Chapter reveal: ‘The Last Wife of Attila the Hun’ by Joan Schweighardt

Title: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction with a Legendary Component

Author: Joan Schweighardt

Website: www.joanschwweighardt.com

Publisher: Five Directions Press

Purchase on Amazon

Two threads are woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second thread reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission. Based in part on the true history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a thrilling story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue.

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THE LAST WIFE OF ATTILA THE HUN

by Joan Schweighardt

Prologue

            When I was a young girl living at Worms, there was nothing I delighted in more than song. And of all those who lifted their voices in our great hall, there was none who did so as beautifully as my brother Gunner. Were he beside me now, he would rebuke me for the method that I have chosen to relate my story to you. He would insist, instead, on fashioning a melody for my words and singing them to you from beginning to end. He would begin modestly, singing, as he always did, that he had no talent for melodies, but entreating you, nevertheless, to remember his words. And, friend, as there is no bird, no summer breeze, no sweet stream lapping or soft rain falling that could compete with Gunner for one’s attention, have no doubt that you would have remembered them. He would have looked into your eyes while he sang and touched you in a deeper place than he ever touched a man or a woman when he went without his harp.

Though I can never hope to emulate his elegance, let me begin likewise, telling you first that I have no talent either. This thing, this process of setting down one word after the next on parchment, is new to me, and, as a friend once stated, tedious. And in spite of all the pains that I have taken to learn it, I find that I am apprehensive now because I cannot look into your eyes as my brother would have, because I cannot hope to touch you in that holy place where the hearts of all folk are joined together. Still, I would have you remember my words. 

The City of Attila 

1

I fell to my knees at the stream, so eager to drink that I did not think to offer a prayer until afterward, when I was satisfied and my flask was full. I was exhausted. My skin was parched and I was filthy; but according to the map my brothers had given me, I was very near my destination. I continued on foot, pulling my tired horse behind me.

I had not had a full night’s rest since the terrain had changed. The land was flat here. There were no caves or rocky ledges where I could shelter myself. The forests, so sacred to my people, had long since been replaced by endless grasslands. As I trudged through them, I felt that I had left more than my loved ones behind.

When the sky darkened, I used the single live coal I carried from the previous night’s fire to light my torch. I was sure that the light could be seen from some distance. I expected at every moment to hear the thunder of hooves beating on the arid earth. But on and on I walked, seeing no sight other than my own shadow in the gleam of the torch light and hearing no sound but that of my horse plodding along beside me.

When the sun began to rise, I saw that there was a sandy hill ahead, and hoping to see the City of Attila from its summit, I dragged myself on. But the hill was much farther away than it had seemed, and it took most of the day to reach it. And then it was much higher too, the highest ground that I had seen in days. My horse, who was content to graze on grassy clumps and to watch the marmots who dared to peek out of their holes, made it clear that he had no desire to climb. I had to coax him along, and myself as well, for now I was afraid that I would reach the summit and see nothing but more grass stretching out to the far horizon. I imagined myself wandering endlessly, seeing no one, coughing and sneezing in response to the invisible blowing dust, until my food ran out and my horse gave way.

I crawled to the top of the hill and looked down in amazement at the camp of make-shift tents below. In front of one of them a fire burned, and the carcass of an antelope was roasting over it. There were many men about, perhaps two hundred, all on horseback except for the few tending the fire.

It was not until I heard the war cry that I knew for certain that the scene was real and not some trick of my mind. I had been sighted. The entire company was suddenly galloping in my direction, a cloud of dust rising up around them. I forced myself to my feet and spread my arms to show that I carried no weapon. When I saw that the men were making their bows ready, I dropped my head and lifted my arms higher yet, to the heavens, where, I hoped, the gods were watching carefully.

Part of the company surrounded me. The others rode past, over the summit. When they were satisfied that no one was riding behind me, they joined the first group. Upon the command of one of them, they all lowered their bows. I began to breathe again. A murmur went up, and while I waited for it to subside, I studied their horses. Of the two that I could see without moving my head, one looked like the ones the Romans rode—a fine, tall, light-colored steed. The other looked like no animal I had ever seen before. Its legs were short and its head was large and somehow misshapen. Its matted mane hung down over its stout body. Its nose was snubbed and its eyes bulged like a fish’s. Its back was curved, as if by the weight of its rider. Yet its thick neck and large chest suggested great strength.

