Hralf and the Aesthetics of War Cries

An interview with the bard Giacomo, self-proclaimed King of Jesters and Jester to Kings. This memory follows directly after “Hralf and the Bardic Voice”. See the Short Fiction link, above, for the rest of the Hralf stories.

Good day to you as well, good sir. How may Giacomo aid you on this fine summer morning?

Ahhhh! You wish to speak of Hralf! Hralf the mighty, Hralf the leonin, Hralf the declaimer of sagas! Yes, yes, I knew him quite well once upon a time.

How did that come to pass?

Once upon a time, as I said.

It was a sad occasion, in which Hralf and his companions nearly came to a dreadful end at the hands of the wizard Dysphonius all through having neglected to include a bard in their party. I was summoned by one of their number, a most humane golem, to come to their aid, and though I say it myself I was instrumental in—

Oh, you’ve heard that story? Very well, I shall cut it short. A bard must never bore his listeners if he wishes to continue in the profession.

It is enough to say, then, that having aided in their rescue I traveled with them for a season or two, sharing in their perils and their exploits alike.

And in their earnings, too, yes. A man must live! And a Bounty Snare paycheck is not a thing to sneeze at, I do assure you. I presume that it is of this period of my life you wish me to speak?

This period of Hralf’s life.

Yes, I quite understand. And there are few of whom you might inquire who could give you such an intimate and detailed account of it, for we were inseparable in those days, utterly inseparable. Through having a common interest in song and poetry, you see?

I, Giacomo, King of Jesters and Jester to Kings, am of course well-versed (aha) in all manner of song and story, from the reed-sonnets of the far east to the epic philippiads of the far west, from the follow-my-lieders of the north to the drum-chants of the far south. But Hralf’s chosen mode, the sublimely alliterative verse of the Veldt Lords, was wholly new to me, nor have I ever met a basso profundo whose voice sinks to such stygian depths as Hralf’s. One might even call him a basso grosso profundo. In all things he is unique!

And so as we traveled out from Clutterback City to one dreadfully vulgar locale after another, places which, I cannot deny it, were sorely in need of my gift, I spoke with him and listened to his words, and learned from him all that man can know concerning his manner of expression. Oh, It was a joyous time! His vocal range; his grasp of his subject; his unconventional and may I say avant-garde poetic vocabulary; all of these filled my days with delight.

And yet, I felt there was a gap.

I first became aware of it during a raid on an abandoned tower, in which we were much beset by a horde of undead pygmies. They were everywhere! On the stairs, in the wardrobes, in the cellar, in the wizard’s sanctum at the tower’s peak. When they were not sneaking up behind us, they were dropping onto our heads. And all through this hellish struggle—a struggle in which, alas, the pipes of war were of no avail no matter how swiftly and loudly I played them, for the pygmies lacked all musical sensibility—I heard the mighty Hralf repeatedly utter but a single war cry: “BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!”

Alliterative, yes, and well within his idiom, it being a quote from more than one of his sagas. Most, in fact.

Yet still: repetitive, and, in the briefest of time, dull. I longed to hear something clever, something witty, something forged out of the fires of battle that leapt to his tongue in the living moment. For words as well as sticks may be pointed, and as deadly to one’s enemies!

Some folk, so I am told, have no gift for extemporaneous wit; and in my long and varied life I have been forced to conclude that this is so. But in Hralf’s case I came to believe, from his habit of using alliterative verse as a normal part of his daily discourse, that he had simply never considered the, shall we say, aesthetic side of battle.

And so, for I am a generous man, I took Hralf under my wing. As we jogged along, I on my pony and he on his feet, I began by giving him a solid grounding in bardic technique, both musical and verbal.

Is a knowledge of music truly necessary to produce a beautiful war cry?

Most certainly! For one must be careful to ground one’s muse in the nature of the battle, so as to produce a song of suitable feeling; and to do that, one must be aware of the range of possibilities.

