Heroes of the Olden Times: The Story of Siegfried
The Curse of Gold
Forth then rode Siegfried, upon the beaming Greyfell, out into the broad mid-world. And the sun shone bright upon him, and the air was soft and pure, and the earth seemed very lovely, and life a gladsome thing. And his heart was big within him as he thought of the days to come, of the deeds of love and daring, of the righting of many wrongs, of the people’s praise, and the glory of a life well lived. And he wended his way back again toward the south and the fair lands of the Rhine. He left the barren moorlands behind him, and the pleasant farms and villages of the fruitful countryside, and after many days came once more to Regin’s woodland dwelling. For he said to himself, “My old master is very wise; and he knows of the deeds that were done when yet the world was young, and my kin were the mightiest of men. I will go to him, and learn what grievous evil it is that he has so often vaguely hinted at.”
Regin, when he saw the lad and the beaming Greyfell standing like a vision of light at his door, welcomed them most gladly, and led Siegfried into the inner room, where they sat down together amid the gold, and the gem stones, and the fine-wrought treasures there.
“Truly,” said the master, “the days of my long waiting are drawing to a close, and at last the deed shall be done.”
And the old look of longing came again into his eyes, and his pinched face seemed darker and more wrinkled than before, and his thin lips trembled with emotion as he spoke.
“What is that deed of which you speak?” asked Siegfried.
“It is the righting of a grievous wrong,” answered Regin, “and the winning of treasures untold. Lo, many years have I waited for the coming of this day; and now my heart tells me that the hero so long hoped for is here, and the wisdom and the wealth of the world shall be mine.”
“But what is the wrong to be righted?” asked Siegfried. “And what is this treasure that you speak of as your own?”
“Alas!” answered Regin, “the treasure is indeed mine; and yet wrongfully has it been withheld from me. But listen a while to a tale of the early days, and thou shalt know what the treasure is, and what is the wrong to be righted.”
He took his harp and swept the strings, and played a soft, low melody which told of the dim past, and of blighted hopes, and of a nameless, never-satisfied yearning for that which might have been. And then he told Siegfried this story: -
When the earth was still very young, and men were feeble and few, and the Dwarfs were many and strong, the Asa-folk were wont ofttimes to leave their halls in heaven-towering Asgard in order to visit the new-formed mid-world, and to see what the short-lived sons of men were doing. Sometimes they came in their own god-like splendour and might; sometimes they came disguised as feeble men folk, with all man’s weaknesses and all his passions. Sometimes Odin, as a beggar, wandered from one country to another, craving charity; sometimes, as a warrior clad in coat of mail, he rode forth to battle for the cause of right; or as a minstrel he sang from door to door, and played sweet music in the halls of the great; or as a huntsman he dashed through brakes and fens, and into dark forests, and climbed steep mountains in search of game; or as a sailor he embarked upon the sea, and sought new scenes in unknown lands. And many times did men folk entertain him unawares.
Once on a time he came to the mid-world in company with Hoenir and Loki; and the three wandered through many lands and in many climes, each giving gifts wherever they went. Odin gave knowledge and strength, and taught men how to read the mystic runes; Hoenir gave gladness and good cheer, and lightened many hearts with the glow of his comforting presence; but Loki had nought to give but cunning deceit and base thoughts, and he left behind him bitter strife and many aching breasts. At last, growing tired of the fellowship of men, the three Asa sought the solitude of the forest, and as huntsmen wandered long among the hills and over the wooded heights of Hunaland. Late one afternoon they came to a mountain stream at a place where it poured over a ledge of rocks, and fell in clouds of spray into a rocky gorge below. As they stood, and with pleased eyes gazed upon the waterfall, they saw near the bank an otter lazily making ready to eat a salmon which he had caught. And Loki, ever bent on doing mischief, hurled a stone at the harmless beast, and killed him. And he boasted loudly that he had done a worthy deed. And he took both the otter, and the fish which it had caught, and carried them with him as trophies of the day’s success.
