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~ By Courtesy of Others ~

 

Gunnlod's Tale
By Elizabeth Vongvisith

Gunnlod was the daughter of Suttung, famed far and wide even as a young maiden for the loveliness of her voice. She could sing with such power and passion that her listeners felt moved to tears by sad ballads, or laughed heartily at jesting tunes, or longed to commit brave deeds when she sang heroic songs of days past. Those passing near the windows of Suttung's great house often paused, smiling, to listen as her songs came to them from inside the walls of her home. However, Suttung's daughter herself was seldom seen.

Gunnlod was not particularly fair -- she was actually rather plain-looking -- but Suttung kept her carefully hidden from all but their kinsfolk and closest retainers. He loved Gunnlod dearly, but that love was tinged with possessiveness, for she was his dead wife's only offspring and he was very jealous of the company his daughter kept. He chased away those who came calling in the hopes of wooing Gunnlod, and tried to persuade his daughter not to enter into a match with another. "For love is sweet while it lasts, but see how suddenly it can be taken away from you," he would say sadly, gesturing to the empty chair next to his own in their great hall, the chair that Gunnlod's mother had once occupied as mistress of Suttung's household, before illness and fever had taken her life. Suttung had not so much looked at another woman since his wife's death.

"My father," Gunnlod would say, "I am unwise in the ways of the world, and I have no desire to leave you, but I know this: love, no matter how brief, is too precious to deny. You are my beloved father and I respect your wishes, and so I have stayed away from men, but I will yet love when love comes to me." And Suttung would sigh and mutter that his daughter knew not of what she spoke. She did not quarrel with him, but smiled her calm smile and kept her peace.

One day, word came to Suttung's house that his sire Gilling had been slain by a certain pair of dwarves. There was much sorrow and wailing at this news. Enraged, Suttung left his household to make the journey to Svartalfheim to seek revenge for the deaths of his father and mother. Before he departed, he said to Gunnlod, "If I do not return, remain here, my daughter, and see to the welfare of our household and our people's affairs. But mark my words, Gunnlod: love is fleeting and leaves naught but sorrow in its wake, and you would do better never to let its snares entrap your heart."

"I will love when love comes to me," Gunnlod said again, "but otherwise, I shall do as you ask, father." Suttung, shaking his head, went away to Svartalfheim, where he slew the dwarves who had killed Gilling and his wife, and brought back with him the magical mead of poetry the dwarf brothers had brewed of Kvasir's blood. But while he was away, word got around that Gunnlod held the stead alone, and soon a bevy of would-be suitors formed outside the door, each asking to come in and plead his case to the mysterious woman with the lovely voice, for each was convinced that she who sung so sweetly would make a fine mate. Suttung had not reckoned with this. Gunnlod did not allow them to see her, and her men drove off by force those who were too tenacious to heed her polite requests to leave.

Suttung considered the mead his greatest treasure -- after Gunnlod his daughter. He knew that the Aesir would probably attempt to regain the mead from him, and he was sore vexed to hear that the moment he left Jotunheim, suitors had come to try and take her away from him. So he contrived to keep both his prizes far from the reach of everyone. He had a mazelike tunnel built, running into the very earth beneath his house, with a large chamber at the heart of the mountain. He had it lavishly furnished for Gunnlod's comfort, though it could have no windows and no fire, so deep under Hnitbjorg did it lay. He ordered her women to remain with her, and had brought to them food and drink and whatever else they desired, as often as they wished. Here he bade Gunnlod stay and guard the mead herself.

Gunnlod's women wept, for they missed the light of day, and it was cold within the mountain's heart, though the chamber soon warmed a little from the presence of their bodies. But Gunnlod herself did not mourn, and soon her sweet voice echoed round the cavernous chamber and through the long, labyrinthine passages, back up into Suttung's hall. He and his folk smiled when they heard it, and Suttung's heart was a little relieved, for he had indeed felt some measure of guilt for entombing his beloved daughter in that way. But he knew Gunnlod would not sing if she was truly miserable, so his heart was lightened.

So she remained there for many months. At last Gunnlod said that it was unfair to her women to share her exile, and she sent them all back. They were secretly relieved, but continued to wait on her, tending to her needs and bringing her word of the world outside. When they asked her if she was well, Gunnlod would only say, "I am well, and I am waiting," which mystified them. And they whispered among each other how strange it was that Gunnlod sang nearly constantly, filling her prison and the house above it with music. When she was not singing, she refused all visitors, and shut herself up for long hours, and her doings were known to no one.

