Child's Book of Warriors - William Canton

Sword and Cross

[Illustration] from Child's Book of Warriors by William Canton

In the eastern valleys of the Biharia Mountains survive the remains of a people unlike any other in Transylvania; once, as they declare, a powerful race and lords of all the land north of the bright windings of the River Maros. They live in quaint villages which retain the shape of the old waggon laagers of their ancestors. On a grassy mound in the open space within the village stands the timber church, with its green spire and red walls. They have a breed of dogs, brought from their ancient home in the East, and these are not to be matched for strength, speed, and intelligence.

Although they are good Christians, strange beliefs and traditions of a far-off time are mingled with their creed; and the most curious token of this is the cross they preserve in the oldest of their churches as a copy of the first cross venerated by their forefathers. It is of great age and of a singular form. Instead of a figure of the Redeemer, a sword, the hilt and cross-bar of which are banded with gold and roughly set with garnets and topazes of many colours, is sunk into the wood, and held in its place with strips of silver.

The old travellers have made many guesses as to the meaning of the cross inlaid with the jewelled sword; this is its story.

When Kunda, the King of the Urogs, was very old he dreamed a dream; and he called together his warrior chiefs and the priests and magicians. Armed with bow and lance, net and whip, they gathered about him on their horses, as was their custom, and hoary and nearly blind with years, he sat in the midst of them on his saddle and told his dream.

"Speak to the children of the Sword," he said, "and bid them make ready for long wanderings. We are called hence into the ways of the setting sun. For in my sleep I heard the cry of the Sword, and this was the cry: 'Open thine eyes and watch whither I go. Thither, too, shall my children go, roaming far, fighting often, resting little, till I shall bring them into the land which I shall win for them.' Yea, and I beheld the Sword. It was brandished before me as by a mighty hand unseen: and as I watched, it travelled across the rolling steppes, through swamps and forests, over sweeping rivers, and once through the midst of a vast water. At sunrise the blade and the jewels glittered with light; at nightfall, when the sun went down beyond it, its shadow stretched across the world to my feet. Sometimes the unseen hand bore it lightly, but often it seemed to hew its way as it went. Far away it climbed through rocks and trees to the chine of high mountains. There its point was lowered and waved right and left, and as I looked down from the mountains this was the cry of the Sword: 'This is the land. Speak to my children and bid them come and take possession.' Then the hand brandished the blade aloft, fixed it in the rock by the hilt, snatched it up again, and planted it point downwards."

And the old king, gazing round on these wild, eager-eyed nomads who had seen but the sandy deserts sprinkled with thorns, and the marshy shores of the Caspian, and the illimitable steppes which turned to a dull brown when the spring rains had ceased, told of a land more rich and beautiful than it seemed possible for the world to contain—a land of shadows as well as of sun, of game as well as of pasture, where hunger and thirst were unknown. "But why the Sword was first planted point upwards and then reversed, that," he said, "I know not."

All that year the tribes prepared for their emigration, and in the following spring, when the grasses flowered shoulder-high on the wide prairies, a mighty multitude gathered for their exodus; the women and children in numberless ox-waggons, the men on the swift little horses from which they seemed to be inseparable.

Before they set out, the great Sword which they worshipped was unwound from its silk wrappings and reared upon the mound of sacrifice. The priests chanted their savage hymn of the red death. Seven men, captured in a raid undertaken for the sacrifice, were led forth, and one by one the priests slew them with the Sword. While the victims fell and the idol was again planted, with its hilt buried in the turf to the jewelled cross-bar, and the blade reddened with slaughter, the barbaric chant rose once more from the mound:

"Drink thy seven-fold cup, thou glittering god!

With treasure we have decked thee,

Fair of colour is thy raiment;

Drink, shining hero, and quench thy thirst!

What sons hast thou to avenge thee?

None, if we are not thy sons.

What brides hast thou?

Our women are thy brides.

Be ever gracious and victorious,

Lest our worship be turned to a song of reviling;

March mightily before us,

Lest we leave thee wifeless and childless."

Twice during that long journey the tall grasses of the steppes were burnt up in the blaze of summer, and twice the winter beat with snow and hail on their waggon-laager. Spaces strewn with whitened bones marked for many a year where they stood and fought and conquered and pushed on again to the country of the vision. For centuries afterwards shepherds watched their flocks on the vast plains from the tops of the mounds in which they laid their great warriors fallen; the little heaps which covered those who had sickened and died by the way were but as waves of the mid sea, visible for a moment and then lost for ever in the waste.

Following a hunted stag, they forded the shallows of the Sea of Azov; how they carried their long team of waggons over the broad rivers of the West is still an unexplained wonder.

In the third springtime they came to the mountain forests and ascended to the blue summits from which Kunda had seen the Sword pointing downwards and waving right and left over the inheritance of the Urogs.

The aged king looked down from the top of the pass, but to his dim eyes all below was a vague brightness. "Is it indeed," he asked, "a fair land of sun and shadow? Was the cry of the Sword a song of truth?"

"No fairer land have I ever beheld," replied Zagon the high priest.

