A Novel by Clarise Samuels
Chapter 7: The Feast
The night after my arrival at my father’s palace, a great feast was held in my honor. It was quite something to behold by earthly standards. The grand hall was set with fifty long tables and benches, where fiddlers and jugglers walked up and down the aisles. The music was sweet and plaintive, and the guests did not know whether to get up and dance, or sit there and cry. The oak wood of the dining tables sagged under the weight of all the food continually being brought out by young maidens, who were quite beautiful by earthly standards. It was a regal display of abundance.
The air was filled with the scent of the endless variety of roasted meats, which had been chased, slaughtered, and hauled back to the royal kitchens by King Budli’s team of skilled and expert hunters. The serving girls delivered waves of enormous platters of cured tongue, boiled meat, boar’s head, large capons, roasted swans, herons, and other roasted birds covered with their feathers as if they had been taken directly from their down-coated nest. But this was not all—there was roasted piglet, turkey, rabbit, curlew, pheasant, venison, teal—every kind of savory flesh and fowl one could dream of. The exquisite delicacies served up for dessert included sugared dates, candied violets, fruit dumplings, fruit tarts, custards, pies, puddings, and apple and cheese fritters. Wine flowed as if it were from a spring whose waters were without end.
Odin would have been pleased. Even though this earthly scenario was still an imitation of the ideal realm, there were echoes of the glory of Valhalla dimly reflected in Budli’s festivities. The meal continued in this fashion, with feasting, dancing, and various forms of entertainment, well into the night. There were a thousand guests, and it appeared they all had inexhaustible appetites. Budli’s host of maiden servants in their long brown skirts and white blouses served this sumptuous repast with good-natured smiles and a lighthearted step. The ravenous guests got drunk on wine, and many danced wildly the entire evening. The torches on the lampposts threw long shadows of the whirling couples, the soldiers kicking up their legs, and the performers prancing about while deftly executing their cartwheels and handsprings. The room was electric with the vibrations of laughter, impassioned arguments, and the low hum of background conversation, while the exquisite music continued throughout the night. The tireless musicians made heavenly sounds with their harps, fiddles, tambourines, and flutes.
I was given the seat of honor at the head table on the bench next to my dear father, who continually doted on me. Sigurd sat a little farther away, and a stunning young princess who was the king’s great-niece tantalized this son of Sigmund with her charming and flirtatious manners throughout the evening. The niece of the king was gracious and slender, and she had such light blond hair that it looked almost platinum under the torchlight. Her full ivory breasts were spilling over the low-cut neckline of her shimmering sky blue gown. My darling Sigurd was enchanted. Every time I glanced over at him, he was tête-à-tête with his dinner companion. Heaven only knows what they found to talk about. I was sure the king’s great-niece did not have a thought in her head.
But my attention was also otherwise engaged. As King Budli’s newly repatriated daughter, I had to answer innumerable questions put to me by my concerned father. The king wanted to know everything that had happened to me starting from my earliest childhood. My concerned guardian desperately wanted to make up for the lost time when he had been unaware of his daughter. The details of my life story flowed easily. Odin had planted the entire tale of the earthly upbringing I had never experienced inside my head. Budli and I spent the evening talking intensely to each other in low tones, our heads bent together, so as not to attract too much attention from the others. My dear father truly suffered at the thought of all the years he had been so ignorant of my existence, as he supposed it must have been. I pitied him, but I knew the ruse was necessary for otherwise my existence on earth would be heralded as the work of demons, and I would be abhorred. The alternative reaction would be to conclude I was an angel, a miracle from the heavens, and a new religion would be born with me as its centerpiece. Both scenarios were most undesirable. Odin had thought out everything as well in advance as possible, given the brief amount of time he had to execute this plan. The Father of the Gods may have exiled me, but he had not completely abandoned me. For such small favors, I had to be grateful.
Nevertheless, having escaped the amnesia usually imposed by Odin’s thorn of sleep, I was still fretting over the cruel fate Odin had visited upon me. I did not belong in this bestial excuse for a physical reality. I belonged back at my post with the Valkyries at Valhalla. Momentarily forgetting my natural state of godly equanimity, I fumed at the thought of how gleeful Frigg must have been to see me dismissed so summarily and how she had prayed for that day to come. But my physical lifetime would be brief; there remained to me only a few decades on Earth. In Asgard a few decades passed as if they were a few weeks. There really was no experience of time to speak of in the Land of Infinity. Frigg had rid herself of me, but the riddance was quite provisional. It would all be over too soon from her perspective as a goddess, but from my perspective as a human being, every minute of those years would feel like a prolonged torture.
I tried not to dwell on such negative thoughts and turned my attention back to the kindly king, who was so concerned about the travails of his long-lost daughter. I especially tried not to notice Sigurd’s eyes were nearly popping out of his head because he was so enchanted with the breasts of the eighteen-year-old princess who was visiting her great-uncle’s palace and sitting at the side of my famous knight. Sigurd was unconcerned about my disapproving glances, for after all, I was just another jealous woman. One of the many indignities I had to bear during this particular period of human development was the fact women were looked upon as half-wits, biologically inferior to men.
As a goddess from Asgard, who had experienced the whole saga of time from the beginning to the present, I knew the true story of woman’s position on Earth. Women were not only equal to men; they were goddesses who were meant to rule the earth at the side of their male counterparts, but men in their fear and resentment had successfully suppressed them and destroyed their spirit. The goddess had been usurped. And because the human memory was a short one, no one remembered the time when the goddess had reigned. Knowing my true power was just one more insult I had to bear, as I was relegated to the inferior class of bimbos, bitches, and bubbleheads consigned to a life of domestic drudgery.
During this era, the worst thing that could happen to a woman was to marry. Wives were considered to be morons. Married women were at the beck and call of their husbands’ sexual urges, and they were expected dutifully to produce one child after another for as long as they were fertile. But lovers, consorts, and other mistresses were worshiped for being beautiful, brilliant, and creative. Such women were models of female perfection who knew how to gratify a man’s every desire.
