I’ve been reading a lot of historical fiction over the past few years, most of it centered around Dark Ages England, the Viking Age, and similar subjects. It was something I fell into mostly by chance. I read one of Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tale novels, loved it, and then read through then whole rest of the series.
I started reading Matthew Harffy’s Bernicia Chronicles books around the same time, in addition to watching shows like Vikings, The Last Kingdom, etc.
“Shield Wall” is my attempt to emulate a bit of what all those different fictions do so well. It’s also probably the most complicated poem I’ve done, in terms of rhyme scheme, at least. Most of the stuff I write is free verse, couplets, or using a simple AB/AB rhyming scheme. “Shield Wall” uses an ABCDE/ABDCE pattern, with the exception of the last stanza, which just kind of does whatever it wants to close things off!
The words bellowed by the lord,
Echo through the cold morning’s air.
They mix with the dawn’s mist,
And the dragon’s breath of terrified men.
They’re not eager for the coming brawl.
The ominous summons of their hlaford,
Did not come with courage in pair.
These fyrd-men tremble as on the edge of an abyss,
Hoping to blink and find cruel dream at end.
It is a vain desire.
This day is real and the die has been cast.
The northmen have come from across the sea,
Intent on pillage and slaughter.
“If we don’t stop them here, who will?”
The question is small comfort to those locked in this mire.
Forced into battle at fate’s wicked behest.
Facing down circumstance they hoped ne’er to be.
To protect their homes, families, sons, and daughters,
They must fight and they must kill.
In a clatter of linden three score become one.
Their shields lock together in tight unison.
“Hold close your courage – you know where we go!”
Peasants made warriors - they march with all things at stake,
Hearts pounding as their boots crunch the hoarfrost.
The northmen march forward too and, like that, it’s begun.
They’re sure it’s their destiny to see this day won.
“Die sword in hand and Valhalla you’ll know!”
Their foes, mere farmers, are sure in moments to break.
For a lifetime of glory there’s no too great a cost.
Bravado melts quick when push turns to shove,
Turns to hack and to slash and to stab and to blood.
When the shields press and bash,
And the spears start to kill.
When the Valkyries swoop to claim the souls of the ceased.
The sun rises high into its perch up above,
While bodies lay low in the crimson slick mud.
Both sides suffer in the morn’s dire clash.
No true victors emerge in this contest of wills,
Save for the carrion crows – bellies full from grim feast.
Still, the skalds will sing,
Of what happened this day.
They’ll sing pretty words of the bold and the brave.
Strumming the lute as they tell the rise and the fall,
Of warriors dying -as they do- in the wall.