Deep in the snow-laden forests surrounding the river Aare in small cave a young lad stirred from a painful sleep. Fiery embers still glowed warmly just outside the low entrance of the cavern as dawn illumined the east, far from the shadow of the western mountains. He lifted his golden haired head from under the great wolf pelt which had covered him the last night, still half asleep but dimly conscious of a large shadow moving in and for a moment concealing the sunlight beyond. As the boy tried to recollect what exactly it was he had seen, he suddenly realized that he could not even remember his own name.
Reiner von Altenau paused to catch his breath amidst a deep copse. A youthful knight dressed as for the hunt, he carried neither bow nor spear, only a single knight’s sword hidden beneath his great woolen cloak. He was in fact a skilled hunter, and brought himself low to the ground. A sigh of relief escaped from his lips when he saw that the cause of his alarm was merely a boy of nine trudging through a deep snow drift towards him. “Gott in himmel Albrecht!” Reiner called out, “Is it not enough that I do my duty to thy father as his retainer, and to thy brother, that thou should put thyself in peril?” “Noble Reiner, your duty to my brother is mine also,” the boy, a likeable lad fair of face and hair (which was cut short after the fashion of nobles), had reached the thicket now, “As for peril, was not my brother my very age when he first slew the great wolf red-fanged? He is alive as you and I know, and we need heed no peril.”
“Albrecht, my lad, you have forgotten the first law of the hunter, aye… and the knight as well; ‘Know thy peril.’ It is not as it was in my youth, when even winter was fair in the Emperor’s lands, and vines for wine were grown even in the isle of Engellant. Now the winter’s bite is sharpened, dangerous things roam the wild, and these lands have seen neither count nor landsman for years beyond reckoning. Here there are outlaws, wolves… and worse,” Reiner waited for the lad to understand his words, yet he knew little he said would dissuade his young companion. He looked at the resolute blue eyes of the boy, and nodded to himself. “Let us go forward then. ‘Tis three days since thy brother was lost, and we have not time to spare.” Above them dark clouds formed foreboding heavy snow before midday.
The lad had long since left the cave where he had awoken in the morn, and since found a chillingly cold stream in which to briefly wash himself and his clothes. A strong and tall young man of about twelve, he was clad in a grey woolen shirt and trousers, and over them a red silken tunic, lined with kufesqued cloth of gold, the work of Saracens from lands far south. It was gift he remembered, given to him by… of course it was a gift from his godfather… his godfather the Emperor Frederick! From his belt there was a golden bladed hunting knife- that too was a gift from the Emperor. “Why, it was this very knife that killed the warg whose skin I now wear as my cloak.” His thoughts formed rapidly in his head, at first too rapidly. He sat for a moment under the barren branches of a linden tree which staggered under its weight of snow. “Could I have hurt my head so badly as that I should verily forget who I am?” There was nothing for it but to continue his blind march through the seemingly unending forests. “If nothing else, I know I am knight, and a Catholic, and thus will now I quest,” he said aloud to the few ravens who had gathered about, to mock him where he stood it seemed.
Not so much as a badger’s den could he see as he walked briskly alone, which seemed to him strange. All the woods which he had known in his life were forests in the realm of men, where undergrowth was cleared away, tree were regularly cultivated by landsman who used every part of each tree that they might to their needs, and tended them that they might flourish. The lad suddenly remembered looking up from a pile of open illuminated leather-bound books (the Etymologies of Saint Isidore, which his father had purchased at a great price) out of a narrow window high in the north tower towards the vast and tangled woods beyond. For a moment the abrupt memory frustrated him as he still could not remember where he came from or who he was, then he shrugged it off, and started to walk southwards. The boy hardly noticed that it was growing darker and darker.
–A Beautiful German Carol
The snow had fallen heavily for some hours. Reiner felt himself begin to weary from the hard journey, and he was now unsure of what paths he should take. Albrecht, his young charge, showed no signs of tiring, his innocent faith in his fraternal mission giving him the will to plough forward. So it was more to keep his companion’s spirits up than for his own sake that the lad asked the knight if he would sing. “I, sing in this foul weather and forsaken forest?” “You are a Minnesinger, and have sung many a lay for my father at feast.” “Aye, well what shall I sing for thee? Siegfried and the slaying of Fafnir? Gunther and the fall of the Nibelungs?” Albrecht grew indignant, “A pagan tale on the very eve of Christmas! No,” and with boyish enthusiasm, “Please sing of Rædbot the noble count and his adventures.” “Ja, that I will rightly.” Reiner took a deep breath, then began an ancient melody known as “gezit,” “the tide,” for its intricate flowing pattern of sound;
“Count Rædbot was a hunter, the son of ancient kings
Noble was his lineage, and strength was in his limbs
His steed came out of Araby, with a crescent in its eye
His olifant from Africa, where men are dark as night
In cloak of silk he clad himself, by the light of eastern sun
For the fury of the northern storm and the terror of the Hun
And men looked out in Tartary, and saw a Christian light
His lantern made of ebony, and it cast about the sky
The rays of ancient royalty and strength was in his limbs
For Count Rædbot was a hunter, the son of ancient kings”
The winds blew more fiercely as the evening grew darker, blinding the lost young knight. He stumbled forward through thorn and branch and fell to his knees. At last he whispered exhaustedly, “Maria, mother purest maid, now send me thy Son’s aid!” A slight movement in front of him caught his attention, and he looked up. There in the snow-bound waste stood a man of twenty eight years in fine silver ring mail, a ducal crown lined with ermine upon his head, and wearing a blood-red surcoat emblazoned with a white lion. Radiating warmth into the gloom he bid the fallen boy stand up. “In my footsteps, thou can journey on, Princeling of the Aaren.”