Suttung himself came to see his daughter one day, when Gunnlod was silent. As he entered her chamber, he saw her sitting on a low stool with a basin of water on the floor before her. She did not notice his entrance, and she sat gazing into the bowl dreamily. He narrowed his eyes, and was about to speak when he heard his name being called from the house far above, and so without saying anything to Gunnlod, he quietly went out of the chamber and back through the long, twisting passages to find out why he was being sought.

"Someone comes here with your brother," he was told by one of his men. Suttung frowned and went out of the hall, his gaze following the man's pointing finger. Two figures were coming down the road that led to his brother's farm -- the familiar shape of Baugi, and a stranger. Suttung's scowl deepened. "At least Gunnlod has ceased to sing," he thought, "so that this stranger cannot hear her voice and ask unwelcome questions." But he felt uneasy nonetheless. It was common knowledge that Gunnlod was never seen outside of her father's walls, but Suttung did not know how well known was the existence of the mead in the secret chamber, too. "Make ready for our guests," he told his man, who nodded and rushed off, shouting for fresh ale to be brought.

Suttung went back inside and waited in his chair next to his wife's empty one for the guests to come in. They did so, and Suttung saw that Baugi's companion was an ill-favored Jotun who said his name was Bolverk.

"He has done the work of my nine thralls who were killed, and then some," Baugi said, shrugging. "And so I came here, on my word, to ask you for what he wants in return -- a drink of the mead you took from the dwarves."

Suttung started a bit, and his expression darkened. "No," he said, wondering how this stranger knew of the mead of Kvasir. "That I will not give."

Baugi, after a long look at his brother, shrugged again. "I have done as you asked, Bolverk," he said to the other. "I have asked Suttung. I cannot alter his answer." He turned and left the hall. Bolverk the stranger gave Suttung a long look too, which made Suttung highly uncomfortable. Then he turned away. As they left, Suttung saw Bolverk move close to Baugi, whispering urgently in his brother's ear. "That one will cause trouble," he said to himself. And then he paused, for Gunnlod had begun to sing again.

Outside, Baugi walked away from his brother's great hall. He was a man of somewhat more modest means than Suttung, and he had much to attend to on his own farm. "Stay a moment," said the stranger called Bolverk. "I would ask another favor of you."

"I have done what you requested. It's not my fault Suttung said no," Baugi said. But Bolverk was persistent.

"I have heard that you have the means to drill through the very mountainside, to make a way into the tunnel that lies beneath and leads to the chamber where is hidden the mead of Kvasir's blood, and Gunnlod, Suttung's daughter. Will you do this for me, my friend? I should have some satisfaction, after all, for all my hard and earnest work."

Baugi grumbled and wondered how Bolverk knew of that place, but after much discussion, eventually he agreed. They climbed back up the slopes of the Hnitbjorg to a spot where they could not be seen by onlookers below, or from within Suttung's house. Here Baugi, who had helped his brother create the secret tunnel, drilled a tiny hole that led right into one of the passageways. At once, a faint sound could be heard coming from within -- a woman singing. They listened to it for a few seconds and then Baugi turned to go.

"So our bargain is concluded," he said, smiling because he thought there was no way Bolverk could make use of such a small opening, and thus he did not feel he had done Suttung any disservice.

"Indeed," Bolverk said, with an answering sly smile that Baugi did not entirely like, but he merely nodded, bade the other farewell, and began to climb down the mountainside. Bolverk waited until he was out of sight, then he shifted his shape -- for this was really Odin in disguise. Abandoning his Jotun form, he took instead the likeness of a serpent and wriggled into the hole, dropping to the floor of the passage beneath. There he changed back into his man's form, one-eyed and fair of face, and stood on his feet again. It was absolutely dark all around him; Suttung's people carried their own torches in and out whenever they went to visit or tend to Gunnlod. Odin stood still in the blackness and listened.