For a rapid onslaught of undead pygmies, for example, one wants something light, pizzicato in tempo, with a strong repeated bass note to accompany their dispatch.

For a plague of giants, on the other hand, one wants something slower and more ponderous, more symphonic, with irregular flurries of action, the scream of trumpets, and the periodic boom of the tympani. Though in actual battle, of course, one might substitute the booming of a war hammer—or the booming of Hralf’s sublime voice—for the tympani, they being so hard to transport into the field.

Excuse me, good sir, where was I?

Oh, yes.

Most of all, as we rode the dusty paths of adventure, we discussed poetry and poetic diction. I found him an apt pupil, much to the surprise of his teammates. He had only to hear me recite a poem, epic, or ballad but a single time to be able to recite it flawlessly in turn. Truly it is said that a barbarian culture is an oral culture.

I began to encourage him to compose along similar lines: to take a poem as a pattern—the rhyme scheme, the rhythm, the tone—and within that structure, to convey the feelings of the moment. At this we were less immediately successful, I fear, but I persevered; and truly, such were our travails, that Hralf had numerous opportunities in which to practice.

And then came one glorious, magical day. We were riding across the Swartmoor, many days from Clutterback City, when we were accosted by a handful of brigands. They demanded our money, followed by our lives, and Hralf and his friends not unnaturally chose to pay them back in similar coin. And at the height of the battle, as Hralf faced the chief of the brigands—a brawny man, with arms and armor that excelled those of his colleagues—I heard Hralf cry,

“Shall I reduce thee to a deadman’s clay? Thou shalt be softer and at room temperature!”

The shock of the moment was felt by all and sundry.

The halfling Sarvalur’s head whipped around, so that he was nearly spitted before he returned his attention to the fray.

Palantir Iluvril maintained his usual sober demeanor, but I noticed that his eyes flicked briefly in Hralf’s direction even as he slew his man.

The brigand lord himself was caught in the very act of raising his second-hand Samarkoshan warhammer, the better to smite Hralf to the mossy turf, and was so frozen in wild admiration—or, perhaps, indignation—that Hralf smote him instead. He was sent flying into a bog, into which, being heavily laden, he vanished forever.
At the end of the battle Hralf collected the chief’s warhammer, and gave it a few trial swings.

“I like this weapon,” he said. “I shall call it Thumper.”

“Thumper?” said Sarvalur.

“Thumper,” said Hralf.

“It is, indeed, le mot juste,” I proclaimed, my bosom swelling with pride.

Delighted with the results of my tutelage, I redoubled my efforts. The next morning I began to systematically acquaint him with the bardic repertoire, starting with the very earliest songs. I was fortunate enough to witness yet another fruit of my labor the very next afternoon, for as we left the Swartmoor for the forests of Dangurthin we were assailed by a rude and voracious flock of harpies.

It is a moment that lives in my memory.

There are the harpies, cursing and circling, defaming our mothers in the worst possible terms and calling out to one another as to how good we will taste.
And there is Hralf, standing on a stone, his feet planted wide and his warhammer in his hands. And as each harpy approaches him he swings the hammer, hitting the harpy in the middle of its feathered body and sending it soaring lifelessly away into the trees.

And as he swings he sings, “Thumper is icumen in, lhude scream cuccu! Floweth bled and groweth dead, scream, cuccu!”

And scream the harpies did! Or, at least, they each emitted a loud whoosh of air as the hammer drove the breath from their lungs.

I had nothing but praise for Hralf as we rode on: my student had deftly matched song with circumstance in the very moment of defensive carnage. What teacher could ask for more?

From then on Hralf went from strength to strength.

While fighting a giant singlehanded—a giant that had most rudely interrupted us as we combed the ruins of the Laundries of Khimchar for the missing half of the fabulous Seven League Socks of Erinya—he cried,

“Under a gray and stormy sky
I’ll dig a grave and let you die!
Gladly I’ll live and fight and try
And lay you down with a will!

