A novel by Clarise Samuels
Chapter 11: The Helmet of Dread
But my reprieve was only temporary. Gunnar did not sleep at all after having left my chambers, for he was, how shall I say—fit to be tied. My peeved husband burst into Sigurd’s room and shook his brother-in-law awake. Sigurd had spent a miserable night tossing and turning with the agony of having witnessed my marriage, and he had finally fallen asleep with his head buried under the pillows. The son of Sigmund felt no desire to get out of bed the next morning.
Upon awakening at the hint of dawn, Sigurd remembered the events of the day before—most sadly, the royal wedding where I was given away to Gunnar—and he groaned, immediately burying his face in his pillows once again. But this second awakening an hour later was much ruder, with Gunnar shaking his brother-in-law and imploring him to get up at once. At first Sigurd thought he was dreaming that Gunnar was shaking him, and he hoped he could change the venue of his dream. But after a few moments, the half-conscious knight realized Gunnar was indeed at his bedside, and Sigurd opened his eyes to the drab, gray duskiness of the early morning. “Good gods, Gunnar!” Sigurd exclaimed as he sat up in bed rubbing the sleep out of his eyes. “Is there a fire?”
“No,” Gunnar replied with the serious undertones of an actor who was about to lower the boom. “Would it were only a fire! What I experienced last night was far more disastrous than that.” Sigurd sat up in bed naked from the waist up. My knightly savior scratched his underarm, yawned, and gazed at his brother-in-law in total perplexity. Sigurd squinted his eyes as he tried to get a grasp on the situation. The last time he had seen Gunnar was at the games table the night before, where the fraternal little group had celebrated the nuptials late into the night, rolling dice and drinking beer. There were to be no major festivities until the wedding party returned to the land of the Nibelungs, where a feast for the whole kingdom would be held. So the tiny celebration of the evening before had included only Sigurd and Gunnar’s brothers. When the party broke up at midnight, Gunnar was slightly inebriated but in good spirits. The King of the Nibelungs retired to his chambers, with his retinue accompanying him and Budli’s liegemen marching at his side. The royal chamberlains lit the way through the dark halls of the palace with blazing torches held high, as Gunnar was escorted to his bed. Gunnar dismissed all of them, including Sigurd, at his door. Sigurd had an inkling the groom was planning to visit his bride before he turned in for the night. What had gone wrong?
“Did Brynhild refuse to receive you last night?” Sigurd inquired politely.
“She would not cooperate,” Gunnar replied. “She wanted nothing to do with it.”
“Nothing to do with it?” Sigurd repeated.
“You know what I mean.” Gunnar was seething with anger. “My bride absolutely refused to consummate the marriage. She would not grant me any privileges. She expected me to sleep on my side of the bed and leave her in peace for the rest of the night.”
“Ah, I see,” Sigurd nodded understandingly. “So this is the cause of your discomposure. You did nothing in Brynhild’s bed last night except sleep.” Sigurd paused for a moment, before he attempted to console his obviously agitated brother-in-law. “See here, my man, is there any need for such haste? The festivities are being postponed until we get home, so why not postpone the consummation of the marriage as well? Give Brynhild some time to get accustomed to her new role. Dazzle her with your kingdom, your palace, and the love you inspire in your loyal subjects. After all, she is well into her thirties now, so the daughter of Budli is not exactly a youthful maid anymore, and she is, moreover, still a virgin. The transition from the virgin maiden who can fight like a man to a wife who has to concern herself with her husband’s reproductive urges is going to require a certain amount of adjustment. Just be patient and understanding. Your bride will come around.”
Gunnar was listening to Sigurd’s words with his back turned to the bed. The King of the Nibelungs was staring resolutely out the window with his arms crossed tightly against his chest. Sigurd noted Gunnar did not look happy, even with his back turned. “The circumstances are much more dire than that,” Gunnar commented brusquely. “I’ve been deeply insulted. My dignity as a king has been compromised, not to mention my dignity as a man.”
“In the name of the gods, what did Brynhild do, kick you in your manhood?” Sigurd laughed, now gleaning the humor of the situation.
“You laugh,” Gunnar said slowly and deliberately. “But in another kingdom, she could be jailed for such defiance.”
Now Sigurd was concerned for my safety and for my future, so he implored Gunnar to tell him exactly what had happened on the previous evening. Gunnar was mortified to have to repeat the story of his humiliation, but he trusted Sigurd as if he were a brother, and the Nibelung king knew Sigurd would never betray his confidence. When Gunnar finished relating the events of the evening before, Sigurd whistled softly under his breath and fell back on his pillows.
“The gods in heaven be damned! Your bride left you hanging on a hook. How devastating! The woman has the strength of ten men. The peasants say an oracle called her the ‘virgin goddess.’ Maybe Brynhild believes her own mythology. To be so unwilling to engage in one’s wifely duty, she must be truly adverse to such activity. Maybe Brynhild fears she shall lose all her strength if she loses her virginity.”
“I do not know if Brynhild was truly adverse to my overtures or not,” Gunnar replied sadly. “I almost thought perhaps she wanted to be taken forcefully and brutally, and such was the game I was supposed to play with her. I did not take her lame excuses too seriously.”
“Why not?” Sigurd asked with mild curiosity.
“Alas, as Odin is my witness, Brynhild had claimed she was not that enthusiastic at the idea of marrying me, or at least, such was the impression I received on the evening I met her by chance in the hallway, when she pushed me aside with such force that I landed on the floor,” Gunnar explained. “To my great surprise, the very next day I found out my proposal had been accepted. So why should I have taken my wife’s other denials too seriously? You know how women are. The refined ones never say yes to intimate activity. Only a trollop comes right out and says yes. A maiden of high birth never says yes—maybe means yes, and no means maybe.”
Sigurd reflected upon Gunnar’s words before he voiced his thoughts.