Suddenly, the music altered; before, it had been a merry May dance tune, but now the mysterious woman lowered her tone and began to sing of love. Her voice was like warm honey, sweet and rich and beguiling. Odin paused. Gunnlod's reputation as a superb singer was well-deserved; even the rumors had failed to do justice to her gifts. Her song tugged at Odin, so that it was with only half his own will that he began to walk in search of the owner of the voice, even though his mind was still focused on getting the magical mead away from Suttung. He wandered for a long time in the darkness, coming closer and closer to the sound of Gunnlod's voice. Finally, he saw a faint light up ahead, and quickening his pace, he came to an archway in the rock. He paused, just outside of the glow of light he saw coming from within.

"Come in, stranger," Gunnlod said quietly. There was a trace of laughter in her voice. Odin stepped forward into the light, and then paused, blinking at the sudden brilliance.

The chamber was spacious, nearly as large as Suttung's own hall far above. Torches lit it so that the interior was as bright as day. It was furnished with much fabulously carved and inlaid wooden furniture -- chairs, tables, and a large curtained bed. Gold and silver cups, basins, pitchers and other wares sparkled all around. Elaborate hand-woven tapestries -- imported from far outside Jotunheim -- hung on each of the four walls, as did an array of fine weapons, obviously well-used and carefully tended. There was a large chest for Gunnlod's clothes, and she herself sat in the center of the room upon a stool so richly inlaid it looked to be carved of solid gold. She was garbed in a fine gown, and her hair was loose, falling down her back in lustrous brown waves. She was rather ordinary-looking otherwise, but dignified, holding herself proudly as she gazed upon the stranger. Behind her, in the shadows against a far wall, Odin saw a cauldron and two plain clay jars, looking out of place among all the fancy trappings, but he knew that therein lay the treasure he sought.

"I have waited for you a long time," Gunnlod said. "Welcome, you who are called Bolverk."

"How do you know me, when your father has kept you hidden from the eyes of men?" Odin asked, moving closer. He drew off the hood that shaded his handsome features. He saw Gunnlod take a swift breath, but her expression did not change.

"I have the seer's gift, to some small degree. I have been here for many a long month, guarding my father's treasure and looking into the future." Gunnlod gestured toward a water-filled basin of silver that sat on the floor nearby. Odin glanced at it, then his gaze went back to the woman. He smiled at her.

"And why have you waited to greet me with welcome instead of with fury?" he asked, nodding toward a sword that hung near Gunnlod's bed. "I imagine you can use that as well as you have used your scrying-bowl -- "

"I can," Gunnlod replied coolly.

" -- or indeed, your magnificent voice. I heard you sing as I approached, and I was ... touched by its beauty."

Gunnlod smiled. "You think to woo me, and so obtain my father's greatest treasure."

"I think to win both his great treasures," Odin said, moving still closer. He was startled by Gunnlod's sudden laugh, a bitter one that brought him up short. She had risen to her feet, and stood as tall as he did. He gazed at her speculatively.

"I know what you desire," Gunnlod said. "Let us be frank. I am unworldly, but I am wise in my own way. You hope to seduce me and win the mead of poetry. I have seen this. I have also seen that you are the only man I will ever love, and that you will leave me, and that my father was right about one thing. Love's absence ... is pain." She bowed her head. Odin waited. Gunnlod spoke again without looking at him. "I have foreseen that this meeting will leave me filled with longing for you for the rest of my days. Yet from it, I will obtain my greatest joy. So ... ask anything of me, king of Asgard, and I shall grant it. I am willing to pay the price." She lifted her head, and her eyes were proud, and she was not ashamed.

Odin considered. Then he said, "Lady, you have indeed been frank and I would not force from you what you are willing to offer freely, without giving something in return. Therefore, give me three drinks of the mead brewed of Kvasir's blood, and I shall remain here three nights with you as your lover, and whatever else may come of this," he shrugged, "I will not begrudge, nor expect you to begrudge me."

Gunnlod said, "I agree." Then she bade Odin conceal himself behind her curtained bed, and she called for her women and told them not to disturb her for three days and three nights, merely to leave food and drink enough for that time, and that she would call them if she needed their help. They protested, but she said that she would be well, and finally they did as she asked. And Odin remained with her for those three days and nights, and their talk was only of love, and her singing during that time was the sweetest and most beautiful that any had yet heard.