But even so, all women were held in contempt, for they were all generally perceived to be adulterous nymphomaniacs. At least Sigurd, fortunately, was a knight who respected ladies of rank and who treated them courteously. But even knights could err, for many of them treated royal ladies with decorum but thought nothing of taking a shepherdess by force. The knights often led a hedonistic lifestyle, and even when the chevaliers professed love, such protestations could be a well-rehearsed act mastered for the sake of the illusion, when in truth their knightly hearts were untouched by such emotions. Any woman could be abandoned easily and without the slightest bit of compunction. Women were merely possessions, much like property or cattle. A knight did not become too attached, for he was always prepared to move on, knowing full well such possessions were easily replaced.
And there was my own knight, Sigurd, who was well-nigh bewitched by the king’s great-niece. Underneath the table, my gallant hero was surreptitiously caressing the thigh of the eligible beauty, hoping to arouse and seduce her. Such romantic passion and sexual enthusiasm certainly had a charm of its own, but Sigurd was, in his own way, sort of clumsy, bumbling, and boring, making it hard to believe he was the chosen one for becoming the greatest knight known to civilization.
I tried not to look at him directly during the great feast because if Sigurd saw my attention was distracted by such nonsense, he would have drawn great satisfaction from it. Sigurd would have liked nothing better than to make me jealous. Men of such primitive emotional fabric somehow thought when a woman was jealous, it was an affirmation of her love. With such a limited vocabulary for expressing emotions, such men believed jealousy and possessiveness were necessary proofs of love. Odin, of course, was the most dramatic exception to this general rule, but what man could compare to the All-Father? Men could aspire to become like Odin, but they had light-years ahead of them before they would be even partially successful. It was a daunting task to turn one human man into a being even vaguely resembling Odin.
Somewhat exasperated with my intended, I had written Sigurd off for the evening, but I found my eye kept being drawn back to a lone musician who had captured the attention of an audience in the far corner of the hall, away from the hurly-burly of the festivities. The good-looking crooner appeared vaguely familiar to me. I was sure I had carried this man off a battlefield at one point in my long career, even though it was evident he was not a soldier. The mysterious stranger was an early forerunner of the troubadours, and he was now singing the most beautiful ballad I had ever heard in my life, while accompanying himself on the fiddle. It was a song of his homeland—of course, its beauty was very primitive because the bard went on and on about patriotism and heroic feats on the battlefield. I could have sung the words for him, I, who had delivered so many dead warriors to their everlasting place of repose in Valhalla. I excused myself from the table and left my kindly father and benefactor, King Budli, to chat with the other guests, so I could have a closer look at this captivating balladeer.
When I walked to the other side of the vacuous feasting hall, I sustained a small shock. From a distance, the enthralling performer had looked like he was barely forty, with a thick mass of black curls pulled back into a ponytail and fastened with a headband. His stomach protruded slightly, but his physique was intact. And he was wearing the purple cloak and pantaloons, which showed he was of some royal house, however distantly related he might have been.
But when I approached the minstrel and drew closer, I was shocked, for I could see he was sixty and not forty. And although his skin was clearly damaged by too many years of weather and a lifetime of corrupt habits, this was not all. As the troubadour turned toward me, I saw his skin was drooping in an unnatural way on one side of his face. He had scars and pockmarks from a disease that he had survived but had badly disfigured him. His large, sensitive brown eyes were clouded with a watery aspect denoting ill health, and there appeared to be a vague sadness deep within him. His color was not good—he looked gray.
Yet the voice of the singer was strong and filled with the energy of life. This alluring entertainer played the fiddle brilliantly. Truly, the stage quickened his blood and helped him to shed any signs of weakness or feebleness. Performing appeared to rejuvenate him as he poured out his last reservoirs of strength in song. Despite age and decrepitude, there were still vestiges of the handsomeness the bard had enjoyed in days of yore—his hair was still thick and curly, and his profile was still sculpted.
And then recognition set in, and at long last I remembered who the stranger was. His name was Roland. I had fallen in love with this man once when I was going about my business as a Valkyrie. About twenty years earlier, the perfect visage had enchanted me so that I was nearly beside myself with the most intense romantic fervor. We gods and goddesses did not care much for passion at Asgard. We were eternally serene at our heavenly posts as if actors striking poses with perfect decorum, if not a certain haughtiness, in a divine tableau vivant. Odin always maintained the gods should be immune to such carnal desires, a contradictory view given his passion for me. Once on Earth, however, we gods and goddesses often let such latent yearnings surface. At such times we were suddenly just like humans—lustful, obsessed, and new devotees of a sensuous religion where passion was exalted and uncontrollable.
But now Roland was old and broken—too many women, too many lies and misdeeds. Once remarkably handsome, Roland’s presence was now ignored by the beautiful women in the hall, who were oblivious to him. Only the children and the elders seemed to be charmed fleetingly by Roland’s song. This was a not uncommon scenario for the troubadours after a lifetime of wine, excessive celebration, and uncontrollable lust. The hedonistic songsters often ended their lives alone, destitute, and in misery, or they retired to a monastery to die.
In his heyday, Roland could have had any beauty he desired. Now, he made do with old prostitutes and desperadoes. He was ailing, and his godlike beauty had been vanquished. Odin had dealt him the retribution, and the retribution had hit him right in the face. I was almost tempted to leave with Roland that night just to get Sigurd jealous, for Sigurd had angered me by being utterly mesmerized by Budli’s great-niece. I hesitated. Roland looked at me, puzzled, squinting his eyes from his makeshift stage. I looked familiar to him. We had spent one night together. Just one night I had incarnated to enjoy Roland’s talents in bed, particularly his fame for having remarkably large body parts in a certain area, and to drive Odin mad with frustration and jealousy. But that was twenty earth-years ago. Roland had been with hundreds of women since the day I spotted him on the sidelines of the battlefield where I was directing the Valkyries to gather up the souls of courageous soldiers. I fell in love immediately. I could not control myself. Against Odin’s wishes, I incarnated, and I took Roland to bed.
