Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sir Siegfried and the Snowbeast

Laird Colyne Stewart
Jan AS XL (2006)

Once, not so long ago, a knight traveled on horseback through the countryside of Ardchreag. His name was Sir Siegfried Brandbeorn, and he was a knight of the realm, a baron of the court, a constable, juror and aldorman of Ardchreag, and the sheriff of Ommemee. Though he was laden with titles he was a humble man, and was much loved within his canton.

On this winter night he was riding his horse back towards his home in the county of Sieghurst, in north-west Ardchreag. The snow was falling from an overcast sky, and the trees and pathways were covered in white. He stopped for a moment at a Shrine to Saint Crispinus. The tall wooden shrine was painted with scenes of the Saint’s life, and a bucket sat on a shelf within it. Around the bottom of the shrine several empty bottles stood vigil. Pulling out a small bottle of mead, Siegfried drank deeply, then splashed the remaining liquid on the ground in memory of lost friends. He placed his bottle amongst the others and continued on his way.

Not too long after, he found a man lying in the snow. The man was dressed in the uniform of the Cliffguard, with a broken sword at his side. His body had been rent by what looked like huge claws, and his blood had soaked into the snow. Hearing a soft footfall behind him, Siegfried spun around, drawing his sword with his left hand.

Standing on its hind legs near his horse was a large fox, its red fur speckled with snow. One of its black ears had a tear in it, and its eye twinkled in the light of the setting sun. Siegfried recognized this as Todett, a known trickster, reputedly descended from Reynard the Fox. Standing tall, Siegfried pointed his sword at the fox and asked, “What happened here?”

The fox smirked (as only a smug fox can) and said, “I hope you don’t think I had anything to do with that? Not very subtle, is it, great big gashes in the body. My claws aren’t nearly big enough to make wounds that large anyway.” He paused, then added, “Of course, just because I didn’t do it, doesn’t mean I don’t know who did.”

Siegfried’s sword moved a fraction closer to the fox. “Tell me,” he said in a low voice. “Tell me who or what murdered this good and loyal guardian of my homeland.”

Not answering right away, the fox reached up and began going through Siegfried’s saddle bags. “You have heard of Merflin the Wizard, yes? A powerful, and rather mad, sorcerer who once roamed these parts many, many years ago. Long before you and the other founders came east from the great city to build your forts, manors and dockyards, Merflin ruled these lands through fear and magic.” The fox found some dried meat and stopped talking long enough to devour it. “One of Merflin’s favourite pastimes was creating life. Or, I suppose to be more accurate, merging life. Putting a living being together with either a second living being, or even an inanimate object, to create some new grotesquerie. In fact, some people say that’s how I was born. Foolishness, of course, for I have a long and noble lineage, all the way back to Reynard of France. Still, there’s no stopping rumours is there?”

Siegfried was beginning to get impatient. “To the point.”

“Well, rumours—you remember those rumours I was mentioning?—well those rumours say that one of the creatures Merflin created was a cross between a deranged hermit who was a known cannibal, preying on travels, and one of the great white bears that roam these lands you men have now called Septentria. It is said to only hunt at winter, when the snow falls.” The fox held out a paw and let the falling snow gather on his pad. “It was called the Snowbeast of Garvarden.”

Siegfried’s eyes flicked from one tree to another, trying to see if anything was moving in the snow. “You are telling me this monstrous bear killed this man?”

“I’m telling you that legends sometimes walk,” said the fox, doing a side-step to illustrate. He stopped and looked squarely and deeply into the knight’s eyes. “And sometimes, they kill.”

“Then I must hunt and track this beast,” said Siegfried striding to his horse.

“I’m sure you must, but beware. As I said, part of the Snowbeast is the soul of a cannibal, yet it left this body behind.” For a moment the fox looked concerned. “Some nefarious plot may be afoot.” Seemingly from no where, the fox produced a whistle, which it handed to the knight. “When you find the beast, blow on this, and help will arrive. They can never catch me, but they may be able to help you. Now, the snow is covering the beast’s tracks, but I can start you on the path.” So saying, Todett led Siegfried to the side of a tall pine, whose wide branches sheltered the earth underneath it. Stamped deep into the needles on the earth was a gigantic paw print, easily as large as the knight’s head.

Using this print as a starting point, Siegfried mounted his horse and rode into the trees. He did not put on his helm, for with the setting sun and blowing snow, visibility was already poor. Before long he was forced to light a torch.

