The Tomb of Heiri by Arthur Christopher Benson
In the old days, when the Romans were taking Britain for their own,
there lived in Cambria a great prince called Heiri. He was forty
summers old; he had long been wed, but had no son to reign after him.
Many times had he fought with the Romans, but his tribe had been
driven slowly backward to the northern mountains; here for a time he
dwelt in some peace, but the Romans crept ever nearer; and Heiri, who
was a brave and generous prince and a great warrior, was sore
afflicted, seeing the end that must come. He dwelt in a high valley of
moorland, where his tribe kept such herds as yet remained to them.
Heiri often asked himself in what he and his people had wronged the
gods, that they should be thus vexed; for he was, as it seemed, like a
wild beast with his back to a wall, fighting with innumerable foes; to
the north and east and south and west lay great mountains, and behind
them to west and north lay the sea; to south and east the Romans held
the land, so that the Cambrians were penned in a corner.
One day heavy news came; a great army of the Romans had come by sea
to the estuary in the south. The next day the scouts saw them marching
up the pass, like ants, in countless numbers, with a train of baggage;
and the day after, when the sun went down, the watch-fires burnt in a
long line across the southern moorland, and the sound of the horns the
Romans blew came faintly upon the wind; all day the tribesmen drove in
their cattle up to the great camp, that lay on a low hill in the
centre of the vale. Heiri held a council with his chiefs, and it was
determined that next day they should give them battle.
That night, when Heiri was sitting in his hut, his beloved wife
beside him, there came to see him the chief priest of the tribe; he
was an old man, hard and cruel, and Heiri loved him not; and he hated
Heiri secretly, being jealous of his power; he came in, his white
priestly robe bound about the waist with a girdle of gold; and Heiri
rose to do him honour, making a sign to his wife that she should leave
them. So she withdrew softly; then the priest sat down. He asked first
of Heiri whether it was determined to fight on the morrow; and Heiri
said that it was so determined. Then the priest said, "Lord Heiri,
to-morrow is the feast of the God of Death; and he claims a victim, if
we are to be victorious." Now Heiri hated the sacrifice of men, and
the priest knew it; and so for a while Heiri sat in silence, frowning,
and beating his foot upon the ground, while the priest watched him
with bright and evil eyes. Then Heiri said, "To-morrow must many men,
both valiant and timid, die; surely that were enough for the god!" But
the priest said, "Nay, my lord, it is not enough; the law saith that
unless a victim should offer himself, the priests should choose a
victim; and the victim must be goodly; for we are in an evil case."
Then Heiri looked at the priest and said, "Whom have ye chosen?" for
he saw that the priests had named a victim among themselves. So the
priest said, "We have named Nefri—be content."
Now Nefri was a lad of fifteen summers, cousin to Heiri; his father
was long dead, and Heiri loved the boy, who was brave and gracious,
and had hoped in his heart that Nefri would succeed him as prince of
the tribe. Then Heiri was very wroth, and said, "Lord priest, that may
not be; Nefri is next of kin to myself, and will grow up a mighty
warrior; and he shall be chief after me, if the gods grant him life;
look you, to-morrow we shall lose many mighty men; and it may be that
I shall myself fall; for I have been heavy-hearted for many days, and
I think that the gods are calling me—and Nefri we cannot spare."
Then the priest said, "Lord Heiri, the gods choose whom they will by
the mouth of their priests; it were better that Nefri should perish
than that the people should be lost; and, indeed, the gods have
spoken; for I prayed that the victim should be shown me, hoping that
it might be some common man; but hardly had I done my prayer, when
Nefri came to my hut to bring an offering; and my heart cried out,
'Arise, for this is he.' The gods have chosen him, not I; and Nefri
must die for the people."
Then Heiri was grievously troubled; for he reverenced the gods and
feared the priests. And he rose up, with anger and holy fear striving
within him; and he said, "Prepare then for the sacrifice; only tell
not Nefri—I myself will bring him—it may be that the gods will
provide another victim." For he hoped within his heart that the Romans
might attack at dawn, so that the sacrifice should tarry.