It was that Dacia beyond Danube and the deep woods which Trajan had conquered, and which the Romans had abandoned to the barbarians over a hundred years. The great roads still traversed it, reaching out into infinite distance; and these silent highways which had overawed the northern invaders were now to fill the Urogs with more amazement than the ruined temples and the forsaken cities. Large trees had spread their branches over the old camps; a darker growth of legends—wild stories of phantoms and deadly hoards of treasure arose around the grass-grown streets and pillared forums; and the spell of these mysterious remains was to fall upon the new-comers.

"Over all," said Zagon, "there is a dazzle of gold; green and wide are the pastures; strange encampments too, I see—folk, doubtless, who dwell in tents and laagers of stone, such as those we slew on the plains."

"Then peace be on thy head, O Sword, thou glittering god of the world!" cried Kunda; "Now I have lived long enough." And as the hoary man spoke he sank forward on his horse's neck.

When they raised him up they found that he was dead. His son Haba was chosen in his place, and bearing the old king with them they poured down the mountains into the land which the Sword had promised.

That sudden invasion brought Goths and Getes face to face with an enemy more fierce and ruthless even than themselves. The swarms of horsemen scattered and wheeled and dashed round them like a scurry of clouds in a tempest. They charged in a flight of arrows or a rush of spears. If the Goths broke and fled, trained packs of dogs, half-wolf, with spiked collars, pursued them and pulled them down. Did a champion shake his long yellow hair and stride out for single combat, a net was flung over him and he was cut down amid shrieks of laughter. Even within the trenches death hovered over the camp fires, for the archers of the night were abroad, and every gleam of flame was a mark for, an arrow. And upon the town walls the defenders learned to be wary, for as a troop of flying horsemen swept past, one would ride nearer and suddenly swing his whip round his head; a slender thong would flash like a living thing over a space of thirty feet and curl about the neck of a man-at-arms, and in an instant the hapless wretch would be plucked from the battlements. Night was haunted by a new terror for the scouts. Steal as craftily as they might through the darkness, they came upon the Ugor—the man asleep in his saddle, the horse alert and watchful; and the snapping of dry wood or the tread of a careless foot awakened a hoarse cry and brought a score of shadowy riders to the spot. People began to believe that these terrible rovers lived, ate, slept, died on horseback; indeed it was said at last that the Ugor was a beast-man, the evil and mysterious offspring of the desert.

As the invaders moved westwards through the fruitful land, they came to Ravna, a little walled town built out of the wreck of a Roman city on one of the great roads. Fragments of marble columns still lay half-buried on the green mounds which covered the ruins; and for some distance on each side the highway was lined with the stately tombs of the vanished Romans. Many of these structures had fallen into decay; the largest had been rifled for treasure, the sculptured marble coffins had been broken open, and the ashes of the dead cast out to the four winds.

In one of these chambers of silence the saintly Eirenion had taken up his abode. For many years he had wandered over Dacia, proclaiming the tidings of salvation. Disciples had gathered about his hermitage; he had taught them and sent them abroad to the towns and villages. The common people adored him; even the proudest of the Gothic warriors treated him with reverence. It was never forgotten how, long ago, the great Bishop Wulfila, after blessing his labours and embracing him with the kiss of peace, had turned to the chiefs and said in a low voice: "Bow down your heads before this man. Ask not his name, but know that once, under Constantine the Emperor, he was a greater soldier than any of you, and to-day he is the beloved servant of the Lord Christ." In his grey hair and his humble garb he stood now as tall and commanding as they, and folk still talked of the time when he was a leader of the legions.

Now it befell in these days of warfare with the Ugors that as Eirenion knelt in his hermitage praying for the peace and welfare of his people, he was startled by a long sound of moaning, which grew into a clamour of voices and the noise of a multitude in rapid movement. Going to the entrance of the tomb, he saw that it was a host of men fleeing in mad rout to the town for safety.

The ranks of the Goths had been broken and panic had fallen upon their host. He hastened to the roadside and stretching his hands up against them, he cried in a loud voice, "Turn, men, and make a stand!" But the crowds rushed on, panting and shouting, with white, wet faces. Many broke away at his cry and dispersed among the tombs and the mounds of the Roman ruins, but in the blindness of fear hundreds were swept past the town gates, and were conscious only of the long straight road before them.

As the confused mass streamed along, Eirenion perceived that the swarthy horsemen, here and there in twos and threes, here and there in sixes and sevens, were mingled with the yellow-haired fugitives; and as they rode, their arrows flew before them, lances were plunged forward and downwards with rapid thrusts, swords flashed right and left; and ever the heaving and shouting chaos raced on until the rout closed in the dense swarms of the Ugor horde.

During the fruitless attack upon the town, the fighting among the tombs, and the fierce pursuit on the long, straight road, Eirenion ministered to the wounded and the dying. When the first skirmishers showed that the enemy were returning he stood a little aside to scan the appearance of these unknown wanderers. Now and again horsemen started out from the savage throng, threatening to ride him down; they saw the tall priest erect, with kingly eyes, wave his hand in a great sign of the cross between him and them, and they fell back awe-struck.