Just at nightfall the three huntsmen came to a lone farmhouse in the valley, and asked for food, and for shelter during the night.
“Shelter you shall have,” said the farmer, whose name was Hreidmar, “for the rising clouds foretell a storm. But food I have none to give you. Surely huntsmen of skill should not want for food, since the forest teems with game, and the streams are full of fish.”
Then Loki threw upon the ground the otter and the fish, and said, “We have sought in both forest and stream, and we have taken from them at one blow both flesh and fish. Give us but the shelter you promise, and we will not trouble you for food.”
The farmer gazed with horror upon the lifeless body of the otter, and cried out, “This creature which you mistook for an otter, and which you have robbed and killed, is my son Oddar, who for mere pastime had taken the form of the furry beast. You are but thieves and murderers!”
Then he called loudly for help; and his two sons Fafnir and Regin, sturdy and valiant kin of the dwarf-folk, rushed in, and seized upon the huntsmen, and bound them hand and foot; for the three Asa, having taken upon themselves the forms of men, had no more than human strength, and were unable to withstand them.
Then Odin and his fellows bemoaned their ill fate. And Loki said, “Wherefore did we foolishly take upon ourselves the likenesses of men? Had I my own power once more, I would never part with it in exchange for man’s weaknesses.”
And Hoenir sighed, and said, “Now, indeed, will darkness win; and the frosty breath of the Reimthursen giants will blast the fair handiwork of the sunlight and the heat; for the givers of life and light and warmth are helpless prisoners in the hands of these cunning and unforgiving jailers.”
“Surely,” said Odin, “not even the highest are free from obedience to heaven’s behests and the laws of right. I, whom men call the Preserver of Life, have demeaned myself by being found in evil company; and, although I have done no other wrong, I suffer rightly for the doings of this mischief-maker whom I have stooped to have fellowship. For all are known, not so much by what they are as by what they seem to be, and they bear the bad name which their comrades bear. Now I am fallen from my high estate. Eternal right is higher than I. And in the last Twilight of the gods I must needs meet the dread Fenris wolf, and in the end of the world will be made new again, and the shining Balder will rule in sunlight majesty forever.”
Then the Asa asked Hreidmar, their jailer, what ransom they should pay for their freedom; and he, not knowing who they were, said, “I must first know what ransom you are able to give.”
“We will give any thing you may ask,” hastily answered Loki.
Hreidmar then called his sons, and bade them strip the skin from the otter’s body. When this was done, they brought the furry hide and spread it upon the ground; and Hreidmar said, “Bring shining gold and precious stones enough to cover every part of this otter skin. When you have paid so much ransom, you shall have your freedom.”
“That we will do,” answered Odin, “But one of us must leave to go and fetch it; the other two will stay fast bound until the morning dawns. If, by that time, the gold is not here, you may do with us as you please.”
Hreidmar and the two young men agreed to Odin’s offer; and, lots being cast, it fell to Loki to go and fetch the treasure. When he had been loosed from the cords which bound him, Loki donned his magic shoes which had carried him over land and sea from the farthest bounds of the mid-world, and hastened away upon his errand. And he sped with the swiftness of light, over the hills and the wooded slopes, and the deep dark valleys, and the fields and forests and sleeping hamlets, until he came to the place where dwelt the swarthy elves and the cunning dwarf Andvari. There the River Rhine, no larger than a meadow brook, breaks forth from beneath a mountain of ice, which the Frost giants and blind old Hoder, the winter-king, had built long years before; for they had vainly hoped that they might imprison the river at its fountain head. But the baby brook had eaten its way beneath the frozen mass, and had sprung out from its prison, and gone on, leaping and smiling, and kissing the sunlight, in its ever-widening course towards Burgundy and the sea.
