"Tomorrow morning, we will honor our king and lord by remembering his noble deeds. I will sing the Lay of King Offa. I promise that you will be pleased and the perfidious Saxons utterly discomfited. Until then, good-night," Eldred said, ending the night's festivities.
A few men came up to talk to Eldred, wanting to praise him for telling them some things that they hadn't heard before. Other men, including Kings Angeltheow and Wihtgils, wanted to make arrangements for tearing Eldred limb from limb.
"I would like to talk to Eldred myself, before I turn in," King Offa said. "You are at liberty tomorrow to converse with Eldred concerning his performance. Now if you don't mind . . . ."
All of the men wilted under King Offa's direct, cool glance. Most of the men complimented Eldred briefly on his performance, then left. The men who wanted to gut Eldred left, with the exception of Angeltheow and Wihtgils. They stood, glaring at Eldred, until King Offa spoke.
"I wish to speak with Eldred privately. Good night, son. Good night, Cousin Wihtgils," King Offa said, kindly but firmly.
"Good night, Father," Angeltheow said, glaring at Eldred.
"Good night, King Offa," Wihtgils said, obviously wishing that King Offa would let him kill Eldred and be done with it.
The two kings left, leaving King Offa seated on his throne, Eldred standing by the dying bonfire.
"Why did you say what you said tonight?" asked King Offa. "You brought up the cult of Nerthus. You questioned Woden's divinity. You made my grandfather, King Wihtlaeg, seem like a calculating thief. You have embarrassed me tonight. Why?" King Offa brought his piercing gaze to bear upon Eldred.
"Why did I say what I said? Because it was the truth, that is why, although I did smooth over a few minor matters. One major truth I mentioned not at all. I said what I said because I am the kind of man that I am and because I know what kind of man that you are," Eldred said, meeting King Offa's glance.
"I was chosen to speak at this function because I am said to be the best as far as command of the old traditions go. My family has handed down these traditions from father to son, telling the whole truth as they observed it. They left it to each generation to decide how much truth to tell to their peers.
"If you wanted to hear what you found acceptable, King Offa, you could have had your jester tell the traditions. When I was summoned, I resolved to tell as much truth as I could get away with in the telling and how much I thought that the people could bear. I smoothed over the rest."
"You take a lot upon yourself," King Offa observed. "Usually, us kings have the sole right to decide how much truth the people will hear. I think you have exceeded yourself."
"Perhaps. Perhaps not." Eldred looked his ruler in the eye.
"A tradition singer has a responsibility to the truth; we dare not bastardize it too much. A good bard is no king's whore. As a secondary consideration, consider this: if we lie too much, no one will believe the authorities, be they kings or bards. Men know the truth when they hear it, for they hear it so seldom. The truth can have a bitter, metallic, coppery taste. But honest men prefer it to the taste of a lie, which is like honey covering a pellet of shit," Eldred said.
Eldred stopped talking while he struggled to maintain direct eye contact with King Offa. Whoever dropped eye contact first would lose the argument. Eldred felt like he was mentally wrestling with a playful but hungry panther who would tear him to pieces if he let go.
"There might be something in what you say, Eldred," King Offa said. "You have been respectful while saying a number of hard things. You have judged correctly that I won't have you killed for speaking the truth. My vanity won't allow me to do such a thing. I won't have you killed. Not yet. But if you cross that line which divides truth and insolence I will deal harshly with you.
"So!" King Offa slapped his right knee. "Do me proud tomorrow. The crowd will be listening intently to you. They will hope that you make a mistake that will deservedly get you killed. That should be no problem for you, though. A good bard should demand no more than an attentive audience," said King Offa with a small smile that lifted the left corner of his mouth..
King Offa broke off eye contact and glanced toward the fire. Eldred was relieved, although he knew that King Offa had scored a subtle point in showing him courtesy by discontinuing a staring contest that a commoner had no right to win. Nobility had scored a point over candor.
King Offa's eyes again met Eldred's.
"Tell me, what minor points did you smooth over?" asked King Offa. "What major thing did you conceal? You can speak freely since no one else is within earshot."
Eldred paused a moment, then said, "The minor things that I glossed over had to do with your noble ancestors' position as intercessors between their people and their gods, Nerthus being the most prominent. If a drought, famine, or flood occurred, things went ill for the god-king who reigned at the time. He was liable to be sacrificed in place of the usual oxen, horses, or slaves. Since he was supposed to be the gods' representative or child upon the earth, what better way to get an inattentive god's attention than by sending the god-king on to the spirit world?
"The dynasty that ruled before King Sceaf had a number of natural calamities befall their kingdom. These disasters, not inbreeding, were the reasons that the previous dynasty died out. I mentioned inbreeding to explain your family's drive for arranging powerful marriages that benefit your family.
"In any case, when Sceaf arrived in the boat, he was thought of as being uncommonly lucky. And so he was. No one in Sceaf's dynasty has ever had to face the sacrificial knife except King Hadra, who had a flood come along when he was an old man. The new god-king was his son, Itermon, who had a luckier reign than his father. I suspect that Woden rebelled against the Nerthus cult because he never did believe in leaving things to chance.