The murmur abated, and the Hun on the horse I’d been scrutinizing cried out a command in his harsh, foreign tongue. I looked up and noted that he resembled his horse. He was short and stout, large-chested, his head overly large, his neck short and thick, his nose snubbed. The only difference was that while the horse had a long mane and a bushy tail, the Hun’s hair was thin, and his beard, if one could call it that, was thinner yet. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I stared at the identical scars that ran down the sides of his face, wide, deep mutations that began beneath his deeply set eyes and ended at his mouth. “I’ve come to seek Attila,” I said.

The Hun, who appeared slightly amused, looked to his companions. A murmur went up again. While they debated, I took the opportunity to scan the other Hun faces, all hideous replicas of the one who had spoken to me. Of course, I had known the Huns were strange to look upon. Although I’d been hidden away during the siege, I’d had a description from those who had seen the Huns and survived to tell about them. In fact, there were some among my people who mutilated their own faces after the siege, believing this would make them as fierce as their attackers. Still, none of this had prepared me sufficiently to look upon them with my own eyes. Some wore tunics and breeches, not unlike the ones my own people wore. Others wore garments made entirely of marmot skins. With some on Roman horses and others on Hunnish ones, some dressed like Thuets and others in skins, they looked like no army I had ever seen before. Their confusion over how to respond to me only heightened the impression of disorder.

“Attila!” I cried. My brothers were sure I was mad, and when I heard my shout I thought they must be right.

The startled Huns stared for a moment, then they took up their debate again, their voices louder and more urgent than before. Finally the leader nodded, and the man whose argument he had come to agree with rode to my side and took my horse’s reins from my hand. While he started down the hill with the horse, another Hun poked me from behind with his riding whip to indicate that I should follow. Half of the men began the descent with me. The other half stayed on the summit, looking off in the direction from which I had come.

I was brought to the fire, where I reiterated my desire to see Attila. One of the Huns pointed beyond the tents. I followed his finger. There were a few dark clouds converging on the eastern horizon. “Can we ride?” I asked, pointing to my horse. The Hun gestured for me to sit. The meat had been removed from the fire and torn into pieces. The horseless Huns were distributing it among the riders. One of them brought a piece to me, and another brought me a flask of what smelled like Roman wine. I ate the meat—which was tough and bland—and kept my eyes fastened on my horse and the sack that hung from his side. I tasted the wine and, to the amusement of the Huns who were watching, quickly spat it out—for this is what I imagined a woman who had grown up alone in the forest would do.

After the meal, I stood and pointed east. “Take me to the City of Attila,” I demanded. Again, my words caused a stir.

Then one of the Huns said something which quieted the others. He gave a series of commands, and one of the listeners slid off his horse and reluctantly offered me the reins.

I hesitated, unsure what to do about the sack. Gathering courage, I led the Hunnish horse past my guards and over to my own horse. I reached for the sack, but a stout Hunnish arm cut me off. “For Attila,” I said. The man who had stopped me looked to his fellows. Again there was discussion, and after a moment, a decision. The arm withdrew. I swallowed and removed the sack from one beast and secured it onto the other. Then I mounted the Hunnish horse and settled myself as best I could on its hard wooden saddle. The Hun who was to be my escort came forward. Someone furnished him with a torch, and, also, what sounded like a lecture.

Riding at his side, I considered how easily it had gone. The Huns might have insisted that I stay the night in their camp. Or, they might have made me leave the sack behind. And there was much worse that I could think of, too. If I had felt bold before, I felt even bolder now, and, indeed, quite mad. I was already imagining the expressions that would appear on my brothers’ faces when I was home again relating the story.

The comical-looking beast beneath me was as fast as he was strong. He galloped along as if riderless, keeping pace with the Hun’s horse and seemingly oblivious to my touch on his reins. I lowered my head onto his thick dirty mane, and keeping my arms tight around his neck, closed my burning eyes. After a while, the horse’s steps became shorter, choppier, so that I knew the terrain had changed. The grasses were higher now, like the ones I had ridden through some days earlier when the trees had first begun to thin. I relaxed and gave way to the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves. When I opened my eyes again, I thought to find myself riding beneath the stars with the moon on the rise to the south. To my astonishment, the sky was pink, and it was the sun that was rising. My arms, which were stiff and badly cramped, had kept their vigil all through the night.

