Myths and Legends of the Ancient World

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Sigurd’s Widow

Retold by Jenny Bennett

Princess Gundrun stood at the window of her bower, looking out into the distant woods beyond. How often she had stood here, watching. How often she had seen him ride out through the trees, a large stag slung across his horse and his gold-red hair and beard gleaming in the sunlight.

She closed her eyes. Never again would she see him ride towards the burg. Never again would she watch with a smile as he raised his eyes to her window as he rode past. Never again would she see his dear face break into a smile just for her, the blue-grey eyes twinkling. 

Her gaze moved from the distant trees to the large black patch upon the grass below where his pyre had stood. There his body had been laid out last night beside the tiny form of her little boy. Both gone forever. And below them had lain the body of her youngest and dearest brother, who had become her husband’s murderer. She had watched helplessly as the flames had leaped up dancing around them, consuming them. 

“Why do I live!?” she cried out, her hands flying up to cover her face. “Better if I had died with them!”

In the cot behind her, awakened by her mother’s wail, an infant began to cry. Gundrun turned and picked the child up, lifting her out of her cot to cradle her precious little form in her arms.

“Dearest, dearest,” she murmured to it. “Hush now. Hush now. Mother’s here.”

And the child snuggled into Gundrun’s bosom, the tiny fingers curling around a golden lock of her mother’s hair.

“Ah you are all I have left of him,” the princess whispered. “All I have left.” And Gundrun searched the little face for signs of Sigurd and found them. There in the tiny brow and in the little eyes and in the downy tufts of red-gold hair upon its head. Weeping, she half smothered the child in kisses and pressed it to her breast so tightly that it screamed in protest.

“What awaits you now, my fatherless Swanhild?” Gunrun sobbed. “Your father and brother dead. Your uncles their murderers and our enemies, plotting against us. We can no longer stay here. Here where the memory of that witch Brynhild casts a shadow over beast and man. Her spirit lingers here plotting harm against us.”

And blinded by her sorrow, Gundrun, with the child in her arms, ran out into the yard and out of the burg before anyone could hinder her. Barefoot and distraught, she fled to the woods, not feeling the cold ground beneath her feet, nor the thorns that tore at her flesh. Aware only of the pain in her heart and the crying child at her breast. 

For many, many days and nights the princess wandered the woods with her baby, barely eating and never resting. The baby, as though aware of her mother’s sorrow, did not fret or cry but clung to her day and night, taking nourishment when the breast was given and sleeping when it was withheld. 

The wolves of the forest would gather around the woman and her child at night as they lay upon the cold ground, and watch them in silent awe. Never did they try to harm them. It was as though Sigurd himself stood between his widow and danger; protecting her and his infant daughter from danger. At last, worn away with sorrow, Gundrun decided to leave the woods. 

In Denmark, King Alf of the Danes was returning from the hunt with his sons one afternoon, when a strange sight made him reign in his horse. With a troubled frown, he turned and signalled to the other hunters to do the same. 

There before them, the figure of a woman, lay stretched across the road. And beside her a little child sat in utter silence, watching the approaching riders wide-eyed. Both the woman and child were ragged and covered with dust.

“Beggars, my Lord!” said one of the servants. “I will push them off the path.” 

But the king silenced the man with a wave of his hand and dismounted, followed by his eldest son. 

“Is she dead?” the youth asked in a whisper as they stood over the motionless woman.

“Not yet,” the king replied quietly. “See how her chest rises and falls. We must lift her onto my horse and take her to the burg. There is a chance we might be able to save her.”

He knelt down to take the woman into his arms but the little girl clung to her ragged robes and refused to let go.

“Take the child, will you?” the King ordered, and with great difficulty, the prince managed to unclasp the little fingers and pick up the little creature, who did not whimper of scream but merely stared wide eyed at its mother, not once taking its eyes off her.

At the burg, the women of the King’s household hurried out to see the strange prey their king had brought home. 

“Who is she?” the king’s daughter had reached out to gently lift the head of the unconscious woman as she was carried inside. 

“A beggar woman,” her brother replied, but the king shook his head.

“Do not judge her by the rags she wears or the dirt on her face,” he said in his low, gentle voice. “There is something about her face that makes me think she is much more than a beggar.”

The child who had been put down by the prince who had carried her, crawled quickly to her mother’s side and buried her face in the still woman’s bosom.

“Treat them well, all of you!” the king ordered his family and servants. “Have them both bathed and warm up some milk for the child while I send for the physician. This woman and girl are our guests.”

“Will she live, Father?” Princess Thora asked anxiously. “She seems very ill and thin.”

“Her fate is in the hands of the gods now,” her father replied. “But we will do what we can for her and her child.”

So Princess Gundrun and her little daughter had been found by the Danish King. But had the journey to Denmark been too much for the grieving widow? Would she live, or would her spirit soon join that of her husband Sigurd and their son in Asgard? We will find out next time…


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