A Modern Tale based on the Old Myths
By Thorskegga Thorn
In the depths of the forest the bond-girl wept, her heart broken. Bitter was the love wound, her desire forbidden. The earl and his wife had no wish to marry their first born son to a serving maid. Though her heart-mate, glorious Hakon, returned her affections, and looked to no other, Alfhild saw no hope for their union. The new child that blossomed in her belly would want for a father.
That very night they had pressed their right to marry, in the ale-hall before all the gathered folk. Loud and harsh had been the earl’s refusal. Alfhild had begged and the old Christian had laughed. He swore before all before him, that he would only allow the match if she could bring Earl Bjorn’s dragon sword from his mound, without a blemish of the soil upon its blade, as a bridal gift for his son.
Bjorn had embraced the earth before her grand sire had been born, before the church, now old, had been raised. The task impossible, her last hope dashed, Alfhild sobbed by her mother’s grave.
‘Fear not my child.’ a gentle voice said and the speaker clasped Alfhild’s hands. Alfhild blinked away her tears and met the kindly gaze of a lady dressed in fine clothes from an age long past.
‘Who are you?’ asked Alfhild. ‘My name is Lofn’. The lady replied. ‘I was drawn to you by your sorrow, and I know your plight. Be not so downcast, Earl Christian gave you a chance to win his son.’
‘You really think so?’ Alfhild asked doubtfully.
‘Yes.’ Lofn said smiling encouragement ‘But you will need to be brave to claim Bjorn’s sword’.
‘But how? It must have rusted away to nothing after all these years’ Alfhild wailed, tears falling anew.’
‘I did not say your task is an easy one.’ Lofn replied ‘and indeed the means are beyond my own knowledge. You should climb up the north face of the mountainside until you find a cave, an old woman lives there and she may have the skill to help you.’
The light of hope shone warmly in Alfhild’s stricken heart and she leapt to her feet and hurried toward the northern slopes of the fjord. She glanced behind her with a grateful ‘Thank you!’ but Lofn was nowhere to be seen.
The mountainside was a treacherous place at night, but Alfhild was desperate to gain the sword and would have climbed to the summit if need be. Finally she arrived at the cave Lofn had spoken of. Her dress was torn and damp from the climb, her breath ragged and her limbs bruised from climbing the rocks in the darkness. Smoke drifted from the entrance and a tame falcon watched from a log pile.
‘Hello,’ called Alfhild, ‘is anyone home?’
‘Come in child.’ a quaking voice called from within.
Alfhild walked into the cave and blinked in the smoke. An old woman sat by a fire of embers, the cave was bare but for a long wooden bench piled with hides, and a pile of cooking pots by the hearth. The woman’s face was dirty, her hair grey and tangled and she was clothed in nothing but rags, the falcon fluttered onto the bench beside her. ‘She is like a witch from a fairy tale.’ Alfhild thought with alarm.
‘So’ the old woman said ‘What can old Arndis do for you?’
‘I need to recover Biorn’s dragon sword from his mound without a blemish upon its blade.’ said Alfhild.
‘Why?’ asked Arndis.
Alfhild explained her predicament, her recent pain still bringing fresh tears to her eyes, while the old woman listened attentively.
‘I can help you.’ said Arndis ‘But first I need you to do something for me.’
Alfhild’s heart leapt with joy ‘I’ll do anything.’ she promised.
‘Then fetch me Thunder’s hammer from Asgard.’
Alfhild stood dumfounded ‘I can’t do that.’
‘You can.’ Arndis insisted. ‘I can send you there, and my falcon will guide you.’
‘This is crazy.’ protested Alfhild.
‘Do you want to go home and watch Hakon marry another maid? Come child what have you got to lose?’
‘Do you need the hammer to get Biorn’s sword?’ Alfhild asked dubiously.
‘I may well.’ Arndis replied ‘Biorn’s sword lies in the spirit world, and we must travel that world if we are to reclaim it. It is not wise to journey in such dangerous places without protection.’
‘Very well’ said Alfdis, ‘I will try.’
Arndis sang a song of ancient magical words over and over, strange repeated syllables with no meaning, similar to the words some folk still carved in runes and chanted over sick animals. Alfhild sensed the power in them and the air in the cave seemed to tingle. Arndis cried out ‘Step through the smoke child.’.