Now Roland was gazing at me, an unasked question veiling his already clouded eyes. I turned away, grabbed my cloak off a peg on the wall, and exited the hall to walk in the chill of the evening and get some fresh air. I needed to think. I spent an hour on the bluffs watching the night sky and listening to the surf. I returned to my rooms alone. I tossed and turned the whole night, regretting my decision not to reveal myself to Roland.
But it was fortunate that I had not tried to tryst with Roland out of pity or for old time’s sake. The next morning I awoke to a din in the courtyard outside my window. There was a general hubbub and a lot of excitement. Servants were running back and forth. Voices were calling out and echoing in the courtyard, as well as throughout the halls of the palace. I ran to my window and threw open the shutters. I saw the royal doctor emerging from the opposite wing of the palace, his head bowed in sorrow. I heard one of the servants beneath my window sobbing, as she told the royal cook that Roland, King Budli’s official minstrel, had died during the night. His heart had stopped.
I gasped when I overheard the report of Roland’s death. And then I cried. Would it have helped if I had said something to him, if I had reminded him of our tryst of so long ago, if I had tried to help him? I would never know. It was too late. There had been many men in my past, many affairs and indiscretions during my long reign as goddess. As with Roland, there had been hundreds. Odin could not understand that part of me, for after all, I had him so why did I need anyone else? Now I looked back and understood that I had wasted much time with my brief incarnations and frivolous affairs. This incarnation was different. I could not let myself be distracted, for I had my work cut out for me.
Whether I was disappointed with Sigurd’s character or not, my fate lay with Sigurd—it had been decreed.
Chapter 8: The Betrothal
Roland’s unexpected demise during the night left me subdued and saddened, but I could not dwell on such sentiments. I had to turn my attention back to Sigurd, whose behavior concerning the king’s great-niece disconcerted me. I had half expected my rescuer would leave the festivities with the charming lass, but my servant reported Sigurd ended up alone that evening, getting drunker by the hour. Sigurd’s young, pretty dinner companion had abandoned him. The king’s appealing niece left with her parents, who had been keeping a watchful eye on her the whole evening, having raised arched eyebrows at the obvious attention Sigurd was lavishing upon the lovely virgin at his side. Becoming increasingly alarmed as the evening wore on, the girl’s parents finally swooped down on her and whisked her off into the night.
Sigurd was left to nurse his wounded ego and explore the depths of his self-pity, which he did with the help of a jug of wine. Sigurd was hard put to admit to himself his behavior had been inappropriate—he was, after all, engaged to marry Gudrun.
The engagement of Sigurd to Gudrun, as recent as it was, had been well announced in royal circles. Although Budli had been hopeful that perhaps Sigurd would become his son-in-law after seeing the two of us arrive at the palace on horseback, my father knew Sigurd was officially unavailable. Therefore, young virgins such as the king’s great-niece, who had large dowries to offer and who were a good catch for any knight with honorable intentions, were strictly off limits for Sigurd, leaving him feeling lecherous and a little lonely.
Of course, Sigurd had me, but if the truth had to be told, he was rather intimidated. My renowned redeemer did not know whether to believe I was a goddess recently evicted from the heavens or the long-lost daughter of King Budli recently reunited with her father. Sigurd had seen a few wonders with his own eyes when he rescued me—unnatural events, which he had experienced firsthand. Moreover, the High Priestess of Faeroe had told him his assignment entailed the rescue of a goddess. Nevertheless, he questioned his own sanity. But whether I was a divinity or merely a human royal, I obviously had friends in high places. Even Sigurd did not want to tangle with me.
I had my own bewilderment to grapple with in the area of human relationships. Odin had decreed I was to marry a human man, and that man was Sigurd. But Sigurd was struggling with an issue whose nature was such that I could not really be of use, because I had a very biased take on the matter. And that was the problem of his betrothal to Gudrun, which had taken place shortly before Odin’s decree had landed me on Mount Hindarfiall. After all, Sigurd had only been obeying direct orders from the High Priestess the day he arrived to rescue me. Being disloyal to his fiancée had not been mentioned as part of the general plan. And, indeed, a serious change of heart in regard to Sigurd’s feelings for Gudrun was not acceptable to a knight who was only mildly fickle, but unfortunately, a number of human plans had been severely tampered with the day I defied Odin and changed the fate of two warriors on an otherwise insignificant battlefield.
As a result, a lot of agendas were affected on very short notice. Odin himself did not have enough time to work out all the details of my unexpected eviction from the heavens. The lack of preparation was surely destined to cause some chaos and consternation upon my arrival on Earth.
The confusion had already begun in Sigurd’s mind. He was devastated by my beauty. My incarnation as Brynhild, princess of Isenstein and daughter of King Budli, was the physical reflection of my grandest illusion as portrayed in Asgard. To the extent we gods and goddesses had appearances was the extent to which we enjoyed mimicking Odin’s earthly creatures. Life was a costume ball every night at Valhalla, for in truth, we had no physical appearance. We were merely essences, and it would have made more sense to avoid any form at all. But it was much more enjoyable to assume a form, and we did so for our own amusement. Most of the divine entities of Asgard had specific preferences about what passed for perfection on Earth, and we tried to assume the perfected forms we held in the highest esteem. But whether we took on human foibles or human graces, we always got carried away with our little game, and our mastery of illusory form affected our heavenly appearance.
So I was always serene, compassionate, and loving, and therefore highly prized for the handsome and graceful form I perpetually emulated at Valhalla. Frigg, however, having spent too much time guarding jealous wives and having taken up a wifely desire to control and manipulate men, had begun to reflect the pronounced excesses of such women. Thus, Frigg had taken on a heavenly form that was perpetually overweight, middle-aged, and haggard.