Finally, at dawn after the third night, Odin rose and said to Gunnlod, "I must take my leave of you now. Give me what I have asked for." Gunnlod nodded. Her heart was heavy, but she was too proud to ask Odin to reconsider or to come see her again, and she knew he never would. She led him over to where the mead lay. Odin drank once from the cauldron and each of the two jars, and taking Gunnlod's hand, he squeezed it in farewell, but did not speak. Then he left her without a backward glance, and disappeared into the darkness, hurrying away into the passage to make his escape.

Gunnlod swallowed hard and fought down her tears, and she was about to call her women when her gaze fell upon the now-empty containers, and she knew what Odin had done. She stood quietly for a moment, thinking. Then she opened her mouth and called out to her father that all the mead of poetry had been stolen, but she did not say that her heart had been stolen along with it.

Suttung heard Gunnlod's call, and looking outside, saw an eagle making its way rapidly away from Hnitbjorg. He changed himself at once into another eagle and flew off in hot pursuit, his people shouting encouragement to their lord as he vanished into the sky after the thief. He chased Odin all the way back to Asgard, but could not get in and was driven away by the Aesir. Suttung returned to his home, and upon resuming man's form, he immediately strode down the passage to where Gunnlod sat waiting for her father's return. He was furious, for he knew that she must have allowed Odin to take the mead in exchange for dalliance with her.

"We have lost the mead of poetry thanks to your lover's wiles! What have you to say, my daughter?" Gunnlod was silent. Suttung shouted, "See what love has wrought for you, for our folk! We have gained nothing from this!"

"Not nothing, Father," Gunnlod said softly. She looked calmly at Suttung's angry face. "I am carrying his son, and he will be of our blood as well as the Ill-Worker's. He will be your heir and mine, and he will be called 'best of poets' one day. Is this not compensation for the loss of the mead?" But Suttung would not listen. He was so angry that he forbade Gunnlod to leave her chamber ever again. He set guards to watch night and day at the entrance to the passage, and had the hole drilled by Baugi closed up, and none but her women were allowed to come and go. Suttung himself did not go to visit her again.

Gunnlod was grieved by all this, but she bore her father's decree without complaint, and remained there in her underground room where she had known the embrace of her one love. In time, she gave birth to a son. He was neither physically remarkable nor handsome, but strong and healthy, and though Suttung did not comment on the birth of his grandson, in his heart he was pleased, and his anger toward Gunnlod began to soften. But he still did not relent, and so Gunnlod and her son, whom she named Bragi, remained in the chamber under the mountain.

One day, when Bragi was nearly a year old, Gunnlod waited until her women went away, and she went to the corner of the room where the empty cauldron Odrorir and the jars Son and Bodn lay, dusty and forgotten. From deep within Bodn, she withdrew a small, corked bottle. She had concealed this in various places within her chamber over the long months, and now she took it over to where her small boy sat gazing at her with bright brown eyes.

"Drink this, my son," she said. Gunnlod uncorked the bottle, and from it she fed Bragi the last precious drops of the mead of poetry, which she had been saving from the moment she saw her as-yet-unborn son in her seer's mirror. Bragi drank obediently, and from that day forth, he was changed. He spoke more readily and beyond his years, and the women who waited on Gunnlod marveled at his progress. When he was a little older, he began to learn to sing. Gunnlod, who adored her son above all other things, taught him all the songs she knew, save for the one she had used to lure Odin to her side. That she kept for herself.

One year passed, then another, and seven winters after Bolverk had come to Baugi's farm, the two of them, Gunnlod and Bragi, were still living inside their secret chamber in the mountain. The entire household and many of those outside it now knew that Gunnlod's son was a prodigy and that none of his like had ever been heard in Jotunheim before, for despite his youth, Bragi was already a better singer than even his mother. He was also unusually intelligent for his age, and he delighted in hearing the stories his mother and her women told, and could repeat them, word for word, with very little trouble. Suttung had never been down to see his grandson; his pride would not allow it, but the more he heard of Bragi's skill, the more curious he became. Finally, he told Gunnlod's women to bring the boy up.

Suttung waited in his hall until the young boy was brought before him. Bragi was very pale, for he had never seen the sun, and he blinked, squinting in the brightly lit hall, but he appeared healthy, and his face was so like Gunnlod's that Suttung's sternness slipped a bit as he gazed on his grandson.

