Chapter 9: Gunnar’s Plan
The events occurring after Sigurd bid farewell that day have, unfortunately, become part of the legend for which I have been known throughout the ages. It is painful to recount this part of the story, for it is filled with conflict, woe, and misunderstandings. After taking leave of me, my sweetheart rejoined his crew and his stately ship, which had been docked for several days on the coast. From there Sigurd and his men set sail for Nibelungenland, the mythical realm located across the sea in Norway. Sigurd intended to remain true to the pledge of love and allegiance he had made to me at Isenstein, and I was uppermost in his thoughts throughout the voyage.
The distance of approximately six hundred nautical miles from Iceland to Norway took about five days in a ship relying mostly on sail power, but with good weather and favorable winds, the vessel could complete the journey in two or three days. Sigurd’s boat, a warship built for speed, was constructed of plain oak; the vessel displayed large square sails, but it also had auxiliary oar power operated through circular oar ports. There was a crew of thirty men. On the exterior, the sides of the ship were decorated with the circular shields used by the Norse warriors, painted in yellow and black. Regin’s nautical brilliance had allowed for the design of a ship well ahead of its time—Sigurd’s vessel included living quarters below deck and the construction of a special compartment for the transport of livestock, especially horses, which Sigurd used for his divine horse, Grani.
At the end of the smooth and swift voyage from the eastern coast of Iceland, the green coast of Gudrun’s land was sighted from the lookout, and Sigurd looked on with a mixture of both relief and apprehension, for he knew he would soon see his future bride. Gudrun’s father, King Giuki, ruled in the land of the Nibelungs, known to posterity as the Children of the Mist. The tiny mythological kingdom of Nibelungenland was sequestered in Norway not far from the Norwegian coast. King Giuki had three warrior sons, Gunnar, Hogni, and Guttorm, and one daughter, who was Gudrun, Sigurd’s fiancée. The wife of Giuki, Queen Grimhild, who was Gudrun’s mother, was renowned throughout the land for her magical spells and other sorcery. Many suspected, though, Grimhild was emotionally imbalanced and more than just a little insane.
Gudrun, the only daughter in the royal family and Sigurd’s intended, was considered to be the fairest and most desirable maiden in all the land. But she enjoyed other advantages as well. Most notably, the only daughter of King Giuki had inherited some of her mother’s powers of divination. The night Sigurd placed the magical gold ring on my finger, Gudrun slept deeply but had a vivid dream, which remained crystal clear to her upon awakening. As Sigurd’s beloved would later tell it, she dreamed she had a golden hawk on her wrist, a beautiful creature dearer to her than the most valuable treasure in her father’s realm. The golden hawk, Gudrun was later informed by a bent-over, old wife with warts and leathery skin, symbolized the beauty and vigor of the man she loved. But the venue of the dream inexplicably changed, and in an instant the golden hawk became a golden deer running about with incredible grace and speed. An unusual woman then descended from the clouds. The strange deity was a warrior with the strength of a man. The extraordinary woman in the dream caught the deer with her bare hands and dragged him away as Gudrun looked on in horror. When Sigurd’s fiancée told this part of the dream to the toothless hag, the old woman winced. “Ach,” said the old wife, “there is a powerful woman who defeats you. She has won the heart of your lover.”
Gudrun had already figured out as much for herself. She was in a panic.
“It cannot be true,” Gudrun whispered desperately as she fled to her mother’s chambers. “Sigurd loves only me.” After a hasty consultation with her mother, whom she shook by the shoulders to awaken as the first signs of dawn were barely evident on the horizon, Gudrun devised a plan of action. There was always the distinct possibility the dream was a fluke and could be disregarded. After all, most of Gudrun’s prophetic dreams had so little content that the omens were only good for forecasting the weather. But just in case this was a more serious warning, the apprehensive princess would err on the side of caution. With her mother’s help, Gudrun concocted a potion made of poppy seeds and other flowers designed to make an amorous man forget any other woman except for the woman who was in his presence when he drank it. If Sigurd was still true to his beloved Gudrun, the potion would change nothing. But if, indeed, the conflicted cavalier had become enthralled with another woman’s charms, the magical mixture would undo the damage the mysterious new woman had inflicted. The influence of the new rival would be nullified, voided, and canceled.
At long last, Sigurd disembarked at the coast. He speedily made his way by horseback to complete the last stretch needed to reach the castle of King Giuki. Plagued by discordant sentiments, the beleaguered knight nevertheless looked forward to seeing his fiancée. As Grani galloped onward at the urging of his master, the palace walls loomed up ahead, and Sigurd raced across the drawbridge, dismounting at length and letting his faithful horse be led away by a servant. Sigurd strode with confidence into the grand hall of Giuki’s palace, dressed in full knightly regalia, as the captain of the guards proceeded to the throne room to announce the arrival of the royal family’s favorite son. The king and queen were at court and seated on their thrones, listening to speeches from royal advisers who delivered long political diatribes amidst a host of onlookers in the stately chambers. The high ceilings and vast emptiness of the spacious hall, punctuated by decorative columns with elaborate sculptures of gargoyles and monsters, produced an eerie echoing of the speakers’ voices. Otherwise, all present in the king’s assembly room listened in silence. Gudrun was there, seated on a lower throne beside her parents, mildly bored with the proceedings, until Sigurd was announced. Upon hearing Sigurd had arrived, the heart of the princess started pounding wildly, and her breathing became erratic. She very nearly broke out into a sweat in her state of nervous agitation. Gudrun had no idea what to expect from Sigurd now that he had returned from his numerous exploits and adventures of the past few months.
After the guard made the formal announcement of Sigurd’s arrival, the interminable speeches of the royal advisers were abruptly cut short. Sigurd proceeded to walk in with military precision as he approached the thrones. The son of Sigmund bowed deeply to his future in-laws, going down on one knee, and upon arising, he waved his arm in the conventional circular motion.
Gudrun found the formalities to be maddening. She was on the verge of fainting.
“How fares our brave son, who must now be hailed as the slayer of Fafnir?” Gudrun’s father, King Giuki, ventured.
“He is exhausted but happy to report his many successes to the great king,” Sigurd replied in equal measure.
The verbal exchange that continued was attended by stiff manners and ceremonial protocol. Gudrun was suffering with the prolonged rituals demanded by royal decorum, for she was riddled with insecurity. The fiancée of Sigurd felt as ill as if she had been taken by fever. She hardly heard anything Sigurd or her royal parents said; the familiar voices reverberated strangely in her ears, and the words fell with a dull mechanical sound, nearly incomprehensible, until after what felt like an eternity, it was Gudrun’s turn to speak to Sigurd. “Dearest Sigurd, how good it is to see you alive and in health,” Gudrun said with feigned composure as her soft voice carried throughout the grand hall. “We have passed many a tortured hour here as the news of your exploits reached us. We prayed for your safe and speedy return.”
“And so your prayers have been answered, my kind benefactress, for here I stand before you to renew our troth and to devote myself to you anon,” Sigurd replied, and the lucid blue eyes of the mightiest warrior on Earth met the equally blue orbs of his quiet and determined fiancée.
Gudrun almost swooned.
The princess saw everything in Sigurd’s eyes. Sigurd had changed; he was a completely different man from the one who had taken leave of her a few months before. There was a power in his face, a strength unlike anything Gudrun had ever observed in a human being. The daughter of Giuki saw the force of the very gods themselves in her fiancé’s countenance. She saw a man who held the entire world in his hands and who tossed the sphere about like a plaything. There was a new confidence, a self-possession, and a sense of authority. Sigurd was a man who knew he was nothing less than the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. Sigurd needed no one; in short, Gudrun had lost him.
Sigurd’s change of heart appeared to be much worse than Gudrun could have imagined, yet her rival remained a mystery to her. However, the daughter of Giuki had her suspicions. Reports of Sigurd’s feats had reached court, including the accounts of King Budli’s newly repatriated daughter, Brynhild of Isenstein. Gudrun shrewdly intuited the Icelandic princess was her new rival. But it was imperative that she probe Sigurd’s heart and mind to get to the bottom of the matter. If there was a new mistress in Sigurd’s life, Gudrun wanted to be duly informed. And, having yielded to some fierce, masochistic appetite for pain and self-inflicted torment, the betrayed beloved longed to know every detail of her romantic undoing.
