Myths and Legends of the Ancient World

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Grimhild and her Daughter

Retold by Jenny Bennett

“I am her mother,” the woman said, looking King Alf squarely in the eye as she spoke. “Surely you will not deny me the right to see my precious daughter.”

The King pulled at his beard and looked away. Something about this woman made him nervous. Something about her gaze and the way it seemed to pry deep into one’s soul made him uneasy. He had heard of her skills from many sources; he had heard of her ability to conjure up and harness the powers of nature, but he had always brushed the rumours aside. He had no time for superstition. He was a man who believed only in what he saw. But now that she stood before him, filling his ears with the smooth and almost hypnotic sound of her voice, he began to wonder if the stories had something in them after all. And those eyes! He shuddered involuntarily and the Queen smiled.

 “I beg your pardon, my Lady,” King Alf said without looking at the woman. “But Gundrun has told me very clearly that she has no wish to see any of her family. As you well know, she has been deeply hurt. To lose a husband and son and at the hands of her own brothers!  Such a thing is ...”

“I have done her no wrong,” the Queen cut him off, and her eyes shimmered with tears. “I had no part in the murder of my son-in-law and my dear grandson. She has no reason to refuse to see me.”

“Please, my Lady,” the king stammered. “I had no intention to cause you pain. But I must respect Gundrun’s wishes .”

“It is her pain that speaks, “ the Queen said allowing her tears to fall and course slowly down her cheeks. “In her suffering she has shut out all of us. And if left to herself, her pain will destroy her; kill her slowly from the inside out. Have pity on my poor, suffering child your Majesty! Only her mother’s love can heal her pain and end her suffering.”

King Alf hesitated. Perhaps the Queen was right. Perhaps...

“You do not know how I have suffered these many years, not knowing where she was or even if she lived!” The Queen was weeping openly now, her words punctuated with sobs.  “You cannot imagine my pain Sire, for you have not suffered the loss of a child. And a mother’s pain is always the greatest just as her love is. Please let me see my child. Let me take her into my arms and lay her head upon my breast. Let her forget her suffering in my embrace. Surely you cannot deny me this small request.”

The Danish king sat back upon his throne and sighed deeply. Yes. The Queen had the right to see her child. He could not deny her that. 

“Very well,” he said slowly. “You may see the girl. But you alone can go to her My Lady.  Her brothers must not come near her or her child. I fear the vey sight of them may drive her mad.”

Queen Grimhild bowed low before the king, hiding her smile behind her sleeve. The old man had fallen for her theatrics. They always did, these old fools! She felt for the vial in her bosom, and remembered how she had brewed the potion with such care beneath the light of the full moon. 

“One sip of this and the little idiot will forget the grudge she bears her brothers,” the Queen said to herself. “She will become as pliant in my hands as a young sapling and I will bend her at will.”

She recalled the visit she had been paid by the King of the Huns. King Atli had heard of Sigurd the Volsung’s death and of the beauty of his widow. 

“You will not find a more powerful husband for your daughter than me,” the man had said, holding his head high. “And your little kingdom could do with a friend like me, could it not, my Lady Grimhild?”

Grimhild had heard the sneer in the man’s words. And she knew that in them was a thinly veiled threat. Give him Gundrun as a bride, or else! And now that Sigurd the Volsung was dead, their kingdom was defenceless. Sigurd had been their protector. Without him, the kingdom would crumble before an enemy like Atli of the Huns. She had no choice but to accept his proposal.

“But she refuses to see us Mother!” her sons had protested. “How on earth can we convince her to marry Atli if she won’t let us near her? She has sought sanctuary in the home of King Alf of Denmark. She is under his protection now and he refuses to let us see her.”

“Leave that old man to me,” Grimhild had replied. “And as for your sister: her stubbornness is no match for my powers of persuasion. She will never refuse me.”

And so Grimhild and her sons had travelled to Denmark to take their sister home against her will. And now King Alf was escorting Grimhild to her daughter’s chambers not aware of the wicked smile that was upon the woman’s face as she followed him or of the vial of magic that she clutched in her hand.

Gundrun was sitting beside the fire with her little daughter upon her knee. She had heard of the arrival of the strangers and instinctively knew who they were. Only a month earlier, her brothers had come to Denmark to visit her. But she had refused to see them. She could never forgive them for robbing her of her son and husband. Never. But now she was troubled. 

“There is a woman with them, Mistress,” her maid had whispered. “She is tall and beautiful and is dressed like a queen. She was speaking with King Alf when I saw her.”

“Queen Grimhild,” Gundrun whispered turning pale. And closing her eyes, she prayed that King Alf would not be weakened by her charms.

The footsteps approached and Gundrun’s heart rose to her throat. Sensing her fear, the child wrapped her arms around her neck and buried her little face in the woman’s bosom. 

“Hide, Swanhild!” Gundrun said pushing the girl away. “Hide yourself, my darling. Whatever happens, do not let them take you!”

Sensing the urgency in her mother’s voice, little Swanhild ran and hid herself from sight just as the curtain was drawn aside and King Alf entered the room, followed by the Queen.

“Sire!” Gundrun was on her feet. “I beg you Sire!”

“Gundrun, my daughter!” Grimhild caught Sigurd’s widow in her arms as she tried to throw herself at the king’s feet in supplication, and held her there as though in a vice. With her mother’s arms  imprisoning her, Gundrun’s legs weakened and her heart sank. There was no hope for her now!

“Leave us, King Alf!” Grimhild ordered. “Leave my daughter to me.”

The king withdrew and the Queen held her daughter out at arm’s length; her hard fingers biting into the girl’s shoulders.

“Look at me Gundrun!” she said sternly. 

Gundrun knew that she was at the mercy of her mother and the old fear that had dominated her life from infancy returned. She obeyed and saw in her mother’s gaze, only coldness.

“How long do you intend to keep up this foolishness?” the Queen demanded. “You have mourned for seven years. It is time that you forgot your pain.”

Gundrun sobbed and her mother shook her roughly.

“You have better things to do than hide in Denmark, growing old. Soon you will lose what little beauty you have left, and what man will want you then?”

“I have no desire to marry again Mother,” Gundrun whispered, lowering her eyes. “Until I die I will be true to Sigurd.”

Her mother’s cruel laughter echoed throughout the castle. 

“You always were a fool,” she said with a smirk. “Sigurd is dead and you must marry again. A husband has already been found for you.”

“No!” Gundrun sobbed. “I will never marry! Never! You cannot make me!”

The vial was at her lips and the Queen’s hand twined through her hair, tilting back her head. The potion slid down Gundrun’s throat.  

From her  hiding place in the corner, little Swanhild watched her mother fall to the floor in a swoon, and forgetting Gundrun’s warning, she ran forward to throw her arms around her.

“Mummy!” she wept. “Mummy, don’t die!”

A hand wrapped itself around her little arm and pulled her to her feet. The child looked up into the face of her grandmother.

“Swanhild, my dear grandchild!” the Queen said in a sweet voice. “Your mother is only sleeping.”

“You are lying!” the child screamed, struggling to get out of the Queen’s grip. “You gave her poison! I saw you! You’ve killed her!” 

The Queen narrowed her eyes. This child would interfere with her plans. She was a problem. A problem that she would have to fix.

What would become of Sigurd’s widow and child? Would Gundrun agree to marry King Atli the Hun? And what of little Swanhild? We will find out next time...

Based on the Volsunga Saga


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