Loki came to this place, because he know that here was the home of the elves who had laid up the greatest hoard of treasures ever known in the mid-world. He scanned with careful eyes the mountain side, and the deep, rocky caverns, and the dark gorge through which the little river rushed; but in the dim moonlight not a living being could he see, save a lazy salmon swimming in the quieter eddies of the stream. Any one but Loki would have lost all hope of finding treasure there, at least before the dawn of day; but his wits were quick, and his eyes were very sharp.
“One salmon has brought us into this trouble, and another shall help us out of it!” he cried.
Then, swift as thought, he sprang again into the air; and the magic shoes carried him with greater speed than before down the Rhine valley, and through Burgundyland, and the low meadows, until he came to the shores of the great North Sea. He sought the halls of old Aegir, the Ocean-king; but he wist not which way to go, - whether across the North Sea towards Isenland, or whether along the narrow channel between Britain land and the main. While he paused, uncertain where to turn, he saw the pale-haired daughters of old Aegir, the white-veiled Waves, playing in the moonlight near the shore. Of them he asked the way to Aegir’s hall.
“Seven days’ journey westward,” said they, “beyond the green Isle of Erin, is our father’s hall. Seven days’ journey northward, on the bleak Norwegian shore, is our father’s hall.”
And they stopped not once in their play, but rippled and danced on the shelving beach, or dashed with force against the shore.
“Where is your mother Ran, the Queen of the Ocean?” asked Loki.
And they answered -
“In the deep sea-caves
by the sounding shore
In the dashing waves
when the wild storms roar,
In her cold green bowers,
In the northern fjords,
She lurks and she glowers,
She grasps and she hoards,
And she spreads her strong net for her prey.”
Loki waited to hear no more; but he sprang into the air, and the magic shoes carried him onwards over the water in search of the Ocean-queen. He had not gone far when his sharp eyes espied her, lurking near a rocky shore against which the breakers dashed with frightful fury. Half hidden in the deep dark water, she lay waiting and watching; and she spread her cunning net upon the waves, and reached out with her long greedy fingers to seize whatever booty might come near her.
When the wary queen saw Loki, she hastily drew in her net, and tried to hide herself in the shadows of an overhanging rock. But Loki called her by name, and said, -
“Sister Ran, fear not! I am your friend Loki, whom once you served as a guest in Aegir’s gold-lit halls.”
Then the Ocean-queen came out into the bright moonlight, and welcomed Loki to her domain, and asked, “Why does Loki thus wander so far from Asgard, and over the trackless waters?”
And Loki answered, “I have heard of the net which you spread upon the waves, and from which no creature once caught in its meshes can ever escape. I have found a salmon where the Rhine spring gushes from beneath the mountains, and a very cunning salmon he is, for no common skill can catch him. Come, I pray, with your wondrous net, and cast it into the stream where he lies. Do but take the wary fish for me, and you shall have more gold than you have taken in a year from the wrecks of stranded vessels.”
“I dare not go,” cried Ran. “A bound is set, beyond which I may not venture. If all the gold of earth were offered me, I could not go.”
“Then lend me your net,” entreated Loki. “Lend me your net, and I will bring it back to-morrow filled with gold.”
“Much I would your gold,” answered Ran; “but I cannot lend my net. Should I do so, I might lose the richest prize that has ever come into my husband’s kingdom. For three days, now, a gold-rigged ship, bearing a princely crew with rich armor and abundant wealth, has been sailing carelessly over these seas. To-morrow I shall send my daughters and the bewitching mermaids to decoy the vessel among the rocks. And into my net the ship, and the brave warriors, and all their armor and gold, shall fall. A rich prize it will be. No: I cannot part with my net, even for a single hour.”
Loki knew the power of flattering words.
“Beautiful queen,” said he, “there is no one on earth, nor even in Asgard, who can equal you in wisdom and foresight. Yet I promise you, that, if you will but lend me your net until the morning dawns, the ship and the crew of which you speak shall be yours, and all their golden treasures shall deck your azure halls in the deep sea.”