A novel by Clarise Samuels
Chapter 13: An Army of Angels
The brutality of humans after having descended to the lowest depths of their animal souls far surpassed anything Odin could have foretold. The coarse and indecent aspect of human nature was a flaw in the works, an oversight, a divine miscalculation. Wild animals roared, pounced, and tore living creatures apart limb by limb in order to feast on raw meat and drip with fresh blood without remorse, without reflection, and without contrition.
Odin, who created the animal soul and embedded aspects of the beastly soul in the human body alongside the divine soul, wanted the complex creatures called humans to know the exultation of the triumphant beast. The All-Father freely gave mortals such animal instincts and a taste for the thrill of vanquishing one’s foes, but he did not balance the formula as well as he thought he had. All too often, the instinctive animal side of the human being prevailed, and the otherwise divine creatures became no better than the lions, cougars, and panthers of the jungle who fought to the death while ripping all adversaries to bloody pieces. Nonetheless, Odin did not make mistakes; he merely could not have predicted the bloody gore resulting from what he delicately termed a minor misstep.
Atli of Hunaland was a supreme example of Odin’s impetuousness—this small indiscretion—which had occurred in the All-Father’s haste and enthusiasm to complete the work at hand, when he gave humans every gift he could possibly endow. Atli’s heart was almost completely dead. The legend holding the wise and sagacious King Budli to be Atli’s father was difficult for my Icelandic kinsmen to accept. Paradoxically enough, when Atli was not leading savage invasions all over the continent, when he was at home, secure and in power in his own land, especially later in his life, he ruled in the fashion of my father, with discipline and order. But when the war beat started throbbing in his blood, Atli was uncontainable. The merciless chief organized barbaric onslaughts; he plundered entire cities, allowing his soldiers to run wild in the midst of the chaos and the destruction they had created. As king of the Huns, he was feared throughout the civilized world for his butchery and his ravenous greed for more power and more land. Atli was, for the most part, characterized by his pitiless cruelty, which bordered on insanity. Even the wisdom and talents my half brother might have inherited from the benign genetic material of King Budli could not do much to temper such primitive instincts.
Atli was sometimes provoked into warring rages by a petty insult or some bizarre form of envy, but most frequently the war drums were sounded to fill the coffers of the Hunnic Empire, either with stolen loot or heavy taxation. Regarding the Nordic lands, the chief of the Huns had heard embellished rumors about the man who was allegedly his father having recovered a lost daughter back in Iceland, who had been taken in by the good King Budli and treated to all the privileges of a highborn princess. It was not lost upon Atli that he had been denied such titles and favors as putative son. Budli had never even met the Hun he was to have fathered. At the time, when Atli was curious about my existence and my relationship as his half sister, the Hunnic chieftain entertained a desire to journey to Iceland to meet me. But he had more pressing issues to deal with during this interval. Never modest in his ambitions, Atli was bent on trying to invade the Roman Empire.
It would be the legend of Fafnir’s treasure that would prove to be the necessary provocation for the Hunnic leader to focus his attention, not on Isenstein, which remained protected by the sea from the mounted Huns, but on Nibelungenland.
How can I begin to explain the terror and devastation inflicted by Atli? The Hunnic army would eventually devastate some of the greatest cities of Europe—Rheims, Mainz, Strasbourg, Cologne, Worms, Trier, not to mention the major cities of Northern Italy, including Milan, Verona, and Padua, which were among the most scandalous atrocities. Paris and Rome were miraculously spared being put to siege by the Huns. Under Atli’s command, the Huns murdered, pillaged, raped, and burned to the ground everything they left behind.
Where did the Huns come from? The ancient cavalry emerged from the murky mists and vapors of never-chronicled history, it seemed, as an uncivilized tribe of nomadic warriors whose greatest talent consisted of being mounted archers. The restless tribesmen originally bred their war horses on the open steppes of Central Asia, where the clan existed as wandering herdsmen without roots and without purpose. The origins of the Huns are vague, but somewhere around the late fourth century, they came galloping out of Asia, perhaps after having been defeated in an attempt to conquer the Chinese Empire or perhaps searching for fresh grasslands for their horses. Whatever the motivation might have been, the Huns abandoned their Asian homeland, and they appeared for the first time in Western history mounted on their horses and racing toward Europe.
The Huns were short, stout, and ugly, as well as bowlegged from constantly being mounted on the horses they had mastered both as a form of transport and a weapon of war. Their faces were deliberately scarred at birth with the sole intent of enhancing their murderous and frightful demeanor.
Some called them the Scourge of God; others called them the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Compared to the citizens of the Roman Empire, the Huns were backward, savage, and uncivilized; they were wilder than the wildest barbarians. Having no culinary skill, these uncultivated nomads dined upon uncooked roots without spice or relish, and it was common for them to swallow their meat half raw. It was difficult to subdue the mounted warriors in battle. They did not play by the rules of traditional warfare, and there was rarely any order or organization in their form of attack. Hunnic warriors were swift, unpredictable, and filled with a feverish madness, evident when they attacked screaming at the top of their lungs. Fearless in the face of death, a Hunnic soldier wielded his sword in battle like a crazed beast, using methods considered to be unethical and unprecedented. In battle, upon approaching a mounted swordsman who was highly skilled, a Hunnic horseman often threw a net over his opponent, unfairly disabling a foe in this manner before plunging a dagger into his chest.
But the Huns became truly infamous after 433 A.D., when Atli was appointed their new king. Atli was young, ferocious, ambitious, and extremely proud. The Hunnic chief was certainly nothing to look at—an ugly duckling, thickset, with a large head out of proportion to the rest of his body, and dark, beady eyes that were suspicious of all. Atli had a flat nose, a scraggly beard sporting some gray in it, and square shoulders. The chief of the Huns had a frightening habit of rolling his eyes around in their sockets apparently with the intent to terrorize, and there was an ugly legend purporting he had once eaten two of his sons.
It was presumed Atli had murdered his own brother in order to gain complete control of the Hunnic Empire. All of Europe was menaced by him and trembled at the sound of his name. Atli knew no god, no ethics, and no law, save the laws of greed and terror. Had my earthly father, Budli, conceived this monster by accident on one of the famous exotic journeys of his youth? If so, it was a tragic irony for the wise and gentle King Budli to have fathered the Madman of Late Antiquity.
Atli had unfortunately become aware of the mythical realm of Nibelungenland. After the rumors of my existence as Budli’s repatriated daughter had roused his curiosity, new rumors had reached his ears that Sigurd, the greatest warrior of the civilized world, had wrested a legendary treasure from the lair of Fafnir, the dreaded beast of lore. Atli’s greed knew no bounds. A small portion of Atli’s forces, under the leadership of a trusted chieftain chosen from among the Huns, would be diverted to conquer the Nibelungs. As was his custom, Atli intended for his army to massacre, ravish, and plunder, and ultimately, put the kingdom to the torch. As a pretext for invasion, Atli demanded a heavy tax from my husband, King Gunnar, knowing full well the independent Nibelungs had no obligation to him.
“What say you to the orders to pay taxes to Atli?” the Hunnic messanger asked Gunnar.
“You may tell your leader that I am an honorable king, that I owe him nothing, and that I fear him not.”
And so Gunnar, of course, refused to pay.
At Asgard, Odin was whipped into a state of nervous frenzy. The small and secluded kingdom of the Nibelungs with its mythical origins was very close to his heart. It was here that many legendary scenes were being brought to their natural conclusion, the mythology of which would edify the collective consciousness of the human psyche for many millennia to come. The little stage laid out in this tiny realm presented classical human predicaments and the highest form of emotional drama. The greatest bards and scribes of the era were gathered in the Nibelung kingdom to report it to all posterity. With song and literature, renowned poets were using this primordial source as a basis for elaborate insight into the essential nature of human nature. I had somehow heightened this effect, and a continual flow of illustrious people were being drawn to the region, having been attracted by my presence. This was all as it should be. Odin had contrived it thus.
But this new turn of events, the threat from Atli, had caused new and unforeseen complications. Odin could not defy human will, and he could not change the course of events once the will of a powerful human, or a powerful collective of humans, had set a new course into motion. In this respect, human souls, unaware as they were of their own potential, were as invincible as Odin himself. Indeed, Odin had intended for mortals to discover their true divine powers; the All-Father waited patiently and hoped every day to note that the time was at hand. But it would be eons before humans reached a true state of enlightenment regarding their own mastery. Light-years would pass before civilization on Earth restored the planet to its true and natural form—the paradise Earth was meant to be, the Garden of Eden of the original intent and design. The present prolonged state of purgatory on Earth tortured Odin, and at times he felt strangled.