Thus, after the deadly formalities at last reached an end, the king and queen exited the room with their attendants, and the spectators dispersed. Gudrun held back behind the others, motioning to Sigurd to follow her to the chambers behind the throne. Upon closing the door behind them, Sigurd put his helmet down on a table as he proceeded to remove his god-given sword, which he wore on his left side in a case fastened around his waist with a belt. Sigurd unbelted the sword, and he also removed the small knife he carried on his right side, as Gudrun patiently watched.
Finally, having rid himself of weapons and helmet, Sigurd embraced Gudrun cordially and with brevity. The son of Sigmund sat down on a plush sofa, and he exhaled deeply. Gudrun watched him closely. “We’ve heard much of your recent accomplishments from our messengers,” Gudrun began carefully. “First, the battle with King Lygni, then the slaying of Fafnir and the recovery of the treasure, and lastly, retrieving and returning the daughter of King Budli. How busy you have been, and how noble your efforts!”
“Indeed, it has been long and hard, these last few months,” said Sigurd without offering any further details.
“Tell me more about Brynhild, the daughter of Budli,” Gudrun pressed gently for more information. “What is she like? The whole land has been talking about her. The peasants are all agog about her. They say she was sent by Odin himself.”
“Ah, I would not speculate about such matters,” Sigurd replied cautiously. “Brynhild is beautiful to be sure. She has led a hard life, cut off as she was from her rightful legacy for so long. King Budli’s daughter is as strong as a warrior-maiden, but she is also a brilliant temptress. She is physically powerful and mentally quick. Her knowledge is immense, much like her father, the king. I’ve never met anyone quite like her.”
Gudrun felt an unmistakable sinking sensation deep within. Sigurd’s feeble attempt to appear indifferent did not fool her. Gudrun now knew who her true rival was.
Sigurd emitted a loud yawn. “You are tired, my darling Sigurd,” offered Gudrun.
“Yes, I am,” Sigurd concurred. “Tired and thirsty.”
Gudrun had been waiting for the cue she needed. She produced a small jug of fruit juice, which she poured into a goblet on the table. “Drink this,” ordered Gudrun, offering him the goblet. “This brew is invigorating. It comes from fruit and flowers, and it is sweetened with honey like mead from the gods.”
“Perfect,” said the unsuspecting Sigurd. And the weary knight assuaged his thirst by downing the whole glass in one long gulp, ultimately slamming the goblet back down on the table.
“Damn,” Sigurd muttered, shaking his head, “what was in that libation? My head is spinning.”
“A little extra something to get your blood moving,” replied Gudrun evasively. “My mother mixed it for you herself.”
“Ach, good gods!” exclaimed Sigurd. “Why didn’t you tell me your mother made it? You know I dislike her diabolical schemes. The woman is a mischief-maker. The last thing I need is to drink something concocted by that witch!”
“Shush!” cautioned Gudrun. “If my mother hears you talking in such a manner, she will be deeply wounded. She worked long and hard on that elixir. You should be grateful.” Sigurd yawned for the second time.
“But, of course, yes, yes...I am infinitely grateful to the woman I shall soon call mother-in-law.” Sigurd’s eyelids were drooping heavily, and in a few moments, his head fell forward on the table where his body yielded itself to a deep slumber.
Gudrun sank into one of the velvet high-backed chairs lining the walls, intently gazing at her now unconscious fiancé. Sigurd had fallen in love with the famous and much desired Brynhild. A disaster, to be certain. A beautiful peasant, an exotic dancer, a petty noblewoman, anything would have been better than having the formidable Brynhild as her rival, rumored to be nothing less than a goddess. Grimhild’s potent elixirs were merely child’s play compared to the powers being attributed to the daughter of King Budli. Gudrun hoped the reality did not compare with the myth, but nevertheless, she knew her rival was a force to be reckoned with. Gudrun did not know if it was a challenge she could accept, not even with her mother’s help.
When Sigurd awoke several hours later in the chambers behind the throne room, he appeared at first to be alone. The son of Sigmund was somewhat refreshed, and he felt rested and relaxed. As the awakening knight stirred, Gudrun, who was working on a needlepoint tapestry behind a beaded curtain, arose to greet him and to place herself willingly at his disposal. But the future bride of Sigurd had an ulterior motive. She had to test the effectiveness of the elixir. Sigurd opened his eyes, lifted his head, and noticed someone had placed a plate of fruit, nuts, and cold meat on the table before him along with some wine. He fell upon the modest meal greedily, for he was famished, and he lifted the large goblet of wine at a dramatic angle to drink from it deeply, not caring he was splashing it onto his face and beard. Sigurd glanced up at Gudrun when she emerged, as she pushed aside the long strings of beads obscuring her.
“How do you feel?” Gudrun inquired.
“Quite well, thank you,” Sigurd replied courteously.
“Still too tired to talk about your many deeds and travails?” Gudrun prodded him.
“There is really not all that much to add to the story,” Sigurd stated plainly. “It seems that my reputation precedes me. Everyone already knows all the details about Lygni and Fafnir, and everyone is well informed regarding the story of the Princess Brynhild.”
“But surely, you could tell me just a little more about this fascinating and brilliant woman!” Gudrun implored, careful not to sound too desperate in her desire to plumb the depths of Sigurd’s heart.
“To be frank, I would like to tell you everything, but I can hardly remember anything at all about the daughter of King Budli,” Sigurd confessed. Gudrun smiled and heaved a deep sigh of relief. The elixir had fulfilled its purpose. Her mother’s powers had not failed her. It was folly to doubt Queen Grimhild for even a moment.
And so it was that Gudrun sought to plot my demise and get the better of me. Sigurd remembered who I was and what I looked like, but not much else. He vaguely remembered the rescue from Mount Hindarfiall, the brief stay at Budli’s castle, the banquet, and the long talk on the rocky beach. But all the particularities had been lost. More important, Sigurd’s passion for me had been completely eradicated. My knight now had eyes only for Gudrun, his beloved fiancée.
The elixir had effectively replaced his love for me with an indifference that would normally only be felt after a twenty-year separation. Everything Sigurd felt for me had vanished—all the emotional intensity was gone and with it even the memory that such emotions had ever existed. Every heartfelt sentiment Sigurd harbored for me had been destroyed by a witch’s potion and the uncontrollable jealousy of a blond princess with innocent blue eyes. The amnesia effected by the wizardry of Sigurd’s future mother-in-law resulted in such a brutal betrayal of sacred trust, even the most vicious cad would have been unable to abandon me as heartlessly as Sigurd did after drinking that potion. There would be much confusion as a result.
But for the time being, King Giuki and his court had only cause to rejoice. Sigurd had returned safe and sound to wed Gudrun, and with him had come, under separate convoy after being unloaded from the ship, the legendary treasure so ferociously guarded by Fafnir, the hateful beast. The kingdom’s coffers were filled to overflowing. Giuki abolished taxes for a full year, and a great feast was held on the palace grounds. Peasants and nobles alike attended the fabulous fête, which included dancers, troubadours, jugglers, and theatrical pieces. The celebration continued for days on end. In the middle of it all, Sigurd and Gudrun quietly repaired to a chapel for a private ceremony with only the sovereign family in attendance. There the rapturous couple exchanged sacred vows. Sigurd lovingly removed the white veil from the radiant face of his bride, whose eyes were glistening with tears. With a gentle kiss on the soft and silken lips of Gudrun, the deed was done. Sigurd and Gudrun were man and wife.
As far as Sigurd was concerned, I might as well have been dead.