"As far as the story about King Wihtlaeg is concerned, I haven't changed a thing. I couldn't in any case. While there is no one living now who lived then, this is still recent history," Eldred said in conclusion.
"So what major thing have you covered up?" asked King Offa.
"The truth concerning how Woden met his end," Eldred said. He paused for a moment. "Are you sure that you want to hear about this matter?"
"Yes. But how would you know about it? Who told you?"
"It was handed down from what my great-great-grandfather told his son, and what that son told his son, and so forth right on down the line." Eldred said evenly. "My great-great-grandfather would have known. He was Loki the Clever, Woden's best friend and worst enemy. It is too late, or I hope it is, for a bloodfeud to start over what I am about to tell you."
"It is." King Offa said. "Go on."
"It is true enough that Woden disappeared in a swirl of mist, followed by a storm. Perhaps he even attained Valhalla. But the gods didn't take him. Woden was killed by his own people, the ones who thought that he had become a tyrant," said Eldred, rubbing his gray beard before renewing eye contact with King Offa. "You understand, King Offa, many of the men who killed Woden truly admired the man, but they hated what he had done and what he intended to do. Our people are like that."
Offa rubbed his chin. He had heard something about this matter from his father before he had died. It was a shadowy tradition, seldom mentioned even among the royal family.
"What did Woden do that was so bad?" asked Offa. "I realize that Woden did a number of morally questionable things. All kings do. But why was he killed by his own people?"
"Some people would think that it was because he was busily fucking their wives, sisters, and daughters. Woden was notorious for the way he went through women," Eldred said. "But I disagree. Powerful men have always known that there has never been a shortage of ambitious women willing to spread their legs for security or power. Those powerful men then have a number of decisions to make: whether to indulge in what is offered, and then, whether to pay the implied price. Woden always indulged; he didn't always pay the price. It depended on the power of that woman's family. Even more unforgivable, he seldom, if ever, bothered to cover his tracks. Woden thought that he was all-powerful, that the enemies that he had made would never strike him down. He was right for the most part, but there were a few men who quietly whetted their weapons, awaiting an opportunity to strike."
"I have heard as much," King Offa said, thinking about the whispered family traditions he had heard.
"King Offa, I said that most people believe that Woden's womanizing caused his death at the hands of his leading chiefs. While it makes sense, that wasn't the reason that the clan chieftains slew him. They killed Woden because of what he said just before the mist blew in from the sea," said Eldred.
"You are aware of how the Swedes worship Nerthus?" Eldred asked. It was another of Eldred's rhetorical questions. Not pausing for an answer, not even a declaration of ignorance which a king shouldn't have to give, Eldred continued.
"The Swedes worship Nerthus, much like we used to do but with a number of variations. There, Nerthus is a male god, the god of agricultural plenty. Nerthus's son Frey is the founder of the Swedish royal line.
"Many of the same religious customs apply, the most important being the rule that no man is allowed to keep his weapons during festivities. This rule was translated into normal court practice, even when the king wasn't at the temple, but with one difference: The king and his guards are allowed their weapons, but no one else is. Now, year round at court, only the king and his retainers have weapons. All of the other people, both gentle and common, are allowed their weapons only in their homes, never in the presence of their rulers. Truly the Swedes are lovers of bad laws!"
Eldred paused, then smiled a thin smile as he looked King Offa in the eye momentarily. "After all, how can the people express their displeasure with their rulers if they have no chance to kill one or two of them from time to time?"
King Offa returned the smile. "A good king never lets matters get so out of hand," he said.
"Yes, Lord. A good king doesn't. Not with a people, such as the Angles and Jutes, who are jealous with their liberties and privileges as free men. But Woden decided to go beyond what a good king should do. He decided to disarm the chieftains and the commoners. He had overthrown Nerthus at home. Now he decided to emulate some of the worst tribal customs of Nerthus's foreign counterpart.
"According to my great-great-grandfather Loki, Woden decided to spring the notion of a perpetual King's Peace upon his people during the time that would have been used to worship Nerthus. Woden told his independent chieftains that the gods had told him that the king's person was sacred and that no man could be trusted with weapons other than his picked retainers. Therefore, from here on in, there would be no subject armed in the king's presence. All quarrels would be adjudged by Woden. No one would be allowed to conduct his own justice, there would be no more private bloodfeuds. He, Woden, had a monopoly on the use of force.
"Every independent chieftain took that message as calmly as a wolf would if he was awaiting defanging and castration. Some of the chieftains turned red. A few muttered, "The madman wants to set up a tyranny." Most ominous were the men, like Loki, who kept their peace and determined that they would never surrender their arms. These men didn't blink an eye as they waited for Woden's speech to end.
"It was a sunny, late November day when Woden started speaking. No one could have predicted the fog that started to pour out of the sea, driven by a slight breeze out of the north. The sea and the land are usually in harmony with each other. A mist had never occurred this late in the day before. The wind blew it forward, where it covered the ground, knee high at first, then upwards towards a man's head. The gods had provided a cover for hard men to do dark deeds.