In the midst of the horde appeared a band of prisoners on foot, blood-stained and bound with thongs. Eirenion moved towards them with a friendly gesture, and was allowed to take his place at their head. "Whither you go, sons," he cried, "I go with you, if it be God's will. Let us fare onwards without care, trusting in Him, the Most Mighty. In His hands is the gift of life, in His hands is the gift of death, and which gift is the better for us He alone knoweth. Remember the strong hearts of your fathers even in the days when they knew Him not, and quit you as true men of Christ."

And continually, as they marched on, he raised his voice in hymns and prayers, so that the Ugors looked on with amazement, and called to each other, "This man is their mighty magician. See how proudly now these slaves go, and how he has made their faces to shine!"

Wounded and weary, they lay that night under the stars with the trained dogs couched in a circle round them; and a single sentry, slumbering on his horse, was their only human guard. Never was the light of the sun more sweet to men's eyes than that which warmed them on the morrow. Then as the noise and stir of the day began, the Ugor priests came and surveyed the captives, and choosing seven of the youngest and comeliest they led them away.

Eirenion went forth with them. Passing through a throng of horsemen, they came to a mound in the midst of the encampment, and as Eirenion looked up and saw, fixed on the summit of the mound, a naked sword which glittered, "This sword," he said, "is surely the idol of these heathen people, and they will slay these men as an offering. Lord God, let not this be!"

Eagerly he glanced about for king or leader in that strange horde. A little apart stood two men who seemed more commanding than the rest, and hastening towards them he addressed them in words and in gestures so expressive that most of what he said was as clear as though he had spoken in their own tongue:

"These men are worshippers of that Almighty One in the heavens who is the Lord and Giver of life. He hath made them in His image; their blood you shall not shed to the idol of your people. He of you who is king, let him take his sword and free them from their bonds."

"Behold, Zagon," said Haba, "this man is a priest of great power even as thou art thyself. He would unbind the victims. Let it be as he says. They cannot escape the Sword."

The priest frowned, but he went and cut their thongs, and the captives made no movement, but stood in their place watching Eirenion.

St. Eirenion


Then pointing to the naked sword on the mound, Eirenion said to the king, "Cast down this idol of slaughter and of sorrow, and turn thy heart to the true God who takes no delight in the shedding of blood." And even while Eirenion was speaking he was vaguely aware of the words of the Evangelist, "Not to send peace but a sword," the jewelled cross-bar seemed to flash light into his very soul, and suddenly he perceived how in shape and in meaning Sword and Cross were one. He drew from his breast a silver cross, and put it into Haba's hands:

"Look, King, upon this sign and upon that. Let me show thee how thou and thy people shall bow down and worship."

Swiftly he sprang up the mound, plucked the weapon from the turf, and brandished it with a joyful shout. "Behold, ye people, the sign of our redeeming," and planting it point downwards in the earth—no longer a murderous Sword but a glorious Cross—knelt with bowed head before it.

The daring act was greeted with a tumultuous uproar, but Haba lifted his hand for silence. "Sons of the Sword," he cried, "this too was in the vision of Kunda my father. Did ye not hear him say that the hand of the Spirit of the Sword first fixed it by the hilt, then snatched it up, and planted it with its point in the rock? This man, whoever he may be, is truly some priest of strange power, and has wrought as the Spirit of the Sword bade him. Behold now, and heed it well, he is Haba's friend."

Eirenion descended from the mound, and taking the silver cross he showed the king how it resembled the reversed weapon which they had so barbarously adored. He strove to tell him how the Son of God had come down from heaven and died a cruel death for the sins of men, but Haba, though he listened gravely, could understand but little of what was said of the mystery of redemption.

After the captive Goths had been set free, Eirenion remained and took up his abode with the Ugors; and as though he had received some portion of the divine gift of tongues he quickly mastered their language. With undying patience he taught them, winning their wild hearts to gentleness and peace; and many thousands were baptised in the waters of the Dacian streams.

He explained to them the mystery of the corn-fields, how they nourished the world, and the craft of fire and the craft of water, so that they should rise to a higher life than that of the beast which slays and devours and has no store or comfort against the hard winter. Purging their gross worship, yet taking thought of the way in which men cling to the customs of their fathers, he wrought for them a symbol which blended together both Cross and Sword; and wreathing this with the branches of trees in the months of blossom, and with fair fruit and ears of corn in. the harvest, they offered a bloodless sacrifice.

Most of the Ugor priests furiously resisted these changes; and the more savage spirits of the horde, revolting from Haba and taking Zagon for king, drew a great following after them as they swept away westwards. A little time after that, when the Huns burst in myriads over the mountains, these tribes threw in their lot with the invaders.

But Eirenion made peace between his converts and the Goths and Getes, and Haba led them into the valleys of the Biharia mountains, where they outlived the nomad hunger for constant change and the vast, free spaces of the desert and the steppes. Eirenion died among them in extreme old age; and the humble priest who had been one of the great soldiers of Constantine was laid by these sons of the Cross and Sword in such a mound as they had been used to raise over the mightiest of their warriors.

[Illustration] from Child's Book of Warriors by William Canton