Silently they travelled together downwards into windswept forest dells, all the while the lad watching his mysterious guide closely. Something about the red-clad knight seemed more real than all the cold and hardship the lost youth had endured before his coming. As they walked on the storm clouds parted and bright Orentil could be seen, herald of the coming dawn. “Now I must depart, yet first I must warn thee. Have courage, charity, and faith as befits a Christian knight, and though the ancient wurm assails thee, thou shalt prevail. Help shall be given thee, as it was to the counts of old.” But sir, who are you? Could you not tell me your name?” “Well then yes I shall. I am Wenzel von Beraun, once long ago a humble duke in the service of the Emperor of the Romans. Now I serve the Emperor of Heaven. Farewell Hroudwolf, honored wolfling!”
In the distance could be heard two voices singing, after the manner of an ancient lay. As the lad crept closer, (without observing that his enigmatic guide had disappeared) he could hear the words quite distinctly;
In armored rings of silver, and with a shield of gold
He bore a sword of ancient steel, the steel of the sky
Carved with mystic symbols, the letters of the Creed
A shadow long upon his breast, a crown upon his head
The shadow of the eagle and the lion now blood red
And men looked out in wonder at the marvels of his deed
Joy filled his heart, for those words were very dear to him, and he sang out in response;
He fought the dragons dwelling in the deserts dry
In armored rings of silver and with a shield of gold
A familiar voice called to him, sounding somewhat close, “Who is it who answers our song, aye and in the dead of night deep in darkening woods?” Memories flooded his mind and washed over him like the torrents of a new sprung stream, and the lad replied confidently, “Rudolf, son of Albrecht, Count of the Hapsburg in the land of Aargau!” There was a sudden rush through the snow and the young Count of Hapsburg found himself looking into the eyes of his rejoicing brother. “Albrecht! Mein lieber Albrecht! And noble Reiner! How long has it been since I was lost, three years?” “Nay my young Rudolf, ‘twas but three days and this the very feast of Christmas.” Reiner pointed to the grey ruin of stone dimly visible in the shadows to his right. “Here is the ruined abbey of Klösterli, within an hour of midnight we shall be in the old Burg once again.”
Suddenly a great creature of rushing flame and billowing smoke descended from the sky. The old lindworm, with many deep gnashes scarred into its ancient scaled hide, had long in its twisted heart schemed its vengeance on the heir of the line of Rædbot. Reiner had drawn his sword, but the knight having placed himself in front of the young counts, now staggered in agony into the snow. “Quick Albrecht! Up the abbey tower. The bells Albrecht! The bells!” His brother scurried swiftly in among the ruins, leaving Rudolf to face the vile dragon. He drew his hunting knife from its jeweled sheath, a good sword for a valiant youth, full of courage, yet alone. No, not alone, for a brown-grey bird had sprung upon the dragon and was rending scale and flesh with its talons. A hawk! A hawk as in the old songs had come once more to the aid of Habuchsburg!
The bell of the abbey tower rang out one clear stroke. The lindworm reared upon its legs and displayed its vast wings, terror in its ancient vile heart. Terror of a Good that would end its wicked habits of iniquity. Rudolf lunged with his knife and by providence struck evil in its stone-cold heart. Lashing in final misery, the creature sunk slowly to its death. It became clear to the victorious dragon-slayer that his loss of memory was the wurm’s doing, and that he had narrowly escaped the fate of many a tragic young knight. The hawk alighted upon his shoulder, and seemed to whisper to him, as though he could understand the speech of the birds of the air. “Well struck, Prince of the Aaren. Now follow me and I shall lead.”
Rudolf and Albrecht carried Reiner, who was still dazed from his burns, through the last stage of their journey. High above them the hawk led them onward, till within the hour they could see the tall towers which Rædbot had raised in days of old, and which the two counts and their father’s retainer called their home. The midnight bells solemnly tolled, echoing across the countryside to answering bells afar off. And in the castle chapel, all the people of the land around, landsman, burgher, knight and count alike, greeted sweet Jesu Christkind as He came once more to the earth, bringing peace and joy to the emperor’s lands.
In dulci jubilo
Nun singet und seid froh!
Unsers Herzens Wonne
Leit in praesepio;
Und leuchtet als die Sonne
Matris in gremio.
Alpha es et O!
Alpha es et O!