King Alf of Denmark stood in the doorway of his longhouse looking out at the ramparts beyond. It had been many hours since darkness had fallen but the house was not still. In the furthest corner, a heavy curtain had been drawn and behind it was Queen Hjordis, his new bride. She had been confined there since dawn broke, surrounded by the women of the household as she fought to bring forth the child of Sigmund the Volsung.
A quiet, muffled groan made him turn his head and hurry towards the curtained section of the house but he stopped suddenly, just a few yards away, and sat down upon the floor instead. His fists were clenched tight in a vain attempt to still the trembling of his hands; his brow was furrowed. What if the birth proved too difficult? What if Hjordis, like so many other women, could not come through it? The king shook his head and buried his face in his hands. He had to stop thinking such things.
Alf was a brave warrior and a respected king, but never before had he felt so frightened; so helpless. Behind that curtain, his wife who, over the few months of their marriage, had come to mean more to him than his own life, was in a battle of her own; one he could not fight for her; one he had no control over.
At first, he had been with her, at her side but his own terror had been so clearly written upon his face that the women had soon sent him out.
“You’re no help to her like that!” the midwife had scolded. “You’d best leave or you’ll be frightening her out of her wits.”
“More hindrance than help you are!” echoed another.
And so, banished from the birthing chamber, the King had spent the entire day pacing the floor of his long house; his temper so short with worry that the whole household had quickly learnt to stay out of his way and one young thrall who had been foolish enough to come within arm’s reach of the king had earned, for no apparent reason, a red, tingling ear.
And now dawn was approaching, but still there was no sign of the torment ending. Peering out of the doorway for the hundredth time that night, the king saw the sky turning orange in the east and the stars begin to blink sleepily. Surely, Hjordis could not take another minute of this! Alf found himself cursing Sigmund the Volsung under his breath for causing the trouble and felt a sudden animosity towards the unborn child for causing its mother such agony.
“If she should die…” he muttered. “I swear I’ll…”
But what he intended to say we will never know for at that moment, the loud, angry scream of a newborn baby filled the longhouse. King Alf held his breath afraid to allow himself to believe that it was finally over. And he stood frozen there in the doorway until a long while later, his mother placed a hand upon his shoulder.
The old Queen’s gentle touch broke the spell and Alf turned slowly to see the squirming bundle in her arms.
“Here is the child of Hjordis,” she said holding the bundle out to her son.
With shaking hands and his heart in his throat, the king reached out for the child. Carefully, he unwrapped its woolen cover and held it up to the light of the fire. The little creature, stung by the cold morning air, protested loudly and flailed its little arms and legs angrily.
Alf felt his face break into a smile as he looked into the bright eyes in the little face before him. All his animosity has dissolved. This boy truly was a Volsung.
“Son of Sigmund the Volsung!” he declared for all to hear. “I claim you as my own.”
Then reaching down to the water vessel that a thrall was holding out in readiness, he scooped up a handful and sprinkled it upon the child.
“Your name is Sigurd!”
The king turned to see Hjordis, supported by the women, approach; her face beautiful despite its pallor and her eyes glistening with tears.
He handed the naked, screaming child to his mother and hurried forward to embrace his wife.
“Thank you,” was all Hjordis could whisper. “Thank you for accepting Sigmund’s son.”
Later, with her child at her breast, looking into the little red face, Hjordis remembered the words of Sigmund the Volsung.
“Take good care of our son, Hjordis,” he had told her with his dying breath. “Nourish him well and mold his mind with care. Take the shards of my broken sword and create from them a new sword for him. For he is my avenger and he will be the greatest of the Vikings. Odin has shown me his destiny.”
Tears welled up and coursed unnoticed down the Queen’s cheeks and she gently ran her hand over the smooth little limbs and bent down to kiss the sweet face.
“I will keep my word, Sigmund!” she whispered to the unseen spirit of her first husband. “I will raise this boy as you have asked and prepare him for his destiny.”
Would the child grow strong and brave as Sigmund had prophesied? And how would he fare in the household of his step-father, King Alf? What was the destiny of Sigurd the Volsung? We will find out next time…