"Loki decided to act. As Woden's right-hand man, he was standing two paces behind Woden.
"So you want our weapons, King Woden. Here's mine," Loki said as he drew his sword. Woden turned around in time to receive Loki's sword in the gut, where it pierced the membrane that lets men and animals breathe. Woden died quickly, not taking another breath, his life gushing from the wound as the clever Loki quickly pulled out his sword. ''I've killed the tyrant!" Loki said. "Free men, kill his servants!"
"Thinking quickly, the rebellious chieftains did as Loki suggested. After a short struggle, Woden's retainers were killed, as were a few of the chieftains. Loki suggested that the bodies be dumped into the sea, that buckets of water be used to dilute any congealed blood, and that all say that the gods had come to claim their god-king son and the most worthy of his followers. After the rebellious chieftains thought things through, all was done as Loki suggested.
"After a short argument, it was decided to install Wodolgeat Wodening as king. Wodolgeat's temperament was far more restrained than Woden's ever was. Wodolgeat, while he wouldn't make a good puppet, wasn't adjudged to be tyrant material either. There was also the advantage of Wodolgeat's being in Hedeby at the time. Wodolgeat hadn't seen what had happened at Leire, consequently he was still alive, unlike one of Woden's wives and a few of his children. If all the men who had killed Woden and his men held to the agreed upon story, there would be no need for civil war or a bloodfeud between the new king and his nobles. The new king could proclaim his father's divinity. While there would be suspicion aplenty on both sides, self-interest would keep the peace as long as no one gloated openly concerning that morning's events.
"As I said before, King Offa, most of the men who killed Woden admired him. They just thought that he had overreached himself, and they wouldn't obey him anymore. Once that decision has been made, either the king must die or the people must be enslaved. There is no going back to what went on before," Eldred said, shaking his head.
King Offa listened patiently to Eldred's latest story. He got his words and questions in order, then said, "You are a brave man for telling me all this. Normally, I would have the duty of killing you since your great-great-grandfather killed my great-great-grandfather. But since it wasn't in Wodolgeat's best interests to kill Loki after the deed occurred it isn't in my interest to kill you, Eldred, now that the parties involved are long dead. Not unless this story that you have told me is noised about."
"It won't be, King Offa. This story is between our two families, to be told or not told by them. I rendered this account of what really happened because you asked to hear this story, and because I think that your family needs to hear it."
"What kind of man was your great-great-grandfather Loki? To be blunt, he seems like the kind of man who I would take great pleasure in having hanged. Was he mad?"
"Not mad, just mean. Loki loved evil for its own sake. That is what I believe, King Offa," Eldred said. "A man can't choose his ancestors. Still, he did some things that were right, even though his motives weren't pure. After he had killed his best friend and king, Loki was despised by the onlookers even though they had benefited from his quick actions and clever advice. But Loki didn't care. He despised most of the common herd anyway. Loki killed his friend and king because he was bored, because he wished to ride the winds of chaos that he had unleashed, knowing that he wouldn't be held back by scruples. Some would call that madness. I call it meanness.
"In any case, Loki lived to be an old man and died peacefully in his bed. Few wished to cross him. No one did. Loki had gotten the reputation as a clever, ruthless, brutal man, even though his part in Woden's murder was never spoken aloud. Any other questions regarding this or other matters that I have brought up tonight, King Offa?" Eldred asked.
"No. No more questions," Offa said.
A distant rooster crowed, even though dawn was several hours away. Both men sat in peace for a second, smelling the smoke from the fire, the stink from the latrine trenches dug a hundred yards off, the smell of the damp grass on which dew was forming from a light mist arising from the river. Both men enjoyed the silence of the night as the earth seemed to renew itself for the next day, but each hadn't realized how late it was until the rooster crowed the false dawn. Each man would have things to do tomorrow, Offa for the last time.
Offa broke the silence. "I understand the things that you have said tonight, and why you said them. You have tried to serve both truth and your king at the same time, tonight. Do the same tomorrow, Eldred, and you will have no cause for fear. We serve, you and I, the same, but different masters. You serve truth. I serve, as best I can, my people. I think that truth is good for the people, up to a point. People who are so alike will be either the best of friends or the worst of enemies. But," here Offa permitted a small grin, "let's not be like Woden and Loki."
"Never shall it be so, King Offa," Eldred affirmed.
"It is late, Eldred. Wake up my page," Offa said, pointing to a youth lying on the grass fast asleep beyond earshot of the two men.
Eldred went over and awakened the young man. The page got up after a few words were exchanged. King Offa arose from his throne. After reflecting for a moment, he started walking to the latrine. His page would help the aged king to bed.
Eldred threw a few sticks on the fire, then watched the fire for a while, thinking his own thoughts. Then he went off to where his son-in-law was camped. Eldred wrapped himself in his cloak and slept next to his grandson, his namesake. He fell asleep after a few minutes.