We have already met the Norse hero, Sigurd . After killing a dragon, he rode his horse through a ring of fire to discover a sleeping princess - a Valkyrie or War Maiden. Her name was Brynhilde. He woke her with a kiss - but was it happily ever after?
Read by Elizabeth Donnelly.
Adapted for Storynory by Charlotte Sebag-Montefiore.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
My story is long but what happened to me is the stuff of legends… and great music! Someone called Richard Wagner put me in a famous opera cycle called The Ring.
Listen well, for what happened to me was my own fault – is it not always so? And also the fault of sorcery and those who practise it.
I was once a beautiful warrior-maiden and a Valkyrie. I had long red-gold hair which fluttered behind me as I flew about in battles wearing a scarlet chainmail corset, with my shield and spear outstretched. As you know, war is about skill, courage, and chance. We Valkyries are that random element. As we ride through the fear, the chaos, and the dust of the battle, we enforce the will of Odin – ensuring who will live, and who will die, who will flee, and who will win the day and emerge the glorious conqueror.
But there was one time when I followed my heart. I saw Agnar, a handsome young warrior about to enter a vicious fray. Although I was a Valkyrie, and it was my job to realise the gods’ wishes of who lived and who died, I had a woman’s feelings and impulses. Like everyone, I am a prisoner of who I am.
When Odin ruled that Agnar must die, I thought, “No, The other one will fall. I’ll see to that,” and a moment later, I turned the spear which had been heading towards Agnar’s chest towards his opponent, who fell to the ground and died with fearful groans.
Odin was not pleased. “You can’t do that, Brynhilde, I told you to kill Agnar. That was my will.”
“Well it wasn’t mine,” I said. “Why should one so young have to die?”
“That’s not your business,” said Odin. “ I shall have to punish you. You will no longer be a Valkyrie, you will be an ordinary human woman, born to live, marry and die… But because you have been a Valkyrie, I will grant your wish that you shall not marry a coward, but a hero, a man without fear. I will place you within a Ring of Flames, and you will sleep until a hero rides through the fire to claim you for his bride.”
And so it was. Odin sent me to a castle on the summit of a remote mountain. All around this castle, there burned an eternal ring of flames. Inside I slept, and slept, until such time as my hero would come and rescue me.
Then one day it happened. I heard something in my dream. I opened one eye, and then the next. There was a smell of singed horsehair. I turned my head. A tall, broad-shouldered warrior was standing over me.
I stretched out my hand. He knelt down and took it in his own.
I must say, he was a nice-looking hero; some of them have so many scars it spoils their looks. We held hands fast – for the people of the North, this itself means much – and before long we kissed each other and plighted our troth. As we did this the ring flamed ever higher as our sacred vows reached high into the Heavens. Soon, I thought – and I wanted it to be soon – we would be wed.
His name was Sigurd, and he said that he was the slayer of a dragon called Fafnir. He certainly sounded like a brave enough fellow.
“You know that I am not like other men,” he said. “I rode my horse through the flames as others pass through the heather. But there are yet other tasks I must complete before I can return to claim you as my bride.”
Well you can imagine how I felt. After all those long years of dreams, my hero arrives for the briefest of meetings. One kiss and he was ready to be off.
“Take this,” said Sigurd, softly. “It is a magic ring, named Andvaranaut.”
“I will wear it always,” I whispered. “ Now go, if go you must.” Sigurd kissed me one last time, jumped on his horse and gathered his reins before leaping once again through the terrible flames.
I now know that Sigurd left me to join the Burgundy Court. The Queen was Grimhild by name, and she was grim by nature. I will call her Queen Grim. She was a sorceress who wrought spells like herself, grim and evil. She wanted Sigurd to marry her daughter, Gudrun, who was pretty and silly enough, just a foolish girl. One night, at table during the feasting, the Queen herself served the wine. “Honoured guest,” she said to my Sigurd, “your fame and renown reached our court long ago, and I am proud to serve you myself. For you, I shall pour from this pitcher from which only heroes may drink.” Sigurd, who lacked my gift of second sight, took the goblet.
“Drink deep, Sigurd.”