Then the priest rose up and said, "Lord Heiri, I would it were
otherwise; but we must in all things obey the gods; the sacrifice is
held at dawn, and I will go and set all things in order." So Heiri
rose and bowed to the priest; but he knew in his heart that the priest
sorrowed not, but rather exulted in the victim he had chosen. Then
Heiri sent word that Nefri should come to him, and presently Nefri
came in haste, having risen from his bed, with the warm breath of
sleep about him. And there went as it were a sword through Heiri's
heart, to see the boy so fair and gracious and so full of love and
Then Heiri made the boy sit beside him, and embraced him with his
arm; and then he said, "Nefri, I have sent for you in haste, for there
is a thing that I must tell you; to-morrow we fight the Romans, and
something tells me in my heart that it will be our last fight; whether
we shall conquer or be conquered I know not, but it is a day of doom
for many—and now hearken. I have prayed many times in my heart for a
son, but no son is given me; but I hoped that you would reign after
me, if indeed there shall be any people left to rule; and if it so
fall out, remember that I spoke with you to-night, and bade you be
brave and just, loving your people and fearing the gods; and forget
not that I loved you well."
And Nefri, half in awe and half in eager love for the great prince his
cousin, said, "I will not forget." Then Heiri kissed him on the cheek
and said, "Dear lad, I know it. And now you must sleep, for there is a
sacrifice at dawn, and you must be there with me; but before you
sleep—and I would have you sleep here in my hut to-night—pray to the
father of the gods to guide and strengthen me—for we are as naught in
his hands, and I have a grievous choice to make—a choice between
honour and love—and I know not which is the stronger."
Then Heiri spread a bearskin on the floor and bade Nefri sleep, and he
himself sat long in thought looking upon the embers. And it was quiet
in the hut—only he saw by the firelight the boy's bright eye watching
him, till he chid him lovingly, saying, "Sleep, Nefri, sleep." And
Heiri himself lay down to sleep, for he knew that a weary day of
fighting lay before him.
But the priest went to the other chiefs and spake with each of them,
saying that the gods had chosen Nefri for the victim of the sacrifice,
but that Heiri would fain forbid it. But the priest did worse than
that, for he told many of the tribesmen the same story, and though
they were sorry that Nefri should die, yet they feared the gods
exceedingly, and did not think to dispute their will.
About an hour before the dawn, when there was a faint light in the
air, and the breeze began to blow chill from the hills, and the stars
went out one by one, the chiefs began to gather their men; and there
was sore discontent in the camp; all night had the rumour spread
beside the fires and in the huts that Heiri would resist the will of
the gods and save Nefri from death; and many of the soldiers told the
chiefs that if this were so they would not fight; so the chiefs
assembled in silence before the hut of Heiri, for they feared him
greatly, but they feared the gods more, and they had resolved that
Nefri should die.
While they stood together Heiri came suddenly out among them. He
carried a brand in his hand, which lit up his pale face and bright
armour; and he came like a man risen from the dead.
Then the oldest chief, by name Gryf, drew near, and Heiri asked him of
the Romans; and the chief said that they were not stirring yet. Then
Heiri held up his hand; every now and then came the crying of cocks
out of the camp, but in the silence was heard the faint sound of
trumpets from the moorland, and Heiri said, "They come."
Then Gryf, the chief, said, "Then must the sacrifice be made in
haste," and he turned to Heiri and said, "Lord Heiri, it is rumoured
in the camp that Nefri is the chosen victim, but that you seek to save
him." And Heiri looked sternly at him and said, "And wherefore are the
purposes of the gods revealed? Lo, I will bring Nefri myself to the
sacrifice, and we shall see what will befall."
Then the chiefs were glad in their hearts and said, "Lord Heiri, it
is well. The ways of the gods are dark, but they rule the lives of
men, and who shall say them nay?" And Heiri said, "Ay, they are dark
Then he made order that the scouts should go forth from the camp; and
while he yet spake the procession of priests in their white robes
passed like ghosts through the huts on their way to the temple. And
Heiri said, "We must follow," and he called to Nefri; but the boy did
not answer. Then Heiri went within and found him sleeping very softly,
with his face upon his hand; and he looked upon him for a moment, and
then he put his hand upon his head; and the boy rose up, and Heiri
said, "It is time, dear Nefri—and pray still for me, for the gods
have not showed me light." So Nefri marvelled, and tried to make a
prayer; but he was filled with wonder at the thought of the sacrifice,
for he had never been present at a sacrifice before—and he was
curious to see a man slain—for the sight of death in those grievous
years of battle had lost its terrors even for children. So Nefri rose
up; and Heiri smiled upon him and took the boy's hand, and the two
went out together.