“My earthly subjects are trying to kill me!” Odin would eternally shout at the top of his lungs from his chambers, as a half dozen advisers and other entities would come racing in to find out what was wrong. And there they would find Odin, with his face buried in his hands, appalled at what was being portrayed on his divine screening device in his chambers. The All-Father was, as always, almost inconsolable at such times.
But the day Odin saw Atli planning the invasion of Nibelungenland and relishing the resulting atrocities, Odin was beside himself with foreboding. So much was riding on the successful outcome of the story of this tiny kingdom, which Odin had intended would survive in legend and mythology. Odin had constructed every detail with such fastidious care. My human existence as goddess-in-exile was being threatened, and my mission to speed up the process of human enlightenment was also being threatened. Odin had to act. The chief counselor, Sage, consulted with Odin, and forced the All-Father to collect himself. Together, the two agreed to have a meeting of the war council.
The war council was called into the convention hall at Asgard for an official presentation. Sage prepared the long report distributed to the council and the gods and goddesses, all of whom were in attendance. Frigg was seated at Odin’s side, sporting her new figure, still voluptuous but greatly slimmed down. My rival had profited from my absence, and she was no longer eating her heart out or anything else she could get her hands on. Odin had become more patient with his wife, and he was giving Frigg a little more of the attention she craved. Odin was pleased to see the transformation from the illusion of obesity into a full, curvaceous figure. But Frigg’s improved appearance and demeanor changed neither Odin’s feelings for me nor his commitment to me. Odin was the All-Father, the All-Husband, and the All-Lover. He could be everywhere at once and in love with everyone at once. There was no place for human jealousy and possessiveness in the grand scheme of all divine things.
Thor, Odin’s most powerful son, was also present in the convention hall—he was unusually quiet, most likely due to nerves. But in truth, everyone was a bit nervous and tense. The report stated the severity of the situation, and anyone who had eyes could see how distraught Odin was. The Father of the Gods was present at the meeting, seated on the high throne, a chair reserved only for the most formal occasions. Odin did not look well; he was pale and haggard with large circles under his eyes from sleepless nights, and he was clearly exhausted. Frigg sat close at his side on a slightly lower throne. The war council sat in a semicircle behind Odin, slightly elevated above him, a tribute to the importance of this prestigious jury comprised mostly of African kings and queens from throughout the ages. Every member of the panel, however, looked exceedingly glum.
Sage gave a speech touching on all the main points, which had been discussed in great detail in the lengthy report. “We are in grave danger here,” Sage stated firmly. “As Chief Adviser, I must inform you much is at stake. Odin has waited centuries for this important story to be told. Brynhild herself is on Earth right now, helping the epic to reach its natural conclusion. The tale will be known by various names—the Volsunga Saga, the Song of the Nibelungs, the Ballad of Sigurd—regardless of what name posterity shall choose to call it, the mythology will be an important aid, a teaching tool, for generations to come on Earth. Many important symbols and archetypes are now in the process of being developed in the collective consciousness of the human race.
“We, here, the gods and goddesses at Asgard, intend to use those symbols and archetypes as important modes of communication in the future when talking to humans through their dreams, their thoughts, their art, and other tools of divination. However, all will be lost if Atli gets his way and destroys our work before it has a chance to be properly assimilated. It will take millennia for Odin to have another opportunity like this one. And much time will be lost where we remain almost incommunicado to humans, unable to find the proper symbols and vocabulary with which to speak to them, unable to be comprehended. A tragic setback such as this one cannot be sustained here in Asgard. It has been decreed. We will intervene!”
The gripping silence of the hall was instantly broken by this blunt and unexpected announcement. A hubbub of excited voices erupted all at once. Everyone present at the meeting had something to say. There were catcalls and booing. “Impossible!” “Odin’s word is at stake!” “We must allow humans to decide their own fates!” “They have absolute freedom!” were some of the comments numerous voices yelled out from the floor. “You will be going back on your word!” “You will destroy the illusion of reality!” “Do not go forward with this intention!” Arguments were breaking out on the floor. Odin stood up and silently raised his hand while he waited for everyone to quiet down. After a few moments, the assembly had been hushed, and the room was as quiet as a tomb. And then Odin spoke calmly but persuasively.
“I am not tampering with human reality or freedom. But neither will I sit back and hold my peace while I watch my work being destroyed. I cannot change Atli’s plan, and I cannot guarantee the outcome of this ghastly drama. All I am saying is this—we will help them. We will do everything in our power to ensure the triumph of goodness and justice. Some horror stories will have to be told, and such tales will become part of the mythology. But the mythology must be preserved. We will do what we can.”
Thor stood up at once and demanded the floor. “What if Atli wins,” Thor asked, “and civilization loses?”
“If that happens, we will experience a dire setback,” Odin replied. “But it will be only a setback. I have given humans an eternal paradise, which in their ignorance they have temporarily turned into a hell. But paradise is always just around the corner for my flesh-and-blood creatures. They cannot not win. Mortals are always in the process of reaching the highest possible goal; they are always heading in the right direction. I have created the illusion of winning and losing just to give my cherished favorites something to strive for. This competitive element was supposed to be by way of demonstration only. Naturally, I should have known better. Whenever I cater to their baser instincts, humans always take it to an extreme. Now they are always trying to win, even if it is just about the random chance incurred by rolling dice on a game board. You see what I am up against.”
Just at that moment, Njord, a god of the sea and wind, often called upon by mariners, stood up and confronted Odin. “Sire,” Njord said, “give it to us straight. What is the grand plan?”
Sage was the one to answer this important question. He rose to his feet and made his monumental announcement. “We are planning an invasion. An army of angels is being recruited even as I speak. The defending army of the Nibelungs will be well fortified. Each Nibelung soldier will be accompanied by two angels. And the head of the Nibelung army, who will have an entire entourage of angels, will also be kept under constant surveillance by Odin.”
The hush was broken again by a low hum of excited whispers.
Freyja, the fairest of all goddesses, stood up and asked the question burning in everybody’s mind. “Who will be the head of the Nibelung army?” Freyja called out in a loud, clear voice for the entire company to hear. Sage smiled, for everyone suspected what the answer to that question would be.
“The greatest warrior on Earth at this time,” Sage replied. “The army will be headed by Sigurd.”
Now the assembly got rowdy again. Arguments broke out at once. The participants were both thrilled and alarmed. Sigurd was now almost forty years old. Surely, this illustrious knight was a mature man, and he could take on the tremendous responsibility. But there were those who had their doubts and feared for the future of the Nibelungs with Sigurd at the head of the Nibelung army. Sigurd was still riddled with self-doubt, and he often lacked intense focus and true conviction.
True, he was the son of King Sigmund, and he had distinguished himself by slaying Fafnir, but that feat had almost cost Sigurd his life. Sigurd had been trembling with fear and sweating profusely on the day he went in to finish Fafnir off. There had been one dreadful moment when the residents of Asgard feared Sigurd was going to give up the struggle and flee in terror of being mauled by the wretched beast. If Fafnir had devoured Sigurd at the critical hour, the whole saga would have been brought to an untimely end. Fortunately, Sigurd had come through, and the outcome was the one everyone had desired and hoped for. But now the stakes were higher, and the mission would require far more courage and skill. Was Sigurd up to it? Odin raised his arm for the second time until a hush fell over the room once again.
“We have no choice,” Odin declared decisively and in commanding tones. “Sigurd is our only hope. He is the only one who has even a slim chance of prevailing. Is Sigurd ready for this? Even I cannot say for sure. But part of my task is to convince Sigurd he is ready. For if Sigurd believes he is ready, then indeed, he shall be. You must all help me with this. You must all believe in Sigurd. Even a moment of doubt from one god could cost us our precious victory. The future of the human race hangs in the balance.” There was a long pause. “Are you all with me on this?” Odin’s voice rang out with a masterful authority.
The entire hall of gods and goddesses responded, as they arose in unison and proclaimed with one voice, “Hail, Sigurd, son of Sigmund!”
“Good, then you must all make haste and gather around the grand entry hall,” Odin ordered. “The army of angels is being briefed for their departure. We will see them off now. The celestial beings need to be infused with the highest love and inspiration, which they will in turn communicate to Sigurd and his men. All of you must concentrate your energies on this task. Every ounce of love you can invest in these heavenly guardians will help to weight the tremulous balance of power.”
