Prologue – by Ulf Berht – narrated by Asclepius
Hello everyone, this is Asclepius, with a wonderful story from Ulf Berht. It is entitled
Prologue (Ulf Berht’s Bio)
It is the first chapter of a longer story, so stay tuned for more!
Background music by Smartsound
Three summers I have endured this second exile. three winters since I was ripped yet again from all things familiar.
My childhood was cruel, torn as I was from family and friends as our boat foundered in the swirling, rocky rapids of the River Volga. The Brigands on the bank had forced us to risk the river. I watched as one by one my family was swallowed by the torrent. Many times since, I have wished that my mother had not lashed me to some planks before she slipped beneath.
After these small men with round faces had gathered what they could of our trade goods, I was bundled into a wheeled cage stuffed with other human wretches. I survived the long trip, as others did not, because of my value. A blonde child was worth much in the slave markets of Constantinople. Like many of my folk, I was big for my age and was expected to grow into a man as large as any of the Vikings in service to the Byzantine Emperor. I was eventually sold into a clan that specialized in metal work. I was treated well, taught to read Greek and Latin, and became privy to the family secrets of iron and steel.
In my 23rd year, a plague decimated my Master’s clan. On his death bed and with no remaining family, my Master granted me my freedom and his remaining stock. The Emperor taxed most of it, but enough was left for me to be well off. I was no longer a barbarian from the North. I was literate, well-travelled, and determined to return closer to home.
Denmark was now my chosen destination, but fickle winds forced my passage onto the southern shores of Britain, near where the River Tamar flows out to the sea. Monks from a nearby abbey arrived before the wreckers did, so most of my stock survived the beaching. I was injured, but my Greek and Latin lessened any suspicions about my intentions and heritage. The same monks aided my recuperation, so I was soon about. I was taken in with the beauty of the land and became content to settle. An abbey is always in need of a blacksmith and my reputation grew from there.
To incur the wrath of beings that care not about human suffering is a punishment beyond comprehension. I committed no heinous crime, I transgressed no moral lore nor the divine teachings of any prophet. I sought only to ply an honest trade and practice an art painfully won.
I curse the day I crossed paths with the enigma known as Merlin. His gold was pure and the offered purse was heavy, so I took it up without hesitation. “Ply your trade,” he said. “Craft me a sword better than any you have forged before. It must be fit for a king, for that is its destiny. Spare no coin, avoid no sweat, and fear not for loss of trade; no expense will be too great.”
My past Master had, on occasion, sent me to Sri Lanka to observe native craftsmen making the ore cakes necessary for Damascus Steel. I remember watching the monsoon winds drive gigantic bellows and marvelling as the heat turned rain into steam a man’s height above the furnace. In the inferno of this furnace, the alchemy of magnetic lodestone, found only in this island’s mines, combined with the finest ironwood charcoal to produce a steel superior to all others. Barely 10 Roman pounds of these ingots survived my travels and the best of these I committed to Merlin.
My two strongest apprentices and I, with heat and hammers beat the glowing bricks into strips as thin as parchment, folded them together and beat them again and again. The last step I alone undertook: two days in a secret chamber that was encased in many layers of peat. The first day was a test of mortal endurance, keeping the heat in the room as hot as I could withstand, gently quenching the blade with my own sweat. The second day was not much better as I allowed the chamber to slowly cool.
I should have known things were more than they seemed. I needed a day to recover, so I took a stroll along the river bank and stopped to feed some elegant white swans. Without a sound, she was standing beside me. Layers of the most delicate fabric covered her entirely, yet almost on their own seem to flutter and flow around her. Shapes and shadows followed her form and enticed the most unseemly feelings within me. Her eyes were a blue that I had not seen since voyaging on the Mediterranean sea.
“Ulf,” she said, “my name is Ninianne.” I am consort to Merlin. He has asked that you take this ruby and attach it to the pommel of the sword. He also asks that you make the hilt out of bronze.”
My wits were addled by her beauty. I held out my hand and into it she placed a ruby the size of a hen’s egg. I started to stammer about the impossibility of separating sword and hilt when the ruby slipped from my hand and fell to the ground. I bent over to pick it up but when I stood up she was gone, and one swan was gliding silently away. As I made my way home, I resolved to return the ruby to Merlin and to explain the folly of separating blade and hilt. I was suspicious about the nature of this request, but the image of her curves and shadows and flowing gauze lingers to this day.
Within a month the sword was finished, the days of grinding and polishing were done, the edge was keen, and the blade’s balance was perfect. A piece of silk fluttering to the ground could be sliced in mid air. Under the most ferocious of thrusts, the blade merely bent and sprang back into shape. I was confident that no sword known to man could best this blade. With pride, I polished the carefully embossed letters +ULFBERHT+ in the runnel. Light played light on the swirling damask patterns.
