Myths Legends of Ancient World

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The Test

Retold by Jenny Bennett

Dawn was only moments away and in the east an invisible hand had painted the sky yellow. One by one, the stars over King Alf’s kingdom began to blink sleepily and fade away. In the gardens that surrounded the longhouse of the King, a young woman was sitting on a flat stone, staring into the distance. She was tall and slender and her finely chiseled face was framed by gently curling auburn hair. One hand lay listlessly upon her lap as she sat, while the other rested upon the curve of her rounded belly. But although her eyes seemed focused upon the darkness beyond the garden, she saw none of it for her mind was on a distant land: her homeland.

She saw once again the beautiful town she had grown up in; the towering trees of the forest behind her home; the tall cliffs that surrounded the shore and the waves that crashed continuously beneath them. She saw once more, the tall and powerful form of her husband; the gentle eyes that smiled at her from his scarred and bearded face.

“Sigmund,” she heard herself whisper as tears stung her eyes for now she could see him where he lay upon the battle field; an arrow protruding from his thigh and the gaping wound on his chest mocking her with its toothless grin. She heard once again his final words:

“Take care of our son…He will avenge me.”

And no longer able to hold back her tears, the woman let them spill over as she looked down at her belly, feeling the child within it begin to stir.

“My son,” she wept. “Doomed to be the son of a servant girl in a strange land.”

She looked at the longhouse where her handmaid lay fast asleep, thoroughly enjoying her change in status: the servant who was now addressed as ‘Princess’. Hjordis felt something akin to resentment stirring in her chest but quickly blocked it out. It had been her idea, after all, to exchange clothes and identities with her maid, so how could she now be angry at the girl for obeying her command? And yet, now she knew that she could trust the stranger who had rescued them from the ruins of her father’s kingdom; the stranger whose eyes were so gentle they reminded her of Sigmund’s; the stranger she often caught herself staring at from the corner where she sat spinning.

“King Alf…” the name no longer felt strange on her tongue. He was no longer a stranger. Having lived in his home for several months, she now recognized his footsteps; his voice, and occasionally, his smile found its way into her dreams, somehow mixed up with the face of Sigmund, her dead husband. She felt her heart quicken now as footsteps she recognized as Alf’s sounded behind her.

“You are always up so early, Lady,” he said and the woman got to her feet quickly.

“You needn’t stand!” Alf said gently, coming to stand beside her. “You are heavy with child after all.”

The woman bowed to the king and lowered her eyes.

“Your mistress is resting?”

“Yes Lord,” 

“She seems to have adjusted well to her new home, has she not?”

“Thanks to your kindness Sire, she is very happy here. Your household is so gentle and kind to her.”

“And you? I can tell that you still miss your home very much.”

“I do miss my fa…King Eylimi’s land very much, Lord,” the woman was now looking up at the king’s face. “But I am very happy here. You are all very, very kind.”

The king was watching her with a strange expression that she could not quite comprehend. It seemed like a mixture of amusement and sympathy and barely restrained excitement. She turned her face away, biting her lower lip.

“I was speaking to your mistress just yesterday,” the king said, sitting down on the rock and indicating a seat for her. “And she barely seems to remember her old home. For a widow, she seems to have recovered well from her husband’s death.”

“Perhaps it is her way of coping with grief,” the woman said quickly. “To forget tragedy as quickly as she can so that she can move forward. It is something I wish I could do…” her last words were whispered but King Alf had heard them and looked at her sharply.

“You also lost your husband in the war did you not?”

She nodded, not trusting herself to answer.

“Evidently, you loved him very much,” the king’s voice was gentle now. “I see how you weep silently whenever you think nobody is watching you, and often have I watched you in the garden before dawn, giving vent to your sorrow…forgive me if I offend you…”

“No Sire,” her voice trembled. “I really ought to try better to forget…”

“NO!” he had taken her hands in his and now looked deep into her eyes. “You must not forget your home, or your husband, or who you really are.”

She raised her eyebrows in surprise. What did he mean by that? What was he saying?

“Tell me, Lady,” the king asked letting go of her hands and watching her carefully.

“How do you know that dawn is near? You are always up before dawn, you must have some way of knowing that it is approaching.”

She held out her hand and showed him a small gold ring on her little finger.

“My father gave me this when I was a little girl. I wore it around my thumb then. The ring has a spell on it and whenever dawn is near, the ring grows very cold upon my skin, and I wake up.”

The king got to his feet and laughed.

“There is enough of gold there even for a queen, my dear,” he said after a moment, still chuckling. “I asked your ‘mistress’ the very same question yesterday and do you know what her answer was?”

The woman shook her head slowly.

“She told me that she used to drink a lot at dawn when she was younger and that the craving for mead was what told her dawn was near!”

The woman covered her face with her hands. That foolish maid!

“Fine manners for a king’s daughter, don’t you think?” the king asked.

When there was no reply, he knelt down before her and took her hands gently away from her face.

“Why have you been deceiving me Princess Hjordis?” he asked. “Pretending to be your servant! Not the dirtiest rags could hide your grace and nobility from my eyes Princess. Did you think I would not catch you out sooner or later?”

Hjordis looked into the king’s face and saw no anger there; only kindness.

“Forgive me Lord,” she said. “But when I saw your ships approach my home, I did not know if you were friend or foe. King Sigmund’s last words to me concerned his child that I carry in my womb. It was for his sake that I deceived you. But now I know you are the best of men and will not harm my child or me.”

The king raised her hand slowly to his lips and kissed it.

Was Princess Hjordis right about King Alf? Was her unborn child safe in his home? Or were they both in grave danger now that he knew who she really was? We will find out next time…

*Based on the Volsunga Saga

 

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