Idunn, goddess of eternal youth and married to Bragi, god of poetry, stood up in the back of the room and asked for the floor. Odin granted it to her. “Should we try to curse Atli?” Idunn inquired. Odin shook his head sadly.
“Now, my dear Idunn, I’m surprised at you,” Odin replied calmly. “You know curses, hatred, and any kind of violence will only boomerang back at you. We are all one. If we curse one part of ourselves, we curse one and all. There is no separation. There is no grand divide. Atli is not the devil. He is merely a human being who does not believe in my existence or feel my love. Therefore, the Hunnic chief occasionally slips into bouts of lunacy. Atli thinks he is the god of the universe. The gentle teachings of his true father, King Budli of Isenstein, often guide Atli in the bureaucratic administration of the law, but when Atli is enraged, he fears no consequences, for he believes in no retribution.
“It breaks my heart to see Atli’s rampages. The man was meant for greatness, and he has perverted his true purpose in this loathsome fashion. His own soul finds the savagery to be hateful, and Atli is not even aware of it. Indeed, Atli’s soul was wandering around Valhalla just the other day, while his human frame slept in a drunken stupor in his bed back on Earth. I encountered Atli myself in the corridor. In his delirium, Atli almost thought he was supposed to remain here. Balder, our beautiful golden boy, explained to Atli he had to go back and return to his human body. But not for long. Atli’s personal angels tell me his soul has made a decision. He will be arriving in Valhalla in the very near future.”
A loud murmur swept across the hall at this news.
“So why do we not just wait for him to die?” asked Sif, who was Thor’s wife and whose gleaming, golden locks reflected the glittering lights of Asgard.
“That would simplify everything, would it not?” Odin conceded. “But Atli will not have it. The Hunnic monarch desires the destruction of the Nibelungs to be one of his last sieges on the planet before he departs. So we must act now.”
“Enough discussion, ye gods and goddesses,” Sage announced peremptorily. “Follow me into the main entrance hall. The angels await us. We must see them off.” And so hundreds of gods and goddesses arose at Sage’s behest, and the divinities lined themselves up and down the long entry hall wide enough to allow eight hundred men to walk abreast. The buglers appeared in the center of the floor and sounded out majestic notes to herald all the angels of the heavens. And out of nowhere, they appeared. It was a sight magnificent to behold. Rows and rows of angels in military Roman formation leading back to the far end of the hall. The celestial army seemed to reach out into infinity. The heavenly seraphs did not have the wings humans liked to imagine they had. The angels were golden beings lit up by a mystical light, which surrounded their bodies. The angels looked human—as did the gods; the angels imitated mortals in the appearance they chose to manifest. But every one of them, male or female, was a perfectly beautiful, resplendent creature and of every race, color, and creed. Even the gods were touched; Odin had tears in his eyes. This army of light and love was about to depart for the glorious quest Odin had conferred upon them.
“Are you ready?” Odin called out.
“We are, Sire,” the archangel at the head of the legion called back.
“Then you all know what must be done. I will be watching you every step of the way, helping in every perfect way I can think of. Remember, this undertaking is sacred to me. I cannot guarantee the outcome, but I can guarantee I believe in you every moment, and that at every moment, I am convinced you will succeed.”
“Then we shall, Sire,” replied the archangel without hesitation.
There was a long silence. Every god and goddess stood still and focused on sending the angelic army light and love. At length Odin spoke in a loud and commanding voice. “Very well, then. Be brave, and remember me!”
And so Odin extended his right arm, and swooping his hand upward in a regal gesture, he uttered magical incantations. The doors of Asgard melted away instantly, and the outer space of the physical universe became visible in the entryway. There was Bifröst, the rainbow bridge with its brilliant reds, blues, violets, and greens, the bridge leading out of the heavens. And beyond the bridge, a ladder of light sloped earthward from Asgard. Row by row, the angels exited, walking in perfect formation. The guardian spirits crossed the bridge and gracefully descended the rungs of this heavenly ladder, and when the marching angels stepped onto the dry land of Earth, they continued on their way, an army of light headed for Sigurd’s camp. It was there, just outside the borders of the Nibelung kingdom, where Sigurd, having been warned by King Gunnar’s spies of the threat from the east, had led the defending Nibelung army in preparation for a foreign invasion. Having established his camp and his command post, Sigurd was facing the greatest test of his prowess ever to be conceived by any mortal.
He would take on the army of Huns.
Chapter 14: Ragnarök: The Fate of the Gods
Sigurd awoke just before dawn, sensing the morning without seeing any evidence of it, for it was still pitch-dark outside his tent. Opening his eyes a full hour earlier than he needed to, Sigurd stirred and looked around him feeling something was amiss. The threat of a great battle had seemed only nominal, for Gunnar was certain Atli had more important matters of contention than the question of the Nibelungs’ refusal to pay tribute to the Hunnic king. After all, what was the tiny nation of the Nibelungs compared to the holdings of the Roman Empire? Gunnar’s little kingdom, a Nordic tribe which was secluded and unknown to most of the civilized world, had been forgotten amidst the world’s turmoil, and except for petty battles and conflicts, remained separate and aloof.
Still, when Atli was informed by a messenger from Gunnar’s court that the heavy tax the Huns had demanded would not be handed over upon demand, the response from the leader of the Huns was ambiguous. As a cautious measure, for Gunnar’s spies had noted some suspicious activity in Hunnic camps stationed in nearby regions, Sigurd had taken the Nibelung army to the outer borders of the little kingdom. There the regiment had set up camp while guards kept watch throughout the night, carefully scrutinizing the eastern frontier, the direction from which Atli’s troops would be expected to arrive. Sigurd tried not to imagine the implications of a bloody and fearsome battle with Atli’s troops. The son of Sigmund consoled himself with the tactical view held by King Gunnar and the royal advisers, which presumed such a campaign would cost Atli too much effort and would be hardly worth the trouble. Gunnar’s military analysts were satisfied Atli did not have sufficient motivation to trifle with the tiny kingdom.
Nevertheless, upon awakening in the early hours of that inauspicious morning, Sigurd knew instinctively he had deluded himself with such reassurances, for he sensed something was wrong. Casting a glance at the open flap in the entrance to his tent, Sigurd noted blackness still reigned in the moonless sky, yet the interior of his spacious and well-outfitted tent was glowing with a mysterious golden light. The source of the ethereal illumination remained unfathomable. Sigurd blinked his eyes several times to see if the inexplicable phosphorescence was an optical illusion owing to the deep sleep from which he had just awoken. But the remarkable radiance did not go away. Sigurd lifted himself, and propped up on his elbows, he gazed around him and continued to wonder at the unearthly light. At that moment, a breeze stirred the flaps of the canvas, and the leader of the Nibelung army heard a voice somehow both distant and yet clearly audible—indeed, a voice very familiar to him.
Sigurd… the softly whispered sound trailed off longingly.
Sigurd knew the melodious tones all too well, for he recognized the voice he had heard the day he vanquished Fafnir, the very same voice whose rich inflections had consoled him on many occasions when he was a child. Although the sonorous utterance masqueraded itself as his own voice inside his head, Sigurd knew the difference. He had unmistakably identified the voice of Odin. “Are you speaking to me, my Lord?” Sigurd asked aloud, looking around in dismay and feeling self-conscious about addressing an invisible entity.
Sigurd…it is time… was the whispered reply Sigurd heard inside his head.
“Time for what?” Sigurd asked out loud once again.
The time has come … you must fight the most difficult battle … it will be your finest hour … it must be done … it must be you … the time has come …
The voice died away again.
“What? How is such a thing possible?” Sigurd muttered as he bounded out of bed. He stood in the middle of his tent, and like an actor on a stage, the uncertain knight looked upward and made a sweeping gesture with his arms in a dramatic appeal to his unseen commander. “The most difficult battle—do you mean with Atli’s forces? The Huns will not bother even to put in an appearance. There is no profit for them in such a venture, as we are not worth the expense or the trouble.”
Sigurd … rouse your men … Atli’s troops are on their way … the time has come…
“Ach, no, please, do not tell me that,” Sigurd pleaded. “I cannot do it. Such a significant battle is still beyond my capabilities.”
