Hey there! Toli here with another tall tale – though you might say this one is deep. So sit yourself down and take up a jug, and let me transport you to the ancient Burgundian kingdom of Wörms.
Old Ma Holla and the Sons of Gislar
A long, long time ago, in the ancient Burgundian kingdom of Wörms, lived a king by name of Gislar. Now Gislar was old and ailing, and in the shadows, death was waiting. His councillors gathered around him. They must have the name his desired successor. But oh, how Gislar wrung his hands.
“Well, is it to be Richimer, your eldest son?” asked his almost as ancient chamberlain.
But Gislar made no answer. He had heard the scorn in his councillor’s words.
The steward, a brave man, piped up with what the others were thinking. “That Richimer will sell your subjects and lands to the Romans. You know it is so.”
Ay, Gislar knew his steward spoke true.
“You could do no better than to name Gunderic,” his chaplain urged him. “He’s an excellent man.”
But his castellan sneered. “Who wants a priest on the throne, to fill the castle with his choristers instead of a wife and a son to be heir.”
“There is Gundehar,” the king’s constable suggested. “I know that he’s young but he has the makings.”
“He has the makings of a skirt-sniffing lewd,” countered the chaplain. “You know where he is at this moment? Not with his father while his father is dying.”
“And where might his brothers be now?” the king’s constable retorted. “Is your precious Gunderic here? Is Richimer?”
“Well,” the steward pressed, “you haven’t a choice, you must name the heir.”
The old king knew it. He nodded and croaked out the words, “My throne goes to the son who marries Segotha.”
Around the king’s bed, the councillors gasped. Segotha! But she was King Goar’s daughter and the Burgundians and Alans never were friends.
Hidden amongst the draught-clouting drapes, where they had been listening, Richimer and Gunderic looked at other and grimaced. They signed to each other to sneak out to the castle’s tightly kept herbary, where they might whisper together their murderous intent.
“This is hopeless,” Richimer said. “Even I can’t hope to succeed against that Gundehar. There isn’t a woman who doesn’t fall for him. He’ll easily win Segotha. Ney, our brother must be done with. With him deceased and disposed, I’ll wed the woman and win the throne.”
“And me?” asked Gunderic, pointedly.
“Well, of course, you’ll share my throne. A dual king, it isn’t unknown.”
“But if there’s to be killing, you must do it,” Gunderic said in a squirm. “A man of the Church, I cannot have blood on my hands.”
“We’ll do it together,” Richimer said. “The shared guilt will bind us and swear us to trust.”
“Ney.” The pious brother Gunderic would not kill.
“Then we’ll give him to the ancient Earth-forces. Let the Old Ones do our will.”
And so saying and agreeing, they made their arrangements.
Their younger brother Gundehar knew nothing of the king’s declaration, and nothing of what his brothers were plotting for he was out in the fields with the king’s constable’s daughter. So he was surprised when they suddenly appeared before him as he entered the castle.
“What is it?” he asked. “Not our father? I’d have stayed with him had I thought death that close.”
“Ney, ney, ney, our brother, death stays its hand,” Gunderic said.
“And what does it matter,” Richimer added. “For now you are here.”
“But he has been asking for you,” Gunderic said. “A certain mission, entrusted only to you.”
“Whatever it is, willingly I’ll go,” Gundehar said. For despite he’d been rearranging the sweet scented skirts of young Hildis, yet he loved his father and there wasn’t a thing he’d not do for him.
“He asks for water from the old well of Holla. He says only you know where it is.”
“I’d disdain it,” Gunderic said archly. “Reeking of pagan ceremony as it is.”
Gundehar laughed. “But it’s not, not now. No one goes there. Yet I question the water, I thought it was dry.”
“Well,” Richimer said with a shrug, “he swears that its water is his only remedy.”
“You’d best bring it to me once fetched,” Gunderic said. “And I shall bless it. We cannot give anything pagan to him.”
“I’ll seek it out,” Gundehar said. “Immediately.” And so saying he turned on his heel.
Richimer and Gunderic wasted no time. They retrieved the disguises they’d earlier hidden, and followed.
At the well Gundehar paused. In his haste he’d not brought a bucket. How was he to draw water. Yet he saw, barely jutting from the encircling rocks, a new leather-jack some traveller had lost.
He laughed. “See how God smiles on my quest.” And he sat while he tied the jug to some string. Then, leaning over the well, he threw the leather-jack in. But he heard no splash of the jug hitting water.
He looked up at the sky. “Ay, ay, ay,” he said to the Sky Lord. “Have trust, have faith, for miracles, they say, do happen.” And there had been the jug so there might yet be water. He pulled the jug out for the waterless well, and in-chucked it again.
But again, there came no splash of jug hitting water. So again he retrieved it.
“Third time,” he said, taking a breath. “Third time lucky.” And he leaned far over the kerb-stone.
Perhaps had he not leaned so far he might have been able to see what creature or beast that scuffled behind him. He might have discerned by whose foot, paw or claw he was pushed. But he was none of it able, and so he fell without ever knowing. Down, and down, the waterless well. Lucky he didn’t crack his head at the bottom.
When the stars had stopped their swirling, and he’d checked his body for blood and breakages, he allowed his eyes slowly to climb the well-wall. Up, and up, and up. It was a very long way. Up, and up, and at the top night replaced day.
“Oh,” he said. “Now what? There’ll be my father awaiting his water – though there’s none down here I could bring him. But I ought to return to tell him that. Oh, Lord,” he groaned and looked up again. He couldn’t climb it, not without he changed himself into a lizard or spider, and that wasn’t likely. “What can I do?”
“You could stop groaning,” a voice said beside him.