The newly wed couple emerged from the castle on an upper balcony with their arms entwined triumphantly around each other’s waists, while bugles and trumpets signaled to the multitudes an important announcement was about to be made. As the spectators quieted down, the palace messenger called out the official news of the match made in heaven, and the throng nearly went into a frenzy of applause and cheers. The future looked bright for the Nibelungs, for Sigurd had become part of the royal family. Sigurd himself stood on the balcony smiling and basking in the fervent admiration of the populace. But he had severe misgivings, the source of which even he did not fully understand. Sigurd was dogged by a vague sense of dread, a feeling he had forgotten something of profound importance. Try as he might, he could not remember what it was.
Nevertheless, after Sigurd and his bride retired from the balcony, the groom cemented the union by feeding Gudrun a small section of Fafnir’s heart. The courageous slayer of the deadly beast had reserved this part of the serpent’s heart for his future wife. It was a great honor. The intention was to make Gudrun wiser, nobler, and more magnanimous. But because the bride hid the dark secret of the malevolent elixir she had given her husband, the enchanted repast had an unpredictably adverse effect. It made Gudrun cold and silent; she withdrew from all but Sigurd and her immediate family.
Thereafter, Gudrun’s ability to reign in greatness had been severely compromised, and the charm that had won Sigurd’s heart diminished so much that sometimes Sigurd felt he hardly knew his wife. Yet the loyal knight retained tender affections for Gudrun, and haunted as Sigurd was by a sense of oppression he could not shake, he still strove to serve her well as a husband.
But fate soon introduced a new twist, which was bound to change Sigurd’s life. King Giuki, already in his sixties, had been ailing for some time, and exactly one year after the wedding day of his daughter, the king’s heart gave out, and he died in his sleep. The Nibelungs mourned sincerely for Giuki. He had been kind and just, and he had reigned for forty years. More than half the population had never known any other king but him. The eldest son, Gunnar, Sigurd’s brother-in-law, prepared to take over the role for which he had been in training all his life. But there was one small matter needing attention before Gunnar could rule in a proper fashion—the eldest son had to find an appropriate wife to rule at his side. Gunnar’s mother, the now widowed Grimhild, sorceress, and mother-in-law to Sigurd, gave the matter a great deal of thought, and it was evident to her there was only one woman in the civilized world who would be the perfect Nibelung queen. That would unquestionably be none other than myself, Princess Brynhild of Isenstein, daughter of King Budli, who it was rumored sat in a golden hall surrounded by a circle of flames and who would marry none but the warrior who could dare to pass through the fiery inferno to reach her side.
This, of course, was a preposterous rumor.
The rumor harked back to the historical fact of my appearance on Mount Hindarfiall. Odin’s magic circle of flames had protected me from harm until Sigurd could carry out his rescue mission, but there was no such fiery barrier to be transcended back in Iceland at Budli’s castle. Only Sigurd knew about the original flames, Sigurd and a lone shepherd who had fallen asleep on his way home that fateful night. The shepherd had been startled awake in the middle of the night by thunder and lightning, and he had seen a circle of flames spring up on the mountaintop in the distance.
In the center of the circle, there appeared to be a structure of some kind; the lad could see turrets and a standard waving in the sky just before dawn. The shepherd thought he had dreamed it, but he told the tale to his tiny circle of villagers when he returned home the next morning. The story could not be verified, and a delegation from the village reported that after climbing to the mountaintop, nothing was amiss except for a charred area in the shape of a circle and a strip of white silk worthy of a noblewoman.
The myth of the circle of fire was born then and there; the legend spread rapidly, and it persisted in many forms. Gunnar was quick to believe every word of it. Needless to say, the future king was not too discerning in certain areas, and with his libido in full gear after having heard so many stories about my great beauty, Gunnar wanted to ensure his success. So preparations were soon underway for the great trip across the sea to Iceland, and all eventualities had to be taken into consideration. Gunnar was coming to Iceland to fetch a bride to reign at his side. And since the inheritor of the throne sincerely believed he would have to jump through a magic hoop of fire, he entreated his brother-in-law, Sigurd, to come with him and bring along a few items, which might prove to be of use under peculiar circumstances. Gunnar beseeched Sigurd to bring the magic sword Sigurd had inherited from Sigmund, as well as the magic helmet known as the Helmet of Dread, which Sigurd had found among Fafnir’s treasures hidden away in the depths of the cave at Glittering Heath.
The magic helmet had only one useful application, which was its ability to let the wearer change his identity. Sigurd could not think of a single reason why they would need the Helmet of Dread, but the son of Sigmund trusted his brother-in-law’s instincts, and he brought it with him in any case. Having packed everything Gunnar demanded, the party set off for the coast and requisitioned one of the king’s ships. Odin smiled favorably on this trip, and the skies were blue and clear, with a strong wind to whisk Gunnar and his entourage to Iceland in record time. The omens seemed to indicate all would go well.
The royal vessel arrived, and Gunnar disembarked on the Icelandic shore. Having lowered Grani and the other horses by sling onto dry land, Gunnar and his party made the short journey by horseback to the castle glittering in the distance. Lookout guards at my father’s palace noted the arrival of a royal ship with a foreign standard. It appeared to be a peaceful mission. We sent out a formal brigade of officers to greet the royal delegation approaching the palace. Information was exchanged, and the guards returned to the castle with the astounding news—King Giuki of Nibelungenland was dead; his eldest son, Gunnar, heir to the throne, sought the hand of the Princess Brynhild, who would be crowned Queen of the Nibelungs if she consented.
My father was rather enchanted with the idea. For a year I had dwelt in his castle looking after my chores, my studies, and my daily life without a thought or a care for a husband. I was waiting patiently for Sigurd to return. I could never have predicted my darling Sigurd would return to stand at his brother-in-law’s side while Gunnar asked for my hand. My father had noted my voluntary seclusion at Isenstein with some measure of concern. Extremely aware of his advanced age and fearing his own imminent death, Budli would have been only too happy to marry me off to a king, thus knowing I was provided for, not just materialistically but emotionally as well.
Budli meant well, but he had no idea of how stoically independent I was of such needs. My human incarnation was such that my heart was capable of being stirred by certain feelings under certain conditions, but for the most part, I avoided romantic passion. As a goddess presiding over earthly dilemmas in Valhalla, I had been tempted often to experience this kind of passion firsthand. And such temptations, as when I descended to have my little fling with Roland, caused difficulties and heated arguments with Odin. But now that I was flesh and blood again, I was a little put off by the reproductive process and the associated erotic behaviors.
It all seemed so—elemental. I had incarnated on Mount Hindarfiall in a state of virginity; I was inclined to guard my chastity, despite my rather promiscuous ways in previous incarnations. There were too many complications resulting from the act of sexual intercourse, as seen from the point of view of a former goddess. I certainly did not want to reproduce. I did not even want to be in existence on the planet, much less reproduce and be burdened with babies and the crises brought on by parenthood. And humans, being as primitive as they were, had a tendency to equate physical intimacy with physical possession. They tried to own each other; men, in particular, tried to own their women. I shuddered at the thought.
Sigurd and I had agreed to a spiritual marriage. Sensuality had not figured into the equation because of Sigurd’s commitment to his then future wife, Gudrun, and that suited me just fine. Even the idea of being possessed by my darling Sigurd was inherently repugnant to me. I was the virgin princess and the virgin goddess. But Gunnar, large, hairy, and out of his mind with sexual frustration, had other ideas. He was already dreaming about me even before he ever set eyes on me. Fantasies about our wedding night were dancing around the head of the newly crowned king like sugar plums and other sweet delights. At night Gunnar drifted off to sleep with a foolish smile on his face. The King of the Nibelungs could hardly wait to consummate our marriage.
But before I could dwell on my consternation regarding this imminent proposal of marriage, I was troubled by another problem at hand. I had spied Sigurd from my windows galloping up to the castle drawbridge on his trusted and capable horse, Grani, proudly accompanying his brother-in-law on a mission of which he fully approved. Even from my windows, and even though Sigurd’s visage was mostly hidden by his helmet, I had sensed something was wrong. This was not the return to Budli’s palace we had talked about the year before when Sigurd had placed the gold ring on my finger. Granted, Sigurd had to find a reasonable excuse to absent himself from his wife and spend part of the year in Iceland, but using his brother-in-law’s proposal of marriage to me as an excuse to see me again created more obstacles than it removed. Accompanying Gunnar on this marrying mission did not make any sense. I was becoming alarmed, for it was quite evident something had gone awry.
