Children of Odin: A Book of Northern Myths - Padraic Colum

[Illustration] from Children of Odin by Padraic Colum

The Story of Sigmund and Signy

He called to Grani, his proud horse; he stood up on a mound in the Heath and he sent forth a great shout. And Grani heard in the cave where Regin had left him and he came galloping to Sigurd with flowing mane and eyes flashing fire.

He mounted Grani and he rode to Fafnir's cave. When he went into the place where the Dragon was wont to lie he saw a door of iron before him. With Gram, his mighty sword, he hewed through the iron, and with his strong hands he pulled the door back. Then, before him he saws the treasure the Dragon guarded, masses of gold and heaps of shining jewels.

But as he looked on the hoard Sigurd felt some shadow of the evil that lay over it all This was the hoard that in the far-off days the River-Maidens watched over as it lay deep under the flowing water. Then Andvari the Dwarf forced the River-Maidens to give it to him. And Loki had taken it from Andvari, letting loose as he did Gulveig the Witch who had such evil power over the Gods. For the sake of the hoard Fafnir had slain Hreidmar, his father, and Regin had plotted death against Fafnir, his brother.

Not all this history did Sigurd know. But a shadow of its evil touched his spirit as he stood there before the gleaming and glittering heap. He would take all of it away, but not now. The tale that the birds told was in his mind, and the green of the forest was more to him than the glitter of the treasure heap. He would come back with chests and load it up and carry it to King Alv's hall. But first he would take such things as he himself might wear.

He found a helmet of gold and he put it on his head. He found a great arm-ring and he put it around his arm. On the top of the arm-ring there was a small finger-ring with a rune graved upon it. Sigurd put it on his finger. And this was the ring that Andvari the Dwarf had put the curse upon when Loki had taken the hoard from him

He knew that no one would cross the Heath and come to Fafnir's lair, so he did not fear to leave the treasure unguarded. He mounted Grani, his proud horse, and rode towards the forest. He would seek the House of Flame where she lay sleeping, the maiden who was the wisest and the bravest and the most beautiful in the world With his golden helmet shining above his golden hair Sigurd rode on.

As he rode towards the forest he thought of Sigmund, his father, whose slaying he had avenged, and he thought of Sigmund's father, Volsung, and of the grim deeds that the Volsungs had suffered and wrought.

Rerir, the son of Sigi who was the son of Odin, was the father of Volsung. And Volsung when he was in his first manhood had guilt his hall around a mighty tree. Its branches went up to the roof and made the beams of the house and its great trunk was the centre of the hall. "The Branstock" the tree was called, and Volsung's hall was named "The Hall of the Brankstock."

Many children had Volsung, eleven sons and one daughter. Strong were all his sons and good fighters, and Volsung of the Hall of the Branstock was a mighty chief.

It was through Signy, the daughter of the house, that a feud and a deadly battle was brought to Volsung and his sons. She was a wise and a fair maiden and her fame went through all the lands. Now, one day Volsung received a message from a King asking for the hand of Signy in marriage. And Volsung who knew of this King through report of his battles sent a message to him saying that he would be welcome to the Hall of the Branstock.

So King Siggeir came with his men. But when the Volsungs looked into his face they liked it not. And Signy shrank away, saying, "This King is evil of heart and false of word."

Volsung and his eleven sons took counsel together. Siggeir had a great force of men with him, and if they refused to give her he could slay them all and harry their kingdom Besides they had pledged themselves to give Signy when they had sent him a message of welcome. Long counsel they had together. And ten of Signy's brother said, "Let Signy wed this King. He is not as evil as he seems in her mind." Ten brothers said it. But one spoke out , saying, "We will not give our sister to this evil King. Rather let us all go down fighting with the Hall of the Branstock flaming above our heads."

It was Sigmund, the youngest of the Volsungs, who said this.

But Signy's father said: "We know nought of evil of King Siggeir. Also our word is given to him. Let him feast with us this night in the Hall of the Branstock and let Signy go from us with him as his wife." Then they looked to her and they saw Signy's face and it was white and stern. "Let it be as ye have said, my father and my brothers," she said. "I will wed King Siggeir and go with him overseas." So she said aloud But Sigmund heard her say to herself, "It is woe for the Volsungs."

A feast was made and King Siggeir and his men came to the Hall of the Branstock. Fires were lighted and tables were spread, and the great horns of mead went around the guests. In the middle of the feasting a stranger entered the Hall. He was taller than the tallest there, and his bearing made all do him reverence. One offered him a horn of mead and he drank it. The, from under the blue cloak that he wore, he drew a sword that made the brightness of the Hall more bright.

He went to the tree that the Hall was built around, to the Branstock, and he thrust the sword into it. All the company were hushed. Then they heard the voice of the stranger, a voice that was like the trumpet's call: "The sword is for the hand that can draw it out of the Brankstock." Then he went out of the Hall.

All looked to where the sword was placed and saw a hand's breadth of wonderful brightness This one and that one would have laid hands on the hilt, only Volsung's voice bade them stand still. "It is meet," he said, "that our guest and our son-in-law, King Siggeir, should be the first to put hands on its hilt and try to draw the sword of the stranger out of the Branstock."

King Siggeir went to the tree and laid his hands on the broad hilt. He strove hard to draw out the sword, but all his might could not move it. As he strained himself to draw it and failed, a dark look of anger came into his face.

Then others tried to draw it, the captains who were with King Siggeir, and they, too, failed to move the blade. Then Volsung tried and Volsung could not move it. One after the other, his eleven sons strained to draw out the stranger's sword. At last it came to the turn of the youngest, to Sigmund, to try. And when Sigmund laid his hand on the broad hilt and drew it, behold! The sword came with his hand, and once again the Hall was brightened with its marvelous brightness.