“This be the verse I’ll grave for thee:
Here he lies where he chose to be.
Home goes the hewer, home goeth he,
And the singer home from the kill.”

He rarely reached such Calliopean heights, of course. Still, his warcries were now marvelously varied, and ranged from, “Full fathom five your corpse will lie!” to “Now is the splinter of your discontent!” to “Your acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind! BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!”

One night a sneak-thief attempted to abscond with Hralf’s sack while we slept. When I woke, for Hralf and I were sharing the chamber, Hralf was holding the thievish halfling by the neck and declaiming, “Trip no further, petty thiefling, journey’s end with my claws meeting!”

I thought it would end badly for our intruder, but Hralf recognized the thief as one of Sarvalur’s cousins and settled for hanging him from a peg on the wall for the rest of the night. The next morning, Sarvalur gave him a stern talking-to—the cousin, you understand, not Hralf—and the cousin apologized most prettily.

“I ‘umbly beg your pardon,” he said. “If I’d knowed it was you, I’d have robbed someone else.”

“See that you do, next time,” said Sarvalur. “Give my best to Auntie Rose.”

I had now been pursuing this course of instruction for some months, and thought it time for the next step.

It was and is my unfailing habit to perform for the gathered company on those evenings I spend in one inn or another, for a bard must bard. On this particular evening we were staying at the King’s Broken Earlobe in the town of Little Muchness, and after playing and singing a song or two and passing on the news from the other towns through which we had passed, I called to Hralf to come join me.

The crowd grew hushed as he rose and came to sit by my side, stopping low to avoid banging his noble head. He had already occasioned much comment, for no one in Little Muchness had ever seen anyone like him: much quiet comment, I should say, for fear he prove quick to take offense.

After a brief moment Hralf began to sing softly, and in a somewhat higher register than usual:

When that I was and a little lion boy,
With a hey, ho, the fighting and the fray,
A sharpened stick was but a joy,
For the fray it frayeth every day.

The crowed was rapt as he continued, describing in deep and dulcet tones his youthful education into the ways of battle, and his instruction in foiling the wiles of the wicked cheetahs of the veldt. Nor did he neglect showmanship, for the way he brandished his claws at the climax of the tale was masterful! The crowd roared, and the innkeeper sent him a tankard of ale.

I was struck dumb. My Hralf had moved on from his family sagas—majestic, true, but also tediously repetitive in theme and action—to telling the story of his own experiences. He had become a true poet, a feat that many bards, I am ashamed to say, never attain.

Emboldened, he continued in an even more intimate and personal vein:

Once within a tavern dreary as I labored weak and weary
Over many a thick and obstinate tablet of family lore,
As I carved it, neatly tapping, suddenly there came a yapping,
As of someone’s temper snapping, snapping by my chamber door.
Not just this, but so much more.

I was almost crowing with delight—the unique rhythm, the innovative use of internal rhyme—when I realized that he had quite lost the crowd. They were murmuring, and casting confused glances one at another. Hralf stopped mid-stanza and looked about the room, clearly at a loss.

What would he do? The great thing would be to pass it off with a laugh and begin a happy, uproarious song that would get the crowd clapping and stamping their feet. But alas! In my eagerness I had neglected to instruct him in the ways of audiences—for the one thing a bard must know before performing in public is how to cut his losses. One must know when to play and when to, ah, stray.

My heart sank into my boots as I saw him resolve to educate the crowd. He drew a stone tablet from his sack and displayed it, and began to chant.

Vast is the veldt and proud were the People, 
The Lords of that locus, the heroes of hunting! 
Far did they fare, behemoths to bother, 
blood and bones broken, ’til by plague did they perish!

And that was that. The crowd was too good-natured—and too intimidated by Hralf’s size—to complain; but the common room swiftly emptied, and the innkeeper demanded immediate payment for the ale we had consumed. My dreams for a little extra pocket money were dashed.