Protocol was in order after Budli was informed of the visitors’ objective, and I assembled with my father and his advisers in the throne room’s grand hall, while Gunnar and his men were relieved of helmets and swords in the entry foyer. Upon being officially announced, the Nibelung party entered the throne room in military fashion. Gunnar led the way while Sigurd and Gunnar’s brother Hogni walked behind the King of the Nibelungs. The remaining brother, Guttorm, brought up the rear along with the late King Giuki’s colonel of the guards.
I observed Sigurd intently. I raised my chin slightly to make eye contact with him from my seat on one of the lower thrones. Sigurd looked directly at me, and there was at first no sign of recognition beyond that of seeing a vaguely familiar face. But at that moment, the sun streaming in through the castle’s long, narrow windows caught the glint of Andvaranaut, the gold ring Sigurd had placed upon my finger when we parted that chilly, foggy morning of the year before. The golden ray of sunlight was reflected directly from my hand into Sigurd’s countenance, momentarily blinding him, and at last the veil of amnesia was lifted, restoring Sigurd’s memory of our tryst and everything that had happened between us.
The process of Sigurd recovering his memory was not a pretty sight. The blood drained from his face, he gasped, and he looked horrified. My beloved knight might as well have just seen a ghost. Every word of mine, every gesture, came rushing back with lost images, which flashed through Sigurd’s mind like lightning. The son of Sigmund was inundated with the thoughts and memories Grimhild’s potion had suppressed for a full year. But the formalities continued, and there was nothing Sigurd could say or do for the time being. Gunnar finished the formal declaration of his intentions to my father, whereupon he looked around in amazement. “I was expecting a ring of fire,” Gunnar remarked, obviously puzzled. King Budli laughed heartily at Gunnar’s comment.
“Ah, yes, the mythical ring of fire. We have heard the rumors about it, too. As you can very well see for yourself, there is no wall of fire surrounding my daughter or anyone else in my palace. Indeed, when the lookout reported your ship was approaching, Brynhild was entertaining me in the courtyard with her superb skill at throwing javelins.
“As for your kind and generous offer of marriage, Gunnar, it must be my daughter’s decision. I would never ask her to do anything against her will. I will have rooms made up for you and your delegation, so you can stay for a little while. It is up to you to speak to my daughter privately about the matter. Whatever she wants is what I, too, desire. My servants will see you to your quarters. Good day, gentlemen.”
The presentation having been brought to its close, the wise old king arose and left the throne room. Gunnar and company readily consented to be taken to comfortable quarters where they could get some much needed repose, but Sigurd was desperately seeking an excuse to linger. As the servants led Gunnar and his party away, Sigurd lagged behind the others. My father had exited, and with him, the royal entourage and all the king’s advisers. I loitered for a moment in the now deserted throne room, and when Sigurd turned around to glance at me with pained eyes, I motioned for him to follow me.
We slipped into a small room off the central hall, where delegations were often given food and drink while waiting for an audience with the king. It was a dark, cozy room with mahogany furniture. The couch was strewn with cushions, very low on the floor, after the style noted by an exotic visitor who had made his way to Iceland from Asia. Sigurd drew the curtains in the doorway, first checking the corridor to make sure our quiet withdrawal had gone unnoticed. To my surprise, Sigurd threw himself at my feet and burst into tears. I stared at him in complete bewilderment. “What in the name of all the gods is the matter?” I inquired, starting to become truly alarmed by Sigurd’s behavior, not to mention the circumstances of his visit. “Why are you so distraught?”
“Ach, Brynhild, my darling, you must forgive me,” Sigurd pleaded. “I cannot begin to tell you how impoverished I am in both mind and spirit. I am a coward and an idiot. Tell me what I must do to make it up to you!”
“Make what up to me?” I was aghast at Sigurd’s words.
“I’m too ashamed to talk about it,” Sigurd replied, hanging his head and sobbing into his hands.
“You mean, the poor excuse you chose to organize a mission to see me? Yes, I wanted to inquire about that. What exactly were you thinking of?” I asked.
“That is the most shameful part. I never planned such an excursion. I was not even thinking of you. For a full year, I completely forgot you,” Sigurd blurted out between sobs.
“What?” I exclaimed, now truly perplexed. “You mean, your comely bride, Gudrun, was so enchanting you could not bear to think of me for a full year?”
“No, no.” Sigurd protested. “I am talking about a phenomenon that went beyond preferences and desires. I completely forgot you. I experienced some kind of amnesia. I remembered who you were and the bare framework of events, but I had completely forgotten there was anything between us. How the amnesia happened remains a mystery. I never experienced anything like it before—an amnesia that erased my emotional memory. I forgot my feelings for you as though our love had never happened. My mind was a blank. Not until this afternoon when I walked into the throne room and saw Andvaranaut on your finger was I overwhelmed with memories, and everything came back to me. Now I’m dismayed beyond all sensibility. I’m here to marry you off to my brother-in-law. I was supposed to come back here alone to tryst with you a year later and honor the vows we took that sacred evening. This is a terrible dilemma. This is a disaster!”
“Indeed, it is, but you must calm down,” I entreated Sigurd. At first I hardly knew what to say, this confession sabotaged all my calculations, and it defied all rational explanation. I started pacing up and down the middle of the small room, my brow creased while deep in thought. “When did the amnesia set in?” I inquired, stopping in my tracks.
“As soon as I arrived back in Nibelungenland. Shortly after being received at King Giuki’s castle,” Sigurd replied after thinking about it for a moment.
“What happened after you arrived at Giuki’s castle? Do you remember?”
“If I recall, nothing of significance. I was announced and given an audience with the king and queen. Gudrun was there. Afterwards, she brought me to the private chambers behind the thrones. She gave me something to eat.”
“And something to drink?” I asked.
“Let me think for a moment, did she give me something to drink?” Sigurd mused. “Why, yes, she did. Some concoction made of fruit and honey. After I drank it, she told me Grimhild, her mother, had brewed it just for me.”
Upon hearing this, I was greatly unnerved. I knew Grimhild’s little tricks very well. Frigg considered Grimhild to be one of her best students, and she spent a lot of time whispering divine secrets into Grimhild’s ear. It was bitter irony I was being outwitted because of the wiles of one of Frigg’s most devoted disciples. Sigurd’s memory, however, had been restored, and at least I had that much going in my favor. But now I was confronted with a delicate situation—Gunnar wanted to marry me, and he was nearly panting at the mere sight of me—I, who was determined to remain a virgin. I was slightly appalled at the thought of becoming wife to the King of the Nibelungs. Sigurd was the mightiest warrior in the world, not Gunnar, even though technically speaking, Gunnar outranked Sigurd, having now inherited Giuki’s throne and having been anointed king.
From a godly point of view, royal status on Earth was not overly impressive. In terms of the values held at Valhalla, it was the warrior who had earned the elevated status over a period of many lifetimes. The particular ranking granted in the soldier’s human incarnation on Earth was usually of little consequence. Human status was often bestowed for all the wrong reasons, sometimes rewarding individuals for traits that would only earn demerits in Valhalla. Being overly aggressive or hostile was often seen as being a desirable characteristic when considering a human soldier for a promotion.
Favoritism because of bloodline was another significant factor in granting rank and promotion. The genuinely pure souls who were enlightened and were evolving at faster rates than the others, Odin’s favorites, were time and again left behind in the rank and file of the mediocre. All too often the superior status of the enlightened and Odin’s pride in them were sensed by others, who in jealous frustration, deliberately passed over the divinely favored few. It was a relatively infrequent occurrence when the stature of someone’s soul matched the stature of the position earned on Earth, as it did with my human father, King Budli, upon whom Odin smiled continuously. As Plato had taught so many years earlier, the true king was the philosopher-king. And Budli qualified with his wisdom and discipline. But Gunnar did not.