Then they came with the chiefs through the camp. The precinct of the
goddess was at the upper end, to the north; it was a thick grove of
alders, through which no eye could pierce; and it was approached by a
slanting path so that none could see into the precinct.
So presently they came to the place and entered in; and Heiri felt the
boy's hand cold within his own; but it was not fear, for Nefri was
fearless, but only eagerness to see what would be done.
They passed inside the precinct; none was allowed to enter except the
priests and the chiefs and certain captains. It was a dolorous place
in truth. All round ran a wall of high slabs of slate. At the upper
end, on a pedestal, stood the image of the god, a rude and evil piece
of handiwork. It was a large and shapeless figure, with hands
outspread; in the head of it glared two wide and cruel eyes, painted
with paint, red-rimmed and horrible. The pedestal was stained with
rusty stains; and at the foot lay a tumbled heap that was like the
body of a man, as indeed it was—for the victim was left lying where
he fell, until another victim was slain. All around the body sprouted
rank grasses out of the paved floor. The priests stood round the
image; the chief priest in front holding a bowl and a long thin knife.
Two of them held torches which cast a dull glare on the image. The
chiefs arranged themselves in lines on each side; and Heiri, still
holding Nefri by the hand, walked up to within a few feet of the
image, and there stood silent.
Then the chief priest made a sign, and at that two other priests came
out with a large box of wood and shovels; and they took the bones of
the victim up and laid them in the box, in which they clattered as
they fell—and Nefri watched them curiously, but shuddered not; and
when the poor broken body was borne away, then Nefri began to look
round for the victim, but the priests began a hymn; their loud sad
voices rang out very strangely on the chilly air—and the tribesmen
without, hearing the sound, trembled for fear and cast themselves upon
Then there was a silence; and the chief priest came forward, and made
signs to Heiri to draw near, and Heiri advanced, and said to Nefri as
he did so, "Now, child, be brave." And Nefri looked up at Heiri with
parted lips; and then it came suddenly into his mind that he was
indeed to be the victim; but he only looked up with a piteous and
inquiring glance at Heiri; and Heiri drew him to the pedestal. Then
there was a terrible silence, and the hearts of the chiefs beat fast
for fear and horror; and some of them turned away their faces, and the
tears came to their eyes.
Then the priest raised his knife, while Nefri watched him; but Heiri
stepped forward and said, "Lord priest, I have chosen. Hold thy hand.
The law saith that a victim must die, and that one may offer himself
to die; ye have chosen Nefri, for none has offered himself. But I bid
thee hold; for here I offer myself as a victim to the god."
Then there was an awful silence, and the priest looked fiercely and
evilly upon Nefri, and made as though he would have smitten him; but
Heiri seized the priest's hand in both his own, and with great
strength drove the knife into his own breast, stood for a moment, then
swayed and fell. And as he lay he said, "My father, I come, the last
victim at the shrine;" and then he drew out the knife, sobbed and
died. But the chiefs crowded round to look upon him; and Gryf said,
"We are undone; our king is dead, and who shall lead us?"
Then he scowled evilly upon the priests, and said, "This is your
work, men of blood—and as ye have slain our king, ye shall fight for
us to-day, and see if the god will protect you; then, if he saves you,
we shall know that you have spoken truly—and if he saves you not then
ye are false priests." And the chiefs cried assent; and Gryf, the
eldest chief, commanded that weapons should be given them, and that
they should be guarded and fight with the vanguard. But Nefri cast
himself upon the body of Heiri and wept sore. But while they stood
came a scout in terror, and told them that the Romans were indeed
advancing. So the temple was emptied in a moment; and Nefri sat by the
body of the dead and looked upon it. But the chiefs hastened to the
wall of the camp; and it was now day; in the light that fell pale and
cold from the eastern hills they saw the Romans creeping across the
moor, in black dots and patches, and the sound of the horns drew
Then they arrayed themselves, and went out in the white morning; and
the women watched from the wall. But Heiri's wife was told the tale,
and went to the temple, but dared not enter, for no woman might set
foot therein; and she wailed sitting at the gate, calling upon Heiri
to come forth; but Heiri lay on his back before the image, the blood
flowing from his breast, while Nefri held his head upon his knee.