Sigurd … it must be you … it must be done …
The voice faded out, and Sigurd desperately looked around as the impenetrable silence pounded in his ears. The eerie light inside the tent suddenly brightened, and for a moment Sigurd feared he would be blinded by it. Sigurd instinctively shielded his eyes with one hand, squinting hard to discern what was being revealed to him. He gazed about the interior of the tent. As he watched, a wondrous scene became manifest—Sigurd promptly perceived he was surrounded by a host of angels. The celestial beings comprised human forms who radiated astounding pale blue explosions of light, a light both brilliant and enthralling. But Sigurd was enthralled only for the briefest of moments, for the exquisite luminosity extinguished itself, the angels vanished instantly, and Sigurd was alone in the darkness once more. “In the name of the gods,” the dumbfounded warrior whispered, “I must do battle with Atli’s forces. My fate has been spelled out for me.”
And then bellowing like a drunken madman in order to rouse the camp, Sigurd searched for his sword and helmet, while his startled pages jumped to their feet and raced to Sigurd’s side to determine the cause of his panic. Sigurd was shouting commands almost incoherently, until finally, every page and aide-de-camp understood the true nature of the revelation he had experienced, a revelation from Odin himself. “Atli’s army is upon us!” Sigurd screamed in a state of agitation and upset. No one questioned Sigurd’s ability to commune with Odin, and his assistants quickly helped him to suit up in his armor. The drums were struck to awaken the entire camp. The news spread rapidly from tent to tent—the Nibelung army was being mobilized. The threat from Atli’s troops had been revealed to Sigurd, and the informant was none other than Odin himself. The Huns would be upon Sigurd’s army in a matter of hours.
The camp came to life instantly. Every soldier donned his armor and prepared his weapons. The pages saddled the horses, and the servants started up the fires to get a quick breakfast cooked and distributed. Soon the warriors were all in full readiness and mounted on their horses. At Sigurd’s command, the troops headed off in an easterly direction with Sigurd leading the way. Only the son of Sigmund and a few privileged others could perceive the uncanny angelic glow, the empyreal light which accompanied the mounted army of soldiers, with two angels clinging to every horse, and a host of angels accompanying Sigurd.
An hour later, the Nibelungs approached the enemy camp; Sigurd’s men stopped and remained still while mounted on their horses, watching the flickering campfires on the horizon. Odin had informed Sigurd correctly. Atli’s men were almost finished with their preparations, and they were in the process of harnessing their horses and distributing their weapons. The Huns had hoped to take Sigurd’s troops by surprise. They could not discern the Nibelung army watching them from a distance.
Sigurd was trembling. He lifted his visor from his helmet to get some air. He was gasping for breath. The son of Sigmund felt feverish. “My Lord, Odin,” he whispered, “I am scared. Please forgive me for failing you in this way, but I cannot move. I am terrified.”
Once again Odin’s harmonious tones were heard like heavenly music in Sigurd’s head.
Your finest hour…the time has come … it must be you … it must be done …
Sigurd let his visor fall back into place with a resounding clank. The son of Sigmund was still shaking, but he knew there was no turning back. Sigurd sought valiantly to recover himself as he gasped for breath, and the sweat poured down his face. At that moment, the extraordinary event, which Sigurd prayed for as always, occurred. A wave of strength and resolution surged throughout his entire body. Sigurd threw his head back, and he held his sword high in the air. A bloodcurdling war cry escaped from his throat, the signal his commanding officers were awaiting, for the war cry was the cue the attack had begun. “Then it will be done!” Sigurd cried out, now fortified by his divinely inspired courage.
And there came the thunderous roar of a thousand stampeding horses.
Sigurd’s memory of the hours to come would prove to be unreliable. He saw enough blood, horror, and death to last a lifetime. The Nibelungs had taken Atli’s army by surprise, but several of the enemy’s ace units and guard troops had already been standing in readiness. The skilled warriors of the enemy camp took Sigurd on in hand-to-hand combat while Sigurd rode around in circles like a crazed animal, screaming at the top of his lungs and slashing at anything in near proximity. The dead bodies were strewn about the field in a scene that became a blood-drenched nightmare. Yet, somehow, as the marauding mob of confusion thinned itself out, it was mostly Atli’s men who lay sprawled in the field, their features frozen in a grotesque caricature of painful death. As the battle drew to a close, Sigurd surveyed the scene in his exhaustion, almost certain of his victory. At that very moment, when Sigurd was about to exult in triumph, one of Atli’s soldiers, wounded and crazed, made a desperate lunge at the fatigued knight who had led the Nibelung forces into battle. One of Sigurd’s guards attempted to abort the headlong charge of the dying Hun just in time to pull Sigurd inches out of the way. Nevertheless, the oncoming sword was plunged into Sigurd’s side, missing his heart but still inflicting a serious wound. The attacker was quickly slain by Sigurd’s guards.
Sigurd’s faithful and divine horse, Grani, understood instinctively his master had been injured and was in danger. The horse fled from the field with its wounded rider lying on the animal’s back face down, Sigurd’s feet still attached to the stirrups. When Grani was clear of the battlefield, the horse found a secluded alcove of trees and bushes with a little stream. Grani lowered himself while Sigurd rolled off the horse’s back and onto the ground, where the Nibelung leader quickly became unconscious. Sometime after nightfall, a Nibelung search party with fiery torches found Sigurd lying there alongside the stream, as Grani stood guard over his master. The rescuers washed the wound, bandaged it, and carefully laid Sigurd out on a stretcher. Slowly the medical team made their way back to the camp from which Sigurd had departed early that morning with such determination and faith.
Sigurd’s army had won the day. Atli’s forces had been repelled.
There should have been joy and celebration back at the camp when it was clear the Nibelungs were victorious. Instead, the entire camp was moribund. To win the battle but lose Sigurd was a trade-off almost unbearable for the Nibelungs. The price was too high to pay. Sigurd was laid out in his bed, unconscious, breathing with difficulty, and feverish. Several battlefield doctors and nurses were attending to the Nibelung leader impassively but with grim expressions on their faces conveying the severity of the situation. A courier stood poised at the entrance of the imperial tent housing the commander of the army, ready to run with the news of any change in Sigurd’s condition. All the wounded had been returned to the camp. Those soldiers who could be safely moved were being taken back to their homes or to the palace for further treatment by the royal doctors, limited as their craft was in that day and age. The rest of the camp remained behind, unwilling to leave until they knew Sigurd’s fate. It did not look promising. The wound was deep, and Sigurd had lost a lot of blood. He could not be moved.
On the second day, Sigurd’s condition worsened. Gunnar, impatient for news every hour, sent his own bodyguard, André, to the camp to get a personal report. A brave and trustworthy soul, André raced to the camp on a white Arabian horse bearing the royal standard. The watch outside the camp informed the doctors a royal courier was arriving, most likely seeking news of Sigurd’s condition. The oldest doctor on the team, Vrinjing, who was silver-haired and bearded, stepped outside Sigurd’s tent, and he waited for Gunnar’s man to arrive. “How fares Sigurd?” yelled André from his horse, not even wanting to take the time to dismount, so anxious was he for news.
The good doctor did not mince words. There was no way to soften the effect he knew his pronouncement would have. “Fetch his mother,” Vrinjing replied simply. “Sigurd is dying.”
The royal physician then withdrew, disappearing through the flaps of the tent.
André’s horse whinnied and reared with the front legs high in the air, as if comprehending the impact of the woeful tidings. André regained control of the beast, and he hastily turned the horse homeward to begin the journey back to the palace, before anyone had a chance to see the tears welling up in his eyes. Gunnar’s trusted guardsman tore off into the wilderness, filled with the frustration of being unable to help Sigurd in any way except in the communication of this small request.
The next day, Hjordis, the Viking queen and the widow of Sigmund, arrived at the camp, where she took up her post at her son’s bedside. The vigil seemed to have no end in sight, and all hope was lost. The camp was already in mourning. It was almost too painful to wait for Sigurd to die. Many of Sigurd’s comrades sincerely wished they could die in his place.
At Asgard, Sage observed the mournful scene in Sigurd’s camp from the screening room, while thoughtfully rubbing his chin. Odin was still in a conference with the war council, and Sage was patiently waiting to catch Odin in passing and have a word with him. At last the conference room doors swung open, and Odin, rushing about as usual, swept past Sage trying to pretend he did not notice the Chief Adviser standing there. “Sire, I must speak to you. It’s quite urgent,” Sage implored, squarely blocking Odin’s path by standing in front of him and holding his arms out sideways.
“What is it now?” Odin paused and asked with resignation, knowing full well it was impossible to avoid Sage when he had business he considered to be pressing.
“Sire, it’s about Sigurd,” Sage chose his words carefully.
“Yes, yes. What about him?” Odin pursued with some gruffness in his tone of voice.