It was a major setback. Weeks passed before I was able to persuade Hralf to resume the path of the bard. But in time Hralf was unstoppable, a never-ending fountain of lyrics, sestinas, villanelles, and sonnets of all kinds. The days passed as in a dream.

And then, I fear, I overstepped.

I confess it freely: the fault was wholly mine.

What was this oh-so-grievous fault of mine, I hear you cry?

It was this.

In my folly, and in my hubris, I taught Hralf the ways of humorous verse.

Yes, I see you shudder, and I assure you that a similar passion stirs this breast of mine. I was a fool, a rash, bemused fool.

He began innocently enough. His first essay into this form was inspired by a brawl of the kind so typical in our adventures.

There once was an orc in the tavern
Who came there from some faroff cavern
  He trifled with Hralf
  And got punched in the malf
And as for his teeth he don’t havern.

The verse is inelegant, perhaps, but it is drawn from life, and displays a confident technique of rhyme over orthography; and more to the point, it caused no one any further harm, as the orc in question was some miles behind us in the bloody hands of the local barber. Sarvalur laughed out loud when he heard it, and even Palantir was seen to smile.

There followed a stretch of some weeks in which no one attacked us, and so there was no call for a war cry. What led to such an uncanny state of affairs I cannot say, though to be sure we were between missions for much of this time.

But once awakened in the breast of the poet, the divine Calliope cannot so easily be lulled back to sleep! And alas, where the normal course of life provides none of the usual sources of inspiration, the poet shall willy-nilly seek new methods to keep her satisfied.

In short, Hralf began to compose satires on his companions.

Of Sarvalur, he wrote,

There once was a halfling so roguish,
Whose clothing was always in voguish,
  Should he get a stain
  His composure would wane
And oh! How his voice went so broguish.

Of Palantir, he wrote,

An elf-lord both placid and tall
Saw his partner hung up on a wall.
  He let him remain,
  Ignoring his strain
To interfere with this fate he’d no call.

Though that one was about Sarvalur as well, I suppose. Palantir was always difficult to lampoon.

Of Master Halidom, our supervisor at Bounty Snare, he wrote…nothing, not being an utter fool.

These verses seem innocent enough, I know, but they are but early examples. Sarvalur forbade me to repeat the later ones, which grew steadily more scurrilous, for fear they would come to the notice of his cousins.

What did he write about me?

My dear fellow, why should he have written anything? After all, what is there in me to satirize?

I shall continue.

I was, and remain, surprised by the deep wells of patience exhibited by Hralf’s partners during this interval of his career. Though to be sure they had had long practice of overlooking his foibles, being so grateful for his martial capabilities.
But then came the fateful day when my folly produced its mature fruit, and when my ways and those of Bounty Snare parted forever.

We were on a mission for an important client, a man whose name you would recognize, though Sarvalur referred to him only as His Effluence. We were seeking to retrieve the Shamshir of Shropshire, a blade with the mystical power to shear an entire flock of sheep with one sweeping slice. His Effluence was the owner of many such flocks, and I believe he hoped to use the Shamshir to reduce his operating costs.

But it was not to be; and the fault, I once again admit, was mine.

The Shamshir was said to reside in the barrow of the great hero Ovidus Sheepfoot, Master of Herds, in the faroff village of Hamming Major. We perforce must pass through many dangerous locales on our way to that remote spot, and as we were much plagued by bandits and other pests our Hralf’s talents were much called upon.
On this particular afternoon of ill fame we were crossing a broad meadow when we caught sight of a lone man in black leather, all hung about with sharp and deadly objects. He was standing calmly by the side of the path, arms crossed. He had a long plume to his cap, and rather the ugliest face it has ever been my pleasure to encounter.

