Retold by Jenny Bennett
The sun was sinking behind the mountains and in a large cave which was hidden beneath the rocks of a high cliff, something stirred and opened its mouth to yawn. It was a creature of great size with a long body which was covered in red scales.
Its head ended in a long muzzle and as it opened its large mouth, sharp teeth the size of small knife blades gleamed in the dim light of the setting sun. It opened its yellow eyes and the elongated pupils narrowed as it lifted its head towards the light.
There was a coldness in those eyes that would have struck terror into the heart of even the bravest onlooker. More than anything else about the creature’s dreadful appearance, the coolness of those yellow eyes had sent many a brave warrior scurrying for safety. This was a creature that could not comprehend pity or sorrow. Greed alone ruled its heart.
The dragon drew in a deep breath and blew sparks at the darkening sky, then turning its head it looked at the large pile of gleaming gold that it had been lying on. Yes it was still there. All of it. A lumpy green tongue emerged from the hideous mouth to gently run itself over the gold, then satisfied that all was where it should be, the creature got to its feet and made its way out of the cave.
This great beast was no ordinary dragon. It had once been a man; a brother and a son. But greed had destroyed all that was human in his cold heart, turning him for eternity into a terrible dragon.
It had begun with the death of his younger brother Otter at the hands of the god Loki. Otter, who had the power of shapeshifting, had been sleeping on the banks of a river in the form of an otter when the god had spotted him and thrown a rock at the creature so expertly that the otter had died instantly. Hreidmar, their father had been heartbroken at the loss of his son and had taken two of the gods captive, demanding that the otter’s large skin be completely filled with gold and covered with gold without. The gods had obeyed and had presented Hreidmar with his son’s skin filled with gold and covered entirely with gold. The gold, however, had a curse placed upon it by Odin in his indignation at being held captive by a human being.
“Take your gold, old man!” he had said. “So much of it there is! More than even you could have wished for. But hear my words: this wealth shall be nothing but a curse to you and your children. As long as it is in your possession your family will not thrive but will suffer a fate worse than death.”
So saying, Odin had returned to Asgard but the meaning of his words were lost upon the young man who stood behind his father, eyeing the gold with a cold and greedy heart.
“Fafnir,” the old man said, turning to his eldest son. “Take this weregild inside. It shall be divided between all my children upon my death.”
The young man stiffened and raised his eyes to his father’s.
“Divided?” he asked. “Am I not your firstborn? And do I not have the right to inherit all that is yours, including this gold?”
“Don’t be a fool, Fafnir,” the old man said shortly. “I have two sons left alive: you and Regin the blacksmith. You shall have equal shares of your brother’s weregild upon my death. Now take it inside and speak not another word about it.”
The man had obeyed, but as his hands touched the gold and his muscles burnt beneath its weight his heart became ever colder.
“This is rightfully mine,” he said under his breath. “It is my birthright!”
Every day, Fafnir would find himself beside the gold and his fingers would reach out to touch it lovingly. But the more he caressed the cold, gleaming metal, the colder his heart grew until at last, determined to keep the gold to himself he murdered his own father.
Taking Otter’s weregild, Fafnir made his way to the cliffs to hide it in a cave. Finding a suitable hiding place, he buried the gold in a shallow pit and fell fast asleep upon it intending to return to his father’s house when he woke up to do away with his younger brother, the blacksmith. But the world never saw Fafnir the man again. Instead, when he woke from his slumber, his handsome and powerful form had been replaced with the scaly red body of a fire-breathing dragon. And in the cave he had remained ever since; guarding his precious gold.
Far away, in the land of King Alf, young Sigurd the Volsung stood beside his teacher, working the billows for his fire. The old man was at his anvil, expertly forging a sword. But every so often, he would stop to wipe the sweat from his brow and steal a glance at his young student with a strange look in his eyes.
“What a pity it is!’ he said at last.
“What is, Regin?” the boy asked in surprise.
“It is a pity that you, the son of a powerful king like Sigmund should be so poor!”
The boy looked up in bewilderment.
“I am not poor!” he said. “Whatever I wish for is given to me by the king. You know that!”
“Aye,” the man sneered. “Horses and toys, you mean...I speak of real wealth boy; gold enough to make you powerful on your account and make you independent of that king you seem to love so well.”
The boy paused and cocked his head to one side.
“And where could I get such wealth Regin?”
The old man smiled.
“Have you heard of Fafnir’s treasure?”
The boy nodded slowly.
“Fafnir the dragon that lives in a cave?”
“Yes,” the blacksmith replied. “His treasure would set you up for life. You would never want for anything again or have to ask permission of King Alf. You would be your own man. A man your father could be proud of!”
“You want me to slay a dragon for its wealth?!” the boy had dropped the billows. “A powerful dragon like Fafnir?!”
The old man grunted and returned to his work.
“I might have known,” he said. “You are a coward after all, despite the powerful blood that flows in your veins! Your ancestor Volsung would leave off feasting in Valhalla to weep in shame if he had heard you.”
“That is hardly fair of you Regin!” the boy retorted. “You know I am barely a man…why I have only just started growing a beard! And yet you drive me on so mercilessly to this task! What is in it for you? Eh?”
The man thrust the sword into the large pail of water beside him and shook his head.
“If you must know, boy,” he replied after the hissing had quietened. “The dragon Fafnir is my brother and the gold he guards is rightfully mine. He slaughtered my father and intended to kill me too, but Fate transformed him into the creature that he is now. You are my only chance at revenge against the beast. The gold is nothing to me now, but I want Fafnir dead!”
Sigurd watched the old man in silence the nodded.
“I will do it,” he said at last. “Out of the love I bear for you Regin, I will kill your brother and avenge your father, but first I must avenge my own father and grandfather who died at the hands of King Lygni.”
“Quite right,” Regin said with a toothless smile on his face.
Sigurd looked at the sword in his teacher’s hand.
“But first, you must make me a sword.”
Would Sigurd, the son of Sigmund be true to his word? Would he be able to slay the dragon Fafnir and take his treasure? We will find out next time…
*Based on the Volsunga Saga