The Shadow Of The Thunder-oak
Withered leaves still clung to the branches of the oak: torn and
faded banners of the departed summer. The bright crimson of autumn
had long since disappeared, bleached away by the storms and the
cold. But to-night these tattered remnants of glory were red
again: ancient bloodstains against the dark-blue sky. For an
immense fire had been kindled in front of the tree. Tongues of
ruddy flame, fountains of ruby sparks, as
ended through the
spreading limbs and flung a fierce illumination upward and around.
ward and around. The pale, pure moonlight that bathed the
surrounding forests was quenched and eclipsed here. Not a beam of
it sifted down-ward through the branches of the oak. It stood like
a pillar of cloud between the still light of heaven and the
crackling, flashing fire of earth.
But the fire itself was invisible to Winfried and his companions.
A great throng of people were gathered around it in a half-circle,
their backs to the open glade, their faces towards the oak. Seen
against that glowing background, it was but the silhouette of a
crowd, vague, black, formless, mysterious.
The travellers paused for a moment at the edge of the thicket, and
took counsel together.
"It is the assembly of the tribe," said one of the foresters, "the
great night of the council. I heard of it three days ago, as we
passed through one of the villages. All who swear by the old gods
have been summoned. They will sacrifice a steed to the god of war,
and drink blood, and eat horse-flesh to make them strong. It will
be at the peril of our lives if we approach them. At least we must
hide the cross, if we would escape death."
"Hide me no cross," cried Winfried, lifting his staff, "for I have
come to show it, and to make these blind folk see its power. There
is more to be done here to-night than the slaying of a steed, and
a greater evil to be stayed than the shameful eating of meat
sacrificed to idols. I have seen it in a dream. Here the cross
must stand and be our rede."
At his command the sledge was left in the border of the wood, with
two of the men to guard it, and the rest of the company moved
forward across the open ground. They approached unnoticed, for all
the multitude were looking intently towards the fire at the foot
of the oak.
Then Winfried's voice rang out, "Hail, ye sons of the forest! A
stranger claims the warmth of your fire in the winter night."
Swiftly, and as with a single motion, a thousand eyes were bent
upon the speaker. The semicircle opened silently in the middle;
Winfried entered with his followers; it closed again behind them.
Then, as they looked round the curving ranks, they saw that the
hue of the assemblage was not black, but white,--dazzling,
radiant, solemn. White, the robes of the women clustered together
at the points of the wide crescent; white, the glittering byrnies
of the warriors standing in close ranks; white, the fur mantles of
the aged men who held the central place in the circle; white, with
the shimmer of silver ornaments and the purity of lamb's-wool, the
raiment of a little group of children who stood close by the fire;
white, with awe and fear, the faces of all who looked at them; and
over all the flickering, dancing radiance of the flames played and
glimmered like a faint, vanishing tinge of blood on snow.
The only figure untouched by the glow was the old priest, Hunrad,
with his long, spectral robe, flowing hair and beard, and dead-pale
face, who stood with his back to the fire and advanced slowly to
meet the strangers.
"Who are you? Whence come you, and what seek you here?" His voice
was heavy and toneless as a muffled bell.
"You kinsman am I, of the German brotherhood," answered Winfried,
"and from England, beyond the sea, have I come to bring you a
greeting from that land, and a message from the All-Father, whose
servant I am."
"Welcome, then," said Hunrad, "welcome, kinsman, and be silent;
for what passes here is too high to wait, and must be done before
the moon crosses the middle heaven, unless, indeed, thou hast some
sign or token from the gods. Canst thou work miracles?"
The question came sharply, as if a sudden gleam of hope had
flashed through the tangle of the old priest's mind. But
Winfried's voice sank lower and a cloud of disappointment passed
over his face as he replied: "Nay, miracles have I never wrought,
though I have heard of many; but the All-Father has given no power
to my hands save such as belongs to common man."
"Stand still, then, thou common man," said Hunrad, scornfully,
"and behold what the gods have called us hither to do. This night
is the death-night of the sun-god, Baldur the Beautiful, beloved
of gods and men. This night is the hour of darkness and the power
of winter, of sacrifice and mighty fear. This night the great
Thor, the god of thunder and war, to whom this oak is sacred, is
grieved for the death of Baldur, and angry with this people
because they have forsaken his worship. Long is it since an
offering has been laid upon his altar, long since the roots of his
holy tree have been fed with blood. Therefore its leaves have
withered before the time, and its boughs are heavy with death.
Therefore the Slavs and the Wends have beaten us in battle.