Alfhild stepped obediently through the smoke above the fire, when she emerged she was no longer in the cave, but on the wooded slopes of an unfamiliar valley. To her relief Arndis’s falcon circled around her and guided her out of the trees. Soon Alfhild stood in an open pasture and was captivated by the sight before her. Beyond lay a scattering of farms beside a wide fiord, above which a cliff face towered. At its heights a stone fortress the like of which Alfhild had never seen, dominated the horizon. Moonlight sparkled off a great bridge which crossed the fiord, ‘Bifrost’ Alfhild muttered in awe. The falcon squawked at her and circled impatiently. Alfhild remembered her task, she had to get back to Arndis so she could get the sword and win her love. The beauty of her surroundings forgotten, Alfhild strode purposefully towards the bridge.
The old tales claimed the bridge was a rainbow, and as she got closer Alfhild could make out the colours on its sides, dim as they were in the moonlight. She stepped onto the bridge cautiously but it was as solid as stone. Alfhild began the long climb and the falcon, content with her progress, rested on her shoulder. She entered the great stone gateway unchallenged, the guards paid the young girl no attention. She found herself in a city of paved streets flanked with elaborate buildings of timber or stone. The falcon led her quickly through the city and she had to run to keep up. After a while they entered one of the larger buildings and the falcon flew along corridors and up staircases until Alfhild was quite out of breath. Finally the bird alighted on the floor beside a closed door and looked up at Alfhild expectantly.
Alfhild tried the latch nervously and gently pushed the door open. She entered a large bedchamber still lit by a single lamp despite the late hour. The falcon stepped to a carved bed and Alfhild followed. Alfhild was delighted to see the hammer she sought lying on the bed covers between a sleeping couple. She reached out to take it and as she did she noticed how brightly the lady’s hair reflected the lamplight, as if it was gold. Despite her preoccupation with winning Hakon Alfhild’s memory was jarred. Every child knew the tale of the goddess with the golden hair, Sif the wife of Thor. Reality struck Alfhild, the witch had sent her to steal the weapon which according to all the old tales, defended the world from destruction. ‘Could this be Thor?’ Alfhild wondered. She studied the man sleeping below her, his red hair made her increasingly uncomfortable, but this was no troll like rogue of the recent folktales, this was a man women would murder for. The falcon fluttered its wings impatiently.
‘I’m sorry.’ Alfhild whispered to the bird ‘I thought I would do anything for Hakon but I cannot steal from him.’ Alfhild considered what she should do, leaving without the hammer would mean a life of servitude, watching helplessly as her love was married off to another. The despair clawed at her heart and she knew that she would rather die than suffer such a fate. Decision made she shook the sleeping man’s arm.
He looked at her with a puzzled expression ‘I hope the reason for this intrusion is phenomenally good’.
Alfhild fell to her knees, as she was wont to do before her own harsh master, and explained her need for Biorn’s sword. Her tale told she raised her tear stained face in silent appeal and looked directly into the man’s eyes. If she had any doubt about his identity before she had none now, his gaze had an inhuman fiery quality which held a promise of unlimited power. ‘Can you help me?’ Alfhild pleaded.
Thor brushed his fingers lightly across her temples and she felt his presence briefly in her mind. ‘Ah,’ the god sighed ‘true love! Maybe there is hope for Midgard after all.’ He picked up his hammer and held it out to Alfhild. ‘I think I can trust you with this for a few days.’
Alfhild took the hammer, reassured by its weight in her grasp. ‘Thank you.’
‘Good luck to you, courageous maid.’ Thor called after her as she opened the door.
The falcon again took the lead as her guide and led her through the confusion of corridors and streets back to the rainbow bridge. It was only a couple of hours until dawn and exhaustion weighed heavy as a quern stone on Alfhild, she stumbled after the bird hugging her precious burden to her breast. Below the bridge the falcon led her back to the wooded slopes of the fiord. A pillar of smoke hung between the trees and Alfhild wearily followed the bird through the magic gate and back into Arndis’s cave. Alfhild sank to the old woman’s bench of furs and fell instantly to sleep. Arndis smiled and rebuilt the fire.
Alfhild woke late in the morning, confused by her surroundings, but the hammer on the furs beside her brought memories of the night flooding back. She sat up to see Arndis tending a pot over the hearth ‘The sword?’ asked Alfhild.
‘Patience child. You must eat.’ Arndis filled a bowl with game pottage and brought it to her charge, there was fresh bread still warm from the hearth stones, a hunk of goats cheese and ale. Alfhild ate gratefully, this was finer fair than a bond-girl was used to.
Their meal finished and the pots and platters cleared away Arndis spoke of the task ahead. ‘Now we must send our spirits to travel in the Hall of the Dead. We must find Earl Biorn and ask him to give up his sword. This is a path I have followed many times but for you the road will be dark and the embrace of Midgard very strong. I will work slowly so that we can travel together. Are you ready child?’
