Myths and Legends of the Ancient World

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Sigurd and Gunnar

The wall of fire rose high above the surrounding trees, the flames steady and strong.

They did not move in the breeze which swept the mountain and which made the leaves rustle and whisper beneath the darkening sky.

Darkness had fallen over the valley below but upon the summit it was as bright as day, for the flames of Brynhild’s magic wall cast a halo of light all around.

But it was an eerie sort of light for the flames were constantly changing colour; now gleaming orange, now glowing yellow, now burning red, now shimmering blue. 

Some distance from the strange wall, a man sat motionless. His large form was slumped against the trunk of a large tree but his eyes were fixed so firmly upon the wall that it seemed as though he was trying to penetrate it with his gaze.

From his garb and golden armour the man was obviously not an ordinary soldier and so great was he in stature that his shoulders were three times as broad as those of most men.

Even though he was seated, his great height was obvious for his head reached almost to the lower branches of the tree above and his outstretched legs were as thick as small tree trunks. Anyone who had heard stories of Sigurd, the dragon slayer and son of Sigmund the Volsung would have recognized him immediately.

But although it was indeed Sigurd’s form which sat beneath the oak, it was actually not his spirit which looked through those piercing grey eyes.

Rather, it was Gunnar, the son of King Giuki, who watched Brynhild’s wall, hidden within Sigurd’s remarkable form.

Sigurd, the son of Sigmund, was at that moment seated beside Brynhild within her wall of fire. And he was in the body of King Giuki’s son.

The strange phenomenon had come about through the dark arts of Gunnar’s mother Queen Grimhild, who was notorious for being a powerful sorceress.

After Gunnar had tried and failed to ride through Brynhild’s magic wall of fire in order to win the shield-maiden’s heart and hand, the Queen had decided that her skills were needed to secure Brynhild for her son.

With Sigurd’s permission the Queen had switched the forms of the two men and it was Sigurd, in Gunnar’s form, who had ridden through the fire to win the maiden. That had been two days ago. 

Now Gunnar who had nervously watched his brother-in-law disappear into the flames, was becoming even more anxious.

What if Sigurd had been consumed by the fire? And if he hadn’t, would his suit be successful or was Brynhild’s heart impossible to win? He could not bear to return home in defeat a second time!

“I will win her for you, my brother,” Sigurd had promised him. “And by my sword I swear that I will not dishonour you while I am with the maiden. She is yours and you alone shall claim her. I merely enter her wall to win her for you.”

“What if the lady does not wish to marry me?” Gunnar’s fears could not be silenced.

“Has she not sworn to marry only a man who is brave enough to ride through her fiery wall? That is what the stories say. And we shall hold her to her oath, never fear. From what I have heard of her, she is a woman of honour and it would be impossible for her to go back on her word.”

And so Gunnar had been left alone without the wall, in the company of his fears and doubts. He had been unable to sleep or to eat but could only sit against the tree and watch in silence.

Meanwhile, Sigurd, with his gentle words and kindness was winning the trust of the wise and beautiful Brynhild.

Little did the man know that he had already won Brynhild’s heart two years earlier, when in his own form he had ridden through the wall and broken the spell of eternal sleep that had been cast upon the shield-maiden.

He had forgotten it all, as a result of a magic potion Queen Grimhild had given him. So too had he forgotten how dearly he had loved the very woman he was now tricking into loving Gunnar. His declarations of love and his oath to return to Brynhild and never to love another had also been forgotten; wiped from his mind by the Queen’s sorcery.

And he had married the Queen’s daughter; Gundrun, who was now the mother of his infant son.

And Brynhild having heard of Sigurd’s marriage, now decided that she would accept the man whom she had watched ride through her wall upon Sigurd’s horse.

She doubted that any other would ever have the courage to ride through fire to woo her.

Besides, his gentle way of speaking and the kindness in his eyes had quickly endeared him to her.

But it was his unfailing honour that had won her over completely, for although he was alone with her, and had spent two nights in her castle, he deliberately laid his sword between them when they slept. On this, the third night, she watched him as he stoked the fire and smiled.

“Gunnar,” she said quietly. “I have made up my mind.”

The man looked up with raised eyebrows, and then seeing the tenderness in her eyes, his face broke into a smile.

“Have you decided upon an answer, Brynhild?” he asked. “Do you agree to be my wife and rule my kingdom with me?”

Brynhild nodded.

“Return to your home tomorrow and prepare everything for the marriage feast,” she said. “Then upon the next new moon, I will come to your father’s burg and we will be married.”

The man knelt before her and took her hands in his own; raising her fingers to his lips.

“Thank you, Brynhild,” he said. “You will not regret your decision, I promise you.”

And the woman smiled and lowered her eyes so that he would not see the tears that glistened there. It would not do to show him that while he had won her respect and trust, her heart still belonged to Sigurd and was still mourning his loss.

What would become of the young woman? Would she keep her word and marry Gunnar the son of King Giuki? Or would she discover the trick that had been played on her by the very man she still loved? We will find out next time...

 

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