Myths and Legends of the Ancient World

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Retold by Jenny Bennett

The Trick

The horsemen left King Giuki’s burg at dawn, riding out through the forest to the distant mountains beyond.

There were two of them; both well built and handsome; both bearing themselves in the manner of the sons of kings.

But there was a vast difference between them nonetheless. The one with red hair that hung down over his shoulders, clad in golden armour, was by far the taller of the pair, with a body that seemed to be composed entirely of muscle.

Even his face with its finely chiselled features and long curling beard was more like that of an Aesir than a mortal man.

But there was anxiety in his eyes and furrowed brow; an odd expression of fear that was completely at odds with his remarkable form; an uncertainty that made it seem as though he was not comfortable in his body; that he did not belong in it.

And he kept glancing nervously from time to time at his companion, who, though smaller and more ordinary in appearance had no such fear in his face.

In fact, there was a sparkle of amusement in his blue eyes and often, he would look over at the man who rode at his side; his face breaking into a grin.  

“I didn’t realise how heavy your armour is Sigurd!” the tall man exclaimed after a while. “How do you carry it with such ease?”

“It’s your amour now,” his companion replied with a chuckle. “At least until the spell wears off and we return to our own bodies again. So you’d best get used to it.”

There was silence. Then the one who had spoken first sighed.

“I hope this works as Mother said it would,” he said. “Do you think it will”

“Well it seems quite straightforward, notwithstanding that it is sorcery, which I was not aware your mother was skilled in until yesterday.” his friend answered. “I must admit that I am a little uneasy knowing that my wife’s mother is a witch!” Then he added quickly. “I mean no offense to you Gunnar.”

“None taken,” was the reply. “The entire kingdom knows that the Queen is a sorceress. There are many who have benefitted from her arts.”

“Indeed!” laughed his friend. “We are using her arts now to get you a wife, Brother!”

Gunnar lowered his head and did not join in the laughter and Sigurd cast an apologetic look in his direction.

“Look,” he said quietly after a moment. “You have no reason to be ashamed. I doubt that anyone else could have ridden through that fire to get to the shield-maiden.”

Gunnar looked up and saw that there was no mockery in Sigurd’s eyes, only concern.

“I appreciate you helping me,” he murmured. “It seems that you are the only mortal who can ride through that cursed wall.”

“You must understand,” said the other. “I’ve been around fire all my life. My tutor Regin, who pretty much raised me, was a blacksmith. I suppose I have become so accustomed to heat that I do not feel it or fear it. And then my horse is not of mortal stock, so unlike all other horses, he has no aversion to flames. I think riding through that wall will not be too difficult for us.”

“You make little of your abilities, Sigurd,” Gunnar said with a smile. “But there is more to it that you just being used to fire. Wasn’t your father Sigmund immune to all venom? Being of Volsung stock, you are the bravest of men and the strongest too, I’ll wager.”

Sigurd laughed and gestured to his friend’s powerful form.

“You, Brother, are the strongest of men at the moment,” he said. “You are in my body after all, thanks to your mother’s skill. So, until the spell breaks, you must possess my strength, and my face.”

The men rode on for several days, resting only at night around a hastily built fire before setting off again at dawn. At last, they reached the mountain of Brynhild, the shield-maiden whose castle was surrounded by a wall of magic fire. She had vowed that she would only marry a man who was brave enough to ride through the flames to reach her. And so Gunnar had resolved to win her for himself. However, his first attempt at riding through the Brynhild’s wall had been a failure. And he had returned to his father’s burg, ashamed and defeated. It seemed that as much as he wanted the beautiful Valkyrie for his wife, he would never win her heart or hand. Now he rode up the mountain for a second time. But this time, through his mother’s sorcery, he and his brother-in-law had switched forms. And it was not Gunnar but Sigurd in Gunnar’s body who would now attempt to conquer the wall of fire and the maiden within it for his brother-in-law.

Darkness had fallen by the time the two riders reached the summit. There before them was the great wall of fire, reaching up higher that even the tallest treetops. It was strange in appearance, unlike any other fire, for the flames were not one colour but many. Now they glowed blue, now red, now yellow. And they did not dance in the wind like ordinary flames, but shot upwards steadily and unmoving. 

“Are you sure you are willing to do this for me, Sigurd?” Gunnar asked, glancing from the fire to his friend. “Will you risk your life and your horse for my sake?”

“I’ve given you my body haven’t I?” Sigurd smiled. “I would never have consented to do so if I had any doubts at all about this.”

And then his face becoming serious, Sigurd drew his sword. Placing it across the back of Gunnar’s horse, he clasped his hand over the blade.

“Before I ride through the flames, brother,” he said solemnly. “I vow to you by this blade that I will not harm the honour of the lady who lies within this wall. I go there to win from her the promise to be your wife. By my sword I swear that I will not betray you.”

And with tears in his eyes, Gunnar nodded.

“Thank you Brother,” he said hoarsely. “You did not need to make that vow for I know that you are a man of honour and my sister’s husband. But I thank you and I will wait out here for your return.”

With a nod and a smile, Sigurd dug his heels into the sides of his mount and with anticipation in his eyes, Grani galloped towards the wall of fire. Gunnar watched with bated breath as Sigurd and his mount reached the wall at great speed and disappeared within it. 

“He made it!” he sighed aloud. “Praise Odin!”

Now Sigurd in the body of Gunnar was in Brynhild’s castle. Would Brynhild see through his disguise? Or was the Queen’s magic too powerful? We will find out next time...


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