“Have you been in the screening room recently?” Sage asked.
“Not for a couple of days. I’ve been occupied with other crises. What ails him? He won,” Odin noted.
“Ah, yes, indeed. He won, Sire, but I think you got called away by the Acting Head Valkyrie before the battle actually reached its absolute conclusion. Isn’t that correct?” Sage inquired.
“I believe that is correct,” Odin agreed. “Brynhild’s replacement is taking longer to train than I had originally anticipated. Did something happen after I left?”
“Yes…I suppose you could say that,” Sage countered cautiously.
“So give it to me straight, my man, what ails Sigurd?” Odin’s impatience was obvious.
“Sire, Sigurd has been mortally wounded,” Sage blurted out without further procrastination. A long pause ensued.
“What!” boomed Odin in an explosion capable of shaking the heavens. Every god and goddess in Asgard had to stop for a moment, while they made sure it was not the end of all the universes. Odin was aghast. “Who is responsible for this? This is a mistake. Was it an accident? Don’t tell me my renegade son, Thor, has been misfiring with his lightning bolts again. What went wrong? Is he dead yet?”
Odin was getting increasingly hysterical.
“He lives, Sire, but he is not expected to last much longer,” Sage reported quietly. Odin made a dash for his executive suite, where he went through the great piles of scrolls and manuscripts lying about on the floor.
“Where is it? Where is it?” Odin kept saying to himself, now panic-stricken.
Eventually, the All-Father found what he was searching for, a manuscript entitled “The Life of Sigurd.” Odin turned directly to the back to read the last page. The ending was vague because there were always two endings, the true ending and the mythological ending, which was difficult to interpret even in Asgard. “I thought Sigurd was not supposed to die until old age,” muttered Odin, “or what passes for old age during this period, which is about fifty-eight. It says here he survives the battle, but it does not say for how long. See, now, this is what happens when I stop paying attention even for a moment. I have to be cognizant of everything all the time. As soon as I get distracted, I face certain disaster.”
“Indeed, nothing is cast in stone, as you always say, Sire,” Sage reminded him.
“Yes, true, very true. Nothing is cast in stone,” Odin allowed softly, more to himself than to Sage.
“What are you going to do, Sire?” demanded Sage rather bluntly.
“Let me examine the details of Sigurd’s physical state,” replied Odin after a pensive moment. “I have to see how serious the wound is.”
Sage focused on the screen while extending his right hand to send out invisible energies, until Sigurd’s enfeebled frame appeared from the waist up in full detail on the screen. Odin stared at the unconscious warrior for a long time without saying anything. “Ah, yes, that looks rather grim, does it not?” Odin finally whispered. “A lunatic soldier made a reckless dash for him, eh?”
“Where is that soldier now?”
“He arrived at Valhalla the other night, Sire. He’s actually a very good soldier,” Sage informed the Father of the Gods.
“Ah, yes, I am sure of it. The idiot very nearly changed the course of history without my permission. You have to be good to do that. I expect that sort of thing from Atli but not from a common soldier,” Odin concurred. “I hope the unruly fellow does not expect a medal for this little escapade.”
“What are you going to do, Sire?” Sage asked once again.
“I’m not sure. This will take a miracle.” Odin began to nervously chew on a thumbnail.
“Can civilization handle a miracle? You don’t want humans to start a new religion, do you?” inquired Sage.
“Please, no. Naturally, I do not. Humans start new religions as a matter of course, even when there is no miracle in sight. Mortals can only handle small, trivial miracles, which they term ‘coincidences.’ The slightest hint of a major miracle, and my sentient souls are killing each other to protect the new faith they have invented, and all in my name, or so they say. I am nearly at the end of my tether. Humans are going to be the death of me.” Odin sounded truly discouraged.
“But humans are your grand masterpiece, Sire,” Sage gently reminded him.
“Yes, yes, I know. I gave mortals free will. I invited these divine souls housed in bodies to make mistakes. I knew humans had to sink to the lowest depths before they could ascend to the greatest heights, so they could understand the difference between the two states. I gave humans contradictions, so they could explore all the possibilities. Contradictions are sacred to me. I, of all entities, have a lot of nerve if I’m going to complain. Nevertheless, my cherished earthbound creatures drive me to distraction with their contradictions.”
“I know I keep asking this, Sire, but what exactly are you going to do?” Sage repeated. Sage knew something had to be done very soon. Odin continued to stare at the screen as he resumed chewing on a thumbnail.
“Get Rota in here,” Odin ordered Sage, having made a swift decision. “She is going in for a special mission.” Rota was the Acting Chief Valkyrie, who was substituting for me. Sage went running down the hall to fetch her at once.
“Do I have enough experience to resuscitate a dying warrior?” asked Rota in a bit of a panic, when Sage burst into her boudoir and quickly briefed her on the predicament Odin was facing. “I mean, I’ve been making mistakes of a rather serious nature. The other day, I was at a major battle. I delivered a healthy captain’s soul to Valhalla, and I left the soul of the deceased captain wandering around the battlefield in utter bewilderment.”
“Good heavens! That was a big mistake,” Sage agreed. “Were you able to correct it?”
“Yes, but Odin had to help me,” Rota noted dejectedly. “Odin struck the healthy captain, who was destined to live, with the thorn of sleep so the mystified soul would not remember anything he had seen. Next, we put him back in his old body, planting the explanation he had gone into shock and had mysteriously become unconscious. Lastly, I retrieved the correct soul of the deceased captain, who, as disoriented as he was about just having died and having been left behind, was even more disoriented by the time he arrived in Valhalla.”
“I can imagine. You’re lucky you returned to the battlefield in time to put the captain destined to live back in his own body. An inexplicable death followed by a resurrection? Humans would have turned the poor bloke into a messiah,” Sage commented as he whistled softly at the thought of it. “You have to be more careful, Rota. Your position entails great responsibility. You have to invest your full attention at all times.”
“I know. I know. Please, Odin has been lecturing me day and night about this. Brynhild made it look so effortless. No one in actuality appreciated how good she was at her job.” Rota exhaled deeply. “I will need a century to get up to speed.”
“In human terms, a century is too long. You are going to have to approach perfection levels in about two hours,” remarked Sage.
“Impossible! Odin is a slave driver! He expects all of us to have the same energy levels he has,” Rota complained. “And now Odin expects me to perform a miracle with Sigurd? I cannot—I’m too inexperienced.”
“Nevertheless, you must come with me to Odin’s chambers right now. We will have a meeting,” Sage informed her. Upon being commanded thus, Rota steeled herself with a deep breath, and she followed Sage down the long corridor to Odin’s screening room. There she was greeted with the pathetic sight of the dying Sigurd blown up on the screen in the middle of the amphitheater. Sigurd looked even worse than Rota had anticipated.
“Good heavens, how abhorrent! I think this goes far beyond my present level of expertise,” Rota whispered, clearly discouraged by what she was observing.
“Not at all,” commented Odin, his magisterial voice unexpectedly being projected from an obscure corner of the room, where the All-Father was slouching in the shadows. “I think you can do it, Rota. I’m counting on you.”
Rota whipped around, having been caught unawares. She would not have been so negative in her appraisal of her own abilities had she known Odin was sitting right there. A lack of confidence was not looked upon kindly in Asgard. The gods had to be the masters of their moods.
Rota groaned almost inaudibly, regretting Odin had overheard her remark.
“Forgive me, Sire,” Rota explained while giving a quick curtsy, “but it is evident that Sigurd is in a deplorable state.”
“True,” said Odin, “but he’s still alive. Anything short of a resurrection is still rather simple in my book. And we have no time to lose, my dear.” Odin called Rota “dear” quite a bit, but unlike his complicated relationship with me, he had never tried to seduce my replacement. “You are going in on my behalf. Just do what I have taught you to do. Breathe life into Sigurd until he starts coming back. Don’t go too far. If Sigurds suddenly gets up, fully healed, and ready to turn cartwheels, we will have a difficult problem on our hands. Just keep breathing into him until he is out of danger. As it is, Sigurd’s retinue is going to get suspicious and start claiming miracle status. We have to keep a low profile about this, if at all possible. Leave room for a three- or four-month convalescence. Clear?” Odin asked Rota as she stared at him in a mild state of apprehension.
“Yes, Sire.” Rota curtsied again, feigning a composure she did not feel. I rarely curtsied to Odin. Having slept with him, I was not as impressed with his authority.
“Are you ready?” Odin inquired as Rota held her breath in suspense.