“In general, when you are dealing with Brynhild, perhaps you should assume that only saying yes means yes, maybe means there is only a slim probability, and no means you had better desist, for otherwise you shall suffer the consequences.”
“See here, the Princess of Isenstein has me so thoroughly confused that now I don’t know what anything means anymore. I don’t even know why the sun is rising in the sky this morning unless it, too, seeks to mock and humiliate me.” Gunnar was visibly upset, and he pounded the wall with his fist for emphasis. “Something has to be done,” the Nibelung king continued. “I cannot take home a bride who refuses my advances and thinks she can hang me up on a hook any time she is the slightest bit irate with me. I am setting a precedent that does not bode well for the future of my kingdom. How will my subjects retain their respect for me if it ever becomes known this is the treatment I must suffer at the hands of my wife? I will become an object of ridicule. We must take action at once.”
“We?” Sigurd repeated meekly.
“Yes,” replied Gunnar. “I need your help. Where is the Helmet of Dread? Isn’t that the magic piece of equipment Fafnir left you at his death, rumored to be of use if one ever needed to change identities, or did you forget to pack it?”
“Let me think—yes, I’m sure I packed the Helmet of Dread in one of my bags. What exactly did you have in mind?” Sigurd inquired.
“You, Sigurd, are the strongest man in the civilized world,” Gunnar pronounced with authority. “Only you can match the physical strength of Brynhild. You must don the Helmet of Dread, and you must use its magical powers to make yourself my double. As my double, you will overpower Brynhild and consummate the marriage for me. Thereafter, I suspect my wife will be docile and respectful. The legendary strength of the renowned daughter of Budli may be derived partly from her deep-seated belief that no man can equal her. When she is disabused of such a notion, she will lose all her confidence, and this nonsense will be brought quickly to an end.”
Sigurd paled at Gunnar’s suggestion. He did not know what to say. To lie with me, his darling Brynhild, as if we were man and wife, would be the realization of his most heartfelt wishes. But to do so disguised as another man and never be able to acknowledge the deed—Sigurd was struck by all the possible ramifications. “We are surely playing with fire here, Gunnar,” Sigurd said sotto voce. “This is a risky proposition—much could go wrong with such a plan.”
“The risk does not concern me!” Gunnar fairly yelled in his anger. “She is playing with the dignity of a king. We must take action. I cannot accept this state of affairs.”
Sigurd did not dare resist Gunnar with respect to this matter. There was always the danger of inadvertently betraying his feelings for me if he protested too much. Brother-in-law to Gunnar or not, Sigurd was determined to protect the secret of his covert love for me. Gunnar wanted Sigurd to take action the same night in order to consummate the marriage by the time we set sail for Nibelungenland, which would be in a day or two. Sigurd agreed to the details of the plot, but he was nervous and agitated for the rest of the day. I, on the other hand, was very composed and unruffled back in my chambers, completely unaware of what mischief Gunnar was up to behind my back. For once, my psychic vision did not clue me in to the truth of the matter; the subsequent events were such a shocking development that Odin had protected me from any foreknowledge of the plan.
In any case, there was nothing to be done to avoid my predicament, and it was preferable I remain temporarily in the dark. Sigurd soberly awaited the appointed hour, as he lay somewhat rigidly in bed staring vacuously at the ceiling, with the Helmet of Dread, now unpacked, at his side. Part of his booty from the day he slew Fafnir, the helmet had been known to Sigurd since early childhood, owing to Regin, who had taken care more than once to describe the helmet to the young Sigurd and to instruct the boy in its proper use. Sigurd knew that after putting the helmet on, he had to utter a few ancient words of incantation, concentrate on the visage he wished to duplicate, and say repeatedly, “Appear! Appear! Appear!”
When the appointed hour came, Gunnar arrived in Sigurd’s chambers. Sigurd tried to remain impassive, but he was in the throes of the most agonizing and wretched evening of his life. He had never been so torn and conflicted in his loyalties, and he wondered how the events of the preceding year had led him into such a quandary, where he was rapidly sinking like a ship caught in a tempest. Sigurd wanted nothing more than to lie in bed with me and sleep in my arms, but under such circumstances of deception and betrayal, the scheme was almost more than he could endure.
But his knightly homage to Gunnar, his brother-in-law and his king, prevailed, and my mountaintop liberator knew he had to carry out his duty, odious as it was to him. Standing face to face with Gunnar, Sigurd lifted the Helmet of Dread and placed it on his own head. He murmured magical words in an ancient and dead language taught to him by Regin, and as he stared into Gunnar’s eyes, he concentrated with all his mental power and commanded, “Appear! Appear! Appear!”
Slowly the Helmet of Dread faded away into an aura of glittering light and molecules, and Sigurd’s countenance began to take on all the attributes of Gunnar’s physiognomy. As they stood there, staring each other directly in the eye, Gunnar gasped. “In the name of Odin!” Gunnar exclaimed. “You genuinely do look exactly like me!”
“Perfect,” returned Sigurd, “for such was the purpose of the exercise.”
Sigurd promptly exchanged his knightly suit for Gunnar’s royal crown and majestic robes. After briefly glancing at himself in the mirror with confidence and conviction, Gunnar’s look-alike exited the room and strode down the corridor to my chambers. I was preparing for bed, and I felt tranquil and at peace. The saga of the night before had not particularly disconcerted me in any way, and unlike Gunnar, I had chosen not to dwell on the matter. I only hoped my husband had learned a lesson from the incident and would not try to force himself upon me again. When there was a light knock on my door, I was bewildered, for I could not imagine Gunnar had come back to spar with me again. I rather hoped it was Sigurd at my door. We had not spoken since the day of the wedding ceremony. I longed for Sigurd, and I desperately needed to talk to him.