“If she gains any more weight, I am going to divorce her!” Odin would always tell us. Odin’s dismay at his wife’s fat was not the fatness itself, which in itself did not exist and was merely manifest as an illusion, but the corruption of Frigg’s purest essence, which caused the dramatic change in her attempt to assume a form. Nevertheless, Odin remained somewhat disdainful of the rolls of fat on Frigg’s plump body, rolls that kept increasing with the passage of time. And the All-Father occasionally gaped at the enormity of his wife’s divine derrière that jiggled with every step, as well as the ever-expanding volume of the sagging breasts whose nipples pointed to the ground like two signposts. Yet Odin still saw her essential beauty, which had convinced him to marry Frigg so long ago. Unquestionably, it had been quite a promotion for Frigg when Odin married her.
Odin married Frigg, and she gave birth to Balder, god of beauty; Hod, the blind god of winter and darkness; and Hermod, messenger of the gods. It was also rumored Thor was Odin’s son by Frigg. Thus, having fulfilled his husbandly duties, Odin unfortunately became preoccupied with his universal masterpiece, which never ceased both to amaze and confound him. In this manner, Odin often left his wife with nothing to do but mope around and complain her husband was neglecting her. In her quest to make herself useful, Frigg spent some of her spare time designing outrageously ornate gowns and jewelry, which became the divine models for the fashion frenzy emulated by humans. Odin blamed Frigg for this human fetish, and the two often had huge arguments about it. “The human body is a perfected work of art,” Odin would sternly explain to his wife. “You have them covering themselves up from head to toe.”
“Would you have them freeze to death?” Frigg usually countered, reprimanding her husband with a disapproving frown.
Odin’s pleas fell on deaf ears. Frigg was obsessed with fashion, and Odin had to allow his wife to indulge her talents, which it had to be noted, had initially attracted him to her. Odin had not fallen in love with Frigg because she was a beauty; he had fallen in love with her divine essence. Even when Frigg had once been human, a beautiful form had never been manifest in her physical appearance. Her longish face, pronounced jaw, and winding nose were not signs of classic beauty among humans. Frigg’s initial plainness in human form had left an indelible mark on her psyche, and the form she assumed in Asgard always reflected the homeliness she had known in the human dimension. During Frigg’s physical incarnation, Odin had been an ardent admirer, not of her beauty but of her talent and intellect—she was witty, sharp, and articulate; she had a steel-trap mind. Frigg was creative, successfully plying any art or craft she chose to learn.
The beautiful objects and dresses Frigg had fashioned with her human hands were what had originally attracted Odin’s attention. He recognized in her a coauthor, a partner in creativity. Odin began courting the human Frigg in her dreams, while she slept. The two of them had long conversations, sometimes talking all night. Odin protected Frigg as he watched over her, waiting patiently and guiding her throughout her human lifetime. When the time came for the All-Father’s favorite to die a natural death, Odin was waiting for her. There would be no further incarnations for Frigg. She was Odin’s partner for all time.
When I first arrived at Asgard, Frigg tried to have me demoted back to human level. I was an affront to her wifely sense of propriety, and she campaigned against me endlessly. But Odin was weary of such petty grievances, and he stood firm behind his decision to promote me to goddess. The All-Father was determined to protect me from his vitriolic wife, and he would not relent on this point. Eventually Frigg gave it up, and she ceased with her constant protests. I learned to be forgiving of her malice and ill will, so I began to radiate an even more heavenly beauty than ever, and Frigg, during this period, began to put on weight at an alarming speed. By the time the awkward process of fleshing out had completed itself, the Queen of the Gods began to look like the housewives of whom she had declared herself to be champion.
Justice had prevailed. Even Odin’s wife could not escape the consequences of the universe. The sentiments of jealousy, resentment, and hostility were bound to engender an exterior transformation, which was not at all aesthetically pleasing. After all, her husband had constructed the universe and all its laws, and Frigg was as subject to consequences as anyone. Odin, on the other hand, was begging for trouble when he promoted me to goddess level. I was almost designed to annoy Frigg from the top of my thick head of hair to the tip of my painted toenails.
I was friendly, generous, soft-spoken, and sympathetic to the plight of the underdog. Frigg was flamboyant, excessive, overindulgent, and insensitive to the suffering of others. Looking to Earth for her models, Frigg emulated rich and extravagant women, whose husbands pampered them. She even spoke with the affected accents of a rich matron. In Asgard we gods and goddesses switched languages every other day; it was important to be multilingual—humans prayed to us in every conceivable tongue, but under normal circumstances, we preferred to communicate by mental telepathy. Obviously, the pretentiousness Frigg indulged with her convoluted linguistic structures and haughty accents was almost ludicrous. But she was Odin’s wife, and she commanded respect. Frigg eventually resigned herself to the fate Odin had decreed. I was installed at Asgard for eternity.
My arrival as a new goddess at Valhalla most certainly aggravated the situation with Odin’s marriage. Odin’s love for me created a divine triangle so problematic, even Odin could not resolve it. But the All-Father sought to come to terms with the dualism in his love life. Odin’s lies, he claimed, were the human way to keep the peace and preserve harmonious relationships. And Frigg had to accept the situation and look the other way, even though she would have preferred to claw my eyes out. Odin claimed he was able to handle the contradictions, the dilemmas, and the emotional reactions caused by his great love and commitment to two women at once.
But I knew Sigurd could not.