My companion laughed heartily when I lifted my head. And thinking that my riding and sleeping on horseback would make a fine story for Attila’s ears, I laughed as well. I imagined myself explaining that valkyrias did this all the time. I had trained my mind on the powers I would feign to have for so long that my uncanny slumber made me feel I had actually come to possess them.

Soon enough, the City of Attila appeared on the horizon—a vast tract surrounded by a high wooden palisade. My escort stopped to point it out, and I checked myself for panic. When I was satisfied that I felt none, I nodded, and we began to ride again. Before long we reached the city gates and the men who guarded them. My escort stayed at my side only long enough to deliver his message to the guard who rode to meet us. Then he turned and rode off, taking with him the story which I had hoped to hear repeated to Attila. The gates were pulled open. My new escort led me in.

Activity was everywhere. Clusters of men on horseback were engaged in conversations. Women walked among them carrying baskets or vessels on their heads. They were trailed by small children while older children sat in circles on the ground laughing and teasing one another. Most were Huns, but there were others who were clearly Thuets. And there were some, especially among the children, who appeared to be half and half. The Hun women, like their men, were short and stout. Many were quite fat. Only their lack of facial scars distinguished them from their male counterparts.

Mud and straw huts dotted the landscape. Beyond them, in the distance, was a second wooden palisade, its circumference so great that it appeared to take up half the city. As we approached it, the gates opened. We entered a long tunnel from which I could hear the pounding of feet overhead. There were other smaller tunnels leading off to the left and right, but their doors concealed the chambers they led to.

When we came back out into the daylight, I saw yet another palisade—this one set back on a high grassy mound. Like the city walls and the first inner palisade, it was circular, with wooden towers protruding at intervals. From each tower, guards looked down. “Attila’s palace?” I asked my escort, though I knew the answer even before he nodded.

There was as much activity here as there had been within the first palisade, but my gaze fell on the group of men who tarried on their horses nearest Attila’s gate. This group was more richly dressed than others I had seen. Many wore arm rings and finger rings. Some even had precious stones sewn into their shoes. It was the most heavily jeweled among them that my escort seemed to be eyeing as we approached. Thinking this man must be Attila, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to speak the words I had so thoroughly rehearsed. But when he turned toward me, I saw immediately that he could not possibly be Attila. He was not even a Hun. Though his face was as deeply scarred as those of his companions, he was clearly a Thuet. I had felt no emotion seeing the other Thuets in the village, because I took them to be prisoners, men who had been forced into Attila’s service. But the jewels and dress on this one indicated that he was pleased to live among the Huns, that he had earned Attila’s favor. He glanced at me. If he saw the involuntary look of disdain that crossed my face, his expression did not reflect it. He listened to the words of my escort, then jerked his head to indicate that I should come with him.

To my disappointment, he led me away from Attila’s gates, off to the southwest of his palisade, past a good many more huts and through a large open field and very nearly to the far wall of the inner palisade. There were only a few huts ahead of us now, and unlike the others that I had seen, they were spread apart and faced west rather than east. The one the Thuet took me to was the most isolated of all. But it was built up on a small knoll, and I could see the vast stretches of grassland beyond the tops of the inner palisade and the city walls just behind it—a boon for a woman who had never before found herself enclosed within so many fortifications.

The Thuet motioned for me to dismount. My legs were weak, and I had to hold on to the Hunnish beast to get my balance. When I was able, I made a move toward the sheepskin curtain that covered the doorway of the hut, but I hesitated when I heard voices inside. The Thuet heard them, too, and in what seemed one motion, he jumped from his horse and threw back the curtain, exposing a young couple. In the Hunnish tongue, he admonished them harshly, his riding crop held threateningly over his head. Holding their garments in front of them, the couple backed out of the hut and bolted. The Thuet lowered his whip and laughed as he watched them flee bare-assed across the open field. Then he turned back to me, his expression fierce again. “Get yourself inside now,” he shouted.

