Myths, legends of the ancient world - The Girl in the Shadows

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Retold by Jenny Bennett 

The sun was low in the sky when sounds of laughter and the galloping of horses filled the air. Gundrun, the daughter of King Giuki, looked up from her spinning and through the open door caught a glimpse of the men returning from the hunt. There were her brothers, tall handsome and strong astride their horses and there with them, mounted upon a horse so big that beside it the other mounts looked like mere ponies, was the newcomer, Sigurd.

The man had ridden into the king’s burg more than two weeks ago, resplendent in golden armour and bearing a shield with the image of a red, fire-breathing dragon upon it. He was a man unlike any other Gundrun had ever seen. So great of stature was he that her brothers who were the tallest men in the kingdom and the most powerfully built, did not reach his shoulder in height and seemed like half-grown youths beside him. But it was not his impressive physique that had captivated the princess that first day she had seen him, nor was it the knowledge that this was the hero; the fearless dragon slayer whose stories were known far and wide. Rather it was his eyes; grey and piercing that had mesmerised her.

They seemed to see into one’s soul, and few people dared to meet his gaze for long. Now at the sight of her father’s guest riding into the burg with her brothers, the corpse of a large wild boar slung across his horse, Gundrun felt her pulse quicken and her breathing became fast and shallow. A feeling of lightness and warmth, spread through her bosom and out to her limbs and rising unsteadily, she dropped her work upon the bench and hurried out before the men entered.

Since his arrival, Gundrun had avoided Sigurd as much as possible, even taking her meals alone in her own chambers rather than face the stranger at the table. So well did she hide herself from him that in all these weeks Sigurd had never caught more than a momentary glimpse of the girl, nor had they ever spoken a word to each other.

But Sigurd was not curious. Not even the most beautiful slave girl in the castle, try as she may to entice him with her charms, could extract more than a polite smile from the visitor. His mind it seemed was completely absorbed by something else: someone else. And Gundrun who had perfected the art of watching the man from the shadows without being seen was desperate to know who it was.

“What is he like?” Gundrun was in the stables where the youngest of her brothers, a boy of seventeen, was tending to the horses. She had seated herself upon a sack of grain and was watching the youth intently while he worked.

“Who? Oh Sigurd, you mean?” the boy said leaning on his rake, then gazing off into the distance,  he shook his head with a low whistle. “He truly is a man! You should have seen him in the forest today, riding that magnificent stallion of his like one possessed. And he took down the wild boar alone even though it was the biggest beast I’d ever seen. Did you see the boar? It had tusks as long as...”

“Never mind the boar,” Gundrun cut in impatiently. “Tell me about Sigurd. What does he speak of to you?”

The boy laughed. 

“I doubt you wish to hear what the chief topic of our guest’s conversation is, dear sister,” he said, casting a look of pity towards Gundrun.  

“Yes I do,” the girl replied sharply. “Or I wouldn’t have asked you!”

The youth looked at his sister in silence for a moment and then sighed and shook his head.

“It’s obvious you have taken a special interest in him or else you’d not be asking me all these questions in private, but take my advice Gundrun and do not let your interest turn into something else for I tell you now, you haven’t a chance of capturing Sigurd’s heart.”

“How dare you say such things!” the girl retorted, clenching her fists in her lap. “How dare you assume that I think of Sigurd as anything more than a guest?! And...and how do you know that I couldn’t make him love me if I wanted to? Not that I want to at all! Now answer my question!”

The young man was before his sister now and had placed a hand upon her shoulder. 

“I did not mean to offend you, Gundrun,” he said gently. “But if you must know what Sigurd speaks of to us then I will tell you.  He speaks of Brynhild the shield maiden and only of her. Try as we may to make him tell us of his exploits and daring deeds, he will always return to the subject of Brynhild. It has grown quite tiresome I must say. He will speak for five minutes about Fafnir the dragon and then spend the next fifty on Brynhild!”

“And...and...and what does he say about her?” Gundrun’s voice had become almost inaudible and her throat was suddenly dry and tight. There was a dangerous stinging behind her eyes and her lower lip trembled.

“Well, he speaks of how he rode into the circle of fire to find her asleep in helmet and byrny; how he tore the byrny with his sword and woke her from her slumber. He speaks of her unparalleled beauty and supreme wisdom and says that he has pledged himself to her and she to him and has sealed their oaths with the gift of a golden ring. He recounts the wise words she has shared with him and indeed she is wiser than our wisest sages. He can spend hours speaking of her beauty; of the texture and colour of her hair; of the shape and brilliance of her eyes; of the curve and fullness of her lips; of how no other maiden in the world can hold a candle to her....”

“Alright!” Gundrun cut him off, sliding down from her seat to stand on unsteady legs upon the floor. “I have heard enough...” Her voice broke into a sob and she ran out of the stables with tears streaming down her pale cheeks leaving the boy looking after her in bewilderment.

Alas, Princess Gundrun had fallen in love with her father’s guest and now she knew that there was no chance that she could replace Brynhild in his heart. What would become of the love sick girl? And what of Sigurd and his beloved Brynhild? We will find out next time...

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