It was a wondrous sword, a sword made out of better metal and by smiths more cunning than any known. All envied Sigmund that he had won for himself that wonder-weapon.

King Siggeir looked on it with greedy eyes. "I will give thee its weight in gold for that sword, good brother," he said.

But Sigmund said to him proudly: "If the sword was for thy hand thou shouldst have won it. The sword was not for thine, but for a Volsung's hand."

And Signy, looking at King Siggeir, saw a look of deeper evil come into his face. She knew that hatred for all the Volsung race was in his heart.

But at the end of the feast she was to wed to King Siggeir, and the next day she left the Hall of the Branstock and went with him down to where his great painted ship was drawn up on the beach. And when they were parting from her, her father and her brothers, King Siggeir invited them to come to his country, as friends visiting friends and kinsmen visiting kinsmen, and look on Signy again. And he stood on the beach and would not go on board his ship until each and all of the Volsungs gave their word that they would visit Signy and him on his own land. "And when thou comest," he said to Sigmund, "be sure thou dost bring with thee the mighty sword that thou didst win."

All this, was thought of by Sigurd, the son of Sigmund, as he rode towards the fringe of the forest.

The time came for Volsung and his sons to redeem the promise they made to King Siggeir. They made ready their ship and they sailed from the land where stood the Hall of the Branstock. And they landed on the coast of King Siggeir's country, and they drew their ship up on the beach and they made their camp there, intending to come to the King's Hall in the broad light of the day.

But in the half light of the dawn one came to the Volsung ship. A cloak and hood covered the figure, but Sigmund, who was the watcher, knew who it was. "Signy!" he said, and Signy asked that her father and her brothers be awakened until she would speak to them of a treason that was brewed against them.

"King Siggeir had made ready a great army against your coming," she told them. "He hates the Volsungs, the branch as well as the root, and it is his plan to fall upon you, my father and my brothers with his great army and slay you all. And he would possess himself of Gram, Sigmund's wonder-sword. Therefore, I say to you, O Volsungs, draw your ship into the sea and said from the land where such treachery can be."

But Volsung, her father, would not listen. "The Volsungs do not depart like broken men from a land they have brought their ship to," he said. "We gave, each and all, the word that we would visit King Siggeir and visit him we will. And if he is a dastard and would fall upon us, why we are the unbeaten Volsungs, and we will fight against him and his army and slay him, and bear you back with us to the Hall of the Branstock. The day widens now, and we shall go to the Hall"

Signy would have spoken of the great army King Siggeir had gathered, but she knew that the Volsungs never harkened to talk of odds. She spoke no more, but bowed her head and went back to King Siggeir's hall.

Siggeir knew that Signy had been to warn her father and her brothers. He called the men he had gathered and he posted them cunningly in the way the Volsungs would come Then he sent one to ship with a message of welcome.

As they left their ship the army of King Siggeir fell upon the Volsungs and their followers Very fierce was the battle that was waged on the beach, and many and many a one of King Siggeir's fierce fighters went down before the fearless ones that made Volsung's company. But at last Volsung himself was slain and his eleven sons were taken captive. And Gram, his mighty sword, was taken out of Sigmund's hands.

They were brought before King Siggeir in his hall, the eleven Volsung princes. Siggeir laughed to see them before him. "Ye are not in the Hall of the Branstock now, to dishonor me with black looks and scornful words," he said," and a harder task will be given you than that of drawing a sword out of a tree-trunk. Before set of sun I will see you hewn to pieces with the sword."

Then Signy who was there stood up with her white face and her wide eyes, and she said: "I pray not for longer life for my brothers, for well I know that my prayers would avail them nought. But dost thou not heed the proverb, Siggeir—'Sweet to the eye as long as they eye can see'?"

And Siggeir laughed his evil laugh when he heard her. "Aye, my Queen," he said, "sweet to the eye as long as the eye may see their torments. They shall not die at once nor all together. I will let them see each other die."

So Siggeir gave a new order to his dastard troops. The order was that the eleven brothers should be taken into the depths of the forest and chained to great beams and left there. This was done with the eleven sons of Volsung.

The next day one who had watched and who was faithful to Signy came, and Signy said to him: "What has befallen my brothers?"

And the watcher said: "A great wolf came to where the chained men are, and fell upon the first of them and devoured him."

When Signy heard this no tears came from her eyes, but that which was hard around her heart became harder. She said, "Go again, and watch what befalls."

And the watcher came the second time and said: "The second of your brothers has been devoured by the wolf." Signy shed no tears this time either, and again that which was hard around her heart became harder.

And every day the watcher came and he told her what had befallen her brothers. And it came to the time when but one of her brothers was left alive, Sigmund, the youngest.

Then said Signy: Not without device are we left at the end. I have thought of what is to be done. Take a pot of honey to where he is chained and smear Sigmund's face with the honey."

The watcher did as Signy bade him.

Again the great wolf came along the forest-ways to where Sigmund was chained. When she snuffed over his she found the honey upon his face. She put down her tongue to lick over his face. Then, with his strong teeth Sigmund seized the tongue of the wolf. She fought and she struggled with all her might, but Sigmund did not let go of her tongue. The struggle with the beast broke the beam to which he was chained Then Sigmund seized the wolf with his hands and tore her jaws apart.

The watcher saw this happening and told of it to Signy. A fierce joy went through her, and she said: "One of the Volsungs lives, and vengeance will be wrought upon King Siggeir and upon his house."

Still the watcher stayed in the ways of the forest, and he marked where Sigmund built for himself a hidden hut. Often he bore tokens from Signy to Sigmund. Sigmund took to the ways of the hunger and the outlaw, but he did not forsake the forest And King Siggeir knew not that one of the Volsungs lived and was near him.