Nibelungs - George Upton

The Margrave Rudiger

Soon thereafter came Sir Rudiger, and when he beheld the smoking, roofless palace, so filled with sorrow was his noble heart at all the evil wrought and yet to come, that tears fell from his eyes and trickled down his long gray beard. Hoping that something might yet be done to bring about a reconciliation, he sent a message to Dietrich of Bern, saying: "Let us go together unto the King; perchance we may prevail upon him to forego his wrath."

But Dietrich, who also deeply lamented what had befallen, sent back word that it was useless, for Etzel would not hear of peace on any terms, nor might any venture now to speak thereof to him. As Rudiger stood leaning on his sword, his mournful gaze fixed upon the Queen, a Hunnish knight observed him and said scornfully to Kriemhild: "See, yonder stands Sir Rudiger! Etzel hath shown favor to him and richly dowered him with lands and gold, yet hath he not struck a blow in all this strife! Renowned is he for skill and valor. Methinks such fame can be of little worth since we have not seen him display either here."

Rudiger overheard these words and was seized with a mighty wrath thereat. Clinching his fist he smote the insolent scoffer with such giant force that he dropped lifeless at his feet.

At that same moment Etzel appeared in the court-yard. "How now, Sir Knight?" he cried, "that is an evil deed of thine. Are there not dead enough, forsooth, that thou shouldst seek to add to them?"

The Queen too was about to reproach him bitterly, when suddenly she bethought her of the vow Rudiger made to her when he came to Worms to urge King Etzel's suit. "Bethink thee of thy oath, Sir Rudiger," she cried, solemnly. "Didst thou not swear to serve me loyally and faithfully to avenge all my wrongs?"

"That did I truly, most noble lady," replied Rudiger, "nor would I fail to risk my life in thy cause. But 't is my soul that I should lose were I to be at strife with these thy guests, for 't was as friends I brought them hither to thy court!

Yet still the Queen demanded vengeance on her foes, and Etzel thereto joined his prayers, till Rudiger in bitter anguish cried:

"Oh, woe is me, forsaken one,

That ever I was born!

Oh, woe 's the day, that I must be

Of all my honor shorn!

Of truth and gentleness of mind

Which God to me did give.

Oh, God! that I might only die!

I fain would cease to live.

"Whichever duty I avoid,

The other to fulfil,

I 'm counted dastardly and base,

A worker-out of ill;

Yet leave I both of them undone,

I with the world have strife.

May He vouchsafe to counsel me,

Who first did give me life!"

He besought the King to take back all the lands and honors that he held in fee, and let him retire with his followers to his castle, a poor man, rather than force him to attack the friends whom he had welcomed in all love and loyalty, who had slept beneath his roof, and to one of whom indeed his daughter was betrothed. But he pleaded in vain, for Kriemhild firmly held him to his word, while the King promised him still greater riches and honor if he would rid him of his foes.

At last Rudiger yielded. He agreed to keep his oath and give his life in payment for the kindnesses he had received from his sovereigns; he commended his wife and daughter to their care, then sorrowfully sought his followers and bade them arm for battle with the Burgundians.

When Volker saw the band of knights approaching, his heart sank, but Giselher cried joyfully: "Well for us all was it that I was betrothed to Rudiger's daughter, for now our gallant friend comes to bring us peace!"

"Nay, my lord! he who brings peace comes not in this array," replied Volker.

Pausing before the palace, Rudiger placed his shield upon the ground, but no friendly greeting did he pay the Burgundians as was his wont. In lieu thereof he renounced his loyalty to them and challenged them to combat. Great was their distress thus to be forced to strife with friends after struggling against so many foes; and Gunther cried: "Now Heaven forbid, Sir Knight, that thou shouldst do our friendship such wrong!"

"There is no help for it, alas!" replied Rudiger, "since the Queen demands of me fulfilment of a vow!"

Then said Gernot: "This sword was thy gift to me, most noble Rudiger, when thou didst welcome us beneath thy roof; never hath it failed me in time of need, and shall I turn it now against thee, the giver, to bring thy noble wife to widowhood?"

"Would to God that I indeed were dead!" cried Rudiger. "If thou go safe from hence, full well I know thou wilt bring comfort to my wife and daughter."

Then commending himself to God, he lifted his shield and was about to rush into the hall, when Hagen shouted to him from the stairway: "Behold, Sir Rudiger, my sorry plight! This shield, which thy wife gave me in happier hours, bath been so hacked and hewed by hostile Huns that no longer may it serve for my defence. Had I another such as that which thou dost bear, I would go undismayed again to battle!"

Loath as was Rudiger to give away his own shield under the Queen's eyes and thereby incur her wrath, his noble heart could not withstand his friend's appeal, and he bestowed it on Hagen, saying: "Take it, Sir Knight, and mayst thou bear it back to Burgundy in memory of me!"

That Rudiger so courteously,

Did give away his shield,

Filled many an eye with gentle tears,

And to their hearts appealed.

It was his last and dearest gift;

No more could bold knight crave

In token of the courtesy

Of Rudiger the brave.

However grim Sir Hagen was,

Or ill-disposed in mind,

The generous gift which Rudiger

So noble and so kind,

When near his end had given him,

His stubborn heart subdued;

While many a lofty knight did sigh,

As that brave act he viewed.

Said Hagen: "May the Lord of Heaven

Sir Rudiger protect!

When he shall die, his like on earth

We may no more expect:

For he to homeless, shieldless knight

His own defence did give;

May God vouchsafe that when no more,

His virtues still shall live!"

Then he added: "As for thyself, brave Rudiger, though thou shouldst slay us every one, yet never shall this sword be raised against thy life." And this stout Volker also swore.

Seizing his arms, Rudiger rushed upon the Burgundians and the strife began once more. Hagen and Volker stood aside, nor did Giselher seek to meet his sword; but deep were the wounds it dealt, and many the knights that fell before it. Rudiger's liegemen followed him, and soon the hall was filled with the din of battle.

When Gernot saw the terrible havoc Rudiger's sword wrought among the Burgundians, he shouted: "I pray thee, cease, Sir Rudiger! Now must I seek vengeance for my true liegemen thou hast slain and thereby turn thy gift against thyself!"

Therewith they cut their way through the press of battle till they stood face to face. Fast fell the strokes of sword on shield and helm, till Rudiger, whirling his sword aloft, smote Gernot; and as Gernot received his death wound he grasped his sword with both hands and dealt Rudiger the mightiest blow that ever he had struck. Both heroes fell, slain at the same moment by each other's hands.

When Hagen saw this, his wrath was terrible to behold, and he swore Rudiger's men should pay dearly therefor, while loud were the lamentations of the princes for the death of their brother. Mad with fury now, they rushed upon the foe, nor was it long ere the last man lay dead.

Now once more there was silence, and those who were left of the Burgundians laid aside their arms to rest them after the fierce struggle. Meanwhile Etzel and Kriemhild waited without, expecting each moment to see Rudiger come forth with word that the Burgundians were slain. But when all grew still again she began to doubt that hero, and cried aloud that he had deceived her and made peace with her foes. Whereat Volker shouted wrathfully: "If I dared to give the lie to lady such as thou, O Queen, I would right willingly! So loyally hath Rudiger kept faith with thee that here he lieth dead with all his knights. An thou art loath to trust my word, then may thine own eyes banish doubt."

Therewith the body was borne out by four knights and laid upon the stairs. When Etzel beheld this, he cried aloud with grief, while from all the Huns arose such wails and plaints of woe that they spread far beyond the court, and tower and hall reechoed with the cries.