These thoughts occurred to me as I reviewed in my mind the involved intrigue I was acting out with Sigurd. The son of Sigmund was confused, to say the least. My perplexed knight had two conflicting agendas with which to contend. The old agenda called for Sigurd to marry Gudrun; the new agenda indicated he was destined to marry me. Now Sigurd had been divinely infused with two different marital impulses, and the strain was starting to show. My husband-to-be was looking forward to returning to the palace of his fiancée and her family, and at the same time, he longed to stay with me in Iceland. Romantic notions were dancing about Sigurd’s head. The hint of spring and all the implications of new beginnings and new love were in the air. Sigurd wanted to continue the philosophical discussions we had begun on our journey to Iceland. My intended longed to commune with me and acquaint himself with me. Sigurd wanted to woo me. But all of this plunged him into a deep state of conflict.
The day after the banquet, I spent a goodly amount of time in meditation and reflection over the death of Roland. Late in the day, I went for a walk along the beach to clear my mind and try to gather my thoughts a bit. My mood was naturally still greatly affected by the circumstances of Roland’s death and the sight of him on what turned out to be the last day of his life. It was another damp, cold evening, and I wrapped my thick shawl tightly about me. The evening sky was a beautiful palette of pastel blues, pinks, and violets. Even the sand on the beach looked pink. A large mass of grayish clouds in the distance opened with a hole in the middle through which the setting sun poked like a fiery orange eyeball staring at me—the eye of Odin peeking through a cloud. I recognized his style.
“Now, this is rather presumptuous, if I dare to say so,” I whispered to the sky. “Are you spying on me? It is positively out of control here on Earth. You did not even successfully unravel the complications regarding Sigurd’s engagement to Gudrun. And now I have to deal with Sigurd’s fiancée. I can tell you already, she is going to turn out to be what can only be described as a lulu. Not that I haven’t had plenty of practice already trying to deal with my favorite lulu, your wife, Frigg. It was just wonderful of you to give me away to Sigurd in such a casual fashion. And you talk about responsibility to others?”
The hole in the cloud shut down almost immediately. I had hit a nerve. Odin was obviously suffering some guilt pangs over my fate. No one came to Earth unless they absolutely had to. It took tremendous courage to assume a physical form and agree to descend for another lifetime on Earth, where the primitive energies of the universe were still collecting in large masses of almost impenetrable density. This planet was still recovering from the initial explosion, which caused it to assume its shape when Odin composed the Earth from the flesh of Ymir. The incongruities and conflicts arising as a result of the planet’s conception were almost overwhelming.
And very few of Earth’s inhabitants had yet to achieve a state of true spiritual enlightenment. So, for the most part, humans believed every word of the mythology they learned from birth; they lived every aspect of the illusion like actors who had gone mad and had forgotten the tale was just a play. It was as though earthlings had fired the director who had once had a sense of where the story was leading. And now the dazed lunatics were rewriting the script with violence and venom, a script that made no sense at all. Civilization’s version of the original story conceived by Odin was a surreal drama, and it was irrational. Humans took everything so damned seriously, no one dared to laugh in their faces. Humans were capable of falling upon their critics like wild dogs who had worked themselves into a fury. Ire and indignation were specialized areas in the life of mortals.
And the dilemmas likely to put humans into a dither were almost comical from the divine vantage point in Asgard. Odin’s beloved creatures would kill for a piece of land, or they would destroy to avenge a weak ego. Humans would maim, plunder, and kill in the name of Odin, whose messages they ignored and in whom they had no faith. They played tug-of-war with possessions like three-year-olds, and they thought they could own another person’s soul. On Earth, humans believed love and forgiveness were signs of weakness. The antics we gods and goddesses observed were comical, but we did not laugh. We trembled. Mortals had the power to destroy the tiny planet so precious to Odin.
My reverie was abruptly interrupted. Just as the divine eyeball hid itself behind one of the violet clouds of the now darkening sky, I heard the soft footfall of someone walking through the sand behind me. I whirled around, and there he was, my darling Sigurd, smiling his slightly crooked smile, slightly stooped as always. “Brynhild, my dear,” Sigurd greeted me cordially, “how lovely to meet you on your evening walk.” I greeted Odin’s favorite knight in turn and paused long enough for him to catch up to me. We walked in silence for a short stretch before I spoke.
“Sigurd,” I said to him patiently, “I think the time has come for us to have a little talk.”
“But, of course,” Sigurd replied without any hesitation at all, “I’d love to talk.” We approached a rocky embankment at the edge of the beach, and we found a flat indigo rock at the top large enough to seat both of us. Sigurd perched himself alongside me, moving in closely with his knee slightly brushing against my own. It was just like old times at Valhalla—the furtive touching. I believed Odin taught his amorous methods to all humans, but naturally, Odin would claim that, no, he was merely imitating his favorite creatures and not the other way around. Sometimes I wondered why Odin did not just incarnate himself and live a few lives on Earth. His occasional jaunts with his face hidden by an eye patch and a three-cornered hat sitting low on his forehead, as he lurked about with a black cape wrapped around him, did not really count as far as the rest of us gods and goddesses were concerned. We would have liked to see Odin do an authentic lifetime in a human body. Whenever we suggested it, however, the All-Father always sniffed rather arrogantly and claimed he was too busy presiding over the universe.
Sigurd looked at me with a sidelong glance; he squinted hard in the fierce amber light of the setting sun, which had just re-emerged from the dramatic bank of clouds overhead. “So,” Sigurd asked in a friendly tone, “what do you want to talk about?”
Studying him, I marveled at the thought that this short, stocky, and rather awkward fellow was the mightiest warrior of his day. But there it was; Sigurd, son of Sigmund and slayer of Fafnir, had already established a reputation of the highest caliber. The son of Sigmund was capable of magnificent feats. Sigurd’s strength, courage, and skill were barely evident when viewing the real Sigurd up close. But at those times when Odin’s chosen warrior distinguished himself, he rose to the occasion.