After riding for twenty minutes or so, he saw the flare of other torches up ahead. Hoping that he might be able to find someone else who had seen the Snowbeast he rode into a clearing. Set at regular intervals about the clearing were tall braziers, whose flames lit up the deepening evening. Sitting on a horse in the middle of the clearing was a tall mantled figure, dressed all in green. His armour was green, his helm was green, even his horse appeared to be green. Only his mantling was a different colour: white, and cut in the shape of arrows. He held a long lance in his gauntleted hand.

Siegfried drew up before this knight and hailed him. The knight did not immediately answer, and sat, seemingly studying the blue-clad stranger before it. Eventually it said, “You may not pass.”

Siegfried explained that he must in fact pass, and told the green knight of his mission.

“I do not care for the quarrels of men,” said the green knight. “Once, before you brought your axes and fires here, before Merflin and other brigands like him felled our trees, there was only us, and the wild. For we are the wild. And now the wild would have revenge. I am le vert chevalier de foret. If you would continue your quest, you must once again prove your strength over the landscape within which you dwell. For I am that landscape. I am the wild. And I am sore wroth with your kind.”

“But spirit,” said Siegfried, for surely a spirit this must be, “The people of Ardchreag take only what they need. We only cut what trees we must to provide shelter and warmth. We only take what animals and fish we need to consume.”

“The wild is unforgiving,” said the rider, “and therefore so am I. You must tilt with me if you would pass. Otherwise, you die.”

Siegfried looked around the clearing, and saw that the branches of the surrounding tress had locked themselves together. There was no escape from this combat, even if he had been inclined to flee.

“Very well,” he said, “but I have no lance.” Suddenly, a slender tree sprouted out of the ground at his horse’s feet. When he clasped this tree in his hand it turned into a polished and well made lance.

The two jousters made their way to opposite ends of the clearing. Siegfried saluted the green rider, who barely dipped its lance in return. Somewhere, a raven croaked, and at the noise the two horses thundered towards each other. They met with a crash, but neither rider fell. They reset themselves and rushed again, and this time Siegfried’s lance caught the green rider in the armpit and threw him from his saddle. Siegfried leapt to the ground, drawing his sword. The green rider lay still as Siegfried placed his sword it his throat.

“I yield,” said the green rider sullenly. “Once again I yield, as it seems I always must.”

Sheathing his sword, Siegfried helped the green rider to his feet. “My friend,” he said, “I pledge to you, as a knight, that we do and will only take what we need from you. I pledge that Ardchreag’s woodwards, brooklookers, foresters and jacks will protect you from plundering. It is true that mankind must live off the wild, but we will do so with care.”

The green rider’s eyes, just visible behind his helm, looked long into Siegfried’s face. Finally, he said, “I believe you.” He held out his hand and an acorn grew out of his palm. “Take this,” he said. “When you find this Snowbeast, take the cap off the acorn. It will aid you.”

Siegfried thanked the green rider, then continued on his way.

Before long, he stopped before a low hill that blocked his path. As he was about to walk his horse over it, it shook slightly, moving the snow that had gathered on top of it. Underneath the white Siegfried saw what looked like a brown shell. As he watched, two eyes appeared on the side of the hill, and then a head and neck as the giant turtle came out of its shell. Its face was long and worn, and Siegfried could tell it had seen many years. As it ponderously shook off the snow, the knight could see its small withered wings, and knew that this flying turtle must be ancient indeed, for its wings to no longer be able to carry it aloft.

“Who are you?” asked the turtle in a wheezy voice.

“I am Sir Siegfried, knight and constable, on a quest to slay a murderous beast,” he answered. “And who do I have the honour to address?”

“I have no name,” wheezed the turtle. “I was born before things had names. However, you may call me Grandfather. I have lived a very long time, and I have seen a great many things, and I believe I know of this creature you seek. It is one of the abominations created by Merflin, I take it?”

“It is.”
“A terrible rogue, that man. He lived far too long. Worse even than the Cockentrice.” The turtle blinked its watery eyes. “If you would do an old turtle a favour, I would aid you on your quest.”

“Of course,” said the knight. “What may I do?”

“My clutch is all long dead, my relations now so far removed that none of them regard me as family anymore. I have no visitors here so deep in the wild, except for the occasional goblins who like to throw things at me. Play a game with me.”

To this Siegfried agreed, and the turtle pulled a chess board from under itself. Siegfried set up the pieces, and the two played. Siegfried found the turtle to be an exceptional player, and was hard pressed just to hold his own. Eventually, as he knew he must, he tipped his king. “Well played,” he said.

