HERE DWELT ONCE in Southland a King named Altof, who was rich, powerful, and gentle. His Queen was named Gotthild, and they had a young son called Horn. The rain never rained, the sun never shone upon a fairer boy; his skin was like roses and lilies, and as clear as glass; and he was as brave as he was handsome. At fifteen years old his like was not to be seen in all the kingdoms around. He had a band of play-fellows, twelve boys of noble birth, but not one of them could throw the ball so high as Horn. Out of the twelve, two were his special companions, and one of them, Athulf, was the best of the company, while the other, Figold, was altogether the worst.
It came to pass one summer morning that good King Altof was riding on the sea-shore with only two attendants, and he looked out to sea and saw fifteen ships lying in the offing. It was the heathen Vikings who had come from Northland, bent on plundering Christian lands. When these saw the three Norsemen, they swarmed on to shore like a pack of wolves, all armed and full of battle fury. They slew the King and his knights, and made themselves masters of the whole land.
Queen Gotthild wept much for her lord, and more for her son, Childe Horn, who could not now ascend his father's throne. She clad herself in mourning garments, the meanest she could find, and went to dwell in a cave, where she prayed night and day for her son, that he might be preserved from the malice of his enemies, at whose mercy he and his comrades lay. At first they thought to have slain him, but one of their leaders was touched by his glorious beauty, and so he said to the boy, "Horn, you are a fair stripling and a bold, and when you come to years, you and your band here, you are like to prove too many for us, so I am going to put you all in a boat and let it drift out to sea--where may the gods preserve you, or else send you to the bottom; but, for all our sakes, you cannot remain here."
Then they led the boys down to the shore, placed them in a little skiff, and pushed it off from the land. All but Horn wrung their hands in fear. The waves rose high, and, as the boat was tossed up and down, the lads gave themselves up for lost, not knowing whither they were driven; but when the morning of the second day broke, Horn sprang up from where he sat in the forepart of the skiff, crying, "I hear the birds sing, and I see the grass growing green--we are at the land!" Then they sprang right gladly on shore, and Horn called after the boat as it floated away, "A good voyage to thee, little boat! May wind and wave speed thee back to Southland. Greet all who knew me, and chiefly the good Queen Gotthild, my mother. And tell the heathen King that some day he shall meet his death at my hand."
Then the boys went on till they came to a city, where reigned King Aylmer of Westland--whom God reward for his kindness to them. He asked them in mild words whence they came, "for in good sooth," said he, "never have I seen so well-favoured a company"; and Horn answered proudly, "We are of good Christian blood, and we come from Southland, which has just been raided by pagans, who slew many of our people, and sent us adrift in a boat, to be the sport of the winds and waves. For a day and a night we have been at sea without a rudder; and now we have been cast upon your coast, you may enslave or slay us, if but, it please thee, show us mercy."
Then the good King asked, "What is your name, my child?" and the boy answered. "Horn, at your pleasure, my Lord King; and if you need a servant, I will serve you well and truly."
"Childe Horn," said the King, "you bear a mighty name for one so young and tender.
"Over hills and valleys oft the horn has rung,
In the royal palace long the horn has hung.
So shall thy name, O Hornchild, through every land resound,
And the fame of thy wondrous beauty in all the West be found."
So Horn found great favour with the King, and he put him in charge of Athelbrus, the house-steward, that he might teach him all knightly duties, and he spared no pains with him, nor yet with his companions; but well trained as they all were, Horn was far ahead of them both in stature and noble bearing. Even a stranger looking at him could guess his lofty birth, and the splendour of his marvellous beauty lit up all the palace; while he won all hearts, from the meanest grooms to the greatest of the court ladies.
Now the fairest thing in that lordly court was the King's only daughter, Riminild. Her mother was dead, and she was well-beloved of her father, as only children are. Not a word had she ever ventured to speak to Horn when she saw him among the other knights at the great feasts, but day and night she bore his image in her heart. One night she dreamed that he entered her apartments (and she wondered much at his boldness), and in the morning she sent for Athelbrus, the house-steward, and bade him conduct Horn into her presence. But he went to Athulf, who was the pure minded and true one of Horn's two chosen companions, while Figold, the other, was a wolf in sheep's clothing, and said to him, "You shall go with me in Horn's stead to the Princess."
So he went, and she, not recognising him in the ill-lighted room, stretched out her hand to him, crying, "Oh, Horn, I have loved you long. Now plight me your troth."
But Athulf whispered to her, "Hold! I am not Horn. I am but his friend, Athulf, as unlike him as may well be. Horn's little finger is fairer than my whole body; and were he dead, or a thousand miles off, I would not play him false."
Then Riminild rose up in anger and glared upon the old steward, crying, "Athelbrus, you wicked man, out of my sight, or I shall hate you for evermore! All shame and ill befall you if you bring me not Childe Horn himself!"
"Lady and Princess," answered Athelbrus warily, "listen, and I will tell you why I brought Athulf. The King entrusted Horn to my care, and I dread his anger. Now be not angry with me, and I will fetch him forthwith."
Then he went away, but, instead of Horn, this time he called Figold, the deceiver, and said to him, "Come with me, instead of Horn, to the royal Princess. Do not betray yourself, lest we both suffer for it."
Willingly went the faithless one with him, but to Figold the maid held not out her hand--well she knew that he was false, and she drove him from her presence in rage and fury. Athelbrus feared her anger, and said to himself, "To make my peace with her I must now send her the true Horn." He found him in the hall presenting the wine cup to the King, and whispered to him, "Horn, you are wanted in the Princess's apartments"; and when Horn heard this his hand holding the full goblet so trembled that the wine ran over the edge. He went straight into the presence of the royal maiden, and as he knelt before her his beauty seemed to light up the room.
"Fair befall thee and thy maidens, O Lady!" said he. "The house-steward has sent me hither to ask thy will."
Then Riminild stood up, her cheeks red as the dawn, and told him of her love; and Horn took counsel with himself how he should answer her.
"May God in heaven bless him whom thou weddest, whoever he may be," he said. "I am but a foundling, and the King's servant to boot--it would be against all rule and custom were he to wed me with thee."
When Riminild heard this her heart died within her, and she fell fainting on the floor; but Horn lifted her up, and advised her to request her father that he might now receive knighthood. "An then," said he, "I will win you by my brave deeds."