It was a phenomenon only humans were capable of—the process of becoming noble and godlike. Humans did not know they were godlike essences trapped in animal bodies. And in order to do the great works they were capable of, mortals had to become the gods they in actuality already were. Under normal circumstances, humans found this process of becoming the highest and most ideal version of themselves extremely difficult, and very often they only succeeded in crisis situations. How we would applaud when distinguished mortals ennobled themselves and fought courageously for the highest causes—the champagne bottles would be popping all over Valhalla on such nights. I continued to study Sigurd intently for a few moments before I spoke.
“Sigurd,” I said to him gently, not quite sure where to start, “you and I have, how shall I say? We’ve begun to attract some undue attention. Our bond has an odd sense of destiny about it, as if it were meant to be, and we cannot quite resist this fate, which has been decreed, perhaps cast in stone by Odin himself. Now I know you are grappling with feelings for me that may be difficult to define. Perhaps you should try to confront the turmoil and the ambiguity.”
Sigurd looked at me with a stunned expression on his face.
“Brynhild, how have you penetrated the depths of my soul? I’ve been lying awake nights thinking about you. Ever since I found you sleeping on a slab of stone wearing a suit of armor—my thoughts have been obsessed with you and only you. I’ve been dreaming about you. You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen in my life. When I saw you gazing at Roland last night, may he rest in peace, I was beside myself with jealousy. It was then I knew my feelings for you had become more than I could bear. After dinner this evening, I looked out the window of my room and saw you walking toward the beach by yourself. I was overwhelmed with a desire to speak to you. That is why I followed you here.”
I stared at Sigurd in surprise at this spontaneous and obviously heartfelt declaration. “You were beside yourself with jealousy when I was gazing at Roland last night?” I repeated with disbelief in my voice. “How is that possible? Your eyeballs were glued to the plunging neckline of the king’s great-niece. I thought you were going to jump down her dress. You were caressing her under the table, ogling her, and very much taken with her by the time I left."
Sigurd gasped and reddened, evidently stunned by my frankness. He was not used to such candor from a woman. Normally, a declaration of his knightly love caused demurely lowered eyes, blushing cheeks, and a coy demeanor. “What?” Sigurd gasped again. “The king’s great-niece? Ah, yes, I was chatting with her for a good part of the evening, wasn’t I? It seemed to be the polite thing to do, not to mention the expected social decorum. She was, after all, sitting right next to me. My darling, Brynhild, you thought I was ogling her? I hardly even noticed what she was wearing!”
This statement made me emit a sardonic snort. Sigurd reddened again. I was being brutal. Such treatment was taking its toll on his dignity. Sigurd was rather sensitive, and he was easily flustered. He was, after all, bound by an early form of the code of chivalry. Besides promising to be courteous to women, knights also promised to defend the weak, to swear allegiance to the king, and to serve both the gods and their country. The code of chivalry demanded knights show humility and not boast or spend too much time in idle conversation. Knights were also expected to show mercy after having vanquished an enemy. Unfortunately, material reality intervened, and many knights were preoccupied with financial concerns. Most knights born of noble families chose the profession because the inheritance went to the eldest son, and the younger sons were forced to seek employment, for they needed a salary and a retirement pension just like everyone else. Thus, given such worldly concerns, any knightly code of conduct was subject to the character of the knight taking the oath.
Promising to defend the weak was for some knights a rather sad jest, since “weak” was often interpreted to mean only highborn women and their children. Peasants suffered miserable treatment at the hands of most knights, as many knights resorted to plundering villages and destroying property as a way to gain wealth. These mounted nobles were not above desecrating temples and other shrines. Such knights were often brutal, and they could easily rape a shepherdess with impunity because of their high and privileged status.
Sigurd was a rare breed when compared to the ragged blend of high ideals and mundane objectives exhibited by his associates. The son of Sigmund truly believed in the code of chivalry, and he suffered terribly when he saw his peers flaunt the high principles in the face of society. Sigurd did not approve of this hypocritical application of ethical standards enforced according to individual needs and desires. This was a blatant abuse of privilege, as far as Sigurd was concerned. Knights were not gods, and they did not have the right to choose which ethical considerations or which citizens would be championed.
Knights were bound by oath to be of service to all. Sigurd strove for ethical purity. He prayed to Odin, and he often fasted as he had been required to do on the evening before he was dubbed a knight, to purify himself and strengthen himself spiritually. Whenever Sigurd visited the High Priestess of Faeroe, he fasted and prayed for days before he dared to receive messages from Odin. Odin admired Sigurd for trying so hard to remain unsullied and untainted. Nonetheless, Sigurd now had been placed in an ethical dilemma forcing him to divide his loyalties between his fiancée and the daughter of Budli, a difficult situation, which would cause him much torment and self-reproach.
And Sigurd did not appreciate my rather frank and caustic point of view proffered during this discourse on the rocks. He drew himself up in a rather regal way, stood up, and brushed some sand off his pantaloons. “Perhaps this was not such a good idea, after all,” Sigurd announced peremptorily. “It might be better for us to continue this dialogue at some other time.” I glanced up at him briefly, and I grabbed his arm to pull him back down to the ground with a resounding thud.
“My dear Sigurd,” I explained, “you will have to habituate yourself to my petulant style. You have no idea with whom you are dealing. I’m not your typical woman. I see everything; I know everything. Your little white lies will resolve nothing. I know what I saw last night at the banquet as you sat beside the king’s great-niece. Maybe I could have described it a little more diplomatically, but I know what I saw.” Sigurd was pouting. At least now he knew better than to oppose me with exaggerated indignation, which was so effective with the women who never used their intellect and had so little education. “The fact of the matter is,” I continued, “you’re officially engaged to Gudrun, and you’re due to return to Nibelungenland to rejoin her and prepare for your wedding. What do you make of your great love for me in light of those undeniable facts?” Sigurd exhaled audibly, and he looked resigned.
“I’m not sure how to address this contradictory state of mind,” Sigurd admitted. “I’m a little confused.”