The turtle sighed happily. “Thank you. It had been a long time since I played.” It once more reached under its shell, this time pulling out a large egg. “Take this. Break it when you have need. It will aid you.”

Siegfried thanked the turtle, and promised to soon return when he could stay longer. He then rode deeper and deeper into the woods.

The sun by now had set completely, and Siegfried was swallowed by darkness. Only the feeble light of his single torch cast any light. The snow fell so heavily that its weight almost put the torch’s fire out. Deep red stains began to appear in the snow, creating an obvious trail. Siegfried distrusted obvious trails, but he rode on, impatient to finally met and put an end to the Snowbeast of Garvarden.

Soon enough he rode into another clearing, at the base of a mountain. Before a cave sat a great white bear, at least twice the size of Siegfried’s horse. Its teeth were longer than daggers, and its claws were like swords. Its muzzle was coated with red foam, and its very human eyes glared evilly from its deep brow. On the ground all about it lay bones and scraps of cloth.

“I did not know if you would come,” it said in a deep rumbling voice, spraying foam as it spoke.

“Did you think I would fear the likes of you?” answered the knight boldly.

“If you do not, you are a fool,” answered the Snowbeast. It leaned forward and grinned. “Tell me,” it said, “of the founders of your fair village, how many remain?”

Siegfried looked confused. “Myself, and the Honourable Lord Raffe Scholemaystre, though he has not been seen much of late.”

“And aldormen,” continued the beast, “how many aldermen do you have? How many settlers have been with you long enough to become aldermen?”

“Myself, and Raffe, and Lord Eirik Andersen my loyal squire,” answered the knight. “Why do you ask this?”

The Snowbeast laughed, a sound like boulders grinding against each other, while pulverizing some living creature between them. “Where do you think the others have gone? Where did the other founders go? Where do all the long time residents go? The answer is strewn on the ground all about you. I take them. Each winter I cull your herd and take the older, the more experienced. That Clifffguard I killed was just a lure, a lure for you. For this year, it is your turn to die at my claws.”

Siegfried pulled his sword. “I think not. I think this winter it is your turn to die, you foul abomination.”

“Come then, if you are so confident,” growled the beast. “Come slay me, mighty warrior.” And with a roar, the beast attacked. Siegfried met it bravely, and his sword left deep rents in the thing’s flesh, but it was fury incarnate, and it did not stop. Before long, Siegfried found himself bloody and bruised, his ribs broken, and his sword shattered. The creature laughed as the knight crawled away, putting distance between himself and it. Standing painfully to his feet, Siegfried reached into his saddle bag and pulled out the egg Grandfather had given him. With a grunt he threw it at the Snowbeast’s feet.

The egg shattered and yolk and clear fluid splattered all over the ground. The beast laughed derisively, and took a step forward. It tried to take a second, but found its feet now glued to the ground. As the creature roared in anger and tried to rip its feet free, Siegfried pulled out the acorn, and using his thumb, popped off the cap. Instantly, the acorn grew into a longbow, with one arrow fletched with green and white. Siegfried took careful aim, and sank the arrow deep into the Snowbeast’s throat. Blood gushed out of its throat as the Snowbeast began to thrash. Siegfried thought for a moment that it was going to die, but with a tremendous effort of will, the beast pulled itself free from the egg and began to plod towards him.

Now Siegfried took out Todett’s whistle and blew on it. At first he thought it had not worked, since he did not hear a sound. He blew on it again, frantically, but again nothing seemed to happen. Then, off in the distance but quickly getting closer, he could hear the baying of hounds. Suddenly, bounding out of the trees came two dozen fox hounds, that launched themselves at the Snowbeast. It lashed out with its claws, blood still pooling from its throat, and laid waste to some of its attackers. However, the rest of the dogs tore great chunks free from its legs, back and stomach and soon it was lying in a huge pool of gore, its life seeping away into the snow. Only two dogs had survived, and they sat and watched as Siegfried slowly walked up to the Snowbeast and delivered the coup de grace with a large rock, caving in the top of the beast’s skull.

From that day forward the Snowbeast of Garvarden troubled no one ever again. The bones of those it had slain were gathered and given proper burial. The two dogs went with Siegfried to his manor and joined his hunting pack, and Siegfried kept his word to both Grandfather and the green rider, going back often to play games with the old turtle, and making sure that no one took more than they needed from the forest.

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