But when I opened my door, there was Gunnar, standing there looking expectant and perhaps somewhat on edge. I was momentarily not as repelled by my husband’s physical presence, and I briefly felt a sense of deep spiritual alliance with him. Naturally, I had no way of knowing it was, indeed, my beloved Sigurd who stood before me, which of course was the true cause of my instinctive inclination to be united with him. “What is this, Gunnar? What could you possibly want from me tonight?” I asked somewhat bemused. My adversary did not answer. Instead, he swept past me into my bedroom, firmly slamming the door behind him. There stood the false Gunnar, who was ogling me in defiance. “Now, really,” I exclaimed, “you’re not going to insist on replaying the scene of last night, are you?” The man I presumed to be Gunnar glared at me.
“What faith you have in yourself, Brynhild,” said the pretender in a voice not displeasing to me, “that you could master a king with the snap of your fingers and physically humiliate him, while openly shirking your wifely duty. Are you so proud of your shameful powers?”
The regal tone of this utterance caught me off guard. I was not expecting Gunnar to probe me for ethical considerations behind my behavior. Gunnar was for the most part a brute, who did not have a scholarly bone in his body. Where was this new tactic and approach coming from?
“Oh, Sire, please forgive me,” I entreated him earnestly. “I never intended to humiliate my husband and my king. I merely wanted to show you I was not to be defied so easily, and that you had to respect my wishes regarding this matter, as I am a free-thinking human being with my own desires and predilections. I merely tried to make a point. Yes, I have become your wife very recently, and I entered into wedlock of my own free will, for indeed, even my own father would not force me to do anything against my bidding and my natural inclination. But I did not willfully state I would enter into the sexual union implied by the legal bond between a man and a woman who choose to marry.
“Perhaps I will be persuaded to enter into a fuller union with you at some undisclosed time in the future. I certainly have never ruled out the possibility, and your charms may eventually win me over and seduce me. Anything is possible, and I certainly give you free license to keep trying. Indeed, I rather expect you to keep trying to romance and seduce me, even though one does not habitually expect to have to woo one’s own wife. I suspect I have created a problematic situation for you that is both challenging and frustrating, not to mention anomalous, but accept it as an opportunity to prove yourself to me and truly win my heart and mind, without crudely seeking merely to subdue my body.”
“Am I to understand from this evasive declaration you are going to submit to my demands at some later date?” Sigurd-as-Gunnar asked me pointedly. Sigurd was hoping he could avoid the whole dilemma and report to Gunnar the deception was not necessary, after all, and that mere patience and understanding would have to be the order of the day.
“I am merely saying it is not necessarily so that I will continue to deny your demands for an indefinite period of time. After all, who am I to announce I will never accept you in my bed as a true husband with all the privileges thereof? I cannot predict the future, and I suspect even Odin would not try to predict the future if he were put upon to do so. I am simply saying my denial of your marital rights for the foreseeable future is neither necessary nor certain. There will quite possibly be contingent events to sway me or convince me to change my mind, yet nothing in the physical world of contingent events happens with absolute predictability or of necessity. Therefore, I implore you, let us wait and see.”
“Exactly how long do you expect me to wait?” Gunnar’s impersonator inquired.
“My dear Gunnar,” I assured him, “I haven’t a clue. It could be a matter of weeks or even months, and for all I know, it may take years. My natural propensity is to remain chaste. I will have to consider and reconsider my predicament for some time to come.”
These words disheartened Sigurd, as he could not very well return to Gunnar with the proposition that my husband wait for me to come around on my own, even though I had declared it could take years. Gunnar, insisting upon his rights as both husband and king, would be livid. Sigurd understood implicitly there was no way out of his distasteful agreement with his brother-in-law. The deed had to be done, and it would have to be done that night. The Helmet of Dread was not to be toyed with for frivolous reasons. Sigurd had donned the helmet, and he had invoked its magical powers. He hoped never to have to use it again.
“Brynhild, please, reconsider your refusal now as I stand before you. It is unspeakably mortifying for a king to be unable to consummate his own marriage. I cannot accept this,” said Sigurd, parroting Gunnar’s real words. “You will ease my mind greatly if you will simply agree to consummate the marriage, as is both logical and just from my point of view. I cannot rely on contingencies to predict the future of my marriage. Right now, your behavior appears to be erratic and eccentric, which is to say, there is nothing at all predictable about the way you are behaving toward me.
“Certainly, the events occurring last night were not only unpredictable, they were outlandish and bizarre. Please allow me to remind you I am a king, and my own desires and wishes have to be respected. In this particular case, they have to be granted. And using your considerable strength to subdue a king, not to mention your husband, is a shameful application of your prowess. Now, I ask you one last time, can you give me a time and date when you will consent to consummate our marriage?”
“I cannot,” I replied simply.
“Very well, then, it is decreed. You will consummate the marriage tonight without further ado,” my husband’s double brazenly announced with an air filled with supremacy and certainty.
“I will not!” I fairly screamed, backing away as the impostor took several steps toward me.
“Please, Brynhild, I beg of you, do not make this more difficult than it already is for me,” implored Sigurd-as-Gunnar. “You are breaking my heart. I have a reputation to live up to. I am a king, for Odin’s sake. Can you not respect that? A king cannot be physically overpowered by a woman. You must consent. Now, please, let us go to bed and get on with this. You do not have complete and absolute free will, at least not in this situation. There are certain situations where a human being is limited, bound by legal, emotional, and causal necessities, not to mention physical needs. You are bound to these conditions of matrimony. Now, please, do not make me take you by force.”
“My dear Gunnar, you could not take me by force even if you tried,” I advised my deceiver as I drew myself up with dignity. “So please do not oblige me to return to the little drama we played out last night. I disdained having to dishonor you even more than you did, but if necessary, I will do it again,” I warned him. I then strove to lift the man I mistook for my husband high in the air with his arms pinned behind his back. The night before I had done so with relative ease, but this time something went dreadfully wrong. I almost could not budge him. I lifted my opponent a few inches into the air, and he readily escaped my grasp. In a flash, the charlatan king was standing behind me, holding my right arm pinned behind my back and my left arm immobilized at my side.
