Nibelungs - George Upton

The Swan-Maidens

Toward the Main they took their way, Hagen leading, for well he knew the ground. Proudly they rode, a thousand gallant knights, and behind them came full nine thousand stout retainers. On the twelfth morning they came to the Danube and found the river far and near had overflowed its banks; whereat Hagen's brow grew dark, but Gunther bade him seek some means of crossing.

"Forsooth," said he, "I care as little as another to meet death within yon waves, for many a Hun I trust shall yet by my hand breathe his last!" Therewith he rode on before to seek a boatman. Well was he armed, with his stout shield and helm and hauberk of polished steel and his heavy two-edged sword buckled to his mail. As he drew near the stream he heard the splashing of water, and looking about saw two nymphs disporting themselves therein, their golden hair floating far behind them, while on the green bank lay their wondrous swan-garments. Hagen stooped quickly and snatched them up, whereupon Hadburg, one of the nymphs (mermaidens), called to him:

"Sir Hagen bold, so thou return

Our raiment on the spot,

We'll tell thee of thy journey's end,

And what will be thy lot!"

This was much to Hagen's mind, and he agreed thereto. Then the swan-maiden said:

"With ample safety ye may ride

Into King Etzel's land:

I pledge on this my truth and troth,

And therewithal my hand,

"That never noble king's array

Did win in foreign State,

Such honor and such lofty fame,

Believe—such is your fate."

Overjoyed at these words, Hagen restored to the nymphs their strange garments; and no sooner had they donned them than straightway they became white swans.

Then spake the other water-nymph,

This one Sieglind's hight:

"I warn thee, Hagen Tronege,

Sir Adrian's son of might,

"That to obtain the clothes, my aunt

Has said what is not true:

For shouldst thou journey to the Huns,

That journey thou shalt rue.

"Turn back again, ye heroes,

There yet is time, I ween;

For ye to this high festival,

Have only bidden been

"That ye should thereby perish,

In royal Etzel's land;

And all who thither ride,

To death extend the hand!"

Then Hagen, seized with fury, cried: "Now, by my faith, thou liest in thy speech! No cause is it for all to die that one among us hath incurred deep hate."

Again the nymph in sorrow spoke:

"Yet fate bath so declared,

Of all your gallant company

Shall only one be spared—

"And he, the chaplain of the King,

As we full well do know,

He only, home returning, to

King Gunther's land shall go."

Then would Hagen hear no more, but asked if there was no ferryman at hand. She told him the ferryman's house was on the other bank of the Danube, and warned him to be on his guard with the man and speak him fair, or evil might come of it, for he was of wrathful temper and a stout liegeman of the prince to whom the land on that side of the river belonged.

At this Hagen looked scornfully and rode away, but again the Swan-maidens called to him, and bade him call himself Amelrich, for that name would surely bring the boatman. Therewith they arose in the air in their swan-garments and soon had vanished from sight. When Hagen spied the house across the stream he gave a mighty shout which brought the ferryman to the door. Hanging a heavy gold clasp upon the point of his sword, Hagen held it aloft so that it gleamed in the sunlight, and offered it to him, at the same time calling himself Amelrich, whereupon the doughty boatman seized the oars and rowed his boat across the river. No sooner had it touched the bank than Hagen sprang quickly into it, but the man shouted furiously:

"Now halt thou lied to me! Thou art not my brother Amelrich, so on this side mayst thou bide, forsooth!"

Hagen's brow darkened, yet still he sought to speak him fair. "I am a stranger here," he said, "and with me ride a thousand knights and many followers besides. We would fain go on our way, wherefore take this gold and ferry us across the stream."

"My lord hath many enemies," replied the ferry-man, "and ill were it for me to fetch armed strangers to his lands. Nay, get thee hence, Sir Knight!"

Still Hagen would not stir; whereupon the ferry-man, swinging his oar aloft, smote him so mightily that he fell upon his knee. Quickly the hero sprang to his feet, only to receive a second blow on his helm, which split the oar with a loud crash. Thereupon Hagen grew mad with rage and drawing his sword he struck off the boatman's head. Down it fell into the river and after it he cast the body.

Meanwhile the current had caught the boat and borne it down the stream. Hagen seized the second oar and sought therewith to turn it back, but the current was strong and so powerful were his strokes that the oar broke asunder. Now was he indeed in sorry plight, but cutting a thong from his shield he quickly spliced the oar and gained once more the mastery of the craft.

Soon Gunther and his followers perceived the bold mariner coming up the river and joyfully hailed him. But when he reached the bank they looked aghast at the blood in the bottom of the boat. The King cried out:

"Hagen, what hast thou done? Thou hast slain the ferryman."

But Hagen denied it, saying: "Fast to a willow tree I found the boat, and therein was the blood, already spilled."

Then Gernot said: "Methinks no farther are we like to fare, for of what use is the boat without a ferryman?"

Thereupon Hagen declared he would ferry them across himself. Bidding the princes enter the boat and with them as many knights as it would hold, he soon had landed them upon the farther bank; and thus going back and forth, he brought all safely over. The horses were driven into the water, and when they saw their masters on the other side and heard their voices, they gallantly swam the stream. Neighing for joy they climbed the bank, shook the water from their sides and galloped to their masters, who greeted them with kindly words. Nor were any lost, though many were carried far down the stream.

While Hagen was ferrying the men across, his eye fell upon the King's chaplain, and bethinking him of the Swan-maiden's word that he alone of them all was to return to Burgundy, he resolved to bring to naught this part of the prophecy at least. Seizing the priest, he dragged him to the side of the boat and, despite his cries, cast him into the rushing flood. Loudly did the knights protest against this misdeed, but none dared openly to resist the fierce champion. Soon the priest rose to the surface and clung to the side of the boat, but Hagen with the oar thrust him off, deep under the water; whereupon, not being able to swim, he gave himself up for lost. But the swift current bore him once more to land, and then, thanking God for his escape, he fled and made his way back to the Rhine.

It was plain to Hagen that all must come to pass as the Swan-maidens had foretold, and when the last man had reached the shore, he seized the heavy iron-tipped oar and smote the bow of the boat so that it broke asunder and presently sank. With wonder and dismay the knights beheld this deed of Hagen's, and one ventured to ask him wherefore he had destroyed the boat that might have served them to cross the stream on their return. Within himself he thought, as we all are doomed to death no more need have we for boats; but to them he made answer, saying:

"Should any among us be so faint-hearted as to seek to return, he shall find no means thereto, but meet his end ignobly in the waves!"

But none was pleased with this save Volker, a stanch friend of Hagen's. No stouter or more valiant knight was there in all the band than he, and to Hagen he clove most loyally, swearing to abide by him to the end, whatever might betide.