“Right now?” Rota asked with trepidation.
“I presume it is now, or never,” Odin responded softly.
“Then I’m ready,” Rota confirmed.
Odin raised his right arm, and Rota did the same. The palms of their hands touched, and Odin began murmuring the sacred incantations. Lightning cracked throughout the room, and there was the deafening roar of a hurricane wind. Rota registered the shock by emitting the inevitable scream after which she plummeted to Earth, landing right outside Sigurd’s tent.
“Good aim, Sire,” Sage congratulated the All-Father with some satisfaction, while watching the screen as Rota materialized on Earth.
“Ach,” Odin said with concern, “she better become invisible right away before someone spots her.”
“Yes, of course, but it is, after all, the middle of the night,” Sage noted. “No one is up and about.”
“You never know,” Odin returned. “The infernal insomniacs always get up and start wandering around just when you think you are perfectly safe. It’s been the cause of many an unscheduled revelation.”
“Yes, Sire,” chuckled Sage. “And some of those awkward moments put you in a rather tight spot. Many a legend can be traced back to you being caught by surprise on Earth.”
“There is no time to reminisce about the good old days,” rejoined Odin rather tensely. “I’m worried about Rota who, by the way, is still fully visible…ah, thank the heavens, she just realized she was walking around in full sight of everyone. Do I not teach everyone the basic rules for descent to Earth? Becoming invisible upon materialization is the absolute first rule. You cannot toy with the physical laws of human reality. If the illusion of reality is destroyed, humans begin to doubt their own sanity.” Naturally, Odin’s rules did not apply to himself.
Rota had approached Sigurd’s bedside and was leaning over him, lightly running her fingers over the length of his body until she found the source of the deadly wound, which she warmed with healing light from her hand. But Sigurd’s whole body had been greatly compromised by the ordeal. His soul was now attached to his body by a fine thread of light. Sigurd was ready to depart from the earthly dimension, and he was quite resigned to the idea. The Nibelung commander was actually looking forward to returning to Valhalla and being relieved of all human responsibilities on the physical plane. Rota placed her hand on the crown of Sigurd’s head, the entry and exit portal for the human soul, thus giving the dying knight enough strength to speak.
“Sigurd,” Rota spoke gently, “Odin wants you to remain in your human form for a while longer. You still have an office to fulfill.”
“Ach, no, please,” Sigurd appealed to Rota in a voice sounding weak and pained. “I’ve had enough. I’m badly damaged. I want peace.”
“I know,” Rota commiserated. “But I can facilitate the healing of the wound to a certain extent. It will never completely heal because I cannot go that far with it, and you will deal with the pain for the rest of your life. But I can at least make it bearable. It is important you live. You will be a source of inspiration and hope for a new generation. If you die now, the grief will be too overwhelming for your kinsmen. Civilization will never completely recover from the tragedy of your premature death. The populace will go mad; they will start killing each other.”
“Don’t they do that anyway?” Sigurd pressed with a sense of hopelessness.
“Yes, but we would rather not do anything to make it worse than it already is. There is plenty of time for you back at Valhalla. You will have an eternity to find true peace once you are back in your true home. But another ten or twenty human years here on Earth will do many fine souls a world of good. And it is important you die a natural death, so your countrymen will be more resigned to the inevitability of it when the time comes. Please, bear with us. Odin is begging you.”
“Do I have a choice?” Sigurd entreated.
“Odin does not impose his will upon anyone. You know that. He is merely asking you to reconsider,” Rota admitted frankly. “I will breathe life back into you, but you have to help me. You have to will yourself to live. Things have gone a little too far with your condition. This is going to require a joint effort.”
Sigurd slowly came to terms with Odin’s wishes, and he finally agreed to stay in his human body. There was no time to lose, though, for he was losing life and vitality at an alarming rate. Rota bent over Sigurd, placing her mouth on his, and she began to force healing atoms and particles into his throat. She filled Sigurd’s lungs with air. The flow of the current Rota breathed into Sigurd’s lungs was filled with bright points of light, which Rota had received directly from Odin’s assuaging hands. Rota continued providing succor for several minutes in this manner. After pausing for a moment, she ran her hands over Sigurd’s body a second time to gauge his progress.
Odin and Sage were watching everything intently from their observation post.
“I hope she knows when to stop,” declared Odin, his brows knitted together in a worried expression. “Otherwise, Sigurd will be restored to such a salubrious state, he will leap out of bed and prance right out of that tent.”
Rota closed her eyes, and she concentrated with a fervent intensity. If she went too far, it would be a bona fide miracle. If she did not go far enough, Sigurd would die. Rota’s mental analysis of the wound indicated she had Sigurd at just the right place, and she therefore halted her ministrations.
Odin and Sage exhaled with relief as they watched.
“Goodbye, Sigurd,” Rota whispered in his ear. Looking as pale as a dead man but now breathing more evenly, Sigurd smiled in his sleep. Rota stepped outside the tent and looked up at the heavens. She gave the signal to indicate she was ready to re-ascend.
Sage flew into action. Quick visits to the physical plane were difficult. For this reason alone, Odin did not want gods and goddesses making unnecessary visits to Earth just for pure amusement. Odin himself had caused Sage many a panic-stricken moment when the All-Father donned his favorite costume for an unannounced appearance on Earth. Descent was manageable enough, but it was never as easy to bring a deity back to Asgard. Odin often helped Sage with these re-entry procedures, but when Odin himself had to be brought back, Sage had to work alone in the screening room, where the Chief Adviser could usually be found cursing under his breath with beads of sweat pouring down his face. Odin, however, paid no mind to such uneasiness concerning his adventures on Earth. Odin feared nothing, and impossible obstacles were always overcome by pure force of will.
Sage was compelled to act quickly to facilitate Rota’s safe return to the heavens. Rota was ready, and both he and Odin had to focus their full attention on the task. The only one who re-ascended with relative ease was myself because I did it so often, and I took a whole army of Valkyries with me. I was even better at re-ascent than Odin was, much to his annoyance. But, of course, such was the nature of my work, and I had practiced this feat to perfection.
Rota raised both hands high in the air and turned her face toward the heavens with her eyes shut tight, as she willed herself to be lifted out of the physical universe and back into the winding passages of Asgard. Sage once again extended his right hand while fixing his attention on the screen and radiating the highly charged energies needed for re-ascent. And Odin intensified Sage’s efforts by muttering incantations and passing his hands in front of his face. Slowly, Rota began to dematerialize into a cloud of molecules. At last, she shot up in a cone of light reaching out into infinity. It was all over in a fraction of a second. Rota vanished from the screen, and a moment later she was standing in front of Odin, shaking and weak, but safely home again. Odin embraced her. “Good show, my dear!”
“How did I do?” Rota asked tentatively.
“You were excellent,” Odin reassured her. “Sigurd will recover from the worst of his wound in a month or so, but he will sustain enough of a disability to remind everyone he is human and that the recovery was not quite as miraculous as his kinsmen are going to make it out to be. You went just far enough with your healing powers. It was perfect.”
“Thank the heavens,” Rota murmured softly.
“Perhaps you want to thank me,” Odin corrected her and smiled.
“Thank you,” Rota complied. And Odin embraced her again.
In Sigurd’s tent the new scenario was beginning to play itself out. Inge, the night nurse, who had been plunged conveniently into a deep sleep while Rota was working on Sigurd’s afflicted body, woke up with a start. Alarmed, Inge realized she must have been sleeping for about half an hour. She jumped up from her post to check Sigurd’s vital signs. The doctors were not expecting Sigurd to last the night, and Inge was to awaken the chief physician, Vrinjing, in the next tent, as soon as she was sure Sigurd had entered his death throes. As the nurse leaned over her inert patient to examine him, she was impressed with the regularity of his breathing. Inge noticed beads of sweat on his forehead.
Not quite understanding at first, Inge laid a hand on Sigurd’s head, and she realized with a shock the fever had broken. To investigate further, she pulled back the covers and removed the bandages from the frightful, gaping wound in Sigurd’s side. The infection was no longer oozing. Though still formidable, the wound was not quite so hideous to the eye. Inge gasped with pure amazement. She wondered if she had really woken up, or if she was still sound asleep and dreaming it all. After standing paralyzed over Sigurd’s prone shape for a minute or two, the nurse realized it was imperative to get the doctor to verify her observations. Inge went running out of the tent, yelling for Vrinjing. The good doctor was roused from his sleep in a drugged-like stupor, but then remembered sadly he had been expecting this rude awakening in the middle of the night. Surely, Vrinjing knew full well why the nurse was standing over his bed, ranting unintelligibly. Surely, Sigurd had died.
