Retold by Jenny Bennett
The Youngest Prince
Guttorm stooped down and took the wild flower gently between his thumb and forefinger taking care not to bruise it.
Closing his eyes, he took in a deep breath, savouring the delicate fragrance, then, releasing the blossom, he straightened up to look at the sky. It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear. He sighed and smiled to himself.
For once, his brothers had not bullied him into going with them on a hunting trip, as they usually did on such days. He had not seen Gunnar at all that morning. Perhaps he was with his wife. Hogni had been in the stables and had been leaning against his horse’s stall looking lost in thought.
Guttorm had escaped to the mountains where the wild flowers were blooming, fearful lest his brothers decide to go hunting after all. The youth shuddered. The mere thought of chasing after a little frightened hare, or a beautiful, terrified deer, was almost too much to bear. But he always rode along with Gunnar and Hogni, in spite of the pity he felt for the poor creatures they so delighted in killing. He could not bear their teasing, or their threats.
“You ought to put on a dress and sit in the house with our sister, spinning!” Gunnar would laugh. “I swear the gods made a mistake, giving you this handsome form. Why, I was nowhere near as tall at your age. Or as powerfully built. Just look at that arm! It ought to be able to hurl a spear clean through a thick tree trunk! But it can’t even hit a deer! A waste I tell you.”
“How could you miss that stag?” Hogni would say, looking very serious indeed. “I’ve never seen such a poor throw! You really ought to spend more time training, and less time daydreaming, Guttorm. The soldiers look up to us to lead them, and the people need us to be ready to protect the kingdom if ever it is threatened. What would they think if they knew that you cannot even kill a dumb beast?”
But they aren’t dumb beasts, he wanted to shout. They think and feel like we do. Can you not see the terror in their eyes? Or see how their beautiful bodies tremble when they are cornered. Have you no pity? Have you no hearts?
But he could never say such things to his brothers. They already despised him. They would probably kill him if they knew just how soft his heart was and just how pained he was by the thought of harming even the smallest creature. They would say he was not a proper man. That he brought shame upon the kingdom. That he did not deserve to live under the same sky as real men.
Guttorm felt a familiar pricking in the back of his eyes and lifted an arm to cover his face as the tears welled over and streamed down his face. It was only here in the mountains, alone and unseen, that he could allow himself to weep. He dreaded having to return to his father’s burg and the reproaching looks of his brothers.
“Guttorm!” It was several hours after nightfall and Gunnar was at the door of the mead hall looking out into the darkness. “Where have you been? I thought perhaps...but never mind, come in, come in. Hogni and I have a feast prepared and we were waiting for you to share it with us.”
“A feast?” Guttorm asked in surprise. Gunnar’s smile; the gentle tone of his voice; the invitation to dine with him were all very unfamiliar.
“Yes, and just for the three of us. Everyone else has dined and gone to bed. We were waiting for you, brother.”
The man reached out and took Guttorm’s arm and the youth allowed himself to be led into the hall, to the table where Hogni sat, looking at him with sad, sad eyes.
“Good evening brother,” Hogni said pushing a large plate of meat towards him. “You must be hungry.”
Guttorm sat and smiled uncertainly at the two older men. For once it seemed that his presence did not irritate them.
Gunnar drained his drinking horn and filled it again himself.
“Where are the servants? And why is there no one here to serve us?” the youth asked, looking around at the empty hall. He had never before seen Gunnar fill his own horn.
“No need for servants tonight, brother,” Gunnar replied with a chuckle. “Like I said, it’s just the three of us.”
Guttorm picked at the meat and put a morsel in his mouth, trying not to think of the beautiful creature it has once been a part of.
“Oh eat up, man!” Hogni snapped. “Odin knows, you’ll need your strength!”
“Hogni!” Gunnar hissed. “Leave the boy alone. Besides, this is all he needs!” Gunnar had taken hold of a large silver vessel which had been standing in the middle of the table and now filled Guttorm’s horn. A strange smell filled the air, reminiscent of blood and venom.
“Here,” Gunnar held it out to the young man. “Drink it.”
“Take it!” Gunnar growled through gritted teeth. And Guttorm took the horn.
“What is it?” he asked, gagging at the smell. It definitely was not mead.
“Just drink it boy,” Gunnar snarled, slamming his fist into the table, sending the meat flying onto the floor.
Guttorm looked up into those angry eyes. Had they decided to kill him at last? Was this poison to end his worthless life? Better this than being beaten to death. Or pierced through with a sword.
And closing his eyes, the boy lifted the horn to his lips. The liquid burnt as it made its way down his throat. It sent waves of fire through his neck and chest; the flames rippling outwards to his limbs. A terrible pain seized his heart; like a fire had been kindled there; a furious, roaring, deadly fire.
The boy fell to the floor, writhing in pain, his screams echoing through the mead hall. Then all at once, he stopped moving and he lay there upon the rushes, as still as a corpse.
“You’ve killed him Gunnar!” Hogni was upon his knees beside his brother. “You fool!”
“Leave him!” barked the elder. “It happens like this. He will wake soon and you’d best be beyond his reach when he does. For he will thirst for blood and be filled with a rage so intense that he will destroy everything that he is set upon. I’ve seen a single man under the influence of this potion, tear apart thirteen men with his bare hands before they were able to run him through with a sword.”
“Then the magic will not make him immune to harm?” Hogni asked stepping away from the motionless form of his brother. “He can be injured? Killed?”
“Then you are sending him to his death!” Hogni cried. “Our own brother! Do you think that Sigurd will die quietly? NO! You’ve seen the man upon the battle field. Even if Guttorm deals him a death blow, he will destroy the boy.”
“Better Guttorm than either of us, Hogni,” was Gunnar’s reply. “After all, he was never much of a man. A weakling and a fool. He is father’s greatest disappointment.”
Hogni shook his head in disbelief and covered his mouth with his hand, but before either man could speak again, the boy on the floor opened his eyes. Gone was the soft and gentle gaze that had been so often fixed upon the beauty of nature and its creatures. Instead, there was fire. Burning, deadly rage.
“Guttorm!” Gunnar called out loudly. “Our kingdom is threatened by a man. A traitor who pretends to be a friend to our family. You must find him where he sleeps and you must kill him!”
Guttorm, or what had once been Guttorm, was on its feet now, its face contorted and its fists clenched.
“Who is this man?!” the voice that rose from its throat was filled with hatred. “I will tear him apart!” Gunnar tossed a sheathed sword to the youth who caught it and drew the blade out with a roar.
“Sigurd the Volsung!” Gunnar replied. “Sigurd is the traitor’s name and even now he sleeps in our sister’s bed. She, you must not harm.”
And Guttorm made his way out of the mead hall; the sword clenched in his hand and his heart thirsting for the blood of Sigurd the Volsung.
What would become of the gentle young prince? And what of the man he had been sent to kill? Would Sigurd wake in time and defend himself against the evil that approached? We will find out next time...
*Based on the Volsunga Saga