Heroes of the Olden Times: The Story of Siegfried
Then Ran carefully folded the net, and gave it to Loki.
“Remember your promise,” was all that she said.
“An Asa never forgets,” he answered.
And he turned his face again towards Rhineland; and the magic shoes bore him aloft, and carried him in a moment back to the ice mountain and the gorge and the infant river, which he had so lately left. The salmon still rested in his place, and had not moved during Loki’s short absence.
Loki unfolded the net, and cast it into the stream. The cunning fish tried hard to avoid being caught in its meshes; but, dart which way he would, he met the skilfully woven cords, and these drew themselves around him, and held him fast. Then Loki pulled the net up out of the water, and grasped the helpless fish in his right hand. But, lo! as he held the struggling creature high in the air, it was no longer a fish, but the cunning dwarf Andvari.
“Thou King of the Dwarves,” cried Loki, “thy cunning has not saved thee. Tell me, on thy life, where thy hidden treasures lie!”
The wise dwarf knew who it was that thus held him as in a vise; and he answered frankly, for it was his only hope of escape, “Turn over the stone upon which you stand. Beneath it you will find the treasure you seek.”
Then Loki put his shoulder to the rock, and pushed with all his might. But it seemed as firm as the mountain, and would not be moved.
“Help us, thou cunning dwarf,” he cried, - “help us, and thou shalt have thy life!”
The dwarf put his shoulder to the rock, and it turned over as if by magic, and underneath was disclosed a wondrous chamber, whose walls shone brighter than the sun, and on whose floor lay treasures of gold and glittering gem stones such as no man had ever seen. And Loki, in great haste, seized upon the hoard, and placed it in the magic net which he had borrowed from the Ocean-queen. Then he came out of the chamber; and Andvari again put his shoulder to the rock which lay at the entrance, and it swung back noiselessly to its place.
“What is that upon thy finger?” suddenly cried Loki. “Wouldst keep back a part of the treasure? Give me the ring thou hast!”
But the dwarf shook his head, and made answer, “I have given thee all the riches that the elves of the mountain have gathered since the world began. This ring I cannot give thee, for without its help we shall never be able to gather more treasures together.”
And Loki grew angry at these words of the dwarf; and he seized the ring, and tore it by force from Andvari’s fingers. It was a wondrous little piece of mechanism shaped like a serpent, coiled, with its tail in its mouth; and its scaly sides glittered with many a tiny diamond, and its ruby eyes shone with an evil light. When the dwarf knew that Loki really meant to rob him of the ring, he cursed it and all who should ever possess it, saying, -
“May the ill-gotten treasure that you have seized to-night be your bane, and the bane of all to whom it may come, whether by fair means or by foul! And the ring which you have torn from my hand, may it entail upon the one who wears it sorrow and untold ills, the loss of friends, and a violent death! The Norns have spoken, and thus it must be.”
Loki was pleased with these words, and with the dark curses which the swarf pronounced upon the gold; for he knew that no curses could ever make his own life more cheerless than it always had been. So he thanked Andvari for his curses and treasures; and, throwing the magic net upon his shoulder, he sprang again into the air, and was carried swiftly back to Hunaland; and, just before the dawn appeared in the east, he alighted at the door of the farmhouse where Odin and Hoenir still lay bound with thongs, and guarded by Fafnir and Regin.
Then the farmer, Hreidmar, brought the otter’s skin, and spread it upon the ground; and, lo! it grew, and spread out on all sides, until it covered an acre of ground. And he cried out, “Fulfill now your promise! Cover every hair of this hide with gold or with precious stones. If you fail to do this, then your lives, by your own agreement, are forfeited, and we shall do with you as we list.”
