(A retelling of the Lay of Volund, from the Elder Edda)
The leaves were falling when the swan-maids came to Mirkwood, where the sons of the king dwelt by the lake. There they rested in the silent splendour of the forest, laying their swan-plumes down beside them: Svanhvit, Olrun and Alvit. With the dawn came footsteps through the colour-fringed trees, and Alvit lifted her swan-neck and looked up.
Her eyes absorbed and distilled for him the colours of the forest, an infinite capacity for doubt and wonder. In her face was a warm, inclusive silence. And her glances blazed up like a flaming tree from the cool depths of the forest floor.
He sat beside her by the lake, and their silences were one.
He read time in the lake, in the deep silences of the woods, in the immortal cadences of a phrase. And he wrought with endless care every word of his eternal, pulsating universe. Something leaped into his heart at the sight of a perfect circlet of gold which his hands had wrought, at the glance that his words called from the swan-maid’s warm, timeless eyes.
But to her, time was the fire that leaped from the swords in the evening, the sky momently stained by victory’s ravaged fields, reshaping everything in the universe of a new question. Time was the chord that sprang from a thousand throats, gathering the hoarse freshness of many voices into the one reverberating note of golden evening.
For seven years the swan-maidens dwelt in the forest with the sons of the king, far from the crimson horns that bayed over empty lands. But in the eighth year the call came to them again, and they could not but heed it. In the ninth year they flew away on the echoes of the sunset, to see the brothers no more until their times met again.
At dawn came the brothers in from the chase, to find the swan-maids fled. East then went Egil, to seek his consort in the waiting dawn; Slagfid went west, to find his bride on the fringes of the sunset.
Time has claimed my bride and my brothers, as the dawn claims the morning star. Could my hand stay the fleeting echoes of the ending summer? I’ll shape the rings then for the bride of my memory, for man cannot pursue the sun.
From autumn’s dusk he lit his flame, bent over infinitesimal perfection. And as the leaves began to catch the fire of the light, he’d hang up another ring on the cool bast.
He came in from the storm, his beard frozen, his eyes deep with the leaping loneliness of the dusk. The dark was falling as he counted the rings, their light slipping through his fingers like flakes of snow. But one ring was not there. Someone had been there, gliding on swan-wings through the darkening northern sky, stealing through the snow on intent, slender feet….
The viol of his consciousness lulled him to sleep as he stared into the dying fire, seeing time and the fire of memory in the dark. The night enfolded him, and for once her touch was kind.
But when he awoke, he could move no more. Soldiers had come in the night to take him prisoner, for the gold that his hands had shaped.
His heart screamed the anguish of the night, but in his eyes was silence. They feared the silence as they feared the night, and the end of their unending pursuit of the sun. And so they took it all from him, the work of his hands, his last treasures of the fallen light.
Like the autumn storms he ravaged their lost, glittering court, fleeing the pain of memory in eternity. He cast over his bride the shields of oath and memory, and set his notes of gold into the song that would not fade.