Retold by Jenny Bennett
“Who do you think they are, Mistress?” the handmaid of Hjordis was watching the ships that were approaching the shores of Eylimi’s kingdom. Sigmund’s widow, who had been staring across the waters in silence, shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she said quietly. “But they are not Lygni’s ships. The sails are different.”
“Thank the gods for that!” the servant said, taking her mistress’ hand and squeezing it gently. King Lygni who had waged war upon Eylimi’s kingdom, intent on forcing Hjordis to marry him, had searched for the woman in vain. Hiding deep in the forest, Sigmund’s young widow and her maid had not been found and at last, Lygni and his men had sailed away. The pair had ventured out of the forest, then, and seeing the vague dots upon the horizon, they had made their way to the cliff that overlooked the shores. They dared not let themselves believe that these were allies. With King Sigmund and all their men lying dead and unburied upon the fields, all the women and children taken as slaves and the crops and buildings burned to the ground, the land seemed foreign to them. It was no longer home.
The servant looked up to study her mistress’ face. It was pale and wan and the eyes were still red-rimmed but a strange calmness had settled upon the white brow.
‘She has finally accepted her sad state,’ the servant said to herself. ‘My poor, poor Hjordis. Widowed so soon after becoming a bride. Father and husband dead; kingdom destroyed; what has she left to live for?”
As though hearing the maid’s unspoken words, Hjordis lifted her hand to her rounded belly and let it stay there as she watched the ships draw closer. Soon, the first boat was close enough for her to make out the red dragon upon its sail and she stiffened.
“I have seen these ships before,” she said. “I was just a little girl but I remember the dragon. It was on the ship of one of Father’s allies.”
“Let’s go down and wait for them on the beach!” the servant said excitedly, but Hjordis held her back.
“Wait,” she commanded. “You forget that even allies can sometimes not be trusted.”
“Then what are we to do, My Lady?” the maid asked in bewilderment.
Hjordis looked down at her rounded belly in silence for a moment then she raised her eyes to her servant’s face.
“No harm must come to this child,” she said.
“You carry my avenger in your womb, Hjordis,” she heard her husband’s dying words again. “Nourish him well, teach him to be a man and, when he is grown, make a sword for him from the broken pieces of mine. For the child you carry is destined to become the greatest of all the Volsungs.”
“Let us exchange clothes Inge,” Hjordis said to her servant. “Then you will be me and I, you. Are you willing to do this for me?”
“Of course Mistress!” the servant said eagerly and began at once to undress behind an outcropping of rock.
Within moments, the two women had exchanged garments, then, seeing the ships dock, they made their way back into the forest.
“Do you think they have seen us?” the maid asked, looking back over her shoulder.
As the first ship docked, the man who stood at its bow watched the two figures until he could no longer see them. He was a tall man with the powerfully made body of a warrior, but there was a gentleness in his eyes and a simple grace in his manner that made it obvious he was more than just a soldier. He was, in fact, King Alf, son of Hjalprek and he had come to re-establish ties of friendship with King Eylimi.
“Let’s go ashore men!” he called. “My father’s friend will be sure to give us a good welcome.”
“Have you visited King Eylimi before, Sire?” asked one of the men as they made their way onto the beach. “It’s not a very big kingdom by the looks of it.”
“This is the first time I’ve come here,” the young king replied. “But my father, on his deathbed, made it clear that he wished me to visit all his old friends and to strengthen our alliances with them.”
“I heard that Eylimi’s daughter recently married King Sigmund, the Volsung,” said another man.
“Yes,” King Alf replied. “They were married on the same month my father died. I hope King Sigmund and his bride are still here, for I would be very happy indeed to make the Volsungs my allies.”
“I don’t know about you, Sire,” said an old man with a chuckle. “But I don’t believe half the things I’ve heard about the Volsungs. I’m sure Sigmund’s fine deeds and heroic exploits have been grossly exaggerated, don’t you?”
But nobody answered him. They had come to a stop and each man stared in silence at the sight before him. Bodies, still and lifeless, littered the fields and from where they stood, King Alf and his men could see the smoldering remains of King Eylimi’s kingdom.
“What happened here?” someone broke the silence at last.
“We’ll never know,” the old man replied. “Those who could tell us are all dead. There’s not a house left standing. And not a soul left alive.”
“No,” King Alf said quietly. “I saw two women on the cliff there. They went into the forest yonder. Perhaps they could tell us what happened.”
“Shall we go after them, Sire?” the men asked. “Maybe they are hiding; afraid that we are enemies of Eylimi.”
“I will go and find them.” King Alf said. “The rest of you start building funeral pyres. We cannot leave these men unburied.”
Would King Alf find Hjordis and her handmaid? And what would become of Sigmund’s widow and unborn child? We will find out next time…
*Based on the Volsunga Saga