Myths, legends of ancient world - The Fall of a Volsung

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Retold by Jenny Bennett

It had been many hours since darkness had fallen but Hunland was not asleep and the air was filled with music and laughter. In the mead hall of Volsung, which was famed far and wide for the giant tree Branstock that grew at its centre, the King and his courtiers were gathered.

They were feasting in honour of Prince Sinfjotli’s victorious return after several years of warfare and raiding.

Sinfjotli’s exploits had won him both fame and great wealth, and the people rejoiced at his return. After the defeat of many kingdoms at their prince’s hands, the name ‘Sinfjotli’ was enough to strike fear into the hearts of their enemies and the kingdom was safe from attack as long as the man was there. All of Hunland rejoiced: all except for the Queen.

In his travels, the prince had met and courted a beautiful noblewoman who was the niece of one of King Sigmund’s closest allies. However, another man had also set his heart on marrying the princess. That man was Hogni, the brother of Hunland’s Queen. Both men had refused to give up their claim and the result had been a duel: one which had resulted in the death of the queen’s brother.

Queen Borghild could not forgive her stepson, not even after she had accepted gold and silver from the king as weregild for her brother’s life. Even after the prince had made a formal apology and presented her with a trunk full of precious stones, gold and fine robes, the Queen’s heart had thirsted for vengeance.

“I will never forgive him,” she had muttered to herself. “Not all the gold and jewels of the world can atone for his crime. There is only one way that Sinfjolti can pay for my brother’s life: with his own.”

And so the Queen had come up with a plan to take the life of Sigmund’s son. Taking charge of her step-son’s drinking horn, the Queen poured poison into his mead.

The Prince however, caught a whiff of the venom in the drink.

“This is charmed drink Father,” he had declared, and the king, who was immune to all poison took the horn from his son and drank the mead.

A second time, Queen Borghild poured venom into her stepson’s drink and again the king drank the poisoned drink.

The Queen, seeing that she would not succeed as long as the king kept intervening, decided to wait for him to become intoxicated. 

Now, several hours later, King Sigmund sat at the head of the table, smiling vacantly as a servant refilled his drinking horn for the twentieth time. He was drunk and swaying from side to side while a slave steadied his hand to hold the drinking horn. The Queen, smiling to see her husband inebriated, poured all the venom that remained in her vial of poison into Prince Sinfjotli’s horn.

“Are you a coward Sinfjotli?” she hissed to the young man, shoving the horn of poisoned mead into his hand. “Or are you so weak that you cannot even drink mead? You shame us!”

The prince, smelling the overwhelming stench of poison and death in the horn, turned his head away.

“Father,” he said. “Father, this drink has been poisoned. I can smell it.”

“Whaa? Wha’d you say boy?”

“There is venom in this drink, Father.”

The king, drunk and muddled, merely laughed.

“If there is poison in it then let your lip strain it out!” he chuckled holding out his own drinking horn to the slave for more.

And the prince, hearing his father’s words, sighed and lifted his horn to his lips.

“I will drink because my father has told me to,” he said to the Queen who stood beside him, watching with a cruel smile and a wicked glint in her eye.

Raising his arm, the young man drained the poisoned mead. He lowered the empty horn and turned for a final glance at his father before he fell back in his chair.

A hush fell upon the mead hall, and even the most drunken man sat upright, staring wide eyed at the motionless form of the prince of Hunland.

“Sire! The prince!” the servants cried, hurrying to the young man’s side. Queen Borghild looked on as the servants tried to revive the prince and as she hoped, their efforts were in vain. 

“He is gone, King Sigmund,” the oldest servant said with tears streaming down his old, wrinkled face.

“Prince Sinfjotli is dead!”

And the king got to his feet, staring in horror at the still form of his son.

“It can’t be!” he whispered. “He can’t be dead!”

And in his mind he saw the young boy Sinfjotli had been. He saw his eager young face; his little hands always busy; his young form, tall and proud and his eyes so full of courage and of hope.

The old king fell to his knees beside the prince and laid his head upon the young man’s chest.

“My son!” he sobbed. “My dearest son!” And pushing back those who had stepped forward to help, Sigmund lifted the body of Sinfjotli in his arms and made his way out of the mead hall.

Where would Sigmund take the body of his firstborn son? And what would become of the Queen who had taken the life of the prince? We will find out next time...

*Based on the Volsunga Saga

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