“Please, Brynhild,” the man-who-would-be-Gunnar begged me once again with his mouth close to my ear, “do not force me to go through with this. Give me your word you will consummate the marriage shortly after returning to my kingdom, and we will do this the right way, with incense and good wine. I will woo you and make it worth your while, I promise you. Just give me your word.”
“I cannot!” I screamed as I loosened my arms from the muscular grasp. My escape was short-lived because I was only free for a few seconds before I was pinioned again. I did not understand where his barbarous strength was coming from. The real Gunnar had been no match for me the night before. I assumed my husband had been caught off guard in our previous struggle, but now I was the one who was caught off guard. I hardly knew where to turn or what to do. I was beginning to panic. “You cannot force me to do this against my will. You must let me go,” I hissed at my disputant venomously.
“I wish I could let you go, Brynhild, but my reputation and my honor as a king are at stake,” explained Sigurd again in his false guise. “You have put me in an untenable, if not preposterous, position. Now please relent so we can both get this over with. You are my wife, and a king has the right to consummate his own marriage.”
“But no one has the right to defeat the will of another person,” I asserted boldly. “I have free will and the right to choose whether or not I will grant you the privileges you are demanding. The laws and the rights of the institution of marriage are meaningless compared to the sacredness of my free will as an individual. If you do not wish to grant me this freedom, then you are free to divorce me.”
“Impossible!” said the disguised Sigurd. “The truth will leak out to the populace, as all truths eventually find their way, and the scandal of the divorce will make me the laughingstock of my kingdom. It was decreed you were to become my wife. All the signs and omens swore to it. The oracle of Faeroe confirmed it. Our marriage was nothing less than Odin’s will.”
“The oracle confirmed the fact of the legal marriage. My acquiescence in bed was never assured. I have no feelings for you, Gunnar, other than respect and perhaps something that could be described as a mild sympathy. I have no passion for you. Therefore, I do not have to do anything I do not want to do, and you have to respect this condition, for I am entirely free,”I hissed at him again.
“Alas, you are not, my renegade wife. Not one of us has absolute freedom in this world. We are all subject to external causal conditions,” replied the unknowable Sigurd, who in his disguise as Gunnar once again surprised me with his intellectual acuity. The crisis was bringing out the best in Sigurd, and the characteristic bumbling dearness, which might have given him away, was not in evidence.
“We all have absolute freedom in this world and in every world,” I insisted, still struggling to free myself from the grip of Sigurd-in-disguise. “We simply do not know it. We believe we are not free, so we proceed to set up all the restrictions and the limiting structures, which subsequently serve to confirm our false beliefs. This is not how Odin meant for it to be. Odin gave us the power to create any life we choose. This ability to create is an act of pure freedom. Should we misuse our power to create a life of constraint, even Odin cannot undo our will. We are so free that we are free to create a reality based on false boundaries and artificial obstructions. We are free to imprison ourselves. This is how awful our freedom is. And this is how stupid we are as human beings, when we choose to misinterpret our divine freedom in such a fashion.”
Sigurd was moved by my discourse. The real Sigurd would have wanted to draw out this philosophical argument for hours. But the Sigurd who came to my chambers disguised as Gunnar had no time for such luxuries. He was obsessed with one goal, and he could not fail. For in truth, Sigurd did not know how many times he would be permitted to invoke the magical powers of the Helmet of Dread. And he did not dare to report back to Gunnar he had failed in his mission. Sigurd had to perform the dishonorable act, and this was his only chance to do so.
“So be it, for our wills clash here in this room tonight in a tragic dilemma no one could have predicted,” said Sigurd-as-Gunnar. “Absolute freedom is thwarted in that no one can predict how one person’s will shall impede the will of another. The very act of prediction can change the logical sequence of events, since a capricious rebel may radically react to a logical prediction by choosing to defy all logic. I know only one thing tonight, and that is this—as King of the Nibelungs, I must impose my will upon yours. The marriage will be consummated, and that is final.”
Gunnar’s double tightened his grip on my arms and shoved me unceremoniously into my bed, where he held me down with one hand while he undressed himself with the other. I was shrieking the whole time but to no avail. The inauthentic Gunnar climbed into bed with me and ripped off my white dress, while I tried to scratch his eyes out with my fingernails. I was yelling at the top of my lungs. The next thing I knew, I heard a voice in my ear sounding more like Sigurd than Gunnar, although I assumed I had to be hallucinating. He whispered, “Forgive me, Brynhild.”
And with those words, the masked Sigurd forced himself upon me. I could feel his member penetrate me with searing pain. He grunted and began to rhythmically move his entire body as he lay above me. I was so shocked I fainted. I had no recollection afterwards of the actual event. And in this unspeakably ignominious way, my marriage was consummated. After I passed out, Sigurd removed the gold ring, Andvaranaut, which he himself had given me, as proof of his conquest. Without further delay, he jumped out of bed and ran down the hall to get Gunnar. Quickly briefing the king on the events that had just taken place, Sigurd and Gunnar exchanged clothing once again, and Gunnar raced back to my room to assume Sigurd’s place in my bed at my side.
When I awoke the next morning, the real Gunnar lay beside me, and he begged me to re-enact the events of the evening before, this time without such violent opposition. Gunnar roughly threw me unto my back, in spite of my protestations and my pleas for him to stop. He forced my legs apart, raising my knees high in the air, and the awful ritual began all over again. I had just enough time to swallow a sleeping potion at my bedside, which the royal physician had given me for occasional bouts of nerves. The medication served to drug me so that once again, I had no recollection of what took place afterwards. The state of wedlock was consummated for the second time, this time with the real Gunnar.