Then went the battle very evilly for the tribe; little by little they
were driven back upon the camp; and they were like sheep without a
shepherd—and still the chiefs hoped in the help of the god; but the
priests were smitten down one by one, and last of all the chief priest
fell, his bowels gushing from a wound in his side, and cursed the god
and died cursing.
Then the heavens overclouded: blacker and blacker the clouds gathered,
with a lurid redness underneath like copper; till a mighty storm fell
upon them, just as the Cambrians broke and fled back to the camp, and
watched the steady advance of the Roman line, with the eagles bowing
and nodding as they swept over the uneven moor.
Then suddenly they were aware of a strange thing. Whence it came they
knew not, but suddenly under the camp wall there appeared the figure
of a man in armour, on a white horse; it was the form of Heiri as they
had often seen him ride forth on his white charger to battle; and
behind him seemed to be a troop of dark and shadowy horsemen. Heiri
seemed to turn round, and raise his sword in the air, as he had often
done in life; and then, with a great rending of the heavens, and a
mighty crash of thunder, the troop of horse swept down upon the Roman
line. Then came a fearful sound from the moorland; and those who gazed
from the wall saw the Romans waver and turn; and in a moment they were
in flight, melting away in the moor, as stones that roll from a cliff
after a frost; and all men held their breath in silence; for they saw
the Romans flying and none to pursue, except that some thought that
they saw the white horse ride hither and thither, and the flash of the
waving sword of Heiri.
There followed a strange and dreadful night; the list of warriors was
called and many were absent; from hour to hour a few wounded men
crawled in; and in the morning, seeing that the Romans were not near
at hand, they sent out a party with horses to bring in the wounded and
the dead; all the priests were among the slain; those of the chiefs
that were alive held a meeting and resolved that the camp must now be
held, for the Romans would attack the next day; and they sent the
women and children, with the herds, away to a secret place in the
mountains, all but Heiri's wife, who would not leave the camp.
Then the other chiefs would have made Gryf, the old chief, prince of
the tribe; but he refused it, saying that Heiri had wished Nefri to be
chief, and that none but Nefri should succeed. So search was made for
Nefri, and he was found in Heiri's hut with Heiri's wife; he had
stayed beside the body till it grew stiff and cold and the eyes had
glazed; and then he had feared to be alone with it, and had crept
away. So they put a crown upon Nefri's head, and each of the chiefs in
turn knelt before him and kissed his hand; and Nefri bore himself
proudly but gently, as a prince should, rising as each chief
approached; and then he was led out before the people, and they were
told that Nefri was prince by the wish of Heiri; and no one disputed
Then in the grey dawn a scout came in haste and said that three
Romans were approaching the camp, and that one was a herald; and the
old chief asked Nefri what his will was; and the boy looked him in the
face, and said, "Let them be brought hither." So the chiefs were again
summoned, and the Romans came slowly into the camp. The herald came in
front, and he was followed by an officer of high rank, as could be
seen from his apparel and the golden trappings of the horse that bore
him; and another officer followed behind; and the herald, who knew
something of the Cambrian language, said that this was the Lord Legate
himself, and that he was come to make terms.
The chiefs looked at each other in silence, for they knew that the
Romans must needs have taken the camp that day if they had assaulted
it. The Legate was a young man with a short beard, very much burnt by
the sun, and bearing himself like a great gentleman. He looked about
him with a careless and lordly air; and when they came into the
presence of the chiefs, the three dismounted; and the Legate looked
round to see which was the prince; then the old chief put Nefri
forward, and said to the herald, "Here is our king." And the Legate
bowed to Nefri, and looked at him in surprise; and the herald said in
the Cambrian language to Nefri that the Legate was fain to arrange a
truce, or indeed a lasting peace, if that were possible.
Then the old chief said to Nefri, "My lord, ask him wherefore the
Legate has come;" and Nefri asked the herald, and the herald asked the
Legate; then the Legate said, smiling, to the herald, "Tell him
anything but the truth—say that it is our magnanimity;" and then he
added in a lower tone, turning to the other officer, "though the truth
is that the men will not dare to attack the place after the rout of
yesterday;" and the Legate added to the herald, "Say that the Romans
respect courage, and have seen that the Cambrians are worthy foes, and
we would not press them hard; it is a peaceful land of allies that we
desire, and not a land conquered and made desolate." So the herald
repeated the words.