I stepped into the hut, and holding the curtain open, watched anxiously as he cut down the sack from the side of my horse. I told myself that I should be pleased to be in the company of one who spoke my language, but my hatred persisted. He threw the sack in carelessly, so that it fell just short of my feet. Then he entered, drawing the sheepskin curtain behind him so that only a little daylight streamed in.

I looked around in the dim light. There was no window, no hearth. A pile of skins were thrown into one corner, and more skins lined the four walls. “I have come to seek an audience with Attila,” I said.

He laughed.

“I must see Attila,” I reiterated. “I’ve come a long way—”

His hand sliced through the air. “You are not to leave your hut,” he said in a voice that was unnecessarily loud in the tiny space. “A guard will be posted at your door day and night. You are not to attempt to speak to him. You are not to speak to anyone. If you try to escape, you will be killed. Do you understand?”

I did not. His declaration was a contradiction to the ease that had brought me this far. I took a step toward him. “What is your connection to Attila?”

He laughed, then sobered abruptly. “I am Edeco, second in command,” he boasted.

“Then let me speak to the man who is first in command,” I hissed.

Edeco drew his lips back, exposing his teeth. His hand came up from his side slowly, and I lifted my head, bracing for the impact. But his hand faltered and hung in the space between us, quivering for a moment. Then it dropped. He turned and went out.

I stood where I was, considering our exchange. At first it seemed to me that things had changed now, that my run of fortune had come to an end. But then I realized how tired I was; my slumber on the racing horse had done little to relieve my fatigue. Perhaps it was best that my audience with Attila be delayed.

I took the sack from the earthen floor and hid it beneath the pile of skins. Then I took a skin from the top and spread it out and lay down. I fell asleep almost immediately—and found myself in the forest behind my brothers’ hall, walking among the birches.

Someone called out my name, and when I turned, Sigurd was coming up behind me, leading his steed. I ran to him. When I was safe in his embrace, I cried, “Oh, Sigurd, I have been so afraid! I am so glad to have found you. Things will go well enough now. You will not let me face Attila alone, will you?”

He smiled. “I will not,” he said. “I’ll be at your side every moment, as I have been all along, whether you knew it or not.”

I clung to him, my heart almost breaking with emotion. “I have the war sword,” I whispered. “I plan to give it to Attila.”

“Let him have the cursed thing,” Sigurd answered. “For all that it shines like the sun, it brought me nothing but trouble.” There was a warm honey-like scent in the air; it seemed to emanate from Sigurd.

“But if the thing is truly cursed,” I asked, “how is it that it had no effect on me in all the days that I carried it at my side?”

Sigurd only smiled. “Have you thought by what name you will call yourself here?” he asked.

“Brunhild,” I answered.

“It will bring you bad luck to call yourself after someone who loved you so little,” Sigurd replied. “Why not call yourself Ildico?”

“Ildico,” I repeated, and I recalled that Ildico had been the name of the valkyria who had befriended my mother many years ago, the same woman who had brought my eldest brother into the world.

            “Ildico,” I said again, but this time I spoke aloud as well as in my dream, and the sound of my voice awakened me.

I remained motionless for a long time. I had dreamed of Sigurd many times since I had regained my health, but always he was at some distance, riding among other men. Or, if he was close, he was silent and oblivious to my presence.

I gave up the notion of falling asleep again and sat up. He was with me; he had said so. No matter what dangers lay ahead, I would be satisfied if sleep would sometimes bring me the sight of Sigurd’s face and the feel of his embrace, from which my skin was still tingling. But the dream puzzled me, too. Ildico: I had never thought to call myself that. And why had I told Sigurd that I was afraid when I felt no fear? When my madness lingered and made me bold?

The curtain was drawn aside. A Hun woman entered carrying a bowl of meats and breads, a cup, and a large wooden vessel of wine. She set everything down and left without once looking at me. I got up and rushed to the curtain, but she had already turned the corner of the hut. I saw only the guard who had been posted outside, and the sun, which was low in the western sky. I had slept for some time.

I ate with vigor, in a manner that I would have once scolded my brothers for. I was determined not to touch the wine, but as I had no water left in my flask, I took a sip. It did not taste nearly as bad as it had the last time I had tried it on Burgundian lands. I drank more.