Having finally established to his satisfaction his wife had been overcome and had performed her marital duty, Gunnar was thereafter too ashamed of himself ever to force himself upon me again. Seldom would the King of the Nibelungs ask to sleep in my bed, and even then he would show his good faith by laying down his sword between us.
Sigurd was now in possession of Andvaranaut, the gold ring he had stolen from my hand to prove I had been taken. When Gunnar was presented with the ring, he was too stricken with remorse at the thought of how it had been procured. Gunnar told Sigurd to keep the ring, for he took no joy in its possession, though Sigurd had no use for it either. In a typically callous, male way, my thoughtless knight decided later to give it to his own wife, Gudrun. This lapse of sensitivity would later be the cause of much grief for me. When I noticed the ring was missing at the time of my nuptials, I assumed it had disappeared during this traumatic period when I had suffered something very close to amnesia. I searched for the bauble everywhere before I gave it up for lost.
In the meantime, back in his chambers after the events of that evening, Sigurd revoked the spell by muttering further conjurations. The helmet, which had dissolved previously into a cloud of atoms, rematerialized out of nothingness, once more clearly visible on Sigurd’s head. Sigurd instantly reverted to his former physical self. The enchanted headgear took form once again only to fall lifelessly to the ground, where it assumed shape as a rusted, grimy piece of old metal, of no value whatsoever.
As Sigurd had suspected, the magic of the legendary device was good only for one application, and the headpiece was forevermore useless. The truth was that the Helmet of Dread, a gift from Odin to the dwarf Andvari, was meant to be of eternal benefit to the owner, provided the apparatus was used only for the pursuit of the higher good. Having used the helmet for a vindictive purpose based on deception, Sigurd had robbed the gift of its divine power, and he had ensured no one would ever be able to use it again. The wondrous energy of the helmet had been consumed.
And so I became the Queen of the Nibelungs, wife to King Gunnar, and presumably nothing more to Sigurd than a member of the royal family who was related to him by marriage.
Gudrun, Sigurd’s nuisance of a wife, was now my sister-in-law.
Chapter 12: How the Queen Quarreled with Gudrun
The shock of my wedding night behind me, my ladies-in-waiting helped me to prepare for the journey back to Nibelungenland. We packed my trunk with my clothes, scrolls, and my favorite objects—those I had acquired in the brief time I had dwelt in the palace of my earthly father. I parted with King Budli tearfully, and thereafter I mounted Gunnar’s white horse to ride behind my husband, as we galloped away from my home to the waiting ships at the coast. The journey back took only a couple of days with the good winds and fair weather sent to us by Odin. Gunnar, still consumed with guilt at how he had violated me, waited on me hand and foot for the duration of the entire voyage.
I began to pity him, the arrogant king, now filled with a tender compassion for me, and ashamed of the extremes to which he had gone to force me to submit to his will. Odin had been hard put to silently stand back and watch the brutal way Gunnar and Sigurd had forced themselves upon me on the night after my wedding. One was obliged to feel a certain amount of pity for Gunnar, so beleaguered as the Nibelung king was with dense human emotions, a petty ego, and misplaced pride, especially in reference to women. What Gunnar ordered Sigurd to do on the disastrous evening when I lost my virginity was the result of rash and impulsive behavior.
Gunnar was childish and crude, given over to bouts of aggression and excess. There was a profound selfishness within the Nibelung king, which was part of his nature, and unfortunately, the emphasis on masculinity and aggression had caused a lack of emotional maturity, so common for men who are otherwise intelligent and accomplished, whether they be kings, performers, or even the royal physician. Had Gunnar waited patiently for me, the outcome might have been different, but now there was no hope for reconciliation, the king’s unreasonable behavior having gone unchecked. As a result, Gunnar would have to live with his mistake for the rest of his life. Hard put to be tempered or reprimanded, the King of the Nibelungs would nonetheless accept his formal relationship with me and seek comfort elsewhere. He would spend much of his free time entertaining the ladies at court, flirting to no purpose, and having frivolous affairs.
But back in the royal bedroom, when Gunnar was not toying with a young damsel who was easily seduced by the king, he slept alone most of the time, sometimes sighing deeply and regretfully as he stared at the connecting door between his royal bedchamber and mine. The vague rumor that King Gunnar and Queen Brynhild did not have marital relations had permeated the land, but no one dared to speak of it except in the most hushed tones and in the most secluded places.
The human state of existence called marriage was anathema for me. On Earth, humans were positively bewitched by the institution of marriage. Brides were idealized at the wedding ceremony and elevated to the status of princess, their temporary reign as such notwithstanding, and the bards sang of matrimonial bliss as the most blessed culmination of eternal love. Indeed, eternity itself was an elusive ideal enchanting most of the human race. Convinced they were bound to the finite conditions of their physical bodies, the tantalizing idea of eternal life in some mystical and invisible realm lured humans on in a quest for an equally eternal relationship.
Naturally, having been mentored by Odin himself in regard to matrimonial matters, who taught me that no one person could ever be possessed by another, my own marital status was of little consequence to me. Compounding my muddled understanding of the state of wedlock on Earth, I was hard put to note Gunnar was not truly my intended, and that my true soulmate was enjoying a conventional marriage with a jealous and possessive wife, who seemed to be bent on making sure I was never left alone with her husband. In the land of the Nibelungs, where I reigned as queen at Gunnar’s side, Sigurd and I rarely had a private moment to talk, to exchange glances, or to have a glass of wine together. I happened upon him by chance countless times during the day, but in the interest of preserving the domestic peace, the son of Sigmund usually ignored me. Once I confronted him
“I dare not speak to you for long, Brynhild,” Sigurd whispered to me furtively. “All eyes are upon us, and I do not wish to cause a scandal. Know that I love you and dream of you every night.”
“Alas,” was all I could say, my eyes filled with tears, and we quickly parted.