‘Yes.’ Alfhild replied with some uncertainty. Arndis’s magic sounded dangerous but the hope of winning the sword gave her courage.
Arndis spread out the cooking fire to expose the glowing coals within and scattered a handful of dried herbs among the embers, the cave filled with a fragrant smoke. She reached under the bench and pulled out a small skin drum and began to pound it to a slow, steady rhythm. Arndis chanted, again the same half familiar words of the magic worker ‘Aaaarrrrnnnn alu, Bmuuuuutttttt alu.’ she repeated over and over. Alfhild’s mind drifted, mesmerised by the chanting and clouded by the herb smoke.
Alfhild found herself standing on a misty plain, the gave mound of Bjorn rose high and eerily familiar before her. As she approached with Arndis beside her Alfhild noticed a startling difference, this was no mound of solid earth but a hall, walled with stone and roofed with turves. A carved wooden doorway marked its entrance carved with furious serpents and dragons. ‘What do we do?’ asked Alfhild.
‘Why, go in of course.’ replied Arndis. ‘This is your quest so you should make yourself known to the old earl.’ Hesitant and uncertain of the sights of the grave mound (who could tell what horrors would lurk within?) Alfhild pushed open the heavy planked door. Inside she was surprised to find a hall of great beauty. Firelight and countless lamps shone on gold and jewels, bright tapestries and shining vessels of bronze. Alfhild was relieved to note that the earl looked just as he would have done in the vigour of youth. His tunic and cloak were so covered in embroidery and goldwork that the eye ached to behold him. He sat on a painted and gilded chair, surrounded by his hounds and great piles of golden coins. The earl’s voice boomed down the hall from his high seat
‘Who comes before the presence of Earl Biorn?’.
Alfhild glanced at Arndis who gestured for the girl to speak. Alfhild took a deep breath and approached the earl. ‘My lord, I am Alfhild daughter of Thordis, I wish to marry into your family. I am seeking permission to wed Hakon the son of Earl Christian and I need your help.’
Biorn laughed, and the cruelty in the sound reminded Alfhild of Christian himself. ‘You? You’re naught but a beggar, and filthy into the bargain. You are not fit to be bride to a goat herd.’
‘Please,’ Alfhild begged ‘Hakon loves me, truly he does.’
Biorn glared at her, his contempt clear ‘Why do you need my help anyway?’
‘I need your sword as a wedding gift’
‘What?’ stormed Biorn ‘There is a joke if ever I heard one.’
‘Please, will you give it to me.’ pleaded Alfhild.
‘No!’ Biorn responded angrily, pulling his sword from it’s scabbard, the hilt was encrusted with writhing dragons worked in gold and gems, its patterned blade shimmered in the lamplight, ‘This is the sword you dare to claim, you are not worthy of such finery!’
Alfhild fell to her knees and sobbed. She felt Arndis’s hand grip her shoulder in reassurance and the old woman addressed the earl. ‘Have you still no compassion?’ she asked.
‘What do you mean hag?’ asked Biorn.
‘The folk you led in Midgard, they starved while you lived in decadence.’
‘Ha!’ said Biorn ‘The weak fools feared me and were glad to offer these riches.’ He proudly spread his hands to indicate the treasures in the hall.
Arndis grew enraged ‘What use is a coin when it can buy nothing? What use is a sword with no battles left to fight? Give it to her, she deserves it more than you.’
‘No!’ the earl retorted.
Arndis held up Thunder’s hammer and it glowed brightly, living power in the hall of the dead earl. ‘Give her the sword!’ Arndis pressed.
Biorn was surprised at the sight of the formidable weapon, but the old miser’s love for his hoard was stronger than his fear. Arndis stepped forward as Alfhild peered in wonder through her tears. The old woman made her challenge ‘Surrender the sword or die.’
Biorn howled in defiance and to Alfhild’s horror he began to change, his skin took on a green shade and his form lengthened, in the space of a few heart beats which would haunt Alfhild for her lifetime, the proud earl took on the form of a hideous serpent. The fine clothes tore and fell away as the worm’s girth expanded and the huge beast bared it’s fangs to attack. The hall exploded in light which blinded Alfhild, and she was gripped by terror until she felt Arndis’s winkled hands clasping hers. ‘The snake won’t be threatening anyone now child.’
Alfhild’s vision slowly returned, the worm’s head lay in the rushes before her, its skull broken and blackened with fire. She climbed shakily to her feet and walked the length of the serpent’s body to the high seat. The sword lay below Biorn’s chair, among his hounds, the poor animals still shivering with fear. She grasped the sword’s hilt scarcely daring to believe her good fortune. She reclaimed the scabbard from beneath the serpent’s barbed tail and covered the wickedly sharp blade.