Therefore the harvests have failed, and the wolf-hordes have
ravaged the folds, and the strength has departed from the bow, and
the wood of the spear has broken, and the wild boar has slain the
huntsman. Therefore the plague has fallen on our dwellings, and
the dead are more than the living in all our villages. Answer me,
ye people, are not these things true?"
A hoarse sound of approval ran through the circle. A chant, in
which the voices of the men and women blended, like the shrill
wind in the pine-trees above the rumbling thunder of a waterfall,
rose and fell in rude cadences.
O Thor, the Thunderer,
Mighty and merciless,
Spare us from smiting!
Heave not thy hammer,
Angry, against us;
Plague not thy people.
Take from our treasure
Richest of ransom.
Silver we send thee,
Jewels and javelins,
All our possessions,
Priceless, we proffer.
Sheep will we slaughter,
Steeds will we sacrifice;
Bright blood shall bathe thee,
O tree of Thunder,
Life-floods shall lave thee,
Strong wood of wonder.
Mighty, have mercy,
Smite us no more,
Spare us and save us,
Spare us, Thor! Thor!
With two great shouts the song ended, and a stillness followed so
intense that the crackling of the fire was heard distinctly. The
old priest stood silent for a moment. His shaggy brows swept down
over his eyes like ashes quenching flame. Then he lifted his face
"None of these things will please the god. More costly is the
offering that shall cleanse your sin, more precious the crimson
dew that shall send new life into this holy tree of blood. Thor
claims your dearest and your noblest gift."
Hunrad moved nearer to the handful of children who stood watching
the red mines in the fire and the swarms of spark-serpents darting
upward. They had heeded none of the priest's words, and did not
notice now that he approached them, so eager were they to see
which fiery snake would go highest among the oak branches.
Foremost among them, and most intent on the pretty game, was a boy
like a sunbeam, slender and quick, with blithe brown eyes and
laughing lips. The priest's hand was laid upon his shoulder. The
boy turned and looked up in his face.
"Here," said the old man, with his voice vibrating as when a thick
rope is strained by a ship swinging from her moorings, "here is
the chosen one, the eldest son of the Chief, the darling of the
people. Hearken, Bernhard, wilt thou go to Valhalla, where the
heroes dwell with the gods, to bear a message to Thor?"
The boy answered, swift and clear:
"Yes, priest, I will go if my father bids me. Is it far away?
Shall I run quickly? Must I take my bow and arrows for the
The boy's father, the Chieftain Gundhar, standing among his
bearded warriors, drew his breath deep, and leaned so heavily on
the handle of his spear that the wood cracked. And his wife, Irma,
bending forward from the ranks of women, pushed the golden hair
from her forehead with one hand. The other dragged at the silver
chain about her neck until the rough links pierced her flesh, and
the red drops fell unheeded on the snow of her breast.
A sigh passed through the crowd, like the murmur of the forest
before the storm breaks. Yet no one spoke save Hunrad:
"Yes, my Prince, both bow and spear shalt thou have, for the way
is long, and thou art a brave huntsman. But in darkness thou must
journey for a little space, and with eyes blindfolded. Fearest
"Naught fear I," said the boy, "neither darkness, nor the great
bear, nor the were-wolf. For I am Gundhar's son, and the defender
of my folk."
Then the priest led the child in his raiment of lamb's-wool to a
broad stone in front of the fire. He gave him his little bow
tipped with silver, and his spear with shining head of steel. He
bound the child's eyes with a white cloth, and bade him kneel
beside the stone with his face to the east. Unconsciously the wide
arc of spectators drew inward toward the centre, as the ends of
the bow draw together when the cord is stretched. Winfried moved
noiselessly until he stood close behind the priest.
The old man stooped to lift a black hammer of stone from the
ground,--the sacred hammer of the god Thor. Summoning all the
strength of his withered arms, he swung it high in the air. It
poised for an instant above the child's fair head--then turned to
One keen cry shrilled out from where the women stood: "Me! take
me! not Bernhard!"
The flight of the mother towards her child was swift as the
falcon's swoop. But swifter still was the hand of the deliverer.
Winfried's heavy staff thrust mightily against the hammer's handle
as it fell. Sideways it glanced from the old man's grasp, and the
black stone, striking on the altar's edge, split in twain. A shout
of awe and joy rolled along the living circle. The branches of the
oak shivered. The flames leaped higher. As the shout died away the
people saw the lady Irma, with her arms clasped round her child,
and above them, on the altar-stone, Winfried, his face shining
like the face of an angel.