Sarvalur and Palantir glanced at each other. Although the fellow had no weapon in hand, still this looked like the beginning of yet another shake-down, of the sort we had had to discourage so often in previous days.

Hralf, for his part, began to hum: an invariable sign of the muse’s influence.

Had I realized what was to come I would have called upon him to cease.


As we approached this gentleman of the road, his arms still crossed, his blades still in their sheaths, our Hralf, brash with the confidence engendered by his new skills, stepped boldly forward and said this:

There once was a brigand in leather
His hat was adorned by a feather
    His visage was bad
    His patter was sad
His body we left in the heather.

“Limericks?” said the bandit. “Really?”

The bandit regarded Hralf quizzically.

“And then you come up with, ‘His visage was bad.’ Is that really the best you can do? You spend all day riding through this beautiful countryside, and you come across my ugly mug, and that’s all your miserable excuse for a muse can come up with?”

He shook his head sadly, then continued.

“As I see it, you’ve got a number of problems here. First, limericks are completely unsuited to the gravity of this situation. I am here to take your money, and possibly your lives. At such a time I’d like to hear something a little higher in tone.” He paused for a moment, considering. “Something more like this:”

Because you would not stop for death
I kindly stopped for thee.
The meadow held but just ourselves
And your mortality.

“Or maybe this:”

This is just to say
I have taken
the golds
that were in 
your coinpurse
And which
you were probably
for drinking.
Forgive me
you were ambitious
so weak
and so bold.

“You know? Something worth spending the time to listen to. Because, you know, I could have killed you a dozen times over while you recited that stupid thing. Short, pithy, that’s what you really want at a time like this. Something you can shout as you draw your weapon, so you don’t lose any time. Something like, ‘Look on my arms, ye blighter, and despair!’ Or perhaps, ‘If mayhem be the fruit of theft, slay on!’

“But limericks? Pfaugh.”

Hralf had been bristling all through this discourse, though Palantir was by his side trying to hold him back; for of course no one likes a critic.

And at last, pushed beyond all endurance, he shouted, “BLOOD AND BONES BROKEN!” and leaped.

The brigand stepped neatly out of the way. “Hey, that’s not too bad,” he said, raising one hand. “You should stick with that one.”

And at that motion a force of some thirty of his fellows, similarly clad in black, emerged from the surrounding woods and beat us all bloody.

Their leader came to us as we lay there, helpless on the green, green lea, and relieved us of our money and all the rest of our belongings.

“I was just going to ask for your money,” he apologized to Palantir, “but your lion there needed schooling. He’ll think twice before reciting bad poetry to another highwayman.”

Hralf growled and whimpered when the fellow took the sack from his waist.

“And what have we here?” he said, opening it and extracting one of Hralf’s tablets. “Oh. I see.” He looked down at Hralf, not without a measure of compassion, and said, “You do have it bad, don’t you.” He dropped the sack and the tablet, and rose to his feet.

“Cheers!” he said. And then, tipping his hat, he left us there, coinless, gearless, and horseless.

We had to call off the mission at that point.

It was a long and tedious trek back to the nearest town. Hralf was limping badly, and Palantir had to carry Sarvalur most of the way; and I myself was the recipient of many unhappy and accusing looks.

And so it went all the way back to Clutterback City, where Master Halidom was most disappointed, after which Sarvalur led me to a table in the Cluttered Cellar, bought me an ale, and said, “Giacomo, you’re a great singer, and good company on the road; and never let it be said that Sarvalur abandoned a companion on the way. But now we’re back home, and if Palantir or I ever see you again we’ll hang you from the Earl’s ramparts by the strings of your ever-loving lute. Got me? We rely on Hralf, and you nearly broke him. Drink up and get the hell out.”

The secret to a long life, they say, is knowing when it’s time to go. And so I resumed my wandering ways; and what trouble they got into through not having a bard in their employ I have frequently shuddered to think.

Thank you. Most kind.


Photo by Victor Serban on Unsplash

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