I was seeking no acclaim in my present incarnation as Brynhild. Having clear memories of my rank and status in heaven, my ego did not need to be fed with petty titles and meaningless luxuries. I was completely indifferent to the honor of being named queen, even though such a distinction suited me well enough, since I was, after all, a princess. But on Earth, such human honors could be burdensome. To be acclaimed and exalted by the “civilized” world, when in actuality being touted by the rabble, what was the use? The rate of spiritual progress as demonstrated by the masses was maddeningly slow. It would be much more gratifying to be admired by the populace in another five thousand years or so. At this point in human history, fame was worth very little.
And now I was being forced into a human marriage, one which would prove to be much different from the platonic arrangement I had happily envisioned with Sigurd. Gunnar would make me his wife, and he would naturally insist I take care of his most basic and primitive urges. Just the thought of it was enough to make me feel ill. Gunnar was not my equal. His heroic feats had no spiritual justice to them at all. The new King of the Nibelungs merely triumphed in the realm of blood and gore.
Gunnar was a large, muscular man with long dark hair, which hung wildly in his eyes; he had thick eyebrows, a full beard, and he was covered with bodily hair from the neck down. There was a crudeness about the Nibelung monarch, an animal instinct, which was distinguished by coarse behavior. There was not a sensitive bone in his hulking body. Gunnar was quite ready to drag me into his bedroom by the hair, if he thought such brutish behavior would be tolerated. I was greatly disturbed by this situation, but I turned my attention away from such troublesome thoughts and back to Sigurd, who was staring at me with a rather pathetic expression on his face.
“What are we going to do?” Sigurd asked plaintively.
“I wish I knew,” I conceded. “I am going to have to give this plight much thought. I may have to consent to this sudden and drastic change of plans.”
“Consent to it?” Sigurd asked in disbelief.
“Yes. I may have to marry Gunnar and consummate the marriage,” I explained tersely.
“No! No, please, anything but that. I could not bear it,” Sigurd pleaded.
“I understand your concerns, but there are times when the emotions must be held in check. In any event, give me some time to ponder and reflect; we shall talk again. Maybe I can find a way to mitigate this bizarre turn of events,” I tried to reassure my angst-ridden knight. And understanding he had been dismissed, Sigurd reluctantly gathered up his sword and helmet, which had been returned to him by the servants who had relieved him of those items at the palace entrance, and he proceeded to his chambers.
Left alone, my heart was heavy as I stared out the window at the vanishing sun, now yielding itself to the twilight. Such an intricately involved dilemma as this would not be easily resolved. I could not discern a viable way out of such a complicated predicament.
I had reason to believe my fate was sealed.
Chapter 10: Ladder to Heaven
I did not tarry for too long in the delegation room after Sigurd took leave of me. I made a quick and furtive exit a few minutes later, pausing in the palace’s main corridor for a moment while I looked up and down the deserted halls, taking care to make sure no one witnessed my departure as I, too, fled to my rooms. There I removed my elaborate gown and my tiara, as well as my necklaces and bracelets, and with relief, I donned my simple white dress. My only desire was to lie down on the luxuriant silken divan in my bedroom to do some serious thinking. Not realizing how exhausted I was after all the turmoil caused by Sigurd’s return to Isenstein, my eyes fluttered and closed involuntarily as I drifted off into a deep sleep.
Another human frailty, that I needed sleep every night and even at times during the day when events overcame me and sapped my strength. But Odin had cleverly constructed the human body when he took a few pounds of clay and added some water, not to mention the brilliant sculpturing he did over the millennia to fine tune his masterpiece. Humans thought they slept every night because the physical body was depleted of energy and needed rest. However, it was not so much the body itself that needed the rest, it was the spirit. The soul fled when the body went into a deep sleep. This state of suspended animation called sleep, almost deathlike in appearance, was a temporary release for the soul. The soul could soar at such times; thus, it would get a much needed break from the illusions, the fear, and the false sense of lack, all of which drove humans to such desperation during their waking hours.
The mortals of Earth perceived lack everywhere, and indeed, lack was what the vast majority of them experienced. And human drama—ah, there was no equivalent for it anywhere in the universe. The exaggerated emotionalism dragging mortals down into the bitter soil of the earth instead of allowing them to reach upward into the heavens was truly something to wonder at. The passion, the madness, the grand gestures, the insults, the bitterness—such was the drama of humanity. Yet humans had no inkling their own reality was a drama they had scripted themselves, whose outcome was entirely in their hands. The gods sought to remain aloof from human drama, but it was often not possible. “I never meant for them to be so miserable,” the All-Father would say, hanging his head in the screening room, overwhelmed by human cries for divine help.
“Alas, what is preventing you from showing humans the way to paradise?” I once asked.
“These creatures refuse to listen,” Odin declared. “I’m constantly trying to communicate with them, but they simply refuse to listen.”
In our detached state of eternal aloofness, we gods sometimes envied humans their emotions, and at the same time, we were aghast. The crimes, the wars, the way humans made themselves sick with worry, fear, and grief. The gods had every situation on Earth under control, except when humans became obsessed with their phobias. Humans did not know their own power when it came to introducing complications and errors. Their fears became manifest everywhere, and in this fashion humans conjured up their very own hell, and most of it was because of their emotions. Some emotions were undeniably saintly, such as love, compassion, and charity. But anger was a like a wild card in the human psyche, and fear was rampant. Jealousy, envy, and resentment quickly followed suit. “They are too emotional!” I once complained to Odin when we were discussing this one evening in bed.
“It is part of the human condition,” Odin explained patiently. “I included it as a useful tool.”
“But the emotionalism is not that useful—it causes all kinds of havoc,” I pointed out. “Does it not make more sense just to eliminate the more negative and crippling emotions?”
“No, not at all. When used intelligently, the passionate emotions add innumerable shades of nuance to human existence. At our level, the highest world, we are pure spirit and divinity. We are antimatter, and therefore, we cannot coexist with the physical matter. To attain some inkling of what the gods are about, humans must approach the heavens through a series of lower worlds. Directly beneath pure divinity is the intellect—it permits reason and knowledge, and through knowledge humans gain wisdom. The wisdom helps humans gain access to Asgard. Beneath the world of the intellect is the world of their sacred emotions, sometimes a blessing, sometimes a curse for the human psyche.
“But it is the emotions that lead them to intellect and wisdom, which in turn lead them to pure spirit. And the lowest world is the world of pure matter, the most elemental material concerns and the most basic needs of human existence. Thus, humans begin with the lowest world—the world of materialism—and they grapple with the emotions and the intellect, and at last, they approach the divinity they had always harbored deep within, despite the constant denial and naysaying.”
“Certainly, Sire, you could at least eliminate anger,” I persisted. “Humans get angry over the most trifling matters. Any trifle can insult a typical mortal. Even speaking too frankly is often an insult. And the truth is a source of perpetual insult because humans continually delude themselves, hiding behind elaborate masks, which allow them to perpetuate their lies. It takes years for humans to get over an insult, even when the insult was not intended. Humans take themselves much too seriously; thus, they justify holding grudges for decades. They throw preposterous fits when offended, causing others to fear such irrational behavior and yield to it, thereby lending the behavior an inane credibility. It is dumbfounding.”
“I know, I know,” Odin replied with a sense of resignation. “My otherwise marvelous creatures work themselves into a dither over the most nonsensical scrapes. And the inability to accept any kind of truth, the exaggerated sense of self-importance, the overreactions, the lack of humor—do you know where this leads them? It is pure fascism. When humans go emotionally amuck, it can impede their judgment, it can make them unstable and desperate, it can distract their attention from one object or cause them to focus too much attention on another. With respect to romance, humans become distraught and obsessive, constantly fearful the status quo cannot be maintained. I never intended for the emotionalism to have such a deleterious effect. The good citizens of Earth frustrate me with their deviousness and their inventiveness. I could have never predicted how cleverly humans would obstruct my purpose—my highest hopes for a utopian realm. I had no idea.”
