The Hag of the Rock
S ILENTLY, stealthily, Tuoni's queen glided from the room in which the Minstrel lay asleep. Hastily she went out from the castle, furtively she glanced backward over her shoulder as though fearful of pursuit. Down to the river-side she went, nor did she pause or slacken her speed until she came to a sudden turn in the shore where a huge ledge of rock jutted far out into the stream.
An old, old woman, gray-eyed, hook-nosed, wrinkled, was sitting on the rock and busily spinning.
"Hail, O Hag of the Rock!" said the queen.
"What are you spinning
"What am I spinning? answered the Hag. "I am spinning the thread of many a man's life. For those who are honest and true and deserving, I spin joy and honor and length of days; for those who are false and cruel and selfish, I spin grief and punishment and an early journey to Tuoni's kingdom."
"Yes, yes, I know!" cried the queen impatiently;
"but what kind of thread do you spin
The old woman paused in her spinning; her fingers twitched uneasily, her thin lips grew thinner still, and her gray eyes shone with phosphorescent light. Then she asked hoarsely, "Is there such a man?"
"There is," answered the queen; "and he sleeps now on Tuoni's couch, in the great hall of our dwelling. He is old, his hair is snow-white, wrinkles are beneath his eyes; yet he is wise and fearless, and his limbs are strong. He would fain return to his own country, carrying with him the secrets that none should know save those of Tuoni's household."
"That he shall never do!" cried the old woman, fiercely, savagely. "No man, whether hero or slave, shall ever recross our river to tell his friends and countrymen how matters fare on this side of the stream."
"But he is very wise; he possesses many powerful runes; he is master of many magic spells," said the queen. "My cunning may detain him for a while; Tuoni may hold him for a season; but it is not given to us to destroy him. I would that we might keep him here forever—one hero in the flesh among a myriad of formless shades!"
"Leave that to me, sweet queen," said the spinner soothingly. "I will hedge him about with prison walls and perils through which he can never escape. His doom is fixed."
Then, without deigning to speak another word, she resumed her spinning. But the threads were not of the sort she had spun before. She twirled her spindle to the right, and drew out threads of iron; she twirled it to the left, and wires of copper, small but exceeding strong, ran through her fingers; she twirled it upward, downward, and a thousand coils of twisted metal soon lay in the moonlight beside her.
Higher up, on the same ledge of rocks, an old wizard was sitting—a grisly, misshapen creature who, in times past, had been a counsellor of kings. This wizard had but one hand, and on it were three long and crooked fingers, fearful to behold, which he used in weaving nets. As fast as the Hag of the Rock spun threads of iron, wires of copper, or coils of twisted metal, he would gather them up and intertwine them together, making a fabric both pliable and strong. Thus, in that short silent night of summer, he wove a hundred broad nets of iron—yes, a thousand small-meshed nets of twisted metal.
At length the Hag of the Rock cried, "Enough!" and the Wizard of the Rock ceased his weaving.
"Now spread your nets cunningly wherever a fish may attempt to swim," said the hag.
So the wizard, with his hard and crooked fingers, stretched them, one by one, across the river; he stretched them, this way and that, along the sullen stream; he stretched them all around the gray-peaked island, the kingdom of Tuoni. Nowhere in the darksome water did he leave an open space through which a shiny fish could wriggle. How, then, would it be possible for a living man, a breathing hero, to escape through this wall of nets so closely woven and so cunningly spread?
By and by the day began to dawn. The sun rose pale and sickly above the ashy-gray hills, the lonely woodlands, and the empty plains. Its garish light fell upon the face of the Minstrel and woke him from his slumber. He sat up and looked around, scarcely remembering where he was.
How fearful was the silence! How ghost-like seemed the very air! A dreadful horror seized him, his blood ran cold, his heart seemed frozen.
Then suddenly and with great effort he leaped to his feet and fled from Tuoni's hall. The gates were open and unguarded, and he ran out into the fields, into the vast unknown beyond. Terror pursued him, and new horrors came into view at every moment of his flight. On each side of the way he beheld yawning chasms filled with yellow flames. From beneath rocks and from crevices in the earth snakes peeped out, licking with fiery tongues. From every tree hideous creatures looked down and grinned at him.
The wind blew strong and cold, yet made no sound. The trees swayed back and forth as though rocked by the fiercest of storms, yet there was silence everywhere. The Minstrel could not hear his own footfalls as he ran blindly, aimlessly, among traps and snares, and through a wilderness of perils. At length, however, his tongue was loosened in prayer; it moved in his mouth, but uttered not even a whisper.
"O Jumala, the mighty!"—these were the words which the Minstrel tried to frame. "O Jumala, the mighty! O Jumala, ruler over all! O Jumala, Jumala! Help me, save me!"
And Jumala heard where there was no sound; for he led the hero straight to the river's bank, he showed him how to avoid every snare, and how to escape every peril. With the courage of despair, Wainamoinen leaped into the dark water and swam with hasty, sturdy strokes toward the shore of safety. He swam not far, however, for the nets of wire rose up against him—the nets of twisted metal which the three-fingered wizard had spread to catch him. He tried to avoid them. He turned this way and that, he dived into the black depths of the stream, he sought everywhere for an opening through which he might pass. But the meshes were fine; the nets were laid close together; there seemed to be no way of escape.
Again he called upon Jumala the mighty; and then he bethought him of all the magic he had practised erstwhile in the Land of Heroes. His voice came to him, and he muttered a spell of enchantment; he recited the runes which no other wizard knew; in the midst of the whelming waters he cried aloud and sang weird songs to charm the evil powers that were seeking to entrap and destroy him.
The old net weaver, the three-fingered wizard, heard him and came swimming out into the sluggish stream; with his gaunt and hideous fingers he seized one net after another and tore the meshes apart; he made a way between the wires through which the Minstrel might squeeze his by no means slender body.
Why did the grim Wizard of the Rock thus undo his own work? In the spells and songs which Wainamoinen uttered, the maker of nets had found his master; the power of magic had overcome him; naught could he do but obey the will of the mighty Minstrel.
And the Minstrel was glad when he saw that his enchantment had worked his deliverance. He uttered still another magic spell, and suddenly his body became slender and sinuous like that of an eel or water-serpent. Then, with ease and quickness, he squirmed and glided, this way, that way, through the broken meshes and between the nets so cunningly spread. Across the broad stream he labored; through a thousand narrow holes he squeezed and clambered; and, at length, wearied exceedingly, he reached the shore of safety and climbed panting upon the dry, warm, throbbing land of the living.
"O Jumala, I thank thee!" he cried. "Grant, mighty Jumala, that no other man shall be so rash, so foolhardy, as I have been. Grant that no other hero may ever see the sights that I have seen, or feel the fear that I have felt. Not for gold, nor for power, nor for lost words of magic, should any mortal dare to trespass upon the forbidden realms of King Tuoni."