Then the old chief bade Nefri say that they must have time to
consider, adding that it would not be well to seem eager for peace.
Then he said to the other chiefs, "Yet this is our salvation." So they
conferred together, and at last it was decided to tell the Legate that
they would be friends and allies, but that the boundaries of the land
must be respected, and that the Romans must withdraw beyond the
boundaries. And this the Legate accepted, and it was determined that
all the land that could be seen from the camp should be left to the
Cambrians, and that the mountains should be as a wall to them; and
this too the Legate approved.
So in the space of an hour the Cambrians were relieved of their foes,
and were in peace in their own land. And the Legate was royally
entertained; but before he went he asked, through the herald, where
the great warrior was who had led the last charge on the day before,
for he had taken him to be the prince of the land. Then the old chief
said, "He is sick and may not come forth." Then the Legate rode away,
and Nefri rode a little way with him to do him honour, and after
courteous greetings they departed.
Then the old chief and Nefri talked long together, and they determined
what they would do.
Then the people were assembled, and Nefri spoke first, and said that
he was young and could not put words together; but he added that the
old chief knew his will and would announce it.
Then the old chief stood forward and told the people the story of
Heiri's death and how he had died for the people; and then he told
them that he had made the priests fight, and that the gods had surely
shown that they were false priests, for they were slain, and the gods
had not protected them, and that Nefri was prince by the will of
And then he said that Heiri with his latest breath had said that he
should be the last victim—and that thus it should be; "for Heiri," he
said, "has become a god indeed and fought for us, and has conquered
the Romans, and, therefore," he said, "the Lord Nefri has decreed that
the precinct of the god should not indeed be destroyed—for that were
impious; but that a great mound should be raised over the place, and
that it should be the tomb of Heiri, and that peaceful offerings
should be made there, and that it should be kept as a day of festival;
and that Nefri himself should be priest as well as prince, and his
successors for ever."
And the people all applauded, for they had dreaded the bloody
sacrifices; and the next day and for many days they laboured until
over the whole precinct they had raised a mighty mound, burying the
image of the god; and for Heiri's body they made a chamber of stone,
and they laid him therein, with his face upward to the sky, and made
great lamentation over him.
When all things were in order a solemn feast was held; and Nefri on
the top of the mound made a sacrifice of fruits and milk, and blessed
the people in the name of Heiri; and he made order that to make the
place more blessed, all weddings should thenceforth be celebrated upon
the mound, so that it should be the precinct of life and not of death.
And the people rejoiced.
That night Nefri slept in the hut of Heiri; and at the dead time of
darkness, when all was silent in the camp, except for the pacing of
the sentry to and fro, Nefri awoke, and saw in the hut the form of
Heiri standing, only brighter and fairer than when he lived; and he
looked upon Nefri with a smile as though his heart was full of joy;
then he came near and said, in a voice like the voice of a distant
fall of water, "Nefri, dear child, thou hast done well and wisely; be
just and merciful and loving to all; and rule with diligence, and
Then Nefri would have asked him of the place wherein his spirit abode,
but could not find words; for he was full of wonder, though not
afraid. But Heiri smiled again, as though he knew his thoughts, and
said, "Ask me not that, for I may not tell; but only this I may tell
you, that no man who has lived wisely and bravely need fear the
passage; it is but a flying shadow on the path, like a cloud on the
hill; and then he stands all at once in a fairer place; neither need
he fear that he lays aside with the body the work and labour of life;
for he works and labours more abundantly, and his labour is done in
joy, without fear or heaviness; and for all such spirits is there high
and true labour waiting. Therefore, Nefri, fear not; and though I
cannot come to thee again—for thou shalt live and be blest—yet will
I surely await thee yonder."
And then there came a darkness, and the form of Heiri seemed to fade
gradually away, as though he were withdrawn along some secret path;
and there went others with him. And Nefri slept.
And in the morning came Heiri's wife, and said to Nefri that Heiri had
stood beside her in the night and comforted her; "and I know," she
said, "that he lives and waits for me."
So the land had peace; and Nefri ruled wisely and did justice among
the mountains by the sea.