“So the emotions must be cultivated. A philosophy of stoicism perhaps can be encouraged,” I suggested.
“Ach!” Odin returned as he threw his arms into the air in a despairing gesture. “The ancient Greek Stoics held that all emotional passion was bad and based on a false view of the world, and that such passion put too much emphasis on objective reality—in other words, too much attachment to objects and people—making the average human too dependent on the material world for happiness. But the Greeks went too far with their philosophical stoicism, and nothing was gained by it. Yes, mortals neglect the education of the emotions, choosing to preoccupy themselves with the education of the intellect. Nevertheless, I gave them such ardor, and the emotional fervor is sacred to me, even when I see such sentiments being taken to an alarming and ruinous extreme. The emotionalism informs human morality, and I gave them moral consciousness. Humans have to use the temperamental states of the heart and mind to set themselves on the path to truth.”
“But human emotions cause more error and deviation than anything else, especially when they are angry,” I argued. “At the very least, abolish anger.”
“Alas, I cannot!” Odin yelled, pounding his fist on the table in frustration. “The emotionalism is part of the human condition. My chosen ones must learn to be self-regulating. If earthlings want to abolish anger, they will have to do it themselves.” As always, philosophical dialogues with Odin were never very satisfactory. It had to be noted, though, the All-Father did not fare very well with the philosophers; undeniably, it was annoying that the scholarly theorists were constantly producing tome after tome bent on disproving Odin’s existence.
Unfortunately, these memories of previous discourses with Odin only served to sadden me, for here I was, confined by the physical limitations of a human body and hindered by events now being imposed upon me. Now I, too, was being drawn into an emotional drama based on ego, jealousy, and possessiveness. Gudrun had nearly capsized my plans for Sigurd with her simple but effective love potion. Such a masterful obstacle had never even occurred to me, and I was dauntingly unprepared for the resulting complications.
I had been living in a state of transcendent remoteness at Asgard for too long, and I could not have anticipated the devious mind of Sigurd’s fiancée, whose artful contrivances would oppose me so strikingly. I was too distanced from human failings and weaknesses. Even dealing with Frigg for an eternity had not prepared me for female jealousy on Earth. Mortal women desperately lived their lives through their men, and clever as such females were, they could not let go of this egotistical preoccupation, for it was the very essence of their being. Frigg paled by comparison to this bizarre and primitive display of female jealousy in the human realm.
But such was my fate. Odin had decreed it.
After much reflection concerning the exchange with Sigurd in the delegation room, I realized I might have to accept Gunnar’s offer of marriage if I wanted to remain close to Sigurd in this lifetime. The thought of becoming Gunnar’s wife was repulsive to me, and after I lay down on my sumptuous divan, I was relieved to drift off to sleep. I slumbered soundly. It was late afternoon, and the sun was making its daily descent amid a splash of colors and banks of dramatic clouds.
My dreams came into focus with a new clarity I had never experienced before. I could not tell I was dreaming but instead dreamed I was awake. My bedroom shimmered with an unearthly golden light, which streamed in through the windows. I sat up on my divan as I looked around at the familiar surroundings, now suddenly alien to me. I was drawn to the windows, where the afternoon sky had changed to a mysterious bluish tone I had never experienced before on the physical plane. It was the deepest blue I had ever seen, deeper than the bluest hues of Asgard.
The sky stretched out to infinity, and I could see outer space from my tiny window. Colorful planets and stars whirled past me; the heavenly spheres were so close I felt I could extend my fingers and grasp them. I could see into infinity, where countless stars began to swirl in circular motion and form tunnels, which I gazed at hypnotically. As I watched, one tunnel took shape just outside my window and led to dizzying heights. A pale, bluish light formed a carpet on the floor of the tunnel. And I realized I was staring into a heavenly void, which spun around as it turned into a gateway to Asgard. A ladder was emerging, and it was a ladder leading the way directly back to Odin. But that is not possible, I thought. It has been decreed. I must remain here for decades.
I knew if I wanted to, I could climb this ladder. But I was reluctant to leave my chambers. I felt an impulse to float out the window, but if I did, there would be no turning back. And for some peculiar reason, I was compelled to stay. Was it Sigurd who made my human incarnation more palatable to me? Odin had given me an onerous task to carry out in the earthly realm—to assist in the acceleration of the abysmally slow rate of human enlightenment. Punishment or not, I had never refused a mission. We gods and goddesses had responsibilities at Asgard. When called, we served. There was no other way.
Therefore, staying grounded was imperative; I could not let myself drift away into the infinite space before me. At that moment, a ball of blinding light appeared at the top of the ladder. I heard music; it was the most beautiful music in the universe. Indeed, it was Odin himself, playing the violin. Against the wondrous brightness of the white light, Odin’s form appeared shadowy and indistinct, yet I recognized him immediately. I was so relieved to see the All-Father that tears welled up in my eyes. I thought Odin had forgotten me. I thought I had been abandoned on this crude and savage planet in this human body. But there was Odin, so beautiful, strong, and muscular, at the top of the ladder. The ball of light gradually faded out, and I could make out Odin’s thick mane of dark curls hanging about his shoulders.
With his exquisitely crafted violin tucked underneath his chin, a model for the later Stradivarius, the All-Father slowly made his way down the steps, always playing this tantalizing music. And at the moment when he was so close that he could touch me, Odin reached out for me with his hand. I leaned forward out the window and extended my own hand in response, desperately trying to touch him. The last inch was like an abyss. It was not easy for Odin to touch a human creature, for it was antimatter reaching out to matter. But Odin strained with every ounce of his will, and I was desperate to touch him until, at last, the fingers of my right hand locked around his. And the exquisitely pure light from his aura immediately enveloped me, and we were one.
I was flooded with a sense of relief to be reunited with Odin, and I sobbed uncontrollably. He did not try to speak but waited for me to stop crying, comforting me with a stroking motion, which had a tranquillizing effect. I felt his being like a pressure all over my body, and I realized Odin was embracing me. “Marry Gunnar,” the All-Father whispered to me. “Then you can be near Sigurd and continue to give the love and protection Sigurd needs to carry out the many tasks comprising his destiny.”
“Gunnar repulses me,” I answered.
“Try to overcome your revulsion,” Odin advised. “It is, after all, just a technicality whether you are a virgin or not. Your soul will always be in a virginal state. The physical state of virginity in regard to the human body is neither here nor there. Just perform your wifely duty, and be done with it.”
“Please, is there no better resolution for this dilemma?” I implored.
“No, unfortunately, there is not,” was Odin’s reply. “Your marriage to Gunnar is already part of the legend. All energies and all forces in motion are leading in this direction. It would be very difficult to stop the process in its tracks right now without disrupting human reality, which as you know, I would rather not do because I’m under oath. So just comply, and agree to satisfy the conditions of marriage. I will be there with you to ensure no harm will come to you. You are undoubtedly convinced such an arrangement will be unbearable, but for now you are clinging to human presuppositions and existential devices. You must move beyond the human condition.” Odin’s melodious tones were growing fainter and appeared to be fading out. I could see him receding as he began to move away from me backwards into the tunnel. He released my hand.
“No, no, wait! Please don’t go, not yet!” I pleaded.
“I must leave, Brynhild,” Odin said calmly and serenely. “But fear not, I’m always with you; I shall not desert you.” The All-Father disappeared into the tunnel, receding at an ever-accelerating rate and ultimately exploding into a ball of light. I sat there at the windowsill sobbing deeply for a long time. Back in Asgard, Odin watched me from his screening room. He covered his ears with his hands to drown out my cries. My suffering was the cause of much agony for him.
When I awoke a few hours later, I was pale and bleary-eyed. My room was now very dark, except for the light from a moonbeam falling across the floor and onto my bed. I arose and gazed out the window at the clear night sky, while the innocuous stars winked at me from their vantage point in the cavernous tent comprising the universe. There was no sign of the melodrama I had experienced in my dream. The haunting blue twilight of an infinite sky, the shooting stars, the multicolored planets—they were nowhere in evidence. It was peaceful and quiet. I had dreamed it all, but I knew in my heart Odin had revealed himself to me. I felt drained and exhausted, however, so I decided to take a walk, for I believed the fresh air would do me some good. I threw a shawl over my flimsy white dress and proceeded to the main entrance of the castle.