I was not surprised the next morning when I saw a grayish white stallion hitched outside my house. Merlin was leaning against a fencepost, smoking from a long stemmed pipe. “I cannot take the sword until the next dark moon. Meet me before midnight at the ring of stones east of here and you will get your final payment.”
“It is not my habit to be abroad at night, let alone during a dark moon.”
“Fear not. No harm will come to you this night. Symril will come for you. He knows the way and can outrun anything with legs. Some say he can even fly. You, the craftsman, must present me with the sword within the ring of stones if I am to impart the sword with an everlasting edge.”
“As you wish,” I said. “I must return this ruby, for it cannot be part of any sword I make.” A flicker of consternation crossed his face as I produced the gem.
He did not reach for the stone. Instead, Merlin stepped back. “How did this come into your possession? I made no request for such an adornment.”
Upon hearing of my riverbank meeting, his face darkened with anger. “Ninianne is more of an apprentice than consort and is prone to take advantage of my feelings for her. It is my intention that she be eventually entrusted with the blade’s safekeeping. She is to have it until the king comes of age.” He was silent for a while, then continued.
“She seeks to have power and influence over the sword and to meddle in affairs beyond her comprehension. This must not happen. The sword must not get into her possession before my tasks are complete. Give your word that this will not take place.”
“Of course,” I agreed. “I will keep it in a place known only to me and inaccessible to others.”
He mounted Symril. “In light of what you say, there are additional preparations for me to undertake. Three days hence, at sunset, Symril will come for you. Bring the sword, ride as swiftly as you can to the ring of stones, and all will be well.”
He was out of sight before I realized my hand still clutched the ruby. I quickly ran inside and placed the sword and the stone in the peat covered chamber, locked its door, and concealed the entrance.
Until my nocturnal appointment, I avoided approaching any body of water larger than the bucket in my well and, except for the necessities of life, remained indoors. Nonetheless, the fates always conspire to thwart the goals of men.
During the night of the second day, I had a dream that Ninianne came to me. As she approached my bed, her gossamer raiments drifted away as she offered herself to me. I refused her advances and her eyes blazed with fury. Suddenly I was holding her at bay with the newly crafted sword. I was transfixed as she reached out and clutched the sword. Blood flowed down the blade but, like water on a sponge, just soaked into the blade and was gone. I awoke with a start. Cold sweat ran down my spine. As I ran to the entrance, I saw that it was still completely hidden. Fearing a ploy, I did not open the door. For the remainder of that sleepless night, I sat staring into my fire.
After sunup I searched, without success, for any sign of an intruder around the house and grounds. Only then did I venture into the secret chamber. All seemed undisturbed until I saw bloodstains on the floor. My knees weakened with fear. Was it my imagination that the swirling patterns on the blade seemed darker? Was it the just the light? What do I tell Merlin?
At sunset Symril walked up to my house fully saddled. I gathered up sword and stone, mounted up, and we galloped off into the dusk. Being astride a horse that needed no guidance was an experience I have no wish to repeat. My only thoughts were a prayer that Merlin’s reassuring words held true.
It was full dark when we arrived, but the circle was visible a long way off. Each stone had upon it several candles, which in turn softly illuminated the surrounding mist. Both Merlin and Ninianne were standing near the center gesturing extravagantly and speaking loudly.
“It is I who must bestow the sword on Arthur,” I clearly heard Merlin exclaim. “He must draw it from a stone. You have no influence or rights in this matter.”
“No! No! No!” Was Ninianne’s reply. “The prophecy requires the Lady of the Lake to rise from the water and give it to him. And I do have some sway. It is my blood the blade first drew. Is that not correct, Ulf Berht?”
I entered the circle and lay the sword on a convenient stone. “As the craftsman who made this and still its owner, do I not have any say?” I asked.
To this day I have the clearest of memories of the following events. Merlin, you turned to face me. Your mouth opened in surprise as your right arm rose, palm down with knuckles facing me, the universal sign of dismissal. Ninianne’s arm was up, palm towards me, giving the universal sign to halt. Total darkness enveloped me. I remember falling for both an eternity and for an instant.
Without feeling any bump or stagger, I was standing within an unlit ring of stones, dawn’s light casting its golden hue all about me. Several sheep grazed in lush green meadows.
I must be dead and this is heaven, I thought. But there are no angels nor virgins nor Valkari about. Everything was different. The light, the air, the color of the distant sea, were of no realm to which I’d been. I was somewhere else.