Odin took the magic net from Loki’s shoulder; and, opening it, he poured the treasures of the mountain-dwarfs upon the otter skin. And Loki and Hoenir spread the yellow pieces carefully and evenly over every part of the furry hide. But, after every piece had been laid in its place, Hreidmar saw near the otter’s mouth a single hair uncovered; and he declared, that unless this hair, too, were covered, the bargain would be unfulfilled, and the treasures and lives of his prisoners would be forfeited. And the Asar looked at each other in dismay; for not another piece of gold, and not another precious stone, could they find in the net, although they searched with greatest care. At last Odin took from his bosom the ring which Loki had stolen from the dwarf; for he had been so highly pleased with its form and workmanship, that he had hidden it, hoping that it would not be needed to complete the payment of the ransom. And they laid the ring upon the uncovered hair. And now no portion of the otter’s skin could be seen. And Fafnir and Regin, the ransom being paid, loosed the shackles of Odin and Hoenir, and bade the three huntsmen go their way.
Odin and Hoenir at once shook off their human disguises, and, taking their own forms again, hastened with all speed back to Asgard. But Loki tarried a little while, and said to Hreidmar and his sons, -
“By your greediness and falsehood you have won for yourselves the Curse of the Earth, which lies before you. It shall be your bane. It shall be the bane of every one who holds it. It shall kindle strife between father and son, between brother and brother. It shall make you mean, selfish, beastly. It shall transform you into monsters. The noblest king among men folk shall feel its curse. Such is gold, and such it shall ever be to its worshipers. And the ring which you have gotten shall impart to its possessor its own nature. Grasping, snaky, cold, unfeeling, shall he live; and death through treachery shall be his doom.”
Then he turned away, delighted that he had thus left the curse of Andvari with Hreidmar and his sons, and hastened northward toward the sea; for he wished to redeem the promise that he had made to the Ocean-queen, to bring back her magic net, and to decoy the richly laden ship into her clutches.
No sooner were the strange huntsmen well out of sight than Fafnir and Regin began to ask their father to divide the glittering hoard with them.
“By our strength and through our advice,” said they, “this great store has come into your hands. Let us place it in three equal heaps, and then let each take his share and go his way.”
At this the farmer waxed very angry; and he loudly declared that he would keep all the treasure for himself, and that his sons should not have any portion of it whatever. So Fafnir and Regin, nursing their disappointment, went to the fields to watch their sheep; but their father sat down to guard his new-gotten treasure. And he took in his hand the glittering serpent ring, and gazed into its cold ruby eyes; and, as he gazed, all his thoughts were fixed upon his gold; and there was no room in his heart for love toward his fellows, nor for deeds of kindness, nor for the worship of the All-Father. And behold, as he continued to look at the snaky ring, a dreadful change came over him. The warm red blood, which until that time had leaped through his veins, and given him life and strength and human feeling, became purple and cold and sluggish; and selfishness, like serpent’s poison, took hold of his heart. Then, as he kept on gazing at the hoard which lay before him, he began to lose his human shape; his body lengthened into many scaly folds, and he coiled himself around his loved treasures, - the very likeness of the ring upon which he had looked so long.
When the day drew near its close, Fafnir came back from the fields with his herd of sheep, and though to find his father guarding the treasure, as he had left him in the morning; but instead he saw a glittering snake, fast asleep, encircling the hoard like a huge scaly ring of gold. His first thought was that the monster had devoured his father; and, hastily drawing his sword, with one blow severed the serpent’s head from its body. And, while the creature writhed in the death-agony, he gathered up the hoard, and fled with it beyond the hills of Hunaland, until on the seventh day he came to a barren heath far from the homes of men. There he placed the treasures in one glittering heap; and he clothed himself in a wondrous mail-coat of gold that was found among them, and he put on the Helmet of Dread, which had once been the terror of the mid-world, and the like of which no man had ever seen; and then he gazed with greedy eyes upon the fateful ring, until he, too, was changed into a cold and slimy reptile, - a monster dragon. And he coiled himself about the hoard; and, with his restless eyes forever open, he gloated day after day upon his loved gold, and watched with ceaseless care that no one should come near to despoil him of it. This was ages and ages ago; and still he wallows among his treasures on the Glittering Heath, and guards as of yore the garnered wealth of Andvari.