There, in the drafty grand hall on my way out, I met Gunnar, who it would seem was now my future husband. We were face to face, just the two of us alone. Sigurd’s brother-in-law appeared flustered and embarrassed upon encountering me. At the same time, Gunnar stood there gawking at me as though he had never seen a woman before. His face turned red, and he tried to speak several times but could say nothing. The King of the Nibelungs had a different aspect about him on this evening. He had removed his armor and helmet, and he was wearing a vest and sword belt over tight black pants with a white silk shirt open at the neck.
Gunnar had bathed, and his long dark hair was still wet and was brushed back severely from his wide forehead, and he had trimmed his full beard so that now he looked a little neater and more presentable. For the first time, I noticed a chiseled majesty in his profile. A certain handsomeness was emerging in his face, even though I remained unmoved by his bearing. Gunnar’s lust for me, however, was undisguised, and he was clearly affected by the sight of me. I pulled my shawl closer around my shoulders because the stricken look on his face as he stared at my breasts was unwelcome, though I pitied him. The newly anointed king could not control his reaction, which was causing him some consternation.
“Greetings, Gunnar,” I said in an attempt to rescue him from his embarrassing state of paralysis.
Gunnar looked stunned for a moment, and at last he blurted out, “Good evening, Brynhild, I was not expecting to find you here.” His speech was carefully measured and deliberate, as befitted a king, and his voice was rich and deep.
“So I see.” My terse pronouncement was a bit sardonic.
Gunnar reddened for the second time, and once again, he appeared to be tongue-tied. We stood there wordlessly, each one wondering what the other was going to do, and each one doing nothing. This curious silence was broken rather decisively and dramatically. To my horror, Gunnar threw himself at my feet and wrapped his arms around my ankles. He was babbling hysterically. At first the words were incomprehensible, and I had no idea what the Nibelung king was ranting about. But soon I realized this was actually his marriage proposal. As I looked down at him lying prostrate at my feet, my suitor was begging me to become his wife and Queen of the Nibelungs.
“Brynhild,” Gunnar began, “I adore you. I’m madly in love with you. Ever since I learned of you, I’ve been consumed with my thoughts of you. It did not matter that I had never laid eyes on you. From the first moment I heard about the beautiful daughter of King Budli, I’ve been dreaming about you. I cannot support the thought of marrying anyone else. You must become my wife; you must become my queen. If you refuse, I will be inconsolable for the rest of my life.”
“Good heavens! Have you never had such ardent sentiments for a woman before?” I beseeched him, incredulous at the sight of the Nibelung king lying on the floor.
“Yes, but every romantic dalliance became meaningless to me after I heard the legend of the quintessential beauty of the Princess Brynhild. My interest in every fawning female diminished rapidly. I dropped every love interest quite brutally, and I simply walked away from every enamored woman because they all became nothing to me. I forgot them after I became beset with the thought of you—believe me, I even forgot their names.” Gunnar was staring up at me with an imploring look on his face, his eyes shimmering with desire.
“Why should I find that flattering?” I said, gazing down at Gunnar, whose words struck me as rather pathetic. “Your emotional instability is impressive, which does not bode well for the constancy of your feelings for me either. What distinguishes me in your fickle heart? Am I prettier than the others, am I more charming, do I have a softer voice? Does my reputation precede me so that it suits you to possess the great Brynhild? Am I some kind of romantic challenge, who appears to be more elusive and less available than the others? This courtship, it would appear, is merely a game of wits, and you are captivated by the fantasy of my persona, not the reality of who I am. Let me assure you, Gunnar, I am not so exceptional; do not reject the charms of other women for my sake. My allure, wit, and beauty will flag with the passage of the years. And my constant companionship will inure you to the magic you perceive within me. Your lust for me will be dampened by the monotony of daily routine, and in no time at all, you will move on to more promising adventures.” Gunnar looked genuinely pained at my pronouncement. He slowly arose from the floor; he dusted off his shoulders and his leggings. The King of the Nibelungs was now glaring at me, for he was not pleased with my pessimistic, if not acrid, point of view.
“How could you doubt me so scornfully?” Gunnar asked with a hint of arrogance in his tone. “You speak of my deepest feelings as if I have the attention span of a child who tosses a favorite toy aside after it has been used up. I am offering you marriage and a royal partnership, which would make you the reigning sovereign in the land of my beloved father. I did not make this decision hastily or without thought. I weighed all the possible outcomes for months before I was convinced you were my destiny. You were constantly appearing in my dreams. I studied all the omens; I consulted an oracle. I did everything one would expect a king to do before making such a momentous decision. My love for you is not to be taken so lightly, nor is it to be dismissed out of hand as the incoherent ranting of a man in the throes of his physical urges.”
Gunnar drew himself up, and he looked properly indignant. I did not want to laugh, because I knew he would perceive my amusement as mockery, which would have made his ire even worse.
“My dear Gunnar,” I said at length, “it is very late, and we both need our sleep. There is no point in arguing about it tonight. I thought I would go out for a bit of fresh air. I’ve changed my mind, and I am going to bed.” Having announced my intentions, I turned on my heel to return to my chambers. But Gunnar had been stirred by my physical proximity to him. The darkness of the hallway, the full moon casting its deceptive and mysterious light through the towering windows, and the intimacy he was enjoying in my company had all taken its toll. Gunnar was now in the grip of romantic desire. The impassioned King of the Nibelungs grabbed me by the arm as I turned away from him, spun me around almost violently, and grasped me tightly in his arms as he proceeded to kiss me with both longing and desperation.
I was pounding on Gunnar’s shoulders, frantically demanding to be released. And I was almost overcome by the smell of wine and rolled tobacco on Gunnar’s breath. Finally focusing myself on the reserves of strength for which I was known, I pushed Gunnar away with such force that he staggered backwards and landed on his posterior. “Odin be damned!” Gunnar muttered under his breath, as he sat on the floor looking slightly stunned and trying to resist the temptation to rub his sore backside. “How is it a woman can have such invincible strength?”
“Ah, just a little trick I learned during the lean years when I was forced to fend for myself,” I explained. “I apologize if I hurt you, but I cannot excuse your behavior.”
Gunnar lifted himself off the floor, and for the second time that evening, he dusted off his clothing as he glared at me again, obviously provoked beyond all measure. “Are you refusing my proposal of marriage?” Gunnar asked indignantly, with arms akimbo and now somewhat distracted from more prosaic promptings.
“I have not yet given you an answer regarding your proposal of marriage,” I replied with coldness. “But I will not be forced to do anything against my will. I will think about it for another day or two, and my father will inform you of my decision.” I turned and walked away from Gunnar, this time without incident.
Gunnar stood in the hallway alone for a long time after my departure. Leaning against the wall, he muttered a few curses. The King of the Nibelungs was chastened by the force of my will and ashamed to have been so easily subdued by my physical strength. Even more disconcerting, he was still mightily pestered by physical desire, and he had to suppress the urge to run after me and ravish me in the darkened hallways of the castle. Gunnar stood still and took several deep breaths, closing his eyes tightly as he pressed his face against the cold marble wall. When the danger of embarrassing himself had passed, my vexed suitor returned to his chambers.
The next morning, I awoke with a clear sense of purpose. I knew what had to be done. I had to accept Gunnar’s proposal of marriage, for Odin himself had indicated as much. As for my wifely obligations in the bedroom, I would procrastinate for as long as I possibly could until I felt both psychologically and emotionally prepared to face this distasteful task. I visited my father in his chambers as he was breakfasting and poring over documents in the form of scrolls. Budli was delighted with my decision, and he was enormously relieved. My kindly father could not think of a more felicitous resolution for my state of solitude, even though I had assured him I was perfectly content to dwell in his castle for the rest of my days. Budli promised to call a public meeting that very morning to announce the good news to Gunnar and his entourage.