“Who . . .?” he asked. And the old woman raised a lamp that he might see her. “You fell down here too? How long ago?”
“As long as my gums,” she said. And he tried not to laugh for he saw she was toothless.
“But how do you live here?” he asked. It seemed to him a barren hole.
“Oh, on water and wheat,” she said all matter-of-fact. “Now, if you’ll take up this bucket and follow me with it . . .” And he found a full bucket of water weighting his hands. He followed her with it, through a well-wall that was no longer real.
He laughed again when he saw the fields. “It’s a wonder!” he exclaimed.
“Glad that you like it,” she said, and placed a scythe in his hands. “You’ve arrived just in time. They’re yours for the cutting.” And without a grumble he set to the reaping.
Now I tell you, my ear-tickled listeners, this tale would grow bored-some and long should I tell it all, as it were, blow by chronological blow, how the young Gundehar did all that the old woman asked of him, each task in its season, without one groan or grumble at all. Thus the year circled round and the anniversary came of when Gundehar had left home.
“You’ll be wanting to return there now,” the old woman said.
Gundehar sighed. “Were I able. My father was dying. I suppose now he is gone. I wonder which of my brothers now sit on the throne.”
“I doubt it is either,” the old woman said. “For before he died he set them a task – to win the daughter of the king of the Alans as wife.”
Gundehar laughed. “They’ll neither be able. As I hear it, Princess Segotha is more pagan than pious. And the Alans are no more taken with Rome than we Burgundians.”
“You speak as you know her,” the old woman remarked, her eyes a’twinkle.
“Know of her,” he answered. “Yet the things said of her . . . I’d always thought that I might wed her.”
“So you know the things that she likes?”
“She is a woman,” Gundehar said. “She likes as all women like: to be courted and honoured as if she were the spirit of Earth herself.”
The old woman laughed, though that delivered with sheaves of scorn. “ Who honours Earth now? That time is long past.”
“Not so,” said Gundehar, “for I honour her.” And the old woman knew it was true, having watched him honour the Earth all this past year.
She nodded. “On the morrow, the Alans will pass by my well. There they will stop, and Segotha herself will come to draw water. Now, if the young woman should there find a young man there willing to help her with bucket after bucket of my fresh water . . .”
Gundehar quickly caught her meaning and laughed. “How, Holla, how?”
She cast a spell on him that changed him to a spider, and that lasted till he reached the top of the well. And there he waited the passing Alans. As predicted, the king’s young daughter arrived carrying a rope and several buckets.
“A old woman back there said this well is dry. Is it true?” Segotha asked when she saw Gundehar idling there.
“A kiss will gain you all the water you want from out of Holla’s deep well.”
Segotha stood back to regard him, her hands punched to her hips. “And who might you be to use such audacity?”
“I will answer you that when you grant me the kiss. But be advised. Without that kiss there’ll be no water for your buckets.”
“You are the well’s guardian,” she declared, satisfied.
“Holla’s well,” he corrected.
Segotha cocked her regal head. “Holla? The Old One?” And she felt no little fear. Yet her hand didn’t go to the cross at her neck.
“Twenty buckets,” she said. “Will you grant me that?”
“To be queen of the kingdom of Wörms, will you grant me that?” But surely he’d rushed her. No woman could be so swiftly won.
Segotha laughed. “You are too late, Holla’s well-keeper. I am even now on my way to be wed to Prince Richimer.”
Gundehar felt his heart break. It was not for the loss of the throne. His father’s kingdom was nothing to him, it had been lost this past year. But now he had seen Princess Segotha and spoken and jested, he ached the more to wed her.
“Then, alas,” he shrugged, and acted as cheerful. “My apologies to King Goar, but he’ll have no water from Holla.”
“He will send soldiers,” she threatened.
“I will not kiss them,” he jested.
“Ney, fool! To take the water, and me to him so he might thrash me.”
“Marry me,” he pressed in desperation of her well-being. “Wed me and still you’ll be the queen of this kingdom for I am Prince Gundehar, third son of King Gislar.”
“You are not, you are dead. I’ve heard the talk.”
“Kiss me, and you will find I am not. Kiss me, Segotha, else be beaten by your father. I would not wish that on you.”
Segotha looked at the well, and looked at the buckets, and looked at Gundehar, and back to where her people were waiting for water. And she nodded agreement.
It was a long business hauling the water. For Old Ma Holla must untie each bucket and tie on another. As well that Gundehar had filled a full thirty before, changed to a spider, he had climbed up the well-wall. And if Segotha noticed a change in bucket designs, she said nothing of it. Perhaps her head was otherwise busy, constructing reasons for why this young man was the brother she’d marry. Yet she knew King Goar wouldn’t object to the change. All he cared was that the two people were united, together to fight the encroaching Romans. The same as King Gislar had wanted.
~ ~ ~
There are two types of well. One, as in the photo, is a well-spring, especially sacred to the Celts.
Clouties hanging from a tree near Madron Well, Cornwall.
Author Jim Champion
Apt, then, for Toli to include a well in a Burgundian story, since the Burgundians settled in the Alpine lands of the Celts. Yet the spirit of the well-spring is a water deity. And Old Mother Holle is the Earth. She lives in the second type of well, the well-shaft, or a very deep pit. Her earliest dwelling would have been the cave, entrance to the Otherworld. I remember a story of Old Mother Holle from long ago, though it wasn’t quite alike to Toli’s. Still, the old woman lived in a well (of the shaft type) and would help those who had willingly helped her.
As to Toli’s Burgundians, whence that tale? I believe it is mostly out of his head. Yet Gislar and his sons bear names from the early history of the Burgundians, as they came into contact with the Roman Empire. Ditto, the Alan King Goar.