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Hermel the Strong
Hermann, or Hermel, as he was called by all those who knew him, was a wild fellow.
He was like his contemporary the young prince of the Cheruscian tribe, who defeated the legions of Varus on the Osning.
Hermel, this son of the mountains, hated with all his heart the Roman tyrants who at that time inhabited the banks of the Rhine and its affluents, and who had overrun Germany with fire and sword.
These cunning intruders step by step tightened their grip on the territory they had conquered. They laid their hands upon the land, and on everything that grew thereon. The poor peasants were compelled to render them hard services for very low wages. The consequence of this state of things was, that bitter hatred prevailed between the outwitted peasants and the foreign conquerors.
The men of the valleys of the Sieg complained bitterly to Sigurd, chief of the Sigambrians, their lawful master, but it was of no use, as he had been seduced by the glittering gold of Tiberius, greatly to the disadvantage of his own tribe.
It happened that a tall strong fellow was ordered to do some of this forced labour.
This was Hermel who had been nourished for seven years at his mother's breast, and had therefore become as strong as a bull.
The conquering invaders were highly pleased with the fair hero who surpassed two Gauls in strength, though he was only twenty years old.
When the appointed day for working arrived, the others gathered in time at the threshing-floor and made ready to begin, while this lazy fellow was still lying on his straw mattress snoring. The bailiff woke him up and scolded him severely.
Hermel opened his eyes and said laughingly, "What is up? It is not necessary to begin so early for such a handful of work. Before noon I will thresh the whole heap of corn without any help. But I shall want two things as a recompense; first, a cart so full of straw that it cannot hold any more. That will be for my bed. Besides I ask for as much bread and meat as I am able to eat."
"All right," answered the bailiff, "it shall be as you wish."
The young giant rose slowly from his couch, yawned lazily, and walked out into the wood. There he took the trunk of an oak and fastened it with a strong rope to a fir-tree. Coming back he lifted off the roof of the barn, that it might not hinder him.
Then he threshed away with his enormous flail, till the straw flew about as in a hurricane.
After having finished all the corn, Hermel took the roof, and using it as a broom, he cleared the threshing-floor of the straw and chaff.
Thereafter he put the corn in sacks and carried them to the loft.
Then he asked for his wages. His masters who had looked on in utter astonishment, hastened to comply with his demand.
Hermel himself loaded the cart with straw, but found that the two oxen were unable to draw it away. He grew angry, and gave them such a heavy blow with his fist that they fell down dead. He unharnessed them quickly, threw them upon the straw, and dragged the cart himself, calling out to the bystanders: "I am supplied with meat. I only want some bread." At this unusual spectacle a murmur rose from the crowd. They felt rather uneasy at the display of such unnatural strength, and the high lords held a council to see how they could rid themselves of this strong fellow, and they hit on what they thought was a good plan.
On the following morning the bailiff ordered Hermel to clean the well in the castle-yard, promising him the fattest sheep as a reward. The lad descended without suspicion, and began to remove the mire from the bottom of the well.
While he was working far below, the conspirators roiled huge stones to the edge of the well, and tumbled them down in order to crush Hermel. He was just humming a merry tune when the stones rolled down on him.
"Chase the chickens up there," he called out, "they are throwing pebbles and sand in my eyes, so that I cannot go on with my work."
The men above thought to themselves, "Well if he calls the huge rocks pebbles and sand, we shall teach him a lesson." And they brought a heavy millstone. Five men had to move it by a lever as it was so heavy. When they threw it down, an oath was heard from the depth of the well, and a minute later the giant came leaping forth with the millstone round his neck.
The people ran away when they saw him, but he was by no means furious. He only said with a grim smile that they had made his head ache a little.
He bore no malice whatsoever and asked for another job, as it was not yet evening, and he said he could only relish his supper after a good day's task.
They sent him into the forest to cut wood, thinking to play another treacherous trick on him. For a few hours he worked undisturbed. The day being hot, he lay down for a little rest and soon fell asleep.
The Romans who were hidden behind the bushes quickly came forward. They collected huge branches, heaped them round the sleeping man, and kindled them.
Having done so, they danced in triumph round the blazing fire.
In a few moments a sound like a subdued cough was heard among the flames.
Then they heard Hermel breathing heavily, as if troubled by the smoke.
Then there was a terrible bustle in the fire, and the betrayed lad sprang out in wild fury.
Without losing a moment he tore an oak tree out of the blazing heap and, wielding it sturdily right and left, he slew every one of the cowardly Romans, who a moment before had been dancing with joy.
Hermel's revenge however was by no means satisfied. With great eloquence he incited the inhabitants of the district to rise against their oppressors and to take up arms for their liberty.
The massacre which followed in the Sieg valley was the most terrible that ever was recorded there. Even women and children were not spared. Very few of the Romans escaped to the western banks of the Rhine.
The valley of the Sieg was now free. Hermel's name, as that of a brave and patriotic hero who had delivered his countrymen from the yoke of the Romans, still lives in song and legend.Click to go to the next section of the Legends of the Rhine