An earlier blog post described how the young hero Sigurd rode through a wall of fire to waken Brynhild, the beautiful armored woman who lay asleep within the enchanted ring. He had been told that she was beautiful and wise. He had not understood how powerful, or how dangerous, she was, or that she suffered under the enmity of Allfather Odin himself.
Brynhild was a Valkyrie. These shieldmaidens were servants of Odin and choosers of the slain: they decided who would die in battle and who would live, and from among the slain they chose whom to carry to Odin’s Valhalla to join in perpetual fighting and feasting until the great battle at the world’s end.
The Valkyries were beautiful and terrible to mortal eyes: looking at one of them was like looking into a flame, and men feared their power. But Odin expected their unquestioning obedience. On the eve of a battle between two kings, Odin gave Brynhild clear instructions about which man should win. Brynhild, however, had already sworn an oath of loyalty to King Agnar, the man foredoomed to lose, and she saved him and made him victorious. Odin, enraged, told her that she would be a shieldmaiden no longer. He promised to cast her into an enchanted sleep from which she would wake only to the doom of marriage.
Brynhild, who was not easily daunted, replied that she would never marry a fearful man. Odin told her that only a fearless man would be able to awaken her. He pierced her with the sleep-thorn as he had threatened, but he surrounded the place of her sleep with a mighty wall of flame, and she slept soundly within it until Sigurd came.
Waking, she knew the peril he had passed through, and perhaps she was content. And when she told him her story, he looked at her with awe and asked to be taught wisdom.
Wisdom, she said, she could offer him in plenty, and she would teach him the runes of magic if he would swear loyalty to her. But she warned him as well. If he swore and kept his oath, she said, he would have to endure labor and danger; if he swore and broke his oath, she would have terrible revenges on him.
Still Sigurd was unafraid. He swore to love and honor her, to learn of her and keep faith with her. So Brynhild taught him life-runes to heal a sick man, sword-runes to strengthen a warrior in battle, ship-runes to bring a vessel safe home out of storms, ale-runes to neutralize potions or poisons mixed into a cup, word-runes to prevent rash judgment, and thought-runes to deepen wisdom. She also urged him to keep his word and to be loyal to his kinfolk and to his wife when he had one.
Sigurd swore that he could find no better wife than the one who taught him. Brynhild was well content with this, and they drank and made merry together. Then Sigurd began to think again of the promises that the birds on the blasted heath had made to him after he learned their language by tasting the dragon’s blood. They had told him of the woman who waited for him on the Hindfell. They had also spoken of some great fortune which waited for him in the castle of King Giuki. To Giuki’s castle, then, he resolved to go, and to return with more honor and treasure to lay at Brynhild’s feet.
She let him go. He rode first to the castle of her foster-father Heimir. For a time he enjoyed himself in the manly sports of the court; then, out hunting, he rode past a tower window and heard Brynhild singing, and his love returned to him. He told Heimir of his love. Heimir said he’d be glad of such a son-in-law, but he had never expected Brynhild to marry and wondered if Sigurd had understood her aright.
Sigurd rode back and begged to know if Brynhild did truly mean to be his wife. She looked sadly on him and said that she would be true, but she did not believe he would. He swore truth with all the strongest oaths he knew, and they lay together and had great joy of each other. In the morning he gave her the fairest treasure he had—Andvari’s ring, which bore Andvari’s curse. Then he took his leave and rode away laughing, his armor shining in the sun. But a shadow settled on Brynhild’s heart.