There were rare moments when I could see Sigurd gazing at me, when his hand brushed against mine, or when he stood under my windows late at night looking up at the darkened panes of my bedchamber with a saddened expression of intense longing on his face. One sleepless night I saw Sigurd there, clearly visible in the light of the full moon. I opened the shutters through which I had caught a glimpse of him, leaned out, and waved to him. Afraid to draw any attention by calling out to me, my chevalier stood there for a long moment in silence. As I watched, he bowed deeply, rolling his wrist in graceful acknowledgment, and quickly disappeared.
I was somewhat reclusive as Gunnar’s queen, consoling myself with my books, my long walks, and my dreams. It was mostly there, in my dreams, where I saw Odin and the others at Valhalla, going about their business as usual, and I longed to rejoin them. The primitive state of affairs on Earth was even worse than I could have imagined when perceived from the confinement of the human body. When I slept, it was a blissful escape, for in deep sleep I could return to Valhalla in an instant. My fellow gods and goddesses sensed my presence, but they paid me no heed. My confreres did not want to make matters worse for me, since even being vaguely present at Asgard made me realize how much I longed for home. But there was nothing to be done, for I had been called—I had a purpose on this planet, and I knew the rules, or rather the protocol, for Odin would have corrected me and reminded me he had never created rules; he had only created absolute freedom.
Gudrun, Sigurd’s wife, was my nemesis. She irked me no end with her feminine wiles and her willingness to be Sigurd’s inferior, if not his servant. Gudrun was constantly trying to vex me with snide remarks and other innuendos. “Indeed, I would love to have a dinner at court tonight, but of course, only the Queen can make that decision, and her influence over my dear brother must be tolerated. Because of Brynhild’s preference for solitude, court life is dull, to say the least,” announced Gudrun to her kitchen staff.
I tried to avoid her as much as possible. But whenever I thought I was successfully ignoring her, she would rivet my attention by being openly affectionate with Sigurd in public. This was enough to drive me almost mad with frustration. Every time I turned around, Sigurd and Gudrun had their heads together like two lovebirds on a perch, or Gudrun was sitting there openly caressing Sigurd’s thigh. But one day Gudrun pushed me beyond my limits and provoked me to such an extreme measure she could no longer be ignored or avoided.
It was a glorious summer day as we lingered in small groups on the castle grounds, after a royal picnic held for family and friends. There was nothing unusual about the occasion, until I had to do a double take when I noticed Gudrun’s right hand. Sigurd was absent that day, away on military maneuvers with my husband. The sunlight caught the glint of a ring on Gudrun’s finger, a ring made of the purest gold. Upon closer examination, as I stood near Sigurd’s wife in a small group making banal conversation, I saw the ring was indeed Andvaranaut, the very ring Sigurd had placed on my finger when we exchanged vows at the time the two of us bid farewell, not knowing what obstacles lay in store for us.
I was astounded, and for a moment I assumed my senses must have taken leave of me. The sacred ring, which had been missing since the night I had consummated my marriage with Gunnar, had in this fashion turned up on the hand of Sigurd’s wife. I was stunned and overwhelmed with disbelief. I could not imagine how my treasured and priceless ring could have been transferred to Gudrun’s possession, and the idea defied all rational explanation.
At the first opportunity, I spoke to Gudrun about it when I had a moment with her in private. “Where did you get such a beautiful gold ring?” I asked her with curiosity. “I can see it radiating golden rays from the other side of the court.”
“My husband gave it to me,” said Gudrun softly, while looking up at me with her innocent blue eyes.
“Sigurd? Indeed! And where, pray tell, did he get the ring?” I persisted.
“The ring is called Andvaranaut, part of the treasure Sigurd took from Fafnir, originally belonging to the dwarf, Andvari, who used it to attract gems,” Gudrun related. “Such was the magical power of the ring, until the day Otter was killed, and the ring was taken from the dwarf. Sigurd kept it for himself as payment for his feat of strength when he slew Fafnir. My husband temporarily gave the prize away, at one point, to a woman who proved to be unworthy of it. She apparently turned out to be a trollop. To ask me my forgiveness for having strayed during this brief interval before our marriage, Sigurd gave the ring to me. He said the ring proved I was the most virtuous woman in the land, and it is the symbol of his eternal loyalty and love for me.”
“And who was the trollop?” I asked half with consternation and half with amusement.
“Who knows?” Gudrun remarked with a smile. “Probably some fetching peasant my husband dallied with in a haystack. You know how undiscriminating and boorish men can be.”
I had heard enough.
“It was my ring, Gudrun,” I informed her in serious undertones. “Sigurd gave it to me as a token of friendship and love before he married you. It has been missing for some time. I am the Queen. You must return it.”
“I will not,” Gudrun whispered so the guests would not overhear us quarreling. “I am Sigurd’s wife and the daughter of the late King Giuki. I am the most important woman in the land.”
“No, my dear,” I assured the wife of Sigurd, “I am the Queen of the Nibelungs and the wife of King Gunnar. I am the most important woman in the land.”
“You will not have the ring back!” Gudrun lashed out at me. “You were the trollop! You slept with Sigurd. He told me so!”
I was so shocked and horrified at Gudrun’s words that I thought I was going to become ill. To avoid causing a scene in front of the guests, I withdrew in silence and retired to my chambers. Gudrun’s jealousy of me was out of control, and since it was generally known she could easily become hysterical about me at any time, I did not attach too much import to her words. It could not be true. Sigurd would never have told his wife such a demeaning lie about me. But how did Gudrun come into possession of the ring? If Sigurd had somehow found the ring after I misplaced it, why did he give it to his wife instead of returning it to me?
Gudrun had insulted me. I had to find out the truth from Sigurd.