Queen Grim held his eyes with a bold gaze. Sigurd drank the wine and Queen Grim smiled, for she knew that the goblet was bewitched: Sigurd forgot forever all he had held dear; me, his family and friends... and thus it was that my Sigurd was enchanted into losing all recollection of his promise to me. He felt that he was free to marry Princess Gudrun, and he did.
Now the queen also had a son to marry off. His name was Prince Gunnar. One day she told him, “I will find you a bride. A bride worthy of a hero, and a worthy mother of heroes. Brynhilde is her name. Take your best horse, and spurs, for you will need them, and ride as you have never ridden yet. You must cross a Ring of Flames. There you will find a bride who has flown at the side of Odin… I will tell you where to go.”
Gunnar saddled his best horse, and did as his mother told him. But his horse would not pass through the Ring of Flames, and he had to return empty-handed to court. That night at dinner he had his mother on one side, and Sigurd opposite him. “Where is your bride, oh my son?” said his mother. “My horse was faint-hearted and would not cross the flames,” Gunnar replied.
“Is that all?” said Sigurd. “You are my wife’s brother, practically my blood-brother. Take mine.”
This was a generous offer, for Sigurd loved his horse, and the two brothers-in-law embraced. Gunnar agreed to leave for the Ring of Flames the next day. Queen Grim smiled, “My boy,” she said, “We will feast when you return and I pray it will be your wedding feast.”
The next day Gunnar rode, but the horse was not used to him and was frisky. He lacked Sigurd’s firm hand and sure steady seat in the saddle. Much to Gunnar’s annoyance, the horse would not pass through the flames, and again he had to return without me for his bride.
Back at court, Gunnar was out of temper. “Come brother,” said Sigurd. “Don’t they say third time lucky? Let me try my luck - I will ride for you, with your helmet, chain-mail and shield.”
Thus it was that my Sigurd returned for me, not for himself but for another. A second time he rode through the Ring of Flames. Again, I woke and saw my hero standing over me. “This time,” I thought, “It really is my happy ever after. Now he will take me in his arms, and we shall ride away to our fairytale wedding.” Oh how happy I was! But not for long.
There was no look of love in Sigurd’s eyes. It was as if he had never seen me before. He came over all official...
“I have come to claim you for my brother-in-law, Prince, Gunnar of Burgundy,” he said.
I felt then that I had died. And yet my heart refused to stop beating. I was still breathing. He took his own ring from my finger and replaced it with Gunnar’s. I did not even protest. I was a ghost.
Then he raised me to his saddle, and away we sped through the flames and back to the Burgundy Court. There, I married Gunnar, and became a wife.
I revived, but I was not happy – how could I be happy with Gunnar when every day I saw my Sigurd with that Princess Gudrun? How could I stand to see another in my place? But for the witchery of Queen Grim, he would have been mine. What did that spoiled Princess Gudrun know of battles and the world? Had she flown at Odin’s side and lived the glorious life of a Valkyrie?
She was stupid enough to goad me.
“We two are sisters, now, are we not? But my Sigurd, slayer of Fafnir, is a hero known to all! And it was my husband, not yours, who rode through the flames to fetch you.” She flashed her ring. Imagine what I felt when I saw Andvaranaut, the ring that Sigurd gave to me, on Gudrun’s finger! Could I bear this insult?
I will tell you that I could not bear it. My heart called for revenge!
Enraged, I taunted Gudrun - I told her that Sigurd had loved me before even he had loved her. I told her that she was only with him, because of her wicked sorceress of a mother. Did I not tell her the truth?
Gudrun cried, but what did I care? Her brother, Gunnar, shouted and stormed, he even cried for his mother, milksop that he was. But as Sigurd’s brother-in-law, he could not kill him. That was for another to do. And so for the honour of the family, Gunnar’s younger brother took it upon himself to kill Sigurd. One night, as my beloved warrior slept, the youngest of this shameful family crept into Sigurd’s chamber, and slayed him in his sleep.
Gunnar grieved and wept. But my heart was numb, for I too was grieving, though I did not weep, and I turned away, saying nothing. If Gunnar had lost Sigurd, so too had I. By the day of the funeral, I wanted no part of a life at this accursed court. Standing in front of Sigurd’s funeral pyre, I took a knife and plunged it in my grieving heart. As I felt the life departing from my weak body, I threw myself onto the fire. There we were consumed together in the eternal flames, that lifted our souls up together to the afterlife.