“Yes, I’m sure you are,” I agreed. “There is good reason for your confusion, so try not to be too harsh on yourself. Do not attempt to probe your feelings too deeply. If you are confused, it would be better to appeal to Odin. It cannot hurt. Calling upon Odin as your interlocutor can never hurt. And I can testify, it makes the All-Father positively euphoric when his subjects turn to him with their problems. He’s literally in seventh heaven.” Sigurd chuckled. The slight attempt at humor helped to relieve some of the tension. But the smile faded quickly, and Sigurd looked dejected as he once again returned to his cause for concern.
“I have to marry Gudrun,” Sigurd explained in a subdued voice. “I fell very much in love with her some months ago. At the time I had no idea the High Priestess was going to send me to Mount Hindarfiall to rescue what was described as a ‘fallen goddess.’ How could I have predicted this? I was so deeply in love from the first moment I set eyes on my fiancée. Gudrun was a perfect vision of kindness, gentleness, and charm. I had never seen such a lovely form containing such a beautiful spirit. She had obviously been made just for me. My faith in my love for Gudrun never vacillated, not even for an instant. But now I’m filled with uncertainty. I long to see my fiancée, but I also long to stay here with you. I’m being torn apart.” Sigurd’s honesty was touching, and I stroked a wayward tress from his forehead with my fingertips.
“I know, I know. But the solution is actually very simple. I know exactly what you must do.”
“What?” Sigurd asked me directly.
“You will return to your fiancée’s palace and go through with the wedding. You must go through all the motions and consummate the marriage, just as you would have if you had never met me. The first year you will remain at your wife’s side and use the time to produce a child. A child will keep Gudrun occupied. Afterwards, you will announce to Gudrun that the High Priestess has decreed you must look after business in Iceland at least half the year. You will return to me, and we will have a private wedding ceremony, just the two of us, where we will secretly exchange vows with Odin as our witness. I will allow you to return to Nibelungenland for six months of the year to continue to look after your obligations to Gudrun. You can have as many children with her as you please. I prefer not to have children, so it will all work out very nicely. In this fashion, you will have the best of both worlds, and everyone will be happy.”
Sigurd looked at me fixedly; he was so shocked he looked incredulous.
“I cannot participate in such a charade!” Sigurd exclaimed. “This is a bizarre plan.”
“On the contrary, can you not see it is perfect?” I reassured him. “You can have two marriages.”
“But neither one is a real marriage,” Sigurd shouted indignantly. “In effect, I’ll have no marriage at all!”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I cannot agree with such a conclusion.”
“I have moral principles,” Sigurd explained to me angrily. “I don’t want a half-witted excuse for a marriage. I want a happy marriage.”
“Ah, the pitfalls of life on Earth,” I pronounced with a sigh. “Don’t you understand? A happy marriage is not a marriage.”
“What?” Sigurd asked, still irate.
“Just a piece of wisdom from ancient Chinese philosophy. A white horse is not a horse. If you want a horse, and you ask for a horse, any horse can answer the call. But if you ask for a white horse, then a black horse cannot answer the call, a red horse cannot answer the call, and so on. Therefore, a white horse is not a horse. A white horse is a completely different entity, and it has to be renamed and assigned to a separate category. There exists only ‘horseness.’ There is no whiteness associated with ‘horseness.’ Likewise, there exists only marriage. There is no happy marriage. The happy marriage is a fairy-tale version requiring a completely different classification. Call the fairy-tale version something else. Marriage is just an economic union of two mates, who agree to a certain trade-off of goods and services. The ‘happy’ part is a mythology invented by human civilization.”
“Haven’t you forgotten the crucial element of love in this prosaic formula you just described to me?” Sigurd asked me in his annoyance.
“Ah, yes, love can be part of it, but love has nothing to do with it. This sad fact has been borne out too many times. If love and marriage were intrinsically entwined, then marriage should be the end of the phenomenon known as falling in love. Yet look around you. The masses are constantly falling in love time and again throughout their lives, decades after they have been married. And many individuals marry solely for practical reasons, with very little love associated with it at all. The ‘love’ part is entirely optional.”
“What about those strange couples who fall in love, marry, and are still deeply in love thirty years later? Such marriages do happen, you know,” Sigurd reminded me.
“To be sure, this can happen. But all the exceptions prove the rule. Too many so-called happy marriages quickly metamorphose into ‘unhappy’ marriages. Spouses are then abandoned in the name of love and freedom. However, humans also have other recourse when a marriage goes sour.”
“Which is?” Sigurd asked, listening attentively.
“Couples devise a mask,” I told him. “That is to say, the married partners hide the fact the marriage is not the fairy-tale version. Married life is nothing at all like the fairy tale embraced on the wedding day, but the wedded pair create the illusion of a perfect marriage for the sake of appearances. In other words, they give up. The two partners are trapped, but they cannot admit it. Such couples pretend their needs are being satisfied by the marriage when, in truth, they are missing elements crucial for the evolution of the soul.
“Since the passion and romance could not stand the test of time, the lifelong companions give up on all passion and romance. Still, some individuals are craftier than that. There are those who refuse to give up their right to have all the passion they desire. These souls crave ecstatic love, so they sneak around and find ways to meet their needs, lying and cheating through the whole thing. After such antics, though, humans are consumed with guilt and remorse, yet they are doing the right thing.”
“Lying and cheating are the right thing?” Sigurd repeated in disbelief.
“Of course not. But granting oneself the freedom to love whomever one wants is the right thing. How could it be any other way? How could it be wrong to love as much as you want and receive as much love as you need? And because spouses do not grant each other permission to have the freedom Odin meant for them to have, lying and cheating are required to work around it.”
“Let me clarify something,” declared Sigurd, now sounding rather stern and judgmental. “Are you trying to justify infidelity?”