The opportunity to do so arrived one evening shortly after, when Gudrun took ill with a slight catarrh and chose to absent herself from the dinner table. Gunnar was away on important business, and as the Queen, I was required to take Gunnar’s seat at the head of the table. Since I was the royal personage presiding over dinner, I made all the decisions about protocol and seating arrangements. I had Sigurd seated at the long banquet table, up front and at my right-hand side, where we politely made small talk under the observing eyes of our dinner guests.
But Sigurd knew instinctively I was disconcerted about something, and he, too, wished to break the prolonged silence we had endured since the day I had become Gunnar’s wife. It had been a full year since the nuptials and the journey by ship back to Nibelungenland, and there had been no opportunity for genuine discourse. After dessert, the guests milled about on the grounds, sipping wine from their goblets and chatting with each other as usual. I expressed the need for a bit of solitude to collect my thoughts, and having excused myself, I wandered into the dense forest surrounding the palace.
When I was out of earshot of the dinner party, I found a little clearing, sat down on a tree stump, and waited. Sure enough, within five minutes I could hear the crunching leaves and breaking twigs caused by Sigurd’s heavy boots. He seemed to be a little unsure about which direction to take, but being an expert scout, he tracked me down in the clearing straight away. I sat there morosely as I stared at the son of Sigmund without a word of greeting.
“At last, Brynhild, I am so desperate to speak to you,” Sigurd announced, going down before me on bent knee. My true partner looked deeply into my eyes, and the exquisite expression in his own eyes was filled with genuine affection. But I was not in a compassionate or forgiving mood. I had an ax to grind with the husband of Gudrun.
“And I, too, am very anxious to speak to you, Sigurd,” I assured him with conviction. Now his eyes clouded over, as the veiled meaning of my words could not be mistaken.
“Alas, my dear lady, what is wrong?” Sigurd asked directly. I showed him the hand where Andvaranaut used to sit.
“Do you notice anything unusual about my hand?” I asked.
“No, not particularly…but perhaps something subtle is missing?” Sigurd ventured tentatively.
“Subtle? No, not at all, you scoundrel!” I responded scornfully. “Something is indeed missing, and it happens to be the ring you gave me at Isenstein, where you were granted sanctuary and honored as Budli’s guest. The very same ring I spied just last week on the hand of your maddening wife!”
Sigurd’s face slowly drained itself of all its blood, and he trembled. He had told his wife the ring had been stolen from its rightful owner, whose identity Gudrun suspected as, indeed, she suspected Sigurd had slept with me; hence, her vitriolic outburst when I confronted her about the ring. And although Sigurd had allowed Gudrun to keep the ring in order to safeguard it, he had instructed her she was never to wear it in public. Sigurd had been unaware his obstreperous wife had violated his orders one day the previous week, the day he had been away on military maneuvers with Gunnar. “Ach, Brynhild,” Sigurd sobbed, burying his face in his hands, “please forgive me.”
“What exactly is it I have to forgive?” I asked sternly. “Can you please tell me how the ring disappeared from my finger and showed up on your wife’s hand? Gudrun claims you told her I slept with you. I beg you to tell me what she is talking about!”
“No, I cannot,” Sigurd replied, now wringing his hands in a state of nervous agitation. “It is too dishonorable to speak of it.”
“Tell me the truth, Sigurd,” I commanded him, “even if the truth is scandalous. The worst scandal is to hide the truth—all other scandals pale by comparison.”
“This is a scandal that will bring the universe crashing down on my head,” Sigurd murmured mournfully. “The very heavens will rebel, and I will be damned for all eternity.”
Now I was becoming truly uneasy. If I had been at Valhalla, I would have gone running down the corridors to confront Odin and ask him what in the name of all the heavens was the meaning of this. Odin, however, was not terribly accessible to me now that I was confined to a human form. I had to pull the story out of Sigurd, like it or not.
And what a dreadful story my savior of Mount Hindarfiall blurted out to me in between sobs. The story of how he masqueraded as my husband after the wedding, the night the marriage was consummated. Sigurd could relate the most intimate details of the encounter to me, thereby proving it was he and not Gunnar who had been in my bed, as he recounted every fine point, including the words we had with each other.
And so the son of Sigmund told me how he and Gunnar had exchanged places after I passed out, and how Gunnar had profited from the situation by consummating the marriage a second time the following morning. Thus, I was told, two husbands had taken me in the marital bedroom. The humiliation and the rage rising up in my throat had to be stymied, which required tremendous discipline and restraint on my part. For a moment, all my love for Sigurd was struck from my heart.
“Are you quite all right?” Sigurd asked me with some concern, evidently because it appeared to him I was having some difficulty breathing. I could not answer right away, but after taking several deep breaths, I lashed out at him.
“How could you participate in such a vile betrayal of my trust?” I blurted out, my voice filled with severe reproach. I was on the verge of tears.
“Please, Brynhild,” Sigurd began, “I know you are overwrought, but you will have to believe me when I say it was not a personal betrayal. I was forced to honor Gunnar’s command. If I had protested to anything more than just a modest degree, it would have looked very suspicious, very suspicious, indeed. How could I have told Gunnar the task he designated was both objectionable and impossible for me? At some point in my resistance, my king would have duly noted my loyalty to you was greater than my loyalty to him. This might have put you in danger, having incurred the wrath of your husband. At the very least, Gunnar would have banished me from court and from my nearness to you forever. Such an outcome was even more unacceptable than participating in what was, without a doubt, an abject violation of your will.”
Sigurd’s soft voice pleading with me in earnest calmed my nerves. I began to see the complicated intricacies of the situation from his perspective. When Odin had revealed himself to me at Isenstein, the All-Father had hinted at some kind of dilemma which, harsh as it would seem from a purely human point of view, would in the long run be just a lot of smoke and fluff.