“Very well, then, what is it, woman? Out with it. He’s dead, isn’t he?” asked Vrinjing gruffly in an attempt to hide his sorrow.
“It’s a miracle! It’s a miracle!” Inge was shouting repeatedly. In his drowsiness, the doctor could not quite make out her frenetic utterances, but Vrinjing assumed the nurse was frantic because Sigurd had breathed his last and had succumbed in his sleep. Vrinjing donned his coat to protect himself from the chilly night air, and he splashed some cold water on his face to wake himself up. After drying his face with a towel, he turned to Inge in the hope of calming her down. But the nurse was manically raving about a miracle. Finally, Vrinjing convinced her to quiet down for a moment.
“Is Sigurd dead?” the doctor asked.
“No, he is not,” Inge babbled in her elation. “He lives. It is Odin’s will he should live. The fever is broken. The wound is not festering. Sigurd still lies in a coma, but unless I am beset by visions or completely insane, he lives and will continue to live.”
At this pronouncement, the incredulous doctor fled from his tent and ran to Sigurd’s side. Inge had not deceived the chief physician. Sigurd’s deathly pallor had been somewhat alleviated. The knight’s chest rose and fell with a steady and deep breathing. The wound was no longer infected and now showed small signs of initial healing. The doctor could not believe what his quick and discerning medical eye was telling him. Vrinjing fell to his knees and burst into tears. “Thank you, Odin!” Vrinjing yelled out with his hands clasped in front of him as he lifted his face toward the sky. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”
Odin, Sage, and Rota stood in a little circle in front of the screen as they listened solemnly to the doctor’s heartfelt gratitude. “You are welcome,” pronounced Odin quietly, having broken the mesmerizing silence gripping the three of them in the screening room. And with only this briefest of acknowledgments, Odin abruptly left, throwing his cape casually over one shoulder and exiting the screening room wordlessly and without further ado. Rota and Sage knew well enough to leave him alone. Odin was very emotional. The All-Father was probably going back to his chambers to weep.
Sigurd’s mother, Hjordis, was awakened and told of the recent turn of events in regard to the health of her son. Hjordis knelt at Sigurd’s bedside, and she shed tears of relief. As the rising sun began to turn the night clouds a pinkish hue in the easterly sky, pages visited each tent to announce the news of Sigurd’s remarkable recovery to every soldier and servant. There was not a dry eye in the entire camp. Everyone clasped each other and embraced. Couriers were sent back to Gunnar’s palace and to every important noble in the land with the jubilant report of Sigurd’s recovery.
Sigurd would live. Sigurd would live, and he would thrive. Victory belonged to the Nibelungs, and they had not had to pay the unbearable price of trading their victory for Sigurd’s life. Victory was theirs; victory was truly theirs. The word “miracle” was on everyone’s lips.
Gunnar was ecstatic when the communiqué was read to him. The Nibelung king quickly slipped into the royal chapel, and he began praying fervently to Odin at his private altar. The king feared the happy tidings were almost too good to be true. But the reports from the encampment arrived on a daily basis, and the dispatches continued to be positive. Sigurd was getting stronger every day. Sigurd was sitting up in bed. Sigurd was eating solid food again. Supplies were delivered by horse and wagon from the palace, and Sigurd’s tent was turned into the plushest abode, the royal tent usually reserved only for Gunnar himself.
After a few weeks, Sigurd rose from his sickbed, and he walked about his tent for a few minutes before being gently supported and led back to his bed by nursing attendants. Within a week or so after that, Sigurd could mount his horse, and he could ride for short distances in spite of the pain. The son of Sigmund was thinner, weaker, and paler. There was a sadness in Sigurd’s eyes, an inchoate longing for he knew not what. He could only vaguely recollect a glimmer of some peaceful eternity, which had somehow eluded him.
But at last, the happy day for decampment had arrived. The tents were dismantled, and the supply wagons were loaded up. Every soldier was decked out in full ceremonial uniform, and even the horses were decked out in full regalia. For the first time since the day of the battle, Sigurd suited up in full armor for the journey back to the kingdom. He would lay in a trolley to be pulled by his faithful horse, Grani, until the company reached the gates of the province. Upon arrival at the gates, disregarding the pain and discomfort of the still healing wound, Sigurd would mount Grani. Although Sigurd winced in anticipation of the almost unendurable spasms of pain, he was secure in the knowledge that the doctors had bandaged him tightly to give him as much support as possible.
Sigurd would ride through the gates of Nibelungenland; the triumphant knight would mount Grani, and he would ignore the pain. The army reassembled, this time for the victory march into the heart of the kingdom, where Gunnar and I would be in attendance, seated on our thrones in front of the palace and waiting to bestow Sigurd with the highest honors.
The royal family gathered at the appointed time, as did the entire populace, and we waited patiently. Soon the watchtower reported the army was approaching the walls of the kingdom. The trumpeters lined the streets, and countless young maidens strewed baskets of rose petals to provide a carpet for Sigurd and his men. And then the trumpeter’s blare dramatically announced the great moment had arrived. The war drums sounded a tribal beat while the captains called out their marching orders. The multitudes, who patiently awaited a glimpse of their returning hero, held their breath collectively as they stood motionless in respect and anticipation. The high wooden gates of the kingdom walls slowly opened as if pushed by the force of an unseen hand. There was Sigurd at the head of his entourage, mounted, holding his ceremonial spear high in the air and with a look of destiny in his eyes, while the hordes, at first stunned into silence, quickly became almost riotous as they cheered him on. Thousands of hands reached out to touch Sigurd’s horse as he passed through the streets, while he smiled with gentle understanding, radiating love, and never once letting the Nibelungs see him flinch with the pain. Truly, the heavens were smiling on their favorite son on this day. Tears welled up in my eyes when I saw Sigurd sitting with such ferocious pride on his glorious white horse, so strong, so beautiful, so dignified by his suffering. Our eyes met as the parade halted before the thrones.
Gunnar, the King of the Nibelungs, raised his arm, and an eerie hush fell over the crowd. Sigurd dismounted, walked up to the thrones, and knelt before us with bent head. Gunnar arose, trying to disguise how moved he was by the sight of Sigurd alive and in health. Gunnar pressed his sword on each of Sigurd’s shoulders. And then my husband, the king, called out his words for all to hear.
“Hail, Sigurd, son of Sigmund, the mightiest of warriors, who pleased Odin so that the Nibelungs would not be thwarted. Hail, Sigurd, who delivered us from the threat of an evil that would have been the dawn of a dark age filled with dread and terror. Hail, Sigurd, for he lives. Odin has decreed it. Sigurd lives; the heavens be thanked. Truly, the Nibelungs are blessed on this day. All are blessed on this day. All are blessed!” Gunnar yelled out to the captivated throng as his voice echoed over the ramparts. Gunnar placed the laurel wreath of victory on Sigurd’s head. Sigurd rose to face the king, and Gunnar embraced Sigurd, at last allowing himself the tears he had hidden so well and for so long.
And thousands of kinsmen wept, laughed, embraced, and cheered with the frenzy and the euphoria of this scene, which had been scripted by Odin himself.
Chapter 15: Epilogue
The threat from Atli was finished, and not just for the Nibelungs, but for all of civilization. Not long after the Huns were repulsed by Sigurd and his army, Atli took another wife, a young German princess named Ildico. Atli died on his wedding night either from a choking nosebleed induced by his drunkenness or from having overexerted himself in the performance of his marital duties—some say he was murdered. With Atli gone, the empire was inherited by the sons of the Hunnic chieftain, who immediately began warring with each other for the throne. With no unifying commander to rally them, the Huns quickly dispersed, and they left no further traces in the history of humanity.
Sigurd was forevermore a hero, worshiped and adored by the Nibelungs, who would tell the story of the son of Sigmund for generations to come. But the ferocious drama and the nearly death-dealing wound had taken their toll on the knight’s strength and vitality. The constant pain from the old wound was always with him, and the affliction was debilitating. Sigurd was thereafter content to retire to a life of solitude and meditation, a quiet life he shared with Gudrun and the family he doted on. Sigurd was greatly comforted by the children he fathered with Gudrun, a little girl named Swanhild, and a boy, whom he named Sigmund. Legend had it Sigurd fathered a child by me, also, but I categorically deny that.