When I, Regin, the younger brother, came back in the late evening to my father’s dwelling, I saw that the treasure had been carried away; and, when I beheld the dead serpent lying in its place, I knew that a part of Andvari’s curse had been fulfilled. And a strange fear came over me; and I left every thing behind me, and fled from that dwelling, never to return. Then I came to the land of the Volsungs, where your father’s fathers dwelt, - the noblest king-folk that the world has ever seen. But a longing for the gold and the treasure, a hungry yearning that would never be satisfied, filled my soul. Then for a time I sought to forget this craving. I spent my days in the getting of knowledge and in teaching men folk the ancient lore of my kin, the Dwarfs. I taught them how to plant and to sow, and to reap the yellow grain. I showed them where the precious metals of the earth lie hidden, and how to smelt iron from its ores, - how to shape the ploughshare and the spade, the spear and the battleaxe. I taught them how to tame the wild horses of the meadows, and how to train the yoke beasts to the plough; how to build lordly dwelling and mighty strongholds, and how to sail in ships across old Aegir’s watery kingdom. But they gave me no thanks for what I had done; and as the years went by they forgot who had been their teacher, and they said that it was Frey who had given them this knowledge and skill. And I taught the young maidens how to spin and weave, and to handle the needle deftly, - to make rich garments, and to work in tapestry and embroidery. But they, too, forgot me, and said that it was Freyja who had taught them. Then I showed men how to read the mystic runes aright, and how to make the sweet beverage of poetry, that charms all hearts, and enlightens the world. But they say now that they had these gifts from Odin. I taught them how to fashion the tales of old into rich melodious songs, and with music and sweet-mouthed eloquence to move the minds of their fellow men. But they say that Bragi taught them this; and they remember me only as Regin, the elfin schoolmaster, or at best as Mimer, the master of smiths. At length my heart grew bitter because of the neglect and ingratitude of men; and the old longing for Andvari’s hoard came back to me, and I forgot much of my cunning and lore. But I lived on and on, and generations of short-lived men arose and passed, and still the hoard was not mine; for I was weak, and no man was strong enough to help me.
Then I sought wisdom of the Norns, the weird women who weave the woof of every creature’s fate.
“How long,” asked I, “must I hope and wait in weary expectation of that day when the wealth of the world and the garnered wisdom of the ages shall be mine?”
And they answered, “When a prince of the Volsung race shall come who shall excel thee in the smithying craft, and to whom the All-Father shall give the Shining Hope as a helper, then the days of thy weary watching shall cease.”
“How long,” asked I, “shall I live to enjoy this wealth and this wisdom, and to walk as a god among men? Shall I be long-lived as the Asa-folk, and dwell on the earth until the last Twilight comes?”
“It is written,” answered Skuld, “that a beardless youth shall see thy death. But go thou now, and bide thy time.”
Here Regin ended his story, and both he and Siegfried sat for a long time silent and thoughtful.
“I know what you wish,” said Siegfried at last. “You think that I am the prince of whom the weird sisters spoke; and you would have me slay the dragon Fafnir, and win for you the hoard of Andvari.”
“It is even so,” answered Regin.
“But the hoard is accursed,” said the lad.
“Let the curse be upon me,” was the answer. “Is not the wisdom of the ages mine? And think you that I cannot escape the curse? Is there aught that can prevail against him who has all knowledge and the wealth of the world at his call?”
“Nothing but the word of the Norns and the will of the All-Father,” answered Siegfried.
“But will you help me?” asked Regin, almost wild with earnestness and the self-delusions that had grown round his heart. “Will you help me to win that which is rightfully mine, and to rid the world of a horrible evil?”
“Why is the hoard of Andvari more thine than Fafnir’s?”
“He is a monster, and he keeps the treasure but to gloat upon its glittering richness. I will use it to make myself a name upon the earth. I will not hoard it away. But I am weak, and he is strong and terrible. Will you help me?”
“To-morrow,” said Siegfried, “be ready to go with me to the Glittering Heath. The treasure shall be thine, and also the curse.”
“And also the curse,” echoed Regin.