"Sing for me, child," he said, and Bragi obediently opened his mouth and began to sing a simple shepherd's tune. His voice swelled the air around him, a high, clear child's soprano, and there was something beyond beauty in it. The folk of the household stopped in their tracks; the birds outside quit singing and gazed through the windows in silence, and even the sun outside came out from behind the clouds in the overcast sky above. The fire quieted its merry crackle, and the wind slowed its creaking of the house. Far below, Gunnlod was likewise silent, listening to her boy sing. Suttung felt his heart swell with affection for the child of his own blood.

"Stay with me," he said, "and gladden my household, for I am growing old and I would like to see your young face here every day."

"But what about my mother?" Bragi asked, and was dismayed to see his grandfather's expression grow stern again.

"She disobeyed me, and she must be punished," was all he said. "But you do not deserve to be punished as well, for it was none of your doing."

"I cannot leave Mother," Bragi said, shaking his head. "I am sorry, my grand-sire." And he turned away and went back down to Gunnlod's hidden chamber.

Suttung was displeased, but he gave orders that Bragi should be allowed to come and go as he wished, and Gunnlod herself bade Bragi to leave her and go into the household now and then, for she worried for her son, growing up in a sunless room underground. And so Bragi spent some of the time with his mother, and some of the time with his grandfather. He was allowed to go outdoors, and was often taken with Suttung or other members of the family on short journeys, and he soon added to his song-hoard and tale-hoard, so that by the time he was twelve, he was the most skilled of storytellers and a singer beyond compare. Older skalds bowed when they saw him, and everyone whispered about Bragi and his mysterious parentage, for few knew who had fathered him on Gunnlod, and the tale of the mead's theft was a closely guarded secret.

Bragi never stopped asking his grandfather to relent and allow Gunnlod to come out of her chamber, but Suttung always refused, more out of stubbornness now than real anger. Then one day, when Bragi was nearly full grown, a stranger appeared at the top of the road leading to Hnitbjorg. Suttung stood gazing out the window with his grandson as the stranger came closer. It was not one of the etin-folk, but a tall man clad in a long, muffling cloak and a wide-brimmed hat.

"There approaches the one who sired you, my grandson." Suttung said stiffly, for the sight of the stranger filled him with anger and resentment. Bragi gave him a startled look. Gunnlod had never told him who his father was, only that he had come and gone and that she did not expect to ever see him again.

The stranger came to Suttung's hall, where he was welcomed, and he identified himself as the father of Bragi. He approached the boy and stood looking at him. Bragi was not very tall, and resembled his mother more than his father in that he was rather plain and unimpressive-looking, but perhaps the stranger saw more in the boy than was apparent on the surface, for he smiled as if well pleased, and his eye glittered under the shadows of his hat.

"Come with me to my land and my own people. I regret that I did not come for you sooner, but I had no wish to rob your mother of her greatest joy," the stranger said.

Bragi considered. "I would not leave my mother a prisoner here, and it is by my grand-sire's leave that I come and go in his household, as I am not yet of age." He turned to Suttung, who sat watching all this with a very sour look on his face. Suttung longed to kill the stranger, whose identity he knew very well, but since the latter was the father of his own grandson, the lord of Hnitbjorg felt that he must refrain, since he loved Bragi well and did not wish to upset him.

"What is your will, Grand-sire?" Bragi said.

"I say that you shall remain here now, but when you are a grown man, you may go where you choose," Suttung said. The stranger bowed curtly to him, and then grasped young Bragi's shoulder.

"Come to me when you are of age," he said. "You will be welcome in my land and have no fear of anyone there." He departed the hall. Bragi went down to his mother's chamber and told her all that had passed. A sad smile crossed her face, but it vanished quickly when Gunnlod saw that her son had noticed it.

"I will miss you, my son, but I think your father is right. You should go to him, at least for a little while, and learn the stories of his folk as well as those of Jotunheim which you already know. I think you would do well to go wherever you can to learn as much as you can, for you are a skald better than any other, and it is only fitting that you know all the tales you can hear." Gunnlod said wisely. And then she told Bragi the story of his own siring, and how Odin had contrived to win both the mead and her love, and left her after three nights.

When Bragi reached manhood, he went to Suttung and said, "Grandfather, I wish to leave your household and go to the land of my father."

Suttung agreed, though he resented Odin's claim over his beloved grandson. "As you wish. You are a man now, and master of your own life."