My wedding night meant almost nothing to me. I had no recollection of the offensive crime committed against me by both Gunnar and Sigurd. Instead, other memories flitted across my mind, such as the day Sigurd rescued me from Mount Hindarfiall, and the day we swore an inviolable oath of enduring love to each other. Sigurd had so lovingly placed the sacred gold ring on my finger, the very ring which had this day brought to light the appalling confession I now had to assimilate. “But now all is lost,” I whispered more to myself than to Sigurd. “I suppose if I were a different kind of woman, I would not even want to live.”
“No, no. Please do not utter such words!” Sigurd beseeched me, almost beside himself with anxiety. “You must live. Have me killed instead. I was the one who carried out Gunnar’s evil plan, and I should have confronted my lord and king, even on pain of death. Have me murdered in my sleep for the crime I committed against you. I do not deserve to live. Let Gunnar lay all the blame for it on my shoulders, for I will gladly pay the price for this unspeakable humiliation.”
“I could never have you or anyone else killed, Sigurd,” I explained to him patiently but sadly. “I am not an evil queen who misuses my power in such a manner. You have an important calling, a destiny decreed by Odin, as does every single person on this planet. I would never tamper with fate. I do not have the right to take another person’s life. The decision to be recalled to Asgard is a momentous one. Odin does not even presume to make such a decision by himself. He consults a whole council of angels and entities. In the end, most souls make the decision for themselves.”
Sigurd looked at me quietly before speaking again.
“Then let me turn Gudrun aside. I will divorce her and marry you,” Sigurd pleaded with me on his knees. “In doing so, I will set right the shameful wrong you have suffered. Your pride will be restored, and Gudrun will be the one who must suffer the humiliation. As your husband, I will protect you from all gossip and derision. In marrying me, you will save face before word of the insult against you ever reaches the populace.”
I snorted disdainfully at this scheme.
“And what about Gunnar’s pride?” I asked. “Like most primitive kings, my husband would start a war to save face. No, your intentions are admirable but not feasible.”
“What else do you suggest?” Sigurd asked me sincerely. I held my clenched fist to my forehead as I stared at the ground, immersed in a jumbled confusion of thoughts and emotions.
“Let us just forget about it,” I concluded, still anguished but now clearly comprehending the resolution. “It is not important. My disappointment in you is now the cause of much grief. But if I take any action to avenge myself, then for sure the whole population will know the entire chronicle by morning. If I ignore the insult, years will pass before the story becomes a legend known to all, and the shame of it will have been somewhat mitigated by the passage of time.
“Two husbands had me on that inglorious night, but I have no recollection of either. I once had some sympathy for Gunnar and some love for you, and now my heart is hardened, turned to stone, for I do not have any feelings for anyone. But such a development in the realm of my emotions is no great tragedy. I am not your victim, nor will I seek to make you mine. Go back to your wife. Pretend this discussion never happened. We will never speak of it again.”
Nodding his head in agreement, Sigurd arose in silence and walked away sadly, leaving me in the clearing by myself. I sat there for hours, watching the evening twilight gradually fade into the darkness of night. I heard the crickets chattering away in the brush, while an occasional nocturnal animal turned a bright pair of glowing eyes upon me. I had much to contemplate.
When the stars appeared in the sky, I looked up longingly, wishing I could be recalled to Asgard forthwith, so I would no longer have to deal with such earthly dilemmas. But that was the allure and the seduction of being a human on Earth. The dilemmas did not really exist; only the illusion of the dilemmas existed. The human faith in the fiction Odin had created for them was what made it all so fascinating and dramatic. Thus, the pain, the joy, the grief, and the grand gestures, all of which made Odin exult, for he was the planet’s greatest admirer. The All-Father reveled in every human emotion, sentimental old fool that he was. Nevertheless, despite my divine perspective regarding the question of human dramas, the incident regarding the ring caused me much personal heartache.
Legend would have it that the humiliation turned me into a monster.
Some say I ordered Gunnar to have Sigurd killed, and upon my command, Sigurd was murdered by knife in his own bed while Gudrun slept at his side. And it was said I was pleased the horrific deed had been done, at least at first, but soon after I nearly drowned in my own grief over Sigurd’s death. Furthermore, it would be told, in horror of what I had done by my own command and in horror of Gunnar for having obeyed me, I demanded to be burned on Sigurd’s funeral pyre. In this manner, according to the myth, I would die at Sigurd’s side, finally pronounced man and wife. Such fantastic fabrications were very much in keeping with the morbid ideas of the peasantry of that period, as if Odin would have permitted such an abysmal ending. The All-Father would sooner have frozen the planet in space and time than let me end my life in such dreadful form.
No, I kept my peace about the whole scandal. The sorrow and the bewilderment of seeing the gold ring, Andvaranaut, on Gudrun’s hand, and finding out how it got there was painful for me and caused me much woe at first. Certainly, I momentarily considered murder and war to avenge the demands of a delicate and sensitive human ego. But the truth was, I did not dwell on the crisis for very long. I knew whatever insult my human frame had sustained had in truth nothing to do with the existence of my eternal spirit. I would shed the corporeal form in due time, and my incarnated flesh would pass into the nothingness of the molecular world of physical reality. I, who had advised Odin to abolish anger, was put to the test when it came time to deal with my own outrage in the earthly realm.
But I triumphed. I remained unmoved.
Nevertheless, a much more menacing and dramatic form of evil was rising on the horizon of the civilized world of Sigurd’s day and age. The iniquitous leader who was reputed to be my half brother, Atli of Hunaland, later to be known as Attila the Hun, was afflicting the cultivated and emerging regions of Europe, and causing much havoc and despair. To think of Atli as the son of dear, wise King Budli was almost insufferable. Although Atli was not completely bereft of all humanity, as he was somewhat capable of governing wisely and being an efficient administrator, an avaricious greed and monstrous ambition had begun to consume the chief of the Huns. Now Atli had arisen at the head of a murderous army with nothing less than the intention to conquer the world and plunge the fledgling civilization of the planet into a wretched and woebegone era.
To be sure, my brother, Atli of Hunaland, was a madman.