. When the boys were awake, they had the same need that their father had. Wihtgils began to hurriedly lead them to the latrine trench.
Luckily the latrine wasn't too crowded. The commoners and women had an advantage that their betters lacked: since they were seated at the back, their presence wouldn't be missed. So everyone except the nobles, kings, and Eldred had had ample opportunity to answer calls of nature.
Wihtgils found Aelfwine and entrusted Hengist and Horsa to her care. Hengist whined when he figured out that he couldn't sit in front for the second half of the show, but Wihtgils told him that he had failed the test of staying awake for the first half. Wihtgils left for his previous seat.
Meanwhile, Eldred awaited King Offa's pleasure. King Offa got up out of his throne and approached the offending bard.
"I wish to have a word with you in private after tonight's performance ends," King Offa said, coming to the point.
"Yes, Your Majesty," Eldred said politely. "You wouldn't mind if I curb my fire somewhat, would you?" he asked, pointing to his bonfire.
"Whatever you think it takes," Offa said.
Offa was about to walk past Eldred to the latrine trenches when Eldred, lifting the front of his kilt-like skirt in order to prevent it from getting wet, started hosing down the edges of his bonfire. The fire hissed. A few ashes flew up into the air.
Offa looked deadpan at the sight, thought for a moment, then said, "It seems that I continually underestimate the artistic temperament." Offa walked away, leaving Eldred busily banking his fire using his own methods.