"There's one thing I would ask of you first," Bragi said. "Let Mother come out of the mountain. Surely your wrath has been appeased by now. Surely she has paid for giving the mead away to my father. She has spent the whole of my youth below the ground. Let her return and live among our kinsfolk again. I would feel happier knowing that she is not so alone when I go far away from this land and my family."

Suttung frowned. "That I cannot do. Gunnlod my daughter broke her word by acting as she did. I will not allow it." Bragi pleaded, but Suttung would not relent, and eventually he was forced to give up. He went to his mother and said, "I will return, and I will find a way to make my grandfather's heart soften towards you, Mother. Farewell."

Gunnlod smiled at her son. "I am well, Bragi. Go into the world, and see what you shall see, and learn what you would learn, and don't mourn for me." So he left her and went to Asgard, where Odin and Frigga welcomed him into their household. He learned all the stories and songs the Aesir were willing to share with him, and made many more that they delighted in hearing. He became even more renowned for his skill. But Bragi did not forget his imprisoned mother, nor his words of farewell to her. After many months, he returned to Jotunheim and made his way into the land of his mother's kin, and came again to Suttung's house, where he was welcomed as eagerly and warmly as if he had been a visiting king.

"Will you not let my mother go?" Bragi entreated his grand-sire. "She should have long ago been the occupant of that seat," he said, indicating the empty chair next to Suttung's own in the great hall. "She is the lady of this household and the mother of one they are calling 'best of poets.' Surely she deserves better honor than what you have shown her."

But old Suttung was still stubborn, and they argued long, then quarreled bitterly. Finally Bragi said in exasperation, "Then I will take her place, if only for a little while. I am the result of her deed even if I had no part of it, and I should bear at least some of her punishment. Let my mother emerge from her prison for nine days each year, and let me remain instead in that chamber where I was born, if you feel someone must still pay the price for the loss of Kvasir's blood-mead after all this time." Suttung would not hear of this at first, but Bragi was so persuasive that he finally gave in, secretly glad for the excuse, though it pained him to send his grandson down into the hidden room under Hnitbjorg.

Bragi went to his mother and told her to leave her chamber, and that he would take her place for nine days. She likewise protested, but Bragi finally made her go out and she went through the passageway up into Suttung's house, where she was received with joy by all but her father, who would not speak to her.

Nine days Bragi sat beneath the mountain, singing and playing his lute when he was not sleeping, and hardly anything got done within Suttung's household because people were always stopping to listen to that magnificent music. Bragi's voice was deep, rich and mellow as old brandy, so smooth that hearing it was a pleasure even when the words were sung in some unfamiliar tongue. Meanwhile, Gunnlod was allowed free run of Suttung's considerably large dwelling and even ventured outside, where the sunlight warmed her face for the first time in many years.

At the end of the nine days, Bragi came back from inside the mountain. He hoped that his grandfather had been persuaded to relent by being in the company of his beloved daughter once more, but Suttung was as hard as ever, and Gunnlod was made to return to her chamber underground. Bragi was glad that his mother had been temporarily freed from exile, but he was unhappy at his grand-sire's stubbornness, and it was with sadness that he returned to Asgard again.

Each year for many years after that, Bragi would go back to Jotunheim and remain for nine days in Gunnlod's chamber while she went free. He did this without complaint, but eventually word of this curious arrangement reached Odin's ears, and he sent for the skald and questioned him about this state of affairs. Bragi said that it had been his idea, and Odin frowned. "I don't like this. You are honored among my people and your mother's folk and by many others besides, and it is unfit that someone of your reputation and worth should submit to something so lowly."

"Yet my mother has endured it since before my birth," Bragi pointed out, "and you have said nothing of her reputation or her worth."

"True," Odin said matter-of-factly. "Your mother is a good woman, but your grand-sire is a hard man. Is there nothing you can say to persuade him to let Gunnlod go free permanently?"

"I have tried every argument I can think of, but nothing has reached him. He has been unforgiving ever since the mead of poetry was taken from under his very household."

Odin smiled knowingly at that, but rearranged his expression upon seeing Bragi's face. He thought for a minute, while Bragi waited in silence. "Perhaps your grand-sire is not truly angry at your mother at all, but for her," he said at last. "I hear he never took another to wife after her mother died many years ago."

"That is true," Bragi said.

"And has Gunnlod herself never loved another?" Odin asked delicately.