“Not necessarily,” I responded in a tone unperturbed by the note of disapproval in Sigurd’s voice. “It all depends on the individual and what the individual desires. You would be surprised how many people would be faithful, if only they were given permission to love anyone they pleased. I assure you, Odin is sometimes in tears over the human plight in regard to love. Odin says humans give each other permission to hate, but they will not give each other permission to love. Because partners in marriage are not allowed to transgress physically with another partner and, for all intents and purposes, are not even allowed to think of another, when humans receive just a taste of love outside marriage, they often go insane with lust and frustration.
“Thus, the impassioned lover declares a state of anarchy, abandoning a bewildered spouse, who is overwhelmed with shock and grief. The broken marriage is then pronounced to be in an altered state that the gods consider to be quite bizarre—it is called divorce. And humans were never meant to divorce, just as they were never meant to marry.”
“That makes no sense. If there is no marriage, then there is no divorce anyway,” Sigurd commented.
“Exactly, my dear. Partners who come together in a state of complete freedom declaring love for each other are not meant either to marry or divorce. They are just meant to be together. Forever.”
“What can be done about such a state of emotional chaos?” Sigurd asked, now understanding the full implication of my words and sounding concerned.
“In this particular era, not much. It will take another two thousand years to unravel human emotions. Human beings cling to cherished illusions. You have no idea. It is revolutionary for them to accept that perhaps some forms of infidelity may be beneficial.”
“Good gods!” exclaimed Sigurd. “This spells the end of romantic love.”
“It would appear romantic love often spells the end of romantic love,” I replied with a hint of irony in my voice.
“I am not sure if I can agree to such an unorthodox partnership,” Sigurd reiterated glumly. “It goes against every hope and dream I have ever had for the ideal marriage.”
“Very well, then,” I reassured him, “I’ll make it easy for you. It is not necessary even to consummate the marriage.”
“What?” Sigurd was puzzled.
“Indeed, just think of it—all the hysteria is about infidelity; the madness is all based on primitive beliefs about sexual taboos. Sex is the foundation for all the problems caused by the institution of marriage. As I said, I’ll make it easy for you. We will not consummate the marriage. Gudrun will never know we are married.”
“I see, then, let me ask you something,” Sigurd said earnestly. “With a marriage that has never been consummated, how will we know we are married?”
“We will exchange vows privately with Odin as our witness. We will love each other eternally. We will comfort each other and support each other in times of need. Odin will accept this as a form of marriage, I assure you. The All-Father loves unconventional arrangements. Anytime humans find a way to work around the present system, Odin celebrates. The formal ceremony be damned—it is as though we are already married.”
There was a long pause as Sigurd stared out at the ocean with a faraway look in his light blue eyes. I had indeed come up with the perfect arrangement, one which would help me to work around the peculiar position I was in. Naturally, I did not want to marry any human male and have to bed down with him. How could any human be acceptable to me, when at Asgard I was Odin’s lover? My disdain for men was perhaps a pitfall of having fully retained my memory of Asgard. A platonic marriage would fulfill the condition of my exile. Odin’s condition, which insisted I had to marry on Earth, would be settled, but I would be left in peace, not having to accommodate the sexual needs of a man. Sigurd was still thinking about what I had said. Finally, he spoke.
“Very well, then, I’ll do it. I must be insane—or Odin must be insane; indeed, the gods must be insane—but I sense a divine decree, and I doubt I have much choice in the matter. I will trust in your discretion. Somehow I pray it will all work out.” Sigurd shook his head in consternation.
I had to wonder at Sigurd’s scruples in a day and age when most marriages were matches made by families for political or economic reasons and had nothing to do with love. Marriage in this era was about social class and inheriting property. Very often the future husband and wife did not even meet or talk until the day of the wedding. Some brides were as young as twelve, but the men were always in their twenties or thirties, and they could even be fifty in some cases. Sigurd, the hopeless romantic, was one of the few of his day to insist on marrying for love.
“Your association with me will not be easy,” I warned my intended. “I am a warrior-consort. I’ve been trained to do battle and every kind of competitive sport in the same manner as any man. I could subdue you, if necessary. You have yet to see me don my suit of armor and throw javelins like an accomplished athlete. You might not like it.”
Sigurd laughed out loud. “To be honest,” Sigurd declared with a smile, “I would love to see you tossing spears in a suit of armor. It would not trouble me in the least.” My chevalier proceeded to reach into his pocket and recover a beautiful gold ring. It was Andvaranaut, the ring from Fafnir’s treasure, whose original owner, Andvari, had used it to attract gems and other precious metals. “Take this,” Sigurd whispered in an impassioned tone. “The ring is yours. It is as you said, we are already married.” And my loving rescuer placed the ring on my finger. His lips lightly brushed against mine as we sealed our sacred pact with a kiss.
Sigurd and I slept that night in our respective rooms. The next morning Sigurd saddled up his horse to prepare for the journey by ship back to the kingdom of the Nibelungs and to fulfill his responsibility to his fiancée, Gudrun. I arose early to see him off. Sigurd said goodbye to me with tears in his eyes. We held each other for a long time. “Be brave and remember me!” I called out, echoing Odin’s last words to me just before the eviction, as my newly betrothed one mounted his sturdy horse. “I will remember!” Sigurd called back to me, and he waved as Grani began to gallop away, heading for the ship docked at the coast.
I stood there for a long time still waving and watching my knight disappear into the distance. I was quite sure the scheme would work. Sigurd would marry Gudrun, daughter of King Giuki of Nibelungenland, as planned, and I would still have fulfilled the fundamental conditions for having entered into a human marriage on Earth.
However, I had miscalculated. There were forces in effect I could not arrest, for things had gone too far. I had a half brother in this physical realm, the putative son of Budli, whom I had never met because this savage was a great warrior-leader in Hunaland. His name was Atli in our day, but throughout the ages he would be known as Attila. My fierce and primitive warrior-brother would be the source of much destruction and sorrow.
And the threat posed by my half brother was only part of it. I was not prepared for the clever wiles of Sigurd’s lovely and soft-spoken fiancée, Gudrun.