When the curtain opened again not long afterward, it was the Thuet, Edeco. He left the curtain open behind him and sat down across from me. I studied his face and sipped at the wine, which made me feel light-headed and even more impudent. “Have you come to hear me speak?” I asked.

Edeco laughed. “I did not come to clear away your crumbs.”

I ignored his sarcasm. “Then I will tell you what I tried to tell you before. I have come a long way, riding for days, to see the face of Attila. I have eaten, I have drunk, I have rested. I would be pleased to be brought to him now.”

Edeco threw his head back and laughed so heartily that I was forced to think of Gunner, who also threw his head back when he laughed. Then Edeco’s face changed. “Why should he see you?”

“I carry a gift for Attila,” I said.

“Attila receives many gifts, most so large that they must be carried in carts pulled by oxen and guarded over by many men.”

“Mine is greater.”

“Show it to me.”

“I’ve told you about it. I will show it only to Attila.”

Edeco jumped to his feet, his blue eyes flashing. As there was only one place in the tiny hut where a person might hide a thing, he went directly to the skins and cast them aside one by one until he had uncovered the sack. Then he turned it upside down and shook it so that its contents—my cloak, the wooden bowl that Guthorm, my dead brother, had once played with, and the straw concealing the war sword—tumbled out. Edeco fell to his knees and tore at the straw until some part of the blade was revealed. Even in the dimming light it blazed, as if excited by his agitation. He swept the rest of the straw aside hastily. Then, with his eyes swimming in their sockets, he ran his fingers over the hilt, tracing its intricate engravings. He turned to me and saw, no doubt, my self-satisfied smile, and he immediately lifted his hand from the thing. He cocked his head as if considering something. Then he came back to sit in front of me, though his eyes continued to stray toward the sword.

I got up slowly and placed the war sword back in the sack. I gathered up the straw and shoved it in after it. Then I put the sack in the corner and covered it over with some of the skins. As I went to sit again, I found, to my disgust, that Edeco was just replacing my wine cup. His hand was quaking. “A thing of great beauty, is it not?” I asked.

He looked away. In profile, the deep scar across his cheek looked even more hideous. I seemed again to smell the warm honey scent that had come to me earlier in my dream. Sigurd had to be there, invisible but beside me, just as he had said. The notion made me giddy. Edeco turned back so sharply that I wondered if I had unwittingly laughed aloud. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Ildico.” The power of transformation seemed to lie within the word itself. I was glad Sigurd had suggested it.

“Who are your people?”

I looked aside. “I have none.”

He took my chin and jerked my head toward him. I was pleased to see my composure reflected in his eyes. “I’m a Thuet!” I sneered.

“I can see that for myself.”

“I was separated from my people when I was a child,” I went on. “A band of Romans cut us down while we were traveling. They killed my parents and my brothers and would have killed me, too, had I been older. But I suppose they did not feel it necessary to redden their swords with a small child’s blood when she would likely starve or be killed by some beast anyway. But as you can see, no beast crossed my path. And I did not starve, either.”

Edeco laughed and let go of my chin roughly. “You look half-starved to me.”

“Aye, half. I ate roots and berries. I grew. I learned to steal from the Thuet tribes I came across in my travels. I learned to hunt. There was no excess, but there was enough. And so you see me as I am.”

Edeco searched my eyes. “If there were other Thuets about, why didn’t you show yourself and beg for mercy?”

“When I was younger, I did not because I was afraid. Having seen my people put to death before my eyes, I had no notion of mercy, and I would not have known how to ask for it anyway since I had no language skills then. As I grew older, I did show myself to other Thuets. I stayed with various tribes from time to time. I learned my language and more. But I longed for the way of life I had become accustomed to.”

“How did you come by the sword?”

I sighed and glanced at my wine cup, contaminated now by this Thuet who was a Hun. “It is no ordinary sword. You have seen that. It was fashioned by Wodan himself, back in the days when the gods roamed the Earth as freely as people do now.”

Edeco’s eyes widened. “How can you be certain?”

“The man it once belonged to told me so.”

“And what man is that?”

“He was called Sigurd, a Frankish noble. Perhaps you have heard of—”

“I have not. Tell me how you came by the thing.”