"You know that she hasn't, Father. Besides, how could she, imprisoned and seeing no one but myself and her women for so long? And while she walks free for that short time each year, my father keeps a close eye on her, as he did when she was young." Bragi said helplessly. "I don't understand what you mean."

"I mean that it may not be for pride that your grand-sire has kept Gunnlod locked away for so long, but for sorrow's sake," Odin said. "But I think I know how to persuade him to let Gunnlod out for good. Listen to me ... " And Odin began to sing a song Bragi had never heard before. He was surprised, for it was in the Jotun tongue and was not one of the Aesir's. When Bragi had memorized it, Odin said, "You know what to do with this. You may tell your mother that it is a gift, and that despite what she might believe, I have not forgotten her." So Bragi left Odin and spent many long hours crafting new words to go along with the old ones.

When Bragi came to Suttung's house later that year, he again replaced his mother in her imprisonment, and after Gunnlod walked free, he settled himself within her richly furnished chamber and took up his lute. He began to sing a song no one had ever heard coming from within that mountain. It was the story of a woman who had seen her lover in a vision and knew that like the image she saw, her man's love would be fleeting and impermanent. Yet she risked everything for that brief love, nonetheless. And within this song was another, the one which Gunnlod had sung to entice Odin to her side, knowing all the while that he would never stay with her, that she would long for him all her life, and that she was willing to give him both of her father's treasures for the sake of knowing his love for that short time.

Bragi sang as he had never sung before, and his voice swept up through the passages of the mountain like a living thing, carrying the full power of his words to the ears of all who listened. The folk in the household above remained stock-still; some of them were weeping openly. Gunnlod stood staring into the fire, thinking of three days and nights that had brought her true joy, and the even greater joy that her son had given her in the long years after. Suttung listened, and for the first time he understood that his daughter had known all along what he had never realized -- that love is precious in itself, and that it is no less precious for being impermanent, and that its loss, while painful, is no cause to deny it. He glanced at the empty seat by his side, and then at his daughter's face as she looked into the flames without seeing them and his old heart softened at last.

When the song ended, a great shout went up from those listening, and Suttung himself went down to the chamber to fetch Bragi up. They returned through the secret passageway to the sound of their kinsfolk applauding and cheering, and Suttung, for the first time in many years, reached out for Gunnlod and brought her close to where he stood with Bragi. He said to her, in front of everyone, "My daughter, I have been cruel. I have punished you wrongly for something I had no right to judge. Will you forgive me? What may I do to restore your love and good faith?"

"There is nothing you can do, Father," Gunnlod said flatly, and for a moment, there was silence. But then she smiled. "I foresaw this, that from my love for Bolverk would come my greatest joy. And that has come to pass, for my son Bragi stands here now -- beloved, famed and honored by our own folk and others throughout the worlds. It is he who has managed to free me from my prison and to free you from yours, and so my joy is complete."

Then she turned to face her father squarely, and there was steel in her gentle voice. "I am done with seeing, and now I wish to live my life quietly and freely, in my own way. I will not remain in your household, Father. I will leave this place and go up into the mountains, and there make my home with those of our folk who will come with me." Several people immediately stepped forth to volunteer. "I hope that one day, you will find another to sit where my mother once sat," she added, nodding at Suttung's wife's empty seat. "For that place was never mine, not so long as you were unwilling to let go of her loss." And with that, Gunnlod made ready to depart her father's household, and Suttung did not stop her from doing as she pleased, and he never tried to do so again.

Gunnlod went into the mountains, and her women and some of the men in Suttung's household went with her. And there she still dwells, in a house far above the hidden chamber in the rock where she had known love, and isolation, and happiness. The next time Bragi saw his mother, he told her how he had learned her love-song, and what Odin had asked him to say to her. She did not reply, but smiled her calm smile, and her house was ever full of music after that. To this day, if you travel in the mountains around Hnitbjorg, you can hear her voice, sounding as beautiful as ever. Sometimes if you are lucky, you can hear Gunnlod and her son singing together, and the very wind itself will slow and the birds grow silent as those two voices dance with each other, around and around in the free air of the mountains. 

© Elizabeth Vongvisith

Elizabeth´s books are available at Asphodel Press.

Twilight and Fire Blog - Mysticism, devotion, and explorations of the heart.
 

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