After breakfast, and after my father had received his advisers to discuss the business of the day, Gunnar and his brothers, as well as Sigurd, were summoned into the throne room to hear my father’s proclamation. Gunnar, who arrived looking rather peaked and a little tense, broke into a radiant smile and laughed triumphantly when he heard my father’s words. His brothers emitted cries of triumph while embracing the now betrothed king and congratulating him. Sigurd gasped at the news of my acceptance of Gunnar’s proposal, but he recovered himself and took his turn at embracing his brother-in-law. I watched unobserved from the room behind the thrones, peaking out through a crack in the curtains. The king silenced the assembly and called Gunnar and his men back to order, because the details of the wedding ceremony had to be discussed. It was all going to happen very quickly, since it would not be appropriate for me to travel unattended with Gunnar and his men unless we were already married, and I did not wish to be attended by my lady-in-waiting. The wedding would take place the following day in my father’s castle. A few days after the nuptials, Gunnar and I would embark for Nibelungenland, where I would assume the throne as Queen of the Nibelungs.
I spent the rest of the day secluded in my chambers, resting, meditating, and in general, remaining deep in thought. At least I would be returning with Sigurd, and I would no longer have to endure any separations from him. This was comforting for me because the long separation of the previous year had caused me some pain. The marriage of Sigurd to Gudrun was of no significance to me. I knew human marriages were an illusion often based on false preconceptions. Sigurd was every bit as much my husband as he was Gudrun’s. But I did not to need to prove I was equal to Gudrun in Sigurd’s heart and mind. I merely wanted to be near him.
My servant quickly put together a simple and traditional bridal costume. The next morning my hair was dressed in a long braid, and I donned a simple veil. One of my father’s governors performed the ceremony under a trestle woven with red and white roses. Gunnar placed a gold ring on my finger. Fortunately, I had remembered to take Andvaranaut, my other gold ring, off my left hand and place it on the ring finger of my right hand.
Gunnar’s ring looked roughly hewed compared to the beauty of the ring Sigurd had placed on my hand the year before. I remained impassive throughout the ceremony; Gunnar kissed me on the cheek when we were pronounced man and wife. With the ceremony over, my father hosted a modest feast in the banquet hall, and the royal family attended along with the staff. Gunnar’s brothers stood up one by one to toast the King and Queen of the Nibelungs. Sigurd ate little but drank too much wine. My true love declined to make a toast. Sigurd was visibly torn by his conflict of interests. I pitied my pining chevalier, for he was truly miserable. I myself was indifferent to the whole process, even though I suspected I would have a problem that night in the bedroom. I tried not to think about it. Gunnar was most definitely in for a surprise.
After the feast, I fled to my rooms where I went about my normal evening routine. I was calm. I sat by the candlelight reading quietly for hours. It was quite late before I heard a gentle knocking at my door. I knew, of course, who it was, and I arose and walked across the room resolutely, opened the door, and without smiling, greeted Gunnar. My newly wedded husband looked radiant; he was so happy to be the joyous groom. He presumed my giving him my hand in marriage had resolved all the misgivings I had expressed that night in the grand hall. Gunnar swept me into his arms and smiled at me lovingly. Obviously ready for bed, the King of the Nibelungs was wearing a white sleeping gown and a cap, which I found to be slightly ludicrous. “May I sleep in your chambers tonight?” Gunnar asked me hopefully. A glance around the room indicated my courtiers had left, both men and ladies.
“Surely, you may sleep here if, indeed, sleeping is your true intention,” I said pointedly. “In fact, it is much past my bedtime, and I am ready to put out the candles and go to sleep right now.” I motioned to the groom’s side of the bed. I, too, had already slipped into my nightgown, for I was ready to retire for the night. I blew out the candles at my bedside and climbed into the wide, expansive bed, getting under the covers and staying as close to the edge as I could without falling out of bed. Gunnar happily climbed into his side of the bed, pulling the covers up to his neck and lying there quietly for a few minutes. I almost had reason to believe my virile husband was going to be mindful of my request. Gunnar, however, was feeling affectionate and started moving over toward me. I remained rigid on my back, staring at the ceiling unblinkingly, and I did not say a word.
“It is cold in here,” Gunnar offered as a lame excuse for having nestled up to me in bed.
“I’m very tired,” I objected, “and I have a terrible headache.”
Gunnar made mild murmurings of regret at my state of ill health. I had hoped this excuse would be enough to put a damper on the romantic overtures I considered to be inappropriate, even though in Gunnar’s mind he was merely exercising his marital rights. My stalwart husband was undeterred, filled with masculine overconfidence, which served a warrior so well on the battlefield but would not endear him to his own wife in this particularly difficult situation. Gunnar leaned into me in bed and insisted on making chit-chat. I answered in monosyllables. But soon he started stroking my hair and telling me how beautiful I was. He was sure this would be the magic ingredient to add to a formula he did not know could lead to a formidable explosion. Gunnar’s favorable perception of my looks had no effect. Naturally, mortals thought I was beautiful. For the most part, human women could not compare to me. Such remarks about my beauty only served to irritate me. I merely rolled over onto my side, and I closed my eyes without saying a word. I feigned sleep.
But in the fervent hope that I was, indeed, truly asleep, Gunnar turned me over onto my back, undid my robe, and stared lasciviously at my naked body, running his hands over my breasts, abdomen, and thighs. This was a little too much for me to allow. I mumbled incoherently in groggy protest and turned my back to Gunnar again, closing my opened gown as if it were an unconscious gesture performed in my sleep. But my lustful spouse was not to be put off so easily. Gunnar rudely pulled me back toward him and again opened my flimsy robe. I could no longer ignore my disquiet or that the King of the Nibelungs was disregarding the condition he had agreed to before getting into my bed. I gave up the pretense of being asleep. Indeed, I lost my temper.
“This is quite enough!” I exclaimed in impervious tones.
Gunnar laughed and continued to caress my breasts. I became truly incensed. My fury knew no bounds at this point. I was not thinking rationally, because my blood was boiling. I jumped out of bed and lifted Gunnar up in my arms as he struggled helplessly against my strength, which only became an elemental force when I was truly wrathful. My astonished consort was shouting in protest, and his face registered the panic he was experiencing. Very few people knew of my superhuman strength. Budli had watched me in stunned surprise as I threw javelins for him in the garden by way of entertaining my dear father on a lazy afternoon. In general, however, my unnatural power was a well-kept secret. My strength in my human form was derived from my virginity, which was another reason I did not care to consummate any earthly marriage.
Gunnar continued to holler in resistance, calling for help, as I lowered him to the floor and held him in a viselike grip, keeping one arm firmly wrapped around his neck. In this position, dragging him around with me, I reached for a batch of rope I kept in my room for my javelin throwing. After fastening Gunnar so that his knees were pushed up against his chest, I hung him up on a hook on the wall in my room. And while my incensed bedfellow continued to clamor and shout, his face having turned a deep beet red as he struggled frantically but uselessly against my complex network of knots, I betook myself to the castle kitchen.
Once there I poured myself a glass of wine, and with a sense of great relief, I made my way to one of the castle balconies, where I stepped out into the chilly night to sip it slowly. I needed to take a deep breath. I welcomed the brisk, cool nighttime air to clear my head, and I needed the wine to brace myself. It had been a rather stressful day. After reviving myself thus, I wandered into one of the palace’s luxuriant salons, where I napped for a couple of hours on a divan padded with warm quilts. When I returned to my room just before dawn, Gunnar had yelled himself hoarse and remained still from exhaustion. In quite literal terms, I let the king off the hook, untied him, and sent a crimson-faced and very bitter groom back to his own chambers on his wedding night. I lingered momentarily in my doorway, watching Gunnar limping off with stiff muscles as he made his way down the corridor. Needless to say, my libidinous husband was no longer feeling so amorous.
Distressing as this unpleasant episode was, after Gunnar left, I slept soundly and undisturbed.