I stared at him. These matters I had planned to save for Attila’s ears. Now I feared that if I told too much to Edeco, Attila would be satisfied to have the story second-hand. But as it was clear that Edeco would not retreat until I answered him, I explained that long ago the gods had lost the sword to a family of dwarves, and that one of these dwarves, wanting the sword for himself, killed his father. To keep his brothers from confronting him, he changed himself into a dragon and took the sword off into the high mountains. Then, years later, one of the dwarf-dragon’s brothers, Regan, promised the sword to Sigurd if Sigurd would accompany him into the high mountains and help him to avenge his father’s death. I made no mention of the rest of the gold. Nor did I mention the curse.

Edeco heard my words with interest, taking his eyes from mine only long enough to raise the wine cup to his lips now and again. Once, when I hesitated in my discourse to catch my breath, he passed the cup to me. I put my hand up to renounce it but then thought better of it and drank, the shared cup being an emblem of camaraderie. Edeco smiled then, and I was satisfied to think that I might easily deceive him into believing that I had come to the City of Attila as a friend. “And how did you come to steal the sword from the Frank?” Edeco asked.

“I did not steal the sword from Sigurd,” I answered. “After he was dead, I stole it from the man who had gotten it from him. Sigurd loved me. He would have wanted me to have it.”

Edeco squinted. I sighed. “You see,” I explained, spurred by his disbelief to give more details than I might have otherwise, “Sigurd returned from the high mountains with only his horse, the sword, and the heart of the dragon. His companion, the dwarf, changed his mind about giving Sigurd the sword when he saw again what a glorious thing it was. And since the dwarf had bought Sigurd’s assistance with the promise of the sword, Sigurd had no choice but to slay Regan.

“I found Sigurd, forlorn because he’d had to kill an old friend, at the foot of the high mountains, not far from the cave where I lived at the time. He was tired, and confused about what he should say to the Franks concerning Regan’s death. Although Regan was not a Frank, he had lived among them for many years, and the Franks loved him. Sigurd was afraid that they would demand the war sword as his man-price when they learned that Regan was dead. Thus he was only too glad to return to my cave with me until he had settled his mind on the matter. He lingered, and I wrote a rune outside the cave to keep the Franks at bay in case they should be looking for him. This rune-wisdom was taught to me by a peasant woman with whom I stayed for a time and made potent by the gods themselves when they determined that I should become a valkyria.”

I hesitated, but Edeco made no comment on my avowed enlightenment. It occurred to me that perhaps being a Thuet who was not a Thuet, he knew nothing of such matters. “We were well matched,” I continued, “me a valkyria with the power to alter events and Sigurd the man who slayed the dragon. And thus it happened that our admiration for each other grew into something more. But before Sigurd and the dwarf set off on their quest, Sigurd had betrothed himself to a Burgundian woman for whom he no longer cared. Still, being a Thuet, he did not like to defile his betrothal vows. And so it was that our intimacy only served to confuse him further. Thus he stayed on with me, vacillating, making himself ill with worry.

“At length, he reached the decision which a man of his word must. He would return to the Burgundian woman, to let her know that he was safe, and then he would ride to the Franks and tell them the truth about the dwarf. But until he had the Franks’ reaction to this news, his desire was to keep the sword hidden. He decided to leave it with the Burgundians, for safe-keeping. Even then I felt that his decision was less than wise, but I was so in love with Sigurd that I mistook my premonition for envy and made no attempt to stop him from doing what he felt he must.

“He’d been safe enough with me, but my powers are mine, and once he was away from me, I had no means to lay them on him. He saw the Burgundian woman, left the sword with her brothers, and then he went home to inform the Franks of Regan’s death. Later he returned, as he felt he had to, to marry the Burgundian. But shortly after their wedding, her brothers began to behave toward him in a manner which was insulting. The elder of the two complained that Sigurd should have offered the war sword to him as part of his sister’s bride-price. Sigurd’s wife likewise became greedy. It was not enough for her to be married to so great a man, a dragon-slayer. She once heard him call out my name in his sleep. And when he reddened the next morning when she asked, ‘Who is Ildico?’ she became enraged. She conspired with her brothers against him. But he grew wise to their conspiracy, and one day he rode out to see me, to tell me all of this and to ask my advice. I looked into the fire that was burning at the mouth of my cave, and I saw that Sigurd’s wife and her brothers were set on killing him, that his life-blood would be spilt as soon as he returned to them. I told him he must never return. But Sigurd’s wife was already heavy with their child, and though he had every right now to break his vows to her, he had no mind to give up the child. He wanted to go back, to offer the sword to his wife’s brothers in return for his life, and then, once his wife had delivered the child, which he hoped would be a son, to steal the child and the sword and return to me. I begged him to see that it was more than the sword these folk wanted. They wanted the glory that Sigurd would have attained, had he lived, in retrieving it. They wanted Sigurd dead so that they could say that they were the ones who had gone off into the high mountains…

