Retold by Jenny Bennett
The mead hall of King Giuki was filled with the sounds of music and laughter. At his table, the king sat smiling, his horn in his hand and his eyes fixing themselves upon each of his sons in turn. Surely, nobody else in the world had such wonderful sons! Tall and powerful in build; fearless and noble in manner, they were the source of his greatest pride. Then his eyes fell upon his guest; that magnificent man beside whom his sons seemed like mere boys. How proud his father would have been to see him now. Just having the man in his burg had made his kingdom safe from attack by neighbouring kingdoms. So famous were his fearless exploits and his marvellous strength that none dared to wage war against the land which hosted him. He truly was an asset to this kingdom.
“Sigurd son of Sigmund!” the king said aloud lifting up his horn in salute. The young man across the table lifted his own and smiled.
“I thank you Sire for your hospitality,” he said. “I have now been part of your household for many weeks and every day you have treated me like one of your sons. I am honoured and indebted to you.”
“It is we who are honoured by your presence among us Sigurd!” the eldest of the king’s sons said. “Your swift arrow has provided our burg with more meat than we ever had before and my brothers have learnt much from you about the arts of war. Even I who have led my father’s warriors to victory in so many battles have improved my skill greatly since you arrived. We hope you will stay with us for many, many more weeks for we still have much to learn from you.”
Sigurd smiled and shook his head.
“You are all fine warriors and need no tutoring from a lonely traveller. I am certain that I have learnt more for you that you have from me.” Ignoring their protests he addressed himself to the king.
“My stay here in your burg Sire has been very pleasant and I shall always remember the companionship of your noble sons with fondness, but the time has come for me to continue my travels.”
The young men protested loudly and would not allow him to say anymore until their father commanded them to be silent.
“Why must you leave us so soon, young warrior?” the king asked with a frown.
“Sire, the world is vast and I have sworn to travel as far as there are men,” was the reply. “And alone upon a mountain, enclosed by a circle of fire, my betrothed waits for me to return to her. For we have promised ourselves to one another and I have sealed my oath with a golden ring which she now wears upon her finger. The longer I tarry, the longer the fair Brynhild must wait for me.”
The king smiled knowingly and gave a little chuckle. Beside him however, the Queen narrowed her eyes and rose quickly to her feet to hurry out of the hall through a side door.
“Ah yes,” the king said with a nod. “I remember what it is like to be a youth overcome with love for a fair maid. One is restless and can think of nothing else but her lovely face and her smooth skin and the feel of her silken locks around one’s fingers.”
“Surely you understand, my brothers,” Sigurd now said to the young men around him. “When you come to know love, you will see. There is no stronger master of a man than love.”
“We have heard much about the fair Brynhild,” the eldest prince said. “You have spoken of her with such tenderness that though we have never met the young woman, you have inspired in us great respect for her.”
“If it is for her that you must leave us, then go with our blessing, Brother!” another added. “But our kingdom will be less without you in it.”
“Sigurd, my son,” the men turned to see the Queen approach the table with a drinking horn in her hand. She smiled sweetly at the youth and came to stand beside his chair.
“It saddens me to hear that you must leave us so soon,” she said in a silken voice. “For as you know you have become to me as dear as my own sons.”
“Your majesty honours me greatly!” Sigurd said with a polite bow.
The Queen held out the horn and bid him to drink.
“Drink it all for it is a gift from my own hand, my son,” she whispered with a smile.
And the youth put the horn to his lips and drank.
It was like falling into a deep, dark pit; so dark that the very darkness seemed to reach into his mind with prying fingers, prodding deeper and deeper and deeper. The memory of the wall of fire disappeared. So too did the castle within it and the sleeping figure clad in a helmet and byrny which slept there. The darkness wrapped its fingers around Brynhild. Around her tall, strong, beautiful body; around her wild locks of auburn hair; around her stern blue eyes and her fiercely beautiful face. It wrapped its fingers around her. And she was gone. As though she had never existed. The horn fell from Sigurd’s hand to the floor, empty of its contents.
He blinked, feeling strangely lightheaded. Where was he? He blinked again and breathed in deeply, looking around in bewilderment. This was King Giuki’s mead hall, wasn’t it? Why was it suddenly different? Everything seemed different somehow, although nothing had apparently changed. He felt empty. Lost.
The Queen smiled and in her eyes was a triumphant glint.
“Sigurd the son of Sigmund!” she said in a voice that carried to the farthest corners of the meadhall. “You will stay with us and be a true brother to my sons, and a true son to the king.”
“I will.” Sigurd’s voice was strange to his own ears.
Smiling still, the Queen beckoned to the shadows and through the door two old servants came towards Sigmund’s son. Between the servants, a young woman was led. Her face was veiled and she came reluctantly, but as her arms were held by her attendants, she had to follow.
They stopped before the young man and the Queen reached out to remove the maiden’s veil, hissing something into her ear. Sigurd looked up and saw the downcast eyes, framed by long, curling lashes upon which a tear hung, threatening to fall. He reached up instinctively to wipe the tear away and the girl lifted her eyes to his. He caught his breath.
“So beautiful,” he whispered. And indeed, the girl was. Her silky hair, the colour of newly minted gold, framed a face of delicate beauty. The dimpled cheeks, the pouting pink lips, the small sharp-tipped nose. But it was the sight of those exquisite eyes, brown and soft like a doe’s, which filled his chest with strange warmth. They looked at him with such longing and helplessness and fear, all at once, that he felt a sudden urge to wrap his arms around the girl and protect her from the world. He clasped her hand instead, marvelling at how tender and fragile her fingers felt; like a child’s.
“This is my daughter Gundrun,” the Queen said quietly. “She will be your wife.”
And Sigurd, lifting the little hand to his lips, nodded.
“Yes,” he heard himself say. “Gundrun will be my wife.”
The king’s sons looked at one another in amazement.
“What of Brynhild?” one asked another quietly and Sigurd, hearing him, turned with a frown of confusion.
“Who is Brynhild?” he asked. “Is she another of your sisters?”
And the Queen laughed loudly, glaring at the prince who had spoken.
“We shall prepare for the wedding feast!” she announced to all. “Sigurd the son of Sigmund is to be married to my daughter Gundrun tomorrow!”
And the sound of cheering and clapping rose from the hall. The far-famed son of Sigmund had become one of their own.
What would become of Sigurd and Gundrun? And what of Brynhild who waited still within her wall of fire? Would Sigmund remember her in time? Or had his memories of her been wiped away for eternity? We will find out next time...
*Based on the Volsunga Saga