Having been so weakened by the almost ruinous injury he sustained the day of the glorious battle with Atli’s forces, Sigurd lived for only another ten years before dying of natural causes. Throughout the remainder of his days, Sigurd and I were never able to speak with each other in a heartfelt way, much less lie in bed with each other, for we were rarely alone, and there were too many prying eyes when the Queen of the Nibelungs and the greatest warrior on the planet were seen together. For the most part, we studiously ignored each other. We never again spoke of the clandestine marriage pact we had made at Isenstein, nor did we ever again share the amicable intimacy we had known on our journey to Iceland. The most magnificent part of our drama had played itself out, and the task at hand had been effectively brought to its grand finale. Sigurd and I still loved each other, and our souls spoke to each other in dreams and in shared silences. We lived in the same environment. We greeted each other daily. We had to be thankful for the small pleasure we took from the nearness of our quarters.
The stress of such high drama, the constant need to adjust to human foibles, and the implacable obstacles placed between me and Sigurd had taken its toll on me as well. The day Sigurd died, I went into mourning and could no longer see any point in this incarnation, which had been forced upon me so brutally by Odin twelve years earlier. My marriage to Gunnar was merely an empty formality. I shared the throne with my husband, and I was present at official ceremonies. I took refuge in the inner sanctum of my thoughts and scholarly pursuits, but after Sigurd was gone, there was little to comfort me no matter where I retreated.
Gunnar remained in awe of my beauty, my intelligence, and my skill, and he did not try to force himself upon me. This noble sacrifice, which Gunnar made by not demanding I fulfill my wifely duties, created an aura of saintliness about the Nibelung king he had never before obtained. Gunnar fawned over me in many small ways, and he suffered with the torment of knowing instinctively I had always loved Sigurd and not him. Gunnar had no earthly evidence for that knowledge. But Odin’s pet ravens, Hugin and Munin, had been whispering in his ear. Gunnar became wiser with the passing years, and the Nibelungs developed a deep affection and reverence for him, as they had revered his father, King Giuki.
When Sigurd died, Gudrun grieved for him passionately. My old rival was not to be consoled and only very gradually, with time, did she habituate herself to her empty bed and the loss of her dear and legendary companion. As the widow of the dead hero, Gudrun was much desired by princes and kings who came seeking her from every corner of the world, despite the fact she was already thirty-five years old, and her beauty and other charms were somewhat compromised by the passage of the years. Although the comfortless widow initially swore she could never love another after the death of Sigurd, she did eventually become the wife of a capable and compassionate king named Jonakr, who took her and her children back to his homeland in Denmark.
Legend would have it Gudrun had been forced by her mother to marry Atli before she wed Jonakr. It was said Atli continued to covet the Nibelung treasure Sigurd had so triumphantly brought back to the kingdom after slaying Fafnir, and that when Atli was opposed in his desire to possess the kingdom’s riches, the Hun murdered Gudrun’s brothers, including Gunnar. And so, Gudrun, in her rebellion against her barbaric husband, whom she despised, was to have killed the two sons she had borne by Atli, roasting them and feeding them to her hateful husband, thus giving rise to the legend Atli had eaten his own sons. And the story went that the delicate Gudrun, suited up in armor like a man, was then to have plunged a knife in Atli’s heart just before setting the Hun’s palace on fire.
But this was all once again the pure delirium of wild rumors. Gudrun was never to meet Atli, much less to marry him and bear two children, whom she would later murder and feed to her unsuspecting husband. The grieving Gudrun, who believed she had been wife to the best of all men, remained aloof to suitors until Jonakr finally tempted her with his kindness. Thus, the widow of Sigurd led a quiet life in her new kingdom, bearing King Jonakr three sons, Hamdir, Sorli, and Erp. There Gudrun lived out her days with Jonakr and all her children, including her two children by Sigurd, Swanhild and Sigmund, in relative contentment.
There was to be no such consolation for me. I was still Gunnar’s wife in the eyes of all, and even if I had been widowed, I would have rejected all suitors. I did not care for the human obsession with eternal love—I, who had once had the All-Father worshiping me every night for my beauty and my brilliance. Shortly after Sigurd’s death, I realized my purpose had been fulfilled, and all I could do for the Nibelungs to hasten them on the road to enlightenment had been done.
One afternoon I took a long walk into the woods until I reached a magic clearing, which had been marked with leaves and branches in the shape of a pentacle. Standing inside the protective energies of this spiritual shield, I assailed Odin. “I have had enough!” I shouted at the skies. It had been more than ten years on Earth, and I beseeched Odin to let me come home to Asgard. It was impossible for me to adjust to human life. As a goddess-in-exile, I had the ability to pierce the veil of human reality, but I could not change it. In any event, I could not change it by myself.
It would take millennia for humans to become fully enlightened. I had done as much as was possible in human form, and I could be of no further use; I was giving up. I stood there for hours pleading with Odin. Finally, the sky darkened and a furious cyclone whipped itself up in the distance. The dark tornado swept me away with it, and when I awoke, I was back in my chambers at Asgard with Odin sitting at my bedside, clutching my hand and watching me with a beatific expression of love on his face.
At last, my exile was over.
Gunnar’s search party found my physical remains in the woods, mauled by wild animals. The desolate rescue team reported to Gunnar I must have stopped to rest in a clearing, where I fell asleep in the forest and was ripped to pieces by vicious, bloodthirsty wolves. Gunnar sobbed disconsolately as he clutched fragments of my bloodied gown, for he had many regrets, most notably that he had never declared his genuine love for me.
Odin reinstated me in my former role as Chief Valkyrie in Valhalla, while the wars continued unabated all the way up to modern times. But my time as the human Brynhild had changed a lot back home in the heavens. Frigg was voluptuous again, which pleased Odin to no end. Odin and I no longer acted out the human penchant for adulterous liaisons because even though Odin claimed he was just emulating his favorite piece of work, humankind, to see what it was like, such affairs were still rather unbecoming behavior for the All-Father. So we put a halt to that activity, filled as it was with contradictions and denials. I was relieved because I was weary of Frigg’s animosity. Doubtless, Frigg’s myriad of petty complaints was still a constant burden for Odin, and he dealt with it as stoically as ever. There would be no divorce at Asgard, for marriage was merely a flow of being, requiring neither a fanatical commitment nor an irrevocable state of separation.
But Odin continued to whisper sweet nothings in my ear at every given opportunity. And Frigg, who no longer had reason to envy me as much, simply ignored it. Very often, after the nightly festivities were over, as I would be making my way through the intricate golden hallways of Asgard to return to my chambers for the evening, I would hear the distinct whisper of someone trying to catch my attention, the pssst of a coconspirator lurking in the shadows. And whenever I turned around, sure enough, it was Odin, lingering in the gloom of a hidden niche, some dark recess, still lusting for me, still blowing me kisses from afar, as he crouched behind pillars and doorways in order to observe me furtively. I always smiled at him patiently at such times, but I also had to shake my head in awe at his perseverance.
Odin would never get over me. Odin would be in love with me for eternity.
Valhalla was still hopping with war stories of the most horrific nature, and the atrocities continued unabated. The grand gestures were still being offered up to Odin, often in the form of absurd if not foolhardy acts of heroism. It was still an easy, but primitive, way for Odin’s creatures to experience their finest hour. Sometimes Odin swelled with pride; other times he wept or merely looked on in consternation. Those valiant souls who sacrificed themselves for the sake of others and for the sake of a higher peace for all humankind were always received at Valhalla with the most illustrious honors. But the wars were sometimes the least of the problems. With the human ability, uncanny as it was, to focus on lack instead of abundance and to be unremittingly negative, humans created famine, natural disasters, and epidemics.
Nevertheless, there was hope for the dawn of a new era, when the barriers between Earth and Asgard would be lowered forever, and all would be enlightened and at peace. Odin and his slain warriors drank a toast every night to the coming of such a great day.
“We shall not stand by in silence and watch stars be cast down from the heavens with bursting flames and reeking fumes, nor will we allow the ground to be scorched with fire,” Odin would always announce to us. “Earth will rise a second time, out of the foam and chaos. Earth will rise fair and green, with crystal waters, winged eagles, lush flora, and cloudless skies. This I promise you. Somehow we will find our way back to everything we were meant to be. This is my promise. I will not fail you.
“Here’s to paradise,” Odin would conclude, rising from his throne every night and holding his glass of mystical mead high in the air.
And thousands of courageous souls would rise in unison and lift their goblets to the ceiling; thus, they hailed the tentative beginnings of a new dawn, the coming of paradise on Earth.