“When I told him this, he shook with rage. He could get used to the idea of giving up the war sword, but to know that the brothers would bask in the glory of his acquisition was too much for him. He was set on returning, now to kill the brothers who would do this to him. I begged him not to go. He went. He was killed.”

I hung my head and waited. At length, Edeco spoke, “How did you come to learn of his death?”

I lifted my face so that he could see the tears that had sprung to my eyes. “I knew because I knew. I had foreseen the event in the fire, and I saw it again later, on the walls of my cave as I lay thinking of Sigurd and wishing him back by my side. I knew, but I was numb with sorrow, and for a long time I did nothing. Then, more recently, I came across a tribe of Thuets, Alans, who were traveling to the Western Empire. They spent one night in my cave, and the one who had a harp sang the song of the war sword as he had learned it from the Burgundian brothers.

“I set them right of course, and they promised they would sing the true version thereafter. And when they were gone, I made my plan. I found my way to Burgundian lands, and, at night, when I felt certain that all within were sleeping, I entered the hall of the brothers and found the sword—no difficult task. You saw yourself how the thing catches light in a way which only an enchanted thing may do. The proud brothers had not even thought to hide it. It was there on the wall above the high seat. I took it down noiselessly, and as soon as it was in my hands, I felt how it was thirsty for blood, how it was made to be sated. You know this, too! I saw your face when you touched the thing! It was all I could do to hold myself back from taking it up against the brothers and the woman as well. But I understood also that this sword, Wodan’s war sword, was meant to cut down armies, not a few insignificant Thuets who would suffer a greater loss than life when they learned the thing was gone. I stole a horse. I rode feverishly. You know the rest.”

I sat back on my heels and drained the rest of the wine from my cup. I could feel Edeco’s eyes on me, burning with wonder. I was burning, too, with pride and something more. I had imparted my tale with vigor. It differed from the one that I had rehearsed with my brothers before my departure, yes, but it was no less a marvel. I had not meant to mention the Burgundians by name, and I could not think why I had done so, but I did not see how it would matter one way or another. And most of all, in spite of all my fabrications, I had managed to be true, or nearly so, to Sigurd. His name and his glory were secure, even here, in the City of Attila.

I set down the wine cup and glanced at the doorway, graced now by the lower edge of the descending sun. The light pouring in was golden.

“Why Attila?” Edeco asked softly.

I was prepared for the question. “Have you heard nothing?” I exclaimed, falling forward and planting my palm on Edeco’s knee. “I grew up in the forest alone, living on what I could steal! I stayed here and there, yes, but only for short periods of time, and not one of those I stayed with ever loved me or considered me one of his own. And, in truth, I preferred my aloneness, until I met Sigurd. Only then did I come to learn what it means to walk in the shadow of a great man, to be called friend by someone whose powers are equal to my own!

“Sigurd is dead, and I will never love a man that way again. But I have come here to seek the company of another great man, to lend my powers to a man who is, perhaps, in his own way, even greater than Sigurd. And I have brought with me the thing which only a great man may possess, the likes of which would cause chaos in the hands of a lesser man.”

I jumped to my feet and tossed aside the skins as carelessly as Edeco had earlier. I reached into the sack, and spilling straw everywhere, pulled forth the war sword and held it up by the hilt. When I turned with it, the hot red orb of the sun was lower yet, filling the space now between the top of the doorway and the high palisade beyond it. And thus the sword became a torch in my hand, a wild, flashing thing which put the sun’s light to shame. Edeco, who had bounded to his feet as well, abandoned his pretense of indifference now and let his mouth drop open. He drew back and shielded his eyes from the sword’s fierce glare. Was it an accident, I wondered in my boldness, that the sun had chosen this moment to set? I had seen that it was setting, but I had made nothing of it; I had not planned to retrieve the sword. Again the warm honey scent permeated the little hut, and I fancied that it was Sigurd who had compelled me to take up the sword at just that instant.

