Retold by Jenny Bennett
The castle of Gothland rose proudly above the treetops, like a solitary sentry, keeping watch over the kingdom below.
Within its walls, soldiers were at work, digging a deep pit in the earth and lining its sides with sharp edged stones.
Dividing the hole into two chambers was a thick slab of rock that had taken twenty of the king’s men to drag to the pit.
“Has anybody ever been sentenced to such a death before?” one of the younger soldiers, a boy with the first down of manhood upon his chin, asked his companion as he worked.
“Never,” was the reply. “But then, nobody has ever committed such a crime.”
“Is it true that one of the men who attacked the castle is the king’s son?” the youth asked in a whisper.
His companion nodded. “I saw the prisoners myself, last night. The younger one is very tall and powerfully made now but there’s no doubt he is the prince who went missing several years ago when he was just a little mite.
He used to come around to the barracks with his little wooden sword and ask the soldiers to duel. Yep, that’s him in the dungeons alright. Same eyes. It’s hard to think of that brave little fellow we used to play with starving to death in this strange prison we’re making.”
“And the other prisoner is our Queen’s brother, isn’t he?” the young soldier said after a moment. “I’ve heard that he was captured once before but that he managed to escape somehow.”
“Aye,” the old man sighed. “He escaped the wolf’s teeth only to be starved to death in a hole. Sigmund, that’s his name, is the last son of the famous King Volsung of Hunland. Volsung’s name will be buried with him forever in this pit.”
At last, just as the sun was beginning to set over the land, the hole was ready
“Bring the prisoners out!” somebody called and from the castle dungeons was dragged a pair of men. They were large and fearsome to look upon but each had his hands and feet chained together so that they were entirely at the mercy of the guards. The soldiers stopped at the pit and pushed in first the younger, then the elder of the two prisoners, making sure that they landed on either side of the slab of rock and could neither see nor reach one another.
“Now fill it in!” came the order.
The soldiers began to throw clumps of turf into the pit from a large hill of turf near the hole.
The two soldiers who had been talking reluctantly picked up turf with the rest of the men and joined them in filling up the pit.
“They won’t be able to breathe down there,” the young soldier whispered in horror.
“They’ll have enough air seeping down through the spaces between the clods of turf,” his older companion replied. “But it won’t be at all comfortable...”
The man stopped speaking suddenly as he caught sight of a hooded figure near the castle door. It was the queen and she was beckoning to him.
Leaving the rest, the man hurried to where the queen stood and began to bow but the queen quickly shook her head.
“Don’t draw attention to us,” she said in a low voice. “Will you throw something into the pit for me, soldier?”
The old man nodded and the queen unwrapped a bundle of straw from her cloak.
“There is cured meat in this bundle,” Queen Signy explained. “It will not keep death at bay for long but it will give them some comfort.”
“I will throw it in, my lady,” the soldier said, taking the bundle from her.
“And speak of this to no one,” the Queen said quietly. “The king must not know.”
“I swear it, Mistress!” the man said with a quick bow before turning back to join his fellows. Keeping a wary eye upon the head of the guards, the old man grabbed some turf from the pile and tossed it into the hole with the queen’s bundle. It landed upon the lap of the young prisoner who quickly hid it under his chained arms.
The old man smiled to himself then wondered why the queen had not placed a skin of water in the bundle for her kinsmen.
“It’s the thirst that’ll kill them faster,” he muttered. “And that salted meat will only make them thirsty. Odin alone knows what the Queen is up to!”
When the full moon rose over the castle, the pit had been filled and all the soldiers had returned to their homes save for a few men who had been given the task of guarding the hole. Deep in the pit, the two prisoners sat in silence trying to ignore the horrible feeling of despair that threatened to conquer their minds.
Sinfjotli, the queen’s son felt about in the darkness for the bundle of straw and began to untie it.
“Well we won’t be feeling the hunger for a few days Uncle,” the youth chuckled.
“This is a bad time to be making jokes boy,” grunted Sigmund from the other side of the stone slab.
“I’m not joking, Sigmund!” the young man replied. “The queen has given us a very large leg of ham, wrapped up in straw.”
“Did she send water also?” Sigmund asked. “My throat is as dry as the desert already.”
The boy felt about in the straw.
“There’s nothing else here,” he said sadly.
“Can you throw the ham over the wall, boy?” Sigmund asked in a tone of sudden eagerness. “I’m sure Signy would not have sent meat without water for no reason. She’s a sly one, your mother is.”
Pushing away the clods of turf, Sinfjotli threw the ham over the wall of stone which separated them, marvelling at how heavy the meat was.
After a moment there came a loud chuckle from the other side.
“Signy’s still as full of tricks as she was when she was a little girl,” Sigmund said.
He had torn apart the meat with his fingers to find something hard and cold hidden within. The man pulled it out and ran his fingers over it. It was a sword; hard and sharp. In the darkness, the blade gleamed with a light of its own. This was the sword Sigmund had pulled out of the tree in his father’s Great Hall, many years ago. This was his gift from the great god Odin.
Holding the sword upright, Sigmund uttered a prayer of thanks to the gods.
What would become of Sigmund and his nephew in their subterranean prison? Would Sigmund’s sword be of any use to them in the deep pit? We will find out next time...
*Based on the Volsunga Saga