‘Let us leave this place.’ said Arndis. They pushed the door open and stepped back into the misty landscape beyond, glad to be free of the oppressive hall. Arndis called out ‘Freki! Geri!’ the hounds came bounding out, barking happily and raced off together. ‘Our task is done.’ said Arndis.
The strange land melted away and Alfhild found herself back in Arndis’s cave. The sword was heavy in her arms, as bright and new as it had been when it was buried with Earl Biorn. ‘And now we need to dress you more appropriately for courting.’ said Arndis tutting at the state of the girls appearance.
The old woman built up the fire and set water heating, and before long she had stripped Alfhild bare and scrubbed her until her skin glowed. From among her piles of bedding Arndis extracted a clean shift and gown, plain but clean and of good homespun cloth. Alfhild leant back against Arndis as the old woman combed her damp hair free of tangles. ‘I am surprised at your magical skills’ said Alfhild, now in awe of Arndis. ‘I thought only Thor could use his hammer like that’
‘In a manner of speaking’ Arndis replied, ‘It is only a tool of power, not the source of it. Only the high gods could use it to any great effect.’
Alfhild considered and a smiled in understanding, ‘So you are no mortal witch wife.’
‘No.’ Arndis replied.
‘Then who are you?’ Alfhild asked, her curiosity aroused.
‘Who do you think I am?’ The old woman asked mischievously.
Alfhild searched her knowledge of the old myths, only one figure came to mind. ‘I think you must be Freyja.’ she said.
‘Good answer,’ answered Arndis ‘but wrong. Freyja has better dress sense than me, mind you pleated linen and excessive jewellery are very impractical for a busy woman. She taught me the magical arts when I was young’.
Alfhild thought deeply, the other few goddesses she could remember seemed wrong, how could they be this wild magic worker? ‘I am no storyteller’ she sighed ‘I know so few of the old myths. I don’t think I know you.’
‘You know me.’ Arndis insisted.
Alfhild wondered, a dim memory came to mind, a god who tricked his fellows by changing into a woman, a god who had even given birth… ‘Loki?’ she asked tentatively.
Arndis laughed, ‘No. But that was a clever answer. Believe it or not you are getting nearer.’
Alfhild’s mind fought as she tried to dismiss her next guess, it seemed insane. She spun around and met Arndis’s gaze for the first time. ‘I do know you.’ the girl smiled ‘you were my mother’s namesake.’
As Alfhild walked back to Christian’s Hall with the precious sword in her arms, a magnificent eagle swooped above her with a familiar falcon flying beside it. She felt a warm and kindly presence in her mind, and her protector’s farewell blessing ‘Good luck to you, courageous maid!’
Alfhild’s return was not an easy one, but Christian had made his oath and was forced to allow his son to wed his former bond-girl. It was clear to all that a transformation had occurred in Alfhild, she carried herself with a confidence well suited to her new rank, but no one ever discovered the cause.
Six months later she gave birth to a son, the child was christened and Alfhild named him Arni. She never forgot her debt to Lofn, Arndis and her mischievous falcon. When no one was looking, she buried silver pennies in the glade where her mother was buried in heartfelt gratitude.
(This story is modern fiction but many of the elements are drawn straight from old heathen belief. The dead living on in their own halls below the ground and the motif of the miser transforming into a dragon are both met in the Sagas.
Lofn is the Norse goddess of love, she has a special interest in thwarted romance such as Alfhild’s predicament. The falcon is of course Loki.
Thor’s role as protector of the peasant class is a common theme of the Norse myths. There is a strong association in the Norse myths between women and magic, and even suggestions that the gods gender swap or cross dress to gain magical power. Thor only uses shape-changing in the World Serpent myth but I have developed this precedent and also my own version of the tale of his ‘marriage’ to Thrym. There is also an implication from several of the sagas that stories of Thor assisting female devotes had a strongly sexual element which in this story would be somewhat inappropriate.
The eagle symbolism is drawn from the Thor’s hammer amulets of the heathen period which often show the god in eagle form. The Norse name for eagle is ‘Arn’ hence the personal names Arndis ‘Eagle woman’ and Arni. The link between Thor and eagles is not explained in the myths but it may be a shamanic form of the god, with clear links to the thunderbird found in mythology from across the world.
The words of the chant are taken from an old runic inscription (see Runes by R I Page, British Museum Press), the word ‘arn’ appears in the magical words so it fits the tale perfectly. References to drumming and chanting in magical work can be found in the sagas. )