My triumph made me giddy. I heard myself laughing wickedly, as the valkyria Brunhild might have done. In response, Edeco’s expression became even more bewildered, his bright blue eyes darting feverishly from me to the sword to the sun and around again. I felt his fear, his awe. I watched, amused, as he struggled to strike an attitude. His eyes still dancing, he brought his hand up from his side and growled, “Give it to me.”

I drew back. “I will give it only to Attila.”

“I will give it to him for you. You have my word,” he said more gently. “Give it to me. I do not want to have to hurt you.”

I laughed in his face, for as I had the sword, the notion was absurd. But the guard, who had halted his horse to learn the cause of the commotion, had seen the thing now, too. I lowered the sword and handed it to Edeco. He took it up as if it were a fragile thing. The guard saw the exchange and began, reluctantly it seemed, to pace again.

“Attila returns tomorrow,” Edeco said, his gaze sweeping along the length of the sword. “I will keep the sword until then. I will tell him all that you have told me. I have no doubt that he will send for you.” He gestured for the sack.

As soon as he was gone, I spread out the skin I had slept on earlier. I was anxious to see Sigurd again, to discuss with him what I had said and done, if only in a dream. His scent was still heavy in the hut; I had no doubt that his phantom would still be available to me. I lay down and closed my eyes, but my mind was racing, and I could not fall asleep. In spite of my efforts to empty my mind, it bustled with my image, with the way I had spoken, the way I had planted my hand on the Thuet-Hun’s knee, the way I had pulled forth the sword and held it up, as if to silence the setting sun.

I saw myself over and over again as I imagined I had looked to Edeco, a small, thin woman laughing sardonically and holding light itself in her grasp. My only regret was that my audience had not been Attila. I marveled at how evil I had become, at how much I had enjoyed my wicked charade.

But the evening progressed, and, gradually, my conceit was shaded by another perspective. I had drunk from the same cup as my enemy. I had laid my hand on him as if he were a brother. I had despised the Huns all my life, and yet I had spent a time conversing with one—for he was a Hun in mind if not in blood—and it had never once entered my thoughts that this Hun, this Thuet who was a Hun, might well have been in Worms when the blood of my people flowed like a river. When I had held the sword up to the sun, I had felt an impulse to strike Edeco with it, but not because he was my enemy. The truth was more that in holding the thing, I had felt myself an extension of it—and thus had been overcome with an urge to experience its power.

The night was slipping by. I could sense the sun yearning to rise again, and still sleep evaded me. The honey scent was gone now, and I wondered whether I had only imagined it earlier. What force had caused me to mention the Burgundians like that? Would it really make no difference? I had taken some pleasure in marking my brothers as villains. How was that possible? I had even taken pleasure in tainting myself.

Perhaps it was not madness after all that had made me feel so emboldened, so oblivious, so giddy—all feelings that eluded me now as cunningly as sleep. Perhaps, I thought, the curse had found a way to reach me. Since the time I had first received the sword from Gunner’s hand, I had amused myself by thinking that I was too good, too much a true Burgundian, to be contaminated. Now I wondered. Now I was ashamed.

I crawled into the corner and trembled with humiliation. I felt alone, afraid, as if I were a marmot without a tunnel on hand, separated from its colony by time and space and allegiance. I was sick with longing for Sigurd, and I tried with all my being to conjure up his presence again, to detect once more his honey scent. But I smelled nothing but my own fear. And soon I came to suspect that the illusion of Sigurd’s presence, like the illusion of my valor, which had been building for days and days, had been yet another trick of the sword. I was sick with fear and self-loathing. I gagged but could not vomit. And when I had spent myself and finally fell asleep, I dreamed of nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Categories: Historical Fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Chapter reveal: ‘The Last Wife of Attila the Hun’ by Joan Schweighardt

  1. thedarkphantom

    Reblogged this on As The Pages Turn.

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